A life-changing moment with Cordwainer Smith

2005 was a low point for me: I had lost all my confidence. I was pretty certain that I was a failure in all things intellectual and that I couldn’t write, but I was still very determined to keep going. I stayed with what I loved, even when I was pushed to the side, time after time. People with a single course as an undergraduate ere given work ahead of my PhD in a field, and it hurt.

Everything I wrote that year and into 2006 has underlying rumbles of my lac of confidence. It took me a few more years to discover that the problem had never been with my intellect. Sometimes it was because I am chronically ill (and one is not supposed to be intellectually competent and ill, both), sometimes because I’m not male (such an Australian bias) and, most often, because I’m Jewish. Nice people don’t say antisemitic things… they simply leave Jews out of things, or choose someone ahead of them.

How did my self-image begin to change? When I was at a Melbourne science fiction convention, I was asked to join a panel on Cordwainer Smith. Not by the convention planners, but by the panel itself. I said something and Bruce Gillespie asked me to write it up. This is what I wrote for Bruce:

Cordwainer Smith: reflections on some of his themes

  1. Canberra and Norstrilia

Canberra in the 1960s was a mere kernel of the Canberra of 2005. It was small and green, mostly buildings and public parkland, surrounded by the enormous brown of rural Australia. This was the Canberra that Corndwainer Smith knew. Not the small internationalist city of today, with its sprawl of suburbs and its café culture, but an overgrown country town that just happened to be the seat of government for a whole country. You can see a sense of this Canberra in Smith’s work, the idea that Norstrilian government is more a set of social compacts than a formal hierarchy, the idea that family and inheritance counts (the earliest settlers in the area still farmed sheep on what are today mere suburbs, Kambah for instance was farmed by the Beattie family) and the ideal that the country is vast and brown and far diminishes the civilisation it nurtures.

There are other reflections of Australian life of the time in Smith’s work. Immigration, for instance.

While policies were much more open than it had been, the inheritance of the White Australia policy was still very apparent in the people of this country. Much of Australia was still white, still Anglo, and still very conservative. In many places, of which Canberra was one, walking down the street one could very easily assume that the only non-Anglos were diplomats, that Australia didn’t let any strangers cross the border unless they had proven their credentials.

This was not the reality. Cordwainer Smith came to Australia at the crucial moment when White Australia was being broken down – indigenous Australians were finally given voting rights, migrants came from places other than the United Kingdom. The effects of this change were not yet apparent, however, outside Melbourne and Sydney and places such as the Queensland canefields. The reality of Canberra in the 1960s was that the hydroelectric scheme and more open immigration policies were bringing more and more people from other parts of Europe into the region – but walking down a Canberra street, the feeling was still very much of the dominant ancestry being British.

The Australia Smith saw was very much the cultural blueprint for Norstilia, with its responsibility towards remembering the British Empire and preserving certain cultural values.

At that time, Australia had a very restrictive economic policy. This included a barrage of tariffs and customs restrictions that have since been phased out. It was openly admitted that these restrictions were to develop the local economy and to protect important elements of it – the Melbourne clothes industry was of particular importance, for instance.

The effect of these import restrictions on everyday life was very marked; Australia was wealthy, but not quite first world. We took a long time to adopt innovations from outside, and luxury goods were particularly highly taxed. At the same time, because food and accommodation were much cheaper than in many other countries and Australian workers worked shorter days, even the poorest person was said to be richer than wealthy people elsewhere, in terms of lifestyle.

Add this to an important religious factor: the default religion people wrote on their census data as Church of England, and the Queen was both head of the Church and head of State. The political crises of the 1970s which disputed and lessened the impact of the royal family had not yet happened, and the most important Prime Minister of the 1960s, Sir Robert Menzies, was a keen royalist. A keen royalist and rather autocratic leader – the exact mix that Cordwainer Smith struggles to describe from a slightly bemused outsider viewpoint in his depiction of Norstrilia.

To the surprised outsider, we could easily have looked like a country that practiced old-fashioned Church of England values. Very High Church – abstemious and full of self-restraint.

Internally, Australia was not really self-restrained. The slow adoption of new technologies such as television were largely because of the distance of Australia from the rest of the world combined with the tariff system. Smith was interpreting this from a High Church view, however, and would be astonished by the current Australia, where abstemiousness and low technology levels are rather absent.

What Smith saw was an Australia ruled by an innocent nobility with power that was mostly inexpressed. This is the source of the apparent abstemiousness as he described it. It showed more in Canberra than elsewhere. There were only two major industries in Canberra at that time: the public service (all national) and the university. Canberra fully understood the outside world, but its lifestyle in no way reflected it. There were secure incomes and workplaces, safe jobs, but not much in the way of luxury. Canberra was a hard place to get to, for a capital city, with only a local airport and only one train station, and it had an extraordinarily suburban lifestyle. It also had (and still has) like Norstrilia an unexpectedly large awareness of the outside world and a sophisticated understanding of how the trade barriers operated.

It is very hard not to see the Canberra of the time in Norstrilia: a place with a sophisticated understanding of the external world, cut off from it and surrounded by bleak but rich countryside dominated by some of the best sheep territory n the world. It is ironic that, well after Paul Linebarger died, Goulburn built its Giant Merino – an enormous grey tribute to the traditional source of wealth in the Canberra region.

  1. The importance of Abba-dingo

Abba-dingo is particularly important in understanding Cordwainer Smith’s constructed universe. It appears in his short story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”. Abba-dingo was a carnival head that took coins or tokens and gave prophecies.

Writers looking for the origins of Smith’s odd names suggest that Abba- comes from the words ‘Abba’ for father from Hebrew or Aramaic, and the Australian native dog, ‘dingo’. While this appeals to me because it calls forth an Australian phrase ‘Old Man Dingo’, I have to admit, that I have large problems with this etymology. I suspect that Abba-dingo comes from a word much closer to home for Paul Linebarger and gives strong indications as to how his religious views shape decision in his universe: it comes from the Book of Daniel.

In the Book of Daniel the king of Babylon visits Jerusalem. He finds several royal Jewish children both beautiful and wise, and he proposes to teach these children the lore of the Chaldeans. He had the children renamed. Azariah was renamed Abednego. Naturally Daniel was the hero of this tale, which is all about true prophecy, but Abednego is linked to the true prophecy and survives his stint in a furnace.

Cordwainer Smith makes the link between Abba-dingo and Abednego quite obvious, as Abednego by using the notion of the fiery furnace and in ‘Alpha ralpha Boulevard” the making the imprint of the prophecy by fire. To make sure we don’t miss the point, in the King James Bible Abednego is always spelled Abed-nego and Smith divides Abba-dingo in the same way.

Abba-dingo then, is a closet reference to the Old Strong Religion. The head is an indication that the universe is planned, even when it looks like a game from a penny arcade. It refers back to the innocents and the holy being able to be given and to live the truth, even when they have no understanding of what is happening.

Cordwainer Smith has devised a predetermined universe based very much on a very High Church reading of the Bible. More than that, he writes a belief in the Select (chosen almost before their birth and with predestined accomplishments) eg D’Joan.

Much of his belief is not modern Church of England at all – it is, to me, very nineteenth century and fundamentalist. This is reflected in the nature of most of his short stories. They are Bunyanesque in feel. He emphasises this feel by the style he uses for the stories where the religion is an important component. He works with carefully built-up introductions and focuses on the inner meaning of lives rather than the individuality and personality of the people involved. This implies that these people are more important for the role they play than as game pieces to catch a reader’s eye.

The track of history and the meaning it all leads to is more important than the tale itself. Each story is, in fact, part of the monumental progress of humankind and animalkinds towards a future that Cordwainer Smith only hints at. Just like Moses, we don’t see Smith’s Holy Land except fro a distance – the voyage to it is more important.

What is important about the Bunyanesque progression is not the end of it. The aim is not to provide a guide to holy living or to a perfect future. Cordwainer Smith is not CS Lewis – his fiction does not preach.

What it provides is a mythical background to his novels. If you read all his short fiction then your read Norstrilia, you have the perfect structure for the assumptions that are made in the novel. He provides a legendary past and important indications of the future. This makes him look extraordinarily innovative, as his stories often use an allegorical or fairytale format rather than one more typical of the SF conventions of his time. Understanding those allegorical and fairytale formats and that legendary past and mythic background are important to understanding how to read the universe he created.

For instance, those indications give us important clues to certain characters (eg C’mell) and enable us to read far more into their behaviour and attribute more to their personalities than would otherwise be possible. Without the background, C’mell looks simply obedient and maybe a bit boring, regardless of her physical beauty, and her reward is the reward of dull virtue. When the reader understands that the Norstrilia section is only a small segment of her life, her reactions take on a much greater complexity.

The skill he brings to his more conventional writing highlights that these departures from convention are quite intentional. Cordwainer Smith was not writing a single novel: he was writing an allegorical universe with a complex history, and he was peopling it with real people (of various species) whose personalities and who capacity to determine their own lives were heavily affected by the allegorical nature of his universe.

Abba-dingo points to this. Cordwainer Smith uses the Abadnego joke to both indicate the religious allegory and to mock at it. Abba-dingo is, after all, only a fairground toy – how do we know that it is God speaking through a fairground mechanical or whether the author is using it as a cheap plot device.

This is the brilliance of Cordwainer Smith. He refers to his Old Strong Religion. He uses his Old Strong Religion. He shapes the whole story of D’Joan and the quest of Chaser O’Neill around a particularly archaic version of Protestant belief. All the traditional allegory and the Biblical and religious knowledge that was commonplace in his youth appears in his writing, from the land of Mizraim (Misr) to the need to forego the quest in order to achieve the true goal.

Yet all the while he uses these patterns, he mocks them. He makes it clear that his is an invented universe. He has his heroes play with space and time like gods, while indicating that they can’t possibly be gods. He creates his Vomact family in such a way that the ambivalence between good and evil is perennially pointed out: we don’t know until we are read a given story whether the Vomact will be hero or villain.

In showing the hand of the creator so very, very clearly, Cordwainer Smith casts doubt on his own allegories. He leaves it to the reader to think it through.

Kidstock and Mr. Romantic

Black and White photo of four screens and 500,000 people on the Great Lawn
Photo: Daniel Hulshizer/Associated Press

When you have small children you do things with them. At least we did. This is how, 29 years ago, we (including two kindergarteners) wound up in Central Park in New York City, on a June afternoon, waiting for the premiere of the Disney animated film Pocahontas.

The event was much heralded, and a month or so before the event there was a lottery for tickets. I never win lotteries, but somehow we won this one. We received four tickets, and invited S, one of my daughter’s besties. Came the day, we packed up food and drink and blankets and umbrellas (drizzle threatened for a brief while) and jackets and… all the myriad things you wind up carrying around when you have children. And about 2pm, along with 100,000 of our fellow parents-and-kids, we hied ourselves to Central Park to stake a claim to a bit of ground to call our own among the sea of parents and small children on the Great Lawn. “My God,” my husband said as we were orienting ourselves (four screens! concession stands! phalanxes of port-a-potties! youthful humanity as far as the treeline!) “It’s Kidstock!” 

The movie could not start until dark, but this whole thing was being produced (massively, lavishly) by Disney, and if there is one thing that Disney excels at, it is moving people while keeping them just entertained enough that they don’t riot. Especially children. Once we had found ourselves a small holding, one of us (probably my husband) took the girls to reconnoiter. There were various entertainments offered on each of the four stages: singers and appearances by Disney Channel stars and so forth. But mostly our girls chattered and played on our small patch of turf. People we knew passed by on their way to find their own patch of turf. And then the family of A, a boy in the girls’ kindergarten class, came by. We scootched over so they could establish a beachhead adjacent to ours: one of the best tactics of parenting is strength in numbers. It’s much easier to sit on a lawn among 100,000 people if there are four adults watching 3 kids, and you can take turns paying attention.

The day stretched on. Food was consumed. Strolls around to stretch legs and alleviate boredom were taken. A Pocahontas doll was scored for each of the girls. The question “but when will it start” was asked many times. As hard as it is to believe now, this was before smart phones, so instead of a sea of tiny heads bent over screens it was a sea of seething childhood, wiggling and giggling and wishing the sun would set already. And we (Danny and I) began to notice a fascinating bit of kid behavior going on between the three five-year-olds. First, a note about my daughter Jules. She was a dreamy, highly imaginative kid into make-believe and stories. One of the things she did not go in for was the crushes that some kindergarteners indulged in. Her friend S, on the other hand, was the kind of small girl who watched the relationships around her, hawklike, and knew who in the class “liked” whom. S was a pretty girl and used, frankly, to being treated that way; she was always watching the people around her, angling for position. Then there was A, or as his mother referred to him, Mr. Romantic, a sunny, affectionate kid. And Jules was… clueless.

At last the movie starts. The music swells. We settle in to watch. But I kept getting distracted by the little drama that is playing out on our blanket. See, A sort of snuggles up to Jules–whether he meant it romantically or just felt comfortable with her, I don’t know. S, seeing this, sidles over to A’s other side, presenting herself to be snuggled. A does not oblige. S is clearly frustrated by his lack of interest. Meanwhile, Jules is sitting there, eyes on the screen, riveted to the story. Through the 80 minutes of the movie A is watches the movie and occasionally looks at Jules. S watches the movie but is distracted by A’s apparent preference for Jules over herself, and gets antsy and fidgety. Jules is oblivious.

The worst part of the whole experience was, of course, getting packed up and home. The 100,000 people who had arrived over the course of the afternoon now all wanted to be gone and home at the same time. A and his parents said good night and vanished in their own direction. Danny and I packed up our belongings, put jackets on the girls and joined the clog of people heading toward the exits and the West Side. I don’t remember whether we delivered S to her parents or they picked her up from us. I do recall an initial frostiness emanating from S, which I think baffled Jules–suddenly her friend was mad at her, but why? Eventually S was worn down by Jules’s cheery rhapsodies about the movie (“what was your favorite part?”) and her frostiness dissipated. They stayed friends for several years, until time and changes in schools did what the attentions of Mr. Romantic, on a starry New York City night, could not.

Plantagenet food

You may have noticed that, last week, food entered the conversation about a book. When I tell everyone with much sobriety that I’m an ethnohistorian, my friends laugh. Ethnohistory includes food, as they know very well indeed. I don’t merely feed friends historical artefacts, I once had a food history blog. It’s simple cause and effect. No-one wanted to hear about the narratives that are my intellectual heartland, but everyone wanted to try the food mentioned in them.

I do both. I read and analyse and I cook and analyse and it’s an enormous amount of fun. Your post this week, then, is a piece I wrote for Bibliobuffet, a US online literary magazine, during my 3 year stay with them. I still miss the editors – they were wonderful to work with. I raise a theoretical glass of the best Ancient Greek diluted wine in their honour.

What I’m actually drinking tonight is vinegar water from 19th century children’s books. It should be raspberry vinegar, to be fair, but I wasn’t trying to replicate North American children’s books. I am trying to work out the difference between Polish and Australian vinegar. In books for adults, vinegar water is often touted as handy for some forms of indigestion and it is, which is a useful side effect of this particular historical food exploration.

Interpreting Foodways

Plantagenet England has one of the great cuisines. We don’t know a great deal about the food eaten everyday by ordinary people, and we have far more information for the fifteenth century than for the twelfth, but the best food on the table during that period and the most outstanding menu is some of the best food anywhere.

All but one of my favourite medieval dishes come from English manuscripts. These manuscripts are often regarded as French, because the language and the food style was French but there are differences between English and French food, to my mind. The English seem to have been cleverer with spices and to be far more aware of the look of the food: contrasting colours and clever presentation play a part in making the food delightful. Pomesmoille is apples and almond and can be made as a custard or as fresh and even crunchy. Crespez are deep-fried pancakes cookable almost instantly.

I begin my food history classes with this explanation, illustrated with recipes. I then spend session after session looking into the nature of the food: how it was cooked, where ingredients came from, what the manuscripts were like, how to interpret recipes and, most importantly, that my grand statements about the glory of the cuisine can be contradicted with accuracy and can still be precisely correct.

Despite the great interest so many of us have in this period of English history, it was before the time of printed cookbooks. We don’t have representative recipes, only occasional recipes. We don’t know what cooks made every day, only the food that a few people thought deserved writing down. The further back in time we go during the time of the Plantagenets, the less information we have and the more we rely on small amounts of data to interpret large aspects of food culture. We know a great deal, and at the same time, we don’t know nearly enough to make firm and definite conclusions.

Food history requires the mind of Sherlock Holmes alongside a vast raft of technical skills. And with all that, we have huge gaps in our knowledge. This doesn’t mean we don’t have knowledge. We have a great deal. We can argue for this position or that using the known cookbooks, using evidence from literature and from archival records, using the amazing amount of food-related archaeological material that has survived. The problem is bringing it together.

Ten years ago I thought I knew, and I told everyone who cared to listen what a glorious cuisine it was. I still suspect it might be, but… I want more evidence.

What happened was that I read Bridget Ann Henisch’s The Medieval Cook. Henish is one of the outstanding scholars in the field. She knows her stuff. And yet, in her book, she took material from this year or from that, evidence from this quarter and the other. Sometimes one part of her evidence was compatible with another and sometimes I stopped and wondered how on earth she could create an overview using just a few pieces of evidence that were centuries apart. None of her other writing does this, but The Medieval Cook is a popular overview and it’s very tempting to bring everything together and to show that we have an understanding of the period. That’s what books about the Middle Ages are for, to communicate an understanding. Audiences generally ask for firm and definite conclusions as part of this understanding.

I wrote the chapter on food in The Middle Ages Unlocked. I had much less material to draw on than Henisch, for The Middle Ages Unlocked covers a lot less time. I wrote very cautiously. “I don’t know this,” I found myself saying about this and about that, and did more research and discovered that no-one really knew this. At one stage I wrote a list of subjects that I thought I knew but had to doubt because, when I looked for the evidence, what I found was yet another general conclusion drawn from The Forme of Cury (possibly the most-used medieval cookbook for people wanting to reconstruct English food) or assumptions about home gardens in Sussex drawn from what was grown in Paris.

I took my list into class and I asked students, “How much do you know about the food we eat, here, in Canberra, in the twenty-first century?” The answers were enlightening. They helped me understand how I and so many other people can say “We know this cuisine” about Plantagenet cooking when, really, we only know some things about it.

Some students used their home cooking as the absolute arbiter of normal food for Canberra. Others used Women’s Weekly cookbooks. Occasionally, a student would collect data from other students and say “This composite, that’s how we need to see Canberra’s food.” These data-oriented students were the ones who paid attention to my original discussion about the method of studying food history: it’s data based. And our database is insufficient.

Most scholars realise this most of the time and try to talk about what we can know, and to limit claims. Henisch is one of the good scholars and this is how she normally works. The shape and content of The Medieval Cook, however, is the shape and story of the Middle Ages for a more popular audience. It’s a different type of story about the Middle Ages. Far easier to read. Far more entertaining. Far easier to find problems with.

We have a set of archetypal views of the Middle Ages. Popular books will often take one or another of them, because they’re far easier to write about than a more sophisticated (read ‘crazy-complicated’) analysis. Those archetypal views, in food terms, are like the Canberra students who think that every Canberra family eats like their own, or that Women’s Weekly cookbooks represent Canberra cooking. There is truth in them, for some people eat like that student’s family and a lot of people learn cooking from the Women’s Weekly cookbooks. There’s knowledge in this approach. Sometimes there’s very good knowledge in this approach. Understanding is harder.

What I’ve done is to keep all my favourite recipes. I’ll make pomesmoille whenever my favourite apples are in season, and I’ll give all my students my favourite joke about crespez being medieval junk food but… I teach all about those data sources and how to interpret them and send students to them whenever I can. I encourage them to find more data sources (archaeological reports and archival material have so much material in them!) and to help build up a more realistic picture of complex foodways over a long period of time. Students who want easy answers hate me for this. There are fewer soundbites. It’s much more exciting, however, for it’s something that anyone can do: build up a personal and sophisticated understanding of foodways. Learn to see the Middle Ages as continually surprising, continually exciting.

The Magic Pudding

In my past and present, I write mostly serious short pieces on speculative fiction for Aurealis, one of my favourite magazines. In 2016 I wrote one slightly-less-serious-than-usual article. This year I have an article that mentions Norman Lindsay in another edition of Aurealis, but it is about one of his most hated rivals.

Early Australian Fantasy: The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

The writing world is full of solid literary criticism. Sometimes, it’s important to see literature from a different perspective.

We bring ourselves to our reading. We bring our dreams about stories and we bring the other stories we’ve read and we bring our expectations. Readers aren’t neutral, so I thought I’d explore how this non-neutral reader sees a particular work. The work in question is Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding. It’s so very Australian, with its larrikin humour and its reliance on British culture and its very Australian animals. It’s one of the great works of Australian fantasy. It’s been written about by so many scholars and studied in all its nuances. Just not the way I will look at it here.

Today I’ll examine The Magic Pudding from three angles. The first is nostalgic. I used to actively look for pudding recipes when I was a child, almost entirely due to this book. Recipes sum up nostalgia in this case more effectively than an analysis of my feelings. The second angle is that the structure of the book is very much derivative of Gilbert and Sullivan. The third is how I read it as a fantasy novel.

Let us look at Gilbert and Sullivan first.

The Magic Pudding would work well with music. The characters sing so very much and we’re given many of their verses. We’re not given the whole of any of the very long songs, which is probably just as well given that the long songs would add another three hundred pages to the story, but the whole novel is riddled with rhyme and song.

The songs fit into the tale in the same way they do in light opera in general. They reflect the characters and they denote a pause in the action and they change the direction of the story and they… do virtually anything. Not all of what they do makes sense logically or in narrative terms, which is why I see The Magic Pudding as a comic operetta, in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. The world of Bunyip Bluegum is a nonsensical world, where right and wrong and logic do not have standard values, and it’s rather like the world of The Mikado in how one thing leads to another by verbal trick.

The logic uses Australian culture, of course, to underpin its deviance from rational narrative. Two of the heroes are murderers and thieves, for they killed the cook who invented Albert the Puddin’ (we know this because Albert says so) and yet they feel noble and hard-done by when the puddin’ thieves try to steal from them. And the capacity to sing a song and eat a good meal count for more than prior social standing. The world is not an Alternate Earth—it’s the world of a stage. The world of an Australian stage.

So why do I also read this book as a fantasy narrative? Lindsay borrows from the late nineteenth century fantasy writers as much as he borrows from light operetta. It’s the combination of the two that give the book its uniqueness.

The Magic Pudding has some of the critical elements of a fantasy narrative, despite seldom being listed as such. My inner fantasy fan has always read it as a fantasy novel (with rhyme, illustrated), since I was old enough to read. It was on the family bookshelves from then until now, for I have just inherited the family copy. I’m working from the 1958 re-issue of the 1908 original, for those who really need to know these things. (I should have said this right up front, but one thing that re-reading The Magic Pudding does, every time, is lead to a disordered mind.)

When I started this essay, I was going to say that The Magic Pudding is a quest fantasy, but now I’m not sure if it’s that or sword and sorcery, with Albert the Puddin’ taking the role of the sapient and rather unlikeable artefact. Not only is my mind disordered, but it’s also indecisive. Let’s take a look at some of the fantasy elements in the book instead of coming to a firm decision about the book’s inner identity.

There are five critical elements: the hero’s journey, the artefact of power, the stereotyping of minor players, fabulous backstory, a happy ending.

The Hero’s Journey

Bunyip Bluegum starts off as an oppressed near-adult. The source of his oppression is his uncle’s whiskers:

Whiskers alone are bad enough

Attached to faces course and rough,

But how much greater their offence is

When stuck on Uncles’ countenances.

His uncle, being of unkind disposition, refuses to denude himself of them, despite the lack of room for the whiskers in the family home. At first, Bunyip Bluegum eats his soup outside (for drinking whiskers in his soup is intolerable) but finally he is forced to leave home. He takes up a walking stick (for he lacks any possessions and so can’t be a swaggie or other traveller) and becomes a gentleman of leisure. This is not only his first step into adventure, but it demonstrates that he will grow in status as he travels. Like so many young men of good family, the Outback and a walking stick lead to a new and better existence. And so he does. Each slice of the story shows that Bluegum is the centre of the adventures and is the one who, with increasing wit and decreasing morality, helps his friends rescue the pudding and escape from danger.

Precious artefact

Albert the Puddin’ is magic and coveted. His first manifestation was ’in a phantom pot/A big plum-duff an’ a rumpsteak hot‘ on an iceberg. Men and penguins will kill to obtain him and will commit trickery and deceit. While his special property is the unlimited capacity to feed people pudding and while that pudding can be any type (though is most likely to be rump steak, steak and kidney or plum duff) in terms of the fantasy quest it’s his personality that counts.

A sapient quest object has to be either wise or very difficult and Albert is as difficult as a badly brought up eight year old with a talent for rude barbs. When I was eight, I have to admit, I was very relieved to read the episode where he was turned upside down and sat upon, for there is some magic that is better silenced. Still, there is no denying that Albert is a precious object without equal. He belongs in a quest novel. Characters spend their lives defending him, chasing him, questing for him, and eating him.

Stereotyped Minor Characters

The Magic Pudding is a picaresque adventure and one of the most important elements in picaresque adventures is the secondary cast. It has to include scurrilous rogues (in this case, the puddin’ thieves), women who form an attractive background (and even, in the case of The Magic Pudding are rescued from drowning and given a fictional love for a penguin as part of said penguin’s song—I was going to quote from it here, but the best bit is a spoiler and, if we’re talking fantasy, we have to avoid spoilers) but have no personality or role of their own. Minor characters also include, of course, any number of random people and bandicoots for when a character needs direction or assistance. The only thing I’m unsure about in this is whether there are enough bandicoots in classic picaresque fantasy, but that’s another subject and needs to be left for another day.


Heroes don’t have much backstory (just uncles with whiskers). Most of them emerge from voids with little experience or personality. They grow into both experience and personality through their adventures and with the help of their sidekicks. These personality-filled support characters have backstory in spades. This backstory serves to set up events, give stories to pass the time, and makes characters more personable when they lack the intrinsic interest of the Hero.

The fact that Sam Sawnoff and Bill Barnacle are prone to singing their background stories merely emphasises the colour they bring to the story. We hear about their adventures on the ice (the prettified version) and romance (the prettified version) and pretty much everything about them that Lindsay can fit into verse.

It’s important to note here that Lindsay came of the same literary generation as AB Patterson and Henry Lawson and knew them both, though he didn’t really know Patterson that well and couldn’t get past Lawson’s deafness. The rhymes are part of the vernacular of the day. This is the backstory of The Magic Pudding, however, and not of her characters, so I won’t explore it further here.

Happy ending

Where a young boy is forced to leave home due to the dreadful torment of his uncle’s whiskers, the best possible happy ending is for him to make his own home. In this case it is a home with a special pudding paddock on a branch just high enough to enable a certain Puddin’ to pull faces at pickle onions.

Like all great fantasy novels, The Magic Pudding anticipated the needs of fans in some very interesting ways. Fans can filk the songs, or cosplay the characters, for instance. Given I belong to foodie fandom, I, of course, want to find out what Albert the Puddin’ tastes like.

Assuming that making a sentient pudding is not wise, since it inevitably leads to the death of the creator, all the different flavours of Albert reflect standard recipes of the time. My source is the first cookbook printed in Australia (to the best of our knowledge) and there are three reasons for taking the recipe from it. First, I’m not breaching any copyright. Second, it’s the exact right age to reflect Norman Lindsay’s mother’s generation and the pudding she would have cooked (although there is a greater likelihood of her owning a copy of Mrs Beeton than this volume), which means it’s very likely to be the flavours Lindsay knew, and third, the book is suspect (at least some of it was plagiarised from earlier cookbooks) which exactly fits the scurrilous humour of The Magic Pudding. Just because a piece of writing is in our past, doesn’t make it respectable. Just because The Magic Pudding is witty and wonderful, doesn’t make it respectable, either. So, from Edward Abbott’s infamous cookbook English and Australian cookery book: cookery for the many, as well as for the upper ten thousand (the Pudding section, of course) here is a taste of Albert.

Beef-steak Pudding.—Take two pounds of rump-steak, and cut into seasonable pieces; and cut into shreds two or three onions. Paste the pudding-basin with good crust, not too rich nor too poor. Put the meat into the basin, with some pepper and salt, and a dozen oysters, with a little thickening, composed of mushroom ketchup, flour and water, and mustard. Simmer for an hour and a half, and serve in the basin; or turn it out, if the gravy in the pudding can he retained.

Connoisseurs prefer a beef-steak pudding to a beef-steak pie; and mutton, veal and ham, kidney, sausage, fowl, fish, and game puddings may be served in a similar way. 

Raised in a Barn: Marmalade

Square jar filled with orange marmalade
Photo: WikiMedia Commons

I swear I’ve told this story before, but can find no evidence of it anywhere. So.

When I was in my 20s, the daughter of an old family friend asked me if she could get married at my parents’ house. She asked me before she asked my parents 1) because it was a virtual certainty that my father, who loved parties, would say yes, and 2) she wanted to make sure that this would not put my nose out of joint, me being the Household Daughter and at that point unmarried and sans prospects. I appreciated her thoughtfulness, but said of course she could. The Barn was a terrific place for parties, and a wedding seemed like an all-around good use of the place. 

The wedding was catered, and it was my father’s first time having Others–not family or guests under supervision–take over the kitchen (my mother had pretty much ceded the kitchen to my father at this point). So there was a wedding, with many people bustling about in the kitchen, and there was much rejoicing. At the end of the rejoicing bride, groom, and guests decamped, the caterers cleaned up, and the Barn was much as usual.

It was at that point–about 6pm–that I discovered a 30-gallon plastic trash bag, half filled with sliced mixed citrus fruit, tucked under the kitchen island. There had been a plan for sangria, apparently, which got forgotten in the scrum. My father, peering into the depths of the plastic bag, lamented the waste of all that fruit. “There must be something we could do with it.”

I should have known better, but offhandedly said that we could make marmalade with some of it (it was an awful lot of fruit). “Great!” my father said. Thus I found myself, at 6:30 on a Saturday evening, driving in to town to pick up 10 pounds of sugar.

Once returned, I did a quick sugar-to-fruit calculation, and we filled our largest Dutch oven to the brim with fruit and sugar and water. It was probably 7:30 when we turned the heat on under the pot. Then we waited. And waited. My father, not the most patient of humans when dealing with a process with which he was unfamiliar, began to get antsy. And tired. And grumpy. Around 9pm, when we were still waiting for the pot to boil, he announced that he was going to bed. And he did, leaving me with a vast pot of stubbornly un-boiling citrus and sugar. By the time the stuff began to boil it was midnight; by the time the fruit had softened and the juice begun to thicken toward jamminess it was 1am.  

At which point I realized I had not thought about containers, let alone about sterilizing jars and tops. I began, frantically and not too quietly, to search for every spare jar and container in the house. A note about the kitchen at the Barn: my parents’ rooms were above it, and one side of the kitchen was open to the hallway. Noise in the kitchen inevitably would be heard upstairs. So while I was rattling around finding containers and filling the next largest pot with water in which to sterilize them, my father shuffled out to the landing and demanded to know what the Hell was going on downstairs.

“I’m finding jars to put the marmalade in,” I said, between clenched teeth. (I was, at this point nursing a fine sense of abandonment.)

“Well, don’t make so much goddamned noise!” Dad shuffled back to his bed. I put more jars into the pot to sterilize. 

Eventually, all the jars were filled with marmalade, sealed with a lid or paraffin, and, because I was by then truly irritated at having been left do all the actual work, I washed all the pots and gear, and put everything away. The finished ranks of mis-matched jars–about two dozen of them, if I recall correctly–I arranged on the kitchen counter, and made my way upstairs at about 4am.

My father, creature of habit, woke at 6am. Out of my slumber I woke enough to hear him shuffling downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. I could tell the moment when he saw the jars of marmalade because I heard him mutter “Jesus Christ.”

We did not discuss the process subsequently. We gave the largest pot of marmalade to the bride and groom, as a souvenir. The rest went to good homes–many good homes. Years later when I told this story within my father’s hearing he got the most peculiar, abashed grin, as one who realizes he was not the hero of this particular saga. By then he had become a quite proficient maker of jalapeño jelly and other canned goods. To my knowledge he never again attempted marmalade, even as sous chef.

The History Girls and me

I’ve been a member of The History Girls since 2015, and written a fair number of posts. The History Girls comprises some of the world’s best historical fiction writers… and me. This one is from April 2016, and made me realise that some subjects return again and again in my life. I’m looking at the same subject now, but in other Early Modern writing and with quite different intent. I want to know how people other than Shakespeare and Marlowe thought about Jews they knew and Jews they imagined. It is, of course, for a novel, or maybe a novel and some short stories. It’s a far bigger subject than I realised. More on this in a few months, maybe, when I start the research seriously. As you know, I have a thesis to finish.

Right now, my writing self and my research self are sharing the seventeenth century. I tend to think of Shakespeare as a sixteenth century writer, because a lot of his themes borrow from the Middle Ages (which is my main historical stomping ground) and because I associate him with Elizabeth I. The truth is, however, that he wrote well into the seventeenth century. He died in 1616.

This means he was a seventeenth century writer. It also means that many aspects of his world view reflect the sixteenth century. Shakespeare is on the cusp of change. This is one of the reasons his work can be interpreted in so many ways.

We tend to think of the seventeenth century as nearly modern. It’s the Time of the Rise of Reason and the Rise of Science and the Formation of Us. All this is true. At the same time, the seventeenth century had an underlying world view that was anything but modern. Shakespeare reflects this in his plays. He reminds us that we’re all formed by our pasts, even if we don’t remember those pasts or know much about them.

Prospero demonstrates the older world view in The Tempest. In fact, the whole Tempest demonstrates this. It shows the relationship between humans and non-human sentient beings in a great chain of being, for instance. 

I was first introduced to the great chain of being when I was in Year Eleven (age 15-16, for those who like to keep track of these things) and read Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture. I fell in love with The Tempest when I read Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, not too long after. I had already read everything we knew of by Shakespeare and gone to every performance I could, for I was a sad Shakespeare addict, but I never liked The Tempest. I hated what was done to Caliban and playing tricks on people for purportedly moral reasons totally bugged me. Stewart helped me realise the glory of the language and the emotional impact of Prospero’s actions and Tillyard’s description of the world view Shakespeare used to structure The Tempest suddenly clicked: it all made sense.

Prior to this, Twelfth Night was my favourite. It’s also about the world order, but it’s strictly human. It played with the order of the world as I knew it. Australians from scientific families find it easier to understand humans and to understand rational thought, but take a bit longer to see the universe from alien eyes. And, in many ways, Shakespeare is quite, quite alien to our modern selves.

So, first, what is it about Twelfth Night that was easier to understand? 

It’s a love story, with disguises and nobles and beautiful speeches. One, in particular is the stuff of teenage pining. Find it at the right moment, and it becomes the precise description of a particular moment, which, of course, I did:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!


The fact that the speech was false, emotional blackmail, said by a heterosexual female in disguise was irrelevant. It called me, the way it called Olivia. 

These days, I wonder what the implications would be if Olivia and Viola were truly in love and the men in the story were mere distractions. We change over time. Our understanding of the world changes over time. Shakespeare is very forgiving of such changes. His plays fit many interpretations. One day I might write the story of Olivia and Viola and how they found love despite their society. 

When I was a teen, however, I learned the speech and ignored the context and the subtext and, in fact, everything but the text itself. And I’m not so sure that I understood the text itself. I found it beautiful, and, for an emotional teenager, that was enough.

And this is why Twelfth Night is easier for moderns. We can understand it (to a degree) through the text alone. We focus on whatever facet of love or comedy that suits us, and we enjoy the play.

For me, older, The Tempest is easier to delve into, emotionally. I’ve had to lose big things in my life, so Prospero is me. I’ve had to travel alone and in exile and so Prospero is again me. So, for many people (including me), The Tempest still has a modern ring. It’s accessible. It wasn’t accessible to me as a teen, but it is as an adult. Life experience changes things.

And yet, when I stopped to think about it, Prospero faded. I could think of was what a perfect epitome of the early seventeenth century world view The Tempest represents. 

The historian in me loves pulling it to pieces and putting it back together again, because every time I read it or see it I gain a new insight into Shakespeare’s world. Sometimes I gain substantial insights because directors and actors don’t see Shakespeare’s very structured and complex reality. They humanise things and transform The Tempest into another Twelfth Night. The difference between human and non-human is faded and uncertain or the status of various players doesn’t reflect their position in the universe. The play itself gives such clear indications about class and about status, ranging from a jug of wine to a royal human so senior hierarchically that he has powers akin to angelic. 

We discover that the hierarchy is not fixed. The Tempest contains a social lesson as to what is possible and what is impossible. Caliban remains a monster and Prospero discovers he cannot reach godhood and must shoulder his human responsibilities. The love story is a mere excuse for an exploration of far deeper matters.

Maybe Twelfth Night is more than a diversion, too. I doubt it, though. I doubt it because of its name. The Tempest suggests that the world will turn topsy-turvy and the question is open: will people find their right places at the end. Twelfth Night, as a title, reflects the last day of Christmastide. A time of fun and for emotions and for bulwarking oneself against the long, long winter. Not the time for deep thoughts about the human condition.

My deep thought at the moment is that I need a cup of coffee. Coffee reached England about forty years after Shakespeare died. I wonder what his plays would have been like if fuelled by coffee?


In September 2016, a writer-friend called Helen asked me to write a post about one of my novels for her blog. This novel has now been translated into Greek, has a lovely audiobook, and has cool merch (me, I like the teddybear the most). Why did I choose this blogpost? Mainly because Helen Stubbs and I talk about Greek food a lot. She has the right ancestry and I grew up in the right part of Melbourne. And, of course, there’s that Greek translation.

Helen suggested I talk about my new book The Wizardry of Jewish Women. I instantly wanted to write you a post about why she suggested it, the contexts, the places, the people. That’s because my new novel is about all these things. I’m living in a world that’s got History and Culture and Much, Much Cooking until I move back into writing mode. When I’m back into writing mode, I’ll be thinking about genders (many genders) so I think you’ve got the simple end of things here.

While The Wizardry of Jewish Women isn’t autobiographical (which is a shame – I really would like those children to be mine!) it borrows a lot from people I’ve known and things I’ve done. Those cold corridors in Parliament House and the meetings and the policy papers that keep one character up at midnight: they’re stolen from my life. How they operate in Judith’s life has nothing to do with my life, however. I transformed my experiences when I gave them to Judith.

I’ve transformed things the whole way through. Even my mother (who makes a guest appearance) has been transformed.

This is nothing new, and it’s nothing unusual. Fiction is not reality. Fiction is invention based on whatever threads we spin and whatever weave we choose to make with those threads. The reason it’s particularly important in this case is that early readers thought the novel was autobiographical. Some thought the historian was me, while others thought the enthusiastic feminist was me. I put both characters in, so that readers could see that just because a historian appears in fiction, doesn’t mean that I’m that historian and just because I use places I know (like Parliament House) doesn’t make it autobiographical.

Some writers thinly disguise their lives and use novels to explain the truths of their existence. Me, I’m more likely to take something I’ve done and make it into something entirely new. My life is the ground under a trampoline, and my novel is the trampoline and my characters only touch the ground by mistake.

A lot of fantasy writers do this, especially those that write at the realist end of fantasy. We take our reality and we transform it. That transformation always happens. It has to happen. Without that transformation, the novel wouldn’t be a fantasy novel. Without that transformation it would be an entirely different story, but also an entirely different kind of story.

To create the transformation I start with things I know (the corridors of Parliament House) and I place them in the world of the novel. I spend a lot of time creating the world of the novel, because it’s the trampoline and without it my characters end up on the ground or suspended in midair. For the world of this novel, for example, I invented a house in Newtown and one in Canberra and one in Ballarat and one in Melbourne. I know the floorplans and the squeaks of the floorboard and the colour of the carpet. None of these houses are real. This is unlike the house in Ms Cellophane, which is quite real. Ms Cellophane is a different novel, and I created the world of the novel differently.

When he launched Wizardry, the wonderful Michael Pryor commented on my complex magic system. It’s complex because it’s real. I didn’t follow writerly instructions on how to invent a magic system, I studied historical magic (wearing my ‘historian’ hat) until I had a good sense of how various forms of Jewish magic would meet at a point in history and create the one my characters discover. In the process, I also learned how Jewish magic was similar and quite, quite different from Christian magic and how the cultural mindset that created it also created what we see as modern scientific thought. Creating the world for this novel changed the way I see our world. It made me realise that my family has no magic tradition due to what it has suffered historically.

The big lesson I learned in creating the world for my novel was that people change and adapt in order to survive. I learned that one of the things I was doing in this novel was re-creating a world that could have been. The magic in the novel was one of the traditions lost to most of Western Judaism due to persecution. We lost a lot more than magic, but the magic was an emotionally safe way for me to talk about the other things.

Survival involves loss and damage and hurt. Even survival of smaller ills is damaging. Feminism and Judaism have a lot in common. They care about seeing the damage and healing the hurts of humanity. They care not just about living, but about living a good life.

This is why my novel is about feminism and about Judaism. I wanted to show what it was like to live hurt and to survive, to make wrong decisions and nevertheless to keep on going, to see life as a continuing challenge and to try to heal. If our reality is the ground under the trampoline, then this is the netting that links the frame to the play area.

Despite the trampoline metaphor, this isn’t a metaphorical novel. Despite the fact that it’s not about me, it’s not so very imaginary. Wizardry is set in a world exceptionally like ours, but with Jewish magic.

I didn’t want to talk about the time of adventure and the time of damage – I wanted to explore how women heal themselves and heal others. It’s a small world. My characters don’t explore the universe, they play on their trampoline. It’s enough for them.

Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes they turn to the Dark Side. Sometimes they turn to pink tutus. Sometimes they turn to food.

It’s funny that people are asking me about the feminism, for there is as much chocolate as there is feminism. This is because my characters don’t bounce naked. I have to dress them and give them the various parts of their lives, from a giant teapot to a liquor cabinet. I didn’t just research the magic system and I didn’t just build on feminism and Judaism.

Whatever my characters see and feel when they jump on their trampoline is theirs and theirs alone.

Urban Planning. Or Not

I jay-walk in almost any city I’ve been t0: I’m a New Yorker, I think it’s inborn. I’ve jaywalked in Paris and London and Helsinki, San Francisco and Boston and Chicago–sensibly, because I’m not a stupid New Yorker. There are the streets you dart across, and the ones you look at and think, Oh, Hell no.

But I do not jay-walk in Los Angeles. This is not just because I don’t know another city that is as car-centric as LA, but because the city isn’t physically set up for walking, let alone jay-walking. As I write this I’m in LA, visiting my aunt. Most days, unless it’s pouring down buckets, I like to get out of the house and take a walk. My aunt’s house is at the base of a hill, and about a block away from one of the ubiquitous freeways. Logically, I’d prefer to walk up the hill–except that for many blocks there are no sidewalks, and I have an unreasoning prejudice about walking in the middle of the street in a town where some drivers do not acknowledge the existence of speed limits. So even if it means strolling down Sepulveda Boulevard–a long, uninteresting road that parallels and is largely overshadowed by I-405, I choose to walk where there are sidewalks.

LA does not make this easy. Yesterday I struck out from my aunt’s house and, rather than marching determinedly down Sepulveda southbound (which is not only uninteresting, but largely unpopulated except by the people driving by) I decided to walk toward Barrington Avenue and a small shopping area a little less than a mile from the house. A nice stroll (with, as it turned out, a cup of coffee and a brownie at the end of it). To do this, I had to cross the interstate via an underpass at Church Street. Fine. The crosswalk dictated that I cross on the southern side of the street. So I crossed and kept on walking under the interstate. Unfortunately, on the other side of the underpass the sidewalk (to which I had been directed by the necessity of crossing Sepulveda on that side) stopped. There was a well-worn dirt path, but no sidewalk. And crossing to the other side of the street, where there is a sidewalk, was rendered inadvisable by the fact that the street is curved, with lousy visibility, and people tear up and down it on their way to and from the I-405 exit/onramp. So I stayed on the dirt path until I reached a traffic light (just before the aforementioned exit/onramp) when I was able to cross to the other side of Church, and a sidewalk.

At the next intersection, at Sunset, I needed to turn west. However, having had it demonstrated to me that sidewalks are not a given, I looked west on Sunset and realized that the sidewalk on my side of the street was only there for another 100 feet or so. Okay, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice? That’s curiously biased city planning. So I crossed Sunset (which is a six-lane monster–you can bet I waited patiently for the light), turned right, and continued onward until I reached South Barrington Avenue, where the shops I was heading toward beckoned.

I will note that there are many single-family dwellings–classy, multi-car, expensive houses on either side of Sunset. On the southern side, where I was walking, there was a sidewalk. On the northern side: no sidewalk. The houses all had handsome gates and fences which fronted on brief, probably very expensive expanses of lawn, then the curb, then the insanity that is Sunset Boulevard. In my imagination, if I had decided to despoil the lawns in my stroll it would have been looked on with disfavor and maybe a call to 9-1-1. Lack of sidewalk says “stay away”. I don’t know why the houses on the west side of the street have a sidewalk (which runs along the handsome gates and fences, and sometimes even briefer expanses of lawn). Perhaps the west side lost the toss. The sidewalks have accessibility cuts for wheelchairs, because they are required by Federal Law. But I don’t think anyone imagines that people are actually using them.

Waaaay back in the 1970s I spent six months in LA, and even tho’ I had a car, sometimes I opted to take a walk. In those days walking was less thought of even than now–at least twice when I took a walk someone pulled over to ask if my car had broken down. I felt like I had arrived in the Bradbury story “The Pedestrian.” I began to suspect that if I had been in the runner’s regalia of the time (which included spandex leggings and a sweatband, and Nope) I might have been comprehensible. But just walking? Too weird.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant (played by the late, wonderful Bob Hoskins) says, “Who needs a car  when we got the best transportation system in the world?” The transportation system he’s talking about were the streetcars–the Red Car (regional) and Yellow Car (local) systems–which was “the most extensive urban rail transit system in America, if not the world,” according to historian Colin Marshall. My mother and my aunt, who grew up in LA, doubtless knew the streetcars well. In seeking the quote above, I found a brief history of the Pacific Electric Railway system and how it came to dwindle and die. Short answer: it wasn’t Judge Doom with a nefarious noir-ish plot to dismantle the streetcar system and profit from “Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena!” As elsewhere in America, people liked cars, liked the freedom they gave, and as soon as they could afford to, they drove rather than use the streetcars. The Red Car went out of business in the early 60s. The LA Metro System, which combines subway and buses, has come to replace some part of it, as people came to understand the ecological and economic costs of driving everywhere.

But you still need a way to get to the Metro. And until LA invests in sidewalks that exist reliably on both sides of the street, that’s going to be a challenge.

Patreon in 2016

In my very first Patreon newsletter, sent in December 2016 (really!) I wrote about a life that feels very strange now. Eight years is a long time in the life of a Gillian, after all. To celebrate the changes that eight years bring, my posts for the next few weeks will focus on what happened in 2016. I was 55, and many things happened. This, then was that very first piece for Patreon:


On the Bigness of Hair

Today the air was full of unshed rain. This caused my hair to be big. Since the whole morning was taken up by a visit to the National Portrait Gallery with a group of creative writing students, my hair took on a significance. I was dressed quietly and modestly, as befits a teacher, but my hair was acting big.

I noticed the hair in portraits and I commented on them. We looked at the various stages of Victorian women’s hair in particular. We discussed the technique by which ringlets could be carefully developed and the importance of the sloping shoulder in relation to the hairdo. We talked about the sex factor of Big Hair. And all the time I was aware of having big hair.

I’ve often taught the different values our ancestors have given to various physical traits and dress. Sometimes a waist is important and sometimes a slit in the side of a dress is seen as impossibly heart-breakingly daring. Hair was a constant for a long time. There are still many groups that prefer to not see women’s hair at all than to have symbols of unbridled sex in the eyes of everyone.

Old postcards and the earliest of films show this attitude clearly. The sirens of the screen and the charmers of the cards wore a surprising amount of cloths. Titillation was through showing the possibility of skin rather than actual skin. But the hair! It was padded and it was pulled and it was piled up high. The postcards weren’t decorous at all – they were simply focused on something that far too many modern viewers don’t know to look for.

I kept the depictions of sirens in mind when I was walking my students through the Portrait Gallery. The word ‘sirens’ is in mind because of Norman Lindsay, whose portrait was there, sporting both a satirical look and a satyrical look. He was part of the change in culture that objectified the body of a woman. One day I’ll find out if anyone had counted the number of naked women he drew compared with other artists of his ilk and time. His more formal pictures still focused on the hair and these were of decorous women, but he felt the siren call of bare skin and was notorious in his day for refusing to block his ears against that call.

In the gallery immediately before Lindsay were the Victorian matrons. Unlike the sex symbols of the day, their hair was not so big. It was not small. It was most definitely soignée and often beautifully curled, but the nature of the hair of the dignitaries was quite different to that of the hoi polloi in the theatre.

Big hair isn’t simple. It reflects social stratification and relationships as much as it reflects fashion and hygiene. Except today. My big hair today was perfectly simple. There’s a lesson in that, too.

Tradition and cholent

I’ve been looking at maps this week in my spare time and it was Purim over the weekend. Purim is an historical festival, not so much a religious one, so I always try to make sense of a bit more Jewish history as my learning for the celebration. I was perplexed as a child when non-Jewish families didn’t do learning as part of their celebration. This is a tradition. My tradition is not that of Fiddler on the Roof! and the song “Tradition”.  It is learning and food, much food. There are many Jewish cultures. Learning is one of my favourite bits. It ranks as high as chicken soup.

When I was a teen, I had this conversation.  It began with me asking, “What did you learn for Christmas?”

“I got these presents, let me show you. You show me your presents, too.” Chanukah collided with Christmas that year, as it did from time to time, but my friend was totally baffled when I showed her my present for fifth night, which was a small box of Smarties (Australian M&Ms). Me, I had present-envy. I didn’t get presents such as hers even for my birthday.

I am a slow learner. The next Easter I asked a Greek Orthodox friend.

“What did you learn for your Easter?”

“We didn’t learn. We dyed eggs red and cracked them.” She had some dye left over and we totally messed up my mother’s kitchen and destroyed many candles making decorated eggs. We didn’t crack them, because Easter was over. We put them in a bowl and left them on the counter until my father complained about the smell.

Later I found that not all Jews learn every festival. But it’s my tradition and I love it.

This year’s choice for Purim was propelled by the sad fact that historical research and research for novels all take planning. I was considering actual Jewish populations along the Rhine at different times for something I’m looking into later in the year. I had a crashing thought that had me investigating maps last week. I used Purim to give me the time to make everything make sense. Tomorrow I’m back to my regular resaerch, which is currently wholly in literary studies

For all this (except the literary studies), I blame cholent.

Cholent, the dish, is a Jewish slow-cooked casserole from (mostly) Eastern Europe. Its name, however, most likely comes from French. We talk a lot about European Jews migrating east, but the most popular explanations and timing don’t fit Western European history. Yiddish is a lot more recent than the first migrations, and… it’s complicated. I made it understandable using maps. The maps themselves don’t explain things – they triggered the explanations, which is why there are no maps in this post and only one link to one. I answered a lot more questions that night and this weekend than I could give in a post – the question of Jewish movement eastward, for instance, must wait.

I began with a map of the Roman Empire at its pre-Christian peak. There were millions of Jews distributed throughout the Roman Empire as citizens, as non-citizens, and as slaves. I’ve seen estimates of numbers ranging from one million to ten million, and I usually use four million as a compromise number to work with.

Four million is over a quarter the size of the modern world Jewish population so, a while back I calculated how many Jews we would have around today if history had been kinder. It was in the vicinity of 320 million. Eighty million if you take the minimum number of Jews in the Roman Empire and over a billion using the largest estimate. We would not be such a tiny minority, in other words, if we had progressed simply because the world population has expanded and we had not been forcibly converted, mass murdered, exiled, enslaved, enthusiastically converted to other religions and so forth.

Populations follow trade routes and you can see evidence Jewish life along all the Roman trade routes. Well, all those where anyone has looked. Antisemitism is so deeply ingrained in our societies that many experts demand far more evidence for a Jewish burial than, say, a Christian one. There is a lot that probably needs to be re-evaluated in the archaeological record if we want to know actual Jewish populations in most areas.

Assessing the written record is easier, but not in a good way. The vast majority of Jewish records have been destroyed, and we’re reliant on surprising survivals such as the Cairo genizah. This means our knowledge through writing is patchy from anyone Jewish, because of the destruction, and biased from anyone else. Occasionally the bias is positive. Occasionally.

This means we really don’t know a lot about how many Jews lived in the Roman world, where they lived and how they lived. We know a lot more than we did, but we still have big gaps. We do know, however, the geographical limits of Jewish life and the trade routes related to much of the Jewish everyday.

The next map I thought of, then, was of Charlemagne’s empire at the time of its division into three, 843. I was thinking of places that were more antisemitic and less antisemitic and they pretty much follow this divide. It was easier to be Jewish in the central band of the empire (the one with Charles’ capital – which makes sense, because his personal confessor converted to Judaism and this does not seem to have ended the world) and a few key places nearby. These are all, in modern day Europe in eastern France (usually the parts that also speak German), the Saar, Italy, Provence and Burgundy. This became the Jewish heartland of non-Hispanic Europe in the Middle Ages.

It is the original Ashkenaz. It’s the Ashkenaz that made European Jewish marriages one husband to one wife, but refused to relinquish divorce despite enormous pressure from local Christians. Rashi, one of the great Medieval scholars, used the word ‘akitement’ for divorce: marriage in Judaism was and is a contract that can be acquitted, it’s not a covenant. European Jewish was both Jewish and European and that wide strip of territory that formed that heartland explains a great deal about us.

Ashkenazi culture spread east and changed and that’s a story for another time. It began to spread early enough so that ‘cholent’ could have a French name: it came from the Carolingian Empire after French developed as a language. Not before the eleventh century. Which is interesting because… I have another mental map for that.

In the late 8th century, a Jewish trade network operated from that region (and possibly Champagne). We don’t know a lot about it, but when I looked at its most known route, Jewish traders used those ancient fairs, with a special focus on Medieval fairs. I have a book with maps of every town in that region that had a fair in the Middle Ages and the dates we know those fairs operated and I cannot find it! So this is work for my future, after my thesis is done.

The Rhadanites were gone about the time that the Khazar Empire declined and fell, and one of their trade routes led to the heart of the Empire, so that’s something else to explore one day. About the time both faded from view, the Crusades began in Europe and persecution of Jews became far more severe. But… right until the mid-20th century, those towns were part of larger trade routes and had Jewish communities.

Every trade fair needed a route to the fair, and each stop was a town usually between 15-20 miles from the previous and also served as fairs for local farmers. In the Middle Ages, prior to all the murders and expulsions, so many of these towns had Jewish traders and craftspeople. And so many of those families would have cooked cholent or an equivalent.

This is a small fraction of what I spent one night and one Purim sorting out. I have to leave it now until September. I’ll write it up more accurately and less improperly when I’m actually working on it. In other words, these are my early thoughts.

Why did I share them with you, then? Part of the family tradition of learning includes talking about things. If anyone wants to talk about these subjects, this is a good place and a perfect time. Why perfect? Because all my thoughts are halfway right now. I could be very, very wrong in how I see things.

There is a tradition to this learning. The tradition is that you have to prove anything you want to challenge. Evidence! When I was a child and we argued without evidence it occasionally led to very sophisticated behaviour, such as the sticking out of tongues, which got us into trouble. Evidence is safer than the sticking out of tongues.

What’s the aim of challenging and providing evidence? That the learning may continue… (kinda like the spice must flow).