Sunday, 27 December 2015

Great Books of 2015

Looking back over my reading during the past year, the first thing that strikes me is that I have read almost no new non-fiction or poetry. That anyone who aspires to be a writer needs first to be a voracious reader goes without saying, but reading as a writer is probably never quite the same thing as simply reading for pleasure.

For one thing, it has a cyclical character. On completing the writing of a novel, it is natural to relax, and catch up with what one has been missing. Then, as a historical novelist, one begins the research for the next, which inevitably involves a great deal of non-fiction, as well as literature and sources of the time. As the new novel starts to take shape, one looks around for literary inspiration and influences. With my first two novels, I was happy to follow the examples of well-loved classics (including works by Homer, Thomas Hardy and William Golding, in the case of Undreamed Shores; Virgil, Robert Graves and Marguerite Yourcenar, in the case of An Accidental King). In shaping the form of Omphalos, I cast my net more widely, to include Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino and David Mitchell. Now that I have completed the research for my next novel, set in London in the 1st/2nd Centuries AD, and am starting to shape the text, I have been drawing heavily on Ovid (specifically the 1717 English translation, to which John Dryden and Alexander Pope contributed), and on contemporary English writers who seem to me to be working, to some extent, in his tradition (including Ali Smith, Marina Warner and A.S. Byatt). All of this means that I enter 2016 with an exceptionally long TBR list (with Mary Beard's SPQR at the top of that list), but among the new fiction I have read, three novels stand out for me.

The first is Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, a fictionalised memoir of a 16th Century Spanish expedition through Florida and Texas, led by the would-be Conquistador, Panfilo de Narvaez. The expedition was a disaster from beginning to end, with more than 300 men landing at Tampa Bay and only four surviving the eight year trek that eventually brought them to safety in Mexico. One of these was a black slave from Morocco, Estebanico, about whom very little is known. He is the perfect narrator for Lalami's fictionalised account, written in the first person, and in the meticulously researched idiom of the time. As a slave, he has no agenda of his own, and can as easily (perhaps more easily) relate to the Native Americans that they encounter, as to the men who have enslaved him. Since he is already bilingual in Arabic and Spanish (and also, perhaps, because he has no reason to share the prejudices of his companions), he is well equipped to learn their languages. It is a powerful and humane story of survival, enslavement and freedom, and inter-cultural contact; a fresh engagement with, and new perspective on, the history of the European colonisation of the Americas.

"It was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage - I was at the edge of the known world. I was marching behind Senor Dorantes in a lush territory he and Castilians like him call La Florida. I cannot be certain what my people call it. When I left Azemmur, news of this land did not often attract the notice of our town criers ... But I imagine that, in keeping with our naming conventions, my people would simply call it the Land of the Indians. The Indians, too, must have a name for it, although neither Senor Dorantes nor anyone in the expedition knew what it was."

The second is Emily Bullock's The Longest Fight, set in South London in the 1950s. There is a long-standing debating point about where historical fiction begins and ends: the most common definition seems to be that it is fiction set before the birth of its author, and more than sixty years before it is published, in which case Emily Bullock and I both belong to the first generation of historical novelists for whom the 1950s provide potential source materials. Certainly it reads as historical fiction, and must surely have been researched as such. The world through which the reader is led, of working class boxing clubs in Camberwell, Brixton and Kennington, is eerily unfamiliar. The novel's protagonists, Frank and Jack, initially drawn to boxing as a recreational activity, come to see it as a potential route out of poverty, but success will require as much luck as talent, and may come at a terrible price. The bright lights of the West End represent a seemingly far-away place, of which the characters know little, and understand less.

"Jack surfaced from the Underground at Leicester Square ... He entered Soho, street-light shrivelled away from unlit doorways; the smell of beer and scalding tea, gas-heaters and rainy pavements. He took long, heavy strides as if he spent every night walking that side of the river ..."

It is an engaging, immersive exploration of a lost world whose buildings still largely surround us; of hopes and disappointments; of the pervasive influences of family, and of memory; and of the small personal tragedies that lurk in the background to all of the grand modernist narratives of "Progress."

My final choice, and certainly the most unusual (at least as far as my usual reading material is concerned) is Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper. It is supremely improbable that a bird species as obscure as the wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) should, in the space of a single year, make an appearance in two novels, written by authors who have never met one another; but the wallcreeper does now have this distinction. It has a fly-on part in Chapter 14 of my own novel, Omphalos (blink and you'll miss it - the bird is not even named - but it, and its red wings, are there for a very specific literary/historical reason), and in Zink's novel an American couple in Europe, somewhat improbably, adopt one as a pet, following a road accident. The unorthodox lifestyle of this couple (think polyamory, the recreational use of ketamine, obsessive birdwatching of the sort a "real" birdwatcher - like my late mother - would call "twitching") is a rich source of dry, even surreal, humour; the more so as they become involved in, and ultimately redefine the nature of, environmental activism. It may not have a happy ending, so don't try out too many of these ideas at home, but the book, at turns, both made me cry with laughter, and made me think in new and different ways about the nature of our relationship with the world around us.

"I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage. Immediately obvious was my sticky forehead. Maybe I was unconscious for a couple of seconds, I don't know. Eventually I saw Stephen poking around the front of the car and said, 'Jesus, what was that' ... From the passenger seat the wallcreeper said 'Twee!' ... Stephen pulled over ... He said ... 'For me it's a lifer. It's like the most wonderful bird ... I identified it even before I hit it ... It was unmistakeable, just like they said it would be. So this is great.'"

A very happy New Year to one and all!

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

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cornhill - A City Market for 2000 Years

The main road running through London from west to east passes from Poultry via Bank Junction into Cornhill, so called, as the 16th Century chronicler, John Stow, tells us, after "a corn market, time out of mind there holden." His wording implies that corn was no longer being sold here in Stow's time, and there is little in his chronicle to suggest that corn or flour were being traded to any great extent within the City of London at all. Bread and ale were certainly sold in great quantities, but the bakers and brewers presumably bought their raw materials directly from millers and grain merchants in the countryside surrounding the city.

Cornhill has been in almost continuous use as a market-place since around 80 AD, when the Roman Governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, rebuilding the city of Londinium twenty years after its destruction by Boudicca, chose it as the location for the city's forum, incorporating a basilica (combining the functions of a city hall and a law court) and both open and covered spaces for the sale of everything from meat and fish, to wine and olive oil, clothing and ceramics.

A model of the Roman Forum of Londinium (2nd Century AD), Museum Of London. Photo: Xomenka (licensed under CCA).

Within a few decades the city had outgrown its forum, and a new, much grander version had replaced it. A modern visitor, walking up Cornhill (and it is, noticeably, a hill), unknowingly steps over the north-west corner of the basilica, the rest of the complex hidden beneath the streets that lie to the south (Lombard Street, Gracechurch Street, Clement's Lane).

The original "Cornhill" was presumably established either in late Saxon or early Norman times, the abandoned Roman city of Londinium having been re-occupied on the orders of King Alfred the Great, after the Vikings briefly made use of its still robust walls in their war against the English. Stow tells us that, "in the year 1522, the rippers of Rye and other places sold their fresh fish in Leadenhall Market upon Cornhill, but foreign butchers were not admitted there to sell flesh till the year 1533." This is significant, in that it suggests that the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers had been prevailed upon to bow to popular pressure to allow the sale of cheaper fish by "foreign" merchants (meaning people from outside London, who were not members of the company), whilst the Worshipful Company of Butchers held out. Stow records that meat prices actually went up, rather than down, following the decision to admit "foreign" butchers, but this may simply indicate an increasing demand for meat in the context of economic growth.

The arcades of the Victorian Leadenhall Market stand on the same space in which John Stow recorded the 16th Century fluctuations in the price of fish and meat. Photo: Diego Delso (License CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Within Stow's lifetime, a new and elaborate mercantile "forum" was erected by one of London's most prominent citizens, Sir Thomas Gresham. Stow describes the opening of this "bourse," by Queen Elizabeth I: "In the year 1570, on the 23rd of January, the queen's majesty attended with her nobility, came from her house at the Strand, called Somerset House, and entered the city by Temple Bar, through Fleet Street, Cheap, and so by the north side of the bourse, through Threadneedle Street, to Sir Thomas Gresham's in Bishopsgate Street, where she dined. After dinner her majesty returning through Cornhill, entered the bourse on the south side; and after that she viewed part thereof ... which was richly furnished with all sorts of the richest fares in the city, she caused the same bourse by an herald and trumpet to be proclaimed the Royal Exchange, and so to be called from thenceforth, and not otherwise."

The Royal Exchange in 1569 (image is in the Public Domain).

Gresham had business interests in the Low Countries, and his Royal Exchange was styled on market-places he had seen Antwerp and elsewhere. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but, such was its importance, that a replacement was opened just three years later. During the course of the Restoration years, the sale of stocks, shares and futures, together with insurance, rapidly out-paced the direct sale of goods and commodities as the basis of London's economy. Some provision was made for these activities (which had previously taken place in coffee-houses) in the rebuilt Royal Exchange, but they soon forced other trading interests out. Lloyds of London took up home there in 1774.

The Royal Exchange and Cornhill, 1837, by J. Woods (image is in the Public Domain).
Lloyds Subscription Room, 1809, by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Charles Pugin (image is in the Public Domain).

The 17th Century Royal Exchange burned down in 1838. Its Neoclassical replacement was opened by Queen Victoria in 1844. By this time, the Stock Exchange had relocated, and insurance had become the main focus of activity within the building. Insurance remains one of the City's most important industries today, but transactions are now conducted from high-tech spaces in modernist skyscrapers: the Royal Exchange building is, once again, a retail space, home to various restaurants and boutiques.

The Royal Exchange in 1955. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).

London is, literally, a layered city, the Roman streets stratified beneath the Medieval streets, which in turn are stratified beneath the various modern streets: few areas demonstrate this more clearly than Cornhill, which has preserved its essentially commercial character over the course of more than eighty human generations.

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, 9 December 2015

The Wards of Old London: Walbrook - City Governance and Popular Protest

Leaving Cheap Ward, the main road running through London from west to east briefly passes through Walbrook Ward, dominated today by Bank Junction, a chaotic intersection of eight main roads that sits in the middle of the contemporary city like the body of an enormous spider, pointedly ignoring the regular pattern of the underlying Roman streets. Walbrook Ward takes its name from the stream (today entirely hidden beneath the city streets) which flows through London from north to south, carving a channel for itself between Ludgate Hill to the west and Cornhill to the east.

The centre of London's governance has long been located in this area: the palace of Britannia's Roman governors is thought by some experts to lie immediately to the south, in Dowgate Ward (on the site of the modern Cannon Street Station). In Cannon Street (formerly Candlewick Street) is found a mysterious monument known as "The London Stone," possibly a fragment of a Roman milestone or tombstone, traditionally taken as the "centre" of the city, although, as John Stow pointed out in 1598, it is much closer to the Thames than it is to the city's northern wall.

Bank Junction, on a Sunday in April, 1961. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).

Stow recorded a mention of the stone in a "faire written Gospell booke given unto Christ's Church in Canterburie, by Ethelstane, King of the West Saxons" (925-940 AD). In the late 12th Century, Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonstone owned a house close-by. A wealthy and prominent city merchant, he negotiated loans from the city on behalf of King Richard I, but attached the condition that the city would, henceforth, be self-governed, independent of royal officials. Henry himself became the city's first elected mayor in 1189.

The London Stone. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

Both the Mansion House (the official residence of the City's Lord Mayors since 1752) and the Bank of England lie within Walbrook Ward. The current Bank of England building was erected in the early 20th Century by Sir Herbert Baker, who demolished most of Sir John Soanes's earlier Neo-Classical building (an act described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the 20th Century").

The Mansion House in 1837, by J. Woods (image is in the Public Domain).
The Bank of England in 1872, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

As the centre of city governance, Walbrook Ward has also frequently been a focus for popular protest, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing down to our own times. In 1450, a rebellion took root in Kent and Sussex, directed against the unpopular government of King Henry VI. Though a pious man (a saint in the eyes of some), and a great patron of learning (he established Eton College, King's College Cambridge and All Souls Oxford), Henry was nothing like his popular, warrior father, and was regarded as a weak king, subject to the malign influences of his wife and advisers. Leading the rebels across London Bridge into the City, the self-styled "Captain of Kent," Jack Cade, marched to the London Stone, where several records agree that he ennobled himself as "Lord Mortimer."

"Now is Mortimer Lord of this City," Shakespeare has him say, "And here, sitting upon London Stone, I charge and command that, at the City's cost, the Pissing Conduit run nothing but claret wine the first year of our reign. And now, henceforward, it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer."

Cade arrested the Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, one of the king's hated advisers, and had him beheaded in Cheapside. His "reign," however, was to be short-lived. Later that day, drunk on wine stolen from the London vintners, his men began to loot and pillage. Londoners armed themselves and chased the rebels back across London Bridge into Southwark. When they tried to re-enter the city the following morning, a pitched battle ensued on London Bridge, claiming the lives of forty Londoners and two hundred rebels. The rebel leaders, including Cade, were subsequently rounded up and killed.

In 1780, Protestants angry at government proposals to end official discrimination against Catholics attacked the City. They burned down Newgate prison and released all the prisoners, leaving graffiti behind them to declare that this had been done "on the authority of His Majesty, King Mob." The mob then surged along Cheapside and Poultry to attack the Bank of England. In a piece of irony that few novelists would have the audacity to invent, the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot, which successfully defended the bank against the rebels, was commanded by one Thomas Twisleton, the 13th Baron Saye & Sele (one wonders if he even knew of his ancestor's fate at the hands of a similar mob more than three centuries earlier).

The "Gordon Riots" of 1780 (so-called after Lord George Gordon, who whipped up hatred against Catholics), by John Seymour Lucas (image is in the Public Domain).

The tradition of protest continues today, most recently in the "Stop the City" mass action in 1983, and the G20 mass action of 2009 (the latter, tragically, claiming the life of an innocent bystander, a newsagent trying to make his way home at the end of the working day).

The G20 Protests, 2009. Photo: Kashfi Halford (licensed under CCA).

These various protests, spanning more than five centuries have, at least on the surface, focussed on very different issues (the supposed corruption of the Lord High Treasurer and his associates in 1450; religious sectarianism in 1780; climate change in 2009), but all have arisen in times of recession and austerity, in which more fundamental underlying concerns about social inequality have bubbled to the surface. Like the Walbrook stream, which thousands of Londoners cross, unaware, every day, "King Mob" is never so very distant, and the historic ceremonial centre of the City of London presents an irresistible stage for the playing out of his rambunctious, and sometimes deadly, masques.

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

Thursday, 3 December 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 34 - "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier

In the United States presidential election campaign of 1860, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, made a commitment to move towards the abolition of slavery. As a first step, he proposed legislation to prevent its westward spread into territories newly settled by Americans of European origin. Lincoln won the election but, by the time of his inauguration on the 4th of March, 1861, seven states had declared succession from the Union, and established the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy would subsequently expand to include eleven states, but was never formally recognised by any foreign country.

When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter the following months, the leaders on both sides understood that they were locked in a battle for the soul of America. Federal forces wasted no time in implementing General Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan" for a naval blockade of Confederate ports and, whilst Confederate leaders were convinced that the cotton-hungry merchant fleets of Britain and France would do everything in their power to break the blockade, they instead found alternative sources of cotton in Egypt and India.

The "Anaconda Plan," Library of Congress (image is in the Public Domain).

America was behind the times when it came to the abolition of slavery: the United Kingdom had banned the slave trade in 1807, and slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833; France had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, and, although Napoleon Bonaparte had reimposed it, it was abolished for a second time in 1848. Isolated on the international stage, the Southern cause was doomed almost from the outset, but the war continued for four long years.

Together with the Crimean War, which had been fought a decade earlier, the American Civil War was among the first truly mechanised military conflicts, a precursor to the horrors of the First World War, claiming more than 750,000 lives. It settled the future, however, both of the American continent, and of the institution of chattel slavery, paving the way for the Twentieth Century to become "The American Century," just as the Nineteenth Century was "The British Century."

Charles Frazier's novel, Cold Mountain, is only peripherally a book about the American Civil War, just as Tolstoy's War and Peace is only peripherally a book about the Napoleonic Wars in Russia. It takes as its theme the Homeric motif of a warrior making his way home at the end of a conflict. W.P. Inman (a fictionalised version of Frazier's great-great-uncle), a conscript in the Confederate army, has been wounded at the Battle of Petersburg (1864-5). He deserts from a military hospital and makes his way towards his home at the foot of Cold Mountain, where he hopes to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Ada.

A Confederate soldier (image is in the Public Domain).
The real Cold Mountain, now part of the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Photo: Ken Thomas (image is in the Public Domain).

Like Odysseus, Inman meets many characters along the way, a few of them helpful; some of them menacing; many of them ambiguous. Unlike Homer's Odyssey, however, Cold Mountain focusses as much on Ada's psychological journey as it does on Inman's physical one. As faithful as Penelope, Ada, who has had a privileged urban upbringing, struggles to scratch a living from the land following the death of her father.

An American girl, c1850 (image is in the Public Domain).

There is no Telemachus in this story (the only people searching for Inman are the armed thugs of the Confederate Home Guard, led by a sadist named Teague). Instead, in a stroke of genius, Frazier introduces the character of Ruby, a young homeless woman who is sent in Ada's direction by a kindly neighbour. Ruby will on no account consent to being Ada's servant but, in return for a room, she teaches Ada the skills she will need to get by. The story of Inman's journey through the landscape (a landscape beautifully painted for us by Frazier (himself a native of North Carolina) is interwoven throughout the novel with the story of Ada and Ruby's struggle to survive in a world with few men. As the paths of the male and female characters moves towards a convergence, Frazier presents us with a bitter-sweet ending that could scarcely be more different than that of Homer's Odyssey.

"The blind man twisted a square of newspaper up into a cone and then dipped with a riddly spoon into the pot and filled the cone with wet peanuts. He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance where you wished you were blind. Where to begin, Inman wondered. Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg ... But Fredericksburg was a day  particularly lodged in his mind ... Inman looked into one of the houses scattered about the field. A light shone out from an open door at its gable end. An old woman sat inside, her hair in a wild tangle, face stricken. A lit candle stub stood beside her on a table. Corpses on her doorstep. Others inside, dead in the attitude of crawling to shelter. The woman staring crazed past the threshold, past Inman's face, as if she saw nothing. Inman walked through the house and out the back door and saw a man killing a group of badly wounded Federals by striking them in the head with a hammer. The Federals had been arranged in an order, with their heads all pointing one way, and the man moved briskly down the row, making a clear effort to let one strike apiece do. Not angry, just moving from one to one like a man with a job of work to get done. He whistled, almost under his breath, the tune of Cora Ellen ... The blind man had sat wordless throughout Inman's tale. But when Inman had finished, the man said, You need to put that away from you."

The aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg (image is in the Public Domain).

"The agreement Ada and Ruby reached on that first morning was this: Ruby would move to the cove and teach Ada how to run a farm. There would be very little money involved in her pay. They would take most of their meals together, but Ruby did not relish the idea of living with anyone else and decided she would move into the old hunting cabin. After they had eaten their first dinner of chicken and dumplings, Ruby went home and was able to wrap everything worth taking in a quilt. She had gathered the ends, slung it over her shoulder, and headed to Black Cove, never looking back.

The two women spent their first days together making an inventory of the place, listing the things that needed doing and their order of urgency. They walked together about the farm, Ruby looking around a lot, evaluating, talking constantly. The most urgent matter, she said, was to get a late-season garden into the ground. Ada followed along, writing it all down in a notebook that heretofore had received only her bits of poetry, her sentiments on life and the large issues of the day. Now she wrote entries such as these: To be done immediately: Lay out a garden for cool season crops - turnips, onions, cabbage, lettuce, greens. Cabbage seed, do we have any? Soon: patch shingles on barn roof; do we have a maul and froe? Buy clay crocks for preserving tomatoes and beans. Pick herbs and make from them worm boluses for the horse."

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

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cheape - Guildhall, and Windows into Cities Past

The main road running through the City of London, from Newgate in the west to Aldgate in the east, having passed through the Ward of Farringdon Within, and skirted the northern edges of Bread Street Ward and Cordwainer Street Ward, enters the Ward of Cheape (or Cheap, the latter being the preferred modern spelling).

The Wards of the City of London in 1870 (Image is in the Public Domain).

One might expect the names of the streets that run from north to south - Ironmongers' Lane, Wood Street, Honey Lane, Milk Street - to tell their own fairly obvious stories, and, probably, in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, this was the case. By the time that John Stow was writing his Survey of London, in 1598, however, these demarcations of trade had largely broken down. He knows of the ironmongers of Ironmongers' Lane only from written records and, even in his childhood, his parents sent him to fetch milk, not from Milk Street, but from the Franciscan nunnery beyond Aldgate. At the point where Cheapside becomes Poultry, he writes of poulterers as a distant memory, and rather encounters, in Cheape Ward, grocers, apothecaries, pepperers, haberdashers and upholsterers.

Cheape Ward, from an 18th Century copy of Stow's Survey of London (image is in the Public Domain).

Ward boundaries in the city change from time to time, and only a small part of London's Guildhall is now in Cheap Ward. In Stow's time, however, it was wholly so, and it was the pulsing heart of city life, functioning as a seat of civic governance, a court of law, and a place where the representatives of the various City Livery Companies came together to consider matters of common concern.

The interior of Guildhall today. Photo: David Iliff (License CC-BY-SA 3.0).

It is, in fact, one of the very few Medieval buildings in the City to have survived the Great Fire of 1666. The first written reference to a guildhall was in 1128, and the current building was constructed between 1411 and 1440. The crypt may date to the late 13th Century. The current Grand Entrance, in "Hindoostani Gothic," was added by Charles Dance in 1788.

The crypt of London's Guildhall. Photo: The Wub (licensed under CCA).

In the days before mass-media (which extended well into the 19th Century), Guildhall Yard was London's most important gathering place. Whenever news reached London of an important national or international event, it was to the yard that the tradesmen and apprentices flocked, to hear the news delivered by the Lord Mayor, accompanied by whatever dignitaries could be enticed to join him with the promise of a good lunch and a generous glass of port.

Guildhall Yard in 1805: the buildings to the left and right were destroyed during a bombing raid in the Second World War (image is in the Public Domain).

Beneath the modern streets of Cheap Ward, however, and even beneath Guildhall Yard itself, lie clues to earlier incarnations of the city we call London. A printer's apprentice, listening to a speech by the Lord Mayor, can hardly have known that he was standing in the centre of Londinium's Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators faced one another in battles for life and death. It was only in 2000 that excavations by Museum of London archaeologists revealed its remains, its circuit now marked out on the paving slabs of Guildhall Yard, and its eastern entrance preserved in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

The remains of London's Roman amphitheatre. Photo: Philafrenzy (licensed under CCA).

Guildhall Yard today, the black line at bottom right marking the curve of the Roman arena. Photo: Elisa Rolle (licensed under CCA).

The streets to the south of Guildhall became, after 1066, the focus for London's Jewish community, until the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, following a wave of anti-Semitic riots (London's Jewish community was only officially re-established during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell). In Milk Street, on a site that had been home to the wealthy Jewish Crespin family, archaeologists uncovered a 13th Century mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, now reconstructed at London's Jewish Museum in Camden.

The persecution of English Jews, from the 13th Century Rochester Chronicle (British Library). The badges worn by the Jews were enforced upon them by an edict of Pope Innocent III in 1215 (image is in the Public Domain).

Returning to the main east-west street through the city, which is, by this point in our journey, Poultry, we have, perhaps for the first time, a clear sense of being at the low point between the two hills on which London is built: Ludgate Hill behind us to the west and Cornhill ahead of us to the east. We have little sense of the natural watercourse running beneath our feet, the Walbrook Stream, or indeed of the artificial watercourse that carried sweeter water from the headwaters of the River Tyburn to the "Great Conduit" which served Londoners from the 1240s until the time of the Great Fire in 1666.

No. 1, Poultry. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

A post-modern office block, No.1 Poultry, and which incorporates Bank Underground Station, now stands where Medieval Londoners queued for fresh water (brewers were frequently accused of taking more than their fair share, but the alternative of brewing ale from the brackish and fetid waters of the Thames would probably have had far worse consequences). During its construction, Museum of London archaeologists found the remains of one of London's lost churches, the tiny Saint Benet Sherehog, as well as several Roman houses.

Discarded behind the houses, and preserved only thanks to the waters of the Walbrook stream, was found a Roman letter, written on a thin sliver of wood, which gives us a fleeting glimpse into the life of one of Londinium's inhabitants. It is the deed of sale of a Gaulish slave-girl named Fortunata, sold for the equivalent of two years' salary for a legionary. Fortunata was probably literate (illiterate slaves were cheaper) but, whatever her background, she was now at the very bottom of the heap, the slave of a slave of a slave. Her age is not given, but she must have been young (she is described as a puella, which can mean either "virgin" or "girl," but the latter reading is to be preferred, since slaves enjoyed no legal protection from rape). She will be the protagonist of my next novel.

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

Thursday, 19 November 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 33 - "Angels and Insects," by A.S. Byatt

Britain's industrial revolution in the 19th Century went hand in hand with the popularisation of science. Where, a century earlier, a knowledge of classical antiquity had been the mark of a "gentleman," increasingly an "educated" man or woman was expected to keep abreast of the latest developments in chemistry, physics and biology. London's Royal Institution, founded in 1799, offered public lectures by some of the leading scientific figures of the day. It was here that Sir Humphrey Davy inspired the young Mary Shelley with a lecture on galvanism; and Michael Faraday both demonstrated electricity and established the Institution's annual Christmas Lectures for young people; Sir John Lubbock lectured on the social behaviour of ants, bees and wasps; and Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") on evolution.

Michael Faraday lecturing at the Royal Institution in 1856 (image is in the Public Domain).

Experimental science became not only the foundation of new technologies, but also a hobby for many people. It also posed some difficult questions, however, removing some of the certainties on which people had based their lives for centuries. If, as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace claimed, life had evolved by means of "natural selection," was there any basis for a belief in God? If not, then the Bible could surely no longer be the basis of morality, but what was to replace it? The Metaphysical Society was founded in 1869 to ponder just such questions, bringing together such luminaries as Huxley (who coined the word "agnostic"); the politician, William Gladstone; the artist and critic, John Ruskin; the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson; and the churchmen, Cardinal Manning and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, the Dean of Westminster Abbey.

Cartoon of Charles Darwin, from The Hornet, 1871 (image is in the Public Domain).

Similarly, if, as men such as Davy and Faraday had proven beyond doubt, we are constantly surrounded by powerful forces, such as magnetic fields and radio waves, of which we are unaware, but which can, with the right knowledge and equipment, be harnessed to human use, what else might be "out there" to be tapped? The spirits of the dead, perhaps, moving unseen amongst us, waiting to be "contacted"? Spiritualism, like science, became a hobby and, for some people, an obsession. Some mediums, such as Florence Cook in Hackney and the Fox sisters in America, even claimed to be able to "materialise" spirits, until their fraudulent practices were revealed and demonstrated in the 1870s by stage magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred Cooke.

The medium, Florence Cook, claimed to be able to materialise a spirit, "Katie King" (image is in the Public Domain). Here the chemist and physicist, Sir William Crookes, encounters her, and is convinced, but Cook was later unmasked as a fraud by George Sitwell (the father of the poet, Edith).

A.S. Byatt's novel, Angels and Insects, is, in effect, two novellas bound together, exploring these issues through the eyes of both fictional and historical characters.

In the first novella, Morpho Eugenia, a fictional naturalist, William Adamson (who has much in common with Alfred Russel Wallace) returns to England from an Amazonian expedition. He is impoverished, but finds a patron in the Reverend Sir Harald Alabaster, who employs him to catalogue his collection of natural history specimens. Sir Harald agonises over the reconciliation of science and faith, and looks to William for reassurance, which he finds himself unable to provide. William falls in love with, and marries, Sir Harald's socially awkward daughter, Eugenia, and they start a family. Whilst William enjoys the uneasy confidence of Eugenia's father, he meets outright hostility from her brother Edgar, a hostility he assumes to be founded in snobbery, but which turns out to have much darker roots. Together with his children and their tutor, the mysterious and beguiling Miss Matty Crompton (a servant who quotes Milton & Ovid, and writes poetry and fiction of her own), William embarks on a study of ants' nests around Sir Harald's estate, but Matty is party to the family secrets, and it is very uncertain where her increasingly close association with William might lead.

Statue of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a zoologist mentioned in Byatt's text, but who also appears, at least in part, to be the model for William Adamson. Wallace hit upon a theory of natural selection independently from Darwin, and a summary of both theories was presented simultaneously to the Royal Society with neither man actually present. Although the two theories are essentially similar, Darwin's reputation went on to eclipse Wallace's, in part because of his more influential social connections. The statue, at the Natural History Museum, is by Anthony Smith. Photo: George Beccaloni (licensed under CCA).

"'It is hard,' he said to William, 'not to agree with the Duke of Argyll that the extraordinary beauty of these creatures is in itself the evidence of the work of a Creator, a Creator who also made our human sensibility to beauty, to design, to delicate variation and brilliant colour ... The world has changed so much, William, in my lifetime. I am old enough to have believed in our first Parents in Paradise, as a little boy, to have believed in Satan hidden in the snake, and in the Archangel with the flaming sword, closing the gate. I am old enough to have believed without question in the Divine Birth on a cold night with the sky full of singing angels and the shepherds staring up in wonder, and the strange kings advancing across the sand on camels with gifts. And now I am presented with a world in which we are what we are because of the mutations of soft jelly and calceous bone matter through unimaginable millennia - a world in which angels and devils do not battle in the Heavens for virtue and vice, but in which we eat and are eaten and absorbed into other flesh and blood ...'"

Morpho eugenia, the Amazonian butterfly that gives its name to the first novella, Museum of Toulouse. Photo: Didier Descouens (licensed under CCA).

In the second novella, The Conjugial Angel, we find ourselves in Margate, in the company of Mrs Lilias Papagay, the wife or widow of a sea-captain (missing, presumed drowned), and Miss Sophy Sheekhy, a spirit-medium. Their social circle includes Emily Jesse (a historical character - the sister of the poet, Tennyson, and the wife of a retired sea-captain, Richard); and a Mr Hawke (fictional, I think), described as a "theological connoisseur:"

"He had been a Ritualist, a Methodist, a Quaker, a Baptist, and had now come to rest, permanently or temporarily, in the Church of the New Jerusalem, which had come into being in the spiritual world in the year 1787 when the old order had passed away, and that Spiritual Columbus, Emanuel Swedenborg, had made his voyages through the various Heavens and Hells of the Universe, which he was shown in the form of a Divine Human, every spiritual and every material thing corresponding to some part of this infinite Grand Man."

"When Mrs Papagay tried the automatic writing on her own for the first time, she received, she thought, indisputable messages from Arturo, then or now, alive or dead, tangled in seaweed or in her memory. Her respectable fingers wrote out imprecations in various languages she knew nothing of, and never sought to have translated, for she knew well enough approximately what they were, with their fs and cons and cuns. Arturo's little words of fury, Arturo's little words, also, of intense pleasure. She said, dreamily, 'O, are you dead or alive, Arturo?' and the reply was 'Naughty-lus tangle-shells sand sand break break breaker c.f.f.c. naughty Lilias, infin che'l mar fu sopra noi richiuso.' From which she concluded that on the whole he was probably drowned, not without struggle. So she put on mourning, took in two lodgers, tried her hand at a novel, and lived more and more in the passive writing."

Advertisement for a "planchette" to facilitate automatic writing, as a method of communicating with the deceased (image is in the Public Domain). Manufacturers experimented with various materials as a means of "insulating" users from the influence of evil spirits, just as the makers of the first electrical devices sought to insulate their customers from electric shocks.

A shipwreck, and the character of Mrs Papagay's husband, Arturo, create the link between the two novellas, as becomes clear at the junction between them. In both cases, Byatt's narration is interwoven, not only with the dialogues between her characters, but with the poetry, fiction and theology of the time itself. Historical fiction meets the history of ideas in a dazzling evocation of a moment in which everything seemed to be at stake, the fiery furnace in which modern Britain was forged.

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

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cordwainer Street - Shoemakers, and a Church of Many Stories

Immediately to the east of Bread Street Ward lies Cordwainer Street Ward, so-named for the cordwainers who worked here throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Cordwainers were workers in leather and, more specifically, makers of shoes and boots from new leather (thus distinguishing them from cobblers, who repaired used shoes, or made new ones from recycled leather). The finest shoes of all were made from white goat-skin leather imported from Cordoba in Spain, and the word "cordwainer" is derived from "Cordovan," although the cordwainers of London are likely to have worked both with this luxury material and with cheaper leather produced within England.

A modern cordwainer at work on the island of Capri. Photo: Jorge Royar (licensed under CCA).

This particular quarter of London was designated for the use of cordwainers by a statute of Henry VI in 1431. At various times during the Middle Ages, fashions in footwear seem to have got out of hand, and orders were sent out by monarchs, charging the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers to restrict the length of the "pikes" on the shoes being made and sold.

A Medieval shoe with a prominent "pike" (pointed toe). Photo: Marieke Kuijjer (licensed under CCA).

Shoe-making in London began to decline during the English Civil War (or the War of the Three Kingdoms, depending on one's point of view), when Oliver Cromwell placed a bulk order with shoe-makers in Northampton, for shoes and boots to equip the New Model Army. With more physical space for expansion, and easy access to raw materials (Northamptonshire had been a centre of the leather industry since Roman times), the shoe-makers of Northampton flourished at the expense of the London cordwainers.

There were, at the time of John Stow's Survey of London (1598), seven ecclesiastical parishes within the ward, but only two churches survive. Both have their origins in Saxon times, but both were remodelled in the Middle Ages, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, and damaged in the Blitz. Saint Mary Aldermary, where Geoffrey Chaucer's father, Richard (a wine-merchant), lies buried, is one of the few churches that Wren chose to rebuild in a Gothic, rather than a Neo-Classical style, and is thus one of the very earliest expressions of an architectural tradition that reached its height with Barry and Pugin's Palace of Westminster.

The church of Saint Mary Aldermary. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The more famous church, however, is Saint Mary-le-Bow, the bells of which can apparently be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes (traditionally, Londoners can only consider themselves "Cockneys" if they were born within hearing distance of them). The bells were used, at various times, to give notice of a curfew within the city, after which the gates would be closed.

The church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, as designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

John Stow has more stories to tell about Saint Mary-le-Bow than about any other London church. Here are just a couple of them:

"First, we read that, in the year 1090 ... by tempest of wind, the roof of the church was overturned, wherewith some persons were slain, and four of the rafters, of twenty-six feet in length, with such violence were pitched in the ground of the high street, that scantly four feet of them remained above ground, which they fain to be cut even with the ground, because they could not be plucked out, for the city of London was not then paved, and a marish ground."

The church of Saint-Mary-le-Bow, as it appears on the Agas Map of 1561. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).

"In the year 1196, William Fitz Osbert, a seditious tailor, took the steeple of Bow, and fortified it with munitions and victuals, but it was assaulted, and William, with his accomplices were taken, though not without bloodshed, for he was forced by fire and smoke to forsake the church; and then, by the judges condemned, he was by the heels drawn to the Elms of Smithfield, and there hanged with nine of his fellows; where, because his favourers came not to deliver him, he forsook 'Mary's son,' as he termed Christ our Saviour, and called upon the Devil to help and deliver him. Such was the end of this deceiver, a man of evil life, a secret murderer, a filthy fornicator, a polluter of concubines, and, among his other detestable facts, a false accuser of his elder brother, who had in his youth brought him up in learning, and done many things for his preferment."

The crypt of Saint-Mary-le-Bow, where some of the Medieval masonry is preserved. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

The interior of Saint Mary-le-Bowe, as designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Photo: David Iliff (License CC-BY-SA3.0).

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.