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May 2020
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With public events wiped out thanks to Covid-19, the Queen’s pageant master, Bruno Peek, asks that we all raise a glass at 3pm on 8th May to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe).  The toast will be ‘To those who gave so much, thank you.’

Museum opening times

Closed until further notice

100 Club

As the museum is now closed, draws are suspended until this current health crisis is over.  Draws will be backdated so no-one will lose out.

Donations

Many thanks to Abertillery & Llanhilleth Community Councillors, Nick Simmons, Tracey Dyson, Keri Bidgood and Tracy Postlethwaite for their very generous donations to the museum last month.  The former two were already Vice Presidents and the latter two have now joined them.

Spring Didn’t Know…

It was March 2020 ...

The streets were empty, the shops closed, people couldn't get out.
But spring did not know, and the flowers began to bloom, the sun shone, the birds sang, the swallows would soon arrive, the sky was blue, the morning arrived early.

It was March 2020 ...

Young people had to study online, and find occupations at home, people could no longer go shopping, or to the hairdresser. Soon there would be no more room in hospitals, and people continued to get sick.
But spring did not know.  The time to go to the garden arrived, the grass greened.

It was March 2020 ...

People have been put in lockdown to protect grandparents, families and children. No more meetings or meals, family celebrations. The fear became real and the days were therefore similar.

But spring did not know.  Apples, cherry trees and others bloomed, the leaves grew.

People started reading, playing with their families, learning a language, singing on the balcony inviting neighbours to do the same, being supportive and focusing on other values.

People realized the importance of health, of suffering, of this world that had stopped, of the economy that had plummeted.

But spring didn't know. The flowers gave way to the fruit; the birds made their nest, the swallows had arrived.

Then the day of liberation came, people found out on TV, the virus had lost, people took to the streets, sang, cried, kissed their neighbours, without masks or gloves.

And that's when summer came, because spring didn't know.  Spring continued to be there despite everything, despite the virus, fear and death. Because spring didn't know, it taught people the power of life.
Everything's going to be fine, stay home, protect yourselves, and enjoy life.

Thanks to my friend, Susan Davies, for bringing the above to my attention which she found on FaceBook, author unknown.  Let’s hope summer does bring liberation!

May Day

What comes to mind when you hink of May Day and why is it celebrated?  May Day goes back to ancient pagan times when festivals were held to mark the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  The Romans held a festival celebrating Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring.  The ancient Celts called it Beltane – the fire of Bel – with bonfires being lit to welcome in the new season of summer. The festivals were associated with celebration and fertility and that continued down the centuries.  May Day as we know it  came to be celebrated by villagers dancing around a maypole and choosing a May Queen, with a procession led by Jack-in-the-Green (thought to be a throwback to the Green Man when people worshipped trees).  Despite their pagan origins, these May Day celebrations continued long after Christianity was established and when May Day celebrations were banned in the 16th century there were riots; fourteen rioters were hanged and Henry VIII pardoned a further 400 who had been sentenced to death.

When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans took control in 1645 May Day festivities were banned by law, Cromwell describing maypole dancing as “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness”.  When Charles II came to the throne in 1660 he restored maypole dancing and arranged for the erection of a huge 40m high maypole in London. Maypoles and May Day festivities are still celebrated in some parts of the country.

Dancing around the May PoleWhile ancient May Day celebrations continue to the present day with music, dancing and bright costumes, more recently May Day has also been known as International Workers’ Day, with its roots in protest and violence going back to a time when labour movements around the world were campaigning for better working conditions and rights. The date of 1st May was chosen by the International Socialist Conference as an international holiday for workers, this date being the anniversary of a workers’ demonstration in Chicago in 1886 where four people were killed by the police at a protest which had been peaceful until someone threw a bomb at the police, prompting police retaliation.  May Day has subsequently often been a time chosen for protests and demonstrations and some countries choose that day for workforce parades, often including the conspicuous display of military hardware.

The Spring Bank Holiday in England and Wales was not established until 1978, unlike in Scotland where it has been a public holiday since 1871.   It relates to the first Monday in May and not strictly to 1st May unless that happens to be the first Monday of the month.  It was introduced by the then employment secretary Michael Foot and at the time many opposed it as being a communist idea since most countries behind the Iron Curtain celebrated International Workers’ Day on 1st May.

Mayday is also known for being an international distress call but it has nothing to do with May Day. It is an anglicised version of the French “m’aidez”, meaning “help me”.
Jen Price

Pasta

As we all know, this current health emergency has seen people stock piling food and other essentials but I was quite surprised to hear that one of the first things to be stripped off the shelves was dried pasta. 

We tend to think of pasta as being an Italian food but in fact it was eaten by the Chinese as far back as 5000 BC and not introduced to Italians until 1271 by Marco Polo who brought it back from China.  The word ‘pasta’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘dough’.  It was eaten plain for thousands of years before anyone thought of adding a sauce.  Being cheap and easy to make, it was originally eaten by the poor.  Dried pasta wasn’t available until around 1914.  The sauce was added to give this rather plain, unappetising dish some flavour and it is now eaten by almost everyone.  Everyone it seems except me; you can keep it, I’m sticking to potatoes! Sally Murphy

The Pandemic of 1918

‘Spanish Flu’

A hundred years ago the world was gripped in another pandemic.  We have yet to know how deadly Covid-19 will be but hopefully it will be nowhere near as bad as the pandemic of 1918 which was commonly known as the ‘Spanish Flu’. This flu took hold in January 1918 and ended around March 1919.

The flu did not originate in Spain so just why was it called ‘Spanish Flu’? 
The answer is quite simple.  In January 1918, we were still at war with Germany and the allied forces needed  to keep moral up and so news of the spread of the disease was suppressed by the UK, US, France and even Germany.  Spain however was neutral in the war and therefore not subject to censorship.  They made public the number of deaths they were experiencing which made it appear as if they and they alone were affected and hence it became known as ‘Spanish Flu’.

The exact death toll is not known but historians believe at least 17 million died worldwide and it could be as high as 50 million.  The country to suffer the highest number of casualties was India which lost 5% of its population (around 12 million deaths).  The UK lost an estimated 250,000 souls. 

There is much speculation about its origin; some historians think it started in a hospital camp in France, others think it started in Kansas, USA where a chef at a military training camp infected over 500 troops heading for the war in Europe.  Some think it was started by Chinese labourers working behind British and French lines.

By August 2018, the virus had mutated and become even deadlier.  It caused a second round of deaths with the peak of the pandemic coming in October 1918.  Those who had caught and survived the earlier, first wave of the flu (mainly the young and elderly) were now immune but this time round the most severely hit were the 20-40 age group and the most vulnerable group were the young soldiers in the trenches who were particularly badly affected.  Conditions in the trenches were unsanitary to say the least and with soldiers being malnourished as well, their immune systems were already run down.

The virus peaked in October 1918, but then dropped dramatically in November 1919 and was all but over by March 1919.  There is speculation as to why the deaths stopped so suddenly and one theory is that the virus mutated to a much milder strain as, believe it or not, the virus does not want to kill.  By killing the host, it dies itself.  The virus that caused this 1918 pandemic was called H1N1 and if that sounds familiar it’s because H1N1 raised its head again in 2009 and was more commonly known as ‘Swine Flu’.

Newport Transporter Bridge

On a more pleasant topic, there are plans afoot to open a new visitor centre at the Newport Transporter Bridge.  The current visitor centre is tiny with only room for four visitors at a time.  The bridge which was opened in 1906 has a high-rise pedestrian walkway giving spectacular views over the river Usk for those, that is, with a head for heights and who can walk up the 277 steps to the platform!   The new centre will house a virtual re-creation of the view and the wind felt at the top of the structure for those of us who prefer to keep our feet firmly on the ground!

The Grade I listed bridge was commissioned by John Lysght Ltd.  It is 241ft tall and 774ft wide.  The bridge was designed so that tall masted ships could sail through past the ‘Gondola’ platform.  It took 16,000 tons of steelwork, and 4,500 tons of masonry to build and was built so that steel workers living in Pill could get to and from their homes without a five mile detour.

New, more conventional road bridges have meant the transporter bridge is no longer really needed but it is just one of only two working transporter bridges remaining in the country and one of only six in the world so it is of great historical importance.
Sally Murphy

Newport Transporter Bridge

King Richard

Malignant or Maligned?

As a child in school, history was just a list of dates that had to be learned and reproduced to pass exams. I'm sure that I had enthusiastic history teachers who tried to excite my interest in the story behind the dates but they probably didn't have much success. It wasn't until many years later when the pressure was off and I started reading historical novels for pleasure that I became interested in the lives behind the fiction. Particularly instrumental in piquing my interest was a slim volume titled 'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey.

The premise of the book, for those who haven't read it, is that a Policeman, Alan Grant, is laid up in hospital and to allay his boredom a friend sets him the task of investigating the life, times and crimes of 'Bad King' Richard III who died at the Battle of Bosworth Fields in 1485. He does this from his sick bed by asking pertinent questions, and with the help of an academic researcher who is at a bit of a loose end. Although Richard is not completely exonerated of wrong doing, enough evidence is unearthed to question the validity of some of the charges against him.

I knew very little about Richard apart from the obvious and was intrigued to think that as early as 1951 when the book was published there was interest in his rehabilitation but on further investigation I found that even earlier, in 1924, ''The Fellowship of the White Boar'' was founded by Liverpool surgeon Saxton Barton and a few friends, to do just that. Inevitably interest in the subject declined during WWII but the publication of 'The Daughter of Time' and Sir Lawrence Olivier's production of the Shakespeare play in the 50's raised interest once more and 'The Fellowship' was renamed 'The Richard III Society' in 1959. Its aim was to 'to secure a more balanced assessment of his character and role in history'.

But where did Richard's black reputation come from? The main culprit seems to be Shakespeare's play written in 1593, over 100 years after Richard's death. Richard was portrayed as a 'nasty hunchback' multi murderer and it was suggested that 'we were lucky that Henry Tudor got rid of him for us'!

And where did Shakespeare get his facts from?

Over time there has been much serious academic research into the origins of Richard's reputation for evil deeds and, unsurprisingly, histories written by Tudor historians after his death and during the Tudor reign provide a 'propaganda account suitable for the taste and politics of the time'. The character assassination of Richard legitimised his overthrow by Henry whose claim to the throne was not strong and who had a vested interest in portraying him as a bad king, a murderer and a usurper.

Shakespeare is likely to have taken the facts for his play from, among others, Sir Thomas More's History of England written around 1513 -1518, and he in turn would have used previous Tudor historians as his source. One of these would have been John Rous who wrote his 'History of The Kingdom of England' between 1480 and 1500. Rous appears to be the first to describe the extreme degree of Richard's disability and to start the legend of Richard's 'monstrous and unnatural birth' which is almost certainly a lie. In 'The Kingdom of England' Rous gives a negative and derogatory account of Richard which is a complete about face from the account he wrote in the Rous Roll, an illustrated armorial roll produced 1483 to 1484, when Richard was alive. In this he writes that Richard was a mighty Prince, upholder of the law and beloved of the people.

Richard's disability is made much of in the histories that followed his death. He is described as having a hunchback, now known as a kyphosis, a withered arm and mean and ugly facial features. It is also thought that portraits of him were altered after his death to worsen his appearance. Disability in Tudor times was associated with moral degeneracy and evidence of severe disability would have strengthened the case against him.

We all know the old adage that 'History is written by the victors'. The times were cruel and unforgiving and subjects who criticised or told the truth about the monarch didn't last long, so it's not surprising that the accounts written of Richard's life and short rule served to bolster up and reinforce the legitimacy of the Tudor monarchy. As for his physical disabilities, the discovery of Richard's skeleton at the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester dispelled some of the lies. Examination of the skeleton revealed that he did have a sideways curvature of the spine, a scoliosis, but there was no evidence of a hunchback or withered arm and a facial reconstruction of the skull revealed a pleasant if unremarkable face.

Academics and the Richard III Society continue to research into his life and times to secure a more balanced assessment of his character and his role in history. He is likely to be guilty of much he has been accused of, but his actions need to be evaluated in the context of the times and not just the character of the King.
Pauline Jones

 

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