Category Archives: History

Saddling the Imagination

I’ve always been compelled by history. Imagining the past helps me escape from everyday burdens. It’s always been that way, ever since I can remember. My safe haven is finding a book and curling up in another time and place. Always was. Always will be. But while books feed my love of history the addiction was nurtured by the landscape of my childhood.

Rather like Merlin I was gifted with a means of travelling backwards through time. Though I grew up amongst the bustle and throng of south-east England my mother is a native of Northumberland and like swallows we’d fly north every summer to the wild lands ‘north of the wall’, to a place firmly locked in the past.

Northumberland was my stepping stone into another world. Staying with nanna was like snuggling into a warm cosy blanket and the fact she didn’t have hot-running water or an indoor toilet made the adventure seem even greater. There was never any sense she was poor, nevermind deprived, she just lived in a different world, untouched by the twentieth century.  

Nanna was a miner’s wife and the village where she lived had sprung up around the pit. It was a tight-knit community where everyone knew your name, so much so it always felt like we were coming home rather than just visiting. We fitted in, unlike the south, where we were always strangers. I don’t remember grandda’ but his presence filled every room, as though he might return at any moment. Nanna never forgave him for leaving her alone. I realize now what I didn’t know before, that she clung to his memory because she loved him more than life.

Living in a first-floor flat in London meant we couldn’t have a pet but nanna had a dog. Prince was half Alsatian and half wolf, or so we were always told. Though he never harmed a human he liked to pick a fight with every dog in the village. The only time I ever heard nanna raise her voice was to yell at Prince as she dragged him home by his collar. Then she’d bathe his wounds. She had big hands, like a man’s, but her touch was gentle as an angel’s.

I think I was ten when the mine-workings were dismantled. The pit-wheel disappeared but the scars of industry remained, framed by gentle hills and an endless stretch of beach which we thought of as our private playground. Back then we were often the only visitors enjoying the rolling sand-dunes of Hadstone. We’d walk from the village along an abandoned rail track and spend the day climbing amongst the rock-pools, digging for crabs and lobsters and winkles. We didn’t know the rocks were actually a petrified forest or the beach a ‘site of outstanding natural beauty’. Since the bay came into the hands of the National Trust it has been renamed. They’ve built a visitor centre and a car park and charge a fee to enter and our once empty beach is like Margate on a summer’s day.  

Also within a hand’s throw of nanna’s cottage was a ruined water-mill. There, in the sand-bottomed mill-pool, my sister and I learned to swim. Sliding down the moss-lined dam gave us better thrills than any mechanized theme-park. The mill had once belonged to the monks of Lindisfarne and I felt the holy men ‘tutting’ as we skinny-dipped down the falls.

A huge ochre-stone castle stands barely a mile up-river. Warkworth’s vacant tower crowned our farthest horizon. When he was home ‘on-leave’ from the navy, mum’s baby brother uncle John, would tease us with tales of the Percy’s who once ruled this county like gods. If you look carefully, he promised, you might see the ghost of Harry Hotspur riding home from battle. He also told us that Coquet Island, which can be clearly seen from the castle ramparts, was infested with ruthless pirates. What better lair for a band of privateers? We never questioned why they’d think to raid coal-boats going to and from Amble.

Uncle John also told us that our ancestors once smuggled whisky from Scotland to England. Like most of his tales it bears an element of truth. Nanna’s father came from the village of Ford, a tiny hamlet which lies very close to the Scottish border. During the eighteenth century the government raised the tax on alcohol so many illicit stills across the border increased production (which is why Robbie Burns found good employment as an officer of the revenue). But however much I discover of the truth, history will always be a cocktail of myth and reality. Where living in London meant being cooped up indoors Northumberland represented freedom and the stones of its landscape formed the foundations of my imaginings and writing is the counterbalance of my sanity, as necessary as breathing. 

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Filed under Books, Family, History, Imagination, Writing

Plague

We are confined by ancient boundaries

As a nation we are bonded by nature, climate, language and culture. Our common heritage is forged by means of commerce, art, religion and politics but history pervades our identity, and if there’s one sure lesson we take from the past its an absolute fear of plague. Pandemics have shaped our nation just as surely as wars.   

Whitehall, London

On June 7th, 1665, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that a number of houses in Drury Lane had been marked with red crosses and the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. ‘It put me in an ill conception of myself,’ he wrote, ‘so that I was forced to buy some tobacco to smell and chew – which took away the apprehension.’

The plague had come to London and Pepys hastened to buy tobacco in the belief it offered an effective protection against the dreaded disease. By the time the Great Plague had run its course at least 70,000 people had perished in London alone. The epidemic spread swiftly and soon carried from London to other cities. In September 1665 Edward Cooper, a tailor in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, took delivery of a box of old clothes and patterns. Within two days the servant who unpacked the box was taken ill; four days later he was dead. Cooper died a fortnight later. Before the end of the month there had been 26 deaths in the village. By the time the ordeal ended, in October 1666, only 83 of Eyam’s 350 residents were alive. The rest had fallen victim to the plague.

Boundary Stone, Eyam

This appalling death-toll was due to an extraordinary proposal by Eyam’s vicar, William Pompesson. He managed to persuade his fellow villagers to take a heroic decision. He knew that if the people of Eyam fled they would carry the infection to others so he urged them to act as true Christians and remain in quarantine inside the village.

A boundary line of stakes was marked around the village. Within its limits the villagers settled to meet their fate, surviving on food left at the boundary by folks from neighbouring villages. By mid-summer only one man was strong enough to dig graves for the victims and as reward he was able to claim the possessions of those he buried. Yet only one person attempted to escape the rule of isolation.

Knowledge of disease was very primitive in seventeenth century England but by confining the outbreak of infection Pompesson prevented the plague from devastating neighbouring communities. In an age when human health was explained by the four ‘humours’ –sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic – Eyam defined a new means of tackling disease. In Derbyshire the village became synonymous with self-sacrifice and its inhabitants hailed as heroes.

For further information go to https://www.eyam-museum.org.uk

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Filed under Changes, Culture, Disaster, endurance, Experience, History, hope, Past, society, Surviving

Detecting the Past

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I’ve always loved history. To me the past is like a giant jigsaw crazed with missing pieces which I feel compelled to find. However, despite trawling through countless records and digging in archives, it’s often a case of having to admit that the piece has been lost to time. Except I’m addicted to solving mysteries, that’s what draws me to the past.

At this point I should make it absolutely clear I’m not an historian. Although I love history I lack the focus and discipline to be an academic. When there’s a hole in my knowledge I rely on instinct to fill in the details. Which is the reason I write stories. The need to find answers, even when the truth is clothed in myths and lies. Or rather, because it’s cloaked in myths and lies. History blazing with colour, not boring black and white.

It’s only recently, through liaising with crime-writing friends, I discovered historians are very like detectives. Both have to consider every piece of evidence in order to reconstruct what actually took place. Using this analogy during my research proved a revelation.  First-hand sources are just like eye-witness accounts, both are written after the event and flawed with discrepancies. Historians base their research on ‘primary’ materials which are habitually contradictory but treating the past as a crime-scene gave me a fresh perspective.

Just as a detective always goes to the scene of the crime so must a writer of historic fiction. Obviously in my case any evidence has long since disappeared but visiting a particular location gives a unique experience of place, even if the site has been damaged by time and tide. For years I believed Mary Queen of Scots watched the Battle of Langside from a nearby hill – but when I visited that hill it proved too far away, and too low, to allow her such a view, even when seated on a horse.

But the most enlightening aspect of treating the past as a crime-scene came when I turned to seeking motives. The past is always out of reach but motives haven’t changed – greed, lust, envy, pride and vanity. Considering who gained what and why proved a revelation.  

For example, on the very same day Mary Queen of Scots escaped from forced banishment on the fortress isle of Lochleven, her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, was delivering her precious jewels to the highest bidder – who just happened to be Queen Elizabeth I. The Medici pearls were priceless and now they belonged to a woman who coveted them so much they feature in every subsequent portrait. Not merely did this leave Mary penniless it gave her half-brother and Elizabeth very strong motives for keeping her out of Scotland.

Queen Elizabeth adorned in Medici pearls

Also, on 8th December 1567, while Mary was cooped up in Lochleven Castle, she celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Another critical motive. A long royal minority was traditionally used by the Scots aristocracy as a time for self-aggrandizement. When Mary reached twenty-five years of age she had the right, under Scottish law, to demand the return of any wardships and property which had been commandeered during her minority. Mary couldn’t be permitted to win back her throne or half the Scots nobility would be made penniless. Much better to retain a ‘bairn’ as the kingdom’s legitimate monarch and take advantage of another twenty-five years of minority rule. So it seems the poor girl was doomed from the day she returned to her homeland.

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Filed under History, Interpretation, Past, Research, Scotland, Tradition, Writing

Fixed price for cash and no returns

To many the name Tiffany is synonymous with the showiest means of displaying wealth – Diamonds. Founded in 1837 Tiffany, Young and Ellis went from strength to strength by catering to the tastes of New York nobility. The new captains of industry (and their wives and daughters) wanted to flaunt their success.

By the time Truman Capote wrote his novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ the company’s reputation was beyond question. The business had been founded on the promise – Fixed Price & No Returns. Capote wrote the part of Holly Golightly for Marilyn Monroe – whose sultry rendition of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ seemed to epitomise his muse. But Miss Monroe refused the role in the 1961 screen-play and, against the author’s wishes, Audrey Hepburn was cast. But I wonder if the author realised how much Tiffany’s road to riches reflected the rise of Miss Golightly?

Roll back the clock to mid 1800s France. Think Les Miserables. Of a country torn by turmoil following the fall of Louis Philippe. Even those canny citizens who’d survived the First Revolution were suddenly made destitute. Into this chaos came John Young and Thomas Banks with a remit to purchase fancy goods for Tiffany and Co. They were hoping to make a deal for exclusive rights to ‘French-paste’ (a form of crystal glass cut to imitate diamonds), an essential requisite for their company’s range of fashionable and affordable jewellery. While the metalwork could be manufactured in their New York workshops ‘imitation’ diamonds could only be sourced in Paris.

Young and Banks were determined. In pursuing their business they were arrested on a number of occasions but still managed to collaborate with Royalist supporters desperate to sell their jewels – as long as they were paid in cash. When the two men returned to New York they’d managed to purchase a generous slice of the French Crown Jewels. Although details of the acquisition have always remained uncertain it was known that a number of important jewels were missing after the mob surged through the Tuilleries Palace.

Whatever the truth Tiffany’s learned a lesson. When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870 the royal collection had been restored to its former glory. But Empress Eugenie was determined it wasn’t left behind when she fled the country. Sensing trouble she had most of her jewels crated and dispatched to the port of Brest, ready to ship to London, but a number of crates had to be left behind and these were eventually claimed by the new French government and returned to Paris. After long and careful deliberation they decided to sell the bulk of the collection in 1887, in a sale held in the Hall of State, in Paris. Tiffany’s practically swept the board, buying all the most important pieces.

The 1880’s and 1890’s were the heyday of American society and the new millionaires of industry and commerce displayed their wealth with the kind of opulence which had formally been reserved for royalty. Tiffany’s reputation soared by catering to the new elite and diamonds ransacked from the royal treasury soon adorned the wives of New World millionaires. Although the purchase was dubious the American Press loved the story and the resulting publicity secured Tiffany’s position as America’s foremost jewellery store.

When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York in 1883 the first tier was quickly dubbed the ‘diamond horseshoe’ because the diamond jewellery worn by its patrons outshone the house lights. Buying the French Crown Jewels gave Charles Tiffany the opportunity to transform his Lower Manhattan store into a ‘palace of  jewels’ (according to The New York Times).

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Filed under ambition, aspirations, Books, Changes, Culture, Experience, History, innovation, society, Wishes

What is a writer?

Someone once told me a writer should act like a key which opens the door to another world.

While I rather like the analogy it’s my understanding that a writer needs to do more than simply provide a key. Having means to unlock a door simply isn’t enough; you need something to tempt the reader inside. A photograph is a flat rendering of a captured scene but we trust its reality. However, engaging with a story isn’t simply a matter of ‘beam me up Scottie’ and you arrive in another time and place, stories require you to step inside the world of imagination.

Scary thing imagination.

Writing is an infinitesimal spell created out of words and wonder, therefore entering a story requires a certain leap of faith. No matter how well written, or finely observed, nothing in a book will live if the imagination doesn’t commit wholeheartedly to its magic.

Therefore, I believe, the business of writing stories is tantamount to being a magician who conjures with imaginings – an imagineer.

Without imagination not merely stories die, imagining provides a ratchet to our soul.

It isn’t so much dancing in the rain as feeling the water on your face and not getting wet. Isn’t that truly magic?

 

 

 

 

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Filed under aspirations, Books, Entertainment, fiction, History, Imagination, magic, Make Believe, Understanding, Writing

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

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In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

crest

The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Filed under Disaster, endurance, Family, History, Memories, Past, Scotland

Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Filed under aspirations, Culture, Disaster, History, Hopes, Rome, Travel

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

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Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots

There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

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Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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What is Creative?

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According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.

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It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.

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