Monday, 16 January 2017

Ancient Voices in a Modern World: Marcus Tullius Cicero

There are a few voices from the ancient world that still reverberate in our own times, and few more so than that of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Cicero lived, as arguably we do today, in "interesting times" (a phrase used by the British statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and again by his son, Austen, in 1936, to describe the anxieties of an age in which uncertainty appears to be the only certainty: the "Chinese curse" on which it is supposedly based is almost certainly a myth). In Cicero's case, he was living through the final years of the Roman Republic, fearful of the onset of a tyranny that he would not, in the end, live to see: for, whilst the historian (or, for that matter, the historical novelist) looks back on past uncertainties with the luxury and benefits of hindsight; those who live through such an age can only guess at where the winds of fortune might blow them.

Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Jose Luiz (licensed under CCA).

Many of us in Europe, the United States, and the Commonwealth, have grown up with the idea that we live in "democracies," and associate the birth of democracy not with Rome, but with Athens. That is certainly where the word (meaning government by the people) has its origins, but a time-traveler from ancient Greece or Rome would not recognise our systems of governance as "democratic."

The "golden age" of democratic Athens had long since ended when Cicero, as a young man, visited the city to study philosophy, politics and rhetoric. This "golden age" had, arguably, lasted for less than a century (480-404 BC), and the Athenian model of democracy was widely seen as a failed political experiment. Whilst in Athens, Cicero read Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, both of which identify democracy as a dysfunctional form of government. He also read the works of the later Greek historian, Polybius (200-118 BC), who argued that, in practice, most political systems of his day (he was thinking, in particular, of the Roman system, which he admired) combined elements of different theoretical systems, such as democracy, monarchy and aristocracy.

Cicero returned to Rome intent on putting into practice what he had learned. The "aristocratic" element of the Roman constitution was represented by the Senate, but, as he was not an aristocrat by birth, he did not have an automatic seat there.

The Curia Julia in the Forum of Rome, one of several buildings in which the Senate meetings were held. Photo: Giovanni Dall' Orto (reproduced with permission).

The rather limited "democratic" element was represented by public assemblies, and by opportunities for a few men to gain admittance to the Senate by election, as Cicero did.

A Roman elector casting his vote, denarius of C. Cassius Longinus, 63 BC. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

The "monarchical" element was represented by the Consuls, elected, in each case, just for one year, with two serving at any one time, so that they could act as checks and balances on one another. Cicero served as Consul in 63 BC. This was the highest office under the Roman Republic, the equivalent of a modern presidency.

A Roman Consul, accompanied by Lictors. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group (licensed under GNU).

The Rome of Cicero's day was deeply divided along lines of wealth. On the one hand, aristocratic military commanders such as Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Pompey the Great, returned from their foreign campaigns with almost unimaginable wealth in plunder and slaves: their veterans typically had far greater loyalty to them than to the Roman state, and organised themselves into competing mobs in support of the political ambitions of their respective commanders. On the other hand, many ordinary Romans lived in desperate poverty. With the crumbs from their own tables, and promises (however empty) of more to follow, Populares, such as Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, sought to recruit the poor to their cause.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, believed to have been one of the richest men ever to have lived. A property speculator, and a political ally of Julius Caesar, he played a key role in putting down the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Photo: The Louvre (image is in the Public Domain).
Propaganda cups handed out by political candidates to potential voters with gifts of food or drink. One is inscribed with the name of Cato (a representative of the Optimate faction), the other with the name of Catiline (one of the Populares). Photo: Salvatore Falco (licensed under CCA).

Cicero, in company with Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, was no democrat. He feared the mobs, and the power of brute force that they might lend to a potential tyrant. What he was, above all, was an advocate of constitutional government; of the idea that the political process (as defined by precedent - the Roman Republic did not have a written constitution) was at least as important as political outcomes. Through his written treatises, De Re Publica ("On the Commonwealth" - from which we take our word "Republic"), and De Offiiis ("On Duties"), this idea has arguably had more influence on modern systems of government than the direct democracy of Athens in the Fifth Century BC. This idea, however, carries its own dilemmas, as Cicero learned to his cost.

Cicero's De Officiis was the second book to be printed in Europe, after the Gutenberg Bible. This is King Henry VIII's personal annotated copy, printed around 1500. Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library (licensed under CCA).

When, during the course of his Consulship, he had to face down an attempted coup d'etat, led by a Senator named Catiline, he acted swiftly to execute the conspirators, without the formality of a trial. Although he had the support of the Senate in doing so, he must, as an experienced lawyer as well as a politician, have known that he was acting unconstitutionally, and he was subsequently exiled. Neither his books, nor those of Plato, Aristotle or Polybius, provide a satisfactory answer to the question as to when, and under what circumstances, a constitutional ruler may be justified in acting outside the constitution. Catiline had already violated the constitution: both by assembling an illegal army, and camping it outside Rome; and by entering secret negotiations with a foreign power (the Gaulish Allobroges tribe), which Cicero learned of through his network of spies.

On his return from exile, Cicero cautiously welcomed the assassination of Julius Caesar, but this "liberation" did not follow the course he might have wished to see. Power was seized by one faction after another, each of them backed by the sort of armed force he had always feared. He himself was seized by forces loyal to Mark Antony, and his head and hands (the instruments of his oratory) displayed on the Rostra (speakers' platform) from which he had denounced Catiline to the Roman people.

The Rostra of the Roman Forum. Photo: O. Mustafin (licensed under CCA).

Yet when, in the modern context, we think about Mark Antony, we almost inevitably remember the fictional speeches scripted for him by Shakespeare, many centuries after his death, whereas, in Cicero's case, it is his own words that echo down to us through the centuries:

"Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludat? Quem ad finem, sese effrenata iactabit audacia?"

"When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?"

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Wards of Old London: Fleet Street - Wordsmiths, Pubs, and an Unexpected Ghost

A visitor to London, exploring the ward of Farringdon Without, and having walked along Holborn and High Holborn, can, from Holborn Circus, follow a series of small roads (Saint Andrew Street, Shoe Lane, Little New Street, New Hardings, Pemberton Row) southward to Gough Square. A statue of a cat named Hodge identifies one of the houses in the square as the one-time home of Hodge's owner, the Eighteenth Century lexicographer and literary critic, Dr Samuel Johnson.

Dr Johnson's house, in Gough Square. Photo: Jim Linwood (licensed under CCA).

Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759, and it was here that he completed his famous Dictionary of the English Language (1755). It was not, as has sometimes been claimed, the first English dictionary, but it was the best of the early ones, and provided the model for most subsequent dictionaries. Johnson's house is also one of the best-preserved examples of a Georgian town-house that is open to visitors in London.

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1775 - image is in the Public Domain). 

Johnson was an immensely sociable man, whose generosity towards friends and literary associates frequently extended well beyond his own, rather limited, financial means. A widower from 1752, and one without children, many of these friends and associates lodged with him, and helped him in the compilation of the dictionary, working word by word through key texts, beginning with the King James Bible, and the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. His intellectual circle included women as well as men, and even a former slave, Francis Barber, whom he had educated himself.

Francis Barber, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (image is in the Public Domain).

One thing that I noticed, on visiting the house last year, was the tiny proportions of the basement kitchen. A member of staff overheard me commenting on this to my sister, who was accompanying me. He smiled, explaining that this was a frequent topic of conversation among his colleagues: "we have come to the conclusion that beyond the toasting of muffins and crumpets, very little cooking actually happened here." Johnson, and his many house-guests and literary collaborators, must either have dined out in some of the many pubs and chop-houses in the surrounding streets, or brought food in from such establishments. Such, presumably, were the habits of many literate, middle class Londoners at the time.

Walking south from Gough Square, along Hind Court, one emerges into Fleet Street. Among the first pubs that one encounters is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which in its current form, dates to the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666, but which, as an establishment, is much older. It has often been mentioned in association with Johnson, and, although there is no direct evidence that he actually frequented it, it does seem to me more likely than not. What is more certain is that Charles Dickens refers to the pub in A Tale of Two Cities, as does Anthony Trollope in Ralph the Heir. Other literary figures who have held court there include P.G. Wodehouse and W.B. Yeats.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Photo: Banjobacon (licensed under CCA).

There is a ghost story associated with the pub, concerning a midwife, whose spirit was unable to rest on account of her murder of new-born children that she had delivered. This story was the subject of a Seventeenth Century broadsheet ballad, a recording of which can be heard here. The children's bones were said to be at the pub in 1680, but the current staff were unable to produce them for my sister and I, nor had they seen or heard anything of the ghost.

The printed broadsheet of the Ballad of the Midwive's Ghost (1680 - image is in the Public Domain).

Fleet Street itself runs west from Ludgate towards The Strand in Westminster, crossing the (now subterranean) River Fleet. To the south, in the Medieval and Early Modern eras, lay the Bridewell, a palace in the early years of Henry VIII's reign, and subsequently an orphanage and prison; Whitefriars, a Carmelite priory; and the Temple, the London headquarters of the crusading Knights Templar, until the dissolution of the order in 1312. To the north of Fleet Street lay the sumptuous townhouses of provincial prelates, including the Bishops of Salisbury and Saint David's.

The Civil Parishes of the City of London in 1870, including those (lower left, showing the positions of the Bridewell, Whitefriars and the Temple) bordering Fleet Street. Image: Doc77can (licensed under CCA).
Fleet Street is today more famous for journalism (although few journalists actually work there now), going back to 1500, when Wynkyn de Worde set up one of England's first printing workshops near Shoe Lane. The newspaper industry was given a very considerable boost by the repeal of the Newspaper Tax in 1855, and of Paper Duty in 1858, and flourished in Fleet Street until the final quarter of the Twentieth Century.

Fleet Street in 1890, looking east towards Saint Paul's Cathedral. Photo: James Valentine (image is in the Public Domain).
The former Daily Telegraph building, now the London headquarters of Goldman Sachs. Photo: N.Chadwick (licensed under CCA).

This stroll along Fleet Street brings us to the end of our exploration of the intramural and extramural wards of the City of London, which I had thought to complete in 2016, but didn't quite succeed. There is, of course, far more to "London," as we understand it today, than simply The City, and I shall be launching a new series of posts in the coming weeks.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: January

There has been a good deal of doom and gloom around in the closing months of 2016, so I wanted to start the New Year with something more uplifting. Our Medieval ancestors suffered through wars, famines and plagues, and even the wealthiest among them could not have imagined some of the comforts that most of us take for granted today; yet they produced a great quantity of art that can still speak to us, and lift our spirits in the modern world. The passage of the seasons is a common theme in Medieval art; so, over the coming year, I shall be looking at each month in turn.

The Labours of the Months: manuscript of c818 AD (image is in the Public Domain).

The only art that most people in the Middle Ages would have seen was in churches, and the theme of this art was, of course, religious. The year itself was structured around the great feasts and solemnities of the Church: both those which are familiar to us, such as Christmas and Easter; and those that have become more obscure with the passage of time, such as Michaelmas and Candlemas.

Books were expensive, since they had to be copied by hand, on vellum (animal skin), and few individuals owned them. In the earlier Middle Ages, most literate people were either priests, monks, or nuns, and few books circulated outside the libraries of the great cathedrals and monasteries. Through their activities as copyists, Benedictine monks and nuns, in particular, ensured the survival, not only of Christian texts, but also of some of the most important literature of Classical antiquity.

From the Fourteenth Century, however, commercial workshops emerged, especially in Flanders and the Netherlands, producing books, sometimes elaborately decorated, for the households of the wealthy. Both men and women worked in these ateliers, the skills being passed from father to daughter, as well as from father to son.

The Arnhem Book of Hours, 1465-85, National Library of the Netherlands (image is in the Public Domain). Unusually, the language here is Dutch, rather than Latin.

"Books of Hours," combining the functions of a calendar, diary and prayer-book, were especially popular, and were often presented as wedding gifts to noble women, or as baptism gifts to their children. They were used for private devotion, and most were in Latin. A few have marginal annotations, suggesting that they may have been used to teach children to read.

January began with feasting (the festivities of Christmas extending until the 6th of January), and this is sometimes portrayed directly.

Feasting and gift-giving at New Year, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1411-1416, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The Duke (seated at the right, in a blue robe) was a member of the French Royal Family. The work was produced in the Flanders workshop of the Limbourg brothers.
Feasting at New Year, from the Grimani Breviary, 1490-1510, Biblioteca Marciana (image is in the Public Domain). 

In terms of religious devotion, the calendar for January included commemorations of Mary the Mother of God (1st); the Epiphany (8th); the Baptism of Christ (9th); and the Conversion of Saint Paul (25th). These were occasions for both public and private devotion, and are often marked, in Books of Hours, both by specific prayers, and by appropriate illustrations.

The Hours of Marie of Burgundy, c1477, National Library of Austria. Marie herself is shown reading in the foreground, but also, with her husband, worshiping the Virgin Mary in the background.  
The Epiphany, from the Hours of Charles d'Angouleme, late 15th Century, National Library of France. Image: Cardena2 (licensed under CCA).

The liturgical, agricultural and astrological dimensions of the year moved in concert with one another, and scenes of daily life appropriate to the season often appear alongside astrological symbols, interspersed with the devotional passages. Medieval winters really were colder than modern ones: the "Little Ice Age" that ended the Norse settlement of Greenland and Newfoundland at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century was felt across Europe, and extended into the Seventeenth Century.

January, from a Flemish Book of Hours, 1400-50 (image is in the Public Domain). The artist is Simon Bening, whose workshop was in Bruges. 
"Hunters in the Snow," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, Kunsthistoriches Museum (image is in the Public Domain). Such paintings emerged directly from the tradition of earlier Flemish Books of Hours.

The commercial workshops that produced hand-copied and illuminated Books of Hours continued to operate even after the introduction of printing in the mid-Sixteenth Century, and their clients included the English Royal Family, as well as households of the newly-wealthy commercial class. It was only with the Protestant Reformation that the popularity of this art-form began to decline.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Affirming Flames: Great Books of 2016

"Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."

W.H. Auden (1939).

My Canadian fellow-writer, Barbara Kyle, shared these words of Auden's with her friends and followers a few days ago, as a sort of epitaph to a year that has had more than its expected share of dark moments, sending many of us to seek inspiration and solace more often in poetry than in prose.

I end this year, as I ended last year (and will, perhaps end every year), with more new fiction and non-fiction titles on my "to read" list, than on my "read and reviewed" list, but here are just three new books that caught my attention over the course of 2016, and which did strike me, in Auden's terms, as "affirming flames" that address themselves to the present moment, with all its dilemmas and uncertainties.

My first choice is a straightforward historical novel, The Women Friends - Selina, by Emma Rose Millar and Miriam Drori. Set in Austria between 1916 and 1938, it is inspired by Gustav Klimt's masterpiece, Die Freundinnen, and tells the story of a young woman, Selina, who leaves her rural community in the Tyrol to seek her fortune as a fashion model in Vienna. Work is hard to come by, however, in the capital city of a dying empire, and she finds herself with few resources or friends to fall back on, outside of a small circle of marginalised people - Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, struggling to eek out a living, and to maintain their identity in a country that is losing its way, and increasingly turning against them. The history is very much in the background of the human story, but is made more interesting by virtue of its unfamiliarity (most British readers, I suspect, know far less about the early Twentieth Century history of Austria, than about that of Germany).

"Die Freundinnen," by Gustav Klimt (1916-17). Image: DirectMedia Publishing GmbH (image is in the Public Domain).

"Klimt didn't ask for me, and neither did Fraulein Floge. Neomi and Livia didn't even speak to me when they passed me on the stairs ... the days seemed terribly long. I wrote letters to my family in Tyrol, went to see exhibitions at the gallery and the Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, anywhere that was warm, where admission was free and I could at least improve my mind while my days were idle. But my purse was soon empty; I was short on the rent that month and increasingly frequented the library and the park so as to avoid my landlord as well as I could."

My second choice raises a fundamental question: is there such a thing as "contemporary historical fiction" (there is certainly such a thing as "contemporary history," with degree courses on offer at many of the UK's leading universities)? The Historical Novels Society defines "historical fiction" as being written "at least fifty years after the events described, or ... by someone who was not alive at the time." In another sense, all fiction is "historical," because of the time normally taken to edit and produce a book, even after the author has completed his or her final draft. Ali Smith's novel, Autumn, however, is recognisably set in 2016, with specific references to the Brexit Referendum, and to the murder of the MP, Jo Cox. Once again, the history is in the background to a human story (an inter-generational friendship between a centenarian man and a woman in her thirties), but it is unmistakably there. Rich in literary allusion, it is also written with very tangible warmth and humour.

Tributes to the murdered MP, Jo Cox, in London's Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea's been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back, naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to move the head. What's this in his mouth, grit? It's sand ... The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the grains in the neck of the sandglass. Daniel Gluck, your luck's run out at last ... is this it? really? this? is death?"  

My third choice is a work of non-fiction: Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Like Bakewell, I was a teenage existentialist, and voraciously read the philosophical works, novels, and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Although I knew that existentialism was not exclusively (or even originally) a French movement, I was far more suspicious of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who I knew to have been an active and enthusiastic Nazi, and, whilst I knew that I ought to read the works of Edmund Husserl, the translations available to me seemed dense and impenetrable, and my German, unlike my French, was not good enough for me to check them against the original. Bakewell combines the vocations of the philosopher, biographer and intellectual historian, and reveals much, here, that was unknown to me, not least the heroic role played by a Franciscan priest, Father Herman Van Breda, in protecting Husserl's manuscripts from the Nazis. Whether Van Breda actually considered himself an existentialist of any sort is unclear, but his actions show him to be as perfect an example of the existentialist hero as any invented in the novels of Sartre or de Beauvoir.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960. Photo: Alberto Korda (image is in the Public Domain).

"Where philosophers before him had written in careful propositions and arguments, Sartre wrote like a novelist - not surprisingly, since he was one ... Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of object. Other things merely sit in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. Even non-human animals mostly follow the instincts and behaviours that characterise their species, Sartre believed. But as a human being, I have no predefined nature at all ... I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along."

In their different ways, each of these books seems to me to have something particular to have something to say to us, living in the present moment. Whether one is reflecting, directly, on the year that we have just lived through; or learning the lessons of a more distant past; or considering the nature of human freedom (and the responsibilities, as well as the opportunities, that it confronts us with); one realises that nothing that we face is entirely new or unique. However disturbed we are by the things going on in the word around us, and with however much trepidation we walk on into the coming year, we can reflect, with the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, channeled here by Seamus Heaney, "That passed over, this can too."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels: 46 - "A Grain of Wheat," by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

From the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries, following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, and the consequent disruption of the overland trade-routes connecting China and India to the markets of Europe and the Mediterranean world, the coastal cities of East Africa, including Mombasa and Zanzibar, became magnets for European, Arabic and Chinese traders. Chinese junks brought silks; Arabian dhows brought pepper and cloves; and traders from Portugal, England, and Oman, vied with one another to purchase these commodities. Few of these traders ever ventured more than a few miles from the coast. Small numbers of native Africans in the interior were involved in the procurement and trade of goods (gold, ivory, rhino horn, tortoise shell) for the European, Arabian and Chinese markets, but most made their living either as subsistence farmers or as herdsmen.

The European exploration of the African interior began in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and went hand in hand with missionary activity. Colonisation followed, the motivation for this being partly economic (diamonds, minerals, rubber), and partly geopolitical (the British seized territory in order to keep it out of German or French hands, and vice-versa). In 1870, only 10% of Africa had been under European control, but, by 1914, this had risen to 90%. Kenya became a British protectorate in 1895, and railways were built to open up the interior, and connect it to the coastal ports.

A Church of Scotland missionary service in a Kenyan village, 1905-40 (image is in the Public Domain).

The "Lunatic Express," near Mombasa, in 1899, one of the railways connecting Kenya's coast and interior (image is in the Public Domain).

The highlands of Kenya proved to be perfectly suited to the intensive cultivation of coffee, increasingly in demand across Europe and North America. Plantations were established by European settlers, but native Africans were forbidden by the colonial authorities from producing coffee, and other cash-crops.

A coffee plantation in Kenya, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Matpc-13872 (Public Domain).

Kenyan soldiers of the King's African Rifles fought with distinction on the British side in both World Wars, gaining military experience, but also an understanding of the world beyond their homeland. Ireland had already won her independence from the British Empire, and India would achieve hers just two years after the end of the Second World War.

The King's African Rifles, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-345 (non-commercial license).

Whilst many returning Kenyan soldiers remained loyal to the Empire, others were inspired to take up the struggle for independence, a cause that gained increasing support among the younger generation. Village communities, and even families, were divided, as some served in the pro-British Home Guard, whilst others left to join the Mau-Mau rebels in the forest. A State of Emergency was declared in 1952, and atrocities were committed on both sides, before Kenya finally gained her independence in 1963.

A British Army patrol in Kenya, 1952-6. Photo: Imperial War Museum, MAU-587 (non-commercial license).

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel, A Grain of Wheat, is set in a rural community in the Kenyan highlands on either side of the Uhuru (independence) celebrations at the end of 1963. It is a powerful evocation of a divided community, struggling to make sense of its past as it moves forward towards an uncertain future, and facing the realities of personal, as well as political, betrayals.

"Mugo walked, his head slightly bowed, staring at the ground as if ashamed of looking about him ... he heard someone shout his name. He started, stopped, and stared at Githua, who was hobbling towards him on crutches. When he reached Mugo he stood to attention, lifted his torn hat, and cried out: 'In the name of blackman's freedom, I salute you.' Then he bowed several times in comic deference. 'Is it - is it well with you?' Mugo asked, not knowing how to react ... Githua did not answer at once ... 'I tell you before the Emergency I was like you; before the whiteman did this to me with bullets, I could work with both hands, man' ... Githua's voice suddenly changed: 'The Emergency destroyed us,' he said in a tearful voice and abruptly went away."

"Kihika was tortured. Some say that the neck of a bottle was wedged into his body through the anus as the white people in the Special Branch tried to wrest the secrets of the forest from him. Others say that he was offered a lot of money and a free trip to England to shake the hand of the new woman on the throne. But he would not speak. Kihika was hanged in public, one Sunday, at Rung'ei Market, not far from where he had once stood calling for blood to rain on and water the tree of freedom. A combined force of Homeguards and Police whipped and drove people from Thabei and other ridges to see the body of the rebel dangling on the tree, and learn."

"Looking at Gikonyo, you could not believe that he was the same man whose marriage to Mumbi almost thirteen years before had angered other young suitors: what did Mumbi see in him? How could a woman so beautiful walk into poverty with eyes wide open? Now four years after returning home from detention, Gikonyo was one of the richest men in Thabei. He had recently bought a five-acre farm plot; he owned a shop - Gikonyo General Stores - at Rung'ei; and only the other day he had acquired a second-hand lorry for trading. On top of this, he was elected the chairman of the local branch of the Movement, a tribute, so people said, to his man's spirit which no detention camp could break."

Mau-Mau suspects under guard(image is in the Public Domain).

A Grain of Wheat is not a comfortable read for a white Briton such as myself, whose beloved uncle and aunt fled the Mau-Mau uprising after a lifetime spent in the colonial administration of Mombasa and Zanzibar. I wish, however, that someone had pressed it into my hand when I was a younger man, and that I could have discussed it with them. It is a mark of Ngugi's accomplishment as a writer that he invests human agency and dignity in his black and white characters alike: this is no triumphalist novel of the Kenyan independence movement, but rather a generous and even-handed treatment of one of the most troubled chapters in the shared history of its author's nation, and of mine.

President Jomo Kenyatta at the Eldoret Agricultural Show in 1968. Photo: Museum of World Cultures (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Wards of Old London: Holborn - London's Underworld

A visitor to London, exploring the Ward of Farringdon Without, and walking in a south-westerly direction along West Smithfield, arrives at Holborn Viaduct. He or she is, though there are few clues to this today, entering the course of the Fleet River, which flows south, from Hampstead and Highgate, to join the Thames at Blackfriars. The viaduct itself is the latest version of a bridge that has existed since Roman times, carrying Watling Street out from Newgate towards Westminster, the West Country, and, ultimately, Wales.

Holborn Viaduct. Photo: Chris Downer (licensed under CCA).

The stretch of Watling Street that passes through the Ward of Farringdon Without is named Holborn and, to the west, High Holborn. The coronation processions of Medieval and Early Modern monarchs passed along it, on their way from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, but the lanes and alleys leading off to the north and south had very different stories to tell. King Edward V, in 1483, gave orders to the City authorities " ... to eschewe the Stynkinge and Orrible Synne of lechery" in the district, whilst James I, in 1622, complained of " ... disorderly houses in Saffron Hill" (one of the roads leading north from the eastern end of Holborn), which "of longe tyme hath bene and is still much pestered with divers immodest lascivious and shameless weomen generally reputed for notorious common whores."

Staple Inn, Holborn, in 1866 (image is in the Public Domain). The building, which dates to 1585, and in which wool was once weighed and taxed, still stands.
Leather Lane, leading north from Holborn (image is in the Public Domain). 

The entertainments to be had in the area were not exclusively of a heterosexual nature. In 1726, the City authorities raided the home of a coffee-shop keeper named Margaret Clap, in Field Lane (very close to where Holborn Viaduct is today). It had been reported to them as a "molly house," a gathering place for homosexual men. They found forty men on the premises, three of whom were subsequently executed for sodomy. "Mother Clap," as she was known, was not operating a brothel, merely providing beds, and drinks which she fetched from a nearby tavern. She was, nonetheless, pilloried, and died later in the year.

The molly house never re-opened, but Field Lane retained its low-life reputation. It features in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, as the location of one of Fagin's dens:

"Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right-hand side as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets."

Field Lane in 1840 (image is in the Public Domain).

Field Lane was swept away in the wave of civic improvements that saw the construction of Holborn Viaduct itself, but the wider area remained a magnet for people whose personal journeys were approaching their unhappy endings.

The Fleet Ditch, close to Field Lane, in 1844 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The opening of Holborn Viaduct in 1869 (image is in the Public Domain).

Many of them ended those journeys in the Shoe Lane Workhouse. Others preferred suicide. One such was the poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had come to London from his native Bristol with high hopes of making his fortune as a writer: he ended his life at the age of eighteen, with arsenic, in his lodgings in Brook Street, in the home of a sack-maker. The tragedy of his life would later be romanticised by more successful poets and artists.  

Street-map showing the location of Shoe Lane Workhouse (image is in the Public Domain). Although he was not an inmate, Thomas Chatterton was buried in its cemetery. 
"The Death of Chatterton," by Henry Wallis, 1856. Image: Tate Britain (Public Domain).

Holborn today is an extension of the modern City of London, a place of jewellery shops, insurance company headquarters, and smart hotels; but there are also taverns, many of which were once frequented by the whores and mollies, the pickpockets and their victims; and by those whose once bright hopes had been dashed, drowning their sorrows with one last drink.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.