ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Dreams and goals”

The death of democracy as we know it?

Rarely do I post about other things than history, but for once I’m going to go a bit political on you. Bear with me – and if you don’t, welcome back in 2017 when one of my first posts will be about a medieval Spanish king and his passionate love for a woman who probably never existed. 

In the very distant past, the Ancient Greeks pioneered an innovative approach to ruling their world. In the city state of Athens, all citizens (and we need not complicate things by discussing who were and who weren’t citizens) had an equal say in who should lead their city. Political campaigns were run to collect votes for this or that candidate, and on many issues the citizens voted directly – as is still done in the Swiss cantons.

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Such democracy requires that a) the people with the right to vote exercise this right b) that the voters inform themselves as to the alternatives. It also requires an element of altruism, in that those that have need to recognise that in a democracy they might be required to share their wealth. After all, if you offer universal suffrage, somewhere along the line the impoverished voters will feel entitled to tax to their benefit, i.e. higher taxes on those that can afford it to pay for—as an example—public schooling. Which in turn leads to higher level of education, more wealth, more political interaction. Welcome to the welfare state, people!

If we’re going to be really, really drastic, we could argue that democracy in itself is a precursor to a milder form of socialism, creating a society in which the downtrodden can aspire to better lives than their parents, a society in which the gap between the minority very-very-rich and the majority not-at-all-rich is not quite as huge as it presently is in various democratic countries. Obviously, those who belong to the very-very-rich don’t always embrace this development. Therefore, the very-very-rich (and the closely related “establishment”) don’t always have a vested interest in pushing people to exercise their voting rights—rather the reverse, actually. And seeing as the poor and weak are often too poor and weak to fight for their own rights, you end up in situations where a substantial minority of all voters don’t vote. It’s too much of an effort to register, it takes too much time, thereby denting income.

Once the voter has claimed the right to exercise the right to vote, it is time to inform oneself. I imagine in Ancient Athens this was a question of going to debates, of listening and asking questions of the various candidates. In our modern democratic world, information was until recently gathered through reading newspapers. These days, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to read lengthy articles debating various sides of complex issues. No, today voters are happily misinformed by going for the simplified social media versions—of everything.

The problem with such information is that it is rarely complete. Or true. From the perspective of a future democratic world, 2016 has not been a good year. It is a year in which flagrant untruths have been blatantly used to garner votes – and even worse, the voters have swallowed these falsehoods. Why? Because they haven’t done their homework – or they don’t care. They have allowed themselves to be misinformed and are thereby not taking their duties as voters seriously.

Take, for example, the debate preceding Brexit in the UK. Those who represented the leave side happily spouted lie after lie – starting with the huge lie re how much money they were going to channel to the NHS (The UK National Health System) once the UK was freed of the chains of slavery binding it to the EU. When people objected to these lies, they were waved off as “experts” – and who on earth wanted to listen to an expert? Er…

It is symptomatic of just how uninformed the UK voters were that on the day AFTER the election – i.e. when it was already too late – the single most googled term in the UK was “what is the European Union”? Bravo, dear voters: you really did your homework, didn’t you?

Whether or not leaving the EU will be good or bad for the UK remains to be seen. And maybe the result would have been the same even if the voters had read up on the facts beforehand. What worries me is how the debate was run, just how blatantly some of the so-called leaders lied – and how gullibly the voters sucked it all up. If voters can’t be bothered to truly inform themselves about something as important as leaving a union which has as its prime purpose to safeguard peace and democracy in Europe, it doesn’t bode well for the future. If voters decide to ignore the “experts” in favour of the populists, then the voters are not living up to their side of the bargain, which is to exercise their vote AFTER they’ve informed themselves. Not the other way around.

After Brexit came the presidential election in the US. Yet another example of one lie atop another, with one of the candidates making sweeping (and untrue) statements about everything from crime rates among immigrants to President Obama’s citizenship. One long, endless string of lies, and most of them were easy to fact-check—but the voters chose not to. Instead, the voters elected Mr Trump, who had he been a wooden doll would have had a nose long enough to scratch at the moon.

In both the Brexit election and the US Presidential election, truth was clearly unimportant. People, it seemed, didn’t care about the lies. Some of these lies went on to become “truths” simply by being repeated so often. Some UK citizens seemed to truly believe the EU ran their country. It doesn’t. The UK is governed by its government and its Parliament. Always has been. In Mr Trump’s case, it became a truth that 17 million illegal immigrants had to be deported, seeing as they were more or less single-handedly responsible for crime in the US. Er…It was also a truth that Ms Clinton was going to jail should Mr Trump win. Er…Plus, of course, it is a “truth” that Mr Trump won an unprecedented victory. He didn’t. Ms Clinton won the popular vote with close to 3 million votes.

Even worse, both the US election and the Brexit debate quickly degenerated into a “we vs them” discussion. “We” were the group presently being addressed – “them” all the others. “We” were the victims, “them” the perpetrators of everything from globalisation to increased violence. Often, “them” were Muslims. Or immigrants. Defining immigrants as “them” in a country like the US is preposterous, as ALL Americans, bar the Native Americans, are per definition immigrants. That is what has made the US into the strong, vibrant country it is. Embracing diversity is what makes a country great, people. And yes, welcoming immigrants and refugees comes with huge challenges, but blaming them for everything that is wrong is not exactly the way to handle it, is it?

The truly worrying thing about the “we and them” debate is that it can be tailored infinitely. In one discussion, the “them” are Muslims – all of whom are potential terrorists and should therefore be deported back to where they came from, no matter that they were born and bred in Leicester. In another, “them” are the LGTBQ community – after all, they’re not like the wholesome heterosexual “we” are they? Next step, “them” are the immoral little sluts who opt for an abortion rather than giving birth to an unwanted child. Scary stuff, people, especially when the voters no longer bother about informing themselves, thereby taking the statements made about “them” at face value.

So how could populists like Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump carry the day? Have voters become lazy? Stupid? Don’t they care about democracy anymore?

A democracy only works if it is built on an element of trust. I elect you to represent me and my interests – and if you don’t do that, I’ll not elect you next time. However, over time people have lost faith in their representatives – nor does there seem to be much difference between one party or the other. Which is why, I assume, only 50% of the US voters bother to vote.

In the US, Mr Trump picked up considerable votes among the white, formerly middle-class, voters who have seen their relative wealth eroded over the last few years and had little reason to believe the “establishment” would do anything to help them. After all, the establishment rarely does. Ironically, Mr Trump is a member of the privileged elite which rarely shows any inclination to share, so I’m not exactly holding my breath…

Maybe 2016 should be a wake-up call to all those who profess to believe in democracy – despite its inherent weaknesses. Maybe it is time to face up to the fact that in the perception of the voters, the politicians no longer serve the voters’ interests: they serve their own. Fertile ground for populists who exploit the disgruntled…

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Maybe it is time to remember that our forebears fought for the right to vote. To them, the principle of governing themselves was so important they were willing to risk imprisonment—even death—to defend it. In non-democratic countries throughout the world, people still fight for their right to make their voice heard, but we, the blasé citizens of the western world, we can’t really be bothered, can we? After all, being a responsible citizen in a democratic country requires more than surfing the internet and liking the odd post. Much, much more. Like getting off our backsides and going to vote – after we’ve informed ourselves. Mon Dieu, as the French would say. Let’s hope they say more than that next year, thereby relegating Marine le Pen and her non-inclusive, divisive politics to the margins of history.

All by herself

IMG_0182Early June is graduation time here in Sweden. We all go quite wild and crazy when it comes to high school graduation, which we call “studenten”. Back in the good old days, this graduation day was preceded by a sequence of horribly tough final exams. On the graduation day itself, the wannabee graduates had to survive the dreaded oral exams – randomly allocated in various subjects. If one pupil failed, the entire class bar the unfortunate who failed had to walk out of the school to their waiting families, silent and demure. If all passed, it was all wild high-fiving, loud singing and general capering about.

These days, we’ve done away with the exams. But the schoolyards are as thronged as they were back then with waiting relatives, proud mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts & uncles – you name it. The happy youngsters spill out into the school yard, they are swamped by well-wishers who decorate them with flowers, with miniature stuffed toys sporting the white graduation cap.

Swedish flags are everywhere. Music plays, and waiting by the schoolyard is an army of flatbed lorries – one per class – festooned with flowers and balloons, all of the equipped with a full sound system and giant loudspeakers.

The graduates – and if we’re going to be honest many of them are quite tipsy, seeing as they started the day with champagne and strawberries and haven’t really stopped imbibing since then – clamber atop the lorries. The music starts – different on each lorry, of course – and off they go to tour the city, dancing and singing.

Some hours later, and it is time for the family party. Mothers have been praying for days for good weather, seeing as 60 relatives is a bit of a strain if everyone has to remain indoors. Food, beer, champagne, wine, teary speeches, and it is all one huge hugfest. Assuming, of course, that one has someone to hug.

The other day I was out walking just as the lorries from a recently “released” school were on tour. (Each school has their day. My son’s graduation was the day before.) It was around five in the evening, the sun was shining and the blaring music made spectators stop and wave at the youngsters, most of us smiling as we recalled our graduation day, back in the foggy beginnings of time (well…) On the lorry, girls in white dresses (It’s always white dresses for the girls, navy suits for the boys) were jumping up and down while singing along to “I’ve got sunshine in my pocket”. They were young, they were free, and the world lay before them like a huge unopened oyster – full of potential with not a single disappointment in sight. Yet.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white cap. A girl, all angular limbs and a narrow straight back. Her fair hair was cut brutally – if becomingly – short. She had on a white dress. She was wearing the cap. But she wasn’t on the lorry, and she had no flowers hanging from her neck, no patches of pink excitement on her cheeks. She watched the people on the lorry, and something passed over her face. Her chin rose, her spine straightened. Her arms wound themselves around her waist. A little self-hug.

Clearly, no one had been waiting for her on the schoolyard. Probably, no one was waiting for her at home. She had chosen not to ride the lorries – or maybe she couldn’t afford to pay her share. Today, on the day when all young people celebrate together with family and friends, she was on her own. Just her, all by herself. My heart went out to her. I considered going up to her to give her a hug and congratulate her on finishing school, but I suppose being hugged by a stranger would, if anything, reinforce how lonely she was.

By then, she was already moving away. Her white cap caught the sun, her white dress billowed round her shapely figure. And then I saw her pull the cap off and stuff it into her bag instead. No longer conspicuous, she melted into the anonymous crowds. Where her contemporaries would remember this day as one of the best of their lives, chances are she’d prefer to forget it. After all, her graduation day was the day she realised just how utterly alone one can be among a throng of happy, cheering people. Even more so, when you’re supposed to be just as happy, just as cheering.

IMG_0174All of us experience moments in life when we feel lonely amidst a crowd, when we perceive ourselves to sit within a bubble of isolation, bobbing along with the rest without being truly a part of the whole. I just wish this unknown girl had not had such a moment on such a day. I also wish I had hugged her, reached out to her and made her visible.

So, dear anonymous girl, with your set jaw and your stiff spine, this is me raising a glass in your honour. May the world reveal itself in all its glory to you, may there be many, many future and wonderful tomorrows, days in which you may choose to be alone, but without feeling lonely and conspicuous.

I believe I can fly

Life was not a walk in the park in previous centuries. Unless you were born into the landed & wealthy classes, chances are you’d spend most of your life hand-to-mouth, earning today what you needed to survive today – and maybe half of tomorrow. Those of us enamoured of history tend to forget this, seeing as most historical reading focusses on those who did have, such as kings and nobles. Why? Because we know more about them than we do about little Dan who lived and died in the muddy alleys of medieval London, or Carmen who died at fifty-two after spending her entire life washing the rich folks’ linen in the scummy waters of the Guadalquivir.

Anyway; if you were poor and aspired to more, you had to be creative. If you dreamed of laying the world at your feet, you had to live on the razor’s edge, adding a titillating whiff of risk to your life. One such dreamer was Robert Cadman, born at the beginning of the 18th century. Our Robert was not among the poorer of his time. He had a profession – he was a steeplejack – and brought in good money when he was working. For those who don’t know, a steeplejack is a person who does not suffer from vertigo, seeing as these intrepid men clamber about on spires, towers – well, any buildings that rise towards lofty heights – to repair them or construct them.

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A not so tight rope…

People don’t build spires all the time, nor is there always a tower in need of maintenance and repair, so in between doing his real trade, Robert also did some rope-sliding, eg he was an early form of tight-rope artist, walking on a rope and performing various tricks several metres above the ground. By all accounts, he was good at this, earning good money with his shows, thereby supplementing his income.

Now, as any good entertainer will tell you, the crowds are a demanding task master. What had them going “ooo” and “aaa” one day, will have them yawning a few weeks down the line, so our Robert was always working on improving his show, a fine balancing act (see what I did here?) between adding more titillating risk without actually breaking his neck.

Icarus TurkRobert lived in Shrewsbury. In Shrewsbury there was a church with an impressively high spire, named St Mary. Robert was well acquainted with this spire, having been involved in repairs at some point or other. Now, if you were up on St Mary’s spire, you could see straight across the Severn to the meadows on the other side, and one day Robert had this great idea. He would tie one end of a rope to the top of St Mary’s spire, the other he would anchor to the ground on the meadows, and then he’d perform by walking up the rope – across the river. No one had ever done anything like this before in Shrewsbury, and people were suitably impressed when he carefully walked up the sloping rope, all the way to the top.

Mind you, he did this not only in Shrewsbury, but also in other towns he visited to repair a steeple or two. To vary his act, he did odd things like hanging from his feet (I imagine he flexed them) while talking to people twenty odd metres below him. A good act, was Robert Cadman, but after he’d done that like five times, people wanted more.

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Skeleton – a man w a deathwish? (1948, pic from Irish bobsleigh & skeleton foundation)

Robert thought about it for a while and ended up constructing something that looked like a wooden breastplate with a deep groove in it. Once he got to the top of the spire, he slotted the rope into the groove, placed himself on his belly, and proceeded to “fly” downwards along the rope. Sort of like airborne skeleton… (and as an aside, I simply cannot consider it a sport to lie down, head first, and throw yourself down icy slopes on a little sleigh. It’s more of a suicide mission.) Not only did this require quite some balancing so as not to fall off, but there was also the added risk of fire – the friction between rope and wooden breastplate generated quite some heat.

Robert was not the only man to do a flying act. There was a gentleman who performed in Hereford despite having a wooden leg, and stunts like these were popular on the continent as well. In fact, in Venice they’d been doing “spire climbing” since the 16th century, so nothing of what Robert did was truly innovative – but people loved it anyway.

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“I can do it, I can do it”

You see, earthbound man has always wanted to fly, so the audience expressing their delight with a sequence of “ooo”s and “aaa”s – no matter that they’d seen him do it before. Plus there was that titillating fact that Robert was risking his neck every time he did this (he refused a safety rope). I imagine Robert’s wife did not find it titillating – rather the reverse. Our steeplejack chuckled and told his wife not to worry. He knew exactly what he was doing, and while it looked dangerous, it wasn’t, seeing as the deep groove held the breastplate very steady. Besides, he added, they were raking in money. Yes, yes, they were, wife said, but she didn’t like it. “What if…”
“Shhh,” Robert said, placing a firm finger over her mouth. “No need to tempt fate, sweetheart.”

On a February day, 1739, Robert yet again affixed his ropes. His wife wove in and out of the assembled people, cap in hand to collect whatever coins they thought it worth to see a man defy death by hurtling towards the ground along a tautened rope. Robert was probably enough of a showman to take his time getting up to the spire, building some tension along the way, I imagine, by pretending to slip on the rope or something. The odd female spectator squeaked and hid her face against whatever male chest was available. The men laughed. Robert Cadman had done this before, they told their lady companions. Likely he’d go on doing it many years more, a man lucky enough – and brave enough – to experience some seconds of exhilirating flight.

At long last, Robert had reached the spire. I imagine him waving to the crowd below. Maybe he blew a kiss to his wife. Maybe. (I must learn to curb this romantic streak in me! Most probably he did not blow her a kiss. He was concentrating on his upcoming flight number.) As he had done numerous times before, he settled himself on the rope, ensuring the groove in the breastplate was properly in place before sliding off, downwards, towards the distant Gaye Meadows.

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Icarus tumbling from the skies (J P Gowy)

People cheered, Robert spread his arms for balance, looking verily like a bird. And then the rope snapped, and for some instants Robert did truly fly, soaring upwards for some instants before plunging helplessly towards the ground – and his death. As per early depictions of this tragedy he was “dashed to pieces” and his distraught wife rushed towards the heap of tangled, bloodied limbs that some seconds ago had been her breathing, living man. Now he was neither alive or breathing. Now he was dead, and she must have fallen to her knees beside him, not knowing quite where to touch him. His body would still have been warm. Maybe he twitched, and then he was truly gone, and his widow knelt beside him and wept, while the recently so rowdy crowd fell silent, the only sound that of more coins joining what Robert’s wife had already collected.

What became of Robert’s wife and children, we do not know. How they survived – if they survived -without his income, we do not know. All we know is that once upon a time, a young man dazzled his contemporaries with his daredevil ropesliding. Like Icarus, he aimed too high. Like Icarus, he plummeted to the ground and was no more.

On St Mary’s church in Shrewsbury there’s a commemorative plaque:

Let this small Monument record the name
of Cadman, and to future time proclaim
How by’n attempt to fly from this high spire
across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. ‘Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell,
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Harried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night
Feb.ry 2nd 1739 aged 28

Had it not been for that plaque, I would never have heard of Robert Cadman. In fact, had he not died as spectacularly as he did, we would never have known he existed, he’d just have been one among the many, many anonymous people who were born, lived, and died without leaving any trace behind – beyond their offspring. I’m thinking his wife would have preferred that scenario.

Legislating for toleration – an innovative approach

In the 17th century, people were very much defined by their faith. Europe had splintered into a Catholic part and a Protestant part, and being a Catholic in Protestant England was as uncomfortable as it was being a Protestant in Catholic Spain. In both cases, unfortunates could be submitted to gruelling interrogations and torture, as the presumption was that people were more loyal to their faith than to their country.

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His Restored Majesty

The Civil War in England added further divides to the issue of religion: being a Protestant was no longer enough, now one had to be the “right” sort of Protestant, which as per the Westminster Assembly in the 1640’s was to be a Presbyterian (the assembly was very influenced by the Scottish Kirk). Not a unanimous opinion, and once Charles II was safely restored, the only right Protestant was an Anglican, while Presbyterians were persecuted. The one thing Presbyterians and Anglicans had in common was their hatred of the Catholics, who ended up at the bottom of the dog pile no matter who was on top.

Not everyone was as narrow-minded as the various church representatives. Some (and I’d include Charles II here, despite the implementation of the Clarendon Code and all the suffering this unleashed on the members of the Scottish Kirk) felt faith was very much a personal issue, not something to be meddled in by the state. And one man decided to do something about all this persecution, sickened by what his co-religionists were subjected to. It helped that the man in question was a peer, filthy rich and endowed with a colony of his own…

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Cecil Calvert

Lord Cecilius Calvert was gifted with the colony of Maryland in 1632, this despite the loud protests from neighbouring Virginia. Calvert was a Catholic, and in retrospect it is rather amazing that he was given the colony, but Lord Calvert senior had always been a loyal servant of the crown, and Charles I held no major beef against Catholics – after all, he was married to one. Lord Calvert senior died before the grants came through, and so it was Cecilius who became first proprietor of Maryland.

Now a colony without colonists was not much good to anyone, and Calvert could not hope to populate his new lands only with Catholics. He needed intrepid settlers, no matter faith, and besides he was not all that convinced that there was any major difference between a Protestant and Catholic – after all, both believed in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Calvert therefore decided that in his colony everyone was welcome – as long as they held to one of the Trinitarian faiths.

This was a very novel approach. In Virginia, the powers that were preferred Anglican settlers, even if they received boatloads of deported Presbyterians as indentured workers. In Massachusetts, there was a clear preference for Puritan (Presbyterian) settlers. (To preempt any discussion about Puritans contra Presbyterians, let me just say that both are Calvinist creeds and that the influence of the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk on Puritan beliefs in the 17th century was huge) In fact, the approach was so novel that potential settlers hung back, not entirely sure they believed in this “religious freedom” nonsense.

Large_Broadside_on_the_Maryland_Toleration_ActTo reassure his colonists, Calvert decided to draft a piece of legislation, converting religious freedom into law. This text was named the Act of Toleration and was approved by the Maryland Assembly in 1649. This innovative piece of legislation included some of the first attempts to curtail hate speech, and would in the fullness of time serve as a blueprint for some of the wording in the First Amendment of the American Constitution – but that was yet in the future.

The English Civil War impacted the colonies as well, and Calvert lost control of his precious colony in the early 1650’s. One of the first things the representatives of the Commonwealth did was to repudiate the Act of Toleration in 1654, and the Puritan settlers took this as an invitation to attack their Catholic neighbours, submerging Maryland in religious violence.

Fortunately, Calvert very quickly regained control over his colony, and in 1658 the Act was passed yet again. This time, the Act of Toleration would remain in place until 1692, when in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution such fripperies as religious freedoms were firmly swept aside, forbidding Catholicism. Not, I fear, a development that made Lord Calvert all that happy, but by then he was safely in his grave, so maybe he didn’t care.

For the hero of The Graham Saga, Maryland beckons as a safe haven. Upon the restoration of Charles II, Matthew Graham finds himself in the very uncomfortable position of being persecuted for his faith and as the pressure increases he takes the decision to leave Scotland behind and find a new home for his family elsewhere. He chooses Maryland.

In the fourth book of the series, A Newfound Land, the Graham family is still struggling to find their feet in this new home of theirs. Settling virgin forest is not exactly easy, but at least they no longer need to fear persecution. And here, in Maryland, Matthew Graham can even dream of a future in which free men rule themselves. It helps, of course, that his time travelling wife Alex has told him this is what will happen – here, in Maryland, where many years later the Treaty of Paris will be signed, thereby formally recognising that a new country has been born – the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Below an excerpt from A Newfound Land in which Matthew tries to explain what the future will bring to his young son. Enjoy!

9781781321355-100dpiJacob had never ridden so far before, and by the time they made their way into Providence, three days after setting out, all he could think of was the sore, chafing skin along the crease of his buttocks and down the insides of his thighs. For three days he’d listened to Mr Leslie and Da while they discussed the latest incidents of burning and pillaging, and he could hear in Da’s voice that he wasn’t happy about leaving his own home unprotected to go and protect elsewhere.
“It’s them that provoke the Indians that should handle it themselves,” Da said at one point. “I’ve had no problems with them; none at all.”
Thomas Leslie agreed, saying that the colonists were in flagrant breach of the treaty lines, and he could understand that the Nanticote and Powhatan settlements were irritated by this encroachment.
“In Virginia in particular,” Mr Leslie said, “it’s not that long ago since Berkeley fought them to submission and signed treaties with them that are now being trampled underfoot.”
“Long enough.” Da smiled. “About the time you and I were fighting for the Commonwealth.”
Jacob listened avidly. Rarely did Da talk about the four years he had served in the Horse, and then mainly to bewail the futility of war or to tell them harshly that war was not about glory and honour; it was about blood and pain and being hungry and cold and wishing desperately to be back home with your mam. Needless to say, none of his sons believed him, and in secret they played out long battle sequences between Roundheads and Royalists, with Ruth and Sarah being roped in to add to the numbers.
“When we were both young men.” Mr Leslie twitched at the ancient buff leather jacket that strained over his middle despite the extra panels in it.
“Did you both serve in the Horse?” Jacob asked.
“Aye, but not in the same regiment.” Da twisted in his saddle towards Mr Leslie. “Did you ever meet him? The Protector?”
“Not as such, no. I saw him at the battle of Naseby, and once I saw him in London. And you?”
Da hitched his shoulders. “Nay, but then why would a man such as Oliver Cromwell notice an eager farmer’s lad with his head and heart full of convictions but nothing much else?”
Mr Leslie smiled. “It was people like that who changed it all – at least for a while. It was all those that burnt with these new ideas of self-governance and equality that achieved a time when England was not ruled by a king but by free men.”
“A very short period, all in all,” Da said.
“A precedent.” Thomas Leslie nodded. “And one day that precedent will be followed by others.”

“Do you think he’s right, Da?” Jacob asked later. It was a relief to be walking, not riding, and he hurried as best as he could to keep up with Da through the narrow streets of Providence.
“Who?” Da shortened his stride.
“Mr Leslie. Is he right when he says you all set a…a precedent with the Commonwealth?”
“Shh!” Da looked about before returning his attention to Jacob. “These are things you don’t discuss openly and never with people you don’t know and trust.”
“Sorry,” Jacob mumbled, allowing his thick hair to come down like a curtain before his face.
“Aye,” Da said some moments later, “I think he is. And it will all start here.”
“Here?” Jacob surveyed the small, nondescript town around him.
Da smiled and straightened up to his full height. “Aye, here. I won’t see it, you won’t see it, but mayhap your children, or at least your grandchildren. This is the cradle, and it’s already being set in motion.” He laughed and ruffled Jacob’s hair. “That’s what happens. Most people you see here have come on account of convictions, lad. They have come determined to build a new life for themselves, free of persecution and ancient constraints… There is no turning back the flood, and this particular tide will build until it one day washes away all vestiges of the old.” He peeked down at Jacob. “You didn’t follow, did you?”
Jacob shook his head ruefully. “No, I don’t understand. Not yet.”

Like mother, like daughter – sinful ladies in the 17th century

So here I was, believing our historical Swedish princesses had, for the most part, acted with utmost propriety. In fact, other than the (in)famous Cecilia Vasa (and I must admit to being very fond of this hell-raising, opinionated 16th century woman, as demonstrated by this post) I lived with the impression that the rest were boring and conventional. Turns out I was wrong – Swedish sin has its roots in the distant past.

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Christina

In a previous post, I presented Queen Christina of Sweden (more here), that enigmatic woman who became queen at six, abdicated her throne at twenty-eight and went on to strike terror in the heart of her Protestant countrymen by then converting to the Catholic faith. And no, dear people, you can relax. I am not about to give you a torrid love story starring Christina. (Although one wonders at times, about her infatuation with Cardinal Decio Azzolino – but that is an entirely different story)

As a child, Christina was fortunate enough to have her paternal aunt, Katarina of Sweden, looking out for her. Christina’s mother, Maria Eleonora, was not the most caring of parents (more here), and several were the occasions when Christina sported bruises from odd falls and “accidents”. When Christina was ten, the Swedish Privy Council decided Maria Eleonora’s influence was detrimental to Christina’s future role as ruling monarch, so the Queen Mother was forcibly separated from her daughter and sent off in exile. From that day on, Christina’s care passed to her aunt, and in one fell swoop Christina’s life became substantially happier.

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Karl Gustav

Katarina of Sweden had her own brood of children – Christina’s cousins. First and foremost, the dashing Karl Gustav …erm…well, Christina definitely found him dashing, but also Eleonora and Maria Eufrosyne, both of them of an age with Kristina. From being an only child, Christina had suddenly acquired siblings, and the three girls grew close, despite their disparate temperaments.

In the 17th century, women were not exactly given all that many options when it came to their adult lives. For Protestant girls of noble birth, there was only one alternative: to marry, and marry well. Up to the time of their marriage, the well-bred Protestant girl was expected to remain chaste – and this very much applied to Swedish princesses as no one wanted a repeat of the major scandal caused several decades earlier by Princess Cecilia of Sweden and her romping about with a young lordling.

Christina was never the type to do much romping, and as many of you know, she never married (she was fortunate enough to be a ruling queen, ergo she could take her own decisions). But she filled her court with musicians and poets, with extravagant masques and people from all over Europe. Elegant Frenchmen, passionate Italians, a handful of Spaniards, Germans, Swedish noblemen – they all attended on the young queen and her cousins.

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Eleonora

While Christina devoted her energies and considerable intellect to the secret study of Catholicism with her newfound Spanish friends, her cousin Eleonora was far more interested in the musicians – and in particular a talented French lute-player called Beschon. Hours were whiled away studying the gentleman’s various instruments, one thing led to the other, and our Eleonora was no longer chaste, instead she stole away to spend as much time as possible with her handsome lover.

Problem was, Eleonora was betrothed. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Already in 1643, Eleonora’s father had signed the contracts joining his seventeen-year-old daughter to Fredrik of Hessen-Eschwege, a.k.a. Fritz. Ironically enough, there had been concerns raised as to the prospective groom’s morals. The Privy Council concluded the man was flighty and possessed of a roving eye, but it was supposed he would settle down, and so the betrothal went through, albeit that the wedding was postponed until 1646.

In June of 1646, the marriage contracts were signed. Early in September, Eleonora was led to the altar by her father. Bye-bye romantic Beschon, hello and welcome Flighty Fritz. Whether the marriage started off badly is unknown, but in January of 1647 things definitely went down the drain. A weeping, penitent Eleonora kneeled before her husband and admitted she was pregnant – by another man. Oh dear, oh dear. That ancient hullabaloo concerning Princess Cecilia paled in comparison. Here we had a Swedish princess who had not only fooled about but also been stupid enough to become pregnant – with a lowly musician, no less!

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Fritz

Fritz forgave his errant wife – or so he said. But he told Karl Gustav the whole sorry tale and was ordered to shut up, because no one needed a major scandal, least of all Karl Gustav who was second in line to the Swedish throne should Christina die without issue. Whether Fritz did as he was told or not is unknown, but in a matter of weeks, “everyone” knew Eleonora had cuckolded her husband. The 17th century equivalent of Hello! and In Touch had a field day, and the Fritz-Eleonora marriage went on to become most unhappy, for all that she presented her husband with five legitimate children over as many years.

Beschon loved his Eleonora, and in February of 1647 he sent her a long letter and a composition dedicated to her. Why he did this is unclear. Was he hoping to convince her to leave her husband and steal away with him? Not about to happen – the scandal was bad enough as it was, and Eleonora had neither the means nor the opportunity to leave her humiliated husband. Beschon’s letter did not exactly make Fritz a happy man – which was why Eleonora promptly handed over the correspondence to her brother. As to the baby, it was born in late spring but died. In some ways a relief, I suspect, however grief-struck Eleonora was by the loss of her daughter.

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Karl XI as a child

In 1655, Fritz died in battle. By then Eleonora was living in present-day Germany, and she was too ashamed of her past to return to Sweden. Instead, she sent one of her daughters, Juliana, to be raised at the Swedish court. The little girl was considered a prospective bride for her cousin, the future Karl XI. Maybe Eleonora hoped to make good by becoming the mother-in-law of the king, maybe that was why she made it her mission to lead a life of virtue, devoid of any entertainment in the form of men. Eleonora never remarried, despite being not quite thirty when Fritz died…

In Sweden, pretty Juliana was a success, and her royal little cousin was clearly very fond of her. Could one hear wedding bells tolling in the future? Maybe, although a king’s marriage was a political rather than a personal event, and Juliana came with little in the way of power and wealth. Obviously, Juliana got tired of waiting – or maybe she didn’t fancy her younger, serious cousin. Whatever the case, Juliana looked elsewhere for fun and games.

One day, while out riding in a carriage with the Queen Mother, she rather abruptly gave birth to a son, the result of a liaison with an older nobleman. Major, major scandal. A lot of vicious gossip, along the lines of like mother, like daughter. Juliana and the baby were sent packing, and for several years Juliana languished on a country estate. I’m thinking Eleonora was less than pleased. In her new-found piety, I don’t think she found it in her to be supportive of her daughter, no matter that she herself had been as foolish a quarter of a century earlier.

Some years later, Juliana gave birth to yet another son, this time the result of a love affair with her housekeeper’s son, a certain Jean Jacques Marchand. From bad to worse, one could say – a princess (well, almost) rolling about in the hay with the Dutch ambassador’s clerk? What to do with this wild and wayward woman, how to control her lusts? In a Protestant country the option of sending Juliana to a convent did not exist, and the king couldn’t exactly lock her up for fornication.

Juliana herself knew exactly what she wanted: she wanted her clerk and nothing else. So she wheedled and begged, she prostrated herself before her dour cousin, and finally Karl XI agreed to the marriage. He even gave Mr Marchand a courtesy title (but no lands to go with it. Karl XI was a stingy fellow) before rushing the newlyweds off to their new homeland, the Netherlands.

By all accounts, Juliana and her husband were well received by William, Prince of Orange. He even gave them a nice little estate on which to live and raise their children. A much happier ending, therefore, to Juliana’s transgressions than to Eleonora’s. Or was it? As I hear it, Juliana died in penury, and while I am romantic enough to believe being poor and in love is much better than being rich and unhappy, the realist in me laughs herself silly at this ridiculous statement. Love does not go far when it comes to feeding hungry children…

And so dear people, this little post comes to an end. Is there a moral somewhere? No, I don’t think so – well, beyond concluding that love can be a bummer, no matter in what time and age. On the other hand, who wants a world without love? It makes us soar, it makes us high, and sometimes it makes us crash and burn, but no matter what, it makes us feel, it makes us live. As Tennyson so eloquently put it, “it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Smart guy, Mr Tennyson.

The Neanderthal within

The other day, I was out walking with second son. To do so, is not only physically exerting (we went on a long walk), but also intellectually challenging, as this boy of mine has been gifted with a vivid and mobile intellect that has him leap-frogging from discussions as to what exactly happened when Rome fell (an incorrect term, he points out, as it never actually fell, it sort of dissipated) to the fantastic opportunities offered by genetic algorithms (and no, I don’t really understand, but I’ve gathered this is a collective describing a situation where mathematicians develop multiple algorithms, “mate” them, and see what happens next, a mathematical application of Darwinism, if you will).

I must admit to letting my mind wander to other things when he goes too in depth. An adequate “mmm” or “really?” keeps him going while I consider just what to cook for dinner or if it is warm enough to prune the roses. Mostly, though, I listen and learn, rather impressed (and yes, I am biased) by the things he knows, and just how broad his interests are. So when he halfway through the walk brings up the Human Genome project I am not particularly surprised. Nor am I all that surprised when he follows up with an account of how the team behind the Human Genome Mapping approached mapping Neanderthal genome. Even I understand it must be quite the challenge to match the genome of an extinct species, and I am quite fascinated when second son describes how the Neanderthal tradition of eating the marrow of their dead was crucial to conserving their DNA. Turns out that bone sucked dry of marrow still retains some traces of marrow, but so little it dries more or less instantly, thereby bypassing the rotting stage that would contaminate the marrow with bacteria. (It is quite fascinating, isn’t it?)

Anyway, the conclusion of the whole genome thing was that essentially modern day man and the Neanderthals had a lot in common. Like 99,8% in common. Son points out that these “in common” discussions are a bit dangerous, as we actually have 50% of or so of our DNA in common with a banana, but rarely do we define ourselves as fruits. (Oops! The banana is NOT a fruit. Well hang on; yes it is, except it is also a herb. Almost as complicated as a human being…)

We went on to discuss why the Neanderthals died out, how come the shape of their chests were so different from ours (news to me) and whether or not they were capable of abstract thinking. Absolutely, is my conclusion. A species that buries its dead (albeit marrow-less in some cases), has some sort of advanced communication and lives in complex tribal systems, was probably fully capable of now and then tilting its head towards the heavens and ask that classic existential question, “why am I here?” A large chunk of our walk was covered while talking about this, now and then interrupted by son’s desire to study a particular type of moss, or to poke at the thick layer of frog’s eggs in jelly that floated in some of the pools of water we passed.

What really did surprise me was when second son told me that Northern Europeans have traces of Neanderthal genome. Not, he hastened to point out, to a massive extent, but enough to indicate that at some point the ancestors of modern man and the Neanderthals met and mated. For some odd reason, that made my day. I have Neanderthal DNA and I’m proud of it! Besides, having devoured the Ayla books when young and impressionable (Am I the only one who has fond memories of Jondalar, I wonder?) I have a fond relationship with the people of the Clan of the Cave Bear. So fond, I have found the prevalent theory that the Cro Magnon man brutally hunted and murdered their Neanderthal cousins very disturbing. Now, it seems, there is room for a touch of romance…

I go all twinkly-eyes, imagining this ancient joining of him and her, a primitive Romeo and Juliet story starring him in smelly skins and her in…taa-daa…smelly skins. Second son jostles me and shakes his head. “That’s probably not how it happened.”
“No?” I say, disappointed.
“Nope.” He ruffles my hair – and I don’t mind, because this is my son, the boy become man who combines his impressive mental skills with a heart the size of an elephant. “Man has great capacity for cruelty against those considered lesser beings.”
Yeah. And instead of my starry-eyed couple, I see a bewildered girl, led off by a group of dirty men, while round the campfire behind them lie the still bodies of the girl’s father, her brother. I decide to interrupt this little sequence before it gets too grim.

VanGogh-starry_night_ballance1Whatever the case, maybe it is that long ago girl, whether victim or lover, who has bequeathed me that remnant of Neanderthal genes. Maybe it is because of her I can stand for hours under the starry winter nights and wonder why I am here and where I might be going. A question as old as the DNA that sings in my veins, as ancient as the human race. A question my little Neanderthal girl may have expressed with bitterness and fear as she clutched her half-breed baby to her chest. But I hope not. I hope she asked it with someone holding her hand.
“Mum!” Second son rolls his eyes and says something about romantic fools.
Hey; I prefer my fairy-tale version, okay?

“Goodbye, farewell” – hang on, not yet!

To catch a falling star-100dpi 201501I’ve done it. I suppose this means I should sit back with a celebratory cup of tea, pat myself on the back and say “well done”. Instead, I’ve been walking about in a fugue, feeling strangely hollow inside. Eight books published, a series completed, and I am so NOT ready to say goodbye.
“Oh come on,” Alex says, giving me a virtual pat on the back. “It’s not as if we’re leaving you.”
Difficult to do when you’re a character trapped in my head, but I don’t say that. Instead I give her a teary smile. For I don’t know how many years, Alex and Matthew have lived in my head, and now we are done? Over?
“Don’t be such a daftie.” Matthew hands me a handkerchief. “And what’s to stop you from writing more about us?”
The fact that they’re approaching the end of their life spans and I just can’t bear the thought of writing their deaths?
Matthew gives me a gentle smile. “That’s how it is. Human life is short, a little burst of light, no more.” He gazes up at the heavens, spread out in darkest velvet above us. It is night, and Orion hangs low in the sky, while way up high the North Star winks and beckons. “But afterwards, there is all that,” he says, pointing at the sky. “Eternity at God’s feet.”

Whoopee. I share a quick look with Alex. None of us are all too thrilled by the notion of spending eternity in some sort of spiritual state. Heaven should be a place that flows with tea and cake, where a constant soft breeze whispers lullabies through groves of rustling poplars, while the meadows stretch endless before us, dotted with poppies and cornflowers. A place in which to walk hand in hand with your beloved, with the words of Solomon’s Song ringing through the air: “Let my beloved come into his garden, and taste its choice fruits.”
Matthew chuckles and wags an admonishing finger at us – well, mostly at Alex. “Our eternal souls need other sustenance, they need the Word rather than the joys of flesh.”
“Tough.” Alex dances towards him, and for all that she’s well over fifty, she moves gracefully, the light in his eyes making her carry herself like a young girl. “I guess the pleasures of heaven will just have to wait, Matthew Graham, for I have definitely not had my fill of you – not yet.”
“Or me of you, lass.” He kisses her, and just like that they fade away, no doubt wanting some privacy from my prying eyes.

It makes me smile – and it also comforts me. Maybe, maybe, there will be another Alex and Matthew book. A collection of novellas, I muse, and the knot of ice in my stomach begins to melt, as all of a sudden one scene after the other tumbles through my brain. In the background, I hear Alex laugh.
“See? We will never leave you, Anna.” I swear I feel her warm breath tickling my cheek. “We live in your blood and your soul, honey. We always will. And once you’re dead, I guess we’ll be coming with you to the place in the sky.”
If there is a place in the sky,” I say.
“Of course there is.” Alex laughs. “Matthew says so, doesn’t he?”
True. And when it comes to matters of God, none of us can hold a candle  to him!

To Catch a Falling Star, number 8 in The Graham Saga, is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK – plus, of course at my publishers, SilverWood Books.

And now a little excerpt…(somewhat amended, to ensure no spoilers)

Well after midnight, and Matthew was asleep on his side. Alex slipped out of bed and went over to the window, struggling to get it open without making too much noise. It was a clear night, with star-studded skies that invited wolves to raise their snouts and howl at the glory of it all. A full winter moon hung just above the treeline, and the yard below lay bathed in its silver sheen. A night of magic, of elves and little folk – except, of course, that Mrs Parson firmly insisted they hadn’t crossed the sea nor ever planned to, and so this brave new world might have Indians and spirits of its own, but elves and fairies, goblins and trolls, they had been forever left behind.

Alex rested her chin in her hand, and inhaled the cold, crisp air. A star shot from the firmament, left a wake of glittering fire, and was gone. Like a flash in the pan, like all human life – here today, gone tomorrow. Another falling star, and Alex splayed her hand and pretended she could catch it, hold it safe against her heart, and cup all that fragile, ephemeral life. A single tear trickled down her cheek, others followed, and she gripped the sill and wept quietly, the brilliance of the night sky blurry with her tears.

A sudden gust of wind cooled her face and, after a couple of steadying breaths, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. The moon slid behind a screen of clouds, but she found the North Star, blew a kiss to her father and one more for XXX. The image of her angry, hurting son rose before her, and he was screaming that it wasn’t fair – he didn’t want to die, not here, not now.
“Life isn’t fair,” she whispered to the night. Another star blazed a trail through the dark, and Alex closed her eyes and made a wish. For her son, that he be at peace, safe in heaven.
Something skittered over the ground, paused for a frozen instant, and turned goggled eyes to stare in her direction before leaping onto the smoking shed roof.
“Horrible pests,” Alex muttered, but with no real heat. “You get at my ham and I’ll blast you to pieces.” The raccoon sat outlined against the moon, and for a moment Alex was convinced it was indeed an elf, a wood sprite from a distant, long-lost shore. A series of jumps, and the racoon melted into the silent forest. Alex closed the window. Matthew rolled towards her when she got back into bed, opening his arms to gather her to him. “Mmhmm?”
“Nothing.” She patted him. “Let’s sleep, okay?”

And if you’ve made it this far, there’s a giveaway to enter 🙂 I’m giving away a Kindle copy of To Catch a Falling Star – just leave a comment and tell me if you’ve ever wished upon a falling star. Or not. But remember; you mustn’t tell me what you wished for – such wishes must remain a secret between you and the stars so way up above!

Giveaway is open until Monday.
…and now the giveaway is closed! Lucky winner is Joan!

Behind every successful man…

17202303-Martin-Luther-nails-up-his-95-theses-on-the-cathedral-door-the-act-that-started-the-Reformation-Orig-Stock-Photo-illus-Martin-Luther-by-G-FreytagWe’ve all heard of Martin Luther, right? And no, I am not talking about that inspiring leader and awesome demagogue who spoke that immortal line “I have a dream” – I am rather referring to the man for whom he was named, a German priest born in 1483. That Martin Luther was one of the pivotal people in the religious movement that swept through Europe as a firestorm during the 16th century, namely the Reformation. And once the continent emerged from that crucible, the hitherto united Christian faith had divided into two blocks – Catholics and Protestants.

Now Martin Luther and his contemporary religious hotheads did not spring out of nowhere. Religious debate has been around as long as the Church, and through the centuries wise and learned men (and women – one example can be found here) have raised their voices to question various aspects of faith as imposed by the church. Many of these were found guilty of heresy. Many of them died at the stake, such as Jan Hus and George Wishart. Many had even been exhumed and burned after they were dead – like John Wycliffe . And yet, despite the very obvious risk of taking on the mighty Church, people continued to do so.

When Martin Luther was born, all Christian people were effectively Catholics. Martin himself was baptised into the Holy Church, would go on to study law and philosophy, generally frustrated by how much trust people put in reason when addressing the central issue of God and faith. After a near death experience during a thunderstorm (or maybe Martin was just scared of lightning) he promised God he would become a monk if his life was spared, and being a man of his word, the 23-year-old Martin entered the Augustinian order.

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An unhappy monk?

It does not seem to have been a joyous decision, and as to Martin’s father, he was royally pissed off. He’d invested a lot of good money on his son to ensure he’d be a member of the educated commercial class, and instead Martin decided to set off in search of God. Pah! God was all around – why bother looking for him?

Martin would have replied that yes, God might be all around, but the teachings of the Holy Church – and specifically certain practices, such as the sale of indulgences – were leading the believers astray, away from God. Martin’s solution was simple: people needed to read the word of God themselves, and they needed to understand that faith is based on just that: faith. It is about subjecting your will to that of God, of not expecting to be able to understand or explain, but to simply believe. A difficult concept to embrace for crass modern mankind…

For people to read the word of God – the Scriptures – they needed to be translated into the vernacular. Martin did some serious translation of his own, and other likeminded men did the same in other countries, producing a Bible in German, English, French – well, in most European languages. All this translating coincided with the introduction of the printing press in Europe – thank you Gutenberg (related post, see here) – and so the vernacular versions of the Bible were easily made available to common man. Ahem: well, not so easily, as the powers that were did not approve of all this translating and did their best to destroy the translations, causing a trade in contraband Bibles (!).

Martin started his little crusade against the established Church on October 31, 1517, when he banged up his 95 theses on the door to the Wittenberg Cathedral. At the time, his writing had as its purpose to create debate rather than antagonise, but sometimes there’s a fine line between dialogue and provocation, and clearly Martin rubbed a number of people up the wrong way. Seriously, the man was also requesting the church to stop selling indulgences, thereby depriving the coffers of sizeable income!

In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated, and would so remain for the rest of his life. Seeing as he was by then already busy with creating his new, revamped version of the Christian faith, I don’t think he was unduly worried – but at the same time I suspect that a man who had spent so much time within the Catholic Church must have woken up at night and wondered what in God’s name he was doing, taking on this behemoth, this self-proclaimed representative of God on Earth. (Before we go any further, it might be important to point out that I have no intention – or interest – in belittling the Catholic Church, spiritual home to so many millions of people)

Back to Martin and his restless nights – and I am sure they were many, endless hours when the teachings of his youth made him twist in fear as to what he was risking on behalf of his eternal soul… One of the things Martin opposed, was the Holy Church’s insistence that priests be celibate. As per Martin, there is no support for this in the Bible, and it may be worth remembering that until the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Catholic priests quite often lived as married men, with no stigma attached. (As an aside, can you imagine the heartbreak when these men were told they had to put aside their wife if they wanted to continue working as priests?)

Now Martin opposed the concept of celibacy in principle. He himself had no intention to marry, seeing as he lived under the constant threat of being apprehended and carried off to martyrdom, not, in Martin’s opinion, something he wanted to subject a wife to having to witness. Plus points to Martin, I believe…Besides, he was far too busy to consider the complication of a wife. Life, however, has a tendency to happen, which is how Martin came to meet Katarina.

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Lukas Cranach – but it looks so modern!

We don’t know all that much about Katarina’s earliest days, but we know that as a child of six or so, she was sent to a nunnery for schooling. Some years later, she was transferred to a Cistercian convent, where she was to remain for most of her youth.

Despite a life behind walls, Katarina and several of her sisters kept well abreast of what was happening in the outside world. When Luther nailed his theses to the door, Katarina was an impressionable eighteen-year-old, and clearly what this man said resonated within. She began to feel trapped. So did a number of her sisters.

In 1523, these ladies managed to get word to Luther. They needed help to escape the convent. At the time, to steal away a nun was a terrible crime – nuns were the brides of Christ and should under no circumstances be taken from their convents, not even when the nuns in question had been forcibly veiled (and yes, that did happen). Martin had very little left to lose: he was already excommunicated, and I think it appealed to his virility to cast himself as the saviour of these poor damsels – err, nuns – in distress. Said and done, Luther devised a plan.

stilleben_mit_hering_und_bartmannskrugOne day, a herring merchant drove his cart into the convent. Herring was a staple of the times, so there was nothing unusual about that. In all the bustle of unloading full barrels, loading empty ones, twelve nuns managed to hide in the cart. In the barrels, one presumes. Off they went, the herring merchant sweating profusely as he drove under the beady eye of the gate keeper, but fortunately his illegal cargo went undiscovered, and some hours later twelve giddy young women were deposited in Wittenberg.

Word went out. The ladies needed husbands, seeing as their families refused to take them back, what with all this escaping their convent being a heinous sin. One by one, the nuns were married off, until at last only one remained: Katarina von Bora herself. Whether this was due to looks or temperament, we do not know. The lady herself is said to have expressed that either she married Luther or she didn’t marry anyone. Well, even men bent on religious revolution can be flattered, right? Besides, Katarina was young and worshiped the ground Martin trod on – she called him Herr Doctor, would always call him Herr Doctor.

Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tif (1)So in 1525, Martin Luther married Katarina. He was 41, she was 26: a former monk married to a former nun – that must have caused a number of ribald jokes. In actual fact, they were well suited, both of them of religious temperament, both of them intellectually agile and devoted to the cause. Plus, of course, by marrying, Martin was setting a precedent for all future Protestant priests.

The marriage seems to have been very happy, with Katarina assuming responsibility for all worldy tasks so that Martin could concentrate on theology and his teaching. Six children in eight years indicate they enjoyed each other’s company in bed as well, and Martin is known to have turned quite often to Katarina for advice. But it wasn’t an easy life. Katarina struggled to make ends meet, she ran a brewery, raised and sold cattle, ran an hospital, raised their children, ensured meals at set times, supported her husband whenever he needed it – in brief, our Katarina rarely had time for a nice cuppa and a slice of sponge cake. Still, I believe she was as content in him as he was in her, as expressed by him saying, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me, that I would never exchange my poverty with her for all the riches of Croesus.”

In 1546, Luther died. Apart from struggling with her grief, now that her beloved Herr Doctor was dead, Katarina was plunged into economic difficulties without his earnings as a professor. When war broke out she was forced to leave the life she had built up in Wittenberg and flee. With several underage children, she struggled to make ends meet, and was very dependent on the generous support of men such as the Elector of Saxony. She returned to Wittenberg for a while, but an outbreak of plague had her leaving again in a haste. There was a road accident, the cart Katarina was on upended causing her grievous injury. She never recovered, dying some months later, in December of 1552 in Torgau, where she was buried, very far from her beloved husband.

Was Katarina instrumental in Martin’s success as a reformer? No, probably not. But I do believe that Martin on more than one occasion raised his eyes towards the heavens and thanked the good Lord for this excellent helpmeet, this woman who loved him so well. And if he didn’t, well then shame on him!

When the creative juices flow

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Me sitting down to chat w me…(Sargent)

Every now and then, I sit down to have a serious one-to-one chat with yours truly. Okay, so the conversation is generally one-sided, as I haven’t progressed to doing different voices for different sides of my personality, but the purpose of these little tete-a-tetes is to remind myself why I write. Primarily for me. You see, sometimes I forget that my main source of inspiration and energy is the desire to write what pleases me.

These meetings tend to be quite the hub-bub. Some of my more vociferous invented characters will take the opportunity to remind me that very much of what I write affects them – and they really want a say in it. Not about to happen, I remind them. After all, life is usually a long sequence of surprises (big or small) no matter if you’re living in the real world or in between the pages of my novels. Except, of course, that Alex Graham is of the firm opinion she exists well outside my writing. (She does. She swishes around in my head more or less all the time) Matthew Graham merely smiles. He knows this particular lady (me) has a crush the size of an elephant on him, and ergo, where I go, he goes. But I don’t tell Alex that. She isn’t good at sharing…

All of the above probably has the more pragmatic among my readers rocking back in their chairs. What, she admits to having conversations with her characters? Huh. I would argue all writers do. We need that spark of life from our characters to properly flesh them out, develop them into tangible beings. Things do, however, become problematic when they start expressing opinions about everything in my life – but I’m not going there. At least not today.

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..and he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter…

So, where was I? Oh, yes: a writer writes to please himself. A painter, I presume, paints to please himself/herself. Nah-nah-nah, some of you say, reminding me that many are the artists and writers who have sold their talent for commercial rewards. Even that star among artists, Michelangelo, painted and sculptured on commission. Yes, he did. But somehow I don’t get the impression Michelangelo did much compromising on quality – or on being true to his ideals. I truly believe he was proud of his work – you see, it pleased him. (And in his case, if it lived up to his own exacting standards, he assumed the rest, maybe with the exception of Raphael, would like it as well, but then Michelangelo never liked Raphael – professional jealousy, one presumes)

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Pleased w his pic – but is it the truth?

I realise that Michelangelo is not perhaps the best example to bring forth. The man was a genius, his talent so bright no one in their right mind would attempt to interfere with his creative process. Many, many more artists (and writers) are far from geniuses, and somewhere along the line the artist who wants to eat may have to compromise. The portrait painter in the 17th century who survived from commission to commission was not about to risk his future by depicting Mr X (a rather ugly man) as he was. After all, Mr X had requested a portrait of himself because at some level Mr X was convinced he would look good hanging on a wall for all eternity. So the artist had to do some magic – a tradition that has survived most hale and hearty all the way to us, when Photoshop allows must of us to look great, even if we don’t.

I guess it all comes down to how dependent you are on your creative efforts to feed yourself. If yes, of course the artist must compromise to keep his children in food – but I suspect many such artists have felt physical pain at doing so. I am fortunate in that I don’t need to write to feed my kids. (And three of them no longer live at home) I write, as I remind myself, to please myself. Except I don’t. Not only. If I only did it for myself, why go through all the angst of publishing? No, it is time to come clean and admit I write to please myself AND my potential readers. Many, many readers, preferably.

My father was an accomplished amateur painter. He would stand for hours before his easel and consider just what shade of green he wanted for that specific leaf. Or he would hum happily to himself as he created a new collage. For him, painting was about escaping. Every Sunday, he would allow himself some hours in which he lost himself in his creative efforts, no longer the efficient business man, no longer the man who put the bacon on the table, but simply Ingvar, a man who once dreamed of becoming an artist but who got caught in the hamster wheel of life. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe he was unhappy with his choices – he loved his work – but sometimes the dream reared its rosy little head inside of him.

My writing started out as something similar. Hours in which I escaped into a world where I called the shots. This was before Alex and Matthew  grew into such formidable presences as they are today. Before Adam de Guirande popped up in my head, with his slow smile. Before that endearing Hannah Carolina and her sticky fingers, and definitely before Jason and Helle, torn apart by fate. These days, I have resigned myself to not calling the shots. I’m some sort of glorified secretary at times, fingers going numb in my effort to keep up with all the whispered suggestions from my characters, all the images that flash through my head. BUT. My writing is still an exquisite pleasure, moments in which I no longer think about the more mundane aspects of life, concentrated as I am on creating.

20150223_093655My father once expressed that his painting helped him develop professionally. Seeing as he was the CEO of a company, it is sort of difficult to see how his painting could impact his work life – or at least that was what I thought, until now, close to forty years later, when my writing most definitely has a positive influence on my daily work. You see, since I started investing serious time in my writing, my creative processes have improved. I trust my instincts more, and as to thinking out of the box – well, if you write about time travellers and reincarnated souls and more or less develop friendly relationship with real people who died seven centuries ago, thinking out of the box very much becomes the norm.

Likewise, the structure I implement at work (thinking out of the box is all very fine, but in some areas, such as accounting, it is definitely frowned upon) helps me in my writing. I may be wildly creative, have tons of little post-its lying about, but once I sit down to properly write, I adopt a serious approach, staring with a thorough structuring of my research. (Research sounds so dry. In reality, I wallow in lovely, lovely books about people and times I want to know more about. Lucky me!)

At one point in time, I dreamed about being a full-time writer, bring the world to its knees with my sweeping masterpieces. My father, in a surprisingly gentle manner for a man as rational as he was, reminded me that dreams are dreams. With a wry little smile, he told me that some things in life are best kept as precious bubbles, stolen moments in time uniquely our own.
“You’re too conventional to handle the harsh reality of surviving on your art,” he said, “as am I.” Hard words to hear when you’re twenty something – after all, what young person wants to be defined as ‘conventional’?

Many years have passed since then, and these days my father isn’t around. But whenever I sink into the world where my creative juices flow unhindered, I swear I can feel him at my side, a proud gleam in his eyes. And he was right, of course. I’ve never had to compromise to eat, so my writing remains a passion, an urge. It flowers as it pleases me – and my voluble characters – and quite often what pleases me pleases my readers. And if it doesn’t, well then I must remember that I’m mostly doing this for me.
“And for us,” Alex Graham says, sweeping her arm in a gesture to encompass all my characters, presently ranged around tea and scones (I do have a very roomy brain, okay?). Yes, of course for them, for the imagined people who have become my beloved friends and constant companions. “Sheesh,” Alex mutters, using her apron to dab at her eyes, “you really do have a way with words, don’t you?” Duh!

Torn asunder – of Finland and its history

Finland Albert_Edelfelt_-_Kaukola_Ridge_at_Sunset_-_Google_Art_Project

Finland, land of lakes

So I was taking the opportunity of a lull in the meeting to bore my colleagues with yet another historical tidbit. Okay, maybe not bore, as I do try to present my favourite moments in history in an entertaining manner, involving a lot of posturing, multiple voices and general enthusiasm, but in a group of people not all that interested in history this mainly leads to amused smiles rather than a riveted audience. But what can I say? I take it as my personal mission to do some educating…

One of my colleagues is from Finland. Now Finland doesn’t feature much on my historical radar – there is also an element of embarrassment for me as a Swede to delve too deeply into a history that will, per definition, include a series of atrocities perpetrated by the crusading Swedes on the Finnish people. Sweden conquered Finland in the 12th – 13th century, this under the pretext of bringing Christianity to the heathen savages who lived in the Finnish forests. (Not so sure they were all that heathen – or savages.)

All this Swedish aggression still rankles in Finnish minds. I recall an incident several years ago when I was working for a Finnish multinational. We were visiting a production facility in a town called Kauttua (land in Turku, get a car, drive two hours straight into the never-ending woods, and there is Kauttua) when one of my Finnish colleagues pointed at the lake spread before us and said, “That’s where we murdered those three bishops. Drowned them. Serve them right, Swedish bastards that they were.” Err… at the time, I was sitting stark naked in a sauna, surrounded by Finnish people gripping bundles of birch twigs (used to whip the dirt off your body while in the sauna). Somewhat intimidating…

Anyway, my present day Finnish colleague suggested I write about Eugen Shauman or Alexandra Gripenberg.
“Ah,” I replied trying to sound as if I knew exactly who he was talking about. To be able to look knowledgeable while clueless is a valuable skill in the world of business, and one I have become quite good at.My colleague was not taken in. He grinned, bright blue eyes sparkling.
“You’ve never heard of them, have you?”
No, I admitted.
“So read up,” he suggested. Which, dear people, I have now done.

Finland’s history is intimately entwined with that of Sweden and Russia. As stated above, Sweden sent off crusaders in the 13th century, but the interaction between the countries stretch back much farther in time. While Sweden wanted to annex Finland as an eastern outpost, the Kingdom of Novgorod was just as keen to expand their territory west, using Finland as a western outpost. Obviously, the poor Finns were caught in between.

Finland Hertig_Karl_skymfande_svartvit

Swedish aggression, 16th century style

Initially, the Swedes were successful. In the name of God, Finland was brought to the Swedish crown and was to remain Swedish for very many centuries. Swedish noblemen were granted Finnish land, Swedish clerics moved to spread the word of God (in Swedish, mainly) to Finland. Obstinate Finns were forcibly relocated elsewhere – like in the wilds of Sweden. The use of Finnish was not encouraged, and overtime, the Finnish society coagulated into an upper class who spoke Swedish and no Finnish, and a lower class who spoke only Finnish and resented their Swedish overlords. Duh…

As an aside, even today, there is a large minority of Finnish people whose mother tongue is Swedish. Some of the best Swedish language literature has been written by Finnish people – and especially the poets combine the lyrical aspects of the Swedish language with the stark and uncompromising character of the Finnish people, resulting in immortal poetry. Neither here nor there, but as I write this, my tongue curls itself round lines like “Röd-Eemeli föddes i torpets bastu:smuts och gråt” (“Red Emil was born in the croft’s sauna; dirt and tears” from Röd Eemeli by Diktonious) or “Du sökte en kvinna och fann en själ – du är besviken” (“You searched for a woman and found a soul – you are disappointed” from Dagen Svalnar by Edith Södergran)

Peter_benois

Tsar Peter, looking to the west

Back to our abbreviated history lesson: as many of you may know, the Swedish empire reached its largest extension in the 17th century and began to crumble rapidly after that. To the east, the Kingdom of Novgorod had been gobbled up by Russia, and this larger, stronger Russia had aspirations – to the west. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, defeated the hitherto so powerful Swedish Army at Poltava (for a related post, go here) and during the first few decades of the 18th century Finland was one massive, bloody battlefield, leaving it split in two (the Russians annexed the south-eastern part) and severely depopulated, seeing as more than half of the population had died due to war and pillage.

Finland Raatajat_rahanalaiset

Suffering peasants – look at the little girl!

The 18th century in Finland was pretty bleak. The Russians invaded and plundered, the Swedish/Finnish armies fought back, and the ones who paid the price were the people. Our Finnish friends were not happy. Centuries of oppression coupled with decades of warfare awakened a desire among the Finns to control their own destiny, become independent. Groups of intellectuals began talking about the Finnish identity, the importance of preserving the Finnish language and heritage.

Finland 800px-Edelfelt_Koivujen_alla_1881

Among Finnish birches

In 1809, Sweden lost the rest of Finland to Russia, and the country of a thousand lakes and birches became an Imperial fief – a Grand Duchy, no less.  Not, in the opinion of many Finnish people, an entirely bad thing. St Petersburg was a much bigger draw than the provincial backwater of Stockholm, and the Russians allowed the Finns to keep a number of their laws, such as those guaranteeing the peasants remained freeholders rather than serfs as was common in the rest of Russia. Plus Alexander I was quite okay with leaving local legislation in general up to the Finnish parliament. And yet… That desire to become truly independent grew successively stronger.

Finland Alexander_I_of_Russia_by_F.Kruger_(1837,_Hermitage)

Tsar Alexander I

It all started with the language. In the 19th century, groups of Swedish-speaking Finns began to actively promote the Finnish language, this as a means of creating a common bond between them (mostly upper class)  and the Finnish speaking peasantry. At the time, Finnish as a language had no official status. It was Swedish or Russian, full stop. Very quickly, the Fennoman movement (i.e. promoting everything Finnish) took hold. In 1834, the Kalevala was published, a collection of Finnish myths harkening back to a very distant past. In the late 19th century, after insistent lobbying, Finnish was at last granted the status of official language.

That itch for independence was becoming a rash. The Finnish people, now cleverly united behind a common language, (although truth be told very many of the Swedish-speakers would never lower themselves to speak Finnish) began to dream of a free Finland. Dangerous dreams if you’re part of the Russian empire, and those too vocal often ended up imprisoned.

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Eugen Schauman

At this point in time, I think I must introduce Eugen Schauman, still today considered one of Finland’s foremost heroes. This was a man destined to live a very short life, ablaze with Finnish patriotism. Yet another of those Swedish-speaking Finns, he took it upon himself to rid Finland of its Russian General-Governor, Nikolai Bobrikov, appointed in 1898. Bobrikov was not a major Finland fan. In fact, he considered Finland to be a borderline enemy state, and all this Fennomanism, all this liberal spouting about Finnish roots and culture, had him seeing red. No, Bobrikov decided, it was about time the rebellious Finns were brought to heel, which is why he urged the Tsar to sign the February Manifesto in 1899.

Finland Nikolai_Bobrikov

Nikolai Bobrikov

Just like that, several of the rights and liberties hitherto enjoyed by the Finnish people became null and void.  The period in time labelled by the Finns as the first “Years of Oppression” had begun. Russian became the official language, Russian was to be taught in schools, Russian laws were to take precedence over Finnish laws, and the Finnish army was to be abolished, all those serving in it to be sucked up into the Imperial Russian Army. Conscripted Finnish men were sent off to distant parts of the Russian empire to serve, so as to knock the Finnishness out of them.

Not, in brief, a good time to be Finnish – or a Fennoman. Half a million Finnish people signed a petition to the Tsar, begging him to revoke the manifesto. The Tsar didn’t even deign to receive the delegation. (This, BTW, is of course the same Tsar who was to die in Yekaterinburg) . And as to Bobrikov, he became the most hated man in Finland. So hated, that several undercover groups planned to murder him. The task to do so, however, went to the young volunteer Eugen Schauman.

Eugen had so far in his life shown little inclination for fast-paced action, no matter that his mother had filled his head with nationalistic dreams of a free Finland. Born in 1875 in Charkov, Ukraine, Schauman belonged to a family with strong military traditions, but as he had impaired hearing the army was not an option. Instead, he was urged to study, and despite his partial deafness managed to graduate (this in a day and age where a lot of the exams were verbal) with good grades. After some years at university, he became a clerk in the Finnish Administration, and spent his free time developing his athletic skills.

Eugen was a good  shot – he considered it necessary to be able to handle a gun to be able to defend his beloved Finland. He was also somewhat unfortunate in love, and there are those that believe his latest rejection drove him to his final desperate action. Whatever the case, Schauman utilised his position in the Senate to plan his attack. And on the 16th of June 1904, at precisely eleven o’clock (Bobrikov was a punctual man and was arriving for a meeting) Eugen shot Bobrikov three times before turning his gun on himself. Schauman died immediately. Bobrikov lingered on for a further 36 hours.

Despite all this hullabaloo, despite assassinated General-Governors, the Russian Empire did not interfere with the Finnish Parliament. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 (which, among other things, curtailed the Tsar’s powers and strengthened that of the Russian Parliament, the Duma), Finland’s parliament was more or less left to rule Finland as it pleased. But I imagine the Russian elite stood by as an amused spectator as the Finnish people took the drastic step of implementing universal suffrage in the 1906 election. Imagine that – not only were men, no matter their station, given the right to vote, but the misguided Finns were also allowing that weaker sex, the women, a say in how they should be governed.

Finland Alexandra_Gripenberg

Alexandra Gripenberg

And this dear people, brings me to Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg. May I present an avid Fennoman, a well-educated female member of the Swedish-speaking wealthy classes who early on embraced the vision of a free Finland, a country in which men and women had equal rights.(And I must say I have to tip my hat in the direction of my Finnish colleague, who expressed such pride in a woman who fought so hard for the female vote. Gender equality is, clearly, almost a genetic quality in Finland)

Alexandra, born in 1857,  was one of twelve siblings, and when her father died she was not yet a teen. The father’s death reduced the family’s circumstances somewhat, and Alexandra was educated by her older sisters rather than at school. There were no opportunities for a higher level education, in part due to her gender, but also due to the overall cash flow situation. Alexandra, however, was an intelligent young lady, and she compensated for her lack of formal education by reading voraciously.

In 1884 she founded the first women’s right association in Finland, and in 1887 she set off to see the world, travelling through Britain and the US, where to her delight she met not only Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Mark Twain, whom she found deliciously attractive. Most of all, she met women with similar views to her own, and she became an active member of the International Council for Women, travelling extensively while using her pen and wits to promote causes dear to her heart.

Alexandra was not a major fan of the universal suffrage implemented in 1906. She was of the opinion that democracy required the voters to have a certain level of basic education and understanding of the system, and she didn’t believe her countrymen were ready – no matter their gender. Still, she was convinced to stand for election and became one of ten women to take a seat in Parliament, where she mainly focused on women’s right issues, such as banning prostitution.

In her later years, Alexandra became somewhat marginalised within the Finnish women’s right movement, Basically, Alexandra held very conservative views, and vehemently opposed any initiatives that she felt were in contradiction with her Christian values. She was appalled by the young, radical women who claimed the right to choose their sexual partners as they pleased,  she considered it natural that women managed the household – men were not supposed to do such female tasks as laundry. For her, gender equality was about the right to education and the right to work – and she was quite adamant that women were not to receive any preferential treatment whatsoever in the workplace.

In 1911, Alexandra died, six years before that other dream of hers, that of seeing an independent Finland, was realised. Personally, I think she would have been devastated by the events that followed upon independence – seeing your country torn in two tends to have that effect on patriots.

In 1917, the Finnish Parliament declared its independence. This act plunged the country into a brief, but very bitter, civil war, a fight to death between the Reds and the Whites.The Reds wanted to follow in the footsteps of glorious (hmm) Comrade Lenin. The Whites blanched (;)) at the thought of a socialist state.  For close to two years, the country was at war with itself, and in those tumultuous times, one Finnish man stood tall above all others (and he was, actually, very, very tall). This is a man I most definitely had heard of before – namely General Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, commander of the White troops, later to become Finland’s president and even later to become Marshal of Finland and lead its defences against the Soviet Union in World War II, when the gentleman in question was pushing eighty. But this, dear people, is too extensive a topic to cover here. Mr Mannerheim will simply have to wait.

So ends this initial foray into Finnish history, and what better way to end it than by listening to Monty Python? (Although seriously: mountains in Finland? Ha!)

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