Saturday, 10 October 2015

Saint Dimitri the Myrrh Gusher – Michelle Lovric

 When you look up the hours of your local ufficio postale in Italy, the website will tell you which date it is closed annually for its particular saint’s feast day. Each post office has its own patron saint, so you had better know your local santo patrono and plan against sending anything urgent off on his or her birthday.

Probably somewhere in Italy, there is a post office for Saint Dimitri, in whom I recently developed a passionate interest. By coincidence, his feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is October 8th, my own birthday.

But my current interest in Saint Dimitri started with this painting on Ebay.

It caught my attention, as it was from Serbia, as is one half of me. (In the Serbian Orthodox Church, Dimitri’s feast day is November 8th).

I loved the prancingness of the horse, the gentle naivety of the saint and the vileness of the villain Saint Dimitri is impaling. It reminded me of the way that another militant saint, George, always skewers the dragon. Indeed the two are sometimes paired in art, and both were patron saints of the crusades.

Saint Dimitri (or Dimitrios, or Demetrios) was born to wealthy Christian parents in Thessaloniki in around 270 A.D. He rose to high office in the army, but he fell foul of the persecutions of Diocletian. Convicted of preaching Christian doctrine, he was speared to death in around 306A.D.
Lyaeos vanquished

Another version of this story is that Dimitri successfully prayed for a young Christian, Nestor, to defeat Lyaeos in single combat. Dimitri was betrayed, and so ended up martyred himself.

His servant Lupus was also beheaded when he used relics of his master – a signet ring and a bloodstained tunic – to perform various miracles.

The body of Dimitri itself was interred by Christian followers and in the seventh century his tomb began to secrete copious flows of fragrant myrrh, which is how he acquired his Orthodox epithet Mirovlitis, the Myrrh Gusher
But his spirit continued to protect his native city of Thessaloniki with miraculous interventions to beat off attackers and besiegers in the form of Slavs, Arabs and Saracens. In some depictions, like this one, he is shown on a dark horse spearing the gladiator Lyaeos, a fearsome killer of many Christians.

I sent the picture to my father, who was born in Belgrade, to ask him what he thought.

My father Vladimir is an eminent haematologist, a lover of music, a great fisherman and the man who gave me a taste for black humour and the fiction gene. We still talk about books several times a week, and it was he who sent me to writers I would otherwise not have found such as Simon Rich and Ned Beauman. And I gave him the heads up on Sandra Newman and Donna Tartt.

 I also turn to my father for forensic assistance when I need to murder someone (in a novel).

And he’s of course all good value for anything Balkan.
With Saint Dimitri, my father was enormously helpful, problematizing the painting in a way that made it even more attractive for me. ‘As you know,’ he emailed, ‘the painting is dated 1899. However, the script, whilst Cyrillic, is not in the current phonetic script that was introduced into Serbia in about 1840 by Vuk (the wolf) Karadzic. The script is in the old Serbian Cyrillic (close to current Russian script), so that I have difficulties in understanding all details, other than it was painted by a Lazar Tchoich (I have anglicised the surname).’

My father and I concluded that this was a faithful copy of a much earlier icon. 

What is the value of a copy? If the painting is faithful to the extent that it retains the charm and freshness of the original, and is painted by the hand of an artist – is it not a worthy work? Can an anachronism not be a thing of beauty, when it traps disparate fragments of cultural history like the wings of different vintages of bees and flies in amber? 

Of course the work of painting icons is in itself a sacred practice, and this is why an icon from 1899 can easily look like one from 1599.

The more time I spent thinking about Saint Dimitri, the more I wanted him.

And so, reader, as you can guess, I acquired him, and he sits well among my collection of mutilated polychrome saints.

 Even the cat likes him.

Michelle Lovric's website

Friday, 9 October 2015

Mudlarks on the Foreshore by Caroline Lawrence

FORESHORE - the part of a shore between high- and low- water marks, or between the water and cultivated or developed land.

MUDLARK - a person who scavenges in river mud for objects of value

NOTICE: Aimed at young archaeologists, on this walk you'll discover the archaeology of the waterfront from its Roman origins to the Victorian period, with Museum of London Archaeology specialists - pick up artefacts and have them identified by the experts! Walk leaders: Alan Pipe & Nigel Jeffries of Thames Discovery. Meeting Point: Stairs below north end of the Millennium Bridge, Paul's Walk, EC4 

Last month I met twenty other adults and children at Trig Lane near the Millennium Bridge for an hour long guided wander on the foreshore of the Thames. After a short introduction by Alan Pipe and Nigel Jeffries of Thames Discovery, Museum of London, we went carefully down narrow concrete stairs to the foreshore.

I have lived in London nearly forty years and in a riverside flat for the past fifteen but this was my first time on the foreshore. I am astounded to see the amount of archaeological debris covering the shore. Alan and Nigel hand out plastic gloves to protect our hands from Rat Urine Disease and plastic bags to put our finds in. British law says you can keep anything you find, spotted 'eyes only'.

'Although the Thames foreshore is an amorphous splurge because of the churning and the tides,' explains Nigel, the medieval expert, 'there are lots of different interesting strands of evidence that you can tease out of it…' So let's tease out some strands:

1. The first strand is rocks and stones. London has no stone to speak of, mainly clay, sand and gravel, but you can still see chunks of imported Kentish ragstone, worked and unworked gemstones (!) and heating stones, used for boiling water but only re-usable a few times before they crack and have to be thrown out. You can find imported chalk and also flint, prehistoric man's favourite material for make tools.
STAR STONE OBJECT: a complete Neolithic flint scraper found by an American teenage student on the foreshore in front of the Tower of London on one of these Thames Discovery walks at the beginning of this summer (2015).

2. The second strand of finds are metal tools and artefacts. Of course the famous Battersea Shield and Waterloo Shield (now on show at the British Museum Celts Exhibition) were both found in the Thames, but a mudlark can find lots of other goodies. These include bronze brooches, iron nails, gold thimbles, brass Hindu river tokens, gold rings, brass parts of Victorian oil-lamps, Medieval shoe buckles, lead cloth seals from the 17th century and many different types of coins.
STAR METAL OBJECT: set of car keys (above), possibly from a Vauxhall Cavalier

3. Glass. Lots of glass fragments but also whole items including marbles. Nigel once found bottles of wine with corks and Madeira wine still in them.
STAR GLASS OBJECT: trade beads like the ones used to buy Manhattan. (Found on previous occasions)

4. Pottery. Alan tells us that the most common type of pottery is a plain white glazed material used for chamberpots, bowls, plates, etc. They are mainly British made from Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire from the late 18th and early 19th century. You also find loads of pieces of pottery coloured by the transfer method. Chinese style prints popular imitating much more expensive Chinese imports. You get mass-produced 20th century pottery but can also find much much older pieces including late-medieval and even Roman.
STAR POTTERY OBJECT: Victorian fragment in blue and white

5. Bones. Unlike pottery, which can be dated by ornamentation, type of clay and manufacturer's marks, bone does not reveal much about its provenance. Pieces of bone could come from anywhere. But bones can tell us what species are being consumed and which parts of them are popular. 'What you're seeing here,' says bone-expert Alan Pipe, 'is a snapshot over centuries of waste disposal arising from consumption of animal and bird species that people still eat. Some of is personal consumption for meals,  a lot of it is coming from butchery waste from butchers' shops where carcasses are being prepared and a little of it will be coming from further back in the process where the animals are being slaughtered and then their carcasses being trimmed before they go to be butchered and then consumed.' But some of the bones are from non-edible animals like dogs, cats and horses. What did you do when a domestic animal died? You threw it in the Thames. We have even found human bones. 

'Many of the bones we find on the foreshore have be modified in some way, either by saw cuts or by cleaver cuts or by knife cuts. This reflects the way the carcasses were cut up to produce manageable joints for cooking. That kind of technology changes over time and location.' Other tool marks are not necessarily linked to butchery. One shoulder blade of a young calf shows a hole where it was hung on a butcher's hook. In the days before plastic, bone was worked to make buttons, dominoes, inlays and knife handles. 
STAR BONE OBJECT: A bone hairpin from the Roman era showing a woman with a Flavian hairdo. (Found a few years ago and now on display in the Museum of London.)

6. Shells. You see masses of oyster shells on the beach. You might also find mussels, cockles, winkles and whelks, but they are not as common as oysters. This is because for centuries oysters were poor people's food and even street food. 'It's only when you get well into the 1800's with the buildup of pollution contaminating the oyster beds around the estuary that oysters started to become rarer and more expensive.' A piece of shell from a Chinese mitten crab (so-called because of mitten like claws) shows us how the ecology of the river is changing. This freshwater species was an accidental introduction into Western Europe and Britain, probably reaching England in ballast tanks on ships. They are a burrowing species and can cause riverbanks to collapse. You would not have seen them before the 1920s, but now they are established.
STAR SHELL OBJECT: A piece of abalone shell, possibly from California.

7. Clay pipes. There are so many of these that they deserve their own strand. We all know Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to England but did you know that it was first used medicinally? And that the millions of white clay pipes are modelled on wooden versions used by Native Americans?
STAR CLAY PIPE: A so-called fairy pipe spotted on the London Mudlark Facebook page which tells you that If you're looking for one of the really early tobacco pipes, this is the size you're looking for - small because tobacco was expensive when it was first imported at the end of the 16th century. It also explains whey they are also known as 'fairy pipes.'

The London Mudlark Facebook page also sets down some rules and guidelines for Mudlarking, including: Anything made of precious metal (gold or silver) and over 300 years old (not including coins unless they are found in a hoard) must by law be reported as Treasure Trove. It will then be assessed by the coroner and offered to various museums who have the right to buy it. If they choose to buy it the finder gets half the value and the land owner will get the other half. The process can take a while, sometimes years*… And: You can collect surface finds, spotted eyes only without a license.

Happy Mudlarking!

*Read the exact terms of Treasure Trove HERE.

Caroline Lawrence is currently working on a series of books for kids set in Roman Britain including Londinium. The Roman Quests 1: Escape from Rome is out May 2016. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Caravan of Stoats and Confusion of Weasels by Karen Maitland

Living in a country Devon village brings some unexpected delights. Last week, I stepped out of my
English Stoat. Photographer: Kevin Law, Los Angeles, USA.
front door to find an adult stoat and four plump, sleek little kits scampering through my porch on their way to the hedge. They were so close to me that the babies were actually leaping over my feet. Having reached the hedge, one of youngsters came bounding back and sat up on its hind legs, staring at me from its bright eyes with as much curiosity as I was watching it. Then it joined its siblings who decided to play hide and seek around the plant pots. I was enchanted by the encounter, but in the past, stoats and weasels were considered vermin and ruthlessly hunted down not just for their valuable pelts, but to protect livestock.

In medieval times, Dartmoor in Devon was covered with man-made warrens. A warren was originally area set aside for breeding game such as pheasant, partridge and hares. But the word came to be used for a place where artificial rabbit burrows were created by piling stones and earth over trenches to form pillow mounds in which rabbits could be bred for meat and fur. The rabbits were kept in these warrens by walls and by diverting streams to form moats, but that did not deter stoats and weasels.
Medieval women use a net and ferret to take
rabbits from a man-made warren.

So on Dartmoor you will often see dry stone walls built in an X pattern, which often puzzles visitors as they don’t seem to enclose anything. These were stoat and weasel traps. In the center of the X was a hollow chamber formed by a stone slab set into the ground with long stones forming the sides and top. It had gap in the front, with flat piece of slate hanging above, suspended vertically from poles. In open moorland, the stoat or weasel would instinctively head for the wall and dive into the inviting hole. Once inside it would trip a cord or wire on the stone floor causing the slate to slide down between two stones, sealing the chamber and trapping the creature.

Rabbit warrening continued for centuries on Dartmoor and only started to decline after 1891, when terrible blizzard killed thousands of rabbits and in 1954 myxomatosis wiped out the rest. But you can still see the pillow mounds covered by a coarse grass and the remains of the stone-wall vermin traps all over the moor.
Pillow Mound - remains of ancient warren on Dartmoor
Photographer: Graham Horn

From medieval times, stoats and weasels were considered animals of ill-omen. Their bad press continued into modern times, not helped by Kenneth Graham in his wonderful story "The Wind in the Willows" where the delinquent stoats and weasels became squatters in Toad Hall and threw wild parties, thoroughly disturbing the neighborhood.

In Medieval and Tudor times, evil spirits and witches were said to transform themselves into weasels. In Dorset it was said you could never catch hold of a weasel, assuming you were foolish enough to try, because it would change into one of the faery folk and vanish. If a weasel crossed your path left to right, it was bad omen and even worse if it crossed right to left for then it foretold death. But in Wales, a weasel crossing right to left, was a warning that person had enemies in his own home.

If a weasel runs ahead in front of someone setting out on a journey, but then turns back, it is a warning the traveller should turn back. But in Wales if it runs ahead of the traveler, that is taken as a good omen, meaning he will conquer his enemies, so Welsh armies must have looked eagerly for that sign. But seeing a ghost weasel, especially a white one, was never a good sign anywhere.

Having stoat cross your path at the start of a journey was, like the weasel, a bad omen, but if you greeted the stoat as a friend, you could turn the bad luck to good. The Irish believed that stoats held funerals for their dead and they were thought collect and care for the souls of human infants who died before baptism.

In the Middle Ages, weasels and stoats were a symbol of cunning, as they were believed to hide their offspring in a different place each night. Before hunting a snake, they would eat the plant Rue, which was called “Herb of Grace”, if you collected it before 12 noon, because Herb of Grace was thought to be the antidote to the poison of any venomous creature. Stoats and weasels were said to be such skilful physicians, that if their own offspring were killed they could bring them to life again, if they could touch their bodies. But stoat saliva was thought to be lethal to humans.

The weasel was the only creature that could kill the mythical medieval beast the basilisk, whose stench alone could kill man. Medieval pilgrims en route to the Holy Land were advised to buy or hire a cage containing a weasel or cockerel (whose cry would drive away the basilisk) before venturing into the desert, which have a been a good way to fleece extra money from the pilgrims.
A weasel attacking the deadly basilisk.
The weasel appears to be wearing a garland of rue.

Stoats and weasels were thought to conceive through the mouth and give birth through the ear or vis versa depending on the source. This belief may have originated from the ancient Greeks, in a story recorded by Ovid. When Alcmena, mother of Hercules was having trouble giving birth to him, the goddess Juno sent Lucina, goddess of child-birth to impede the birth still further. Lucina, disguised as an old woman, sat in the front of the door holding her own knees closed with locked fingers. A maid, Galanthis, suspected what was happening and lied to the goddess saying the child had just been born. The goddess relaxed her grip, and as she did so, Hercules was born. In a fury, Lucina turned the maid into either a weasel or a stoat with the curse that she would give birth through her ear, because had deceived the goddess with false words through her ear. And, of course, we use the expression “weasel words” to mean deception.

In fact some medieval Christian theologians, such as St Augustine and St Thomas Becket maintained that the Virgin Mary had conceived through her ear, because that is where the words of the angel’s mouth had entered Mary. Therefore it was through her ear that the “word was made flesh”.

My favourite weasel story is about the shrine of St Cuthbert. In the 11th Century the saint appeared in
The discovery of the incorrupt
body of St Cuthbert.
a vision complaining that a weasel was disturbing his rest in Durham. The abbey was searched and eventually, they discovered a weasel had slipped through a tiny hole into the very tomb St Cuthbert, where she’d given birth to young inside the coffin. The shrine-keeper furious at this desecration, tried to kill the little family, but St Cuthbert’s spirit stopped him and the keeper discovered that the saint’s gentleness had rubbed off on the weasel, for she made no attempt to bite him, but nestled into his hand allowing all around to stroke her and marvel at the beauty of the little creature and her young.

I don’t know what my medieval forbears would have made of a pack of four baby stoats playing on my threshold, but for me it was a moment of pure joy and that has to be a good omen.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015


This is the faccade of a part of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Almost the first thing I did when we moved to this city in 2010 was to join the Friends of the Fitzwilliam. The museum is known as 'a collection of collections' and anyone who's ever been there will know that it's a huge depository of all things interesting and beautiful.

The Museum puts on very good  exhibitions. TREASURED POSSESSIONS was recently a great favourite with all who visited and I've loved Edmund de Waal ceramics, water colours, art from China and Japan and many, many other shows. 

The Friends are a wonderful organisation. I'm told that the Fitzwilliam was the first museum to have such a group attached to it and that it was founded in 1909. I had a reason for joining quite separate from supporting my local museum.  The Friends regularly take trips to great stately homes and other interesting places and because I don't drive, I'm always happy to join these outings. I've seen some glorious places over the last five years.

But as well as jaunts and outings, the Fitz does a great job of putting on workshops for the general public, including children and also lays on Study mornings for the Friends from time to time. I couldn't resist the poster advertising the Flowers and Fans study morning in June and it turned out to be a most enjoyable and fascinating occasion.

First things first: coffee and refreshments in the Meeting Room, provided by the Friends' committee. Here are two photos, which don't show the lively chat and friendly faces of the people attending.

On the morning we were there, the Museum had taken delivery of a boxes and boxes of 18th and 19th century fans, sent from Christie's the auction house. We weren't allowed to take photos of those because they were so new that they hadn't even been 'checked in' so to speak. It was a privilege to hear Vicky, Eleanor and Amy telling us about them and the photos you see of fans here are from the permanent collection, taken later on after the Study Morning was over. I've put them in  mainly as decoration to break up the text,  and didn't even take down details of their provenance.

I've adored fans from a very early age. I can remember folding pieces of paper into a kind of concertina to make a rudimentary fan of my own, but real fans, fans made of ivory or feathers or silk painted with flowers were a part of my childhood. My mother liked fans and had a few which I was allowed to play with when I dressed up. I suspect that the ones I was enjoying were past their best.

Fans were at their most fashionable during the 18th century. French Huguenot fan makers came over to London and flourished there. Ladies in England took to them with great gusto and there was a huge variety of patterns and pictures to choose from. The Language of Fans is well known. Joseph Addison,  founder of the Spectator magazine, wrote "Women are armed with fans as men with swords and sometimes do more execution with them." 

There was a huge variety of decorations available to the fan designer. Flowers, Chinoiserie, figures from mythology: anything that could be depicted on a fan was depicted. Some of the ornamentation was quite risqué. One that had been unpacked on the morning we were there was printed all over with verses.  It was called The Ladies' Bill of Fare and described the various men you could hope to snare. I wrote down one  of the quatrains:

"To plague and please all womankind
Here's gallants sure aplenty.
Chuse then a beau to suit your mind
Or change till one content ye!"

After the fans, we went through the Museum and into one of the back rooms; the kind of place which is so fascinating to be in that the things you're looking at are only part of the fun. Again, we weren't allowed to photograph anything, but imagine a room with many windows and rows and rows of display drawers and books and files, which have to be taken out in order to be viewed. We were looking at the flower paintings in the collection and all I have in my notebook now is the names of the artists. Some, like Redouté are well-known and many more are less famous: Jean Baptiste Pillement, Maria Sybilla Merian,  Antoine de Pinet, Bosschaert, Mary Moser and many others.  Henry Broughton, Lord Fairhaven was an important collector of flower drawings and paintings and his collection is here in  the Fitzwilliam. Here is a painting (not in the Fitzwilliam)  by Bosschaert: 

The Cambridge Botanic Gardens are just up the road from the Fitzwilliam and those are full of beautiful plants and flowers. Here was an echo of  the natural world.  In this room we found a garden on paper, held in albums so that the colour of each bloom is preserved in the best possible conditions.  Flower painting was an art that very many young ladies took up as a hobby and this is one reason why there are so many accomplished paintings of this kind.

The Fitzwilliam Museum is a real treasure house and I do urge anyone who is within easy reach of Cambridge to come and visit. You are sure to find a collection among the collections which will suit you.  There really is something for everyone within its walls.  It's shut on Mondays but any other day it makes a terrific place to visit. And though you won't get Friends' brownies when you visit, the Café  and shop are both superb.

I had a notebook with me that day and I'm going to end with a quotation I wrote down carelessly without recording the name of the person who wrote it.  I don't know exactly why I love this so much, but I do, so these are the words I will leave you with. 
"La couleur bleu n'existe que dans la tête du peintre." (The colour blue only exists in the painter's head.) 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Slang Trap by Lydia Syson

What a terrible temptation for the historical novelist they are, those dictionaries of slang, enticing you seductively into worlds of rattling mumpers and snappish slubber-degullions. Hundreds have appeared over the centuries, rich mines of the most exhilarating treasures, the fantastic vocabulary of vagabonds and whores, sailors and thieves, mollies and swagmen, the language of canting crew and flashmen all there for the prigging. Sparkling lexical diamonds leap off the page at you, claiming vim and authenticity, begging to be borrowed. Surely they’re the salt and pepper of dialogue? Where else can we better hear the vulgar tongues of times past calling us loud and true? How endlessly beguiling they are. . .books like Hobson-Jobson (beloved of Rushdie, Stoppard and, surely, Amitav Ghosh) and the works of Francis Grose and Pierce Egan, which echo through the Newgate Novelists of the 1830s and straight into the gutter-speech of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite.

Pierce Egan, Real Life in London, Vol 1 (1821)
University of Leicester, Special Collections 

If only it were that easy. Last week, I was in pursuit of an actual copy of Passing English of the Victorian, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase. I’d already found it at the Internet Archive, but intrigued by the wealth of sources – D. cls (Dangerous Classes), Mus. Hall (Music Hall), Society, Stock Exchange, Theatrical … I hoped, if possible, to flick through paper rather than digital pages. The very first entry is A.D., an abreviation which you might once have found on a ballroom programme. It means ‘A Drink’, but one young lady, looking flirtatiously over a potential partner’s shoulder, could easily imagine that he is already engaged to another for that particular waltz. Towards the end of the same dictionary comes ‘Word-mongering’ – an expression apparently used by the press in 1878 ‘in critical scorn’ signifying ‘redundancy of description’. A danger indeed. Nothing in this particular dictionary is remotely relevant to the book I’m working on right now, and there was no ‘hard copy’ to be found there, but still the Philology, Slang shelves of the London Library had me hooked. 

From amongst dictionaries of Polari, Austral English, seafaring speak, Robert Graves’ essay on the future of swearing and a hilarious reprint of a genuine phrasebook of English as she is spoke, a sort of 19th century version of Google Translate compiled by a Portuguese educational entrepreneur who was clearly translating literally from French, I pulled out Julie Coleman’s magisterial A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries (OUP). The scales – of course – fell from my eyes.

‘‘The history of British cant and slang lexicography is long and frequently disreputable…Literary critics and historians seize upon them for background information, often without reference to the unreliability of their contents. Playwrights, poets, novelists, and film-makers turn to them for lively contemporary or period dialogue, equally unsuspecting that the word-lists might not be all they seem,” writes Coleman. Over four fascinating volumes, she teases out the knots in this ‘tangled tradition’, exposing the cheats and pilferers of the world of lexicography, rapping the knuckles of the undisciplined and unscholarly, and those who fail to take sufficient account of the complex social contexts in which real language presents itself.

Caveats abound. The father of canting lexicography turns out to be a man called Thomas Harman, who published a short glossary of beggars’ language in 1567 called Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors: “Here I set before the good reader the lewd, lousy language of these loitering lusks and lazy lorels, wherewith they buy and sell the common people as they pass through the country.”  His plan was to rid the land of its undeserving poor by exposing the tricks and disguises of England’s rogues and beggars. 
John Camden Hotten's Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words
 goes one better and offers a map of cant symbols. His publishing house became Chatto and Windus.

Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries glossaries, word-lists, and catalogues of slang from cant to flash multiplied. Their authors seemed to prig from each other as much as they did from the streets, back-alleys and gambling dens. By the mid-nineteenth century, Coleman finds attitudes had changed: ‘No longer menacing and thrilling glimpses of an exciting underworld, slang terms were just the vulgar, obscene, and profane effusions of the uneducated. They might provide a brief diversion, but those who sought respectability should steer clear of their contaminating influence.’ Later word-collectors betray a sense that they're recording an unwritten language just before it dies, or trying to preserve a time rather more adventurous and colourful than the present. Volume 3 covers 1859-1936, finishing just before the publication of Eric Partridge’s game-changing Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Gems of this era include collections of American jazz-jargon from the ‘30s (The ‘Slanguage’ of Swing-terms the ‘Cats’ Use), Jewellery Auction Jargon from the 20s* and Die Männliche Homosexualität in England (1910) by Leo Pavia, the German translator of Oscar Wilde.  As Coleman points out, you can see who and what was deemed interesting and worth recording at any cultural moment: there’s glamour and romance in gangsters, hoboes, first world war soldiers and even college boys, but was anyone taking note of the slang of schoolgirls or shift-workers or indeed insurance salesmen? 

I'm warier now, though also more addicted. What writer doesn't love encountering new words, and I've always been a sucker for the mystique of specialism - even chandlery shops excite me.  When I was writing That Burning Summer  I thoroughly enjoyed discovering exactly the right RAF slang a Polish pilot would have had to learn during the Battle of Britain (not to mention the fact that all the controls on British fighter planes were on the opposite side to Polish ones). And of course I'm all for accuracy and authenticity. But as a reader, if I start feeling an author has swallowed a (slang) dictionary, I'm quickly alienated. It's a very fine balance.  After this philological day, I went to the National Theatre’s new production of Our Country’s Good, a play I’d been wanting to see for several decades. Its themes remain horribly, depressingly relevant. One character, the erudite British Jew John Wisehammer convincingly loves (respectable) words with a passion, having learned them from his father’s dictionary (though only A-L). Liz Morden’s monologue accounting for her descent into crime sounds plucked from the pages of any lexicon of the canting crew. The effect is more flattening than vivifying. Historical novelists, beware.

*Here's a sample of its obscurity: “Prat-the-shill – a verb phrase, giving an order to ‘shillabers’ to step to the rear of the ‘come-ons’. Its meaning is different from its connotation.” Baffling. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Berlin, Summer of 1945 - Joan Lennon

Of course I knew that Berlin was heavily bombed during WWII. I knew it as a series of facts - X many air raids, Y many tons of explosives dropped, Z many deaths. But it was this video of the aftermath, filmed under a blue sky, on a bright sunny day in the summer of 1945, that made it real for me in a completely different way.  In the description of the video are the bare words: "Daily life after years of war."  There's nothing I can add to that.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Merlin's isle of Gramarye - by Katherine Langrish

See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip's fleet!

So begins 'Puck's Song' from Rudyard Kipling's love-song to England, 'Puck of Pook's Hill'. Enchanted by the Sussex countryside which was to him - born and bred in India - both home and 'strange', the stories in this classic children's book explore the layers of history which lie deep as leaf-mould in every part of this ancient land.

A few years ago a Saxon brooch was found only a mile or so from where I live in Oxfordshire. I saw it the same day it was taken out of the ground, and you can see it both as it was then, and after restoration, at this link.

This is what I wrote about it at the time:

I took a brisk walk out this morning to the Anglo-Saxon grave.

It was only discovered yesterday. We were out for an afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, taking a lane that runs out of the village towards the Downs in the distance, when we realised the wide, flat fields were full of widely separated, slowly walking figures (mostly men) with bowed heads, swinging long metal detectors. Every so often one would stop and dig a little hole, pick something up, then wander on.

We started talking to some of them. One pulled out a wallet and showed us a medieval silver penny. Another had more pennies, Roman and medieval: and belt buckles: and buttons. ‘And over there,’ they all said, pointing towards the furthest field behind a belt of trees – ‘over there, that’s where they’ve found an Anglo Saxon grave!’

Everyone was alight with it. A huge gold brooch had been found, together with some bones. The police had been called immediately and had thrown a cordon around the site. In their marquee by the farm, archeologists were already examining the brooch and we headed back to look, chatting on the way to a group of three men who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at a Saxon chieftain’s burial. Big lads, with acres of tattoos. One had long black hair, another a shaved head. One wore an enormous plaited gold ring on his thick forefinger.

‘Any luck?’ we asked. They were friendly, shook their heads: ‘Nah. Only rubbish today. Here’s what we got, on this table over here, take a look if you like.’

‘If you want some, have some,’ added the black-haired man. ‘It’s rubbish. It’s all going in the bin otherwise. But have you heard about the gold brooch?’

On the table was a clutter of stuff. Bits of pottery, coins, harness buckles, buttons, crumpled tin and lead. ‘Take it! Take it all!’ exclaimed the black-haired man. He shovelled it all into a plastic container. It was heavy.

‘When you start this game,’ explained the man with the gold ring, ‘you’re really excited about a coin or two, but then you get ambitious. Tell them about that ring you found.’

‘18th century, with seven diamonds,’ said the man with the black hair.

‘We’ve all found rings, one time or another,’ said Gold Ring Man. He laughed. ‘Once you start this game, you get addicted.’

We went on down to the tent. The brooch was there on display. It was the size of a large jam-pot lid, with a white coral boss surrounded by an inlay of flat, square-cut, dark red garnets. Around that, a broad band of bright yellow gold, with four set garnets standing out from it. Then more coral. And around that, a ring of intricate filigree, now black and dirty. People pored over it, photographed it, stared at it with awe, excitement, and reverence.

‘There’ll be another one,’ the archaeologist was saying. ‘They always come in pairs.’ And he had a look at the ‘rubbish’ the big guys had let us take away. It included four Roman coins, a bit of a medieval ring brooch, some Roman pottery, a lead musket ball the size of a marble - cold and heavy in the hand - and an 18th century thimble. Just a tiny fraction of what still lies under the dusty ploughlands. 

Well, there wasn't another one.  If the Hanney Brooch ever had a twin, it hasn't been found.  However I thought you might like to see some of the stuff that Gold Ring Man and his mates were about to throw in the bin as 'rubbish'.  Here they are, laid out together rather like that awful party game of my youth where you had to remember and write down a selection of disparate objects placed on a tray. The pencil of course is there to give a sense of scale. To the bottom right is the stem of a clay pipe. I have no idea what the bronze, grooved object just above it may be, or the crushed copper thing just below the middle of the pencil. The thing below the point of the pencil is a bone with a hole in it, age unknown, and the curved bronze object to the right of the bone is part of a clip for holding down the loose end of leather belt. There is a small flower engraved upon it.

In the middle are four Roman coins to remind us, as Kipling wrote,

And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a legion's camping place
When Caesar sailed from Gaul!

 (Actually they're probably later than that. But still.) To their right is a piece of red Samian ware which suggests that somewhere around here people were dining and wining with high-status imported pottery.  Diagonally from top left to bottom right are three pieces of thick, greyish pot: these -

I'm ashamed to say I can't remember what the archeologists told us about these - whether they were Iron Age, or medieval - but how very different from the delicate Samian Ware!

Then there's a musket ball.

This fragile curve on the left is part of a medieval ring brooch, while to its right is an 18th century thimble.

And these are the cast-offs, the bits and pieces one small group of metal detectorists were going to throw away and even the archeologists weren't much interested in.  Imagine how much else came out of the ground that day!

A couple of years ago, my brother was privately involved in charting archeological remains in a large field which was being developed for housing not far from Didcot, Oxfordshire. As the topsoil was removed, the clear outlines of over ninety pits and circles appeared, along with many shards of pottery and bones. My brother took photos and even made a survey of the site. But it proved impossible to attract the interest of any professional archeologists, and the field is now a housing estate.  You can see some of the darker pits, here:

 And in close up, here:

While here are some of the pottery shards:

Sadly, we'll never know more about that particular site.

Move on to the present day, and our small village is informed of a planning application to build 600 houses in some of the fields across which those metal detectorists were doggedly plodding back in 2009.   While recognising the need for more homes, especially affordable homes for young people, 600 houses springing up on the outskirts of a tiny village (whose school is already full) is a big, big change. And I really don't know how 'affordable' those houses will be. It may be that in the end a smaller number of houses will be built.  But I'm happy to report that partly as a result of information supplied by the Hanney History Group, 82 trial trenches have just been dug in the field where the development is planned, and an archeological excavation will take place to discover just what, if anything, is really there. I nipped out a day or two back to take photos.

The truth is, dig a hole in the ground almost anywhere in England, and you're likely to turn up spadeful after spadeful of history - and houses must be built nevertheless. But important sites shouldn't be built over without any preliminary investigation.  So well done to the Hanney History Group, and I'll keep you posted as to what comes next.

See you our pastures wide and lone
Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known
Ere London boasted a house!
And see you marks that show and fade
Like shadows on the Downs?
Oh they are the lines the Flint Men made
To guard their wondrous towns!

Trackway and Camp and City lost.
Salt marsh where now is corn;
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!

She is not any common Earth,
Water or Wood or Air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare.