26 January, 2013

A Swarming of Bees, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

Acorn Digital Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-909122-22-2. 271 pages

A Swarming of Bees is a historical mystery set in and around the monastery of Streonshalh (modern Whitby) in seventh-century Northumbria. Abbess Hild and the poet Caedmon are historical figures and major characters, and other historical figures including King Oswy of Northumbria, Bishop Wilfrid, Aldfrith of Northumbria and Dagobert II of Merovingian France appear in secondary roles. The central character, Fridgyth, is mentioned by Bede but little more than her name is recorded. Other main characters are fictional.

In 664 AD, as the great Synod held at Streonshalh (Whitby) draws to its close, two young scholars arrive secretly from Ireland, fleeing an unspecified danger and seeking protection from Abbess Hild. Fridgyth, the abbey herb-wife, gives them shelter. When she deduces the identity of one of the boys, she guesses what the danger might be, but soon all her attention is claimed by tending the sick as an epidemic of plague sweeps through the monastery and its surroundings. As the disease rages and the death toll mounts, Fridgyth comes to suspect that not all the deaths are natural. Is there a murderer at work in the monastery?  And can Fridgyth find out who it is in time to prevent further deaths?

Regular readers may remember that some years ago I read and greatly enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s young adult mystery set in Hild’s monastery at Whitby, Wolf Girl (reviewed here earlier).  So I was delighted to hear about this new mystery in the same setting.  A Swarming of Bees takes place a year or so after Wolf Girl and features some of the same characters, but it is a stand-alone novel.  There is no need to have read Wolf Girl first.

I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I think I liked A Swarming of Bees  even better than Wolf Girl. Hild’s seventh-century monastery at Whitby is vividly portrayed as a working community at the hub of a functioning economy. Managing the resources required to maintain a year-round supply of food, clothing and fuel for a sizeable monastery, not to mention the specialist supplies needed for producing illuminated manuscripts, was not a trivial task. Commodities and services could not just be ordered in; for the most part anything the community needed would have to be made or grown locally, and people with a wide range of skills would be needed to keep the monastery working.  Anyone who imagines a seventh-century abbess leading a life of pious contemplation is wide of the mark. In modern terms the role was probably closer to managing director of a sizeable group of companies. Vegetable growing, livestock rearing, weaving and boat-building all form part of the background, and are just as important as prayer, study and manuscript writing.

Abbess Hild, managing all this day-to-day and also overseeing an international centre of learning that was a university of its day, is as capable and forceful as I always imagined her. Fridgyth, the herb-wife, is a similar age to Hild, and the two women are close friends, despite their differences in social rank and religion. Fridgyth was raised as a heathen and has only half-converted to Christianity, still retaining many of the older beliefs and customs. This is entirely plausible, as the Northumbrian aristocracy had officially converted less than 40 years before, and it may have taken some time for Christian beliefs to percolate the whole of early English society. Hild’s tolerance of her friend’s customs, as well as being a sympathetic trait, is also in line with Bishop Aidan’s softly-softly approach to converting Northumbria, and with Pope Gregory’s advice to his Roman missionaries.  Caedmon, who appears in Bede as a shy herdsman who became a great vernacular poet, is another major character, with an intriguing take on Bede’s tale of how his poetic talent was recognised.

The mystery is ingenious – I sort of guessed part of the answer early on (as I recognised one of the symptoms from distant days studying chemistry), but I did not guess how, who or why in advance.  I also liked the presence of historical figures from Ireland and Merovingian France in the tale, cleverly picking up on known connections of the Northumbrian royal house. The description of the plague as it devastates families and communities (a historical event, although the nature of the disease is uncertain) was especially evocative. Life was fragile, even in time of peace.

I particularly liked the character of Fridgyth. With her warmth, humanity, honesty, practical common sense and experience of real life, she is an attractive and sympathetic character. Not without flaws; her forthright approach to investigation and hasty actions precipitate at least one crisis, and she is not immune from professional jealousy. She gives the whole book a warm-hearted feeling; life may be harsh, but it does not have to be miserable.

A helpful Author’s Note at the back outlines the underlying history and the fiction woven in the gaps, and a list of historical characters may also be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the period.  There is a useful map at the front showing the layout of Streonshalh monastery as imagined in the novel.

Beautifully written, gentle historical mystery set in Hild’s seventh-century monastery at Whitby, with strong characterisation and a clear sense of time and place.

24 January, 2013

January recipe: Lamb and orange casserole

Lamb goes very well with the fruity fragrance of oranges in this rich and warming casserole, ideal for a cold winter evening.  You can make this either with lamb chops or with diced stewing lamb, according to taste and availability.  It goes very well with jacket potatoes, which can be cooked in the oven at the same time as the casserole.

Lamb and orange casserole (serves 4)

4 lamb chops*
1 onion
8 oz (approx 250 g) carrots, swede or other root vegetables
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
0.5 pint (approx 250 ml) stock or water
Juice and rind of 1 orange
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) tomato puree
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoons) dried rosemary or oregano
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) Worcestershire sauce (optional)

4 oz (approx 125 g) self-raising flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) suet
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary or oregano
Juice and rind of 1 orange

Peel and chop the onion.

Peel and dice the root vegetables.

Fry the lamb chops in cooking oil in a heatproof casserole over a medium heat until browned.  Take them out of the casserole.

Add the chopped onion and vegetables and fry gently for a few minutes until starting to soften and colour.

Add the flour and stir so that it coats the vegetables.

Pour in the stock or water. Bring to the boil and stir until thickened.

Add the tomato puree, herbs, Worcestershire sauce (if using) and the juice and rind of the orange.  Season with salt and pepper.

Replace the lamb chops.

Cover the casserole and cook in a moderately hot oven at about 170 C for about one hour, while you make the dumplings.

To make the dumplings:
Mix the flour, suet and herbs in a small bowl.

Stir in the orange rind.

Season with salt and pepper.

Mix to a soft but not sticky dough with the orange juice.  If you have more orange juice than you need, stir the leftover juice into the casserole.  If you need more liquid, add a little water.

Divide the dumpling dough into 8 pieces and roll each into a ball.

Put the dumplings on top of the casserole, replace the lid, and carry on cooking at the same temperature for approximately another half an hour.

Serve with jacket potatoes and vegetables of your choice.

The casserole can be frozen, without the dumplings. 

*or approx 1 lb (approx 450 g) diced stewing lamb.  If using diced lamb, proceed as above except that you do not need to take the lamb out of the casserole while you fry the vegetables and make the sauce, just leave it in the whole time.

17 January, 2013

The Town House, by Norah Lofts. Book review

First published 1959. Edition reviewed: Hodder and Stoughton 1983, ISBN 0-340-15182-X. 350 pages

Set in and around the fictional town of Baildon in Suffolk, England, in approximately 1401-1451, The Town House tells the story of Martin Reed, who first built the house of the title, and three generations of his family.  All the main characters are fictional.

In 1401, Walter is a serf training to be a smith on the manor of Rede in Norfolk.  When he falls in love and the lord of the manor refuses permission to marry, Walter and his intended bride, Kate, flee to the walled town of Baildon in Suffolk.  If they can live there without breaking a law or being reclaimed for a year and a day, they will gain their freedom.  Walter changes his name to Martin, the better to avoid detection.  Making a living and raising a family in a strange town is no easy matter, and their new life is precarious, subject daily to the vagaries of fate and the arbitrary whims – both kindly and malign – of powerful townsmen and the Abbey that dominates the town.  Until rebellion flares, when tragedy strikes and Martin must make a choice.

This is a tale of medieval life as lived day to day by the ordinary people of a fairly ordinary town and its rural hinterland.  The cast ranges from the destitute to the minor gentry, by way of farmers, craftsmen, labourers, traders and merchants.  Kings and magnates and their doings hardly impinge on the lives of Martin and his neighbours (e.g. Agincourt happens during the period of the novel but is never mentioned).  The novel conveys a vivid sense of what it might really have been like to live in the Middle Ages as a near-destitute labourer, an impoverished knight, a clerk or a prosperous merchant. 

Martin’s tale of hard work for low wages, the daily struggle to avoid starvation, the joy from occasional acts of generosity, and the slow crushing of his and his wife’s modest hopes under poverty and injustice, makes compelling reading.  All Martin’s industry, ingenuity and skill count for very little against the casual abuses of power that thwart him at every turn, until an unlikely twist of fate suddenly gives him an unimagined opportunity.  Higher up the social scale, the daughter of an impoverished knight is almost as much a prisoner of circumstances, as are a poor knight and a girl of high birth with no dowry, and a little girl trying to understand how the grown-up world works and eventually recoiling from it in disgust.  Anyone with a rose-tinted view of the Middle Ages as all about chivalry, courtly love, tournaments and pretty dresses, will find The Town House gives a refreshingly different picture of how the rest of the population lived. 

All the people in the novel are individuals, with their own faults and motivations, hopes and fears, shaped by their upbringing and constrained by the society they live in.  Each faces their own dilemmas and must live with the consequences of their choices.  Each faces joy and tragedy and must cope in their own way.  The characters are so vividly drawn that their personal quandaries and vicissitudes are every bit as gripping as any thriller about great affairs of state.

The novel is told  in five overlapping first-person narratives, each recounted by a different character, interspersed with shorter sections in third person labelled ‘interludes’.  It is an unusual structure but an effective one, as it shows the characters and the interactions between them from several perspectives.  Actions taken by one character that seem inexplicable in one narrative become comprehensible in another when seen from a different point of view.  The writing style is deceptively simple, written in clear modern English.  I say ‘deceptively’ because many key events are conveyed by allusions and hints rather than spelled out explicitly.  Sometimes this reflects the character who is narrating at the time; for example, Maude Reed is a little girl of eight or so and the undercurrents of adult scandal bewilder her, though the alert reader can recognise the gathering clouds.  This is a novel that rewards concentration.

There is no author’s note, perhaps reflecting the date of first publication (1959), perhaps because there are no historical events or historical figures featured.  The historical detail feels very authentic.  A map would have been useful to set the fictional town of Baildon and the fictional port of Bywater in the context of the real places mentioned, but this is a minor detail.

Compelling family saga of three generations of a family rising from serfdom to prosperity in fifteenth-century England, with a powerful sense of authenticity and wonderfully human characters.

12 January, 2013

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral has a spectacular setting, high on a sandstone bluff above the River Wear.  The river loops back on itself in a deep meander, creating a steep-sided peninsula that is almost an island.

Map link: Durham 

Durham is located in what is now north-east England, south of Hadrian’s Wall, and although it isn’t associated with a Roman fort it cannot have been far from the main Roman road that ran north from York to the Wall (the exact course of the road is not known).

Zoom out on the map to see Durham in its wider geographical context.

The Norman cathedral is aligned across the peninsula, with the west towers positioned immediately above the steep drop to the river bank:

Durham Cathedral west towers, seen from across the River Wear

The name Durham derives from Dun Holm, from the Old English ‘dun’ (hill) and Norse ‘holm’ (island), a singularly apt description given the shape of the peninsula. 

The site has obvious defensive potential, surrounded on three sides by the River Wear, broad enough to be a serious obstacle:

Looking along the River Wear below the cathedral west towers. The river was high when I took this photograph in the middle of a wet summer.

The peninsula looks an obvious location for a fort of some kind, and I wonder if there was ever any influence on the name from Brittonic ‘Din’ (fort), given the site’s obvious defensive potential. However, there is no mention of the site before the monastery was founded in 995 (see below), so this is pure speculation on my part.  There may have been an early defensive site in the area at the nearby Iron Age promontory fort at Maiden Castle, east of the cathedral, which has steep slopes on three sides and may have originally been situated in another meander of the river.

Map link: Maiden Castle 

Durham first appears in the records in 995, when a group of monks from Lindisfarne settled there.  The monks had fled from Lindisfarne in 875 to escape Norse raids, carrying with them the body of Northumbria’s premier saint, St Cuthbert.  They initially settled in Chester-le-Street, until further raiding in 995 prompted them to take to the road again in search of a secure site for their precious relics.

According to legend, the monks had seen a vision telling them to take St Cuthbert to Dun Holm, but did not know where that was.  By chance (or providence) they encountered a milkmaid who told them she was looking for her dun cow, which she had last seen at Dun Holm.  They followed her, and when they came to the peninsula above the River Wear they settled there and built a church to house St Cuthbert.

This charming legend is commemorated in a sculpture on the external wall:

Sculpture showing the legend of the Dun Cow, Durham Cathedral

Nothing now remains of the 995 church, which disappeared when the great Norman cathedral was built on the site in 1093, obliterating the earlier building.

West and central part of Durham Cathedral from Palace Green

The nave is Norman, the west towers are 12th and 13th century, and the central tower is late 15th century.

Photography isn’t allowed inside the cathedral, so to get an idea of the magnificent interior, see the pictures of the nave, the crossing, the central tower, and Bede’s tomb on the official cathedral website.  Yes, Bede is buried there too.  I went to pay my respects and say thank you to him for writing his Histories.