Friday, 28 February 2014

Jan Karski, messenger from the past, by Clare Mulley

When we think about the Holocaust today, we mostly remember the victims, perpetrators, bystanders and collaborators. We should also think about those who risked their lives to protect individuals, families and groups, or even in the attempt to end the genocide altogether. Last month, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended an event at the London Central Synagogue organised in tribute to the Polish Catholic, Jan Karski, who attempted just that. After Rabbi Barry Marcus, Cantor Steven Leas and Polish Ambassador Witold Sobków had welcomed guests, Martin Smith’s short film Messenger from Poland was screened, in which Jan Karski told his own story. 

Rabbi Barry Marcus opens the Jan Karski tribute evening
at the London Central Synagogue. 

In the winter of 1943, Karski was selected by the Polish Underground State to alert the international community to the mass murder of the Polish Jews by the Nazis. The young former diplomat was already a veteran of clandestine war-work. Taken prisoner by the Russians in the early weeks of the war, Karski had been released in a prisoner exchange, thereby avoiding death in the Katyn forests. In August 1940, having escaped from a second detention, this time by the Gestapo, Karski served as an underground courier with the Polish resistance, smuggling information out of the country. 

Jan Karski, 1943

Eighteen months later he was chosen to bring news of the genocide to the outside world. It was felt that his diplomatic credentials, along with the fact that he was not Jewish himself, made him a strong emissary. To give him even greater authority, Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto where he watched two boys from the Hitler Youth 'shooting mindlessly' into the miserable scene of ‘poverty, hunger and death’. Then, disguised as a Ukranian militiaman, he was taken to Izbica, a Nazi ‘sorting station’ where he watched ‘masses of Jews’ being sent to the Treblinka death camp for ‘liquidation’. 

Karski reached London in November 1942, where he put a simple plan to the Polish Government-in-Exile. Germany should be leafleted with details of the camps, Karski began, 'so the German nation could not say that they did not know'. The Nazi government should be directly lobbied to stop the genocide, and if they failed to do so the Allies should respond by bombing key sites in retaliation until action was taken. ‘In the name of common values’, the Pope should be called to publically intervene, calling on German Catholics to find their consciences. 'Who knows', Karski argued, perhaps if the Pope threatened to excommunicate those who did not protect the Jewish population, enough Germans might take a stand. Karski also wanted blank passports and hard currency to bribe Nazi officials, and the Polish resistance to operate a strict policy of execution for those who betrayed their Jewish neighbours. 

Republic of Poland report for the United Nations, 1942

Karski’s was not the first report of mass killings to reach the West but it was one of the most detailed, an eyewitness account, and considered very reliable. But despite his testimony, the Allies remained largely indifferent to the fate of the Jews in Poland. All those who met Karski gave various reasons why nothing could be done. The Pope took six weeks to respond, and then only stated that he had already done all he could. In Britain Lord Selbourne, who met Karski in place of Churchill, told him that no political leader would comply with the idea of providing hard currency to bribe Nazi officials, which would effectively mean subsidising the enemy regime. Roosevelt ‘looked like a master of humanity’, Karski felt, but seemed more interested in the fate of Polish horses than Polish Jews, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, possibly the most influential Jewish man in the USA, simply said he could not believe Karski’s report. When asked if he was suggesting that Karski was lying, Frankfurter replied only that not being able to believe was not the same as doubting the reliability of the source. 

Karski was horrified by the lack of action, despite his reaching the highest authorities. ‘I swore to them’, he told film-maker Martin Smith at the end of his interview, ‘as long as I will live, I will speak about it’. Karski was true to his word, but Smith felt that he seemed ‘weighed down by doubt and death’. Karski died in July 2000, believing to the end, Smith told me, that he had achieved nothing. In fact his constant lobbying had helped lead to the development of the USA’s War Refugee Board, an important achievement but not the goal he had set himself. In 1982 Yad Vashem recognised Karski as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 2012 he was honoured with the USA’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and this year, 2014, has been designated Jan Karski year by the Polish parliament. 

Film-maker Martin Smith talks with a member of the audience.

Important though such recognition is, Jan Karski has been honoured as a hero too late. Over drinks after the film, I asked why Karski’s testimony had been so largely ignored. The responses were diverse. Some felt that Karski had been treated by suspicion because he was known to be a socialist. Others, that the Western powers were fearful of giving too much weight to the Jewish question when there was so much general suffering caused by the war. Certainly there was also the refusal to believe, as expressed so starkly by Felix Frankfurter. Above all, however, the feeling was that no government felt justified in diverting any resources from the ultimate goal of defeating Nazi Germany. What everyone seemed to agree, however, was that if we remain silent, then we too, in a sense, are tacit.

During the Second World War, despite Karski’s unceasing meetings with journalists, authors, officials and MPs, and his own writing, the vast majority of people did not know the truth about the genocide until July 1944, when the first Nazi death camp was liberated. Those who did know had other priorities. Today the world has changed. Courageous reporters, and members of the public armed with mobile phones and internet access, have taken the place of brave couriers like Jan Karski, and there are few conflicts around the world where atrocities, state-sponsored or otherwise, go unreported. If anything people feel overwhelmed. General knowledge is not lacking, and nor perhaps is public conscience; what is lacking is clear solutions to these complex situations. What is certain, however, is the importance of constant vigilance and repeated challenges to those who abuse human rights. Perhaps the most significant lesson from Karski’s story is that without knowledge nothing can be achieved, but with knowledge comes both collective and personal responsibility.  

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Brown Girls Collective, by Louisa Young

Today I am shamelessly promoting and thieving. Thieving to promote. I have discovered this lovely page, Brown Girls' Collective, which is full of History Girls from the Black/Brown/African-American/ Caribbean (and a bit of British) strands. 

One of its great joys is the habit of inviting people to send in pictures of their beautiful brown daughters, so in that sense it's pure pleasure. And there are plenty of people saluted who we know about.  But the meat of it is tales of women of yore, and there are some corkers. 

Here, for example, are Lt. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, the first African-American Waves to be commissioned. from December 21, 1944.

Then there's the story of Rebecca Cox Jackson, born in 1795, near Philadelphia. Her father, who is unknown, died; her mother, Jane, was unable to care for her and died when Rebecca was 13.  She was a seamstress, and after God cured her of a terror of thunderstorms she became a preacher, much to her husband and brother's disinclination. Seeking alternatives the male-dominated churches around her, she visited a Shaker community near Albany, New York, in 1843, where, she recalled, "the power of God came upon me like the waves of the sea". She appreciated their pioneering stand on racial equality; they recognised her as a visionary. She joined the Shaker community and became a Shaker eldress in April 1859, and went on to establish a community of black Shakers in Philadelphia that survived for 40 years after her death in 1871. 
'In addition to her 40 years of preaching, Jackson's most noteworthy contribution to the world was her spiritual autobiography, "Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress," an amazingly detailed and compelling account for a woman with no education.' It was not published until 1981.

Here is 'educator, newspaper publisher and activist Charlotta Bass', born in South Carolina in 1874. 

Here is 'attorney, educator and activist' Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher 1924-1995: the first African American woman to attend an all white law school in the South. By this time she was married and pregnant with the first of her two children. The law school gave her a chair marked "colored," and roped it off from the rest of the class. Her classmates and teachers welcomed her, shared their notes and studied with her, helping her to catch up on the materials she had missed. Sipuel had to eat in a separate chained-off guarded area of the law school cafeteria. She recalled that years later some white students would crawl under the chain and eat with her when the guards were not around. Her lawsuit and tuition were supported by hundreds of small donations, and she believed she owed it to those donors to make it.'


Here's 'musician and educator Ella Sheppard Moore, one of the original Fisk (University) Jubilee Singers', born in Nashville in 1851'. When she was a little girl her father was permitted to buy her for 350 dollars.

Ann Spencer, Poet. 

The adorable Florence Mills: 

                                                  And Angela Davis with Toni Morrison! 

And here is Leontyne Price, singing Aida:

There are so many stories and so many women on this page. Doctors and dancers, sculptors and teachers, lawyers and campaigners and athletes and writers and musicians and actresses and four tiny Rwandan ballerinas and an Olympic fencer and Nina Simone and Alek Wek and Coretta King and Josephine Baker and a gun-toting postwoman from the wild wild west . . .  I'm not going to nick any more stories, because I want you to go there and read them, read and learn. It's a treasure trove. Every congratulation to the people who put it together. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014


© National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia
by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 1613
30 7/8 in. x 24 1/2 in. (784 mm x 622 mm)
Purchased, 1982
NPG 5529
What a painting – the sumptuous brocaded silk, the diamonds, the pearls big as doves’ eggs, (how many divers drowned gathering these?) the stiffened collar, (how many maids dismissed for spoiling the lace with too hot a tong?) the elaborate hairstyle, the nipped in waistline, the hint of a farthingale, the strands of pearl necklaces (perhaps the ones inherited from her aunt, Elizabeth I?) the face suggesting a certain expectancy, the hunt of a smile curving the lips, serious eyes, the long aristocratic nose with its slightly heavy bridge that is noticeable in all her portraits, said to have been inherited from her mother, Anne of Denmark – as the Stuarts had rather pudgy noses.

When I look at Elizabeth Stuart in this painting of 1613 (for those of you who like a timeline painted just 41 years before Fabritius’s painting in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch,) I sense it’s a face one no longer sees in the 21st century. Yet I searched through my own photo files and came across this 21st century girl in 15th century dress celebrating a pageant in Italy, who might have been her sister. The same mouth, the same nose, the same eyes and this changes Elizabeth Stuart into real flesh and blood for me.

The portrait of Elizabeth is particularly poignant as it was painted when, within the space of a few weeks she’d lost her adored older brother, Prince Henry, heir to the throne of England, and she’d married Frederick, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, a boy she was hopelessly in love with. Not quite Four Weddings and a Funeral but still a time of huge emotion for a sixteen year old – a beloved brother dead of typhoid, a new husband and a voyage to Europe which would take her away from England forever.

But Elizabeth was used to matters of life and death. She was nine years old when a group of Catholic radicals plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament to kill her father James I and her brother Prince Henry, and then planned to abduct her and put her on the throne as a Catholic queen. Fortunately their plans were foiled. In the portrait she is dressed with all the grandeur of a young woman who could well have become queen of England, albeit a Protestant one, if her sickly younger brother Charles, who limped from childhood rickets, stammered and was acutely shy, hadn’t lived to become King Charles I.

When I made enquiries about portrait NPG 5529 at the National Portrait Gallery, Catharine MacLeod
 Curator of Seventeenth-Century Portraits had this to say:
“The jewels that appear black in the painting, notably in her hair and in the large setting on her chest are most likely to be diamonds, which are conventionally shown as black in portraits of this period (partly because they were set in such a way that light did not pass through them as it usually does in the kinds of claw settings most commonly used today). The black oval on her shoulder appears to be a black enamelled locket, probably containing a portrait miniature; the black setting suggests that this might be a miniature of the recently deceased Prince Henry. “

I suggested that the white feather in her hair might have been a tribute to him as the Prince of Wales, but it appears not. She wears an armband of mourning and her standing collar and the lace around her neck have the lion and the unicorn, as well as fleur-de-lys and the royal coat of arms, all of which allude to her British (both Scottish and English) royal status.

My story, The Phoenix, for the anthology, Daughters in Time about to be published by Templar, draws on the poem written by John Donne to celebrate the marriage of Elizabeth to Frederick. Donne’s line: ‘Up then fair phoenix bride, frustrate the sun,’ suggests her spirit.

For me this spirit is epitomised in a much earlier miniature of Elizabeth. painted by Nicolas Hilliard. I like to think of it as the one she might have sent to her suitor Frederick in Heidelberg via the English ambassador. I can’t prove this but why be a writer if we can’t imagine.

The portrait shows her looking directly into the eyes of the beholder wearing a simple velvet carnation­-coloured dress, her hair hanging loose and wild… as if to say: this is me… this is what you’ll get. 

One can believe that this is the true Elizabeth. Feisty and strong-willed. The girl who persuaded her father to choose not a wealthy old grump from a list of ten possible suitors but the young man she herself had fallen in love with. The girl who dressed as a boy in order to gain entrance into her brother’s forbidden sickroom. The sixteen year old who married – despite court protocol for elaborate hairstyles – with her hair wild and untamed down her back plaited with tiny jewels and pearls and walked up the aisle at Whitehall smiling into the arms of her beloved sixteen year old Frederick to become eventually the Queen of Bohemia.

Read the story of Elizabeth Stuart in:
By The History Girls Edited by Mary Hoffman
£7.99 Paperback, 9 + years 978-1-84877-169-7 March 2014
Written by some of today’s most exceptional female children’s authors, Daughters of Time is an anthology that shines a new spotlight on extraordinary women in history.

‘“History is about chaps" is still all too true a saying. So it's up to the fabulous History Girls to balance this approach with stories of impressive and inspiring women and girls - we were spoilt for choice.’ - Mary Hoffman

History tells us that there have always been brave, challenging and inspirational women, but unfortunately their stories are often overlooked. Publishing in March 2014, Daughters of Time brings back to life the tales of these remarkable women, helping to inform young people of how women and girls have been important in shaping the world we live in today. Written by a collection of established and bestselling children’s authors who all blog with The History Girls.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

ELECTRIC HISTORY by Eleanor Updale

In the orgy of television programmes about the First World War, one of the best things has been the archive film footage, some of which has never been seen before.  Now that digital technology allows the speed of playback to be adjusted, we no longer see figures from the early 20th century as jumpy marionettes. We can concentrate on the hope and fear in people’s eyes, rather than the comic jerkiness of their movements.

For reasons to do with my new book, I have been delving into an even earlier collection of films, made as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

Montmrency Returns set more than a hundred years ago, and it’s almost an historical document in itself.  Although just published, it has been on the stocks for a very long time. The title, Montmorency Returns, is a bit of an in joke for the many Montmorency fans who have written over the past few years asking where it was.  The fourth book in the Montmorency series, published in 2006, ended on a cliffhanger.  I always intended to bash straight on, but the publisher had other ideas.  Now here it is, at last, alongside all the other books in the series, which have been redesigned to match, with better paper and better print than ever.  You can get them all on Amazon by clicking here .
Part of my plot involves the early cinema – in the days long before Hollywood, and just before the New Jersey town of Fort Lee became the heart of the American film industry.
The great inventor Thomas A Edison was one of the pioneers of the industry (both as a developer of hardware and as a producer and marketer of films).  When I first started thinking about the book, it was hard to get to see original films from his time.  You had to go to special events at arty or academic cinemas.  It was difficult even to find out what had survived, and where. In the few years of publishing hiatus, a treasure trove of material has appeared on YouTube, and here are some samples.  You can find them all easily just by typing a few appropriate words into any search engine.  They may seem a little crude, but they are fascinating, and I should perhaps warn you that, for reasons of taste, a couple may be a little difficult for some people to watch.
First, here’s a very brief re-enactment of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, made in 1895.  It’s one of the earliest e examples of editing for dramatic effect.  Although a little indistinct, it’s worth watching for the way the head rolls away after the chop. 
MQS with her head on, just to the right of centre

MQS, head off.  The head is just to the left of centre
Then there’s a whole sequence of films featuring the career and assassination of President McKinley in 1901.

McKinley’s death, and its consequences, are at the heart of my story, and I not only used the films for research, but also built them in to the plot.
Although Edison’s cameramen followed McKinley around intensively on his last days - as he visited the World’s Fair in Buffalo in New York State - there is no cinematic record of the assassination itself, nor of the capture of his killer inside the Temple of Music on the exhibition site.
What we do have is studies of the crowd before and after the event – remarkable for the uniformity of dress (especially the men’s straw boater hats) and for the the sheer press of people.
The Buffalo Fair lit by electric light
McKinley’s killer, Leon Czolgosz, admitted his crime, and was executed in the electric chair. 

Edison staged a reconstruction of the execution, which is chilling in many ways – not least for the nonchalance of all those taking part in the event.

A couple of years later, and in another film which some of you may not want to watch, Edison again demonstrated the power of electricity to take life by showing the killing of Topsy, a circus elephant, who had killed one of her trainers and been sentenced to death by hanging.
Edison offered to electrocute the beast, partly at the behest of those who regarded hanging as cruel, but mainly to show the lethal qualities of Alternating Current (he was marketing Direct Current at the time).  If you really want to, you can see both execution films online.

Topsy dying.  Seconds later, she is dead

McKinley’s assassination, following on from anarchist killings of European leaders,

 such as King Umberto of Italy (see Montmorency and the Assassins) led to a boom in secret service activity.  In Montmorency Returns, the secret service men scan Edison’s Buffalo films for the faces of anarchist sympathisers. 

But not before they’ve had a little light relief from another 1901 Edison film.  It shows a lady gradually disrobing on a trapeze, flinging her clothes to a couple of excited gentlemen.  Here are some stills from that one.

 Not very dignified, but rather cheerier than the elephant film, I’m glad to say - though it’s an early example of women’s place in films for some time to come.    Mary Queen of Scots, by the way, was played by a man.

Monday, 24 February 2014

SHELLS AND KERNELS: The knowledge and the deep knowledge by Elizabeth Chadwick

I admit to being a research nerd.   For the characters to feel real to me, I need their stage to be authentic and the characters themselves to possess believable mindsets and attitudes.  As I have researched down the decades, I have come to realise how much I actually don't know, which is humbling, frustrating at times, but also very exciting when that epiphany moment sends a beam through the murk. I have learned never to trust a source in isolation and that studying widely in my chosen genre is, for me, the only way to go.
Recently, when  reading M.T. Clanchey's wonderful book From Memory to the written word. I was struck anew by how a little knowledge can take you to a very different place from deeper knowledge. 

There is a tale dating to the late 13th century - one with which I was familiar from reading novels and general history, that the royal judges demanded to know by what right the barons held their privileges.  One earl, John de Warenne, produced a rusty sword.  
'Here, my lords, here is my warrant!  For my ancestors came with William the Bastard and conquered their lands by the sword, and by the sword I will defend them from anyone intending to seize them!'   That is fighting talk in anyone's language and one receives the impression of a belligerent warrior baron ready to cut down anyone down who got in his way.  However, while much of this is true, it was more than just a case of  sword shaking  in threat of violence. There's more to it than that; there's a deeper magic.
It all goes back to 1069 when William the Conqueror endorsed a gift of English land to a Norman abbey.  The transaction involved a charter which was witnessed by nine people on the charter itself and others gathered to witness. Crucially, the gift of a knife to authenticate the charter was involved.  The charter detail says 'This gift is made by a knife which the aforesaid king jokingly gave to the abbot, as if threatening to stab it into his palm saying: 'That's the way land ought to be given.'   The custom was a Norman one and used as an aid to memory.  In future decades conveyancing charters were made valid by the accompaniment of a symbolic transfer object. It might be a knife as in the case of William the Conqueror or his son William Rufus who gave one with an ivory handle to Tavistock Abbey.  It might be a rod of office, a helmet, a horn, a cup...or a sword. You can see a chirograph from 1148 with a knife attached here. chirograph with knife
So, when John de Warenne came marching before the judges with his rusty sword, dating back two hundred years, his claim was not just a fist-shaking threat, he was carrying legal authority.  His sword was his warrant both on the battlefied and in a court of law. Should I ever comes to write that scene in fiction myself, knowing this detail about the symbolic objects attached to writs, might make all the difference to the way I nuance that scene.

I found the research and nuance thing especially important when writing my novel A Place Beyond Courage about John FitzGilbert, the father of the great Medieval knight and magnate William Marshal.  As a child of about 5, William was taken hostage for his father's word of honour during the fight for the throne between Empress Matilda and her cousin Stephen.  John, a supporter of the Empress had promised to yield his besieged castle at Newbury to King Stephen providing he first made it known to the Empress what he intended to do.  However, instead of commencing the surrender process, John promptly reinforced Newbury to the hilt.  Stephen promptly threatened to kill William because John had reneged on his word.  "Word came of this to his father, but he said he did not care about the child, since he still had the anvils and hammers to produce even finer ones."  William's life was saved because King Stephen was too soft-hearted to do the deed, and although he bluffed via threats of hanging, catapulting and tying to an attacking siege machine, eventually took young William away to his tent to play games with him. 
The incident has made strong historical mileage in our own century. How shocking that a father would say that about his own child. How callous. But that's to skim the surface.  The quote comes from a family chronicle - the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, which was a family celebration piece designed to put William Marshal and his family in an illustrious light. A poem of almost  two thousand lines, the Histoire was written to be read aloud on William's anniversary. It was commissoned by his son shortly after William's death in 1219 at the age of 72.
 The family view of John Marshal's actions would have been the acknowledgement of a man who wasn't going to be intimidated by anyone.  Anvils and hammers are the symbols of a marshal, so that quote is a pun on the name as well as being a euphemism for the male reproductive organs in virile function. It says that this man has the balls  to deal with any situation and no king is going to emasculate him. The Marshal family listening to the tale would have appreciated the riposte and perhaps even chuckled.  Was it ever actually said?  No one knows.  While the siege and the hostage situation itself is a matter of fact, those words only appear in the family history. There's a whole other context to them; they're not the casual utterance of an indifferent father, but a declaration of standing hard in adversity, and they appear in no other source.  Knowing this threw the door wide open to me  the writer. What really happened?  What was this man really like?

The same goes for smaller matters.  A couple of years ago I was reading a 12th century novel where a character wrote a letter and enclosed two marks of silver inside as payment of a debt.  The shell is knowing that one of the monetary  units of the time was the mark. The kernel is knowing that a mark was a unit of weight equating to 13shillings and fourpence, and since the only coin in the land was the silver penny, you'd need 160 of them to make up your mark.  Try putting 320 of them inside a letter!

Or the beautiful white stallion given the Medieval name Morel by his proud owner.  That's the shell.  The kernel is knowing that Morel  was indeed a horse name in the Middle Ages - but one always given to black or almost black horses - like morello cherries! A white horse would more likely go by the name of Blancart.

Details like this are going to go over most readers' heads, I admit.  It's the stuff of 'swots, letter writers and anoraks' to quote Julian Rathbone's note in his novel The Last English King. I suppose it is those traits in me that make me love coming across the nut in the first place and then cracking the shell to get at the kernel, which may look entirely different to the shell!  When that happens, it brings a whole different perception to my writing - and to history. Do we know what we think we know, and isn't the quest to find out illuminating and exciting!

Sunday, 23 February 2014


Last month I posted about the chiffonniers, the rag-pickers (or informal recyclers) of Paris and their lives: this month I am going to describe some of the processes by which the waste materials they collected became treasure, by which Louis Paulian, who documented these things in his La Hotte du Chiffonnier, meant usable items that could be sold for good money. Most of the money thus earned enriched the middlemen, of course, the humble collectors remaining at the bottom of the heap - and yet, there was always the possibility that they might move up the hierarchy and get as rich as old Harmon in Our Mutual Friend.
I can't précis all of the processes described in La Hotte without writing a pamphlet, rather than a blog post, so I am going to concentrate on bones.

fan parts from recovered bone
This handy diagram of the grinning cow is about the uses for the bones inside her, rather than the more familiar diagram of beef cuts, which it is assumed have been already taken, either for human or dog consumption depending on the animal's age. So: the omoplate or chuck-steak bone will be used to make buttons. The humerus is used for buttons and objets de tabletterie, which could be things like dice and counters for games. The radius is used for more tabletterie, also brush-handles - other uses for the bones include parts of fans and knife handles. So: your treasured antique fan or bone-handled knives quite possibly came from someone's thrown-out Sunday roast bone.
The chiffonnier cleaned off any remnants of fat and meat to be sold off; this fat was made into tallow candles and what was known as 'economical butter' ie, the kind of margarine you got in those days, though Paulian calls this 'inferior margarine', so there must have been a superior kind.
Getting down to the bones now; it is no longer possible for us to visit the splendid factory of Messieurs Dupont and Co at Beauvais, but these gentlemen employed more than fifteen hundred workers and who had outlets in Paris and branches in London, New York, Montreal and even Melbourne. Paulian did, and waxed enthusiastic about the process.
When the bones arrived at Dupont and Co they were boiled clean of all fat residues and then further cleaned with benzine; finally bleached in the sun. Then they were made into the desirable craft objects I have mentioned above.
Toothbrushes were another product, but buttons were perhaps the most important bone product. Machine-cut and carved into shape, they were then polished on a lathe; another machine pierced the holes in them.
lathe for cutting out buttons
As far as brushes and knife-handles went, France was not very good at conserving the large bones that were necessary to produce them, since French butchers tended to cut them up before selling them to customers. It was left to Britain, America and Australia, with their tradition of giant roasts, to supply objects made from these bones; though one praiseworthy butcher, the Maison Duval in Paris, boned its joints and thus was able to to keep the tibias and humeruses (or humera?) intact and sell them to Dupont and their competitors.
machine for making holes in buttons

Women sorting bones
The bones that were burned gave three products; fat, gelatine or glue, and noir animal, or animal blacking, which was used for pigments and black polish. Phosphorus was also obtained from animal bones, also from the trimmings when the bones were worked, and used mainly as fertiliser in agriculture. Tiny chips of bone were burned in a closed flask, treated with potassium carbonate, burned again, then cooled and washed with warm water to produce a liquid from which Prussian Blue was produced, for paints and printing.
Nowadays we think we are doing well if we can achieve a recycling rate of 50%, but in those days, in Europe (for the chiffonniers had their equivalents everywhere, as they do nowadays) what was left behind was mainly ash (which also had its use). The mesh of hair that the chiffonnier picked out of the rubbish was used to make switches for the same ladies to pin onto their heads, or else to make sieves for straining fruit juice. Rags were made into fine-quality paper, or shredded, sometimes to make new luxury fibres, sometimes to make felt (for hats, mainly) or shoddy, which is still used for mattresses.
fabric-shredding machine
The old red trousers of French Zouave soldiers were felted and sold to Near Easterners, who made colourful peasant hats out of them. Used paper, among other things, was made into ceiling-mouldings. Glass bottles were re-used (the chiffonniers were expert in knowing which factories to sell them back to) as milk-bottles used to be, which is by far the most energy-efficient way of recycling glass, only nowadays the manufacturers don't want to have the bother of paying for old bottles.
It could be easily done, of course; I am old enough to have been given bottles to take back to the shop, the bribe being, I got the deposit for extra pocket-money. Old tins, animal skins; there was a use for everything. Even snail shells. Fat from the sewers was reprocessed into soap; animals who drowned there were made into soap and glycerine. The chiffonniers were heroes of recycling and the 'progress' of twentieth-century municipal disposal systems that succeeded them meant that recycling levels plummeted (though a certain amount of reclamation, or totting, was still carried out by dustmen on their own account).
During the period when the chiffonniers were most active, the authorities made several attempts to suppress them or limit their numbers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries they were seen as potential criminals - out at night with hooks, that could break into houses, baskets to stash the swag, and lanterns to case the joint with? This was the reason for the first lot of ID discs. The factory owners, resenting the money they had to pay them - three francs per chiffonnier per day, which added up to a considerable sum - proposed that all wastes should be municipally collected, sorted, and delivered to them. Their profits thus increased, they would pay the municipality a portion of the profit. The chiffonniers, having no more source of income, would have to seek (badly-paid) employment with the municipality. It is easy to see the logic of turbo-capitalism at work; you get taxpayers to subsidise you. However, the Prefecture of the Seine were enthusiastic about the idea - the figures clearly added up as far as they were concerned. The Prefect of Police opposed it, pointing out the social costs of increased vagrancy (chiffonniers who couldn't or wouldn't become employees) and of unrest fomented by angry chiffonniers, who preferred their independence.
The chiffonniers mounted a major PR campaign, enlisting journalists and politicians, and won. All the same, there was a law passed in 1884 that obliged householders to put their refuse into bins, and the chiffonniers found themselves racing the municipal collectors for the bins' contents. These poubelles, named after the Prefect of the Seine who introduced an earlier version, were cumbersome and difficult to lift, also had no lids, so they would have stunk and attracted vermin just as much as heaps of refuse on the street. Here is a rather Heath Robinson apparatus for loading them into the collection vehicles. I can almost hear the Paris street echoing to the crash of the dropped poubelle, and the curses of the collectors who would have to put all the refuse back into it, not to mention the one who would be hopping on one leg, and maybe be taken off to hospital because it had fallen on his foot.

An interviewer once asked my husband: 'Isn't it disgusting to see waste as a resource?' Clearly a lot of people think so, even to the point of finding it distasteful to separate their own waste into different receptacles. Put it away with your eyes shut and forget about it, and let someone take it away and never see it again. No doubt the Parisians of Paulian's time thought the same way, and they weren't aware, till he published it, that their wastes often did come back to them, looking handsome and desirable in shop windows, too. But if you find waste recovery and re-use disgusting - is it really cleaner to dump refuse into more and more holes in the ground, which may cause emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and will be a colossal waste of the earth's shrinking land-space and resources?

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Fragrant Harbour by Kate Lord Brown

Man Mo Temple - and the god of Literature


It brings communication with the transcendent.
It refreshes mind and body.
It removes impurity.
It brings alertness. 
It is a companion in solitude. 
In the midst of busy affairs, it brings a moment of peace. 
When it is plentiful, one never tires of it. 
When there is little, still one is satisfied. 
Age does not change its efficacy. 
Used everyday, it does no harm. 

~Huang Tingjian Song Dynasty

The intoxicating smell of Hong Kong was described perfectly by Martin Booth in 'Gweilo': "Wherever I went, the air was redolent with the smells of wood smoke, joss-sticks, boiling rice and human excrement …'' Walking out into the night streets of Kowloon last week for the first time in fifteen years, the scent was exhilarating - rich incense, fetid durian fruits, meat roasting on roadside braziers, cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes. Much had changed since I travelled round the world with hand luggage, (not least that with two small children in tow it was now more noodles and an early night than Somerset Maugham and cocktails at The Pen). But the smell hadn't changed a bit.

The Chinese have used incense for over two thousand years, in worship and at home. From the pyramids of Egypt to the temple of Jerusalem and the giant swinging thurible of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, incense permeates our daily and spiritual human existence. Here in the Middle East you find small wood or metal 'mabkharas' burning Oud (agar wood) or bakhoor (woodchips moulded with resin, ambergris, musk, sandalwood, essential oils), everywhere from outside the doors of Carrefour to private homes. It's traditional for abayas and thobes to be perfumed by carefully standing over the mabkhara and allowing the incense to impregnate the fabric.

In Hong Kong I loved revisiting the Man Mo temple again, and it hadn't changed (unlike the rest of Hollywood Road, where junk shops and curio stores have given way to Ralph Lauren and chichi bars). That night brushing my children's hair, I could still smell the wonderful incense from the huge coils suspended from the ceiling above the gods of War and Literature. (That's the god of Literature's brass pen/brush top left - devotees light incense then give it a rub for luck or inspiration).

The most touching offerings are the small ones, like the tiny shrine (below), that someone had set up in an alleyway near Central. It reminded me of Bali, where you would wake to find offerings of flowers and incence burning in folded leaves in the door and gateways, or the spirit houses of Thailand where incense jostles with bottles of Yakult. Timeless, intimate acts of devotion whose origins are lost in history.

For those of you who write about the East, have you come across much about the history and use of incense? I wonder when it was first imported to Europe? I brought a bundle of joss sticks back, and burnt them on the first night home. Here, the effect sadly conjured more of my teenage purple tented bedroom than the exotic streets of the East. Perhaps this is one thing that is 'lost in translation', and I'll stick to my favourite 'Sacristy' candle for writing and inspiration: "THE STILLNESS AND BEAUTY WE FOUND IN AN ANCIENT CHAPEL. WOODEN PANELLING WITH YEARS OF BEESWAX POLISH, LEATHER-BOUND PRAYER BOOKS, PILLAR CANDLES AND A HINT OF INCENSE".