Saturday, 4 July 2015

Dissolution and disillusion

I have actually been doing some research this last couple of weeks-in between my new job at Furness Abbey, winding up the TA training business and grandma duties! The only trouble is-it does distract me from the actual task of writing. Procrastination is the thief of time as they say-but when is dressed up in dusty tomes and interesting historical research it almost feels justified. I have been itching to write for weeks but just can't get on with it. I wrote 30 lines the other night and thought I had done well.

However, back to the research... I have been looking into monastic issues-partly because I was putting together a mini project for a school. I was uncovering the usual stuff and confirming; my image of the "monk" is mixed-I want to think that "our" Furness Abbey monks were a devout, caring and sincere lot... well they would be wouldn't they? Yes, I know about the abuses of the church, sale of indulgences and pardons-after all I did do Chaucer at uni... But not our lot! Not in Furness?
This Guest house has sheep in it!

So, it has been illuminating reading about what they actually DID get up to! When I take folk on a tour of the abbey, we start in the Outer Court, near to the Guest house and post monastic stables. "Here," I always say, "Is a safe haven for travellers. Travel was hard and dangerous in the middle ages and in monastic and religious houses people could be assured a safe bed, food and prayer-sort of a medieval Travelodge." So I was stunned to discover the record (first seen on Rievalux abbey Facebook page) of a fight which broke out at Furness between the monks and travellers. This resulted in three travellers being stabbed! So not quite a Travelodge then?

Of course I knew all about the "murder" at the abbey-I even included it in my last book, "The Cistercian Conspiracy". Three discontented monks decided to oust poor Abbot "L" or "T" depending on which interpretation you read. They bumped him off with deadly nightshade in the communion wine-and then disappeared! In the church, with the nightshade... sort of a Monastic Cluedo.
Courtesy of English Heritage

Then there was Abbot Alexander Banke! A truly nasty piece of work. He evicted the villagers of Sellergarth, destroyed their homes so that he could extend the Parkland-for more sheep and hunting! His monks voted him out at one point but he managed to force his way back in again. I sincerely hope he does not turn out to be the abbot who was found avec crosier in the presbytery. He would be arrogant enough to want to be buried so close to the altar-but I'm hoping it isn't him! 

Then, reading about the dissolution in terms of the abbey, I discover that Roger Pele the final abbot-turns out to have given in pretty quickly and handed over the keys after a little persuasion from Thomas Holcroft -the King's officer. He also managed to gain a pension and the living at Dalton church!

So maybe old Henry was right to turf them all out? Maybe life in the cloister was as corrupt as outside? 
Looking towards the presbytery

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Coming up for air

Sometimes you have to wonder what life is all about! Things move on at breakneck pace and you seem to be so busy you actually don't accomplish much. Sometimes you have a time in life when things happen around you, but impact massively on what you are doing and you seem to lose any control that you might have had.

Well-that's what has been happening here since January. So not much done in the way of writing-but this will be remedied soon! I have acquired a new job too! One I wanted since I was 17-to work as a Historic Properties Steward at Furness Abbey. I have been on a circuitous route to get here-but here I am! Its great-first task of the day is to check the abbey and walk around-what a way to start the day! How lucky am I? I get to see my "precious" -the crosier to you and chat about the abbey and its history to anyone who will listen! I am only part time-but it is perfect! I love it-though not before I worried myself sick over the practical stuff... once again it became clear I learn by doing! Practice makes perfect of course! 

In my spare time-I do the work for Furness Abbey Fellowship and we are busy organising the Medieval Fair-which is 5th September this year! I am also freelancing as an author/historian and working in local schools so I almost have the best fit for a job I could hope for! Granted I am not earning megabucks-but the job satisfaction outweighs that! Plus there is enough time to spend with grandchildren and family-which can have no price put upon it!

Its curious how life takes you down strange paths-a daily voyage of discovery! It isn't always what you wanted or thought it would be, but it is never boring. Sometimes its best just to embrace it and build from what you are dealt! Not easy-but always a challenge! Back to 9-5 or a school day? Don't think so! Variety is the spice of life and long may it continue!

Monday, 16 February 2015

Heritage hugs and selling the ground from under our feet

Have to share this fab video of an amazing group of people who are battling to support and conserve the most complete Iron Age Fort in Britain at Oswestry. They have been valiantly battling the developers and Shropshire Council to protect the fort from the encroachment of planned housing on the foothills of the fort. So much for setting and sense of place? This obviously resonates with our own battle for the setting of our own heritage site-Furness Abbey. So it was fantastic to see this little video showing a Heritage Hug! Over 400 people climbed the hill and joined hands surrounding the summit! It signals a sea change in people's attitudes. The little man is standing up to the big business developer and the intransigent council. These people are from all ages, backgrounds and are definitely not Nimbys-which is usually the cry when people stand up for heritage or green field. Nobody benefits directly from opposing the encroachment onto a historical site. So you can guarantee that the motivation is genuine and not a conspiracy against the capitalist society.

It looks as though we may have a bigger fight on our hands. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse-the Lake District National Park decide that it is a good idea to sell off bits of land -previously donated or gifted to the nation, to preserve and conserve. So what happened? Does this mean that despite good-intentioned people in the past who had the foresight to save our landscape from the march of urbanisation have suddenly become irrelevant. When did the National Park get the nod from the "nation" the common people whom this park was created for, to sell off tarns and lakes? Bad enough that local aristocrats begin to sell off mountains, but a national body too? This has got to be one step too far! People will not stand for it-they will join together and oppose these high handed moves. Power to the people and more of it!

Here is the petition to start the ball rolling

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Perversions of history and a surfeit of Tudors

We are a contentious lot! I have been enjoying the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and in my little world I could not imagine the arguments and vitriol this has stimulated in the press! I totally devour historical fiction and love to read the many interpretations by various authors. Afterwards I often research, read or investigate the historical truth (well truth as far as historians allow) and make up my own mind. I like historical accuracy. I try very hard to be historically accurate in the facts I present in my novels-but they are fictionalised history wrapped around some real and incontrovertible facts. This is the way I believe Mantel and co work too-we can rarely KNOW what a historical character felt or emoted, we can only imagine the unpublished reactions to events in history and we can only surmise unrecorded conversations. In other words we fill in the gaps. I would argue that even in the serious tomes which are produced by "historians" there must be some poetic licence and interpretation. Bias must also creep in to some extent but I am shocked at some of the commentary following this massively successful piece of literature.

For starters I was pleased to read a piece by my favourite historical fictioneer-CJ Sansom who specialises in the Tudor period with his infinitely splendid Shardlake series. He analysed the series and made a fairly balanced judgment; inputting some of his own opinions about the anti-hero Cromwell. This foolishly led me onto read the next few reports in the national press. I stumbled across a rather reactionary piece in the Catholic Herald- a bastion of the Catholic press (who knew they had their own press?). This piece was incredible in its bias-in my opinion, I couldn't believe that this man and his story-dead these 500 years was being used to rake up old religious differences. To claim that admiring Cromwell is encouraging anti-Catholicism is a bit OTT! He was a reformer-true and disliked Rome-but nowhere does Mantel suggest he is admirable. She humanises him, but why not? He was ruthless and ambitious-a follower of Machiavellian teaching, but he did have a human side. He wept at the news of Wolsey's death -this is a matter of record, but does that not suggest his humanity could have extended to other situations too? One can perhaps have a grudging admiration for his efficiency and powerful politics; but I am sure nobody out there would really use him as a role model! As for anti-Catholicism... I very much doubt that anyone with those intentions has awaited Mantel's novel to develop those feelings and give vent to their prejudice. The time is too far removed.

I moved onto the next column by a certain David Starkey Esq. I should have know not to read on! I have read some of his history; not all bad but not all good either-but he has spent a lifetime studying history so I assume he does get it right sometimes. He is a right wing chap of course, so in certain instances this must colour his interpretation-after all we all have our own little preferences and nuances. However, he truly slated the "deliberate perversions of history" in Mantel's work (which took 5 years research by the way-so she ain't making it up.) He doesn't appear to understand the term "historical fiction" and berates Mantel for her "total fiction" and "lack of evidence". 

I am with him on accuracy as far as it goes-but there are massive gaps in our knowledge of the conversations, emotional responses and the human snippets of history. We occasionally catch glimpses in the historical record, but as anyone  else who has done a year of a Masters in Historiography will know; all history is interpretation. After all, much early written history comes from one source. Monks. Now as much as I have a soft spot for all things monastic, they didn't exactly have no agenda! They reported according to their standpoint-which was Roman Catholicism. That isn't to say that there is no accurate history in there, but there have been extravagant claims which with hindsight can be seen as a biased interpretation. Whoever writes the history has an interest or a preference -in fact we know that the Tudors tried to rewrite history to prove their validity as a dynasty for example. So as pure as history might seem, it is open to manipulation and propaganda (see Goebbels/Hitler's interpretation of history).

I believe that historical fiction is often an introduction or taster, providing a framework to give us the feel for the time. Certainly, in my "Out of Time" books I present the story as fiction-but I research the nitty gritty and try to accurately portray the times I describe. However, I would not present it as factual. In fact I go to great pains to add an author's note explaining where and why I have taken liberties. I follow the school of Anya Seton and Barbara Erskine, flowing seamlessly (I hope) between historical periods and present day. I use these books in schools in the hope they will interest, inspire and eventually encourage a love of history and will draw the readers to extend their knowledge and engage with the physical history around us. 

So what do I think of Wolf Hall? So far so good! This week I felt there were rather too many ponderous and meaningful silences-with Cromwell's impassive face concealing his calculations for his next move. It captures the period well, it modernises the characters enough for us to connect with and the characterisation is nothing new. We have a slimmer Henry-but he was still an athletic chap at this point, the usual suspects are all there and live up to my own visualisations. The difference is, this story is from Cromwell's perspective and it is that which makes it compelling. Not because I idolise or admire him but because it is his story with Henry and Anne and the rest as the supporting cast for a change. I will read no more commentaries-I gave up when I saw the headline "Damian Lewis took inspiration from Harry and Wills". And I dread to think what lies in "Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day". All I can say is-with all the detractors I think both books and programme are refreshingly different and at least 100% more accurate than "The Tudors" ; where it was thought "less confusing" to amalgamate Henry Vlll's two sisters into one. But then that was from the US not the BBC and despite the advantage of Jonathan Rhys Davies and Henry Cavill and the Hollywood touch, it does not hold a candle (literally) to this production.
Gratuitous photo of Furness Abbey-the 1st large abbey dissolved by Henry Vlll and Thomas Cromwell in 1537

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Born asleep: A story of loss and hope

Thirty four years ago today, on a pretty similar bleak, grey day that only January can produce I was just walking into a parallel bleak grey mindset that has remained a part of me ever since. I was a patient in the then locally infamous Newham Maternity Hospital at Forest Gate awaiting the birth of our first child. A naiive 23 year old, I read every childcare and pregnancy book available to man and even borrowed my friend's midwifery book. This was either a blessing or a mistake because I devoured this too-pragmatically observing that although some awful things can happen-most people deliver safely.

My pregnancy was uncomfortable, I enlarged to the size of a small blue whale, had constant sickness, fatigue and raised blood pressure. My registrar (I never saw the consultant until the day of delivery-he was much too important)was contentious from the off-disbelieving my dates. As a young "primagravida" (I picked up all the terms) I was suspected of knowing nothing... or having a brain... and when I argued and said that I had felt movement at the correct time for a first baby-she dismissed it as wind.  She then reset my dates from 17 January 1981 to 28 February 1981!

I felt massive panic! I knew I was a novice at this pregnancy game but I knew my dates were not that far adrift. Cutting a long and painful story short-at about lunchtime on 11 January a baby monitor was strapped to my expanding girth and there was no rhythmic heart beat-just a dull empty crackle. 

Then, the worst 36 hours of my life began. I eventually delivered a 4lb 8oz boy at 10-30pm on 12 January 1981.The breech birth was incredibly traumatic, painful and it was only due to the skill of the midwives that I came through in one piece. The NHS at its best-and its worst! Forest Gate Maternity hospital was busy, overcrowded, under-funded and had a bad reputation due to various cases of baby death and professional mistakes.(Sound familiar?) We had many complaints and indignities throughout the process-but the skill of the midwives got us through. A catalogue of errors would have made a lawyer rub his hands and I am sure we could have sued successfully.

We discussed with our GP what action to take-we were never inclined to litigate. After all-this would not bring Jonathan (that's what we called him) back, it wouldn't make us feel better and nothing positive could come from this. As far as we could see, it would put more financial pressure on an already restricted service. Instead we made formal complaints and decided next time to attend University College Hospital-which we did, under the amazing "Prof" Brant-the total antithesis of the consultant I had previously had. Later, I had equally excellent care at Furness General Hospital with my last child in 1993. 

I blundered through the stages of grief and adopted the approach that if people ignored that we had had a baby-I would tell them! Cathartic for me -maybe not for them!There was no grief counselling then! I had my first piece of published writing in Parents magazine and campaigned for recognition of stillbirth-it was still taboo in '81! Luckily, people like Esther Rantzen suddenly began campaigning for better care and charities like SANDS (est 1978) started to gain a higher profile. I went onto have four more pregnancies-resulting in three live births.So NHS fails: one NHS successes: three! Had I litigated I think I would still be firmly locked into the anger stage of grief and may not have had other children, so I am glad I made the choice. 
Stillbirth is something, until you or someone you know experiences it, that people believe is rare and consigned to the history books. Sadly it isn't. Its still far too common. Amazing leaps forward have been made in pre-natal care and some very premature babies now survive. I myself was premature weighing only 3lbs-again because the placenta didn't function properly-but due to an amazing obstetrician Mr Garth Stoneham I survived and so did my mum. It seemed incongruous that I survived in 1957 and yet my son died in 1981. However, I do believe, that despite the standard of care I received, with a failing placenta, confusion over dates, a breech birth, I think retrospectively we would have been very lucky to have a successful outcome, but of course we will never know. 

Thankfully, according to research "Perinatal mortality rates have fallen by a third since 1982. It is felt that general improvements in healthcare, midwifery and neonatal intensive care are bringing about the gradual decline in deaths". 

I do become concerned that a lack of funds, resources and staff; which certainly contributed to my loss, is once again becoming apparent today. This always leads to a vicious circle of low staff morale, damage to reputations and possible closure. I hope that this will not happen! In an overworked system someone with problems or fitting the at risk demographic will be less secure.

According to research on 2012 "a study of stillbirths in England showed the risk to be significantly higher where the growth restriction was not detected antenatally, suggesting this is an important avenue for reducing stillbirth rates in the future. It concluded strategy should focus on improving antenatal detection of growth restriction and subsequent management of pregnancy and delivery!"

 Surely, with the correct level of resourcing this is am area which can be improved. It is very hopeful, as long as financial cut backs don't prevent such progress. I am not foolish enough to believe that all stillbirths can be eradicated; it is part of natural selection; but any improvement for mothers is good and I like to think that as few people as possible would go through this traumatic experience as possible. Which is why we must fight tooth and nail to retain the quality of the NHS and ensure that we demand the continued support for our local services. Standards must always come under scrutiny and care must continue to improve. However, continued bad publicity and criticism must reduce-we could complain ourselves out of a service at all! Newham Hospital was soon replaced by a new and hopefully better hospital; but this won't happen at Furness-more likely the maternity service in its current form will disappear. Funding restrictions can be disguised as "improvement". Thirty four years on don't let us slip into the past-to an under-funded, poorly valued system used as a political football by the Tories! It's our NHS let's fight to keep it!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Civic Pride and common sense restored

I wondered if I would be writing a positive blog tonight-one tends to be a bit cynical about developers and councils, but I have to say I am delighted that I can!

The Planning committee of Barrow Borough Council showed great resilience, wisdom and foresight in their decision to refuse planning permission for Story Homes to build 38 houses on the green field site on Manor Road. We have fought a public campaign for a year and its been a hard slog. We are an eclectic bunch-a range of ages, backgrounds, politics-but with one common cause-we all love and believe in the preservation of Furness Abbey. This one fact united us... and upwards of 3000 other people across Barrow, Cumbria and the world! Literally! This upsurge of public opinion could not fail to impress even the recalcitrant Story Homes and the council actually stated that it was not the normal response to planning applications in the borough. In fact it was uncommon and had certainly influenced the committee. This is not surprising -after all the committee are elected servants of the public and really ought to listen-but the impression is often that they don't!

I am proud of our democratic system today and of the council! They were unafraid to stand up against the developers and risk going to appeal. Charles Wilton the Planning Officer countered the abusive and aggressive attack on the committee and the Planning Officers by Story Homes; which was unworthy and unprofessional. He justified the refusal with two main points- heritage and setting! This reason is more powerful than any other because the setting and heritage are sacrosanct and unchangeable. Once gone they cant be brought back and restored! This is too important to be ignored and the planners and committee saw the validity of this argument!

Some of the issues which have arisen have surprised me. The procedural and structural issues which these things are governed by. For instance- the comment that English Heritage could have/should have done more. I accept-I initially believed that they would ride up "knight in shining armour-like" to help. I knew they cared about the abbey-after all-they have spent £2 million on holding it up. We at Furness Abbey Fellowship work with them and they frequently visit-indeed I had the pleasure of meeting Simon Thurley their CEO at the abbey! So I admit I was furious and devastated at their lack of action. 

However, after an initial barrage of ire via social media, we arrange to see the chap who had made the report. He was a very balanced, educated and knowledgeable man-who has spent many years visiting Furness Abbey and genuinely cares about it. We even viewed the field and discussed at length, the wall, the gateway and the heritage approach. He explained that it wasn't as easy as saying "No-its too near the abbey". In fact all kinds of structures were in place to stop him-the line he walks is strictly governed by a framework. This being so he can't comment on flooding, traffic etc because these are other agencies departments! The heritage he is concerned with is the actual abbey precinct-the peripheral wall and gate and approach have in fact been protected -because Story Homes had to amend plans on numerous occasions before EH would accept them. What they were left with were plans for an estate which they could not say would cause harm-but neither could they say it wouldn't! They can't make claims which can't be upheld in law! Therefore they are in a difficult position-they have had to settle for allowing plans which "might" do no harm. This seems ridiculous but they can only do what is allowed! Ideally they probably wouldn't want the houses but can't refuse outright.

In the same vein the Cumbria Highways Department do us no favours. They too are limiting their judgment to the actual estate-which doesn't seem too harmful. However, someone needs to look objectively at the traffic issue-because its not good! Any Barrow resident knows that Rating Lane is a nightmare and is an accident waiting to happen-which this or any other similar development would exacerbate. We the public can see this-but in the red tape world of procedure, this is apparently impossible. Similarly, the flooding evidence is not strongly upheld because of predictive maps and graphs. Yet we see floods over the last few years-and we have photographic evidence!

So this very strange state of affairs is obviously why we all believe the planners and Councillors aren't listening to us! Its because they are all so tied up with regulation and red tape that they can't. This is where we need to look! We must somehow get rid of this chess game-it does us no favours and it allows people to manipulate the system. The basic rights and wrongs are forgotten in place of process driven rubbish! Today Joe Public has spoken and been listened to. The council have stepped out of the box and haven't been swayed by fancy words and big business. They have done the right thing! I hope that this is the final chapter-but if its not-trust me-we will go on! We will continue to fight-against the odds-until the day is finally won for good!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Remembering. Dangerous? Disrespectful? Disappointing?

From being a child and hearing stories of sacrifice, bravery and loss during World War 1 I have been keyed into the "culture" of remembrance. My Granddad's tinted photograph of him on his cavalry mount, with his medals in the frame, was ever present. I was magnetically drawn to it. A brave soldier in times long ago-it seemed to me and even at six I was history mad. Ben Cowan left the world three months after I entered. I don't have any real memory of him but my dad, Nannie and aunts kept his memory alive with stories-so much so I almost believed I knew him.

I recall hearing the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia on the radio when I was about six. Oddly, I felt sad and the music made me think of Granddad. I don't know if this was subconscious but I later discovered he had served in Palestine and had actually seen TE Lawrence. He had spent 1914-18 on the Somme and then was deployed to the Holy Land where he remained until 1919. He was finally shipped out ill with malaria and dysentery. 

That connection with Granddad continued-I was shown a memorial at Barrow Railway Station-there was another Cowan. William Cowan Border Regiment it said. He was Granddad's brother and had worked for Furness Railway, like Granddad. He had been killed in 1917. Later I discovered another brother (he was one of 12 siblings), Bob, had died in 1916 on the 5th day of the Battle of the Somme. These ghostly figures-wafted in and out of my consciousness, only to be remembered when I had to undertake a project in 1st Year at the Grammar School on World War 1. 
Ben Cowan 4/7 Dragoons

This time information and a picture came from my aunt. Another brother lost to the conflict. This time my Nannie's. I became fascinated in my family tree and this young man Gunner John Wilkinson began to grow in my mind.Many years later I finally managed to piece together more and more information about all three and my sister treated me to a War Graves trip for my 40th birthday.

I began to understand why my usually tough dad cried at the Remembrance services and always wore a poppy. The gap between the generations narrowed. These "boys" were no longer ethereal shadows, they took on form and reality and their lives blossomed into proper biographies. As I stood next to the graves at Wimeraux, Faubourg d'Amiens and at the Thiepval Monument (Bob had not been found) their short lives resonated.  I had two boys of my own-how would I have coped with them not coming back from war? How would I have watched them go in the first place? Then, looking at the thousands of graves stretching across France, how many other mothers must have suffered just like my great grandmother? Suddenly, the impact hit and I could see the vast enormity and horror of what had happened so long ago.
William Cowan 1st Border Regiment
This experience was life changing for me and I have tried to pass it onto my own children. Its a vain hope that we can learn from this fairly recent history-after all 100 years in terms of family isn't that long. It can be easily dismissed if one doesn't know the human stories and trivialised and it seems to me its our responsibility to tell those stories to our children. I shared Michael Morpurgo's War Horse and Private Peaceful with pupils and we read the account of the Christmas Truce of 1914... all a little dramatic and sentimental. All a bit overblown and heart rending. But dangerous? Disrespectful? I don't think so. They were aimed at inspiring an emotional response, yes even sentimental, but not in a bad way. Yet the new Sainsbury's advert has been attacked for just those reasons-and of course because of the commercial purpose of an advert.
Gunner John Wilkinson RGA

Personally, I think we have to use every means possible to engage children and the general public. We want them to empathise and understand. In these days of horrific brutality and constant conflict people are almost desensitized and if this advert and the Tower poppies allow people to step back and say "Wow! I didn't realise how many died" or think "I won't vote for any government who implements an illegal war" then I don't care how schmaltzy or sentimental the means are. These things are memorable and make an impact. Its easy for commentators to declare that these things "beautify" or "trivialise" I don't believe they are right.
Bob Cowan 8th Border Regiment
Yes Sainsburys has made an advert. Yes theyre making money. But they are donating money to Royal British Legion! They are drawing attention to a relevant piece of history. I think people are missing the point! Its all meant to leave a bad taste in the mouth and its meant to play with the emotions! Its horrific to think human beings can put aside difference for a moment and then return to killing! Its poignant because its underlining this aspect of our very flawed nature! It also brings the devastation and futility of war to a new generation of people who connect with youtube videos. Maybe it will give people pause for thought...
"Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people living life in peace"