In 1503 Walter Hungerford III was born at Heytesbury, Wiltshire, the only child of Sir Edward Hungerford of Farleigh Hungerford, Somerset, and his first wife, Jane Zouche.They lived in his family home, Farleigh Castle in Wiltshire, which I was lucky enough to visit recently. And it was there that I learnt the story of the Lady in the Tower.
The remains of Farleigh Castle today
Walter was nineteen when his father died in 1522, and soon afterwards became squire to Henry VIII.He married three times, but prospered only after his third marriage in 1532 to Elizabeth, daughter of John Hussey, first Baron Hussey of Sleaford.Walter was keen for advancement, so he asked his father-in-law to recommend him to Henry VIII’s rising minister Sir Thomas Cromwell. This Hussey did, and subsequently let it be known that Walter would like to become Sheriff of Wiltshire, a desire which was gratified in 1533.Walter became Cromwell’s agent in the Farleigh area, a service which bore fruit in 1536 when he was created the first (and last) Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury.Thus far his third marriage had served him well.
The Hungerford coat of arms
However, by that time his father-in-law, John Hussey, had fallen out of favour at court, so in punishment Lord Walter began to persecute his unfortunate wife Elizabeth. His treatment of her was remarkable for its brutality. He locked her in a tower at Farleigh Castle
The tower probably used for her incarceration
and kept her there for four years, during which time his chaplain, William Bird, brought her food and drink.However, she didn't trust Bird, and in around 1539 she wrote an appeal for protection to Cromwell, saying that she was “continually locked in one of my Lord’s towers in his castle … these three or four years past … under the custody of my Lord’s chaplain, which has once or twice heretofore poisoned me.”She claimed that she was often reduced to drinking her own urine, and that without the charity of “poor women of the country” who “brought me to my great window, in the night, such meat and drink as they had”, she would have starved to death.Apparently they rigged up a basket and pulley system through a window in the tower, and provided her with food and drink. This may have been the window they used.
The window in the tower
It is not known whether Cromwell ordered Elizabeth’s release on receipt of her letter, but by that time Henry VIII was becoming increasingly worried about uprisings in the country protesting about his break with the Roman Catholic Church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries.For this reason Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Chief minister, also fell out of favour.
Sir Thomas Cromwell
Unsurprisingly it was not long before the king also caught up with Cromwell’s protégé, Lord Walter, and in 1540 he accused Walter, together with William Bird, of sympathising with the so-called “Pilgrims of Grace”, a popular uprising that had begun in Yorkshire in 1536 and was spreading.The members were protesting not only about Henry’s split from Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but also about Thomas Cromwell’s policies and other political, social and economic grievances.
On 28th July 1540 both Lord Walter Hungerford and Sir Thomas Cromwell were beheaded on Tower Hill: Cromwell for treason and Lord Walter for treason, witchcraft and the then capital crime of homosexuality.Contemporaries noted that Lord Walter had gone mad by the time of his execution, ‘for he seemed so unquiet, that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise.’
After her husband’s death Elizabeth was finally released from the tower.She survived, and subsequently married Sir Robert Throgmorton, with whom she had five daughters.She died peacefully in 1554.
Our guest for August is Vanessa Harbour, author of the début novel for young readers, Flight, which deals with the rescue of a troop of Lipizzaner horses from the Nazis and their arduous journey to where the famous Riding School was based during WW2.
Vanessa Harbour is a writer and academic who loves words and believes in living life to the full regardless of what life throws at her. In particular, she likes to weave her words into stories for children and young adults, providing moments of hope in a difficult world. When she was growing up she wanted to be either a doctor or writer. Now she is a Doctor of Creative Writing so has the best of both worlds. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. She is also Academic and Diversity Consultant/Editor at the Golden Egg Academy. Flight is her first novel which is her tribute to her parents who both served during WW2.
As a child I was about passionate horses. I read everything I could about them. All the fiction and lots of non-fiction too. Anything I could find I would read. It was in the non-fiction where I first started to hear about the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the magical dancing horses. I was fascinated by them. In 1974, I was lucky enough to go and see them perform live at Wembley Arena. It was an awe-inspiring performance. I was convinced I would be able to do that too. The poor dog went through hell as I made him try and perform the same exercises.
At that stage I never thought much about the history of the school I just focused on the horses and how beautiful they were. It was only much later, on one August Bank Holiday when I was trying to think of a story that I started asking questions about what had happened to the Spanish Riding School during the Second World War. Their history began to unfold in front of me. My story focuses on a particular moment in its history, but the Spanish Riding School had been in existence for a lot longer than that.
Sparre, Wikimedia Commons
During the Renaissance, in 1572, Maximilian II had a ‘Spanish Riding Hall’ built for his valuable ‘Iberian Freight’ which I imagine to be is his Iberian horses. He had a menagerie of many other animals too. This description was believed to be the first mention of the ‘Spanish’ connection. The hall was part of the Stallburg within the complex of the Hofburg in Michaelerplatz. Various Emperors and fires had an impact, but it was Karl VI who employed the architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach to build the current riding hall between 1729 and 1735. (He and his father had already been responsible for a lot of the buildings in Vienna) The Winter Riding Hall, as it is called, is very glamorous, it is painted all ivory and the only colour comes from a portrait of Karl VI which, even today, the riders doff their bi-corn hats at as they come in. It has very large windows and huge crystal chandeliers.
The horses are treated royally on the site, housed in roomy stables. Even these are decorated with stucco decorations and are always kept spotless clean. There are amazing archways from the stables leading out to a courtyard. These archways were bricked in at one point to keep the artworks safe but were re-opened in 1945.
By Ricardalovesmonuments Wikimedia
The hall itself was not just used for displays by the horses. Balls, masquerades and music festivals have been held there. For example, it was seen as a temple of music when Ludwig van Beethoven conducted a mass concert with more than 1000 singers and musicians in 1814. During the Hungarian revolution the new Austrian parliament was held there for its first session on July 22nd, 1848.
It is known that horses at the Spanish Riding School are always the elegant Lipizzaners. Renowned for being pure white and highly intelligent. They are not born white though. They will be black or brown depending which bloodline they have descended from. As they grow up the colour changes, almost fades, until they become pure white. If you look through the fur you will still see that the skin is either brown or black. Very rarely they don’t change, and they are believed to be very lucky. The Lipizzaners initially started in the 16th Century with blood stock from Arabs, Barbary and Iberian horses. It was strengthened and increased until the 18th century when the breed were well and truly established. The Sire’s bloodline can be traced back to one of six stallions: Pluto, Conversano, Neapolitano, Favory, Maestoso and Siglavy. Every horse, even now, is given a brand that includes the initial of the one stallion’s bloodline out of the six they have come from. The stud was later moved to Piber and remains there.
At the Spanish Riding School, they display the fine art of riding, but this is also not new. Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates in ancient times, compiled rules for riders in about 400BC. This was called On Equitation and is still valid today. During the Italian Renaissance the art was revived, in particular, in Naples by the nobleman Federigo Grisone, known as “The Father of the art of Equitation” who in 1552 wrote Ordini di Cavalcare. However, his methods were rather reliant on force. His training was not about art. It was about being aware of the horse and being able to control the horse because above all he was about creating a horse that could be used on the battle field. In France, the art of horsemanship in the 1600s progressed until an instructor by the name of François Robichon de la Guérinière, who rejected the idea of force, wrote L’École de Cavalerie, which was illustrated by Charles Parrocel. This is still used today by the Spanish Riding School as a guiding principle. Exercises carried out by the stallions such as Haute École and Airs Above Ground are based on both Xenophon’s and Guérinière’s work.
The period that I focus on in my novel, Flight, is during the time when Alois Podhajsky is the director of the Spanish Riding School. Major Podhajsky took over in 1939. He had previously won a bronze medal for dressage in the 1936 Olympics. Remaining as director until 1964. He also wrote several books about riding and the rules of riding. During the war he did his best to protect the horses. This included trying to protect them when Hitler decided to try and create a ‘perfect war horse’ in Hostau using the mares from Piber. The Nazis did not particularly like his interference with their breeding plans. The School itself managed to avoid destruction in the bombing of Vienna but by the March of 1945, Director Podhajsky had managed to negotiate to get the stallions out to safety at St Martin. Where they stayed in exile until 1955.
Author's own photo
It was while staying in St Martin that they performed in front of the US Army’s General Patton, who then agreed to keep the Spanish Riding School safe. In his memoir he states that:
"It struck me rather strange that, in the midst of a world at war, some twenty young and middle-aged men in great physical condition…had spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle their butts…it is probably wrong to permit any highly developed art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth… To me the high-schooling of horses is certainly more interesting than either painting or music."*
Some have suggested that the performance, or exhibition as General Patton called it, enabled Operation Cowboy, but others say it was going ahead anyway. It is my understanding that there is no documentation to corroborate this suggestion, and he certainly doesn’t mention it in his memoir. Operation Cowboy is the code name for the mission to rescue the mares and some prisoners of war from Hostau in Czechoslovakia. It is something I am currently researching and perhaps worthy of another blog post at a different time. I find it a fascinating period and still find many new elements and intriguing story lines.
Tomorrow is a big day for me. After nearly 18 years, it will be my last day as a civil servant. I’ve spent most of that time advising ministers on their policy ideas and helping turn them from ideas to reality – it’s been a job that I’ve (mostly) loved, although it can be demanding, exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure.
But what does that mean for the Cabinet of Curiosities, I hear you ask? Well, the object I’d like to include this month is a symbol of my time as a civil servant: the ministerial Red Box.
Ministerial 'Red Box', made by Barrow, Hepburn & Gale
The Red Box is exactly that: every minister in government has one (or rather several, to allow for times when one is in transit): bright red ‘boxes’ – essentially oversized briefcases. The outside is red leather with a gold crest and lettering, lined with darker leather. They’re made from wood and lead (depending on who you believe, so that they would sink if thrown overboard from a ship in time of war and/ or to stop them from being x-rayed) and so weigh a ton. (They are also sturdy enough, in contravention of many health and safety rules I’m sure, to be used as a handy step-stool for vertically-challenged civil servants needing to get something off the top shelf.)
The idea of a ‘despatch box’ (as they are officially known) apparently goes back at least to Queen Elizabeth I, and the same company has been making them for the government since the eighteenth century. There seems to be a debate about whether the red colour again came from Elizabeth I’s reign, or as a result of Prince Albert’s preference, but it is clear that the ‘red box’ has a long and distinguished pedigree. They’re used to transport sensitive papers securely (you can get less obvious black ones if a minister needs discretion e.g. if they are travelling by public transport). The most famous one is Gladstone’s, which the Chancellor has traditionally held up on Budget day before the assembled press – although the original is now too fragile to come out each year.
Gladstone's famous red box, held up outside HM Treasury
by many a Chancellor on Budget Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons
But for a civil servant, ‘The Box’ is a concept as well as a physical object. When submitting papers to a minister, the ‘box time’ is all-important. ‘When does the box go’ means ‘what’s my deadline for getting this to you?’ Sometimes it is just that – a euphemism for ‘deadline’ and no more. But often it still is a reality. Papers really do get put in ‘The Box’, and once it is gone, that’s that. On Fridays, the Box can be sent to the Minister’s home address by post (there are special arrangements with the post office to make sure they’re secure). Alternatively, The Box leaves with the Minister, or can be taken to wherever she/ he is. Of course, the most urgent things can now be sent by secure email, but for routine work, The Box remains all-important.
‘The Box’ is therefore also something that the Minister ‘does’. It is their homework, the decisions that need making, the papers that have to be read, between one day and the next. Whatever your views on individual politicians, most ministers work incredibly hard; long hours in the office and in Parliament, and then home with a box full of papers to look at overnight. I’ve seen official papers come back covered in curry (‘I didn’t get home until after 10 so I got a takeaway and ate while I was working’) and jammy handprints (‘I was doing the box at breakfast and the five-year old got hold of it, sorry’).
And of course, it also means that ‘The Box comes back’. Decisions – sometimes partially obscured by curry or jam – are typically handwritten across the papers, and private secretaries diligently decode their ministers’ handwriting and email out to the relevant officials in the wider department for them to be taken forward.
It’s a system which may seem a little old-fashioned, but it works. There’s evidence that people take in more information when they read on paper, rather than on screen (see for instance https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/) – so it makes sense to me that The Box should stay to help ministers make the best decisions they can.
They’re decisions that I won’t be as directly involved in, in the future. It is something I’m both sad about and relieved by – I will no longer be clock watching, wondering if I’ll make the box deadline or not, ruled by the tyranny of when a briefcase will leave the building - but nor will I have the undoubted privilege of helping ministers to make decisions which impact us all.
Goodbye to Whitehall - the gift traditionally given to
departing Private Secretaries, signed by the Ministers
you worked directly for. Mine - from earlier in my
career - includes the Rt Hon (now Lord) Alistair Darling
(I have adapted the Guardian's weekly Review section template for this short post,* making it refer just to History books and historical fiction.)
The history book I am currently reading
This is a bit of a cheat, as I've just finished it! It is odd for me to consider it as history, since I remember the scandal and the trial very well. But, like the rest of the country, I was gripped this summer by the TV series based on the book, with stellar acting by Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw, Alex Jennings, Adrian Scarborough and the whole ensemble. And of course the cation takes place in the '60s and '70s. So, taking the 25-30 years or one generation back, as a criterion for what makes history or historical fiction, this fits.
It was like reading a thriller. The closest parallel I can think of it All the President's Men by Woodward and Bernstein or, further back, An Officer and a Gentleman by Robert Harris. It has the same forensic level of detail, without losing a bit of the tension.
The history book I wish I'd written
I can't be the only one, surely, although I am aware some consider it a "Marmite" book. Some people had trouble with the pronouns; others with the apparent re-habilitation of Thomas Cromwell and the corresponding dip in that side of the scales carrying the reputation of Thomas More, still basking in the light of A Man for All Seasons. But I think the achievement of taking one of the most famous periods of English history and making something fresh and new of it is quite staggering. I have read it and Bring up the Bodies three times, and seen both the plays and te TV series twice. I don't think I shall ever tire of it. And of course there is no way I could have written it.
The history book that had the greatest influence on me
I first became interested in later Plantagenet history because of Michael Boyd's History Cycles at the RSC in Stratford and saw each production twice, the second time over a long weekend (very long - all eight plays from Thursday to Sunday). I acted a part in scenes from Henry Vl Part two when I was school and am old enough to have enjoyed John Barton's Wars of the Roses adaptation for televison. (Though we got the DVDs of that recently and they have not worn well).
But, much as I enjoyed Michael Boyd's use of The Courtyard theatre in Stratford and performances by Jonathan Slinger, Clive Wood, Katy Stephens and Maureen Beattie, I was confused by some of the action. Then I found this book by the late John Julius Norwich and all was made clear. It sets out what happens in each of plays and has an accompanying chapter on the historical facts for the same period. Sorted.
The history book I think is most overrated
I know, I know! You are going to hate me. Two of my best friends and everyone else in my book group and the whole Management Committee of the Society of Authors love this work of historical fiction.
But I found the heroine just so annoyingly passive. She does what everyone else wants her to. She has no agency. "But that's how things were for young women in that period," my friends protest. I don't buy it. The heroine very nearly commits bigamy out of sheer inertia.
The history book I think is most underrated.
Anything by Ann Swinfen. Ann's recent and sudden death was a terrible shock to us here on the History Girls. Her books had found their audience though she was not yet well known generally. The Testament of Mariam was the first book she self-published after her previous traditional publishers did not what to take it and the first book of hers she generously gave me.
Ann was a superb writer and I could not understand why she wasn't a household name. She was also very prolific, with several series on the go. I hope her work lives on, as it should.
My earliest history reading memory
I had a big sister seven years older than me, whose reading choices I would copy and whose books I would borrow. She loved Georgette Heyer's Regency romances and the first one I read was Devil's Cub, which is actually a sequel to These Old Shades, which I caught up with later.
As a young teenager I was madly in love with Dominic de Vidal and I suppose this cover serves me right. I read a coverless hardback, brown I think. I haven't returned to Heyer but I am always happy to discover how much other writers really enjoy her.
The history book I would give as a gift
Again, I read this very young and it is of course a novel. But it's what convinced a lot of people to believe that Richard lll was much maligned, a victim of Tudor propaganda. I don't believe that now. I am not a Ricardian myself, although very much a Yorkist. But it's a clever book and very engaging.
The history book I'd like to be remembered for
Well, until I manage to write my own Plantagenet trilogy!
This is the story of Ned Lamberty, an orphan who join's The King's Men at the beginning of the 17th century. He starts with women's roles, as a boy player but at the beginning of my novel his voice is breaking. He is seventeen, but puberty came later then and it's not outside the range of normal for 1610.
Ned is being driven mad by glimpses of a woman in green. Is she real? Is she just another boy player in costume? Or is she from another world?
Ned has a great reverence for "the Poet," the best maker of plays in the company, and discovers that Shakespeare has had his own experiences of the supernatural.
It's a version of the Tam Lin story and I was very pleased with it.
*Shorter than usual this month, as I had a bit of an accident in London, falling on a South Kensington pavement and cutting my face and sustaining other injuries. I've had to spend time dealing with the consequences
Some months are created to try us and my August was one of those months. Early on, I knew precisely what I was going to write for History Girls for September. I don’t remember what the topic was any more, but I remember being struck by its lucidity and clarity and logic. Then August struck.
One of the happenings that caused me to forget my absolutely superb plan for this post was a simple burglary. Over 1200 of my books were stolen. Much fiction, some reference, over a hundred cookbooks and several boxes of scholarly history are on the market somewhere, crying to the world to give them an equally loved home. This created such a neat metaphor for how we see the past and why historical fiction is such a wonderful thing.
It wasn’t the theft alone that created the metaphor. Let me be honest, the theft alone caused me the gnash my teeth and tear out my hair and to forget to eat on one day and to overeat the next. I settled myself down by (in between dealing with all the other events life through at me in August) looking at pictures.
Those pictures explain everything. Maybe. Let me talk about them.
Think of a marsh. No people. Constant currents pulling at the verges and constant changes to everything. A marsh is stable largely because of its instability. What we see of it is that microsecond only, and the next microsecond we might see something else and the next day, that glimpse we had of overgrown weed might have been dragged somewhere else and the bank it was next to may have crumbled entirely. Or not. Here, have a picture of a microsecond:
If we add people to the marsh, things change. A boat goes down the same path, time after time and so that path is more likely to remain and more likely to actually be upkept.
Someone sees a crumbling edge and forcibly restrains it. It lasts longer. You can look at it from a boat and say, “I know what this is.”That bit of the marsh has a story.
The next time you look off to the side on your boat trip, you add the presence of humans to what you see and you read that landscape differently.
Some people do more than reinforce banks or prevent crumble. Some people take that ground they’ve kept stable and build on it. That bit of the marsh has a story we can all understand.
If the marsh is the past, then historians and archaeologists and scientists are the one who make it possible for us to see it for more than the microsecond we move through it. They reinforce banks and make paths for boats and even build the boats.
Without historical fiction, though, a large percentage of those looking at the past will find tables of data or scholarly interpretation of important documents...but won't see much from them. For some of us, these things are boats through water and commentaries and we can see and understand. Others, however, understand and enjoy more when they’re shown a boat, ushered onto it, and told stories about the surroundings.
Even on the boat, there are different types of stories for different types of readers. Some like historical fiction that’s as close as it can be to the discoveries and interpretations made by historians. Others want invented names and life dreams given to the houses they can see from the boat.
The bottom line is that historians and historical fiction writers might act as if we are at odds, but in cultural terms, we work together. Our memories of the past aren’t wild marsh; they’re formed and contain stories.
Let me admit, it’s a bad metaphor. But it was a bad month. The pictures I took at the Hortillonages (marsh once, but an important part of the history of Amiens for so very long) will hopefully make up for it.
These days, unicorns are everywhere: furry unicorns, flashing unicorns, unicorns on t-shirts, unicorns on pants. My four-year-old daughter has even changed her middle name to ‘Unicorn’, having decided she didn’t much like Elizabeth.
Once, however, unicorns were extremely rare, and greatly feared.
A very fierce animal
In what is probably the first written account of the unicorn, Cestias of Cnidus, writing in 398 BC, described the beast as ‘exceedingly swift and powerful so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it.’
Pliny the Elder later spoke of ‘a very fierce animal’ which 'makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive.’
The beast's terrifying nature was confirmed in 4th century translations of the Bible which interpreted the word ‘re’em’ to mean unicorn: ‘God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.’ (Numbers 24:8)
This idea was still going strong in the 6th century, when Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant of Alexandria, reported: ‘it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound’.
Of course, as we all know, unicorns can in fact be captured. You just need to find a nearby virgin to throw before them. This idea came from the ancient Greek bestiary known as the Physiologus, in which a unicorn sees a maiden, lays its head on her lap and falls promptly asleep.
In the Middle Ages, the unicorn and virgin were used to portray Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary, the hunt for the unicorn becoming an allegory of the Passion. The unicorn and maiden also became emblems of courtly love and appear on many tapestries and paintings from the period. The unicorn was firmly established in European lore.
The one-horned beast was also a part of Eastern tradition as the kirin (Japan), or qilin (China), which was said to appear with the arrival or death of a sage or illustrious ruler.
The full history of the unicorn is tortuous and confused. As Chris Lavers says in The Natural History of the Unicorn, ‘Many have tried to track the unicorn’s progress, and a few have glimpsed madness along the way.’
The myth of the unicorn may have come from sightings of antelope or deer who had lost a horn, or been born with only one, or from sightings of the Indian rhinoceros or Arabian oryx.
Whatever the origin of the legend, it led to a mania for unicorn horns (alicorns), which, it was said, could be used to detect poison. Pieces of horn were turned into goblets, knife handles and amulets, while smaller pieces were used to test food and wine. Alicorns became the prized possessions of monarchs. Henry VIII had his filed down and used as an antidote for poison. Queen Elizabeth I kept hers with the crown jewels. Danish rulers were crowned on a throne said to be constructed entirely from unicorn horns, but which, disappointingly, is in fact made from narwhal tusks.
Ground alicorn was ascribed a wide range of medicinal properties and was used for treatment of rubella, measles, fevers, pains and leprosy. It was an aphrodisiac, it purified water, neutralised poisons, fought off the plague and could be used to test the virginity of young girls.
By 1600 the narwhal was known to be the real source of ‘unicorn’ horns. That, however, was far from being the end of fake unicorns.
In 1663, Otto Von Guericke claimed to have reconstructed the skeleton of a unicorn, found in Germany's Harz Mountains. Many were convinced of its authenticity, despite the fact that it had only two legs, and had actually been constructed from the fossil bones of a woolly rhinoceros, a mammoth, and of course a narwhal. False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, was still being sold in Europe as medicine as late as 1741.
In the 1930s, Dr. W. Franklin Dove, a University of Maine professor, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together to prove that unicorns could, at least in theory, exist.
Fifty years later, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told the world that a unicorn called Lancelot had ‘wandered up to a tent’ when the show arrived in Houston. They duly assigned him a caretaker, a dancer named Heather Harris, and took him on a unicorn tour. In fact, Lancelot was just a white goat whose horns had been fused together by his original owner, self-professed wizard Oberon Zell.
Still going strong
In recent years, pink glittery unicorns have proliferated, on TV programmes, pencil cases, birthday cards and dressing gowns. As Alice Fisher put it in the Guardian, ‘Unicorns no longer have to be lured from magical forests by pure maidens, you can buy one in two clicks off Asos.’
The real animal remains as elusive as ever, but there are those that still believe. In the past few years, people claim to have glimpsed unicorns in Canada, Korea and Caithness. Talk of a 'Unicorn Safari' in Scotland has so far come to nothing. I'm still holding out hope.
Back in June this year we visited a friend in Ireland and since he lives way up in Co. Donegal we broke the journey by staying a couple of nights in the Boyne Valley, home to some of the most impressive Neolithic monuments anywhere in the world. Brug na Boinne, also known as Newgrange, and its companion mounds of Knowth and Dowth are stupendous megalithic passage graves dating to around 3,300 BC and hundreds of years older than the earliest Egyptian pyramid.
We struck lucky in the B&B which we’d found in anxious flurry at the last minute after discovering the one we thought we’d chosen had double-booked. For it turned out to be a beautiful old house with lovely views next door to the great mound of Dowth: and I mean right next door – the mound towered up over the garden fence; we could go out before breakfast or last thing in the evening with Polly and walk around it and over it and have it completely to ourselves. Dowth, or Dubad, is not a tourist site like its companion tombs, Knowth and Newgrange. No shuttle buses visit it. There’s a huge crater in the centre, the result of the local landlord blasting a hole in it with dynamite sometime in the 19th century. If he hoped to find treasure, he was disappointed. But the mound was so massive and so well built that even the explosion did not damage either of the two passage graves deep within. Here's one of the two entrances, with Polly nosing around to give it scale: in the foreground is one of the huge carved sill-stones which rim the perimeter of the mound. This one is carved in spirals.
Another view of the sill-stone:
You can't go in; there's a locked iron gate. I tried to take a picture through it, and maybe you can just make out the passage running back into the mound towards the inner chamber.
We walked over and all around the mound. One of the great kerb-stones is carved with seven suns; the picture I took didn't come out too well, but there's a lovely Youtube timelapse of it taken during a winter sunrise by Anthony Murphy of the blog Mythical Ireland:
And of course there’s a legend about the place. The story goes like this. In the time of a king whose name was Bressal Bó-dibad a plague struck all the cattle of Ireland till there were only eight left, a bull and seven cows. (The second part of the king’s name means ‘lacking in cattle.) So Bressal Bó-dibad decided to build a tower ‘like the Tower of Nimrod’, so that he could pass into heaven. (What he intended to do there is unclear; perhaps challenge God to restore his cattle?) Men from all over Ireland came to help him build the tower - the mound – but only if the work could be completed in a single day. So the king’s sister “told him that she would stay the sun's course in the vault of heaven, so that they might have an endless day to accomplish their task”. She worked her magic and the sun halted in mid sky, as it did for Aaron and Moses. But Bressal Bó-dibad followed his sister and committed incest with her (the suggestion is that he forced her); her spell was undone, darkness fell and the men of Ireland abandoned their work. Then the king’s sister said: 'Dubad (darkness) shall be the name of this place for ever.' If that doesn’t give you a shiver, I don’t know what will. And then to find the stone with the seven suns, half buried in the grasses… well...
I think I can safely say, without any scientific back-up, that as long as people have had heads, they have had headaches. Not to mention headache cures.
1890s advertisement for Bromo-Seltzer,
demonstrating just how you good you'll feel
after it cures your headache
For example, in the 10th century, Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal recommended tying a dead mole to your head. In the 12th century, Cordobian physician Moses Maimonides advised sufferers to immerse themselves in a warm, sweet bath, using honey for preference. In 1608,A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen suggested making a paste of house leek and "stamped" earthworms, and applying it to the temples.
The Head ache by George Cruickshank 1819
Electric eels, willow bark, rose oil, hot irons, wearing a clay crocodile on your head (an Egyptian remedy from around 1500 BCE), trepanation, feverfew tea, opium and vinegar solutions, the St Denis method*, a kiss**, patience*** - all have been proposed and practised, with varying degrees of success. History Girls have arcane expertise spanning the centuries. What headache remedies have you come across in your research rambles? And have you ever tried them???
*detail from west facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral
of St Denis
(Wiki Loves Monuments)
**The Headache by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) My head doth ache, O Sappho! take Thy fillet, And bind the pain, Or bring some bane To kill it. But less that part Than my poor heart Now is sick; One kiss from thee Will counsel be And physic. ***If you can live up to around bus pass age, there's a reasonable chance they'll just go away of their own accord. At least that's what happened to me. Joan Lennon's website. Joan Lennon's blog. Walking Mountain.
Last month my family celebrated two big birthdays. On 11 August I took my parents out to dinner on what would have been my granny’s hundredth birthday. She died in 1997 but a centenary seemed momentous and one of the things my mother and I have both inherited from her is the love of getting dressed up for a ‘wee race out’.
Granny at 50
I’ve been so busy this year thinking of 1918 as the centenary of women’s suffrage, the end of WW1 and the Spanish Flu, that I hadn’t really thought about its being Granny’s centenary too, and it was good to stop and reflect on it, and on what it meant to be born in that year, in that place. Granny (Elizabeth Rea Pleasants, née Hamilton, always known as Rea) was born and lived her whole life in Downpatrick, the county town of Down, where St Patrick is buried. When she was three, Ireland was partitioned and Down became part of the new Northern Ireland. She came of age as the Second World War broke out, and when she was 51, she saw Northern Ireland plunge into its own bloody war. She never let go of calling the Republican of Ireland the Free State, but in other ways she was the most modern of women.
Like my other gran, Gran W, Granny P. lived through a great deal of history. Sometimes I wished I’d asked her more about it. But she was so busy, always rushing about. She lived in the moment, not the past. She had neither the time nor the patience to sit down and talk to a small girl about the olden days. But she took me to mass and to bingo. She slipped me embarrassingly generous amounts of money when she had it, which was not always because she was ridiculously generous to many people. The first pound note I ever held in my hand was a ninth birthday present from Granny P.
Downpatrick, 1920s, shortly after partition
1980, I'm 12; she's 62
She sang in the local operatic society and passed on to me her good, strong voice. Mummy remembers always being mortified that her own mummy sang so loudly at mass. After Vatican II she became the first woman lay reader in her local church. In the early 60s she adopted three children, two of them mixed race, an unusual undertaking in a small Northern Irish town. Whereas Gran W was a good plain traditional cook, and much given to baking, sewing, knitting and housekeeping, Granny P experimented with spaghetti and curry as far back as the fifties, but often my quiet granda did the cooking, as Granny was off to a whist drive. Gran W wore a frock and an overall, Granny P wore lipstick and trousers and a fake fur, and kept her hair jet back until well into old age.
I was born in 1968, the third of seventeen grandchildren. So yes, that’s the other big birthday we’ve been celebrating. I compare my granny at 50 to me, and my life to hers. At 50 she was very much the matriarch, whereas I’m single and childfree. Granny was bright, talented, and independent-spirited, but growing up in the twenties and thirties as a young Catholic girl in Northern Ireland, her expectations were marriage, church and family. She was very active in those areas, marrying at 21, but she also found time to work outside the house. She was in the Fire Service during the war, and even left home to work as a children’s nanny as a widow in her late sixties. She wouldn’t have had any thoughts of higher education but when I went off to university in 1987 she handed me £50, more money than I'd ever had in my life, and typical of her generosity.
Me at 50 -- not so different from Granny P after all
She was very much of her time, and yet stood against it. When I do anything especially outré my mother will say, Granny the second! I always take it as a compliment.
Mention Sissinghurst to anyone remotely interested in gardening and the name Vita Sackville-West will come to mind. Visitors admiring the White Garden, the Nuttery, the Lime Walk and other famous Sissinghurst features may not realise, though, how much this world-renowned garden owes to two other significant plantswomen, Sibylle Kreutzberger and Pamela Schwerdt, joint head gardeners there from 1959 to 1990.
The pair became friends while training at Waterperry Horticultural School in Oxfordshire towards the end of the war, under the tutorship of another notable woman gardener, Beatrix Havergal, who was principal there. Having done some gardening work at her boarding school, Sibylle had been thinking of enrolling for a horticultural diploma at Studley when a family friend enthused about Miss Havergal. Waterperry was not at that time open to the public, but Beatrix Havergal occasionally gave demonstrations on topics such as pruning and how to make the best of a kitchen garden. For Sibylle, one of the attractions was that the clothes list for the course included two pairs of gumboots and a mackintosh - not a cap and gown, as at Studley: “It sounded like my kind of place.”
Beatrix Havergal at Waterperry, photographed by Cecil Beaton
In the late forties, with rationing still in force, growing fruit and vegetables at home was still important and the emphasis at Waterperry was on practicalities and produce, students there learning mainly through experience. Fruit and vegetables, as well as feeding the residents, were sold weekly at Oxford’s Covered Market. Fruit bushes and trees were sold in their thousands, packaged in straw and sent by road and rail. After completing her diploma, Sibylle stayed on, by request, for another eighteen months in the small scale vegetable department. After briefly working at Reading University in the Agricultural Botany department and then at an alpine nursery, she returned to Waterperry to do some lecturing to students and to run the Herbaceous Nursery.
By 1959, she and Pamela Schwerdt, who had stayed on as teacher during Sibylle's absence, were planning a project together. Feeling that life at Waterperry was “like being at school forever”, they aimed to establish their own nursery, but with no money or land their first challenge was to find a suitable and affordable site. They placed an advertisement in The Times personal column, asking if anyone might lease or lend them a plot of two acres or so. At the same time Pam wrote to Vita Sackville-West, who was at that time the Observer’s gardening correspondent. Vita replied suggesting that they try Wye College, in Kent, also mentioning that she needed a head gardener for Sissinghurst. Pam said firmly that there were two of them, and Vita invited them to visit.
Vita Sackville-West, painted in 1918 by William Strang
As it wasn’t what they were looking for, Pam and Sibylle didn’t immediately jump at the chance; in fact Sibylle says now that she wasn’t sure who was interviewing who. But replies to their Times advertisement hadn’t produced any suitable offers, and they decided to accept. Vita, Sibylle says, was ‘rather tickled’ by the idea of employing two young women at a time when female gardeners were rare. Sibylle recalls that in those early days visitors would stare at them in astonishment.
They lived on site in a cottage opposite the oasthouses and worked immensely long hours, returning to the garden or to paperwork after their evening meal. The garden was labour-intensive, on heavy Wealden clay where all the digging and cultivation was done by hand; there were no machines other than mowers. Later, these were supplemented by a small tractor, electric sprayers and hedge-cutters. The appointment of Pam and Sibylle brought the number of gardeners up to six; as time went by these were generally college-trained, and among those beginning their careers at Sissinghurst were several who went on to become head gardeners at National Trust properties.
Sibylle at work
Pam and Sibylle rarely took days off, their weekends being taken up with glasshouse duties and displaying plants for sale outside the gate. For this they used a yellow cart painted with pictures of Sissinghurst, formerly pulled by the resident donkey, Abdul. Fish boxes, painted yellow to match the cart, were used as staging for a pyramid of plants arranged to tempt visitors.
At the time they took up their employment, Vita Sackville-West (known to Sibylle and Pam as Lady Nicholson) was 67, and in variable health. She was often in the tower room she used for writing: “even the family weren’t allowed in there.” Thursdays would be “Observer day”, when she would shut herself away to write her gardening column. It’s rather unfair, Sibylle considers, that Vita generally receives sole credit for Sissinghurst. In the early days her husband Harold was fully involved with the planning; though at home only at weekends he attended RHS shows in London, bought plants and contributed ideas. He and Vita wrote letters to each other every day to discuss progress and planting.
The garden had already been open to the public for twenty years, but in a low-key way – from dawn to dusk, visitors could put their shilling in an honesty box. Vita’s style of gardening was romantic and blowsy but not aimed at providing interest throughout the season, and like many gardens Sissinghurst’s main period of flowering was in late spring and early summer, with not much of interest after July. Among the changes made by Pam and Sibylle was the extension of interest well into late summer and autumn, through the use of later-flowering perennials not hardy in this country but treated here as annuals and biennials: diascias, argyranthemum, penstemons and tender salvias. Besides that, the ever-increasing numbers of visitors – especially after Vita’s death and the taking over of the garden by National Trust – imposed its own pressures. Paths were subject to heavy wear and lawns damaged by tramping feet. Measures taken included the placing of prickly plants at the junctions of paths, to deter visitors from cutting corners and walking on the beds.
But Sibylle and Pam were doing far more than simply maintaining the work done by Vita. Their dedication, flair and skill were rewarded by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1980 when they were made Associates of Honour, and in 2006 they were given the society's highest honour, the Victoria Medal. “I can’t think what we did to deserve it,” Sibylle says now. Others disagree. The designer, plantsman and writer Dan Pearson is among those who give them a large part of the credit for Sissinghurst’s enduring status as an iconic garden:
“When the National Trust took over in 1967, five years after Vita’s death, an inevitable tightening up eventually saw the garden reach extraordinary horticultural heights in the hands of Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger who worked with Vita from 1959 until she died, but went on to make the garden their own during their 30 year tenure as joint head gardeners. Pam and Sibylle’s prowess with plants was a large part of what brought visitors to Sissinghurst in their droves in the 1970’s and ’80’s, securing its place as one of the most influential gardens in the world.” (Dig Delve, Dan Pearson’s weekly blog.)
Sibylle (left) and Pam in their own Gloucestershire garden
In 1990 Pam and Sibylle left Sissinghurst to buy a home and make a garden of their own, settling near Stow-on-the-Wold in a new wing of a 17th century farmhouse with a three-quarter acre plot that had been a field. Pam died in 2009, and the house and garden were sold to appreciative new owners who welcome visitors under the National Gardens Scheme. Still fit and active at 87, Sibylle now lives in an Oxfordshire retirement village where most of the residents are unaware of her achievements and the high regard in which she’s held in the gardening world. They may, however, see her wielding a spade and fork in the community plot where she grows flowers and herbs.
The current head gardener at Sissinghurst, Troy Scott-Smith, has embarked with the National Trust – and Dan Pearson as consultant - on a project to revitalize (or reVita-lise) the garden from its present formality to something more like Vita’s vision. It is, Dan Pearson writes, “a means of recapturing the potent sense of place that Vita Sackville-West celebrated in her writing … a garden inextricably linked to the buildings it surrounded and, in turn, the Kentish farmland and countryside that swept up to its walls.” Sibylle was invited to an initial meeting, and as she’s the only person to have worked directly with Vita Sackville-West her contribution must have been invaluable.
When I asked Sibylle what had been most satisfying about her work at Sissinghurst, I expected her to refer to a particularly impressive planting or the opportunity to make her mark on a world-famous garden. Her reply was far simpler:
“I like being outside by myself. And I like digging.”
One of the unexpected consequences of the summer’s heatwave this year was the huge reduction in Lapland’s mosquito population. A great relief for humans, since their mosquitoes have a reputation of being some of the most numerous and vicious in the world, but not so good for the birds, amphibians, fish and dragonflies which depend upon them.
But the heatwave seemed to have the reverse effect in England, because sitting with my office door open to try to get some relief from the heat, I was bitten numerous times by gnats and mosquitoes breeding in the water-butts and pond outside.
The news about Lapland reminded me of an old folktale I heard as a child which involved mosquitoes. Throughout Medieval Europe, Lapland was both admired for having the most skillful silversmiths and feared for having the most dangerous warlocks or sorcerers. The story goes that a Lapland sorcerer had the ambition of marrying his son to the daughter of one of the great kings of Europe. But his son, a peaceful herder, wanted to wed an ordinary girl who could do practical things like milk the reindeer. The sorcerer refused to listen. He changed himself into an owl, flew over the sea and abducted the beautiful princess, but she indignantly refused to consent to the marriage. So, he starved her to force her into submission. But the boy thwarted his father by smuggling reindeer milk to the princess.
Lapland Owl, also known as the Great Grey Owl or
the Spectral Owl.
Photo: Steve Wilson
Discovering she was still defiant, the sorcerer imprisoned the princess in a cave, but before sealing the entrance, he let in a great swarm of Lapland mosquitoes, thinking that after she'd been tormented by hundreds of bites she would soon become biddable. But the boy managed to smuggle some turpentine to the princess. She rubbed it on her skin and it prevented the mosquitoes from biting her, so she emerged, unscathed, to face the sorcerer’s third and most deadly ordeal.
Thinking about this tale, reminded me that while we are very aware of the insects that bred in medieval homes such as moths, weevils, lice and fleas, we sometimes overlook the mosquito problem. The numerous open sewers and puddles of stagnant water lying in city streets, the many ponds, ditches and undrained marshlands in the country were ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which must have driven people mad in the summer months. Of course, there were many more natural predators around then. Ponds were usually well stocked with fish that fed on the larvae, and birds and dragonflies devoured the adults. There were also several periods of cold, wet summers which limited insect numbers, but there were also years of hot weather too.
Culex Mosquito female
Photo: Alan R. Walker
And right up until the 19th century, mosquitoes in England and Europe didn’t merely cause annoyance with their itchy bites, the marshlands were rife with malaria, known variously as the Ague, Marsh Fever or by Shakespeare’s time ‘quotidian tertian’, a fever which recurs in a cycle, which caused poor old Falstaff to shake and burn in Henry V. The links between mosquitoes and malaria were not understood until the 1880’s and in the Middle Ages and Tudor periods, the fever was generally ascribed to either drinking foul water or more commonly, breathing the bad air from cesspits or the miasmas of the marshes. Many people living in the marshlands in Norfolk and Suffolk became addicted to the juice and seeds of the white marsh poppy, which they used to try to alleviate the symptoms.
1905 illustration from a book of American Folktales
But even though they did not fully realise the danger, imagine squatting over a hole above a cesspit or ditch in which clouds of mosquitoes were swarming, looking for a nice bare rump to bore into. So, what could they do? The strewing herbs on the floors and bunches of herbs hung in windows would have helped to ward off some. Rubbing the skin with ransoms (wild garlic) and salves made from pine resin was said to stop the creatures biting. Stringing horse hair across windows and beds was supposed to discourage them, though it isn’t entirely clear whether this created a physical barrier or it was ‘magical’ power of the horsehair itself, which was often woven into protective amulets. Hanging pots or sponges filled with sharp vinegar over your head and feet in bed was said to keep the insects at bay, and you could also use vinegar infused with herbs such as lavender, rosemary, rue, mint and wormwood. These herbs were often planted near windows and doors to act as mosquito deterrents and when dried, were burned on hearth fires or braziers to drive them away.
1646, Apothecary smoking his pipe
Artist: Adriaen van Ostade
The fact that cottages would have been constantly ‘fumigated’ by the smoke from cooking fires and tallow candles would have helped to deter mosquitoes from entering. In this respect, poorer people probably had the advantage. Being forced to burn bones, animal dung, and greener wood on open fires which produced a lot of smoke and stink, probably served them better in warding off insects than the wealthier people who could afford to burn dry seasoned wood and had chimneys to draw the smoke away. But once strong tobacco began to be imported, people swiftly discovered that smoking a pipeful was a good way of protecting themselves from gnats and mosquitoes. One of reasons, it became so popular.
As for me, next summer, I might be resorting to the good old turpentine. Unless you have a favourite deterrent?
The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened to the public in 2014. It is impressive on many levels but what interests me most is a quote from Virgil on the wall of the Memorial Hall, deep underground: No day shall erase you from the memory of time. The capital letters of the quote are just over a foot tall, forged from steel recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Centre. The quote is surrounded by 2983 squares of paper, one for each life lost, in shades of blue ‘trying to remember the colour of the sky on that September morning’. When the memorial first opened there was some controversy about the use of the quote based on its original context. So when did Virgil say No day shall erase you from the memory of time?
He didn’t actually say it in a speech, like a Caesar or a Cicero. He wrote it down in a poem, his great epic poem: the Aeneid. And yet in a way he did say it. Here are the two verses from which the 9/11 quote was pulled: Fortunati ambo! writes Virgil, si quid mea carmina possunt, nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo... Literally: ‘Lucky pair! If my verses have any power, no day ever shall remove you (plural) from the memory of time.’ Aeneid IX.446-7
Modern bust of Virgil at his tomb in Naples
These words are not put into the mouth of a character in the poem, they are the words of the poet himself. This is one of the few places where Virgil steps out of the story, as it were, to utter this prayer: if my poem lasts, so will the memory of what you did. So who are the lucky pair? And what did they do? The short answer is that they are two teenage refugees from a war torn city who die in a failed raid against the inhabitants of the land they hope to settle. For the longer answer, we have to go back to the sack of Troy. Remember the story of the Trojan Horse?
How it wasn’t really a Trojan Horse but a Greek Horse, full of soldiers?
How they sneakily smuggled themselves into the city they had been besieging for ten years?
How the Greeks dropped out of the giant horse’s wooden belly in the middle of the night and set about burning Troy and killing everyone in it?
Well, the Greeks didn't kill quite everyone. Aeneas was a hero who had fought in the Trojan war escaped with his aged father and young son.
Trautmann 'Burning of Troy' 1759
Once safely outside the town walls, Aeneas hides on the slopes of Mount Ida among the trees of a sacred grove. Over the next few days and even weeks he receives a steady trickle of refugees from the sacked city, many of them probably traumatised orphans. Aeneas is conscientious, responsible and also reputedly the son of a goddess (Venus). So he soon became their natural leader.
For various reasons, Aeneas decides to seek a new place to live rather than rebuild the old one. So he cuts down the trees of the sacred grove, uses the wood to make a dozen ships and sets off in search of his ‘New Troy’.
'Where Aeneas Disembarked' restaurant in Ostia
For seven years Aeneas and his twelve boatloads of refugees sail the Mediterranean. The children grow up. The older refugees die and are buried on strange soil. This is the fate of Aeneas's father. Aeneas’s young son Ascanius, probably about seven when they fled Troy is fourteen when they finally find the place to build their new city: on the banks of the River Tiber in Italy, eight hundred miles west of Troy.
Virgil famously modelled the first six books of the Aeneid (the sea voyage) on the Odyssey and the last six (land battles) on the the Iliad.
When Aeneas sails up the river Tiber, it seems to him that there is enough space for them to settle. One of the local kings is even happy to marry his daughter to the Trojan. But other Latin tribes are unhappy, especially the Rutulians, whose leader Turnus was engaged to the princess now promised to Aeneas.
The Rutulians threaten to attack
The refugee Trojans hear rumours that Turnus is planning to attack them, so they build a wooden fort on the banks of the Tiber. When Aeneas hears that Turnus is on his way, he leaves his fourteen-year-old son Ascanius in charge and goes off with a couple of scouts to seek additional forces from an Etruscan a few miles upstream. No sooner has Aeneas is gone, than Turnus arrives with many allied troops. The Trojans retreat to the safety of the fort and although Turnus calls them cowards, they refuse to come out and fight. But the fort on the banks of the Tiber is wood, not stone, and Turnus threatens to burn it down in the morning. He wants to force them to come out and be slaughtered. Having burned the Trojan ships so that they can’t escape by river, Turnus and his troops surround the fort and settle in for the night. They celebrate their anticipated victory with food, wine and dicing.
Euryalus and Nisus
Meanwhile in the fort, Ascanius assigns guards to patrol the ramparts and watch for a night attack. At midnight guards are changed and two youths come up together. Their names are Nisus and Euryalus. Virgil's description hints that Euryalus is about Ascanius’s age, fourteen, and Nisus is about seventeen or eighteen. They may be lovers or just good friends, but they are devoted to each other. In my retelling of their story in The Night Raid, a book for teens, I have them meeting during the sack of Troy when Nisus is seven and Euryalus ten or eleven. I try to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the two boys to flee the burning city.
Now, seven years later, they are once again besieged with a threat of burning and destruction. As the two friends pace the lofty ramparts of the wooden fort and look down on the sleeping enemy, the older boy has an idea. If just one of them could creep unseen through the sleeping enemy troops, he might reach Aeneas and bring back reinforcements before dawn, thereby saving his comrades and winning glory for himself. Euryalus won’t hear of Nisus going on his own; they will go together. They have hunted together in the woods and think they know the way. This is something they feel they can do.
They take their proposal to young Ascanius who is standing by a campfire with some of the older Trojan leaders, worrying about what to do. They eagerly agree to Nisus’s plan and promise the two friends great rewards if they succeed. Without offering sacrifice or taking the omens, they almost push the two friends outside the fort. Nisus and Euryalus go down into a ditch and when they come up they are among the sleeping enemy soldiers.
At first all goes well as they sneak through the snoring enemy. Then they discover how easy it is to kill drunken and sleeping enemy soldiers. Soon they forget the urgency of their mission and start to loot as well as kill. Euryalus, the younger boy, takes a shiny helmet and puts it on. This is their fatal mistake. A band of enemy allies have just arrived on horseback to join Turnus. They see the moonlight flashing on the bright metal of the helmet and chase the youths into the dark and tangled woods. Confused by the limited visibility and unaccustomed weight of the helmet, Euryalus stumbles into the open and is surrounded by the enemy.
Nisus has been hiding in the woods, but when he sees his young friend surrounded by enemy troops, he runs out of the woods crying ‘Me, me! Kill me instead!’ But Euryalus is already mortally wounded. He falls like a white poppy beaten down by rain. Instead of turning around and running for safety, Nisus makes a suicidal rush into the heavily armed soldiers. Pierced by several swords, he falls dying on top of his friend to protect his body from mutilation.
This is when Virgil steps out of the poem to state that the two will never be forgotten if his verses have any power.
The quote shows one thing common to humans in the past two thousand years: the desire not to be forgotten. And more than that: the desire to be well-thought of. This is true not just of the warrior and his victim but of the artists who help us remember.
You can read the original Latin HERE. It starts at line 175 and our quote is at line 447. You can read the English poet Dryden’s translation HERE. You can read what various scholars have said about the controversy HERE. And you can read my version of the story in The Night Raid.
Every novelist has her own personal history, her cast of characters that stretch way back into her writing past. Laurie Graham, a former History Girl, never dreamed of writing sequels to her two early novels, Perfect Meringues and The Future Homemakers of America. She thought that those characters were in their graves: gone, but fondly remembered.
But in recent years, she’s been asked to pick up the stories of Lizzie Partridge the 1990s TV chef from Perfect Meringues and Peggy Dewey the 1950s Airforce wife in Homemakers. In each case she’s moved the characters on twenty years from their last appearance.
Writing this way raises particular problems, not least that Laurie hadn’t thought to future-proof Lizzy and Peggy. She was left with a desire to go back and rewrite the originals, to make better starting points for sequels. But it can’t be done. What’s published is published.
Another problem is being forced to re-read old work …
I have had the pleasure of interviewing Laurie about the art of revivifying old characters …
How does it feel to reread your old novels?
Initially it was so painful that I kept putting it off for tomorrow. I had to force myself to sit down and do it and indeed I was horrified by some of what I read. I couldn’t believe that my old editors had let certain things go through. But there was a good side to revisiting old material: I discovered that I’m a better writer now than I was twenty years ago.
In what way?
I am more ruthless. I can now see in my early books instances of self-indulgence and sloppiness. With occasional downpours of clichés!
But all writers are desperately self-critical, aren’t they?
Not all, I fear. But we should be. Of course it’s a perennial tussle between having the confidence of your convictions while writing with the dreck-detector switched on.
I know that where twenty years ago it might have broken my heart to cut things that really needed to go, now I don’t hesitate. If the voice in my head says ‘really, Laurie? Sure about that, are you?,’ it goes, immediately. Stuff can always be retrieved from the cutting-room floor but funnily enough, it never is.
So the new Lizzy Partridge book is just out. It’s called Anyone for Seconds?, which is a double pun, in that it is a second helping of an earlier novel’s protagonist?
Yes. And I very much hope that no reviewer is going to say ‘No, thank you. We’ve had our fill of that.’
Tell us about the original Lizzie – and the new one.
Laurie in 1998
What has been interesting for me is that when I created Lizzy I was going through a very difficult period of my life: divorce, single parenthood, penury. Quite coincidentally (or was it?), when reviving her, I was going through another difficult period: grief, loss, penury again. So Lizzie has been a sort of mouthpiece for me, the most autobiographical of my protagonists. In Perfect Meringues she was in her forties and the single parent of a stroppy teenager. In Anyone for Seconds she’s a grandmother, though not of the knitting and baking variety. She was sharp and funny then but she’s sharper and funnier now, having reached the golden years of not giving a pig’s patootie.
In Perfect Meringues she was a daytime TV cook who loses her slot to a one-recipe wonder who’s sleeping with the show’s editor. Lizzie bows out in the glorious blaze of an on-air food fight. When I dramatized the book for Radio 4 I had the great pleasure of scripting the fight for Imelda Staunton who played Lizzie and Lesley Joseph who played her nemesis, TV anchor Kim.
I was an enthusiastic cook myself in the 1990s so I enjoyed dreaming up menus for Lizzie. Wind on two decades and Lizzie, like me, rarely cooks. She’ll dine, as I have been known to do, on a slice toast eaten leaning over the sink. And her grungy, eye-rolling teenage daughter, has grown up, scrubbed up and become a career woman and a helicopter parent to her own son. Drawn from life? I name no names. Anyone for Seconds? is a work of fiction.
How did you work on this technically?
Having forced myself to sit at the kitchen table to read the first book, I was relieved to find that it wasn’t so very bad. It actually made me laugh a couple of times, which was encouraging. Most important of all, I still liked Lizzie and her entourage. I was happy at the prospect of spending another year in their company.
On that first reading, I foolishly didn’t make notes so during the writing of the sequel I had to keep going back to the old text. If only novels had indices.
My usual process with a novel is to wait for a voice but in this instance I already had the voice. What I needed to do next was a cull of characters. Who should reappear, who was for the chop? Lizzie’s mother, Muriel, now approaching 90, was a likely candidate for an early exit, but I found I couldn’t dispense with her. Muriel, just like my own dear departed Mum, is so key to understanding what drives Lizzie. So Muriel was spared and the guillotine fell elsewhere.
There’s always the question of a love interest. Lizzie had a happy romantic ending in Perfect Meringues, as did my own life about the time I was finishing writing the book. But ‘happy ever after’ often turns out to be ‘happy for the time being.’
I decided that should be Lizzie’s lot. Alone again, wiser, more resilient and, no longer actively looking for love as she was in her forties, she is, strange to relate, more likely to find it.
What are the main differences in society in the 20 years between the two books?
Only two decades and yet the world is hardly recognisable. When I wrote Perfect Meringues, I didn’t own a mobile phone. I just about had a computer, a beast which took up half of my small study. In the sequel, though Lizzie is way behind the technological curve even she has a mobile phone.
From the point of view of Lizzie’s character, political correctness is the most significant change in the world she inhabits. She, like me, finds it oppressive and at times risible, and she resists having her thoughts and speech policed by her vigilant daughter, Ellie. Each of them is a creature of their time. Ellie, born in the 1970s is as baffled by post-war baby Lizzie as Lizzie is by her own mother, born in the 1920s.
What was the hardest thing about reviving Lizzie?
This may sound odd but I think the thing that caused me most concern was how a sequel would be received. I didn’t want my readers to think I’d run out of new ideas. On the contrary, I still have plenty of ideas. Sadly my publishers haven’t been as enamoured of them as I am so they must lie dormant for the time being. I just didn’t want people to think I was scraping the authorial barrel. Let’s rather call it a bit of perfectly legitimate grave-robbing.
Michelle Lovric website at left, The Horrors of the London burial grounds, being a correct account of the horrible disclosures made by gravediggers : with the manner of cutting up dead bodies, and other horrible transactions, 1840, courtesy of Wellcome Images
I had my DNA done (by Living DNA), which neatly matched what I already knew about my ancestry from all the Ancestry.com family trees and my own research. In a nutshell, this is me:
The Scandinavian/Finnish bit comes from my Swedish-Finnish Great-Grandfather. The rest roughly matches the English/Scottish background of my ancestors. What was most interesting to me was the more than a quarter of my DNA that comes from the mysterious part of Yorkshire that was the ancient kingdom of Elmet. Only one of my grandparents - my mother's father - was born in England. Although his birthplace was Liverpool, both of his parents came from Almondbury near Huddersfield and his Eastwood/Wilkinson forebears seem to have lived in the Almondbury area ad infinitum. Almondbury is now a suburb of Huddersfield, but when my ancestors lived there it was a village. Here are some photos of Almondbury I took yesterday.
I had assumed the Yorkshire part of my genetic makeup would mean I had Anglo-Saxon or Viking DNA, because that's what we now associate with Yorkshire: Viking York (Yorvik) and Anglian Northumberland and Mercia. However, it seems I hail from a much older people, the original Celtic Britons.
South Yorkshire is sometimes jokingly referred to as "The People's Republic of South Yorkshire". It has form, as many large Chartist meetings were held on hilltops across the South and West Pennine moors, and there were bitter protests during the Thatcher years. They're a bolshie group in that part of the world, and proud of it. Now I understand why that's so and I'm really happy to share their DNA.
To quote my DNA report:
"The formation of South and West Yorkshire as a distinct genetic and cultural region has its roots in perhaps the most mysterious part of Britain’s history. As the Romans withdrew roughly 1500 years ago, the island was undergoing a great cultural and demographic shift. Waves of migration from Northern Europe saw Angles, Saxons, and Jutes setting up vast and powerful kingdoms, both displacing and integrating with the indigenous Britons. In certain areas, this transition happened quickly with little evidence of warfare, but some post-Roman rulers resisted.
The Kingdom of Elmet held out in England longer than most others, a buffer state in southern Yorkshire surrounded by expansive Anglian kingdoms. Though eventually it fell, remarkable evidence from the first fine scale genetic map of Britain shows that the ancient kingdom’s legacy is still felt today as a unique genetic signature can be found in an area almost perfectly matching its probable geopolitical boundaries." (my emphasis)
Living DNA refers to the portion of Yorkshire in red below as "South Yorkshire".
This is not entirely the area currently known as South Yorkshire, rather it lies within the old West Riding.
Basically, a quarter of my DNA comes from the people who made up this ancient kingdom of Elmet, which was an independent Celtic kingdom that existed between about the fifth century and early seventh century AD and was the last stronghold of the Britons to fall to the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century.
The boundaries of Elmet appear to have followed a rough line along the River Wharfe in the north-east, incorporating Ilkley to Tadcaster, and the River Don incorporating Doncaster and Sheffield in the south, up the side of the Peak District and taking in Sowerby Bridge Hallifax and Keighley. The capital of Elmet seems to have been in or near to what is now Leeds, then Loidis. The name Elmet comes from that of the elm-tree, because it was located in a great forest of elm-trees.
It was known variously as Elmet, Elmed or Elfed, and the name may refer to its extensive forests of elms. The early chroniclers called it Elmete Saetan or "the dwelling place of the people of Elmete".
The people of Elmet were originally a part of the powerful Celtic tribe of Brigantes. In 155 AD the Brigantes revolted against Roman rule and burned down the Roman fort at Ilkley (Olicana). They were soon defeated.
Apparently the local Celtic British tribes centred around Leeds (Loidis) thought it wiser to be associated with the powerful Romans, who ound it convenient to rule through alliances with local chiefs. They separated from the Brigantes to form themselves into the separate kingdom of Elmet. They then forged an alliance with the Romans.
After the evacuation of the Roman Legions from Britain, around 407-410 AD, Elmet came into prominence as a Christian bulwark against the invading Anglo-Saxon pagans. And there is often an association of Elmet with the origins of Arthurian legends which speak of a warrior who led a band of heroic warriors to spearhead the resistance of Britons against the invading Saxons, Jutes, and others from the north of Europe, sometime in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
It seems that Elmet had associations with the Welsh Celtic tribes. A two-line Latin inscription on an early Christian burial stone dating from the late fifth or sixth century was unearthed in a field known locally as the Gardd-y-Saint (the Garden of the Saints)near Llanaelhaearn church (about six miles north of Pwllheli) in north-west Wales.
The stone has been set into the wall of the church and it reads: 'ALIORTUS ELMETIACO HIC IACET', which means that "Aliortus, the man of Elmet" is buried there. (My husband's mother's maiden name was Allott and his mother came from Yorkshire. Perhaps Aliortus was an ancestor!)
Then came the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. In the sixth century, those Angles who were occupying territory to the east of Elmet (the East Riding) founded the kingdom of Deira, those to the north founded Bernicia, whilst the Angles of Mercia began to take over land to the south and in the Midlands. Elmet became a frontier land, ringed by the invaders.
One of my favourite TV shows in the 1970s was Arthur of the Britons. It now seems that the real Arthur may have been from Elmet.
This view is supported by an Historian, Adrian Grant, who claims that Arthur was the son of Masgwid Gloff, a 5th-Century king who ruled over the kingdom of Elmet. He claims that Arthur was born in around 475AD in Barwick-in-Elmet.
According to Grant, Arthur’s real name was Arthwys ap Masgwid (Arthur son of Masgwid), and he was the son of the king of Elmet, Masgwid Gloff and and his wife, Gwenllian V Bryche.
At the age of 15, says Grant, Arthur was chosen by the chiefs of the 'Hen Ogled' or 'Old North' - the kingdoms of northern England - as their Pendragon, or Commander-in- Chief and fought battles against the Scots, Picts and (probably) Saxons.
For a period Elmet was sufficiently powerful to withstand Anglian pressure, whether from Deira, Bernicia or Mercia. The poet Taliesin wrote of Guallauc, a ruler of Elmet as "a skilled warrior," beloved of his followers.
Sadly, Elmet couldn't hold out forever against the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The kingdom's downfall began in 590 when its king, Gwallog, was killed during a war against the Angles of Bernicia.
Worse was to come for Elmet when in 616, Edwin, the king of Bernicia, merged his kingdom with its southern neighbour, Deira, to form the powerful Anglian kingdom of Northumbria.
Elmet, the last of the Celtic kingdoms became the target of Edwin, king of Northumbria. His excuse for invasion came when an exiled Northumbrian nobleman named Herric (who had been given sanctuary in Elmet by its king, Ceredig) died of poisoning at the Elmet court. Some think that Hereric was poisoned on Edwin's orders, as an excuse to ipunish Ceredig for taking in Herreric by invading and annexing his country.
Although the kingdom of Elmet became part of Northumbria in 627, it seems that its population of Britons stayed put. According to a genetic study published in Nature (19 March 2015), the local population of what had been West Yorkshire is genetically distinct from the rest of the population of Yorkshire.
Later Anglo-Saxon and Viking names survive as Barwick-in-Elmet (berewic is Old English for 'corn farm'), Scholes-in-Elmet (the name is a plural of Old Norse skáli = "temporary shed") and Sherburn in Elmet, as if the locals were determined to maintain the memory of the fallen kingdom. The Angles who took over the area became known as the Elmed Saetna, or Elmet settlers, so the name was well enough established with the invaders to survive its demise as an independent kingdom.
The ancient kingdom of Elmet held a particular fascination for the poet Ted Hughes, probably because he spent his early childhood in Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. He had a great love for the area.
With the photographer, Faye Godwin, he produced an "episodic autobiography" of the region, in which he examined the disconnection between the lives people live, the places they live and the history that surrounds them. The book was Remains of Elmet, first published in 1979, with an expanded edition, called just Elmet, in 1994.
Hughes felt that the Anglo-Saxon usurpation of Elmet ("the last independent Celtic kingdom in England") was the first in a series of disasters to befall the area. His poems depict a weather-beaten landscape and people and the vestiges of industrial enterprise, religious custom and ancient tradition. He claimed that only nature now flourishes, as it reclaims the land from those who inhabit it.
I have written before about historical fiction in the form of poems, and how I value them (and, poorly, turn my pen to them). This month, I have been re-reading the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, and contemplating his austere brilliance.
The reason for the return to Cavafy was a book which landed on my reviewer's desk. What's Left of the Night is a novel by celebrated Greek poet, Ersi Sotiropoulos. Set in 1897 it follows the young Cavafy over the course of three momentous days in Paris. Not much happens, and everything happens. The young poet wanders Paris, interrogating himself. Who am I? What do I believe? How can I best say what I believe? And that question that anyone who has ever written a word for the public eye must and should have asked themselves: am I worth being read?
The book is wonderful, and my review will appear, all things being well, in The Times one week on Saturday. It is niche, and despite my rave words will doubtless sell far fewer copies than dozens of dreary, mediocre books called Watching You (with BIG Twist), or Is Woman's Husband Actually Evil? or Scmaltzy Crap about Ditzy Woman with a Big Heart, or whatever the latest tedious bandwagon is. So here is the link to What's Left of the Night so you can pre-order it: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Whats-Left-Night-Sotiropoulos-Ersi-ebook/dp/B07G63ZS8H/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536696044&sr=8-1&keywords=what%27s+left+of+the+night
But let's talk about Cavafy. He was born in Alexandria in 1863 to Greek parents. His family made money, then spectacularly lost it and the young Cavafy lived in Constantinople for a time and in England. He spent most of his life in Alexandria, where he lived an unremarkable life as a civil servant. He was homosexual, and his poetry is infused with erotic charge - he is unashamed but stifled by the world's mores. Here he is in He Asked about the Quality. A young man has seen a youth through the window of a shop, and goes inside:
He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs and how much they cost, his voice choking, almost silenced by desire. And the answers came back the same way, distracted, the voice hushed, offering hidden consent. They kept on talking about the merchandise—but the only purpose: that their hands might touch over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips, might move close together as though by chance— a moment’s meeting of limb against limb. Quickly, secretly, so the shopowner sitting at the back wouldn’t realize what was going on.
All poems quoted are translated by Edmund Keeley/Phillip Sherrard and reproduced from www.cavafy.com
But it's Cavafy's historical poems that concern us here. They are primarily focused on Ancient Greece and Rome. They take a theme it could take an entire novel to explore, and distil it to its essence in that almost deadpan style of his. (Ersi Sotiropoulis is brilliant on Cavafy's quest for a unique and personal style. He rejects lyricism as flippant ornamentation. Rhyme and metre are a poet's crutch - they let him/her avoid actually saying anything.)
The poems are Janus-like, in the manner of all good historical fiction: they look backwards, and in doing so, tell us something about ourselves, and our immediate present. There are three layers of history, in effect: the past event, Cavafy's present and our own present - and the poems speak to each of these. This alone, I think, would prove their greatness.
There are so many to choose from to illustrate his layered brilliance. I have chosen two, which I offer without commentary - you don't need my banal witterings. The first is specific: it's addressed to Mark Antony on losing to Augustus. When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city, go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion, but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; listen—your final delectation—to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
The second, Waiting for the Barbarians, is one of his most famous poems. I offer it again without commentary - bar the thought that it's the most interesting piece about Brexit I have read in months.
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? The barbarians are due here today. Why isn’t anything happening in the senate? Why do the senators sit there without legislating? Because the barbarians are coming today. What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating. Why did our emperor get up so early, and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate on his throne, in state, wearing the crown? Because the barbarians are coming today and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader. He has even prepared a scroll to give him, replete with titles, with imposing names. Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas? Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts, and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds? Why are they carrying elegant canes beautifully worked in silver and gold? Because the barbarians are coming today and things like that dazzle the barbarians. Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual to make their speeches, say what they have to say? Because the barbarians are coming today and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking. Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? (How serious people’s faces have become.) Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, everyone going home so lost in thought? Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer. And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.
In the seventeenth century, the death of an unmarried young woman was commemorated by the making of an unusual wreath or garland. If you died unmarried, it was considered you were now married to God. So during the funeral procession a garland shaped like a crown, represnting the 'Crown of Glory' would be placed on the coffin or carried before it. The oldest surviving garland was made in 1680 and is displayed at St Mary's Church, in Beverley, Yorkshire. The one below is a drawing of one from Matlock in Derbyshire.
In the early days of Christianity, funeral garlands were emblems of Virgin Martyrs and the practice of making maidens' garlands is likely to have derived from that. The deceased, who in some parishes could be male or female, must have been both baptised and confirmed and have been unmarried before death. During the funeral procession, the funeral crown was suspended from a white rod and carried before the coffin by another young virgin dressed in white. It was common for the crown to hang above the deceased person's pew as a sort of test, for three weeks. If nobody challenged its right to remain, it was then hung permanently from a bracket in the church.
The garland was shaped as a crown, because you would be becoming the 'consort' of Christ the King, it was a headdress like a wreath, shaped top form a high crown, made of wood and wrapped in white lace. Families would make these for their daughter because she would never have a wedding, and often they included ribbons, handkerchiefs and flowers, both fabric and real. In the spring, primroses were often included, and at other times when flowers were much less plentiful, fake flowers made of ruched paper or cloth were used. Many young girls died of chlorosis, sparking a legend that young unmarried girls who died from this anaemia – of which one sign was a yellow-green complexion – were turned into primroses.
Virgins, time past, known were these,Troubled with Green-sicknesses,Turn’d to flowers: stil the hieuSickly Girles, they beare of you.
According to Adkins History Website , their manufacture was described in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1747 by a resident of Bromley in Kent:
‘The lower rim, or circlet, was a broad hoop of wood, whereunto were fix’d, at the sides thereof, part of two other hoops, crossing each other at the top at right angles, which formed the upper part, being about one third longer than the width; these hoops were wholly covered with artificial flowers of paper, dy’d horn, or silk, and more or less beauteous, according to the skill or ingenuity of the performer. In the vacancy of the inside, from the top, hung white paper, cut in the form of gloves, whereon was wrote the deceased’s name, age, etc. together with long slips of various-colour’d paper, or ribbons. These were many times intermix’d with gilded or painted empty shells of blown eggs, as farther ornaments; or, it may be, as emblems of the bubbles or bitterness of this life; whilst other garlands had only a solitary hour-glass hanging therein, as a more significant symbol of mortality.’
Gloves and crants
Traditionally the crowns also had gloves tied to them, because gloves symbolised the binding of hands, and the young woman was being 'married' to death and eternity. When the coffin was eventually lowered into the ground, the crown remained in the church, probably displayed over her pew, over her grave, or in the chancel – as a token of her purity and virginity and as a memorial. Interestingly, the customm was not only for young women, as the pcture below shows, but for any unwed woman.
A more modern crown from Abbots Ann, Hampshire.
In the original version of Hamlet, at Ophelia’s burial, the crown or 'crant' is referred to. The word ‘crants’ is an old Dutch word for a garland or wreath, retained by the Saxons.
Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants, Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.
Later editors substitute the word 'crants' with 'rites', making the lines easier to understand. Dr Johnson who was the first to explain the word crant, revealed that the custom was still alive in his day. In earlier centuries it was considered unlucky to remove these garlands, or break bits from them, but as they decayed the fallen pieces were gathered up and buried in the church yard.
Very few of these garlands, crowns, or crants survive now - victims of over-zealous cleaning and tidying in churches, and possibly the uncertainty of finding a virgin! But some can still be seen as a poignant reminder, now yellowed with age. The church at Minsterley has the biggest number of seven surviving crowns. Six of them, dating from the first half of the 18th Century, can be seen displayed on the wall of the church. Each one hangs on its own wooden peg which juts from the wall and is finished off a wooden heart, on which are inscribed the maid’s initials and the date of her death. All of the surviving garlands date from the first half of the 18th Century.
The Minsterley garlands have recently been a focus of conservation, and one of them is displayed in a glass case, so vistors can get a close look, But it is a rather sad affair now, disintegrating and brown with age.
Most of my books include a death or two, but so far no virgin deaths. Such an interesting custom deserves to be immortalized in a novel, don't you agree?
Forty years ago this month, in September 1978, twenty-two fresh-faced young university graduates set off for Japan. Our mission was to teach English - not at language schools but in universities and high schools, and not in Tokyo but in the provinces, places which had never had an English teacher before or had the chance to see a real foreigner. In later years it would come to be called the JET Programme and thousands of young students would go out. But ours was the very first year and was by way of being a bit of an experiment.
The interviews took place at the Japanese embassy, an intimidating building in Grosvenor Square where nine interviewers sat in a line facing the interviewee in a huge high-ceilinged room. I had borrowed a suit from my mother for the occasion. Many years later one of the then interviewers told me that what they were really looking for was not qualifications or teaching skills or self-confidence or anything else but to assess whether we were the sort of people who could stick it out. And indeed in later years I’ve met people who went to Japan on the JET Scheme and ended up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t stick it out and came home again. But we twenty two were made of sterner stuff.
Forty years ago certainly feels like history now - and here is a little of what we experienced.
Narita Airport, Japan, September 1978. I am at bottom left, kneeling.
In those days there was no direct flight to Japan. The journey took 18 hours with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. The airport was a 1 1/2 hour bus ride from Tokyo, which at first sight was distinctly unprepossessing.
In 1978 Japan was 33 years out of World War II and still rebuilding. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 had helped bring back a degree of prosperity but many of the buildings had been thrown up at great speed and still looked jerry built.
In front of the tokonoma (I'm in the middle)
We were put up in a drab hotel and rushed almost straight away into a welcome meeting at the Ministry of Education, where we sat on metal chairs around long metal tables while what seemed like very old men droned on in Japanese, which none of us could speak, while we, horrendously jet lagged, tried to stay awake. The twenty two of us were to be scattered across Japan. There were two in Tokyo, two in Osaka, but most were in small towns where no one had ever seen a foreigner before.
There we were introduced to our hosts, in my case Professor Shimizu of Gifu Women’s University, who had come to take me to Gifu.
We went down on the bullet train. I remember my first sight of Mount Fuji - a perfect symmetrical cone rising out of the plain. Other mountains are obscured by mountain ranges but Fuji stands all alone in the flat plain, ethereal and beautiful with a trail of smoke wafting from the crater and a wisp of cloud crowning the summit.
Gifu Castle, Japan
At the job interview at the Japanese Embassy in London, I’d been asked, ‘If you were offered this job, where would you like to go - Tokyo or the countryside?’ I’d said ‘countryside’, picturing green trees, fields, sheep, cows. Little did I know that to my Japanese interlocutor the word inaka - ‘countryside’ - actually means ‘the provinces’, ‘the sticks’, anywhere that isn’t Tokyo.
And so I found myself in the grey industrial city of Gifu, a city no one had heard of, where so far as I knew no westerners ever went. It was autumn, when the rice has been harvested and the paddy fields are brown and threadbare. Early on I climbed to the top of Mount Kinka, which rises to one side of the city, and peered around, looking for any sign of countryside; but all I could see was brown and drab. I had to wait till spring to see the paddy fields turn brilliant green.
Initially I stayed in a seventh floor room in the Nagaragawa Hotel. I’d barely been there a night when I was woken by my bed swaying violently back and forth. ‘Earthquake!’ I thought in horror and leapt out of bed, wondering what to do. I soon learnt that it was just a tremor, an everyday occurrence. A real earthquake is a lot more dramatic.
Visiting a temple. I'm tucked away behind, in the middle
The staff at Gifu Women’s University had heard that foreigners need a lot of space so they arranged two tiny apartments for me, not one. I used one as my bedroom and bathroom and went along the outside landing to the next, which became my living room and kitchen. My colleague, Mrs Miyabe, took me to the electrical appliance shop to get a doll’s house sized fridge, a tiny purple washing machine and spin drier, an oven big enough to bake a loaf of bread or a cake and a one-person-sized vacuum cleaner, also purple.
Eventually I moved to a bigger apartment, set in fields of daikon radishes. I also began to explore. Back in the sixteenth century, when Japan was made up of warring princedoms, Gifu was the capital of the famous and formidable warlord Oda Nobunaga. His castle is perched at the top of Mount Kinka. For reasons unknown the Americans bombed this little castle even though it’s a long way from anything industrial. By the time I got there it had been rebuilt in ferro concrete. You climb through the woods along footpaths to get there. It’s hard to imagine Oda and his thousands of samurai warriors making their way up and down the stony hillside.
I studied tea ceremony ...
To get to the university I had to take the bus destination Mino, written only in Japanese at the front:
I’d stand at the bus stop looking at the characters which my Japanese colleague had written for me on a piece of paper and comparing them with the characters at the front of each bus as it drew up. Japanese buses are as strictly timetabled as the bullet train and by the time I’d worked out that this was my bus, the doors would have closed and the bus would be pulling away.
Most people in Gifu had never seen a foreigner before. I’d never felt so isolated. Then after three months a colleague asked, ‘Would you like to meet the other foreigners?’ I hadn’t realised there were any. It turned out there were two - a married couple, John from Coulsdon and Sarah from Seattle. They became close friends.
Gifu 1983 (I'm in the middle)
To counter the loneliness I went for walks to the beautiful nearby temple, which had a lake with tiny green turtles swimming around in it and a little stall that sold tofu with sweet miso sauce brushed on top, grilled over charcoal. I also taught myself Japanese; as there were only three foreigners there was no call for Japanese teachers. I studied tea ceremony and flower arranging and immersed myself in Japanese literature in translation.
I also hitchhiked. By the end of my first year I’d been up to the north of the country and down to the far south.
In my time off my colleagues took me to see sword making, local festivals, paper making and cormorant fishing, for which Gifu is famous. But I still found myself on my own a lot.
Then I started to make women friends. They took me on trams that trundled off deep into the countryside to ancient moss-covered temples with stone Buddhas outside and Shinto shrines with vermilion arches in front, often both religions celebrated side by side. There we dined on temple food, extraordinary delicate dishes.
It was the beginning of a never-ending love affair with Japan, enough to fill a lifetime of writing.
Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback.
I recently had a chat with Lindsey Fraser – my Literary Agent – about a creative writing initiative for young people with which she’s involved, The Young Walter Scott Prize, and I thought readers of the History Girls – particularly any teachers out there – really should hear about it. It’s a terrific opportunity for young writers aged between 11 and 19 to take their inspiration from history, with the chance of winning a £500 travel grant and attending the Borders Book Festival next June. So here’s Lindsey, to tell you all about it.
What’s the background to YWSP?
It was devised in response to the success of The Walter Scott Prize – an award for historical fiction which boasts such writers as Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulkes, Andrea Levy and Tan Twan Eng among its winners. The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch – the driving force behind that award – were keen to find a way of supporting young unpublished writers under the Walter Scott banner and the idea of YWSP emerged. The guidelines are simple – use the past as the inspiration for your writing. And the resulting entries have been fascinating. Welsh settlers in Patagonia in the 19thCentury, Cornish smugglers, missionaries in China, 11th Century Constantinople, America in the 1950s, the Great Fire of London – history provides such rich pickings for young writers and although there are obvious favourites, I’m so impressed by the variety.
YWSP has run workshops in the summer that take place in historical settings - this one is at Holkham.
Surely you are inundated with manuscripts – you’re a literary agent! Why look for more work?
True… but as so many of our clients write for young people, I’m always interested in what young people write for themselves. And we’re often approached by young writers keen to find places to submit their work. We’ve been involved with the Pushkin Prizes – a creative writing initiative for young people in Scotland – for over 20 years; it keeps us in touch with young writers and readers, which is very important when you’re involved in the business of making books for them.
And I love historical fiction. I’ve long been irritated by rumours that historical fiction for young people is unpopular and our post bag around the end of October proves that there is huge interest in the past, and that these young writers will delve into some extraordinary corners to find the right settings and characters. Reading and writing go hand in hand. Historical fiction seems particularly appropriate for this age-group – young people looking out from their own familiar worlds, examining the past, seeking information from what happened there. Curiosity is a great driver.
Exploring Castle Urquhart
What are the prizes?
The winner in each age category – 11-15 and 16-19 – receives a travel grant of £500. And they’re invited to the Borders Book Festival where the Walter Scott Prize is announced. The organisers are very keen to emphasise the importance of YWSP and our most recent winner, Leonard Belderson from Norwich, found himself being presented with his prize by Sebastian Barry, then meeting Ben Myers and all the authors shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize. It’s heady stuff!
Runners up receive a book token – we’re obviously keen for reading to be involved! – and the Prizes publish an anthology of the winning pieces every year. So several young writers see their work in print, which is a big thrill – as any grown-up writer knows.
At the prize-giving – Leonard Belderson and Darcie Izatt
Many writers already help to spread the word, on their website or on social media, taking our leaflets into schools their visiting – that kind of signposting has been very helpful. This will be YWSP’s fourth year, and we’re hoping for another bumper entry. So do encourage young writers – your readers - to enter. I’m always happy to provide further information.
Last weekend, I was in London, walking beside the Thames in the sunshine and enjoying – despite all the new buildings - the city’s enigmatic sense of the past. History exist as a half-concealed code in so many place names: London Bridge, The Clink, Potter’s Field, Southwark itself, all with their own myths and stories, and there as glimpses along the way: old stonework, an architectural flourish, a memorial, all reminding me that all the old maps of London lie beneath the modern sprawl.
London and the Thames are often there within my writing. especially within the work-in-progress that I’m picking up after a long break. It was the city of my childhood, of my early self’s wanderings, and won’t easily release its hold in my imagination. The weekend, for many reasons was inspiring, and I have come back ready to revisit my fictional London and those grey, ever-moving river tides.
However, for me, writing needs good sleep and good words, so I have begun on some comfort re-reading. Last night I finished Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. and this morning, in bed, I started Black Hearts in Battersea, the second adventure in her trilogy set in the fictitious reign of James III.
“On a fine warm evening in late summer, over a hundred years ago, a boy might have been seen leading a donkey across Southwark Bridge in the City of London . . .Halfway across the bridge, the boy paused, took and extra turn of the donkey’s halter round his wrist, and pulled out of his pouch a grubby and much handled letter. . . “
The letter, from his friend & artist Dr Gabriel Field, tells fifteen year-old Simon to come to Rose Alley, Southwark, where he has taken two rooms for them at the top floor of a house, which belongs to Mr and Mrs Twite and their brood:
“They are an unattractive family but I see little enough of them. Moreover, the windows command a handsome view of the river and St Paul’s. “
When Simon eventually discovers the house, there is nobody at home, other than:
“A shrewish looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”
This, friends, is Dido Twite, Aiken’s bold young heroine, created well before feisty was an essential publishing term. All Dido wants is a ride on the donkey. Simon, however, is far more concerned by the fact that the two rooms are empty and Dr Field- and all his belongings and artist materials – have totally disappeared, and so the quest begins. Set in an early, alternative nineteenth century, Black Hearts in Battersea presents an alternative historical world where two factions are still at odds over who is ruling Britain - it is fiction – and trouble is afoot in deepest London.
With Aiken’s work at my bedside, I thought about other historical fiction for children and young people set in London. Then, like Simon, I asked around and here, therefore, is a list of favourite London titles, many almost historical in themselves, that might interest you. Some are perfectly fine for nine year olds, while others offer stronger content, harsher settings and bigger reading experiences. You might, like Simon, check things out first – or is that a well-worn rule about London?
Coram Boy byJamila Gavin,inspired by Thomas Coram's Foundling Museum as well as the links between Britain and the riches of India.
Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: the first in his exciting Sally Lockhart series, as shown on television.
I, Coriander by Sally Gardner: historical reality overlaid by the magic of the fairy world and beautifully written.
The Raven Master's Boy by Mary Hoffman – a strong Tudor novel for teens while younger readers might enjoyRaven Boy by Pippa Goodhart. Same birds, different books.
Slightly Jones and the Case of the London Dragon by Joan Lennon:
A lively girl detective discovers a fossil problem just as Queen Victoria is due to visit the Natural History Museum.
The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding, set in the world of the London theatre and music halls.
Nest of Vipers, set close by Newgate prison by Catherine Johnson, and Freedom, her novel about slavery.
The Shadow Web by Nicky Matthews Browne: definitely alt-history, where two identical girls somehow swap not-identical parallel lives.
The Mourning Emporium by Michelle Lovric,which begins in Bankside in 1902. A supernatural Venetian villain arrives in London to wreak havoc on a country mourning the loss of its Queen, and on the watery city that declared him a traitor.
The Armourer's House and The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliffe, both still in print.Unfortunately, “Ring Out Bow Bells” and “The Load of Unicorn” by Cynthia Harnettonly exist as rare second-hand copies.
The Historical House books, written by Adele Geras, Linda Newbery and Ann Turnbull, re-issued as the “6 Chelsea Walk” series: Girls with a Vote– Polly’s Walk; Girls with a Voice -Mary Anne and Miss Mozart and Girls Behind the Camera: Cecily’s Portrait.All three titles are set at a different time within the same house.
Wartime London appears at the start of several evacuee books, including Michelle Magorian’s Good Night Mr Tom; Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carrol and Jimmy’s War by Lynne Benton for slightly younger readers.
There is alsoRiver Of Inkby Helen Dennis:the first of a new, time-travelling thriller series for middle-grade readers.
I have just heard about a time-slip novel that features the iconic Alexandra Palace:
The Pearl in the Atticby Karen McCombie. It must go on my list because where else did one go on a North London Sunday afternoon?
And, finally, two true London favourites of mine:
Smith: The Story of A Pickpocket by Leon Garfield, for the wonderful intensity of his characters, his sense of place and ear for language and dialogue.
Oliver Twistby Charles Dickens drawn from his own childhood memories of the London streets.
Have you any London-based historical novels for young readers or teens that you’d recommend? (Or any that, like Livi Michael’s The Whispering Road, celebrate another particular city and if so which?)
I began writing this blog in Italy, in a cafe in the small Tuscan city of Sansepolcro. I was lucky it was still there. The Rough Guide to Tuscany tells us that in 1944, the British Eighth Army was ordered to bombard the town but a young artillery officer recalled reading an article by Aldous Huxley which said that within its walls was ‘the greatest painting in the world’. The officer ordered the bombardment to be delayed hoping the Germans would withdraw, which they did and painting and city were saved. The story is part of the memory of the city. A man on a bicycle told us the same story when he realised we were English as we asked for directions to Piero della Francesca's house.
The Resurrection - Piero della Francesca
The painting was The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. Recently restored, it occupies a wall in the Museo Civico and was painted in the early 1450s for the Palace of the Conservators, the town hall. The fresco has deep and profound religious significance but it was not painted for a church, or any kind of religious foundation. It served an arguably more important function, looking down on the deliberations of those who administered the city. Even today, it can be viewed by any citizen, day or night, either in the Museo, or after it closes, from outside through plate glass. It used to be visible from the street at all times but tour operators would bring their charges to view it for free instead of paying to enter the small museum.
Sansepolcro Town Shield
Sansepolcro was Piero Della Francesca’s ‘burgo’, his town, his city. He was born here and although he travelled throughout Italy to work for patrons and fulfil commissions, he was never longer than three years away from his home. He took an active and energetic part in civic life. He sat with the other Conservators under the unsettling gaze that he himself had created.
For the last fifteen years of his life, he never left Borgo San Sepolcro, recognised and celebrated by his fellow citizens as simply, the Maestro. The Resurrection is on the town shield and the city appears in many of his other frescoes. Sometimes, as part of a mysterious, distant landscape, sometimes in the foreground as the setting for the events that are depicted. No matter that the city is supposed to be Jerusalem, in the fresco cycle The Legend of The True Cross contained in the Basilica of St Francis in the nearby city of Arezzo, the city depicted is Sansepolcro. The River Jordan in The Baptism of Christ (in the National Gallery, London) is the Tiber, the landscape the Tiber Valley and the tiny city in the distance is Sansepolcro.
Detail from Piero della Francesco Baptism of Christ, National Gallery, London
Baptism of Christ, National Gallery, London
Piero della Francesca left behind no self portraits, but it is thought that he put himself in two of his works and both are in the Museo Civico in Sansepolcro. He has been seen among the sleeping soldiers beneath the feet of the Risen Christ and under the sheltering cloak of the majestic Madonna della Misericorda, the Madonna of Mercy.
Madonna della Misericordia
Detail from Madonna della Misericordia
Detail with geometric diagram
This study of the sleeping soldier shows another of Piero's obsessions, his fascination with form and perspective. In his youth he had trained as a mathematician and wrote several treatises on subject. His deep interest in the theoretical study of perspective is apparent in all his work, from the actual construction of his paintings, the landscapes and cityscapes which provide the backgrounds and the subjects themselves.
Exhibit in Piero della Francesca's House, Sansepolcro
His knowledge of solid geometry can be seen in the head and face of the soldier at the feet of the Risen Christ, although no mathematics can produce the brooding majesty of the Risen Christ or the infinite sorrow and compassion on the face of the Madonna del Parto.
Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Tiscany
Piero della Francesca continues to be an inspiration. By one of those serendipitous holiday encounters, we were lucky enough to meet the artist Stefano Camaiti who lives a literal stone's throw from the front door of Piero's house. The house is now a small museum full of fascinating exhibits illustrating different aspects of Piero's life and work. Stefano's wife is the guide there but speaks little English. Her son, Giacomo, offered to translate and then took us to meet his father, Stefano, in his studio. With Giacomo translating, Stefano told us about his lifelong interest in Piero and showed us his own work. He was preparing for an exhibition to be held this September in Florence. The Places of the Rose would combine the artist's abiding interest in the works of Piero della Francesco, particularly the recurring motif of the dog rose, their shared love of the Tiberine Tuscan landscape and a series of works based on Dante's journey in the Divine Comedy. It was a rare privilege to be invited into his studio, to see his work and to hear him talk about it and I'm especially grateful to his son, Giacomo for his patient and able translation.
Autumn is upon us. The summer is over. And I find myself reflecting on my holidays and my holiday reading. One of my holiday reads was Eric Newby’s book Love and War in the Apennines. This is a memoir set during the Second World War and concerns a subject I knew little about prior to reading: the fate of British POW’s in Italy at the time of the Italian armistice in 1943.
Eric Newby was one such prisoner of war when on 8th September the Italians surrendered. The British Authorities ordered the POWs to stay put in their camps thinking that the allied advance would be rapid. However, it was not and the Germans issued an order that all POWs should be marched northwards. 50,000 Allied troops were marched to new camps in Germany and Poland where conditions were far harsher than they had experienced in the Italian camps. Thousands died either from failed escape attempts or the harsh winter conditions.
Eric Newby managed to escape this fate. At his camp they had ignored the British order and the POWs had walked out on mass, their Guards letting them go. Though free of their incarceration they faced a new danger: the Germans They had issued a proclamation that made their intentions clear:
“It is hoped the population will have the good sense to abstain from all inconsiderate activities - all acts of resistance - all acts of sabotage - all hostile acts against German Armed Forces will be constrained by severe counter measures.”
With the Germans advancing Newby had to rely on the compassion and the help of the Italian civilians to avoid capture. A reward of 1,8000 Lira offered by the Germans per prisoner recaptured (around £4300 in modern terms) added to the danger faced by Newby and his fellow escapees.
But despite threats of execution for anyone caught harbouring escaped prisoners many of the Italian civilian population did offer help to those on the run. One Italian businessman Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi helped hundreds of British POWs escape to Switzerland. Bacciagaluppi was married to an English woman and with a home on the Italian/Switzerland border he was in prime position to help the escapees. He setup a network, with the aid of his factory staff, that helped the POWs cross over into Switzerland. That Bacciagaluppi was betrayed by a colleague and arrested by the Gestapo in April 1944 shows the danger the Italian helpers were in. Indeed German proclamations stated clearly what anyone helping the loose POW’s might face.
4. Those giving refuge to Anglo-American escapees will be severely punished.
5. Anybody that gives food, supplies or civilian clothing to Anglo-American escapees will be referred to the War Tribunal for the application of severe penalties.
But help they did. As one RAF report said:
Italian civilians gave clothes, food, railway tickets and considerable
sums of money to escaped POWs.
Iris Origo and family.
Iris Origo, an English biographer living in Italy during the war, recalls in her diary how four Englishmen were kept hidden by a Tuscan peasant:
“The peasant’s story is remarkable. He took in these four Englishmen at the beginning of October, when they were obliged to leave here, and fed and housed them –disregarding the danger as well as the expense – for over three months.”
She herself assisted many allied prisoners of war evade capture.
This was the experience of escaped British POW John Mallen:
“I found what I considered to be good hideaways - one was a cave in an area of dense woodland and the other was a barn. It was just bare ground in the cave and I had just one blanket that I had been given. As I was still in the area I could still contact my Italian family through another person. The next night after I had done this, the 11 year old daughter arrived in darkness, at my cave. 'Giovanni, I heard... Camilla' And there she was with a big basket strapped onto her back loaded with meat, cheese, bread, a bottle of wine and a big bunch of grapes. Dear oh dear.... that was very welcome. Just imagine though a young girl going a mile and a half in the dark and taking that risk.”
Newby himself evaded the Germans by hiding in the caves and forests of Fontanello in the Po Valley. He also experienced great kindness.
’No you can’t sleep in my hay," he said after another equally long pause. “You might set it on fire and where would I be then? But you can sleep in my house in a bed, and you will, too, but before we go in I have to finish with Bella." And he went back to milking her.
After injuring his ankle Newby was taken to the local hospital. Here he met a young Slovene nurse named Wanda. She gave him language lessons, a friendship formed. One which later became a romance.
But danger was ever present, as again John Mallen’s experience show:
“One early morning I was about to move off from my cowshed and I was looking around to see if anyone was around, any nasty people in German uniform, when I heard machine gun fire. The sound echoed round the valleys and it was hard to tell where it came from. Later I heard that a squad of Italian SS had tracked these Americans down to their hiding place. The sound I heard was them being shot. I was told by local people that it was the German SS.”
Newby had his own encounter with the enemy up in the hills:
“ I woke to find a German soldier standing over me.”
Thankfully though this German’s interest was primarily butterfly catching. He had no intention nor desire to hand Newby over to his commanders.
Staying in multiple households, sometimes sheltered by shepherds, Newby evaded capture for five months. However, his luck ran out when he was betrayed by a villager and arrested. He spent the remainder of the second world war in camps in Germany and Czechoslovakia. After the war he tracked down Wanda and they married.
I found this book an engrossing read and formed a great admiration of the courage of both the POWs and the Italians who risked all to help them.
I have alreadywritten in the History Girls about the long defunct Meon Valley Railway (MVR), a feature of this lovely part of Hampshire that is often part of my daily walk, together with the River Meon itself and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere. All that is left of the line now is an 11 miles (17.5 km) stretch of woodland track on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) from Wickham through Droxford to West Meon. But when it opened the railway ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, in part following the course of the River Meon.
Route of the MVR, adapted from the map in R.A. Stone’s book,The Meon Valley Railway, 1983, Kingfisher Railway Productions.
The railway was authorised in 1896 and opened in 1903, making it one of the last railways of any size to be built to mainline standards in the United Kingdom. It was expensive to build – £400,000, which is the equivalent of about £51.2 million at today’s prices – and from an engineering perspective, very difficult, because of the nature of the terrain it had to cross. The stations were impressive, built out of brick in a mock-Tudor style, with Portland stone mullions and gables. The architecture included stained-glass door windows and tiled interiors. The lavatories were apparently housed in outbuildings styled like Chinese pagodas!
At its northern (Alton) end, the MVR joined with the Mid-Hants Railway to Winchester, the Alton Line to Brookwood (and, presumably thence to London) and the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway. At Fareham it linked with the Eastleigh to Fareham Line, the West Coastway Line and the line to Gosport. But, although the MVR was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, it never fulfilled that purpose.
When it opened, local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the new railway, and, in the early days, as well as taking passenger traffic, it was used extensively for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, about which I shall say more in next month’s post.
Unfortunately, the economies of the new railway were never fully viable and the expected London through-traffic did not adequately materialise and, in 1955, after only fifty years, passenger traffic was cut, and the line was closed altogether in 1968.
Nonetheless, when it was first in use, many local newspapers were greatly impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high standards of the stations and other structures, and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Some papers wrote articles describing the route and its scenery in great detail, pointing out places of interest along the line, such as this snippet from the Hampshire Telegraph and Post, published in June 1903:
“The line passes through a lovely country, rich in literary and historical associations.”
And it goes on to mention some of those associations, which I thought a splendid idea, and so decided to elaborate on some of them.
Travelling south from Alton, the Telegraph’s first-mentioned “association” is Chawton, a mile or so from Alton. Chawton is of course where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. It was in those years that she published all her major works. The house where Jane lived is nowJane Austen’s House Museum. She moved to the house, which was owned by her brother Edward, with her mother and sister in 1809. Edward had inherited the Chawton estate from his wealthy adoptive family, the Knights, and offered the house rent-free for life to his mother and sister. Jane died in 1817.
Jane Austen’s House Museum By R ferroni2000 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
The first stop on the MVR line is Farringdon Halt, and we are now in Gilbert White territory. Gilbert was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist, as well as a cleric. He remained unmarried and a curate all his life. Gilbert was born in 1720, in his grandfather’s vicarage at Selborne, a few miles to the east of Farringdon. He is best known for his writings about the village’s history, geography, climate and natural history in his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. After going to university in Oxford, Gilbert was ordained, and was curate in several parishes in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. After the death of his father in 1758, Gilbert moved back into the family home in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death in 1793.
Gilbert White’s house is open to the public, and also incorporates The Oates Collections, devoted to the remarkable Oates family, in particular, Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and Captain Lawrence Oates, who accompanied Scott on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. Lawrence Oates is famous for uttering the heart-rending line, quoted in Scott’s diary:
“I am just going outside and I may be some time.”
Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates during the British Antarctic Expedition, ca 1911. Reference Number: PA1-f-067-069-1, Alexander Turnbull Library. By Herbert Ponting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1912, on the return journey from the Pole, the party were facing appalling conditions, including exceptionally adverse weather, a lack of food, injuries and frostbite. Oates’ feet were badly frostbitten and he was weakening faster than the others. Scott wrote in his diary on 5th March: “The poor soldier is very nearly done”. On 15th March, Oates suggested that the others should leave him in his sleeping-bag, but they refused. So he walked a few more miles that day but, on the morning of the next day, he walked out of the tent into a blizzard, and was never seen again. It was his 32nd birthday. Scott recorded in his diary:
“We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman”.
Behind the village rises Selborne Hill, topped by Selborne Common, a designated SSSI (site of special scientific interest), managed by the National Trust. These particular Hampshire hills are part of the series of steep-sided wooded hills known as ‘hangers’, because the ancient woodlands of beech, lime, yew and ash seem to hang from the high slopes. On the Selborne ‘Hanger’ is an extraordinary zig zag path, which is pretty steep. The top is 91 metres above the Selborne’s High Street from which there are wonderful views over the village and surrounding countryside.
“At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands, lies the village, which consists of one single straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale, and running parallel with the hanger.”
A little closer to Selborne than Farringdon is Tisted station, serving the village of East Tisted, and then comes Privett. The station buildings of both Tisted and Privett survived the dismantling of the railway and were converted to private houses.
After Privett station comes West Meon, five miles from the site of the famous Battle of Cheriton of 1644, an important Parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War. The battle took place on 29th March and resulted in the defeat of a Royalist army, which threw King Charles I onto the defensive for the remainder of the year.
In the last week of March, 1644, the parish of East Meon was overrun by thousands (10000 or so?) of Parliamentary troops under Sir William Waller. 6,000 or so Royalists under Sir Ralph Hopton were camped on high ground, overlooking the Parliamentarians. (Stated numbers on either side vary but it does seem clear that the two sides were not evenly matched numerically-speaking.) There were skirmishes between rival patrols in and around the area, and on the 28th March, Waller withdrew, apparently via Vinnel’s Lane in West Meon, and marched to Cheriton, where he lodged himself at Hinton Ampner House, the home of Lady Stukesly, a Parliamentary sympathiser.
By 28th March, the Royalist forces were in Alresford and, thinking that battle might be engaged the following day, Hopton deployed his troops along Cheriton Lane, a road that ran along a ridge of high ground. The Parliamentarians were about a mile to the south.
Battle was engaged the next day, with the armies drawn up on opposite ridges with Cheriton Wood on higher ground to the east. At first, the struggle was for control of the Wood, but, later, fighting broke out aroundHinton Ampner, and continued on both flanks throughout the day. At length the Royalists were forced down from their position and Hopton decided to retreat. It is thought that about 60 Parliamentarians were killed or injured, but as many as 300 Royalists.
Hinton Ampner house is managed by the National Trust, though it is a very different house from the one used by William Waller as his HQ, for it has been rebuilt a number of times since 1644. However, you can follow a walk from the grounds that takes you around the site of the battle and, if you stand at the bottom of the garden, you can look across towards where the battle raged, and a plaque….
This map, from thebritishbattles.com website shows well the juxtaposition of the battle site and the house.
An associate, although not a son, of West Meon is Thomas Lord, who played first-class cricket from 1787 to 1802, overall making 90 known appearances. He is best known as the founder, in 1787, of Lord’s Cricket Ground, in St John’s Wood, London. But it was to West Meon that Thomas retired, and he died there in 1832, and is buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church. There is a pub in West Meon named after him.
Another occupant of the churchyard of St John’s is Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, whose family had lived in West Meon since 1924. Burgess died in Moscow in 1956, but his ashes were returned to England, and on 5th October 1963 were interred in the family plot.
Hereabouts, the countryside is also of great archaeological interest, for West Meon is just three miles north of Old Winchester Hill, confusingly perhaps 11 miles away from Winchester! At the top of the hill, which is about 650 ft high, is an Iron Age hill fort, within which are Bronze Age barrows, which date from 4500-3500 BC. The fort was probably built between 600 and 300 BC and abandoned around 150-100 BC. Old Winchester Hill is a SSSI and a National Nature Reserve. In March 2009, it became part of the South Downs National Park. The chalk downland is home to very many species of butterfly, and also several types of orchid, including fly, bee, frog and butterfly orchids, as well as the more common early purple, pyramidal, common spotted and fragrant orchids. I have myself seen very many both butterflies and orchids.
Old Winchester Hill is a wonderful place to walk and affords astonishing 360º views of the surrounding countryside, as far as the Solent and the Isle of Wight to the south. But on a chilly day, it feels wild and bleak, and it must have been a challenging place to live for those Iron Age ancestors of ours!
View to Old Winchester Hill from MVR Line trail near Meonstoke, Hampshire. By Pterre [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
After West Meon station, comes Droxford. I wrote about Droxford on The History Girls back in June, so I won’t repeat that here. But, as we have already had mention of Thomas Lord, I should not fail to mention also nearby Hambledon, only four miles to the south east.
Hambledon is home of the Hambledon Cricket Club, which started life in 1768 as a social club, but gained its fame for organising inter-county cricket matches from 1753-1781. By the late 1770s, it was the foremost cricket club in England. The club’s first ground at Broadhalfpenny Down is considered the “Cradle of Cricket”, although cricket as a sport predated both the club and the ground by at least two centuries. In 1782, the club had to move from Broadhalfpenny to Windmill Down, about half a mile away towards the village of Hambledon, because The Bat and Ball Inn, which is next to Broadhalfpenny Down (and well worth a visit for its wealth of cricketing history memorabilia), had been requisitioned by the military, although a couple of years later they moved again to another ground. Hambledon’s great days ended in the late 1780 when the cricketing world shifted its centre to London, and Thomas Lord’s new cricket ground was established as the home of the new Marylebone Cricket Club in 1787.
After Droxford, there is a halt at Mislingford, and then comes Wickham station. Wickham is another place I have written about for the The History Girls, so we will pass it by for now, except for looking at this postcard image of the station on the last day of passenger service on the Meon Valley Railway in 1955.
Wickham Station on the last day of passenger service in 1955. Photo by Lens of Sutton
From Wickham, the line continues on to Fareham but, in 1907, a halt was built a few miles north of Fareham, at Knowle, to serve the village of Funtley and Knowle Hospital, which was opened in 1852 as the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum, and became a psychiatric hospital that operated until 1996. The halt was little more than a platform and a shelter, yet became one of the first rural stations in Hampshire to be lit by electricity, taking its power from the hospital’s generators.
But for the area around Mislingford, Wickham, Knowle and Fareham, the arrival of the railway would provide support for the burgeoning fruit-growing industry. But more about this, and other commercial and operational aspects of the Meon Valley Railway, next month.
Over the long dry summer, shadows of Southwark’s past began to emerge in our local park. As lines and curves of yellow grass sketched out former ponds and buildings, it was as if we held a palimpsest up to the light and saw the ghosts of the previous parks under the one we knew. The long summer in fact provided a feast for archeologists as Long Barrows, Tudor Mansions and Bronze Age settlements revealed themselves on the parched landscape. And of course, aerial archeologists don’t need a plane anymore, drones have provided a quicker, cheaper way to get up in the air for a fresh perspective.
This sudden wealth of new evidence about Britain’s deep past is one instance of a larger truth. The study of history, just like the study of science, is a continual process of discovery and reassessment. This year it was the hot weather which provided us with a wealth of new information, but technological advances are constantly adding to what we can know about our ancestors, where they came from, what they ate and how they lived. It’s how we know that the pigs slaughtered at Stonehenge were raised in Scotland, and the Amesbury Archer probably grew up near the Alps.
And Lord knows there’s still plenty to find out. Whenever I start following a rabbity idea into the warren of secondary and primary sources, Old Bailey Archives, British History Online, Parish registers and ordinances, I’m amazed at how little we really know about periods, people, places, that seem to have been thoroughly studied already. Hallie Rubenhold’s upcoming book, The Five, is a case in point. I knew Hallie would bring a fresh eye and perspective to the study of the lives of the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper, but I assumed that everything which could be known about them would have been studied in some detail already. I was wrong. Hallie’s found an astonishing amount of unexamined material which will, I’m sure, inform fiction and non-fiction writing on Victorian London for years to come.
Hallie’s work also demonstrates the importance of the changing perspectives from which we view history. Reading histories from the 1950s, I’m struck not so much by the misogyny of some of the authors, though there is plenty of that, but the fact it never even occurs to many of those writers that women might have had significance, let alone intellects and abilities equal to those of the men on whom they built their ‘authoritative' accounts. We are, quite rightly, now asking about how the assumptions of previous generations have filtered out women, working people and people of colour from the cannon.We also find in our Alice in Wonderland journeys, that stories, repeated in books and articles as unquestionable facts can often rest on very questionable sources or interpretation.
Current events shift our perspectives too, when I was studying German history in the early nineties, it was quite common to find historians searching for particular reasons in the societal makeup of Germany to explain the rise of Nazism, the unspoken assumption being it could never have risen / could rise anywhere else. The rise of populism now, makes us reassess that idea, and our look harder at own histories.
Writing about history in fact or fiction is a constant reminder to be yes, questioning and skeptical, but also empathetic, open-minded and imaginative. To study history and create stories within it is to be curious about past and present, to be challenged and be challenging, to open up, for better or worse, to the wealth of human stories, to judge and to be judged.
This is my last regular post for the history girls, and I give up my slot with much regret. I’ve learned a great deal from the other bloggers here, and very much enjoyed being part of these discussions. I hope I’ll be able to pop in for the Cabinet of Curiosities or other events in the future, and in the meantime I shall continue to applaud all of those writers and researchers who realise an enquiring understanding of the past deepens and enriches our understanding of the present, and of each other.