Adventures with Words: Random Harvest by James Hilton

Random Harvest by James Hilton

James Hilton, author of Goodbye, Mr Chips and Lost Horizon, was a best-selling author of his day (the 1930s to the 1950s) but, like so many popular writers, his writing is ignored by the literary establishment, dismissed as the sentimental harking back to a lost pre-lapsarian or at least pre-Great-War England. It’s not true. What his work is, rather, is an examination, through carefully crafted stories, of the trauma of the Great War and the presentiment of the greater war coming soon. Not all writers working in the interregnum between the wars sensed that there would be another conflict; most wrote on oblivious to the gathering storm. Whether Hilton was consciously aware of this, or simply sensed it, I do not know, but the foreboding of the future is there even while the characters in this story deal with the long aftermath of the First World War.

The story moves between points of view, starting in the first person with a graduate student meeting Charles Rainier, an eminent figure in politics and business, but then switches to the third person as we learn that Rainier served in the Great War, was injured and lost his memory, waking up two years later in Liverpool having completely forgotten what happened in those lost years. Rainier returns to his family and, while curiously detached, he helps save the family business, saving many livelihoods, and enters politics, all from a basic sense of doing his best but with an underlying void and loss.

The story is essentially about Rainier’s rediscovery of what happened to him during his lost years and the twist at the end is beautifully engineered. It’s a subtle, moving story about loss and recovery, written before anyone had come up with the term post-traumatic stress disorder by a writer from a generation that had more right to be stressed than any other in history.

Sacagawea: guide to the Lewis & Clark expedition

Sacagawea, guide on the Lewis & Clark trans-America expedition from 1804 to 1806.

While in winter camp at Fort Mandan in 1804, Lewis and Clark hired French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter, his employment facilitated by his being married to a young Soshone woman, Sacagawea. Sacagawea had been captured in a raid by the Hidatsa on the Soshone when she was 12. Charbonneau bought, or won Sacagawea through gambling, when she was about 16. Pregnant, Sacagawea gave birth to her first child, a son, on 11 February 1805. Little Jean Baptiste Charbonneau would become, by some margin, the youngest member of the expedition. Having a woman and a baby on the journey considerably eased relations with the tribes the Corps met along the way, as war parties did not travel with women and children. Sacagawea’s knowledge helped the expedition considerably along the way, but it was the encounter with her brother, when the expedition reached the land of the Soshone, that really proved her worth. The Soshone provided help, and a guide, to see them over the Rockies. Sacagawea chose to continue with the expedition rather than return to her own people. On the return journey Sacagawea, Toussaint and their son stopped at Fort Mandan, but a few years later, in 1809, they travelled to St Louis, meeting William Clark there. Clark offered to see to the education of Jean Baptiste, and Sacagawea left him with Clark. Records suggest that Sacagawea died in 1812 from illness at Fort Manuel, South Dakota. Clark became guardian to Jean Baptiste and Sacagawea’s daughter, Lisette.

Left-handed in a Right-handed World

Jimi Hendrix – By Steve Banks – Steve Banks, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Hendrix, famously, played guitar left handed – that is he fretted notes with his right hand and strummed the strings with his left hand. But left-handed guitars were few and expensive, so Hendrix took an ordinary right-handed Fender Stratocaster, flipped it upside down, so that the tuning pegs were on the bottom, and restrung it. Doing this changed how the guitar sounded. A Fender Stratocaster has three pickups (electric microphones that produce the signal fed to the guitar’s amplifier), with the rear pickup set at an angle to the strings. Reversing the guitar meant that this pickup took its signal from the higher strings further up the fretboard, producing a sweeter tone. By reversing the guitar, Hendrix also changed the relative distance of each string from its pickup, thereby altering the mix of sound in the guitar’s signal to the amp. Another effect of reversing the stringing on his guitar was the highest strings, which on a normal Stratocaster are the longest, became the shortest on the Stratocasters Hendrix played. A shorter string requires less tension to tune it, making the string easier to bend and thus easier to play. This change also altered the amount of string between the nut at the end of the fretboard and the tuning peg. Although the nut prevents this length of string actually playing, it produces overtones when the string is plucked. Changing the length of these parts of the strings also contributed to the unique Hendrix sound.

The Italian Lynching

The mob breaking into the prison to get the Italians

On 15 October 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy and his bodyguard were ambushed as the police chief was walking home, the two assailants firing sawn-off shotguns at the men. Wounded, Hennessy returned fire, but did not bring down his attackers. When asked who had shot him, Hennessy muttered, “Dagoes.” The investigation into the murder of the police chief had its one and only lead.

Hennessy died the next day and the outraged city mayor, Joseph Shakespeare, told the police to “scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across.” They did, rounding up 250 Italians. By the late 19th century, many Sicilians had immigrated to America but in the south they were regarded as half way black. One newspaper article called them “a link connecting white and black races”. This was not meant as a compliment. Fears had also been roused in the white community from reports of mafia dealings and violence among the Sicilians.

Eventually, nine Italians were put on trial for Hennessy’s murder. The accused were all acquitted, for the evidence against them was contradictory and weak, but the acquittal enraged the New Orleans populace. Although found not guilty, the Italians were returned to the prison, where other Italians were also imprisoned. That evening, a notice appeared in a local paper calling for a demonstration against what many locals believed to be a miscarriage of justice.

Thousands gathered on 14 March 1891 to listen to incendiary speeches by respected local dignataries, many with strong links to Mayor Shakespeare. Roused by the speeches, the crowd marched on the prison, chanting, “We want the Dagoes.” In the prison, the warden let the 19 Italians held there out of their cells, telling them to hide as best they could. Eight managed to evade the mob, but 11 of the men were seized, with two being dragged outside and hanged, and the other nine beaten to death in the prison.

Although Mayor Shakespeare failed to be re-elected next year, the city’s Italians voting decisively against him, the press coverage was mostly sympathetic, suggesting that the Italians all had links to the mafia and had got what they deserved.

Lots of Houses on the Prairie

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie

The Little House on the Prairie, along with many others, was the direct result of the Homestead Act. President Lincoln signed it into law on 20 May 1862 and by its statute it allowed 160 acres of unclaimed public land to any citizen, or an immigrant intending to become a citizen, in return for a small filing fee. To gain final title on the land, the claimant had either to build a house on the land, plant crops and remain living there for five years continuously; or they could buy the land for $1.25 per acre after living on it for six months, so long as they had built a house and planted crops in that time. Between the signing of the Act in 1862 and 1900, more than 80 million acres was distributed to people moving west and building their houses on the prairies of the American West. Among them were the Ingalls family, who moved to Montgomery County, Kansas, in 1869. Little House on the Prairie was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s experiences growing up on the prairie, although not just in Kansas. The Ingalls family also built houses in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Dakota. They moved around a lot!

How Venice Became Rich

Leonardo Loredan, doge of Venice from 1501 to 1521, as painted by Giovanni Bellini

In the dangerous, chaotic centuries after the fall of the western Roman Empire there was safety to be found on the little islands hidden among twisting waterways and shifting channels. No city is as much a product of its geography as Venice. Set on islets and mudbanks in the lagoon, the lagoon is itself sheltered and protected from the Adriatic Sea by a long ribbon of narrow islands, including the Lido and Pellestrina. Cut off from mainland Italy by almost impenetrable marshes, Venice provided both home and refuge, but at a price. For through the Middle Ages and on into the Renaissance, wealth was the product of land ownership: the rich and the powerful were the great landowners. Land produced food and supported men, in particular the soldiers required to cement power. But almost all of Venice was water. The peril for the people who had taken refuge in the lagoon was that they had traded peril for poverty.

With no agricultural hinterland and no natural resources other than fish and salt, the Venetians had no choice but to trade. Which was where their island homes came in: for having to learn the ways of the sea in order to exist, they turned their mastery of ships into their fortune. The Venetians lived by and for trade. Everything was done for the honour and profit of the Republic – and if it came down to a choice, then profit won every time. The Venetians had no choice but to rely on their wit and their skills if they were to earn their living amid the competing, often violent, kingdoms that surrounded the Mediterranean. Such was their success in doing so that other peoples looked on them with amazement and considerable suspicion. But the Venetians did not care, so long as it brought honour and profit to their city.

Adventures with Words: The Tripods trilogy by John Christoper

The White Mountains by John Christoper
City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher
The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

As a boy, I all but lived in the local library. Indeed, the most exciting days of the year for me were the couple of days before an official bank holiday because then you were allowed to take two books out on a card, rather than just one. So that meant I could borrow eight, eight books from the library over a bank holiday weekend. Of course, I loved being able to buy books but we did not have much money and besides, if I had bought the books I read, we would have had to sleep in the garden for lack of space! So the library was my door to wonders, and adventures, and ideas, and I went through it two or three times a week. Perhaps the most enjoyable moment of all was getting home with my treasure trove of books to read and then deciding the order in which I was going to read them. My normal practice was to put aside to the end one (or if it was a bank holiday weekend and I had eight books piled up in front of me, two) reliable books that I knew, because I had read the author before, I would enjoy. I would pick another favourite to start off with and then, for my middle reads, turn to the ones that I had picked to see where they would take me, not knowing too much about the stories beforehand.

That was how I came to read John Christopher’s Tripods novels. I must have been quite young when I read them as I remember I borrowed them from a long-closed library in Archway and we moved from the area when I was eight – so at least fifty years ago! That’s a long time for books to stay in the memory, particularly without rereading them, but I had retained a vivid impression of them, and in particular the Capping by which the aliens exerted control over the entire adult population of the earth. It’s not hard for a child to believe that all adults might be being secretly controlled by aliens! What’s even better is to think that children might be the ones to save everybody – and that is exactly what happens in these books. Brave Will Parker runs away before his own Capping, makes a dangerous journey through France to the White Mountains (which I now know to be the Alps but did not know at the time) and becomes a member of the secret resistance to the Tripods. Then, in the second story, Will infiltrates the city of the alien tripods and learns their weakness. And in the final story, Will is a key figure in the plan to overthrow the aliens.

It’s heady stuff for a child to read and Will has sufficient flaws to make him a thoroughly believable and relatable character. It was a joy to read the books again after so long and feel the thrill of recognition as characters I had not remembered but immediately recalled made their appearances in the story, particularly Beanpole, the clever French boy that escapes with Will to the White Mountains, whom I realise now I had identified with.

Fifty years on, did the books stand the test of the passage of half a century and the very different world we live in today? Yes. Absolutely yes.

Adventures with Words: Archangel by Gerald Seymour

Already we forget. It’s thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down and the prisoners stumbled from the Gulags, but we are busy forgetting. While the Holocaust has, rightly I suppose, spawned an industry of remembrance, the victims of the Soviet Gulags are disappearing into a historical black hole. It seems no one is interested. Neither in the suffering and deaths in the Gulags, nor the almost miraculous end to it all: a Soviet system that seemed as unyielding as the Wall itself fell all but overnight and with virtually no bloodshed. We can look back at the events leading up to the end of the Soviet block and the finish of the Cold War but its actual denouement seems to cast a pall of unreality over people: it’s as if, seeing a miracle, people cannot bring themselves to look at it, but rather forget.

A large part of that forgetting is the Gulags, the system of forced labour camps that the Soviet Union employed to dispose of dissidents and counter-revolutionaries. While not extermination camps per se, nevertheless estimates suggest that around 1.5 million people died in the Gulags, worked and starved to death, frozen, diseased or simply executed and thrown in ditches. The great chronicler of Soviet cruelty, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, seems to have been removed from literary consideration while the Gulags themselves have been brushed under the carpet of the new Russia.

Archangel was written when the Gulags still ground people through the system, and takes the reader on an uncomfortable trip back into still fairly recent history. Long out of print (I picked my copy up from a second-hand bookshop) it tells a slightly unlikely story of a doomed attempt to overthrow the Gulag system from within. It’s unlikely in that the protagonist is a captured British agent and it seems unlikely that any such revolt would be led by a foreigner, but the story vividly conveys the every day acts of defiance and humanity that allowed the inmates of the Gulags to remember that they were men. As such, Archangel is a great book for this age of forgetting and if you can find a copy I strongly urge you to read it.

A Marmite Book

‘Burn all copies.’

‘A stunningly mature and elegiac read of cold duty and family love.’

‘Written like a 10 year old…A talking squirrel.’

‘A bold, wildly imaginative story.’

‘No fan should read this book.’

‘Silent Hunters was the first book in years that i couldn’t stop reading.’

‘It seems that the editors and the author himself have some kind of sexual disorder.’

‘The plot twists are just breathtaking.’

‘We are faced with the feverish delirium of one writer who has composed a simply high-quality graphomaniac fan fiction, in which “the power of love and castration” surpasses everything in the world.’

All genuine quotes from reviews of Silent Hunters.

As you can see, it’s something of a Marmite book. Now it’s out in paperback, why not read it yourself and make your own mind up. Silent Hunters is available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

St Paulinus of York

The oldest coin minted in York, dating from c. AD 620, shows the face of a man for whom we have the first physical description in British history – and the image backs up the description. In 601, a Roman monk named Paulinus arrived in Kent as part of the mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. A few years later, Paulinus accompanied King Edwin to Northumbria, becoming the first bishop of York and establishing a mint in the city. Paulinus is the first man in British history for whom we have a physical description, Bede describing him as “a man tall of stature, a little stooping, with black hair and a thin face, a hooked and thin nose, his aspect both venerable and awe-inspiring”. Looking at the face on the coin, it is as if we are looking back over the gulf of centuries into the face of Paulinus himself. 10 October is the feast day of St Paulinus of York.