27 February, 2007

February recipe: Goulash

One of the great compensations of the cold, damp, dark days of winter is that you get to eat comfort food, like dumplings. I have no idea whether dumplings have a long history, but they are so simple and filling that they ought to have been a staple of peasant cookery since the dawn of time, or at least since milled flour became widely available. I make no claims at all for the authenticity of the goulash recipe. I suspect that in this form it can’t go very far back, since paprika, tomatoes and green peppers don’t sound like the sort of thing that would have been widely available on the plains of Hungary until fairly recently, but successful traditional dishes tend to adapt to new ingredients. I can certainly recommend it as a simple, satisfying meal on a dank winter day. It also brings back happy memories of a popular climbers’ and hikers’ pub in Keswick in the English Lake District, whose home-made goulash with dumplings and garlic bread is a splendid end to a day on the local hill, Skiddaw.

The recipe serves four, and can be made in quantity and frozen. I happen not to like sour cream with it, but if you do, go right ahead. I generally use a cheap cut of beef, like shin or skirt, which suits the long slow cooking. When time is short, I make it with good pork sausages, in which case you add the potatoes along with the other vegetables and the cooking time is 30-40 minutes instead of two hours. It should also work with other cuts of beef, or with lamb or mutton, if you prefer. You can vary the vegetables according to taste and availability, and the quantity according to appetite.

Goulash (serves 4)

For the goulash:
1 lb (approx 500 g) shin beef, skirt of beef, stewing steak or other cut of your choice
1 large onion (about 6-8 oz, or about 150-250 g)
12 oz (about 350 g) parsnips or carrots
1 green pepper
2 cloves of garlic
2 sticks of celery, if liked (if you don’t like celery, replace with more carrot or parsnip)
4 tsp (4 x 5 ml spoon) paprika
Half a tin of chopped tomatoes in tomato juice (approx 6 oz or 150 g)
1 tsp (1 x 5ml spoon) demerara sugar
1 tsp (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried oregano, or dried mixed herbs if preferred
8 oz (approx 250 g) potatoes

For the dumplings:
4 oz (approx 120 g) self-raising flour
2 oz (approx 60 g) shredded suet
1 tsp (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried sage

Cut the beef into pieces about 1 inch (about 2 cm) square, if it isn’t already diced.
Peel and chop the onion.
Peel and slice the parsnips/carrots
Remove the seeds from the green pepper and chop.
Slice the celery if using.
Peel and crush or finely chop the garlic.
Heat butter or cooking oil in a large heavy-based saucepan, and fry the meat cubes until browned.
Add the chopped onion, carrots/parsnips, pepper, celery (if using) and garlic. Fry until browned.
Reduce the heat and stir in the paprika, then add the tomatoes, sugar and oregano.
Pour in about half a pint (about 250 ml) of water. Season with salt and black pepper, then cover the pan and bring to the boil
Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and simmer for around two hours, stirring from time to time and adding more water if it begins to boil dry. (Don’t attempt to cook it over a higher heat for a shorter time – I’ve tried and it doesn’t work very well)
Mix the flour, suet and dried sage in a small bowl, season with salt and black pepper, and mix to a firm dough with a small amount of water. Shape into 8 dumplings.
Peel the potatoes and cut into dice about 1 inch (about 2 cm) square. Add the potatoes to the beef stew and stir well.
Put the dumplings on top so they are half submerged in the stew, and simmer for another 20-30 minutes. The dumplings get half-boiled and half-steamed and will swell to about twice their original volume as they cook.
Serve with bread, noodles or spaghetti, with a spoonful of sour cream if liked.

23 February, 2007

The Samplist, by Francis Ellen. Book review

Edition reviewed: Ronak, 2004, ISBN 0-9548031-0-8

The Samplist is a witty black comedy set in a contemporary Glasgow music college. Alex Stone is an ex-programmer whose middling piano skills were just sufficient to get him a college place, but whose real passion lies in creating music by sampling single notes and sculpting them in software to produce a complete performance. Alex believes this technique is capable of producing music that will equal any performer in the world. But the slimy vice-principal is out to get him, his last ally on the college staff has just been sacked, and to make matters worse his beautiful girlfriend has sent one of his computer-generated tapes to a London music producer, who now wants to meet this hitherto-unknown piano virtuoso and hear him play live . . .

The Samplist reminded me of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, though The Samplist is a good deal sunnier. The writing is lively, the chaotic energy of the college and its city is well captured, and the plot takes some neat twists and turns. The characters are as eccentric a collection of misfits as you could ever have the (mis)fortune to encounter. Meet Skuggs, the gigantic tuba player in a parka who leaves his tuba on the bus so often that it’s the subject of a drivers’ sweepstake and whose appetite for beer and dubious food is, ahem, bottomless (if you like fart jokes, you will love Skuggs). Elliott, the virtuoso guitarist with a talent as big as his ego and a diminishing grasp on reality. Laura, Alex’s beautiful Spanish girlfriend, who plays the violin like an angel but only in highly unconventional circumstances. And that’s just the students. One lecturer is an alcoholic who falls asleep in his own tutorials, another is a butch lesbian, the college principal is a bearded cross-dresser and the vice-principal is a perverted sleazeball. Even the minor characters are convincingly drawn individuals.

The novel is narrated in third person from multiple viewpoints, giving the reader the opportunity to meet and understand this eclectic variety of people without getting stuck in one person’s head. Since practically everyone is slightly mad (just like real life in that respect), the use of multiple viewpoints makes maximum comic use of the characters’ foibles without them becoming tedious, as would likely be the case if the whole story were recounted from a single perspective. A little of Elliott, for example, goes a long way.

The petty political backbiting of academia is superbly realised, and should strike a chord with anyone who has ever observed members of a senior common room playing out their deadly rivalries. Along the way, there are numerous interesting discussions on music, sampling and software, with parallels drawn between the strange abstract worlds of programming, music and chess. None of which I have any knowledge of whatsoever, but I now feel I have at least a tenuous grasp of how they might feel to people who do understand them. The book comes with a CD of music performed by the characters in the novel, created using the same sampling techniques that Alex uses in the story. You can also download the music from the associated website. I suspect that there are a lot of subtleties in the music plot that went straight over my head, and that someone who understands the area may see entire layers of meaning that passed me by. But the novel works for the race to outwit the vice-principal before he can close down their lab, and for the delightful absurdity of tone, character and plot.

With the lads’-mag attitude to women displayed by many of the characters and its frequent use of expletives, not to mention Skuggs’ lamentable digestive system and Elliott’s psychotic rudeness, The Samplist is not a novel for the easily offended. I also don’t get what the gorgeous Laura sees in Alex, unless it’s simply that love is blind (or love is relative, since Alex is without doubt the least ineligible male in the book). But then I could never figure out why all those girls wanted to marry Bertie Wooster, either. Laura seems happy with her choice, and Alex, quite rightly, can’t believe his luck. The sleazy vice-principal deserves a worse fate than he gets, though giving him his just deserts would no doubt have spoiled the happy ending.

Amusing comedy with a fine sense of the absurd and an exotic variety of vivid characters.

21 February, 2007

Historical fiction preference meme

Susan Higginbotham came up with this interesting meme . Lots of people have already done it (Gabriele, Daphne, Scott Oden, Marie and Marg, for example) , so here’s my contribution.

Straight Historical, Historical Mystery, Historical Fantasy, Historical Romance, or Time Travel?
Straight for preference, though I also like some of the others. And can I add ‘invented history’, a la Guy Gavriel Kay, to the list – there’s not a lot of it about, but I enjoy it.

Historical Figures as Main Characters or Purely Fictional Characters in Historical Settings as Main Characters?
Both, provided the fictional characters fit the gaps in the history rather than having the history twisted to fit them.

Hardback, Trade Paperback, or Mass Market Paperback?
Either kind of paperback. Hardbacks are expensive, take up more shelf space (always at a premium), and are bulky and heavy to carry around.

Philippa Gregory or Margaret George?
No strong preference.

Amazon or Brick and Mortar?
Either, but usually Amazon as they have much more choice.

Bernard Cornwell or Sharon Penman?
Hard call! Both are on my favourite author list and I wouldn’t want to do without either.

Barnes & Noble or Borders?
Neither in my town.

First Historical Novel You Ever Remember Reading?
Jean Plaidy’s Catherine de Medici trilogy, in the wrong order (a relative gave me Book 2 because she found unfamiliar terms like ‘Huguenot’ off-putting, and I started there). I think I may have read some historical romances before then, but they didn't catch my imagination.

Alphabetize by Author, Alphabetize by Title, or Random?
Sorted by size because it makes the shelves easier to dust. I try to keep titles by one author all together but the authors are in no particular order.

Keep, Throw Away, or Sell?
Keep if I like it, give to a friend or a charity shop if I don’t.

Jean Plaidy or Norah Lofts?
Jean Plaidy.

Read with Dust Jacket or Remove It?
I never buy hardbacks, so the only books I read with dust jackets are from the library, and naturally I leave the dust jacket on a library book.

Stop Reading When Tired or at Chapter Breaks?
Chapter breaks for preference.

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”?

Buy or Borrow?
Both. I’ve had my fingers burned a few times buying books that turned out to bear little resemblance to the packaging, so now I tend to borrow books first and buy copies to keep if I like them.

Posie Graeme-Evans or Pamela Kaufman?

Buying Choice: Book Reviews, Recommendations, or Browsing?
Reviews, recommendations, and searches by subject in the library catalogue, occasionally browsing in the library. Browsing in bookshops is rarely successful for fiction though it can work for non-fiction.

Dorothy Dunnett or Anya Seton?
I like both, but if I have to choose it would be Dorothy Dunnett.

Tidy Ending or Cliffhanger?
Tidy ending, though I like having the sense that the story could carry on – most historicals have an element of this, as of course history never does come to a . (despite Seller and Yeatman)

Sticking Close to Known Historical Fact, or Using Historical Fact as Wallpaper?
Sticking close to known facts, if there are any – in some eras there aren’t. A story in the gaps between the facts is fine, as is invented history and its variants, but I don’t like having the facts bent to fit.

Morning Reading, Afternoon Reading or Nighttime Reading?
Lunch breaks, mostly, or train journeys.

Series or Standalone?
Both, although if a series appears to have no end in sight or gets to feel repetitive I won’t necessarily read every book in it.

Favourite Book of Which Nobody Else Has Heard?
How do you answer this one? I’ve no idea what other people have heard of, and I’m hopeless at picking favourites! A couple that are obscure but worth reading: The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk in historical non-fiction, and Bride of the Spear by Kathleen Herbert in historical fiction.

I shan’t tag anybody, but feel free to join in!

18 February, 2007

Pictish symbol stones – the comb and mirror symbol

Pictish symbol stones are found in Scotland, mainly north of the Forth and Clyde, and are generally dated to the period of the 6th to 9th centuries AD. They are usually interpreted as personal memorials although few remain in their original locations. They are characterised by striking ‘Pictish’ symbols, some of which are realistic representations of animals and/or objects and some of which appear to be purely abstract. The example shown here is a drawing of a stone in Aberlemno, and shows the very common arrangement of two symbols above a comb and mirror. The top symbol is recognisably a serpent, the one in the middle is an abstract design looking like a ‘Z’ combined with a pair of discs, and at the bottom is a round hand-mirror next to a small comb. Presumably the symbols carried a clear meaning to the people who erected the stones, but what might it have been?

There are about fifty different ‘Pictish’ symbols, of which some are far more common than others (Cummins 1995). The frequency distribution of the common symbols is a fair match for the frequency distribution for the Pictish names recorded in the king lists, which is consistent with the theory that the symbols may represent names. This is also consistent with the pattern observed on Welsh inscribed stones from the same period, where the most common elements in the inscriptions are names. Most Pictish symbols occur in pairs, which could plausibly be interpreted either as a single name containing two elements, or as a name plus a patronymic (“X son of Y”). The names in the Pictish king lists do not look obviously like two-element names to me, but are mostly in the form “X son of Y”, so I would tend to favour the patronymic interpretation. No doubt others are possible.

The one exception to this pattern of Pictish symbols is the comb and mirror symbol. This is a clearly recognisable line drawing of a comb and a round hand-mirror, and can be seen clearly at the bottom of the stone in the drawing. A similar symbol, in which the comb’s teeth are shown as lines instead of as a few points, can be seen on the Dunnichen stone. (There are many more stones with the same symbol, but this was the clearest image I could find on the web). Occasionally the mirror appears without the comb, but they usually appear together and tend to be treated as a single symbol. The comb and mirror symbol occurs on about a third of Pictish symbol stones, almost always at the bottom of the stone beneath a pair of other symbols, as in the drawing and in the Dunnichen stone in the above link (Cummins 1995). So this would suggest that the comb and mirror does not represent a name, but has some other function. What might this be?

The comb and particularly the mirror are traditionally associated with females. Pope Boniface in the seventh century (contemporary with the Pictish symbol stones) considered an expensive comb and mirror appropriate diplomatic gifts to send to a Christian queen in northern England (Bede Book II Ch. 11). A 3rd century AD statue from Roman Asia Minor shows the goddess Venus holding a hand-mirror and comb, and in later astrology the symbol of Venus was a stylised mirror (still used to this day to indicate the female gender).

So if the comb and mirror is associated with females, what might this signify on a Pictish symbol stone?

One suggestion is that the pairs of symbols represent two-element names, such as those familiar from Old English records (e.g. Aethelstan = Aethel (noble) + stan (stone)), and that the mirror and comb symbol indicated that the person commemorated on the stone was a woman. The author of this article comments that this could indicate that women in Pictish society had unusually high status, given the high proportion of symbol stones carrying the comb and mirror symbol. In his sample, 20% of the stones have the comb and mirror symbol, whereas in early Ireland only about 200-300 female names are known compared with 10,000 male names, about 2%. So if he is correct that the comb and mirror symbol means the stone commemorates a woman, this would imply that women in Pictland were ten times more likely to be commemorated in this way than their counterparts in Ireland.

Another theory was put forward by WA Cummins in his book The Age of the Picts (Cummins 1995). He observes that the only two common elements on Welsh inscribed stones that are not names are “son/daughter of” and “Here lies”, which occur on 40% and 30% of a sample of 170 Welsh inscribed stones, respectively. Analysing a sample of 66 complete Pictish symbol stones, he finds that the mirror and comb, or the mirror by itself, occurs on 36% of the sample. This could match either the occurrence of the patronymic indicator or “Here lies” on the Welsh sample. Cummins argues that the common occurrence of symbol pairs without the mirror and comb implies that the relationship between the symbol pairs could be understood without needing a special symbol, perhaps by reading the symbols from top to bottom. If this is correct, the mirror and comb could stand for something else, and by analogy with the Welsh sample he suggests that it might signify “Here lies”.

I don’t think one can tell these two theories apart on the available evidence; either could be true, or both could be wrong. On the whole, I like Cummins’ theory the better of the two, because it takes the Pictish symbol stones as being similar to inscribed stones of a contemporary neighbouring culture. If the inhabitants of what is now Wales were in the habit of writing "Here lies" on a third of stone markers, maybe the Picts were too, and just used a different style of writing. Cummins doesn’t mention the female association of the mirror and comb, and suggests that the mirror may represent the afterlife as a reflection of life on earth, or that it symbolised the afterlife as a time of peace when one would have leisure for grooming. I wonder if the traditionally female association of the mirror symbol might have some particular significance for “Here lies”.

Here’s a theory. Could the comb and mirror symbol represent a female deity, rather than a human woman? Perhaps the symbol suggests that the person commemorated on the stone, male or female, has gone to live with a goddess of the dead. This could represent a particular goddess out of a pantheon of deities, like Freyja in Norse mythology who took dead maidens and a share of the warriors killed in battle into her hall (Ellis Davidson 1964). Or it might represent some kind of mother goddess, who perhaps takes the dead back into her womb after their life on earth. The crouched position of Bronze Age burials has been argued as support for this idea of returning to the womb after death. Possibly some similar belief existed in Pictland at some stage in its history, and was either retained into the period when the symbol stones were being erected or survived as an abstract symbol for death and/or the afterlife.

If there was a tradition of belief in a powerful female deity in Pictland, either extant or only recently extinct, this may be connected to the contemporary belief among the Picts’ neighbours in 8th-century Northumbria that the Picts reckoned royal descent through the female line. Bede may or may not have been right about this facet of Pictish political organisation, but unless his account is an elaborate leg-pull, it was believed when he wrote the Ecclesiastical History in 731 AD. Perhaps Pictish royalty claimed or had claimed divine descent from a female deity, in the same way as the surviving English genealogies all claim descent from a god, nearly always Woden.

Does this make sense? Unfortunately, I’m not sure how one could test the hypothesis.

Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.

Ellis Davidson HR. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin, 1964, ISBN 0-14-030670-1.

12 February, 2007

Emperor series, by Conn Iggulden. Book review.

Series of four books:
The Gates of Rome
The Death of Kings
The Field of Swords
The Gods of War

Emperor is a four-book military adventure series based on the life of Julius Caesar, beginning somewhere around 92 BC and finishing with Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The two main characters, Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus, are historical. Other important characters are fictional, such as the gladiator Renius, slave-girl-turned-jewellery-maker Alexandria and the mysterious Eastern healer Cabera. Many of the secondary characters are historical, such as Servilia, Marius, Pompey, Sulla, Mithridates of Pontus, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Cicero, assorted Roman senators, though their careers and actions sometimes diverge from history.

The strength of the Emperor series is in its spectacular action set-pieces. Gladiatorial combat, pirate attacks, ambushes by robbers, street riots, and battles by land and sea in Greece, Gaul and Spain. It’s like an action movie rendered in words. In fact, it reminds me of films such as Braveheart and Gladiator –an exciting and enjoyable piece of entertainment as long as you sit back and enjoy the ride, and don’t expect it to be an accurate rendition of real events. Think of H. Rider Haggard or John Buchan, with togas.

The characters also have a larger-than-life aspect to them. Caesar and Brutus are military superheroes, particularly Caesar. Sometimes the portrayal of Caesar is a little over the top for me, for example in the pirate sequence in Book 2. When captured by pirates, Caesar’s companions are apparently unable to do anything to help themselves and fall into despair until Caesar recovers from his injury, rallies them, raises a legion from scratch, single-handedly defeats a rebellion and crucifies the pirates. Somehow, this superhero figure doesn’t capture my imagination. Brutus is a more interesting mixture of superhero and petulant teenager. He and Caesar are childhood companions, raised together almost as brothers, and Brutus is Caesar’s right-hand man through a succession of military dangers, including most of the Gallic wars. Brutus even wins a crucial battle while Caesar is incapacitated by an epileptic fit, and is with him at the historic crossing of the Rubicon – and then flounces off in a huff to join the other side of a civil war because he feels passed over for promotion.

The series takes some significant liberties with history. The ones that bother me most are the ones that affect character relationships and motivations. For example, the Emperor series makes Brutus and Caesar exact contemporaries, who grow up together on Caesar’s family estate in the countryside near Rome. However, Plutarch (writing in the first century AD) says that Caesar believed Brutus to be his son. Plutarch may or may not have been right about that – he was writing a century after the events – but it seems to me to be strong evidence that the two were of sufficiently different ages to make the assertion credible. Whatever the dynamic of the Brutus-Caesar relationship – and I agree with the author that it is worthy of exploration – if Caesar was old enough to be possibly Brutus’ father it could not have been derived from a shared boyhood. So for me the whole premise founders on this. There may be conflicting evidence that I’m not aware of that contradicts Plutarch, but the Author’s Note doesn’t mention the issue.

Similarly, the series makes Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) a generation older than he was, by making him Caesar’s nephew rather than great-nephew. Octavian was born in 63 BC, so at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC he was aged 11. Yet the Emperor series has him as a cavalry commander in Caesar’s army. Again, this gives me real problems. Whatever relationship Caesar had with Octavian, it was not based on years of shared military service.

Caesar’s daughter Julia, wife of Pompey, died in childbirth in 54 BC. Whatever Caesar did when he captured the town of Dyrrhachium in 48 BC, it didn’t involve Julia facing down Pompey’s guards to invite her father into Pompey’s house. Moreover, having set up this fictitious but potentially interesting three-way conflict for Julia in the Caesar-Pompey civil war, pulled between her father, her husband (Pompey) and her lover (Brutus), the series then doesn’t do anything with it. Julia just fades away and never appears in the story again.

The series has Sulla poisoned by one of Caesar’s friends while still Dictator, whereas in reality Sulla voluntarily gave up the Dictatorship, held consular elections, handed over power and died in retirement. Sulla’s voluntary handing over of power casts a fascinating light on his character and on the society he lived in. It says much for Late Republican Rome that he did it, that society didn’t collapse as a result, and that his enemies didn’t promptly murder him in retirement. All this is lost in the Emperor series.

There are numerous others. The Marius-Sulla rivalry went on for several years and Marius died a natural death, whereas the series condenses it to a single attack on Rome during which Sulla murders Marius with his own hand. Cato dies years too early. Servilia, Caesar’s patrician mistress, is made the Madame of an upmarket brothel and provider of home comforts to Caesar’s troops in Spain. Octavian is made a thieving street urchin. Brutus and Caesar, blue-blooded scions of patrician families, serve in the army as centurions instead of tribunes.

If you want an action-packed military adventure yarn with a broader canvas than the adventures of a fictional hero and his sidekick, Emperor is for you. If you want to understand the people and the forces that turned Late Republican Rome into Early Imperial Rome, in my view Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series does a much better job.

Exciting military adventure loosely based on the life of Julius Caesar, but be very wary of taking any history from it.

08 February, 2007

Favourite fictional endings

Susan Higginbotham recently (well, fairly recently) posted on her favourite novel endings. I’ve been a bit slow to get round to posting mine, but here are ten that I especially like, in no particular order. These are the ones that (a) came to mind immediately and (b) that I’d remembered correctly when I checked them, which indicates that it was the words that formed the lasting impression rather than the mental image.

Feel free to join in!

It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
‘You needn’t worry about them,’ said his companion. ‘They’ll be all right – and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.’
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
--Watership Down, by Richard Adams

I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor; the middle one grey, and half-buried in heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonised by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in
that quiet earth.
--Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

The ripples spread, and faded: Saltash came to a stop, tugging gently.
‘Got her cable, sir!’ Allingham called out to the bridge.
Ericson drew a deep breath, stretching a little under his duffle-coat. That was all..... Over his shoulder he said:
‘Ring off main engines.’
--The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat.
(This is a cheat on my part, because the actual end of the novel is a couple of pages further on. But I always think of this scene as the end. I think it’s something to do with the crispness of a military command; four words that convey such a sweep of hidden meaning.)

‘Because I want to; because I must; because now and for evermore this is where I long to be,’ said Mary.
He laughed then, and took her hand, and gave her the reins; and she did not look back over her shoulder again, but set her face towards the Tamar.
--Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

For that time it was Lancelot’s fate and Guenever’s to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart.
--The Once and Future King, by TH White

The light grew stronger as they waited.
Quite suddenly, he said, ‘Oh, damn!’ and began to cry – in an awkward, unpractised way at first, and then more easily. So she held him, crouched at her knees, against her breast, huddling his head in her arms that he might not hear eight o’clock strike.
--Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy L Sayers.

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
--The House at Pooh Corner, by AA Milne

The black-on-black eyes stared imploringly at Brutha, who reached out automatically, without thinking. . . and then hesitated.
‘Yes. I know. He’s Vorbis,’ said Brutha. Vorbis changed people. Sometimes he changed them into dead people. But he always changed them. That was his triumph.
He sighed.
‘But I’m me,’ he said.
Vorbis stood up, uncertainly, and followed Brutha across the desert.
Death watched them walk away.
--Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett.

‘The division seems rather unfair,’ I remarked. ‘You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit; pray what remains for you?’
‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’ And he stretched his long, white hand up for it.
--The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This was the manner of the mourning of the men of the Geats,
sharers in the feast, at the fall of their lord;
they said that he was of all the world’s kings
the gentlest of men, and the most gracious,
the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.
--Beowulf, translated by Michael Alexander

07 February, 2007

Village church with snowdrops

This looked so pretty in today's bright winter sunshine I thought I'd share it with you. The flint construction is very typical of East Anglian churches, as there's little or no decent building stone in the region. The snowdrops grow on the bank either side of the gateway into the churchyard. Later in the spring there will be celandines among them. There was a woodpecker drumming somewhere nearby (I never saw it, so I don't know which species it was), and the very first of the blackthorn flowers just opening in a sunny hedgerow.

02 February, 2007

Forced abdication: Mary Queen of Scots

Alianore recently mentioned Edward II’s abdication or deposition, commenting that the accounts are confused and it’s not clear whether Edward abdicated or was deposed.

It might be very hard to tell the difference between abdication under duress and deposition, even with full records. How much pressure turns one into the other? I mentioned Mary Queen of Scots as an example, and promised to look up the account of her abdication.

Mary surrendered to the Scottish lords after the non-battle of Carberry Hill in June 1567, and they promptly imprisoned her in a castle on an island in the middle of Lochleven. The English ambassador Throckmorton was not allowed to visit her and feared for her life, believing that his arrival in Scotland in mid-July was the only thing that had prevented the Scots lords from murdering her. His letters to London survive and form the only record of Mary’s imprisonment on Lochleven except the account dictated by Mary to her secretary Nau many years later when she was a prisoner in England. Because Throckmorton was not allowed to see her he cannot have known what was happening on the island, but the fact that he, an outsider, believed her life to be in danger gives credence to her claim that she was threatened with violence. She was at least two and more likely three months pregnant, and some time between 18 and 24 July she miscarried twins.

Here’s the account of her abdication as related in Antonia Fraser’s biography*:

“It was while the queen was lying in bed after her miscarriage, by her own account ‘in a state of great weakness’ having lost a great deal of blood, and scarcely able to move, that Lindsay came to her and told her that he had been instructed to make her sign certain letters for the resignation of her crown [.......] Despite her fears the queen was outraged at the monstrousness of the request [....] but Lindsay’s rough words on the subject, that she had better sign, for if she did not, she would simply compel them to cut her throat, however unwilling they might be to do so, only convinced her further of her own personal danger.
from the actual signing of the letters of resignation there was no escape. Mary told Nau later that Throckmorton had managed to smuggle her a note in the scabbard of a sword, telling her to sign to save her own life, as something so clearly signed under duress could never afterward be held against her.”
On the strength of the signed letters of resignation, Mary’s thirteen-month-old son was crowned James VI on 29 July.

Mary rescinded her abdication as soon as she escaped from Lochleven in May 1568, and it was still being used as a bargaining counter in 1580/1581. This suggests to me that Mary did not think she had abdicated but saw herself as having been (temporarily) deposed by force or the threat of force. The diplomatic bargaining with her son James VI through a French emissary in 1581 suggests that at least some of the political power-brokers in Europe saw it the same way. Certainly there seems little doubt that Mary signed the abdication either against her will or while she was too ill to make the decision, and felt herself free to rescind it as soon as she escaped. Something similar may have happened in the case of Edward II – except that his escape was quickly followed by recapture and death.

Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary is well worth reading, incidentally. It covers Mary's life from birth to death in exhaustive detail, provides footnotes and citations so that anyone so inclined can check the author's sources and conclusions, and although the author clearly has considerable admiration and affection for her subject (indeed, it might be hard to write a biography without these) she is by no means blind to Mary's weaknesses. There's the odd passage of mildly purple (mauve?) prose, but for the most part the tone is clear and highly readable. Mary comes over as glamorous, charming, attractive, emotional, dramatic and maddening, very much a real person.

*Mary, Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser. Mandarin, 1989, ISBN 0-7493-0108-2