Sunday, 25 March 2012

She Stoops to Conquer at The National Theatre

Hayward Gallery from The National Theatre terrace
 She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is one of those plays I always thought I had seen but actually never had, not unless I saw it as a school production way back when. Written and set in the eighteenth century, it is currently showing at London's National Theatre. It is the best play I have seen so far this season. Oliver Goldsmith is an inspiring writer for any aspiring writer. His secret is apparent in an essay on National Prejudices where he once wrote the following:

As I am one of that sauntering tribe of mortals who spend the greater part of their time in taverns, coffee houses, and other places of public resort, I have thereby an opportunity of observing an infinite variety of characters, which to a person of a contemplative turn, is a much higher entertainment than a view of all the curiosities of art or nature...

 Most authors, poets and playwrights would agree that skilled observation is an essential tool for writers. Goldsmith believed that real comedy was an art form that would make people laugh. During the eighteenth century there was a fashion for sentimental comedy which did not interest Goldsmith. For example, many theatre goers regarded puns as low humour and snobs considered the comic dialogue in Goldsmith's plays gross. None the less, at the time, She Stoops to Conquer was, to Goldsmith's great relief, well received. This may have been thanks to support from his friends Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was a  play that succeeded in making people laugh. 

The set for She Stoops to Conquer
There is much more to the National Theatre than 'the play'. Our recent visit to the National began with a delicious lunch in the Mezzanine restaurant which is just a convenient step or two away from the three perfoming spaces at the National. We regularly visit the RSC at Stratford where, although the restaurant occupies a delightful space at the top of the new RSC building with enchanting views over the river, the menu and cooking simply do not compare with that at the Mezzanine. The Mezzanine overlooks the River Thames and the best tables are, without doubt, by the window with an opportunity to watch the constant traffic on the river and the continual passeggiata along the embankment. 

My starter, Beet Salad with Candied Pecans

Smoked Salmon, pickled Cucumber and Beetroot Granita
Herb Crusted Pollock with petit pois

Plaice Goujons, Chips and chunky Tartar Sauce
An added attraction of eating in the Mezzanine is that one can eat dessert during the play's interval, a pleasant experience especially when accompanied by an appropriate tipple.

Sticky Toffee Black Forest Gateau!

Hmm I wonder what this was... whatever, it was delish
Lunch over and on to the play- I have never laughed as much at an eighteenth century play as I did at She Stoops to Conquer. Sarah Moyle was brilliant as Mrs Hardcastle.
 Her occasional ad libs surprised others in the cast who rose to them. As in One Man, Two Guvnors, the actors created deliberate interaction with their audience. This further enhances the comedy because they develop a sense of audience complicity in the developing storyline. There is not a weak performance in She Stoops to Conquer. At the end the audience stood and applauded.

It is possible to spend a whole day at The National if, in addition to having a delicious lunch and catching a show, you take a backstage tour which only costs a few pounds.

The Tour assembles by the Box Office
 On the tour you will see how the sets are built on huge dollies, platforms with wheels, that are trundled back and forth as the repertoire changes from day to day. The meticulousness of the organisation can be judged from small detail such as props laid out on tables, each labelled with actor and scene. Period authenticity is evident in the detail. Bottles of Guiness for Juno and the Paycock had corks rather than steel caps. You may not photograph the backstage sets because the copyright of the sets belongs not to The National Theatre but to the freelancers who execute the designs. On the tour you will see the prop store, costumes, armoury, carpentry shop and much more. It is a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the scenes. You can even make a close-up acquaintance with one of the war-horse puppets.

As the tour proceeds you will also see the dressing rooms and if you are lucky you might just bump into an actor in a backstage corridor or doing pre-show voice exercises on the dark Olivier stage. Our tour was conducted by a member of staff who was witty, entertaining and informative.

The empty Olivier

Exhibitions are constantly changing in the lobbies of the National Theatre. The current exhibitions are of London Print Makers and a collection of photographic portraits of actors present and past. Lunch-time musicans entertain in the ground floor lobby. The Bookshop has a comprehensive selection of books related to plays shown in the theatre over the years. There are often street entertainers and events with reference to theatre outside, spilling over onto the embankment, especially during the summer season.

So, you see, a visit to London's National Theatre can be a lot more than seeing a play. London's National Theatre is worth allowing time for, since it is not necessary to even go to see a play to have an enjoyable day out and a pleasant lunch or dinner.

The London Printmakers Exhibition in the Lobby


And finally a question. Have you seen something at The National Theatre that is memorable and that you would like to share?

Exterior at night

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Early Medieval Crafts- crosses and ornamental work

An interesting late seventh century Anglo-Saxon burial was, only last week, unearthed in Trumpington, a village near Cambridge. This early Saxon burial was that of a noble young lady and it is unusual in that her funeral involved a bed burial. Not many bed burials have been found. Yes, she was laid out on a bed, probably her own. As centuries fled past, the wood rotted away leaving only the iron bed brackets. However, an exquisite pectoral gold cross was discovered in her grave and this beautiful object has survived. Its discovery has led me, yet again, to consider the beauty of Anglo-Saxon crafts.

The gold cross found in the grave of the young Anglo-Saxon woman
gold and garnet pectoral cross from the bed burial unearthed March 2012 (photo, Cambridge University)

Making clay moulds

Brooches and crosses were generally crafted using a mould. First a pattern was made in the form of the casting needed. The pattern was then dusted with soot or stone dust to stop the clay adhering when the pattern was pressed into a pad of soft clay. The back of the object was moulded first so as to avoid damage to the casting during later work. The clay could not overlap the edges of the pattern as the pattern needed to be removed from the mould. The mould dried and hardened and was dusted again before a second pad of clay was modelled against the first. This second pad formed the impression for the face of the object, for instance a cross or a brooch.  As the clay began to harden yet again the two halves of the mould were separated and the pattern removed. Metal was carefully poured into the mould. The two halves of the mould were then placed together and fully dried ready for baking and use. Wax was another method used for moulds and was an easier material to work with. However, to a degree, if this process was used at the period of the bed burial, it is mostly a lost process because the use of wax results in the destruction of both the mould and pattern. We know that this wax process was favoured for bell casting.

Soldering the Objects

Gold objects were usually fabricated. Component parts of objects were soldered together. Soldering lamps have been found during excavations at Coppergate in York. They are thought to have contained beef fat and a wick; air was blown through a mouth-pipe onto a flame. This gave intense directed heat that was used in soldering precious and non-ferrous alloys.

Inlay and Decoration

One of the chief glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship was garnet inlay. Intricate and interlocking red stones were animated by the corrugated gold foil that lay between them. The Anglo-Saxons were also skilled at working wire and making glass, also used for decoration. Garnets were popular stones in Anglo-Saxon jewellery work as they were found in rocks and alluvial deposits throughout Europe. It is thought that Anglo-Saxon garnets travelled from as far away as Sri-Lanka and certainly from Bohemia.  In cloisonne work, the garnets were formed into thin plates which were then cut into geometric shapes and placed in cells often forming lattice-like designs. Gold cloisonne cells were soldered to a base-plate and to each other. That was only one of the techniques early medievals used. There were others such as setting gold into garnet.

I am always amazed by the delicacy and intricate craftsmanship of Anglo-Saxon metal work, the brooches, the decoration on swords and helmets and the sometimes flashy but generally gorgeous jewellery worn by men and women of rank. It is an aspect of late Anglo-Saxon life that I have incorporated into my writing of fiction set in the eleventh century and one which I have spent many hours pondering in the British Museum where there is a collection of exquisite early medieval objects extremely well displayed. When I visit the museum I feel closer to their world.

And, of course, we must not forget the Sutton Hoo Helmet. If men were buried with ships, helmets and swords during the long ago years of the seventh century, were, indeed, noble women occasionally buried with their beds as well as those lovely precious objects that reflected their earthly lives?
Have you ever found an object from the past? I would love to know.

Further Reading

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England edited by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg
Anglo-Saxon Crafts by Kevin Leahy

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Charms and Anglo-Saxon Medicine

When I came to research Early English medicine for The Handfasted Wife I found that there was no shortage of medical texts in the corpus of Anglo-Saxon writing. There are four books on healing in Old English and these are influenced by Classical learning on the topic. What I consider very interesting are 'middle practices'. This is the accommodation of Christianity to popular needs, the integration of native ideas with classical Christian concepts. It represents a Germanic-Christian world-view often referred to as Augustine.  Early medieval thinkers made little attempt to separate natural from supernatural.Nature was a revelation from God. All phenomena, all of nature, natural healing and miracles were understood as part of God's created natural order.

The Church consideration by the mid-eleventh century was that Magic was illusionary, a deception of the Devil to trap souls, and it is this that brings the Church into conflict with practitioners of folk remedies who  used religious chants whilst healing. Their charms lay in between magic and miracles. Yet, the Anglo-Saxon belief system asserted that God is the true leech or doctor, the one who controls sickness and health, and to achieve well being one must appeal to God. Below an illustration from Beowulf where the Devil, ever present, is waiting to catch man.

The monster in Beowulf as representative of the mouth of hell

All things were interconnected in the Anglo-Saxon world view. Charms were thus a logical part of the system of medicine. The idea of women as healers arises out of the problematic evidence of the condemnation of women's magic or witchcraft. It is likely that in the literate communities of early monasteries medicine was practised by men and women. There may have been a shift to the possession of healing power from lay wise women to clerical wise men. By the twelfth century there was a separation of spiritual and physical medicine. At the period of The Norman Conquest the practise of sympathetic magic and a lack of empirical observation may seem to us, at first glance, barbaric. Yet, the information in manuscript marginalia and in medical manuscripts themselves reveal a true grasp of herbs, anatomy, and a knowledge of medicine. The illustration below shows mugwort, a herb that became associated with witchcraft.

mugwort plant and it grows in hedgerows

         A Charm- Sing this prayer on the Black Ulcers nine times, first, the Pater Noster

Seek and you will find, I adjure you through the father and the son and the holy spirit. Do not grow any greater but dry up. Upon the asp and the basilisk you shall tread on the lion and the dragon.

               From The Trotula-  For the Pain of the Vagina after Birth

Take rue, mugwort and camphor, grind them well and, having prepared them with musk oil or penny royal oil and warmed them in a pot, wrap them in a cloth and insert as a suppository.

The Anglo-Saxon Herb Garden


Karen Louise Jolly-  Popular Religion in Late Anglo-Saxon England, Elf Charms in Context -University of North Carolina Press.

Steven Pollington-Leechcraft, Early English Charms, Plantlore and Heeling-Anglo-Saxon Books.

Bill Griffiths-Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic-Anglo-Saxon Books

Monica H. Green- The Trotula- An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine-University of Penn Press.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Mystery of Buildings in the Eleventh Century

The Handfasted Wife is my historical fiction in progress. It is about Edith Swanneck, the handfasted wife of Harold Godwin. In this novel locations include late Anglo-Saxon estates, abbeys and palaces such as the Cathedral and Palace at Westminster depicted in an illustration from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Harold is crowned King in the new Cathedral at Westminster, a stone building that was rebuilt in the 13thC
Not much is known on the historical record about Edith Swanneck. I speculate in my fiction that, after Harold set her aside in February 1066, in favour of a political alliance and marriage, he granted her one of the neglected family estates. I chose Reredfelle as it was a Godwin estate recorded in The Domesday Book and was situated on the Sussex-Kent border not too far from Hastings and half way to Winchester from Canterbury (where she is recorded as owning two town houses). As a consequence, Anglo-Saxon estates and all other buildings in my novel have been the subject of extensive research. I have discovered that the subject of building in this period is shrouded with difficulty.

The Late Anglo Saxon Manor

Many of the buildings from the early medieval period were built in wood and either have vanished leaving only post-hole evidence or they have been rebuilt during the succeeding centuries. Generally the Anglo-Saxons built with wood, although by the tenth century, as with the Anglo-Saxon church depicted below, they were building churches in stone.

According to Della Hooke, in the north, farmsteads and settlements probably contained stone buildings. By the eleventh century, in the south there was an established system of large open fields belonging to the manor that were farmed by slaves and villagers. The Anglo-Saxon manor at Cogges in Oxfordshire had a charter where twenty to fifty hides were set aside to be worked as outland with villages placed amongst them. A high status hall and compound would have been substantial. Small huts may have existed within the compound to be used as workshops, stores, sheds, byres, chicken runs and cookhouses. Local markets and trade expanded also during the peaceful years of the mid-eleventh century.

The Eleventh Century Hall

 During the eleventh century, high status building had changed from the simple wooden hall with a cluster of associated buildings into more sophisticated two-storied buildings with an assortment of separate kitchens and work buildings for storage and animals clustered around the hall. Mid-eleventh century halls were becoming manor houses and the area around them, as I suggest at Reredfelle, developed into the manor. Further afield the manor continued with a few small villages and hamlets attached to it. Excavated halls vary. Yavering in Northumberland is an early hall dating from the eighth century and consisted of a group of large halls lying on a single axis with smaller halls nearby. These halls were thirty-six feet by eighty-one feet and fourteen feet high with entrances to the centre of the long walls. End chambers formed part of the internal living space. There is also evidence that halls were plastered white inside. The hearth was placed in the centre and the porches had inner and outer doors. Often the hall had a steep roof and a wooden floor. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 978 A.D. speaks of the collapse of a first floor in a hall at Calne, depositing a king and councillors on the ground beneath. The photograph below shows a reconstructed one storied hall from the eleventh century.

An upper storey could exist half way along the hall with a wooden staircase allowing access. The second storey space could be used as one room and could even be used as a minstrels' gallery or it could be divided up. Underneath the upper storey, as at Cheddar, there were room divisions. I suggest that aristocratic buildings may have had an upper window with horn coverings, shutters of woven basketry and on occasion, just possibly, glass. High status buildings may have had tiled roofs as depicted below. In Winchester, small triangular wooden shingles have been found that are associated with the roofs of secular buildings. The illustration from The Bayeux Tapestry below shows that Harold's hall at Bosham had a second storey and an outside stairway. 

Often the exteriors were plastered, whitewashed and even painted in colour. Vine scroll ornament was used and dragons, too, were a favoured form of decoration. The poem Beowulf suggests that shields and tapestries were used as decorations in halls. Elaborate sundials on their own stone plinths were not uncommon in the garden areas of high status buildings.

Some buildings had cellars and airspaces designed to overcome dampness problems under wooden floors and occasionally the wooden floors were suspended.


Della Hooke suggests that at this time the settlement pattern was made up of isolated farmsteads and hamlets of labourers' cottages at crossroads or along patches of uncultivated land. Groups of people worked together communally with shared interests as diverse as mineral working, fishing or farming. Evidence of deliberate planning, according to Della Hooke, began as early as the seventh century. However, although charters exist from the tenth and eleventh centuries showing that the division of resources existed between peasants on a manor, nucleation became more general with the development of castle building after The Norman Conquest.

A Few Books on the Subject

John Blair, Anglo-Saxon Oxfordshire, Allen Publishing.
Della Hooke, Landscape and Settlement in Britain AD 400-1066, University of Exeter Press.
Mary Kerr, Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Shire Publications.
Fisher, Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Faber and Faber.
The Bayeux Tapestry (Look closely at the buildings depicted on the Tapestry).

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Winter In Amsterdam

Two weekends ago, Amsterdam, a most sophisticated European city, halted as snow fell and the canals froze over. On Friday all was hushed, traffic crept along the canal sides and bicycles were parked up, along bridges, by curbs, marooned.

We picked our way along slippery cobbles, over treacherous bridges and through narrow icy streets to warm museums, steamy cafes, or to eat in an almost empty restaurant close to our hotel where we watched comings and goings, to and froings, to a comedy club opposite.

There was no evidence of gritting the roads that day. In fact, there was a marked absense of snow ploughs. It meant that the city retained a pristine beauty that felt like we had slipped back in time. Tall houses built during the seventeenth century during Europe's mini ice age and Amsterdam's Golden Age have never looked more enchanting.

The Golden Age in Holland is still present on the network of city canals that expanded during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Gabled houses, so tall and narrow that each posesses outside hoists to lift furniture up and in through the windows, belonged to Amsterdam's wealthy Burghers. Many a merchant realised fabulous fortunes in shipping and trade. Amsterdam's history is preserved in the Historical Museum and in a museum dedicated to the adventures of the V.O.C., (the East India Company). Amsterdam began as a small medieval town during the twelfth century, simple medieval homes built up on piles in the marshland that bordered the Amstel river. When the river was dammed at the river mouth to create a harbour the town got its name and trade boomed.

On a harbour tour we caught a glimpse of a replica of a V.O.C. ship, and, later, as our boat ploughed through ice and into the city's canals the noise of ice breaking was deafening. In contrast, unpreturbed, ducks and swans glided gracefully and effortlessly around miniature ice flows. By the end of the weekend the canals had iced over. The adventurous were skating or participating in games of ice hockey. I imagined how colourful and exciting the frost fairs that were held on rivers and canals throughout Europe during the seventeenth century must have been.

At night street lights glimmered on the ice and snow hung amongst pollarded trees and covered statues on squares with a glistening coat. We passed a pleasant evening in Boom Chicago where the  nightly stand up satirical comedy shows are in English.

During the day we visited art galleries and museums. Of particular note is the Church in the Attic, a Catholic church that was established in secret in a tall house during the seventeenth century after Holland had embraced Protestantism. The house is now undergoing restoration and is, itself, a museum. One of my favourite places in the city is the Begijnhof (founded in the twelfth century) which was home to a medieval religious community of unmaried women, though not an order of nuns, who looked after the sick. It is still and hushed and it is one of the oldest courts in the city of Amsterdam, atmospheric and secluded, especially so in quiet, wintery weather.

This February the five villages skating race may happen. It takes place in Northern Holland but only when the canals freeze over and the last occurance was thirteen years ago. It reminds me of a magical long-ago journey. The first time I visited Holland was as a child, and before we set out on our great one month adventure from Belfast to Amsterdam in our black Morris Oxford car, my mother read us traditional Dutch stories including that of Hans Brinker and his skates and so numerous trips later I to this day remain utterly enchanted by this beautiful Northern European city, its buildings, museums, parks, snowy scenes and frozen canals.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

An Eye for Fashion, Photography by Norman Parkinson 1954-1964

Last weekend I took a stroll into the past. I was delighted to receive an invitation from our friend Angela Williams to attend the launch of an exhibition of original vintage prints by fashion photography Norman Parkinson. Angela was Parkinson's assistant during the early sixties. When he left his Twickenham studio she asked if she could have his surplus vintage silver prints. And so, decades later, thanks to Angela's efforts to save and preserve them, we were standing looking at an exhibition of wonderful photographs exquisitely displayed at the M Shed in Bristol's redeveloped dockland. The exhibition runs until 15th April and is worth a visit especially if you are writing in the period, if you are interested in the history of fashion or you simply enjoy lovely photographs well displayed. After April the photographs will travel to the U.S.

Another opening, another (special) show....
Entrance to exhibition at M Shed, Bristol
Michael, Angela's partner

Models (mannequins) wearing clothes from the period set off the photographs. Period wallpapers are tastefully chosen as a background for the models.

21st century meets 20th
Price label reads £3.10 shillings
Sixties tweed
Art in photographs

Angela and her partner hosted the opening and it was busy. The guests were almost, but not quite, as superbly dressed as the models in the photographs. How could they compete? None the less, the guests all looked beautiful having made a salute to the era with their own dress style and with their own individual accents. Dancers and singers were hired for the occasion. Canapes and cocktails were served in the rooms adjacent to the gallery there was a continuous buzz of enthusiastic conversation.

Get down
Hipster family
Classic Parkinson model
Bristol Gothic
Angela is the focus of attention under Parkinson's gaze
See exhibition caption below
A contrast in fashions
Baby Doll, Carol Baker
"Vicky Strevens wearing Slimma skirt with a Netawear top"

Then, of course there is the after show party which took place in The Living Room, a modern building in the clubbing and partying section of the redeveloped Docks. The finishes look expensive, and inside, the upper level is spanned by an interior bridge which allows unusual perspectives for people-watching. Incongruously, a white Baby Grand piano has on its lid a laptop computer from which the resident DJ orchestrates the cacophonous beats which target every nook and cranny like eardrum seeking sonic missiles. They make impossible any conversation which is more nuanced or intelligent than simple pick-up lines.

We retreat outside to the patio and in the glow generated by the infra-red heaters and the strong cocktails we gather around a few tables to review and discuss what was a fabulous evening.

The visit to this show was just the tonic for a chill January evening. It made me reflect on post-war optimism and the innocent fun associated with London during the Sixties. There were no mobile phones, TV had for most of the era two channels, videos were unheard of, and DVDs and personal computers were for the future. Yet, when I look at these photographs I feel the positivity of the era emanating from the background to many of these shots. The exhibition was for me, a keyhole into a past decade and now I feel like hunting out photographs of my own mother and looking closely at those hats and shoes and the little 1940s/ 1950s Jaeger suits she once apon a time wore. And perhaps, it is because of her that I , too, have always loved 'style' her term for fashion.

An Eye For Fashion, Norman Parkinson Photographs, British Designers 1954 - 1964 runs until 15th April.