Friday, 29 November 2013

Bean casserole made easy

This is my mother's recipe. It looks a rather muddy mess, but is actually very tasty!

Serves 2 good helpings

400 gm tin of butter-beans
400 gm tin of tomatoes
8 or more dried apricots
1 onion, grated or chopped
2 bay-leaves
1 full teaspoon of Marmite
Salt and pepper

Mix all the ingredients together the night before, cover and leave to stand, so that the apricots can absorb the flavour. Add more liquid the next day if necessary. Cook in the oven for one hour at 180 degrees.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Gunpowder Plot in Staffordshire

Many people know that most of the Gunpowder Plotters were killed or captured at Holbeach House, near Dudley, in south Staffordshire. But what were they doing there? This essay attempts to answer that question.
This famous engraving shows eight of the plotters: Robert Catesby, who was the leader and inspiration of the enterprise, Thomas Percy, Guido Fawkes (who at this stage of his life did not answer to the name "Guy"), the two sets of brothers, John and Christopher Wright and Robert and Thomas Winter (more properly, "Wintour"), and Bates. Four other major plotters are missing from the picture: Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby.
    What had these men got in common? They were all Catholics, driven, as they saw it, to desperate measures because King James I, who had seemingly promised to relax the penal laws against Catholics, had now reverted to strict enforcement. (At that time, ruinous fines were imposed on anyone refusing to attend Church of England services, and any Catholic priests who were caught were liable to be tortured for information and then executed). Of the twelve men, Guido Fawkes, a Yorkshireman, had been a mercenary soldier in the Spanish service, Thomas Percy was a relative and dependent of a great nobleman, the Earl of Northumberland, and Thomas Bates was Percy's servant, which is why he was only given a surname in the picture, and was depicted without a hat. The other nine were all landowning gentry, mostly with property in the Midlands, related to each other by a complex network of marriages between the old Catholic families. They were mostly in their mid-thirties, though Digby was ten years younger than the others.

Everyone knows the story of how the plot to blow up Parliament was betrayed to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic nobleman (probably by Tresham), how Monteagle then passed the message on to the King and his chief minister, Robert Cecil (who must surely already have known that something was going on), and how Fawkes was discovered with the stock of gunpowder around midnight on November 4th /5th, 1605. But the blowing-up of Parliament was only to be part of the plot. Some of the plotters were waiting at Dunchurch, near Rugby. It was hoped that the explosion would kill not only King James but also his heir, Henry, Prince of Wales, and perhaps even his four-year-old younger son, Charles (later King Charles I). This would leave as heir to the throne James's daughter, Princess Elizabeth: just nine years old, but already with her own miniature court at Coombe Abbey, nine miles away from Dunchurch. With James and his sons dead, the plotters intended to kidnap Elizabeth, proclaim her as Queen and bring her up a Catholic. They hoped to spark off a mass rising of English Catholics, and maybe also foreign intervention by Spanish troops. All this was, to say the least, highly optimistic. Any priests who got to hear of the plot were horrified and urged its abandonment, the Pope favoured conciliation with England, and King James and Philip III of Spain were beginning to negotiate the peace treaty which they both wanted.

When the plotters learned of the arrest of Guido Fawkes they would have been well-advised to abandon all their plans and take cover, but many of them still hoped that part of the plot would succeed. They accordingly fled back to their power-base in the Midlands and seized war-horses from Warwick castle, and also a supply of gunpowder, in the hope of starting an armed rising. Not surprisingly, only a handful joined them, including John Grant, Henry Morgan and a Staffordshire landowner, Stephen Littleton. On November 8th most of the group were trapped at Holbeach House, Stephen Littleton's home, by 200 men under Sir Richard Walsh, the sheriff of Worcester. In the fighting Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers were killed and Thomas Winter, Rookwood, Grant and Morgan were wounded. The others were captured individually over the next few weeks. Meanwhile Guido Fawkes, after savage torture, had revealed most of the details of the plot. Francis Tresham died in the Tower of London of a urinary infection two days before Christmas.

After a treason trial at which they were not permitted any defence lawyers, the surviving plotters were sentenced to the full penalty for traitors, which was execution by hanging, drawing and quartering. Accordingly on January 30th 1606, Digby, Grant, Bates and Robert Winter were dragged by sledge to St Paul's churchyard and, one by one, partially strangled on a rope, then, whilst still alive, castrated, disembowelled and chopped into pieces. The next day Fawkes, Thomas Winter, Keyes and Rookwood suffered the same fate at Old Palace Yard next to the Houses of Parliament (not, of course, the present building!) There were other executions in different parts of the country: Stephen Littleton and Henry Morgan being executed in Stafford.

Holbeach House still stands: it is now a care home.

There is a final ironic twist to the story. Little Princess Elizabeth, who was intended to be the plotters' puppet ruler, of course never did become Queen. When she grew up she married a German Protestant prince: Frederick, Elector Palatine. In 1714 her grandson became King of England as George I, thus ensuring a Protestant succession to the throne. All later British monarchs are descended from her.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Shrewsbury panorama

We have recently moved to Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. The old part of the town lies within a loop of the river Severn, and includes a tangle of alley-ways with very strange names: Grope Lane, the Dogpole, even the Pig-Trough!

This is the view from Shrewsbury school. The buildings in the foreground are the school boat-houses. Across the river are, from left to right: St. Chad's, the redbrick tower of the modern market hall, the spires of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Alkmund's, and the tower of St. Julian's. St. Chad's was built by George Steuart in the 1790s. St. Mary the Virgin has some exceptionally fine late-mediaeval stained glass  The Abbey is off the picture to the right.

Between St.Chad's and the river is a particularly charming place: a formal garden in in old quarry, known as the Dingle.

The centre of the town is The Square, with its mediaeval market hall.


This is the old Grammar School, built in the early 17th century; now the town library. The statue in front is Charles Darwin, the school's most famous former pupil. Others include the Elizabethan poet-statesman Sir Philip Sidney, and, less happily, the dreaded Judge Jeffreys from James II's reign.

    (See also: a later post on Shrewsbury black & white buildings)

Friday, 1 November 2013

A Third World Slum

In 1984 I went on a trip to the Soviet Union, which as well as taking us to Moscow and Leningrad also included crossing the Caucasus mountains down to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. I have written a full account of the trip on an earlier blog entry, and I want to focus here on just one aspect.

 In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, I had my first and only experience of observing an actual Third World slum. We were amazed to find that our hotel, which was a very large new building, backed onto a slum; a revolting area of little cabins made of bits of board and corrugated iron, packed together all higgledy-piggledy and housing several hundred people. There were television aerials and even a few cars amidst the squalor, but I also saw large rats foraging in broad daylight.

These are a couple of photos I took from the hotel, one being the view from my room.

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Apart from the slums, there were few old buildings in Yerevan. The pride of the city was clearly the new football stadium just down the road from our hotel: the home of Yerevan Ararat, one of the best teams in the USSR.
      It was the sight of the slums in Yerevan which sparked off the most discussion in our party. The whole lot could have been cleared away for the cost of building our hotel, and the new football stadium must have cost millions. So why were the slums still there? Of course, it is likely that before the war Yerevan was ALL slum, and that the rehousing done so far was actually an impressive achievement. I suspected there just weren’t enough civil engineers in the Soviet Union assigned to such projects. The building sites we saw in the other trans-Caucasian cities, Tbilisi and Baku, were primitive operations which would have horrified any British bricklayer. There were no wheelbarrows on site, the scaffolding looked most unsafe, and some of the ladders were just bits of wood nailed together. We were all surprised that the authorities had given so little thought as to what the tourists would make of the squalor staring them in the face.

 I was saddened how fast the tourists fell into an entirely patronising attitude towards the slum-dwellers, on the general theme of, “Well, we wouldn’t like to live there, but the people seem happy enough, and they probably prefer it to living in blocks of flats”. (this view, interestingly enough, was expressed in these very words by an East German.) Judging by the extreme grottiness of the flats we saw under construction, I could understand people not wanting to live in them, but those slums were a plain and simple health hazard, and should have gone long ago. Besides, refraining from demolishing slums on the grounds that the inhabitants still want to live in them was hardly the approach one would expect from the Soviet planning authorities! I was more convinced than ever that the Soviet Union was a very inefficiently run country, still escaping from ancestral poverty and backwardness, and that trying to conceal this not-too-disgraceful fact was the cause of a great deal of pretense and dishonesty. Long before the end of the tour, we were starting to laugh at the latest display of incompetence, though a French lady in the group kept exclaiming “Oh! What a country!” in a tone of despair.

The Soviet Union disintegrated six years after our visit. Perhaps our experiences should have led us to anticipate this, but we proved no more prescient than the professional commentators. Whether the collapse of the U.S.S.R. really benefited the Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus might be questioned, because there has been endemic warfare there ever since. Whether the Yerevan slums are still there, I do not know.