Friday, 31 May 2013

May Competition

We have five copies of Mary Hooper's new book The Disgrace of Kitty Grey to give away as prizes in our May Competition. (UK only)

Just answer this question in the Comments section below:

Which is your favourite Jane Austen novel and why?

(Any reference to Colin Firth will disqualify you!)

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Who Really Discovered Australia? By Rosemary Hayes

A few years ago I was in the Maritime Museum in Fremantle, Western Australia where I made a discovery which intrigued me so much that I knew I'd have to write about it.   There, in the Shipwreck Galleries, I learnt about the many ships which had come to grief up and down the coast of Western Australia and, indeed, about the sailors, soldiers and passengers on these ships who had survived. Europeans who had trodden on Australian soil 150 years or so before Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay on the other side of the continent.

Captain Cook didn't 'discover' Australia and, to be fair, he never said he did. He always acknowledged that that distinction went to the early Portuguese and Dutch seafarers who sailed to the East Indies in search of valuable spices. At first, the ships sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and then due North, past Madagascar and across the Indian Ocean but then, in 1611, the Dutch discovered a faster route. By sailing further south from the Cape the ships could catch the winds known as the 'roaring forties' which would speed them eastwards across the sea until they had to turn North again and sail parallel with the coast of the 'Southland' (Western Australia) and thence on to Java.  This route shortened the voyage by several weeks but, with no certain way of calculating longitude, it was easy to misjudge the turning point, and if a skipper got it wrong, then treacherous reefs and rocks lay in wait.

There are so many shipwreck stories but the ill fated voyage of the Batavia was the one that gripped my imagination, not least because it is so well documented in the meticulous diaries of the ship's Commander.

On October 28th 1628, the Dutch East India Company's retourship, Batavia, sailed from Texel on her maiden voyage to Batavia (present day Jakarta) in Java. The ship was laden with a priceless cargo including jewels, silver coins and objets d'art to be traded for highly prized spices.

A mixture of passengers. The rich passengers were reasonably comfortable but the poorer passengers had a miserable time. These were desperate folk, many of them destitute, who were in search of a better life in the colonies; they would be subject to deprivation on board and almost certainly to disease when they reached Jakata (Batavia) if they had not succumbed before then. Then there were the sailors, other crew members and soldiers; the soldiers, many of them French mercenaries, were there to protect the ship and the man the garrison at Batavia when they arrived. They would all have been a pretty tough lot. 17th century sea voyages were not for the faint hearted.


                                                                        Cabin boy

There were also some employees of the VOC (The Dutch East India Company). Commander Pelseart was in command of the ship and Jeronimus Corneliez, another company employee, was second in command. Pelseart was a conscientious company employee but he was not in good health. Neither of these company men knew how to sail a ship and the responsibility for this lay with the Captain, Ariaen  Jacobsz.

Jacobsz had sailed with Pelsaert on a previous voyage and despised him, so the relationship between Captain and Commander was tense. It was not improved when Jacobsz went on a violent drinking spree when the ship docked at Cape Town and Pelsaert rebuked him publicly.

The second-in-command, Under Merchant Jeronimus Corneliez, was a new recruit to the Company. He had joined as a last resort, to avoid being arrested at home in Holland. His career as an apothecary was ruined and his creditors had uncovered his association with an heretical sect which believed that sin did not exist.  This goes some way to explain his chilling detachment and lack of self blame during subsequent events. He was manipulative, persuasive and charismatic.

The Captain, Jacobsz, and the Under Merchant, Corneliez, formed a dangerous alliance and they began to plan a mutiny. When the ship left the Cape, the Captain steered a course that ensured that they lost sight of the other members of the fleet, isolating the Batavia. They intended to seize the ship and her valuable cargo, kill the Commander and those loyal to him and then live as pirates. They gathered about them some hot-headed cadets and discontented sailors and directed them to attack the Commander's friend, a high born young woman, Lucretia van der Meylen, who was on her way to join her husband in Batavia. Jacobsz and Corneliez were sure that the Commander would react violently to this act - and his retaliation would be the signal for the mutiny to begin.

In the event, Pelsaert did not lash out as expected, remaining passive and reasonable. Lucretia could only identify one of her attackers and he was imprisoned on board to await trial on the mainland.

So, the lid was on the mutiny, but only just - when Batavia ran aground on Morning Reef off the Houtman Abrolhos Islands near present day Geraldton, on 4th June 1629.

                    The hull of Batavia in The Shipwreck Museum, Fremantle, Western Australia

                                                                A Replica of Batavia
There are various theories about who was to blame for the shipwreck but ultimately the Captain was responsible. Navigation at that time was hazardous, the coast of 'The Southland' had been sketchily charted and it would be another 140 years before a satisfactory method of measuring longitude was perfected.

The islands lying to the East of Morning Reef were flat, coral islands with little vegetation and no water. Initially, the passengers and some soldiers and sailors were ferried to a nearby island by the ship's boats. But there were still soldiers and sailors on board the stricken Batavia when the Commander, with the Captain and some 40 officers and sailors, took the ship's boats to search for a more hospitable landing place, but finding none then set off on the hazardous journey (some 2,000 miles) back to Batavia to get help, leaving the survivors to their fate. The Under Merchant, Corneliez, was the last to leave the sinking ship and make it to the island and he immediately took charge. He established some sort of order but he had not abandoned his mutinous plans; he and his followers would seize any ship sent to rescue them.

Corneliez and his henchmen set about getting rid of the weak, those loyal to the Commander and those who would be no use to them. He ordered the carpenters to make another boat from driftwood and had a group of people ferried to another waterless island where they were abandoned. He kept the water barrels salvaged from Batavia with him. He also had a group of soldiers taken to a distant island (they called it High Island), assuming that this, too, had no water.

Then followed a reign of terror. Corneliez never killed anyone himself but he let his followers run amok, killing and raping indiscriminately, and ordered them to kill many more (even young children). Anyone who was not with him was against him. After a time he sent his men to check on those on the other nearby island. Most had died and those who had not were too weak to defend themselves and were easily despatched.

However, when he sent a force to High Island, they were repelled. The soldiers on High Island had found water and there were wallabies and birds to eat. They were well organised by the soldier in charge, Wiebbe Hayes and had made crude weapons from barrel hoops and other materials that had been washed ashore. Next time, Corneliez went himself to High Island, pretending to make peace, but the soldiers were not deceived and captured him.

Recently I was lucky enough to fly out to the Abrolhos Islands. This tiny island (now called Beacon Island) was where Corneliez had his headquarters and was the site of many brutal massacres.

And this is me on the island where Wiebbe Hayes and his men were taken on Corneliez's orders

This may not look much but it is the remains of Wiebbe Hayes' fort, taken from the air, and it is the first European building in Australia

Meanwhile, against all the odds, Commander Pelsaert had made it to Batavia. The Captain was left there in jail and another, much smaller, Company ship, the Sardam, well armed and with a new crew, set off the rescue the survivors of the shipwreck.

The Sardam's arrival coincided with another raid on Wiebbe Hayes and his men, led by a young soldier loyal to Corneliez called Wouter Looes. This time they were making more progress and Hayes might have been defeated had not the Sardam been sighted. Hayes's men set off in the boat they had built, in a frantic race to reach the ship before Corneliez's supporters. They succeeded, warning the Commander of what had happened.

Commander Pelsaert wasted no time in trying the mutineers and passing sentence. Many were hanged there and then (including Corneliez) and others were taken back to Batavia to await their fate. He was also meticulous in salvaging all he could from Batavia, including 11 of the 12 chests of silver coins on board.

Pelsaert decided that two of the mutineers should have an unusual punishment. The young soldier, Wouter Looes and the cabin boy, Jan Pelgrom, although they were involved in the mutiny and massacre, were given supplies and a boat and marooned on the mainland when the Sardam left to go back to Batavia.

It is very likely that they survived. They were almost certainly marooned not far from the Murchison River so they would have had fresh water and there would have been animals, fish and birds to eat if they could trap them.

And if they survived, they would have been the first Europeans to settle in Australia.

There is strong evidence for early Dutch settlement. Later explorers to the region reported seeing aborigines with pale skin and fair hair and the huts in the coastal region were reported as being 'different from those in the southern districts, in being built, and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf.'   So the Nanda people of the Western coastal regions may have absorbed some Dutch building techniques.

But most compelling of all is the recent DNA evidence that some Aboriginals from Western Australian coastal tribes do, indeed, carry Western European blood and that this genetic link predates British settlement in 1892.

I like to think that Jan Pelgrom and Wouter Looes did survive in this vast Southland, so different from the windmills and green fields of their native Holland - and that they were taken in by a local Aboriginal tribe.

The first half of my book, 'The Blue Eyed Aborigine' sticks as far as possible to the historical facts, as set out in Commander Pelsaert's diaries.  However, the second half of the book is pure fiction. No one knows what happened to Jan and Wouter, but I have imagined how their life may have been as they came to live among the Aborigines. And what did the Aborigines make of them? They would never have seen fair skinned men before. Who did they think were and where did they think they had come from?

Now, of course, I want to unearth more stories about these early shipwrecks and so I'm currently researching the voyage of the Zuytdorp (known, for good reason, as 'the ship of death') which was wrecked on the cliffs north of Kalbarri some time in June 1712.  According to stories passed down through generations of Aboriginal people of the region, a good many people survived the wreck but, again, no one knows what happened to these survivors. There is, however, a tantalising trail - buttons at the site of a large and well established Aboriginal camp, a tobacco box, some clay pipes.... Intriguing stuff!

Rosemary Hayes lives in rural Cambridgeshire with her husband and a variety of animals. Her first novel, ‘Race Against Time’, was runner-up for the Kathleen Fidler Award in 1988 and since then she has written more than forty books for children.

Her most recent historical novel, ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ retells one of the most extraordinary – and violent - events in Australia’s history.

As well as writing stories, Rosemary is a reader for a well known Author’s Advisory Service and runs creative writing workshops for both adults and children.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Return of Mary Hooper

We are delighted to welcome back former History Girl Mary Hooper as our May guest. Mary's new book The Disgrace of Kitty Grey has just been published by Bloomsbury and is already getting rave reviews. It celebrates 200 years since the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Kitty Grey is a dairymaid living in the country who is sent up to London to buy a copy of the latest must-read novel. Here we print an extract from the opening chapter:

Suddenly nervous about why the two young ladies had asked to meet me in secret, I hurried through the kitchens, went up the servants’ stairs and stood

waiting in the hallway between the drawing room and the front parlour, just as Miss Sophia and Miss Alice had requested.

I checked my nails, smoothed down my pinafore and sniffed. I was not used to being right inside the house and the air seemed to close about me stiflingly; an inside sort of air, stuffy and tickling my nose, a mixture of the previous night’s coal fires, the fibres of the thick wool carpets and the scent from the bowl of dried rose petals on the hall table.

I looked at my reflection in the glass of the nearest portrait and tucked a few wayward strands of hair under my cap. Lady Cecilia was known to be a stickler for cleanliness, especially in the dairy, and I couldn’t help but be worried that there had been a complaint against me. But then surely Milady would have asked Mrs Bonny, the housekeeper, to tick me off, rather than dele- gate the reprimand to Miss Sophia and Miss Alice, who (not just from my own observances but according to kitchen gossip) had little else in their heads but hand- some young gentlemen, ballgowns and supper dances.

I sniffed again and wished for them to hurry them- selves so that I might learn my fate, whatever that was. I gazed down the hall; from where I was standing I could see right up to the double front doors one way and back the other to the little room (I had heard Lady Cecilia call it a petit salon) where she took tea at precisely four o’clock every afternoon. All along the walls of the passageway, placed at the same distance from each other, were portraits of the family. These were mostly gloomy- brown old things, starting with Lord Baysmith the Army Major, stuffed into tight red dress uniform outside the salon door, down to Miss Sophia and Miss Alice (lighter, brighter) in blue dresses with white sashes. Directly opposite the Misses was an oil portrait of their older brother, the present Lord Baysmith’s son and heir, Peregrine, who was away at school.

I counted the portraits: fourteen in all, going back years and years and depicting all the notable Bridgeford Hall residents. There was, I knew, a much more recent portrait of the present Lord Baysmith with Lady Cecilia, dressed as if for a ball but, strangely, sitting under a tree on the estate with two enormous hunting dogs borrowed for the occasion. It had been painted, apparently, by
someone very famous, and now hung over the fireplace in what they called the grand salon. I had only seen this painting a few times but I liked it very much, for in the background the sun could be seen glinting on the river, far away, and upon this river my sweetheart, Will, worked as a ferryman. The painting showed, faintly, a rowing boat with (I had convinced myself) a smudged representation of Will inside, his strong brown arms pulling at the oars.

I slipped into a little reverie, smiling to myself as I thought of Will. We had been walking out together secretly for some months now, and the time was coming when he must call on Mrs Bonny and Mr Griffin the butler with a request that we be allowed to see each other formally. This would mean that we could meet openly after church on a Sunday or, if the ferry business was quiet, stroll to the village on a summer’s evening. After we had been granted permission and walked out together for several years, we might be able to wed, providing my family were in agreement and we had somewhere to live. I was hoping that he might speak to Mrs Bonny soon – and I’d dropped plenty of hints that he should – but he was very much a waterman by trade and by type (that is, he did not give a stick for conven- tion). Moreover, I was slightly worried that, not being aware of social pitfalls, he might say the wrong thing at the wrong time and spoil our chances.

Miss Sophia and Miss Alice suddenly came through the drawing-room door, giggling together. Miss Sophia looked at me, put her finger to her mouth to indicate I should not speak, then said in a low voice, ‘Is there anyone around, Kitty?’ (I should say here that although I was born Katherine, everyone in the house called me Kitty, as Katherine had been thought too much of a name for a milkmaid.)

I bobbed a curtsey. ‘No, miss. Everyone’s about their duties.’

‘I don’t mean servants! I mean family.’

I shook my head. ‘I haven’t seen anyone.’ How would I see anyone, I thought, unless they came into the dairy? ‘Your mother is still abed, I believe,’ I added. I knew this because I’d passed through the kitchens and heard one of the upstairs maids complaining that she couldn’t get into Milady’s room to lay the fire and it was going to set her back for the entire day.

‘Because we’ve got something secret to do,’ said Miss Sophia. ‘Something we want you to assist us with.

Mary Hooper is a very popular writer for children and young adults. Her brilliant historical novels have a huge fan base, as do her contemporary novels for teenagers. At The Sign of the Sugared Plum was selected as part of the 2010 Booked Up scheme and Fallen Grace has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2011. Mary lives in Henley-on-Thames.

We will have copies of The Disgrace of Kitty Grey to give away in our May competition on 31st May.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Coming out, by K. M. Grant

In 1976, I came out.  When I revealed this to my children many years later they were extremely surprised, and really rather disappointed when I told them that 'coming out' didn't always refer to sexuality.  In my case, it meant I did the London Season.  This was not a surprise: it was a shock.  The Season?  Wasn't that ancient history? And really!  What was I thinking!

What indeed.  I came out in 1976, but the Season, those months between Christmas and late-ish June when 'everybody' rushed from dinners to balls to parties of various kinds, evolved through the 17th and 18th centuries.  As Amanda Foreman tells us in her book on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the Season was designed to 'entertain the upper classes while they carried out their political duties'.   For men, the primary duty was plotting.  For women, it was dancing, dazzling and above all, dressing both body and hair:  the Duchess of Devonshire once appeared with fruit, stuffed birds and even a ship in full sail on her head.  Oh, the fun and sweat, headaches and lice.  Later, for parents with daughters, the Season's focus was bagging a husband:  a kind of over-dressed, over-privileged dating agency.

The task of girls was clear:  to be presented at Court without falling over, to cause the right sort of sensation at the right sort of parties and to be married off to Someone Suitable before the Season ended.  Pity the parents obliged to fork out for daughters needing more than one Season to secure their man.  But lucky Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland!  They made fortunes from novels about the Season, since exquisite but poor Lady Jemima meets dashing but scarred Lord Moneybags never goes out of fashion.  Indeed, Barbara Cartland hit the jackpot, and not just with her books.  Her daughter, Raine McCorquodale (the late Princess of Wales's step-mother), was Debutante of the Year in 1947.

I was not Deb of the Year.  But there, in the brochure for Queen Charlotte's Ball of 4th May 1976, after, bizarrely, advertisements for Dettol, North Thames Gas, Woolworths and Playboy, is my name.   I come between Grania Thwaites and Melanie Turner (whatever happened to them), amid all the debutantes who that year donned white dresses and gloves, set sail for the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane and, having been drilled most fiercely by some matron or other, paraded down the ballroom stairs to the March from Handel's Judas Macabaeus and curtsied to a cake.  Yes, a cake, not to the Queen of Puddings or even the Queen herself - she, sensible woman, stayed at home.  The cake came courtesy of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.  She was a nice woman, most charitable.  Why we remembered her with a cake I can't recall.  Whether we ate the cake, I don't recall either.  Probably not.  As a deb, you were too conscious of your clothes.

I do remember the ball.  It was torture.  Fresh from my convent school and brought up in north east Lancashire, I knew almost nobody.  My dress was not bright white, but cream: a Mortal Sin. The boy hauled in to accompany me had no interest in either the ball or in me.  I had no idea what to talk about.  He made no effort.  I was a nervous dancer.  He was too superior to try.  Over thirty years later, I saw this 'boy' again and reminded him, laughing now, of that excruciating evening.  He looked at me.  I stopped laughing, feeling 17 again, and not in a good way.  Reader, my Season was a failure:  I didn't marry him, nor any of the other debs' delights.  Thank God my parents didn't try again.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Ladies of the Roses, part four: Lady Hillingdon. By Louisa Young

 Alice, Lady Hillingdon, 1857 -1940

The Rose

Tea rose
Origin: Lowe and Shawyer, GB, 1910
Parentage: Papa Gontier x Madame Hoste
Size of flower: 10cm
Scent: Strong, redolent of tea
Flowerings: Continuous
Height: 1m
Spread:         1m

Climbing Lady Hillingdon
Origin: Hicks, GB
Flower size: 11cm
Flowering: Remontant
Height: 4m
Spread: 2m - or rather more in my experience

Lady Hillingdon is one of the last tea roses to be bred, and a very popular one, particularly the climbing sport, which can be seen draped in creamy yellow piles up the fronts of houses the length and breadth of Britain. The flower are cupped and slightly drooping, initially a dark melting sugar colour, which fades to cream and almost white at the edges but keeping an apricot heart. They come in clusters of three to seven, with long elegant buds, and new growth is dark crimson with a purple bloom, later turning dark green. The bush tends to be thin and ungainly, but very generous with its blossoms. The climber is very vigorous (I know this to be true, because I have a vast one flowering all over my back garden wall, and drooping in bottles on my kitchen table, as I write), and its flowers are larger and droopier, and more yellow. 

The Lady

Alice, Lady Hillingdon was born the Hon Alice Harbord-Hamond and married the second Lord Hillingdon. As a wedding present her father gave them property in Norfolk, where they built Overstrand Hall, according to Pevsner 'one of Lutyens's most remarkable buildings, at the time when he had reached maturity but still believed to the full in his own inventiveness', but Lady Hillingdon reportedly preferred London, for the society. 

It is said that in her journal for 1912, or in a letter to her mother (which sounds rather unlikely), Lady Hillingon wrote: 'I am happy now that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England.'

Sadly, her journal has been lost. Perhaps on purpose. But whether or not it was hers, what a gift that phrase has been. 
The picture above is her portrait by Bassano, who photographed all the ladies of the day, from the National Portrait Gallery.

Sunday, 26 May 2013


‘In the year 1787, golden horse-drawn sleighs set off from the icy North across the steppes, transporting Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and her foreign guests southwards from St Petersburg. The aim was political: to achieve an alliance with the crowned heads of Europe by showing off the territories newly gained from the common enemy, the Ottomans, including the recently annexed Crimea.’ –  An extract from the June 2013 issue of The World of Interiors magazine.

Apparently the party included guests such as the Holy Roman Emperor, Franz Joseph, and many of Europe’s leading ambassadors. They cruised down the Dnieper in gilded galleys and eventually arrived to an astounding welcome by thousands of Cossack and Tatar horsemen at the fairy-tale pavilions of the palace of Bahçesaray and entered the courtyards and gardens which according to Catherine ‘so strongly resembled the dreams of a Thousand and One Nights.’

225 years after Catherine, I entered the same pavilions with considerably less ceremony but an equal measure of captivation for the beautiful seraglio and magical gardens. The utter tranquility of the Palace, once home to the Khan of the Crimea, with its light-filled rooms and gardens of towering cypresses was more striking because I’d just travelled from Istanbul where the eye can’t help being in a constant dazzle of distraction. Here deep in a valley between high mountains, a long coach ride from Sevastopol and the fields of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the remoteness made the visit more dreamlike.

The name Bahçesaray comes from the Turkish word bahçe, which means garden, and saray, which means palace. A river flowing around the Palace feeds the garden of trellised vines, parterres and roses. Light airy interiors and courtyards are filled with the sound of water and a marble fountain made famous by Pushkin’s poem, The Fountain of Bahçesaray, tells of it being the tears of the Khan weeping for a lost love. Tatar women who look after the Palace place fresh roses here every day. Much of the marble work was done by Genoese stone artists who were ‘hijacked’ by the Khan to work in the Palace on their way to fulfil work in Russia.

Painted surfaces, lozenges of jewel-coloured glass, ceilings studded with tiny gold stars, cool marble underfoot, the perfume of roses and the sound of water... what could be more redolent of dreams of A Thousand and One Nights – Catherine was right,

And for a quiz at the end... how many words do you know in English that come directly from Turkish? I could think of caracal, coffee, kaftan, kiosk, kilim, ottoman, pilaf, shaman, yoghurt and yurt... but there must be masses more. 

The photographs are the copyright of Dianne Hofmeyr – please don't use without permission. 
My newly revamped website is up at: 
And in complete contrast to the above, my new picture book is: THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE

Saturday, 25 May 2013

A BLAST FROM THE PAST by Eleanor Updale

No matter how easy it gets to access digital images online, there's nothing quite like getting your hands on the real thing.  Of course it's wonderful to touch a rare and valuable object, but sometimes it's the ephemera of the past that make your heart sing.
I've been having fun reading an 80-year-old edition of Melody Maker, which I bought as a present for a dear friend born in 1933.

One of the first things that strikes you is the similarity between the preoccupations of creative people then and now.  The front-page story is about the threat of new technology, the horrors of piracy, and the difficulty of getting paid for your work.  Sounds familiar?

Inside, it's the little things that bring home the atmosphere of the time: the very name of 'Spike Hughes and his Negro Orchestra'  raises questions - and suggests some answers - about attitudes to race in Britain in the year Hitler came to power in Germany.  Preconceptions about the glamour of transatlantic liners are dispelled by Spike's diary about his US tour:
"I have spent six days on the ocean, in that vacuum called a transatlantic crossing, when nothing except meal times has any interest for one whatever."
His reflections on the shortcomings of design and acoustics of Radio City Music Hall and the Concert Hall in Broadcasting house (both now much admired) are fun, too:
"I wonder why architects persistently forget that music stands and instruments take up a little room, and that a platform which will accommodate fifteen upright waiters without trays will not, somehow, be large enough for one grand piano and a five-piece band."

If you watched 'Dancing on the Edge' on the BBC earlier this year, you will recognise the atmosphere of the jazz scene and in particular, I think, one new venue mentioned here: a hotel near Windsor, which still exists.  The copy has more than a whiff of 'advertorial' about it.

But, best of all, it's the real adverts that tell us most about 1933:

If you've read my book Johnny Swanson, which is set in 1929, you will know that I'm a little unhinged on the subject of ancient advertisements. 

I do find all aspects of them  - from their design, through the information about prices and values, to the unintentional messages they give about aspirations and status - priceless tools for the historian or historical novelist.  They are a crucial means of getting the 'feel' of an era.
 Obviously, you can't take them entirely at face value.  After all, we wouldn't want future generations to think that we went round supermarkets beaming with excitement and tapping our bums with joy at the thought of saving a few pence.  Will they believe that we gave headspace to the latest innovations in disposable nappies, or that we lived in immaculate clutter-free kitchens, cleaned to a sparkling shine?  Let's hope not.   But all the same, there are messages about us in advertisements - even if some are not very flattering.
The classified ads convey the mixture of hope, despair, and trickery that are still with us today.  There's inspiration for a story in every one. Why is that saxophone being sold? Which deluded wannabe will buy help with their lyric writing?  Which failed lyric writer is offering it?.

I hope my friend likes his present.  I've certainly had a lot of pleasure from it before wrapping it up.

Friday, 24 May 2013

THE ALIENOR VASE: A wedding present with a history by Elizabeth Chadwick

On the occasion of their wedding in July 1137, the future Louis VII of France, approximately seventeen years old, bestowed upon Alienor of Aquitaine his bride of thirteen, an array of wedding gifts so magnificent that the chroniclers of the time, rather than list individual items, just described them as treasures that it would have taken the tongue of Cicero to describe.

Alienor may have reciprocated in largesse, but we don't know because the chroniclers do not tell us. However, we do know she gave him one gift because it's still with us today, and carries its history  by way of an inscription round the ornately decorated base. It is one of the few surviving artefacts remaining with a direct connection to Alienor the woman, the others being a stained glass window in the Cathedral of St. Pierre in Poiters, and her tomb effigy, in which she had a say when it came to the design (and will probably be the subject of a blog post another time).

When Alienor presented the vase to Louis, (called here a vase for convenience's sake, we do not know what its original function was)  the jewel-encrusted mountings at the top and base did not exist. It was a pear-shaped piece of rock crystal worked in a honeycomb design containing 22 rows of small, hollowed-out hexagons.  That was it.  No gold, no embellishment. Alienor had inherited the object  from her grandfather, the notorious Duke William IX of Aquitaine, a crusader, soldier, and composer of sometimes beautiful but frequently bawdy verse.

Carved rock crystal containers have existed from antiquity, the Eastern Mediterranean appearing to be their source of origin at the outset.  The craft of rock crystal carving flourished throughout the Middle East and was a known technique in the Roman Empire. However, the Alienor vase is the only item known to have been worked in this particular honeycomb design in rock crystal.  Others exist but their medium is glass and the Alienor piece is utterly unique.

The Medieval world believed that rock crystal was fossilized ice and valued the material greatly. There are references to rock crystal drinking cups in love poetry composed in Moorish Spain, so perhaps the vase was originally one of these, or due to its great value, may have been a display piece.  Indeed, it is likely that the object came from Moorish Spain as a gift to Alienor's grandfather,  the aforementioned William IX of Aquitaine from the Emir Imad-al-dawla of Sarragossa, and would have entered his possession around 1120 during the time he was on battle campaign in Spain.

Experts are unsure of the dating of the vase - dates between the 6th and 9th centuries have been mooted, but  it was already an antique when it came into the possession of the dukes of Aquitaine.  It was obviously a very precious object for Alienor to present it as a fitting gift  to her husband on their wedding day.

On June 11th 1144, Louis gave the vase to Abbot Suger at the dedication of the magnificent  church of St. Denis.  Suger was an avid collector of precious stones and objects of artistic merit, and the vase was as fine addition to the collection. He used it as a communion vessel.
ambulatory of St. Denis

Why did Louis give the rock crystal vase to him? Historian Ralph Turner in his biography of Alienor of Aquitaine suggested that it was an offering to St. Denis in the hope that Louis and Eleanor's barren marriage might be blessed with a child. (a daughter, Marie, was born the following year). It might have been that Louis valued Suger as an adviser and spiritual mentor and wanted to please him.  Suger later wrote that Louis had given him the vase as 'a tribute of his great love.' What Alienor thought is not recorded, but we shouldn't put a modern interpretation on this if we speculate on her feelings. Wedding gifts in the Middle Ages were frequently expected to be bestowed in patronage to the Church. There is no need to think as one biographer has suggested, that Alienor was deeply upset that Louis gave the vase to Suger. It is just as likely that it was a mutual offering.

Now in possession of the object, Suger set about putting his stamp on it.  To beautify it perhaps, and make it worthy of his treasury, or perhaps to make sure that it was never going to be given back, he had a base and a neck fashioned for the vase from gilded silver.  On the base he set an inscription in niello, then a layer of filigree set with gemstones and decorated with more filigree work and fleurons.  He had the neck of the vase similarly adorned.  The inscription around the vase reads in translation from the Latin:

As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints.'

Suger died in January 1151 before Louis and Eleanor divorced.  The vase, now a communion vessel remained in the treasury of St. Denis down the centuries, but following the unsettled period of the French Revolution came to its new home in the Louvre where together with other items from the treasury of St.Denis it can be viewed by visitors to the museum.  I wonder what its original carver would have thought if he could  see it now?

Photographs of the Alienor Vase courtesy of John Phillips.

The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase by George T. Beech in Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John C. Parsons.

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Ralph V. Turner

The Louvre - website Treasures of St.Denis

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Aliens have Always been Landing, by Leslie Wilson

shouted a headline in the Sun last week. This, Professor David Coleman announced, would be due to 'soaring immigrant birthrates', fuelled by 'record-breaking levels of immigration, coupled with the departure of thousands of Brits for a better life abroad,' (white Brits, presumably, though I can think of quite a few black Britons who have had to go abroad in order to get the level of jobs they are qualified for, due to discrimination) and it would 'represent an enormous change to national identity - cultural, political, economic and religious.'

While Roger Scruton mourned, on the pages of the Guardian - which now and again gives its readers a taste of how the other half thinks - over 'Englishness,' which is being trashed by the modern Tory party, including the common law of England, which, he argues, is now being supplanted by 'the abstract idea of human rights, slapped upon us by European courts.'  
Cricket on the village green, via Wikimedia Commons

I'm not qualified to pronounce on the accuracy or otherwise of Coleman's statistical analysis - though I know it has been challenged, and in any case, projections of future birthrates are notoriously unreliable. But what I want to talk about is the narrative that both of these men are drawing on, a narrative about a historic Britishness - or Englishness - which should be unchanging and stable, but is threatened with dilution by incoming foreigners or foreign ideas. Scruton, too raises the threat of 'wave upon wave of immigrants' who want the benefit of our 'hard-won assets and freedoms.' (He doesn't mention that Britain's past prosperity was greatly contributed to by looted assets from the countries we colonised.)

The immigrants are at the gates: seething verminous multitudes who will destroy our treasured culture.

Flick back through history to 1938, and you can see a headline from the Daily Mail. GERMAN JEWS POURING INTO THIS COUNTRY. 'The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage,' inveighed Mr Herbert Metcalfe, a magistrate at Old Street, referring to the 'aliens entering this country through the 'back door' - a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.' The Observer asserted that by the summer of 1938, there were more Jews in Britain than Germany ever had - this statistic definitely proved to be questionable. And once again the spectre of an eroded national identity was invoked.

Go back to February 3rd, 1900 and we find the Daily Mail again in full cry: 'There landed yesterday at Southampton from the transport Cheshire over 600 so-called refugees, their passages having been paid out of the Lord Mayor's Fund. . .There was scarce a hundred of them that had, by right, deserved such help, and these were the Englishmen of the party. The rest were Jews. . .They fought and jostled for the foremost places at the gangways. . .When the Relief Committee passed by they hid their gold and fawned and whined, and, in broken English, asked for money for their train fare.' These were refugees escaping from the South African war.
Store founded by Jewish refugees, (Wikimedia images,
photo by Michael Maggs)

'Englishness' seems to have remained intact, though, in spite of these past influxes - it must have done, for it to be so threatened again now. It must be intact or there would be no need for anxiety about the fraying, snipping and gnawing away of its boundaries, threatened as this narrative always has it by foreigners and foreign ideas (like human rights, though I believe quite a few British philosophers have been quite keen on that idea from the eighteenth century onwards). 

And yet - what we regard as Englishness (or Britishness) has changed rather a lot from what we thought of as Englishness in the past - which makes me wonder, if Roger Scruton went back two hundred years, how at home would he feel? I don't regard a changing national identity as problematic.

But then, I have to come out and admit that I am one of those dreadful people - deplored by the BNP and the Mail alike - born to a mother who was herself born abroad. I am one of the fifth columnists, apparently.
My mother's baggage tag
for her arrival in Britain, 1947

What is quintessentially English, though? Tyneside dialect, for example? I had a Norwegian student who spent some time in Newcastle and understood Geordie speech better than many English people would, because, she said, they were talking Norwegian. When I went to Oslo, I didn't register the word 'gate' for street, because it seemed perfectly normal to me, having lived for eight years in Kendal, that a street should be called 'gate. (Gillinggate, Stramongate..) The Viking heritage. In 1066, a rather large influx of Normans radically changed English language, culture and custom, not to mention the landscape. How many of us understand Anglo-Saxon?
Incidentally, the fact that the self-appointed defenders of national identity can't decide whether to call that identity 'Englishness' or 'Britishness' shows the United Kingdom's lack of cultural homogeneity even within its borders and among those people you might call its natives.

We have had the Huguenots, who altered our English ways of working with cloth by introducing their far more efficient looms, thus giving this land a commercial edge over the French who had chased the Huguenots out. They were also accused (by pamphlets that must have been the ancestors of the Daily Mail) of threatening jobs, standards of housing, morality, hygiene - and eating weird foods. I believe it's now estimated that 75% of Britons are descended from Huguenots. And undoubtedly a considerable amount of us are descended from Jewish converts, not to mention the smaller doses of different-nationality descent from individual marriages (like myself). This is the national identity which, we're told, cannot survive immigration.
Door, French Protestant Church, London
By Ruskin via Wikimedia Commons

 I can remember, as a child, describing yoghurt to my friends - I could only get it in Germany in those days. 'Yuk!' they said. So, has Britishness/Englishness been damaged by all that yoghurt on the supermarket shelves? How far has chicken tikka masala, that very British dish, eroded our national standards? Or pizza? Or lager? We also have vegemite and US products on our shelves - and on our TV sets - which doesn't seem to trouble the contemporary authors of this narrative. Americans and Australians are white, I guess.

OK - I know it's not all jam (or yoghurt). For example, I don't think it's right for little girls to be mutilated by their communities; I don't like 'honour killings.' I want to see British Muslim girls get an education and not be forced to get married against their will. There will always be tensions between the values we want new incoming Britons to absorb, and their need to remain connected to what they come from. But the things we value can come under threat from very British people - like the attacks on the National Health Service. We can never lean back and take anything for granted.

 Most importantly, considering where I'm posting today - the stories about our national identity are an area where I believe that knowledge of history is quite vital, to counteract that misleading, sadly popular narrative of a heritage which is supposed to be - always at the present moment and with unique dreadfulness -  threatened with annihilation.