Tuesday 28 February 2017

Voices in my Head by Julie Summers

Years ago a friend who teaches creative writing talked to me about voices in books. He reminded me that although I might write my non-fiction in my 'own' voice, it would be read by someone from Scotland with a different accent, or indeed by somebody from Somerset or Gwynedd. That was one thing, but another whole area of fascination is the question of voices in a novel. I am a consumer rather than writer of novels and I have the greatest possible respect for the author who can create and maintain more than one voice in a work of fiction. This month I have read two books that succeed and here is my appreciation of what I consider to be a high art form.

Anthony Horowitz's best-selling 2016 novel Magpie Murders is a masterpiece in the murder mystery genre. It is a detective story about a detective story and it works brilliantly. The basic premise is that an editor at a small London publisher is handed the latest detective story by the house's best-selling crime writer, Alan Conway. The fictional detective series is set in the 1950s and the hero is a private sleuth called Atticus Pund, who has comes from the same stable as Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Rebus and many others. The first half of the book, set in courier, is the draft of Alan Conway's book. Horowitz conjures up a Somerset village of the 1950s beautifully. The descriptions of everything from the attitudes to the anti-macassars, the rogue antiques-trader to the adulterous lady of the manor are perfect. The dialogue is clipped and its cadence of its time. The story ends abruptly when the editor discovers that the last two chapters are missing. Immediately the voice changes and becomes contemporary. Suddenly you as the reader know that you are back in the early 21st century where everyone has mobile phones and petrol costs £1.20 a litre. As the story continues there are in-jokes about the world of publishing which are delightful to those who have worked with editors, publicists and the all-powerful marketing team. One of the scenes even takes place at Totleigh Barton on a fictional Arvon writing course. Another is a conversation between a writer and a publisher when the writer is forced to accept that great though his other literature may be, the commercial success of his detective novels is what interests the publisher, not his desire to emulate Will Self. This is a superb book, full of clever twists and turns and written unselfconsciously not only in two voices but in two voices from different eras.

The second book is The Invention of Wings by the American author, Sue Monk Kidd. I had not come across her work before and was not sure whether I would find a novel about South Carolina in the early nineteenth century of interest. I'm glad to say I was wrong to be sceptical. This is another outstanding book, also written in two voices and unlike the Magpie Murders, it is based on a true story. The two main protagonists are girls of the same age - one born into wealth and the other into slavery. Their stories are told in their own voices and the chapters alternate. The first voice is of an African slave girl called Hetty, though her real name is Handful. She speaks in the lyrical, rhythmical voice of the deep south. The idioms she uses are colourful and naive but they sit perfectly with the era and as a reader I was cast into the shady, brutal world of what the white population referred to as 'the peculiar institution'. Despite the fact I initially felt uncomfortable reading about this era, I found myself delighting in Sue Monk Kidd's glorious writing and her evocation of a world that is no longer with us. Well, at least not officially. The second voice is Sarah, the sixth child and second daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and his over-fecund, over-zealous wife who treats her slaves harshly. Sarah is a rebel and, like Hetty, in her own but different way is trapped by her society which expects her to conform to its traditions and accept its norms. Sarah  yearns for education and has an ambition to become a lawyer, something her parents drum out of her by forbidding her to read, removing all her books but poetry and forcing her to conform in Charleston's society. Her voice is equally strong as Handful's but quite different and throughout the novel the reader is flipped from one view point to the other, with the result that the two voices meld and the picture that emerges is not of white against black or master versus slave but of the nature of evil and injustice. Each girl in her own way has to summon up the courage to dare to reach for what is unobtainable.

If you enjoy hearing voices in your head when you are immersed in a novel, then these are two I can warmly recommend for you.

Monday 27 February 2017

London History with Grandchildren by Janie Hampton

Isambard Kingdom Brunel 
Last week I was tasked with grand-child care during the half-term holiday. Ben, 9, Desdemona, 7, my co-grandparent and I decided to go on a history outing to London. We began at Paddington station to admire the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 –1859) and discusshis extraordinary ability to design not only innovative railway stations but also bridges, canals, viaducts, docks, steam ships and trains.
Then by double-decker bus via Marble Arch, formerly the royal entrance to Buckingham Palace, and then after it was moved next to Hyde Park, a police station until 1968. This was also the site of the Tyburn gallows where from the 12th century, public executions took place, the last one a highwayman called John Austin in 1783. Swerving round behind Buckingham Palace we peered over the wall and wondered why the Queen needed such a big garden.
Ben and Desdemona wanted to see their great x 5 grandfather, immortalized in Westminster Abbey. But entry to the 13th century abbey is expensive unless you attend a service. So during Holy Communion we admired the extraordinary Gothic architecture (‘All built without machines!’ said Ben), and whispered about the many coronations held here ever since William I on Christmas Day in 1066. We found our ancestor beside his friend the slave abolitionist, William Wilberforce (1759 –1833), watching over the audio-guide stall. Thomas Fowell Buxton MP (1786-1845) fought to abolish capital punishment (unsuccessful), reform prisons (some improvement), and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the RSPCA). I hope his several hundred living descendants are still inspired by the inscription: ‘Endued with a vigorous and capacious mind, of dauntless courage and untiring energy.. he devoted his powers to the good of Man. In Parliament he laboured for the liberation of the Hottentots in southern Africa, and above all, for the emancipation of eight hundred thousand slaves in the British Dominions. The energies of his mind were afterwards concentrated on a great attempt to extinguish the slave trade in Africa…’ The white marble monument was paid for by friends, colleagues and ‘many thousands of the African race’. (see Your last paper five pound note  History Girl)
Thomas Fowell Buxton meets one of his many
great great great great great grandsons in
Westminster Abbey
Walking through Parliament Square we saw the statue of Winston Churchill (1874 –1965), recently adorned with a Mohican hair cut made from green turf. ‘Why?’ asked Ben, which prompted a discussion on dissension, demonstrations and the right to protest. The statue of Oliver Cromwell guarding the Palace of Westminster led on to republicanism, and why Britain reverted to a monarchy after his rule. Once in the Houses of Parliament, we entered the huge 11th century Westminster Hall. Here we met Andrea our tour guide who told us the hall had been improved with a timber hammer-beam roof back in 1393, and is still the largest in Northern Europe. She led us on the route that the Queen takes once a year for the State Opening of Parliament. From the Sovereign’s Entrance at the base of the Victoria Tower, we saw the scratches on the Royal Staircase where the swords and spurs of troopers of the Household Cavalry have worn holes in the stone; and the tiny lift that, now she is 90, the Queen uses (though the stairs are still freshly carpeted each time.)
Andrea and history students in Westminster Hall
Andrea kept the tone and content just right for children. Between the Queen’s Robing Room and the House of Lords, we stood on the spot under which Guy Fawkes had hidden 36 barrels of gunpowder in 1605, and almost blew up King James I, all the peers and members of parliament. We saw where Guy Fawkes was tried (roughly where Nelson Mandela, a more peaceful political opponent, gave a speech three hundred years later) but Andrea didn’t give the gory details of his execution (hanged, drawn and then quartered.) In the Members Lobby we saw the doorway damaged by a bomb during World War Two; the statues of six previous prime ministers; and the pigeon hole of Prime Minister Theresa May, arranged democratically in alphabetical order and no larger than those of the other 650 Members of Parliament. Neither the House of Commons nor Lords were sitting, so we could go inside and stand beside (but not sit on) the MPs’ and peers’ leather benches.

After lunch in the vaulted Jubilee café, we crossed over Westminster Bridge (1862) and embarked on a Thames Clipper for a 45-minute history of river-side London. As it zig-zagged back and forth across the river, the twin-hulled catamaran cut through the incoming tide. After the Tate Modern, we shot under Waterloo Bridge (1945 - mainly built by women), London Bridge (first built by the Romans), and spotted the 13th century “Entry to the Traitor’s Gate” below the 11th C Tower of London. Passing under 19th C Tower Bridge we could see the underside of people walking across the glass walkway. Desdemona watched the skyline carefully, ‘Look there’s St Paul’s Cathedral! And do you see how the old and the new buildings are all muddled up?’ We talked about the 1941 blitz, dockers and shipping. We passed wharfs and warehouses now converted into apartments, including the fascinating home of History Girl Michelle Lovric. But as the waves grew and clouds descended, I feared the next stage of our journey would be a foggy white-out.
Entrance to the Tower of London 
Crossing the Greenwich Meridian Line prompted an unscientific explanation of the difference between that imaginary vertical line, and the horizontal equator. As we disembarked on the south side of the Thames, the storm departed and the skies cleared. We clambered into a glass-sided Emirates cable car which shot up from Greenwich Peninsula and crossed high above the river to the Royal Docks. The view was amazing, with a golden sunset behind Hampton Court, and opposite, a rainbow landing somewhere in the Anglo-Saxon wool depot of Woolwich. ‘Look, there’s the Thames Barrier,’ said Ben. ‘And there’s an airport,’ said Desdemona as a small plane flew over us. Grandfather pointed out the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf far below us. The cable car too, was historical, as it was paid for by the European Union in 2013 – and they won’t be doing that again in Britain any time soon. We returned from Royal Victoria on the Docklands Light Railway, which gave us a high level view of Billingsgate Market and East India docks. A walk over Tower Hill took us to the underground and back to Paddington.
Paddington Bear from Peru reminds young travellers about the importance of generosity to migrants
This grandmother was delighted when Ben told his parents it was his ‘Best ever day out in London.’ I don’t think they even noticed how much history they’d learned along the way.

Our Route:
Number 36 bus from Paddington to Buckingham Palace
Number 148 bus to Parliament Square
Houseof Parliament tour
Emirate Thames CableCar
DocklandsLight Railway
London Underground- Tower Hill to Charing Cross.
No 15 bus Trafalgar Square via Piccadilly and Oxford Circus, to Paddington.

Sunday 26 February 2017

A Few Facts and Gems from the Earliest Days of Cinema, by Carol Drinkwater

                       A page from the original manuscript copy of Alice's Adventures Underground 1864

When I was a child, one of the treats of the week was our family outing to the cinema. The programme back in the mid-fifties, early sixties usually included two films. A 'B' movie followed by the main attraction. Today, before the main attraction, spectators are shown endless expensively-shot commercials followed by a series of trailers for upcoming films. I would like to propose an idea: how about the projection of early cinema material such as this extraordinary footage below shot in 1903?  Produced and directed by Cecil Hepworth, it is the very first cinema adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The film runs eight minutes and is held at the National Archives of the British Film Institute. It is damaged, looks blistered, but, my, is it worthy of still being screened. The link is here. Do take the time to watch it.


We can walk into a bookshop and pick up a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland without any difficulty at all. We can follow the development of authors, their influence on others, their influence on children's literature, adult or fantasy literature ... But to discover the birth of cinema, to have access to the material of those century-and-more bygone days is not so easy. Of course, there are some excellent books on the subject but that is not the same as access to the material. I have been searching the internet to see whether anywhere in the world there is a festival that celebrates the birth of cinema, and I cannot find one. Do any of you know of one?

Some years ago when I wrote Twentieth-Century Girl, (now in a two-book compendium entitled Cadogan Square) as part of the My Story series for Scholastic, I researched the very earliest days of 'Pictures in Motion'. The films were black and white, of course, and there was no sound. Text was written on the screen, as you see in the eight-minute Alice film posted above. Most of the very earliest attempts were extremely short. If you went to the Moving Picture House, the likelihood was that a musician, usually a pianist, accompanied the sequences to add to the dramatic or comical effect. Most films were about a minute in length so the entertainment would consist of perhaps ten different very short films. I am talking of 1899 in London, for example, where the UK's very first cinemas were being opened and where cinema was being hailed as the entertainment for the upcoming century. 1900 was around the corner.

                             Phoenix Picture House, Oxford first opened on 15th March 1913

L'Idéal Cinéma is in northern France, in Aniche, and claims to be the oldest still-active cinema in the world. It first opened its doors on 23 November 1905.

Magic Lantern shows predated moving pictures. I saw a remarkable collection of these machines at the very small but fascinating museum of cinema in Paris at La Cinémathèque Française.  La Cinémathèque Française (51, Rue de Bercy,75012, Paris) is the French equivalent of the BFI. If you have any interest in cinema and its history, this is the place for  you. It holds one of the largest collections of cinema-related objects, archival material and cinema documents in the world. The place is a treasure trove and its own history is equally fascinating. Thanks mainly due to one man, Henri Langlois, who had accrued a huge personal collection of films up to the 1930s. These came under threat of destruction when the Nazis marched into Paris and ordered all films pre-1937 to be destroyed. Langlois, along with the help of his colleague Georges Franju, smuggled his films and documents to safety. After the war, the French government offered funds for a screening room and from there this fabulous organisation has grown. But I digress ...

Magic lanterns projected rudimentary images using glass slides. I am not sufficiently technically-minded to explain precisely how they work but know that there is one static slide and the other is mobile. The moving slide was usually hand-operated. The Magic Lantern projections were shown at fairs and public gatherings; they pre-dated moving picture houses. A Magic Lantern show at the 1851 World's Fair caused such excitement amongst it audience it was considered a sensation. And the development of the art, of storytelling through moving pictures, had made its first major international outing.

At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Gaumont staged a moving-picture exhibit where visitors to the Exposition stood, entranced, watching the flickering images.

There are several who claim to have been the first to 'create' moving pictures. In fact it was an evolutionary process to which several contributed greatly. Not least among those pioneer filmmakers were the Lumière Brothers, Auguste and Louis.

Auguste and Louis were the sons of Antoine, a portrait painter who abandoned his painting to make a business out of photography. With the assistance of his technically bright sons, Antoine created a new form of photographic plate. This brought him both renown and income and, by 1894, in their factory south of Lyon, they were producing 15,000,000 plates a year. It was at that time that Lumière senior  was invited to Paris to a demonstration of Edison's Peephole Kinetoscope. Impressed and with an eye for opportunity, he took the idea home with him to Lyon and instructed his sons to better it. They worked all winter. One of their main aims was to create a Kinetoscope - an early and rudimentary version of a cinema camera - that was less bulky and more manageable. Also, the peephole meant that only one person could enjoy the moving images at any one time. It was not a group spectator experience. By 1895, the brothers had invented their own camera with a printer and projector combined within it. They patented it and named it the Cinématographe. The film speed was 16 frames per second. Imagine, compared to cinema today, how slow that is! In the early months, they held only private screenings wanting to guard their invention. They gave their first public screening on 28th December 1895 at the Grand Cafe, Boulevard des Capuchines in Paris. Eight short - fifty seconds to a minute in length - films were screened and the occasion was an immense success. Within the early months of 1896,  they opened Cinématographe theatres in Brussels, London and New York. By 1903, their catalogue of films - no longer shot exclusively by their own hands - boasted over two thousand titles.

Then there was Georges Méliès, a magician and illusionist who turned his hand to film directing. He was the first film director to use storyboards. On the evening before the Lumière brothers gave that first public screening in Paris they presented their material to owners of houses of illusion. Méliès was present. So excited was he by this new art form that he offered the Lumières 10,000 francs for one of their Cinématographes. They refused. They also refused an offer of 50,000 francs on the same evening from the cabaret-music hall, Folies Bergère. Méliès, determined to include moving pictures in his shows at his Théâtre Robert-Houdin travelled to London, struck a deal for a projector known as an Animatograph, bought several films from Edison and from 1896 included them in his Paris programme. He soon patented his own Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, founded the Star Film Company and went on to direct over 500 films.
Cameras were coming on to the market. Gaumont, Lumière and Pathé were the leading producers. On both sides of the Atlantic, innovators were working to make a mark in this new industry.
Cinema was well and truly born.

To my mind, it is a vast and fascinating subject and I would love to see some of this early material distributed again. Even ten minutes worth of footage at certain specified screenings in cinemas everywhere would, I think, widen our understanding of the birth of the seventh art. One hundred and twenty years of cinema - there are vast libraries to choose from.

My new novel, THE LOST GIRL, to be published on 29th June is partially set at the Victorine Studios in Nice post Second World War. The Victorine in its heyday produced several French masterpieces ... But I will leave that blog till a little later in the year.

In the meantime, as I have not talked about contributions from the USA, I hope you enjoy these glorious silent shorts from 1896 onwards, including the genius of a young Stan Laurel.




Saturday 25 February 2017

Womens’ Protests in the UK before 1945 by Miranda Miller

     Like many of you reading this, I went on the Womens’ March last month. I’m something of a veteran marcher and was reminded of all the other marches I’ve been on; against Vietnam, against Trident and against the invasion of Iraq. Although my protest has always been heartfelt it has never been in the least dangerous or heroic. 

   I’ve been reading about the courage of earlier generations of women. In the late eighteenth century women in this country began to be involved in the movement to abolish slavery (if any of you know of examples of earlier generations of women’s organised protest do please let me know).

   In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she repeatedly likened men's domination of women to the planters' domination of slaves: “Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalise them...only to sweeten the cup of men.”

   The first women only anti-slavery society was formed in Birmingham in 1825. William Wilberforce commented: “I fear its tendency would be to mix them in all the multiform warfare of political life.” By the 1850s there were more women's anti-slavery societies than men's. John Stuart Mill, philosopher, MP and prominent abolitionist, moved an amendment to the 1866 Reform Bill calling for women to be allowed to vote on the same terms as men. Although he was unsuccessful, women started to set up societies to campaign for female enfranchisement.

   Most of these women were middle class but in 1888 the young women who worked at the Bryant and May match factory at Bow went on strike. When I was a child Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Little Match Girl (1846), used to have me in floods of tears but these young women were real and very brave. The passionate reformer and journalist Annie Besant wrote an article about their terrible working conditions in a radical newspaper called The Link: White Slavery in London. Her writing was powerful and effective: “Who cares if they die or go on to the streets provided only that Bryant & May shareholders get their 23 per cent.” About two hundred matchgirls, most of them aged between 12 and 15, arrived outside the office of The Link to ask Besant for help because three of their colleagues had been sacked for ‘telling lies’ about their working conditions.

   In fact these girls had to work sixteen hours a day in return for between 4 and 8 shillings a week. Many of them suffered from “Phossy Jaw” (Phosphorous jaw), caused by inhaling the fumes of the phosphorous. The girl would first suffer toothache, then her jaw would swell and turn green before breaking out in abscesses and turning black. Her jaw bone would then rot away. The only medical treatment was amputation of her jaw bone, which, of course, left her disfigured. The matchgirls were fined for talking, dropping matches or taking a toilet break without permission and if they were late they lost half a day’s pay.

   Fifty matchgirls, led by Besant, entered parliament and told MPs about their terrible working conditions. Then they marched down the embankment and attracted a huge amount of support and attention. Bryant and May, in a move reminiscent of the bullying tactics of some modern multinational companies, threatened to import matches from Scotland or move the factory to Norway where labour was cheaper but the girls stood their ground and their strike lasted for three weeks. Their heroism eventually resulted in the formation of the Matchmakers’ Union.

   The first large procession organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), whose leader was Millicent Fawcett, in February 1907, was known as The Mud March. About three thousand women marched through the cold wet streets of of London to demand votes for women. The marchers were “titled women, university women, artists, members of women’s temperance clubs and women textile workers gathered from all parts of the country."

   "Nobody can suppose that most of the women who took part …can have done so for sport or for the pleasure of the thing…it requires some courage for a woman to step out of her drawing room into the street to take her place in a mixed throng for a cause probably distasteful to many or most of her acquaintances, and to see herself pilloried in the newspaper the next morning by name as one of the '”Suffragists.'" This report in The Manchester Guardian from 1907 reminds us how brave these women were.

   Over the next few years thousands of women marched, drawing vast crowds and acres of mainly negative press coverage. During the First World War the WSPU (The Women's Social and Political Union, led by the Pankhursts), suspended campaigning because they felt that they should support the war effort and also in the hope that their patriotiism might benefit the suffrage cause. Some suffragettes courageously opposed the war and became known as 'peacettes'. Sylvia Pankhurst left the WSPU to set up an alternative movement and founded an anti-war newspaper, Women's Dreadnought.

   In 1918 the Representation of the People Act act abolished almost all property qualifications for men over the age of 21 and gave the vote to women over 30 – but only if they met minimum property qualifications or were married to a man who did. The age differential was to ensure that, following the deaths of millions of men in the war, women did not become the majority voters. After the act was passed women made up 43 per cent of the electorate. Women were not given the vote on the same terms as men until 1928, when the Second Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed. Emmeline Pankhurst died 18 days before the cause she had thrown her life at was won.

   After the First World War women were at the forefront of the peace movement. In 1926 the Women’s Peacemakers’ Pilgrimage ended with a gathering of 10,000 people in Hyde Park; In 1932 the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom collected 6 million signatures on a petition to the World Disarmament Conference. Women were also active in The Peace Pledge Union, which by 1937 had over 100,000 members, including Siegfried Sassoon and Aldous Huxley. Vera Brittain, seen here wearing her nurse’s uniform during the First World War, was also active. She continued to be a pacifist during the Second World War and criticised the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Brittain's critics accused her of collaborating with the Nazis because of her anti-war stance although it later emerged that she was listed in the notorious Nazi "black book", which gave the names and addresses of three thousand people who were to be arrested if Hitler invaded this country.

Friday 24 February 2017

RED ALL ABOUT IT: A Bit of a History of Scarlet Cloth by Elizabeth Chadwick

Bellini - portrait of a young man in red, circa 1480 
 Scarlet cloth has been on my radar for a while.  I learned several years ago that it was a fabric name rather than a colour, but that since it was often dyed red, the two became associated.   I think I was writing The Marsh King's Daughter at the time.
When writing my Eleanor of Aquitaine novels The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne, I read (in secondary sources - I have not yet found the primary one) that Eleanor was married in a scarlet gown.  This again led me to a spot of trawling.  Wikipedia (without references) described it as "a type of fine and expensive woollen cloth common in Medieval Europe.  The world "scarlet" is derived from Old French 'escarlate' (itself derived from low Latin and Persian).  Scarlet cloth was produced in red, white, blue, green, and brown colours, among others.  The most common colour was carmine-red though, which resulted in the double meaning                                                                            of the  word as a colour designation.'                                                                                                               

That was all I needed to know at the time, but I was still curious and even when I move on from a subject I am always keen to add to my knowledge base.  Having recently acquired The  Enclyopedia of  Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles circa 450-1450, edited by Gale Owen-Crocker,  Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward, I was delighted to find a highly detailed entry on the subject of scarlet.

Although it's a similar name, the scarlet cloth mentioned in European inventories of the high middle ages does not get its name from low Latin or Persian as I had been led to believe, although that appellation  does remain in the mainstream and I can understand why.  The Persian term comes from a 9th century red silk cloth, widely traded in the Middle East and known as siklat, more commonly siklatun and the Persian Farsi word sakirlat.  Sounds feasible doesn't it?  And indeed it is recorded in the charter for the Abbey of Cluny in 1100 as 'de scarlata rubea tunicam.'  The Persian version was a luxury silk textile dyed red with
Kermes dyed silk coronation cope of Roger II
of Sicily. So of the Persian etymology, not European
kermes. (produced from crushed insects). Almeria in Muslim Spain was a centre of this cloth production because they had good access to kermes, the most expensive dyestuff of the European Middle Ages and accounting for half the production cost of making a length of cloth.

The European origin of the name 'scarlet' seems to have originated in high German from 'Scarlachen' in the early 11th century, meaning 'scraped' 'smoothed' or 'shaved' cloth. In other words the cloth was napped with shears. The best wool for this shearing process was English wool and it was in high demand among the Flemish weaving towns who specialised in making this kind of cloth.  Around the middle of the 10th century that the new horizontal treadle looms began to emerge and it became possible to weave heavy weight woollens that could be teaselled and shorn to produced a high quality cloth that had a texture as fine as silk but was in fact wool.  If you trawl through the Renaissance paintings of men of status in their winter best, they're all clad in in their scarlet robes!

 The European version of Scarlet with the name from German origins was also dyed with kermes. The cost of the dye and the fineness of the wool made scarlet cloth the textile of the rich.  In the early 15th century, a length of scarlet would have cost a purchaser in London £28, 10s 0d.   A master mason in London at that time earned 8d a day, so it would take him more than two years to afford just one length of that cloth, and that was without having to keep body and soul together!  It was a textile beyond the reach of Joe Public - unless of course it was gained as a spoil of war.  After the sea battle of Sandwich in 1217, the Dauphin Louis's French treasure ship was captured and the wealth, including fabric, distributed among those who had taken it. The Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal, completed less than 10 years after the battle says 'If only you had seen the sailors, rich in clothes and money, walking up and down the road, dressed in scarlet and silk, (eskarlete e de sei).

Scarlet was always dyed with kermes, but it wasn't always red because it might be mixed with other dyestuffs.  Woollens were often dyed with woad because woad did not require a mordant and was easier to work with than mordant based dyes.  Once the base blue from the first dyeing with woad was in situ, the cloth was redyed with a mordant and kermes was added in the case of scarlet.  Depending on additions and mordants, the scarlet cloth could end up as brown, perse (ashy purple), murrey (mulberry) and sanguine - a bluish red.  Some cloths had differently dyed warps and wefts to form a stripe and were redyed once woven with the kermes and were known in Flanders as striptje scaerlakenen. 

So, 'scarlet' was a high status cloth, woven from English wool and always dyed with kermes, but not always red in colour.  Its main centre of production was Flanders, spilling over into Northern Italy, specifically Florence. England, although the producer of the wool, only had a small scarlet industry. 

A couple of sources: 

Encyclopedia of Medieval dress and
textiles of the British Isles circ 450-1450
Edited by Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth
Coatsworth and Maria Hayward.
Published by Brill 2012

Medieval Clothing and Textiles 10
Article Some Medieval Colour Terms
For Textiles by Lisa Monnas.

Pictures - Bellini - Web Gallery of Art
Cloak of Roger II of Palermo - Wikipedia

Thursday 23 February 2017


Minnesota women's march against Donald Trump. Fibonacci Blue, wikimedia
In 1987, I cut a single strand of the wire fence at Burghfield Royal Ordnance Factory, and was arrested and charged with criminal damage. I defended myself on the grounds that Burghfield was manufacturing nuclear weapons and that I was acting to prevent a crime (the defence of necessity, the crime being the possible annihilation of millions of people). This was at a time when the stationing of Cruise missiles on British soil was seen by many as a threat to our survival, escalating the risk of nuclear war (and indeed, accidental nuclear war did once happen.) I was convicted, of course, though Reading magistrates were both respectful and sympathetic.

I wrote about this action in the newsletter of a Christian community we were then part of, the Othona Community, and one member took strong exception to my action, writing a letter attacking me and comparing me to Hitler and Mussolini. I've often wondered what he based that on (he didn't explain) but I think he meant that I was trying to undermine the democratic process by using direct action. I should have been content with the ballot box, and my pointless vote in a safe Tory seat.
I'm on the left, in a paper 'radiation suit.'

I don't feel I was trying to overturn the democratic process, but only to use the law to argue that nuclear weapons were contrary to international law, a belief I still hold. Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, I did not mobilise thousands of thugs to beat up political opponents, or abolish democratic institutions, murder people, or sack them en masse or herd them into concentration camps.

However, I've been thinking about this, because I keep reading on Facebook threads, and hearing from US Presidents on Twitter, the idea that one shouldn't protest at all in a democracy, but should accept that 'we won.' Also that 'you lost.' Of course, a majority of US voters did not choose Trump, but a narrow majority of voters did cast their votes to leave the EU (one of the contexts in which I encounter this assertion). 'The people have chosen,' we're told, though in the case of the EU it doesn't seem to me as clear as it does to the Daily Mail or Theresa May exactly what they chose.

Consider this idea, though, that if the majority have chosen a particular course of action (or President, though that's the electoral college), the others should pipe down and abandon their principles.Should they?
Democracy is the will of the people, this theory states, and opposition is treachery towards the people (which is why the Mail was baying for the High Court judges' blood on the issue of Parliament deciding whether to Brexit or not).

However, democracy means that there is an opposition. In our own country, it's even deemed to be Her Majesty's Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn is not thrown into the Tower, but invited to the Palace and made a Right Honourable. A victory in an election does not give the winning party the right to occupy all the seats in Parliament. Even in autocratic times, monarchs had to get their policies through Parliament, though sometimes they locked the members in till they'd done what was required of them, and of course Parliament was far less representative than it is now.

Radical Whig Charles James Fox; plenty of people wanted to shut him up.
The British constitution (and this IS a historical issue, for it goes back a long way), is based on the idea that whatever choices are made at any one election can be reversed at the next one. Does one therefore abandon one's ideas till there is a chance of another election? Of course not. What we're being told about Brexit is that it's a once for all decision, done and dusted. But that completely contradicts the nature of democracy. Even in the era when the vote was restricted to property-owners, so we really had an oligarchy rather than a democracy, Whigs alternated with Tories, and when one side was in Government, the other side were on the cross-benches, putting their point of view.

Another aspect of democracy is lobbying. Not pure, maybe, but it happens. Interest groups make representations to government. These may be business groups, they may be charities, or professional associations, or campaigning groups. My husband, who is an environmental consultant and Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management, regularly goes to Parliament to address a special interest group, which is attended by many MPs across party lines. This is another practice which goes back a long way; and I see mass demonstrations as another form of lobbying, particularly since they are seldom events all of their own, but are usually underpinned by hours of hard work, writing to MPs, leafletting, petitioning (even back in the '80s), programmes of public information through Press and nowadays social media. This was the case with women's suffrage, with the campaign against child prostitution or the compulsory and abusive medical examination of any woman deemed to look like a prostitute, which Josephine Butler campaigned against.

photo: Women's Library
There is nothing about traditional democracy that suggests it's a crime to inform the electorate. Some might think it's necessary for democracy to work properly, particularly when there is a vocal and often misleading tabloid press, funded by big money and, many would argue, dedicated to spread propaganda that suggests the tyranny of the market is the only way to organise society.

Where this rhetoric of 'You are in a minority, so you should shut up,' comes from, is somewhere else, and there are sinister antecedents. Hitler, indeed, and Mussolini, and Stalin, all three of whom would have had me in a camp licketty-split for my mild act of civil disobedience. In Nazi Germany, everyone was told that the people 'das Volk', agreed with Hitler, and anyone who didn't was isolated, made to feel they were mad, demoralised. It's because of this that only those who had established existing networks (Communists, members of the Confessing Church, some Catholics, Quakers ) could achieve any act of resistance. I remember being driven along the motorway towards Berlin, going through the German 'Democratic' Republic, in 1972, and seeing a poster: REFERENDUM ABOUT (I forget what). ALLE SAGEN JA. (Everyone says yes). This was not a simple piece of campaigning or exhortation. It meant: You will say yes, if you know what's good for you. And these referendums were used to silence people, to validate the regime. You are alone, was the message, no-one else will think of dissenting.

Does majoritarianism trump (sorry, definitely a pun, alas) ethics and human rights? If a majority want us to murder people, to exploit other countries and steal their wealth, to lock dissenters up in prison, torture people the security services suspect of terrorism (partly because someone else has given them their name under torture), in the worst case, to annihilate an ethnic group because you hate them, should everyone go along with that? You alone have these crazy humanitarian views, the majority says, everyone else agrees that the Jews should be destroyed. Or the Armenians, or the Tutsis, or the professional classes (in the Cultural Revolution). Or that black kids should be shot down with impunity by whoever wants to, like Trayvon Martin, whose parents, protesting his murder, are pictured here.
Or civilians drenched in napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam war. It was Nixon, I think, who coined the term 'the silent majority' to silence protest about THAT.

Shall we follow Hitler and demonise those who stand out and follow their conscience? Do you prefer Adolf Eichmann to Bonhoeffer, the Scholl siblings, Oskar Schindler, Pastor Gruber who helped many Jews get out of Germany, Elisabeth Abegg who hid them in her homes; Maria von Maltzan who did everything she could to save lives, even those of animals who she certified unfit for combat? These people were, officially, criminals.

When I was one of the million plus who marched against the second Iraq war, Tony Blair told us that we shouldn't march because in Iraq there was no right to protest. If you take that statement apart, it says: We are going to war to implement regime change in Iraq. The current regime is wrong, because people aren't allowed to protest there. Nevertheless, it is wrong to protest here. WHAT??

photo: William M. Connolley: Wikimedia
But we don't go to war over human rights, or hardly ever. Instead, in the name of pragmatism and trade, we welcome mass murderers and heads of terror states to our country and the monarch entertains them at Buckingham Palace. Saddam Hussein was put into Iraq by the British and for years he was 'our bastard', so his despotism was OK.

I marched against the Iraq war because I believed the UN inspectors who said there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (the ostensible reason for fighting), because I thought it would destabilise the region and encourage Islamic fundamentalism (it has), because I thought it was about giving the US and the West access to a lot of oil.

Critical though I am of our first-past-the-post electoral system, we have in this country an admirable tradition of free speech and freedom to express our opinions and find out like-minded people and allies. It isn't perfect, of course: we've had the Peterloo Massacre, the despicable clampdown on reformist organisations in the aftermath of the French Revolution and still more disgracefully, we failed to allow our colonies that freedom. Still, imperfect as it is, it has remained a vital thread of British political life up till the present day.

Democracy needs protest, as long as it is peaceful. To shut up if you haven't got what you wanted is the last thing anyone should do in a democracy, unless what you want is to abolish democracy itself.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Scents and Sensibilities: The Not So Smelly Middle Ages? By Catherine Hokin

Setting: one of the most important things for an author to get right. That might be the most obvious statement you read all day and no, you haven't stumbled into a 'how to write' blog but this balancing act of anchoring the reader fully in a time period very different from our own while not bludgeoning them to death under a tsunami of description is occupying a lot of my time with the current WIP.

One of the best ways to communicate a sense of place is through smell. The modern world is obsessed with fragrance: from beauty and cleaning products to the artificial bread that wafts through every supermarket, we walk through such a vanillery-bakery-flowery world that any slightly unpleasant scent feels like an assault. I am beginning to think that most of our Proustian moments will shortly be controlled by Airwick. The challenge for the writer, however, is that this most crucial sensory experience is the hardest to research and to replicate.

That the Middle Ages was a morass of stinking towns and villages filled with people whose body odours would have made a skunk weep is one of those history myths that gets peddled at school and repeated incessantly until it ends up on QI. Scrape under the mucky surface and things are rather different.

There are admittedly plenty of stories of medieval people who did not regard hygiene as a priority. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) reputedly only bathed twice in her lifetime, once when she was born and once when she married. King Louis IX (1214-1270) was described by the Russian ambassador to his court as stinking like a wild animal. They, however, were not the norm for their class: foul odours were associated with disease, low standing in the social order and moral corruption (based on the idea of miasma). Those who could avoid smelling revolting did.

At the height of the Middle Ages, bathing was a serious business. For the wealthy this would take place in tented wooden tubs lined with cloth; the better-off town-dwellers had communal bathhouses; the peasants made do with rivers in the summer and fire-warmed water in the winter. Whatever rank you were, de-lousing with salty water would probably feature somewhere in your life. Health manuals such as the Regimen Sanitatis (c.1308) contained dozens of rules for bathing at specific times such as pregnanacy and noted the importance of bathing for getting rid of dirt and grime beyond that which was visible: “if any of the waste products of third digestion are left under the skin that were not resolved by exercise and massage, these will be resolved by the bath.” As with medicine, herbs and plants were central to the process of sweetening the body for those who had access to them. Thyme and rose petals were widely used to perfume bath water, the body could be dried using sheets sprinkled with rosewater and then dusted (men and women) with a powder made from ground rice, ground orris root  (a violet smell favoured by King Edward IV) and fragranced with cloves or lavender. Bay leaves, hyssop and sage were used to make deodorants and sachets of lemon balm and dried rose petals could be slipped into clothes already boiled in water scented with orris root and stored in chests containing 'sweet bags' which held a mix of ingredients such as musk, citrus peel and marjoram. Finally a 'pomme d'ambre' (an apple of ambergris) filled with a fragrant paste could be attached to a waist belt and, once Arabic gums and essential oil distillation methods could be combined with the discovery of alcohol distillation in the early 1300s, a perfume with notes of mint and rosemary could be added to the mix. The notion of a court filled with walking pot-pourri bowls is rather hard to escape.

 Woodcut 1489
So, if the people battled the negative associations of fetid smells rising from their bodies, where does the notion of the smelly medievals come from? For that we have to turn to place. I have always been an urbanite but I think medieval England may have forced a love of the country on me. Wood smoke, days old pottage and damp over-close animals still seem preferable to the alternative. Medieval towns stank. Clearly sanitation was an issue: towns were cramped, pavements were rare and Roman drains were long forgotten although muckrackers were well-paid. Houndsditch, which runs through London's glossy financial district, gets its name from the amount of dead dogs deposited in it when it was a great open ditch running through one of the medieval  city's main thoroughfares. In the 14th century, Sherborne Lane in the east of the capital was officially known as Shiteburn Lane and every town had its equivalent, Pissing Alley apparently being quite a favourite.

 Fes Medieval Tanneries
The main problem, however, was not the disposal of human waste,  it was the industries and commerce that multiplied as the towns grew. Anyone who has battled down the narrow Shambles in York can imagine how disgusting this road must have been when it was the open air Great Flesh Shambles with a drain filled with blood and offal running down its centre. Even more noxious were the great tanneries which used copious amounts of urine, dog excrement and stale beer in their processes. The smell of the tanneries in Nottingham was said to be so terrible it even repelled rats although, on the plus side, this is credited for reducing the incidents of plague in the area.

Awareness of the links between filth and disease can be seen in the regulations that were constantly passed in medieval towns. Fines were imposed for throwing waste from high windows and dumping it in clean water sources and on butchers for failing to clear waste which attracted dogs and wild pigs. But, as town populations continued to rise, the battle became increasingly hard and raw sewage continued to flow into the Thames until the nineteenth century. The towns smelled bad and, by the end of the Middle Ages, it is likely that the majority of people smelled pretty bad too. The public bath houses had long been associated with sexual activity, the Stews in Southwark for example were largely regarded as a front for brothels. The Church railed against them in vain but attitudes to communal bathing began to change after successive outbreaks of plague and the new disease syphillis, which began to make its presence felt in the late 1400s. Taking a bath became a rather risky adventure.

So back to the balancing act. No one wants to read a seduction scene where the protagonists' body odour acts like extra characters but drowning everything in herbs seems like a recipe for a cliched dish. I'm off to Glasgow's West End streets to breathe in petrol fumes and ponder.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Several Very Large Fat Bears by Imogen Robertson

Study of a bear by Sawrey Gilpin
© The Trustees of the British Museum

I am, like most writers, often asked where I get my ideas from and I always say the research (which is true), but that can seem a bit vague and wafty, so I thought I’d give an example of how many great ideas one stumbles over, particularly if you have access the The Burney Collection Newspapers via the British Library. I’m looking at one newspaper, The General Advertiser published on Tuesday 21 February 1786. 1786 is when my work in progress is set by the way, but I’m not sure what will happen in it yet, hence the broad research. Annoyingly, I’m not sure any of the following will fit, but each of the following three fragments from the day deserves a novel of its own, so I hope quoting them illustrates the larger point. Finding ideas is not the problem, the work is deciding between them.

The first story is a suggestive fragment, the sort of thing I might use, but I can’t find any way to follow the real story. The second is worthy of a novel firmly based in fact and has an interesting stack of supporting documentation which can be followed via the internet but this is probably not a book for me, fascinating though the story is. The third is one of those oddities which can shed surprising light on a period, and though again, I’m not sure I’ll use it, it offers me a certain flavour of the time which is nevertheless invaluable.

So first, the fragment:

On Friday afternoon about dusk a very genteel dressed man was taken out of the Serpentine with several marks of violence  on his face, but he had no more than one farthing in his pocket. He was carried to Knightsbridge to be exposed to view. The Jury sat on his body on Saturday, and brought their verdict, Death by some unknown cause.

Definitely something to warm a crime writer’s heart there, this could be the opening paragraph to a novel. People better versed in archive delving might be able to find out more about the actual facts, I haven’t been able to do so. If anyone can find the coroner’s record or sift through the newspapers for more information, please do let me know what you find. 

On the same page is the starting gun for a novel or non-fiction work which I would love to read someday:

Friday last James Bently was charged on oath before Nicholas Foster Esq. with feloniously stopping Edward Tauplin… and feloniously taking from his person a bundle containing a large assortment of Bombazeen... 

This story, thanks to www.oldbailyonline.org I could follow up, though the changes in the names don’t give you a lot of faith in 18th century journalism. You can read the whole trial here, but the summary is as follows, and I’m certain this is the same case.
JOSEPH BUTLER, Violent Theft > highway robbery, 22nd February 1786 
JOSEPH BUTLER was indicted for feloniously assaulting Edward Poulton, on the King's highway, on the 16th day of February , and putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and feloniously taking from his person and against his will, one linen handkerchief, value 6 d. sixteen yards of black bombazeen, value 40 s. a black silk gown, value 40 s. a black silk petticoat, value 20 s. the property of Martha Robinson , spinster. 
GUILTY , Death.
He was humbly recommended by the Prosecutrix to his Majesty's mercy.

Neptune wikipedia

Now, it seems that mercy was granted. Joseph is recorded (again, the record is via oldbailyonline) as being sentenced to transportation  for 7 years in early 1787. Thanks to a brilliant website called http://australianroyalty.net.au/ I know he reached Australia, but he only arrived in New South Wales on 28 June 1790. Joseph was a survivor of the Neptune, one of a fleet of three ships in which the convicts were basically left to rot in the hold for the duration of the journey. Of 1000 convicts some 300 died on the trip out. The death rate led to protests in Britain and after an unsuccessful prosecution of the captain of the Neptune, the system was reformed so private contractors carrying the prisoners were only paid for the convicts who got to Australia alive. Butler married and had children and is buried in Sydney. 

Then we have the third story, an advertisement:

Bears Grease
Its ancient use, known efficacy and established reputation down to the present time for the valuable purpose of strengthening and preventing the Hair from falling off the Head, or turning Grey, proves its virtue above spurious compositions daily offered to the Public to answer the same purpose.
Lewis Hendrie
Prefumer in ordinary to the Princess Royal…. Middle Shug Lane, Golden Square; begs leave to acquaint the Nobility and Gentry, that he has several very large, fat Bears, one of which he has just killed; that such as are pleased to have any of the Grease, will either call or send their servants to see it cut off the animal.
He has just imported from Paris…. 

Well, that rather stopped me in my tracks. Via the joys of the Burney Papers text search function I can tell you that Mr Hendrie had been killing bears to stop rich Londoners going bald since at least 1778. By June 1783 he was having his shop ‘greatly enlarged and new fronted’, perhaps to match the glamour of his shop sign, ‘a prodigious large Elephant’s tooth’ at the door which he mentioned as a way to recognise his establishment in March of that year. Just in case you accidentally wandered into one of the other bear killers' shops on Shug Lane. 

I’m not the first writer to have noticed Mr Hendrie:

I found this advertisement in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England), Tuesday, April 1, 1783

This day is published… An Ode to Mr Lewis Hendrie &c… Principal Bear-Killer in the Metropolis

Rather brilliantly, ten days later the author advertises again to assure the public he means no disrespect to the other bear-killers in the capital, but regards Mr Hendrie as the original. 

The writer of the Critical Review, or Annals of Literature thought the ode ‘in some parts very laughable’.

Mr Hendrie continued killing bears until his death in 1790. The bears didn’t get their revenge, I’m afraid, his death was occasioned by the bursting of a blood vessel.

I’ve read a lot about the 18th century in the last ten years, but I admit I never knew that barbers imported bears from America and Russia to fatten and then kill in their shops. In search of a little context I came across this magnificent book, The Georgian Menagerie by Christopher Plumb, which will I am sure tell me a great deal of other things which I didn’t know I didn’t know. Plumb says around 50 bears were killed in London by barbers and hairdressers every year, and offers some of the methods customers used to make the grease smell less unpleasant. 

What will I find in the newspapers for 22 February 1786, I wonder?