Wednesday, 20 June 2018

One fisherman, two saints, and three politicians… by Carolyn Hughes

I have really been enjoying finding out about the villages of Hampshire’s Meon Valley, in order to share something of their history, introduce a few of the people associated with them, and reveal some of the treasures held within their buildings. Even though I know the area very well, it has nonetheless been both an eye-opener and a delight to discover all the things I didn’t know.

Taken from a map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1645, 
showing the cluster of villages in the upper reaches of the River Meon
But, today, I’m going to look at Droxford, one of the cluster of villages in the upper reaches of the River Meon.

The name Droxford is probably derived from ford and an old word ‘drocen’ meaning dry place. The settlement of Drokeneford was first mentioned in writing in the 9th century, when it was granted by Ecgberht (Egbert), King of Wessex, to Herefrith, the bishop of Winchester, “for the sustenance of the monks of Winchester”.

 St Swithun of Winchester from the 10th century 
Benedictional of St. Æthelwold
illuminated manuscript in the British Library.
More than a hundred years later, St Swithun was adopted as patron of Winchester’s restored cathedral church. Swithun had been Bishop of Winchester from October 853 until he died sometime between 862 and 865. In 971, Swithun’s body was transferred from its original burial place to Bishop Æthelwold’s new church building and, according to contemporary writers, numerous miracles surrounded the move. We’ve seen images of these miracles before, in the church at Corhampton, where the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from his life. One of them is the miracle of the eggs, where Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But the miracle-working Swithun simply puts the broken eggs back together.

In 939, the then king, Æthelstan, granted 17 hides of Droxford land to his half-sister Eadburh. (A hide, traditionally taken to be 120 acres or 49 hectares, was intended to represent the amount of land sufficient to support a household.) Eadburh may well have benefitted financially from her brother’s generosity but, of course, she might not have spent much, if any, time in Droxford. Nonetheless, her story is interesting.

It was said that Eadburh’s father, King Edward, the elder son of King Alfred, set his three-year-old daughter a test, to discover if she was destined to live in the world or in a house of religion. He asked his little girl to choose between a display of rings and bracelets, and another of a chalice and gospel book. Apparently, the toddler chose the religious items and, as a consequence, was given, at that tender age of three, to the Benedictine nunnery at St Mary’s Abbey, Winchester (called Nunnaminster), which had been founded by her grandmother, Ealhswith, Alfred’s wife. There Eadburh remained as a nun, dying probably before the age of forty. Quite why she became a saint I am not at all clear…

In the Domesday Book, Drocheneford was said to be “always in (the demesnes of) the Church”, and was still held by the bishop for the support of the Winchester monks. In 1284 the manor passed wholly to the bishop, the monks renouncing “all right and claim which they have or shall have in the said manor, for ever”.

Not an owner of Droxford, but one of its more famous (or, almost, infamous) sons, was John de Drokensford (1260s?-1329), said to have been the son of the local squire. An effigy of a lady in the south side of Droxford church has been supposed to be that of his mother. John was the Keeper of the Wardrobe to King Edward I, and accompanied the king on some of his Scottish campaigns.

Effigy of John de Drokensford in Wells Cathedral
John’s services to the king were rewarded with very many ecclesiastical preferments, including rector of Droxford. He appears to have had five residences in Surrey and Kent, as well as Hampshire. In 1309 John became bishop of Bath and Wells, at the instigation of King Edward II. And, as bishop, he made neither Bath nor Wells his headquarters, but moved about constantly, attended apparently by a large retinue, living at one or other of the sixteen or more episcopal manor houses. He was, like many of his fellow bishops, a worldly man, and not always as scrupulous as he might have been in his own dealings.

Droxford continued to be held by the bishop of Winchester until 1551, when the new bishop, John Poynet, surrendered the whole hundred of Waltham, including Droxford manor, to the crown, as part of an agreement to reduce the income of the Winchester see, to the benefit of the government. The demesne of Droxford passed to William Paulet, the 1st Marquess of Winchester (c. 1483/1485 – 1572). William started out as a Catholic, but was quickly “persuaded” to see things the way the king, Henry VIII, saw them. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, William found himself rewarded with former Church properties, such as those owned by the bishop of Winchester.

Paulet was a political manipulator who had a long and successful career, serving Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. He was involved in the audience with the Pope to discuss Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he became a close associate of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and a friend of Thomas Cromwell.

William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester, holding the white 
staff as a symbol of the office of Lord High Treasurer. 
1560s? National Portrait Gallery (London).
In 1535/36, he served as one of the judges at the trials of John Fisher, Sir Thomas More, and the alleged accomplices of Anne Boleyn. In 1547, he was an executor of the will of King Henry VIII. He was a political schemer and, in 1549, he supported the Earl of Warwick against the Duke of Somerset in their struggle for power in England during the minority of the child king, Edward VI. When Warwick succeeded, and became the new Lord President of the Council, he appointed William Paulet as Lord Treasurer. And when Warwick was created Duke of Northumberland in 1551, Paulet became the Marquess of Winchester and received Droxford, presumably as part of his reward!

It was said that Paulet and Northumberland “ruled the court” of the young king, as the two most prominent members of the Regency Council. William was still Lord Treasurer even after the death of Mary I in 1558, and continued in the service of Elizabeth I, although he must have been over seventy years of age. He retained his high positions, and was Speaker of the House of Lords in 1559 and 1566. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth once joked, “for, by my troth, if my lord treasurer were but a young man, I could find it in my heart to have him for a husband before any man in England.”

As already mentioned, William found himself able to shift his religious affiliation in order to win the favour of his monarch. Under Henry, he had already renounced his Catholicism and embraced Protestantism and, under Edward VI, he went so far as to persecute Roman Catholics. But, on the accession of the Catholic Mary, he “reconverted” and proceeded to persecute his former Protestant allies, while, on Elizabeth’s succession, he changed tack once again. All in all, he changed religious tack five times. Once, when asked how he managed to survive so many storms, not only unhurt, but rising all the while, Paulet answered: “By being a willow, not an oak.”

As for Droxford, William lost it again in 1558, when Queen Mary restored it to the bishopric, and the bishops then retained it until the Civil War. Then, the Long Parliament found a purchaser for Droxford in a Mr. Francis Allen, who gave £7,675 13s. 7d. for it. But, at the Restoration in 1660, the bishops recovered their possessions, and Droxford remained attached to the lands of the Winchester see for the next two hundred years.

But what of other famous associations with Droxford? I will mention two.

 Izaak Walton portrait by Jacob Huysmans,
c. 1672, National Portrait Gallery (London)
In the 17th century, the well-known fisherman and writer of The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, came to Droxford to fish in the River Meon, declaring it the best river in England for trout. His daughter Anne married William Hawkins, prebendary of Winchester Cathedral, who was instituted rector of Droxford in 1664, and held the office till his death in 1691.

Walton passed the last years of his life with his daughter and her husband, and a passage in his will says: “I also give unto my daughter all my books at Winchester and Droxford, and whatever in these two places are, or I can call mine.”

And the other famous man who spent a little time in Droxford was Sir Winston Churchill

In 1903, a railway came to serve Droxford with the building of the Meon Valley Railway. In fact, although the station was called Droxford, it was actually sited almost in Soberton, at a little settlement called Brockbridge.

On the morning of 2nd June 1944, orders were telephoned along the length of the Meon Valley Railway that it was to be kept free of trains so that a special train could use the route without interruption. Troops surrounded Droxford railway station and its sidings, and the local post office was ordered to let no mail other than official business leave the village.

The special train stopped and parked up at Droxford station. In it were the prime minister of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, and the South African prime minister, General Jan Smuts. The next day Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, arrived by car. On 4th June, Dwight Eisenhower, the president of the United States, arrived from his nearby base at Southwick House, and they were joined by the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia. They were there to discuss the D-Day invasion of France.

But, when the invasion was only days away, Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader, had not yet been told of the Allies’ plans. The British cabinet was wary of communicating with the French government while they were in exile in Algeria, but also of a diplomatic incident if the invasion went ahead without French knowledge, so they decided to invite de Gaulle to come to England, to disclose the plans to him in person. When de Gaulle landed at RAF Northolt, he received a telegram from Churchill:

My dear General de Gaulle,
Welcome to these shores! Very great military events are about to take place. I should be glad if you could come to see me down here in my train, which is close to General Eisenhower’s Headquarters, bringing with you one or two of your party. General Eisenhower is looking forward to seeing you again and will explain to you the military position which is momentous and imminent. If you could be here by 1.30 p.m., I should be glad to give you déjeuner and we will then repair to General Eisenhower’s Headquarters. Let me have a telephone message early to know whether this is agreeable to you or not.

Although officially kept secret from local Droxford residents, it seems that Churchill had chosen the station as a secure base, because it was near the coast and to the Allied command centre at Southwick House. But there was some speculation that the site was also thought safe because it was overshadowed by beech trees, which obscured the view of the train, and because there was a deep cutting into which the train could be shunted if it came under attack.

Mackenzie King (PM Canada), Winston Churchill, Peter Fraser (PM New Zealand), Dwight Eisenhower,
Godfrey Huggins (PM Rhodesia) and Jan Smuts. Although this well-known photograph 
is generally credited as having been taken at Droxford, in fact, it seems unlikely. 
Anyway, at 6.58 pm on 5th June, Churchill’s train pulled out of Droxford station and returned to London. At 16 minutes past midnight the following morning, Allied troops attacked Pegasus Bridge and shortly thereafter the American airborne landings in Normandy began.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

An Imperial Love Triangle? by L.J. Trafford

Imperial history is full of scandal. Nero murdering his mother, Caligula sleeping with his sisters, Tiberius getting up to all sorts of things on the island of Capri.  Even so called good emperors aren't immune to it:
"I know, of course, that he was devoted to boys and to wine, but if he had ever committed or endured any base or wicked deed as the result of this, he would have incurred censure; as it was, however, he drank all the wine he wanted, yet remained sober, and in his relation with boys he harmed no one." Dio Cassius on Trajan. 

I want to examine one such Imperial scandal. An Imperial love triangle consisting of the emperor Domitian, his wife Domitia and his niece Julia.

The Scandal
Emperor Domitian

Suetonius has this to say about it:

"When his niece took another husband he seduced her....She became pregnant by him and died as the result of the abortion he forced upon her" 

Juvenal says this:
 "The adulterer with a tragic incestuous twist, so busy reviving those stern decrees, a threat to everyone even to Mars and Venus! Meanwhile his too fertile niece gobbled pills, bought on an abortion and every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle." 

Not an appetising image. A niece seduced by her uncle, made pregnant and then forced into an abortion that killed her.
But how much of this is true? 

Julia photo attributed José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
Julia was the daughter of Domitian's elder brother Titus. She was likely ten years younger than her uncle. It is quite possible, given that both Titus and Domitian's father Vespasian were away holding official positions in the provinces, that Domitian and Julia were raised together in Rome.
One thing we need to get out the way is this charge of incest. If Julia and Domitian were involved it wasn't technically incest. Emperor Claudius had legalised marriage between an uncle and a niece in 49AD, purely so he could marry his own niece Agrippina.
Julia had been feted as a wife for Domitian by his father, the emperor Vespasian.

"He had been offered the hand of his brother's daughter while she was still a young girl." 


A dynastic match indeed. It's interesting that Domitian is bashed in our sources for allegedly sleeping with Julia, but his father is not similarly bashed for essentially wanting Domitian to sleep with his niece. However, the dynastic marriage did not go ahead. Domitian dug his heels in and refused to marry Julia. Why?

Suetonius tells it to us straight;
 "He persistently refused to marry her on account of his infatuation with Domitia."

Domitia Longina was a very well connected young woman. She was the daughter of Nero's celebrated (and later executed) general Corbulo. On her mother's side she could trace her ancestry back to Rome's first emperor, Augustus.
Vespasian, though having been declared emperor at the end of 69AD, was still in the East. As was Domitian's brother Titus. This left Domitian in Rome alone in 70AD representing this new dynasty. He was only 18 years of age with absolutely no experience in government.
Sometime during this year he met Domitia and evidently fell deeply in love. She already had a husband but this was considered no impediment.
They were married by the end of the year.

Vespasian did not arrive in Rome to take his throne until late in 70AD. This holds out the possibility that Domitian gave into his infatuation with Domitia and married without his father's permission.
Suetonius mentions that Domitian was 'persistently' pressured to marry Julia.
Was the pressure placed on him to marry Julia, pre or post marriage to Domitia?
Whichever it was, Domitian held firm.

The Triangle
Emperor Domitian and Empress Domitia.
Image attributed Classical Numismatic Group

Shortly after Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor in 81AD something went badly wrong in Domitian and Domitia's marriage.

"He planned to put his wife, Domitia, to death on the ground of adultery, but having been dissuaded by Ursus, he divorced her, after murdering Paris, the actor, in the middle of the street because of her."
Dio Cassius

Suetonius has the same story, Domitian divorced Domitia because of her adultery with an actor named Paris It was during Domita’s absence that Domitian is alleged to have moved Julia into the palace and lived with her openly as a couple.
This separation from Domitia did not last long.

Upon the demands of the people he became reconciled with Domitia, but continued his relations with Julia none the less.
Dio Cassius

Just how convincing is this alleged infatuation with his niece? It’s surely not surprising that she lived at the palace. She was a member of the Flavian dynasty. 
Suetonius says Domitian loved Julia ardently. If this was true why didn't he marry her after the divorce from Domitia?

Julia. Image by Twdk
Julia was said to have died of an abortion procured when she fell pregnant with Domitian's child.
Domitia and Domitian had no children, only a son that had died in infancy. Julia's child would have been one born of two Flavians, a much needed heir maybe?

There is one further piece of evidence that undermines the story that Julia died of an abortion. A poem by Martial that would have been presented to the emperor. It was written shortly after Julia's death in 91AD


Spring into light, O child promised to the Trojan Iulus,true scion of the gods; spring into light, illustrious child! May your father, after a long series of years, put into your hands the reins of empire, to hold for ever; and may you rule the world, yourself an old man, in concert with your still more aged sire, for you shall Julia herself  with her snow-white thumb, draw out the golden threads of life, and spin the whole fleece of Phrixus' ram.”

The poem speaks of how Domitia was still hoped to produce an heir and that the now deified Julia would watch over him. How suicidal was Martial to write a poem wishing fertility to the empress that mentioned her husband's late mistress who died after becoming pregnant with the emperor's child?  It seems highly unlikely Martial would dare to produce such a work if the Domitian/Julia abortion story were true.
I think it’s more likely that this was scurrilous gossip based on an affectionate yet innocent relationship between uncle and niece.

I believe the real passion, the real love affair, was with Domitia. The woman he defied his father to marry. The woman he refused to give over despite family pressure. The woman he recalled from exiled after she’d cheated on him because ‘the people demanded it’.
Was this passion reciprocated? There were rumours that she was involved in Domitian’s assassination in 96AD. Yet years after his death Domitia continued to call herself Domitian's widow. Surely a sign of deep affection.

The Morality Laws
Courtesy of Wellcome Images

So what is really behind this story of an affair between and emperor and his niece? Is there more to it than just a bit of tittle tattle that apparently only gained traction in the years after Domitian's death?
Domitian was a reforming emperor and one of his key reformations was in the sphere of public morality.

Suetonius mentions many of his acts including:

He struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors, because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery.

This sounds familiar doesn't it? It's exactly what Domitian did with Domitia. 

Then there is this:
He expelled one ex-quaester from the Senate for being over fond of acting and dancing.

Recalling Domitia's over fondness of the actor Paris.

Forbade women of notoriously bad character the right to use litters.

So here we reach the crux: is the Domitian/Domitia/Julia story our sources attempt to portray Domitian as a hypocrite, enforcing morality laws he himself and his wife were breaking?

I think it is a distinct possibility.

L.J. Trafford is the author of a four book series detailing the Year of the Four Emperors
See amazon

Monday, 18 June 2018

My Top Historical Novels - Celia Rees

Like many writers, I have a lot of books. They are threatening to take over the house. It is time for some sorting out and that inevitably means some will have to go. How am I going to decide which to keep and which to throw? The shelves need cataloguing. I'm not talking Dewey Decimal but it would be helpful if the books were in some sort of order. Relevant titles would be easier to find and that would save time. 

As I'm a writer of historical fiction, I thought I might begin with those titles, collect them all together and put them in author order.  These are some of the titles I will be keeping. These are books that mean something to me. Books that changed my perceptions of historical fiction, that have stayed with me, some for a very long time. Books that I discovered as a young reader and as an adult long before I even thought of writing, let alone writing historical fiction. Some are books that I simply admire, that I go to when I think my own writing needs a boost, by writers who leave me in awe to wonder:  'How do they do that? I couldn't do that!'

Here are ten of my 'keepers': 

Margaret Atwood - alias grace

Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights

Charles Frazier - Cold Mountain

William Golding - To the Ends of the Earth Trilogy

Cormac McCarthy -  Border Trilogy

Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies and A Place of Greater Safety

Annie Proulx - Accordian Crimes

Mary Renault - The King Must Die, The Bull From The Sea

Rosemary Sutcliff - Eagle of the Ninth

Leo Tolstoy - War And Peace

Celia Rees

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Bretton Hall and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park by Penny Dolan

Near Wakefield lies the Bretton Hall estate, with its landscaped gardens, lawns and lakes. The grounds hold a changing collection of work by contemporary British and international sculptors: this is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, often known as the YSP.

The place has a history: the house, Bretton Hall was a family home until the twentieth century. The state was inherited, in 1407, by the Wentworth family; during the sixteenth century, it was improved by a fine wood-panelled suite, complete with bedroom furnishings and hangings, created to welcome Henry VIII to the Hall. Although the monarch only spent three nights within the chamber, when Bretton Hall was rebuilt in 1720, the “royal” panelling was installed in the new Palladian mansion and remained there for over two hundred years. 

Then, in 1947, Bretton Hall and its estate were bought by the West Riding Council: the treasured panels were given to Leeds City Council and are now, suitably, at Temple Newsam, an impressive Tudor mansion on the edge of the city of Leeds.

That half-decade gave Bretton Hall a new identity: in 1949, Sir Alec Clegg, the Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, founded a Teacher Training College there, to supply the need for additional teachers. The need was great, not just because of war casualties or baby boom but because various pre-war educational proposals, such as the now familiar primary & secondary school structure, were at last happening.  

A new educational philosophy was in the air, too:
There are two kinds of education: the education of the mind by imparting facts and teaching skills, and the education of the spirit ... the child's loves and hates, his hopes and fears, or in other terms, his courage, his integrity, his compassion and other great human qualities" - Sir Alec Clegg

Through the thirties, there had been a growing conviction the arts were of value to all the population, including the working classes. Alec Clegg was a great friend of Herbert Read who had, in 1943, published Education Through Art, hismanifesto for much-needed educational reforms” which led on to the belief that the arts should have a place in the school curriculum.

Clegg – and this philosophy - shaped Bretton Hall College. Over the decades, the institution grew and flourished, specialising in innovative teaching of design, music and visual and performance arts. The large estate offered space for the studios and ceramic facilities and workshops and theatre spaces that students needed. 

Dotted around the park, where the River Dearne flowed through two artificial lakes, were several original 18C follies and ornamental structures. These, in their way, may have led to the park's new purpose: inspired by the Art’s Council’s open-air exhibitions in London, in 1977, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was established there, as a northern setting for contemporary large-scale sculptures and art works.

Over time, Bretton Hall College, in its rather remote location, began to struggle. Changes during the eighties and nineties – educational, political and cultural - brought financial and other problems. Early in the new century, the remaining courses had been brought within the University of Leeds own School of Performance and Cultural Studies and in 2007, Bretton Hall College was finally closed. 

Meanwhile, English Heritage had studied the Hall and its historic landscape. They found Bretton fragmented by accommodation blocks, studios, offices, outbuildings, car parks and by use as a countryside park and its upkeep much neglected. English Heritage declared the Grade 2 listed Bretton Hall and its grounds at risk and Something had to be Done.

In 2009, Wakefield Council took over the site, promote the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as one of the region’s main visitor attractions. Bretton Hall was sold to a development company, who demolished some of the old and unwanted buildings and converted the Hall into a modern up-market hotel. The YPS already had a large administration, gallery and leisure space but a new Visitor Centre was planned and is due to open soon.

Older areas of the park, such as the Bothy and the walled Garden are still used for ever-changing exhibitions. The old Deer Shelter now encloses the Skyspace, where the changing sky can be seen through a square frame: this often appears as an ident on BBC Four.

Progress continues: the eighteenth century chapel of St Bartholomew, built by Sir Willliam Wentworth and de-consecrated in the 1970’s, was renovated in 2014. The white interior is currently filled by a most atmospheric, three-dimensional thread installation by the artist Chiharu Shiota.

The YPS was not intended as a permanent collection: the exhibits and installations change. The YPS has housed work by Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Gormley, Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and many contemporary British and international artists. Residencies have explored the architectural, historical or natural aspects of the Bretton Hall site.

Yet one artist remains a constant presence: Henry Moore, who grew up in the mining community of nearby Castleford. His massive, curving figures rest well upon the rolling West Bretton landscape, with the wide sky and wind-blown clouds above. 

However, though much at the YPS is beautiful or impressive, this forty-year-old gallery still faces problems. How will Wakefield Council, with cash-strapped funding, and other bodies afford the staffing and maintaining of the YPS  grounds?  Or manage new exhibitions and installations? Or run its education programme for schoolchildren and students?

At this moment in history, the wider view of art for the people and by the people - as well as for the children and by the children - seems under threat: cuts to orchestras and music services, cuts to local museums and galleries, theatre and arts companies, curtailment of out-of-school visits, changes in student grants and in the provision of wider post sixteen and adult education. 

Sir Alec Clegg’s belief that art - and the arts – should be central to education is disappearing under the onslaught of testing, curriculum changes, funding pressures, and the in-school training of teachers and a hard and harsh political climate.

Why have I put this post here on History Girls? Because the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – while it lasts – seems to me to be a monument to a vision of Arts Education that is passing away into history. 

Penny Dolan

ps. Yet, for now, the YPS is still there, just off the M1, and worth a visit. People are free. but there's a charge for car parking.

pps. Past Bretton Hall performing arts students include Colin Welland, John Godber, Kay Mellor, Mark Thomas, Mark Gattis, Reece Shearsmith, Richard OBrien, David Rappaport and Sir Ken Robinson.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Brunel: how to 'meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same...'* - by Sue Purkiss

I recently started volunteering on the SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous ship, the first iron ship in the world: once a rusty hulk abandoned in the Falklands, but now a thing of beauty back in Bristol's dry dock, where she was built.

I've been interested in the Great Britain for quite some time. I even wrote a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage - so I thought I knew a fair bit about it.

But in these few weeks, working with experienced volunteers who've forgotten more about engineering than I'll ever know - one captained two ships in the Royal Navy, for heaven's sake! - I've realised that actually, I know very little - either about the ship, or about the man. I'm sure I'll come back to both in future posts, but there's something in particular that has struck me as I've listened, looked, read and learned.

It's this.

Brunel was in his time, and still is, famous for being as an innovative and incredibly successful engineer. His works are all around us: the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Paddington Station, the Great Britain - and there are lots more besides, both in this country and abroad. He worked at an astonishing rate, firing off ideas, eagerly taking on challenges and responsibilities that would have daunted most people. His statues are all around us too: instantly recognisable with his cigar, his stovepipe hat, and that slightly pudgy face, he pops up all over the place. In 2002, he came second in a BBC poll to find the people's choice of the greatest Briton.

Yet as I started to  learn more about his career, I was struck not only by how successful he was - but also by how often he encountered failure.

For example:
  • His first big project was the Thames Tunnel. This was - still is - a tunnel beneath the Thames, between Rotherhithe and Wapping, designed by Brunel's father, Marc. It was the first tunnel in the world to be built beneath a navigable river. Isambard became the resident engineer when he was only 21. He worked over twenty hours a day, often working alongside the miners who were pushing the tunnel forward, using highly innovative technology designed by the Brunels. It was an extraordinary project which fascinated the public - at one point an elaborate banquet was held in the tunnel, attended by the Duke of Wellington and other dignitaries. But not long after this, water gushed in through a weak point in the river bed. Several men were killed and Isambard himself was badly injured. The tunnel was never used for its intended purpose, though it was a great tourist draw.

  • After this, he went to Bristol, recuperating. A competition was taking place to design a bridge to go over the Avon Gorge. The judge was Thomas Telford. Undeterred by the disaster at the tunnel, Isambard entered. He didn't win. But he didn't give up. He somehow persuaded the board that his plan was the best after all - and he got the job. He put heart and soul into designing a beautiful and functional bridge and risked life and limb surveying it.
    But it all proved too expensive, and building halted - he was never to see his beloved bridge. It was only finally completed many years later after his death, as a tribute to him from his fellow engineers.
  • The Great Britain  herself was built to take large numbers of passengers at a revolutionary speed across the Atlantic. Isambard's vision was that passengers should be able to get on his Great Western Railway (affectionately known as God's Wonderful Railway) in London, alight at Bristol, then get straight onto his glamorous new ship, which would whisk them across the Atlantic to New York. But all did not go smoothly. When he wanted to install a revolutionary screw propellor instead of a paddle wheel, he ran into strong opposition - it would be too expensive, no-one really knew whether it would work, etc etc. But he persisted. The ship was a thing of wonder - but on its fifth voyage, it ran aground in Dundrum Bay on the Irish coast. Another disaster! The cost of refloating and repairing it was ruinous, and it had to be sold at a huge loss - which was when it was fitted out to sail to Australia instead, and began the most successful phase of its long life.
The ship aground in Dundrum Bay

  • And then there was the matter of the railway gauge. The railways were in their infancy when Brunel began his career, but others had already made a start in the north of England - and they had chosen a narrow gauge for the lines. Brunel was convinced that a broader gauge would make for a smoother ride, and would also have advantages in terms of the design of the engines etc. He was probably right, and broad gauge was used in other parts of the world - but in Britain, the decision went against him, and all our railways now are narrow gauge. (This is why there is so much space between the platforms at Bath Station, for example: it was designed for broad gauge
So, famous and successful and in demand as he was, all did not go smoothly for Isambard. But what fascinates me is that when something went wrong, he didn't just put his head in his hands and sit around feeling sorry for himself. (Which, I must admit, is my default reaction.) He simply lit another cigar, sat down at his desk, and cogitated until he had figured out a solution.

Or, if a solution wasn't forthcoming or was beyond his control, he accepted reality and moved on to the next thing, and did the very best he could to make a success out of that.

And that, I think, is deeply admirable - and a very useful example to try to follow!

* From 'If'', by Kipling.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Anthony Bourdain and the history of suicide: the importance of language by Fay Bound Alberti

On 8 June, the BBC reported the sad news that US celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain had died as a result of suicide. Over the next few days, tributes to Bourdain poured in for Bourdain, who was widely respected not only for his writing and presenting, but also because he was passionate about social and political justice. Bourdain was a vocal advocate against sexual harassment and supported his partner Asia Argento in her sexual abuse allegations against shamed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. 'He taught us about food', said Barack Obama, 'but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. he made us a little less afraid of the unknown. We'll miss him'.

Anthony Bourdain with then President Barack Obama

Almost immediately the world's media began to speculate about Bourdain's death, detailing every single nugget they could find about its circumstances, asking why he died, how he died and what 'drove' him to 'commit suicide'. Suggested causes ranged from long term depression to a break up with his partner Argento, with whom he was said to be besotted. Argento was accused of cheating on the chef, and appallingly, blamed for causing Bourdain's death. Their mutual friend Rose McGowan wrote a letter on behalf of Argento, reminding the world how wrong-headed this view was: 'Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame. Anthony's internal war was his war, but now she's been left on the battlefield to take the bullets'.

Heated debates about Bourdain's death erupted all over social media. Some suggested he was murdered by Weinstein. Others wrote about the pressure on people to live perfect lives, especially since Bourdain's death swiftly followed that of the designer Kate Spade, who was equally successful, equally admired and apparently content, who died from suicide on June 5. After the detailed descriptions of death came the blame, and then the claims of selfishness; 'From every corner of the world you were loved. So selfish. You've given us cause to be so angry', said the actor Val Kilmer

Suicide is a complex, sad event. And its language is important. Not just the language of blame and selfishness, which is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst, but also the language in which the act of suicide is itself framed. One debate on Twitter concerned whether or not Bourdain 'committed' suicide, a term that is widely used but judgement-laden. Those who pointed out that suicide shouldn't be a 'PC" issue; that we should be able to speak correctly according to terms - and that Bourdain had committed (or undertaken) an act - missed the point entirely.

The reason why suicide is so emotionally and morally fraught is because of its history, as well as the way it has been philosophically framed. The word 'commit' is no longer appropriate in talking about suicide because it is no longer a criminal offence. People commit murder, assaults and fraud, but they do not commit suicide. To suggest that they do is to ignore the complex emotional history behind the phrase, and to frame suicide in a moralising way that provokes a lack of understanding for people who die from suicide, as well as people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. 

Until 1961, suicide was a criminal act. The Suicide Act decriminalised suicide in England and Wales so that those who tried to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted (the act didn't apply in Scotland, since suicide was never an offence under Scottish law). Assisting in suicide, or more precisely 'assisting, aiding or abetting suicide' became a distinct offence, which is why people will travel to Swiss clinics to end their own lives through voluntary euthanasia. I was reminded, when I read about Bourdain, of the news coverage of David Goodall, the 104-year-old retired Australian scientist who, in May this year, chose to end his life in a Swiss clinic: 'At my age, and even rather less than my age, one wants to be free to choose the death when the death is the appropriate time', he said.  

David Goodall, bidding goodbye to his family before leaving for Switzerland
The moral outrage that had accompanied Bourdain's death was missing in news reports. Was this because he was older? Because his death took place in an official space? Because it was more dignified? Or something else. Why isn't the decision to take one's own life an individual one, since our lives, in modern philosophical terms, are ours to do so as we choose? Why is suicide illegal?  

The answer lies in religious belief, which for centuries was intertwined with the legal system in the UK. The early Christian theologian St Augustine and the Dominican Friar St Thomas Aquinas both argued that suicide was taking away a life that was not one's own, but God's.  Suicide, from the Latin 'sui' (of oneself) and 'cidiim' (a killing) was a rejection of God's power, sine only God had the right to create and destroy life. 

Saint Augustine of Hippo, attributed to Gerard Seghers
To commit suicide was therefore akin to committing a sin, as well as a criminal offence. And society was cruel to the bodies and the memories of those who died by suicide. If proven to be sane, they were denied a Christian burial and carried to a crossroads in the dead of night. There, their bodies would be placed in a pit with a wooden stake driven through their chests - in case their possessed spirits returned to contaminate the rest of the village. There would be no mourning, no prayers. 

This tradition must have been extremely difficult for the loved ones in an age when religious belief was universal. It was also harsh in other ways: the dead person's family were stripped of any entitlement to the deceased's belongings for they were handed to the crown. Social historians Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy have written of cases where this happened in seventeenth-century England, when insanity and depression were still regarded as spiritual rather than mental afflictions.  

Not all cultures have been so unforgiving. At the other extreme of suicide as a religiously outrageous choice is self-denial and self sacrifice as a supremely spiritual act. Suicide can be understood to be an act of honour rather than disgrace - most famously in Japan, where Samurai warriors would carry out Seppuku, a ritual form of disembowelment, rather than become hostages of their enemies. 

Seppuku with ritual attire, courtesy of Wikipedia

It is extraordinary to think that suicide in the UK was a crime until 1961. But attitudes to suicide are, as the case of Anthony Bourdain shows, filled with fear and anxiety, as well as anger. They are fraught with ideas of moral right as well as public accountability - who are we responsible for in life, and when is it acceptable to ignore those responsibilities? This is particularly controversial when a person dying from suicide has children.

In the digital age, suicide can be private, but it can also be public. There have been many cases of YouTube suicides, when the death of suffering people is filmed, as well as encouraged, by anonymous viewers. This tragic combination of an individual need for support and a vocal yet unfeeling audience, seems to highlight the desolation of many people who are in search of a degree of empathy or understanding that is not forthcoming. Consider the Logan Paul debacle, in which a YouTuber visited a forest in Japan known for its use as a 'suicide spot'. When they came across a man hanging from a tree, Paul said 'call the police bro', but headed in for a close-up. The 'fun vlog' was posted on YouTube under the heading: 'We found a dead body in the Japanese suicide forest'. The video has since been removed as a result of protests. 

Logan Paul

Suicide continues to divide us in an age of digital spectacle. Paul was vigorously defended by YouTubers and viewers who felt that he was simply reporting the facts. That suicide was a reality and he covered it as such. Where are the lines between reporting and creating sensational events in the digital age, whether they are happy or tragic? And what kinds of languages are needed to talk about suicide in an age where performances of the self are much more instant, public and permanent than ever before? 

Talking about suicide is important, both to respect the dead and their friends and families, but also to prevent people from feeling that suicide is the only choice. We are good at highlighting mental illness in the 21st century as being common and widespread; we are less good at doing anything about it. Mental health services are constantly being cut and the social stigma around self-harm limited many people from finding help. 

There were over 6,000 deaths from suicide in the UK in 2015. The highest rate was in men aged 40-44 years old in the UK (in Ireland it was for men aged 25-34). Suicide rates for women are at their highest in a decade, though far more men die from suicide every year than women. We might say that it's a social problem as much as an individual one, since men are not traditionally encouraged to talk about their problems, or to get help for mental illness. 

Whatever the causes of death from suicide, it's not a criminal or a wilful or a selfish act. It is a result of a person being in so much pain that living has become unbearable. That is not shameful, nor a sign of a person's weakness. And it isn't about blame. We need to move away from the language of 'committing' suicide because it makes a difference in how depression and mental health is framed and understood. 

Samaritans mental health hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be contacted at any time from any phone for FREE on 116 123. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Listening to Scent - by Lesley Downer

The Tale of Genji, Chapter 34
Catching the scent 
of orange trees that wait to bloom
until the fifth month
I recall from long ago
the scented sleeves of one now gone

Kokinshu poem number 139 (published 915 AD)

Of all the senses, perhaps smell has the greatest power to evoke and transport, to bring sudden sharp memories flooding back of a person or place once beloved and long forgotten.

A thousand years ago in Japan, while on another small island on the other side of the world Beowulf was fighting Grendel, the Wanderer was sitting desolately by the seashore bewailing his fate and monks were putting together the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Japanese poets were examining their senses and probing their feelings in a way that would not be unfamiliar today.

In the Heian period, around the eleventh century, one of the most highly appreciated artistic skills among the noble class was the art of blending perfumes. While we developed oil-based perfumes, Japanese perfected the art of heating the woods which formed the basis of their scents so that they produced no smoke, only fragrance. 
Wakamurasaki, Tale of Genji, Chapter 5

In this society - depicted in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji - noblewomen lived hidden away in their palaces, occasionally allowing a brocade sleeve to waft its scent from a carriage window as a hint of their beauty. Noblemen would exchange poems with them, decide on the strength of their poetic skills and the beauty of their calligraphy if they were worthy of pursuit, then creep in to visit them at dead of night. No matter how dark it was the ladies always knew exactly who the visitor was by his distinctive perfume. 

In the perfume competition chapter in The Tale of  Genji the judge, Prince Hotaru, complains that it’s so smoky that he finds it very hard to judge the perfumes properly. The author, the court lady know as Murasaki Shikibu, describes one of the perfumes as ‘a calm, elegant scent,’ another as ‘full and nostalgic’, one as ‘bright and up-to-date with a slightly pungent touch’ and another as having ‘a gentle aroma and rather touching tenderness.’ 

The exquisite world of the Heian nobles was as fragile as the scent of orange blossom. It faded away but the tradition of creating and appreciating scent lived on. 

Kimono laid over rack above censer to scent
Till the mid-nineteenth century women scented their kimonos overnight, laying them on a wooden framework over an incense burner, and draped their glossy long black hair over incense burners to scent it. 

A woodblock print at the Tokyo National Museum shows a courtesan reclining languidly, her kimono suggestively parted at hem and neck, with an incense burner between her feet. We can imagine the perfume coiling up through her clothes and emerging from the loose folds of her kimono at her breast. 

Young men about town, geisha and courtesans carried pieces of scented wood in their sleeves and rubbed powdered scent onto their hands and neck. 

When I lived in Japan I once went to the great city of Kanazawa on the Japan Sea coast. A friend had put me in touch with a celebrated master of the Noh theatre. Japanese tend to be rather formal around each other, especially if they are famous as this gentlemen was. But they relish the chance to relax with foreigners who are not such sticklers for the proper Japanese ways of behaviour. 

Preparing for incense guessing game
He introduced me to the incense ceremony. It’s somewhat more recherché than tea ceremony and while tea ceremony ends with a cup of tea, the incense ceremony is more like a game. In fact it’s a bit like wine tasting.

There’s a whole connoisseurship of the different incenses, much like wines. To the novice they may seem similar but to the trained nose they’re quite different. Some are musky, some more like sandalwood or pine or plum blossom. The most exquisite and expensive scent of all is kyara. Imported from Vietnam, it’s an ancient wood that takes thousands of years to develop and, so I’m told, costs many times more than the equivalent weight of gold.

As with tea ceremony, the implements are works of art. There is an ash smoother, chopsticks to handle small incense pieces, an answer sheet holder and tweezers. The central piece of equipment is the incense censer which holds hot ashes on top of which you put a tiny fragment of incense.
Listening to incense

In a game there are five or six scents to choose from. Players kneel in a row or a square and pass the censer around, holding it in the prescribed fashion. You take turns to inhale long and slow and guess which of the scents it is. The referee writes down your guess. Then you go on to the next. The person who gets the most right is the winner.

It’s a social activity yet also peaceful and contemplative. Instead of guessing you can just sit back and ‘listen’ to the incense as they say in Japanese or compose a poem or talk about the scent.

The fragrance -
more alluring than the colour -
whose scented sleeves have brushed
the blossoms in my garden?


Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic and fragrant tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. For more see

Top 2 images: The Tale of Genji chapter 34 (18th century Japanese painting, Honolulu Museum of Art) 
Wakamurasaki, traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 - 1691),part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke
Both courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Other images mine.