History


The Library

They were surprised to find a library in the castle. They had almost not come in; the entry fee of 40RON (about £8) for the two of them would usually have put them off but it had begun to rain heavily and the car was quite a walk away so they made an exception even though it was near to closing time.

There did not seem to be the usual supervisor in each room and when Smaranda saw a lot of books on shelves in a distant darkened room she hurried towards them. Libraries, particularly old libraries, had a special fascination for her as a history teacher.

I don’t think you should go in there,” Michael, her English boyfriend, cautioned. “That red rope across the doorway obviously means we’re not supposed to go in there. Anyway, it’s too dark to see much.”

I’ve got that little torch on my keyring so I just want to see what books they’ve got. They all look super old. I’m going in.”

Michael reluctantly followed.

It doesn’t look as though any of the books have been moved for years,” said Smaranda. “I can hardly see any of the titles,” she added, wiping a finger along one row of volumes.

Hey, there’s one here called Wallachia,” she called. “Oh, another has the word Vrăjitoariei on the spine, and here’s one titled Strigoi.”

I don’t know any of those words,” answered Michael.

Oh, it’s really exciting. Wallachia is the southern region which joined with Transylvania and Moldavia to become Romania. Vrăjitoariei is witchcraft and strigoi are spirits which can transform themselves into horrible animals. I’ve never seen a Romanian book on witchcraft or strigoi before, though of course we studied the history of Wallachia at university so I’ve seen plenty of books on that.”

I’m surprised you haven’t heard of vrăjitoariei before; you’re always complaining about how superstitious we Romanians are. As for strigoi, I thought you knew Latin pretty well: striga – evil spirit. Pretty much the same in Romanian, strigă. Strigoi is plural though sometimes used as singular too.”

Smaranda pulled out the volume titled Vrăjitoariei and was enveloped in a cloud of dust. When she was able to catch her breath she opened the book at a random page and called out excitedly, “This chapter seems to be full of vrăji – spells – mostly to cure all manner of ailments.”

She continued to leaf through the pages. “Good heavens, there’s a spell here to stop Jews killing new-born babies! What’s that about?”

“I think you should put that book back right now and we should leave. We’re not supposed to be in here anyway.” Michael sounded worried.

Smaranda ignored him and continued to turn the pages. ”Oh, there’s a spell here to summon a strigă. It says it’s only to be used on the eve of St. Andrew’s day or the eve of St. George’s day. Isn’t that odd? It’s St. Andrew’s day tomorrow I think, thirtieth of the November, isn’t it?”

I don’t know, St. George’s day is in April but I can’t remember the day.”

Shame on you, he’s your patron saint! Anyway, I’m going to try this one, the spell I mean.”

I think you should just put the book back; anyway, you shouldn’t mess about with such things, though of course I don’t believe a word of it.”

Oh, it says the spell needs a fire so that’s no good.” Smaranda sounded crestfallen, then suddenly shouted excitedly, “You’ve got a lighter, maybe that will do. Let me have it please.” Michael reluctantly  handed it over.

I don’t know whether I can get this right. It’s very old Romanian language: it reminds me of trying to read Ion Creangă’s ‘Childhood Memories’ but it seems even older.

I gave up with that having not understood a thing,” Michael said sullenly; he was proud that he’d mastered reading and speaking modern Romanian, though he still had difficulty writing it.

Smaranda clicked the lighter and with the flame in front of her began to chant some words, reading from the book.

Michael understood not a word.

§

He saw it first.

A pale light behind Smaranda which began to swirl around, as though stirred by an invisible spoon, until it began to take on a recognisable form, vaguely human but as it became more recognisable, hideously distorted, limbs sticking out in unnatural directions and a face like a foam latex mask pulled in all directions around a mouth open in what seemed to be a scream, though inside just black, as though it had no end.

A wild eerie shriek behind her made Smaranda turn around, just in time to see the horrible form solidify into an owl. She had time to recognise a barn owl, often wrongly known as a screech owl because of its call, before the bird flew onto her shoulder.

No sooner had it landed than Smaranda shrieked loudly herself as she felt a sharp pain in her neck. The owl spread its wings and flew around and around her head, shrieking continuously till the shriek turned into a scream, familiar to many Romanians as the cry of the fattened pig as its throat is cut to kill it for winter meat.

At the same time the owl began to take the form of a much distorted pig then alternate between pig and owl, each transformation being more horrendous than the previous one.

Finally it was the owl which settled on Smaranda’s shoulder again, sunk its beak in the bloody gash it had made previously, its breast pulsating like a fast beating heart. Smaranda became ever more pale before dissolving into a vague distorted form resembling the strigă which Michael had first seen.

Michael tried to grab Smaranda’s hand to pull her from the room but there was nothing of substance to hold on to.

One of the strigoi began to fly faster and faster around Michael’s head, alternating between the vague distorted form of the strigă and a pig, which soon settled into the form of a boar which sank its fangs into Michael’s chest.

§

The police forensics team, called in the next morning, were baffled. The male, with two deep incisions near to the heart, had clearly died from them almost instantly but there was no weapon.

Even more baffling was the body of the young female. She had obviously died from exsanguination but there was not a sign of blood on the library floor.

A lighter lay near her right hand and a book near her left.

The policeman examining the body called out “This book is open, she seems to have been reading it. It’s open at a chapter titled Vrăji. Anyone know what that means?”

No one did.


This is the first time I’ve tried this. Usually in the writers’ club we each read our own contribution. So here is me reading the above story. I’ll get better!


I don’t usually pick up on the theme often given as a writing prompt at our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, preferring to write about whatever comes into my head. This time the given theme of ‘libraries’ appealed. It gave me an opportunity to explore Romanian legends less well known than Dracula and vampires, which are more modern anyway.

You can blame another blogger and a writers’ club member for the above story. Ailish, whose first novel I sort of reviewed here and here, planted witches in my head; Jo – whose stories I always enjoy when read in the club, surprisingly even the horror stories as it’s not a genre I usually enjoy – has somehow got me trying to write ‘horror’.

Notes:

In the past there have been trials of ‘witches’ in Romania, similar to those in Aberdeen described by Ailish Sinclair in her novel The Mermaid and the Bear. Gypsies and Jews seem to have been particularly targetted in Romania.

True screech owls are confined to the Americas. Barn owls, plentiful in Europe, make a screeching sound rather than the ‘tewit tewoo’ usually associated with owls.

I really like the ancient Romanian female names so chose one for this story. The founder and ‘leader’ of our writers’ club has another, Ruxandra, so I never shorten it to ‘Ruxi’ as most club members do. Another I like a lot is Ilinca.

Cover of The Mermaid and the BearIn my previous post I commented on the first half of Ailish Sinclair’s first novel, describing it as “having all the charm and magic of a good children’s story, wrapped up in an adult fairy tale.”

I do like a novel which surprises. The Mermaid and the Bear had plenty of surprises for me.

Sexy

Not far into the second half it became pretty sexy! I didn’t expect that, not from the first half of the story nor from Ailish’s blog posts. She slipped easily into an insight into an eighteen years old young woman’s discovery of the urgency of physical love when prompted by ‘true love’. I suspect few eighteen year olds experience that now.

The role of women deftly interwoven

Another surprise was how the author managed to get so much modern thinking about the role of women in a story set over 400 years ago, without it jarring. It will be no surprise to anyone who has read my posts for some years that this was a pleasant surprise for me; it’s been a regular theme for me (how little far we’ve come in 400 years!).

Stone circles

The stone circles of Aberdeenshire, of which I’ve learned a lot from Ailish’s posts, feature. I’m not sure whether Ailish really believes they are magical but she’s pretty much convinced me.

Witches’ from fact

I liked the way Ailish wove the Aberdeen witch trials of the 1590s in to the story without it becoming a ‘historical’ text book, fictionalising real people and events, mixing them up with invented characters (as I am wont to do).

Enjoyable

I really enjoyed this novel on multiple levels. It’s not the kind of story I’d usually read, detective thrillers are what usually tempt me – my Kindle library has a few of those and my physical bookcase contains only the complete works of Dickens.

The historical notes at the end of Ailish’s book are really helpful but I’d urge you not to read them until after you’ve read the story.

The Mermaid and the Bear is published by GWL Publishing and available on Amazon and in some book shops.

 

 

I finished the Costa first novel award book. Not an easy read.

In my previous post I said that the writing seemed to have become better and I was beginning to enjoy it. Then, suddenly, it was back to forcing myself to read. The similes began to jump out at me again.

(One of the advantages of reading a Kindle version – despite my love of real books – apart from taking no space in our small flat, is that some analysis is easy. The word ‘like’, the majority as part of a simile, occurs no fewer that 600 times. I’m surprised that none of the editors picked that up.)

The author seems to have had difficulty writing some chapters. Apart from the early chapters, the most obvious is when she introduces S&M. At the time I couldn’t see why it had been introduced but that becomes clear as you approach the end, though I’m still not convinced it was necessary.

Slavery

What I did like is that I learned quite a bit about slavery and that the ending was hidden well, at least from me. However, parts of the story were not believable for me, eg the court scenes.

Maybe my first novella/novel will not sound believable (if I ever finish it); though it’s fictional, most of it did happen, though not quite in the way I relate it.

Mermaid and bear

It was a relief to escape into my current reading, also a first novel, by a blogger I’ve followed for quite a while: Ailish Sinclair. I’ve got only about half way into it but already I can say that it has all the charm and magic of a good children’s story, wrapped up (so far) in an adult fairy tale.

I’ve always enjoyed her posts having learned a lot from them, which I why I bought her novel. Also the promise of some real history of witches, which I’ve yet to get to. Another draw was that she is/was a ballet dancer. I’ve been a lover of ballet since I was seven years old and some time ago I wrote a short story around a visit to Covent Garden and another visit there plays an important part in my unfinished novella/novel.

Ailish’s blog posts, especially about stone circles and castles, determined me to spend some of last summer in Aberdeenshire. It has been no surprise to find stone circles occurring in the book, momentous events happening within them (I don’t want to give too much away). Unfortunately, ill health prevented my visit. Maybe next summer.

A big surprise is that, halfway through the story I’ve been confronted with how I thought it would end. So I’m intrigued by where it will go now.

So, if you want a relaxing read, with all the ups and downs of a Catherine Cookson tale, this might be a book for you. But I’m only half way through so who knows what is in store.

Ailish’s novel is called The Mermaid and the Bear, published by GWL Publishing and available on Amazon and in some book shops.

RomFlag

The Romanian flag


Only two weeks ago I posted
about Latvia’s 100th birthday. Today (1 December 2018) we celebrate the 100th birthday of Romania – when Transylvania and Banat came together with ‘The Principality of Moldova and the Romanian Country‘ (difficult to translate not to be clumsy) to form Romania. Since then, of course, the meddling of politicians has taken away parts so the northern part of Bucovina became part of the Ukraine and Basarabia became the Republic of Moldova; as so often when outside politicians (usually from the USA and us, the UK) mess with other countries we are still suffering as a result of this meddling, with trouble in the Ukraine and in the Middle East.

In my 100th birthday post for Latvia I suggested seven things which many people might not know about that country. I wonder if I can do the same for Romania. I’ll try, though a couple might be contentious.

Seven things you may not know about Romania

  • Currently about 9 Romanians leave their country every hour in the hope of finding a ‘better life’ elsewhere. The population has been reduced from 23,210,000 in 1991 to 20,170,000 last year. Most of the people leaving Romania are young and highly qualified or skilled, which we and other ‘western’ countries benefit from. There are, of course, also a significant number who do not mind getting their hands dirty (sadly often ‘exploited’ and not given a fair wage), doing jobs which the indigenous population shy away from; again we benefit.
  • Although the oft quoted “Romanian is the second language in Microsoft” may be a myth the American software giant certainly employ a lot of Romanians and established two of their global business support centres in Romanian cities. I can tell you from personal experience the country produces wonderful doctors too.
  • Romanians have an amazing ability to learn other languages. This is only in part (I think a small part) due to nobody wanting to learn Romanian (unlike me). An example is my wife who, starting from just nine words of English when she arrived here in 2004 by 2006 had a command of English sufficiently good to become a fully qualified teacher in UK and began to teach her subject, history, (and others) in high school.
  • Romanians who live in the countryside or buy from there know what fruit and vegetables should taste like. I will never forget when I first tasted a carrot freshly dug, or a bell pepper freshly picked, a tomato or the sour cherries known as ‘visine‘. If you avoid the supermarkets (I’d better not get started on that! – despite the ‘organic’ nonsense now being overtaken by the equally ridiculous ‘bio’) you can still have that taste today. The only equivalents we can find easily in the UK are bilberries from the Yorkshire moors (equally good as their Romanian equivalent, afine) or wild blackberries (mure in Romanian).
  • Although the belief of many Romanians that Henri Coanda invented the jet engine cannot really be supported he certainly did describe and point to practical applications in aviation of what became known as the ‘Coanda effect‘, which we see (or hear) when we fly on commercial aircraft today, when the ‘flaps’ are extended on landing and takeoff.  It is also used in fighter aircraft to allow them to fly at a slower speed. The international passenger airport serving Romania’s capital was renamed from ‘Otopeni’ (a nearby locality) to ‘Henri Coanda’ in May 2004.
  • Although Romanian Nicolae Paulescu developed an extract from a pancreas which, injected into a diabetic dog, normalised blood sugar levels when the Canadian team which received the Nobel prize for the ‘discovery’ of insulin were only just beginning its development, he was not included in the prize. A former head of the Nobel Institute, Professor Arne Tiselius, later admitted he should have been.
  • Just a personal view, of which anyone who has been reading my blog for any length of time will be aware, although many tourists will head for Transylvania when visiting Romania, the area in the north of Romania known as the Bucovina is more interesting, has at least equally beautiful landscapes and delicious food but old traditions are generally better kept. But if you want to see them you should visit soon – they are already less well preserved than when I first arrived in Romania in 1993.

‘My corner’ this week. The library beckons through the window

It’s ironic that my morning ‘coffee shop’ this week, the Wetherspoon public house (‘pub’) named The Livery Rooms, was built in the late 19th century for the Keighley Temperance Society.  When opened in 1896 it was the Keighley Temperance Institute and Hall. One of the entrances has an eroded but fanciful stone carving announcing entrance to the institute. The stone carving of the hall name is perfectly preserved over a grand entrance round the side though this entrance is not used as an entry to the pub.

Prior to temperance halls about the only places to hold meetings and other social activities were inns and pubs, which of course encouraged drinking of alcohol, so the halls were often built by the temperance movement to provide rooms for a range of a activities; many included a coffee shop.

Temperance movement

The temperance movement was very strong in England from the early to mid 19th century to as late as the start of the second World War. It grew from a pledge to abstain from ‘intoxicating beverages’ signed in 1832 by seven men from Preston, one of them my namesake a Mr Livesey (Joseph). In the early days the movement opposed the drinking of spirits, particularly the drink of the working classes and the poor – gin – but accepted drinking beer. Later it promoted total abstinence.

Another irony: the current fashion for drinking very expensive gins at ridiculous prices, hardly a drink for the poor (one of our village social clubs now promotes that it has 40 on offer) is replacing another ‘fashion’ of recent years – Prosecco. Half the population seemed to forget there were other (much better) wines. Now it is being abandoned for ‘fancy’ gins.

Band of Hope

My grandmother was a member of the ‘Band of Hope’, a temperance movement begun in Leeds in 1847 which was particularly concerned about drinking by children and the effect on children of drinking by adults. It began as a group for under 16s and at the first meeting around 200 children signed the pledge: ‘I, the undersigned, do agree that I will not use intoxicating liquors as a beverage’. They joined another 100 children at the meeting who had already signed. I suspect my grandmother signed the pledge as a child. Her brother, my great uncle Albert, was allowed just one drink a year, whisky, at Christmas. I have a feeling he had a sneaky dram at other times but it was never mentioned and I never saw it.

The follow on from the Band of Hope still exists today as Hope UK which tackles both alcohol and drug abuse by young people.

I don’t remember what the building was used for when I was at high school just across the road; I probably never noticed it despite frequent visits to the library next door. I do know it was at some time a cinema (The Regent) and used as a bingo hall. It was abandoned for a number of years before being bought by the Wetherspoon pub chain. It opened as ‘The Livery Rooms’ in 2004.

The name, The Livery Rooms, comes from the fact that at one time stables, I believe for the Town Hall, occupied the site, or part of it.

Typical Wetherspoon pub layout inside

Wetherspoon have done a pretty good job in renovating it as a pub. It is a typical Wetherspoon pub with a large open plan seating area and a long bar with a wide selection of beers, both good cask ales as well as that gassy Continental style stuff. They also serve food – not cordon bleu for sure but not bad and not highly priced. I’ve mentioned the decent coffee at a reasonable price in a previous post, but if you like filter coffee (I do not) it costs 99p for a cup and refills are free. Then of course there’s the free WiFi.

The history of the building and some high points of the surrounding area is told in old photographs and various other artworks adorning the walls.

Real log fires

A finishing touch is real log fires. Pity they have a fire guard around them but, as  children are welcome, a necessity. I’ve made a comfy corner near the fire ‘mine’ this week. If Petronela’s teaching stint at the Keighley school continues after the week half term break next week, I may have a little brass plaque made engraved with ‘Grumpytyke’s corner’ and fix in that spot.

This post was prompted by a request for more pictures of the Keighley Wetherspoon from my Latvian blogger friend Ilze. Who am I to refuse a lovely lady? I’m wondering whether to finish this series of posts on aspects of Keighley with a visit upstairs in the library, the reference and study section, or the railway station – one terminus of the Worth Valley Railway, or a visit to the Brontë village of Haworth. Maybe all three?

Double espresso and flames

Back in the wonderful Keighley library again; similar sequence to yesterday, coffee in Wetherspoon, quick diversion into the shopping area for some ‘chores’ then back to this great building, built in 1902 as a Carnegie library. This morning it was buzzing with a group of primary school children. I just love that.

First job, with a helpful librarian, Amy, trying to track down a comment from John Galsworthy mentioned by my blogger friend Iulia in response to my post about Sunday. We couldn’t find it so back to Iulia. Later note: Iulia came up with the answer and although the book is not in this library it is in another so will be sent to my village library – fabulous library system we have here in the UK though a combination of Government and Local Authorities are doing their best to destroy it. Volunteers have taken over many, including that in my village, to ‘save’ them.

Well patronised

This one seems well patronised, a steady stream of visitors to use the computers, or just the free WiFi using their own, to read the newspapers or borrow and return books. There are many displays on a variety of subjects which would merit a happy hour’s browsing. There’s even a designated ‘cafe’ area with a drinks machine and another with ‘snacks’. There are also printing and copying facilities. I haven’t been upstairs yet; maybe a subject for another day.

My Latvian blogger friend Ilze has demanded some photos of Wetherspoon so I may well make this interesting building the subject of a post before this week is out.

Wrong impressions from principal thoroughfare

I haven’t really been in ‘the town’ of Keighley (by the way, for non-English readers this is pronounced ‘keeth-li” – crazy!) since I was at school here though I’ve passed by the centre many times on the way to somewhere else. Going along a principal thoroughfare, North Street, on which this library stands (picture in yesterday’s post), the once majestic, now largely run down or plastered with inappropriate signs buildings, mostly now banks, give an entirely wrong impression of the town – rather depressing. Venture a few paces to the covered shopping malls and it feels a happy, lively place. These bright covered areas are so much more appealing than the architectural nightmare of the ‘new’ shopping mall in Bradford city. The people also appear ‘alive’; not so in Bradford where they usually appear downtrodden and miserable. The Keighley ‘mall’ does of course, suffer from the same disadvantage as that in Bradford, almost completely flooded with major chain stores which offer nothing for me.

Memories

It’s good to see that the majority of shops under the glass canopy in another major thoroughfare, Cavendish Street, are in business but what a pity they have been allowed to put up the most atrocious selection of signs; only one in sympathy with this magnificent terrace dating, I would guess, from about 1900. Above the canopy the past grandeur is obvious. This terrace has fond memories for me; my grandmother occasionally came to the town and took me into a little upstairs cafe for tea after school. We always ate the same thing – mushrooms on toast.

Right at the bottom of the street is another building full of memories for me. The Victoria hotel was run by the parents of a schoolmate so I was often there after school. It has been derelict for many years, a sad sight, but it looks as though it might be going to be restored. I hope.

Red sun

Red sun (bleached out here) with an even more intensely red halo, in a strangely coloured sky

Nothing to do with Keighley but I must mention the red sun which broke through a strangely coloured sky yesterday. The picture, taken with the iPad, cannot do it justice but it does give me an opportunity to mention a great poem which captured the essence of this strange sight. It was written and posted by a blogger who calls herself ‘the cheeseseller’s wife’; she assures us she is.

Former headmaster Dumitru Bunea with a portrait of founder of the school, M Kogălneceanu

Former headmaster Dumitru Bunea with a portrait of M Kogălneceanu, who founded the school in  1831 in a former ‘palace’

Two important things to do today, in the morning resolution of some medical problems, in the afternoon visiting the museum at the high school where Petronela (my wife – P from now) and I met, Liceul Agricol M Kogălniceanu, Miroslava. Succeeded with both.

A high school in a heavenly setting

How did I become a teacher at Miroslava? Living and teaching at the time in the city of Suceava, I was invited on a British Council course for Romanian teachers of English and there met a teacher of English from the Informatics high school in Iași (about 100km away). She persuaded me to come to Iași once a week and teach there. Someone else mentioned to me the beautiful setting of the Miroslava school so one day I climbed the hill, 7km from the city centre, to have a look. The high school is an agricultural high school, so apart from general education students can be educated to be vets, food technicians and other profiles, caring for animals in the school farm, raising crops on the school’s 100 hectares of agricultural land, caring for the orchard and vineyard, even keeping bees. That was so when I and P taught there; it may have changed somewhat now.

Wandering around, admiring the park, the orchard, the vineyard and what seemed to be an old, rather run down ‘palace’, all of which seemed to make up the school, I met someone who turned out to be the the deputy headmaster, explained I was a native speaking English teacher. He took me to the headmaster, Dumitru Bunea, who quickly persuaded me to teach there too (they had no English teacher, in fact no member of staff, including the head, spoke English). The ‘bait’ was that I could have a room in the ‘camin’ (the student hostel) and eat in the school canteen in return for teaching. As I was at the time a volunteer, so no income, I ‘bit’!

As usual on this blog, click any picture in the gallery below to see the pictures larger as a slide show

A unique museum

The headmaster, not only a history teacher like P but a dedicated historian, had some time before began to collect agricultural implements, many brought by students from the surrounding villages, with the idea of making a museum in the school. This expanded into collecting traditional items of clothing, pottery, etc. As the collection grew, including pre-neolithic artifacts to relatively recent things (eg from WW2), some of the best were donated to the city’s museum of culture (Palatul Culturii) and many duplicates donated to surrounding schools to make their own museums.

There is now an extensive collection at the school though it does not have the money to house and display it as it would wish. The village mayor had acquired European funds to do this but the city reappropriated these funds so the project is now in limbo. As Mr Bunea is now retired, getting this project off the ground again is even less likely. This is really sad; if I won a big, big prize on the lottery I would certainly finance it.

Although I visited the museum, of course, during my time teaching at Miroslava, I never had a a really good look, particularly to discuss it with the man who created it – Mr Bunea. It was an enormous pleasure, and honour, to do that today over more than four hours.

A further honour was to be invited to sign the ‘Carte de onoare’, alongside personalities from all over the world and in many languages.

Busy day and temperature is climbing again (29-30degC). Escaping to the cooler climes of the Bucovina tomorrow for a few days, looking for a possible place to move and visiting friends.

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