18 June, 2013
First published 1961. Edition reviewed: The History Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7524-4868-8. 349 pages.
The House at Old Vine is set in 1496-1680, mainly in and around the fictional town of Baildon in Suffolk. Some historical events and figures appear in the background, such as the English Civil War. All the main characters are fictional.
The House at Old Vine follows on from The Town House (reviewed here earlier), and continues the tale of Martin Reed’s descendants and the other inhabitants of the house he built. Maude Reed, Martin’s grand-daughter, appears in The Town House and also in The House at Old Vine, and links the two novels. Like its predecessor, The House at Old Vine consists of several separate but interlinked tales, each recounted by a different narrator. Usually the narrators are a generation or two apart. This gives the book more of the feel of a collection of linked short stories than a conventional novel. The unusual structure works well, partly because the house itself is the main source of continuity. The people come and go, some remembered by the generations who follow them and some forgotten, while the house endures through the centuries. The structure also has the effect of showing some characters from different points of view, thus throwing new light on their actions and behaviour.
As in The Town House, The House at Old Vine conveys an authentic sense of how it might have been to live and work in a provincial English town during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the narrators are middle class, as they belong to a family that owns not only a substantial house but also a business based there, whether it is cloth manufacturing, a hostelry or a kindly but down-at-heel boarding school. Sometimes the perspective is from lower down the social scale, as with Josiana’s description of the unrelenting toil of the medieval peasant’s life, or outside it altogether, as in Ethelreda’s vivid account of her childhood in the Fens before the traditional way of life was extinguished by landowners’ drainage schemes. The great events of politics and war happen in the background, and profoundly shape the lives and choices available to the characters. From the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, when “…the beliefs for which Walter Rancon had died were now compulsory”, to the spies and plots of the Civil War, the inhabitants of the house experience and respond to the events of their times as well as to their personal concerns. Social changes shape the different generations of narrators too, as wool manufacture gives way to silk with changes in trade and fashion, or the demise of the monasteries leaves an unfilled need for hostelries that can accommodate respectable travellers, or the expansion of the East India Company (forerunner of Empire) creates a demand for boarding schools where the children of expatriate officials can be brought up and educated, or as new forms of entertainment such as plays and concerts become widely popular. The house too changes with the times, evolving from private house to manufacturing enterprise to hotel to boarding school and back again.
Characterisation is lively and convincing. All the narrators and many of the secondary characters are individuals with their own foibles and motivations, mostly neither good nor bad but something in between. There seems to be a strange psychopathic trait that crops out occasionally in the descendants of Martin Reed – readers of The Town House will recognise its supposed origin – described by the perceptive Maude Reed as “The charm and the heartlessness […] Something not – not quite human, something wild and unaccountable”. For the most part the narrators are not the people with this characteristic, but the ones trying to deal with its consequences.
There is no historical note or map, perhaps reflecting the original publication date (1961), or perhaps because all the main characters, places and events are fictional.
Sequel to The Town House, taking the story of Martin Reed’s house and his descendants into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
12 June, 2013
The English monastery was replaced by a Benedictine foundation after the Norman conquest, and a monastery remained on the site until the Dissolution in the mid-sixteenth century.
The heart of the medieval monastery was the cloister, which adjoins the south side of the cathedral. The present cloister dates from the fifteenth century, although the layout dates back to the building of the Norman cathedral.
View of the cloister courtyard.
Looking along one of the cloister ranges. Originally the windows would have been glazed. The cloister would have been used for study and probably also as a scriptorium for manuscript copying.
The ceiling of the cloister has a wealth of intricately carved wooden bosses at each of the junctions…
…including this rather splendid Green Man
01 June, 2013
Urien (also spelled Urbgen or Uryen) was king of the territory of Rheged, somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, in the late sixth century. For more information, see my earlier post ‘Urien Rheged’. The surviving sources all portray him as a successful warrior and military leader. What can we say about his military career?
Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Gualllauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.
--Historia Brittonum, chapter 63, available online
Metcaut is the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), off the coast of what is now north-east England.
The poems ‘The Battle of Gwen Ystrad’ and ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ each describe a single battle. These may have been especially important battles in Urien’s career, since a whole poem is devoted to each (although, more prosaically, they could just be chance survivors of a larger number of poems describing Urien’s battles).
‘Argoed Llwyfain’ translates approximately as ‘By the Elm Wood’, and ‘Gwen Ystrad’ as ‘White Valley’, which are unfortunately rather too general to locate either battle precisely. There were probably many places that could have been described as a ‘white valley’ (the limestone dales of northern England spring to mind), and many places that were ‘by an elm wood’.
One of the poems attributed to Taliesin gives a list of battles:
A battle in the ford of Alclud, a battle at the Inver.
The battle of Cellawr Brewyn. The battle of Hireurur.
A battle in the underwood of Cadleu, a battle in Aberioed.
He interposes with the steel loud (and) great.
The battle of Cludvein, the affair of the head of the wood.
--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online
It also says:
Until Urien came in the day to Aeron.
He was not an aggressor, there appeared not
The uplifted front of Urien before Powys.
--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online
Another describes what seems to be a sizeable cattle raid:
Purposing the affair of Mynaw.
And more harmony,
Advantage flowing about his hand.
Eight score of one colour
Of calves and cows.
Much cows and oxen.
--A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online
Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is off the coast of what is now north-east England.
Some of the names in the Taliesin poetry are identifiable. Alclud is ‘The Rock of Clyde’ and refers to Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde estuary. Presumably the ‘ford of Alclud’ was a crossing-place nearby.
‘Cellawr Brewyn’ means ‘the huts of Brewyn’. Brewyn could refer to the Roman fort of Bremenium at modern Rochester in Northumberland, on the major Roman road of Dere Street.
‘Inver’ is the Gaelic equivalent of Welsh ‘Aber’, meaning ‘mouth’ or ‘confluence’. The name is too general for the location to be identified. It presumably refers to a location at or near a river-mouth or river confluence in a Gaelic-speaking area, which could be almost anywhere – perhaps in Ireland, or the kingdom of Dal Riada in the south-west Highlands (roughly modern Argyll), or possibly a Gaelic-speaking area on the Irish Sea coast of modern Cumbria or Galloway. (Edit: My thanks to Beth (see comment thread) for pointing out that 'Inver' is a doubtful translation and may not be a place name at all).
Mynaw (Manau) could refer to either the Isle of Man or the area around Stirling. Stirling is perhaps a more likely location for a cattle-raid, as retrieving a large number of cattle from an island might be a troublesome business. Conversely, the Isle of Man is not that far from the coast of north-west England/south-west Scotland, and not necessarily inaccessible if Rheged was a maritime power with access to shipping.
Powys was a kingdom in what is now north-east and mid-Wales, and may also have extended into the lowland areas that are now Shropshire and Cheshire (see earlier article on ‘Early medieval Powys’ for more detail). Aeron may refer to the area around Ayr in south-west Scotland. The poem seems to indicate that Urien’s presence in these areas was not hostile, since it says ‘he was not an aggressor’ (caveat that I do not know whether alternative translations are possible; some of the Taliesin poems are problematic and translations vary). This could perhaps indicate that Urien was considered the rightful ruler, defending his territory. However, Powys had its own royal dynasty, recorded in genealogies and with some of the kings mentioned in sources such as Annales Cambriae, so it is difficult to see how Urien could have been considered the rightful ruler of Powys (unless perhaps as some sort of over-king). If he was not an aggressor, perhaps the suggestion is that he was present as an ally of the local king. If so, this would fit with the interpretation of the ‘four kings’ who fought Theodric in Historia Brittonum as an alliance, and may suggest that Urien was also capable of operating in alliances elsewhere.
Of the names that are identifiable, all except Powys are in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, suggesting that this area was the focus of Urien’s activity (caveat that the unidentified names could be in different areas).
The names cover a wide area, from Dumbarton Rock on the west coast to Lindisfarne on the east coast and from Stirling (if Manau is Stirling) in the north to Powys in the south. If they represent the locations of battles or campaigns in which Urien fought, they suggest that Urien was capable of campaigning over considerable distances. If Manau is the Isle of Man, it may indicate that he had campaigned by sea as well as by land. This is consistent with Urien having had a long and successful military career.
Interestingly, all the places except Powys are north of Hadrian’s Wall. This may indicate that the core of Urien’s territory was also north of Hadrian’s Wall. Alternatively, if the battles were mainly fought against rivals and neighbouring kingdoms outside his home territory, their locations may indicate that Urien’s core territory was elsewhere, perhaps south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online
Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
26 May, 2013
Asparagus comes into season in May. Not only is asparagus a sublime vegetable when lightly boiled or steamed, it can also be used as the basis for other dishes, such as this colourful quiche.
You can vary the herbs and vegetables according to taste and availability, or add a rasher or two of chopped bacon (fry it along with the onion) if wished. The quiche goes well with bread and a green salad on a hot day, or with new potatoes and salad or vegetables (more asparagus?), as you choose.
This quantity should serve four.
For the shortcrust pastry:
4 oz (approx 100 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard
For the filling:
Half a small onion, or 3-4 spring onions
4-6 oz (approx 100 – 150 g) asparagus spears
One red pepper
2 oz (approx 50 g) mushrooms (optional)
3 oz (approx 75 g) cheese
Approx 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) fresh parsley or oregano (or 1 teaspoon [1 x 5ml spoon] dried)
5 fl oz (approx 140 ml) milk
To make the pastry:
Grease a flan dish approximately 7 inches (approx 18 cm) diameter.
Rub the butter and lard into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Gradually add cold water to mix to a soft dough. If it is floury, you need a little more water, if it is sticky, you have added too much water and need to add a bit more flour. Or you can use ready-made pastry if you prefer.
Roll out the pastry to a circle big enough to line the greased flan tin. Line the flan tin with the pastry and trim off any surplus.
To make the filling:
Peel and chop the onion. Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into dice about half an inch (approx 1 cm) square. Peel and slice the mushrooms, if using. Wash and chop the fresh herbs.
Grate the cheese.
Wash the asparagus. Cut the top 3 inches or so off each spear and set aside. Slice the remaining asparagus stalks.
Fry the chopped onion in cooking oil over a medium heat for a few minutes until softened. Add the sliced asparagus stalks, diced red pepper and sliced mushrooms (if using) and continue frying for a few more minutes until the vegetables are softened and starting to colour.
Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Spread the vegetables evenly in the bottom of the flan case. Sprinkle the grated cheese on top.
Arrange the reserved asparagus tips in an attractive pattern on the top of the flan, like the spokes on a wheel (or any other pattern you choose).
Beat the egg into the milk, and pour the mixture into the flan case.
Bake in a moderately hot oven, about 180 C, for about 25 – 30 minutes until the filling is set and golden.
Serve hot, warm or cold with bread or new potatoes and a salad or vegetables of your choice.
The quiche will keep in the fridge for a day or two, or can be frozen.
14 May, 2013
Saraband, 2010. ISBN 978-1-887354-74-5. 263 pages.
Making Shore is based on a real incident, the sinking of the merchant ship SS Sithonia by a torpedo in July 1942. All the characters are fictional.
Aged 19, Brian ‘Cubby’ Clarke is the third radio operator on the dilapidated merchant ship SS Sithonia, bound for South America with a cargo of coal. When the ship is torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic 350 miles from the Canary Islands, Brian and his closest friend Joe Green are among the survivors. Adrift in a decaying lifeboat with no fuel for the engine and no sail, slowly dying of thirst under the pitiless tropical sun, the men are pushed to the limit of human endurance and beyond. Amid despair, madness and death, Joe’s generosity and humanity stand out for Brian like a beacon. But Joe’s friendship lays on Brian a last, heartbreaking duty…
According to the historical note and the afterword, Making Shore is a fictional account based on a real incident. Brian Clarke, who had been serving on a torpedoed merchant ship in 1942 and survived the lifeboat journey to shore, was attempting to write his memoirs without much success when a chance encounter led him to publisher Sara Hunt and novelist Sara Allerton. Sara Allerton interviewed him and used his experiences to imagine the characters, motivations and events of the novel. The disclaimer says ‘…a blend of the author’s interpretation of Brian Clarke’s reminiscences and the author’s own imagination and invention of events that did not actually occur.’ It also says that all the characters, including Brian Clarke’s namesake, are fictional.
The novel has three main components: the lifeboat journey; the survivors’ experiences in various prison camps in French West Africa; and an understated romance in Britain that forms the beginning and the end of the novel. The lifeboat journey is the centrepiece and for me was by far the most compelling part. Thirst, heat, fear and privation take a terrible mental and physical toll on the survivors. In these grim circumstances the veneer of civilisation wears horribly thin, throwing into sharp relief some of the best and worst aspects of human nature. Not only is there the suspense of not knowing who will make journey’s end, or at what price, many readers may find themselves trying to imagine how they themselves might react in similar circumstances.
The section in the prison camps would be hard pushed to match the drama of the lifeboat journey, and duly does not, although the interaction between the survivors and the inhabitants of an impoverished West African tribal fishing village is memorable and has an authentic air. The poignant romance in grey wartime Britain that book-ends the novel is another complete contrast again, and could have come from another world.
The subject matter – the war at sea in the North Atlantic and its toll in human suffering – inevitably calls to mind The Cruel Sea. I was consciously trying to avoid making comparisons, not least because The Cruel Sea is one of my favourite novels of all time and sets a near-impossibly high standard for any other novel to measure up to. However, I could not help but be reminded, and this may well account for why I found the writing style in Making Shore rather ‘flat’. Apart from the lifeboat journey, which was sufficiently harrowing to need little embellishment, the book never seemed to come fully to life. It also took me a while to work out what was going on in the initial chapters, although the narrative seemed to find its stride once the Sithonia put to sea.
A useful map at the beginning outlines the approximate site of of the sinking and the likely route of the lifeboat. Brian Clarke’s lively Afterword (titled ‘A Lifetime of Luck’) gives a potted history of his life and how Making Shore came to be written, and is well worth a read in its own right.
Fictional account of the harrowing journey to safety of the survivors of a torpedoed ship in World War II, based on a real incident.