Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 6 - "The Woman in the Shadows," by Carol McGrath

In the early decades of the Sixteenth Century, London was one of the great trading cities of Europe, a major port city, and a rival to Antwerp as a hub of the international cloth trade: yet it remained, by any modern standard, a relatively small urban settlement. The estimated population in 1530 was around 50,000: comparable to modern Salisbury or Surbiton; a little smaller than today's Tamworth or Maidstone; a city that offered little in the way of anonymity, in which people were likely to have made a point of knowing each other's business. Yet it also had one of the greatest concentrations of wealth of any city in northern Europe. Rivalries, whether between individuals, families, trading houses, or livery companies, carried very high stakes.

A drapers' market, c1530 (image is in the Public Domain).

The drapers' market in Bologna (image is in the Public Domain).

A late Medieval market (image is in the Public Domain).

It was a city poised for change: by 1605, the population would swell to 225,000. New technologies were transforming the lives of people across the continent, few more so than that of printing, which revolutionised people's access to books and information. With the mass-movement of goods between England and the continent came the mass-movement of people, and, despite the best attempts of the authorities to prevent it, the spread of new ideas, many of them religious. In 1517, Martin Luther's scathing assault on the Catholic Church was published in Germany: it was soon translated into most European languages, and in widespread circulation. In 1526, the Englishman, William Tyndale, published an English translation of the New Testament. England, in the early stages of Henry VIII's reign, was still very much a Catholic country, and anyone caught in possession of such documents in London risked imprisonment, torture, and death: printers on the continent, however, churned out thousands of copies, and it was impossible to keep out the new ideas.

Bust, believed to be of William Tyndale, St Dunstan-in-the-West, London. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The Gospel of St John, from Tyndale's New Testament, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

Carol McGrath's novel, The Woman in the Shadows, tells the story of Elizabeth Cromwell, the wife of the merchant, lawyer, and statesman, Thomas Cromwell. In some ways, it reads like a prequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (since the Cromwell we encounter is a relatively young man, who has not yet established a role for himself at court), but it is told from Elizabeth's, rather than Thomas's point of view, and in a different narrative style (first person, mainly past tense; rather than Mantel's third person, present tense).

We know relatively little about the historical Elizabeth: she was the daughter of a cloth merchant, and was already the widow of another cloth merchant by the time she met Thomas; they had three children together, but Elizabeth died in 1529, before her husband's political career really took off. The novel opens with the death and burial of Elizabeth's first husband; depicts her taking over his business, contrary to her father's advice, and traveling to wool and cloth fairs; and shows us her romance with, and marriage to the ambitious Thomas; all set against the background of commercial life in a London that still moved to the rhythms of the liturgical year of the Catholic Church.

"Mother returned to her manor without me, and Father purchased broadcloth at the Bartholomew Cloth Fair, as well as the fabric for the monasteries. I was grateful ... Gerard Smith made all my deliveries that week, except for the cloth to Austin Friars . I told him not to visit the friars because I wanted to bring them the painted cloth myself. The Friary's beauty was well known and, since Tom had dealt with the Prior before, I hoped to see something of this famous place where scholars gathered, often traveling there from far-flung countries, the lands of oranges and figs."

"When the monasteries paid us, I paid my debt, pleased to see that there was now enough left over to keep my household fed that winter. The rent on Wood Street was due by All Hallows' Eve, and I knew that I must use the rest of Master Cromwell's silver for this ... there would not be enough over to rebuild my much-needed woolshed unless I sold the remaining mixed cloth I kept in the attic storerooms and replaced it with even better cloth."

A bishop blessing a fair. Image: Bibliotheque Nationale de France (MS Calais f 96e - image is in the Public Domain).

The Old Wool Hall, Lavenham, Suffolk. Photo: Mick Lobb (licensed under CCA).

"'Smith,' I said after I had recorded our gains in the ledgers. 'Where can I buy new draperies? You know, linen or wool and silk mixes.' He thought for a moment, then beaming broadly said, 'There is always the Northampton Cloth Fair. Those fancy new cloths are woven up in Norfolk. They will be there aplenty, Mistress. They are in high demand.'" 

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

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: The Garden Museum

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having passed Lambeth Palace, on the south bank of the Thames, arrives at the Church of Saint Mary-at-Lambeth. The first church on his site was built in 1062, by Goda (or Godgyfu), the sister of King Edward the Confessor, but nothing is preserved of her construction, which was probably made of wood. The current church (now deconsecrated) dates, substantially, to the Fourteenth Century, but was substantially repaired and altered in the Nineteenth Century, and again after bomb damage during the Second World War. The Medieval Church was closely associated with Lambeth Palace, and, in the course of recent works a number of coffins were discovered in the crypt, including those of five Archbishops of Canterbury, dating to the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries.

The Church of Saint Mary-at-Lambeth. Photo: Reading Tom (licensed under CCA).

The tomb of the Tradescants. Image: National Portrait Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).

Among those buried in the churchyard are John Tradescant the Elder (1570s-1638), and his son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662), Head Gardeners, in succession, to King Charles I. Both traveled extensively during the course of their lives: John the Elder in Arctic Russia, the Levant, and North Africa; John the Younger in North America; collecting both botanical specimens and ethnographic artefacts. John the Younger was responsible for the introduction to Britain of a number of plant species, including the magnolia; tulip tree; bald cypress; and asters.

John Tradescant the Elder, portrait attributed to Cornelius de Neve. Image: Ashmolean Museum (Public Domain).

John Tradescant the Younger, portrait by Tomas de Cruz. Image: National Portrait Gallery (Public Domain).

The ethnographic artefacts collected by the Tradescants formed the basis of a collection known as Tradescant's Ark, or Musaeum Tradescantianum, in their home nearby (since demolished): this was one of the first "cabinets of curiosity" in England, and was open to the public. John the Younger bequeathed his collection to his neighbour, Elias Ashmole, who, in turn, bequeathed it to the University of Oxford, establishing the Ashmolean Museum.

The "mantle" of the Native American chieftain, Powhatan, probably acquired by John Tradescant the Elder from his friend, the Virginia colonist, John Smith. Photo: Gtstg (licensed under CCA).

The Church of Saint Mary-at-Lambeth today houses both a museum of garden history and, courtesy of loans from the Ashmolean Museum, a reconstruction of part of Tradescant's Ark.

The Garden Museum. Photo: Nicolaprice (licensed under CCA).

The Garden Museum. Photo: Nicolaprice (licensed under CCA).

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

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 5 - "A Burnable Book," by Bruce Holsinger

The City of London, having lost at least half of its population to the Black Death in 1348, recovered surprisingly rapidly. The decades that followed offered unprecedented opportunities for those who had been fortunate enough to survive: the sons of peasants from Kent and Surrey, Suffolk and Norfolk, flocked to the capital to take the place of the thousands of apprentices who now lay buried in the mass graves beyond the City walls. There were fewer opportunities for girls than for boys, although some doubtless made good marriages, and the most talented could find well-paid work as embroiderers: for those less fortunate, prostitution offered a very uncertain lifeline.

The wool-trade was at the centre of London's prosperity in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. In the countryside, labour-intensive subsistence farming gave way to pasture for sheep, whilst, in the cities, the export of raw wool was gradually replaced by the more profitable trade in dyed and woven cloth. Ships from Spain, France, Flanders, and Venice, arrived at London's docks, bringing silks, wine and spices, in return for woolen cloth and linen. Ideas, as well as goods, were exchanged, and numerous languages were spoken in the streets leading up from the wharves.

Medieval wool merchants, from Filippo Calandri's Trattato di Arithmetica 1491, Biblioteca Riccardina, Florence, Ricc. 2669 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The fluctuations of the English wool trade. Image: Dr Jennifer Paxton

Map of London in 1300. Image: Grandiose (licensed under CCA).

The City was largely self-governing, its administration centred in the guilds, and in the Guildhall, and the language of governance was English. Since 1066, Norman French had been the language of the royal court and aristocracy; Latin the language of the church and scholarship; and English the language of trade. Now, with trade increasingly the basis of England's prosperity, English came into its own as a literary language. Poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower turned away from French and Latin, to write in English. Fluent in all three languages, they created a new language, recognisably "English," rather than Anglo-Saxon, with much borrowing from French and Latin. 

Bruce Holsinger's novel, A Burnable Book, is set in the City, and in Southwark, in 1385. Richard II is on the throne, and Chaucer and Gower are both characters, as are a group of prostitutes, who move between the stews around Winchester Palace, and Gropecunt Lane, in the heart of the City. Like many of the elite of their age, Gower and Chaucer are well-connected, both internationally and within the City. Chaucer has traveled in Italy on enigmatic diplomatic missions; whilst Gower's son, Simon, has worked there for the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, here depicted, convincingly, as a brutal thug (although he is believed by some to have been the model for Chaucer's knight in The Canterbury Tales). When a mysterious book is brought to London from Italy, prophesying the death of the King, all of the characters are thrown into a turmoil of intrigue and suspicion, from which they will struggle to escape.

Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve's "The Regiment of Princes," 1412 (image is in the Public Domain).

The tomb of Sir John Hawkwood, by Paolo Uccello, 1436, Florence Cathedral (image s in the Public Domain).

"Under a clouded moon, Agnes huddles in a sliver of utter darkness and watches him, this dark-cloaked man, as he questions the girl by the dying fire. At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavour of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives and figs in his voice, the embrace of a warmer sea. He repeats his last question. The girl is silent. He hits her. She falls to the ground. He squats, fingers coiled through her lush hair. 'Doovery lleebro?' he gently chants. 'Ileebro, mee ragazza. Ileebro.' It could be a love song. The girl shakes her head."

"We live in a hypocritical age. An age that sees bishops preaching abstinence while running whores. Pardoners peddling indulgences whilst seducing wives. Earls pledging fealty while plotting treason. Hypocrites, all of them, and my trade is the bane of hypocrisy, its worth far outweighing its perversion. I practice the purest form of truthtelling ... I have become a trader in information, a seller of suspicion, a purveyor of foibles and the hidden things of private life. I work alone and always have, without the trappings of craft or creed. John Gower. A guild of one.

John Gower, University of Glasgow, MS Hunter 59 (Tl 17, 6v - image is in the Public Domain).

"'You can't be direct with her about it,' Chaucer was saying. 'This is a woman who takes the biggest cock in the realm between her legs. She's given Lancaster three bastards at last count - or is it four?' He waited, gauging my reaction. 'What is this book, Geoffrey? What does it look like? What's in it?' His gaze was unfocused and vague. 'To be honest with you, John, I don't know. What I do know is that this book could hurt me.' He blinked and looked at some spot on the wattle behind me. Then, in a last whisper of French, 'it could cost me my life.'"

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

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Lambeth Palace

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having followed the Thames Path from the South Bank Centre to Saint Thomas's Hospital, can continue along this path, arriving, after a short walk, at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury since around 1200 AD. I do not usually take readers inside such attractions: they have their own websites, and I wouldn't wish, as it were, to spoil the plot, preferring to weave a connecting path between them. I will make a couple of exceptions in Lambeth, however; in this case because the palace, being very much a working environment, is only occasionally open to the public, an places on tours often fill up within a matter of hours of being advertised (the library, however, is accessible to researchers by appointment).

Lambeth Palace from the south, in c 1685, Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain).

The early Tudor gatehouse, which is, from the outside, the most prominent feature of the palace, was completed in 1495.

The Great Hall (left) and Gatehouse from inside the palace. Photo: Richard Croft (licensed under CCA).

Within, the so-called "Lollards' Tower" is earlier than this (c 1435). An upper room has clearly been used as a prison, and it used to be supposed that the prisoners were Fifteenth Century Lollards (proto-Protestants, who sought to make the Bible available in English), but the graffiti in the room date to the Seventeenth Century, and it seems that the true "Lollards' Tower," at Saint Paul's, was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666.

The "Lollards' Tower in c 1883. Photo: Henry Dixon (image is in the Public Domain).

Of the Thirteenth Century Palace, all that remains visible is an undercroft, originally used for storing wine, beer, and other produce.

The Undercroft in c 1804 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Great Hall, which now houses much of the library, was rebuilt in 1663, following extensive damage by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War (Samuel Pepys described it as "a new old-fashioned hall"), and was further restored following bomb damage in the Second World War.

The Great Hall in c 1804 (image is in the Public Domain).

Among the great treasures of the library are the Mac Durnan Gospels, dating to the Ninth or Tenth Century; the Lambeth Bible, dating to the Twelfth Century; and the Lambeth Apocalypse, dating to the Thirteenth Century.

The Gospel of Saint Mark, from the Mac Durnan Gospels, probably a diplomatic gift from the Abbot of Armagh to the Anglo-Saxon King, Aethelstan (reigned 924-939 AD), who presented the manuscript to Christchurch, Canterbury (image is in the Public Domain). 

The Gospel of Saint Luke, from the Mac Durnan Gospels (image is in the Public Domain).

The Tree of Jesse, from the Lambeth Bible, dating to the 1140s (image is in the Public Domain). 

Page from the Lambeth Apocalypse, dating from c 1260 (image is in the Public Domain).

Page from the Lambeth Apocalypse (image is in the Public Domain).

Page from the Lambeth Apocalypse (image is in the Public Domain).

From the gatehouse of the palace, it is just a short walk further along the river to our next stopping-point, the Garden Museum.

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

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Streets of Old Lambeth: The Thames Path to St Thomas's Hospital

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having viewed the site of the Festival of Britain, can follow the Thames Path southwards, towards Westminster Bridge, passing the London Eye. We are walking, here, along an embankment created by the Victorian engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette (of whom more in a later post), which, by making this stretch of the tidal Thames narrower and deeper, did much to alleviate the problems of flooding that once marred the lives of residents of Southwark and Lambeth, as well as those of the City and Westminster.

The large building on the left is the old County Hall, which served as the headquarters, first of the London County Council, and subsequently of the Greater London Council, before the latter was abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Designed by the architect, Ralph Knott, it was opened by King George V in 1922, and now houses hotels, restaurants, and an aquarium.

County Hall, London. Photo: Arpingstone (image is in the Public Domain).

Westminster Bridge lies just beyond. The original Westminster Bridge was built by the Swiss engineer, Charles Labelye, between 1739 and 1750, in the face of opposition from the Thames Watermen and the Corporation of London, who stood to lose revenue from ferrying passengers across the river. It connected the rapidly expanding residential districts of Lambeth to Whitehall and the West End.

Westminster Bridge in 1789 by Joseph Farrington. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).

This was the bridge that William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, crossed, on 31st July, 1802, on their way to visit William's illegitimate daughter and her mother in France. His "Lines composed on Westminster Bridge" were supposedly written on that summer morning:

"Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

In fact, the poem seems to have been written a year later ("emotion recollected in tranquility"), and to have been based, at least in part, on the impressions recorded by Dorothy, in her journal:

" ... we left London on Saturday morning at half past 5 or 6, the 31st July ... we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Paul's, with the River and a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature's own grand Spectacles."

Westminster Hall and Bridge in 1810 (image is in the Public Domain).

The current Westminster Bridge is not the one crossed by the Wordsworths, but a later one, of cast iron, opened in 1862, with details designed by Sir Charles Barry, who had also worked with Augustus Pugin on the design of the new Palace of Westminster, following a disastrous fire in 1834 (this building is now undergoing major renovation works).

The fire of 1834, by J.W.M. Turner, Philadelphia Museum of Art (image is in the Public Domain).

Westminster Bridge. Photo: Martin Durst (licensed under CCA).

The Palace of Westminster. Photo: Alvesgaspar (licensed under GNU). 

Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Bridge, 1897 Stanford's Map of London (image is in the Public Domain).

To the south of the bridge is Saint Thomas's Hospital, originally established in Southwark, in the Twelfth Century, but in its current location since 1871. It was at Saint Thomas's that Florence Nightingale established her training school for nurses in 1860, the first secular nursing school in the World, and the hospital now hosts a museum in her memory.

Florence Nightingale in c 1858 (image is in the Public Domain).

Florence Nightingale with graduates of her nursing school, 1886. Image: FormerBBC (licensed under CCA).

Florence Nightingale's "Polar Area Diagram" of causes of mortality in the Crimean War (image is in the Public Domain). Although she is known today primarily as a nurse, she was also a pioneer of medical statistics, and, in 1859, became the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

From here, it is just a short walk to our next stop, Lambeth Palace.

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


Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Death and Light: Great Books of 2017

"Across my foundering deck shone a beacon, an eternal beam
Flesh fade, and mortal trash fall to the residuary worm;
World's wildfire, leave but ash;
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
Patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond."

Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Winter and death are among the themes explored by some of our greatest writers during 2017, continuing some of the threads established in the previous year. Among my choices for 2016 was Ali Smith's Autumn, which led me to ask whether there could ever be such a thing as "contemporary historical fiction" (as there is surely such a thing as "contemporary history"). Conventional wisdom has long held that works of great literature take a long time to write (this despite the fact that Shakespeare seem to have written Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet in little more than a year), but Smith's sequel, Winter, was published in 2017. Like David Hockney's tablet-produced, PhotoShop-enhanced landscapes, which adorn the covers, Smith's four seasons novels are crafted with purposeful haste, allowing her to capture aspects of the fleeting moment (the Brexit Referendum and the murder of Jo Cox MP, in the case of Autumn; the migration "crisis," and the rise of Donald Trump and Theresa May, in the case of Winter).

Conventional wisdom also holds that literary fiction is rarely funny, and Smith cheerfully drives a coach and horses through this assumption, but Winter is, to my mind, nonetheless, a less optimistic book than Autumn, taking alienation as one of its major themes: the jokes are a delight, but also a distraction (often consciously so, in the minds of the characters). Art (Arthur), the hero or anti-hero of the book, is a would-be nature-writer who seems to have little real connection to nature. He is alienated from his former girlfriend, Charlotte (who has hacked his social media accounts), and from his mother (Sophia, a once successful businesswoman), who is, in turn, alienated from her sister (Iris, a hippy and environmental campaigner), and, perhaps, even from herself (it is unclear whether Sophia is suffering from a mental illness, from a neurological condition, or from early-stage dementia). The one note of hope is offered by the character of Lux, a Croatian refugee, who agrees to impersonate Charlotte, and to spend Christmas with Art and his mother in Cornwall, and who does her best to engineer reconciliations all round. Smith's narration alternates between the present and the past tense, and between several viewpoints, encompassing the characters' memories of lives that have run parallel to Smith's own life, and to mine (the songs and films of Elvis Presley, the art of Barbara Hepworth, the death of Charlie Chaplin, the environmental insights of Rachel Carson, and the Greenham Common protests, all find a place in this rich tapestry of memories).

"Achaean," by Barbara Hepworth, St Catherine's College Oxford. Photo: Munkfishmonger (licensed under GNU).

Dead eagles from Seney National Wildlife Refuge, 1963. In her book, "Silent Spring," published the previous year, Rachel Carson had drawn attention to the threat to wildlife posed by pesticides, notably DDT - subsequently banned across Europe and North America. I read Carson's book as a sixth former, and the recovery of bird of prey populations, both in the UK and the USA, became a potent symbol for the human ability to reverse environmental damage. Photo: Albert Hemming (licensed under CCA).  

The Greenham Common peace protest in 1982 (I joined a parallel protest against nuclear weapons at RAF Molesworth the following year). Photo: Ceridwen (licensed under CCA). 

"God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead. Modernism, postmodernism, realism and surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music, disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead. Decency, society, family values were dead. The past was dead. History was dead. The welfare state was dead. Politics was dead. Democracy was dead. Communism, fascism, neoliberalism, capitalism, all dead, and marxism, dead, feminism, also dead. Political correctness, dead. Racism was dead. Religion was dead. Thought was dead. Hope was dead. Truth and fiction were both dead ... Imagine being haunted by the ghosts of all these dead things ... Ghosts themselves weren't dead, not exactly ... but in any case forget ghosts, put them out of your mind because this isn't a ghost story, though it's the dead of winter when it happens ... "

Lincoln in the Bardo, the debut novel by the American writer, George Saunders, previously known for his short stories, on the other hand, is certainly a ghost story: in its rich cast of characters, all except the single historical figure of President Abraham Lincoln are ghosts, haunting the cemetery where their bodies lie buried. Most of them are in denial as to their true status, insisting that they are merely "sick," and using elaborate euphemisms for the words that they cannot bring themselves to utter, including "coffin," "corpse," "tomb," and "grave." The most recent arrival among them is Lincoln's son, Willie, dead from typhoid at the age of eleven (Lincoln originally intended for Willie to be buried in the family's home-state of Illinois, but decided that he could not bear such a total separation, and had him placed instead in the vault of a friend in Washington, which he visited several times during his grief).

The Lincoln family in the White House, Willie seated beside his mother (image is in the Public Domain).

The Carroll Crypt in Washington DC, where Willie Lincoln's coffin was initially placed (image is in the Public Domain).

Like Ali Smith, George Saunders does not eschew the humorous potential of the situations that he writes about, but nor does he ignore the serious issues that underlie them: even in death, his Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century characters are divided along racial and class lines; and between loyalty to the British Crown, and the nascent Republic. On another level, Lincoln in the Bardo is a sort of Dantean Purgatorio for our times, except that, where Dante (a late Medieval Catholic raised in the Scholastic tradition) had a high degree of certainty as to what the afterlife held in store, Saunders (our contemporary), and his characters, are shot-through with doubts, and have no Virgil or Beatrice to guide them. When characters do appear from the "familiar yet always bone-chilling firesound of the matterlightblooming phenomenon," it is very unclear whether they are leading our characters towards Heaven or Hell, and one understands why they choose, in many cases, to remain in the place and state that they know.

"On our wedding day, I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now I know what you are thinking: older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood) exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the poor young - But that is false. That is exactly what I refused to do, you see ...I proposed that we should be ... friends ... I would expect nothing more of her ... she left a note on my desk ... she was happy, was indeed comfortable in our home, and desired, as she put it, to 'expand the frontiers of our happiness in that intimate way to which I am, as yet, a stranger' ... It was tacitly understood that, next night, we would further explore this 'new continent,' and I went to my printing offices in the morning fighting the gravitational pull that bid me stay home. And that day - alas - was the day of the beam ... a beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me ...  as I sat at my desk ... Per the advice of my physician, I took to my ... sick-box ... Then the physician returned, and his assistants carried me to his sick-cart, and I saw that - I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed ... "

My third choice for 2017 is a work of non-fiction, Six Facets of Light, by Ann Wroe. It does not focus on death, although death plays a role in the author's day-job (she is among many other things, a writer of obituaries), but rather on the English landscape, more specifically the downs and coastline of East Sussex. This is territory that is very familiar to me, since it is the landscape in which my mother grew up, and which was home to her ancestors as far back as we have been able to trace them. It is, technically, a 2016 publication, but appeared late in the year, and was given to me as a birthday present in January 2017. Ann Wroe herself describes the book as " ... a series of musings on light, compiled from wonderings, observations, and associations made while walking the luminous downs ... between Brighton and Eastbourne ... a love song to light, sung by myself and the various poets and painters of many eras, who have walked along with me." These poets and painters include, notably, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton, R.S. Thomas, John Clare, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and Eric Ravilious, not all of whom knew this specific landscape as intimately as Ann Wroe and I know it, but all of whom, nonetheless, observed and documented the play of light on the landscapes through which they walked. The landscape is not unchanging, of course (few landscapes are, and probably none on our islands), and, as an archaeologist, I am trained to recognise the signs of change in the landscape: in the case of East Sussex, I cannot do so without an awareness that many of these changes were probably brought about by the labour of my own ancestors, as manifest in the flint walls of churches, in the lynchets of fields, and perhaps even in the forms of prehistoric round and long barrows, transformations that have continued through the centuries, despite political upheavals, plagues, and civil and foreign wars.

"A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star," by Samuel Palmer, c 1830 (image is in the Public Domain).

"The Lonely Tower," by Samuel Palmer, c 1879 (image is in the Public Domain).

Lynchet at West Dean, East Sussex. Photo: Midnightblueowl (licensed under CCA).

"Sixty miles south of London, reached by an ambling train that divides at Haywards Heath, lies Eastbourne in East Sussex. Weathermen say it is the sunniest town in Britain, with brightness almost every day ...  The sea breaking on Holywell Lodge ... sparkles in sequinned foam, and a single yacht -there is always one - cleaves the sea like a blade. The artist Eric Ravilious was brought up here in the early 1900s, the tall, floppy-haired son of a man who, appropriately, made his living by selling and fitting blinds. On Sundays you might see him - 'the Boy,' as friends called him, in token of that unjaded child's gaze - arm-in-arm with his parents, walking briskly to the Methodist church where the minister preached hellfire. For hours he would sit there, morning and evening, in a hall darkened by infernal visions, watching through the high windows how the light played outside. He would hear above the wheezing organ seagulls crying light, scrapping for it, keening down the great curve of it, while wood-and-canvas biplanes buzzed them and more boats, sails shining, rode jauntily on the sea. Or so he painted the scene later, adding - for good measure - vapour trails, clouds, fireworks."

"Shelling by Night," by Eric Ravilious, 1940, Tate Britain (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.