Thursday, 27 April 2017

Cowslips or Concrete in Cowley? by Janie Hampton

Cowley Marsh Park,  near Oxford, April 2017
At the bottom of my road is Cowley Marsh Park. It’s not a lovely park, it’s a ‘rec’, or recreational ground. There are no tended flower beds and the trees are mainly around the edge. Most of it is mown grass for football pitches in the winter and cricket in the summer. Several times a week I walk in Marsh Park with my husband, dog and grandchildren, or cycle through the calm, green space on my way to the city centre.
The park is hidden from the main road by a single row of houses, because – and the name is in the clue – it’s too marshy to build on. In the days when Cowley was more important than Oxford, there was no road between them, only a marshy causeway. In one corner of the park are tennis and volleyball courts next to a grassy patch, overlooked by a blackberry hedge. I have seen a deer sipping from the brook behind the hedge and I once saw a kingfisher flash up it from the River Thames a mile away.
This week the patch is full of cowslips (primular veris), one of Britain’s loveliest native species. The flowers are deep yellow and grow in nodding clusters on stalks about 6 inches high. The leaves are oval, crinkled and less downy than those of its cousin, the primrose. The cowslip probably gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon cu-sloppe, or cow pats, also in the meadows where they grew. The scent of the flowers has the warm milky aroma of cow’s breath or a young baby. Other common names include  peggle, key flower, key of heaven, fairy cups, petty mulleins, palsywort, plumrocks, tittypines and my favourite, tisty-tosties.
Britain's native flower, the Cowslip or primula veris

Celtic druids used the plant in their magical potions. Shakespeare mentioned cowslips in eight of his plays: Ariel in The Tempest sings to Prospero, ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie.’ In the first scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy that meets Puck says that she is off to ‘hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear...' The English botanist Nicholas Culpeper ( 1616-1654) wrote in his Complete Herbal that drinking the distilled water from an infusion of cowslip would make anyone more beautiful. Infusions of flowers were used to treat headaches, feverish chills, or head colds. Tinctures helped insomnia, anxiety, or over-excitement. Ointment was used on sunburn and skin blemishes. Massage oil treated nerve pain, migraine headaches and arthritis. The root was anti-inflammatory and helped to clear stubborn phlegm, especially during chronic bronchitis. Cowslip flowers and leaves have traditionally been used in salads, country wine and vinegars. British writer Alison Uttley (1884 – 1976) described her childhood when cowslips were made into 'sparkling yellow wine' which was ‘more precious than elderberry wine’ and then offered to important 'morning visitors' such as the curate and the local squire. 
These Cowley schoolchildren in 1912 would have picked cowslips
In the early 20th century, on ‘Cowslip Sunday’ country children sold bunches of cowslips to day trippers from cities. Fifty years later Susan Telfer recalled a family picnic to Chingford Plain in Epping Forest, on the edge of London. ‘There was a dense mass of holidaymakers like ourselves escaping the dirt and grime of East London. We found a solitary cowslip. We encamped and my grandmother sat by the flower all day with it covered by a paper bag to prevent anyone else noticing it. We left that evening with that one flower still intact, hoping it would survive at least until the next weekend.’ There are still a few in Epping Forest, now carefully protected.
Children playing in Cowley Marsh brook, by Henry Taunt 1914.
Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council Ref:HT11830
According to the Wildlife Trust  'Formerly a common plant of traditional meadows, ancient woodlands and hedgerows ...the loss of these habitats to the advancement of agriculture caused a serious decline in cowslip populations and now fields coloured bright yellow with the nodding heads of Cowslips are a rare sight. As a result of agricultural intensification, more than 95% of our wildflower meadows have been lost.' Urban development and the habit of ‘tidying up’ grassland with herbicides, fertilizers and mowing have not helped either.
Marsh Road Council Depot this week -  the cowslip meadow could look like this soon.
Next to the cowslips of Cowley Marsh Park and screened by a row of leylandii cypress trees, is the Oxford City Council depot where concrete paving slabs, gritting lorries, and rubbish trucks are kept. Now the council are planning to extend their depot to smother the cowslip meadow.  The application, number 17/00617/CT3, claims that the area is ' vacant', that it has ' little amenity value' and has been left 'untended'. Apparently there are no 'protected or priority species' of plants or animals or 'important habitats' on the land or nearby; even though only two years ago  27 species of flowering plants and 37 species of insects were identified in this area. According to the council’s ‘Arboricultural Assessment’, a council depot surrounded by a wire fence topped with barbed wire is 'more aesthetically pleasing' than a vital recreation area of biodiversity. Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. Who owns a public park? Who occupies it? This is a question that goes right back to 'the commotion times' of Kett’s Rebellion of 1549 and the Oxfordshire Rising in 1596, which were both against land enclosures. 
Robert Kett and his rebels try to negotiate land enclosures outside Norwich in 1549
It is ironic that the Cowley Marsh application is pending just when the cowslips are in full glorious flower. Cowslips were once as abundant as buttercups. But like sparrows and dandelions, without care and attention from all of us, they may all disappear. You don’t have to live in Oxford to comment on plans to destroy this little patch of nature. Go to Oxford City Council Planning Applications before 18 May.
Don’t let cowslips become history.
www.janiehampton.co.uk

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Liberty, I Write Your Name, Carol Drinkwater



Recently, when I was in Paris, I visited the Bon Marché store, which is a regular haunt of mine. I usually head directly to the top floor where they have a very excellent librarie/bookshop. I love to browse there and to see what is being published in French and also who has been translated into French. During my last visit, I chanced upon this title, LIBERTY, which is not a book as such but an illustrated poem. The poem was written by Paul Éluard, published clandenstinely in 1942 - during the German occupation of France -  and, later, illustrated by the artist Fernand Léger. I was intrigued and bought it instantly. My plan is to frame it and hang it on the wall. When I  took it from its box  and it opened like a concertina, I found alongside it, an excellent history of the poem's destiny which is a tale in itself.

The poem, Liberty, was taught in schools. It was adapted to a song and recited in cinemas. It symbolised La Résistance and indeed the fight against all forms of oppression. It was passed on, hand to hand, across America and Europe, recited on the radio and learnt by heart by many of the RAF parachutists. It brought hope to a country and a people living under the oppression of Vichy and the German occupation.

In 1952 when Paul Éluard died, his editor friend, publisher and fellow resistance fighter, Pierre Seghers, wanted to honour his lost friend.  It was then that  Seghers approached Éluard very good friend, Leger, and asked him to illustrated the poem to be printed as a homage to a man who always used his poetry to fight for Liberty, Freedom.



After the attacks in Paris of 13th November 2015, which caused the deaths of many more than 100 people, this poem was posted outside the Pompidou Centre. My new novel THE LOST GIRL takes place in Paris over that horrendous weekend and also in post WWII Provence. So, finding this poem at this time is particularly poignant to me.

Here is the poem:





LIBERTY - Paul Éluard.

On my notebooks from school

On my desk and the trees

On the sand on the snow

I write your name



On every page read

On all the white sheets

Stone blood paper or ash

I write your name


On the golden images

On the soldier’s weapons

On the crowns of kings

I write your name



On the jungle the desert

The nests and the bushes

On the echo of childhood

I write your name



On the wonder of nights

On the white bread of days

On the seasons engaged

I write your name



On all my blue rags

On the pond mildewed sun

On the lake living moon

I write your name



On the fields the horizon

The wings of the birds

On the windmill of shadows

I write your name



On each breath of the dawn

On the ships on the sea

On the mountain demented

I write your name



On the foam of the clouds

On the sweat of the storm

On dark insipid rain

I write your name



On the glittering forms

On the bells of colour

On physical truth

I write your name



On the wakened paths

On the opened ways

On the scattered places

I write your name

On the lamp that gives light

On the lamp that is drowned

On my house reunited

I write your name



On the bisected fruit

Of my mirror and room

On my bed’s empty shell

I write your name



On my dog greedy tender

On his listening ears

On his awkward paws

I write your name



On the sill of my door

On familiar things

On the fire’s sacred stream

I write your name



On all flesh that’s in tune

On the brows of my friends

On each hand that extends

I write your name



On the glass of surprises

On lips that attend

High over the silence

I write your name



On my ravaged refuges

On my fallen lighthouses

On the walls of my boredom

I write your name


On passionless absence

On naked solitude

On the marches of death

I write your name



On health that’s regained

On danger that’s past

On hope without memories

I write your name



By the power of the word

I regain my life

I was born to know you

And to name you






We, in France, went to the polls last Sunday and we will return again on 7th May for the second round to vote for one of the two remaining candidates. It is a very tense time. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, has reached this second round. France stands before its commitment to Liberty. Its right for each and everyone of us to be who we are, believe in what we want, love who we will. AS LONG AS THESE ACTS DO NOT HURT OR TRANGRESS ANOTHER'S RIGHTS. Whether we are supporters of Macron or not, France needs to stand up for all it has fought for, for what is fundamental to this country. I know that if Paul Éluard were alive today he, along with his compatriots, would be delivering leaflets with this poem on it. This my way of posting his words, of passing his message along.
Men have died for the rights that are being threatened by the FN. It is our duty to speak out against them and honour those who gave their energy for our Liberty.

www.caroldrinkwater.com

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Mary Anning by Miranda Miller










   Just before Easter I spent two very enjoyable days in Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic Coast , a World Heritage Site that stretches from Exmouth to Studland Bay. The layers of sedimentary rock along that coast reveal the history of Earth across 185 million years of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The beaches around there are still crowded with fossil hunters particularly in ‘fossiling weather’ – when it is wet and stormy with a strong tide and a choppy sea. This section of the coast is one of the most active landslip sites in Europe and as the cliffs fall into the sea they reveal their secrets.

   I became interested in Mary Anning, the self-educated fossil hunter and collector, and read Tracy Chevlier’s vividly imagined novel about her, Remarkable Creatures, as well as Shelley Emling’s biography, The Fossil Hunter. Anning was the daughter of a cabinetmaker and amateur fossil hunter in Lyme Regis and when she was a baby she survived being struck by lightning which, people said, accounted for her unusual mind. Her father died in debt in 1810 and a year later, when Mary was twelve, she and her older brother Joseph thought they had found the skull of a crocodile. Anning then spent a year extracting the rest of the fossil from the 205 million-year-old Blue Lias cliffs on the beach. She sold the six foot long skeleton to a private collector for £23. It was not a crocodile but an Ichthyosaurus, a “fish-lizard.”

   Fossil collecting was dangerous because the cliffs could collapse at any moment and in one of these landslides Mary’s beloved dog, Tray, was killed. She taught herself an immense amount about fossils and found her first complete Plesiosaurus skeleton in 1823. She also found various Pterosaurs and a Squaloraja skeleton.


   Here she is selling her fossils in Lyme Regis. Museums and collectors all over the world bought them and her knowledge was respected. She became friends with distinguished geologists, including Henry De la Beche, William Buckland,Richard Owen andAdam Sedgwick, one of Charles Darwin’s tutors. The famous French anatomist, Georges Cuvier, doubted the validity of the Plsiosaurus she
found, with a neck that contained 35 vertebrae, when he first examined a detailed drawing. Cuvier probably suspected it was a forgery but the geologist William Conybeare defended Anning’s find and Cuvier eventually wrote that her fossil was genuine, and a major discovery.

   This amazing woman taught herself geology, paleontology, anatomy and scientific illustration. But because she was working class, and a woman, she was never completely accepted by the 19th century British scientific community and admiration was always tempered with condescension. In 1824 Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:

". . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour - that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom."

   Mary never published a scientific paper of her own—men wrote up her finds. She wrote sadly, "The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone." She never married, and was poor until a friend convinced the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide her with an annuity of £25 per year shortly before she died of breast cancer.



   Although the Geological Society marked her death in a president’s address, they didn’t admit the first female member until 1904. In 1865 Charles Dickens, with his wonderful eye for snobbery, wrote an article about her, Mary Anning, The Fossil Finder:

“She met with little sympathy in her own town, and the highest tribute which that magniloquent guide-book, The Beauties of Lyme Regis, can offer her, is to assure us that "her death was, in a pecuniary point, a great loss to the place, as her presence attracted a large number of distinguished visitors." Quick returns are the thing at Lyme. We need not wonder that Miss Anning was chiefly valued as bait for tourists, when we find that the museum is now entirely broken up, and the
specimens returned to those who had lent them.”

    Many of her finds will never be associated with her name because the records were lost long ago. Now, however, The Lyme Regis Museum stands on the site of the house where she was born and there is an annual Fossil Festival at Lyme Regis. The Geological Society has placed one of her ichthyosaur skulls and a portrait of her and her dog in their front reception hall and The Natural History Museum in London has made her and her finds the main attraction of their Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery. In 2010, a hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

   Fossils, of course, played a vital role in the gradual birth of the earth sciences and in the investigation of such theories as continental drift, plate tectonics and evolution. Studying fossils helps palaeoclimatologists discover how life forms reacted to climate changes in the past so that we can begin to predict how the oceans might react to climate change today. Mary Anning’s discoveries were the beginning of a revolution in our knowledge of the history of life. Many of the early collectors were clergymen who were forced to question the Old Testament's account of creation a generation before Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is still relevant at a time when Donald Trump has just appointed the creationist, Jerry Falwell Jr, the president of Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, Liberty, to lead his higher education reform taskforce.









Monday, 24 April 2017

TURNING ON THE LIGHTS : How I write a historical novel by Elizabeth Chadwick.

It's that time again.  Having completed my latest project and handed it in,  I am turning my attention to the next contracted novel.
I have known for a while that it is going to be about Aoife (pronounced Eefa) daughter of Diarmit MacMurchada, king of Leinster, her marriage to Norman adventurer Richard de Clare and how Aoife held her own during  some incredibly difficult political, social and emotional storms.

I was saying to my agent the other day that an analogy for coming to a new historical project is rather like being given the keys to a mansion.  I arrive at night and all I can see is a darkened silhouette. Unlocking the door and entering the house, I stand for a moment, tuning in to the atmosphere. Listening, feeling the electricity raise the fine hairs on my arms.
I know I have to explore the mansion thoroughly to understand its layout, its quirks and foibles - and traps.  I need to turn on the lights and go from cellar to attic, studying the dimensions and familiarising myself with every nook and cranny because this is going to be my place of work for the next eighteen months.  This house is someone's story and it is my job to furbish it with their truth.  To remove the dust sheets and the detritus. To polish and illuminate until that mansion glows with light.

For the moment many rooms remain in darkness and behind locked doors.  It is for me to find the lights and the keys as I write. That part of the journey is as yet unknown. I have to decide what to showcase and what to leave as background ambience.

I go into the kitchen, the hub of the home, I  make myself a large mug of tea (I'm not a wine fan). I sit down at the scrubbed wooden table, and I begin to make plans.

The first thing I do is discover more  about my chosen subject.   I have already obtained the necessary research books concerned with my protagonists and their hinterland and I also have my web browser open.   I set about familiarising myself in a general way with my subject, their life and times, and then I go into more depth.
 I am looking for angles that while absolutely true to the characters also highlight information that has never been looked at before, or not in quite the same way. For example, in my Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, I discovered from reading around that new research shows she was 13 when she married,not 15.  As far as I know, I am the only historical novelist to have written the story of that relationship from that age perspective - and it makes a huge difference to how the politics and relationships are played out.
 I began researching the 12th century in the early 1970's and have never stopped, so I do have a reasonable base line knowledge to help bring me up to speed.   I am not starting from scratch.  At this stage I will also use psychic snapshots and compare them against the known history. I find this utterly invaluable and I use conventional history and the psychic in tandem. (I wrote a post about using the latter in an earlier History Girls post here):Alternative Research

Once I have the broad outline of the story, I write a highly detailed synopsis. It's not so much a selling document as a ground plan of the mansion for me, and information for my editor and agent as to what I'm going to be up to for the next year and a half. If I was approaching an agent or editor for the first time, it would be a tight one pager.  As it is, the working synopsis is  more likely to be around 12 pages of single-spaced text.

 The synopsis completed, I then write a short 'blurb'.  The sort of thing you see on dust jackets or on the back of books.  It will give the reader a brief gist of the contents,  and be written in an economic but emotive way that will make them eager to read the work.  I

I write character studies of the main players -who they are in their world, how old they are, what they look like, their personality traits etc.

The preparation work completed, which has probably taken me around two weeks (not including background reading at mealtimes and in the bath!)  I begin writing, continuing the research and deepening it as I go.  It's the equivalent of going into that first room, switching on the lights, removing the dust sheets and  arranging the furniture.

I write the first three chapters in depth and polish them.  That first room becomes a showpiece for my agent and editor and also the readers.  I send the synopsis, blurb, character studies and chapters to my agent and editor, and then continue to write the first draft. I don't look back on that first draft now.   I go into rooms, pulling back curtains, shaking off more dust sheets, cleaning the chandeliers and adjusting the lighting.  Sometimes I will try out fabrics and colour schemes and then, not satisfied, change my mind and discard.  All the time I am writing that first draft, I am researching on the side and discovering more about my characters.)  An author should never dump historical information into their novel in chunks just for the sake of it. Research exists to inform the story and enable the author to walk with confidence in the world he or she has created. It allows that author to see the world through the eyes of the  protagonists. I cannot know my characters without  knowing their world as intimately as I know my own.  That intimate knowledge underpins the story and makes it flow organically and avoids those  'info-dump' moments.   It's vital to do the research because without it, the characters may show a tendency to come over as modern people in fancy dress. The rooms in the mansion must have the furniture that reflects their occupants. 

Once the sketch draft is complete, I return to the beginning and start editing.familiarity and deeper research.  It's a time to begin the finesse of fine tuning and looking at all the room as a whole.  Do they work together?  What needs adding?  What needs taking away?  Are there more rooms to be unlocked and discovered? Others that are better left closed with the dust sheets put back?   Once I have made those decisions I print out the next draft and read as a paper copy and make alterations with a biro. I then key the alterations into the PC while giving the manuscript another read through.
After that, I print out out again and read aloud.  This is like hoovering the floor and polishing the tables before the guests arrive. It's like chilling the wine and polishing the crystal.

And finally (and after some preliminary viewings by a select few such as my agent and editor)  I throw the mansion open to the public, the door widening on a path of sunlight leading into the hall. And beyond that, more subtle light and shade,  illuminating and draping people who are eager to tell their story and are so much more than names in a book.

Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of more than twenty historical novels, including New York Times bestseller The Greatest Knight, and a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine - The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and the Autumn Throne.  She has just handed in Templar Silks, a novel about William Marshal's pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1183-1186.  Due for publication in Autumn 2017.



Sunday, 23 April 2017

sourdough; slices from history, by Leslie Wilson

The starter, bubbling
It was only about two years ago that I realised how widespread the use of sourdough was, and also how recent is the practise of using brewer's yeast to raise bread. And if that sounds naive, let it be said in my defence that beer was brewed by the ancient Egyptians, and I have known that since my teens.

I've been eating and enjoying sourdough bread since I was a toddler, I guess, visiting my grandparents in post-war Germany. I always associated it with Germany alone, till I had it in Poland in the nineties; and realised the bread I was eating was identical to the bread my grandmother used to make. Since she was Silesian, this is hardly surprising. In Germany, post-war, the bread I had was sliced rye and wheat flour mixed, and also whole-grain bread, which British people call pumpernickel, but actually that is only one variety of what is called Vollkornbrot. Later, in the resurgence of artisanal breadmaking in both Germany and France, I had real Vollkornbrot, straight from the baker's rather than in little vinegary plastic packs, and made of spelt as well as rye, and in France, wonderful rye and white wheat flour pain de campagne.

However, two years ago, I was told by a Greek friend that sourdough was commonly used in Greece, and when I had got my own sourdough operation well under way, I opened Antonio Carluccio's  'complete Italian food' looking for a pizza recipe I could adapt to sourdough from yeast and discovered that traditional pizza is always made with fermented bread dough. Revelation! I guess that Indian bread was also leavened with sourdough once?

Then, Christmas before last, we watched Victorian Bakers on the BBC, and learned that British bread was all made from sourdough till the eighteenth century. It took so long for anyone to decide to try if 'yeaste, to make beere' might also raise bread (to the detriment of British digestions, I fear).
risen dough in a banneton

According to Isabella Beeton: 'It is said that somewhere about the beginning of the thirtieth Olympiad, the slave of an archon, at Athens, made leavened bread by accident. He had left some wheaten dough in an earthen pan, and forgotten it; some days afterwards, he lighted upon it again, and found it turning sour. His first thought was the throw it away; but his master coming up, he miced this now acescscent dough with some fresh dough, which he was working at. The bread thus produced, by the introduction of dough in which alcoholic fermentation had begun, was found delicious by the archon and his friends; and the slave, being summoned and catechised, told the secret.'

It may not have happened in Athens, but one can imagine the discovery of leaven happening by accident, like that, perhaps on a warm day. Sourdough functions by catching wild yeasts in a flour and water mix (in my recipe, you use a teaspoon of honey, too).

I assume that the careful elimination of any starchy material that might generate leaven, at the Jewish Passover festival, originally had to do with removing the remnants of the previous year's sourdough cultures. Which makes me think about the practicability of taking your sourdough starter with you when you set out into the wilderness, escaping from the Egyptians. It would be difficult. There is something essentially settled about having a sourdough starter,

Easy to hand-knead this much dough..
So, in the eighteenth century, people discovered that yeast from beer could also raise bread, and raise it more quickly (I imagine, from my own experience). Very soon, sourdough was considered only fit for the lower classes, and yeasted bread was for the aristocracy, who regarded it as more refined, because more bland in flavour. It's ironic that nowadays sourdough bread is viewed as a luxury product (consumed by elitist Remainers with cosmopolitan tastes?) I have no such ideas about it, since I ate it as perfectly normal bread during my childhood.

The way I bake my sourdough bread is a modern replication of the old methods. Anyone who watched 'Victorian Bakers' will have seen the participants filling a brick or stone oven with wood, firing it, then removing the wood when the oven was really hot, and putting the bread in onto the hot stones. (It was very hard work, as it was to knead a whole baking trough full of dough. No wonder the advent of mixers was greeted with relief by commercial bakers.)

I use a baking stone in an electric oven; I preheat the stone for half an hour at 'Bottom Heat', then set the fan oven to 245C, put the bread in (it forms a crust almost instantly) and bake it for ten minutes at that temperature. Then I turn the heat down to 180C and give it another 25 minutes, and then turn it down again for the remainder of the baking process, so that my oven cools gradually, and the hot stone is an important part of the whole business. Some people build stone ovens in their back gardens and do the whole archaic thing, but I have a novel to write.

In the oven, on a baking stone
People thought, when brewer's yeast bread came in, that it would be more digestible (which was another reason for relegating sourdough bread to the Lower Classes. Fluffy white bread was the New Thing., In the nineteenth century this idea was carried to its logical conclusion with the invention of aerated bread, where no raising agent was used (the Victorians began to think using any kind of yeast might by unhygienic), and air was blown through the dough. 'Different opinions are expressed about the bread', says Isabella Beeton cautiously. The Victorian Bakers production crew tried baking aerated bread too, and pronounced it pretty tasteless.

In fact, as we discover that our guts rely on a host of friendly bacteria to help us digest properly, it's becoming apparent that the lactic acid content of sourdough bread makes it pretty digestible, and maybe helps in the development of a healthy gut flora.

In Europe, at times of famine, bread was adulterated with potato (and with quite a few other, more sinister additives, such as alum or bone-dust). Here is another irony; I've had potato bread (made with leaven, not Irish potato bread) offered me in the basket at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, and I often add it to my own bread, as it gives a very nice texture. Isabella Beeton disapproved because it reduced the protein content; for the same reason, she advocated brown bread over white. People were already discovering that wholemeal was more digestible. 'In many parts of Germany the entire meal is used' (I presume she means the whole grain bread, with visible chunks of grain) 'and in no part of the world are the digestive organs of the people in better condition.' Whole grain bread has a very low GI factor (I think that's the right way round), ie, it's best for people with type 2 diabetes, or even if you want to avoid developing it. Isabella B didn't know that, however.

There's potato in this bread
Tips on sourdough baking, for those who want to try it, or for historical novelists who want to describe baking in the 17th century and earlier, and have their descriptions accurate: sourdough doesn't rise as fast as yeast bread. I usually set mine to prove (the final stage, when it's in the tin or banneton or whatever) overnight. Incidentally, the classic loaf tin came in quite late in the 19th century. It rises well at whatever temperature, in the fridge, even, so your baker doesn't have to put it in a warm place. I don't find it makes much difference whether it's summer or winter, if you're proving it overnight. In Greece, according to my friend Eleni, the starter is left out, and is made quite stiff and doesn't go mouldy. I tried this, but it didn't work for me, maybe because our climate is damper. However, a commercial baker would be feeding their starter every day, and therefore it wouldn't go mouldy, because there wouldn't be time. Overnight proving would also mean the loaves could be baked first thing in the morning.


In the Austrian Tyrol, in some places, bread was only baked twice a year, in a communal bread oven. People would make their own dough and bring it. I think this explains why bread dumplings are so important in Austrian cuisine (yummy). By the end of the six months you could only eat the bread if it was soaked. Isabella Beeton is definite that fresh bread is very unwholesome, and that it's best eaten after three or four days, and I know that in French peasant culture that belief was also prevalent. It does feel as if three or four months might be carrying things too far.
On the other hand, if you made whole-grain bread, that does seem to stay edible almost indefinitely (but I am degenerate enough to like it on the day of baking). I find that sourdough bread does keep longer, and stay moist longer, than beere-yeaste bread.

During the war, British bakers were forbidden to sell fresh-baked bread because people would eat too much of it, and I wonder if this is what was behind the idea that it was unwholesome. Economy.

The bread of the Austrian valley of the Lesachtal, in Carinthia, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage item. It is very delicious.

These are just a few bits of information that I have picked up over the last years, and if anyone else has more to add, that would be extremely interesting! One thing I would like to know is; what was Irish bread leavened with before bicarbonate of soda became readily available?

All photos were taken in my own kitchen, by me or by David Wilson.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Through a Glass Darkly: Mirrors, Myths and Magic by Catherine Hokin


I am a bit obsessed with mirrors at the moment. That's not an unusual state for many women as we oscillate between avoiding or checking our appearance depending on how hopeful/fearful we are feeling on any given day especially if, like me, your approach to dressing may be on the 'eclectic' side. An American acquaintance recently commented that she 'was interested in' the way I flaunted the look in the mirror, remove one item adjunct by adding three more. I digress (which may also be my clothing issue): my mirror obsession is currently centred on their mythical properties.

 
 Roman lead mirror, faces missing
Superstition is one of the many threads that connect us to our ancestors and many have ancient roots. Walking under a leaning ladder, for example, may have connections to the Ancient Egyptians and their belief that the triangle was a sacred shape. You might not be a salt thrower and you may place new shoes on the table without a care but I bet few of us break a mirror without a shiver. The belief that seven years bad luck would result comes from Ancient Rome and is linked to the 7 years the Romans believed it took for a soul to renew itself. If you do have a disaster, simply popping the pieces in the bin is not enough to reverse the misfortune: you can bury the pieces, immerse them in south-flowing water for several hours or grind them to a fine powder so the pieces no longer reflect an image. Or do all three while flinging salt and turning in a circle three times. Best to be safe in these strange times.

The idea of reflection, seeing an image that may otherwise be hidden or differs from what the watcher expects, has always fascinated, whether the source be water, metal or glass. We look for our identity in them, for good or ill: Socrates advised young men to look at their faces and, if the reflection was a handsome one, to focus their life on keeping their souls pure. Some ancient cultures believed the reflection was the true self, 'the shadow soul', hence the myth that vampires and evil spirits have no reflection. In some cultures, the images go beyond the individual: in ancient Chinese mythology, there is the story of the Mirror Kingdom in which creatures who will one day rise up to battle humans are caught in a magic sleep; the flickers we sometimes see in the corners of our eyes as we look into a mirror are the creatures' first stirrings. Other superstitions spanning cultures include not looking into them at candlelight when spirits of the dead might appear and covering mirrors when someone in the house dies so that the soul does not become trapped. The deep-seated hold these superstitions have on the popular imagination is reflected in stories as far apart as Narcissus, Snow White and Candyman. We look but we do not always believe or trust what we see.

 Ancient Egypt c. 1479 BC
That mirrors have grown up surrounded by myths is understandable: not only could they show us new aspects of ourselves and our world, in their earliest incarnations they were rare and expensive. Mirrors made from polished stone (obsidian) have been found in use in Turkey from 6000 BCE and also in South and Central America from 2000 BCE. Polished bronze discs with handles of ivory, wood or metal are seen in Egypt as early as 2900 BCE and in China from around 2000 BCE. By 465 BCE, some Greek mirrors were large enough to reflect a whole figure but most remained small enough to be portable and were highly ornamented, often with figures of the gods. All were recorded as being highly valuable: "For a single one of these mirrors of chiseled silver or gold, inlaid with gems, women are capable of spending an amount equal to the dowry the State once offered to poor generals’ daughters!” (Seneca). However, the reflected image purchased at such cost was not an accurate one: stone and bronze were both dark, metal scratched and tarnished easily and the very few glass mirrors that have been found were curved and therefore distorting - a problem which continued well into the sixteenth century and goes some way to explain the distrust around the reflected image.

 Pictish mirror symbol
Superstition and magic, mirrors have long been associated with both. The idea of reflecting things that were previously hidden or unseen is a short step from looking at mirrors as a method of divination: seeing not just what is there but what might be. One of the most common symbols carved onto Pictish stones in Scotland is a mirror, usually accompanied by a comb. There are a number of theories around the symbol's meaning, including a link to a matriarchal culture but another possibility is an association with astrology and using a mirror to read the heavens. Turning a mirror to the stars to divine messages about the future is seen in ancient Persia, by Shamans in Asia and is even attributed to Pythagoras who, according to legend, tipped a mirror at the moon to read the future. This practice, known as catoptromancy or scrying, is described in a number of ancient Greek texts and sometimes involves mirrors being lowered into water on a thread to provide a double reflection. It appears to have had a number of uses including predicting the future, medical diagnoses and communicating with people not physically present. Practitioners would burn herbs, chant 'prayers' and wait for answers and messages to reveal themselves in surfaces sometimes viewed as a portal between worlds. The practice is recorded well into the middle ages.

 15th century woman and mirror
During the mid to late medieval period, mirrors had rather mixed fortunes. Their role in divination made them a target for the Church and divination itself, associated as it was with demons and evil spirits, was banned. In The Book of the Knight of the Tower, an advice manual written in 1372 by Geoffrey de la Tour Landry for his daughters who are about to attend court, the dangers of sitting in front of the mirror rather than attending church are clearly spelled out:“Will this lady never be done combing herself! Staring at herself in the mirror? And as it pleased God to make an example of her, even as she stared into the mirror she perceived the enemy, who bared his behind, so ugly and horrible that the woman lost her reason, as if possessed by the devil.” However, mirrors also start to appear as a means of guarding against evil and excess: in Dit du Miroir by Jean de Cande, a man asks for a double mirror so he can look at himself inside and out. As mirrors became more common, it seems people were trying to find better ways to accommodate their presence.

The process by which mirrors were made gradually became more sophisticated: the process for making flat glass began in Germany and was perfected in sixteenth century Venice and new coating methods were discovered which improved reflectivity. At the same time, Johannes Kepler was working on a better understanding of the way light is received and focused by the eye. Distorted reflections and magic associations gradually became a thing of the past. Well logically they did but I'm not convinced humans are really that logical when you scratch the surface. For every child who listens to Snow White and then tries the magic mirror refrain out in their bedroom or reads Harry Potter and wants to buy scrying implements in Diagon Alley, there's a teenager giggling with their mates into a candle-lit glass on Halloween and an adult fixing a new mirror on the wall with very great care. Don't believe me? Go drop a mirror, I dare you...

Friday, 21 April 2017

William Sykes - Connoisseur or Forger? by Imogen Robertson

Daily Post (London, England), Tuesday, January 12, 1725

On December 31st 1724 Mr. William Sykes died in Bruges. He was a painter and picture dealer, a member of the Virtuosi of St Luke’s, an exclusive club of artistic connoisseurs, one of the close friends who received a mourning ring from Sir Godfrey Kneller and as you can see above 'a Gentleman distinguished and universally known for his extraordinary Performances and uncommon Judgement in that Art'. 

He left his business at Two Golden Balls, Portugal Row, Lincoln’s Inn--Fields to his son, and the family continued in the art trade through the rest of the 18th century. 

Google him now, however, and you’ll read that he was a forger. 

I’m working on a novella in the Westerman and Crowther series that revolves around art fraud in the period, so I stumbled across Sykes in the early stages of my research. I then went down a rabbit hole of art history and am reporting from deep underground. 

The internet articles about William Sykes seem to originate in Noah Charney’s book The Art of Forgery. Its a beautiful book, but I’m not convinced by his takedown of Sykes. It's made me realise how careful we need to be, or how careful I feel we should be, when accusing historical figures of crimes. I don't think Charney is careful enough, he's providing snappy prose rather than history in the pages which deal with Sykes and I think that's a shame, particularly because it makes me wary about the rest of the book. 

So here's my issue: Charney writes ‘Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century art historian called the con man William Sykes a ‘noted trickster’.’ 

No he didn’t. George Vertue did. According to A. C. Ducerel.
George Vertue by Jonathan Richardson, 1733

George Vertue (1684 -1756) was an artist and engraver who around 1713 embarked on a grand project to collect every scrap of information he could about the history of art in England. He died however before he could shape those notes into something fit to be printed. Horace Walpole, who had often corresponded with him, bought the manuscript notes and used them as the basis for his Anecdotes of Painting in England. In the first volume he wrote about a picture he owned at the time which was known as ‘The Marriage of Henry VII’. Now another of Walpole’s correspondents, A. C. Ducerel wrote to him (23/2/1762), and told him that Vertue had said: 

'That Lord Pomfret bought this picture of one Old Sykes above 30 years ago, which Sykes dealt in pictures and was a noted tricker—that he (Sykes) gave it that name, well knowing how to give names to pictures to make them sell—that Geo. Vertue had carefully examined that picture ... and that, upon the whole, it was suspected, at the time that Lord Pomfret bought it, that Old Sykes, who was a rogue, had caused the figures and representation of the marriage, to be added to the representation of the inside of a church, Old Sykes having before been guilty of many pranks of that sort.' 

So Walpole didn’t use that phrase ‘noted trickster’. It was Vertue who said it to Ducerel, who related it to Walpole who then flew off the handle. Of course he did, Vertue was impugning his picture, of which he was very proud, from beyond the grave. I seem to remember he paid £84 for it.

Now, in one of those gleams of serendipity which seem to come up when researching, it turns out that the picture which Walpole was defending is up for sale next week at Christie’s in New York, and certainly someone messed about with it. A lot. When Walpole owned it it looked like this:


Well, that's an engraving of how it looked. After very careful restoration - it now looks like this:

Lot 8 Attributed to Hugo van der Goes (Ghent c. 1440-1482 Rode Klooster, near Brussels), The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis, oil on panel, 43 5/8 x 49 ¼ in. (110.8 x 125.2 cm.). Estimate 3,000,000 - USD 5,000,000 © Christie’s Images Limited 2017.

The estimate is 3-5 million dollars, in case any of you fancy it.

So was this transformation William Sykes’s handiwork? I think there is no way of knowing. This detailed and scholarly article almost convinced me, but a portrait that the author, Alain.R.Truong identifies as by Sykes, and relies on for comparison is now listed on the National Trust site as by an unknown 19th century painter. I’ve emailed to ask about that and will let you know if I hear anything. 

Charney’s accusation however in The Art of Forgery is not that Sykes repainted the painting above, but that Sykes forged an inscription on the back of a different painting. The painting, now known as The Enthronement of Saint Romold as Bishop of Dublin, was for a long time thought to be a Van Eyck portrayal of The Enthronement of Thomas a Becket. It did certainly pass through Sykes’s hands, but that doesn't prove the inscription is the work of Sykes. 
painting by Master of the Youth of Saint Romold
(Museum: National Gallery of Ireland)

Charney implies Sykes attributed the painting to van Eyck because he was ‘the most famous and highest selling artist in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries in England’, which, given Sykes died in 1724, would make him a prophet as well as a forger.
 


George Vertue gathered information from Sykes about painters the older man had known, so was willing to take his words on some things, but he’s very distrustful of him too. When Vertue decides that a portrait, traditionally called ‘Mary Queen of Scots with her son’, in The Drapers Hall in London is in fact no such thing he writes ‘I fancy Sykes the painter was concerned in it’. Hmm. Well. Assertion is not evidence. 

I have noticed that though Vertue was an early student of Godfrey Kneller, he didn't get one of those mourning rings, and Sykes did. Jealousy, perhaps? That could make an interesting novel...