Monday, 18 February 2019

When is Spring? In Celebration of Imbolc - Celia Rees

St Brigid's Cross - Ancient Symbol of Imbolc
Today, I went out walking and marked the year's turning from darkness to light, from dormancy to life. 

8:05 15th February, 2019, Leamington Spa
We are not so far removed from our ancestors.  Until very recently we were all ruled by the eternal rhythms of sunset and sunrise.

Planet Earth at Night - wikipedia
Now, we have flooded the world with light. We love it so much that it is there 24 hours a day, you can even see it from Space. We are warned not to look at bright screens last thing at night because the brain simply won't know that it is time to sleep. Our love of light and dislike of darkness have changed the natural pattern of our lives, but still we feel it on our pulses, the turning of the year.

We still keep to the ancient calendar that is ruled by the sun. The winter solstice might have been christened Christmas but we are really celebrating the point when the sun begins its slow return. It's an act of faith more than anything. The mornings are still dark, night still comes early. The trees are bare and nothing is growing. Many of us feel 'down' at this time of year, depressed. The third Monday in January, has been designated Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year.  Electric lights are not enough, screens are not enough. We need the sun.

Then there is a day, often in late January or early February,  when the morning is lighter,  evening  comes later, the sun is brighter, stronger, there's a change in the air.  That's why I think we should re-instate the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc. It was traditionally celebrated on 1st of February, but the day was not exact, it could come a fortnight on either side of that date, depending on seasonal variations, the onset of lambing, the blooming of the blackthorn. It was adopted by the Christian church as St Brigid's Day, Brigid herself a christianised version of the Celtic goddess, Brigid. It is immediately followed by Candlemas on 2nd of February, a Christian festival associated with the Virgin Mary. Clues there as to its importance in the Pagan Wheel of the Year and its strong association with the Goddess. 

Imbolc and Candlemas have slipped from our calendar and our consciousness. The nearest date of note is Valentine's Day with its rampant commercialism, tawdry cards and heart shaped balloons. A time, supposedly, for lovers, but how many of us are? The traditional anonymity of the exchange of cards and tokens disappeared a long time ago and  for those of us who are not in a relationship for any number of reasons,Valentine's Day can eclipse Blue Monday as the most depressing day of the year. 

How much better to celebrate the coming of Spring. Not when it has already arrived on 21st March and the daffodils are everywhere, but when we can sense its approach in the lighter mornings and evenings and the drifts of snowdrops carpeting the bare ground. 

6:45 15th February, 2019 Leamington Spa

Snowdrops in Jephson Gardens

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A Tale of Time, Cakes and Travel, or how Bettys came to Harrogate, by Penny Dolan

This is Harrogate, and a queue lines up under a glass shop-canopy that protects them from the brisk, damp Yorkshire weather.

These patient people are waiting for a table within Bettys Tea Rooms where, served by waitresses in starched pinnies, they intend to enjoy morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon tea in a genteel, well-heeled style. Meanwhile, at the shop counters, everyday customers can call in and buy bread, cakes or pastries, or a wide range of tea, coffee and chocolate confectionery.

Like The Stray, the stretch of open grassland that runs round part of Harrogate, Bettys is part of the local tourist industry that likes to offer an image of a stylish spa town, still flaunting the somewhat faded flag of its early twentieth century elegance.

Across the town centre, the antique shops and rare booksellers are few, the plate-glass store-fronts stand empty, the trendy restaurants have come and gone and the town hall has been sold off for luxury apartments so in some ways, Bettys represents a kind of permanence in Harrogate. This is, I feel, a suitable state of affairs as Bettys - the company – reaches its hundredth birthday this year.

Unlike poor Patisserie Valerie and her too-many premises, Bettys has always held tight to her Yorkshire roots and limited the number of its cafes. There are, even now, only six: on Parliament Street in Harrogate; at Harlow Carr Gardens, Harrogate: in Ilkley and in Northallerton; at Stonegate in York and also at St Helen’s Square in York, which boasts an interior inspired by the famous cruise liner, the Queen Mary.

As in all traditional stories, Bettys begins with a poor orphan child, born in 1885. though not in Yorkshire. 

Little Fritz Butzer, the son of a miller and master-baker, was born in Switzerland, His mother Ida died when he was an infant and not long after, fire destroyed his father Johann’s mill. Although his older sister was adopted by relatives, Fritz, only five-years-old, was sent back to the family village to be fostered.

He lived with a farmer who, despite promises, neglected the boy’s care and education and used him as a farm labourer. As soon as possible, Fritz left the farm and went to work as an assistant baker. Over the next years, he worked his way around Switzerland and then into France, learning about confectionery and the skills needed to be a chocolatier.

Even so, how - given his next move - can he have learned so much within what must have been about eleven years? Because, in 1907, at twenty-two, Fritz set off for England, unable to speak much of the language.

Unfortunately – or fortunately - on reaching London, he’d lost the paper giving the address of his destination. All he remembered – says the story - was that the place sounded like “Bratwurst”, a kind of sausage so Fritz was put on the train to Bradford. As an area of Bradford is still called Little Germany, this may not have been as random a suggestion as it sounds and, besides, many were seeking work in the industrial towns of the North. Fritz was employed by Bonnet and Sons, a Swiss confectioner in the city, but he was clearly an ambitious young man.

He moved on to the prosperous Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, an “Inland Resort” that catered for a variety of visitors, who came to stay for health cures, rest and relaxation, shopping and entertainment and – of course – indulging in the best of food and drink. Originally, the annual visitors came as a diversion during the late-summer Yorkshire hunting season but, by the twentieth century, Harrogate was an upper-class destination all year round. The town’s most glittering season came in 1911, when it was visited by Queen Alexandra and various members of European and German royalty. Offering elegant hotels, prestigious musical performances inside the gilded Kursall, both Winter Gardens and Valley Gardens as a place for sociable promenades, Harrogate was a busy enough place for the enterprising young baker to make his mark.

Fritz married Claire Appleton, his landlady’s daughter, and before long had wisely changed his name to the more anglicised Frederick Belmont. In the summer of 1919, financed by his wife’s family, he set up the first Bettys bakery in Harrogate and in the 1920’s, but the tearooms he established were in Leeds and Bradford.

Then, in 1937, rather boldly, Frederick Belmont chose York for his new venture. It was already the home of three famous Quaker chocolate companies - Rowntrees, Terrys and Cravens – and site he chose was in the heart of the city, directly opposite the Terry’s cafe in St Helen’s Square.

The York Bettys flourished, and like all his other tearooms, would have prided itself on the quality of its offerings, the elegance of its catering, the impressiveness of its window displays, the superiority of its music and the luxury of the private reception rooms. Bettys was distinctive, and at at time when women could not meet away from home in pubs or bars, a valued female environment.

However, during WWII, Bettys in York took on a different character: a smart cocktail bar was installed upstairs and, away from the need for blackout, a bar down below the stairs. At that time, Yorkshire was home to many local air-bases and Bettys became popular with the bomber boys and the Canadian and American pilots. A framed mirror, where the airmen inscribed their names with a diamond pen, is still on show in the York tea-rooms. Not many of those boys would make a return visit to Bettys bar.

Nevertheless, throughout the war, Betty’s survived both bombs and the threat of army requisitioning. Did the supposed glamour of the local aircrews attracted the ire of the military? Or, behind the scenes, did the RAF high-ups defend Mr Belmont’s accounts of the number of meals he served, and the menus he simplified to fit rationing standards - and so keep their favourite Bettys bar open?

Eight years after the end of the war in Europe, Frederick Belmont died. His nephew, Victor Wild, took over as a managing director and oversaw the next decades. There were changes: although Bettys in Leeds became an espresso bar in the 1950’s, it did not survive the era of the mods and rockers and Bettys in Bradford closed too, bringing an end to the cafe in the industrial cities. It was followed by a time of expansion: in 1962, Wild heard that C.E.Taylors, the Yorkshire tea and coffee merchants, was for sale, Wild took action and Bettys became “Bettys and Taylors”. The Wild family remains involved in the company which, after trading for a century, flourishes online, through diversifying into Bettys Cookery School and cookbooks and publications, and, at an everyday commercial level, through the nationwide “Yorkshire Tea” and similar products.

Put together, the Bettys tale does read rather like a novel but there is rather a nice twist to the tale. When the new company was created, two establishments changed hands and brands. Over in Ilkley, the then-Taylor’s Tea Kiosk became another Bettys.

The other change was more significant: it fulfilled the dream Fritz Butzer had dreamed a hundred years before. The Imperial Cafe in Harrogate, which was then owned by Taylors, became a Bettys Tea Room, which is where, when a treat is needed, you can enjoy the most delicious cakes.

I must warn you that visiting Bettys is not at all cheap, but as a wise and rational friend once explained as we sat having a lovely, long and all too rare book chat. “Don’t think of the tea and scones as expensive. Just think of it as renting a table for a couple of hours.” And that, now and again, works for me.

As for the mysterious Betty? There are several ideas as to whom she might have been within the history section of Betty’s website - thank you for all the information -, but there’s also doubt as to whether she even existed. 

With Fritz’s own life-story being as full as this – an orphaned immigrant travelling through France, becoming a baker and confectioner on the journey and creating cafes up here in the North of England - maybe Betty doesn't really need a tale of her own, even for if this year is her hundredth birthday? 

Although it is very tempting to make another one up. . .  Once there was a young orphan girl . . ?

and, additionally, 
in my mind,
all those neat waitresses and waiters in their black and white uniforms,
and the busy shop staff
and all the Bettys-behind-the-scenes bakers,
and the workers and packers in the Taylors factory
deserve a very, very loud cheer and more too.
Hope they will be having a great and grand party sometime this hundredth year too!

And in response to any pedantic queries about the missing apostrophe?
Bettys doesn’t have one.  Officially.

Penny Dolan


Saturday, 16 February 2019

Marianne North at Kew - by Sue Purkiss

I first came across Marianne North when I was doing the research for my children's book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley. Jack is a boy who goes plant hunting in the Himalayas with his uncle at the end of the 18th century. It's an adventure story, but it's also about facing up to your fears, and about respect for tthe environment and for other cultures.

I wasn't able to get to the Himalayas, so I had to find gardens that would give me a sense of the kinds of vegetation found there. Also, Sir Joseph Banks, who had a great part to play in the early development of Kew, is a character in the book - so it made sense to visit Kew, take a turn round the tropical house and the alpine garden, and see if they had any useful books in the shop.

While I was in the shop, I noticed some rather beautiful postcards, with plants and flowers shown in detail in the foreground, and views of landscapes from all over the world in the background. The colours were jewel-like and brilliant, and I had seen nothing like them before. They were by Marianne North, and the originals were in a specially built gallery within the grounds of Kew.

I'm not certain now whether I didn't go to see them because we were on the way out, or whether the gallery was closed for refurbishment - I think it was the latter. Anyway, I didn't go, but I did read up on Marianne, and found that she was a very resourceful Victorian lady, who when her father died and left her comfortably off, decided to devote the rest of her life to travelling to the most far-flung corners of the world in order to paint and study plants. She must have been an incredible character. She knew Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew, and when she had accumulated hundreds of paintings, she offered to pay for a purpose-built gallery at Kew to house them. She oversaw the placing of the pictures, and this is the result: they're all very close together, and each one is stunning.

That first time, I bought a pack of postcards of her pictures. One of them is of number 270: Distant View of Kinchenjunga from Darjeeling. In the foreground luxuriant vegetation clothes a steep ravine, and in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas. It's a beautiful picture. The mountains, framed by the foliage seem like an unattainable image of loveliness. I remembered this picture when I came to the point in the book where Jack's Uncle Edmund, having travelled thousands of miles to reach Hakkim, is told by the Maharaja that he will not be permitted to travel any further. Edmund glimpses this view, and Jack sees on his face a look of longing and despair that makes him determined to somehow overturn the Maharaja's decision, for the sake of his uncle: it's really a turning point in the book - the first time that Jack becomes properly aware of other people's needs and desires.

Well, so yesterday a friend suggested going to see the annual orchid festival at Kew, and I realised that here was my chance to visit the Marianne North Gallery and see it for myself. It was one of those warm, sunny days that you sometimes get in February: perfect. First we went to see the orchids. Apparently orchids grow on every continent, and each year, the festival focuses on a different region. This year it's Colombia, where scientists from Kew have a number of projects on the go. The colours were extraordinary, and there were quirky touches, like this sloth, and the hats perched on top of the cacti.

I don't think Marianne would have approved of the hats, but she would have loved the colours of the flowers.

After the orchids, we  went to look at the Hive, which is this intricate metal structure which mimics the complexity of a beehive. It shimmered beautifully in the sun, but I would love to see it at night, when the hundreds of tiny LED lights must make a glittering display.

And finally we arrived at the gallery. There is another gallery beside it now, which had exhibitions of botanical art, and we looked at this first. This picture of an ancient oak tree is one of a series of graphite drawings by Mark Frith, called A Legacy of Ancient Oaks. The photograph really doesn't do justice to the detail; they are huge, and exquisite, and utterly different from Marianne North's work, which we came to next.

I don't know of anywhere else where paintings are displayed in such a way as they are here. There are hundreds of them, all very close together: they're somehow not overwhelming, but of course you can't take them all in at one visit. I was searching for my special picture, the one of Kanchenjunga, and it took me a long time to find it. On the way I saw landscapes from South America, from Australia, from South America, from Malaysia - from all over the world. And I realised that they don't just show the plants. They show what the world was like in the second half of the 19th century: there are people there too, and the places they lived in. She saw so much, and she captured so much. 

Marianne North

Incidentally, if you look at the cover of Jack Fortune, you may see that there's a reference to Picture Number 270, just in the layout of the cover image. This pleases me very much!

Friday, 15 February 2019

Women and the Railways in World War 2: an interview by Fay Bound Alberti

Susan Major, pictured at York Railway Station
For this week’s blog I talked to Dr Susan Major, who has written a fabulous book about women working on the railways during World War 2. This book is important because although we know that women took on many traditional men’s roles during the war, very little has been published on women in the railways. Railways were a reserved occupation, so in theory men continued to work on the railways while their counterparts in other industries were sent off to war. In reality, the men working on the railways were often old and disabled. The issues confronted by women workers were those that existed in other activities:  economic, sexual, social and temporal, their lives being changed by the new habits and relationships brought by the war, as well as its ending. Susan’s book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the lives of working women in the Second World War, as well as its gender politics. 

About Susan Major
Susan Major completed a PhD with the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History at the University of York in 2012. Drawing upon material from the National Railway Museum and the British Library, she focused on early railway excursions. Her book based on this research, Early Victorian Railway Excursions, was shortlisted for the Railways and Canal Historical Society Book of the Year Awards 2017. Her latest book, Female Railway Workers in World War II, was published by Pen & Sword in 2018. Susan was a programme consultant for the BBC series Railways: the Making of a Nation, taking part in the episode on leisure. She is retired and lives in York.

Fay: “So Susan, what drew you to the subject of women on the railways?” 

Susan: “Well I completed my doctorate, which later became a book, on Victorian railway excursions. Later, when doing some research about railway voices I discovered the National Archive of Railway Oral History at the Railway Museum, which contains many different  interviews with  people working on and associated with the railways. Quite a lot of this material has been digitised and indexed and transcribed. Among all the men recorded, there were some women and I realised that their voices had not really been listened to. And there were enough women talking about the wartime period, and about working in what were commonly perceived as ‘men’s jobs’, to form the basis of a book. And remember that even so-called ‘women’s’ jobs in those days, like working as a clerk, had been men’s jobs when in the railway context. And I wanted to know not only what everyday life was life for those women, but also how they were looked at by other people, by the companies who were employing the women as well as commentators in newspapers of the time.” 

Fay: “ Are there any particular women that stand out for you?Any stories that were especially memorable?” 

Susan: “There was a female porter at York station, when it was bombed in 1942. A train was also bombed on its way into the station, and these were terrible conditions to work in. The social conditions could be difficult too; she tells a story of a parcel foreman that the female workers had problems with and they sorted him out by giving him some chocolate, which happened to be laxative chocolate.”

(Pause for laughter!)

Fay: “What can you tell us about the kind of women in these roles, their age or class for instance?”

Susan: “Well it’s a very select sample, dependent on who was chosen to interview. And these women would all have been young at the time, because the older women would have died by the time the stories were recorded. And they described liking the companionship of other women, the responsibility, and, unlike factory, work the variable and different activities involved.”

Fay: “Were the women all unmarried? I’m thinking about other roles of the time, which had very strict union rules”.  

Susan: “Yes. If you got married you had to leave. Most of these women were aged between 16 and 22 and often they met a railway man and got married and that was the last we hear of them. By contrast the newspaper reports were keen to tell readers about those women who might have 12 children and still carried out a role. And there was a sense that a woman wasn’t quite acceptable in publicity unless she had some link to a railway man. Women were not treated as individuals in their own right.” 

Fay: “Were most of these women working class women?”

Susan: “not necessarily. Many were working class though there were also reports of quite posh women working on the railways. The ones that were interviewed were mainly ordinary women, who had a clear sense of their roles and their relationships with other women and you get a real sense of the culture of the workplace through the stories that they tell. Compared to other work, like factory work, the duties could be varied and interesting”.

Fay: “What do these interviews say about how it was to be a woman in a traditionally male environment?”

Susan: “There is some discussion about workplace harassment, much of which was taken for granted. For instance one of the accounts describes the experience of a typistThey had to go down and check their work with one of the men in the office. She said “And there were never enough chairs. So we used to share a chair with a man. And I think the feminists these days would be horrified. They'd probably be having all the men done for harassment. But we used to call it fun”

Fay: “Ah. So these women would have to sit on their boss's lap.” 

Susan: “Yes, or share the chair. And there are a lot of examples of that. And women would talk about how they worked all day while their male supervisors stood around talking about sport. And at the end of the working day the women would get ready to go home and the men would say “overtime now”. And the men got paid more for the overtime, while the women had often families to get home to.There was also this concept of the “railway family”, which other historians have written about. Employees were encouraged to think of the railway as a family, and there were magazines prompting this image. And there was a sense that you could only get a job in the railways if your father put you forward, for instance, and while that wasn’t necessarily so in practice, it was how people thought about the railways as paternalistic employers”. 

Fay: “After the war did these women get sent away from the jobs, as they did in other industries?” 

Susan: “They were dispensed with, yes. Although I’ve focused on women working, the last chapter of my book is called: “and then the men came back”, which draws attention to the way women workers were dismissed. One woman, a guard, was sent a letter thanking her for her service. Only it wasn’t sent to her but to her boss. She had to travel a long way on the train to get to his office after a long shift, where she was shown this piece of paper, which he then kept, before trekking all the way home again”. 

Fay: “Thank you for a fascinating introduction to the book, which one of our lucky readers will win”. 

Prize Question: 

What TWO jobs were women railway workers NOT allowed to undertake during World War Two?
  1. Engine drivers 
  2. Porters 
  3. Switchboard operators
  4. Firemen
  5. Parcel workers 
  6. Signal operators 
  7. Manual labourers 

Please answer in the comments below. The lucky winner will be drawn at random. 


Since Susan was a founding member of the award-winning Clements Hall Local History Group in York, and remains very active in the local community, I couldn’t let her go before asking her about her book on Bishy Road, a bank of independent shops whose success has caught the eye of The Guardian and other national publications. 

Fay: “Before we finish I wonder if you could say something about your work on Bishy Road, which is another subject you have written about?” 

Susan: “When I started looking at the shops for a local history project, I was surprised that nobody had looked at their history. So I started with local directories, census records, and oral history accounts to build up a picture of their development over 150 years. And though the name “Bishy Road” is quite controversial for some people, who think it is disrespectful to the name “Bishopthorpe Road, the local shops, which are still mostly independent, are regarded quite affectionately by the people who live and work there.”

I particularly enjoyed the way Susan records the social history of York through the shops that populated Bishy Road. From Chinese laundries to Teddy Boy tailors, the history of the shops is a history of social, political and economic change of the country as a whole. Which is the best kind of local history!

Bishy Road 2018: A Shopping Street in Time is available at Waterstones

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Love and the Courtesans of the Floating World - by Lesley Downer

The time to see the Yoshiwara to the best advantage is just after nightfall, when the lamps are lighted. 
Algernon Mitford, 1871

Living only for the moment, giving all our time to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting; never giving a care if we have no money, never sad in our hearts, only like a gourd bobbing up and down on the river’s current; that is what we call ukiyo - the Floating World.
Asai Ryoi, 1661

Tayu (Kyoto courtesan) playing a kokyu

Courtesan promenading in the Yoshiwara,
 Utagawa Yoshitora (died 1880) 1859
In old Japan the man in search of love and romance knew exactly where to go - the pleasure quarters. There, so the saying went, the women all told their customers, ‘I’m crazy about you’, while the customers told their lovers, ‘I will marry you.’ Neither were to be believed.

The most famous pleasure quarters of all was the Yoshiwara. It offered far more than sex. For men it was like Las Vegas crossed with Hollywood, full of marvellous things to see and do, where you could play out your fantasies and where the normal rules of life did not apply. It was known as the Nightless City, because there the lights never went out. It was a sort of never never land, where a man could say and do pretty much anything he liked and start again with a clean slate the next day - a dream of romance with no strings attached.

Going to the Yoshiwara

Japan Dyke by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858)
The Yoshiwara was a good safe distance outside the great city of Edo, now Tokyo, well away from the everyday world of work and family. Pleasure seekers left at sunset, taking a boar’s tusk boat up the River Sumida along the eastern side of the city or going on foot or on horseback. Then they walked across the marshes along the Japan Dyke. From there you could make out the lights of the Yoshiwara glimmering enticingly in the distance like a fairy city, much as, so they say, you can see the neon of Las Vegas twinkling across the desert.

Finally they’d glimpse the Looking Back Willow and the crooked road that led down to the Yoshiwara - crooked to ensure that no one could see into that magical place from outside. They’d cross the Ditch of Black Teeth and arrive at the Great Gate and leave their swords with the gatekeeper. In front of them was the broad main street lined with latticed rooms where the lowest level of women sat like goods in a shop window, waiting to be chosen, like in the red light district in Amsterdam.

Latticed room in the Yoshiwara - Night Scene
by Katsushika Oi (Hokusai's daughter) - before 1860
A Courtesan Parade

Then, if they were lucky and their timing was good, they’d hear the tootle of flutes, the thump of drums and the clanging of metal rings at the top of staffs. They’d see masked dancers cavorting and lantern-bearers advancing with measured tread as a huge procession of retainers, attendants and gorgeously-apparelled lower-level courtesans appeared, making its way very slowly along the street. The crowds would draw back, whispering. It could only be one of the oirans - the courtesans - on her way to a teahouse.

And finally they’d see her undulating along, a good head above her attendants on foot high wooden clogs. Resting her hands on the shoulders of two sturdy male attendants, she’d swing her foot out to one side and scrape the edge of her clog along the road, then bring it in front of her, then slowly, deliberately do the same with the other foot in the famous ‘figure of eight walk’, named not after our ‘eight’ but the Japanese ‘eight’ which is a bit like a circumflex. She performed the whole complex routine with her hips thrust forward, with ineffable coquetry, fully aware of her magnetic appeal. Her face was painted stark white, her teeth lacquered black, her lips bright red and she wore a vast ornate headdress, glittering with ornaments.
 Courtesan procession from J.E. de Becker,
History of the Yoshiwara Yukaku, 1905

For the crowds shoving to catch a glimpse of her it was like seeing a movie star on Oscars’ Night. But unlike a movie star her body was not on display. It was hidden under layer upon layer of lavishly embroidered kimonos, all wrapped around with a huge brocade obi. While other women and geisha too wore their obis tied at the back, the courtesan’s was tied at the front in an enormous knot, the message being that if a man was brave and rich and patient enough, he might - just might - get to untie it.

The only part of her body on view was her little bare feet in their clogs poking out from under her skirts. It was the most erotic sight. It sent a shiver down all the spectators’ spines.

Where a low class merchant might imagine himself a prince
Yoshiwara Matsubaya oiran. 
The green brocade 'apron' is her obi.

But unless a man was incredibly rich, patient, good looking and lucky, that was the closest he’d get. The courtesan was to be seen, not touched. For her it was all performance, highly choreographed. She was an artiste justly proud of her artistry.

Like les grandes horizontales of Paris in the mid nineteenth century or the Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, Japanese courtesans were the most accomplished women of their day. The courtesan parading so grandly down the street hosted literary salons which the great writers of the day competed to attend. She was beautiful, witty, brilliant. She wrote poetry, painted and danced, was an adept of tea ceremony, conversed delightfully, and could talk knowledgeably about politics if the customer so desired. She had a lavish wardrobe of kimonos for every season and every occasion, paid for by wealthy admirers and occasionally laid out to view. And she was demanding and proud, she held court like a queen.

Such a woman does not come cheap. In fact some of the most famous courtesans never slept with anyone. It would have lowered her value were she to make herself too freely available.
'Completely out of his league ...' - customer with oiran

If a man was brash enough to want to spend the night with such a woman, he’d first need an introduction. If he was new to the district he would be turned away, no matter how rich, famous or well-connected he might be. He would have to go to the teahouse where he was a regular to book her, where he would be told he’d have to wait several days. He’d order food, drink, hire entertainers, then order food for the entertainers. All this cost money. Only a big spender, a generous man prepared to throw around his money would be worth her consideration.

Then the next day or the day after he might be able to meet her and sip sake with her and make an appointment to meet her again another day - if she so chose. The patient wooer could imagine he was a lovelorn Prince Genji exchanging poems with a beautiful princess and forget that in reality he was a despised merchant and she a sex worker. She would flatter and flirt, and, if the man ever got the chance to find out, he’d discover she was most likely brilliant in bed.
Oiran at the Yoshiwara Matsubaya 

She was in fact completely out of his league, were it not for the fact he was paying vast amounts for it all. Money would buy this extraordinary woman, her smiles, her caresses, her swooning interest in everything he said. This gorgeous creature would persuade him he was brilliant, handsome, that she was madly in love with him. What man wouldn’t go for that?

Working women

Meanwhile the women of course were working. The courtesan’s job was to make the customer fall in love with her but to keep him at arm’s length so that he would visit more and more frequently and spend more and more money. Everything was there to enhance his pleasure. The pleasure quarters were where you went to find aphrodisiacs - charred newt, eel, lotus root, dried rings of sea slug to fit over the penis. Grilled viper was also an aphrodisiac, as was the toasted fin of the fugu, the famous blowfish whose liver, kidneys, ovaries and eyes are deadly poisonous. There was always a titillating link between sex and death.

Courtesans wrote beautiful love letters. Some would offer a lock of their hair or a finger nail as proof of her love. And when the customer left the pleasure quarters in the morning she would escort him to the gates and be ostentatiously wiping away tears as he turned at the Looking Back Willow to feast his eyes one last time.
Yoshiwara oiran surrounded by attendants 1910 - courtesy 
University of Victoria, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons

For the women the difficult balance was between playing at love without ever falling in love. If they did fall in love it was invariably a disaster. It was always the wrong man, not the rich client who’d become her patron and support her but a son whose father had marriage plans for him and who would disinherit him if he disgraced the family by running away with a courtesan or, even worse, a young poor clerk. When that happened many couples decided that the only way out was to commit ‘love suicide’, to this day still considered the ultimate demonstration of love.

The Yoshiwara reached its height in the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century it was already becoming a little seedy. Geisha with their pared down chic replaced the overblown courtesans and the prohibition of prostitution in 1872 was the final blow. From having been a government sponsored pleasure quarters the Yoshiwara went underground and was taken over by yakuza gangsters. It’s still there, however. If you study a map of Tokyo you can make out the legendary Five Streets, beyond Asakusa in the north east of Tokyo, though the Yoshiwara is not actually named on the map. You can even go and visit.

My novel The Courtesan and the Samurai is set largely in the Yoshiwara of the mid nineteenth century. There’s also lots about geisha and courtesans in my Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World.

My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queenan epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback.

For more see

Woodblock prints and old photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photographs mine.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Researching with Seventeenth Century Diaries

by Deborah Swift

One good thing about the internet is that I have access to many documents online, that previously were only available to me through archives. The most valuable sources for me are diaries, in which I get a first-hand account of seventeenth century life. I have linked all the diarists in this post to their online diaries.

Etching by Robert Spence

The first diary I used was that of the Quaker, George Fox, because he appears in my first novel, and like many diaries of the time his diary was written because of a religious impulse, in which he was documenting his relationship with God. The original journal was revised before it was published and I found both editions interesting to compare.

Fox's journal was first officially published in 1694, by which time it had been substantially edited, and cleaned up. Parts of the journal were not in fact by Fox at all but were re-constructed by his editors keen to spread a message of clean and godly living. References to meetings in taverns, and the dissent within the Quaker movement have been expunged from the narrative. The diary portrays Fox as rather more saintly than he probably was, and always vindicated by God's providence. This is the problem with diaries published later (particularly by Victorians) - the temptation is always to clean them up, thus losing value for researchers like me. Only recently have we been able to read the 'naughty bits' in Pepys' Diary.

Many diarists of the seventeenth century were religious men. Though the diary of Roger Lowe is very much the diary of the common man, it still shows his refusal to conform to the re-established church. It gives us insights into a seventeenth century mercer's apprentice living in a Lancashire village. In his entries we discover that literacy was unusual in his community, and somewhat prized, because he sometimes offered to write letters for his neighbours. In October 1663 his friend John Hasleden told him;
"that he loved a wench in Ireland, and so the day after I writ a love-letter for him into Ireland". 
Can't help wondering exactly what he put! His diaries reflect the concerns of a working class man, not a member of the aristorcacy, and as such are especially valuable:

"Friday. dyed Alexander Potter 3d son to Cozen John Potter de Lilly Lane who in his life time was nevr supposd to have any genius a meer child yet now att his death called father & mother & prayd forgivenes of his faults in cheating them of a half peny and wished them to live in peace & that his sister Ellin would leave off swearinge & so dyed & without question is now att rest." (25th June 1675)

The diary of Roger Lowe of Ashton in Makerfield is preserved in the Leyland Free Library and Museum, in Hindley, Lancashire. Here is a link to pictures and more extracts.
Samuel Pepys began his diary in 1660 and continued to write it for ten years. His diary is arguably the best-known resource we have on London in the 17th century. It provides us with a fly-on-the-wall account of daily life in the period just following the Restoration of King Charles II, and includes passages on The Plague and The Great Fire. Here's a bit from the Coronation of Charles II, in which he confesses that in the middle of the proceedings he has to answer a call of nature. This is the joy of Pepys; the personal and the political are intertwined.
"The King in his robes, bare headed, which was very fine. And after all had placed themselfs - there was a sermon and the service. And then in the Quire at the high altar he passed all the ceremonies of the Coronacion - which, to my very great grief, I and most of the Abbey could not see. The crowne being put upon his head, a great shout begun. And he came forth to the Throne and there passed more ceremonies: as, taking the oath and having things read to him by the Bishopp, and his lords (who put on their capps as soon as the King put on his Crowne) and Bishopps came and kneeled before him.....But I had so great a list to pisse, that I went out a little while before the King had done all his ceremonies and went round the abby to Westminster-hall, all the way within rayles, and 10000 people, with the ground coverd with blue cloth - and Scaffolds all the way. Into the hall I got - where it was very fine with hangings and scaffolds, one upon another, full of brave ladies. And my wife in one little one on the right hand."
An awareness of the importance of national events also seems to have encouraged Roger Morrice, who began to keep an 'entring book' in 1678 after the Popish Plot which aimed to re-establish the Catholic Church by assassinating Charles II. The Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that between 1678 and 1681 created massive anti-Catholic hysteria. Like Pepys' Diary, Morrice's diary  was written in shorthand, and so was only translated this century, and runs to more than a million words. (See this article )His diary begins in 1677 and ends in 1691, and so covers the reigns of Charles II, James II, and William and Mary.

Morrice was a clergyman who had been expelled from his parish after Charles II returned from exile. He shows us many incidences of political or religious unrest, like this example from 1666 showing the persecution of the Quakers:
"Upon Lords day the 17th October at Leicester, the Quakers mett together. There are some Soldiers quartred in the Town, and a Black that is Kettle Drummer to one Company went into the Quakers Meeting, and did as they did, sign, groan, and sing, &c. A little after came in a Captain and three or foure Soldiers, who brought ale and Tobacco pipes with them and sate down and smoked and drunk. The Captain drank the King’s health to a Quaker; the Quaker answered I thirst not; the Captain said it thou drinkest not my Master’s health, I will Cuckold they wife before they eyes. With that, the Captain and Souldiers rose up, and drew their Swords, Shut the doores, and used and abused the women much. Some of the young Girles are so affrighted their recovery is questioned." 

Morrice had a friend who was a Privy councillor and so was able to comment on the death of Charles II, a report that is somewhat controversial and indicates a return to Catholicism.
"On Thursday night a priest came up the back way. It was believed by all that he confessed the king, gave him extreme unction and that His Majesty died a papist."
Death of Charles II

But what of the women of this period? I can recommend the diary of Anne Clifford, a stubborn and independent woman who travelled great distances in her attempt to regain her stolen inheritance - which included Skipton Castle in Yorkshire along with Pendragon Castle, Brough Castle, Appleby Castle and Brougham Castle, all in Westmorland. Her relationship with her husband was strained, but her love for her estates never wavered:
'Upon the 5th my Lord went up to my closet and saw how little money I had left, contrary to all that they had told him. Sometimes I had fair words from him and sometimes foul but I took all patiently and did strive to give him as much content and assurance of my love as I could possibly. Yet I always told him that I would never part with Westmoreland upon any condition whatsoever.'
Though not strictly a diary, though written in her lifetime, a source I really enjoyed reading was the memoir of Anne Fanshawe, a Royalist during the English Civil War. As was common in that period, she gave birth to 14 live children and had six miscarriages. When her husband was taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester she stood outside his window in the middle of the night in the rain to talk to him.  She also wrote a book of cookery and her recipe for ice cream is thought to be the earliest recorded in Europe.

Anne Fanshawe's Recipe for ice cream

Here is a passage from her memoirs about the arrival of the King:
"We had by the States' order sent on board to the King's most eminent servants, great store of provisions: for our family we had sent on board the Speedwell a tierce of claret, a hogshead of Rhenish wine, six dozen of fowls, a dozen of gammons of bacon, a great basket of bread, and six sheep, two dozen of neats' tongues, and a great box of sweetmeats. Thus taking our leaves of those obliging persons we had conversed with in the Hague, we went on board upon the 23rd of May, about two o'clock in the afternoon. The King embarked at four of the clock, upon which we set sail, the shore being covered with people, and shouts from all places of a good voyage, which was seconded with many volleys of shot interchanged: so favourable was the wind, that the ships' wherries went from ship to ship to visit their friends all night long."
Anne Fanshawe
Other diarists worth considering from this period are John Evelyn, Ralph Josselin and Robert Hooke. For women, try Celia Fiennes the great traveller, or Lucy Hutchinson's account of the English Civil War. I hope you have enjoyed my small foray into the many seventeenth century diaries available to us, and I hope it fuels more research! My novels featuring the hidden lives of the women in Pepys' Diary are available now from Accent Press.

Do nudge me on twitter @swiftstory to chat, or find me on my website.
All pictures are from Wikipedia, unless linked.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Gaelic in London, a very potted and personal history

by Antonia Senior

Some years ago, I gave my husband a present. We had been hill-walking in Scotland, and he was frustrated by his inability to understand and pronounce the names of the hills. A Glaswegian, he spoke only English (albeit an occasionally Glaswegian version). In the book tent at the Edinburgh Festival, there was a Gaelic section and I bought him a book on the language and its pronunciation.

It was the beginning of a deep and abiding interest in the language. Ten years later, and he is nearly fluent. Our holidays tend to have a Gaelic flavour - he won't go to the Isle of Arran because there are no native speakers. A trip to Canada for a wedding became a pilgrimage to the Gaelic language college of Nova Scotia.

This Summer, we are planning our trip to Scotland based around his one week trip to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic language college, on the Sleat peninsula in Skye. Is there a more stunningly located higher education college in the entire world?

Most of his exposure to the language, however, is in London, a city that feels distinctly unGaelic. But Gaelic in London has a long and proud history. The Gaelic Society of London was formed in 1777, The London Gaelic Choir (of which my husband is a member) found that some of its members' language skills were rusty. So in the 1880s the choir set up a London Gaelic class. The lessons were originally held at Crown Court Church.

This home of The Church of Scotland in Covent Garden is well worth visiting, incidentally. An unassuming door in the heart of Theatreland leads into a lovely, largeish church, entirely hidden in the folds of Covent Garden. Our youngest daughter was christened there.

In 1919, the City Lit further education college was set up, and the London Gaelic lessons moved there. Apart from a brief hiatus in World War One, there have been Gaelic lessons in London for the curious and the exiled since the 1880s.

The story of Gaelic itself is of course, far, far older. It is thought to have arrived in Scotland in the Sixth Century AD from Ireland. It quickly came to dominate, replacing the incumbent Pictish, about which nothing is known. Irish is still its closest cousin. Irish, Manx and Gaelic have grown apart over the past 1,000 years or so, but are recognisably close. Welsh and Breton have a similar Celtic root. None of them has much relationship with English, or its bastard cousin Scots, which makes Gaelic tricky for a non-native speaker to learn.

For much of its history, most Gaelic speakers were not literate in their own language. They could speak it fluently, but not read it or write it. So Highland soldiers writing home to their families in the war would often write home in halting English. Colin says that modern Gaelic speakers, by contrast, tend to be better at reading and writing the language than speaking it.

'It's bloody difficult,' he says. Often. While laughing at me for my complete failure to get anywhere in my attempts to learn the much easier Italian. Yet he perseveres, and he loves it. He points out that Twitter makes communicating in minority languages with other speakers much easier. You don't have to go to Lewis to have a conversation in Gaelic, you just go on Twitter.

Part of the attraction of the language is the access it gives to a treasury of historic songs and poems. My husband, to add to his many talents, is an incredibly good singer. He took part in an incredible evening of Gaelic songs and history last year at St Columba Church in Knightsbridge. Called Feeding the 50,000 it commemorated the church's role in feeding and caring for the Scottish soldiers who passed through London during World War 1.

Col has set up a website to pull together all the different strands of the Gaelic presence in London.