Sunday, 27 May 2018

A Day Trip to Windsor by Janie Hampton


Granny insisted on taking us on a history lesson
Last Saturday, two of my grandchildren and I went out for a history and anthropology lesson. We could have gone to Legoland in Berkshire but chose nearby Windsor instead. Bill, 10, Delilah, 8, and I left Oxford by train at dawn and were surprised by how many other people were waiting at Slough station for the six-minute ride into Windsor. It was a glorious, sunny morning and the train passed over the River Thames not far from where King John signed Magna Carta in 1215. Bill looked at his train ticket and asked ‘What’s an etton?’ ‘Eton is a small town just over there, on the river. It’s famous for a boarding school started in the 15th century for poor boys. It’s a charity, but the fees are more than what most people in Britain earn. Most British Prime Ministers went there.’ ‘Did Teresa May go there?’ ‘No, they still only allow boys, who have to wear tail coats.’ ‘I wouldn’t like that,’ said Bill. This led to a discussion of educational rights, privilege and power. Arriving at Windsor and Eton station, we compared Queen Victoria's taste for ornate architecture, with the concrete minimalism of the 21st century shopping mall now attached to it.
Oh look! There's a Royal Wedding on today! 
When we saw that the ancient winding streets of Windsor were decked with bunting, we realised that something was up. Apparently two lovely people were getting married – a British prince and an American TV star! Kindly policemen with machine guns ushered us towards the Great Park. ‘This is certainly a long walk,’ said Delilah as we looked up the Queen’s two-mile front drive. Above the Long Walk rose Windsor Castle, begun by William I in 1070, soon after he conquered England. Over the centuries the castle grew and became more and more elaborate. In 1992 after a curtain caught alight, a fire raged through the state apartments because royal residences don’t have to adhere to fire regulations. They also don’t buy house insurance, but craftspeople rallied round and everything was rebuilt even better, and safer, than before. Delilah noticed the huge Royal Standard fluttering above the Round Tower. ‘That means the Queen is at home,’ I told her. ‘And that’s where she lived as a child during the Second World War, safe from the Blitz.’
Windsor Castle on fire, 20 November, 1992.
We found a spot on the grass under a flowering chestnut tree and joined thousands of people enjoying picnics. In front of us was a huge screen on which we watched the participants of our social anthropology study arriving at St George’s Chapel. The men all wore a uniform of mid-20th century dark suits and ties. A few had tail coats, perhaps harking back to their school days at Eton. Most of the women wore the costume of aristocracy when attending Ascot races: pastel-coloured silk frocks, large hats and ridiculous stiletto-heeled shoes. It was a miracle nobody tripped on the 15th century flagstones. The conversation around us gave us an insight into both the viewed and the viewers.  People wondered why Princesses Eugene and Beatrice always look so frumpy; why Victoria Beckham looked so grumpy; and why Princess Anne was wearing her father’s dressing gown. While  the Duchess of Cambridge was commended for recycling her ivory suit – it had been seen at least twice before.
Swoons from the crowd for George Clooney, and admiration
for Amal's outfit by Stella McCartney. copyright Gareth Fuller/PA 
The first royal wedding at Windsor was in 1121, between Henry I and his second wife, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain in Belgium. When the divorced, bi-racial, American bride, Ms Rachel Meghan Markle appeared, everyone cried. Her dress was a perfect blend of simplicity and grandeur; and her make-up did not hide her freckles. Her five-metre silk veil was both beautiful, and a political statement: the 53 flowers embroidered round the edge were a nod to the leaders of the Commonwealth who had voted for the Prince of Wales to take over as head when the Queen dies. The missing teeth of the page boys added homely reality. And the whispered endearments of His Royal Highness Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales brought sighs from all the women around us whose hopes were now dashed.
Page boy John Mulroney's reaction to the trumpet
fanfare on entering St George's Chapel.
St George’s Chapel was commissioned by King Edward IV in 1475 and is a masterpiece of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. The English matrimonial rite has been evolving for 1,000 years and this one was a traditional post-Reformation, Anglican marriage, with modern twists. The last mixed-heritage British royal was Queen Charlotte who married George III in 1761 and this ceremony certainly celebrated diversity. We had the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop, the Jamaican Chaplain to The Queen, and African-American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry. He broke with decorum and preached with noisy passion about love, slavery, equality and poverty – an unexpected blend of theology, history and politics that brought cheers from the crowd. 
Queen Charlotte was descended
from African Portuguese royalty 
The service was also a glorious lesson in the history of English music, beginning with the motet ‘If ye love me’ by Thomas Tallis (1505-85). Ever since 1348, boys have sung eight times a week in St George’s, including at Christmas and Easter, in exchange for a free education. My brother was a chorister there, and at the end of each term my family and I attended Evensong in the Quire before taking him home. As George Clooney admired the fine East Window dedicated in memory of Prince Albert, and the banners of the Knights of the Garter, he sat in the same 15th century carved oak stall as I did, nearly 60 years ago. The 600 VIP guests in the nave had to be content with looking up at the 16th century vaulted ceiling and frieze of 250 carved angels from their fold-up chairs.
George Clooney and I sat in the back row on the left,
behind St George's choir, only 60 years apart.
The sublime English music continued with Rutter, Elgar, Vaughn Williams and Holst and exquisite playing by teenage ’cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The highlight in the Long Walk came when the crowd joined the Kingdom Gospel Choir in singing ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King. My, did we sing our hearts out! How many people knew this was originally a slave song?


Friendly police officers offered to share their helmets.
As the guests in the chapel and 120,000 others gathered outside, stood to sing the National Anthem, I was aware that this could be the last time my grandchildren would witness their 92 year-old Queen feted in this way. Then it was time to rush to the fence to watch the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex pass by in their open landau, pulled by four prancing horses. ‘I saw her,’ said Delilah panting with excitement. ‘She was really beautiful.’ ‘And I saw the soldiers with gold  helmets, holding real swords as they galloped along,’ exclaimed Bill. Bill and Delilah’s history lesson on Saturday was certainly an Excellent Adventure.
The Long Walk, Windsor Great Park. Can you spot us in the crowd on the right? 

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Home To Vote, by Carol Drinkwater





As I write this, planes from everywhere are disgorging bands of women into airports across the Republic who have flown home to Ireland to vote YES to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. It is a vital vote in Ireland today and by the time you read this, the result will be in. I am praying that it will be an overwhelming YES.

The Irish diaspora is coming home to vote for the repeal of the eighth amendment.
This is a clip from Dublin airport yesterday

But what is the eighth amendment? 

Have a look at this video. I found it on the British Independent newspaper site and I thank the paper for allowing its use to spread a clear understanding of the situation and what is at stake.


The eighth amendment was brought in to law in Ireland on 7th September 1983. Its implementation gave equal rights to the unborn and to the carrying mother. This has meant that any woman who has aborted a child in Ireland  for whatever reason including as a rape victim has been subject to up to fourteen years in prison.
Pregnant women from Ireland have been travelling to Britain, Holland, elsewhere in Europe, even to off shore boats carrying medical facilities to offer abortions. Why? Because their own doctors are not allowed to offer  termination under any circumstances.  Backstreet abortions still exist in Ireland. And, of course, we all know the risks involved with these.

                                                                    Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar died from a septic miscarriage in Galway Hospital in 2012. She was a dentist, thirty-one years of age. When it was clear to everyone that she would miscarry the child, she requested an abortion and it was denied under the Eighth Amendment. She lost her life.

The reality is that women need the right to choose for themselves knowing their own circumstances better than anyone else. Our bodies, our choice.

Today, I hope, history will be made. Be wise and forward-thinking, dear Ireland.

As I sign off, less than an hour before this post goes live, The Irish Times is predicting a landslide  YES vote. Up from the ashes, Ireland, and into the twenty-first century.
History in the making.






Friday, 25 May 2018

London Zoo by Miranda Miller



    Recently I visited the zoo with my three little grandsons, whose favourite place it is. Felix, aged 22 months, is obsessed with octopuses and butterflies. I was struck by the generous space the animals are housed in now, and by this mission statement:


Respecting and valuing animals and the natural world:Our belief is that a diverse and healthy natural world is valuable in its own right and is essential for ensuring secure and healthy lives for people.

Over a million people a year visit the zoo and there are lots of imaginative educational programmes to interest children in biology.

   When I was a child it was very different; I’m sure that many people who worked at the zoo then DID respect the animals but they were kept in cramped cages and seemed to exist for the amusement of human beings. I remember queuing up for rides on the elephant ( see above) and the camel, who presumably were not asked if they wanted to carry squealing children around on their backs. The highlight was the Chimpanzees’ Tea Party, when chimps dressed in human clothes sat down at a table and threw buns at each other while we all laughed at their uncivilised table manners.


   The Zoological Society of London was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1826, on a 5 acre site in the new Regent’s Park, which was then on the northernmost edge of London. It wasn’t the first zoo in Europe but, in England,  the only major public collections of exotic animals were the Exeter Change menagerie, in a filthy arcade on the Strand, and the mangy  assortment of animals at the Tower. Henry I created England's first 'zoo' in 1110, when he collected lions, tigers, porcupines and camels at Woodstock, in Oxfordshire. Later, this menagerie was moved to the Tower of London, where it remained for 600 years.


   Raffles, of course, is most famous for founding Singapore. He was also a remarkable collector and scholar who enthusiastically researched the natural and cultural history, civilization and languages of the countries which are now Indonesia and Malaysia. Raffles himself died a few months after founding his zoo, aged only 45. His ambitions for the expansion of the British Empire were undoubtedly mixed up with this project to introduce other scholars to some of the Empire’s most exotic inhabitants. After Raffles’ death his project continued, supported by distinguished scientists, aristocrats, and clergymen.


   Decimus Burton was appointed to lay out the grounds and design houses for the animals, many of them very beautiful, as can be seen from these designs:

   The Literary Gazette wondered “how the inhabitants of the Regent’s Park will like the lions, leopard and linxes [sic] so near their neighbourhood.” They didn’t, and the objections of people living in the grand houses John Nash had recently built in and around the park delayed the construction of the new buildings. The zoo finally opened in 1828 and, for the first twenty years, only Fellows, and those who could obtain permission from them, were allowed access. Sadly, many of the first generation of exotic animals died of the cold because it was not understood that they had to be kept in carefully regulated temperatures.

   Charles Darwin visited while he was writing The Origin of Species and was fascinated by an orangutan, Jenny, the first ape he had ever seen: “The keeper showed her an apple, but would not give it her, whereupon she threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child. - She then looked very sulky & after two or three fits of pashion [sic], the keeper said, 'Jenny if you will stop bawling & be a good girl, I will give you the apple.' - She certainly understood every word of his, &, though like a child, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded, & then got the apple, with which she jumped into an arm chair & began eating it, with the most contented countenance.” This experience probably contributed to his famous conclusion that: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”

   When the zoo did open to the public, for a shilling, it rapidly became a much loved part of London life. A giraffe was an early star and so was Jumbo, an African bull elephant, who even entered the dictionary. A hippopotamus, Obaysch, arrived, given by the Abbas Pasha of Egypt, in exchange for four brace of deer hounds. In 1850 Punch published The Diary of the Hippopotamus:

As many of our country readers naturally feel anxious to know how the Hippopotamus passes his time in a strange land, where he is so far away from home and all his relations, we have gone to the expense of procuring the following particulars, which are now printed for the first time.... HIP, HIP, HIP, FOR THE HIPPOPOTAMUS.

EVERYBODY is still running towards the Regent's Park, for the purpose of passing half an hour with the Hippopotamus. The animal itself repays public curiosity with a yawn of indifference, or throws cold water on the ardour of his visitors, by suddenly plunging into his bath, and splashing every one within five yards of him.

   Twenty years later a music-hall artist, the Great Vance, sang:

Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo.

The O.K. thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo.

The Fellows of the Zoological Society of London disapproved of this undignified new slang word but it caught on, anyway.

   An unusually tame female black bear called Winnie lived at London Zoo from 1914, when she was left there by Canadian soldiers on their way to fight in France, until her death in 1934. A A Milne and his son Christopher Robin were so charmed by her that Milne changed Pooh’s name to Winnie-the-Pooh.

   London Zoo seems to have adapted admirably to changing ideas about animal rights, although it can of course be argued that zoos shouldn’t exist. The National Zoo in Washington, for instance, now prefers to call itself a biopark. Many people believe that wild animals should remain in their natural habitat and shouldn’t be made to live in captivity at all. But while it’s here some  of us will continue to enjoy our visits.






Thursday, 24 May 2018

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL: By Elizabeth Chadwick.

One of the joys of writing historical fiction for me is the detective work of  discovering the lives of the characters who populate my novels.  Although it's fiction, I want to get as close to their personalities and their daily experiences as possible.

  At the outset of any project I always ask myself: 'Who are you? What are you really like?  What can you tell me that you have never told anyone before?' (Present tense intentional).   And then I begin sifting through the primary and secondary source evidence, and pursuing my time travel delvings with my friend and very talented psychic, Alison King.  Here's an url to an earlier piece about how it works in tandem with conventional historical resources.
 Alternative research: the psychic strand

When diving under the surface I often come across facts and details that change the course of my work and it fascinates me how these items make a difference to my creative choices. If I hadn't come discovered these facts, I would have written scenes that could never  happen, or that might have made a different impact on history.  I'm sure I have made many unwitting 'it didn't happen' choices because there is only so much research a writer can do. Of course it all boils down to that blend of story and fact combining to create the marvelous genre of historical fiction.  The facts we use and don't use, that we know and don't know,  are the building blocks of our personal experience and journey.

When writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE SUMMER QUEEN,  most of her biographies said she was born in 1122, but then I came across newer research which put her more likely birth date at 1124. (Andrew Lewis's article on the birth date of King John in Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, edited by John Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler)  You might say two years doesn't make a difference, but it does when your character is married either at 13 or 15.  Two years in this case is the distance between just out of childhood, and established teenager and the description of one biographer of Eleanor as being 'saucy and hot-blooded' (without any evidence I have to say) at her marriage, immediately sounds a very wrong note.  My choice was to go with the new findings and write Eleanor as being married at 13, just out of childhood and at that stage a pawn of powerful middle-aged men, rather than at 15 and a demanding little madam. No other author of historical fiction had tackled Eleanor from the angle of marriage at 13 and it made a huge difference.

There was the matter too of her illegitimate brother Joscelin.  If I was going to write about her life, I had to know about him because several biographers said that she had given him land in Sussex when she was queen of England. He must have been important to her.   I subsequently discovered that no such brother existed and it was a misreading of the primary sources by her biographers.  I wrote about it for The History Girls here. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the brother who never was   Needless to say, I omitted his presence from the novels.

At the moment I am busy on the third draft of THE IRISH PRINCESS, the story of Aoife Machmurchada, daughter of King Diarmait of Leinster who married Richard de Clare, lord of Striguil (Chepstow), her father having bestowed her marriage in payment for de Clare's help in regaining Diarmait's lost lands.  Richard de Clare is known to history as 'Strongbow'  as was his father. Once again, digging under the surface, delving into other histories and talking to excellent castle historian Paul Martin Remfrey, a detective himself par excellence, I now know that in all likelihood, 'Strongbow' was never called by that title in his lifetime. The elaborate stories about how he came by the name (either by leading a contingent of skilled archers, or being able to pull a great warbow that no one else could) is all so much myth and legend.  The real reason he became known in future centuries as 'Strongbow' was that the scribes who wrote 'Striguil', the caput of his earldom were idiosyncratic in their spelling and handwriting and the word became mangled and changed in the Chinese whispers of time.
I still have a warbow in my story as a nod to the legend, but I have omitted calling Richard de Clare 'Strongbow'  because what is known cannot now be unknown.
While researching the same novel, I have also been intrigued to find that Aoife, Richard de Clare's wife, who I had earlier thought had lived much of her life in Ireland, now seems to have dwelt mostly in England and Wales during her widowhood.  Her purported death date of 1189 has been pushed back to 1204, (circumstantially but convincingly enough for me), and I have a whole new set of possibilities with which to play!).

I'm slowly gearing up to prepare the next project.  I wonder what I'll discover next time around!

Elizabeth Chadwick's most recent work, TEMPLAR SILKS, details William Marshal's journey to the Holy Land in the course of which Elizabeth discovered all manner of research details she had never come across before!


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

1968, looking back, by Leslie Wilson

Robert Schediwy
On this day in May 1968, 'Les evenements' were in full swing. Left-wing workers and students together were challenging the stuffy status quo of postwar France; that was all my fifteen year-old self knew, but I was deeply excited. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French student leader, had been evicted from France, but rumours were rife that he would be nipping back across the border. In the Quartier Latin, tear gas was swirling round and students - among them my brother's French penfriend Yvon, were throwing cobble stones at the police, or rather the CRS riot force, and chanting (with some justification) 'CRS, SS!' and 'We are all German Jews' (Nous sommes des Juifs Allemands) because a right wing politician had dismissed Cohn Bendit on the grounds that he was a) German and b) Jewish.

I was supposed to be revising for my O Levels, but spent more time reading novels from the library, slipping them under my duvet (having a German grandfather, I had one, ahead of everyone else) when my parents entered my bedroom to demand if I was working. I was almost sixteen, and in many ways rather young for my age.

I lived in Nottingham, and at the university, there were 'sit-ins' and demonstrations, to the ire of our family friend who was Reader in classics there, a gentle, scholarly man. He took me to watch the award of an honorary degree to JRR Tolkien (I was crazy about Tolkien's work), but nothing could be heard at all because Lord Seebohm was getting an honorary degree that day, and students were demonstrating against his involvement in South Africa. I remember them climbing up to the window and shouting through it. I was disappointed not to hear Tolkien, though I felt vaguely guilty for resenting the demonstration, and also bad that I was inside with the uncool adults while the committed people were outside.

It felt as if the world was changing, and would never be the same again. As if people were standing out against hypocrisy and for freedom, and against war. The Vietnam war was going on, and in America students were burning draft papers; also offering people flowers and saying 'peace, man,' generally in a fume of pot. Hippy fashion, of course, percolated down to us, even such girls at my school as were deeply conservative.

Enoch Powell made his 'rivers of blood' speech, and one of my teachers said he was 'a voice crying in the wilderness.' At tutor time, I got into an argument with another girl, who told me she was racially prejudiced and proud of it; others weighed in against me. I argued against prejudice, with nobody to back me up, and the form tutor accused me of being intolerant and argumentative. I probably was argumentative, and I was certainly intolerant of racism. Teenage girls are sharp-edged; they don't see many shades of grey, in general. I was quite sure my teacher was unfair, and I still am.

That summer, in the heavenly, relaxed time after the exams, I lay in the grass of someone's garden, at a UNA youth group event, alongside a Czech student called Jiri, who'd come to England in the Prague Spring. We all knew that Communism was being transformed in Czechoslovakia, and I somehow expected Jiri to be living in the bliss of a new heaven and a new earth, but he was rather stressed, probably homesick. Something about him was deeply familiar to me, having lived up with people who'd been traumatised by living under dictatorship, though it's only now, looking back, that I can see this. He was very attractive, I seem to remember, with very dark curly hair, long of course, because all boys and young men were growing their hair long. Beards weren't allowed at school; they had to wait for university to grow. John Lennon was the template.

'Hey Jude' came out that year, but the summer, for me, was Yellow Submarine and All You Need is Love, and, of course, still Sergeant Pepper. I sang Joan Baez, my brother was keener on Bob Dylan. We sang 'We Shall Overcome' rather a lot.

Meanwhile, De Gaulle survived a vote of no confidence, and our friend Yvon quit the 'Evenements' when he saw the CRS seize a woman student and bang her head on the pavement. I felt a little disappointed and cast down about that, but now I can see his point of view.

Robert Kennedy, Wikimedia Commons
I have no idea where I was when I heard of John Kennedy's assassination, but I do know exactly where I was when I heard about Robert. I was in the kitchen with my mother; it was a lovely day and the dining table, in the next door room, glowed in the sunlight. My father came in and said: 'Terrible news. They've killed Bobby Kennedy.' He said it was a dreadful day because Kennedy had been 'the great hope of the black man in America.' What I can't remember  is Martin Luther King's assassination, which was arguably a much worse day for black people in the States. Possibly this is, I'm embarrassed to admit, because Robert Kennedy was definitely dishy, as we used to say in those days. He did also seem to stand for anti-racism, for the breaking down of barriers, for liberal values.

But Dubcek and Svoboda were still standing up for Communism with a human face in Prague.
After my O Levels, I was sent off to stay with Yvon's family, the Dufours, in France, who had become close family friends of ours; my dear friend Francoise, who'd also stayed in the family, became my adopted big sister. Having split from her husband, she'd come back with her little girl Jeanne to live with her parents, and she talked to me and entertained me and drove me up to Paris to see the graffiti from the Evenements before they were all washed away. It had all come to an end in the Quartier Latin then. I remember streets of earth where the cobbles had been grubbed up, tidy piles of cobblestones, buses of police and tourists with cameras. It felt rather like the aftermath of Reading festival, and I had an overwhelming sensation of emptiness.
The Dufours drove me down with them to Roaix, in Provence, where my parents were to join us for a camping holiday, in the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the annual French exodus. The campsite was fun: all the young people got together to enjoy themselves. One hot, cicada-noisy night, we danced to a gramophone on an empty threshing floor and the farmer turned up, fired a shot, and drove us away. It was on that holiday that a van arrived and sprayed the trees with pyrethrin (I think, remembering the smell). I don't know what the purpose of this was, but I remember the silence the following night. There were no more cicadas. When later I read Carson's Silent Spring, I remembered that, with deep sadness.

My brother went on a language course in Kiev that year; he was studying German with Russian at Cambridge. On the way back from Kiev, his train had been held up for hours at the frontier while trainloads of tanks went through on the way to Brest-Litovsk. The talks were going on at Bratislava, and there was a bad feeling. The Russians were losing patience.
I remember how the news came through of the Russian invasion. We cried. For me, it felt as if everything was collapsing; there had been a frost that had destroyed the hopes of May. The cicadas had stopped singing, and maybe there was no point in singing 'We shall Overcome' any more. My father said it was the fault of the Czechs, who would have got the freedoms they wanted if they'd only been patient. I was shocked to hear him say so, for earlier in the year he'd been saying quite different things.
One of the tanks that rolled into Prague: Gerritse at Dutch Wikipedia

In the autumn, I went to Germany to spend the first term of the 6th form in a school in Traunstein, Upper Bavaria. I forgot all about politics for a while and just enjoyed the food, the wonderful landscapes, learning to talk Bavarian, and my friendship with Gaby, the girl whose family I stayed in and whose class I was in.
It's fashionable now to say that the 1968 generation became the selfish Thatcherites of the 80s. I know a lot of people my age who are anything but (though I was a very young member of that generation). For me, 1968 lit a flame which has never been extinguished, a belief, in spite of Russian tanks, pesticides, the CRS and De Gaulle, that change is possible, though I guess the year showed me that talk of ground-breaking revolution is often premature.
Twenty years later I was one of 62 peace protestors who got over (in my case round) barricades to mark the outside of the MOD with ash (barbecue briquettes) in an Ash Wednesday protest against nuclear weapons. I already had a criminal record for cutting a strand of the fence at the Burghfield nuclear bomb factory the previous year. I was a regular day visitor at Greenham Common. Unlike my 16 year-old self, I knew exactly what this was about; a life for my children, and every living person on the planet for starters; but Greenham taught us all to 'make the links', showing how inequality and neo-colonialism fuelled war all over the earth. I was committed to non-violence; no cobblestones and Molotov cocktails flying through the air for us peaceniks. But I had no problem with taking a hacksaw blade to the Burghfield fence, or to the courageous campers at Greenham scissoring the fence apart with businesslike bolt cutters.
One gets older; one learns to understand how complex things are. Complexity seems a cause worth campaigning for nowadays, where memes on social media are demonstrating how destructive they can be. Truth is another crucial value, and women's rights, which weren't considered particularly important in the '60s. But for me, 1968 doesn't represent a fixed ideology, rather a year when hope blazed high, a year that made me aware, alive.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

A Short History of Mermaids by Catherine Hokin

I've been pondering on mythical creatures lately (too many publisher/audience/bookseller witticisms here to indulge in so I'll resist) and in particular mermaids, largely because I've just lost the best part of a weekend to the very wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower.

 Mermaid from The Medieval Bestiary, British Library
Given how much water there is on the planet, it's hard not to wonder what might be down in the depths and it's equally hard not to hope that its mermaids rather than some of the more terrifying creatures that stop me watching nature programmes. From the little one to the mischief makers who lived in Peter Pan's lagoon, the mermaid of Zennor and all the others who flitted through Andrew Lang's fairy books, mermaids were a big part of my childhood, as Ariel was in my daughter's. Perhaps because I was brought up in the Lake District and loved to swim, a mostly human creature who could live underwater, had great hair and wore a lot of pearls always struck me as an ideal playmate.

Our curiosity about these creatures, and belief/hope that they exist, goes back thousands of years, although they have always had a sinister side outside children's tales, particularly among sailors who viewed them as both beautiful and dangerous. The earliest known depiction of a mermaid dates back to the 18th century BC on a Babylonian sealstone and there are mermaid paintings still visible at Pompeii. One of the earliest stories is about Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike. After her death, a legend sprang up that she had turned into a mermaid who would ask the sailors on any ship she would encounter the question: “Is King Alexander alive?”. If the sailors answered “He lives and reigns and conquers the world” then she would leave the sea calm. If there was any other answer, she would stir up a terrible storm, destroying the ship and all its crew.

 Medieval carved mermaid with mirror & comb
This dual and conflicting aspect, beautiful and seductive or siren-esque beast, is a key part of mermaid mythology. Who needs to blame God for a storm or a mysterious wrecking that sinks a ship, when you can blame a malicious beautiful woman out to kill human men in the full knowledge that the Church would happily support your view? Unsurprisingly, as the Christian Church sought to crush pagan beliefs, mermaids were increasingly depicted as vain and lustful, tempting men to risk not only their lives but also their souls. Their iconography of comb and mirror stems from this idea of vanity and mermaids were regularly used as pictorial shorthand for the deadly sin of lust. The image of a mermaid continued to have dark sexual connotations down the centuries and was employed as a euphemism for a prostitute with even Mary Queen of Scots falling foul of it: the people of Edinburgh depicting her as a mermaid when she married Bothwell in May 1567, a few weeks after Lord Darnley's murder.

The reality of mermaids existing was assumed during medieval times, when a belief endured that anything that moved on land had a counterpart in the sea. In 1430 in the Netherlands, it was said that, after the dikes near the town of Edam gave way during a storm, some girls rowing around in a boat found a mermaid floundering in shallow, muddy waters. According to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, They got her into the bat, took her home, [and] dressed her in women’s cloths. She remained, however, totally mute. Interestingly, by the 1600s the story had evolved somewhat. This time the injured mermaid was taken to a nearby lake and soon nursed back to health. She eventually became a productive citizen, learning to speak Dutch, perform household chores, and eventually converting to Catholicism. Little miss lusty turned into a proper woman then.

 John William Waterhouse: Sketch for a Mermaid
Other sightings include John Smith, of Pocahontas fame in 1614, who saw a mermaid swimming about with all possible grace. He noted that she had large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was somewhat short, and well-formed ears that were rather too long and that her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive. Christopher Columbus in 1493, however, was less impressed,  writing in his diary: The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men. Perhaps his lack of enchantment would have made him better placed to listen to Olaus Magnus, a 16th century writer and cartographer whose map Carta Marina catalogued the many monsters of the seas around Scandinavia. He warned that fishermen maintain that if you reel in a mermaid and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall. 

What had they seen? Probably manatees or dugongs which have a flat, mermaid-like tail and two flippers that resemble stubby arms. Not a beautiful maiden by any stretch but many 'sightings' were from quite a distance away, possibly in poor light or during storms when fear was high and, being mostly submerged in water and waves, only parts of the 'mermaid's' body would be visible. A glimpse of a head, arm, or tail just before a creature dives under the waves in those circumstances might be just enough to spawn a legend.

 The Fiji Mermaid, Mead Art Museum
By the 1800s, the fake mermaid trade was big business with hoaxers churning them out by the dozen. One of the best known was the Feejee Mermaid displayed by P.T. Barnum in the 1840s. However, your 50 cents bought not a svelte, fish-tailed lovely combing her hair but a small and rather more grotesque fake corpse made (probably in Japan) of monkey bones, papier-mache, painted wood and the bottom part of a fish. 

Since then, mermaid encounters tend to be of the oddly-coloured hair/Starbucks cup/Disney type although news reports in 2009 claimed that a mermaid had been sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of town of Kiryat Yam, performing tricks for onlookers before just before sunset, then disappearing. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail. The town's tourism board offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature but no one came forward and the mermaid has disappeared. I'm betting she's run off with Nessie.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Your (Tudor) Dinner Awaits by Imogen Robertson



The kitchens at Hampton Court have re-opened and I had meatballs with ginger and cinnamon to celebrate. I wrote a while ago about my involvement scripting the sound landscape for Hampton Court Place Base court and how much fun I had doing it. Once that was complete we moved on to the kitchens and this time we got to use pictures as well as sound. I was hired by Matthew Rosier of Chomko Rosier again, and once Matt had done all the hard stuff like working out the initial concepts for each area we were working on, the budgets and where all the wires went, I got to join forces with him, James Bulley and Kyle Waters for the fun stuff. Researching, scripting and, as we filmed and recorded, a little light directing.

We were providing elements for five areas. The Carpenter’s Court was where food stuffs arrived throughout the day. The Board of the Greencloth was the administrative centre of the operation. A group of senior household officials gathered there each morning to make sure the needs of the Court were being met and accounted for, supported by clerks doing the counting and book keeping. They worked out what they would pay suppliers, what dishes would be served to whom and kept a close eye on all of the money flowing out of the palace, and all the food stuffs coming in. 

Installing Board of the Greencloth


In the Boiling House vast numbers of joints were seethed for the table in a giant copper. 


In the kitchens themselves, visitors can touch the chopping boards to see the cooks preparing the meat in front of them. The special speakers used for this bit mean you can feel the knife coming down to mince the meat and the vibration of the pestle and mortar as the spices are ground. 




On the other side of the wall, invisible fires crackle and the pots seethe, spit and bubble as the cooks go to and fro.

Intensive pot listening with Matt and James

My job was primarily getting into the detailed research with the guidance of the brilliant Hampton Court team, and coming up with the words. The research was much trickier than it was for Base Court - general gossip about historical figures of whom we know a fair amount is one thing, making sure you’re getting it right quoting the price of fish in 1538 is another. What does a 16th century cook say to himself as he’s making a pie mix, stirring his pottage or shredding herbs from the garden? It’s quite like novel writing in fact. You have to find those small very specific details to make a place and a time come alive, and then find a way to make them feel natural.

Filming Board of the Greencloth
I do miss the collaborative elements of this sort of work. Novel writing is a megalomaniac’s paradise in many ways. It’s your world, and you get to run it as you see fit. Film and sound production is a team sport - especially when you are dealing with the complex demands of a three dimensional sound scape and visual field. The technical side of the projection mapping, speakers, media players, loops and channels flew over my head like a cool breeze, but I think the results are pretty impressive. There’s also a particular pleasure in hearing what you’ve written come alive in the voices of talented actors. We were very lucky in our Greencloth performers who handled very complicated scripts with aplomb. As we filmed I read in the lines of the clerks coming to hand over their accounts wearing an odd hat to get the shadows right and the fact I didn't put them off completely is a testament to their professionalism. 

Kitchen Selfie. It was ironically cold.

When we were clearing up after filming the preparation of the meat, one of my take home perks was the meatballs, so if you go to the kitchens and see that dish being made, rest assured it was delicious.