The Past is a Foreign Country

04 01 queens of the worldCora Allen packed up her belongings and left the family beetroot farm in rural North Yorkshire and left for a new life with her new husband Frederick Myers-Trevor in 1884. Frederick was a retired army officer who had acquired a post, overseeing the import and export of cotton in Bombay. Their only daughter, Clarice was born there in 1885. There, they lived a rather closeted existence as they lived in the shadow of some unnamed impending doom that Frederick feared would somehow befall his wife and daughter. Then, in 1896, they were forced to flee the city along with many others due to an outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It caused devastation, not only to the population of the city but also its cotton industry. Frederick became obsessed with the idea that it was a sign that the end of the world was nigh and holed himself and his small family up in a little village that neither Cora nor Clarice could later recall the name of. It was here, on April 1st 1899 that Frederick was sat on by a sacred cow. The animal could not be moved and, sadly, he was crushed to death.

Now alone, Cora and Clarice found they were free from fear of the coming Apocalypse, a new world of possibilities opened up for them and they were ready for an adventure. They decided to make their way back to England, but they would travel over land. Little is known of their long journey but they seem to have followed the course of the old Silk Road at least part of the way. They travelled partly by donkey, partly by camel and, perhaps, partly by hot air balloon. In Kabul they made a useful contact in the form of an Afghani merchant from whom they bought a couple of rugs which they would carry with them all the way back to England. Their travels were not documented by anyone but the ladies themselves and they seem to have largely avoided the bands of rogue European archaeologists who were, at that time, travelling the other way along the Silk Road in search of plunder. They somehow managed to slip unnoticed through the war-torn region that had once been Persia and they arrived in Constantinople in 1901. There, they set up a small business, The ‘Ms Allens’ Mint Tea and Shisha Emporium for Ladies’ proved both popular and lucrative, but the following spring they began to move homeward again.

Having made inexplicably large profits in the previous twelve months, they arrived in Paris in style, on the Orient Express, in the spring of 1902. Their year in Paris was spent in Montmartre. Clarice worked in an absinthe bar close to the newly refurbished Moulin Rouge. Among her customers were Erik Satie, who was very heartbroken, but used to play the piano for her sometimes and Alfred Jarry, who was very strange. Cora met a film maker named Georges and could often be found helping him paint the scenery for his films. It was through him that they were engaged to present a series of lectures about their travels at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly: ‘How to Spot an Angry Camel’, ‘Over Persia in a Hot Air Balloon’ and ‘How to Construct a Hookah Pipe out of Everyday Household Objects.’ It was one of the final presentations at the hall before it was demolished to make way for flats.

On their voyage to England, there was a slight altercation at the port of Calais, when a sailor made an improper suggestion and Clarice knocked him into the harbour with a swipe from a rolled up Afghan rug. Other than that the journey was pretty smooth and, though the subjects of their lectures were generally regarded by the public as errant nonsense or of no real practical use, they made a lot of friends in the Music Hall and travelling Side Show business. In late 1904, Cora received news that the family beetroot farm back in North Yorkshire had been left to her in a bequest. They moved north, sold most of the land and used the farm as a base for a successful business importing carpets via their old contact in Afghanistan. While it isn’t clear how they managed to build such a healthy enterprise out of importing carpets, they were diligent business women and were always found at the port of Whitby to receive their shipments in person and checked the cargo carefully. Within five years, their new enterprise ‘Queens of the World’ was importing ornamental goods and soft furnishings from every corner of the Empire.

But they missed their friends in the entertainment business and soon converted the old beetroot shed into accommodation and rehearsal space for travelling performers. Occasionally, they presented what they called ‘New Material Nights’ which were largely attended by audiences from beyond the immediate area. The farming community found their visitors very peculiar and their weekend parties became the subject of local gossip. The parochial council petitioned for the closing of The Beetroot Shed, but the venue was saved when a performing strong woman saved a valuable sheep from drowning in a flash flood and they were forgiven.

04 01 beetroot shed

Cora and Clarice are pictured above with the Vickers machine gun which they acquired shortly after the outbreak of World War I. They claimed they needed it to protect their business interests in the event of a German invasion.

New Year. Or is it?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHooray! We’ve all made it (safely I hope) into another New Year. So firstly, I wish for you more of the things you enjoyed last year, and less of the things you didn’t like, in the year ahead. New Year is a time for new beginnings, for letting go past enmities and troubles and making a fresh start. Perhaps you opened your back door on the stroke of midnight to make sure the old year made a swift exit. In my family, the 1960s and 70s found my dad standing outside the front door clutching a piece of coal and a silver coin waiting to be let in as a ‘first-footer’. We needed a dark-haired man to be first over the threshold on New Year’s Day to bring luck for the following year and, fortunately, he fitted the bill perfectly. The coal represented warmth, the coin, fortune. It is an old, and predominantly northern tradition that can sometimes involve a piece of bread to represent food and some greenery to ensure long life for everyone.

New Year has not always been on January 1st, but it has always been a time for taking stock of your life and starting anew, as you mean to go on. In Ancient Babylonia the year began at the spring equinox. It was an eleven day festival that involved the king being stripped of his regalia and slapped around by a priest until he cried, just to make sure he respected the gods and didn’t get too above himself. If only we could do that with our leaders today. To see David Cameron stripped to his underwear and slapped round Westminster Abbey by a bishop would be a delightful seasonal alternative to the Queen’s Speech. Ordinary people would try to placate their gods by making promises to them, typically, to return borrowed farm equipment. We also often make promises to be better people, in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. Though, if the Ancient Babylonians were as good at sticking to their resolve as we are, there were probably plenty of farmers who never saw their ploughs again.

01 01 janusIt was the Romans who fixed New Year’s Day as January 1st. They made it sacred to their god Janus. Perhaps the whole month of January is named after him. Janus is the god of gateways, of beginnings and of transitions. He has two faces, one looking forwards and the other backwards. He looks to the future but also the past. So he sits quite well at the threshold between one year and the next. The Romans believed that the beginning of anything held omens for the whole. So it was important to greet everyone cheerfully and to give and receive small gifts. If you want to follow their lead, you should also devote a little time to your usual work. Not too much, don’t go overboard and leave the house or anything.

In England the date on which the New Year started has been confusing. Although most people considered New Year’s day to be January 1st, Samuel Pepys certainly did, the year legally did not begin until March 25th. Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, it began on December 25th. Then, there was the liturgical year, which began on the first Sunday of Advent. Most of Europe began to accept January 1st as the beginning of the New Year in the sixteenth century. Scotland adopted it is 1600 to keep in line with other “well governit commonwealths” in Europe, which probably explains why they’re so much better at New Year than we are. They’ve had more practice. In England we stuck with March 25th until we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. It must have been difficult. In the days surrounding Christmas and New Year, it’s hard enough to know what day it is, without wondering what year it is as well.