To go to the sea in ships

There are plenty of fictional accounts of London’s Thames waterside, Charles Dickens to name just one, so it is rather wonderful to read this account by Margarette Lincoln detailing the lives and trades of real people involved in commissioning, building, provisioning and manning the great ships that traded and fought for Britain in the age of Cook and Nelson.

M LincolnTrading in War is a fully examined look at the maritime adventures of Britain through the lens of the people who lived, worked and sailed from the Port of London. It is hard to reconcile the picture of London’s Dockland two hundred years ago with how it is today; yet interestingly, the parallels between 1718 and 2018 are not hard to find.

The book traces the history of shipbuilding on the Thames from about the 1760’s through to a period shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. It covers all the trades associated with the river, from watermen, lightermen and sailors through to sawyers, caulkers, shipwrights, to the land based trades of chandlers, biscuit manufacturers and sailmakers.

Largely centred north of the river in Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse, the south banks do get an also-ran mention, sadly especially in terms of crime. But this is not to forget the shipbuilding docks in Deptford and Greenwich.

Margarette Lincoln identifies the families, follows their fortunes and outlines in particular the stresses of such a fluctuating profession. For example, in peace time – maritime adventures were mostly about trade, the two largest companies The West Indian Company and the East Indian Company both used private shipbuilding docks for their ships; though probably for provisions and chandlery they would use the same companies as the Admiralty. Meanwhile the Admiralty shipbuilders might languish; the reverse became true during the American War and the war with the French, when navy vessels were at a premium and both Admiralty docks and private docks were occupied at full stretch. as many as 54 warships were outfitted in any one year from a single dock in Deptford.

There are startling parallels between the eighteenth and 20th centuries though. The construction of West India Dock and The London Dock were fiercely contested, so that it was some several years before either could be constructed; similar to the competition between Gatwick and Heathrow, the expansion of docks, as opposed to open river docking was fought over, and then there was further rivalry between the construction of the two sites, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. The Wapping site required the destruction of several areas of residential and commercial buildings, around 2,200 in all, putting many families out of their homes and businesses while the Isle of Dogs had other problems; but once built the docks altered completely the nature of the districts surrounding them, not least by tearing the heart out of the community. Furthermore, these developments, by displacing so many people led to changes in the populations of areas further east and north, like Shoreditch and Hackney.

The building of the docks altered the livelihoods of many people on the river in much the same way as containerisation in the 1970s and 80s emptied the Port of London of any trading ships, thereby leading to the domestication and gentrification of much of the area, both north and south of the river all the way from London Bridge to beyond the Isle of Dogs on the north and down to Deptford and Greenwich on the south bank.

I loved this book. I loved learning about the wives and widows of famous explorers and sailors like Captain Bligh (he of the Mutiny) and Captain Cook and the lives of the Barnard families (shipbuilders) and of merchants like J Robinson who had a carpet and furniture warehouse in the Ratcliff area.

The term “warehouse” only entered general use in this period to denote a superior type of “shop”. I wonder what J Robinson would have made of a department store!

It is in the nature of a seafaring community that many women, wives as well as widows feature more prominently that in other walks of life. The menfolk being away, pressed or serving in the navy, for long periods; lives and livelihoods had to be maintained, and these women mastered the art magnificently. Frances Barnard took over the Deptford shipyard on the death of her husband and continued to manage it until the ages of her sons meant that a man could take over again. However, it says much for her that when she did hand it over some ten years later, it was still a profitable business. One has to respect these women, who in an age when they had absolutely no power, they thrived.





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Power and politics of today seen through Shakespeare’s lens

Sitting at home, a Professor of the Humanities was considering the forthcoming elections in The United States and possibly, Europe and wondering about what might happen, as one does. Then it did happen – Brexit, Populism and Trump. In conversation with others, he was persuaded to put pen to paper.

This all sounds ridiculous, but it is not far short of how Tyrant, Shakespeare on Power came to be written. In the Coda to this extraordinary study of Shakespeare’s plays and his times, Stephen Greenblatt admits that this was his very purpose: to see the situation in today’s political sphere through an different, but very accurate lens. By doing this he has shown the cunning way in which Shakespeare draws parallels from distant history from such an Oblique Angle that he avoids the penalties suffered by other contemporaries: Thomas Kydd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and many other less well known writers and pamphleteers.

Greenblatt on WSIn this extremely readable study of tyranny, Greenblatt selectively studies the careers of Richard III (Shakespeare’s version), Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus, extrapolating from these plays the many ways in which tyranny can arise, thrive and fall. In the chapters on Richard III, the author goes right back to the Henry VI plays, threading through the gradual decline of that monarch to the rise and rise and fall of Richard, Duke of York (the father) to Richard of Gloucester (the son) who through treachery and deceit becomes King Richard III.

Ricardians (like myself) rise up in horror at this portrayal of Richard III, but nevertheless seen as through a glass darkly, as an explanation for examples of modern tyranny that has an uncanny resemblance to Stalin and Hitler, it is a masterpiece of exposition.

In one chapter, Enablers, Greenblatt looks at some of the fairly minor characters around Richard who have given him help to the top job, but whose assistance far from being rewarded becomes, in time, a growing paranoiac threat.  In Shakespeare’s play this is the case for the Duke of Buckingham, for example, failing to grasp the nettle of the two Princes in the Tower, he earns for himself, his own demise – if you are not for me then you are against me. How many of Stalin’s one time supporters ended up dead, and the same with Hitler? This chapter also shows the subtle use Shakespeare makes of the crowd.  The crowd becomes a tool for the playwright in many of these plays, in Julius Caesar, Richard III and especially in Coriolanus, and as his writing and skill developed so did the “crowd scenes” – and you have to remember that in his own times, there were crowds milling about the stage, in the Pit, you only have to be a groundling once at today’s Globe Theatre or the recent production of Julius Caesar at the new Bridge Theatre in London, to know how intimately involved you become in these scenes.

The chapter on Coriolanus reads a bit like a Guardian article after the election of Donald Trump.

In civilised states, we expect leaders to have achieved at least a minimal level of adult self-control, and we hope as well for thoughtfulness, decency, respect for others, regard for institutions. Not so Coriolanus: here we are dealing instead with an overgrown child’s narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly, all unchecked by any adult’s supervision and restraint.

Sound like anyone on the world stage today?

Quite apart from its contemporary overtones, this is a wonderful study of the latter stages of Elizabeth I’s reign: ageing Virgin Queen, full of suspicion – with good reason – she had manoeuvred and managed her life, treading always upon a narrow causeway between the old Catholic and the new Protestant religion, unable to fully eradicate one or fully endorse the other and surrounded by plotters and supporters alike, who were looking on to the next event – her succession. Compared to her predecessors, Elizabeth’s reign had been remarkable. But blood was shed, sometimes unfairly; heretics – of both persuasion – were burnt; writers and demagogues punished. Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare managed his own journey, on an equally narrow causeway, with studied brilliance.

This book is not just for scholars and schoolchildren, but for everyone. A piece of work!

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways – the NHS today

This is a paean of praise to The National Health Service and a post about a most unusual and elevating book, Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell.

Cast you mind back to your school books, and in the history section you may find that you learnt about the Middle Ages, a dark and dangerous time of plague, war, famine and mayhem followed hard upon by the Renaissance which spread from Europe into England. England having been somewhat backward in these things, since the disappearance of the Romans, whereupon we seem to have forgotten how to make bricks, build roads and lived in a civilised fashion.

This is, of course, an exaggeration, more in keeping with 1066 and All That written by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman and wonderfully illustrated by John Reynolds. It holds a nugget of truth.

HartnellIn a miraculous new book, Medieval Bodies, Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages, we are presented in gloriously illustrated detail the perceptions commonly held about our mortal frame, its connection to our spiritual nature and its possible future. It may seem comical now, that people ever believed that our nature and our health was governed by the elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Air; that the seasonal changes affected these “humours”; and astrological calculations affected the cures and remedies that might be offered in any given circumstance.

Crude though that understanding might have been, it is not so long ago since ordinary people died from illnesses that we would now expect to shake off, or treat with antibiotic. Until the idea of a National Health Service, free at the point of use came in 70 years ago, the cost of treatment for something as ordinary as tonsillitis might be too much for the family purse, leading on possibly to kidney infection and certain death. Scarlet Fever, an illness now barely known, was another killer until penicillin could be used to prevent further complications, also resulting in kidney failure.

It is salutary to read about the different cures that were offered in the Middle Ages: blood-letting, amputation and a host of herbivorous potions which might aid recovery, or might not. Some of them were undoubtedly poisonous and some were probably completely ineffectual.  Tying the dried testes of a squirrel to your chest, for example, might make you feel as though you were “doing something” but probably would not have cured scrofula or indeed anything else.

In this illuminating and illuminated book, arranged in chapters from Head to Toe, so to speak, Jack Hartnell explores the understandings and misunderstandings of the medical profession and the population in general, with a generous and sympathetic eye. There are anatomical drawings and diagrams, illustrations from manuscripts and medical “textbooks” and attribution to the wonders of the great masters of the past, Avicenna, Galen, Paracelsus and Versalius to name but a few. It is a marvel that anyone survived at all!

Back to the NHS. Few people have any notion how much each individual costs to keep healthy, from birth to death. And it is an organisation that is to some extent a victim of its own success. Without it, undoubtedly more people would die off; longevity is just one example; long-term treatments of such conditions as diabetes, kidney failure, Parkinson’s, myaesthenia gravis and scarlet fever have kept members of my family (alone) alive for decades. Other families are living with cancer, cystic fibrosis, asthma – all of them potential killers.

Thank goodness we live now, thank goodness that the NHS exists to serve the people. Thank you, especially those who look after my family, for your commitment and care. Thank you, every nurse, doctor and auxiliary worker of this organisation.


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Horror and tragedy in Italy

FacismThis book, A Bold and Dangerous Family, is a must read for everyone who loves Italy and especially Florence. Not because it encapsulates all the beauty, civility and cultural splendour, its superficial exquisiteness, but because it shows in merciless detail the hideous underbelly of that fair city.

Not least also, because it looks from the outside as though Italy is en route somewhere along the same trajectory today. This biography of the Rosselli family is a warning from history.

Caroline Moorehead has the ability to bring to life in detail all the machinations of the political turbulence that led to the dictatorship and tyranny of Benito Mussolini, the ideas behind the fasci, and then its terrible and terrifying consequences. But all this is refracted through the lives of anti-fascists, most particularly Carlo and Nello Rosselli and their immediate circle.

Brought up largely by their mother, Amelia, there were three brothers: Aldo, Carlo and Nello. Aldo was killed in the First World War, Carlo was the reactionary, the visionary who saw far into the future what fascism would bring to Italy, including war in Europe and Nello was the historian, who used Italian history as a way of showing where Mussolini was taking Italy; in fact his parallels were so transparent that he was persuaded to tone down his writings.

Ms Moorehead draw us deeply into the family Rosselli and their devotion to the cause of anti-fascism which in the end destroyed them. They were regarded as heroes after the end of the Second World War, their bodies exhumed from Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and brought back to be buried in Florence in a cemetery in Trespiano.

Attempts to bring to justice the men that killed them were futile, though the names were known. Many of the perpetrators of the scheming and execution of their killings, not least Mussolini and Ciano (his son-in-law) were already dead.

For another absorbing book by Caroline Moorehead see my post November 7th 2014 – Au revoir les enfants



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Books about books

I love reading books about books in a way that I do not like the everlasting catalogue of Christmas books that thumps on to the carpet around November, from the colour supplement or Amazon or almost everywhere, EXCEPT the Primrose Hill Bookshop list which comes out twice a year, summer and winter which is a good catch-up moment for books one may have missed.


But two especially interesting and favoured books about reading are Susan Hill‘s 2017 memoir called Jacob’s Room is Full of Books and Marilynne Robinson’s memoir When I Was a Child I Read Books. There are two reasons for selecting these two, one, Susan Hill is quintessentially English and Marilynne Robinson is quintessentially American, so there is little overlap and also because they both talk interestingly about themselves, where they read, what they read and what they admire about books – about the physicality of the page, the typeface, the handling of the book, its heft.

For me, this is one of the abiding things, the heft of the books itself – light or heavy; and the placement of various moments on the page, I can vividly recall where exactly on the page something happened, something ordinary or scary or unusual – that pinpoint accuracy used to annoy the hell out of my husband who thought I must skim read!

Susan Hill writes marvellous books anyway, so it is a particular joy to find out what she likes to read herself. Jacob’s Room is set over a whole year of reading and it includes nuggets of country life – Norfolk now and Oxfordshire once upon a time; France where she goes on holiday; books taken from shelves in rented cottages and found in charity bookshops; new books sent by publishers all read in shady corners on hot days, or beside a wood fire in winter, along with comments on the arrival and departure of migrant birds – who knew that Same West (the actor) was also a birdwatcher – and the hedgehogs that live in her garden.

It seems that she is an observant naturalist as well as a people watcher, and I love that. Best of all, at the back of the book is a list of all the books she mentions in the book – so helpful, so thoughtful of her.

The Marilynne Robinson memoir is rather different, it is a series of essays about the place of reading, not so much about different books but about different themes, it is a more complicated and nuanced book because it deals not so much with specific titles but with ideas in books, and praises writers who bring ideas into print.

Probably the funniest recent book about reading is Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader, a small book by any standard but an absolute gem.  If you haven’t already read it all you need to know about it is that The Queen discovers a mobile library parked near the kitchens at Buckingham Palace, and begins to borrow books…it is delightful, amusing and thoroughly well written. There is a mobile library that pops up in Susan Hill’s pages too. She has observed, sadly, the decline in visitors, once crowded with readers, it is now seldom used – so why keep it going.

Then there is also The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bithell, amusing and rather scary in places.



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And then three come along at once

If historical novels are not your thing, then maybe stop now. This is about Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one time Queen of France, Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine, though not the first two at the same time.

When she was only thirteen, Eleanor was thrust into the thick of the world of power and intrigue, for on the death of her father on his way as a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela (where he is buried) she learned for the first time that she was affianced to Louis, the Dauphin of France and quite suddenly, soon to be King.

The decision was strategic. Eleanor came into her inheritance as a wealthy woman in both lands and money; for her to have married any one of many barons and landowners of Aquitaine would have split the duchy into warring factions, but by leaving her as affianced to Louis in his Will, a negotiation that had clearly taken place in secret, her father avoided such factional and destructive fighting.

The Summer Queen covers Eleanor’s childhood, the death of her only brother in infancy and her close emotional relationship with her sister Petronella, their mother Aenor de Chatelerault having died some time before this novel begins. Eleanor’s childhood ended abruptly on the death of her father and she was moved to France married to Prince Louis. Generally painted as a monkish weakling, in this novel he begins his marriage as a passionate and beautiful youth; a fearful rampage at the siege of Vitry some years later (by which time he was King) during which many women and children were burnt alive in the church where they had sought safety, crushed his spirit – he saw it as punishment for his misdemeanours, that and the fact he was unable to sire boys – the unforgiving will of God.

By the second book, The Winter Crown, Eleanor has begun her robust and turbulent marriage to Henry II. Bearing many children, both male and female – the brood of devils some might say – Eleanor manages her household and tries to influence Henry; she had expected as much when their whirlwind romance began, but more and more she was frustratingly side-lined, eventually matters reach a crisis and even a Queen must face the consequences of treason: she is imprisoned by Henry in squalid and meagre circumstances in Sarum Castle.

This part of the trilogy is full of tragedy: sons die and daughters go off across the continent; marriageable princesses are a token and important part of alliance and support, no matter how suitable or unsuitable the groom. By the end of the book, only her sons Richard and John have survived; her daughters are in Saxony, Castile and Sicily and she is aware that she may never see them again. Henry, meanwhile, has taken on a much younger mistress and is seeking an annulment to their marriage.

The last part, The Autumn Throne, finds Eleanor still mewed up in Sarum Castle refusing to be bullied by her husband even as he divides her from her family and her birthright.

All changes therefore, when Henry II dies and Richard I comes to the throne instead. Eleanor is released, she travels over the Alps to collect Berenguela (also known as Berengaria) as a bride for Richard, who is already on his way to Jerusalem as part of the his Crusade; behind his back his brother John is scheming and plotting and when Richard gets imprisoned on his way back from an unsuccessful campaign, John tries to persuade everyone that he is dead, and he, Philippe of France and Heinrich of Germany try to make sure that Richard disappears without trace – however having escaped their clutches Richard makes a magnificent reappearance only to be killed by a stray arrow at Chalus.

Eleanor’s story is far from over though. She has to master John, who aggravates the barons into rebellion, she has to travel to Castile, aged 80, to collect her niece Blanche for marriage to another French King, Louis VIII; she holds her daughter Joanna in her arms as she dies from childbirth and sees many other followers and friends die in their time.

Retired and quiet at the Abbey of  Fontevraud, she commissions the famous effigies of her husband, Henry II, of Richard and of Joanna (now missing) in the abbey church. Until she too, follows them to the grave.

There might be a little too much repetition of hunting expeditions with gyrfalcons and gazehounds; eating of almond pastries and sewing elaborate costumes – but what else was there to do without television, snapchat and the like.

On a happier note we meet William Marshall again, one day to become the most powerful man in England. William’s remarkable story has also been told by Elizabeth Chadwick in her novels,  A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, which I also strongly recommend.

This is a glorious pageant full of sound and fury, but not on the whole signifying nothing, since its elaborate weaving of historical fact with imaginative in-filling brings this part of English history abundantly and vividly to life, to the great enhancement of our perception of the Angevin Kings of England.

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The book, the sequel and the play

My Name is Lucy Barton Elizabeth StroutWho knew that My Name is Lucy Barton would produce such a flourishing industry? T-shirts and tea towels next? The novel was such a slight little book, physically that is – it packed a big punch.

A single person narrator (LB) recalls a time when she was ill for several months. Some complication, possibly not even physical, keeping her in hospital after a fairly routine operation.

Her two small children were clearly scared when they visited, seeing their mother so thin and so sick; her husband had hospital-phobia (who doesn’t? But some of us rise above it) and he gets her a single room because he cannot bear the woman who is clearly dying in the next bed. This causes Lucy chronic loneliness, as well as being ill.

Then she wakes up to find her mother sitting at the end of the bed. That is enough for now, anything else would be a spoiler.

The writing is sparse, direct and funny at times, laugh out loud funny occasionally and heart-rending. Amgash does not seem to have been a good place to grow up. Though during the book it is clear that Lucy has left her family and roots behind and is living in New York, AIDS has struck the gay community, but in her evident loneliness, Lucy even manages to envy those couples walking past the apartment block where she lives. It would seem that some people can be lonely even when married. Too right, Lucy!

StroutThe sequel, Anything is Possible, is centred in Amgash. So we get to meet, in person, many of the characters only referred to in My Name is Lucy Barton. Elizabeth Sprout has a vivid and extraordinary facility for character and place, you can really hear the wind in the fields of corn; you can smell the poverty and cringe and experience the terrible isolation. Amgash is not, seemingly, a huddle of houses, it is spread out so that one dwelling or farm is far, maybe even a drive apart, from the next.

But the two books together make a nice whole. Contained and absorbing. So imagine my surprise when I saw that the first book had been remodelled as a play. How was that going to work?My name is LB play

The answer is brilliantly!

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