My Favourite Anubis

While I was writing the month-long series of posts about my novel, SHADOWBOX, I came across the marvellous online archive at the Griffith Institute, part of Oxford University.

Significant among the archives is Howard Carter’s complete excavation records for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact…’ – Howard Carter’s telegram to Lord Carnarvon on 5 November 1922

The treasures Carter uncovered during that excavation need no introduction. They’ve toured the world in exhibitions everywhere, including the current Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Countless reproductions and imitations made out of everything from tatty plastic to solid gold are available online and in the street markets of Luxor. The treasures of Tutankhamun inspired whole movements in art and architecture, film and fiction and fashion.

That influence haunts us yet.

Besides the golden sarcophagi and jewelled collars, the life-size statues, the mummified husks of his stillborn children, the ceremonial ostrich-feather fans, the evidence of his early life as Tutankhaten, one item stood out for me as I browsed the online archive of Harry Burton’s photographs:

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884; © Copyright Griffith Institute, 2000-2014

More so than the little statues of Nephthys and Selqet and Isis and Neith which stood guarding the corners of the sarcophagus, this little statue of the god Anubis has a charm that reaches out across the centuries.

Wrapped in linen, tucked carefully into a niche in the tomb wall, the statue was placed by a member of Tutankhamen’s funerary gathering in 1323 BCE the way you’d tuck a child’s favourite teddy under his quilt as he fell asleep.

Harry Burton’s photograph shows us that moment frozen in time.


Just as I wrote about the earliest photographs in First Light On Paris, the photograph is an artefact in itself.

Look closer. See the crack?

Curving from top to bottom, just to the right of the statuette’s hind quarters, a black line showing where the original glass negative has been broken. And parallel to this black line, as straight as tram-lines in Cairo, twin edges showing where sticky-tape held the glass together.

Layers of time, overlapping, each of which tells a story of its own.

Don’t you wonder who dropped Harry Burton’s glass negative – and stuck it back together with tape?

And don’t you wonder what the person thought who placed that statuette there, 3337 years ago?

Don’t you wonder who they were, he or she, who wrapped the statue of Anubis so carefully in linen as though it were a charmed memento, to accompany the tragically-young pharaoh into the afterlife?

I certainly do.It’s why many people are drawn to archaeology as a profession – to tell the stories of other people, long ago, from the remnants they leave behind.

But only fiction can give us the answer.

Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Shadowbox: Launch Party!

Shadowbox, a novel: Every man has an enemy within him...As this series of posts draws to an end, I’m happy to announce that SHADOWBOX is available in ebook and paperback. The Shadowbox page has links to all the major ebook retailers.

SHADOWBOX is now available online as an ebook from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.

In due course you’ll be able to find it on Nook, iPhone and other online retailers in countries around the world. SHADOWBOX is also available as a paperback through Amazon and direct from CreateSpace.

To celebrate what is, in effect, a virtual launch, I treated myself to a virtual launch party. As the novel is set in both Paris and London, I thought it only fitting that I celebrate with a tasty bit of both:

Meantime London Porter and French macaroons to celebrate the launch of my latest novel, SHADOWBOX!

Meantime London Porter and French macaroons to celebrate the launch of my latest novel, SHADOWBOX!

Before I go back to my writing den, however, there are a few things I’d like to say.

First off, thank you for coming with me on this journey. It’s been exhilarating. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of 1832 as much as I enjoyed discovering the many fascinating sites I used for source material, links and artwork.

Second, here’s a couple of bonus items for you:

1. Over on Smashwords, there’s a free offer on the ebook of SHADOWBOX for the entire month of July 2014. Use the voucher number: QQ52K when prompted. Reviews would be appreciated, but not expected.

2. I’m running a GoodReads Giveaway of SHADOWBOX in paperback. This giveaway ends on 31 July 2014 with the books sent out ASAP after that date. Again, reviews would be gratefully received if you’re one of the lucky ones. There are five sets to be won.

3. If you’d like a paperback for a 50% discount off the usual price of USD17.99, go to CreateSpace and use the code ZFEHUZVG when prompted. (I don’t know how this will affect the price for those of us outside the USA – sorry!) You may have to set up an account to access this offer. The discount code will expire on 31 July 2014.

Now, I’ll go back to my normal posting schedule of once a week, on a Wednesday, while I concentrate on writing the next novel. This one’s going to be fun.

This is the last post in the SHADOWBOX series. A full index of the posts can be found on the SHADOWBOX page.

Those of you who want to find out at least some of what Louis did next are recommended to pick up ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER and THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. In due course I’ll combine these as an omnibus edition and you’ll be able to read the whole life of Louis Beauregard from start to finish.

P.S. There is no doubt that Louis Beauregard returns to England: he’s there as an old man in 1888, in THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. But the adventures he may have after SHADOWBOX are yet to be told…

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Shadowbox: Adieu

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin; his control
Stops with the shore; upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths…
– Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees…
…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the paths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
– Tennyson, Ulysses

Jim Morrison's Grave, (c) Patti Smith

Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris; photograph by Patti Smith.

The end of laughter and soft lies
Jim Morrison, one more poet in Paris

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Adieu  
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Shadowbox: All Roads Lead To The River

The Great Sphinx (and) Pyramids of Girzeh (Giza) July 17, 1839, by David Roberts.

The Great Sphinx (and) Pyramids of Girzeh (Giza) July 17, 1839, by David Roberts.

This short story was written after I published THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, but a couple of years before I began to write SHADOWBOX.

An additional episode in the life of Louis Beauregard, this fits somewhere in between both novels, and I haven’t changed any details within the short story since I wrote it.

I do wonder whether it still makes sense in light of what I know about Louis now.

However, as one of the first short stories I wrote in the Cuckoo Club series, it’s one of my favourites and one I’m still pleased with. Let me know what you think.

The sample below should give you a flavour of the story. Details of how to get the whole story for free are at the bottom of the post, after the sample.


Louis encounters two real-life 19th Century explorers within the short story:

     John PETHERICK: (1813 – 15 July 1882), Welsh traveller, trader and consul in East Central Africa. In 1845 he entered the service of Mehemet Ali, and was employed in examining Upper Egypt, Nubia, the Red Sea coast and Kordofan.


     Charles Piazzi SMYTH: (3 January 1819 – 21 February 1900), was Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1846 to 1888, well known for many innovations in astronomy and his pyramidological and metrological studies of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Both characters are used fictitiously for the purpose of the story. Their real lives were so much more interesting than anything I imagined.



The night before he first beheld the Nile, Louis Beauregard slept in the Libyan desert on the plateau above Giza, tense with anticipation, listening to dogs whining far off in the darkness under the crackling stars.

The climb was slow, fascinating and dangerous. Now and then one of the couriers would cry out a warning as a tiny black serpent skated across the stone and wriggled like a cut limb into the safety of some dark crevice.

Winged beetles erupted from the cracks between the stones and hustled into the hot air in front of them, their iridescent wing-cases blinking like the spirits of the dead. Scorpions came out from under overhanging ledges with the onset of shade to bask in the heat pouring from the surface of the blocks, and they scurried off at the men’s approach, or froze in combat pose, eyes hard as garnets.

Louis felt as if the whole edifice was crawling with poisonous life.

The group stopped to rest and Louis sat carefully on the edge of a stone block to gaze out across the river. He actually shivered.

The higher they climbed, the more exposed he felt. A mile away the great Nile crept, lazy as a glutted crocodile. It frightened him.

It showed him his insignificance on the face of the world and it frightened him. He shook his head, speculating on the strength of the Pharaohs who had stamped their feet on this nation for so long. He felt awe for the god-men of old.

The man whose tomb lay behind him was a giant to have conquered such a place.

(c) Lee McAulay 2011

Hoskins MSS 1.139, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Pyramid-field of Gîza, George Alexander Hoskins

Hoskins MSS 1.139, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Pyramid-field of Gîza, George Alexander Hoskins

ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE RIVER is available for free on Smashwords by using the discount code: ZY43B. It’s also available on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, but you’ll have to fork out for it there.

Next: the last post in the SHADOWBOX series: Adieu.

Journey’s End.

Published in: on June 29, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits

The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863) by Elihu Vedder

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…
Shelley, Ozymandias

For centuries, the lure of Egypt on the European imagination has been strong.

Giovanni Belzoni had excavated the tomb of Seti I and broke his way into the Great Pyramid of Khufu to leave his name in foot-high letters on the wall of the Great Chamber.

Lord Elgin had moved on from looting Greece to bring back the treasures of the Acropolis of Athens, and persuaded the government (of which he was part) to build the British Museum in which to display his ill-gotten gains.

Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon frieze, east pediment (British Museum). Image at wikipedia commonsPart of this was the direct result of the Napoleonic Wars, still resonating across the French Empire almost twenty years later in 1832.

Bonaparte may have ended his rule in ignominy after the Retreat From Moscow, but he took the French Armies across north Africa before he over-reached himself. The prize in his cross-hairs was Egypt.

The greatest prize in all history.

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Inside the temple of Aboo-simbel by David Roberts (1848)

Egypt remained semi-autonomous [within the Ottoman Empire] under the Mamluks until it was invaded by the French forces of Napoleon I in 1798. After the French were defeated by the British, a power vacuum [led to] a three-way power struggle that ended in 1805 when Muhammad Ali Pasha siezed control. – Wikipedia

But Europeans had already gone crazy for the place (much like we did in 1922, when Howard Carter announced the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun).

The extent of the extinct Egyptian civilisation was one attraction.

The mystery of its fall was another.

How could an nation, so great that it split the Roman Empire into civil war, just… disappear?

The key to unlocking this mystery lay in the untranslatable hieroglyphics which festooned every surface of the ancient Egyptian landscape.

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831). Champollion is buried in Paris, in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery

Jean-Francois Champollion, by Leon Cogniet (1831)

Untranslatable, that is, until the arrival of Jean-Francois Champollion, polymath, genius and Frenchman.

Using classic code-breaking technique, Champollion took the Ptolemaic Greek texts on the Rosetta Stone and applied those translations to the hieroglyphics.


Other Egyptologists followed. Soon, the entire fascinating history of Ancient Egypt began to emerge from the pictures. History was rewritten.

Mythology, too.

The kings of Ancient Egypt strode out from the statues and tomb carvings and into popular culture with the same pervasive assurance as quack medicines and elixirs with exotic-sounding names and ground-up mummies listed in the ingredients.

And the gods of Ancient Egypt found new life breathed into their stories, like the new life breathed into Osiris in his voyage through the underworld.


So sacred to the Ancient Egyptians it became the keystone of the Osiris Myth, their earliest and most primitive gospel.

From the watercolours and drawings by George Alexander Hoskins (1832) in the Archive of the Griffith Institute, University of OxfordSo sacred that each pharaoh became the living embodiment of Osiris, guaranteeing the return of the Nile floods to feed the population in a re-enactment of the deity’s sacrifice and regeneration, risking the wrath of the goddess if he should fail.

The sacred king.

Le Roi Sacré.

Just like Louis Beauregard, Consort to the Last Rhinemaiden.

“The boat of the dying sun god Ra, tacking down the western sky to the dark river that runs through the underworld from west to east… will tomorrow reappear, bearing a once again youthful, newly reignited sun. Or, …a vast motionless globe of burning gas, around which this planet rolls like a pellet of dung propelled by a kephera beetle. Take your pick… but be willing to die for your choice.” – Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates

Next: the penultimate post in the SHADOWBOX series: All Roads Lead To The River.

And journey’s end draws nigh.

Published in: on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Anubis Awaits  
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Shadowbox: Men of Steam

At the time I set SHADOWBOX, the lines between science, industry and other disciplines were less rigid than now.George Stephenson, father of the railway

Perhaps because the people whose names have come down through history attached to new discoveries came from a limited set of the population, it seems that specialisation back then was uncommon.

Probably a wrong assumption on my part.

My school education (this being in Scotland) focused heavily on the great men of the Industrial Revolution, such as:

Robert Stephenson Trust - an early railway train

  • and, most peculiarly to my upbringing, Henry Bell (who built the first steam-boat and also designed the town nearest my childhood home  – you can’t walk along the sea front without passing the Henry Bell monument, a conceit based on Cleopatra’s Needle).

But the 19th century had a whiff of change in the air which was nothing to do with factories and steam engines.

Charles Lyell, in real life rather than the character I borrow for my novel, was deeply involved with geology. He never wavered to other pursuits, unlike his good friend Roderick Impey Murchison, who only took up geology on the instigation of the aforementioned Humphry Davy.

Lyell’s geology, like that of Murchison and James Hutton, began to provide hard evidence that the planet was far, far older than Biblical suggestions. In 1832 there was yet no outright declaration, but the idea of evolution was on its way.

HMS Beagle, plans thereof. Links to the HMS Beagle project, raising funds to build a replica of Darwin's HMS BeagleHis great On The Origins Of Species a mere spark in his imagination, the young Charles Darwin set off on HMS Beagle with a copy of Lyell’s treatise in his hand luggage (and made copious notes in the text during his voyage).

In 1832, the main proponent of natural selection was a dead Frenchman: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His Histoire naturelle had broken the ground that Darwin so thoroughly exploited.Lamarck's collection - Liasse n°6 CISTINEAE - VIOLACEAE - CANELLACEAE - BIXACEAE

This defloration of Old Testament dogma didn’t go unchallenged. Men of the cloth explored their parish artefacts with vigour, discovering to their dismay that their little corner of Christendom had been the home of many prehistoric Europeans.

Avebury, Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and every other prehistoric bump in the grass had its bones dug up and examined. Aubrey Burl and William Stukely had already seen to that.

The menhirs of France had long been Christianised, and in Brittany where the serried ranks of Carnac stretch over the boggy hills you can pray in the church built over the stones. (You can also kip in the long barrow if you can find it in the dark – but it’s near the road, and a bit noisy, and the roof leaks. [Yes, I did.])

St Just menhirs, Brittany, France - at Megalithia.comFuelling this desire to explore the past and explain both sides of the evolution argument was a new freedom: travel.

Giovanni Belzoni headed for Egypt and the banks of the Nile, while Mungo Park roamed south to seek the source of the Niger.

Garibaldi, who makes a brief and unhistoric appearance in my novel, captained a ship trading at Taganrog on the Black Sea by the mouth of the Volga.

St Mikhail Church, Taganrog. A handsome-looking city. No, I've never been.Men sought the source of the Nile; the course of the Mississippi; the ghost rivers of the Australian interior, such as the Todd River, which flow into nothingness and die.

Other men sought the mystical truth about great rivers, not just their geological basis, sparring in the spiritual struggle for the soul of the 19th century.

And in SHADOWBOX, one of those men is Louis Beauregard.

Next post in the series: Anubis Awaits.

Because this journey draws near to its end…

Published in: on June 27, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Men of Steam  
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Shadowbox: A Song For Europe

Today we tend to think of music as a pervasive influence on our culture.Beethoven

Every advertisement must have a tune, every numpty on a bicycle has headphones clamped to their ears as they whizz between traffic, every train journey comes with a seat where you can plug into four or more entertainment channels.

You can’t get away from it.

Even out in the garden or in a public park, Other People’s Music intrudes, filtering from open windows or blaring out from passing cars.

But before the rise of mass radio transmissions, more people knew music. Every home above the poverty level had a piano in the corner. Even working-class children learned an instrument.

Family gatherings and community events were all opportunities to join in the entertainment. If you couldn’t play, you could sing along, because everyone knew what the songs were.

Couldn’t sing?

You’d clap your hands (when you weren’t up dancing).

Back in 1832, the year of the events that take place in SHADOWBOX, access to music was almost endemic. Hymns for the church-going (which meant almost everyone Christian). Lullabies for baby. Travelling fairs and penny-whistle men. And, of course, the great composers.

Beethoven, departed this life barely five years earlier, left a body of work that proves as popular today as it was back in 1832. Wealthy patrons expected to hear renditions of popular favourites by Mozart, Haydn or Strauss, produced using harpsichords and string quartets, with larger ensembles at the Royal Court (try the Swedish Royal Kungliga Hovkapellet on for size).

Opera was popular amongst the well-to-do. (I recommend Anne Rice’s marvellous CRY TO HEAVEN for a gripping tale of the castrati amongst Europe’s opera houses).

The Opera de Paris building in 1864.

Théâtre de l’Académie royale de musique – Grande salle, (1864) by August Lauré

Musical entertainment also accompanied the magic lantern shows which travelled from village to village, town to town, spreading stories as well as news, much as the newsreels of the silent cinema era barely a hundred years later.

Music was not a luxury item.

Most people would be involved in music one way or another.

What we now call folk music thrived.

Irish, Scottish, Breton, Northumbrian – European folk music was transported to the USA by migrants, where it joined the disparate musical traditions of slaves in the southern States, or in the mountains of Appalachia, to produce unique hybrids.

You can find examples of British folk music online at places such as Folk Radio UK. English folk music differs from Irish and Scottish folk music – different rhythms, the songs less plangent, perhaps because the dances were different and the diaspora less painful. (To my regret, I don’t know enough about music to explain the different rhythms and time signatures.)

French folk music, too, is a rich and varied palette.

With more linguistic diversity amongst its people, French traditional folk music has more variety. If your French is up to it, have a go at WikiTrad.

The wonderful Songs From The Auvergne by Victoria de Los Angeles has a different cadence than that of anything found on this side of the channel. Mediterranean influence vies with the chilly Breton coast and the coalfields of Alsace.

Les Centres des musiques traditionnelles en France éditent et publient un fond en mouvement, des sources écrites du 19e siècle jusqu’aux collectes récentes. – (sorry!)

Frere Jacques is probably the best known French folk song, but there are others. Il etait un petit navire is gloriously macabre. Le bon roi Dagobert is deliberately rude. (And if anyone has a clue what’s the ditty Lagardère sings in 1997’s Le Bossu, I’d love to know.)

Musical instruments from two hundred years ago are still around. Stradivarius violins command high prices at auction, while penny whistles are still made to the 1843 design by The Clarke Tin Whistle Company,(warning: music starts on that link) as are percussive instruments like cymbals and drums and the hurdy-gurdy.

A hurdy-gurdy.Regimental band museums are one place to see how little some instruments have changed. As a child in Scotland it seemed like every school trip to a castle – Stirling, Edinburgh, Culzean – involved gazing into glass display cases with blood-stained battle standards from the Napoleonic Wars, alongside stuffed regimental mascots and the drum of poor Billy Bones.

Our ability as a species to make music out of almost anything – including the rock formations of an underground cavern at The Great Stalacpipe Organ, or a bundle of pipes such as Luke Jerram’s Aeolian Harp – is one of the defining features of humanity.

And in the 1830s that ability converted the ingenious steam engines of the Industrial Revolution into musical machines.


Calliope music wagon for the European Zoological Association, 1872.


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Men of Steam.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a wheel-tapper.

Published in: on June 26, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: A Song For Europe  
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Shadowbox: Dreadful Symmetry

What of art and its like, back in 1832? No Picasso, no Matisse, no Klimt. No Gaudi, no Cartier, no Rodin.

Stylistically, fine art was still stuck in the depiction of the wealthy showing off their wealth.Théodore Joseph Jonet and his two daughters by Fran%C3%A7ois-Joseph Navez, 1787-1869

On the other hand, illustrators such as Simone Pomardi prowled the Greek islands with portable cameras obscura, drawing peasants in the Parthenon and maids in the Medea.

The first great burst of Egyptomania had flooded popular culture, along with a renewed interest in those members of the population not normally found within the echelons of the British ruling classes.

The archaeological surveys and discoveries that accompanied Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, and the battles between France and Britain that took place there, aroused great public interest. Ancient Egyptian art and architecture provided designers with a whole new range of motifs, such as winged sun-discs, hawks and crocodiles. – V&A style guide, Regency Classicism

Architecture too, took monumental form when the wealthy estate owners sought to do something with their fortunes. In this era the British Museum was begun; the Louvre museum took shape; great buildings based on the profits of trade – and slave labour – erupted across Europe in a welter of carved stone.

Influences came from Ancient Rome and Classical Greece, especially with the arrival in London of the Elgin Marbles stolen from the Parthenon. One of Glasgow’s famous architects of this era was even known as Alexander “Greek” Thompson, so pervasive was the influence of Classical Greece throughout his portfolio.

Less traditional views appeared too.

Merchants in both Britain and France sought to emphasise how much their fortunes had been made in recent times, by their own devising, and in their patronage of the arts there was less of the classical, upper-class conceits (half-ruined follies with scantily-clad dancing girls frolicking in the undergrowth – not practical in much of Britain, or France, unless their career plans involved pneumonia).

Was it a change in materials that helped to portray smaller portraits, more stylistic aesthetics? A new interest in urban living, the people who lived in cities such as London and Paris? Or the influence of artists such as Goya with his sketches of the Peninsular War – and all its horrors?

And ordinary folk, to whom high art would be a luxury, making their own designs to traditional patterns?

Cushion Cover by Thomas Wardle. c.1885 (c) V&A Museum, LondonRemember, too, that this period was the start of a period of expansion for the industries that propelled Britain to its Victorian pomp. Influences from elsewhere – China, India, Egypt – had been popular in the salons of the wealthy for some years, but with the rise of linen-mills and factories producing consumer goods, those designs became widespread.

Complex weaving patterns using punch-card looms, hundreds of yards of cloth made more cheaply than a hand-loom weaver would charge, by exploiting child labour and paying mill-workers poorly.

(The character of Kester Woodseaves, the weaver in Precious Bane, visits each house to weave linen on a loom in the attic when the women have spun out the threads. He writes to the heroine, Prue, of apprenticing to a more skilled weaver to learn how to make two-colour cloth. Hand weaving, a traditional trade for men, disappeared under the onslaught of industrial linen.)

Machine-made ribbons, possibly the only finery affordable to the very poorest for Sunday best. Printed cottons, made in factories across Europe with the most modern inks and dyes.

The Attributes, roller printed cotton, Oberkampf (France), at the V&A Museum, LondonArt doesn’t just mean painting and drawing. There’s the craft of artisans too.

Jewellery, for example, forms a thread of the story in SHADOWBOX. One of the most permanent parts of the archaeological record, fine metalwork is also one of the most easily reshaped.

Gold has always been recycled.

Sailors and gypsies carried their wealth in gold hoops strung through their perforated earlobes, marking them as transient in the eyes of most other people even as their exotic appearance attracted portrait painters. Most people in 1832 wouldn’t have anything golden – not even a wedding band.

Silver, although more widespread and cheaper, took form in silver cutlery and tableware, ornate and elaborate fabrications that took an army of servants to polish.

Folk art, however, took many forms.Ship HARRIET, Sperm Whale Tooth. American Whaleman's Scrimshaw at the Vallejo Gallery, USA

Scrimshaw, the art of engraving pictures on whale teeth, took time and practice.

Patterns inlaid in furniture by cabinet-makers, or burnt into the wood (pyrography), decorated everyday items.

Crockery from the Potteries, Delftware, Limoges – designs to be displayed in dining-room cabinets, treasured and shown off with pride.

Romantic Staffordshire transferware plate by John Swift in the And just because people didn’t make a living at making things doesn’t make their output less arty. Carvings done by prisoners from the Napoleonic wars show the inventiveness of ordinary people, especially those with time on their hands.

Even small details, added in hidden places. The wood-carver who shaped the figurehead of an ocean-going tea clipper. The basket-weaver shaping a willow cradle for his child. The lace-maker, bobbins a-spangle with glass beads from Murano, following her own family patterns handed down through generations.

Because the Devil will find work for idle hands.

And while a strong streak of Puritanism still lay embedded in the national psyche of both Britain and France, even Puritans must sing at least once a week when the looms and factories fall silent for the Sabbath and the week’s hard work is done.

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: A Song For Europe.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

Published in: on June 25, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Dreadful Symmetry  
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Shadowbox: What Immortal Hand Or Eye?

In 1832 there were no Dickens classics.

Dumas had yet to invent The Three Musketeers, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Man In The Iron Mask – and much of his own mythology into the bargain. Victor Hugo was a journalist, Gaston Leroux not yet born, Jules Verne a mere stripling with no thought of fantastic voyages.Mysteries of London, a Penny Dreadful

Even the Penny Dreadful (such as The Mysteries of London) was yet to slouch into existence.

But literature in 1832 was more than the preserve of just a few well-heeled individuals.

A trade had arisen during the 17th century of chapbooks, hand-printed paperbacks sold from ass-back by travelling pedlars. The rise of the industrialised working class also led to a basic education being delivered to the workers.

And once you learn to read, you want more books.

Comedies of manners; tragedies, based on those who had something to lose; exposure of injustices; tracts against slavery; political attacks; sales pitches; journeys of exploration.

Hand coloured print, about 1830.  © Victoria & Albert Museum, LondonDiscovering the rest of the planet’s multitude of people didn’t stop us from cataloguing their differences, quaint ways and funny customs. All this was entertainment, and the unwritten works of countless theatres, magic-lantern showmen, circus troupes and travelling players must have thrilled with tales of pirates and Hottentots, Egyptian pharaohs and the like (if the stories we have from the High Middle Ages are anything to go by).

Sir Walter Scott died in 1832. Jane Austen had already passed on, and Émile Zola had yet to be born. Victor Hugo had just published Notre Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“Usually, the murmur that rises up from Paris by day is the city talking; in the night it is the city breathing; but here it is the city singing.
Listen, then, to this chorus of bell-towers – diffuse over the whole the murmur of half a million people – the eternal lament of the river – the endless sighing of the wind – the grave and distant quartet of the four forests placed upon the hills, in the distance, like immense organ-pipes – extinguish to a half light all in the central chime that would otherwise be too harsh or too shrill; and then say whether you know of anything in the world more rich, more joyous, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes – this furnace of music – these thousands of brazen voices, all singing together in flutes of stone three hundred feet high, than this city which is but one orchestra – this symphony which roars like a tempest.” ― Victor Hugo

But common reference works were fewer. The Bible, the works of Shakespeare (sonnets and all), hymns sung in church and often learned by rote because you’d not be taught how to read, nor write.

Few people in western Europe would have read the Koran, the Mahabharata, or the Art of War – not even those gilded few who went to school or university. You’d have studied Latin, or Greek, reading Homer’s Iliad and the plays of Aristophanes. You’d read Shakespeare, and Chaucer, and Coleridge.

British Library Chaucer ManuscriptSo what of literature in 1832?

What would Louis Beauregard remember by rote, as he lies in his bed in Paris, sleepless with remorse?

…Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death…
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Grief

Fear death? – to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin…
– Robert Browning, Prospice

Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear:
And one to me are shame and fame.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brahma

Chatterton, oil on canvas by Henry Wallis, 1856 (c) Tate Gallery

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: Dreadful Symmetry.

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Shadowbox: What’s Missing In 1832?

What do we take for granted – culturally, literally, technologically – that was invented or has changed since 1832?

In other words, what did I have to remove from my imagination when I wrote SHADOWBOX?

Nowadays, all across the world, we share experiences of popular culture faster than ever. In Kigali and Karachi and Kingstown and Knightsbridge, people recognise the name of Gollum, have heard of Live Aid, know that Nelson Mandela lived and has recently died.

We share links through Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins (whether or not we’ve read or seen the stories). We know of Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Picasso’s Blue Period and Dali’s melting watches.

In 1832, none of those existed.

Of course my characters sleep and eat, get hangovers and the sniffles, have ill-fitting shoes and get wet in the rain. But they had many different things we don’t have any more (in the developed world at least), and lacked a lot of the things which make up not just British or European culture, but a global shared understanding of the world.

All the way through writing the novel I had to remind myself that how I imagine life to be back then might not be true.

So I built a set of reference points to guide me, a list of what was missing in 1832 and a list of those shared experiences that still resonate today.

1832 Malte Brun Map of the World on Mercator Projection, via wikipedia

(click to see larger size)

In 1832 there was no Queen Victoria. My characters had no idea of the future queen, nor the cultural and technological changes which were to take place at a seemingly-exponential rate during her reign. Prince Albert and the Victoria Embankment both figments of the future.

No inkling of the US Civil War to come.

No idea that India would become such a hugely important part of the British Empire, all the while seething to be independent.

No internal combustion engines.

No cure for measles, no idea how cholera spread in 1832, no antibiotics or antibacterial hand-wipes or effective anaesthetics. People took opium and smoked tobacco – and the leaf wasn’t soaked with pesticides. Tea and coffee, bread, flour, paper – all crawled with insects, visible and invisible.

People crawled with insects too, skin diseases and digestive parasites rife amongst all social classes. You took your chances as much as any libertine.

L’Air Du Temps had not been invented, nor Chanel No.5, or Dettol, or Pepsi. Soap smelled of violets when it wasn’t priced out of your range. Perfume covered a multitude of stenches.

Drinks tasted of lemon and orange, shipments arriving from Spain in the depths of bleak February along with sugar from Caribbean plantations to be made into marmalade and cordial.

Industrial dyes, based on coal tar, had yet to replace the traditional colours of madder and cochineal, indigo, woad.

No Crimean War, no First World War or Relief of Mafeking.

Transatlantic journeys took weeks even if you travelled by choice, and you couldn’t phone home to say you’d arrived safely. Tea clippers plied the oceans, but most of the world still traded along the Silk Route or the trans-Saharan indigo trails via Timbuktu – or not at all.

Slaves toiled across the United States, and in Brazil, Argentina, much of North Africa. Many of these men and women were “owned” by Britons, while William Wilberforce stood on the brink of his Liberation Bill.

Ireland had good potato harvests, but much of Highland Scotland, including the islands where some of my own ancestors farmed, had already been cleared of crofters to make way for more lucrative land use.

Navigation canals cut through the English landscape to gain government subsidies for the landowners, regardless of the viability of the waterway’s route or the likelihood of completion.

Canada had yet to be mapped by David Thompson, Australia by Lewis & Clarke, Tahiti yet to be colonised by Fletcher Christian and the rest of the Bounty’s mutinous crew.

Spring-Heeled Jack was yet to come bounding across a terrified nation. Of Jack The Ripper, no sign.

The Trail Of Tears, the Battle of Wounded Knee, the Well of the Bibi-Gar and the incident which provoked it – horrors yet to be endured.

So, what did people have in 1832 – in Paris, in London – that we might recognise yet?

The Napoleonic Wars were over and done with by 1832, as was the French Revolution and the North American Wars of Independence.

Bonnie Prince Charlie was well gone, the hopes of Darien crushed, the waters off the East African coastline rife with pirates.

Turnpikes and highways linked major urban settlements where broadsheet newspapers printed the latest updates on stock prices, farm yields and public protests. The canals, cut through farmland, brought goods to London from factories in the Midlands and the north; from the Mediterranean all the way to Paris and northern France.

Semaphore towers blinked the good news from Ghent to Aix and back again.

Sailing-ships navigated by longitude as well as latitude.

People ate porridge and parkin and pasta. Gardens grew cabbages and roses and rhubarb, bees loudly humming along the bean rows, slugs in the lettuce. We drank tea and coffee and beer and gin and did our best to overlook the adulterations.

Beethoven no longer painted symphonies against the walls of his skull and inked them for others to hear.

Jane Austen was dead, but Balzac and Wordsworth and Hugo – new works by each appeared with all the fuss the publishing industry could muster. Scientists discovered new compounds, engineers invented new gadgets, bakers created new confections.

Sleight-of-hand tricksters played Hide-The-Pea on punters in Oxford Street and pickpockets nabbed your wallet.

Ballerinas danced, castrato sopranos drew crowds of admirers to the opera, theatres played puppets and popular pantomime.

Confectioners built great cakes, boiled sugar into hard sweets, candied figs and dusted fondants with powdered cocoa.

Industrial accidents killed hundreds. Epidemics of disease scoured the population. Homeless people slept rough. Children went to bed hungry.

Migrant workers crammed into London and Paris, their lodgings cramped and unsanitary, their wages poor and their willingness to work exploited by unscrupulous employers.

In Britain a Conservative government sought to legislate against Trades Union activism and in France a leadership called out troops to quell civil unrest in the capital.

France and Britain shared poetry by Milton, Casanova, Virgil; art by Michaelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio; music by Mozart, Verdi, Strauss; the folk tales of Charlemagne, King Arthur, the Crusades.

And a hundred thousand – a million – creative works by artisans and entertainers were never written down, never shaped in durable materials, never sung in front of anyone who might memorise the song and pass it on.

It’s time to see the cultural landscape where Louis Beauregard and Godfrey Woolverham live.

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: What Immortal Hand Or Eye.

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Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: What’s Missing In 1832?  
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