Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 41 - "In the Wolf's Mouth," by Adam Foulds

If the First World War redrew the map of the world, sweeping away empires that had stood for centuries (Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire), and elevating new nations (Japan, the United States, the Soviet Union) to the status of great powers, the settlement that followed also contained within it the seeds of future conflicts.

The ensuing tragedy, played out over the course of four decades, followed different courses in different countries, yet held many features in common: ethnic and national resentment; recession, inflation, mass unemployment & economic division; powerful demagogues (Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Stalin) offering deceptively simple solutions to complex social & economic problems; all of which combined to send the nations of the world hurtling towards a new and terrible conflagration.

In Italy, a late engagement in the First World War (with British encouragement, the country declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915, and on Germany the following year) came at the cost of 650,000 Italian lives, but also widened the economic divisions between the industrialised north, which prospered from armaments manufacture, and the rural south, where wages remained depressed as prices soared. Emigration, especially to the United States, seemed to offer the only way out for many Sicilian, Apulian and Calabrian families.

Sicilian emigrants (image is in the Public Domain).

The end of the war brought civil unrest, strikes, factory occupations, and open conflict between right-wing and left-wing militias. Finally, in 1922, forced to choose between the Fascist Scylla and the Socialist Charybdis, King Victor Emmanuel III threw in his lot with Mussolini's black-shirts. In Sicily, Il Duce's "Iron Prefect," Cesare Mori, declared war on the Mafia, forcing many of its bosses to join the stream of trans-Atlantic emigrants.

When, in 1943, British, American and Canadian forces captured Sicily, and began fighting their way up through the Italian peninsula, they brought with them many naturalised Italian-Americans, keen to play their part in the "reconstruction" of their homeland. Inevitably, these included Mafiosi, some of whom had built substantial criminal empires for themselves on the streets of New York and Chicago, and now had scores to settle, not only with those who had been active Fascists, but with anyone who had ever crossed them. Denunciations came in thick and fast, but who was to be trusted and believed?

The sinking of the US liberty ship, Robert Rowan, by German aircraft, of Gela, Sicily, in 1943. Photo: Lieut. Longini, US Signal Corps, US National Archives, 531165 (image is in the Public Domain).
A US Sherman tank in Sicily, 1943. US Army Centre for Military History (image is in the Public Domain).

Adam Foulds's novel, In the Wolf's Mouth, tells the story of the 1943 Sicilian campaign through the eyes of four very different men: Angilu, a simple Sicilian shepherd, who remains loyal to his feudal overlord, Prince Adriano; Ray Marfioni, a young American-Italian infantryman; Will Walker, a British intelligence officer, who finds himself responsible for liaison with the local community; and Ciro Albanese, a Mafioso recently returned from New York. It ought to be (but probably isn't) required reading for anyone involved in post-war "reconstruction" in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Libya.

" ... at sunset Angilu saw his mule twitch its ears forwards and lift its head. He looked across the valley to see a man approaching on horseback, the horse's big, jointed shadow moving over the stones in front of them as it snorted and laboured under a large man. One of the field guards ... The horse shifted sideways a little, finding sockets for its hooves in the ground. 'This evening,' the guard said, 'it would be better to let fate take its course' ... Angilu picked up a small pink pebble and rolled it in his palm. 'Are they bringing or taking?' ... 'You've got a lot of questions ... You think too much up here. You worry. It's all arranged anyway. You'll be found in the morning ... It's best for your reputation if they tie you.'"

A peasant family at Limina, Sicily. Photo: Wilhelm von Gloeden (image is in the Public Domain).

 "The waiting to land, like all the interminable waiting, felt like it would never end and then suddenly did. Ray found himself on deck loaded with his equipment waiting to climb down into a landing craft. In a grid all around him in the darkness the others were waiting to do the same. So many of them, Ray felt for the first time the pent-up strength of the force. They couldn't lose. Men went over the side and everyone stepped forward. Then Ray went over the side, clambering down from square to warping square of netting. Beside him, a soldier Ray didn't know mistimed the jump and fell between the troopship and the landing craft. His helmet struck the hull with a ringing sound and before he had time to cry out, he was gone, disappeared into the black water, and din't resurface. A quiet, rapid, weird death - the first Ray witnessed - that no one had time to remark on. It made Ray pant with terror for a minute. This was it. This was battle. This was where men died."

Allied landing craft on the shores of Sicily, 1943 (this is the British 51st Highland Division). Photo: Imperial War Museum, Non-Commercial License A17916. 

"So the fighting was done in Sicily. Ruins and corpses. An apparently grateful population in a state of chaos it was now Will's duty to calm and clarify. The Allied Military Government was hastening into position and Will was with several others in the wrong place. Deploying the extra powers of their identity cards, they got themselves transport to Palermo. Having identified the headquarters, Will decided to delay a little longer and go for a stroll. He walked out among the American soldiers and the sunshine, the locals who were silent and stared and the beggars who approached. He looked around for the oriental beauty and the repellent pushing middle classes, but he didn't see them. Palermo looked like a grand old opera set of a place. There were avenues interrupted with massive piles of rubble where buildings had fallen. Pigeons spluttered from one balcony to another. There was a huge bomb crater near the encrusted cathedral. Hundreds had died there apparently."

Allied soldiers on Sicily (men of the Durham Light Infantry with a paratrooper of the US 505th Parachute Infantry). Photo: Imperial War Museum, Non-Commercial License, NA4614. 
British soldiers in Catania, 1943. Photo: Imperial War Museum, Non-Commercial License, NA5335.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Wards of Old London: Cripplegate Within - Roman Fortifications and A Second Great Fire

Following the northern wall of the Roman and Medieval city in an easterly direction, a visitor to London passes from Aldersgate Ward Within into Cripplegate Ward Within, so named for one of the original gates of the city, where, it is thought, disabled people gathered to beg throughout the Middle Ages. Unlike the roads extending north from Aldersgate and Bishopsgate, that proceeding from Cripplegate was never a major road connecting London to other cities.

What would become Cripplegate was originally one of four gateways to the Roman fort that occupied the north-west corner of the post-Boudiccan city of Londinium, a fort that seems to have been established around 90 AD. It is larger than an auxiliary fort, but smaller than a legionary fort, so its garrison is likely to have comprised between a thousand and two thousand men.

The western gate of the Roman fort, as seen from the Museum Of London. Photo: Mike Peel (, licensed under CCA.
The wall of the Roman fort preserved in the garden of Saint Alphege. Photo: Bartholomeus Thoth (licensed under CCA).

Since Londinium was, by the end of the First Century AD, the capital of the Province of Britannia, around two hundred of these are likely to have been Beneficiarii Consularis, military administrators concerned with logistics and supply-chains throughout the province. There would also have been around thirty Speculatores, military policemen responsible for the custody and execution of prisoners, and the delivery of dispatches. There would, in addition, have been the Governor's bodyguard of around a thousand men.

Tombstone of a Roman soldier of the First Century AD. Since he carries writing equipment, as well as a sword, he was probably an adminstrator. Image: J.E. Price, 1881 (Public Domain).

These men would not necessarily have been "Romans" from Italy: a letter found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall, refers to the secondment of troops to London from a Tungrian unit - these men would have been recruited in what is now the Netherlands or Belgium, and would have been rewarded with Roman citizenship on completion of their military service. Some, at least, are likely to have married local women and settled in London.

Tombstone of a centurion of the 3rd Century AD, Museum of London. Photo: Elliott Brown (licensed under CCA).

When Alfred the Great re-established the City of London in 886 AD, he used the crumbling Roman walls as the basis for his own, although he did not reinstate the earlier fort, instead encouraging civilians to occupy the land to the south of Cripplegate. Some of the Medieval churches of the ward may have Saxon origins, but nothing of these can be seen today. The Hospital of Saint Mary Within Cripplegate was established in 1331 by a mercer, William Elsing, for blind beggars of both sexes. The hospital was initially supervised by five secular clergy (priests who did not belong to a monastic order), but they were found to be too occupied with "concerns of this world" (possibly code for embezzling funds intended to support the inmates - something that later workhouse supervisors frequently did), and replaced by Augustinian canons, whose role continued until Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Cripplegate and Moorgate, as shown on the 16th Century "Woodcut Map" - sometimes wrongly attributed to Ralph Agas (image is in the Public Domain).

Cripplegate in c 1650, by Wenceslaus Hollar, University of Toronto (image is in the Public Domain).
The Church of Saint Alban, Wood Street, in 1839, by George Godwin (image is in the Public Domain).

Like most of the City, Cripplegate Ward Within was devastated by the Great Fire of 1666, but was rebuilt, with the Medieval street patterns largely respected. London faced a "Second Great Fire," however, on the night of the 29th/30th December, 1940. In the space of around eight hours, German bombers dropped more than 24,000 high explosive, and more than 100,000 incendiary bombs, destroying nineteen churches and thirty-one livery halls.

London in the aftermath of its "Second Great Fire," looking north from the dome of Saint Paul's, by H. Mason for The Daily Mail (image is in the Public Domain). The men of Saint Paul's Watch, who directed the fire-fighting activities were, for the most part, architects, with a clear sense of priority as to which buildings should be preserved.

Most of Cripplegate (Within and Without) remained a wasteland throughout the Nineteen-Fifties and Sixties, and, when regeneration did finally come, it was in the shape of the Modernist concrete of the Barbican Estate, with its high-walks and towers, the small fragments of the earlier buildings remaining, like ghosts, to be glimpsed between its pillars.

A Roman bastion, preserved within the Barbican Estate. Photo: Ceridwen (licensed under CCA).

The remains of Saint Alphege, London Wall, originally the chapel of William Elsing's hospital. Photo: Secretlondon (licensed under CCA).

The Church of Saint Alban, Wood Street, today, only the tower remaining, as one of the most remarkable private residences in the City. Photo: Neddyseagoon (licensed under GNU).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Friday, 3 June 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 40 - "Doctor Zhivago," by Boris Pasternak

The dawn of the Twentieth Century sent shock-waves through many of the World's established powers, but perhaps none more so than Russia. The 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War saw the first major defeat in modern times of a European by an emergent Asian power, and seriously undermined the autocratic regime of Tsar Nicholas II. Defeat was followed by civil unrest, strikes and military mutinies. The strikers and mutineers were brutally suppressed, and order was restored, but on new terms: the "Autocrat of all the Russias" would henceforth have to rule, at least in theory, as a constitutional monarch.

Troops in Saint Petersburg. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-S01260 (image is in the Public Domain).

Terrorism and repression dogged the final years of imperial rule: between 1906 and 1909, almost eight thousand Russians, including members of the imperial family, politicians and military commanders, were murdered by revolutionaries; and, during the same period, more than two thousand Russians were executed by the state.

The First World War would prove to be a disaster for Russia. The war's eastern front, which has received little attention in the west, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and, in conflict with German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Ottoman forces, more than two million Russian servicemen, as well as unnumbered civilians, lost their lives.

The town of Perm, on the European side of the Ural Mountains, in 1910. This town, where Pasternak lived for a time, is the basis for the fictional Yuriatin, where Zhivago and his family take refuge from the upheavals of the time (image is in the Public Domain).

On International Women's Day, the 23rd of February 1917, more than ninety thousand female workers went on strike in Saint Petersburg, calling for bread, the removal of the Tsar, and an end to Russian involvement in the war. The troops sent out to suppress them instead mutinied and joined them. Russia was, perhaps, the last country on Earth in which Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels would have expected their Communist ideals to take hold, but, within months, Lenin and his Bolsheviks had taken charge of the country, sued for peace, and moved the capital from Saint Petersburg to Moscow.

A unit of the Red Army in Moscow. Photo: Grigori Petrowitsch Goldstein (image is in the Public Domain).

There followed five years of bloody civil war between the Red and White Armies; the latter a rag-bag of Tsarist and capitalist factions, backed, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, by the British, the Americans and the French. Civil War brought famine in its wake, and some Russians even resorted to cannibalism. When the smoke of conflict cleared, in 1922, a new country, the Soviet Union, and a new world order, had been born.

Refugees of the Russian Civil War (image is in the Public Domain).

Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, a work of epic scope, beginning in 1903 and ending in 1943, looks at these events through the eyes of civilians caught up in their wake. His protagonist, Yury Zhivago, is a physician and poet, a man whose instinctive modernism is moderated by an even deeper rooted humanism. Initially sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution, his personal experiences lead him, increasingly, to dislike and distrust ideologues of every political hue.

When he is abducted, and forced to work as camp doctor in a semi-autonomous faction of the Red Army, it is Yury's commitment to his calling as a doctor, rather than to the revolutionary cause, that motivates him to continue, clinging fast to a vision of humanity that will never allow the individual to be crushed beneath the weight of an abstract ideal.

Yury Zhivago is a Twentieth Century modernist in his private, as well as his professional life. For him, as for Pasternak, a human soul can survive, at least for a time, without physical sustenance, but it cannot survive without love. In a world whose circumstances tear individuals away from those closest to them, love must be sought where it can be found in the moment, and, over the course of his life, Yury is torn between his love for three different women, and finds himself unable to remain faithful to any of them (for those who know the novel, yes, I include Marina, but it is difficult to explain why without spoiling the plot for those who don't know it).

"On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory,' and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried?' - 'Zhivago,' they were told. - 'Oh, I see. That explains it.' - 'It isn't him. It's his wife.' - 'Well, it comes to the same thing. May she rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.' The last moments flashed past, counted, irrevocable ... The priest scattered the earth in the form of a cross over the body of Marya Nikolayevna. They sang 'The souls of the just.' Then a fearful bustle  began. The coffin was closed, nailed and lowered into the ground. Clods of earth drummed on the lid like rain as the grave was filled hurriedly by four spades. A mound grew up on it and a ten-year-old boy climbed on top."

Cossacks during the Russian Civil War (image is in the Public Domain).

 "In this area the villages seemed to have been miraculously preserved. They were unaccountable islands of safety in a sea of ruins. One evening at sunset Gordon and Zhivago were driving home. In one village they saw a young Cossack surrounded by a happy crowd; the Cossack tossed a copper coin into the air and an old Jew with a grey beard and a long coat was supposed to catch it. The old man missed every time. The coin flew past his pitifully outstretched hand. the old man bent down to pick it up, the Cossack slapped his bottom, , the onlookers held their sides and groaned with laughter; this was the point of the entertainment ... The driver, who thought this extremely funny, slowed down so that the passengers could have a look. But Zhivago called the Cossack, cursed him, and ordered him to stop baiting the old man. 'Yes, sir,' he said readily. 'We didn't know; we were only doing it for fun.'"

A Russian field hospital of the First World War (image is in the Public Domain).

"His thoughts swarmed and whirled in the dark. They seemed to move in two main circles, two skeins which constantly tangled and untangled themselves. In one circle were his thoughts of Tonya: their home and their, former settled life, where everything, down to the smallest detail, had its poetry and its sincerity and warmth. Yury felt anxious about this life, he wanted it to be safe and whole, and, after two years of separation ... he longed, already, to be there. Here too were his loyalty to the revolution, and his admiration for it ... New things were also in the other circle of his thoughts, but how different, how unlike the first! These things were not familiar, not led up to by the old; they were unchosen, prescribed by reality and as sudden as an earthquake. Among them was the war with its bloodshed and its horrors, its homelessness, savagery and isolation, its trials and the worldly wisdom which it taught ... And among his new thoughts was Nurse Antipova, caught by the war at the back of beyond, with her completely unknown life, Antipova who never blamed anyone, yet whose very silence was almost a reproach, mysteriously reserved and so strong in her reserve. And here too was Yury's honest endeavour not to love her as wholehearted as his striving throughout his life until now to love not only his family or his friends, but everyone else as well."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

The Wards of Old London: Aldersgate Within - Sanctuary and Communications

Having followed in the footsteps of an imaginary visitor to London, first walking from west to east along Cheapside, Cornhill and Leadenhall Street; and then from east to west along the Thames; the final stage in our exploration of the old walled city takes us north and east along the course of the Roman and Medieval walls. A street named Saint Martin's Le Grand runs north from Saint Paul's Cathedral towards the spot now occupied by the Museum of London, but where Aldersgate once stood, and beyond it the road north through Finchley and Barnet to Huntingdon, Leeds, York, Durham and Edinburgh (the current A1 which, thanks to the 18th Century turnpike trusts, became more important than the older Ermine Street - now the A10, extending north from Bishopsgate).

Aldersgate in 1670 (image is in the Public Domain).

Saint Martin's Le Grand is named for a church that has long-since vanished, originally established, perhaps as early as the 8th Century, and certainly expanded in the 11th Century by Ingebrian, Earl of Essex, and Girard, his brother. Nothing of the church is visible today, but fragments were revealed during building works in 1815. It was an important place of sanctuary, and criminals being conveyed from Newgate to execution at Tower Hill would sometimes try to give their guards the slip at the top of Newgate Hill, in order to reach its gate.

The crypt of Saint Martin's Le Grand, as revealed by building works in 1815, Thomas Prallent (image is in the Public Domain).

After the dissolution of the monasteries, a number of coaching inns were established along the road, and these became focal points for the postal service, connecting London with the rest of the country. In 1836, twenty-seven mail coaches left London every evening, punctually at 8.00 PM, covering, between them, 5500 miles.

Saint Martin's Le Grand in 1760 (image is in the Public Domain).
The "Bull and Mouth" coaching inn in 1820 (image is in the Public Domain).

A new state-of-the-art General Post Office was opened on Saint Martin's Le Grand in 1874. A contemporary account provides insights into its operations: "The basement is partly occupied as office-rooms, partly for stores, and partly by the department of the telegraph engineers, the large room in the centre being used as a batteryroom. The ground floor is appropriated to the Postmaster-General and the Accountant-General. On the first floor are accommodated the secretaries and their staff; the third and fourth floors being appropriated to the telegraph department. The fourth floor is especially devoted to the telegraph instruments, and the pneumatic tubes are laid on to it, establishing communication with the district offices."

Saint Martin's Le Grand, with the General Post Office, in the late Nineteenth Century (image is in the Public Domain).

Unsurprisingly, mail coaches and coaching inns were, by this stage, redundant, their place taken by railway carriages and train stations. There was even an underground, pneumatic railway, carrying mail between the General Post Office and Euston Station, although this was never economically viable, and functioned only for a few years.

A carriage from the pneumatic railway connecting the General Post office to Euston Station, National Postal Museum. Photo: Mike Fell (licensed under CCA).

The new communications technologies created work for women, as well as men. "In the telegraph department in the new wing," one account tells us, "young ladies are seated at the long rows of tables crossing the room from end to end, and, with few exceptions, each one has before her a single needle or printing instrument, the 'circuit,' or place with which it is in communication, being denoted on a square tablet, something like a headstone in a cemetery, erected immediately in front of her. It may further be remarked of these young ladies, that they talk much less than might be expected, work very quickly, and have generally very nice hands."

The Post Office building was badly damaged in a German air-raid in 1917, and all that remains today of all the communications activity that once took place around this part of London is "Postman's Park," where perhaps some of the postmen from the sorting office held lunch-time liaisons with the young ladies from the telegraph department.

Bomb damage at the General Post Office, 1917. Photo: Imperial War Museum HO80 (non-commercial license).
Postman's Park, based on a map of 1896, Guildhall Library MS 18911.Image: Iridescent (licensed under CCA).

The park itself had been created from four former graveyards, after human remains from most of the city burial grounds had been cleared away to municipal cemeteries in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

Postman's Park remains a place where city workers can enjoy lunch-time liaisons, and, through the efforts of the Victorian artist and philanthropist, George Frederic Watts, it is also a place where the brave and selfless actions of London's otherwise unsung heroes and heroines are commemorated, each and every one of them a potential character in a historical novel or short story.

One of more than 150 memorial plaques in Postman's Park. Photo: Bazj (image is in the Public Domain).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Wards of Old London: Castle Baynard - The Defence of Body and Soul

A visitor to London walking along the Thames from the Tower of London towards Blackfriars finally passes from Queenhithe into Castle Baynard Ward. Of Castle Baynard itself, there remains not a trace visible above ground: not, I might add, in either case, since the place-name refers to two quite separate buildings, which did not even stand in the same place.

Shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, work began on the construction of what would eventually become the Tower of London, William the Conqueror's citadel in the south-eastern corner of the city (it was, initially, a timber fortress, the stone-built White Tower coming some twenty years later). William had few reasons to expect loyalty from the people of London, most of whom probably thought of him as "the Bastard," rather than "the Conqueror," so his rule would have to be imposed, if not by force, then certainly by the threat of it. To his knight, Ralph Baynard, he entrusted the building of a second fortification in the south-western corner of the City, just inside the Roman wall, beside the outfall of the River Fleet. William charged another retainer, whose name was Montfichet, or Montfiquet, with the construction of a third fortification, immediately to the south of Ludgate.

The original Chastel Baynard may have been a hastily thrown up timber palisade on an earth motte, such as this one at Hastings, shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, built in the days following the establishment of a beach-head by William the Conqueror (image is in the Public Domain).

Within twenty years of the conquest, Chastel Baynard (as I shall refer to it, to avoid confusion with a later building) and Montfichet Tower were (like the White Tower), substantial stone fortifications of a sort that no English man or woman had ever seen before (unless, perhaps, he or she had travelled within the Muslim world). Neither, incidentally, was located within the old Castle Baynard Ward: both were in Farringdon Within.

Building fortifications was a hazardous business  for invading dynasties. By the early 13th Century, William's great-great-grandson, King John, was at war with the descendants of the very Norman knights to whom the Conqueror had entrusted the defence of London and other English cities. Chastel Baynard was held by Robert Fitzwalter, who was ranged against John in the Barons' Revolt. Robert was, perhaps, defending more than his political rights and privileges: it was said that the King desired his daughter, Matilda the Fair (believed to be the inspiration for "Maid Marian" in the Robin Hood stories). Fitzwalter found an ally in Robert Montfichet, and they probably enjoyed the support of many in the City, resentful of the increasingly onerous taxation imposed by the King.

Having suppressed, for the time, the revolt, and banished both Fitzwalter and Montfichet, King John set about the demolition of both fortifications. No illustration of either exists, but archaeologists have found traces of them in excavations to the east of the River Fleet.

In 1276, the Earl of Kent, Hubert de Berg, pulled down whatever remained of Montfichet Tower, and gave much of the land on which it, together with Chastel Baynard, had stood, to friars of the Dominican Order, whose establishment had outgrown its previous priory in Holborn. Their priory, dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, gave "Blackfriars" its name.

Reconstruction of the plan of Blackfriars Priory. Image: Wellcome Trust, L0001718 (licensed under CCA).

Enjoying royal patronage, the priory was frequently at odds with the City authorities, sometimes siding with the King against the Lord Mayor, and often espousing unpopular causes. In 1255, the Dominican Prior had intervened on behalf of Jews unjustly accused of murdering a child in Lincoln, standing against a tide of anti-Semitism that swept through the City as it swept through other urban communities in England. A subsequent Prior tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene in securing the rescue of Edward II, a King whose unpopularity within the City may have rivalled that of his great-grandfather, John.

Across Christendom, the Dominicans were best known for their vigorous, and often brutal, defence of Catholic orthodoxy against "heresies" of every kind. In Fifteenth Century England the challenge came from the Lollards, Protestants avant la lettre, who wanted to see the Bible translated into English, were hostile to Catholic ideas of Penance (most significantly confession to a priest), and despised the "idolatry" of images. These ideas found favour among some of the wealthier merchant classes (men who were too busy making money to take the time to learn Latin, but who could afford to contemplate the purchase of a handwritten Bible, written out on the skins of forty or more cattle).

The opening of Saint John's Gospel, from John Wycliffe's 14th Century (Lollard) English Bible (image is in the Public Domain).

Many prominent Lollards were tried and condemned in Ecclesiastical Courts within the Priory of Blackfriars, few of them more notable than Sir John Oldcastle (thought to have inspired Shakespeare's character, Falstaff). Convicted by the Dominicans of heresy, and imprisoned in the Tower of London, Oldcastle escaped, with the assistance of a Smithfield parchment-maker, and went on to organise a rebellion against his former friend, King Henry V, for which he was subsequently executed.

What then, of the Baynard's Castle that gave its name to the ward, and actually took up much of the land within it? It was not a castle in any military sense, but rather a palace, occupying a waterfront position to the west of the earlier Chastel Baynard. It was built by the Earl of Clare in 1338, and subsequently rebuilt by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, following a fire. It became a royal palace under King Henry VII, and was granted to the Earls of Pembroke by Queen Elizabeth I. It was gutted by the Great Fire of 1666, but its facade was patched up, and survived through the 18th Century. Not a trace of it remains visible today, its position taken by Baynard House, the Brutalist building designed by William Holford, and now home to British Telecommunications.
Baynard's Castle and the outfall of the River Fleet. Image: Wellcome Trust, L0006919 (licensed under CCA).

Baynard's Castle in the 1540s, with Blackfriars Priory to the west and Saint Paul's to the north (image: Museum of London).

Baynard's Castle in 1790. Image: British Library HMNTS 01349.I.1 (Public Domain).
Baynard House

We have come half-circle in our tour of the City of London, walking through the city, first from west to east, along the main road from Newgate to Aldgate, and then back along the Thames to the banks of the River Fleet, where we began. Over the coming weeks, we will walk first north, and then east, following the course of the Roman and Medieval walls that formed the northern limits of the City, completing our circuit when we arrive back at Aldgate, once home to Geoffrey Chaucer.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Monday, 25 April 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 39 - "The Underdogs," by Mariano Azuela

The Spanish Empire, once the most powerful in the world, was also one of the first to disintegrate. Nationalist movements emerged across Central and South America, often led by men who were themselves, at least partially, of Spanish descent. Mexico became independent in 1821. It was one thing, however, to declare the existence of a new state, to adopt a constitution and elect a president; it was quite another to create a functioning society among a people riven by divisions based on class, ethnicity and language. Democracy soon gave way to dictatorship, and peace to war, as Mexico fought for its existence, first with the Americans, and then with the French.

The dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911) delivered some measure of stability, economic modernisation and growth, but, whilst foreign investors, and a small elite of Mexican land-owners, profited from the country's rich mineral reserves, the vast majority of the population languished in grinding poverty.

Diaz was forced from power in 1911 by a loose coalition of constitutionalist liberals and idealistic radicals, but this coalition broke down into factionalism and civil war as promised land reforms came to nothing and the status quo seemed obstinately to endure.

Mexican revolutionary leaders gather for a group photograph in 1911, having forced Diaz from office, but they would soon be fighting one another over different visions of the nation's future (image is in the Public Domain).

The Mexican Revolution, unlike the French and Russian Revolutions, did not have a single unifying ideology or philosophy: villagers rose up against the local elites that oppressed them, a conflict between los de abajo (those from below) and los de arriba (those from above), driven by charismatic leaders such as Francisco ("Pancho") Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who seemed to embody the hope for a better future, however vaguely defined. Ultimately, it would fail, but the legend of those who had dared to challenge power endured to inspire new revolutionary movements around the world.

"Las Adelitas" - women fought alongside men in the Mexican Revolution (image is in the Public Domain).

The Underdogs, Mariano Azuela's novel of the Mexican Revolution, was published in Spanish (as Los de Abajo) in 1915. Azuela himself had been a participant in the revolution, as medical officer in the army of Julian Medina, one of Pancho Villa's generals. Like Balzac's Les Chouans (which Azuela had surely read), the novel begins and ends in medias res.

Azuela's novel follows a specific band, led by a fictional revolutionary commander, Demetrio Macias, as they experience both victory and defeat. A humane and observant medic, Azuela seems independently to have reached the same conclusion as the psychiatrist, W.H.R. Rivers, treating soldiers from the Western Front, that soldiers in battle are motivated less by patriotism or abstract ideals, than by their personal loyalty to those fighting alongside them. It is these relationships between compadres, rather than any grand narrative of the revolution and its ideals, that form the basis of the novel, and make it such a powerful depiction of a specific moment in time and space.

"'It's not an animal ... Just hear Palomo bark ... It's got to be a person.' The woman's eyes searched the darkness of the sierra. 'Maybe Federales,' answered the man who squatted, eating in a corner, a clay pot in his right hand and three rolled tortillas in the other. The woman did not answer; her senses were concentrated outside the hut. They heard the sound of hooves in the nearby gravel, and Palomo barked more furiously. 'You should hide just in case, Demetrio.' Calmly, the man finished eating, grabbed a cantaro, and lifting it with both hands, drank water in gulps. Then he stood. 'Your rifle is under the mat,' she whispered. The small room was lit by a tallow candle. A yoke, a plow, a goad and other farming tools rested in a corner. From the roof hung ropes holding up an old adobe mold that served as a bed, and on blankets and faded rags a child slept. Demetrio buckled on the cartridge belt and picked up the rifle ... He walked out slowly, fading into the impenetrable darkness of the night ... The moon peopled the mountain with vague shadows. At every ridge and every bush, Demetrio saw the sad silhouette of a woman with a child in her arms. After many hours of climbing when he turned to look, at the bottom of the canyon near the river, huge flames rose. His house was burning ..."

A Mexican rebel camp near Juarez, 1911 (image is in the Public Domain).

"'And what do you want us to do with the curro I caught last night?' Pancracio asked. 'That's right! ... I forgot!' Demetrio, as always, thought and hesitated a good deal before making a decision. 'Let's see Codorniz, come over here. Look, ask about a chapel that is about three leagues from here. Go and steal the cassock from the priest.' 'But what are we going to do, compadre?' Anastasio asked stunned. 'If this curro has come to murder me, it's easy to get the truth out of him. I tell him I'm going to have him shot. Codorniz dresses up as a priest and hears his confession. If he has sinned, I shoot him; if not, I let him go.'"

Pancho Villa entering Ojinaya, Mexican National Archive (image is in the Public Domain).

"'Here comes Villa!' The news spread with the speed of lightning. Ah, Villa! ... the magic word. The great man appears; the unvanquished warrior who even from a distance can charm like a boa. 'Our Mexican Napoleon!' exclaims Luis Cervantes ... Villa is the indomitable lord of the sierra, the eternal victim of all governments who hunt him like a beast. Villa is the reincarnation of the old legend: the providential bandit, who passes through the world with the luminous torch of an ideal: steal from the rich and make the poor rich! And the poor turn him into a legend that time will embellish so that it will live on from generation to generation."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 18 April 2016

With Parity of Passion: The Personal Journey of a British European

Apparently I don't exist. London mayor, Boris Johnson, said as much over the weekend. "There is," he declared, "not one shred of idealism" among those of us who believe that the United Kingdom should remain within the European Union: the best we can come up with is that "it's crap, but there's no alternative." Yesterday my fellow novelist, Tony Parsons, weighed in on the same side, insisting, on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, that there is no "parity of passion" between those, like himself, who wish to leave, and those, like me, who wish to remain. Well, where to start?

I made the point, just over a year ago, that I rarely allow my political views to surface here, and this is the first time, since then, that I have done so. For each of us, there are moments when we simply know that we must stand up and be counted, and for me, now is one such. Not that I am about to turn this blog into a propaganda page for the "Britain Stronger in Europe" campaign (my next post will certainly be a historical or literary one), but I couldn't forgive myself if I were to remain silent, whilst writers such as Tony Parsons and Frederic Raphael are making their arguments on the other side of the debate, and the UK were then to vote to leave. Let me explain why.

I didn't grow up in the European Union. Nobody in my generation did (I was already 27 when it came into existence). Living in Jersey, my parents didn't have the vote when, in 1975, the UK held a referendum on the UK membership of what was then the European Community, but my father brought the UK papers home from his barber's shop each evening, and the issue was discussed around the dinner table. On at least one occasion, the debate was joined by my grandfather and great uncle, both of them veterans of the Second World War, keen to impress on us what was, potentially at stake, the peace and prosperity of a continent.

Brexiteers will, of course, argue that this has had nothing to do with the European institutions, and I must concede that we cannot know how things would have worked out if circumstances had been different. Then again, so must they. The year I would ask them to focus on is 1989, when, as few of us had predicted (and certainly not me), the Soviet Bloc fell apart. The transition to democracy in Eastern Europe had its problems, but how sure can anyone be that they would not have been far worse if the European Community had not been there to lend assistance. Would Chancellor Kohl even have been able to sell the idea of reunification to his West German electorate? If not, what would the landscape of Europe now look like? My grandfather and great uncle helped win the peace and liberties we now enjoy. It should surprise nobody that I am passionate about preserving them.

The Berlin Wall, in November 1989. Photo: Yann Forget (licensed under GNU). 

1989 was also the year in which I spent three months in the Netherlands as a student on the European Community's Erasmus exchange programme. It was a formative time, in which I expanded my network of international contacts and developed my love of European art and literature. In my subsequent academic career I have been responsible (at a rough guess) for around three hundred students on variants of the same programme, studying all over Europe. I am certainly passionate about ensuring that my current and future students should have the same opportunities.

Leiden, where I lived and studied in 1989. Photo: Vitum (image is in the Public Domain).

The following year, I gained my PhD from the University of London. The UK economy was in recession, and there were few academic positions to be had. As a national of a European Community country, I had the right to work in any member state. I found work as a research fellow in Paris. The alternative would almost certainly have been the dole queue. I am passionate about ensuring that my students, past, present and future, should retain that right as well.

The Canal Saint-Martin, close to my Paris home in 1990 (image is in the Public Domain).

As a young man, I travelled extensively in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Cyprus. I travelled, also, in Spain and Greece, and saw countries that had, in my own lifetime, suffered under brutal dictatorships, emerging as dynamic and stable democracies; countries that had endured grinding poverty joining the affluent world that I had always taken for granted. I spoke to very few people who didn't believe that the European institutions had played a key role in those political and economic developments, and I am passionate in my belief that this process should continue, and that my country should play its role, alongside all the others.

In 1993 I moved to Wales, to take up an academic position at Trinity College Carmarthen (now the University of Wales Trinity Saint David's). I also became more actively involved in politics, campaigned alongside our MEP, Eluned (now Baroness) Morgan, and saw how she was able to leverage the power of the European institutions to bring investment and economic growth to a large rural constituency.

The basis of European Regional Policy as of 2014, with more developed regions shown in blue, transitional regions in yellow, and less developed regions in red (European Commission, licensed under CCA). It seems to me that there is, indeed, something idealistic about the ambition to move regions and countries along this spectrum, but that it also makes straightforward economic sense. 

When I subsequently stood for the UK Parliament (as Labour Candidate for Lewes in 1997), I did so on a passionately pro-European ticket (it was one of the few parliamentary seats in the country where the Liberal Democrat, Norman Baker, was the most Euro-sceptic of the three main party candidates). In my subsequent career in academic leadership, at the Universities of Greenwich and Westminster, I played a role in the implementation of the European Union's Bologna process, developing genuinely transnational degree programmes, and preparing students for a professional future in a globalised world. The momentum of that process has rather been lost, at least in the UK, but I am passionate about seeing it revived.

And so, in response to Boris, Tony, Frederic and others of like mind, I can assure them that my passion is easily equal to theirs, and that I shall be casting a positive vote for Britain in Europe, not because "it's crap, but there's no alternative," but because I believe, with every fibre of my being, that it has made the continent on which I live today more civilised than was the one on which I was born, and because I am passionate about ensuring that the students I teach today will be able to look back in several decades time, when I am dead and gone, and make the same statement with equal confidence.  

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.