Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.


Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

The Nether World – George Gissing (1889)


The Nether World is a Victorian perspective on the underground world of those mired in poverty and for whom there is little to no way out of their precarious situations. It’s not a happy read at all, and in fact, it’s rather hard to keep going at times as the sheer grind of hopelessness and filth never ever ends. However, I imagine that this is a more realistic depiction of how life was for the Victorian underclass of London and other large cities. Dickens also covered these lives of the unlucky masses, but at least he would tip the scales every now and then with some levity. Gissing – not so much.

It’s also a tale of intrigue covering, as it does, the possibility of inherited wealth from an elderly man, but as immediate wealth tends to do, it leads to unhappiness for many of those who believe that they may be in line to receive it. The world that Gissing’s characters inhabit is unrelenting in its tough life for each of the characters; there is no future to look forward to, just the day-to-day needs of food, water, and a roof over your head, and despite how grinding these descriptions were, I think it was actually these pictures that pulls you as the reader into the lives of these unfortunate people. Most of the characters have not done anything to deserve these hard lives – it was just an unlucky twist of birth and geography that seems to have thrown the majority of the people into these situations.

Still, despite the oppressiveness of this lack of resources, families still stick together (not always happily), and most people work and continue to live their lives even if they do end up living at the bottom of the financial pile with few options to escape out of their worlds.

Gissing was a naturalistic writer (i.e. didn’t sugar-coat things and has a strong sense of location), and this is demonstrated by the way that the entire book is set in this dark poor world. No one escapes to the world of money. People dream of doing so, but their dreams end up thwarted, and I imagine that this POV echoes reality of the time: how does someone born into poverty escape it without getting money for education, useful work experience, knowing the right people? (Not so different from nowadays, one could argue…)

As a rather long book for me (404 pages), this title clearly falls into the Scary Big Book category but as I have learned to read huge-page-count projects on my ancient Kindle (as opposed to a physical copy), it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it might have been. (I tend to get rather intimidated by large page numbers – not by the content, just the numbers. Nutty, I know.) If I’m honest though, I must admit that the middle bit was rather b-o-r-i-n-g and the number of characters was a bit confusing at times. Uncertain whether to blame the author or me about that!

So – a rather glum read overall. I’ve read other Gissing’s (New Grub Street and The Odd Women), but I think I might be done with him now…

The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey and Dan Danzinger (1999)


Subtitle: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium.

Having read other really enjoyable history books by Lacey here, here,  and here, I knew that I was going to be in for another good read. Lacey is extremely good at writing about serious topics such as history whilst infusing his books with a great dry sense of humor every now and then which I particularly enjoyed…  (More so in his other books than this one, but it still pops up every now and then. Lacey has also made it on my Ultimate Dinner Party List for 2014 although that date and the complete guest list is still TBD. Just FYI.)

As the book description reads, “The Year 1000 is a vivid and surprising portrait of life in England a thousand years ago – a world that already knew brain surgeons and property developers, and yes, even the occasional gossip columnist…”

(Above) - Robert Lacey.

(Above) – Robert Lacey.

I really enjoy learning about social history of times past, much more so than the political and military side of things, and so this book was right up my alley. I don’t have much any background in Medieval history (apart from early junior high years and the endless watching of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail during the college years), but I did have a general idea of it being cold, dark and muddy. In reading Lacey and Danzinger’s book, I realized that it was a lot more than that. (Isn’t that usually the way?)

As it was such a great read packed with info, I’ve done this in note form of some items that were of particular interest to me:

  • The history of the half-penny: Back in these times, coin-making was a lengthy multi-step hand-made process which usually resulted in a probably thin coin called a penny. If an item cost less than a penny, then people would literally just cut the coin into half and so it would be exactly – one half-penny. (This might only ring a bell to English people of a Certain Age, but there you go…)
  • England’s system of geographical divisions into counties and towns started in the 10th and 11th centuries. To collect taxes, kings needed to have administrative centers in the middle of their areas (called shires) and so most counties with that suffix (-shire) were formed at that time. (For example, the county where I am from is called Bedfordshire and the town Bedford so therefore, it was coined at that time.)
  • Any English city name which ends in a “-burgh” or “-borough” (like Peterborough and similar) came about during the reign of King Alfred the Great (who was a really cool king, btw). Most of England at that time was rural in small villages, and with the Vikings on the invasion from the North, Alfred organized the villages into larger units for better protection and called them “burgs”. Now you know…
  • Living in Texas (as I do now), there’s quite a bit of talk about the sheriff, the title of which actually originated back in the tenth and eleventh century with the development of shires in England. Taxes and other administrative duties needed to be centralized and the sort of CEO in charge of each shire was called the “shire reeve” which developed into “sheriff”.
  • Here’s a probable history of the word “carpenter”: Going back to Roman times, Romans were generally in admiration of the Celtic-designed two-wheel carts common in those times which the Romans called a “carpentum”. Those who had the skills to make such a cart were thus called carpenters…. Huh.
  • When Romans first invaded Britannia, there were smaller settlements called “civis” (from the root word civilization). People who did not live in these contained communities were literally “uncivilized”… (Those Romans were very fact-based…)
  • One of the common punishments for a thief caught in the act during the year 1000 was to have to hold a red-hot poker in his/her hands and then walk forward for nine excruciating steps. His wound was then dressed and left alone for the period of one week. If, at the end of that time, the dressings were removed and the wound was healing and coming along nicely, then that suspect was an innocent. If, however, the burn was infected on his/her hands, then that signaled a guilty verdict and punishment was meted out accordingly. Thus, the term “red-handed”. (Punishment was, at that time, sentenced to hang until you die.)

And just an interesting point: close to the English town where I grew up, a village called Caxton used to have a historic reconstruction of a reputed old gibbet (where people would hang as punishment for crimes committed), and as it was on the same road that our family took to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we would always look out for it with ghoulish glee as it meant we were that much closer to tea-time. (This particular gibbet was mostly used for highway robbery, I think, but still theft of one kind or another. This location was also reputedly used for the “cage variation” of the gibbet, whereby live victims were placed in a small cage hanging from the top log and the victim would stay there until they died from starvation, dehydration or exposure. Bodies were kept there after death as a warning to passersby.)

“Come on now. Don’t mind the old instrument of death — let’s have a cup of tea, dear…”



Great Tales from English History: Volume I – Robert Lacey (2003) – Part II

And the sharing of knowledge gleaned from Lacey’s Volume II continueth:

  • Days of the week history:
  • In the fourth century, King Ethelbert (a pagan sovereign in England) married Bertha (who happened to be a Christian). Since the nation was divided in its loyalties to both Christianity and several pagan beliefs, the king wanted to find a way to blend the very different belief systems. And thus, the days of the week were born. (Did they not have days of the week before now?)

Sun-day and Moon-day (pagan belief)

Tiw’s Day (Germanic god of war)

Woden’s Day (Germanic god of wisdom)

Thor’s Day (Germanic god of thunder)

Freya’s Day (Germanic god of love)

                     Saturn’s Day (Roman idea in pre-Christian days)

  • Lady Godiva who is generally thought to have ridden through her town naked on a horse to protest her ruling husband’s tax increases. The word “naked” used to mean “unadorned” and would commonly refer to whether you were wearing jewels or not. (So she probably wasn’t actually without clothes, but more likely in very plain clothes without all the expensive sparkles that would usually be worn.)
  • “Peeping Tom” – again linked with Lady Godiva. When Lady G. was riding her horse through the town, legend has it that all the townspeople closed their house shutters out of respect for her nakedness. All except one naughty tailor called Thomas who couldn’t resist the urge to have a looksie. Legend has it that he was punished by being struck blind immediately after this. Thus the “Peeping Tom” phrase. See?….

bedeAnd then there was the 6th century monk Venerable Bede  (“venerable” meaning old/ancient, “bede” is an old word meaning “prayer”*). What’s notable about him is that he wrote the first written history of England called “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. He was a polymath and wrote more than 65 other books on topics ranging from the Bible, science, spelling, astronomy, sea tides etc.

He also seemed to have a positive interpretation of life. Take this, for example:

Bede’s interpretation of life:

 It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window in the hall and out through the other. While he is inside, the bird is safe from winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So, man appears on earth for a while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.

When he was dying, he was working on finishing one of his books with his pupils, and knowing that the end was near, told them:

“Learn quickly now for I do not know how much longer I will live.”

Seemed like good advice for everyone and that he was a rather cool monk to me.

robert_laceyI’ve already read Volume III of this series (which was equally as good) and I highly recommend these reference books as readable and accessible collections of events over the years, many of which I had heard of but had no clear picture of what the details really were (from a historical perspective). It’s scholarly but approachable, and Lacey has a very sly sense of humor that creeps in every now and then (and which I thought was hilarious at times). If I was going to ask someone interesting to dinner, I’d definitely invite Mr. Lacey as he is a great raconteur.

The middle volume is left for me to look at, and I’m so looking forward to reading it. Just need the contents in this volume to marinate a bit as there was so much to take in. Loved it.

  • Note to self: I wonder if that is related to my home town’s name of “Bedford”. I’ve always heard mention of it stemming from “St, Bede’s Ford” so it might be that it refers to this guy. He was actually made into a saint after he had died…


Bedford, my home town in Bedfordshire, England. One of my favorite places to visit when I go home to UK.

Great Tales from English History: Volume I – Robert Lacey (2003) – Part I


Searching for a more-or-less guaranteed good read, I picked up Volume One of Robert Lacey’s Great Tales from English History, part of a three-volume collection of tales from England’s long and storied history. Yes, I am English, but there is so much history out there (at least for England), that I felt there were significant gaps in my knowledge about England’s green and pleasant land of long ago.

Lacey is a very good conduit for these tales as he tells them in an interesting and witty manner without skimping on facts or taking too many liberties. In this volume, he covered the early historical events ranging from the Cheddar Man to the signing of the Doomsday Book to Ethelred the Unready and the Norman Conquest, and he does so in such a way that it’s a fascinating read to me. I did start off putting Post-It flags into the interesting pages and then realized that the whole book was going to be flagged in the end, so I just took notes of bits and pieces that really struck me in some way.

As I found this book to be really interesting, this blog post is in two parts. Part One is here.

Here are some of the notes that I took:

  • Boudicca/Boadicea and her link with Harry Potter: boudicca

Boadicea was a famous warrior queen who fought as fiercely as her troops did. In her last battle in London, she was felled by a sword and died where she landed on the battle field. That is also where, years later, the King’s Cross rail station was built and her grave is believed to be underneath where Platform 10 has been built. And that’s why HP’s Hogwarts Express leaves at Platform 9 ¾ – out of respect for the ancient warrior queen.

  • Hair cut monk wars: There was a time when the northern Celtic monks were vying for religious domination with the southern Roman monks who were more focused on the Pope side of Christianity. The monk hair cut (called a tonsure) was important to how people believed, with the Pope-ish monks having a shaved bald patch on top of their heads with a thin circle of hair around the head just above the temples (a la the stereotypical monk image).

monk_hairThe northern Celtic monks, however, preferred a look that was closer to the Druids and shaved the front of their heads along a line going from ear to ear with the back of their heads having long cascading rather dirty locks. Eventually, the southern monk haircut won out…


  • Why the town of Bury St. Edmund is called that. (I grew up hearing this town’s name a lot as it was in the same region that I lived.)

In the ninth century, Vikings invaded the north of England (one of many invasions by them) and as they came south to East Anglia, they met King Edmund who ruled the East Angle group. Edmund refused to change his religion to that of the invaders, and so was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, thus making him a martyr. Another legend of his death was that he died in the Norse tradition of “carving the blood eagle”: the ribs are cut away from the spine whilst still alive, and then the victim’s lungs are pulled out through that empty rib space and are spread across the back like a pair of eagle wings. (Yikes. Brutal.) In the tenth century, Edmund’s remains were relocated to a new place that became a place of pilgrimage and was called – wait for it – “Bury St. Edmunds”.

  • King Alfred the Great (the king who is legendary for burning the cakes) was a ninth century ruler and is the only sovereign in history to be given the title of “Great” in English history. He was very forward-thinking and believed that education was important for his subjects (one of the few who did). My favorite quotation from him: “The saddest thing about any man is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.”

Thus endeth the part the first. The sermon continueth on another day.

The Great Filth: Disease, Death and the Victorian Life – Stephen Halliday (2009)


” The greatest achievements of the Victorian era was…to accept that national and local government had a responsibility for the health, education and welfare of citizens, as well as for defense against foreign invasion and domestic justice…”

As you may already know, I am a Fangirl of Victorian social history, and so this was quite a good read. I especially enjoyed and appreciated the slightly different slant that Halliday used here – instead of most of it being about doctors, this covers a lot of the public health improvements in London (and elsewhere) were due to the diligent efforts of civil engineers and architects, as well as mathematicians and others.

pumpThis title covers both the famous and infamous of Victorian medicine – the discovery of the infected well water during an epidemic (Snow et al.), the acceptance and training of midwives, the realization of good hygiene between doctor and patient, the glacial acceptance of germ theory as opposed to the miasma theory – the topics were really interesting to me (especially when considered in the light of our recent visit to the Hunterian Museum in London ).

Some of the theory behind medicine at that time is startling to the modern eye in places. Not washing one’s hands between patients? Eeuw. There was more than one cholera outbreak during the nineteenth century, one of which occurred in 1832. As medical theory at that time did not conceive of germs being in the water (as opposed to the air)*, the London Board of Health came up with the following recommendations for its citizens to prevent cholera transmission:

* Consumption of large amounts of roast beef (assuming you could afford that)
• Poorer people should eat loads of potatoes and stale bread (the mold was thought to have healing powers)
• Avoid excess fruit and vegetables (obviously not washed and cleaned at this time)
• Finally, use brandy, laudanum, ammonia, sulphuric acid for treatment/prevention and…
• Apply mix of hot bricks and boiling water to the affected areas (Yikes)

When Victorian people became ill, there were very few options with which to treat them regardless of how old you were: “Lying-In” hospitals came to the fore where pregnant women would confine themselves to wait for their oncoming birth. (Thus, the use of the word “confinement” as linked to pregnancy. Just saying anything to do with a bodily function would repel well-bred Victorians for the most part.) In fact, if you were pregnant, you sort of hoped that you wouldn’t be put into one of the maternity hospitals as the mortality rate of both mother and child were significantly higher in them than outside.) Midwives were available, but had no formal training (apart from helping at other births, perhaps), and the doctors were initially opposed to formalizing the midwife profession fearing it would take money from their side of the equation… (The more things change…)

0ld-surgery_1Anesthesia was also quite a new technique, but it also increased the infection rate of the patients involved. Before anesthesia, surgery was very painful but very quick. After using anesthesia, the surgeons could take more time and care to be accurate while wielding a scalpel but the longer exposure of open wounds to the polluted air (and environment) also meant that death rates would increase for a while. Joseph Lister was the guy who helped to introduce the necessary steps in anesthesia and hygiene that would bring this death rate down. (BTW, Queen Victoria was one of the first women in the UK to ask for anesthesia during the births of some of her children. After that, there was a big trend for it, of course, when patients could afford it.)

Joseph Bazelgette, a civil engineer, was instrumental in improving the drainage in London and its surrounding areas, and in fact, when you walk along some of the embankments next to the Thames, you are walking on top of the great Victorian drains that he designed and that made such a big difference to the public’s health at that time.

“…the principal role in preventive medicine was taken, half knowingly by civil engineers…”

So, as mentioned briefly, there was a ton of good info in this book. However… (Now, I realize that this could sound nit-picky, but it still affected my reading experience nevertheless.) Halliday used different references whenever he referred to a male or female person who had played a role in this history. Men were first mentioned with first name/last name format, and then referred after that by last name only.
Women were first mentioned first name/last name format, but then referred to after that by their first names only. (So – Louis Pasteur/Pasteur or Florence Nightingale/Florence.) This irked me quite a lot as I thought it was infantilizing the women and their achievements and I was not happy with that. At first, I thought it was an editing error, but as the read continued, it was clear that it was an editing decision. My, my, my. Published in 2009 so not that old a book, so I am curious why the book was formatted in that manner…

*The word Malaria reflects this miasma theory: “Mal” is “bad” and “aria” is “air”… Fascinating when you think about it (at least to me).

Going Home, Coming Home…

My home town, Bedford, is famous for its suspension bridge and the river.

My home town, Bedford, is famous for its suspension bridge and the river.

Have just returned from a visit (with DH) to England where we walked in some gentle continuous rain, strolled around country lanes, caught up with some friends and family, and am now firmly ensconced back in Texas. I enjoy traveling, and I really like coming home. (I am hopeless at living out of a suitcase, I’m afraid.)

The plane ride out there felt a bit like this (see pic below).

anchovy can(I think the seats were designed for humans who have normal-sized torsos and toddler-length legs.) Luckily, the plane ride passed quite quickly. Still, the first thing that we did when we arrived at my mum’s house was to purchase Economy-Plus seats which made for a much roomier and more comfortable ride back to US. (Recommended for anyone flying United and who has long-ish legs.)

The trip was great and the weather was just what we were looking for: coldish, rainy (some days) and just lovely for us (since we live in a semi-arid climate). We managed to meet up with a few long-time friends (Hi Gaynor and Rozalind!) and have a delicious dinner with our favorite uncle whilst looking out over most of London’s skyline glittering under a night sky.

Cambridge view

Cambridge view

My mum was a lovely host, and kindly transported us to Cambridge where we gawked at the architecture (has it always been this fantastic?), had a cuppa tea at Auntie’s Tea Shop, and, of course, found a great second-hand children’s classic bookshop called The Haunted Bookshop. It’s a tiny place and packed with books, but lots of nostalgic fun for both mum and I as we came across books from long ago.

Another memorable visit was to Cambridge’s American war cemetery which was very moving and a complete contrast to the higgledy-piggedly layout of your more typical English graveyard. It also happened to be Remembrance Sunday in UK which made it all the more special as poppy wreaths had been laid to commemorate the men who had died in war (mostly WWI, it seemed). It was a very poignant experience to see the hundreds of white markers and see the names of all who had died, including those whose bodies were never found. Definitely makes one think about the futility of war.

What was also special was how widespread the appreciation of the veterans’ sacrifices was across the communities, and how the day is taken seriously. (Poppies serve as a symbol of those who have died in action and are worn on your clothing in memory.) (I think this is a big contrast to Veteran’s Day in the US which seems to be mostly an excuse for retail sales. Perhaps the reality of war is closer for English people as the island is only a few miles from France and it was a real-life concern that England could be invaded?) Whatever the reason, thanks to the vets who served to protect country!

Poppy Day is held on November 11 each year in remembrance of those who died in service during wars.

Poppy Day is held on November 11 each year in remembrance of those who died in service during wars.

London was a bit overwhelming. Walking around, I kept remembering the old Grace Jones song which has a line which says “tourists limping home having bitten off more than they could chew”… You definitely need a plan if you visit. We visited Trafalgar Square and the fantastic (and free!) National Portrait Gallery. It has been a long time since I’ve been in an established art museum, and this was really enjoyable. (It did remind me of the character Mrs. Bridges (by Evan Connell) when she visited one of the Parisian art museums and saw the original Mona Lisa for the first time…)

Then we went and had a sit-down and a lengthy browse at the Waterstone’s on Piccadilly (which is the largest bookshop in Europe – you know I couldn’t resist that.) Had a fun time browsing through the thousands and thousands of books and only bought one. (Kudos to me, I think.) By then, we were knackered and it was time to visit my uncle who lives in the Barbican area (very arty) and to drink champagne and eat great food looking over the city lights.

A visit to the Shard was on the books as well (thanks to mum), and this was super. It’s one of the highest and newest buildings in London (and Europe) and we were lucky to have a clear day with no rain, mist or low-hanging clouds so the views were spectacular.

Looking up at the Shard.

Looking up at the Shard.

And then came the piece de resistance – I finally found the Hunterian Museum, a collection of historical medical artifacts from the Royal College of Surgeons going back in time as far as the Egyptian mummies. I am very interested in medical things for various reasons, and have been longing to visit this place for years. It’s rather hard to find though, and so it had turned into my own personal White Whale for the last few trips to London. It’s an amazing journey through time and features medical-related items ranging from dissected pregnant sparrows to skeletons and ulcerated stomach linings, and it’s all done in such a good presentation. After looking at some of the older surgical instruments and seeing how they were used, I became very grateful that I have benefited from modern medicine! (Early peoples used pointed rocks for rudimentary brain surgery with no pain management – ouch.)

Most of the museum’s collection came from Sir John Hunter who was one of England’s Victorian surgeons (thus the name Hunterian Museum) and it was excellently curated. So – although this place may have been hard to find, it was well worth it and I recommend it if you have even the slightest interest in historical medicine.

And then fish (or, in my case, sausage in batter) and chips with my bro and his family made the day complete.

And, of course, I managed to let a few books squeak through in my suitcase, but those, my friends, are for another post.

Chips - the national food.

Chips – the national food.

London Calling…

clash_albumWith our trip to UK coming up, I’ve been doing some swotting to give us at least some direction when we land – London’s a big place and I’m as much a tourist as anyone else seeing how I’ve lived in the US for a long time. Didn’t want to arrive at St. Pancras and then go “Hmm. Where shall we go?” so have been doing some prep work. (And you know me – I love that sort of stuff.)

book247So – decided to get some of English history sorted out and whilst wandering the library aisles came up with this one: Great Tales of English History Volume III by Robert Lacey. (There were also Volume I and Volume II but they cover earlier pieces of English history when I really enjoy the nineteenth century more than anything.) So – this was an extremely readable collection of famous English history events and people (like Dick Turpin and Dick Whittington and cricket). I still don’t really understand cricket (the game itself), but at least now I know the history of the Ashes!

The History of the Ashes in cricket:
In 1882, England was defeated by Australia in one of their big matches. A newspaper reported on this result along with a mock obituary of English cricket that concluded that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” This led to the burning of a cricket stump which was put into a cremation urn and then taken to the English team next time the Aussies played them. Thus became the ASHES. I think they live permanently in Lord’s Cricket Grounds (N. London), which is the HQ of the Marylebone Cricket Club (or MCC) which is cricket’s governing body (established in 1787). The English cricket team traveled under the name of MCC until 1976.

So now you know.

What I really enjoyed about Lacey’s book was his light-handed touch and excellent sense of humor which would creep in every now and then. The book chapters were arranged chronologically, and mixed up famous historical events with other ones that I was not familiar with. For example, Lacey mentions the Tolpuddle martyrs, Spion Kop, Dr. Crippin (Victorian murderer who was chased, Victorian style, like OJ Simpson and his ridiculous car “chase”). And Lacey also covered notable women who played roles in English history such as Edith Cavell  (provided safe shelter for English POW in WWI in Belgium) and Mary Seacole  (who was a nurse at the same time as Florence Nightingale but gets less press as she was a person of Afro-Caribbean descent).

Anyway, all fascinating stuff and filled in some holes in my historical knowledge. (It’s quite interesting how quite a few Americans ask very detailed historical questions and are then bemused when I don’t happen to know the answer to some esoteric inquiry. I think I’ve increased my chances of at least looking like I’ve heard of what they mention now… )

book248And then I read London: A History by A. N. Wilson, again another series of essays covering history but this one was much more *serious* and I had to rather gird my loins to pick it up and read it sometimes. However, Wilson is a good writer and again covered various chronological events in London’s history from Romans to Ken Livingstone. This was certainly not as easy a read as the previous Lacey book, but was focused towards a different audience, I would imagine. Each chapter picks an aspect of the city’s history as time moves past Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, Dickens with the most recent title being 1940’s Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (which Wilson loves). Wilson also really admires fellow writer Peter Ackroyd – he mentions him a few times and the book is dedicated to him. Wilson is obviously a Fanboy about him for some reason. Perhaps I should get my courage up and read the brick of a book that Ackroyd wrote about London. (Cue: SBB Challenge here.)

So – Wilson was a good read, but he gets a bit serious and a bit grumpy in places. Lacey was the funner read. If you also have some holes in your British/English history, this is a fun intro book that covers a lot of years with minimal fuss:
Remember, Remember: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About British History with all the Boring Bits Taken Out – Judy Parkinson (2009). (It’s not deep or scholarly, but it is fun to read.)

Magnificent Obsession– Helen Rappaport (2011)

Rappaport book cover

“For me, life came to an end on 14 December. My life was dependent on his, I had no thoughts except of him, my whole striving was to please him, to be less unworthy of him…”

Queen Victoria, letter to King of Prussia, 4 February 1862.

Subtitle: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy.

A fascinating read about the life of Queen Victoria once she had married Prince Albert and how he affected the UK monarchy after he died, a lot of which I did not know. Rappaport is a Victorian and Russian scholar and so this is a well written historical study, but it’s also very accessible without losing its academic credibility.

vic1As you are probably aware (if you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time), I am somewhat obsessed about Victorian social history, and have not yet delved that deeply into the Royal Family of that time. Growing up in England, I was aware of numerous references to Prince Albert (road names, monuments, halls, etc.) but knew very little about who this Albert was (apart from being linked by marriage to Queen Victoria) so this was a very enlightening read for me.

There are monuments to Albert spread out across England and Scotland (and Wales?), and I can only imagine how much money was spent on this years-long project. The Frogmore mausoleum (where Albert was buried) cost thousands of dollars, took years to build and went way over budget. Victoria had her own personal set of keys to this building and would spend time there daily communing with “dear Albert” on the day’s events and decisions.  (See pic below.)

“…[T]urning the performance of grief into her very own personal art form…” , Rappaport describes how Victoria marries Albert quite young, and happily turns over the nuts and bolts of running the throne to her shy but capable husband. It was fascinating to me that Victoria’s advisors allowed this transfer of power to occur, but perhaps it was so incremental and Victoria was so independent that nothing could be done. Not sure….

In the end, Victoria had given so much authority and power to Albert (including all of her self esteem, it seems), that when he died, she just gave up. She refused to complete her duties (apart from minimal letter-signing etc.) and both her and Albert’s Personal Secretaries despaired of her. Due to her removal of herself from public life of any sort and her extreme grief, Victoria almost single-handedly destroyed the monarchy and its reputation.

And yet, at a later point in her long reign, she also bought it back from the brink of destruction. It’s interesting to think what would have happened if she hadn’t got her act together for the last years – the Victorian public were seriously annoyed with her and her withdrawal as it dragged on for decades, and it is quite reasonable to look back at the signs and think that it might have gone against her and turned the UK in a republic.

vic2(Above: Frogmore Mausoleum)

The image of Victoria gradually changes over time as she sticks to her guns: she morphs from being viewed as a stubborn selfish ruler to one who represented solidity, respectability and “a benevolent matriarchal widow”, but it was definitely a struggle to get there from where she was.

She and Albert had nine children, and the elder offspring played an important role in nursing Albert during his fatal illness and then looking after Victoria once he had died. As the years of strict mourning turned into decades for the Court, both Victoria’s family and her advisors were pretty concerned about her lack of involvement in the running of the country – she fled to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight and to her place in Scotland, and it was there in Scotland that she met John Brown, one of the employees of her estate up there. (That’s a whole other story right there…)

To me, it looks like Victoria was pretty controlling (childishly so) throughout her life – her mother was pretty awful to her so there’s probably a lot of issues linked with that. First, Victoria handed over the reins of her throne to Albert and then, when he died, she kept a tight hold on everything (control again) despite remonstrations from Parliament, and only when she had met and was comfortable with Brown, did she relinquish her control of things (or decide to join in again with the Royal duties). She sounds as though she was a real pain, controlling to be controlling, refusing to take advice, and when she did do some work, allowed outside influence to play a major role in her position.

Her own family was not without its problems, with Bertie (Prince of Wales) being a big party guy and womanizer, and the daughters playing a very helpful role but who could not be in line for the throne. (Glad that is different now.)

I was also rather fascinated by the available medical knowledge at the time (which is to say not much), and then also how strictly Victoria embraced the funeral customs of the time. (The sale of black cloth for mourning clothes more or less saved the cloth industry at the time.)

In the palace world, there was a Physician-in-Ordinary (around 1840+) and then her closest doctor, Sir William Withey Gull* (1859) who had the incredible title of Physician-Extraordinary.  Medical knowledge was rather basic back then, and so once someone became seriously ill, it was really luck of the draw as to what happened.

Extra note: QEII does not have a Physician-Extraordinary any more. Instead, she has a doc who is “Physician to the Queen” who is chief officer of the Medical Household of the Royal Household of the Sovereign of the UK. This position was created in 1973, and there are two positions. Traditionally, a senior Royal Navy surgeon accompanies the Queen on her travels abroad.

So – as you can tell, I found this to be a great read and it came with a lengthy bibliography for further reading. (Always a lovely touch, I think. More books!)

And here’s an article from the UK’s Daily Mail about one of Queen Victoria’s mourning outfits going up for sale…. It’s got a picture of her knickers – I imagine she is turning in her grave at this intrusion. 😉

And here’s an article from the journal, Medical History, with more details about Queen Victoria’s Medical Household (author: A. M. Cooke).  Fascinating if you like that sort of thing…

* Randomly enough, this guy Gull was also named as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murder case. Well I never….  You learn something new everyday. 🙂