Thursday, 19 April 2018

Countdown to a Coup by L.J. Trafford

“Once killing starts it is difficult to draw a line.” 

So, said Tacitus about the 15th January 69AD. This was the day that Emperor Galba was overthrown by Otho. Thus giving what would be known as the year of the four emperors a very bloody start.
Galba had only been emperor since June the previous year. He’d only actually been in Rome since October 68AD. He was dead a mere three months later.

What in the Gods name had gone wrong?


On paper Galba had every credential necessary to be emperor. As Suetonius drily puts it “It would be a long story to give in detail his illustrious ancestors and the honorary inscriptions of the entire race, but I shall give a brief account of his immediate family”

Galba obtained the favour of Augustus’ wife, Livia whose influence promoted and enriched him. Caligula had made him Governor of Upper Germany, Claudius gave him the governorship of Africa and Nero bequeathed him the same position in Spain. He was illustrious enough to be considered a potential match for Nero’s mother Agrippina after she lost her husband.

At seventy-three years old he was experienced beyond all in governing an empire and had the respect of most. When Nero’s reign faltered and ultimately collapsed, Galba seemed to be the perfect step in.

As Tacitus notes “As long as he remained a subject he seemed too great a man to be one, and by common consent possessed the makings of a ruler." And then adds the kicker finish "Had he never ruled.”

Galba was a great man. He might have been a great emperor at the right time; 68/-69 AD was not that time. Right from his entry into Rome Galba wrong -footed in almost every sphere.
In more stable times his keenness to balance the books, to rebuild the machinery of government, to stamp control on the army and the Praetorian Guard might have borne fruit. Certainly, Vespasian tackled many of the same problems with not a little success.
Galba, however, suffered from the record set by his predecessor. Though Nero had not been popular with the Senate and upper classes, he was wildly so with the people of Rome and the provinces. Setting himself up as the antithesis of the popular, charming, glamorous Nero could only leave Galba noticeably lacking in Imperial qualities.

It also exposed him as a hypocrite for as he blanketed Rome in stern austerity his aids: Vinius, Laco and Icelus were busy enriching themselves. It is likely Galba was unaware of such corruption and theft from his supporters. He should have been.
As Galba selectively punished Nero’s closest lackies and attempted to claim back moneys given them, he declined to reward the Praetorian Guard who had made him emperor. It was certainly a grave error but not necessarily fatal, had it not been for the machinations of Marcus Salvius Otho.


Whereas Galba had chalked up a long, distinguished and incident free career as a public servant, Marcus Salvius Otho had obtained honours by a quite different method. After a wild youth that included that odd Roman adolescent pastime of going about the city at night beating up the populace (a favourite game of both Nero and Caligula, quite why is anyone’s guess) he aspired to a position in Nero’s court.

These youthful hobbies were clearly extravagant and notorious enough that Otho felt he couldn’t rely on a personal recommendation to secure a role at court. Instead he set about seducing an Imperial freedwoman of older years (decrepit as Suetonius not so tactfully puts it). This got him in. And when he was in he soon impressed emperor Nero (immorally according to some, by force of personality and similarity to the emperor by others, possibly a combination of the two by me).

So ‘in’ was Otho that on the infamous day Nero planned to murder his mother, Agrippina, Otho held a banquet for mother and son to deflect suspicion of the grim deed about to be enacted.

This imperial favour was not to last. The two friends comprehensively fell out over a woman: Poppaea Sabina. There was much speculation about the relationship between Otho, Poppaea and Nero. She married Otho, but was this just a favour to the emperor so that he might have easy access to the woman he desired?
Or did Otho genuinely love Poppaea and the emperor stole his wife from him?
Or was there some strange ménage a trois occurring that was wrecked by jealousy?
Whatever the truth, Otho and Poppaea divorced, Nero and Poppaea married and Otho found himself appointed governor of Lusitania (modern day Portugal).

Here Otho surprised all by being a competent Governor. Was this time away from court shenanigans the making of him? Had he finally grown into responsibility?

We shall never know. But what we do know is that Otho was one of the very first governors to side with Galba. His rush to Galba’s side indicates that his old pal Nero was clearly not forgiven for the Poppaea humiliation.

October - December 68AD
Otho travelled with the new emperor, Galba from Spain to Rome. He made a friend of Galba’s aid, Titus Vinius, perhaps using some of the charm that had won him Nero’s friendship. There was talk of cementing this friendship by way of a marriage between Vinius' daughter and Otho. Otho also set about winning the troops round:

 “Whenever he entertained the prince at dinner, he gave a gold piece to each man of the cohort on guard, and put all the soldiers under obligation in one form or another. Chosen arbiter by a man who was at law with his neighbour about a part of his estate, he bought the whole property and presented it to him. As a result there was hardly anyone who did not both think and openly declare that he alone was worthy to succeed to the empire.” Plutarch

Was this what he had wanted from the offset, to be Galba’s heir? Galba was 73, he was a widower (with a taste for sturdy, hard young men) and no children. Galba was no long time buddy of Otho’s; two more different men could scarcely be found. Galba was an old school stern patrician with an extensive career in dutiful public service. Otho was forty years his junior and had gained his governorship of a province by way of scandalously handing over his wife to Nero.
Why would Otho believe Galba would make him his heir?
Yet the sources are unanimous that he did. It is reminiscent of the adventurer spirit that had led to the younger Otho shamelessly to court a much older woman to get to Nero.
Otho was happily prepared to court the entire army, praetorian guard, city populace and Titus Vinius to get to Galba.
But of course this came at a price, a very high price. A price that Otho had no means to pay. Unless he had access to the Imperial treasury that is….

January 69AD
Galba had ignored all pressures from his advisers (Vinius heavily promoting Otho) to name an heir. He was far too busy sorting out the mess Nero had left behind. But then something suddenly changed
Coin of Galba
his mind.

News reached Rome that on 1st January the German legions had declined to offer the traditional new year oath of loyalty to the emperor Galba. They’d instead offered an oath of loyalty to their own governor Vitellius and declared him emperor.

This forced Galba’s hand. He needed to lay down a secured accession to meet this new threat.

The announcement was due to take place on 10th January.

Otho awaited with eagerness.

10th January 69AD
It was a dark and stormy day…. No really it was. Here’s Tacitus “The 10th January was an unpleasantly rainy day, abnormally disturbed by thunder, lightening and a threatening sky.”

Galba summoned his chosen heir and announced his decision.
This new Caesar was not Otho. It was a man named Piso Licinianus.

"As for Piso, those who were present at the scene and observed his voice and countenance were amazed to see him receive so great a favour without great emotion, though not without appreciation; whereas in the outward aspect of Otho there were many clear signs of the bitterness and anger with which he took the disappointment of his hopes." Plutarch

Otho had been so sure of his success, so completely and utterly convinced that Galba would name him as his heir. No doubt all those around him had been saying the same. It was a huge shock to his ego. It was also a huge shock to his creditors who'd been rubbing their hands with glee at getting their money back once Otho was Caesar.
Which put Otho in an awkward position. A position he needed to somehow escape from.

"He flatly declared that he could not keep on his feet unless he became emperor, and that it made no difference whether he fell at the hands of the enemy in battle or at those of his creditors in the Forum."

And so a plot was formed.

11th January 69AD
Otho set his freedman, Onomastus to the task. Working on the good favours Otho had already built up by personal charisma, Onomastus added further coinage and extravagant promises.

So successful was he with the soldiers that they decided they would carry Otho off immediately to their barracks and declare him emperor. But this was abandoned, according to Tacitus, because of the "difficulty of achieving coordination between men who were the worse for drink."

Which begs the question was Onomastus handing out wine skins as bribes?

12-14th January 69AD
We'll assume a lot of plotting was going on. Perhaps some charming. Maybe a bit less heavy drinking.

15th January 69AD
Dawn – Galba and a handful of notable personages, including Otho, were offering a sacrifice at a temple. The priest Umbricius examined the entrails of the sacrificial victim and declared, with a hint of drama I believe we cam assume, that "treachery hung over the emperor's head".
 Umbicius then proceeded to helpfully point to where he felt that treachery might be hanging from. His finger was directed straight at the man standing behind Galba, Otho.

There are no set rules, as far as I'm aware, as to how one ought to behave when accused by a priest in a temple full of people of high treason.
Plutarch says this was how Otho took it:
 "He stood there in confusion and with a countenance changing to all sorts of colours through fear."

There has to be some doubt as to Plutarch's version of this tale. If the prophecy was delivered so unambiguously why wasn't Otho arrested at the scene? Why was he allowed to just leave?
Leave he did, arm in arm with Onomastus to where he had been promised a force to declare him emperor

Morning - There were twenty three soldiers waiting to salute Emperor Otho. Though horrified by their lack of numbers, Otho did not back down. And anyway on the way to the praetorian barracks Tacitus says they picked up roughly the same number of soldiers. So forty six then.
Imperial palace overlooking the Forum

Whilst Otho settled into the Praetorian barracks with his forty six men news was fast reaching Galba on the Palatine Hill that something was afoot. News had also reached the general populace that something exciting was happening. They gathered outside the palace yelling death to the conspirators as if at the games.
Inside the palace Galba was caught between two courses; should he stay in the palace, arm the Imperial slaves and let this conspiracy fizzle out?
Or should they leave the palace and set to stamping it out forcefully before it could spread?

As the debate raged a messenger came with news: Otho had been murdered at the barracks by the Praetorian Guard.

Outside the palace the plebs cheered at this wonderful news. Galba buckled on his breastplate and was carried out on a chair to meet his loyal public and celebtrate the demise of the traitor.

Afternoon  - The thing was Otho wasn't dead. He was very much alive and his agents were the ones
who'd spread this very rumour with express purpose of getting Galba to leave the palace

It was a trap.

As Galba, along with heir Piso, were carried through the sea of spectators Otho ordered his (now many more than forty six) men to rush in. As the armed soldiers poured in panic ensued amongst the civilians and they hastened to evacuate the forum.

Galba found his chair bashed hither and thither. His panicked bearers dropped the chair and legged it. Galba fell to the ground. With the swords above him he bared his throat and told them to strike and be done with it. It was to be his last command as emperor.

Piso ran to safety at the nearby House of the Vestals. He was dragged out and hacked to death.

Both their heads were cut off, impaled and carried in procession about the Forum,

Forum at night
Evening - "The forum was still bloodstained and littered with bodies when Otho was carried through it to the Capitol and from there to the palace." Tacitus

Otho did not long enjoy the position he had so bloodily obtained. On reaching the palace he was given full access to the Imperial correspondence and the news that Vitellius had been made emperor by the German legions and that 70,000 men were marching to Rome to claim this throne.

Had he known that would he ever had enacted the coup of the 15th January? A sensible man would not but Otho I think we can say was an adventurer with a heavy reckless streak. Ultimately that streak was his undoing.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Cooking Up History... - Celia Rees

Cookery Books
Like many writers, I have lots of books: fiction, non fiction, biographies, books bought for research which could cover almost anything, travel books, history books, books about writing,  myths and legends. The list is endless. I have many book cases and book shelves but they are all stuffed full, so the books spill into piles: current reading, current writing projects, books I vaguely mean to read about things I vaguely mean to do. I need to get rid of some but like other writers, I find that difficult. I might need them. I know if I get rid of something, I will almost certainly have an idea which means I need to look at that very book.  Not only that, there's a deeper problem. I've had some of these books for a long time, since childhood, school, university. My own history is on those shelves.

No-where is this more apparent than on the cookery book shelves. I have a storage problem here, too. The bookcase in the kitchen which holds my collection is  jammed with spillover stacked around. Time for a cull, but once I begin to look at what's there, I feel reluctant to lose any of them. As Neil Young says: all my changes are there. Cookery books take you back to a particular time and place. Not only your own personal circumstances, but the society around you. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in a lower middle class household at a time when for most people (people like us) olive oil was sold in the chemist as a cure for ear ache, coffee came out of a bottle and spaghetti came out of a tin.
My mother was a very good cook, as her mother had been before her, but the food we ate was a plain, British cuisine. British food has been much maligned, perhaps because it is so familiar to us, or maybe because restaurant and hotel food used to do it so badly, but when it is done well, it is very good indeed. My mother could see no reason to go outside her extensive repertoire of traditional dishes. If she used a recipe book at all, it was Marguerite Patten.

As a child, I was happy enough to go along with this, I knew nothing else, but as an older teenager, I began to be aware that there were different kinds of food out there, the kind of things that people ate in books and in films. My first introduction to foreign food, as it was suspiciously termed, was Chinese. My brother took me to a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham for a Businessman's Lunch. After some initial caution, it looked so different, I tried a forkful of Chow Mein and I loved it! Deep Fried Banana - even better.  Not long after this, a boyfriend took me to an Italian restaurant in Soho. I burnt my mouth on the Cannelloni that I had chosen because I wasn't sure how to eat 'proper' spaghetti but I was determined to learn.

My first foray into 'foreign' cooking was when my brother introduced me to Vesta and a whole battery of exotic meals: Chow Mein, Risotto, Paella and Curry. I thought they were achingly sophisticated and they didn't tax my minimal (at this time) culinary skills.

My mother did not approve. She didn't object to the foreignness but she did object to almost everything else. The highly processed nature of it, all the goodness freeze dried out of it.  If my brother and I wanted to eat food like this, we would learn how to cook it together from fresh ingredients. She bought an international cookery book called something like Foods From Around the World, which to my lasting regret I no longer have, and we never looked back.

When I went away to university, this little book went with me - a gift from my mother. Wise woman, she knew the ways to a man's heart. I've had the book ever since, stained and dog-eared the pages browned and foxed. I still cook from it sometimes - there is an excellent recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork - and Goulash.

After university, I moved to Manchester and remember buying Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran's  Poor Cook in the bookshop in St Anne's Square. I forget the name of the shop but it is a Waterstones now. Manchester introduced me to different cuisines:  Italian, Greek, Mexican, Peking Chinese as well as different styles of Indian cooking. I had my first taste of Lasagna, Hummus, Moussaka, Peking Duck, Chilli Con Carne, Rogan Josh. I got the hang of eating spaghetti and mastered chopsticks. Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran not only taught me how to prepare different kinds of recipes but also told me about food, cookery and cookery writers. The ingredients were readily available: ethnic shops for vegetables and spices, hippy health food places for the beans, chick peas and lentils needed for vegetarian recipes (like those in The Cranks Recipe Book - what goes around comes around). Not every effort was a success, I remember my first attempt at Hummus had the look and consistency of quick setting cement, but I was hooked on trying different things and hooked on cookery books. I bought books on Greek Cookery, Indian Cookery, French, Italian. I discovered the great cookery writers, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson and read their books avidly. I found that a good cookery book is not just about recipes, it is about the places the recipes come from, the people who live there, what they eat and how they live. Cookery books like this make you want to travel, experience those places for yourself.

Nothing evokes the past more than a particular dish, a particular recipe and, for me, nothing conjures a time more than the book in which that recipe is to be found. From Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson through Graham Kerr, Keith Floyd and the Two Fat Ladies,  River Cafe, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to Ottolenghi and Hemsley and Hemsley, these cookery books don't just catalogue a personal culinary history, they take us from the middle of the twentieth century into the new millennia. They chart changes in what we eat, and how we live. The market follows taste and demand. What was once a rarity is now readily available in any supermarket. One day, Ottolenghi and zahtah will mark a point in our history as clearly as Marguerite Patten and Camp coffee. That's why I can't get rid of my old cookery books. No matter how old they are, or what kind of state they are in, they speak of time and place and what the world was like then.

Celia Rees

Tuesday, 17 April 2018


“The Library was connected with the public wash-house by the municipal fumigation rooms, where books could be disinfected after an outbreak of disease and old clothes could be boiled for redistribution to the needy.”
This brisk description immediately captured a time when Public Libraries – as opposed to Subscription Libraries - were seen as slightly dangerous places and when books, borrowed by the great unknown public, were once objects of suspicion and possible infection in themselves and not just a worrying way of spreading ideas to the poorer classes. I recall a time when children’s hands and nails were inspected before they were allowed a ticket to borrow books from the library, though that continued much later than the setting of this book.

The description above comes from a delight of a novel and a treat of a novelist. THE GATE OF ANGELS, set in 1912, is a work of historical fiction. The author, as I’m sure many of you will know, is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the novel published in 1990. My weak excuse for not having reading her work before is that we share the same first name, which is hardly evidence of a sound critical judgement on my part. In mitigation, Penelope, with all its weight of marital fidelity, is a terrible imposition on a child.

Fortunately, THE GATE OF ANGELS surfaced from a pile of dusty paperbacks at about the same moment the title was praised somewhere else. Thank you, revered reader! So I set the battered second-hand copy (“brought to me by Woman’s Journal”) by my bedside. That night I opened the pages and read myself into an unimaginably violent gale, bringing havoc to Cambridge: colleges, townsfolk and landscape alike.

What a wonderfully brisk and compact piece of writing it is, sharp as the East Anglian wind. The tightly witty prose carries a strong sense of the author’s voice and a world-sharpened understanding. 

She does not offer history as a sentimental or stirring recreation but writes with an observant, lively bustle, choosing a moment when all manner of social relationships, newly proposed scientific theories and religious beliefs were there to be questioned.

The characters, young and old, feel the drive of the new era that is underway, welcome or unwelcome: there are aged academics within the College of St Angelus and elsewhere keen to preserve ancient, pointless traditions and idle young men caught by curious rulings of the Disobligers Society and forced to argue for subjects they do not believe. Indeed, the whole novel seems filled with questioning people, Fitzgerald delights, too, in pointing out the small absurdities and trials of human living:
“The fire was banked up like a furnace, dividing the room into dismaying areas of heat and cold. . . .The college had never been thoroughly dried out since its foundation, but Fred, who had been brought up in a rectory, saw no reason to complain.” I do so enjoy that use of  “dismaying.”

The plot is about a romance that strikes Fred Fairly, a brilliant young physicist and Fellow of the all-male St Angelicus College in the middle of his anxieties about the great debates about science, mathematical certainty and philosophy of that time. Fred’s life is clearly one of upper-middle class privilege, although his sisters nicely conspire to keep him in his place. There is a wonderful scene near the start where Fred returns home to his father Rectory, only to be greeted by a roomful of women – his mother, siblings and the housekeeper – too busy to pay him any attention because they are all sewing suffragette banners for a next march.

Fitzgerald may have inherited a sense of that time as she was born in 1916 and grew up in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lincoln. Her mother, an Archbishop’s daughter, was one of the first women students at Oxford and her father was editor of Punch. The famous Knox brothers: the theologian and crime writer Ronald Knox, the cryptographer Dilwyn Knox and the biblical scholar Wilfrid Knox – were her uncles and also the subject of one of her biographies.

At the start of THE GATE OF ANGELS, the amiable Fred has lost his Christian faith; he is also rather lonely while knowing that, by the terms of his Fellowship, he is forbidden from marrying, particularly women of an unsuitable nature. Quiet moments of humour illuminate his bleak bachelor life. Fitzgerald reminds us that, being brought up in a Rectory, Fred can withstand the lack of heating within the dank, damp Saint Angelus. Fred endures.
However, as he cycles up a country road, a horse and cart charge out from a farm drive and two – or was it three? – cyclists collide with the vehicle. 

Due to a misunderstanding, the unconscious Fred Fairly and the bold and practical heroine, Daisy Saunders – also unconscious - are lain down close together in the same room. Waking so physically close to this warmly attractive young woman, Fred is overcome with love and tenderness: how can he not dream of marrying her? 

A courtship of a kind begins, with Daisy very much a forthright thinker:
“Fred, quite honestly, did you never take a girl out before?” said Daisy.
He seemed to find this difficult but only for a few moments. “I’ve never taken a girl out I’ve wanted to marry before.”
“She mayn’t have known that though,”said Daisy.

Alongside, the reader hears the story of Daisy’s life and her hand-to-mouth childhood, flitting with her ailing mother through the mean terraces of South London. She is definitely not of Fred’s social class. Orphaned at sixteen, Daisy has tried to find and keep clerical jobs, despite horrid yet understated male harassment. Despite all this, Daisy’s energy and confidence are bracing; one is cheered by her practical, pragmatic and rational self and feels for her when, having reached the status of a nursing student, things go awry.

In Fitzgerald’s world, I suspect things often go awry. Although the couple enjoy a short relationship, that third cyclist’s disappearance leads to local rumours, to donnish tales of ghostly haunting, and on to word of a concealed murder and finally a full-scale investigation of witnesses and an uncovering of a very awkward truth for Daisy and poor Fred.

Even so, just as all seems collapsed into catastrophe, Fitzgerald ends the novel with a moment of hope: just a glimpse of brightness rather than any confirmation, a small optimism that breaks out despite all one expects, and typical of the mix of dark and light that made this novel so very different and such an unexpected surprise.

THE GATE OF ANGELS is the third of what are considered Fitzgerald’s four history novels. I have looked at descriptions of the other three novels. The first, INNOCENCE, is set in Florence in 1950, is a romance between an impoverished aristocrat’s daughter and a doctor from a communist family and introduces the Italian Marxist Grammaci. The second, THE BEGINNING OF SPRING, is set in 1913 and describes the world just before the Russian revolution through the struggles of a British businessman and his family living in Moscow. Her fourth and final historical novel, THE BLUE FLOWER, was published in 1955, and is about Novalis, an 18C German poet and his love for an odd child; the poet Goethe and philosopher Schlegel also appear in the novel.
Now I cannot say that the content, as described above, would have made me hurry to take these novels off the shelf – especially with my afore-mentioned name phobia -  but if the pages have anything of the skill, flavour and bright, quiet wit of Penelope Fitzgerald’s THE GATE OF ANGELS, I am sure these novels will be a delight too.

Moreover, as much of Fitzgerald's work has been newly published by Fourth Estate, it will be quite possible to find out.

Penny Dolan. 

Note: Fitzgerald’s earlier books were inspired on her own experiences: THE BOOKSHOP reflects her knowledge of helping to run a bookshop in Southwold; OFFSHORE draws on life among the houseboat community in Battersea; HUMAN VOICES comes from her war-time life at the BBC while AT FREDDIE’S depicts life at a drama school. Then, feeling she had written out her own life, Fitzgerald began writing about other places and other times. She said she enjoyed the research more than the writing. She died in 2000.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Jack Fortune and the British Empire - by Sue Purkiss

It's always lovely to read a good review, and of course I was delighted with one I was sent recently. It's about my recently published book for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley. It was written by Carmel Ballinger and it appeared in the Australian magazine, Magpies. There are lots of nice things in it, and when I read it, I would have turned cartwheels out of pure joy (had I been able to - I've never come close).

But there was one particular comment that made me feel very relieved indeed. Let me explain.

It used to seem that history was set. All you needed to do was read a textbook, or even Sellers and Yeatman's 1066 And All That, and then you would be quite clear as to what happened in the Battle of Hastings, how the Vikings laid waste to Anglo-Saxon Britain (wearing, of course, helmets with horns on, and possibly going from right to left),  and whether or not a particular King or Queen was a Good or a Bad Thing. It was all quite simple and straightforward.

But all that's changed, hasn't it? History is constantly being re-evaluated. Even the Vikings are now revealed to have been arty, creative types underneath all the brag and bluster.

And as I was writing Jack, I realised that there was a monumental, looming presence that I hadn't really taken proper account of. It's huge, and yet we almost don't see it, because it's so much a part of our history. I certainly don't think we're really clear as to what we think about it. It's a bit uncomfortable, so we tend to shy away from it. I refer to the British Empire. When I was a child in post-war Britain, there were still huge areas of the map which were coloured pink - that was just how it was, and by-and-large, it was assumed to be a good thing. We don't have an empire now, but we still honour people with, for example, the Order of the British Empire, as if the empire was something glorious. But was it? Well, probably, like the curate's egg (where does that saying come from?) it was good in parts.

The British Empire in 1915

I first got the idea for Jack when I read a book about the plant-hunters. I've written several posts about them - if you enter 'plant-hunters' into the search box on the right, you'll easily find them. The plant hunters seemed to me to be crazily brave, charging off into territory about which they knew little, often alone, in search of new plants to bring back to Britain. It was all very exciting, and I thought a story about a young plant-hunter could work brilliantly for children. (I'm not saying it did work brilliantly, but I tried.)

I decided to follow the adventures of Joseph Hooker in the Himalayas in the middle of the 19th century. But I felt I needed to do a lot of background reading. And as I did, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Hooker was undoubtedly brave, tough and resourceful. But was he just a little bit patronising towards the people whose lands he was passing through? After all, rhododendrons were new to him - but they weren't new to the inhabitants of Sikkim. Was it completely okay for him to take what he wanted, and for the British to use plants in ways that served their colonising mission - for instance, introducing tea production to India in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly?

I felt I needed to read more about the history of the British in India. One of the books was The White Mughals, by William Dalrymple - a fascinating read about India at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. At this time, at least some of the British were not just respectful of Indian culture - they fell in love with it. And India was not yet part of the empire. The seeds of British domination and exploitation had certainly already been sown - but it seemed a more innocent time: a more respectful time. (I accept that my knowledge is not at all profound, and this assessment may have been hopeful rather than accurate.)

Anyway, I decided to set my story at this point, rather than later in the 19th century. And I used Jack's youth as a way to observe with a clear, unprejudiced eye the way some of the British were already behaving; so for instance, when he first enters an English official's house in Calcutta (as it was called then), he is surprised to see that it looks exactly like a house back in England. Why come all this way, he wonders, to reproduce what you had left behind? His uncle is searching for a particular flower, a blue rhododendron: when he is refused permission to continue his expedition, it is Jack who rescues the situation - because he realises that what they must do is demonstrate respect for the country they have come to, rather than high-handedly assume that they can take exactly what they want, while giving nothing in return.

But I still felt a little uneasy. The more I'd read, the less certain I'd become that the British Empire was, as it was seen to be when I was a child, A Good Thing. And plant hunting seemed to be far more tied up with empire than I'd realised at first.

So the comment that particularly pleased me in this review? It was this: The author touches lightly on issues of colonisation - the role of servants, the idea of 'going native' and the relationship between the colonial power and the native countrymen. The reviewer had got it: she'd seen what I was trying to do. I sighed with relief and did a happy dance.

She said lots of other nice things too. I wish I could show you the whole review, but it's not online and I can't work out how to link to it - so you're off the hook. But you could just read Jack Fortune instead...

Sunday, 15 April 2018

A lonely queen: the emotional widowhood of Queen Victoria, by Fay Bound Alberti

A lonely queen

Loneliness is a 21st-century problem; an epidemic of global proportions, linked variously to heart problems, mental health crises and dementia among the old. We are social animals, psychologists say; we are supposed to be around other people. Thanks to social media, cuts to social care and a growth in living alone, however, many of us are alone for vast swathes of time.

There are old people who only see another human being once a month, according to some recent studies, and an unknown multitude too shy, too depressed, too unwell or incapacitated to make meaningful social connections. That's the rub, you see: the connections have to be meaningful. Not in an abstract sense, and to other people, but to us, as individuals.

Loneliness has seldom been explored as a historical problem, but it is one. It's all very well to lament the rise of loneliness in the digital age - one of many themes I explore in my forthcoming book on the subject - but people have been lonely, in one sense or another, in earlier times and cultures. One of the chapters in my book describes the loneliness of widowhood and old age, with one of my case studies being Queen Victoria.

Why was Victoria lonely? There have been many literary and visual adaptations of her life, but few have addressed this problematic question. She was lonely because she lost Albert, the man she relied upon in so many aspects of her life, at a relatively young age. And suddenly.

The wedding day

Victoria and Albert had married young - just 21 and 20 respectively, though Victoria had inherited the throne at 18 years old. Together they had nine children, and became inseparable by all accounts; he developed a reputation for public causes such as educational reform and the abolition of slavery, though he had only the role of consort.

When Albert died, aged only 42, Victoria entered a deep state of mourning, and wore black for the rest of her life. It did not matter that due to her rank and status Victoria was one of the least alone women of her age, or that she was attended by a multitude of servants, family members and hangers-on. She missed that special connection she had enjoyed with Albert, the sense that the two of them were unified in their emotional, political, familial and practical lives. Maybe that's why Mr Brown was so important to her; a man she could confide in about anything at all, a man who didn't only see the queen but also a woman.

There is something very specific about losing a husband, Victoria complained when her daughters later married and moved on with their own lives. Nobody could understand it, until they have experienced it. I would extend that further by acknowledging there is something very particular about losing a partner, a perceived 'soul-mate' especially when one imagined growing old with that person; being able to look back on a life lived when one is old and worn.

A relaxed and domestic portrait 

Queen Victoria wrote in her journal on 20 June 1884: "The 47th (!!) anniversary of my accession. May God help me, in my ever increasing loneliness, & anxieties'.

Loneliness cares not for status. And it changes over time, depending on our age, networks, expectations, religious belief and health. Perceptions of loneliness have also changed, from the 18th century to the present day. So, too, have perceptions of grief, and an appropriate time to mourn.

Queen Victoria was the subject of considerable criticism in her day about the length of time she spent in mourning, her choice of black garb, her reluctance to be seen in public. She became known nationally and internationally as a sad and lonely figure, even though she regained some public affection in her later years. The loss she felt over Albert's death, as well as her palpable resentment, anxiety and depression about being abandoned, never ended, though Victoria lived to be 81 years old.

In part, Victoria's critics were right. She didn't move on from Albert's death, which was an understandable and conscious choice. For all intents and purposes, the rituals of the household continued as though Albert had not died: from his clothes being laid out each morning to the marble hand, a cold replica of the real thing, that sat on Victoria's bedside table.

On a regular basis, Victoria would get out all the photographs of Albert; the gifts he had given her, sentimentally recalling memories that made her sad and happy in equal measure. She would visit his mausoleum and statues and speak of him again and again to anyone who would listen. However painful it might have been, Victoria breathed in his absence every day. And perhaps that had a function; keeping the shadow of loneliness about her was the only way to keep Albert alive.

The mausoleum of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria 

A Biography of Loneliness will be published in 2018 by Oxford University Press. For more information on my work, please see my website.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Japanese jugglers, acrobats and top spinners in Victorian London - by Lesley Downer

Japanese acrobats at the Paris Expo 1867
When Phileas Fogg arrives in Japan, the first thing he does is to go to an ‘acrobatic performance’. There he sees the ‘butterfly trick’, where the performers make origami butterflies fly across the stage just by waving their fans. Another performer juggles lighted candles while one sends tops spinning along ‘pipe stems, sabres, wires and even hairs’ as if they have a life of their own. He watches ‘astonishing performances of acrobats and gymnasts turning on ladders, poles, balls, barrels, etc., all executed with wonderful precision.’ And he finally tracks down his lost servant, young Passepartout, underneath an entire human pyramid.

All of this makes perfect sense. In 1872, when Jules Verne was writing his Around the World in Eighty Days, westerners’ image of Japan was as a land of acrobats. Before the arrival of Japonisme the first Japanese to tickle westerners’ fancy were top-spinners, jugglers, acrobats and other performers and when westerners thought of Japanese they thought of acrobats.
'The Japanese at St Martin's Hall'

This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of circus - in April 5th 1768, when Philip Astley opened his Amphitheatre in Surrey Road, London. To celebrate I’ve been looking into the jugglers, acrobats and other performers who were the first Japanese to arrive in Victorian Britain.

For 250 years Japan had been closed to the west and Japanese had been prohibited from leaving the country under pain of death. It was only in 1866 that the prohibition was lifted and the first ‘passports’ - actually ‘letters of request’ - were issued. The idea was to enable diplomats, government officials, merchants and students to travel abroad to help develop Japan and its economy. But entertainers were also eager to apply.
'Matsui Gensui Troop of Top Spinners' 1865

Among the very first was a legendary top-spinner called Matsui Gensui. He was 43 years old and had been wowing crowds with his amazing feats for decades in Edo (now Tokyo)’s East End, around the famous Asakusa Sensoji Temple. In the traditional way the illustrious name of Matsui Gensui was handed down through the generations. He was the thirteenth to bear it. 

On December 2 1866 the Gensui troupe - seven men, two women, two boys and a girl - set sail on the British steamer Nepaul. They landed in Southampton on February 2nd 1867. On February 11th they made their debut to a packed house at St Martin’s Hall, just behind the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The arrival of the Japanese acrobats led to one of the first Japanese crazes of the nineteenth century. Audiences filled theatres to capacity and newspapers reported extensively on their performances and daily activities.
Hayatake Torakichi performs
the ladder trick

The Times reported that ‘a company of acrobats, conjurors and jugglers have established themselves at St. Martin’s-hall where, richly habited in their native costume, they go through a set of feats. ... The children are whirled around in huge humming tops. The others walk on the slack rope and do the famous butterfly trick.’ 

The Era reported on May 5 1867 that the tight rope walker, ‘Kosakichi, in common with the rest of the Japanese does not seem to know the meaning of the word nervousness. ... He carries an umbrella in one hand and a fan in the other and grasps the rope between the first and second toe, after the manner of monkeys in general. Kosakichi rests for a time and, sitting on the rope, smiles amiably at the public while he fans himself. He recovers his position without touching the rope, and never for a moment dispenses with the umbrella.’ Then, to the shock of the audience, the cord snapped, sending Kosakichi to the ground, where he landed gracefully and dexterously on his feet. 

The troupe also performed the ladder trick, in which a man lying on his back balanced a vertical ladder on his feet. The Brighton Gazette described it: ‘A child with the greatest ease ascends to the top of the upright ladder, where he stands upon his head and again upon his feet, and with an intrepid air and serene aspect clasps his hands, amidst the greatest applause; he then continues his journey along the horizontal ladder where again his flexible manoeuvres and gyrations, at a very lofty elevation, are as surprising as they are wonderful.’

Hayatake Torakichi spinning tops
The troupe went on to tour England and performed for the royal family at Windsor Castle. Then, on May 27 1867, they left from Liverpool for the Paris Exhibition. Here they took on the new and grand title of ‘The Tycoon’s Japanese Troupe’. They must have known they’d be crossing paths - and swords - with some old friends and rivals ­- the so called ‘Japan Imperial Artistes’ Company’, fresh from the newly United States.

In 1864, when westerners were allowed in to Japan but Japanese were not yet allowed to leave, the shogun’s government gave permission for the self-styled ‘Professor’ Richard Risley and his American circus troupe to perform in Yokohama. He arrived with ten artists and eight horses. Their performances were a sensation. Many Japanese balancing artistes, jugglers, contortionists, top spinners, and conjurers came to watch and to show off their own expertise.

Amazed at what he saw, Risley had the idea of taking Japanese-style acrobatics abroad. He assembled several groups of Japanese entertainers including Hamaikari Sadakichi’s troupe, who performed tricks with their feet, Sumidagawa Namigoro’s troupe of jugglers and conjurers and Matsui Kijujiro’s top-spinning specialists. Three days after Matsui and his troupe left for London, on 5 December 1866, they set sail for San Francisco. Under the name ‘The Japan Imperial Artistes’ Company’, they performed there for several months in early 1867, then went on to New York where they performed until July, when they left for Paris.
The tumbling tubs trick - Japanese Imperial Troupe in Paris

The most celebrated member of the company was a little boy called Hamaikari Nagakichi, the only child athlete to appear abroad. The first time he performed in San Francisco, he fell from the slack wire. The audience rose to their feet, gasping in horror. The boy picked himself up and shouted, ‘Little All Right,’ which became his nickname thereafter. He was hugely popular.

The greatest acrobat of all was Hayatake Torakichi, celebrated as the last superstar ringmaster of the Edo period. He was based in Osaka but thrilled crowds across the country. Torakichi’s specialty was an act called kyokuzashi, in which he balanced long bamboo poles on his shoulders or feet while other members of the troupe performed juggling tricks or quick-change acts on top. He too was lured to San Francisco and performed there in 1867.
Frog acrobats by
Kawanabe Kyosai

Jostling for public acclaim, all these different troupe members unexpectedly found themselves in each other’s company. In New York it transpired that Hamaikari Sadakichi, the popular young leader of one of the three troupes in The Japan Imperial Artistes’ Company, had had a secret love affair with a lady shamisen player named Tou, who was part of the Sumidagawa group, another of the three. She found herself pregnant and eventually had her baby in London. The Times reported that this was the first Japanese ever to be born abroad. 

Thus it was that Japan’s first representatives on the world stage were its acrobats and stage performers.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Destruction and Restitution - The Crown Jewels

‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown…’ 
Charles I before his execution in 1649.

Anyone visiting the Tower Of London to see the magnificent display of the Crown Jewels of England would never believe that they were once broken up and melted down. Yet after the execution of Charles I, they were destroyed because nobody thought there would ever be a monarchy again; that England would from now on be under the control of Cromwell's Protectorate.

Less than a week after the King's execution in 1649, the Rump Parliament voted to abolish the monarchy. The crown jewels were "symbolic of the detestable rule of kings"and "monuments of superstition and idolatry", so the vote was taken to sell them off. It was also a precaution against future rebellions or any future uprising of 'royalty.'

The most valuable object of them all to be lost was Henry VIII's Crown, worth then £1,100. Only two crowns survived - the crown of Margaret of York and the Crown of Princess Blanche, because they were used by the women for their weddings in Europe and had thus been taken out of England before the Civil War. Looking at the picture below, we can only imagine what it must have felt like to lay hands on such treasure.
The Crown of Princess Blanche
The Knave of Diamonds
The task of disposing of it all fell to Sir Henry Mildmay. Clarendon calls him  a "great flatterer of all persons in authority, and a spy in all places for them", which is hardly a recommendation! I have an interest in him because he was knighted at Kendal in Westmorland, which is my nearest town, and I'm always interested in history from my locality. 

By all accounts Mildmay was intent upon the good life and was made Master of the King's Jewels in 1620 before the Civil War. Not only was this prestigious, but ensured him a seat on the Privy Council, and servants, carriages and good accommodation whenever he travelled. This position also proved to be very convenient when he later abandoned his Royalist ideology and sided with Parliament in the English Civil War.

Mildmay was a judge at the King's Trial, although he did not sign the actual death warrant, so was not officially a 'regicide.' On the 9th August 1649 he was ordered to destroy the Coronation Regalia, break up the jewels and melt down the gold. This act was very unpopular with the general public, leading the Earl of Pembroke to call him the 'Knave of Diamonds'. The coronation and state regalia were melted down, the gemstones removed, and the gold was re-used to make hundreds of coins and keep the fledgeling Protectorate economy afloat.

After Cromwell's death, and the Restoration of Charles II as King, new jewels were needed for the coronation, and keen to preserve tradition, they were based on old records of the ones that were lost. These were re-fabricated by the Royal Goldsmith, Sir Robert Vyner, at a cost of £12,184 7s 2d – an ernormous sum, as much as the cost of building and furnishing three warships. Vyner outsourced the work, which had to be done in haste, to a number of craftsmen, most of whom remain unidentified. Charles II was short of money though, and Vyner had to petition him frequently to pay up. By 1673 Vyner pleaded that he was close to bankruptcy. Despite this, the new reproductions of the medieval originals made in 1660 and 1661, form the nucleus of the Crown Jewels today.

Picture from the Daily Mail
They include St Edward's Crown, with which the current Queen was crowned (see this article about how she was re-united with it after 65 years of reign) two sceptres, an orb, and other regalia. A few medieval objects such as a silver-gilt anointing spoon were returned to the Crown by loyal subjects.

Public Humiliation
On 1 July 1661 Henry Mildmay was brought to the bar of the House of Commons, and after he had been made to confess his guilt of his presence at Charles I's trial, and the subsequent destruction of the Royal Regalia, he was stripped of his honours and titles and consigned to the Tower for life. In a weird addendum to this, there was the further proviso; that every year, on the anniversary of the king's sentence (27th January), he was to be dragged on a sledge through the streets and under the gallows at Tyburn, with a noose round his neck, as a public humiliation, before being dragged back to the Tower.

In a petition he sent to the House of Lords, he alleged that he was present at the trial only to seek some opportunity of saving the king's life.
If you believe that, you'll believe anything!

In March 1664 a warrant was issued for Mildmay's transportation to Tangier, which is where he died.

Regalia, Robbers and Royal Corpses - Geoffrey Abbott
Dictionary of National Biography

Stuart England - Blair Worden

Find Deborah's books here or chat with her on Twitter @swiftstory