As it is Thanksgiving in Canada today, it is a good time to remember the achievement of connecting Europe with North America through cable technology. The small Newfoundland town of Hearts’s Content was the location of the emergence of the cable from under the sea all the way across the Atlantic from Ireland.
The cable was laid in 1866 and in arriving in this small place on Bay de Verde, Newfoundland it turned the village into a unique community. Most places along the coast were fishing villages but the people who came to work and live here worked in communications. People came from across Canada and England to work in the hub on the route from Britain to the United States of America.
In 2017, artist Padraig Tarrant created twin sculptures, one for Valentia Island, Ireland where the cable entered the sea and the other for Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada. I got to see the Canadian version weeks after it was unveiled but still need to make it to Valentia Island to see the companion piece.
I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship. He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade. Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem. What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war. What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.
The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative. We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances? Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor. They should not meet except in battle but they do.
Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides. With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam. The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.
The rooms may have been elegant, full of beautiful objects and of huge historical importance but I was most impressed by the corridors of Osborne House. The bronze statues were great with Fredinand Barbedienne’s statue of Silenus and the infant Bacchus a favourite. This was a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria.
The head of Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia fascinated me. I read Elizabeth Laird’s fictionalised life of the young boy who was taken into exile by the British when the empire was at its height. Yet again we have a young man, supposedly taken under the wing of the Queen when he should have been ruling in his own country. In this case the bronze by Francis John Williamson was commissioned by Victoria after the death of the prince at a young age.
To be surrounded with such opulence must be an assault on the senses but maybe you stop seeing them after a while.
Walking through Osborne House recently, I was impressed by the number of art works that were gifts from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria, bought by the Queen or, as is the case with this picture, commissioned by Prince Albert.
‘Cardinal Wolsey at the Gate of Leicester Abbey’ was painted for the Prince by Charles West Cope. It depicts the downfall of the once powerful Cardinal who was Henry the Eighth’s right hand man until he fell from grace. He was ordered back to London and passed through Leicester on his way. The painting shows the diminished health and status of the man.
The painting is dated 1847 and it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1848.
In (or on) the Isle of Wight so I visited Osborne House for the first time in about thirty years. I remember parts of my previous visit but did not remember the Durbar room, the most impressive addition to the house in Queen Victoria’s time!
I was on the lookout for the portrait of Duleep Singh having read the novel based on his life by Navtej Sarna. The location of this painting by Winterhalter is significant as the boy Maharajah was taken under the wing of the Queen when he was taken away from the Punjab and his mother at the age of ten.
The painting was commissioned by Victoria using the services of German artist Franz Xaver Wintherhalter, a court painter who worked for European royalty. This work is dated 1854.
Surrounding the portrait were other paintings of Indian people, mostly men, collected or commissioned by the Queen for her house. Her status as Empress of India is reflected by the fact that India came to her; she never visited India herself. There are princes, military types and servants represented here with little differentiation by rank. Their position is all due to ethnicity.
As is usual on visits such as this, I came away wanting to know more about the unsung parts of history. The painting of the man with the long hair was intriguing because he was shared a name with Duleep Singh. Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh was his son and the godson of the Queen. It was painted by Sydney Prior Hall and presented to the Queen by Duleep Singh at Christmas 1879. Apparently, Her Majesty was much taken with the boy’s long hair but he had been given a short back and sides before attending school. The painting was created with the help of a photograph that had been taken of him before his hair cut.
The poem by Auden about the work (and supposed attitude) of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man given the task of dividing India into two new countries, seems somewhat harsh in light of the history books that suggest that he was a man brought low by the task and the repercussions. He famously refused his fee.
I am unclear about the date this poem was written so cannot tell what the prevailing mood was about the man and his task.
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
W H Auden