Tag Archives: drama

History through the keyhole

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

Portable edition

Portable edition

For thirty years a strapping Victorian bible of a book has sat in the corner of my office unopened and unloved. It’s so ungainly it never fitted on any bookshelf and over the years has variously seen service as a flower press, a prop or a step (by shorter members of the family). It was given to me by my late brother-in-law as a gift when we first moved to Cumbria, in 1982, and I clearly remember how excited he was after discovering it in a second-hand shop in Carlisle. At the time I was knee-deep in knitting a new way of life having moved hundreds of miles from known friends and family so I’m ashamed to say I gave the tome a passing glance and a vacant ‘thank you’.

Last month, when the floor space in my office reached critical level, I decided I must de-clutter. What’s the point of having any book if it isn’t going to be read? Luckily I resolved to honour my brother-in-law and explore the contents of this heavyweight, prior to its being ejected.

Wilson’s ‘Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Vol. IV’ isn’t bedtime reading. Apart from mammoth proportions its antique typeface and generally archaic form of writing requires an excellent light source and active attention span. But what treasures lie within.

Wilson collected these stories at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many are folk-tales and handed-down histories, but critically some are based on interviews with ‘interesting’ local characters and the author has a comforting, if not fully objective, style. Researching Wilson I discover he was born in 1804, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and became involved in publishing at the age of 11. The year was 1815, the Napoleonic wars had just come to an end and this tenderfoot decided to go out and interview some local veterans about their experiences. From that seed his quest to record the traditions, tales and history of the region grew.

The tales were first published in monthly instalments from 8th October 1834, by which time John Mackay Wilson had become editor of the “Berwick Advertiser”. They became a minor publishing sensation with an original run of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within the year. Although Wilson died prematurely, on 3rd October 1835 at the age of 31, he’d already contributed 66 tales to the first collection and the success of his idea led his executors and family to continue the process of publication. They recruited a group of contributors to continue the work and a total of 299 were eventually published.

The roll-call of writers influenced by these works includes Sir Walter Scott (who published smaller, portable editions in 1869), RL Stephenson and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Each story radiates with the rich history, lore and legend of the Borders. They caught the imagination of their age and offer a rich social history covering some 500 years. I’ve copied out the opening paragraphs of one story which captured my attention. It recounts the exploits of a man called Bill Whyte as told by his gypsy brother.

‘I was born, master, in this very cave, some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My mother, however, belonged to the Debateable Land, my father was an Englishman, and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey, another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in some families.

It can’t be now much less than fifty years since my mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and staid away about a week.  We thought we had lost her altogether; but back she came at last, and, when she did come, she brought with her a small sprig of a lad, of about three summers or thereby.  Father grumbled a little – we had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother shewed him a pouch of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling.  And so we called the little fellow, Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves, and he grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e’er the sun looked upon.  I was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot a-head of me; and, when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always came off second-best.  I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit; he would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in his life; but then for gin-setting, and deer-stalking, and black-fishing, not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler in the Solway, who more active than Bill?

He was barely nineteen, poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him.  I remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran lugger was in the Frith, d’ye see, a little below Carlaverock; and father and Bill and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy night; we could hardly see fifty yards round us; and, on our last trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from Kirkcudbright!  They hailed us to strike in the Devil’s name. Bill swore he wouldn’t. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they came; but no sooner were they within half-oar’s length, then, taking up a keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it spin through their bottom, as if the planks were of window-glass; and down went their cutter in half a jiffy.  They had wet powder that night, and fixed no more bullets.

Well, when they were gathering themselves up as they best could-and, goodness he praised! There were no drownings amongst them – we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and then fled up the country.  We knew there would be news of our night’s work; and so there was; for, before next evening, there were advertisements on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of twenty pounds.’

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Apart from smuggling on the Solway shores this story vividly describes how the brothers fought the French (Napoleon) in Egypt, their encounters with Arabs (who they describe as being like gypsies of the desert) and subsequently their most dangerous adventure after they return to Cumberland. Bill’s real parentage is finally revealed and the story ends with this sentence: ‘I left him, and made the best of my way home; where, while the facts were fresh in my mind, I committed to paper (for the express purpose of having it inserted among the Border Tales) the gypsy’s story.’

Considering the Battle of the Nile took place in 1798 this ‘interview’ is with a man born in the late eighteenth century yet phrases like ‘small fry’ and ‘half a jiffy’ sound relatively modern. But it’s the stirring eye-witness accounts which make such stories relevant. Strip away Victorian sentimentality and the intimate, chatty style adds credence, just like Michael Parkinson interviewing a celebrity, I feel I’m listening to the past through a key-hole.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Drama, History, Research, Travel, Wilson's Tales, Writing

What Do You Want Santa To Bring You For Christmas?

BUT WHAT DO YOU WANT SANTA TO BRING YOU FOR CHRISTMAS?

It’s a huge decision. And four year old Reuben has struggled with it every day for almost a whole month – he mustn’t get his choices wrong.

Obviously with so much to deliver Santa has to restrict all little boys and girls to three toys, otherwise how could everything possibly arrive on time. Reubs big brother Oscar (aged five) knew just what he wanted. At the beginning of December he carefully copied out his letter to Santa, checking the spellings more than twice. He even got most of the words to fit the lines while using his very best handwriting. The stamp he drew on the envelope was coloured-in with crayons and mummy took him to the local post office so he could make sure the address was absolutely correct. Oscar also enquired if Santa ever had trouble with Polar Bears because they live at the North Pole too. Very concerned for Santa’s welfare is our Oscar.

Thinking a visit to the old man himself would help resolve matters my daughter booked Reuben an appointment. He sat on Santa’s lap, completely overcome with fear. Eventually he whispered into the whiskers. But later that night, just as he was closing his eyes to go to sleep, Reuben burst into tears. He’d asked Santa for Lego – but as Lego comes in all shapes and sizes how would Santa know what sort to bring him.

Reuben was still struggling with his decision on the final day of school. My daughter and I were in Edinburgh for the day, enjoying the festive market that fills the old Nor Loch and looking for stocking fillers, when my son-in-law rang with the news that Reubs had decided that the only thing he wanted Santa to bring was a Teksta puppy – in blue.

Now, of course, the one toy completely sold out in every shop was a Teksta puppy of any colour. Very popular this year, we’re informed. Meanwhile my son-in-law had no luck on the internet either. I sent an urgent text to my sister. She works for John Lewis’s, in London – but even that great metropolis was Out of Stock. Less than a week to go and it seemed we had no chance of fulfilling Reubs wish.

But then we found one on E-bay, second-hand but unused, the woman said, because her daughter wanted red, not blue. It arrived in the post, yesterday. My daughter, elated with success, asked Reubs if there was anything else he wanted Santa to bring.

A scarf he said, with the letter ‘R’ on it, for Reuben.?????????????????

Guess who’s spent all day sewing?

Happy Christmas Everyone, hope you get everything you wished for….

2 Comments

Filed under Christmas, Family, Wishes

Boy Made Good

Did you know Master William Shakespeare was an astute businessman?

 

Only recently has light been thrown on the playwright’s business activities. And it seems William was a bit of a spendthrift; court records show his readiness to chase any debt owed, but also illustrate he was adept at moving out of digs just as his tax became due. Unlike fellow playwrights and actors he never bought a house in London but rather invested his hard-earned cash into land and property around Stratford-upon-Avon, his home town. There are even records showing he was active as a kind of Elizabethan commodities broker, buying grain during harvest-time and storing it so he could sell when the price was high.

 

So why haven’t we heard of Shakespeare & Co Ltd? Well the academics who recently unearthed this information say it was deliberately ‘buried’ in order to enhance his literary achievements. It seems certain academic snobs wanted to conceal the fact that our creative genius got his hands dirty with ‘trade’.

 

We English have a rather two-faced attitude towards ‘trade’. Napoleon Bonaparte called us a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ because he knew how deeply the insult cut. But we inherited the notion that business, the profitable act of buying and selling, is somehow less worthy (than merely pillaging?) from the Norman conquerors who invaded our shores in 1066. Once they became overlords they put their military prowess into coercing us natives, stealing local assets and sharing out the land gratis. Apparently it wasn’t their custom to pay the going rate for goods or services either. Thus, eventually, we had the Magna Carta.

 

When the Tudors took power (1485) they totally mistrusted the old nobility (particularly those with cherished Norman bloodlines) and actively promoted able men from any class to run the country. Henry VIII’s court was the first to appoint more ‘ordinary’ citizens than knights, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, never doubted the sense of engaging self-made men. And the new regime didn’t spurn trade, it absolutely embraced it.

 

So William Shakespeare was born at a time when England was a dynamic melting pot of change. And that change was fundamental to the creation of a new form of entertainment called theatre. London was thriving, a place where anyone willing to embrace opportunities could, and did, make a profit. And in contrast to other playwrights Shakespeare didn’t aim his work solely at the educated elite; his plays mirrored life; each multi-layered drama resonates with the full strata of society. And being a shareholder in this new venture was crucial to his creative acumen. He quickly realised that weaving stories which appealed to rich and poor (and just about everyone between) meant he couldn’t fail to fill his theatre, and thereby earn greater profits.

 

And like many budding entrepreneurs, as soon as he’d earned enough money he purchased a fine coat of arms (a fist shaking a spear) because it put his name firmly on the map of respectability. William didn’t anticipate fame; he just wanted his family to have better status. No doubt his father’s failings meant William never risked putting all his eggs into one basket. Shrewd, canny, ambitious, he understood the value of money because he worked hard for every penny. It was an asset, never a gift.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Glove-maker’s Apprentice

I’ve been working through an on-line study course, part of a new international learning directive, with www.futurelearn.com. The ten week course studies one particular writer’s life through his work, using evidence from contemporary sources. If I tell you his story can you guess his name?

 

Born into a small town in middle England his early years were lived ‘over the shop’ of his father’s glove-making business. Clearly his father was seeking to improve his lot, having abandoned the family farm to learn a trade and, like many budding entrepreneurs, ascended the local social ladder, becoming member of the town council and eventually holding a status akin to mayor. This last role earned his son a free education at the local grammar school, sure means of ensuring his offspring could aspire to the next rung of social improvement. However the glove-maker’s world came tumbling down when he overreached himself. In the quest to grow bigger profits he dabbled in dark waters, such as money-lending, and attempted to break into markets to which he held no title. Which is when the corporate authorities stepped in and threatened to have him arrested.

 

It must have been devastating for the whole family, losing their status, but for the eldest son it meant the end of his education. He lost any chance of going to university and all the advantages that pathway promised. Bang went the boy’s future.

 

And worse was to come. A powerful local landowner called Sir Thomas Lucy spotted him poaching game on his property, and made it known he was going to catch him and put him in irons. And, at just eighteen years old, he got an older woman pregnant. All his hopes and dreams must have seemed crushed as he walked up the aisle.

 

But as eldest son it seems he was determined to restore his family fortunes and seemingly, as soon as he was able, he travelled down to London to seek his fortune. He didn’t have a trade but he’d learned to live by his wits, probably having the need to talk his way out of trouble on many an occasion. And when he got to London he quickly tagged onto a new and exciting industry called theatre. Before too long he’d earned a reputation as a ‘jack of all trades’, acting, directing and writing plays for a prominent group of players who had the good fortune to sometimes perform for the queen. Critics made fun of his country accent and rival playwrights looked down on him because he hadn’t earned a degree from Oxford or Cambridge but he had a gift for re-working well-loved stories and turning them to gold.

 

But then, just when it seemed he’d found his place in life, all London theatres were forced to close their doors indefinitely, due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone who was anyone abandoned the city for their country estates. The ‘jack of all trades’ found himself out of work and in serious need of a patron, so he turned his pen to poetry. Again he didn’t aim at creating anything original, just re-worked the classical myth of Venus and Adonis to make it appeal to a particular audience. In fact he was fishing for a very particular audience, one who would be charmed by his use of a liberal pen, because this well-educated and exceedingly handsome aristocrat was about to come into a fortune.

 

And this is where the writer’s run of bad luck turned. One of his former grammar school friends, Richard Field, had become a printer and he agreed to publish the poem. Using a form of flamboyant sales talk almost certainly mastered in his father’s glove shop the writer penned a graceful introduction to his work. And the young Earl of Southampton was duly flattered.

 

 

I KNOW not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart’s content; which I wish may always answer your own wish and the world’s hopeful expectation.

Your honour’s in all duty,
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

.Image The Earl of Southampton aged 21

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized