Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Maverick Surgeon, RMS Titanic, The Witch's Ladder & More

It's spring, and that can only mean one thing—the latest edition of Vintage Script is out, full of little joys to be unwrapped and devoured. As well as a time of anniversaries, this season is one of reminiscence, discovery and a look forward to delights to come. Here's a quick taste of what's on offer.

The Work Is Not God's
Richard Smyth
A Gothic tale, this one—not for the fainthearted. If you like anatomy and have a taste for the macabre, this is a story for you. Richard's vivacious prose transports you right to the very point where blade meets flesh.

The Unsinkable Rose Ellen Murray
Kirsty Lee

We all think we know the Titanic story, says Kirsty, but there are as many mysteries about it as there were lost lives. Here we meet an imaginative "survivor" of the disaster with a penchant for sea travel (and storytelling), despite an unfortunate propensity to sink a ship.

I Remember Harry Bagnall
Bill Carr

A poignant love story, set in Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne, at the outset of the First World War. 950 men from Byker alone were killed in the war, and Bill here pays tribute to lives loved and lost.

The Age Of Wood
Max Adams

Max tells us the story of wood, and the people who have worked it through the ages. It's a delightful reminder that that woodlands are a vital resource for raw materials, for history and for stories.

The Age Of Wood

The Flying Boy
Edward Clark
Inspired by an old photo, Edward recalls the long, hot summer days of his youth spent at the open-air pool. His writing makes you believe that the Flying Boy of the title could jump out of the page before you, and you really can smell the chlorine and feel the heat rising up from the flagstones.

Exhibit M.218-1978
Joanne Ogden

The centrepiece of this story is a brooch of enamelled gold, whose secret brings about a satisfying conclusion to a gripping tale. It's a delicate thing that proves powerful in troubled times.

A Knock At The Door
David Williams

This extract from David's novel Mr Stephenson's Regret gives us an insight into the private lives of railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson. Fame and fortune may have come later in life for George, but here David—a fluent and sensitive writer—gives us a sense of the struggles he faced as a father, son, brother and man.

George Stephenson

William's War
Mavis Lee
Mavis has created a collage here from letters, postcards, programmes and other snippets that her grandfather, William, sent or brought back from the First World War. The details are touching—he tells of how he clung to a raft for over six hours after his ship was torpedoed, and talks later of the souvenirs he hopes to return with. And there's a happy ending too...

Chewing Gum
Sue Mackrell

Sue has happy memories of visiting her aunt's sweet shop in South Wales, and her tale vividly recalls the fusty shop and the treasures therein—Rainbow Drops, Flying Saucers and Everlasting Toffee. It will strike a chord with anyone who remembers the joy of a paper bag laden with their favourite sweet treats.

1912 Overture
Kim Charleston

Not only is this year the centenary of the Titanic disaster, but also that of the death of Bram Stoker. Here Kim deftly combines the two in a series of letters from one of his domestics. The parallel strands of the story remind us that where there is hope and imagination, there is also frailty and tragedy.

Bram Stoker's famous book

A Stroke Of Luck?
Michael Montagu

Michael turns "genetic detective" here to trace the medical history of his famous family—kings of Scotland and England descended from the House of Stuart. Fascinatingly, he reveals that Charles II most likely died from acute mercury poisoning—he was a keen scientist, it seems, and loved nothing better than a session of experimenting with mercury in his lab...

The Witch's Ladder
Claire Fuller

A witch's ladder made with cock's feathers and human hair...could it at once cause a destructive inferno and bring the best of good fortune to its victims' neighbours? Read Claire's story and decide for yourself...

The spring edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.

No blog post next week...Vintage Script will be en route for our new HQ in Suffolk. Normal service to resume week commencing 7 May...catch you then!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Punjab’s Last—And Suffolk’s First—Maharajah

It may surprise you to know that Elveden, a village just inside the Suffolk border to the north, was once home to the Punjab’s last maharajah, Duleep Singh (1838-1893). That is, unless you have the good fortune to step inside his former home, Elveden Hall, where the central hall is fashioned of white marble, and where eastern motifs sit happily alongside classical forms. The story of how the Maharajah ended up in rural Suffolk is—like many good stories— full of intrigue, loss, hope and tragedy.

The Maharajah became ruler of the Punjab aged just five but when the area was proclaimed part of the British Empire in 1849, he was deposed and forced to live in restricted circumstances at first in India, then exiled to England aged 13. The dethroning had been brutal. Property—the centrepiece being the spectacular Koh-i-Noor diamond, to this day part of the Crown Jewels—was confiscated, the lad was separated from his mother, his unshorn hair was cut and he converted to Christianity, one imagines
under duress.

The Maharajah Duleep Singh

The Maharajah lived at first in London, where he moved in royal circles and soon became a favourite of Queen Victoria. She is reported to have said of him, ‘Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful’. A tour of Europe was followed by an episode living in Scotland, where it seems he developed a taste for parties and Highland attire. He returned briefly to India in 1860 to bring his mother back to live with him north of the border (and went back to his homeland only once again, this time to inter her ashes), returning to England after she died, and living a while in Yorkshire before settling in 1863 on the Elveden Estate, Suffolk, bought for him by the India Office.

Elveden Hall, Suffolk
I can imagine why the Maharajah felt at home there. The flat, arable lands of Suffolk could easily be twinned with the fertile plains of the Punjab; just swap sugar beet, potatoes and rye for mangoes, oranges and cotton. (Today the Pakistani Punjab produces 68 per cent of the country’s grain production, while 85 per cent of the Indian Punjab is under cultivation. Meanwhile, the Elveden Estate alone is one of the largest farms in the country, and its biggest producer of rye.) But there is something more tenuous than that, something in the way, on a summer’s evening, the setting sun envelopes the Suffolk landscape in a golden light reminiscent of a land even further east.

By all accounts, the Maharajah threw himself heart and soul into Suffolk life, displaying the jollity and joie de vivre that Punjabis have always been famous for. The red brick Georgian Elveden Hall was remodelled to resemble the elaborate Mughal palaces of his memory—the four-storey high Marble Hall and cupola its centrepiece. Breathtaking—as much for its luminescence as for the surprise of finding royal Punjab in the heart of East Anglia. Philanthropic, too, the Maharajah regenerated the estate’s buildings, including the church, school and cottages, and transformed it into an efficient game reserve, with this function still going strong today. (The Maharajah was known as the fourth best shot in England.)

The Marble Hall at Elveden

Family life was productive. In 1864 the Maharajah married Bamba Müller, the illegitimate daughter of a German banker and his Abyssinian mistress who had been cared for by Christian missionaries in Cairo. They had three sons and three daughters, who were brought up at Elveden. It appears at first glance that the Maharajah had made a happy life for himself.

But home is where the heart is, and he had plenty of time to contemplate the forced separation from his native land and religion and plan his return. In 1886 the British government decreed that he should not return to India nor re-embrace Sikhism, but still the Maharajah with his family set sail for home in March of that year and got as far as Aden, Yemen, where he was arrested. The family returned to England but the Maharajah did not return with them. He reconverted to Sikhism and in July travelled to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life, concocting a series of failed attempts to liberate India from the British Empire and reclaim his former glory in the Punjab.

Maharani Bamba died in 1887, and the Maharajah went on to marry Ada Douglas Wetherill, reported to have previously been his mistress. Their marriage produced two daughters. Sadly, none of his eight offspring had children themselves, and so the royal lineage died with them.

Maharajah Duleep Singh died in Paris aged 55 in 1893. His body was not returned to India as he wished, but laid to rest in a Christian burial at Elveden Church. His executors sold the hall to Edward Guinness, the First Earl of Iveagh, and the estate remains in the hands of the family today.

The Maharajah's gravestone

The Maharajah’s story is fascinating and multi-faceted, and deserves a far deeper analysis than I can provide here. His story seems to encapsulate the fate of so many individuals in India as it succumbed to the British Empire, and even up to and beyond Partition in 1947 it has been retold time and time again—the tragedy of former glory, surrender, loss, attempted restoration and the poignancy of death far from home. And despite the Maharajah’s (understandable) love for his little corner of Suffolk, I am certain that it is the Punjab that is etched deeply in his heart.

With thanks to Rachel Power for her insights.