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    The #Metoo movement has claimed its first scalp among male authors, with the disgrace of Pulitzer-prize winning author, Junot Diaz. A bookshop in Maine has pulled all his books. 
    The owner of the bookshop is quoted in a local newspaper as saying: "Some people thanked us in person and commented that it can be really triggering for survivors of sexual assault to see those names out there… There have been some people who think we are banning books, and to that, I say it is our choice not to carry products. It’s not the same as a book being banned. We have a ‘safe space’ commitment, and that extends to our shelves.”

     This blog is not yet another meditation on #metoo. But rather, on changing historical attitudes and the terrifying notion of safe space bookshelves. Who would be left upon it?  Look at any book written before about 1976, and bin it. Sexism, racism, thinly veiled paedophilia, homophobia. There's barely a book on my classics-heavy shelf which would pass a safe space test. And that's just the content. Stop to consider the personal failings of the writers and what would be left? A clutch of modern women: safe, yes. Brilliant, yes. But not the whole story. 

    I am reading Trollope at the moment. Now, I love Trollope in part because of his nuanced and vivid portraits of women. The man was anti-suffrage and obviously a misogynist - so far, so representative of a man of his class and time. But he was worse than that: consider this passage from the book I am currently reading, The Bertrams. In Jerusalem, our manly, English hero comes across a group of washerwomen: half of them are Jewish and half of them Muslim. He describes the Muslim women's half-veils: '.. they concealed one side of the face and the chin. No one could behold them without wishing the eclipse had been total. No epithet commonly applied to women in this country could adequately describe their want of comeliness.'

    In the next paragraph, he describes a beautiful Jewess. "She was very unlike the Jewess that is ordinarily pictured to us. She had no beaky nose, no thin face, no sharp, small, black bright eyes.'

    Trollope: Not woke.

    Shocking. Uncomfortable to read. Trollope is not woke. Hemingway is not woke. Few of the literary canon are woke. (For those of you unaware of the term "woke"; the Oxford English Dictionary included it for the first time last year and defined it as an adjective meaning “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”)

    Children's books of the past don't come out much better. I've been reading Blyton to one of my kids. In the Island of Adventure, the two girls cower on the sidelines while their brothers take the lead on exploring caves and jumping into secret passages. The girls cook a mean bacon and eggs, though, when the boys’ sleuthing makes them hungry. Jack and Philip may be drawn to the Island of Adventure; Dinah and Lucy-Ann are still tethered to the Hob of Crushed Ambitions.

    Blyton. Not woke.

    Blyton is pretty racist too. And she definitely does not like Romany people. As a person, she was pretty horrible, by her own children's account. Not woke.

    Hans Fallada was alleged to have shot at his wife in a drunken row. Hemingway was a violent, mean, racist boor. William Golding's unpublished memoir describes his attempted rape of a fifteen year old girl. JD Salinger dated a 14 year old girl when he was 30. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife, when she said he was not as good as Dostoevsky. Drug-addled William Burroughs shot his wife in the head when pretending to be William Tell. The history of writing is awash with white, middle-aged men with suspect attitudes and wandering hands (Dickens, I'm looking at you). And some of them were damn fine writers. 

    Here's the thing. I am an adult. I am an adult reader. I am capable of understanding context. 

    As adults, we are equipped to deal with historical attitudes we find unpalatable. We can put sexism, racism and other isms into historical context. We can separate the artist from the art. We should not dismiss Anthony Trollope because of his shocking, causal antisemitism because he lived in an era of shocking, casual antisemitism. 

    The historical misdemeanours in fiction can be managed, mediated by our own self-conscious lack of prejudice. We shift the perspective where possible - making Shylock a hero, for example, in spite of the text. We excuse where necessary – forgiving Joseph Conrad his racism because his white characters are as venal as his black characters are crude and two-dimensional.

    We re-invent Jane Austen as a feminist icon, on the basis of Lizzie Bennet’s wit, forgiving her women their tendency to contract life-threatening illnesses at the merest spatter of rain. We skate entirely over the insufferable and wet Fanny in Mansfield Park, in our rush to celebrate Austen as a writer of strong women.

    We are readers: we bring our own views, prejudices and opinions to the words on the page - and what emerges is a tango between us and the writer. The words do not have to be safe; the writer does not have to be safe.

    I have not read the works of Junot Diaz. But I will now, with a bullish two-fingers to those who deem his work unpalatable for my too-sensitive soul. Because unlikeable, criminal, venal, horrible, sexist, racist people can write brilliant books, too. And they frequently have.

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    by Deborah Swift

    Despatch Rider 1648
    Every time I write a book  there is nearly always a point in the plot where a letter or message needs to be sent, and I am obliged to calculate how long it will take for the letter to reach its destination. And of course someone in the novel is waiting for the reply, which doubles how much fictional time the reader has to wait to find out the outcome. This calculation nearly always involves the speed of a horse and rider, the distance, the state of the road, and the reliability of the postal service. Nowadays, mail is instant - a few seconds and it's on your screen. In the medieval Chronicle of Croyland, (named for its place of origin, the Benedictine Abbey of Croyland or Crowland, in Lincolnshire, England) we read:
    ' Richard III followed the practice which had been recently introduced by King Edward in the time of the last war with Scotland, of appointing a single horseman for every twenty miles, by means of whom travelling with the utmost speed and not passing their respective limits, news was able to be carried by letter from hand to hand 200 miles within two days.'
    This was the beginning of the despatch rider, at first a temporary measure to take mail of national urgency, and later a method of sending mail along organised routes.Under this new 'stage' system, a fresh horse was available every twenty miles, and so a  hundred miles could be covered in a day.

    In Tudor times as the court moved from place to place, so despatch routes would be organized between London and the designated palace. The earliest mention of a Master of the Posts is in the King's Book of Payments where a payment of £100 was authorised for Brian Tuke to take on the role February 1512. Tuke was the secretary of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey and was asked to look into the King's Posts. He sent a memorandum to Thomas Cromwell which stated that only the London to Dover route was a regular post, and the rest a hotch-potch of disorganisation, with people pulling carthorses from the fields if a message was urgent.

    Brian Tuke by Holbein

    Because of this shortcoming, the idea of always having a horse in readiness became essential. So the postmaster was born, a man who would have a horse always available for despatches (and of course he could hire these horses out to private persons too.) On major routes now there would be a postmaster appointed in each town, and they were instructed to have the sign of a posthorn hanging on the door, for the couriers to be able to find the source of their next mount.

    For this reason, we often still see the image of a posthorn on our mailboxes, stamps, and on taverns or pubs that were former staging posts. Some are still called the Post Horn Inn, the Horn or the Bugle Horn.

    By Elizabeth's reign, entrepreneurs had begun to set up rival companies, until a proclamation was made that the only mail that could be sent abroad was to go by the official posts. By 1598 it was possible to send mail to Ireland via two routes - Holyhead and Bristol. However, unofficial postmasters still plied their trade until the reign of Charles I when Thomas Witherings was apponted Postmaster of England. In April 1633 Witherings was sent on a visit to the Calais and Antwerp to regularise the foreign mail service, and he subsequently became so efficient that he gained a virtual monopoly on the routes from the capital to Bristol, Norwich, Plymouth, Edinbugh, Holyhead and Dover, all places linked to foreign trade.

    Mail in Early Modern England was notoriously unreliable. Footpads and thieves lurked on all the highways, and the post was often the target. Some post boys had 'arrangements' with local thieves. Added to this, many roads only had a weekly or bi-weekly service. I soon realised it was no good, as a novelist, thinking that the letter your character has sent would go the same day. It might be a week before the letter even began its journey.

    The post was then subject to the vagaries of its individual riders, and in the 18th Century John Palmer of Bath described the problem of postboys:
    'an idle boy without character, mounted on a worn-out hack, who, so far from being able to defend himself against a robber, was more likely to be in league with one.'
    John Palmer, who owned a theatre in Bath, used a coach to take his theatrical scenery from town to town. Finding this quicker than the mail,  he conceived of the idea of doing the same for the post. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to make a trial run carrying the post between Bristol and London. Under the 'stage post' system the journey had taken 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4 pm on 2nd August 1784 and arrived in London just 16 hours later. The government was impressed, so the mailcoach was born.

    Royal Mail Coach , Science Museum London

    To increase speed and efficiency, mail coaches in England were made to an approved design. Mail was held in a box at the rear where the only Royal Mail employee, who was armed, was allowed to stand. The guard's seat could not be shared with a passenger. The service ran to a punishing schedule, which meant that aside from quick changes of horses, the coach only stopped for collection and delivery of mail. The toll and turnpike gates had to be open by the time the mail coach passed through, and the gatekeeper was warned to open the gates by the blaring of the posthorn.

    Mail coaches were able to travel the roads toll-free, but even by Regency times the frequency of foreign correspondence was limited. Just before the advent of the railways, Horne's Foreign Mail Service left St Martin's le Grand  each Tuesday and Friday night. It travelled all night and arrived in Dover at 8.15 the next morning. This gives some idea of the speed and the state of the roads.

    Even after researching postal history, I still find myself calculating anew for each novel what sort of length of time my characters might expect to wait for their mail.

    BBC  History of the World - Packet Bag

    Images from Wikipedia
    From Track to Highway -- Gibbard Jackson
    Masters of the Post; The Authorized History of the Royal Mail -- Duncan Campbell-Smith

    My website and books www.deborahswift.com Twitter @swiftstory

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    ‘a little yellow house with green door and shutters, whitewashed inside - on the white walls - very brightly coloured Japanese drawings - red tiles on the floor.’ 

    A couple of weekends ago I was in Amsterdam to see an irresistible exhibition - Van Gogh and Japan at the Van Gogh Museum. I wondered what Vincent, poor tormented soul, would have made of that vast glitzy museum devoted to his works and memory, with its mobs of visitors and museum shops selling everything from Van Gogh luggage to Van Gogh dog coats. He was not exactly poor. His brother Theo who worked for a Paris art dealer took care of him. But he never found much success either during his life. He only sold one painting to anyone other than Theo.

    Sudden Shower over Shin Ohashi, Atake, Hiroshige (L)
    Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), Van Gogh (R)
    In February 1886, when Van Gogh was thirty three, he arrived back in Paris after ten years roaming from Ramsgate to the Low Countries. He lived there with Theo for two years and made friends with artists such as Émile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac. 

    He also became acquainted with the celebrated art dealer Siegfried Bing. Pretty much ever since Japan opened to the west in 1858 the west had been flooded with Japanese arts and crafts. All Paris along with half the western world was afire with Japonisme, unbridled enthusiasm for all things Japanese, and Siegfried Bing had largely cornered the market.

    Over the following winter Van Gogh bought up more than 600 Japanese woodblock prints. He planned to sell them. But as he leafed through them he was transfixed by the dramatic designs, compositions, bright colours, strong lines and extraordinary viewpoints, all startling and fresh to western eyes.

    It’s well known that Van Gogh was much influenced by Japanese art but this is the first exhibition to bring together so many of Van Gogh’s paintings alongside the prints that inspired them. It also broadens out the picture to reveal how much Van Gogh’s view of life was brightened by what he called these ‘cheerful prints’ - and how they played a part in shaping other aspects of his life.
    Courtesan (after Eisen) by Vincent Van Gogh

    Van Gogh’s first forays into Japanese art were to paint copies of three woodblock prints. One was Keisai Eisen’s Courtesan which featured on the cover of a special Japan edition of the magazine Paris Illustré. The others were landscape prints by Hiroshige which he had bought. It’s extraordinary to contrast Van Gogh’s dense impassioned brush strokes with the clean cool lines of the Japanese originals. The images are the same though he’s surrounded his courtesan with Japanese motifs - bamboo, cranes, frogs and waterlilies. But the techniques and mood and final effect are radically different.

    He also painted a portrait of his art dealer, Julien Tanguy, against a backdrop of woodblock prints, including Van Gogh’s own courtesan painting.
    Portrait of Pere Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh

    After two years in Paris he couldn’t stand the hustle and bustle any longer and in 1888 moved south. It was as if he was besotted with Japan, looking for it everywhere. On the way south he kept gazing out of the train window to see ‘if it was like Japan yet.’ He was sure he would find his dream of Japan there. He took with him a few woodblock prints, not famous or expensive ones but cheerful colourful depictions of landscapes and women.

    In Arles, the natural beauty and bright light and cheerful colours recreated Japan for him. The southern light, he wrote, turned everything into ‘Japan’. There was a field of irises there which he painted and described as a Japanese dream. He writes of the landscape of La Crau with its peach trees, ‘Everything there is small, the gardens, the fields, the trees, even those mountains, as in certain Japanese landscapes, that’s why this subject attracted me.’ ‘I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here,’ he said in another letter. ‘That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.’ 
    Rock of Montmajour by Vincent van Gogh

    Hakone by Ando Hiroshige
    In the exhibition Van Goghs paintings hang close to the Japanese prints which inspired them. He sought out subjects akin to those which he saw in the prints. There is a dramatic painting of a quarry, The Rock of Montmajour, dotted with trees, of which he writes, Youll well remember there are Japanese drawings where grasses and little trees grow there and there’. Hung opposite is Hiroshiges dramatic print of the crags at Hakone with a huge crag, with grass and trees growing out of it, dwarfing the people and hanging at an impossible angle over the water.
    The paintings Van Gogh did in Arles are very different from his earlier work. ‘After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently,’ he wrote to Theo. He plays with colour, laying on bright flat areas of intense colour with impassioned brush strokes. He painted The Yellow House set against a flat blue sky almost more solid than the house itself and his bedroom and yellow bed using ‘flat plain tints like Japanese prints,’ with strong outlines, flat colour planes and no shadows. Inspired by the Japanese prints which hung around his studio, he applied thick black contour lines and played with extraordinary perspectives and viewpoints. He painted Almond Blossom, seen from below against a dazzling turquoise sky, in honour of the birth of his nephew, Theo’s son. In The Sower, the dramatic diagonal of the tree trunk cuts across the picture, silhouetted against a huge yellow sun.

    Self-portrait dedicated to
    by Vincent van Gogh
    In Arles Van Gogh hoped to enjoy his dream of a Japanese way of life. He imagined humble Japanese woodblock print artists living and working together like monks in a monastery and decided to set up an artists’ colony with his friend Paul Gauguin as the leader. Like Japanese artists, they exchanged self portraits. In the portrait he sent Gauguin he depicts himself as a very un-Buddha-like Japanese monk with a shaven head and intense wild eyes, somewhat slanted.

    But as we know it didn’t work out. The collaboration with Gauguin came to an end, the artists’ colony fell through. Van Gogh cut off his ear, checked himself into a hospital and painted feverishly, producing a painting a day. When he couldn’t go outside he painted through the bars of his window.

    The last part of this absorbing and fascinating exhibition takes us right inside Van Gogh’s studio, surrounded by the Japanese prints that he had pinned to the wall - unframed, working tools, some torn and paint-stained. He often mentions the cheeriness of the brightly-coloured prints of landscapes and beautiful women. Perhaps he hoped to find peace of mind by surrounding himself with such serene images. But alas, that was the one thing he was destined never to find.

    Van Gogh and Japan at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, continues till June 24th 2018.

    Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

    All Van Gogh images © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

    All other images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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  • 05/14/18--17:12: The history of Schengen
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    I am currently writing a children's book - a contemporary not an historical one - set in the Schengen area. My publisher is an interactive e-book publisher and is now European, so it seemed appropriate.

    I picked a point in the Schengen area where the borders of three different countries meet. A three country or tri-point border is obviously far less common than a standard border and therefore so much more fun. This one is between Holland, Belgium and Germany.

    To celebrate the open borders in Europe, a public park has been established and straddles all three countries, with viewing towers in Holland and Belgium. There is a maze, a cafe and a central point at this three-point border.

    I have created a character from each of the three bordering countries, and together they have an adventure within the park. It was inspired by reading (I can't remember where) about how the local young people love to meet and mingle there, and enjoy their borderless existence. I thought this was inspiring at a time of hardening of borders and attitudes in the UK.

    This set me wondering about the Schengen area. When did it come into existence? When did I first hear it mentioned? I know it wasn't here in the UK; it was in Denmark, and it wasn't so very long ago either.

    I wasn't aware that the Schengen agreement wasn't originally an official part of the EU. Although some member states of the EU have been working towards and hoping for more integration for many years, no agreement could be reached. Thus the Schengen Agreement was originally made on the 14th June 1985, between only five European nations - France, Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. It was signed at a small village called Schengen in southern Luxemburg.
    Internal borders between seven countries were finally abolished in March 1995; the original five plus Spain and Portugal.
    It wasn't until May 1999 that the Schengen area was finally incorporated into the legal framework of the EU by the Treaty of Amsterdam.
    The Schengen area now comprises 26 states, four or which aren't EU members. Two EU states opted out - the UK and Ireland too, in order not to cause border problems with Northern Ireland.

    So far, my international characters are having an exciting adventure, roaming between the three countries, hunting down international smugglers. One more chapter to go this week. I shall be sorry to leave the park and return to real life where borders feel all too real.

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    In memory of Beth Chatto, who died earlier this week, aged 94. Apparently she believed that the secret of successful gardening is 'the right plant in the right place'. It's taken me a long time and a lot of failures, but I've eventually come to the same conclusion!

    Not so very long ago, museums used to be places full of glass display cases, crammed with dusty artefacts: you would wander past, peering at closely typed labels, wondering what it was you were supposed to be looking at and why. I remember as a child going to visit Wollaton Hall near Nottingham: we used to take a picnic and walk through the beautiful park, admiring the deer. And we would go into the natural history museum, which was full of cases containing miniature landscapes, against which were set stuffed animals and birds, which gazed defiantly out at us.

    And much more recently than that, twelve or so years ago, I visited the Ashmolean Museum - Britain's oldest museum -  in Oxford (more of the Ashmolean later). I was researching Alfred the Great, and I knew the Ashmolean had the Alfred Jewel, an object exquisitely made of gold and enamel at the behest of Alfred himself, and found centuries later in a Somerset field. It took some finding. Eventually I found it in a case jumbled up with quantities of other artefacts. Not long after that, the museum was given a stunning makeover, and now the Alfred Jewel is at its centre, beautifully displayed in solitary splendour.

    Museums have changed enormously over the last ten or twenty years. Now, thanks to innovative design and a realisation that people want to be told the stories behind what they are looking at, museums are not just informative places - they're exciting and creative.

    A corner of the Garden Museum

    Because of all that, they are not necessarily peaceful places. But recently, I visited one that is just that: it's a haven of peace in a busy, noisy world. It's the Garden Museum, on the south bank of the Thames, near Lambeth Bridge. So it's in the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world, with traffic and tourists hurtling past. And yet there it is, a small green oasis of calm and birdsong. Perhaps it's partly because the building which houses it was formerly a church. The museum was set up by Rosemary Nicholson in 1977, to preserve the building of the Church of St Mary's-at-Lambeth - and the tomb of the Tradescants, father and son, 17th century plant hunters.

    And thank heavens she did. The building has been beautifully re-purposed. It still has its stained-glass windows and pale, soaring stone arches. But it also contains eclectic displays concerning the history, art and design of gardens in Britain. It has special exhibitions, too - the one at the moment concerns a 20th century painter, gardener and plant hunter called Cedric Morris - and you can watch a series of short films about significant gardeners. I watched two, about Penelope Hobhouse and Beth Chatto; it was like wandering round their gardens with them as they reminisced, with extraordinary modesty, about their lives and work.

    John Tradescant the Elder

    And there's a small exhibition of objects from the Tradescants' Ark. This had the modest intention of representing 'the nature, art, religions and ways of life of all nations on earth'. The Tradescants, both gardeners to kings, travelled widely plant hunting and collecting all kinds of curios and interesting objects, and the collection was added to by their friends. The Ark was open to anyone who could pay the sixpenny entrance fee.

    The Tradescants' neighbour was one Isaac Ashmole, a lawyer, astrologer and scholar who was a great admirer of the Ark. So much so that he somehow managed to persuade the younger Tradescant to leave the contents of the Ark to him. John's widow, Hester, contested the legacy, but to no avail: Ashmole got everything, even portraits of John and his father; this miniature is the only one Hester managed to keep. Everything else was shipped off to Oxford - where it formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum. The small exhibition in the Garden Museum consists of objects loaned from the Ashmolean. It includes the portrait of the elder John Tradescant; a bizarre object called a 'Vegetable Lamb', which was believed to grow in southern Russia and was said to grow on a stalk, and eat all the vegetation around it; a statue of St Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners (apparently God granted him a miraculous staff, whose tip would topple trees and uproot bushes); a wooden clog from the Island of Johana in the Indian Ocean; beads; Roman coins; reindeer antlers; and so on.

    On the first floor are displays about the history of gardening in Britain; here are a few snippets which caught my eye:
    • Britain became the home of lawn tennis after the invention of the lawnmower in 1830 - before that, tennis was played on an indoor court.
    • New dyes and bleaches at the end of the 19th century allowed women to wear brilliant white dresses for the first time - now, who knew that?
    • John Nash is principally known as a war artist - but in the second half of his life, gardening became his first love, and he created a garden at Bottengoms Farm in Suffolk.
    • In the 19th century, the state determined to create public parks, partly for their value to the health of the urban poor. It was claimed that the first London park, Victoria Park, increased the life expectancy of east Londoners by three years. 
    • During the first world war, soldiers of all nations grew flowers in the trenches and picked flowers where they could. (I've recently seen somewhere pictures of flowers grown in empty shell cases and suchlike; maybe it was at the Museum of European History in Brussels.) The Garden Museum has an example of pressed flowers which a soldier collected and later gave to his sweetheart.
    • And in a piece about flower shows: 'In 1843 the first show dedicated to chysanthemums took place in Norwich.' I was interested in this because my mother used to grow chrysants for shows: I remember how she carefully tied a paper bag over each flower to protect it as it grew.
    Beyond the museum is a courtyard where there is relaxed green planting set around two tombs. One belongs to the Tradescants, and has scenes from their travels engraved on its sides: the other belongs to a certain William Bligh. Bligh was a member of Captain Cook's crew, and was an associate of Joseph Banks, the first director of Kew and godfather of many planthunting expeditions. and many other enterprises too. He was also the Captain Bligh of the mutiny on the Bounty, which, as you can see from the inscription on his tomb, he survived, to die at home in Lambeth at the age of 64.

    The tomb of Captain Bligh

    There's a pleasant cafe, a soothing green garden, and a church tower which apparently has wonderful views over London - I quite forgot to go up and see for myself: something for next time.

    The Tradescants' tomb

    (NB Philippa Gregory has written two novels about the Tradescants, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth, and I've written a novel for children about planthunters, called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley.)

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    The book stood on the shelf at the local library, with both famous names printed equally large across the cover: 

    Image result for Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow large print
     Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow.

    I was having a fresh look at a half-written historical fantasy novel for older children. Much of the research is in place, the plot is plotted and the characters, though neglected, are still “alive” and so, as my book set within the Victorian theatre world, a brisk trip back in time with Simon Callow was an easy attraction as well as a distraction.

    This neat volume was published in 2012, just as Claire Tomalin’s book on Dickens was attracting attention. Callow acknowledges her work, as well as Peter Ackroyd’s wide and weighty biography and many other sources including John Forster, Dicken’s friend and original biographer.

    The value of this book is that Callow, as an actor has lived very close to Dickens. He has acted the role of Charles Dickens, performing a long run of the author’s famed Reading Tours, as well as studying Dickens work and letters deeply beforehand. 

    As Callow says, borrowing a quote for his introduction: “I’ve been‘im!”

    Callow’s energetic prose offers Dickens as the showman, the “Sparkler” who had loved performing and the theatre since infancy. The young Dickens was a child entertainer in Portsmouth, constantly encouraged and admired within his wide family for his lively recitations and play-acting and his inherited art of mimicry. At one of his many childhood lodgings, the boy would fall asleep each night to the sounds from the adjoining theatre coming through his bedroom wall.  Later, this childhood idyll was shattered by poverty and a wretched change in his situation, leaving scars that were hidden until after the successful writers death.

    Throughout his life, Dickens cultivated a sense of performance. He acted out his characters as he wrote, read dialogues and long idiosyncratic character passages out to friends, revelling in the range of voices he’d captured on his pages.  Moreover, Dickens novels did not appear in single volumes. They came as cleverly-paced serials, creating an audience eager for the next act of his dramatic plot, ready to read his words aloud within their own family circles, his voice becoming part of the national voice.

    Ever a night-walker, Dickens worked out his plots as he paced the streets, often walking for miles. Did he speak his ideas aloud as he walked, I wonder, or recite his scenes? Alternatively, by day, Dickens paced noticeably about town in flamboyant, brightly-coloured clothes, being the "Inimitable" Dickens.

    This restless night-walking also underpinned his reputation as an eloquent public speaker: as Dickens paced, he thought and worked out the topics in his argument, each point imagined as a spoke on a wheel. Giving a speech, Dickens imagined moving his way around that wheel, silently knocking away each spoke as he made that particular point. One observer even noticed that Dickens made a small flicking-away gesture as he shared each point of his apparently off-the-cuff, note-less speech with his audience.

    The Dickens that Simon Callow describes is almost constantly involved with theatrical ventures of one sort or another. He often toyed with the idea of being an actor or running a company. He relished playing dramatic games with his children and at one time appeared as a fully dressed oriental conjuror, demonstrating a range of impressive tricks.

    As Dickens wealth and fame grew, the various plays he directed and acted in for his family and circle of friends became expansive celebrations, staged with almost professional crafts-people and with a cast filled with distinguished writers and notable friends along with his ever-growing family. Dickens even met his “invisible woman”, Ellen Ternan, when she took a minor role in one of his productions, The Frozen Deep.

    The popularity of Dickens work brought other theatrical consequences: not only were his works published by other publishers, the stories were often dramatised, sometimes appearing on stage before the writer’s own conclusion had been printed. This must have been one of the irritations that made Dickens a champion for the rights of writers to receive more than small, one-off fees.

    Callow’s book gives a sense of the relentless, manic, mecurial drive of Dickens, highlighting his determination and ability and the pace at which he worked and lived his life. He felt a burning need to communicate and share his condemnation of Victorian society with the working men of Britain.

    Dickens love of performance culminated in the physically demanding Reading Tours of his later years. He toiled hard, preparing several best-loved scenes and characters from his books, as well as re-writing, adapting and adding in his own performance notes. He made them into demonstrations of his own theatrical skill, interpretation and artistry and adoring crowds were eager to see and hear Dickens wherever he travelled.

    As Callow explains, these Reading Tours were reassuring triumphs for Dickens but gradually their number, duration and emotional intensity wrecked his health. By the age of 58, Charles Dickens' own great show was over.

    However, as Callow writes, ending this engaging biography “As long as men and women want to hear stories, Charles Dickens remains and will always be a leading player on the stage of our imagination.” Meanwhile I, now Callow’s book has been read, must try and get back into my own.

    Penny Dolan

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    Eric Ravilious - The Greenhouse:Cyclemen and Tomatoes
    This beautifully curated exhibition at Compton Verney Museum and Art Gallery chronicles the collaborations and significant relationships, personal and professional, between Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942) and various other artist-designers: friends, mentors, wives, lovers. The group included Paul Nash, John Nash, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Eileen ‘Tirzah’ Garwood, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, Peggy Angus, Helen Binyon, Diana Low and Edward Bawden. Many of them were at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, a group of exceptional students that Paul Nash termed 'an outbreak of talent'. It's good to see the work of so many women artists exhibited here and given equal space to their male compatriots.The exhibition brings together nearly 500 works (many rarely shown). The paintings, prints, drawings, engravings, books, ceramics, wallpapers, and textiles highlight significant moments in the artists’ lives and work and also demonstrate the deep influence this group of artists had on British Art and their profound impact on Art and Design in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. A previous exhibition at Compton Verney Britain in the Fifties - Design and Aspiration served to demonstrate just how pervasive their influence was. 
    Enid Marx moquette design for London Underground
    Eric Ravilious - Wedgwood Pottery Mug
    Ravilious and his friends, with their teacher and mentor John Nash, believed that an artist could turn his or her hand to anything and their mission was to bring Art out of the Fine Art Gallery and into the lives of ordinary people through applied design. Quite apart from this lofty ambition, an artist had to earn a living. It made sense, therefore, to seek design work from various sources. The group were very successful. Their patterning, pastel colours and precision of line, their distinctive style of wood and copper engraving and lithography evoke a particular time so exactly that it has become that time. For us, it is the essence of nostalgia but in the 1930s and 40s, it was cutting edge modern. Their influence extended well into the 1950s and 1960s. Through applied design, their work became all pervasive, even ubiquitous. It could be seen at railway and tube stations, on advertising  hoardings and film posters, the walls of people's homes, the fabrics they wore, the furniture they sat on, the plates they ate from, the magazines and books that they read as they travelled, even the seating of their underground train. 
    Eric Ravilious - Child's Handkerchief
    Wisden - Eric Ravilous 
    Eric Ravilious - The Windstorm 1931

    Enid Marx - paper design

    Everyman Books - Ravilious cover design

    Edward Bawden - book cover

    Their work is particularly powerfully present in book design. The Bookshop installation in the exhibition demonstrates the wide and far reaching influence these artists had on book production. Their hand can be seen everywhere: in covers and cover design, bookplates, endpapers, lettering, bordering and illustrations. Instantly recognisable, even if we cannot name the artist, and fiercely nostalgic. As my writer friend and companion Linda Newbery pointed out, we grew up with them. Art work so timeless and unequalled that it is still being used today.  
    Edward Bawden - Film Poster

    It is impossible to do justice to such a wide-ranging and comprehensive exhibition here. These artists concerned themselves with far more than art and design. They were committed to enhancing the lives of ordinary working people, bringing beauty and culture to them, rather than confining it to an art gallery. Many of the artists contributed original lithographs to the School Prints, a scheme designed to bring art into every classroom in the country and a whole section of the exhibition is devoted to the Morley Murals created by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden to adorn the walls of the canteen of Waterloo's Morley College for Working Men and Women. Sadly, their work was lost during the war. A grainy, black and white film and their sketches and drawings show us what a loss that was. 

    The emphasis is not just on design, there are plenty of paintings on display. Principally those of Ravilious and Bawden, perhaps the best known of the group, but also their friends and associates. The paintings of Eric Ravilious are distinctive and hugely evocative. One can almost smell the tomatoes in The Greenhouse:Cyclemen and Tomatoes, the painting on the poster for the exhibition. Through his unique painting style, his use of pattern, texture, his palette of muted greens, greys and browns he made the landscape of Sussex, 'his own country', as particular and individual as Suerat's Paris or Van Gogh's Provence. To us, his paintings seem nostalgic, pastoral records of a lost rural past. But this is deceptive. This is no rural idyll. A Steam train puffs through the timeless landscape of the Downs. The same view is seen from the interior of a railway carriage, perhaps in the same train that is steaming past. 

    Eric Ravilious - Westbury Horse 
    Eric Ravilious - Train Landscape

    A roller stands in the foreground of the cold, stark beauty of a winter landscape. A reminder that an agricultural labourer would be working in that cold all day.

    Eric Ravilious - Downs in Winter

    Eric Ravilious Hurricane in Flight
    Eric Ravilious - Drift Boat
    The Second World War cut across all their lives. Like their mentors, the Nash brothers, Ravilious and Bawden became War Artists. The patchwork of the British countryside was now viewed from the inside of a plane. A south coast beach is covered in snarls of barbed wire, the sea cut off from the land by coastal defences. Eric Ravilious was assigned to the Admiralty. In 1940 he was posted to Norway and swapped his muted greens and browns for the blues, whites, greys and black of the Arctic seas.  

    H.M.S. Glorious

    In 1942, he requested a transfer to the RAF. On 28 August he flew to Iceland to join a base outside Reykjavik. The day he arrived a Hudson aircraft had failed to return from a patrol. The next morning, three planes were despatched to search for the missing plane. Ravilious opted to join one of the crews. His plane failed to return. The log book recording him as missing is on display here, his name poignantly mis-spelt.  Four days later he was declared lost in action. One of the brightest talents in British Art had disappeared into the sea.
    Celia Rees

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    The list of the crimes of Nero runs something like this: He had his first wife executed, he had his mother executed, he kicked his pregnant second wife to death , he castrated a boy and made him to pretend to be his dead wife, he cheated in the Olympics, he allegedly fiddled whilst Rome burned, he was responsible for the first persecution of the Christians.


    I want to look at just one of these in detail. I want to look at the castrated boy made to dress as Nero's deceased wife. His name was Sporus.

    In 65AD Nero fell into an argument with his wife Poppaea Sabina, in a fit of anger he kicked her in the stomach. She was heavily pregnant at the time and this moment of temper killed her. There were naturally rumours that Poppaea's death was suspicious, she was said to have been poisoned. Nero had ordered his mother Agrippina to be killed, he was surely capable of anything. 
    Tacitus, surprisingly for he accounts all other crimes to Nero and sees nothing in the way of positive traits in the emperor, takes issue with this. He does not believe it ,"For Nero wanted children and he loved his wife"

    Nero was absolutely devastated by Poppea's death. She was not cremated , as was standard in Rome, but rather embalmed with spices. Her widower spoke at her state funeral, praising her looks and virtues.
    And here enters Sporus, or rather here enters a boy that will be known as Sporus.

    The Replacement

    Bust said to be of Poppaea who Sporus
    greatly resembled
    Cassius Dio tells us: 

    "Nero missed her so greatly after her death that on learning of a woman who resembled her he at first sent for her and kept her; but later he caused a boy of the freedmen, whom he used to call Sporus, to be castrated, since he, too, resembled Sabina, and he used him in every way like a wife."

    Sporus was handed over to Calvia Crispinilla, Nero's mistress of the wardrobe, who took care of the boy and was responsible for turning him into an Empress. 

     "He actually wore his hair parted, young women attended him whenever he went for a walk, he wore women's clothes and was forced to do everything else a woman does in the same way." 
    Dio of Prusa

    This was no private hobby.
    “ This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the assizes and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images,fondly kissing him from time to time. “

    Sporus even accompanied Nero on his tour of Greece where:
     “He married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife.” 


    But what are we the modern audience to make of this? What is Sporus to Nero? 
    Does Nero truly believe Sporus is his dead wife, Poppaea? Is Sporus’ role to keep Nero’s grief at bay by the pretence that Poppaea isn’t dead?

    I rather doubt this. Nero wasn’t so wrapped up in grief that he couldn’t see the imperative of remarrying and producing a much needed heir. Shortly after Poppaea's demise he took Statilia Messalina as be his third wife. Indeed she appears on the coinage with her husband, the emperor. Nero was certainly aware that Poppaea was dead. He was not deluded into thinking Sporus actually was Poppaea.
    So let’s go back to our question: what was Sporus to Nero? 

    The Actress
    Coin of Nero and Poppaea

    One important point to note is that Sporus was the name Nero gave to the boy.
    Sporus in Greek translates as seed /semen or if we take it coarser, spunk. Nero castrates a boy and then names him spunk. How cruelly apt and one that begs the question, was it a joke? Is castrating a boy, dressing him up as your dead wife and parading him round the city Nero’s idea of fun?

    There’s a certain theatrical element here that is very Nero; the dressing up, the extravagant public kisses, the wedding.
    This wasn’t Nero first ‘unofficial’ wedding. There’s been a previous one to his freedman Doryphorus. Only this time Nero had been the bride not the groom

    “He was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being “ 

    This puts the Sporus wedding in another light. A bit of play acting?
    It seems likely. Nowhere in any of the accounts of Sporus does it state that Nero loved him. Early in his reign Nero had fallen deeply in love with a freedwomen named Acte. So much so that:

    "He all but made his lawful wife, after bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth." 
    Forbidden by the differences in their class from marrying Nero here is desperately trying to make it legitimate. There is no such attempt in the marriage to Sporus.
    This is a faux wedding, a faux marriage.
    A bit of sexual role play?

    A rather odd scenario described by Suetonius suggests that Nero had incorporated dressing up and role play into his pleasures:

    “He at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he had sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freedman Doryphorus” 

    “Dispatched” in this case has a double meaning. This appears to be some sort of role play based on the beast hunts of the arena. The participants being Nero's household slaves and freedmen. Note again Doryphorus is present, Nero’s ‘husband’.

    Sporus to Nero was part of an act, an elaborate play with defined roles. Sporus the bride. Nero the husband.
    Interestingly both Richard Holland and Edward Champlin in their biographies of Nero are doubtful on whether the relationship between Nero and Sporus was sexual.

    Holland states:
    "The Emperor may only ever have pretended to have sex with his Poppaea-substitute as part of the protocol sustaining the fantasy." 

    Note that in the wedding to Doryphorus Nero 'imitated' the noises of a maiden being flowered. However the wild beast scenario very definitely involves actual consummation, Nero's lusts are said to be sated. 

    The Eunuch's Tale

    In 68AD Nero's fantasy world came crashing down. A revolt in Gaul had rapidly spread. Galba had been named emperor. Nero was declared an enemy of the state. On the morning of 9th June Nero awoke to find the palace empty. His praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus had convinced his private body guard to desert. Nero fled the city, with him went two of his freedmen and Sporus. They holed up in a villa outside the city, here Nero"would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example" Suetonius
    Sporus did not set the example. Nero stabbed himself in the throat, aided by his freedman, the artist was dead.
    Emperor Otho, another of Sporus' conquests

    What did Nero's death mean for Sporus?
    Apparently business as normal, for he pops up almost instantly in the company of Nymphidius Sabinus, the Prefect who had aided Nero's overthrow.

    "Whom he had sent for at once, while Nero's body was yet burning on its pyre, and treated as his consort, and addressed by the name of Poppaea), he aspired to the succession of the empire. " 

    And then after Sabinus meets a sticky end there is a short pause and here new emperor Otho is described as having 'intimacy with Sporus'Cassius Dio.

    There's somewhat of a profession empress air about this. We've been asking what was Sporus to Nero? We've examined what Nero might have felt about the eunuch. At no point have we asked what Sporus' view was. 
     That Sporus pops up twice later playing exactly the same role suggests that either he was irresistibly gorgeous to both Sabinus and Otho or maybe just maybe he offered himself as 'Empress'. 
    Perhaps even if Nero didn't truly buy the fantasy of his reborn Poppaea, Sporus did. When Nero was forced to flee, maybe Sporus accompanied him as a dutiful wife.

    After Otho's death in the spring of 69AD Vitellius became emperor. He did not require an empress. He had quite different plans for Sporus.

    "It was proposed that Sporus should be brought on to the stage in the rôle of a maiden being ravished" Cassius Dio.

    If Sporus was purely the play thing in a succession of emperor's fantasies wouldn't we expect him to play along with this? He'd participated in his public marriage to Nero. He'd paraded about on the arm of Nymphidius Sabinus. But Sporus doesn't. Tragically this is what happens

    "He would not endure the shame and committed suicide beforehand." 
    Cassius Dio

    Was this the final escape for a much abused slave? Or was it to do with the role itself, one as a maiden and not the Empress Sporus felt himself to be? 

    There are a lot of perhapses and maybes here. We shall never truly know exactly what role Sporus performed for Nero and others. We shall never know how he felt about this performance. Was he sadly abused slave who could take it no longer or was he the lowly born eunuch enjoying his moment in the light of the distinctly glamorous palace life?

    What we do know is that he was, for a brief but wondrous period, Empress in name.

    L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of books that features Nero and Sporus. 

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    In this second part of my story of the manorial structure of Soberton parish, in the Meon Valley, I continue my discussion of the various manors distributed across the parish. If you would like to read part 1, which includes an introduction to the purpose of my investigation into Soberton’s medieval past, click here.

    Last month, I discussed the principal manor of Soberton, located, I presume, around the site of the existing village. But within the parish of Soberton there were (eventually) six other manors: Longspiers, Flexland Englefield, Wallop’s Manor, Russell Flexland, Bere, and East Hoe. 
    Bensted is identified in the Domesday Book, as Benestede, although it is attached to the Droxford Hundred rather than the Meonstoke Hundred, as Soberton is. The Victoria County History, however,doesn’t mention such a place at this location. I am interested in it largely because of its proximity to the other Soberton manors, especially Bere, and I have found another source of information to fill in the History’s gap.
    This sketch shows the likely positions of the
    various Soberton manors.  © Author

    A large part of the estate held, in 1086, by Herbert the Chamberlain was, in the 13th century, held by a Thomas de Windsor, and throughout the 14th by the de Winton family. This manor is possibly, though it isn’t at all clear, the same manor as one called Longspiers. However, according to the Victoria County History, nothing is known after 1384 about this manor of the de Wintons, unless it is indeed the same as either Longspiers, or another manor held by the Fawconer family for the following three centuries. (Exactly where Longspiers or this Fawconer manor were located is unclear. Confusing!) However, in the late 15th century, a manor called Longsperys, with lands in Soberton and Flexland (for more about Flexland, see below) was sold to the John Newport we met briefly in last month's post, the lord of Soberton manor.
    In 1544, as already noted in relation to Soberton manor, Longspiers was sold, along with the manors of Soberton and Flexland Englefield, to Walter Bonham who, five years later sold them all on to the Earl of Southampton.
    And I presume it was these three manors, Soberton, Longspiers and Flexland Englefield, that were purchased, probably in 1714, by the same Thomas Lewis who had married Anna Curll in 1678.
    The combined manors ultimately passed into the possession of Humphrey Minchin of County Tipperary in Ireland, who was a member of Parliament, first in Okehampton, Devon and later in Bossiney in Cornwall. In 1791, the manor that was Longspiers was referred to in a document as Faulkner’s Pleck or Pluk or Pluck, but that name subsequently disappeared. Although it does appear as one of those lordship titles on the Manorial Counsel website I referred to earlier, but then so does “Longspiers”, so it’s hard to know whether Longspiers and Faulkner's P are the same manor or two different ones!
    Anyway, the manors remained in the Minchin family at least until the early 20th century.

    Flexland Englefield
    A modern reproduction of
    mediaeval falconry gloves
    So, we already know something of Flexland Englefield. At Domesday, this appears to have been part of the Soberton estate owned by Herbert the Chamberlain, which he later granted to his daughter on the occasion of her marriage into a member of the de Venuz family. But it was not referred to as Flexland until the beginning of the 13th century, when it was still held by a de Venuz, Robert. When Robert died, his widow Constance gave to her son John a third of the rents from the estate, which she was holding in dower, in exchange for rents of de Venuz estates elsewhere. When John died, he was succeeded by his brother Thomas, whose daughter Agnes, in 1249, granted one carucate (the land eight oxen could plough in a single annual season) of land in Flexland to William de Cobham, for the rent of a pair of white gloves or 1d. at Easter. How charming!
    In the same year William bought more land in Flexland and, thirty years later, his daughter Joan passed the manor to an Agnes de Cobham (what relationship Agnes had to Joan is not mentioned – aunt, perhaps?) to hold for life for the rent of a chaplet of roses. Charming, again! By this time, the manor was called Flexland Cobham.
    Some years later, Joan’s sister, Mary, laid claim to the manor (presumably against her relative, Agnes) and by 1316 she succeeded. Nine years later, Mary granted a portion of the land and a pound of pepper to a Roger de Englefield. Twenty years after that, Roger obtained a licence from the bishop of Winchester to celebrate mass in the oratory of his house in Flexland. When Roger died in 1361, the ownership of the land, rents and facilities of his Flexland property seems to have been divided between the king (Edward III), Beaulieu Abbey and a Sir Maurice le Bruyn. Sir Maurice granted the custody of his portion of the lands in Flexland Cobham to a Geoffrey Dene of Chidden (5.5 miles to the north west) to hold during the minority of Maurice’s son and heir. However, Constance, Roger de Englefield’s widow, subsequently forcibly ejected Geoffrey and was prosecuted by him for doing so in 1364. What the outcome of the dispute was I don't know. 
    This seems to be the last mention of the manor of Flexland Cobham, its name thereafter changing to Flexland Englefield or Inglefield. Its history then becomes obscure until 1544 when, as we have already seen, it was purchased by Walter Bonham, along with Soberton and Longspiers. 
    So, in this story of Flexland Englefield, we have Constance, Agnes, Joan, Mary, and another Constance, all inheriting property and dealing with it in a way that suggests they had considerable control over their own affairs. And a couple of them sound decidely ruthless!
    The site of the manor is today marked by Ingoldfield Farm, which apparently has early 13th century origins.

    Wallop’s Manor
    The estate called Wallop’s Manor was probably in origin the manor which Henry the Treasurer held at the time of the Domesday Book. The Wallop family held a manor here from very early times. In the 13th century the overlord was the abbot of Hyde, and the manor was held by a Richard de Wallop but, in the 14th century, the overlordship changed to the bishop of Winchester. However, three centuries later, the manor was still in the Wallop family, being held by Sir Robert Wallop, whose principal estate was at Farley Wallop near Basingstoke. Robert made a very good marriage, to Anne Wriothesley, daughter of Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton.
    But Robert was one of the judges at the trial of King Charles I and, although he did not actually sign Charles I’s death warrant, at the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, Parliament denied Robert receipt of any benefit from his estates, and sentenced him to be drawn upon a sledge to and under the gallows of Tyburn with a halter round his neck, and to be imprisoned for life. The sentence was carried out in 1662. He died intestate in the Tower in 1667, and was buried at Farley. In 1661 the king had granted Robert Wallop’s property in Soberton (and perhaps elsewhere?) to Thomas Wriothesley, the fourth Earl of Southampton, and others, empowering them to sell the whole or part of the premises for the benefit of Lady Anne, sister of the earl and Robert’s wife, and of their son and heir, Henry. 
    At the beginning of the 18th century, the manor was sold, probably to Thomas Lewis, the lord of the chief manor of Soberton, who was adding to his property in the parish. He was now in possession of the best part of Soberton’s manors.
    The site of this manor is marked by Wallop’s Wood Farm, which apparently has its origin in the early 13th century.

    Russell Flexland
    John de Drokensford,
    Bishop of Bath and Wells (1309-1329)
    The manor of Flexland or Russell Flexlandwas originally a dependent of the main Soberton manor belonging to Beaulieu Abbey. In the 15th century, it was held from the Abbey for the rent of a pound of pepper. However, in the 13th century it was held by a Ralph Russell, and remained in the Russell family until the early 14th century, when it passed to Sir John de Drokensford (Droxford), who was the bishop of Bath and Wells from 1309-1329.
    In the 1370s, Sir Maurice le Bruyn pops up again, with his wife Margaret, who was probably the sister and heir of John de Drokensford’s grandson, also John. The le Bruyns’ holding of the manor was entailed in two parts on Margaret’s two daughters by a previous husband, both apparently called Margaret (?). But, in 1405, it was the husband of (the younger?) Margaret, Sir Peter Courtenay of Devon, who held the whole manor on behalf of Margaret. She passed it to her grandson, William, Lord Botreaux, and his heir was his daughter, another Margaret.
    The manor then seems to have been subdivided and settled on several different people: a William Warbleton and his wife Margery; William's aunt, Elizabeth Syfrewast; and three of his cousins, Agnes Skulle, Margaret Breknok and Sybil Rykys, all Elizabeth's daughters. When William died in 1469, his heirs included a male cousin, but also his cousins Margaret Breknok and Sybil Rykys, and his second cousin William, son of Agnes Skulle. And it was this William to whom Russell Flexland descended. 
    The history of this manor for some time after this is obscure, but it eventually fell into the hands of the William Dale of Soberton, whom we have met before, and at length the manor was sold to Thomas Wriothesley, the first Earl of Southampton (again!). 
    The site of the manor is marked by Russell’s Farm, which apparently has its origins in the 13th century, and Russell’s Wood, in the east of the parish. It is extraordinary, in a way, that the manor continued to be called “Russell”, and that the farm maintained that name, despite the Russell family holding it for less than a century…

    The remains of Soberton Mill © Author
    From early times the Wayte family held the manor of Bere in the extreme west of the parish and to the north of the Forest of Bere. They held it from the bishop of Winchester, and it had a mill, later called Soberton Mill, which still has a turning wheel, though it is not a functioning mill.
    In 1561, William Wayte, who owned extensive lands throughout Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, died leaving six daughters and coheirs, Eleanor, Mary, Honor, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Susan, and, I presume, no son. The manor of Bere passed to Elizabeth, and from her to her son, Sir Richard Norton. When Richard died in 1612, Bere is referred to only as a “messuage” (a dwelling with its adjacent buildings and lands) rather than a manor, even though it included 100 acres of land, and it does seem that “manorial” rights, if Bere had them, had by this time lapsed.
    The site of the manor is marked today by Bere Farm.

    East Hoe
    In the reign of Edward the Confessor, the crown manor of East Hoe was held by Ulward (or Wulfward) but, by the time of Domesday, it had become another of the many possessions of Hugh de Port. It continued with the de Ports until, in the 12th century, it passed to the Hoe family. 
    In 1302 there is a record of another charming (and rather curious) form of rent, when half the manor was granted to a Roger Launcelevee and his wife Joan for the rent of one rose annually on the feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24th).
    In the late 14th century, the lord of the manor of East Hoe was Sir Bernard Brocas, who was a prominent commander in the English army during Edward III’s French campaigns of the Hundred Years War. He was also a close friend of both the Black Prince and William of Wykeham, who became the bishop of Winchester. 
    Bernard married an heiress, Mary des Roches, who brought him a residence at Roche Court (now a private school) near Fareham in Hampshire, though the Brocas’ main residence was Beaurepaire, also in Hampshire, and they owned another manor at Clewer Brocas in Berkshire. Presumably, then, Bernard didn’t spend much time, if any, in East Hoe. Apparently, he was a great patron of Southwick Priory, which is six or so miles to the south of East Hoe. The Priory was founded by Henry I in 1133 for Augustinian canons, originally within the walls of nearby Porchester Castle, although it had moved to Southwick by 1153. In 1385, Bernard granted his East Hoe manor to the Priory, in return for the canons praying daily for the benefit of the king, Richard II, of Bernard himself and his wife Katherine while they lived, and for their souls after death, and for the souls of the late king, Edward III, Mary des Roches, Bernard’s previous wife, and the parents and ancestors of Bernard and Mary.
    East Hoe manor continued to be the property of Southwick until the Dissolution, when Henry VIII granted it to a Thomas Knight, and it continued in the Knight family until 1619.
    A century later, East Hoe was sold to the same Thomas Lewis we have met before, lord of the chief manor of Soberton, and by this time the owner of nearly the whole parish.
    The Victoria County History suggests that the site of East Hoe is marked by Hoegate Farm, but an East Hoe Manor still exists, which is presumably the actual site of the original manor. Hoegate Farm is about two miles to the south, closer to the putative manor of Huntbourn(e) (according to the lordship title indicated on the Manorial Counsel website), but which has no record in either Domesday or the History.

    Finally, I am including mention of Bensted, despite it not being part of Soberton parish, because it sits on the boundary of Soberton – the River Meon – about a mile and a half from Soberton village, and its ownership as a manor includes many of the names we have already met: the bishop of Winchester, Hugh de Port, the Waytes, Richard Newport and (of course) Thomas Lewis…
    My information about Bensted has come from a document written for the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, The manor of Bensted St Clair.
    In the 10th century, the place was known as Bienestede, and was a possession of the bishop of Winchester. At Domesday, it was still in the bishop’s possession, but the manor was held, again, by Hugh de Port. Although there is scarcely any settlement now at this location, in 1086 it was a fairly significant estate. According to Domesday, the estate had six tenant households and six slave households, so perhaps 50 or so people. Interestingly, the manor was among a minority in Domesday where the demesne lands (the lands farmed for the lord's personal benefit) were much larger than tenants’ lands and, until the 16th century, the manor was worked almost entirely for the demesne.
    Over time, Bienestede became the manor of Bensted St Clair, then Seyntcleres Court, and eventually St Clair’s Farm. The change of name came from the family of St Clair (or Seyntcler, Sencler, Sinklar, Sinkles – there are many variations), which held the manor from about 1160 until the end of the 14th century. It seems to have last been referred to as Bensted in 1558, after which the name disappeared.
    What of those other Soberton people who had an interest in Bensted St Clair?
    During the 14th century, associations grew between the St Clair family and the Waytes, from Bere manor, a short distance across and down the river, and it seems likely that the Waytes were tenants of the Bensted fulling-mill, shown as Sinkles Mill on Taylor's 1759 map. The mill was located a little over half a mile downstream from the manor house, here shown simply as Sinkles.
    From the 1759 map of Hampshire by Isaac Taylor.
    In 1450, Richard Newport, the then holder of the chief Soberton manor, was appointed firmarius (a sort of farm manager) of Bensted manor.
    Finally, in the early 18th century, Thomas Lewis, by then the lord of almost the whole of Soberton parish, extended his holding still further by acquiring St Clair’s farm under a lease from the bishop of Winchester.
    The manor of Bensted St Clair is marked today by St Clair’s (Sinkles) farmhouse, a 17th century building.

    The picture I have drawn of Soberton's manors is not, perhaps, as lucid as I would like. I might of course obtain further clarification by reading more widely but, for now, I feel I have learned enough to sate my immediate curiosity. To get a fuller, clearer picture of the manorial structure of Soberton, I could explore other, contemporary, documents. The Victoria County History’s information is detailed but, as I have said, at times confusing. But to be honest I don’t need more, well, not right now. I wanted to gain a general picture of the shape of mediaeval Soberton, and perhaps to discover some of the people involved, and I’ve done that. I have learned, at any rate, that, by the early 18th century, after all that complicated toing and froing of ownership, one man – Thomas Lewis – held nearly all the manors in the parish. However, he died in 1736 and whether he passed his great holdings on to his heirs I haven't discovered.
    But, to finish, a couple of thoughts occur to me about Soberton’s manors...
    Firstly, I do wonder again – for I have mentioned it in previous posts – what the ordinary Soberton inhabitant made of all the toing and froing of ownership, or indeed whether it even affected them very much. I suspect “not much”, in either case. I imagine it was largely of little concern to them who their “lord” was. They probably just kept their heads down and got on with their work... I suppose, in many cases, tenants scarcely even knew who their lord was, especially if the lord was of the absentee variety. As far as tenants were concerned, their masters were the reeve and steward or bailiff, and their own lives were lived with little or no connection to the individual who actually benefited from their labours.
    Secondly, there do seem to me to be quite a lot of manors here in Soberton within a relatively small area. I wonder to what extent they were successful economic units? Presumably they must have been reasonably lucrative otherwise wealthy men would not have been so eager to acquire them. But what I also suspect is that the Soberton manors were, for many of the owners, not their main, or even a major, source of income. To what extent the owners, especially those higher up in the social hierarchy, spent any time in their little Soberton manors is anybody’s guess. One suspects that the answer is, not much!
    Although I do like to think that perhaps Thomas Lewis might have been the exception… 

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    The kitchens at Hampton Court have re-opened and I had meatballs with ginger and cinnamon to celebrate. I wrote a while ago about my involvement scripting the sound landscape for Hampton Court Place Base court and how much fun I had doing it. Once that was complete we moved on to the kitchens and this time we got to use pictures as well as sound. I was hired by Matthew Rosier of Chomko Rosier again, and once Matt had done all the hard stuff like working out the initial concepts for each area we were working on, the budgets and where all the wires went, I got to join forces with him, James Bulley and Kyle Waters for the fun stuff. Researching, scripting and, as we filmed and recorded, a little light directing.

    We were providing elements for five areas. The Carpenter’s Court was where food stuffs arrived throughout the day. The Board of the Greencloth was the administrative centre of the operation. A group of senior household officials gathered there each morning to make sure the needs of the Court were being met and accounted for, supported by clerks doing the counting and book keeping. They worked out what they would pay suppliers, what dishes would be served to whom and kept a close eye on all of the money flowing out of the palace, and all the food stuffs coming in. 

    Installing Board of the Greencloth

    In the Boiling House vast numbers of joints were seethed for the table in a giant copper. 

    In the kitchens themselves, visitors can touch the chopping boards to see the cooks preparing the meat in front of them. The special speakers used for this bit mean you can feel the knife coming down to mince the meat and the vibration of the pestle and mortar as the spices are ground. 

    On the other side of the wall, invisible fires crackle and the pots seethe, spit and bubble as the cooks go to and fro.

    Intensive pot listening with Matt and James

    My job was primarily getting into the detailed research with the guidance of the brilliant Hampton Court team, and coming up with the words. The research was much trickier than it was for Base Court - general gossip about historical figures of whom we know a fair amount is one thing, making sure you’re getting it right quoting the price of fish in 1538 is another. What does a 16th century cook say to himself as he’s making a pie mix, stirring his pottage or shredding herbs from the garden? It’s quite like novel writing in fact. You have to find those small very specific details to make a place and a time come alive, and then find a way to make them feel natural.

    Filming Board of the Greencloth
    I do miss the collaborative elements of this sort of work. Novel writing is a megalomaniac’s paradise in many ways. It’s your world, and you get to run it as you see fit. Film and sound production is a team sport - especially when you are dealing with the complex demands of a three dimensional sound scape and visual field. The technical side of the projection mapping, speakers, media players, loops and channels flew over my head like a cool breeze, but I think the results are pretty impressive. There’s also a particular pleasure in hearing what you’ve written come alive in the voices of talented actors. We were very lucky in our Greencloth performers who handled very complicated scripts with aplomb. As we filmed I read in the lines of the clerks coming to hand over their accounts wearing an odd hat to get the shadows right and the fact I didn't put them off completely is a testament to their professionalism. 

    Kitchen Selfie. It was ironically cold.

    When we were clearing up after filming the preparation of the meat, one of my take home perks was the meatballs, so if you go to the kitchens and see that dish being made, rest assured it was delicious. 

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    I've been pondering on mythical creatures lately (too many publisher/audience/bookseller witticisms here to indulge in so I'll resist) and in particular mermaids, largely because I've just lost the best part of a weekend to the very wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower.

     Mermaid from The Medieval Bestiary, British Library
    Given how much water there is on the planet, it's hard not to wonder what might be down in the depths and it's equally hard not to hope that its mermaids rather than some of the more terrifying creatures that stop me watching nature programmes. From the little one to the mischief makers who lived in Peter Pan's lagoon, the mermaid of Zennor and all the others who flitted through Andrew Lang's fairy books, mermaids were a big part of my childhood, as Ariel was in my daughter's. Perhaps because I was brought up in the Lake District and loved to swim, a mostly human creature who could live underwater, had great hair and wore a lot of pearls always struck me as an ideal playmate.

    Our curiosity about these creatures, and belief/hope that they exist, goes back thousands of years, although they have always had a sinister side outside children's tales, particularly among sailors who viewed them as both beautiful and dangerous. The earliest known depiction of a mermaid dates back to the 18th century BC on a Babylonian sealstone and there are mermaid paintings still visible at Pompeii. One of the earliest stories is about Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike. After her death, a legend sprang up that she had turned into a mermaid who would ask the sailors on any ship she would encounter the question: “Is King Alexander alive?”. If the sailors answered “He lives and reigns and conquers the world” then she would leave the sea calm. If there was any other answer, she would stir up a terrible storm, destroying the ship and all its crew.

     Medieval carved mermaid with mirror & comb
    This dual and conflicting aspect, beautiful and seductive or siren-esque beast, is a key part of mermaid mythology. Who needs to blame God for a storm or a mysterious wrecking that sinks a ship, when you can blame a malicious beautiful woman out to kill human men in the full knowledge that the Church would happily support your view? Unsurprisingly, as the Christian Church sought to crush pagan beliefs, mermaids were increasingly depicted as vain and lustful, tempting men to risk not only their lives but also their souls. Their iconography of comb and mirror stems from this idea of vanity and mermaids were regularly used as pictorial shorthand for the deadly sin of lust. The image of a mermaid continued to have dark sexual connotations down the centuries and was employed as a euphemism for a prostitute with even Mary Queen of Scots falling foul of it: the people of Edinburgh depicting her as a mermaid when she married Bothwell in May 1567, a few weeks after Lord Darnley's murder.

    The reality of mermaids existing was assumed during medieval times, when a belief endured that anything that moved on land had a counterpart in the sea. In 1430 in the Netherlands, it was said that, after the dikes near the town of Edam gave way during a storm, some girls rowing around in a boat found a mermaid floundering in shallow, muddy waters. According to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, They got her into the bat, took her home, [and] dressed her in women’s cloths. She remained, however, totally mute. Interestingly, by the 1600s the story had evolved somewhat. This time the injured mermaid was taken to a nearby lake and soon nursed back to health. She eventually became a productive citizen, learning to speak Dutch, perform household chores, and eventually converting to Catholicism. Little miss lusty turned into a proper woman then.

     John William Waterhouse: Sketch for a Mermaid
    Other sightings include John Smith, of Pocahontas fame in 1614, who saw a mermaid swimming about with all possible grace. He noted that she had large eyes, a finely shaped nose that was somewhat short, and well-formed ears that were rather too long and that her long green hair imparted to her an original character that was by no means unattractive. Christopher Columbus in 1493, however, was less impressed,  writing in his diary: The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men. Perhaps his lack of enchantment would have made him better placed to listen to Olaus Magnus, a 16th century writer and cartographer whose map Carta Marina catalogued the many monsters of the seas around Scandinavia. He warned that fishermen maintain that if you reel in a mermaid and do not presently let them go, such a cruel tempest will arise, and such a horrid lamentation of that sort of men comes with it, and of some other monsters joining with them, that you would think the sky should fall. 

    What had they seen? Probably manatees or dugongs which have a flat, mermaid-like tail and two flippers that resemble stubby arms. Not a beautiful maiden by any stretch but many 'sightings' were from quite a distance away, possibly in poor light or during storms when fear was high and, being mostly submerged in water and waves, only parts of the 'mermaid's' body would be visible. A glimpse of a head, arm, or tail just before a creature dives under the waves in those circumstances might be just enough to spawn a legend.

     The Fiji Mermaid, Mead Art Museum
    By the 1800s, the fake mermaid trade was big business with hoaxers churning them out by the dozen. One of the best known was the Feejee Mermaid displayed by P.T. Barnum in the 1840s. However, your 50 cents bought not a svelte, fish-tailed lovely combing her hair but a small and rather more grotesque fake corpse made (probably in Japan) of monkey bones, papier-mache, painted wood and the bottom part of a fish. 

    Since then, mermaid encounters tend to be of the oddly-coloured hair/Starbucks cup/Disney type although news reports in 2009 claimed that a mermaid had been sighted off the coast of Israel in the town of town of Kiryat Yam, performing tricks for onlookers before just before sunset, then disappearing. One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail. The town's tourism board offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature but no one came forward and the mermaid has disappeared. I'm betting she's run off with Nessie.

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    Robert Schediwy
    On this day in May 1968, 'Les evenements' were in full swing. Left-wing workers and students together were challenging the stuffy status quo of postwar France; that was all my fifteen year-old self knew, but I was deeply excited. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French student leader, had been evicted from France, but rumours were rife that he would be nipping back across the border. In the Quartier Latin, tear gas was swirling round and students - among them my brother's French penfriend Yvon, were throwing cobble stones at the police, or rather the CRS riot force, and chanting (with some justification) 'CRS, SS!' and 'We are all German Jews' (Nous sommes des Juifs Allemands) because a right wing politician had dismissed Cohn Bendit on the grounds that he was a) German and b) Jewish.

    I was supposed to be revising for my O Levels, but spent more time reading novels from the library, slipping them under my duvet (having a German grandfather, I had one, ahead of everyone else) when my parents entered my bedroom to demand if I was working. I was almost sixteen, and in many ways rather young for my age.

    I lived in Nottingham, and at the university, there were 'sit-ins' and demonstrations, to the ire of our family friend who was Reader in classics there, a gentle, scholarly man. He took me to watch the award of an honorary degree to JRR Tolkien (I was crazy about Tolkien's work), but nothing could be heard at all because Lord Seebohm was getting an honorary degree that day, and students were demonstrating against his involvement in South Africa. I remember them climbing up to the window and shouting through it. I was disappointed not to hear Tolkien, though I felt vaguely guilty for resenting the demonstration, and also bad that I was inside with the uncool adults while the committed people were outside.

    It felt as if the world was changing, and would never be the same again. As if people were standing out against hypocrisy and for freedom, and against war. The Vietnam war was going on, and in America students were burning draft papers; also offering people flowers and saying 'peace, man,' generally in a fume of pot. Hippy fashion, of course, percolated down to us, even such girls at my school as were deeply conservative.

    Enoch Powell made his 'rivers of blood' speech, and one of my teachers said he was 'a voice crying in the wilderness.' At tutor time, I got into an argument with another girl, who told me she was racially prejudiced and proud of it; others weighed in against me. I argued against prejudice, with nobody to back me up, and the form tutor accused me of being intolerant and argumentative. I probably was argumentative, and I was certainly intolerant of racism. Teenage girls are sharp-edged; they don't see many shades of grey, in general. I was quite sure my teacher was unfair, and I still am.

    That summer, in the heavenly, relaxed time after the exams, I lay in the grass of someone's garden, at a UNA youth group event, alongside a Czech student called Jiri, who'd come to England in the Prague Spring. We all knew that Communism was being transformed in Czechoslovakia, and I somehow expected Jiri to be living in the bliss of a new heaven and a new earth, but he was rather stressed, probably homesick. Something about him was deeply familiar to me, having lived up with people who'd been traumatised by living under dictatorship, though it's only now, looking back, that I can see this. He was very attractive, I seem to remember, with very dark curly hair, long of course, because all boys and young men were growing their hair long. Beards weren't allowed at school; they had to wait for university to grow. John Lennon was the template.

    'Hey Jude' came out that year, but the summer, for me, was Yellow Submarine and All You Need is Love, and, of course, still Sergeant Pepper. I sang Joan Baez, my brother was keener on Bob Dylan. We sang 'We Shall Overcome' rather a lot.

    Meanwhile, De Gaulle survived a vote of no confidence, and our friend Yvon quit the 'Evenements' when he saw the CRS seize a woman student and bang her head on the pavement. I felt a little disappointed and cast down about that, but now I can see his point of view.

    Robert Kennedy, Wikimedia Commons
    I have no idea where I was when I heard of John Kennedy's assassination, but I do know exactly where I was when I heard about Robert. I was in the kitchen with my mother; it was a lovely day and the dining table, in the next door room, glowed in the sunlight. My father came in and said: 'Terrible news. They've killed Bobby Kennedy.' He said it was a dreadful day because Kennedy had been 'the great hope of the black man in America.' What I can't remember  is Martin Luther King's assassination, which was arguably a much worse day for black people in the States. Possibly this is, I'm embarrassed to admit, because Robert Kennedy was definitely dishy, as we used to say in those days. He did also seem to stand for anti-racism, for the breaking down of barriers, for liberal values.

    But Dubcek and Svoboda were still standing up for Communism with a human face in Prague.
    After my O Levels, I was sent off to stay with Yvon's family, the Dufours, in France, who had become close family friends of ours; my dear friend Francoise, who'd also stayed in the family, became my adopted big sister. Having split from her husband, she'd come back with her little girl Jeanne to live with her parents, and she talked to me and entertained me and drove me up to Paris to see the graffiti from the Evenements before they were all washed away. It had all come to an end in the Quartier Latin then. I remember streets of earth where the cobbles had been grubbed up, tidy piles of cobblestones, buses of police and tourists with cameras. It felt rather like the aftermath of Reading festival, and I had an overwhelming sensation of emptiness.
    The Dufours drove me down with them to Roaix, in Provence, where my parents were to join us for a camping holiday, in the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the annual French exodus. The campsite was fun: all the young people got together to enjoy themselves. One hot, cicada-noisy night, we danced to a gramophone on an empty threshing floor and the farmer turned up, fired a shot, and drove us away. It was on that holiday that a van arrived and sprayed the trees with pyrethrin (I think, remembering the smell). I don't know what the purpose of this was, but I remember the silence the following night. There were no more cicadas. When later I read Carson's Silent Spring, I remembered that, with deep sadness.

    My brother went on a language course in Kiev that year; he was studying German with Russian at Cambridge. On the way back from Kiev, his train had been held up for hours at the frontier while trainloads of tanks went through on the way to Brest-Litovsk. The talks were going on at Bratislava, and there was a bad feeling. The Russians were losing patience.
    I remember how the news came through of the Russian invasion. We cried. For me, it felt as if everything was collapsing; there had been a frost that had destroyed the hopes of May. The cicadas had stopped singing, and maybe there was no point in singing 'We shall Overcome' any more. My father said it was the fault of the Czechs, who would have got the freedoms they wanted if they'd only been patient. I was shocked to hear him say so, for earlier in the year he'd been saying quite different things.
    One of the tanks that rolled into Prague: Gerritse at Dutch Wikipedia

    In the autumn, I went to Germany to spend the first term of the 6th form in a school in Traunstein, Upper Bavaria. I forgot all about politics for a while and just enjoyed the food, the wonderful landscapes, learning to talk Bavarian, and my friendship with Gaby, the girl whose family I stayed in and whose class I was in.
    It's fashionable now to say that the 1968 generation became the selfish Thatcherites of the 80s. I know a lot of people my age who are anything but (though I was a very young member of that generation). For me, 1968 lit a flame which has never been extinguished, a belief, in spite of Russian tanks, pesticides, the CRS and De Gaulle, that change is possible, though I guess the year showed me that talk of ground-breaking revolution is often premature.
    Twenty years later I was one of 62 peace protestors who got over (in my case round) barricades to mark the outside of the MOD with ash (barbecue briquettes) in an Ash Wednesday protest against nuclear weapons. I already had a criminal record for cutting a strand of the fence at the Burghfield nuclear bomb factory the previous year. I was a regular day visitor at Greenham Common. Unlike my 16 year-old self, I knew exactly what this was about; a life for my children, and every living person on the planet for starters; but Greenham taught us all to 'make the links', showing how inequality and neo-colonialism fuelled war all over the earth. I was committed to non-violence; no cobblestones and Molotov cocktails flying through the air for us peaceniks. But I had no problem with taking a hacksaw blade to the Burghfield fence, or to the courageous campers at Greenham scissoring the fence apart with businesslike bolt cutters.
    One gets older; one learns to understand how complex things are. Complexity seems a cause worth campaigning for nowadays, where memes on social media are demonstrating how destructive they can be. Truth is another crucial value, and women's rights, which weren't considered particularly important in the '60s. But for me, 1968 doesn't represent a fixed ideology, rather a year when hope blazed high, a year that made me aware, alive.

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    One of the joys of writing historical fiction for me is the detective work of  discovering the lives of the characters who populate my novels.  Although it's fiction, I want to get as close to their personalities and their daily experiences as possible.

      At the outset of any project I always ask myself: 'Who are you? What are you really like?  What can you tell me that you have never told anyone before?' (Present tense intentional).   And then I begin sifting through the primary and secondary source evidence, and pursuing my time travel delvings with my friend and very talented psychic, Alison King.  Here's an url to an earlier piece about how it works in tandem with conventional historical resources.
     Alternative research: the psychic strand

    When diving under the surface I often come across facts and details that change the course of my work and it fascinates me how these items make a difference to my creative choices. If I hadn't come discovered these facts, I would have written scenes that could never  happen, or that might have made a different impact on history.  I'm sure I have made many unwitting 'it didn't happen' choices because there is only so much research a writer can do. Of course it all boils down to that blend of story and fact combining to create the marvelous genre of historical fiction.  The facts we use and don't use, that we know and don't know,  are the building blocks of our personal experience and journey.

    When writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE SUMMER QUEEN,  most of her biographies said she was born in 1122, but then I came across newer research which put her more likely birth date at 1124. (Andrew Lewis's article on the birth date of King John in Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, edited by John Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler)  You might say two years doesn't make a difference, but it does when your character is married either at 13 or 15.  Two years in this case is the distance between just out of childhood, and established teenager and the description of one biographer of Eleanor as being 'saucy and hot-blooded' (without any evidence I have to say) at her marriage, immediately sounds a very wrong note.  My choice was to go with the new findings and write Eleanor as being married at 13, just out of childhood and at that stage a pawn of powerful middle-aged men, rather than at 15 and a demanding little madam. No other author of historical fiction had tackled Eleanor from the angle of marriage at 13 and it made a huge difference.

    There was the matter too of her illegitimate brother Joscelin.  If I was going to write about her life, I had to know about him because several biographers said that she had given him land in Sussex when she was queen of England. He must have been important to her.   I subsequently discovered that no such brother existed and it was a misreading of the primary sources by her biographers.  I wrote about it for The History Girls here. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the brother who never was   Needless to say, I omitted his presence from the novels.

    At the moment I am busy on the third draft of THE IRISH PRINCESS, the story of Aoife Machmurchada, daughter of King Diarmait of Leinster who married Richard de Clare, lord of Striguil (Chepstow), her father having bestowed her marriage in payment for de Clare's help in regaining Diarmait's lost lands.  Richard de Clare is known to history as 'Strongbow'  as was his father. Once again, digging under the surface, delving into other histories and talking to excellent castle historian Paul Martin Remfrey, a detective himself par excellence, I now know that in all likelihood, 'Strongbow' was never called by that title in his lifetime. The elaborate stories about how he came by the name (either by leading a contingent of skilled archers, or being able to pull a great warbow that no one else could) is all so much myth and legend.  The real reason he became known in future centuries as 'Strongbow' was that the scribes who wrote 'Striguil', the caput of his earldom were idiosyncratic in their spelling and handwriting and the word became mangled and changed in the Chinese whispers of time.
    I still have a warbow in my story as a nod to the legend, but I have omitted calling Richard de Clare 'Strongbow'  because what is known cannot now be unknown.
    While researching the same novel, I have also been intrigued to find that Aoife, Richard de Clare's wife, who I had earlier thought had lived much of her life in Ireland, now seems to have dwelt mostly in England and Wales during her widowhood.  Her purported death date of 1189 has been pushed back to 1204, (circumstantially but convincingly enough for me), and I have a whole new set of possibilities with which to play!).

    I'm slowly gearing up to prepare the next project.  I wonder what I'll discover next time around!

    Elizabeth Chadwick's most recent work, TEMPLAR SILKS, details William Marshal's journey to the Holy Land in the course of which Elizabeth discovered all manner of research details she had never come across before!

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  • 05/24/18--17:00: London Zoo by Miranda Miller

  •     Recently I visited the zoo with my three little grandsons, whose favourite place it is. Felix, aged 22 months, is obsessed with octopuses and butterflies. I was struck by the generous space the animals are housed in now, and by this mission statement:

    Respecting and valuing animals and the natural world:Our belief is that a diverse and healthy natural world is valuable in its own right and is essential for ensuring secure and healthy lives for people.

    Over a million people a year visit the zoo and there are lots of imaginative educational programmes to interest children in biology.

       When I was a child it was very different; I’m sure that many people who worked at the zoo then DID respect the animals but they were kept in cramped cages and seemed to exist for the amusement of human beings. I remember queuing up for rides on the elephant ( see above) and the camel, who presumably were not asked if they wanted to carry squealing children around on their backs. The highlight was the Chimpanzees’ Tea Party, when chimps dressed in human clothes sat down at a table and threw buns at each other while we all laughed at their uncivilised table manners.

       The Zoological Society of London was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1826, on a 5 acre site in the new Regent’s Park, which was then on the northernmost edge of London. It wasn’t the first zoo in Europe but, in England,  the only major public collections of exotic animals were the Exeter Change menagerie, in a filthy arcade on the Strand, and the mangy  assortment of animals at the Tower. Henry I created England's first 'zoo' in 1110, when he collected lions, tigers, porcupines and camels at Woodstock, in Oxfordshire. Later, this menagerie was moved to the Tower of London, where it remained for 600 years.

       Raffles, of course, is most famous for founding Singapore. He was also a remarkable collector and scholar who enthusiastically researched the natural and cultural history, civilization and languages of the countries which are now Indonesia and Malaysia. Raffles himself died a few months after founding his zoo, aged only 45. His ambitions for the expansion of the British Empire were undoubtedly mixed up with this project to introduce other scholars to some of the Empire’s most exotic inhabitants. After Raffles’ death his project continued, supported by distinguished scientists, aristocrats, and clergymen.

       Decimus Burton was appointed to lay out the grounds and design houses for the animals, many of them very beautiful, as can be seen from these designs:

       The Literary Gazette wondered “how the inhabitants of the Regent’s Park will like the lions, leopard and linxes [sic] so near their neighbourhood.” They didn’t, and the objections of people living in the grand houses John Nash had recently built in and around the park delayed the construction of the new buildings. The zoo finally opened in 1828 and, for the first twenty years, only Fellows, and those who could obtain permission from them, were allowed access. Sadly, many of the first generation of exotic animals died of the cold because it was not understood that they had to be kept in carefully regulated temperatures.

       Charles Darwin visited while he was writing The Origin of Species and was fascinated by an orangutan, Jenny, the first ape he had ever seen: “The keeper showed her an apple, but would not give it her, whereupon she threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child. - She then looked very sulky & after two or three fits of pashion [sic], the keeper said, 'Jenny if you will stop bawling & be a good girl, I will give you the apple.' - She certainly understood every word of his, &, though like a child, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded, & then got the apple, with which she jumped into an arm chair & began eating it, with the most contented countenance.” This experience probably contributed to his famous conclusion that: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”

       When the zoo did open to the public, for a shilling, it rapidly became a much loved part of London life. A giraffe was an early star and so was Jumbo, an African bull elephant, who even entered the dictionary. A hippopotamus, Obaysch, arrived, given by the Abbas Pasha of Egypt, in exchange for four brace of deer hounds. In 1850 Punch published The Diary of the Hippopotamus:

    As many of our country readers naturally feel anxious to know how the Hippopotamus passes his time in a strange land, where he is so far away from home and all his relations, we have gone to the expense of procuring the following particulars, which are now printed for the first time.... HIP, HIP, HIP, FOR THE HIPPOPOTAMUS.

    EVERYBODY is still running towards the Regent's Park, for the purpose of passing half an hour with the Hippopotamus. The animal itself repays public curiosity with a yawn of indifference, or throws cold water on the ardour of his visitors, by suddenly plunging into his bath, and splashing every one within five yards of him.

       Twenty years later a music-hall artist, the Great Vance, sang:

    Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo.

    The O.K. thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo.

    The Fellows of the Zoological Society of London disapproved of this undignified new slang word but it caught on, anyway.

       An unusually tame female black bear called Winnie lived at London Zoo from 1914, when she was left there by Canadian soldiers on their way to fight in France, until her death in 1934. A A Milne and his son Christopher Robin were so charmed by her that Milne changed Pooh’s name to Winnie-the-Pooh.

       London Zoo seems to have adapted admirably to changing ideas about animal rights, although it can of course be argued that zoos shouldn’t exist. The National Zoo in Washington, for instance, now prefers to call itself a biopark. Many people believe that wild animals should remain in their natural habitat and shouldn’t be made to live in captivity at all. But while it’s here some  of us will continue to enjoy our visits.

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    As I write this, planes from everywhere are disgorging bands of women into airports across the Republic who have flown home to Ireland to vote YES to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. It is a vital vote in Ireland today and by the time you read this, the result will be in. I am praying that it will be an overwhelming YES.

    The Irish diaspora is coming home to vote for the repeal of the eighth amendment.
    This is a clip from Dublin airport yesterday

    But what is the eighth amendment? 

    Have a look at this video. I found it on the British Independent newspaper site and I thank the paper for allowing its use to spread a clear understanding of the situation and what is at stake.

    The eighth amendment was brought in to law in Ireland on 7th September 1983. Its implementation gave equal rights to the unborn and to the carrying mother. This has meant that any woman who has aborted a child in Ireland  for whatever reason including as a rape victim has been subject to up to fourteen years in prison.
    Pregnant women from Ireland have been travelling to Britain, Holland, elsewhere in Europe, even to off shore boats carrying medical facilities to offer abortions. Why? Because their own doctors are not allowed to offer  termination under any circumstances.  Backstreet abortions still exist in Ireland. And, of course, we all know the risks involved with these.

                                                                        Savita Halappanavar

    Savita Halappanavar died from a septic miscarriage in Galway Hospital in 2012. She was a dentist, thirty-one years of age. When it was clear to everyone that she would miscarry the child, she requested an abortion and it was denied under the Eighth Amendment. She lost her life.

    The reality is that women need the right to choose for themselves knowing their own circumstances better than anyone else. Our bodies, our choice.

    Today, I hope, history will be made. Be wise and forward-thinking, dear Ireland.

    As I sign off, less than an hour before this post goes live, The Irish Times is predicting a landslide  YES vote. Up from the ashes, Ireland, and into the twenty-first century.
    History in the making.

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    Granny insisted on taking us on a history lesson
    Last Saturday, two of my grandchildren and I went out for a history and anthropology lesson. We could have gone to Legoland in Berkshire but chose nearby Windsor instead. Bill, 10, Delilah, 8, and I left Oxford by train at dawn and were surprised by how many other people were waiting at Slough station for the six-minute ride into Windsor. It was a glorious, sunny morning and the train passed over the River Thames not far from where King John signed Magna Carta in 1215. Bill looked at his train ticket and asked ‘What’s an etton?’ ‘Eton is a small town just over there, on the river. It’s famous for a boarding school started in the 15th century for poor boys. It’s a charity, but the fees are more than what most people in Britain earn. Most British Prime Ministers went there.’ ‘Did Teresa May go there?’ ‘No, they still only allow boys, who have to wear tail coats.’ ‘I wouldn’t like that,’ said Bill. This led to a discussion of educational rights, privilege and power. Arriving at Windsor and Eton station, we compared Queen Victoria's taste for ornate architecture, with the concrete minimalism of the 21st century shopping mall now attached to it.
    Oh look! There's a Royal Wedding on today! 
    When we saw that the ancient winding streets of Windsor were decked with bunting, we realised that something was up. Apparently two lovely people were getting married – a British prince and an American TV star! Kindly policemen with machine guns ushered us towards the Great Park. ‘This is certainly a long walk,’ said Delilah as we looked up the Queen’s two-mile front drive. Above the Long Walk rose Windsor Castle, begun by William I in 1070, soon after he conquered England. Over the centuries the castle grew and became more and more elaborate. In 1992 after a curtain caught alight, a fire raged through the state apartments because royal residences don’t have to adhere to fire regulations. They also don’t buy house insurance, but craftspeople rallied round and everything was rebuilt even better, and safer, than before. Delilah noticed the huge Royal Standard fluttering above the Round Tower. ‘That means the Queen is at home,’ I told her. ‘And that’s where she lived as a child during the Second World War, safe from the Blitz.’
    Windsor Castle on fire, 20 November, 1992.
    We found a spot on the grass under a flowering chestnut tree and joined thousands of people enjoying picnics. In front of us was a huge screen on which we watched the participants of our social anthropology study arriving at St George’s Chapel. The men all wore a uniform of mid-20th century dark suits and ties. A few had tail coats, perhaps harking back to their school days at Eton. Most of the women wore the costume of aristocracy when attending Ascot races: pastel-coloured silk frocks, large hats and ridiculous stiletto-heeled shoes. It was a miracle nobody tripped on the 15th century flagstones. The conversation around us gave us an insight into both the viewed and the viewers.  People wondered why Princesses Eugene and Beatrice always look so frumpy; why Victoria Beckham looked so grumpy; and why Princess Anne was wearing her father’s dressing gown. While  the Duchess of Cambridge was commended for recycling her ivory suit – it had been seen at least twice before.
    Swoons from the crowd for George Clooney, and admiration
    for Amal's outfit by Stella McCartney. copyright Gareth Fuller/PA 
    The first royal wedding at Windsor was in 1121, between Henry I and his second wife, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain in Belgium. When the divorced, bi-racial, American bride, Ms Rachel Meghan Markle appeared, everyone cried. Her dress was a perfect blend of simplicity and grandeur; and her make-up did not hide her freckles. Her five-metre silk veil was both beautiful, and a political statement: the 53 flowers embroidered round the edge were a nod to the leaders of the Commonwealth who had voted for the Prince of Wales to take over as head when the Queen dies. The missing teeth of the page boys added homely reality. And the whispered endearments of His Royal Highness Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales brought sighs from all the women around us whose hopes were now dashed.
    Page boy John Mulroney's reaction to the trumpet
    fanfare on entering St George's Chapel.
    St George’s Chapel was commissioned by King Edward IV in 1475 and is a masterpiece of Perpendicular Gothic architecture. The English matrimonial rite has been evolving for 1,000 years and this one was a traditional post-Reformation, Anglican marriage, with modern twists. The last mixed-heritage British royal was Queen Charlotte who married George III in 1761 and this ceremony certainly celebrated diversity. We had the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop, the Jamaican Chaplain to The Queen, and African-American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry. He broke with decorum and preached with noisy passion about love, slavery, equality and poverty – an unexpected blend of theology, history and politics that brought cheers from the crowd. 
    Queen Charlotte was descended
    from African Portuguese royalty 
    The service was also a glorious lesson in the history of English music, beginning with the motet ‘If ye love me’ by Thomas Tallis (1505-85). Ever since 1348, boys have sung eight times a week in St George’s, including at Christmas and Easter, in exchange for a free education. My brother was a chorister there, and at the end of each term my family and I attended Evensong in the Quire before taking him home. As George Clooney admired the fine East Window dedicated in memory of Prince Albert, and the banners of the Knights of the Garter, he sat in the same 15th century carved oak stall as I did, nearly 60 years ago. The 600 VIP guests in the nave had to be content with looking up at the 16th century vaulted ceiling and frieze of 250 carved angels from their fold-up chairs.
    George Clooney and I sat in the back row on the left,
    behind St George's choir, only 60 years apart.
    The sublime English music continued with Rutter, Elgar, Vaughn Williams and Holst and exquisite playing by teenage ’cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The highlight in the Long Walk came when the crowd joined the Kingdom Gospel Choir in singing ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King. My, did we sing our hearts out! How many people knew this was originally a slave song?

    Friendly police officers offered to share their helmets.
    As the guests in the chapel and 120,000 others gathered outside, stood to sing the National Anthem, I was aware that this could be the last time my grandchildren would witness their 92 year-old Queen feted in this way. Then it was time to rush to the fence to watch the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex pass by in their open landau, pulled by four prancing horses. ‘I saw her,’ said Delilah panting with excitement. ‘She was really beautiful.’ ‘And I saw the soldiers with gold  helmets, holding real swords as they galloped along,’ exclaimed Bill. Bill and Delilah’s history lesson on Saturday was certainly an Excellent Adventure.
    The Long Walk, Windsor Great Park. Can you spot us in the crowd on the right? 

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    There is one problem peculiar to writers of historical fiction, especially ancient historical fiction, and that is the fact that nobody has first-hand knowledge of all the tiny details we might need to know.  Of course we can look things up on the internet and consult reference books, and we can ask people who have thoroughly studied the period we’re writing about, but they don’t necessarily know the precise thing we need.  When I’ve written fiction set in the present I’ve been able to contact experts who could tell me how to fly a hot air balloon, and how long goats lived, but now I need to know something I’ve not been able to find online or in any of the reference books I've consulted.  So I’m hoping that someone who reads this blog will have the answer I need before I can get any further with my new book.

    I am currently writing a trilogy set in Roman Britain for Middle Grade (roughly 8 – 11 year-olds) called "The Britannia Mysteries".  The first book, “The Centurion’s Son”, came out last summer.  Set in the year 312 AD in present-day Caerleon, then called Isca, in South Wales, it is the story of two children, Felix (the eponymous centurion’s son) and his friend Catrin (a Silurian slave girl with second sight) who find themselves having to face dangerous challenges when Felix’s father disappears.  Having visited Caerleon several times I took care  to recreate the place as it might have been as accurately as I could, and I knew that the Second Augustan Legion really was stationed there, but the story is entirely fictional.  As ever my intention was to make History exciting for children. 

    The second book, “Danger at Hadrian’s Wall”, is set one year later, in 313 AD and follows the same children with further adventures.  (No prizes for guessing where this one is set!)  Again Felix and Catrin face unexpected challenges during their visit to the Northern Frontier, this time to their friendship as well as to their lives.  And inevitably they also come up against great danger.  This is my latest book, which has just been published.

    However, it is with the third and final one, which I am currently writing, that I have a problem.  This book is set in Bath, then called Aquae Sulis, where I live, and is set one year later again, in 314 AD.  So far, so good – I can go and see the Roman Baths for myself and ask the knowledgeable guides questions, (though as I have discovered they may not know all the answers to my very specific queries), but there is one thing nobody seems able to tell me: how did mothers transport their babies from A to B in those days?  The baby in my story is about 6 months old, so rather too big to carry around all the time, but although one website states that “Prior to the creation of the stroller, babies were carried in slings, baskets, front & back packs. The origins of baby wearing go as far back as ancient Egypt, during the time of the pharaohs.  However, it goes on that “The first official recording of baby wearing appeared in 1306 when Giotto depicted Mary carrying baby Jesus in a sling.”  But if that was the first official recording, and it wasn't until 1306, did Giotto know for sure that was how she carried the baby?  I'm sure he did his research, but I don't know how much information was around in those days.  Or was it artistic licence? 

    Maybe Roman mothers also carried their babies round in slings, or strapped to their fronts or backs.  Or maybe they carried them in baskets – but in that case, did the baskets have handles for ease of carrying, or is that a modern invention?  Prams, I discovered, weren’t invented until the early 18th century, and cots/cribs/bassinets not until even later.  (Apparently until then babies slept in the same bed as their mothers.  That isn’t really pertinent to the story, but once I began researching I wanted to find out!)  Or maybe Roman mothers simply handed the baby over to a slave and told the slave to carry it, regardless of the weight of a growing infant. 

    It may be a small detail, and it may not be crucial to the overall plot, but I do like to be able to see something in my head before I can write about it.  So if anyone knows, I’d be really grateful for the information. 

    Thank you.
    Lynne Benton

    See my website: www.lynnebenton.com

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    Our guest for May is Liz Fremantle who used to be a full-time History Girl. Here she talks about her latest novel.

    E. C. Fremantle has a BA in English and an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck. As Elizabeth Fremantle she is the critically acclaimed author of four Tudor historical novels: Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady and The Girl in the Glass Tower and has contributed to various publications, including The Sunday Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The FT and The Wall Street Journal. She lives in London and Norfolk. 

    Author photo: JP Masclet
    On New Years’ Day 1606 a couple were married at King James’s court, in an ostentatious ceremony as close to a royal wedding as it was possible to get, without any of the parties actually being royal. The young pair were at the pinnacle of the aristocracy, both from powerful families. He was the Earl of Essex, son of an infamous father who had been executed for his ill-starred rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. She was Lady Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, a family with close historical links to the Tudor throne – Howard women were sought-after brides.

    This was no Harry and Megan love match. As was the norm for aristocrats in Early Modern England, it was a dynastic marriage, but unusual in that it was designed to unite two opposing political factions. The Howards had long been a powerful force and were shown great favour by the new King James when he came to the throne. They publically held the same religiously tolerant political position as the King and were keen to strike treaties with old Catholic enemies like Spain. The Essex faction, back in favour having helped James to the English throne, supported a hard-line Protestant agenda and were more inclined to war than ‘jaw’. Consequently, the wedding, as a catalyst for peace between warring parties, heralded an air of optimism and unity in the early Stuart court.

    The Earl of Essex
    The pair were young, she fourteen and he still thirteen, which was unremarkable for such marriages of the period. But the risks of childbirth for a girl so young were great, so Essex was sent to Europe for a time to be reunited with his wife a few years later. There was little love lost between the couple when they finally came together. But more significantly, during Essex’s absence the power balance at court had shifted and the deep-rooted differences between the Howards and the Essex faction had once more begun to crystallise. The optimism of 1606 was a distant memory by 1612; the Essex faction was losing their influence, so the marriage was no longer serving its purpose and the Howards were keen to extract Frances. They were forming other plans for her.

    There was a new star at court. Robert Carr had attracted the attention of the King, who had a penchant for beautiful young men, and had consequently risen to a position of power as the royal favourite. Carr, in the market for a wife, was taken with Frances, and her family saw an opportunity to consolidate their close ties to the King. Their intention was to extract Frances from her marriage with Essex, whose star was on the wane, and hitch her to Carr, whose star was rising. But, even with the backing of the King, who could refuse his favourite nothing, this would not be easy.

    Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset
     In 1613 an annulment was proposed to a church commission. This was audacious, to say the least, given that the couple had lived together for some three years. But annulment was crucial, as divorce meant neither party could remarry in the lifetime of their former spouse. Both parties claimed the marriage hadn’t been consummated. But they were treading a fine line. For Essex to be publically deemed impotent would not only incur ridicule but spoil his future potential in the marriage market.

    His friends testified that though he was unable to perform with his wife, he was certainly capable with other women – they had seen it for themselves. One can only imagine the atmosphere in court while the discussion of the young man’s erection took place before the bishops. Frances bore the brunt of the public shaming, being labelled a whore and a witch who had made her husband impotent by nefarious means. She was charged to undergo an inspection, which involved several respectable matrons and midwives all having a prod around her nether regions to see if she remained virgo intacta.
    Frances Howard
    A scandal of vast proportions blew up with ribald news-sheets having the kind of field day the red-tops have when a footballer beds a woman who is not his wife. It was generally believed that Frances must have been substituted by another, purer, woman for the purposes of hoodwinking the respectable matrons. A contemporary rhyme put it thus: "this dame was inspected but fraud interjected/ A maid of more perfection. "

    The church commission deliberated for months and proceedings were further delayed by an old friend of Carr’s, Sir Thomas Overbury, who was vehemently opposed to the plan, threatening to prevent the annulment. He was thrown into the Tower on orders of the King, where he died. Eventually the King, who was keen to see his favourite married for reasons of his own, intervened by appointing two further bishops to push the decision in his favour. The annulment was eventually granted. The favourite, now the Earl of Somerset, was married to Frances Howard by the same bishop who performed her first marriage and in equal splendour. An entire week of court celebrations marked the nuptials.

    The new Earl and Countess were riding high with the King’s favour – the ‘it’ couple of the Jacobean court. However, their troubles were only in temporary abeyance. When the Essex crowd saw a way to gain back their influence, the couple were to find themselves in extremely treacherous waters. The ensuing scandal would rock the court to its foundations and come perilously close to the King himself, forming the first dent in the Stuart monarchy, which would topple some two decades later.

    It is these murky and murderous events around the glamorous Somersets that formed the basis of my novel The Poison Bed.

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    I owe one of my A-levels to a naked man with pubic hair shaped into a star. Or at least, to a statue with said unusually-groomed privates.

    I mention this in part because (even more than 20 years on) I find it both unlikely and entertaining, but partly because a couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to hear Natalie Haynes and Mary Beard speak about the value of the classics (among many other things) at Damien Barr’s Literary Salon. You can listen to their brilliant interviews via the podcast versions here - https://www.theliterarysalon.co.uk/

    Given that I studied ancient & modern history at university and classical civilisation for A-level, this evening was completely up my street – two intelligent, articulate, funny women talking ancient history, culture and books – and yes, Mary Beard’s sparkly trainers were defiantly on show.

    Mary Beard's sparkly trainers
    (Sorry for the rubbish photo quality! Source, as you might expect, is me)
    Now, assuming you’re reading a history blog because you, umm, like history, I probably don’t need to point out ‘the value of the classics’ or ‘the value of history’ to you.

    But that evening make me think about my classics A-level. Even at the time I thought it was brilliant, and not only because as a group of 17-year-old girls we got to study statues of naked men for a whole term. It was great because it provided us with a real grounding in a range of areas important to understanding the culture of the Greek world. It wasn’t just about one thing, as our other school subjects tended to be, but roved across a variety of disciplines and ways of looking at things. The naked men were only one element of an introduction to ancient Greek art and architecture; we studied a number of different types of literature (Homer, classical tragedies and comedies, some shorter poetry) and a fair amount of political, social and economic history as well; some archaeology and even a bit of geography while we were at it.

    I really enjoyed that rounded experience of learning about a place and time in a variety of different ways. It’s a perspective and way of thinking that I’ve taken with me when looking at other societies, whether studying them for academic reasons, for my more recent forays into historical fiction and when visiting places in real life.

    And the naked man? Well, he of the unusual pubes is known as the Aristodekos Kouros, and one of my A-level questions genuinely was a photo of him which I had to identify and discuss. He was easy to spot, for obvious reasons. And even now, should you ever need a Greek male nude dated, I can usually get to within a decade or so.

    I’ll leave you to decide which is the more useful useful life skill. But I’d definitely like to have the statue as the centrepiece of my Cabinet of Curiosities!
    The Aristodekos Kouros 
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

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  • 05/30/18--16:01: May Competition
  • To win a copy of Liz Fremantle's The Poison Bed, just answer this question in the Comments section below:

    "Many famous and infamous people have died in the Tower of London, often in mysterious circumstances. About which death would you most like to know the truth?"

    Then copy your answer to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk so that we can get in touch with you if you win.

    Closing date: 15th June

    We are sorry that our competitions are open to UK Followers only

    Good luck!

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