Friday, 19 February 2021

Belfast 1921 by Sheena Wilkinson

 A photo can tell you so much. 

When I was writing Hope against Hope, set in Belfast and along the new Irish border in 1921, I spent a lot of time walking round East Belfast and trying to see it as it would have been one hundred years ago when I placed my fictional girls' hostel there.  I also pored over old photos. Some streets and buildings – terraced houses, churches and mission halls and shops – haven’t changed too much, but there are new housing estates where once were factories; new motorway links and huge junctions have replaced back allies and tramlines.


Belfast in 1921 was on fire – often literally. Northern Ireland, which commemorates its centenary this year, was born from compromise and conflict, an expedient solution to an age-old problem. It was not really designed or expected to succeed; many would argue that it has not. But this is not a political post. This is about two little girls who had their photo taken in East Belfast in the early 1920s – it might not have been 1921, but I like to imagine it was because of the novel. 

Their names are Frances and Annie Duff. Frances is about thirteen and Annie nine or ten. They are my grandmother and my great aunt. They smile out, both with the expressions I remember so well from their later lives as elderly women. (They both lived into their nineties.)  They are well dressed, with the extravagant hair bows I remember from early school story illustrations. Both wear pearls and Annie has a wristwatch. This is clearly An Occasion. 

I like to think that it is June 1921 and that they are all dressed up to go and see the King and Queen open the first Northern Irish parliament at City Hall, as thousands of other unionists did. But possibly not. Gran, an inveterate teller of Stories of the Olden Days,  never mentioned such an outing. But then I knew nothing of this visit myself until I did the research for 
Hope against Hope, so perhaps I just didn’t ask the right questions. When I look closer at their frocks – all their lives they would call dresses frocks -- I see that they are fashionably short, but with huge hems –  made to last. They contrast with the lace edgings of their best frocks in the photo taken some years before – and I think this is not just a change in fashion, but a change in family fortunes. Their mother, Fanny, made their clothes, and took in sewing after their father died – which I believe was in between the two photos. As was the death of their big sister Sadie. 


Unlike the first photo, which was definitely taken in a photographic studio, I fancy this one was taken at home in Beechfield Street. I imagine that I remember that very vase, that little table with its barley-twist legs, but both would have been commonplace in 1921, so they may well have been in a studio.  Wherever they are, I do know that outside was a troubled city, disturbed by rioting and burnings. I know their local Catholic church was attacked in 1920, and that same year, thousands of Catholic workers were run out of the shipyard where Frances and Annie’s father and brothers worked. Nothing of that shows in the photo, but then neither does the tragedy even closer to home – except that Frances, now unexpectedly the Big Sister instead of the middle one, leans rather protectively into Annie – perhaps she is thinking of how fragile a sister’s hold on life can be. Or perhaps she is just doing what the photographer asked: all her life she was a gentle and compliant woman, unlike her granddaughter.

My favourite scene in Hope against Hope is a garden party, where the girls of the hostel at the centre of the story invite neighbouring families for tea, sports and entertainment. Of course I know that’s not where Frances and Annie are going, a treat after the family deaths, a distraction from the troubled city outside their front door. Because I made it up.

But without Gran’s stories, and photos like this, I couldn’t have. 







Friday, 12 February 2021

Revisiting Mary Kingsley - Joan Lennon

[I've been thinking about travel, in these times without, and would like to repost something I did back in 2013 about the intrepid, fiercely intelligent, witty Mary Kingsley.] 

Mary Kingsley was a model Victorian female. She was a good little girl who lived with her parents, helped her mother with the house and her father with his hobbies and interests. She was a good young woman who nursed her parents in their final illnesses. And, at the age of 30, she was all set to become a good old maid, when something amazing happened. She fell in love ...

... with Africa. West Africa, 'the white man's grave'. The Africa of mangrove swamps and malaria, cannibals and crocodiles, 'Fetish' and undiscovered species of fish. It is impossible to do the next seven years of her life any kind of justice in the space of a blog post - this is a woman who collected insects and fish for the British Museum, continued her father's studies in 'pagan' religions, journeyed down rivers and through swamps and up mountains, encountered - and had clear ideas of the differences between - dozens of tribes, and by the end of the her life was advising the British government on their African policies - and doing it all in a long skirt and several layers of petticoats.* She held some views that were very much of the time, and some that were very much her own.**  And she wrote about it all with a turn of phrase as elegant as a lady's ankle.

Take crocodiles, for example:

Now a crocodile drifting down in deep water, or lying asleep with its jaws open on a sand-bank in the sun, is a picturesque adornment to the landscape when you are on the deck of a steamer, and you can write home about it and frighten your relations on your behalf; but when you are away among the swamps in a small dug-out canoe, and that crocodile and his relations are awake - a thing he makes a point of being at flood tide because of fish coming along - and when he has got his foot upon his native heath - that is to say, his tail within holding reach of his native mud - he is highly interesting, and you may not be able to write home about him ...

Or, this discussion of a traveller's options, who finds him, or as it might be, herself tide-trapped in a mangrove swamp:

Of course if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity's Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime, cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce 20,000 years hence, and the care you will be taken of then by your fellow-creatures, in a museum. But if you are a mere ordinary person of a retiring nature, like me, you stop in your lagoon until the tide rises again ...

Or, the description of a chance meeting with a leopard in a storm:

His forepaws were spread out in front of him and he lashed the ground with his tail, and I grieve to say, in face of that awful danger - I don't mean me, but the tornado - that depraved creature swore, softly, but repeatedly and profoundly ...

Commemorative stamp, May 1969, Great Britain

And this is what she says about this love that took over her life:

The charm of West Africa is a painful one: it gives you pleasure when you are out there, but when you are back here it gives you pain by calling you ... you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people round, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there, and the sound of the wind talking on the hard palm leaves and the thump of the natives' tom-toms; or the cry of the parrots passing over the mangrove swamps in the evening time; or the sweet, long, mellow whistle of the plantain warblers calling up the dawn; and everything that is round you grows poor and thin ... and you want to go back ...

Mary Kingsley (1890s)

The Victorian era produced many fine, strong, distinctive voices, and hers was certainly one of them - as personal and engaging as if she were in the same room. I wish she were!

Mary H. Kingsley (1862-1900)
Travels in West Africa (1897)

* Plenty of petticoats prove an excellent defence when attacked by village geese, or when falling into a fifteen-foot deep game pit studded with 12-inch spikes. It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick skirt.

** She defended, for example, the practice of polygamy - it was clear to her that women were far better off being able to share the work and the child care. She also felt strongly that some of the tribes had intellectual strengths greater than the capacity of their language. And she valued the work of the trader over the contributions of the missionary.

[Mary Kingsley died at age 37 from typhoid contracted while nursing Boer prisoners of war in a South African hospital.]

Joan Lennon Instagram

Friday, 5 February 2021

Writing and Researching During a Pandemic - by Anna Mazzola

How do you write creatively when you’re living through a global crisis? For much of the first lockdown it seemed that – for me at least – the answer was ‘you can’t’. Trying to fit my law work around home-schooling two young children meant I had no time and no headspace for writing. It wasn’t just that either: it was a feeling that, in the midst of all this suffering and chaos, what on earth would be the point? 

However, an imminent deadline meant I had to pull myself together. At the beginning, it seemed impossible and overwhelming. I had too much work, I had two children shouting downstairs, I couldn’t possibly do it. Except that I had to do it. I took a few afternoons off work. I turned the internet off to stop myself looking at breaking news and social media and constant messages. I went out running to clear my head. Every evening I continued working until late, keeping going on tea and adrenaline.    

I’m so glad that I did. I had forgotten that I need to write – that it takes me out of the day-to-day and puts me in different place. It’s my way of thinking clearly, and keeping sane. I’m not alone in this. Writer Rowan Coleman says writing is, ‘the only thing I can do right now that feels normal, so I find even the tricky bits very relaxing.’ 

I love the historical research too - it reminds me that our current woes are a mere jot in centuries of human suffering. My fourth novel is set in Mussolini's Rome as the world hurtles towards war. Whatever difficulties we may be experiencing now, they are probably not as catastrophic as the trials of the Second World War.

For many people, however, writing is very difficult or even impossible at the moment. They’re constantly caring for others or working around the clock. And, as Will Dean says, ‘The low-level, constant underlying anxiety (with no reliable end date to give comfort) is not conducive to creativity.’  

From my own experience and speaking to other writers, the key tips to writing during lockdown seem to be as follows: 

1. Set a routine, and carve out some time away from your other demands. For some, that means getting up at the crack of dawn. For others, it means writing at evenings or weekends or at set times of day.

2. Shut off the internet. Or at least find an app like Self Control or Freedom that blocks certain sites. Abir Mukerjee says, ‘Set aside a few hours when you can keep distractions to a minimum. Switch off the phone and the internet and the Zoom, lock the kids in the basement and just write.’ I've left Twitter for the time being as just don't have time to do it all.

3. Don your ear defenders. I invested in a decent pair a while ago and they were worth every penny, allowing me to cancel out the sound of the children shouting downstairs and the the workmen drilling next door. Others prefer to listen to music or even white noise to put them in the writing zone. 

4. Find diversions for the kids to keep them out of the room. The sign I stuck to my door begging my children to leave me alone had pretty much no effect. Canadian writer Elle Wild says, ‘I carve out a set time at end of school day and assign my kid a task, like painting, practicing music, or walking pup while I write. It’s tough. Just do what you can.’

5. Work in short bursts. Many use the Pomodoro technique, writing in twenty-minute bursts. Victoria Scott says, ‘I have young kids, so I'd snatch 20 minutes while they were eating, or playing outside, or watching TV. Setting a timer for 20 mins seems to help, too.’  

6. Find ways to motivate yourself. Angela Clarke breaks her calendar days into four-hour blocks, and shades in what she’s done. ‘2 hours worth and I’m happy. 4 and I’m thrilled.’ 

7. Lower your expectations and give yourself a break. These are very tough times. Laura Wilson says, ‘Manage your expectations - if you can only do half, or even a quarter, of your normal word count, so be it.’ 

8. Go outside, walk, run, jump, dance. I go running (not very fast) four or five times a week. Other writers go walking, cycling, or just spend time outside. I think it’s probably essential for mental well-being in general but it makes a big difference to my writing.  

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. But if you have any top tips, I’d love to hear them. 

Featured imaged - Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of Creation.

Friday, 29 January 2021

David Gitlitz by Gillian Polack


I was going to write about the extraordinary and the enormous today, but we’re living with too much history right now. We don’t need the enormous. We do, however, need a sense that we can continue, despite everything.

We have lost far, far too many people from the pandemic. One of them was David Gitlitz. He is one of the scholars whose life work reminds us that life continues and even shows us ways of how to make that happen. He was the co-author of a cookbook. Not just any cookbook.

The Jews of Spain and the Spanish colonies were expelled, murdered or converted, starting in 1492. Those were literally the three life choices they had. This book is a research tour-de-force, showing us what they ate and when they ate it.

The Church was worried about Jewish conversion. It felt that Judaism was in the blood. Inquisitions were set up to investigate the lives of many individuals and families. One of the aims was to destroy Jewish culture, including family recipes and any lifestyle that was not Spanish Catholic. For those who were discovered to be secretly Jewish, the worst outcome was being burned alive. Others had to atone. Even the best outcome meant a secondary status, for those with Jewish ancestry were not considered to be pure of blood. There was no good in the investigation. No happiness. People who had thought “I will give up my ancestral religion and be a proper Spaniard,” were being dragged into a life where friends and neighbours and even the household help was spying on them.

David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson documented some of these people in A Drizzle of Honey. They used the records of the Inquisition to find out about the everyday and who survived and to bring that whole shameful episode of history to life for us. They rebuild the foodways of a persecuted people from the very records used to document the persecution.

It’s a reminder that people survive, and it’s also a document of a vanished culture. More than that, A Drizzle of Honey is one of the best cookbooks I own. I use it to remind myself that every single scarp of food in an historical novel is a reminder of people who might otherwise be lost. I use it to cook from. I use it to teach from. And I use it, right now, as a solid reminder of a scholar who is lost to us through COVID-19, and that our work won’t be lost when we’re gone or if we’re forced into hiding, as long as there are historians to investigate.

I opened the book at random, and found a recipe for Brazilian meat pie. The minced beef is flavoured with allspice and paprika and a touch of sugar. It contains garlic and onion. The Fernandez family of Bahia made this for Shabbat. Meat pies for Sabbath are documented right back to the Middle Ages. I know what I’m making for my Friday night soon. Very soon.

David Gitlitz honoured hidden Jews, secret Jews, and murdered Jews. I honour him, every time I pull this book from my shelf.

May his memory be a blessing.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Pandora and her container



Greek women are on a roll. No, not Arianna Huffington, Melina Mercouri and Irene Papas, but their counterparts in ancient mythology. We had Madeleine Miller's cracking Circe (her first book having focussed on the men - Achilles and Patroclus); Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (the sequel, The Women of Troy, will be out this August) and Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships, which all worked from the premise made explicit in Barker's title: that we know the women of Greek myths only through a male perspective.

At the same time, there has been a trend in presenting both myth and history as if they have to be funny in order to be interesting. I blame Horrible Histories myself. I have not always enjoyed Natalie Haynes on radio 4 because of this tendency, so approached Pandora's Jar with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation

There are jokes. Haynes can't help herself: she used to be a stand-up comedian. But there is also a great deal to illuminate and enjoy. Although she says at the end that it isn't "a scholarly book," her frame of reference takes in Stesichorus, Theognis and Diodorus Siculus as well as Hesiod, Pausanias and the Greek tragedians. There is no need for her to self-deprecate, although an index would have been nice.

But this is marketed as a book with popular appeal and the production is gorgeous. I want to give a shout-out to Swedish artist Petra Bӧrner for the beguiling cover. 

Let's get that business of Pandora's container out of the way. If asked, I would have said "box;" wouldn't you? That is the common expression but we get it from Erasmus in the 16th century who translated pyxis instead of pithos, which is a tall jar. So if we've got that so wrong, what else have we mis-believed about Pandora?

Well her name means "all-giving" as well as "all-gifted," according to Haynes, which certainly puts a new spin on her actions. She was created as the first woman, being given assets by the gods, and was then presented to Epimetheus as a wife. (He was the brother of Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus). In some versions, she brings the jar with her as a dowry. But in no ancient Greek source is she forbidden to open it; that has been tacked on by later re-tellers of the story, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Roger Lancelyn-Green. There isn't even agreement that the jar is full of evils. Theognis says Pandora released good things like self-control and trust, which flew away, explaining why they are so rare among men.

                                            Pandora - artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons)

Having sorted us out on Pandora, Natalie Haynes moves on to nine other women or groups, which are worth naming: Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and Penelope.

After a discussion of their places in popular mythology and a look at Greek sources, Haynes goes on to look at more recent interpretations in a variety of art forms. It's a real shame she doesn't mention Stravinsky's short opera, Oedipus Rex, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau, based on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. It's true that Jocasta has no more prominence in terms of number of lines in that work than she does in Sophocles. But what lines and what music!

Oracula, oracula, mentita sunt oracula.

It's also true that "the fixation on Oedipus sucks all the light and air"  out of the story, as Haynes observes

Helen "of Troy" is probably the most famous of the women in Greek mythology in this book. She was abducted by (or went willingly with) Paris, prince of Troy, from her marital home and caused a ten-year war between Greece and Troy to restore her to her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. But how many people know the alternative version in which an image of Helen was taken in her stead and the real Helen kept safe for the duration in Egypt? It is found in Euripides' play, Helen.

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on The Amazons. How many Amazons can you name? Haynes says there are more than sixty names on depictions of them on Greek vases. I could summon up only Hippolyta and, at a pinch, Penthesilea. The great things about the Amazons, as Haynes make clear, is that they fought together. They are not interested in single heroic acts like the men in Greek mythology; there are no Amazonian equivalents of Achilles or Hector. Even when Penthesilea takes on Achilles after Hector's death, she brings another dozen Amazons with her.

One of ways in which they have been diminished is the example of describing Hyppolita's war-belt as a "girdle." In Pseudo-Apollodorus' Biblioteca, Haynes tells us, one of the Labours of Heracles/Hercules is to bring back the belt of the Amazon for a princess called Admete. This belt would have held weapons and been a broad, sturdy affair, nothing like a loose waist-tie to cinch in a flowing tunic. Still less like the barely functional adornment of a naked woman as in the 16th century Dutch painting below

The chapter I was most looking forward to was the one on Clytemnestra and I must here declare an interest: I have long found her a subject of much calumny and wrote a short story in her voice for an anthology called Bloody Women, which ended up mothballed. Maybe its time has come now? Haynes does make much of the fact that Agamemnon sacrificed his and C's oldest daughter at Aulis in order to get a fair wind for his ships to Troy. And that would be quite enough to make you hate your husband and have some defence for killing him.

But few people take account that Clytenmestra's first husband, Tantalus and their baby son were both killed by Agamemnon before he married her. Haynes does mention this but doesn't give it the prominence I do. To recap: your sister is the most beautiful woman in the world and also semi-divine; your husband and baby son are murdered by an invading thug; you are then given to said thug as his bride; you buckle down to your fate and bear him three (or four) children; he murders the first child you bore him and goes off to war for ten years; you hear he has taken not one but two war-brides as part of his booty; he returns home, where you have ruled as queen for a decade, bringing a third war-bride with him. You then, with your lover, kill him. What court would not agree you have been provoked?

The trouble is that three great tragedians have written about this story and the focus is on Clytemnestra as the archetype of a bloodthirsty, vengeful wife, not a woman provoked to the limit of endurance by her murderous, unfaithful husband. Here I should have liked to know that Haynes was familiar with Richard Strauss's expressionist masterpiece, Elektra. Not because it exonerates the queen but because it contains her fabulous aria about the nightmares she has about her son, Orestes, coming to exact bloody vengeance for the death of his father. Clytemnestra knows how differently women who kill are judged  from their male counterparts.

Of the remaining women in the book, only Medea has much agency. Eurydice, Phaedra and Penelope all seem to be women to whom things happen.

Eurydice, after being stung by a serpent, dies and goes down to Hades. Its eponymous ruler wants to keep her but her husband Orpheus has other ideas. Orpheus enters the underworld playing his lyre and the shades of the dead come to hear his music. Even Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, stands gaping. Eurydice is handed back to her husband, they leave together, with the woman walking behind.

The prohibition on looking back is not mentioned in Virgil until after Orpheus has forgotten and broken it. It is made more of in Ovid, who doesn't tell us that Eurydice was fleeing from her would-be rapist Aristaeus when the snake bites. The common theme as in so many of this myths is that no-one asks the woman what she wants. 

 Haynes  is good here on later representations, citing Gluck and, briefly, Cocteau, even Philip Glass's "bonkers" opera (but not Harrison Birtwistle's equally bonkers The Mask of Orpheus). What they have in common is all taking Orpheus' point of view: how would a man feel if his wife died young? Only Carol Ann Duffy's poem in The World's Wife, shows Eurydice content in the underworld and relieved to be shot of a husband "who follows her round/writing poems."

Phaedra's story is one that bears fleshing out. Her sister Ariadne has already been betrayed and abandoned by Theseus when this "hero" marries her. Her fate, decreed by Aphrodite, is to fall hopelessly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who has scorned the goddess of love in favour of Artemis, the patron of hunting. None of this has anything to do with Phaedra herself; she has to bear the tragedy of Aphrodite's pique.

In Euripides' play, Hippolytus, we see her almost dying for love of her stepson and, when she does hang herself, she leaves a note for Theseus that his son has tried to rape her. In Racine's play, Phèdre, the difference is that the queen's waiting woman has told the young man of his stepmother's passion and he has shown disgust at the idea. In both versions, the best known loci for Phaedra's story, Thesus curses his son for the alleged rape and the young man is horribly crushed by his own chariot. So Aphrodite gets her revenge and Phaedra is collateral damage.

Penelope is the last woman that Haynes tackles and again refreshes our image of the patient wife left waiting twenty years for her husband Odysseus (Ulysses), chastely rejecting other suitors - a passive figure. Firstly, Haynes makes it clear that Penelope is quite as clever as her husband; the wheeze of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law and undoing it every night is her idea. She has told the gaggle of suitors that she won't marry until it is finished and they are too dumb to twig her deceit. It it would be hard work too, as Haynes points out, not like undoing some knitting, where you just pull on one thread and the work unravels.

                                                 Athene watches Penelope "unweaving"

Penelope waits for Odysseus because, unlike his hundred would-be replacements, he is clever and therefore interesting. The story is taken from Homer's Odyssey but there is a modern version worth mentioning, Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, which begins with the hanging of the slave-women by Telemachus after the suitors have been killed and I'm glad that Haynes knows it.

But the star of this book is Medea, the seemingly irredeemable wife of Jason, who killed their children. I'm not specially interested in the vaunted introduction to the chapter linking her to Beyoncé; You can read it perfectly well without that. Haynes reminds of of the parallels between Theseus and Jason, who abandon the women who help them in their quests. Theseus dumps Ariadne, who has provided him with a way to navigate to the centre of the labyrinth, so that he could kill her half-brother, the Minotaur, and rescue himself and all future young Athenians from the annual sacrifice to the monster in the maze.

Jason simply could not have taken the golden fleece from Medea's father without her help. The two women help their boorish "heroes" because of being smitten by love. But here's a difference: Medea is a powerful witch and she is not to be scorned without a cost. She has been married to Jason long enough to have two young but not infant sons with him but then he decides to marry another woman, the daughter of the king of Corinth, and send Medea and their children into exile.

Euripides' play, Medea, gives her terrific speeches in which she gets the audience on her side as much as the Chorus she is ostensibly addressing. Medea is not going to go quietly. She manages to poison Jason's intended bride and her father the king. But then, believing that her children will be killed in revenge, she slays them herself. This is no less shocking today than it was in 431 BCE, when the play was first performed in Athens. We can't exonerate Medea but thanks to Natalie Haynes we can understand her a tiny bit better.

Pandora's Jar fulfils its promise to let us see these ten women afresh, to re-visit their stories by putting ourselves in their position rather than that of the men - and gods - who act upon them. Natalie Haynes' very readable text performs the same task as a picture-restorer or a mender of broken pottery; she allows us to see them without the ravages of the centuries, as believable women living in real time.

                                                   Natalie Haynes credit: Jamie Betts


Friday, 15 January 2021

Run Your Town Like a Roman - 12 tips from the past, by Ruth Downie

Human nature, it seems, has changed little since AD 91, when the emperor Domitian issued a set of laws for the town of Irni. Many of them made me laugh, because it was clear that the rules were designed to head off exactly the same sort of misunderstanding and mischief-making that still goes on today. Others were clearly based on a mindset very different to our own. Here are a few gems of advice from the past:

1 Everyone in town must know what the rules are. They must be engraved on bronze plaques and put up in the middle of town where they can clearly be read from ground level. There is to be no burying of bad news, hiding devilish detail in small print or placing plaques so high that nobody can read them without a ladder. 

Two people looking up at tall Roman building
"Did you bring the binoculars?"

 2 Remember that while mortal guardians sleep, the gods and the divine ghosts of emperors past are always on the lookout for wrongdoing. Everyone who holds office in the town must swear by Jupiter and the Divine Augustus and the Divine Claudius and the Divine Vespasian Augustus and the Divine Titus Augustus and the genius of the Emperor Domitian Augustus and the Penates that he will act in good faith.

3 There is to be no fake news. All decisions must be read out as soon as possible and council scribes are to make a public record of what’s been decided without entering anything false or leaving anything out, or else incur the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc.

4 Two men with equal authority should be placed in charge of the council. Ideally they will be so busy squabbling with each other that neither will pose any threat to the higher authorities. In order to get necessary business done even when relations are bad, some ground rules will be necessary – for example, nobody can make decisions about money unless three-quarters of the councillors are there to vote on them. And when one of the top men has called a meeting, the other one can’t demand that everyone abandon it and come to his own meeting instead. (Ordinary residents, of course, should not be allowed to hold large meetings at all. No good will come of it.)

5 Cheer everyone up by supporting the arts – as soon as possible, vote a budget for religious observances, games and public dinners.

Modern gladiators in the amphitheatre at Chester
Everyone enjoys the Games

6 Make it clear that the councillors in charge of drains, roads, etc. will have the help of municipal slaves to do the actual dirty work.

7 Are there still not enough willing councillors, despite the offer of free labour and public dinners? Have the names of every eligible man (obviously non-men are not eligible) written up in public. At ground level. Order them to nominate each other. You will have an instant rush of nominees.

8 Now you have the nominees - some advice on elections. Nobody is to do anything to prevent the election being held. Everyone seeking election can place a scrutineer by each ballot box. If two candidates have the same number of votes, the one who is married will be elected. If they are both married, tot up the number of legitimate sons each of them has. The one with the most sons wins. (For the avoidance of dispute, use the official points system to allow for any children who have not survived. If this still doesn’t settle the matter, draw lots.)

outline of ballot box
9 Get a grip on the grain supply and keep control of weights and measures and the retail sector. Ban hoarding and price-fixing. No-one is to corner the market in any one commodity - not even toilet rolls.

10 Tired of the endless grumbling from residents who demand that “the council ought to do something about…” x, y or z? Remind them that residents can be conscripted for five days each year to work without pay on major Council projects. This will test their resolve.

11 Ambassadors. Being sent away to represent the town’s views (whatever you think of them) is not always a popular job, so any man who claims to be ineligible because he is ill, or over 60, should be made to swear it in front of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc. If he is later found out to be lying, he will suffer not only the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc., but also a fine of 20,000 sesterces. This is enough to pay 16 legionaries for a year, so if a modern army private in the UK earns about £20,000 a year, set the fine at £320,000.

Bust of the Emperor Domitian - Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
The emperor is running out of patience.

12 And finally – the laws end with a special letter from the emperor Domitian himself. Its meaning is now lost to us, but if, in the light of recent legislation, you are concerned about the hasty marriage (?) that you contracted, this is for you. The emperor wants you to know that he is prepared to overlook the past, but he is now running out of patience. Don’t do it again.

The Lex Irnitana, the statement of law for the southern Spanish town of Irni, was discovered on bronze plaques in the 1980s. I’m immensely grateful to Paul du Plessis, who originally drew my attention to it, but who shares none of the blame for what lies above. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of it should consult:

The Lex Irnitana: A New Copy of the Flavian Municipal Law Author(s): Julián González and Michael H. Crawford Source: The Journal of Roman Studies , 1986, Vol. 76 (1986), pp. 147-243 Published by: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies Stable URL: JSTOR

Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. 

Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 8 January 2021

Basketry by Janie Hampton

Bronislava and Jan Madejscy with their kablacok willow baskets, are part of the Slow Art in Poland movement, in Lucimia Village which is on UNESCO’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ list. © Paulina Adamska, Serfenta Association, 2009.
Baskets have been part of our lives ever since humans first gathered fruit to eat. Since then, basketry skills have been used to make hats, water carriers, coffins, boats, furniture, lampshades and designer handbags.
Despite much speculation, the origin of the word ‘basket’ is obscure but is assumed to be from the early 13th C Anglo-French bascat. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest source is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor published in 1602: ‘Look, here is a basket…. he may creep in here.’
Because baskets are used until they fall apart, and are then either burned or decay, they rarely feature in archeology. The earliest known baskets survived through chance – in fish-traps left behind in waterlogged ditches; in permafrost; or in desert caves.
Baskets have been found in Turkey from the neo-lithic period of 7500-5500 BC. They left only impressions in the mud after they were wrapped around the dead. In Fayum, near the Nile Valley in Egypt, there are no traces of dwellings left, but over 100 grain storage pits made between 5000 and 4200 BC reveal patterns from baskets made from wheat straw. One whole boat-shaped basket with colours and fine patterns was found in a grain pit in 1924. Its discovery raised the question: ‘Does its quality indicate that the value of grain was very high? Or was it first used for something of higher status, and then when it was half worn out, recycled as a grain scoop?’
Early 20thC basketmaker in Kent.  © Mary Butcher
Humans have always been good at adapting whatever they can find, to live more comfortably and safely. In the Peruvian Andes, the Spanish Conquistadors were astonished that the only way across deep gorges was by bridges made from rope. Designed over 500 years ago during the Inca Empire, the bridges were made entirely of grass. One keshwa chaca still survives, spanning the Apurimac River (‘The Great Speaker’). Only humans and llamas can cross it, but the tradition and skills are so important to the people that it is rebuilt every year using the same local qqoya grass and methods passed down to each generation. The grass has to be soaked and softened, then pounded by children, and spun into cords by women. Each household produces 40 arms-length of rope. Once about 7 kms of grass cord has been made, the men twist bunches of 24 cords into ropes. Old men then braid the cables, while the young ones stretch them across the channel. The bridge is completed with a deck of brushwood matting. The combination of grass - a material with little strength on its own, community effort, and the design of the keshwa chaca is a wonderful example of engineering friction, social cohesion and human ingenuity. As Ian Ewart writes, the process is ‘a nexus of social regeneration and reinforcement.’ 
Nassa fish traps from Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea,
made by the late Salvo ta Bertu from split Mediterranean cane
and a grass similar to esparto. © Geraldine Jones. 

Materials for baskets come from plants - trees, grasses, cacti, heathers – whatever grows near the maker. In the islands of northern Scotland, there are stones to build houses, but few trees to use as rafters to hold up the rooves. But there is plenty of heather, which can be twisted into ropes to hold the thatch, made of more heather. 
The first Girl Guide uniforms in 1910 included a wide brimmed hat woven from rush.
This was made by Jean Francis for Salt Cellar Workshops in Cornwall in 2019. 
During World War One, baskets were so important for transporting carrier-pigeons and medical supplies, and for observation-balloon baskets and even aeroplanes, that basket-making was a ‘reserved occupation’ and the War Office appointed a National Willow Officer. Mary Crabb relates that the artillery-shell basket had ‘a curious, slightly sinister cyclic quality about it. Woven to offer protection to objects of death and destruction – those injured by the shells were then taught to weave baskets as a means of therapy and rehabilitation.’ Basket making was found to be a therapeutic activity for shell-shock, requiring meditative repetition, hand-eye coordination and creating a sense of purpose with the finished product. The materials were cheap, and when imported cane ran out, wild roses and brambles were available in hedgerows. Also, it could be done in bed or a wheelchair. 
Basket weaving therapy at Seale Hayne Military Hospital, 1919.
Seale-Hayne Archives. © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. 

Angus MacPhee was a Gaelic speaker brought up on South Uist – a remote island on the Outer Hebrides. During the 1940s he developed schizophrenia and was sent to Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in Inverness. An elective mute, he worked on the hospital farm where he invented his own therapy. He twisted and twined grass into yarn and then using only two pieces of broken fence wire, he looped, netted and stitched. He made coats, trousers, hats, boots and pouches, often interwoven with wild flowers and sheep’s wool from fences. Twice a year the hospital groundsmen tidied up his artefacts and burned them. He would watch apparently undisturbed, and make some more. A few pieces survived him, and basket-makers recognized the same looping techniques as used in 12th C socks found in a cave in Arizona, in Norse cultures, and by indigenous people of Australia today. 
A typical English fruit basket from the 1950s, designed for
occupational therapy and made of easily-manipulated cane. 
Basket making gained a bad name after the derogatory term ‘basket-case’ was coined in 1919, meaning someone who had lost both their legs in war and was now ‘useless’; and by the mid-20th century basketry’s association with the disabled and mentally ill meant its reputation declined. Recent research has shown the beneficial effects on brain injury and trauma that basketry can contribute to improving brain plasticity with sensory and motor signals, sequencing, recognition of mistakes and decision making.
Baskets have a protective role of containment and holding. ‘We are, after all, ’writes Hilary Burns, ‘nurtured in baskets from cradle to grave, literally from crib to coffin.’ 
Boks baskets from Vanuatu in South Pacific embody a rhythmic 
sequence of pandanus (pine palm) ribbons, passed down the generations. 
Whereas ’found materials’ or rubbish were originally used to make baskets for economic reasons, now basket makers use them to create political messages about sustainability. Lois Walpole used to buy rattan, until she realized the huge carbon footprint of transporting it across the world, and then dyeing it. Now she consciously uses only found materials such as disused packaging and ‘ghost gear’ – flotsam and jetsam from beaches- to make colourful, beautiful baskets and furniture. In the Shetland Isles she taught children to appreciate ‘ghost gear’ and not see it as ‘undesirable and untouchable but as something they could profit from as their forebears would have done [with grown materials]’. 
‘Ghost gear’ on Breckon beach, Isle of Yell. © Lois Walpole 
As more people buy plastic or factory-made baskets, the skills of different methods, knots, weaves and styles are dying out. In many places, only the oldest people still know how to make traditional baskets. A few basket historians, such as Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond, have sought out these basket-makers in places like Malta, Cornwall, The Azores and Northern Spain.
We take basketry for granted but now historians, artists, anthropologists and mathematicians are revealing stories, structures and skills in basketwork. The Material Culture of Basketry: practice, skill and embodied knowledge is a beautifully produced book which will inspire anyone interested in the interdisciplinary history of crafts, knots, plants. The book’s 36 authors remind us that baskets are not just craftily-made containers, but also holders of knowledge, history and design; and the textures, patterns and geometric forms in basketwork express maths, art, culture and engineering. 
Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond made this stainless-steel wire ball
following the mathematical pattern of a sepak raga football from Malaysia,
 usually made from split bamboo. © Geraldine Jones

The Material Culture of Basketry: Practice, Skill and Embodied Knowledge, Stephanie Bunn and Victoria Mitchell (Eds), Bloomsbury, 2020.

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs © Janie Hampton