It’s tucked away on the advertising page, with ads for Esperanto, children’s wound ointment, steam washery Ozon and the family notices (Hermanus Gosses Offringa, Klaaske Faber and Tjitje Dijkstra have passed). Then, underneath a big advertisement for Droste’s Nurses Cacao (“Prices from before 1914.” we find the programming for the cinemas of Leeuwarden, Friesland, for the Friday after onwards, in the Leeuwarder Courant of 8th September 1932.
CINEMA has De Verloren Zoon (The Prodigal) with Lawrence Tibbet, the LEEUWARDER “again brings 2 features: Het Geheim van een Priester.” (Lubitsch’ Broken Lullaby, I think) and Paniek in Chicago (Robert Wiene’s German film Panik in Chicago), promising “A tense filmwork, set in the underworld of Chicago.” Both films start at 7:30, and you’ll have to be 18 to enter.
You’ll also have to be 18 or older for what the TIVOLI has to offer: This week the great, mysterious sensation-filmwork: THE MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN Made after the novel, written in 1818 by Mrs MARY WOLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY, the wife of the great English poet PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY. A film that has broken many records.
I wonder. What would you make of this, in lieu of a photo, review or other description? There’s an awful lot of focus on Shelley the poet; his name is printed in bold, even. Coupled with “mysterious, sensation” we expect thunder and lightning, perhaps, but especially grand gestures, exotic countries, doomed love, thigh breeches and floofy hair and people who orate in ‘dost’ and ‘thou’. And written by a Mrs, his wife, so surely it’s wholesome. Alas and Alack. What the Frisian purveyor of a Tivoli ticket, pre-sales courtesy of the cigar shop D. Ebbens at the Wirdumerdijk, got instead:
The Leewarder Courant’s reviewer, on the 10th of September, indeed was not impressed: “The Monster of Frankenstein” was made after the novel of Mrs Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley and written in 1818. It’s more than 100 years ago that the writer enriched (?) the world with this product, and if it’s a paragon of the literary taste of that time, we cannot have else than pity with them who indulged in such nonsense. The contents are a sheer fantasies about which one cannot but shrug. Who has ever heard of a learned young man who, with a miscreant of a helper, collects bodyparts from a graveyard, steals a prepped and abnormal brain from the university, and then put all these elements together, to bring it to life with the aid of a certain electrical current. But what the use of filming all of this is a mystery to me. The film has once more returned to its early stages, to speculation and the urge for the most primitive sensation. And to this, the current technical improvements have been expended, which does not help the case, because they’ve been used most skillfully. You could argue that the film brings something special in direction, mime and make-up, sure, and we have pointed out little things that can make a film so beautiful. However, with “Frankenstein” this is null and void because here the rough-sensationalism and the appearance of the monster dominate so strongly, that everything else falls away. We are not surprised at all, that several ladies left the room and neither were the pale faces at the film’s end a surprise. No, then “Charley’s Aunt”, the jolly, fun student comedy (9 acts) which preceded it. Howls of laughter erupted about the hilarious situations. It was a good compensation for the main feature and it would maybe be recommended to switch them around. The news was interesting and extensive.
CINEMA presents You: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN Freely adapted from the story by MARY WOLLSTONE CRAFT SHELLEY. In the lead BORIS KARLOFF as THE MONSTER The sensational driven to a peak! An unbelievably fascinating depiction on film of Frankenstein’s sinister monster! Hundreds of thousands of sensation lovers, trembling of emotion, have already witnessed the creation of the artificial bride and hundreds of thousands will follow their example.
One of my early New Year’s memories is visiting my grandfather and seeing, on the roof of a municipal building, a complete farmer’s wagon. In an 1985 newspaper article someone remembers about such an occurrence, decades earlier: My father, who came from the Hogeland (northern Groningen) told us in all colours about it. They would take a wagon completely apart, take the axels out, take the sideboards off, and then it was put together again on top of a farmer’s barn. My father also told that they sometimes loaded the wagon full of manure. (…) Once we were dragging an enormous barrel of fish offal. It stank awfully. We just had it standing on a bridge when the police came for control. The barrel was left standing there, of course, and we were covered with gunk. (…) Sometimes farmers would chase us. They were already waiting for us, and then they had their fun. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
New Year’s pranks like this happened in our village too. Ulrum is a small village, yet it had four churches. That it was the seat of the 1834 Seccession may have to do something with that. Members of some of these churches were not really on speaking terms; “we are not Brothers,” as the Freed Christian Reformed Article 31 members had it. Yet, one Old Year’s Day, after their Old Year service, they had to interact with each other when all bicycles of churchgoers were swapped between churches. My brother adds: “I did it a lot in my youth, starting already during the evening, continuing through out the night. Our main goal was to block church doors and entrance roads to the village. But we also did other pranks such as placing mannequin dolls on top of roofs, changing the name signs of villages in the neighbourhood etc.” From the 1985 Nieuwsblad van het Noorden article: “The young people were getting giddy in anticipation of the dragging. We were thinking of stunts everyone would be talking of the next day.” He still has good memories of the time when he and his friends during the Old Year service swapped all the coats from churchgoers of the two churches. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
The Old Year church service fell victim to pranks a few more times: once when one youth brought in a box of eggs and, from a perch near the back, released the eggs, one at the time. The church floor sloped towards the choir, so each egg would quickly gain speed, rattle underneath the benches and, if it didn’t come to a stop at someone’s feet, come to a yolky end at the front. Another time, someone removed the spark plugs from the electric church organ, bringing a hymn from a full ‘all registers’ to a premature and whimpering anti-climax.
For many years, an old car, a clunker, would be secured ahead of New Year’s Eve, and then after midnight rolled to the village square by local youths and set alight. The fire brigade would be prepared, but wait a while before extinguishing it, meanwhile standing around the fire themselves with a pot of beer. The local Spar owner, poor Mr. Scheper, would also be prepared and have his insurance papers ready, as many years his shop windows would burst through the heat.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may be reminded of that novel’s own clunker (here spelled ‘klunker’), a decrepit car which stands on a frozen lake in Laketown, Wisconsin. The place is protected by Hinzelman, a kobold who does so in exchange for the midwinter sacrifice of a child. Every year, residents hold a raffle in which they predict the date when the klunker will finally crash through the ice, signalling the end of winter. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I would guess that dragging the klunker onto the ice is also a communal, almost ritual, effort. What all these traditions in common have is some kind of shared effort, or a spectacle involving the public destruction of a focal object, to mark the turning of a season.
Sanne Meijer, a blogger from Groningen, writes: In some villages the youth goes out on New Year’s night to “drag”: moving objects which have been left lying around outside the house. In the past, farmers’ carts were placed on roofs; now it’s usually smaller objects being moved. Sometimes to a central location, but it can also happen that people really have to search the next day, to get their flowerpots and garden furniture back. “Dragging” is often part of an “Old Year’s Stunt” which was used to put a village or club in the spotlight. In the last weeks of the year a particular object of note disappears from the village, which then is placed back at the turn of the year. On the 31st of December 2013 the signs for “Most fun village of the province Groningen” were removed from Niekerk, and then appeared the next day in the village of Kornhorn. One of the best known stunts was the appearance of Lenin in the Frisian village Oosterwolde. On New Year’s day 1998 a giant statue of Lenin had appeared in the village. It turned out to have come from Tjuchem in Groningen; the owner had imported it from the erstwhile USSR.
To prevent their stuff being dragged, people used to make sure that they’d put everything that could be moved in the shed. I remember that my dad would make sure that our red-and-white painted trash can (easy to recognise when there are twenty bins at the roadside for collection) was safely locked up. Still, looking on the Internet you see reports of place-name signs being swapped, ‘for sale’ signs being moved, orchestrating a garden gnome football match, and what else the youth can invent. There’s a fine line between “slepen” (dragging) and “slopen” (wrecking); swapping people’s garden furniture to have neighbours puzzled or mildly inconvenienced is one thing; dragging their stuff away to set alight is another. You can see both, and the sheer scale of dragging, in this 1978 footage taken in the northern villages of Ulrum, Leens, Wehe, Eenrum and Zoutkamp. In front of Ulrum’s town hall stands a manure wagon, a shopholder is rebuked for having rip-off prices per grafitti, a lot of farm equipment blocking the roads… Do watch it!
As with many unwritten rules, this is not always clear, and slepen can easily turn into slopen. A Nieuwsblad van het Noorden commentator already rings alarm bells (or death knell) of the dragging custom: Another tradition is moribund; the tradition of (in the countryside) the dragging of goods from one place to another. At first glance nothing to lose sleep over, except maybe for those who experience the loss of any tradition as painful and the curse of the modern age. But there’s more. The traditional dragging has been replaced by violence and vandalism. According to the Groninger police force New Year came with chaos, fires and vandalism. It was the same in the other northern provinces. A sad development. Dragging wasn’t always fun for the victims, but it was never more than teasing neighbours or fellow villagers. Whomever had lost something in New Year’s Night, usually knew where to search the next day. Now the dragging has turned into vandalism, searching is no use, as the belongings will have been destroyed. This is bad business. When people are out to cause damage and misery, then it’s about time for the powers that be to sit around the table to talk about these developments. Whether it’ll help can be doubted, but the chance that these conversations leak through to the perpetrators and calms them down can not be left unused. (Nv/hN, 02 Jan 1978)
Then again, already in 1962 there were those who’d rather see it go altogether: START WELL: NO DRAGGING A custom can be old and good, and should be kept, but a custom is not good because it’s old. It’s a custom for some to drag the goods from others in New Year’s Night, because they find it funny, or because it happens each year, or because their parents used to do it, or to tease, or another reason. However, this custom may be old, it is not good, and should be banned. Let’s start the new year well. A good start is half the job done. Sincerely, G.W.M. ZIJLSTRA, Grootegast. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1962)
There are more subtle societal sides to dragging which are easily overlooked: “People would leave stuff outside on purpose. When you thought that you’d secretly dragged something away, they were thinking from behind the curtain: Finally rid of that old wheel-barrel.” However, it could also be corrective: Sloppy farmers had to search and haul back a lot, while the youth was watching and sniggering. People who had placed themselves too much outside of society would find their door barricaded with dragged stuff: “We were dragging those empty oildrums to a peculiar shopkeepers couple. As children we were afraid to pass them; you were not even allowed to stand in front of the shop window, because he’d come outside with a stick and if he got the chance he’d beat you. Someone like that would be put to rights.”
New Year’s pranks are a tradition of the northern Dutch provinces, and the domain of teenagers, the older youth. New Year’s mischief is an example of the upsetting of the normal order, and the short reign of the Lord of Misrule. Think of the passages in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame set during the Feast of Fools (set in the book on 6 January), in which Quasimodo is made the False Pope; while the historical Feast of Fools was an ecclesiastical ritual in which upper and lower clergy would trade places, Hugo’s story widens it up to larger and wilder social context, more akin to the (unrelated) Roman Saturnalia. Rituals of inversion have obvious appeal in situations where there is a rigid hierarchy – such as a military chain of command. The British Army have a tradition, begun in 1890, of officers serving their soldiers in bed on Christmas Day. The drink? ‘Gunfire’, which is black tea laced with rum. Even deployed troops have their small taste of Christmas misrule, as often their Christmas dinner is served by officers. In Groningen too it was tradition that farmers would treat their staff on a good meal at Midwinter; something to come back to another day.
Saturnalia was celebrated on the 17th December, later extended until the 25th. It included gift-giving, gambling and, indeed, role reversal: in particular slaves were given licence to disrespect their masters, and they were treated to a luscious banquet. It was a time for free speech, called “December liberty” by the poet Horace. This levelling of social hierarchy was temporary and had its limits; social norms were not threatened, as the holiday would end. In our contemporary society, it would be the youngsters, living under the thumb of their parents and teachers, and in general having low societal influence, how are allowed for one night to be out all night and engage in mischief, as long as after New Year they’re back to good behaviour.
But how then to match a Roman and a Catholic tradition to something what seems to be more pagan, playing out over the Eastern provinces which fall in the Nether-Saxon language area? Lazily, I wander to the wiki article about the Germanic Yule feast. A description of the pagan Yule has sacrifices left, right and centre, and drinking and toasting. Drinking and toasting isn’t unknown to New Year’s revellers, of course, but the sacrifices are harder to place in the current context (there are other Midwinter traditions that fit, like gift giving and even the carrot for St Nicolas’ horse). With a bit of imagination we can see dragging a clunker through the village for the bonfire as a faint echo of the dragging of the yule log, the communal effort to bring the object to be burnt, the thing that sparks the new year.
The 7th C saint Eligius, who worked for 20 years to convert the pagan population of Flanders to Christianity was said to have been firm about what his listeners had to renounce: the godless and nonsensical merriment on the 1st of January, making sculptures of people and harts, holding big meals, sending round of New Year’s gifts and well-wishing toasts. A century later, Boniface still wrote in anger to the pope about the heathen noise at New Year. There are strange customs we’ve lost: our Germanic forefathers may sit on the roof with a sword with magic runes, and from which way the wind blew they’d know what the new year would bring. Others may sit on a bull’s skin on a crossroads, where they’d fall asleep. Fairies who were trekking round on New Year’s night, as it was their migration night, would predict the future in passing. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)
These bands of fairies are not unlike the Wild Hunt, and with the Wild Hunt, with supernatural activity and undead beings walking the Earth, we’re getting closer to roaming youth causing mayhem. Are these youngsters a reenactment of the Wild Hunt? I am also reminded that all of this happens at the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new; a sort of organised chaos is allowed to happen in this liminal period in which people ask each other, “What day is it again?” It’s almost as if it’s a mini-Ragnarok, a “mini-end-times’, a reenactment of when Loki, the Nordic and Germanic trickster and Lord of Mischief, turns against his fellow gods, and battles at the side of the giants, in a cataclysmic war, after which the world will resurface ‘anew and fertile’. Are our youth allowed, for one night only, to be Loki turning against their fellow people?
You’ll hear it from miles away, the Midwinter Horn. It’s a large, bent, wooden horn, played from Advent till Epiphany in the Groninger area of Westerwolde, huddled against the German border, with its Eighty Year War fortification of Bourtange. It’s a mournful sound, and you’d think it’s lowed over the heather for centuries, since Saxon times. While the area indeed has Saxon roots, the tradition has no known history in Groningen; only in 2005 did it blow over from the southward provinces of Drenthe and Twente. It is very popular there too – there are several Midwinter horn groups, courses in making a horn, and classes and exams. It’s great to see so much interest in this very old custom, especially since at certain point it was moribund.
It’s interesting to see how it’s been written about in the regional newspaper, the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden. In 1926, in the folklore column, we read: A previous year I was in a noisy Belgian environment of popping Champagne corks, amidst a celebrating audience in paper hats and half-dressed in ‘evening dress’, witnessing such a ‘reveillon de grand-gala’, and celebrated New Year’s Eve amidst a wild bunch, culminating in the cacophony of a raging jazz band. But in the land of Twente the old year still dies under the mysterious notes of the lamenting Midwinter horn and the blessed clock ringing of so many towers in Twente. (Nv/hN, 6 March 1926)
1933 shows us a photograph of a farmer and his wife (but note that the woman’s horn is made of welded metal instead of metal-banded wood): An old custom, of which the origin and meaning are lost in the darkness of centuries, the blowing of the home-made Midwinter horn. This custom still exists in Twente, and especially in Ootmarsum. Preferably, the Midwinter horn is blown over a well, which will amplify the note so much that the heavy sound can be heard hours further. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1933)
And from the 1935 Christmas picture spread (see the smoked meat hanging from the rafters!): The Midwinter horn is taken from the wall in the “Los Hoes” in Ootmarsum. The blowing of the Midwinter horn still happens in Twente in the dark days before Christmas. (Nv/hN, 21 Dec 1935)
This from the 1953 New Year’s Eve picture spread. Standards appear to have slipped – no solemn and mournful tooting over a well; it’s a band of youngsters now, with easier to make metal horns: Through the somber wood the sound of the Midwinter horns sounds. In Twente this old custom is still kept in honour in the dark days between Christmas and New Year. (Nv/hN, 29 Dec 1953)
The columnist, poet & satirist Kees Stip writes the following in 1970. It does show resistance to the reawakening interest in folk tradition, which at that time was seen as the domain of ‘hippies and dropouts’ and nostalgists, while for another part of the older generation (Stip was born in 1913) it was just old junk, to be consigned to the scrap heap. It’s also significant that Stip assigns the custom a distinct ‘Germanic’ identity, while the War was still fresh in memory. He writes, snidely: * Who still has a shred of Germanism in his soul, can have his soul blown through in Twente. Over the whole area the sound of the Midwinter horn will sound again. I think it’s pretty, but pretty nauseating, just like Wagner. The soundscape reminds me of the rutting cries of an old elk which has fallen in the well, tries to climb up and falls down again. In reality it’s only water in the well, with a farmer blowing above it. * Farmer or elk, blowing the Midwinter horn is an art requiring a lot of skill. Only the most skilful it is given to add to the basic notes not only the terts and the kwint but also the sekst. For farmers this may not mean much, but for elks it probably is one of the most stimulating forms of sexual entertainment. * Our heathen forefathers blew the Midwinter horns to chase away evil spirits. Nobody knows whether this is true, but as an extinct heathen you’re depend on the Christians to interpret your deeds. The Christians themselves interpret their still uncured Midwinter blowing ailment as the heralding of the glad tidings. You’d get that news tooted through the phone like that. For me, Midwinter horns mean that it can’t be summer soon enough. (Nv/hN, 22 Dec 1970)
An article from fifteen years later is more enthusiastic. It paints the picture: “Outside it’s foggy and already dark since four-thirty. Suddenly, as if from a different world, come the somber, mournful and mystical sounds you’ll never have heard and will never forget.” It seems to me that the writer has been rummaging in the paper’s cuttings, picking up some of the phrasing. As the tradition’s origin, the heralding of Christ’s birth is mentioned, and the banning of the Catholic mass in the 17th and 18th century; apparently German priests would sneak over the border to hold secret masses in farmers’ sheds, and the Midwinter horn would be used to sound the alarm if they were disturbed. The writer is most convinced by a pre-historic origin, and the chasing away of dark powers, and gives some useful facts on its history and construction: While in Switzerland and, for example, Hungary, similar horns are used to call the cattle, the use of the Midwinter horn in Twenthe looks most like the “hyrdelurs” played in Sweden and Norway during Midsummer nights. Cave drawings in the south of Sweden from 1800 BC suggest that these horns are older than Methuselah. The Midwinter horn would only have decorated a wall here and there if a few folklorists hadn’t reinvigorated the old custom about 30 years ago. From that time onwards, the mysterious sounds can be heard again over the stubble of the corn fields. Twenthe even has a few craftsmen again who can make the real Midwinter horn. They use a one-and-half meter long birch or alder branch which is drilled in at the thin end for the mouthpiece (in Twente dialect, “de happe”). Then the wood is sawn through lengthwise, are both halves hollowed out with a chisel, glued together and wound round with rattan. (Nv/hN, 20 Dec 1985)
The website of the Ootmarsum Midwinter horn blowers (founded 1992) also regales its history, from pagan origins to Christian instrument for the heralding of Christ and as alarm mechanism. On its modern history and usage: The tradition of the Midwinter horn blowing was near dying in Twente. Luckily, the custom was restored in the fifties by Toon Borghuis from Oldenzaal. The horns on which we play now are made of wood. From the early 20th century come the tin horns, a product from the village smith. These instruments are a thorn in the ‘ear’ of the fan. Restoring the tradition didn’t go without a hitch. There were two groups who fought for the oldest honour and practices. There are farmers, who think that the ‘oalde roop’, the one simple note of the horn, are the real tradition which needs to be preserved. Others, the melody-blowers, can get a seven-note sound from the horn. Around 1970 there were already more than 300 blowers who, between St Andrews and the Sunday after Epiphany, produce the mysterious sounds and now the tradition is alive and well! Practiced players can now produce at least four notes from their instrument, and star players can blow a series of seven or eight notes. The melodies are set and there are two common riffs. Many players feel it should stay at that; no ‘Happy Birthday’ and other songs on the Midwinter horns. What is important for all groups in Twente is that the tradition should not be overshadowed by making it a carnaval. It should remain a solemn occasion. It’s folklore, but a continuation of an stately occurrence. It is also out of the question that more than one horn is blown at the same time. This is against tradition. The sound of one horn has to echo over the land; through this simple means from their own farm, the farmers would notify each other of the days getting longer, and the coming of the Messiah. (Midwinterhoornblazen.nl)
Saasveld, 10 miles further down the road, has its own group (est. 1970) and website. They’ve got more about the history and correct usage. Their outreach activities are still going on, this year for the 66th time: In the early fifties of the last century the blowing of the Midwinter horn was resuscitated by some famous men from Twente, like the musician Toon Borghuis, Dr Bernink, the architect Jan Jans, beer brewer and folklorist Meijlink and Hendrik Racer Palthe from Everloo. In Saasveld, from 1952 onwards, there was a movement from the folklore group Saterslo to get more attention for the dying tradition of the Midwinter horn. Gerard Hesselink Jr (Holtkamp) with some other villagers, took up the gauntlet, and in 1954 the first organised activities happened. These existed of going round the hospitals and old people’s homes, together with the theatre group Enscheder Spöllers, the “De Krekkel” dancers and taking part in contests. (…) The neighbourhoods of Saasveld have from the start had an eye for the preserving of tradition in the right but contemporary way. For this, the basis is the trinity of period, horn and call. The period Advent to Ephiphany is for blowing, the horn (wet or dry) is to be made of native wood (such as alder, birch, willow) with a mouthpiece of elder. The call is depending on place or even family (not sheet music). The past sixty years we have, together with the former group Kemissie veur ‘t Mirreweensterhoornbloazen and the later foundation from Twente, taken action several times to preserve the tradition in the right way. Tin horns and horns made of slats, plastic mouthpieces and the nailing down of the right call have been discussed. In this context it is notable that the neighbourhood of Saasveld as one of the few is mostly blowing on the wet horn. (midwinterhoornblazerssaasveld.nl)
This Commission for the Mirreweenster Horn Blowing organised its first competition on boxing day 1953. Notably, this was done on the tin horns, which were more durable and were easier to blow on. Toon Borghuis did say: “Op ‘n deur mu’t te we’j weer noar ‘t haolt.” – “Eventually, we need to go back to wood.” As the goal for the competition he’d stated: “it needs to be a flowing, easy melody; the call from one farmer to the other. That’s the real Midwinter horn blowing, as it can be heard in Advent’s time in the east of Twente, when at hours’ distance it is passed on from one farm to the other.” This competition followed the first organised blowing, on the 18th December 1949. That evening, at 7pm Bernard Boomkamp from Hertme stood with his horn at the well of his Vrielinks farm. The sound was then carried from farm to farm through the area. Around 10:30pm the sound was answered from Losser and Denekamp.
From a folklore thing from a corner of the country, the Midwinter horn became a tourist favourite, and in 1985 the tourist board already organised demonstrations throughout the region. Then, in 1987: H.G. Lich is in his daily life director of the tourist board in Exloo. Last summer he got a letter from the Spanish organisers of the festival of international customs in Malaga. “If I knew someone who practiced a real Dutch tradition. Then I thought of F. Tenniglo. He is Dutch champion Midwinter horn blower and the only person still making the instrument. I phoned him, told him about the festival and that I had already entered his name. ‘Nothing will come of it,’ he told me. But two weeks later he got a message.”
The Spanish were interested in the Midwinter horn blower from Twente and wrote that a plane ticket was ready for him. Tenniglo then understood what he had signed up for and got cold feet. “I’m happy to come, but not on my own,” he demanded. Lich also had to come.
The tourist board director was keen, but couldn’t play an instrument and also was not a craftsman. “So we got the farmers’ horn of Exloo from the cupboard. You only have to signal with it. Everyone can do that.” However, Lich is not bringing the original. He has put a small whistle in a replica to make it easier to blow on. “They’ll never notice,” the apprentice tooter knows. “The real farmers’ horn remains in the Bebinghehoes in Exloo. We’re afraid it’d get stolen in Spain, or damaged.” (Nv/hN, 12 Dec 1987)
This is about the New Year Singers, from the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden newspaper, 31 December 1928.
The once so loudly sounding “Neijoarszing’n”, New Year Singing – roughly between Saint Nicolas’ Day and the start of February – is only very sporadically found nowadays. Those “Neijoarzingers” often were very eccentric village types and had typical names. On ‘t Hoogeland, the most northern area of the Netherlands, we have known “BLINDE PAIT”, Blind Pete. “TIDDE TENUE”, “HEN BRINKTJE”, “JAAN KOATJES” en “PAIT NAIN” also were well-known “Neijoarzingers”. The song they sung however was a Christmas song that was very seldom sung in dialect.
Our photo shows FRISTER KLOK in 1918. He was then 75 years old and for three decades he has regularly sung the “Neijoarslaid” in the Ommelanden area. As a boy of eight years old he already went out with his older sister. Klok, who lived in Schildwolde, has died not long ago.
Marten Douwes Teenstra, in his DeKinderwereld (1853) writes (somewhat condensed; the man does gripe on a bit):
On the first of January the year starts for the whole of Christianity, but already before New Year’s Day, around Christmas, poor people and their children start deliver their new years letters to the well-off, or go round the houses with their well-wishing New Year songs; one can not say however that they are nicely worded or “pleasant of voice” – it is more a pesky begging. (…)
In the Ommelanden region, as well as other areas of the country, the begging for a New Year’s gift, which goes with music and singing, is still in use. The musical instrument usually is the rommelpot, named after its sound, which has replaced the earlier used gons and bagpipes. Poor boys then usually start a high and shouting song, as if to frighten children.
On the Hoogeland in Groningen you’ll also find old women who go along the houses around Midwinter (Christmas) and New Year, with the rommelpot to sing new year songs, like:
“Doar schenen drei steerens ien ‘t oosten zoo kloar,
Dei schenen drei doagen, drei nachten veur woar,
Al ien dat godzoalige Neije joar” (etc)
“Three stars shone in the East so clear,
They shone for sure for three days and three nights
In the holy new year” (etc)
Or another ditty: “An heurt eerwoarde hoesman schoon
Wat ik joe sal verhoalen,
Hoe God zien ein’ geboren Zoon
Veur ons leid neder doalen.
Te Bethlehem al ien ain stal, Doar lait het kind ien douken,
En dat veur ons menschen al, Doar zellen wie ‘t goan zouken.” (enz)
“Hear on dear revered house owner
What I will tell you,
How God let his own born Son
come down for us.
To Bethlehem in a stable,
There it lies in linen,
And that for all people,
That’s where we’ll find it.” (etc)
We will not permit ourselves to write out these songs completely. (So concludes Teenstra.)
When Emperor Charlemagne had conquered the Frisians, he ordered them to translate into Latin, and record in writing, all the laws they had hitherto passed down via the oral tradition. The Frisians (to which the Ommelanders also belonged at the time) refused this, and invoked their old customs which barred them from writing down that which was spoken by their elders in the old oracle language. Charlemagne therefore summoned the 12 lawgivers of Frisia, the Wimoedes or Asegas and gave them the choice between obedience or death by the sword, being buried alive or being set adrift at sea in a rudderless ship. The twelve Asegas maintained their refusal and chose a death in the waves.
In Zeerijp they meekly went on board the ship that could sustain one ebb and one flood and were cast out to sea. When they eventually found themselves in peril, one of the oldest remembered the sermons of Willibrord; how the preacher had learnt that Jesus Christ after his arising had appeared amongst his praying friends, whilst the doors of the room in which they sat were closed. He suggested to his fellow sufferers that they should beg for the help and intervention of Jesus. And lo, when the twelve prayed, they saw in the back of the ship a man, much like themselves, who rested with his hand on a rudder pole, with which he guided the ship. So did he bring them back to the harbour from which they had come.
When the thirteenth came to shore with the twelve Asegas, he threw the rudder on the ground, where it caught fire and burnt into a beacon for ships at sea. Then he schooled and taught the twelve and guided them in which of the Frisian laws they would choose in obeisance to the empirical edict. So the Frisians obeyed the Emperor and Christ, and devised the Landrecht, the country law, which was taught to them by Mary’s son. This collection of laws gained the approval of both Emperor and Pope. From that time onwards there appeared in Zeerijp, even when the sea had long retreated from there, and even in the days of our grandparents, a mysterious light – “het Riepster licht”.
Art by Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman (1882-1945), from the Niewsblad van het Noorden newspaper, 24 December 1947. It was inspired by the stained glass windows of the great hall of the university in Groningen, designed by fellow artist Johan Dijkstra. Folk belief has it that the light is still seen in modern times.
That the Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas, Saint Nicolas, has little do with the historical Bishop of Myra may be well known. Why we do have the figure, or the related Santa Claus, is difficult to explain – it’s a rich stew of adopting, adapting, repressing, and resurrecting of traditions. If only the story was as clear as it was to the people of a century or so ago. The 19th century saw great advances in the reconstructing of our oldest history, and with it an emerging interest in our pre-Christian past; in Germany, the Brothers Grimm were busy and in Friesland the antiquarians were mercilessly trolled with the Oera Linda book. Legends, traditions and celebrations were dissected and with a measure of factoids it was proven that Sinterklaas, too, was pagan. This is how a lecture from 1902, by Dr Koopmans van Boekeren, explained Sinterklaas. Is there truth in it? Sure, but it’s never such a straight line, and for each ‘match’ that he made with a Pagan Germanic god, there will also be characteristics of these gods that he’s conveniently skipping.
With the introduction of Christianity we have received Sinterklaas because the evangelists understood that the new teachings had to be made palatable, and that was why Christian celebrations were made to coincide with Heathen ones. In Germanic theology you can find the explanation of the customs surrounding the Sinterklaas feast. Wodan, god of the elements, of wind, sea and storm, was highly revered by the seafaring Germanics. Saint Nicolas was originally also the patron saint of sailors; what was easier than swapping one for the other?
During the Jul Feast (25 Dec-6 Jan) Wodan rides his horse Slypnir, accompanied by the loyal Eckhard, through the sky and wears a wide cloak. There we have our Sinterklaas. Wodan is also the god of fertility, because wind creates fertility, and as such the time at which he is celebrated is the time of gift giving. Maybe there’s a bit of the god Janus in Sinterklaas. With the Sinterklaas pastry we are thinking of the Germanic Sacrificial cakes. Thinking of Fro, the god of light and protector of lovers, Sinterklaas became the “hylickmacker”, “wedding maker”. The “vrijer” and “vrijster” of speculatius is explained. Fro’s wagon was pulled by wild pigs with golden tufts, hence the Sinterklaas Pig. Pepernoten (ginger nuts), instead of regular nuts, remind us of Donar. The chimney is the connection between the ghostly world and the human in the Germanic theology. Putting your shoe in front of the fireplace is also Germanic. The bundle of rods is possibly the rod of life of the Germanics, with which they would beat against trees to make them bear fruit. Salt is the sign of wisdom. The helper is the loyal Eckhardt; probably there’s thoughts of fairies, and he’s made black to denote the invisibility of fairies.
And why does he come from Spain? Old-Germanic folk belief has an important place for the commemoration of souls. A soul could for example leave the body in the evening, and return in the morning. When someone died, the soul left the body and if a child was born a soul would settle in it. When souls didn’t live in a body they lived in a land of light and sunshine, the Engelland. This glorious land was, when facts got muddled, transposed to Spain, known as a country of light and sun, rich with lovely flowers and fruits. All attempts to banish Sinterklaas during the Reformation were doomed, as Sinterklaas is not a Catholic holy man, and the Sinterklaas feast not a Catholic celebration. The speaker ends by warning his audience never to replace the children’s feast of Sinterklaas with Christmas; the latter has a deep and holy meaning, but will never be a children’s feast in the sense of the first.
Decades later they’re still not done with the Pagan Past. Grimm and other folklorists are still quoted, and the (pseudo)mythology would get out of hand over the next decade; sources from the later ’30s and the ’40s are suspect because their primary function was propaganda. From a northern Dutch newspaper article from 1931:
A shoe is put underneath the chimney. Putting your shoe with someone meant, in earlier days, to beg something from someone. The Wild Hunter (Wodan) fills shoes and boots with gold. In one of his fairytales Grimm tells us that on order of the Wild Hunter, a farmer takes off his boots, which are then filled with the blood from a newly shot deer. When he comes home, the blood has turned into gold. In Mecklenburg the bride puts a piece of gold in each of her shoes before her wedding – she’ll never lack for money. A serpent’s tongue in each shoe will make one invulnerable, according to folk belief. Whoever, at night, pulls three strands of straw backwards from the roof and puts them in his shoe will not be barked at by the dog.
The shoe of Sint Nicolas is in the first place to put out fodder for the horse of Sinterklaas: grain, hay, straw, and bread will be put in the shoe in our province. Compare that with the many places in Germany and Scandinavia where a sheaf of corn is left on the land for Wodan’s horse. An offering for the God of fertility. And the shoe is chosen, as we could see, because a link with the magical world is found that way.
Black Pete carries a bundle of rods and a bell. The bell is for fertility. On Christmas Eve boys in a lot of German places walk round with belts full of cow bells; in the lower Inndal the youngsters cross in the spring through the fields with bells, “das Gras auslauten” to help the growing of grass.
Sinterklaas, Saint Martin, Ruprecht, all who give gifts are also armed with a bundle of rods. On 10th November, the Bayern shepherd gives his farmer, his boss, a green twig (Martinus Gerte) to stick behind the cribs or the stable door, to protect the cattle against disaster during the winter, and in the spring it’s used to drive the cows to the meadow. So, the twig also is connected with fertility, as with Saint Nicolas. In Switzerland Saint Nicolas has a decorated tree in his hand, in Hamburg a green branch.
But we spoil the twig, symbol of fertility, by turning it into an instrument of punishment.
My father was bashful when Sinterklaas, Saint Nicolas, came visiting. I don’t know who is playing the Good Holy Man and who Black Pete is underneath the shoe polish. What I do know is that it’s a home visit; the portraits on the wall are of my great-grandparents and that the photo was taken on the 5th of December 1945, not long after the war.
While in the northern Netherlands the exact appearance of Sinterklaas, let alone his helper, were not chrystalised for a long time, by this time it was the ‘national’ Sinterklaas: he’d arrive in the country a few weeks before his birthday. The village where I and many of my forefathers were born, and where my dad grew up, Houwerzijl, usefully has a harbour, so he’d have arrived by boat, and be welcomed by the local dignitary (and the local children, of course). There may be a festive reception in the local town hall.
Sinterklaas visiting homes isn’t really a thing; maybe they decided to ‘go big’ in 1945, after the war. Usually on the evening of the 5th, his birthday, a helpful neighbour would leave the laundry basket with gifts outside, and knock on the window, sending the children into a frenzy. When I was young, a great aunt would don an arm-length black glove, creep in the house and, with only her arm visible, throw hands full of candy into the room. Smickelmik, it’s called in Groninger dialect, literally throw candy. “Black Pete! Black Pete!” my brothers would shout (they were a bit older, and in on it), and I was probably looking the other way. Ah well.
When I was about 10, one of my brothers and a friend borrowed some Black Pete costumes; they were made by the lady across the road, who also rented the costumes out to the schools – they were very well made. They had a plan to go round the houses in the street where there were little children, armed with a big book, masquerading as Sinterklaas’ big book of who’s naughty and nice, and a big bag of candy to dole out. I was also allowed to come, so my mom cobbled a costume together for me too. Dressed up we visited the half a dozen families with children; and we knew these children of course, so could ‘read’ what Sint had written: (“So, Berend, I read that you ride your bicycle awfully hard through the street? Will you be a bit more careful?”)
I’m sure that we made an impression on those children, who were young enough to believe that we were the real deal. It would’ve been an experience that far surpassed a 10 second photo-op with a Santa in a grotto in the shopping mall, amidst hordes of screaming children, herded along by bored elves. But here’s the thing: the costumes were those of a ‘Golden Age’ page boy, and came with wigs of curly black hair and big hoop ear rings. My mom had thoroughly blacked us up with shoe polish, and had not been sparing with her reddest lipstick. And we did our Black Pete act in a broken Dutch accent, an attempt at and parody of a colonial accent. This, for us, was Black Pete.
Let’s back up some years. My oldest brother was 6. It was summer; my mom was busy when the doorbell rang, so little Kees opened. “Mom! Black Pete is at the door!” he came running into the kitchen, leaving my mother to apologise to the Black door-to-door salesman. When we grew up, our comics and children’s books had taught us that Black people lived in Africa, and wore grass skirts. There were definitely no Black people in the villages where we grew up. For little Kees, a Black man showing up at the front door was, by definition, Black Pete. And that still was the case a decade later; we had some Black people on television, and in films, but they were never part of our reality, and we didn’t equate our racist portrayal of Black Pete with the real lives and experiences of Black people.
This, however, is 2020, and Black people in the Netherlands have been very vocal about their experiences. Each year sees children being bullied, being called Black Pete, and each year they are reminded of the country’s past, in which their forefathers were abducted and used for forced labour in our colonies. That’s a history that Dutch society still has to reconcile itself with, and would rather skim over. “If they don’t like Black Pete, let them go back to their own country,” they hear, while the Netherlands is their country. Or they’ve got to like being called Black Pete because “it’s an honour, really,” though giving them no choice in the matter still shows them who is the master. And what you often hear: “It’s not a Black person! It’s soot, from the chimney!” Why then the page boy costumes, and the curly wigs and the caricature lips? When we rounded our consonants and mangled our grammar, we knew full well it was no chimney sweep we were impersonating.
And yet, now the Black Pete is increasingly turning into Pete, and full black or brown face paint is replaced with smudges of black, like soot, this won’t do at all for the Pete apologists; when all their arguments have been wiped off the table, they insist that “It’s tradition. End of.” There’s hope, though: Prime Minister Mark Rutte, defending the image of Black Pete just a few years ago has now reconsidered, and is fine with the Soot Pete. It’s also been relatively quiet on Facebook and in regards to “Pro Pete” demonstrations (though this also due to Covid restrictions). It may be that for a lot of people the George Floyd protests have brought a measure of understanding and empathy. As for the hardline agitators – the country’s Concerned Citizens seem to have moved on to anti-mask and Q-Anon activism…
This one was destined for Fortean Times, but remained on the shelf. Perhaps it was too… Fortean. In any case, we blow off the dust, and provide some speculation on what may have inspired Mary Shelley’s monster…
“I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionately large.”
In 1818 Mary Shelley, daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of superstar poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, unleashed on the world the book that would immortalise her: Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.
The basic plot has left such a footprint on popular culture that it needs no introduction, and its genesis too is oft related. According to Mary’s preface to the 1831 edition of the book, it was all invigorating intellectual discussion and cosy night-time reading at Lake Geneva. Contemporary diaries however give a darker sheen to her memories, divulging one-upmanship between Percy Shelley and Byron, a highly dysfunctional Claire Clairmont chasing both their tails, with Mary in a post-natal depression, comforted by Dr. Polidori and his laudanum.
Of course, by 1831 she was the only surviving member of that group, sanctifying the memories of Byron and especially Shelley, while all but erasing Clairmont and Polidori. She rehashed the convenient dream she had, of a ‘pale student of hallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together’, but did not mention the one she had a year earlier, after the Shelleys had lost their baby daughter: ‘Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.’
From the results of Byron’s famous story writing contest, Mary’s tale is the only one to really stand the test of time. It’s full of evocative descriptions and high drama, benefiting from Percy’s literary experience, their shared travels across the Alps, Mary’s heritage and the scientific and philosophical theories entertained by the Romantics. And yet, in this patchwork of influences something seems to be missing: where did the central image of Frankenstein’s larger-than-life creature come from? Consider this:
In early 1803 the Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni arrived in London, aged 24, having spent the preceding years wandering Bonaparte-harried Europe. He’d been working as a barber and peddler, and utilised his skills as an hydraulics engineer wherever he could, but it was his imposing physical appearance that would first bring him fame. For a man of his size, 6’7″, Sir Walter Scott thought him ‘the handsomest man I ever saw’; Belzoni looked like a Greek god and hefted weights like a Titan.
He got his break in the Sadler’s Wells theatre, playing the parts you would expect – giant, cannibal chief, wild man of the woods. He also made audiences gasp by donning an iron apparatus which allowed him to stride around the arena carrying a human pyramid of up to a dozen men, earning instant fame as “The Patagonian Sampson”. In the next seven years he appeared at Bartholomew’s Fair and schlepped his act the length and breadth of the country.
Theatre, circuses and fairs were important entertainment for the growing middle class, but the literati were not averse to it. Belzoni was name-checked by Scott, seen by Charles and Mary Lamb and inspired poetry by William Wordsworth. Did they mention him as a fine specimen of a man while discussing philosophy, nature and politics at the Godwins’ house? They were part of the circle into which fanboy Percy Bysshe Shelley sought to ingratiate himself, before whisking the teenage Mary off to the continent.
As Victor Frankenstein brings a creature to life only to abandon it and see it turn against him, the creature’s progress echoes the debates of its day: Rousseau’s Natural Man versus Locke’s belief in children learning by example. The creature’s abandonment and self-education in the mid-European forest is foreshadowed in the medieval play Valentine and Orson, recast in the Romantic mode. Belzoni played the part of the lost Orson, raised by a bear before being reunited with his twin brother. For Frankenstein’s monster there is no such happy reconciliation.
Like the creature, Belzoni was no mere brute. As a younger man he had attempted to become a monk, perhaps the only means to an education for someone from his humble background. He grew increasingly disenchanted with performing as strongman before, and indeed carrying, the nation’s unwashed, and began diversifying, incorporating fire, hydraulic effects and phantasmagorias in his shows. In 1812, after Galvani, Aldini and others made corpses jump with electricity, a playbill promised that Belzoni would “CUT A Man’s Head OFF! AND PUT IT BACK ON AGAIN”.
In 1815, with Napoleon exiled on St Helena and the borders opened, Belzoni travelled to then near-mythical Egypt, aiming to sell the Pasha a hydraulic system to raise the level of the Nile. When this didn’t work out he found a lucrative occupation hunting for Egyptian artefacts, until the British Consul General charged him with retrieving the massive stone head of the Younger Memnon, as the statue is still known, for the British Museum. Once more the Great Belzoni made headlines, this time as one of the pioneers of archaeology. It was an era of adventure and treasure hunting. And looting.
It is these reports that inspired Percy Shelley to write his Ozymandias in 1817, just about the same time as Mary, under his expert but patronising guidance, laid the last hand on Frankenstein. They wrote side by side in a cottage in Marlowe, and the discussions that the couple must have had surrounding the book’s construction echo in the sonnet, and in the “shattered visage” we read of, “whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” are those of Frankenstein’s creature, and is the creator of this giant statue, whose work now lies in ruin, is not too different from Frankenstein, Mary’s modern Prometheus.
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
And with those lines we can cast the monster: on the giant, well-proportioned frame of Belzoni we find the features of one of the mummies he uncovered: “Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Mary wrote of “his watery eyes that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.”
The Shelleys certainly knew of Belzoni when sonnet and book were written,and it’s reasonable to suppose that Mary or Percy saw him perform or at least knew about him as a popular entertainer. Did they then remember him, when Mary began crafting her book and needed a protagonist who was formidable of shape, sharp of mind, but still an outsider? And the necessary question: why haven’t we heard about this Belzoni fellow in Mary’s writing about her most famous work?
The creative process is not a mere mechanical assembling of elements. There is a visceral core to the novel which depends on both conscious and unconscious influences. While Mary’s novel was carefully plotted and constructed, influences from daily life and culture would have added to its fabric. Besides, Belzoni completely omitted his former existence from his autobiography, so when Mary listed Milton, Darwin and Shakespeare as her influences, the name of a circus strongman would hardly have fit in.
But whether she intended it or not, Belzoni’s impressive shadow still falls heavily across Mary Shelley’s page.
Main sources: Stanley Mayes, “The Great Belzoni”, Touris Parkes Paperbacks, London 2003 Anne K. Mellor, “Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters”, Routledge, Chapman & Hall, New York 1988 Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein, or: The Modern Prometheus”, 1818 and 1831 editions
In the mid-19th century, folklorist Marten Douwes Teenstra versed:
Borries too, the dreaded hound, With glowing eyes here roams round And lets his tail hang just a little He comes from Weem or is just going You see the Plague dog always alone It keeps to itself and to its own.
Like other ghostly apparitions, the northern Dutch hell-hound Borries is found in the vicinity of wierden, the man-made hills on which many farms and villages in the area are built. One wierde, now a national monument, is called Ol Weem, close to the villages of Houwerzijl and Niekerk. Ol Weem is Gronings for The Old Rectory, which was the last building to disappear from the village of Vliedorp. Nowadays, nothing more than a score of grave stones remains of the village.
The wierde was built in the early centuries CE. The first building we know of is a stone church, built around 1200, but it’s assumed that the wierde had a pagan chapel in its first centuries, before the area was christianised around 800 by the missionary Liudger. The village of Vliedorp is first mentioned in 1418 as ‘to Fleghum’, from the old-Frisian for ‘refuge place’, the place where people could flee at times of high water. Vliedorp never was much of a village, and by the mid-17th century most of the people lived in the adjoining harbour place Houwerzijl. The church remained in use, until the church was in such a state of disrepair, in the late 1600s, that it was abandoned (source: Zijlma)
A tax list from 1702 notes 22 families living in the parish of Vliedorp, and it can be assumed that there were 22 houses, mainly in Houwerzijl. While the wierde had been built as a refuge place against floods, the Christmas Flood of 1717 was so bad that it even washed over the mound. The already dilapidated church turned into a ruin, and 17 houses in the parish were lost, along with 40 lives. While the houses were rebuilt, the last remnants of the church were finally torn down in 1830. On the mound only the old rectory-farm remained, which was used as labourer’s dwelling for a while, until it too was demolished in 1850.
From that time comes Teenstra’s poem; he’ll have seen the old rectory, after which the mound was then called; Ol from ‘old’, Weem from the Old-Frisian ‘wetheme’, church possession. Rectory isn’t actually quite the right word; these were troubling times, so the rectory was more like a fortified stonehouse, and it came with a barn and stables (source: Pieterman) Only the churchyard now was in use, the last grave dating from 1894. it was a cumbersome last voyage too, especially in autum and winter; when the clay paths were too difficult to traverse, the coffin would travel by boat from Houwerzijl, then carried by 6 bearers along the waterside, and over the small wooden bridge, then up the mound, before finding its resting place .
Part of Ol Weem was dug away in the late 19th and early 20th century for its fertile soil. “Now the graveyard is so much abandoned that nettles and thistles cover the graves, while several times stones have been vandalised,” Rev. Noordhuis- van ‘t Land wrote in 1970(note) . This would be around the time my parents lived in Houwerzijl, while on the other side of Ol Weem, at a farm on the road that lead to Ulrum, my grandfather lived. My parents would send my brothers as toddlers to grandpa; they could watch them from the edge of the village, and my he could see them coming from the other side.
That path was renewed towards the end of the 20th century, when Ol Weem too was cleaned up. It’s a really nice path too, and only slightly marred by the concrete farm road that sprung up parallel to it. Ramblers and cyclists can start off the little village of Houwerzijl after a cup of tea at the Tea Museum, or start at the village of Niekerk after a look at the little whitewashed church, and a peek at the graves at its back. It’s easy to miss the little brick path that leads from Niekerk to Ol Weem, hidden as its entrance is between two houses. Zwarteweg is its name, Black Road, and it must be the path over which Borries roamed.
Sources: – Enkele bizonderheden over het kerspel Vliedorp (I.H.Zijlma, Hogelandster, 1964) – Enkele bijzonderheden uit de geschiedenis van het Kerspel Vliedorp (ds. F.A.W.Noordhuis-van ’t Land, Hogelanster 17-12-1970) – Wemen en hun bewoners (Lecture by ds. Klaas G. Pieterman, 20 oktober 2015)
As a special “Talk Like A Pirate Day” treat, here’s an article about Treasure Island, which we wrote some years ago for the Books for Keeps website.
Robert Louis Stevenson and the Long Shadow of John Silver
For those wanting something different for Christmas than the usual panto fayre, the National Theatre stages a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Children and adults will be familiar with its sunny climes and dark hearts, hidden loot, one-legged sea dogs with a parrot on one shoulder, walking the plank and hoisting the Jolly Roger.
Without Treasure Island’s Long John Silver we wouldn’t have Captain Hook in panto, and certainly no Jack Sparrow! But the original Seven Seas bad boy was no pantomime villain like his offspring; Stevenson looked for inspiration not to the Caribbean, but to wet and draughty Edinburgh.
Stevenson was born in 1850, into a devout Edinburgh household. He was a sickly but precocious child who possessed the spirit of adventure – adventures that mostly played out in his head. Later, when not absent due to tuberculosis, he only attended his University lectures when the weather was bad: like other students from Edinburgh’s modern, spacious New Town, Stevenson spent plenty of time in the crowded slums.
But where most of his well-heeled schoolfellows used and abused Old Town and its residents for their drunken gambling forays, Stevenson was considerate towards people of all classes, realising that an invalid beggar he encountered on the street was once a young man like himself, with hopes and dreams. He mingled with chimney sweeps, seamen and thieves and became well-liked by them.
Though he passed the Bar in 1875, he’d never practice law: it was literature that obsessed Stevenson. His first published works were travelogues documenting the trips he took for his health. They are full of anecdotes from various journeys, even to America. On one of these trips he met his future wife, Fanny Osbourne, and her children Belle and Lloyd.
It was for his stepson Lloyd that Stevenson drew the map of an imaginary island that was the genesis of Treasure Island. The book is dedicated to Lloyd, but could equally have been written for the sick child that Stevenson himself once was. All young readers can identify with Jim Hawkins who encounters an old sea-dog on a mysterious errand and finds himself on a treasure hunt.
Stevenson knew the value of terseness and economy of style and wrote in a persuasive, journalistic style mixing fact and fiction. His characters reflections of people Stevenson knew in both Old Town and New Town. When he describes “A blind man, with a voice so cruel, cold and ugly,” it is not a caricature but drawn from life.
Treasure Island first appeared as a serial in the magazine “Young Folks”, but it is with its 1883 publication in book form that Stevenson became a celebrated author. While it offers a rollicking adventure, the book has a surprisingly dark core: it’s about going from civilisation to barbarism, and whether one can survive. Young Jim Hawkins does, and grows up in the process.
Treasure Island is so embedded in our culture and has inspired so many imitators, that what many hold for a traditional sea shanty is Stevenson’s invention: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” Yet for all the vistas of foaming sea, creaking masts and tropical islands these lines conjure, they underline an intentionally sober message: Stevenson had witnessed drunks in Old Town, old before their time, destitute and degraded, but he didn’t denounce them from the literary pulpit. Blind Billy Bones from Treasure Island may be a drunk and a rabble rouser, but we still feel some sympathy for him.
Stevenson shows an endless fascination with characters who are morally dubious, with both pirates and good guys motivated by greed for the buried treasure. Focal point of the book is the ship’s hearty cook, who reveals himself as Long John Silver, the bloodthirsty mutineer. Loyalties are tested and betrayed throughout the story, but trough his friendship with Jim and the courage he displays, Silver earns our respect, and he is allowed to escape at the end of the book.
Stevenson found his very own Treasure Island when he travelled to the Tropics at the insistence of his doctors. He spent the last half-decade of his life on the Samoan island of Upolu with his family, taking an active interest in the indigenous people: he assisted in their politics and in fought for their civil rights. Among them, he found affection and esteem, and they called him Tusi-Tala, Teller of Tales.
Robert Louis Stevenson passed away in 1894 at the age of 44, having been dying most of his life. He was buried on the very top of the Vaea Mountain, overlooking the sea.