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 fa├žade. 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