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 Evangelists, 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.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Wards of Old London: Queenhithe - Grain, Furs and Frost Fairs

A visitor to London walking along the Thames from the Tower of London towards Blackfriars passes from Vintry into Queenhithe Ward. John Stow, writing in 1598, tells us that it was "so-called of a water-gate, or harbour for boats, lighters and barges; and was of old time for ships, at what time the timber bridge of London was drawn up, for the passage of them to the said hithe, as to a principal strand for landing and unlading against the midst and heart of the city."

Queenhithe in 1676, by John Ogilby (image is in the Public Domain).


The harbour itself is not only the best-preserved of the original city docks, but also probably the earliest. Following the collapse of Roman governance in 410 AD, the walled city of Londinium and its wharves had been, over a period of three or four generations, abandoned, in favour of a new Saxon settlement, Ludenwic, to the west, where ships could be beached on what is, today, The Strand. In the winter of 871-2 AD, however, the "Great Heathen Army" of the Danes overwintered at London, refortifying the old Roman defences against the forces of King Alfred the Great. More than a decade later, having finally defeated them, Alfred decided to reoccupy the Roman city, in order to ensure that it could never again fall into the hands of his enemies. Land in what is today Queenhithe Ward was given to a Mercian nobleman named Edred, who established the harbour. Edredshithe subsequently became Ethelredshithe, and ultimately Queenhithe after 1100 when Henry I granted the duties on goods landed there to his Queen, Matilda of Scotland, herself a descendant of the pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon royal line.

Henry III, in 1225, commanded the Constables of the Tower of London to arrest the ships of the Cinque Ports as they sailed up the Thames, and to compel them to bring their corn to no other place but to the Queen's Hithe only. By John Stow's time, however, the access of large ships to what was called the "Inner Pool" (the stretch of the city waterfront lying to the west of London Bridge) had become very much restricted, and the role of Queenhithe in securing London's grain supply was much diminished. As grain merchants moved elsewhere, skinners and fur-traders moved in: a market was established at the head of the harbour, and the area remained the centre of the London fur trade into the Twentieth Century, with cargoes being brought upstream by the boats, lighters and barges described by Stow.

Queenhithe Market in the 1590s, by Hugh Alley (image is in the Public Domain). Alley was a minor city functionary, responsible for prosecuting those who infringed market regulations.
Two gentlemen of Queenhithe, by Hugh Alley (image is in the Public Domain). The man on the right is Alderman John More, Master of the Skinners Company from 1597 to 1601, who also served as Sheriff of London, and was on the Committee of the East India Company. The man on the left is thought to be Paul Hawkins, a vintner and a Common Councilman of the Ward.


During the coldest phases of the "Little Ice Age," in the 1650s and 1770s, the skinners and furriers of London must have found their products in especially high demand. The narrow arches of London Bridge slowed down the flow of the Thames, allowing the river to freeze over for weeks at a time. The "Frost Fairs" were among the earliest examples of what we might now think of as "pop-up" businesses. Impromptu "streets" and "roads" were set up across the ice, with ox-roasts, gingerbread stalls and gin-joints. "Purl" was a particular favourite - a hot concoction of gin and "wormwood wine."

The Frost Fair of 1677, by Abraham Hondius (Museum of London, licensed under CCA).


The last Frost Fair was held in 1814, and we have the following contemporary description:

"At every glance there was a novelty of some kind or another. Gaming was carried on in all its branches. Many of the itinerant admirers of the profits gained by E O Tables, Rouge et Noir, Te-Totum, Wheel of Fortune, The Garter were industrious in their avocations, and some of their customers left the lures without a penny to pay the passage over a plank to the shore. Skittles was played by several parties, and the drinking tents were filled by females and their companions, dancing reels to the sound of fiddles, while others sat around large fires, drinking rum, grog and other spirits. Tea, coffee and eatables were provided in abundance ... Several tradesmen, who at other times were deemed respectable, attended with their wares, and sold books, toys, and trinkets of almost every description."

The Frost Fair of 1814 (image is in the Public Domain): the crane with the sign reading "City new Road" is situated close to the Southern end of today's Millennium Bridge.
Many buildings in the ward were destroyed during the Blitz, and the area suffered a steep decline in the mid-Twentieth Century, but has since been regenerated, not least by the construction of the Millennium Bridge, linking Saint Paul's Cathedral with the major new cultural attractions of Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe.

Queenhithe Dock in 1923, by Waldo McGillycuddy Eagar, National Maritime Museum (image is in the Public Domain).
Smith's Wharf, Queenshithe, by Eric de la Mare, 1950s (English Heritage, National Monuments Record AA98/05348 - image is in the Public Domain).
The Millennium Bridge from Saint Paul's Cathedral (photo: Jan Kamenicek, licensed under CCA).


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.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 38 - "The Ghost Road," by Pat Barker

In the second decade of the Twentieth Century, the First World War took the harsh realities of human conflict to a new level of destructive intensity. The Crimean War (1853-56), the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Boer War (1899-1902) had already provided a foretaste of what modern, mechanised warfare might involve, and were also among the first major conflicts to be documented in the relatively new medium of photography. Now, in 1914, the German biologist and philosopher, Ernst Haeckel, predicted that " ... there is no doubt that the course and character of the feared 'European War' will become the first world war in the full sense of the word."

The First World War would be truly global, perhaps to an extent that even Haeckel could not have predicted. It would involve seventy million military personnel, and claim the lives of nine million of these, together with seven million civilian fatalities. It shattered forever the notion of "inevitable progress," which had been such a fundamental part of the Nineteenth Century world view, both in Britain, and in the United States.

A Bristol F2 in action over the Western Front in 1917 (image is in the Public Domain).


It was the first war in which aircraft played a significant part, and the first in which poisonous gas was used (despite this being contrary to international protocols previously agreed between the very parties that were now using them). It was the first major conflict to be systematically captured in moving pictures, as well as in still photography, and, thanks to subsequent developments in television, in an age when many survivors of the conflict were still alive, the first to be examined retrospectively through the art of the documentary film-maker.

British troops blinded by a gas attack at Estaires, 1918. Photo: Second Lt. Thomas Keith Aitken, Imperial War Museum Q11586 (image is in the Public Domain).


A collective loss of innocence was involved - warfare was no longer something that took place far from the public gaze, its sanitised stories presented on the heroic canvases of the history painters, and in the verses of poets such as Tennyson. It became, first, unacceptable, and then straightforwardly impossible, for the public to avert their eyes.

A German film crew in the trenches, 1917. Photo: German Federal Archive Bild. 183-1983-0323-501, CC-BY-SA 3.0.


To choose just one novel to represent the First World War was a difficult task (one could more easily choose fifty novels to tell this one story, although that's a task for someone other than me). I eventually opted for The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker, itself the third volume of a trilogy, preceded by Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.



Like E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime, Barker combines fictional and historical characters. Her main protagonist, the fictional Billy Prior, is a man from a working class background who has risen into the officer class. Sent home with "shell-shock," he is treated at the military hospital of Craiglockhart, by the (historical) psychiatrist, William Rivers, and now wants nothing more than to return to his men.

Craiglockhart, now a campus of Edinburgh Napier University. Photo: Brideshead (image is in the Public Domain).


Rivers, meanwhile, thinks back to his happier days as an anthropologist, studying the culture of the Torres Straits Islanders at the turn of the century. He had been brought up to think of such people as "savages" (his Uncle James [Hunt], indeed, had been the racist, pro-slavery founder of the Anthropological Society), but now, looking back, he realises that he and his patients are caught up in a savagery of a far greater order than had ever existed among tribal people.

Members of the Cambridge University Torres Straits Expedition, 1898. Rivers is on the left, and the seated man is the expedition leader, A.C. Haddon (photo, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - image is in the Public Domain).


"How appallingly random it all was. If Hallet's father had got a gleam in his eye two years later than he did, Hallet wouldn't be here. He might even have missed the war altogether, perhaps spent the rest of his life goaded by the irrational shame of having escaped. 'Cowed subjection to the ghosts of friends who died.' That was it, exactly, couldn't be better put. Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them. This moment in this tent already had the quality of remembered experience. Or perhaps he was simply getting old. But then, after all, in trench time, he was old. A generation lasted six months, less than that on the Somme, barely twelve weeks. He was this boy's great-grandfather."

"Njiru's grandfather, Homu, was famous for having taken ninety-three heads in a single afternoon. Through his grandfather he was related to Inkava, who, until the British destroyed his stronghold, had been the most ferocious of the great head-hunting chiefs of Roviana ... The blowing of a conch, he said, signifies the completion of a successful raid. He turned and looked directly at Rivers. The widow of a chief can be freed only by the taking of a head ... Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people's lives ... This was a people perishing from the absence of war ... Against the background of such despair, might not the temptation of taking one small head in honour of a dead chief prove irresistible? ... Rivers ate the baked yams and pork offered to him ... Once he looked up to see Njiru on the other side of the fire ... and surprised on the other man's face an expression of bitterness? No, stronger than that. Hatred, even."

A ceremony of the Torres Straits Islanders, photographed by A.C. Haddon (image is in the Public Domain).


A brief personal post-script. At Cambridge, I was taught by Professor Glyn Daniel (1914-86), whose many anecdotes included some about William Rivers (1864-1922), still widely remembered at St John's College when Glyn was a student and, later, a fellow there. Rivers, in turn, as Barker makes clear, had personal anecdotes to tell about Lewis Carroll (1832-98). Only four or five further links of this sort would be required to connect me to the time of Shakespeare: "generations" have never been a fixed currency.

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.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 37 - "Ragtime," by E.L. Doctorow

The Twentieth Century has been characterised as "The American Century," and, as it dawned, that must certainly have been the expectation, not only of many Americans, but also of a multitude of people who sought to become Americans. Economic growth in the United States was built on migration, both internal and international.

The New York World, 29th April 1906 (Image is in the Public Domain).


African Americans, whose grandparents had been slaves, and whose parents had fought in the Civil War, flocked to the cities of the north-east and the mid-west. Ships arrived daily at Ellis Island, bringing German and Russian Jews, Irish and Italian Catholics, all eager to build new lives for themselves. In just a few decades, the population of New York City grew from a few tens of thousands to 3.4 million in 1900.

Manhattan in 1873 (Brooklyn Bridge was built between 1870 and 1883), painting by George Schlegel, restored by Adam Cuerdon (image is in the Public Domain).
New York City on Christmas Day, 1916, with the USS Arizona in the foreground (image is in the Public Domain).


American industrialists like Henry Ford were redefining the processes by which goods were manufactured; American bankers such as J.P. Morgan were revolutionising the ways in which enterprises were financed; American architects and city planners were reinventing the notion of the city itself; and African American musicians, taking advantage of new recording technologies, were writing a new soundtrack for a new century.

Sheet music by Scott Joplin, 1899 (image is in the Public Domain).


It was an era of almost unlimited hope for many people. "I will build a car for the great multitude," said Ford. "It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one, and to enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."

1910 Model T Ford. Photo: Harry Shipler (image is in the Public Domain).


Beneath the surface of all this hope, however, there was much poverty, social division and prejudice. In New York City, each community claimed its own patch of territory, and each had its share of criminal thugs to enforce their own brand of "justice" on the streets. Some of these thugs held public office, whether as town hall officials, policemen or firemen, and used it both to line their own pockets, and to lash out at minorities other than their own.

Manhattan's "Little Italy" in the 1890s (image is in the Public Domain).


E.L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, is set in New York City between 1900 and 1916. At its heart is a very ordinary American family: a boy; his parents (the father owns a small business making flags and bunting); his grandfather; and his mother's younger brother. As the story unfolds, however, the lives of these fictional characters intersect with those of some of the most significant historical figures of their day: Ford and Morgan; the socialite, Evelyn Nesbitt; the magician, Harry Houdini; and the anarchist, Emma Goldman.



"There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in the summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no Jews ... Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigours of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families ... Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants. And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century ... it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go."

"One afternoon, a Sunday, a new Model T Ford slowly came up the hill and went past the house. The boy, who happened to see it from the porch, ran down the steps and stood on the sidewalk. The driver was looking right and left as if trying to find a particular address; he turned the car around at the corner and came back. Pulling up before the boy, he idled his throttle and beckoned with a gloved hand. He was a Negro. His car shone. The brightwork gleamed. There was a glass windshield and a custom pantasote top. I'm looking for a young woman of colour, whose name is Sarah, he said. She is said to reside in one of these houses."

"A while later, Younger Brother found himself in the Cooper Union down near the Bowery. The hall was hot, crowded to overflowing. There were lots of foreigners. Men wore their derbies though indoors. It was a great stinking congress garlicked and perfumed in its own perspiration. It had met in support of the Mexican Revolution. He hadn't known there was a Mexican Revolution. Men waved their fists ... Finally Emma Goldman got up to speak. Of all the orators she was the best. The hall went quiet as she described the complicity of the wealthy landowners and the despised tyrant Diaz, the subjugation of the peons, the poverty and starvation and, most shameful of all, the presence of representatives of American business firms in the national councils of the Mexican government."

Emma Goldman addressing a rally in New York's Union Square, 21st May, 1916. Photo: Corbis Images for Education (image is in the Public Domain).


The narrative voice blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Dialogue is used only sparsely, and yet the characterisation is rich. We see the seething city through the eyes of the family members, and through the eyes of  those who cross their paths: a poor Jewish immigrant desperate to secure a better future for his daughter; a black musician who buys into the American Dream only to have his illusions shattered; the idealist, Goldman, who puts everything into her own, very different dream of an alternative future; even the eyes of Ford and Morgan, as they build, for better and/or for worse, the world in which we all now live.

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, 26 March 2016

Pietro Casola - A Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1494

The religious events commemorated by Christians around the world during this and every Easter weekend took place in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. Around three hundred years after the crucifixion of Christ, Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, and a devout Christian, travelled to Jerusalem, where she claimed to have discovered the tomb of Christ, together with wood and nails from the True Cross, and even the socket in which the cross had stood. Her son provided the funds for the construction of a basilica on the site, which became one of the first pilgrimage destinations in the Christian world.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre that can be visited today is an Eleventh Century construction funded by a later Byzantine Emperor, Constantine IX Monomachus, replacing the earlier buildings that had been damaged by at least two earthquakes, as well as by Sassanid Persian and, later, Muslim invaders, but its walls closely follow the footprint of the original basilica, and it remained a pilgrimage destination throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (Photo: Berthold Werner, licensed under GNU).


One pilgrim who visited in the Fifteenth Century was the Milanese clergyman, Canon Pietro Casola, who has left us a detailed account of his visit. One might have thought that Easter would be the perfect time to make this pilgrimage, but this posed practical problems: sailing was a seasonal activity, with few ship-owners willing to risk their vessels on the high seas between October and April. Casola joined his ship at Venice on 4th June, arriving in Jerusalem at the beginning of August. Here are some extracts from his account.

"We waited until sunset expecting the Moor who keeps the keys and who could not be found. You must know that although the Sepulchre is governed by the friars of Mount Sion and by other sects of Christians, as you will hear, nevertheless they cannot go in or out at pleasure, but must do so at the pleasure of that dog who always keeps the keys ... finally ... by the grace of God, we entered that Holy Church."

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image: MHz'as (Public Domain).


"Because it was already night every pilgrim immediately lighted his candle, and the friars of Mount Sion who had come for that purpose began to form the procession, beginning at a Chapel of Our Lady, where the offices are said continually by the friars ... In that place Christ appeared to his blessed mother after the Resurrection."

The Chapel of the Apparition, marking the place where the risen Christ is believed to have appeared to his mother (Photo: Seetheholyland.net, licensed under CCA).


"We then visited the place where Christ remained in prison whilst the hole was being made in which the cross was erected. Then we visited the place where the garments of Christ were divided, and where the lots were cast for them."

The prison in which Christ is believed to have been held prior to his crucifixion (Photo: Ian & Wendy Sewell, licensed under GNU).


"Then we went into the Chapel of Saint Helena, which goes down several steps, and after descending several other steps we saw the place where the Cross of Christ was found, which is below the place of the Calvary."

The Chapel of Saint Helena, or "Grotto of the Cross" (Photo: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons License CC-BY-SA 3.0).


"Then we mounted to the place of the Calvary, by a wooden staircase, with the greatest reverence. There a beautiful sermon was preached on the passion of Christ by one of the friars of Mount Sion, in such a way that I believe that if those Moorish dogs had been present, together with all the pilgrims, they would have wept."

The steps leading to the Rock of Calvary - the stone steps have presumably replaced the wooden ones described by Casola. Photo: adriatikus (licensed under GNU).
The Rock of Calvary, where the cross is believed to have stood. Photo: Diego Delso (Wikimedia Commons License CC-BY-SA 3.0).


"We stayed there for over an hour, and when the sermon was finished and the usual prayer had been chanted we descended to the Holy Sepulchre and entered one by one."

The "Edicule" covering the Holy Sepulchre. Photo: Berthold Werner (image is in the Public Domain).
The entrance to the Tomb of Christ. Photo: amanderson2 (licensed under CCA).


"Then, after the scrutiny had been made, and the number of pilgrims taken by the friars - I mean of those who wanted to say Mass - they made out the clear lists, and we were divided between three places - that is, the Sepulchre, the place of the Calvary and the Chapel of Our Lady. Mass could also be said in the place where the body of Christ was laid when he was taken down from the Cross, whilst he was being anointed with the mixture brought by Nicodemus, and by Joseph of Rama, before he was laid in the Sepulchre. In that place, anyone who wished could say Mass without any other order. According to that first arrangement I said Mass above the Sepulchre."

The Stone of Anointment. Photo: Mario Hen (licensed under CCA).


"On Friday, the 8th of August, at the third hour of the day, we were let out of the church of the Sepulchre, and each of the pilgrims went to his lodging to rest as well as he could."

Cross-section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Image: Yupi666 (licensed under GNU).


Casola's is one of several historical accounts which formed the basis for my research for "Jerusalem," one of the stories that make up my novel, Omphalos, and which follows the pilgrimage of a Sixteenth Century cleric, Richard Mabon, to Jerusalem. Mabon is a historical figure, a Dean of Jersey, who did make the pilgrimage, but, unlike Casola, he has left us no written testimony.

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.