Saturday, August 02, 2014

Review: The Tin Snail by Cameron McAllister


'The Tin Snail' by Cameron McAllister is a charming, somewhat old-fashioned read that delights with its humour, adventure, patriotism and love. Invoking the spirit of war-time France, it tells the tale of the development of the French version of the ‘people’s car’, the Citroën 2CV. We have baddies ranging from Nazis, including the villainous Ferdinand Porche, designer of the VW Beetle and the Panzer tank, who is trying to steal the plucky French design for Germany, to young Philippe, the jealous love rival, and his father, Victor, the pompous and obstructive mayor, who are ultimately redeemed by their courage and patriotism.

'The Tin Snail' is well plotted and the story unfolds like a script for a rattling good family film. However, although the book is illustrated, it is never completely clear from pictures or text what the revolutionary designs look like, unless one is already familiar with the 2CV (which my daughter was not). I wonder whether as a screenwriter, the author was imagining that all would become apparent on screen?
It appears to be creative non-fiction, telling the true story of the development of the car, so I felt a little cheated that that having invested in Angelo, his father Luca Fabrizzi, Christian Silvestre and Bertrand Hipaux, I discovered that their names were really Flaminio Bertoni, André Lefèbvre and Pierre Jules Boulanger. I don’t even know whether Fabrizzi’s son Leonardo had anything at all to do with the design. The other niggle is the sub-title: The little car that won a war – it didn’t. What actually happened was that the prototypes were deliberately hidden from the Germans and the car only went into production in 1948.
That said, this is a delightful book for anyone over the age of eight, and it would make a tremendous film.

This review first appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 69 (August 2014). Book supplied by publisher.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Medieval graffiti in England's churches


The 'straw king', a medieval graffiti drawing that could be a pagan fertility symbol. Photo: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project.

The BBC reports a four-year-oldLincolnshire medieval graffiti project which has uncovered more than 28,000 examples of centuries-old carvings etched by bored medieval church-goers, some of which appear to depict pagan symbols and imagery. But do these graffiti drawings really reveal a lingering devotion to paganism?

On the walls near the entrance to Cranwell Parish Church, in Lincolnshire,  is a figure identified as "the straw man". Brian Porter, Lincolnshire's medieval graffiti project co-ordinator, believes the figure to be a pagan fertility symbol, possibly etched before a May Day celebration.

The BBC goes on to state that 'in pre-Christian tradition the "straw man" was made out of the previous year's crop and then eventually burned, with the ashes scattered across the fields. Mr Porter said he believed the church "couldn't stamp out" the Pagan traditions of parishioners and probably grew tired of rubbing the graffiti away. It raises a tantalising prospect. Could it be that beneath the Christian veneer, an older tradition was still being actively pursued, perhaps in a deliberately subversive way?'

Professor Ronald Hutton confirms in his book Stations of the Sun that the making of corn symbols from straw was done as part of a harvest ritual.  The last sheaf in the field to be harvested was often given a name, such as the maiden, the old woman, the mare or the neck.  Hutton specifically mentions a figure from 1598 at Windsor that is woven from straw and dressed as a woman.  There are accounts through to the 1800’s (Hutton 2001:332-347). All such folk customs are indeed fascinating and may plausibly be considered as remnants of pre-Christian practice and belief.

But why does Mr Porter conclude that this church graffiti figure is a representation of a corn dolly? Surely it is clearly identifiable as a man in rich Tudor dress? Oh I do wish Mr Porter were correct, but to my eyes there is nothing to suggest anything of the corn or harvest in the image. I suspect this is wishful thinking on Mr Porter's part, a suspicion perhaps shared by Matt Champion, the medieval archaeologist who began the project in Norfolk in 2010, who says there are a variety of different theories and care is needed when interpreting the drawings.

"Brian could be right," he says. "But we have different perspectives. To be honest, I've yet to come across a genuine pagan symbol. Not all [Christians at the time] were closet pagans."


Yeah. Dream on Brian!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman



Buffalo Soldier explores of the nature of freedom, in a searingly poignant story told from the perspective of Charlotte, a young African-American slave from the deep south of America at the end of the Civil War. After witnessing the rape and lynching of her adoptive mother, Charlotte is pitched all alone into a world of war and terror. Officially emancipated from slavery, she is still trapped by the colour of her skin but also by her gender. Now that even her value as a slave has been stripped from her, in desperation she dons a dead man’s clothes and joins the US Army, becoming ‘Charley’, a ‘buffalo soldier’. Her journey takes her from coast to coast cutting a swathe through a unpleasant period of US history, during which we see Buffalo Bill initiating the sanitisation of the record.

This is an extraordinarily powerful book, immaculately written in a sustained voice that never misses a beat. The analogies and observations that flesh out the narrative are superbly observed and always completely in character and period. We are literally observing the world according to Charley, and her take on it is skilfully developed throughout her journey. Landman doesn’t shy away from the sights, sounds and language that characterized slavery and its aftermath, but the further that Charley moves away from the former Confederate slave states, the more she adopts the different spoken styles indicating the prejudices of the soldiers around her, in a changed world order in which the Native Americans are at the bottom of the heap. Yet she is finally shown the meaning of true freedom by an Apache with whom she is able to discover a viable identity for herself as a woman.

Important material is sensitively addressed, making this a must-read book for all over-twelves.

Review first appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 68 (May 2014)


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reverse Ferret

Reverse Ferret

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage got a right savaging for 20 minutes by James O'Brien on LBC yesterday, until his spin doctor intervened to get him off air. I wouldn't normally have heard this clip, (as I don't enjoy O'Brien's interview technique - I find him hectoring and too fond of his own voice and I don't care much for Farage's opinions on anything), but for the fact that O'Brien accuses Farage of "reverse feretting" over a promise to have his expenses independently audited – an offer Ukip made but Farage withdrew saying he would not be subject to a stricter audit than other MEPs. The phrase appeared in headlines on social media. It's at 18 min 30 sec in this video.


Hello! I thought, what on earth is "reverse feretting" when it's at home? I had to Google it!

It turns out to be media luvvy-speak for a volte-face on the editorial line on a certain issue. It's sufficiently specialised for the Guardian to feel the need to define it in this article from 2011:
"Reverse ferret" is, technically speaking, a term used in Fleet Street, just down the road, to describe the moment when an editor executes a startling editorial U-turn.
It even has its own Wikipedia entry:
Reverse ferret is a phrase used predominantly within the British media to describe a sudden reversal in an organisation's editorial line on a certain issue. Generally, this will involve no acknowledgement of the previous position.
The term originates from Kelvin MacKenzie's time at The Sun. His preferred description of the role of journalists when it came to public figures was to "stick a ferret up their trousers". This meant making their lives uncomfortable, and was based on the supposed northern stunt of ferret legging (where contestants compete to show who can endure a live ferret within their sealed trousers the longest). However, when it became clear that the tide of public opinion had turned against the paper's line, MacKenzie would burst from his office shouting "Reverse Ferret!" 
Now I know that background, I find it really rather colourful and I quite like it. Oddly though, Farage appeared to be quite familiar with the term which was somewhat surprising given his words at the start of the interview,
"This is the political class clubbing together using their mates in the media and doing anything they can to stop the UKIP charge." 
This is an irony that seems to have completely bypassed the testy Mr O'Brien in his nasty little media-luvvy bubble. How ironic!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

UKIP v. the Establishment

As someone who believes that the current tripartite party system is incestuous, corrosive and corrupt, I find it very interesting in the run up to the 2014 European elections, that UKIP (whose xenophobic position is not mine, by the way) appears to be getting under the skin of the powers that be. Instead of being treated as genial buffoons on the fringes of politics, the mainstream media (in all its forms) is having a right ad hominem go at UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

A recent social media manifestation rather tickles me though. This image is being gleefully shared on Facebook:

Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP circa 1983... UKIP wanted it banned, so here it is!

I have pointed out to those of my friends who shared it that it is in fact nicely done Photoshop work  - Farage's face has been applied to this image:


(However, if Farage had actually ever been a punk, I doubt that he'd have had a 50 year old face at the time...)

Anyway, I'm quite intrigued about who did the tidy Photoshop job and why. Given that punk was a uniquely British phenomenon characterised by a two-fingers-protest against the existing regime, wrapped in tartan and the Union Jack, what could this "fake" rebel image do for Farage? Certainly no harm at all!

So is it a clever viral campaign by UKIP or a memorable own goal by Conservative Central Office? Or just a random person messing about.

Answers on a ballot card!




Even Johnny Rotten is a mainstream Brit icon now:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning our lines


According to the Daily Mail, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that "the number of families saying they are going hungry has fallen over the past five years – as the number of food banks has risen."

This is obviously because more people are being fed, so fewer are going hungry, right? But such deductions are not the Daily Mail way. Their take is based on Lord Freud's, (the UK Welfare Minister), statement that "it is very hard to know why people go to food banks". They report, "while he conceded nobody turned to charities for food parcels ‘willingly’, more people were visiting the banks simply because there were more in existence." Personally I find that to be an argument worthy of Comical Ali, Saddam's Information Minister, who said "there is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad," as the world's media recorded the line of tanks rolling across the bridge in shot behind him. And while Freud says (to all intents and purposes) "let them eat cake", that is not really the nature of this post and it's not that kind of line.

The foodbank situation has led to a considerable amount of commentary about people in the UK being "below the breadline" and getting lines crossed is the nature of this post. People can be 'near the breadline' and they can be 'on the breadline' but they cannot be 'below the breadline'.



The term breadline is borrowed from the Americans who use 'line' where we would use the word 'queue'. So a breadline is a queue for bread. It is not some arbitrary measure of relative poverty, some economic Plimsoll line below which one must not be sunk. The breadline is a physical queue for food handouts - the literal end of the line is the foodbank.

It is an absolute disgrace that some commentators (who should know better) should use the term 'breadline', frivolously and relatively to score political points without seeing it for what it is, when it is an absolute that many Britons are on, or near, or approaching.

There is no 'below the breadline'. When you can't afford food there is no going 'below' that.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Seminar on Herbal illustration and identification at Kew -18 June 2014

British Library MS Harley 3736/10r. Charlemagne and the plant Carlina
This is a heads up for any of my herby friends (or arty or historically minded ones) who might like to attend.


Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine

18 June 2014


Organized by Anne Stobart (Herbal History Research Network) and  Frances Watkins (University of East London, UK)
Jodrell Lecture Theatre
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Richmond TW9 3DS
United Kingdom
The aim of this day seminar on Wednesday 18th June 2014 is to bring together researchers to explore issues related to plant illustration and identification in the history of herbal medicine. Correct identification of plants in the past has been of great importance, whether for foods, medicines or other purposes. But to what extent did people in medieval and early modern times learn about plants with medicinal uses from illustrations in herbals or elsewhere? Matters of interest include ways in which illustrations were produced, the role of illustrations, dissemination of information about plant identification, significant observers of plants and their approaches to plant description. This day seminar at Kew Botanic Gardens near London, UK, has been organised with a particular focus on presenting research into finding and interpreting archival and other sources relating to the history of herbal medicine.
Main speakers:
Julia Boffey, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London
Isabelle Charmantier, University of Exeter
Maria Daronco, University of Udine, Italy
This event is organised by the Herbal History Research Network group which aims to promote research into the history of herbal medicine. The Network helps to connect together people who share common interests in researching the history of herbal medicine through seminars and other events. For further details of the Network contact Anne Stobart at a.stobart@herbaid.co.uk
Please see the supporting material for the day seminar programme and registration form at: http://events.history.ac.uk/event/show/12436?ref=email

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Knight Crusader

It's about time I caught up on this blog and published some of the recent book reviews I've done for the Historical Novels Review Children's and Young Adult list.

This one is for a re-issue of a classic, Knight Crusader.

Ronald Welch won the Carnegie prize in 1954 for Knight Crusader, an action packed tale of a young Norman nobleman from Outremer, Philip d’Aubigny.

The new edition retains the evocative original illustrations and cover art by William Stobbs. Unusually it also includes a Note on the Text for modern readers, rather euphemistically referring to ‘difficult’ language of a classic re-published in its original form. However, it is not that the vocabulary is incomprehensible to a strong reader of 8 to 12. It is rather that political correctness dictates that pejorative expressions like ‘half-breed’ are no longer used in new works for young people. However, Welch shows the newly arrived Norman barons as ugly, racist, barbarian thugs, whereas the protagonist, Philip, is a third generation ‘Syrian’ lord, who has assimilated elegant customs and practices of the East and is sophisticated and enlightened in comparison. Philip is a pretty darn heroic hero, yet even he holds some unsavoury opinions of the ‘Pullani’, or mixed race noblemen, as untrustworthy schemers.

The plot claps along at a splendidly brisk pace, informed by the author’s superb knowledge of place and period. The fight and battle scenes in particular are vivid and powerful. The reader is immersed in the action, complete with sights, smells and sounds and one is left with a genuine belief that the author has both gone to war and to the Holy Land.

A stylistic point unusual to modern ears, though, is the occasionally didactic narrative voice. Equally unusual is the unnervingly unexpected savagery of the protagonist in the denouement which is so convincingly shocking as to leave the reader (this reader anyway) ‘blown away’ by a masterpiece. Wow!

Knight Crusader is not a ‘girly’ book yet this female reviewer loved it; but if you want your son to fall in love with history and reading, this may be the book to do it.