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:, 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.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Wards of Old London: Vintry - Hub of a Nation's Wine Trade

A visitor to London, walking westward along the Thames from the Tower of London towards Blackfriars, passes from Dowgate Ward into Vintry Ward shortly after passing beneath Cannon Street Railway Bridge. From the South bank of the river, the skyline of the ward is dominated by the imposing neo-classical facade of the Vintners' Hall, one of the grandest of all the modern city livery halls, and the current centre of London's wine trade.

Vintners' Hall. Photo: Julie Anne Workman (licensed under CCA).

Throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, locally produced ale was the daily drink of working Londoners, as it was for ordinary people across the south-east of England (cider was more readily available and popular in the west), but imported wine was an essential element of religious practice, through the Sacrament of the Eucharist; and its daily consumption was also a marker of social class. The servants in the household of a wealthy London merchant may have drunk ale, but wine would certainly have been served to the merchant's family and guests.

Wealthy women drinking wine, from a Flemish manuscript of 1325 (Watriquet de Couvin - image is in the Public Domain).

Most of the wine imported to England arrived through the Port of London, and would have been off-loaded onto the quay still known as "Three Crane Wharf," and stored in the warehouses that stood where the livery hall stands today. From here, barges would have carried barrels up-stream, to the royal residences of Whitehall, Richmond, Hampton Court and Windsor; and along the various tributaries of the Thames to supply the manorial courts and monastic houses of southern England.

Three Cranes Wharf, from Visschler's Panoramic View of London, 1616 (image is in the Public Domain).
A crane at Bruges, from a manuscript of c 1510, showing how it would have been operated (image is in the Public Domain).

The royal court was by far the largest consumer of wine in the land, so the personal tastes and economic priorities of kings and queens determined the dynamics of the wine trade. When Gascony (including Bordeaux) was in English hands, in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, it provided much of the wine imported through London, initiating the English taste for "claret." In the 1360s, wine made up a third of England's total import trade, and English drinkers were consuming half of all the wine produced in Gascony. When England was at war with France, wine was imported, instead, from the nation's longest established ally, Portugal, the merchant convoys protected by warships. White wines were also imported from the Rhineland, and sweet wines from Lombardy, Croatia, Greece and Madeira.

A meal with wine, from the Heures de Jacques de Beaune, 1510 (image is in the Public Domain).

The church of Saint Martin in the Vintry was traditionally associated with the wine trade (Saint Martin of Tours was its patron saint), but the nearby church of Saint James Garlickhythe was a mustering point for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (garlic seems to have been carried on the same ships that brought wine from Gascony, and was sold in the surrounding streets, whilst English pilgrims almost certainly embarked on the same ships for the return voyage to Bordeaux, where they would join other pilgrims making their way overland across the Pyrenees to Compostela).

Wine merchants in Bologna, from a manuscript of c 1345 (image is in the Public Domain). Geoffrey Chaucer's father was a London wine merchant.

Perhaps surprisingly, Medieval London was better provided with public conveniences than is modern London: also within the ward was "Whittington's Longhouse," built in 1421 by the city's most famous mayor, with 64 seats for men and a further 64 for women, discharging, of course, directly into the Thames (it remained in use until 1666, when it was destroyed in the Great Fire, and never rebuilt).

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

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Historical Fiction and the Art of the Short Story

My short story, White Wings, based on the 1782 shipwreck of the East Indiaman, Grosvenor on the coast of South Africa, long-listed in 2014 for the Fish Prize, has been long-listed in 2015 for the Aestas Prize, and has now been published in the Aestas Anthology for 2015, edited by the Indian poet, Anirban Ray Choudhury.

My story is, as it happens, the only piece of historical fiction in this anthology, and I thought that this might be an opportune moment at which to consider the short story as a genre in relation to historical fiction. "We all came out from under Gogol's overcoat," wrote Ivan Turgenev of short story writers, and the most frequently cited authors of short stories, from Gogol and Turgenev, through James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, to Lydia Davis and George Saunders, have tended to set their stories either in their own times, or in a surreal (and often dystopic) variant of them. Even Hilary Mantel, much lauded for her historical novels, turned to the contemporary world for inspiration for her short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The recent long-lists for major short story prizes have, likewise, been dominated by contemporary fiction, although there have been some notable exceptions (Carys Davies won the V.S. Pritchett Prize in 2011 for her story, The Redemption of Galen Pike, set in the world of the American West). There is, perhaps, little scope in the short story for the sort of world-building that underpins many historical novels, and yet the short story is ideally suited to the exploration of specific moments in time, particularly as seen through the eyes of people often cast by the historian as marginal to the grand sweeping narrative of history itself.

"The short story does not need a hero," suggested Frank O'Connor, one of the leading practitioners and theorists of the genre. Frequently, instead, there is a "submerged population group" - he gives the examples of Gogol's officials, Maupassant's prostitutes and Chekov's doctors. "Always, in the short story," he continues, "there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society."  I am not sure that this is always the case, but Galen Pike is certainly one such figure, as is Joshua Glover, the humble seaman who provides one of the viewpoints in my own White Wings. History is full of such characters, if the writer is prepared to seek them out.

Two recently published short story anthologies have caught my eye. Both Rose Tremain's The American Lover, and Jim Shepard's You Think That's Bad, combine historical with contemporary stories.

In her story, The Jester of Astapov, Tremain draws directly (and delightfully) on the Russian tradition of Gogol, Turgenev and Chekov. The setting is a remote railway station in Russia in 1910. A frail and sick old man is helped from a train: he is the already legendary author, Leo Tolstoy. The stationmaster, Ivan Osolin, takes him into his own home, protecting him from the attentions both of his estranged wife, and of the many reporters who soon gather around the station. Whilst their focus is on the dying writer, Tremain's is on the station-master (and eponymous jester), Osolin, and on his family and community, for whom life will never quite be the same again.

The house of Ivan Osolin at Astapovo, from P. Biriukov's Life of Tolstoy (image is in the Public Domain).
Jim Shepard's story, Classical Scenes of Farewell, is a tale of demonic possession in 15th Century France. Demonic possession was taken very seriously in the Middle Ages, and few people were more marginalised than those (who might come from any level of society) deemed to be subject to it. Today we would probably think of most such cases in terms of "mental illness," but no such concept existed, and the punishment for engagement with the diabolical realm was assumed to extend from this life into the next:

"When I was twelve, the man from whom we rented our pastureland - a lifelong bachelor whose endless mutterings were his way of negotiating his solitude, and whose imagination extended only to business; the sort who milled his rye without sifting it, so it might last longer - was found in the middle of our lane one winter morning, naked, his feet and lips blue. He said a demon had appeared to him on a pile of wood under his mulberry tree, in the likeness of a corpulent black cat belonging to the house next door. With its front paws the cat had gripped him by the shoulders and pushed him down, and then had fastened its muzzle on the man's mouth, and would not be denied."

Illustration from a 15th Century Book of Hours, Walters Manuscript W.102, fol. 78v (image is in the Public Domain).
For self-published authors, whose novels are specifically excluded from consideration for many of the major literary prizes; and for those of us published by small independent publishers (in most cases not specifically excluded, but nonetheless struggling to be noticed by prize juries); short story competitions offer an opportunity to be noticed and, since judging is, in almost all cases, conducted on the basis of anonymity, a chance to compete on equal terms with the brightest stars in the literary firmament.

They have widely differing deadlines and word-length rules, and varying entry fees; a few of them offer the possibility of large monetary rewards, but most don't; some, but not all, carry the direct prospect of publication. Those that either are, or shortly will be, open to submissions, include the Aesthetica Prize, the Costa Prize, the International Rubery Book Award, the Fish Prize, the Bath Short Story Award, the Bristol Prize, the Bridport Prize, the V.S. Pritchett Prize and the Aestas Prize.

Mark Patton's short story, White Wings, is published in the Aestas Anthology for 2015, edited by Anirban Ray Choudhury, which can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA. His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Wards of Old London: Dowgate - Hanseatic Trade and Roman Governance

A visitor walking westward along the Thames, from the Tower of London towards Blackfriars, passes from Bridge Ward into Dowgate Ward, the river-frontage of which is today dominated by the flanking towers of Cannon Street Station.

Cannon Street Station today. Photo: Will Fox (Wjfox2005 - Image is in the Public Domain).

The railway station, connecting the city with destinations in Kent, opened in 1866, but only after the South-Eastern Railway negotiated the purchase of the land from the authorities of the German cities of Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg. Even today, whenever construction work is carried out in or around the station, archaeologists uncover the remains of the buildings that preceded it.

Cannon Street Station in 1910 (Image is in the Public Domain).
Cannon Street Station in 1910 (Image is in the Public Domain).

The existence of a Hansa Almaniae, a German trading post, in London, is attested as early as 1282, and its status was confirmed, in 1303, in a merchant charter of King Edward I. For more than three centuries, the Stahlhof, or steelyard, of the Hanseatic League stood on the site now occupied by Cannon Street Station, a walled compound with its own warehouses, residential quarters and chapel, within which the merchants of Bremen and Hamburg, Lubeck and Cologne, managed their own affairs.

The arms of the Hanseatic League, c 1670, Museum of London. Photo: Kim Traynor (licensed under CCA).

The term "steelyard" is potentially misleading, referring not to steel as a traded commodity, but rather to a weighing beam, which most trading establishments would have possessed. The main commodity attracting the interest of the German merchants was English wool, and the cloth woven from it, for which there was a high level of demand across Europe. From the cities on Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea, these same merchants brought furs, amber, honey and Rhenish wine; copper and iron ore from Sweden; and barrels of pickled herrings for sale in nearby Billingsgate Ward.

Trading routes of the Hanseatic League. Image: Flo Beck (Image is in the Public Domain).
"Lisa von Lubeck," a reconstructed caravel of the Hanseatic League from the 15th Century. Photo: Doris Schutz (licensed under CCA).

Britain's trade with the cities of the Hanseatic League were not always conducted on friendly terms, for the German merchants were in direct competition with their English counterparts when it came to the export of woollen cloth to the continent. The Anglo-Hanseatic War was fought from 1469 to 1474, the Hanseatic navy taking advantage of an England weakened by civil war to impose unfavourable trade terms: the merchants of the Stalhof agreed to maintain Bishopsgate at their own expense, but through it would pass, to the profit of these merchants, the woollen cloth of England, on its way to the Hanseatic warehouses of East Anglia.

Hanseatic warehouse of c 1475, Kings Lynn. Photo: Alienturnedhuman (Image is in the Public Domain).

Georg Giese, a merchant of Danzig at the London Stalhof, painted by Hans Holbein in 1532, Gemaldegalerie Berlin (Image is in the Public Domain).

The activities of the Stalhof never really recovered following the Great Fire of 1666, the focus of international trade having, by this point in time, shifted to more distant shores, but the merchants of the Hanseatic cities continued to receive rent from it until they sold up to the South-Eastern Railway Company in 1852.

The London Stalhof in 1667, from a publication by Prof. G. Droysens, 1886 (licensed under CCA).

When the building of the railway station and bridge began, it soon became apparent that the Medieval and Early Modern Stalhof had itself been built over the ruins of a much earlier construction, an elaborate complex of Roman buildings dating back to the late First or early Second Century AD, Londinium's period of reconstruction following the destruction of Boudicca's revolt.

Roman remains beneath Cannon Street Station. Image: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Still imperfectly understood, because of the complexities of archaeological excavation in an urban environment, it is clear that this complex, with mosaic floors, painted walls and central heating, extended over three terraces, included an ornamental pool, 55 metres in length and 10 metres wide, containing 200,000 gallons of water. It may have included the palace of the Roman Governor, and the headquarters of the provincial administration.

Reconstruction of Roman London, with the Cannon Street complex circled (image - Encyclopaedia Britannica).

The City of London through which we walk today, sits directly on top of the cities through which Samuel Pepys, William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer walked, and those cities, in turn, sat directly on top of the city from which Gnaeus Julius Agricola once governed the Province of Britannia, perhaps planning his invasion of Scotland with his commanders, seated beside an ornamental pool on the site now occupied by Cannon Street Station.

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.