The Gift Trilogy

Out Now!

Friday, 27 March 2020

Botany Bay

Week one of self-isolation and surrounded by trees. 

Why so many pictures of trees? I could say I love trees and here, their lichen and sinuous and snakelike form. Another factor was that much of the walk was uphill and taking photos was a cunning ruse so as not to admit I needed a rest. I suspect I was rumbled. 

We were walking in Botany Bay just above Tintern Abbey. A strange name for such an idyllic spot – and one of the last sights convicts bound for Australia would have seen before boarding the barges that would take them down the Wye and then exile to the penal colony of Botany Bay. No doubt there were other transit points but none near as heartbreakingly beautiful.

The first 736 convicts were banished there in 1788. They included a 70-year-old woman found guilty of stealing cheese. Over the next 60 years about 50,000 other convicts were transported there.

The prevailing wisdom was that criminals were inherently defective thus rehabilitation was out of the question. They had to be separated from the genetically pure and since, after 1776 America was no longer an option, Australia was deemed the next best possible place for them.
Conditions were unbelievably brutal but for those caught escaping there was worse to come – Norfolk Island some 600 miles east of Australia where death was often the preferred option. Norfolk Island now is a far happier place  
But back to Botany Bay. The name crops up all over the place but few with such obvious links to the more famous penal colony. There’s a Botany Bay near Chorley, deriving its name for being in such a desolate spot, a Botany Bay in Derbyshire, another in Broadstairs Kent.  There’s even a Botany Bay in South Carolina. Maybe they just liked the name. At that point I stopped, the internet being a rabbit hole with no obvious or immediate end.

Walking through the woods we stumbled upon St Mary's Church

The tomb in the middle is that of Robert White who ran the local wire works until his death in 1736 . The inscription refers to his: amiability and hospitable nature called to this sequestered spot many of the first rank and character. Inoffensive and benevolent, he lived without an enemy and died beloved of all. Wouldn't we all like to be remembered as such?

The origins  of the church are medieval and may have been a retreat for the monks of the more famous Tintern Abbey twenty minutes’ walk away. It was rebuilt in the 1866 and destroyed by fire in 1977 – the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and not part of the celebrations.  It was there we ate our picnic,  and I wondered what those early convicts thought.

Friday, 20 March 2020

'History never repeats itself; man, always does.' Voltaire

The fourteenth Century must rank as one of the gloomiest in the last thousand years, with its plagues, climate change, famine, war and corruption. The Twentieth Century had its moments, the Twenty-first Century is shaping up well.

I was reminded of this when re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book: A Distant Mirror. (This and the new Hllary Mantel should see me some way through the present crisis.) The book explores C14th Europe through the life and career of the renowned knight, Enguerrand de Coucy (1340 – 1397.) He had a spectacularly successful career, fighting his first battle at the age of fifteen, and whilst a prisoner of war in England, wooing and marrying Edward III’s daughter Isabella. He died of bubonic plague aged 57 in the Turkish city of Bursa, ironically as a prisoner of war. 

What makes him an ideal pair of eyes for Tuchman is the fact that he was in all the right places at the right time, and so much of the century is explored through his direct or indirect experience, and once you start this book you won’t want to finish it too quickly. The book is full of the macabre and bizarre; to take just one example, a real life Danse Macabre

On the Tuesday before Candlemas Day— 28th January 1392— the Queen of France held a masquerade to celebrate a twice married lady’s maid re-embarking upon her third marriage. Six young men including the young King Charles, Yvain, bastard son of the count of Foix and four others, disguised themselves as ‘wood savages.’  Linen cloth soaked in resin and pitch was sewn to their bodies. Frazzled hemp, meant to resemble fur, was stuck to the resinous linen so that each resembled a ‘shaggy beast’ of the forest. Face masks completed the picture and hid their identities.

One of the ringleaders of these ‘shaggy beasts’ was Huguet de Guisey, a notorious debauchee and ‘cruellest of men.’ He was also a notorious corrupter of youth and held those beneath him in contempt. If a servant displeased him, the servant was forced on the ground. There Huguet whipped him and, through the screams of pain, made the unlucky servant bark like a dog.
God is patient.

In the ‘Dance of the Savages,’ the six men capered in front of the party-goers howling like wolves and making the obscenest of gestures—the young king being particularly foul in front of the fifteen year old Duchesse de Berry.

At that moment, Louis de Orleans and Philippe de Bar arrived from an orgy elsewhere in the palace. Both held torches to light up the gloom. The rest is history.

Curious as to the identities of the masked savages, Louis held up his torch close to one of the capering demons. A spark fell. Flame raced up first one leg then the other. Screaming and gesticulating even more wildly than before, he set the rest of the dancers alight, too. The Duchesse de Berry, recognising the king in time, protected him with her voluminous skirt, dousing out the flames before they took hold.

Around them, the room was filled with wild sobbing, screams and shouts of unrestrained horror. There was one other survivor. He jumped into a large wine cooler filled with water. 

And what of the villainous Hugeut de Guisay? He lingered on for three days in appalling agony cursing everyone but himself for his plight. When his coffin was carried through the streets, peasants and townsfolk greeted it with barking and cries of ‘Bark, Dog!’

Reading the book you are struck by how much it resonates with our own era, not in terms of swords and plate armour, but in human greed, incompetence and corruption. Proving that nature is a law unto itself, this century too experienced climate change with its severe mini ice-age when the Baltic sea froze solid more than once, crops failed, and people starved. History never repeats itself; man, always does. 

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Kill all vegans?

My face was on the pillow, the radio on. I always sleep to the news but was wide awake to one of the headlines. It went roughly like this. “From the safety of the Vatican palace, the Pope has reminded priests to attend the sick and dying during the coronavirus crisis.” Separate the actual news here from the snide and not so subliminal comment.

 ‘The Pope has reminded priests to attend the sick and the dying during the coronavirus crisis,’ is factual but not startling news. What would have been news would have been the Pope advising priests not to attend the sick and the dying.

In the real world, priests have attended the sick and dying throughout history. It is likely that this particular Pope visited the sick and the dying during the years of his priesthood. But what’s with ‘From the safety of the Vatican palace?’ ?

What you have here is both comment and judgement, a snidely delivered message. The news-reader could have said ‘From the safety of the Vatican Palace, the 83-year-old Pope with one lung reminded priests to attend the sick and the dying’ but then that wouldn’t have fitted this particular agenda.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not playing ‘Defender of the Faith’ here. I’m not after a Papal medal to add to my vast collection of medals.  For me, it’s just another example of our news media unable to report the news without suggesting what we should think about it, too; another nail in the coffin of impartiality. There are so many nails in this particular coffin, it’s impervious to woodworm.

Friday, 6 March 2020

A different kind of happiness

These are the railway sidings a few hundred yards from my childhood home in Liverpool. They are reputedly the source of the famous ‘Aintree Iron’ made famous by the Scaffold in 1967. 

But, like Camelot, there are other contenders for that particular honour, each fiercely guarded by their champions.

No matter, it was where we played as kids, blowing up trains on their way to Heidelberg or Berlin, evading the shadowy but ruthless Gestapo—more usually the railway police. Either way, the imagination was fed and sometimes I wish I could play similar games now without being locked up as an idiot.

It’s in marked contrast with my present environment—one which makes me equally happy but in a different way. Now my only excitement is dodging Covid 19. No Gestapo at least, not for the moment.

Sunlight in a country lane

Monmouth across Vauxhall fields

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Money, money, money . . .

In an increasingly cashless society, it is time to consider what we are in danger of losing.  In the great financial crashes of the future, we’ll no longer see pictures of men carrying wheelbarrows of money into shops to buy a tomato aka the German hyperinflation of 1923. They’ll be replaced by wheelbarrows of bytes. And what visual poetry we will have lost.

The first coin minted by an English King was the Silver Penny of Alfred The Great in the C9th

For a long time minting coin was decentralised, the responsibility of licensed moneyers and crafted by hand. Unfortunately for them in 1125 Henry I was on the throne. Known as ‘The Lion of Justice’ in a non-PC world, he was so outraged by the bad coinage in circulation he decided to take measures. People were losing faith in his coins, some light on weight, others with large nicks taken from them by moneyers squirreling away the gold and silver for themselves. The moneyers were rounded up, had their right arm chopped off and for good measure suffered castration. This was met with approval by the church and their chroniclers. Bishop Roger of Salisbury personally rounded up the moneyers of Winchester and handed them over to their fate. When money was at stake, the medieval church knew its priorities. 
These 'nicks' were hardly subtle. Looks like the mice have been at them

As a historian, a reader and a writer of fiction, I’ve always been fascinated by references to groats and testoons, and now for the first time I could see them for myself. They didn’t disappoint.

1) The Henry III Long Cross Penny 2) The Henry VII Groat. 
It was Henry VII who introduced the life like profile of the monarch on a coin. In 1791, Louis XVI  of France met his downfall by this. Escaping from revolutionaries he was recognised at the border by a village postmaster who recognised his face from a coin.

The Noble and the Half Noble, introduced by Edward III when he wasn't attacking France.

9) The Henry VIII Groat  10) The Henry VIII Testoon  11) Edward VI Half Sovereign. Edward's coin is unique, being the only coin with a child's face on its front. It's because he came to the throne in 1547  aged nine and died in 1553 - so frozen in time.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 the currency had been debased by Henry VIII and Edward VI by adulterating the gold and silver content with copper. She set about restoring it's purity. It's regarded as one of her finest achievements, which when set against the Armada, ruling as a woman in a man's world and avoiding all the plots to kill her, says a lot about how bad the coinage must have been. This is a the Elizabeth silver shilling, the larger  one, a medal. 

In 1279 the ‘Mint’ was centralised and relocated in the Tower of London, where it stayed until 1810 before moving to new purpose built premises on Tower Hill. There and using the latest steam driven machinery, coinage was revolutionised. And not just coin.

Medals had been designed and struck as early as the C17th but after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, it was decided to award a medal to every single soldier who had fought in the battle. It began a tradition that has continued for British campaigns ever since. What was incredible was the fact that they were, in a very short time scale, able to individually engrave the names of the 40,000 eligible soldiers, and that we still have the bound medal roll of the soldiers awarded.

Even Wellington had his medal

What I find striking is the immaculate copperplate handwriting of the bureaucrat/s involved.

Another striking medal is the Ashanti war medal of 1874,

A medal of Lawrence of Arabia

 In fact the entire collection of war related medals is a potent and evocative reminder of Britain’s imperial past. Undue pride or indeed shame is fruitless, an intellectual dead-end. It had its moments but amounts to a blink in world history. A case in point, is the origins of the iconic Britannia. It was first coined by the Romans to celebrate their conquest of Britain. It was resurrected by Charles II in 1672 when Britain began its own slow conquest of the world.  

The Gold Sovereign - a long way from Alfred's silver penny

And the coin that illustrates this best is the gold sovereign, introduced by Henry V11 to boost the image of the new Tudor dynasty. After a short eclipse by the guinea in the late C17th it was re-introduced in 1817 and in the heyday of Victorian splendour became the symbol of empire.

Paying contactless may be more useful but this is more beautiful and in itself tells a story. This is probably the first period in our history since the Norman Conquest of 1066 when all the coins in circulation feature one monarch. The Queen.

And what I would like under my bed, if I could carry it.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Covid 19

So, the great cull has begun. Covid 19 targeting those in their seventies (8% mortality rate) and eighties (15% mortality rate) and solving social care and pensions in a stroke. A conspiracy theory but one that resonates – like the medieval belief that the Jews were behind the black death ie a human agency with an agenda was responsible. In the case of Covid 19 it’s the belief that bats and pangolins are useful covers for the proximity of a secret biological laboratory located close to the official source of the outbreak.

Nearly seven hundred years ago, in Basle, Jewish people were herded into barns and burnt alive, at Speyer their dead forced into great wine casks and pushed into the turbulent Rhine. Today a few Chinese people were pelted with tomatoes by the enlightened people of Brighton. Progress of sorts, no doubt.

The medieval church, faced with the obvious question as to why God allowed it came up with the obvious answer that God was punishing us for our sins - the response of some fringe evangelists today - until priests, too, began dropping like flies. 

What’s fascinating are the parallels in our response to Plague  then and Covid 19 now. Children are fascinated by pictures of C16th Plague doctors, who in turn would be envious of their C21st equivalents. 

It’s easy to laugh at those earlier plague doctors but faced with an unknown disease their apparel was entirely logical. The smoked lenses were to ward off the evil eye rather that microbes, the beak stuffed with fragrant herbs allowed them to work surrounded by the stench of corruption and decay. The waxed leather coat was hydrophobic, which made it impervious to blood, mucus, or saliva and pus and protected the wearer within.

Our newfound interest in face masks mirrors earlier beliefs that infection was airborne. Then, people walked around sniffing aromatic pompadours in the belief that a ‘good’ smell would drive out the  ‘bad’ smell of disease. The equivalent today, I suppose, is the belief amongst some that garlic, rubbing yourself with Sesame oil, or a good saline mouthwash offers similar kinds of protection.

In the past, people were forcibly incarcerated in their homes with a red cross painted on the door. For the moment we are merely encouraged to ‘self-isolate’ – though by all accounts the Chinese response is more robust.

During the great plague of London many shops refused to handle money, demanding  that their customers placed their coins in vinegar laden bowls. Now, it’s reported, Chinese banks are irradiating and briefly quarantining money before recirculating it.

The Black Death of the Middle Ages was followed by an economic bounce and social improvement. Covid 19 might result in an ecological bounce — or the whole thing might just go away. 

Thursday, 13 February 2020

I hope my bones are better behaved

Founded in the C9th but largely C13th.

Nave and Altar

One of the few churches with its own landing stage!

St Dubricius Church and graveyard had a wonderful atmosphere that photographs can only hint at. Even so, this post is largely one of photographs to give that kind of hint. 

For those who, probably rightly, think a post of photographs is a kind of cheat, I’ve also included a brief history of the man himself. Its source is Celtic* where a good story necessarily trumps truth, but then again it happened so long ago . . . 

A snowdrop drift.

A C6th king of Ergyng* called Pebiau had an incurable disease which involved a steady froth of the mouth which necessitated two servants to wipe it away. On returning home from a series of battles, he discovered his beloved daughter pregnant, and because she was his beloved daughter ordered her to be drowned with the as yet unborn infant. This she survived, and so he ordered her to be burned alive. The following day he sent his guards to check she was finally dead, but instead of a charred crisp, they discovered her nursing her newborn baby. On seeing this Pebiau came to his senses and embraced both mother and child. The baby wiped his hand over Pebiau’s frothing mouth and he was immediately cured.

Thus began the career of St. Dubricius who went on to change water into wine, drive a ferocious demon from an otherwise placid young woman, and found an oratory and place of learning on the banks of the Wye. The site of his oratory was chosen for him via the voice of an angel. It directed him to build where he found a white sow nursing her piglets. Predictably he stumbled upon said white sow and piglets and there built his oratory.

The base of a 300 year old Tulip Tree. I so wanted to believe that the meshing was to keep tree goblins in their place. The reality was that mournful parishioners were scattering ashes into the hole, which presumably was not good for the tree. 

The entire area became a centre of learning and piety but all things come to an end, even St Dubricius. Worn down by infirmity, he resigned as Bishop and retired to the holy island of Bardsey where he died in 612 AD.

By 1120 his reputation was such his bones were dug up and reburied at  Llandaff with much pomp and ceremony. But even in death, St Dubricius continued to surprise. Before reinterring the much-travelled bones, they were ritually washed before witnesses in  Llandaff Church. To everyone’s surprise the water bubbled furiously and became piping hot, the event lasting more than an hour. I hope my bones are better behaved when I die.

And for those who believe in Ents

* S. Herefordshire/Monmouthshire
*The Liber landavensis. ed. by the Rev. W. J. Rees. The Welsh MSS. Society. Llandovery, W. Rees, 1840.