Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: An Interlude

As the Roman administration of Britain collapsed, during the course of the Fifth Century AD, London was progressively abandoned. Urban life becomes impossible in a land without reliable infrastructure: some Londoners probably took refuge on the continent, still, at least nominally, under Roman rule; others melted away into the countryside, where they could, at least, produce their own food, and where they were less obvious targets for increasing numbers of Saxon pirates.

The Pagan Saxons from northern Germany, who had, at first, come to Britain as mercenaries, and then as raiders, now came as settlers, but the walled city of Londinium, with its high wharves, had little interest for them. They established their city, Lundenwic, to the west, in the area that is now Covent Garden, running parallel with what we call "The Strand," then literally a strand (or beach), on which they could haul up their shallow-draft open ships, with their cargoes of Baltic amber; Russian furs; and Irish & Scottish slaves.

Earl Medieval brooch (650-670 AD), found with a woman's burial at Covent Garden. PAS/British Museum ID 257458 (licensed under CCA).


In the Ninth Century, new Pagan raiders, the Vikings, began attacking the now Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. During the winter of 871 AD, they camped within the ruins of the old Roman city, fortifying it against the possibility of an Anglo-Saxon counter-attack. Having expelled the invaders, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, took the decision to resettle the walled city, beginning in its south-western corner. Lundenwic was abandoned, and Lundenburh was born.


London Wall outside the Museum of London. Photo: www.mikepeel.net (licensed under CCA).


In the decades and centuries following the Norman invasion of 1066, the military and spiritual defences of the city were developed and enhanced. William the Conqueror built the White Tower, the first element of the Tower of London, in the city's south-eastern corner; he licensed his knights to build other fortifications, Chastel Baynard and Montfiquet Tower, to the west; and he began the construction of Saint Paul's Cathedral. Within a few centuries, these constructions were joined by around a hundred parish churches (many of them tiny, but built in stone, unlike most of the houses, which were of wood and thatch), and dozens of monasteries and priories.

The White Tower. Photo: IncMan (licensed under CCA).

The Norman St Paul's Cathedral digital reconstruction based on a model of 1908. Photo: Bob Castle (licensed under CCA).

The Medieval London Bridge, as depicted by Claus Visscher in 1616 (image is in the Public Domain).


Perhaps surprisingly, I struggled to find novels to reflect this period of almost a thousand years in London's emergence as a city and port. There are, doubtless, plenty of novels set in this period, in which at least some of the action happens to take place in London (if only because many of the leading royal and religious figures of the time spent much of their time here): but, for this series, I was seeking something more than this; novels in which the city itself is, at least to some extent, a character in its own right. If such novels exist for this period, I have not read them.

I therefore return to the first novel that I explored here, Edward Rutherfurd's "London," who covers the period in a series of interlinked stories: "The Rood" (604 AD); "The Conqueror" (1066); "The Tower" (1078-97); "The Saint" (1170-72); "The Mayor" (1189-1224); and "The Whorehouse" (1295); in all of which fictional characters mingle and interact with historical figures of the time.



The Rood.

"Above the wooden jetty, a small group of buildings included a barn, a cattle-pen, two storehouses, and the homestead of Cerdic and his household, surrounded by a stout wattle fence. All these buildings, large or small, were single-storey and mostly rectangular. Their walls, made of post and plank, were low, only four or five feet high, and strengthened on the outside by a sloping earth bank, turfed over. Their steep thatched roofs, however, rose to a height of nearly twenty feet ... The floor of Cerdic's hall was slightly sunken, so that one stepped down onto the wooden floorboards covered in rushes. The space inside was warm and commodious but rather dark, since when the door was shut the only light came from the vents in the thatch, made to let out the smoke from the fire in the stone hearth near the centre of the floor. Here the entire household gathered to eat."

The Tower.

"The two men sat facing each other across a table. For a while neither of them spoke as they considered their dangerous work, though either could have said, 'If we get caught, they'll kill us.' It was Barnikel who had called he meeting in his house by the little church of All Hallows, which now overlooked the rising Tower, and he had done so for a simple reason. For the first time in the ten years of their criminal activities, he had jut confessed: 'I'm worried.' And he had outlined his problem. To which Alfred had just offered a solution. When Alfred the armourer looked back, it often amazed him how easily he had been drawn into the business ... It had all started ten years ago, the summer that Barnikel's wife had suddenly died. All Barnikel's family and friends had rallied round, taking turns to keep him company. His children had encouraged the young apprentice to go too. Then, one evening, just as he was leaving, the Dane had put his huge arm around Alfred's shoulders and muttered into his ear: 'Would you like to do a little job for me? It could be dangerous.'"

The Mayor.

"A long-nosed man on a piebald palfrey was leading an elegantly mounted lady and two packhorses over the quiet waters of the Thames and into the city of London. The man was Pentecost Silversleeves. The lady was Ida, the widow of a knight, and despite herself she had just started to weep ... As she looked at the city before her, it seemed to Ida that the world had turned to stone. The great walled enclosure of London seemed like a vast prison. On the left she could see the thickset stone fort by Ludgate. On the right, down by the waterside, the grey, square mass of the Tower, surly even in repose. All stone. Over the two low hills of London covered by houses loomed the dark, high, narrow line of Norman St Paul's, dreary and forbidding ... as the horses' hooves clip-clopped softly on the wooden bridge in the morning quiet, the sound of a striking bell came over the water with a solemn, sullen sound, as though it, too, were made of stone, to summon stony hearts to stony prayer."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Memories of the Festival of Britain

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having arrived at Waterloo Station, can exit via the Victory Gate, crossing the busy York Road to the South Bank Centre, an arts complex that today includes the Royal Festival Hall; the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room; and the Hayward Gallery (the National Theatre and National Film Theatre are not, technically, part of the centre, but are in close proximity, and broadly share its modernist, concrete architecture).

The land between Waterloo Station and the River Thames had been an industrial area up to the time of the Second World War, when it was badly damaged by bombing (Waterloo Bridge itself was damaged, and had to be hastily repaired, some have claimed by a largely female workforce, although historians have found this difficult to verify).

The Festival of Britain was conceived by the Labour Government, elected in the aftermath of the war, as "one united act of national reassessment, and one corporate affirmation of faith in the nation's future." The previous and future Conservative Prime Minster, Winston Churchill, saw it as "three-dimensional Socialist propaganda," although strenuous efforts had, in fact, been made to avoid the politicisation of the exhibitions. Perhaps Churchill, who was determined to preserve the integrity of the British Empire, objected to its exclusive focus on the contribution of the islands of Britain themselves to science, technology, design, architecture, and the arts (taking place over the summer of 1951, it consciously looked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, but lacked its international focus).

The Festival of Britain South Bank site, as viewed from the north bank of the Thames. Photo: Peter Benton (licensed under CCA).

The Festival emblem, designed by Abram Games (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).


The festival site on the South Bank received 8.5 million visitors (from a UK population of 49 million at the time). Not everybody was able to visit (my late mother recalled that, although her school in Sussex organised a visit, parents had to pay for their children's admission, which hers could not afford), but many who could not do so participated in linked events held around the country. There were few foreign visitors: a bomb-shattered London was, as yet, in no condition to receive large numbers of tourists. Two short video clips of the festival can be seen here and here.

Visitors sitting outside the "Dome of Discovery" in 1951. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

The Skylon was a sculpture, 300 feet (90 metres) high. It was demolished when the festival ended. Photo: Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). 


The Royal Festival Hall is the most tangible remnant of the festival: built on the site of the former Lion brewery, its foundation stone was laid by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Its inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. It continues to host prestigious concerts and literary events, but also remains one of London's most authentically democratic cultural spaces, accessible to everyone, with food and drink to suit all budgets, and plenty of room in which informal meetings of book groups and discussion circles can take place, and students can work together on projects.

The South Bank Centre today, with the Royal Festival Hall to the left of the Hungerford Bridge. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

Fountains outside the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Sandpiper (image is in the Public Domain). 


Other buildings, including the "Dome of Discovery," were demolished when the festival ended, but the "Telekina" became the National Film Theatre, and the area has been a cultural quarter ever since, subsequently expanded to include Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe to the east. Architecturally, the festival had pointed towards the ways in which a wrecked city could be rebuilt relatively swiftly and cheaply, sing modern materials.

An indirect legacy of the festival is the Thames Path, conceived in 1948, but not actually opened until 1996: it now extends over 184 miles (296 kilometres), from the Thames Barrier in the east to the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire. It is to the west, along this path, that we will take our next steps in exploring the Borough of Lambeth.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: November

For the people of the Middle Ages, November was the last month of "ordinary time," in which the affairs of the secular world were allowed to take precedence over spiritual concerns. Advent, a time of fasting and penitence, was approaching; a period during which blood ought not to be shed. November was, therefore, the month in which animals, especially pigs, were fattened (often on acorns, as they still are in some parts of Iberia) and slaughtered; the meat salted and smoked; products such as sausages, salami, pate, and black and white puddings made. These were skilled tasks, in many cases performed by women, and getting them right could, over the course of a harsh winter, make the difference between plenty and hardship, or even starvation. Fish, too, was salted, smoked, and pickled: together with cheese, it would be the staple diet throughout Advent, with its religious restrictions on the consumption of meat.

November, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1485-6; Musee Conde, MS 65, F.11 v (image is in the Public Domain). The swineherd uses a stick to bring acorns down from the trees, in order to fatten the pigs.

Pigs in an oak wood in November, Strasbourg,c 1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

The slaughter of a pig (image is in the Public Domain).

The butchery of a pig (image is in the Public Domain).


There were also, in many cases, non-food crops to be processed: retted flax to be "swingled" (beaten with wooden paddles, to separate the fibres used to produce linen from the waste products of the crop; coppices (for the production of basketry, fencing, bows and arrows), maintained.

The swingling of retted flax (image is in the Public Domain).


With these tasks completed, and firewood gathered in, a Medieval community was ready to face the rigours of winter.

Calendar page for November, Morgan Library & Museum, M618, Fol.6r (image is in the Public Domain).

November and Sagittarius (image is in the Public Domain).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.




Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 3 - "Cast Not the Day," by Paul Waters

Between 235 and 284 AD, the Roman Empire was convulsed by a series of crises: plagues, civil wars, and barbarian invasions. When, in 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine, who had himself spent time in Britain, made the newly founded city of Constantinople the capital of his Empire, in place of Rome, he was signifying, perhaps consciously, that it would not be possible for his successors to hold the Empire together; and indicating his preference for the Eastern, rather than the Western Empire. This decision was a religious, as well as a political one: Constantine had, by this stage, embraced the Christian religion, and, in stark contrast to Rome, his new capital would be unencumbered by Pagan temples and amphitheatres.

London did not escape these convulsions. From the mid-Third Century onward, its population seems to have been in decline, some of the city's homes and warehouses abandoned, and filled up with "dark earth," probably compost, allowing ruined buildings to be pressed into new service as allotments for growing vegetables or keeping animals. The construction of a new wall along the Thames waterfront suggests a greater concern with defence than with trade: it may have been prompted by the appearance of slave-hunting Saxon pirates; or by one of the many coup attempts staged by military commanders in the provinces. Families that were wealthy enough to own country villas, as well as city houses, increasingly retired to their estates.


Coin of the usurper, Magnentius, whose rebellion lasted from 350 to 353 AD. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CCA).

The divisions of the Roman Empire in c 271 AD. Image: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under GNU). 


Whilst the Empire was now, officially, Christian, many people in the west held fast to their older, Pagan, customs. Although there was, until recently, little direct evidence for late Roman Christianity in London, excavations on Tower Hill have revealed the remains of a large and ornate "basilica," very possibly a church or cathedral, built with marble and other stones re-used from earlier buildings, perhaps including Pagan temples. It seems to have been built between 350 and 400 AD, but London clearly had a Christian community before this, as its Bishop, Restitutus, is recorded as having attended the Council of Arles in 314 AD.


The Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan: London's first basilica, on Tower Hill, may have been built to a similar design. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CCA).



Paul Waters's novel, Cast Not the Day, is set in a London riven by religious divisions. A rebellion by the army commander, Magnentius, against the Emperor Constans, has been defeated. Although personally a Christian, many Pagans have supported Magnentius on the basis that he appeared to offer greater tolerance of religious diversity. Now the new Emperor, Constantius II, has dispatched a ruthless administrator, and Christian fundamentalist, Paulus Catena, to the city to root out his former supporters, and to exterminate Paganism in London. Two young Pagan men, Drusus and Marcellus, struggle to survive the conflict.

Head of the god, Serapis, from the Temple of Mithras, London, established by a military veteran, Ulpius Silvanus, in 307-310 AD; Museum of London. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Fourth Century figure of the god, Bacchus, from the Temple of Mithras, London (the temple seems to have been re-dedicated to him following Silvanus's death); Museum of London. Photo: Zde (licensed under CCA). 


"We came to London through the open suburb of farmsteads and villas to the south, halting at the watering place by the bridge, where the carters and litter-bearers gather. The house of Balbus lay in the heart of the merchants' quarter, off the Street of the Carpenters, close by the Grove of Isis. Everywhere was crowded. The hot air smelled of dust and unwashed bodies. Behind the street the workshops sounded with the noise of hammers and saws and engravers' chisels ... "

"At first I could not believe what I saw. I had expected, I suppose, some sort of tavern brawl. But instead I saw the crowd had with one mind set upon a building, a small antique temple with fine delicate columns and steps at the front, which I had often passed on my errands to the city dock. It was, I knew, a shrine to Mercury, of the sort one saw all about this part of town, Mercury being the god of traders and merchants ... The crowd broke out in a sudden cheer as a great slab of marble facing came crashing down from the side of the temple and shattered on the flagstones. 'But why are they doing this?' I cried, shouting into Ambitus's ear over the din ... who are these people?' He turned to me. 'Do you really not know? Why, they are Christians, of course. Who else?'"


Wall-painting from Lullingstone Villa in Kent, showing the Christian Chi-Rho symbol; British Museum; the villa also had a Pagan shrine, suggesting that the household included both Pagans and Christians. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). 

Wall-painting from Lullingstone, showing Christians praying; British Museum. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). 


"One day, a train of mules appeared in the street in daytime, led by a band of the bishop's supporters. They took the creatures up to the temple of Concord by the Wallbrook, tethered ropes around the slender columns, and brought the stone-roofed portico crashing down into the street. Then they set torches to what remained and danced all night around the fire. I could see the glow even from my window at the fort."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Waterloo Station

A visitor to London, having explored Rotherhithe, in the Borough of Southwark, can travel by London Overground and the Jubilee Line to Waterloo Station, which is in the adjacent Borough of Lambeth. Waterloo (formally named after the bridge, rather than directly after the battle) was one of London's earliest major rail terminuses, after Euston and Paddington. It was opened by the London and South-Western Railway Company in 1848, replacing an earlier temporary station at Nine Elms, near Battersea, and connecting London to Weymouth, Southampton, Salisbury, and Portsmouth.

Waterloo Bridge Station in 1848 (image is in the Public Domain).

Waterloo Station today. Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen (licensed under CCA).

The LSWR network in 1922. Image: Afterbrunel (Public Domain).


It was a significant departure and arrival point for soldiers and sailors of both the First and Second World Wars. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it became the busiest station complex in Europe, and is depicted in John Schlesingers (1961) film, "Terminus", supposedly a "fly on the wall" documentary, although it is known that some of the scenes were set up, and that some of the people who appear in it were actors: it is, nonetheless, a poignant evocation of the last years of the Age of Steam.

The suffragettes, Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, at Waterloo Station in 1911 (Emmeline was embarking on a lecture tour of Canada and the USA).  Photo: Imperial War Museum Q81490 (non-commercial license).

Troops at Waterloo Station in 1914 (image is in the Public Domain).

Crowd gathered at Waterloo Station to welcome Charlie Chaplin in 1921. Photo: Photoplay (image is in the Public Domain).

Waterloo Station in 1940, with troops arriving, and evacuees departing. Photo: US Defense Department (image is in the Public Domain).


One of the station's most unusual roles was as the embarkation point for the London Necropolis Railway Company, established in the wake of the Burials Act (1851), prohibiting the burial of the dead within central London (the overcrowding of city cemeteries and crypts had become a scandalous problem, and a serious health-hazard, in the first half of the Nineteenth Century). The railway carried coffins and mourners to Brookwood Cemetery, twenty-three miles away in Surrey. The company's London station was badly damaged by German bombing in 1941, and the railway of the dead never re-opened.

The London Necropolis Railway. Image: Iridescent (licensed under GNU).

The former entrance to the London Necropolis Station, built in 1902. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under GNU).

A one-way coffin ticket (image is in the Public Domain).

The bombed station in 1941. Photo: Southern Railway Photographic Unit (image is in the Public Domain).


Leaving via the Victory Arch, opened in 1922 to commemorate the station's role in the First World War, we can walk down towards the Thames to begin our exploration of the Borough of Lambeth.


Waterloo Station's Victory Arch. Photo: Prioryman (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Friday, 6 October 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 2 - "The Emperor's Babe," by Bernardine Evaristo

The Roman province of Britannia was governed from Londinium throughout the Second and Third Centuries AD, and, wherever foundations are dug within the city, evidence of its prosperity are to be found. The Greek writer, Strabo, lists Britain's exports as including grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves, and hunting dogs: to which list must certainly be added lead from Flintshire, used in plumbing systems across the Empire. All of these are likely to have passed through the port of London, with wine, olive oil, dates, figs, and luxury tableware flowing in the other direction.

A free market in goods and services extended from Wales in the west to Syria in the east, and from Northumbria in the north to Egypt in the south. London's cosmopolitan population attracted some of the Empire's finest craftsmen: mosaicists; mural artists; glass-blowers; and stone-masons.

Mosaic from Roman London, Museum of London. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU).


The defensive wall around the city of London was not built until around 200 AD, and probably had as much to do with policing and surveillance in the capital as with defence from external threats, which did not loom on the horizon for some decades afterwards. Such policing and surveillance were important, because the city served as a base, not only for the province's Governor and Procurator (finance minister), but sometimes even for the Emperor. Hadrian was here in 122 AD, and Septimius Severus from 208 to 211 AD: both were concerned primarily with consolidation and conquest in the north of Britain, but, in their presence, much of the business of the governance of Empire is likely to have been centred on Londinium.


London in c 200 AD. Image: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Section of Londinium's defensive wall, Tower Hill. Photo: Nessy-Pic (licensed under CCA).

Head from a bronze statue of the Emperor Hadrian, found in the Thames, Museum of London. Photo: FollowingHadrian (licensed under CCA).




Bernardine Evaristo's novel, The Emperor's Babe, set in 211 AD, is a novel in verse, tells the story of Zuleika, a woman of Sudanese parentage brought up in London, and married off at an early age to a much older man of senatorial rank (she is a fictional character, but people of African and Asian heritage were certainly present in Roman Britain, and most of them were probably not slaves; we even know some of their names). Zuleika's husband, Felix, has political and business interests in Rome itself, and is often absent, and, when a chance encounter brings her to the attention of Emperor Septimius Severus, she enters into a dangerous liaison.


Septimius Severus, who reigned as Emperor from 193 AD, and died at York in 211 AD, Glyptothek Munich, Inv. 357. Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol (image is in the Public Domain). 


"One minute it's hopscotch in bare feet,
next, you're four foot up in a sedan in case
your pink stocking get dirty. No one
prepared me for marriage. Me and Alba
were the wild girls of Londinium,
sought to discover the secrets
of its hidden hearts, still too young
to withhold more than we revealed,
to join this merry cast of actors ...
 ... Some nights we'd go to the river,
sit on the beach, look out towards
the marshy islands of Southwark,
and beyond to the jungle that was Britannia,
teeming with spirits and untamed humans.
We'd try to imagine the world beyond the city,
that country a lifetime away that Mum
called home and Dad called prison;
the city of Roma which everyone
went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis ... 
 ... The white stucco villas of Cheapside
are usually out of bounds to scallywags
like me and Alba. Guards shoo us away.
(She has not been invited). Today
they bow as if I were the emperor's wife,
when my horse-drawn carriage, if you please,
arrives at a villa with its own latrina.
And enough rooms to fill the Forum."

Limestone sarcophagus and lead coffin excavated at Spitalfields, and containing the skeleton of a young woman. Its discovery in 1999 inspired Bernardine Evaristo when she was working as poet in residence at the Museum of London. Photo: www.mikepeel.net (licensed under CCA).


The narration hop-scotches elegantly, and often hilariously, between the Londinium of Zuleika's era, and the London of our own, as one critic has suggested, "like an episode of  Sex and the City written by Ovid."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.