27 April, 2008

April recipe: Curried chick peas with fried bananas

Many beans and pulses seem to work particularly well in spicy dishes, and this dish is a good example. It's sweet and spicy without being especially hot, and you can vary the spices to suit taste and availability. I use frozen chopped tomatoes (almost the last thing left from last year's garden produce by the time we get round to April), but tinned tomatoes will also work. Incidentally, it happens to be a vegan dish.

Curried chick peas (serves 2)

4 oz (approx 100 g) dried chick peas
Half a small onion
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) ground cumin
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) ground coriander
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) ground ginger
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) turmeric
0.25 teaspoon (0.25 x 5 ml spoon) garam masala

Soak the chick peas in cold water overnight. If you don't have time to do this, put them in a pan with plenty of cold water, bring to the boil, remove from the heat and soak for one hour.
Rinse three or four times, put in a saucepan and cover with cold water, bring to boil, and simmer for about 1 hour 15 minutes until the chick peas are tender. (Or you could use tinned chick peas, in which case you will need about 8 oz. Read the instructions to see if you have to do any preparation).
Peel and chop the onion.
Fry onion gently in oil until soft and starting to turn golden.
Stir in spices.
Add the cooked chick peas and enough of their cooking liquid to about half-cover them.
Cover the pan and simmer for around 15 minutes while you cook the fried bananas to go with them (see below).
Season with salt and pepper, and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with rice, and fried bananas or a salad.

Fried spiced bananas and tomatoes (serves 2)

Half a large onion
1 clove garlic
1 piece of root ginger, about 1” (about 2.5 cm) cube
4 oz (approx 100 g) tomatoes
2 bananas
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) turmeric

Peel and chop the onion.
Peel and shred the root ginger.
Peel and crush the garlic clove.
Peel and slice the bananas.
Chop the tomatoes (you can peel them if you like, I never do).
Fry the onion and ginger in oil until the onion is soft and beginning to turn golden.
Stir in the garlic and tomatoes and fry gently for 1-2 minutes.
Add the sliced bananas and the turmeric, season with salt.
Fry gently another 2-3 minutes until the banana is soft.

Serve with curried chick peas (above) and rice.

22 April, 2008

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier. Book review

First published 1969. Edition reviewed, Virago, 2003, ISBN 1-84408-042-0.

The House on the Strand is set in the area around Tywardreath (whose name translates as ‘the house on the strand’ and gives the book its title) on the south coast of Cornwall, in the 1960s and in the early fourteenth century. The 1960s characters are all fictional. The characters from the fourteenth century are historical figures from the region, known from records such as tax rolls.

In 1960s England, Dick Young is a failed publisher unhappily married to an American wife who is pressuring him to move to New York. Reluctant to leave England but with no clear alternative, Dick is at something of a loose end. When his boyhood friend Magnus lends him his house of Kilmarth in Cornwall for the summer on condition that he tries out a mysterious new drug, Dick readily agrees. The drug transports him back in time to the early years of the reign of Edward III in the fourteenth century. There he encounters Roger Kylmerth, his predecessor at Kilmarth house, and the bewitching Isolda Carminowe. Dick is drawn into their lives, loves, plots and rivalries, witnessing an attempted rebellion, adultery and murder. Soon the magnetic pull of the past begins to obsess him, threatening his real-life family, his health and even his life.

The narrative is recounted in first person by Dick, and the two plots are skilfully intertwined as he moves between the fourteenth century and his real life. Isolda’s romantic story unfolds in a series of vignettes, always leaving Dick desperate to find out what happens next. His attempts to find out more about Isolda and her world from surviving records and ruins ensure that the thread of the fourteenth-century storyline also runs through the present-day parts of the novel. Tension in the contemporary story is maintained by Dick’s growing realisation that his obsession with the past threatens to unravel his own real life, his fear that the drug might have toxic side effects, and the mystery when Magnus himself goes missing. An attractive feature of the novel is that both plots are resolved by the end. The reader is shown what happens to Roger and Isolda, and although Dick’s fate is not spelled out the reader isn’t left in much doubt.

As always with a Daphne du Maurier novel, the descriptions of the Cornish landscape are marvellous. The area around Tywardreath is brought vividly to life, both in the 1960s and in the fourteenth century. Details of fourteenth-century life in the vanished priory at Tywardreath, in the manor houses of the local aristocracy and in Roger’s simple farm at Kilmarth, are skilfully and convincingly drawn. A further dimension is added by the time-travel element in the novel, as the landscape has changed dramatically between Isolda’s time and Dick’s own time. Dick’s bewilderment at finding the familiar valley fields of his own day replaced by estuaries and tidal creeks in the fourteenth century, his struggle to locate the manor houses of Isolda’s world when all that remains is a few hummocks in a field or an ancient barn in a farmyard, and the sinister intrusion of the modern railway, all reinforce his sense of dislocation and add to the atmosphere of suspense.

Dick is not the most appealing of narrators. He comes over as rather selfish and irresolute, eager to shirk his real-life responsibilities and escape into a vanished private world. In the fourteenth century he is unable to touch or interact with any of the characters – however passionately they have engaged his feelings – and so he is condemned to the role of passive observer. In his real life, his obsession with the past makes him increasingly irritable, unreliable and erratic. His wife Vita, whom we see only through Dick’s eyes, is drawn as shrewish and interfering because this is how Dick sees her, but I can sympathise with her increasing irritation and anxiety. The characters of the fourteenth century world are sketched in, revealing themselves only through their actions and words as observed by Dick. I often dislike the claustrophobic effect of a first-person narrative, especially if I don’t warm to the narrator, but in The House on the Strand the unusual narrative structure was something of a saving grace. Dick’s passivity makes him fade into the background in the fourteenth-century narrative, an ideal observer through whom the reader can watch the people of Isolda’s world.

My usual problem with time-travel or time-slip novels is that I get interested in one storyline, usually the historical one, at the expense of the other. The House on the Strand was no exception, and I found Isolda’s story far more gripping than Dick’s. At times it was an irritation to be taken back to the 1960s – which I suspect was part of the point, as it effectively conveys Dick’s own resentment at being forced back to his real life. I found the idea of drug-induced time-travel unconvincing to say the least, and the attempts to justify it with vague fluff about brain chemistry made it worse. Give me a magic ring, a wardrobe, an insistent ghost or no explanation at all, any time. Perhaps it sounded more plausible in 1969 when the book was written.

For me, The House on the Strand stands out not as a time-travel story or even a historical, but as a superb evocation of the writing process. Dick’s glimpses into a vanished world remind me of the process of writing a historical novel (though, fortunately, most of us rely on our imaginations without the need for toxic drugs or a basement full of pickled monkeys). The sense of having entered a different world and watched its inhabitants. The jolt when summoned back to the real world, and the tendency to drift between the two, to the occasional consternation of family and friends. Piecing scenes together into a story, using the limited information in place names and surviving records, and trying to recreate a vanished landscape in the mind’s eye – what was this field like before the railway was built? where exactly was the priory? where did the coast and rivers run? All this is very recognisable, and is what draws me back to the novel time and again.

Has anyone else read it?

18 April, 2008

The Delightful Ducks of Dedham Vale

Dedham Vale is the area of the lower River Stour valley, just before the river forms its tidal estuary, on the border between the counties of Suffolk and Essex. The area was beloved by the 19th century landscape painter John Constable, who was born in the nearby village of East Bergholt. Even after he moved to London, the countryside of Dedham Vale provided the material for some of his most famous works, such as The Haywain, which has probably graced more chocolate boxes, inexpensive prints and sets of coasters than any other painting. The National Trust now owns much of the area, and places such as Flatford Mill and the river pastures have hardly changed since Constable painted them. So the area around around Dedham and Flatford gets a steady stream of visitors, much to the delight of the local duck population who must think they live in some sort of promised land.

As soon as you approach Flatford Mill along the river path, whichever duck is on lookout duty will hop out of the water to eye you up as a potential source of food....

.... bringing a friend.....

.... and another.....

.... and yet more friends.....

.... even in the car park the arrival of a car with a child and a bag of bread draws an eager crowd.....

.... no doubt due to this unlimited supply of free food, one enterprising pair had already hatched a brood of 12 or possibly 14 (I lost count) cute little downy ducklings (everybody say "Aaaaaah!") in mid-April, when most birds are still sitting on eggs.

15 April, 2008

The Sutton Hoo Man: who was he?

In 1939, archaeologist Basil Brown and a team from the British Museum excavated a burial mound on the river cliff at Sutton Hoo in south-east Suffolk (location map). What they discovered was the richest early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) grave yet discovered in Britain, a magnificent unrobbed ship burial dating from the early seventh century. Whose grave was it?

(This post is in answer to a question raised by Steven Till in an earlier discussion on King Raedwald of the East Angles.)

The ship burial

The burial contained a full-sized wooden ship 90 feet long, recognisable by the positions of the rows of rivets that had held the planks together along the length of the hull. Amidships, roughly where the mast would have been, a wooden burial chamber had been constructed, containing a wooden coffin and furnished with magnificent grave goods, including:

  • a set of silver bowls and a silver dish from Byzantium, the dish dated to the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518 AD);

  • gold and garnet jewellery of astonishingly skilled workmanship;

  • a purse containing 37 gold coins from Merovingian France, plus three blanks and two small gold ingots (see earlier post for more details);

  • war gear including decorated helmet, shield, spears and pattern-welded sword.

For a description and pictures of the site in general and the ship burial in particular, see Current Archaeology (the date in the headline is wildly wrong and is perhaps a mistake for ‘seventh century’). For more details of the magnificent regalia, see Sam Newton’s site.

No bones were found in the grave, but the acid sandy soil of the locality dissolves organic material, and there was a concentration of phosphorus (which comes from decaying bodies) in the soil under the coffin. So it seems highly probable that the ship burial originally contained a body.

The style of the grave goods indicates that they belong to the late sixth or early seventh century, and radiocarbon dating of two objects from the grave, lamp wax and a piece of timber, gave dates of AD 523 +/-45 and AD 656 +/-45 (Carver 1998). More precise dating depends on the coins. In 1960 a French coin expert identified the latest date of the coin group as AD 625, and on the basis of the gold content (which progressively declined over time as Frankish mints recycled the metal) the coins could all have been made by AD 613 (Carver 1998). This provides the earliest possible date for the burial, as the coins cannot possibly have been buried before they were made (!), but could have been buried at any time after.

There is no fixed latest possible date for the burial. However, once Christianity had taken firm root in East Anglia, one would expect the kings to be buried in churches, rather than in ships under mounds. So the ship burial would be consistent with a king who was either pagan or a recent convert.

The candidates

The Sutton Hoo ship burial is unparalleled in its magnificence (so far), so it clearly belonged to someone extremely important. The war gear suggests it was probably a man. The leader of the recent excavation, Martin Carver, argues that the value of grave goods might represent the ‘wergild’ (man-price) of the occupant. Wergild was the amount that had to be paid in compensation for an unlawful killing. Carver argues that the wergild for a nobleman was 480 oxen, roughly equivalent to 7 oz (200 g) of gold. The amount of gold in the ship burial is far, far higher than this – the great gold buckle alone weighs almost one pound – and therefore the occupant presumably ranked far higher than an ordinary nobleman. On this basis it seems logical to infer that he was right at the top of society, i.e. a king (Carver 1998). (The usual caveats apply, in that we do not know exactly what was meant by ‘king’ in early English society, or how many a kingdom had at any one time).

Sutton Hoo is in the territory of the kingdom of the East Angles, which in the seventh century roughly comprised the modern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. So, the Sutton Hoo Man is most likely to be found among the kings of the East Angles, some time after 613 or 625 when the coins were manufactured.

Thanks to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the genealogies recorded in the ‘Anglian collection’ manuscript in the British Museum, we actually have information about some of the members of the East Anglian royal dynasty. Here are the ones who died in the first half of the seventh century.

Bede tells us that Raedwald was the son of Tytila, that he won a great battle against Aethelferth of Northumbria in 617 AD, that he was baptised in Kent and then changed his mind and honoured both sets of gods, and that he was overlord of all the English south of the river Humber between Aethelbert of Kent (who died in AD 616) and Eadwine of Northumbria (Book II Ch.5, 12, 15). Bede doesn’t tell us when or how Raedwald died, but he was presumably dead by 627 when his son Eorpwald was king (Bede Book II Ch.15). His death date is usually placed around 625 or 626 (this is derived from the politics of Northumbria and is reasonably convincing, but complicated to go into here).

Eni appears in the Anglian Collection genealogy as a son of Tytila, which would make him a brother of Raedwald. Bede says he was the forefather of later East Anglian kings (see below) (Book III Ch. 18), but does not mention him as a king himself.

Raegenhere was Raedwald’s son and was killed in battle in 617 (Bede Book II Ch.12). Like Eni, he is not said to have been a king.

Eorpwald was the son of Raedwald and was king of East Anglia when he was baptised in AD 627. “Not long after this” he was killed by a pagan called Ricbert who ruled for three years (Bede Book II Ch.15).

All we know of Ricbert is that he was a pagan who killed Eorpwald soon after 627 and ruled for three years until he was succeeded by Sigebert (Bede Book II Ch.15). He does not appear in the Anglian Collection genealogy. We do not know how or when he died, or how Sigebert took the throne (though my money would be on Ricbert being killed by Sigebert in battle, somewhere in 630 or 631 based on a three-year reign for Ricbert beginning soon after Eorpwald’s baptism in 627).

Sigebert was the brother of Eorpwald and had been living in Merovingian Gaul during Eorpwald’s reign, where he had become a devout Christian. At some point before 635 Sigebert retired to a monastery and became a monk, handing over his kingdom to “his kinsman” Ecgric. When Penda of Mercia attacked East Anglia in 635, Ecgric insisted that Sigebert leave his monastery and join the royal army. Sigebert did so under protest but refused to carry any weapon, and both kings were duly killed in battle (Bede Book III Ch. 18). The twelfth-century chronicler Florence of Worcester says that Sigebert was Eorpwald’s half-brother on the mother’s side (If so, this raises the interesting question of how he had a claim to be king of the East Angles, if he wasn’t Raedwald’s son, but more on this in another post).

Bede says that Ecgric was the “kinsman” of Sigebert but doesn’t specify their relationship. It has been argued that Ecgric was actually the Aethelric son of Eni son of Tytila who appears in the Anglian Collection genealogy, but this is not proven. Ecgric ruled part of the kingdom during Sigebert’s reign, and then took over when Sigebert retired to a monastery some time before 635. He was killed in battle, along with Sigebert, by Penda of Mercia in 635 (Bede Book III Ch. 18).

Aethelric appears in the Anglian Collection genealogy as the son of Eni and father of Aldwulf. Bede does not mention him by name (unless, as some scholars have argued, he is the same individual as Ecgric. But why should Bede have got the name wrong?). Since he was the father of Aldwulf, he was presumably married to Hereswith, mother of Aldwulf. In which case he was presumably dead by about 647, since Hereswith was already a nun when Hild (St Hilda) considered joining her in around 647 (Bede Book IV Ch. 23). It wasn’t unknown for a royal marriage to be dissolved and the ex-wife become a nun (e.g. Aethelthryth, better known as St Etheldreda or St Audrey, divorced her husband King Ecgfrith so that she could become a nun [Bede Book IV Ch. 19], and Ecgfrith then married a second wife), but this was unusual, whereas it was common for royal widows to retire honourably to a monastery.

Anna was a devout Christian (Bede Book IV Ch. 19) and the son of Eni, brother of Raedwald. Bede says he became king after Sigebert and Ecgric were killed, and was killed by Penda of Mercia in his turn (Book III Ch.18). No date is given, but it must have been before Penda’s own death in 655.

Brother and successor of Anna, he was a Christian as he stood godfather when Swidhelm king of the East Saxons was baptised in 653 (Bede Book III Ch. 22). He had died before 655 when his brother Aethelhere was king.

Brother of Aethelwald and Anna, he was king by 655 when he was killed at the Battle of Winwaed (Bede Book III Ch.24).

Which king is the Sutton Hoo Man?

Anna, Aethelwald and Aethelhere are all unlikely because they were devout Christians and one would expect to find them buried in churchyards rather than in a ship burial. The same applies to their brother Aethelric, who was presumably a Christian like the rest of his brothers and certainly had a Christian wife. Similarly, one would expect Sigebert to have been interred in the monastery he was so reluctant to leave. Raegenhere, although presumably a pagan, was killed before his father and so is perhaps unlikely to have wielded the sort of power and influence that would justify such an exceptionally rich burial.

This leaves Raedwald, his brother Eni, his son and successor Eorpwald, plus Ecgric and Ricbert whose family connection is not known. All belong to approximately the right period. We know Ricbert was a pagan, that Eorpwald had only recently been converted, and that Raedwald’s conversion was skin-deep at best. Since Eni was of the same generation as Raedwald he presumably had a similar upbringing and may have shared his brother’s beliefs. Ecgric’s religion is unknown, but since he hauled Sigebert out of his monastery he presumably wasn’t all that devout a Christian.

Of these five royal East Angles, Raedwald is singled out by Bede as a king who wielded exceptional power and influence. Raedwald is the only king of the East Angles in Bede’s list of the kings who were overlords of all the English kingdoms south of the Humber. It would therefore be fitting if he also had a burial of exceptional magnificence. The Sutton Hoo ship burial fits him very well.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Florence of Worcester, Chronicle. Full text searchable at Google Books.

12 April, 2008

Early evening stroll

Tranquil track through the woods.

Late afternoon light on marsh grass. In summer there are sometimes sheep in this field. It's flat and low-lying with a couple of streams running through it (one of which spreads out to form these pools), so it's part way to being a water meadow.

Cormorants drying their wings after fishing in the reservoir and nearby river. The odd-looking contraption they are perched on is an artificial island built by conservation volunteers for terns to nest on in the summer. In the winter the terns have migrated to wherever they migrate to, and the cormorants find it very handy. I wonder where the cormorants go in the summer?

A swathe of daffodils in the parkland surrounding a large country house.

Sunset light on a veteran oak in a laneside hedge.

07 April, 2008

The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory. Book review

Set in the turbulent world of the court of Henry VIII in 1539–1542, The Boleyn Inheritance covers wives number 4 and 5 in Henry’s collection, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. All the main characters are historical.

In 1539, three contrasting women dream of going to the English court. Jane Boleyn, who gave evidence against her husband George Boleyn and his sister Queen Anne Boleyn that helped send them to the block, is haunted by their ghosts and desperate to get back to the excitement and intrigue of the court to rebuild her fortunes. Anne of Cleves yearns to make a good marriage to get away from her unpleasant mother and brother. Katherine Howard, a giddy teenager for whom the term ‘sex kitten’ could have been coined, wants to go to court so she can wear pretty dresses and dance with handsome boys. King Henry’s matrimonial desires give all three women their wish – but it is not long before political faction-fighting and the capricious whims of a tyrannical king threaten all their lives.

I’ve found some of Philippa Gregory’s novels disappointing. The paranormal hocus-pocus in The Queen’s Fool annoyed me, and at the (welcome) end of The Virgin’s Lover I could only conclude that all these silly, selfish, spiteful people were welcome to each other, and would Philip of Spain please hurry up with that Armada? So I skipped the next offering, and picked this one up with some caution. Well, I can’t speak for its historical accuracy or otherwise, though previous track record would make me cautious on that front, but at least it works as an enjoyable read.

The story is told by three first-person narrators, Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves. All three have voices so distinct that I never needed to look at the chapter headings to see who was speaking, and their contrasting characters were the great strength of the novel for me. Katherine Howard is exactly as I always imagined her, as pretty and playful and charming as a kitten and with about as much sense. Her narrative, with its comedy and vivacity, reminded me of a sixteenth-century Bridget Jones’s Diary. I half-expected the chapters to begin:

Dresses - 10
New dresses - 4 (vg)
Slobbery kisses from king - 3 (ugh)
Diamond necklaces from king after slobbery kisses - 3 (so not such a bad deal really)
Randy thoughts about Thomas Culpepper - 297
Watching this harmless girl dance heedlessly to her doom with not a thought in her head beyond boys and pretty dresses is pitiful, with the same sense of pointless waste as seeing a butterfly or a fluffy baby bird squashed on the road.

Jane Boleyn is a cynical commentator on the follies around her, believing herself such a woman of the world. Some of her asides have an attractive wry humour to them, such as her comment, “If she declares herself Dereham’s wife then she has not cuckolded the king, only Dereham, and since his head is on London Bridge he is in no position to complain.” Yet in her way she is as self-deluded as Katherine Howard, and na├»ve enough to put her trust in princes (or in her case, the Duke of Norfolk). Haunted by the deaths of her husband and sister-in-law, she tries to convince herself and those around her that she was blameless, that her part in their fate was unintentional – and indeed, she may well have been used then by those cleverer and more powerful than herself, just as she is being used again.

Anne of Cleves is a level-headed, courageous and quietly intelligent young woman. True, she was lucky that Henry found it easier to get rid of her by annulment rather than murder, but she had the good sense to grasp the opportunity for escape when it was offered and to accept undeserved humiliation as the price of staying alive. She probably came out the most unscathed of Henry’s wives, with her life and a private income, and like a sensible woman she made the best of it and made a reasonable life for herself. As she herself comments in the novel, “…it may be a better thing to be a single woman with a good income in one of the finest palaces in England than to be one of Henry’s frightened queens.”

King Henry is a Bluebeard-like ogre, probably a fairly accurate depiction of him in his later life. At the safe distance of 400+ years it’s possible to feel a little sorry for him, tormented by his paranoid suspicions and the physical pain of a revolting disease. On the spot, at the time, I should imagine he inspired mostly terror.

Prize for Top Villain, however, undoubtedly goes to the reptilian Duke of Norfolk, so remorseless and ruthless a schemer that you feel you ought to hiss every time he comes on stage. This remarkable political survivor, who successfully rode all the storms and tempests of Henry’s court, created a good many of them and always managed to get someone else’s neck on the block instead of his own, could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two.

There are some faintly icky aspects to the novel that might upset some readers. Katherine Howard is portrayed as only fourteen when she first caught the king’s eye. This is at the younger end of the likely range (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives her date of birth as somewhere between 1518 and 1524), which makes Henry even more of a cradle-snatcher and casts Katherine’s first seducer, the music teacher Henry Mannox, in a decidedly unpleasant light, as she would have been only eleven at the time of his attentions. The dysfunctional relationship between Anne of Cleves and her brother Duke William is repeated rather heavily, and I was relieved that this aspect disappeared from the story early on when Anne left for England.

The novel is written in present tense throughout, which I find mildly irritating. It always has the effect of distancing me from the characters and events, and feels rather like watching a longwinded screenplay. Perhaps that’s the idea – maybe it makes it quicker to adapt next time Hollywood fancies another festival of pretty frocks, heaving bosoms, sex and murder (Shouldn’t think many Hollywood heart-throbs would be too thrilled at being offered the part of this Henry, though).

Sex, lies and death at the court of Henry VIII.