Friday, 11 October 2019

A New Emperor for Japan - by Lesley Downer

Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
In Japan the accession of a new emperor initiates a whole new era. Year 1 of the Reiwa Era, the Era of Beautiful Harmony, began on May 1st this year, the day that Emperor Naruhito took the throne. His father, Akihito, abdicated the previous day.

The emperors of Japan are said to be descended in an unbroken line from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. For many centuries the emperors had a ritual rather than a political status; they were more like popes than kings. The emperor (and the occasional empress) acted as an intermediary with the gods, offering up prayers to protect Japan and ensure good crops, and at some periods they were worshipped as gods themselves.
Naruhito in his enthronement robes

As a result the emperor’s enthronement is a bit different from the coronation of a temporal monarch like Elizabeth II. There are no crown jewels, no golden carriage, no public procession.

There are three successive ceremonies.

Presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures
The first ceremony is the presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures - the sword, the jewel and the mirror - which were given by the Sun Goddess to her grandson when he descended to earth to become the founder of the imperial dynasty. All three once belonged to the Sun Goddess and date from legendary times.

The day Naruhito took the throne, he was formally presented with the sword and the jewel as proof of his rightful succession. The Sword is a replica. The original Grasscutter Sword is enshrined at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. The Jewel is an ancient and profoundly symbolic necklace. But the most important of the three, the Sacred Mirror, never leaves the Grand Shrine at Ise, Japan’s holiest shrine, akin to the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral. Where western religions have an altar, at the heart of every shrine in Japan is a mirror, embodying the god. The Sacred Mirror embodies the Sun Goddess herself.

Enthronement Ritual
Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC)
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
The second ceremony, the enthronement ritual, will take place on October 22nd and international royalty, including Prince Charles, and heads of state will attend. Part is public and part seen only by the emperor and a few Shinto priests. The emperor, wearing full dress regalia, ritually informs his ancestors that he has ascended the throne. He then sits with the empress in a curtained octagonal pavilion topped with a golden Phoenix. The curtains swish open and he declares his ascension to the assembled dignitaries.

The Great Thanksgiving Festival
The third and most important ceremony is a religious one. It takes place in the middle of November. This is the legendary and tantalisingly secret Great Thanksgiving Ceremony, held by torchlight in dead of night deep in the imperial palace grounds in Tokyo.

It takes months of preparation. Special sacred rice has to be grown in paddies chosen and purified by elaborate Shinto purification rituals. Two thatched huts in the ancient native Japanese building style, preceding the arrival of Chinese influence, are constructed in the palace grounds. One represents the ancient style of houses in eastern Japan, the other of western Japan. The furnishings are also in ancient Japanese style. In one there is a vestigial straw bed and the other is for musicians.

Nintoku's tomb
The ritual takes place after nightfall. The emperor, dressed in the white silk robes of a Shinto priest, enters the first darkened hut at 6.30 p.m. Surrounded by chamberlains and assisted by court maidens he offers sacred rice and sake to the Sun Goddess, partakes of them himself and prays for bumper crops and national peace.

Then, after midnight, at 12.30, he enters the second hut. No one knows precisely what goes on, but according to some accounts he receives the soul of the Sun Goddess or even joins with her in sexual union, presumably symbolic, and thus assumes his divinity.

Descent from the Sun Goddess
Emperor Nintoku (313-399AD) by
Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912)
According to the story the first emperor of Japan was Jimmu, descended from Ninigi, the grandson of the Sun Goddess. Traditionally his accession is dated from 660 BC. He is famous for his long bow and the three-legged crow who accompanied him on his journey to Yamato, central Japan. The next 124 emperors are said to be descended directly from him.

Dotted around central Japan, mainly in the Nara area, are some 20,000 ancient burial mounds. Among them are 896 imperial tombs, including those of the 124 emperors, from Jimmu to right up to Hirohito, who died in 1989. Every year envoys arrive to conduct Shinto rituals at the tombs and to offer gifts from the emperor. Many of the most important are in and around the two ancient capitals, Nara and Kyoto. The biggest, a vast keyhole-shaped mound near Osaka, is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, the sixteenth emperor (313 - 399 AD).

For many years it was forbidden to excavate the imperial tombs on the grounds that they are sacred religious sites. Then twelve years ago the Imperial Household Agency, that governs all matters to do with the imperial family, gave permission for archaeologists to enter the fringes of two of the tombs but not to excavate there. One suspicion is that the Agency fears that inspection of the tombs will reveal evidence that far from being descended from the Sun Goddess, the Japanese imperial family actually originated from China and Korea. 
Emperor Naruhito and Empress
Masako wait to greet President
Trump May 2019. Official White
House photo by Andrea Hanks

In 2001, on his 68th birthday, Emperor Akihito mentioned his Korean ancestry, saying, ‘I for my part feel a certain kinship with Korea, given that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of [the Japanese] Emperor Kammu was descended from the line of King Muryong of Paekche [in Korea].’ 

The new Emperor, Naruhito, is very much a twenty first century monarch. He studied at Oxford University where he wrote a thesis on river transport on the Thames and went on to marry a multilingual diplomat, now Empress Masako. He knows Prince Charles and admires the way in which the British monarchy has made itself more accessible to the public. He has said that he wants to ‘stand close to the people’ and ‘bring a fresh breeze’ to the monarchy. Nevertheless he still has to begin his reign by paying his respects to the legendary founder of his dynasty - the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale of love and death set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. It tells the story of how the Emperor was transformed from a reclusive religious eminence to the figurehead of the new political order in the middle of the 19th century. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 4 October 2019

Servants in Historical Fiction

by Deborah Swift

Lady with a servant in a meadow - circa 1500
by an anonymous German Engraver
In my life today I have no servants living in my house. The work done by servants in previous centuries is now done by machines, or automation has rendered it unnecessary. For a historical fiction writer the presence of servants in the house is a massive opportunity for drama and for insight.

In previous centuries a strict hierarchy was maintained and social classes were firmly divided. However it’s a mistake to think that all servants were lowly, as a life in service was usual, whatever your rank. In Tudor and Stuart times wealthy children could become servants at court, and this was regarded as an essential part of their upbringing. Tradesmen’s apprentices were treated like servants, but could also live as family with their masters.

The beauty of servants for a novelist is that their level of invisibility can shift and change – for example in Victorian households it was preferable that servants did their duties silently and unseen. This was often so successful that the employers forgot they were there, and revealed far more than they had intended to those below stairs. Servants have always been in an ideal place to observe. Expert at listening, because they had to be, they were students of mindfulness before the term was invented, and could become experts at ‘reading’ what might be required, or what the mood of their so-called ‘betters’ might be. For a writer, an eavesdropping servant can create any number of misunderstandings. Likewise, the fact that servants were entrusted with personal messages and correspondence is deliciously open to abuse.


The relationship between a servant and a master can obviously vary enormously, but can be used by a novelist to great effect. Both tension and humour is created in PG Wodehouse’s books by the servant Jeeves, of whom Sebastian Faulks says;

The important things in life are handed on by subtler methods, by ‘breeding’ or instinct; and it is the life’s work of the gentleman’s personal gentleman to see that it remains so.

Here is a servant who has the upper hand over a master, feels himself superior, and this works particularly well if the ‘master’ is new, inexperienced, or lacking in status. The reader suspects that Jeeves has actually more ‘class’ than his master.

When Jeeves is first consulted his advice usually regrets that he is ‘unable to offer a solution’. Naturally the plot could not develop the necessary complications if Jeeves were able to cut through all difficulties in the first act, but whether help might be more swiftly forthcoming had he been feeling less affronted is something we can never know for sure. The suspicion however adds piquancy to the master-servant relationship. Faulks on Fiction

Some servants, such as Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ reverse the roles to such a degree that they become sinister antagonists to the main character. In the film based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, here’s how the chilling Mrs Danvers manipulates the second Mrs de Winter.

Mrs. Danvers: [moving towards her] You thought you could be Mrs. de Winter, live in her house, walk in her steps, take the things that were hers! But she’s too strong for you. You can’t fight her – no one ever got the better of her. Never, never. She was beaten in the end, but it wasn’t a man, it wasn’t a woman. It was the sea!
The Second Mrs. de Winter: [collapsing in tears on the bed] Oh, stop it! Stop it! Oh, stop it!
Mrs. Danvers: [opening the shutters] You’re overwrought, madam. I’ve opened a window for you. A little air will do you good.
[as the second Mrs. de Winter gets up and walks toward the window]
Mrs. Danvers: Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you… he’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you, he wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?
[softly, almost hypnotically]
Mrs. Danvers: Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on. Go on. Don’t be afraid… 

The servant can often be more aware of the irony of their situation than the master. The master, intent on good works within his/her limited frame of reference, fails to see the exploitation within their own household. This is a gift for a fiction writer who can revel in the double standards that ensue. 

For example in the 1930s the socialist campaigner Ethel Mannin had a maid whose very assistance was the thing that enabled her employer to campaign to abolish class distinctions. 
“It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,” the novelist Mannin wrote later. (Lucy Lethbridge, The Guardian)

In earlier eras it was an anathema for a servant to ape his master. In a Victorian play, when one character is mistaken for a coachman, another character explains:

I see the error, and hope you’ll forgive it; but when gentlemen associate with their servants, talk like their servants, do their servant’s work, and dress like their servants they ought not to be offended at a stranger’s not knowing the master from the man. Hit or Miss! A Musical Farce (1810)

It was imperative to be able to distinguish the master from the servant, so much fun can be had with ‘The Prince and The Pauper’ type reversals, and the cases where servants impersonate, either willingly or unwittingly, their masters. All my books have servants as major characters, and it is one of the reasons I love the historical fiction genre. In only one of them, a Young Adult novel, does the maistress impersonate the maid, but it was such good fun to write.

Do comment below with your favourite fictional servants!
(Pictures from Wikipedia)
Thanks for reading - find me on Twitter @swiftstory on on my website 

Friday, 20 September 2019

Pompeii and me by Mary Hoffman

Bacchus with a wine cup, Naples Museum
1987 - our first trip to Pompeii. We were staying, with our three daughters in Santa Maria di Castellabate, which is about one and a half hour's journey by road from Naples. We made the mistake of hiring one of the guides who tout for business outside the walls of Pompeii. Never do this. Read a book before you go and show yourself around and you won't have to stick to what the guides want to show you. Nevertheless, we were as impressed as everyone is by the rutted roads, the many shops, the wide forum.

We also climbed Mount Vesuvius and a strong young German plucked my five-year-old out of my arms and carried her on his back to the summit. I later discovered that husband and oldest daughter had expected to see bubbling red lava!

1989 - We found out on our previous trip that most of the good stuff from Pompeii was in the Archaeological museum in Naples. So on this, our second trip to Santa Maria, this time accompanied by my sister, we got the children up at 5.30am to catch a coach from the village square. The complaints got louder when we reached Naples and found ourselves, in summer dresses and sandals, caught in an absolute downpour.

I suspect the daughters remember best the huge breakfast we had on the top floor of the Jolly Hotel, overlooking the bay of Naples, allowing ourselves to dry out and warm up! But we did make in to the museum, which indeed is full of good stuff, including the partner to the Portland Vase in the British Museum, which they already knew.

Photo by Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons
And the frescoes from Pompeii are there too (I hope Blogger doesn't censor this one):

Satyr and Maenad, Wikimedia Commons
not to mention many mosaics and other artifacts.

1990 - back in Santa Maria, we decided on another crack at Pompeii and this time we waved the guides away and made it to the Villa of the Mysteries, which is what we wanted to see most last time and which wasn't on any guide's itinerary.

The Initiation, Villa of the Mysteries, Wikimedia Commons

Scroll forwards an incredible nearly 30 years and 2019 takes us to the Last Supper at Pompeii exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Do go, if you are anywhere within reach. It's on till 12th January 2020. You are greeted by the statue of Bacchus at the top of this post and you will find the wine god's influence everywhere in the exhibition.

For this is not yet another the-volcano-erupted-in-AD79-and-lots-of-people-were-killed-and-preserved-in-ash fest. It celebrates the living Pompeiians, who loved wine and food and fine art and who were happily carrying on their lives in a bustling Roman town until the fateful day. Bacchus is even featured alongside Vesuvius in a fresco in the exhibition:

The people of Pompeii were very well aware of the volcano on their doorstep, much as modern Sicilians talk about Etna. So much so that it makes itself present in their art. The city was especially devoted to Venus and Hercules as well as Bacchus and it was fond of feasting and banquets.

Much of what we know of Roman daily and domestic life comes from the perfectly preserved utensils, vases, frescoes, mosaics, statues and indeed bodies of humans and animals from Pompeii. It was close to the coast and a famous mosaic celebrates the bounty of the sea that would have ended up in a typical Pompeiian kitchen.
And there is the famous Roman predilection for "garum" or fish gut sauce, also represented:

Mosaic from the house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus    

I think this vegetarian would have had a hard time and a Pompeiian dinner party! Of course, there was always bread, of which a carbonised loaf is displayed and other food items.

These simple objects speak to us over the centuries of daily life and ceremonial and religious occasions, of evenings of carousing and days of bargaining, shopping and cooking.

There is one preserved body, or cast, of a Pompeiian woman, but I chose not to look at it. As with Egyptian mummies, I try not to forget the actual humans who lived no matter how many hundreds or thousands of years ago, and accord them their due respect. But it will be fascinating to many, I'm sure.

[All photos author's own, except where otherwise indicated]

Friday, 13 September 2019

Family Furniture

My parents are hoping to move house soon, which means downsizing. Suddenly some of the furniture that’s been, well, part of the furniture for my whole life is under threat. It won’t all fit in the new house, and most of it is too big for my own wee home, which is adequately furnished already anyway. There is talk of Getting a Few Quid for that big old sideboard, and Aunt Annie’s Edwardian mahogany wardrobe. That’s if anyone actually wants such monstrosities these days. 

Belfast, early 1920s when Granda was first working
I’m a terrible sentimentalist about objects, and I found myself worried especially about that wardrobe, carefully brought from her family home by my good old spinster aunt and installed, incongruously, in her tiny council flat in the 1970s. Polished every week. How would it feel sad and unloved at the back of the Oxfam furniture shop, or in a skip? 

Which made me start to think about my own furniture. It’s a mish-mash – a few nice antiques bought in richer times (before being a writer!), some bookcases hand-made by my late father, and plenty of ordinary modern stuff that I wouldn’t miss if I had to dispose of it. Nothing with as much family history as Aunt Annie’s wardrobes.

Except the bookcase in the study. I remember this from my grandparents’ home, where it lived in The Good Room. At some stage it passed on to me and for many years, in my twenties, it was the only decent piece of furniture I had. 

It looks like an ordinary glass-fronted mahogany bookcase, but my understanding is that it began life as a display cabinet in a shoe shop where my grandfather worked. He was a bright boy who had to leave school at fourteen to help support his family. He studied at night school to become a chiropodist, but as far as I know the shoe shop was his first job. I’m not sure how he got hold of the display case – was the shop offloading old furniture, or maybe closing down? Did he have to pay for it? He can’t have had much spare cash, so maybe he was able to get it for a few pence a week. Was he proud of it? Its position in his eventual marital home would suggest so. 

Granda filled the bookcase with his library of theology books, Charles Dickens, and an array of reference books. (Granda's Google). In my home it houses school stories by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Dorita Fairlie Bruce. Granda would have considered these very frivolous but I think they’re perfect for his bookcase. He left school in about 1918, just before these books started to be published. His little sister Olive might well have been given titles like Dimsie Goes to School at just the same time as Granda brought home the bookcase. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever move house – in all likelihood I will, some day – and there’s plenty of furniture I’ll be able to send to a charity shop without a thought. But the bookcase, or display case, which Granda got from an unknown Belfast shoe shop about a hundred years ago, will be staying with me. 

Friday, 6 September 2019

A play about love, lust and flour - Michelle Lovric

Linda Wilkinson
Under our new regime, today should have a post by Joan Lennon. But Joan kindly lent me her space so I could introduce a piece about a fascinating historical project set in my own part of London, near Blackfriars.

I am honoured to be a part of the Living Bankside History Committee. One of my fellow committee members is Adrian Chappell, an artist, educator and researcher. Adrian has collaborated to create a play about one of the great historical debacles of the late 18th century: the dramatic burning of the Albion Flour Mill at Blackfriars. Albion-in-Flames will be staged in the last week of September, close to the historical site of the fire, as part of the Totally Thames Festival.

Adrian worked with playwright, historian, scientist and memoirist, Linda Wilkinson to create the play and this is her account of how Albion in Flames came to be.


                                           “Who thought flour could be so interesting?”

 A rather forlorn and lonely patch of land by the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge seems an unlikely place from which the Industrial Revolution was kick-started in London in the late 18th century.

Myself and artist Adrian Chappell have been investigating the history of areas that abut the Thames for some time. As a playwright and historian, London is my playground as it is his. We met many moons ago on a project in East London and have remained friends ever since. As colleagues, he does the talking and the images, I do the words. It’s a fun and fruitful relationship.

A couple of years ago we devised a prototype app about a walk along the Thames linking the two Tate Galleries. Arising from this we uncovered the depth of Southwark’s importance in the industrialisation of London: the story of one building in particular piqued our interest.

The Albion Flour Mill stood on the south bank of the Thames at 245 Blackfriars Road. Today the site is being redeveloped having been occupied until recently by the Daily Express’s HQ at Ludgate House.

As the traffic thunders by and the announcements from the railway station punctuate the air it is hard to imagine the presence and stately grandeur of this once impressive building as it sat directly on the river.

The Albion was the world’s first steam-powered flour mill and London’s first great wonder of the Industrial Revolution. Using the new steam technology, developed by pioneering Midlands’ based engineering company Boulton & Watt, the Albion Mill opened in 1786 and aimed to meet London’s ever-increasing demand for bread. Since the middle of the 18th century London’s population had grown from three quarters of a million to well over one million.

 Albion’s creation was one of a long-list of firsts from that era but as a Londoner it surprised me that this mill was here, in my town, and not in the industrial North, the heartland of steam and steel.

 Precisely because of its location in the middle of London, the Albion Flour Mill quickly became the talk of the town, attracting large crowds from home and abroad who watched in awe as the gigantic arms and condensers of the mill’s steam engines were winched into place. Steam was harnessed to power the millstones and engines for fanning, sifting and dressing wheat, as well as loading and unloading barges moored alongside on the Thames. 20 pairs of millstones could grind 10 bushels of wheat per hour, day and night. The owners were also determined that the modernity of the interior should be reflected in the external façade. The frontage was executed in an elegant neo-classical style with huge Venetian windows that made the Mill look like a well-appointed country house.

But not everyone was happy. London’s traditional millers (wind and water) watched in horror as this five-storey titan rose over the rooftops of Bankside and beyond. They were well aware of the blaze of publicity regarding the Mill’s production capability. It was said that the Mill could produce as much flour in a month as their own mills could in an entire year.

On the morning of March 2nd 1791, the Albion Flour Mill caught fire and burnt down. Foul play was suspected immediately, not least because of the quick responses with which London’s traditional millers greeted the news of the fire and the fact that the tide was so low the water boats could not pump onto the flames. The poet Robert Southey walked among the crowds that lined Blackfriars Bridge that morning and noted that there were groups of millers dancing with joy by the light of the flames. The sudden appearance of placards bearing slogans such as Success to the mills of Albion but NO to Albion Mill seemed to provide evidence that the occasion was pre-planned. However, while many speculated that the fire was the work of machine-breaking radicals, the cause of the fire was never firmly established. Samuel Wyatt, the Mill’s owner, and John Rennie, its youthful engineer, insisted that the cause was due to poor lubrication in the grinding mechanisms which created friction leading to the fire. It was known that corn dust was highly combustible.
The charred remains of the Albion Flour Mill stood for 19 years on the banks of the Thames before Rennie himself built an iron works on the site. However, this was not before William Blake, who regularly walked over Blackfriars Bridge between his home in north Lambeth and the City, coined the infamous phrase that dark satanic mill.

We wanted to share this interesting and seemingly unknown history with a wider audience. As a playwright I thought I could potentially write a drama about it. Truth be told I am not very excited by pistons and engineering, imaginative or not, so I did wonder how I was going to turn it into an entertainment. Happily, as we delved further into the cast of characters who lived in and around Bankside during that period it became obvious that there was a provocative tale to tell.
The play Albion-in-Flames interleaves the short history of the Mill and its owners with the contemporary events of the French Revolution and the loss of the American Colonies. The lives, and loves, of local luminaries such as William Blake, Dr Samuel Johnson and diarist Hester Thrale provide the dramatic backdrop to social unrest and the emerging feminism of the period. A future American President and amorous music masters enliven the proceedings and a working-class woman called Annie, speaking for the traditional millers, grounds the play in the reality of the times.

It seems fitting that the play is being staged at the Union Theatre just a stone’s throw from the site of the Albion Mills.

 Albion-in-Flames is at the Union Theatre in Southwark 24-28 September 2019. The play is part of the Totally Thames Festival and supported by Southwark Council’s Blackfriars Stories fund. To find out more and book see below: and

Finally, a piece of good news about the inimitable Pasta Grannies, about whom I wrote here back in 2017. I was privileged to interview Vicky Bennison who conceived the project and has spent years tracking down the Italian grandmothers who hold the secrets of the best home-cooking. Vicky has persuaded these fascinating ladies to share both their recipes and the stories of their lives.

The Pasta Grannies book is out next month. It's beautiful and I warmly recommend it, not just for the recipes but for the joyous photographs and the biographies of the nonne themselves.

The Pasta Grannies YouTube channel now has hundreds of thousands of followers, and you'll be seeing lots about the book in the media over the next few weeks.

Michelle Lovric's website

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Proroguing: A Very Short History - by Anna Mazzola

This time last week you’d probably never even heard of proroguing. Now you have prorogues coming out of your ears. If it’s any consolation, it’s been causing problems for millennia and Queen Victoria didn’t much like it either.

What the hell is proroguing, and where does it come from?

Prorogation in itself is no big deal – it’s simply the formal term for the end of a parliamentary session. Parliament is ‘prorogued’ between the end of one session and the State Opening of Parliament that begins the next.

Historically, the King or Queen would turn up to do the proroguing themselves. That’s why the modern-day ceremony begins with the Leader of the House stating, ‘My Lords, it not being convenient for Her Majesty personally to be present here this day, she has been pleased to cause a Commission under the Great Seal to be prepared for proroguing this present Parliament.’ Of course, Queen Liz has absolutely no intention of turning up.

Queen Victoria used to, however. At least she did until 1854, when she refused, apparently on the basis she didn’t like the ceremony. No decent biscuits, perhaps.

Controversial proroguings

So much for the normal proroguings. Things get controversial when the power is used for political ends, say by stopping Parliament from carrying out its job of keeping a check on the Government. There’s a long history of monarchs summoning Parliament purely so it could authorise the taxes the King wanted to levy, and then proroguing it to limit its ability to meddle.

King Charles I – ‘didn’t end well’

In March 1628, after several years of squabbling about taxation, Charles I tried to prorogue Parliament. Enraged, members of the house literally held the Speaker down in his chair so that the ending of the session could be delayed long enough for resolutions against Catholicism, Arminianism and tonnage and poundage to be read out and approved. In revenge, Charles dissolved Parliament and had nine parliamentary leaders thrown into jail.

For the following eleven years, he ruled England without a Parliament – a time that’s sometimes referred to as the ‘eleven years' tyranny’. In 1642 the arguments boiled over into full-blown civil war, which lasted for nearly a decade and culminated in the king’s execution. So John Major wasn’t wrong when he said recently that proroguing parliament ‘didn’t end well’ for Charles I.

The Great Reform Crisis

We might think we have big problems with our political system, but it used to be even worse. The Great Reform Act of 1832 introduced huge changes to the corrupt electoral system, famously getting rid of ‘rotten boroughs’. But it wasn’t passed without a fight. When the House of Commons defeated the First Reform Bill, the government urged William IV to immediately prorogue Parliament in person, to prevent the passing of an opposition motion. When told that his horses wouldn’t be ready in time, the King supposedly insisted, ‘Then I will go in a hackney cab!’

Disappointingly, the horses were got ready and he raced off in his flashy carriage, cheered on by crowds all the way to the House of Lords, where he strode in wearing his crown and prorogued Parliament. The Reform Bill was eventually passed, mainly as a result of public pressure. (Worth noting it does sometimes work).

Deadlock with the Lords 

In 1948, just after the Second World War, the Labour government of Clement Attlee set out to reduce the power of the House of Lords so as to stop them from delaying their programme of welfare reform and nationalisation. The Lords, not keen on having their powers curbed, repeatedly blocked the Bill. To get around this, Atlee used the Parliament Act 1911 which allowed legislation to go through without the Lords’ agreement if the House of Commons approved it over three sessions. In order speed that process up, the Government announced it would hold a short session between September and October 1948. The Lords, of course, were furious.

Cash for Questions

In 1997, John Major, then Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, prorogued Parliament at a time that conveniently avoided parliamentary debate of the Parliamentary Commissioner's report on the cash-for-questions affair. You might remember that the scandal began when two Tory MPs were bribed to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of the owner of Harrods.

Major prorogued Parliament for just under three weeks before it being dissolved ahead of the General Election to avoid proper debate on cash for questions. But it was of course the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, who won that election, so arguably proroguing didn't end all that well for John Major either...

There are also several Commonwealth examples of proroguing being used to evade Parliamentary scrutiny. In 2009 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament for two months, which had the effect of limiting an inquiry into the Government's awareness of the abusive treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.

'Only rogues prorogue'

That, then, is your super-fast history of political proroguing, generally the tool of the tyrannical or the desperate. But then you’d probably worked that out already.


Anna Mazzola is a writer of dark historical fiction. She is also a public law and human rights solicitor.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Dance and privilege - interpreting the past, by Gillian Polack

I’m writing this post weeks before it gets put online because I’m off to Ireland for the World Science Fiction Convention and for a bit of research and to see a lot of friends. Another person attending the conference asked about Regency dances the other day, and named specific English dances. There are several possible reasons for there being no dances announced at that precise moment in time, but the first thing that came to my mind was the element of Pride and Prejudice that is all about the military. The Bennet sisters who were so excited when beautiful young men in uniform came their way. 

Some types of story (and the way the military is depicted in Pride and Prejudice means that it’s one of them) let us think that historical hurt can defended with a parasol or with gentle intervention. 

In fact, this is true for some people in some places at some times, including in the early nineteenth century. In New South Wales in 1808, Governor Bligh’s daughter, Mary, defended her father against the military that was deposing him. She used her parasol. She later married into the military, however. Jane Austen depicted a truth about the relationship of women of the right background and their relationship with the British military at that time, and Mary was, for me, the young woman who exemplified it in real life.

It was not the only type of relationship.

Those same military personally, if they were in Ireland, presented differently to different parts of the population. They may still have been an excitement and beautiful young men to those of the right ancestry (mainly English and Church of England) but they were certainly not kind to much of the Irish population. Social events that included these soldiers were not something many wanted to attend. Re-enacting those events is re-enacting historical problems. Having modern parties that features those problems, including English dances that celebrate the military, is celebrating hurt.

This can be extreme. We all have our own examples of historical incidents that are almost too painful to talk about. Mine is food-related from the 1940s, and has nothing at all to do with Jane Austen or dancing. I’ve mentioned it before and no doubt I’ll discuss it again. It’s something I still haven’t resolved or come to terms with and I am forever repeating myself on matters historical until I sort things out. 

I have a cookbook I still have not used, because every time I bring it out I say “I will use it and remember these women” and I look through the recipe (which are delightful) and I make plans… and I can’t bring myself to cook. Every single one of the authors of this book was dying while they were remembering food they used to make for friends and family. Their particular cuisine was almost wiped out by the murder of the Jews of Middle Europe. How can I have a dinner party with this in mind? How can I not?

What I can do is what Edna Ferber did, and find a way of translating the complex and awful history into fiction. That way we see more than one view. That way we look at Ireland and can see why some dances had different values to those same dances in England, and we can see why.

We know that historical experiences are not shared, but when an exciting narrative comes along we can forget. Fiction helps cement us in the forgetfulness, but it can also help us see views other than our own. I was going to talk about how wonderful Tara was before the Civil War in Gone with the Wind, but then I remember how a couple from different backgrounds had their lives destroyed when someone found out in Showboat. This is how Edna Ferber handled part of the painful past, in the novel Showboat. There was a hero-moment when Steve drank a tiny amount of Julie’s (his wife’s) blood so that he could claim he had the right blood in him and so that they could stay together. The reality in Showboat was that the hero moment didn’t take the pressures off. It didn’t allow Steve and Julie to continue making a living as a couple. It didn’t allow them any happiness. 

The reality in Gone with the Wind was that Scarlett O’Hara’s life was privileged. She suffered during the war, but she wasn’t a slave before and she wasn’t treated like a lower part of society afterwards. The reality in Jane Austen’s stories is that most of her characters are similarly privileged.

Dances are one of my clues to how people were treated and what they did with their lives. In Showboat, Julie dances in a particular way that demonstrated her background. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet girls dance in the way that demonstrates theirs.

I need to discover what someone not linked to British troops and English rule danced in 1808. I already know about the dances Mary did around the time she defended William Bligh using her parasol. William Bligh may have had the worst bad luck – first the mutiny on the Bounty and then the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales – but he was not lacking in privilege in most ways and his daughter danced the dances of the gentry, just like the Bennet daughters.

Friday, 16 August 2019

'Still they come' by Karen Maitland

Clooties hanging on tree above Madron's Well
Earlier this summer, I was travelling on a country lane just north-west of Penzance in Cornwall, when I spotted a sign to St Madron’s Well. I followed a surprisingly well-worn footpath twisting through a woodland of ancient, lichen-covered blackthorn trees and ferns, which seemed to go on for miles. I confess I was on the verge of turning back, thinking I had missed the well, because many holy wells in Devon and Cornwell are simply little springs trickling out of a bank and easily covered by summer vegetation. Then I saw a few rags tied to a tree. As I walked further along the path, the trees around me became festooned with rags, ribbons, single shoes, tiny fabric bags and messages written on cloth in many languages, including Chinese. Some were weather-faded to the colour of fallen leaves, others so vibrant they clearly been tied there yesterday.

Stone stile and walls of St Madron's chapel beyond.
Had it not been for these ‘clooties’, I could easily have missed the well itself which was little more than a shallow pool of clear water, just a few inches deep, surrounded by trees and muddy bog. But further on down the track, I came across mossy stone stiles, standing like the battlements of an enchanted castle, and beyond them was the rough-hewn stone walls of the chapel of St Madron, its entrance guarded by a huge yew tree. Water bubbles out into a baptistry in the far corner, which comes from the same spring as the well in the wood. The baptistry, and the stone altar were covered in crumbling posies of withered flowers, shells, three-armed and four-armed Brigid crosses, and other offerings visitors had laid there. It was evident that this place is as much revered in new millennium as it has been for the last thousand years.

Entrance to the ruined St Madron's Chapel, Cornwall
Those who first sought it out in pre-Christian times dedicated this spring to the Welsh Celtic Mother Goddess, Modron, who some authors link to the medieval Arthurian figure - Morgan Le Fay. When Celtic Christians arrived, they wisely didn’t try to prevent people coming for blessing and healing to this well, but quietly replaced the old goddess with St. Madern or St Madron. But whereas Modron had been a goddess, St Madron or Madern is thought to have been 6th century male Celtic saint, possibly a disciple of St Piran. The chapel probably began life as a cell for a Christian hermit. He or she would have ministered to those coming to the leech well for healing and would have received food or gifts from the supplicants.

Stone altar in St Madron's chapel.
The pagan and Christian traditions practised at this site seemed to have co-existed in peaceful harmony until the Reformation, when Thomas Cromwell ordered the destruction of the chapel. The roof was torn down and the statue, which probably occupied the niche, was removed. But whether from superstition or laziness, Cromwell’s men could not bring themselves to destroy the chapel itself, and the walls, baptistry, stone seats and altar remain intact until this day. It is still roofless, but the canopy of trees provides a far more beautiful roof than either thatch or slate.

Thomas Cromwell and the Reformers may have thought they’d put an end to St Madron’s well, but local people continued to use it. In 1640, John Trelil, unable to stand or walk because of childhood injury to his back, had a dream telling him to seek healing at the well. On a Thursday in May, the day the well’s healing powers were believed to be at their strongest, he crawled to St Madron’s well on his knees, spent the night at the altar in the ruined chapel, bathed in the holy water, then slept on a grassy hump nearby known as St Madron’s Bed, where he began to feel tingling in the nerves of his legs. He returned twice more on subsequent Thursdays and was cured to such an extent that he became fit enough to join the royalist army, though that was perhaps a mixed blessing for he was sadly killed in battle four years later in Lyme, in Dorset.

Baptistry or second holy well inside St Madron's chapel
By the Victorian era, they realised there was money to be made from such places and a keeper of the well charged visitors for access. On Thursdays, during the month of May, ailing children were dipped naked in the well three times and passed around it nine times, then dressed and left to sleep on St Madron’s bed. To effect a cure, the ritual had to be performed in silence. Unwed girls threw crosses and pins on the water counting the bubbles to discover when they would marry. It was also thought that by asking how long you had to live, you would be answered by a series of bubbles giving the number of years.

Today, on the first Sunday in May, people come to stand in a circle and take turns blessing the person next to them with health and peace using a mixture of the water taken from the baptistry and from the well outside. They ask for healing of Mother Earth and provision of water for all people. It would seem that given the current concerns about climate change, Madron’s Well is just as meaningful to people now as it was to our ancient Celtic forbears.
Clooties hanging in the blackthorn above St Madron's Well

Friday, 9 August 2019

SLATE by Adèle Geras

This beautiful paperweight was a present to me from Linda Newbery on my 70th birthday, five years ago. It's always on my desk and is one of my Top Treasures. 

It was made by a master craftsman called Bernard Johnson out of slate.  I've always been very fond of this material. We take it for granted most of the time. Many people use slate chips in their gardens, and I bought a set of slate coasters from a gallery shop in a museum that I can no longer locate in my memory. It's beautiful stuff and the best slate in the world comes from Wales. 

Last month, I wrote about the copper of Parys Mountain on Anglesey. And on the same visit, to my friends Bob Borsley and Ewa Jaworska, they took me also to Snowdonia. We went to visit the National Slate Museum at Llanberis which was just up the road from this idyllic scene.

The museum is located in the now disused workshops of the Dinorwic Slate Quarry and it's beautifully organised and laid out. We started out by looking a very informative video, which explained how four slate workers' cottages had been moved lock, stock and barrel to this site, and set up to show how the men who worked in the quarry lived at different historical periods. We were also told that nowadays, no slate is quarried here because China produces it much more cheaply.  

We then went into a large, pleasant space, where a delightfully chatty man was about to demonstrate the art of cutting slate. He had an enormous rectangle resting against one knee and with a thin chisel he chipped away at it, knocking it gently all the way round and after a few knocks, a layer of the whole thing seemed almost to fall of the bigger block as single sheet, which looked impossibly thin. Below is a photo of the various sizes of the slate and I took this photo because I loved the names given to the different proportions: Princesses (24" by 14") Duchesses (24" by 12") Countesses (20" x 12") Wide Ladies (16" by 12") Broad Ladies (16" by 10") Narrow Ladies (16" by 8")

Below is a photo taken in one of the cottages. This is the parlour and the only downstairs room apart from the tiny kitchen on the ground floor. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century. There's one cottage that is from 1969 and in that one we saw a bath and an inside toilet  and I recognised many of the fixtures and fittings from the days of my youth.

After visiting the Slate Museum, we went to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, near Blaenau Ffestiniog.  You can do all kinds of things there, like zip across disused workings on a wire. Which was clearly not the kind of thing I was up for! But we did go on the Explorer Tour, which involved strapping yourself into a Army truck and driving to the highest point of the old workings. And  then down again. Malcolm was our intrepid driver. At one point, we had to reverse down a slope with a dizzying gradient and I just shut my eyes. There were other times on the drive when I decided I didn't want to look but mostly, it was amazing and very exciting.  The photos below show what the terrain looked like...

...and also what used to be there before work stopped in the quarry. 

After I got home, I started not taking my slate for granted. I looked more carefully at my garden slate chips. I admired anew the coasters I use every day and thanked Linda and took my hat off to Bernard Johnson all over again. And the very next day, in the Times, I saw the photo below. It shows the roof of the Serpentine Gallery in London, made from slate by artist Junya Ishigami. What cam I say? Slate rocks!