Today has been one of those perfect late summer days that you look on and savour when it’s the bleak middle of winter. The sun has been shining, but a gentle breeze has prevented the heat from becoming oppressive. When we took the dog for a walk this morning, the wheat was almost ripe and straight, unspoiled by the rainstorms of a couple of weeks ago; the barley stubble was pure gold. By lunchtime, I’d written my quota of words for the novel I’m working on. The garden is a pleasure to be in: it hasn’t yet matured into its blowsy, trollopy autumn look and the late summer flowers are still blooming. The clematis étoile violette is at its spectacular best.
The flowers of our golden marjoram and oregano are attracting our honey-bees and the many kinds of bumble-bee that seem to be flourishing this year (I like the red-bottomed ones!) and there are more butterflies than I’ve ever before seen here – the peacock butterflies have been especially prolific and one popped in to be photographed before we helped it back to the yellow buddleia.
There will be a good apple crop later, as the ripening Cox’s orange pippin shows. And there is crab for dinner tonight!
Aside from the beauties of nature, the day got off to a wonderful start, with two very generous reviews of Almost Love, by Elaine Aldred and Trish Nicholson, to join Valerie Poore’s excellent one; all are on the DI Yates page of this website! May I wish you, all three, a summery bounty – you spent a great deal of time and care over these, as well as over the reading of the novel – and may I also extend warm greetings to all who visit and comment here.
A wonderful day. And a shameless excuse to share some photographs.
A week ago today I took the day off and went with my husband to meet friends in order to walk up Pendle Hill in Lancashire. I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since and have finally been spurred to do so by a book review I’ve just read – of which more shortly. I’d never been to this part of Lancashire before and had no idea of how beautiful it is.
Pendle Hill, which is perhaps best accessed via the picturesque village of Barley, is well worth the steep climb that it demands of those intent on reaching the top. It is a windswept plateau unprotected against the elements, even on a fine summer’s day (though a stone circle, grouse-butt style, has been erected as a kind of refuge); once you have arrived at the summit, it is possible to see much of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales (including the Three Peaks), Derbyshire’s High Peak, North Wales and, on a very clear day, so I’m told, the Isle of Man. The 360˚ view is truly spectacular.
Aside from the wonderful panorama of Pendle Hill, the area is famous as the home of the defendants in the Pendle Witch Trial, in 1612. Twenty people from the Pendle district, sixteen of them women, were tried at Lancaster Assizes for witchcraft. The crimes that they were accused of committing were diverse, varying from murder by witchcraft to ‘bewitching’ people or animals, usually by causing them to fall sick or die. Some of them were sentenced to death; others had to stand in the pillory in the markets of Clitheroe, Padiham, Colne and Lancaster.
Their stories make sobering reading. Those indicted of witchcraft were usually, but not always, old women. One of the most renowned of the Pendle witches was Ann Whittle, alias ‘Chattox’, who lived in the Forest of Pendle. She was indicted on several counts of sorcery and admitted (probably under duress) that some fourteen or fifteen years before her arrest she had sold her soul to the devil. Her daughter was also accused of witchcraft. The nineteenth-century chroniclers of the witches conclude their account of her story as follows: “… no longer anxious about her own life, she acknowledged her guilt, but humbly prayed the judges to be merciful to her daughter, Anne Redferne; but her prayer was in vain.”
The roots of the Lancashire Witch Trials were political: they formed part of the Protestant response to the Counter-Reformation that reached its peak in this country during James I’s reign. More locally, they played on much older superstitions that had survived in rural societies, possibly from pre-Christian times.
What I didn’t know when I visited Pendle Hill was that there was a Lincolnshire equivalent to the Pendle Witches. Two sisters, Margaret and Philippa Flower, were hanged for witchcraft in Lincoln in 1619. They were therefore the exact contemporaries of the Lancashire witches. Their story is told in Witches: a tale of sorcery, scandal and seduction, by Tracy Borman, a newly-published book which was reviewed in The Sunday Times on 11th August and which I shall certainly buy and read. Yet more interesting, from my perspective, is that the Flower sisters were employed as maidservants at Belvoir Castle by the Earl of Rutland and were accused of bewitching his children, one of whom died. Belvoir Castle and Burghley House were the two great houses of the area in which I grew up and I visited them several times during my childhood. I also knew Lincoln well. The present prison was built in the late nineteenth century, in gothic style, and before that prisoners were held in the eighteenth century gaol at Lincoln Castle; the Flower sisters were probably locked in the Castle dungeons. Public hangings took place above the upper town, from the north-east tower, until 1868. (My stepfather’s mother’s family kept a theatrical boarding house in Lincoln and she was a small child there, almost, though not quite, within living memory of the hangings: she died in the 1980s, when she was well into her nineties. She remembered tales of the scene, with cheers and jeers from the watching crowd below.) Taking them as a yardstick of how little progress civilisation had made in the intervening three centuries perhaps makes it less surprising, if no less shocking, that women were being put to death for witchcraft only four hundred years ago. Even more shamefully, old women have been persecuted simply for being old and misshapen during my own lifetime. When I was a primary school child, there was a row of tumbledown cottages that I had to walk past every day. Two of them were home to two ancient ladies with wispy white hair. One was almost bent double. She walked very slowly with a stick, her eyes usually fixed on the ground. She had warts on her face and the prognathous chin that very old ladies sometimes develop. It’s difficult now to say how old she might have been: as she’d spent most of her life without benefit of the National Health Service, she may not have been as aged as she looked. But I remember quite clearly that schoolboys used to shout ‘Witch!’ at her as they passed, if she happened to be standing outside. With hindsight, I shudder at the pain she must have felt, and that she had to suffer because she was old and ‘different’. It can be a pale reflection only, I know, but still it offers some insight into the anguish and terror that the Lancashire witches and Margaret and Philippa Flower had to endure before rough hands finally put them out of their misery.
Could such persecution happen today? In Western society, not in its literal form, perhaps, but Arthur Miller’s inspired choice of the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible to illustrate Senator McCarthy’s irrational pursuit of communists and the Cleveland child abuse investigations both illustrate that modern parallels still exist. Old women may no longer be the prime targets, but we still harbour primitive fears of people who are different, and, motivated by fear, are still capable of turning upon them savagely.
Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday. Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892. If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded. I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.
My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died. Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life. She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses. Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match. She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house. People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays. She had standards.
You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events. Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria). She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family. Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches. She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike. She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP. After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts. She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.
These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them). Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born. It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:
- Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
- Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
- Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
- The General Electric Company was founded.
- The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
- An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
- The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
- Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
- The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home. It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
- Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
- It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid. Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.
The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s. There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned. When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone. Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride. In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.
All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.
One of the great pleasures to be obtained from reading crime fiction is that most crime writers are acutely aware of both the geography and the mood of the communities that they write about. I won’t claim that there is such a thing as national character – I know that I shall immediately be shot down in flames if I even hint at it – but I’m certain that the massive popularity that Scandinavian crime writers have achieved owes a significant debt to the ambience of their work: the dark nights and cold days that they evoke, which in turn inspire brooding and melancholy characters who seem determined always to spot the worm in the bud, despite the consummate beauty of their surroundings. Similarly, the novels of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, which are set in Italy, skilfully succeed in communicating the rich cultural heritage of that country.
No-one, however, captures the essence or psyche of a country better than Barbara Nadel. Perhaps I should say city, rather than country, as all of her novels that I’ve read have been set in Istanbul. With apparent ease, she captures the contradictions of a city that has always looked both East and West: its exoticism and squalor; the brutality of some of its people and the sophisticated philosophical outlook of others; the thrusting modernity that jostles but does not oust more ancient superstitions. Other writers have written eloquently about this city, especially Orhan Pamuk, whose Nobel prize-winning work, so exquisitely wrought, seems to derive its depth from these very contradictions; yet, in my opinion, no-one, not even Pamuk, surpasses Nadel’s descriptions of Istanbul’s mean streets and boisterous crowds when she is writing at her best.
I’ve read three or four of her books now. I particularly admire her depiction of her world-weary but wise and humorous detective, Çetin Ikmen, who is beleaguered not only by the absurdities of red tape and the inefficiency and bigotry of his colleagues at work, but also by his large, unruly and ever-growing extended family at home. The latter is presided over by his ebullient and chaotic, much less well-educated wife, Fatma.
Harem is a particularly accomplished novel, because it examines issues of profound significance in Western countries through the filter of setting them in Istanbul. This not only makes it easier for the Western European reader to read about them, but also points up the dual thinking still prevalent in almost all countries by presenting it as a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon. This provokes the immediate response: ‘That couldn’t happen here!’, followed soon afterwards by: ‘Or could it?’ The original crimes committed in Harem are rape and the exploitation of women, leading in some instances to murder. The first of the murder victims is Hatice, a friend of Ikmen’s teenage daughter Hulya. Nadel’s account of Ikmen’s boss’s reluctance to pursue the girl’s murderers and bring them to justice because she evidently was not a virgin before they attacked her is particularly poignant. We might try to flatter ourselves that such an attitude could not prevail in our country, were it not that only in the last few days a British barrister has described a thirteen-year-old girl against whom sexual offences were committed as ‘predatory’. Nor does Nadel pull her punches when it comes to describing the perpetrators of rape. Hatice had unwittingly become involved with a group of people practising organised depravity, but her case is mirrored by one even closer to home for Ikmen, that of the abusive relationship that exists between two of his own police officers. As one would expect from a writer of Nadel’s talent, the moral conclusions that she draws are complex, but she is quite clear that women should never suffer from sexual abuse, whatever their personal moral code. This message may seem obvious, yet it is one that societies everywhere seem to be taking a long time to digest. Harem makes a very valuable contribution to the debate.
Of the other characters, several old friends feature in this novel. My particular favourite is Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s disdainfully aristocratic colleague, who in this book finds himself less able than usual to sail, cosseted and immaculate, through his life, as if the teeming, grubby throng of humanity that it is his job to police does not really exist. Suleyman’s volatile Irish wife is suffering from post-natal depression and he has to run the gauntlet of her tantrums and her misery. And then there is Fatma, impossible but lovable, weaving her idiosyncratic magic on her weary but essentially adoring husband.
I wholeheartedly recommend Harem. If you’re new to Barbara Nadel, you won’t lose anything by starting with this book, as, despite being one of a series, it stands completely on its own, as such novels should. However, I’m certain that, if you do read Harem first, it will make you also want to sample some of the others.
When I wrote about the potter of Nottuln a few days ago, I said that I would also shortly be describing the sandstone museum at Havixbeck, near the German city of Münster. It is a fascinating modern complex, aimed at tourists, though there is no charge for it and it is not situated in an area particularly noted for tourism. It is a place designed to celebrate and record an ancient craft: part museum, part atelier. Some of the exhibits have been displayed in reconstructed rooms as they might have existed in the past.
The museum celebrates more than five hundred years of sandstone carving (illustrated in the photographs here) by the three linked communities of Havixbeck, Billerbeck and Nottuln. Men from these communities worked together from the late middle ages onwards, forming themselves into a kind of guild. They did not regard themselves as artists, rather as craftsmen, and therefore most of the pieces that they made were created anonymously. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a few individuals began to be named on the pieces, and these with no especial reverence. Until 1950, the workshops were often situated in the quarries where the sandstone was hewn.
The industry enjoyed a brief late flowering in the middle of the last century, when the sandstone workers were commissioned to undertake post-war repair work to the churches of the Münsterland. Thereafter, the industry went into decline (possibly linked to the simultaneously declining influence of the Catholic church in the area), though there are still a few artisans practising today. Many of the examples of the mediaeval sand carvings held by the museum were salvaged from bomb-damaged churches. There is an especially poignant photograph of Münster Cathedral, taken after a bombing raid, in which one of the twin towers has almost collapsed; the other is miraculously unscathed. This church has now been beautifully restored.
The men who worked the sandstone doubled up as farmers when their masonry skills were not needed. For this reason, members from the three communities were quite wealthy. Perhaps it was partly because they also worked the land that they lived to be a much higher than average age for stoneworkers. In the nineteenth century the average life expectancy for a man from these villages was sixty-one, as opposed to a (shocking!) thirty-seven for stoneworkers elsewhere in Germany at the time. Modern science suggests that another reason was that, uniquely, the sandstone from this area contains lime, which cut down the dust emitted when it was being cut and carved, meaning that the workers inhaled less into their lungs. The workers themselves attributed their longevity to schnapps, of which each would drink up to a litre a day! (Apparently it was less potent then than it is now.)
The elaborate patterns for the windows, tombs, shrines and altars that the masons carved were designed by an architect, or sometimes by a master mason. In mediaeval times, the templates of the patterns were made of wood; later, of thin metal. The workers had a dour but well-developed sense of humour: quarrying the stone required a huge expenditure of skill and energy, so if anyone spoilt a piece of it by making a mistake they were fined. Even more humiliatingly, the piece of damaged stone was given a mock-ceremonial burial. Money collected from the fines contributed to a kind of early benevolent fund. There are indications that the masons were quite hard-nosed businessmen: for example, almost every farm in the area has its own sandstone shrine – no doubt the eighteenth or nineteenth century equivalent of a nice water feature (if that doesn’t sound too profane).
Dating from the nineteenth century onwards are photographs of the boys and men who worked the quarries. They don’t have happy faces: all seem quite solemn and few are smiling, but perhaps this was because it took such a long time to take a group photograph then, perhaps because they were told to look serious. They certainly appear well-dressed and well-fed, though it is curious that their clothes hardly seemed to change in the century between 1850 and 1950.
I wonder what it must have been like to have been born into one of these three villages and – male or female – to know that during your life you would be assured of reasonable prosperity, but also that your future had been mapped out for you from birth.
I bought The Flight and The Disappeared, by M.R. Hall, from Bookmark in Spalding and took them with me on holiday to read. I had not heard of the author before, but Christine Hanson, the proprietor of Bookmark, had mounted a display of them in the shop and had also read The Flight, which she said was excellent. I was certainly prepared to accept her judgment.
To confess the exact truth, I started The Flight, which is the later novel, first, and didn’t much like it. It deals with an air crash, and the first fifty pages or so reminded me very much of those disaster movies that were so popular in the 1980s, which had a very thin storyline and depended on the histrionics of the disaster itself to maintain interest. This was compounded by an amazing amount of technical detail that, although I dislike segregating books into ‘men’s reads’ and ‘women’s reads’, struck me as having more of a male than a female appeal.
I therefore put The Flight aside and embarked upon The Disappeared. Upon picking it up, I thought immediately that it would be much more to my taste. The story is about the disappearance of two Muslim teenagers and how Jenny Cooper, the Severn Vale District Coroner, mounts an investigation into the cause of their deaths (as they have officially been declared dead, but no bodies found) seven years afterwards, at the request of the mother of one of them. The novel deals with several topical and sensitive issues, including Muslim extremism and the activities, sometimes of dubious legality, of the security services. All this is riveting, and beautifully written. What engaged me most of all, however, was the detailed and delicate portrayal of states of mind that can perhaps be described as hyper-sensitive, but by no means indicate madness or irrationality, and how those suffering from them can be persecuted by unscrupulous people trying to serve their own unethical purposes by discounting them or even bringing them into disrepute by suggesting that they are unreliable. Fine parallels are drawn between Jenny’s own mental state and that of Amira Jamal, the mother of one of the missing youths. Both need professional help for their mental conditions, yet each is perceptive and intelligent, with an intuitive understanding of the forces that are really at work, despite being disbelieved and ‘rubbished’ by others and, to differing extents, cowed by this. Yet, in both instances, the reader is left in some lingering doubt about their powers of judgment. A particularly good example of this occurs when Jenny’s sulky teenage son (with whom a more mentally robust mother would have had a straightforward conversation, setting out a few home truths) enlists the help of her smug ex-husband to move out of her house. While the son is packing, the husband explains that one of the reasons that the son is going is that Jenny is not fit to look after him, citing the fact that there is never any food in the house. From what has gone before, the reader knows that this statement, if exaggerated, has on several occasions been true (there are further occasions when the son has selfishly demolished all the food). It is left to the reader to reflect that a son in his last year at college should not be as helpless as this one appears to be, but it is a manifestation of the author’s considerable talent that Hall demonstrates that there are faults on both sides. It is from such balanced depiction of human relationships, and how they fray and chafe against each other, that the book gains distinction. The taut relationship between Jenny Cooper and her ex-policewoman clerk, Alison Trent, is also particularly well-drawn.
So, having enjoyed The Disappeared immensely and devoured it impatiently to the last page, I decided to give The Flight another try. To any other reader who, like me, finds the first eighth or so of this book daunting, I’d like to say that it’s well worth persevering with. It’s true that there is a lot of technical detail throughout (and I can only applaud the author’s obvious mastery of it; I’m sure that a huge amount of research must have gone into the crafting of this novel), but the reason for it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. M.R. Hall has constructed an intricate but worryingly believable plot which, even more than in The Disappeared, entrances as it unfolds. Jenny’s personal story is also developed well in this later work: she is released from some of her demons, but manages to create others in their place; and her dealings with Alison are even more fraught than in its predecessor.
I’m delighted to have discovered M.R. Hall, especially through one of my favourite bookshops, and look forward with impatience to the next Jenny Cooper story. In the meantime, I believe that there are a couple of others in the series that I have yet to read. Do I have any reservations at all? Only one comparatively minor one. It concerns the character of Jenny herself. Hall has been much praised for getting inside the head of a woman with such sympathy and understanding. I’d say that 95% of the time this praise is well-deserved, but sometimes Jenny is just a bit too snivelly and self-pitying for my taste, though she soon snaps out of it. Hall should perhaps consider that resourceful women who live alone never (in my experience) behave like this. They know that the knight in shining armour won’t come rushing to their aid and adopt a pragmatic approach accordingly – as Jenny always does, after her odd lapses. But, as I’ve said, this is a minor personal niggle, and possibly it’s unfair even to mention it.
I have recently visited Münsterland, the area around the city of Münster in Germany, and, in particular, a triangle of prosperous villages, Havixbeck, Billerbeck and Nottuln, all associated since mediaeval times with sandstone carving, and the latter with a characteristic blue-glazed pottery. Being lovers of individual, hand-crafted products and of clayware, my husband and I tried in vain by car to find a contemporary artisan in the district, as we had seen examples locally; yet it wasn’t until, on a bike ride towards the end of our stay, we happened upon a glass display case fixed to the wall of a Nottuln hotel that we could locate the potter. The case contained some examples of the work, some photographs and, tucked away at the top, some cards with a name and an address, out in a rural hamlet called Stevern.
Good luck happened twice, as, when we found the pottery itself, Monica Stüttgen had only two hours before returned from a holiday in the Black Forest. She showed us into her house and invited us also to look around the garden, both of which are a treasure trove of beautiful examples of her handiwork. The whole of the ground floor of the house is given over to a studio and rooms displaying a remarkable range of artefacts, quite a few of them carrying her trademark, a flying bird with a fanning tail.
Monica says that she regards herself as a craftswoman, rather than an artist (coincidentally, this is also how the many generations of sandstone sculptors also viewed themselves) and feels particularly strongly that her pottery should be used, not just put on display; it is well glazed, using modern processes, and, she adds, will stand both frost and the dishwasher! Though it accords with traditional designs, it plainly reveals much of her individuality and considerable artistry.
I’ve included in this post some photographs of some of her work, from both inside the studio and out in the garden. She obviously draws some of her inspiration from Nottuln, of which she is a native, although she told me that she spent ten years making and selling pottery in France. Like many artisans – indeed many writers – that I have met, her chief problem is obtaining publicity for her work. Once people have seen it, they love it and want to come back for more, but she is struggling to find a wider public; at the moment, she does have an arrangement with the local restaurant, Gasthaus Stevertal, to display examples of her pottery (Stevertal is a fine traditional German restaurant with a menu that features the local cuisine – we ate here twice… and twice missed her display!) and the showcase in Nottuln, but these are not enough.
I found both Monica and her work fascinating and I am full of admiration for what she is trying to achieve. I suggested that she should try to extend her customer base by developing a blog for her website and new contacts via social networking; I also promised to write a blog-post myself as my own, very small, contribution to try to help. So here it is.
We bought a fruit bowl, a fish plate and two eggcups and Monica very generously also gave us a kitchen tidy in one of the traditional Nottuln designs. I’m delighted with them and doubt that I shall be taking any risk on the dishwasher front! As our daughter-in-law also comes from this area, we shall certainly visit the pottery again: there are many other pieces that we should like to buy. For example, we were particularly taken with the ceramic garden labels for herbs.
I feel very strongly that the skills of an artisan should be encouraged and supported, especially one with Monica’s obvious talent. If you happen to visit this area, you won’t be disappointed by an hour or two in her lovely studio and garden. You may like to know that she is also prepared to send items by post!