Friday 24 April 2020

A walk in the woods: Sue Purkiss

Ironically, the beginning of the lockdown coincided with the beginning of spring - and with a spell of glorious sunny weather. I'm lucky enough to live on the slopes of the Mendip Hills, with the double bonus of a large garden, so I've been able to enjoy it: I know that many haven't.

I always love spring. Winters seem increasingly dreary, and so once the first crocus appears, I breathe a deep sigh of relief in the knowledge that the days are beginning to lengthen and life is about to begin again. So this year, as the lockdown began, I decided to post each day on Facebook a picture, usually of a flower, either from the garden or from my morning walk, to remind myself and others that life goes on and spring keeps on springing - it sounds trite, but I think this year in particular it's a useful message to hear.

Blackthorn blossom

A side effect has been that I've taken much more notice of what I'm seeing. I think, quite frankly, that I'm a bit dozy, and that any normal person would have noticed these things years ago. For instance, I've finally discovered the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn: with blackthorn, the blossom comes before the leaves, so it's much earlier. Hawthorn blossom comes after the leaves - now, in fact.

I've also noticed far more places on our hill where bluebells grow - I've always thought they were a rarity, but not so; if you only look, they're all over the place. But this is not the case with primroses. I've noticed in previous years that they're few and far between, and this was still the case this spring. One day, as I ambled through the wood, I wondered why this should be so. On Exmoor a couple of years ago we walked along the River Barle, and primroses were everywere along the river edge.

And that made me think of rivers. The Mendip countryside has so much, but it doesn't have rivers like the Barle on Exmoor or the Dwyfor in North Wales. And that must be at least in part because the Mendips are made of porous limestone - so the water sinks down underground, and that's where it spends much of its time, meandering through caves and 'caverns measureless to man' (thank you, Coleridge), before it emerges at, for example, the bottom of Cheddar Gorge or in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace in Wells.

Cheddar Gorge

So, still wandering through the woods with an eye out for primroses, I started to think about that. And it struck me that this geological circumstance has had an enormous part to play in the settlement and history of this area. Cheddar Gorge itself, for instance. (With a little research, I've found out more about how its actual formation was due not just to glaciation but to the limesone - but stay with me here, I'm still back in the wood, just thinking.) The underwater rivers created the caves, which were to be used by people at least 9000 years ago: one of them was famously buried there, and his skeleton is now in the British Museum; astonishingly, one of his direct descendants still lives in Cheddar. The skulls of others, more disturbingly, have marks on them which suggest cannibalism. So presumably the caves played a part in the origin of Cheddar as a settlement; they must have been a place of safety. (Well, except, obviously, if you were the original owner of one of the cannibalised skulls.)

The reconstructed face of the ancient skeleton, and his modern descendant, Adrian Targett - who, very fittingly, is a retired history teacher.

And then there's Wells, which must have a claim to being one of the smallest, but most beautiful cities anywhere. There is something special about Wells. I'm not particularly spiritual - you won't catch me in a druidical cloak or a goddess's garland - but when I go to Wells, it makes me feel better. I don't know why, but it does. Very noticeably.

Water in the Bishops' Palace Gardens

And perhaps Wells is actually there because, thousands of years ago, people came across the three wells where water emerges from its long journey underground, anmd thought that here was something that was not only useful, but also magical. Those wells still exist; one is in the market place, the other two are in the grounds of the cathedral, nor the Bishop's Palace Gardens. Because of them, the city is where it is; because of them, it became a spiritual centre where eventually one of the loveliest cathdrals in Britain was built. And now, those wells form the centrepiece of an enchanting garden, which provides pleasure and spiritual sustenance to those who visit it. At the moment, of course, there are no visitors. Its springtime glory - the banks by the moat sprinkled with cyclamen, narcissi, crocuses and primroses; the tulips in the quiet garden; the snowdrops, bluebells and orchids in the orchard - they're all still blooming, of course, but not, this year, for us.

So where am I going on this ramble? Well, first, the extent to which the geography of a place shapes its subsequent history has never been so clear to me. It should have been; there's nothing remotely new about what I'm saying, and I'm sure that somewhere, a geography teacher is sighing in despair.

And secondly - forgive me for stating the obvious. But perhaps nothing makes you quite so aware of something as when there is a possibility that you might lose it. Perhaps this awful pandemic will be a wake-up call. Perhaps this closer relationship with nature which many of us have experienced -  whether it leads to a discovery of the blindingly obvious or to people making pesto from wild garlic -  will have an effect, long after the pandemic is over. Perhaps we will become more careful stewards of this extraordinary world.

Hope so.

Friday 17 April 2020

Close Up and Personal: The Hairdresser in History

By Susan Vincent

This morning I stood in front of the mirror and tried to cut my own hair. As the weeks bite down and our locked-in lives drag by, I’m losing my definition. My short, sharp bob is shaggy and blurred, and my fringe hangs heavy. My hair is doing me no favours and I miss my hairdresser.

But it’s right that I’m not allowed to see him, both for his sake and my own. Hairdressing is close up and personal.

For better and for worse, hairdressing has a long history of being an intimate undertaking. Let’s take the bad stuff first. Being in close proximity to one another, a client and stylist share everything: body odours, the smells of each other’s breath, the hygiene of their hands, and the infections they pass between them. In 1744 for instance, Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish-born American, noted in his journal the ‘stinking breath’ of a barber in Philadelphia: ‘it almost made me sick’.

For this very reason, his compatriot Benjamin Franklin advocated self-shaving. In this way a man could avoid ‘the dirty fingers or bad Breath of a slovenly Barber’. More often though, such sentiments were rendered visually, cartoons and satires picturing for humour what everyone knew from unfunny experience. In this detail from Henry Bunbury’s Damn the Barber, you can see the client’s distaste as the barber’s fingers travel over his face, squeezing his nose and pushing to get the right angle and the skin taut.

The training standards of the modern profession are explicit about body care and cleanliness, though we’re all only human and our bodies betray the best of us. According to one celebrity hairdresser, spare deodorant is always kept in the loos, you can’t be in the job if you suffer from sweaty palms, and a stylist can use a hairdryer to discreetly waft away those accidental farts.

So these consequences of intimacy are unpleasant, but what about those that are painful or dangerous? Gossip did the rounds in the 1770s when Ann Barry, a Drury Lane actress, literally kicked her hairdresser down the stairs for ‘catching hold of her ear, in a hurry, with the hot pinching irons, instead of her curl’. Like the discomforts of barbering, this was a common enough experience that it was featured in satirical prints. The detail here, from Sketches in a Shaving Shop, shows a customer yelling in anguish as his inattentive barber pinches hard on his ear with the heated tongs – more branding than styling. 

Or closer to home chronologically, on that auspicious moment in 1957 when the hairdressing genius Vidal Sassoon first cut the hair of designer icon Mary Quant, he also cut her ear. This is a perpetual possibility in hairdressing, and ears bleed a lot. As one stylist describes it having nicked a client: I ‘ask my junior to run and get a tissue – tissue? Who am I kidding? You need a bloody Andrex factory to deal with a cut ear.’

With scissors and open blades constantly snipping, passing near the eyes, over the throat, at the neck’s nape, the potential for harm is astonishing. It’s no wonder that Sweeney Todd, the demonic (and fictional) barber of Fleet Street, has become a permanent fixture in our imaginations. 

Fortunately for us all though, the intimacy between a hairdresser and client is usually experienced positively. People put their trust in their stylist, and once they have found someone they like, will often go to considerable lengths to remain loyal. Let’s face it, we hardly ever get to see the same doctor, but we nearly always insist on our own hairdresser.

The established relationship, the trust, the touch and the grooming, all work to lower levels of reserve and further the work of intimacy. One way this is experienced is in the sharing of secrets, and many hairdressers self-identify as counsellors and life coaches for the people sitting in their chairs. But they also identify as raging gossips, a stereotypical character that has been ascribed to haircare professionals for hundreds, and maybe thousands, of years. (There’s a Roman joke about the garrulity of barbers.) As one woman warned in 1787, hairdressers,
having access to the ladies, frequently hear things in one house, which they carry to another. Ladies are too apt to converse with these fellows, and ask questions; and, for every piece of intelligence they communicate, they are rewarded with news in return; so, that many women are as much diverted with their slander, as embellished by their art.

From sharing – and spilling – secrets, it’s but a short step to an even more intimate relationship. The physical closeness of hairdressing and its pleasures of touch have also a long history of leading to sex. In his autobiography Sassoon wrote candidly about the liaisons that arose from proximity in the salon. At one point he held a staff meeting to address the problem of the stylists’ ‘overactive libidos’ and their dating of customers. ‘It was not quite ethical’, he suggested, ‘to seduce a married client’. In his memoirs, another stylist puts it both more memorably and more distastefully: ‘I was shagging half my clients. It was a great way to meet loads of up-for-it women. What better job for any young, healthy male with a voracious appetite for totty than to get intimate with twelve women a day?’

Once more, these ideas and stereotypes are found in visual sources from earlier centuries. Take a look at The Boarding-School Hair-Dresser, for instance, from 1786. The teenage girl sits with her legs apart, straddled by the hairdresser. She smiles with pleasure as he concentrates intently on the task in hand.

Or what about A Hint to Married Men, a satirical print from 1794. Here the action takes places in the lady’s bedroom, as would most hairdresser home visits at the time – you can see the bed on the left. Apart from the location there is little in the image that is saucy or suggestive, but the accompanying verse makes for no doubt:
Ye Husbands who wish to live peaceable lives
Neer admit a Frizuer to the rooms of your Wives
When the Lady’s in disshabille, & a bed’s near
There is often two methods of dressing the hair

The last image is the most risqué. A Hint to the Husbands, or, The Dresser Properly Dressed was printed in London in 1777, at the height (pun intended) of the big hair craze and the Macaroni fashions that are exaggerated here for comic effect. The older husband, dressed conservatively in a rather old-style outfit, bursts in on his wife while she is having her elaborate hair arranged by her young, handsome and fashionable hairdresser. Note the long and doubtless phallic pin she holds between her fingers. Behind the husband an amused maid raises her fingers to form cuckold’s horns, while on the wall at the back hangs a portrait in which the female sitter is suggestively slipping her hand through her skirts.

And for a modern take, what about the following? 

So, hairdressing is certainly close up and personal. The relationship is – and always has been – occasionally dangerous, sometimes titillating, and almost always trusting. And for now, I’ve no option but to keep snipping at my fringe while my untended bob grows ever longer. But at least we’re spared the experience of poor Lady Sackville – not to mention poor Lady Sackville’s stylist – who in 1788 ‘expired as her hair was dressing – and without serious illness, to be sure, else they would not have been in public, or her hair dressing!’

1. Untitled coloured engraving, no date (early nineteenth-century), Wellcome Library, London
2. Damn the Barber (detail), by Henry Bunbury (1750–1811), Wellcome Library, London
3. Sketches in a Shaving Shop (detail), by Richard Newton, 1791, Wellcome Library, London
4. Sweeney Todd, illustration from The String of Pearls, 1850, Wikimedia Commons
5. The Boarding-School Hair-Dresser, printed for Robert Sayer, 1786, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
6. A Hint to Married Men, published by Laurie & Whittle, 1794, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
7. A Hint to [the] Husbands, or, The Dresser, properly Dressed, printed for R. Sayer and J. Bennett, 1777, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
8. Untitled cartoon sourced from the internet, author unknown

 Gentleman’s Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, ed. Carl Bridenbaugh (Williamsburg, 1948)
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, ed. J.A. Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall (New York, 1986)
Shaun Lockes, Cutting Confidential: True Confessions and Trade Secrets of a Celebrity Hairdresser (London, 2007)
Vidal Sassoon, Vidal: The Autobiography (London, 2010)
Elizabeth Steele, Memoirs of Sophia Baddeley, 6 vols (London, 1787)
Cecil Aspinall-Oglander, Admiral’s Widow: Being the Life and Letters of the Hon. Mrs. Edward Boscawen from 1761 to 1805 (London, 1942)


Friday 10 April 2020

Imagine ... the Golden Road to Samarkand - by Lesley Downer

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the golden road to Samarkand.

Hassan: The Golden Journey to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) 

Imagine ... Khiva, the plaza in front of Kalta Minor Minaret ...
Now we're under lockdown and worried about the future, perhaps it's time for a little escape. Jump on my magic carpet and let me whisk you away to the Silk Road, with the help of James Elroy Flecker. He himself travelled as far as the Eastern Mediterranean but he never reached Samarkand and died at the age of thirty. His poem is one of the most powerful evocations there is of the mystery and allure of the east, of Central Asia and of travel. Ah, travel!

For a couple of thousand years, until the middle of the 18th century, a network of Silk Roads linked Europe to China, crisscrossing Persia and Central Asia and the lands that lay north of India. One of the main highways led through Khiva on to Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and points east.

These days these cities are in Uzbekistan. The very names still hold an irresistible allure.

Silk Road Tales I: Khiva 

Imagine ... the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa ...
Once upon a time there were various ways in which you might find yourself passing through the great gates of Khiva, between its mighty mud-walled battlements. You might arrive there in a caravan of merchants accompanied by a train of horses and camels laden with goods, though you would have to make it across the Karakum desert without being robbed or killed by the legions of bandits and tribesmen who infested the vast wastes. If you were unlucky, you might be captured and end up in Khiva’s famous slave market, a fate particularly prevalent among Russians from towns at the edge of the no-man’s land where the Khan’s lands crossed those of the Tsar.

In 1717, as Khivans will gleefully tell you, the Russian Prince Alexander Bekovitch was sent by Peter the Great to negotiate an alliance. Bekovitch was a Muslim prince from the Caucasus who had converted to Christianity and Peter thought he would make the perfect intermediary. Bekovitch struggled across the Karakum at the head of an army of 4000 infantry, cavalry and artillery plus several Russian merchants and 500 horses and camels. But as far as the Khan was concerned tiny Khiva and massive Russia were territories of roughly equal size and importance, and Bekovitch’s apostasy meant he was an infidel. Tricked into dividing up his troops, Bekovitch was killed alongside most of his men, with the few survivors being sold as slaves. Bekovitch’s head was sent as a gift to the Emir of Bukhara who hastily returned it. It ended up hanging above the gates of Khiva, adorned with a sign saying ‘Infidel’.

Grand old days - the Khan on his throne 
judging miscreants (reenactment) 
The first westerner actually to pass through those gates and see the bewitching rose pink city with his own eyes (apart from the thousands who were taken there as slaves, of course) was the Russian Captain Nikolai Muraviev a hundred years later, in 1819. ‘The city presents a very beautiful appearance,’ he wrote. He admired the palaces and well-tended gardens and the great mosque rising above the city’s forty foot walls, its blue-tiled dome topped with a massive golden ball that shimmered in the sunlight.

He met the Khan, who was six foot tall and of ‘a very striking appearance. ... His beard is short and red, his voice pleasant and he speaks distinctly, fluently and with dignity.’ He wore a turban and red robe and sat cross-legged on a Persian rug in a yurt.

Grand old days - the Khan in his palace
Muraviev’s task too was to negotiate an alliance and in that he had more success than Bekovitch. He also took a good look at the city and its defences and concluded that it was ripe for the plucking. While he was there some Russian slaves smuggled him a note, begging him at least to ensure that the Tsar knew of their plight.

The first Englishman to attempt the daunting journey was Lieutenant Arthur Conolly in 1831. He was intercepted by robbers in the Karakum desert and barely escaped with his life. It wasn’t till 1840 that the first British expedition rode through the gates, led by Captain James Abbott. By then the Russians were threatening Khiva and the Khan hoped for British help. Abbott explained that the best ploy would be to free the Russian slaves, thus depriving the Tsar of any excuse for attacking. Abbott in his turn came to grief in the desert and in the end it was left to Lieutenant Richmond Shakespeare to free them, including a beautiful nine-year-old girl whom the Khan had been hoping to keep for himself for his harem.

As you’ll know the Russians did finally succeed in occupying Khiva, which became part of Uzbekistan when the country was given its independence after the break up of the Soviet Union.

These days it’s no longer such a daunting task to get to Khiva, though if you choose to go by land it’s a good six hour drive through the desert. You enter through the West Gate where Bekovitch’s head once hung. Dominating the walled city is a glorious blue-tiled truncated minaret, intended to be the tallest in the world until the Khan who had commissioned it died. At the East Gate is the long corridor where the slaves were kept and the slave market took place and the bustling domed caravanserai where merchants traded their goods. It’s thrilling to see this small and perfect city wreathed with stories. 

Isfandiya Jurji Bahadur Khan
circa 1911 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin Gorskii
You can also visit the palace with its towering open air throne room walled with exquisitely-patterned blue and white tile work. The 163 rooms include the harem where the Khan kept his 4 wives, 10 eunuchs, one taster, one female chef and a changing congregation of forty concubines, whom he traded in every two or three years. Their lives were every bit as constrained as ours are! The concubines carried their worldly wealth - their jewellery - on their persons because they might be dismissed at any moment and there would be no question of going back to pack. Once a concubine was dismissed she went back to her family with her children, including her sons, many of whom later became advisors to their father, the Khan.

In another building there are photographs of the Khans with their woolly hats and big beards. Not that many made it into old age. The last, if I remember rightly, ended his days in St Petersburg.

From Khiva the Silk Road traveller went on to Bukhara and Samarkand. I’ll take you there in my next couple of posts. Hopefully we'll be out of lockdown by then.

A few of the Khan's concubines
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea ...

For the whole thrilling story of the opening of Central Asia, please read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk - a wonderful, gripping and absorbing book and perfect for lockdown reading.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more see

The photograph of Isfandiya Jurji Bahadur Khan by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin Gorskii is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are mine. 

Saturday 4 April 2020

Charcoal Burning - our woodland heritage

by Deborah Swift

“The charcoal burner has tales to tell.
He lives in the forest, alone in the forest,
He sits in the forest, alone in the forest,
And rabbits come up and they give him good morning,
And rabbits come up and say, ‘Beautiful morning’,
And the moon swings clear of the tall black trees,
And owls fly over and wish him good night.
Quietly over to wish him good night.”

A. A. Milne

As an art student way back in the 1970's I used to draw a lot in charcoal. It came in small white boxes, labeled 'Willow Charcoal' , but at the time I never really questioned where the charcoal came from or what it was. Later I used charcoal briquettes at family barbecues, and even ate charcoal biscuits when I had an upset stomach on my travels in India. Charcoal in England has a long history and is somewhat of an art form in itself, so here are a few pointers to this lovely craft.

Charcoal drawings from the Chauvet Cave

Charcoal History
The earliest examples of animals drawn in charcoal can be found in the Lascaux Caves, which date to approximately 15,000 BCE. Early Egyptians developed techniques using charcoal for writing on papyrus, and the Phoenicians discovered the antiseptic properties of activated charcoal and began using it to purify their water. A well known practice for any long sea voyage was to store water in barrels that had been charred.

Charcoal has been used since earliest times for medicinal purposes, such as aiding digestion, and as a tooth cleaner before the invention of toothpowder and toothpaste. In the 17th Century physicians used poultices made from charcoal and bread crumbs, or yeast, as well as giving patients charcoal powders to treat ulcers, acidity in the stomach, and nosebleeds.

In early crafts, charcoal was the traditional fuel of a blacksmith's forge because it burns much hotter than wood or coal and an intense heat is required to forge iron. Traditionally this craft was particularly common in the iron industries of the Weald, Forest of Dean and Lake District. In warfare, charcoal was also extensively used in the production of black powder, an ingredient of gunpowder, and more recently, fireworks.

The Trees used in Charcoal Making
Apart from willow, hazel and other softwoods from our native woodlands, Alder traditionally makes the best charcoal, and used to be used in gunpowder because it can be ground down very finely. Ash is usually set aside for firewood. Coppiced oak was frequently used, leaving the sturdier limbs for crafts like boat-building. Charcoal for fires was prized because it produced no odour or smoke and little ash, and had the advantage of providing intense heat, and long burning hours.

In years gone by, coppicing was a way of managing traditional English oak woodlands. The coppicing allows trees to put out new shoots from their stump. A coppiced wood was called a copse. In a copse, as well as charcoal, the bark he oak would be stripped for tanning leather, the long thin shoots used as poles for fencing, and the brushwood collected to make faggots or kindling for lighting fires. Oak would be coppiced every 16 – 20 years. In 1808, in the Teign Valley,  a coppice would fetch between £15 – £20 an acre. The bark would command a price of one shilling a hundredweight and the charcoal about 2 shillings a bushel. 

The Method
A core of brushwood would be tied to thick stake known as a ‘motty pin’ or ‘mottle peg’. Poles would then be stacked leaning in towards the centre and forming a cone a bit like a teepee. This was then covered with dampened turf. Holes were left to allow a draught to 'draw' the fire once it was lit. 
After that, the central stake was taken out, and the stack fired. The whole thing would then be sealed up, leaving the wood to slowly carbonize, a process which could take several days. When the pile showed small wisps of blue smoke, the charcoal was ready, the fire would be doused, and the charcoal taken out for use.

If you want to know more about charcoal burners, and watch a video of the traditional craft of charcoal burning today, you can find it here.

Pics from Wikipedia unless linked
Weald and Downland Open Air Museum