Friday, 9 December 2011

One door closes …

On 17 September I submitted a 25,000 word thesis entitled "The Colonel and I: Unravelling the Wintle Legend". The first section of it was almost word-for-word the same as my blog on 27 January, "The Wintle Legend: Prologue". The thesis expanded considerably on the brief account of his career that I gave in my blog of 9 February, "A Legend in his Lifetime". This account I wrote to go on the back of the laminated paneI that I prepared for display in the Horse & Groom, the pub on Wrotham Hill in Kent where I had my memorable encounter with the Colonel in July 1956. This appeal, which I caused to be displayed at various places in the nearby West Malling – Tesco Metro, the library, the Malling Town Club, and so on – was fruitless. I had, it must be confessed, little hope that anything would come of it, but the trip to Kent was worthwhile for regaining some sense of the place where the Colonel had lived his last twenty years.

I then gave up blogging as being a waste of time while carrying out my researches. The gallant colonel turned out to have been somewhat economical with the truth in his "autobiography", The Last Englishman. I put the word in inverted commas because it was published two years after his death in 1966, assembled from his writings and edited by a journalist whose other books lack distinction. Some of the stories in it can be verified in other sources, but others are dubious, to say the least. His account of derring-do in Vichy France and his daring escape from Fort Ste. Catherine in Toulon, for example, could not be substantiated: Les Amis de Vieux Toulon et la Region Var are amongst those who know nothing about these incidents. It further appears that the Colonel throughout his life had been fond of impersonations and practical jokes. It is likely that the bullet-riddled tunic which he showed us, and the corresponding scars on his chest, were part of the props for the japes that he played.

At the very least, however, the Colonel has provided me with an intriguing subject for research and for the 25,000 word thesis about him that I handed in on 17 September. It also has provided the material for an article I have submitted to The Oldie in their "I once met …" series. The subject is not of sufficient general interest to warrant putting in a proposal to write a full-length book, but more importantly is not of interest to me.

I now await inspiration about what to do next.



Thursday, 8 December 2011

… and another one opens

At the end of my post on 27 January I was describing the difficulty of finding a person about whom to write for my thesis, following my final realisation of the futility of trying to write about a sixth century Welsh princess. I had devised a splendid title for this study of Gwenfrewi (a.k.a. Winefred in England), "The Double Life and Afterlife of a Virgin Martyr"[1], and I had even established to my complete satisfaction that she was directly responsible – a millennium and a half later – for the fall of the House of Stuart[2], but another twenty or so thousand words about her would, I considered, have been as boring for me to write as for the examiners to read.

"Just a moment," says one of my friends, a retired professor, "You're still putting the emphasis upon a journey rather a person. I don't think they'll accept this proposal either: it's not biographical enough. Why not write about someone entirely different? Tell me, who's the most interesting person you've ever met in your life? Whoever it is, write about him!"

I spin my mental Rolodex: hundreds, nay thousands, of images flash past in a nanosecond: the device stops at the card with the picture of the monocled and moustachio'd warrior I had met half a century before.

"Colonel Wintle", I say, and I tell them the stories that I had heard in that pub and that house in Kent.

This same friend came to my rescue again. He is an avid bibliophile: he regularly receives book auction catalogues from every corner of the realm: he knows that I am an enthusiastic cook and am continuing to learn Italian. He shows me the description of a lot in the latest Bonhams catalogue which he has ringed and written Tony! against.

What this description says and what then happens opens another door for me, but this post on this blog is not the place to say what lies beyond the door: click here to find out.

[1] Gwenfrewi was decapitated by a thwarted suitor outside a church in which she was seeking refuge. Where her head fell and came to rest, a spring miraculously sprung. Her uncle, Saint Beuno, rushed out of the church, placed the head on her neck, covered the body with a cloak and went back in to finish the mass. Afterwards they lifted the cloak and behold! she lived! She went to Gwytherin, deep in the Welsh mountains, where she became an abbess and where eventually she was buried and sanctified.

The spring is at Holywell, in north east Wales: from her days to our days people have gone to seek healing. Monks from Shrewsbury went in the twelfth century to take the bones from Gwytherin to give their abbey a focal point of pilgrimage, which it became and remained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Her shrine was destroyed and her bones scattered and lost, save one finger bone that can still be venerated at Holywell.

Thus the double life, ending first at Holywell and then at Gwytherin: thus the double afterlife, at Holywell and at Shrewsbury. It can scarcely be coincidence that this title is resonant of that of the splendid biography of the nineteenth century forerunner of the lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, “The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton”.

[2] The Catholic James II went with his queen to Holywell in 1687 to pray for the miracle of a son, the last of their five children having died in infancy five years earlier. A son was duly borne, but this was the flashpoint for the Glorious Revolution, when Protestant magnates encouraged a Protestant prince from Holland to seize the throne and be co-crowned as William III along with Mary, his wife and daughter of the deposed James.

The deposed king fled to France and the protection of his co-religionist, Louis XIV “the Sun King”. On his death in 1701 his son James proclaimed himself king of England and Scotland and was recognised as such by Louis. His supporters in Britain, the Jacobites, knew him as “the King across the Waters” and his son, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, in 1745 led the insurrection in Scotland in a failed attempt to enforce these claims.

Chaos Theory posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Himalayas can cause a tornado in Kansas. This theory of mine posits that the rejection of a suitor’s advances by a simple Welsh girl led many centuries later to the downfall of a mighty dynasty.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

To the power of 8

This piece has been written today at the request of a member of our local amenities society, who is most kindly putting the sundial on our house forward for a prize for the best recent embellishment of the town of Buckingham.

At the beginning of 2008 I started looking forward to a milestone birthday – my seventy fifth – which would fall on the eighth day of August. I began to think of ways that this event could be suitably celebrated.

The number eight is a lucky one in China because the word eight sounds similar to the word which means "prosper" or "wealth", and therefore the date 08.08.08 would be a particularly auspicious one in that country. After arranging that my birthday be marked by the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, I tried to think of an equivalent event at a parish pump level.

Our house comprises a couple of old two-story cottages with a third floor probably added shortly after the canal arrived in Buckingham in the early nineteenth century and with a Georgian façade put in front to give the once-humble building a suitable aura of gravitas. Above the front door and between the two windows on each of the upper floors were a couple of niches, doubtless put there to resemble the blocking-up of windows done on more stately houses to avoid the eighteenth century Window Tax. The lower of these, I thought, would be just the place for a sundial.

I began the search – online of course – for a suitable builder. I found a handful of craftsmen who seemed to offer good work and good value, but I was deterred by the fact that I would have had to do the measuring of the alignment of the façade and the determination of latitude. I felt that, if a mistake were made, it would be better to have somebody else than myself to blame.

My search increasingly centred on one David Harber, particularly because of the excellence of his website: for me, as a one-time website developer, this was an important factor. His list of commissions was impressive, too: Oxbridge colleges, stately homes and international corporate HQs featured prominently on the site. Obviously expensive, but probably worth it, I thought.

My initial contact with David's company confirmed the likely expense but also reassured me about quality and service. The latter included Latin motto translation, provided by a retired bishop, the Right Reverend Stephen Verney, who lived near David's workshop. On the strength of his reputation as a classicist, the bishop – as he then was not – was enticed into the SOE during the war and spirited into Crete, where he formed a partisan unit whose success led him to being awarded the military MBE after the war. David would exchange a bottle of fine claret for devising or revising a suitable Latin motto for a sundial.

I wanted a motto to do with the house, which stands at the foot of Bristle Hill. I thought of the words in the funerary mass, Lux eterna luceat …, "Let light eternal shine …", and transformed this into "Let the sun always shine" (Semper luceat sol …), ending (or beginning) with "upon 7 Bristle Hill". This was the tricky bit. I looked up "bristle" and got saeta, so I submitted to the bishop Super collem saetae ("of the bristle") septem … I got back Super septem (before, not after, the street name) collem saetigerum ("bristle-bearing").

Happily, we were about to set off on a trip to Naples and I believed that I could find the correct position of the number seven during a visit to Pompeii. Alas, the citizens of that town didn't apparently use numbers at all for addresses: this was a new-fangled Greek idea, which might be all very well in Alexandria, but really wouldn't do for us Romans in Campania. Therefore, on the basis that the modern Italian method of putting the number after and not before the street name was probably based on some form of Roman precedent, I defied the bishop and did likewise.

On the matter of "Bristle", however, the bishop was supported by an American foster great-nephew of my wife who had just won a classical scholarship in his second year at his Oxford college. This forming of adjectives from nouns by adding "-bearing" in cases such as this was, apparently, common and was based on imported Greek practice.

So we arrived at a reasonable Latin motto, but I felt that, because the good burghers of Buckingham would not be able to understand it since the Royal Latin School had stopped teaching the language some while ago, a translation should be included in small print at the bottom. Here I used the desire to produce a rhyming couplet my excuse to render semper ("always") as "still" (=continuing until this time), thus enabling "Upon Seven Bristle Hill // Let the sun shine still".

The reason why I chose the typeface Trajan for the wording on the dial, and what I did about the absence of small caps in that font, will be obvious to typographers and need not be said. To non-typographers the matter is unimportant and can therefore be left unsaid.

The day for installation finally arrived. David attended in person with his team. Afterwards, chatting, he told me of a recent unveiling at which his young daughter had been selected to offer a bouquet to the Queen. The little girl approached Her Majesty and said "You're not a queen: you're a granny!" "You're quite right, my dear," said our sovereign lady, "I am a granny – but I'm also a queen."

I asked David whether he has customers or clients: I enjoy teasing tradesmen who try to pass themselves off as professionals by talking about their clients rather than customers. David side-stepped this trap adroitly. "I have patrons", he replied.

We all looked up admiringly at the sundial before it was draped to await the official unveiling. "It looks great", I said, "but it really shows up the empty niche above it. Any suggestions?" He thought and then said "I could build you a weather cock on the chimney which would link through gears to a pointer on a compass rose in the niche. This birthday you're tracking the sun: the next big one, track the wind!"

Roll on my eightieth: only some eight hundred and eighty eight days to go!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Legend in his Lifetime

This was written to go on the back of the posters supplied to the Horse & Groom and laminated together, so that they could be handled by customers in the bars of the pub where I met the colonel in 1956: see West Malling Revisited.

Colonel Wintle was a legend in his lifetime. He appeared on the two famous celebrity programmes of the '50s, television's This is Your Life and radio's Desert Island Discs. The highlights of his long-running legal battle with a Brighton solicitor were reported in The Times. His death on 11 May 1966 resulted in obituaries worldwide: that in the New York Times was headlined Eccentric English War Hero Dies.

This legal struggle demonstrates the colonel's three salient characteristics: resourcefulness, courage and tenacity. The issue was the legality of the will of a feeble-witted female cousin of his by which the solicitor, who had drawn it up and had had it witnessed by two of his clerks, would be the major beneficiary of it, instead of the colonel and another cousin.

The colonel's first attempt to have the will overturned on his cousin's death was unsuccessful. He took drastic action to keep the cogs of the law turning. Under an assumed name he invited the solicitor to a hotel room whereupon he announced that he was going to place a dunce's cap upon his head, debag him and then take photos of him. This he did. The solicitor sued for assault and the colonel was jailed for six months. On finishing his time as prison librarian he resumed his attempts to overturn the will, all of which failed before successively higher courts until only the House of Lords was left. By this time the costs of earlier actions had so impoverished him that he could not afford to retain barristers when bringing his case to the highest court in the land.

Colonel Wintle conducted his case alone and unaided. He won it. He was the first layman to do so. Barristers at the Middle Temple gave him a champagne reception to celebrate.

This was not the only occasion on which his impetuousness had landed him in serious trouble. The colonel, a fluent French speaker, had been an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre before the war and was friendly with several airmen who were in 1940 senior officers in the Armée de l'Air.

He was in London in May that year when the German panzer divisions sliced through the allied front line, resulting in their armies withdrawing in confusion to Dunkirk and the French government fleeing from Paris to Bordeaux. With the capitulation of France imminent, Wintle saw an opportunity to persuade some of these officers to fly their squadrons to England and continue the war against Germany from there.

To do this, though, he needed an RAF plane to take him to France, something which an air commodore he approached refused to provide. At this he drew his revolver and aimed it at the stump of the thumb of his left hand: he had lost the tip of it (along with three fingers, a kneecap and an eye) in action in the First World War.

"Give me a plane at once, or I'll shoot this off!" The air commodore thought that he was being threatened and raised the alarm. The colonel was seized, thrown into the Tower of London and court-martialled. He was reprimanded, but the high command decided that this enterprising and audacious officer could indeed do valuable service in France whither he went on clandestine operations a year later.

Inevitably he got captured by the Vichy French Milice but astonishingly was not shot out of hand but was incarcerated for months in Fort Ste Catherine in France. There he treated his gaolers as if he were their commanding officer and reprimanded them mercilessly for their poor turn-out and slovenly behaviour until he succeeded in sawing the bars of his cell and escaping by jumping into a rubbish truck conveniently below.

Some of the stories in his so-called autobiography, assembled posthumously from his writings by an unreliable journallst, may be economical with the truth. I believe that the true story of this remarkable Englishman should now be told.

West Malling Revisited

We had to go on business on our daughter's behalf to Hastings, so this was a perfect opportunity to visit West Malling, the town by the North Downs near the colonel's last home. This would be a trip down memory lane for me and would also enable me to seek to get in touch with people who knew him.

Before going I prepared some A4 posters, half in portrait format and half in landscape, which I would seek to have displayed in prominent places in the town. These briefly explained who the colonel was, why I was interested in him and how to contact me.

We approached the town from King's Hill on the downs on which the airfield at which I had been briefly stationed had stood. Of what had been RAF West Malling I could see no sign: all had been replaced by housing estates and light industrial buildings. I later learnt that the control tower was still standing and that there are moves to turn it into a small museum.

There is also a new pub on King's Hill appropriately called The Spitfire, as the airfield was one of those in the front line during the Battle of Britain. The pub is owned by the great Kentish brewer, Shepherd & Neame of Faversham. One of their beers is also named Spitfire. I remember their splendid posters for it, which showed a Spitfire beer clip on a hand pump and the simple message "Downed all over Kent, just like the Luftwaffe". The killjoys at the Advertising Standards Authority made them pull this inspired advertising campaign.

Down the hill and into the High Street, bags dumped at our B&B and immediately across the road is my first port of call, the local library. "Good afternoon! I was last in West Malling in 1956 and I've come back because I'm writing a biography about a local war hero. I want to meet people who knew him. I've prepared these posters asking people to get in touch with me. Would you be kind enough to display one?" "Certainly!" The good lady takes one of the portrait-oriented ones.

A few steps back down the High Street and then left down Swan Street, following the sign to Tourist Information: closed. Back up Swan Street and notice a sign saying Malling Club. It's busy, though still not yet five o'clock – lots of chaps drinking beer (but not Faversham's finest) – attractive woman behind the long bar – same sales pitch, but with different close, the Bogus Alternative. "Which of these two posters [i.e. portrait or landscape] would you like to display?" This close is bogus because it suppresses the third choice, which is of course Neither. But it works. "I'll take both", she says. Time and money spent by me in the past at the Tack School of Salesmanship had not been wasted.

Back into the High Street and left towards Tesco Metro. Inside there's a West Malling Community Board. I go to the woman behind the check-out nearest to the board. "Who do I speak to about displaying a notice on that board?" "Me", she says and I go into my last sales pitch. "I think it'd better be the narrow one", she said, "the wide one would be harder to fit in. I'll put it up when I go off duty in an hour's time."

Up and down the High Street, looking for other outlets for my wares – see a notice about the lectures being given weekly by the Malling Society – could offer to give one entitled "Colonel Wintle: the Maverick Hero" in the spring, if response to poster campaign underwhelming – pass premises of parish council – note contact details.

Part two of mission is of course the return to the pub where I met the colonel – Horse & Groom now a gastropub – unrecognisable – chat with charming Gallic patron – "Could I have two of the landscape ones, one for each bar?" "Bien sur", I respond and (still in salesman mode) I add "And I tell you what I'll do for you, m'sieur, I'll knock up a mini biography to go on the back, laminate a couple of them and send 'em to you." See my upcoming post, "A Legend in his Lifetime".

Part three of mission is to try and find Coldharbour, the colonel's house – it's behind the gastropub somewhere – set off towards it following morning with image of photo in autobiography in head – getting nowhere – stop – Mondeo Man stops – "Lost?" – "Yes. Looking for Coldharbour." – "You mean, Colonel Wintle's house?" – "Yes" – directions given – anecdotes related – call alas postponed till next visit (shortage of time). "Time spent on reconnaissance", the Iron Duke is said to have said, "is seldom wasted": how true!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Next Steps

This is out of sequence with recent posts, but is designed as a preliminary thesis proposal, appraising my potential supervisor of what I am currently thinking.

On the first three of the four terms that make up the full-time Biography course at the University of Buckingham, we examined a number of different genres of both autobiography and biography: we read – or skimmed – paradigms of each and then in weekly seminars discussed their salient features. We did not however discuss works in which the autobiography is the most important source of information for the biographer, as would be the case with Colonel Wintle.

In such cases it would seem to me important to select a number of episodes related by the autobiographer, particularly those which show him in a good light, and seek to compare what he said happened with what other people may have said. The degree to which the accounts of the autobiographer and other people tally would then be an indicator of the reliability of what he says about himself.

So one of my first steps must be to skim The Last Englishman and to look for a handful of episodes that can be checked. At the same time I should look for those aspects and incidents in his professional and personal life which could form part of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, since there is not yet one for my colonel. The first paragraph of such an entry must include brief information about both parents and all four grandparents, so I need to research this on or

Other steps, but of lower priority, are these.

  • Obtaining a CD containing the hour-long television programme about him mentioned in the Wikipedia entry and attempting to get interviews with the actor who played him and the author of the script.
  • Recontacting the friend with whom I saw the colonel in 1956 to see what he remembers of our meeting
  • Visiting West Malling, the nearest town to his last home, to seek to contact people who knew the colonel
  • Tracing the records of The Shop ('Sandhurst' for gunners and sappers) to c heck claim of rapid pass-out
  • Looking at service records, in particular commanding officers' assessments of someone who must at times have been a difficult subordinate and what is known about his time at the Ecole de Guerre
  • Finding out whether there might be a record of his court martial
  • Finding regimental histories to seek to cross-reference actions in which the colonel took part
  • Visiting the French embassy to see whether it would be possible to check his claim to have been top of national primary school exams in 1909
  • Looking at his will, both to satisfy ODNB requirement to give value of estate at death and to identify some relatives
  • Seeking to contact relatives to see who has the MS of the autobiography and other any personal paper, perhaps using telephone directories

Monday, 7 February 2011

Monday, 31 January 2011

The Game’s Afoot: version 1

It is the next day. Tuesdays I have just started going up to town again, this year for a couple of sessions at the British Library, a stone's throw from Euston terminus, staying overnight with my daughter and her family in Clerkenwell.

I take what is now the logical and natural step when starting an investigation: I google Wintle and then look to see whether there is a Wikipedia entry. There is one: click here to see it.

This explains the monocle. The gun carriage wheel hit an unexploded shell and he woke up in a field hospital minus his left eye, one kneecap and several fingers. His right eye was so damaged that he had to wear a monocle for the rest of his life. This happened at Third Ypres in 1917, when he had been at the front for two years. Back at the front he won as Military Cross precisely a week before the Armistice. He was then nineteen years old.

The heroic colonel had clearly been a formidable warrior. But two things troubled me about this account of his exploits in the First World War. It states that he fought at Festubert, supposedly capturing the village of Vesle single-handed. Why, I wonder, is the adverb supposedly used? Then it does not state that he was severely wounded by a machine gunner: surely, in a 500-word account, this incident would have merited a mention.

I feel that these two incidents should be looked into. It is possible that this flamboyant character may have exaggerated some of the stories that he told about his life. After all, he grew up in France and did not have the benefit of an education in England, a lack that I suspect he always regretted.

Towards the end of the Wikipedia article it states He was the feature of a one-off TV movie in the "Heroes and Villains" series called "The Last Englishman" featuring Jim Broadbent in the title role. "The Last Englishman" is also the title of his autobiography.

I go to Amazon to buy a copy of this autobiography. There are three second-hand copies on offer at £99 (Oxfam Hove), £195 (UK) and £492.93 (USA). I resolutely move my cursor away from the [Buy with 1-Click] button, exit and leave home to catch the bus from Buckingham to Milton Keynes railway station.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Wintle Legend: Prologue

It is the evening of Saturday 14 July [1] 1956. I am 22 and at the end of my second year at Oxford. I am halfway through my annual fortnight with the Reserves. I am flying de Havilland Chipmunks with other members of the university air squadron at the RAF station at West Malling. I am now talking shop with my friend John Flint [2] in the Horse and Groom, a nearby pub.

An old buffer who has been drinking by himself comes over to us. "Couldn't help overhearing you chaps talking about flying. Had a bit to do with the RAF during the last war. Let me introduce myself: I'm Colonel Wintle."

He is a short but erect man with a moustache and a monocle that has the effect of making one eye look different from the other. One of his hands seems to be missing some fingers.

We airmen and the soldier continue to chat merrily until closing time, with the soldier doing most of the talking. "Let's carry this on tomorrow morning at my place", says the colonel. "Good show," we say, "Good night!"

John and I duly turn up at the colonel's house. We settle down over coffee and he tells us how in the Twenties he had studied the build-up of a new German army by inspection of telephone directories, in which officers always listed themselves with their ranks.

He shows us the battledress tunic he had been wearing when he had been shot by a burst of machine gun fire on the Western Front. We look in awe at the diagonal line of four neat holes in the front of the tunic. The colonel slips his braces off his shoulders and pulls up his shirt and vest. We look in greater awe at the diagonal line of four round scars across his chest.

He rearranges his clothing and tells us of a rogue solicitor who had preyed upon his (the colonel's) simple-minded aunt and had persuaded her to alter her will in his (the solicitor's) favour. When she died the colonel had failed to get the will overturned. He took drastic action. He went to the solicitor's office and forcibly debagged him, then photographed him. The colonel produces the photograph. We look at the wobbly legal buttocks. We hear that the solicitor did not take kindly to all this and brought a charge of assault against the colonel which resulted in him being sent to prison.

By now gin had replaced coffee which means that the answers to certain of our questions are not fully understood or later remembered. How had those bullets failed to pierce a vital organ and kill him? What had been the purpose behind the debagging? Where had he been jailed, and what was it like inside?

Fast forward fifty five years to the evening of Monday 24 January 2011. I am in my local, The Mitre, and I am telling my friends about the the delay in resuming my postgraduate Biography course at the University of Buckingham.

"I've explained to them why the topic I chose for my thesis last summer is now not feasible and they don't like my proposal to write about the journey to Rome made by Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest: they say it would be insufficiently biographical. I'm now hoping that they'll agree to my writing about just one of them, that's Archbishop Sigeric: he's the only one who left a detailed account of his journey."

"Just a moment," says one of my friends, a retired professor, "You're still putting the emphasis upon a journey rather a person. I don't think they'll accept this proposal either: it's not biographical enough. Why not write about someone entirely different? Tell me, who's the most interesting person you've ever met in your life? Whoever it is, write about him!"

I spin my mental Rolodex: hundreds, nay thousands, of images flash past in a nanosecond: the device stops at the card with the picture of the monocled and moustachio'd warrior I had met half a century before.

"Colonel Wintle", I say, and I tell them the stories that I had heard in that pub and that house in Kent.

[1] This date needs confirming by reference to my RAF Pilots Log Book, in the attic
[2] This name has been changed. Surviving friends from those years will know his real name.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Case Study: Part 2

My last post describes how I started looking for information about journeys to Rome by people mentioned in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database. This post describes how I started storing such information on my own database.

Step 1 was going to the Results column and copying and pasting into a text file each of the 15 lists of 25 identifiers of people whose factoids contained a mention of Rome. The start of this file looked like this.

Abba 1: Name inscribed in the Catacomb of Commodilla (via Ostiense, Rome)
Acca 3: (e/m viii) Bishop of Hexham, 709-731; d.737/740
Adola 1: (e viii) Abbess

Step 2 was to add relevant factoids to a small number of people after which the file looked like this.

Abba 1: Name inscribed in the Catacomb of Commodilla (via Ostiense, Rome)
Acca 3: (e/m viii) Bishop of Hexham, 709-731; d.737/740
Acca 3-Wilfrid 2.journey to Rome: On their way to Rome, Acca 3 and Wilfrid 2 stayed with Willibrord 1.: Bede.HE iii.13
Acca 3.journey to Rome: Acca 3 travelled to Rome with bishop Wilfrid 2. : NorthernAnnals.FirstSet 36
Adola 1: (e viii) Abbess

Step 3 was to add bibliographical information, initially only about the translation of the primary material. Information about the original primary material, almost all in Latin or in Old English, is also available on the PASE database but is unlikely to be useful to me.

Abba 1: Name inscribed in the Catacomb of Commodilla (via Ostiense, Rome)
Acca 3: (e/m viii) Bishop of Hexham, 709-731; d.737/740
Acca 3-Wilfrid 2.journey to Rome: On their way to Rome, Acca 3 and Wilfrid 2 stayed with Willibrord 1.: Bede.HE iii.13
Colgrave, Bertram and Mynors, R. A. B. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People Oxford 1969 (1991) 3-577
Acca 3.journey to Rome: Acca 3 travelled to Rome with bishop Wilfrid 2. : NorthernAnnals.FirstSet 36
Whitelock, Dorothy English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 London and New York 1979 263-276
Adola 1: (e viii) Abbess

Step 4 will be to create in Microsoft Access a simple database table with each record (or row, in layman-speak) containing all the information about a particular factoid in different fields (or columns). This table initially contained just 20 records, while the layout was tested. The first Acca record was laid out like this, with square brackets enclosing the field name and round brackets at the end of the line enclosing comments about the contents of the field.

[ID] 1 (sequential automatically-generated index number)
[Name] Acca 3
[When 1] e/m viii (i.e. early/middle 8th century)
[When 2] 733 (approx. date in numerals, to assist with later searching and sorting by date)
[Factoid] Wilfrid 2.journey to Rome: On their way to Rome, Acca 3 and Wilfrid 2 stayed with Willibrord 1.
[Source] Bede.HE iii.13
[Bib. 1] Colgrave, Bertram and Mynors, R. A. B. (author/s of translation of source)
[Bib. 2] Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (title)
[Bib. 3] Oxford 1969 (1991) (published where and when)
[Bib. 4] 3-577 (page reference: not particularly helpful here!)

Step 5 will be to play around with this limited data set and to see what changes need making before continuing with data entry. The ultimate goal is to produce a table with details of every recorded visit to Rome from England in the period 597 to 1066.

An early task will be to seek to create a report which would enable the generation of a printed bibliography, in MHRA format, which could act as quarry for footnotes for the final thesis.

This step will also endeavour to see whether the results generated by search Location > Rome is comprehensive by comparing them with the visits to Rome listed in Saxon Pilgrims to Roma and the Schola Saxonum.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Case Study: Part 1

Building a prosopographical database for my thesis,
Pre-Conquest Travellers to Rome

This database will initially be built from material on the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England website.

As it states on this site, "PASE is based in the Department of History and the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, at King's College, London, and in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, at the University of Cambridge. The project was funded from 2000 to 2004 by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, and from 2005 to 2008 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), with further unfunded extensions granted to June 2010."

After clicking the Database tab and on selecting Location, then Specific location and entering Rome in the look-up box the left half of the screen looks like this.

On clicking Go this is seen.

On clicking Rome this is seen.

On clicking Acca 3 in the Results column this is seen on the right half of the screen.

On clicking Event at the bottom of the factoid list on the right this is seen.

On clicking Journey this is seen.

Two of the three "factoids" refer to a journey to Rome. The first one ends with a bibliographical reference to a bilingual edition of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. On clicking NorthernAnnals.FirstSet this is seen.

My next post will describe how I store relevant information.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Case study: Introduction

Over the next few weeks I am going to describe each stage of the building of my prosopographical database. This is primarily for my benefit, because I have always found it useful to write out before I start a new stage a description of how I propose to carry out that stage. This acts as a plan of the intended operation which gives me a spurious sense that I know what I'm doing and acts as a reminder of what to do when I come back to the task after an interval.

I will afterwards write up the plan, drawing attention to where the original was inadequate, so that other people who want to do something similar won't waste the time that I did finding out how to do the job properly.

It will also be useful to inform my supervisor on my course how I am approaching my research, the Collecting part of the Collecting > Selecting > Perfecting thesis-writing sequence which I describe in my Software for Biographers: 2 post. Likewise it may form the core of an appendix to my thesis, if and when its revised topic is accepted by the University and it finally gets written.

I intend to make it a "warts and all" narrative, spelling out the mistakes I make and describing the blind alleys down which I will inevitably wander. It will also act as a safety valve, enabling me to let off steam when software or hardware problems hinder or halt progress. Let's hope (however vainly) that my writing about such matters is minimal!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Software for Biographers: 2

In my last post I said that there were two ways in which you can run PC-only software MS Access on a Mac if, like me, you want to use Mac-only software Scrivener for organising your thesis.

The first way is to use Boot Camp to partition your Intel-based Mac's hard drive and to install Windows (XP, Vista or 7) on to one part, leaving the other part to your Mac's operating system. You can then decide on rebooting whether to use your computer as a PC or as a Mac. This may be satisfactory if you don't want to run a program from each operating system at the same time. If you are happy with this solution, then the Boot Camp Assistant (accessible via Search on Finder) enables you to do so without further cost other than that of a Windows installation disk.

The second way is to create a 'virtual machine' on your Mac and to run your PC software on it. This involves you with the additional cost (around £65) of the software to create this machine. I chose Parallels Desktop for Mac, described on Wikipedia as "hardware emulation virtualization software, using hypervisor technology that works by mapping the host computer's hardware resources [i.e. those on the PC] directly to the virtual machine's resources. Each virtual machine thus operates identically to a standalone computer, with virtually all the resources of a physical computer."

As so often is the case, installing Parallels software was nothing like as easy as claimed on the box, but it was finally successfully done on the second day of contact with Harsha, the company's excellent support engineer in Bangalore.

This now enables me to have my MS Access database open in a window on the left of my screen and a Scrivener page open on the right of it. A major feature of Scrivener is that it enables you to store bits of text on virtual index cards which you can re-arrange to your heart's content on a virtual corkboard before exporting selected text on them to the text editor and eventually exporting to your preferred wordprocessing program.

On the Scrivener website it points out that "Writing a novel, research paper, script or any long-form text involves more than hammering away at the keys until you're done. Collecting research, ordering fragmented ideas, shuffling index cards in search of that elusive structure—most writing software is fired up only after much of the hard work is done."

I agree, and contend that the ability to move bits of text around on screen like pieces of a physical jigsaw puzzle will make my actually writing my thesis (once I have stopped blogging and have finished my prosopographical database) simple and straightforward: I also contend that attempting to do this merely by using cut-and-paste within a wordprocessing program would be much harder and slower.

Even if you agree with my contention, you may well feel that the expense of the hardware (iMac), virtualization software (Parallels) and document-structuring software (Scrivener) would be unnecessary if there was a decent means of creating shufflable index cards on a PC. I have to confess that if I knew last summer what I know now, I might well have not gone to all the trouble and expense of moving from PC to Mac. You see, I have just discovered Stickies.

Stickies are virtual Post-It notes that you can create in Windows but not on Macs. You can create them and move them around the screen, where they will remain till you remove them or put them on to a wordprocessor file of which you may just have written the chapter title. When you close that file, the stickies disappear with your text: when you reopen it, there they are again. Stickies software is, amazingly, free!

I do not have the time at this stage to do anything further about Stickies, but if there is some demand by biographers for a comparison of these methodologies, then I will show how I could have used them when producing my thesis. In the meantime I am going to use the following model, based on the Untersuchungs-Ordnungs-Realisierungs Prinzip.

Collecting (research material stored as gobbets/factoids on records on an MS Access database)
leading to
Selecting (created by copying research material from relevant database records onto Scrivener index cards and shuffling these into the right sequence for each section)
leading to
Perfecting (copying the research material into a [Word or Pages] wordprocessor file before expanding and polishing research material, then adding link passages etc.)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Software for Biographers: 1

I grandiloquently entitled the paper I wrote last spring term How Writers Write Biography: a Preliminary Study of British and American Practice. I wanted to get some idea about how much use biographers make of new technology and in particular at what stage (if at all) do they start tapping away at a computer keyboard.

You may well imagine that, in the brief time I had to research and write the paper, I found out little of significance. One point that did interest me, though, was that there seemed to be little correlation between writers' level of technical savviness and the point at which their wordprocessing begins: just because someone is computer literate does not necessarily mean that he will write his first draft on screen.

This also begs the question, what is a first draft? Does not a well-sequenced series of index cards, or a series of re-arranged pages from a reporter's notebook constitute a first draft? And what about Winston Churchill? He, famously, used not to see what he had dictated until it arrived on his desk in galley proofs, at which point only he would start revising. I used to run a typesetting company, and I shudder to think what his typesetting bills must have been.

Most of the desk research I did was based on the series of articles published in The Guardian from 2007 onwards entitled Writers' Rooms, which sometimes gave insights into the creative process, as well as describing where this principally takes place. Hilary Mantel for example wrote this:

Some preliminaries happen at the huge notice board in the kitchen, where I am building my new novel about Thomas Cromwell. It helps me structure a book if I can see what I'm doing. The chronological line and the flashbacks get worked out on postcards. As I narrow the focus, each postcard comes to represent a scene, and behind it I pin everything that belongs to it – tiny observations, descriptions, statistics, lines of dialogue. Then I can take it to the computer and work it through.

This seems to me to be a very good description of how many writers, and in particular biographers, work or would like to work. What particularly interested me, though, was the last sentence, which implied that what she did at this stage was to transposed all this material directly into her wordprocessor, using the cut and paste facility for fine tuning.

Such American research as I was able to do was by e-mail, writing to the high percentage of people who gave their contact details on The Biographer's Craft website: this was in marked (and dismal) contrast to the small percentage of people who give their e-mail addresses on the equivalent British sites. A respondent from Oregon was particularly helpful and insightful, writing this:

For me, the salient features of a good writing app are the ease of editing, cutting and pasting (which make it easier to try different versions of a story, see how it looks, then modify or return to the original); ease of access to tools like word count, thesaurus, dictionary, highlighting, footnoting etc); ease of style modifications (font, italics, boldface, et al), formatting (line spacing, justification, setting margins, etc); metadata, and combining words with images. I'd rather just have the rest of the features out of my way! Hence something intentionally simple like TextEdit and Bean and WriteRoom works best. I use Scrivener to make it easier to deal with several documents at once and to structure stories, then do final formatting in Bean, Pages or whatever.

This was the first time I had heard about Scrivener. I naturally looked up reviews for it, and was blown away by this:

No doubt, Scrivener is THE BEST creative writing software ever.
Completely customizable, you can write your novel, your script, you screenplay, your OWN WAY.
It has TONS of features, literally THOUSANDS of feature, I don't think one man can be aware of all of them, and that's why they're posting a "Tip of the Day" each and every day on their Facebook fan page.
In order for people to be aware of what MORE they can actually do with the piece of software they've bought!
Also, many writers have moved from Windows to OS X just to have Scrivener! It's like the Photoshop of creative writing, it's THE standard, it really defined and REDEFINED how things are, and how they should have been from the very beginning.

On the strength of this and other reviews, I went out and bought a nice big iMac to draft my thesis on The Double Life and Afterlife of a Virgin Martyr. It was only when I found the topic to be unsatisfactory and I switched to the prosopographical one Pre-Conquest Travellers to Rome that I hit a major problem: the version of MS Office for the iMac does not include the database program Access I used to use on my old PC and you can't of course practice prosopography these days without a database.

The cost-free solution would be for me to abandon Access and learn the free and open source database software MySQL (for structured query language): this, incidentally, is what the Anglo-Saxon prosopographical database runs on. However, I don't want to spend time on the MySQL learning curve and, above all, the Database for Historians course run by the Institute for Historical Research is focused on Access.

There are a couple of other solutions which I will investigate this week: watch this space!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Prosopography and the Via Francigena

Prosopography is a new term: it does not appear in my edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary reprinted and corrected in 1959. The Online OED gives this somewhat unhelpful definition:

a description of a person's appearance, personality, career, etc., or a collection of such descriptions.
[mass noun] the study of prosopographies, especially as an aspect of the study of Roman history.

Think of prosopography as a collective biography or, as a current prosopography practitioner has described it, "a means of profiling any group of recorded persons linked by any common factor". The prosopographical approach was used in the early to mid twentieth century by historians studying matters such as the governing class of imperial Rome, the creation of the American constitution and the motivation of members of the eighteenth century House of Commons.

According to Lawrence Stone, the populariser of the term prosopography, the approach was "Invented as a tool of political history, [but] it is now [1971] being increasingly employed by the social historians." An outstanding example of such use was made soon after in Montaillou, the study of life, love and death in a C14 Pyrenean village, using a mass of depositions in the Vatican archives made by villagers to the Inquisition, determined to stamp out the last vestiges of the Cathar heresy in Occitania.

The advent of the computer and the development of database software that can easily be used by researchers has made the accumulation and analysis of socio-historical data much easier than any paper- or card-based system. A couple of recent examples, given on Wikipedia's Prosopography page, are Living and Dying in England 1100–1540 (a group picture of monastic life, centered on the aggregate experience of the monks of Westminster Abbey) and Angels in the Office (a group biography of women secretarial workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) . These give "a mosaic formed of documentary flashes of momentary insight into a multitude of obscure lives that can never be pieced together into individual biographies."

These researches focus on "Intentional Groups, with explicit shared interests", but there are more diffuse groups like that in A Preliminary Prosopography of the Victorian Street, in which "the spatial classifications, occupations, and domestic arrangements of a street in Victorian Oxford" were studied.

My projected prosopography of the Via Francigena would contain data on people who had travelled from England to Rome since the arrival of the mission of St Augustine in 597 up to, initially, the Norman Conquest in 1066. My first step will be to identify as many of these people as possible. I will identify them on two websites.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Nearly all public libraries in the UK subscribe to the Oxford DNB online. This means I can access the dictionary, free, via my local library. On this index page I just type in BUCKS followed by my card number.

The Search facility enables me to search it for entries about people who lived between 597 and 1066 and where text in the entry contains the words "to Rome" or "at Rome". It is then a simple matter to copy the core information about the person (name, dates, office/rank) and the thirty or so words containing "to/at Rome". This raw list will later be used to tabulate the data.

Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England

This extraordinary resource, developed over the last decade by Cambridge and UCL, is freely accessible without even having to log on here

I am searching the database via the left-hand frame by two of the seven search criteria:
Events > Life events/social and economic acts and relations > Journey (or Pilgrimage, if listed)
Location > Specific location > Rome

Each then lists individuals in the central frame, by name and identifying number: thus Alfred the cake-burner is shown as ALFRED 8: (m/l ix) the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxons, 871-899

Clicking on Alfred 8 displays in the right-hand column a Factoid (=incident with primary source reference) list. In Alfred's case factoids are grouped into 10 categories of which Events is one. This in turn has about 50 categories of which Journey lists 30 factoids, of which one reads
Æthelwulf 1.journey to Rome with Alfred 8: Æthelwulf 1 went to Rome with Alfred 8.: Asser.VitAlfredi 11 (855)

Clicking on the reference (Asser.VitAlfredi) displays details of both the edition of the primary source and its most recent translation.
Stevenson, William Henry – Asser's Life of King Alfred, Together with the Annals of Saint Neots Erroneously Ascribed to Asser. Edited with an Introduction and Commentary. – Oxford 1959 pp1-95
Keynes, Simon, and Lapidge, Michael – Alfred the Great: Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' and Other Contemporary Sources. Translated with an Introduction and Notes. – Harmondsworth 1983 pp67-110

These factoids will later be tabulated.


I do not yet know exactly how I will tabulate this data. I will decide this by the time the Winter Term starts on 18 January so that I can shortly after discuss with the Dean how I can use it when working on a new thesis as the final element of my MA course..

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year, New Way

Our 2010 Christmas card had a note about something we had each done during the year. It said

SHE painted the palm in KwaZulu Natal last spring and is now doing portraiture in her studio at home

HE has stopped (temporarily?) his MA course at the University of Buckingham and is currently idle

Possibly the main reason for stopping was that I became disenchanted with the topic of my thesis, writing which constitutes the last stage in the MA course. At the outset I had wanted to write one entitled From Clay Tablet to iTablet: the Impact of Technology on How Biography gets Written and on my website,, I had selected the ten pieces of life writing made over five millennia which would illustrate my thesis.

This topic was ultimately unacceptable to the university and I suggested instead taking one of these pieces of life writing and charting how the subject's influence had waxed and waned over the centuries. The subject was Gwenfrewi, a seventh century Welsh saint known in English as Winifred, who was beheaded by a frustrated suitor, miraculously restored to life by her sainted uncle Beuno and lived again as a chaste abbess in a remote Welsh valley. According to one of her first two biographers – writing five centuries after these dramatic events – miracles took place at Holywell (the place of her first death) and at Shrewsbury (whither her relics had recently been translated and enshrined), both places becoming famous pilgrimage destinations.

This new, and acceptable, topic I entitled The Double Life and Afterlife of a Virgin Martyr. This would have had a number of interesting sections: holy wells; Welsh Christianity and monasticism; saintly relics; hagiography; the medieval cult of virginity; and pre- and post-Reformation pilgrimages. Each of these strands could of course have been illustrated by reference to incidents in Gwenfrewi's life and afterlife, but the trouble I increasingly experienced was that I could find no satisfactory keystone with which to crown and finish my projected arch, without which it would tumble into half-a-dozen only loosely related blocks. The final straw was my finding that Gwenfrewi is not recognised by the Bollandists (Jesuit historians in Belgium who for three centuries have sought to establish the truth about saints' lives) as a Martyr, but only as a Virgin. I felt both unable and unwilling to comment upon such faith-related issues, so I stopped work on this thesis in September.

Instead I went then to a language school in a small Tuscan town where I had intended to spend a month trying to bring my Italian up to another level. Unfortunately I had recently experienced a loss of hearing, so that I had unexpected difficulty in understanding both my teacher and my fellow-students and reluctantly went home after only a fortnight. I then thought about the possibility of our going to Tuscany in the spring, SHE to paint and HE to read and talk, and looked to see what Alternative Travel were offering. At is outlined a wonderful twenty day trek along the Via Francigena (the ancient pilgrim path to Rome), but with an unacceptable price tag.

Two things gradually struck me.

  1. A prosopographical study of some of the people who trod the Via Francigena would make an interesting topic for a new thesis, with the working title of Pre-Conquest travellers from England to Rome
  2. I reckon that we could do half the time (ten days) for a quarter of the price (£1,300), doing the section Pontremoli to Lucca, totalling about 85 miles, and looking for things they might also have seen (and planting a Piltdown-type hoax stone somewhere inscribed HIC ERAT SIGERIC)