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.

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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

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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?

yum!

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How to be a Victorian gentleman

According to this article, men are having a crisis. They no longer know how to be a man. Should they be metrosexuals, lumbersexuals or – *shudder* – spornosexuals?  There is a great deal of nostalgia for an earlier age, when being a man was a simple matter of having a job and keeping a stiff upper lip, preferably with a moustache on it. But was it really any easier for Victorian gentlemen? Trick question! Of course it wasn’t!

Robert Downey Jnr, masquerading as the finest of all Victorian gentlemen – Sherlock Holmes!

So what did it take to be a ‘gentleman’ in the nineteenth century?

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Fight! Fight! Fight! – Victorian Style!

Everyone loves a good fight, right? But how did the Victorians do it? Predictably, they turned good old-fashioned bare knuckle prize-fighting into the proper sport of boxing, with the introduction of the Queensberry rules. Less predictably, they loved female fighters and invented their own wacky martial art called Bartitsu.

A spot of fisticuffs

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Archives and history news: festive edition!

The Victorians invented most of our most cherished Christmas traditions, but what was Christmas like for those excluded from these family-centred rituals, banished to workhouses, asylums and prisons? You can find out in my piece on Victorian Christmasses behind locked doors in Discover Your Ancestors magazine.

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Archives and History News: First World War collections under threat, Downton Abbey, and digital asylum records

In case you hadn’t noticed, some kind of global conflict thing started 100 years ago. The Tower of London’s moat became a beautiful sea of ceramic poppies to commemorate British soldiers who died during the First World War. The Imperial War Museum re-opened its revamped galleries to much fanfare. Then the government decided to slash the museum’s funding by £4 million! The museum will absorb these cuts by closing its library, slashing or shutting down education services, and cutting jobs. So now we can see exactly how our government really feel about this important aspect of our history. It’s all right for people to enjoy art installations, as long as they don’t start actually, you know, learning anything, doing any research, or finding things out for themselves. Heritage is lovely – as long as we don’t have to pay for it, and everyone involved is a volunteer. This is a shocking scandal. Yes I know we could spend our money on far more worthy things than heritage, blah blah, but it’s the sheer hypocrisy of the thing that makes my blood boil. If you feel as strongly outraged as I do, please sign this petition to prevent the funding cuts. Please also publicise this, and urge others to sign the petition.

The Imperial War Museum

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My top ten nineteenth century movies!

10 The Muppets Christmas carol

Because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Victorian novella turned into a musical featuring jolly brightly coloured puppets, would it? Christmas also wouldn’t be Christmas if Dickens hadn’t more or less invented it. He decided it was a family time, mainly about giving presents to children and feeling vaguely charitable, and that we should all eat a specific meal. And we’ve carried on like that ever since. That’s even freakier than Michael Caine’s singing, eh? Continue reading