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    So - you've spent years in search of the wreck of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, which you know has lain under fourteen metres of water in Portsmouth Harbour since 1545 - somewhere. In 1971, after three years, you find four timbers: the frames of the port side of the ship. So far so good - but it's buried under four centuries of silt.

    For the next eleven years, teams of divers, archaeologists and engineers work on releasing the ship from its muddy shroud - remembering always that this is the grave not just of a ship, but of the 500 men who went down with her. The enterprise is not financed by the government: it has to be paid for. So there's all that side of it to consider too. It probably helps that you acquire an influential backer in the form of Prince Charles, who dives down to see the ship for himself, and to lend a hand.

    Eventually, in October 1982, the great moment arrives. 60 million people all over the world watch the longest outside broadcast yet undertaken, as an enormous floating crane, the Tog Mor, slowly raises a steel cradle in which nestle the remains of Henry's once-proud ship. Klaxons sound from all the vessels gathered to watch: a gun salute comes from Southsea Castle, where two years before his own death, Henry watched as his ship sank during an engagement with a French invasion fleet. It's a moment of high drama, a story of achievement against huge odds. Everyone holds their breath: something could still go wrong.

    The raising of the Mary Rose, from Visit Hampshire

    But it doesn't. The ship arrives safely at its new home, a dry dock in Portsmouth Harbour, next to that relative youngster, Nelson's Victory.

    But then what?

    What you have is historic and romantic and a tangible link with the world of the Tudors - but it is basically half a ship, and it's incredibly fragile. Its timbers have been preserved under the silt which excluded oxygen and all the organisms which happily munched on the half that wasn't covered up - but as soon as the wood is exposed to the air, it is at risk.

    Clever scientists work out what to do about the wood. From the moment she emerges from the sea, pumps attached to the lifting frame begin to spray her with water, and this will continue for many years - except for a few hours a day, when the archaeologists can do their work. A shelter is built above her. The water washes the salts out of the ancient timbers, and she is sprayed with ployethylene glycol to stregthen them. Then, in 2013, the sprays are turned off, and large air ducts take on the job of removing the water from the timbers, now that they have been stabilised.

    So that's the preservation side taken care of. But part of your remit is to establish a museum to house the Mary Rose and all the artefacts which were found inside her - and how do you do that? The SS Great Britain, Brunel's beautiful ship, which I've written about here before, was also battered by the elements and by the years - but it was possible to restore her to the extent that you can see her now almost as she was when she was a 'living' ship. That was never going to be feasible with the Mary Rose. So how was she to be displayed?

    The solution the architects (Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon)found is breathtakingly clever. The museum is on three levels, corresponding to the lower decks, main decks, and upper decks. On each gallery, you walk along a passageway with glass partitions on either side. On the right is the cross-section which is what remains of the ship itself. You can see the cabins, the gunports - the whole structure of the ship. On the left, you can see the objects which were found on the deck you can see on your right. And what a wealth of objects there are: weapons, of course, as this was a warship - but also the personal possessions of the men on board, and the tools of their trades.

    The Mary Rose - picture by Rosie Smith

    There are also moving tableaux on board the ship, showing groups of sailors about their tasks - holograms, perhaps? I don't know, but whatever they are, they're very realistic. The passageway you walk along dips, and somehow you have the impression that you're on a moving ship - I don't know how they manage this, but they do. It's all very clever.

    Then when you leave the viewing gallery, there's a section with displays of the artefacts and explanations of what they have learnt from them. So for instance, you are shown what was found in the surgeon's cabin, and given notes on each object - what they were used for, what they tell us. And they have reconstructed from some of the skeletons what the living men may have looked like, and have made videos using actors who look similar to show them using the objects found - so the surgeon wears the hat which was found, and the leather shoes, and demonstrates some of his intruments.

    I'm fascinated by the ways that museums and art galleries have found in the last twenty or so years to display their artefacts. There are some beautiful extensions and remodellings, such as in the Ashmolean and the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum, and such clever uses of technology, as in the Museum of European History in Brussels, the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, and this Mary Rose Museum. Sometimes, it seems that when you look out at the world, you see so much horror. It's as if civilisation is going backwards, not forwards, and as if nothing has been learnt from history. But in this area, the reverse is true. So much has been and is being learnt, both of history, and of how to display it and make it meaningful. Thank heavens for museums!



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    Charles Dickens'A Christmas Carol, In Prose. A Ghost Story of Christmas was written in a single six-week burst of energy and, unusually at that time, appeared as one single volume.

    Image result for a christmas carol wikipediaUp until that point, Dickens had worked in serial form, writing sections at a time, planning almost as the chapter before appeared in print. 

    Even as he scribbled away, bringing Scrooge into life, he was struggling with Martin Chuzzlewit, his American novel, and with fears about his own popularity as an author.

    Dickens wanted A Christmas Carol to be seen as his book. 

    He commissioned Chapman & Hall as his publishers and then chose the look of his new book. He wanted a handsome red cloth binding and a gold design on the cover while the gilt-edged pages would include four black-and-white woodcuts set within the text itself and four full-colour etchings by the artist John Leech.

    A Christmas Carol was published on 19thDecember 1843, reasonably priced at five shillings, and became the most popular book of the season.  By Christmas Eve, every one of the six thousand copies had been sold.  Dickens must have been delighted.
          
    The novella quickly became a “national benefit”, according to Thackeray and, with its outspoken attack upon those who ignore the poorest in society, was seen as a piece of radical literature. Yet, at the same time, the story also celebrates family and food and fun alongside the Christian themes of mercy and love.

    Image result for a christmas carol wikipediaThe story certainly feels haunted, in more ways than one. Even before their appearance in his story, Dickens recognised those two awful children, Ignorance and Want. He had become a friend of Miss Burdett-Coutts, a rich philanthropist with a deep purse, and so had been visiting Ragged Schools - schools set up by Evangelicals to save souls - so he could make practical suggestions to guide her charitable work.

    However, when Dickens visited the Field Lane Ragged School, he had to walk through Saffron Hill, an area of London which had haunted him since his childhood: he had used it for some of the scenes with Fagin in Oliver Twist.

    Once inside the school, Dickens found “a sickening atmosphere, in the midst of taint and dirt and pestilence, with all the deadly sins let loose and howling at the doors”. His companion left hastily while the unruly children, for their part, mocked Dickens stylish white trousers and bright boots.

    Just as awful was the knowledge that Field Lane school was close to where he, as a boy, worked in a blacking factory. Dickens had been sent there by his bankrupt father, while his sister was sent to music lessons. The young Dickens was utterly ashamed of his fall from respectability, especially when he was placed in public view in the window, a disgrace that he felt so deeply that he kept it secret until almost the end of his life.

    Revisiting the area, witnessing again all the filth, disease and vice of that “doomed childhood”, and the hopeless sense of destitution must surely have fed into the darkness of his Christmas Carol.

    Dickens brought jollity to the story, of course. He was someone who loved parties and celebrations and surprises and plays and conjuring tricks and the playful side of his character is very much there in the joyful scenes and resolution of A Christmas Carol.

    Yet even the plenty is ambiguous. Dickens, the self-made man, knew that it was his pen that brought in the good things that he and his extended family enjoyed and the money they spent.

    Yet, a little like Scrooge, Dickens was a man for whom money and time were almost everything. He was cautious about his household expenditure, and spent phenomenal time and energy visiting or lecturing or going on long night-walks where he plotted his stories. Dickens, like many who have known poverty, was haunted by the fact that he had to be successful.

    Furthermore, his worries were increasing: his wife was about to have another baby, another child that he had to keep fed and clothed and out of the gutter. Dickens enjoyed being with children, although very noticeably on his own terms, but he was worried about the cost of them. At the same time, he was growing far less fond of his poor, low-spirited wife Catherine and rather more sentimental about pretty young ladies that reminded him of his youth.

    Scrooge’s memories of his own childhood echo those of his creator: does his miser draw on the ambivalence and shadow within Dickens?

    Image result for a christmas carol wikipedia

    Sadly, within two weeks of publication, Dickens had reason to feel even more ungenerous and suspicious. A simplified version of A Christmas Carol was issued by a pirate publisher and though Dickens immediately sued and won the case, the publisher also immediately declared bankruptcy and Dickens was forced to pay the court costs himself and felt he had been almost ruined by the whole venture. Moreover, errors in production costs meant that Dickens made hardly any money from that first beautiful edition. God Bless Us Everyone indeed!

    Six years afterwards, however, in 1849, Dickens started to give public readings of A Christmas Carol. These proved so richly popular and rewarding that Dickens kept telling his strange, enigmatic Christmas ghost story until his own death, performing at the Bradford Alhambra, in 1870.

    And, probably, if you look around locally, someone will be continuing that same tradition, and reading Dickens Christmas Carol this winter too – a tale that’s still, sadly, just as apt for our own age.



    A Happy Christmas to you all.

    Penny Dolan

    Note: In this post, I’ve drawn on my own reading of Peter Ackroyd’s impressive biography of DICKENS, first published in 1990.


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    I'm lucky enough to live near Compton Verney in Warwickshire. I am a member there and visit often. The Art Gallery's six permanent collections include one of the world's finest collections of Chinese bronzes outside China, a cross section of works from the ‘Golden Age’ of Neapolitan art from 1600 to 1800, an outstanding collection of Northern European art and the largest collection of Folk Art in the U.K. It also puts on great exhibitions, some of which I've blogged about for the History Girls. Recently, I was meeting friend, fellow writer and sometime History Girl guest, Linda Newbery there. We were going to see their present exhibition, Whistler in Nature, but I arrived early, so I went upstairs to the Folk Art Gallery. 

    Compton Verney
    Folk Art covers many things, from 'primitive' painting to sculpture, metal working and wood carving. What interested me on this visit were the signs that hung outside shops and business to advertise their goods and services in a pre-literate age. People who could not read could see what was on offer by looking at the signs and before street numbers were common, at the sign of... was a common way of giving directions. The signs, often beautifully carved or painted, have gradually acquired recognition as art forms in themselves but what struck me, on this and other visits, is how they are still present in out streets.
    Compton Verney Folk Art Gallery

    Street in Leamington Spa 

    The sign of the locksmith, the lock and key on display in the gallery, is replicated by a large Yale key on the pavement outside a locksmith's shop in the town where I live. 




    Compton Verney


    Oxford Market
    A giant shoe, the sign for a cobbler's, is echoed by an equally large boot suspended outside a cobbler's and shoe repair shop in Oxford Market.






    Signs, because they need no language, are international. Model pigs, pig or boars' heads, are universally recognised signs for a butcher's shop, in Ireland, England or Italy.




    They are also sometimes inn signs, as in this example from Compton Verney.

    Inn sign, Compton Verney
    Pub and inn signs are perhaps the most common remaining examples of folk art still to be seen on our streets. Some traditional signs are still there, swinging outside the establishments they name, others, like this beautiful swan on display at Compton Verney, are preserved in folk art collections, while still others have been lost and discarded. 


    Pub names change and with them their signs. The replacements are still, in their way, examples of folk art, reflecting new tastes and styles. My local pub has been transformed from the traditional Coventry Arms to the The Fat Pug.  Like it or not, times change and with them, the signs.







    At least some do. Others survive, changed perhaps but still recognisable. The same symbol used to signify the same service, even though the function it symbolises is an anachronism. The universal sign for an Apothecary was the pestle and mortar, used to grind the ingredients used to make medicines, as in this example from Compton Verney. Simplified, stripped to it barest outlines, the same sign is currently the logo for Lloyd's Chemist shops.




    A similar and universally recognised survivor from a pre-literate age is the striped pole of the barber's shop, the red and white stripes dating back to a time when barbers were barber surgeons, performing surgery and dentistry. This function of the barber's trade is now no longer practised but the vivid blood and bandage image is still there on every High Street. 


    While thinking about this blog, I was struck by how signs and symbols are coming back into our lives through the emojis that are helpfully suggested to us to replace words when we are sending texts or messaging people on social media. Are we slipping back into a pre-literate age?  I trust not, but as this is my last blog of 2018, I'd like to wish all our readers...


    Celia Rees
    www.celiarees.com



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    This month my book, Vitellius’ Feast, was published. It is the last in my four book series that looks at the year 69AD. A year that saw four men compete to become emperor: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. It was Vespasian that triumphed and founded a dynasty that lasted 26 years.

    Our best source for all the events of this tumultuous year is Cornelius Tacitus. A teenager in 69AD Tacitus wrote an account of this year, and part of the following one, called The Histories. At the time he was writing, under the Emperor Trajan, many of the men who’d played pivotal roles in 69AD were still alive. He was able to interview them about their experiences. This is unusual in ancient history where many texts are written hundreds of years after the events they describe. It is why The Histories is quite so detailed in its depiction of a very dramatic time.

    I’ve carried a copy of Tacitus’ Histories in my handbag the last six years as my constant go to reference book whilst I wrote my series.  It’s done many miles in and out of London, it’s been on holiday with me to the beach, it accompanied me to the York Roman Festival in June this year. It’s looking battered. But loved.

    I’ve now finished writing about 69AD. I have no need to carry my Tacitus around. I’m feeling ever so slightly sad about this. So I thought as a farewell to The Histories I’d select my all time favourite bits from that book. A compilation album if you like.

    The Greatest Quote of All Time. 

    Tacitus’ strength is that he is infuriatingly quotable. “They create a desert and call it peace” being
    The author's own copy of Tacitus. 
    one of many such dinner party enhancing chit chat. But beating even that into submission is this fabulous line on 69AD‘s first emperor Galba:


    “So long as he was a subject he seemed too great a man to be one and by common consent possessed the makings of a ruler – had he never ruled.” 

    Ooooo it’s good. And so very versatile. I dug it up for when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair, the election of Theresa May and when Chris Evans presented Top Gear. The key is to pause ominously before concluding in as deep a voice as you can manage, ‘had he never ruled.’


    The Marriage Mystery 

    Calvia Crispinilla had been Nero’s Mistress of the Wardrobe. She was charged with dressing the emperor's favourite eunuch, Sporus. In the aftermath of Nero’s death she fled to Africa and incited the governor there, Clodius Macer, into a rebellion. When this failed we might have expected Calvia to go the way of other traitors in this era. But she doesn’t. She lives to a ripe old age unmolested by official forces for her past actions. Why?
    Tacitus tells us that she secured:
     “Her position by marriage to a senior statesman” 
    Intriguingly he doesn’t name the senior statesman. Which makes me suspect it was:
    a) Someone very, very important and 
    b) Someone still alive at the time of Tacitus’ writing. 

    Insert your own scandal here. 



    The Difficulties of Organising a Coup

    Galba was overthrown on 15th January by Otho. However this coup almost took place four days earlier:
    “They were on the point of carrying Otho off to their barracks as he was returning home from a dinner, but were scared off by the uncertainties of night-time, the scattered location of the troops throughout Rome and the difficulty of achieving coordination between men who were the worse for drink.” 

    Not unlike those heavy nights after last orders, when someone pipes up “Let’s all go clubbing!” And everyone is well up for it. Until a lone voice says, “I think we’ve all had enough. Let’s get a cab.”

    Otho’s difficulties in coup organising continued on the appointed day when he went to meet his troops and discovered there were only twenty three of them. Never mind, Tacitus tells us: 
    “Roughly the same number of soldiers joined the party along the way.” 



    They made their way to the barracks where the duty officer in charge was somewhat surprised by the appearance of Otho and his army of 46. But decided to go along with it and Galba’s fate was sealed.He was decapitated in the Forum after only 7 months of rule. 


    Vitellius’ Two Generals

    In a plot twist worthy of a soap opera, after Otho had murdered his way to power, he entered the palace as Emperor and discovered rather a lot of post from Germania. It was not good news. On 1st January – two weeks earlier – Aulus Vitellius had been declared Emperor by the German legions. Two of his generals: Caecina Alienus and Fabius Valens were marching an army some 70,000 men towards Rome. Which I think we can all agree thoroughly serves Otho right.
    Caecina and Valens are two of Tacitus’ most finely drawn characters. They are quite, quite brilliant.

    Fabius Valens

    Tactius states that Valens' reason for championing Vitellius was that he felt that Galba was not
    Emperor Vitellius
    sufficiently grateful for the murder of  Capito, the Governor of Lower Germania. Valens had claimed Capito was bound on insurrection and he had nobly killed him before he could put his dastardly plan into action. 
     “Some people believed in a different story,” says Tacitus. He then outlines an alternative sequence of events whereby Capito is murdered for not going along with a Valens proposed insurrection. Our historian stays very much on the fence but given that Valens a few weeks later proposes *guess what* an insurrection, I’m going to leap off that fence and declare Fabius Valens done it, in the barracks, with a sword.
    Tacitus’ portrait of Valens’ is not flattering. Marching his troops down from Germany to Italy he threatened to burn down towns unless they paid him much money. If that was in short supply he was prepared to accept women as a substitute. Valens’ greed continued when he reached Rome and he helped himself to “mansions, parks and the riches of Empire.”

    He is classic villain material. At least until his death when Tacitus throws us this little tip-bit:
     “During Nero’s reign he appeared on the music-hall stage at the emperor’s coming-of-age-party, ostensibly at imperial command and then voluntarily. In this, he displayed some skill, but little sense of decorum.” 

    You what?? This hard nosed, greedy, cruel Roman general of the last several hundred pages was actually quite a good performer on the stage? Did he sing? Did he dance? I NEED more details. Naturally Tacitus the tease supplies none. Leaving us free to imagine Fabius Valens as quite a nifty little dancer. If only he’d stuck with that talent.

    Caecina Alienus 

    Vitellius’ other general was, as Tacitus tells us:
    “Young, good looking, tall and upstanding, as well as possessing inordinate ambition and some skill in words.” 

    Given how meanly mouthed Tacitus is in dishing out the compliments I believe from this we can deduce that Caecina was six foot plus of charming man hunk.
    Hilariously, after only being posted in Germania for a short while, Caecina went full native and was never seen without a plaid tunic and *shock* trousers. During his march to Italy he manages to upset a previously entirely peaceable Gallic tribe into war and attempts to besiege the town of Plancentia drunk and without any siege equipment (read more about that disaster here in a previous History Girls piece ).
    Caecina is a great example of how to manage the trickiness of 69AD politics. He starts off being obstinately for Galba. This steadfast loyalty to the emperor lasts up to the exact moment Galba discovers handsome, young Caecina has been embezzling funds. With a prosecution looming Caecina suddenly discovers that Vitellius would be a much better emperor. After fighting his way down to Italy on behalf of Vitellius and then enjoying all the splendours that are available to the emperor's close aids, Caecina notes that Vespasian is doing better and switches sides again. 

    It’s mercenary, it’s self seeking. But it works. Caecina makes it to the end of 69AD. Unlike loyal nimble on his feet Fabius Valens, who does not. 


    Sticks and Stones may break my bones

    Having discovered that bit too late that 70,000 men are marching towards him, Otho tried everything in his power to induce Vitellius to relinquish his Imperial claim.  Or as Tacitus puts it:
     “ Otho kept up a lively correspondence with Vitellius. His letters were disfigured by alluring and
    Otho lets it all hang out. Credit Ricardo André Frantz
    unmanly bribes.” 


    Vitellius responds in kind with similar bribery.  And with no deal forthcoming the men: “accused each other of debauchery and wickedness,” says Tacitus and concludes “Here at least they were both right.” Tee hee.

    Elsewhere: 
    “The Vitellians dismissed their opponents as flabby and idle crew of circus-fans and theatregoers.” Ouch. 

    The Othonian retaliation is nowhere near as good, the Vitellians are:
     “A lot of foreigners and aliens.” 
    Fail. 


    The Worst Assassins in the World 

    So far in 69AD we have had the worst organised coup in the world which was abandoned due to everyone being too drunk. We’ve had the worst siege in the world, which failed because everyone was too drunk. Now we move onto the worst assassins in the world. Will it be because of booze again?
    No, it’s not even that good. Tacitus sets us up for disappointment:
     “ Assassins were were sent by Otho to Germany, and by Vitellius to the capital. Both parties failed to achieve anything.” 

    Vitellius’ agents got lost amongst the throngs of Rome and didn’t get anywhere near the Palace. In the close knit quarters of the German legions a sudden influx of fresh faced Italians asking questions were soon detected.  There is something cheerfully familiar about abject failure. We are so used to picturing the Romans as all conquering war machines that I love these stories of incompetence and general crapness.


    Domitian Throws A Strop 

    Though Vespasian’s forces defeated those of Vitellius’ in December 69AD, the new emperor himself didn’t reach Rome until the following year. Representing the Flavian Dynasty was Vespasian’s 18
    Domitian in the Vatican. Credit Steerpike
    year old son Domitian, who just happened to be in Rome at the time. He’d been getting on with whatever 18 year olds did in Rome (wrestling, poetry, moping) when his Dad was suddenly declared Emperor. Vitellius ordered him to be placed under house arrest and here he languished until his father’s army reached the city. 
    There is quite a story involving a daring escape, a disguise and high drama. But that’s not the story I want to tell. My story is in the latter part of The Histories that deals with the beginnings of the year 70AD – so the year after the year of the four emperors.

    The emperor is in the east and two of Vespasian’s generals were battling it out to be top dog of Rome: Muscianus and Antonius Primus. Muscianus is the governor of Syria who first persuaded Vespasian to go for the Emperor-ship in an early case of FOMO. Primus is the general who took Rome from the Vitellians. So they are both well qualified to be running the place until Vespasian gets there.
    And the young prince, Domitian? He's not completely ignored. They give him things to do. He gets to address the Senate. He hands out honours and offices. They let him sign things. At a certain point the denarius drops and poor Domitian suddenly gets it:

     “Domitian realized that his elders despised his youthfulness and ceased to discharge even the slightest official duties he had previously undertaken. “ 


    In other words he threw a strop and refused to do anything. Presumably hoping that would show Muscianus and Primus that they needed him. They didn’t. Domitian stropped about in the hope that someone would notice his absence, until his father turned up in Rome. And likely clipped him round the ear.


    And so there you have it. My favourite bits from The Histories. I could have chosen lots more, maybe that time the Praetorian Guard stormed through an Imperial dinner party or perhaps the Second Battle of Cremona that was fought entirely in the dark or Caecina's daring ambush plan that resulted in him being ambushed. But that's the beauty of that book. Every line is a gem.

    L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series set in 69AD.


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    A couple of years ago, I joined a panel of published writers (a mix of historical novelists and crime/thriller writers) at an event held at the University of Portsmouth, before an audience of fellow writers and readers. One of the questions asked of me was how I dealt with language, given that my (then newly-published) novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is set in the 14th century, a time when people didn’t speak English as we know it, but spoke either Middle English, a form of French, or Latin, depending on their social status and education.

    It was a question that had exercised me – and undoubtedly many other writers of historical fiction – a good deal, particularly in the early days of my career as an historical novelist, though I do still think about it now, a few books down the line.



    When I began writing historical fiction, I asked myself whether I should attempt to give my 14th century characters “authentic”-sounding voices, or put modern language in their mouths. I made my choice, and have since been very happy with that choice.



    However, in my PhD, completed at the same time that my first historical novel was published, and which addressed “authenticity” in historical fiction, I had given specific thought to this matter of language, weighing up the “ancient or modern” alternatives and assessing the pros and cons in terms of how I perceived they might affect “authenticity”.


    When historical novelists (of any period) choose to have their characters speak in modern (20th/21st century) English, might that give the impression that the characters also have modern mindsets? Conversely, if characters are given dialogue that purports – or even contrives – to sound like, say, 14th century English, does that somehow give the impression that the characters also have authentic 14th century mindsets? I don’t believe that either case is necessarily true. But, from all my reading of historical novels, I have realised that by far the majority are in fact written in reasonably straightforward modern English – often with a touch of archaic phrasing or period terminology – and whether the mindsets that the words convey seem “authentic” often depends on other factors.


    The 19th century novelist Henry James famously disparaged historical fiction. It was not the practicalities of the past that James thought difficult to describe, but imagining with any degree of realism, or perhaps “naturalism”, the inner lives of those who lived in earlier times. It was “mindset” he was talking about – people’s ideas, values and beliefs. Of course there’s no such thing as “a” mindset for a period: people in past times didn’t hold a single set of values and beliefs, any more than they do now, but there is undoubtedly a generalised difference between the inner lives of 14th century people and our own. It’s this difference that James apparently considered impossible to bridge, but from my reading of historical fiction I’ve deduced that most writers do in fact give the impression of bridging the gap pretty well. For imagining the inner lives of characters (historical or fictional) for readers to experience is surely exactly what historical novelists attempt to do.



    Some years ago, in Clio’s Children, a blog for historical novelists, the writer John Yeoman raised this matter of language in historical fiction thus: ‘…to what degree can we legitimately – or even intelligibly – use language or literary forms authentic to a given period?’ (my italics). (‘Can the language of historical fiction ever be “authentic”?’, <clioschildren.blogspot.co.uk/2010_06_01_archive.html>)

    Yeoman said that readers expected writers to have done their historical homework and, if they believed the language used was somehow wrong, their illusion would be shattered, regardless of whether their belief had any foundation. Perhaps the shattering of illusion applies particularly when the language is deemed too “modern”? Yet, said Yeoman, ‘how else can an historical writer communicate with a modern reader, except in a modern idiom?’, although this view is not universally held.



    Of course, Yeoman is only one of many to have addressed this problem.




    Hilary Mantel once said that ‘[historical novelists] don’t want to misrepresent our ancestors, but we don’t want to make the reader impatient.’ Too much period flavour, she said, slows the story and may even make readers laugh. When we have little idea how people actually spoke in the distant past – because we have no audio or even written records – we must simply imagine it. Mantel recommended ‘a plain style that you can adapt…not just to [your characters’] ages and personalities and intelligence level, but to their place in life.’ (Quoted in Writing Historical Fiction, Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, p.135. Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s article ‘The Elusive Art of Making the Dead Speak’, Wall Street Journal, 27/04/12.)


    The late Barry Unsworth said much the same: ‘You can’t make your characters speak in the language and idiom of their own time if the language of the period would seem archaic. It would put too much strain on the understanding and would seem false in any case.’ (Arlo Haskell, ‘Intensity of Illusion: a conversation with Barry Unsworth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Littoral (28/06/08) www.kwls.org/littoral/intensity_of_ilusiona_conversa/).

    Unsworth, too, recommended using straightforward English, though he advised also ‘a certain kind of tactful formality’ and an avoidance of contracted forms (isn’t, don’t etc). (Arlo Haskell, ‘Barry Unsworth: The Economy of Truth’, Key West Literary Seminar, Audio Archives (7/10/09) www.kwls.org/podcasts/barry_unsworth_the_economy_of/) 

    None of these writers has advised the use of “authentic-sounding” period language, perhaps because it is difficult to make such language sound right, and also to keep readers engaged with what might be a difficult read. As I have already said, my reading has shown me that most writers do not attempt to present voices in anything other than more-or-less modern English, although there are certainly (if surprisingly few) exceptions.



    But I have concluded that, in most of the historical novels I’ve read that were set in the “Middle Ages”, the characters’ thought-worlds did seem acceptably mediaeval, what they spoke about reflected the social context of the time, and that held true regardless of the modernity or otherwise of the language used.



    However, certain aspects of language can, at the very least, detract from the seeming authenticity of the characters’ words, and these include archaic or “difficult” language, and anachronistic language or ideas, both of which, in their different ways, can throw the reader out of the illusion the novelist is trying to convey.




    For example, Ken Follett is one novelist who has been accused of using overly modern language in his mediaeval historical novels (Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). For some of his readers, their impression of undue modernity in the novel’s language does matter:


    Obviously, a novel set around the 12th [sic – should be 14th] century could never be written in contemporary prose… But some concession needed to be made in order to emphasise antiquity, or it might as well be set in the present. …I found myself jerked out of the spell by the kind of prose and dialogue that I can hear on the street every day. And because it was written in modern English, it inevitably portrayed 20th century thinking.’ (An Amazon review from March 2011)
    This reader doesn't quote any examples but does make an interesting point: is it “inevitable” that modern language portrays modern thinking? Not, presumably, according to the majority of historical novelists who use it. And it’s also true that a significant majority of Follett’s readers are evidently so engrossed in the story that the modernity or otherwise of the language is of little importance:
    From the first page Follett conjures up the earthiness and superstition of those times. I can’t comment on how accurate it is as I wouldn’t know, but it certainly rings true and even if it wasn’t all completely correct, I don’t think it would really matter.’ (An Amazon review from November 2007)

    This reviewer doesn’t mention language, but for them the authenticity comes in the small details of daily life. It “rings true” and, for them, that is what matters. For most of his readers, Follett’s language doesnt detract from their enjoyment of his books, but if the language a writer uses does make readers stop and question the authenticity of the mindset that “thought” the words they have read, this will surely destroy the illusion the writer was trying to create.

    For myself, I decided early on that I wouldn’t attempt to mimic the speech patterns of the 14th century, because I felt that “pseudo-mediaeval” dialogue might actually inhibit modern readers’ enjoyment, rather than give the narrative any greater credibility. I followed the advice of other writers, such as Hilary Mantel and Barry Unsworth, referred to earlier. The language I put into my characters’ mouths is broadly modern English, with some slightly “old-fashioned” phrasing just to give a sense of the past. However, I dont follow closely Unsworth’s advice about formality and avoiding contractions. Rather, my choice is to use more formal, non-contracted, forms for higher status or educated characters, but to reflect the voices of the peasantry by using contractions (it’s, isn’t, shouldn’t). I accept that this is a relatively crude distinction and that, to some, the contractions may give the voices too modern a tone, but I’m satisfied that it works – for me, at least.

    If you accept, as I have, that putting broadly modern language into the mouths of “historical” characters works fine, the question then might be how far it matters to the average reader if the language, and especially the dialogue, is littered (or even lightly sprinkled) with anachronistic words. (This is central to John Yeoman’s blog post on “authentic” language, referred to earlier.)



    It’s obviously important to ensure that anachronisms of fact are kept at bay, but linguistic anachronisms, where words had not yet come into use or, more importantly, where they imply ideas that had not yet entered anybody’s mind, are equally likely to throw a reader out of the illusion. In the same article referred to earlier, Hilary Mantel said ‘[characters] mustn’t express ideas they could not have had, and feelings they would not have had. They did not draw metaphors from a scientific worldview, but from a religious one. They weren’t democrats. They weren’t feminists… The reader should be braced by the shock of the old; or why write about the past at all?’


    In Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, set in the 12th century – a favourite read of mine, by the way – occasional anachronistic expressions or metaphors creep in. For example, in ‘…it seems his guts...are giving him gyp’ (p.11), the expression “giving gyp” was possibly not used until the 19th century. And there is a perhaps more overt type of anachronism in: ‘The deer ran, scattering among the trees, their white scuts like dominoes tumbling into the darkness.’ (p.16). This is a really nice image but, as I understand it, dominoes had not arrived in Europe by the 12th century, so the story's narrator (a 12th century person) would presumably not think of using such a metaphor?

    In his mediaeval novel The Ill-Made Knight, Christian Cameron occasionally uses words and expressions that are neither 21st nor 14th century. Both ‘...cooling my heels... (p.184) and ...swashbuckle... (p.32) are 16th century.

    Both these novels, which use mostly modern and very accessible language, include a few anachronistic words and expressions that might destroy a reader’s illusion of the mediaeval world. One might say that an expression like “cooling one’s heels” is not exactly anachronistic, but more a “translation” of what the character was thinking about being kept waiting. Similarly, “giving gyp” is perhaps an accessible rendition of the narrator’s thought about a character’s pain. However, looking at it another way, both “cooling my heels” and “giving gyp”, while not being mediaeval, are also not really current expressions either, and therefore somehow draw attention to themselves. I suppose this can often be a problem with anachronisms – one might slip through unnoticed, yet if something sounds wrong, a critical reader will spot it and feel obliged to check up on it.




    Anachronisms may be subtler. For example, in Julia Blackburn’s The Leper’s Companions, set in 1410, mentions of “kitchen”, “bedroom” and a fire burning in the “grate” dont quite ring true for the period, when such room designations hadnt yet reached peasant homes, and fires were generally still hearths in the middle of the floor. But is this perhaps to be too exacting?



    One might ask, then, how far a degree of anachronism in a novel’s language, especially in the use of individual words, matters? How far does it detract from a novel’s “authenticity”? I have noticed these anachronisms, but many readers wouldn't, or not care much if they did. However, of those readers who do notice such things, some may not thereafter trust the writer's grip on the period, while, for others, at the very least their pleasure in the book might be diminished.



    So one could say that, whereas anachronism does “matter”, perhaps the degree to which it matters is largely a question of taste?



    In my own writing, I do try to avoid anachronism in language as well as in fact. I make an effort not to use words and phrases that first came into use much later than the 14th century. However, I’m not overly exacting with myself: I allow myself to sense when a word is not right, and, if necessary, replace it with something more suitable, but I do not examine every word. And I know that I use the occasional word that is anachronistic. Indeed, one I can think of is “hubbub”, a 16th century word of Irish origin and therefore in principle quite unsuitable for a novel about 14th century England! But I kept it in because I thought it had a mediaeval “feel” to it and I suppose I hoped that few readers would notice my gaffe. So, having allowed myself this latitude, perhaps I should not criticise others too harshly!

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    Have you ever thrown a vase? Not in anger but on a potter’s wheel? One of my protagonists in the Tales of Ancient Rome saga does both. In imagining her story, I realised I had a problem - I could always experience smashing a plate, but I had no idea how to fashion ceramics.

    Adokides Painter- Bilingual Amphora

    Once I started researching, I found myself delving deeper into the methods used in Greece and Etruria to produce both mundane and exquisite pottery. 

    The earliest means of producing ceramics was by working clay by hand through either coiling strips or pinching a hollow to form a vessel. The poorer classes would have made their own pots in this way until cheap earthenware was mass produced by using moulds.

    The potter’s wheel was believed to have been introduced in Mesopotamia in 6000 BCE and was quickly adopted throughout the ancient world. By the Classical age (C5th BCE), the invention consisted of a turning platform about a metre above the floor connected by a long axle with a heavy flywheel at ground level. This was kept rotating by kicking the fly wheel with the foot which left both hands free to shape the clay.

    Bucchero ware
    The mechanics of throwing a pot was not all I learned. There was chemistry, too.  Etruscans were famous for their thin-walled, glossy black pottery known as ‘bucchero’ which could be decorated with elaborate designs applied to the semi-hard clay using stamps. The black colour of bucchero was achieved by ‘reduction’ i.e. establishing a very high temperature within the kiln then closing the vents to reduce the oxygen rather than the heat. When the atmosphere was charged with carbon monoxide, the red of the clay converted to black due the presence of iron oxide. Indeed, the clay of the Etruscan regions of Italy was rich in iron which helped this process.

    The Etruscans were famous for high quality bucchero ware and terracotta sculptures which were exported throughout the Mediterranean. They were also enormously fond of Attic vases. Some Etruscan grave sites were riddled with thousands of vessels depicting mythological tales in beautiful tracery upon either a black or red background. Many were imported from Greece or created by Etruscan craftsmen who were heavily influenced by Greek immigrant artisans.

    There were two Attic vase techniques: the black figure Corinthian method originating in the C7th BCE followed by the more sophisticated red figure Athenian style.

    Black figure kylix - Amasias Painter
    Potters who created black figure vases painted characters in black silhouette on the surface using a liquid known as ‘slip’. Fine lines were incised into the surface to provide contour and detail. White paint was applied to represent women’s skin. Both white and red were used to highlight details such clothing, hair or weapons. The pots were then subjected to a complicated three-phase firing process which involved varying the temperatures within the kiln at different stages to effectively apply the oxidisation process. This generated the red colour of the underlying surface, and the glossy black of the figures who were always shown in profile.

    Over time the Etruscans moved away from the Corinthian style to use the ‘pseudo red figure’ technique that involved painting the clay black before adding red silhouettes and scratching lines to achieve definition. They also produced their own distinctive pottery style with figures painted red on white.

    Red figure stamnos - Menelaos Painter
    In contrast, ‘true’ red figure vases were produced by applying a technique first used in Athens around 530 BCE. Here, the figures were created in the original red-orange of the clay using a fine brush. This allowed for greater detail because lines could be drawn rather than incised. As a result, the painted scenes were more detailed and realistic. It also allowed artists the opportunity to work with greater perspective by depicting front, back and three-quarter views, therefore producing a three dimensional effect.

    Black and red figure painting gave rise to a number of identifiable potters and artists. Some are known by their actual names due to the fact they engraved their signatures on the bottom of the pots e.g. Exekias. Others remain anonymous but their styles are clearly identifiable resulting in historians attributing them with soubriquets e.g. the 'Andokides Painter'.

    Exekias was a potter and painter who lived in Athens between approximately 545-530 BCE. He is considered one of the greatest Attic vase painters, specialising in black figure ceramics. He was innovative, experimenting with new shapes and painting techniques. Fourteen signed works by Exekias survive with many others identified due to his stylistic method. The signatures vary from ‘Exekias made me’ to ‘Exekias made and painted me’ which has given rise to a theory he only acknowledged decorating those pieces of which he was particularly proud.

    'Exekias made me'

    One of Exekias’ most famous works is the so-called ‘Dionysus Cup’, which I saw in the Munich Antikensammlung in 2016. It depicts the tale of the pirates who attacked the wine-god on a sea journey to Athens. Dionysus caused vines to entwine the mast, causing his frightened assailants to dive overboard, whereupon they were transformed into dolphins. Instead of portraying the deity at the height of the conflict with his kidnappers, Exekias shows Dionysus reclining at a feast with the dolphins cavorting around him. The scene exudes a sense of peacefulness and poetry. Exekias has given the ‘wine coloured’ sea a vivid coral red shade by using a special clay slip that turned bright red when fired. This was the first time the technique was introduced. In Attic times, his composition was revolutionary. Today the cup is one of the most famous Greek vases.

    The Dionysus Cup- Exekias
    The Andokides Painter is believed to be a pupil of Exekias. He is also considered to be the ‘inventor’ of the red figure method. His style has been attributed to various pieces even though most remained unsigned. Academics have dubbed him the ‘Andokides Painter’ based on the signature ‘Andokides’ that appeared on 16 pieces within the collection. One of the most famous vases signed by Andokides is the Herakles bilingual amphora found in the Etruscan city of Vulci. Bilingual vases are important evidence of the transition between red and black figure techniques. They depict the same subject in the two different styles on opposite sides of one vessel. There is debate as to whether both sides of the Herakles Amphora were painted by the one painter or whether the black figured side was rendered by the Lysippides Painter, another student of Exekias.

    No matter what Attic technique is used, I never fail to be delighted by the scenes and characters depicted upon the surfaces of plates, cups, jugs and vases: a mythological narrative about gods, mortals and monsters locked forever within kiln hardened clay.


    Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com More examples of Attic vases can be found on her Pinterestboard.

    Images are courtesy of The Met Project,Wikimedia Commons and my holiday snaps!
     

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     1950s card, not a photo of my house
    Christmas cards: to send or not to send, that is the
    question. I wish I could claim my inability to buy/write/post them stems from a concern for the planet but the more honest reason is forgetfulness when it comes to writing down addresses I don't regularly visit and a love of all things electronic when it comes to communication. Also I never know how to display the last few we get - I can't bear them on strings or cluttering up shelves - it's the only aspect
    of Christmas that turns me into the Grinch. I'm down to sending a handful now and, in that at least, it seems I'm on trend. Large companies like Hallmark have seen the amount of Christmas cards purchased each year decrease by a third since 2007 and the drop isn't just in the UK: research from the American Greeting Card Association suggest that Europeans and Canadians now send an average of 11 cards per household per year compared to the staggering 300 posted out by pre-baby boomer families, while Americans (despite the best stationary shops on the planet) only send 8.


     Prang Christmas card with Santa's hotline
    The tradition of sending cards goes back to the mid nineteenth century. Producing the first commercial Christmas card is an honour claimed by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 but it was a German immigrant to the USA who started the greetings card industry as we now know it. In 1856 Louis Prang opened a small lithographic business near Boston, by 1866, he had perfected the colour lithographic process and by the 1870s he was publishing a range of deluxe Christmas cards. These were mainly sold in England where the introduction of the halfpenny stamp had made sending cards affordable across a wide range of society but the habit also gained ground in America with Prang's cards taking such a big share of the market (he was printing 5 million cards a year by 1881) that he became known as the father of the American Christmas card. This seasonal success story then takes on more of an It's A Wonderful Life feel: Prang's cards were lavish and expensive to produce, often with 30 colours on one print plus glitter (and occasionally tassels) and he was eventually forced out of business in 1890 as cheap copies flooded the market. His cards are now highly collectible - although not quite as valuable as the first Cole card which sold at auction in 2001 for $35,800. That's one I would have made a bit of space for.

     As with many of our current Christmas traditions, sending cards was something the Victorians leaped on with all the fervour of Tiny Tim spying a roasted goose. According to BBC research, the new greetings card industry produced over 11 million cards in 1880 alone and competitions were regularly held to help feed the demand for new designs. In 1879, card publishers to the royal family Raphael Tuck (who produced as many as 3000 designs a season) held an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London, with 500 guineas in prizes. It attracted nearly 900 entrants and was so popular that a second competition, judged among others by Sir John Millais, followed in 1882 with this time £5000 being awarded in prizes. It was Raphael Tuck who introduced novelty cards alongside the more traditional Christmas scenes, including cards that could be turned into ships and horses and soldiers. And then things got really strange...

     Santa's reindeer having an off day
    Children riding bats anyone? Beetles dancing with frogs, mice riding lobsters? Children being menaced by snowmen even Stephen King couldn't dream up? The iconography of Christmas - trees, puddings, the jolly old Santa - is there in nineteenth century cards but there are also a host of other influences, from the Germanic Krampus and 'monsters of nightmareland' as Gleeson White (editor of The Studio) called some of the images in 1894, to natural history (a Victorian obsession) and what some historians have catalogued as social messages: dead robins in the snow as reminders of the starving poor. Whatever the reasoning was behind the macabre designs has been lost in the passage of time and it may be that these cards were the oddities not the commonplace - the fact of their collection giving them perhaps more importance now than they had at the time. Today the most popular card sold features three cutesy cherubic angels, including one with eyes that would sit better on a spaniel. Since Hallmark first produced it in 1977, this image has sold 34 million copies.

    Do not send me it. These, on the other hand, would take pride of place. Enjoy and Merry Christmas one and all.

     Mummy's on the sherry again

     Doing the Christmas recycling
      The Spirit of Christmas



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    At the height of his fame, John Clare, the nineteenth century peasant poet enjoyed receiving Christmas gifts that he could never have dreamed of as a Northamptonshire pot-boy, lime-burner or ploughman. Silk neckerchiefs, eau-de-cologne and gold-tooled books arrived as presents from publishers and patrons: unaccustomed luxuries for a man more used to working in the fields to feed a large family, crammed into a tiny labourer’s cottage. The contrast between past poverty and relative wealth was nowhere as sharply demonstrated as through the replacement of his battered old fiddle with a faultless, polished Cremona violin.



    Clare stood astride two worlds. In London, for a time, he was feted in literary circles, wined and dined. But returning to his native village, promised patronage was often late or forgotten and he had to return to manual work in order to keep food on the table. His literary fame became a burden at home. He felt increasingly isolated from his fellow villagers whom he feared saw him as filled with ‘airs and graces’. Sometimes he was called home from the fields to meet a visitor: a genteel fan in search of a literary chat who gave never a thought to the fact that leaving his post would cost him his whole afternoon’s wages.

    The strain of trying to live in these two very different worlds, whilst fitting into neither, began to tell and may have contributed to his growing mental frailty. In later life , he became prone to delusions, sometimes believing he was Byron, Admiral Nelson or, alarmingly, the boxer Jack Randall. He also came to believe that he had two wives” his real wife Patty and his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. This odd dilemma for Patty was the inspiration for my novel ‘The Poet’s Wife’ , in which Patty tried to fight John’s demons and get back the man she married.

    John Clare’s obsession with his childhood sweetheart is in a way unsurprising in a man who clung to the past. His personal past was precious to him and he writes of the freedom of his boyhood collecting birds’ eggs and pooty shells (snails), and once wandering so far across the heath that he thought he could come to the edge of the world. He also treasured a common past: the seasonal rhythms of farming life and the traditions of a rural community. He records in his poem, ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’, the traditional entertainments of Christmas: the wassail singer, the Mummers’ play and how ‘harlequin, a laugh to raise/ Wears his hump back and tinkling bell.’ Just as the enclosure of common land had deprived him of his freedom to roam, he feared that as farming became mechanised and labour migrated to the cities treasured traditions would fall away.

    He writes, with great affection, of a country Christmas, of a bright hearth and a sanded floor, of yew, holly and ‘mizzletoe’ decking candles and pictures - greenery brought indoors as a symbol of eternity. He lingers with relish on ‘boiling eldern-berry wine’, pudding wrapped in muslin, sage-stuffed sausage drying in the chimney nook and sugar plums. Once when I was giving a talk on ‘The Poet’s Wife’ I was afterwards treated to a plate of sugar plums, in celebration of a Christmas scene in the novel. In rural Northamptonshire it e=seems that some of Clare’s beloved traditions still linger. Long may they last.

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    Writing about the medieval period, I am always fascinated by the illustrations and depictions. I thoroughly enjoy studying them to glean the small details of daily life.  To me, it's a bit like the original Mary Poppins film where Mary and the children leap into one of Bert's chalk pictures and go and have an adventure further into the picture where there are stories within stories and all manner of colourful details to delight the eye.

    If reading sources begins to tire me and I can feel my concentration slipping, then a browse through sundry manuscript illustrations is often just the ticket.  Some might call it procrastination, but I prefer to regard it as a research enhancer. I am eternally grateful to live in the digital age when so many institutions are making their collections available online.  I have become the fortunate recipient of a wide world of material that I could never have imagined being available at the outset of my writing career.

    For my next project, I am moving up to the thirteenth century from the twelfth and I have been jumping into a vibrant world of discovery.

    Purse attached to the braies.  Life of St Edward. Trinity College, Cambridge. Mid 12thc
    I also collect pictures of hats, so the chap in the background is of interest too!
    Trinity College, Cambridge, has a trove of medieval manuscripts online, including one known as the Romance of Alexander.  Written in Old French in circa 1250,  possibly at St Albans, it includes 152 illustrations of Medieval courtly life.  I was fascinated to see this one of a bishop disrobing.  He is wearing loose medieval 'underpants' generally known as braies.  They would have been made from linen.  It is so interesting to see that they are rolled over at the top and a belt threaded through to hold them up.  Not only that, but his purse is firmly attached to his underwear at the sides.  Medieval clothing in the 1250's did not have pockets and to get at the purse, the gown had to be lifted, as displayed on this 13th century Life of St. Edmund.  The next evolution was to have slits in the side of the gown in order to reach the pocket, and eventually pockets themselves begin to be attached to the outer wear rather than underclothing, but post Medieval in context.
    Note the cord threaded through the braies and the purse attached to it.  Romance of
    Alexander.  Mid 12thc 
    The pocket scene is one minor example. I trawl illustrations and collect all manner of themes and subjects - underwear being one of them.  The above braies have entered that particular collection board.  I have another that studies cloaks and cloak fastenings and in which it has become obvious that no medieval woman ever pins her cloak high on the shoulder.  It's a masculine thing.   I have collections of bedding and pillows (watch out for those laced pillow cases and also for check-patterns).
    Once you get your eye in on
    chequered pillow cases, they
    are all over the place! 
     I collect depictions of dogs and horses, cups and table cloths, floor coverings, beds, hats, belts, hose, shoes, cooking pots, you name it. I pluck the images from the illustrations, I study their facets, and use them both to further my knowledge and to build a world within my own chalk picture.

    Trinity Colleges's collection of manuscripts.
    http://trin-sites-pub.trin.cam.ac.uk/james/browse.php

    I often browse the British Library's collection too
    https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/welcome.htm?gclid=CjwKCAiA9efgBRAYEiwAUT-jtEWcrZ3tbDXZTkgFDk0xyac__oNZ7ZcTJ31xYThkgZGdxbBIpOaJTBoCvesQAvD_BwE

                                               And the Web Gallery of Art - among many others.
                                                https://www.wga.hu/index.html


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       As we endure our national nervous breakdown it’s interesting to be shown by this wonderful exhibition at the British Library just how international this country was during the six centuries between the departure of the Romans and the Norman conquest.

       
    This Mappa Mundi was probably created at Canterbury in the 11th century, but is thought to be based on a Roman map. It’s the earliest known depiction of the British Isles ( in the bottom left hand corner). Two fighting figures may represent the conflict between the Saxons and native Britons that raged in the centuries after the Romans left.

       The language we all attempt to use might easily have been very different. Latin continued to be the language of the most educated and English evolved from West Germanic dialects spoken by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other Teutonic tribes who invaded England in the fifth and sixth centuries. They brought their gods as well as their languages, as can be see by this painting here of a crazed looking Woden, king of the gods ( the German Wotan and the Viking Odin).


         I always find the British Library an exciting building, a temple to the book with its central spine made up of George 111’s library. This exhibition reminds us that after these islands converted to Christianity books of stunning complexity and beauty were handmade and illuminated by monks in scriptoriums and then circulated around Europe. Many of the artists and craftsmen who worked on these manuscripts moved freely from country to country.

       In 716 Ceolfrith, abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow, set off from Northumbria for Rome carrying an enormous, richly illuminated bible as a gift for the shrine of St Peter. The monks sang and wept as his boat set sail and their fears were justified, for Ceolfrith died on the voyage. The bible ended up in the monastery of Monte Amiata in Tuscany, which is why it is known as the Codex Amiatinus. The oldest surviving complete Bible in Latin it has now returned to Britain after 1300 years. 

        Here is the prophet Ezra writing with his feet on a stool, an inkwell on the desk in front of him and a drawing compass on the floor. Despite his dinner plate halo he looks contented, it’s a timeless vision of the joy of writing. Behind him nine manuscripts lie flat on the shelves of a cupboard, waiting to be read.

       The St Augustine Gospels, which came to Britain with a Christian mission in the sixth century, are richly illustrated with classical columns and arches. The memory of grand imperial buildings must have outlived the empire. This sophisticated Latin culture was threatened by Viking raids from the eighth century. King Alfred the Great personally translated Pope Gregory the Great’s RegulaPastoralis into Old English so that people who didn’t know Latin could read it or have it read to them. The king gave away sixty free copies with a jewelled reading pointer made of ivory.

        The Alfred Jewel ( lent by The Ashmolean in Oxford) has a socket thought to have held one of these ivory pointers. Gazing into its richly coloured depths you can see a golden monster writhing with serpents. It is inscribed “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” – “Alfred ordered me to be made”

       Other treasures include the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, the earliest surviving text of the poem Beowulf with its Scandinavian hero and Bede's Ecclesiastical History. The greatest Anglo-Saxon intellectual, the Northumbrian Venerable Bede, points out in one manuscript that the Earth is undoubtedly a sphere, “like a ball”. Here he is, writing away.


        Some of the more obscure exhibits are fascinating too because they show how arbitrary survival is; for instance, a tombstone carved with runes that turned up a thousand years later, having been used as a mangle stone in a cottage.

       Canterbury was a great centre of learning centuries before Oxford and Cambridge were founded. An important school was established there in the seventh century by Archbishop Theodore, who came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, and Hadrian, an abbot from North Africa. Among the subjects taught at this school were poetry, astronomy, mathematics and Greek. One of the manuscripts made in Kent was the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated copy of the Book of the Psalms. With its gold and rich colours, the script and decorations show the influence of Roman models, indicating that Kentish culture was both wealthy and shaped by links to the wider world.

       At the end of this glorious exhibition is the Domesday Book, lent by The National Archives. Commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085, nineteen years after his Norman forces defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, it is a sobering reminder that this was the most detailed survey of how and where people lived in England, and how much they were worth, until the first census in 1801. Contemporaries knew that this vast survey was an extraordinary achievement. Richard Fitz Nigel, the royal treasurer, reported that the English called the book Domesdei, the Day of Judgement, because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, could not be appealed.

       This amazing exhibition finishes on February 19th. Many thanks to the British Library for giving me permission to reproduce these images from their website.



    With this illumination of the nativity I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.



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    France has a coastline of approximately 7330 kilometres. Much of it is magnificent and many of those kilometres are uninhabited, wild even. I am a sea baby. The old adage that being by the sea does you good, clears your lungs and regenerates your system is, in my opinion, true and the French have elevated the practice of ‘taking the waters’ to levels of excellence. They call it ‘thalassotherapy’. Thalassa from the Greek. Thalassa was the primeval spirit of the sea.

                                               5th century Roman mosaic of the goddess Thalassa.

    Sea water therapy. Gallons of salty water, marine products and a coastal climate are the ingredients for the ‘cures’. Dotted along the French Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines are establishments offering such cures. Here, they will cover you in seaweed and leave your body to soak up the minerals and recharge. Three days is minimum, five begins the beneficial effects, while seven to ten days will boost your constitution for the year ahead.

    We have just returned from a short pre-Christmas trip to the Camargue, which is a three-hour drive from our Olive Farm, direction west towards Barcelona. The Camargue is western Europe’s largest river delta (the Rhône and petit Rhône rivers) and is packed with a diverse choice of unique flora and fauna. It is my secret place. It is where I go to relax, walk and try to get a little fitter. I rarely if ever visit during the summer months because the area is packed with tourists and plagued by mosquitos. This time of year is perfect for me and this time my husband came with me. 

                                            Vincent Van Gogh, View of Saintes-Maries de la Mer. 1888.

    We began our daily explorations with the Camarguais capital, the seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which I know well. This is east Camargue, where the small town is surrounded by magnificent beaches abutting hectares of national parkland where wild white horses, black bulls and Europe’s finest and most varied display of wild birds feed and wade while paying the onlooker not the slightly bit of notice. I was rather taken aback on this visit to find that the municipality has paved its entire small town with concrete. Brutalist road planning gone mad. Everywhere was closed except for the medieval church, which was our point of interest.
    First, a little about the town's history and why a population of less than 3,000 can swell to half a million during the summer months and during the two Roma pilgrimage festivals, which take place in May (24th, 25th) and October.
    Aerial view of the church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It can be seen in any direction from a  distance of ten kilometres.

    This tiny fishing village was known to the Romans as Ra, as noted by the Roman geographer, Rufus Festus Avienus.  In Celtic times, it was already a holy place, a sacred site, known as Oppidum Priscum Ra.

    After the crucifixion of Christ when all Christians in the Middle East were threatened with death by the Romans unless they renounced their allegiance to Christ many fled the territory. Legend has it that in 45 AD a small boat transporting four women and possibly two men man was washed up, after a perilous journey, on the Camarguais coast not far from Ra. The local fishermen and their families welcomed and assisted the strangers. Three of the rescued women bore the same name: Mary. Mary Salome, Mary Jacob and Mary Magdalene. The fourth woman, who may or may not have been aboard the boat - there are several differing stories about the identity of this woman - was a dark-skinned servant either from Egypt or Ethiopia. She was called Sara. The men are identified as Lazarus and Joseph of Arimathea.
    The women began to preach the word of Christ. Christianity had arrived in France. The faith spread fast and the women were revered.
    In the 6th century a bishop from Arles built a church-monastery on the plot where the present Romansque church stands.
    The town including the site where the adrift boat had landed was renamed Nôtre-Dame-de-Ratis. (Our  Lady of the Boat). It was later changed to Nôtre-Dame-de-la-Mer and finally, in 1838, to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.


    Saint Sara, also known as Sara-la-Kali, or Sarah the Black, is the patron saint of the Roma people, the Gypsies. She is the patron saint of travellers. Her statue of her resides in the crypt of the church. It is always surrounded by lit candles.
    Twice a year the small town is the final destination for a Roma pilgrimage. In late May and October. I have been to Saintes-Maries-de-le-Mer once during their pilgrimage festivities when the streets ring out with the clop clop of horse hooves and, in the evenings, with evocative guitar music.
    It is an extraordinary spectacle to witness. A reliquary containing the bones of the Marys is borne from the church by men on horseback. These are local gardiens, keepers of the Camarguais horses. They are followed by costumed Gypsies carrying the statue of Sara. The entire procession, along with throngs of tourists and onlookers, makes it way to the sea. There in the water a priest blesses all the saints and the attendants too.
    I have also during one of these visits attended a mass celebrated in the church in the local Provençal language.

    About ten miles inland of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, off the RD 570, the road to Arles, lies sixty hectares of inspiring bird sanctuary, the Parc Ornithologique de Pond de Gau. (It is a terrific outing for children). It offers two circuits: short or long. We opted for the longer, the seven-kilometre trail through marshes and riverbank pathways. An ambitious choice for a pair who had spent the morning being pummelled with salt-water and caked in heated seaweed paste, but on we went plunging ourselves into the network of islands, marshlands and water. The first three lagoons were teeming with rose-pink flamingoes. The symbol of the Camargue, and the only place in France where they breed. Here, too, owls can be spotted, also otters glsitening in the sun and paddling in the wetlands (we caught sight of two); eagles, harriers, white herons, egrets, storks, waders of every description – the list is impressive. Within the park there is also a clinic, a sanctuary of several cages, where birds damaged in the wilderness, are nursed back to health. These can be observed at close range.

    Happy, tired and at peace with the world, we returned slowly to our hotel in the Languedoc quarter of the Camargue, south of Montpelier and Nîmes. Sunset was falling. A vermillion sky with flocks of white herons flying overhead; all reflected in the salt pans and swamplands. A burning landscape.

    The following morning we were up and out of bed as the sun rose, spilling a delicate salmon-pink over the water. We set off for the beach, walking inches from the waves where the sand was damper, darker, and we skipped and jumped in the foam. The beach was deserted. Silence save for the mew of gulls, the crunch of washed-up, empty mussel shells beneath our feet and the deep-throated horns from the fishing boats delivering their catch to the shores, followed by a vaporous grey trail of hungry, squawking birds.

    We were standing on the rim of the Gulf of Lion, a wide Mediterranean embayment. Seven rivers empty into this generous mass of water. The beaches run from northern Catalonia to Toulon. Much of this coastline is made up of salt marshes and lagoons. Looking out to sea on a calm warm winter’s morning such as this one, it might have been one giant pond spreading as far as the horizon.

    Later, we drove to Nîmes, a city that boasts one of the best preserved Roman temples in what was once the ancient Roman world, La Maison Carrée. The city is still trying to gain UNESCO heritage status for this very well-preserved building.

    La Maison Carrée,  Nîmes.


    Les Arènes de Nîmes, an  amphitheatre and a contemporary of the Colosseum in Rome (built around 70 A.D) is today used for rock concerts and two high-profile annual bullfights. We were the lone spectators contemplating a vast empty stage. It was the first time I had ever wanted to be present at a bullfight, if only to see this immense place pulsating with danger and excitement.

    Afterwards, we strolled to the Place du Marché to the Patisserie Courtois – in English, the Courteous Cakeshop - and indulged in a large and very creamy hot chocolate. This was hot chocolate like you rarely find it today. This ‘café historique’, founded in 1850, was also serving miniature home-made panetonnes and I could not resist the temptation. While we sat in this old-fashioned cafe wondering whether such calorific goodies were allowed whilst taking a ‘cure’, we tuned in to the quartet of customers alongside us who were locals reminiscing, sharing their experiences of ‘la guerre’ and those of their parents from the Great War before them. Fascinating to hear their conversation, which included the fact that much of the south was part of the Free Zone of France during World War II.
    Their accents were as thick as the hot chocolate.
    Our return journey to the hotel found us beneath yet another cinematic, carmine-red sky. Ahead, a vast golden globe was sinking out of sight beyond the bullrush marshes. There were flocks and flocks of birds overhead including the pink and black flamingoes. It had been the best of days.

    Constance Tower, Aigues-Mortes


    We made several visits to the small walled city of Aigues-Mortes, once upon a time an important port. Within its ramparts are many restaurants and tourist shops. Most were closed during our stay. There is a small population, close to 1,500, who live intra muros, within the walls, but most of these are foreigners who use the houses as second residences. The body of the population live outside the old city. In the past I have walked the ramparts but this time it was not possible. The views from on high are wonderful across the flat saline marshes where the only elevations are the mighty mounds of harvested salt.

                                                                              King Louis

    In the city's central square stands an impressive statue of Louis IX who was King of France from 1226  until his death in 1270. He succeeded to the throne when he was twelve years old. He twice led his soldiers to the Crusades. Neither outing was a great success. The first time he was captured and it cost a mighty ransom to secure his release. On the second occasion, soon after landing in Tunis, he was struck with typhoid fever and died.
    He was well loved, did a great deal to unify France and was later, in 1297, canonised Saint Louis. His feast day is 25th August.

    On our last Camarguais evening, the hotel restaurant served their Sunday special: seafood platter. It would have satisfied a hungry shark. Half a crab, six small langoustines, whelks and various other small shell creatures I did not recognise. It also contained six large Bouzique oysters. An interesting fact told to us by the waiter: their high zinc content aids the production of testosterone, which might explain why they have long been considered an aphrodisiac. The French are Europe’s leaders in l’ostréiculture – oyster cultivation. They also consume with immense gusto over ninety percent of all they produce. Fitting for our thalasso experience, the Bouziques (a Mediterranean variety) were presented on a hillock of seaweed with wedges of lemon and a small dish of shallot vinegar to accompany them. We were served a fine glass of Languedoc red to wash them down. Nectar, after a dry week.

    The following morning before crossing the leg of France that unites the country to Spain, we made a stop in the neighbouring fishing village of Le Grau-du-Roi. Its tiny heart remains attractive but the rest is overrun with holiday lets. We found a store close to the canal where we purchased two cases of local, rather underrated and reasonably priced Languedoc red wines, one of Corbières and one of Fitou. Grau is an unusual word. Its root is in the Occitan language and it roughly translates as bayou.

    We drove through acres of stark, winter vineyards with distant views to a glimmering sea. Many of these wineries were originally planted up by the Romans, but it has only been within the last quarter of a century that France has recognised the quality of these southern wines. It was a glorious morning.  The winding roads were deserted, save for a couple of tractors. We took our time, moseying along B routes, catching sight of small huddles of Filets Jaunts at roundabouts who waved as we passed by. I was sorry to leave this region with its fascinating Moorish and Cathar history, (which we hadn't had time to investigate), its magnificent coastline, its Roman heritage.

    www.caroldrinkwater.com


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    'Rest on the Flight into Egypt' by Bonifazio de Pitati (1487– 1553) 
    Once Christmas Day is over, we tend to forget about the small family in a stable in Bethlehem, and what they did next. I’ve been wondering about Mary, and how she coped as a new young mother, in a strange town, with no home or family. We only know what the gospels of Luke and Matthew chose to write about the birth and first weeks of Jesus' life. Matthew tells us that Mary was a virgin, but Joseph her ‘espoused’ learned that she was pregnant, and not by him. An angel told him not to worry, because ‘that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.’ So he agreed to marry her, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That’s all he has to say about the Nativity.

    The Flight into Egypt by Battista Dossi and Dosso Dossi, c.1530, with two donkeys!
    Luke gives much more detail. Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem for a Roman taxation census. While in Bethlehem, Mary ‘brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room in the inn.’ Shepherds and wise men came to worship him, and when Jesus was eight days old he was circumcised according to Jewish law. Meanwhile Mary stayed indoors for 40 days until ‘the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished.’ Then they went to Jerusalem on their way north, where they offered a sacrifice of two turtledoves. After that Jesus ‘grew and waxed strong in spirit’ back at home in Nazareth.
    Both accounts were written over 60 years after the events, and by men, so there is no mention of the things women might be interested in. How long was the labour? Did it start while they were travelling the 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem? The journey would have taken them at least four days on foot. As a carpenter, Joseph could well have owned a donkey for carrying his tools and timber. Christmas cards often depict Mary on a donkey out of sympathy for her predicament as a full-term primigravida, though she might have walked all the way.
    As Joseph came originally from Bethlehem, he probably had relatives living there. Joseph’s mother, sister or an aunt may have accompanied Mary through her labour, cut the umbilical cord and disposed of the placenta. Jesus was then ‘laid in a manger’ - a net or wooden box containing hay for cattle – a prickly place for a baby! A manger (from the French word ‘to eat’) can be attached to a wall, a practical way of keeping a new-born baby safe from dogs and draughts while Mary was sleeping.
    Bethlehem is at a high altitude and it could have been very cold, so Mary would have kept her new baby close to her body most of the time. We don’t know if they stayed in the stable for the 40 days Mary had to wait for her purification, a time of post-partum bleeding, or lochia. Hopefully, Joseph’s female relatives provided Mary with the necessary cloths which she then washed, and hung up to dry?
    Matthew next tells of wise men from the East who visited the new baby, and warned his parents to return home by a different route, as King Herod wanted to kill the baby. Sometime after they returned to Nazareth, Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child to safety in Egypt. They left immediately by night, becoming refugees.
    Matthew’s account does not say when they had to flee to Egypt, but King Herod had ordered all boys under two years old to be slaughtered – indicating Jesus must have been about 20 months.

    As the many depictions have imagined the holy refugees,
    Jesus was probably still being breastfed.
    They probably took the Via Maris – a well-trodden trade route along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, that ran from Damascus to Memphis in Egypt. The journey from Nazareth to Abu Serghis, on the far side of the River Nile where tradition has it they settled, is about 500 miles. Google Map estimates this takes 150 hours to walk. So if the family kept up a pace of 8 hours a day, that would have taken them three weeks without breaks. Jesus would have been carried much of the way, breastfed every few hours; and Mary may well have had a menstrual period en route. Imagine her discomfort while walking or sitting on a donkey, with just cloth rags. There are many mediaeval and renaissance paintings of Mary breastfeeding Jesus. She is shown with a bounteous supply of milk and fullsome breasts, and Jesus is a well-fed chubby boy.
    Bondone was one of many major artists who depicted the Flight from Egypt.
    ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ became a common depiction in the life of Christ after the 14th century. As interest in landscape painting increased, the subject became even more popular and the figures were often shown in European scenery.  The paintings are lovely but the conditions would have been much harsher in AD 2, with the risk of bandits as well as desert conditions of starvation, heat and cold. Until recently few historians have thought about how women dealt with menstruation in ordinary life, let alone as refugees, or women in the Bible. What was it really like? To recapture this experience, we can look at female refugees fleeing from war now. The testimony of the two women in this film, made in a refugee camp in Malawi two months ago, gives us an insight. Alphonsine and Pendeza are both Christians, but almost certainly unaware that their unintended journeys across Africa were similar to Mary’s 2000 years ago. I hope that they, like she was, are able to return to their homes one day soon.

    'From Rags to Cups - Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi. ' 


    Illustrated Bibles of my childhood, as depicted by Scott Orr circa 1930. 
    All quotes are from the King James Holy Bible, published in English in 1611.






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    Women! Are you suffering from choking, collapse, suffocation, seizures and the inability to speak? Has your doctor ruled out all the usual causes? Have you considered that your womb may have gone wandering in search of moisture?

    This may come as a surprise to anyone trained in anatomy (or indeed anyone at all in the 21st century) but it would have been a sensible question in the ancient world. Opinion was divided even then, but a substantial number of doctors believed that the womb was not firmly attached to its moorings. It was thus free to roam about the body causing trouble. 


    The doctors of the time were a fiercely competitive bunch who did their best without the aid of microscopes, x-rays or very much sense of scientific method. They were, however, keen observers, and they were confident that neither asthma, epilepsy nor anything else they could name explained the problem afflicting some of their women patients. It became known as hysterical suffocation (from ‘hystera’, a Greek word for ‘uterus’).

    Luckily there was a relatively safe and straightforward remedy. Wombs were said to be very sensitive to odour. They could be lured by sweet smells and repelled by foul ones. (Smells that they disliked included charred deers’ horn, burned hair or rags, and squashed bed bugs.) Apply the right smells at the right ends of the suffering woman, said the theory, and her troubles would subside as her womb slunk back home. 
    Models of wombs presented to the gods in the hope of healing.
    If the smells didn’t work there were other options. Few of them can be recommended for trying at home, or indeed anywhere else. Doctor Mantias prescribed drinks of beaver secretions and bitumen in wine, plus flute music and drumming (presumably performed to, not by, the patient). Doctor Asclepiades suggested tight bandaging just below the ribs, making the woman sneeze, shouting at her and blowing vinegar into her nose. If that failed, her helpers could try pouring cold water over her head. 

    Soranus, a specialist whose book on gynaecology still survives, was scathing. “For the uterus,” he declared, “does not issue forth like a wild animal from the lair, delighted by fragrant odours and fleeing bad odours.” He warns that trying to straighten out a woman’s internal tangles by using smith’s bellows to force in air – a ghastly suggestion that seems to have had a long, if surely unhappy, history – would only do more damage. As for the therapeutic effects of loud noises and the prescribed crashing of metal plates – “even many healthy persons have been given headaches by such sounds”. He agreed that the womb was the source of the trouble, but that rather than trespassing in unauthorised places, it was suffering from inflammation. 


    While Soranus and his fellow-medics disagreed on the causes and treatment of hysterical suffocation, they didn’t question its existence. The usual view of modern commentators is that they were describing some sort of stress-related symptoms that we would name and treat very differently today.

    Before we feel too superior in our modern knowledge, though, it’s worth remembering that when my grandparents were young, smoking was considered to be a harmless way to relax. And by the time surgeons decided that routinely removing parts of healthy five-year-olds wasn’t such a great idea, my innocent tonsils were long gone. Who knows what twenty-first century beliefs future generations will look back on with alarm and incredulity?

    Hopefully many sufferers were offered the sensible and restrained treatment recommended by Soranus, who suggested laying the afflicted woman down in a warm, bright room, placing warm compresses on her, gently straightening the constricted limbs and washing her face with a sponge. Given such treatment, we can only hope that she would feel well cared-for and that her womb, wherever it had gone, would find its own way home.

    Ruth writes a series of mysteries featuring Roman military medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla - find out more at www.ruthdownie.com.

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    My mother, aged 16
    My mother was nine when the War broke out and like my father and his sister, she was never evacuated, though with my mother’s family this was probably due as much, or more, to a general lackadaisicalness. My mother was the pretty little red-headed youngest of six with two much older sisters, and three older brothers. As they all left school and started work at the earliest opportunity, all of the others were working when the War started, including her widowed mother. (My mother’s father died of lung cancer when she was four.)

    I've recently seen it said that ‘before the Second World War, women didn’t work outside the home.' Nonsense. My maternal grandmother, like all the women in my family, always worked. For one reason or another, they had to. My maternal grandmother started work at ten and just carried on. She might have changed her job when the war started, if there was an opportunity for better wages, but she didn’t suddenly decide to go out to work 'to do her bit.' Children had to learn to cope being on their own — and doing a lot of household chores — at a young age.

    None of my mother’s older siblings went to war. This was the industrial Black Country: they all had protected occupations. One of my uncle’s was in ‘Dad’s Army’, the Home Guard, and was issued with a gas-mask. The only time he ever wore it, my mother said, was when he sat on a low stool and put it on to terrify the dog, which ‘went yampy.’

    It was a rackety household. My mother often told me that she never knew who was going to be in the house when she got up in the morning. Her brothers and sisters brought their friends home all the time and the kitchen might be crowded with people drinking tea and eating breakfast after coming off a night-shift.

    She once came down to find a monkey in the kitchen. One of her brothers had won it at the Oldbury Wake (a fair.) As soon as my Grandmother came home, the monkey had to pack its bags. Poor thing.

    It was Mum’s three older brothers who were supposed to construct their Anderson shelter. The instructions were to dig a hole at least four foot deep (a little over a metre) to put the shelter in, and to pile earth over the roof.

    My paternal Grandad, George Price did this. He was a keen gardener anyway and used to digging. My aunt, his daughter, tells me that the family spent many nights in the cold, damp shelter, her wearing her siren suit, her mother knitting and her father reading. A miserable, boring experience it was.

    About a mile away (but as yet unaware of each others' existence), my mother’s brothers started digging a hole but couldn’t be bothered to dig it deep enough. They didn’t cover the shelter with earth. It stuck up from its shallow hole like a tin shed. It flooded and frogs moved in, meaning that none of the women would go near it. Nobody in the family ever used it on even a single occasion. Bombs fell, the anti-aircraft guns they called ‘Big Bertha’ resounded from the Rowley Hills behind the house, but my mother’s family ignored it all and went about their business as usual. I suppose you could say they kept calm and carried on. (Grandad Price would have said, 'Where there's no sense there's no feeling.')

    Nor did my mother's family have black-out curtains. Either nobody in the family could be fashed to organise them, or they had other ideas about what to spend money on. My mother usually came home from school to an empty house because everyone else was at work. She did this from an early age, well before the war began, because she told me of being too small to reach the latch and open the door. She used to stand in the yard and wait until the family cat came home. The cat leaped up, swung on the latch and let itself in. Mum used to tell me how much she resented that cat and its lordly ways.

    During the war her family were either working, volunteering for war-work or socialising. So she came home to an empty house and then spent the evening alone. She would light the gas-lamps to begin with but the air-raid warden would come and bang on the window because light was showing, and she’d have to turn them out. You could be prosecuted for showing light. Alone in the dark she listened to ‘The Man In Black’, Valentine Dyall, tell ghost stories. Here’s a sample - 

    Altogether, my mother’s family had a casual attitude to air raids. When the siren went while Mum was at school, they were supposed to go down into the school cellar and stay there until the all-clear. However, this always meant listening to one ‘teacher’s pet’ recite ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ and the other teacher’s pet recite ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ (My mother was certainly not a teachers' pet. Her teachers disliked her for being one of 'that rowdy family.')

    She liked poetry (The Highwayman and Young Lochinvar were her favourites) but her war-time experience left her with a lifelong dislike of the teachers' pets’ choices.

    When the sirens sounded, children were allowed to run home to their family shelters if they lived close to the school and their parents were at home. My mother’s best friend lived in a house in the same street as the school. Faced with hearing ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ yet again (with all the actions), my mother got her friend to tell the teacher that they were going to run to the friend’s house. The teacher let them go.

    What they hadn’t told the teacher was that the friend’s mother and father were both at work, the house was locked up and they had no way of reaching the friend’s shelter in the yard behind it. While the bombs fell and the guns fired from the hills, while shrapnel rained down, pinging off metalwork, they wandered round the streets; and they did this every time there was a raid during school hours. They whiled away the time by studying the gardens and giving them marks out of ten for neatness, productivity or pretty flowers.

    Whenever the Second World War is mentioned, that’s the image that comes to my mind: two little girls looking over a garden fence and assessing flower displays while bombers fly overhead and guns boom and recoil, boom and recoil on the hill where I live now.

    I looked up ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ while writing this blog and I think, in Mum's place, I would have risked the bombs too.






    We are grateful to Susan Price for stepping in with this reserve post, as our planned guest for December fell through.

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    A few months ago I wrote on this blog about an ending for me – finishing my life as a civil servant. Since then I've had another ending – and, excitingly, a new beginning – because I've moved from London to Brighton.

    I’ve lived in London all my adult life and in Crystal Palace for nearly fourteen years. It has been a wonderful place to live. I’ve always loved its history and the sense of community and shared identity that brings, and I’ll miss it very much. 

    Me on Dinosaur Island, Crystal Palace Park
    Photo: L O'Sullivan 
    Crystal Palace wasn’t always known as such. But after the success of the Great Exhibition in 1851 it was decided to rebuild Joseph Paxton’s masterpiece on a permanent site, and run it as a commercial enterprise. A commanding position on top of a ridge in south London on the borders of Upper Norwood, Penge and Sydenham was chosen, the Palace rebuilt and a new identity forged.

    It became the defining feature of the area, bringing millions of people to visit and live over the next 80 years and changing it forever. Two train stations were built to manage the influx of visitors. Many of the bus routes in south London end in Crystal Palace even now because of the number of people who wanted to get to the attraction. And, as across London, huge numbers of houses were built, but in this case many of them were large and beautiful villas for the well-to-do, wanting to live in this now-fashionable spot.

    The Crystal Palace burned down in a catastrophic fire in 1936. The site of the Palace and grounds is now the local park. You can see the foundations of the Palace at the top of the hill, complete with a few of the original statues. There are two more complete reminders of the heyday of the Crystal Palace, however, which I have especially loved while living here:
    The Megalosaurus, striding through the
    autumn foliage. Photo C. Wightwic

    1) The Dinosaurs. I’ve written about them before, but I make no bones (boom boom) about doing so again. Declaring an Interest, I’m now on the Board of the charity that works to promote and conserve the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (most of which aren’t actually Dinosaurs, but hey…) They were built in the 1850s as an attraction in the grounds of Crystal Palace and were the first ever life sized sculptures of dinosaurs (and other extinct creatures) anywhere in the world. The sculptures were created at the dawn of dinosaur palaeontology, taking into account the cutting-edge science of the day. We obviously know much more now, so many of them look weird and ‘wrong’ to our eyes. From the point of view of the history of science, therefore, they are a testament to how our knowledge changes and grows with each generation. For the general viewer today, their ‘wrongness’ adds to their charm.

    2) The Subway. This gorgeous subterranean space isn’t often open to the public, although the Friends of the Subway are doing an amazing job to provide occasional access days. One of the last remnants of the Crystal Palace and its associated infrastructure, the subway was the passageway between the ‘high level’ train station and the great Crystal Palace itself. The red-and-white patterned space is all that remains of the high level station, but gives an impression of the grandeur and excitement of a visit to one of the greatest spectacles of the age. 

    The Subway in 2017. Photo: C.Wightwick
    So, what to take to Brighton as part of my ever-expanding Cabinet of Curiosities? Well, the Ruling History Girl wasn’t very impressed a few months ago when I tried to bring a life-sized sculpture of a naked man into the Cabinet (apparently he wouldn’t fit) so I don’t suppose I can get away with a life-sized Dinosaur either. And I wouldn’t want to take them out of their natural habitat, even virtually. In designing the Dinosaurs, smaller maquettes were made, about 1/8th size of the final pieces. None of them survive, to our knowledge. But if they did, maybe I could fit one of those into the Cabinet?


    Find out more at:

    Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: https://cpdinosaurs.org/

    The Crystal Palace Subway: www.cpsubway.org.uk



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  • 12/30/18--16:01: No December competition
  • Because our planned guest for 29th December fell through, there will be no competition this month.

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    The Golden Stairs 1880

    If you like the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the chances are you will enjoy the Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain in London, on till February 24th. If, on the other hand, you detest them, it will be anathema to you.

    For Burne-Jones is the quintessential pre-Raphaelite: his paintings, tapestries, even his stained glass is intensely finished, his figures idealised, his subjects high-falutin'. And yet he wasn't one of the founder-members of the "brotherhood in 1848." They were Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti.

    Burne-Jones wasn't even one of the four artists who joined the PRB a few months later. (William Morris wasn't one at all, much to my surprise). But Burne-Jones was only fifteen when the brotherhood was founded; later, under the mentoring of Rossetti, he became very much associated with their ideas and practices.

    What linked them all was an interest in medieval literature, such as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory, and the myths and legends that were the subjects of their writing, and more recent poets like Keats and Tennyson. They also shared a love of nature and wanted to depict it in great detail.

    They longed to return to the simplicity of Italian painting of the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly the work of Sienese painters. That aesthetic which reached its apogee "pre-Raphael," (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino 1483-1520). And they, all young men in 1848, opposed the current aesthetic of the Royal Academy.

    The Beguiling of Merlin 1872-7
    This oil painting, now in Liverpool, but on loan to the Tate exhibition, is my favourite and I've known it for as long as I can remember. You can admire it as a skilled depiction of two figures in nature but, in order to understand it, you need to know that the nature depicted is a hawthorn bush in which Merlin the wizard is about to be imprisoned by Nimue, his lover and apprentice. What she is removing from him is his book of spells and with it his power to resist her. ("Beguiling" is a wonderful word to use here.) He has taught her all he knows and she now regards him as superfluous and dispensable.

    (I like to think there is a sub-text of Burne-Jones liberating himself from his teachers and going to make his own way in the art world.)

    In 1859, at the age of twenty-six, Burne-Jones made his first visit to Italy and discovered the work of Michelangelo. That might have counted as "late" to someone fixated on the earlier period of Italian art but it seems to have given him a lifetime's fascination with "contrapposto" in his depiction of the human figure.

    Phyllis and Demophoon 1870

    This picture was exhibited a year later, at the Old Water-Colour Societyand caused a scandal. It takes a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses about a nymph who has been transformed into an almond tree by her reluctant lover and shows her emerging from her transformation to fight back and reclaim her man. It was not just the androgynous figures and the obvious sexual relationship shown that shocked but the fact that Demophoon is presented as a full frontal nude. (Ignoring Burne-Jones' following of the Renaissance convention, observed by Michelangelo, of depicting male genitalia modestly and not life-sized).

    He was asked to make an adjustment to the painting but refused and withdrew it from the exhibition, also resigning from the Society; clearly Burne-Jones had no truck with Victorian prudery.

    The Tree of Forgiveness 1981-2
    Here is the same subject ten years later, this time an oil painting called The Tree of Forgiveness. Now Phyllis is naked and her lover sports a modesty cloth (with no visible means of staying in place). Naturally, no complaints this time.

    As well as medieval and classical subjects, Burne-Jones sometimes invented stories for his paintings, like The Golden Stairs and Love Among the Ruins. But he was also attracted to making series of images based on a single story, such as the legend of Perseus and Andromeda:

    The Doom Fulfilled 1888
    See Andromeda's contrapposto and the convoluted coils of the serpent. This is the typical "hero rescues female in jeopardy" story of so much of western culture.

    But in the Briar Rose series, based on a version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, Burne-Jones is not interested in the fulfillment scene of the prince waking the princess from her enchantment; what fascinates him is the notion of stopped time and suspended animation.

    The Rose Bower 1886-90
    Here she is, sleeping peacefully among her waiting women, with no sense of any lack of fulfilment.

    The Council Chamber 1885-90
     The king her father and his courtiers sleep too, unaware of their fate.

    The Briar Wood 1874-84
    The prince does arrive but he is an anomalous figure, the upright hero among the sleeping knights who have previously assayed a rescue. Hw seems almost to envy their sensual slumber.

    Burne-Jones' wife, Georgiana, said his concept was: "I want it to stop with the Princess asleep and to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of people."

    The Adoration of the Magi 1894
    In 1861, William Morris had founded the decorative arts firm of Morris Marshall, Faulkner and co., with among its partners Rossetti, Ford Madox Ford and Edward Burne-Jones. When the firm was re-organised in 1875 as Morris & Co, Burne-Jones continued to contribute designs for stained glass and tapestries.

    The one above seems topical, as we approach January 6th, Epiphany, the visit of the three Magi (or kings) to the infant Christ in his stylised stable.

    Happy New Year to all our readers and Followers!








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  • 01/01/19--16:30: Janus - by Gillian Polack

  • Yesterday I thought a lot of Janus. Christianity’s early rise as a major religion was strongly linked to the Roman Empire, so in the Julian and Gregorian calendars we have a month named after a god. More than one month, in fact, but today I shall focus on just that one. I love this. It reminds me, always, that the relationship between religions and the places they grow up help shape the way they shape us. I don’t want to talk about that today, however. I was thinking of Janus. 

    In the Middle Ages (which is definitely the period of western European history I know most about) representations of Janus showed him as two-faced or three-faced. On a bad day, I would make Batman jokes about Two-Face, but today is a good day, and what interests me is what Janus means for the way people saw time in the Middle Ages.






    Janus was two-faced on calendars because he looked back into the old year and forward into the new. This reflected something so important culturally that we still check our futures on horoscopes and we make resolutions for the New Year and we write “This is what 2018 was like.” Not everyone does all of this, but enough of us do these things that I have to suspect that this response to the change of years is a deep artefact.

    It may date back to far earlier than the Middle Ages, and it may not. My evidence is Medieval. In the Middle Ages one gave nice gifts (gloves, for instance) to celebrate the new year. That was part of the looking forward, too. These presents were, I suspect, more important than anything given for Christmas itself, for we have a lot more listings of presents given for the new year than for any other part of Christmastide.

    In the Jewish Middle Ages in the same western European countries, Janus does not appear. Jews used both the Christian calendar (for their everyday interactions with the majority part of the community) and their own, and the change of year was governed by the Jewish calendar and was, as it is now, in September/October. White was the colour of the New Year, so white food was popular. New food was popular and new clothes. 

    The celebration of the calendar change focussed more on the forward and the cleansing of the slate than on looking back. I suspect this is because there is a formal ‘looking back’ during the ten days after the new year itself in the Jewish calendar. This means there isn’t as much of a call for it during the actual new year celebrations. 

    Interestingly, Judaism and Christianity lived alongside each other in ancient Rome. 

    Cultural remnants are not always an indication of worship. Christianity was the minor religion of the two nearly 2000 years ago but it adopted facets of Roman religion quite early. Judaism did not. The gods that label Jewish months are earlier deities from a different region. Just as Christians didn’t worship Janus just because Janus illustrated calendars and prompted people to look at both past and future on New Year, Jews didn’t worship the gods that appear on the Jewish calendar. 

    If gods don’t indicate worship or even belief, what do they indicate? Why weren’t they dropped?
    They are cultural remnants that act as reminders of the paths our cultures have travelled. I mostly like to think of it as a form of respect for our ancestors. Our world is very different to theirs. Some years, though, certain similarities strike. I look at Janus today and see something old that’s nevertheless very new and very important.



    So many people assume that I am an ethnohistorian because the food history side of it is amazing. Well, the food history side of it is totally amazing. I’m not going to give it up in a hurry. My friends will suffer my experiments with old recipes for a long time yet. 

    Cooking, however, is part of a vastly complex everyday and that everyday is our Janus-looking-backwards. I’m not actually a culinary historian. I’m an ethnohistorian. I need to understand people and their societies, not simply one element of them, but as much as I can.

    Janus is important as an indicator of the strength of culture over time and of the legacy that culture gives us. Cultural artefacts can hang on or leave powerful echoes. Culture is not some neutral aspect of the universe: it’s our lives. Janus reminds us, every year, that we have a past as well as a future. If we’re wise and clever and remember to look back and think about that past, we’re more likely to walk into that future without as many burdens. If we stride forward blindly, then we’re carrying all kinds of burdens with us. 

    Right now, with all the hate in our current world, it helps me to be able to look at the witch trials and back further at how the Inquisition targeted people who were Christian but with Jewish ancestors, and back further at the invention of the blood libel. All three of these vile parts of the past have carried forward into the present and re with us right now in a variety of forms. Imagine a Janus looking at mass murder in the past and then imagine him turning his head and looking at us, with a grim face. He’s seeing the same sights in both directions.



    That’s the way I see Janus this year. We had a difficult 2018 and 2019 is going to be a challenge for many of us. The wonderful thing about looking at history through Janus’ eyes is that we know it. It doesn’t just change theoretically. We change it. We can choose to carry all those wonderful foodways forward and we can also say, “But we don’t need to carry this other thing.” 

    Instead of a resolution, we can make a choice as to which aspects of culture we want to keep from those that Janus saw in the last year.

    This isn’t where I meant to go with this month’s post. I was going to talk about the formal change to calendars. I wanted to talk about the libraries that keep the ephemera, those cheap Jewish calendars from the seventeenth and eighteenth century that married the Christian year with the Jewish so that people could live in both, happily. Then I read the news and I thought that the only part of the calendar I wanted to talk about was Janus.

    The news in Australia today was that our government in 1996-7 began a lot of the policies we so hate in 2018-9. 

    Looking back colours what we see when we look forward. It also helps us to say “I don’t want this” and pushes us to action. This year, I can see precisely why Janus was so important when the year was depicted in the Christian Middle Ages. It was nothing to do with his ancestry as a god and everything to do with the help he gave in understanding what they year meant and how to handle its more impossible aspects.

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    Historical fiction is in some ways like fantasy fiction: the author has to create a world in which readers can believe. That generally means the author has to believe it themselves. Even if we don’t describe it all to the reader, we have to be able to picture what the historical world of our novels look like, smells like and feel like in order for our characters to inhabit the space with confidence.

    My second novel, The Story Keeper, is about a folklorist’s assistant on the Isle of Skye in 1857. This was an isolated and impoverished island dealing with the aftermath of the Highland Clearances - a very different world to that of late Regency and early Victorian London I had written about in my first novel, The Unseeing. How would I ever understand it?

    Reading primary and secondary resources 


    Like most historical writers, I start with broad research. I began with the history of Skye and of the Clearances, seeking out books at the British Library and buying key texts. It’s often like following a treasure trail: the bibliography of one book will give you several clues on which to follow up.

    I also found many 19th century resources online, for example newspaper articles at Am Baile and travellers' accounts on Gutenburg, Internet Archive and Google Books. When reading contemporary accounts I make notes of particular vocabulary and phrases so that I can create a voice for my own characters which gestures to how people would have spoken at the time.

    I also read much about the Gaelic language and about Hebridean folklore – the fireside stories that Audrey, the protagonist, is tasked with collecting. I even located a mansion elsewhere in Scotland (Newhailes) that I could use as a template for my fictional mansion, Lanerly.

    But I still had no real idea of what life of the island would have been like.

    Archivists to the rescue 



    Thankfully help was at hand from the generous staff at the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre who located census records so that I could see the names and professions of real people living in the locations I was writing about, and read accounts given by ministers of their parishes.

    I also found several 19th century maps, and looked at photographs and portraits of stern-faced police officers and black-robed clergymen. I find that pictures and maps are key to my writing. I prop pictures on my desk and save them to my computer desktop so I can look at them as I’m writing. I know other writers, such as Jane Harris, also do this, and others create Pinterest boards.

    Bill Brandt, The Isle of Skye, 1947

    Marginalised voices


    However, the written records and the photographs only tell so much. They tend not to provide intimate details of how people would have lived and you rarely glimpse details of those whose lives weren’t generally recorded – women, servants, minorities, the poor. In this case, there was very little to show how the islanders would have spoken, or what their daily lives entailed. Most of the accounts were written by rich Englishmen on a jolly jaunt to the Hebrides, who were appalled at the squalor in which the crofting people lived. Not much remains of the crofters’ own experience of island life.

    Dig deep enough, however, and you will find nuggets. In the Skye Archives I found letters sent home by those who had been cleared: stories of children taken with fever on the boats; of sea burials and sea weddings; of hopes for a better future. It is here that you find the people’s real speech and their real concerns.

    I also read the reports of the Napier Commission, the inquiry into the conditions of crofters and cottars. Here you get a glimpse of the expressions islanders used  - ‘I am a Skyeman to my backbone’; ‘a little pimple of a woman’ - and learn of the effects of the Clearances. Witnesses used the word ‘scattered’ again and again:

    ‘How many brothers had you?’
    ‘We were six altogether.’
    ‘What became of the other five?’
    ‘They have scattered. Some of them are hereabouts, and as for the rest I cannot tell where they are.’

    I tried to build the speech pattern into the dialogue of the characters in The Story Keeper, to give a hint at how people would have spoken.

    Walking the land  


    Perhaps most important of all was staying on and walking across the island. It’s only really when you feel the wind stinging your face and the salt in your hair, only when you smell the sour peat-reek of an old crofter house (as I did at Skye Museum of Island Life) that you can conjure those things up for your reader.



    I couldn't spend a long time on the island (I have small children and, at that time, a job), but I had several weekends on Skye, mostly on my own. I stayed in a little cabin just by Broadford bay, the key location in the novel, writing and researching and watching for otters and seals. I went out walking, and running, to the places where the key scenes in the novel are set: to Skulamus, Breakish and Suisnish – stunning landscapes where crofting communities once lived. I took many photographs, which I could look at when writing the scenes set in those places. I also took videos and audio recordings to capture the sounds of the place – the whistle of the wind, the calling of birds, the bleating of the sheep, the murmur of the sea.


    Imagination


    Lastly, I used that key item in the toolkit of every novelist: imagination. Building on the resources I'd collated, I imagined what Skye would have looked like and sounded like. Adapting a floor plan from Newhailes, I conjured up the mansion of Lanerly, looking down onto Broadford Bay. I tried to imagine what it would have felt like for Audrey to arrive on this island as a stranger. What did the ground feel like beneath her feet after the rains? How did the air smell after the dirt and dust of London?

    The full picture only emerged gradually over the couse of writing and rewriting the novel, but by the end I could see it pretty clearly. I hope my readers can too.


      

    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime and Gothic fiction. The Story Keeper will be published in paperback on 10 January 2019. 





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    Do you remember Penguin Classics – that fantastic collection of black-liveried paperbacks comprising translations of classic literature from all over the world?  They still exist of course, though redesigned: and they still retain their black jackets, but I began buying them in the 1970s as a teenager, and with their assistance and entirely for pleasure read my way through much of Plato, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. Call me a nerd, but there was a time when on solitary hill walks (yes, they would have had to have been solitary!) I used to parody the charmingly stilted effects (at least in translation) of Socratic dialogue, for my own amusement:

    'So, for information about sheep you would go to a shepherd?' 
    'Yes, Socrates.'
    'And for information about ships you would talk to a sailor? Or if you desired to know something about insects you would visit an entomologist?"
    'Yes, certainly.'
    'And you would think it useless to ask a sailor about sheep, or to demand information about ships from an entomologist?'
    ‘That would be ludicrous indeed, Socrates.'

    ...and soon, once Socrates has established that for information about birds you would visit an ornithologist, and for details of the lives of celebrities you would buy Hello magazine, and that you would be disappointed in a shepherd who knew nothingabout sheep, you find yourself agreeing that a statesman or stateswoman really ought to possess some notion of the Good, and of Justice and the  Laws. Both Plato and Socrates held opinions about about democracies, and neither would have approved of referendums:

    ‘So you would expect a ship’s master to be knowledgeable about seamanship?’
    ‘I would, indeed, Socrates.’
    ‘In fact you would expect him to know much more about it than his passengers and crew?’
    ‘Of course: he would not be qualified to command if he did not.’
    ‘And you would be surprised if, instead of guiding the ship himself, he asked everyone on board to decide how he should steer and what landfall to aim for, even though they had no experience of the winds, the currents, the coast or the rocks?’
    ‘I would suppose the gods had struck him mad, Socrates!’

    See? You can find yourself wandering off into all sorts of unrealistic places. 

    It was possible to pick up a pretty good education simply by choosing one title after another from those blocks of severe black which occupied prominent shelf-space in nearly all bookshops. They were by no means all about the Greeks. Courtesy of Penguin Classics I discovered poems by Li Po, haiku by Bashō, and the writings of the eleventh century Japanese lady Sei Shōnagon, whose ‘Pillow Book’ has to be one of the most urbane and delightful books in the world.  

    Shōnagon was born around 965, according to Ivan Morris’s introduction to the book (all quotations below are taken from his Penguin translation). She acted as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako at the court of the mid-Heian emperor Ichijō. This was a fascinatingly cultured and civilized court. At a time when in England, Ethelred the Unredy was trying to buy off the Vikings, and literacy was the province mainly of monks, in upper-class Heian Japan it was impossible even to function socially, still less conduct a love-affair, without the ability to compose at a moment’s notice impromptu verse written in beautiful calligraphy on coloured paper, complete with allusions to classical Chinese poetry.




    Although at the time upperclass Japanese men and women were both literate, the men tended to get that extra bit of education. They learned Chinese for exactly the same reasons that men in the West learned Latin. The result: they themselves wrote in Chinese and their work remained derivative, while the women wrote in their own native tongue and composed lasting works of literature. Murasaki Shikibu’s immensely long and wonderful novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ dates from this period: she was a contemporary of Sei Shōnagon, and disliked her.

    Sei Shōnagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction… She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even in the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?

    How very Jane Austen that sounds! Anyway, Shōnagon’s ‘Pillow Book’ is a collection of miscellaneous writings bundled together over about ten years’ worth of observations. They range from gossip and scandal, to the beauties and sorrows of the world, to mundane things like the extraordinary way the lower classes shovel in their food (yes, she was a snob). One of her most fascinating habits is the occasional interspersion of lists of various things with different qualities. Like this:

    Things That Give a Clean Feeling
    An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.  A rush mat. The play of light on water as one pours it into a vessel.  A new wooden chest.

    Adorable Things
    One picks up a tiny lotus leaf that is floating on a pond, and examines it…
    An extremely plump baby, who is about a year old and has lovely white skin, comes crawling towards one, dressed in a long gauze robe of violet with the sleeves tucked up.
    Duck eggs.
    An urn containing the relics of some holy person.
    Wild pinks.

    Squalid things
    The back of a piece of embroidery.
    The inside of a cat’s ear.
    A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest.
    Darkness in a place that does not give the impression of being very clean…

    "The back of a piece of embroidery..." Yes, yes and yes! If you don’t know her already, you will find Shōnagon a wonderful companion. In the meantime, since we might as well take our minds off things while the ship of state veers towards the rocks with the passengers and crew all fighting like cats in a sack, here in Shōnagon’s honour is a list of my own.

    Things which are pleasant to use:

    An old-fashioned rotary push-along lawnmower: the whirring noise and the way the grass clippings pour in green showers  off the blades.. 

    A rotary egg-whisk: the double sort you wind with a handle.

    A really sharp pair of scissors, with the crisp snark-snark sound they make as they cut through cloth.

    A ratchet screwdriver: the clickety, clockwork sound of the ratchet and the way each twist of the hand adds to the last.

    A good fountain pen freshly filled with black ink: the nib swims over the paper leaving a shining trail and  you feel as though what you have written must be good…

    A clean block of white paper. 

    A fresh eraser as soft as a mushroom: the tingling dusty feel under your fingertips, and the way it shreds at the corner when you begin to rub out.

    What would your own list contain?


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