Friday 27 October 2023

Mr. Keynes' Revolution and Mr Keynes' Dance by E.J.Barnes. Review by Penny Dolan





The central character of E.J. Barnes’ two historical novels

is the economist John Maynard Keynes:  

‘transformative thinker, government adviser, financial speculator . . . and one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.’ 

                                             Mr Keynes' Revolution: The compelling historical novel about one of the ... 

The first, MR KEYNES REVOLUTION, creates a picture of the clever, complex man at the centre of the intellectual Bloomsbury group. Maynard has close relationships with the artist Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, her lover Duncan Grant and others as they move between their busy lives in Edwardian London and the artistic freedom of Charleston, a secluded farmhouse on the South Downs. This circle of friendship is suddenly disturbed when the homosexual Keynes falls in love with his Lilac Fairy, Lydia Lopokova, a Russian ballerina. Lydia, who has fled the Revolution, is kind, practical and worldly, and the sisters feel little empathy towards her.

Alongside the dramas of these and other characters, the novel follows Keynes’ public life, from when he walks out of the International WWI Paris Peace Talks in protest at the punitive terms imposed on the defeated Germany. Returning to his academic life in Cambridge, with his parents close by, Keynes starts developing the economic theory that will bring him back to political and economic attention.

I particularly enjoyed the way that the novel flowed between these private and public lives, illustrating the social impacts of the political clashes of these decades. Although the conflicts E.J. Barnes describes are less 'heroic' than scenes of soldiery, she shows that Maynard Keynes’ battles for sound economic practices were also relevant to the lives of small ‘s’ society.

                                                       Mr Keynes' Revolution: The compelling historical novel about one of the ...

Ther second novel, MR KEYNES’ DANCE, follows the now-married Keynes and Lydia as they face all the changes of the post war years. I had been waiting for this second novel to appear, and I was not disappointed.The pair move into Tilton, a farmhouse not for from Charleston, where they keep pigs, garden and grow vegetables. Vanessa is too jealous and Virginia too troubled by snobbery for them to act as any more than social friends. Will the group ever be at peace again?

 Vintage 30s Maid Costume / 30s Servant Dress / Downton Abbey / 1930s ... 

Meanwhile, a contrasting thread continues through the interweaving the lives of the young servant girls, often moved between one or other of the ‘Bloomsbury’ homes. Lydia herself is often more at ease with servants than with Chartwell and company. Drawn from working-class backgrounds in Wales and London, the novels show the servants hopes and social awakenings developing during the decade.

The second novel takes place against the wider powerful political changes arriving between the wars: the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression and others. They all drive Keynes onwards, to working harder and harder, analysing fresh economic theories and solutions. 

                                                                                                         1926 United Kingdom general strike - Wikipedia

We see the world beyond Sussex and London: visits to Lydia’s mother in Russia show them that Stalin’s regime is far removed from the idealised dream of Communism and Keynes sees Hitler and the anti-semitic Nazi party taking control in demoralised Germany. Finally, as the century grows darker, Lydia and Keynes’ love of theatre, music and the arts become even more essential to them and to the futures of others.

I was really pleased to have read MR KEYNES DANCE and MR KEYNES REVOLUTION

Through her own economic studies and knowledge, E.J.Barnes has set each title neatly within an interesting historical frame, creating a warm, compelling picture of an unlikely marriage, and of a pair whose different pasts give a worldly and touching tolerance to their deep love for each other. Such a pleasure.

 Penny Dolan 


                                                              Lydia as Petrushka

You can read my earlier History Girls interview with E.J. Barnes here.

Friday 20 October 2023

Caroline Herschel - by Sue Purkiss

 I've been interested for some time in the network of artists and scientists who coalesced around the wealthy, charismatic and imposing figure of Sir Joseph Banks. Banks launched his career (which was initially as a botanist) first by voyaging to Newfoundland and Labrador to study their natural history, and then by travelling with Captain Cook, in 1768, to explore the southern seas. He later became a friend of King George 111, was instrumental in developing the botanic gardens at Kew, and, among many other interests and activities, became the President of the Royal Society (the national academy for the advancement of science).

He was very good at spotting and encouraging talent. And one of the young scientists who came to his notice was William Herschel. William was an astronomer - as was his younger sister, Caroline.

William came from a family of musicians in Hanover. He moved to England in 1757 and initially worked as a musician, first in the north and then in Bath, where he became organist at the Octagon Chapel and Director of Public Concerts. It was during this time that he invited his younger sister Caroline to come and live with him - his brother Alexander also shared the house, which is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.

A silhouette of Caroline as a young woman.

The Herschels' house, now a museum. 

Caroline was seventeen when she arrived in England. She had been very close to William and must have been devastated when he left home - particularly as her mother, who really only had time for her oldest son, Jacob, neglected the child. Caroline was treated as a servant: she contracted typhoid as a child, as a result of which her growth was stunted; she was tiny, just a little over four feet tall. But things took a turn for the better when William came back to Hanover and rescued her. He taught her to play music and to sing - so well that she was offered a post with an opera company in Birmingham.

But by this time, Caroline and William were both becoming fascinated with astronomy. (I've noticed that there's often a connection between music and science, though I don't know enough about either to understand why this is.) William learnt how to grind and polish lenses, and built increasingly large telescopes which he used to sweep the night sky. Caroline was initially his recorder and note taker, but she progressed to making her own observations.

The garden behind the museum.

One day, a friend of Banks named William Watson noticed Herschel in the street in Bath, making observations with his telescope. Intrigued, he fell into conversation with the astronomer, and later brought him to the notice of both Banks and the Astronomer Royal, Neville Maskelyne. Not long after that, Herschel discovered a new planet, which was eventually named Uranus. This caused a great stir, not just in Britain, but further afield on the continenet too. Meanwhile Caroline was making her own discoveries in the night sky: she specialised in finding comets.

In 1782, they both moved to Datchet, and initially William, but later Caroline, came to be employed as astronomers by the King. Caroline was the first woman in England to be honoured with a government position, and the first to be given a salary as an astronomer. Imagine, for a child neglected by her own mother to have achieved so much, and in a country where she arrived not knowing a word of English - it must have felt wonderful!

But there was a shadow over this period of her life. Hitherto, Caroline had worked closely with her beloved brother, and had managed his house for him too. But now, William decided to marry - and everything had to change. Fortunately, Caroline's salary, though not large, allowed her to be independent. But these were difficult years for her; so much so that she later destroyed her journals for this period.

Caroline in later life.

But eventually, she became reconciled to the marriage, and to William's wife, Mary - and she delighted in their son, John, with whom she later collaborated when he too became an astronomer. She lived a very long life, dying at ninety eight.

The Herschels' house in Bath is now the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, and I went to visit it a few months ago. It's not that easy to find - it doesn't really advertise its presence - but it's well worth seeking out: it's quite charming, and really gives you a sense of what life was like there for Caroline and her brother. Somehow, I feel very fond of Caroline. She must have been a remarkable woman to have achieved so much, after such a difficult start, and in a time when high achievers were generally men.

Friday 13 October 2023

The Man Who Slew Wat Tyler by Laurie Graham


William Walworth is remembered chiefly as the man who slew Wat Tyler in an impetuous and possibly unnecessary show of concern for the safety of a fourteen year-old king, Richard II. It earned him an immediate knighthood, on the spot, at Smithfield. That was in 1381.

Ten years earlier, the Carthusian House of the Salutation of the Mother of God, had had less dramatic but nonetheless genuine reason to be grateful to Walworth. He had provided money towards the construction of the first cell for a choir monk.

The establishment of a Carthusian monastery just outside the walls of the City of London was an unusual project. Carthusian houses were traditionally built in isolated locations. But, the idea of a house of constant prayer alongside the place where so many victims of the 1348 plague lay buried was a popular one. It had the approval of the then king (Edward III). The Priory of St Bartholomew donated the land. The next thing that was required was money to start building. And so began a fund-raising campaign among the wealthiest Londoners. 

The driving force was Sir Walter Manny, a courtier and member of the royal inner circle. He had been Queen Philippa’s Esquire Carver and the Keeper of her Hounds. After many bureaucratic delays, Sir Walter recruited William Walworth to be a donor of funds. Walworth was, at this point in his life, on the up and up. He had prospered as a saltfish merchant and member of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and had recently become Member of Parliament for the City of London.

Manny and Walworth pooled resources and in 1371, construction began on a cell for the monastery’s first Prior. Not, perhaps, the kind of monk’s cell you might imagine. More like a little two-storey cottage. That became known as Cell A, now lost, thanks to the depredations of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequent repurposing of the site. The following year William Walworth paid for another cell to be built; Cell B, of which remnants - its doorway, tiled threshold and food hatch - have survived in what is now The Charterhouse. The floor tiles are Flemish, as was Walter Manny. Perhaps he gave his friend Walworth some decorating suggestions? 
The monastery took 60 years to complete and during that time Walworth sponsored a further four cells, either directly from his own wealth or by persuading acquaintances to leave bequests.

At the end of May 1381, with the population in revolt against a poll tax and Wat Tyler’s band of Kentish protestors heading to London, young King Richard bolted to the safety of the Tower. William Walworth, at that time Lord Mayor of the City, called out the City Guard, but the men of Kent pressed on and, on June 15th, assembled at Smithfield to make their demands to the King.


The meeting seemed to start well. The King was amenable. What happened next is contested. Did Wat Tyler become over-familiar with the King? Did he spit, disrespectfully, in his direction? Did one of the King’s entourage respond by insulting Tyler? In a heated moment someone made the first move, perhaps Tyler, perhaps Walworth who had ridden out to Smithfield with the King.

According to one version of the story, William Walworth despatched Wat Tyler immediately with the thrust of a dagger. Another version is that Tyler, seriously wounded, was carried into St Bart’s hospital, but was soon dragged from there by Walworth’s men and publicly executed. Whatever the actual timeline, Tyler perished and his dispirited followers went home. It was effectively the end of the revolt.

Was Walworth a dagger-happy oppressor of working men or a good citizen and brave defender of his monarch? Whatever the truth, he was rewarded with a knighthood and a pension and is today counted as one of London’s worthies. The north-eastern pavilion on Holborn Viaduct, linking the viaduct to Farringdon Road by stairs, is named after him and bears his statue.


And, at the Charterhouse, though his coat of arms has been erased, we still have the doorway to Cell B, whose occupants prayed for the mortal soul and peaceful repose of their benefactor, until 160 years of monastic life came to a bloody Tudor end. 





Friday 6 October 2023

Octopus dreams: Japan, Stonehenge, Knossos ~ by Lesley Downer

takotsubo ya                 Octopus pot
hakanaki yume o          Fleeting dreams
natsu no tsuki               Beneath the summer moon

                                                    Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694)

Minoan octopus vase,
around 1500 BC

Husband (in octopus tee
shirt) meets dogū at the
Heraklion Archaeological
Cultural echoes spring up tentacle-like in the most unexpected of places. Japan and Stonehenge, Japan and Knossos - who would have thought it?

This summer there have been exhibitions at Stonehenge and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete, celebrating the parallels between the marvellous Jōmon culture of Japan and these two very distant yet in surprising ways not dissimilar island cultures. I was lucky enough to visit both.

Jōmon flame pot at 
Heraklion Archaeological
Museum (3000 - 2000 BC)

Jōmon - prosperous hunter-gatherers and the world's first potters
Fifteen thousand years ago the world was engulfed in an ice age. Much of the earth’s water had solidified into ice and sea levels had fallen by several hundred feet. What are now the islands of Japan were part of mainland Asia, connected to present day Siberia and Korea by vast tracts of countryside, plains and hills. It was cold and stormy. Huge long-tusked long-haired ‘Naumann’s’ elephants lumbered around, along with giant deer, horses, tigers, brown bears and wolves, trailed by hardy nomadic people looking for animals to hunt and fruit and vegetables to forage.

Around 14,500 BC, long before anyone else thought of doing so (except possibly the Chinese), some of these people took to moulding the clayey soil and making it into small pots, useful for carrying grain. This was a quite extraordinary development; pots are heavy to lug around when you’re on the move. Millennia later these nomads came to be called Jōmon - ‘rope design’ - after the patterns they impressed on their pots.
Jōmon flame pot at
Circles of Stone
at Stonehenge

Then temperatures began to rise. The ice melted and the sea levels rose, turning what had been the extreme edge of the Asian continent into a string of islands. The weather turned balmy. The descendents of those hardy nomads found themselves in a Garden of Eden, enjoying a lush temperate climate. Most lived not far from the sea where fish and seafood could be snatched straight from the water, collected or speared. 

There were mountains where animals roamed and forests overflowing with roots, fruits, leaves and berries. The Jōmon knew about farming; their neighbours across the water in Korea were farmers. But they themselves didn’t need to break their backs hoeing the soil day and night, for they had abundant food all around them. Most peoples didn’t settle down until the advent of farming; but these hunter-gatherers were so prosperous that many stopped wandering and formed communities.

dogū at Heraklion
Life was so easy that they didn’t need to send everyone out hunting and foraging. Specialist trades developed. Artisans stayed home and built houses or made pots. By now they were using the pots for cooking and serving large communal feasts. And the pots they made became bigger and bigger and more and more gloriously elaborate.

One settlement, at Sannai Maruyama in the far north of the main island, present day Honshu, made up of 700 large thatched houses built around fire pits, was occupied for 1500 years, from 3500 to 2000 BC. The inhabitants dined on mackerel, yellowtail, tuna, salmon, shark and shellfish from the sea, rivers and lagoons, and deer and boar which they hunted with dogs and with stone arrowheads glued to wooden shafts. They ate chestnuts, acorns, walnuts, wild grapes, kiwi fruit, gourds and beans and hunted rabbits and flying squirrels for their warm fur.

Ōyu stone circles
And from 2500 BC to 300 BC they also made amazing figurines - dogū. These were mostly female and may have represented an earth goddess or were used in fertility or healing rituals.

Some 2000 years down the line, these communities began to break up. Some of these smaller communities built stone circles. Around 2200 to 1700 BC, at Ōyu and Isedotai, not too far from Sannai Maruyama, people carried stones from nearby river beds and laid them out with great precision in concentric circles. 

Ōyu stone circles
Most were laid flat with standing stones in the centre that aligned with pillars at the outer edges to mark the sunrise at the summer solstice and made it possible to calculate the winter solstice and the spring equinox and the movements of the sun. Here people gathered to carry out seasonal ceremonies, conduct rituals and bury their dead.

Stone circles: the Stonehenge builders and the Jōmon
Around the same time, 3000 to 2500 BC, on another small island, Neolithic farmers were dragging massively heavy bluestones 180 miles, 290 kilometres, from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain. 

These two cultures on opposite sides of the globe had no contact between them yet had striking similarities. Both made stone circles, used flaked stone tools, had huge feasts and made beautiful pots. Circles of Stone, a wonderful exhibition at Stonehenge which closed on September 3rd, spotlit these cultures.

While the Jōmon were fishermen, hunters and gatherers, in Britain the weather was far less clement and life as a huntergatherer was rough. Around 4000 BC people started farming. The Stonehenge builders cultivated wheat and barley and had cattle, pigs and sheep. They ate beef and roasted pigs over open fires including piglets, which they ate at midwinter. They also gathered wild foods like their Japanese contemporaries.

They used far bigger stones for their stone circles and stood them upright with lintels resting on the top, akin to the torii gate at a Shinto shrine. Like the Jōmon stone circles they were laid out with great care. 

Minoan and Jōmon figures

Both the Stonehenge builders and the Jōmon, it seems, followed and celebrated the passage of the sun, particularly during the summer solstice, and gathered at these stone circles at key times in the annual calendar for festival and rituals. But the Stonehenge builders did not make human figures like the Jōmon dogū.

島国 shima guni, island countries: the Minoans and the Jōmon
The Minoans developed their civilisation a few millennia later, between about 2000 and 1000 BC. They didn’t build stone circles but huge and splendid palaces painted with frescoes. But as an island nation they had much in common with the Jōmon, who were still thriving across the world in Japan. Legacies of Beauty: Archaeological Treasures from Japan, a wonderful exhibition at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum which closed on September 24th, celebrates the parallels.

Minoan and Japanese haniwa 
horses (6th century AD)

The Stonehenge builders, the Jōmon and the Minoans were all island dwellers. The Japanese call it shima guni, 島国. Wherever you are the sea is never far away. You are well aware of the rest of the world out there and of cultural developments outside your own small community. Both the Minoans and the Jōmon traded extensively. The Jōmon traded with Hokkaido, Korea and China while the Minoans were the centre of an extensive trade network crisscrossing the Eastern Mediterranean.

Both cultures celebrated the sea. Octopuses coil their tentacles across Minoan pots while the triton shell became an essential religious implement in Japan. And both created images of life-nurturing women, probably used in prayers for safe childbirth and fertility.
Minoan goddess

For all their creativity all these cultures died out, leaving ruins large and small, as will no doubt happen to us too.

For more on the Jōmon there’s a wonderful British Museum catalogue, The Power of Dogu, Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan, edited by Simon Kaner. You can also see Jōmon pots at the British Museum.

The Jōmon also feature all too briefly in my The Shortest History of Japan, to be published next June.

Circles of Stone ran from September 30 2022 to September 3rd 2023 at the Stonehenge Visitors’ Centre

Legacies of Beauty: Archaeological Treasures from Japan was at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum from June 2nd 2023 to Sunday September 24th 2023

The pictures of the Ōyu stone circles are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are by me, taken at the two exhibitions, at Stonehenge and Heraklion.

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