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.
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.
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!
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
At the National Portrait Gallery recently, as I wandered through the Victorian and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Galleries, I realised that I was surrounded by all the most amazing people who have moved or inspired me or touched my heart, during my lifetime.
It is truly a moving experience to gaze upon the faces of each of these people, and to reflect upon the impact each one of them has had on my life. Some of them look very unexceptional; others have been portrayed in a way which truly conveys their individuality. But what all have in common is this: they are like a cloud of witnesses, a gallery of masters who have found their way into my heart and mind over the generations and seasons of my life, through something they’ve written, or painted, or thought, or expressed.
To gaze upon their faces, even imperfectly rendered – for how can I tell the accuracy or the insight of the artist, having never encountered the sitter in person – is to be deeply touched.
I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.
Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…
I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands; foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;
I have in mind 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 in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition: the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.
So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers, the ministers, the politicians, and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town
In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.