Book Reviews 2015, July-December

Back in July I posted reviews of all the books I read in the first half of the year. Here’s the second half, along with my top ten and some thoughts on my year’s reading.

Probably a few spoilers.

My Top Ten Books of the Year (see below, or January-June for reviews)

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

Common People, by Alison Light

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula le Guin

Stasiland, by Anna Funder

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

Darkmans, by Nicola Barker

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Devils of Loudin, by Aldous Huxley

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

Thoughts on my reading this year:

Looking through my top ten, I have 2 works of literary fiction (Darkmans and The Blazing World). Both of them are pretty strange and experimental. I also have 2 works of science fiction (The Lathe of Heaven and Station Eleven), 1 classic Victorian novel and 5 works of history and non-fiction.

Looking at the books I didn’t really enjoy or gave up on, these were mostly mass-market fiction, which I don’t think I’ll bother with at all in the future, unless I’m really desperate. Even something like The Bees, which appealed to me with its bizarre concept, was just too cheesy for my liking and not terribly well written. There were also a few books like The Goldfinch, which had ambition, but which I found dull and pretentious.

My runners-up were The Vegetarian, Pure, Bad Blood and Under the Skin, though they just didn’t quite make it into the top ten.

Reviews, July-December

Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf

This is a popular history of attempts by 18th century astronomers to chart the transit of venus from different parts of the globe, in order to calculate the exact distance between the earth and the sun. It’s an interesting topic, but I found the whole a bit lacklustre. I think the problem may be that there were just too many different people involved, which makes it hard to bring the whole thing to life in a short book. One of the voyages, for example, was Captain Cook’s legendary voyage on board the Endeavour, during which he discovered Australia, Joseph Banks botanised like crazy, and an astronomer named Green charted the transit, and later died. But there’s little time to explore this in any depth. The most interesting thing I learnt was that one of the astronomers – a French gentleman named Chappe – went to Siberia, and wrote an entire book on it, mainly about the charms or otherwise of Russian women. Catherine the great was so furious at her country being portrayed as the home of alcoholic, ugly, backwards, superstitious peasants that she wrote a point-by-point refutation of the book. Can’t imagine Elizabeth II getting that involved!

 Loitering with intent by Muriel Spark

A friend of mine lent this to me, but I’m afraid I gave up on it very quickly. The protagonist and narrator, an aspiring novelist, is just such a despicable person I really couldn’t face this at all. I think perhaps we’re supposed to realise that she’s awful and to be laughing at her, not with her, but I just didn’t want to bother. Also feels quite dated.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker 

This is yet another novel that was Booker-nominated but didn’t win. I think judges always go for the most boring option. It’s even longer than The Goldfinch and the plot is either so complex or so non-existent that it’s difficult to describe, and yet I really, really loved it! I will definitely read more by Barker. It’s set in Ashford Kent, a place notable only because the Eurostar inexplicably stops there, and takes place over just a few days, described in enormous detail. The characters can best be described as the kind of chavtastic scum you probably went to school with, if you lived in the countryside, and crossed the street to avoid. Most of it is interior monologues by these characters, or long bits of Tarantino-esque dialogue, where characters frustratingly discuss something very trivial while meanwhile the house burns down. The punctuation and sentence structure is often ‘avant-garde’. There’s an amazing literary device where Gaffar, a Kurdish illegal immigrant, gambler, champion boxer and general hard-nut (who has a pathological phobia of salad, possibly caused by his Yazidi heritage) speaks not very good English in a normal typeface, and brilliant, poetic Turkish in a Gothic typeface. We understand everything he says, but the other characters only get the half of it. Of course that’s not explained anywhere, you just have to figure it out. The main ‘action’ revolves around the spirit of a medieval jester who may or may not possess various of the characters at different times, causing complete mayhem, violence, flooding, fires, and the death of pets. There is a creepy small child building a perfect model of a medieval French city he has never visited, out of matchsticks. Beede (the venerable) takes revenge on a man who stole some medieval tiles by employing a forger named ‘Peta Borough’ to replace all the objects in his house with ever so slightly different replicas. There’s a fat lady who is described as ‘Jabba the Hut with asthma and a council flat’. Like I said, it’s weird. The closest thing I’ve read to this is Lanark, but Darkmans is less flamboyantly surreal. I enjoyed the puzzle and complete unpredictability, as well as the playful use of language(s). It’s either magical realism without the tweeness, or Goth without the silliness. Either way, it was strange and I liked it.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Undertaker, blogger and founder of death-acceptance society ‘the order of the good death’ Caitlin Doughty recounts her experiences working in a crematorium, outlines the history of Western death rituals and puts forward a polemic on the problems of our death-phobic society. Her style is jaunty, straightforward and humorous and you can tell that much of this started out as a blog. Each short chapter is carefully crafted and includes the personal, historical and philosophical. It’s peppered with anecdotes about death in Japan, cannibal tribes of the Amazon, embalming during the American civil war and medieval European cathedrals. It tells you everything you could ever need to know about corpses, from the processes of embalming (horrifying!! Terrible for the environment! Gives the embalmers cancer! Don’t do it!) to the practicalities of cremation. For example, the fatter you are, the faster you decompose and therefore the worse you smell. When cremated, a fat body burns faster and tends to liquefy instantly, which can cause litre upon litre of molten human lard to gush out of the cremation machine and drench the operator. To say undertakers are not fond of fat people is an understatement. On a more serious note, it’s hard to argue with Doughty’s central thesis. Our fear of death and terror of dead bodies are new features of an increasingly secular western culture that doesn’t know how to make sense of it all. Mortality is a massive taboo. This leads to inadequate care for the elderly and terminally ill, extending to doctors simply not telling people that they’re dying, and inadequate death rituals to help mourners in their grief. The awful process of embalming is continued, despite it having no actual meaning for us, other than a terror of bodies in their ‘natural’ – sunken, grey-looking, slack-jawed – state. Doughty advocates green burials, greater openness about the process of dying and body disposal, and forward planning for our own deaths, to help us cope with the inevitable. Very sensible.

Never Mind by Edward St Aubin

The last, or at least latest, in St Aubin’s autobiographical ‘Patrick Melrose’ sequence has just been published to huge critical fanfare, so I thought I’d read the first one, having missed the boat as usual. St Aubin is a great prose stylist in the hyper-aware psychological style of James, Nabokov or the modernists. There’s much to admire here, but I can’t really say this is an enjoyable read. The story is about a rich upper class boy terrorised by a sadistic father – a rapist and child abuser, while his terrified mother drowns the whole thing out by popping an astonishing array of pills and glugging on booze. The action takes place over a single day – the day on which Patrick’s father first sexually abuses him – and the viewpoint switches frequently between the family members, the maid, and the dinner party guests. This means St Aubin can focus on the inner lives of the characters with incredible, intense precision. It’s hard not to be impressed by St Aubin’s empathy, distance, and refusal to be sucked into self-pity. It’s also impossible not to think ‘thank god I’m not upper class!’ The appalling levels of snobbery on display here are party what enable the father’s bad behaviour. It’s also pretty clear that St Aubin himself is still a mighty snob, despite experiencing the results of that. You can literally get away with anything as long as you’re posh enough. I think I’ll need quite a rest before reading any of the others in the series, because although there’s humour and understanding here, it’s pretty traumatic.

 The Hydrogen Sonata by Ian M Banks

I appear to be reading one ‘culture’ novel a year, in totally random order, but it doesn’t seem to matter. This novel centres around the subliming – moving off into the 11th dimension – of the humanoid Gzilt civilization. Subliming is what civilizations or species do when they get bored – they all go off into some kind of mysterious hippy-dippy eternal life, and no one really knows what goes on there. But this is just a MacGuffin. In fact the main characters are all ‘minds’ or culture ships. They zip off about the galaxy and their humanoid avatars and various humanoids have all kinds of adventures, action, and encounters with odd creatures and strange places. I enjoyed this more than Consider Phlebas. Banks has reigned in his tendency towards torture porn a lot here. It’s still Banks, so there’s plenty of weird sex, macabre body modifications and bizarre deaths, but it’s not quite as gross. I love his ability to make you, a human, feel small and unimportant – as one character laments, there is literally no way in which a human can ever be as good as a mind. They look upon the ‘biologicals’ as we might look upon a cat. The Ship ‘Empiricist’ in fact has a population of billions of people, not to mention every type of animal and habitat. It’s a giant moving planet controlled by a hive mind of AIs. There are also some really cool ship names including: Refreshingly Unconcerned With the Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity; Beats Working; Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life’s Rich Tapestry; Smile Tolerantly; You Call This Clean?; and my personal favourite The Mistake Not… . At the end of the novel we finally find out what the … stands for: My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath. Turns out to be a surprisingly accurate description.

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

A friend of mine posted me this from Australia – thanks mate! It’s a deadly-serious and carefully researched, totally exhaustive guide to surviving zombie outbreaks. I was impressed by its coherency, practicality and thoroughness. The equipment lists for different situations – surviving a siege or going on the run through zombie-infested territory – are excellent. A must-read for anyone who doesn’t want to end up as a walking buffet for the undead. Remember: never take refuge in a shopping mall, never use a car and always fill the bath and destroy the stairs. Good luck.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

A young man rises to become head of a mid-nineteenth century cotton mill, there are a series of intrigues, triumphs and disasters, after which he meets ‘Mr Black’ and develops a gigantic emporium of mourning goods. But who – or what – is the mysterious ‘Mr Black’? I find phrases like ‘jet hatpins’, ‘black bombazine’ and ‘half-mourning’ peculiarly enticing. I enjoyed a hero who was a practical, efficient man of business, not given to introspection or wan fits of poetics. But this felt very saggy in the middle, drawn out and a little disjointed. It needed a good edit and a few sub-plots to hold the attention. It’s pretty obvious who Mr Black is, so there’s no big reveal. Not terrible but not terribly exciting either.

Mr Brigg’s Hat by Kate Colquhoun

A narrative non-fiction about ‘Britain’s first railway murder’. This is very atmospheric and well-written, pulling in lots of themes and social commentary from the Victorian era – their views on crime and punishment, the history of the police, the railways, immigration, etc. Colquhoun really guides the reader and give you a sense of what all the questions were, both regarding the case and the light it shed on wider society. But I found this quite repetitive – in the end she has exhaustively researched a very small corner of history, and so we go over more or less the same accounts and witness statements again and again, as they are re-iterated and re-used in different investigative and legal contexts. Interesting, but I skipped over quite a lot of it.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve read lots of books by Ishiguro before, so I was looking forward this, his first foray into fantasy. I had to give up after 50 pages, it was that bad. I think that an Arthurian fantasy is a hard genre to pull off, and coupled with the plot device – a mysterious mist floats over the land, causing everyone to forget everything – it just felt vague, characterless, cliched and boring. Also dear god, the dialogue! What on earth was he thinking? Horrible. He should stick to literature in the future.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

I expected these memoirs of a brain surgeon to be full of insight into the mind and the mysterious workings of the brain, but in fact it’s just an old man ranting about stuff, much of it comically stereotypical. Here are some of the things Marsh doesn’t like: management; signs; health and safety; meetings; training sessions; the NHS; the European working time directive; being told what to do; being asked questions; young people; the youth of today; change; technology; computers; women; childcare; recycling; supermarkets; being ill; lack of dignity for his patients; initiatives designed to give dignity to his patients; attempts to select young medics by aptitude rather than by the old school tie; other people using ‘his’ (e.g. the hospital’s) sitting room; security; hospitals; new hospitals especially; traffic jams; not being allowed to smoke and drink in the hospital; patients who are bovine and trusting and don’t ask questions; patients who look up their symptoms on the internet and ask questions; neurologists; psychologists; occupational therapists; etc. Oh how he longs for the good old days when he could scream ‘bugger your childcare – you’ll never work with me again’, without people complaining about how abusive he is, when they quite reasonably say they can’t start an operation late because no one is looking after their children. Obviously, he’s not a man who’s ever had to worry about who is looking after his children. Obviously, he’s also divorced. I suppose some of his complaints about the NHS may well be totally valid, but as he doesn’t explore or examine them in any way, and levels the same amount of vitriol against signs warning him to wash his hands as against changes in doctors’ training, it’s really hard to know. If I ever need to have my brain operated on, I won’t care if it’s him or a similar old git who does it – as long as they are competent it doesn’t really matter if they’re an awful old dinosaur. But do I want to read a book that consists mainly of a sexist, rich, wildly over-privileged old codger incoherently ranting about the ludicrous and childish things that annoy him? Nope. I actually wanted to find out about brains and brain surgery.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

This late Victorian novel is about the intertwining lives of various men and women in the writing trades. Novelists, journalists, editors, critics, agents, creative writing teachers, they’re all there. And it’s amazing how little has changed, really. We may have the internet, but it’s still largely true that making a name in literature is mostly about who you know and how hard you hustle, not how good your writing is. The novel has two main protagonists. There’s Edward Reardon, a talented but naive literary novelist with artistic integrity, poor social skills and fragile mental health. The there’s Jasper Milvain, a journalist and general hustler, determined to climb the social ladder to literary fame and fortune, whatever it takes. Neither of them are particularly loveable characters, but they are very believable. Reardon’s inevitable descent is charted with horrible, unflinching precision, and it’s painful to go through his appalling mental health crisis with him. But at the same time, the reader can’t help wanting to shout ‘pull yourself together!’ On the other hand, Milvain is utterly despicable, but you can’t help grudgingly admiring his drive, hard graft, cunning and ultimate success. The novel also deals very seriously with poverty and its consequences, and with the results of the mass education that had only just been introduced. In terms of style it hovers interestingly between Victorian realism and modernism, with plenty of psychological and social insight, often presented in piercingly acute quotations about the generally awful state of the world. That makes it seem very doom and gloom, but in fact there’s also romance and humour, and plenty of interesting minor characters. Overall I would describe it as grimly compelling, with occasional sunny spells. Well worth a read.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This whopping 800 page Victorian classic is a fantastic page-turner. It really has a terrifically gripping plot, full of danger and excitement and can’t-wait-to-find-out-what-happens next. Like Collins’ other classic The Moonstone, it’s told by a variety of different narrators, which offers interesting changes of perspective – sometimes humorous, sometimes revelatory. The plot, settings and style are pure gothic: an innocent lady reluctantly marries an older man with a dark secret. There’s doomed romance, heightened emotions, women in peril, dastardly villains, gloomy landscapes, crumbling mansions, escapes from lunatic asylums and mystery galore. There are also some great characters: I love Marion  – the brave, intelligent, sensible older sister of innocent, helpless Laura. I guess it’s all pretty similar to the gothic stories of an earlier age, like Clarissa: rich ladies without a male protector are in a lot of trouble, because they have no legal rights and cannot protect themselves. Impossible not to notice how influential this book has been on later writers like Sarah Waters as well. It is pretty clichéd, or has become so since, but my word it’s well done, and brilliantly entertaining.

Signals of Distress by Jim Crace

A very literary yet very readable historical novel set in the 1830s. I raced through it very quickly. It opens with an American vessel wrecked off the coast of Cornwall, and takes place during the week or so it takes to get the vessel back out to sea. The main character, Aymer Smith is an awful person. He is smug, self-righteous and selfish, yet filled with well-meaning notions about workers’ rights and abolishing slavery, etc. Naturally, he is naïve, painfully self-conscious, patronising, deluded, and everyone hates him. He blunders around absurdly causing all sorts of problems and annoying everyone in the small, impoverished town he is stuck in. He ‘liberates’ a slave without thinking of the possible consequences for a lonely black man left wandering the British countryside in the middle of a snowy winter with no food or shoes and very little clothing. He falls in love with pretty much all the women, and makes unwelcome and clumsy advances. There were also some interesting historical tit-bits – I didn’t know that fishing communities supplemented their income by burning kelp to create soda-ash, an essential ingredient in soap.

A brief history of seven killings, by Marlon James

This year’s booker winner relates the story of a failed assassination attempt against Bob Marley in 1970s Jamaica. It has a rather avant garde structure, with each chapter told from a different perspective, ranging from gangsters and CIA operatives to receptionists who’ve had flings with Marley. There is an enormous cast of characters, and at first I struggled with not having any idea who they were, what was going on, and that many of them narrate their tales and speak in patois. After about 50 pages though, I really got into it and was hooked. I have never really thought about Jamaica before, so I had no idea about all the political tensions described, the misery of life in the ghettoes, violent gangsters, drugs and police reprisals. So all this was interesting, as well as the many different layers of snobbery and racism, and an unofficial caste system based on the exact shade of people’s skin. An interesting, unflinching and ambitious book.

Under the Skin by Michael Faber

I enjoyed the film of this novel about an alien before I read the book, but the film is very different. An alien, surgically disguised as a human female, drives around the highlands of Scotland picking up male hitchikers. She chats to them to make sure they won’t be missed – preying on the unemployed and friendless – before zapping them and taking them back to the farm, after which they will be turned into meat and shipped back home. Faber has done a good job of capturing planet earth from an alien’s perspective, making our home planet seem wonderous and strange. He also neatly satirises human male behaviour and both the meat industry and animal rights activists, an aspect that’s entirely missing from the film. Odd, creepy, and very enjoyable.

The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

Other than Brave New World, I’ve never read any Huxley before. Now I can’t believe I’ve been missing out. This history book tells the story of a priest in seventeenth century France accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake after a whole convent of nuns become ‘possessed’. Huxley is incredibly erudite in a very old-fashioned way that frequently went over my head. He goes off on bizarre digressions about theology, ESP, Buddhism, totalitarianism, ecology, and his own esoteric philosophy. But he is marvellously acute about human psychology, and gloriously acerbic, witty and sarcastic. He revels in cynically taking all the characters down a peg or two. He is also a brilliant writer. Almost every paragraph contains little gems that deserve to written down and poured over afterwards. This book was the inspiration for the much-banned film ‘the devils’, but although there’s a lot of sex in it, Huxley is much less catholic-bashing, and does not allow us to have cosy feelings that we’ve put this sort of thing behind us and ‘progressed’. What happens in Loudun is far more about politics than either sex or religion. Human nature being what it is, Huxley suggests, modern-day witch hunts continue to flourish all around us. This book was revelatory in showing me just what a history book can be. A minor work of genius.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
This young adult novel is set during an apocalypse – of the slow-burning extinction by infertility kind. It was nominated for the Booker, but I don’t really see why. The protagonist is a teenage girl, and while she’s fairly convincing, she’s not individual enough to be really interesting or to make us care about her. There are some interesting ideas here, but there’s just not enough plot to drag out to a full-length novel. It would have made a much better short-ish story. The various minor characters don’t really add much to the plot, it’s absurdly heavy-handed about the symbolism (see title) and the world-building is not strong enough either. Children of Men it aint.

High-Rise by JG Ballard

This novel has a terrific opening line. ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Liang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months’. Normally I’m against gimmicky flash-back structures, but this is brilliant. The book is off like a rocket from this point: fast-paced, tightly-controlled, with a laser-sharp economy. I like how Ballard’s straightforward style is punctuated, about once a chapter, with a really elaborate yet appropriate metaphor. However, I admired this but didn’t really enjoy it. The story of total meltdown in an apartment building feels pretty dated now, and my main problem is that Ballard doesn’t really do characters. His people are purely symbolic, in this case Freudian symbols. Their actions can only be explained if everything is an elaborate allegory, rather than as the actions of actual people. That’s interesting, but it could have been contained in a short story – why drag things out to novel-length if there’s no emotional engagement with the characters?

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel 

This post-apocalyptic novel has a very tricksy-wicksy structure: there are multiple characters, flash-forwards and flashbacks, interviews and a graphic novel with parallels to the action of the book. But this actually adds pace and suspense, and it mirrors the strange, elliptical workings of memory and the disjointed nature of information in a brave new world. 99.9% of the population has been wiped out by flu in the space of about two weeks. Twenty years later, a caravan of actors and musicians travel around the great lakes in Canada, performing music and Shakespeare plays to the tiny, isolated ‘towns’ of this new world because ‘Survival is Insufficient’ – a quote from Star Trek. They encounter strange cults, threats and various horrors on their perpetual journey. Many of the characters are connected, in various ways, to a Hollywood star, and so the book also concerns his life back in the old world. His three failed marriages, paparazzi, lavish lifestyle and amazing death-scene provide an interesting contrast with the new world, and become relevant in bizarre ways. The writing style is almost young-adult in its simplicity, but the characters are complex, the structure and plot are interesting and unexpected, and the themes are thought-provoking. A very unique and oddly uplifting vision.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

This is the memoir of academic, who was not especially well-known until she published this, which became a huge hit back in 2000. It’s easy to see why. Sage is a brilliant writer, you feel there’s not a subject in the world that she couldn’t bring vividly and easily to life. The rest of the appeal comes from the fact her family truly are mad. If you ever think your relatives have problems, you should read this to cheer yourself up. Her grandfather was a philandering, furious, alcoholic vicar; her grandmother was a sort of perpetual baby-Jane who gave as good as she got; both her parents were horribly damaged people; Sage had a baby aged 16. But this isn’t a misery memoir – in fact it’s rather joyful. Sage takes great glee in dissecting all these awful relationships and character failings. It’s also set during an interesting time, the post-war era in an isolated Welsh village in which little has changed since the nineteenth century, and which all of a sudden gets electric light, council houses and convenience foods. It’s wonderful and fascinating and full of uncomfortably brutal assessments of people and places. Sage clearly couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of her.

I’m dreaming of a …. Dark Christmas

I recently watched an amazing Christmas movie. It’s called Rare Exports, and it’s in Finnish with subtitles. The film opens with some crazy Americans digging up a giant hill in Lapland, while two young boys spy on them. They’re opening up a grave. They’re looking for treasure. But the boys know who’s in that hill – it’s Santa Claus! The real Santa Claus that is. The evil one who beats children to death and boils them alive. Can they stop him from getting out and ruining Christmas?

I suppose this is a very little known film because it’s in Finnish, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an American remake. It’s a funny, adorable, heart-warming, action-packed, kids horror/adventure movie, and it’s full of surprises. There are lots of guns, nudity, and grisly scenes in an abattoir. In Finland, even Christmas is black metal.

There seems to be a trend at the moment, away from the excessively syrupy, sugar coated all-American view of Christmas, and towards something darker. Suddenly people are talking about weird Christmas folk traditions, and about Krampus, who is Santa’s nasty little helper. I first heard about Krampus about a year ago, but now he seems to be everywhere. In fact, there’s a Christmas horror movie out right now, called Krampus, and it’s doing very well. But who on earth is Krampus?

Like our traditional ‘British’ Christmas celebrations, Krampus has a Germanic origin (Bavaria and Austria to be specific), and probably dates from the pre-Christian era. In Germanic folklore he’s a horned, devilish figure who appears in the midwinter season to punish naughty children by beating them, eating them, or carrying them off with him. He’s one of the companions of St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, who rewards good children with gifts. St Nicholas usually appears on 6th December, bringing sweets to good children, while Krampus appears on the 5th bringing lumps of coal and birch twigs. Sometimes the two appear together. It seems as though the sentimental Victorians only ever took on the St Nicholas tradition, and left his sinister companion to the Austrians and Germans. Meanwhile, in German-speaking countries, Krampus cards were surprisingly popular.

Like many folkloric traditions, there was a time when Krampus was banned. Austrians banned him in 1934, and right-wingers campaigned against his general ungodliness in the 1950s. But Krampus has recently been enjoying a revival in Germany and Eastern Europe, with some areas having annual parades, festivals, or drunken ‘Krampus runs’. I guess this is an excuse for all the town’s metal heads and horror fans to join in with the municipal spirit! After all, it’s pretty hard to be Goth while wearing a Santa hat and listening to Mariah Carey.

A Krampus fest in Munich

More Krampus jollity in Munich

There has, of course, been some controversy about Krampus. Christians may associate him with the devil, some argue that it’s totally unsuitable for children, while others complain that Krampus – who is usually black – is racist. Krampus sometimes carries a washpot or cloth sack to carry away naughty children. This supposedly refers to the Moorish raids on European coasts in the 12th century, when locals were abducted into slavery. However, it’s much more apparent in some of St Nicholas’s other traditional companions, such as Zwarte Piet (‘Black Peter’) of the Netherlands, who resembles a golliwog. It seems unlikely that Krampus, originally an inhabitant of inland, Alpine areas, has anything at all to do with coastal raids by the Moors.

Let’s go back to Zwarte Piet though. This is an interesting and incredibly confused story. Zwarte Piet is a ‘tradition’, but one created by a nineteenth century children’s author. Scholars have attempted to see if he is connected to earlier traditions, but it all seems pretty dubious. Legend has it that the Dutch St Nicholas, or ‘Sinterklaas’, was sometimes depicted with a chained devil, who was sometimes black in colour. In other words, Zwarte Piet might just be a variant on Krampus. Strangely, though, Piet is not evil. Sinterklaas started out as a pretty harsh character, who punished the naughty and rewarded the good, but during the nineteenth century, when middle class parents got more sentimental about their kids, he got all jolly and nice. Piet emerged at the same time, and is also a jolly, friendly chap. He’s more of a helper elf or a sidekick than an anti-Santa like Krampus. The Moorish connection is a big thing in Dutch Christmas legends – Sinterklaas and Piet live in Spain, not Lapland, and they arrive each year by boat. But the whole tradition appears to have been made up in the 1850s. The figure’s appearance and even name did not crystallize until later.

Sinterklaas and a whole bunch of Piets in the Netherlands

I imagine most British people would be pretty shocked by Zwarte Piet, but in the Netherlands 90% of people say he’s an integral part of their Christmas tradition and not at all racist (according to Wikipedia). But anti-Piet protests are growing, especially from ethnic minorities and sophisticated urbanites. It’s interesting that what is and isn’t considered racist can vary so much in different countries. This reminds me of the notorious book Tintin in the Congo. There has been a massive uproar about it in Europe on several occasions, with various attempts to ban it, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo itself, the book is incredibly popular. Strange, huh?

The ‘tradition’ aspect also interests me. I mean, when does something become a tradition? How many times do you have to do it before it’s traditional? Zwarte Piet has at most been enjoyed by about 4 generations. If a tradition, then, can spring out of the general cultural ether according to the needs of the day, can it not just die out again when it is no longer needed? Must we cling to it, even if it’s obviously outdated? A ‘tradition’ is something that appears to be fixed, but in reality it is something fluid. It comes and goes as it’s needed and exists in a perpetual state of change, while all the while we comfort ourselves with the thought that it is set in stone, as ancient as the hills. That being the case, I feel Piet’s days, at least in his present incarnation, must surely be numbered.

While the Dutch are mostly baffled by anti-Piet sentiment, the Austrians are aware of cultural sensitivities, and of just how weird and scary their beloved Krampus can be. In the village of Virgen, locals went house-to-house with an interpreter this year, to explain their annual Krampus-fest to newly-arrived refugees from the middle east. I think this is very thoughtful – it just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need to abandon all your traditions for fear of politically-correct recriminations, but that kindness, sensitivity and understanding don’t hurt either. Change is not to be feared, but embraced. In fact, that seems like good advice for life in general.

But if you’re still in the mood for a slighter darker, more Gothic shade of Christmas, how about this – Mariah Carey’s beloved festive warble ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ – the terrifying stalker version?

See? You CAN be Goth at Christmas!

Happy Christmas Everyone!


Death in the Archives

Here’s another piece I wrote during my Arvon creative writing week for history writers. I’ve taken some old research and done something new with it. The aim of this piece was to be present in the text as a character, talking about myself and reflecting on my own experiences. The other aims were to fill the piece with changes of ‘texture’, as our tutor called it. It seems an odd word, but it makes sense: a piece of writing needs changes of pace, tone, point of view, etc., otherwise the reader feels it’s all too samey and they get bored. A third aim was to try to include dialogue or reported speech, though I only made a token gesture at that.

Death in the Archives

“The commissioners in lunacy! It sounds like something out of Orwell!” said my friend.

I was attempting to explain the history of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, as I so often did. As soon as I mentioned my current job, working as the archivist for Broadmoor, people rushed in with their misconceptions about the place. “Did they chain them up? Did they torture the patients?” and most irritatingly of all, “They used to lock up all the un-married mothers in asylums, didn’t they?”

But before I started my contract as the Broadmoor archivist, I had the same ideas. Since then, I had spent my days immersed in the world of the asylum, pulling open crate after crate of old records; squinting over indecipherable names and hastily scrawled dates; and carefully entering information onto a database. There were thick, blue volumes of annual reports with their endless tables of statistics, and admission books and patient files. Half the patient files had been kept in an attic and were damp and mouldy. The other half had been stored in an attic and were covered with bird shit, and so fragile that their thin, blue paper sometimes crumbled to dust in my hands.

The admission books gave the name, age, sex, mental disorder and crime of the patients. Many of the patients were murderers, so this made dismal reading. An endless catalogue of human tragedy, reduced to the length of a haiku. Almost every page featured a woman who had murdered her own children. And the descriptions of these incidents, though short, were ghastly. August to December 1885, for example, revealed the following stories. Sarah Ann Hanson killed her five month-old baby by cutting its throat with a razor; Margaret Hibbert drowned her two children in the bath; Isabella Hewson hanged her two year-old illegitimate child; Mary Bickrell smothered her children, aged ten and three in their bed; Martha Homard killed her four month-old baby by hitting it in the neck with a bill hook; Ann Perry drowned her three year-old child in a pond. Every year Broadmoor recorded a similar litany of horrible child deaths: boiled in a wash pot; burnt on the fire; thrown out of windows, off bridges or onto railway lines; stabbed in the head with scissors; poisoned; beaten to death with a shovel.

I tried to view all this violence as though it were no more than a Tom and Gerry cartoon, in which archaic household objects were turned into makeshift weapons, and dead children popped right back to life again. But the children remained dead. Their mothers were dead, too, by now. It occurred to me that as an archivist, I dealt with hundreds of dead people every day. My job suddenly seemed horrifically morbid. I spent most of my time in a windowless basement room, folding patient case files into acid-free folders, and they were so dirty I had to wear sweaty plastic gloves or risk getting a skin infection. Most of the time I felt bored and lonely, and all those dead people didn’t help. I’d had more fun washing dishes in the university canteen.

And yet all these dead people were important. It was sad they’d been forgotten about. It was sad that their story had been swept up into a collective tale of comically prudish Victoriana, tinged with gothic horror. The truth was much worse than the fiction, but at least the truth has a kind of dignity to it.

The truth is, Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum opened its doors to its first patients in May 1863. They were all women. The men’s wing wasn’t even finished. They were herded off the train at Crowthorne and hastily driven up the hill to their new home. Fortunately they arrived, in the dry prose of the annual reports, ‘without mishap’. The patients were a peculiar class of criminals, deemed ‘Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity’.

Inside their new home there was plenty of work to do. The female patients cleaned, laundered and sewed an astonishing array of items. In their first year they hand-made 938 shirts, 197 dresses and 259 pairs of stockings. The Rules for the Guidance of Officers at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum admonished staff that “Kindness and forbearance are first principles in the care and management of persons of unsound mind; few such persons are beyond their influence.” There was no therapy or drug treatment. The Superintendent simply visited them on his rounds and scribbled notes in his case book.

There was the case of Ann Goring, for example. This forty-two year-old charwoman contracted puerperal fever, a leading cause of death for Victorian women, following the birth of her fourth child. Ann’s family hired a nurse to look after her, but when the nurse left the room for a few minutes, Ann thrust her newborn baby into a pail of water and drowned it. Ann was too ill to stand trial and was obviously not in her right mind, so she was transferred to Broadmoor, where she had alternating periods of restless excitement and mute depression. She remained in the asylum with no improvement to her health for five years, when she died of ‘inflammation of the brain membranes’.

Stories like Ann’s electrified the Victorian media. The Lancet exclaimed that the infant mortality rate ‘Out Herod’s Herod’, while the Journal of Social Science Review reported ‘the police think no more of finding the dead body of a child in the street than of picking up a dead cat or dog.’  But when it came to particular cases, all-male juries were sympathetic towards women who killed their children. They almost always sent women like Ann to Broadmoor, instead of the gallows. Social Science Review wrote that the penalty for infanticide ‘falls on the wretched mother, who may have been more sinned against than sinning, while the equally or more guilty father cannot even be brought under the power of the law.’  In this patriarchal society it was up to the men to care for the weaker sex, and prevent such things from happening.

There are hundreds of biographies about famous people like Churchill and Henry VIII. But no one will ever write a biography of Ann Goring. Little is recorded about her except the few thin facts here. In fact, if she had never killed her child, her life would probably have just been subsumed into the great mass of nineteenth century statistical data. Her story would never have been an individual history at all. The archives are full of dead people. The archives can’t change the past. They can’t bring the dead back to life. But they can tell the truth.

The Forgotten Memorial

As some of you may know, I went on a creative writing course for history writers last week. One of the exercises we were set was to write about the history of the nearby village of Clun. There weren’t any books about it, so we had to get creative: visiting the place, talking to the locals, or in some cases just making up a bit of fiction. Here’s my effort. As you can probably tell I was feeling a bit fed up that day, but honestly I have nothing against Clun, it’s quite a lovely place to visit in fact!

Clun castle

The worst thing about history is that there’s just so much of it. Take the little town of Clun, for instance, nestled snugly in the Shropshire hills. Clun has a seventeenth century alms house; an ex-water mill; an ex-smithy; an ex-cottage hospital; two Churches; a war memorial; and a ruined castle, dramatically silhouetted against the low winter sun. That’s an awful lot of history for a town with only 680 inhabitants. That’s almost more heritage than people.

Like many rural communities, Clun is withering. Many of the homes are now holiday homes. Two of the three pubs were shut when I visited. All the businesses that once served Clun – the mill, the smithy – are ex-businesses. Clun feels like a town with very little future and a whole lot of past.

I sometimes feels like Britain is going to collapse under the sheer weight of the so-called ‘heritage industry’. But perhaps this is not a new phenomenon. On closer inspection of one of the helpful English Heritage information panels, I discovered that the castle itself was of faux-Norman design, erected in the twelfth century, long after the need to protect Shropshire from marauding Welshmen had passed. At the time the castle was built, it was already a monument to the past. Even in the twelfth century, then, the heritage industry was well underway.

The French philosopher Derrida wrote a book called Archive Fever, suggesting that our mania for collecting and preserving our past is held in an uneasy balance with a similar urge to set fire to it all and destroy it. When I first read this essay I felt a mixture of bafflement and disbelief. Surely nobody really feels that, I thought. But during my walk around Clun I started to understand what Derrida was getting at. I started to sympathise with the architects of post-war Britain. They had not preserved or restored bomb-flattened ruins. They had started again, building brand-new, concrete monstrosities, looking forwards to a glorious imaginary future, not backwards to the ruins of the past. Perhaps they had a point. After all, how much heritage do 680 people really need? Why not concentrate on building a better future instead of endlessly commemorating the past?

Just outside Clun there I spotted a less ostentatious piece of heritage than the castle. There was a memorial stone with an odd inscription. It said ‘In Thanksgiving to Christ the King. You Came: We saw: we heard: the truth of your holy word. Clun, 1974-5. Thine be the Glory.’ There was no name or further information. So who was this memorial for, and what had happened in 1974? I asked two ladies polishing brass in the Church. They didn’t know but assured me that Fred Nicholson, over in the church hall, would. Fred had no idea, and neither did the group of ladies sitting in the local craft group, chatting over their knitting. Though they all agreed that the strange memorial had appeared mysteriously, suddenly, or even ‘overnight’, sometime in 1980 or 1981. Perhaps it might have been for a tourist who visited Clun regularly and died on a hiking trip. In any case, no one could remember what the memorial was supposed to remind them of. I felt a strange sense of relief at this. Here, at last, was a piece of history that everyone had forgotten.

I’ve been expecting you: on James Bond

*Many, many spoilers alert*

On Wednesday I went to the very swish and very expensive PictureHouse central cinema and watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre. As a side note, the bar staff at PictureHouse didn’t know how to make a Martini, and had to look it up. The end result was predictably unpalatable. Poor effort. Everything else about the cinema is great.

PictureHouse Central cinema

Spectre starts with a terrific action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico city. Blofeld is re-introduced, along with his fluffy white cat, in a new incarnation. There’s a car chase in Rome, and a winter snow chase, involving vehicles other than the usual skis. There’s both fighting and sex on a train, and an unstoppable henchman.

There was plenty of humour in this movie, and the direction was exciting, but I felt the script was a bit lacking. Monica Belluci made a wonderfully glamorous, dignified and tragic Bond ‘girl’ at age 51. So icily brilliant was she, that I couldn’t help thinking she’d make a terrific Bond villain, and I also expected her to re-appear. It seemed a missed opportunity. The main Bond girl is so poorly characterised that she really could have been anyone at all. Bond gets surprisingly sentimental about her, but for no real reason. I honestly couldn’t have cared less whether she lived or died. Blofeld turns out to have a strong connection to Bond’s past, but this revelation was rather glossed over, instead of being turned to proper effect. Christopher Waltz is not a great Blofeld. When he first appears, hiding in the shadows, whispering instructions to his yes-men, he is terrifically mysterious and menacing. But then we see rather a lot of him, and he appears silly, rather than scary. The reactions of Bond and Blofeld don’t actually seem to fit their past relationship. In fact, the whole thing had an air of the Hollywood bingo school of scriptwriting about it. Some writers seem to think that vaguely alluded to past tragedy = characterisation. It doesn’t. Spectre, then, is long on exciting spectacle but short on emotional engagement. In fact, the only time I was really concerned for a character was when geeky little Q – the adorable Ben Whishaw – is menaced by some tough guys. He was all on is own and really wouldn’t have stood a chance – and who would have fed his two cats if he had died? Spectre is a decent Bond movie and good entertainment, but not nearly as good as Casino Royale or Skyfall.

Bond is one of longest-running franchises in movie history, with 24 films made over 63 years. This presents unique challenges for film makers. Bond is rather like Mills and Boon in that the audience has certain expectations that must be fulfilled – there is a distinct formula for a Bond film – but at the same time, it has to be kept fresh, relevant and surprising, or boredom sets in. Balancing tradition and innovation can be difficult. Umberto Eco sets out the Bond formula in ‘Narrative structures in Flemming’. It’s one of the most simultaneously wonderful and ludicrous literary essays I’ve ever read. I have a masters degree in English literature, so I’ve read a few. Eco breaks down the Bond books into a series of eight possible actions or scenes, and shows how they recur, sometimes in a different order, in each story. He summaries the Bond stories thus:

‘Bond is sent to a given place to avert a ‘science-fiction’ plan by a monstrous individual of uncertain origins and definitely not English who, making use of his organisational or productive activities, not only earns money, but helps the cause of the enemies of the West. In facing this monstrous being, Bond meets a woman who is dominated by him, and frees her from her past, establishing with her an erotic relationship, interrupted by capture by the Villain and by torture. But Bond defeats the Villain, who dies horribly, and rests from his great efforts in the arms of the woman, though he is destined to lose her.’

We might add to Eco’s desription of Flemming’s books a few things that are unique to the films:

There must be a pre-title action sequence, followed by a bombastic theme song accompanied by iconic imagery of dancing girls etc. Bond has to drink a Martini and the phrase ‘Bond, James Bond’ has to be shoe-horned in. There must be a really cool car, a gadget from Q that saves the day, at least two car chases and a selection of exotic locations. Because each movie is always the same, yet always different, they present a fascinating picture of British social history over the past 63 years.

A selection of Bond girls

The portrayal of women in Bond films has certainly changed. The early 1960s movies like From Russia with Love, feature beautiful women who appear helpless and feminine, but turn out to be surprisingly smart and capable. They are treated respectfully, and the amount of sex and scantily-clad-ness is quite low. In the 1970s the Bond girl went downhill and practically entered Benny Hill territory. The women are usually underdressed, thick, and useless. They exist to be simultaneously perved over and laughed at. This was obviously a reaction to the feminism of the era: women didn’t need to be portrayed as moronic until they were a threat. The 80s had some amazing Bond girls like Grace Jones: wild, crazy, and spends most of the movie wearing a thong leotard and high-kicking people. The 90s was all girl power and ladism: the women fly fighter planes and fight and shoot people, but everything has a jokey tone.

Grace Jones: predictably mad

Then we come to the Daniel Craig era Bonds of the naughties. Vesper Lynd is my favourite Bond girl. Not just because I love the wonderfully goth Eva Green, but because she actually has personality. We can see why Bond falls for her. Their flirting on the train has to be one of cinema history’s greatest flirting scenes, along with Bogart and Baccall in To Have and Have Not. Vesper is an accountant and therefore smart but deeply unused to violence, fighting and killing. She’s horribly traumatised by seeing Bond beat a man to death. That doesn’t make her weak. It’s not a cause for humour. It just makes her more realistic, and deepens their relationship. I love that this Bond girl doesn’t have to be a supergirl to be treated with dignity and respect in the film.

Nobody smoulders like Eva Green

The villains and the threats they represent have also changed, responding to contemporary world events and technology. As Eco points out, the villains are usually ‘foreigners’ of uncertain or mixed racial origins, and frequently disfigured or disabled – there are plenty of facial scars and mechanical arms. Eco suggests Flemming was not an outright racist, but simply a conservative with a black-and-white view of things, cynically creating stories to appeal to the instinctive fear of the ‘Other’ that most people have. In other words, he was happy to exploit racism to make a buck. The early Bond movie villains – Dr No, Goldfinger, Blofeld – are loosely connected with the USSR but are primarily out for personal profit. The agents of destruction are nuclear missiles, germ warfare, submarines, space rockets, diamonds, microchips, and heroin. In the 1990s the baddies are associated with China or Korea – though still really after the cash – and their evil technologies of choice are satellites causing financial breakdown (Goldeneye), oil, and a solar powered laser-thingy (Die Another Day). In the naughties Bond movies the motivation is simply money (Casino Royale), and thereafter personal vendettas against Bond, M, or MI5, through the mediums of surveillance, hacking, and causing an artificial drought in Bolivia. That one comes from Quantum of Solace – a really terrible movie, and painfully obvious that it was cobbled together in the midst of a screenwriters strike!


De Silva

Le Chiffre – spot the difference

Like Die Hard the Bond movies give us terrifying villains, who appear ideologically driven but in fact only want exactly what we all all want – to be rich. They would be impossible to defeat, and far more scary, if they were genuinely after communism, an Islamic state, or a more eco-friendly world. This way the threat is moved away from any uncomfortable or nuanced political discussions – Bond is just a game of cops of robbers. A simple tale of good versus evil. This is an essential feature of the Bond films – it really wouldn’t be a Bond film if at any point we felt ‘well, that Blofeld may have a point actually…’.

In the 90s Pierce Brosnan made a great Bond. Those movies were charming, totally tongue-in-cheek and completely ironic. They are fun, silly, and impossible to take seriously. Which was the point. But after a long break, it was obvious Bond could no longer be re-booted like that. Audiences had changed, and values had changed, and Bond had to change too.

The triumph of feminism: we get to oogle hot men now!

Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale was a triumphant comeback for the naughties. Bond is wounded, haunted, emotional and fallible – he’s actually human after all! The Bond girls are clearly traumatised victims of circumstances. They may be beautiful and scantily clad, but their fate is horribly clear, and no-one would want to be one. Bond’s callous disregard of the women is no longer something to aspire to. At best, his attitude to women shows that hardening yourself against collateral damage is part of the job. At worst we feel that Bond is a bit of a psychopath. The job itself – killing people for money – seems grotesque and thuggish, rather than sophisticated. There’s still glamour to Bond, but audiences can no longer buy into Flemming’s black and white view of the world. We are morally compromised, as is Bond, and it’s impossible to view his antics without ambiguity. That makes it harder to write a simple moral fable, and may explain why the villains all have ties to Bond’s past, or turn out to be one of us. People are less worried about ‘foreigners’ stealing all our money, and more worried that their own governments are siphoning off our cash to prop up the bankers. No amount of vodka martinis can help us there.

Craig is signed up for one more Bond movie. He’s said he doesn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes back for one more outing –  a re-make of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by the looks of things. There’s plenty of controversy about who might take over. Will there be a black Bond or a female Bond? that would shake things up a bit! One thing’s for sure – I’m really looking forward to seeing how Bond develops in the future, and it’s one franchise I hope will run and run. Imagine sitting down to watch a Bond movie in 2062 – 100 years of Bond! Then we can all say – and I know you’ll want to – ‘We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond. What took you so long?’

Idris Elba – could he be the first black James Bond? I don’t see why not.

Or will Tom Hardy be the next Bond? A girl can dream….

What did the Victorians drink? A guide to boozing in the 1800s

One of the things I find most delightful about history is that, while the people of the past wore funny clothes and sometimes thought about the world in a startlingly different way, many things remain the same. I like a drink, and it gives me warm and fluffy feelings to think that British people 200-ish years ago also liked a drink. Or several.

Like all aspects of Victorian culture, drinking was strictly segregated on class and gender lines, partly on account of the expense of booze, partly through custom and preference.

Working class boozers

Working class men and women partook of two beverages: beer and gin. Wines and other drinks were not widely available and were out of their price-range, as they were imported.

Beer has been brewed in Britain for centuries, and until recent times formed a vital part of the British diet. It really was a staple food. Water was unsafe to drink, especially in towns, giving people everything from an upset stomach to cholera. Since water could be deadly, everyone drank beer. This was brewed at home, by women, or in small breweries. Even as a commercial concern, brewing was traditionally one of the few professions open to women. Typical beer had a low alcohol content – maybe 2 percent – and was drunk all day long from breakfast to bed-time by men, women, children, babies, pregnant women, everyone. It was often thick and nourishing, filled with vitamins and minerals from the grains.

Typical boozers

By the Victorian era increasing gender divides and the growth of industrial breweries pushed female purveyors of craft beer out of the market. Since the working classes lived in such cramped conditions in towns and cities, they turned away from home brewing and towards industrially produced beer, served in pubs. Where town-dwellers drank at home, they usually sent a child off to the pub with a tankard to fill up. Bottled beer was not available until later.

This meant that all working class districts were crowded with pubs, and they provided a friendly home from home. Plenty of gas-light and roaring fires made them often much more comfortable than people’s miserable hovels, and many men could barely be prised away from the pub.

‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall

Gin was first produced in Britain after the Dutch King William of Orange took the throne in 1688. Years of excellent harvests had left Britain with a grain surplus and low prices. He took advantage of this by reducing taxation on distilling. The following year, British distillers produced around 500,000 gallons of neutral grain spirit. Now gin is in fact just neutral spirit – vodka – flavoured with juniper and anything else that takes the distillers fancy. The British flavoured their alcohol with juniper in honour of their King’s favourite Dutch drink, Jenever. And that’s how gin was born. By the 1720s London’s distillers produced 20 million gallons of spirits a year, as well as a staggering amount of illegal moonshine. In the mid-century around 1 in 4 London houses contained a working gin still, pumping out high-strength booze. Hogarth’s etching ‘Gin Line’, portraying the horrors of a city in the grip of an epidemic of alcoholism, wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Gin was called ‘mother’s ruin’ for a reason.

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’

The gin craze had died down by the nineteenth century, but it was still the widely available alternative to beer. Drunk neat or with a bit of sugar, it was still popular with working-class women in need of something fortifying. As there was little refrigeration and water was still unsafe, there was no ice for the working classes. Gin was drunk at room temperature, or warm.

But working class drinking culture came under threat during the nineteenth century from the temperance and teetotal movements. Temperance – moderation in drinking – was advocated by middle class philanthropists and evangelical Christians, while the teetotal movement was largely led by the working classes themselves. There was probably some truth in their assertions that drunkenness led to poverty, deprivation and domestic violence, especially for the women and children who bore the brunt of a man’s drinking. But on the other hand, the middle classes simply feared and hated mobs, rowdy and uncouth behaviour, and people making a public spectacle of themselves. They were trying to impose middle class values on people who were unlikely to gain any material benefit from adopting those codes of behaviour. Unfortunately, temperance also had side-effects. When people swapped nourishing Victorian beer for plain old water, levels of malnourishment and disease went up. Drinking plenty of beer was actually surprisingly good for you.

A poster for the temperance movement

Well, that’s told ’em!


Middle class tipplers

The respectable middle classes rarely went to pubs. Men might have gone to a gentlemen’s club though. Here they could eat, drink, meet for business or a chat with friends, and read the newspapers and periodicals. The middle classes stuck to wine, fortified wines like sherry and port, possibly a little brandy.

But the century brought an exciting new trend in drinking: mixed drinks. British people had long been used to spiced, sweetened, fortified punches, often served hot – think of mulled wine or mulled cider. But mixed drinks were an American novelty. Charles Dickens was one of the first to write about them, in his American Notes for General Circulation. Dickens visited America in 1842 and in Boston he gleefully partook of an array of newfangled mixed drinks, with strange names like “the Gin-sling, Cocktail, Sangaree, Mint Julep, Sherry-cobbler, Timber Doodle, and other rare drinks.”

The “Cock Tail” was a mixture of strong alcohol, such as American rye whiskey, mixed with sugar syrup, water, bitters and nutmeg.  Sangaree is essentially Sangria, the mint julep is still drunk today and contains whiskey, sugar, mint and water, and the sherry-cobbler is sherry, sugar and citrus with ice. The timber-doodle is anyone’s guess, though I desperately want one, whatever it is, just for the incredible name. Poor timber-doodle! Doomed to remain one of history’s unsolved mysteries.

The sherry cobbler, as featured in the Savoy cocktail recipe book

Dickens features the sherry cobbler in his novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). “Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop. ‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry Cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.’” The most astonishing thing about it was apparently the drinking straw: they were pretty much unknown until then, and the sherry cobbler helped to popularise them. The Victorians were nothing if not lovers of novelty.

Notable Victorian drinker Charles Dickens

If you want to try a sherry cobbler at home, here’s a modern version of the recipe:

Muddle (that means squish up with a wooden stick) 3 slices orange and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a cocktail shaker; add 100ml of dry sherry and ice; shake until the outside of the shaker is cold and frosty; strain into a collins (tall) glass of crushed ice; garnish with an orange wheel and fresh fruit. For variety you can use any combination of citrus fruit, and you could add berries before muddling, or a little mint. You could also try adding a splash of a fruit liqueur.

A fancy, sexed-up modern version of the sherry cobbler

Mixed drinks were mainly drunk in American bars, for instance at the Savoy hotel, that catered for American expatriates. Gentlemen’s clubs and officer’s messes might also offer these kinds of drinks, and sometimes they were even drunk at home, though usually at large social gatherings.

The Victorians gained inspiration from How to Mix Drinks; or, the Bon-Vivants Companion by Prof. Jerry Thomas, published in 1862. Thomas’ book is a classic, featuring all sorts of punches, and well-known drinks like the Tom Collins, sours and flips. His signature drink was ‘the blue blazer’, which involved setting fire to whiskey and then pouring it, flaming, between different glasses. Better than Tom Cruise in Cocktail, eh?

Jerry Thomas’ classic guide



Jerry Thomas in action, with his ‘blue blazer’

Having said that gin was a rough and ready drink for masses, associated with alcoholism and working class debauchery, new gin-making methods actually led to its revival. Gin was no longer a rough, sweet drink, but was distilled in a new style, christened ‘London dry’. This rehabilitated the drink and gave it a new respectability. The gin and tonic originated in this era. Tonic water is made with quinine, which helps to ward off malaria. The drink was therefore very popular amongst the military and British colonialists in hot countries, especially India.

Indeed, gin became so respectable that recipes for gin-based drinks even appeared in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The ingredients for a gin sling were listed as gin, 2 slices of lemon, 3 lumps of sugar, and iced water.

Upper class quaffers

No grand dinner would be complete without it’s accompanying alcoholic beverages. Fancy dinners reached the height of ludicrousness in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, only to come crashing back down with the start of the First World War. In the meantime, dinner parties could have as many as 12 courses. Each course was accompanied by a different type of alcohol. White wine with fish and light dishes, red wine with meat, and Madeira, sherry or sweet wine with desserts. Champagne was often served following an entree.

The earliest British recipe book for mixed drinks is William Terrington’s Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks from 1869. Teddington’s recipes are mostly for what we would think of as punches, based on wine and sherry, mixed with herbs, fruit, spices, etc. Rather like an endless parade of different types of Pimms, and obviously all intended for large groups. Teddington mentions that these cups and punches are very popular at Inns of Court and the City Guilds: all-male gatherings, where everyone got sloshed, but with fancy drinks, using fancy cups, and with lots of toasts and ceremonial nonsense. That made the whole business of getting off you face terribly classy, you see.

A fancy silver punch bowl, the kind used at posh Victorian parties

Here’s a summary of one of his recipes for ‘claret cup a la Brunow, for a party of twenty':

Place a large bowl into a larger bowl full of ice and water to keep it cool, then mix:

lemon balm; borage; slices of cucumber; 1 pint sherry; 1/2 pint brandy; lemon peel; juice of 1 lemon and 3 oranges; 1/2 pint curaco; 1 gill ratafia of raspberries; 2 bottles German; seltzer water; 3 bottles soda; 3 bottles claret; sweeten to taste

Personally I think this sounds rather disgusting, and I won’t be wasting any wine on attempting this or any similar recipes!

Ladies who liquid lunch

Middle class and upper class ladies certainly couldn’t get drunk. They also couldn’t really go anywhere without a man, except each other’s houses or an alcohol-free tea shop. So they stuck to tippling at home. They might have drunk wine with meals, and had the odd glass of ladies’ favourites champagne and sloe gin, but they had to be careful to never appear sloshed – that was very vulgar, regrettable behaviour for the working classes only.

Heroes of History: Annie Besant?

My last post was about the ‘East End Women’s History Museum’ that turned into a Jack the Ripper museum, because apparently women are only interesting if they’ve been murdered. This got me wondering who you would include in a real feminist history of the east end. So I did a little investigation, and came up with the gloriously eccentric Annie Besant. She had a very interesting and varied life, but although she did some terrific things she also did some pretty questionable things. I’m not sure that she qualifies to feature as one of my ‘Heroes of History‘. Besant therefore gets to be a ‘hero of history – QUESTION MARK???’

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Archives and History News: Jack the Ripper Museum Special!

It’s all kicking off in east London! In October last year Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe gained planning permission for a new museum dedicated to the history of women in the east end. Last week the awnings were whisked down and – ta-dah!! it’s actually a jack the ripper museum. No suffragettes, no match workers strike, no Dagenham equal pay strike, no inspirational sisters doing it for themselves. Just victims of crime. How disappointing, how insulting, what a whopping lie.

The ripper ‘museum’

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The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

Wrote Wallace Stevens, in 1923. It’s one of those notoriously difficult modernist poems, but all it really means is ‘don’t get all metaphysical now. Eat ice cream, because tomorrow you could be dead’. Seems like a good philosophy to me. Ice-cream is a sweet, delicious treat, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day.

But who do we have to thank for first creating this amazing food? And who perfected it? Who made the greatest ever ice-cream in history? Who can we crown as the actual emperor of ice-cream?


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