Friday, 20 January 2017

Admiral Duncan: Forgotten Hero - by Ann Swinfen

Danloux' painting of Duncan on Venerable

Admiral Adam Duncan was once a celebrated hero for his great victory over the Dutch fleet under De Winter off Camperdown in October 1797 – a victory which has been compared, in its strategic importance, with the Battle of Britain in the early years of the Second World War, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And yet over the years it has become a commonplace to claim that Duncan had been insufficiently recognised by government at the time, and unfairly forgotten since, even by his native city - Dundee - itself.
That Duncan was not forgotten in Dundee is illustrated by this stained glass window from the old Town House, a building since demolished.

Much more recently, writing in the volume of essays published to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Camperdown, Councillor Andrew Lynch complained that the battle ‘has largely and unjustly sunk from public view, just as Adam Duncan, the hero of the hour, had been eclipsed by the memory of the heroically deceased Horatio Nelson’. And it is the case, of course, that there is no Camperdown Square in London, nor a Duncan’s Column.
All this is true, but fortunately only partly true. Duncan’s great victory was by no means overlooked by the government of the day, or the people of the nation. He was ennobled to a Viscountcy. His pension of £2000 a year was the largest pension ever awarded up to that time. Towns like Edinburgh and Dundee offered him the freedom of their city. A substantial range of souvenirs was produced for the people of Great Britain to commemorate their national hero. The fact is, of course, that there is a wealth of material, and especially images and artefacts, to inform the modern student of Duncan’s life, career and achievements.
Adam Duncan was born in the Seagate, Dundee, not far from where his statue now stands, the third son of Alexander Duncan, Provost of Dundee, the third member of his family to hold that office. Adam’s mother was Helen Haldane of Gleneagles, and he had two older brothers – John, who joined the East India Company, and died in their employ, and Alexander, a soldier, who served on the continent and in Canada, before himself dying in1796 – the year before Camperdown.
Adam was born in 1731, and in 1746 he joined the Navy as a midshipman – his first ship being a sloop called Tryal, under the command of his cousin, Robert Haldane, one of their first tasks being to try to capture Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden. The following year both Duncan and Haldane transferred to a frigate, the Shoreham, in action against the French in one of the many wars between Britain and France – this time the War of Austrian Succession which lasted from 1740-48. Indeed most of Duncan’s naval career seemed to have been directed by French wars. But war was also an opportunity. During the Seven Years War (again against France), Duncan gained promotion to 3rd Lieutenant in 1755, 2nd Lieutenant in 1756, and 1st Lieutenant in 1759. It was in that year that he was involved in an attack on the island of Goree off Senegal, and was wounded in the leg by a musket ball – the first and only wound he ever received in a career of more than 50 naval actions. In the same year he was promoted to Commander, and soon after that to Captain – appointed as Flag Captain on board Valiant – the flagship of Commodore Keppel.

Painting of Duncan by Reynolds

And that could have been the end of his naval career. If war provided opportunities for employment and advancement, the end of the war by the Peace of Paris in 1763 marked the end of both employment and advancement – at least until next time. For the next 13 years Captain Duncan twiddled his thumbs on half pay – the only compensation being that he met and married Henrietta Dundas, daughter of Robert Dundas, President of the Court of Session in Edinburgh.  Adam had not only gained a wife, but also had married into one of the most powerful families in Scotland.
In 1776 the American War of Independence again offered new opportunities. Appointed first to the Suffolk, with 74 guns, he was transferred to the Monarch, and in 1780 was involved in a fierce action against the Spanish fleet off Cadiz. He should then have gone with the Monarch to the West Indies, but was forced to withdraw for health reasons. In 1787 he finally achieved Flag rank as a Rear Admiral, but was then again on half pay until 1795.

Danloux' painting of Duncan as Rear Admiral

Battle of Camperdown
And so at last to the great battle that was to make his reputation and set the seal on his naval career – Camperdown. Once again Britain was at war with the French – the French Revolutionary Wars. At the end of 1794 the French armies invaded Holland, and in May of 1795 an alliance was concluded between France and the Batavian Republics, whereby Holland would support France with 12 ships of the line and 18 frigates, the plan being to use Holland as the spring board for the invasion of England. Duncan was appointed as Admiral of the Blue to command the North Sea Fleet – its purpose to prevent military expeditions from being dispatched from the Texel Island. The strategy was to blockade the Texel and if possible to destroy the Dutch fleet. This involved having the North Sea Fleet on constant patrol in the area.

To keep the Dutch penned in, Duncan deployed his ships in three ranks – the small cutters close to the coast, frigates next, and then two lines of battle ships further out – making it difficult for the Dutch to see just how many shops there were ranged against them.
            Then came the additional complication of the Mutiny, which gave rise to one of the great stories of Duncan’s career. There was growing unrest throughout the British Navy - mainly over rates of pay. The trouble started on Duncan’s flagship Venerable in April 1797, but he was able to deal with it and good order was re-established. He then visited every ship in the squadron, listening to their grievances, and demanding to know whether anyone dared to dispute his authority or that of their officers. On the 13th May, on the Adamant, one brave or foolhardy sailor did just that, giving rise to the famous incident when Duncan (he was a large man, 6 ft 4 inches in height) held the miscreant over the side with the words ‘ My lads, look at this fellow, he who dares to deprive me of the command of the fleet.’ This was of course by no means the end of unrest within the Navy – later that month the much more serious mutinies at Sheerness and the Nore broke out, and were not suppressed until well into June.
            The outbreak of mutinies in the British fleet was a distraction but not a fatal one. Duncan’s combination of personal courage combined with a willingness to listen had quieted unrest in his squadron. Duncan and the Venerable, with Vice Admiral Onslow in the Adamant, were able to sail to the Texel where they stationed themselves opposite to the main Dutch naval base. With an inspired deception, involving sending signals to an imaginary fleet out of sight of the Dutch, they succeeded in persuading the enemy to stay in port.
As it happened, when the Dutch did eventually attempt a breakout, most of Duncan’s ships were anchored off Great Yarmouth, taking on stores. Early in the morning of 9th October 1797, the lugger Speculator was sighted coming towards the fleet. It raised the signal ‘The Dutch Fleet is out’.
            By the morning of the 11th October, Duncan’s ships were off the Dutch coast, and they could see the Dutch making their way north-west back to their base, sailing near the village of Camperduin towards the shallower coastal waters. Duncan gave the order ‘to give battle’.

The two fleets immediately before the battle

Formed into two groups, the one under Duncan himself and the other under Onslow, the British ships concentrated on breaking the enemy’s line.

De Louthenbourg painting of the battle

In this they eventually succeeded. During the course of the battle the colours of the Venerable were shot away, giving rise to the famous incident when seaman John Crawford climbed up the mast and nailed the flag back up again. The battle was certainly no walk over, as the Dutch were experienced seamen and fought back with determination. After about three hours of intensive fighting, nine Dutch ships of the line had surrendered, and the rest had fled back to the Texel. Casualties on both sides were huge, but eventually the Dutch admiral, De Winter was forced to surrender.

Surrender by De Winter

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this victory. Up until now, the war with France had gone badly for Britain and her allies. The battles of Valmy in 1792, and Tourcoing in 1794, had been notable French victories. The Netherlands and Spain turned from being Britain’s allies to being its enemies. Only the occasional naval victory, as at Cape St Vincent in February 1797, offered some hope.
            Camperdown was a turning point. This was a stunning victory. At the ‘Glorious First of June’ in 1794, Admiral Howe had captured six French ships and sunk one, out of a fleet of twenty-six. It was hailed as a triumph. At Cape St Vincent in February 1797 Admiral Jervis, with the aid of the young Horatio Nelson, had taken four Spanish ships out of twenty-seven, and the news caused great celebrations. Duncan had surpassed them both, capturing nine ships out of sixteen plus two frigates
            Camperdown undoubtedly had a significant impact on British strategy. Prime Minister William Pitt now adopted a more aggressive policy involving a return to the Mediterranean, leading to Nelson’s great victory at the Nile nine months later. Duncan’s ‘victory at Camperdown was as dramatic and complete as anything Nelson ever achieved, and it is difficult to see how he could have done anything better’.
            An editorial in the Times later in the month stated: ‘The consequences resulting from Admiral Duncan’s victory must be of the highest importance to the interests of this country….to destroy such a fleet at such a time, when an invasion is dreaded, is the more singularly fortunate, as besides ensuring our domestic tranquility we shall no longer be under the necessity of keeping up a large naval establishment to watch the motions of the enemy in the North Sea. But what we consider to be the most interesting consideration is the perfect establishment of our naval superiority for a long time to come, which must induce us to treat every attempt on the part of France to make a descent on our coast as a ridiculous chimera.’

The Public response to Camperdown.
Both government and the public at large were quick to appreciate the implications of Duncan’s great victory – the removal, at least for the time being, of the threat of French invasion, and the prospect of lower taxes if it was no longer necessary to support such a large naval establishment. In the eighteenth century there were well established rituals to signal the nation’s approval of the victor’s conduct – both in terms of ceremonies and in ritual gifts – many of the latter have survived to the present day.
            First there was the conferment of the Viscountcy. Then there was a brief visit to Venerable of the King on his way to the opening of Parliament, while Lord Spencer in the Lords and Henry Dundas in the Commons moved votes of thanks. When Duncan himself was introduced to the Lords in November, he was told that the House had ordered all the peers to attend – an unprecedented distinction – but one ‘called for by the general admiration your conduct has inspired, and strongly expressive of that peculiar satisfaction which the peers must feel upon your Lordship’s promotion to a distinguished seat in this House’.
            Then came a grand service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on November 10th planned by the King himself to commemorate not only Duncan’s victory on the Texel, but also the defeat of the Spaniards by Earl St Vincent, and of the French by Lord Howe. It was a magnificent affair, the procession led by a division of Marines complete with music, followed by two hundred seamen. The captured colours of defeated French, Dutch and Spanish navies were carried in three great artillery wagons, followed by Duncan himself in his own carriage. It set off along Charing Cross and the Strand, with the streets lined with men of the Foot Guards and the Horse Guards. Arriving at St Paul’s, the flags were taken down from the wagons, and ‘under the loudest shout of applause and grand martial music’, were carried in procession into the Cathedral, where they were placed in a circle at the centre of the dome.
            There is plenty of evidence, then, to show that government at the time pulled out all the stops to honour the victor of Camperdown – the grant of a Viscountcy, a very substantial pension to be paid to himself and his two succeeding heirs, tax free and backdated to the date of the battle, the grandest public ceremonies. These were followed by all kinds of lesser honours, presentations, and gifts. Fourteen civic authorities presented him with the freedom of their cities.

Freedom casket from Edinburgh

The Common Council of London presented him with this ceremonial sword: The gold, enameled and diamond-set hilt has Camperdown motifs and the Duncan coat of arms on the pommel.

The County of Forfar gave him a silver-gilt soup tureen and commissioned his portrait by John Hoppner.

Silver-gilt tureen

Duncan was elected to honorary membership of numerous societies, from the Marine Society of Merchants to the Royal College of Surgeons. The Directors of the East India Company (the employers of older brother John) gave a dinner in his honour at the London Tavern, with between 90 and 100 guests, including Prime Minister William Pitt and members of his Cabinet.
            With his combination of bravery, professional skill, and personal modesty, Duncan was a popular hero, and not just in government circles. When he went to dine with the Lord Mayor of London, we are told that his ‘chariot was drawn by the mob down Fleet Street and all the way down to the Guildhall. The Ladies greeted him with huzzas and the waving of handkerchiefs.’ When he went out to dine with friends in Covent Garden, he was recognised, and the assembled company stood to drink his health. ‘The uproar was tremendous; the Admiral got up upon his legs and in a stentorian voice said: “Gentlemen, I thank you.” Not another word. They all cheered louder than ever. The people outside heard who they were, took their horses out of the coach, and drew it round Covent Garden, and it was with difficulty that they were allowed home.’
            As you might expect, Duncan’s achievement was nowhere more deeply appreciated than in Scotland. The Town Council of Dundee, at its first meeting after the battle, adopted the following resolution: ‘The Council unanimously Resolve to present Admiral Viscount Lord Duncan with a piece of Plate, value One Hundred Guineas, with a suitable inscription as a mark of their esteem for his Lordship, and of their high sense of the signal and splendid Victory obtained by his Lordship over the Dutch Fleet on the eleventh day of October last of so much consequence to the prosperity of Great Britain.’

Silver tea urn

Finally, as was the tradition, Duncan was presented with the spoils of war in the shape of the ship’s bell and figurehead from De Winter’s flagship, the Vryheid. The latter stood for many years in the grounds of the Camperdown estate.

Then as now the widespread esteem in which Duncan was held provided a golden opportunity for the purveyors of memorabilia and souvenirs. Camperdown muslins, Duncan caps, a Duncan plaid, Camperdown Clubs, prints, china figures, commemorative tokens, cameos, porcelain mugs, and many portraits all bore witness to the immense popularity of this famous admiral.

While it is certainly true that the name of Duncan as a great naval hero of the period has since been overshadowed by that of Horatio Nelson, we cannot fairly blame his contemporaries for that. Duncan’s victory was celebrated at every level of society. He was rewarded, feted, and even exploited by artists and makers of memorabilia. If his name is no longer commemorated alongside that of Nelson, it is a failure of the present day.

Ann Swinfen

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Cowboys and Indians by Katherine Webb

Yesterday, I finished reading Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, one of the books I was given for Christmas. It is simply breathtaking. The book recently won the Costa Novel of the Year award, and I hope it goes on to win the overall Book of the Year prize too. Every now and then, a historical novel comes along that picks you up and drops you down right in the past, like a perfect magic spell, so that reading it is like being there. Hilary Mantel did it with Wolf Hall; Andrew Miller did it with Pure, and Sebastian Barry does it with this book.

By chance, Barry's setting is one I've long been interested in: The American frontier in the nineteenth century - the 'Wild West', as myth would have it. And what a culture of myth and legend there is, surrounding that extraordinary period. The relentless pursuit of land and better fortune by early European settlers on that continent provides a truly astonishing chapter in the book of human history - but of course it came at immense cost to the indigenous population. I find it hard to read about the shoddy treatment of the American Indians by the settlers without my blood boiling at the injustice of it all. But more of that in a moment.

I heartily recommend Barry's new novel to you all, whether you're interested in the history of the USA or not. Whilst his magic trick of sending the reader back in time is one I wish I could emulate with my own fiction, the book is a treasure trove for readers, regardless. There are jewels of prose on every page. To prove it, I am going to open the book at random now, and quote a sentence or two:

'Third day a big thunder storm and it only a huge song singing of our distress. Hard to get the darkness out of your head. Full ten thousand acres of dark blue and black clouds and lightning flinging its sharp yellow paint across the woods and the violent shout and clamour of the thunder. Then a thick deluge to speak of coming death.'

Stunning. Our narrator is Tom McNulty, a young Irish man driven to emigrate by the famine in Ireland, and his narrative describes his life as soldier and settler in the Indian Wars and the American Civil War in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Previously it had been easy for me, when reading about the actions of soldiers and officials in the Indian Wars, to condemn their brutality as a symptom of the racism and greed of a previous generation. Barry's book, however, says important things about what can happen, and what a man will do, if he is made worthless to society, if he has no stake, and no chance of betterment. It says important things about the human heart -  its capacity for love and tenderness as well as the damage done to it by violence and fear. It is an astonishing feat of fiction writing, and brilliant bit of myth-busting for anybody whose mental image of American history comes from Hollywood films.

As I mentioned, I have been interested in early American history for quite some time. I even had a stab at writing about it myself, in my first novel The Legacy, which featured a greenhorn New York girl getting married to a rancher and moving to Oklahoma Territory in the early years of the twentieth century - and all the many and lastingly devastating ways in which she does not cope in her new life. I acquired a number of very good books on the subject of the 'Wild West' as I did my research, and hear are four of the best, in my opinion:

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Written in 1970, this book perhaps marks the start of the revision of American history. The subtitle, An Indian History of the American West says it all. Brown has written here a damning, heart-breaking history of every bloody battle, every broken promise, every casual cruelty and ignored treaty of the Indian Wars. The terrible inevitability with which an entire race and culture was near eradicated is documented here - whether the Indians were beaten in battle by the sheer numbers of white settlers and soldiers, or were starved, or were herded by treaty to lands they did not know and could not thrive upon. This book exploded the myth of the plucky cowboy protecting his family against the marauding savages. A harrowing but important read. Dee also wrote Wondrous Times on the Frontier, a fascinating collection of anecdotes about life in the early West, told first-hand by the men who were there.

Sand in My Eyes by Seigniora Russell Laune. Something easier to read but just as interesting. This memoir, first published in 1956, tells of Laune's early life in the rural town of Woodward at the turn of the twentieth century. The back of the book praises its exuberant representation of 'the pioneering spirit that civilized the West'... But, of course, Laune is blameless in living her life at the time and in the place she was dealt, as we all generally must. Her memoir moves away from the very early days of settlement to the beginnings of the modern era in what was still very much a spit-and-sawdust town, and gives an engaging portrayal of the trials of domestic life for women back then. Tellingly, it makes almost no mention of the Indians at all, though Woodward was in Oklahoma Territory, which lagged behind the rest of the States, developmentally, because it had remained set aside 'Indian Territory' for several decades - until the pressure of white settlement grew too much.

The Virginian, by Owen Wister. The novel that spawned an entire genre, The Virginian was written in 1902, by which time the West was more or less tamed, no longer a frontier, and the myth of the heroic, gun-toting, ranch-building cowboy had been born. Here we have the strong, silent man, carving his own destiny out of the wilderness; the virtuous, brave woman he loves; the romance of the sweeping landscape, and what I believe to be the first ever depiction of a quick-draw gun duel in the main street of a Western town. Very interesting to see how stories begin to be told, and how they can then grow and spread.

The Real Wild West by Michael Wallis. Published in 1999. This book combines a fascinating history of the vast 101 Ranch in Oklahoma - which at its height covered 110,000 acres, operated its own trains and had its own oil refinery, schools, churches and postal service - with a history of the birth and perpetuation of the myth of the American frontier. The 101 Ranch created the first ever touring 'Wild West Show', which became world famous, and featured real life figures like Geronimo and Buffalo Bill in what must surely, to them, have felt like surreal theatrical representations of their own lives. The book is packed with detail and anecdote, is hugely informative on early settler and farming life, and can be read for sheer enjoyment as well for an insight into the way in which the bloody, difficult history of a nation can have its heartbreak and suffering sanitised, repackaged and sold to the masses.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Providing they miss... Clare Hollingsworth: 1911 - 2017 - Celia Rees

Clare Hollingworth
1911 - 2017
Last Wednesday, it was announced that Clare Hollingworth, doyenne of foreign correspondents, had died in Hong Kong at the age of 105. During her long life she reported on conflicts around the globe, thriving on the thrill and the danger, maintaining with typical bravura that there was 'a certain attraction in being shot at - providing they miss.' 
Clare Hollingworth in 1932
Born to upper middle class parents in Leicestershire, she quickly escaped the life of marriage and motherhood that had been mapped out for her. She took a secretarial course and went to work for the League of Nations in Geneva and then in Poland for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.   She helped many refugees to escape from Germany. Too many. She was asked to leave Poland. She returned to Britain and in August 1939, she got a job as a reporter with the Daily Telegraph, working with Hugh Carleton Greene in Warsaw. Her career in journalism began in spectacular fashion. As a novice stringer stationed in Katowice, she managed the scoop of the century: the outbreak of the Second World War. The day after her arrival, she borrowed the British consul's official car 'for a day's shopping' over the border in Germany. The first town she came to was deserted. Then, as she drove on the the next town, she was passed by 65 dispatch riders. She stopped for lunch before driving back to Poland. On her return journey, she noticed that the sides of the roads were obscured with hessian screens. As one blew back, she saw rows and rows of German tanks. They belonged to von Rundstedt's Army Group South. Her story appeared on the front page of the Telegraph on 29th August, 1939, with the headline: '1,000 tanks massed on Polish frontier'. The next day, she woke to the sound of German bombers overhead. She rang in her story. The war had begun. At first she wasn't believed, until she put the telephone receiver out of the window and shouted, "Listen!"  

She escaped from Poland, going first to Hungary then to Rumania where she was nearly arrested by the ultranationalist Iron Guard. From Rumania, she went to Bulgaria, then to Greece, always just a step ahead of the German forces. Eventually, she escaped to Egypt in an open boat. Once there, she went on bombing missions with the RAF and joined patrols behind enemy lines.

Most of her Second World War reporting was done from the Middle East. She reported from Persia on the Anglo Russian invasion and conducted the first interview with the Shah when he ascended the Peacock Throne. He remembered her and, decades later, she was the only reporter granted an interview when he abdicated in 1979.

She went on to cover conflicts in Algeria during the '50s, Malaya, Borneo and Aden (Yemen) in the '60s and the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. She was in Israel during the struggle for independence and again to cover the Six Day War in 1967. She was in Vietnam and Communist China, always at the centre of the action, tough, fearless and relentless in pursuit of a story. She continued to obtain notable scoops, reporting Kim Philby's escape from Beirut on a Soviet ship in 1963 (a story suppressed by her paper for fear of libel), Chairman Mao's severe stroke in 1974 and tipping Deng Xiaoping as China's eventual leader. Although her stories were often initially greeted with scepticism, her reporter's instinct remained unerring.       

She continued to work as a Far East correspondent with the Sunday Telegraph. Based in Hong Kong, she covered the handover of the colony in 1997. When failing eyesight and hearing made it impossible for her to continue her work, she still had the papers read to her everyday and held court at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club over a gin and tonic. Kate Adie recalls being told of her presence with the words: 'There's a legend upstairs.' 

She was a role model for generations of female reporters and correspondents and, to the end, she slept with shoes and passport by her bed, ready to go anywhere should the call come. In a career that spanned over fifty years, she covered every major conflict from the Second World War onwards and is rightly regarded by many of her peers as one of the finest journalists of the 20th Century.   

Celia Rees

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


The Wicked Boy arrived as a Christmas gift. I was very glad to see him there by my armchair. I had noticed the tall “publicity piles” in Waterstones - and other outlets - and seen various reviews and articles published when Kate Summerscale’s title first appeared, and yet I was a little anxious.

My worries about how this “Mystery of A Victorian Child Murderer” would end was there from the earliest pages. Besieged by a dreary cold, I even put the book down for a while, fearing that bad events would only end worse.

A week later, I went back to the beginning and stared reading again. The Wicked Boy opens in July 1895, when thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his year-younger brother Nattie jaunt off to The Oval to watch a cricket match - after murdering their mother. With their father away at sea, the boys live a fantasy life for a week, aided by deceit and theft and a simple-minded family friend. How can this end in any way well, I thought?

The subject matter may be sensational but the account does not nip along. The amount of research demands patience reading, and a willingness to pause in one moment, whilst events or histories seemingly less relevant are expanded.  

“Listen,” I imagined Kate Summerscale saying, “you need to know all this to appreciate just how it was in those times. You need to know more than just the boy.”

The Wicked Boy's world expands and unfolds far beyond the grisly events and the eventual trial. Summerscale’s research takes one through the geography and population of Plaistow and East London to where, beyond the rows of houses, open land still stretches down to the Thames. She guides us through the stench of the area, from the small local industries to the mighty London docks, where live cattle are loaded on to ships bound for America. 

Summerscale brings is the brief testimonies of many involved in the awful event: the boy’s teachers, the pawnbroker, the family friends and Liverpool aunt, and we are introduced to the schools & institutions the boys occasionally attended. We half-meet the father, who hears of his sons arrests when he is docked in America but who cannot afford to abandon his work-passage back, and half-imagine what life the brothers led in the shadow of their excitable but apparently violent mother.

The press and public were particularly strident about the stack of a type of sensational magazine, known as Penny Bloods or Penny Dreadfuls, found in the house. 

The Bloods fascinated Robert, and his indulgence in tales of vicious crimes and bold and often lawless adventure proved, for some, further evidence of the dangers of encouraging literacy in the working classes.

Later in the book, there is a closer analysis of such narratives, comparing these rough tales with the type of boy's adventure stories told in more respected books. In many way, the traits admired in the heroic protagonists are similar, except perhaps for their class in society - and the cost of the books themselves. 

The two brothers certainly seem strange boys, but Nattie is judged too young to be guilty and called to give witness to his older brother’s crime. Robert’s behaviour in the dock is noted as odd – laughing, grimacing, unaware – and there are comments about the navy blazer edged with gold cord that he wears. The Coombes were a family that wanted to look respectable to other eyes.

What punishment would fit Robert's crime? Gradually light seeped through this grim situation, confounding my preconceptions. Robert is eventually judged too young to hang; he becomes the youngest inmate in an institution that can make press headlines even to this day. In September 1895, Robert entered Broadmoor, a fortified criminal metal asylum in Berkshire.

However, the asylum, especially Block 2 where Robert is placed after his admission period, is humane, built in "a pastoral setting . . that recalled "a lost innocence. . . both gaol and sanctuary". There is an orderly, kindly regime. Robert is taught tailoring, but reading books, playing musical instruments and work in the gardens are part of the experience and too. This calm but strict benevolence was totally at odds with what my ignorance was expecting and were a highlight - in many ways - of the book.

After seventeen years, in March 1912, Robert was released to the care of the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh in Essex, and then sent to Australia. The era of transportation is over, but the young country still needs to be populated, even by persons advised to make a new life. 

By this point in The Wicked Boy, I was reading hopefully. Many of the changes that marked the end of the 19th century had won through: universal education as a right, the formation of the NSPCC and banning of cruelty to children, a growth in understanding of madness, the treatment of prisoners and a belief in rehabilitation. Even if never perfectly practiced, some aspects of society had changed: the book was more than Robert’s story. It felt as if the Victorian’s better belief in “good works” had won through.

However, if one believes crime calls for karmic punishment, it arrives when Australia’s men sign up to fight for the mother country. Robert, an able musician, becomes a military bandsman, a role that sounds almost safe until one knows that bandsmen acted as the army’s unarmed stretcher-bearers, carrying the wounded and the dying through the field of battle. Robert Coombes survives the heat and disaster of the retreat at Gallipolli and goes on to endure the dreadful mud of Paschendale. 

Although WWI seems familiar history, this section had a particular poignancy. Robert, the child who relished the bold and bloody yarns of those “Penny Dreadfuls” and imagined the drama of a childhood adventure, became, in a sorrowful way, the brave and stalwart hero he had once admired. 

By now, I felt the book well worth a patient reading.

Then, just as the long account seems to be settling into a calm ending, Summerscale uncovers more: an unexpected ending which I will not spoil here, other than to say that, in a quiet way, it seems to vindicate the wisdom of those who treated the child Robert Coombes with kindness. Despite my earlier anxiety, THE WICKED BOY became a largely positive story, even though many of the arguments and complaints are still easily raised to this day. 

It feels a book I need to return to, but right now, with the book closed, I keep thinking about a moment from the trial.  

Was it the gold braid around young Robert Coombe’s neat navy blazer that swayed judgement at the trial?  

If the Wicked Boy had not looked so noticeably keen to be clean and respectable, would his story have been different? And his life shorter? 

And are such prejudices still there in public perceptions of young offenders now?

Penny Dolan

Monday, 16 January 2017

A do-it-yourself wassailing kit - by Sue Purkiss

I wasn't particularly aware of the ancient custom of wassailing until recently. Okay, about this time of year you tend to see pictures in the local paper of people with green faces cavorting among apple trees - but hey, I live a mere stone's throw from Glastonbury, where the streets are paved with crystals and littered with spell books, and where every year they have a Goddess Conference at which the place is FILLED with people with green faces - not to mention magical wells, a conflux of ley lines and a 2000 year-old thorn tree. (Well, that was actually vandalised a few years ago, but I hear there are a few cuttings in the care of the fairy kingdom under Wearyall Hill - or possibly at Worthy Farm under the care of Michael Eavis.) So green faces don't raise an eyebrow in these parts.

Goddesses at Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

But, as I've mentioned before in this place, I fairly recently joined a choir. We sing a lot of folk songs, and at this time of year, when Christmas has come and gone, we sing a Wassail Song. I don't know the words off by heart - our leader, Issy, sings it first and we follow her - but they are very similar to these, which I found on the web.

'Old apple tree, we wassail thee and hope that thou shalt bear,
For the Lord doth know where we shall be come apples another year.
For to bloom well and to bear well, so merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat and shout out to the old apple tree.
   Three cheers for the apple tree: hip hip...'

Well, it's a very jolly tune and we like singing it, so we make quite a racket, and I only hope it's loud enough for the apple trees of Cheddar to hear and be enthused. Because the purpose of wassailing is to encourage them, as the song says, 'to bloom well and to bear well'. It's entirely logical. I often talk to plants. I had quite a chat with a Christmas rose the other day, congratulating it on flowering so beautifully when all its predecessors have singularly failed to thrive; and I always apologise to shrubs before I give them a severe pruning, and explain to them that it's for their own good. I find these little courtesies make all the difference, and I'm sure they do to the apple trees as well.

There used to be lots of apple orchards in Cheddar when we first moved here thirty or so years ago. But over the years, most of them have been grubbed up in favour of more houses, and in Somerset generally, the orchards for many years seemed to be dwindling. But since the growth in popularity of cider over the last few years (Thatchers is just down the road), orchards are back in favour, and so is wassailing.

So I thought I'd look into the history of it.

Wassailing in the olden days.

Apparently 'wassail' comes from 'Waes hael!', the Anglo-Saxon greeting and toast which means 'Good Health!' Its purpose is to wake the trees up and scare away any evil spirits, thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. This happens on Twelfth Night - but usually, it being such an old and historical custom, it takes place not on the 6th January, but on the 17th, because this would have been Twelfth Night (or Old Twelvey, as we country folk apparently call it) before the introduction of the new-fangled and totally unnecessary Gregorian calendar in 1582.

The correct procedure is to choose a Wassail King and Queen, who lead a procession of interested parties round the local orchards. At each one, the Queen is lifted up into one of the trees, and she presents it with a piece of toast soaked in the wassail drink, which seems to be a kind of cider punch. This is a gift to the tree spirits. (Here's a recipe - I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it sounds rather nice.)

Then everybody sings the song, after which they shout and bang pots and pans and drums and generally make as much noise as they can to drive the evil spirits out. (Presumably the good spirits put their hands over their ears after eating up their toast.) Then I think they probably finish off the cider punch, and dance round the fire a bit.

Below is a video from YouTube of a wassail in Gloucestershire. I'd personally like to see a bit more attention to wearing appropriate clothing (see picture above, of a wassail at Brent Knoll, just down the A38 from here) and I'm really not happy about the plastic bags, but it's a good and lusty rendition of the song.

So there you are. I've given you a day's notice, and with a bit of practice you'll soon master the song - so if you have apple trees, prepare to wassail them. Unfortunately, they really don't grow well in our garden...

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Why the (Western) World loves an Extrovert, by Fay Bound Alberti

On New Year's Eve my friend and I sat in a busy venue, gently grumbling at all the bonhomie involved in the celebrations: strangers hugging, singing and optimistically making predictions for 2017. We were the obligatory introverts - the spectres at the feast, commenting on the party that was erupting around us, rather like Statler and Waldorf, those grumpy old men from the Muppets. 

I thought a lot about introversion and extroversion over the festive period, and its social history. The overwhelming narrative of the season is the good humour and geniality of friends and family, and yes, strangers, in the spirit of man's humanity to man - though it always seems to be women who are landed with the practicalities. Those who are not swept up in the spirit are the Scrooges and the Grinches of the world, preferring their own company to that of others. The pressure on all of us to grab the hands of strangers for a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne is considerable. 

So where does it come from, this association of introversion with hostility and unfriendliness? What got me thinking about this is the history of loneliness, a subject that I am researching for a forthcoming book. Today, loneliness seems to be an ever growing concern, variously linked to adolescent depression, middle-age suicide and elderly dementia. To be separated from society, the story goes, is to fail to function in it. Loneliness has become shorthand for a pathological isolation from the outside world, made all the more challenging by the rise of social media. Sites like FaceBook are said to encourage isolation at the same time as they make us more 'social' - lurking on social media websites and seeing everyone else leading apparently 'perfect' lives, leads to introspection and depression. 

It is introverts who most commonly report, or are more willing to report being lonely, but the term introvert is itself a modern one,coined by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (pictured below) in 1921. At the time of Jung's research, many of our current working ideas about the self and society, emotions, the mind and the role of the individual were being formulated with the rise of the mind sciences. Scientific explanations for human personality and behaviour were being discussed, especially in relation to the structuring and working of the brain. 

In the new mind sciences, extroversion was characteristic of talkative, outward-facing personalities who were energetic and enlivened by being around other people. By contrast, introversion was associated with isolation and reserve, and by the need to spend time alone. Most personality models in history since Jung have worked with this basic understanding of differences between extroverts and introverts. In 1962 Myers-Briggs created a workable model of Jung's theories (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI) which is still in common usage. Curious? There is even a free online test, adapted from Myers-Briggs that you can take at home. 

The MBTI 'personality inventory' uses Extroversion and Introversion as one of its main categories of analysis. Despite changing models of psychology since the 1960s, concepts of introversion and extroversion continue to dominate, and have acquired a moral loading. Extroverts are generally seen to be open and agreeable, and introverts thoughtful as well as neurotic. The basic idea of personality (or temperament) types is not new; it has been around since the classical period. Following Galen, men and women were divided into melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric or sanguine individuals, depending on how much of a particular humour they possessed within their bodies. These differences are represented rather nicely below by the seventeenth-century painter Charles Le Brun's allegorical depiction of different personality types. 

Today, there is more moral loading about different personalities, and the value of introversion and extroversion. In the Western world we place higher stock on being extroverted, as identified by Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking  Many organisations and institutions (I have worked for at least one) celebrate noise and activity over quietness and consideration. Introversion, despite its necessity in many of the creative arts, has acquired something of a pathology; shyness a failing. Why is this? 

Part of this association (extroversion = good and introversion = bad) can be rooted in the social context of the psychological models that emerged after Jung. In the early twentieth century, European and American models of the self valued self-help, self-reliance, hard work and the rise of the individual. Being able to stand out, being willing to be vocal and outward-facing, being able to demonstrably lead others was a measure of success in presenting the self, as in business. On 21st century social media, vloggers like Zoella sell not only books and make up but a particularly modern form of aspirational extroversion that would have been unthinkable in an earlier time. 

Above: Zoe Sugg (Zoella) speaking at the 2014 VidCon, 28 June 2014. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

There are global differences in the desirability of extroversion. While it is taken as the norm in the UK and US, it has been argued, extroversion is less acceptable in traditionally social-orientated traditions of Japan and Buddhist cultures. Of course these are stereotypes, and differences are often surface, rather than core. But part of the reason for introversion in Buddhist cultures is the emphasis on looking inwards, in stillness and mindfulness, characteristics that arguably retain a different value in the West.  

In the real world, of course, we need introverts just as much as extroverts. And most of us are neither entirely one thing or the other. It is common for each of us to feel introverted or extroverted at different times depending on our mood, company and environment. Extroversion is just one of the 'big five' that psychologists now use to measure personality and aptitudes. In addition to extroversion, the characteristics that matter are neuroticism (emotional stability); conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. The vast majority of people fit somewhere in the middle on most of these rankings. There are always exceptions. In a recent study, The Atlantic magazine found that Donald Trump, America's new President, scored extremely low on agreeableness and unusually high on extroversion: a 'combustible' combination whose effects have yet to be seen. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Stories from Japan by Lesley Downer

‘Please allow me to introduce myself ...’ as the Devil said in the Rolling Stones’ song ...
There’s a phrase in Japanese: jiko shokai. It means ‘self introduction’ and it’s what you do when you meet a person or a group for the first time.
You step forward, bow and present your business card, holding it with both hands with thumb and forefinger at the top two corners, turned so that your new acquaintance can conveniently read it, and say, ‘My name is Lesley Downer (or whatever). How do you do?’ You then take your new acquaintance’s business card with both hands with suitable respect and read it carefully (as opposed to stuffing it in your pocket).
Opposing armies of samurai used to introduce themselves before they went into battle. It was called nanori - ‘name announcing.’ The warriors would step forward and yell out their name, lineage, exploits and the exploits of their ancestors to make sure that they were only fighting adversaries of suitable reputation and stature.
In 1274 when Kublai Khan sent an Armada of 4000 ships to Hakata Bay in the southern island of Kyushu, determined to conquer the country, the samurai who confronted the army of Mongols on the beach did exactly that. But they soon discovered that the invaders didn’t have such exquisite manners when they cut them down mid-speech. The Mongols might have overrun Japan when they arrived again in 1281 to finish off the job if it hadn’t been for the Japanese gods who sent a divine wind - kami kaze - that dashed the Mongol ships on the rocks and destroyed their entire fleet.

The kami kaze strikes during the second Mongol invasion of Japan
This is my first regular post for The History Girls blog so I shall introduce myself. A lot of my posts - though not all - will have to do with Japan and I’d like to explain why.
For me the seed was planted more than thirty years ago when I read Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. In it he wrote of the Japanese aesthetic approach to life. In Britain, identical-sized pots by a particular craft potter all cost the same. In Japan you can have ten very similar pots, all of exactly the same size. Nine will be priced at - say - Y5,000 (just under £35). One will be just a tiny bit different - often not obvious to the untrained eye. Perhaps it’s a little uneven, a little off centre. Or perhaps something will have happened in the firing. The glaze will be a little different, maybe there’ll be an unexpected flash of colour, what looks like a flaw that to the Japanese eye gives it beauty. That pot will be priced at Y50,000 or even Y500,000.
The western potter, conversely, strives to make all pots perfectly centred and perfectly round with no variation. As a famous senryu (satirical short poem) puts it:
‘Western food -
Every damn plate
Is round!’

Cup by a famous Okinawan potter. You can see the master’s hand in the strength of the line in the fish design. 

Flagon by the Okinawan potter’s son, also highly accomplished, using his father’s trademark fish design.  The flagon is larger and more complex than the cup but was much cheaper.
At the time that I read Leach’s book I was teaching English to foreign students in Oxford. One, Yoshi, was Japanese. As a first step I asked him to teach me the language.
I also bought the Penguin Anthology of Japanese Literature. I’d recommend it to this day to anyone who has the smallest interest in Japan and its culture.
I began at page 1 and read through to the end. It took me on a wild journey, introduced me to people on the other side of the planet who had lived life to the hilt, some more than a thousand years ago.
I read of Ono no Komachi, the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Like Helen of Troy or Cleopatra she became the emblem of beauty. Men were willing to die for her. One commander of the imperial guard was desperate to have her as his own. To prove his love she ordered him to come to her house for a hundred nights and sleep outside on the bench used to support the shafts of her chariot before she would even consider his suit. All through that freezing winter he did so. When the morning of the hundredth day came round she went out to offer herself to him as his reward. But he was dead. He had died in the night.
For her hardheartedness she suffered the most terrible punishment of all - the loss of her beauty. She lived to be a hundred years old and in Noh plays is portrayed not as a beauty but a crone, forever bewailing her fate.
Komachi really lived and wrote passionate, complex poems. Just as the monks of Wessex were beginning to set down the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as the Vikings were sacking Paris in 845, 100 years before Beowulf was written, she was composing poems like this (in Donald Keene’s wonderful translation in the Penguin Anthology):
‘This night of no moon
There is no way to meet him.
I rise in longing -
My breath pounds, a leaping flame,
My heart is consumed in fire.’

Ono no Komachi by Kanō Tan’yū - 

Ariwara no Narihira, famous as a great lover and poet, lived around the same time. A nobleman of - naturally - peerless beauty, he was banished from the capital, Kyoto, because he had violated the Vestal Virgin. He travelled through the wilds of eastern Japan, past Mount Fuji and the uninhabited plains around what is now Tokyo, breaking hearts and writing sublime poetry. It was said that while other men are picky, he slept with everyone.
The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, came a little later. It was written by a court lady around 1008, before the Battle of Hastings. I’d expected such a famous classic to be a tough read but, at least in translation, it was utterly enthralling. I fell in love with Genji, the central characters, a handsome, roguish, charismatic, badly-behaved prince. Genji was not in the slightest like Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales (written 300 years later). It was all about relationships and feelings, closer to Jane Austen, the Brontes or George Eliot.
And so I read on through the centuries - of samurai armies battling, of a hero who led his band of warriors straight down a vertical cliff face to attack the enemy camped on the beach and how that enemy - including the baby emperor - fled into the water and were drowned, which is why the crabs’ shells there look like samurai helmets to this day. I wept at the fate of doomed lovers, was gripped by tales of love suicide, laughed at the outrageous Tristram Shandy-like antics of a pair of ne’er-do-well nineteenth century vagabonds, and found Basho’s profound and pithy haiku resonating in my mind.

Matsuo Basho with his straw hat and his companion, Sora.

I simply had to go there - see the beach where Atsumori played his flute, the hillside where Basho sat down on his straw hat and wept. Yoshi, my Japanese teacher, warned me that behind every temple there was a factory but I paid no attention. I found myself a job in Japan and off I went.
Over the years I’ve visited all these places and many more. My reading of Japan’s wonderful literature colours everything I see there. Of course Yoshi was right. There are lots of factories, industrial zones and cities of skyscrapers. But even though the country has changed you can still visit the place where the samurai warriors encountered the Mongols on the beach. (In fact underwater archaeologists have found a couple of sunken Mongol ships). You can still imagine how it was back in the days when the commander of the guard spent his last fateful night on the bench outside Ono no Komachi’s house.
I also began to write. While I’m not in Japan so much these days, I spend much of my time imagining myself back there - not in the glamorous Tokyo of skyscrapers and neon (which I also know and love) but in the nineteenth century, as Japan was on the cusp of enormous change. This is what I write about in my latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen. I hope I’ll have the chance to take you with me.