Monthly Archives: June 2017

Caring for your precious items – book conservation

Are you a lover of books? I am. I love the feel and smell of a new book, and I love the history which is part of an old book – what can it tell me about the past? about the person who owned it?

17th century Bible

Books, manuscripts, letters, newspapers, and other kinds of documents can be a very important source for historians. Not only do they give us information about what happened during a certain period of history, but the way they have been used can also tell us a great deal too, from the family history written in the front of a BIble to letters and photographs preserved between the pages. An old family Bible dating from the 17th century plays a role in my novel The Cavalier Historian, and Robert Hardwick, the main character, is keen to have it properly conserved. So why do books deteriorate and what can be done to limit this?

The condition of paper items can deteriorate for any number of reasons including:

Inherent vice – this refers to the general degradation of the book as it ages. Paper made from plant materials like hemp or linen are more durable than paper made from wood-pulp which becomes discoloured and unstable because of the lignin it contains. As a single book is made from a number of materials (the cover, pages etc will be made from different materials) these can degrade at different rates.

Pests –  Insects and vermin will feed on the cellulose, starch and protein in paper.

Environmental conditions – extremes of temperature and humidity, the quality of the air, and light (e.g. direct sunlight) can all damage books. The modern environment with central heating or air conditioning in many buildings has increased the amount and speed of damage to many books.

Handling A book which has been handled frequently can show many different kinds of wear and tear, from damage to the spine to wearing of the cover where it has been frequently taken down from a shelf.

So books and paper documents will suffer damage over time. Sometimes that is not a problem to the owner, if it is a cheap paperback novel, for example, it may just be recycled when it begins to lose its cover or pages. But what happens to something more valuable? There are two main ways in which a book may be conserved. On the one hand, preventative conservation aims to maintain and, if possible, enhance the condition that the book is in, and also to make sure that the risks of further deterioration are reduced by making sure that it is handled correctly and kept in the correct environmental conditions in the future. On the other hand, remedial conservation aims to repair the book with the minimum amount of changes so that the history of the book itself can be preserved as much as possible. The amount of work put into conserving a book can range from basic minimal stabilization to very complex work on both the pages and binding including structural, chemical, and cosmetic work.

Tools used in book conservation

Basic stabilization involves the minimum amount of work to slow the deterioration of the book. Strange as it may seem, this kind of work can be used for books at opposite ends of the spectrum – for items that have little value and so are not worth the cost, but also for those which are valuable historical objects or artifacts and so the history in the book itself needs to be preserved.

In The Cavalier Historian the aim of the work on the Bible was to have ‘minimal intervention’, in other words Robert wanted to maintain the integrity of the Bible and the story it had to tell about the Hardwicke family so the work was to be restricted to protecting against further damage rather than restoring it to its original condition. During my research of this topic whilst writing the novel I developed an interest in  book conservation and now, whenever I visit a museum or historical property, I find myself looking at the books on display with a a deeper interest, wondering how they have been  conserved and what stories they have to tell.

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Recommended Read – ‘Paris’ by Edward Rutherfurd

City of love. City of splendour. City of terror. City of dreams.

Inspired by the haunting, passionate story of the city of lights, this epic novel weaves a gripping tale of four families across the centuries: from the lies that spawn the noble line of de Cygne to the revolutionary Le Sourds who seek their destruction; from the Blanchards whose bourgeois respectability offers scant protection against scandal to the hard-working Gascons and their soaring ambitions.

Over hundreds of years, these four families are bound by forbidden loves and marriages of convenience; dogged by vengeance and murderous secrets; torn apart by the irreconcilable differences of birth and faith, and brought together by the tumultuous history of their city. Paris bursts to life in the intrigue, corruption and glory of its people.

Author of Sarum, London and New York, Edward Rutherfurd illuminates Paris as only he can: capturing the romance and everyday drama of the men and women who, in two thousand years, transformed a humble trading post on the muddy banks of the Seine into the most celebrated city in the world.

Mr Rutherfurd has written an engrossing saga of interwoven stories of four families who lived and loved in the city of Paris, families which come from all aspects of society – nobility, bourgeois, revolutionary and labourer. The lives of these fictional families are skilfully entwined with the history of the city from its earliest days to the Second World War and beyond, which makes the novel ideal for someone who wants to get an overview of the history of Paris and how different social groups influenced, or were influenced by, events. Each family history is carefully plotted and although there are rather a lot of co-incidences these are necessary to bring the characters together in a complex yet coherent plot, ‘Paris’ is, after all, historical fiction not fact.

Mr Rutherfurd has obviously conducted a great deal of detailed research into the history of France and Paris which is evident in the complexities of both the culture and politics of France which he has handled with skill. Whilst the main portion of the novel covers the period from 1875 to the mid-1960’s this story is interspersed with cameos of the families from 1261 onwards, the abiding theme being the socialist and revolutionary spirit of many of the city’s inhabitants. This is an effective way of telling the story of Paris without overwhelming the reader with too much detail or including information just for the sake of it. Mr Rutherford seems to get the right balance here, and anyone who wants to find out more about any of the periods will be able to conduct further research for themselves.

‘Paris’ is a story of divided loyalties, lies, deceit, love, honour, and a whole raft of other emotions, all told against the backdrop of this vibrant city. One fascinating aspect of the novel is the descriptions of the landscape and architecture and how these changed over the centuries. The physical space of the city is so well written that you can feel yourself there, and anyone who has ever visited Paris will recognise the authenticity of the descriptions from Versailles to Notre Dame, the Eifel Tower to Montmartre.

Mr Rutherfurd has a writing style which is engaging and moves the story on at a good pace. The one thing which readers may find difficult to follow is the relationships of the characters and family histories but the author has provided excellent family trees to help with this, and the more you read the less you need to use them. What draws the reader in is the believable characters who elicit a variety of responses, from sympathy to anger; what is interesting is that you are able to see the history of France from many different perspectives and find your sympathies residing with different parts of society at different times. It takes a very clever wordsmith to create such a believable world for his characters to inhabit.

I would recommend ‘Paris’ to anyone who enjoys historical sagas. The novel is an easy and engaging read from which it is possible to learn a great deal whilst also being entertained. Based on my enjoyment of this book I shall certainly be reading more novels written by Edward Rutherfurd.

‘Paris’ can be found on Amazon

Mr Rutherfurd’s website can be found here

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here

The fruits that won the war – Mulberry Harbours

If you holiday in France you may like to visit Arromanches on the Normandy coast. This was the site of one of the Mulberry Harbours, an amazing engineering feat which helped to change the course of the Second World War. The remains of the harbour can still be seen today.

German coastal defences at Arromanches

Both the Allies and Hitler knew that an Allied invasion of Nazi held Europe was essential for the winning of the war. They also knew that any landing was unlikely to succeed without a safe harbour in Allied hands. Once the liberating forces had established a foothold on the Normandy coast enormous amounts of men and supplies would need to be landed to re-enforce the bridgehead before pushing on towards Germany. The problem for the Allies was that the Germans had occupied and heavily fortified all the ports on the northern coast of France. The disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe in 1942 showed that taking such ports would only be done with immense loss of life and would not be quick. What the Allies needed was access to a port that was not controlled by the Germans. Small fishing ports would not be suitable as the large ships needed to transport bulky supplies needed a deep port with harbourside cranes; the Allies therefore decided that if no such ports were available they would have to create their own.

The plan they came up with was simple yet would be incredibly complex to achieve – the construction of a new harbour the size of Dover at the site of the invasion. The plan was to prefabricate the elements needed in Britain before towing them across the English Channel and creating a harbour off the landing beaches. The schedule was to complete the construction within two weeks of the D Day landings in June 1944. Winston Churchill knew that there would be enormous problems with this idea but was determined that it should work if the invasion was to be successful. A trial of three competing designs for the floating harbour was set up in 1943 with prototypes built and tested on the Solway Firth. Once the design was finalised the War Office could begin the prefabrication of the concrete caissons.

D Day Copyright: © IWM.

The invasion of Europe began on 6th June 1944, D Day, with thousands of Allied troops landing along the Normandy coast. Once the beachheads were secured the work on the floating harbours began, the first stage of which was to scuttle a number of old ships off the coast at Arromanches as temporary outer breakwaters (the Gooseberries) to protect the area where the harbour (the Mulberry) was to be built. The huge prefabricated caissons (water-tight concrete structures codenamed Phoenixes) were then sunk to provide the permanent breakwaters which would shelter the floating roadways and jetties.  Once the completed Mulberry Harbour was in place the Allies could begin unloading the supplies which would be so vital for their victory.

There were actually two Mulberry Harbours towed across the English Channel to support the Normandy beachheads. Mulberry A was constructed at Omaha Beach whilst Mulberry B (nicknamed ‘Port Winston’), was constructed off Gold Beach at the town of Arromanches. Once assembled the harbours could unload 7,000 tons of supplies a day. Each incredibly complex harbour had masses of pontoons which supported around 6 miles of flexible roadways ending in huge pier heads supported by underwater ‘legs’.

An incredible feat of engineering had both harbours almost fully functional when they were hit by a storm on 19th June. The Mulberry Harbours had been designed for summer weather not the worst storm to hit the Normandy coast for 40 years, and the harbour at Omaha beach was so badly damaged that it was beyond repair. This could have been a disaster for the Allied forces, but although the second Mulberry suffered some damage it survived the storm and continued to land supplies in support of the invasion. Although it had been designed to last for just ninety days Port Winston was in continuous use for ten months following D Day and in that time landed over half a million vehicles, two and a half million men and four million tons of supplies.

When the invasion had moved eastward and liberated ports from the Nazis the harbour was no longer useful and was abandoned. If you visit Arromanches today you can see the remains of the Mulberry Harbour from the beaches.

The scale and sheer audacity of the Mulberries took the Germans completely by surprise. At the Nurembeurg trials after the war Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany, gave a German perspective on the Mulberry Harbours:

“To construct our defences we had in two years used some 13 million cubic metres of concrete and 1½ million tons of steel. A fortnight after the Normandy Landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion force brought their own harbours, and built, at Arromanches and Omaha, on unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.”

When we remember the troops who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy we should not forget those who designed and built the Mulberry Harbours which were so instrumental in making D Day and the invasion of Europe such a success.