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03 August 2015

Arming for the Armada? A 16th-century German view of Drake

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In late July and early August 1588, English ships were skirmishing in the Channel against the Spanish Armada, the naval invasion force sent against England by Philip II of Spain. Probably the best known of the English captains then, and certainly the best remembered today, was Sir Francis Drake, whose Cadiz Raid the previous year had significantly set back plans for the Armada and whose circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-80 had brought him wealth and royal favour.

Drake’s fame was not restricted to England, as a rare hand-coloured broadside acquired by the British Library in 2008 demonstrates. Printed in Germany (or possibly the Low Countries), it shows Drake preparing for a military expedition, and is accompanied by a set of verses in German, put into the mouth of Drake himself and calling upon ‘all Christians’ to join him in fighting the ‘Antichrist’. Drake calls himself ‘Drach’ – a Germanisation of his name which, like the Spanish ‘Draque’ or Latin ‘Draco’ can also mean dragon, but while in Spanish propaganda Drake was the dragon as marauding beast, here he is the dragon as bold protector.

 Drake broadside HS.83-39
British Library HS.85/39

The broadside is a curious production. On the right-hand side is a full-length portrait of Drake, dressed in armour and carrying a musket. While this is carefully and realistically done and appears to be based on reliable contemporary depictions, the rest of the image is clumsily executed: the ship on the left-hand side is a most unseaworthy vessel, long and impossibly narrow. At the stern is a small cabin-like structure in which are huddled five badly-drawn figures. They, and the ship as a whole, are out of scale with the other three sailors and the cargo which they are loading.

 Drake from Broadside  480px-Hondius_-_Francis_Drake_1577
Drake as depicted in the broadside and in an engraving of 1577 by Jodocus Hondius (from Wikimedia Commons)

The textual elements also appear ill-designed. The inscription has a redundant extra T at the end of the second line and the letters of ‘Circumducto’ are crammed close together. The box containing the verses is placed off-centre and gives the impression of being an afterthought rather than part of a whole design;  at first glance it can appear to have been pasted on to an existing picture, an illusion encouraged here by the thick border painted around it. And the verses are not exactly great poetry, but that is hardly unusual in this genre (and besides, Drake has inspired plenty of doggerel throughout the centuries).

The broadside is undated, but clearly post-dates Drake’s circumnavigation (referred to in the inscription), and its call to arms suggests a date in the mid- to late-1580s, around the time of the Cadiz Raid or the Armada. Although it has been suggested that the threat to Christendom referred to in the verses is the Ottoman Empire, the text includes enough familiar elements of Protestant anti-Catholic discourse to make it more likely that the Catholic Church (and Spain in particular) is the ‘enemy’ being described. 

While not a great work of art either visually or poetically, the broadside is a fascinating piece of 16th-century propaganda, and shows how the fame of one country’s hero could travel in the age of print.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

31 July 2015

The Following Story as a Matter of Life and Death

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Cees Nooteboom’s 1991 novella Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story) attempts to narrate death as a process of becoming imperceptible, and the action in the novel takes place when the narrator is neither alive nor dead but somewhere in-between. The novel ends at the beginning: it is a story within a story, a cyclical narrative that does not have a clear-cut beginning or end. It portrays a world in which the states of life and death are not limited or quantifiable. Instead, the normally measurable dimensions of time and space become stretched and malleable in the strange and endless moment between living and dying.

Cees Nooteboom in 2007 (Photo by HPSchaefer via Wikimedia Commons

The philosopher Rosi Braidotti has strong words regarding the foregrounding of death as the ultimate other that has haunted much postmodern theory, writing that it “fuels an affective political economy of loss and melancholia at the heart of the subject”. She offers an alternative, freeing death from its anthropocentric perspective by conceptualising it as the experience of “becoming-imperceptible”. Rather than remaining in a static state of being, the subject is always undertaking a series of processural changes and is thus always becoming. A focus on the in-between spaces between one thing and another means, that the boundary between life and death itself becomes blurred.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix  Guattari write that a writer must “become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one's own language”. Nooteboom’s works do this: they are widely available in translation, which is relatively unusual for the often domestic world of Dutch literature. Dutch is sometimes perceived as a small language and culture occupying a minority position within the majoritarian location of the European Union and its hegemonic languages. The Netherlands even has a difficult relationship with its own writing: a 2008 study of Dutch reading habits revealed that over half of books read in the Dutch language were translations, suggesting that Dutch literature had become minoritarian even in its country of origin.  As a successful travel writer as well as novelist, Nooteboom has escaped these intimate national, linguistic, and canonical borders.

 RCLemensHetVlgdVrhl  RClemensFollStory
Het volgende verhaall
in the original Dutch and in English translation

In Het volgende verhaal, systems of naming are playfully sabotaged. The self is no longer fixed and static; instead, identities become multiple and nomadic. The novella’s narrator has three names: his legal name, Herman Mussert, his pen name, Dr Strabo, and his nickname, Socrates. In all cases, the names do not singularly refer to the one bounded body of the narrator. Nooteboom shares Strabo’s occupation of a travel writer: nebulous identities can be passed from organic to literary body and exist within and without each other.

Even something as seemingly empirically stable as physical matter becomes open-endedly fluid in the novella. Herman remembers a pillar in a Spanish cathedral on which the touch of many pilgrims over many years had eroded the shape of a hand. The resulting relief in the marble is sculpted not by a sculptor but through the differing repetitions of a gesture, making imperceptible changes perceptible. The hand is perceptible despite it being “not there” from Herman’s perspective. It is both there and not there, remaining in a fixed state only until another pilgrim places their hand on it: human affective connective potential.

The dissolving matter and fragmented identities are part of Herman’s process of death, although it only becomes evident later in the narrative. Herman leaves his physical body in Amsterdam and embarks on a journey of becoming-imperceptible, eventually finding himself on a boat with other passengers who share their story of dying. Finally, Herman has to share “the following story”, bringing the reader back to the start of the book. Herman says that this is what remains of his subjectivity after it leaves his body: it exists as a story, or different stories to be told by the people he connected with. In Braidotti’s words, even though our nebulous selves die “we will have been and nothing can change that”, the present perfect continuous asserting the enduring continuum of life beyond the “I”.

Ruth Clemens


Cees Nooteboom, Het volgende verhaal : roman (Amsterdam, 2011) YF.2013.a.986 (English translation by Ina Rilke: The Following Story (London, 2014). H.2014/.7727)

Rosi Braidotti, , ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible’, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas (Edinburgh, 2006) pp. 133-159. YC.2007.a.12470

Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge, 2013) YC.2013.a.7861

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka : pour une littérature mineure (Paris, 1975) X.900/17435 (English translation by Dana Polan: Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis, 1986) 8814.628200)

Marc Verboord and Susan Janssen, ‘Informatieuitwisseling in het huidige Nederlandse en Vlaamse literaire veld. Mediagebruik en gelezen boeken door literaire lezers en bemiddelaars’, in Ralf Grüttermeier and Jan Oosterholt (eds.), Een of twee Nederlandse literaturen? Contacten tussen de Nederlandse en Vlaamse literatuur sinds 1830 (Leuven, 2008). Awaiting shelfmark

Ruth Clemens is a Postgraduate student in Comparative Literature at University College London. She won the Essay prize in the category Post Graduates, awarded by the Association for Low Countries Studies  for her essay ‘Becoming-Imperceptible in Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

28 July 2015

Rationing and the Red Guard: a very British perspective

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At the time of the October 1917 Russian Revolution there were thousands of European citizens, mostly British and French, living and working in Russia. Ranging from governesses and tutors to engineers, industrialists and their families, these men and women found themselves unwittingly caught up in the conflict and changes unfolding around them. While some, including the subject of this post, later published their recollections of the period, the stories and fate of these ‘expats’ do not feature prominently in narratives of the revolution.  

A detailed eyewitness account by a woman named Mary Field sheds light on the experience of being both a foreigner and a woman in Petrograd in the months immediately after the revolution. Published in the June 1919 edition of The Englishwoman, a journal originally established to ‘promote the Enfranchisement of Women’, Field’s article covers everything from the difficulties of finding food to the imprisonment of her brother by the Red Guard in August 1918.

Milk line, Petrograd, Sytnyi Market, 1920s
                              Milk queue at Sytnyi Market in Petrograd, 1920s (Image from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

From Field’s account we can assume that she was part of a family of textile mill owners in the country, an industry that attracted many British industrialists and engineers to Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Field refers to herself as the mistress of the house and, indeed, the main focus of the article is her daily struggle in managing her household and carrying out the necessary tasks associated with this role, such as preparing for a trip to the market amid shortages and rationing.

I carried a market basket, several small linen bags – as the sellers would probably have no paper – and a milk-can, in the forlorn hope of getting a pint of milk, liberally diluted with bad water, at a price not exceeding eight shillings the pint.

Field also conveys a sense of what it was like to be a woman in the city during this time:

Of course we never ventured out after dark – and it is dark indoors by three o’clock in November and December. There were many tales of women rash enough to do so who had been stripped of their clothes and allowed to return home dressed only in a shift.

While some of Field’s observations and complaints may seem trivial when compared to the far greater struggles of many less fortunate than herself, her account must be read in the context of the changes she had experienced following the revolution:

Looking out over the city, I realised suddenly that everything was different… The change had come gradually, but even a new-comer could not fail to remark the grass growing in the streets, the absence of traffic, how slowly the solitary cart with its child-driver crept over the unmended cobble-stones, how the pedestrians hobbled along, their ankles swollen out of all shape, their fingers bandaged, thin and anxious-looking…

However, Field herself notes that ‘…all these troubles were small compared to our horror when one night a party of Red Guards came and carried off my brother.’ Touching upon wider political changes, Field writes that her brother was arrested ‘…the night after the assassination of [Moisei] Uritski, the wounding of Lenin and the attack on the British Consulate’. She is describing the beginning of the ‘Red Terror’, a campaign of mass killings, torture and oppression by the Bolsheviks, which began in response to an assassination attempt on Lenin and the murder of Uritski, a commissar in the Bolshevik Secret Police or ‘Cheka’, in August 1918.

Guards at the grave of Moisei UritskiGuards at the grave of Moisei Uritski. Petrograd. The banner reads: ‘Death to the bourgeois and their helpers. Long live the Red Terror.’ September 1918. (Image from: Wikimedia Commons)

As Field notes, ‘that night the Red Guard were arresting all Englishmen and Frenchmen, all men with German names, all officers of the old (Imperial) army…’ Like many other British male citizens living in Petrograd at the time, Field’s brother was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Describing her attempts to bring food and blankets to the prison, Field remarks that so many of her acquaintances were waiting at the prison for news of their loved ones that ‘it might have been an English gathering’.

Peter and Paul Fortress
                             Peter and Paul Fortress. (Photo by Alex Florstein from Wikimedia Commons)

Then, ‘as suddenly as he had been arrested’, Field’s brother was released. The family left Russia shortly after on a ‘refugee train’, taking with them the few belongings they could hurriedly gather together and likely never to return.   

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student

References and further reading

Mary Field, ‘Petrograd, 1918’, The Englishwoman, No. 126 (June 1919). P.P.1103.bag.

For a list of memoirs and first-hand accounts by Westerners resident in Russia at the time of the revolution, see Jonathan D. Smele (comp., ed. & annot.), The Russian Revolution and Civil War, 1917–1921: An Annotated Bibliography (London; New York, 2003). YC.2005.b.2224