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Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Small Argument

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “Whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.
Thandie Newton caused a small argument last night. In an article she regretted the fact that people of colour were essentially barred from historical costume dramas unless they portrayed an occasional domestic or slave. My opening gambit – a gut instinct because I’m a historian – was that is just an unfortunate fact of life, or if you wish, a fact of the past.

I was challenged by ‘musicals.’ I don’t like musicals very much, for me their essentially fluff and tosh with the occasional hummable tune. Others view them as creative extravaganzas. Both views subjective, both equally valid. Each to their own. ‘What about musicals?’ I said.

‘Hamilton. He wasn’t a black man.’

‘And Cats . . . Lion-king, you don’t have singing cats and moralistic lions,’ I said. We both agreed that the Musical was a form of creative expression bound by its own rules, Opera, too, I imagine. Wotan, the ultimate Aryan, could probably be played by a black man with few turning a hair, though Wagner might not be best pleased. We agreed that Shakespeare, too, was a special point, in the sense that his poetry and message was universal and transcended race.

‘So why are you opposed to colour-blind costume dramas?’ It was said with the tone of one who checkmates.

Because they’re essentially historical and whilst you can fabricate or omit small details in the interests of drama - (though I did demur at the teenage Victoria having the hots for Lord Melbourne, in real life an elderly man prone to afternoon sleeps but played by the seductive Rufus Sewell) – you have to stick to the essentials. You can’t have Victoria played by an Indian, give Queen Elizabeth I a scouse accent, make William the Conqueror Chinese, make George Washington black. I appreciate these are rhetorical statements and in real life you can do anything you want, but then like fake science and fake news you’d be immersing a culture in fake history – harmless enough you might say, but not unsurprisingly I disagree.

You can't change the past for the perceived needs of the present. The past is  a world of its own and never entirely knowable, neither is science, but both disciplines strive for the truth, and history is important—even in costume dramas.

 ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’ George Orwell ‘1984’ Well we haven’t yet got a global Erdogan but we do have Google and some interesting algorithms. Google: European peoples — and then images. I haven’t yet got my head around this. 

Maybe manipulation and algorithms are the future the historians small sad nonentities, inverted Cassandras who can talk of the past and have no one believe them.


Friday, 21 April 2017

The Pendle Witches

Happiness can come in small, perfectly formed snippets that can be recalled at will many years later. One such moment for me was the summer having just finished my M. A. on Anthony Trollope. I had time on my hands, little money but a bedsit in the Uplands area of Swansea, Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and three books:
Lavengro and Romany Rye by George Borrow, and Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth. Rookwood is worth a post in itself, a baggy, picaresque novel exploring the C18th underworld, Highwaymen and dissolute aristocrats. I re-read it many years later and it didn’t disappoint. On that basis I downloaded a cheap kindle edition of another one his novels: The Lancashire Witches.

Published in 1849, The Lancashire Witches is a fictionalised account of the great Pendle Witch trial of 1612. It also provided ideal material for Ainsworth who was heavily influenced by the C18th gothic tradition. For some, Ainsworth has been seen as a key link between the early gothic tradition and the late C19th ‘Penny Dreadful’ —though the latter connotation does him a disservice. He was quite a substantial writer, a friend of Dickens and almost as popular.

On finishing the book, two things struck me:
a)     How ‘horror’ has changed and
b)    His attention to detail and the durability of the English countryside.

Ainsworth’s ‘horror’ has more in common with the medieval morality play and the starkness of old woodcut prints. Witches range from the dangerously seductive to the more traditional hideous crone. There are familiars and demons and broomsticks. 

It is black and white, one-dimensional and, I’m tempted to say, lacks psychological depth. But this wouldn’t be entirely fair, for Ainsworth was writing for an audience that believed in the eternal struggle between good and evil and the infinite value of the human soul. The stereotypes of crones and familiars, virtuous and beautiful young maidens and doomed heroes are time-worn and have less resonance now, but for a Victorian audience the real horror would have been the corruption of innocence, the real drama damnation, despair and the hope of redemption.

With regard to his attention to detail and the durability of the English countryside, I was struck by the wonderfully evocative Lancastrian place names, some so evocative I had to check they actually existed. But places like Whalley Nab exist and remain largely unchanged since Ainsworth first wrote about them. 

Historical figures are also meticulously researched, and families such as the Asshetons of Whalley and Downham still figure largely in the area as do their houses. 
Painted by Turner, the village of Downham 'nestles' beneath Sir Nicholas Asshton's House adjacent to the Church and just hidden by the trees described in the book.

Whalley Abbey
The Abbey House where Sir Ralph Assheton lived and where much of the action takes place

Whalley Abbey Gatehouse as painted by Turner
The Abbey was bounded by the towering and well-wooded heights of Whalley Nab. On the side of the Abbey, the most conspicuous objects were the great north-eastern gateway.

Rough Lee Hall, home of the witch Alice Nutter

For those who enjoy evocative set pieces, Ainsworth delivers—much in the vein of Sir Walter Scott. His descriptions of an otter hunt, a stag hunt, and the impact of a royal visit to Houghton Tower (James I) are powerful and stay in the mind.
Whalley parish church, exterior and interior exactly as Ainsworth describes. 

Whalley figures prominently in the book. One of the witches, Old Chattox is keen to get to one of three Saxon crosses in the parish churchyard. To the villagers their antiquity and strange carving render them magical. Their magic is confirmed when Old Chattox mysteriously vanishes:
 “She has rendered herself invisible, by reciting the magical verses inscribed on that cross.”….
“What strange uncouth characters. I can make neither head nor tail, unless it be the devil’s tail, of them.”
The crosses are still there for you to decide, as is the Calder where Nan Redferne was molested and brutally ‘ducked.’

And overshadowing Whalley Nab, the village and church, Rough Lee, Whalley Abbey and Downham is Pendle Hill itself. 

For a view of the surrounding countryside from the top, click here. 
For more pictures of the surrounding countryside and in particular the mystery of Malkin's Tower, click here 
And for those curious about Jeanette Winterton's book on the Pendle Witches, click here

Thursday, 13 April 2017

I'm doomed

Never read the papers if you wish to stay optimistic and reasonably sane. All this week I’ve been examining my earlobes, which lets be fair, are not the actions of a well-balanced man. Don’t get me wrong, my earlobes are to die for, and that’s basically the problem. I’ve discovered a faint diagonal crease on each one, which the papers have just told me portend imminent death by heart attack; well, perhaps not imminent. To be fair they hedge their bets with words like ‘may’ and such like, but the figures are damning. 

A recent survey in China indicated that those with diagonal creases in their earlobes were five times more likely to have significant narrowing of their coronary arteries than those lacking those damn creases. As soon as I read the article, I put down the paper and headed straight for the mirror. And there they were, grinning at me like lopsided fools, two very faint diagonal lines, almost unseen unless you were looking for them. 

Palmistry is much more benign. I have a long lifeline . . . or do I? Which takes precedence, the lobe, sneaky and often hidden by hair or random lines on a hand?

More to the point, what is to be done? I already go to the gym, punishment in itself. Perhaps face cream, great dollops of Nivea slathered over the offending lobes. Once you’re aware of these creases, these harbingers of death, emails from the Grim Reaper, you assume everyone else can see them too. Passers-by making sober judgements on whether I’ll make my Waitrose coffee in time.  Suddenly a Niqab sounds quite attractive, though not a Burka. That would be an overreaction.

Greying hair is also a sign, balding too, though I found some comfort on reading that receding hairlines were OK. It was the poor buggers with baldness on the crown that were walking hand in hand with death.

So now you know. I’m doomed, but a problem shared is a problem halved is what I always say. Share it widely enough and it might go away—until another newspaper reports bilateral creases in earlobes are marks of high intelligence and sexual potency.

I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile check out your earlobes. Don’t see why I should be the only miserable bugger investigating coffins 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

When I breathed I clinked

How I drifted into teaching, how I stuck with it for thirty years, still remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps I just liked teaching history – working with young silly buggers, and on bad days—inertia, the feeling that there wasn’t anything else I really wanted to do.
Marking a register for the first time was an exercise in poetry. Names like Giovanni Ambroselli… Bruno Romola, Rudolpho Velluchi, Mauro Zannotti  rolled off the tongue like incantations, putting me in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Father Hills was a nice entry into teaching and I taught some remarkable boys who’ve gone on to do great things. Things became more challenging when, a year later, we all decamped to the spanking new school adjacent to Tredegar House. The spanking new soon becomes old and it was knocked down some thirty years later.

When I got there I found I’d been given the wildest Form in the school - ‘to break me in’ - an elderly teacher told me in a mournful voice . . . 
It was Christmas, the last day of term. The weather was wintry, the schoolyard crusted in a thin skin of snow. I was on break duty, looking forward to the holiday starting in two hours, twenty-one minutes, and ten seconds time. A member of my Form came up to me. ‘Merry Christmas, sir,’ he said. He thrust a small bottle of whisky at me. My spirits rose. Just Two hours, eighteen minutes and twenty-one seconds to go— and a bottle of whisky!
In the next ten minutes my spirits rose still further as one by one the boys in my Form came up to me, each offering me various alcoholic drinks, each wishing me a Merry Christmas. Teaching wasn’t so bad I decided.
The bell went and we trooped into the final assembly of the year. The hall was freezing, the central heating having been switched off in readiness for the holiday ahead. I stood there in my woollen greatcoat, its many pockets bulging with bottles. When I breathed, I clinked.
My Form was positioned as usual in the front row - staring up at the stage with their usual intentness. In my first week, I’d assumed they were just keen, inspired perhaps by Mr Witherington’s various homilies. In my second week, as I came to know the Head and my Form, I realised this couldn’t be so. In my third week, I discovered the truth. My Form had a sweepstake on how many times Mr Witherington rocked on his feet as he spoke. Real money changed hands. (An interesting side bet was how many times he said ‘umm’ between words.)
But on this occasion the Head had something serious to say and my heart sank. Boys had brought drink into the school. A boy had been caught sick in the caretaker’s cupboard. Everyone— he stared at my Form in particular— would be searched.
The staff swung away from the walls with the same menacing smiles I remembered from when I was a schoolboy. I tried to ensure they wouldn’t be directed at me and so walked very carefully, aware of every tiny clink. I felt like the Tin Man. My Form stood up, impassive, obedient, their gaze fixed intently on the Head’s shoes.
 I patted them down, avoiding their eyes, aware of the smirking behind blank faces. No matter, just over an hour to go.
No drink was found, and I returned to the wall, contemplating an unexpectedly rich and exciting Christmas. The Lord works in mysterious ways. As I walked to the bus stop there was movement behind me, a furtive touch on the shoulder. I turned.
“Can we have our bottles back, sir?”
The optimism of youth.
"What bottles?"  I said