Writing Portfolio


The Bayeux Tapestry

So, the Bayeux Tapestry is to be displayed in this country for the first time? Well I for one am delighted to hear this. There’s a personal reason, for it’s the Bayeux Tapestry that first got me interested in history when I went on a family holiday in Normandy in 1987 (we visited Bayeux, among other places, and a few months later there was a school trip down to Kent and Sussex which included a visit to Battle Abbey – and that, as they say, was that).

The most famous depiction of the events of 1066 – the most famous date in English history, for that was a year of three Kings and two invasions – the Bayeux Tapestry was probably made in the 1070s under the orders of Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. It is actually an embroidered cloth rather than a tapestry (although ‘Bayeux Embroidered Cloth’ just sounds wrong) and measures 230 feet by 20 inches. An alternative theory is that it was made at the orders of (or even by) William’s wife, Queen Matilda, which is why it’s sometimes known in French as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. The Odo theory is more likely, though, and not just because the man himself makes an appearance. He is seen fighting at the battle of Hastings, albeit armed with a club rather than a sword (perhaps symbolic of his clerical status, although it’s worth noting that William himself is shown carrying a club into battle too, so maybe it was a sign of seniority). 

Odo was the Bishop of Bayeux, and after the Conquest he also became the Earl of Kent which supports the theory that the Tapestry was actually made in England. The earliest known reference to the Tapestry dates back to 1476, when it was mentioned in an inventory of Bayeux Cathedral which it had probably been made to adorn. Bayeux was where William made Harold promise that he would support his (William’s) claim to the English throne, although the cathedral itself wasn’t consecrated until 1077.

Although obviously intended to tell the story of the Norman Conquest from the Normans’ perspective – to the extend that King Harold’s victory over the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge and subsequent twelve-day march from York to Sussex in order to fight William doesn’t get a look-in – it’s not all one-sided propaganda. William did not recognise Harold as the rightful King of England after Edward the Confessor’s death in early 1066 (indeed, as far as he was concerned Harold had promised to support him), but Harold is nevertheless shown on the Tapestry with the regalia of kingship and explicitly named as England’s King (the text reads Harold Rex Anglorum – Harold, King of the English – the first King of England to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, in fact). It’s a funny way of depicting someone who, according to the brother of the man who had the Tapestry made, had no right to be King. Maybe the English seamstresses who stitched the Tapestry were being a bit subversive.

In Harold’s death scene, the famous arrow-in-the-eye could well be more propaganda than fact, because perjurers were commonly punished in Medieval times by way of having weapons poked through their eyes. William’s claim to the throne would be upheld by depicting Harold as an oath-breaker, which this is evidently an attempt at doing (whether Harold was coerced into promising support for William is, of course, another matter although it does seem likely). Other historical sources state that the King was hacked to death by some Norman knights, and indeed the very next scene shows a man, who may well also be Harold, being slain by way of a sword.

There is also a depiction of some Norman brutality towards the English – they’re shown as burning down someone’s house, although given the brutal and ruthless way in which William would later deal with any English resistance to his rule, perhaps that is to be expected.

The Tapestry is also unfinished, or rather incomplete – for the end is missing. When it was first made, it would doubtless have brought the story of the Norman Conquest to a conclusion by showing the (remaining) English nobles surrendering to William at Berkhamstead, and William’s subsequent coronation on Christmas Day, 1066, although for as long as people have been studying the Tapestry that part has not been there. There have been attempts in modern times to make the final part, though, as witness the 2013 effort by over 400 people on Alderney. As it is, the last (remaining) scene on the Tapestry shows the English fleeing from the battlefield.

The Tapestry did not become widely known until the eighteenth century. After the 1476 inventory, the next reference we have to the Tapestry is in 1724. The first detailed account of it in English was written in the 1730s but not published until the 1760s, although William Stukeley, the antiquarian who has cropped up on this blog before in relation to Avebury, mentioned it in a 1743 book of his. During the French Revolution it narrowly avoided being used as covering for wagons, and after Napoleon Bonaparte came to power it was displayed in Paris for the purposes of propaganda – this was, after all, a depiction of a successful invasion of England. It remained in Paris, and by the Second World War it was on display in the Louvre – the SS tried to have it shipped to Berlin when the liberation was imminent, but fortunately they were not successful. After the war, it was moved back to Bayeux. It’s been there, in its own museum near the cathedral, ever since. Previous attempts to have the Tapestry moved to England on a temporary basis – for the Coronation in 1953, and later for the 900th anniversary of the battle of Hastings in 1966 – have not been unsuccessful, and tests will need to be done on it to make sure that it can be safely moved. The question of where it will be displayed is also one that will need to be addressed.

Getting back to the tapestry itself, some of the detail is fascinating – we see people hunting and ploughing the fields while the political/military stuff is going on above them, and Westminster Abbey makes an appearance, as God blesses it (yes, He’s there too) in time for the funeral of Edward the Confessor, the man who built it. This, weirdly, is shown before Edward’s death scene. 

Halley’s Comet appears in the sky. 

Then there are the oddities which are part of what makes the Bayeux Tapestry such a fascinating piece or artwork. Why, for example, is Edward the Confessor shown dying after his funeral? And, on a more trivial matter, are the invading Normans really eating kebabs? It looks like they are.

And, of course, what’s with the naked people in the, ahem, bottom section? There’s a man doing what appears to be a carpentry job in the buff, while his friend looks like he’s doing some exercises!

When a full-size replica was made in the 1880s, the naked people were given underpants; that version is on display in Reading, while there are other replicas of the Tapestry in North America and Denmark.


Two Scottish novels

Following on from my visit to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, I’ve recently been reading a couple of books by Scottish authors – John Buchan and Ian Rankin, both of whom happen to be favourite writers of mine. One is a tale of cruelty and intolerance in the Lowlands of the seventeenth century, the other a story of murder and violence in modern Edinburgh.

First published in 1927, Witch Wood is one of John Buchan’s historical novels, and as such there’s a lot more depth to this than there is in what he called his ‘shockers’ – think Midwinter rather than The Power-House and Greenmantle. Buchan himself thought of it as his best novel. It’s set in Scotland at the time of the Civil War, an age of religious extremism which came in the form of the Presbyterian-inspired Solemn League and Covenant. In such an age, those who sided with Charles I could expect to be denounced as traitors and hunted down without mercy (their leader, the Marquis of Montrose – also the subject of a biography by Buchan, and who makes a brief appearance in Witch Wood – was a particular hate-figure), while by contrast it was not unknown for apparently upstanding and devout Covenanters to privately dabble in crime and devil-worship (Major Thomas Weir of Edinburgh being the most notorious example).

Witch Wood is the story of David Sempill, a newly-ordained Church of Scotland minister sent to a Lowland village called Woodilee. Although the villagers are firm in their Covenanter beliefs, their minister is less so to the point of befriending and sheltering Mark Kerr, a fugitive supporter of the afore-mentioned Great Montrose. Such tolerance is a dangerous act in itself, but it soon turns out to be the least of his problems.

Devil-worship is at the dark heart of Witch Wood, for David witnesses a diabolic ritual taking place in the woods; the satanists’ ringleader turns out to be Ephraim Caird, a prominent elder of the Kirk who is able use his standing in the community to turn the parish against its minister. A witch-finder arrives in Woodliee, and in the communal hysteria that follows the innocent suffer more than the guilty; to this is added an outbreak of the plague (vividly described) while a love-story between David and the ethereal Katrine plays out to its tragic conclusion. It is here that Buchan comes into his own, raising questions about human nature and religious tolerance with particular reference to self-deception and self-righteousness while not yielding to the temptation to merely brand certain characters as out-and-out hypocrites, although the novel certainly does deal with the contradictions which can become apparent in a society where religion totally dominates life (to a degree that is difficult to comprehend nowadays).

The conclusion is nothing if not dramatic, as David loses everything before he finally confronts Caird in the wood, forcing the latter to choose between God and the devil. David is never seen in the locality again, thus giving rise to the legends of the minister’s disappearance which are related in the novel’s prologue. This is a novel that works on many levels, with the exploration of important questions coming alongside an excellent description of the landscape – always a strong feature of Buchan’s – and strong depictions of the ordinary parishoners caught up in the events described; farmers so attached to the land that they are known by the names of their farms, cottagers, women – especially Isobel Veitch, David’s housekeeper – and Daft Gibbie, the village idiot. These well-drawn characters serve to add another layer of complexity, for with the notable exceptions of the leader characters Buchan has written much of the dialogue in the Lowland Scots dialect which can make the story a bit hard to follow at times; thank goodness my copy – a modern Polygon paperback version – has a glossary! A heavy read, but a rewarding one which I think may well benefit from a second or even a third reading, so I’m not getting rid of my copy yet.

Of a more recent vintage (2016), Rather be the Devil by Ian Rankin is the twenty-first appearance of John Rebus, the hard-nosed Edinburgh detective who by now has once again retired from the police but that doesn’t stop him from getting involved in cases alongside his younger associates, Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox (both DIs in Police Scotland, as Scotland’s various constabularies became in 2013, here depicted as a somewhat frayed organisation). Here, Rebus – trying to cut down on his trademark drinking and making a surprisingly good go of giving up smoking (thanks perhaps in part to his pathologist girlfriend giving him a specimen jar containing part of a diseased lung) – becomes obsessed with an old case from the Seventies, the unsolved murder of a glamorous socialite in the Caledonian Hotel.

This isn’t the first time a Rebus novel has focussed on a case from the past (witness 2013’s Saints of the Shadow Bible which was in part about investigations into an old CID unit which had a distinct whiff of Life on Mars). He’s showing his age – he first appeared in Knots and Crosses, 31 years ago – and mortality isn’t far from the surface as he is diagnosed with having a shadow on one of his lungs (naturally, he takes to referring to it as Hank Marvin; musical references are never far from the surface in the Rebus books, the title of this one coming from a John Martyn song).

Age and shadows are recurring themes here, along with violence, power, greed and betrayal. Once again Rankin’s focus is on the seedy side of Edinburgh – think dodgy nightclubs and even dodgier betting-shops, with much of the action taking place in the evening rather than in broad daylight. A would-be crime boss by the name of Darryl Christie has been beaten unconscious on his own doorstep. He’s trying to fill the void left by Rebus’s old nemesis, veteran crime boss ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, and it’s not long before rumours abound that Cafferty himself is behind it, hoping to come out of retirement. The beating should be Clarke’s case, but because Christie’s money-laundering activities are of interest to HMRC, Fox – previously transferred to the Scottish Crime Campus, which Clark resented – gets involved too. An attention-seeking vagrant who serially confesses to crimes (and who had previously appeared in 1997’s Black and Blue, one of the best in the series in which Rebus investigated an updated version of the real-life ‘Bible John’ murders) serves to bring Rebus himself on board in a semi-official capacity.

There is of course a link between the decades-old murder and the beating, for Christie is associated with Anthony Brough, the scion of an old Scottish banking family – and the murder victim, Maria Turquand, had been married to a man who worked for said bank. Not that she’d been faithful to him, adding various lovers to the list of suspects which includes a rock star who was staying in the Caledonian along with his entourage at the time of the murder (and who now lives just around the corner from the hotel in question). Brough, by the way, has disappeared, and the body of an ex-copper who worked on the Turquand murder is fished out of the Leith Docks (suicide it isn’t). There’s a mysterious Russian, who’s actually Ukrainian. Oh, and there’s violence a-plenty, some of it involving a hammer and some six-inch nails.

These distinct yet interlinked plots lead to something of a juggling act on Rankin’s part. Rebus and Cafferty are approaching the same point from very different angles. Being a criminal, Big Ger of course is subject to fewer constraints – although the retired Rebus, explicitly more concerned with the outcome rather than the process, is not averse to cutting a few corners himself, such as when he pretends to be Fox (a non-drinking anti-Rebus who, despite his more by-the-book approach, is the one who becomes increasingly compromised as the plot thickens). As was the case with Buchan, local knowledge and detail are key features alongside skilled story-telling. The ‘Caley’ is a real hotel, although as Rankin points out, it’s now the Waldorf Astoria, and there are nods to ongoing roadworks on Lothian Road and (of course!) the Oxford Bar amid confusion about the geography of Edinburgh on the part of some cops sent in from elsewhere. In short, this is a fast-paced and well-told story; Rebus may be getting on a bit, but his creator is still at the top of his game.


Garden bird-watching round-up, 2017

The Spring 2018 issue of Nature’s Home, the RSPB members’ magazine, arrived in the post a couple of days ago with the form for the RSBB Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place over the last weekend in January. I take part in this every year, although for the last two years I have had nothing to report as my front garden received a grand total of no avian visitors during the one hour I had designated for the survey (despite the various options that were available on the feeder), and back in 2015 two Ring-necked Parakeets who scared everyone else away. But one hour on a January weekend doesn’t tell the full story.

The bird-feeder in the front garden, situated so that it can be seen from the armchair in the corner of the lounge, actually gets a nice range of visitors. Over the past year, I have seen four kinds of tit (Blue, Coal, Great, Long-tailed) and two types of pigeon (Feral, Wood) on it, as well as Chaffinches, Robins, the odd Carrion Crow and the very occasional Greater-spotted Woodpecker. Ground-feeders have included Blackbirds and Dunnocks (and more pigeons), while I’ve seen Starlings and a Redwing perched in the tree.

Less welcome have been the squirrels, and I have tried various tricks to deter them. I thought that I had hit on a winning squirrel-deterring method by greasing the pole with some WD-40, and the resulting attempt by a squirrel to climb up the pole was admittedly hilarious. But then, of course, after several attempts enough of said lubricating oil had been wiped off to ensure a successful ascent, so an upturned plastic flower-pot with a hole in the bottom was deployed instead. I’m pleased to report that no squirrels have been seen on the feeder since.

Oh, and the parakeets visit too. Interesting birds, Ring-necked Parakeets. They’re not a native species to Britain, of course – but they have been a visible (and vocal) presence in the London area for a few decades now and are very well-established. Their exotic brightness has led to a couple of rather fanciful urban myths about how they got here; that the first pair in London were released at some point in the late Sixties by either Jimi Hendrix or Mick Jagger, or that the first ones escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen back in 1951. There are a few question-marks over the extent to which they have affected native species (are they taking nest-sites from Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers, whose numbers are in decline?), although any queries about how a species from India manages to survive the winters here should be directed to the fact that their range includes the Himalayas; these birds may look tropical, but they can do cold. And, as they have shown, they are highly adaptable.


Harlech Castle

To Wales, where among other place to visit was Harlech, a small seaside town in Snowdonia best known for its castle which, by virtue of its cliff-top location, really dominates the surrounding area. It was built at the orders of Edward I during the 1280s, a time when that king also ordered the construction of the castles at Conway, Caernarfon and Beaumaris in order to secure his hold on North Wales; today, those castles (along with the town walls at Conway and Caernarfon) are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described (by UNESCO) as the “finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”. It was the work of one James of Saint George, a master mason from Savoy who became Edward I’s castle-builder-in-chief.

If you’re coming down from the north, Harlech can be approached by two roads. There’s the high road – the B4573, which takes you into the town at the top – or you can stick on the A496 to approach it from the bottom. The latter, I reckon, gives you a better idea of how well the castle is situated as you approach the place, which I was very keen to explore. Well, it is one of the finest castles in a country which is renowned for having many, many castles! It just so happened that I was there on a quiet day, meaning that after I’d paid my entrance money at the café and visitor centre (the castle is run by Cadw, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) I basically had the place to myself. That doesn’t happen very often but it really is the best way to look around a castle!

From the top of the south-west turret of the gatehouse, the view is spectacular – across the bay (the tidal estuary of the Glaslyn and and Dwryd rivers), over places like Porthmadog and Portmeririon and towards the mountains inland – Snowdon, the tallest of the lot, can be seen from Harlech on a clear day. 

The bay itself used to be much bigger; nowadays, the castle is some distance from the sea but when it was built the sea came up to the cliff on which the castle stands. Harlech is not the only place to bear witness to the fact that coastlines change over time.

I had fun climbing the towers and exploring those narrow stone passages, some of which end rather abruptly at wooden barriers which look out onto courtyards where there were once floors (generally speaking, back in Medieval times the higher-status guests got the higher-up floors). 

A walk along the battlements, with more scope for the views of the coast and the mountains, was something that had to be done. At the gatehouse, I noted the grooves for the portcullises (Harlech Castle had three) and the murder-holes above the passageway and even arrow-loops to the sides, so that the castle’s defenders could fire on any attackers who got that far.

There were plenty of attackers over the years. Harlech Castle was besieged not long after it was built, during a Welsh rebellion against the English in 1294, and again during Owen Glendower’s rebellion in the early 1400s; after he managed to capture it in 1404, Glendower (or, as his name is written in Welsh, Glyndwr) used it as his headquarters for four years – it would fall to the English forces under the command of the Prince of Wales (the future Henry V) in 1409. It was also besieged during the Wars of the Roses, when it was held by the Lancastrians during the 1460s, becoming the last major Lancastrian stronghold to hold out against the Yorkists before it finally fell in 1468 after a seven-year siege; it was this event which inspired the song ‘Men of Harlech’. It was besieged again during the Civil War, becoming one of the last major Royalist fortresses to hold out before it fell to the Parliamentarians in 1647.

It was a cold day at the castle, though – it was December after all – so I eventually made it back to the café for a cup of tea and some lunch; I needed something warm, and thought it appropriate to order something Welsh; it turns out that the café does a good Welsh rarebit (they even make the cheese sauce themselves)…


Cocktail hour, part four

When getting ready to pour myself a Scotch-and-ginger recently, I grabbed hold of a tumbler which has cocktail measurements on the side. We have a set of four of these – one each for gin, rum, vodka and whiskey (I’ll let the Irish-American variant of the spelling pass); they’re square-shaped and each side has the measurements for a different cocktail marked on it. Out of curiosity, I had a look at the ones for the whiskey glass and found that one of the cocktails listed, the cablegram, wasn’t far off what I was planning to drink anyway. So, naturally, I opted to go the extra mile and turn my spirit-plus-mixer into a cocktail.

I’d not come across a cablegram before, it not being featured in our Vintage Cocktails book. It consists of whisky – over three fluid ounces of whisky if we’re going by the measuring-line on the glass, which we might as well do in the absence of any other instructions – mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of half a lemon, plus ice, topped with ginger ale. If three fluid ounces of whisky seems like quite a bit, I should point out that that is because it is; for reference purposes, a standard pub measurement of whisky (or any other spirit for that matter) in this country is 25 millilitres, which converts into less than one fluid ounce.

To all intents and purposes, it’s a whisky sour with ginger ale. On second thoughts, make that a pretty stiff whisky sour with ginger ale, for over three fluid ounces is a lot more whisky than I would usually put in a glass! But most enjoyable.