Sunday 24 February 2013

'I feel the shake and am obliged to stop'

 At 3.13pm on 9 June 1865, the Folkestone to London train was derailed whilst crossing a viaduct in Kent. Half the coaches were whipped over the edge and smashed into a dry river 10 feet below. One of the carriages remained suspended, half on and half off the bridge.

The Staplehurst rail crash, in which ten people died,  became famous, not just for its casualties, but for the presence and actions of one of the passengers left precariously hanging between life and death in that first class carriage. He was Charles Dickens. In a letter to a friend he described the moment of impact:

I was in the only carriage that did not go over into the stream. It was caught upon the turn by some of the ruin of the bridge, and hung suspended and balanced in an apparently impossible manner. Two ladies were my fellow passengers; an old one, and a young one. Suddenly we were off the rail and beating the ground as the car of a half emptied balloon might. The old lady cried out “My God!” and the young one screamed.

I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite, and the young one on my left) and said: “We can't help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don't cry out.” The old lady immediately answered, “Thank you. Rely upon me. Upon my soul, I will be quiet.” The young lady said in a frantic way, Let us join hands and die, friends.” We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped. I said to them thereupon: “You may be sure nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?” They both answered quite collectedly.’

Dickens climbed out the carriage – to survey a terrible scene.

‘Looking down, I saw the bridge gone and nothing below me but the line of the rail. Some people in the two other compartments were madly trying to plunge out of the window, and had no idea there was an open swampy field 15 feet down below them and nothing else! The two guards (one with his face cut) were running up and down on the down side of the bridge (which was not torn up) quite wildly. I called out to them “Look at me. Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don't know me.” One of them answered, “We know you very well, Mr Dickens.” “Then,” I said, “my good fellow for God's sake give me your key, and send one of those labourers here, and I'll empty this carriage.”

We did it quite safely, by means of a plank or two and when it was done I saw all the rest of the train except the two baggage cars down in the stream. I got into the carriage again for my brandy flask, took off my travelling hat for a basin, climbed down the brickwork, and filled my hat with water. Suddenly I came upon a staggering man covered with blood (I think he must have been flung clean out of his carriage) with such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn't bear to look at him. I poured some water over his face, and gave him some to drink, and gave him some brandy, and laid him down on the grass, and he said, “I am gone”, and died afterwards.

Then I stumbled over a lady lying on her back against a little pollard tree, with the blood streaming over her face (which was lead colour) in a number of distinct little streams from the head. I asked her if she could swallow a little brandy, and she just nodded, and I gave her some and left her for somebody else. The next time I passed her, she was dead. Then a man…came running up to me and implored me to help him find his wife, who was afterwards found dead. No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water. ‘

For his coolness and attempts at rescue Dickens emerged from this scene of carnage as the hero of the hour. ‘I don't want to be examined at the inquests,’ he wrote, ‘and I don't want to write about it. It could do no good either way, and I could only seem to speak about myself, which, of course, I would rather not do. I am keeping very quiet here. I have a – I don't know what to call it – constitutional (I suppose) presence of mind, and was not in the least flustered at the time. I instantly remembered that I had the manuscript of a novel with me, and clambered back into the carriage for it.’

Dickens had other reasons, apart from dreadful recollection, for not wanting to attend the inquest. The two unnamed women in the carriage were his secret mistress, Ellen Ternan ‘the invisible woman’, and her mother. Both were spirited away quickly from the scene – Dickens, with the reputation of an adoring public to maintain, wanted no publicity.
Ellen Ternan and Charles Dickens
The Staplehurst railway crash reads like a melodramatic scene from one of his own novels – and he drew on it for a ghost story, The Signal Man, that he subsequently wrote. In truth it spooked him badly. He lost his voice for a fortnight and never fully recovered.  ‘I am a little shaken,' he added in his letter, ‘not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, but by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and dead, which was most horrible…in writing these scanty words of recollection, I feel the shake and am obliged to stop.’ It was almost a harbinger of his own death. He died five years later to the day, on 9 June 1870.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Scratchings on a rock

 At present I’m writing a book about the Portuguese exploration of the world. Vasco da Gama’s rounding of Africa in 1497 stands as a pivotal moment in world history – the start of the long process of globalization which preoccupies us so much today – but his arrival in India was no overnight breakthrough. It came on the back of half a century of slogging exploration of the African coast. In retrospect the Portuguese seemed indefatigable in their endurance and their willingness to push themselves over the edge of the known world. Men vanished in small ships and rough seas, or died of malaria and poisoned arrows on probes up the continent’s vast rivers, the Senegal, the Gambia and the Niger, in search of an elusive short cut to the Indian Ocean

There is no more poignant memorial to this process than a monument left by the sailors of the Portuguese captain Diogo Cao up the River Congo at the Yellala Falls, a site so remote that there would be no further recorded European visitor for 300 years. Whoever came here in about 1485, sailed, or rowed 100 miles upstream from the sea along the mysterious and densely forested banks of this immensely powerful river. As they pushed their way east, the current increased in ferocity until they reached a rocky gorge, and the thunder of mighty waterfalls, a colossal torrent of water pouring out of the heart of Africa. The Portuguese could sail no further. Undeterred they abandoned their ship or ships and scrambled ten miles over the rocks, in the hope of finding navigable water upstream, but the succession of rapids defeated them.

This venture is completely unrecorded in Portuguese chronicles. The only testimony is hidden on the rock wall of an overhanging cliff high above the crashing torrent, where the seamen left a carving. It shows the arms of King John II, the energetic Portuguese king who must have ordered this expedition. Next to it there is a cross and some names: ‘Here arrived the ships of the illustrious monarch Dom Joao the Second of Portugal, Diogo Cao, Pedro Anes, Pedro da Costa, Alvaro Pyris, Pero Escolar A…’
To the lower right and carved in a different hand, there is a second group of names: ‘Joao de Samtyago, Diogo Pinheiro, Goncalo Alvares + of sickness Joao Alvares…’ And in another place, just a Christian name: ‘Antam' [Antao = Anthony]

All these inscriptions seem broken off – their circumstances as ambiguous as a last entry in the diary of a polar explorer. They give us the names of the men who commanded the ships – Diogo Cao and the others by the cross; but the commanders were probably not present. It is likely that Cao sent the expedition upriver to probe the navigability of the Congo and it is the men in the second group who actually made the trip. It is probable that both inscriptions were being carved at the same time; and both are incomplete, as if interrupted at the same moment. Evidently men were ill or dead – probably of malaria. There is no date. Were they too weak to continue? Were they surprised or attacked as they scratched away at the rock? No date is recorded; nor is there any other record of this probe into the heart of Africa, which remained undiscovered until 1911. We know at least that some of the men must have made it back because one of them, Joao de Samtyago [Santiago], was a pilot on a famous follow-up voyage by Bartolomeu Dias, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope for the first time in 1488.

Friday 8 February 2013

Bring up the bodies?

A last post about Richard III. Here’s his face reconstructed from the skull.

What’s really fascinated me about the finding of his body – apart from the discovery itself – has been the reactions to it. Fellow academic historians and archaeologists seem to have been depressingly dismissive about the historical value of Leicester’s find and the way that the University have played it up. There’s a shrivelling whiff of miserablist sour grapes about all this. The finding of named individuals from the past is incredibly rare – and I bet if any classicist were offered the chance to look on the mortal remains of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar the response would be rather different. This find is a chance for ordinary people to touch the past – to be thrilled by the reality of what happened long ago and for academic work to spark popular interest. The professionals should be celebrating a moment for their discipline to make it into the limelight.

There’s also something wonderfully medieval about the attitude to these bones. The city of York has made a counterclaim for the body because that’s where Richard came from. It’s just a modern squabble over who gets a saint’s relics – the citizens of Bari and Venice fighting over who had the bones of St Nicholas in the Middle Ages. It has, of course, nothing to do with the fitting place, but all about the modern religion of tourism – the bones of King Richard, wherever they are buried, will bring visitors to the city. The Venetians knew this well – and were prime holy body snatchers. St Mark was their trump card (if his bones ever existed) and ensured a rich stream of paying guests.

The Richard thing has also sparked a potential chain reaction of similar attempts. There’s a vicar in Winchester who thinks King Alfred is buried in his church and would like to find out. The Richard III society wants to exhume the bones of the princes in the Tower from Westminster Abbey for DNA testing. The Church of England is likely to stand firm on this. Richard was found in a car park but the Church is worried that voyeuristic exhumations from holy ground could open up a can (or coffin?) of worms. ‘Inter their bodies as becomes their births’, says the victorious Henry Tudor in Shakespeare’s play about Richard III.

Monday 4 February 2013

A wonderful day for archaeology


This morning I watched the quite extraordinary press conference called by the archaeologists of Leicester University in which they explained how they now know that this skeleton, found under a city car park, was, beyond all doubt, that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, killed on Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. They walked soberly through the evidence – carbon-dating, osteo analysis, DNA capture from the bones and from known descendants, to construct an overwhelmingly convincing account of the man, his physique, his wounds and his manner of death in battle. The shiver of touching the past.

He had been wounded in ten places. His skull had been grievously injured – probably Richard lost his helmet.

Base of Richard III's skull
The major wounds are to the base of the skull, either side of the spine, and would have been caused by heavy bladed weapons. His body was subsequently mutilated after death, tossed naked onto a horse and dumped in a rough grave in  the now vanished church of Greyfriars. Richard III, ‘deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’ - Shakespeare’s hunchback - did indeed have a curvature of the spine.

 Skeleton laid out horizontally

It was all incredibly moving. We were reminded by the canon of Leicester Cathedral, that this is not just a historically gripping discovery. It concerns the remains of a human being. Richard will be reburied in the cathedral.

Archaeology is a Cinderella profession in these cash-strapped times but this was an astonishing testimony to its ability to bring all the tools of scientific analysis to unlock the past. For the men and women who talked at the press conference – and for the hundreds of hours of patient analysis by them and many others in universities and laboratories across Britain – this must have been a crowning moment in their professional lives.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Tomorrow we will know

Richard III

If the skeleton found under a carpark in Leicester is that of Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle - at Bosworth in 1485 - an event which ended the civil wars and ushered in the Tudors...
There's a Richard III Society in England, keen to re-establish the reputation of the man whom Shakespeare smeared on behalf of Elizabeth, the Tudor queen - and who may or may not have been responsible for the deaths of the princes in the Tower. Watch this space!