A local appetite for sops and dripping

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A visit to a local graveyard led us to a man who loved his sops and dripping so much, he had his dripping-cup affixed to his tombstone.


Travel south of Newmarket and the land swells gently towards the rolling hills of west Suffolk and the fields are dotted with copses and dark-green thickets. The landscape around Newmarket is rather manicured, a result of its racing industry which has brought great wealth to parts of the town although back in February 1605, when James I made his first visit to the town, he described it as a “poor little village.”

 This part of East Anglia was once politically significant, close to the ancient Icknield Way which runs north-east from Whittlesford to Newmarket and onwards, up into Thetford Chase. These tracks were in use from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, forming a network of paths which helped people move between the south-west of England and East Anglia. The former Kings of East Anglia built defensive earthworks to gird the loins of what was a naturally  defensive topography: the marshy, dark-watered fens further to the north, creek-riven coastal margins to the east and the sprawling broad-leaf forests of Essex to the south all made invasion and subsequent navigation tricky.
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The small village of Wood Ditton lies just south of Newmarket and was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in an instrument of King Canute: the monarch went on to give Ditton Camoys, one of the Wood Ditton manors, to Ely Abbey in 1022 in exchange for Cheveley, a nearby village. Part of Wood Ditton’s southern boundary is formed by the Anglo-Saxon earthworks, Devil’s Dyke, which is also crossed by the Roman Icknield Way.

St Mary’s church was built on the periphery of the village, down a short track edged by hedgerows and the garden walls of its neighbouring cottages. Early records date the original wooden church buildings (now gone) back to the twelfth-century although it was once home to a monastery of an even greater age. Parts of the church were vandalised by Cromwell’s men but the fourteenth century north aisle remains.

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Enter the yard via a low gate and directly in front of you lies the church and the older part of its graveyard where tombstones patched with ochre-yellow lichens and moss lean at crazy angles. Walk down a gentle slope covered in cow parsley, primroses and the dying leaves of snowdrops and you’ll arrive at two more, partially enclosed, graveyards.

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We came here in search of one particular grave after an internet search for Newmarket Pudding led me to the tombstone epitaph of a local man who has been described as a ‘gourmand’. On the first of March 1753, William Symonds was interred in front of the church, close to the gate and, at his own request, his gravestone has a small iron dripping-dish affixed to its front, protected by a rusting iron grille. A former turnspit to the late Duke of Rutland at Cheveley in Cambridgeshire (although some records state he was a gamekeeper too) Mr Symonds reached a great age of eighty and as he lay dying of an undetermined affliction, his last wishes were that the tale of his demise should be told thus. They are believed to be his own words:

Here lies my corpse, I was the man,

That loved a sop in the dripping pan;

But now, believe me, I am dead:

See here the pan stands at my head.

Still for sops till the last I cried

But could not eat, and so I died.

My neighbours, they perhaps will laugh,

When they do read my epitaph.”

(Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary for the year 1876)

Poor Mr Symonds had endured that most terrible of afflictions for a man who loved his grub; an inability to eat coupled with a raging appetite for something comforting and indulgent as he approached his death. His dripping pan has turned to rust and the remains are barely visible behind the protective iron grille, but a faint ghost of his epitaph is visible, engraved on the thick stone slab. The words took some time to decipher in the cold bright light of a March afternoon, although the word ‘dripping’ retained the most clarity. I like to imagine that William Symonds would have been pleased by that.

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How on earth did a man of his modest means manage to eat his way to a dripping-related death though? His access to meat-dripping (or sops as they were commonly referred to) belied his fiscal and social class because dripping was generally not freely available for poorer working people. However, his love of it can be explained by his occupation as turnspit to the Duke of Rutland which seemed to have provided him with a steady supply. There isn’t a huge amount of information about him (as you might expect) but a life spent proximate to landed gentry and the dukedom means that there is some documentary evidence of his life in relation to them. In records from Cheveley Park dated 1896, he was described as “an eccentric lad” who for many years had filled an important office, helping to roast the game and meat from livestock provided by the ducal estate.

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For William, it must have been extremely arduous work in unpleasantly hot conditions. Indeed, records of the Tudor turnspit boys who worked at Hampton Court give some idea of the travails turnspits endured because when they divested themselves of their upper clothing to cool down, they were commanded to ‘no longer to go naked or in garments of such vileness as they do now.’ William would have required every drop of that meaty sop in order to build the upper-body strength and musculature required to keep the spit turning for hours on end. It is not a surprise to learn that a small dog was especially bred to turn these spits too. First mentioned in documents from 1576, these dogs were trained to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit and to make them run faster, a coal might be tossed into their metal cage. By 1850 they had fallen out of popularity because of the creation of  inexpensive, mechanical spit turning machines, called clock jacks, and towards the turn of the century, both human and canine turnspits had become obsolete.

Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
Turnspit dogs at work: illustration from 1800 from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales
 Sops were commonly known as pieces of bread which would be dipped into the drippings from the spit-roasted meat. These juices were collected in a pan placed underneath the spit. Another type of sop came from bowls of pottage or gruel. When the bread had ‘sopped up’ and was soaked in liquid, meat juices or fat, the trick was to convey the sop as swiftly as possible to the mouth before it disintegrated in the hand. The word ‘soup’ derives from sop or sup (meaning the slices of bread onto which broth or cooking juices was poured) although Joan of Arc liked to sop her bread with wine instead of cooking juices. Wealthier people in the Middle Ages threw their trencher bread (so called because it functioned as an early plate for meat and sauce) out to the dogs, despite it being sopped in a good sauce. Sometimes the trencher bread would be cast out to the waiting poor too.

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (in the book ‘A History of Food’) tells of St Patroclus, a third-century saint from Troyes, who managed to survive on barley bread dipped into water and sprinkled with coarse salt. In this practice, he was anticipating the early days of soup when a crust or piece of bread would be placed at the bottom of a low bowl and the gruel or other liquid then poured over it. We can see the origins of the Tuscan bread-thickened soups, the French garbures and onion soups and the Spanish gazpacho. There’s echoes of sop what we call French toast (pan perdu) in a fifteenth-century Italian recipe for suppa dorata, where pieces of bread are dipped in beaten-egg, sugar and rosewater, then fried in butter and served encrusted with more sugar. Think of zuppa Inglese too, where the bread is replaced by sweet cake which is then soaked in wine or rum and blanketed in thick custard. Still in Italy, food historian Ken Albala tells of a sturgeon-based dinner in his book, The Banquet that took place in 1584. Wealthy guests feasted upon sturgeon eggs and beaten flesh of the fish, the latter in a thick soup and served with sops, followed by sturgeon meatballs in a spicy sauce. There were sixteen sturgeon-based platters of food to get through in total, a mighty feast where some of the courses possessed a more humble culinary etymology.

At the humbler end of the scale, there’s dripping cake- or bread- which was once eaten in many British regions, although it is rarely heard of now. The Gloucestershire version of this bread, baked in the oven from  dripping, flour, brown sugar, spices, currants and raisins, had a toffee-like layer at the base of the cake which formed as it baked. Dripping cake gets a mention in Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

Tom, by a sort of instinct, knew the right cupboards in the kitchen and pantry, and soon managed to place on the snuggery table better materials for a meal than had appeared there probably during the reign of his tutor, who was then and there initiated, amongst other things, into the excellence of that mysterious condiment, a dripping-cake. The cake was newly baked, and all rich and flaky; Tom had found it reposing in the cook’s private cupboard, awaiting her return; and as a warning to her they finished it to the last crumb.

Sop-style platefuls are found wherever meat forms part of the diet. Go to Hungary and you’ll find that they have their own version of mucky bread which is known locally as fatty bread: goose fat from the well-known Hungarian goose is spread on bread, sprinkled with paprika and eaten with finely chopped peppers and onions. And there’s variations on a theme too such as Smokeworks in Cambridge, who have taken this straightforward ingredient and stirred it into mashed potatoes to make their legendary beef-dripping mash.

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‘Mucky Fat’

In Yorkshire the same dripping is spread onto good bread and goes by the name of ‘mucky sandwich’ although this habit is not unique to this fine region. My grandparents who both hailed from the Midlands kept a large china jug in the fridge, full to the brim with beef dripping from the Sunday roast, the fat solidifying into a creamy layer over a good two inches of rich beef jelly. Over the week it would be used to enrich gravies and pastry or was spread onto hot toast and allowed to melt. On an especially good day, I would be given a plate of fried bread, golden and caught around the crust and heavy with melted dripping and jelly. My grandfather would reminisce about after-school football as a lad where, at half-time, he would wolf down a ‘bread and fat’sopped sandwich with a spreading of his mother’s home-made piccalilli to cut the grease. That Sunday joint kept the family in clover for most of the week.

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Library of Congress: The Prince of Wales (George IV) asks “Dear Mother, pray let me have a sop in the pan.”

In classical literature, a sop was clearly so prized that it was deemed to be a suitable bribe for Cereberus, the three-headed dog of Pluto which guarded the gates of the infernal regions in Virgil’s Aeneid. When a person died, the Greeks and Romans would put a cake in their hands as a sop to this fearsome creature, who might therefore allow them to pass without molestation in exchange. Here we see the sop gains a secondary meaning as a bribe or salve. There exists the possibility that Mr Symons recognises that his much-prized sops might ease his suffering and might also provide him with a swifter, and easier, passage to eternal life. Or might he have been trying to bribe death to not come for him? We cannot be sure about that, but I was told that my own grandfathers sop sandwiches were so coveted by his footballing friends that he could probably have arranged to have the match thrown in exchange for a few bites- the equivalent of having Cereberus in goal.

I feel warmly towards Mr Symonds. Whilst Morton’s Sixpenny Almanack and Diary takes a dim view of ones vices being ‘considered a fitting subject for perpetuating in stone’ when it published his epitaph, and indeed Mr Symonds acknowledges his own excess of appetite, I am inclined to approve of a man who wanted to cheer-up his own neighbours whenever they visited the graveyard and church. Clearly the locals of Wood Ditton appreciate his little joke too, because when the original stone was accidentally broken during wedding party festivities at St Mary’s Church around 1871, it was removed and repaired. The stone was re-erected with the original dripping-pan in place.

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Martin Bell: my time in The Suffolk Regiment during the Cyprus Conflict

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Martin Bell / Image contributed
 The former BBC journalist and Independent MP, Martin Bell appeared at the Theatre Royal on September 25 of last year. I’ve taken the liberty of re-publishing this Bury Spy interview where he speaks about his involvement with the Suffolk Regiment and his recent book about his National Service during the Cyprus crisis. I also take a look at the Suffolk Regiment Museum, housed in the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds.

The Suffolk Regiment was one of the great infantry regiments of the British Army. It finally disappeared, after 274 years of continuous service in 1959, after a service with distinction through two world wars and in many other conflicts including Cyprus.  Martin did his national service with the regiment in its final years and his latest book, End of Empire, serves as a worthy tribute about the regimental swansong spent on a tiny island fighting a conflict which people today still know very little about. Originally intended as a personal memoir, what we can now read is the story of the Suffolk Regiment via a period of active engagement by a man who has continued his close association with what he calls “the 12th of foot.” Indeed, as you study the Suffolk Regiment Museum vitrines displaying artefacts from the regiments final tour of duty in Cyprus, look closely and among them you will find photographs taken by a young Bell during his time in the Intelligence Service.  Taken for press purposes, they are of a young recruit called Tim Davis and Tim is now one of the museums senior volunteers after an illustrious 26 year career in the Army which saw him rise to the rank of Sergeant Major.

The Suffolk Regiment Museum and Friends was established in what was once the officers mess inside the red-brick Keep at Gibraltar Barracks. The museum documents over 274 years of military history and provides a vital contextual backdrop for modern day military conflict. Located on the Newmarket Road and next to the West Suffolk College which was built upon its once very extensive grounds, little remains of the original army depot which was originally built in 1878. Enter the museum and you will see the original site maps, tracing the former location of parade grounds and infirmaries, office buildings, munitions, vegetable patches and the extensive cellars which have not been explored to date.

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(Exterior of the Suffolk Regimental Museum) 

The Suffolk Regiment was formed in 1685 when King James II ordered the Duke of Norfolk to raise a regiment and include men from Norfolk and Suffolk, although the next century saw more of a Norfolk influence than a Suffolk one. The Regiment already possessed informal links with the Suffolk Militia and tended to depend upon them for new recruits but eventually the Cardwell reforms of 1873 formally recognised these links.

Cambridgeshire was then added to the recruiting area and the Depot of the Regiment was established at Bury St Edmunds where the barracks to house the Depot was built in 1878. However, the title of The Suffolk Regiment had been conferred earlier in 1881 and the West Suffolk Militia and The Cambridgeshire Militia became the third and fourth Battalions, respectively. By the end of the century, 90% of regimental men came from Suffolk whilst the forerunner of the Territorial Army, the Territorial Force, was formed in 1908. This strengthened county links, establishing the fourth Battalion throughout East Suffolk and the fifth Battalion in West Suffolk.

Martin Bell served as a soldier in Cyprus between 1957 and 1959 and a few years ago, as he rummaged through his attic, he rediscovered a chocolate box filled with more than one hundred letters written to his family by him whilst in service. Although he was not a journalist at that point, the letters appear to hint at his future profession because they serve as a subjective war report, giving valuable insights into the life of a young conscript, serving in a conflict that was poorly understood and sparsely covered by the British press. Those letters went on to underpin End of Empire and their descriptions of explosions and terrorism, cordons, searches, interrogations, and riots in the face of a repressive military response with roots in our old colonial history demonstrate why the strategy was doomed to failure. Hearts and minds this was not as EOKA fighters (Εθνική Οργάνωσις Κυπρίων Αγωνιστών / National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) were treated like heroes and fêted on the streets of Nicosia which, to this day, remains a divided city.

Bell ended up falling out with his Regimental Sergeant Major but he acknowledges that a great deal of his National Service was ‘on the sunny side of tolerable’ and he received an education which was not only the best he had (even in the light of going up to Cambridge shortly after) but imbued him with a pride which has not faded as the years have passed. This is clearly apparent when I asked him about what audiences might expect when they come to see him at the Theatre Royal:

“I wrote this book about my time with the Suffolk Regiment at the very end of their tour,” he says.

” I had the idea to perhaps raise money for the theatre itself and to talk about the book and when I said “can I bring my band?”…They said, ‘band?’ and I replied, ‘of course I’ve got a band.’ I’m the president of the Suffolk’s concert band which inherits the traditions of the music of the Suffolk Regiment,” he added. “It’s going to be a mixture; I’m going to talk a bit and play some music, mainly military stuff and we’re going to recall the glory days of one of the finest regiments in the British Army.”

Bell is the son of ruralist writer Adrian Bell who lived and farmed in various locations in the county from Hundon and Bradfield St George to Beccles and he sent his son to school in Cambridge. The Suffolk’s were his local regiment when it came to the obligatory period of National Service that all healthy young men were required to submit to.

“In those days we had an army of 400,00 thousand strong and when I was eighteen years of age, a draft letter arrived requiring me to report to the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St Edmunds on a certain day in June 1957 and serve two years with the Suffolk Regiment,”he said.

After his demob, he went up to Kings College, Cambridge where he read English, gaining a first class degree, and then joined the BBC as a reporter in Norwich in 1962, following his graduation at the age of twenty four. Three years later Bell transferred to London and covered his first foreign assignment in Ghana. The next thirty years saw him covering eleven conflicts globally, from Angola and Rwanda to the Middle East, a career that many might say was usefully underpinned by a peripatetic period of National Service.

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The Cyprus conflict seems to be a forgotten conflict, I say. So much of what happened there sounds pretty horrific and it also sounds familiar, reminiscent of the conflicts we face today. What can we learn from it?

“I think we have some lessons to learn from it. It’s a forgotten episode of our history, towards the end of empire.  We had 35,000 soldiers deployed in Cyprus, it was on rather a large scale and in and around Nicosia, the capital, we had four or five battalions. There were lots of us,” Bell replied.

“I was very fortunate that when I got to write the book I went through the National Archives and all the top secret documents of the time- exchanges between the governor and the colonial office- had been recently declassified and now we can tell the whole story. It’ s not something of which we can be especially proud although I think we soldiers did pretty well.”

That’s often the case isn’t it? The actions of those who execute the decisions of those in power tend to be ‘better’ than those of the decision makers

“That’s very true. I wouldn’t say that in the end we were successful. We held the line against the rebels of this organisation called EOKA, the National Association of Cypriot Fighters, until a constitutional compromise could be arranged and Cyprus could become independent but of course the independence didn’t hold and 14 years on the Turks invaded and Cyprus has been conflicted and divided ever since. So I don’t think we can put it down as one of Britain’s success stories.”

Is it true that some of the EOKA fighters are sueing the British government?

“Yes there are veterans who are, some were EOKA fighters , others were detained by the British under emergency powers and others, they are threatening legal action. They’ve been in contact with me but I said that I was was never more than a low grade operative: I was never more than an acting sargeant and what they were complaining about were interrogation techniques, especially, but these were usually done not by the army but by Special Branch.”

What was it like going up to Cambridge after doing your national service?

“I think that what happened, those two years, were the best education I’ve ever had. Better than three years at Kings College Cambridge. Of course, I couldn’t wait to get out of the army and my views were very much like those of the late great Peter Ustinov who served as a private  soldier and said that he hated the army like poison but he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. So I felt much the same.”

From time to time we hear calls for National Service to be brought back and championed as some kind of cure for crime and youthful miscreancy. One imagines that there was no crime at all during the period of history that it was in force, if we listen to the extravagant claims made for its return. Should we bring back National Service?

“I deal with this in my closing chapter of my book and I say there might some be a case for some form of civic or voluntary service but it could not be brought back in the form in which we experienced it because todays generation just would not stand for it,” Bell counters.

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Image: Suffolk Regiment Museum

“We were much more deferential, that generation. When our Sergeant Major said jump, we jumped. I think today they would say ‘why?’. I think even my Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who is still alive at the age of 97 would not not be able to tear young people away from their Ipads. We did what we were told. It did us a lot of good but I don’t think its realistic to dream about bringing it back.”

Would you say that our sentimentality about the army risks masks the reality of an underfunded service where the mental health of veterans and serving soldiers is neglected?

“I am a supporter of Combat Stress and I think the armed services have turned a corner on this. I think they know it is out there and they are trying to erase any stigma attached to it. But we know that between the original bruising of the mind, usually in active service, and a soldier coming forward for treatment, there’s an average gap of twelve years. It’s no longer viewed as it used to be and it is viewed now as a hazard of service. Of course there have been many obviously life changing injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan but a soldier who has PTSD may not necessairly know it at that time,”said Bell.

You must have seen and been involved in events that many would find traumatising? What psychological support have you received from the BBC, I ask.

“None at all” he says emphatically. “But they did summon me to see the doctor now and again to see if I was okay but I have just been relatively lucky in that all my nightmares have not been about the wars I have been in but about losing my bags at Heathrow – much more mundane,” he laughs. Bell seems to come from a time when it was not done to seek counselling or expect it although he is not that much older than I am.

Martin Bell stood for election in 1997 as an Independent candidate on an anti-sleaze ticket against the sitting MP, Neil Hamilton. I ask him about his subsequent election and time as an Independent MP. I can imagine him taking a keen interest in the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader and the problems that arise when the party rhetoric is defied by Labour party members and some of its own MPs.

“It’s still unrealistic to be elected as an Independent. There was only two of us, three of us in the last 15 years but what is happening now, I have noticed, is that there are many more independent minded MPs being elected and I welcome that, although it would be imposssible for the new Labour leader to insist on blind loyalty since he was a serial rebel himself. And no Labour leader has ever been elected to rebel against his own party so things are changing fast.”

Do you think we’ll ever have a crusading government, a government properly concerned with raising standards in their own house?

“I think it is important that the regulation of the House of Commons should be taken out of the hands of the House of Commons,” Bell is firm about this.

“And by the way, this [issue of expenses and MPs self regulation]  has been going on nearly 20 years now. They are incapable of regulating themselves and lessons have to be learned. Another thing, in the interests of MPs if they are accused of some wrongdoing, we seem to have a Gentleman’s Club looking after itself. If they had a proper regime of external regulation, that would be better for them and better for us,” he said.

Returning to the subject of his recent book, The End of Empire, I ask Bell about the writing itself and the research involved which appears extensive.

How long did the book take?

“It was a fun book to write and I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I discovered the letters in my attic at the beginning of last January (2014) and it was in the hands of the publishers by December.”

I’m intrigued by Bell’s account of another book about the Cyprus conflict called The Flaming Cassock. In End of Empire, Bell describes its author as “the most remarkable soldier I served under…who should have commanded the Battalion but did not” and a soldier whose command enhanced the Suffolk’s reputation for steadiness under the direst of circumstances.

“It was written by one of our officers, a wonderful man called Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Campbell who had already written a bestseller about the Malayan emergency of 1950 titled Jungle Green,” Bell told me.

“He was commissioned by Field Marshal Sir John Harding to write a book  about what Harding thought was a winning campaign and it very nearly was. Then in December 57, Harding was succeeded by Sir Hugh Foot who was not a soldier but a conciliator and he thought that this book which by then was finished would be an impediment to a settlement so he ordered it to be suppressed.”

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Foot’s reputation was as a liberal administrator and it was certainly hoped that he could play an important part in setting Cyprus on the road to self government within the Commonwealth. This in itself was very important because according to the Sandy’s Defence White Paper, Britain would no longer be able to maintain a large enough presence on the island to retain it by force. Foots attempts to conciliate a settlement that pleased both Athens and Ankara resulted in Cyprus descending into a downwards spiral of violence as the two communities railed against each other. It is clear, in retrospect, why the decision to redact Flaming Cassocks was made, regardless of the rightness of such a decision.

Bell is convinced of the importance of the book to future narratives of Cyprus and its bloody history.

“It [the book] has been resting under lock and key until I got it under the Freedom of Information in July 2014. It’s a marvellous story of the campaign against EOKA by a soldier with a real flair for language. And I think that if we can get it published it will be as important a contribution to the literature of Cyprus as Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons.”

Three copies are believed to have survived according to Bell’s book. Two are held in the National Archives at Kew whilst the third is an unedited text subjected to a sixty year gagging order meaning that it will be available to read after 2022. There is also an earlier draft which has been redacted under an eighty year restriction. The reasons for their suppression aren’t strikingly obvious considering the book was a commission from the governor, intended for publication as opposed to a sensitive government document, according to Bell. The file of documents relating to its suppression is over an inch thick apparently.

Are publishers interested in the book, I ask?

“We have only just started finding out because for a start we couldn’t find the family of Campbell because of course the copyright lies with them.

“Arthur Campbell died in about 1992/3 and we’re looking for the family now” Bell replies.

It is to be hoped that Campbell’s descendants are swiftly traced and agree to the books re-issuing. What seems to be clear is that between its pages lie a considerable contribution to not only the history of Cyprus but of British military engagement too.


 

Friends of the Suffolk Regiment.

St Edmundsbury Chronicle

A Home away from home: Anna Hope’s novel ‘The Ballroom’ has links with our own Suffolk history

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire. A photographic book entitled `Asylum’ has just been published and shows the work of photographer Mark Davis who has photographed derelict asylum’s round Britain and Ireland.
This feature was first published by The Bury Free Press in their print edition only and is reprinted here by kind permission.

Grand ballrooms are not the first thing that come to mind when we imagine the Victorian asylums of our recent past but a newly published novel by Anna HopeThe Ballroom, was inspired by her discovery old photographs of an ornate ballroom in a northern asylum, now fallen into disrepair. And whilst her story is set many miles away, in the Yorkshire Ridings, it has intriguing parallels with the old county asylum, once known as St Audry’s near Ipswich and the exhibition dedicated to it in Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life. After reading Anna’s novel and interviewing her for this feature, I realised that it was time to re-visit this local museum which has an exhibit about the old St Audry’s asylum and talk to Lisa Harris who is employed there as Collections and Interpretation Manager.

The St Audry’s Project tells the tale of the old St Audry’s Hospital in Melton, which began life as the Suffolk County Asylum in 1832, on the site of an old workhouse. When St Audry’s closed in 1993, its museum collection and archive were divided between various regional establishments. Since then, the Museum of East Anglian Life has been collating oral testimonies and working with local people to ensure that such an important and fascinating part of Suffolk history is not lost. Lisa explains the history of the collection and her involvement in it.

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Abbots Hall at Museum of East Anglian Life. Image: Museum of East Anglian Life

“The Museum of East Anglian Life was re-developing Abbots Hall and we wanted to look at the concept of home and belonging: home as in the people who themselves once lived in Abbots Hall; home as in being a proud Stowmarket girl, or a Suffolk person or even an East Anglian. We also wanted to look at different types of home, of which an asylum is one, and we knew we had the St Audrys collection which hadn’t actually been on public display before, to my knowledge,” she says

“All the archives that survived are based at Ipswich Records Office so this gave us a chance to talk about this whole element of life in Suffolk but also to link into the bigger picture and we were able to get funding from Comic Relief for this.

It is interesting that the collection came into being via the informal efforts of the staff who once worked at the hospital and I ask Lisa about this.

“The collection came here originally because it was in the teaching section of St Audry’s, housed in the attic. When they became a teaching hospital in the 1950s different staff gradually gathered items such as clothing, farm equipment and patients belongings and created a museum on site. But when the asylum closed in 1953, there was concerns as to where all of this might go. Some of the more medical items went to the Science Museum in London, a lot of it went to Felixstowe Museum and the rest came here”, she explains, sweeping her arm around the room lined with glass vitrines containing the tokens used as part of a patient-goods exchange system, the books and records, carefully inked in black fountain pen, pairs of spectacles, thick hard-to-rip nightgowns and decks of cards.

There’s staged vignettes too: a hospital screen has become an art installation where people have attached labels inscribed with the stigmatising language used to describe mental illness and the people who experience it. ‘Mental’, ‘schizoid’, ‘mental enfeeblement’ are starkly stamped on paper luggage tags and there’s a bed and bath with restraints in one corner plus the recorded voices of former staff who talk of their own lives there, often in a pronounced Suffolk burr. As visitors move slowly around the room, these voices fill the air, bringing the room to life.

Conducting research such as this can be made challenging by the stringent rules which control access to patient records: By law, a 30 year closure period is applied to administrative and committee papers, 80 years for student and staff records, and 100 years for personal medical records. This means the most important voices of all – that of the patients- are missing. Both Lisa Harris and Anna Hope emphasise the importance of that patient voice and the ways in which they sought it out for their respective endeavours.

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Anna Hope: author of The Ballroom

The voice of the patients in The Ballroom are vivid, born in part from the many hours of research its author put in, as Anna Hope explains. “Their [the patients] voices do break through too, particularly in the casebooks. I read extensively in the casebooks of High Royds for the period in which the book is set, and the patients jumped vividly from their pages; even the act of holding the casebook in my hands was powerful: the marbled covers, the smell of age, the photographs of the patients, and their own words, erupting into the present, making themselves heard.” Anna skilfully combines her research with the imagination of a fiction author, managing to avoid the trap that many authors fall into, of circumventing the objectivity of historical data to such a degree that accuracy suffers.

“We decided our exhibition would only go up to the 1920s because we can’t access any of the records after that date so why try to tell a story that isn’t out there yet in purely historical terms?” Lisa points out. “Our concern was telling that historical story in the hope that people can learn from it. And that maybe we don’t make the same mistakes in the future that we made in the past…or in the case of something has worked well, we’ll take that and work out how we can take that forward now. We’re trying to do sessions with medical professionals because in order to tell the story you’ve got to have some understanding of the terminology and the treatments. I’m not a medical expert, my understanding  is of curating and preservation: woodworm and rust!” She laughs. “I need to be able to point people in the right direction to get greater understanding, and to properly explain the context”, something which served her well when later on in our chat,  Lisa tells me about her encounters with some artefacts which appear to have a sinister purpose.
In 1832, when St Audry’s was called  The Suffolk County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics, Dr John Kirkman was appointed Medical Superintendent  and his reports and those of the doctors following him show a mind remarkably in tune with some of today’s philosophies of what constitutes good mental health care. The concept of an asylum as a home from home was central to his management: “Drugs are of course necessary in some cases, but moral treatment is essential to all and this is obtained chiefly by means of employment, amusement, pleasing associations and cheerful surroundings which act as medicine to the deceased mind” said the 50th Annual Report, back in 1888″  and the hospital became a self-sufficient community which nonetheless had strong ties to the village of Melton. Dr Kirkman couldn’t be more different to Dr Fuller, one of the narrators in Hope’s book.

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High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

The Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and it begins with the arrival of Ella Fay at the Sharston asylum in 1911. She is sent there because, after railing against the lack of light in the textiles mill where she works, she snaps and breaks one of the windows- a socially transgressive act in the eyes of her employers and her colleagues, albeit perfectly understandable and rational to us. John Mulligan is already a patient at Sharston, an Irishman suffering from depression provoked by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent abandonment of him. When Ella and John meet at a Friday night dance in the asylum’s beautiful ballroom, they embark upon a slow-burn of a relationship, marked by surreptitious meetings outdoors and smuggled letters and encounters in the wild, expansive Yorkshire moors.

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Overseeing their care and to a certain extent, their fate, is Dr Charles Fuller, an ambitious yet inadequate medic who becomes slowly obsessed by the growing eugenics movement which advocated the social control and compulsory sterilisation of the poor and anyone with a mental illness or learning disability. In 1908, the newly appointed home secretary, Winston Churchill, was determined to solve the problem of what he referred to as  the“feeble-minded” – anyone who was deemed unable to self-determine. Churchill’s views on compulsory sterilisation crystallised and he began to circulate pamphlets on the subject among the cabinet. The Eugenics Society grew increasingly influential and in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act established powers to incarcerate the “feeble-minded” in specially-built asylums. As we see in John and Ella’s story, the sexes lived separately and only met in strictly monitored meetings, in their case, the weekly dance and these impending laws threaten their relationship and very existence, in John’s case.

I asked Anna Hope about the clear parallels with todays social and political situation, not just in the UK but across Europe too, where cuts to health and social care have disproportionately impacted upon the poor and the mentally unwell and the language used to justify government policy has become ugly. “The welfare state; universal healthcare, access to education and greater social mobility are being eroded daily. Not just that, but I feel something even more insidious taking place; poverty has shifted in my lifetime from being something that should be ameliorated by a healthy government and society, to something that is perceived as the fault of those who find themselves poor. I think this is deeply dangerous and beneath the cuts to child benefits for instance, amongst many other cuts, there’s a disturbing echo, as you say, of eugenic policy,” she says.

As for the long view, Anna emphasises the importance of re-visiting the recent past in order to learn from it. We must guard against rose-tinted historiography too. “I think it’s a good time to look a little into our past and see what we were capable of” she says. “Churchill, for example, has been very well served by history, and for good reason, but if you look at his language as home secretary in 1911, in its insistence on ‘racial purity’ and the threat to the race from social degeneration it’s really not so very far from Hitler’s a few decades later.”

Do you think we lost as much as we gained from the abolition of the asylum system with regard to the purest meaning of the word? Have we forgotten that sometimes, some people do need a place of asylum while they recover, I ask Anna.

“That’s a really great question. Before I started researching I think my preconception, from reading lots of novels, about the Victorian and Edwardian asylum system was that once you were there you were there for life and the key was thrown away. Reading the casebooks gave me a different picture; there were many women for instance who were suffering from exhaustion or what sounded like post-natal depression, and who must have been working all hours in the mills or similar places, who simply needed a place to rest” she says.
“Following their stories in the casebooks I was really surprised and happy to read how many of them improved steadily over time with decent food, and rest and time away from work and families”, Anna adds. “So the asylum began to be a more nuanced, complex environment, not just this bleak, monolithic place from which no one ever emerged.”
Lisa Harris concurs with this and addresses some of the common stereotypes and misconceptions people held and still hold about an admission to an asylum. “A lot of people come to us and say “I’ve been tracing my family tree and I think I’ve found someone who was in an asylum and they get worried about this” she states, then looks back at her own initial reactions when she began looking through the St Audrys collection in the early days of developing the exhibit at the museum.
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The ‘Home From Home’ exhibition at Museum of East Anglian Life
“When I started this, I didn’t know very much about asylums at all and the first thing I found was this set of branding irons,” she says, pointing to a set of narrow branding irons displayed in a glass case. “Now the first thing that went through my head and our Learning Officers head was ‘Oh no, they branded the patients,  that is awful!’, but as we went on, we thought this cannot possibly be true. We had an over-active imagination and I do give a talk about the implications of this [for historical research]. But, in the light of the restraints we also found it was an understandable assumption and we were really pleased when we discovered the hospital had its own farm!”, she laughs wryly.
How many of us have assumed patients never left once admitted and lived in social seclusion, isolated from local villages, a source of fear, prejudice and trepidation to the locals? Not necessarily so, according to both Lisa and Anna although it would be naive to assume that the patients lived free from this. People with mental illness still have to negotiate the impact of stigma, whether this be socially, occupationally or politically [usually all three] and this prejudice is deeply rooted in the past. Lisa tells me more about St Audry’s and its position in the local community.
“The hospital was like a little city and the whole village of Melton relied on St Audrys. There was an overseeing of the patients as they went into the village and people were protective of them. That’s what humans do, what they should do. Look at the Second World War and how we cared for people. Would we still do that today? I hope so…” she says, quietly and goes on to touch upon the misconceptions many of us have about asylums whilst also warning against adopting a rose-tinted view of life in one.
” My concern was always that I would look at this with rose tinted glasses because its really easy to do that but the more you talk to people and the more stories you hear, you think actually, I’m not rose tinting it.And I spent months reading the medical records, and they are obviously written to sound good but as you read them you realise that on the whole, these people really did care and they wanted the patients to get better.”
You hear a lot of stories” Lisa smiles, warming to her theme. “St Audrys was a home for unmarried mothers- which was not necessarily true-and it was likely a misunderstanding of postnatal depression. People say ‘they went in and never came out.’ Well, the research I did showed that unless there was an issue with other illnesses like dementia or epilepsy for example, which weren’t really understood back then, people were admitted and usually came out within two years.”
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This bath was used for psychiatric treatments: from the ‘Home From Home’ exhibition

 

Anna tells me, that same lack of medical knowledge meant that “it certainly wasn’t a great time for mental health-care” and expands upon this. “I’d argue that it was perhaps a little better than the age of lobotomy and experimentation that came not so long after the First World War. When you look at the records for the pre-World War One asylums there were very few drugs used on the patients, which meant that many suffered without remission but also that they were awake and alive in a way that later patients perhaps weren’t allowed to be.” Certainly the discovery of Chlorpromazine in the fifties led to its being described as a chemical cosh and many people suffered from its terrible sedating side-effects.

And what of the ballroom which first inspired Anna Hope to write her novel? Well, interestingly I also discovered that St Audry’s had a ballroom too which is, for me,  one of the most unexpected counterpoints to the stereotype of an asylum as a dour and crepuscular place- all worthy, joyless therapies and rigid monitoring. I also discovered that ballrooms were common in Victorian mansions from the 1880s until around 1920, and these mansions were, after all, family homes which links beautifully to Dr Kirkman’s belief that St Audry’s should replicate the home as much as possible and be filled with activities and things that were not merely useful but also stimulated the patient aesthetically.

“The more we looked into it, the more we discovered that St Audrys acted as a home away from home and this was all of the principles that Dr Kirkman put into place about being able to step out of your day to day life and the drudgery and issues that worried you,” Lisa says.

“If you had a mental illness, [although obviously these illnesses were understood in a different way to how we interpret them today], you then could be taken somewhere that was safe. You could be kept warm, you could be fed and given the chance to keep yourself clean but also, be given something that would keep your mind active. So being involved in day to day running- making clothes, helping with washing, on the farm,. It kept you busy and gave you the time to heal, I suppose”, she adds, and her words very much reflect the  St Audry’s 28th annual report of 1865 which reports, in the purple prose of the Victorian age,”the admission is in dark insanity, the discharge in bright reason and  light.”

Interestingly, in The Ballroom, Dr Charles Fuller, is initially keen to encourage his patients to enjoy dance and music, playing the piano for them in the dayroom and when he is introduced to the new Ragtime music emanating from New Orleans by a local music-shop employee he attempts and fails, to embody its joyful and less boundaried spirit. I held my breath as I read this because Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients but fails to recognise this and I really hoped he might break free. The psychic struggle he becomes embroiled in is something I asked Anna about, especially with regards to his lessening empathy for his patients and increased ‘othering’ of them in line with his belief that eugenics is the way forward. “I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy,” she says, something which chimes with Dr Kirkman’s own beliefs about how to care for the mentally unwell, some of which are inscribed on the walls of the exhibit in the Museum of East Anglian Life. “No restraint can be employed which is so powerful as tenderness. Watchfullness, activity, gentleness and that peculiar tact acquired by long training to replace contests of strength between patient and keeper.

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Vitrine containing nurses uniforms from St Audry’s hospital
Lisa is privy to the reactions of visitors to the St Audry’s exhibit.” I’ve come in and there have been groups of people in here and they start a conversation along the lines of ‘Oh, we worked at St Audrys and it was really like family, with everyone looking out for each other. Generations of the same families worked there” she explains. “Dr Kirkman started the hospital in the 1800s but his ideas and principles carried right on through.”
“We did a survey a couple of years ago” she adds, “and since we’ve opened, the St Audry’s exhibit has seemed like a room where people feel the need to come in and be quiet and we’re not that kind of museum, not a quiet museum really! But the survey said that people felt they needed to talk to each other about it and our work has opened up ways for them to do this.
“It has encouraged adults and children to talk about mental health.”
Sadly, it has been more challenging to encourage patients to come forward, the latter more understandably. “We struggle to get in touch with people who once were hospitalised” says Lisa. “We’ve done appeals but they don’t necessarily want to talk about it.”
There is pain here, I comment. Lisa nods. “This  exhibit has made our team more aware of mental health  issues, and more aware of how we each have our own needs. I think its one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.”

The Ballroom is out now. 

The Museum of East Anglian Life website.

Related links: an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital

Museum images courtesy of The Museum of East Anglian Life, except where indicated.

Image of The Ballroom book cover, Anna Hope, the High Royds hospital, courtesy of Anna Hope/Transworld publishers.

The header image of West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum is courtesy Mark Davis / Guzelian

 

Spring books: reviewed

There’s some really good book releases this spring, rippling with themes universal to us all from parenting and childhood discoveries to the impact of seismic news events and difficult personal choices. Landscape, travel and nature writing is particularly strong this spring and I have chosen books by writers who transcend this genre, weaving together fact and the psychology of place, time and person, creating a conscious form of historiography.

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A few of my favourites are set in the American south, and some of you will know that I have a particular yen for the darkness, quirk and rich history of this part of the world. Chandler Alexander’s The Makings of a Fatherless Child is one such story, a compelling coming-of-age tale of a young boy, Amel River who lives in the Mississippi Delta. He contends with a broken home, poverty, a lack of a father and a voice in his head that won’t go away. Whilst stretching his neck towards adulthood, he is aided by a variety of interesting characters which include a two year old child and a drunken stranger. And where would a story set in the Delta be without a drunken stranger? Out now. 

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My second novel is  GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michelle Richardson, a story which laces beauty, love and sweetness with the hardscrabble existence of tobacco farming in Kentucky during the dying days of the sixties. Ruby Lyn Bishop was orphaned at five years of age but has lived since then with her God-fearing uncle Gunnar. As she passes her sixteenth birthday, she is beset with dreams and wishful thinking about her own fortunes after years of making intricate paper fortune-tellers for the townsfolk.If you are a lover of intricate plots set over a small period of time and adore the southern sense of place, this book is for you. Out April 26th.

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Fans of Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, have been eagerly awaiting her next novel and in The Summer Before The War, we can once again enjoy the quietly moving and capable storytelling that made her first book so enjoyable. It’s 1914 and the last days of a beautiful Edwardian British summer in East Sussex but a stranger is about to arrive in the village. When Agatha seeks to engage a woman as the new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash is the result, and she is far more free of thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. As the village prepares for the Great War, other conflicts rise to the fore as some very British traditions are tested. Out March 24th.

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All families have their myths and legends and when your family is well-known, sorting out the truth from hyperbole and hagiography can be very challenging. The Nicholson family are well-versed in telling their own story and now it is Juliet Nicholson’s turn in her book,  A House Full Of Daughters. She converts her previous acceptance of her complicated family history to intricate, questioning research and in the process, tells a vivid story which roams from Malaga in Spain to the salons of fin-de-siècle Washington DC; from an English boarding school during the Second World War and sexy Chelsea in the 1960s to the bankrupt, and decrepit New York City in the eighties. Then there’s the Nicholson women: her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita and her mother’s Tory-conventional background. This is a delicious book. Out March 24th.

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Onto a different house and two different families in The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, where, on a snowy Brooklyn night in 1947, two women, sister by marriage and friends by choice, give birth. Helen and Rose are married to brothers Abe and Mort and the two families share a brownstone. Tightly wound around an explosive secret and with complex family dynamics which become known to us over a long period of time, the multiple perspectives can at times feel a little unbalanced but on the whole, this is a highly readable and deft exploration of family life. Out March 8th.

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This new anthology of previously published writing by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard is the sum total of a woman who is relentlessly and forensically alive and in The Abundance, Dillard shines a beautiful light on the everyday, asking us to drop our casual acceptance and re-engage anew with the world around us. She makes us notice through the application of her poets soul, philosophers mind and artists pen and enchants via words which pin down a series of images onto the page: lunar eclipses, leaves, moths to flames and the magnificent sight of birds in flight all catch her eye, and, in turn, ours. As we read, she tasks us to ask ourselves why, how, where and what does the minutiae of my own place in the natural world mean to me? If you’ve never read her, this is the perfect introduction to a writer who is admired by landscape and nature writers everywhere. Out April 7th.

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In Rain, Melissa Harrison explores the relationship we have with the weather as she follows the course of four rain showers, over four seasons, across Wicken Fen, Shropshire, the Darent Valley and Dartmoor. Particularly pertinent to the British who enjoy a good conversation about the weather, Harrison weaves a meditative pathway through all manner of ologies and disciplines: botany and biology; literature and philosophy; geography and psychology to gently encourage us to engage with rain instead of merely grumbling about it. Also included is a meteorological glossary with common terminology such as cloudburst (“sudden, intense rainfall of short duration”) and the esoteric regional words for all things watery from the skies, similar to that employed by Robert MacFarlane in his recent book, Landmarks. Her level-headed gaze ranges from the earthly: germinating seeds and rain-sodden earth, to the sensory [and scientific] delights such weather causes. Her contemplation of petrichor- the particular aroma after a rain shower is particularly delightful. Coined in 1964 by Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, petrichor is derived from two chemical reaction when oils secreted by plants during dry periods are released into the air because of rain. Chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are also released and these two aromatic compounds combine to create petrichor. If you aren’t thoroughly charmed and intrigued by this, then I can’t help you.

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I adored The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu Jaber’s previous memoir and in her new memoir, Life Without a Recipe, I am re-acquainted with her funny, warm and poignant writing about creating a family on one’s own terms. As Diana honestly acknowledges, building confidence in one’s own path sometimes takes a mistaken marriage or two—or in her case, three and there are many rows between Bud, her flamboyant, spice-obsessed Arab father and Grace, her sugar-fiend of a German grandmother. Bud and Grace could not agree on anything to do with Diana and her life choices, whether they be food, family, who to love and how to love. Caught between cultures and lavished with contradictory “advice” from both sides of her family, Diana spent years learning how to ignore the well-intentioned prescriptions of others and forging her own, at times imperfect, path. Out April 18th. 

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Going to NYC soon and want to find out more than the best place to shop? The Chronicles series takes a look at the history behind some of the most fascinating cities in the world and now they have published an edition about this most famous of cities. Each book introduces the major characters that shaped the city, then offers comprehensive walking tours to bring its words to life. In Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattans Landmark Neighborhoods, author James Roman,  a native New Yorker, walks us around the many neighbourhoods and amuses us with anecdotes about those quirks of history that have helped shape the city such as which park lies over a sea of unmarked graves. The inclusion of historical maps and photographs helps bring visionaries, risk-takers, dreamers, and schemers such as John Jacob Astor and Gertrude Whitney to life, showing how they left their mark on a city and continue to shape its development after their deaths. Out April 1st.

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Helen Stevenson’s memoir Love Like Salt is a poignantly beautiful account of what it is like to be the mother of Clara, a child with a chronic illness. Despite the sadness of her daughters diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, this is an uplifting book which describes how Helen and her family are able to triumph over adversity in many forms. Helen is a translator and she uses her own profession to reinterpret the strange landscape of biology and illness. The story is set against a backdrop of music and art and literature which soars over and beyond the confines of the CF diagnosis and the bullying her daughter experiences at school in France. The family moves back to the UK which is where we leave them, all of us cautiously optimistic that Clara will continue to prevail over this awful disease which, as of yet, remains incurable. Out now.

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Remaining with the mother and daughter theme but fictional this time, Jennifer S Brown’s debut novel, called Modern Girls, takes us to New York City in the thirties, at a time when national socialism is on the rise in Europe and women of all ages are starting to define themselves outside of the home. It’s 1935 and Dottie Krasinsky is the epitome of a modern woman, employed as a bookkeeper, a boyfriend in tow, but living still with her Yiddish parents. When she becomes pregnant, she has to face the fact that her options are still very limited. Then there’s Dottie’s mother who is dying to get back some of the fire in her belly, lost to years of childrearing. Her own situation bears uncomfortable parallels with her daughters when she too faces an unwanted pregnancy. Brown has written an eminently readable ages-and-stages story, set in a time when greater freedom and choice loomed tantalisingly close for women. Out April 5th.

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Learning about experiences far removed from my own particularly appealed in Anju Joseph’s The Living, although its themes of discipline through work, the pleasures and rewards of long-term friendship and the tension between the joy and tedium of family life are universal. Claire is a young single mother working in one of England’s last surviving shoe factories, her adult life formed by a teenage relationship. Arun, an older man in a western Indian town, makes hand-sewn chappals at home. A recovered alcoholic, now a grandfather, he negotiates the new-found indignities of old age while returning in thought to the extramarital affair he had years earlier. This is a novel which rewards you for looking closer until you can clearly see the eddies and currents that lie beneath waters that seem, upon first glance, to flow seamlessly. Out now.

I have linked to the authors own page, or to the publishers because I will not link to Amazon. Please order these books through your local booksellers, where at all possible. They need our support and our love. All reviews are honest and have not been solicited.

Coming soon: the best food writing and cook books this spring. 

 

 

 

 

Pierced

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To pierce or not to pierce?

Is it wrong to pierce a babies ears? In this piece, I write about my experience of having my ears as a small child and the impact this had. 

As a small child,  I was moved to a Central American country because of my parents job and I lived there for a number of years, masquerading as a proper little Catholic school girl, attending nursery and then moving up into the school proper. I stood out like a English sore thumb when I arrived: I was pale and subdued with bone-blonde hair, blue eyes and un-pierced ears and wore a Ladybird dress and neat patent Mary Janes, neither of which coped very well with the dust and sand of the Chihuahuan Desert. My naked earlobes caused the local people the most concern though: they marked me out as a gringa far more than my blonde ringlets did.

The culture in Mexico both then and now is to pierce the ears of newborn girl babies, performed as soon as possible after birth because presumably it is easier than trying to catch and pin down an older, more mobile, and less compliant child. In most cases, babies actually leave the maternity clinic with pierced ears, the procedure carried out just days after their birth because a newborn will not tug at her sore ears nor interfere with the earrings. Once done and with screams quietened- sometimes after sucking on a honey-dipped finger- these baby girl children received their first gold in the form of tiny sleepers or gold studs and the giving of these in the months leading up to the birth is a common gift.

I was four when my parents decided to pierce my lobes, roping in a nun from my school to do it and I was understandably reluctant to have this nun grab me by the tender flesh of my ear and pin me face-down onto her black serge lap so she might push an ice-cold needle through my lobes. A cork from the freezer was held against the back of my ear, providing the necessary resistance for the needle to push against. The nun then threaded each hole with a length of black cotton and tied the ends of the threads into two small loops to keep them open. A few days later, the threads were replaced by plain gold studs: my parents probably  thought that earrings engraved with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe were a bit too ‘catholic’,  although these were a popular choice among my friends who were accustomed to life under divine protection and called upon the saints to see them through the most unremarkable of life events.

This dour nun was far removed from the gentle Bride of Christ you might have watched in The Sound of Music and she demonstrated a firm grip and an even firmer countenance as she trapped me deftly between her knees to examine the shape of my ears whilst my parents held onto my thrashing arms. I briefly contemplated biting her plump little kneecap as she bent my head forwards then decided that the risk of Hell On Earth- as opposed to going to the real hell afterwards- was too much of a risk. I had already spent too much time locked in the dark and chalky art supplies cupboard for various minor classroom insubordinations (like being, um, four) and I wasn’t planning on spending more time in there with sore throbbing ears to boot.

Post piercing, all I was allowed to wear was a tiny, uptight gold stud whilst my Mexican friends wore dramatic, passionate, ear jewellery that afforded them a bigger and more decorative space in the world. I was envious of my friend Susie’s black curls, brown skin and the chunky pair of carved gold arracadas hoops that danced in her ears: standing alongside her, I felt like a half-erased drawing. My discreet British-style studs rendered me a half-hearted participant in a rite much bigger than me and as a child, I squirmed over my competing cultural definition. My envy confused me, wrapped up as it was with resentment at my parents. I had failed to separate my feelings about the frightening method used to pierce my ears  from the longer-term consequences and cultural significance of remaining the only un-pierced girl in my school. At times I hated my parents for forcing me to go through such an ordeal, I disliked the hassle of caring for my pierced ears yet I longed too, for something a little less waspy. Alone in my room at night I would remove the studs and ‘lose’ the small gold ball that screwed onto the sharp post which threaded through my ear. The next morning, my mother, or Maria our housekeeper, would triumphantly produce one of many ‘spares’ and reinsert the earring, accompanied by scolding slaps and harsh words. It became a daily and unpleasant ritual until Maria sat me down and explained that when I was old it would be up to me but for now, I had to submit. She was sure that an extra cup of atole might be in line for little girls who weren’t put on earth to turn her waist length black hair prematurely grey. Maria was just eighteen. 

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Arracadas do “Tesouro Bedoya”, expostas no Museo de Pontevedra.

My early teenage years were marked by a nascent feminism and I began to consider the psychological implications of having ones pain rewarded by jewellery and a sugary finger.  I thought about the fact that I underwent the same procedure without ‘enjoying’ the benefit of being too young to consciously recall it: it was very hard to forget my feelings of terror at being held down without real explanation of what was to happen and then the pain of piercing; this nun was not blessed with dexterity. I found it hard to shake off the fear I felt when I realised that I had absolutely no say in it. The fact that ear piercing was performed by a nun made it even odder.

I lost interest in my earrings in adulthood, refusing to wear them as I started to regain jurisdiction over my body and began to reject everything that reminded me of my powerlessness in the face of my parents actions. It was in defiance of all that came after: the parental neglect and abuse; the ongoing disregard of me as a person separate from themselves which was heralded by their turning a deaf ear against my pleas to leave my own ears alone. Eventually I let the holes close up until all that remained was a thickened piece of tissue, a minute bulls-eye in the centre of my lobes. Slightly darker in colour than the rest of my ear, these were a stigmatic reminder of things done and it became apparent that they would not fade and the damage would never be completely invisible. I had my own daughter and left her ears alone although when she was twelve she went through her own push-me pull -me as she tried to decide of her own accord whether to pierce. Six years later I had my son and left his ears alone too.

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Funnily enough, I’m now in my forties and lured (again, ironically) by the thought of the flash-trash clink of Creole gilt hoops as I shake my head. I imagine white-gold stars thickly clustered along the outer and upper part of my ear. There’s Halston-fabulous slim needles made from silver and platinum which I imagine swinging and catching the light as their wearers dance and laugh. I’m still drawn to what some call the Chola style, drawn from first- and second-generation Mexican and Mexican-American girls who wear gold chains, large hoops and stop-the-traffic red lipstick with an attitude that both reclaims and flips this formerly abusive term on its head. I like the Chola’s blend of strong femininity and toughness which spits in the face of the fact that these girls probably had little choice as to whether their ears were pierced or not. But I’m not Mexican or Mexican-American, no matter that I once lived there for a while and despite the fact that the Chola has evolved from a culture I am familiar with. There’s a line of authenticity to be drawn in the sand somewhere, probably starting with the fact that Chola abuelas (grandmothers) seem to be quite thin on the ground and I am nearer the abuela than I am her daughter or granddaughter.

Following fashion writers like Pandora Sykes on social media has exposed me to a different way of wearing ear jewellery where joyful, witty and intelligent fashion also possesses agency and self-determination. Pandora is young enough to be my daughter but her take on personal style has helped to liberate me from my old resentments and fired me up to search for fresh ways of decorating what my husband describes as the world’s tiniest adult-human ears.

The mysterious language of the ear piercer intrigues me too. There are piercings called the tragus and the anti-tragus which sound like a Greek myth on the scale of Perseus versus the Gorgon. The conch and the rook are embedded into the shell-like curves of the inner ear lobe whilst the daith sounds like something a nun might whisper in the stillness of her cell-like bedroom.

I’m ready now. I am eyeing up the anatomy of my little ears and wondering what they can take. As I get older, I can see that a jewelled ear (or nose!) can defy time in unexpected ways, can allow me to retrace old paths with bigger, more sure-footed steps. This time it will be my decision.

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