Saturday, 29 November 2014

"Let Paul Robeson Sing!"

The other night, I was at a poetry evening in honour of the singer/songwriter Nick Drake, part of a series of readings and concerts. During the evening it was suggested that another singer who should have a similar commemoration in Wales was Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson was a black American singer - what connection could he have with Wales?

It started in 1928, when he was starring in Show Boat on the West End in London. That's where he sang the song he is most famous for - "Ole Man River". A group of unemployed Welsh miners had walked to London to bring attention to their hardship - a smaller version of the Jarrow March, and Paul Robeson met them and marched along with them.
Paul Robeson was not only a singer - he was what we would call now a human rights activist (and what MI5 later called "a fanatical communist" in their file on him - he had close links with Soviet Russia). Not only did he meet the miners and support their campaign for better treatment, but he also sang in concerts all around Wales right up until 1960 - for the 1957 Miners' Eisteddfod he performed via transatlantic phone line, because his passport had been revoked.
The CIA had a thick file on him, too, and considered him a dangerous subversive who said inappropriate things about race relations in the US and colonial rule in the British Empire. When he got his passport back in 1958, Welsh miners had been part of the campaign to allow him freedom to travel again, using the slogan "Let Paul Robeson Sing!". In later years, Welsh miners were part of the movement to free Nelson Mandela, partly because of their associations with Paul Robeson.
In 1939, he lived in Wales while filming Proud Valley, the story of a black American who became a miner in Wales. It was based on a true story, and was the film Paul Robeson was most proud of, because it showed the struggles of working class people honestly, and because he was portraying a man who happened to be black, rather than a stereotype.
He only took part in three more films in the rest of his life, Native Land and Tales of Manhattan in 1942, and The Song of the River in 1954. Native Land was a documentary about trade unions, which he narrated, and Tales of Manhattan is an anthology film about a tail-coat passing from hand to hand and changing the lives of the people who wear it, with the tattered jacket being put on a scarecrow at the end. The Song of the River was an East German film about six great rivers of the world and the international workers' movements along them.
All of which is a far cry from the 1935 film Sanders of the River, which is the other famous Paul Robeson film, where he played a native chief in Nigeria, and sang while paddling a canoe. That was not a film he was proud to be part of in later life, though initially he thought it might be a good way of looking at colonial life in the British Empire.
He died in 1976, after a long period of retirement and ill health, though he supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Paul Robeson's son, Paul Jr., continued his father's associations with Wales, inviting the Onllwyn Male Voice Choir to Carnegie Hall in 1998 to sing at a concert commemorating the centenary of Paul Robeson's birth, and travelling to Wales to talk to school children. He also spoke at the Senedd in Cardiff in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the start of the NHS.
Paul Robeson's grand-daughter Susan came to Wales to the Eisteddfod in 2010, where Swansea University were launching a new "learning resource" based on a successful exhibition called "Let Paul Robeson Sing!" It can be found at People's Collection Wales online and the South Wales Miners' Library. Susan Robeson was keen to meet anyone who remembered her grandfather while she was at the Eisteddfod.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

"Rouse, Ye Women" - Chainmakers Strike of 1910

Chainmaking is a job that's usually thought of as heavy labour, and the biggest chains were made by men in factories - the sort of chain that would hold a big anchor for a ship, for instance. But smaller chains were made by women at home, in little forges in the back yard, and the short lengths they made were joined together into longer chains.
I remember reading about a typical woman's day in one of the areas where chains were made, where she got up in the morning, stoked the fire, made a yard of chain, and took it down to the foreman who gave her the money for it - and then she could go and buy enough food for breakfast for the family.
In 1910, 800 women chainmakers went on strike in Cradley Heath in the Black Country, after a minimum wage was set for chain making which their employers refused to pay. This was the princely sum of tuppence ha'penny an hour, which was about double what some of the women were getting. The strike lasted for ten weeks, and in the end all the employers agreed to the new wages. Twelve of the women strikers were over 70 years old and one of them, Patience Round, was 79. She combined chain making with caring for her crippled husband, and was quoted in a newspaper article saying "these are wonderful times - I never thought that I should live to assert the rights of women."
There was even a song "Rouse, Ye Women!" to the tune of Men of Harlech, and there is an annual Festival in the Black Country celebrating the women chainmakers.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Let's Have More Boy Fairies

When did fairies all become female, anyway?

Back in the 1920s and 30s, Cicely Mary Barker painted boy flower fairies as well as girls

There was no thought here that fairies were just for girls.

Shakespeare was much closer to the old traditions, when fairies could kidnap babies and leave a screeching changeling in their place, or lure you off to Fair Elfland like True Thomas, or trick a human into being their "tithe to hell", as in the folk song Tam Lin.
So he had a fairy feud accidentally involving the humans who were wandering round the wood - and not only were there male fairies, but Oberon and Titania were a quarelling married couple.

Brian Froud's fairy pictures come from this tradition, too, and there are plenty of male fairies in his work - but his Tarot cards, and even books like Good Fairy, Bad Fairy, are for adults rather than small children.

And recent stories for young children? It seems not. I got my hopes up when I found an article about a new boy fairy on the Disney website Pixie Hollow - but was disappointed to find that they couldn't even bring themselves to call him a fairy. Slate is a "Sparrow Man". Everything else, even the re-issued Flower Fairies, seem to be relentlessly pink and frilly, and female.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

"Look to Your Own Defences"

This morning, there was a piece on the Today programme about flood defences in Snettisham, in Norfolk, where government funding is about to be withdrawn, and the local people have been told they will have to sort out their own, voluntary-funded, flood defence scheme. This affects farmers, caravan site owners, and residents of the village, some of whom will not, or cannot, pay towards their own defence. As one woman said - why should they? It should be a government responsibility. Another man involved with the scheme said that, if people didn't pay into the voluntary scheme, they would have to think very carefully about where they put the flood defences - in other words, they would not be protecting some areas.

It made me think of the Roman legions leaving Britain (the traditional date for this is 410AD), leaving behind a letter to the civilian leaders which basically said; "Look to your own defences."

Not far from where my Young Man lives, in Abbey Wood, South London, there are the ruins of Lesnes Abbey (after which the Wood is named - the trees come right down to the edge of the ruins). Although it was close to London, and had the patronage of several wealthy families who sent young men there to be monks, the abbey was always short of money. Why? Because they were legally responsible for the flood defences along that stretch of the River Thames.
So the medieval government took steps to make sure that protection was in place, by making the biggest local landowner responsible, but our government today withdraws from the responsibility that they have had, and expects a voluntary arrangement to be enough to protect the people of Snettisham, and all the other coastal towns and villages that they are withdrawing funding from.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

London buses: and now London's Museums: Eltham Palace

I went with my Young Man to Eltham Palace a while ago, and had a lovely time.  The great hall was more than a little influenced by Errol Flynn's Robin Hood film - we had fun up on the Minstrel's Gallery pretending to shoot King John down at the top table. 
The bathrooms were quite impressive, too, and  I was fascinated by the pet ring-tailed lemur, (you could buy stuffed toy ones at the gift shop), having been brought up on Dotty from Animal Magic, who used to sit on Johnny Morris's shoulder eating grapes.

London buses: and now London's Museums: Eltham Palace: The Courtyard Eltham London SE9 4QE Monday September 8 th 2014 Easily accessible by train and bus, Eltham Palace is an intri...

Monday, 17 November 2014

Who Belongs in the Kitchen?

A friend put a picture up on Facebook recently with the caption
"Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. Everyone belongs in the kitchen. Kitchen has food."
One of her friends commented that things were different when men's jobs "involved hard labour and the risk of death", so that, back then, a woman's place was in the kitchen, cooking for the men who worked down the pit or whatever.

In the Middle Ages, though, many men earned their living by cooking, in castles and manor houses and with marching armies and in taverns. Here's a medieval baker:

and here's a mobile pie baker:

Brewing was traditionally a job for women (the only two women mentioned in the Hereford Domesday are brewsters) but men did that too. The Industrial Revolution had plenty of coal miners and steel workers and men who worked in all sorts of difficult and dangerous jobs, but they all had something in common - they drank beer, and the breweries employed men to brew it. Here's a medieval brewer:

and here are the staff of Adey and White's Brewery, around 1900 (this picture comes from St Alban's Museum).

By the Victorian era, kitchen staff were mainly female, but throughout history, both men and women have cooked. Everyone belongs in the kitchen.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Inspiring Advice

I was reading Kate Elliot's blog I Make Up Worlds today, and came across some comforting advice to remember when I doubt whether anyone will want to read my stories. She has a very interesting blog generally, which is well worth reading. She said:

"You don't know how your creative work will be recieved. All you can do is offer up what is present in your imagination."

So all I can do is make the story as good as I can. After I've done the best I can with the story I have to tell, the only thing I can do is launch it on the world. If other people like it, that's brilliant, but the important thing is that I created something I'm happy with.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Remember, remember....

Here's the gatehouse of Ashby St Ledgers manor house, near Rugby, where the Gunpowder Plot was planned. In fact, that's probably the very room where the plotters gathered. Guido Fawkes came from the Rugby area, too, and it was a convenient location to get to the young princess Elizabeth, nine-year-old daughter of James I and VI, who the plotters intended to make Queen - with themselves as her advisors, of course, and after they had converted her to Catholicism. She was being brought up as a Protestant, and had no idea what was planned for her.
I used to visit Ashby quite often. It's a beautiful village, with estate cottages designed by Lutyens, and at the time the local pub, the Olde Coach House, was well known for real ales. The church, with the unusual dedication of St Leodegarius, is also interesting, with several medieval wall paintings.
It is also possible to trace the route that the plotters intended to use to get to Princess Elizabeth, who was staying at Coombe Abbey. I've walked out about a mile or so from Ashby, and the landscape is reasonably unchanged, though a railway line now cuts across the original path that the plotters would have taken. Some of the plotters were at nearby Dunchurch, pretending to be a hunting party.

Of course, it all went horribly wrong....

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Medieval Welsh Instruments

When I first invented the character of Mal Petroc, I made him a harper - because that's what everybody does, when they're seventeen and don't know much about history, and want to write about a musician.
If I was thinking about it today, I could choose from a far larger range of musical instruments, and today I discovered a new one - the pibgyrn! (other spellings are available!)

Here's a selection from the maker Moch Pryderi.

I was at a craft fair called The Big Skill, and one of the stalls was an instrument maker who had one of these. At first, I couldn't work out how to play it, because it seems to have a wide horn on each end. He showed me the reed (like a clarinet) inside the smaller of the two horns, and blew down it. He said it's like a Scottish bagpipe chanter, and can be fixed to a bag in the same way, though with a gentler sound. The pipe in the middle is made of elder wood, and the ends of sheep horn, and it was a thing shepherds could make while they were out on the hills, from readily available materials.
He also had a crwth, which is sort of a medieval Welsh fiddle - but he said that, when he came to make his first crwth he realised that it's a very different instrument to the violin. The bowing technique is different, and the aim seems to be to make a droning background sound for other instruments, such as the pibgyrn, to play melodies over the top. I once heard a crwth player, on Radio 3, and it is a very different sound to a violin - in fact, players back in the middle ages were told that they should not strive for a sweet sound. The chap on Radio 3 was playing as accompaniment to a singer, who must be the only Jamaican lady who can sing in medieval Welsh!

A crwth and pibgyrn