Friday, 17 January 2020

A very long way from Rome - by Ruth Downie

If there’s a museum around, I’m usually to be found in the Roman section. But Roman sections are hard to come by in Hong Kong, where a recent visit forced me out of the comfort zone to discover the treasures beyond. Here are a few favourites.

The Time Ball Tower

This is set in a complex of Victorian buildings now renovated for modern use and collectively known as “1881 Heritage

Tower with ball on pole above it
 If you know what a Time Ball does and why (and they’ve been around since 1829) then skip the next section. If you share my former bafflement, read on.

There’s a clue in the location: the Time Ball Tower is set on a hilltop that would have been visible to most of the ships in the busy Hong Kong Harbour below. And that’s the point. In order to navigate longitude, a ship’s captain needed to know exactly what the time was, and until the mid 18th century, timepieces were notoriously unreliable at sea. If you haven’t read “Longitude”, Dava Sobel’s account of how the inventor John Harrison solved that particular problem, then I thoroughly recommend it. But even Harrison’s marvellous marine chronometer would only work if it was set to the right time in the first place.

For many years ships visiting Hong Kong would set the time by the sound of a noon-day cannon. Well, maybe not by the sound. Because as anyone who’s watched distant fireworks will know, sound doesn’t travel as fast as light. The noise of the cannon could take up to three vital seconds to reach the far ends of the harbour, so what the sailors actually did was watch for the puff of smoke. A more accurate signal, but worryingly ethereal.
Mechanism of time ball

It was a British naval officer who invented the visual clue of the time-ball: a huge metal ball to be hoisted up a pole and then dropped at a precise time for all to see. Hong Kong adopted the idea in 1884 and the ball fell daily at 1.00 pm sharp, as determined by the nearby observatory.

Thus it was with great anticipation that Husband and I rushed over to the refurbished tower at 12.55pm, only to wait… and wait… and wait, until our mobile phones told us the moment had long passed. What we didn’t register until later was the day. The original time ball did not fall on Sundays or public holidays, and this was a Sunday. Time and tide might wait for no man, but the sychronising of timepieces evidently does.

The Odometer

pull along wooden cart with two figures and a drum on topHong Kong Maritime Museum is always a treat, and they currently have an exhibition on map-making. Fundamental to making a decent map is being able to measure distances. While the Romans seem to have had some sort of wheeled vehicle with cogs that dropped pebbles through holes, the Chinese approach was far more stylish.

Here’s a replica of a machine in use during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD). After a set distance the little men on top bang their drum. Much more fun than pebbles in a box, no?

Fishing-net weights
Narrow-waisted stones

These are from the Hong Kong Museum of History and were in use in Neolithic times. Such a clever and simple idea. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I’ve never seen anything like them before.
Replica boat with net weighted down by stones

The Rat Bin

The story of these grim but highly practical objects is told in the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.
Black metal bin with hinged lid marked RAT BIN H 525

In 1894 Hong Kong was ravaged by plague. In the fight against the spread of disease, numbered bins were placed on lampposts all over the city for the collection of dead rats in disinfecting carbolic acid. Bins were emptied twice a day and each creature was marked with the number of the bin it had come from before being inspected. Any signs of plague infection in the rats gave the authorities a head start in surveying the local area for human cases.

(Incidentally, the bacterium responsible for plague was first discovered in Hong Kong during this outbreak. It’s named Yersina Pestis after one of its identifiers - Alexandre Yersin.)

St Paul’s, and a few St Nicholases

On a more cheerful note: some major cultural fusion in nearby Macau.

foreground - plastic Santa figures in garden. Background - carved stone facade of church
In the background: the stunning façade of St Paul’s. It’s all that remains of a church and college built in the 17th century by exiled Japanese Christians and Chinese craftsmen in a Portuguese-controlled territory under the direction of an Italian Jesuit. In the foreground: heralding a very twenty-first century Christmas.


Something familiar

And finally - there wasn’t a total absence of Romans.
Roman glass vessels

These familiar-looking glass vessels (now in the Maritime Museum) arrived sometime between the second and ninth century, presumably via a trade route. And to demonstrate that the travel wasn’t all one way, recent work on Roman-era cemeteries in London and Somerset suggests that some of the occupants had origins in East Asia.

I wonder what their favourite British finds would have been?

Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. To find out more, visit

Friday, 10 January 2020

Felicia Skene: writer & philanthropist by Janie Hampton

Felicia Skene, left, with her niece Zoe Thomson, wife of the Archbishop of York,
and her brother William Forbes Skene, Historiographer Royal of Scotland, in 1892.

When I first moved to Oxford I rather disapproved of the hostel next door, with its Victorian attitude to young, single mothers. I was not surprised when our local vicar told me that it was run by the ‘Skene Moral Welfare Association’. I then learned that the Skene in question was Felicia Mary Frances Skene, one of the most radical women in nineteenth century Oxford. I was even more amazed to discover that she was my grandfather’s great aunt, known in the family as ‘Fifi’. I wanted to know more.
Felicia Mary Frances Skene as a young woman

Her father James, was a wealthy Scottish lawyer and amateur artist whose engravings illustrated Walter Scott’s novels. Born in 1821, Fifi comforted Scott with fairy stories the night in 1825 when he lost everything. Roused by her cheerful spirit, he decided to fight bankruptcy and work through his debts. Scott wrote that Fifi’s parents ‘bring so much old-fashioned kindness and good humour with them that they must be always welcome guests.’ They were also enterprising and resourceful.
James Skene believed that travel was the best form of education, and so led his family on a grand tour around Europe. Fifi was taught the piano in France by Liszt, whom she described as ‘a wild-looking, long-haired excitable man’. Between 1838 and 1845 the family lived in Athens where Fifi sang with the Greek royal family. During an expedition on horseback across the Marathon plain, she spent the night in a shack with Albanian peasants and their pigs. At the age of twenty-four she brought her young nieces aged ten and eleven (one of them my great grandmother Janie) home from Athens by ship and train via Constantinople. Arriving in England she wrote her first book Wayfaring Sketches among the Turks and Christians, first in French and then in English. Her observations of conditions in slave markets, galley- ships and an Ottoman Pasha’s harem made it a bestseller.

Fifi’s father James Skene of Rubsilaw, 1775–1864,
 with two of his grandchildren.
The Skene method of education obviously worked. Her older brother James Henry married Rhalou, a Greek aristocrat and became a British Consul to Aleppo. Fifi’s brother George was Professor of Law at the University of Edinburgh and Sheriff of Glasgow. Another brother William became the Historiographer Royal of Scotland, writing the first academic history from Scotland’s point of view. One of her sisters married the Swedish ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Paris, and the other married a Greek archaeologist– the brother of her sister-in-law.
Fifi settled in Oxford, where her social views were considered overly progressive, especially for a woman. Her 1866 novel Hidden Depths was an exposure of prostitution in Oxford inspired by the injustices she had witnessed in the prison and women’s reformatories. The Athenaeum criticised her writing as ‘unrepresentative of society’, The London Review disapproved of the message and Mudie’s Library considered the subject-matter altogether too provocative. The Lesters: A Family Record warned readers of the dangers of alcohol but was denounced by Saturday Review as being ‘cheap melodramatic horror’ and ‘almost beneath criticism’ while Academy dismissed the novel as 'dull and destined for failure'.
Despite many offers, the auburn-haired and boisterous Fifi was far too busy to bother with marriage. She preferred to carve out her own life as a writer and philanthropist than belong to a man. Fluent in both French and Greek, and possessing a photographic memory, she published more than twenty books under the pseudonyms of Oxonesis, Francis Scougal and Erskine Moir. Her interest in the high-church ‘Oxford Movement’, inspired a theological work The Divine Master, which ran to eleven editions. She wrote for Blackwood’s, Cornhill and Macmillan's Magazines, Quiver, Temple Bar and Good Words, which had a circulation of 100,000 and featured contributions by Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope.
Fifi’s 1865 anonymous pamphlet, ‘Penitentiaries and Reformatories’ on the humiliation of ‘fallen women’ whom society ‘sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that received with open arms the very men on whom they sinned’. (University of Indiana's Victorian Women Writers Project)
Fifi was a deeply religious and principled woman and used the income from her books and articles to finance her philanthropic work. Her biographer, Edith Rickards, wrote in 1902 that ‘it was her rule throughout her long life never to spend on herself what she gained from her writings, partly from her natural love of giving, partly from an old-fashioned idea that it was an undignified thing for a lady to earn money for her own personal advantage.’

'The Skene Arms', left, in St Michael’s Street, Oxford.

For most of her life, Fifi lived in St Michael’s Street in the centre of Oxford. It’s nickname was ‘The Street of Seven Deadly Sins’. Her home was known as ‘The Skene Arms’, because it was always open to beggars, clergymen, prostitutes, politicians and students. In her Cornhill Magazine article ‘Ethics of the Tramp’ she wrote that like her parrots, men of the road should roam free and never be incarcerated. She braved the wrath of local pimps and drunken husbands by finding refuge for women fleeing prostitution and domestic violence.
Fifi, Tatters and Rev. Algernon Barrington Simeon,
the first Warden of St Edward’s School,
whom she nursed though diphtheria, 1875.
After years of impromptu visits to Oxford Prison accompanied by Tatters, her Skye terrier, Fifi became England’s first official female Prison Visitor. She insisted on complete confidentiality and demanded that male and female prisoners be housed separately, for the protection of the women. On their release, she gave prisoners a hearty breakfast and a reference for employment. She even organised marriages to legitimatize the children of ‘fallen women’. Independently of any political movement, she fought for prisons to be used for rehabilitation; for the abolition of capital punishment; and for the decriminalization of suicide. She also campaigned against female inequality, animal vivisection and religious intolerance. When the Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, asked her advice on the new theory of evolution, she told him that Darwin’s discovery was true, and compatible with Christianity. 
Fifi helped found St Edward’s School for the sons of poor clergymen and dug the first sod of earth for its new buildings in North Oxford. With Dr Henry Acland, Fifi trained nurses to deal with cholera and smallpox outbreaks in Oxford. But when she offered her nurses to Florence Nightingale for the war in the Crimea, all but three were turned down for being ‘too working class.’

Fifi, 1821-1899, in old age.

Fifi died of bronchitis in 1899 and was buried in St Thomas Church, near Oxford railway station. A century later the assets of the Skene Moral Welfare Association were redistributed among Oxford’s social housing associations. In old age, Fifi had said of herself, ‘I am like the Martyr’s Memorial – everybody knows me and no-one is interested me.’ Beyond Oxford, she has largely been forgotten, but in 2002 a blue plaque was erected outside her home, now a hostel for single men. The plaque describes Fifi as ‘Prison reformer and friend of the poor’ but there is no mention of her literary achievements.
At times I have felt that my own career, which is split between writing popular history books and international development, confuses people. Great Aunt Fifi demonstrated that a woman can have as many different careers as she likes.
 Some of her titles: Wayfaring sketches among the Greeks and Turks, and on the shores of the Danube by a seven years resident in Greece, 1849. The Isles of Greece, and other poems, 1843. Use and Abuse,  a tale, 1849. The Inheritance of Evil or, The Consequence of marrying a deceased wife’s sister, 1849. The Tutor's Ward, 1851.  The Divine Master, 1852. S. Alban’s, or, the Prisoners of Hope, 1853.  Hidden Depths ,1866. Still and Deep, 1875. Memoir of Alexander, Bishop of Brechin, 1876. Raymond, 1876.  Life of Alexander Lycurgus: archbishop of the Cyclades, 1877. More than Conqueror , 1878. The Shadow of the Holy Week, 1883. A Strange Inheritance, 1886. The Lesters: a Family Record, 1887. Through the Shadows: a Test of the Truth, 1888. Awakened. A tale in nine chapters, 1888. Dewdrops: selections from writings of the saints,1888. Scenes from a Silent World, or, Prisons and their Inmates, 1889.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Matisse, Cinema and the French Riviera, by Carol Drinkwater

Sorry about the glare on the pictures' glass. I took these myself today while the sun was shining and I couldn't find an angle that blotted it out. The above are two of my many favourites of Henri Matisse's work. The first is from his Cut Outs and the second is a Still Life painting. Both are inspired by the colours, light and vegetation here on the Côte d'Azur.

I am fortunate to live in such a special corner of the world.

Back when the French Riviera was little more than olive groves and a series of fishing villages bobbing at the edge of the Mediterranean, some of Europe's leading artists were settling here or finding the means to sojourn here for months on end, to take advantage of our extraordinary light.

                                           View of country fields, outside Nice, Henri Matisse

Here, below, is a photograph of the 17th-century Genoese villa now reinvented as the Matisse Museum, which is in Cimiez, a once-upon-a-time bourgeois neighbourhood of Nice, inland up behind the coastal strip of the city. It houses a permanent Matisse exhibition as well as offering a range of other exhibitions throughout the year.
Henri Matisse lived in Cimiez at the Regina building from 1938 onwards. (He first arrived in Nice in 1917). He is buried with his wife in the cemetery of Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez.  So, it is fitting that this grand property in Cimiez is dedicated to his work and life as an artist.

(A little aside here: The Regina building was constructed for Queen Victoria who adored the French Riviera and wintered in Nice between 1897 and 1899). In its heyday the Regina was considered one of the most glamorous buildings along this coast. Matisse lived in on the third floor.

Nice, as the capital of the French Riviera, has also been known as the Hollywood of France. Not only because it offers sunshine and palm trees but because it has been the location where several French cinema masterpieces were produced.

Entrance to La Victorine Studios.

In 1919, to compete with Paris as a major European filmmaking hub and to compete with Hollywood, a city also set on the coast and blessed with a sublime climate, the Victorine studios were conceived. These studios and the city of Nice have played an important role in French filmmaking. Since its inception, more than eight hundred films have been shot out of La Victorine. Amongst the stars who have worked here can be counted Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant,  David Niven, Michael Caine, Catherine Deneuve and Lauren Bacall, to name but a few. David Lean died at the Victorine during pre-production of his last and never-completed film, Nostromo.

During WWII, when France was partially occupied by the Germans, this area, because it was in the Free Zone, became even more attractive to filmmakers. Many of the artists who could not work freely under the scrutiny of the Nazis fled to the south. Here, they were at liberty to make films. After WWII, since 1946 when Cannes held its inaugural world-renowned film festival, this region has attracted many of the greatest names in world cinema.

Poster for the first Cannes Film festival

(I even auditioned myself for a film shot here. Day for Night or La Nuit Americaine directed by François Truffaut, meeting the great man in London.)

Les Enfants du Paradis, signed by Michel Carné, To Catch a Thief, directed by Alfred Hitchock, were both shot here during the studio's golden age.

From 1975 to 1983, while Nice was under the governance of the notoriously corrupt mayor, Jean Médicine, the studios began to fall into decline, or rather its reputation became muddied with stories of local corruption, Mafia interference, neglect. Mid-eighties, the studios were sold to actor Michael Douglas and his brother, Joel, who came away from the experience with little to show on their production belt. From thereon, the studios knew several proprietors but little glory. The place was used as the base for high-budget commercials shot here but not much was made that could be considered quality cinema. In 2017, rather than continue to watch this decline, the city of Nice bought the studios, returned to it its original name of 'Victorine' and this year celebrates its first centenary with an eye, we hope, to better times ahead.

It is not surprising, given a century and more of filmmakers and artists congregating along this coastline, that the work of one influenced the other. Famously, there have been exhibitions - an excellent one I went to at the Tate Modern in London charting the influences of Picasso and Matisse on one another's work. They lived a few kilometres from one another, were friends and friendly rivals.

We have this drawing above our bed. Picasso, 1952. 

I had at first mistaken it for a Matisse.

                                                 Henri Matisse

There have been many articles and books written, also exhibitions, such as the Matisse Picasso I saw at the Tate Modern in 2002, all concentrating on the influence the artists of the Côte d'Azur have had on one another. Or the influence this famous light we are bathed in down here on a daily basis even now in mid-winter, has had on so many of their works. However, I think the influence the septième art, the seventh art, cinema, has had on the French Riviera artists is a new angle.

La Nouvelle Vague of French cinema which included directors such as Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, Jaques Demy, Agnes Varda (who died this year) cited Henri Matisse as one of the important influences of their work.

Matisse was an avid cinema-goer. Now, the city of Nice in a fascinating exhibition looks at how film images have influenced Henri Matisse and his work.

The exhibition, CINÉMATISSE, runs at the Musée Matisse until 5th January 2020.

Happy New Year to all our wonderful History Girls and Happy New Year to all our readers.

Poster for the exhibition at the Massena Museum in Nice.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Angelica Kauffman by Miranda Miller

   My eighth novel, Angelica, Paintress of Minds, will be published by Barbican Press in June. to coincide with an exhibition of her work at the Royal Academy.
   A few years ago I had the good fortune to be awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the Courtauld Institute, then housed in Somerset House. I became fascinated by the history of the building itself and by the story of the foundation of the Royal Academy there in 1768. In the library, deep in the basement, I found two excellent books: James Fenton’s School of Genius, a wonderful introduction to the eighteenth century art world in London, and Angelica Gooden’s biography of Angelica Kauffman, Miss Angel. Until then I only knew her paintings from visits to Kenwood House.
   Angelica’s mother was Swiss and her father, an unsuccessful painter, was Austrian. She grew up in her father’s studio and he soon realised that she was immensely talented. He used to ask her not to sign her paintings and would pass them off as his own. Other successful painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, were also the daughters of painters; without such a background it was very hard for women to acquire an artistic education. Angelica was a prodigy, as can be seen from this self portrait she did when she was thirteen.

   In addition to being a talented artist Angelica had a beautiful singing voice. This painting dramatizes the decision she had to make in her youth to choose between painting and singing. All her life she performed as a good amateur singer and played the harpsichord. The great classical scholar Winckelmann said of her, ‘she sings with our best virtuosi.”

   After establishing herself as a painter in Italy Angelica came to London in 1766, when she was twenty-five. She became so successful that a word was coined, Angelicamad. She painted Queen Charlotte and other members of the royal family and her work was reproduced in engravings, as cameos by Wedgwood, on teapots and on Worcester, Meissen and Derby porcelain. The new invention of transfer printing made these items much cheaper and she gained an international reputation. Her popularity had a price; male artists could do as they liked but ‘paintresses’ always had to be decorous or risk losing their aristocratic patrons. Angelica was under enormous pressure to behave as ‘Miss Angel,’ the affectionate name her friend Joshua Reynolds gave her. Astonishingly, she was so well liked and respected that she survived the potential scandal of her first bigamous marriage to a fake Count. 

    I stared at this painting by Zoffany of the life drawing class in Old Somerset House and was intrigued to see that portraits of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were on the wall, staring down at the proceedings like ancestors. Although they were both alive and founder members of the Royal Academy, as women they were not allowed to attend life drawing classes there because respectable ladies were not supposed to look at a naked man.
   After fifteen triumphant and lucrative years in London, Angelica was terrified (as a  Catholic) by the Gordon Riots and she decided to return to Italy with her second husband, Zucchi, a Venetian artist.
    I discovered that Angelica spent her last twenty-five years in Rome, a city where I lived in my twenties and which I love. 
    In my novel Angelica, as an old lady, is living in her house at the top of the Spanish steps. As she looks back on her life she is afraid of the new century which is destroying the world she knew and finds herself isolated because her husband and most of her friends have died or left Rome. She has a valuable art collection and expects the soldiers of Napoleon, who she detests, to arrive at any minute and loot it.
   In her studio, Angelica stares at her self portraits and relives her journey from a poor background to international fame. She draws us into her fascinating past through her self portraits and the portraits she has painted of her friends, including Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe. This is a novel about a gifted and powerful woman with a kind heart. Like us, she lives at a time of bewildering change and fears the unknown future.
   Slowly, my interest developed into a passionate engagement with Angelica and the many interesting people she painted and befriended. Every time I encountered a new name - Reynolds, Canova, Goethe, Madame de Stael and many more - I had to stop writing my novel and read a book, or several books, about them. Thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation I was able to return to Rome and also to visit Weimar to learn more about Goethe, with whom I believe she was unrequitedly in love.   This is the portrait she did of him, which Goethe disliked because he didn't think it made him look heroic enough.

   In order to make a successful career as an artist Angelica had to battle against powerful waves of misogyny. Those battles are still being fought; it was not until 1936 that another woman, Laura Knight, was elected as an RA. Finally, generations of talented women artists are beginning to be recognised. This is the right moment to rediscover Angelica Kauffman’s life and work.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Shot at Dawn. By Judith Allnatt

Private Henry Burden, a Northumberland Fusilier, was shot at 4 a.m. on 21st July 1915 having been found guilty of desertion. He was just seventeen years old.

Like many young men keen for adventure and caught up in the patriotic rush to war, he had lied about his age in order to join up. Once sent overseas, he lost friends at the Battle of Belwaarde Ridge, experienced nerve shattering barrages of shelling and was sent to a military hospital to recover. On the same afternoon that he was discharged, he was sent forward with his battalion to the front line. Burden left his post, he said, to visit a neighbouring battalion to see a friend who he had heard had lost a brother. Two days later he was arrested and two days after that he was tried by a court martial. He had a record of going absent without leave, which went against him and he had no one to defend him as those who could have spoken up for him had all been killed. He wasn't asked about his age and he didn't raise it. He was found guilty, not of the lesser charge of going AWOL, but of desertion, and condemned to death.

Photo credit: Harry Mitchell [CC BY 4.0 (] 

In the British Army, discipline was harsh. The offences for which a soldier could be executed were many and various. They included: cowardice, casting away of arms, disobedience, striking an officer and desertion. Falling asleep on sentry duty could also carry the death penalty as it endangered a whole section of the line. Soldiers on duty at night stood with head and shoulders above the parapet, rather than using a periscope, so that they could get a good field of view. (There being less chance of being hit in the dark other than by a random shot). It was therefore very obvious, if a sentry slumped, that he had fallen asleep and those who did so were easily caught. Standing at their posts for hours, dealing with mind-numbing boredom and body-numbing cold, it was all to easy to be overtaken by exhaustion. Fear of the consequences resulted in the practice of using matchsticks to prop their eyes open.

Around 3,000 soldiers were executed for offences such as those listed. There is a strong sense of the authorities using the ultimate punishment to 'set an example', a stark warning to re-assert discipline. Before facing the firing squad, the soldier's General Service buttons were removed from his tunic as a mark of his shame. Blindfolded and manacled, he was led to a stake and a target such as an envelope was pinned to his chest. Often, the firing squad was chosen from the soldier's own unit, presumably to hammer home the lesson that breaches of discipline would not be tolerated. One can barely imagine the horror and mental anguish that this practice must have caused both the man and his comrades. Apparently, the traditional belief that one of the bullets used would be a blank so that each soldier was left with the moral let-out that his shot may not have been the lethal one, is actually untrue. The whole squad were, in fact, given live ammunition.

The man's disgrace often continued after death: there were relations who chose not to talk of the relative who had brought shame on the family and memorials in towns and villages that omitted their names. Not until the 21st Century, when it became clear that many of those found guilty had suffered what we now know as Post traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) , was there any attempt to give them a memorial.

At the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, this shift in understanding and attitude found expression. The memorial Shot at Dawn, by Andy de Comyn, consists of a larger-than-life sized statue of Henry Burden, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back. Before him, the firing squad is represented by six juniper trees and behind him are an array of wooden stakes representing 309 other victims, each one individually named. These are the men who were posthumously pardoned by the British government in 2006. The pardons were granted not to imply blame for the officers who had acted in line with army regulations and without the understanding of PTSD that we now have, but in a spirit of mercy and in recognition of the battle trauma experienced by many, often very young men, and the suffering of their families. The Director of the Arboretum said that  "over 80 years of medical, psychological and sociological advantage (was) denied those who sat on the court-martial boards that passed sentence."

So, what of Henry Burden? As always, it is the small human details that suddenly pierce the heart. I think of his body taken down from the stake to be prepared for burial and the tattoos discovered upon it of "clasped hands" and "Love Lilly".  I am glad that his statue is placed at the eastern end of the arboretum where the sun's first rays strike.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon 1914

Friday, 6 December 2019

From Sinister to Sweet: The Strange Tale of the Nutcracker by Catherine Hokin

A deeply creepy inventor ‘uncle’, a seven-headed mouse, a little girl who tears her arm open on broken glass and a curse which traps first a queen and then a boy inside the misshapen body of a giant nutcracker: what better story to entertain your little ones with this Christmas? 

For the next few weeks theatre foyers will mill with children stickily clutching wands and toy soldiers and waiting to be inducted into the wonderful Christmas world of The Nutcracker, a ballet with far darker origins than their sugar plum fairy and sweetie-filled heads can possibly imagine.

The Nutcracker was first performed on the 18th December 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, set to music by Tchaikovsky. The book on which this ballet was based - Histoire d’une Casse-Noisette by Alexandre Dumas - was not, however, the original story. That first appeared in 1816, in ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Hoffmann wrote a number of spooky stories that were set to music during the 19th century. One of these, The Sandman which is about about evil inventors who create a robotic girl, appears in the Offenbach opera, The Tales of Hoffmann and likely inspired the ballet Coppelia, in which a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll. The original Hoffmann story, as outlined above, is a complex thing which blurs fantasy and reality. The rodents are cursed, the parents are oppressive and cruel and the little girl at the centre of the story runs away to her nightmare/dream world and does not return.

The Dumas version, which continues to form the basis of the ballet, simplified the plot and made the story rather more gentle. In this version, Clara rejects the fantasy world and wakes up happy and smiling under the Christmas tree, a Hollywood-style ending which was largely the reason for the ballet’s future success. And its success was very much in the future. In 1892, the unimpressed Russian critics called the choreography confusing, the libretto lopsided and the whole experience (according to the St Petersburg Gazette) “the most tedious thing I have ever seen.” After the first Russian Revolution in 1905, the ballet was dropped from the repertoire and, in a twist Hoffmann (and his fan Edgar Allen Poe) may have appreciated, its principal male lead, Sergei Legat, slit his throat.

Many of the Mariinsky dancers scattered across Europe in the early twentieth century and the ballet re-appeared, first in Budapest in 1927 and then in London in 1934. 

It took an American showman, however, to bring The Nutcracker fully back into the light. In 1940, Walt Disney used the entire Tchaikovsky score in Fantasia, bringing the music to a huge new audience. On Christmas Eve 1944 the San Francisco Ballet performed the first complete version of the ballet and in 1954 George Balanchine’s New York production turned the ballet into the classic Land of Snow and Kingdom of Sweets version we recognise today. Where America went, the rest of the world followed: more companies have performed The Nutcracker than any other ballet. In 2015 the Royal Ballet December production was beamed live to 2000 cinemas and, according to Daniel J Wakin of the New York Times, its holiday run “is generally the foundation of an American dance company”.

Why has The Nutcracker become so popular that even non-ballet fans, who would run a mile at a suggestion of an evening with Les Sylphides, are happy to be dragged along? 

Perhaps because it truly is family-friendly: it has parts for over 35 children; a pattern of short, highly-charged dances and watered-down cute mice and dancing toys. Perhaps because, in the words of Isabel McMeekan, founder of Everyday Ballet and a former dancer, it is“the eternal fantasy of Christmas come to life on stage…the girl, the guy, the dream, the magic tree that grows to 7 feet, the glittery snowflakes.” Or perhaps because it has proved so adaptable. As well as traditional outings, there have been hip-hop, LGBT and Jewish versions and, my own personal favourite, Matthew Bourne’s Dickensian orphanage with its pyjama-clad cupids and cast of very wicked sweets (check out the exceedingly sticky Knickerbocker Glory). 

And in that, I think, lies the ballet’s endurance – to paraphrase one supermarket’s ad: however you do Christmas, there’s a Nutcracker for you.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Son et Lumiere - Ancient Portents by Elisabeth Storrs

To me a violent storm instils fascination and fear. After a long, sweltering day in Sydney, there is nothing quite as spectacular as a display of lightning bolts sparking on the horizon, or the sky being lit in startling intensity as the temperature cools, and the clouds darken. People scurry to gain cover as rain pelts down. Don’t shelter beneath a tree! Don’t stand on high ground! I love counting down the seconds between a lightning flash and the crack of thunder. That way I can tell how many kilometres away danger lies. And as the interval between sound and light narrows, I wait for the sonic collision and instinctively duck when the thunderclap booms even when in the safety of my home.

Sydney thunder storm
If we in the modern world find lightning bolts a visceral experience, how did the ancients view them? Greeks and Romans saw such powerful displays of nature as heralding divine disapproval or a portent for the future. However, the Etruscans of ancient Italy (who lived in the areas now known as Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria) were far more adept at deciphering the secrets of thunder and lightning. Their priests raised the art of prophecy to a science and recorded the tenets of their beliefs in a codex known as the Etrusca Disciplina. Sadly very little of Etruscan literature survives other than remnants of ritual text but we do have a Greek translation of an Etruscan brontoscopic calendar created by John the Lydian (born 490 CE) as set out in his book, De Ostentis (On Omens). The Etruscan version would probably have been presented on bronze or terracotta plaques. Individual priests who specialised in reading thunderbolts may well have transcribed the calendar onto linen books (libri lintei) for their personal use. These seers were known as ‘fulgurators’.

Organised into 12 lunar months commencing in June, the brontoscopic almanac functioned as a reference table to determine portents concerning the weather, crops, animals, war, government, social conflict and more. It contained a wealth of information about society, religion, agriculture and medicine. According to the calendar, thunder could forebode the common people would suffer trials of nature, threats of disease or famine, or be given the chance to rebel against powerful men.  Men’s preoccupation with the status of women was also evident. On one day thunder could signify that women were more sagacious than men whereas on another day it meant that women would be given greater control than appropriate to their nature! Fulgurators would consult the calendar to find the meaning of thunder according to the particular day of the year on which it occurred. For example, as this post is published on 29 November, you should be aware that: ‘If it thunders, it shall signify a year of well being.’ Here's hoping a thunder storm happens today.

Etruscan Tomb of the Augurs
Etruscan fulgurators could also prophesy the future based on lightning.  The type, colour, force and place at which lightning struck were all clues to interpret the will of the gods. Pliny and Seneca provided evidence the Etruscans believed nine gods had power to throw a thunderbolt (whereas the Romans believed only Jupiter, King of the Gods, could hurl one.) The Etruscan equivalent of Jupiter, known as Tinia, was able to use three types of bolts: the first was a benign warning; the second could do both harm and good; and third was completely destructive.

As the Etruscans believed the gods lived in different sectors of the heavens, a fulgurator could ascertain which divinity had thrown a thunderbolt by determining the direction from whence it came. Those deities of darker intent resided in the northwest, those who granted the greatest good fortune lived in the northeast. Etruscan prophets even had the ability to ‘call down lightning’ to provide proof that Nortia, the goddess of Fate, had agreed to defer a person’s or even a city’s destiny.

As you can guess, learning about the immense skills of Etruscan soothsayers fired my imagination when devising the story arc and sub-plots in my ‘A Tale of Ancient Rome’ trilogy. And despite professing I’m not superstitious, I’m always relieved when a storm front comes from the north-east.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at  Images courtesy of Skira Colour Studio  and WikiMedia Commons Lobster1, CC BY-SA 3.0