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Friday, 19 May 2017

We now have more than one tree

I was born in Aintree but sad to say it is not recorded in Domesday Book—Aintree, not my birth. Domesday recorded virtually everything so it really must have been insignificant. The fact that it was largely marsh and bog land may have something to do with it. The name itself is Saxon with various spellings: Ayntre, Eyntre, Ayntree and Ayntrie and denotes the fact that the only significant thing about the place was that a tree grew there. Just one. The place possessed just one bloody tree. Even in 1892 the grand population of Aintree was just 300 people. But then the Keytons and Parrys hadn’t arrived.

Its close neighbour, Walton – extending from Walton on the Hill to Walton Vale and its surrounds had a more distinguished history. It, too, was named by Saxons, a most presumptuous people who called the original occupants of this land ‘foreigners’ or ‘Wealas’ – hence modern Wales and Walton or ‘Wealastun or Foreign Town. 

St Marys Church dominates Walton on the Hill and is mentioned in the Domesday book, was rebuilt in the C14th, and restored again in the C20th following the May Blitz of 1940

Walton on the hill in fact predated Liverpool, the future second city in the empire being then a few fishermen’s cottages. It was Good King John, who needed a second base for his invasion of Ireland that made it a town and gave it its first charter. 

Liverpool even acquired a castle. It was then Walton and Aintree knew the game was up.


In time Liverpool swallowed up both Walton and Aintree – which now has more than one tree, and a race course

Friday, 12 May 2017

Archaeology without mummies and curses

It’s spring, and I’m fizzing with joy deep-cleaning the house. Room by room. Much of the work involves lugging furniture from walls and scrubbing the grime that’s accumulated beneath. Then on to the walls, an easier job that involves much stretching. Then there’s the glass cabinet, source of great happiness when choosing which glass for which drink—though it usually involves beer.  The problem is we have too much glassware and too little time to drink. These have to be washed without breakages. Champagne flutes I abhor.  

And finally there are the bookcases and near on 2000 books. (I’m excluding the kitchen and bathrooms from this odyssey of pleasure, for the moment at least) Each book is dusted to within an inch of its life and pages riffled. 

Riffling pages is a joy in itself – for the first hundred books at least. I swear they sigh in pleasure and dust, and all manner of things flutter out: old post cards, photos of people you can’t put a name too, telephone numbers, and best of all letters with all of their memories.

It’s akin to fossil hunting, archaeology without mummies and curses, and the greatest of timesucks. 

Each letter has to be read and considered, photo’s scrutinised in search of clues; and telephone numbers—is it just me who scribbles down a number but no name? I mean, how can anyone be so stupid?

Answers on a postcard and I’ll slip it into a book.

Some were there as impromptu bookmarks, most were there as quick and convenient storage and immediately forgotten. And that’s where they end up again, when the dusting is done, because I hate throwing anything away.

At least they’ll be waiting for the next time I deep clean, and I’ll read them again with the same wonder and joy. Who are these people who send me photos? And perhaps I should answer that letter that is fifteen years old. And which idiot scribbles down phone numbers without names?

Friday, 5 May 2017

Bread in a bottle

I read an article in the New York Times recently about an English entrepreneur who is making and marketing Toast beer. It’s a crap idea but spun as craft ale, it may do well amongst the man-bun, hipster-beard brigade.  Using one slice of bread a bottle, the result is a brew with 'malt and citrus undertones.' Yay.

Apparently the Babylonians made bread beer. They also used the abacus and stamped little pictures in clay. It’s not surprising that Toast Beer has yet to make a profit or that it took months to find an American brewery willing to take the risk in brewing it. If you’ve ever tasted Kvass, a central European beer made from fermented rye bread you’ll understand why. It’s foul and the alcohol content is low. So much pain for so little gain.

Another problem is how you market it.  You don’t go out on a Saturday night bent on saving  the planet by drinking recycled bread. When you drink beer you’re drinking an image, history in every man-sized gulp: Bombardier, Imperial Pale Ale, Spitfire!  (Okay, not entirely image, alcohol content is important too, and every beer has its own unique taste. Just not bread)

One fine beer celebrates the C17th Battle of Medway when we thrashed the Dutch. You’re not going to be celebrating great acts of martial vigour with ‘Toast Ale.’ You don’t have much leeway to associate it with Empire or even the Battle of Britain—and yes Spitfire pilots did enjoy their toast with strong tea. The British are quite partial to toast, just not in a bottle.

 I love toast –  toast ‘soldiers’ dipped in a runny boiled egg—toast and dripping—toast slathered with marmalade or damson jam. You see the pattern here? I want to eat the bloody thing not drink it from nicely designed bottles, virtue replacing the traditional headey buzz.

And I want to read over-the top-blurbs. 

A case in point—Kingpin from Brewdog Brewery:
“An uncompromising, bold and irreverent beer. Beer with a soul and a purpose. It’s the only thing we know. It’s the only thing we want to know. We have a terminal craziness to make the beers we want to drink.
Our approach is a modern day rebellion for flavour and choice. A last ditch stand to create beer that actually tastes of something. Beer like it was. Beer like it will be.”
I mean, this is splendid stuff reminiscent of Henry Vth 's  speech on the eve of Agincourt, And it continues:
“…this cold-conditioned King lies recumbent for a full five weeks. Expect the first wave of robust, full-bodied malt character to hit, then spicy citrus notes charge across the palate and an assertive bitter finish win the day.” It is the bloody Battle of Agincourt played out in a bottle.

What can Toast Beer offer in comparison? “Drink recycled bread with malt and citrus undertones?” And how many bottles would you have to drink to get even mildly tiddly? Too many, I suspect for try as I might I can find no information on its alcohol content. My rant is over but be warned. If the Murenger ever sells beer made from recycled bread the end of the world is nigh!

Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Small Argument

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “Whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.
Thandie Newton caused a small argument last night. In an article she regretted the fact that people of colour were essentially barred from historical costume dramas unless they portrayed an occasional domestic or slave. My opening gambit – a gut instinct because I’m a historian – was that is just an unfortunate fact of life, or if you wish, a fact of the past.

I was challenged by ‘musicals.’ I don’t like musicals very much, for me their essentially fluff and tosh with the occasional hummable tune. Others view them as creative extravaganzas. Both views subjective, both equally valid. Each to their own. ‘What about musicals?’ I said.

‘Hamilton. He wasn’t a black man.’

‘And Cats . . . Lion-king, you don’t have singing cats and moralistic lions,’ I said. We both agreed that the Musical was a form of creative expression bound by its own rules, Opera, too, I imagine. Wotan, the ultimate Aryan, could probably be played by a black man with few turning a hair, though Wagner might not be best pleased. We agreed that Shakespeare, too, was a special point, in the sense that his poetry and message was universal and transcended race.

‘So why are you opposed to colour-blind costume dramas?’ It was said with the tone of one who checkmates.

Because they’re essentially historical and whilst you can fabricate or omit small details in the interests of drama - (though I did demur at the teenage Victoria having the hots for Lord Melbourne, in real life an elderly man prone to afternoon sleeps but played by the seductive Rufus Sewell) – you have to stick to the essentials. You can’t have Victoria played by an Indian, give Queen Elizabeth I a scouse accent, make William the Conqueror Chinese, make George Washington black. I appreciate these are rhetorical statements and in real life you can do anything you want, but then like fake science and fake news you’d be immersing a culture in fake history – harmless enough you might say, but not unsurprisingly I disagree.

You can't change the past for the perceived needs of the present. The past is  a world of its own and never entirely knowable, neither is science, but both disciplines strive for the truth, and history is important—even in costume dramas.

 ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’ George Orwell ‘1984’ Well we haven’t yet got a global Erdogan but we do have Google and some interesting algorithms. Google: European peoples — and then images. I haven’t yet got my head around this. 

Maybe manipulation and algorithms are the future the historians small sad nonentities, inverted Cassandras who can talk of the past and have no one believe them.


Friday, 21 April 2017

The Pendle Witches

Happiness can come in small, perfectly formed snippets that can be recalled at will many years later. One such moment for me was the summer having just finished my M. A. on Anthony Trollope. I had time on my hands, little money but a bedsit in the Uplands area of Swansea, Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and three books:
Lavengro and Romany Rye by George Borrow, and Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth. Rookwood is worth a post in itself, a baggy, picaresque novel exploring the C18th underworld, Highwaymen and dissolute aristocrats. I re-read it many years later and it didn’t disappoint. On that basis I downloaded a cheap kindle edition of another one his novels: The Lancashire Witches.

Published in 1849, The Lancashire Witches is a fictionalised account of the great Pendle Witch trial of 1612. It also provided ideal material for Ainsworth who was heavily influenced by the C18th gothic tradition. For some, Ainsworth has been seen as a key link between the early gothic tradition and the late C19th ‘Penny Dreadful’ —though the latter connotation does him a disservice. He was quite a substantial writer, a friend of Dickens and almost as popular.

On finishing the book, two things struck me:
a)     How ‘horror’ has changed and
b)    His attention to detail and the durability of the English countryside.

Ainsworth’s ‘horror’ has more in common with the medieval morality play and the starkness of old woodcut prints. Witches range from the dangerously seductive to the more traditional hideous crone. There are familiars and demons and broomsticks. 

It is black and white, one-dimensional and, I’m tempted to say, lacks psychological depth. But this wouldn’t be entirely fair, for Ainsworth was writing for an audience that believed in the eternal struggle between good and evil and the infinite value of the human soul. The stereotypes of crones and familiars, virtuous and beautiful young maidens and doomed heroes are time-worn and have less resonance now, but for a Victorian audience the real horror would have been the corruption of innocence, the real drama damnation, despair and the hope of redemption.

With regard to his attention to detail and the durability of the English countryside, I was struck by the wonderfully evocative Lancastrian place names, some so evocative I had to check they actually existed. But places like Whalley Nab exist and remain largely unchanged since Ainsworth first wrote about them. 

Historical figures are also meticulously researched, and families such as the Asshetons of Whalley and Downham still figure largely in the area as do their houses. 
Painted by Turner, the village of Downham 'nestles' beneath Sir Nicholas Asshton's House adjacent to the Church and just hidden by the trees described in the book.

Whalley Abbey
The Abbey House where Sir Ralph Assheton lived and where much of the action takes place

Whalley Abbey Gatehouse as painted by Turner
The Abbey was bounded by the towering and well-wooded heights of Whalley Nab. On the side of the Abbey, the most conspicuous objects were the great north-eastern gateway.

Rough Lee Hall, home of the witch Alice Nutter

For those who enjoy evocative set pieces, Ainsworth delivers—much in the vein of Sir Walter Scott. His descriptions of an otter hunt, a stag hunt, and the impact of a royal visit to Houghton Tower (James I) are powerful and stay in the mind.
Whalley parish church, exterior and interior exactly as Ainsworth describes. 

Whalley figures prominently in the book. One of the witches, Old Chattox is keen to get to one of three Saxon crosses in the parish churchyard. To the villagers their antiquity and strange carving render them magical. Their magic is confirmed when Old Chattox mysteriously vanishes:
 “She has rendered herself invisible, by reciting the magical verses inscribed on that cross.”….
“What strange uncouth characters. I can make neither head nor tail, unless it be the devil’s tail, of them.”
The crosses are still there for you to decide, as is the Calder where Nan Redferne was molested and brutally ‘ducked.’

And overshadowing Whalley Nab, the village and church, Rough Lee, Whalley Abbey and Downham is Pendle Hill itself. 

For a view of the surrounding countryside from the top, click here. 
For more pictures of the surrounding countryside and in particular the mystery of Malkin's Tower, click here 
And for those curious about Jeanette Winterton's book on the Pendle Witches, click here