Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘history’

Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.

That local cemetery again

A bit more local history

A damp, misty, gloomy November weekend: so obviously, we livened it up by taking another walk around Greenbank Cemetery!

Regular readers might recall the post a while back tracking the evolution of the cemetery through maps. When it first opened, an open stream ran to the north of it; over time, this small beck was culverted as the land either side became first allotments then cemetery. This stream is the Coombe Brook; on the 1880s map, it seems to have risen in Speedwell near the Belgium Pit colliery and ran westwards, joining the River Frome just behind the Black Swan, the infamous Easton pub/club originally built in the 17th century. The modern confluence is, presumably, somewhere in a tunnel system deep under the M32 motorway.

Not much of the Coombe Brook is still above-ground at all nowadays. However, if you explore Royate Hill nature reserve, just alongside the cemetery, you can find the point at which it disappears underground.

Coombe Brook

Water disappearing into this tunnel, assuming it doesn’t get syphoned off into a storm sewer, will come out into daylight again in the River Frome alongside Riverside Park. Unfortunately you can’t see the mouth of the 19th century culvert under the cemetery because it is protected behind the romantically-named Royate Hill Trash Screen.

Royate Hill Trash Screen

As it was a bit muddy down here today, we headed back into the cemetery. I took a few more photos of 1930s graves in the part of the cemetery that was formerly allotments: more evidence for my previous post about the cemetery being expanded a few years before the maps says. Moreover, they’re fairly interesting gravestones too.

1930s grave

1930s grave

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenback for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

In the lead

Or, two Hallowe'en posts in one week!

So, yesterday’s post was originally going to be this blog’s sole Hallowe’en post for this year. As it happened, though, the other thing I did yesterday was take The Children out to visit one of the local castles, which turned out to have at least its fair share of autumnal creepiness and gloom. It was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just to the south of Bath, originally built in the 14th century by Sir Thomas Hungerford, first Speaker of the Commons. Nowadays it is almost entirely ruined, a couple of jagged towers propped up and stabilised by English Heritage concrete. The only buildings left standing are the chapel and associated priest’s house.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Farleigh Hungerford castle

I said there was some autumnal creepiness: for one thing, the wife of one 16th-century owner allegedly spent years locked away in one of the castle towers, in top-notch fairytale fashion. The owner himself, Walter Hungerford, was later executed for treason, witchcraft and anal sex; however, how much of that actually happened and how much was just a result of being tangled in Tudor politics is rather difficult to tell.* A few decades prior to that, one lady of the house castle had reached her position by rather nefarious means. Agnes Cotell, wife of the castle steward, had her husband murdered and his body burned in the castle ovens so that she could marry the owner Sir Edward Hungerford. Presumably it was common knowledge; because only a few months after Sir Edward’s death, Lady Agnes and her accomplices were tried and hanged.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Underneath the chapel, a small crypt contains a handful of anthropomorphic lead coffins, mostly adults with a couple of infants. They sit on shaped wooden boards, bodies presumably still inside them, behind an iron gate. Aside from their silver-grey colour the look for all the world like carefully-shaped human pies or pasties, their edges tightly crimped.

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

I was slightly disappointed that no ghostly emanations or mysterious mists appeared on the photos, to be honest. Upstairs in the chapel are a number of tombs and effigies, making me think (as always) of the E Nesbit story “Man-sized In Marble”, in which church effigies like this go wandering on Hallowe’en.

Chapel tomb effigy

Chapel tomb effigy

The older pair of effigies are firmly secured behind iron railings; maybe put there by someone else who knows their E Nesbit ghost stories. Maybe, though, the shiny, glossy marble pair will be getting up and going wandering tonight.

* He was a Parliamentary ally of Thomas Cromwell, and was executed alongside him. Which reminds me, I should really get a copy of The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel, in which Walter Hungerford will presumably appear.

Readers' Letters

Or, some of your questions answered

Time to answer some of the questions that have been sent in over the month or so since I revived this site.

Occasional reader Harold from Winchester read yesterday’s post about the Battle of Hastings and wrote:

Didn’t you write about that before?

Well, yes, it turns out that exactly ten years ago today I also wrote a “what might have happened if the outcome of the Battle of Hastings was different” post, including the same story of how the outcome was nearly different, and the side comments on how the battle has always been treated in English historiography. I suppose, if anything, it’s interesting to read the two side by side and see if my opinions have changed much over the past ten years, or if my writing style has evolved in the meantime too. Let me know if you think it’s better or worse than it used to be.

Regular reader Sarah from Ipswich writes:

Can I come with you on one of your trips to Wales?

Frankly, I wish I was going to Wales in the near future. All the nearby bits of Wales are closed to visitors at the moment, though. At some point I need to get myself back up to North-West Wales and visit the trains again, of course. Hopefully that will happen, even if it doesn’t now happen this year. As for the nearer bits of Wales: well, we’ll have to see how things progress I suppose.

And finally, long time reader E Shrdlu of Clacton writes:

Now you’ve brought this website back from the dead, are you still going to keep up the same running jokes and bring back all those series of posts you used to do years and years ago, like reviewing books you hadn’t finished?

Back in the mists of time I did indeed write reviews of books I hadn’t finished reading. I suppose you could call it a deconstruction of sorts, or an exercise in honesty, because they were at least all (I think) books I had tried to read, and failed to finish. Investigating why I failed to finish a particular book is interesting in itself, and admitting I didn’t finish it is more honest than just writing a review and saying “this is a bad book”. Moreover, if you read through those posts, you’ll see there were a broad range of different reasons for not finishing each book. One of them ended up being found by its author, who I had carefully not accused of plagiarism because I knew he was a former top barrister with lots more money than me.

I have to admit, I’m in the middle of drafting the next Books I Haven’t Read article. It’s probably going to be quite a long article, because it’s about quite a long book. I’ve also made sure it’s by a safely-dead author, so I can freely express my opinions about their poor understanding of archaeology or their failed attempt at polyamory. Feel free to guess who, and what, it’s going to be about; it’s a complex book, a complex topic, and it’s probably going to take me a while to finish it.

The Battle of Battle

Although we don't call it that, do we

It’s time for an anniversary! Nine hundred and fifty-four years ago tomorrow, give or take a calendrical change in the meantime, was the Battle of Hastings. An all-day affair, it is famously that One Date That Everyone Knows from all of British history. If you believe the more mouth-frothing end of the political spectrum, England has not been successfully invaded since, although that arguably isn’t really true.

Although it has become that one key fixed date in British history, the battle itself was rather more narrow than you might think. In the Traditional Whig History of Britain, that of course is completely forgotten: instead, the battle is something that in essence had to happen so that Britain could be rescued from peasants in brown robes and conquered by knights on horseback to drag us kicking and screaming into the medieval period. This is how I recall it being portrayed even as recently as the 1980s, when everyone became greatly excited about the 900th anniversary of the compilation of Domesday Book. However, one of the problems with teaching Whig History is that this whole concept, the idea that everything “good” that happened in history is both inevitable and inevitably a Good Thing, and that everything else in history is a misstep or a mistake, is an enormous fallacy propped up with industrial quantities of hindsight.

What actually happened in detail on October 14th 1066 is now probably lost to us. Despite what you might think, there have always been a number of conflicting sources as to the progress of the battle and what happened in the confusion of the fighting. Contemporary estimates of the size of the winning side vary by a factor of 10; the winning side’s estimates of the size of the losing side were in some cases 100 times more than a plausible figure. What is clear is that the English forces consisted solely of infantry; the Normans had a mixed army of infantry, cavalry and archers; the battle lasted pretty much a full day from 9am until dusk; and the Normans definitely won. Almost certainly the English king died, although there are stories he managed to escape, but how he died and what happened to his body afterwards has been retold in too many conflicting versions to know which is true. What’s also very likely is that, pretty early on in the battle, certainly before lunch, the Norman army started to think that Duke William was already dead and started to retreat from the field. William took off his helmet so they could see his face, the story goes, encouraging his men to turn around and fight, and so they did. If they hadn’t, or if doing that had led to an injury, the ending would have been very different; we would remember Hastings about as well as, say, the Battle of Largs or the Battle Of The Standard.

The question there, though, is: what would have been different. But in some ways posing a counterfactual nearly a thousand years back in time is itself a pointless exercise. Everything would have been different, yet everything would still be the same. Me, you, everyone reading this: we wouldn’t exist. None of the people you know would. England wouldn’t exist in its current form, or the UK, or the EU, or the USA. The English language would probably sound very different, too. All these things that we take for granted as basic facts about the world around us, all of them would be different in ways that are almost impossible for us to imagine. Other things, though, would be just the same. The Black Death would still have happened, and many more plagues since. We’d still have had an industrial revolution; we’d still have a climate crisis; we’d still have invented nuclear power and nuclear war, reached the Moon, and be talking to each other through an Internet of some sort. It would be in so many ways an entirely alien world, that you would be surprised just how many things wouldn’t have changed at all.

Historians aren’t really bothered overmuch with what might have happened. What actually happened is far too confusing and debatable and unknown as it is, without introducing hypotheticals that would change the world completely. Imagine, somewhere in an alternate universe, someone is reading a blog post about how the Normans might potentially have beaten the English at the Battle of Hastings, and how if so, everyone in England now might be speaking Normande, part of a single great Normandy stretching from the Meditteranean to the Trent. Of course, they wouldn’t be reading it in a language you or I would recognise as English, but they’d probably be using some sort of device like the one you’ve got, some sort of physically similar screen. Humans and physics wouldn’t have changed, after all. Sit back tomorrow, wherever you are, and think about the Battle of Hastings all those years ago. Without it, the world would be completely different even though it would be still the same.

The spread of death

Or, exploring some local history

Yesterday, after the rain had stopped, we went for a walk around Greenbank, the local Victorian garden cemetery. It’s a lovely place to visit whatever the weather, but on a cold day, after a rainstorm, with drips coming from every branch and all of the colours having a dark rain-soaked richness, it is a beautiful quiet place to wander around. Even when the children are pestering you to turn around and head back home so they can have some hot chocolate and watch TV. “It is a very hot chocolate sort of day,” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

Wandering down the avenue

Exploring the graves

At the centre of Greenbank Cemetery is a connected pair of mortuary chapels: one for Anglicans, and a separate but identical one for other forms of Protestant. They have been derelict and fenced off for a long time, and their central wooden spire was taken down sixty or seventy years ago, but they are still surviving despite the failure of plans a few years ago to restore them and make them usable spaces once more. Above the entrance to the central atrium, between the two chapels, is a finely-carved inscription. “Opened 1871. Enlarged 1880.”

Greenbank Cemetery, Opened 1871, Enlarged 1880

Nowadays when you look at Greenbank on a map it’s surrounded in many places: by roads, by housing, on one side by a disused railway line. So I thought I’d dig into the archives to find out what its original groundplan was, and which parts were extended. Luckily, thanks to the fantastic work of Know Your Place Bristol and their maps, this was relatively straightforward to do. This first map is dated to 1880-81, so it seems to be after the first phase of enlargement of the cemetery. If you don’t know the area, note that it is bounded by an open stream to the west and north, and that Greenbank Road goes up to the cemetery gates and no further. I assume the original area of the cemetery was the part centred on the chapels, and the extension was the area east of the line of trees.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1881

In many ways, even without the big garden cemetery this would be a typical landscape for the fringes of a growing Victorian city: a hotchpotch mixture of farmland and unplanned speculative terrace-building. There are rows of houses without proper streets in some parts, streets laid out without houses in others, and a city-sized workhouse with its own private burial ground behind it. If I’d extended the map to the north or to the south, you’d see a typical Victorian park: Eastville Park on one side and St George’s Park on the other.

If we skip forward thirty years or so, we can see how much the landscape has “filled out”. Moreover, we can see how the cemetery has been expanded to the west. The stream has been culverted; the land to the north and south of the cemetery has been taken by allotments. This map is from 1912; I’ve traced a map from 1902 which doesn’t show this, so we can assume this expansion took place some time in the Edwardian period, more or less.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1912

In that thirty years huge parts of Easton which previously had just been sketched out for development have now become packed terraced streets, and some of the terraces which were built along narrow paths now have proper roads to them. Schools have been built, and a church. There’s a lot less open space, but there’s still some, here and there. Fishponds Road has acquired trams, up in the top-left corner; and the workhouse have stopped burying their dead on their own land.

If you know the area, though, you’ll know that it does still look a bit different today. To see the modern layout of the cemetery, we have to move forward to a 1950s map.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1955

This is the boundaries of the cemetery as it is today. Greenbank Road has been extended, and Rose Green Road has been widened to take traffic. The cemetery has swallowed up the allotments on either side of it, stretching out to reach the roads. This must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments. However, it can’t have happened very long after, going by the dates of some of the graves on the ground. These sections of the cemetery include a number of graves from the Second World War, including civilian victims and enemy prisoners.

What’s always puzzled me about this, though, is that still to this day the emptiest parts of the cemetery include some of the areas which were included in the original 1871 cemetery right from its opening. The north-western side of the original cemetery, which slopes quite steeply down to the course of the brook which marked the original boundary, is still empty of graves. It’s one of the areas being used nowadays for interment, along the line of a path which was put in place when the cemetery first opened. Meanwhile, the late-Victorian and the 1930s extensions are jam-packed with graves, many of them now overgrown and abandoned.

This is the point at which a proper essay on local history would be drawing to a conclusion and discussing what conclusions we can draw about the growth of cemeteries in provincial English cities. As for me, I just like looking at old maps. I think it’s a fair assumption, though, that that city council deliberately bought additional land around the cemetery with the aim of expanding the cemetery into it when required, and in the interim used it for allotment space. Of course, I also like wandering round a cold, damp cemetery, too.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

At some point I’ll have to write more about that other burial ground marked on the map. That’s not just disused: for many years there was no sign of it at all on the ground, until a memorial was erected relatively recently. That, though, will be a story for another day.

Update, 2nd November 2020: We went back to Greenbank the other day, with my proper camera this time, to try to see if I could track on the ground any of the cemetery’s history of growth. Indeed, you can, if you know what to look for: however, it doesn’t quite marry up with the dates of the maps I’ve found. The new post about the cemetery’s history is here.


In which we pose an anniversary question

Today: the anniversary of the one date in English history that just about everybody knows. It is – as you’ve probably realised – the 944th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which occurred on October 14th, 1066. And, of course, all that: the death of King Harold II at the hands of Duke William of Normandy, which led to the duke’s coronation as King of England on Christmas Day that year.

It is, of course, slightly silly to posit: what would the world be like now if the Battle of Hastings* had turned out differently. Counterfactual history can always be true, as the narrator of an Umberto Eco novel almost said, because the premise you’re starting from is always false. Nevertheless, it’s an ever-interesting exercise, particularly with an event like Hastings which turned on a rather narrower pivot than you might think. The standard history of the battle, after all, was written for the victor’s brother, and follows a firm melodramatic template: our hero is promised his future inheritance by a pious elder, and our dastardly villain swears loyalty to him. Come the pious elder’s death, our dastardly villain grabs power, God shows his displeasure, and the plot ends with the villain dying a perjurer’s death and our hero getting his just reward.

The battle was a long battle, though, for the time; and it certainly didn’t start off as a rout. At one point, in the confused melee, things definitely seemed to be going the English way: some of the Norman troops had fled, and Duke William appeared to have been killed, disappearing down into the miry slaughter. However, it was only his horse that had been killed, and somehow he survived, climbing up and throwing off his helmet to persuade his troops he was still there to fight for. There were a good proportion of mercenaries in the Norman army, after all, and you can imagine how willing they would be to go on fighting once they thought the chap paying the money out was down. It was a very narrow escape, it seems, but from there he eventually succeeded in turning the battle round; and thus, English history proper started.**

Would we be living in a very different world if the battle had been won by the English? Undoubtedly, in both large and tiny ways. The English we speak would be a rather different English, for one thing: probably none of those legal paired phrases like “cease and desist”, “goods and chattels”, and so on. We’d have one fewer national park: the New Forest would never have been built. Moreover, we may well have had a rather more decentralised country. King William overthrew a system of English nobility which had slowly grown up from a loose grouping of tribes sharing a common North Sea culture, a system in which no single family was dominant over the long term, there was no automatic hereditary throne, and the individual royally-qualified families had strong regional power bases. He replaced this with a single dynastic line; in the following thousand years, there have only been three major breaks in the line of succession.*** He made sure this happened by carrying out an economic conquest alongside his military one: destroying the entire economy of Yorkshire and Durham, for a start, and thoroughly replacing the English land-ownership structure, taking economic power out of the hands of the English and giving it over to the new nobility.****

Would England have been very different if this hadn’t happened? Would rural Yorkshire have denser settlement patterns, and would we still have a single Royal Family? Naturally, it’s impossible to say: on the first point, the Black Death would still have happened, so by 1400 the population in our projected Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire may well have been around the same as it actually was. We’d probably have different northern cities: York, Durham, Newcastle and (probably) Grimsby were already well-established by 1066; Manchester, Leeds and Middlesbrough were nowhere, and Sheffield was a Norman foundation. I like to think, though, that overall the country would have been more like Germany: still with its capital as the nation’s hub, but with a much greater sense of regionalism, and the importance of the regional cities. We’d still have been English, but we might have been English in a rather different England. Whether it would have been a better England, of course, is another of those things that’s impossible to say.

* Which, of course, didn’t happen in pier-bereft Hastings, but in the handily-named nearby town of Battle.

** Or at least it felt as if we were taught that in schools 25 years ago. I particularly remember, at the age of 5, watching a Norman Conquest-themed series of the educational TV show Zig Zag, featuring a “will the peasant forced into poaching really get his hand chopped off?” cliffhanger.

*** There was something of a hiccup after all William’s own sons had died, largely because some leaders at the time did not like the idea of a queen regnant. The outline of the start of that phase of history, strangely enough, is almost the same as the story of the Bayeux Tapestry: dastardly villain swears oath but goes on to seize throne, etc. However, instead of the dastardly villain dying within the year during a short and decisive military campaign, this story ends with 19 years of on-off civil war until the villain, King Stephen, died a natural death.

**** And those people who can trace their ancestry back to that newly-founded nobility are, of course, still very proud.


In which FP becomes a rather paranoid architectural historian

In field archaeology, there’s a subtle process that field workers undergo called “getting your eye in”. A plain brown swathe of earth, after a few hours’ work, becomes suddenly a complex landscape of shade and texture. A mass of tumbled stone becomes a distinct sequence of structural building and collapse. All of a sudden, the things on the ground start to make sense.

When you’re buying a house, I’ve found, the same sort of thing starts happening on an architectural level. All of a sudden I can spot cracks in plaster I’d never have noticed before, or the slight dimples in walls that can indicate buried wires. All this, of course, is a result of reading surveyors’ reports, reports that are paranoid to mention every slight little thing that could potentially cause a future problem.

“Large degree of springing in floorboard” first makes me think: oh no! We only have to jump too hard and we’ll disappear into the basement. But then, I think back, and start comparing it to other places. I start walking lighter and paying more attention to my feet in every building I enter. The flat we live in now, for example, has very springy floorboards. If you walk too heavily in the living room, you can see the bookshelves moving slightly. In the hallway there’s a big gap between two boards that you can feel through the carpet with your toes, and another patch where you can feel the boards have been cut then never put back securely. And even this isn’t as bad as another flat I lived in briefly a few years back, with floors so uneven I always think of it as: not so much a flat, as a slightly rippled.

Now, I’m not saying that being sharp-eyed is a bad thing. But sometimes it’s possible to be too sharp-eyed, and spot so many little details that it worries you. This “new” house might have bouncy floorboards here and there, but of all the houses we looked at, it probably has fewer of these little flaws than any others of similar age. It is fun, getting the chance to be an archaeologist again, poking around to work out what’s under the garden gravel and how usable the chimneys are.* I hope that eventually, though, we’re going to be able to relax a little, sit back, and not worry that one moving floorboard means the house is doomed to crumble into its foundations.

* One of the chimneys is definitely still open and functional, but that fireplace appears to have had its damper plate patched up with some sort of papier-mache or cardboard, so I wouldn’t fancy lighting a fire in it.

Salvation and me

In which we discuss the language barrier

Back when I was 11, I started secondary school, and we started to learn French.* Like most English children who learn French, one of the first words we came across was salut. As a greeting, for use with friends, something like “Hi”.

When I was a few years older, I read my way through my parents’ bookshelves of 1960s and 1970s thrillers. One of the books on it was Papillon, the autobiography of a 1930s French crook called Henri Charrière; a long picaresque tale of his imprisonment in the jungles of South America, on Devil’s Island, and various escapes, recaptures, masturbation, sex with dusky native wives, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how much of the sex made it into the inevitable film version, because I’ve never seen the inevitable film version.**

One thing about Papillon, though, confused me. Not the long story with all its peregrinations and jewels-up-the-bum, but the geography. I’d heard of Devil’s Island before, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a group. Les Iles de Salut, off the coast of French Guiana. According to the French I’d been taught at school, the Islands of Hi. Something about that didn’t sound quite right. Back then, I couldn’t just pop online and check up on this, though, and so it was a while later that I discovered: salut doesn’t literally just mean “Hi!”. It is, in fact, “salvation”.

Well, that makes rather more sense, despite being rather darkly ironic for the prisoners of days gone by. It’s somewhat stranger, in fact, that the French apparently use “Salvation!” as something like an equivalent to “Hi!” And there, in my head, the matter rested.

In the meantime, between then and now, lots happened. I read some stuff about the French Revolution one day, then read some more, and later more still, until I knew such vital trivia as Louis XVI’s favourite hobbies, or the name of Robespierre’s dog.*** I certainly knew about the Committee of Public Safety, the body which in many ways became France’s primary executive power in 1793-94; a dour committee of serious-minded men who promulgated government by terror, passing laws that banned any sort of anti-Revolutionary word or deed or thought, the punishment being clean, scientific and egalitarian decapitation.**** “Committee of Public Safety” is a very dull and bureaucratic name for a body convinced that France needed saving from its reactionary self, whatever the cost of the purge.

All of my reading, of course, was in English, my French being just about good enough to order dinner or buy a Metro ticket. So it was only the other day, when we visited the Museé Carnavalet – the museum of Paris’s history – that I found out what the CPS’s real name was. La Comité de salut public. Not just responsible for the public safety, but for the public salvation. The committee to save the French from themselves, whatever it takes.

All of a sudden, in my head, their actions made much more sense than they ever had before. It just goes to show what you can lose in translation, between safety and salvation; or, indeed, between safety, salvation and “Hi!”. Maybe I should have worked on my French harder in school, and the Terror would have made more sense earlier. Salut.

* Actually, there was another abortive attempt to teach me French, by my first school teacher, at the age of 5 or so. It didn’t get very far, because I couldn’t get my head around the idea that letters have slightly different sound values in different languages.

** starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Presumably the copious masturbation was also omitted.

*** Hunting and locksmithery; and “Brount”. And I didn’t get asked either of those things when I went on the telly.

**** The “egalitarian” part of that isn’t just me using long words: before the nobility lost its Old Regime rights, they alone were entitled to execution by decapitation. The common people got to hang. The guillotine, incidentally, wasn’t as clean as Dr Guillotin thought it would be; it spilled large amounts of blood, so much that the site of the guillotine was steadily moved away from the centre of Paris to try to limit the number of districts which started to get a pink-tinged water supply.