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    'Mosquitoes liked the Costume' from Bill Nyer's 
    History of the United States, 1894
    One of the unexpected consequences of the summer’s heatwave this year was the huge reduction in Lapland’s mosquito population. A great relief for humans, since their mosquitoes have a reputation of being some of the most numerous and vicious in the world, but not so good for the birds, amphibians, fish and dragonflies which depend upon them.

    But the heatwave seemed to have the reverse effect in England, because sitting with my office door open to try to get some relief from the heat, I was bitten numerous times by gnats and mosquitoes breeding in the water-butts and pond outside.

    The news about Lapland reminded me of an old folktale I heard as a child which involved mosquitoes. Throughout Medieval Europe, Lapland was both admired for having the most skillful silversmiths and feared for having the most dangerous warlocks or sorcerers. The story goes that a Lapland sorcerer had the ambition of marrying his son to the daughter of one of the great kings of Europe. But his son, a peaceful herder, wanted to wed an ordinary girl who could do practical things like milk the reindeer. The sorcerer refused to listen. He changed himself into an owl, flew over the sea and abducted the beautiful princess, but she indignantly refused to consent to the marriage. So, he starved her to force her into submission. But the boy thwarted his father by smuggling reindeer milk to the princess.
    Lapland Owl, also known as the Great Grey Owl or
    the Spectral Owl.
    Photo: Steve Wilson

    Discovering she was still defiant, the sorcerer imprisoned the princess in a cave, but before sealing the entrance, he let in a great swarm of Lapland mosquitoes, thinking that after she'd been tormented by hundreds of bites she would soon become biddable. But the boy managed to smuggle some turpentine to the princess. She rubbed it on her skin and it prevented the mosquitoes from biting her, so she emerged, unscathed, to face the sorcerer’s third and most deadly ordeal.

    Thinking about this tale, reminded me that while we are very aware of the insects that bred in medieval homes such as moths, weevils, lice and fleas, we sometimes overlook the mosquito problem. The numerous open sewers and puddles of stagnant water lying in city streets, the many ponds, ditches and undrained marshlands in the country were ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which must have driven people mad in the summer months. Of course, there were many more natural predators around then. Ponds were usually well stocked with fish that fed on the larvae, and birds and dragonflies devoured the adults. There were also several periods of cold, wet summers which limited insect numbers, but there were also years of hot weather too. 

    Culex Mosquito female
    Photo: Alan R. Walker

    And right up until the 19th century, mosquitoes in England and Europe didn’t merely cause annoyance with their itchy bites, the marshlands were rife with malaria, known variously as the Ague, Marsh Fever or by Shakespeare’s time ‘quotidian tertian’, a fever which recurs in a cycle, which caused poor old Falstaff to shake and burn in Henry V. The links between mosquitoes and malaria were not understood until the 1880’s and in the Middle Ages and Tudor periods, the fever was generally ascribed to either drinking foul water or more commonly, breathing the bad air from cesspits or the miasmas of the marshes. Many people living in the marshlands in Norfolk and Suffolk became addicted to the juice and seeds of the white marsh poppy, which they used to try to alleviate the symptoms.

    1905 illustration from a book of American Folktales
    But even though they did not fully realise the danger, imagine squatting over a hole above a cesspit or ditch in which clouds of mosquitoes were swarming, looking for a nice bare rump to bore into. So, what could they do? The strewing herbs on the floors and bunches of herbs hung in windows would have helped to ward off some. Rubbing the skin with ransoms (wild garlic) and salves made from pine resin was said to stop the creatures biting. Stringing horse hair across windows and beds was supposed to discourage them, though it isn’t entirely clear whether this created a physical barrier or it was ‘magical’ power of the horsehair itself, which was often woven into protective amulets. Hanging pots or sponges filled with sharp vinegar over your head and feet in bed was said to keep the insects at bay, and you could also use vinegar infused with herbs such as lavender, rosemary, rue, mint and wormwood. These herbs were often planted near windows and doors to act as mosquito deterrents and when dried, were burned on hearth fires or braziers to drive them away.
    1646, Apothecary smoking his pipe
    Artist: Adriaen van Ostade

    The fact that cottages would have been constantly ‘fumigated’ by the smoke from cooking fires and tallow candles would have helped to deter mosquitoes from entering. In this respect, poorer people probably had the advantage. Being forced to burn bones, animal dung, and greener wood on open fires which produced a lot of smoke and stink, probably served them better in warding off insects than the wealthier people who could afford to burn dry seasoned wood and had chimneys to draw the smoke away. But once strong tobacco began to be imported, people swiftly discovered that smoking a pipeful was a good way of protecting themselves from gnats and mosquitoes. One of reasons, it became so popular.

    As for me, next summer, I might be resorting to the good old turpentine. Unless you have a favourite deterrent?

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  • 09/08/18--18:00: Virgil and the 9/11 Memorial
  • by Caroline Lawrence

    The 9/11 Memorial Museum opened to the public in 2014. It is impressive on many levels but what interests me most is a quote from Virgil
     on the wall of the Memorial Hall, deep underground: No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

    The capital letters of the quote are just over a foot tall, forged from steel recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Centre. The quote is surrounded by 2983 squares of paper, one for each life lost, in shades of blue trying to remember the colour of the sky on that September morning’.

    When the memorial first opened there was some controversy about the use of the quote based on its original context. 

    So when did Virgil say No day shall erase you from the memory of time?

    And why?

    He didn
    t actually say it in a speech, like a Caesar or a Cicero. 

    He wrote it down in a poem, his great epic poem: the Aeneid

    And yet in a way he did say it. 

    Here are the two verses from which the 9/11 quote was pulled:

    Fortunati ambo! writes Virgil, si quid mea carmina possunt, nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo... Literally: Lucky pair! If my verses have any power, no day ever shall remove you (plural) from the memory of time.’ Aeneid IX.446-7

    Modern bust of Virgil at his tomb in Naples
    These words are not put into the mouth of a character in the poem, they are the words of the poet himself. This is one of the few places where Virgil steps out of the story, as it were, to utter this prayer: if my poem lasts, so will the memory of what you did.

    So who are the lucky pair? And what did they do?

    The short answer is that they are two teenage refugees from a war torn city who die in a failed raid against the inhabitants of the land they hope to settle. 

    For the longer answer, we have to go back to the sack of Troy.

    Remember the story of the Trojan Horse?

    How it wasn’t really a Trojan Horse but a Greek Horse, full of soldiers?

    How they sneakily smuggled themselves into the city they had been besieging for ten years?

    How the Greeks dropped out of the giant horse’s wooden belly in the middle of the night and set about burning Troy and killing everyone in it?

    Well, the Greeks didn't kill quite everyone. Aeneas was a hero who had fought in the Trojan war escaped with his aged father and young son. 

    Trautmann 'Burning of Troy' 1759
    Once safely outside the town walls, Aeneas hides on the slopes of Mount Ida among the trees of a sacred grove. Over the next few days and even weeks he receives a steady trickle of refugees from the sacked city, many of them probably traumatised orphans. Aeneas is conscientious, responsible and also reputedly the son of a goddess (Venus). So he soon became their natural leader.

    For various reasons, Aeneas decides to seek a new place to live rather than rebuild the old one. So he cuts down the trees of the sacred grove, uses the wood to make a dozen ships and sets off in search of his 
    New Troy’

    'Where Aeneas Disembarked' restaurant in Ostia
    For seven years Aeneas and his twelve boatloads of refugees sail the Mediterranean. The children grow up. The older refugees die and are buried on strange soil. This is the fate of Aeneas's father. Aeneas’s young son Ascanius, probably about seven when they fled Troy is fourteen when they finally find the place to build their new city: on the banks of the River Tiber in Italy, eight hundred miles west of Troy.

    Virgil famously modelled the first six books of the Aeneid (the sea voyage) on the Odyssey and the last six (land battles) on the the Iliad

    When Aeneas sails up the river Tiber, it seems to him that there is enough space for them to settle. One of the local kings is even happy to marry his daughter to the Trojan. But other Latin tribes are unhappy, especially the Rutulians, whose leader Turnus was engaged to the princess now promised to Aeneas. 

    The Rutulians threaten to attack
    The refugee Trojans hear rumours that Turnus is planning to attack them, so they build a wooden fort on the banks of the Tiber. When Aeneas hears that Turnus is on his way, he leaves his fourteen-year-old son Ascanius in charge and goes off with a couple of scouts to seek additional forces from an Etruscan a few miles upstream. 

    No sooner has Aeneas is gone, than Turnus arrives with many allied troops. The Trojans retreat to the safety of the fort and although Turnus calls them cowards, they refuse to come out and fight. But the fort on the banks of the Tiber is wood, not stone, and Turnus threatens to burn it down in the morning. He wants to force them to come out and be slaughtered. Having burned the Trojan ships so that they can’t escape by river, Turnus and his troops surround the fort and settle in for the night. They celebrate their anticipated victory with food, wine and dicing.  

    Euryalus and Nisus
    Meanwhile in the fort, Ascanius assigns guards to patrol the ramparts and watch for a night attack. At midnight guards are changed and two youths come up together. Their names are Nisus and Euryalus. Virgil's description hints that Euryalus is about Ascanius’s age, fourteen, and Nisus is about seventeen or eighteen. They may be lovers or just good friends, but they are devoted to each other. In my retelling of their story in The Night Raid, a book for teens, I have them meeting during the sack of Troy when Nisus is seven and Euryalus ten or eleven. I try to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the two boys to flee the burning city.

    Now, seven years later, they are once again besieged with a threat of burning and destruction. As the two friends pace the lofty ramparts of the wooden fort and look down on the sleeping enemy, the older boy has an idea. If just one of them could creep unseen through the sleeping enemy troops, he might reach Aeneas and bring back reinforcements before dawn, thereby saving his comrades and winning glory for himself. Euryalus won’t hear of Nisus going on his own; they will go together. They have hunted together in the woods and think they know the way. This is something they feel they can do.

    They take their proposal to young Ascanius who is standing by a campfire with some of the older Trojan leaders, worrying about what to do. They eagerly agree to Nisus’s plan and promise the two friends great rewards if they succeed. Without offering sacrifice or taking the omens, they almost push the two friends outside the fort. Nisus and Euryalus go down into a ditch and when they come up they are among the sleeping enemy soldiers. 

    At first all goes well as they sneak through the snoring enemy. Then they discover how easy it is to kill drunken and sleeping enemy soldiers. Soon they forget the urgency of their mission and start to loot as well as kill. Euryalus, the younger boy, takes a shiny helmet and puts it on. This is their fatal mistake. A band of enemy allies have just arrived on horseback to join Turnus. They see the moonlight flashing on the bright metal of the helmet and chase the youths into the dark and tangled woods.  

    Confused by the limited visibility and unaccustomed weight of the helmet, Euryalus stumbles into the open and is surrounded by the enemy. 

    Nisus has been hiding in the woods, but when he sees his young friend surrounded by enemy troops, he runs out of the woods crying Me, me! Kill me instead! But Euryalus is already mortally wounded. He falls like a white poppy beaten down by rain. Instead of turning around and running for safety, Nisus makes a suicidal rush into the heavily armed soldiers. Pierced by several swords, he falls dying on top of his friend to protect his body from mutilation. 

    This is when Virgil steps out of the poem to state that the two will never be forgotten if his verses have any power. 

    The quote shows one thing common to humans in the past two thousand years: the desire not to be forgotten. And more than that: the desire to be well-thought of. This is true not just of the warrior and his victim but of the artists who help us remember.

    You can read the original Latin HERE. It starts at line 175 and our quote is at line 447. You can read the English poet Dryden’s translation HERE. You can read what various scholars have said about the controversy HERE. And you can read my version of the story in The Night Raid

    A version of this post first appeared on the now defunct Wonders and Marvels blog in 2014...

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    Every novelist has her own personal history, her cast of characters that stretch way back into her writing past. Laurie Graham, a former History Girl, never dreamed of writing sequels to her two early novels, Perfect Meringues and The Future Homemakers of America. She thought that those characters were in their graves: gone, but fondly remembered.

    But in recent years, she’s been asked to pick up the stories of Lizzie Partridge the 1990s TV chef from Perfect Meringues and Peggy Dewey the 1950s Airforce wife in Homemakers. In each case she’s moved the characters on twenty years from their last appearance.

    Writing this way raises particular problems, not least that Laurie hadn’t thought to future-proof Lizzy and Peggy. She was left with a desire to go back and rewrite the originals, to make better starting points for sequels. But it can’t be done. What’s published is published.

     Another problem is being forced to re-read old work …

    I have had the pleasure of interviewing Laurie about the art of revivifying old characters …

     How does it feel to reread your old novels?

    Initially it was so painful that I kept putting it off for tomorrow. I had to force myself to sit down and do it and indeed I was horrified by some of what I read. I couldn’t believe that my old editors had let certain things go through. But there was a good side to revisiting old material: I discovered that I’m a better writer now than I was twenty years ago.

    In what way?

    I am more ruthless. I can now see in my early books instances of self-indulgence and sloppiness. With occasional downpours of clichés!

    But all writers are desperately self-critical, aren’t they?

    Not all, I fear. But we should be. Of course it’s a perennial tussle between having the confidence of your convictions while writing with the dreck-detector switched on.

     I know that where twenty years ago it might have broken my heart to cut things that really needed to go, now I don’t hesitate. If the voice in my head says ‘really, Laurie? Sure about that, are you?,’ it goes, immediately. Stuff can always be retrieved from the cutting-room floor but funnily enough, it never is.

    So the new Lizzy Partridge book is just out. It’s called Anyone for Seconds?, which is a double pun, in that it is a second helping of an earlier novel’s protagonist?

    Yes. And I very much hope that no reviewer is going to say ‘No, thank you. We’ve had our fill of that.’

    Tell us about the original Lizzie – and the new one.

    Laurie in 1998
    What has been interesting for me is that when I created Lizzy I was going through a very difficult period of my life: divorce, single parenthood, penury. Quite coincidentally (or was it?), when reviving her, I was going through another difficult period: grief, loss, penury again. So Lizzie has been a sort of mouthpiece for me, the most autobiographical of my protagonists. In Perfect Meringues she was in her forties and the single parent of a stroppy teenager. In Anyone for Seconds she’s a grandmother, though not of the knitting and baking variety. She was sharp and funny then but she’s sharper and funnier now, having reached the golden years of not giving a pig’s patootie.

    In Perfect Meringues she was a daytime TV cook who loses her slot to a one-recipe wonder who’s sleeping with the show’s editor. Lizzie bows out in the glorious blaze of an on-air food fight. When I dramatized the book for Radio 4 I had the great pleasure of scripting the fight for Imelda Staunton who played Lizzie and Lesley Joseph who played her nemesis, TV anchor Kim.

    I was an enthusiastic cook myself in the 1990s so I enjoyed dreaming up menus for Lizzie. Wind on two decades and Lizzie, like me, rarely cooks. She’ll dine, as I have been known to do, on a slice toast eaten leaning over the sink. And her grungy, eye-rolling teenage daughter, has grown up, scrubbed up and become a career woman and a helicopter parent to her own son. Drawn from life? I name no names. Anyone for Seconds? is a work of fiction.
    Laurie now
    How did you work on this technically?

     Having forced myself to sit at the kitchen table to read the first book, I was relieved to find that it wasn’t so very bad. It actually made me laugh a couple of times, which was encouraging. Most important of all, I still liked Lizzie and her entourage. I was happy at the prospect of spending another year in their company.

     On that first reading, I foolishly didn’t make notes so during the writing of the sequel I had to keep going back to the old text. If only novels had indices.

    My usual process with a novel is to wait for a voice but in this instance I already had the voice. What I needed to do next was a cull of characters. Who should reappear, who was for the chop? Lizzie’s mother, Muriel, now approaching 90, was a likely candidate for an early exit, but I found I couldn’t dispense with her. Muriel, just like my own dear departed Mum, is so key to understanding what drives Lizzie. So Muriel was spared and the guillotine fell elsewhere.

    There’s always the question of a love interest. Lizzie had a happy romantic ending in Perfect Meringues, as did my own life about the time I was finishing writing the book. But ‘happy ever after’ often turns out to be ‘happy for the time being.’

    I decided that should be Lizzie’s lot. Alone again, wiser, more resilient and, no longer actively looking for love as she was in her forties, she is, strange to relate, more likely to find it.

    What are the main differences in society in the 20 years between the two books?

    Only two decades and yet the world is hardly recognisable. When I wrote Perfect Meringues, I didn’t own a mobile phone. I just about had a computer, a beast which took up half of my small study. In the sequel, though Lizzie is way behind the technological curve even she has a mobile phone.

    From the point of view of Lizzie’s character, political correctness is the most significant change in the world she inhabits. She, like me, finds it oppressive and at times risible, and she resists having her thoughts and speech policed by her vigilant daughter, Ellie. Each of them is a creature of their time. Ellie, born in the 1970s is as baffled by post-war baby Lizzie as Lizzie is by her own mother, born in the 1920s.

    What was the hardest thing about reviving Lizzie?

    This may sound odd but I think the thing that caused me most concern was how a sequel would be received. I didn’t want my readers to think I’d run out of new ideas. On the contrary, I still have plenty of ideas. Sadly my publishers haven’t been as enamoured of them as I am so they must lie dormant for the time being. I just didn’t want people to think I was scraping the authorial barrel. Let’s rather call it a bit of perfectly legitimate grave-robbing.

    Laurie Graham website

    Michelle Lovric website

    at left, The Horrors of the London burial grounds, being a correct account of the horrible disclosures made by gravediggers : with the manner of cutting up dead bodies, and other horrible transactions, 1840, courtesy of Wellcome Images 

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  • 09/10/18--16:00: Elmet, King Arthur and me
  • I had my DNA done (by Living DNA), which neatly matched what I already knew about my ancestry from all the Ancestry.com family trees and my own research. In a nutshell, this is me: 

    The Scandinavian/Finnish bit comes from my Swedish-Finnish Great-Grandfather. The rest roughly matches the English/Scottish background of my ancestors. 

    What was most interesting to me was the more than a quarter of my DNA that comes from the mysterious part of Yorkshire that was the ancient kingdom of Elmet. 

    Only one of my grandparents - my mother's father - was born in England. Although his birthplace was Liverpool, both of his parents came from Almondbury near Huddersfield and his Eastwood/Wilkinson forebears seem to have lived in the Almondbury area ad infinitum. 

    Almondbury is now a suburb of Huddersfield, but when my ancestors lived there it was a village. Here are some photos of Almondbury I took yesterday.

    I had assumed the Yorkshire part of my genetic makeup would mean I had Anglo-Saxon or Viking DNA, because that's what we now associate with Yorkshire: Viking York (Yorvik) and Anglian Northumberland and Mercia. However, it seems I hail from a much older people, the original Celtic Britons. 

    South Yorkshire is sometimes jokingly referred to as "The People's Republic of South Yorkshire". It has form, as many large Chartist meetings were held on hilltops across the South and West Pennine moors, and there were bitter protests during the Thatcher years. They're a bolshie group in that part of the world, and proud of it. Now I understand why that's so and I'm really happy to share their DNA.

    To quote my DNA report:

    "The formation of South and West Yorkshire as a distinct genetic and cultural region has its roots in perhaps the most mysterious part of Britain’s history. As the Romans withdrew roughly 1500 years ago, the island was undergoing a great cultural and demographic shift. Waves of migration from Northern Europe saw Angles, Saxons, and Jutes setting up vast and powerful kingdoms, both displacing and integrating with the indigenous Britons. In certain areas, this transition happened quickly with little evidence of warfare, but some post-Roman rulers resisted. 
    The Kingdom of Elmet held out in England longer than most others, a buffer state in southern Yorkshire surrounded by expansive Anglian kingdoms. Though eventually it fell, remarkable evidence from the first fine scale genetic map of Britain shows that the ancient kingdom’s legacy is still felt today as a unique genetic signature can be found in an area almost perfectly matching its probable geopolitical boundaries." (my emphasis)

    Living DNA refers to the portion of Yorkshire in red below as "South Yorkshire".

    This is not entirely the area currently known as South Yorkshire, rather it lies within the old West Riding.

    Basically, a quarter of my DNA comes from the people who made up this ancient kingdom of Elmet, which was an independent Celtic kingdom that existed between about the fifth century and early seventh century AD and was the last stronghold of the Britons to fall to the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. 

    The boundaries of Elmet appear to have followed a rough line along the River Wharfe in the north-east, incorporating Ilkley to Tadcaster, and the River Don incorporating Doncaster and Sheffield in the south, up the side of the Peak District and taking in Sowerby Bridge Hallifax and Keighley. 

    The capital of Elmet seems to have been in or near to what is now Leeds, then Loidis. The name Elmet comes from that of the elm-tree, because it was located in a great forest of elm-trees. 
    It was known variously as Elmet, Elmed or Elfed, and the name may refer to its extensive forests of elms. The early chroniclers called it Elmete Saetan or "the dwelling place of the people of Elmete".

    The people of Elmet were originally a part of the powerful Celtic tribe of Brigantes. In 155 AD the Brigantes revolted against Roman rule and burned down the Roman fort at Ilkley (Olicana). They were soon defeated.

    Apparently the local Celtic British tribes centred around Leeds (Loidis) thought it wiser to be associated with the powerful Romans, who ound it convenient to rule through alliances with local chiefs. They separated from the Brigantes to form themselves into the separate kingdom of Elmet. They then forged an alliance with the Romans.

    After the evacuation of the Roman Legions from Britain, around 407-410 AD, Elmet came into prominence as a Christian bulwark against the invading Anglo-Saxon pagans. And there is often an association of Elmet with the origins of Arthurian legends which speak of a warrior who led a band of heroic warriors to spearhead the resistance of Britons against the invading Saxons, Jutes, and others from the north of Europe, sometime in the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

    It seems that Elmet had associations with the Welsh Celtic tribes. A two-line Latin inscription on an early Christian burial stone dating from the late fifth or sixth century was unearthed in a field known locally as the Gardd-y-Saint (the Garden of the Saints) near Llanaelhaearn church (about six miles north of Pwllheli) in north-west Wales. 

    The  stone has been set into the wall of the church and it reads: 'ALIORTUS ELMETIACO HIC IACET', which means that "Aliortus, the man of Elmet" is buried there. (My husband's mother's maiden name was Allott and his mother came from Yorkshire. Perhaps Aliortus was an ancestor!)

    Then came the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. In the sixth century, those Angles who were occupying territory to the east of Elmet (the East Riding) founded the kingdom of Deira, those to the north founded Bernicia, whilst the Angles of Mercia began to take over land to the south and in the Midlands. Elmet became a frontier land, ringed by the invaders.

    One of my favourite TV shows in the 1970s was Arthur of the Britons. It now seems that the real Arthur may have been from Elmet.

    This view is supported by an Historian, Adrian Grant, who claims that Arthur was the son of Masgwid Gloff, a 5th-Century king who ruled over the kingdom of Elmet. He claims that Arthur was born in around 475AD in Barwick-in-Elmet.

    According to Grant, Arthur’s real name was Arthwys ap Masgwid (Arthur son of Masgwid), and he was the son of the king of Elmet, Masgwid Gloff and and his wife, Gwenllian V Bryche.

    At the age of 15, says Grant, Arthur was chosen by the chiefs of the 'Hen Ogled' or 'Old North' - the kingdoms of northern England - as their Pendragon, or Commander-in- Chief and fought battles against the Scots, Picts and (probably) Saxons.

    For a period Elmet was sufficiently powerful to withstand Anglian pressure, whether from Deira, Bernicia or Mercia. The poet Taliesin  wrote of Guallauc, a ruler of Elmet as "a skilled warrior," beloved of his followers. 

    Sadly, Elmet couldn't hold out forever against the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  The kingdom's downfall began in 590 when its king, Gwallog, was killed during a war against the Angles of Bernicia. 

    Worse was to come for Elmet when in 616, Edwin, the king of Bernicia, merged his kingdom with its southern neighbour, Deira, to form the powerful Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. 

    Elmet, the last of the Celtic kingdoms became the target of Edwin, king of Northumbria. His excuse for invasion came when an exiled Northumbrian nobleman named Herric (who had been given sanctuary in Elmet by its king, Ceredig) died of poisoning at the Elmet court. Some think that Hereric was poisoned on Edwin's orders, as an excuse to ipunish Ceredig for taking in Herreric by invading and annexing his country. 

    Although the kingdom of Elmet became part of Northumbria in 627, it seems that its population of Britons stayed put. According to a genetic study published in Nature (19 March 2015), the local population of what had been West Yorkshire is genetically distinct from the rest of the population of Yorkshire

    Later Anglo-Saxon and Viking names survive as Barwick-in-Elmet (berewic is Old English for 'corn farm'), Scholes-in-Elmet (the name is a plural of Old Norse skáli = "temporary shed") and Sherburn in Elmet, as if the locals were determined to maintain the memory of the fallen kingdom. The Angles who took over the area became known as the Elmed Saetna, or Elmet settlers, so the name was well enough established with the invaders to survive its demise as an independent kingdom.

    The ancient kingdom of Elmet held a particular fascination for the poet Ted Hughes, probably because he spent his early childhood in Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. He had a great love for the area. 

    With the photographer, Faye Godwin, he produced an "episodic autobiography" of the region, in which he examined the disconnection between the lives people live, the places they live and the history that surrounds them. The book was Remains of Elmet, first published in 1979, with an expanded edition, called just Elmet, in 1994. 

    Hughes felt that the Anglo-Saxon usurpation of Elmet ("the last independent Celtic kingdom in England") was the first in a series of disasters to befall the area. His poems depict a weather-beaten landscape and people and the vestiges of industrial enterprise, religious custom and ancient tradition. He claimed that only nature now flourishes, as it reclaims the land from those who inhabit it.


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    by Antonia Senior

    I have written before about historical fiction in the form of poems, and how I value them (and, poorly, turn my pen to them). This month, I have been re-reading the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, and contemplating his austere brilliance.

    The reason for the return to Cavafy was a book which landed on my reviewer's desk. What's Left of the Night is a novel by celebrated Greek poet, Ersi Sotiropoulos. Set in 1897 it follows the young Cavafy over the course of three momentous days in Paris. Not much happens, and everything happens. The young poet wanders Paris, interrogating himself. Who am I? What do I believe? How can I best say what I believe? And that question that anyone who has ever written a word for the public eye must and should have asked themselves: am I worth being read?

    The book is wonderful, and my review will appear, all things being well, in The Times one week on Saturday. It is niche, and despite my rave words will doubtless sell far fewer copies than dozens of dreary, mediocre books called Watching You (with BIG Twist), or Is Woman's Husband Actually Evil? or Scmaltzy Crap about Ditzy Woman with a Big Heart, or whatever the latest tedious bandwagon is. So here is the link to What's Left of the Night so you can pre-order it: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Whats-Left-Night-Sotiropoulos-Ersi-ebook/dp/B07G63ZS8H/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536696044&sr=8-1&keywords=what%27s+left+of+the+night

    Image result for cp cavafy
    CP Cavafy

    But let's talk about Cavafy. He was born in Alexandria in 1863 to Greek parents. His family made money, then spectacularly lost it and the young Cavafy lived in Constantinople for a time and in England. He spent most of his life in Alexandria, where he lived an unremarkable life as a civil servant. He was homosexual, and his poetry is infused with erotic charge - he is unashamed but stifled by the world's mores. Here he is in He Asked about the Quality. A young man has seen a youth through the window of a shop, and goes inside:

    He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
    and how much they cost, his voice choking,
    almost silenced by desire.
    And the answers came back the same way,
    distracted, the voice hushed,
    offering hidden consent.
    They kept on talking about the merchandise—but
    the only purpose: that their hands might touch
    over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips,
    might move close together as though by chance—
    a moment’s meeting of limb against limb.
    Quickly, secretly, so the shopowner sitting at the back
    wouldn’t realize what was going on.

    All poems quoted are translated by Edmund Keeley/Phillip Sherrard  and reproduced from www.cavafy.com

    But it's Cavafy's historical poems that concern us here. They are primarily focused on Ancient Greece and Rome. They take a theme it could take an entire novel to explore, and distil it to its essence in that almost deadpan style of his. (Ersi Sotiropoulis is brilliant on Cavafy's quest for a unique and personal style. He rejects lyricism as flippant ornamentation. Rhyme and metre are a poet's crutch - they let him/her avoid actually saying anything.)

    The poems are Janus-like, in the manner of all good historical fiction: they look backwards, and in doing so, tell us something about ourselves, and our immediate present. There are three layers of history, in effect: the past event, Cavafy's present and our own present - and the poems speak to each of these. This alone, I think, would prove their greatness.

    There are so many to choose from to illustrate his layered brilliance. I have chosen two, which I offer without commentary - you don't need my banal witterings. The first is specific: it's addressed to Mark Antony on losing to Augustus.

    When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
    an invisible procession going by
    with exquisite music, voices,
    don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
    work gone wrong, your plans
    all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
    As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
    say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
    Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
    it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
    don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
    As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
    as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
    go firmly to the window
    and listen with deep emotion, but not
    with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
    listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
    to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
    and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing. 

    The second, Waiting for the Barbarians, is one of his most famous poems. I offer it again without commentary - bar the thought that it's the most interesting piece about Brexit I have read in months.

    What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
                The barbarians are due here today.
    Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
    Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
                Because the barbarians are coming today.
                What laws can the senators make now?
                Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

    Why did our emperor get up so early,
    and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
    on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
                Because the barbarians are coming today
                and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
                He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
                replete with titles, with imposing names.

    Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
    wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
    Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
    and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
    Why are they carrying elegant canes
    beautifully worked in silver and gold?
                Because the barbarians are coming today
                and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

    Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
    to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
                Because the barbarians are coming today
                and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

    Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
    (How serious people’s faces have become.)
    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?
                Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
                And some who have just returned from the border say
                there are no barbarians any longer.

    And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution. 

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    A Maiden's Crown

    In the seventeenth century, the death of an unmarried young woman was commemorated by the making of an unusual wreath or garland. If you died unmarried, it was considered you were now married to God. So during the funeral procession a garland shaped like a crown, represnting the 'Crown of Glory' would be placed on the coffin or carried before it. The oldest surviving garland was made in 1680 and is displayed at St Mary's Church, in Beverley, Yorkshire. The one below is a drawing of one from Matlock in Derbyshire.

    In the early days of Christianity, funeral garlands were emblems of Virgin Martyrs and the practice of making maidens' garlands is likely to have derived from that. The deceased, who in some parishes could be male or female, must have been both baptised and confirmed and have been unmarried before death. During the funeral procession, the funeral crown was suspended from a white rod and carried before the coffin by another young virgin dressed in white. It was common for the crown to hang above the deceased person's pew as a sort of test, for three weeks. If nobody challenged its right to remain, it was then hung permanently from a bracket in the church.

    The garland was shaped as a crown, because you would be becoming the 'consort' of  Christ the King, it was a headdress like a wreath, shaped top form a high crown, made of wood and wrapped in white lace. Families would make these for their daughter because she would never have a wedding, and often they included ribbons, handkerchiefs and flowers, both fabric and real. In the spring, primroses were often included, and at other times when flowers were much less plentiful, fake flowers made of ruched paper or cloth were used. Many young girls died of chlorosis, sparking a legend that young unmarried girls who died from this anaemia – of which one sign was a yellow-green complexion – were turned into primroses.

    Virgins, time past, known were these,Troubled with Green-sicknesses,Turn’d to flowers: stil the hieuSickly Girles, they beare of you.
    According to Adkins History Website , their manufacture was described in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1747 by a resident of Bromley in Kent:

    Minsterley Garland
    ‘The lower rim, or circlet, was a broad hoop of wood, whereunto were fix’d, at the sides thereof, part of two other hoops, crossing each other at the top at right angles, which formed the upper part, being about one third longer than the width; these hoops were wholly covered with artificial flowers of paper, dy’d horn, or silk, and more or less beauteous, according to the skill or ingenuity of the performer. In the vacancy of the inside, from the top, hung white paper, cut in the form of gloves, whereon was wrote the deceased’s name, age, etc. together with long slips of various-colour’d paper, or ribbons. These were many times intermix’d with gilded or painted empty shells of blown eggs, as farther ornaments; or, it may be, as emblems of the bubbles or bitterness of this life; whilst other garlands had only a solitary hour-glass hanging therein, as a more significant symbol of mortality.’
    Gloves and crants
    Traditionally the crowns also had gloves tied to them, because gloves symbolised the binding of hands, and the young woman was being 'married' to death and eternity. When the coffin was eventually lowered into the ground, the crown remained in the church, probably displayed over her pew, over her grave, or in the chancel – as a token of her purity and virginity and as a memorial.  Interestingly, the customm was not only for young women, as the pcture below shows, but for any unwed woman.
    A more modern crown from Abbots Ann, Hampshire.
    In the original version of Hamlet, at Ophelia’s burial, the crown or 'crant' is referred to. The word ‘crants’  is an old Dutch word for a garland or wreath, retained by the Saxons.

    Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants, Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home 
    Of bell and burial.

    Later editors substitute the word 'crants' with  'rites', making the lines easier to understand. Dr Johnson who was the first to explain the word crant,  revealed that the custom was still alive in his day. In earlier centuries it was considered unlucky to remove these garlands, or break bits from them, but as they decayed the fallen pieces were gathered up and buried in the church yard. 

    The Minsterley Crowns or Garlands suspended in the church

    Very few of these garlands, crowns, or crants survive now - victims of over-zealous cleaning and tidying in churches, and possibly the uncertainty of finding a virgin! But some can still be seen as a poignant reminder, now yellowed with age. The church at Minsterley has the biggest number of seven surviving crowns. Six of them, dating from the first half of the 18th Century, can be seen displayed on the wall of the church. Each one hangs on its own wooden peg which juts from the wall and is finished off a wooden heart, on which are inscribed the maid’s initials and the date of her death. All of the surviving garlands date from the first half of the 18th Century.

    The Minsterley garlands have recently been a focus of conservation, and one of them is displayed in a glass case, so vistors can get a close look, But it is a rather sad affair now, disintegrating and brown with age.

    Most of my books include a death or two, but so far no virgin deaths. Such an interesting custom deserves to be immortalized in a novel, don't you agree?

    Thank you for reading! Find me on Twitter @swiftstory, or on my website www.deborahswift.com

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    New Year's, Osaka 1978; w Shige
    and Reiko Tohmine. I'm on left.
    Forty years ago this month, in September 1978, twenty-two fresh-faced young university graduates set off for Japan. Our mission was to teach English - not at language schools but in universities and high schools, and not in Tokyo but in the provinces, places which had never had an English teacher before or had the chance to see a real foreigner. In later years it would come to be called the JET Programme and thousands of young students would go out. But ours was the very first year and was by way of being a bit of an experiment.

    The interviews took place at the Japanese embassy, an intimidating building in Grosvenor Square where nine interviewers sat in a line facing the interviewee in a huge high-ceilinged room. I had borrowed a suit from my mother for the occasion. Many years later one of the then interviewers told me that what they were really looking for was not qualifications or teaching skills or self-confidence or anything else but to assess whether we were the sort of people who could stick it out. And indeed in later years I’ve met people who went to Japan on the JET Scheme and ended up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t stick it out and came home again. But we twenty two were made of sterner stuff.

    Forty years ago certainly feels like history now - and here is a little of what we experienced.
    Narita Airport, Japan, September 1978. I am at bottom left, kneeling.
    In those days there was no direct flight to Japan. The journey took 18 hours with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. The airport was a 1 1/2 hour bus ride from Tokyo, which at first sight was distinctly unprepossessing.

    In 1978 Japan was 33 years out of World War II and still rebuilding. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 had helped bring back a degree of prosperity but many of the buildings had been thrown up at great speed and still looked jerry built.

    In front of the tokonoma (I'm in the middle)
    We were put up in a drab hotel and rushed almost straight away into a welcome meeting at the Ministry of Education, where we sat on metal chairs around long metal tables while what seemed like very old men droned on in Japanese, which none of us could speak, while we, horrendously jet lagged, tried to stay awake. The twenty two of us were to be scattered across Japan. There were two in Tokyo, two in Osaka, but most were in small towns where no one had ever seen a foreigner before.

    There we were introduced to our hosts, in my case Professor Shimizu of Gifu Women’s University, who had come to take me to Gifu.

    We went down on the bullet train. I remember my first sight of Mount Fuji - a perfect symmetrical cone rising out of the plain. Other mountains are obscured by mountain ranges but Fuji stands all alone in the flat plain, ethereal and beautiful with a trail of smoke wafting from the crater and a wisp of cloud crowning the summit. 
    Gifu Castle, Japan

    At the job interview at the Japanese Embassy in London, I’d been asked, ‘If you were offered this job, where would you like to go - Tokyo or the countryside?’ I’d said ‘countryside’, picturing green trees, fields, sheep, cows. Little did I know that to my Japanese interlocutor the word inaka - ‘countryside’ - actually means ‘the provinces’, ‘the sticks’, anywhere that isn’t Tokyo. 

    And so I found myself in the grey industrial city of Gifu, a city no one had heard of, where so far as I knew no westerners ever went. It was autumn, when the rice has been harvested and the paddy fields are brown and threadbare. Early on I climbed to the top of Mount Kinka, which rises to one side of the city, and peered around, looking for any sign of countryside; but all I could see was brown and drab. I had to wait till spring to see the paddy fields turn brilliant green.

    Initially I stayed in a seventh floor room in the Nagaragawa Hotel. I’d barely been there a night when I was woken by my bed swaying violently back and forth. ‘Earthquake!’ I thought in horror and leapt out of bed, wondering what to do. I soon learnt that it was just a tremor, an everyday occurrence. A real earthquake is a lot more dramatic.
    Visiting a temple. I'm tucked away behind, in the middle
    The staff at Gifu Women’s University had heard that foreigners need a lot of space so they arranged two tiny apartments for me, not one. I used one as my bedroom and bathroom and went along the outside landing to the next, which became my living room and kitchen. My colleague, Mrs Miyabe, took me to the electrical appliance shop to get a doll’s house sized fridge, a tiny purple washing machine and spin drier, an oven big enough to bake a loaf of bread or a cake and a one-person-sized vacuum cleaner, also purple. 

    Eventually I moved to a bigger apartment, set in fields of daikon radishes. I also began to explore. Back in the sixteenth century, when Japan was made up of warring princedoms, Gifu was the capital of the famous and formidable warlord Oda Nobunaga. His castle is perched at the top of Mount Kinka. For reasons unknown the Americans bombed this little castle even though it’s a long way from anything industrial. By the time I got there it had been rebuilt in ferro concrete. You climb through the woods along footpaths to get there. It’s hard to imagine Oda and his thousands of samurai warriors making their way up and down the stony hillside. 

    I studied tea ceremony ...
    To get to the university I had to take the bus destination Mino, written only in Japanese at the front: 
    I’d stand at the bus stop looking at the characters which my Japanese colleague had written for me on a piece of paper and comparing them with the characters at the front of each bus as it drew up. Japanese buses are as strictly timetabled as the bullet train and by the time I’d worked out that this was my bus, the doors would have closed and the bus would be pulling away.

    Most people in Gifu had never seen a foreigner before. I’d never felt so isolated. Then after three months a colleague asked, ‘Would you like to meet the other foreigners?’ I hadn’t realised there were any. It turned out there were two - a married couple, John from Coulsdon and Sarah from Seattle. They became close friends. 
    Gifu 1983 (I'm in the middle)
    To counter the loneliness I went for walks to the beautiful nearby temple, which had a lake with tiny green turtles swimming around in it and a little stall that sold tofu with sweet miso sauce brushed on top, grilled over charcoal. I also taught myself Japanese; as there were only three foreigners there was no call for Japanese teachers. I studied tea ceremony and flower arranging and immersed myself in Japanese literature in translation. 

    I also hitchhiked. By the end of my first year I’d been up to the north of the country and down to the far south.

    In my time off my colleagues took me to see sword making, local festivals, paper making and cormorant fishing, for which Gifu is famous. But I still found myself on my own a lot. 

    Then I started to make women friends. They took me on trams that trundled off deep into the countryside to ancient moss-covered temples with stone Buddhas outside and Shinto shrines with vermilion arches in front, often both religions celebrated side by side. There we dined on temple food, extraordinary delicate dishes. 

    It was the beginning of a never-ending love affair with Japan, enough to fill a lifetime of writing. 

    Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback.

    For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

    All pictures are mine except the picture of Gifu Castle, which is courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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  • 09/15/18--07:59: Apology
  • Owing to a misunderstanding, there is no History Girls post today.

    Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

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    I recently had a chat with Lindsey Fraser – my Literary Agent – about a creative writing initiative for young people with which she’s involved, The Young Walter Scott Prize, and I thought readers of the History Girls – particularly any teachers out there – really should hear about it. It’s a terrific opportunity for young writers aged between 11 and 19 to take their inspiration from history, with the chance of winning a £500 travel grant and attending the Borders Book Festival next June. So here’s Lindsey, to tell you all about it.

    What’s the background to YWSP?

    It was devised in response to the success of The Walter Scott Prize – an award for historical fiction which boasts such writers as Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulkes, Andrea Levy and Tan Twan Eng among its winners. The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch – the driving force behind that award – were keen to find a way of supporting young unpublished writers under the Walter Scott banner and the idea of YWSP emerged. The guidelines are simple – use the past as the inspiration for your writing. And the resulting entries have been fascinating. Welsh settlers in Patagonia in the 19thCentury, Cornish smugglers, missionaries in China, 11th Century Constantinople, America in the 1950s, the Great Fire of London – history provides such rich pickings for young writers and although there are obvious favourites, I’m so impressed by the variety.

    YWSP has run workshops in the summer that take place in historical settings - this one is at Holkham.

    Surely you are inundated with manuscripts – you’re a literary agent! Why look for more work?
    True… but as so many of our clients write for young people, I’m always interested in what young people write for themselves. And we’re often approached by young writers keen to find places to submit their work. We’ve been involved with the Pushkin Prizes – a creative writing initiative for young people in Scotland – for over 20 years; it keeps us in touch with young writers and readers, which is very important when you’re involved in the business of making books for them.

    And I love historical fiction. I’ve long been irritated by rumours that historical fiction for young people is unpopular and our post bag around the end of October proves that there is huge interest in the past, and that these young writers will delve into some extraordinary corners to find the right settings and characters. Reading and writing go hand in hand. Historical fiction seems particularly appropriate for this age-group – young people looking out from their own familiar worlds, examining the past, seeking information from what happened there. Curiosity is a great driver.

    Exploring Castle Urquhart

    What are the prizes?

    The winner in each age category – 11-15 and 16-19 – receives a travel grant of £500. And they’re invited to the Borders Book Festival where the Walter Scott Prize is announced. The organisers are very keen to emphasise the importance of YWSP and our most recent winner, Leonard Belderson from Norwich, found himself being presented with his prize by Sebastian Barry, then meeting Ben Myers and all the authors shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize. It’s heady stuff!

    Runners up receive a book token – we’re obviously keen for reading to be involved! – and the Prizes publish an anthology of the winning pieces every year. So several young writers see their work in print, which is a big thrill – as any grown-up writer knows.

    At the prize-giving – Leonard Belderson and Darcie Izatt

    And the key dates?

    All entries must be in by the end of October – information and the entry form are on the website - www.walterscottprize.co.uk

    How can History Girls writers help?

    Many writers already help to spread the word, on their website or on social media, taking our leaflets into schools their visiting – that kind of signposting has been very helpful. This will be YWSP’s fourth year, and we’re hoping for another bumper entry. So do encourage young writers – your readers - to enter. I’m always happy to provide further information.

    Facebook – Walter Scott Prize

    Instagram – Walter Scott Prize

    Twitter @waltscottprize

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    Last weekend, I was in London, walking beside the Thames in the sunshine and enjoying – despite all the new buildings - the city’s enigmatic sense of the past. History exist as a half-concealed code in so many place names: London Bridge, The Clink, Potter’s Field, Southwark itself, all with their own myths and stories, and there as glimpses along the way: old stonework, an architectural flourish, a memorial, all reminding me that all the old maps of London lie beneath the modern sprawl.

    London and the Thames are often there within my writing. especially within the work-in-progress that I’m picking up after a long break. It was the city of my childhood, of my early self’s wanderings, and won’t easily release its hold in my imagination. The weekend, for many reasons was inspiring, and I have come back ready to revisit my fictional London and those grey, ever-moving river tides.

    However, for me, writing needs good sleep and good words, so I have begun on some comfort re-reading. Last night I finished Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. and this morning, in bed, I started Black Hearts in Battersea, the second adventure in her trilogy set in the fictitious reign of James III.

    “On a fine warm evening in late summer, over a hundred years ago, a boy might have been seen leading a donkey across Southwark Bridge in the City of London . . .  Halfway across the bridge, the boy paused, took and extra turn of the donkey’s halter round his wrist, and pulled out of his pouch a grubby and much handled letter. . . “
    The letter, from his friend & artist Dr Gabriel Field, tells fifteen year-old Simon to come to Rose Alley, Southwark, where he has taken two rooms for them at the top floor of a house, which belongs to Mr and Mrs Twite and their brood:
    “They are an unattractive family but I see little enough of them. Moreover, the windows command a handsome view of the river and St Paul’s. “
    When Simon eventually discovers the house, there is nobody at home, other than: 
     “A shrewish looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”
    This, friends, is Dido Twite, Aiken’s bold young heroine, created well before feisty was an essential publishing term. All Dido wants is a ride on the donkey. Simon, however, is far more concerned by the fact that the two rooms are empty and Dr Field- and all his belongings and artist materials – have totally disappeared, and so the quest begins. Set in an early, alternative nineteenth century, Black Hearts in Battersea presents an alternative historical world where two factions are still at odds over who is ruling Britain - it is fiction – and trouble is afoot in deepest London.

    With Aiken’s work at my bedside, I thought about other historical fiction for children and young people set in London. Then, like Simon, I asked around and here, therefore, is a list of favourite London titles, many almost historical in themselves, that might interest you. Some are perfectly fine for nine year olds, while others offer stronger content, harsher settings and bigger reading experiences. You might, like Simon, check things out first – or is that a well-worn rule about London?
    Coram Boy byJamila Gavin,inspired by Thomas Coram's Foundling Museum as well as the links between Britain and the riches of India.

    Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: the first in his exciting Sally Lockhart series, as shown on television.
    I, Coriander by Sally Gardner: historical reality overlaid by the magic of the fairy world and beautifully written.

    The Raven Master's Boy by Mary Hoffman – a strong Tudor novel for teens while younger readers might enjoyRaven Boy by Pippa Goodhart. Same birds, different books.

     Slightly Jones and the Case of the London Dragon by Joan Lennon:
    A lively girl detective discovers a fossil problem just as Queen Victoria is due to visit the Natural History Museum.

    The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding, set in the world of the London theatre and music halls.

    Nest of Vipers, set close by Newgate prison by Catherine Johnson, and Freedom, her novel about slavery.

    The Shadow Web by Nicky Matthews Browne: definitely alt-history, where two identical girls somehow swap not-identical parallel lives.

    The Mourning Emporium by Michelle Lovric,which begins in Bankside in 1902. A supernatural Venetian villain arrives in London to wreak havoc on a country mourning the loss of its Queen, and on the watery city that declared him a traitor.

    The Armourer's House and The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliffe, both still in print.Unfortunately, “Ring Out Bow Bells” and “The Load of Unicorn” by Cynthia Harnett  only exist as rare second-hand copies.

    The Historical House books, written by Adele Geras, Linda Newbery and Ann Turnbull, re-issued as the “6 Chelsea Walk” series: Girls with a Vote– Polly’s Walk; Girls with a Voice -Mary Anne and Miss Mozart and Girls Behind the Camera: Cecily’s Portrait.All three titles are set at a different time within the same house.

    Wartime London appears at the start of several evacuee books, including Michelle Magorian’s Good Night Mr Tom; Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carrol and Jimmy’s War by Lynne Benton for slightly younger readers.

    There is alsoRiver Of Inkby Helen Dennis:the first of a new, time-travelling thriller series for middle-grade readers.

    I have just heard about a time-slip novel that features the iconic Alexandra Palace:
    The Pearl in the Atticby Karen McCombie. It must go on my list because where else did one go on a North London Sunday afternoon?

    And, finally, two true London favourites of mine:

    Smith: The Story of A Pickpocket by Leon Garfield, for the wonderful intensity of his characters, his sense of place and ear for language and dialogue.
    Oliver Twistby Charles Dickens drawn from his own childhood memories of the London streets.

    Have you any London-based historical novels for young readers or teens that you’d recommend? (Or any that, like Livi Michael’s The Whispering Road, celebrate another particular city and if so which?)

    Penny Dolan

    Author of A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)

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    I began writing this blog in Italy, in a cafe in the small Tuscan city of Sansepolcro. I was lucky it was still there. The Rough Guide to Tuscany  tells us that in 1944, the British Eighth Army was ordered to bombard the town but a young artillery officer recalled reading an article by Aldous Huxley which said that within its walls was ‘the greatest painting in the world’. The officer ordered the bombardment to be delayed hoping the Germans would withdraw, which they did and painting and city were saved. The story is part of the memory of the city. A man on a bicycle told us the same story when he realised we were English as we asked for directions to Piero della Francesca's house.  

    The Resurrection - Piero della Francesca
    The painting was The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. Recently restored, it occupies a wall in the Museo Civico and was painted in the early 1450s for the Palace of the Conservators, the town hall. The fresco has deep and profound religious significance but it was not painted for a church, or any kind of religious foundation. It served an arguably more important function, looking down on the deliberations of those who administered the city. Even today, it can be viewed by any citizen, day or night, either in the Museo, or after it closes, from outside through plate glass. It used to be visible from the street at all times but tour operators would bring their charges to view it for free instead of paying to enter the small museum.

    Sansepolcro Town Shield
     Sansepolcro was Piero Della Francesca’s ‘burgo’, his town, his city. He was born here and although he travelled throughout Italy to work for patrons and fulfil commissions, he was never longer than three years away from his home. He took an active and energetic part in civic life. He sat with the other Conservators under the unsettling gaze that he himself had created.

    For the last fifteen years of his life, he never left Borgo San Sepolcro, recognised and celebrated by his fellow citizens as simply, the Maestro. The Resurrection is on the town shield and the city appears in many of his other frescoes. Sometimes, as part of a mysterious, distant landscape, sometimes in the foreground as the setting for the events that are depicted. No matter that the city is supposed to be Jerusalem, in the fresco cycle The Legend of The True Cross contained in the Basilica of St Francis in the nearby city of Arezzo, the city depicted is Sansepolcro. The River Jordan in The Baptism of Christ (in the National Gallery, London) is the Tiber, the landscape the Tiber Valley and the tiny city in the distance is  Sansepolcro.
    Detail from Piero della Francesco
     Baptism of Christ,
     National Gallery, London

    Baptism of Christ, National Gallery, London

    Piero della Francesca left behind no self portraits, but it is thought that he put himself in two of his works and both are in the Museo Civico in Sansepolcro. He has been seen among the sleeping soldiers beneath the feet of the Risen Christ and under the sheltering cloak of the majestic Madonna della Misericorda, the Madonna of Mercy.

    Madonna della Misericordia
    Detail from Madonna della Misericordia
    Detail with geometric diagram

    This study of the sleeping soldier shows another of Piero's obsessions, his fascination with form and perspective. In his youth he had trained as a mathematician and wrote several treatises on subject. His deep interest in the theoretical study of perspective is apparent in all his work, from the actual construction of his paintings, the landscapes and cityscapes which provide the backgrounds and the subjects themselves.

    Exhibit in Piero della Francesca's House, Sansepolcro
     His knowledge of solid geometry can be seen in the head and face of the soldier at the feet of the Risen Christ, although no mathematics can produce the brooding majesty of the Risen Christ or the infinite sorrow and compassion on the face of the Madonna del Parto. 

    Madonna del Parto, Monterchi, Tiscany
    Piero della Francesca continues to be an inspiration. By one of those serendipitous holiday encounters, we were lucky enough to meet the artist Stefano Camaiti who lives a literal stone's throw from the front door of Piero's house. The house is now a small museum full of fascinating exhibits illustrating different aspects of Piero's life and work. Stefano's wife is the guide there but speaks little English. Her son, Giacomo, offered to translate and then took us to meet his father, Stefano, in his studio. With Giacomo translating, Stefano told us about his lifelong interest in Piero and showed us his own work. He was preparing for an exhibition to be held this September in Florence. The Places of the Rose would combine the artist's abiding interest in the works of Piero della Francesco, particularly the recurring motif of the dog rose, their shared love of the Tiberine Tuscan landscape and a series of works based on Dante's journey in the Divine Comedy. It was a rare privilege to be invited into his studio, to see his work and to hear him talk about it and I'm especially grateful to his son, Giacomo for his patient and able translation.   

    Celia Rees

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    Autumn is upon us. The summer is over. And I find myself reflecting on my holidays and my holiday reading.
    One of my holiday reads was Eric Newby’s book Love and War in the Apennines. This is a memoir set during the Second World War and concerns a subject I knew little about prior to reading: the fate of British POW’s in Italy at the time of the Italian armistice in 1943.

    Eric Newby was one such prisoner of war when on 8th September the Italians surrendered.
    The British Authorities ordered the POWs to stay put in their camps thinking that the allied advance would be rapid. However, it was not and the Germans issued an order that all POWs should be marched northwards. 50,000 Allied troops were marched to new camps in Germany and Poland where conditions were far harsher than they had experienced in the Italian camps. Thousands died either from failed escape attempts or the harsh winter conditions.

    Eric Newby managed to escape this fate. At his camp they had ignored the British order and the POWs had walked out on mass, their Guards letting them go. Though free of their incarceration they faced a new danger: the Germans
    They had issued a proclamation that made their intentions clear:

    “It is hoped the population will have the good sense to abstain from all inconsiderate activities - all acts of resistance - all acts of sabotage - all hostile acts against German Armed Forces will be constrained by severe counter measures.” 

    With the Germans advancing Newby had to rely on the compassion and the help of the Italian civilians to avoid capture. A reward of 1,8000 Lira offered by the Germans per prisoner recaptured (around £4300 in modern terms) added to the danger faced by Newby and his fellow escapees.

    But despite threats of execution for anyone caught harbouring escaped prisoners many of the Italian civilian population did offer help to those on the run. One Italian businessman Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi helped hundreds of British POWs escape to Switzerland. Bacciagaluppi was married to an English woman and with a home on the Italian/Switzerland border he was in prime position to help the escapees. He setup a network, with the aid of his factory staff, that helped the POWs cross over into Switzerland.
    That Bacciagaluppi was betrayed by a colleague and arrested by the Gestapo in April 1944 shows the danger the Italian helpers were in. Indeed German proclamations stated clearly what anyone helping the loose POW’s might face.

    4. Those giving refuge to Anglo-American escapees will be severely punished. 

    5. Anybody that gives food, supplies or civilian clothing to Anglo-American escapees will be referred to the War Tribunal for the application of severe penalties. 

    But help they did. As one RAF report said:
    Italian civilians gave clothes, food, railway tickets and considerable 
    sums of money to escaped POWs.

    Iris Origo and family.
    Iris Origo, an English biographer living in Italy during the war, recalls in her diary how four Englishmen were kept hidden by a Tuscan peasant:

    “The peasant’s story is remarkable. He took in these four Englishmen at the beginning of October, when they were obliged to leave here, and fed and housed them –disregarding the danger as well as the expense – for over three months.” 

    She herself assisted many allied prisoners of war evade capture.

    This was the experience of escaped British POW John Mallen:

    “I found what I considered to be good hideaways - one was a cave in an area of dense woodland and the other was a barn. It was just bare ground in the cave and I had just one blanket that I had been given. As I was still in the area I could still contact my Italian family through another person. The next night after I had done this, the 11 year old daughter arrived in darkness, at my cave. 'Giovanni, I heard... Camilla' And there she was with a big basket strapped onto her back loaded with meat, cheese, bread, a bottle of wine and a big bunch of grapes. Dear oh dear.... that was very welcome. Just imagine though a young girl going a mile and a half in the dark and taking that risk.” 

    Newby himself evaded the Germans by hiding in the caves and forests of Fontanello in the Po Valley. He also experienced great kindness.

    ’No you can’t sleep in my hay," he said after another equally long pause. “You might set it on fire and where would I be then? But you can sleep in my house in a bed, and you will, too, but before we go in I have to finish with Bella." And he went back to milking her.

    After injuring his ankle Newby was taken to the local hospital. Here he met a young Slovene nurse named Wanda. She gave him language lessons, a friendship formed. One which later became a romance.
    But danger was ever present, as again John Mallen’s experience show:

    “One early morning I was about to move off from my cowshed and I was looking around to see if anyone was around, any nasty people in German uniform, when I heard machine gun fire. The sound echoed round the valleys and it was hard to tell where it came from. Later I heard that a squad of Italian SS had tracked these Americans down to their hiding place. The sound I heard was them being shot. I was told by local people that it was the German SS.” 

    Newby had his own encounter with the enemy up in the hills:
     “ I woke to find a German soldier standing over me.” 

    Thankfully though this German’s interest was primarily butterfly catching. He had no intention nor desire to hand Newby over to his commanders.

    Staying in multiple households, sometimes sheltered by shepherds, Newby evaded capture for five months. However, his luck ran out when he was betrayed by a villager and arrested. He spent the remainder of the second world war in camps in Germany and Czechoslovakia. After the war he tracked down Wanda and they married.

    I found this book an engrossing read and formed a great admiration of the courage of both the POWs and the Italians who risked all to help them. 

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    I have alreadywritten in the History Girls about the long defunct Meon Valley Railway (MVR), a feature of this lovely part of Hampshire that is often part of my daily walk, together with the River Meon itself and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere. All that is left of the line now is an 11 miles (17.5 km) stretch of woodland track on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) from Wickham through Droxford to West Meon. But when it opened the railway ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, in part following the course of the River Meon.

    Route of the MVR, adapted from the map
    in R.A. Stone’s book,
    The Meon Valley Railway, 1983,
    Kingfisher Railway Productions.
    The railway was authorised in 1896 and opened in 1903, making it one of the last railways of any size to be built to mainline standards in the United Kingdom. It was expensive to build – £400,000, which is the equivalent of about £51.2 million at today’s prices – and from an engineering perspective, very difficult, because of the nature of the terrain it had to cross. The stations were impressive, built out of brick in a mock-Tudor style, with Portland stone mullions and gables. The architecture included stained-glass door windows and tiled interiors. The lavatories were apparently housed in outbuildings styled like Chinese pagodas!

    At its northern (Alton) end, the MVR joined with the Mid-Hants Railway to Winchester, the Alton Line to Brookwood (and, presumably thence to London) and the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway. At Fareham it linked with the Eastleigh to Fareham Line, the West Coastway Line and the line to Gosport. But, although the MVR was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, it never fulfilled that purpose.

    When it opened, local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the new railway, and, in the early days, as well as taking passenger traffic, it was used extensively for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, about which I shall say more in next month’s post.

    Unfortunately, the economies of the new railway were never fully viable and the expected London through-traffic did not adequately materialise and, in 1955, after only fifty years, passenger traffic was cut, and the line was closed altogether in 1968.

    Nonetheless, when it was first in use, many local newspapers were greatly impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high standards of the stations and other structures, and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Some papers wrote articles describing the route and its scenery in great detail, pointing out places of interest along the line, such as this snippet from the Hampshire Telegraph and Post, published in June 1903:
    The line passes through a lovely country, rich in literary and historical associations.”
    And it goes on to mention some of those associations, which I thought a splendid idea, and so decided to elaborate on some of them.

    Travelling south from Alton, the Telegraph’s first-mentioned “association” is Chawton, a mile or so from Alton. Chawton is of course where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. It was in those years that she published all her major works. The house where Jane lived is nowJane Austen’s House Museum. She moved to the house, which was owned by her brother Edward, with her mother and sister in 1809. Edward had inherited the Chawton estate from his wealthy adoptive family, the Knights, and offered the house rent-free for life to his mother and sister. Jane died in 1817.

    Jane Austen’s House Museum By R ferroni2000 [CC BY-SA 4.0
    (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

    The first stop on the MVR line is Farringdon Halt, and we are now in Gilbert White territory. Gilbert was a pioneering English naturalist and ornithologist, as well as a cleric. He remained unmarried and a curate all his life. Gilbert was born in 1720, in his grandfather’s vicarage at Selborne, a few miles to the east of Farringdon. He is best known for his writings about the village’s history, geography, climate and natural history in his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. After going to university in Oxford, Gilbert was ordained, and was curate in several parishes in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including Farringdon, as well as Selborne itself on four separate occasions. After the death of his father in 1758, Gilbert moved back into the family home in Selborne, which he eventually inherited in 1763. In 1784 he became curate of Selborne for the fourth time, remaining so until his death in 1793.

    Gilbert White’s house is open to the public, and also incorporates The Oates Collections, devoted to the remarkable Oates family, in particular, Frank Oates, a Victorian explorer, and Captain Lawrence Oates, who accompanied Scott on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. Lawrence Oates is famous for uttering the heart-rending line, quoted in Scott’s diary:
    I am just going outside and I may be some time.”
    Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates during the British Antarctic Expedition, ca 1911.
    Reference Number: PA1-f-067-069-1, Alexander Turnbull Library.
    By Herbert Ponting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    In 1912, on the return journey from the Pole, the party were facing appalling conditions, including exceptionally adverse weather, a lack of food, injuries and frostbite. Oates’ feet were badly frostbitten and he was weakening faster than the others. Scott wrote in his diary on 5th March: “The poor soldier is very nearly done”. On 15th March, Oates suggested that the others should leave him in his sleeping-bag, but they refused. So he walked a few more miles that day but, on the morning of the next day, he walked out of the tent into a blizzard, and was never seen again. It was his 32nd birthday. Scott recorded in his diary:
    We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman”.
    Behind the village rises Selborne Hill, topped by Selborne Common, a designated SSSI (site of special scientific interest), managed by the National Trust. These particular Hampshire hills are part of the series of steep-sided wooded hills known as ‘hangers’, because the ancient woodlands of beech, lime, yew and ash seem to hang from the high slopes. On the Selborne ‘Hanger’ is an extraordinary zig zag path, which is pretty steep. The top is 91 metres above the Selborne’s High Street from which there are wonderful views over the village and surrounding countryside.

    The Zig Zag path up Selborne Hanger
    cc-by-sa/2.0 © 
    Hugh Craddock geograph.org.uk/p/777046

    Of the village and its setting, Gilbert said:
    At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands, lies the village, which consists of one single straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale, and running parallel with the hanger.”
    A little closer to Selborne than Farringdon is Tisted station, serving the village of East Tisted, and then comes Privett. The station buildings of both Tisted and Privett survived the dismantling of the railway and were converted to private houses.

    After Privett station comes West Meon, five miles from the site of the famous Battle of Cheriton of 1644, an important Parliamentarian victory in the English Civil War. The battle took place on 29th March and resulted in the defeat of a Royalist army, which threw King Charles I onto the defensive for the remainder of the year.

    In the last week of March, 1644, the parish of East Meon was overrun by thousands (10000 or so?) of Parliamentary troops under Sir William Waller. 6,000 or so Royalists under Sir Ralph Hopton were camped on high ground, overlooking the Parliamentarians. (Stated numbers on either side vary but it does seem clear that the two sides were not evenly matched numerically-speaking.) There were skirmishes between rival patrols in and around the area, and on the 28th March, Waller withdrew, apparently via Vinnel’s Lane in West Meon, and marched to Cheriton, where he lodged himself at Hinton Ampner House, the home of Lady Stukesly, a Parliamentary sympathiser.

    By 28th March, the Royalist forces were in Alresford and, thinking that battle might be engaged the following day, Hopton deployed his troops along Cheriton Lane, a road that ran along a ridge of high ground. The Parliamentarians were about a mile to the south.
    Battle was engaged the next day, with the armies drawn up on opposite ridges with Cheriton Wood on higher ground to the east. At first, the struggle was for control of the Wood, but, later, fighting broke out aroundHinton Ampner, and continued on both flanks throughout the day. At length the Royalists were forced down from their position and Hopton decided to retreat. It is thought that about 60 Parliamentarians were killed or injured, but as many as 300 Royalists.

    Hinton Ampner house is managed by the National Trust, though it is a very different house from the one used by William Waller as his HQ, for it has been rebuilt a number of times since 1644. However, you can follow a walk from the grounds that takes you around the site of the battle and, if you stand at the bottom of the garden, you can look across towards where the battle raged, and a plaque….

    This map, from thebritishbattles.com website shows well the juxtaposition of the battle site and the house.

    Battle of Cheriton 29th March 1644 in the English Civil War: map by John Fawkes https://www.britishbattles.com/english-civil-war/battle-of-cheriton/

    An associate, although not a son, of West Meon is Thomas Lord, who played first-class cricket from 1787 to 1802, overall making 90 known appearances. He is best known as the founder, in 1787, of Lord’s Cricket Ground, in St John’s Wood, London. But it was to West Meon that Thomas retired, and he died there in 1832, and is buried in the churchyard of St John’s Church. There is a pub in West Meon named after him.

    Another occupant of the churchyard of St John’s is Guy Burgess, the Soviet spy, whose family had lived in West Meon since 1924. Burgess died in Moscow in 1956, but his ashes were returned to England, and on 5th October 1963 were interred in the family plot.

    Hereabouts, the countryside is also of great archaeological interest, for West Meon is just three miles north of Old Winchester Hill, confusingly perhaps 11 miles away from Winchester! At the top of the hill, which is about 650 ft high, is an Iron Age hill fort, within which are Bronze Age barrows, which date from 4500-3500 BC. The fort was probably built between 600 and 300 BC and abandoned around 150-100 BC. Old Winchester Hill is a SSSI and a National Nature Reserve. In March 2009, it became part of the South Downs National Park. The chalk downland is home to very many species of butterfly, and also several types of orchid, including fly, bee, frog and butterfly orchids, as well as the more common early purple, pyramidal, common spotted and fragrant orchids. I have myself seen very many both butterflies and orchids.

    Old Winchester Hill is a wonderful place to walk and affords astonishing 360º views of the surrounding countryside, as far as the Solent and the Isle of Wight to the south. But on a chilly day, it feels wild and bleak, and it must have been a challenging place to live for those Iron Age ancestors of ours!

    View to Old Winchester Hill from MVR Line trail near MeonstokeHampshire.
    By Pterre [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
    or CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

    After West Meon station, comes Droxford. I wrote about Droxford on The History Girls back in June, so I won’t repeat that here. But, as we have already had mention of Thomas Lord, I should not fail to mention also nearby Hambledon, only four miles to the south east.

    Hambledon is home of the Hambledon Cricket Club, which started life in 1768 as a social club, but gained its fame for organising inter-county cricket matches from 1753-1781. By the late 1770s, it was the foremost cricket club in England. The club’s first ground at Broadhalfpenny Down is considered the “Cradle of Cricket”, although cricket as a sport predated both the club and the ground by at least two centuries. In 1782, the club had to move from Broadhalfpenny to Windmill Down, about half a mile away towards the village of Hambledon, because The Bat and Ball Inn, which is next to Broadhalfpenny Down (and well worth a visit for its wealth of cricketing history memorabilia), had been requisitioned by the military, although a couple of years later they moved again to another ground. Hambledon’s great days ended in the late 1780 when the cricketing world shifted its centre to London, and Thomas Lord’s new cricket ground was established as the home of the new Marylebone Cricket Club in 1787.

    After Droxford, there is a halt at Mislingford, and then comes Wickham station. Wickham is another place I have written about for the The History Girls, so we will pass it by for now, except for looking at this postcard image of the station on the last day of passenger service on the Meon Valley Railway in 1955.

    Wickham Station on the last day of passenger service in 1955.
    Photo by Lens of Sutton
    From Wickham, the line continues on to Fareham but, in 1907, a halt was built a few miles north of Fareham, at Knowle, to serve the village of Funtley and Knowle Hospital, which was opened in 1852 as the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum, and became a psychiatric hospital that operated until 1996. The halt was little more than a platform and a shelter, yet became one of the first rural stations in Hampshire to be lit by electricity, taking its power from the hospital’s generators.

    But for the area around Mislingford, Wickham, Knowle and Fareham, the arrival of the railway would provide support for the burgeoning fruit-growing industry. But more about this, and other commercial and operational aspects of the Meon Valley Railway, next month.

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    Southwark Park

    Over the long dry summer, shadows of Southwark’s past began to emerge in our local park. As lines and curves of yellow grass sketched out former ponds and buildings, it was as if we held a palimpsest up to the light and saw the ghosts of the previous parks under the one we knew. The long summer in fact provided a feast for archeologists as Long Barrows, Tudor Mansions and Bronze Age settlements revealed themselves on the parched landscape. And of course, aerial archeologists don’t need a plane anymore, drones have provided a quicker, cheaper way to get up in the air for a fresh perspective.
    This sudden wealth of new evidence about Britain’s deep past is one instance of a larger truth. The study of history, just like the study of science, is a continual process of discovery and reassessment. This year it was the hot weather which provided us with a wealth of new information, but technological advances are constantly adding to what we can know about our ancestors, where they came from, what they ate and how they lived. It’s how we know that the pigs slaughtered at Stonehenge were raised in Scotland, and the Amesbury Archer probably grew up near the Alps. 

    Food and Feasting at Stonehenge
    © English Heritage (photo by Andre Pattenden)

    And Lord knows there’s still plenty to find out. Whenever I start following a rabbity idea into the warren of secondary and primary sources, Old Bailey Archives, British History Online, Parish registers and ordinances, I’m amazed at how little we really know about periods, people, places, that seem to have been thoroughly studied already. Hallie Rubenhold’s upcoming book, The Five, is a case in point. I knew Hallie would bring a fresh eye and perspective to the study of the lives of the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper, but I assumed that everything which could be known about them would have been studied in some detail already. I was wrong. Hallie’s found an astonishing amount of unexamined material which will, I’m sure, inform fiction and non-fiction writing on Victorian London for years to come. 

    Hallie’s work also demonstrates the importance of the changing perspectives from which we view history. Reading histories from the 1950s, I’m struck not so much by the misogyny of some of the authors, though there is plenty of that, but the fact it never even occurs to many of those writers that women might have had significance, let alone intellects and abilities equal to those of the men on whom they built their ‘authoritative' accounts. We are, quite rightly, now asking about how the assumptions of previous generations have filtered out women, working people and people of colour from the cannon. We also find in our Alice in Wonderland journeys, that stories, repeated in books and articles as unquestionable facts can often rest on very questionable sources or interpretation.
    Current events shift our perspectives too, when I was studying German history in the early nineties, it was quite common to find historians searching for particular reasons in the societal makeup of Germany to explain the rise of Nazism, the unspoken assumption being it could never have risen / could rise anywhere else. The rise of populism now, makes us reassess that idea, and our look harder at own histories. 

    Writing about history in fact or fiction is a constant reminder to be yes, questioning and skeptical, but also empathetic, open-minded and imaginative. To study history and create stories within it is to be curious about past and present, to be challenged and be challenging, to open up, for better or worse, to the wealth of human stories, to judge and to be judged.
    This is my last regular post for the history girls, and I give up my slot with much regret. I’ve learned a great deal from the other bloggers here, and very much enjoyed being part of these discussions. I hope I’ll be able to pop in for the Cabinet of Curiosities or other events in the future, and in the meantime I shall continue to applaud all of those writers and researchers who realise an enquiring understanding of the past deepens and enriches our understanding of the present, and of each other. 

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    Edgar Allan Poe Statue Boston
    The schools having returned from their holidays, I've just been on mine - trust me the novelty of travelling during term-time will never wear off. We did an East Coast trip this year, visiting Boston and Washington, slightly on edge at the reports of Hurricane Florence although in the end we encountered only minor flooding. The architecture of the two cities shares commonalities - both retain pockets of beautiful nineteenth century clapboard houses and both have eighteenth century nods to ancient Rome and Greece although this is much more marked in Washington's neck-cracking take on empire. I've never felt more like an ant as I did on the Mall. 

    Both cities are fabulous to visit, but the winner for me was Boston where the Gothic still lingers. One of Boston's most famous residents and one of my favourite authors, if not people, was Edgar Allen Poe who now has a statue at the Common. It's a wonderful thing - Poe's cloak flares all dramatic and a raven and a heart tumble from his briefcase. It is all, however, rather tongue-in-cheek. Poe is placed close by the Frog Pond which was at the base of most of the insults he threw at other writers and he is depicted as sour-faced and in the act of striding away from the city he was born in but hated. Poe described the people of Boston as having no soul (which surely should have attracted him), very dull and heartily ashamed of the fact that they were born in Boston in the first place. He was notorious for his loudly-expressed loathing of works by other Boston writers (including Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau) and for comparing their ideas and writings to the croaking of the frogs which lived on the pond where he now resides, referring to the city's literary greats with parochial disdain as Frogpondians. It's rather a shame that the only frogs in the area now are sculptured ones: their chorus permanently tormenting the statue frozen in flight is a touch worthy of one of his own stories.

     Providence Athenaeum
    Poe's home no longer exists and Boston is far more interested in commemorating renaissance man Paul Revere than its more ungrateful son. To get closer to Poe today you need to travel the short distance to Providence in Rhode Island. The side-streets positively teem with the kind of turreted and ivy-clad houses you expect to find a TB-ridden maiden fainting in. Which may explain why Poe went wandering there. Shortly after his first wife died, Poe started courting Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence who was a poet and spiritualist. He proposed and she accepted on the condition he would remain sober until the day of the wedding. He promised, couldn't do it and she broke the relationship off, although Poe blamed Whitman's mother for that, rather than his own behaviour. Despite Poe dying in Baltimore, he is now reported to haunt Providence, in the area round Benefit Street and the Atheneaum which he used to visit with Whitman. Apparently the ghost has a rather melancholy air and vanishes if you try to chat.

     The Witch House, Salem
    Having done the ghosts and the Gothic and Boston being in the grip of a heatwave (and the kind of humidity which took my hair back to the 1980s), the logical next step was a visit to Salem for some witch-hunting. Salem is famous, or notorious, for the trials which took place in the town between 1692-93 in which over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 executed. To put this in context, a witchcraft craze had rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s with tens of thousands (the exact figure remains disputed) of supposed witches, mostly women, being executed. The outbreak in Salem came relatively late and, although there are many theories about the causes (including ergot poisoning through contaminated bread), it is likely that the trials had their roots in a more modern and cautionary tale: war, fear of others and the failure to integrate displaced people.

    In 1689, England started a war with France in their rival American colonies. This ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources which aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. To add to the problems, controversy also raged over Salem Village’s first ordained minister, the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was disliked because he was perceived as rigid and greedy. The very strictly devout Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil. Add into the mix some bored and hysterical girls (Parris's daughters and their friends), an old and vulnerable woman (Sarah Osborne) and a Caribbean slave (Tituba) who liked telling the girls voodoo stories to entertain them on wet days and you have a potent brew ripe for stirring.

     The execution of Bridget Bishop, Salem
    In January 1692, the Parris girls and another local girl began to have “fits” - screaming, throwing things, uttering peculiar sounds and twisting themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. On February 29th, under pressure from magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne. As Jess Blumberg put it in The Smithsonian magazine, With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed. Good and Osborne pleaded innocent but Tituba 'confessed'. She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her, and several other witches in the town who wanted to destroy the Puritans, to sign his book. All three women were put in jail and the damage was done, accusations snowballed. Despite the pleas for calm by people such as the minister Cotton Mather, by May 20 people were dead - 19 by hanging and one crushed by stones. It was a period of unstoppable madness and it was short-lived. The judges confessed their error, the trials were declared illegal and, less than 10 years later in 1711, the good names of all the victims was restored. 

     One of the many
    Salem today is a masterpiece of marketing, full of witch-themed shops selling hokey souvenirs and more psychics than you can shake a stick at (available at the Harry Potter shop if needed). We went prepared for that and it was a lot of fun. What we hadn't expected was the relevance with which the main museum (the Salem Witch Museum) presents its trial exhibition. For all the use of the word 'witch', the emphasis was very much on paranoia and the damage it inflicts. You exit not through the gift-shop but past a giant witch-hunt wall which contexts the Salem experience in the simple, or not so simple, maths of human ignorance. Fear + instigator = persecution. The case was made with equal weight for the appalling treatment and consequent suffering of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour, for the thousands accused of communism during the McCarthy era and for gay people during the early days of AIDS hysteria. There was a lot of space left on the wall. As I stood in Washington the following week and watched Trump's cavalcade leave the White House, biting my lip at every 'Make America Great' again t-shirt, I could have filled that space over and over. Some holiday souvenirs stay with you the longest.

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                                                                             May 1968, Paris

    These photos were taken by Bruno Barbey who was a twenty-five-year-old photographer in '68 and a superb visual chronicler of the events of May 1968. He wrote later, "I went with Cartier-Bresson to buy helmets to protect us from the stones, but with them we couldn't use our Leicas.'

    It is always an exciting moment for an author when she receives an email from her editor confirming the date of publication of her next novel. That has been one of the highs of this week for me. My new novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, is to be published in Britain on 16th May 2019.

    I had hoped to have the book out on the shelves this autumn to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of 1968 in France, a year that changed modern French history. However, due to various issues, I am a little late. The main point is it is on its way!

    The book is set principally in two time zones: 1968 and the present. There is a small section that takes place in the 1990s but that is not the main body of the book.

    I was a gauche teenager in 1968 and really rather ignorant of politics. My thoughts were all about training to be an actress by winning a place at one of the more prestigious London drama schools. So 1968 passed me by, which, I think now, is a great pity. It has, however, made the research for the new novel all the more fascinating, and if I could live those adolescent years of mine again, I like to think that I would get myself to Paris to participate in the student revolution. To have been what the French call a 'soixante-huitard', one who participated in the events of May 68. It is for that reason that I have had a very exciting time writing of the involvement of my young English protagonist, Grace, who finds herself in Paris at that time and gets drawn into the fight and the building of the barricades.

    The subject is hugely complex and I will come back to it again between now and publication of the novel and again perhaps afterwards. Who knows? But I want to offer a brief resumé of what the revolution was about, rather than dates and details, and I hope that it will whet your appetite to discover more with me along the way.

    In 1968, the US was in Vietnam. Americans and youngsters elsewhere in the world were beginning to voice their opposition to the US involvement in Asia. Young Americans were burning their draft cards, some were escaping the country to avoid being called up. For the first time in history a war was being relayed on a daily basis into our sitting rooms via television. The world could directly witness the killings, the violence and the sacrifice of lives, and many people were, quite understandably, horrified, appalled. The year previous, in 1967, in San Francisco, it was the Summer of Love, the Hippy Movement was making news worldwide, Make Love Not War. I found this video on Youtube that will take you back to San Francisco in 67. 

    By 1968, there were movements of dissatisfaction breaking out all over the western world, marches against the war, a growing call for Peace. In France, the dissatisfaction went further, deeper. There was a fervent desire to change French society from within the system. Many were saying that the nineteenth century was a long time in ascent, meaning that they felt France was backward, had not moved into the modern world. The young were tired of De Gaulle, a right-wing military man. They were calling for changes to the educational system, describing it as outmoded and inefficient.They wanted fairer opportunities for the worker, the man in the street. Paris '68 began with the students and then it spread fast, when the Communists came on board, to include striking workers all across the country. By late May, close to eleven million people in mainland France were on strike. The country had, literally, come to a standstill and De Gaulle went, briefly, into hiding before he returned with resolve to crack down and break the back of the revolution. 
    But he did not break its spirit, its resonances.

    In 1968, the only TV stations operating in France were government controlled. If the Élysée did not approve of the information being broadcast, it did not go out. De Gaulle, his cronies, were monitoring, censoring the news. During the weeks of rioting in Paris, the only means for the young, and those involved in the fight, to learn what was actually going on was through two radio stations: Europe One and Radio Luxembourg. 

    After several weeks, those working for the TV station also went on strike so no news of the revolution was being televised at all. At this time, Bruno Barbey (the photographer mentioned at the top of this page) got together with filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard to make short films. About 30 in total were shot. These were sent out to striking factories and cities throughout France, to keep the people informed. So the nation could see what was really going on in Paris. By this time, the movement was huge. 

    Barbey said later that it was not easy to get their pictures out of France for the world to see what was happening. He worked for the prestigious Magnum Agency (later became its vice-president). Once every two days, a Magnum messenger riding an old BMW motorbike travelled to Brussels and from there the pictures were distributed worldwide.

    I think one of the facts that has most astonished me during all the research I have been doing for the novel is to comprehend the reach of political censorship at that time in France. And this is one of the profound effects the revolution had on the country. France was opened up. Communication and dialogue between people of all classes became an urgency. De Gaulle and his government failed to rein this in. This is one of the major achievements of the 68 movement. 

    Another aspect that has really shocked me was the level of police violence against the young, hence the building of the famous barricades. In order that the students and those fighting with them - because by May 6th/7th white collar workers and some of the university professors had joined the students - could protect themselves they spent nights building defences against the police. The amount of tear gas, the arrests, the convictions, the rescinding of the students' right to continue their studies is all very shocking to read about. You could believe these were the acts of a government in some Banana Republic, not France.

    The night of 6th May was particularly violent. 600 people were wounded and 422 arrested, many taken to trial, a few losing their right to study. Again overnight on 10th May, the city, mostly on the Left Bank, was burning. Cars upturned, pavements dug up. The students were building barricades to protect themselves against the police weapons including rifles, the tear gas, the violence. Hundreds were hospitalised.

                                © Bruno Barbey. Student passing stones to build the barricades

    One thinks of France - and I live here - as a liberal country. Certainly, more liberal than most. But French women were only able to vote for the first time in April 1945 after decades of campaigning. 1968 did a great deal to bring France into the late twentieth century. It proved itself to be a cultural and social revolution that had long lasting waves.

    Bruno Queysanne, who at the time was an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, said: "In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned the intellectuals but also manual workers." Many living in France today say that it engulfed their lives, changed the way they perceived their society, gave a new emancipation to women. The sexual revolution was also a part of it. 

    "The feeling we had in those days which has shaped my entire life," these words are taken from an essay written by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders of that time (and now a member of the European Green Party), "was, We're Making History. An exalted feeling - suddenly we had become agents in world history."

    Not only the cars, but life in France had been upended. It would never be the same again.

    I so wish I had been there, but as I wasn't I have buried myself in my novel in the skin of a young Englishwoman, Grace, and through her eyes and passion, I have lived the experience.

    Here are some photos from those amazing, heady days.

                                  Renault workers on strike at Bologne-Billancourt 27th May '68

                                                                        © Bruno Barbey

                         Jean-Paul Sartre speaking to students within the occupied Sorbonne

    All photographs  © Bruno Barbey and Magnum Photos

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    Our guest for August is Vanessa Harbour, author of the début novel for young readers, Flight, which deals with the rescue of a troop of Lipizzaner horses from the Nazis and their arduous journey to where the famous Riding School was based during WW2.

    Vanessa Harbour is a  writer and academic who loves words and believes in living life to the full regardless of what life throws at her. In particular, she likes to weave her words into stories for children and young adults, providing moments of hope in a difficult world. When she was growing up she wanted to be either a doctor or writer. Now she is a Doctor of Creative Writing so has the best of both worlds. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. She is also Academic and Diversity Consultant/Editor at the Golden Egg Academy. Flight is her first novel which is her tribute to her parents who both served during WW2.

    As a child I was about passionate horses. I read everything I could about them. All the fiction and lots of non-fiction too. Anything I could find I would read. It was in the non-fiction where I first started to hear about the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the magical dancing horses. I was fascinated by them. In 1974, I was lucky enough to go and see them perform live at Wembley Arena. It was an awe-inspiring performance. I was convinced I would be able to do that too. The poor dog went through hell as I made him try and perform the same exercises.

    At that stage I never thought much about the history of the school I just focused on the horses and how beautiful they were. It was only much later, on one August Bank Holiday when I was trying to think of a story that I started asking questions about what had happened to the Spanish Riding School during the Second World War. Their history began to unfold in front of me. My story focuses on a particular moment in its history, but the Spanish Riding School had been in existence for a lot longer than that.
    Sparre, Wikimedia Commons

    During the Renaissance, in 1572, Maximilian II had a ‘Spanish Riding Hall’ built for his valuable ‘Iberian Freight’ which I imagine to be is his Iberian horses. He had a menagerie of many other animals too. This description was believed to be the first mention of the ‘Spanish’ connection. The hall was part of the Stallburg within the complex of the Hofburg in Michaelerplatz. Various Emperors and fires had an impact, but it was Karl VI who employed the architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach to build the current riding hall between 1729 and 1735. (He and his father had already been responsible for a lot of the buildings in Vienna) The Winter Riding Hall, as it is called, is very glamorous, it is painted all ivory and the only colour comes from a portrait of Karl VI which, even today, the riders doff their bi-corn hats at as they come in. It has very large windows and huge crystal chandeliers.

    The horses are treated royally on the site, housed in roomy stables. Even these are decorated with stucco decorations and are always kept spotless clean. There are amazing archways from the stables leading out to a courtyard. These archways were bricked in at one point to keep the artworks safe but were re-opened in 1945.
    By Ricardalovesmonuments Wikimedia
     The hall itself was not just used for displays by the horses. Balls, masquerades and music festivals have been held there. For example, it was seen as a temple of music when Ludwig van Beethoven conducted a mass concert with more than 1000 singers and musicians in 1814. During the Hungarian revolution the new Austrian parliament was held there for its first session on July 22nd, 1848.

    It is known that horses at the Spanish Riding School are always the elegant Lipizzaners. Renowned for being pure white and highly intelligent. They are not born white though. They will be black or brown depending which bloodline they have descended from. As they grow up the colour changes, almost fades, until they become pure white. If you look through the fur you will still see that the skin is either brown or black. Very rarely they don’t change, and they are believed to be very lucky. The Lipizzaners initially started in the 16th Century with blood stock from Arabs, Barbary and Iberian horses. It was strengthened and increased until the 18th century when the breed were well and truly established. The Sire’s bloodline can be traced back to one of six stallions: Pluto, Conversano, Neapolitano, Favory, Maestoso and Siglavy. Every horse, even now, is given a brand that includes the initial of the one stallion’s bloodline out of the six they have come from. The stud was later moved to Piber and remains there.

    Isiwal/Wikimedia Commons
    At the Spanish Riding School, they display the fine art of riding, but this is also not new. Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates in ancient times, compiled rules for riders in about 400BC. This was called On Equitation and is still valid today. During the Italian Renaissance the art was revived, in particular, in Naples by the nobleman Federigo Grisone, known as “The Father of the art of Equitation” who in 1552 wrote Ordini di Cavalcare. However, his methods were rather reliant on force. His training was not about art. It was about being aware of the horse and being able to control the horse because above all he was about creating a horse that could be used on the battle field. In France, the art of horsemanship in the 1600s progressed until an instructor by the name of François Robichon de la Guérinière, who rejected the idea of force, wrote L’École de Cavalerie, which was illustrated by Charles Parrocel. This is still used today by the Spanish Riding School as a guiding principle. Exercises carried out by the stallions such as Haute École and Airs Above Ground are based on both Xenophon’s and Guérinière’s work.

    The period that I focus on in my novel, Flight, is during the time when Alois Podhajsky is the director of the Spanish Riding School. Major Podhajsky took over in 1939. He had previously won a bronze medal for dressage in the 1936 Olympics. Remaining as director until 1964. He also wrote several books about riding and the rules of riding. During the war he did his best to protect the horses. This included trying to protect them when Hitler decided to try and create a ‘perfect war horse’ in Hostau using the mares from Piber. The Nazis did not particularly like his interference with their breeding plans. The School itself managed to avoid destruction in the bombing of Vienna but by the March of 1945, Director Podhajsky had managed to negotiate to get the stallions out to safety at St Martin. Where they stayed in exile until 1955.
    Author's own photo
    It was while staying in St Martin that they performed in front of the US Army’s General Patton, who then agreed to keep the Spanish Riding School safe. In his memoir he states that:

    "It struck me rather strange that, in the midst of a world at war, some twenty young and middle-aged men in great physical condition…had spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle their butts…it is probably wrong to permit any highly developed art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth… To me the high-schooling of horses is certainly more interesting than either painting or music."*

    Some have suggested that the performance, or exhibition as General Patton called it, enabled Operation Cowboy, but others say it was going ahead anyway. It is my understanding that there is no documentation to corroborate this suggestion, and he certainly doesn’t mention it in his memoir. Operation Cowboy is the code name for the mission to rescue the mares and some prisoners of war from Hostau in Czechoslovakia. It is something I am currently researching and perhaps worthy of another blog post at a different time. I find it a fascinating period and still find many new elements and intriguing story lines.

    Flight published by Firefly August 2018


    Twitter @VanessaHarbour

    *Patton G. S. War as I Knew it (New York: Houghton Miffin Company, 1995 [1947]) P.328

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    I usually post for Authors Electric and, a little while ago, my colleague, Griselda Heppel, wrote there about how annoying it is when people make wild unsubstantiated guesses about Shakespeare's life, based on very little evidence.

    For instance, he left his wife his 'second best bed,' so, obviously, he didn't think much of her. And she was eight years older than him so, obviously it was an unwanted marriage of convenience. And he went away to be a playwright in London, so quite plainly, he hated the sight of her.

    Any of these statements may be true. But it's just as likely that they aren't. They are much made out of very little.

    The idea that Bill didn't get on with Anne because he was young and carefree and she was such a grumpy old hag is based solely on a line in Twelfth Night: 'Let still the woman take an elder than herself.' This is seized on as a hot-line to Shakespeare's heart. Aha! This is him regretting his unwise marriage and letting slip what he really thought.

    Never mind that Shakespeare was putting words into the mouths of characters and making stuff up, never mind that it's just one among thousands of lines that he wrote. Perhaps he did believe that it was a mistake for a man to marry an older woman. But I have just as much evidence (none), to state that it was an in-joke between Shakespeare, Anne and their crowd. In my small circle of friends - to take a random sample - there are three very happy marriages where the wife is several years older than the husband. They sometimes joke about it - one older wife recently promised her 'boy' some pocket-money from her pension to buy sweeties.

    Then there's the 'fact' that Shakespeare ran away to London to escape the crone. What's this based on? Nothing. We have exactly no idea how often Shakespeare went home to the country, or Anne made a trip into town. We have plenty of marriages today where one partner lives away from home for part of the time, perhaps even in a different country and yet some of those marriages survive. Travel was harder in the past, but people still travelled long distances very often - recent archaeology has shown that animals raised in the Orkneys were eaten during feasts at Stonehenge. How did these animals get from the Orkneys to Salisbury Plain? Clue: they didn't go by Ryan Air.

    In the past there were also plenty of marriages where one or the other partner was absent for a long time. Ships made long sea-crossings, Vikings viked, fish-wives travelled from town to town, drovers were away for months as they droved cattle to market. It's certainly not out of the question that Shakespeare went home quite often -- and he obviously didn't cut all ties with Stratford, since he returned there and built himself a big house. His wife was one of those ties.

    And that infamous 'second-best bed.' We only know of this bed because, in his will, Bill bequeathed it to Anne. From this, some people have concluded that, since he only considered her deserving of second-best, Bill didn't like Anne very much. Reading of this, my uxorious father commented, "Maybe it was the most comfortable bed." Which is entirely possible. Beds were a bit of a status symbol at the time -- if you were nobody, you slept on a straw-filled mattress on the floor. Or even, in pele towers, in a horizontal slot in the wall - where, I suppose, at least you were out of the draughts. The 'best bed' would have been the most showy and expensive, the one with the most carving and the most embroidered curtains. The one you put guests in. 'Best' doesn't always mean the most comfortable or the favourite.

    It never seems to have crossed the minds of historians who take this line that Shakespeare may have discussed his will with his wife and the bed known in the family as 'the second-best bed' was the one she wanted. There is exactly as much evidence to back this view as the one that supposes it was Bill being spiteful.

    Then there are all the guesses made about Shakespeare's 'lost years.' He must have spent them as an ostler because his plays reveal knowledge about horses. Some nautical terms are used in The Tempest, so he must have been a sailor. He mentions some weaponry and tactics, so he must have been a soldier.

    I think anyone who's written any fiction can see through these arguments. Writers are experts in making much of little, so I doubt Shakespeare was a slouch at it.

    I have myself been praised to my face for the knowledge of riding and weaponry revealed in my Sterkarm books and I don't know how I kept my face straight. Riding and weaponry -- two subjects of which I know even less, I would guess, than Shakespeare knew about sailing.

    The Sterkarm Handshake

    My reiver family, the Sterkarms spend a great deal of their life riding, so I knew I was going to have to mention horses now and again. There's one dodge always available to a fiction writer -- when something is so much a part of a character's life, they take it for granted and don't often gab on about it. As I type these words, I'm not thinking about the pros and cons of Microsoft versus Apple. So if the POV is Per Sterkarm, he's not going to detail every step in saddling and bridling his horse, or grooming it. He just does it, in his sleep if necessary, and goes on his way.

    What's needed is not pages of detail but a few little telling points to mention in passing, to slip in between lines of dialogue, that will give many readers the impression that I know all of what I write, while, in fact, knowing almost nothing. Someone mounting, say, and then leaning down from the saddle to tighten the saddle-girth. And a bit of terming, like 'girth' helps as well.

    Where do I find these details? Well, some are cribbed from books and, these days, from the internet. But the best little tid-bits always come from talking to people who know far, far more than I do. So, a big thank you from me to Karen Bush and Katherine Roberts of this parish, who are both excellent riders and know all sorts of good stuff. Karen, in particular, did me a big favour in reading A Sterkarm Tryst and correcting everything horse-related as well as giving me a few more details.
    A Sterkarm Tryst

    Shakespeare didn't have to work as an ostler to gain knowledge about horses. In his time and until quite recently, nearly all land transport involved horses. My grandfather was an ostler, which is how I  learned that odd word. ('Your grandad's first job was as an ostler.' -  'What's an ostler?') Grandad worked with the giant percherons who pulled the carts of a local brewery and I learned a few odd little horsey facts from stories about him. When Shakespeare needed a few similar pointers, I doubt he had to search very hard for an ostler to chat to. It must have been impossible to turn round without bumping into one.

    The same goes for his 'knowledge' of ships and their ways. He lived in London. Wharfs and warehouses lined the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge and the Tower. Ships came and went all the time. There would have been sailors of different ranks in his audiences.

    And my own vaunted knowledge of weaponry? For a while I was friendly with a couple of fellas who seemed to spend their every spare minute re-enacting. Most of the time they were Roman legionnaires and had impressive suits of Roman armour. But they often helped out another group at by pretending to be Americans in WW2. At the drop of a helmet, they would go and be Vietnam Vets. Now they were very knowledgeable about weapons. So I asked them: If it was necessary to equip mercenaries at short notice and on the cheap, what weapons would be supplied?

    Without taking a moment to draw breath, they said, "Kalashnikovs." And went on to explain why. And, generally, the pros and cons of kalishnikovs. They did even better -- they borrowed a replica kalishniknov and let me feel how heavy it was, and showed me how to take it apart and slam it back together.

    I lost touch with them but remain grateful and hope they are still happily marching behind the eagle all these years later. I went home and wove all they'd told me in and out of dialogue and background in my book. I made much out of little.

    The joy of it is, that people who know far more about these subjects than I will ever do, read these little asides and often conclude that I know as much about riding or weapons as they do.

    Much out of little. I'd put money on Shakespeare being a master of it. No clues or hints about his life taken from his plays can be trusted. All you can conclude from some mention of horse-doctoring or cannonades or sails being shortened is that Bill had probably been chatting in the pub again.

    "You know when you're out at sea and a storm blows up, yeah? Like, whaddaya do?"

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    Husband and sons at Carcassonne. 
    This is short blog for my turn this month because I am packing for an imminent holiday/research break.  By the time you read this, I will be chilling out somewhere in Monmouthshire!
    I don't think that in the last 20 years I have ever been on a holiday that hasn't involved research for a novel.  Fortunately my family, has indulged my habit of dragging them to locations that involve castles, cathedrals and historical sights and sites.  Mostly in the UK, although we did venture to the South of France one year and climbed the Cathar Stronghold of Montsegur (where I almost put my hand on an adder (see photo taken by my husband above me!) and dined among the magnificent towers and turrets of Carcassonne.

    Our various dogs have all joined in the fun and had a marvelous time exploring nooks and crannies, although a small collie-cross we had, was very disturbed by Middleham castle and refused to go inside!
    At Pembroke Castle, taking a holiday break and giving a talk at the castle during that time. Me, my husband, Bill, Jack, Pip, and the big man himself, William Marshal!
    Dogs at St Dogmaels! 
    This time round we shall be staying in a rental cottage tucked somewhere deep in the Wye valley at the top end. On the agenda for me are visits to Goodrich Castle, Worcester Cathedral (tomb of King John) Usk Castle, Raglan Castle, and revisits to wonderful Chepstow and Tintern, familiar locations in many of my novels and featuring particularly in the forthcoming THE IRISH PRINCESS.  
    Another part of the break will be taking lovely long walks in hills and woods on that cusp between summer and autumn and filling myself brimful of inspiration.  


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       One morning last week I went on a rather doleful shopping trip to Oxford Street. In the clothes departments shop assistants outnumbered customers and full racks of garments pleaded to be liked. As I walked through those designer mausoleums I remembered my childhood, when my shopaholic mother and grandmother took me on all day shopping trips . After an orgy of trying on clothes in bustling department stores these trips ended in the ground floor cafeteria in Selfridges with me, as a fat little girl, standing up to eat an enormous ice cream called a Knickerbocker Glory. Now that some people think that department stores will disappear from all our High Streets, it seems a good idea to remember their interesting pasts.

       Towards the end of the 19th century Oxford Street changed from residential to retail. The first department stores were exciting and innovative. In Zola’s wonderful novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), a department store in Paris is the main character: a self contained world, a kind of paradise where women of all ages revel in colour and choice and sensuality. Not exactly a feminist message - but in fact, for middle class women, the arrival of department stores did represent a kind of independence. In mid-Victorian England it was not considered acceptable for a ‘respectable’ woman to go out unchaperoned whereas, a generation later, a shopping trip to a department store, where clothes, furnishings and lunch or tea could all be found under one roof, was allowed. 
    This photo shows a horse drawn John Lewis delivery van.

       John Lewis was a buyer of silks for Peter Robinson, which has now disappeared. It was on the site at Oxford Circus where Topshop is now. He bravely set up his own draper’s shop at 132 Oxford Street in 1864. Over the next thirty years he expanded and when a court injunction banned him from extending his shop into Cavendish Square he defiantly spent three weeks in Brixton Jail. He eventually won and the stuffy residents of Cavendish Square had to put up with his enormous shop. His son, Spedan Lewis, was not a conventional businessman. As a young man Spedan had a serious accident when he fell from his horse whilst riding to work through Regents Park. He took two years to recuperate and seems to have thought hard about the unfairness of a world where he and his family took more money from the business than all the rest of their employees together. When Spedan eventually inherited both John Lewis and Peter Jones ( in Sloane Square) he spent decades setting up a trust, or Partnership, which transferred some of the benefits of ownership to his employees.

      The original John Lewis shop was destroyed in the blitz and remained a bomb site until it was rebuilt in the late 1950s. The winged figure on the east wall is by Barbara Hepworth. Many other buildings nearby were damaged during the war. In 1941 George Orwell wrote in his diary that Oxford Street was "completely empty of traffic, and only a few pedestrians". He saw "innumerable fragments of broken glass."

       Debenham, next door to John Lewis, started as a small drapery store on Wigmore Street in the 18th century, when Mary-le-bone was a village. The shop later grew and sold drapery, silks, haberdashery, millinery, hosiery, lace and family mourning goods.The latter involved a complex and expensive etiquette; after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 Queen Victoria wore her widow's weeds until she died in 1901. Many people felt obliged to follow her example and after a death entire households were expected to wear black. This sad photo shows a baby with black armbands.

       D H Evans, which my mother and her friends called D H Heavens, once stood where House of Fraser does now. In 1879 Dan Harries Evans, a farmer’s son from Llanelli, bought a small draper’s shop in Oxford Street. His wife did the dressmaking and other members of the family helped out. They specialized in fashionable lace goods and eventually,in the 1930s, their shop became a department store.

       Selfridges has the most colourful history of all these department stores although not, perhaps, quite as lurid as the TV series Mr Selfridge.

       This photo of Selfridges under construction shows how many buildings were demolished in order to build it. Harry Gordon Selfridge was 51, and already very rich, when he opened his new emporium. He began his career a stockman in the warehouse of a Chicago department store and, 25 years later, was a junior partner. His wife, Rose, was a shrewd business woman and property developer.

       On a visit to London he was shocked to see how old fashioned British shops were. His new building managed to be both modern and classical (In 2003 it was awarded a English Heritage plaque). There was a roof garden and new ornate window displays. A clock with an enormous figure called The Queen of Time still reigns over main entrance. Selfridge said his aim was "to make my shop a civic centre, where friends can meet and buying is only a secondary consideration." Could he be held responsible for introducing the consumer society? Some of his catchphrases were: “The customer is always right;” “Only [so many] Shopping Days Until Christmas,” and "I am prepared to sell anything from an airplane to a cigar".

       In fact when the vast store did open, in 1909, the monoplane in which Louis Blériot flew across the Channel for the first time was on public display. Over the four days of the launch event about 150,000 people visited the store and 30 policemen were needed to hold back the crowds. For the first time cosmetics and perfumes were put on display at the front of the store. In other London stores make-up. which many people still disapproved of, was sold in side rooms or even in areas hidden by blinds.

       The huge success of his new store made Selfridge more innovative - and more megalomanic. The 'Earl of Oxford Street' introduced a Bargain Basement to attract poorer customers. After the First World War he wanted to erect a massive tower (very Trumpian!) and a subway link to Bond Street Station, which was to be renamed “Selfridge’s". The book department expanded to become the biggest in the world. In 1925 the inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated the first television in the store and, later, the BBC transmitted live music broadcasts from the roof garden. There was a library, reading and writing rooms, reception rooms for French, German, American and "Colonial" customers, a First Aid Room and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double glazing. Selfridge even - a most revolutionary idea then - installed toilets for women shoppers

       During the Blitz Selfridge's windows were bricked up for safety. Although the roof was damaged by German bombs the shop continued to trade and the basement was converted into a communications base, with a dedicated line run along Oxford Street to Whitehall so that Churchill could make secure direct telephone calls to Roosevelt.

       After his wife, Rose, died during the flu epidemic in 1918 Selfridge became wildly extravagant. He lost a lot of money gambling and had expensive affairs with (amongst others) the famous Dolly Sisters and Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who later become Syrie Maugham. He entertained lavishly. both at his house in Mayfair and on his his yacht. In 1941, when he was 83, Selfridge was forced to resign because he was deeply in debt, and the apostrophe was removed from the department store's name.

       So department stores were once great centres of urban life. Chaplin recognised this in his 1916 silent film The Floorwalker, in which the little tramp has fun with escalators and mirrors.

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