Last month you had a light post. This month you have a more solid one. This is because I want to talk about the effects the effects of the worlds writers create. I was in England for a few days at the end of October. It was entirely unexpected, and this was the reason I forgot half my blogpost. I took a ten thousand mile return trip with only a few days warning and quite a few things were affected by it.
The English branch of my family has been in Australia since the middle of the nineteenth century. This means that my relationship with England is mostly through literature and history. Given I’m a writer and also an historian (an historian of England, to boot) it’s not a simple relationship, but it’s not the same relationship that locals have. I noticed this when I walked through the streets of Exeter and when I talked to people at the university. As an Australian, I’m a favoured visitor, but I’m definitely not a local.
Exeter, autumn, 2017 picture: Gillian Polack
I’m giving you pictures I took in Exeter to remind you of this, for it’s important. Very important.
I teach writers how to writing about people who come from different cultural backgrounds to themselves. Many writers have no idea how to do this. They write everything from their own viewpoint, as if another viewpoint is impossible to tell a novel from.
One thing I love about History Girls and why I am delighted to be writing for them is that these writers are aware of who they are. They write in a complex world. This means they’re less likely to fall back on stereotypes due to lazy thinking.
Exeter's Halloween 2017, picture: Gillian Polack
All fiction writers use stereotypes and tropes. It’s essential to make a novel work. The problem is when we use them unthinkingly. This is why I have such respect for writers who write about others with that bit of care.
The thing about historical fiction is that it’s ALL about others. We bring the past into the present in a very personal way. We’re bring the lives of others into our lives. This is why respect is so important.
Those we write about are dead: they can’t argue back. I wanted to argue with a writer all this afternoon, for she wrote Jews into her fiction in a negative way, as if there is no good in our existence. She’s still around and maybe, one day, I’ll get that discussion. I can’t ask any medieval Jews how they feel about work that associates them with the blood libel, for they’re gone.
‘Respect’ doesn’t mean being nice necessarily. It means understanding. It means taking intellectual and emotional steps and working past stereotypes and past hate and past tradition and finding out as much as we can about the real person.
Respect is complicated, Exeter 2017 picture: Gillian Polack
How does this apply to English history?
I want to talk about two key points here.
First, England is one of the most written-about places in historical fiction, and certain periods are written about more than others. Regency England, Victorian England, the Middle Ages: these all have their own character for us. This character doesn’t come from the actual places and times, but from the number of novels written about them. All the themes and character types are brought together in our minds and create a fictional England.
The England of our dreams picture: Gillian Polack
This is a subject that’s been really well studied for Regency England in particular. Scholars have traced the differences between the actual England of that time and the influence of Georgette Heyer in creating the way we think about these things fictionally.
I’m one of a number of Medieval historians who work on understanding these things for the Middle Ages. I’m also part of a number of historians who spend time teaching writers how to look beyond the fictional view and to see the people hidden beneath the stories and stereotypes. This is why The Middle Ages Unlocked exists. Writers said to me “We like it that you want us to think harder and do more research, but it isn’t easy – write us a reference.” Katrin Kania and I did that. That was a much earlier stage in a conversation between historians, readers and writers that will probably last my whole life.
The stage I’m at now is a more troublesome one.
When I teach world building to writers, I teach them how to think about and research the world for their novel. Traditionally, world building is a subject taught to writers who use fantastical worlds: science fiction and fantasy, for the most part. I teach it to all writers. Novelists who are setting a story in their own street are not actually setting it in the precise world they live in. We write fiction, after all. I use world building techniques as tools to help writers sort this out and create a better story.
Many writers who use history in their fiction tend to ‘own’ the history. They’ve built it for their novel, with a great deal of heart and a truckload of work. This is not a problem if they see it as building a world for their novel, for they’re owning the history for the world of their novel. It can be close to us, but it isn’t us. It can be based on real history, but it’s not the same thing.
When they say it’s real history, a writer claims deep and special insights into the lives of others. Some of these claims are genuine: they share their characters with us. They don’t share all interpretations of historical people, however, only their own.
Going back to where I began, this is important in another way, which is my second point. When I or someone else from outside England write about England, when any of us write about a place and time that’s not our own, we need to remember that our special ownership, as writers, doesn't have a more important cultural place than the lives of people who live there.
Real people lie in our dream places picture: Gillian Polack
If I were to write a story of Exeter or even a history of Exeter, I’d be writing it as an outsider. This isn’t actually a problem. Outsiders have special insights. Our responsibility is to remember that those who live in a country are connected more strongly than we are. That we write about their home.
Even our special insights should never be permitted to eradicate their relationship and understanding of their own homeland.
We entertain. We enrich. We create. But we should do all this with respect.
In the 1960s, Margaret Atwood read a book called Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, a 19th century account of pioneer life by Susanna Moodie, an English emigrant to Canada. A chapter of the book is devoted to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, and to Moodie’s visit to the violent ward to meet the ‘celebrated murderess Grace Marks’.
Grace Marks was a Canadian maid who in 1843, when only 16, was convicted with fellow servant James McDermott of murdering their master, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper-lover Nancy Montgomery. Kinnear had been shot in the left side of his chest. Nancy Montgomery was struck in the head with an axe and then strangled. A post mortem revealed that she had been pregnant.
The Trial of McDermott and Marks
The trial took place in November 1843 and was a great sensation, the newspapers covering the proceedings with appropriate levels of gore and sexual intrigue. On the day of McDermott’s evidence, so many spectators packed into the courtroom that ‘some alarm was created by a report that the floor of the courtroom was giving way’ and a rush was made for the door.
During the proceedings, Marks and McDermott blamed each other for instigating the murders. They were both convicted of Kinnear’s death, but only McDermott was ultimately hanged. Before he went to the scaffold, McDermott insisted that Grace had strangled Nancy Montgomery herself with a piece of white cloth.
Murderess or madwoman?
There was much discussion at the time as to whether Grace Marks was in fact guilty. She is said to have displayed little emotion during the trial and, according to newspaper reports, arrived at court wearing clothes that she had stolen from the dead Nancy Montgomery. However, some believed she was innocent, the victim of McDermott’s lies. Others believed she was insane.
She gave three conflicting accounts of the murder, while McDermott gave two. In Marks’ last confession, published in the Star and Transcript, she said that after Montgomery had fired McDermott, he had determined to kill her and Kinnear. ‘He had made me promise to assist him,’ Marks said, ‘and I agreed to do so.’ Marks claimed that she had tried to run away from the house after Kinnear was killed, and that McDermott had tried to shoot her.
Toronto Lunatic Asylum
It’s not clear why Marks was sent to the lunatic asylum. It was suggested variously that she was possessed by the consciousness of her dead friend, Mary Whitney, or had some kind of personality disorder. Another theory was that Marks had in fact died and that Mary Whitney had adopted her identity. According to Moodie, ‘the fearful hauntings of her brain have terminated in madness’. She described her as ‘lighted up with the fire of insanity and glowing with a hideous and fiend-like merriment.’ The asylum superintendent, however, believed that Grace Marks was faking.
In 1852, she was transferred back to Kingston Penitentiary (where the mini-series of Alias Grace was filmed). The records show she was suspected of having become pregnant during her time at the asylum. As Atwood points out in the afterword to Alias Grace, ‘the men with the easiest access to patients were the doctors’.
After almost thirty years in detention, Marks was pardoned and moved to New York State. After that, the paper trail runs out.
The Servant Girl to Alias Grace
Atwood would mull over Grace Marks for many years. In 1970, she published The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a cycle of poems. In 1974 she wrote the screenplay for the film The Servant Girl, also based on Susanna Moodie's account. In 1979 she wrote a version for the stage (Grace). However, by the time she wrote Alias Grace, Atwood had changed her opinion of Grace Marks, having read a variety of sources and realised that Moodie had entirely invented parts of her account. ‘Moodie said at the outset of her account that she was writing Grace Marks's story from memory, and as it turns out, her memory was no better than most.’
Atwood never reached a conclusion about Grace, noting that ‘the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma’.Hence the subtly and slipperiness of the novel. In the afterword to Alias Grace, Atwood notes that although she stuck to the facts where facts existed, she ‘felt free to invent’ details to fill in the gaps between irreconcilable versions of the murders.
At an interview at the Southbank Centre in October, Atwood recounted how she had seen, in the Inspector's Minute Book, the liberation questionnaire that Grace had completed upon leaving Kingston Penitentiary (confirming she could write).One of the questions asked of all outgoing prisoners was, ‘What has been the general cause of your misfortunes, and what has been the immediate cause of the crime for which you have been sent to the Penitentiary?’
Marks’s reply is typically non-committal. It reads: ‘Having been employed in the same house with a villain.’
The Old Kinnear Place, where the murders were committed on 29 July 1843
[This is the text of a talk I gave at the University of Warwick, 25th January 2017 in which I consider the fluidity of the relationships between folklore, memory and history.]
I’m here to talk to you about folklore and memory. What I’m really going to do is tell you a lot of stories, and when we get on to the discussion part of this, I hope you’ll feel able to tell some stories to me.First of all, though, it would be helpful to define some terms. I’m going to assume we have some kind of collective agreement of what memory is or at least what it feels like. Memory is about personal identity: we depend on memories, however fragmentary, for our sense of who we are – which is why it’s so awful when we lose them. But what, please, is folklore?
I want to suggest that folklore can be a form of memory and that memory actually is a form of folklore. Both are fascinating, both can be highly unreliable, and I think both are unreliable-but-powerful forms of history. I’ll try and explain why, as I go on.
Let’s start with family folklore – personal tales passed down to us from our parents and grandparents. (These are known as 'memorates': tales of personal experience told from memory.) Perhaps there was a family tragedy or a wartime adventure, or some striking act of generosity or betrayal.Most of us know several stories about our parents – anecdotes about their childhood, the story of how they met. We probably know fewer about our grandparents and quite possibly none at all about our great-grandparents: but family folklore seems to provide a sense of identity. We like to ‘know where we came from’. It gives us roots. One of my grandmothers was brought up in India, where she was born in 1886. She was a great raconteur and extremely pretty even as an old lady. Here she is, aged about eighteen.
Many if not most of her stories involved men whose attentions she had to evade or fight off. Whether consciously or not, she told stories which emphasised her own attractiveness, courage and resource. There was one about encountering four soldiers as she came home from playing tennis (‘All I had with me was my tennis racket, Katherine!’) and another which involved an amorous male in a railway carriage, from whom she escaped with the assistance of an old lady and a parrot. I wish I could remember it, but I was only sixteen or so when she was telling me these stories, and hadn’t really been paying attention. Only the most striking of family tales survive three generations.
Most of the stories of most the people in all the generations before us have been lost. Some are simply forgotten, others are deliberately suppressed. Successful stories by definition are the ones we continue for some reason to value and therefore to tell. Before I go on, let me just say that folklore is a massively inclusive genre. It is quite literally the stuff people tell to one another, from practical information on how to to treat a cough or get bloodstains out of linen, to how to keep on the right side of the fairies, or the gods, or God. (Also practical!) Folklore includes myths and legends, songs, skipping rhymes and lullabies – ghost stories, fairy tales and jokes – family history, local history, natural history…All these categories shade into one another. Let’s get some of them out of the way.
First off, I’m not going to be talking today about myths or legends.Myths attempt to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it.(So the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades is a religious, poetic exploration of the mysteries of winter and summer, death and birth.) Legends recount the deeds of heroes, like Achilles or King Arthur. There are often whole cycles of legends about single outstanding figures.
I’m not going to be talking much about fairy tales either. The difference between folk tales and fairy tales is thatfairy tales don’t ask to be believed. They are set far away and long ago. No one’s ever thought there was an historical Little Snow White or tried to point out the ruins of the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Fairy tales are quite definitely fiction.
A folk taleis a humbler, more local affair. (By the way, as I’m talking today I’m going to be using the terms folk taleand story more or less interchangeably.) A folk tale’s protagonists may be well-known neighbourhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk tales are set in real, named landscapes. Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.Folk tales often also involve legendary heroes, because everyone wants to be close to fame.
All over Britain, from Tintagel to Edinburgh and beyond, there are places associated with King Arthur. This is Arthur’s Stone near Dorston, Herefordshire – a Neolithic chamber tomb which according to various stories was either built by Arthur, or was his burial place, or was a place where he fought and buried a rival king. I said that fairy tales don’t ask to be believed. Well, folk tales do. Often – not always, but often – they tug at our sleeves, hinting they contain some kind of truth. We know there wasn’t ever a real Sleeping Beauty. But was there ever a real King Arthur? Was there a real Robin Hood?
Well, was there? Do folk tales ever preserve ‘genuine’ folk memories?As in, historical truths?Here’s a man who thought not.
This grim-but-dapper-looking gentleman is Fitzroy Richard Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan (1885-1964), amateur anthropologist and one-time President of the Folklore Society. In his 1936 book The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama, he provides a delightfully sceptical example of the way in which a tradition may become attached to a place:
1: ‘This house dates from Elizabethan times, and since it lies close to the road which the Virgin Queen must have taken when travelling from X to Y, it may well have been visited by her.’
2: ‘This house is said to have been visited by Queen Elizabeth on her way from X to Y.’
3: ‘The state bedroom is over the entrance. It is this room which Queen Elizabeth probably occupied when she broke her journey here on her way from X to Y.’
4: ‘According to local tradition, the truth of which there is no reason to doubt, the bed in the room over the entrance is that in which Queen Elizabeth slept when she stayed here on her way from X to Y.’
This is very shrewd and funny. All the same, any individual instance of such a story is going to be hard to kill, because the Queen undoubtedly did spend the night in a great many different English country houses, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The owner of the house, who takes pride in the story, will not want to listen to Lord Raglan casting cold water. The owner wants to believe it.
Stories grow in the telling, too. Here’s another tale. A couple of years ago, BBC Radio 4 ran a series called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. It was organised and written by the British Museum’s director Neil McGregor, and of course there was also a book.Ranging from a 2 million year old African handaxe to a modern solar powered Chinese lamp, McGregor used artifacts in the British Museum as the focus for a hundred thoughtful essays on the cultures and circumstances which produced them. Number 19 in the series is this.
It’s a gold cape, it dates from between 1900 to 1600 BC, and it was found near Mold in North Wales in 1833. Here’s how McGregor introduces it:
For the local workmen, it must have seemed as if the old Welsh legends were true. They’d been sent to quarry stone in a field known as Bryn yr Ellyllon, which translates as the Fairies’ Hill or the Goblins’ Hill. Sightings of aghostly boy, clad in gold, a glittering apparition in the moonlight, had been reported frequently enough for travellers to avoid the hill after dark. As the workmen dug into a large mound, they uncovered a stone-lined grave. In it were hundreds of amber beads, several bronze fragments, and the remains of a skeleton. And wrapped around the skeleton was a mysterious crushed object – a large and finely decorated broken sheet of pure gold.
McGregor goes on to tell how the workmen ‘eagerly shared out chunks’ of the gold, with ‘the tenant farmer taking the largest pieces’, and that it was only ‘three years after the spoils had been divided’ that the BM bought from the tenant farmer ‘the first and largest of the fragments of gold which had been his share of the booty’.
It’s quite a story. I blogged about it myself back in 2013. I wrote:
The mound those workmen were digging into was in a field called Bryn yr Ellyllon, the Hill of the Elves; and the legend of the hill was that it was haunted by a ghostly boy, clad all in gold.Isn’t it possible that the sight of a young man being laid to rest in his shimmering golden cape so impressed and touched the onlookers that for nearly four thousand years if a child said, ‘Mother, who’s buried in that hill?’ the answer was ‘a boy all dressed in gold?’
When my friend the writer Susan Price expressed some scepticism about all this, I did some checking, and unfortunately for me and Mr Neil McGregor, I discovered problems, even some inaccuracies in this romantic account.The discovery was originally made public on December 17th 1835 when John Gage, FRS, exhibited the flattened remains of the cape to the Society of Antiquaries of London.The cape had been dug up two years and two months previously, on 11th October 1833 (which seems to me speedy work for the early 19th century) and the tenant farmer – Mr John Langford – had been corresponding with antiquaries about it as early as January 1835; so to represent him as a treasure hunter interested only in ‘booty’ is rather unfair. A further letter of the same year written by the Vicar of Mold, Charles Butler Clough, provides the fullest account.
A short time before the discovery of the Corselet, workmen had … made a considerable pit for some yards into the adjoining field. A new tenant, Mr John Langford … employed persons to fill in the hole by shovelling down the top of the bank. While so employed … about four feet from the top of the bank and without doubt upon the original surface, they perceived the Corselet.
The Vicar goes on to describe the burial in detail and then provides the only evidence for the ghost story.
Connected with this subject, it is certainly a strange circumstance that an elderly woman, who had been to Mold to lead her husband home late at night from a public house, should have seen or fancied, a spectre “of unusual size, and clothed in a coat of gold, which shone like the sun”to have crossed the road before her to the identical mound of gravel, and that she should tell the story next morning many years ago, amongst others to the very person, Mr John Langland, whose workmen drew the treasure out of its prison-house. Her having related such a story is an undoubted fact. I cannot, however, learn that there was any tradition of such an interment having taken place; though possibly this old woman might have heard something of the kind in her youth, which still dwelt upon her memory … associated with the common appellation of the Bank, the Fairies’ or Goblins’ Hill, and a very general idea that the place was haunted.
So there hadn’t been ‘frequent sightings’, plural, of a ‘glittering apparition’ of a ‘golden boy’: the Vicar of Mold never says if the old woman thought the figure was male or female, young or old. And she saw it only once. But no one can resist a ghost story, can they?And they get embroidered. If you Google ‘Mold Gold Cape’ today you’ll come across references to ‘numerous past sightings’ of a ‘ghostly, giant warrior in golden armour’ who even used to ‘beckon travellers’ towards his burial place. However all that can be said for sure is that this spot, like many another in Wales, was named ‘Hill of the Elves’ before the finding, and was believed to be haunted. Since the vicar couldn’t turn up any other accounts of a golden ghost or a golden burial, bang goes the ‘information preserved in folklore’ theory, in this instance at least. If the old woman’s vision truly predated the finding of the cape, it was probably a coincidence.
It’s all very sad. If you’re anything like me, you’d love to believe at least SOME folktales preserve real folk memories. A percentage of them may, perhaps, but which ones and how could it be verified? The author Adam Nichols, in his recent book about Homer, ‘The Mighty Dead’ (read it, it’s wonderful) tells an interesting story. In 1953, just 8 years after the end of the War, an American-Greek professor of ethnography, James Notopoulos, travelled to the Cretan province of Sfakia. Everywhere he went, men were singing songs about the War, the cruelty of the Germans, the burning of villages, the heroism of the defenders. The professor recorded many of these songs.
One of the most daring acts of the war on Crete had been the successful kidnapping of Crete’s German commander, General Kreipe, by two British officers, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss, who were embedded in the Cretan resistance. They impersonated German soldiers, intercepted the general’s car, killed the driver, held a knife to the general’s throat and drove him through 22 German checkpoints before abandoning the car and taking to the mountain paths, where they hid up in the day and travelled by night for the next 20 days while the Germans combed the area for them. Finally they bundled the General on to a British Navy launch and took him to Alexandria.
The professor was surprised he hadn’t yet heard any songs about this feat, and said as much to one of the local bards, a gifted young man called Andreas Kafkalas. Kafkalas agreed, and said he thought he could compose a song about it right now, ‘to fulfil the obligations of Cretan hospitality’. He began at once, using ‘the traditional Cretan fifteen syllable line’, and the professor recorded it.
The story had changed almost beyond recognition.
In Kafkalas’ version, the two English officers are replaced by an unnamed English general who arrives in Crete and summons before him a local Sfakian hero, Lefteris Tambakis - who did exist, but who had no connection with this operation. The English general‘draws himself up to his full height, weeps over the cruelties being done by the Germans to the people of “desolate Crete” and reads out the order to the Sfakian people that Kreipe be captured, dead or alive [all untrue – no such order existed].’ Next, Tambakis recruits a beautiful girl who sacrifices her ‘woman’s honour’ by seducing Kreipe (renamed “Kaiseri", which I assume means something like ‘the big boss’) who tells her all his plans. She passes these to Tambakis, who, riding a beautiful horse, intercepts the general’s car. ‘No horses were involved,’ Nicols tells us, ‘but they always are in old Cretan songs. The Cretan fighters strip the general naked [they didn’t] and he begs for mercy [he didn’t, but this is a motif that usually appears at these moments in Cretan poetry].’ Finally, after the journey over the mountains, a submarine takes the general away to Egypt. Hitler is in despair, and ‘Never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done.’
‘If this is what could happen to a modern story in nine years,’ Nichols asks, ‘how could anyone hope that anything true might survive in the Iliad of the Odyssey?’
Well, in this folk version of the story, at least the core event remains - the successful kidnapping by Resistance fighters of a German General in occupied Crete during the Second World War. None of the other details are true, and though the reason Kafkalas changed them may partly be due to the formulaic structure of traditional songs, it seems obvious the main reason must be that he wasn’t emotionally invested in a story about two English heroes. He has transformed this true and dramatic event – far too good to forget - into a Cretan patriotic epic.National pride demanded no less.
Pride trumps history.
The story that ‘Queen Elizabeth slept here’ means a lot to the man who owns the house; not much to anyone else.We are all most invested in what is closest to us, belongs to us.I grew up in Ilkley, Yorkshire, ‘knowing’ – and I don’t know who told me – that fairies were once seen splashing about in the well-preserved Roman Baths on Ilkley Moor, known as White Wells. The caretaker opened the door one morning and saw them ducking and splashing in the water, and when they saw him they rushed past him out of the door screaming like swallows.
I didn’t believe the story but I knew the place, and I think I was proud of the fact that such a striking tale belonged to my town. But such local folk tales are unimportant or unknown to people living ten miles away (who have their own). There’s always the chance they’ll be lost. A storyteller dies. A family moves away. New people arrive. And no one remembers any more.
And sometimes stories die because a deliberate effort has been made to erase them. Here’s an example. My third book, Troll Blood, is the final volume of a fantasy trilogy set in the Viking Age, incorporating a lot of Scandinavian folklore about trolls and other supernatural creatures. In this last book, my young hero and heroine set sail in a Viking ship to cross the North Atlantic and arrive in America as described in the ‘Greenlanders’ Saga’ and which we now know from archeological evidence the Vikings actually did.
Because the book is a fantasy I wanted also to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls with whom my Norse characters shared their world. A folk belief in trolls is part of one people’s way of apprehending the world which defines and differentiates them from another group, for example one which believes in nymphs. (Trolls are rougher-edged, with snow on their boots.) I wanted to use stories from Native American folklore because I felt that to leave out any reference to the belief systems of the people I was writing about would be to lose a dimension. In travelling to North America, my Norse characters would have to meet Native Americans, and it was important that the latter should have a voice. For reasons I won’t go into here I chose to investigate the folklore of the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, whose ancestors at least could have encountered the Norse voyagers. (No one really knows.) I spent at least six months, probably more, going through ancient copies of the Journal of American Folklore in the Bodleian, tracking down primary sources wherever I could, especially stories taken down verbatim from named individuals.One of these was a story collected in the mid 1920s by the anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons from a Mi’kmaw woman called Isabelle Googoo Morris.
These are very small beings, no larger than two finger joints.There are thousands of them who live along the shore. Water-worn, pitted stones are associated with them, “they have chewed in them, picked in them”. Once when some men landed on the shore for a short time, before they took to their boat again they saw a model of themselves and their boat made in stones by the hamaja’lu.They work very fast.
Elsie Clews Parsons, ‘Micmac Folklore’, p94, J. of A. F., v.38, 1925
I thought this was charming, and the hamaja’lu went into my story. When the book was finished I sent it to be vetted by Dr Ruth Holmes Whitehead, an expert in Mi’kmaq studies, who kindly set me right on a number of important points. But I was rather dismayed when she asked me to correct ‘the hamaja’lu’ to‘the wiklatmuj’ik’, a far more difficult word to read and pronounce. (My editor was certainly not going to like it!) So I asked her ‘Why? After all, the word ‘hamaja’lu’ is there, written down in a verbatim account.’And she wrote back, ‘Because there is no ‘h’ in modern Mi’kmaq, and this word is obsolete. The word used today is the one I have given you.’I wanted to be sensitive, yet felt I had to express surprise.How could it be that a word used so freely in the 1920’s – there were several stories about the ‘hamaja’lu’ – could have died out?Back came the reply: ‘You would not find it so surprising if you were aware that, during the course of the 20thcentury, generations of Mi’kmaq children were taken from their parents, put into homes, taught European ways, and punished – beaten, shut in cupboards, thrown down stairs – for speaking their own language.’
The sorry pattern of dominant Western culture imposing itself on the cultures of indigenous peoples has been repeated many times. Though stories about the hamaja’lu were written down in the 1920s, it seems they’re not told any more. (The wiklatmuj’ik aren’t really the same.) Such tales are more than curiosities. In many, many ways, folk tales make us. They define us asindividuals, as families, clans and nations. Though the now-forgotten hamaja’lu may never have had objective reality, they were once part of a wider story, a belief system, part of the truth of Mi’kmaq identity.That was what the Canadian Government was trying to eradicate.
Lord Raglan was a real hard-liner about folk tales. He didn’t believe that any of them preserved any historical information at all. He defines history like this: History is the recital in chronological sequence of events which are known to have occurred. Insisting that history depends entirely on written chronology, he claimed that since (what he termed) ‘the savage’ cannot write, ‘…the savage can have no interest in history.’
I’ll let you gasp. He continues:
Since interest in the past is induced solely by books, the savage can take no interest in the past; the events of the past are in fact completely lost.
Pause for another gasp. One more quote if you can stand it.
When we read of the Irish blacksmith who said that his smithy was much older than the local dolmen … or of the English rustic who said that the parish church (13thC) was very old indeed, it was there before he came into the parish, and that was over 40 years ago – we are apt to suppose the speaker exceptionally stupid or ignorant, but their attitude towards the past is similar to that of the Australian black who began a story with: ‘Long long ago, when my mother was a baby, the sun shone all day and all night’, and is the inevitable result of illiteracy. [My italics]
You know what? The man who poured scholarly scepticism on traditional tales about Queen Elizabeth, has no right to take these others at face value. He can’t have it both ways. Breaking his own rule, Raglan does not even source the first two anecdotes, which appear to be racist shaggy dog stories. In the third example, Raglan makes a category error. The Aboriginal storyteller is clearly opening a traditional story with the type of formulaic phrase found all over the world – a nonsense formula which places it firmly in the land of long ago and far away. In other words, a fairytale.
‘Long long ago, when my mother was a baby, the sun shone all day and all night.’
Compare with this, from the Brothers Grimm:
Once upon a time, when wishing still helped one, there was a king who had three daughters.
Or with this super-exuberant opening from Romania: Once upon a time, long long ago (and if this story were not true, it would never have been told), when all the poplar trees were covered with pears, and the willows with nuts, when bears switched their tails like cows, when wolves and lambs loved each other like brothers, when fleas with ninety-nine pounds of iron on their backs hopped high in the sky and brought back wonderful stories, when flies wrote rhymes like this on the wall – ‘A tap on the nose for all who doze/Who doubts my lore shall hear no more’ – once upon a time, then, there was a powerful emperor who had three sons.
Or even this:
Long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
None of these openings are naïve.The Aboriginal storyteller and her audience know perfectly well there never was a time when the sun shone all day and night. That’s the whole point. The concept is deliberately, joyfully surreal.Far from from making any claim to be true, fairy tales openly delight in their unbelievability.
How does Raglan miss all this?Partly because his sense of privilege and superiority blinds him to the sophistication of illiterate narrators. And in my view he misunderstands folk narratives. What he really wants to do with folklore is to prove that ‘All traditional narratives originate in ritual’, which is a very 1930s thing to think.Take the widespread folk motif of ‘The Faithful Hound’. The best-known British version is about Gelert, favourite wolfhound of the Welsh prince Llewellyn. The only thing Llewellyn loves better than his dog is his own baby son.Coming home from hunting one day, he’s horrified when Gelert, whom he’d left guarding the child, bounds to greet him, jaws and muzzle covered in blood. He rushes into the castle hall to find the baby’s cradle overturned, the sheets bloodied, the child nowhere in sight. ‘Faithless hound,’ he cries. ‘You have murdered my son!’ and drawing his sword, strikes Gelert dead.Then he hears a baby chuckle, and behind the cradle finds the child tugging at the fur of a huge dead wolf – which Gelert has clearly fought and slain. In deep remorse, the prince buries Gelert and raises a stone in memory of his faithful friend.
Lord Raglan tries to convince the reader that this well-known tale-type preserves, as if in aspic, references to a type of ritual drama going back to the days of Abraham and Isaac when child sacrifice was replaced by animal substitutes. This is as much baseless conjecture as any ‘Queen Elizabeth Slept Here’ story.
Now, OK, this is a guy writing in 1936: do we need to listen to his outmoded theories about what is and what isn’t history? Well, I think it’s salutary, I think it can provoke thought, because here’s where he goes wrong. He thinks, and a lot of people still think, history is all facts and dates and dated events, and being able to prove conclusively that certain things happened and where they happened, and when. Of course that’s essential. But another view of history could be that it’s what goes on inside people’s heads. It’s what we remember and what we forget, it’s what we’ve been taught and what we’ve never had a chance to learn. And it’s shaped and driven by all sorts of inconvenient emotions such as pride and shame and patriotism and nationalism.
This is a book called ‘OUR ISLAND STORY, a History of England for Boys and Girls’, by H.E. Marshall, first published in 1904.
The opening chapter,‘Albion and Brutus’, tells how Neptune and Amphitrite had a lovely little boy called Albion. They wanted to give him an island all of his own, so they sent the mermaids far and wide to find somewhere good enough, till at last one pretty little mermaid came back with news of an island ‘like a beautiful gem in the blue water’. So Albion ruled over this island for seven years, until he was killed in a fight with Hercules, and then Brutus arrived from Troy and fought and killed various giants who lived here, and finally, when Neptune retired as a god, because he had loved Albion so much he gave his sceptre to the islands now called Britannia –‘For we know – Britannia rules the waves.’
Now that’s clearly a fairy tale, even if parts of it are based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, which itself, as you’ll know, is almost entirely fiction. The author, who was Australian, winds up the chapter like this, loading it with nostalgia for the imagined past.
In this book you will find the story of the people of Britain. The story tells how they grew to be a great people, till the little green island set in the lonely sea was longer large enough to contain them all. Then they sailed away over the blue waves to far-distant countries. Now the people of the little island possess lands all over the world. … Yet the people who live in them still look back lovingly to the little island, from which they or their fathers came, and call it ‘Home’.
David Cameron (remember him?) has gone on record three times to describe Our Island Story as his favourite book. Clearly, its version of British history shaped his mind. In a speech delivered in 2014 just before the Scottish Referendum he says:
I have an old copy of Our Island Story, my favourite book as a child, and I want to give it to my three children, and I want to be able to teach my youngest, when she’s old enough to understand, that she is part of this great, world-beating story. And I passionately hope that my children will be able to teach their children the same … that together, these islands really do stand for more than the sum of their parts; they stand for bigger ideas, nobler causes, greater values. Our brilliant United Kingdom: brave, brilliant, buccaneering, generous, tolerant, proud – this is our country.
‘Our Island Story’ is absolutely jam-packed with pure folk tales. It’s got a chapter about how Merlin brought the Giants’ Dance (Stonehenge ) to Britain from Ireland for the legendary Aurelieus Ambrosius. It’s got a chapter about King Arthur (‘only fifteen when he was made king, but the bravest, wisest and best king that had ever ruled in Britain.’) It’s got the story of King Canute and the waves, and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Sir Walter Raleigh throwing down his cloak so Queen Elizabeth can walk across a puddle, an act beloved of illustrators such as Herbert Moore whose colourful picture of 1908 is reproduced at the head of this post, though there is no contemporary evidence Raleigh ever did such a thing. More bizarrely, 'Our Island Story' presents Raleigh as a benefactor of the Irish people; listen to this:
Two of the things Raleigh brought home with him [from the Americas] were tobacco and potatoes. [Queen] Elizabeth had given him estates in Ireland, and there he planted the potatoes and showed the people how to grow them. Even to this day the poor people in Ireland grow potatoes and live on them very largely.
Raleigh received his Irish lands as a reward for helping to put down the Desmond Rebellions, when he took part in at least one massacre, so this vision of him as a sort of kindly agriculturalist is ‘alternative truth’ of a high order. These are folk tales, not history. H.E. Marshall admits this openly in her introduction.
I must tell you that this is not a history lesson, but a story book. There are many facts in school histories, that seem to children to belong to lessons only. Some of these you will not find here. But you will find some stories that are not to be found in your school books – stories which wise people say are only fairy tales and not history.But it seems to me that they are part of Our Island Story, and ought not to be forgotten, any more than those stories about which there is no doubt.
This is highly equivocal. The book is subtitled ‘A History of England for Boys and Girls’. In fact it’s a complete mélange of fact, folklore and fiction, and there’s very little way for a child to tell what’s true and what’s not. If anything, Marshall favours and prioritises the unlikely but emotionally weighted tales. This is not history, but a book of stories chosen and designed to give a child a particular identity, that of the son or daughter of a heroic, benign and glorious British race. It is still in print. Lord Raglan – I assume –would have deplored it and he’d be right. But even if they’re exaggerated, even when they’re total inventions, these stories, these folk tales, have become woven into the British historical narrative and won’t go away. They still influence real people, real politicians, real events.
Stories are very powerful. With every story told to us, especially if it’s one which pretends to a thread of truth, it’s worth pausing to consider who is telling it, and why. The stories we choose to remember and pass on, as individuals, families, societies and nations, have real agency. Don’t think for a moment you can ignore them.
Raleigh lays his cloak before Queen Elizabeth. Illustration by Herbert Moore, 1908, from 'The Men Who Found America' by Frederick Winthrop Hutchinson, 1909
Every family who celebrates Christmas will have their own traditions. Some of them are quite recent - with us, it's hiding presents and writing poems (well, doggerel) to help/flummox the recipient. Much confusion and hilarity ensues. My father started that tradition when we were small. I loved it then and I love it now, and I can't imagine a Christmas without poems. But some traditions are much, much older, and since we are, indeed, History Girls, my question is this: What's the most ancient Christmas tradition that is part of your celebrations? Answers in the comments below!
The first Christmas card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in London
Today is the 6thDecember, which I always remember is St Nicholas’s Day. It’s hardly an obscure piece of knowledge for a middle-aged woman who had a religious upbringing, but what’s interesting about it is that I first learned the fact from reading the Chalet School books. You may remember the school’s celebration of the Feast of St Nicholas in Mary Lou of the Chalet School.
Thinking of this made me realise how much historical fact I hoovered up from my early reading. And just for fun, and to celebrate the Feast of St Nicholas, here are six of them, one for each day of the month so far. I’m sure most History Girls will have their own favourites – do feel free to comment!
The Colours of the Suffragette Movement – A Vicarage Family (Noel Streatfeild)
I didn’t learn about the suffragettes until secondary school. But long before that my interest had been piqued by the scene in A Vicarage Familywhen the children’s father is horrified at Louise being asked to give a bouquet to visiting speaker and to wear a white frock with a green and violet sash. ‘These are the colours worn by women who want to defy the rules by which all good women live,’ he tells his daughters, sending the indignant ten-year-old me to find out more.
Victorian Ice Cream – Hokey Pokey
I was an adult when I first read the term ‘hokey pokey’ for an ice-cream, in Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather. What resonated with me was that, as a child, I was never allowed to call an ice-cream cone a ‘poke’ which was the usual Belfast term, as my mother considered it common. I wonder now if that was merely a shortening of the Victorian slang.
British People Knew About Nazi Concentration Camps Long Before 1944
In The Chalet School in Exile, published in 1940, a popular adult character, the father of two pupils, is sent to a concentration camp and murdered. I read this in primary school, and it shocked me. I don’t remember if it was the first time I’d heard of concentration camps, but for young readers in 1940 it might well have been. I found out a lot of European history in general from the Chalet School.
The American Civil War
Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy’s Father being ‘far away, where the fighting was’ led me to find out about the American Civil War. Only as an adult did it strike me how little Alcott actually says about the reasons for the war.
Mews originally referred to hawk houses, not simply stables
From Antonia Forest, from whom I also learned a great deal about falconry, Vatican 2, the Brontës, and Shakespeare. From her too I probably learned the importance of running and finding out, which the formidable Miss Cromwell expected her pupils to do.
A Great Deal About Early Aviation
From Flambards, of course. Invaluable ever after for University Challenge questions about the pioneers of flight.
Jane Harris, in her acknowledgements at the end of SUGAR MONEY, tells us of her love for the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and anyone reading this novel will notice the influence. On one level, the book is an adventure story: a dangerous mission, a journey across seas in a rust bucket of a vessel with a rackety and drunken captain; obstacles, perils, dreadful suffering, suspense, and through everything, like a chain of gold, the touching love between two brothers. Lucien is our narrator. He's a lively, optimistic, chatty teenager and devoted to his elder brother, Emile, who is pining for his own lost love, Celeste. Lucien works for Father Céophas, on Martinique and the two brothers are sent by him to Grenada to bring back 42 slaves, stolen by the British. What begins as a typical 'ripping yarn' changes as we progress through the book, into something a great deal darker and the horrors of slave owning are not glossed over. What carries us through is the voice of Lucien which is the main achievement of this novel. Jane Harris is the most astonishing ventriloquist. It's hard enough to write in the first person when the character you're writing about is more or less talking in a language like your own, but here, the mixture is rich and strange: Créole and an unusual Caribbean English which seizes the reader at the start and carries her through the book, enchanted by the humour, the poetry and eloquence of the young narrator. This is a case of 'show' rather than 'tell'and only by quoting a passage can I hope to give any of the flavour of the speech. Here is a passage from quite near the beginning of the book: "All at once I became aware that - from his place at the tiller - Bianco was watching me close-close. A kind of uneasiness settled across my heart, for I dislike the way his pale eyes seem to stare into my soul. Jésis-Maia! In haste I turn to face the prow.That way I could keep lookout for sharks and make sure that Emile slept safe. I had no fear of the Béké, not one iota, but if he could not get sight of my countenance then that was an added bait and bonus." This is a full-tilt, richly- patterned and thrillingly exciting story, brilliantly told. And now, here are the questions I have asked Jane Harris to answer.
1) The voice in this book is that of a young boy who is also a slave in Martinique a very long time ago. The novel is about slavery, at least in part. Have you had any criticism on account of 'cultural appropriation?' How do you deal with such criticism?
I knew that the notion of cultural appropriation might be an issue from the moment I had the idea for the book. With this awareness, I asked various friends of colour whether they thought I was insane to even tackle the subject and they told me that yes, I probably was insane (ha ha!) but that it wouldn’t matter – as long as the book was good enough. So, I had my task clearly delineated for me from the start: I had to write an extremely good novel.
My personal opinion is that an author ought to be able to write about any subject. I tend to write about characters on the margins, people who have no voice. I’m not much interested in kings and queens etc. Every novel I write is making a point, even if I don’t wear my politics on my sleeve. I felt there was an important story to be told in Sugar Money and I felt compelled to tell it. However, I never forgot my white privilege and did my best to honour the subject matter.
Only one reviewer so far has seemed to be criticising me for writing about slaves and slavery, albeit in a veiled way. You asked how I deal with it. I suppose I just accept that people have their own opinions or their own reasons for being critical. In sum, it’s up to individual readers to decide whether I’ve written a successful novel or not.
2) Are you a slow writer? I say this as someone who wanted another book from you the minute I finished Gillespie and I.
Well, that’s nice to hear! I suppose I am a slow writer. Historical fiction requires an enormous amount of research, not all of which appears on the page – and what does appear on the page has to be carefully hidden. In addition, my first two books were very long, so that took more time. Also, I’m incredibly anal, so I rewrite endlessly. My motto is, you can have it good, or you can have it quick. I’d rather have it good. All good things are worth waiting for.
Lastly, real life has a habit of getting in the way of writing, ‘the stuff of life’ etc., which (in my case, over the past decade) has caused many delays.
3) The research you've done is eye-watering. Can you tell us a little about that? Do you enjoy research?
I do love research but it’s time-consuming. I’m thinking of tackling a contemporary book next, just because it will be much easier not to have to carry out the scale and depth of research that I’ve done for the past three books. To write a good historical novel, one has to hold up every word and phrase, every sentence, every fact, every detail, every assumption, every idea, in order to check whether it’s correct for the period. Of course, I accept that it may be necessary to research a contemporary book, but if (say) I live in Manchester and am writing about contemporary Manchester, it’s just obvious that far less research is required. So, although I adore research, I’d quite like a break from it!
4) What does your writing day look like?
It depends what stage of the process I’m at. When I’m actually writing, I start as soon as I wake up (that could be any time between 5am and 8am) and carry on until about 5pm or 6pm, with regular breaks every hour or so to check messages and social media.
However, I do spend a lot of time promoting my books and so on, and there can be periods of weeks and months when I’m not writing at all. I’m not one of those writers who can write ‘on the road’. I need to be at home, living like a hermit. Most of this year has been spent finished then proofing and promoting Sugar Money, plus organising other aspects of my life, for instance, moving home.
5) Can you tell us a bit about what you're doing next?
I’d love to but – as I said above, other than that I’m hoping it will be contemporary - I haven’t decided yet.
6) Please tell us about the kind of book you like to read, and/or any writers you admire.
I tend to prefer fiction to non-fiction, and realism to magic realism or fantasy. I love short stories as well as novels and I do like fiction to have a sense of humour, even if it deals with weighty subject matter.
I don’t really enjoy formulaic, plotty novels. However, I love clever novels that pay some attention to character and narrative, as opposed to the kind of stream-of-consciousness thing I enjoyed when I was younger which now feels a bit lazy to me.
Having said that, if a non-realist novel is good enough, I can be transported by it, and if an experimental novel is hard-working and captivating enough, then I’m on board.
Jane’s best-selling debut, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen by Richard and Judy as one of 100 Books of the Decade. Her novel, Gillespie & I, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards. Jane’s work is published in 20 territories. Sugar Money is her third novel.
One of the great delights of moving to a rural village is that many of the traditions which have died out in most towns are still maintained, such as carrying flaming tar barrels from pub to pub or getting up before dawn to dance around the Nine Maidens, an ancient stone circle on Dartmoor, having already climbed up freezing boggy hills in the biting wind. Neither custom is for the faint-hearted, but a slightly less strenuous tradition still observed in our village is Stir-up Sunday. This is the day the women of the community get together to make their Christmas puddings.
Stir-up Sunday is the last Sunday before advent, at the end of November. The name comes the Church of England Book of Common prayer of 1604, in which the Collect for that day begins -
'Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded …’
Children had their own version of this, for was a tradition for orphans or poor children to go from door to door on this day begging for a portion of the puddings with the song –
‘Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot. And when we get home we shall eat the lot.’
Captain of a Destroyer in Scapa Flow
stirring the Christmas Pudding with a
wooden paddle, December 1942
On Stir- up Sunday all the women bring their ingredients into the church hall and prepare their puddings together, which would once have been a great way for older women to teach new brides the art of pudding making. Each stirrer may make a wish, but if it is to be granted, the puddings must be stirred clockwise in a circle from east to west, which is said to honour the journey the three Wise Men made to visit the infant Jesus.
But in fact, the custom of stirring any kind of food in a clockwise direction has its origins centuries before Christianity. Everything a woman did in the home or in the field had to be done sunwise or deiseil, because the sun was the source of all life. To walk round a building or perform any action in an anticlockwise direction – widdershins– was to work against the sun and strengthen the powers of darkness. It would certainly call down ill-fortune or worse.
There is a tradition in the British Royal Navy that the youngest sailor and the ship’s commander should both be called together to stir the ships Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday and that this should be done with a wooden oar or paddle, to symbolise the wooden manager in which the baby Jesus was laid.
The Christmas pudding may have evolved from a medieval dish known 'frumenty' made from cracked wheat, currents or other dried fruit and spices, boiled together with milk or almond-milk or meat stock. This could be served sweet or could have scraps of meat such as beef, mutton or venison added to make a kind of pottage. It was more like a thick soup or stew than a solid pudding. A version was eaten on the fast days before Christmas in preparation for the coming Christmas feast, when it would be made without meat. It was often a frugal way of using up scraps. In the Celtic Christian tradition it was eaten as part of the Christmas feast.
By the end of the 16th century a dish, known as 'plum porridge', consisting of raisins and spices boiled in fruit juices or meat-stock, thickened with breadcrumbs was served as the first course in the Christmas feast. It wasn’t until around 1670, that it became the familiar solid round pudding boiled in a bag, known as 'figgy pudding' or 'plum pudding', the plums being raisins.
The custom of hiding objects in Christmas puddings also has medieval origins in the practise of baking a dried bean into a cake on Twelfth Night, a tradition which was recorded as early as the 1300’s. Who ever found the bean would be crowned king or queen of the final feast of Christmastide and would be able to command their ‘subjects’ to do whatever they wanted to amuse their ‘sovereign’, however bawdy or humiliating. But if the finder accidently split or broke the bean as they found it, they would be obliged to change into the clothing of the opposite sex for the feast. The man would be crowned queen for the night and the woman king.
In later centuries, silver coins were boiled inside the pudding, and if you found one in your slice, it was said you would be blessed with wealth and good fortune for the coming year. Silver, of course, was another one of those superstitions from pre-Christian times, when it was associated with the blessings of the moon. Silver was used to repel evil, demons and monsters. In later centuries this is why they thought some creatures could only be killed with a silver bullet. In certain seafaring communities, such as Hull on the east coast of England, if a trawler man found a silver sixpence in a Christmas pudding he’d carry it in his pocket on every fishing trip to prevent misfortune and ensure a good catch.
Christmas or yuletide was always a time when people would try to discover their fortunes for the coming year by watching how the yule log, a hazelnut or an apple pip burned. Another Christmas custom was to send a girl of marriageable age out to fetch wood from the stack at night in the dark. The next morning, she would count the number of sticks she had gathered. An even number meant she would wed within the year, an odd number that she must wait. And this tradition of Christmas fortune-telling continued with the Christmas pudding. By the Victorian era, in addition to the silver coin, charms were concealed inside the pudding which would foretell the finder’s future. If you received a Bachelor’s Button or an Old Maids Thimble, you’d remain single but be happy during the coming year, but if you found a ring, marriage within the year was certain. A silver wish-bone or horseshoe would bring you good luck and a miniature anchor would pull you into safe, calm waters.
Gunner H. S. Haddow of 15th Scottish Division
in Holland proudly announcing the arrival of
the Christmas Pudding, December 1944
In some areas, of Britain it was the tradition for each household to make 13 small puddings, the last, the Judas Pudding, had to be given to a beggar who must carry it away from the house, taking away any bad luck for the year. Another custom was to retain a small amount of Christmas pudding and add it to the following year’s mixture, so that the pudding was never finished. This ensured that the family would never go hungry. So, if you haven’t made your pudding yet – it’s time to stir up!
My first post for this blog was back in July 2011, over five years ago. It was called History Chickens because one of my obsessions is trying to visualise the ancient world and not leave out any detail. I maintain there would have been far more chickens in Ancient Rome than historians usually allow for. Although I have never kept chickens, I will always remember something the late A.A. Gill once wrote: ‘It is virtually impossible to hold a hen and not smile.’ Recently I heard a scholarly talk claiming that in Roman Britain, chickens were so rare that they were cherished as pets rather than used as food. That’s why we find some early and exotic chicken bones at Fishbourne Roman palace.
Westbourne House School, Chichster
Yesterday I came out of ‘wribernation’to speak to children in years 3 & 4 at Westbourne House School in Chichester, near where the first chickens landed, as it were. I was talking about my four Roman Mysteries spinoffs, The Roman Mystery Scrolls, which feature a beggar boy by the name of Threptus who lives in the Roman port of Ostia. I told them how I came up with the characters and their world.
After writing The Roman Mysteries I thought it would be fun to write a spin off series with ‘less blood and more poo’ for younger kids.
Roman tombstone of 13-year-old Threptus
The hero would be a beggar boy with a heart of gold. I got the idea for his name from a Roman tombstone at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The tombstone was erected for a boy named Tiberius Claudius Threptus who sadly lived only 13 years, 6 months and 22 days. I was also inspired by a fan of Italian ancestry with a sweet face named Marco.
Mark Benton as Floridius in The Roman Mysteries
The beggar boy’s mentor and sidekick would the soothsayer, created for the Roman Mysteries TV seriesby screenwriter Dom Shaw and actor Mark Benton. Floridius is a character I never even thought of, but immediately loved. Because Floridius has a fondness for spiced wine and gambling on the chariot races he is not a particularly good mentor. Luckily, Threptus will help Floridius as much as Floridius helps Threptus. One of the best things about Floridius is that he keeps sacred chickens. Not knowing the least thing about keeping chickens, I read some books, watched some YouTube clips and called on the services of one of my former pupils, a boy named Ben Udy who kept exotic hens. Working with Ben, we came up with a lexicon of chicken speak. 1. BROODY PURRING/VERY CONTENT a) Brk-brk, brrrrk (very soft) b) Wrr, wrrk, brrr (very soft) c) Wrrroooww (very soft) 2. CONTENT/FEEDING/EXPLORING a) Buuuuurk! (frog-like croak) b) Buuurk, buurk-buurk (whiny) Body language: loosely feathered, ambling inquisitively but not purposefully, stop to preen, cluck gently. 3. INQUISITIVE a) Brp, brp! (when not moving) b) Bweerp, bweerp, bweerp (when moving) c) Beweerp! 4. MEDIUM/COMMON ALARM Bk-bk-bk... (varying repetitions) 5. HIGH STRESS, POST-DANGER a) Bk-bk-bk, B’KAK! b) Bk-bk-bk, b’kak! c) Bk-bk-bk, bkaaaah! [sometimes forget final K] d) Bock-bock-bock-bock-bock, begowwwwk! [big ] 6. HIGH STRESS, ‘DANGER’ STILL PRESENT a) Bk-bk-bk, B’KAK! nb) BK-BK-BK, B’KAK! [small hens] c) BOCK-BOCK-BOCK, BEGOWWWK! [big hens]
Ben also told me about Silkie chickens, which have feathers that are as silky as hair. Thus was Aphrodite born, the hen who is like a pet for Threptus along with Felix the kitten. I introduce Threptus and the Sacred Chickens in my volume of Mini-Mysteries, The Legionary from Londinium. The sacred chickens appear in all four Threptus books, which we’ve called The Roman Mystery Scrolls, but they really come into their own in the third book of the series, The Thunder Omen, set during Saturnalia. It starts out like this:
It was early morning on the first day of the Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter festival of gift-giving, feasting and dancing. It was a topsy-turvy holiday when anything could happen. In the port of Ostia, in a one-room shack behind a temple, eight sacred chickens were dancing on a table. Threptus has made each chicken a small conical hat called a pileus. Minimus illustrator and Latin teacher Dr Helen Forte made me a special colour plate showing seven of the sacred chickens plus Felix the kitten. They are all wearing the pileus, the freedman’s cap, to show that normal rules don’t apply.
Dancing sacred chickens by Dr Helen Forte
Long live the sacred chickens... ... and Yo, Saturnalia!
Anyone visiting Venice in the last ten years will have suffered the unsettling experience of seeing what appears to be a small ugly modern city moving slowly above the rooftops of the city. The scale is so preposterous and the aesthetics are so ludicrous, compared to the ancient city, that it’s easy to believe that the looming behemoth is a hallucination. It’s not. In fact, you will have just seen one of hundreds of mega-cruise ships that annually pass dangerously close to the Piazza San Marco in order to supply its privileged passengers with their iconic view of la Serenissima. To be fair, most of those passengers probably have no idea of the damage being done so that they may enjoy this fleeting experience. If they did, cruise liners would surely not be swarming into Venice's historic byways like vast white locusts.
The mayor of Venice accuses photographers of using zoom lenses to exaggerate the dimensions of the new generation of mega-cruise ships. That's not at all necessary, as was demonstrated in the 2015/16 exhibition "Venezia e le grandi navi" by Gianni Berengo Gardin, one of Italy's pre-eminent photographers. This video on YouTube (also above) shows with forensic clarity just how the cruise ships tower over the churches, streets, palazzi and inhabitants of Venice. I urge you to look at it before reading on. In the very moving commentary, the photographer describes seeing his first mega-ship as a punch in the stomach, and the phenomenon in general as a visual pollution, and a tangible threat to a fragile city.
I see a sad irony in this maritime incursion. Venice survived every other attempted invasion by sea, including that threatened by the Badoer Badoero’s fleet during the Baiamonte Tiepolo conspiracy of 1310. The shallow waters of the lagoon protected the city for thousands of years, as only Venetians knew the safe, deep channels. Even Napoleon did not bother with a sea-borne attack on the island, preferring a swift campaign of brutal psychological bullying. Instead, Venice has quietly, almost willingly, fallen to a wholly commercial invasion, handing over the secrets of navigation to the big cruise companies. The situation has worsened over the years because of the interessi (financial interests) embedded in Venice’s infrastructure and a tragic, incomprehensible lack of muscularity in the state’s response to the problem.
The impact of mass tourism has without doubt contributed to the exodus of Venetians from their city. The population has decreased by 100,000 in the last sixty years, to just over 54,000 people. Meanwhile, the figure for tourists is reckoned to be 32 million, few of whom contribute anything at all to the policing or cleaning of the city or the restoration of her monuments. Cruisers eat and sleep on their floating hotels, bringing little to the struggling city’s ecosystem apart from their bodies clogging the narrow alleys.
Meanwhile, in 2016, the Europa Nostra programme identified the Venetian lagoon as the first of seven seriously endangered places. The World Monuments Fund placed Venice on its ‘places to watch’ list, precisely because of the impact of mass cruise tourism. And UNESCO has threatened to strike Venice from its Heritage Sites if something is not done soon to remove the cruise ships from the bacino of San Marco and to control the unlimited influx of tourists. In fact, it’s only the threat that’s useful in exerting pressure. The actual removal would eliminate any power UNESCO might have because it seems, from the way the problem's being managed, that the mayor does not care whether Venice is on the list or not.
the logo of the organization fighting to divert the megaships from the ancient city centre
But Venetians are no longer prepared to be quiet about the cruise liners. There is now a protest movement: NOGrandiNavi. Articulate, frequent, vivid protests by its members - often in colourful flotillas of small boats - culminated in a referendum about the issue earlier this year. Overwhelmingly, the city voted to stop the invasion by the mega-ships. Sadly, the will of the people has not been translated into action. But that's not the end of the story ...
Barbara Warburton Giliberti
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara Warburton Giliberti, a citizen of Venice for 40 years, and a teacher of English at the University of Ca’ Foscari. She serves on the committee of NOGrandiNavi. I was very grateful for this opportunity to raise all the questions that many people put to me.
Can you say exactly what the cruise ships bring to the city? As a result of their berthing here, do churches get restored? Is any domestic habitation improved so that Venetians can stop fleeing their city? Where does the money go?
What the cruise ships bring to Venice? Only problems. Venice makes no money at all from the cruise ships. The passengers clog the town that’s already over-full. The only possible gain could be that some passengers arrive the night before departure and spend one night in a hotel waiting to embark the following day. But very, very few of them do so. There’s been a proposal to make a small charge for each passenger, so as to be able to do some cleaning up, restoration or renovation. That idea quickly died a silent death and nothing at all came of it.
What are the costs paid by the cruise companies?
The costs the cruise companies have to pay are shockingly low, given the profitability of bringing their customers to the most beautiful city in the world. Moreover, these payments are to private companies, not to the municipality. Some time ago VTP (Venice Passenger Terminal) was partially owned by the municipality and partially by the cruise ship companies. Then the mayor was strapped for cash and sold off the public part, which immediately fell into the hands of the cruise companies who are now total owners of the maritime station and the wharves there. They will do everything they can to exploit their investment and to ensure that the monster cruise ships continue to cross the bacino of San Marco and berth at the maritime station. If another port were to be constructed outside the lagoon – at the Lido, for example – there would have to be an international competition and there are very many foreign companies who can do much better work than Consortium Venezia Nuova at much lower prices. So CVN are trying to block the Di Piccoli/Duferco plan for floating wharves at the Lido, the only proposal to have received a positive opinion from the Valutazione dell’Impatto Ambientale, a government committee that evaluates the environmental impact of major public works.
What do the companies actually pay for?
Costs of technical/nautical services in millions of euros: Piloting 3.8; Tugboats 5.5; Mooring 1.2; Loading of fuel 1.6; loading of drinking water 1.6; Removal of liquid waste 1.6; Removal of solid waste 0.9; Wharf costs: guards 9.8; security 3.7; Luggage movement 10.9; Food provisions movement 1.2; various 0.5; total 41.8. None of this is paid to Venice, as I have explained. It all goes to private companies with an interest in the status quo.
And what danger and damage comes from the cruise liners? Have there been any studies done on the environmental impact? I understand that shoreline retreat has been found in the canal between Malamocco and Marghera, and that this is attributed to the cruise liners. What else has been discovered?
There are many dangers connected to cruise ships:
a) Erosion of the lagoon itself. With each passage, the very fine silt is churned up and doesn’t have time to settle again before the next tide washes it out into the open sea. There’s no sewage system in Venice: the weeds, algae, mud and microscopic creatures act as a natural filter to keep the water clean. If you get rid of them, then Venice will have to invest in an incredibly expensive sewage system. World expert on marine engineering, Professor Luigi d’Alpaos, says that if we continue at this rate then there will be no lagoon in ten years’ time. It will simply become part of the sea.
b) Erosion and vibration. The vibrations along with wave motion are wrecking the foundations of the Venetian palaces. The huge ships displace such an enormous quantity of water just by being in the water. When they move forward, even if only very slowly, the water rushes in behind them to reach its original level and this has disastrous results not only in the path of the ship but in the side canals as well.
c) There is a supposed ‘Blue Flag’ agreement, on a voluntary basis, where the companies say they will use clean fuel. This is simply not true. They use cheap fuel with a high content of dangerous substances. These substances are emitted as thick, black smoke from the stacks (we have dozens of photos) and cause damage not only to human beings but to the monuments: marble turns into chalk and the next rain washes away yet another layer. There are very efficient filters that can be fitted to the stacks to remove these particles. But, of course, there’s a cost involved. The German organisation NABU has been here many times and has measured the various levels of air pollution. It has emerged that Venice, with no cars, is the fourth most polluted city in Italy. It is as though we were living next to a steel or cement factory. The cruise ships themselves create a dangerous level of air pollution even when they are in the open sea. It is also true that the public transport system in Venice, the vaporetti, should also have filters fixed to their engines (buses in Berlin are obliged to have them, why not here?) but again a deaf ear is turned to that request. With regard to humans, the very fine particles enter the blood stream (the skin and various mucus layers are no barrier at all) and cause heart disease, respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s, miscarriages.
d) When the ships are moored at the maritime station, the engines are never turned off because they need to produce power for the air conditioning, the lights, the equipment and so on. The residents of that area cannot use cell phones, computers, TV etc. because of the electrical interference. The noise level of keep-fit classes, late-night parties and discoes is a disturbance of the public peace. Some local people have given up on repairing their roofs, which are subjected to continual vibration. Tiles simply fly off.
The sign on the this protest boat reads 'Home is a Right'
e) The cruise liners are monstrous. Venice was built with wooden ships powered by oars in mind, not these 450-meter-long giants weighing hundreds of thousands of tons. Even when the port was built, it was for much smaller ships. No-one imagined this trend for bigger and even bigger ships.
Wherever these ships go - the Caribbean, the Arctic - citizen committees like ours have sprung up spontaneously. All are saying the same things: these ships are too big to come near the land; they are destroying the very beauty the bring people to see.
To give us an idea of the scale of the problem, how many cruise passengers come to Venice annually?
Here are the figures for the last few years: 2014 488 cruise ships 1,733,839 pax 88 river cruises 16,702 pax total 1,750,541 pax 2015 521 “ 1,582,481 “ 89 “ 18,561 1,601,042 2016 529 “ 1,605,660 96 “ 18,670 1,624,330
To these totals, you must add the Hovercraft statistics 2014 328 ships 91,125 pax 2015 297 ships 85,564 pax 2016 330 ships 93,501 pax
And these figures do not include the thousands of crew who also pour out of the ships. So we are speaking of around 2 million bodies arriving on these vessels every year. These totals must be seen, remember, in the context of Venice’s 54,000 citizens.
The Costa Concordia disaster made real the possibility of a mega-ship grounding and capsizing as a result of human error. Could such a thing happen in Venice? What would be the impact? How long could it last?
The Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the Isola del Giglio in January 2012. Thirty-two people died.The captain, who admitted a 'judgment error' was jailed for manslaughter. It took over three years and cost £1.5 billion to remove the wreck. Photograph by Roberto Vongher, Wikimedia Commons
In Venice, mega-ships like the Costa Concordia come so close to shore. All it would take is a sneeze or a fit of coughing at the bridge, and we would all be in peril.
If there were to be a disaster similar to the Costa Concordia, the results would be even worse. We have asked for a simulation to be carried out to demonstrate that there’s not enough space for the fire brigade boats to point their hoses correctly. We’re still waiting for a reply.
These ships have no brakes. You cannot stop a ship of this size in just a few yards. It would continue to career forward, smashing whatever it came into contact with. And the accidents that do happen get swept very quickly under the carpet. The press is kept well out of the situation. For instance, some time ago, one of the so-called ‘fingers’ (a piece of loading equipment) was crumpled due to a wrong manoeuvre. Fortunately, it was only a finger. Another time, due to extremely strong winds coming down from the mountains, one of the ships lying side on to the wind wrenched a capstan out of the wharf and the mooring was no longer safe.
Some of our protesters are very witty. Above, you see one of our boats playing on the name of the ill-fated Costa Concordia.
And here'sa little film'My Ship will Go On', created by Frullatoriowho re-set and re-dubbed the shipping world's most famous moment of impact. 'My Ship will Go on' was shown at the NOGrandi Navi meeting on December 4th. It doesn't really need translation. Suffice it to say that Leo and Kate discuss moving the cruise terminal to Marghera, while one of the ship's officers boasts that there's plenty of room in the channel and that two cruise ships could easily pass at the same time with modern technology. And when they crash into San Marco, one sailor observes, 'Oh well, it was old anyway.'
Tell us about NOGrandiNavi. When was it formed and how does it work?
NOGrandiNavi was formed about twelve years ago. It has no public funding whatsoever. All the work is carried out by volunteers. Over the last couple of years, we have been working in close contact with Ambiente Bene and Venezia è Laguna. Our financial resources come from donations and the sale of small souvenirs (T-shirts, key-rings, shopping bags, umbrellas, caps, banners). We have ‘social’ pizzas or dinners. With our increase in numbers, we’ve started to specialize – mailing list, press office, website, translations, videos, press collection – as many as possible of the newspaper and magazines articles published on any day are made into a file that’s circulated to the mailing list. This specialization stops all the work falling on the same shoulders. We have lawyers and notaries who are members and they do all the legal work for free.
What do we do? We try to be present at all the meetings where items regarding the lagoon or the cruise ships are discussed. A summary of the discussion is made and circulated to the mailing list. We organise public debates with authoritative speakers, illustrated with power-point or slides. We prepare dossiers of a technical nature that are distributed not only to the mailing list but also to the members of the local municipality, so they cannot say they didn’t know what was happening. We invite NABU to come and check the levels of pollution.
What forms have your protests taken over the years? I see that your latest poster is for an event to deal with the lies that have been told. Very creative use of a cruise ship as a Pinocchio nose!
This poster uses a cruise ship as a Pinocchio nose. It's for a meeting in which the committee undertakes to clear up all the lies that have been told about the cruise liners.
We organize protest marches that are very lively, colourful and noisy. Blockades are set up with our very small boats to delay the departure of some of the ships. We distribute flyers with maps and illustrations of the various areas involved. We have stalls to collect signatures. We’ve been hosted on a radio programme that enabled listeners to ask us important questions directly. We give interviews to television and radio stations from all over the world. We send letters to local, national and European authorities setting out our position and contesting the false information often given by the various lobbies.
We make a lot of noise, and we wake people up on a Sunday, but we are never violent. Our members are aged between three months and ninety and include some extremely authoritative figures: for example, an expert on administrative law and an ex-member of the municipality with an inside insight into its functions. We receive support and help from marine engineers, industrial designers, environmental scientists. But we value all our volunteers. Families come along to our events, bringing children in their strollers. We always provide a safe creche. After all, we are fighting for the future of these precious Venetian children so it’s important that they are part of it.
It is vital for us to stay visible. We have already captured the interest of newspapers and television networks all over the world. Many citizens of Venice take part in our protests. Journalists come to see – and we make sure it’s worth their while: we give them a show.
Meanwhile, many Venetians display their ‘NOGrandiNavi’ posters from their windows and balconies. Here are some other protests:
The 40 Ladroni protest: This protest played on the story of Aladdin and the Forty Thieves. NOGrandiNavi protesters shut themselves inside an improvised floating cage decorated of photographs of individuals who might be said to have certain ‘conflicts of interest’ when it comes to the grandi navi.
The Berengo Gardin exhibition was quite a story at the time. The whole thing had been organized to be held at Palazzo Ducale, all the invitations had been printed and sent out; all the posters had been printed. Then, at the last moment, Mayor Brugnaro found out what the exhibition was about. He immediately withdrew the permit. Not only that, but he also banned all the other Venetian museums from holding the exhibition. There was an uproar, as you can imagine.
However, the Ordine dei Giornalisti promptly offered their offices (near San Polo and dreadfully small rooms) as a temporary measure until FAI (the Fondo Ambiente Italiano – similar to Britain’s National Trust) could prepare the Olivetti shop in the Piazza San Marco to host the exhibition. Can you believe it, but Brugnaro made the tactless decision to come to the opening in San Polo (complete with police escort, bodyguards and entourage) – only to be welcomed with well-deserved disparaging comments.
The Campanile protest (above left). Some protesters bought tickets to the top of the Campanile. They secreted about their persons some tightly folded banners. At the top, they unfurled them.
Diving protest. Each of the brave divers in the picture received a very heavy, punitive fine for breaking the city bye-law that prohibits swimming in the historic waters – no doubt intended as a deterrant. It’s curious, isn’t it how the Municipality imposes such enormous fines on an organisation that is basically crowd-funded? It appears to be doing whatever it can to put pressure on our resources. Ironically on the very same day, the Municipality itself organised a swimming race along the Canale di Cannaregio to San Giuliano. None of those swimmers was troubled with a fine.
How to avoid being fined for swimming in the historic waters? Protesters wearing animal masks affixed a poster to the hull of one of the cruise-liners.
The masks represented animals in danger of extinction – just like Venice. With highly visible
protests like this, passengers can no longer be unaware that the monster ships are unwelcome so close to the city.
We use red smoke to draw attention to our cause. The police say our little boats are ‘a danger’ to shipping, so we make sure we are highly visible – unlike the poisonous emissions of the mega-ships
This past July we organised a referendum– in only 9 hours we collected more than 18,000 signatures (all detailed with name, identity card or similar) and more than 97% wanted the large cruise ships kept out of the lagoon and wanted a total ban on new excavations.
The mayor refused to accept the verdict saying that he had been elected and he would say what could be done and what not. Another of the services provided that day was a team of ladies who brought round lunch and drinks for the people collecting the signatures; some of the gazebos ran out of voting cards several times and the people waited there in a queue for more than half an hour in the blazing sun because they absolutely wanted to vote. Some of the other stations had planned to open for a couple of hours but the crowds kept coming and they stayed open all the time. Next time we will organise far more stations on the mainland – so many Venetians have had to leave Venice and now live in Mestre, Marghera and the surroundings but are still vitally interested in what happens in Venice.
We’ve made downloadable postcard. Artist Vince McIndoe inserted a hand-painted cruise liner into the background of a Canaletto painting of Venice to show the incongruity of scale and aesthetics that makes the grandi navi so preposterous in a Venetian setting. This shocking image brings it all home. Some cruise liners have up to twenty decks – compared to the usual five floors in a Venetian palazzo. This postcard is designed to be sent to Graziano Delrio, the current Minister for Infrastructure. We don’t know how many he has received. But he’s unlike to share that information with us.
In the last few years, several different proposals have been put forward to deal with the Cruise lines. Can you summarise briefly?
1. Excavate the existing Contorta Canal to take ships to the industrial area of Marghera, on the coast of the Venetian mainland.
2. Excavate the existing Vittorio Emanuele canal to bypass the historic centre and take boats to a new terminal in Marghera 3. Floating wharves at the Lido where the mega-ships would berth, either at San Niccolo or the Mose site at Alberoni, with smaller and ecological boats to bring passengers to Arsenale. This is the plan we favour.
What do you say to accusations that NoGrandiNavi's aspirations might cost Venetian jobs?
Of course we don't want to deprive working Venetians of any employment that's derived from cruise tourism. We just want the mega-ships to arrive and leave from a place that's not so perilously close to the irreplaceable historic centre.
In fact, if the Lido plan were adopted, the workforce would double because those already working at Stazione Marittima would remain there for the smaller cruise ships and luxury yachts while new jobs would be created at the new floating berths at the Lido. There would also be an increase in staff necessary to transfer those passengers wanting to visit Venice using the re-fitted, modernised, ecologically friendly motonavi.
The topic of the loss of jobs is only one part of the lobby pressure aimed at influencing public opinion. It is totally false.
And in November, there was an important meeting …?
Here is the official version: the government meeting itself was perhaps illegal because it is stated that the president must be the prime minister, and this was not the case. Several Ministers who were supposed to be there were not, in fact, there and sent substitutes. At the moment of signing the final document, four of the five present left the room and didn’t sign anything. What is the outcome? Mega ships will continue to cross Venice lagoon and pass in front of San Marco for many years to come. The excavations proposed for the Vittorio Emanuele canal have been squashed. The project for the supposed new terminal in Marghera does not yet exist in a satisfactory form, and even when it does exist, it will have to pass the Committee for Environmental Impact – a hopeless case. The Harbour Master said years ago that the Canale dei Petroli could not accept a mixture of cargo and passenger traffic because of the safety problems and he’s not going to change his opinion in the near future. The whole of the proposed area is subject to the Seveso Directive from Brussels and I can’t see them letting anything as bird-brained as this pass through.
The electric company have been turning a deaf ear for years to the request to re-site a very problematic syphon that needs to be moved if the mega ships are to pass to Marghera; the trade unions are totally against the new Marghera terminal, which will block future development of the commercial port. Several businesses, now working profitably in the area and using the proposed wharves, don’t want to give them up. The only slightly positive aspect is that the proposed new terminal at the Lido, the only one to be approved by the Environmental Commission, is now formally on the table as an alternative. The final result? The NOGrandinavi Committee will need to continue working strenuously to make sure no dirty dealings go unnoticed.
And the new story that emerged later in November?
On November 17th, Senator Felice Casson pointed out to Parliament that the Special Law for Venice was enacted to protect the lagoon, not to encourage and further the expansion of the cruise ship companies and that the meeting earlier in the month was totally out of line.
What can people do to help?
When we have our demonstrations, we always have stalls where people can buy T-shirts, bags and hats that help finance our activities. We used to have a kiosk but the rent became unaffordable.
Is your merchandise also available online?
We hope to organise this soon.
Is there anything else people can do to help?
Our biggest issue is the fact that we, private individuals, are battling against organisations that make millions from the cruise ships. Although all of us give our time, energy and services for free, we still need to pay the fines incurred by our divers, the court costs when they are prosecuted, the costs entailed in producing our souvenirs and posters, hiring meeting halls. Donations can be made very easily, by PayPal or credit card via this link
Thank you so much for this interview, Barbara, and for all the time you've given to answering my questions.
Michelle Lovric’s website Images from the NOGrandiNavi website. Due to spamming problems, if you'd like to leave a comment about this piece, you need to become a Follower of this website – or you can email your comment to me to post at mlAT (use the symbol)michellelovric.com
'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind."
It was at lonely Radji Beach on Banka Island that Australian nursing’s greatest tragedy occurred.
Sixtry-five Australian nurses and over 250 civilian men, women and children were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke from Singapore, three days before the fall of Malaya (now Malaysia). The ship was discovered by Japanese aircraft and was strafed and bombed. It sank in Banka Strait on 14 February 1942. Of the sixty-five nurses on board, twelve were lost at sea. Twenty-two of the remaining fifty-three who survived the sinking were washed ashore on Radji Beach, Banka Island.
Matron Drummond and the other nurses gathered together on the beach, and were soon joined by a lifeboat containing twenty-five British soldiers. When a party of Japanese soldiers arrived they all surrendered. Most of the nurses were wearing the Red Cross brassard (sleeve band), and all were in uniforms of some sort that made it clear they were nurses. They assumed that they would be treated as prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They were wrong.
The British soldiers were ordered to walk up the beach. Once out of sight, they were bayoneted to death. The Japanese soldiers returned, wiping their bloody bayonets, and told the Australian nurses to walk into the water and stand in a row facing the sea. Whey they did so, they were machine-gunned from behind. All except one died. Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, before her embarkation. 'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind. I was hit in the sort of side, left side, and the bullet went just straight through and came out on the front. The impact of that and the waves, together with the fact that I thought once you were shot, you know, that you’d sort of had it, I overbalanced into the waves and just sort of lay limply there. To my amazement, I remained conscious and found that I wasn’t dying at all. Then my next fear was that the Japanese would see me moving, because by this time I was being violently sick from having swallowed a fair amount of sea water …" (Vivian Bullwinkel)
Sister Bullwinkel was shot above the hip, but survived by pretending to be dead and allowed herself to drift to shore when all the Japanese soldiers had left the beach.
On the beach she met an English soldier, Private Kinsley, who had also survived the massacre by feigning death. She tended to his severe wounds for 12 days in the jungle until, starving, they surrendered to the Japanese. Kinsley’s wounds were such that he died soon afterwards, but Bullwinkel managed to survive another three and a half years in various Japanese prison camps.
The thirty-one other surviving Vyner Brook nurses, who had not drifted to shore at Radji Beach had been assembled in Muntok as prisoners of war with around 600 other prisoners, all survivors of the 70-odd ships fleeing Singapore that had been sunk that week in the Banka Straits. There were a number of wounded, and the Australian nurses cleared a dormitory to use as a hospital and began treating patients. They had no idea what had happened to their comrades, and assumed they had drowned. Then Vivian arrived.
"Well, once I got there and realised they were taking prisoners I sort of felt that all my troubles were over. All I had been wanting during this time was to get with people and be with my own countrywomen … I heard somebody say, ‘It’s Bullwinkel’. That was sort of the end. I then immediately burst into tears. (Vivian Bullwinkel)"
She told the Australian nurses what had happened, but they were all sworn to secrecy so that the Japanese would not be aware that there was a witness to the atrocity.
Where the bullet came out, Vivian Bullwinkel shows the holes in her uniform, Fairfield, Victoria, ca. 1975 [picture] /
After two weeks in Muntok, the group was transferred by ship to Palembang in Sumatra, where the Japanese attempted to persuade the nurses to join a brothel. When they refused, they were sent to live in appalling conditions with Dutch women and children at the other end of the town. Sanitation was inadequate, mosquitoes tormented them and food was scarce:
"We could smell decayed vegetables and bad Chinese cabbages long before the truck bringing them arrived in the camp. Every now and then a piece of wild pig, called a ‘moving mass’ by some bright soul, would arrive and be thrown on to the roadway, where it was immediately surrounded by dogs. We were not allowed to call the dogs away. The drill then was for a Japanese guard, to cut it with his penknife into so many pieces—one piece to each house … Our ration for 24 people would not cover the palm of a hand." (Betty Jeffrey, White Coolies, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1954)
Berry Jeffrey, 1941 (Australian War Memorial photo)
In December, the women were moved to Palembag jail, and conditions deteriorated further as they were moved from camp to camp. Wherever they went, rations were scarce and there were few medicines. Movement of the Australian nurses. (Image from http://muntokpeacemuseum.org/) By now, they were severely malnourished, and in February and March 1945 four nurses died of malnutrition and beri-beri. "A lot of people shouldn’t have died; they weren’t any worse off than I was. In fact, they weren’t as bad as we were because we often did their heavy work in the camp, whereas they got out of it somehow. But they died just the same, possibly because they didn’t do those things. We had to work on practically no food, but it was a kind of mental attitude, and your friends—there was no doubt about that—you kept each other going. The POWs have a saying: ‘the spirit that kept the spirit going’. That was true, you had to have that will to live, you had to have companionship, you had to have the will to do things, you had to be able to cope." (Mavis Hannah)
Mavis HAnnah was a staff member of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), and was the only nurse from the 2/4 CCS to survive the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and subsequent captivity.
In April 1945, the nurses, together with other women and children, were packed into the holds of a small ‘bumping little launch’ for a 26-hour sea journey to Sumatra. By then, many were severely ill with malaria, dysentery and beri-beri, so that those who were unconscious or too ill to walk had to be carried on stretchers by the ‘fittest’ of the women. "From the food, the other very important thing, of course, was maintenance of health, and this was very difficult to do because we had no preventative medicine in any way. Malaria was rife, dysentery was rife and towards the end of the three and half years, of course, beri-beri became prevalent and this was very distressing. Funnily enough, we didn’t seem to have very much in the way of toothaches or the need for surgery until towards the very end of the three and a half years. I think we had one broken limb, which sort of knitted itself. The babies that were born in camp after we had been taken prisoners survived. They lived on rice water and, for the first 12 months, they really looked beautiful children, but after that … they suddenly aged very much and although they had these small limbs, their faces looked very old." (Vivian Bullwinkel) Four nurses died at the isolated prison camp at Loebok Linggau—one of them three days after the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.
Portrait of Lieutenant Wilhemina Rosaiie Raymont, 2/4th CCS. Sister Raymont died of illness on 8 February 1945 in Sumatra.
On 17 September, one month after the Japanese surrender, 24 Australian nurses were at Lahat aerodrome, waiting for their aircraft to arrive from Singapore and take them home. The matron-in-chief of the AANS, Colonel Annie Sage, stepped onto the tarmac with Sister Jean Floyd, one of their colleagues from the 2/10 AGH, who had managed to escape safely from Singapore. Colonel Sage looked at the emaciated group before her. ‘But where are the rest of you?’ she asked.
Sisters Jenny Greer (left) and Betty Jeffrey recovering in a Dutch hospital in 1945.
After their release: the remaining Vyner Brooke nurses.
nla.obj-147729124 National Library of Australia
Vivian Bullwinkel giving evidence at the War Crimes trials, Tokyo, 1946
[The above is taken from my book: An Illustrated History of Nursing in Australia (National Library of Australia). To be published 2018.]
Sorry folks, it's yet another Christmas book round-up! This year, thanks to my monthly review column in The Times, and my chairing of judging panel for the Historical Writers' Association (HWA) Gold Crown award, I think that I have read more than 120 works of historical fiction. That is a hefty dose of swords, togas and corsets. This is an entirely personal, subjective taste of my favourites.
Some of these books were technically published in 2016, due to the way the awards were structured. But let's not quibble. There were some incredible books out there, by some talented writers. Rather than the usual structure of these lists, I thought I'd give a chronological flavour of my favourites this year.
OK. So I'm starting with something entirely cheaty here, because these books have been out a while. But this was the year I discovered Christian Cameron's Long War series. Starting with Killer of Men, this covers the Persian Wars, through the eyes of Arimnestos, a Platean warrior. Cameron has that rare gift of making history seem vividly real. Mary Renault meets CS Forester
Emily Holleman continues her spirited portrayal of the House of Ptolemy in The Drowning King. This is a beautifully written and fascinating series – and if it feels a little melodramatic, blame the source material. It deserves a wider audience.
Ben Kane is one of the masters of Roman military fiction. I have loved his most recent trilogy which began with a massacre of Roman legionaries in the Teutoberg Forest. In March, he brought the series to a close with Eagles in the Storm. Lucius Tullus, who survived the original massacre, is determined to discover his legion's lost eagle. Arminius is refusing to let the dream of crushing Rome die. An enthralling end to the series.
For the Odin-lover in your life, the obvious choice is the complete works of modern skald, Giles Kristian. His book this year, Wings of the Storm is the last in a trilogy about revenge and honour, as Sigurd Haraldson seeks to avenge his murdered family. Violent and compelling, with one of the best battle scenes I have ever read.
I also very much enjoyed Theodore Brun's novel A Mighty Dawn. Part Viking, part fantasy this is a big, fat and entirely satisfying fireside read.
Kingdom Come by Toby Clements is the concluding book in a four-part series about the War of the Roses which should be required reading for all fans of historical fiction. It is 1470. Katherine and Thomas, the ordinary couple whose lives have been buffeted by the ongoing war amongst England’s nobility, are drawn back into the fighting. A fitting end to an unmissable series.
SD Sykes continued her wonderful medieval crime series in City of Masks. Her hero Oswald de Lacy is pulled into a new mystery, but this time in the deceiving, beautiful surrounds of Venice.
Disclaimer: I adore Sarah Dunant. But I particularly love her two books about the Borgia family. Beautiful, dense prose and an extraordinary story collide in the second one out this year, In the Name of the Family.
Second disclaimer, as much as I love Sarah Dunant, there is a second writer of Rennaisance Italy who is just as good but does not get as much oxygen. If this fascinating era of art, money and power is your reading heaven - and how could it not be? - read all the works of Philip Kazan immediately.
Bernard Cornwell rather bamboozled his fans this year by bringing out a book with no swords, no battles, no blood and few beards. Fools and Mortals is the story of William Shakespeare's younger brother - a jobbing actor in a lively, theatrical London. Funny, playful and great fun.
Angus Donald kicked off a new series with the utterly delicious Blood's Game - the adventures of a young and peculiar hero in the court of Charles II.
And I wrote one too set in Cromwell's London - The Tyrant's Shadow. It's not bad.
Squeezing in (it is set in 1799!) is Andrew Martin's new crime novel Soot. A shade painter is found dead, and a young debtor is released from gaol with a mission to find the murderer. Inventive, erudite and vivid. We were also treated to Birdcage Walk, the last novel by the late, great Helen Dunmore: a stunning portrait of a failing marriage and the sad erosion of the great ideals of the French Revolution.
I was very taken with a debut Australian writer, Lucy Treloar, whose book Salt Creek portrays a family's struggles in the wilds of South Australia. A riches to rags tale, which takes a stark look at racism and failure. A second Australian debut was Sarah Schmidt's fantastic See What I have Done, a dark, claustrophobic and macabre take on the infamous Lizzie Borden murders.
The HWA prize for histfic went to Ian Maguire for his tale about whalers, The North Water. I urge you to read this brutal but brilliant story about murder and man's descent into darkness. Also on the shortlist was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, a wonderful book about ideas and monsters set in the Essex marshes.
Early Twentieth Century
This year I discovered Abir Mukherjee, who writes marvellous crime novels set in colonial India. In A Necessary Evil, Captain Sam Wyndham becomes embroiled in the political wrangling between a tenacious colonial Government and the Indian princely states.
World War 2
Stephen Uhly's Kingdom of Twilight was translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and released in January. An unflinching snapshot of the war and its aftermath, in which the shooting of an SS officer by a young Polish Jew reverberates through the decades.
Sarah Day's outstanding debut Mussolini's Island revealed the little-known story of the fascist oppression of gay men. Her well-drawn protagonists are sent to prison island where they must grapple with betrayal and fear.
I also loved William Ryan's mesmerising novel The Constant Soldier, another HWA Gold Crown shortlistee. Inspired by the pictures of the Auschwitz rest-camp, where genocidal SS officers enjoyed jolly downtime, this is a heartbreaking, haunting novel.
Some of the best historical fiction reads have also been amongst the most feted and publicised this year: among these are Robert Harris'Munich; Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and George Saunders'Lincoln in the Bardo. What have been your best reads of 2017?
I am sadly stepping down from The History Girls at the end of 2017 and have posted something special for my last blog: an unpublished short story about the Grey sisters.
Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum
The Sum of Me
‘Push, harder. Push, faster. Higher.’ His hands are on my back. I am swinging up, up, so high I can see over the wall into the stable block, so high I can see the laundry maids laying out the linens to dry in the far field, so high I am a bird. I soar and dip, trailing sputters of laughter, heart flapping. Then I am down, rolling on fresh grass, still laughing, struggling to fill my lungs. He is beside me with a grin. ‘Kitty,’ he says closing his eyes, as if the word is sacred. I clasp the back of his neck, drawing his face towards mine, pulling him closer slowly, until I can feel his breath on my skin, until our lips couldn’t be closer without touching, until his eyes merge into one, until my belly fizzes. I can smell him. He smells of the countryside, horses and meadows. Then I push him off, scramble up, back onto the swing. ‘Push me again.’ But he is brooding now, sitting hunched on the grass, cradling his knees. ‘Don’t be a misery. You know you are my favourite cousin.’ I smile but he’s not looking. Eventually he mutters, ‘But–’ ‘But what?’ ‘Nothing.’ I swing myself, pushing off the ground with my feet, kicking them up and folding them back, back and forth, back and forth. Heat flowers beneath my dress, under my arms, down my back, down there. He pretends not to watch me, hiding dark eyes behind a fringe of dark hair. I rip off my coif and throw it towards him. He doesn’t catch it and it lands limply on the grass. My hair flies free. I imagine seeing myself as he does, watching my hair flung out behind me like a comet’s tail. I am wondering if this is what it feels like to be in love – soaring and dipping, a burning at the core of me.
He is picking daisies with long fingers. Those same fingers that were trying to stuff themselves down the front of my tight-laced stomacher, last night, where my bud breasts are sprouting. When I press them they feel sore and there is a hard nub inside, like a kernel. My older sister, Jane, says that is normal. She also says I should stop thinking of my body so much and think more of God. How can I help it, when my body is transforming under my eyes? When I reply that God made my body, she tells me I am missing the point. Up I swing, hair lifting so a rush of cool air kisses the nape of my neck. I spot Father at a distance, ahead of his retinue, returning from court. A whirr of excitement catches in my throat, spilling out of me in a squeal. I am, if it is possible, more thrilled even by the return of Father, than I am by the thought of my favourite cousin’s burrowing fingers. ‘Father’s back,’ I say, jumping off the swing, meeting the ground at a run. ‘Come on, let’s go and meet him.’ But he doesn’t follow and I am glad, because I want Father to myself. But he is not alone when I arrive in the yard. The others have caught up. Jane is wearing a face that like a yard of tripe. But Father is gleaming, got up in all his finery. He catches sight of me, barefoot, hair loose. ‘My darling girl.’ He reaches down to me, catching me under the arms, hoisting me up to sit in front of him. He smells different, sweet, smoky, as if court has rubbed off on his clothes. ‘My little favourite,’ he whispers, kissing me, almost on the mouth. His beard tickles. ‘You mustn’t tell the others.’ He always says this. I run my finger over my lips to show they are sealed and lean my head back against his chest. ‘What was it like at court?’ I am longing to hear about the King, who is only a little older than I am, who Jane is meant to marry, if Father gets his way. Mother thinks different. ‘Between you and me,’ she has said, ‘the little King will marry a foreign princess. England needs allies.’ Mother should know. Her mother was married to a king once – the King of France. It is from Mother that we get our Tudor blood. ‘A blessing or a curse, I know not which,’ she says of it. ‘You wouldn’t like it there these days, Kitty.’
‘But I would, I would. Will you take me?’ The idea of court makes me want to burst out of my skin – all those people, the ones everyone talks of, all in the same place. ‘Please.’ ‘I’m telling you, you wouldn’t like it. the King is unwell. It’s grim there.’ ‘But when he is better you will take me, won’t you – like you promised?’ Father doesn’t answer, just calls over one of the grooms to help us down. I can see my cousin skulking by the orchard gate. I blow him a kiss when no one is watching and his face is illuminated, briefly. Jane has disappeared into the house with her long face, without greeting me. I suppose she is upset because the King is ill. But Jane is not a sulker and I think something must be very wrong to put her in such a cheerless humour. Father piggybacks me, laughing, up the steps and into the hall. ‘She is too old for all that.’ Mother is standing in the door with Aunt Mary, waiting for us. ‘She needs to learn how to behave like a lady.’ But I can see that she is trying to hold her cross face together so it hides the smile behind. ‘I have news,’ Father says to her, putting me down, saying, ‘run along Kitty. Go and find your sisters.’ He and Mother close themselves in his study. I press my ear to the door but can’t hear anything except the throb of my blood – Tudor blood, a blessing or a curse. Jane is on the stairs. ‘Don’t snoop,’ she says. ‘You will find out soon enough. Come with me. Let’s find Mary.’ Mary is our little sister who is the sweetest thing in the world, though she is crookbacked and hardly bigger than an infant, in spite of being almost eight years old. I am so used to Mary being the way she is it surprises me when strangers stare at her. Strangers stare at me too but not for the same reasons – I am stared at because of my prettiness, or that is what Father says. So, Mary is the sweet one, I am the pretty one and Jane is the clever one. Truth be told, Jane has all three qualities in abundance and puts us all to shame, or that is the opinion of our tutor. Although she is only fifteen Jane can hold a whole conversation in Greek and writes long letters in Latin about the Bible to scholars in places with funny names like Wittenburg, where the double-yous are vees. I cannot read Greek, let alone converse in it, nor Latin. My tutor threw my Lily’s Latin Grammar in the fire the other day with the words, ‘is your head stuffed with feathers, Lady Catherine?’ He shouted it, with more aggression than was necessary. I thought about telling Mother, but then he might have been replaced and, as he is a good deal nicer than his predecessor, I thought to use the situation to my advantage. I said to him, ‘I shall say nothing of the book, nor the shouting, on one condition.’ He looked at me then as if I smelled nasty, before nodding slowly. ‘That you stop trying to teach me Greek or Latin and let me practice my music and dancing more often.’ ‘With respect, I am employed to teach you the languages… ‘With respect, sir,’ I cut in. ‘You are not employed to throw valuable books on the fire.’ We shall see what the outcome is. As Jane and I reach the landing, Mother storms from the study. ‘…too young!’ She slams the door, stopping to lean against it, bringing her hands up to cover her face. Jane and I scurry away. ‘What is this news?’ I ask Jane. ‘Does it have anything to do with me?’ ‘You should think a little less of yourself and a little more of God.’ This is the kind of thing she says often, which makes her seem a bore, though she is not – not really. She truly believes we would all be better off for thinking more of God and less about almost anything else. I am sure she is right. But how can I think of God when the world is so full of other things to think of? Mother says I am too impetuous and need to learn to behave as befits my position. Father says I am perfect just as I am. Mistress Ellen, our nurse, thinks I am headstrong and Aunt Mary thinks me selfish. I don’t know what I think, from one minute to the next. That is the sum of me. I can see by the way Jane’s mouth is pursed that she knows more than she is telling. Perhaps by putting it differently, I will prise something out of her. ‘What is it that could have made Mother so very upset?’ ‘You shall find out soon enough.’ As she says it she smiles but it is one of the saddest smiles I have ever seen.
Only the close household is at supper tonight. Little Mary stifles a yawn next to me and stretches her twisted spine, first one side and then the other. I reach out and rub my palm over the hunch of her shoulders, where she is knotted into a firm, tight mound, running my fingers down to loosen the lacing that is designed to keep her in shape. In my head I have the picture of Tom watching me from the orchard gate, making my heart bloat like a sponge in water. I catch his eye across the table. I cannot eat. Love makes you lose your appetite, everyone says so. Father takes a deep breath, as if he has just come up from under water, and raps on the table with the hilt of his knife. ‘I have important announcements that will affect us all.’ His eyes are dancing and he has a high colour. I can’t take my eyes off him. He looks so very splendid in his crimson outfit edged with gold, like a hero from ancient times. ‘Jane, stand.’ My sister gets to her feet. ‘My eldest daughter, our very own Lady Jane, is to be named as heir in the king’s new devise for the succession.’ We are all suspended in astonished silence – Maman looks distraught; Uncle John’s face is unreadable; Aunt Mary dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief; Tom’s mouth is an O; Little Mary looks bewildered; Father looks like the cat who licked the butter; Jane looks at her hands. I am thinking that this means I will be the Queen’s sister, but Jane’s voice echoes in my head: you should think less of yourself and more of God. But how can I think of God when I am thinking about being, after Mother I suppose, the greatest lady in all the court, sister to the Queen – me. Father continues. ‘This is not to be talked of until the official announcement is made. If I catch any loose mouths amongst you I will personally run you through with my sword.’ There is a general mumble around the table. ‘I have more good news,’ Father’s moustache is twitching, keeping a smile at bay. ‘Catherine, Mary,’ he says lifting his hands palms up. We both stand as if he is our puppeteer. ‘My girls are to be wed.’ Tom is stock-still, like that man from the bible who looked back when he was not supposed to. I fear he might burst into tears. I want to take his hand and run from the room, run all the way back to this afternoon when we were playing on the swing, run all the way back to last night when we were discovering parts of each other that had never been touched. ‘Lady Jane shall be wed to the Duke of Northumberland’s boy, Guildford Dudley.’ Jane’s lips are pressed together tightly and her hands are twined together, knuckles white. I have never seen this Guildford Dudley and, as far as I know, nor has she, but I do know that Northumberland holds the reigns of all England – Father says it all the time. ‘Lady Catherine shall be wed to the Earl of Pembroke’s eldest, Henry Herbert–’ ‘Who’s Henry Herbert?’ I blurt. My head is thrumming so I can’t get whatever is in it to make sense. A thought emerges slowly: what use is being the Queen’s sister if I am married already. ‘Quiet!’ snaps Father, pinching me hard at the nape of my neck where the bruise will not show. ‘And Lady Mary… she is still too young for marriage, of course, but will be betrothed to our cousin Arthur Grey.’ It is me who gasps loudest. Cousin Arthur is a great uncouth fellow with a pike-wound in the face. We used to make up stories about him, to put the frights up each other after dark. Little Mary’s face is pale and damp as a dish of rennet and mine cannot be much better. ‘The ceremony,’ continues Father, ‘shall take place in three weeks at Durham Place.’ His hand is resting on my shoulder. It is a dead weight. Tom’s hand is over his mouth. Jane’s hands still cling each other. Mother’s fingers pick angrily at the pearls on her gown. ‘… our daughters to be pawns in Northumberland’s game of chess,’ I hear her mutter under her breath. ‘Come girls, to bed,’ she says, her voice full of false brightness, herding the three of us towards the door, where Mistress Ellen is waiting.
I am in a borrowed dress; it is the finest I have ever worn, but it is too big. It belonged to some Duchess who is in the Tower. Or that is what I overheard Mother tell Mistress Ellen, ‘My girls wed in such haste they must wear the cast-offs of a disgraced duchess.’ The dress was altered a fortnight ago but I am thinner now and Mistress Ellen has had to fold the excess fabric and pin it together to make it fit. A great crowd has assembled at Durham Place and all their eyes are on us. I have dreamed of moments like this – me in a magnificent dress, all the court gathered to see me, all except the King that is, who is too sick to leave his bed. I have heard it whispered that he is dying, and though it is treason to even think that thought, I cannot help but remind myself that when he is gone my sister will be Queen. I may well have dreamed of moments like this, but it is not as I had imagined. No – I am thinking of Tom’s distraught face as we parted. My heart is shrinking and my breath wobbling, eyes watery. Jane gives my hand a squeeze, ‘it’ll be over before you know it.’ But we both know this is only the beginning of it, that she will be in the bed of Guildford Dudley, and I will be at some place called Barnard’s Castle, in the care of my new husband’s family, before the day is done. We walk forward slowly together. I mustn’t think of Tom or I will lose my composure altogether. A scowling boy takes my hand, placing a careful kiss on it. So this is my one, I suppose. Jane has not offered a hand to hers. He is robust looking, not handsome, but with something that is not unattractive either. Jane keeps her gaze off him. My one is pallid as porridge and beaded with dew – I was warned he had been dragged from his sickbed to wed me. But he wears a fetching green doublet and his eyes are green to match – green like the jade dragon that sits on father’s desk. He smells of almonds and has a curl of dark hair that falls forward over, which he flicks back with a toss of his head. His jade eyes take me in and he appears, all in one moment, to come to life, like a drooping flower just watered. I feel better, suddenly. He links his arm through mine and as we approach the altar, he leans in close to whisper, ‘you are the most exquisite thing I have ever seen.’ Something I do not recognise uncoils in the root of me and my favourite cousin is forgotten.
There is a little old temple called Sengakuji near Shinagawa in Tokyo, close to Tokyo Bay, on the south eastern side of the city, traditionally considered one of the less auspicious directions. Many years ago I lived just outside its gates. Beside it there is a graveyard housing forty seven stones. They are always freshly scrubbed, with sprigs of fresh pine and flowers laid on top and sticks of incense in front sending up scented smoke.
One stone is particularly large and imposing, set back from the rest, with an offering box in front. The inscription reads, ‘Oishi Kuranosuke, chief among Lord Asano’s retainers.’
On December 14th every year the street is lined with lanterns and the temple grounds are packed with people and food stalls. Everyone makes sure to visit the small graveyard, to put their hands together and pay their respects in front of the stones.
Lord Asano Naganori (September 28 1667 - April 21 1701)
It all began 316 years ago, in 1701, when Lord Asano, the 34-year-old lord of the province of Ako, near modern day Kobe, was in Edo, now Tokyo. In those days every daimyo lord had to go every alternate year to pay homage to the shogun. The fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was ruling at the time. Rather like the earls and lords in Queen Elizabeth I’s time, the various lords had positions at court. Lord Asano had been appointed to host the emissaries who came to visit the shogun from the Emperor’s court in Koto. He was young and inexperienced, so Lord Kira, the highest-ranking master of protocol at the shogunate, was assigned to instruct him.
Lord Kira was a difficult, arrogant man and expected deference and payment. That year emissaries were expected from the imperial court on April 21. Lord Kira was giving Lord Asano instruction in the Corridor of the Pines at Edo Castle, but his behaviour grew more and more contemptuous and insulting. Eventually the young man, goaded beyond endurance, drew his sword and took a swing at him.
Young Lord Asano draws his sword against pompous Lord Kira
He barely scratched Lord Kira’s face. But to draw one’s sword in Edo Castle, let alone attack an official, was a capital offence and Lord Asano was ordered to commit seppuku - to kill himself immediately by honourable suicide.
He wrote his death poem, expressing his regret at being cut down in the flower of his youth:
風さそう花よりも なお我はまた 春の名残を いかにとやせん
kaze sasou hana yori mo, nao ware ha mata, haru no nagori wo, ika ni toyasen More than the cherry blossoms That wait for the wind to blow them away I wonder what to do With the springtime left to me
Then he committed suicide in the prescribed manner. His lands and estate were confiscated and his heir was disinherited. He was buried in Sengakuji Temple.
Oshi Kuranosuke Sengakuji graveyard
When the news reached his province there was uproar. At a stroke all his men - over 300 of them - had been condemned to be ronin - ‘wave men,’ samurai without a master, at the mercy of the wind and waves. As in Anglo Saxon England, to be a warrior without a lord was to be cast out, outside the safety and security of the castle walls, into the wilderness where the waves beat against the shore.
Thrown out of the castle the men dispersed. Some took menial jobs. They became tradesmen or carpenters or craftsmen or monks. Others abandoned their samurai lifestyle altogether and gave themselves over to drink and dissipation.
Most shocking of all was a man called Oishi Kuranosuke, who had been Lord Asano’s chief retainer and a famous warrior. As if he had no principles at all, he left his wife and moved to the capital, Edo, where he started hanging out in houses of ill repute, drinking and carousing with prostitutes. He was regularly spotted staggering around, engaging in drunken brawls. Once a samurai from another clan, finding him lying drunk on the street, spat on his face and shouted at him that he was unworthy to call himself a samurai.
The arrogant Lord Kira, who had been the cause of the whole calamity, had been expecting that Lord Asano’s men would be plotting some sort of revenge. His spies kept a close eye on them - but by now nearly two years had passed and it seemed they really had gone to the dogs. Little by little he relaxed his guard.
And so the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of Genroku - 1703 - dawned.
It was midwinter and snow lay thick on the ground when 47 of the ronin, ranging in age from fifteen to seventy-seven, assembled. At their head was Oishi Kuranosuke. They had spent the last years play acting to put Lord Kira off the scent - and they had succeeded. They’d hidden caches of weapons and armour and Oishi had explained his plan to his wife and divorced her so that she would not have to share his punishment for what he was about to do.
The ronin storm Lord Kira's mansion - Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1840)
The 47 divided into two groups and stormed Lord Kira’s mansion. One group entered through the rear of the compound while the rest forced their way through the front, battering the gate down with a mallet. Lord Kira, hearing the hullabaloo, sneaked away and hid ignominiously in an outhouse toilet. Searching for him, the retainers stabbed spears through the walls until one came out with blood on the tip. They hauled him out and killed him with the same short sword with which Lord Asano had been ordered to kill himself.
Then they cut off his head, stuffed it into a bucket and marched through the streets to Sengakuji Temple, where they washed it in the spring on the hillside and placed it before the tomb of their dead lord.
Gravestones of the 47 ronin at Sengakuji Temple
Their revenge complete, they turned themselves in.
The men had lived up to the standards of loyalty expected of true samurai. In the eyes of the populace they were heroes. Nevertheless, they had broken the law and, despite his sympathy, the shogun was obliged to sentence all forty seven to die by their own hands. People crowded the streets to applaud, awed by their dedication and sense of samurai honour, as their bodies were carried to Sengakuji Temple to be buried alongside their lord.
To this day the 47 are popular heroes, and their story is told again and again. It’s a favourite theme for kabuki and Japanese movies. And anyone that is moved by the romance of Japanese history will want to make a pilgrimage to Sengakuji to place sprigs of fresh pine on their graves and put their hands together in respect - most particularly today, December 14th.
In October I had the opportunity to visit Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, before the doors opened and the tourists poured in. I was recording with the Rev. Giles Fraser, who was presenting a series of programmes on Radio 4 about the heart. Giles had recently undergone major heart surgery, and it had got him thinking about all aspects of the heart in history and culture. Other guests included Rowan Williams and Susie Orbach, and I had the pleasure of talking about the heart in science and medicine and history. You can listen to the programme here.
It was extraordinary to be in the Abbey when it was virtually empty, save for the occasional hum of a vacuum cleaner. We visited Poets' Corner, the name traditionally given to the South Transept of Westminster Abbey because of the high number of poets, playwrights and writers buried and commemorated there. The first poet to be interred in Poets' Corner was Geoffrey Chaucer, and the site has become famous for the number of romantic poets, interred or commemorated there.
In my interview, I talked about the meanings of the heart as a romantic organ, still connected to authenticity, truth and emotion, even though we now place emotions in the mind. And the ways in which we still regard ourselves as driven by heartfelt feelings, even though the tyranny of neuroscience insists the brain is first. I wrote a book about the 'two hearts' that exist, the poetic and the medical, and you can find out about that here.
Writing women are lacking at Poets' Corner - a problem I have written about here. The photos below (permitted by a kind security guard), show the commemoration of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Shakespeare, amongst a wall of marble white men. We stopped for a time at the plaque to Shelley, because his mythology, as a radical, a poet and a Romantic, is so bound up in his heart.
Adele Geras and Anna Mazzola have both written in this blog about Shelley - whose heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and kept, it is said, by his wife in a silken cloth for many years before being buried with their son after Mary Shelley's death. There is no memorial to Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, though she was a successful writer in her own right, best known for her novel, Frankenstein.
Shelley's plaque, visible top right
Of the few women who did make the cut, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1851) is an interesting case because she, like many Romantic and Victorian writers, suffered with heart complaints, in addition to believing that the heart was the centre of emotions, the self and even the soul.
Born in Durham, Elizabeth was a successful poet, having written since the age of six years old. Like many early feminists, she was a social reformer and campaigner against the slave trade, and an avid admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poems (1844) brought the poet great success, and attracted the attention of the poet Robert Browning, with whom she eloped, much to her family's displeasure, despite the fact that she was then 40 years old, Elizabeth suffered from numerous ailments, including spinal problems, lung problems and heart trouble.
The nineteenth century was a time when scientific medicine identified many different kinds of heart defect, and Barrett Browning was not alone in suffering from heart complaints. She discussed her cardiac trouble with her friends, including the feminist writer and early sociologist Harriet Martineau, who also believed that she suffered from a heart defect. I have suggested in another article that it was better to be diagnosed with a cardiac complaint than with the gynaecological condition that seems to have caused Martineau's debilitating symptoms.
Besides the shame Martineau felt at her 'women's troubles' being openly discussed, there was something rather prestigious in her day about having a weak heart: it was the mark of a sensitive and creative soul in an age where the heart was still seen as the emotion centre; only with the birth of Cardiology in the early twentieth century was heart disease principally associated with poor living, fatty food and too much stress. Unfortunately, Martineau is not memorialised anywhere in the country, let alone at Poets' Corner, despite her remarkable contemporary influence.
And what of Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Despite periods of intense ill health, Elizabeth lived happily with Robert in Italy, though she was disinherited by her family. They had one son, called Pen. Elizabeth died in 1861, apparently in her husband's arms. Her family refused to allow her remains to be buried with Robert, when he died in 1889 and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Her name, however, is inscribed on the base of her husband's headstone.
I will leave you with Barrett Browning's poem, 'My heart and I', which seems remarkably apposite, given the subject of the heart, and because she had suffered for so many years before her death.
ENOUGH! we're tired, my heart and I. We sit beside the headstone thus, And wish that name were carved for us. The moss reprints more tenderly The hard types of the mason's knife, As heaven's sweet life renews earth's life With which we're tired, my heart and I.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's inscription at the foot of her husband's stone.
I won't be posting until the new year now, so I wish you all much love and happiness and heartfelt feelings over the festive period. You can visit my website and find out more about my writing and research here.
I recently went to Brussels (well, somebody needed to go and sort things out - really, there's no need to thank me...) - on a pre-Christmas visit to my son, his Polish partner and their family. I had a slightly protracted journey, meeting various delightful History Girls in London on the way, before heading for my favourite station, St Pancras, which always has such a buzz about it. There was a magnificent Christmas tree, covered in flowers, and as usual, someone was playing one of the two pianos. It's the gateway to the continent: it's exciting.
When I got to the Gare du Midi in Brussels, I called in at my favourite chocolate shop, Leonidas. As I waited in the queue, I saw little chocolate figures, which looked rather like chessmen. Not long afterwards, I was meeting my two grandsons, each of whom was clutching a bag with similar figures in it: 6th December was St Nicholas's Day, they reminded me, and the great man had been into school bearing gifts. So not chessmen at all!
At the weekend, there was a party for several of the Polish families who live near my son. Everyone took seasonal food - barszcz (beetroot soup) with pierogi (dumplings stuffed with mushrooms), a gorgeous potato salad with herring and gherkins, and lots of cake - my favourite was a ginger one, with plum jam in the middle and melted chocolate on top. There may even have been some bison vodka, taken with apple juice and ice.
And guess who popped in? Yes, St Nicholas himself, looking remarkably like Santa Claus, and bearing gifts for the children. I guess 'Santa Claus' derives from 'Sankt Niklaus' or something similar.
Curious to find out more about this generous saint, I looked him up. He was born in Asia Minor in a town called Patara (in modern day Turkey) towards the end of the third century. He became a priest and eventually the Bishop of Myra, and was imprisoned at one time by the Romans, during Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. He seems to have been a brave and kindly man, who stood up for those who couldn't defend themselves, and championed the poor, sailors, and children. The most well-known story about him is probably this one.
One day - perhaps even in December - he heard about a very poor man who had three daughters. At that time, a bride needed to have a dowry, and this man had no money to provide one for any of his girls; nor did he have sons who could have helped him out. Such was the poverty in which they were living that he felt his only choice was to sell them into slavery.
Stephen had inherited money from his parents, who died when he was young. When he heard of the plight of this family, he filled a bag with gold, and dropped it down the chimney of their hut. (No, I don't know how he got onto the roof. Maybe the houses all had flat roofs, and it was a regular pastime to stroll across them.) It fell into a stocking which the eldest daughter had hung up to dry by the fire. He repeated the performance for the other two daughters. On the third occasion, the father caught sight of him. Stephen asked him not to tell anyone - but clearly, either he or one of his daughters couldn't resist, and the tale soon spread.
It's a lovely tradition, I think. I'm glad I was there on the 6th December.
In four days time, on the 21st of December, it will be the annual Winter Solstice. On that morning, a remarkable event takes place at Bru na Boinne, a Neolithic site in County Meath in the Ancient East of Ireland and within sight of the Hill of Tara. This area holds an ancient group of tombs and monuments, constructed around 3,200 BC, are said to be older than the Great Pyramid at Giza or Stonehenge.
Each year, at midwinter, the Solstice sun shines into one particular tomb, the largest of several grass-topped mounds, The beam of light enters through a cunning opening and reaches along the pitch-dark corridor, deep into the core of the passage tomb. There, for a few minutes, the light widens to shine around the cruciform space where the bones of the dead ancestors waited. Why these people needed to send news of the returning sun so deep into the place of the dead, and in this way, we can only imagine.
This annual alignment was, somehow, designed and constructed centuries ago but now, every year, a small group of lucky people wait within the deep darkness to witness the first Solstice light slide into the tomb themselves, while crowds gather outside on the grassy slopes, wishing they could be there in the darkness too.
However, ordinary visitors can experience a false dawn daily, standing within the burial mound as the tour guide turns off the torch. For a second, one feels a flicker of fear at being buried in the dark forever but then, as eyes adjust to the darkness, the thin thread of daylight appears again. Not a true Solstice, but still a memorable effect. How, one wonders, was this all planned and built and why? And who observed it, beyond the eyeless corpses? Looking up, the roof of the central chamber is remarkably beautiful, comprising a series of flat stones laying one over the other in concentric circles. If one stone should shift, what then?
This major tomb or temple, as described above, wears a more recently historical name. This tomb is called New Grange, after one of the granges or store-houses built there by Cistercian monks in medieval times, who valued the wide and fertile valley of the once-navigable River Boyne.
This same fertility must have attracted the early people to the valley in Neolithic times, creating a community of farmers and traders settled and wealthy enough as a group to support the construction of these sacred monuments. Beyond that, we know little. Externally, the tomb doesn’t feel as magical as I might wish, because not long ago, the circular walls were re-faced with large, white imported stones of a kind found scattered around the site. Their crystalline quality, one theory suggested, enabled the great tomb to be brightly visible for miles around, an idea that appealed to the various funding bodies, although to me the bright cladding adds a strange rather than a magnificent quality.
Even so, at the entrance, one must feel impressed, noting the angled roof-box set above the main entrance to let in the midwinter light, and the enormous boulder placed to guard the doorway. After all this ages, the huge stone still bears rolling, circling carvings that have become emblematic of Bru na Boinne.
Similar carvings decorate the walls of the Knowth tombs nearby on the complex site, where one large grass-topped tomb is surrounded by several smaller mounds and evidence of henges and kist burials. The gigantic “kerbstones” set into the outer walls would have been, so the guide explained, specially chosen for their textures, soft colours and shapes. The surface of each stone inspired its own decoration, whether it is swirling and interwoven waves, circular “sun pattern” carvings or both or even an early sundial on a flat rock, each forming part of this ancient art gallery.
Meanwhile, inside the tomb at Knowth, a smaller and less crowded space than New Grange, there were a couple of chambers, and a chance to gaze down one simple passage, lit by lamps. I waited till all the others had gone and stood there awhile, taking in the more than magical atmosphere of this place. Then I hurried out into the warm, blessed sunlight again.
All good wishes for your own Winter Solstice celebrations and all your holiday festivals.
This is the moon as it appeared in the early morning sky two days ago. A waning crescent. This morning you would see nothing because today, at 06:30, there is a new moon. The new moon is not visible. It is the time when the sun and moon are aligned, with the sun and the earth on opposite sides of the moon.
The Greeks called this dark time, the Old Moon and it was associated with Hecate, the Goddess of the witches. In India it is associated with Kali. In Celtic mythology, Cerridwen. In many mythologies, the moon is claimed by the divine feminine, the darker aspects of the Goddess, associated with the dark time of the moon. The Greek Goddess, Artemis was a Lunar Goddess, as were Carthaginian Tanit and her Phoenician sister, Astarte/Ishtar. All are shown with the crescent moon.
Most people think of the waxing crescent as the new moon, the first sliver of silver visible after the astronomical new moon has taken place. The changing cycle of the moon has to be our oldest measure of time, along with the changing seasons and the movement of the sun across the sky. The appearance of the crescent moon in the sky is still highly significant for many religions and cultures. It defines the beginning of each month in the Islamic Calendar. In the Hindu Calendar, people begin new projects at the new moon. It marks the beginning of the month in the Chinese Calendar. In the Hebrew Calendar, it marks Rosh Chodesh or Rosh Hodesh, the beginning or head of the month.
Across the world, in different cultures and belief systems, from the distant past to the present day, the new moon was and is considered a propitious time.
“The new moon is the beginning phase of the lunar cycle, when seeds are planted and intentions set.
The new moon carries a fresh energy and potency, one that may spark a clarity of purpose and being within us. This sky is darker at this time, turning us inward to our own creative light.
Darkness is associated with the divine feminine, with seeing the unseen, and heightened psychic ability. The new moon is a time to tune into your inner messages and the frequencies that want to connect with you. To cultivate these manifestations, set aside time for an intention-setting and a new moon ritual to honor your intentions for this new lunar cycle.”
Can the moon influence human beings? Can it affect our behaviour? We all know the origin of the term 'lunatic' and the full moon was the time when werewolves (and other were creatures) transformed from human to beast. The scientific community says a definite 'no', particularly to werewolves, but the moon is powerful. It controls the tides, it even moves the continents. Many marine animals exhibit moon or tide related behaviours even when they are kept in aquaria. Can it affect us? Despite the scientists, there is anecdotal evidence. Medical staff in hospitals and teachers in schools have reported behaviour changes at certain times of the month and some police forces draft in extra officers when the moon is full.
I don't know if we are affected by the moon's cycle, but this new moon, coming so close to the winter solstice, seems as good time as any to make affirmations and set intentions in preparation for the time of renewal and re-birth that marks the year's turning from darkness to the light.
Rome Saturnalia was THE most important Roman festival. Heavy on feasting, fun and gifts, it was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day around 17 December (today!), but it was so popular it expanded into a week or even longer, despite Augustus' efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula's, to five. Like today's Christmas, this holy day (feriae publicae) had a serious origin: to honour the god of sowing, Saturn. But also like modern Christmas, it was a festival day (dies festus). After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, according to the poet Macrobius, the celebrants shouted 'Io, Saturnalia' at a riotous feast in the temple.
Modern mid-winter habits echo Roman conspicuous eating and drinking, and visiting friends and giving gifts, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria). Masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed luxuries of leisure and gambling. A member of the familia (family plus slaves) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly equivalent to the Lord of Misrule.
The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as 'the best of days' while Seneca complains that the 'whole mob has let itself go in pleasures'. Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Sound familiar?
Macrobius described a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome which classicists date to between 383 and 430 AD. So Saturnalia was alive and well under Christian emperors, but no longer as an official religious holiday.
But alongside ran the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the 'unconquerable sun'), a festival celebrating the renewal of light and the coming of the new year and which took place on 25 December. By the middle of the fourth century AD, the dominant Christian religion had integrated the Dies Natalis into their celebration of Christmas. So it seems that Saturnalia wasn't the official ancestor of Christmas after all. Never mind.
In Roma Nova, Saturnalia is celebrated in much the same way. Here's a tale straight from the Mitela household in Roma Nova...
From the journal of Carina Mitela, Roma Nova, 17 December - Saturnalia
"Thirty-six hours later, we were snowed in. The newsies were having a field day with their graphs and charts. The ploughs and tractors were out soon enough despite it being an official holiday and were attempting to keep the main city roads cleared.
Although most of the public Saturnalia celebrations were cancelled, the priests would make the usual grand sacrifice and invoke Saturn’s blessings. I pitied them today; it was a Greek rite and they’d have to shiver in sleeveless fringed tunics, with heads bare instead of a warm woollen toga snuggly folded over the head. It was a sure bet they’d turn up the heating in the Temple of Saturn and have every open brazier burning hard.
My husband, Conrad, and our youngest daughter, Tonia, sat in silence at breakfast. Our eldest, Allegra, had called first thing to say she would join us just after two when she finished her shift. She looked tired on the screen; hopefully she’d get some sleep before tomorrow. She’d been called in with the rest of the military to help ensure vital services were kept running.
‘I’ll be there, Mama, as long as there are no further disturbances in the city.’
‘What do you mean “disturbances”?’
‘Unfortunately,’ she said in the driest tone I’d ever heard her use, ‘some people seem to think the custodes concentrating on the bad weather crisis means they can help themselves to what’s in the shops. I’ve been freezing my, er, extremities off in the Macellum district all night. We came across some kids with a crowbar in front of a smashed window, pulling stuff out of an electrical goods shop. The alarm was going, but so were others. As soon as they saw us, though, they ran like the Furies were after them.’ She chuckled.
The sight of half a dozen Praetorians marching towards you with intent and attitude would make anybody run.
‘But they’ve opened the basilica for the public banquet. My oppo, Sergilia, has caught guard duty there,’ she added, making a face. The law court hall was huge and could accommodate up to a thousand. But good luck to those trying to keep order.
After checking last details with the steward for the celebration meal later, I retreated to my office for an hour to check my messages and that nobody had found my stash of gifts for the 23rd. Sigillaria was important not just for the kids who loved new toys, but when adults gave each other something to compensate for the excesses that would surely happen today.
Normally on Saturnalia morning, my cousin Helena and I would sip a glass of champagne and exchange jokes and snippets of gossip. She had more than a finger on the pulse of city life; its lifeblood ran through her. She’d also forewarn me about any particularly risqué activities the household were planning for today.
Ceding my place at the head of the Mitela tribe for a day to the princeps Saturnalicius was all well and good, but even misrule and chaos had its limit as far as I was concerned. But for a few hours, the house would be overrun with noise, people, stupid but fun dares, overeating, games, theatricals and stand-up of dubious taste, arguments, falling in lust, laughter and progressive drunkenness. Helena would make sure the children were safe out of the way when the horseplay became a little too raunchy.
By early afternoon the atrium blazed with light. Everywhere was covered in ferns, spruce and pine. In the centre was a large square table covered with linen, silverware, glasses, candles and the best china. I smelt roast pork, lemons and spices. In tune with the reversal of the day Junia, the steward, was enthroned in my usual place. Conrad handed me a glass of champagne. He was on waiter duty. His Saturnalia tunic was bright orange. He shrugged. Then grinned. Wearing over-colourful clothes was traditional, but a strain on the eyes.
‘It’s only for a day,’ he whispered.
‘I know,’ and smiled back. ‘But I wish Gil had been able to make it.’
Our thirteen-year-old son had been staying in the country with Conrad’s cousin and was caught in the atrocious weather. We’d be lucky to see him before Sigillaria. Gil loved the madness of Saturnalia. My geeky son would turn into a shiny-eyed imp of mischief, darting around, laughing and joking, pulling pranks I didn’t know he knew. Now he’d be holed up with Conrad’s serious cousin for days. I only hoped they had enough food and the electricity hadn’t been cut, like the phone.
‘Well, Tonia’s having fun.’ Conrad pointed to her skipping between people with trays of hors d’oeuvres, watched anxiously by the steward’s son, and me. I could see at least one of the trays coming to grief, contents slithering across the marble floor.
I blinked at the hearty shout from the household and guests gathered around and raised my glass, then bowed towards the steward. She went to speak, but a blast of cold air and a loud thud interrupted her. All heads turned towards the atrium doors, now open. Allegra, in her military fatigues and winter parka, cheeks burning with the indoor heat, tore off her field cap and shouted, ‘Io Saturnalia’.
Everybody shouted back, the noise filling the atrium. I hugged her to me, ignoring the cold and wet of her thick coat.
‘I’ve brought you something else, Mama,’ she whispered in my ear and nodded towards the double doors. On the threshold stood a lanky boy – pale, shivering and wide-eyed. He was enveloped in a survival blanket.
'I found him trudging through the city,’ Allegra said. ‘He’s walked the ten kilometres from Brancadorum to get here and –.’
But I didn’t hear the rest of what she said. I ran to the door and crushed him in my arms.
Io Saturnalia, indeed!"
Alison Morton is the author of the Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. More at alison-morton.com
I have only recently discovered the website of Hampshire History, which offers all sorts of fascinating snippets about the history and historical artefacts of our lovely county. It was where I learned about the Tournai font in the church of East Meon, which I wrote about in my last History Girls post. But finding that led me on to other discoveries about the treasures of the churches of the Meon Valley. Many of the church buildings are of course treasures in themselves, as I have already shown, but there are also some especially interesting artefacts, to some extent hidden within the churches, that I thought were worth sharing.
St. Peter’s church in Soberton is originally Norman but was extended and rebuilt during the 13th century, then again in the 15th and 16th, with further additions in the 19th century. A small tower of an earlier date was replaced in 1525 by a larger structure and it is here that there is a carving – high up, so hard to see – that allegedly gave rise to a legend that the tower was built by servants!
The carving has a skull and two heads, together with a key and what might be a milking pail, though some think it is a purse. According to the mediaeval legend, the tower was built by a butler and a dairymaid, represented by the carvings of the two heads, and this idea is borne out by a plaque in the tower, which says:
This Tower Originally Built By Servants Was Restored By Servants 1881
Whatever the truth of the legend – and it does sound unlikely! – the Victorians evidently believed in it sufficiently to be able to persuade domestic servants across Hampshire to raise £70 to have the tower restored. How very bizarre!
St. Peter’s does also have another memorial with a potentially intriguing story behind it. In the 13th Lady (or Curle, named in honour of Walter Curle, Bishop of Winchester 1632-1647) Chapel, there are two fragments of a headstone, each with the outline of a tulip flower carved into the corner.
The dedication is to a man called Robart, with a date of 1712 and, although nothing is known about him, there has been speculation that he might have been caught up in the “tulip mania” of the mid 17th century. At that time, tulip bulbs were much sought after and they were bought and sold like any other valuable commodity, especially in the Netherlands.
Prices eventually reached silly heights before the market collapsed.
In Corhampton’s wonderful Saxon church (for more about it, see my History Girls post for October) is a fabulous and rare Saxon sundial, or rather tide dial.
The word ‘tide’ was used to denote a time period and survives today in terms such as ‘eventide’ or ‘yuletide’. In Saxon times, the day was divided into eight tides, each about three hours long. The Corhampton dial is set into the wall immediately to the right of the church’s porch. The dial is divided into the eight tides, rather than the usual twelve hours. In the middle of the dial is a hole where the gnomon would have been positioned. The gnomon is the piece that projects the sun’s shadow onto the dial and would probably have been made from metal. The dial seems to pre-date the building and may even date back to the 7th century, when Bishop Wilfrith was trying to convert the “heathens” in the Meon Valley. It could have been used right up until the Norman conquest, when the use of such dials seemed to fall away.
The village of Exton forms, with Meonstoke and Corhampton, a group of three small communities that straddle the River Meon a few miles south of the river’s source. In Exton’s 13th century church of St. Peter and St. Paul there is a memorial plaque to John Young, who was Dean of Winchester from 1616 to 1645. Why does he have a memorial here? A Scot, born in 1585, he lived at a time of great political upheaval and terror in the country during the English Civil War. He was apparently a great diplomat, and was dean for thirty yearsuntil he was removed by Cromwell and retired to his estates near Exton, where he died in 1654 and was buried in Exton’s church.
What is rather fascinating is that John wrote the epitaph for his memorial ten years before his death, and he included in it a cryptic message.
Towards the bottom of the plaque is the following line, with certain letters capitalised:
The Latin here is: Veni, veni mi, Iesu, Iudex, veni cito, which translates as: Come, come my Jesu, Judge, come quickly.
But this line is a chronogram, which is derived from the Greek χρονος meaning “time” and γραμμα meaning “letter”, and is an inscription in which a date is hidden. The idea is that, taking the highlighted capital letters, you interpret them as Roman numerals to work out the encrypted date. So, V is 5, C is 100, M is 1000 and so on. From what I have read, the letters don’t have to be in the correct order! As I understand it, the date here is supposed to be when John wrote his epitaph. So if he died in 1654, in theory, the hidden date should be 1644. However, try as I might, I have so far failed to make the Roman letters spell out 1644! Please, if anyone else can solve the puzzle, do let me know…
There is another, almost charming, memorial in Exton’s church: a headstone with an inscription to Richard Pratt of Preshaw (a few miles from Exton), who died in 1780. We must deduce that Richard was a bookish sort of chap, for the carving on his headstone shows a man with an elegant bookcase behind him, but a figure who we must presume is Death is summoning him away from his reading.
There is yet another interesting headstone, in the church of Our Lady in Warnford, a mile and a half north of Exton, along the River Meon, a church that is set, alone and alongside the ruins of the old manor house, in the middle of a mediaeval park. (I referred to the reason for this is my History Girls blog for June.) This headstone is a great deal older than Richard Pratt’s: it is 13th century and has no inscription. But the simple cross on the stone apparently marks out the grave as that of a crusader.
I introduced the wonderful All Saints Church, in East Meon, in my last History Girls post, but promised to say a little more about the astonishing Tournai font. But, first, an interesting, if not mediaeval, story about a small stone plaque that sits on the church’s east wall. It was originally on the floor of the church and, when it was removed, underneath were found the remains of four men were found. All were buried standing up…
The men were apparently parliamentary soldiers, billeted in East Meon in 1644 before fighting in the battle of Cheriton.It is said, but can hardly be verified, that they were the ones who stole the lead from the Tournai font to make shot for their weapons. (The existing lead lining is a later replacement.)
On the plaque are simply the words ‘Amens Plenty’. I wonder why?
And so to the Tournai font.
The font was carved in the 12th century by the sculptors of Tournai from the hard blue-black limestone from the banks of the River Scheldt in what is present-day Belgium. It arrived in East Meon in around 1150, just as the original church was being completed, and was probably a gift from the then bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, who was a grandson of William the Conqueror. Henry was King Stephen’s brother, the Chancellor of England and the richest and most powerful man in the country after the king.
Two sides of the font have images of birds and dragons, floating above a row of pillars.
The other two sides show the story of Adam and Eve.
As I understand it, this side shows, from the right, God creating Adam, and then Eve from Adam’s rib. Then Eve is tempted by the snake, which looks more like a dragon with its fangs! And finally Eve tempts Adam with the apple.
On this side, Adam and Eve are being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Is the angel with the sword barring the miscreants’ way back into Paradise? On the left, an angel is teaching Adam to dig and Eve is busy spinning (what a giant distaff she has!).
There are in fact fourTournai fonts in Hampshire, the other three being in Winchester Cathedral, St Peter’s church in St. Mary Bourne (near Andover) and St. Michael’s church in Southampton, with only another three in the whole of the rest of the country, so Hampshire is privileged to have so many!
As all good History Girls know, 'traditional' is one of those words which is rather flexible in its exact meaning. We are all aware, after all, that Queen Victoria popularised the Christmas Tree and Santa didn't get sewn into his red suit until the 1930s. Then each family has its own traditions. I actually stamped my foot when my husband suggested we didn't really need to have forcemeat balls at Christmas dinner (little dumplings of suet and breadcrumbs, roasted until, when you try and put a fork through them, they fly off your plate like cannon balls) saying, as I stamped, it was 'traditional' to have them. I doubt anyone in my family would have minded if they hadn't made an appearance on the table, but I've been making those things since 1980 and I'm damn well not going to stop now.
It's also traditional in my family's home that the Christmas Tree is topped out on Christmas Eve by the youngest person present. Now that sounds like a solid pagan good luckish sort of thing, until you add the detail the tree has to be crowned with a particular angel (c. 1972), with a somewhat startled expression and a head which tends to fall off mid-ceremony. I'm trying to claim the head thing is a homage to Gawain and the Green Knight to give it a good fourteenth century vibe, but no one believes me.
This year, I'm thinking we should bring in a new tradition of some sort to compliment the forcemeat balls and the angel. Perhaps forcing the kids to lock their phones and electronic devices into a box for an hour so Santa can check them for age inappropriate content might be a good one.
If that doesn't float your ritual boat however, you can find inspiration and a range of ideas for mumming, wrestling for a Boar's head, Yule logs and frumenty in Steve Roud's marvellous The English Year. It politely makes clear which 'traditions' are of more recent vintage - I'm looking at you Tom Smith, inventor of the cracker in 1847 - and which have a pretty good medieval pedigree. It also, of course, is a gift which keeps on giving, so you can spend the year putting on games of hurling for obscure Saints in March, wearing primroses for Disraeli in April and finding out where to get a St Bartholomew's day biscuit in August.
If you enjoy Roud's book, then follow it up with Ronald Hutton's The Stations of the Sun. I think I'd like to be Ronald Hutton in my next life. He writes with such clarity and focus about ritual, folklore and history and where those things messily and creatively merge. He is also rigourous about quoting and interrogating his sources which makes him a historical novelist's BFF. I turned down so many pages in Witches, Druids and King Arthur the book swelled as if I had dropped it in the bath.
I'm not sure, even with the help of these fine gentlemen, if telling ghost stories at Christmas is a tradition of long standing, or if it's a post Charles Dickens thing. I think it's fair to say the long winter evenings do lend themselves to the genre so do remember to curl up with Susan Owens'The Ghost: A Cultural History at some point while the evenings are still long and dark - Anna Mazzola has written an excellent review if you want to know more.
I think I might get my family to tell ghost stories, but it might be wise to twin it with a bit of in-house wassailing. On the other hand, there's that frumenty thing. I did get to have a particularly lovely bowl of frumenty (aka furmity) when staying at The Old Cider House in the Quantocks. Perhaps a frumenty breakfast on Christmas Day would be a good idea, particularly given the festivities begin officially at 11 am with present opening and champagne cocktails. Don't judge us - it's traditional.