Articles on this Page
- 12/15/18--18:00: _The Mary Rose, by S...
- 12/16/18--18:06: _THE GHOSTS WITHIN A...
- 12/17/18--16:30: _Signs of The Times ...
- 12/18/18--16:00: _The Greatest Hits o...
- 12/19/18--16:30: _Ancient or modern: ...
- 12/20/18--16:30: _Black on Red, Red o...
- 12/21/18--22:30: _Seasons Greetings &...
- 12/22/18--16:01: _A Poet's Christmas ...
- 12/23/18--16:30: _JUMPING INTO PICTUR...
- 12/24/18--17:30: _Anglo-Saxon Kingdom...
- 12/25/18--16:01: _The Camargue in Fra...
- 12/26/18--16:30: _Mary and Jesus as r...
- 12/27/18--17:00: _The Wandering Womb ...
- 12/28/18--16:01: _ My Mother's War, ...
- 12/29/18--16:30: _Cabinet of Curiosit...
- 12/30/18--16:01: _No December competi...
- 12/31/18--16:01: _"All the afterwards...
- 01/01/19--16:30: _Janus - by Gillian ...
- 01/03/19--01:24: _Creating Historical...
- 01/03/19--22:00: _Socrates Talks Sens...
- 12/15/18--18:00: The Mary Rose, by Sue Purkiss
- 12/16/18--18:06: THE GHOSTS WITHIN A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Penny Dolan
- 12/17/18--16:30: Signs of The Times - Celia Rees
- 12/18/18--16:00: The Greatest Hits of Tacitus - By L.J.Trafford
- 12/19/18--16:30: Ancient or modern: language in historical fiction by Carolyn Hughes
- 12/20/18--16:30: Black on Red, Red on Black: Figure it Out by Elisabeth Storrs
- 12/21/18--22:30: Seasons Greetings & A Couple of Creepy Cards by Catherine Hokin
- 12/22/18--16:01: A Poet's Christmas by Judith Allnatt
- 12/23/18--16:30: JUMPING INTO PICTURES by Elizabeth Chadwick
- 12/24/18--17:30: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms by Miranda Miller
- 12/25/18--16:01: The Camargue in France at Christmas-time, by Carol Drinkwater
- 12/26/18--16:30: Mary and Jesus as refugees by Janie Hampton
- 12/27/18--17:00: The Wandering Womb - by Ruth Downie
- 12/28/18--16:01: My Mother's War, Part One by Susan Price
- 12/29/18--16:30: Cabinet of Curiosities - a Baby Dinosaur
- 12/30/18--16:01: No December competition
- 12/31/18--16:01: "All the afterwards": Edward Burne-Jones by Mary Hoffman
- 01/01/19--16:30: Janus - by Gillian Polack
- 01/03/19--22:00: Socrates Talks Sense, and Penguin Classics - by Katherine Langrish
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!
|Compton Verney Folk Art Gallery|
|Street in Leamington Spa|
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|
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.|
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:
The Difficulties of Organising a Coup
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:
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.
Tactius states that Valens' reason for championing Vitellius was that he felt that Galba was not
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:
Vitellius’ other general was, as Tacitus tells us:
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
|Otho lets it all hang out. Credit Ricardo André Frantz|
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.
The Othonian retaliation is nowhere near as good, the Vitellians are:
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:
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|
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:
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.
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”.
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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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” don’t quite ring true for the period, when such room designations hadn’t 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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|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 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.
|Red figure stamnos - Menelaos Painter|
|The Dionysus Cup- Exekias|
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|
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|
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|
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.
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!
|Note the cord threaded through the braies and the purse attached to it. Romance of|
Alexander. Mid 12thc
|Once you get your eye in on|
chequered pillow cases, they
are all over the place!
Trinity Colleges's collection of manuscripts.
I often browse the British Library's collection too
And the Web Gallery of Art - among many others.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|'Rest on the Flight into Egypt' by Bonifazio de Pitati (1487– 1553)|
|The Flight into Egypt by Battista Dossi and Dosso Dossi, c.1530, with two donkeys!|
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.
|Bondone was one of many major artists who depicted the Flight from Egypt.|
|Illustrated Bibles of my childhood, as depicted by Scott Orr circa 1930.|
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.|
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.
|My mother, aged 16|
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.
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.
Me on Dinosaur Island, Crystal Palace Park
Photo: L O'Sullivan
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 Megalosaurus, striding through the
autumn foliage. Photo C. Wightwic
|The Subway in 2017. Photo: C.Wightwick|
Find out more at:
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: https://cpdinosaurs.org/
The Crystal Palace Subway: www.cpsubway.org.uk
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Because our planned guest for 29th December fell through, there will be no competition this month.
|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|
(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|
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|
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|
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|
|The Council Chamber 1885-90|
|The Briar Wood 1874-84|
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|
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!
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|
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.
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.
What would your own list contain?
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