Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Proper Olden Days

I love old school magazines. In 2004, when I was a teacher, I based an exhibition about the school’s experiences in World War One largely around a stack of 1914-1919 school magazines. In 2014, I revisited these magazines as stimulus for my story ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in Walker’s The Great War. I’ve also plundered them for convincing Christian names for my 1918-set teen WIP, and I'm always moved by the juxtaposition of hockey matches and deaths on the Western Front. 

As I’ve confessed here before, I was always a History Girl. ‘Tell me about the olden days,’ I would beg my gran, born in 1908, and she obliged with stories of the shirt factory and Sunday school and naughty Aunt Annie smuggling a kitten up to bed in her pinny. I was enchanted by the kitten but even more by the pinny. The pinny was proof that Aunt Annie came from the real olden days.

The pupils from the magazines – all those Ediths and Kathleens and Gilberts  -- didn’t go to school with Gran and Aunt Annie – they were just that bit older and further up the social scale – but they might have sat beside them on the tram.

Mummy, born in 1947, came from the olden days too: not quite so olden but still firmly black and white, gym frocks and Elvis.

Then the world shifted to boring colour when I was born in 1968.

Because I didn’t come from the olden days. Obviously. And because I don’t have children, nobody has ever asked me, ‘Tell me about when you were a wee girl in the olden days.’ So, though I know rationally, that I lived through history – rather a lot of history, given that I grew up in seventies Belfast, I rarely, in my imagination, think of it that way. History was big, and happening somewhere else.

And then, last week, I saw this tweeted picture from my old school library. 

I was charmed. Elizabeth and I are still best friends, and I’m still trying to encourage younger people to read.  I’d forgotten about the Junior Library Club. But there it was, a tiny bit of the history of my own old school, and of my own olden days. 1987, it would have been. Not long enough to be proper olden days, of course. And then I thought again. When I was ten, my mum was thirty. The olden days she described were less than two decades ago. 1987 is nearly thirty years ago. 

I do come from the proper olden days. I have only just realised it, thanks to Twitter and an old school magazine.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Goldfinch - Joan Lennon

By the time this post goes up, I will have seen this little gem in the flesh.  But if I hadn't watched that BBC 4 documentary on Still Life back last year (I posted a HG blog about it here) and got all excited about, among other things, 17th century Dutch painting, I would most likely not have bothered.  Or even noticed.  

It's The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) and it is on loan for just 6 weeks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  You'll need to get a shift on if you want to visit it there, as it leaves again after 18th December.  

The visiting Goldfinch, in situ at the National Gallery of Scotland.  
As you can see, Housekeeping is taking this special visitor in its stride.

If, however, Edinburgh isn't within visiting distance for you, here is a short video of the rather sweet Senior Curator Tico Seifert, speaking about the painting's importance and Fabritius' place in art history - a student of Rembrandt and an inspiration to Vermeer.  (Don't be cross that he doesn't actually show you the painting - I suspect moving the camera was going to be a step too far.  I liked the helpful human podium for his notes which gradually drifts into frame ...)

The Goldfinch.  Tiny.  Beautiful.  The sort of image the word exquisite was invented for.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Ōtūmoetai Pā: an 18th century fortified village by Debra Daley

Last month I wrote about the discovery in my neighbourhood of extensive food storage pits of late 18th century origin that had once belonged to the large pā, or fortified village, above the shore of Ōtūmoetai peninsula in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. The find was an exciting one since there are relatively few material traces of Māori life before European settlement. The dimensions of the storage pits suggested that at least two thousand people were living in and around Ōtūmoetai Pā at the time of James Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand in 1769. In this month’s post, I would like to write a little more about this particular local pā, which was home to the Ngai Tamarawaho hapū (clan) of the Ngāi Te Rangi tribe. 

An impression of the pā at Ōtūmoetai in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Philip Perry.
Ōtūmoetai Pā covered an area of about four acres, centred on an escarpment that looked over Tauranga Harbour and out towards the South Pacific Ocean. The pā was a complex construction encompassing outer barriers of ditches, banks, palisaded ramparts and fighting stages on multiple terraces. These earthworks were arranged around inner fenced compounds where kin-groups lived in groups of timber-framed dwellings with reed walls and thatched roofs. The naturalist Joseph Banks, who had been on board Cook’s first expedition to New Zealand, described Māori dwellings (whare) as ‘mean and low', but conceded that 'they most perfectly resist all inclemencies of the weather.’ The interior of the whare (house) was spare. A fire burned in the centre of the single room upon the floor and the entrance served for a chimney. Tools and weaponry were stored in the house and high-born families kept intricately carved boxes containing feathers and other valuable items for personal adornment, but there was no furniture except for a square of boards joined together for a bed, with a mattress made of a thick layer of grass and dried ferns. Latrines and rubbish heaps for food scraps and waste served each cluster of houses. A typical pā of this time can be seen in the lithograph made by artist John Webber, who accompanied Captain Cook on his third Pacific expedition.  

John Webber. The inside of a hippah in New Zealand, 1784. The lithograph shows a pā (or ‘hippah’) with houses constructed of reeds in the Marlborough Sounds.
The dwellings are similar in a sketch of a pā in Wellington made some sixty years later by Captain William Mein Smith, a surveyor-general engaged by the New Zealand Company in 1839, and in photographs taken by Herbert Deveril later in the 19th century. 

Captain W. Mein Smith. Pipitea marae, Wellington, c.1840.

Herbert Deveril. Te Rangi Tahau on the porch of his whare, c.1875.

The site of Ōtūmoetai Pā was, and is still, an advantageous one. A tidal estuary, the waters of the large bay, and the ocean beyond provided an abundance of food. Women gathered shellfish and men went out fishing with bone hooks and flax nets weighted with stone sinkers. These accomplished offshore sailors paddled their canoes to outer islands to collect obsidian and immature petrels (muttonbirds) for food, and red ochre for body painting. Mauao, the volcano at the harbour’s entrance, was a useful place marker. A favoured hapuku (groper) fishing spot could be found by lining up Mauao’s western slope with a tall tītoki tree that grew at the rear of the pā. This venerable tree, still extant, is now more than three hundred years old.

Joseph Jenner Merrett. A Meeting of Visitors,  c.1843. View of a pōwhiri (welcome)
between two Māori groups outside Ōtūmoetai Pā with the outline of
Mauao (Mt Maunganui) in the background. Tauranga Libraries.

To the west of the pā, rainforested hills provided berries and bird life, and timber, and eeling places in the rivers that flowed into the sea. In a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century, Tauranga Māori made use of these rich resources by migrating between inland areas and the coast to gather food and tend crops. Excess was preserved – fish were wrapped in fern leaf, shellfish threaded on blades of rushes, birds stored in fat in gourds – and kept in raised storehouses together with large calabashes of water.
Flax and kūmara (sweet potato) were the principal crops and they were treated with reverence. Each flax plant was regarded as a family, the central shoot being the child and the leaves surrounding it the parents. In order to maintain the plant’s vitality, only the outermost leaves – the grandparents – were harvested. Women softened the blades of flax by beating them with stone pounders. They wove the flax into hoop nets and cordage, plaited it into mats and baskets and worked it into a silky fibre for clothing, which was similar in weight and drape to sweat-shirt fabric.

Gottfried Lindauer. Women Weaving Flax Baskets, 1903. Auckland Art Gallery.
Māori wore a diversity of garments – cloaks, aprons or kilts or a ‘girdle of many platted strings made of leaves’, and various closely woven mats worn next to the skin. Both men and women bored holes in their ears, which were kept extended by plugs of feathers, bones or wood. Sometimes women wore bracelets or anklets made of shells or small bones, while the men hung greenstone tiki around their necks or the tooth of a shark or a whale. Women sometimes wore their hair short, cut with sharpened shells, or tied it behind the head, or wore it at shoulder length. On occasion, women cropped their hair as a mourning gesture.

A woman photographed by the Foy Brothers, late 19th century,
with cropped hair decorated with huia feathers.
British Museum. 
Sydney Parkinson, the botanical artist on the Endeavour in 1769, recorded that men on the east coast of the North Island '... had their hair most curiously brought up to their crowns, rolled round, and knotted.' Parkinson’s portrait of a chief shows an example of the style. Long hair was oiled and bound it in various ways with flax and adorned with combs, carved from wood or whale, bird and human bone, and feathers.

Sydney Parkinson. Portrait of a New Zeland Man, from a sketch made in 1769.
Many men and some women wore facial moko (tattooes) to varying degrees.
Kūmara tubers were planted in spring with some ceremony in scattered communal gardens. Everybody worked in the gardens, including rangatira (chiefs) – but they were exempt from carrying the small gravel, obtained from the bottom of streams, which was brought in baskets during the winter by women to prepare the planting ground.

Kūmara tubers. Before the planting began, prayers were offered to Rongomātāne,
the god of kūmara, and other cultivated plants, to secure goodwill with regard
to the harvest. 
The tubers were planted in mounds in soil that has been amended with wood ash and were considered tapu until they were ready for harvest. Low fences served as breaks against the prevailing westerly wind at Ōtūmoetai, which can be gusty in early summer with a tendency to dry out the soil.

Te Parapara Māori Garden, Hamilton Gardens. Photograph by Michal Klajban.
A storehouse overlooking a mounded kūmara garden. Māori used a cord
to plant the rows of kūmara in a straight line. The seed tuber was set
with its sprouting end towards the warmth of the north.

The mauri (life force) of the kūmara, and hence the fertility of the crop,
were protected by carved, wooden atua kiato (god sticks)
fixed around the perimeter of the gardens.

After harvesting in autumn, the kūmara was steamed and dried before being stacked on the sand-strewn floors of underground pits over winter. The pits at Ōtūmoetai had the capacity to hold up to a tonne of tubers.

Once the kūmara had been harvested and placed in storage, the people could lead a more itinerant lifestyle, trading, or gathering other foodstuffs needed for winter. They might wander the beach or the banks of streams looking for good water-smoothed cobbles that could be used to crush the red ochre brought back from Motiti Island, or for heating the earth ovens in which food was cooked. Joseph Banks described the ovens as ‘holes in the ground filled with provision and hot stones and covered over with leaves and earth’. Small fish and birds were generally roasted over an open fire on a skewer. Kūmara, taro, large fish and dogs were cooked in the ovens.
 Cook and Banks marvelled at the vitality of the Māori they encountered. That is hardly surprising given a diet that was simple and moderate, plenty of fresh air and exercise, and an absence of sugar and alcohol. They tended to be taller and more robust than Europeans, Banks noted. He was particularly struck by the number of healthy old people in the population. Some even appeared to be in their eighties, ‘and of these, few or none were decrepid, indeed the greater seemd in vivacity and chearfullness to equal the young, indeed to be inferior to them in nothing but the want of equal strength and agility.’ Aged men and women in Māori communities were held in esteem for their experience and wisdom. 

William Hodges. Sketch of a Māori woman carrying a child, 1773.
Children were treated with indulgence, Joseph Banks observed.
For forty or fifty years after the first contact with Europeans, Māori at Ōtūmoetai continued to flourish. The lack of accessible timber at Tauranga  – the result of previous land clearance by Māori for pā and for crop cultivation – meant that the area held little interest for early Europeans looking for opportunities to exploit New Zealand's hardwood forests  – and shore whaling efforts and sealing were centred elsewhere in the country. The large Māori population at the Bay of Plenty eventually attracted missionaries and traders, but this occurred later than in some other coastal areas of New Zealand. Flax was a resource where the Bay of Plenty had an advantage, and this eventually featured in later Māori and European industry.
Ōtūmoetai Pā had the distinction of never being conquered by enemies, but the eventual military defeat of Tauranga Māori in the New Zealand Wars of the mid-19th century led to the confiscation of their land by the Crown. The people at Ōtūmoetai were forced to leave their ancestral home and the land was allocated to soldier settlers.

Tori Tupaea, the last great Ngaio Te Rangi chief of Ōtūmoetai Pā.
Image Mike Dottridge.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Food in fiction, from fantasy stew to johnny cakes, by Gillian Polack

This last fortnight I’ve been indulging in comfort reading and comfort cooking. I need a couple of hours safety in my day in order to cope with our current interesting times. My reading time has been spent about equally in fantasy worlds and in the world of Georgette Heyer. All of this convinces me that it’s time to talk about food again.

Medlars, picture by Gillian Polack

One of the ways in which I judge the success of the invention in a novel (any novel) is how well the writer handles food. Georgette Heyer is comfort reading partly because she understands that food and the social habits that surround food are essential to her stories. She skips over many things, but seldom food. 

She doesn’t describe it rapturously or gluttonously: she uses it as an essential part of the lives of the characters. Her female characters can go whole days without ever needing to use a toilet, but when Elinor Rochdale rocks up to a strange house in The Reluctant Widow and no-one is prepared for her coming, there are only cold meats and maybe bread and butter on offer. In a well-run household there would be more choices, but the house Elinor discovers is not well run in any way. People must eat, even in poorly-run households, but people may not eat safely or may not have much in the way of choices but starvation is just that and only applies to those living in appalling circumstances. Heyer’s Regency is imaginary and so a lot of the ugly side of society is missing: no-one starves, although people may skip meals or have sadly restricted choices. Food is at the service of story.
Food in a good novel is always at the service of the novel. Even if the author doesn’t mean it to say something, it is part of the story. When an author doesn’t consider food properly and just shoves it in willy-nilly, it’s the reader who pays.

Dried barberries, picture by Trudi Canavan

Until Diana Wynne Jones mocked the ever-present stew in adventure fantasy travel in her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland travellers eating stew appeared far too often in a certain kind of fantasy novel. It was important to feed people felling tyrants or achieving noble quests, and ‘stew’ was a simple concept that worked for those who had never made a decent stew from scratch. By ‘from scratch’ I mean ‘first trap your hare and wild-harvest your carrots’. Decent stew is not a recipe suitable for exhausted people who need nourishment instantly and who are on the run or on a quest.

The writers who used stew in this way had a particular need in their writing. It wasn’t just to feed travellers. Others have used random nuts discovered (in or out of season) or stale bread to serve the same function in the story. They might be depicting a sense of camaraderie around a campfire, a feeling of solidarity or a moment of hope. A hot meal in the midst of panic gives that moment of comfort and equates in reading terms to my choice of novels right now.

Food isn’t just for keeping people alive. Not in fiction and not anywhere. It tells us what level of luxury we live in, what friends we have, how far we’re social beings and far solitary, how much we as individuals luxuriate in or ignore our senses. So if stew can’t be used in quite the way it has been in fantasy novels, what can?

Dried white mulberries, picture by Trudi Canavan

There are many choices, and they all relate to the function the food serves at that precise moment and also to the culture drawn on for the novel. When I was a child, damper was our stew-equivalent for a moment of camaraderie around a fire. Or, if we had a pan, johnny cakes. Johnny cakes are ‘journey cakes’, I suspect (though have never actually demonstrated). 

I and my friends took our sense of mood form the folklore and folksongs we were taught. This is how that bonding can be developed, even if there’s no time or capacity to cook a stew. The song that pushed me to think about journey food was called “Four little Johnny cakes” and a version of it can be found here. http://folkstream.com/042.html It’s all about comfort. All about a pause in travel for refreshment, physical and emotional. The food can be cooked quite quickly, on a single pan, or has been pre-cooked. It has associations with wandering the roads and carrying a swag: the food of swaggies or stockmen.

I’m using Australian terms quite intentionally here, for another thing that writers do when they haven’t thought through things properly is to use the language of their youth or of the fiction they write. How many US readers however, know what a squatter is or care about swaggies? The rules were different. The history is different. The words we write with are not culturally neutral. 

Picture by Gillian Polack

It’s easier to remember that these terms are not culturally neutral if I use less-familiar ones. Saying “johnny cake” in my fiction would have to be backed by some suggestion as to what a johnny cake is, for my readers might not have grown up with (probably didn’t grow up with) that song. I could use the song, or I could joke about the griddle cake Alfred burned (if it was historical fiction) or I could describe the delectable aroma, or... there are many techniques open to writers. The trick is to remember to use them. A good historical fiction novel will use a dozen in a chapter, for they are what bring the detail to life for the reader when one is talking about a distant time.

Flour and water and a bit of salt and a bit of raising agent and maybe a few currants and you have a johnny cake. It takes a very few minutes over a hot pan. If you don’t have a hot pan then you find a stick and make damper. A somewhat wetter dough, wound around the stick and then cooked over a hot fire. These are the travel foods of my childhood. We drizzled honey over our lightly burned damper and made a wonderfully sticky mess. Damper can be savoury and it can be cooked in a dying fire or a dutch oven. 

Flour and water are the traditional cooking ingredients of many travellers, because flour could be carried in a small flour bag and water is a survival necessity. Much more real than stew, in that way.
Alas, for flour and water, the writer has to work that much harder to get the sense of camaraderie around a campfire, or eating a hot meal together I a time of difficulty. Not all foodstuffs serve the same narrative goals with the same ease.

Stew is not impossible while travelling. Soup is even more possible. But they need planning, time and cooking equipment. This is where it’s really handy to look at what travellers actually ate at various times in various places in history. How far from village to village, farm to farm was it? Was it customary for stray travellers to be fed if they arrived when a meal was being served or (for whatever reason) were travellers left unwelcomed? Did voyagers steal chickens from farmers or buy them or forgo fresh meat? Did they walk into a shop and buy equipment and did that equipment include special bags to carry flour and salt and ground coffee and travel soup? Did they travel with a cart, a mule, a horse, a boat? The reader doesn’t have to know all this – if a writer develops the right model for their tale, it will make the story a lot more evocative and mean that food can be used in all the various ways: it’s not just a matter of making sure that characters don’t starve.

Research doesn’t have to be theoretical. Right now, I know a bit more about portable soup than I ought. This is because I’ve been making it. A lot. I know that chicken doesn’t work so well (the bones are too brittle) but that duck is splendid and beef bones with a little meat on are best of all. Of all the beef I tried, Belted Galloway farmed in an old-fashioned way made the best portable soup. I know the exact mount to cook it down to in order to make ‘soup glue’ which has so little moisture that it can be packed in paper and taken on board ship. One smallish cube of my portable soup makes 2-3 mugs of real soup. And I can make quite tasty soup this way. In fact, I have duck soup in my freezer right now and am using it instead of stock cubes in my stews. It makes the best stews ever. My version, however, takes three to five days to make, over low heat. There’s no way of speeding it up and still having a safe and tasty end-product. I’ve tried. It’s wonderful travel food, but it takes planning or resources.

I cook things like this on writing days. This is the wonder of the modern kitchen. I have to keep an eye on my big saucepan, but I don’t have to tend a fire. Before iron stoves were invented quite recently, it wasn’t so easy to make.


This explains the bread and the mutton and the johnny cakes and the fish. It also makes a kind of travel stew possible if you have a pan and a fire and some meat and some vegies. If travellers carry enough baggage and have a good cook in the company, it’s possible to have the comfort food.
It takes a lot of set-up, however. A slice off a piece of mutton bought from a farmer and a piece of bread or damper to eat it with, or a johnny cake (or four) – these are more likely for that Western European based fantasy world than a travel stew. Georgette Heyer, of course, simply finds an inn for her travellers and, if they arrive at an odd hour, someone has to argue with the innkeeper until food is produced. Food is at the service of story in a good novel, always.