5 Facts You Always Wanted To Know About… Queen Victoria

Two days from now, January 22nd, marks the anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch (63 years and 7 months) in British history, in 1901. To commemorate this, here are 5 facts about this queen that you may not know:

She proposed to her husband, Prince Albert.
In a time when it was the norm to have the men ‘pop the question’, Queen Victoria was an exception. As she was already queen when the match between her and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was decided on, he couldn’t propose to her, so she had to do it. She wore a white wedding dress, which set the trend for brides worldwide to start wearing white on their wedding day. Contrary to many royal unions of the time, Victoria and Albert’s marriage was a love match and Victoria is famous for maintaining a permanent state of mourning after Albert’s untimely death in 1861 (from typhoid fever).

She was more German than English.
Being the daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, who was the fourth son of George III, and Victoria Saxe-Saalfeld-Coburg, Queen Victoria was primarily of German descent. Her first language was German, though she also spoke English, French, Urdu and Hindustani. Her German husband famously introduced the tradition of having a Christmas tree to England and the Royal Family to this day still opens their Christmas presents on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, as is the custom in Germany as well.

She wasn’t very fond of babies.
Even though she had 9 children, Queen Victoria wasn’t very keen on the idea of giving birth (well, who can blame her, really?) and didn’t enjoy the company of her children during their infant years. In fact, she was so repulsed by them, she had them live in a different wing of the palace and frequently referred to them as ‘frogs’.

The phrase “We are not amused” is attributed to her.
Although there is no historical evidence she ever said it, many believe that the famous phrase “We are not amused” was first uttered by Queen Victoria. Russell T. Davies incorporated this into the script for the Doctor Who episode ‘Tooth & Claw’, in which the character of Rose Tyler repeatedly tries to get Queen Victoria to say it (and succeeds).

She is still called the ‘Grandmother of Europe’.
Victoria’s 9 children all married into the royal families of Europe (which is why most of them are still related to each other to this day, even though the custom of marrying among themselves has mostly died out) and she’s therefore often called the ‘Grandmother of Europe’. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip are actually both great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with some of their children

Terra Nova Expedition

Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people.

Thus reads the last journal entry by Captain Robert Falcon Scott from March 29th, 1912 while he and his team mates were on the return journey of their Antarctic expedition. They had tried to be the first human beings to reach the South Pole, had arrived at their destination on January 17th, 1912 after first setting off from Wales on June 10th, 1910 and 11 weeks after leaving their expedition’s base camp, only to find that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team had beaten them by 33 days, having reached the South Pole on December 14th, 1911. The Terra Nova Expedition, named after the ship Scott and his team left Wales in, covered 1842 miles of Antarctica and was the longest continuous sledge journey ever made in the polar regions.

Sadly, not only were Scott and his team not the first to reach the South Pole, but also all 5 of them died on the return journey due to frostbite, malnutrition, dehydration and injury. In an attempt to save his comrades, Captain Lawrence Oates, who was suffering from a foot injury and felt he was holding his team mates back, walked out of their tent on March 17th into the freezing weather and was never seen again. The search party that set off in October 1912 to find out what had become of the expedition only ever found his sleeping bag a few miles south of the tent that contained the frozen bodies of Scott and his two companions Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson and Henry Robertson Bowers (another team mate, Edgar Evans, having died on February 17th already at a different location). They are believed to have died sometime around the date of Scott’s last journal entry from March 29th, 1912.

What I find the most interesting about this expedition and its fate are little tidbits about the characteristics of some of the team members and how they came to be on this ill-fated endeavour. First, there’s Edgar Evans, who was chosen by Scott to be among the 5-men-team to attempt the final leg of the journey towards the South Pole even though he is described as having been something of a “beery womanizer” who even fell into the water upon boarding the ship once because he was drunk.  Henry Robertson Bowers was originally only the storekeeper aboard the Terra Nova but due to his organisational skills and his bright and cheerful nature and dauntless spirit he became a valuable member of Scott’s team. Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1898 (who would have thought he’d partake in an Antarctic expedition just 12 years later?) and had just married his wife only three weeks prior to setting of on Terra Nova. Talk about bad luck, eh?

Over the years there have been varying theories about who is to blame for Scott’s expedition failing in this tragic manner but I’m not going to comment on those simply because I know too little about what is important for such an endeavour to be successful. I’ll just go with the “bad luck”-theory because in my view we’ll never know for sure what really happened on that journey and blaming the adverse weather conditions – that even scientists have judged to have been unusually bad – is the safest option here (and a typically British one at that ;-)).

Scott and his team at the South Pole
L-R: Wilson, Scott, Oates
Bowers, Evans (seated)

23/24 Leinster Gardens (as seen on ‘Sherlock’)

If you’re a ‘Sherlock’ fan like me you’ll no doubt have seen the most recent episode about the world-famous (if fictional) sleuth Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson. The show, written by Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame) and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock’s even more ingenious brother Mycroft on the show), regularly delights its viewers with quirky little tidbits of trivia knowledge about London. The most recent example of this are the dummy houses at 23/24 Leinster Gardens. Dummy houses, you say? Yes, indeed.

In the 1860s, when the terraced houses in this upmarket area of Bayswater were erected, London’s Underground trains were still running on steam engines and in order to keep the subterranean parts of the lines free of smoke, there had to be a few open spaces here and there where the fumes could be released. To hide this rather unattractive sight from a picturesque street such as Leinster Gardens, the Tube people came up with the idea to have two fake house frontispieces built to provide an unbroken façade along the street.

ImageWalking past No. 23/24 Leinster Gardens you hardly notice anything odd about these houses. It’s only upon closer inspection that you realise the windows are painted and there are no letterboxes (or even doorknobs) on the front doors. Otherwise, it all looks just the same as the neighbouring properties. Go round the back, however, and you get to see a completely different view.

ImageSo in typically British fashion, the ‘necessary evil’ in the form of the London Underground has been put “out of sight, out of mind” here and on top of that people like me get to blog about this quirky little fact of London life. 🙂 Win-win, eh?

Hello, I’m The Doctor!

The Twelfth Doctor is….. Peter Capaldi!!

Personally, I love this choice. I liked him in all his roles so far and I don’t mind that he already had parts in Doctor Who and Torchwood. After all, Freema and Karen were in Doctor Who as well before they became companions. Also, I think he’s got something of an older David Tennant about him and Ten was my favourite Doctor, so I’m a happy bunny. 😀 Now I can’t wait to see Twelve in action!!

What do you think about the casting choice?

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Marcia Moody – Kate: A Biography

I love recommending books to my readers. When I love a book it’s just the best thing to share my enjoyment of it and to see if anyone else likes it just as much as I did. Of course there are always books I didn’t enjoy as much as others, yet I wouldn’t want to speak badly of them because tastes are always subjective and just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it. However, sometimes I come across the odd book that is just so BAD that I feel the need to protect my readers from making the mistake of buying it. The book I’m going to write about here is such a case…
Marcia Moody’s biography of The Duchess of Cambridge was released on July 19th and seemed to me a fitting read in anticipation of the birth of the royal baby. I had seen Moody on TV a couple of times and was following her on Twitter as well and thought quite highly of her, so I fully expected to enjoy her book about Kate’s life. Well, it was not to be… This is one of the worst books I have ever read. For the most part it’s nothing more than a summary of Kate’s royal engagements and her wardrobe. Also the author seems to be such a big fan of Kate that even though she mentions criticism of her, in each case it is simply dismissed as being false, but with very weak arguments against it. It is very poorly edited as well, there’s hardly a page where there’s not a word missing or a typo. I read the Kindle edition, so I’m still kind of hoping this is just due to a poor ebook converter, but somehow I doubt it, because being an editor in publishing myself I know how this is usually done and that the same data is used for the print and ebook editions. Also, there are quite a few repetitions, like the mentioning of Kate being born in the coldest January for ages and such. Again, poor editing. So, to cut this short, because it really doesn’t merit a long review: Don’t waste your money on this!!

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It’s a boy!

Finally! Demonstrating impeccable timing the royal baby chose the hottest day of the year in Britain to be born and the world awaited the announcement with baited breath, while the media that had been gathered outside the hospital for weeks finally sprung into action. The Duchess of Cambridge was admitted to St Mary’s Hospital shortly before 6am and was accompanied by her husband, Prince William. Apparently they didn’t know the gender of their baby beforehand and were planning on a natural birth. The 3rd in line to the throne, a boy weighing 8lbs 6oz was finally born at 4.24pm on July 22nd and just over four hours later the announcement of his birth was made and placed on an easel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, where thousands of well-wishers had already gathered.

To see the real deal, however, the world had to wait until the following evening when finally the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge left the hospital at around 9:15pm on July 23rd and presented their as-yet-unnamed baby boy to the media and countless onlookers. Dressed in a spotted Jenny Packham number, very reminiscent of Diana’s outfit from 31 years ago when she took baby William home, Kate carried her son out and then carefully handed him to her husband before the couple answered a few questions. They revealed that the first nappy change had already taken place and that it had been William who did the honours, that Baby Cambridge was quite a big boy with a good pair of lungs on him and that they were still working on a name. Asked about the baby’s looks, Prince William joked that he had Kate’s looks (to which she replied laughing “No, no, I’m not sure about that!”) and a lot more hair than himself, “thank God”. The couple then went back inside for a few minutes to put the baby in a car seat, which William very competently secured in the car that he then drove himself in the direction of Kensington Palace. After the new family had left the crash barriers were opened and lots of hospital staff were seen celebrating and hugging each other, obviously thrilled to have been part of “Operation Royal Baby”.

With the birth over now comes the task of raising that little boy who will one day be King. Good luck with that, Kate & William!

The new family

UPDATE: …and the name is… George Alexander Louis! Personally, I would have preferred James, I think George sounds as if he’s 60 already. But to each their own, I suppose. 🙂

Bill Lamin – Letters from the Trenches

Letters from the TrenchesWhen I was still at uni I attended a class on World War I literature and I have been fascinated with WWI stories ever since.

The book I’d like to introduce you to in this post is the true account of Harry Lamin, a young man from Yorkshire who served in the Great War with the York and Lancaster Regiment and later the Royal Munster Fusiliers. The reviews this book is getting on the usual book rating communities are mixed. This is due to the fact that as opposed to most war stories it’s not a tale of shining heroes and acts of bravery in the face of the enemy but simply a tale of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, doing his duty for his country. It’s presented in the form of letters written by Harry Lamin to various members of his family back home, annotated and edited by his grandson, Bill. It is not particularly gripping entertainment due to the fact that the letters are really very similar and you do get tired of the seemingly endless repetitions of what Harry did during his time at the front and the ever-present ‘could you send some paper/clean shirts/socks etc.’ requests to his relatives. But it is this drabness and monotony that makes the book so realistic because repetition and boredom were basically the main parts of life at the front for the lower ranks, interspersed with stints of fighting that brought a bit of action and escape from homesickness. Harry also very stoically described the long marches or train journeys to new locations in both France and Italy and he never failed to send his family postcards of the different regions he was stationed at and to describe the most prominent features of the landscape and the people he encountered there.

Harry saw action in the Battle of the Messines Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele, he was wounded in the latter and sent home to recuperate, and after the war had ended he transferred to the Royal Munster Fusiliers in Italy and had to bide his time there until he was finally demobbed in 1920. What was especially remarkable to me is how long and incredibly tedious it must have been for the lower ranking soldiers to wait out the time after the war had ended until they could finally go home. Harry worked as a cook for the officers of his regiment to make some money and he repeatedly mentions in his letters that it probably won’t be long now until they have it all sorted to have the remaining soldiers sent home but in the end it’s almost a year and a half he has to wait before he can return to England. Somehow I had always imagined that as soon as the war was over they would just pack up and put all the soldiers on trains and ships and have them sent home but it wasn’t like that at all. Of course it was a huge challenge the people in charge were facing, logistically, to get thousands of soldiers back home from the various locations, that had to take a certain length of time, and once you were discharged from the army there was no-one who would provide for you, so many chose to stay on even after the armistice just to have a secure source of income, just as Harry did.

Luckily Harry wasn’t too traumatized from his time in the war so when he finally did get home he led a relatively ordinary and uneventful life and the book includes photographs of him as an old(er) man surrounded by his family. His grandson Bill found the letters years later in a drawer and decided to publish them, first as a blog and later in the form of a book. I urge you to persevere with this seemingly dull book if you’re interested to know what real life was like for the ordinary soldiers of the Great War. You won’t regret it and maybe you’ll even learn something new, like I did.

Kate Fox – Watching the English

Watching the EnglishI love reading books about England and the English and this one is a particular favourite of mine.

English anthropologist Kate Fox has studied the unwritten codes and rules her fellow countrymen (and -women) live by. In 14 chapters, divided into two parts (“Conversation Codes” and “Behaviour Codes”) Kate Fox talks about speech patterns, people’s behaviour at home, at work or with friends, and includes a section about specific class characteristics in each chapter.

Kate Fox chronicles her findings in a very witty and amusing manner. I loved the parts where the author tells of her endeavours to act against her own English nature, e.g. by trying to commit queue-jumping, deliberately bumping into other people waiting on platforms or very bluntly asking homeowners what they paid for their house.

The author’s way of telling her readers about her findings seems more like a friendly chat among friends rather than a scientific lecture. She doesn’t take herself and her countrymen too seriously and uses self-deprecating humour in those situations where she talks about things she herself doesn’t feel comfortable with (“How very English of me…”). I found this way of handling the subject very refreshing and entertaining, especially compared to the book ‘The English’ by Jeremy Paxman, which I’d started to read shortly after finishing Fox’s book but couldn’t bring myself to finish on account of it being so terribly dry and boring.

I highly recommend ‘Watching the English’ to everyone interested in English society and its rules and codes. The mixture of background info, facts and personal experiences is a gem for everyone wanting to increase their understanding of how English people, English minds ‘work’. Judging by my own experiences with English people I can certainly say that Kate Fox has painted a very realistic picture of her country’s society, even though, as with all things, her findings shouldn’t be over-generalised. We are all individuals, after all. Even the English. 😉

If you’re interested in buying a copy of the book, just click on the cover image up there to go to The Book Depository.

Lark Rise to Candleford

I spent the past few months watching all 4 series of ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’. As with so many British series I was late to the party on this one – it finished airing in early 2011 – which gave me the chance to watch all series straight through without having to wait for the next one. Not that there would have been massive cliffhangers, though. ‘Lark Rise…’ isn’t that kind of show, it doesn’t focus on big drama or action, it’s all about the little things, the random acts of kindness, the often petty quarrels and the friendships that keep a community, or rather two communities, going.

The two communities in this case are Lark Rise and Candleford, Lark Rise being a tiny hamlet about 8 miles from the neighbouring prosperous market town of Candleford in rural Oxfordshire at the end of the 19th century. Laura Timmins is a Lark Rise girl just on the brink of adulthood, who swaps her family’s cottage for the hustle and bustle of the Candleford post office, where she starts working alongside her mother’s cousin: formidable, headstrong and independent postmistress Dorcas Lane. Situated right at the centre of town, the Candleford post office – and Dorcas Lane in particular – provides the customers with advice on matters of both business and the heart. Through Laura’s eyes we get to experience what it means to be a woman in late 19th century England and Dorcas Lane teaches us that we can achieve anything if we only set our minds to it. The series shows the daily lives of the townsfolk as well as the villagers and the various grievances that come with it. Through all of those grievances, however, there is the post office and there is Miss Lane, who, though not short of problems of her own, is always there to give her opinion on the matter at hand – if sometimes not entirely welcomed by those around her.

Over the course of the 4 series we get to see Laura grow up from a teenager into a young woman, we get to follow postman Thomas Brown’s courtship of the timid but kind and funny daughter of the town’s vicar, we see hamlet families struggling through periods of extreme poverty without ever losing their appetite for life and we get to know a good deal about 19th century society and its ways.

While I like almost every one of the characters in the series, I particularly love Thomas Brown and Margaret, his wife. Whatever life throws at them, they take it in their stride and they must be one of the funniest TV couples I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. The following scene is one of my favourites:

Another favourite of mine is Pearl Pratt (solo and in combination with her sister Ruby), the proprietor of Candleford’s ’boutique’. Her character is probably changing the most over the course of the series, from an annoying, gossip-loving nag to a loving and kind person who is very protective of her and her sister’s livelihood. This scene is probably my favourite of the entire series and perfectly captures the essence of the plot and what makes it so special and lovely to watch:

So, have any of you ever watched this series? What did you think? If you haven’t, please do give it a try! I think almost all episodes can be found on YouTube and it’s out on DVD as well, of course. Since the series is based on a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson, I’ll be reading those at some point as well (you can click on the image below to buy an all-in-one copy of the trilogy at The Book Depository):

Lark Rise to Candleford