Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Cova des Cuieram - A Pilgrimage of a Kind - Celia Rees

I blogged here about my first visit to the Balearic island of Ibiza. My fascination for the island hasn't left me. I knew that one visit would never be enough. This September, I went on another Yoga Retreat with my daughter, Catrin. We would have a chance to explore the island further, visit the hippy market (always a must and I missed it the first time round).

We were also determined to visit Cova des Cuieram, the cave of Tanit, Goddess of the White Island, that we'd failed to find the year before.

The  cave is near to the town of Cala San Vicente in the North East corner of the island.

It is situated high up in the hills with commanding views down to the sea. From the 5th Century BC it was a Sanctuary to the Phoenician goddess, Tanit. Although there is little to see from the outside, it is a large underground complex of interconnected caverns, running deep into the ground.  Discovered, or re-discovered, in 1907 and excavated, the cave complex was found to contain 600 bell shaped terracotta female figures, thousands of other objects, figurines, fragments of ceramics and a plaque in in Punic to 'our lady, to Tanit the powerful....'

These artefacts are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Eivissa. We did manage to visit there last year but never made it to the Sanctuary where the objects were discovered. They were votive offerings left there by those who visited the shrine, either to ask for Tanit's intercession, to give thanks, or to appease her. Not so very different from the little plaques and objects found in Catholic churches, left near statues of saints or the Virgin Mary, in thanks or asking for blessing. In Britain and Ireland people still tie notes and ribbons onto trees that grow near to sacred wells or springs. Even coins in a fountain belong to a need we've felt since ancient times to make a connection of some kind by giving and leaving something of ourselves behind. 

Just as there is an ancient compulsion to leave offerings, there is an equally ancient compulsion to visit places of significance. Whether we call them religious centres or places of power, they are often one and the same. Just as old gods meld into new gods, so their places of worship change hands, what doesn't seem to change is our need to make pilgrimage and leave offerings there.  

Where I holiday in Italy, outside Siena, the Via Francigena runs practically past the door. Modern pilgrims in hiking boots, carrying backpacks and plastic water bottles still walk the centuries old way along white roads, farm tracks, main roads and dual carriageways following the ancient pilgrim route that leads to Rome. 

Our visit to the Cova des Cuieram felt very like a pilgrimage. Although it is marked as a tourist attraction, it is not easily gained. It is situated off the road, high up on the side of a deep valley. The way to it is marked by the ancient sign of the Mother. 

There are other, easier approaches by car but the route we took was on foot. We walked about a kilometre from the town of Cala de Sant Vicent and then followed the signs up the hill. 

 The way was steep, roughly paved and cut into the side of the slope, snaking up the hillside, it had the feel of a way that had been trodden since ancient times, taken up recently by the hippies who had colonised Ibiza in the Sixties and probably painted the fading signs of the Mother that showed the way. 

The route was hard going, especially in the heat of the day with insufficient water (my fault). Testing to the mind, body and spirit which I suppose all pilgrimages are, or should be. Not far from the top, we were about to give up, when we met a couple who shared their water and told us it really wasn't much further. A serendipitous meeting. If I was a certain kind of person, I'd say they were sent by the Goddess. At the top there was more water, a litre bottle, still cold. Maybe the Goddess left it there for us, or for other thirsty pilgrims to her shrine, or maybe Ibiza is just that kind of place.  

Even though the shrine was firmly barred and padlocked (despite guide book and website claims that it would be open), it was worth the hard climb. The opening to the main chamber still held its chthonic mystery, perhaps even more so, since it could not be entered, only peered into - Tanit's secrets are hard won.

Each of the barred chambers was festooned with offerings of all kinds put there by visitors: necklaces, bracelets, stones, crystals, shells, flowers, real and artificial, curling and fading photographs, ribbons, even hair bands and bobbles, as though everyone who went there felt compelled to leave something of themselves, as they had been doing in this place for thousands of years. I liked that feeling of continuity of behaviour, if not belief.

 The place was high up, cooled by a constant breeze, peaceful, with just the sound of the wind in the trees. It was a good place for some quiet contemplation, gazing out over the plain and down to the sea.  We dutifully made our own offerings, lit our candles, offered our thanks and maybe our prayers and then, after a little while, we left to begin the long climb down. 

Celia Rees


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Markenfield Hall and the Scarlet Banner by Penny Dolan

Markenfield Hall, south of Ripon, reputably the oldest, complete moated house in the country, opens up to the public under the Historic Houses scheme for a few days a year.  I visited the place for one of their “Mop-Up Monday” tours, arranged to cope with the growing flood of interested visitors.

Only the name on a gate-post hints at the Hall’s existence: a tight turn takes the car on to a long track which runs through fields for almost a mile before the present Hall and its cluster of farm barns and buildings appears.

The Markenfield estate borders the Fountains Abbey lands and the Hall, built in 1310, situated close to the mediaeval Ripley to Ripon Road. Back then, any passing traveller would be aware of the Hall’s imposing presence while those within had early warning of interesting people or troublesome groups using that stretch of road.  

The builder was John De Markenfield, Canon of Ripon Cathedral. He was also Chancellor to King Edward II, who granted John permission to crenellate and fortify the walls as defence against powerful Northern barons and marauding Scots. On the outer wall of original hall, one can see where the stone staircase once led up to the living quarters on the first floor of the square tower, providing more safety. Not only did the Markenfields defend themselves well: they married well and wealthily, adding the coats of arms of several heiresses to the outer south wall of the great kitchen block. 

However, on that fine autumn morning of my visit, the setting seemed idyllic and peaceful. We gathered in the car-park beside the impressive Victorian farm buildings, admiring the pair of black swans and the ducklings on the moat, before being led across the wooden drawbridge and through the Tudor gatehouse. Through the kitchen we went and up to the lofty Great Hall, scented with wood-smoke, and which contained sofas and tables stacked with relevant books and histories, as well as several objects and portraits relating to the family.

Generation by generation, the Markenfields had risen, surviving Lancastrian and Yorkist loyalties and fighting for the King at Agincourt, Flodden Field and other battles. However, it was in the Chapel of St Michael the Archangel, a space so small we could only crowd in twelve at a time, that one saw the emblem of their downfall. 

The Markenfields were once a fiercely Catholic household and masses had been said in this chapel for over two and a half centuries. Signs of faith are set into the walls there. Beside the altar is a double piscina, a kind of basin used by priests for ceremonially washing vessels after communion. A squint is cut through the corner-stones of another wall so that daily mass could be observed from the lord’s private chamber.

Then, on the far wall, hangs particularly doleful treasure : a scarlet banner embroidered in gold with the Five Wounds of Christ, which was once a famous devotional image, especially in the strongly Catholic North of England. 

The deeply revered standard is rather luridly decorated with a sacred heart and chalice, the wounded hands and feet of Christ and a crown of thorns, and it testifies to the family’s faith and their role during two rebellions against the Crown, and to the loss of Markenfield itself.

The first, The Pilgrimage of Grace, was in 1536. This rebellion was led by Robert Aske, brother-in law to the Sir Thomas Markenfield of the time. The Northern lords and people rose against Henry VIII, petitioning him to halt the Dissolution of the Monasteries and raising other grievances. Henry and his Commissioners appeared to be deliberating: a long game  which weakened the rebel’s hands and which finally led to the fierce suppression of  Fountains Abbey and other religious establishments in 1539. Robert Aske was executed on Clifford’s Tower in York, but Sir Thomas and his family survived, at least for a generation.

Then came the second rebellion - The Rising of the North - led by the first Sir Thomas’s son Thomas. Richard Norton of Norton Conyers, his uncle, was standard bearer, charged with carrying the famous and gory banner. 

On 20th November 1569, a host of rebels gathered in the courtyard of Markenfield Hall itself. After hearing Mass in the chapel, the leaders set out on their mission. Their plan was to remove Queen Elizabeth – the "illegitimate heir" – and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots who would restore the practice of the Catholic faith. Defeated by the Queen’s troops, most of the rebels were killed or executed. Thomas and Richard fled the country and died in poverty.

Markenfield, both house and estate, were confiscated for High Treason. The Hall passed out of the family and into other hands, becoming an insignificant tenanted farmhouse with absentee landlords. In 1777, the turnpike and new toll road  (now the A61) shifted all passing traffic a mile further away and Markenfield Hall disappeared from public life.  However, this very neglect and insignificant income meant that the property was not improved, the great hall was largely unaltered, the moat left un-drained and all the original features unchanged.

In 1761, the Hall was brought into the hands of Grantleys of Markenfield, descendants of the original owners, who took more care of the property. Gradually - and especially recently - the Hall was restored to comfort and use again, from the Courtyard and Lodgings to the Undercroft, the Great Hall and even the Four Poster bedroom (once part of the solar.)

The Chapel too, feels peaceful in its restoration, with a rare portrait of Sir Richard Norton now looking down from the wooden panelling, and candles lit below the small array of icons in a devotional alcove. Services and masses are sometimes held here and each August, a Tridentine Requiem Mass is said in commemoration of Sir Thomas Markenfield and three other members of the family – Anne, Isabel and Elizabeth – who were all witnesses to the passions and suffering aroused by that sacred scarlet banner and the Five Wounds.

The Chapel of St Michael was also used for the wedding of the writer Ian Curteis and Lady Deidre Curteis, widow of the seventh Lord Grantley – a Protestant and a Catholic - who have made Markenfield Hall their home.

Image result for THE MAN ON A DONKEY

P.S. After my visit to Markenfield, I  bought myself a replacement copy of H.F.M. Prescott’s 1952 work, THE MAN ON A DONKEY, her wonderful novel about the Pilgrimage of Grace that first introduced me to the history of Yorkshire and the North several years ago.
This copy will not be borrowed!

Penny Dolan

Monday, 16 October 2017

Charleston Farmhouse

Recently, on a journey from Somerset to Rye, in Sussex (a very LONG journey, beset by a great deal of traffic, since you ask), we stopped off at Charleston Farmhouse. Charleston, tucked under the Sussex Downs, was the home of Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf, on-and-off from 1916; she, her sort-of partner Duncan Grant and his friend and lover David Garnett, together with her two sons by her husband Clive Bell,  Julian and Quentin, and Henry the dog, moved into the house so that Duncan and Clive, who were conscientious objectors, could work on a nearby farm as a substitute for fighting.

Vanessa Bell

It was a rambling farmhouse which had recently been used as a boarding house. There was no running water and it was very cold. Over the years, Vanessa and Duncan, both painters, together with friends who often came down to stay, decorated the house in their own charming and very individual way. One of them designed an adaptation to the fireplaces, constructing a sort of platform of large bricks which helped to retain and reflect heat out into the rooms. Vanessa painted patterns onto the fireplace surrounds in chalky pastel colours: figures, vases of flowers, abstract patterns. She bought cheap wardrobes and decorated those too, with bold yellow circles and a border in a contrasting dark red. Basically, if it didn't move, and it wasn't made of polished wood, she or one of the others painted it - doors, shutters, bedheads - even box files! Someone else made lightshades out of colanders, the dining room walls were stencilled, and everywhere there were paintings, by Vanessa and Duncan and various friends: portraits of each other and other members of the Bloomsbury Group - including, of course, Virginia; copies - not exact: more like tributes - of classical paintings; pottery made by Quentin Bell, Vanessa's son; fabrics designed by Duncan Grant.

It's a lovely house. A little shabby, but comfortable: so easy to imagine evenings by the fire with interesting conversation and ideas being bounced from one to another; summer days spent in the garden with its beds of luxuriant flowers - like the house, tended but relaxed. But the room I found the most moving was the one they call the Garden Room. This became Vanessa's bedroom in later years. As the name suggests, it has a beautiful view out into the garden. There is a narrow single bed - you can imagine Vanessa waking up in the morning, propping herself up on her pillows, gazing out at the garden, and thinking about the people she has loved and lost. Above the bed is a portrait of her son, Julian, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. How anguished she must have been, when, after she and her friends had been so determinedly anti-war, to hear him say that he was going off to fight; and then how desolate when she heard of his death.

Of course, the Bloomsbury Group are known for their tangled web of relationships. As we went round the house on a guided tour (you can't wander round on your own) there were lots of knitted brows and constant queries - "What, so she was married to him, but then...?" and "But I thought her father was...?" You do have to concentrate, especially when it comes to the bit where Angelica, Vanessa's daughter by Duncan Grant, grows up to marry David Garnett, her father's lover. It was Angelica who in 1980 helped to form the Charleston Trust, which now looks after the house.

I was an early visitor when it opened to the public over thirty years ago. There were lots of articles in magazines about the house and its inhabitants, and Laura Ashley produced a range of fabrics inspired by the house. I made curtains out of some of them, and very lovely they were; and, a little like Vanessa, for quite a long spell I decorated chairs and cupboards and walls, albeit in a much simpler way - I stippled and sponged and picked out details until our poor house begged for mercy.

So it was lovely to go back and see the house again. I'd hoped to buy a little something from the shop, but everything was much too expensive - a stunning lampshade was well over £100 (ironic, considering that the house was originally decorated on something of a shoestring), so I had to be satisfied with a few postcards. And my apologies for the lack of pictures in this post: photographs were not allowed, and there's a very stern warning on the website about using pictures from there without permission. But here's the link to the website, where you can see the house in all its loveliness.

The last room you visit is the studio where Duncan Grant worked pretty much up to his death in 1978. It's full of the everyday detritus of an artist's life: there's his easel, his chair, and on the overflowing mantelpiece, a soda siphon, a whisky bottle and a glass. It's as if he's just left the room for a moment, perhaps to go out into the garden.

A picture I took in the garden - not a very good one, I'm afraid: it was a dull and miserable day.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Loneliness, Madrid and Dali's Great Masturbator by Fay Bound Alberti

This September, I gave a keynote at the annual conference of the European Philosophical Society for the Study of Emotions (EPSS), held in Madrid. It was my first time to Madrid, and also my first time to a philosophy conference, and both experiences were ones to remember.

I talked about loneliness and how we trace its history and meanings, across time and in different cultures. My talk was from a book I am writing on loneliness in the modern age - why so many of us are lonely when we are, in many ways, more connected than ever. And why studies say that Britain is one of the loneliest countries in Europe. (Soon to be lonelier, when Brexit takes hold.) In Madrid, I noted how different Spanish and British attitudes towards loneliness are, with Spanish people seeming to invest more in ‘neighbourliness’ than is the case in Britain. Yet as Olivia Laing writes in her study of The Lonely City, modernity has brought loneliness to many people, as suggested by the urban landscapes of Edward Hopper. 

Hopper: 'Automat' (1927).

Some of the conference themes were universal, including worries about the relationship between feeling and expression, and the fear of being misunderstood. When we compose an email to a lover, a boss, a friend, how often do we agonise over what we really want to say, and what we worry they might hear?  We find the same uncertainty in a range of historical sources, including early modern love letters: the hesitating pen of the suitor, the formulaic declaration of love that is followed by the coy reticence of the intended. I have spent many months in record offices, analysing love letters used in 17th century court cases, usually submitted by women who claimed they had married their beloved, and rejected by men who denied any ceremony had taken place.  

Romantic communication is like a duet, each of the players taking their part, contributing to the harmony of the whole. The role of music in bridging the gap between feeling and communication was central to several conference papers, and is a growing theme in the history of emotions too. Music speaks to the body rather than the mind. And it has a range of different effects.  Put on a CD or flip through Spotify, find a favourite piece of rock music and experience what happens to your body. A raised heartbeat perhaps, a sense of urgency; it is unsurprising that people lift heavier weights, run further, when the rhythm of the music flushes through their system like testosterone. Compare this to a classical piece, and the calming waves that decrease our heartrate and make us breathe more slowly.

Emotions, like music, involve the body as well as the mind. Trying to invoke those experiences in prose, poem, song or art, raises challenges for the creator as well as the listener. During my visit to Madrid’s famous art galleries, I thought about these challenges, and the ways emotion crosses over between the pictorial and the physical, merging the intent of the artist with the interpretation of the beholder.

Painting is filled with the physicality of the artist, in the stroke of the brush, the thickness of the paint, the movement of the arm, the synergy between what is in the mind of the artist and what appears on the canvas. Consider The Great Masturbator, one of Salvador Dali’s early masterpieces. Dali completed the painting in 1929 and it was bequeathed to Spain in 1989. Now it hangs alongside a wonderful collection of surrealist art at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. For 26 euros you can buy a Paseo del Arte Card that allows you to visit the Museo Reina Sofia as well as the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Nacional del Prado. 

Museo Nacional Centro de Art Reina Sofia

Let us return to The Great Masturbator, this large oil painting that is instantly recognisable, with its melting lines and figures and faces. The emotional turmoil of the canvas practically leaps out of the canvas; a dream-world full of inner battles. The face that dominates the painting is said to be a self-portrait of the artist, his eyes closed in contemplation of the female figure, perhaps, that rises from the face. She is believed to represent Dali’s great love, Gala, a woman of Russian descent who was married to the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard when she and Dali embarked on a relationship. Gala appeared in many paintings, including The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1959).

Salvador Dali's The Great Masturbator

The phallic imagery and the suggestion of sexual ecstasy sits alongside more complex emotional ideas about sex, masturbation and genitalia, with the grasshopper fixed on the face and an ant colony suggesting emotional anxieties and discomfort. There is to me to be something lonely about the discordances found in the painting, a sense of the tormented feelings of the artist. It is certainly a canvas one could look at for hours and yet still wonder at the shifting emotional world it represents.  

Amongst the other treasures of the gallery is Guernica - Picasso’s vast black and white response of the bombing of a Basque Country village in Northern Spain by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes, in which most of those killed were women and children. Having seen Guernica in print many times, it was still extraordinary to see the work close up. The crowds that were gathered around it testify to its status as one of the most moving, mesmerising anti-war murals of all time.

Picasso, Guernica
After Guernica, to the Museo del Prado, which offered more and more unexpected treasures: Rubens, Durer, Goya and Bosch. There I saw the glorious Garden of Earthly Delights  a modern title given to a triptych by the Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch. It dates between 1490 and 1510, and was painted as a warning against fleshly desires  in a world still ruled by fear of the afterlife. The painting always takes me back to my childhood, when I rifled through my father’s art books, horrified and entranced by the upside down world of debauchery and excess.

Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights
The left panel depicts Eden, the middle panel, a world of earthly delights and the right a surreal version of hell, in which participants of pleasure must pay for their sins. It was the bizarre and tumultuous cruelty of the final panel that stunned me as a child, and as an adult: the ‘Tree Man’ whose truncated torso seemed to be formed of a broken egg-shell, interrupted only by arms like tree trunks. Beside him, a bird-headed monster swallows a naked man whole, defecating bodies into a pit of trapped faces while animals torture people. The spectacular scene of hell and damnation reads like a contorted allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins. 

The Tree-Man, detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, third panel

After the galleries, my friend and I walked down the Gran Via (or ‘Great Way’), an upscale shopping street that leads from Calle de Alcalá, close to Plaza de Cibeles, to Plaza de España. This street is a showcase of early 20th century architecture from Vienna Secession to Art Deco, with buildings like the Metropolis Building (1911), topped with the mythical Phoenix.

The Metropolis Building
Finally, we walked to the Plaza Mayor (built during Philip III’s reign (1598 – 1621), where we drank Spanish wine, talked late into the night and ate tapas. I concluded, as the sun set, that Madrid is the perfect place to experience history, and a difficult place to feel lonely. 

The Plaza Mayor

Saturday, 14 October 2017

East Side Story by Lesley Downer

Until 1954 most immigrants arriving in the United States went through the immigration inspection station on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay. Having travelled across Europe, often on foot, carrying your few precious belongings in a small wicker suitcase, you’d board a ship to cross the rough waters of the Atlantic. After weeks at sea you’d see the Statue of Liberty and weep with joy, thinking you’d arrived. But first you had to get past the immigration officials at Ellis Island.

Ellis Island Immigrant
Landing Station 1905

Those who travelled in first and second class were given a cursory check on board. It was assumed that they had the wherewithal to support themselves and were in relatively good health and would not be a burden on their new country. But those in third class were transported by ferry to the immigration station. There you left your wicker suitcase in a giant pile downstairs - where it was often stolen, so you ended up with nothing, not even your few small belongings - while you lined up for hours upstairs.

First you had to undergo a medical inspection. If you were found to have ‘mental defects’ or be carrying a contagious disease like TB you had a cross chalked on your forehead and were put on the next ship back. Then came interrogation, to find out who you were and check that you had no criminal record and enough money or relatives or a trade to support yourself. 

Ellis Island pens, main hall, 1902-1913
by Edwin Levick
With five thousand immigrants filing through each day, the inspectors had a bare two minutes with each person which meant they often got the immigrant’s name and sometimes even their country of origin wrong. It was a chance to reinvent yourself, give yourself a name like ‘Smith’ instead of a name that gave away your East European roots.

Of the immigrants who made it through, the vast majority of those who stayed in New York ended up in the cramped, poorly lit, unsanitary tenements of the Lower East Side. First to arrive were Germans and East European Jews in the late 19th Century, followed by Italians in the early 20th century, together with Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians, Russians and Ukrainians, each of whom settled in separate enclaves, crammed into tall skinny Dickensian buildings with fire escapes zigzagging up the fronts. It was a sort of Babel, a pot pourri of people all speaking different languages. The Marx Brothers grew up in the neighbourhood and so did Al Johnson, Gershwin and Irving Berlin, and as for the East Village, the northern part of the Lower East Side, it later became a hub for artists.
Orchard Street 1933
by J. Blightman

I identify very much with this story. Nowadays ‘multiculturalism’ is a term much bandied about and it’s fashionable to discuss one’s roots and to be proud of being of mixed racial heritage. But in the 1950s and 60s, the suburb of London were I grew up was entirely Anglo-Saxon and most families had been there for generations. Mine was the only immigrant, mixed race, nuclear family. My parents were Canadian and my mother was Chinese - an immigrant twice over. When my father’s student friends saw a photograph of her on his mantelpiece before she came over, they told him in no uncertain terms to find a nice English girl to marry. I always felt a little different from everyone else.

In 1991, when I first went to New York, I found myself in a place where everyone had a story. Everyone’s family had come from somewhere else not that many generations back and everyone was interested in my story whereas back in England even in those days it was still unusual, even weird, to have a family story to tell. I felt immediately at home.
East Village tenements

I stayed with my friend Kim in Brooklyn. In 1991 New York was still considered a rough place. Kim gave me a map and marked the areas to avoid, prime among them being the Lower East Side and the mean streets of Alphabet City. In the 1980s she and her boyfriend had lived in the East Village. There’d been only one toilet, shared with the other apartments on her floor, and they’d had to heat up water to bathe in a tub in the kitchen. Once they were at home when they heard a loud bang which seemed to be right inside the room. They looked around, wondering what had happened. Then they spotted dust seeping from a hole in the wall just above Kim’s head. There was a bullet embedded in the wall opposite. It had come through from the next apartment.

For me it was the beginning of a love affair. I’ve been back pretty much every year since then and lived there for two years at the end of the nineties in a sublet near Washington Square. Nowadays I go once or twice a year with my American husband. We quickly discovered that the East Village and the Lower East Side were the most interesting places to stay.

Five or six few years ago we took a sublet in the East Village, on 7th Street between Avenues A and B, opposite Tomkins Park, where as late as the 1980s and 90s there was an ongoing turf war between heroin dealers, gangs and police. The homeless lined up outside the park every day waiting for the trucks that brought them meals and at night we’d hear people going through the dustbins outside our apartment.
Orchard Street today

We went to a gallery opening in Orchard Street deep in the Lower East Side. The area still looked forbidding, dark and grimy, with a few galleries and the occasional restaurant tucked among shops offering cheap leather goods and suitcases.

Since then the area has changed in leaps and bounds. It feels like a privilege to have the chance to see it while it’s still in the process of transformation, before it becomes set and - perish the thought - full of expensive boutiques like SoHo or staid and middle aged like the Upper West Side, both of which were in their time edgy places.

This year we stayed at the bottom rim of the Lower East Side, where it meets Chinatown. Much of the area retains its old character. It’s still edgy, still being formed. It still feels rough. The tenements are still there with their iconic fire escapes.

What makes the place so wonderful is the contrasts. There are still old men spitting on the sidewalks, women pushing carts of vegetables and groups of youths hanging around looking threatening. There are leather goods shops, Chinese laundries, corner grocery stores, flower shops, Chinese vegetable shops with no English translations on the store front, fish shops, a fish market, suitcase shops, clothes shops. But right alongside are restaurants, galleries, nail spas, massage parlours, shops offering Ayurvedic massage and a pharmacy advertising matcha smoothies directly across the road from a Chinese laundry. Even the trendy restaurant Forgtmenot (sic) has scaffolding outside with a sign saying it’s a hardware store. At first sight it looks like a building site.

And now hotels are arriving with a vengeance. First came the Hotel on Rivington. This year there are several new hotels, such as the Blue Moon, a four star hotel on Orchard Street (which still seems like an oxymoron), and the glossy Orchard Street Hotel. The latest big opening was for Ian Schrager’s Public, a shiny new building at the top of Chrystie Street where non-hotel guests have to wait in a dark tunnel to be vetted before they can take the lift to the bar on the 18th floor.
The anonymous front of Metrograph

There’s even a movie theatre. You walk down Ludlow Street past several Chinese laundries and a ramshackle Chinese grocery and suddenly come to a blank facade. Push open the door and you find yourself in Metrograph, a sleek cinema complex styled after 1940s Hollywood, showing old films, with an excellent restaurant upstairs. Appropriately it was having a Chinatown season when we were there. One minute you’re in quite a rough grimy street, the next in this very sleek restaurant.

Catch it while you can. For a lover of history it’s an amazing place to be. You can actually track the process of change, see history in the making.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

Friday, 13 October 2017

BLACK TUDORS: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann – Reviewed by Elizabeth Fremantle

Most people have an idea about what they believe life to have been like in Tudor England: brutal, misogynistic, profoundly bound by religion and overwhelmingly white. In terms of racial diversity we have Shakespeare's Othello and his mysterious 'dark lady' but little else. Like a half-finished painting, our knowledge of the past can only be partial and Dr Miranda Kaufmann's endeavour with Black Tudors has been to fill in some of those empty spaces. Through extensive and meticulous archival research she has uncovered evidence of numerous people of colour living not only in London but across the country during the early modern period. By focusing in on ten biographies she builds a vision of early-modern culture, exposing its attitudes to race.

A member of Margaret of Austria's court
The assumption is often made, that anyone of African descent living in pre-nineteenth century England would have been a slave. But this belief is erroneous. Kaufmann's book, not only demonstrates this but allows us a glimpse into the diversity of occupations held by black Tudors, how they came to be in England and the ways in which they were accepted as part of society. Slavery was more commonplace in southern Europe, where there was regular trade with Africa, and it is from Italy, Portugal and Spain that most Africans arrived on English shores. Kaufmann charts some of these journeys, bringing them into vivid life.

From John Blanke, who held the coveted position of trumpeter to Henry VII, and Catalina a woman in the entourage of Katherine of Aragon, who left Spain a slave but seems to have been granted her freedom shortly after her arrival in England, to Diego, who sailed the high seas with Sir Frances Drake and Cattelena, described as an 'independent singlewoman' living in Almondsbury, all these portraits force us to reassess our common preconceptions about race in the period and see people of colour as part of the ordinary fabric of early modern English society.

Possibly a seamstress by Carracci
Fiction is a means by which some of the gaps in history can be filled and the insights of this book will surely provide grist for the historical fiction mill. Certainly Catalina, as one of the few witnesses to Katherine of Aragon's wedding night with Prince Arthur, having to testify during the investigations into the validity of the Royal marriage during Henry VIII's 'great matter', would make a fascinating protagonist. I'm only sorry Kaufmann's book did not come in time for me to include Fortunatus, a servant of Robert Cecil, in my novel Watch the Lady, in which Cecil is one of my narrators. It is perhaps ironic that of all the contemporary fictional portrayals of Elizabethan England, it is only the BBC comedy Upstart Crow, a satirical portrait of Shakespeare which in no way seeks historical accuracy, that features an independent black character in its female innkeeper.

Kaufmann's book is not only a fascinating and erudite exploration of race in Tudor England but also a vibrant, eminently readable and tender portrayal of individual lives. For anyone interested in the Tudor period Black Tudors is a must.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel The Girl in the Glass Tower is published by Penguin.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Julia's villa

Last month, I wrote about my family's trip this summer to Ventotene, a small island of the coast of Lazio, and our adventures swimming in the ancient Roman fish pond there.

This month, more on why we were there - and Julia's villa. My work in progress is about Julia, the errant daughter of the Emperor Augustus. She was exiled to the island of Ventotene, then called Pandateria, by her father, for the alleged crimes of adultery. The rules of her exile were stringent: no wine, no visitors and no men were to be allowed in her presence unless the Emperor was personally informed of their physical appearance.

Julia the Elder

She was on the island for five long years, before Augustus relented and allowed her to move to a less austere exile on the mainland. Julia never returned to Rome. When her ex-husband Tiberius became Emperor, he took away her living allowance. She died of malnutrition, far from home. Three of her five children pre-deceased her: Gaius, Lucius and Agrippa Postumus. The two girls survived, but their fates were not happy - Julia the Younger was also exiled to an island for adultery, thus allowing generations of male historians to endow her and her mother with a 'guilty-slut gene'. The last child, Agrippina, was mother to Caligula and Grandmother to Nero.

Before we went to Ventotene I had done my research. I had poured over maps. I had read whatever archaeological works I could get my hands on. But actually being there was incredible, and changed the book immensely. Here are some of my revelations:

- I had not appreciated the scale and luxury of the Villa. It had been built as a Summer leisure palace for the Emperor, one of many properties. I suppose in my mind, I had been thinking of the best case luxury villa in modern terms. This was something else: Russian oligarchs would struggle to match the Villa Julia. I had completely underestimated its size, and the skeleton staff needed to keep it from crumbling into the sea. This prompted a major rewrite. It also reinforced an extant theme about luxury as a prison and leisure as a burden.
Part of the slaves' quarters

The promontory of Punta Eolo, across which spread the Villa Julia. 

- I had not understood why the villa was sited on Pandateria - a rocky outcrop with no natural water. Then I went there, and realised that, by covering the promontory, the villa could catch the sunset on one side and the sunrise on the other. The Romans loved to play with natural light, and this place could be used to create a perfect marriage of artifice and nature.

The sun beginning to set, and catching the arch above the stairs down to the sea.

- I had not given sufficient weight to the idea that this was a villa built for the Summer. We were in Ventotene during heatwave Lucifer. It was unbelievably hot. As we left the island, the weather broke, and we spent a miserable two hours on a ferry in 15 foot waves as one in four of the passengers threw up, violently, into little paper bags. the Med is not just the azure sea of British middle-class fantasies. It is violent, dangerous, and pretty bleak in winter. 

- There was one detail of the research there which was worth the flights on its own. In the small museum in Ventotene's bourbon town hall was a reconstruction of the hot room in the Villa's bath complex. There is a figure sitting alone in that giant, beautiful space, built on the West side of the promontory to catch the sunsets. On a tour of the ruins, I discovered an archaeological nugget that had not been in any of the articles: during Julia's time on the island, this giant beautiful caldarium stopped being used. A different, and much smaller space was converted into a caldarium instead. What a nugget. What a cry for help from history. Apologies for the poor image, but here is Julia, sitting alone in her luxury pool.

Poor little rich girl.

Ignore me - sorry! behind, you can see the remains of the Caldarium; much more interesting!
All in all, an extraordinary trip. I'd love to hear your stories! How has going somewhere altered your books, in theme or plot?