Thursday 31 December 2015

December Competition

To win one of five copies of Rhian Ivory's The Boy who Drew the Furture, answer this question in the Comments below:

"Have you ever visited a place and experienced déjà vu or seen or heard something you couldn't explain?"

Please copy your answer to so you can be contacted if you win.

Closing date 14th January, to give you time to recover from Christmas and New Year!

Our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

My Cabinet of Curiosities; Henrietta Barnett, John Lennon and the Grey Cat of feeling Blue Catherine Johnson

Dame Henrietta Barnett

Henrietta Barnett was one of those formidable late Victorian/Edwardian dames who set out to change the world. Along with her husband, she set up a 'settlement' in Whitechapel in the East End of London to help and educate the poorest of the poor, it's still there -Toynbee Hall - and Canon Barnett has a primary school named after him nearby.

Henrietta herself was interested in the burgeoning new towns movement. She saw an opportunity to build a model suburb, one where rich and poor would live together in a semi rural idyll with public woods, low density housing and clean air. She was also big - very big - on the education of girls. This would be a place to build a new society, far from the filth of the city, up high on a hill outside London. It was born out of a mixture of the idealism of late Victorian England, Arts and Crafts and back to the land, an idyll of space for all according to their need.

So Hampstead Garden Suburb was born, a place with a central square laid out by architect de jour Lutyens, with education at its heart. There was an adult education Institute (Orwellianly named 'The Institute') and the school, named after the Dame herself. all roads were to be tree lined, and there were to be no church bells rung. She even vetoed the building of the Underground Line, no tube stations here thank you! Also what's noticeable is that even in this brave new world, the houses farthest from the Central Square and the Heath are smaller, meaner. This was a carefully zoned kind of socialism after all.

I don't know what the Dame would make of it today. The Institute has moved out of The Suburb (that's what it's called, The Suburb, as if there isn't any other) and only the very very (very) rich live there these days. It's cut in two by the North Circular road, so I doubt the air is as clean as it was a hundred years ago...

What has this got to do with John Lennon? I am getting to this....

Close your eyes. Let the years fall away.
Henrietta Barnett School
It is now 1973, December. Inside the parquet floored hall of the Henrietta Barnett School the Year Sevens (we were called Lower Fourths to mimic our betters in public schools) are putting on a performance for the parents at the end of their first term. Singing, music and dance. All of us. We are in leotards (and show me any prepubescent girl who doesn't hate a leotard) being snowflakes to John Lennon's recent Number One hit. This song is a dirge and a half. It goes on forever. Just when you think it has finished there is another reprise of the chorus. And another. And another.

Oh. And another.

This was a mirror to my school life in which everything went downhill very slowly fading out like John and Yoko. My school, I was sure, was the most boring, most turgid,  and the most uninspiring place in the whole universe.

It was designed to offer free education to girls who at 11 managed to jump through the hoops of the 11 plus. It never had the glamour or sass of it's near neighbour Camden Girls. HBS girls were  always well behaved and useful members of society; Opticians, Estate Agents, Dentists and Doctors*.  It might be a school parents fight to get their girls into - it's free! it's socially exclusive! it has great exam results! There is no scope for lunchtime excitement as the school is miles from ANYWHERE! (Dame H banning the tube station totally worked).

So the Grey Cat? Well this year isn't easy at the best of times, everyone posting happy Christmas pics when for a lot of us it hasn't been. People making brave and bold resolutions and brave and bold new years.

I have been lucky never to have been visited by the Black Dog of depression, but many around me have. All of us know what it's like to feel empty with pain or to feel so sad and terrified of life that you can't eat or breathe.

One thing I wish I could have told myself as I lay on my back on the parquet in my navy leotard is that it gets better - as well as worse.

I think children are sold a pup. Life isn't the mirror to school, progressing up one class after another, come what may.  That's completely unnatural. Things go up and down. There will be bright spots and utter lows. Both are a kind of illusion. Keep going. The Grey Cat - unlike the dog which needs proper help - will pad past on silent paws.

I am a fan of contentment. Of the middle road. Of the just about alright. Of the 'it could always be worse'.

But of course I would be lying if I didn't harbour secret hope - why on earth write otherwise?

Here's hoping for all of us that the year brings contentment and good health.

Happy New Year!!

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is out now, published by Corgi.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Drawing the Future, Dreaming the Past by Rhian Ivory

Photo credit: Jo Cotterill
Our December guest is Rhian Ivory and we welcome her warmly to The History Girls.

The Boy who drew the Future is Rhian Ivory’s fifth novel, she’s recently finished writing her sixth and is about to start editing her seventh. Rhian is a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and a National Trust writer in residence. Tweet her on @Rhian_Ivory and find her on Facebook. 

The Boy who Drew the Future did not start off as historical fiction in fact it started off as just a dream, or rather the end of a dream which involved a boy called Noah who drew someone’s very dark future. I remember telling myself in my dream to remember the idea. I didn’t remember it but someone broke my dream later that day and I raced upstairs and wrote out the end scene in detail. However I didn’t know how to move from the end to the start of the story.

And then I started dreaming about a hand which led to a river which flowed all the way to the Workhouse. However the original the story was Noah’s alone. I wrote the whole book just about him but I kept seeing a ghost walking behind Noah, accompanied by a black dog. Blaze’s voice came to me one morning, so easily and vividly as if he were sitting next to me telling me his story. I went on a writer’s retreat and his whole history came tumbling out and suddenly I was writing a book set in the past as well as in the present about the future.

I had never heard of Sible Hedingham when I chose it as the setting for my novel. I was roaming the UK on Google maps looking for a quirky sounding village name to suit my quirky story and Sible Hedingham jumped out at me. I wrote several drafts of the novel before researching the village to make sure it did have a church, a river and a school. As I researched house prices in Sible Hedingham, primary and secondary schools and where the local supermarket would be I stumbled across parish records, workhouse inventories and The Sible Hedingham Witchcase Trial.

The last witch in England was swum in the river Colne in Sible Hedingham. Unusually this witch was not female but male. Dummy was accused of being a witch and swum in the river in front of The Swan Inn. Dummy later died in the Workhouse and I discovered that he was believed to be from Europe, possibly France and was deaf and mute, hence his cruel nickname.

Many shivers ran down my spine as I read on and realised that I had dreamt up a character quite similar to a real person who had drawn pictures on scraps of paper for his living, telling fortunes of girls in the village until he told someone a fortune they didn’t want to hear. I do believe in fate and serendipity but these circumstances were almost too much and I did wonder at one point whether I should simply return to Noah’s story. I did a lot of historical research for Blaze’s chapters, reading court reports about the real Sible Hedingham Witchcraft Case which is fascinating. I also uncovered many stories about immigrants from France and other countries coming to England for work, as Blaze’s mother does.

I told myself the novel would be much easier to write without Blaze’s complicated storyline but I’ve always wanted to write historical fiction; it is my favourite genre and I’ve read a lot of it but have been incredibly nervous about approaching it. I told myself the competition in this field is just too fierce and one storyline will be so much easier to edit but I kept dreaming about a hand.

Artwork by Guy Manning

This hand in the river trying to warn Noah about something and I knew that I couldn’t ignore Blaze’s story, so I visited the Workhouse.

In Victorian England there were over 750 workhouses open to the poor and the destitute offering a roof over their heads, clothes on their back and food in their bellies. What shocked me as I plunged further into my research was that you had to ask to enter the Workhouse. You weren’t dragged there kicking and screaming, you had to ask the Guardians to accept you, to let you in. I can imagine nothing more humbling than having to utter those words.

I discovered a series of interviews with people whose ancestors had experienced the Workhouse and it was whilst reading these documents that I found out about corpse tunnels.

The practice of taking the bodies of the Workhouse dead out through an underground tunnel and then selling them on to Universities and other medical institutions to learn about the human anatomy made for gruesome reading. The Anatomy Act of 1832 stipulated that paupers could be charged with the crime of poverty. Before this the Murder Act of 1752 stated that only the corpses of executed murderers could be used for dissection. After 1832 everything changed and the bodies of the poor could be dissected as a way to repay the welfare debt unless family members could pay to reclaim the body. Most workhouse inmates didn’t have the means to buy the bodies back and so the corpse tunnels were put to use.

I knew that the Workhouse had tunnels underneath it leading off from the kitchen but when I came to write the novel I wanted something bigger and more dramatic for my scenes in the tunnels in both Blaze’s timeline in 1865 and also Noah’s timeline in the present day when he visits the Workhouse on a school trip. So I turned back to my National Trust and found Calke Abbey which has beer tunnels open to the public.

The beer tunnels at Calke are long, dark and very atmospheric. I walked down the tunnel with my two older children, my husband having decided that they might be too scary for the youngest. When my 11 and 8 year old ran off down the tunnel ahead of me whooping and testing out the acoustics I felt a sense of panic. I wanted them back, holding my hands, not for their sake but for mine.
The dripping sound of the rain water seeping in through the bricks above me felt louder and louder as I tried to walk quickly towards the end of the tunnel and reach my children. My son turned the corner first and ran up the steep steps back into the light.

I took my daughter’s hand, ready to help her in case she should lose her footing on the first step when we heard an almighty THUD behind us. I squeezed her hand so tightly that she squealed. My son paused and shouted “What was that?” and I could hear the fear in his voice. We turned around and went back into the tunnel but it was empty. No one in there. No sign of damage or accident. I was expecting to see bricks on the floor, the ceiling caved in, something but there was nothing, just silence and the drip, drip, drip of the rain. The three of us ran up the steps together, never mind that they were steep and slippy and back into the light.

Historical details and accuracy are so important when trying to bring scenes from the past to life and I find that once I’ve visited a physical place like the Workhouse and Calke Abbey I can then go home and picture my characters walking around those gardens, or sleeping in those dormitories and imagine what it would have felt like to run along those corpse tunnels or in some cases I don’t need to imagine because I’ve already done it myself.

Find out more about Rhian here and look out for a chance to win her book on December 31st.

Monday 28 December 2015

Out with the Old . . . by Julie Summers

Hang on, hang on. It is all too easy at the back end of the year to get over enthusiastic about throwing things out. I love having a good sort through my shelves and cupboards but I do wonder if I get carried away and throw out something precious. Or more to the point, something that might be precious to others in the future. At the beginning of this month I had the great good fortune to have a behind the scenes visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The curator of Early Modern Manuscripts, Mike Webb, produced a small number of treasures to illustrate various stories about life during the seventeenth century. One of the objects he showed us was an accounts book kept by Mary Gofton, previously Lady Sandys, between 1645 and 1649. In this little volume she listed every item of expenditure she made. They range from £2 11s 6d for ‘16 yards of selver and gold lace for my morning cotte’ (mourning coat) to 2s 6d for a ‘play thinge for nick and miles’ (her grandsons), while on other occasions she made huge donations to her children, such as £2,000 to her son stuard in March 1647, the equivalent of £250,000 or $375,000 in 2015. 

Account book of Mary Gofton (née Hanbury,
afterwards Lady Sandys,
afterwards Richardson), 1645-1649
Shelfmark: MS. Eng. e. 3651
Several things struck us powerfully about this book. First, the cover was utterly unprepossessing.If one had seen it in a junk shop it would have been easy to overlook it. Secondly, it was written in the vernacular rather than ‘secretary script’ which is how men of letters were taught to write. Women did not need that skill.

Page beginning 16 March 1647
The result is that her spelling is wonderfully arbitrary but the voice is entirely hers. Reading the descriptions of her expenditure, Mike Webb was able to reconstruct her speech through her spellings and we were amazed but thrilled to hear the gentle ‘burred’ accent of a seventeenth century gentlewoman from Gloucestershire. How Mary Gofton’s book has survived is a mystery and it is nothing short of a minor miracle that it was not thrown out in a New Year spring clean in any one of the intervening 367 Januarys.

When I was working on my first book Fearless on Everest, about the disappearance of Sandy Irvine with George Mallory on Mount Everest in 1924, I had a stroke of luck with a find of material that too might have ended up in the bin. Sandy was my great uncle, though of course I never knew him. 

Willie Irvine, 1877
I did however once meet his father, my great-grandfather, Willie Irvine, when I was a baby. There is a photograph of me aged about 9 months with legs like sausages sitting on the old man’s knee. He was 93 and died not long after the photograph was taken.  Fast forward 38 years and I was living in California with my young family. Our third son had been born in Stanford and we called him Sandy after his namesake because, like him, he was blonde haired and blue-eyed. A few weeks after he was born I was walking down the high street in Palo Alto when I saw a photograph in a bookshop window. It was the last photograph of Mallory and Irvine taken the morning they left camp IV to head for camps V and VI before launching their bid on the summit on 8 June 1924. They disappeared in a blanket of cloud at about midday, last seen by Noel Odell in what is probably the most famous sighting in mountaineering history. They were, in his words, ‘going strong for the top.’ We came back to Britain in 1998 and the following year George Mallory’s frozen remains were found by an Anglo-American team and interest in the mystery of Mallory and Irvine soared.

Sandy Irvine, Spitsbergen 1923
There are more than one thousand books written about Everest and almost every single one of them alludes to their story. However, Sandy was merely the historical cipher to the great George Mallory and little was known about him. So little, in fact, that almost nothing existed in the public domain other than his sparse Everest diary and a few notes in the Royal Geographical Society archives. When I asked various family members whether anything else existed I was shown a handful of lovely family photographs and a dozen or so letters from Sandy to his family. He wrote to his mother telling her about his rowing triumphs and to his aunt, who was about to go into hospital to have an operation: ‘Dear Aunt Ankie, I’m dreadfully sorry to hear you are going to be cut up tomorrow.’ But nothing from Everest. The story went that Willie Irvine had thrown everything away, so sad was he after Sandy was killed on the mountain.
Sandy Irvine (left) with Willie, Evelyn (my grandmother) and older brother Hugh, 1904
Willie Irvine was an amateur historian and I know that historians of any shape or size hate throwing things away. So I persisted in my questioning and eventually my cousin went to the family home in North Wales and there, in the attic, she found a black trunk and in this trunk was a slim foolscap folder. It was fastened with a blue ribbon and on the front it said, in Willie’s tidy handwriting, ‘ACI Everest 1924’. Andrew Comyn Irvine, Sandy’s full name. It was one of the most exciting discoveries of my life. In this file were 11 long letters from Tibet and the mountain; photographs taken en route and developed in a dark-room tent at base camp; notes about the capricious oxygen apparatus which Sandy was responsible for and bills for his Everest clothing.

The trunk, found 75 years after Sandy's death
The fact that this trunk had not been thrown out is almost unbelievable. The house had been sold after Willie’s death and run as an old people’s home. Then Alec Irvine, Sandy’s younger brother, bought the house back in the late 1970s and by the luck of the stars no one had bothered to clear out the attic. The letters, in particular, gave me Sandy’s voice. He wrote as he spoke, in a breathless and impatient way. When he couldn’t find the words to describe something he would draw it. The letters were literally priceless to me for my book. And for posterity?

Sandy's letter to his mother from Sikkim, en route to Everest
Well, they now reside in the archives at Merton College Oxford and I can only hope that in 300 odd years they will still be there, as Mary Gofton’s accounts book is in the Bodleian, to help someone to hear a voice from the past.

So, when you are throwing out the old to make space for the new, just ask yourself if in doing so you are condemning something not only to the bin but to silence…

Sunday 27 December 2015

Fifi Skene by Janie Hampton

When I moved to Oxford I rather disapproved of the hostel next door, with its Victorian attitude to young, single mothers. I was not surprised when our local vicar told me that it was run by the ‘Skene Moral Welfare Association’.  I then learned that the Skene in question was Felicia Mary Frances Skene, one of the most radical women in nineteenth century Oxford. I was even more amazed to discover that she was my grandfather’s great aunt, known in the family as ‘Fifi’. I decided to find out more.
Felicia Mary Frances Skene as a young woman
Her father James, was a wealthy Scottish lawyer and amateur artist whose engravings illustrated Walter Scott’s novels. Born in 1821, Fifi comforted Scott with fairy stories the night in 1825 when he lost everything. Roused by her cheerful spirit, he decided to fight bankruptcy and work through his debts. Scott wrote that Fifi’s parents ‘bring so much old-fashioned kindness and good humour with them that they must be always welcome guests.’ They were also enterprising and resourceful. 

Fifi’s father James Skene of Rubsilaw, 1775–1864,  with two of his grandchildren.

James Skene believed that travel was the best form of education and led his family  on a grand tour around Europe. Fifi was taught the piano in France by Liszt, whom she described as ‘a wild-looking, long-haired excitable man’. Between 1838 and 1845 the family lived in Athens where Fifi sang with the Greek royal family. During an expedition on  horseback across the Marathon plain, she spent the night in a shack with Albanian peasants and their pigs. At the age of twenty-four she brought her young nieces aged ten and eleven (one of them my great grandmother Janie) home from Athens by ship and train via Constantinople. Arriving in England she wrote her first book Wayfaring Sketches among the Turks and Christians, first in French and then in English.  Her observations of conditions in slave markets, galley- ships and an Ottoman Pasha’s harem made it a bestseller.
The Skene method of education obviously worked. Her older brother James Henry married a Greek aristocrat and became a British Consul to Aleppo.  Fifi’s brother George was Professor of Law at the University of  Edinburgh and Sheriff of Glasgow, and another brother William became the Historiographer Royal of Scotland, writing the first academic history from Scotland’s point of view. One of her sisters married the Swedish ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Paris, and the other married a Greek aristocrat – the brother of her sister-in-law.

Fifi, left, with her niece Zoe Thomson, wife of the Archbishop of York, and her brother William Forbes Skene, Historiographer Royal of Scotland 1892.

 Her 1866 novel Hidden Depths was an exposure of prostitution in Oxford inspired by the injustices she had witnessed in the prison and women’s reformatories. The Athenaeum criticised her writing as ‘unrepresentative of society’, The London Review disapproved of the message and Mudie’s Library considered the subject-matter altogether too provocative. The Lesters: A Family Record warned readers of the dangers of alcohol but was denounced by Saturday Review as being ‘cheap melodramatic horror’ and ‘almost beneath criticism’ while Academy dismissed the novel  as dull and destined for failure.  Fifi’s social views were just too progressive for 19th century male critics. Attracted by intellectual life, Fifi persuaded her parents to move to Oxford where she settled down as a writer and philanthropist. Despite countless offers, the auburn-haired and boisterous Fifi was far too busy to bother with marriage. She didn’t want to belong to a man and much preferred to carve out her own life. Fluent in both French and Greek, and possessing a photographic memory, she published more than twenty books under the pseudonyms of Oxonesis, Francis Scougal and Erskine Moir.  Her interest in the high-church ‘Oxford Movement’, inspired a theological work The Divine Master, which ran to eleven editions.  She wrote for Blackwood’sCornhill and Macmillan's Magazines, Quiver, Temple Bar and Good Words,  which had  a circulation of 100,000 and featured contributions by Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope

Fifi’s 1865 anonymous pamphlet, ‘Penitentiaries and Reformatories on the humiliation of ‘fallen women’ whom society ‘sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that received with open arms the very men on whom they sinned’. ( University of Indiana's Victorian Women Writers Project)

Published under the the pseudonym Erskine Moir, her novel Through the Shadows had more success and The Spectator stated it to be ‘the outcome of a most refined, religious, and poetical mind’.
They were right. Fifi was a deeply religious and principled woman and used the income from her books and articles to finance her philanthropic work. Her biographer Ellen Rickards wrote that ‘it was her rule throughout her long life never to spend on herself what she gained from her writings, partly from her natural love of giving, partly from an old-fashioned idea that it was an undignified thing for a lady to earn money for her own personal advantage.’

The Skene Arms, left, in St Michael’s Street, Oxford.
For most of her life Fifi lived in St Michael’s Street in the centre of Oxford. It’s nickname was ‘The Street of Seven Deadly Sins’.  Her home was known as ‘The Skene Arms’, because it was always open to beggars, clergymen, prostitutes, politicians and students.   In her Cornhill Magazine article ‘Ethics of the Tramp’ she wrote that like her parrots, men of the road should roam free and never be incarcerated. She braved the wrath of local pimps and drunken husbands by finding refuge for women fleeing prostitution and domestic violence.
Fifi, Tatters and Rev. Algernon Barrington Simeon,
the first Warden of St Edward’s School,
whom she nursed though diphtheria, 1875.   
After years of impromptu visits to Oxford Prison accompanied by Tatters, her Skye terrier, Fifi became England’s first official female Prison Visitor. She insisted on complete confidentiality and demanded that male and female prisoners be housed separately, for the protection of the women. On their release, she gave prisoners a hearty breakfast and a reference for employment. She even organised marriages to legitimatize the children of ‘fallen women’. Independently of any political movement, she fought for prisons to be used for rehabilitation; for the abolition of capital punishment; and for the decriminalization of suicide. She also campaigned against female inequality, animal vivisection and religious intolerance. When the Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, asked her advice on the new theory of evolution, she told him that Darwin’s discovery was true, and compatible with Christianity.
Fifi helped found St Edward’s School for the sons of poor clergymen and dug the first sod of earth for its new buildings in North Oxford. With Dr Henry Acland, Fifi trained nurses to deal with the regular cholera and smallpox outbreaks in Oxford. But when she offered her nurses to Florence Nightingale for the war in the  Crimea, all but three were turned down for being ‘too working class.’
Fifi, 1821-1899, in old age.
Fifi died of bronchitis in 1899 and was buried in St Thomas church, near Oxford railway station.  A century later the assets of the Skene Moral Welfare Association were redistributed among Oxford’s social housing associations. In old age, Fifi had said of herself, ‘I am like the Martyr’s Memorial – everybody knows me and no-one is interested me.’  Beyond Oxford, she has largely been forgotten, but in 2002 a blue plaque was erected outside her home, now a hostel for single men.  The plaque describes Fifi as ‘Prison reformer and friend of the poor’ but there is no mention of her literary achievements.
At times I have felt that my own career, which is split between writing popular history books and  international development, confuses people. Great Aunt Fifi demonstrated that a woman can have as many different careers as she likes.

 Some of her titles: Wayfaring sketches among the Greeks and Turks, and on the shores of the Danube by a seven years resident in Greece, 1849. The Isles of Greece, and other poems, 1843. Use and Abuse,  a tale, 1849. The Inheritance of Evil or, The Consequence of marrying a deceased wife’s sister, 1849. The Tutor's Ward, 1851.  The Divine Master, 1852. S. Alban’s, or, the Prisoners of Hope, 1853.  Hidden Depths ,1866. Still and Deep, 1875. Memoir of Alexander, Bishop of Brechin, 1876. Raymond, 1876.  Life of Alexander Lycurgus: archbishop of the Cyclades, 1877. More than Conqueror , 1878. The Shadow of the Holy Week, 1883. A Strange Inheritance, 1886. The Lesters: a Family Record, 1887. Through the Shadows: a Test of the Truth, 1888. Awakened. A tale in nine chapters, 1888. Dewdrops: selections from writings of the saints,1888. Scenes from a Silent World, or, Prisons and their Inmates, 1889.

Saturday 26 December 2015

Rome at Christmas, by Carol Drinkwater

I am in Rome. I usually make the ‘pilgrimage’ at some point during the run-up to Christmas. The street illuminations are magnificent, the shopping is deliciously decadent and hectic and the Irish Catholic child in me thrills at St Peter’s Church and Square decked out in all its Nativity glory. Except that this year the crib is not ready. It looks like a building site. When I asked one of the volunteers keeping the flow of tourists moving when they expect it to be on display, she said they had high hopes it will be completed by the end of this week, which will be past Christmas Day. It rather confirms the cliché image of Italian punctuality.

I brought my 91-year-old mother this year, a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Catholic who never misses Mass and believes firmly in the infallibility of the Pope. As we stepped outside the great church, the largest religious building in the world, erected over the tomb of the Apostle Peter who was the first of an unbroken line of Popes, into the December sunshine, we stood gazing out across St Peter’s circular piazza with its towering Christmas tree and obelisk (taken by Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt).

The Vatican City is an independent state, a walled enclave of 44 hectares, situated within the city of Rome. It counts approximately 840 inhabitants, including thirty female Vatican passport holders, which makes it the smallest internationally recognised independent state, both in size and population, in the world. Its monarch is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is an independent economy, a free city in its own right with its own armed guards. Since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, security has been more vigilant. As well as the traditional halberd and sword, these men now carry guns.

                                                               Papal  Swiss Guard at Vatican

There is no charge to enter St Peter’s Basilica but one does pay to visit the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. There is at least one bookshop – very well stocked with history and religious material, tourist mementos, postcards and Vatican stamps. The funds accrued from the sale of ticket entries and publications are, apparently, what keep Vatican City solvent. Its currency is the euro.

What surprised me was to learn that the Vatican City State only came into existence in 1929. I had assumed it would have been created during the period of Risorgimento or the Unification of Italy, which began in 1815 and was completed in 1871 when Rome was declared the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. However, the role of the Catholic Church including the Pope’s status within Italy was disputed for 58 years until an agreement was finally reached and signed in February 1929 becoming effective in June of that same year. The signatories were the Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, representing the King and the Cardinal Secretary of State on behalf of Pope Pius XI. According to the signed treaty, the Holy See has “full ownership, exclusive dominion, sovereign authority and jurisdiction over its city-state”.

In 1984, UNESCO declared the Vatican City State a World Heritage Site.

Its genius and beauty were created by Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael to name but three amongst many including the greatest Renaissance architects. It is considered to be a continuous artistic creation as well as the seat of Christendom. This is why I return again and again. To Rome, the Eternal City, yes, and to the Vatican City because there is always something to discover, to celebrate, to marvel at. The long queues to reach the Sistine Chapel, a Holy Grail of a journey, rewarded at its end by that ceiling which never fails to astound, to leave me silenced with wonder. I will never forget the first time I lifted my gaze upwards and saw that reach, those fingers, that look between the two figures and a frisson ran through me which never lessens no matter how many visits I make.

Or St Peter’s Baldachin, the sculpted bronze canopy that stands 95 feet tall beneath the basilica’s dome and over the spot where St Peter is buried. Yesterday, there was almost no one in front of the baldachin when I reached it. I had the view of its dark towering presence all to myself – my mother was resting, perched on a great marble plinth nearby because all the seats in the church had been removed.

I took a breath and momentarily closed my eyes. Somewhere in a remote corner of the building a Gregorian chant was being sung, possibly a recording and then I glanced upwards at the dome. Michelangelo's work, his vision, but he died before it was completed. Still, he dedicated seventeen years of his life to this building. It humbles me to reflect on this fact.

Yesterday was the first time I have ever been in the basilica when no mass was taking place. Usually there are several going on all at once with priests crossing the marble floors in twos – one to say mass and one to serve – intent on one of many altars. My habit is usually to walk from my hotel in Prati, attend the first mass of the day which is performed at 7am. At this time of day, particularly in winter, there is rarely more than a handful of attendees. After mass, when I leave the church, day is breaking. I always take a moment outside to watch the sun rising up beyond the hills of Rome, breaking in golden streams across the colonnades and ruins of this immortal place.
The surrounding beauty, a combination of man-made and natural, swells up within me like an injection of warm liquid, leaving me drunk with joy and the knowledge that, in spite of everything, life is blessed, magnificent.

Beyond this, I rush about the city, seeing friends, choosing new leather shoes and handbag, eating plateloads of pasta, drinking Prosecco, buying panettone, huge chunks of fresh crumbly Parmesan before making one last stop at the Trevi Fountain. One euro tossed in the gushing water to guarantee my return, although it has been out of action for a while due to renovations. Next time, I might make the climb up to St Peter's cupola and see the city from this aerial viewpoint, which in over forty years' of visits, I have never done.

Happy holidays one and all. May 2016 bring some peace and sanity to our troubled, angry world. 

Friday 25 December 2015

Happy Christmas by Miranda Miller

I’m sure you’ve all got better things to do than read my blog today but as it IS Christmas I started to think about the cosy traditions Prince Albert and Dickens are said to have invented between them. When I went to live in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s I didn’t expect to miss them, as I’m not religious and don’t like turkey or tacky decorations. However, I was furious when the morality policemen, or mutaween, confiscated the Christmas tree at my daughter’s playgroup. Remembering this reminded me that Cromwell also banned Christmas, in 1652, and for eight years there were no public festivities in England.

One of the customs the Puritans banned was the appointment of the Lord of Misrule, also known as the Christmas King, a tradition which can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia. From New Year’s Eve until Twelfth Night he was to entertain the community and turn things upside down.

In 1595 the Puritan Philip Stubs or Stubbes wrote, in his Anatomie of Abuses:

The wildheads of the parish, conventing together, choose them a Grand-captain (of all mischief) whom they ennoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule, and him they crown with great solemnity and adopt their king. This king annointed, chooseth forth twenty, forty, threescore or a hundred lustyguts, like to himself, to wait upon his lordly majesty, and to guard his noble person...Then march this heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping,their drummers thundering,their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobbyhorses and other monsters skirmishing among the throng; and in this sort they go to devils incarnate with such a confused noise, that no man can hear his own voice. Then the foolish people they look, they stare, they laugh, they fleer, and mount upon the forms and pews to see their goodly pageants solemnised in this sort.

The Lords of Misrule gave themselves preposterous alliterative titles, such as Sir Morgan Mumchance of much Monkery in the county of Mad Mopery.
Mince pies were also considered offensive. They used to be filled with minced meat, including pheasants, hares, rabbits, pigeons and capons. They were large, oblong ( to represent Christ’s crib) and sometimes topped by a baby Jesus made of pastry. The puritans considered this idolatry, a popish superstition.

There was a war of pamphlets over the pros and cons of celebrating Christmas. One Puritan pamphlet had the catchy title: Christmas Day, the old Heathens’ Fasting Day in honour to Saturn their Idol-God, the Papists’ Massing Day, taking to hearth the Heathenish customs, Popish superstitions, ranting fashions, fearful provocations, horrible abominations committed against the Lord and his Christ on that day and the days following.

Another pamphleteer, protected by anonymity, dragged class into the argument and retorted: A Ha! Christmas, This Book is a sound and good persuasion for Gentlemen, and all wealthy men, to keepe a good Christmas. Here is proved the cause of Free-Will Offerings, and to be liberall to the poore, here is sound and good arguments for it, taken and proven out of Scripture, as hath been written a long time.

John Evelyn, a Royalist and Anglican, defied the government when he attended illegal Prayer Book services in London.

Then as now, politics and religion were inextricably mixed. In 1657 he was arrested:

Sermon Ended, as he was giving us the holy sacrament, the Chapell was surrounded with Soldiers: All the Communicants and Assembly surpriz’d and kept Prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away...When I came before them they tooke my name and aboad, examined me, why contrarie to an Ordnance made that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteem’d by them) I durst offend, & particularly to be a common prayers, which they told me was but the Masse in English, & particularly pray for Charles Stuard, for which we had no scripture.

After the Restoration people soon reverted. On Christmas day 1662 Pepys records that he went to a Christmas service in the chapel at Whitehall Palace:

Methought he (Bishop Morley) made but a poor sermon, but long, and reprehending the common jollity of the Court for the true joy that shall and ought to be on these days. Particularized concerning their excess in playes and gaming...Upon which it was worth observing how far they are come from taking the reprehensions of a bishop seriously, that they all laugh in the chapel when he reflected on their ill actions and courses. He did much press us to joy in these publick days of joy, and to hospitality. But one that stood by whispered in my eare that the Bishop do not spend one groate to the poor himself.