1816, The Year Without A Summer

First Written for Headstuff.org

1816, The Year Without A Summer | The Eruption Of Mount Tambora

The summer of 1816 has an unusual claim to fame. It is known as The Year Without a Summer. How did it come by this unusual moniker? The answer lies in the events of the previous year. In 1815 Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia, erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption for 1,300 years. It had a significant effect on the global climate causing severe weather abnormalities. It resulted in a decrease in global temperatures by 0.4 – 0.7 OC. This may not sound like much but the impact of this was significant.

Earth had been in a period of global cooling from the fourteenth century. This “little ice age” was aggravated by the 1815 eruption. New England (US), Atlantic Canada and large swathes of Western Europe and China experienced agricultural disaster. The spring and summer of 1816 was marked by consistent dry fog across the east coast of America that reddened and dimmed in the sunlight. One result of this was that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Even wind and rain didn’t dispel the fog. For many this gave it an unusual, perhaps even supernatural quality. This fog has since been characterised by scientists as a “stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil”.

It is important to note that the understanding of the eruption has come in recent years with volcanologist and scientists being able to better understand the events of 1816. In line with this, historians have been able to take this new information and apply it to their understanding of the time. For example, riots occurred across France and Great Britain in 1816. The causes are now known to be linked to the eruption. Arson, looting of grain warehouses and political unrest was accompanied by a revival in religious demonstrations. The numbers recorded as attending church and chapel services increased during this period.
In May the frost was so intense that it killed off crops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York. Higher elevations suffered the most. Snow was recorded as falling on June 6th 1816 in Albany, New York and Maine. Following on from this in New York in May temperatures were recorded as dipping below freezing most days. On June 9th the ground froze solid and crops failed.In a previous article I looked at the ideas and climate that contributed to the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She began the novel at Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Switzerland was particularly badly hit by the climatic changes. One example is that an ice dam formed below the tongue of the Gietro Glacier (high in the Val de Bagnes) in 1816 and 1817. Eventually the dam collapsed under its own weight in the June of 1818, contributing to flooding in the Swiss capital. Further to this crop failures resulted in famine conditions with the government declaring a national emergency. This is considered to be continental Europe’s last ever famine which was accompanied by rising mortality rates. The flooding was worsened by the unseasonably large storms and rainfall that flooded many major European major rivers. After this came frost in August. The melt resulted in further flooding.

Closer to home the cost of bread in Britain almost doubled in the same space of time. Cool temperatures and heavy rains had resulted in failed harvests. Bread shortages led to riots breaking out in East Anglia in May 1816. In the town of Ely labourers armed themselves before marching on the town and taking the magistrate hostage. They were holding banners bearing the slogan “Bread or Blood” and fought a pitched battle with the militia. The bread shortages also fuelled mass demonstrations in many of the larger cities. The army were often used to combat the civil unrest as feelings of discontent and frustration grew. Prison numbers increased as rioters were jailed, as did the number of those executed or sentenced to transportation. However, Britain was better able to deal with the food shortages than much else of Europe due to established trading links with Western America.

In May the frost was so intense that it killed off crops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York. Higher elevations suffered the most. Snow was recorded as falling on June 6th 1816 in Albany, New York and Maine.

North and South West Ireland also saw the failure of wheat, oat and potato harvests. Ireland seems to have been particularly vulnerable. There was a major typhus epidemic from 1816 – 1819 in which an estimated 100,000 people died. In Ireland a recorded 80,000 people were infected. 44,000 died [1]. Figures vary however it is clear that Ireland was hard hit by the epidemic. High levels of unemployment had followed the demobilisation of the British army following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Many were living in abject poverty with little food available.

So how could one volcanic eruption have such a big impact? The eruption of Mount Tambora occurred between 5th and 15th April 1816. It ranked VEI 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. To put this into perspective this eruption was over 1,000 times greater than the 2010 Iceland eruption that caused mass travel chaos. The sound of the eruption was reportedly heard up to 2,000 miles away. Millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide, ash and pumice were ejected into the atmosphere. An ‘umbrella’ of ash spread over a million square kilometres. Billions of tonnes of dust, gas, rock and ash scoured the surrounding area before hitting the sea at such velocity that it triggered a tsunami. A 2 metre high wave hit the East Cost of Java. This was 500km away. The wave had enough power to travel for over two hours before it reached land. Further to this, hurricanes of debris incinerated the area 20 km radius of the volcano. The eruption was incredibly devastating. Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist with Cambridge University has placed the number of deaths between 60,000 and 120,000. These figures vary however what is sure is that this caused the largest death toll as a direct result of a volcanic eruption in recorded history. The loss of life continued in the months after the eruption as disease, famine and pestilence ravaged the area.

The effects were recorded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. A British Statesmen he was best known for his involvement in the conquest of Java over the Dutch and French military forces during the Napoleonic Wars and his role in the founding of Singapore. Usefully he also wrote a memoir which included details of the eruption and its aftermath. [2] According to the British Library, Raffles collected first-hand accounts of the eruption from people living about 400 km from the volcano. He noted that the eruption lasted for over a week with the major explosions occurring on the 5th and the 10th of April. He is also a vital source of information for the effect the eruption had on the local area.

The eruption of Mount Tambora was intensified as the 1816 eruption came on the heels of several other volcanic explosions. Examples of this include eruptions in 1809, in the Pacific Ocean, and an 1812 eruption on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. Added to this was the impact of an 1813 eruption in Japan and another 1814 eruption in the Philippines. These eruptions contributed to a substantial build-up of atmospheric dust. This resulted in less sunlight passing through the stratosphere leading to a drop in temperature. The decade of 1810 to 1820 was the coldest in 200 years.

In the United States crop failures had a different impact. Migration increased as individuals and families moved away from the food shortages in New England on the east coast and began to settle in the more hospitable areas of West and Central New York and the American Midwest. This contributed to the settling of the “American Heartland”. Grain prices had collapsed which contributed to the first major American economic depression. One side effect of this was that the cost of oats rose from 12c a bushel in 1815 to 92c a bushel in 1816. The climatic changes continued into 1817 with temperatures in Central and Northern New York recorded as being as low as -30OF in the winter and snow falling in the August. This came after months of hard frosts that froze the ground, destroying further crops.

In a letter dated 8th September 1816 Thomas Jefferson had this to say. [3]

“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America. In June, instead of 3 ¾ inches, our average of rain for that month, we only had ? of an inch; in August, instead of 9 1/6 inches, our average, we had only 8/10 of an inch; and still it continues.  The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter. In every State north of this there has been frost in every month of the year; in this State we had none in June and July, but those of August killed much corn over the mountains. The crop of corn through the Atlantic States will probably be less than one-third of an ordinary one, that of tobacco still less, and of mean quality.  The crop of wheat was middling in quantity, but excellent in quality.  But every species of bread grain taken together will not be sufficient for the subsistence of the inhabitants, and the exportation of flour, already begun by the indebted and the improvident, to whatsoever degree it may be carried, will be exactly so much taken from the mouths of our own citizens.  My anxieties on this subject are the greater, because I remember the deaths which the drought of 1755 in Virginia produced from the want of food.”

Joseph Smith’s family was one of the many to migrate. They lived in Norwich, Vermont, from 1814 to 1816. Due to the bad harvests they were one of the families that moved west, in their case to Palmyra in New York. The population of Vermont decreased from 15,000 to 10,000 at this time. In 1816 Joseph Smith Jr was 10 years old. He would later become known as “The Prophet”. The family moved to an area known for its intense religious revivalism. “The Burned Over District” [4], in west and central New York became known for the frequent religious revivals that took place there. They were so frequent and potent that this era became known as hosting the “Second Great Awakening”. This Protestant religious revivalism resulted in membership of Baptist and Methodist congregations rising rapidly. Rejecting rationalism, it placed emphasise on emotion and the supernatural.

This was fertile ground for a new religious occurrence to take place. Shortly after their arrival Joseph Smith Jr began to experience a series of visions. These were intense spiritual events that had a profound effect on him. In one of his visions an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo – Christian history of an ancient American civilisation. Over time he wrote down all he learned and in 1830 published an English translation of the plates. This book was called The Book of Mormon and led to the founding of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It is fascinating the think how a volcanic eruption in Indonesia could influence religious beliefs in America.

 

[1] In Our Time podcast. 1816 The Year Without a Summer

[2] Raffles, S. 1830: Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, F.R.S. &c., particularly in the government of Java 1811–1816, and of Bencoolen and its dependencies 1817–1824: with details of the commerce and resources of the eastern archipelago, and selections from his correspondence. London. John Murray, cited by Oppenheimer (2003).

[3] https://historicinterpreter.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/weather-famine-disease-migration-and-monsters-1816-1819/ 

[4] So called because it had been burned over by so many different religions.

Futureproof

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Futureproof – Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Writer: Lynda Radley

Director: Tom Creed

Futureproof opened for the first time in Dublin tonight at the Project Arts Centre. This intriguing play by Lynda Radley had a previous outing several years ago in Scotland where it was well received and won an award at the Fringe Festival in 2011. The new artistic director of Cork Everyman Theatre, Julie Kelleher, was determined to bring this show to Ireland. It ran at The Everyman for several weeks in June before bringing its unusual story to the Dublin stage.

A sign hanging from the ceiling, facing away from the audience tells us that we are now witnessing an ‘Odditorium’: a Victorian style travelling show featuring novelties and curiosities. The characters enter the stage and break through a locked fence. Carrying their lives on their backs they begin to settle down. There is the world’s fattest man, a bearded countess with no arms, identical twins joined at the hip, a mute mermaid and a hermaphrodite. They are led by owner and entrepreneur Riley who is struggling to find a way to make the show reach the audiences. Time has moved on and they are no longer the big draw that they used to be. When he does hit upon an idea it will have irreversible consequences for all involved.

As the group move from selling the odd to selling hope, they try to make themselves more and more like the audience. This play is an exploration of identity. As people are unmade, changed and presented as something new there is a constant struggle for each individual to decide whether they are happy as they are, or whether they want to be considered ‘normal’. Alongside this are the complications that money brings into the equation. If they can no longer profit from their difference how will they carry on?

In an interview with The Guardian Radley summed it up thus: “They were originally viewed as marvels, or as God’s jokes, but then as time went on and ideas about science and evolution developed, they became people to be pitied. In America there were even laws that meant they weren’t allowed to be shown. But, of course, a lot of these people were happy to be involved – it was a way for them to make sometimes quite substantial amounts of money, and not to be institutionalised and kept out of sight”.

Radley has hit on an excellent idea. She deals well with the nuances of identity and selfhood. However, the execution of this idea still needs a little work in order for it to reach its full potential. There are moments that feel as though they should be funny but they don’t quite manage to be. Similarly, there are moments of sadness, rage and confusion that could be truly intense and powerful. The play is well acted and the set design is inventive; a mix of glamour and tat. Futureproof is a one of a kind show and Dublin will not see it’s like again any time soon.

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Miki Barlok

No Cunning Plan: My Story by Tony Robinson

First Written for Shiny New Books

Tony Robinson autobiography No Cunning Plan: My Story

 

Like many people I first came to know Tony Robinson through his role as Baldrick on Blackadder, before following him as he helmed Time Team. This autobiography though shows that there is so much more to Robinson than that. Starting out as a child actor he has led an exceptional life, which he tells in an easy going, funny and fluid way in his long awaited autobiography No Cunning Plan.

The cover note gives this humorous insight into what is to come:

“… Along the way he was bullied by Steve Marriott, failed to impress Liza Minnelli and was pushed into a stinking London dock by John Wayne. He also entertained us with Maid Marion and Her Merry Men (which he wrote and starred in) and coped manfully when locked naked outside a theatre in Lincoln during the live tour of comedy series Who Dares Wins. He presented Time Team for twenty years, watching countless gardens ruthlessly dug up in the name of archaeology, and risked life and limb filming The Worst Jobs in History. Packed full of incident and insight, No Cunning Plan is a funny, self-      deprecating and always entertaining read.”

Having made his stage debut when still at school Robinson later adventured to drama school where he thought he would be one ahead of the rest of his classmates. However he soon found himself challenged, engaged and eventually married. His life as a bohemian in Bristol, living in an improvised commune, or collective, called Fred’s Place, makes one yearn for the vibrancy and sense of friendship and adventure that spawned such an idea. Living in Bristol and staying in London regularly is an antidote to the idea that to have a creative career one must live in the capital. He touches on the upsides and downsides of this arrangement but one thing that shines through is that where ever he goes he seems to develop close relationships that last through the decades. He deals touchingly and honestly with the loss of both his parents to dementia. The death of his father also coinciding with the collapse of his long term relationship with Mary, the mother of his two children Luke and Laura, in what proves to be a deeply sad episode in his life.

I have followed his TV career for many years but was still surprised at Robinson’s sheer volume of output, ranging from theatre, to books to TV. As a long term Labour supporter and unionist he has led an active political life that is touched upon throughout No Cunning Plan. There are several brilliant anecdotes. From irritating a young Liza Minnelli, to becoming enchanted with Helen Mirren when finding out she picked up a tattoo in a Marseille brothel, to being thrown in the Thames by John Wayne, sharing a trailer with Richard Attenborough and of course staring alongside Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder.

It is from the now infamous 80s comedy that the title comes from. During the filming for series three the actors would work on the scripts after they had been created. The punchline that Robinson has become known for originally wasn’t his

“At least four characters, including Percy and Blackadder, had mentioned their ‘cunning plans’ in the first two series. But in the second episode of series three Baldrick accidentally destroyed Dr Johnson’s newly written dictionary and wanted to replace it. ‘I have a plan,’ he said according to the script. I suggested I add the word ‘cunning’ to my line, to make it seem a more considered plan, one that was devious and unique, something I was deeply proud of no matter how ridiculous it might turn out to be. And when the others agrees this was a good idea, I remember thinking that it might be useful if I used the phrase in future episodes, because it could be deployed to put nonsensical strategies in Blackadder’s mind which he wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. Thirty years later at least one person a day still comes up to me and says, ‘Ere, Tone, you got a cunning plan?’, and I smile and nod with amusement as I’m bound to do”

I devoured this read in just a few days and have gone on to recommend it to others. Reading this is likely to leave the reader feeling warm and comforted, but also keen to live a life as full an interesting as Robinson’s seems to have been. The text skips along and strikes a good balance between detail and narrative propulsion, avoiding the trap that so many fall into of focusing intently on one’s youth and bypassing the gossip that many readers are hoping for. Blackadder is not given as much focus as some may hope: his entry into the comedy and his feelings around his co – stars are expressed in just a few pages.

No Cunning Plan also illuminates his writing career; from staging, writing and directing plays as a teen ager, to leading various theatre groups to his successful writing career, most notably in his books for children and TV series (including the nostalgia trip Maid Marion and Her Merry Men). Robinson is easy to like and spend some time with this is easy to devour autobiography.

 

Tony Robinson No Cunning Plan: My Story. Sidgwick & Jackson London. June 2017. Paperback pp. 432. ISBN 978-1509815494.

 

 

The Birth of Frankenstein

First Written for Headstuff.org

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (originally titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus) is often considered to be the first science fiction novel and is a landmark of gothic fiction. First published anonymously in 1818 when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old the story of the novels conception is as fascinating as the hold the Doctor Frankenstein and his monster have held on popular culture ever since its publication. One evening in Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva, in 1816 saw the accumulation of an unusual set of circumstances that triggered a creative spark that has captured popular imagination ever since.

The themes and ideas that went on to form the novel were present before that fateful night in 1816. In 1814 Mary¹, her half-sister Claire Clairmont (born Jane) and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Europe. Mary and Shelley, having fallen desperately in love, fled to Europe when her father William Godwin objected to their affair. Travelling through France, which had been ravaged by the Napoleonic wars, onto Germany at one point they stopped in Gernsheim, 17km from Frankenstein Castle. Unlike most places named after the now legendary Doctor, Frankenstein Castle significantly predates the novel. It is questionable whether Mary would have been aware of or visited the castle but the legend behind it is worth investigating. The thirteenth century castle is best known because of the actions of alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel.

Born in 1673 Dippel became an alchemist; creating an elixir called Dippel’s Oil. Made from pulverised animal bones the elixir demonstrates his use of animal bodies in scientific creation. It had long been rumoured that this interest morphed into anatomy studies. He was said to conduct medical experiments on exhumed corpses, trying to reanimate the dead bodies. One myth that circulated was that Dippel was successful and created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. In all likelihood this myth was applied to the castle after the release of Frankenstein, however it is interesting to note that the name previously existed, and has long been associated with the relationship between life and death.

The trio returned to Europe in 1816. This time they were heading to Geneva, to stay with Claire’s former lover Lord Byron. Mary and Shelley published their joint journal which covered this period in 1817. The travelogue was titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.  Here is an excerpt that discusses the landscape they observed:

“Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.”

1816 was also remarkable for being the Year Without a Summer. 1815 had seen a large volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. It left almost 100,000 dead. Clouds of volcanic ash were propelled into the upper atmosphere, obscuring the sun. The Northern hemisphere saw crop failures, food shortages and sudden climatic change. This included a decline in temperature and an increase in rainfall. At the time many were unaware of the causes of this strange phenomenon. It was common to have to light candles in the middle of the day due to the darkness. There are accounts of snow falling in the middle of June. Holidaying at Lord Byron’s villa Mary and her companions found themselves unable to enjoy the outdoors and instead spent their time inside discussing science, politics and literature. At this time Byron composed the poem Darkness, which reflects the uneasy feeling of the time.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation”.

Themes of the supernatural and mystery run throughout the work created at Villa Diodati.

Interestingly the atmospheric changes resulted in unusual sunsets. It is thought that the yellow tinge that marks William Turner’s paintings during this period is a result of this. One work which demonstrates this is Chichester Canal (1828). Byron and Mary were not the only writers to find success in that strange atmosphere. The same few days saw the origin of the book The Vampyre. Written by Byron’s physician John Polidori it became the progenitor of Romantic vampire literature and was used as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula.

Added to this was the stifling interpersonal atmosphere between the group. When Mary and Percy Shelly first fell in love she was only sixteen years old and he already had a wife a child. His young wife Harriet was pregnant again at this time. This, plus her father’s disapproval, didn’t stop them. Shelley declared his love for Mary, often meeting at night at her mother’s grave. Claire went with them on their travels partly because she could speak French and they could not. Also, she was able to introduce them to Lord Byron. The two had been lovers. Although still besotted with Byron, who had largely lost interest in her, after Mary lost her first child in early 1815 Claire and Shelley embarked on an affair. It has also been reported that Polidori had designs on the young Mary, but she did not reciprocate his feelings. Notably, although Byron was interested in the young poet Shelley he was supposed to have had little respect for Mary. Shelley believed in free love and practised it, having affairs and illegitimate children throughout his life. At one point the Shelley’s were labelled a part of the League of Incest that Byron was at the heart of². Added to this Shelley was reported to have fallen into a morbid mood as a result of the oppressive environment.

It was in this atmosphere that the group; consisting of Mary, Shelley, Claire, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori, spent their evenings talking and reading each other ghost stories. Eventually Byron suggested a ghost story writing competition. In the preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein Mary wrote that, feeling anxious, she would wake up each morning no closer to a story. At only 18 years old Mary was one of the more junior writers of the group. However she was highly educated for a young woman at the time and had been exposed to liberal, intellectual ideas all her life. This came primarily through her parents: radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political theorist William Godwin, both successful writers.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream”

Several days after the competition was suggested Mary dreamed of a scientist who created life but was then horrified by its creation. She had found her story. The evening before her “waking dream” the group had been discussing the principle of life; what it means to be alive and whether a corpse could be reanimated. Mary commented on this in the novels preface:

“many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth”.

Although this sounds a little morbid corpse reanimation was a hot topic of the day. Galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that has been stimulated by electric current. Studies and investigations into the line between life and death occupied many of the great scientific minds of the early nineteenth century. Professor Sharon Ruston has investigated this area of scientific interest in depth. Her findings are detailed in the essayThe Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One point of particular interest is the work of the Royal Humane Society, originally named the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. Established in 1774 the Society’smain aim was to publicise information to help people resuscitate others. Mary’s mother once attempted suicide by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames River. She was one of those “brought back to life”: resuscitated. This was one of the ways in which the line between life and death were being blurred and questioned. Each year there was a procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society.

Further to this Shelley had a long history with scientific experiments. At Eton he used a frictional electric machine to charge the door handle of his room. He once blew up a tree on the schools South Meadow with gunpowder. His rooms at Oxford were fully equipped with science equipment and he continued to experiment with electricity, magnetism and chemicals. This interest continued into his adult life where he had trouble with multiple landlords and hosts. His frequent experiments would often burn cushions, leave marks on the walls and floors, and disturb other residents. In their leisure time the couple were also known to attend lectures and demonstrations that looked into the space between the known and unknown.

On that infamous night they had been reading German ghost stories from a French translation of the book Fantasmagoriana. These stories combined with the unusual dark and mysterious climate had an effect on the young writer. Shelley wrote,

“The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends…and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.”

In the preface Mary talked about a “waking dream” in which she conceived the idea of Frankenstein.

“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. …”.

In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream” concluding that it occurred between 2 am and 3am on the 16th June 1816. This was several days after the competition began and fits in with Shelley’s remembrances of her difficulty in coming up with a story. Olsen explains,

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”

In order to capture the gothic horror found in the novel’s pages Shelley taped into her own fears. “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story”. She began to create “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream”. In the cauldron of the strange mix of events came the creation of one of the corner stones of gothic horror and science fiction.


¹Although at this point her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin she referred to herself as Mrs Shelley prior to their December 1816 marriage

² Byron went into self-induced exile from Britain largely as a result of the constant rumours that he fathered a child with his sister. Like Shelley he had multiple children with multiple women; including a daughter called Allegra with Claire (1817).

Holly Madison: The Vegas Diaries

First Written for Shiny New Books

Holly Madison: The Vegas Diaries. Romance, Rolling the Dice, and the Road to Reinvention

 

Holly Madison is best known for her seven years at the Playboy Mansion and for her position as Hugh Hefner’s ‘Number One’ girlfriend. With The Vegas Diaries, the second instalment of her autobiography, she sets out to change perceptions of herself and her work to become the person she always wanted to be.

The Vegas Diaries is the follow up to the surprise number one bestseller Down the Rabbit Hole (reviewed here) from the former playboy model and girlfriend, in which she made it clear that she did not want to do a kiss and tell and had only entered this process in order to set the record straight. She kicked off her new life with a stint on Dancing with the Stars before going on to the lead role in burlesque show Peepshow. Here she took on the mantle of lead with aplomb, going on to revitalise the Bo Peep inspired show making it one of the most popular spots on the strip while starring as the lead for the longest ever time, truly making the show her own. Her own reality show soon followed. Madison candidly navigates Las Vegas’s social and dating scene. Her last memoir followed an Alice in Wonderland theme, and  for this one it is the Wizard of Oz; each chapter beginning with a quote and the roughly central theme of finding oneself in Oz before finding home.

The first way in which she sets out to do this is through burlesque. Having had a love affair with the art form for many years she finally has the chance to dive head first into the genre. Taking on the headline role at burlesque show Peepshow Madison was responsible for reinvigorating the brand and turning it into Vegas’s number one hot spot. Her interest in burlesque first began in her twenties when she went to a show with Hefner and the other Playboy girls. It offered a refreshingly individual and vital alternative to the blonde, pink lipped beauty expected of her at the time. ‘Sitting around our VIP table was one bottle-blond fembot after the next, clad in some version of the same outlandish bustier, and all slightly dead behind the eyes. In burlesque, a woman could be both sexy and unique’. Alongside this Madison tries to position herself as an empowered independent woman on a journey of self-discovery. Burlesque fits into this perfectly. ‘The independent women who used burlesque as an artistic outlet to celebrate their creativity and their femininity on their terms and in their own unique way. Deep down, that was who I wanted to be’.

The Vegas Diaries begin after she left the Playboy Mansion. When discussing her former life with her friends the germ of an idea to write her story started to grow. She had this to say on why she hadn’t talked before that: ‘I had to accept that I kept quiet about my life at the mansion because I was ashamed. I kept quiet because I wanted people to believe the fantasy version because for so long I wanted to believe the fantasy’.

Vegas may seem like an unusual place to begin a new life but after having survived seven years at the Playboy Mansion the glitz, glamour of Sin City must have been appealing. For some people a Playboy history is something to be proud of and exploit, for others it is something to overcome. Madison uses The Vegas Diaries to try and plant herself firmly in the latter category: ‘attempting to shed the Playboy stigma and asking people to reconsider how they viewed me was an uphill battle’. It is up to the reader how much they buy into this. As a part of her reinvention she has latched onto the idea of female self-empowerment. Whether this provides a feminist story of self saviour will be left for each individual reader to decide. However, the stark difference between her Vegas life, in which she lives and dies on her own abilities, compared to the Mansion, is interesting.

Although she makes it clear from the start that she does not wish to embarrass or publicise others Madison does detail her love affairs with the same humour and honesty that marked Down the Rabbit Hole. This does however limit the interest for those searching for scandalous Vegas gossip as she gives pseudonyms to her partners. She is insightful and does not let herself off, particularly in her retelling of her relationship with Mark. There is some slight overlap with Down the Rabbit Hole, but The Vegas Diaries are angled to show how she worked her way to independence and self-esteem. This does not have the same weight and interest as her previous volume but is an entertaining read nonetheless. The book closes just before she met her husband and gave birth to her daughter. This was either done to mark the point that she had achieved her aim, or the cynic could suggest that it is to leave the door open for a further volume.

The Vegas Diaries is lighter on gossip but provides more insight into her life, circle of friends and love life. A fair amount of this has been covered in her previous book and reality series, as well as in the tabloids, and there is some overlap with the last quarter of Down the Rabbit Hole. As a result of this, this one may be more for fans than the casual reader. It is definitely more for fans of Holly than Playboy.

 

Holly Madison: The Vegas Diaries. Romance, Rolling the Dice, and the Road to Reinvention (Dey Street Books,  2017). 978-006245714, 288 pp., paperback.

Harder, Faster, More

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Harder, Faster, More – Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Writer: Tracy Martin

Director: Tracy Martin

 

Harder Faster More opened to an excited audience at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre before closing to a standing ovation. The only downside is that this play is running for such a short time.

Harder Faster More tells the stories of women negotiating the modern world where sex sells and they are expected to sell it. From the female TV presenter traded in for a younger model planning extensive plastic surgery to revitalise her career, to the young woman making pornography while her sister looks after her infant son to the incredibly funny story that is cut to repeatedly of a woman juggling two calls at once; one on her sex phone line, and the other from her mother. Some of the stories are one offs. These are often touching and at times heart breaking. Several stories are resumed repeatedly throughout the performance. One of the most notable opens and closes the play. Kacey, a trained dancer, is working in clubs in Europe to make some fast money. Her increasingly intermittent calls with her best friend detail her life from excitement and humour to confusion then drug fuelled horror.

The stage is empty except for large lights pointing outwards from the back. Lighting is used throughout to highlight speakers and emphasise the stories being told. The three actresses Charlene Gleeson, Clare Monnelly and Aoibheann McCann work well together; their movements exact and cohesive. The lighting director (Susannah Cummins) and movement director (Paula O’Reilly) have clearly worked closely together to create a tight seventy minute play in which not a single moment is wasted. Each actor plays at least four different parts throughout. They all wear white and switch accents and mannerisms with each new character in an impressive dramatic feat.

A note from writer and director Tracy Martin in the programme tells us that Harder Faster More was created around the idea of tackling pornography. Taking the audience on a journey behind the scenes of the sex industry to the real lives behind it. The play surprises and entertains in equal measure. Martin avoids preaching or retelling popular tabloid tales, instead focusing on individuals in all roles of life and the way in which pornography affects their relationships with friends and family. This has been done excellently with Martin opening up a whole new angle into the subject. The use of telephone conversations to frame the dialogue allows the audience to dip inside the otherwise hidden private lives of women doing their best to survive and thrive in this daunting new world. Harder Faster More is an intelligent and humorous play that is not to be missed.

Yeats Besotted

First Written for The Reviews Hub

Yeats Besotted – Bewley’s Café Theatre @ Powerscourt, Dublin

Writer: Cathal Quinn
Director: Cathal Quinn


“Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”

William Butler Yeats is a man who in Ireland needs little introduction. Even decades after his death the slightest new titbit or revelation generates a buzz of media interest and his writing is taught to every Irish student. His place as one of Ireland’s literary greats assured. With this in mind how best for a playwright to get to the heart of the man? To navigate through the wealth of analysis and study to find the man behind it all?

Yeats Besotted attempts this by dramatising the turbulent relationship between the Nobel Laureate and his greatest love and muse, Maud Gonne. Religion, politics, the occult and the difficult birth of the Irish Free State are all touched upon in Yeats Besotted, however, the focus remains on the love affair between Yeats and Gonne. The pair first met in 1889 when she approached him to seek his support against tenant evictions. Yeats found himself instantly in love, besotted, and from this point onwards she acts as his poetic muse political inspiration. Throughout the play are poems in English and Irish that were written for or inspired by his love for Gonne.

When we are first introduced to Yeats, very capably played by Philip Judge, he is arguing for the legalisation of divorce in the Seanad. Here he is not just a poet but also a politician. There is a suggestion that runs throughout Yeats Besotted that Gonne was also the spark behind much of Yeats political ideas and beliefs. On a whistle-stop tour through their relationship from 1889 to 1928 Gonne is a constant in Yeats life, even as she goes on to marry another. In the rapidly changing Irish political landscape of the first decades of the 20th Century will there be room for an unconventional love story such as theirs? Or will their pasts and love prove too controversial for 1920s Ireland?

Yeats Besotted is a lovely short play that entertains and intrigues in equal measure. It is important to note that prior knowledge of the protagonists is not needed due to the capability of Quinn’s script and the universalism of the plays key themes. With luck, Yeats Besotted will in time become a longer production that can further investigate this unique relationship that had a profound effect on the work and reputations of two of Ireland’s greatest figures.