Kazakhstan & Horse Meat

Having just passed our first ABC of World History milestone, we move to central Asia to take you to an incredible place: Kazakhstan. As much as I love to think that you are aware of this country because of the significant role that it has played in history since time immemorial…Let’s face it, you probably know this country and word for one reason only: Borat. (Yes, it is ok. At least you know it exists…and you are about to find out more). But first, here are some basic facts about Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, and it shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (which will feature later on in our project). It is currently run by the same guy that has been in charge of the country since the fall of the USSR (an authoritarian regime, in case you did not get that from THAT Context…). Furthermore, it is home to 131 ethnicities and a key hub for the ancient Silk Road.

And before I get to share a bit of cultural history (it is what today is all about), I want to share a little bit of my personal history. The first time I ever met someone from central Asia back in Spain was a dear classmate of mine who is from Kazakhstan when I was in college. At the sweet age of 16, he explained how to build a Kalashnikov in the middle of class recess. Fascinated by this, he told me of the severe political issues of his homeland and the fact that this type of education was still being imparted in school when he was living there (late 1990s-early 2000s). I became a little obsessed back then with any bit of culture that I could get from my pal about this land which sounded so exotic in my mind (I had never left Europe and back then still haven’t moved far from Western Europe indeed). Admittedly, my classmate’s family was of Russian descent, and I did not get to know a lot about Kazakh culture itself. However, one thing always stuck with me: everyone loved horses – and ate them without such a scandalous fear of whatever meat it may be they were consuming. And for once, I felt normal: we eat horses where I come from (though not in the same quantity), and I Love It. 

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I’m not saying it was Aliens…

History of the meme along with its place in the historian’s professional landscape

Tabby's Star faded substantially over past century.

Aliens have become somewhat infamous in the world of history writing. Every historian from the armchair variety through to the academic professor has more than likely come across that  one particular meme. The one featuring Giorgio A. Tsoukalos  standing there with his style of hair in its usual kind of crazy way an holding his hands out stating the words “aliens.” And honestly, it doesn’t matter what style or period of history one is exploring. The meme seems to have made its way into all of them. The infamous image itself comes from the 2010 Ancient Aliens TV series that Tsoukalos, himself an Alien expert,  was the host for. Spinning out of the concepts raised in the Ancient Aliens series, one of the key ideas that made this program notable is the wide variety of historical phenomena that it attributes to aliens. That is to say, iconic historical products of civilizations and peoples such as the Nazca Lines or Baalbek become attributed to extraterrestrials instead of the cultures that produced them. This concept is termed conversely “ancient astronauts” and “paleocontact” and can be defined through the attributing of great and sophisticated works of the past to extraterrestrials.

Ancient Astronauts and Colonial Psychology

The concept of ancient astronauts is not dissimilar from the effects of colonial propaganda. Briefly, colonial empires would create and impose an image of inferiority onto the peoples it colonized, and likewise, an image of ascendancy for the colonizing peoples.  From this standpoint, the colonial entity would project outward, through its arts and literature, the idea that its cultural developments were inherently superior to those they colonized.  Concerning notions of cultural works, the concept of superiority shown through technology still exists and is tied to the lingering colonial psychology. Indeed, within the 19th, 20th and continuing into the 21st century, western society underwent a massive degree of technological revolution in a relatively short span of time. That, further, this time period has brought with it unprecedented forms of technology and social issues. While the same could be said to be true of any technological revolution, from the perspective of those within it the past must be, by definition, less capable. For instance, the 20th century has seen technology develop from the assembly line to splitting the Atom, being able to propel humans into space to having wireless communication networks spanning the globe. While the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries certainly had its technological advances (the functional button of the 13th century, for example), there is the mentality that the current developments are more progressive largely because they are more pertinent to us. Outside the sense of temporal pertinence, the past must be lacking the sophistication of technology the contemporary enjoys.

I often argue that western society has lost their colonial empires (to greater or lesser degrees), but has maintained the colonial psychology of perceived and projected inferiority. The current perception of technology as equating with superiority falls into that colonial mentality and for 21st century capitalism, is part of the colony’s legacy.  Yet, there are products of other cultures that present a compliment to or empathize with that sense of pertinence. Items such as the Saqqara Bird, Machu Picchu, the Moai and others are routinely attributed to extra-terrestrials.    As an examples of objects that can be situated into contemporary western perceptions about technology, the ancient astronaut notion offers an easy method of situating the sophistication of past and non-western societies. Thus, lacking the precise same means, the products of another time or culture become attributed to aliens as a source of equivalency of method and psychology. The ancient astronaut, the alien, becomes the appropriate stand in: A technologically advanced helper from somewhere far away, a benevolent invader, a colonist.  

Continue reading “I’m not saying it was Aliens…”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 3: Historical Videogames

Episode 3 of the podcast!

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined again by James for a conversation about the crossover of two of their favourite things, Videogames and History!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Hamilton

A History of our time?

The forgotten founding father?

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Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see[1]

 

I honestly could not resist writing a piece about Hamilton. Hamilton is the 2015 musical phenomenon written by Lin Manuel Miranda and inspired by R. Chernow’s 2004 biography titled Alexander Hamilton that has since reached London’s West End as of December 2017.

I have been extremely lucky to have watched the performance twice! Now I feel it would be appropriate to examine the historical significance of the musical about the man who is on the $10 bill and how it resonates to a present-day audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I will focus more on social and political matters as opposed to the economic and military. If you wish to see the musical in the future, please note I will make mention to some elements in the plot.

 

The Backstory

 

Alexander Hamilton’s Early Years

My name is Alexander Hamilton and there’s a million things I haven’t done just you wait, just you wait…[2]

Let’s start with the backstory. Alexander Hamilton was an American statesman who fought numerous battles in the Revolutionary War against Britain and became the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. The story narrates the life of Alexander Hamilton, an unlikely founding father who was born on the British island of Nevis (now St Kitts and Nevis) in January 1757/1755 as there is some debate amongst historians regarding this, although it is widely considered to be 1757. Born outside of wedlock, his father abandoning the family and his mother dying when he was still a child, his prospects on the face of it appeared dire.

Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Fawcett was married to Johann Michael Lavien before she met James Hamilton, the father of Alexander Hamilton. Lavien seized Fawcett’s estate in St Croix (now United States Virgin Islands) in probate court upon her death and sold off a sizeable portion of Fawcett’s items.

Hamilton later became a clerk at Beekman and Crugar, an import and export firm. The firm traded with the colonies of New England and New York. At 14/16, Hamilton was placed in charge of the firm when his employer was away at sea for five months. Hamilton’s cousin, Peter Lytton briefly looked after him and his brother, James Jr Hamilton before he committed suicide. From this point henceforth, the brothers were separated though remained on Nevis.

Hamilton (Alexander) was taken in the custody of Thomas Stevens, a local merchant and the older Hamilton (James Jr) became a Carpenter’s Apprentice. By this point Alexander Hamilton was well read and enjoyed writing in his spare time. In 1772 a devasting Hurricane hit St Croix, in response Hamilton (Alexander) wrote a letter to his father pertaining to the Hurricane in enormous detail and his thoughts on the destruction. The letter gained popularity after it was published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette by Journalist, Hugh Knox. This popularity garnished the attention of community leaders. This was a real turning point for Hamilton, as the news of his letter impressed the leaders so much they collected funds to send Hamilton to study in New York. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity for Hamilton, which no doubt paved the way to his military and to a higher extent, his political pursuits.  Much of these accounts from Hamilton’s early life are touched upon during the musical’s opening number, Alexander Hamilton.[3]

 

The musical synopsis

 

The story develops and looks at how he overcame these difficulties in early life looking at how he established himself in New York City; at King’s College (now Columbia University), his personal life, military /political exploits, his relationships with other founding fathers; John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and not forgetting his relationship with political rival, Aaron Burr, which ended in Hamilton’s death on 12th July 1804 as a result of the famous Burr-Hamilton duel on the day before.

This is all set at a time of revolution and increased animosity towards the British in the colonies, chiefly regarding taxation. This animosity occurred since 1765 and arguably more so after the Boston Massacre of 1770 when a group of American colonists were shot by soldiers who were stationed in Boston to control heighted colonial unrest, the capital of the Provence of Massachusetts Bay.

What Hamilton (the musical) does so well is create a visually stunning performance, amalgamating the history of a nation with the contemporary, a retelling of history, predominately in the form of hip-hop and casting actors from ethnic minority backgrounds in major roles within the production. This invariably is told as a history of our time, in other words to reflect the society of the US and the UK today.

 

The historical legacy

Ethnicity & Immigration in the United States

Let’s start with the casting. A conscious decision was made regarding the casting. The story is told by a diverse group of actors from different backgrounds. This is true in both the US and UK productions. Notably, the roles of the founding fathers; Hamilton, Burr, Laurens/Philip Hamilton, Mulligan/Madison, Lafayette/Jefferson and Washington were played by actors from an ethnic minority. This is also true of the Schuyler sister roles in the musical; Angelica, Elizabeth “Eliza” and Margarita “Peggy”. For reference, the Schuyler family were influential Dutch landowners that held much prominence in New York, Elizabeth Schuyler was a fourth generation American and the wife of Alexander Hamilton. They married in December 1780 and their courtship was acknowledged during the song Helpless.[4]

 

Immigrants we get the job done[5]

 

Essentially what the musical does is it tells the story about an immigrant trying to establish a place for themselves through hard work, grit and determination. These are traits not so different in people today. What Hamilton was doing back in the 1700s, hundreds if not thousands of immigrants since then have aspired to work hard for their livelihoods and prosper in their endeavours. Looking at the United States today many people can trace their ancestry back to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This applies to the original Broadway cast. For instance; the Musical’s creator, Miranda who played Hamilton has Hispanic heritage from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Not to dissimilar from the character he was playing in that respect that they both had a personal connection to the Caribbean as Hamilton was born there. However, he was of Scottish and French Huguenot descent, although there is speculation that Hamilton’s mother was of mixed racial descent there is no substantial evidence to support these claims. Philippa Soo who originated the role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza is of White European and Chinese descent and lastly another example would be Daveed Diggs who originated the role of Lafayette/ Jefferson whose mother was Jewish and his father, African-American.

These examples really do highlight and bring to prominence what America looks like today, by casting actors from an ethnic minority it really does bring life to the storytelling and above all accessibility. Yes, in real life the founding fathers were of White English, Scottish and Irish descent, yet despite that, the casting of Hamilton brings forth the idea of inclusiveness and allows for a more cathartic experience for audiences that resonate with them. This is a great way to promote history to more people that might otherwise feel alienated from this episode of history.

Looking beyond what race these characters were back then, now in the present day the United States is a melting pot of cultures from across the globe. In a traditional sense it is the primary and secondary source material found in archives, manuscripts and books to name but a few that provide us with the know-how. It is the power of theatre that allows us to look beyond the traditional historiography for a moment and build a bridge taking elements of the past and mixing it with the present to generate interest and come away thinking; it does not matter who you are or where you come from, we all have an opportunity to make a difference.

Consequently, looking at it in this sense, the story of Alexander Hamilton’s journey from orphan, to immigrant, to statesman serves as a timeless inspiration that immigrants past, present and future strive to better themselves and as a result shape society in enterprise, business, education, government, science, healthcare and as the musical reflects, the arts.

Much like analysing the first line in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” as being true to a society where it was acceptable in some states; particularly the south to keep Black African slaves. Looking at this declaration by todays standards, there would be a consensus refuting that declaration. It is how a particular place in time within society can interpret events.

 

But how is this argument historically significant for the UK?

Very much so. The UK very much like the US has been a magnet for settlement throughout history, going further back in time before the formation of the UK some of the earliest setters came from the Roman Empire, Germanic speaking tribes; the Angles, Saxons and Jutes known collectively as the Anglo Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans and French Huguenots.

In more recent history since the 19th century immigration from outside of Europe started to take shape chiefly from British colonies. In the 20th century immigration started to become more pronounced after the decline of the British Empire and many people settled from former colonies and countries making up the Commonwealth from the East, Africa and the West Indes. The imagery used once more in the UK casting reflects the society of the UK today and at the same mirrors Hamilton’s own backstory. Strikingly, Jamael Westman who currently plays the title role of Alexander Hamilton has Irish roots from his maternal side of the family and Afro-Caribbean roots from Jamaica on the paternal side.

Other examples include; Rachel John who currently plays Angelica Schuyler, her mother immigrated to the UK from Trinidad, Michael Jibson who currently plays King George III hails from Yorkshire, Leslie Garcia Bowman who currently plays Charles Lee/Ensemble comes from New Zealand and Rachelle Ann Go who currently plays Eliza Hamilton was born in the Philippines to name but a few. In all essence the full cast does reflect modern British society, just as the Broadway cast does in the US. The subject content is largely on American history and that this episode in history is not as well known in the UK, the idea nonetheless remains the same. By bringing forth historical content to the stage it serves as a virtual source to appeal to those that would not necessarily read about the content. What’s more the diversity of the cast has more of an impact resonating with members of society that are not always included in retellings of history, much like the argument that was put forth previously under Ethnicity & Immigration in the United States.

Knowing Brixton is a short distance from Victoria, the London home for Hamilton, just shy of 37 years the Brixton Riot occurred in April 1981. This was at a time when recession hit, those of Afro-Caribbean descent living in the area were particularly affected by lower job prospects and public services. Hamilton justly serves as a history of our time told by society as it is today, all backgrounds coming together to tell the story of a struggling immigrant intent to shape the future and leave a legacy, two things that are not to dissimilar to the actual narrative.

 

The “forgotten” Hamilton

A wife’s tale

I put myself back in the narrative… I’ll live another fifty years, it’s not enough[6]

 

There is much mention about the roles of women in Hamilton. However, for the purposes of this piece I will examine the role of Eliza Hamilton nee Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife of 21 years before his death. A fundamental conclusion to the musical details a wonderous segment, regarding Eliza Hamilton’s role in preserving the legacy of her husband, Alexander Hamilton. After Hamilton’s death Eliza along with the help of her son John Church Hamilton organised and arranged his political writings in view of publication. This was to ensure his legacy in American politics was not forgotten by the people. What the musical does so well is it attributes Chernow’s school of thought, that Eliza Hamilton’s role was significant in preserving Hamilton’s memory and conveys this with such vigour. This is considering she was left widowed, having to settle Hamilton’s debts and knowing that he had an affair with Maria Reynolds (this was publicly declared by Hamilton himself in the self-published, “The Reynolds Pamphlet” in 1797). The musical suggests Eliza Hamilton, upon hearing the news of Hamilton’s affair burns her correspondence with her husband in the song titled Burn.[7] Although it is not certain Eliza Hamilton burnt her letters, the musical nevertheless supports Chernow’s school of thought that she did destroy her letters but there was no evidence to suggest how.

Her passion and devotion to keeping Hamilton’s memory alive really hits home when her contribution to Hamilton’s legacy is explored in Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story[8], knowing that Eliza Hamilton lived in a male dominated society in commerce, politics and education, she was able to rise above her station and truly make a difference by getting Hamilton’s “story” out there for all to see and hear.

Eliza Hamilton did not stop there, not only did she ensure Hamilton’s writings were preserved, she also ensured to help orphans in New York city. Hamilton himself was an orphan, this in part must have played a large role in Eliza Hamilton’s efforts to help orphaned children. Together Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children and one known foster daughter, having been caring for eight children and bringing in a foster daughter into the Hamilton household, it was apparent Eliza Hamilton cared deeply about children.

Eliza Hamilton helped to establish the first private orphanage in New York city in 1806 along with her friend Joanne Bethune. Eliza Hamilton was the Vice-President of the organisation and continued her support well into her nineties. It was called the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, this organisation still exists to this very day by helping to care for children ensuring access to education, health care and support. Today it is named Graham Windham. This is where the whole idea of legacy intertwines, by preserving Hamilton’s legacy and crafting a legacy of her own.

Hamilton’s death must have been a horrible prospect for Eliza Hamilton to have dealt with but reviewing her contribution after his death, some goodness has come out of it by helping the next generation of orphans in a city where as a child orphan himself, Alexander Hamilton thrived. Though Hamilton could not live to see his legacy, Eliza Hamilton lived for another 50 years after her husband’s death in that time ensured others could see it.

 

My personal thoughts on Eliza Hamilton’s significance

Writing as a 21st century woman it is incredible to think that Eliza Hamilton achieved a great deal in her own right at a time, considering women’s suffrage was not on the agenda at the time of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York’s creation and when she was organising Hamilton’s writings for preservation. As with the section on Ethnicity & Immigration, we see many women in professions doing what Eliza Hamilton did; women historians, women social workers and women carers to name but a few. That is another great legacy to add to mix, we see her character in many of the women of today, very much a living history of our time.

To end on, the musical really does highlight Eliza Hamilton’s prominence regarding Hamilton’s legacy. The staging was beautifully crafted, whereby during the first Act Hamilton was centre stage in the story. Eliza Hamilton, on the other hand was not standing on the main stage, she was staged with the characters; Maria Reynolds and Angelica Schuyler, seemingly fighting to declare their love for Hamilton during the musical’s opening number but for it to be bellowed by them at the same time, “I loved him”.[9] However, at the end of the second Act, Hamilton casts himself aside from the spotlight but close to his wife to reveal much of his legacy is owed to Eliza Hamilton, where she is the one standing in front of the legacy she preserved. Alexander Hamilton is often credited as America’s “forgotten” founding father, the end piece almost appears as if there was a forgotten behind the forgotten in the form of Eliza Hamilton.

 

 

 

[1] L. Manuel Miranda, “The World Was Wide Enough” as performed by L. Manuel Miranda & L. Odom Jr. in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[2] L. Manuel Miranda, “Alexander Hamilton” as performed by The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[3] Ibid; “Alexander Hamilton”

[4] L. Manuel Miranda, “Helpless” as performed The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[5] L. Manuel Miranda, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” as quoted by D Diggs and L. Manuel Miranda in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[6] L. Manuel Miranda, “Burn” as performed by P Soo in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[7] Ibid; “Burn”

[8] L. Manuel Miranda, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” as performed by The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[9] Ibid; “Alexander Hamilton”

 

Is this DC Comics film the best representation of WW1?

With this being my last post for WUHstry, what better way to sign off than two of my favourite things: superheroes and history.

Very rarely do films take my breath away, but that was not the case when I saw the most recent instalment of the DC Comics film universe.

Logo of the DC Films company

Wonder Woman was the beginning of the future- the first successful superhero film with a female lead, which will kick-start the future of female superhero films. But it was more than just a superhero film, it was a film that highlighted the true nature of World War 1- the War to end all Wars.

Image from the Wonder Woman film

For those of you that haven’t seen the film yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???? It is easily the best film in the current DC universe, and tells the tale of how the Amazons and man were in conflict, and a new Amazon was moulded from clay to destroy Ares- the God of War. When the war comes to the Amazons, Diana realises it must be the actions of Ares. Without giving too much away, it is then Diana’s mission to find Ares, kill him and end the war to end all wars.

DC Comics illustration of Ares- the God of War

Of course it’s very easy to go what relevance has this fictional film got to the First World War, given the fact that it is made up. Well it was more this was the first film I have seen, other than perhaps the War Horse about World War 1, where it not only kept my hairs on end start to finish, but highlighted the true nature of war. Some films paint war as an opportunity for comradery, and although there is an enemy they are trying to defeat, there are losses along away (unless your a horse that seems to defy death).

A poster from the film War Horse

In Wonder Woman, we see how physically war effects the men. There is once scene in particular as Diana and her team are boarding the ferry, with the character passing all the wounded and injured returning from the front line. It gives the greatest example that the war did effect everyone who took part, a point which was further displayed throughout the film: character Charlie, played by Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner portrays a Scottish Marksman who very much carries the scars of war, constantly having nightmares about his friends that died in front of him. It portrays such a vivid image that has not been seen in many other films, that the war really was a torrid time, where millions of innocent lives were lost.

Image from the Wonder Woman film of Diana and Charlie

The biggest, saddest moment of the whole film (look away if you haven’t seen it yet), is when Diana realises that no matter what her actions, the war effects even the most innocent of lives- women and children. When she realises that the gas bombs set off had landed on the nearby village, it is a heart-breaking moment. It really hits home that war has no boundaries on who it effects, and that was what defined this new kind of warfare- a war where the battling happened at home as well as on the Front Line. It’s in this moment that you remember all those innocent lives that were lost, all those children that grew up as orphans.

One of the many harrowing images from World War 1

People forget that many of the British soldiers felt they would be home by Christmas, that the war wouldn’t be as tough as they thought. However once the realisation set in that this wasn’t the case, it really would have ruined morale within the trenches. One scene really sticks out though, highlighting how the littlest bit of hope can immediately lift the soldiers moods. Wonder Woman is in the trenches, an area where the soldiers had spent so much of their time struggling to cover any ground. However Diana leaps over the trenches, providing the much needed hope to the soldiers to advance. Of course, sadly Wonder Woman was not there in real life to provide this hope, but events such as the Christmas Truce would have done the job (albeit temporarily). It’s this hope which you realise kept the soldiers going, and made those trenches only slightly bearable.

Wonder Woman entering No Mans Land

Though I realise this was just a piece of fiction- a film, it did remind a new audience of the horrors of World War 1. The soldiers craved the kind of hope that Diana provided in the film, and even though there were winners in the end, there were far more losers. Shell shock, death, guilt, just some of the feelings that these soldiers would have felt when they returned home- either as heroes or disappointments.

In the current age of terror, it would appear the war to ‘End All Wars’ in fact created a new type of warfare. But it is the imagery of Diana jumping over the trenches- hope- that keep society going even in the darkest of days.

Thank you for reading this and my other posts, and keep enjoying WUHstry!

 

Travel Journal: Museum Hopping in Edinburgh

Day One: 16/11/16

I’d lusted after Edinburgh from afar for absolutely ages, but it was only last week– after years of increasingly desperate planning– that I finally got the chance to visit the city of my dreams.

Getting off the Megabus was tricky. For one, I’d been sitting for a twelve hour coach journey and my joints were stubbornly refusing to work. But there was something else, something which made me pause at the automatic door, probably to the great annoyance of the coach driver. It was a deep-seated nervousness, combined with a sense of This is it! You’re actually here!

You see, after years of hoping and dreaming, the reality of it scared me. What if Edinburgh failed to live up to my ridiculously high expectations? What if, after all, it was simply the grey, ‘gloomy’ city my lecturer had described in a reply to my Sorry, won’t be in next week’s lecture, third year is too much and I’m running away to Scotland for a while email? (Of course the real, Actual Responsible Adult™ reason for visiting Edinburgh was to scope out the postgrad open day, but I’ll run away from that as well, while I can).

Eventually I did get off the coach and, in a bit of a daze, I wheeled both myself and my suitcase out of the station and on to North Saint Andrew Street. The first thing that hit me, straight away, was the temperature. It was freezing, but absurdly pleasant after sitting in a stuffy coach all night. In the east, the sun was rising above the distant Firth of Forth, and the sky was a gorgeous shade of purple, specked with deep oranges and strands of golden yellow which were reflected off the tall Georgian buildings nearby. My hair, caught up in the near-Arctic wind, whipped around me and, while I had barely slept all night, I felt exhilarated. I knew then– as cheesy as it may sound– that Edinburgh would not disappoint.

Edinburgh at sunrise.jpg
Edinburgh at sunrise. Photo not my own as I was preoccupied with a little existential crisis.

So we set off in search of Justin, our Airbnb host for the week, to collect keys and settle in before a long day of open day-ing and thinking of the future-ing. He was a little late and for a moment, huddled together against the cold on Nicholson Street, we wondered if Airbnb was possibly all a big scam. But Justin soon arrived, and was lovely. He gave us a quick tour of the flat –bathroom here, kitchen there, keys through the letter box when you leave – and then left us to recover from the journey and de-zombify ourselves for the day ahead.

 

The open day at The University of Edinburgh was brilliant. As the main reason for travelling 418.3 gruelling miles in a Megabus, I found it both useful and decidedly worth it. Still not 100% sure of the course itself though, I’m possibly leaning ever so slightly more towards another one at the moment, but it’s a shame because I fell completely head-over-heels for the university itself. Also, credit where credit’s due, the staff and open day helpers were excellent throughout the day, answering any questions we had and being very friendly.

Afterwards we all returned to Justin’s and had well-deserved naps, relishing at the prospect of sleeping in actual beds rather than a crowded moving vehicle. I slept deeply and dreamlessly and woke feeling refreshed, if still a little tired. We had dinner– a lovely meal of pasta and lentils courtesy of Wendy then left the house again for a haunted ghost walk of Edinburgh’s underground spaces with City of the Dead Tours.

It was raining buckets when we left the house, and positively chucking it down by the time we arrived at the meeting point along the Royal Mile. The drenched cobble stones and masonry were a glossy charcoal, like something out of a melodramatic Victorian murder mystery, glittering with the reflected reds and oranges of streetlights that could so easily have been gaslights. Just as I was thinking all that’s missing is Jack The Ripper, the tour guide appeared. He was draped in a thick black cloak, with a top hat perched on his head, and he called us over to the group with a thick Scots accent.

As he led the group to our underground destination deep in the Edinburgh vaults, he spoke about the history of the local area. It was embellished for effect, and there were certain bits that didn’t sound entirely historically accurate, but his words rang with a gritty realism. For the most part, he didn’t mention hauntings or ghostly goings on, but instead created a sense of horror through his descriptions of the conditions experienced by the very poorest of society.

He led us down ambling side-roads and winding cobbled streets, through historic red-light districts which were now lined with tourist shops and artisan bakeries, speaking all the while of the horrific overcrowding of the eighteenth century city, the dire mortality rates, and the failures of the state and the church in caring for the poor. When of course we finally did make it underground, he regaled us with ghost stories and descriptions of the South Bridge Entity which was said to dwell in the vaults. It was spooky, without a doubt, but I felt that the true horror of the night was resoundingly in his descriptions of the past.

As we emerged above ground again, the Old Town stretched out around us, appearing both ageless and ancient. It was all too easy to imagine the sights he had described, and the people who had suffered in this place. That was what haunted me most.

It soon started to rain heavily again and we were drenched trying to find our way home in the labyrinth of backstreets. Naturally, when Google Maps failed to work, we blamed the South Bridge Entity for making us lose our way.


Day Two: 17/11/16

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Had a slight lie-in to recover from the knackering twelve-hour journey, and ended up leaving the house just after lunchtime. Our first port of call was the National Museum of Scotland, which I was embarrassingly keen to visit. It was a stunning building, both inside and out, which really did credit to the fascinating exhibits. The hands-on science and technology gallery was great fun, and we spent far too long playing with the interactive exhibits, making hot air balloons lift off and programming a robot to do our bidding. There was also a fair bit of snapchatting going on as we took in the culture which, to be fair, some exhibits seemed to directly cry out for.

As dedicated Outlander fans, Bryony and I soon headed to the eighteenth century section, where we tried and failed to be dignified in our adoration of the era. Here, we were able to sit in a miniature thatched cottage, listen to traditional music of the period, squeeze into children’s dress-up clothes, and attempt to take in as much info as we possibly could. The exhibits on Culloden and the Jacobite risings in particular were beautifully comprehensive, and it was tricky to pull ourselves away from it all.

We could have happily sat in that thatched cottage reading about Bonnie Prince Charlie for hours, but it was getting late and we wanted to visit the Royal Mile before the shops shut. So we dragged ourselves away and exited via the (genuinely amazing) gift shop. It was then only a short walk before we found ourselves on one of Edinburgh’s most famous streets. The Royal Mile was lush and, to tell you the truth, I spent far too much money in its many tourist shops. I bought a gorgeously warm and cosy Edinburgh hoodie for myself, and presents for friends and family, as well as what felt like a few hundred postcards. Worth every penny, to be honest. Je ne regrette rien.

We were making our way back to the house when, purely by chance, we realised how close we were to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Of course, being the mature adults that we are, we were thrilled at the prospect of visiting one of Scotland’s most haunted locations after dark. It was nearly pitch-black and we walked around quickly, using the light from our phones to guide us, while attempting to avoid the group of people filming a Most Haunted style documentary in one corner of the cemetery. Eventually we began to feel unsettled and decided to leave.


Day Three: 18/11/16

We woke up early in order to make it to the Glasgow University open day. Here, almost immediately upon arrival, I fell in love with the Glaswegian subway which was so refreshingly easy to use after years spent getting lost on the tube. The city had a buzz to it that’s difficult to describe, but it was artsy and ancient, energetic and fun. Glasgow doesn’t take itself seriously, which I really love about it.

The open day itself was perfect, and as of now I’m definitely planning to make an application. Everyone we encountered bent over backwards to help us and one man even walked us to the subway station in the pouring rain when we asked for directions. The city is undoubtedly deserving of its title as the world’s friendliest city.

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The beautiful University of Glasgow.

After the open day, we had a quick look around the Hunterian Museum, then did a fair amount of tourist-ing, followed by a little bit of shopping where I was very tempted to buy quite a lot of gloves. Spotting the Duke of Wellington statue, cone and all, was a definite highlight of the trip. So too was dinner at Mono, a charming vegan restaurant/record shop in the city centre. I had a delicious to-fish and chips (battered tofu = Pure Heaven) followed by a chocolate avocado and walnut tart. Really wish there was a restaurant like this nearer to Winchester, because I could quite easily spend most of my life there.

As it was, I left Glasgow feeling sad that the day was over. I would have loved to spend more time in this brilliant city.


Day Four: 19/11/16

We spent our fourth day storming Edinburgh castle. I was amazed by how much there was to see and do here, with many individual museums nestled within the castle’s keep. After a fascinating but freezing guided tour followed by the 1pm firing of the cannon, we had a chilly lunch in the tea rooms, huddled around Bryony’s teapot for warmth. We then headed to the National War Museum, where we spent well over an hour reading displays and being drawn into the history on offer. We even found a radiator in one room, which was a godsend.

Not to mention, it was also the perfect spot for the odd #MuseumSelfie which really is terribly good fun. In the words of curator Mar Dixon (@MarDixon), “I always feel so bad for those people who don’t get #MuseumSelfie or any fun in museums. I just want to hug them and tell them it’ll be ok.”

It was difficult to decide where to visit next, as we were completely spoilt for choice. Eventually though we settled on the Prisons of War which showcased the living conditions of POWs held there throughout the centuries. These men ranged from French sailors captured in 1758, shortly after the Seven Years’ War, to soldiers of the American War of Independence (1775-83), right up to inmates from wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). The surrounding displays told tales of the prisoners, one of whom was a five-year old drummer boy, taken at Trafalgar (1805). Another, desperate to escape, hid in a dung cart, only to be killed on the rocks below as the contents were tipped over the castle wall. Four more succeeded in escaping in 1799, by lowering themselves down the rock on washing lines, while in the more audacious outbreak of 1811, 49 prisoners cut their way through the parapet wall, beside the battery. All but one escaped and the hole is still there today.

Next we sampled some lovely Bruadar whiskey in the Whiskey and Finest Food shop, then visited The Royal Palace, a principle royal residence from the eleventh century up until the early seventeenth. It was a fascinating building, with a grand history. Indeed, it was here that, on the 19th of June, 1566, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland. It was truly remarkable to think that the first king of England and Scotland, a man who would go on to shape both nations so dramatically, had been born in such an impossibly small room.

The next part of our visit to the castle was spent admiring the Scottish crown jewels, which are the oldest in the British Isles, created in Scotland and Italy during the reigns of James IV and James V. They were first used for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in September, 1543. We saw the Stone of Destiny as well, also known as the Stone of Scone, which is traditionally thought to have once been part of an ancient royal bench-throne, and imbued with sacred powers. For centuries, Scottish kings were ceremoniously crowned atop the stone, tying the monarch to the land forevermore.

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The Honours of Scotland. Photo not mine.

The Stone has an eventful history. In 1296, believing himself to have a God-given right of superiority over Scotland, Edward I forcibly removed the Scots’ royal regalia and holy relics, along with 65 chests containing the records of the kingdom. In short, he took all the objects of statehood, making sure that the Stone of Destiny was in his haul, it was removed from the abbey of Scone in August, 1296 and sent to Westminster Abbey. Here, it was enclosed in a new throne, the Coronation Chair, where it has been used ever since in the coronations of most monarchs of England and, from 1714, all the rulers of Great Britain.

However, on Christmas Day, 1950, four students from the University of Glasgow removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland. On the 11th of April, 1951, it turned up 500 miles away, at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey! Afterwards, it was once again taken to Westminster Abbey, but the actions of the students made people begin to ask Why wasn’t the stone in Scotland?

Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland on the 700th anniversary of its removal, under the proviso that it may be ‘borrowed’ for any future coronations at Westminster Abbey. It’s a truly remarkable object, and I could easily have spent all day reading about its history. There’s also a great film called The Stone of Destiny which tells the story of the four students who returned the Stone to Scotland. It’s a bit clichéd, and Charlie Cox’s Scottish accent is more than a little bit dreadful, but it’s a genuinely heart-warming tale, and I would really recommend it to anyone interested in the Stone’s history.

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Some subtle photobombing from Bryony.

Finally, after a quick look around Saint Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest structure in Edinburgh (dating from 1130), and a moment of quiet reflection in The Scottish National War Memorial, it was time to leave Edinburgh Castle. Our visit was incredible, without a doubt 100% worth the admission fee. There was so much to see and do here, and exhibits to entertain people of all ages and historical inclinations. A really marvellous day out.

We walked along Princes Street on the way back to Justin’s house, recreating the opening scene of Trainspotting. Once again, the city was freezing but exhilarating, generating a genuine ‘Lust for Life’ in us all.

We got back to the house quite quickly, having finally learnt to navigate the tangled web of Edinburgh’s streets, and ordered delicious pizza from the incredible ‘Dough Pizza’. A truly ‘Perfect Day’.


Day Five: 20/11/16

Returned to Winchester today.

Annoyingly, the coach journey was delayed due to traffic and road closures, and ended up taking almost 15 hours altogether. A little bit hellish, but certainly not something that could detract from the overall experience of our trip.

Because, you see, it turned out that my expectations of Edinburgh weren’t ‘ridiculously high’ at all. This was something the city proved to me day after day, as I fell more deeply in love with it than I ever could have anticipated.

Another factor I couldn’t have anticipated is my new-found dependency on Irn Bru. Really have to thank Bryony, my enabler, for introducing me to that little habit. Definitely not something to regret though.

Special thanks to my lovely companions Bryony (@bryonyjo31), Maddie (@maddiech_) and Wendy (@whitecinnamonsugar).

 

Tous les matins du monde le Roi danse. Music in the Sun king’s era through French films.

Now, we have this man. And the man is a king, mind you. A great king. One who, allegedly, dared to say that He was the State. And, by the way, there is this tale of this man not really being the king, but a twin, or a lookalike, the real king being imprisoned behind an iron mask…well, that is literature after all. We, here, discuss History, it seems. And History is all about facts, isn’t it?

Well…facts are good for your health and all that. But sometimes you need to fantasize, adorn or simply fill the gaps between fact and fact. That is what dangerous people such as writers, playwrights and filmmakers do when historical fact is not what they need (or just not enough) to tell a story. And sometimes we can take advantage of such mischief to try to understand the facts.

So… we have this king. The king had a Kingdom he was supposed to rule, yet he also liked to dance. That, the way in which dancing can help ruling a kingdom, is part of the story that Gérard Corbiau, the French director, brought to life back in 2000 through his film “Le Roi danse”. Almost a decade before, another Frenchman, Alain Corneau, had tried to show us the meaning of music in the same age in the Cesar Award winning film “Tous les matins du monde” which spoke not about the king himself, or politics, but about music outside his court’s gilded cage, and the ambitions of those who wanted to be inside that cage.

Corbiau’s film, probably the lesser from the strictly artistic point of view, offers more to the connoisseur in the field of History (or, at least, historical based fiction). It is not about the Sun King himself, but about the musician who dominated great part of his reign, Jean Baptiste Lully, and his relations with both the king and other XVII century rock star, playwright Moliére. And in it we can find one powerful statement (apocryphal, unfortunately)from the king which could help us understand both his way of practicing politics and the importance of music and, significantly, dance during his lasting reign. Arguing with Lully, his Chief Musician, about the former role in his court (and Lully’s sexual preferences…but that is another story) the Sun King says that music has a part in the new order he is trying to instate, because it is the incarnation of universal harmony. “It is useful to me” says the king. “It is useful to the State” (which was more or less the same)…”and to God” (hence the argument about Lully’s tastes that were giving trouble to the king with the religious party in the Court). The aim is that France, who Louis XIV envisioned as the supreme power in Europe, had to have the best music in the continent…and obviously the most respectable. And Lully was very good at complying with the first, then not really as good with the second.

“Le Roi danse” depicts a dancing king, always keen on getting into the stage and show his prowess to the Court while, at the same time, sending powerful political messages through the choreography, music and wording. Even the wardrobe was designed to fulfill a purpose, usually to show the king’s magnificence. Louis was an absolutist ruler and so his ruling must be exerted in absolutely every possible way, music inclusive. During his reign, French music rose to the height of the European stage, fighting the Italian influence with purely (or so perceived) French traits: the prominence of dance and ballet, and above all, a rival for the Italian opera. First, in a joint.venture between the two artistic geniuses available, Lully and Moliére who together created the new genre: “la comédie ballet”, this being a development from the classic “ballet de court”, the cornerstone of French music up to that moment. Lully’s compositions were impaired to Moliére’s words, always humoristic and quite often satirical, in which some of the political views of the king were interspersed in a sometimes not-so-subtle way. Later on, Lully would eventually follow with his own evolution to Opera, the “tragédie lyrique” based upon the works of some of the best playwrights in France, next to Moliére himself, as Racine and Corneille.

Interestingly enough, given the known facts, the film suggests a break up between the partners prior to Lully’s success with the new tragédies. He is depicted at this point in his life as a paranoid who wants the king’s attention just for his music alone, and distrusts Moliére. Also despising his deteriorating health, Lully plots with the king to get rid of his friend accusing the playwright of being sick…which in fact, Moliére was. He coughed, he spat…not the powerful man he once was, not the image France wanted at the time. And, yes, Moliére was put aside by the king.

Probably my favorite scene in the film is that in which Moliére dies on the stage during a performance of  his counterattack on Lully: “Le Malade imaginaire”; he played an hypochondriac but, unlucky man, he was really sick. He had a bout of hemoptysis on stage during the fourth night of his last play, dying a little later, at home. That’s a fact…yet the way it is shown in the film gives the distorted fact a new strength. The forceful performance by Tcheky Karyo gives the whole scene an unforgettable scent of pathos.

So exits the scene Moliére, so the success will go finally, and entirely, to Lully. Master of the Court’s music, his Tragédies were all the rage, and he kept on composing music for his Master, the Sun King, trying to provide an ever-increasing brilliance to his reign. He died, and so begins the film, almost absurdly: he injured his own foot with his conducting staff, then refused to have the leg amputated on the grounds that a dancer’s leg couldn’t be amputated. Gangrene took its toll, finally, at a time when his star was in decline and the religious party was, again, on the rise at Court. Just a year before, Louis have made a point of not inviting his old crony to perform at Versailles; yet Lully’s injury came while he was conducting a Te Deum on the occasion of celebrating the king’s recovery from surgery: the loyal courtier to the bitter end.

In fact he was so loyal not only to the king but to the State (in case the latter was not in fact the former…or vice versa) that he fought his own kind all along his life: being an Italian (Giovanni Battista Lulli was his real name) he behave like a French, pushing forward his adoptive nation’s political goals by his own means and helping to create a truly French music, different and almost opposite to the Italian dominant trend, especially in the Opera field, where his innovations in text composition, massive ballets and combination of arias and recitatives, giving less importance to singing and more to acting and dancing, departed far away from the until then successful tendencies.

As good as “Le Roi danse” depicts music at Court, “Tous les matins du monde” does the same with the music outside it. But, surprisingly, and somewhat fittingly, it begins with the same approach: and old courtier and favoured musician is getting to the end of his life, and he remembers his past life in a long flashback which comprises almost the entire length of the film. The exact same technique (perhaps not coincidentally) in both films. But in this case, the musician was a local kid, the viola da gamba virtuoso Marin Marais.

What surprised me most of “Tous les matins…” was the silence. In a film almost two hours long, dialogues are few, short and often brisk (even brusque, especially on the part of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe), with music and silence filling the void. Even Marin Marais proposes a couple of times to his Master that the essence of music could be silence, to the amusement (or disgust, it is difficult to tell from the restraint interpretation given by Jean-Pierre Marielle) of the latter.

Story make short, a great musician (Sainte Colombe) embittered by his wife’s death secluded himself in his country house where he plays and composes in solitude. In time, he teaches the Viola da gamba to his two daughters and have some gigs, thus attracting the Court’s attention. Summoned by the King (so interested in music as we’ve seen) he refuses to attend the Court but a young virtuoso is instead sent from there to learn from him. This ends in disaster, because Sainte Colombe is not a patient teacher and Marais a tad too much haughty to be a good pupil.

Love (or lust) interferes when Marais and Sainte Colombe’s oldest daughter begin a relation. She helps him secretly spying on his father while he is playing but, more at ease at the Court, Marais soon grows tired of her, and leaves. She will get ill while her father, relentlessly, pursues his music (and, by the way, his wife’s ghost whom he could see sometimes when playing) and Marais becomes an applauded and rich Court musician. After her dead, Marais finally gets in touch, on cold night, with his old Master, and learns what has to be learned…

Quite apart from “Le roi danse”, no Court life in here. No fight for power. The story is told by Marais, now and old man and teacher himself, as an example for his pupils. Is all about music and what lies in it, and nothing about Court’s music and what lies inside Versailles, yet it tells us interesting things about music in that age… and is relations with Power. Marais is all Court: haughty mannered, ambitious, cold-hearted. He is a viola da gamba virtuoso and yet Sainte Colombe will not teach him because he cannot feel music in his pupil, just technique without feeling. At Court, technique was far more important, as claiming to be a virtuoso could put you in the King’s (and he being the Sun king, being the focus could be as dangerous as rewarding), and ambition and refined manners and a high self-regard were paramount to get to the top: we’ve already seen how Lully betrayed Moliére. Top of the list there was very limited space. He will get whatever he can from Sainte Colombe (daughter inclusive) just because it is an instrument to his ascension in the Royal favour.

On the contrary, Sainte Colombe represents a musician who is no friend of the crowned paraphernalia. He lives for his music and his memories, and doesn’t want to be part of Louis power politics. He is solicited by the king because he is a virtuoso; furthermore, he is also an innovator who has added an extra string to his instruments to reach the whole spectrum of Human voice and whose compositions were highly regarded. This, obviously, fitted perfectly in Louis intentions on putting French music at the head of European arts, as part of his pretension to political hegemony. But when the harsh player rejects all summons, the King just let him go, with grace. He couldn’t afford to lose an argument with a subject, but probably also thought that paying that much attention to a commoner could be, in fact, a sign of weakness on his part. So allegedly amused by Sainte Colombe’s resistance he drops his summons…only to, this is just a suggestion, plot with his courtiers to get Marais taught. He was, after all, a young and very promising musician himself, the son of a humble cobbler, who surely will abide to his King’s will in his own benefit.

If ever was a plot, it worked. Sainte Colombe’s music wasn’t lost and Marais became, on time, ordinaire de la chambre du roi pour la viole, position he will kept for forty-six years, learning also from Lully and attempting even some operas, although he is best known for his viola da gamba works. Meanwhile, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe fought his ghosts far from the Court’s glitter, trying to find a sense in a life that was meaningless for him after his loss but for what he could get off the music. Not interested in power, money or position he just played. HIs work, nonetheless, became a piece in Louis schemes both by his lasting impression in Marais’ own works, and the innovations he brought, both technical and in composition, to his field of expertise; the glory of his music was, after all, the glory of France and its Sun king.

The title of the film (which is based upon a novel written by Pascal Quignard, who also wrote the adaptation for the screen) “Tous les matins du monde”, “all the mornings in the world”, comes from something Quignard makes Marais to say both in the novel and the film. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour: all the mornings in the world never return. At the end, Marin Marais came to understand this, as he finishes his story and sees his old teacher’s ghost, proud at last, asking him to play the song he wrote for Madeleine, daughter and lover respectively. When everything is gone, music still remains. Thus happens to Louis XIV in the long run, today well-known as Versailles builder, even though that honour should bestowed on Le Vau, and d’Orbay as architects, Le Brun as designer and Le Nôtre as landscape designer. HIs political work faded as France went to turmoil and the absolute power he built, with the help of Lully, Moliére, Sainte Colombe, Marais and the like, turned into liberté, egalité, fraternité amidst much bloodshed. The music his musicians made for him, to make shine his France and himself, is still there, moving, alive, inspiring. The morning of French glory is never to returned, as it happens to all the rest. Its music, however, never fully went away, and it is always around us, waiting for someone to hear and get in touch, just as Sainte Colombe’s wife.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Would-be Movie Hero Writes a Book…

Now, we have this man’s story. Nice, military guy, went to Middle-East. Got shot, serious injury in a hand; captured by the enemy, spent some time in prison in Northern Africa, where he was close to being beheaded. Finally he was released, went back home, wrote a book.

Now, you are thinking. About the man, who must be a SEAL or a DELTA, or likewise. A killer by trade. About the book, which Eastwood or Bigelow could be on the brink to adapt to the big screen. A thriller, all fights and blood and guts, maybe some introspective moments to depict the anguish of the war prisoner… He must be doing great now. Famous guy, Oprah, late night shows and the like.

Now, it would have possibly been that way. Suffering, then glitter. But this is now, and that was then: the man died four hundred years ago.

This man was no nephew of the Uncle Sam either. At that time, there were no United States of America, and the fight raging on the Middle East was between the Christian European princess and the Sublime Porte Sultan. He was a Spaniard, and his name was Miguel de Cervantes.

Born to a deaf barber-surgeon, Rodrigo, he spent his early years of which little is known, travelling around Spain with his family as his father did his trade (and tried, sometimes without success, to elude his creditors). Born in 1547, we know that  by 1566 he was at Madrid, studying with López de Hoyos. Then, all of a sudden, in 1569 he fled to Italy, allegedly after a duel in which he wounded the other duelist, although the story is not confirmed.

Anyway, to Italy he went. Soon, he was serving in the Spanish Tercios as a soldier. And so he went to the sea and took part in one of the most famous battles of its time, at Lepanto, in 1571, where he took two arquebus shots in the chest and one in the left hand. After six months recovering in a hospital in Messina, Miguel had lost use of his left hand due to the complications of the wound, but was again ready to service. He kept raiding the Mediterranean shores with the Christian armies against the Ottomans for some years. Then when his ship was almost in sight of the Spanish coast, it was assaulted by a Turkish flotilla, and after a brisk fight, Miguel and his brother Rodrigo were taken prisoners among other members of the crew. Because he had in his power some impressive-looking letters of recommendation, he was believed to be a VIP (which he was not). Therefore a handsome ransom of 500 golden escudo was asked for; pity he was just a soldier. Maybe a good one, maybe he has caught the eye of the top-brass, but no way he or his family had that huge amount of cash (or connections strong enough to get it paid).

He was sent to Algiers and spent five years in captivity. There is some controversy about his days there. Seemingly he tried to escape no less than four times, but his adventures were thwarted by bad luck, traitors, a captured messenger…in between, Cervantes’ mother got some money to pay for her sons, but the money was not enough for both of them. Miguel, always the tough guy, stays in prison so his younger brother could go home…or so. Most of this we know because he himself wrote later about his years as a captive, so we may want to be…cautious about the veracity of his writings. He became, after all, one of the world’s greatest fable-spinners.

Nevertheless, he was finally freed, almost by chance. On the verge of being transported to Constantinople itself, were his fate would have been surely gloomy, he was released after a Trinidadian friar paid his ransom, partly with money collected amongst the Christian merchants in Algiers. So, in 1580, after eleven years and a lot of adventure and stories to tell, Miguel de Cervantes was bound to Spain again. And he was yet to discover even war heroes have hardships when returning home.

A spy job (maybe). A daughter (her mother was married to another man). A marriage (didn’t go well: childless, ended in a separation as divorced was strictly forbidden in the most catholic Spain). A desired position in the New World (never came). At least, first publication: La Galatea, a pastoral romance (not that popular, if you know what I mean)…

Finally, in 1587, a proper job as for the Army, provisioning food for the Spanish Armada. Extensive travel across the land. Finally lands in Seville in 1588, but having a place to stay and a steady job doesn’t improve his life that much. To begin with, he is excommunicated after requisitioning Church goods; then, he is transferred to the Exchequer as a tax collector, living among disputes and quarrels; finally, in 1597, as his father before him, he goes to prison.

Now, we find him imprisoned in the Royal Gaol, Seville. The bank when he was expected to put the tax money has bankrupted. The money is not there, or at least not all of it is there. Allegedly, he kept some for himself. While investigated, Miguel serves some months in jail; but, lucky us, while in there, he outlines a story that is going to bring him fame and fortune (albeit, unlucky Miguel, a little too late to enjoy the fortune part).

Somehow, then, he is released from prison by the end of 1597. Maybe he didn’t keep that much money for himself. The fact is that, at this point, fifty years old, not wealthy, with his prestige marred because of his legal troubles, he definitely turned to his real passion: theatre. More or less at the same time, one William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is doing magic in the theatrical scene in London; Miguel de Cervantes, again has no such luck. He is very keen on the classic style at a moment when not only Shakespeare, but also Lope de Vega in Spain were transforming the way theatre is written, and played, forever. Lope, by the way, is a seventeenth century rock star avant la lettre: instead of drugs and rock’n’roll there were money and theatre (seemingly, the sex was there indeed. He kidnapped his first wife, had countless lovers, and a womanizer reputation…). Even other playwrights, as for example Tirso de Molina, had the people’s favor, whilst Cervantes’ theatrical production was at the time considered quite obsolete at the time. He was probably regarded as a minor yet competent writer, but the money, the popularity for which surely Cervantes was craving didn’t arrive.

Anyway, that story he first thought of while in jail was taking shape. Some weird yet sympathetic tale about an old man and his servant. In an unexpected turn of events, the man thinks himself a knight and, craving for adventure, took the roads of deep, old, dusty Castilla in search of giants, evil-doers, bandits and the like, willing to offer his good deeds to his romantic interest, a damsel called Dulcinea. With the reluctant help of Sancho, Don Quixote goes on the loose. At some point, the tale is finished and Cervantes finally gets permission from the censors to publish it, what is done in 1605 to immediate success: only during that year the printers produced six editions, with the novel being translated into English in 1607, into French in 1614…At last, some luck for Miguel, the soldier, the adventurer, the tax collector, the prisoner, the playwright, the writer.

What a film, don’t you think? One can easily imagine say, Ryan Gosling as Cervantes, maybe even doubling as Don Quixote with some prosthetics and make-up…the Academy Award winner and all that…But this is now, and that was then. Media exposure was unknown, and there was no place for more than one big star (and that one was Lope). No Oscars then, no talk shows, no big money. Just some comfort, at long last. And more ideas coming. In his last years Cervantes also published the Exemplary Novels, in 1613, to a great success, and in 1615, the second part to Don Quixote on the wake of the publishing of the “Avellaneda’s Quixote”,attributed to a friend of Lope (again), in which Cervantes’ character was also the main one (plagiarism was a problem then as it is now. Even without Internet access). This second part is unanimously considered his best work, and his final legacy, setting the tone for the new novels all around the world, he that once was considered outdated because of his classical approach to theatre. Good joke, Mike.

Now, we have this man’s story. A tale full of adventures, search for glory, hardships, mishaps. Somewhat…quixotic, don’t you think so? And it was all for real. But he created a fiction so powerful that led us to forget the man behind the pen and paper. Miguel de Cervantes: soldier, POW, spy, tax collector, playwright, novelist. Dreamer.

 

Interview with Stardust Years owner, Karen Fitzsimmons.

Stardust Years is a brilliantly unique shop on the Winchester High Street, specialising in vintage and historical fashion items. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the shop for the first time and at once fell in love with the beautiful items on display. After my visit, I approached the owner Karen Fitzsimmons, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about historical fashion and the growing popularity of vintage-wear.

Q: When did Stardust Years open?

A: July, 2013

Q: Where do you get the items from?

A: That’s a bit like asking Tinkerbell where she gets her Magic Fairy Dust!  All I can say is that I go out and source all our stock myself.  We do not buy over the counter so, if you’re reading this and you have a treasure to sell please don’t come to us as you’ll only be disappointed.

Q: It must be hard to part with some of the beautiful items on sale, what has been your favourite item that you’ve encountered?

A: Oh, it is! I think there are too many to choose from but if I had to choose it would be some of the Rayne Shoes that I had when we first opened the shop.  As a result of researching Rayne Shoes, I met Nick Rayne, the son of Sir Edmund Rayne who steered the family business during its most successful years.  Rayne Shoes supplied many Hollywood stars with shoes, including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. They also made the Queen’s wedding shoes.

Nick bought some of our shoes for the Rayne Shoe Archive (you can see some of our shoes – including the pair we donated) in the book, Rayne, Shoes for Stars which accompanied last year’s exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum. We were invited to the Book Launch at the Dorchester Hotel, held in the famous Oliver Messel Room. It was wonderful.  I was very sad at parting with the shoes so soon after I had found them – my husband took a photo of me saying goodbye to them when we were packing them for the courier’s collection!  However, they led me on an exciting journey and I know their beauty and craftsmanship will be enjoyed by so many more people in the future.

Q: When did your interest in vintage and historical fashion begin and why?

A: I loved Cinema from an early age and I grew up watching fabulous films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s which gave me my love for the fashions of the past.  They were so creative and glamorous.


Q
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Is there a particular era that you feel drawn to, and if so why is this? (Would you say it was based on the aesthetics of the era or a historical interest? Or both?)

A: My favourite eras are the 40s and 50s.  Across those decades there was so much diversity and creativity, even though we were plunged into a World War.  I love the tailoring, the detail and the care that went into the creation of accessories as well as clothing. Designers of some of the most glamorous fashions of the day were also involved in developing Utility Clothing (eg Digby Morton and Hardy Amies) and functional, eccentric items such as the Gas Mask Shoulder Bag (H Wald).

Q: What era of clothing is the most popular among your customers, and why do you think this is?

A: I think the 1950s is the most popular due to a number of factors.  There are the customers who are ardent vintage fans and attend a lot of vintage dances and weekend events.  The most popular period for vintage events seems to be the 1940s and the 1950s.  Then there are the customers who are looking for a dress for a special event and find the choice on the High Street limiting.  These customers find our 1950s rails attractive because of the diversity of styles that ran throughout the decade.  Whatever your figure, you can find something that suits you and looks wonderful.  The 40 and 50s were a time of great social change and these changes are reflected in contemporary fashion.

Q: What is the strangest/quirkiest vintage item you’ve encountered in the shop?

A: I can’t think of anything strange!  I always have to consider who would buy whatever I source. What I do love about vintage is that you can find quirky elements such as a 1940s clasp on a handbag or a clasp to a necklace.  We did have a marvellous 1920s bag with a mirror base and a large carved, enamel clasp which had to be twisted in a particular way to open the bag.  You can find lovely, unique accessories inside what appears to be a fairly plain handbag, too.

Q:  Do you have a vintage fashion icon or inspiration?

A: Too many to mention in terms of designers but Christian Dior is one of my favourites. I love those designers who also designed for the cinema such as Adrian, Edith Head and Irene Lentz and any of the actresses they dressed.


Q
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Equally, do you have a contemporary fashion icon or inspiration?

A: No.

Q: Can you see the influence of past styles on contemporary fashion? If so, what would an example of this be?

A: Oh, yes.  Nothing seems to be new.  There was a recent resurgence of 1950/60s fashions, as well as the 1970s with maxi dresses (which, of course were pre-dated by earlier fashions!).  I do wonder if future fashion will ever be as exciting as the developments that occurred during the 1910s – 60s.

Of course, fashion historians will be able to point to other great periods in history.  As the way we live changes, so will the way we dress so it’s interesting to see how young fashion designers will translate that into fashion and accessories.

Q: Why do you think vintage fashion is becoming so popular? In your opinion, would the popularity of programmes such as Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge have anything to do with this?

A: Popular culture has always influenced fashion so it’s no surprise that very successful period dramas have contributed to the continuing popularity of vintage fashion.  There have also been a lot of anniversary events around the two World Wars and I think that has increased the interest in the 1940s, in particular.

The way in which we celebrate our lives has also been influenced by popular culture and social history.  We’ve seen customers buying vintage for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.  Sometimes, it’s been a Mad Men birthday party or a 1930s wedding. I once had three ladies in one afternoon all going to the same 1940s party but none of them knew each other.  None of them liked to dress in unfamiliar clothing! (With each lady, I looked at our reference books, discussed what they already had in their wardrobe and accented it with an accessory or advice on hair).

Q: What would you say to someone with a newly found interest in vintage and historical fashion? Any tips or advice?

A: I would recommend joining the mailing list of the Fashion & Textile Museum in London.  They have some fabulous exhibitions. I would advise anyone wanting to buy vintage to be discerning – for me, there’s a difference between vintage fashion and old clothing.  Good vintage will cost more but it’s worth it for the superb tailoring and quality of the fabrics. I have some customers who come to Stardust Years because they’ve become collectors and buy investment pieces.  Others, are looking for a high-end piece of fashion that’s unique and won’t be identifiable as a “High Street piece.” Then there are those customers who just want to enjoy wearing the fashions and feeling a little closer to the past.

Also, always try on a garment – and never over jeans! I love wearing vintage but shapes have changed – plus, we’re all individuals!  I’ve never agreed with fashion sizes – we don’t fit a designated size. For this reason, I never buy my vintage wardrobe online.

Finally, remember there are no rules – you don’t have to go for the “complete” vintage look. Sometimes, it’s just as much fun and stylish to put the past with the present and create an individual look for you.

Q: Is there any era that you dislike in terms of the fashion trends? If so, why is that?

A:  The 1970s – I remember it the first time round – and I wasn’t keen on it then!
Though, looking back, I do admire what designers like Zandra Rhodes and Emilio Pucci achieved.

Q: What do you think we can learn from vintage and historical fashion?

A: The way people lived their lives, how our values have changed and how much effort went into creating something – whether it was a dress or a handbag.  People comment that our stock is in very good condition (most of it, anyway!) and that’s generally because, people didn’t have many clothes.  “Sunday Best” was exactly that.  Hardly worn and very well looked after because their “Sunday Best” was the only Best they had.

I’ve seen haute couture items by Dior, from the 1940s and 50s, which were constructed with wide inner seams so that as the wearer’s shape changed, the fashion house could alter the dress, accordingly. Nowadays, we live in “disposable” times – if something breaks, needs a part or needs letting out, we don’t mend it, we throw it away and just buy a replacement.

Q: Have you ever encountered an item with a really fascinating history attached? 

A: We have a costume once worn by actress Glenda Jackson in the film The Incredible Sarah, based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt. The designer, Anthony Mendleson was nominated for Best Costume Design in 1976 (but lost out to Danilo Donati’s Fellini’s Casanova).  It has a gorgeous circular train and would be a beautiful wedding dress. We also have a fur wrap believed to have been worn by actress, Vivien Leigh.

Sometimes, the most interesting items are the ones that come with clues to their owner/wearer’s life eg the 1930s clutch bag that has a theatre ticket inside it, dated the 18th of August, 1945.  When we find such clues to its past, we always keep the item with the vintage piece.  I once had a 1940s suit with a damaged skirt.  The jacket was priced but the customer had to take the skirt, too (at no charge, of course). I couldn’t bear to have them parted, not after they had been together for over 75 years!

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just that if you find a vintage item remember, it is just like you; individual and unique – you won’t find anything like it anywhere else!

Q: Thank you so much for your time.

 

A great many thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions, I loved reading your responses. Stardust Years will be celebrating its third birthday this weekend. To help celebrate in style, there will be free signature cocktails as well as the return of the TLC Rail, and vintage ‘Rescue Remnants,’ going free to a good home! On Sunday afternoon, between 1 and 3pm, Stardust Years will also be joined by Virginia Hannan, Bespoke Dress Design who will be available to offer tips and suggestions on dress design and alterations.

More information can be found on Karen’s Stardust Years blog, and on their Facebook page.

King John: Is History a bit unfair?

Welcome to another Blog post. This may seem weird to you, after all, I’m not really known for my posts on Medieval history (well I’m not known at all really!), but after some of the people at the blog made fun of my lack of writing on this subject, I’d thought I would rise to the challenge and write about something which I remember very well from when I was at school all those years ago. Therefore a post about King John is what I bring you today. My main aim here is to not necessarily open your eyes to any new information, far from it, but to challenge your perspectives on the king who signed the Magna Carta.

So I would assume and argue that most of us know our information about King John from the tales of Robin Hood, you know, those stories which probably were made up, or at least was an amalgamation of a few from different counties, brought together by the print revolution. So even academics who go into this field of study will most likely go in with an already biased interpretation based of a tale which can hardly be trusted for accuracy. So when we look at him, we must remember to try to banish all thoughts of Robin Hood to start with.

When we compare him with his brother, I get the feeling that we praise Richard for really nothing and attack for John for a failing family. Richard was hardly ever in England, and couldn’t even speak the language, how can we then say he was a good king? He was too busy fighting in the crusades to deal with the problems in his own country. Therefore perhaps John inherited a country that was already in trouble. John was well learnt, he studied and could speak the language of the country that he was in charge of. Therefore to class him as a bad king, seems a bit unfair, surely? He at least tried to sort things out unlike his brother.

John also gave more to the poor than those before him, again I’m no expert on this, but I’m sure I have read that John gave the most, so does this show him to be a caring king? He also could be argued to be the founding father of the English navy, although as an early modernist, I find that a tedious claim, as navies really found their footing in the seventeenth century! But he set up ports and saw the construction of some kind of navy that would later have a great impact in our national identity.

The defeats in the army can hardly be put on him, more of an unlucky King, after all if the battles are analysed in detail, it can be seen that perhaps it wasn’t him necessarily being bad, but unfortunate circumstances being the main problem. So perhaps, before we start judging and pointing out fingers and thinking how bad he is, ask ourselves perhaps there were reasons and circumstances that lead to what happened.

I hear you say, what about the Magna Carta, oh that document, the one that poor john is forever known as signing. The document which is known as the start of our constitution, and always quoted somehow. Well I think the circumstances that he was in and the problems he faced made this inevitable, I think that the rising taxes for the failing army and military campaigns would of course cause problems.

To class him as a tyrannical, evil King is unjust, and shows a failure to look at other Kings and Queens of this time, to properly understand the circumstances and to understand the pressures to be a King. I am always hesitant to judge the past by present standards, and you could argue well he has never been liked, but my argument is that his perception of him has always been skewed and when we do proper do an in-depth study, we must not go in with pre conceived ideas.