Thursday, 16 April 2015

Rocking UR Teens Report

On Thursday 12th March I had the pleasure of attending a Teen Empowerment Conference at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf which I had been invited to speak at by the Rocking Ur Teens company as an #iwill Ambassador along with other young girls and women. This conference was the first event held by the company and it was an amazing opportunity for 13-14 year old school girls to learn about opportunities available to them, meet girls from different walks of life and to be challenged to make a difference and realise their own power.

The day started off with a welcome from the quirky young presenter Remel London and a Keynote Speaker session. This session included speeches from Emma Barnett, the Women’s Editor of the Telegraph, Yasmin Ali, Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2013, and Grace and Amelia Mandeville (The Mandeville Sisters), Presenters and two of my favourite YouTube Vloggers whom I was lucky enough to get to sit next to for most of the day! These women shared how they became successful and how they approached opportunities in their careers. Hearing how they got to where they are now was encouraging and inspiring to me and hopefully to the other girls too.

After this, the students had time to learn more about leadership, entrepreneurship, jobs and making good choices, through workshops in different rooms. While this was going on I was still in the main hall with the other speakers trying to gather the courage to speak to The Mandeville Sisters, that is until my mum took action and introduced me to them for me (thanks mum). A little off topic but that just made the whole event even better! I also had the chance to speak to Remel London about her career and it was incredible to hear how much she has achieved such as graduating with a BA Degree in Broadcast Journalism, becoming a presenter and interviewing celebrities, actors and music acts, including Jessie J, at just 25 years old!

We then had lunch before hearing from graduates, interns and school leavers about corporate life and their involvement. It was helpful to learn how these women chose their courses and how they started life after education. We also heard from Marsha Powell, founder of BelEve UK, and she gave everyone steps to making good choices for future success. Marsha’s speech got everyone thinking about choices and how we make them and everyone learnt the same thing from her speech, make decisions for yourself and make choice that make you happy.

The last set of speeches for the day was by #iwill Ambassadors (myself and two other young women), we were there to represent the Step Up To Serve charity and to talk about our social action journeys and how we have made a difference through volunteering. This was my first ever public speech and to be completely honest, I was so nervous that I don’t even remember what I said! I just spoke about my role as a mentor and how that has opened so many opportunities for me that I would not get any other way. Through volunteering as a mentor, I’ve become a proud ambassador for a national charity, I’ve spoken at an important event and I have spoken to Prince Charles! I believe that my social action journey proves that even the smallest action can make an enormous difference in a community and even in your own life.

At the end of the conference we had a special musical performance from Tendai and then it was over. Before I left I got to speak to the founder and co-founders of Rocking Ur Teens and they offered me more opportunities! One of the co-founders, Jenny Garret, suggested that at the next conference I could have my own workshop to present and Jenny also said it is likely that Nonsuch will be invited to attend next year’s event!

Being at this conference and speaking has taught me so much about myself and how I can make my future better as well as helping others. I’ve realised that every opportunity is important, if you want something and you have the chance to get it, take that chance because it could be the only one. I have also learnt that every mistake counts. I know the women who spoke to us did not become so successful easily and they must have been turned down or disappointed many times before they found the opportunity for them and it’s the same for everyone and it’s so important to embrace mistakes and to learn from them, especially in your teenage years.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Review: 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' - Sharon Penman

The so-called Anarchy of the 12th century – the civil war in England and Normandy between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda - is an exciting yet surprisingly neglected period of history. It often appears only as a background for the story of Henry II, Matilda’s son, or as a brief sidenote in Tudor history textbooks, using Matilda to comment on the perceived calamities of having a Queen Regnant.
In the second half of the 20th century, with the discovery of the second half of the Gesta Stephani (a very important contemporary chronicle) and the subsequent publication of RHC Davis’ King Stephen, still considered to be the ‘Bible of the reign’ (Jim Bradbury, 2004) the Anarchy has finally received a bit more attention.
Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept isn’t the only popular work of literature to be set during the period. It is portrayed reasonably accurately in  Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series, and less accurately in the nevertheless acclaimed novel The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. At a hefty 900 or so pages, Penman’s novel is the first to focus on the key political players rather than characters on the periphery, and does so with commendable accuracy.

The narrative begins in 1120, with the sinking of the White Ship, a disaster that claimed the life of William the Æthling, the only legitimate son of Henry I, thus throwing the royal succession up in the air. In 1126, King Henry ordered the barons to swear an oath of fealty to Matilda (known in the novel by the vernacular version of the name: Maude) as his heir. She was then married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, enemy of the Normans. Fears of being ruled by a woman, and of having an Angevin as the King, the barons did not offer Maude their support when Henry I died in 1135. Instead, they offered it to her cousin Stephen, who quickly sailed from France to claim the crown for himself.

The novel then details, from various perspectives, the 19 year civil war that ensued. Two thirds of the way through, our attention switches to France, to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Having heard snippets of her story through the gossip of other characters, we now see for ourselves marriage to Louis IX disintegrate, and Henry of Anjou’s successful bid to wed her himself. The novel closes with the death of Stephen the accession of Henry and Eleanor as King and Queen of England. Saints is actually the first novel in a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it finishes with an annoyingly prophetic ring of triumph for dramatic effect.

The 21st century has already seen significant progress in revising Stephen’s reign and the extent of the chaos it caused. Published in 1994, Saints obviously doesn’t include this, meaning that behind the heavy research woven through the text, there remains the underlying assumption that Stephen was a kind man but an utterly hopeless King. In its bare essence, this is true, but it would have been nice to see a more open attitude to the Scottish truce in 1148, or the appointment of Theobald of Bec as Archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen had sensible reasons for making these decisions, no matter how disastrous the consequences. There is also some debate as to the strength of Maude’s power base, and the equal weighting Penman gives to Stephen and Maude may not have been strictly the case, but the lack of evidence and a division of historical opinion for some leeway here.

Obviously, Penman is a novelist, not an historian, so perhaps this nit-picking on my part is unfair. However, she researches her novels better than most other novelists, and so I feel inclined to raise the bar.

Something that intrigues me about Penman’s writing is her decision to switch suddenly between fiction and non-fiction at the end of chapters. Occasionally, she will give us an overview of what happened, accompanied with a quotation from a contemporary chronicle. Sometimes this works to the novel’s advantage, allowing the reader to consolidate what they know, and reminding them that these are not merely characters, but historical figures. It encourages reflection and caution when reading. At times, however, all it serves to do is pull the reader out of the narrative. Also, I’m a great lover of monastic chronicles, and they aren’t nearly as inaccurate as some people make them out to be, but planting extracts in the novel creates unhelpful melodrama. England was not completely desolated by the Anarchy, and the chronicles give the opposite impression.

One of the peripheral characters in the novel is Ranulf, an illegitimate son of Henry I and staunch supporter of Maude, though his past in Stephen’s service allows him to be more open-minded than some of the other characters. Ranulf does not exist in the historical record, but is an original creation of Penman’s. As she writes in her author’s note: ‘Since Henry I is known to have sired at least twenty illegitimate children, I decided one more wouldn’t hurt!’ Thankfully, his presence does not upset the historical narrative. Instead, he is a charming and relatable character, who endears himself to us early in the novel. Even I – who tend to dislike original characters in historical fiction – found myself growing rather attached to him.

The problem comes when Ranulf runs away to have adventures on his own. These adventures in Cantebrigge (now Cambridge) and Wales were entertaining in their own right, but as someone who picked up the book to read about the actual historical personalities involved, it did grow tiresome when none of them appeared for 50 pages at a time. I didn’t come to the novel for romance and heroism – as important as those things were in the 12th century anyway – but for political intrigue and siege warfare. Thankfully, these were also in abundance, and were covered in extraordinary detail. The pages dedicated to the Rout of Winchester were a tour de force in world-building.

Another aspect in which Penman has done an admirable job is in naming her characters. The medieval nobility were notoriously unimaginative in naming their children, and Penman has managed to juggle four Matildas, two Henrys, two Theobalds and an uncountable number of Williams around in such a way that one is rarely confused. It took a while for me to accept that the Empress was called Maude, not Matilda, but I had 900 pages to warm to the idea.

Historical novels are always a drag when you already know the story, a fact that is not helped when the book is heavy enough to use as a weapon. It’s heavy-going, but if you’re fond of the period, Saints is definitely worth a read.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Sweden's Political Crisis

Sweden's prime minister Stefan Lofven
As a result of having Swedish family and therefore spending a lot of time in Sweden myself, I have found myself increasingly aware, and interested in, the current political crisis in Sweden. It is also extremely relevant to us in the UK with the upcoming general election, as British political analysts are afraid that the same situation could occur here.

After the Swedish general election in September 2014, no one party had the majority of the vote. The Prime Minister of the new government (and leader of the Social Democratic Party) had to create a hurried coalition of small, unpopular parties to be able to support the government. However, this coalition still only had 38% of support from MPs. The only party able to make a substantial difference to this and create a majority government was the Sweden Democrats who received 13% of the vote. However, the Sweden Democrats are an extremist, anti-immigration party, whose British equivalent would be UKIP. No party, therefore, was willing to cooperate with them and the only option was to form a minority government. Political analysts say that this could have worked, but…

On the 3rd December 2014, a vote was held at parliament to vote in the budget. In Sweden, unlike Britain, each block of parties puts forward its own budget for a vote. Traditionally, though, the proposed budget of the current government is voted for. This time, however, the government did not have the majority support and the Sweden Democrats found themselves with the deciding vote. They voted for the opposition coalition party’s budget. This was because the Social Democratic-Green coalition’s budget did not comply with their aim to decrease immigration in Sweden by 90%.

The Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, could not ignore this vote and the huge power for parties with more extreme views, as his government collapsed as a result. Therefore, in a hope to rectify the situation, a re-election has been called for the 22nd March this year – the first mid-term election in Sweden since the 1950s. This sudden political instability in a country which has had very stable, predictable governments for decades has scared other European countries and warned them of the rise of populist parties. In particular, British politicians have become wary. Recently, a new act was passed stating that a new election can only be called if two-thirds of parliament agree to this. It is thought that the timing of a new election will never suit two-thirds of parliament and it will not be possible to hold a new election. The main parties are afraid that if the general election of this year goes badly for them, but well for UKIP, they will find themselves in the same position as Sweden. But with no way of getting out of it. 


Friday, 20 February 2015

Cynicism and Broken Promises

"Sir, have you got any flame-retardant pants for your office? It's that whole liar liar pants on fire thing."
I recently watched An Idiot's Guide to Politics, presented by Jolyon Rubinstein, co-presenter of The Revolution Will Be Televised. Both programmes bring a brilliant satirical edge to political pranking, and I seriously recommend watching them. What I found most striking was how seemingly apathetic the young people interviewed were to politics, some of whom recognised Kim Kardashian, but not David Cameron. In response to the question, "What's more important than politics," one answer was, "Getting on with your life." 

But apathy and boredom definitely isn't the main factor. The main factor is that there exists a dichotomy between whichever party is in power, and whether or not life actually changes. Politicians make whatever promises they need to get elected, they then break that promise. An example of this which is definitely of importance to our future lives is Nick Clegg and his broken flagship pledge not to raise student tuition fees. That being said, however, it seems to be impossible to get into power without making exaggerated claims. Those parties who do not are considered bland and do not appeal to the masses. This means that the process of making and breaking promises in such as way that they are exaggerated enough to be popular, yet vague enough to be easily broken, has, among politicians, become an art form in itself.

Mistrust towards politics isn't helped by corruption, including phone hacking, and controversy over party backing. These scandals have highlighted the falseness of the popular complacent assumption that corruption is an issue only in other, developing countries.

Suspicion of politics is summed up in a nutshell by this quote from Russell Brand:
"I believe democracy is a pointless spectacle where we choose between two indistinguishable political parties, neither of whom represent the people, but the interests of the powerful business elites that run the world."
Brand is essentially the epitome of political cynicism. Worst of all, thousands of young people look up to him and follow suit on his refusal to choose the lesser evil (which is stupid, because one of these "evil" parties is going to win anyway, so you may as well vote to prevent the greater evil. Not voting is essentially half a vote for them).

I asked some of my friends about their view on politics. Some were disinterested and labelled the system "crap." Others didn't really understand how it worked, while some said politics was interesting, but felt like the political system had never been explained clearly enough to them - for example, one friend said she didn't know what the political spectrum was and said "I'd say I'm right, because that's my gut instinct." She then said: "maybe I'll vote for a really unpopular party so that they don't feel bad and my vote doesn't affect anyone." Another view was that none of the parties had "outreach policies to make the younger generations more interested."

To many young people, politics in the UK is little more than cynicism and broken promises, yet this belief does nothing but provoke a self-perpetuating cycle. The fundamental basis of democracies is that power lies with the public, and we need to realise that although it doesn't seem like it, we do have a voice. This voice comes to us in the form of the vote - and people have died to ensure we have access to it. By not using your vote, you lose the right to complain.


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Technology in History

Hello, the new History innovators have found some examples of how History is incorporated within technology, whether it is games, TV programs or websites. So we've created this nifty little blog post to inform you of our findings. If you are on a budget, don't worry we've got you covered. You can still enjoy History without spending any money. There are so many apps available that will expand your historical knowledge but won't cost you anything: •History (TV) app-FREE, available on iPads, iPhones, windows and android mobiles. You can watch History shows, clips and topical videos. •Streetmueseum: Londinium-FREE, available on iPhones and iPads. It allows you to access a timeline of Roman London, "Excavate" finds, 3D drawings of famous landmarks and video and audio recordings •Today in History-FREE, available on iPhones and iPads. you can click on a date and find out what events happened at that time If you're constantly on the internet, why don't you get on these History websites instead of checking your latest Instagram feed: • • • • • •

Monday, 9 February 2015

Belgium 2015

The History Department's trip to the First World War battlefields of Belgium will soon be taking place again, and it will be particularly poignant following the increased awareness of the First World War after the 100th anniversary commemorations last year.

Here is a link to the powerpoint used at the information evening last night which contains details on what to bring and what will take place on the trip. If you have any further queries do please get in touch with the History Department.

Keep an eye on the blog for further posts related to the trip!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Egyptian Revolution

Four years ago today, violent demonstrations started in Cairo sparking the ‘Arab Spring’ which was to hit the rest of the region. The protest was the first coordinated demonstration in Egypt and was against poverty, unemployment, government corruption and most significantly the thirty year rule of President Mubarak. Egyptians were inspired by the success of the protests in Tunisia, as the president - Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – was forced to flee the country.

The demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo (and other cities in Egypt) were at first just peaceful protests until the police and demonstrators clashed and led to violence. Over the many days of protest, there were thousands of casualties and many arrests. The government blocked internet access and mobile phone communication in an attempt to stop the demonstrations, which were organised on social media. But they continued nonetheless. On the 29th January, Mubarak appointed a new cabinet hoping to appease the demonstrators, but did not step down. It was not until 11th February after 18 days of demonstrations that he resigned as president, causing widespread celebrations across Egypt. The military were now in charge.

An election was held between 28th November 2011 and 11th January 2012, but fraud was suspected and the results were discarded. Egyptians finally got the democratic presidential election which they had been fighting for in a two round election process in May and June 2012. Mohammed Morsi was the winner of these elections and stayed as president until July 2013 when he was overthrown by another uprising. The military were put in charge once again and remain in this position today.

As part of the ‘Arab Spring’ there was also unrest in Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iran, Morocco, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria.

Today, Egyptians commemorating the 2011 uprising are protesting in Tahrir Square and 11 people have been killed so far. 


This timeline from The Guardian gives an interesting overview of the Arab Spring.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Democracy Day

Today is the 750th anniversary of the meeting of the first elected Parliament, organised by Simon de Montfort. You can read more on the story here:


Students also may enjoy this “History of Parliament in 60 seconds” and the BBC are celebrating “Democracy Day” today, assessing how democratic the UK is and comparing it to democracies around the world, which links neatly to some of the ideas from Ms Hartley’s assembly this week.


Friday, 9 January 2015

Cromwell's Second Rise - The 'Wolf Hall' Phenomenon

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, in the BBC's upcoming adaptation (source)
With our TV listings this January jam-packed with Tudor dramas and documentaries, and new editions of Mantel’s books hitting the shelves, it seems that Thomas Cromwell is rising as fast and high in 2015 as he did in Henry VIII’s day. Cromwell has had his fair mix of good and bad press in historical dramas (as shown in Tracy Borman’s  recent article here) but it’s Mantel who’s really captured the public’s imagination.
Now, I’m fairly new to all this hullabaloo. His reign was what first got me interested in history, but for a long time, I avoided Henry VIII like the plague, thinking that he’s overrated and very ‘popular history’. It wasn’t Thomas Cromwell, or even Wolf Hall, that brought me back, shame-faced, into the Tudor fanbase, but now that I’m here, I’m buzzing about the upcoming BBC series, based on Mantel’s writings, as much as anyone else.

Discussing her books, Mantel has stated that what she writes is fiction woven around the facts, but that she tries to keep it as accurate as possible. That said, pinpoint historical accuracy is now being plugged as the Unique Selling Point of the BBC series. Both Mantel and director Peter Kaminsky have said that they envisioned it being filmed almost as a documentary from Cromwell’s point of view, and Dr Lucy Worsley has walked away from the set with her only criticism being that Jane Seymour (played by Kate Philipps, image here) is ‘too pretty’. (Dr Worsley’s article is here.) All this historical hype really does beg the question: how much should we trust the series?

I’m willing to take Dr Worsley’s word for it that the practical details are accurate (the costumes, ceremonies, use of cutlery, the state of the lawn, you name it), but having read Wolf Hall and seen both of the RSC productions, and I think it really does depend on the script and how the actors tackle it. Having seen him in various productions, I’m confident that Mark Rylance, playing our scheming Master Secretary, will deliver, and that Mark Gatiss’ Stephen Gardiner will be every bit as scathing and grandiose as the real bishop’s prose. Claire Foy, in her French hoods and stunning gowns, has already won me over as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn.
The problem is, I had the same compliments to make about the RSC production. It was stunningly acted. Yet there was something amiss. Mantel’s books capture the essence of most of the characters brilliantly, with just enough exaggeration to make them memorable. (How else is a casual reader to remember which Thomas is which? One quickly labels Cromwell, Wolsey, More, Howard, Boleyn and Cranmer as Our Tom, Cardinal Tom, Honest Tom, Old Tom, Monseigneur Tom and Quiet Tom.) The problem with the RSC production is that when you take away the subtleties of Mantel’s work, condensing two books into six hours, they quickly become caricatures. Lovely caricatures though they be in some cases, figures like Norfolk, Suffolk and George Boleyn really do draw the short straw. (Poor George always seems to draw the short straw, no matter who writes him. And his wife, for that matter.)
The thing is, the RSC production seems to have been aiming for comedy, in the first play at least. The BBC service isn’t. I worry for characters like Thomas More. His portrayal in the books is certainly no Man of All Seasons, and has drawn a great deal of criticism. I’m no expert on More, but I do like to see one who is less than saintly. In the RSC’s Wolf Hall, he comes across as incredibly harsh and self-centred. In the books, on the other hand, I feel a great deal of sympathy for him. The TV series is likely to bring some of that sympathy across, seeing as Margaret Roper – More’s much-loved daughter, who did not feature in the play – has been cast, but it will largely depend, I think, on the directing.
Ben Miles and John Ramm as Cromwell and More in the RSC's Wolf Hall (source)
On the other hand, I do know a fair bit about Thomas Cranmer, and I find it difficult to fault cautious, candid, politically naïve scholar we see in Mantel’s books. (One thing I will say though, to add to Lucy Worsley’s criticism of the TV casting, I am disheartened to see a bearded Cranmer at Anne Boleyn’s coronation (image here) when the unwritten rule was that good Catholic priests were clean-shaven. Only a minor niggle.) Giles Taylor’s interpretation in the RSC production was certainly endearing, but would probably look incredibly out of place in the BBC drama, and it could be difficult to get Cranmer’s subtle personality across without the aid of Mantel’s prose.
I think this – the removal of Mantel’s prose – is what’s most dangerous about both the RSC and BBC productions. Without the subtleties of her writing, and the brilliant insight we get into Cromwell, her flaws are much easier to notice. The misinterpretations of some of the Boleyns will be that much clearer, and other characters may be reduced to mere shadows, or villains, or saints. This is inevitable with any editing project as large as this, but in a production that has prided itself on its historical accuracy, it does set off a few alarm bells in me.

Where I think the strength of the TV production lies is in Cromwell himself. Rylance has shown himself willing to find the threads of comedy in everything in the past, tragedies included, but I trust him to play this part straight. What we get, therefore, is a Cromwell who still remains mysterious to us, who still begs us to ask whether he looks like a murderer. In Bring Up the Bodies (the book), when Cromwell is playing the ruthless schemer, we know him well enough to consider him as our ruthless schemer, and I think the TV series will help to bring that edge back.

I might post something once all six episodes have aired, but these are my thoughts so far.

Of course, the Tudor hype this January doesn’t begin and end with Wolf Hall. Tomorrow (the 10th) at 9pm on BBC2 we have David Starkey teaming up with Lucy Worsley to present Britain’s Tudor Treasure: A Night at Hampton Court, to celebrate 500 years of the palace by reconstructing Edward VI’s christening. We also have documentaries later in the month about accidental Tudor deaths and Hans Holbein. Even if you don’t buy into historical fiction and period dramas, there’s still plenty to watch!


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The General Election Campaign begins!

As it is the first General Election that is being held since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, we know when the next election will be - 7 May 2015.  This means that the campaigns have already started, as you may have noticed when reading the news yesterday.  At Nonsuch, we will be holding a mock election which will give everyone the chance to vote for a party within school so you will need to be informed.  The links below will whet your appetite and get you thinking: