Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.

Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).

Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.

She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.

In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.

The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.

The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.

She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.

The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.

But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.

Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.

So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.

Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).

Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.

As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.

After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.

Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.

It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”

These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a contract

I’m pleased to announced that I have signed a contract with history publishers Amberley Publishing for a book about Warwickshire to be published in June 2020. This will be a highly illustrated book full of stories arranged under themes from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.

St Mary’s Church Warwick at night. Photo credit: Jamie Robinson.

The book will explore some of the supernatural and spiritual stories in the region. It describes a number of Warwickshire’s most iconic locations which I believe have spiritual resonance and which I’ve visited many times.

These include Guy’s Cliffe House and the Saxon Mill in Warwick; Hall’s Croft and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle among other locations.

I’m weaving into this insights from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits. And I’ve also been out and about interviewing and listening to people closely associated with the properties who have rich and fascinating stories to tell.

More news on this to follow!

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path

Book Review: ‘The Magical History of Britain’ by Martin Wall

The period of British history which we call the Dark Ages was not dark at all – according to the author of this book, Martin Wall.The Magical History of Britain by Martin Wall

But we do know the period this term covers, between about 500 and 1000 BC, was marked by frequent warfare. Many of us choose to imagine it best probably through the medium of fantasy, in books, films and TV drama, such as The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones.

The darkness only refers to our  lack of knowledge of the period. And this author was inspired by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde, to pour what must have been exhaustive research into the writing of this book.

Reading ‘The Magical History of Britain‘ is a rewarding experience, if you would love to fill in the details of a profoundly obscure period of Britain’s history including the so-called Dark Ages, and the recurrent struggles over many generations between Christians and Pagans. The author states that he was inspired to write this book by the discovery of the Staffordshire Horde. And although I was enthralled, I did from time to time find myself wishing the author had resisted the urge to pack so much information in, often giving a blow-by-blow account of events in long, weighty paragraphs, and filling in the entire life history of every character he featured.

Nevertheless it was still a fascinating book and of one thing we can be sure – through all the centuries on this Island, the Celts, the Romans, the Britons, the Danes, the Pagans, the Christians, the Anglo Saxons and the Normans have all been every bit as bad as each other, when it comes to wholesale slaughter and sadistic punishments.

The author draws through his narrative a thread of myth and magic, and his treatment of the Arthurian mythology is particularly interesting – a mythology that I believe puts down very deep roots in our national psyche. Somehow we can all relate to that longing for the once and future king. I know I have long loved the stories of Arthur and Guinevere, and the knights of the round table, along with the enchantress Nimue and the wizard Merlin.

Towards the end of this challenging read, including a detailed account of the life and work of Aleister Crowley, it was a positive relief to come through to the conclusion of Martin Walls’s narrative and to read his account of the Inklings meeting in Oxford – bringing us back to two of my most beloved authors, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, along with a fellow-member of the Inklings and a great friend of theirs, Owen Barfield.

The book concludes with some astute and discerning remarks about the present state of Britain in regard to its history, its national psyche and its spiritual and magical mythologies.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

The Foundling Museum, London: Poignant History of Those Working to Overcome Eighteenth Century Social Injustice

Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth
Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this  fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.

And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’

In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.

And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.

For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.

It took the wealthy and powerful  to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741; it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital.  A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.

When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….

Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.

Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved.  Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.

This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Naval College Hospital, Greenwich – Place of Refuge for Sick and Disabled Ex-Sailors between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries

As you disembark from the Thames clipper at Greenwich you will enter a grand building in which is housed the excellent Visitor Centre for the Royal Naval College – built above the foundations of King Henry VIII’s favourite palace, Greenwich Palace.

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich
The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Magnificent and imposing as the college buildings are, they were used as a hospital to house ex-sailors from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The sailors were all invalided out from the navy, some sick, others disabled, and their ages ranged from twelve years old upwards.

When you go on the tour of the Royal Naval College buildings and listen to stories of those sailors’ lives, you realise that the system under which they lived was highly regimented and that by our own standards they lived very restricted and controlled lives, under the iron heel of authoritarians.

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich - looking towards the Queen's House, and the Royal Observatory on the hill
The Royal Naval College, Greenwich – looking towards the Queen’s House, and the Royal Observatory on the hill

Their daily routine was full of seemingly (to our ears) harsh compulsory elements, and they were given what we might consider now to be rather mean ale rations and slept in narrow confined spaces, which of course may well have been far better than the accommodation they had formerly had on board ship.

Regardless of their various disabilities or physical constraints, they were all required on a regular basis to climb the steps which led up to the grand Chapel, to attend services thee.Once again the tentacles of rigid authoritarian control reaching into and distorting the Christian faith… And yet, we always have to consider the times and the culture in which people lived and made these decisions.

The tour is to be highly recommended, and I do urge you to include Greenwich on your list of places to be visited, when you spend a holiday in London. You will need a full day to do justice to all that Greenwich has to offer. The Queen’s House too is now open and full of fascinating historical exhibitions. And from the upper floor you may obtain the most beautiful view towards the brave new world of the revitalised London docklands….

View north across the River Thames from the Queen's House, Greenwich
View north across the river Thames from the Queen’s House, Greenwich

 

 

 

The Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands – Stories of Great Suffering Upon which our Privileged Lives Are Founded

The International Slave Trade was in force between the mid seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Although it was abolished in 1838 it didn’t magically stop on that date.

Museum of London Docklands
Museum of London Docklands

And in that time millions of men, women and children from Africa were treated as if they were subhuman, disposable objects, moving parts of a machine, whose sole purpose was to make even more money for the wealthy European traders.transatlantic-slave-trade

Every great English country house I visit has a history to tell; and when I look into that history I look for the words “business interests in the West Indies“, and then I know that the grandeur of this house rests upon the exploitation of those enslaved Africans.

So complex is the tapestry of wealth and advancement and progress and exploitation of human lives in the International Slave Trade, that we cannot ever extricate ourselves from the fact that many of the institutions upon which we rely for the comfort and privilege of our lives here in this Western consumer society, are founded upon the misery and pain of millions.

In William Walton’s choral work Belshazzar’s Feast there is a powerful bass aria in which the singer enumerates all the wealth and magnificence of Babylon, over which King Belshazzar reigned. The once-mighty city of Babylon in Iraq has been described as “a microcosm of human history.” The bass sings:

Babylon was a great city,

Her merchandise was of  gold and silver,

of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,

of purple, silk and scarlet,

All manner vessels of ivory,

All manner vessels of most precious wood,

of brass, iron and marble,

Cinnamon, odours and ointments,

Of frankincense, wine and oil,

Fine flour, wheat and beasts,

Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves

And the souls of men.

Just so during any economy which relies upon the labour of enslaved people. And I must admit the words of that aria flashed into my mind while I was walking round the Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.

Enslaved Africans - transatlantic-slave-trade
Enslaved Africans – transatlantic-slave-trade

If you visit this gallery, you’ll  find yourself totally absorbed and caught up in an imaginative, interactive experience, in which you examine and reflect upon and enter into the heart of that slavery experience. You’ll consider all the facets of racism, both during those times, and up to the present day; and quite possibly, during the time you’re walking through the gallery, you’ll be drawn to  identify with those who suffered, and will feel personally responsible and involved in that massive crime against humanity.

If you’re in London, I urge you to include the Museum of London Docklands on your list of places to visit; it has many other galleries, too, telling you of London’s history, and you will find it a thoroughly engrossing experience.

 

 

 

 

 

Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent: ‘I Object’ Exhibition at the British Museum – Brilliant and Cheeky Tribute to the Spirit of Independent Thought

Free will means that even in the most totalitarian regime, individuals keep within their hearts and minds their secret thoughts and views: but with ingenuity they will find a way of expressing it.

"I Object": Ian Hislop's Search for Dissent - exhibition at the British Museum 2018/2019
“I Object”: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent – exhibition at the British Museum 2018/2019

When Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop stepped out of his Private Eye offices – as shown on video at the entrance to this brilliant exhibition  – he went round the corner to see if he could find signs of dissent within the hallowed portals of the museum.

As he says at the beginning of the exhibition, he had set out to answer these questions: “Have people always shown signs of dissent? Are there artefacts in the British Museum relating to people forming views against the government?” Fortunately, the answer was YES.ian hislop in his office at private eye

As you wander through the exhibition examining the artefacts, one thing becomes clear: the fiercer and more authoritarian the government under which the artists or creators lived, the more subtle and more clever the signs of dissent. And of course sometimes it can be done unconsciously, or can be just what the paranoid authorities choose to see as dissent.

Throughout the ages, through ceramic vases, badges, banknotes, coins, rugs, engravings, paintings, individuals have expressed their dissent against the established order and the powers that be.

A winking owl was taken by Chairman Mao to be a statement that his health was failing – and won the artist arrest and imprisonment. An ancient Egyptian craftsman fed up with constantly producing artefacts for the Pharaoh which were going to go in the tombs carved his own face in place of the Pharaoh’s; another added his own name where only the name of someone high and mighty should be.

In Afghanistan, a traditional rug had helicopters woven into it instead of flowers, to protest against Soviet invasion.

Soviet invaders were show with devil’s horn on another rug; and those being invaded were shown in the same position as an avenging god.

Later we saw that people have also dissented against the British Museum itself. The famous artist Banksy had done a cave painting of a man pushing a shopping trolley. It was placed in the British Museum with a very authentic looking cheeky label – and stayed there for three days before it was noticed.

Cleverly defaced banknotes and engraved coins were intended to stay in circulation with their dissenting message for as long as possible.

The ring worn by a Royalist during the rule of Cromwell opened up to reveal a portrait of King Charles I who had been beheaded.

A copy of the Bible opened up to the Ten Commandments revealed that the printer had printed “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Ironical typo…… or expression of dissent?

The exhibition was wonderfully diverse and didn’t just represent one ideological stance on the part of its curator Ian Hislop. There was no biassed view, for instance, of leftist dissenter against totalitarian regime. All views were represented, even those of a Russian who objected to Gorbachev’s attempts at control of alcohol; and someone who opposed Barak Obama. And there was before us an object which consisted of elaborate Catholic items, heavy with Catholic symbolism, turned into a supposedly inoffensive salt cellar to use in Reformation England.

George IV apparently wasted a huge amount of public money trying to suppress insulting images of himself.

And an English cartoon of William Pitt’s and George’s III’s decapitated heads followed shortly after news from France of Louis IV’s beheading.

And how about the right wing Brexiteers wearing yellow jackets? In Hong Kong those dissenting from China’s plans for political change all carried yellow umbrellas as a sign of their protest.

In one part of the exhibition Ian Hislop had written, “I was disappointed to discover that Spitting Images was not new.”

And of course – in former times the Turks had got there first with their own puppets lampooning those in authority over them.

I felt that the exhibition was a bit like “Have I got news for you?”applied to ancient artefacts – and I loved it.

 

The British Library and the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms

Recently I found myself in the British Library in London, and among the large number of visitors who had flocked there to see the exhibition on The Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war
Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: art, word, war

There displayed for us to see were certain treasures of the age before the Norman Conquest. Here were the magnificent original illuminated manuscripts, the highly ornate and jewelled medallions worn by high-ranking women, inscribed with runic symbols; and other time capsules left to us by the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later. Behind these original objects lay the spirits of the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots; and the mighty, such as Offa, “a king who terrified everyone” and who built a great dyke between Wales and Mercia.

King Canute, we learned, was a great giver of books to churches.  I wonder what Edmund Ironside would have though of that, had he known it when he was desperately fighting to stop the Danes from ruling England? Or would he have thought it just a pathetic attempt to make reparation for all the upheaval and battles and loss of life he had caused? And we learned, too, that even the Christian kings were thought to have descended from the Norse god Woden. The exhibition contained an original prayer book, the very volume found by St Cuthbert’s head in his tomb at Durham Cathedral, which was indeed an awe-inspiring object to contemplate.

It was fascinating to learn of the intersection between English and European art and thought, and to discover that many went on pilgrimage to Rome. Canterbury and Jarrow were the two major spiritual centres; Canterbury represented the influence of Augustine and Rome, while Jarrow in Northumbria represented the Celtic Christianity which emanated from Ireland.

Here was evidence of intense hours of devotion by scribes and craftspeople and artists and gold and silversmiths; of devotion to study and scholarship and piety by these people who we tend to dismiss because they came before William the Conqueror. A rich and thought-provoking exhibition with much scope for contemplation and meditation upon our own history and what it means for us.

The Museum of London, Docklands: a Beguiling Talk About the Social History of the English Pub

The English pub is such a well-loved institution.

Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands
Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands

I know when I lived in Australia for four years, this wonderful institution was much prized for its almost legendary status amongst the Australians, even if they did think we British are a bit weird to go around drinking warm beer all the time.

And at the Museum of London, Docklands, I had the chance to listen to a talk on the social history of this, the most iconic “hostelry”.museum of london docklands

Crowded into The Three Mariners, a replica of a small historical pub within the Museum’s Sailortown recreation, we listened to a most engaging talk on the subject. I learned that the social history of drinking in Britain began when the Romans introduced the taverna to the natives of these isles, and thus began the habit of drinking wine.

Then, later on, after the Romans had given up on us and left, the Vikings invaded – and introduced beer. then we British became used to the alehouses. Ale was a natural choice for England, and later inns began to appear.

During Tudor times, Henry VIII introduced licensing laws.. He wanted the “public house” regulated and ordered.

Then on into the 1600s and 1700s – and gin was the thing. It was very cheap and easy to make; and we know of course from  vivid engravings and from our social history, the effect that the craze for gin had on our society.

And onto William Gladstone – when he was Prime Minister he decided it would be morally superior for us to revert to wine drinking. Prior to his time wine had only been available in kegs. Now he introduced the bottle of wine, and promoted the idea that there was some kind of social refinement or even moral virtue about drinking wine as opposed to beer.

And now of course we have inherited these social  presumptions about our drinking habits. Who, our guide asked, would dare request a strawberry daiquiri when he’s sitting amongst his mates in the pub and they’ve all ordered beer? Social meltdown, at the very least!

It all brought me back to the first time I tasted alcohol. My first love was Asti Spumante; and Blue Nun was the order of the day too, along with Mateus Rose. And when I was at university, I remember such combinations as Guinness and Grapefruit, Dry Martini and Lemonade, and American Dry and Whisky – along with the much-favoured Snowball (Advocaat and Lemonade). And I have long loved a gin and tonic…

But how amusing it is to think how easily we attribute a social value to anything we might do… and no wonder the drinking of alcohol has not escaped this natural tendency of human nature.

But it was great fun to listen to our enthusiastic and lively speaker setting all our ideas about alcohol firmly in the context of English social history.