In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.
This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.
What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:
“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.
One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.
The humble dinner fork an instrument of the devil? Surely not! Yes, the fork has quite a notorious history. As soon as the new-fangled eating implement was introduced to Europeans by a Byzantine princess it became the focus of clerical ire. When Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the Doge she carried with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. Cleric Peter Damien, a future saint, witnessed the shocking scene:
Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry it to her mouth. God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating.
His opinion was confirmed a few years later when the unfortunate woman died of the plague, surely God’s punishment for her vanity he declared. The fact that sinful courtesans were known to eat sweets with a fork was even more reason to ban their use.
This cycle of poems is dedicated to my son Patrick Francis Hanrahan 1979-2002. Today would be his birthday. I wrote them at different stages of his life, the third shortly after his death from complications of mono. It was inspired by the last photo taken of him on his 23rd birthday.
Golden-haired quicksilver boy
You crash and rage
About the house,
All knees and elbows,
Tumble of limbs and words
In daring, perfect poise
Of near-falls, cries, yells.
My golden-haired quicksilver boy,
Dropped into sleep
Your delicate, pale-moonglow face,
Curled, uncoiled body
These are my favorite books of the year so far. I’ve also read some downright silly, some forgettable, and some dreadful books which will get a mention at the end.
Think you could never feel heartache for a robot? Surrender to the magic of Ishiguro’s writing. Klara is an AF, a solar-powered Artificial Friend, purchased as a companion for Josie, a teenage girl who suffers from a mysterious illness. Klara is programmed to recognize and respond to human emotions and to always place the needs of her human first. She narrates the story, so we see the human world through her eyes, a disorienting combination of astute observation and naivety. As in Ishiguro’s most famous novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, the disturbing truth about Josie’s society and her illness are gradually revealed. When Klara decides she needs help to complete her mission she turns to the higher power who gives her life, the Sun. Once again Ishiguro’s hypnotic prose holds the reader in a spell.
I wrote this poem after my father died. It was read at his funeral.
Could I see you again As I did then It would be home from work, Your bike leaned to the house, Yellow mac dripping. Fumble of bicycle clips Then the smell of boot polish Black as the night beyond the kitchen door As you stooped to the step, Rubbed shoes to a shine I laughed into.
The Anglo-Saxons have been in the news lately, but not in a good way. A proposal to form a Congressional Caucus to promote “Anglo-Saxon values” turned out to be a bit too explicit a nod to White Supremacists, even for the current iteration of the GOP. White Supremacists have sadly co-opted the term Anglo-Saxon, making it a divisive buzz word rather than simply the name of a period of English history. Lets look at Anglo-Saxon history and values. I have several books on my shelves to refresh my memory. A lovely illustrated edition of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written in the 8th century and a battered paperback of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of narratives compiled in the 9th century reign of Alfred the Great. There’s also several books about archeological discoveries, including a hoard of gold treasure and the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial, and of course a copy of Beowulf.
The Royals have been all over the news lately, what with the kerfuffle over Harry and Meghan followed by the death of Prince Philip. American viewers of The Crown consider themselves experts on the British Monarchy now, but there was a time when I was presumed an expert just because I am English. I did not grow up a Royalist though. Here is my confession, involving an old-fashioned loo, a taste for lead, and Her Majesty’s nose, adapted from a piece first published in The Dabbler in 2013.
The most irritating thing about being a Brit in America is the expectation that I must be as enamored of the Royal family as Americans are. Americans seem to have put resentment of King George III firmly behind them and follow all the ups and downs of royal news like a long running soap opera. Even better than Downton Abbey. I am often called upon to join in the gushing adulation and answer questions as a presumed expert on all things royal. Perhaps it is proof that I have remained English to the core that I can do so only with a heavy dose of ironic detachment.
In this episode of On My Bookshelf I reach for a cookbook.
“How do you make Toad in the Hole?” asked my 8 year old grandson. “Well, first I send you boys into the woods to find some toads while I make the holes,” I replied. “Then you drop the toads into the holes and we’re done.” The 6 year old looked confused but 8 was on to me. “That’s not true!” he protested. So I explained that the English give weird names to their foods but basically Toad in the Hole is just sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. That drew blank stares so I revised it to a sausage pancake. They liked the sound of that and agreed to help me, though once the Yorkshire Pudding batter was mixed they lost interest. I have the recipe for this and more odd sounding foods in Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. I bought the book when it was first published in 1981, a time when the title was indeed an oxymoron. This was before the age of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, before pubs turned into gastropubs, and before the Great British Bake Off came to America. British cooking really did have a terrible reputation, especially with Continental Europeans.
On November 23rd 1867 three Irishmen, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged on a hastily built scaffold outside Salford Gaol in Manchester. The execution was a botched affair, carried out by William Calcraft who was…
notoriously unable to calculate the correct length of rope required for each individual hanging; he frequently had to rush below the scaffold to pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
This is what happened to the unfortunate Larkin. O’Brien suffered a lengthy ordeal when the attending priest prevented Calcraft from dispatching him in the same way. He hung twitching on the rope for three quarters of an hour as the priest held a crucifix before him. Allen was luckier and died instantly.