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Remembering Eve who loved us all

Evelyn Stafford, a dear family friend for all of my 61 years and more, departed this life on 5th July 2022, at the grand age of 95. The above photograph of Eve (4th from the right) with her Heffers of Cambridge colleagues on a 1962 outing to the theatre in London, reveals something of her radiant and fun-loving nature.

For me, memorable times with Eve include her 90th birthday dinner at Girton College, summer garden parties at King’s College, lunch at the Café Valerie Patisserie in Fitzroy Street, King’s Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols, precious hours together at her home in New Square, recording Eve’s memories of her years working at Heffers, and then at King’s, and fascinating conversations about her spell as a secretary for Lew Grade in London. Several stories ended up in my history of Heffers, published in 2016.

I enjoyed meeting Eve’s former King’s colleagues at the garden parties and was astonished at the end of one gathering to witness her asking the incumbent provost, Professor Michael Proctor, if he would ring for a taxi to take us home. Not only did he oblige, but he also escorted us to the gateway just outside his own residence, so that we would not have far to walk as we waited for our ride. I wondered what my college servant ancestors would have made of that.

Denis Cheason’s illustration of King’s College, from his 1983 book on ‘Cambridge Connections: an illustrated literary guide’.

Another King’s garden party ‘host’ was the college dean, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, who would kindly share his own stories. Eve especially enjoyed reminiscing with Dr Cherry. An entertaining yarn from the porters involves an ‘ancient man in his nineties’ who got stuck in the bath, as told in Alan James’ memoir, ‘A View from the Lodge’ (2011). The individual in question was said to have been George Humphrey Wolferstan (‘Dadie’) Rylands (1902-1999), Shakespearean scholar and fellow of King’s who, amongst other things, taught the late great Sir Peter Hall to speak in Shakespearean verse.

Eve remembered Dadie and liked to talk about the time he came to her New Square home for afternoon tea. A modest affair compared to the famous sumptuous luncheon hosted in Dadie’s rooms at King’s, portrayed in Virginia Woolf’s, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), although the sentiment would have been much the same,

‘No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.’

I plan to read Peter Raina’s biography of George “Dadie” Rylands, but will first need to save up. I like to own the biographies I read, especially those with Cambridge connections, and this impressive looking tome is costly.

Defending the honour of college servants

I came across Dadie more directly, when reading his war correspondence in the college archives, from the time he acted as the Domus Bursar during the Second World War, dealing with critical day-to-day matters such as the ‘military occupation’ of college rooms and the resulting tensions. For example, in October 1941, Dadie wrote to Squadron Leader G. Smart about a serious incident,

‘I understand that on Friday the RAF accused my second gardener of stealing potatoes belonging to them, forced him to make a statement and practically put him under arrest. The potatoes were of course his own and were being supplied by him to another of my College servants … It is the most disgraceful incident that has occurred since the Military or RAF took up quarters in College and I must of course report the matter to the Provost and the College Council.’

In his reply, the Squadron Leader explained that just previous to the potato incident, he had found it necessary to send two of his airmen to detention for the theft of a civilian’s child’s cycle, found in exactly the same place as the potatoes.

It will come as no surprise to Cambridge residents that in his acknowledgement Dadie declared,

‘The truth is that in the matter of bicycles Cambridge has no morals and both in war and peace we have unending trouble with undergraduates, servants and everyone else.’

Although he did take great pains to emphasise the particular sensitivities for college servants who had had their bicycle baskets searched by the RAF police, including the Head Butler who is in ‘absolute charge of all the College plate and holds a position of great trust’.

‘What I want to emphasise’ wrote Dadie, ‘is the psychological aspect which is at once dangerous and delicate … It is fatal if the College servants who, it must be remembered, hold a very special position in Colleges after long service – they are on a pension scheme; their families have served the College in the past; it is in a sense their home – I say that it is fatal if they are being to feel that they are being spied upon and suspected, that they can be asked to come to the Guard Room for examination without knowing anything about it. They feel being spoken to by “a policeman” much more than we should – they are often fearfully sensitive about their honesty being impugned and are readier to resent a wrongful charge.’

When I shared this story with Eve, she knew exactly what Dadie had been driving at. There are Cambridge families who have served with great pride for generations and who, even today, feel a strong attachment to ‘their’ college.

I’ve written blog posts on the subject of college servants and have detailed notes totalling 40,000 words from my research at the King’s College archives, plus several hours of interviews that I have yet to transcribe. My explorations were set aside in late 2017, making space for a commission to write ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018) for an American publisher. Since then, my study time has been taken up with paid research contracts and two new consuming interests: firstly, uncovering the truth about my great-great-grandmother, Susan Anstee (1863-1914) whose identity had only recently been revealed, and secondly, exploring the life and times of the romantic author, Norah C. James (1896-1979), whose first novel, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ (1929), made publishing history.

Oooer

As a close friend of my great-auntie Winnie, Eve and their friends Jill and Bet would take it in turn to host a weekly coffee morning. I would occasionally accompany my mother to Winnie’s gatherings at her flat in Nicholson Way, North Arbury, and sometimes to the other ladies’ homes during the 1970s and 80s.

One memorable visit was to Bet’s home on the De Freville Estate, or ‘muesli-belt’ as some liked to call it. As we stood waiting for her to answer the front door, we chatted to her neighbour who told us how much she admired Bet’s “penises”. I couldn’t resist a wry smile when, on a recent visit to our new home in Louth, my brother-in-law Bill who knows about these things, described our gorgeous pink specimens as, “Chelsea standard”.

Eve and friends, along with my family, always enjoyed a social occasion, and her recorded memories are scattered with gently humorous tales of celebrations and outings. For example, at the Heffers staff dances, she would be astounded by her colleagues who would rush to pile up their plates as soon as the buffet was announced, as though they hadn’t eaten for weeks. At one of the dances, not wanting to appear greedy, she and her friend Gill initially took a modest amount and went back for seconds – only to be mortified when someone loudly exclaimed,

“Evelyn and Gillian, don’t be afraid of your big appetites!”

Eve , wearing a spotted frock, is standing on the stairs, looking up at Reuben Heffer who is addressing the Trinity Street staff at the new bookshop, the night before the first day of trading in September 1970.

Looking on the bright side

During the pandemic, I had telephone conversations with Eve via the direct line installed in her care home room at Brook House, Cambridge. I had last seen her in person in November 2019, when visiting with my son George, over from Florida for his MSc graduation ceremony in Manchester. George was very fond of ‘auntie’ Eve and would write to her with updates on his adventures in far-flung countries.

Eve would greet my calls with, “Ah Julie, lovely to hear from you.” We would then chew over world events and our favourite bugbears. Eve was never short of something to say and I would update her on various happenings, our move to Louth, Trevor’s retirement, my contract research, shop work and volunteering, and Heffer related news. I enjoyed telling Eve about my latest book finds and I know she would have been interested in this week’s charity shop treasure, ‘The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’ by Diana Souhami (1998), purchased for £1.00.

Our conversations were upbeat. Even confined to her care home during such precarious times, Eve would count her blessings, and it was no surprise at all to hear ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, being played at her funeral.

She loved us all

When it was time to say goodbye at the end of our calls, Eve would give me her sincerest love. Our contact, while sporadic, was deeply affirming and reassuring.

Eve’s unconditional love for me and my fractious family is testimony to her enduring sensitivity and compassion. She loved us all, and that meant a great deal, particularly in the light of her own personal tragedies, losing her husband Arthur, and her only son, Mervyn.

I have a rather fuzzy memory of Arthur, a jazz pianist who played nightly at The Pagoda Restaurant in Cambridge, although I do remember listening to him play. Arthur died in 1976, aged 58. I don’t remember Mervyn who died suddenly in 1991 in his 42nd year. Eve’s mother, Mrs Farey, who lived at New Square with Eve in her later years until her death in 1985, made a great impression, much like her daughter.

In remembering Eve, I think of Dr Cherry’s words on ‘Lived Bereavement’.

‘When we are recently bereaved, part of what we grieve is that someone else’s life was not always as happy as it might have been. In the period after someone’s death we have an especially acute empathy for what we know of their suffering in life. We wish that they could’ve had a better past, that they could’ve enjoyed an easier, less troubled life … and yet the person they became, the person as whom they died, was not the sum product of the good days and the happy blessings, but the sum of all that happened and all that was drawn from the depths of their character by misfortune and worse. And it is for that person, whose journey we shared, and whom we ultimately admired not for their good fortune but for their triumph over adversity, that we give thanks in death as we should have done more regularly in life.’

I don’t for one moment believe that Eve led a troubled life, but losing Arthur and then Mervyn, her only child, was devastating.

I may not be Christian, or at all religious, but I do have a strong sense of our continuing consciousness, a sense that Eve shared (she would often tell sceptics who denied its existence that they were in for a “nice surprise”), and I like to think that she’s still out there, somewhere.

Sending love your way, dear friend, wherever you may be. X

Bookshops come and go

Do you have fond memories of brilliant bookshops that have sadly disappeared?

The Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop ceased trading on 31st May 2022

On 9th June 2022, Professor Sam Rayner’s fascinating inaugural UCL lecture, ‘Hidden in the bookshelves: Una Dillon and the ‘formidable’ women booksellers of London, 1930s-1960s’, featured several iconic London establishments, a few of which are still with us, most owned by Waterstones. You can watch her lecture on YouTube.

Growing up In Cambridge, we were spoilt for choice.

William Heffer, William Heffer,
Bowes and Bowes, Bowes and Bowes,
Galloway and Porter, Galloway and Porter,
Deighton Bell, Deighton Bell

This rhyme, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, harks back to a golden age of bookselling in twentieth-century Cambridge, when the city was served by several excellent establishments, each with its own distinctive history and character.

Fifty years ago, our family Saturday morning routine included a visit to the new Heffers Children’s Bookshop, where I would spend all my pocket money on a paperback, often a Puffin or Green Knight imprint at two shillings and sixpence, or from 1971, twenty-five or thirty new pence. Every visit to Heffers was an immersive bookish experience, enhanced by the ambiance of the shop and the people you would find there.

The antiquated shop front of the Children’s Bookshop in those early days disguised the ultra-modern interior, with its turquoise carpet, low sky-blue ceiling, orange staircase lined with mirrors and plastic moulded pea-green tubs for sitting or standing on. Transcended by books in these psychedelic surroundings, seeking my good read for the week, I would now and again glimpse the carnival of stories, and of my mind, all reflected in a large distorting mirror at the top of the stairs.

Interior, Heffer’s Children’s Bookshop 1969

I can also remember the old Heffers bookshop in Petty Cury, with its bottle glass bow windows, polished wooden floors, towering bookshelves, and grand balcony.

Heffer’s Petty Cury Bookshop

For many years, this iconic bookshop was divided into several departments, all crammed with stock, as described in an early twentieth century brochure,

‘Visitors to this, our Book Shop, constantly remark to us: “How do you find your Books?” “How do you know what you have got?” The questions are not unwarranted, for, though the exterior of the shop is small, the interior – consisting of four floors each 40 feet in depth – is the reverse, and with every available space shelved and crowded with Books: with Books in portentous stacks invading the floors, the questions are very pertinent.’

In the 1960s, we would visit my great-auntie Winnie at this bookshop, where she worked as secretary to the renowned bookseller, Mr Frank Stoakley. I would sit patiently on the library steps in the dusky Antiquarian Book Department, inhaling the sweet vanilla and almond aroma of old books, as mother chatted to auntie.

My family clocked up one hundred and twenty years of service for Heffers, starting with great-grandfather Frederick Anstee, employed as an errand boy by William Heffer in 1896, when he opened the Petty Cury shop. Frederick’s two daughters, Lilian (my grandmother) and Winifred (great-auntie Winnie), also worked for the firm. We do not know the exact circumstances in which Frederick was taken on, but in a 1952 biography of his father, William, Sidney Heffer wrote, ‘The increase in the business necessitated employing an errand boy. One lad was anything but a bright specimen–practically uneducated and from a miserable home.’ That lad was Frederick.

William undertook to educate Frederick, insisting he write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to work the next morning. Frederick thrived by this ‘strange tuition’, and eventually became head of the Science Department at the Petty Cury bookshop.

Amongst great-auntie Winnie’s papers is this portrait of an earnest boy with tight curls, sporting a smart knitted buttoned-up suit, captured at Ralph Starr’s photographic studio in Fitzroy Street, Cambridge. It was taken in 1892 and the boy is Frederick, aged nine years. At the time, his future benefactors were still living above the shop, just a few doors up from the studio. It is likely that the Heffer family arranged and paid for this portrait, as Frederick’s mother, a ‘Barnwell Lady’, would not have had the funds or indeed, the wherewithal, to do so.

In 2015, I combined my love of the past and of books, by researching and writing a history of Heffers. It was a project close to my heart. There were many quiet moments when I thought about Frederick and the other family members who had worked for the firm. It may sound whimsical, but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create, and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.

Published Oct 2016

’This Book is About Heffers’, won a Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Award, and I’ve given dozens of illustrated talks on the topic to a wide range of groups and societies, and to students. I enjoy meeting people and hearing about their own memories of the firm, so many interesting stories. Sometimes I had repeat visits. An elderly gentleman who had long since retired from Heffers Printers, attended two talks and in tears, expressed his gratitude for my book that had prompted many precious memories. Two ladies who had together attended a Heffers talk, then came to one of my history of mazes talks. My husband, Trevor, went to introduce me to them as they arrived and they exclaimed there was no need, as not only had they already met Julie Bounford, but they had also brought some Heffers memorabilia I might like to keep.

I was especially pleased to meet people who had worked with members of my family. At one talk, a lady took out her album to show me snaps of her Heffers friends and colleagues. Inside was a photograph of her standing with great-auntie Winnie on the balcony at the front of the Sidney Street shop in Cambridge. The Heffers book is dedicated to auntie.

Winifred Anstee at the Petty Cury bookshop, with Frank Stoakley and bookselling colleagues.

When bookshops close

In September 1970, Heffers relocated the Petty Cury bookshop to new premises at 20 Trinity Street, Cambridge, where they remain to this day. While retaining the historic Georgian façade above ground level, the architects designed a wide shopfront in bronze and plate glass for the new premises, providing a, ‘simple and elegant showcase onto the street’, and internally, everything was altered in a radical new concept in bookshop design.

Lord Butler, Master of Trinity College, who officially opened the new bookshop, described the design as ingenious and attractive, combining great spaciousness with a, “superabundance of cosy private nooks where book lovers can tuck themselves away for hours on end perusing their favourite volumes”.

Trinity Street bookshop

The movement of stock from Petty Cury to Trinity Street was a major operation, carried out by the removal firm Bullens. It took six and a half days, night and day, to transfer more than 80,000 books.

Reuben Heffer, grandson of William and a third generation Heffers director, welcomed the closure of the Petty Cury bookshop, stating at the time that the shop had become almost unworkable, “it was so Dickensian”, he said. But that was what we loved about it.

Despite the generally positive reception amongst staff and customers, the new premises at Trinity Street did not suit everyone. Many employees and customers remember Petty Cury as a more intimate shop. Claire Brown, who had also worked at Blackwell’s in Oxford, was particularly sorry to swap Petty Cury’s polished oak for carpets and chrome,

“It was a great pity that Heffers didn’t adopt the sensible Blackwell’s policy, which was, and is, to keep it looking exactly as it did in the nineteenth century. Heffers, when it left Petty Cury, in the passionate urge to be new and up to date … What Cambridge and Oxford had to sell was the past. The fact that there is a modern business going on is beside the point … They did lose a lot when they left the Petty Cury.”

Opinion was clearly divided and many Cambridge folk still miss that old Dickensian bookshop.

Loss of the Louth charity bookshop

After moving to Louth in Lincolnshire, I took up a volunteering opportunity, as bookselling assistant at the Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop. My previous retail experience had been limited and I’ve never been a natural salesman. As a young teenager, I had had a Saturday job at a greengrocer in Akeman Street, Cambridge, standing around in the freezing cold, serving customers and lugging sacks of potatoes for a heavily made-up shop keeper who spent much of the time buffing her nails in the back room. And so, in my application for this role I emphasised instead my love of books and bookshops, and an interest in the history of bookselling informed by my family history.

From February 2022, my regular shift at the Louth bookshop was half a day a week, although, along with some of the other volunteers, from mid-May I helped to cover the manager’s shifts while he volunteered elsewhere on the Polish border, assisting those displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Our volunteer manager was still away when we received news of the bookshop’s imminent closure on 31st May. With just a few days’ notice, we managed to notify many loyal customers, and we held a closing down sale.

Those last few days were distressing for all concerned. Especially those volunteers who had given much of their time over several years to the bookshop and the charity. As a relatively recent contributor, my emotional investment in this enterprise did not compare.

In her inaugural lecture, Sam Raynor declared that Una Dillon did for UCL, what Heffers and Blackwell’s did for Cambridge and Oxford, in establishing a flagship ‘campus’ bookshop. Dillon’s, Heffers, and Blackwell’s (owners of Heffers since 1999), have all been acquired by Waterstones. Of course, our little second-hand charity bookshop in Louth was never going to be of interest to the big W.

I understand what Ernest Heffer (son of William) meant when, in his 1933 address to young booksellers, he declared that a bookshop is a ‘microcosm of everything of importance which is happening in the world’. Although more recently, when I see our world going to hell in a handcart, a bookshop is my means of escape.

As I observed the anguish and chaos in the Louth & District Hospice Charity bookshop on that last day of trading, I felt bereft. It’s true that bookshops are close to the heart of our communities, and long may they remain so.

I never imagined that I would ever take part in closing one down.

Finding comfort in Still Life

The singer Peg Temper, in Sarah Winman’s beautifully crafted novel ‘Still Life’, sang for her life, and for yours too, ‘Because the world never turned out the way you wanted it to. It simply turned. And you hung on.’

Are you hanging on?

I hope so.

This evocative novel may well be just what the doctor ordered for these troubled times. If you’re fortunate enough to be reading it in a safe and secure space, then I hope that you will, like me, appreciate the privilege of being able to lose yourself in Winman’s intimate and, at times, comedic and uplifting tale of friendship and love.

I’m reminded of a 1939 Heffers of Cambridge advertisement featured in my history of the famous Cambridge bookseller, ‘This Book is about Heffers’ (2016).

At the time The Cambridge Review Commentator wrote,

‘Fortunately, most of us still preserve sufficient presence of mind to be able occasionally to leave war-thoughts behind and turn to our bookshelves. At the bookshops War and Peace has been in great demand from those “who have always been meaning to tackle it and have never before found the time.” At such period as this there is comfort in length. One desires a really substantial world into which to escape.’

‘Still Life’ is set mostly in quintessential post-war Florence. There’s art history and an appearance by the young Morgan Forster and his mother, to boot.

Morgan with his mother, Lily, in the late 1920s (image featured in Nicola Beauman’s 1993 biography of EM Forster).

A minor insurrection

And now? We find ourselves at perhaps the most dangerous moment in history since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s a worrying time.

I may have been born the year before that frightening episode, but my upbringing was strictly non-political, to such an extent that mother and father strongly expressed their concern about me becoming ‘politicised’ when I attended university in 1980.

Having joined Women’s Aid and CND as an undergraduate, I finally found the courage of my convictions and became a full-time volunteer for the Cambridge Women’s Refuge; still unapproved and despite being told I’d be disowned if I became a social worker. Then, as a postgraduate student in Sheffield, I was an active supporter of the Miner’s Strike, which infuriated mother who accused me and my ‘miner friends’ of blowing up Margaret Thatcher and her colleagues at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984.

The need for parental approval remains strong and in 2019, aged 58, when joining an Extinction Rebellion protest at a petrol station near my parents’ home, I was very apprehensive about the possibility of being spotted by father.

Earlier this month, at a Louth U3a book club session, we got onto the topic of protesting, and I was delighted to hear that my new friends had been involved in various protests over the decades, including the movement against the Vietnam War, and against the incarceration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We also talked about the 1984/5 Miner’s Strike, swapping stories of the impact of its policing, and the decimation of mining communities.

When I arrived home after that session, I picked up an email from the parents confirming their forthcoming trip to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary. A stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

Comfort in books and things

A more affirming aspect of my childhood was our weekly visit to Heffers Children’s Bookshop, and to the Central Library, then located upstairs at the Guildhall in Cambridge.

The writer Simone de Beauvoir viewed books – all books – as the most precious things in the world and dreamed of shutting herself away in the dusty avenues of her local circulating library. I like to think that de Beauvoir would have appreciated the way in which the Italian writer, Italo Calvino described the massing of written pages that can bind a room like the thickness of foliage in a dense wood, like stratifications of rock, slabs of slate, slivers of schist. When I look at my collection of biographies, I see reassuring layers of wisdom.

It isn’t just books, though. There is comfort to be found in all material things, as Daniel Miller discovered in his 2008 anthropological study of human values, feelings and experiences; a study that explores ways in which material culture helps people to deal with loss and change, and how the humanity of people is revealed by their material possessions. Miller observes in ‘The Comfort of Things’ that material objects are an integral and inseparable aspect of all relationships. He affirms the centrality of relationships to modern life, and the centrality of material culture to relationships.

The fabric of our lives is inter-woven with everyday objects. Miller cites the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that our orientation to everyday objects is one of the main reasons why we accept as natural and unchallenged, the routines and expectations of life.

With her Bruegel-esque narrative, Sarah Winman gives us in ‘Still Life’ what Virginia Woolf would describe as a tale filled with, ‘people going about their daily affairs, toiling, failing, succeeding, eating, hating, loving, until they die’. For Winman, the power of still life lies precisely in triviality, in a world of reliability that is symbolised by objects representing ordinary life,

‘Within these forms something powerful is retained: continuity. Memory. Family.’

Cultural devotion and destruction

Unlike Miller and Bourdieu, I’m not attempting a rigorous science of society. While it was a pleasure to revisit my own copy of Bourdieu’s masterpiece, ‘The Rules of Art’ (1996 translation), I’m simply musing upon what Miller describes as the social cosmology that helps to determine the order of those things that shape my miniscule but holistic world. For example, when helping out this week at the Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop in what is now my hometown, I realised what the physical presence of books means to me. How vital they are to my existence. I venerate them.

But what if your bookshops, libraries – and homes – are being blown to pieces?

As he observed the terrible destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces, Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, wrote a piece on protecting libraries and archives in Ukraine,

‘You disrupt and destabilise a people by disrupting their sense of self – their language, their literature, their culture.’

We know that war can destroy culture.

It’s an appalling tragedy. Hopefully, when the fighting finally stops, the Ukrainian people (those who have survived) can reclaim their homeland. And hopefully, they will, like the Italians in Sarah Winman’s magnificent novel, be able to recover many of those precious antiquities and books that define their humanity. For, as the art historian Evelyn Skinner in ‘Still Life’ declares,

‘Art versus humanity is not the question … One doesn’t exist without the other.’

A review of ‘The Spinning House Affair’ by Jane Taylor

Published by Thunderpoint Publishing Ltd, 2021.
The Spinning House, Cambridge UK. Demolished in 1901.

Emotional investment

In ‘The Spinning House Affair’ Taylor tells an atmospheric tale, inspired by the true stories of Daisy Hopkins and Jane Elsdon, imprisoned at the Spinning House, Cambridge University’s infamous house of correction in the late nineteenth century. She also highlights the broader struggle of women at this time, through the plight of her characters Hope Bassett (daughter of a college porter) and Aurelia Travers (daughter of a newspaper proprietor).

While there is pathos, the novel is light on sentiment, to the extent that a friend gave up on it because she was bored and didn’t care about any of the characters, not even Rose Whipple, a housemaid who is erroneously arrested by the proctors and incarcerated in the Spinning House – not once, but twice. Perhaps Taylor set out in her style to reflect the seemingly restrained nature of late Victorian Cambridge. The tone is genteel and not especially demonstrative, although it is often lyrical and pleasing.

I understand my friend’s frustration. To be honest, I like a dash of emotion in my history. The historian, David Olusoga, argues that public historians need to embrace the emotional, human aspects of the subject. In a 2020 interview with De Montfort University, he declared,

“I get lots of messages saying that in a programme like A House Through Time, I am destroying the spirit of history and being over-emotional … But if I don’t make the people in history real to me, how can I get people to care about them on the programme?”

We should bear in mind that Taylor is not a historian and that her account is fictional. Interestingly, her author biography tells us that she has a doctorate in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia and that she intends to further explore the blurring of genre boundaries through her fiction.

Eloquence

On the creative side, I really enjoyed Taylor’s tableaux vivants, especially of late nineteenth century Cambridge in winter; the snow that,‘promised to grant a disguise for all rough edges, and must surely offer a brief respite to personal worries, dissolving them in its whiteness just as it promised the illusion of comfort and an untainted tomorrow.’ The snow felt mysterious to young Aurelia Travers in that it augured a most exhilarating, ‘period of difference.’

Various activities of the people serving the town and the university are skilfully staged; the undertaker, the butter seller, the college servants collecting dirty crockery from student lodging houses. And it is nice for those of us who know and love Cambridge to see familiar trade names such as Hawkins’ pastry counter, the Eaden Lilley emporium and the Fountain Inn.

Taylor’s descriptions are eloquent and articulate, but I agree with my friend. The characters are underdeveloped and as a consequence, it is hard to empathise with them. I did finish the book. Not because I cared about Rose, Hope or Aurelia, but because I appreciated the lexicon and I’m interested in this period of Cambridge history, Cambridge being my hometown and the scene of my great-great grandmother’s tragic life, mired by poverty and prostitution.

Exploitation

Whether casual or professional, the town’s prostitutes were viewed as a necessary evil, although many were arrested and detained on a regular basis. Victorian double standards flourished in this university town, where the visiting and resident scholars exploited vulnerable local women and girls for their own ends. According to the nineteenth century author and magistrate, Robert Mackenzie Beverley, Barnwell was ‘set apart and dedicated to sin… prostitutes swarm there’.

The University proctors and their constables (known as bulldogs) would patrol the town precincts for women they ‘suspected of evil’. For a few years after opening his first shop in Fitzroy Street, Barnwell, William Heffer, founder of the great Cambridge bookshop that is Heffers, worked in his ‘spare’ time as a proctor’s bulldog. (In the 1890s William took pity on my great-grandfather, described by the Heffer family as a ‘bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home’. He undertook to educate this son of a ‘Barnwell lady’, insisting he write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to work the next morning. The boy thrived by this strange tuition, and eventually became head of the Science Department at the Petty Cury bookshop.)

The proctors had the power to arrest and would escort their arrestees to the infamous Spinning House, where they were tried and sentenced by the University Vice-Chancellor. Women who had been plucked off the streets were charged with a range of misdemeanours such as, ‘consorting with a student’ and, ‘walking with a young man in the street suspected to be an undergraduate.’ Critically, although ‘suspected of evil’, not all those imprisoned were street walkers, and in the 1890s, the Vice-Chancellor’s unpopular authority on this matter was abolished by Act of Parliament, the much-hated Spinning House being finally demolished in 1901.

I scoured the Spinning House Committal Books at Cambridge University Library for any mention of my great-great grandmother and learned that she had never been detained there, although several of her neighbours in Wellington Street, Barnwell, had. She had instead been detained in the town goal, several times. The Borough Police would patrol the streets of Barnwell, known locally as ‘a place of leisure’. Women arrested by the police were usually older than those arrested in the town by the university proctors. They were brought before the Cambridge Borough Magistrates and upon conviction, incarcerated in the Cambridge town goal on Castle Hill.

Taylor eloquently describes Barnwell as a ‘suburb of open cesspits, feral cats and dogs and baleful vapours of decay curling through an extended warren of shabby tenements, cramped passageways and overcrowded dens.’ Joined to Cambridge town by the smart houses along Jesus Lane and Maid’s Causeway, the area was notorious for its brothels and private receiving houses. The social reformer and founder of the Save the Children charity, Eglantine Jebb, in her 1906 social study of Cambridge, described the people of Barnwell as pitiful caricatures of men and women, ‘creatures of stunted facilities, of wasted and misused gifts, of poor and mean experience, prisoners of their circumstances, ground down by the difficulties of their lot, or ruined by its dangers.’ My ancestors’ neighbours in late nineteenth century Barnwell included carpenters, painters, gardeners, compositors, bricklayers, plumbers, shoeblacks, shirtbinders, brewers, bedmakers, lamplighters, coprilite diggers and organ grinders.

Jebb asked why we still see about our streets, ‘men and women whose very faces tell us how low we have allowed them to sink?’ Her study highlighted concerns about the very large number of hotels, inns and public houses in the town; 279 establishments, or one to every 138 persons. She was citing a 1903 deputation to the Cambridge Borough Magistrates on the need for a reduction in the number of licensed houses in the town. The ‘memorial’ for this plea mentioned a stretch of 796 yards, from the east side of Wellington Street to the south side of Newmarket Road, which contained a total of 22 public houses. By this time, Cambridge had had its first temperance mayor, Alfred Isaac Tillyard, and the temperance movement was growing. Tillyard was the editor and proprietor of the Cambridge Independent Press.

Execution

Taylor appears to emulate Tillyard in her fictional portrait of William Travers, founding proprietor of The Mercury, a daily Cambridge newspaper. Initially restrained by a keen interest in the ‘mundane of everyday existence in Cambridge’ and an aversion to sensationalism, in response to the outcry over Rose Whipple’s case, Travers eventually decides to challenge the University’s disdain for ‘his Cambridge’, and the abuse of its power to ‘shamefully insult our womenfolk.’ In doing so, he demonstrates his desire to enter into a ‘new intimacy’ with his readers.

Like Travers, I sense that his creator needed to engender greater zeal in her final execution. The novel reads like an extended exercise in creative fusion that is somehow missing an essential ingredient. Perhaps Taylor was trying to do too much. Her rendering of this ‘wave of terror’ and ‘historic struggle’ may be cleverly written in parts, but overall it lacks feeling and as a consequence is underwhelming.

Errors

While appreciating the ever-constant need for proof reading in my own writing, and while I could, with a stretch, overlook the date apostrophe (‘1890’s’) in the back cover (and Amazon) blurb, it is astonishing to see that Hope Bassett and Rose Whipple’s names are spelled incorrectly. I suspect the author did not sign this off.

Mr Doggett, a true Heffers of Cambridge eccentric

A year ago, in February 2020 I had a meeting with archivist Dr David Jones at The Perse Upper School in Cambridge. Dr Jones had kindly agreed to give a talk on the charities of Stephen Perse, at a forthcoming Cambridgeshire Association for Local History conference that, in the end, was cancelled because of COVID.

The theme of the conference was going to be, ‘The Charities that Began at Home: Historical Perspectives on Local Philanthropy.’ (thank you Antony Carpen for suggesting the excellent title). The other speakers we had lined up were Susan Woodall on the Cambridge Female Refuge; Tricia McBride on the Addenbrookes Charitable Trust; and Dr Evelyn Lord on Cambridge alms houses. Perhaps one day in the future we will be permitted to assemble for this fascinating programme.

Upon greeting me at The Perse, Dr Jones was most gracious about the history of Heffers that I’d written in 2016 (This Book is About Heffers). He was especially pleased to see a photograph in the book of John Doggett, a Cambridge gentleman who for decades, held court in the Trinity Street bookshop as a regular and loyal customer.

Mr Doggett in the Trinity Street bookshop

Several booksellers had spoken fondly about Mr Doggett when I interviewed them for my research. Suzanne Jones recalled his love of David Lean films and books by Charles Dickens. Kate Turner (née Hastings) always heard him from across the shop floor and remembered him eating her colleagues’ sandwiches (he was also spotted eating raw sausages on the gallery). Jean Clarke (known to her bookselling colleagues as Jean the Bean) remembered Mr Doggett answering the phone at Trinity Street if no-one was at the desk on the shop floor, shouting,

“There’s no-one here at the moment!”

He regularly enquired if there were any jobs going at Heffers, would talk about the ‘Beard Law’, and would stand at the front of the shop, yelling out the cast names from the 1947 film version of Oliver Twist.

In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Heffers Manager David Robinson, named Mr Doggett as their favourite regular customer,

“He has been coming into the shop forever. It used to be Thursdays and Saturdays but is now just Saturday mornings. He has his own chair and always wants the same questions answering—have we got any books on pigs, traction engines or the First World War? He wishes everybody who comes near him a Happy New Year, regardless of the date, and then happily shuffles out of the shop for another week. He can be a distraction, but Saturdays wouldn’t be the same without him.”

Aged 90, Mr Doggett sadly passed over to the eternal bookshop in 2018.

‘Nowt so queer as folk’

Not meaning to be rude, the phrase ‘nowt so queer as folk’ seems appropriate when it comes to depicting people at Heffers. I don’t mind saying that, mainly because members of my own family served over one hundred and twenty years with the firm. The shops were a haven for many characters and eccentrics – staff and customers. According to bookseller Richard Reynolds, the Trinity Street staff were all, in their way, eccentric. Perhaps this can be said about the book trade in general.

Heffers staff badge

The bookselling side of the business at Heffers is remembered as being more ‘edgy’, although the stationery side at the shop in Sidney Street, Cambridge, had its fair share of eccentrics, as noted by retired Manager, Mr Norman Biggs who said,

“We had our moments. It makes life interesting, characters in the firm and in the customers.”

Staff shared many anecdotes about their colleagues, many long gone, such as a Sidney Street manager known as, ‘Barmy’ Clarke, who ran the Maps and Guidebooks department in the 1950s. Mr Clarke had perfected a way of avoiding having serve customers. From his counter, he could see the front door and when he saw someone approaching the shop he didn’t wish to serve, he would niftily step out the side door and re-enter from the front. Now, behind the customer, he was able to go up to them and say,

“Are you being served? Oh, I see you’re being taken care of.”

Heffers Sidney Street shop, 1953

The different Heffers shops had their own distinctive cultures, very much separate worlds. There were moments when colleagues seemed to forget that they were there to provide a service, but then you might say that this was no different to any other organisation. Perhaps at Heffers, it was question of the extent to which idiosyncrasies were accommodated, as indeed many were, over many years.

Just like their customers, some booksellers would take a dislike to a particular book or author. Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and actively discouraged customers from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s.

“You don’t want to buy that old rogue”, he would say.

Mr Littlechild

Considered ‘old school’ by then, colleagues would often observe Mr Littlechild ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.

Heffers Petty Cury bookshop

Littlechild began his fifty-four-year career at the firm as an apprentice in 1903. During the First World War he had a spell as a prisoner of war. After the war ended, he returned to Heffers. Perhaps a more incongruous memory is that of Mr Littlechild in regular conversation with a favourite customer of his, English comedian and actor, Cyril Fletcher, who appeared as the Pantomime Dame in the Arts Theatre from 1949 to 1972, in shows written by his wife, Betty Astell.

Cyril Fletcher

Some booksellers took a liking not just to particular books, but to reading in general (and who can blame them?). Marion and Dudley Davenport, who both worked at the Petty Cury bookshop, remembered a colleague in the 1950s and ’60s who sat in a corner of his section reading for most of the time. Another would occasionally lose his temper at a particular book and flail around with it, knocking other books off the shelves.

Heffers Trinity Street bookshop

The author, Julian Sedgwick, who worked at the main Trinity Street bookshop from 1991 to 2003, fondly recalled the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird customers”, who continually fascinated him. His most memorable included a beaten Chris Patten, fresh from losing his seat in the 1992 election, asking for advice on books about China. He was about to head to Hong Kong and left with a stack of books; and the President of Armenia with his hefty bodyguards bearing down on the Oriental Department, asking to see the Caucasus section. They dutifully examined the twenty or so titles but made no purchase. Julian also remembers surreptitiously watching Terry Waite while he quietly browsed the shelves in the basement following his release from captivity. His dignity and sense of calm fascinated him.

I can’t wait to get back into bookshops when the lockdown is over.

Lines of Life

Our friend Gwyn recently shared his 2020 reading list on Facebook, having scored each book out of five. He mentioned having received the gift of a Heffers of Cambridge book subscription, a bespoke service whereby the bookshop sends a title to the recipient each month. Over the year, Gwyn read those and many more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, subscription services have become popular during periods of lockdown. It’s interesting to see what others read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges. For one year only – 2019 – I compiled monthly collages of the books I read, and in August that year, I wrote a post about my book harvest.

The signing

For Christmas 2020, we were delighted to receive a Box of Stories, from Trevor’s eldest, Ellie, who clearly understands our love of reading. It’s a subscription club and as they say on their website, every time you open a box, you will discover an author or a book you might not have otherwise come across or selected. A percentage of their profits go to charities working for literacy.

The selection contained in our Box of Stories

I had already read one of the selection, The Rapture by Claire McGlasson, rightly described by The Guardian as a clever fact-based debut about The Panacea Society in Bedford. Trevor and I attended a launch event at the St Neots Library, organised by Jacqui, the manager of Waterstones, St Neots. After Claire’s intriguing talk, I bought a copy of her novel and went over to where she was sitting, in order to get it signed. As I waited to attract her attention, another member of the audience decided to form a queue from the other side. After a minute or so, Claire looked up, saw me, and assumed I was trying to push in front of the (by now) lengthy line of eager fans. She asked if they would mind her signing my copy first, and they said it was fine, lending weight to the false impression that I had not been there first. Such incidents come back to haunt you.

Solace in books

I’ve always found great solace in books and concluded in recent years that reading, rather than counselling, may guide me out of the emotional torture chamber that my mind had become (needless to say, this had not been brought about by the book signing mishap). For many of us, reading is a form of therapy. In her novel, Possession, AS Byatt describes ‘personal’ readings that ‘snatch’ for personal meanings, and I’m drawn to those lines of life that, as she says, describe the indescribable, taking us out of time and towards not blindness but understanding.

The practice of bibliotherapy has a long history, although the term was not coined until 1916, by the North American Unitarian Minister, Samuel McChord Crothers. The author Ann Cleeves, who created the fictional Northumberland detective, Vera Stanhope, once worked for Kirklees Libraries in West Yorkshire, where the Chief Librarian established a bibliotherapy project, attaching three part-time ‘therapists’ to GP practices who prescribed books. Apparently, literature can relieve chronic pain and dementia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bibliotherapy is, ‘The use of reading matter for therapeutic purposes in the treatment of nervous disorders.’ I needed to open what the author, Penelope Lively, called that, ‘medicine chest of works.’ I needed to self-medicate.

Although by this time I was using a Kindle, I was not inclined towards an exclusively digital bookish experience and would put the device to one side and employ various ways and means to replenish my supply of solid, hold-in-your-hand-put-on-your-shelf books, with varying degrees of success. Initially, my strategy was aimless; going with the hype, whatever wins the prizes; making a list and playing ‘pin the book’; waiting for a sunny day and grabbing the book on the shelf with a yellow spine, or a sombre day and going for blue; searching the bookshelves of friends in the expectation of a loan that, frankly, would never be returned; picking up books left behind in cafés.

For some months in 2019, I attended a book club in a gastro pub. With each session I grew more exasperated with our club leader who juggled the scoffing and scrolling when searching for reviews on her mobile phone, but it was worth it. As I re-read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for this club, I was struck by Ralph’s comforting daydream of his bedtime routine at home, where this seemingly civilised boy could reach up and touch his beloved dog-eared books, and for a brief moment, everything was all right.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli, North America’s first full-time book reviewer (and the first woman permitted to use Harvard’s library), saw books as, ‘a medium for viewing all humanity’.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850) journalist, critic and women’s rights activist.

Over a century later, in 1968, when the late Lithuanian scholar and human rights activist, Irena Veisaitė, encountered an American bookstore for the first time, she realised how much the Soviet government had stolen from her, by making books so inaccessible in her home country. As she would say, “All of those books and the ideas collected in them belonged to me too!”

Irena Veisaitė (1928-2020), Lithuanian theatre and literary critic, taken by Alma Pater

Never imagining what it must have been like to have been so deprived, I have always taken my access to books for granted. Reading defined my universe and helped me to grow. The author, Virginia Woolf, who believed that we all learn with feeling, said that after the dust of reading has settled, we must open our minds to a fast flocking of innumerable impressions.

Through reading, I would gain greater insight into the human condition and find a way of unlocking my own emotional truth and through reading, I would learn to accept what I could not change.

A book review tinged with imposter syndrome

Thoughts on Sue Slack’s book, ‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’, interspersed with brief reflections on academic jargon, school history lessons, and imposter syndrome.

Slack’s highly illustrated and informative introduction to the Cambridge suffragist movement, presented in the style of an in-depth gazetteer, plugs an important gap in the narrative on the British votes for women campaign. Chapter One, entitled, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’, provides a useful overture, confirming the pivotal role of Cambridge in the campaign, and introducing some of the significant players, societies and events.

The book covers the topics of rural societies in Cambridgeshire towns such as Ely and March; the role of key Cambridge colleges (specifically Girton, Newnham, Hughes Hall and Homerton); suffragettes and militancy in Cambridge; the story of the Women’s Freedom League; ‘Suffering Gents’ who supported women’s suffrage; ‘Fighting Harridans’, women who opposed women’s suffrage; the impact of the First World War on the campaign; what happened after some women were given the vote in 1918, bringing the chronicle up to date by noting the issues of equal pay and opportunity in the context of The Fawcett Society’s continuing campaign for equal rights; and celebrating Cambridge women, including the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square on 24thApril 2018, one hundred years on from the Representation of the People Act.

This is not an ‘academic’ book, and is all the better for it. Slack herself says that she approached the subject from a local and family history perspective. In doing so, she tells the story through a series of portraits, cameos and reflections that are, thankfully, free from academic jargon

In 2019, Professor John R. McNeill, President of the American Historical Association, observed that obscure language is undemocratic; it reaches only a few initiates and excludes the great majority of readers (see his blog post, ‘Jargon in history writing shuts out the public’). He says that history is one of the few disciplines that allows efficient communication among specialists in ordinary language. The same cannot be said for my own discipline, sociology.

On completing my doctorate and a couple of research contracts at the University of East Anglia, I decided to quit academia in 2015 and focus on researching and writing social history, starting with the history of Heffers of Cambridge.

Heffer’s Children’s Bookshop, 1969

I now describe myself as a ‘social historian and author’, and whilst having worked incredibly hard to earn the title of ‘Dr’, I do sometimes feel a bit of a fraud at gatherings when surrounded by proper historians who, unlike me, have higher degrees in History. At least the responses to my publications and illustrated talks have been favourable, and I particularly enjoy meeting fellow history enthusiasts.

From the beginning, Slack disabuses readers of the common myth that votes for women were won by the suffragettes led by the Pankhurst family, and explains the critical distinction between suffragette and suffragist. I could have done with this book as a teenage scholar in the 1970s. Whilst my secondary school history teacher, the memorable Mr Maxwell-Stuart of Chesterton, Cambridge, went beyond the confines of an unwritten national curriculum dictated by the emulation of grammar school convention, I do not recall any specific lessons on the movement for women’s suffrage. I do recall watching the television series, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ (written by a team of men) in 1974, and hero-worshipping Sylvia Pankhurst. Had I been better informed about Millicent Fawcett, I would perhaps have admired her more.

I did admire Mr Maxwell-Stuart, a colourful educator (despite turning up to school every day in a dark suit) with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. It was many years, however, before I pursued history in any meaningful way, apart from becoming an inveterate reader of biographies in my spare time. As Miss Haywood, the Principal of Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, wrote in 1978, ‘Julie seems to lack the confidence in her own ability that will in fact enable her to make the most of her gifts.’ My ‘A’ Level History grade was poor, and any plans to pursue a career in librarianship and archivism were shelved.

Julie Bounford (née Driver) 1981

The confidence eventually began to bloom in late 1980, over two-hundred miles from home, at university in Bangor, North Wales, where I gained a respectable upper-second in ‘Social Administration’. Looking back at the study modules, I’m struck by their relevance to the multifarious and (conceivably) successful career I did eventually pursue, in the fields of public sector housing, equality and social policy, homelessness, victim support, higher education and social history. The modules included political sociology, crime, deviance and social control, the welfare state and the citizen, theories of social policy and income maintenance, health and personal social services, legal and political institutions, the development of the welfare state, and nineteenth century origins of social policy.

In her chapter on rural suffrage societies, Slack points out that their members were mainly made up of women with private means including ladies of the manor; members in Cambridge itself were often don’s wives or ladies associated with the University. In the villages, support was also given by shopkeepers, teachers, lawyers and doctors. Virtually no town or country working-class women signed-up.

In her foreword to Slack’s book, Emeritus Professor Mary Joannou notes that the history of the suffrage campaigns is not merely that of the socially privileged women, and refers to the ‘forgotten’ and ‘unknown’ women such as the college bedders, shop assistants, seamstresses and homeworkers. The women featured in Slack’s book were, however, mainly privileged, which may reflect just how difficult it is to research the hidden lives of those who were not. I am reminded of the invisibility of my nanna, Ethel Driver, who gave many years of loyal service as a college bedder in Cambridge, and who, according to college records, never existed. Nanna lived in a small terraced house in Christchurch Street, worked doggedly, and was devoted to her ‘boys’ on her staircase.

Ethel Driver (left) with her sister, Ivy

Watching the 2015 film, ‘Suffragette’, I was struck by the different trajectories of the mistresses and their servants who fought for the same cause. A review of the film by Dr Laura Schwartz in History Today rightly observes that it fails to address the tension between mistress and maid, ‘between the woman who didn’t wish to waste her life on domestic drudgery, and the woman she paid to ‘drudge’ in her place’. At least Slack and Joannou acknowledge the issue.

The inclusion of contemporary photographs in Slack’s book to illustrate locations, alongside a wide range of images from the archives, enhances the narrative and is especially useful to readers who are familiar with Cambridge today.

Many times in recent years, I have walked past my old primary school, St Luke’s in Victoria Road Cambridge, the location of a Women’s Suffrage Public Meeting during the campaign. Slack reproduces the poster for this meeting in her book.

The old St Luke’s School, Victoria Road, Cambridge (photo: Julie Bounford)

Slack’s excavation of the abundant Cambridgeshire Collection at the Cambridge Central Library (which is thankfully available to all) has clearly enriched her presentation. It is also good to see the contributions of the Cambridgeshire Archives, the colleges and the University Library.

Many archives are more accessible to the general public than people realise. That is, when we’re not in a pandemic lockdown doing our bit to protect those more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19, and the wonderful NHS teams who treat them. All facilities at 24th March 2020 are closed, and rightly so.

There are also excellent historians and biographers who write blogs about Cambridge women in history. Do explore for example, Antony Carpen’s ‘Lost Cambridge’ and Dr Ann Kennedy Smith’s ‘Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914′.

The lack of an index in Slack’s book is a significant shortcoming and, unless I am missing something, the author biography is irritating, as it refers to the author’s book soon to be published, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’.

Note to Amberley Publishing: pay more attention when checking the final proof.

Note to Sue Slack: thank you for a job well done.

Note to self: stay at home and keep writing.

‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’ by Sue Slack (2018)

Amberley Publishing £14.99

Winner of a Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Book Award, 2019

New illustrated talk on the strange tale of Norah C. James & her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’

The December 2019 publication in The Cambridge Independent, of my feature on Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’, was a timely reminder that I should be promoting my new illustrated talk on this intriguing episode from the twentieth century. Below is the title and some blurb. If you would like to book a talk for your group or society, please drop me an email – juliebounford@gmail.com

The strange tale of Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’

Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, Norah James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929. The novel was swiftly ruled obscene, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place neglected in favour of more esteemed names including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, which led to the establishment of the Obelisk Press, banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience. Her first novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation after World War One, and the story of its suppression, seen as a conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action, is fascinating. James went on to write over 75 publications including romantic novels, radio plays, short stories and articles. During the 1930s, she had a weekend cottage near Cambridge and people still talk about her. She died in 1979.

Norah C James, 1934

Labyrinths & Mazes in the Americas

In my illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, I cover the highlights of this fascinating four-thousand year story. After a recent talk in Cambridge, a member of the audience asked specifically about labyrinths and mazes in the Americas, which is the focus of this post, drawn from a 2018 article I wrote for the website, Mexicolore.

Mysterious origins

The labyrinth design occurs worldwide during prehistoric times, when travel between the continents would have been virtually non-existent, which simply adds to the mystery. It suggests that humans as a race have always been intrigued by the pattern, preoccupied with spirals, circuitous routes, and their associated rituals. Knowledge of the original purpose of these rituals in specific cultures has not always travelled as effectively over time as the design itself, and from today’s perspective we can only surmise the true meaning in some cases. Labyrinths do, of course, occur in nature and must surely have inspired humans to create labyrinthine symbols. The Greek word for the Nautilus shell, for example, is laburinthoi.

The earliest recorded labyrinths created by humans are found in petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings. Dating these precisely is challenging, and identifying the very first carved labyrinth is tricky, if not impossible. A disputed contender for the earliest is an incision on an inner chamber wall of the Neolithic tomb known as Tomba del Labrinto at Luzzanas in Sardinia; some experts however, have concluded this may actually be Roman. Most intriguing are the early labyrinths of North America.

As Jeff Saward (co-founder of Labyrinthos) declares, the origin of labyrinths in the American Southwest is one of the biggest mysteries of the entire story. Examples are found in southern Arizona, near the Gillespie Dam, and in New Mexico at Arroyo Hondo and Galisteo, but so far, no inscription or decoration has been found on a securely datable object from pre-European times. In the 1930s and ’40s, former Arizona Senator William Coxon recorded labyrinth petroglyphs in the Southwest and devised the theory that these geometric inscriptions, found in very widely separated localities, provided evidence of global migration. Saward calls for further fieldwork and the cataloguing of labyrinth petroglyphs, so we may determine exactly how and when the labyrinth reached the New World.

Meaning and mythology in the Americas

In the Americas the labyrinth can be a symbol of tribal identity. The Man in the Maze design, for example, features in Tohono O’odham and Pima legends. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community adopted the Man in the Maze motif as their Great Seal. In this context, the design symbolizes an elder brother or medicine man, living in a place where people could not find him.

Illustration of the ‘Man in the Maze’ Great Seal ©Trevor Bounford

Mazes and labyrinths clearly refuse to conform to any rudimentary definition, and in attempting to navigate their winding history, I devised broadly chronological classifications; ‘classical’, ‘spiritual’, ‘medieval’, ‘rustic’, ‘romantic’ and ‘modern’. In many cultures, labyrinths have been given a metaphysical or sacred status that takes us beyond the natural world, as ritualized symbols and sites with different devotional purposes. And it is this that I specifically refer to the Mesoamerican notion of mazes.

Perhaps the most illuminating way of tracing the real origins of the labyrinth (or maze – I use the term interchangeably) is indeed to investigate its deeper significance. As I’ve already acknowledged, the form is integral to cultures worldwide. In the book I explore historical icons in different locations, along with associated practices and what they signify, particularly from a symbolic and spiritual perspective. By engaging with labyrinths and mazes in a spiritual context, we give meaning to their many and various interpretations. These include a metaphor for life’s journey, a means of warding off evil, a method of ensuring fertility, and a form of spiritual devotion.

The mythology of the Hopi of northern Arizona features labyrinths. Most well-known is the Tapu’at, the “Mother and Child” symbol. Both the circular and square forms represent the womb of Mother Earth, the divine birth-giver. The circular in particular is said to represent the road of a human life. In following it, one attains spiritual rebirth. From early on, the labyrinth has been associated with death and rebirth. In death, one returns to the earth (the eternal mother), from which one is reborn. The Tohono O’odham and the Pima peoples employ the labyrinth design extensively in their craftwork.

Hopi Tapu’at, the “Mother and Child” symbol ©Trevor Bounford

Mazes and labyrinths are symbols of all that is experienced in life, depicting the choices we have to make along our journey. For some American indigenous peoples, the centre of the labyrinth exists simultaneously in this world and in the spiritual world, providing us with a doorway to a different dimension of reality. A saying in North America for example, tells us, ‘To die is to walk the path of the dream without returning.’ In some cultures, mazes were used to keep the dead from returning. In 1955 the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in Tristes Tropiques about fragments of Tupi pottery urns in Brazil, with a design that represented a maze intended to confuse the evil spirits looking for the human remains preserved in them.

‘The lacy black markings seemed to form a labyrinth—destined, so people say, to deter those evil spirits which would otherwise have sought out the bones that were once preserved in these urns.’

Kindred spirits across time and continents

In some Mesoamerican cultures it was believed that the wicked could be ‘mazed’ in the underworld, so their souls would not return. The notion of spirits being ‘mazed’ is an interesting one in the context of this history. It gives an indication of where we may tentatively link ancient practices in Mesoamerica to other aspects of the global narrative. For example, the word ‘maze’ itself, like its companion, has multiple derivations. The Roman poet Virgil brings them together in The Aeneid and describes the labyrinth as having, ‘a path woven with blind walks.’ It is a,

‘bewildering work of craft with a thousand ways where the tokens of the course were confused by the indiscoverable and irretraceable maze.’

Here we have ambiguity, confusion, uncertain choices, and the search for a clear path. Much later, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we find examples of early English usage that also combine these themes. People are in a state of “masednesse.” That is, they are puzzled or bewildered.

In my book, The Curious History of Mazes, I cover the topic of mazes as puzzles, from early medieval artefacts to the modern maze revival. That revival was (and still is) realized in the hands of extraordinary individual innovators who garnered not only their incredibly creative and inventive minds but also a vast range of tools and materials, taking the design and construction of mazes to levels of multidimensional complexity never previously imagined. Today there are many companies and maze-makers world-wide who create and construct mazes of all kinds. It is big business.

I also compare the maze and labyrinth experience, acknowledging that some will insist that a maze is a puzzle and a labyrinth is not. However, as W.H. Matthews declares in his most comprehensive 1922 history of labyrinths and mazes, the labyrinth itself represents the enigmatic character of life. This is the intriguing – and puzzling – essence of labyrinths and their mythology. Sig Lonegren, founding member of The Labyrinth Society, writes in 1991 that while a myth is not history, it can point to truths far beyond historical fact. I couldn’t agree more. He says that,

‘each teller adds part of his or her own essence to the tale. Sometimes cultures, for purposes of their own, change significant portions of a given myth; however, the essential bones of the story seem to carry through the many tellings and revisions.’

The essential bones of this story, certainly where ancient American cultures are concerned, do seem to be spiritual, although it appears the creator(s) was not always aiming to confuse. Take the enigmatic series of geoglyphs, the Nazca lines, covering nearly 400 square miles (1,036 sq km) of the Peruvian desert. Discovered by archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe in the 1920s, these lines were drawn by the Nazca people, a civilization that disappeared almost 1,500 years ago, living in what is now modern Peru.

Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, they were originally created by the scraping away of red dust and rock to reveal the white ground beneath. Many of the designs are geometric shapes or resemble animals including monkeys, humans, birds, and fish. In 2012 a team of British experts declared that they were created to be walked. Well preserved, they were probably walked by small groups of people in single file, indicating that they had a spiritual purpose.

The ‘Monkey Labyrinth’, measuring just over 80 yards (73m) long, from the series of geoglyphs, the Nazca Lines in Peru. Photo: Unukorno

In North America, the Navajo peoples sand painted mandalas were created for ritual healing. Each sacred painting was made communally by several artists who started from the centre and worked outward, following the sun from the east, through south and west, to finish in the north. The eastern side of the circle is left open to allow spiritual beings to enter. Every painting is unique, and like the monks of Tibet, the Navajo used the sand paintings not to confuse but to restore order and harmony. They are still created today.

Navajo sand painting, from Sand Paintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant by G. A.
Reichard and F. J. Newcombe, 1937

And finally, we find the labyrinth-like meander design featured in South American art and architecture. For example, the xicalcoliuhqui, known as a “step” or “stepped” fret—greca in Spanish—is a common motif in Mesoamerican art. It consists of three or more steps connected to a hook or spiral. The motif appears on temples and other sacred buildings such as the Pyramid of the Niches at the Veracruz site of El Tajin.

The xicalcoliuhqui. Photo: Bobak Ha’Eri

The few examples I’ve featured here suggest that the aim of labyrinths and mazes in the Americas was not always to confuse, but also to harmonize and enlighten. In writing The Curious History of Mazes I certainly aimed to do the latter, by introducing a complex history to a wide audience, citing thoughts and theories while echoing the prevailing mysteries.

The Curious History of Mazes by Julie E. Bounford, is illustrated by Trevor Bounford and published by Wellfleet Press, October 2018, price £12.99 ISBN: 978-1-57715-177-7

If you would like to book an illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, do email:

juliebounford@gmail.com


Is your favourite pub literally haunted?

Working from home has its benefits, especially when home is a Tudor cottage with great character and warmth. Our abode may not have the grandeur of say, Cotehele, a quietly magnificent Tudor residence located high above the River Tamar, fortunately preserved and cared for by the National Trust. But we do enjoy our smaller scale medieval aesthetic, especially the vaulted ceilings and arcs. As I sit in my study, I like to envisage the labourers assembling the many and varied beams, using the carved Roman numerals as guidance.

Our house also has a distinctive atmosphere which is very conducive to writing. I wrote up my doctorate here and subsequently, on becoming an independent social historian and author, penned ‘This Book is About Heffers’ (2016) and ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). More recently, I’ve finished work on a new publication, ‘Beer and Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire’, a handy gazetteer of over sixty haunted pubs with many local tales. It seems inevitable that the hauntings reflect our rich seam of history and often originate from well-known stories and legends that echo the past. The book also contains two original ghost stories written by my husband, Trevor Bounford.

Now available online or via good bookshops at £6.99

Manifestations

Now, I don’t know if our home is haunted. I can’t honestly say that I saw any apparitions whilst writing ‘Beer and Spirits’. We do sometimes hear someone entering the house via the back door in the evening, but when we check we find no-one there. One afternoon, an invisible hand brushed through a pot plant in the dining room, vigorously shaking the leaves, and late one night, a notebook was thrown off the bedside table.

There is, no doubt, a rational explanation for these incidents.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb to ‘haunt’ refers to imaginary or spiritual beings such as ghosts. To haunt is to, ‘to visit frequently and habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usually of a molesting kind’, and to be haunted is to be, ‘subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits’.  Various types of apparitions are described in the literature. For example, ‘restless spirits’ that continue to haunt their old home until they are laid to rest. Also, ‘psychic recording ghosts’, spirits that replay an event from their lifetime. And ‘poltergeists’, noisy spirits or malevolent energy characterised by noises, moving objects and physical disturbances. Hauntings can occur for centuries or days, and may be cyclical.

Haunted hostelries

There are any number of pubs rumoured to be haunted throughout East Anglia. No doubt, some tales are simply made up to draw in custom, or perhaps to keep unwelcome visitors at bay. Some landlords will tell you that the only spirits present are those behind the bar. Discerning the fanciful from the reported, and recorded, ‘factual’ experiences is no simple task. The ghostly activity I’ve listed in ‘Beer and Spirits’ cannot be verified by me, and I would suggest that only the most intrepid visitors may try to authenticate the accounts.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, public houses have for many centuries acted as important rural and urban social centres, and many have witnessed life changing and historic events. Ghost stories and strange happenings are an integral part of our folklore, in every city, town and village. In some places we feel a palpable sense of timelessness, almost of standing still, as though nothing has changed. We feel that people from the past are somehow still with us. But of course, over centuries and decades, people have come and gone, and communities have witnessed many changes, good and bad.

The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton

Amongst the many hostelries featured in ‘Beer and Spirits’, we have included The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough.

The fireplace at The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton

The reported activity at this hostelry includes the sighting of a lady in the oldest part of the building which dates back to the fifteenth century (she has been known to sit and even lay on a guest’s bed, leaving an indentation, and to pace up and down the room); the sound of footsteps in empty rooms; the sighting of Cooper Thornhill, a former landlord who died in 1752, and of a dark figure on horseback outside or standing at the end of a guest’s bed. Some say this is the ghost of Dick Turpin who hid at this inn for several weeks.

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731)

Also seen is the ghost of the writer Daniel Defoe, author of a 1724 treatise, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britainin which he declares,

“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”

Stilton was the main trading station for Stilton Cheese. Defoe, who regularly stayed at the Bell between 1697 and 1701, has been observed sitting by the fireplace in the hotel reception, smoking a clay pipe. Staff have seen several shadowy figures around the hotel and have often had a feeling of being watched.In 1962 a fire ignited itself in the grate of one of the bedrooms and staff have noticed that objects have disappeared, only to reappear a week later. A table in the restaurant is said to be cursed but by whom and why we do not know.

As noted by Caroline Clifford and Alan Akeroyd in their most excellent 2018 compendium ‘The Little Book of Cambridgeshire’, the village of Stilton hosts a popular annual ‘cheese’ rolling competition. The starting line is at the Bell Inn.  Stilton cheese itself is not made locally, but can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.

The first modern ghost story?

Defoe is credited by some with the first modern ghost story, entitled, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, published anonymously in 1706. The original story was not hatched by Defoe, who himself had an interest in apparitions, or ‘appearances’ and, unlike our stories in ‘Beer and Spirits”, was not set in a hostelry or in Cambridgeshire.

The first modern ghost story?

Whilst Defoe believed in the spirit world, he warned against excessive gullibility and stressed the need for proper testimony and authenticity in recording witnessed appearances. His approach was not dissimilar to that of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882. The Society is described as the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Its purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education. One of its founders, Henry Sidgwick, had been a member of the Cambridge Ghost Society since the 1850s and, for much of his life, pursued the empirical case in support of the existence of the afterlife. His wife, Eleanor Sidgwick (Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892) was the Society’s President in 1908/9 and President of Honour in 1932.

Haunted places or people?

The author, Joan Forman, who wrote ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (1974) declared that, ‘Any reader… who decides to visit one of the haunted sites… is asked to remember that the person who originally told the story may be now be over the hills and far away. However, except in a few rare cases, this fact is unlikely to have affected the ghosts, who are always more concerned with places than people. The hauntings will be where they always were. And no doubt new folk will be experiencing them in the old surroundings.’

Trevor begs to differ in his chilling ghost story, ‘The Last Round’, included in our Cambridgeshire edition of ‘Beer and Spirits’.

Highly recommended bedtime reading.