Bristol Byzantine

Bristol has been an important city and port for centuries but in earlier times there had been a problem with tides, that ships would be stuck waiting for the tide to be at the right height in the deep natural harbour… however in 1809 a floating harbour was created – for a while I stupidly misunderstood her term; of course it means a harbour in which ships could float. 80 acres of tidal river was used to create the harbour which enabled ships to remain afloat all the time.

This led to an absolute boom in shipping, trade and commerce for the city; once the Great Western Railway was established thanks to the giant of nineteenth century industrial architecture and engineering, Brunel the city expanded beyond any expectation. This was reflected in the buildings from the time which had a certain style, with Byzantine, Moorish and Venetian style of architectural design of many commercial buildings such as warehouses and factories. The style is very distinctive, described as “robust and simple” and using bricks with bold distinct colours, particularly red, yellow,  black and white brick. Sometimes the style included archways and upper floors which had a particular of horizontal or vertical arrangement windows.

Architects and influences of this style included Richard Shackleton Pope,  William Venn Gough, Archibald Ponton, and John Addington Symonds .  Sir John Summerson may have been the person who named this distinctive Bristolian building style, and it perfectly describes the elegant and handsome buildings s you can still see today.



Roberto Bolaño… Roberto Bolaño was a Chilean writer who died not that long ago in 2003, at the early age of only fifty. I first came across him when I saw in a number of bookshops, his novel 2666. Eventually I bought it in Belfast Airport, and eventually I got round to reading it. I say eventually because it’s a huge book, more than nine hundred pages long. It was published in 2004 in England, the year after his death.

I started 2666 and found it was addictive; despite its length and complexity, its multitude of characters and narrators, its settings ranging across the world and across time, it was so gripping, that I had to tear myself away from it to eat, sleep, work. A fantastic book; I’ve never read anything like it… its end was a mystery but somehow the right ending for such a masterpiece… I only later discovered that the end was where he had stopped writing and in fact it was unfinished!

Last time we met for my Sunday book club at Waterstones, I happened to mention Bolaño. Obviously it’s too much to expect 2666 to be a book club choice, but we decided to read another novel by him. There were extremely disturbing and violent scenes in 2666, and it suddenly occurred to me that there might be similar scenes in his other books… I had started to read ‘The Savage detectives’ based on an actual incident in his life but had found it too disturbing and violent…

The novel we chose was quite short, it was ‘Monsieur Pain’… the title in English is ambiguous because of course although ‘pain’ is French for bread, ‘pain’ in English means something completely different.

it is only a short novel and is set in Paris in 1938; Pierre Pain, the main character is a mesmerist and acupuncturist and he is asked by a friend of his to visit  the husband of a friend of hers who is seriously ill and at death’s door with a severe and prolonged case of hiccups. The husband is César Vallejo, who was an actual person, a very famous Chilean poet. In Bolaño’s novel Vallejo dies, as he actually did in 1938 – but of an unknown illness… not necessarily hiccups.

I can’t begin to explain Monsieur Pain; it is like entering someone else’s dream, or seeing a movie in a foreign language, a movie which has some reels missing and is viewed through a haze of mystery. it is wonderfully written, and beautifully translated, totally mysterious, utterly captivating, gripping… I think I might have to read it again to find out what it’s all about… or just to enjoy it again… enjoy…. actually enjoy is maybe the wrong word because it is a strange and rather weird book.

I look forward to hearing what my book club friends have to say!



I am doing a MOOC, massive open on-line course, about Portus, the port which served Rome built by the Emperor Claudius – well, he commissioned it to be built, he wasn’t there with a shovel digging out the basin, or laying the bricks for the buildings and warehouses. Bricks… I first wrote about bricks and brick-making in ‘Radwinter’ my genealogical mystery. Thomas, the main character, found that several of his ancestors had been involved in the brick trade, making them in the big factories serving the Victorian building trade which was so busy during the boom years of industrial expansion.

One of his ancestors, Robert Radwinter, started as a boy labouring in the local brickworks, but later he moved up and eventually became a manager. Here is an excerpt:

Perhaps at Robert’s age of thirty-three it wasn’t surprising that he had married, to Fanny Collins, and he now had a family, four little girls, and a boy, and he was still in brick making. I deviated slightly to look at the history of brick making… obviously it was an occupation that was thousands of years old, and was pretty much the same until the middle of the nineteenth century… which tied in with my family. As with many industries, over the centuries brick making had been small scale, just a couple of men, digging the clay, forming it into bricks, usually by forcing it into moulds of some sort, letting it dry, baking it in a kiln. There was a site I found which simply describes the process and how things changed, including the different kilns which were developed to be more efficient, hotter, safer:

Apparently, as well as there being brick works as we would understand them, settled in one place, there were smaller works set up where there was a lot of building going on. Castair had been a bit of a boom town in the nineteenth century… I wondered why Blechingley had so many workers connected to bricks.

There was an interesting piece of information which linked the improvement in sanitation and the clearance of many of the city slums, to the huge surge in brick-making. It boomed through the 1880’s and into the twentieth century. Clay was vital to the industry, and the sophisticated railway system and improved roads aided the efficient delivery of the raw materials in, and the finished bricks out.

Robert had moved and was living on the far side of Castair in Bunstead, which was now a ‘new town’ with masses of new housing… all made of bricks… Robert would have been busy if he’d still been here.

He was still married to Fanny (now there is a name which has dropped totally out of fashion and I cannot imagine it ever reviving) and his daughters were Mary, Jane, Annie and Susan, his son was William …

We went to the brick museum in Bridgwater as part of my research, a small place but very interesting, and my featured image is looking down the River Parrett towards it..

Read Thomas’s story here:


Being born and brought up in Cambridge meant it was inevitable that we should have bicycles as our main form of transport. As a family we didn’t have a car until I was about seven or eight years old, and even then for everyday travel around the city we used our bikes.

One of my earliest memories is being on my dad’s bike, on a little seat which was somehow fixed on so I sat beneath his knees, my sister in a similar position on my mum’s bike. We were cycling to Histon for some reason… maybe it was just a nice day and mum and dad wanted to take us out. As we cycled along (on a road which has long since vanished, victim to modern transport needs) my dad pointed up into the trees above, and there was a red squirrel. I don’t suppose there are any red squirrels in Cambridge any more.

When I went to secondary school, after the first year I always cycled, four miles there, four miles home. we went to the swimming club on our bikes, to the training sessions at the pool and at a gym. I cycled round my paper round, we went just everywhere on our bikes… as did most other people.

We must have had an essay to write which we then read out to the class, because I remember my friend Maaike reading out her description of the undergrads who always wore gowns in those days, riding their bikes like so many crows, flapping their black wings.

My featured image is taken in Cambridge’s rival city, Oxford… but there are bikes!


Out of the earth

I have finished reading Constance Babington Smith’s biography of John Masefield, and although I struggled with the style and her way of writing, it is a masterful book and  furnishes a great deal of information about John, or Jack or Jan as he was called by friends and family. He wrote his sonnets when he was still a young man, but a man who had endured and experienced much more than most. I knew he was orphaned when young, his mother dying after giving birth to his youngest sister, his father two years later probably from the grief which affected his health; I knew that John had been then given into the care of his uncle and his wife, but I didn’t know what a harsh and uncaring woman his Aunt Kate was.

I knew that he had been sent to a naval training ship but I didn’t realise that hard though it had been, he had in a way enjoyed it and certainly learned much, about himself as much as anything. Although I knew he had gone to sea, nothing I had read had given me insight into what he endured on the sailing ship he was on for months, going round Cape Horn.

The more I read about him, the more I admire him.


The other form of Living does not stir;
Where the seed chances there it roots and grows,
To suck what makes the lily or the fir
Out of the earth and from the air that blows.
Great power of Will that little thing the seed
Has, all alone in earth, to plan the tree,
And, though the mud oppresses, to succeed,
And put out branches where the birds may be.
Then the wind blows it, but the bending boughs
Exult like billows, and their million green
Drink the all-living sunlight in carouse,
Like dainty harts where forest wells are clean.
While it, the central plant, which looks o’er miles,
Draws milk from the earth’s breast, and sways, and smiles.

Another quiz

Tuesday night is Dolphin quiz night, Thursday night is Ship quiz night – one village, two pubs, two completely different quizzes! Tonight we went to a different venue, one of Uphill’s two cricket clubs, Weston, for the squash club quiz… does that sound complicated?

This quiz, organized by our neighbour Graham and our friend Manchu who also produced and read the questions, was to raise money for the squash club for some new equipment. There were five – yes five rounds (the Dolphin has two of twenty-five questions each) of twenty questions (the Ship also has five rounds, but one is a picture round, one is a music round, of between ten and fifteen questions.Tonight there were a hundred questions… so a tough quiz!! Halfway through there was a lovely buffet so we were able to revive ourselves.

Because my husband and i have a bit of a reputation as keen quizzers we were split up, and were in teams apart from each other. The questions were totally random, and our teams were neck and neck… in the first round they were ahead by two points, after the second we were level pegging, then we raced ahead by four points. They caught us up… why did we give an answer of Alice Cooper when it was Marilyn Manson? Why did we say Tottenham Hotspurs not Arsenal? Why did we not know which two French words made Velcro? If only… the other team beat us… by one point!

As second placed we received a money prize, which we donated to the squash club for their equipment; my husband’s team won a bottle of wine each… which I obviously get to share!

A great night out!



How to clean your knives

img039 (2)If you have a knife which needs cleaning, what you need is a “Sun” knife cleaner. As you can see from this charming advert, your kitchen maid will be able to use this economic, efficient and rapid machine, made from cast iron, steel and leather and clean your knives to perfection!

In order to use the machine you had to have knife powder, made by Sun, of course, and the knives were polished between two leather discs, which apparently were of such quality that they would last several years.

The machine must be screwed or clamped firmly to a dresser or shelf. Hold the handle of the knife firmly in the left hand and insert the point of the blade with its edge downwards between the two leather discs and under the iron bar on the left of the Machine. Turn the handle with the right hand while pushing the blade of the knife straight in, slowly right up to the shoulder, then withdraw the knife straight out and slowly while still turning the handle with the right hand. The powder is supplied in small quantities through the hole in the front spring. It is important to remember the blade is cleaned while being pushed in and drawn out of the Machine, and the edge of the blade should be down and the blade pressed in with its point slightly downwards. great speed can be attained with a little practice.

We might find it amusing that knife cleaning was of such importance, and wonder why they couldn’t just be washed. This advert dates from about the 1880’s and at that time cleaning tableware and cutlery took up a lot of time, not just for housewives but for the many servants, especially in larger households. Even fairly modest homes might have a silver dinner service, and wealthier           families might have had as many as twenty 20 place settings. In the kitchens, the maids would have used hot water and soap but before the advent of stainless steel,it could well be a tough job to remove stains and marks. How delighted they must have been when ‘the mistress’ invested in a “Sun” knife cleaner!