Archive for November, 2014

Alexander Del Mar, in his book, Money and Civilisation (Burt Franklin, 1969), makes the suggestion that in the reign of King Edward 1 of England, the state of the economy was so bad that he had to resort at one point to issuing leather money. The debasement of the currency prior to this was due to the inheritance of the bad practices and abuses of coin under the previous monarch, Henry 111. Coin-clipping was rife, and consequently many coins were found to be lower in value per weight of precious metals than their actual value in cash.


The leather money probably took the form of lozenges of cured leather, stamped or branded with the royal insignia. This was suggested to be the chief form of payment for the labourers who built the Welsh castles in the 1290s: Caernarfon, Conwy:


and Beaumaris:


I have this vision of cattle from the Welsh Marches driven to London markets, and their hides returned to Wales as money.

Why this huge castle-building programme, in a period of already rocky finances?
Following the prolonged disturbances and shifting alliances of the last Welsh prices, and particularly the rebellion of Llywelyn the Great, these castles were strategic to the suppression of the North Welsh stronghold of his supporters.
Immediately prior to this were the extensive campaigns in Ireland under the previous monarch to further establish an English hegemony; and later on were the Scottish campaigns against William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. All the participants were played off against each: Wales was used as a base for English expeditions into Ireland; and Welsh interests were exploited to weaken support for Scottish independence. These long campaigns were, of course, enormously expensive.

And then, in 1290, he finally expelled the Jewish population from England.
This followed over a century of sporadic but intensifying hostility. The Jewish people were only allowed to work in the fields of money lending and finance schemes; Crown Princes and Kings used their expertise. And then Edward banned them from that, and tried to force them to work only as traders, artisans, farmers. Ten years later they were forbidden to work as merchants.

Money lending, along with interest payments, was considered a highly unchristian occupation (Jesus ejecting the money-lenders from the temple etc) and so only suitable for non Christians. In later years banks, for instance the Medici Bank, manipulated accounts through foreign exchanges in highly complex schemes, in order to gain the best rates. These schemes were used knowingly on the accounts of archbishops and even a Pope. It was all to avoid being labelled as ‘usurers’.


The end product was virtually the same, of course.

By expelling the Jewish citizens Edward 1 hoped to recoup more cash by this squalid tactic of seizing their assets. In effect he further crippled the economy.
And the tight reins he held on import and export licenses prevented expansion of markets; it held Britain in stagnation.

Nice one, Edward One!

The use of leather money was a practice borrowed initially from Russia; it was also known in China, India, Venice, and even France in later centuries.

Reposted from 2011

from my kindle book, Parameters:

Canadian film maker Guy Maddin won the Tellutide Medal for Life Time Achievement in 1995.

He was 39.


In 2000 his 6 minute short THE HEART OF THE WORLD was best film, short and feature classes, at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Special Award winner with the National School of Film Critics; it also won Golden Gate Award from San Francisco Film Festival.


Many film makers concentrate on narrative, storyline, character-sketching; setting and atmosphere often seem an afterthought.

Most films are basically illustrated novels, they have the structure of a novel(…)” : Isabella Rosellini, interviewed by Andrea Meyer.

Guy Maddin reverses this structure; with him we smell time, the mustiness of age. It started by accident. His first short THE DEAD FATHER (1986) would not come right until he set it in the past; then everything became possible. From dabbling cine-man, to film maker.

Although his concerns are very contemporary it seems he can best address them through an offsetting filter. Emotion, for Guy Madden, is a Canadian thing, that is, it is suppressed, yet apparent in everything.

He has a long fascination with 1920’s Silent Cinema, magic shows, fables, above all, with melodrama. His keyword is, yes, Atmosphere, and that deconstructs into, above all else mystery, drama, high play.

I always see myself going back along the road of film history and picking up all these great and abandoned technologies and film vocabularies (…).”

High play allows flexibility: boom shadows, film equipment in back shots, all signs of the out-and-out amateur, he incorporates, makes use of. This could become all so very postmodern, but his work has charm, a fascination, an earnestness that takes the chill off. And the finished product is always polished and professional.

He first became known through the misted and pastel colours, and ‘mountain fever,’ of his 1992 classic CAREFUL. His 3rd feature, CAREFULis “a moral tale”, “a tragedy told as if it was an absurdist comedy.” (Roberto Curti).

For Derek Hill it is “an operatic satire of characters so tightly wound by their repressed desires that even the thought of stepping outside (…) will set off (an) avalanche.

This is the main conceit of the film: CAREFUL is set high in avalanche country, where even a sneeze, we are told, could be disastrous;


we glimpse cattle with voice-boxes removed, tied as if for cartoon toothache with neckerchiefs around their necks,

Some see strong autobiographical elements in his work. He plays openly with Freudian symbols: the recurring image of the one-eyed father (whether blinded by a brooch pin in childhood, like his own father), who could easily become on one level an emasculated Odin figure. The key phrase is Play: he plays with his past, fictionalised images, as much as our present-day images: one-eyed cameraman, eye glued to viewfinder; the half-seen world we only allow ourselves to see ….

His Icelandic mother ran a hairdressing salon; he was ensconced there often as a child: how we fictionalise our lives.

He also has the enviable ability to attract the most stunning women actors, not only Isabella Rosellini as Lady Port-Huntly in SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, but also the lovely Gosnia Dobrowolska, as Zenaida, in CAREFUL.

He throws this away as “accent”, that is, inbuilt atmosphere, bringing an intriguing visual element to the mix. It works wonderfully.

The film that really broke his name was 2003’s SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.

Chatting to film goers who “just didn’t get it”, he asked:

Did you understand there was a music contest?


… two brothers competing with each other?


… a wife sleeping with one who should be with the other?


Then you got it!

Disingenuous. Pure chance of course that one brother (Chester) was representing America, the other (Roderick), by adoption, Serbia. Both Canadian by birth. Already we have a satire on Canada’s inability to keep its talent at home. But also in the rapacious Chester, America’s economic and political foreign policies; on one level we have Europe (old world values and cultural legacies) pitted against brash young America. To complicate matters Canadian Lady Port-Huntly, brewery magnate, is just as rapacious and corrupting as Chester.

Set in Prohibition times, alcohol-dry American TVs show the Canadian competition, funded by a wealthy brewery to increase sales: all losers slide into a huge vat of beer.

Visually lapidary; legless Lady Port-Huntly is wooed and won by the brothers’ glassmaker father, with a gift of glass legs.

They are shapely, and filled with the light amber beer from her own brewery, complete with light fizz.


She wears them in triumph; the effect is stunning.

Repost from 2011


It happened again recently. In the run-up to the Scottish Independence debacle, the British journalist and broadcaster Andrew Marr ran a series of tv profiles of Scottish writers. He did one on Hugh MacDiarmid.
Hugh MacDiarmid, he said, was born in Langholm just eight miles over the border into Scotland. Not his exact words, but near enough. I had read this once before from some older English hack. Then it could be dismissed out of hand. But Andrew Marr? Glasgow born of Scots parents, Scots educated…. Not so easily dismissable.

Langholm, Hugh MacDiarmid’s (Christopher Murray Grieve) birthplace, is situated slap-bang (as we say here) in the middle of the Scottish Borders. In the thirteenth century Langholm was also on the edge of what was well known as The Debatable Lands. This was the area from Gretna eastwards, and bordered by the Eskdale and Liddesdale rivers. It was debateable because when the border was set, after William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the inhabitants declared no allegiance to England nor to Scotland. It became part of Reiver country. It became part setting for the Border Ballads.

And Andrew Marr dismissed/ignored/side-stepped this rich cultural sense of place. This was what MacDiarmid/Grieve grew from and amidst; his venturing out into world-awareness took on epic proportions for him.  For MacDiarmid was no armchair adventurer, he nailed his colours to the mast: his commitments were active and deep.

There is no longer a Debatable Land, but there are The Borders. Anyone on the Welsh Marches can testify that borderlands are their own place, they are different; their inhabitants are psychologically and psychically rent, divided against themselves, irascible and separatist. They count and recount their lamented dead; and yet applaud the killing of enemies. Feuds can and do last for generations, centuries.

All established borderlands worldwide, I would venture, share some of these qualities. Borderlands are where the excluded and marginalised sought refuge. In historical terms they are ‘buffer zones’, they take the pressures and strain of discord between the nations they border.

The Scottish Borders was a region more than usually beset and raided over a long period by English incursions into Scotland, and Scottish retaliations on collaboration, whether voluntary or enforced. The Border people in consequence were vulnerable, and generally poor. And, some may say, in consequence irascible, quick of temper, wary, cynical. All these are the reverse expressions of a deeply felt sense of the sacredness of life; one that had been despoiled for them too often to sit easily any more.
Livestock was their only asset, and that disposable by nature. The families that had been able to root over time produced the fortified farm buildings and minor manor houses that became Pele towers: austere buildings with thick outside walls, and what windows there were high up and small.

The Scottish Borders are agreed to be contained between Carlisle to Dumfries in the West, across to Berwick and Alnwick in the East. The terrain is wild, though: think in three dimensions and you have a massive increase of territory. From the huge declivity of the Devil’s Beef Tub,


to the Tweed valley, to the Ettrick vale; and you have wild uplands as well as now huge forested/plantation swathes. It is also noticeable that this Border covers territory on both sides of the actual accepted Scottish border.


The time-scale of the Border Ballads is large also. James V of Scotland led a great taming of the Borders – it was here that Johnnie Armstrong, and Adam Scott of Tushielaw, fell to his wiles. And that was in 1529. We have ballads commemorating events from the early 13th to late sixteenth centuries.

James Reed in his Introduction to the excellent Carcanet edition of BORDER BALLADS: A Selection (1991) emphasises the point about the Ballads:’… in all this there is a bond of common knowledge, common experience, common language.’ The Ballads, he asserts, need to be understood as being part of the territory of the Borders, of the time of their composition/what they celebrate, and of the people. Kinship, the complexities of family relationships, and of the bonds between families, weigh more heavily with the Borders than nationality: ‘… the people, knowing themselves as Borderers first, Scots or English second, and owing their first allegiance to kin and laird rather than to Edinburgh or London’.
There are instances – The Death of Parcy Reed in particular – where cross-Border family alliances are shown eg between Scots’ Crosier family, English Hall family, and both against the English Reed family.
A number of the Ballads are English compositions against their Scots neighbours eg The Fray of Support.

One priceless source of information on the Ballads is the 2 volume set of Sir Walter Scott’s MINSTRELSY OF THE SCOTTISH BORDER. Both volumes are freely available on Kindle. These volumes provide detailed background to each Ballad, family name and territory.

The Scottish Borders were divided into three ‘marches’, each under charge of an appointed warden or sherriff. One constant note amongst their correspondence was the lack of man-power and support to help deal with recalcitrant clan families throughout this period. In consequence the Reivers were able to raid cattle, sheep, burn farms, over a wide area with little prevention or detection. This being such a close community, though, all knew who did what. But none could tell. There were occasions Wardens took their cut of the proceeds – lack of official support and remuneration for a near-impossible job took their toll on the usually titled regional Wardens.

The East and Middle Marches produced most of the Ballads; the Western March was easier to patrol.
Collections of Border Ballads usually divide into Eastern, Middle and Supernatural ballads. These last have a very distinctive flavour, usually grounded in a particular place eg Carter Bar, the Eildon Hills etc.

One noticeable feature of the Ballads as a whole is the preponderance of ‘honour killings’. Note that term.
These are usually father of erring daughter who has fallen for the young son of a rival family (The Douglas Tragedy). Very Romeo and Juliet. And the consequencies just as tragic. Sometimes the honour debt is righted by the brothers of the straying sister ( The Dowie Dens of Yarrow), or a love rival (The Twa Corbies).
What raised these domestic tragedies above the squalor of their reality was the political dimension they reflected: their concept of honour was only possible because there was little or no recourse to law or legal apparatus. The families and clans (although they would have eschewed the Highlander’s concept and definition of Clan) were isolated and dependent on close bonds for support against rivals who sought their goods and/or territory. These bonds took the form of family connections and agreements, made through intermarriage. A bond-family however could not not respond to the stronger family’s call to arms, whether to raid or despoil. Family protection had its own gestalt; but what if Johnnie Armstrong, head-strong as he was, put out a call for a raid on another struggling farm holding? Backsliders were not tolerated.

The period for Reiving and cattle raids was the dark nights after Michaelmas, from October onwards. Michaelmas marked the end of the court sessions for the Winter, and so what was considered a ‘free time’.
Some claim the Reiving period to have been between Lammas (August) and Candlemas (February) although that does seem to be a little too fortuitously based on pagan religious periods.

A contemporary reminder/memory of those activities is to be found in the Common Ridings of a number of Border towns.

BB3_wikiHere the town gathers and ceremonialises its town identity. The young men with their regional flag ride the town’s boundaries. They return at a gallop; mishaps are many,


but the young men, and the chosen Callant, must return to the Lass intact to ensure the safety of the town and identity. The best and most experienced riders form the vanguard.
The ‘beating of the bounds’ ie the town bounds/borders, was once a common practice in England also.