Monday, 23 January 2017

A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree.. by Leslie Wilson

This advertisement appeared in 1903, and I hope that to all my readers it will seem as shocking as to myself. What is equally shocking is that in fact it contains the essence of the abuser's mind-set; the attempt to clear his (less often) her conscience (it won't stop the abuse recurring), and that Pat's equivalent is alive and well and maybe living just down the road from any of us, or even next door.
But here, it's a joke. It's even considered a good way to sell butter. What has often struck me, in reading the fiction of the quite recent past, is the extent to which domestic violence is normalised or trivialised. 'Your tantrums may do very well at home,' says the Earl of Worth to Judith Taverner in Georgette Heyer's 'Regency Buck,' 'but they arouse in me nothing more than a desire to beat you soundly. And that, Miss Taverner, if ever I do marry you, is precisely what I shall do.' And how can we believe that he won't? Since he starts his acquaintance with the heroine by forcing a kiss on her, it's quite clear that he hasn't much sense of her boundaries.
Of course, domestic violence wasn't frowned on in the Regency period, but Heyer wrote the novel in 1935, when one would like to think it was regarded with more loathing. But maybe not. And it's odd how the examples I'm thinking of all come in 'feel-good' novels, that one would read for amusement, possibly while eating chocolates.
Take 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,' Winifred Watson's charming mille-feuille of a novel. Here Miss La Fosse's Michael appears on the scene and begins by shaking his adored soundly. Oh, yes, Miss Pettigrew persuades herself that Michael 'would never really hurt Miss La Fosse,' and that 'Miss La Fosse had done to the young man something meriting anger, for which she had no excuse..The punishment then was only just.' Miss Pettigrew then goes on to justify the assault by comparing it to smacking children. Clearly in those days attitudes to smacking children were very different, but: an adult woman is not a child. 'Do I look like a wife-beater?' Michael later demands of Miss Pettigrew, who, already infatuated, gasps: 'Certainly not.' And of course, she's right. Wife-beaters don't have it tattooed round their foreheads. It'd make it easier for the rest of us if they did.
Martin van Maele: Histoire comique de Francion

Just to drive the point home, Michael later says of his love: 'obviously she needs a little physical correction, but I'm the only right man to do it.' It makes me think of Max Frisch's fire-raisers, stacking up paraffin and kindling round the house while the householder refuses to believe there's anything dangerous going on.
Then there's the attitude to rape. 'A nice rape,' is what Albert Campion once suggests would be therapeutic for a woman. At least his wife protests, but almost casually; one wonders if it's really rape he's talking about, but I do think of Freud's belief that 'penis normalis' was the cure for all ills.
In 'The Pursuit of Love,' when Fanny bids Linda farewell on her journey to the South of France, Linda says: 'I do feel so terrified - think of sleeping in the train, all alone.'
'Perhaps you won't be alone,' I said. 'Foreigners are greatly given, I believe, to rape.'
To which Linda replies: 'Yes, that would be nice.'
And thus rape, like Worth's desire to beat Judith, is presented to us as something exotic, something a woman really wants, and really enjoys.
This is not to say that all authors of the past trivialise abuse.In 'The Making of a Marchioness', Frances Hodgson Burnett has one of her characters say of Mrs Osborne: 'That little woman.. lives every day through twenty-four hours of hell. One can see it in her eyes even when she professes to smile at the brute for decency's sake. The awfulness of a woman's forced smile at the devil she is tied to, loathing him..'
And then, of course, there's Morel's beating of his wife in 'Sons and Lovers,' where Lawrence eloquently describes the mother's psychological processes. Or are they hers? In the end, the story is about the effect on Paul of his father's violence. Paul is later described as incapable of violence towards his own women, and yet he himself does a nice job of emotional abuse on his first love, Miriam. And oddly, Lawrence seems to feel that Morel and his wife had a vital, nourishing relationship in spite of the violence, and blames Mrs Morel for it. As the abuser always does.
It's estimated that one in four women will experience violence in a relationship in her life. That's not the same as saying that one in four men is violent, but it's a terrifying statistic. The police receive about two calls a minute about domestic violence. Most of these will never lead to prosecution, still less successful prosecution, because the crime is committed far away from witnesses, and even if there's injury, it's only one person's word against another's.
It's now thought that abusers are not men who themselves have been abused, but who have seen their mothers abused in childhood, have had it role-modelled for them, in fact (though some people will decide that abuse ends with them). But there is a direct line between the people who in 1903 thought two black eyes was a good way to sell butter, and the man who assaults his wife 114 years later. Like the anti-Semitism which also lurks in 'Miss Pettigrew', we need to be aware of these things, though. They are past a joke.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons: Hollywood's Killer Queens by Catherine Hokin

Christmas may be over but for movie buffs, fashion lovers and celebrity spotters, the tinsel is still well and truly sparkling. The Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Oscars: awards season is upon us. Actresses badly in need of pies are praying their chosen designer doesn't suddenly decide to go 'edgy' (aka mad, see poor Sophie Turner at the Globes); everyone's 'of course I'm happy I lost' smile clashing beautifully with their crazed eyes and reporters stalking their victims for that one illicit look or drunken mishap which will write their mortgage off.

It may not be one of our more attractive traits but human beings love gossip. The word itself was first used in a tattling context by Chaucer when the Wife of Bath refers to a 'gossib dame' and the National Archives provide a rich source of libel cases such as Ellen Bowden's in 1574 when she took Ann Venables to court for calling her a "whore, arrant whore, wedded mans whore and William Colsolls whore" and won 8 shillings for her pains. We gossip and we write it down. Pity the poor Mesopotamian mayor only now remembered because his affair with a married woman in 1500 BC coincided with the time and place of the development of Cuneiform, one of the world's earliest writing systems.

 Scandal Sheets at Mrs Humphrey's Print Shop
Scandal sheets as a source of gossip came into their own in London in the eighteenth century. They were poured over in coffee houses and tea shops by men and women alike who thrilled to snippets about the fabulously named Madame Slendersense and her French dancing master, "Mrs. Manlove, who generally searches into the bottom of such an affair, solemnly protests she saw them go up one pair of stairs together. What they did there, she can't tell, but the lady has been ailing ever since" (The Female Tatler) and comments on fashion as bitchy as anything Joan Rivers used to litter the Oscars' red carpet with, "Mrs. Tawny alias Tawdry, is desired not to be so fantastically whimsical in her dress...nothing is more disagreeable and ridiculous than to see a woman of her years affect the gay, youthful airs of their daughters."

Once the floodgate was opened, there was no stopping it. The circulation battle in the USA between publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was an excuse to see who could print the most scandalous news items. Penny papers in the nineteenth century thrived on lurid gossip and the author Roger Wilkes, in his book Scandal, credits the 1886 divorce case of Lady Colin Campbell with inflaming public demand for society scandals and giving birth to the first newspaper gossip column. Society tittle-tattle is one thing but it was the birth of the film industry that really saw the explosion in the demand for the 'celebrity' gossip machine and created some of its biggest monsters.

 Hedda Hopper & Louella Parsons, Vanity Fair
Wielding a cleverly catty pen is an art. Historian Gary Wills has identified some of our best known classical authors as also being the earliest gossip columnists, including Catullus for this snappy epigram on the subject of an invitation from Julius Caesar: “Join your party?/I might, mighty Czar,/Could I remember/quite who you are.” Step forward a couple of centuries and the pen was being wielded by two of the most dangerous star-makers and star-breakers Hollywood would ever see: Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

It was fan magazines that helped create the idea of "movie stars". Motion Picture Story Magazine was launched in 1911 during the era of silent films and the appetite was insatiable: this magazine was the first of what would become nearly 300 titles in the genre. At the height of their power in the 1940s, Hopper and Parsons' rival columns had a combined readership of 75 million people (half the population of the USA) and the industry was just as much in thrall to them, if not more so, than the public, as Bob Hope said: “Their columns were the first thing we looked at every morning to see what was going on.” Both women had a long association with Hollywood and powerful connections which they exploited ruthlessly, against the stars and each other. Hopper began as a bit-part actress. She appeared in around 120 films, hit hard times (probably because she refused to entertain LB Mayer on his casting coach) but retained enough industry friends to eventually be hired by MGM as a journalist to offset the power of Parsons, her one time friend. Parsons, by contrast, was a journalist from the start whose career went stellar after she forged a friendship with publisher William Randolph Hearst's film actress mistress Marion Davies.

 Time satirising Hopper's trademark hats
Both women were highly skilled at blurring both their own pasts (editing their marriages and their birth dates) and their colourful lives. When it came to their quarry, however, nothing was off limits. Louella’s columns were sprinkled with racist terms such as“swarthy Mexicans” and she once cited Mussolini as her favourite hero. Hedda was viciously vocal about racial intermixing, hated and hunted Communists (she led the attack that drove Chaplin out of the States and destroyed Donald Trumbo) and had no mercy for anyone who gave a story to Parsons rather than her. Louella had informants everywhere, from studios to hairdressers’ salons and doctors’ offices. When Louella received a tip that Clark Gable and his second wife, Ria, were going to divorce, she“kidnapped” Mrs. Gable and held her hostage at her home until she was sure the story was hers first. Hopper ruined Ingrid Bergman's career after she had an affair with Roberto Rossellini and became pregnant - not because of the affair but because she gave the story to Louella. Hopper's attacks on Marilyn Monroe were so vicious, fans wrote letters after Monroe's death blaming Hopper for the suicide - apparently she didn't give a damn about that or about the skunk Joan Bennett sent her as a Valentine's gift. When she was asked by actress Merle Oberon “What inspired all the vicious things you’ve been writing about me?”, her response was simple and really rather chilling: “Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery.”

The end of the studio system in the 1950s, the spread of television and the rise of tabloid magazines such as Confidential which was notorious for making up stories with no basis in fact at all (I'm resisting all references to Trump here) changed the relationships between Hollywood, its stars and the public. Parsons and Hopper faded away and, while gossip and some of its perpetrators seem to find continuously new lows in this 24/7 internet world, no other individual writers since have held such long-lasting and dangerous power over other people's lives. I can highly recommend the film Trumbo if anyone wants to know more, Helen Mirren's portrayal of Hopper captures her awfulness to perfection. The Golden Age of Hollywood, or so this period is so often called: proof that layers of gilt and polish and pretence can't hide the poison under the surface. Avoiding a Trump reference really was too much to hope for.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Goat Glands by Imogen Robertson

No idea why it would occur to me to recommend a documentary about an American charlatan to you fine people today. Just one of those things, I guess.

The documentary in question is 'Man of The People', an episode of the excellent podcast Reply All and is the very funny, shocking and rather disquieting story of John R. Brinkley (1885 - 1942) who claimed to be able to cure all sort of male maladies by a.... let us say 'intimate' operation, involving goat gonads.

His practice flourished, but he really hit the big time when he discovered a technology which allowed him to communicate, direct and unfiltered, with a huge number of people. Radio. I should also add that he achieved remarkable political success. He built a mansion with a two-story organ (as in the musical instrument) and apparently it's filled with special hiding places in which to stow your furs and jewels if the ravening hordes attack.

The episode is a great piece of storytelling, beginning as it does with an elderly lady in a decaying mansion and ending by returning there, the lady gone, the house restored and the man himself largely forgotten despite his desperate urge to write his name over everything in town.

A glance at Brinkley's wikipedia page shows that the programme makers aren't exaggerating when they say they didn't have the time to cover many of Brinkley's exploits, so I'll be watching the documentary and reading the book and pondering how easy it is to find oneself buying snakeoil.

You know, as one does.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Admiral Duncan: Forgotten Hero - by Ann Swinfen

Danloux' painting of Duncan on Venerable

Admiral Adam Duncan was once a celebrated hero for his great victory over the Dutch fleet under De Winter off Camperdown in October 1797 – a victory which has been compared, in its strategic importance, with the Battle of Britain in the early years of the Second World War, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And yet over the years it has become a commonplace to claim that Duncan had been insufficiently recognised by government at the time, and unfairly forgotten since, even by his native city - Dundee - itself.
That Duncan was not forgotten in Dundee is illustrated by this stained glass window from the old Town House, a building since demolished.

Much more recently, writing in the volume of essays published to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Camperdown, Councillor Andrew Lynch complained that the battle ‘has largely and unjustly sunk from public view, just as Adam Duncan, the hero of the hour, had been eclipsed by the memory of the heroically deceased Horatio Nelson’. And it is the case, of course, that there is no Camperdown Square in London, nor a Duncan’s Column.
All this is true, but fortunately only partly true. Duncan’s great victory was by no means overlooked by the government of the day, or the people of the nation. He was ennobled to a Viscountcy. His pension of £2000 a year was the largest pension ever awarded up to that time. Towns like Edinburgh and Dundee offered him the freedom of their city. A substantial range of souvenirs was produced for the people of Great Britain to commemorate their national hero. The fact is, of course, that there is a wealth of material, and especially images and artefacts, to inform the modern student of Duncan’s life, career and achievements.
Adam Duncan was born in the Seagate, Dundee, not far from where his statue now stands, the third son of Alexander Duncan, Provost of Dundee, the third member of his family to hold that office. Adam’s mother was Helen Haldane of Gleneagles, and he had two older brothers – John, who joined the East India Company, and died in their employ, and Alexander, a soldier, who served on the continent and in Canada, before himself dying in1796 – the year before Camperdown.
Adam was born in 1731, and in 1746 he joined the Navy as a midshipman – his first ship being a sloop called Tryal, under the command of his cousin, Robert Haldane, one of their first tasks being to try to capture Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden. The following year both Duncan and Haldane transferred to a frigate, the Shoreham, in action against the French in one of the many wars between Britain and France – this time the War of Austrian Succession which lasted from 1740-48. Indeed most of Duncan’s naval career seemed to have been directed by French wars. But war was also an opportunity. During the Seven Years War (again against France), Duncan gained promotion to 3rd Lieutenant in 1755, 2nd Lieutenant in 1756, and 1st Lieutenant in 1759. It was in that year that he was involved in an attack on the island of Goree off Senegal, and was wounded in the leg by a musket ball – the first and only wound he ever received in a career of more than 50 naval actions. In the same year he was promoted to Commander, and soon after that to Captain – appointed as Flag Captain on board Valiant – the flagship of Commodore Keppel.

Painting of Duncan by Reynolds

And that could have been the end of his naval career. If war provided opportunities for employment and advancement, the end of the war by the Peace of Paris in 1763 marked the end of both employment and advancement – at least until next time. For the next 13 years Captain Duncan twiddled his thumbs on half pay – the only compensation being that he met and married Henrietta Dundas, daughter of Robert Dundas, President of the Court of Session in Edinburgh.  Adam had not only gained a wife, but also had married into one of the most powerful families in Scotland.
In 1776 the American War of Independence again offered new opportunities. Appointed first to the Suffolk, with 74 guns, he was transferred to the Monarch, and in 1780 was involved in a fierce action against the Spanish fleet off Cadiz. He should then have gone with the Monarch to the West Indies, but was forced to withdraw for health reasons. In 1787 he finally achieved Flag rank as a Rear Admiral, but was then again on half pay until 1795.

Danloux' painting of Duncan as Rear Admiral

Battle of Camperdown
And so at last to the great battle that was to make his reputation and set the seal on his naval career – Camperdown. Once again Britain was at war with the French – the French Revolutionary Wars. At the end of 1794 the French armies invaded Holland, and in May of 1795 an alliance was concluded between France and the Batavian Republics, whereby Holland would support France with 12 ships of the line and 18 frigates, the plan being to use Holland as the spring board for the invasion of England. Duncan was appointed as Admiral of the Blue to command the North Sea Fleet – its purpose to prevent military expeditions from being dispatched from the Texel Island. The strategy was to blockade the Texel and if possible to destroy the Dutch fleet. This involved having the North Sea Fleet on constant patrol in the area.

To keep the Dutch penned in, Duncan deployed his ships in three ranks – the small cutters close to the coast, frigates next, and then two lines of battle ships further out – making it difficult for the Dutch to see just how many shops there were ranged against them.
            Then came the additional complication of the Mutiny, which gave rise to one of the great stories of Duncan’s career. There was growing unrest throughout the British Navy - mainly over rates of pay. The trouble started on Duncan’s flagship Venerable in April 1797, but he was able to deal with it and good order was re-established. He then visited every ship in the squadron, listening to their grievances, and demanding to know whether anyone dared to dispute his authority or that of their officers. On the 13th May, on the Adamant, one brave or foolhardy sailor did just that, giving rise to the famous incident when Duncan (he was a large man, 6 ft 4 inches in height) held the miscreant over the side with the words ‘ My lads, look at this fellow, he who dares to deprive me of the command of the fleet.’ This was of course by no means the end of unrest within the Navy – later that month the much more serious mutinies at Sheerness and the Nore broke out, and were not suppressed until well into June.
            The outbreak of mutinies in the British fleet was a distraction but not a fatal one. Duncan’s combination of personal courage combined with a willingness to listen had quieted unrest in his squadron. Duncan and the Venerable, with Vice Admiral Onslow in the Adamant, were able to sail to the Texel where they stationed themselves opposite to the main Dutch naval base. With an inspired deception, involving sending signals to an imaginary fleet out of sight of the Dutch, they succeeded in persuading the enemy to stay in port.
As it happened, when the Dutch did eventually attempt a breakout, most of Duncan’s ships were anchored off Great Yarmouth, taking on stores. Early in the morning of 9th October 1797, the lugger Speculator was sighted coming towards the fleet. It raised the signal ‘The Dutch Fleet is out’.
            By the morning of the 11th October, Duncan’s ships were off the Dutch coast, and they could see the Dutch making their way north-west back to their base, sailing near the village of Camperduin towards the shallower coastal waters. Duncan gave the order ‘to give battle’.

The two fleets immediately before the battle

Formed into two groups, the one under Duncan himself and the other under Onslow, the British ships concentrated on breaking the enemy’s line.

De Louthenbourg painting of the battle

In this they eventually succeeded. During the course of the battle the colours of the Venerable were shot away, giving rise to the famous incident when seaman John Crawford climbed up the mast and nailed the flag back up again. The battle was certainly no walk over, as the Dutch were experienced seamen and fought back with determination. After about three hours of intensive fighting, nine Dutch ships of the line had surrendered, and the rest had fled back to the Texel. Casualties on both sides were huge, but eventually the Dutch admiral, De Winter was forced to surrender.

Surrender by De Winter

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this victory. Up until now, the war with France had gone badly for Britain and her allies. The battles of Valmy in 1792, and Tourcoing in 1794, had been notable French victories. The Netherlands and Spain turned from being Britain’s allies to being its enemies. Only the occasional naval victory, as at Cape St Vincent in February 1797, offered some hope.
            Camperdown was a turning point. This was a stunning victory. At the ‘Glorious First of June’ in 1794, Admiral Howe had captured six French ships and sunk one, out of a fleet of twenty-six. It was hailed as a triumph. At Cape St Vincent in February 1797 Admiral Jervis, with the aid of the young Horatio Nelson, had taken four Spanish ships out of twenty-seven, and the news caused great celebrations. Duncan had surpassed them both, capturing nine ships out of sixteen plus two frigates
            Camperdown undoubtedly had a significant impact on British strategy. Prime Minister William Pitt now adopted a more aggressive policy involving a return to the Mediterranean, leading to Nelson’s great victory at the Nile nine months later. Duncan’s ‘victory at Camperdown was as dramatic and complete as anything Nelson ever achieved, and it is difficult to see how he could have done anything better’.
            An editorial in the Times later in the month stated: ‘The consequences resulting from Admiral Duncan’s victory must be of the highest importance to the interests of this country….to destroy such a fleet at such a time, when an invasion is dreaded, is the more singularly fortunate, as besides ensuring our domestic tranquility we shall no longer be under the necessity of keeping up a large naval establishment to watch the motions of the enemy in the North Sea. But what we consider to be the most interesting consideration is the perfect establishment of our naval superiority for a long time to come, which must induce us to treat every attempt on the part of France to make a descent on our coast as a ridiculous chimera.’

The Public response to Camperdown.
Both government and the public at large were quick to appreciate the implications of Duncan’s great victory – the removal, at least for the time being, of the threat of French invasion, and the prospect of lower taxes if it was no longer necessary to support such a large naval establishment. In the eighteenth century there were well established rituals to signal the nation’s approval of the victor’s conduct – both in terms of ceremonies and in ritual gifts – many of the latter have survived to the present day.
            First there was the conferment of the Viscountcy. Then there was a brief visit to Venerable of the King on his way to the opening of Parliament, while Lord Spencer in the Lords and Henry Dundas in the Commons moved votes of thanks. When Duncan himself was introduced to the Lords in November, he was told that the House had ordered all the peers to attend – an unprecedented distinction – but one ‘called for by the general admiration your conduct has inspired, and strongly expressive of that peculiar satisfaction which the peers must feel upon your Lordship’s promotion to a distinguished seat in this House’.
            Then came a grand service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on November 10th planned by the King himself to commemorate not only Duncan’s victory on the Texel, but also the defeat of the Spaniards by Earl St Vincent, and of the French by Lord Howe. It was a magnificent affair, the procession led by a division of Marines complete with music, followed by two hundred seamen. The captured colours of defeated French, Dutch and Spanish navies were carried in three great artillery wagons, followed by Duncan himself in his own carriage. It set off along Charing Cross and the Strand, with the streets lined with men of the Foot Guards and the Horse Guards. Arriving at St Paul’s, the flags were taken down from the wagons, and ‘under the loudest shout of applause and grand martial music’, were carried in procession into the Cathedral, where they were placed in a circle at the centre of the dome.
            There is plenty of evidence, then, to show that government at the time pulled out all the stops to honour the victor of Camperdown – the grant of a Viscountcy, a very substantial pension to be paid to himself and his two succeeding heirs, tax free and backdated to the date of the battle, the grandest public ceremonies. These were followed by all kinds of lesser honours, presentations, and gifts. Fourteen civic authorities presented him with the freedom of their cities.

Freedom casket from Edinburgh

The Common Council of London presented him with this ceremonial sword: The gold, enameled and diamond-set hilt has Camperdown motifs and the Duncan coat of arms on the pommel.

The County of Forfar gave him a silver-gilt soup tureen and commissioned his portrait by John Hoppner.

Silver-gilt tureen

Duncan was elected to honorary membership of numerous societies, from the Marine Society of Merchants to the Royal College of Surgeons. The Directors of the East India Company (the employers of older brother John) gave a dinner in his honour at the London Tavern, with between 90 and 100 guests, including Prime Minister William Pitt and members of his Cabinet.
            With his combination of bravery, professional skill, and personal modesty, Duncan was a popular hero, and not just in government circles. When he went to dine with the Lord Mayor of London, we are told that his ‘chariot was drawn by the mob down Fleet Street and all the way down to the Guildhall. The Ladies greeted him with huzzas and the waving of handkerchiefs.’ When he went out to dine with friends in Covent Garden, he was recognised, and the assembled company stood to drink his health. ‘The uproar was tremendous; the Admiral got up upon his legs and in a stentorian voice said: “Gentlemen, I thank you.” Not another word. They all cheered louder than ever. The people outside heard who they were, took their horses out of the coach, and drew it round Covent Garden, and it was with difficulty that they were allowed home.’
            As you might expect, Duncan’s achievement was nowhere more deeply appreciated than in Scotland. The Town Council of Dundee, at its first meeting after the battle, adopted the following resolution: ‘The Council unanimously Resolve to present Admiral Viscount Lord Duncan with a piece of Plate, value One Hundred Guineas, with a suitable inscription as a mark of their esteem for his Lordship, and of their high sense of the signal and splendid Victory obtained by his Lordship over the Dutch Fleet on the eleventh day of October last of so much consequence to the prosperity of Great Britain.’

Silver tea urn

Finally, as was the tradition, Duncan was presented with the spoils of war in the shape of the ship’s bell and figurehead from De Winter’s flagship, the Vryheid. The latter stood for many years in the grounds of the Camperdown estate.

Then as now the widespread esteem in which Duncan was held provided a golden opportunity for the purveyors of memorabilia and souvenirs. Camperdown muslins, Duncan caps, a Duncan plaid, Camperdown Clubs, prints, china figures, commemorative tokens, cameos, porcelain mugs, and many portraits all bore witness to the immense popularity of this famous admiral.

While it is certainly true that the name of Duncan as a great naval hero of the period has since been overshadowed by that of Horatio Nelson, we cannot fairly blame his contemporaries for that. Duncan’s victory was celebrated at every level of society. He was rewarded, feted, and even exploited by artists and makers of memorabilia. If his name is no longer commemorated alongside that of Nelson, it is a failure of the present day.

Ann Swinfen

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Cowboys and Indians by Katherine Webb

Yesterday, I finished reading Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, one of the books I was given for Christmas. It is simply breathtaking. The book recently won the Costa Novel of the Year award, and I hope it goes on to win the overall Book of the Year prize too. Every now and then, a historical novel comes along that picks you up and drops you down right in the past, like a perfect magic spell, so that reading it is like being there. Hilary Mantel did it with Wolf Hall; Andrew Miller did it with Pure, and Sebastian Barry does it with this book.

By chance, Barry's setting is one I've long been interested in: The American frontier in the nineteenth century - the 'Wild West', as myth would have it. And what a culture of myth and legend there is, surrounding that extraordinary period. The relentless pursuit of land and better fortune by early European settlers on that continent provides a truly astonishing chapter in the book of human history - but of course it came at immense cost to the indigenous population. I find it hard to read about the shoddy treatment of the American Indians by the settlers without my blood boiling at the injustice of it all. But more of that in a moment.

I heartily recommend Barry's new novel to you all, whether you're interested in the history of the USA or not. Whilst his magic trick of sending the reader back in time is one I wish I could emulate with my own fiction, the book is a treasure trove for readers, regardless. There are jewels of prose on every page. To prove it, I am going to open the book at random now, and quote a sentence or two:

'Third day a big thunder storm and it only a huge song singing of our distress. Hard to get the darkness out of your head. Full ten thousand acres of dark blue and black clouds and lightning flinging its sharp yellow paint across the woods and the violent shout and clamour of the thunder. Then a thick deluge to speak of coming death.'

Stunning. Our narrator is Tom McNulty, a young Irish man driven to emigrate by the famine in Ireland, and his narrative describes his life as soldier and settler in the Indian Wars and the American Civil War in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Previously it had been easy for me, when reading about the actions of soldiers and officials in the Indian Wars, to condemn their brutality as a symptom of the racism and greed of a previous generation. Barry's book, however, says important things about what can happen, and what a man will do, if he is made worthless to society, if he has no stake, and no chance of betterment. It says important things about the human heart -  its capacity for love and tenderness as well as the damage done to it by violence and fear. It is an astonishing feat of fiction writing, and brilliant bit of myth-busting for anybody whose mental image of American history comes from Hollywood films.

As I mentioned, I have been interested in early American history for quite some time. I even had a stab at writing about it myself, in my first novel The Legacy, which featured a greenhorn New York girl getting married to a rancher and moving to Oklahoma Territory in the early years of the twentieth century - and all the many and lastingly devastating ways in which she does not cope in her new life. I acquired a number of very good books on the subject of the 'Wild West' as I did my research, and hear are four of the best, in my opinion:

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Written in 1970, this book perhaps marks the start of the revision of American history. The subtitle, An Indian History of the American West says it all. Brown has written here a damning, heart-breaking history of every bloody battle, every broken promise, every casual cruelty and ignored treaty of the Indian Wars. The terrible inevitability with which an entire race and culture was near eradicated is documented here - whether the Indians were beaten in battle by the sheer numbers of white settlers and soldiers, or were starved, or were herded by treaty to lands they did not know and could not thrive upon. This book exploded the myth of the plucky cowboy protecting his family against the marauding savages. A harrowing but important read. Dee also wrote Wondrous Times on the Frontier, a fascinating collection of anecdotes about life in the early West, told first-hand by the men who were there.

Sand in My Eyes by Seigniora Russell Laune. Something easier to read but just as interesting. This memoir, first published in 1956, tells of Laune's early life in the rural town of Woodward at the turn of the twentieth century. The back of the book praises its exuberant representation of 'the pioneering spirit that civilized the West'... But, of course, Laune is blameless in living her life at the time and in the place she was dealt, as we all generally must. Her memoir moves away from the very early days of settlement to the beginnings of the modern era in what was still very much a spit-and-sawdust town, and gives an engaging portrayal of the trials of domestic life for women back then. Tellingly, it makes almost no mention of the Indians at all, though Woodward was in Oklahoma Territory, which lagged behind the rest of the States, developmentally, because it had remained set aside 'Indian Territory' for several decades - until the pressure of white settlement grew too much.

The Virginian, by Owen Wister. The novel that spawned an entire genre, The Virginian was written in 1902, by which time the West was more or less tamed, no longer a frontier, and the myth of the heroic, gun-toting, ranch-building cowboy had been born. Here we have the strong, silent man, carving his own destiny out of the wilderness; the virtuous, brave woman he loves; the romance of the sweeping landscape, and what I believe to be the first ever depiction of a quick-draw gun duel in the main street of a Western town. Very interesting to see how stories begin to be told, and how they can then grow and spread.

The Real Wild West by Michael Wallis. Published in 1999. This book combines a fascinating history of the vast 101 Ranch in Oklahoma - which at its height covered 110,000 acres, operated its own trains and had its own oil refinery, schools, churches and postal service - with a history of the birth and perpetuation of the myth of the American frontier. The 101 Ranch created the first ever touring 'Wild West Show', which became world famous, and featured real life figures like Geronimo and Buffalo Bill in what must surely, to them, have felt like surreal theatrical representations of their own lives. The book is packed with detail and anecdote, is hugely informative on early settler and farming life, and can be read for sheer enjoyment as well for an insight into the way in which the bloody, difficult history of a nation can have its heartbreak and suffering sanitised, repackaged and sold to the masses.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Providing they miss... Clare Hollingsworth: 1911 - 2017 - Celia Rees

Clare Hollingworth
1911 - 2017
Last Wednesday, it was announced that Clare Hollingworth, doyenne of foreign correspondents, had died in Hong Kong at the age of 105. During her long life she reported on conflicts around the globe, thriving on the thrill and the danger, maintaining with typical bravura that there was 'a certain attraction in being shot at - providing they miss.' 
Clare Hollingworth in 1932
Born to upper middle class parents in Leicestershire, she quickly escaped the life of marriage and motherhood that had been mapped out for her. She took a secretarial course and went to work for the League of Nations in Geneva and then in Poland for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.   She helped many refugees to escape from Germany. Too many. She was asked to leave Poland. She returned to Britain and in August 1939, she got a job as a reporter with the Daily Telegraph, working with Hugh Carleton Greene in Warsaw. Her career in journalism began in spectacular fashion. As a novice stringer stationed in Katowice, she managed the scoop of the century: the outbreak of the Second World War. The day after her arrival, she borrowed the British consul's official car 'for a day's shopping' over the border in Germany. The first town she came to was deserted. Then, as she drove on the the next town, she was passed by 65 dispatch riders. She stopped for lunch before driving back to Poland. On her return journey, she noticed that the sides of the roads were obscured with hessian screens. As one blew back, she saw rows and rows of German tanks. They belonged to von Rundstedt's Army Group South. Her story appeared on the front page of the Telegraph on 29th August, 1939, with the headline: '1,000 tanks massed on Polish frontier'. The next day, she woke to the sound of German bombers overhead. She rang in her story. The war had begun. At first she wasn't believed, until she put the telephone receiver out of the window and shouted, "Listen!"  

She escaped from Poland, going first to Hungary then to Rumania where she was nearly arrested by the ultranationalist Iron Guard. From Rumania, she went to Bulgaria, then to Greece, always just a step ahead of the German forces. Eventually, she escaped to Egypt in an open boat. Once there, she went on bombing missions with the RAF and joined patrols behind enemy lines.

Most of her Second World War reporting was done from the Middle East. She reported from Persia on the Anglo Russian invasion and conducted the first interview with the Shah when he ascended the Peacock Throne. He remembered her and, decades later, she was the only reporter granted an interview when he abdicated in 1979.

She went on to cover conflicts in Algeria during the '50s, Malaya, Borneo and Aden (Yemen) in the '60s and the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. She was in Israel during the struggle for independence and again to cover the Six Day War in 1967. She was in Vietnam and Communist China, always at the centre of the action, tough, fearless and relentless in pursuit of a story. She continued to obtain notable scoops, reporting Kim Philby's escape from Beirut on a Soviet ship in 1963 (a story suppressed by her paper for fear of libel), Chairman Mao's severe stroke in 1974 and tipping Deng Xiaoping as China's eventual leader. Although her stories were often initially greeted with scepticism, her reporter's instinct remained unerring.       

She continued to work as a Far East correspondent with the Sunday Telegraph. Based in Hong Kong, she covered the handover of the colony in 1997. When failing eyesight and hearing made it impossible for her to continue her work, she still had the papers read to her everyday and held court at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club over a gin and tonic. Kate Adie recalls being told of her presence with the words: 'There's a legend upstairs.' 

She was a role model for generations of female reporters and correspondents and, to the end, she slept with shoes and passport by her bed, ready to go anywhere should the call come. In a career that spanned over fifty years, she covered every major conflict from the Second World War onwards and is rightly regarded by many of her peers as one of the finest journalists of the 20th Century.   

Celia Rees

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


The Wicked Boy arrived as a Christmas gift. I was very glad to see him there by my armchair. I had noticed the tall “publicity piles” in Waterstones - and other outlets - and seen various reviews and articles published when Kate Summerscale’s title first appeared, and yet I was a little anxious.

My worries about how this “Mystery of A Victorian Child Murderer” would end was there from the earliest pages. Besieged by a dreary cold, I even put the book down for a while, fearing that bad events would only end worse.

A week later, I went back to the beginning and stared reading again. The Wicked Boy opens in July 1895, when thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his year-younger brother Nattie jaunt off to The Oval to watch a cricket match - after murdering their mother. With their father away at sea, the boys live a fantasy life for a week, aided by deceit and theft and a simple-minded family friend. How can this end in any way well, I thought?

The subject matter may be sensational but the account does not nip along. The amount of research demands patience reading, and a willingness to pause in one moment, whilst events or histories seemingly less relevant are expanded.  

“Listen,” I imagined Kate Summerscale saying, “you need to know all this to appreciate just how it was in those times. You need to know more than just the boy.”

The Wicked Boy's world expands and unfolds far beyond the grisly events and the eventual trial. Summerscale’s research takes one through the geography and population of Plaistow and East London to where, beyond the rows of houses, open land still stretches down to the Thames. She guides us through the stench of the area, from the small local industries to the mighty London docks, where live cattle are loaded on to ships bound for America. 

Summerscale brings is the brief testimonies of many involved in the awful event: the boy’s teachers, the pawnbroker, the family friends and Liverpool aunt, and we are introduced to the schools & institutions the boys occasionally attended. We half-meet the father, who hears of his sons arrests when he is docked in America but who cannot afford to abandon his work-passage back, and half-imagine what life the brothers led in the shadow of their excitable but apparently violent mother.

The press and public were particularly strident about the stack of a type of sensational magazine, known as Penny Bloods or Penny Dreadfuls, found in the house. 

The Bloods fascinated Robert, and his indulgence in tales of vicious crimes and bold and often lawless adventure proved, for some, further evidence of the dangers of encouraging literacy in the working classes.

Later in the book, there is a closer analysis of such narratives, comparing these rough tales with the type of boy's adventure stories told in more respected books. In many way, the traits admired in the heroic protagonists are similar, except perhaps for their class in society - and the cost of the books themselves. 

The two brothers certainly seem strange boys, but Nattie is judged too young to be guilty and called to give witness to his older brother’s crime. Robert’s behaviour in the dock is noted as odd – laughing, grimacing, unaware – and there are comments about the navy blazer edged with gold cord that he wears. The Coombes were a family that wanted to look respectable to other eyes.

What punishment would fit Robert's crime? Gradually light seeped through this grim situation, confounding my preconceptions. Robert is eventually judged too young to hang; he becomes the youngest inmate in an institution that can make press headlines even to this day. In September 1895, Robert entered Broadmoor, a fortified criminal metal asylum in Berkshire.

However, the asylum, especially Block 2 where Robert is placed after his admission period, is humane, built in "a pastoral setting . . that recalled "a lost innocence. . . both gaol and sanctuary". There is an orderly, kindly regime. Robert is taught tailoring, but reading books, playing musical instruments and work in the gardens are part of the experience and too. This calm but strict benevolence was totally at odds with what my ignorance was expecting and were a highlight - in many ways - of the book.

After seventeen years, in March 1912, Robert was released to the care of the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh in Essex, and then sent to Australia. The era of transportation is over, but the young country still needs to be populated, even by persons advised to make a new life. 

By this point in The Wicked Boy, I was reading hopefully. Many of the changes that marked the end of the 19th century had won through: universal education as a right, the formation of the NSPCC and banning of cruelty to children, a growth in understanding of madness, the treatment of prisoners and a belief in rehabilitation. Even if never perfectly practiced, some aspects of society had changed: the book was more than Robert’s story. It felt as if the Victorian’s better belief in “good works” had won through.

However, if one believes crime calls for karmic punishment, it arrives when Australia’s men sign up to fight for the mother country. Robert, an able musician, becomes a military bandsman, a role that sounds almost safe until one knows that bandsmen acted as the army’s unarmed stretcher-bearers, carrying the wounded and the dying through the field of battle. Robert Coombes survives the heat and disaster of the retreat at Gallipolli and goes on to endure the dreadful mud of Paschendale. 

Although WWI seems familiar history, this section had a particular poignancy. Robert, the child who relished the bold and bloody yarns of those “Penny Dreadfuls” and imagined the drama of a childhood adventure, became, in a sorrowful way, the brave and stalwart hero he had once admired. 

By now, I felt the book well worth a patient reading.

Then, just as the long account seems to be settling into a calm ending, Summerscale uncovers more: an unexpected ending which I will not spoil here, other than to say that, in a quiet way, it seems to vindicate the wisdom of those who treated the child Robert Coombes with kindness. Despite my earlier anxiety, THE WICKED BOY became a largely positive story, even though many of the arguments and complaints are still easily raised to this day. 

It feels a book I need to return to, but right now, with the book closed, I keep thinking about a moment from the trial.  

Was it the gold braid around young Robert Coombe’s neat navy blazer that swayed judgement at the trial?  

If the Wicked Boy had not looked so noticeably keen to be clean and respectable, would his story have been different? And his life shorter? 

And are such prejudices still there in public perceptions of young offenders now?

Penny Dolan