Thursday, 21 February 2013

Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Nutmeg - such an unassuming spice, a jar will set you back about £1.50. I'd never really given it much thought until I read this book. Nathaniel's Nutmeg, traces the spice trade back in the 17th Century and has made me look at my spice rack in a completely new light. Back then Nutmeg was advertised as a cure for many trifling ailments - flatulence and the like, but when the physicians of Elizabethan London claimed that it was the only certain cure for The Plague, it rocketed in price and became the most coveted spice of all. 

This is a fascinating account of  England's part in the spice race - the attempt to gain control over the few small islands on which the fussy nutmeg tree then grew and to bring riches to those involved in the trade. It wasn't easy, the route was long and difficult and the Portugese and Spanish were not keen to relinquish their control of the trade. The English were late to the party and were joined by a tenacious adversary in the shape of the Dutch.

 The first half of the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of the East India Spice Company. Their search for the islands was costly. After 10 years, these merchant adventurers had lost one third of their ships and 800 of the 1200 men who had set sail. Two captains had died and only one ship had even managed to reach the distant Banda island, home to the nutmeg tree.

It wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs for the sailors either. If storms; scurvy; typhoid; dysentary (or the bloody flux as it was then aptly named); pirates; or months in the doldrums didn't finish them off, then attacks by Dutch and Portugese ships might do the job. The pay was poor and they stood the chance of not seeing their homes and families for up to three years at a stretch, if they were indeed lucky enough to survive the trip.

One captain, kept his crew relatively healthy by feeding them lemon oil. Sadly this cure for scurvy wasn't used by other captains for another 50 years
The spice race was populated by some eccentric characters - William Keeling for instance, a huge fan of  the plays of Shakespeare, had his crew rehearse and perform Hamlet. While other crews were repairing their ships, his were occupied learning lines and sewing costumes.  By a cruel twist of  irony, the same captain discovered he was developing an allergy to nutmeg!

Nathaniel Courthope 

The eponymous Nathaniel is a tragic character who appears late in the book. He was a factor who refused to give in to the Dutch. He and his men lay under seige on the Indonesian island of Run, for almost 4 years, low on food and drinking filthy water, before he was finally murdered by the Dutch. His part in the whole story seems at first to be a relatively minor one in the complex history of  bluff and double bluff  with the leaders and chieftans of the spice islands. However, his murder and the subsequent torture and execution of his men nearly brought England and Holland to war.

File:Banda Islands en.png
Run, the Island on which Nathanial Courthope and his men were trapped.

In the end, this book seems to be less about nutmeg and more about the brutal workings of colonialism and the towering presumption on the part of the English and the Dutch that they had a right to control and plunder other people's lands. As you would expect, the story descends pretty quickly into ugly treatment of the indigenous people. It was little wonder that they surrendered power to protect themselves against the heinous deeds of  the Dutch or English occupiers.

 So what did I learn from this book? First, that the nutmeg tree actually provides 2 spices - nutmeg and mace. Secondly, it would seem that we are using torture methods today pretty similar to those used in the 1600s. And finally and rather surprisingly, in order to settle their differences over the death of Nathanial Courthope,  the English conceded control of a tiny island in the East Indies to the Dutch in exchange for what turned out to be a rather more influential island .... Manhattan. 

Now that really was a deal that would change the course of history.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg   How one man's courage changed the course of history. Sceptre (New Edition 2000)

Other books on my shelf....

In a similar vein.... Salt

Other plants that changed the world
  Seeds of Change: Plants that transformed mankind 

Books bought 0  Books read 7

Saturday, 16 February 2013


With the meteriorite dropping out of the skies onto the Urals this week, (Science of the meteorite ) it seemed like a good time to review my latest read (set in Moscow)- Snowdrops by A.D.Miller. Sounds lovely doesn't it? Well don't be fooled, because the snowdrops of the title actually refer to the corpses that lie buried and hidden in the winter snow, and emerge only as the thaw begins.

"Snowdrops: the badness that is already there, always there and very close, but which you somehow manage not to see. The sins the winter hides, sometimes forever."

This is a chilling, (in more than one sense of the word) tale of modern Russia. Narrated by Nick, a British lawyer working in Moscow who falls for a Russian woman Masha.This is a tale of corruption and deception on many levels, personal and political and the powerlessness of ordinary people to change this.

Nick as an outsider soon becomes caught up in this dirty world of lies and payoffs. The book is full of malevolent undercurrents. His mother comes to visit, and the awkwardness of  their relationship is beautifully portrayed. The lack of honest discussion he has with her seems to echo the self-deception of everyone who works for the newly wealthy men in Russia. They know that things aren't quite right but decide not to look below the surface. Infact it seems to be the novel's central theme. Nothing is as it seems.

Tatiana, the elderly lady his girlfriend has introduced him to, sums up the impasse surrounding the corruption. When Nick asks her if she minds that the people in charge seem to spend half their time stealing.
"Yes, she said, of course she minded, but there was no point putting new people in the Kremlin, because they'd just start the stealing all over again."

Snowdrops was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger in 2011 yet it doesn't read like a classic crime novel. There's no detective, other than the reader, trying to piece together what's going on in this unsettling novel.

It is a gripping story, and paints a  vivid and ugly picture of  Moscow today. The writing is very immediate, (think William Boyd) it was a cleverly constructed novel with interlinking strands. A satisfying read. I have never been to Russia and on the strength of this book, I doubt I ever will! 

Incidentally, the reason why the meteorite was captured on film by a driver, is explained by the Russian practice of mounting cameras on the front of their cars to help settle insurance claims. Kind of says it all really....

Snowdrops - A.D. Miller. Atlantic Books (2011)  Snowdrops
(Other booksellers are available!!)

Similar territory:

Waiting for sunrise - William Boyd Waiting for sunrise

Friday, 1 February 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

 Some children wrote letters to Santa. I wrote for the four horsemen of the apocalypse....  

What can I say, I loved this book!!! The title gives you a hint of the treat you're in for, (it was the response from Mrs Winterson when her daughter tells her she is gay). This account of Jeanette Winterson's quite frankly, abusive childhood in Accrington could quite easily have been a depressing read, but honestly I can't remember when I've laughed so much at a book. 

Much of  Winterson's childhood has been visited before in her first book Oranges are not the only fruit  a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It was dramatised in a fabulous TV series starring the fantastic Geraldine McEwan as her domineering mother. (Follow the link for A snippet of Oranges Are not the only Fruit ). So I was intrigued to see what else she could add.
There is no doubt that Jeanette's childhood provided her with fantastic material for her writing. Her adopted mother was a domineering religious fanatic,  quite some character. The early combination of  her mother's strange religious non-sequiturs plus the beautiful prose from the King James' Bible obviously gave Winterson a good grounding in linguistic artistry.   I could've taken quotes from almost every page to show you, and going back to it to write this rather tardy blog entry, just made me want to read it again. Here are some examples taken at random that I particularly enjoyed. "God is forgiveness - or so that particular story goes, but in our house God was Old Testament and there was no forgiveness without a great deal of sacrifice. Mrs Winterson was unhappy and we had to be unhappy with her."

"Her favourite song was 'God has Blotted Them Out' which was meant to be about sins, but really was about anyone who had ever annoyed her, which was everyone."

"The only time Mrs Winterson like to answer the door was when she knew that the Mormons were coming round. Then she waited in the lobby, - before they had dropped the knocker she had flung open the door waving her Bible and warning them of eternal damnation. This was confusing for the Mormons because they thought they were in charge of eternal damnation. But Mrs Winterson was a better candidate for the job."

Mrs Winterson was unhappy and seemed pretty determined to inflict that misery on the rest of the household. Jeanette was never given a key to her house and was constantly locked out on the doorstep or worse, locked in the coalhole where she made up stories to help her forget about the cold and the dark.  "The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection."

Books were frowned on in the Winterson household. There were only six books in the house, one was The Bible and two others were commentaries on The Bible. Her mother didn't trust books -   "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late." so Jeanette read read them in secret. The local library became a safe haven for her. This part of the book reads like a fairytale- the bed that rose from the floor because of the books hidden under the mattress. Of course they are discovered and in hellfire and damnation mode, are burned by her mother but in typical Winterson fashion, this not the end but the start of something. The books had gone but what they held was already inside her. She realised there was something else she could do. "Fuck it, I thought, ' I can write my own." 

Although Mrs Winterson didn't allow books, the family lived in a world of print. Exhortations from The Bible were stuck all over the house. The ones in the outside loo are among my favourites. Those who stood up read  "LINGER NOT AT THE LORD'S BUSINESS" and for those who sat down there was - "HE SHALL MELT THEIR BOWELS LIKE WAX". It seems to me that Mrs Winterson could if she had wished, been a fine comedian.

With all its tales of lock-outs and lock-ins, exorcisms and mental cruelty this book could easily qualify as a 'misery memoir' however it is far from that. Its strength, alongside the fact that it is very funny, is Jeanette's zest for life. As she puts it, "I was and am in love with life"

This is a book about place and finding your place in the world. A tale of a journey - a search to find her place - outside of the working class hardships of Lancashire. Her search to find her biological mother and to forge a new way of relating to people which involved warmth and love rather than disappointment and coldness.  She does find these things, just don't expect a fairytale ending. 

Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
Why be happy when you could be normal?

You might also like: 

Tanglewreck  Winterson's first book for children.

And I've just seen that Winterson has a  new book out  The Daylight Gate (which kind of shows how long its taken me to post this blog!) it's described as a gripping gothic novella, set in the 16th Century witch trials. This is definitely being added to my wishlist.