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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Vikings and sagas – an appreciation

May 10, 2011 2 comments

Just caught the BBC programme The Viking Sagas, which is now available on the BBC iPlayer, and will be there until 17 May.

Some of the stuff I knew, actually, but a lot I didn’t despite having read different sagas at various times. I knew for example that many of them relate the stories of actual people and real historical events. But I didn’t know that many of the places mentioned are still identifiable, so a farmer can easily point to a bend in a fjord and say ‘Oh yes, Gudrun’s house was just there – 1000 years ago. And the valley where her husband killed his brother is a short walk away and the dip in the ridge that he hid in while waiting to ambush his brother is still there.’

I also found the attitude to language inspirational. There are obvious close links between language and magic, because saying words can put chains of events into effect and change the way we define and even perceive things. And this comes out in the sagas. Plus, when you hear extracts, as offered in this programme, the rhythm and rhyme and power of the sagas becomes far more evident than it is if you’re simply reading them in translation.

I also didn’t know, and find it amazing, that about 10% of the Icelandic adult population are published authors, the highest figure anywhere in the world.

On a side note – there was an event outside my house yesterday that might yet turn into a saga. Two guys having an argument, and when I heard the shouting and began to pay attention, the words I heard one say to the other were ‘And you shouldn’t ever forget that when we were inside [i.e. prison], you were my bitch!’ The power of words, eh? Don’t be surprised to see me use that line sometime in a story… I might add that thankfully this kind of thing is not common where I live…

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The birth of the British novel

February 8, 2011 4 comments

Just thought I’d do a quick post to recommend something that was on TV last night – Birth of the British Novel, a discussion of some of the earliest novels from the 1700s, when some genres and indeed the idea of the novel itself came to be established. It looks at Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney and William Godwin – also at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the birth of Gothic fiction, and Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela and Clarissa – two epistolatory novels that took up an inordinate amount of time in my early studies of the sociology of literature and that I frankly never warmed to, though many years on I can appreciate their importance even though I still find them ridiculously annoying to read.

Key point (taken from the programme blurb): ‘the novel was more than mere entertainment, it was also a subversive hand grenade that would change British society for the better.’ It may be difficult to think of Pamela and Clarissa as ‘subversive hand grenades’ but even they articulated an awareness of the place of women in what was then a highly patriarchal society, and perhaps suggested to their mainly female readers views and values other than those Richardson himself might have wanted to propose.

Even if you have a reasonable knowledge of the history of English literature you may find something in this programme you didn’t previously know, or see a connection you hadn’t previously made. I did.

Fronted by Henry Hitchings, author of The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (2008) and the just-published The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. It’s entertaining to see a programme about novels done by someone who looks like an ex-boxer, as though the analysis of the history of English involves pugilism. And maybe it does…

If you’ve missed it, it’s on the BBC iPlayer until next Monday. And it even comes with a warning: ‘Contains Adult Themes’. If you can’t get the iPlayer, I guess it’s possible that  in time that it might turn up on the BBC’s Youtube channel.

Plants and egos, a Victorian legacy

September 13, 2010 4 comments

Not your average English garden; cycads at Lost Gardens of Heligan

I found myself having to make an unplanned, unexpected trip to Cornwall about 10 days ago. The details aren’t important, though in the course of the trip I ended up visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan – and that’s what prompted this post.

The Lost Gardens aren’t ‘lost’ in any literal sense, though perhaps until recently they were in a metaphysical one. They’re quite close to Mevagissey and St Austell and cover over 200 acres. They just got somewhat untended and overgrown after the First World War, when the owner of the estate, Jack Tremayne, went to live in Italy. By ‘somewhat overgrown’, what I mean is that it’s taken a huge team of volunteers around 20 years to hack it back and make it look somewhat like the old estate plans show it would have been in the 1800s.

And that’s really what this post is about: the huge egos that went into creating the gardens in the first place.

What, for example, would you make of a squire who decides to wants oatmast variety apple trees in his orchard and, discovering they’re almost extinct, sets about saving the variety because that specific type of apple is particularly good for stuffing pheasant? Somehow I don’t think he was saying that in a joking way either.

The late 1800s were a period in which the landed gentry treated their gardens and estates as status symbols, in much the same way as the rich today regard their cars, yachts and penthouses. The Tremaynes commissioned plant-hunters to find them new varieties of rhododendron from Asia, and after rumours emerged of a hitherto unknown species of tree in China (Davidia involucrata – a French missionary, Father David, discovered an example and had it sent to Paris) they arranged for a British plant-hunter to find one and bring it back.

Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) at Heligan

The plant-hunters are another example of this Victorian attitude, swashbuckling types who travelled the world collecting seeds and plants, often undertaking trips of several years at a time, and often in conflict with the authorities in the places they went to. They were in deadly competition with others – sometimes in a literal sense – and it wasn’t unknown for a collector, having discovered some new specimen, to try to destroy others in the area to prevent other collectors from acquiring them.

And all this was done from motives of social status, overinflated egos, hard cash and greed. The people who did the collecting were often little better than bandits and the landowners little better than tyrants (look at the gardeners’ quarters at Heligan for visual proof!).

But here’s the rub: many rare species ended up in country house estates, or in national botanical houses in Western countries, where they were tended and cared for. The people who did all these bad things, ironically, ended up making seed banks that have come to be increasingly important scientifically and environmentally as many native habitats have come under threat.

Stories from the grave?

June 9, 2010 2 comments

I was in Glasgow some while back, and in a free moment went wandering round the Necropolis – the large cemetery on the eastern side of the city centre. You may have seen it on TV as the location for a couple of wildlife programmes, since deer live there; you may, at some point in the future, see it as the basis for a location in a story – especially since one of the tombs looks for all the world like a Victorian Gothic space rocket.

Walking around the Necropolis, I got to thinking about someone I know on WordPress who specialises in writing novels based on Scottish settings. Because you’d think, wouldn’t you, that a Scottish setting would imply Scottish characters – and indeed many of those residing in the Necropolis were pillars of Scottish society. Quite a few tombs were inscribed with the person’s name and dates, and a legend such as ‘Merchant and Protestant’.

But one tomb set me thinking, and then investigating. I spotted it because it was well tended, with fresh flowers and candles in small glass containers. It belonged to someone who died in 1832. And it was inscribed to someone as (I’m writing from memory, I didn’t make a note at the time) ‘Lieutenant in the late Polish Army, died in exile, Greenock, 1832’.

I don’t know this particular person’s story. But one part of it at least has to do with Polish history. By 1795 the Polish state (what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) had ceased to exist, most of the territory of Poland having been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. For a number of years there were periodic changes in the control of various bits of territory and semi-independent vassal statelets, but the only part of Poland that might be thought of as ‘Polish’, in that nobody had actually annexed it, was a coastal area around Krolewiec. This state of affairs led to the ‘November Uprising’ of 1830, a challenge principally against Russian control that was quickly repressed.

From 1831 onwards, there was a ‘Great Emigration’ in which Polish combatants, political elites, and many of the Polish intelligentsia (including, for example, Chopin) became refugees. I’d assume this Lieutenant also was a refugee, and died a year or two after arriving in Greenock.

Whatever he did in Scotland when he arrived, did it involve fathering children? Has he created a Polish/Scottish family that continues to remember him? Why were there flowers and candles? And how did he come to be buried with the great and good of Glasgow in the Necropolis, rather than in a local Greenock cemetery?

There are, when I think about it, plenty of other ‘foreigners’ who’ve been involved in Scottish history (apart from the English!) – French, obviously, but also people of Italian descent mostly from the period from the 1890s up to World War 1, Lithuanians, some (principally Lithuanian) Jews who became a distinct population subgroup in the 1700s and so forth.

And I’m sure there are plenty of other places in the world where wandering in a cemetery would leave you thinking ‘how on earth did this person come to be living in this part of the world?’. But probing this story gave me a little more insight into European history. And for a writer, that turns out to be worthwhile at a number of levels beyond passing curiosity.

For one thing, a novel based on Scotland would probably be enriched by having characters such as an emigre Polish lieutenant in it. For another, the twists and turns of Polish history, the uprising and the Great Emigration would make an amazing setting for a historical novel (or, suitably adapted, a science fiction novel).

So anyway… whoever remembers this lieutenant and tends his grave, thank you for leading me on a bit of a journey of historical exploration that was interesting on its own terms, whether or not I ever incorporate any of it into my fiction.

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