22 April 2017

Guy Fawkes and his 12 Catholic co-conspirators

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”

Even though in childhood I really did not understand why we remember the infamous gunpowder plot, it was always my favourite night of the year. Every father in Australia, even those who normally did not organise fun activities with their children during the year, part­icipated in the bonfire building. Only in the late 1970s was the pub­lic sale of fireworks banned across Australia, to prevent injuries and bushfires. The ban ruined Guy Fawkes Night here.

Guy Fawkes Night aka Bonfire Night was and is the anniversary of the foiling of the Gun­powder Plot on 5th November 1605. The plot was centred around a group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries, furious at the persecution of their co-religionists in England. After 45 years of persecution during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the plotters had hoped their struggles would end once King James I took the throne in 1603. Certainly James was a Protestant, but the Catholics knew that James had had a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots. And James had himself  made informal overtures to Catholic powers like Spain, Savoy and Tuscany.

In 1603, in Hampton Court, James was known to be receiving some leading Catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. And the treaty negotiations between Spain, England and Flanders were concluded in Aug 1604, but there was still no mention of toleration for the English Catholics.

Disenchantment quickly with King James set inRobert Catesby and a group of his Catholic friends created a plan to kill the king, Prince of Wales and all the parliamentary ministers who had oppressed Catholics. The plotters wanted to blow up the Palace of West­minster during the state-opening of parliament when everyone would be there.

Guy Fawkes

Apart from the plot leader Robert Catesby, the other members of the group were Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen and John Grant. Each plotter had a specific role. For example the Wright brothers travelled to Holland to recruit Guy Fawkes. And they visited the King of Spain to ask for his support in the expected revolt that would follow the killing of King James I. Thomas Percy (who had contacts at the court of King James), hired a cellar beneath the House of Lords.

Sir Everard Digby and his servants would wait at the Red Lion Inn. As soon as he learned of the plot’s success, Catesby would leave London for the Midlands where the men would mastermind the next stage of the plot - the Catholic Rising. Thomas Percy helped fund the group and secured the leases to certain properties in London. When the plotters successfully kidnapped King James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Percy would remain in London and capture her brother, Prince Henry.

Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert, called in by the others to set the fuse. Fawkes was a Protestant Englishman who converted to Catholicism following his father’s death. He left England to join the mercenaries fighting for the Spanish against the Protestant Dutch. By renting a house near the palace, Fawkes could smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder under Westminster and prepared to blow it to oblivion. Modern scientists have calculated that the blast have obliterated an area 500 ms wide.

Towards the end of the planning, some of the plotters worried about killing parliamentarians who had actually supported Catholicism. But the scheme was only revealed when an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle (1575–1622) in the House of Lords, warning him not to go into Parliament. I am assuming the plotters did not want to kill Lord Monteagle since he was married into many Roman Catholic fam­il­ies, including being the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the plotters. In fact we need to note that ten of the plotters (except for Guy Fawkes, Sir Everard Digby and Thomas Bates) were all related to one another, either by means of blood or through marriage.

The timing of this warning to Lord Monteagle was perfect - Fawkes was caught red-handed in the cellars by the guards. After his cap­ture he was tortured till he gave up his fellow plotters. All of them died, either shot on the run OR put on trial for high treason, convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered in Jan 1606. As Fawkes awaited his punishment on the gallows, he leapt from the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, and broke his neck. Fawkes was only 35 when he died.

From left: Thomas Bates; Robert Wintour; Christopher Wright; John Wright; Thomas Percy; Guy Fawkes; Robert Catesby; Thomas Wintour
engraving, artist unknown, c1605

James gave thanks that God had delivered all of them. Then religious services, emotional sermons and bell ringing were heard across the country, celebrating England's deliverance by divine providence from a fiendish Catholic scheme.

Soon Bonfire Night was celebrated by the lighting of bon­fires, the burning of guys/effigies of Guy Fawkes and the explos­ion of fireworks. The celebration was designated in law by King James I a few months after the plot failed and remained on the statute books until 1859. Also by way of symbolic commemor­ation, the yeoman of the guard searches the (modern) cellars of the Houses of Parliament in time for the state-opening each November.

Only one memorial came as a shock to me. The 13-strong group of plotters included brothers John and Christopher Wright, from the village of Welwicks in Yorkshire. There is now a Coreten steel statue dedicated in 2013 to Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, John and Christopher Wright, installed at the village entrance near the Wright brothers’ home. It is very tall (2.4m)! Since the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot is still marked in Welwicks each year by Bonfire Night, the statue was probably built as a stark reminder of the reality of a historical specific event.

I have some last questions. Since the gunpowder plot of 1605 was seen as a dangerous challenge by the Catholic Church to Protestant Eng­land, why was the focus of the plotting limited to Guy Fawkes? Why was the role of the other 12 plotters largely excluded? And what about all the other well-connected people who aided the plotters with money, supplies and advice? Did the near-catastrophe in West­minster give some insight into how Catholics were suffering, leading to less severe penal laws against the practice of Cathol­icism in England? Does the reigning monarch only ent­er Parliament once a year even today, because of some lingering fear that remains since 1605?

To analyse the 13 major plotters and four other minor participants, see The Co-Conspirators.

18 April 2017

Mata Hari - seductive dancer in Paris or German WW1 spy?

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (1876-1917) came from Leeuwarden, born to her Dutch father Adam Zelle, a failed merchant. Her Javanese mother Antje Zelle fell ill and died when the four children were still at school. The grieving children were packed off to live with various relatives.

In the mid-1890s, Margaretha answered a newspaper ad seeking a bride for Rudolf MacLeod, a wealthy but brutal military captain based in the Dutch East Indies. The teenager sent a seductive photo of her­self and despite their age difference, they married in 1894. During their volatile, alcohol-affected marriage, Margaretha had a daughter who survived and a son who did not.

By the early 1900s, Mata Hari's marriage had failed. Her hus­band divorced her and disappeared with their daughter, so Margaretha moved to Paris. There she became a professional dancer, teacher and translator, and when she was hungry, she became the mistress of a French diplomat.

In Edwardian Paris, Margaretha's exotic looks were perfect. She created the Temple Dance by drawing on cultural and religious symb­olism that she had picked up in the Indies. She called herself a Hindu artist, draped in veils that loosely covered her body. In one exotic garden performance, Mata Hari appeared with a naked bottom on a white horse and breasts covered with beads. Completing her dram­atic transformation from military wife to an Indonesian princess trained in exotic rituals and Hindu dances, she called herself Mata Hari.

Clothes had always been one of Mata Hari’s passions, and she spent a great deal of money on them after she became famous. Erte, the brilliant designer who later worked for the Russian Ballet, designed his first theatrical costume for Mata Hari. Mata Hari’s other couturieres included Georgette Brama, Louise Emery and Lucille, Lady Duff Gordon. They knew Mata Hari as a demanding customer who preferred her dresses to be as revealing as possible, and she was acknowledged by many to be the best-dressed woman in Paris. She was photographed by Paul Boyer, Lucien Walery and Leopold-Emile Reutlinger, the leading theatrical and fashion photographers of the day.

During this period, Mata Hari tried repeatedly to enter the world of legitimate dance, opera, and theatre. In 1910, she performed a dancing role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Antar”. In 1912, she performed in Gluck’s opera “Armide” and Antonio Marceno’s ballet “Bacchus and Gambrinus” at the prestigious La Scala in Milan

Mata Hari got off her white horse,
with a naked bottom and breasts covered with beads

Mata Hari’s dances drove the Paris salons wild, then Berlin, Vienna, Madrid and other European capitals. Reporters across Europe described her as "slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair." "She was feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thous­and curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms."

But youth doesn’t last forever. As younger dancers came to fame, Mata Hari's bookings reduced. She boosted her income by seduc­ing government and military men; sex was purely for money. Despite the grow­ing ten­sion in Europe pre-WWI, her lovers included Ger­man officers.

Despite the Netherlands remaining neutral in WW1, her relentless travelling and random sexual liaisons attracted attention from British and French intelligence who carefully surveilled her.

At 40 Mata Hari fell in love with a 21-year-old Russian captain, Vladimir de Masloff, in 1916. During their courtship, Masloff was sent to the Front, where an injury left him blind in one eye. Det­ermined to earn money to support him, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, an army captain who needed her “contacts” for French intelligence.

Mata Hari insisted that she planned to use her connections to seduce her way into the German high command, get secrets and hand them over to the French. So when she met a German attaché, she began tossing him bits of gossip, hoping to get some valuable information in return. Instead, she got named as a German spy in communiqués he sent to Berlin which were immediately caught by the French.

Some historians believed that the Germans suspected Mata Hari was a French spy and subsequently set her up, deliberately sending a mess­age falsely labelling her as a German spy. Others believed that she was in fact a German double agent. In any case, the French auth­or­it­ies arrested Mata Hari for espionage in Paris in Feb 1917. They threw her into the filthy prison at Saint-Lazare, where no family or friends were allowed to visit.

During lengthy interrogations by the military prosecutor Captain Pierre Bouchardon, Mata Hari seemed uncertain of which events in her life actually happened and which she had made up over the years. Eventually she admitted too much: A German diplomat had once paid her 20,000 francs to gather intelligence in Paris. But she had al­ways remained faithful to France - the money was compensation for furs and luggage that had once disappeared on a departing train while German border guards hassled her. "A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!" she repeated many times.

Mata Hari's trial for espionage came at a time when the Germans were advancing. Real or imagined spies were convenient scapegoats for explaining military losses, and Mata Hari's arrest was one of many.

So when Mata Hari (?accidentally) admitted that a German officer paid her for sex, the French prosecutors depicted it as espionage money. And money she claimed was a regular stipend from a Dutch bar­on was portrayed in court as coming from German spymasters. Sadly the Dutch baron was never called to testify before the military tri­bunal. Nor did they call Mata Hari's maid, who handled the bar­on's payments. Worst of all, she had the three most criticised character flaws - she was foreign, divorced and had sex out­side marriage. "Without scr­up­les, accustomed to make use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy," concluded Bouchardon.

The military tribunal deliberated for only 45 minutes before return­ing a guilty verdict. The defendant couldn’t believe it ☹. She made a direct appeal to the French president for clemency and was horrified when he too turned her down.

Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on 15th Oct 1917. Dressed in a French uniform, she had arrived at the Paris execution site with a minister and two nuns and walked quickly to the kill-site. She then turned to face the firing squad, removed her blindfold and was instantly killed.

It was an improbable end for the exotic dancer and courtesan, whose name came to stand for sexy spy who charmed war secrets from her lovers. At the time, The New York Times merely called her "a woman of great attractiveness and with a romantic history."

What do people believe now? Mystery and intrigue still surrounds Mata Hari's life and alleged double agency. Many people saw the 1931 film Mata Hari, starring Greta Garbo as the courtesan-dancer-spy and Ramon Novarro as her Russian flier-lover, called Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff in the film. The conclusion seems to be that Mata Hari was thoughtless in her selection of sexual partners during WW1, but certainly not working as a spy for the Germans (or for anyone else). The military files used against her were filled with information gaps, exaggerations and blatant lies.

This year is the centenary of Mata Hari’s execution, so there is a renewed interest in her story: Paulo Coehlo’s new novel The Spy, Ted Brandsen’s ballet by the Royal Dutch Ballet, and an exhibition at the Fries museum. Perhaps Mata Hari's letters, edited by Lourens Oldersma offer a more human side to this woman, as a victim of domestic abuse and historical circumstances.

15 April 2017

Innovative housing programmes of the New Deal: Aluminium City Terrace Pa

By 1932, during the Great Depression, at least one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. When President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, he needed to strengthen the economy ..and provide jobs and relief to the nation’s working families and to the unemp­loy­ed. Over the next eight years, the government instituted a series of experimental programmes that aimed to restore some dignity to working families. This was the New Deal.

President Roosevelt's New Deal legislation tackled the incr­eas­ingly desperate housing shortage via the formation of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration in 1933. In Oct 1934 the National Association of Housing Officials held a conference which:
a] established housing standards,
b] devised a plan for creating pro­jects through local agencies, and
c] criticised slum clearance polic­ies.

Very soon a bill was presented that would give federal money to local authorities for low-income housing projects. In 1937 Congress finally approved the United States Housing Act, "to provide financial assist­ance to the states and political subdivisions thereof for the prov­is­ion of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families of low income." It had taken 4 long years!!

Even though the USA was not sending soldiers off to WW2 yet, The Defence Homes Corporation-DHC was created in October 1940 to finance housing subdivisions and apartment complexes for workers in war industries. Conservatives were furious! In order to insure conservative opposit­ion would not prevent the legislation from going ahead, DHC agreed only to construct public housing where the private home-building industry was NOT functioning. Hundreds of housing projects were completed and hundreds more were started, but hostile right wing political campaigns continued.

one storey row houses
each with its own porch

By 1941 very loyal workers in the Alcoa plants in the Allegheny Valley near Pittsburgh were also being transferred to defence work. Architect Walter Gropius had designed successful Bauhaus housing projects in his home country (Germany) back in the 1920s, so when the Roosev­elt administ­ration urgently needed housing for these workers, they turned to Gropius. He was, he said, creating appropriate architecture for the modern age that would utilise machines to produce rational, standardised buildings.

Gropius and his equally modernist architectural colleague (also from Bauhaus) Marcel Breuer designed Aluminium City Terrace/ACT in New Kens­ing­ton Penn­syl­vania quickly: in 12 frantic days of work. They planned 250 apartments, grouped in 35 multi-unit row house buildings!

The documents for this project, written in July 1941, illustrated the architects' concerns for the overall health and well-being of the workers who would live at ACT. So Gropius and Breuer produced a layout in which almost every one of 35 row houses faced the sun. Large windows let the light flow into the open-plan interiors, which used low partitions to divide the internal living spaces. All this made the homes seem larger. Wooden awnings shielded the windows from the high summer sun. In addition to the beautiful green areas around the entire project, each tenant had his own private terrace opening from his own living area.

Smallish houses, but light and airy interiors

This was similar to the architectural designs for private houses in New England at the time, including Grop­ius' own house in Lincoln Massachusetts (now a museum). But ACT houses were much cheap­er and much smaller! Gropius and Breuer laid out the buildings along a ridge, pay­ing spec­ial attention to the land contours in a typically hilly Pittsburgh-area site.

The name Aluminium City Terrace was used because of the historic Alcoa plant that had been there, employing 7,000 workers. But they did not use aluminium. Even when ACT was being built, the local aluminium was being redirected from consumer products to the burg­eoning war effort. The buildings were made of brick, cedar and glass, still reflecting the very spare, very rectangular Bauhaus style developed in Germany.

As did the communal facilities. The Community House offered a large meeting room with a demonstration kitchen, a nursery for babies, and a room for arts and crafts. Then the Child Welfare Building provided additional space for community activities, a preschool and a children's clinic.

When the war ended in 1945, the federal government began planning to sell off defence housing projects quickly and cheaply. However, by July 1946, the government’s National Housing Agency (NHA) issued a plan for the "disposal of permanent war housing to mutual ownership corporations."

Aluminum City Terrace was the first defence housing project in the USA to be purchased by tenants under provisions of the Mutual Own­er­ship Plan of 1948. This was despite more protests from a hostile Congress and from local landowners who predicted that working families would inevitably create a future slum and lower property values. In 1948, the experiment in wartime housing did indeed become a co-op. Since then, the management of the neighbourhood has been overseen by a board of directors, all residents, who meet monthly to do ensure the upkeep of the buildings and gardens, and other communal tasks.

The first Community House
with intact meeting hall, kitchen etc
Note the lawns and trees were being planted in all communal spaces

When the war ended, Gropius published Rebuilding Our Communities. The book concluded with a number of photographs of Aluminum City Terrace and an important challenge for every citizen. Some excellent contemporary photos can be seen in A Sometime Architourist.

Since then the buildings have been sig­nificantly and sensitively remodelled. In the 1960s, most of the wood siding were removed and the wooden sun screens were replaced with long, aluminium, louver-like sunscreens. While they don't look like the historic Bauhaus-style product they once represented, the buildings are still attract­ive. And the Terrace meets the requirement that Gropius set so long ago: that housing for working families be as well designed as anything he produced for affluent clients.

In 1995, the Historic American Engineering Record performed careful visual documentation, as required for all important historical architecture. Just as well! Most housing communities built during the war were demolish­ed, even though they were des­igned by such not­ab­le architects as Louis Kahn, and even though they had achieved international fame by 1945. Alum­inum City Terrace was perhaps the only one to survive and thrive.

I am not surprised other public housing projects did not survive across the USA. Conservatives believed the ACT never served as a model for post-war private housing because it did not offer the traditional single family, suburban housing that Americans wanted. Millions of working American families, on the other hand, thought ACT was a democratic, affordable and attractive version of suburban housing. As do I.