Saturday, 22 October 2016

"Don't Buy a Single Vote More than Necessary": American Elections from Bad to Worse by Catherine Hokin

2016 has been, to put it mildly, something of a year for politics. In the midst of all the madness, surely the nadir has to be the current US presidential election. Wherever you stand, the campaigning has hardly been an edifying spectacle: I have been burying myself in the deliciously imagined West Wing contest between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as an antidote to the bile.

 JFK and Joe Kennedy
This is not the place, no matter how tempting, for a commentary on the candidates. Instead I have been having a delve into previous contests to see just how low previous bars have been set. The quote used in the heading is from 1960 and the Kennedy Nixon election, JFK's actual words being: "don't buy a single vote more than necessary, I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide".  It sounds like an admission of dirty-dealing, it was in fact a spoof. Joe Kennedy, JFK's father, was a prime-mover behind his son's political successes (and possibly ambitions) and played a central role in the the election campaign, which was dogged by rumours of 'fixing'. JFK dealt with the issue by spinning it, reading this out as a supposed message from Joe on the eve of the election. The result we all know; the rumours of bribery and corruption within the Kennedy campaign, and mob involvement through Sam Giancana's Chicago crime syndicate, continue.

 'Hanging Chad'
The question of who voted for who (and who made them do it) has bedevilled a huge number of US elections. One of the most hostile, impenetrable and still disputed elections was in 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote (by 250,000) and the electoral college but the Republicans simply refused to accept the result. Commissions were set up, officials were replaced, counts were challenged and both sides out-bribed the other until the result was over-turned and Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had previously conceded, was elected the winner. Here’s hoping Trump can't read the more complex history books. A more recent controversy was the 'hanging chad' debacle which muddied the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore, leading to a recount of the Florida ballot and a month's delay before the result could be called. The hanging chad was a small piece of paper caught in badly-punched ballot papers which meant the voting machines couldn't read them accurately. The problem came to light in Palm Beach where voters thought they were punching for Gore but were actually voting for the seriously odd Reform Party led by Christian fundamentalist and Holocaust-denier Pat Buchanan. Given the majority of voters in the area were elderly, Jewish and Holocaust survivors something didn't quite ring true. The joys of technology - suddenly the stubby pencils hanging on bits of string in UK polling booths look rather more appealing.

Disputing the vote after the event is one thing - as we all know, most of the fun happens in the run up to polling day and personal attacks are, as ever, the meat and drink of dirty campaigning. Things went pretty well in the first two elections when George Washington was elected with 100% of the vote but it didn't take long for standards to slip. By the third run out to the polls in 1796 when Federalist John Adams beat Democratic-Republican (yes you read that right) Thomas Jefferson, things had got nasty. Jefferson's supporters accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite and Adams' side cast aspersions on Jefferson's racial background. Adams won but Jefferson became Vice-President and the two men spent the next 4 years openly loathing each other. For those readers blanching at the thought of a Clinton-Trump double act, that kind of cross-party crazy can't happen anymore, except in the West Wing where it is, of course, a good thing.

 Gary Hart on ''The Monkey Business'
Sex scandals will always be the first running place of party spin-doctors and more than one candidate has fallen foul of changing moralities. Alleged illegitimate children (Grover Cleveland), bigamy (Andrew Jackson), infidelity...too many to list. Although Bill is the easy target, my favourite in the 'how not to have an affair in the public eye' has to be Gary Hart, the 1987 Democratic hopeful. As rumours of his extra-marital activities began to circulate, Hart took on the press in an ill-founded JFK-style challenge with the following words: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anyone wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored." I'm pretty sure catching a presidential hopeful on a yacht called 'The Monkey Business' cuddling a glamorous blonde wasn't the Miami Herald's definition of bored: poor old Gary was neatly hoist by his own petard.

If some of the campaigns leave a bad taste, so do some of the winners. Polls are subjective things: Bill Clinton and JFK, for example, don't always fare well when judged on strength of government/economic achievement surveys but are always high in the popularity stakes. Polls can also act as a spotlight on the issues which bruise a country: some of the presidents who are regularly in the bottom five of the popularity rankings are men like James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore who are associated with the worst days of slavery and the horrors of the Civil War. Richard Nixon's legacy will never outrun the Watergate scandal and George Bush will always be associated with the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan and his inability to talk coherently about that, or anything else. And, we all have our own bete-noires - I bet I wasn't the only politically-earnest student with this romantic poster adorning my university breeze-blocked wall. Interestingly my American husband never saw it until he came over here.

Whatever happens in November, the only thing we can be sure of is that there will be fury and challenges and it's all going to get a lot worse before it gets better - that probably applies to after the campaign as much as before. As Abraham Lincoln once said: "Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their backs on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters." It's a good quote and still very relevant, I just wish Woody Allen didn't seem to have it nailed rather better:

"We stand today at a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice."

Good luck USA!

Friday, 21 October 2016

When Good King Arthur Ruled this land... by Imogen Robertson

It’s strange the things that bubble up in your mind when you definitely should be doing something else. Today I was clearing the washing up and thought I was thinking about the current work in progress, but husband came in and asked what I was singing. I hadn’t realised I was singing, but once I’d managed to sync my mind cogs a bit, I realised I’d been giving a pretty enthusiastic rendering of ‘When Good King Arthur ruled this land…’ 

It’s a pleasantly macabre  and Halloweenish type folk song which my mother taught me, and it has a pleasing call and answer form which made it fun to sing together. The version we know and have been singing in my family is recorded as ‘A Dorsetshire Ballad’, in the Oxford Song Book, Collected and arranged by Percy C. Buck in 1921. You can see it on I hadn’t consciously thought about it in years, so I asked Mum where she had learned it, and apparently her mother taught it to her. Before that, in our family at least, it disappears into the mists of ages. 

I found it rather disturbing when I was a child. The song tells of three servants (or sons of rogues, or sons of yore - apparently bowdlerised from sons of whores), who King Arthur exiles for not singing. They are thieves and come to sticky ends. The miller is drowned in his pond, the weaver is hanged in his loom (or yarn), and the Devil makes off with the little tailor boy. I vividly remember imagining the devil heading back to hell with the boy, still clutching onto his stolen cloth.

So I went searching for it down the internet sink-hole. 

A very similar version, though the tune is different, was first published in Nursery Rhymes and Country Songs by M H Manson in 1877 and she collected it from her mother’s family, the Mitfords of Mitford in Northumberland I wish I could find out more about Miss M. H. Manson by the way. If anyone has any clues, let me know. 

The song makes an earlier appearance in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree of 1872:

Shiner grasped the candlestick more firmly, and, lest doing this in silence should not imply to Dick with sufficient force that he was quite at home and cool, he sang invincibly—

“‘King Arthur he had three sons.’”

“Father here?” said Dick.

“Indoors, I think,” said Fancy, looking pleasantly at him.

Dick surveyed the scene, and did not seem inclined to hurry off just at that moment.  Shiner went on singing—

“‘The miller was drown’d in his pond,
   The weaver was hung in his yarn,
And the d--- ran away with the little tail-or,
   With the broadcloth under his arm.’”

“That’s a terrible crippled rhyme, if that’s your rhyme!” said Dick, with a grain of superciliousness in his tone.

“It’s no use your complaining to me about the rhyme!” said Mr. Shiner.  “You must go to the man that made it.”

Well, Mr Shiner, I would if I could.

The image at the top of the page comes from the Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libray and was published Dec. 12, 1804, by Laurie & Whittle, 53, Fleet Street, London

An earlier version still of the song appears as an Old Glee with Old Worlds in The Battle of Hexham, a play by George Colman the Younger, written in 1789. It’s very different, but the form and themes are close enough for us to call them cousins.

_When Arthur first, in court, began_
    _To wear long hanging-sleeves,_
  _He entertain'd three serving-men,_
    _And all of them were thieves._

  _The first he was an Irishman,_
    _The second was a Scot,_
  _The third he was a Welshman,_
    _And all were knaves, I wot._

  _The Irishman, he loved Usquebaugh,_
    _The Scot loved ale, called blue-cap;_
  _The Welshman he loved toasted cheese,_
    _And made his mouth like a mouse-trap._

  _Usquebaugh burnt the Irishman,_
    _The Scot was drown'd in ale;_
  _The Welshman had like t' have been choak'd with a mouse,_
    _But he pull'd her out by the tail._

King Arthur - detail from
 "Christian Heroes Tapestry" dated c. 1385

In Folk Songs of the Catskills by Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Studer, the editors suggest that the song Falstaff sings in Henry IV Part II is part of the same tradition: 

[Singing] 'When Arthur first in court,'
--Empty the jordan.

[Exit First Drawer]

--'And was a worthy king.' How now, Mistress Doll!

There’s a suggestion that it grew out of a satire of a ballad by Thomas Deloney (c. 1543 – April 1600) called The Noble Acts of Arthur of the round Table.

When Arthur first in court began,
and was approved King:
By force of armes great victories wan,
and conquest home did bring.

There’s an American version too (by the way, did you know the American National Anthem is an 18th Century English drinking song?) Anyway, this one begins: 

In good Old Colony times 
When we were under the king
Three roguish chaps fell into mishaps, 
Because they could not sing.

Now this version was quoted by Bismarck in February 1888 in his final major speech to the Reichstag which warned against European war. Here is a picture of him leaving the Reichstag after making it.

So there you have it. Falstaff, Hardy, the Mitfords, washing-up, my mother and Bismarck all in one single post. Now what was I supposed to be thinking about again?

A Bibliography of Modern Arthuriana (1500-2000) by Ann F. Howey, Stephen Ray Reimer was a very helpful guide.

As was the thread on  
The image of Bismarck comes from

And there’s a good account of the song in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs edited by Steve Roud and Julia Bishop

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Fall of the Tay Bridge - An Unnecessary Disaster: by Ann Swinfen

On the afternoon of Sunday the 28th December 1879 a passenger train belonging to the North British Railway Company set off from Waverley station in Edinburgh, bound for Granton, on the south bank of the Firth of Forth. From there the passengers embarked on a ferry across the estuary to Burntisland, where a second train, known as ‘the Edinburgh’ was waiting to carry them across Fife towards the city of Dundee, situated on the north bank of the River Tay. Here there was no need for a ferry – only a little over a year before, the river had successfully been bridged for rail traffic. A great storm was hurtling down the valley of the Tay. When the train pulled into St Fort station - the last stop before the bridge - the passengers no doubt were looking forward to getting home at last on the other side of the river. But part way across the bridge the ‘high girders’ over the navigation span collapsed into the raging waters below, taking with them the train, its passengers and its crew.  There were no survivors.
The bridge after the collapse

The Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879 is well known to the people of Tayside and Fife. Children in primary schools learn about it; over the years there have been various articles about it in the local press; several books have been written about it; and on the 134th anniversary of the Disaster, on the 28th December 2013, substantial granite memorials were erected to the victims at moving ceremonies on both sides of the TayOne might be forgiven for imagining that the last word had been written on the subject, and that there is no more left to say.

And yet there are two highly important – indeed central – aspects of the story about which there is still a vigorous debate and, as yet, no firm consensus. These are the cause or causes of the collapse, and the true number of the victims lost.

The directors nervously cross the bridge before it opens

At the time of the disaster, the bridge had been standing for barely eighteen months. The longest bridge in the world at the time of its constructions, it was hailed as an engineering triumph. Famous visitors from all over the world came to marvel at its size and splendour, including the Emperor of Brazil, Prince Leopold of the Belgians, and former President of the United States,Ulysses S. Grant. Even Queen Victoria herself ventured out of her self-imposed seclusion to ride across the bridge and attend a civic reception in Dundee. At the grand opening, the Piper of Dundee played and poems in its honour were read.
The opening of the bridge

In the following year, when the bridge fell, how many perished? It has long been accepted that all the passengers and crew without exception were killed, as the train plummeted into the river from a height of nearly 90 feet. What is not so clear is just how many passengers there were on the train at the time. Most commentaries on the disaster in recent years have opted for a figure of around 75, and there is good evidence for this number. For one thing it was the figure accepted by the Court of Inquiry set up immediately after the collapse. The Court in its turn based its conclusion on the evidence of station staff at St Fort station, where, for whatever reason, it was the normal practice for the tickets for passengers travelling to Dundee to be collected. These officials reported that they had collected 56 tickets, to which should be added passengers with season tickets, those travelling beyond Dundee and the members of the crew – a total of between 72 and 75.

Yet there was another source of evidence, arguably more robust. All deaths associated with the bridge were registered with the Parish of St Mary’s in Dundee, and the death certificates ultimately lodged in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. These certificates number only 59 – exactly the same names and number as were recorded in the police list in the archives of the police in Dundee. Of these 59, 47 were male, and 12 female. In the event, only 46 bodies were ever recovered. Moreover, from time to time the local press published the names of victims, and the latest of these, on 1st January 1880, included only 56 names

In other words, the only incontrovertible evidence for the number of victims supports the conclusion that there were 59, rather than 75. Of course it is still possible that there were more, who in one way or another escaped scrutiny, but it seems highly improbable. The great majority of the known passengers were local – typically travelling back to their work in Dundee after visiting families in Fife. It is a reasonable assumption that the same would have been true of any other passengers not recorded in the list of death certificates. Could it be that some 16 people were also lost without family, friends, or employers ever noticing? While there may have been more than 59 victims, if there were, we do not know their names or how many there were. This is why the Memorials raised to the victims in 2013 firmly state that ’fifty-nine victims, men women and children, are known to have died’ in the catastrophe.
Memorials on the Fife bank of the Tay

Then, what about the other key question – the cause or causes of the collapse?
To understand that we need to know something of the history of the bridge and its construction. The rail bridge over the Tay was the first stage of an ambitious plan on the part of the North British Railway company to out do their great rival, the Caledonian, by replacing passenger ferries across the Forth and Tay rivers with two great bridges, able to carry rail traffic without interruption between Edinburgh and Aberdeen

The Company engaged Thomas Bouch, an experienced railway engineer, to carry this out. Bouch’s original intention was to carry the railway line on a single line bridge supported for almost all of its length on tall brick columns. Unfortunately it became only too clear in the course of construction that the river bed, believed to be solid rock for most of its width, was only partly so – much of it was in fact composed of conglomerate under a thick layer of mud.

This realisation caused a rapid rethink, and Bouch came up with an alternative to support the remainder of the bridge with towers made from cast iron columns bound together with wrought iron tie bars. These tie bars in turn were attached to the columns by nuts and bolts which passed through holes in lugs, cast integral with the columns. It is generally accepted that it was these cast iron lugs which fractured, rendering the towers unstable, and initiating a progressive collapse of the structure, taking with it the train.
Joints with Lugs
It is here that the consensus breaks down. Broadly there are two schools of thought about the causes of the collapse – either the train brought down the bridge, or the bridge brought down the train.

In the first of these two camps we find Bouch himself. He was firmly of the opinion that what had brought down the train was the accident of a second class carriage coming off the rails, catching on one of the side girders, and ripping the whole structure apart. Some colour was given to this explanation by the fact that there was a known distortion at one point in the rails, caused it has been claimed by an accident in the course of construction when two of the ‘high girders’ were blown off their supports into the river. One of these was repaired and reused, leading to a ‘kink in the rail’ which could have unsettled a carriage as it passed over it. Bouch pointed to certain scrape marks on one of the side girders, which could have been made by contact with a carriage.
Girder No.4
Against that there was the fact that the marks were too high up to be reached by a toppling carriage. Dugald Drummond, chief engineer for the North British, for his part was convinced from the state of the rolling stock, that all its components had remained on the track as it fell.

A recent and intriguing contribution to the debate has been the claim that the lugs failed due to metal fatigue, induced by the passage of trains over the bridge since its inception. But this explanation has not found favour with experts in the field, who have concluded that the operational life of the bridge was far too short for metal fatigue to have set in.

So what are we left with? If the bridge itself was the cause of the demise of the train, how did that come about?

Here we need to return to the conclusions of the Court of Inquiry, which amongst other things focused on the design of the bridge, with particular reference to the question of wind pressure, and the design of the lugs, crucial to the failure of the whole construction. Bouch came in for particular criticism for his failure to make sufficient allowance for the pressure of wind against the fabric of the bridge, although it was clear that even officials at the Board of Trade, including the Inspector of the bridge, Major General Hutchinson, were not accustomed to make any such allowance for lattice girders of the length and type involved. Nevertheless it is the firm opinion of modern experts that one of the key causes of the collapse was the extreme pressure of wind on the fateful night.

The second major factor was the design and method of manufacture of the lugs to which the tie bars had been bolted. The most obvious problem was that, in the process of casting, the holes in the lugs, which were to take the connecting bolts, ended up being conical in shape instead of truly cylindrical. This had the effect of concentrating all the stress of the connection on a narrow ring of metal. On top of that, as a cost cutting measure, Bouch had specified bolts which were one eighth of an inch smaller that they should have been. 
Belah Viaduct

Again, if only Bouch had chosen to use the kind of wrought iron ring clamps he had used on the Belah Viaduct in the North of England, instead of the fragile lugs, the disaster might well never have happened at all. Why didn’t he? Because they were too expensive.
Belah Wrought Iron Clamps
Various other contributory factors have been cited as explanations of the fall. The great height of the bridge above the high water level, which arguably made it less stable, was due to fears of the authorities in Perth, up river from the bridge, that their seaward trade might be affected. That it was a narrow single line bridge at all was down to the directors of the North British – again a matter of cost. That Henry Noble, charged with the maintenance of the bridge after it came into operation, had tried to cure ‘chattering’ in the bridge components as economically as possible by hammering wedges of iron into them, may well have forced the bridge out of true.

But in the end one comes down to the simple facts.  The bridge collapsed in a fierce and unremitting gale for two fundamental reasons – the lack of a sufficient allowance for wind pressure in the design, and the fatal decision to rely on the cast iron lugs to hold the towers together, instead of the Belah clamps. Not surprisingly, Bouch, as the designer of the bridge, was devastated by the collapse of the bridge, the tragic loss of life, and the ruin of his professional reputation. He survived the fall of the bridge by less than a year.

The Tay Bridge Disaster was an engineering catastrophe, but above all it was a human tragedy. Most of the victims were young, 10 of them 18 or under, the youngest only 5. But consider the remarkable escape of six year old William Brown. William lived in Dundee with his widowed mother, one brother and two sisters. In late December, 1879, he was looking forward to travelling to Leuchars in Fife with his grandmother and his elder sister to visit his uncle Charles. But he had been very naughty – the exact nature of his crime is not revealed – he was given a severe beating by his mother, and forbidden to go on the visit. That was the last he saw of sister Elisabeth and their grandmother.
Memorials on the Dundee bank of the Tay. The new bridge in the background.

Published 20 October 2016, the new and updated edition The Fall of the Tay Bridge, by David Swinfen:

Ann Swinfen

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Snapshot From the Writing Life by Katherine Webb

A somewhat more personal blog than normal from me this month as I find myself in that slightly bewildered, exhausted/exhilarated state that comes about when the second (and hopefully final) draft of a book has been handed in. Mostly, there's a tremendous sense of relief! And I know it's definitely done this time because I have stopped waking up in the middle of the night thinking of tiny, tiny changes to make to the script - literally swapping one word for another on page 342, for example. I'm free!

As somebody who cannot plan a story before starting it, writing a novel is always a leap of faith. Will I still be able to do I? Will ability kick in where faith is failing, and let me produce something worth reading? I know where I want the book to start and finish, and I know who my players are, but will I be able to steer them through a complex narrative? And, given that I can't plan, a book with a twisty plot - like my fourth novel, 'The Misbegotten', and like this one I have just finished - always cause me headaches. I knew when I handed this script in for the first time back in June that there was work to be done - and I was looking forward to getting my agent's and editor's eagle eyes on it. Often, I am far too close to the woods to see the trees by the time I reach the end of the story. It's all there in my head, but has it made it onto the page?

I am often asked by aspiring writers how I deal with the editorial process, and the general feeling is that it must be awfully hard. Well, it is - but not necessarily for the reasons people might think. I imagine that if you'd turned in what you thought was the perfect novel, hearing that your publisher would like changes made to it must be very hard. The key is never to assume it's perfect! I've done this enough times now to know that I have strengths and weaknesses, and every first draft I write will have strengths and weaknesses. Having a skilled editor to point out the weaknesses is a GOOD thing. I've also been asked whether a book still feels like my book once I've redrafted it. My goodness, YES. If it doesn't, something is very seriously wrong. An editor might point out a problem; it is up to the author to find the solution to that problem. Or to argue convincingly that there isn't a problem. Or to sidestep the problem by rewriting other parts of the novel in a certain way. It remains, absolutely, all my own work.

My entirely shambolic work book, which helps me keep tabs on what I've changed and what this is doing to other parts of the book, and what still needs to be added/removed/rewritten...

Another thing I also do at this stage of the writing process is to go back through all my research notes for little gems of historical detail I've missed, which I can drop in to add authenticity to my settings. This time around, that meant rural Wiltshire life in the 1920s, which has been a joy to learn about and to write. Equally, you have to leave some things behind, if they're not needed. However interesting I found the highly-skilled process of constructing a Wiltshire hoop-raved brought nothing to the plot. I've weeded out every bit of too-modern sounding dialogue, written in unthinking full-flow, as I can find; I've checked which wild flowers would have been blooming in the months I've set my story, and I've agonised over whether a character would be 'fascinated with' or 'fascinated by' her lover's body. I have, in short, driven myself quite batty.

A Wiltshire hoop-raved wagon. Would often have been painted bright blue, with the wheels and details picked out in scarlet; and would have lasted donkey's years.

The sudden loss of this soul focus of my attention is a strange feeling. I've only been half in the room for the past six weeks, as I worked on the redraft. Time to call up some friends, and apologise for being glassy-eyed company of late... I feel relieved, as I said, and also a little bereft. I find myself wondering whether I should have found a way to work in the details of the hoop-raved wagon after all... But, once I've hit send I am strict about doing nothing else to the script until I hear back from my editor. And now, a few days on, real life is slowly returning to mind!

The book is due for publication in the UK next June. The script now goes off to a copy editor, who will fact-check it and pick out any glaring continuity errors (always a danger when some sections have been rewritten); after that it'll go to be type-set and then proof read, both by me and by a professional proof reader. And I must turn my attention to the next book... Normally, by this stage, I'll have had an idea about what I want to write next. This time, I haven't an inkling. This latest book has taken up a huge amount of my energy and brain-space for the past nine months - perhaps more than any of my other novels to date. I am - tentatively - extremely proud of it, and I think I need a few weeks to recover from it!

I'll leave you with a few fantastic facts about rural Wiltshire a century ago that I wasn't able to work into the narrative:

Wiltshire folk were superstitious about elder trees and wouldn't cut them down, as it was said that Judas hanged himself from an elder tree.

Vertical stones set on top of a wall around a well, and designed to keep children out, were called 'cock-ups'.

A treat for the children when the butcher's wagon came around was a lump of suet to gnaw on. Yuk!

Obby was short for Albert.

When it came to making wagon wheels, only heart of elm would do for the hubs; only ash for the shafts, and only oak for the spokes.

Folks would say that spring had come when you could step on nine daisies at once.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Camoufleurs of Leamington Spa - Celia Rees

Interior Coventry Cathedral - John Piper

With the 8th Army on the Sangro - Edward Ardizzone
Official War Artists, like John Piper, played a crucial role in recording the impact of the Second World War on the life of the country. Artists painted and drew the Blitz and its aftermath, bombed out buildings, civilians in shelters, the public carrying on regardless. They painted men and women working in factories, on the docks, on the land. They painted and drew soldiers and sailors on active service. They created vivid, powerful, often poignant and intimate pictures of what it was like to live in a country involved in total war. 
In Defence of Albion - Paul Nash
Some artists, however were given a 'bigger' job to do. These were the Camouflage Artists - the Camoufleurs. Artists and designers whose task it was to devise ways to conceal important sites, factories, air fields, power stations, ships, docks and naval installations, from German aircraft and submarines. 

Camouflaged Factory Buildings - Colin Moss

The Camoufleurs were based in my town, Leamington Spa, described at the time as 'a pleasant but mildly dilapidated spa town'. The sudden influx of 'arty types' caused some consternation. Men with long hair and donkey jackets walking round the town in sandals with no socks; women with short hair and wearing trousers. It wasn't what the town was used to. So much so,  that two of their number were briefly detained on suspicion of spying after being seen out in the countryside in an open top Rolls Royce, the driver wearing a fedora. Talk of drinking, wild parties and free love scandalised the natives even further but the Camoufleurs were here to do a serious job. 

The Big Tower Camouflaged, 1943 - Colin Moss
the beginning of the war, their work was focussed on disguising strategic buildings from the air. A camouflage officer would fly over the prospective site, take notes and photographs and return to headquarters in the Regent Hotel. Here, notes and photographs were worked up into perspective drawings or three dimensional models if the site was of particular strategic importance. The models were taken to the 'viewing room', a converted Roller Skating Rink at the bottom of the town. They  were viewed in a special chamber on a giant turntable which allowed the model to be seen from different angles under different lighting. A sun, set on a giant arm, could be moved and fixed at any altitude. There was also a moonlight viewing room to deal with the increasing frequency of night raids. The models and accompanying colour charts were then used as guides to camouflage the site with paint and netting.

Spraying Paint on an Airfield for Camouflage - Robin Darwin
There was also a Naval Camouflage Unit based in the Art Gallery in Avenue Road. Their task was to make vessels near invisible to German war ships and submarines. Designs were tested on specially made models in one of the two large viewing tanks.

The Outside Viewing Tank - James Yunge-Bateman 
Quite apart from their camouflage duties, the artists painted and sketched what they saw about them. They painted murals in the British Restaurant (now sadly lost). They painted the people they encountered, the houses and streets they lived in, the day to day life of the  town. 

Grace at the Sausage Hatch - Mary Adshead

Lansdowne Circus, 1943 - Christopher Ironside

The Parade - Dorothy Annan 
 They recorded how the war was affecting the town. The arrival of evacuees escaping the bombing in nearby Coventry. The aftermath of Leamington's one and only bomb. Digging for Victory - Newbold Common given over to cabbages. 

Evacuee in Leamington Spa - Janey Ironside

Morning after the Blitz - Colin Moss

Cabbage Field with Townscape Beyond - Colin Moss
Their camouflage work is now a footnote in history but the paintings that these artists made of Leamington are a unique record of life in a small Midlands town in the Second World War. One particular painting, held in Leamington Art Gallery, has special, personal resonance for me. My family came from Leamington and this picture of Clarendon Street in 1940 after a heavy snowfall, shows my aunt and uncle's house. The woman standing in the doorway could be my Aunty Olive, the little boy with her my cousin, Rodney.  

Leamington, 1940 - Stephen Bone
I would like to thank Leamington Museum and Art Gallery for their recent excellent exhibition, Concealment and Deception: The Art of The Camoufleurs in Leamington Spa 1939 -45. 

Celia Rees

Monday, 17 October 2016

"946" or G.I's at THE GLOBE by Penny Dolan

Today’s post is about a play – and a novel - for young people based on a historical event and performed at a historical place.

As soon as I saw that the Kneehigh Theatre Company was at The Globe on London’s South Bank in September, I checked dates and booked tickets. Although the Cornish-based company occasionally tours to Leeds, I wasn’t sure if that would happen with this show. So London it was. 

I particularly wanted to see how they would dramatise THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS, a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the author of WAR HORSE. The story is another “animal & war” tale, written in his classic, thoughtful style which was why I could not quite imagine how the story – and the history behind it - could be translated for the stage and for a family audience.

I had hopes: Kneehigh has a wonderfully theatrical approach. Although their performances feel emotionally real, what the audience sees is not realistic in the TV or CGI sense of the word: the company uses a cast of multi-talented actor-musicians in a variety of roles as well as puppetry, music, song, dance and movement and seem able to tread between from moments of raucous humour to intensely moving sensitivity.

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPSis set during WWII. Ostensibly, the story is about a twelve year old girl trying to find her lost cat, yet it is also about the pity of war and the changes that war brings to ordinary lives and places. Michael Morpurgo, as ever, reminds us of the histories that one generation should share with those that come after. 

The inspiration for Morpurgo’s book was both the requisitioning of Slapton, a remote, rural village in Devon in1943 and the disaster that happened there. The military had noticed that the wide, sloping beaches of Slapton Sands were similar to the Normandy coastline and therefore chose that area to stage Operation Tiger, an intentionally realistic, don’t-turn-back rehearsal for the D-Day landings.

During the preparations, as American troops flooded into the area and landing craft gathered along the Devon coast, the local villagers had to make arrangements to leave the homes, farms, livestock and land and all that everything that had been part of their lives for generations. Even then, the rehearsal did not go well. When German U-boats were spotted in the Channel, a mismatch between the British and American coding systems blocked radio warnings and the landing ships, full of troops and sailors, heavy equipment and vehicles were torpedoed. Many men were maimed, killed or lost at sea and, furthermore, the “realistic” nature of Operation Tiger meant that the “live” ammunition was used when troops engaged on the beaches.

Afterwards, Morpurgo found, that although there had been local rumours of the disaster, a news black-out was imposed. Morale had to be kept high for the proposed D-Day landings and so the tragedy remained an official secret for many years, both in Britain and in America. The number chosen for the show’s title - 946 – is quoted as the number of G.I’s who died at Slapton Sands. A grim event, and I could not help wondering how Kneehigh would manage this uneasy subject.

A question asked of Bertholdt Brecht makes the opening line of the show:
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?”
”Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

Slowly, as a model farmhouse - complete with a smoking chimney - is carried on stage, we are shown a country backwater in miniature: a small Dorset farm, surrounded by tiny puppet sheep, a small black and white sheepdog and a delightful boy-puppet playing “keepy-uppy” with his football. In moments, that tiny scene expands to human scale. The small collie becomes a full-sized puppet collie, and we are inside the remote farmhouse with strong-minded Grandma, poorly Grandad in his wheelchair and, gradually all the family, especially Booey, the grandson and narrator. The grandfather is, very gently, dying. Grandma, clearly dominant, takes Booey out on a motorbike, recalling how she and her ailing husband used to travel, “Supreme!” she declares, a refrain that echoes throughout the play. Then, after the funeral, she announces she is setting off on a secret adventure, to do something she has waited until now to do.

If you have read any Morpurgo books, you will recognise his familiar time-slip structure when you see Grandma gives puzzled Booey her girlhood diary, briskly telling him that if he reads it – twelve-year-old Lily Tregenza’s diary - he will understand where she is going and why. As Booey starts reading the pages, time changes and Lily, played by Katy Owen, appears, furiously grabbing her diary out of his hands. 

A frisky self-willed young girl, Lily is obsessed with searching for her cat Tips who has been in hiding since Lily’s father drowned her litter of kittens. (This is a “told” incident, thank goodness.) Lily, unable to forgive her father, would not say goodbye when he left for war. 
Thankfully for my emotions, the puppet cat Tips is quite large and not particularly cute or needy: she is a typical farmhouse cat, in fact, and not one that anyone else on the Tregenza family farm worries about, because it is wartime and, short-handed, they are struggling to keep things going.
Lily attends the small village school, where lessons are now conducted by a teacher from France, the cruelly-nicknamed Madam Bloomers, who the “children” mock as she circles the stage on her bicycle. The “pupils” act their parts magnificently well, mixing naughtiness, name-calling and argy-bargy, along with acrobatically gliding around their old-school desks, and more. Even there, Lily does not change: she does not love school or rules and her liveliness and cussedness gives the play and story a nicely unsentimental edge.

Shortly, a group of evacuees arrive. Immediately, the cramped sharing of desks leads to arguments and fights between the village children and the incomers. They are, at first, instant enemies:
“They keep looking at us funny.”
“Well, look funny back!”

Gradually, Lily and Barry, a dim, kindly boy from war-damaged London, form an awkward relationship, with the headstrong Lily delighting in taunting the love-struck Barry throughout he play.
The whole “school cast” worked excellently, especially in a wonderfully raucous scene where Lily angrily suggests that Hitler and Churchill should settle the war between themselves rather than making everyone else fight the war for them, an idea demonstrated through a trio of children’s street games using rounds of scissors-paper-stone, a clapping pattern contest and a rather unequal skipping game at the end of which a Hitler figure is driven, snivelling, off-stage and a brash, triumphant Churchill celebrates with a tour-de-force on the skipping-rope.

Morpurgo was very involved with the Kneehigh Company’s adaptation, and I could not help noticing how subtly scripted the language was during these moments and the whole play. For example, the Nazi party is blamed, rather than the German nation as a whole, and although the children may be thoughtless, once they hear that their teacher’s husband has been drowned in a naval convoy, their behaviour immediately changes to sympathy, and for once the sight of school recorders brought peace and joy.

All the way through, the first half is full of activity and sound: the recorders sing tunefully, the tractor rattles around the stage, puppet hens squawk and small farm animals cause  havoc. Even the elusive Tips appears for a cuddle now and then.

However, the schoolchildren’s biggest surprise comes when Adie and his friend arrive in the classroom, asking for directions for their jeep: the children meet two black American soldiers, at a time and in a place where they would have been an unusual sight. Lily is totally enchanted by Adie, especially when the two G.I’s visit the Tregenza farm. 

Moreover, the soldier’s involvement, culture and cheerful friendship is emphasised all the way through by the music from the band on-stage, up in the gallery, descending to act their parts by ladders or skinning down the pole. 946 is full of “American” music - jazz, jitter-bug, gospel and more – and with never a single lute in sight.
I felt that the play is noisier and ruder than the original novel and once, rather mistook the book’s mood for me. When Barry’s larger-than-life bus-conductress mum visits the farm, her comic drag role rather overwhelmed the Ivy from the page, who I’d thought of as a helpful, extra pair of hands whose bustling ways had stirred the grandfather out of his mood of dejection. This book Ivy was hidden by the dramatically loud wails of protest about the awful green of her country surroundings. 

Yet, maybe the production needed that energy at that point, coming just before the imminent tragedy? As the second half starts to the sound of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, the stories start to interweave and darken and Kneehigh moves into the powerful arts of mime and symbolism:
- the stage, barricaded with lengths of wire, signifying the dangerous, restricted areas where Lily goes searching for Tips;
- the communication error is signified by two string-and-can phone-sets ( one colour British, the other American) the lines crossed but unconnected.
- an almost ritual acting out of the disaster, where G.I’s carry model ships forward to a rank of water-filled tin baths, like toys in the game of war.
- the fusillade of flashes and explosions and water spurting through the layers of mist and smoke: the fog of war indeed,
-  religious symbols: as the people leave the village, both the vicar’s church candlestick and the teacher’s menorah are carried among the precious possessions: this is not a one-faith confrontation.
- a tiny parachutist puppet descends; immediately an injured German parachutist stands on stage, hands in position but without a trailing parachute. The remote far-off is made immediate and personal
- the children and villagers holding out photos not only of the young German’s family but also the “lost” faces of British, Indian, Black, Jewish and other peoples who suffered in this World War
The production offers much to think about, not only the fact that life was changed for all in that community by those times. Lily’s “journal” concludes, ending with runaway Tips being brought home and the plot returns to the “present” of the early scenes. Where has Booey’s Gran gone? Who will look after her when she comes back? Who will the old lady live with? The squabbling family are waiting at the airport to find out . . .

Emma Rice’s production sharpened all the emotions and strengths of the Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips book, lightening it with humour and bringing sparkle and life to both the past and “present” stories, and there is much in this busy production that I would have liked to include but could not. You'll find a flavour of the show here.
However, at the same time, I was aware that The Globe was dressed for a twentieth-century war story. The familiar painted stage - see below - was stacked with sandbags or “protected” by wooden planking. Each pillar carried a large aeroplane propeller that whirred into action at significant moments, the music and sound was amplified and at one point a glitter-ball rotated under the Shakespearean canopy. This production meant a big change for The Globe, which was created to be as authentic an experience of Shakespearean theatre as possible, a theatre where costumes were laced and tied and where the great Round “O” would respond to the sound to human breath. Now – though not all in a single move - there are zips and electricity.

Emma Rice of Kneehigh is now the Director of the Globe so it will be interesting to see how Shakespeare will be played here in future. Her Midsummer Night’s Dream, recently shown on television, was much more in the vibrant, cross-dressing Kneehigh style than in the “authentically historic” tradition. Is this change a loss and if so, does it matter? Or is it a matter of “bums-on-seats” accountancy?
I will be seeing this production again. 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is now on tour – maybe near you? - and will be coming to the West Yorkshire Playhouse during Book Week.  At this, a term-time matinee) I will probably witness the show among an audience of school-children. What they will make of it all? How much of the history will get though to them. And what will they make of all this “singing about the dark times?”

Penny Dolan

Meanwhile, as I have mentioned events in the North, places may still be available at next weekend's HARROGATE HISTORY FESTIVAL, held at THE OLD SWAN, where you can spend a day or three celebrating historical fiction.  Details here!