When writers mention conflict they are often talking about a tension between two or more of their characters.
However, when Harrogate History Festival hosted a panel on this theme, conflict meant “battle and action and weapons”.
The panel was chaired by John Henry Clay, whose interest is late Roman history and the three speakers were A.L.Berridge, who has written here on the History Girls about the Crimean war, Robyn Young, who created a weighty trilogy on the Crusades, and the Viking author Rob Low. The following post is based on my notes of the session.
JHC: Conflict scenes can be the most difficult scenes to write, and to get right. Of all the “living in the past” historical experiences the writer might identify with, being in the middle of a battle is the possible hardest to understand.
Not only does the writer have to meet their reader’s expectations, the battle scenes have to fit into the full story and be read as part of the characters life or lives but battles are, by their very nature, incredibly complex events.
So, what makes a good battle scene?
ALB: Jeopardy! The character has to have something at stake. There must be turning points. Even when the historical outcome is known, the scenes can’t be predictable. You need variety, but there’s more variety in some conflicts than in others. For example, the Battle of Inkerman took place in thick fog, which doesn’t offer a great range of opportunities, but the Battle of Balaclava contains many different elements.
ROB: You need variety to for yourself as a writer, too. Battle scenes can be hard and exhausting to write, especially if you are working on a long book. It helps if the battle setting offers a variety of terrain, or landscape. Variety of action too: you have to find new ways to kill people and make use of when and where the fight takes place and the range of weaponry. Is it arm-to-arm fighting in mediaeval alleyways, a campaign across deserts and plains, or a battle set in the Scottish highlands? It can be hard to maintain suspense if the reader knows what happens to certain characters.
ALB: But the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen to your
LOW: There’s also the change that happens within a battle. For example, Robert the Bruce began the battle with a full range of armour and accoutrements, riding a fine horse, with pennants flying around him. By the end, he was on the ground, fighting with barely the shirt on his back. I’d say that terrain is everything in a battle. Are you fighting from high to low ground? Is there a water or marsh behind you? Is there a bridge? Are you on horse or foot? At Bannockburn, the English cavalry were falling on the infantry, who were trying to escape across a bridge of trampled flesh.
ROB. In a funny way, sex scenes and battle scenes are both hard to write. Everyone “knows” what’s done, but it is everything that the individuals bring to the scene that make it interesting.
LOW: Another thing I’ve learned, even through battle re-enactments, is that time within battle works in an odd way. It is mostly hours of faffing around followed by a few minutes of sheer, absolute terror and one-on-one experiences. There’s also the variety of people involved. Remember, for centuries it was always the “wee guys” who did all the fighting for the “big guys. The wee men did not have the big plan. They just fought as best they could, hoping that everyone else around them was doing their job.
JHC: Is it necessary to keep the reader informed of the wider view of battle and if so, how?
ROB. It depends on what you want to achieve. For example, when I was writing about the Crusades, I wanted to show the panorama of the landscape and the larger scale action.
ALB. One advantage in writing about the Charge of the Light Brigade is that information could be held back: from the point of view of those first in the Charge, they did not know they were heading for defeat. They did not know Lord Lucan had turned back.
Historical writers have to take care with fairly recent history. Readers can be very knowledgeable and sensitive about the regiments and reputations involved in a battle so get the facts of the action correct. One way of dealing with this complexity is to show the battle from several different character’s points of view, including enemy action. This does mean that you have to plan out the writing of your battle scenes in advance.
LOW: The climate and seasons and weather will affect your battle setting too, not just the location on the map. If you visit Bannockburn at Midsummer, the ground can be rock hard, crossed by little streams here and there, not a bog or marsh.
JHC: Is the documentation of battles a blessing or a curse? Before the Crimea, “documentation” usually meant the general’s formal reports. Since the Crimean war, there have been newspaper articles as well as many accounts by ordinary people.
ALB: There are so many wonderful accounts, but the downside is that many or so very, very literate, bringing you the sounds and the smells. As a write you can’t improve on that, so the only way is to go for another man’s experience.
LOW: Accounts get changed and re-written. Back in time, there were the Viking sagas. Originally they were the fragments of tales for telling around the fire. Then a collector nailed them together in an often-incoherent way. Even so, such accounts are invaluable as a way of understanding the ethos of the period and discovering how people thought and lived and died.
For example, Vikings didn’t think of wanting battles. They just thought of killing people. Besides, the details are important. You have to remember that you’re writing for people who may not know the historical details. (People who believe “Braveheart” to be history, for example! Much laughter.) If you look at the accounts of the numbers who died, often the wee man aren’t recorded, only the aristocrats. You have to be careful of tradition too, and think of the audiences that “historical” writers and novelists were writing for, and why they were writing.
JHC: Thinking about the writing of your characters, do you think fighters in the past suffered the same traumas that we hear soldiers suffering today?
ROB: I’d heard my granddad’s war stories about all the ordinary difficulties and illnesses. Then, for the Brethren novels, I talked to a lot of people, both military and medical. Besides, the mind-set in the past was probably very different. Ordinary people did not matter. They fought when the call from their lord came and, if they survived, went home back to their farms. The valuable people were those with riches and property, because they could be offered for ransom. The first time that we hear of nobles fighting in battle was in the Second Barons War in the Vale of Evesham when Prince Edward wept because the battlefield was “covered in bloody red ribbons” of all the gentry he knew.
ALB: The attitudes of the past and present don’t always match. Religion was very important to people’s lives and culture in the past, in the17th Century. Peasant’s lives were always difficult and harsh. They faced death in so many ways already: disease, injury, starvation, lawlessness and, for women, childbirth. If daily life has such a high death rate, dying in battle might not seem so terrible.
LOW: In some societies and times, the acceptance of death was almost a cult. A Viking would be ashamed to die in his own bed. His greatest fear would not be death, but the fear of not being brave, of letting his brother warriors down, an attitude that still exists as part of today’s squaddie culture.
JHC: What do you feel about the amount of gore needed to write battle scenes?
ALB: In some ways, “gore” is voyeurish: blood and injuries seen by the onlooker not the participant. When you are in action in the middle of a battle, you don’t register such things the same way. You are too busy worrying about what’s happening next. However, the soldiers involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade were also spectators, because they were charging at cannons. They did see heads blown off, horses running with dreadful injuries, their friends blown apart. The carnage was visible. The survivors, retreating, saw the vultures already gathering on the bodies of their dead comrades.
ROB: You do a disservice to your readers if you don’t give them a realistic idea of what the battle was like.
Finally, a couple of the questions from the audience:
How do you approach trying to convey sounds in battle?
ROB: Re-enactment helps. You need to hear the difference between the sounds. How does a pistol sound? Or a musket? There’s also all the other sound, such as bugle calls or drums.
ALB: First hand accounts help. Two genuine writers were at the Crimea, and they recorded the details a sthey . One Captain wrote about the terrible “slosh” of the cannonball when it hits a human body.
ROB: It’s useful to take part in or attend re-enactments. For example, chain-mail does not rattle, it “shushes”. (LOW demonstrates with a handy tunic)
LOW: But in the middle of a battle or fight, your ears may be covered by a metal helmet so you hear your own breath and not much else. (LOW demonstrates with three handy helmets, one with no ear-gap, one with, and one with hinged ear flaps.) ou might pick up bugle calls but you can’t hear commands. You see the standards and rally towards them.
How do you draw the line between creating a hero and the horror of war?
ALB: You have to remember that the antihero and the villain are aspects of the hero.
ROB: Also, you can’t judge a “hero” by modern sensibilities. You need to find the areas where the hero and the reader connect.
LOW: Heroes are accretions of other people’s dreams and hopes. For example, the hero Robert the Bruce was a ruthless, cunning and mean s-o-b, but he was better at it than most of the others at that time. A hero is a symbol, a figurehead. He is a human being whose side you can be on. Their task is to do other things and survive.
ALB. When you write, you try to show both the good and bad aspects of ordinary human people. In my opinion, Cardigan and Lucan are the villains of the piece.
Conflict in Fiction was a totally fascinating session, so thank you to all the speakers quoted here, and apologies for any errors in my note-taking or attribution.
The first Harrogate History Festival was supported by several history publishers and planned with the help of the Historical Writers Association. I’m fortunate in living quite close to The Old Swan Hotel so, while I couldn’t attend the whole weekend, I was able to drop in and out of sessions and talks. I’m already watching out for next year and may be offering my notes on a couple of other talks here on History Girls over the next month or so.
When I was at school, this was how one of my teachers defined Geography and History. Of course, the scope of both subjects expands far beyond this narrow definition (what about Chapesses?) and neither are they mutually exclusive. I don't know about other History Girls, but I spend an enormous amount of time poring over maps. I have them in my notebooks, pinned to my noticeboard. They allow me to track my characters' journeys and to get to know the places where they are living.
In Sovay, the journey was from the English Midlands (it was possible to us a modern map for this - avoiding the M40) to 18th Century London and then to Revolutionary Paris.
Just looking at the maps is exciting, an adventure in itself. The lettering, the illustration, the way the maps are set out, give a feeling for the time when they were created. The maps differ from period to period, just as countries and counties change and cities grow and develop. The 18th Century maps I referred to for Sovay
, are very different from those that I looked at for The Fool's Girl,
set two hundred years earlier.
The Agas map gives a unique bird's eye view of the Elizabethan city and the Vissher Panorama is just that, a panorama in almost photographic detail. A magnifying glass reveals tiny, accurate visual details, not just of landmarks but of the everyday life of the people going about their business, where they would be going, what they would have seen and witnessed, all this is a priceless resource to the writer.
Useful as maps are, there is really no substitute for visiting a place, following the streets and alleyways of the old cities makes it much easier to imagine your character there, to bring the place and the period to life. Much of what was marked on the historical map will have been swept away by the intervening centuries, by fire, war, continuous and continuing development, but some things remain. When I'm walking a town or a city, or travelling though a landscape, I remember fellow History Girl, Adele Geras' advice to write about what is still there, rather than what has disappeared. It is always possible to find an old building, a cobbled courtyard, a narrow alleyway that holds something of the period that you are hoping to discover.
In Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography,
he describes a continuity of use that can stretch back for many centuries. A walk along modern Bankside won't show much that is left from Shakespeare's day but there are pubs, theatres, restaurants, street performers and beggars, the vibrant life of the river, different vessels on the choppy waters, the rubble strewn foreshore, a cormorant drying its wings. Much has gone, but some things are still there.
|A page from The Fool's Girl Notebook|
On Saturday, on my way to attend a lecture about Iconic Queens, I stepped into the lift in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and, quite by chance, met someone I knew. Alongside her Remembrance Day poppy she had a blue flower pinned to her coat.
‘Oh!’ I said. ‘I’ve never seen that before.’
‘Up until last weekend, neither had I,’ she replied.
‘I was in Yorkshire near to where French troops were stationed during World War One.
At the commemoration services on Sunday
these were sold along with our red poppies.
I think it’s a cornflower but I don’t know why
it’s used by the French as a symbol of the Great War.’
I was very much taken with the flower to the extent that her husband, who was with her, unpinned his own flower from his lapel and gallantly presented me with it. I was delighted and touched by his gesture. But it also sparked something within me. Do you know that twitchy-itchy feeling when you just have to find the why and when and the rest of the story?
I did know the background of the UK Poppy as I’d researched it while writing Remembrance.It’s well-known in the UK and Commonwealth countries as a symbol for the Great War and thought to have originated partly from John McCrae’s poem: In Flanders Fields.
You can see the poem engraved on a plaque near a graveyard outside Ypres where the Canadian surgeon worked on wounded men in a cramped dank chamber dug out of the canal bank.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow…
Between the crosses, row on row
At the end of the War an American, Moira Michael, wrote a poem called: We Shall Keep the Faith.It’s like a reprise to McCrae’s poem, and in it she declares that we should never forget those who sacrificed their lives or the lessons to be learned from the War.
She also promises to wear a Poppy to honour the dead…
Every year millions of these are sold on behalf of the Royal British Legion to help veterans and those wounded in war.
It’s a very powerful iconic symbol and was used on the cover of my book. When in the Imperial War Museum in London recently, I noticed, beside mine on the shelf, an edition of All Quiet on the Western Front with a red poppy as the sole motif.
Later on Saturday I went out to dinner with a large number of people. There were several tables and no formal seating plan. In the serendipity way these things happen I ended up, again quite by chance, sitting beside the only French person in the group!
I hurried off to the cloakroom to retrieve my coat and show her my blue flower.
‘Ah!’ she exclaimed. ‘Le Bleuet!’
So now I knew its name. But my dinner companion didn’t know a great deal about the symbolic origin of the flower. I had to wait until I was on the train speeding home to use my phone to try to check references, and then over the following days to contact French sources and find more information.
One hundred years ago in France cornflowers grew in great profusion in the fields and hedgerows. All through the time of that most terrible War they continued to flower, even during the worst of the annihilating bombardment. They were a bright note of colour among the battlefields of Flanders, the Somme and Picardy.
The poignancy of the colour was emphasised by the arrival
onto the Front Line of a huge number of young French soldiers,
kitted out in their new and distinctive blue uniform.
As the war progressed the suffering of the poilu increased; living and dying in horrific conditions with casualties arriving in hospitals, maimed and mutilated. A French nurse, Suzanne Lenhardt, who held a senior role in Les Invalides, and Charlotte Malleterre, a relative of a military commander, began to organise work for those recovering from their wounds.
When the war ended they saw that many of these soldiers would be discharged with no prospects. They formalised the organisation and established workshops where the men could make little lapel badges from blue tissue paper to sell to the public and thus provide an occupation and income.
Their organisation, now known as ‘Le Bleuet de France’, continued on, but with a fairly low profile. More recently it has received backing from the French Government and continues to support veterans and the families of those who die for France. There are various War memorial days in France, but now on November 11th, at the commemoration parades and events Les Bleuets are very much in evidence.
Images and Photographs Copyright: © SCARPA
The Traveller (from dyslexia friendly publisher Barrington Stoke)
You can’t do history without doing beards. Only a few have obviously starring roles, such as the one grown by Philip II of Spain to be ‘singed’ by Francis Drake, but even the most ordinary set of whiskers can insinuate its way into the history books – like the one Thomas More laid carefully away from the executioner’s block on the grounds that it ‘had not committed treason’.
| A flammable beard An innocent beard |
It doesn’t even have to work that hard at it. Beards make a difference simply by being there, and through the centuries their presence (or absence) has been used to distinguish married men from bachelors, warriors from novices, clergy from laymen, Protestant from Catholic, Royalist from Parliamentarian, Jew from Gentile, Orthodox from Dissenter, and master from slave. In different times and places beards have been taxed, forbidden, and compulsory, and even in the 19th century a mistake could be costly. In 1830 a certain Joseph Palmer offended the people of Massachusetts by sporting a full beard, and his attempts to defend himself from forcible shaving landed him in prison.
|A beard in the wrong place|
However we look at it, beards matter, and their presence is the very texture of the past. This next battered print is one of my very favourite historical photographs, depicting the Master of Peterhouse greeting the Master of Trinity outside the Senate House in about 1906 – and I defy you not to see what I love about it…
|Two Learned Beards|
What would this picture be without the beards? These are beards of gravitas, as important as the ‘philosopher’s beard’ of Sophocles, and they define these two gentlemen even more than the gowns of their official status.
It has always been so. The mere style of a beard could advertise one’s status and pedigree – as in Ancient Egypt, where even a woman might wear a false beard if she was of royal birth. Their very fashion is history, and the greatest legacy of some historical figures can be traced in the styling of a ‘Franz Josef’ or a ‘Vandyke’ or the ‘Imperial’ of Napoleon III. Whole studies have been devoted to the significance and variety of historical forms, from John Adey Repton’s 1835 magnum opus ‘Some Account of the Beard and the Moustachio’
to Edwardian Upton Uxbridge Underwood’s ambitious little booklet on ‘Poets Ranked by Beard Weight
’. Beards are truly the stuff of history, and we ignore them at our peril.
|The Stuff of History|
So why do we? When we look at historical fiction on the bookshop shelves, how come so few of the covers depict men with beards? Is there a conspiracy on the part of publishers and cover artists to whitewash the whiskers out of history, and present only images of men that appeal to popular taste?
It certainly looks like it – especially when the potential readership is predominantly female. I googled ‘Mills & Boon Historical Romances’ and was instantly dazzled by the gallery of gleaming manly jaws. Period and subject matter made no difference. Even when it came to Vikings and barbarians, there was never a beard in sight.
Perhaps it’s defensible in this particular genre. The primary function of these heroes is to be sexually attractive, and history must bow to the apparently common modern view that facial hair is acceptable only on bikers, real-ale drinkers, and sandal-wearing ‘beardy-weirdies’. Beards may have been a fact of historical life, but so were bad teeth and personal hygiene, and you won’t find many of those in a historical romance.
The action-adventure and military genres are obviously a different matter. Beards have always held special significance for soldiers and warriors, and nobody would expect writers to steer clear of them in their novels. Indeed in some areas - such as Vikings, pirates or some periods of Crusaders – the beard is all but compulsory.
|Author Robert Low being told he can't have beards on his Vikings|
But there are other ways, and even if the writer says ‘beard’, cover-artists still display considerable ingenuity in their determination not to show them. Whiskers are hidden behind helmets, lost in the distance, and done away with altogether by the use of symbolic artefacts. Every effort is made to ensure no-one could possibly look at the book and think ‘ugh – a beard’.
That’s not to say we’re not allowed them at all. Beards are perfectly acceptable in supporting roles like ‘hero’s friend’, while in villains or wise old men they’re actually desirable. Comedy can take the curse off even the beard of a leading man, as we see with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, who regards his manly whiskers as part of his allure. In other words, we can have beards on any character we like – except someone we might aspire to imitate or go to bed with.
It seems to have always been that way. We’re brought up to expect clean-shaven heroes, and I remember being shocked to discover that the Lt Chard who commanded at Rorke’s Drift actually looked very different from the Stanley Baker who tightened his jaw through ‘Zulu’ like an advert for Gillette.
|Now you see it........ Now you don't|
But maybe there’s a whiff of change in the air. When Hollywood last did Vikings we were subjected to the violently naked chin of Kirk Douglas, but the History Channel’s series ‘Vikings’ is almost as hairy as history could desire. Improbable film actors are beginning to sprout strange growths, almost as if the age of the Pretty Boy is beginning to give way to a new fashion for Manliness. If it is, I think it started with one particular man, who’s been my own saviour whenever I’ve been challenged about beards on my characters. ‘Beards?’ says my agent doubtfully. ‘Aragorn,’ I reply smugly. ‘Viggo Mortensen. Like that.’ ‘Ah,’ says my agent, visibly relieved. ‘Like that.’
That’s good, I suppose – but I still can’t help feeling it shouldn’t matter. If the next fashion dictates that all heroes should have beards, does that mean we need to stick them on Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill? Fashion now should not dictate fashion then, and all I ask is the freedom to be true to my period.
Because it matters – and sometimes it matters a lot. It couldn’t be more important than in my present book on the Crimean War, when circumstances compelled our commanders to rescind the standing orders on shaving. By January 1855 every last root had been grubbed from the ground to feed the precious fires, men lost limbs to frostbite and froze to death in their tents – and I’m supposed to have a hero so vain he’ll use lifesaving hot water to shave?
I don't think so. And not just because it matters to history, but because it mattered to the men themselves. Those beards grew from endurance of life-shattering experience, and the men who came home went on wearing them as a badge of pride. A ‘Crimean beard’ was a proof of manhood and survival, and many men wore them right up to their deaths.
Maybe it didn’t suit everyone – and maybe that’s important too. We’re not writing fashion parades, we’re after character, and the levels of it in this single photograph are probably beyond anything I could ever hope to write.
This is Colour Sergeant Timothy Gowing of the 7th Royal Fusiliers, still showing the Crimean beard he probably ought to have removed as soon as he stepped off the ship. It’s a fine beard, but even years after the war it can’t disguise the fact that the face behind it is too young for such gravitas.
Or is it? The beard is of a mature man, the face of a young one, but behind the eyes is something sadder and older than either. This is the Gowing who wrote of the Grand Sortie ‘our bayonets were bent like reaping hooks’, and when we look behind the eyes we see an experience of hell itself.
And that’s what we write, isn’t it? What’s behind the eyes? I need the beards to capture not the look, but the experience, and there’s so much of it to be learned in Crimea. How did it feel for a lifelong clean-shaven NCO to have to allow the creeping growth of something he’s been trained to regard as filthy? How did it affect the rebellious soldier who revelled in the sudden independence of doing what he liked with his own face? Did discipline suffer? As officers and men grew physically alike, did the boundaries between them start to break – and did relationships change? These are all questions for individuals, but individuals are what I write, and if I’m to go there, be there, and feel it, then I can’t exclude so huge a part of what they experienced.
And that’s the key for me. Maybe Crimea is a special case, but whenever we write men then beards have to be part of it - if only because they have to be shaved. Ignore them, and we’re writing women in breeches. I use them constantly in the Chevalier series, and found they gave me another layer every time. I even liked the minor character of Thibault in ‘Honour and the Sword’, because I could show both his youth and his vanity in his concern for how his whiskers would turn out – then give the reader an extra stab at his death by recalling the weedy little bristles that would never now grow into anything at all.
Tiny things sometimes. The disgusting nature of one character from the things caught in his beard, the vanity of another from the way he shaves his sideburns, the sound of a man’s hand playing with the little bristles that line his jaw. I grappled for ages with a scene where a man meets the beloved brother he thought was dead – until I remembered the physical reality of what would have happened in their year of separation and knew what he had to say. Nothing emotional, nothing embarrassing, he says ‘That’s a bloody terrible beard,’ and I’m in.
‘In’. That’s where we want to be, and why we shouldn’t be bothered by what our characters look like to outsiders. I don’t mind too much what cover artists do (and for the next book I’m steeled to expect a back view of men in the trenches) as long as I can do what I do within the pages. And sometimes, just sometimes, I'm afraid that’s going to mean beards.
Thanks to Dr Jeff Meek for the recommendation to John Repton's book
At 7.30pm tonight A L Berridge will be at the Old Bell in Finedon with J.D. Davies - discussing warriors and possibly their beards.
Meanwhile her disappointingly hairless website is still here.
Judging by the numerous sirens that go by my house every day, Bermondsey still keeps the Metropolitan Police pretty busy, but I doubt they spend as much time as they once did dealing with ghosts or with the crowds that went looking for them. Learning of the ghost hunting flash-mobs has been one of the many joys of The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies. It’s a scholarly work, brilliantly researched and thoroughly footnoted but it also has a lively style, an original take on the subject matter and a real sense of compassion and understanding of how we see and understand ghosts. It’s great and covers belief systems from medieval to modern times and across the country.
But back to the mobs. Grange Road in Bermondsey is not my first choice place to hang out of an evening, but in July 1830 people walked miles to spend the whole night just standing outside a house there. A rumour had spread that the ghost of a reclusive clergyman who had recently died had been spotted in his old house, still wearing his night-cap and smoking his pipe, as he had in life. Pretty soon the road was blocked with crowds of people willing to wait all night to get a glimpse. It was also said that one person who had dared enter the house had seen him vanish up the chimney. A whole police division were summoned to deal with a crowd of two thousand people, completely blocking the road and disturbing the sleep of the residents in a way that the ghost himself never had. An inspector made a search and found no ghosts, nor any sign of anyone pretending to be one. A guard was mounted to keep the crowd from gathering in future. (The Times July 8 1830)
In 1865 the trouble was outside St George’s church in Borough, with hundreds of people staying out from nine in the evening until three or four the following morning. A Sergeant Chenery arrested a costermonger called Henry Stanley for causing a disturbance. He’d been held for shouting ‘Here’s the ghost’, and refusing to stop doing so when asked. He claimed he was just one of the curious and was set free. I can’t help sympathising with the Sergeant. The crowds were so great they again had to draft in extra officers to keep the road clear. What the story of the ghost was, or even if there was one at all, we do not know. (The Times May 27 1865)
Then in 1868 hundreds gathered outside Bermondsey church yard to see a ghost that had been reported there. Inspector Mawson thought the cause of the trouble was that a drowning victim had been brought to the dead-house next to the church until an inquest could be held. For some of the local boys this was enough to start a story of a ghost and then the crowds gathered. A policeman got his helmet knocked off by an enthusiastic sensation seeker who was fined 2s. (The Times August 1 1868) Now, of course, all we sensation seekers can stay in the warm and watch re-runs of Most Haunted.
I understand the curiosity of the crowds and I love reading ghost stories, but I have never gone on any kind of ghost hunting expedition myself. It’s not because I think the whole thing ‘ridiculous’ as the Southwark magistrate who imposed that fine did though. I am sure that in the shared excitement of the crowd, looking for something above and beyond the day to day, a lot of those people did see ghosts. I am also fairly sure if I went on a ghost hunt I’d see one too.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe in ghosts or magic or the supernatural in any form. It’s all just natural - though, now you mention it, while I was looking up these stories a Jehovah’s Witness turned up and handed me a leaflet called ‘do the dead return?’ which was a bit creepy - but anyway, just because I don’t believe in ghosts doesn’t mean they don’t scare the hell out of me. I’m professionally imaginative and rather good at thinking myself into all sort of odd states, including hearing voices which seem to come from somewhere other than myself. And I don’t want to see a ghost. I don’t think it would be any less terrifying just because I didn’t believe in it. My irrational mind would have put together the shadows and night noises, dragged in every ghost story I’ve ever heard and confronted me with something hellish and heart attack worthy while my rational mind was still going ‘Huh…?’ Our minds can be frightening places and I think it best I only encourage mine under controlled circumstances. Dark churchyards, ruins, cross-roads in the countryside and deserted manor houses are not controlled circumstances.
Though the imaginations of ghost mobs sometimes got a little help. In 1874 in Westminster crowds were also blocking the road outside a churchyard to see a ghost. A police constable hid in the churchyard and before long he had arrested the culprit - a labourer called Frederick Grimmond whom the constable saw climb over the fence and put a sheet over his head. It didn’t sound like it was a tough arrest. Grimmond made a dramatic dash across the church yard but fell over a grave and was taken before he could get up again. (The Times July 6 1874)
Jean Alaithia Lennon was born in 1921 on Mount Emei (one of the four Holy Mountains) in Sichuan Province, China. By the time she was three, her father (a medical missionary) had died of typhus and malaria. There was unrest in the province and it was not considered safe for her or her mother or baby brother to remain. They were taken down the Yangtse on an American gunboat, back to Canada. They didn't return.
Those are the bones of the story, but I have very little flesh to lay over them. My mum didn't remember that time at all, and her mother was my ghastly grandmother (to distinguish her from my lovely grandmother) who didn't talk about it, or at least not about my mother's part in it, which was the part I always wanted to know.
And yet, and yet ... Look at the photos. Hints of the story are there. You can see the seeds of the woman in that little girl. And that fierce finger in the last photo as my mum is poised to run. An entire relationship in a single gesture.
Joan's website.Joan's blog.
Not that long ago, Europeans assumed all swans were white. Until the sighting of the first black swan in 1697, when Willem de Vlamingh
explored the Swan River in Western Australia, nobody other than the Australians thought a black one could ever exist. Now we know black swans do exist, and they are beautiful as you can see.
Apart from this post being a good excuse for some pretty swan pictures, I'd like to introduce you to a book a friend recommended called Black Swan
. In it there's an interesting concept called an “anti-library”, which argues that the unread books in your library are more valuable to you than those you have read.
Now, I know all the history lovers out there are going to say wait a minute! Surely the more books you read, the greater your knowledge, which makes all those books you have read valuable? Books, after all, define our history.
But even if you have read all the books in the world, then what about the knowledge – the “anti-history” if you like – that has not yet been discovered, or has been lost/burned/suppressed/forgotten along the way? Isn’t this anti-knowledge just as important? In fact such undiscovered knowledge, when it comes to light, can often change what was once widely accepted as true. Once, remember, everyone believed all swans were white. Now that black is known to be just another colour of swan, the current “anti-swan” is the pink swan nobody has yet seen… which is not the same thing as saying a pink swan does not exist, of course.
|Ok, before you get too excited, I’ll admit to some digital fakery here.|
But what in the green river, I hear you ask, do coloured swans have to do with the History Girls?
Once upon a time (i.e. 15 years ago, when I started my professional writing career), there was no blogosphere. Authors wrote books, and – if they were lucky or talented or persistent enough – got their books published, after which the publisher did all the PR, and booksellers did the bookselling. The author had very little to do with this side of things, except for turning up to do a reading now and again. I even remember my late agent telling me that I couldn’t write an article about my first book for a magazine, in case this clashed with something my publisher was doing, such as selling an exclusive extract to a national newspaper (er...in my dreams).
Over the past few years, all that has changed. Authors are expected to have an online platform and be available to their readers online. Fine maybe if those readers - like the lovely reader who has made it this far through my post - come to them. But not so fine if the author seeks out potential readers and hammers on their virtual doors (just think how you feel when a pushy double-glazing salesman calls!). I think publishers can just about get away with this, especially if they are giving away freebies such as review copies of hot new titles, but authors doing their own PR need to take care not to put their foot in it - the virtual door, I mean.
Let's go back to the swans. On publication day, that exciting debut author you know nothing about and are therefore rather curious to find out about, must become known - in the process losing some of their value. Whether this value is to booksellers in the form of actual sales figures, to their fans in a less-than-airbrushed photograph showing the odd wrinkle or two, to school librarians who might be disappointed to see their hero is actually shorter than they thought and wears glasses, or to potential readers exposed to a thousand and one blog posts, tweets and Facebook pages... the author is now part of the white swan crowd, doing the same things all the other white swans are doing. And as we all know, beautiful as white swans are, only the black ones (or the pink ones?) tend to stick in people’s memories.
So - paradoxically - unless you are a celebrity of some sort or have written a best-seller the world already loves, perhaps the best way to remain valuable as an author is to stay as mysterious as possible. Retreat behind a pseudonym, write under initials, use a digitally-enhanced photo, wear sunglasses, maintain online silence, paint yourself green, whatever it takes.
|green swan anyone?|
Which is why this post talks about swans and contains only a tiny bit of history. Please express your horror below.
has just finished her Pendragon Legacy series published by Templar, where King Arthur's daughter sets out on a quest for something that should not exist in this world... no, not a pink swan! Watch the trailer HERE
On March 29th of this year, Tracy Chevalier herself wrote on this blog, all about how she researches her novels. It was a fascinating piece and I said in the comments box at the time that I was longing to read the novel. Now I have read it, and I enjoyed it very much and would like to draw it to the attention of those people who love a good historical novel which manages to convey a whole lot of interesting information about a period (pre Civil War America) which we don't know terribly well, but who also want a rattling good story, which will involve them in the lives and loves of its protagonists.
Chevalier is drawn to the artistic or craft process. In her most famous book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring she goes into some detail in order to show us the way Vermeer mixed his paints; the way the paintings were set up and you closed the novel knowing a great deal about what it was like to be a painter at that time, as well, of course as what it was like to be his model. In perhaps my favourite of Chevalier's novels, The Lady and the Unicorn, the subject is the weaving of the famous set of tapestries presently in Musée de Cluny in Paris.
Here, our heroine, Honor Bright, leaves England to accompany her sister Grace to Ohio, which might just as well be on another planet. When Grace dies, Honor is left to make her own way in this strange new world, and the story of her adventures is full of romance, trials and tribulations, discoveries and awakenings. The book moves along swiftly. We see most things from Honor's point of view and there are her letters scattered through the text. She becomes aware of the existence of the Underground Railroad, a way of helping black slaves escape from their servitude in the South to safety in the North. The historical detail is very accurate and we hold our breath with Honor, who, towards the end of the book is hiding her part in the Railroad from her husband and family.
For me, though, the most beguiling aspect of the novel is the quilting. Reading about 'quilting frolics' and the different roles that quilts then played in a woman's life was enthralling. The different styles, the variations and nuances and colours and fabrics are cleverly mirrored in the patchwork way the book works: a bit of farm life, a bit of a letter, a memory of home, a whiff of a love story, a threat of great danger, and someone at the centre of it trying to make sense and harmony of her life as best she can. The characters in this novel, from milliners, to bounty hunters, to all the worthies of the Quaker community, and the (mostly) women who surround Honor most of the time, are all very well brought to life. The black characters too, strange to Honor, are given their fair weight in the story and one of the best moments is when Honor sees a quilt made by one of the Negro (sic) women and remarks on the difference between the two styles of quilting she has met in America, both of which are different from what she was used to in England.
I don't know whether Tracy Chevalier will take it as a compliment, but I intend it as one when I say that I think The Last Runaway is a perfect teenage novel, too. I think that anyone from about the age of 14 who likes an exciting, romantic, historically accurate novel will enjoy this book and I would urge fans of, for instance, Celia Rees's Witch Child, to try Tracy Chevalier. I am wondering where her curiosity will take her next.
|King Louis IX receiving envoys|
Last week I was privileged to give a joint talk on Medicine through the Ages with Ruth Downie, author of the wonderful series of Roman novels. Preparing for our discussion, reminded me of a remarkable 13th century woman doctor called Hersende
, who become Royal Physician to King Louis IX of France. Some researchers have suggested that her title – Magistre Hersende Physica
– indicates she studied medicine at University.
In 1248, she accompanied King Louis on the Seventh Crusade to conquer Egypt, receiving 12 Parisian deniers a day, which was an excellent rate of pay. Unfortunately for Hersende, instead of the French capturing Egypt it was the French army who were taken prisoner by the Egyptians and she was held captive, along with her king, until the ransom was paid.
|Crusader Seige painted for King Louis in 1250|
After they were released in 1250, Hersende went with the army to Acre. As well as being physician to the king, she tended to the illnesses and injuries of his favourite nobles, including treating them for haemorrhoids and anal fistulas, a common hazard of riding for hours in hot, sweaty armour. And if this was not work enough, she was also put in charge of the health of the many camp-followers. That was not an easy task given that she had to deal with unknown fevers, stomach bugs, childbirth and STDs. But Hersende survived and eventually returned to Paris where she married Jacques, an apothecary, which must have been an excellent business arrangement.
|The illustration on the left shows a cure for gout by cutting|
and burning the feet,
while on the left is an operation on haemorrhoids.
Talking of matches, today, 8th November, is the feast day of St Cybi and St Tysilio, two 6th century saints who were great friends. They both settled in Anglesey, with St Cybi living on a small island off the coast, probably bridged by a causeway. They used to meet halfway every day to pray and talk, but poor Cybi had to walk facing east in the morning and go home facing west in the afternoon, so he got the full sun on his face all day and legend has it, he became so tanned he was known as Cybi the Red or Tawny
. While Tysilio, coming the other way, always had his back to the sun, so he was known as Tysilio the Pale or Fair
St Cybi does have something in common with Hersende, for the saint also had a reputation as a healer, though only when he was dead. It seems he struck a rock with his staff when he first landed on the island and a well sprang up, whose waters were said to cure blindness, scrofula, scurvy, rheumatism and warts. But to be a cured you had drink the well water mixed with equal amounts of seawater twice a day for seven days and bath in the same mixture before retiring to bed in a nearby cottage. If you found yourself growing warm in bed, the waters were curing you, but if you were cold the saint’s blessing was not with you.
St Cybi’s holy island eventually gave its name to the town of Holyhead, while St Tysilio's name is incorporated in the most famous place name in Britain – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysilio
Which, I’m told, means St Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St Tysilio of the red cave
. I wonder how often that place name gets tweeted!13th Century Anatomical Illustration
by Caroline Lawrence
I just finished a wonderfully stimulating week as Writer in Residence at Summer Fields, a boarding school in Oxford for boys of late primary and middle school age. I leapt at the chance to come: now that my own son is grown-up and living in Los Angeles, I wanted to re-connect with my target readership.
All week, I have been doing right and left brain activities with the boys. The left-brain plot structure exercises were great and the literate Summer Fields boys took to them like Hollywood screenwriters in the writers' room. We identified some of our "Achilles' Heels" and then came up with a story in which our hero would learn a strategy to deal with his weakness.
|Summer Fields School, Oxford|
Here are some of our titles (all fictional, of course): "Mr Guy Nice" for a boy who is worried about being too eager to please and falls in with a group of delinquents. "The Debate", about a boy who is afraid of public speaking and must come up against his talented older brother in a debate. "The Sleepover" about a hypothetical younger sister who is afraid of the dark but has been invited to attend a sleepover at a popular girl's house. What will happen when the lights go off?
|Caroline teaching at Summer Fields|
An exercise they found more challenging was one I often use to generate ideas: continuous writing to a piece of music. I call it (Day)dreaming a Setting.
Before I did this exercise I had to explain how the right and left hemispheres of the brain control different mental functions.
This clever Mercedes Benz advert (above) is quite a good summary of left and right brain function. The LOGICAL LEFT BRAIN says: "I am a scientist. A mathematician. I love the familiar. I categorise. I am accurate. Linear. Analytical. Strategic. I am practical. Always in control. A master of words and language…" In the ad, the left brain is painted in black and white, with lots of words.
(This part of the brain loves listing plot beats and working out story structure.)
The CREATIVE RIGHT BRAIN says "I am creativity. A free spirit. I am passion. Yearning. Sensuality. I am the sound of roaring laughter. I am taste. The feeling of sand beneath bare feet. I am movement. Vivid colours. I am the urge to paint on an empty canvas. I am boundless imagination…"
This exercise is one I used to do when I taught art at primary school. I first came across it twenty years ago in one of the books that has changed my life: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
I ask the children to close their eyes behind cupped hands, rest their head in their hands and their elbows on table. And breathe. Then I put on a piece of music and ask them to imagine the colour of the music. The taste. What scene does it describe? What time of day is it? What can you feel beneath your bare feet? Are you inside or outside? On earth or somewhere else? In the past, the present or the future? Who is in the scene with you? What are they doing? What can you smell? What can you feel? How do you feel?
Although I used to do this for many years in my art classes, when someone else asked me to do it in a creative writing class, I bridled! The teacher put on a piece of yearning violin music and told us to "Close our eyes and imagine the scene." A little voice in my head said, "This music is too emotional. I hate this kind of music. What a stupid exercise!" That little voice was my left brain, always critical. Sometimes you want criticism, other times you don't. The left brain hates not being in control and it was just scared. So I reasoned with it. "Look, I've paid money to be on this course. I may as well try to get my money's worth."
My left brain backed off and my creative right brain stepped forward.
It showed me a picture, vague at first, but becoming clearer as I went along with it. Red brick buildings in the fog. A Roman town. An ancient Roman town. Ostia, the port of Rome. Where my (then) work-in-progress was set! And out of the fog came a funeral procession. Mourners carrying a bier with a body on it. I knew it was one of my characters. But which one? I had to wait until it came closer to see. My subconscious knew but my conscious brain hadn't yet realised. Then at last I saw who it was, and I knew it was TRUE. It was good. It was right. Yes, it was sad, but it had to happen. Logical arc-planning left brain and creative, intuitive right brain were in agreement. But left brain had to back off to let my right brain show me what was deep within.
I was working on my third Roman Mystery at the time but this incident does not appear until book thirteen, where one of my characters has a prophetic dream of a funeral procession in the fog and realises someone close to him is going to die. It even appears in the opening credits of the BBC television series based on my books. That's how powerful that image was.
|funeral procession from Roman Mysteries title sequence|
I was so excited by this that I started using this exercise with other music. I was listening to jazz guitarist Larry Carlton at the time and put on a piece called Slave Song because the title made me think of Nubia, one of my four main characters. The music immediately evoked a slave caravan crossing desert on camels. Yes, the title was suggestive but that didn't matter. It was a powerful, moving scene and it went straight into the book I was writing at the time, The Pirates of Pompeii.
|caravan of camels|
Fast forward, ten years. As I left my London apartment to get the train to Oxford, I grabbed a CD, one I hoped the boys wouldn't have come across before: Buddha Lounge 1. Mainly instrumental. A nicely atmospheric variety of upbeat, intriguing and spooky tracks.
|Buddha Lounge disc 1|
Over the week I played a selection of songs in eighteen different English classes. I asked the boys to visualise the music for a minute or so, then I got them to open their eyes and write without stopping, another way of confounding the left brain.
"Don't worry about neatness or sense or spelling or grammar," I told them. "Just keep the words coming. If you can't think what to write, write I can't think what to write. I can't think what to write. until something comes to you."
At first the boys found it hard. Were they doing it right? "The only rule," I said, "is keep your hand moving. Keep writing something, anything. If you are panicking that is just your left brain afraid of losing control. Tell it to chill."
The class teachers were game and tried it, too. One teacher was able to do it but confessed it gave him a headache here. (He tapped his left-brain!) Another teacher wrote in her native language, French, and found her handwriting changed after the first few sentences as she got the "hang of it". A third teacher "saw" a bright room with no doors, windows or even light switches. He realised he was a baby in the womb.
The reason I'm writing this in the History Girls blog is to encourage all you writers of historical fiction. Put on a piece of period music, or the nearest thing.
Get a piece of paper. Turn it sideways to show your left brain you are doing something new. Take a fibre-tipped pen or a crayon to show your left brain you are doing something new.
Now put on the music. Close your eyes. Let the music conjure up a scene. Not just sights but smells, sounds, tastes, textures, emotions, movement and detail.
Got it? Then write!
Caroline Lawrence is author of The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mysteries Scrolls and the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Find more of her writing tips on her website at www.romanmysteries.com
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it's certainly true that the heart of this expat quickens the moment the plane banks over the coast of Britain. I'm just back from a flying visit to the UK for the Thames Valley History Festival
, and it was so good to be home. After months of hazy desert light and dust filled skies, the sheer beauty of England had a hyper-real quality, (the golden autumn light, turning leaves, green fields). Even 4am jetlag on the morning of my event had its rewards - the sunrise over Windsor Castle was breathtaking.
The festival was a huge success selling over 1,000 tickets across 23 events with 33 authors/historians in 14 venues of historic interest in 17 days. Many HWA authors took part, and the subjects ranged from 'The English and the Exotic' to the War of the Roses and the story of Christian the Lion, and ten of the events were sell-outs. I'm still 'new' this year to events and festivals, and it was great to see the enthusiasm of the TVHF team, and to meet so many readers (including friends known only through Facebook who came along to support the event). If you have the chance to go or take part next year, it's a wonderful festival, beautifully organised and with a great energy to it.
Tim Lynch and KLB
The historian Tim Lynch
and I were discussing 'WW2: Home Front to War'. Tim talked engagingly about the brave young lads of the labour divisions, who were, as he described chillingly, 'speed bumps' to the invading German forces in Europe. Untrained, and woefully under-armed, they were lambs to the slaughter. It's not often I've been at gunpoint in Eton, but Tim really brought home their bravery when he slotted a bayonet onto his WW2 rifle and described how the boys fired the last of their ammo then staged a final charge against the heavily armoured German troops. (In a wonderful bit of serendipity, I flicked on the TV on the flight home, to watch 'Who Do You Think You Are' with Patrick Stewart. It looked into the history of his soldier father, and guess who the expert was - Tim. If you're interested in learning more about this fascinating bit of forgotten history, I recommend searching for the programme on iplayer).
Some of Tim's display.
Credit: Becky Young
The lovely TVHF team got into the swing of the vintage
coffee morning that accompanied the talk
Credit: Becky Young
Credit: Becky Young
One of the things we talked about during the section on the Home Front was the wartime initiative for recycling which seems incredibly modern. During WW2 saucepans were sacrificed for Spitfires, and everything from waste paper to bones were saved.
Self-sufficiency was encouraged - people 'dug for victory', and farmed on a small scale. (It might have been more accurate if the poster below said 'two rabbits' ...).
One of the best things about events is how people share their remarkable stories with you. A lady came up and told me she remembered this image from the War, and that someone had once posted her family a rabbit (dead), unwrapped, but with a luggage tag addressed to them around it's neck.
There's a line in Mrs Miniver: 'This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people'. The war on the Home Front wasn't all bombs and battles, but a day by day quest to survive, to resourcefully hold together the home, and step into the roles of absent men. The Mass Observation diaries of women like Nella Last, and the wonderfully detailed diary of Betty Armitage are priceless glimpses into how people coped.
These were all initiatives that my grandmothers took. They planted veg and fruit, kept animals including a succession of pigs - Esmeralda I, II, III and IV (my mother remembers weeping for all of them, except Esmeralda III who was a biter that nobody liked). They bottled and preserved, made do and mended. And these initiatives worked - by 1944 households were using three quarters of the fuel they had used in 1938. Britain has never been greener.
Perhaps there's a natural instinct, or wish, to believe that everything improves over time, that the trajectory of history is always upwards. One of my art history professors believed it was more like a pendulum, that eras and civilisations reach a peak, before falling back. Santayana's famous quote: 'those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it' comes to mind. With Remembrance Day just passed, it was heartening to see so many children in the audience in Eton - I think the ages ranged from 8 to 80. Remembering both how people fought on the Front and coped day to day on the Home Front is vital. With all our economic problems, (let alone political unrest and calls for revolution), we could learn a lot about self-sufficiency and managing our own home fronts by looking at how our grandmothers and mothers coped during WW2.
So what have you learnt about your historical era that we have forgotten as a society? Have you come across any surprising ways of living that we could do with remembering now?
I have been reading Elizabeth Jane Howard's memoir 'Slipstream' and read about an American who told her, in 1946, that 'we had our small privations, too, you know. It was often quite difficult to get cream.'
|Britain queues for food: photo, Imperial War Museum|
I can imagine her returning to Britain and telling her friends about this, and their slightly indignant laughter, as they contemplated what they saw as their miserly rations.
Meanwhile my mother was living on the outskirts of Cologne on boiled turnips, bread bulked out with sawdust, and any nettles she could scavenge; once, on a railway journey to try and find out what had become of my grandfather, who had been arrested by the Allies and had disappeared without trace, she saw a really fat man and wondered how he could be so fat on the rations. She fantasized about cutting slices off him and frying them. When my father's mother, who was living in Canada, sent her and my grandmother a gift parcel, they were thrilled to have the egg-powder the British hated so much, dried milk, and flour, to make into pancakes and fry, using cod-liver-oil from the capsules Grandma-in-Canada had sent.
When I was a child, and English people complained about the privations of the war, she snorted to herself. When she came to England to marry my father, the rations that the British found so penitential were so much too rich for her that she kept being sick in shop doorways. In spite of having a naturally round face, one can see from this photograph that she was in very poor physical shape on her wedding day.
Some people have said in my hearing that the Germans deserved to starve, given what they had inflicted on so many other people. However, for one thing, those who committed the crimes were not always those who suffered for them (like the children who died like flies) and for another, this was the state of not just Germans, but people all over Europe in the aftermath of the war. To be fair, many people in Britain were well aware of their state of relative privilege.
I cannot help echoing my mother's snort when I read of British people 'suffering' from lack of sugar and sweets in and after wartime (for I really think it is obscene to call that
suffering when people in concentration camps were being killed by starvation). However,I am not writing this in order to lambast British complaints of hardship - though reading yesterday's post on this blog, they seem to have become so inventive and resourceful, they should have been grateful, maybe? What I'm interested in here is the uneven texture of hardship during the war, even within nations.
For example, I have written, in my novels for teenagers, about the meagre rations of the German population at the end of the war, basing it on historical evidence and first-person accounts. However, it was well known that if you were a 'hohes Tier' (high-up, literally, 'higher animal', you could get anything you wanted, right up to the end, and these things were available on the black market. The train stuffed full of goodies in Last Train from Kummersdorf is similarly based on actual historical fact, and anyone who reads an account of the last days of the shower of criminals in the Berlin bunker can see that they were fed fat.
My mother told me that right up to the end of the war, they didn't go short in Austria, and even afterwards they still had enough to eat, though my father helped, by not only sharing his Army rations with them, but also by deploying his country skills, snaring rabbits and hares and fishing the streams around Graz.
It wasn't until she and my grandmother were deported back to Germany that they really began to starve. I haven't done any research into Austria during and immediately after the war, so was it that my grandmother was quite good at the black market, or that Austria managed to get a better food supply than other nations, or just that the starvation of the time in Germany was so dreadful that relative scarcity, looking back, came to look like a good supply of food? I don't think so, because this photograph, taken by my father in Graz in 1945, shows my mother looking very well fed - I think, however, the double chin is only due to her leaning her head back when the photo was taken, because she was always slim.
Farmers, of course, did OK, and another story my mother told me was about the farmers boasting that they would soon be able to lay down Persian carpets in the cowsheds, as starving town-dwellers bartered their valuables for milk, and so on.
But farmers generally do OK. My father-in-law, apparently, who was an agricultural engineer, used to be part-paid by the farmers for his work with butter, eggs, and so on, and thus never had much difficulty with rations. It helped that he married a farmer's daughter in 1945.
My great-aunt Mia and her husband August, had a textile factory (she ran it and he did as she told him, though it was technically his) and so my mother never went short of nice clothes, at a time when a German creative writing student of mine had to wear dresses made from flour sacks and tie her hair up with string. When my father, by contrast, made a blunder the first time he asked my mother out, by inviting her to the opera, and it turned out to be the ballet, she was shamed by being drastically over-dressed, in a silk dress with her hair tied up with a broad velvet ribbon. Anyone who's read Saving Rafael will recognise the source of Uncle Hartmut's textile factory, and his wife's supply of luxury fabrics. Connections were what mattered - it is always a mistake to assume that what one set of people experienced was typical of the entire population in wartime.
(Aspiring historical novelists, please take note! And do re-read Eleanor Updale's excellent post on this blog about the hazards of assuming that any given period would only have the clothes and furniture produced in that period!)
Unfortunately, I haven't got a photo of my mother's opera-going costume, but it's a pretty nice dress my mother is wearing in these pictures, again taken when my parents were courting in Austria. (The first one is my favourite photograph of them together, by the way) The quality of the print speaks for itself, and it looks like silk. I'm sure it came from Aunt Mia, who once gave my mother a finely-pleated silk skirt that you could crumple up as much as you liked, but it would still come out nice. And see the lovely muff and the velvet-collared coat in the previous photograph.
I did read a novel for teenagers recently that suggested that there was quite severe rationing in the States during the war, something similar to what Britain had, and I found it very hard to believe. I had read so many accounts, in fact and fiction written at the time, of American food parcels, or people travelling to the States during the war, and being staggered at the food.
But since we do have followers for this blog in the States, I wonder if any of them can shed some light on this? Or has the author of the teen novel (maybe it's as well that I can't remember the title) just got it wrong about the rationing? I would love to know.
King Henry I is not that often touched upon in fiction and one of the lesser studied kings of England in schools today. He has also been the subject of a couple of excellent academic biographies by the late Warren Hollister and historian Judith Green. Occasionally he turns up a secondary source character in novels, mine among them. I enjoyed his portrayal in Valerie Anand's novel King of the Wood which was about his brother William Rufus. Juliet Dymoke used him as her protagonist in her excellent novel Henry of the High Rock, but he still receives rather limited exposure.
What many people of a certain age know of Henry I from their school days is that this youngest son of William the Conqueror, died of 'a surfeit of lampreys' - I suspect that this was a phrase known, but not understood by many students. Actually, even when it is understood, there is more to this than meets the eye.
Henry I was born either in 1068 or 1069 and died in December 1135, which puts him at about 66 at his demise - a good age for the 12th century and not bad at all for a king with all the stresses and strains that being an active and domineering head of state entailed. His father was 59; his celebrated grandson Henry II only made it to 56. Of his great grandsons by Henry who became kings, Henry the Young king died of dysentry at 28, Richard the Lionheart from gangrene at 38, and King John from (depending who you listen to) 'a surfeit of peaches and cider' a couple of months shy of his 50th birthday.
Henry I, described by contemporary chronicler Henry of Huntingdon as 'great in wisdom, profound in counsel, famous for his far-sightedness, outstanding in arms, distinguished for his deeds, remarkable for his wealth', was still to all intents and purposes hale and hearty when he arrived at the forest of Lyons in Normandy in late November to undertake a spot of hunting with the court. He had been hoping to cross to England, but political difficulties on the Norman side of the border meant that he was staying longer than intended. During the course of his hunting sojourn, one of the courses on which he dined at table were the dreaded lampreys.
Lampreys are an eel-like fish lacking a jaw. There are about thirty species in the world, some parasitic, some not. The mouth has a circular suction pad with teeth in the adults. As a food in the medieval period they were seen as edible - but dangerous and this is where we come to more than meets the eye. The Medieval way of thinking about diet was to afford each item a humour and a temperature and people were advised to eat foods that balanced their own humours. The four humours were sanguine, which was warm and moist, yellow bile - warm and dry, phlegm - cold and moist, and melancholic - cold and dry.
If everything was in balance, you should have an equal mix of all these and your diet should reflect this. All foods had their own value in the humour table too. Elderly people were seen as having cold humours and as such needed to eat foods with warming properties. Red wine was a good one since it was warm and dry (I know wine is wet, but trust me on this one!). Lampreys, on a scale of 1-10 scored a 10 for being cold and moist and one of the most chilling foodstuffs in existence, guaranteed to put out anyone's fire. To an elderly person, already cold to begin with, they could be deadly. The best way to render them less of a threat was to kill them in red wine and then cook them in the same liquor in the hopes that it would neutralise their properties. Everyone knew this. A chronicler wouldn't have had to spell out the details.
Once you know this, reading Henry I's death scene from the chronicler Roger of Wendover takes on a whole new light.
Henry...stopped at St. Denys in the wood of Lions to eat some lampreys, a fish he was very fond of, though they always disagreed with him, and the physicians had often cautioned him against eating them, (presumably because the state of his own dominant humour and that of the lamprey would tilt the balance dangerously) but he would not listen to their advice. This food mortally chilled the old man's blood and caused a sudden and violent illness against which nature struggled and brought on an acute fever (trying to warm the body up) in an effort to resist the worst effects of the disease.'
So, did he really die of a surfeit of lampreys, or did the fish get the blame because it was off the scale on the table of humours and viewed as unsuitable for the elderly to consume? Who knows? Of course it might just be a case of bad fish causing food poisoning, but the first port of call in the eyes of medieval physicians would be to look at its properties and what it might to an elderly man.
Peaches and cider were also viewed as dodgy items to eat in terms of the humours. King John was dicing with death the moment he sat down to dinner. One has to wonder where the peaches came from in October though...
Henry, having breathed his last and having left the inheritance situation in such a perilous state that there followed more than 15 years of civil war, had a more immediate post mortem nasty to visit on those close to him. This is interesting with reference to Medieval burial customs - something I hope to cover in another blog at some point. In the days before refrigeration and even in winter chronicler Roger of Wendover goes on to relate that:'The corpse of the King lay a long time above ground at Rouen, where his entrails, brains and eyes are buried; the rest of his body cut with knives and seasoned with salt to destroy the offensive smell, which was great, and annoyed all who came near it, was wrapped in a bull's skin; and the physician who was engaged for a large sum of money to open his head with a hatchet, and extract the brain after it was already too much corrupted, notwithstanding that the head was wrapped up in several napkins, was poisoned by the noisesome smell, and thus the money which he received was fatal to him; he was the last of King Henry's victims, for he had killed many before. The royal body was conveyed from thence to Caen, where it was placed in the church before the tomb of his father, who also reposes there. Immediately a bloody and frightful liquor began to ooze through the bull's skin , which the attendants caught in basins, to the great horror of the beholders. At length the king's corpse was brought to England, and buried with royal pomp on his birthday, at Reading in the church which he himself had founded. The archbishops, bishops, and nobles of the Kingdom were present at the ceremony.'
So eventually, following an unpleasant demise and some fraught and dangerous times for those left to prepare his mortal remains for burial, Henry I, received a fitting funeral and was laid to rest with all due ceremony. I wonder if they served lampreys at the funeral feast!
Today is the Day of St Catherine - patron saint of unmarried women. (Well, one of them. There's also St Andrew, St Agatha, and a disconcertingly large number of others.) I've always envied Roman Catholics all their saints for odd things.* And I love the way something as ghastly as martyrdom can morph over the years into, for example, a day of wearing outrageous hats and celebrating the notion that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
It didn't start that way, of course. According to good old Wikipedia:
The French say that before a girl reaches 25, she prays: "Donnez-moi, Seigneur, un mari de bon lieu! Qu'il soit doux, opulent, libéral et agréable!" (Lord, give me a well-situated husband. Let him be gentle, rich, generous, and pleasant!") After 25, she prays: "Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!" (Lord, one who's bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable in the world!") And when she's pushing 30: "Un tel qu'il te plaira Seigneur, je m'en contente!" ("Send whatever you want, Lord; I'll take it!"). An English version goes, St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant that I never may die an old maid.
And there was certainly a side to the St Catherine's Day festivities that was aimed at humiliating unsuccessful (i.e. unmarried) women - just look at that mocking gargoyle face peeping round the corner below!
(Two Catherinettes in Paris in 1909)
But then look into the faces of the Catherinettes themselves and see the confidence. The strength. The sisterhood.
(A bevy more in 1932)
(Henri Matisse drew this sketch of a Catherinette in 1946.)
(And here are Issaac Israel's confident beauties)
If I'd known about it, I would have loved being a Catherinette, tromping about the place in a crazy hat and enjoying being taken out to lunch and given flowers and drinks all day. Sisterhood, solidarity, and silly hats. St Catherine, I salute you!
I look at these images and I see subversion!
* To read more History Girl posts on saints look here. My favourite so far is still St Neot, patron saint of fish. With or without a bicycle.
Joan's website.Joan's blog.
(Thank you to On this day in fashion, Blackriders and Wiki commons for these images.)
Imagine a lake so pink, it’s the colour of a flamingo feather. Picture it surrounded by white, crystal mountains, glistening and sparkling in the sunlight. Out in the middle of the lake there are small boats and people wading through the pink as one would wade through a strawberry milkshake in a dream, their limbs etched dark against the reflection and glitter. Sunglasses might help bring this surreal world into focus. This is Lac Rose or Lake Retba in Senegal and these are salt gatherers. It’s the 21st century.
You sit at a dinner table. Your host is Charles V of France. You are Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor. You glance down towards your son, King Wenceslas, who will inherit your title and who sits further down the table. In front of him is the nef, the jewelled salt cellar in the shape of a ship – both salt cellar and a symbol of the ship of state that declares the stability of a nation. Your host, the King of France has been wise if somewhat indecisive. He has had three nefs of gold forged and placed them strategically in front not only of himself but in front of you as well as your son. It’s the 14th century.
‘There is no better food than salted vegetables'
are the words written on an ancient papyrus. You are a priest preparing the tomb for an important Egyptian body. Preserving the food is as important as preserving the body. You know salts present in desert sand preserve flesh. Protein unwinds when exposed to salt. Salting resembles cooking. Were it not for your aversion to pigs you would have probably invented ham, instead you content yourself with preserving olives in salt and you dry and salt and press the eggs of mullet to create a food that will later become known as bottarga
. It is 4000 BC.
You are part of a think tank. A substance needed by all humans for good health must surely make a good tax generator. Everyone has to buy salt. A tax on salt is the answer. A few centuries later some of your Chinese compatriots will find that mixing potassium nitrate, a salt otherwise known as saltpetre with sulphur and carbon will create a powder that when ignited will produce an explosion. But for now, you are dealing in salt more urbane – salt found under the ground in the form of brine. As yet you don’t know that by the 11th century, the salt producers of Sichuan will develop percussion drilling for retrieving salt brine and will be using bamboo piping which is salt resistant to transport the brine to boiling houses where it will be reduced to salt crystals. These salt crystals aren’t added to food by sprinkling but with a salt-based sauce. Fish and soybeans are fermented with salt in earthernware pots. It’s about 500 BC but in time the fish is removed and only the beans are used. The sauce becomes known as jiangyou
or soy sauce as we know it today.
You’re a Romans soldier and paid in salt. Rome not wanting to be dependent on Etruscan salt from the northern bank of the Tiber, starts their own saltworks on the river in Ostia, and the first Roman road is built, the Via Salaria, the Salt Road to bring the salt to Rome. The Latin word sal
becomes the French word solde
which is the origin of soldier and Roman salted vegetables gives us the word salad today. The Romans much like the Chinese, devise a sauce where fish scraps are put in earthernware jars with layers of salt and made into a type of garum
. Sardines which derive their name from a fish caught and cured in Sardinia are favoured for garum
. It’s 640 BC. By Pliny’s time salt is being used to extract the purple dye, murex, from this tiny whelk and Cleopatra can demand enough of this expensive colourant to dye the sails of her warship purple.
You are a Celt moving southwards across central Europe. You are a salt miner who chisels tunnels into rugged mountains, called a Celt by the Greeks, meaning one who lives in hiding
– but known as a Gaul by the Romans and Egyptians, which comes from the word hal
, meaning salt. You have sacked Rome travelling on horseback with heavy swords when Western Europe has never before seen mounted cavalry. Some years later you invade what is now known as Turkey. You are tall, blond and often red-bearded and your women wear braids and bright clothing. You sell salt. It is you who devises a method of salting pig to create the finest hams. It’s 390 BC.
Herring is the dominant fish in the booming medieval markets, so much so that you, who are salt fish dealers in Paris, are called harengères
, herring sellers. But it is the Basques who, on their whaling expeditions discover a northern fish that is to take Europe by storm. It is white and fatless, therefore easier to cure. It is cod. The Vikings have been air-drying it for centuries but they have no salt. The Basques have salt – plenty of it. The baccalà
industry is born. It’s the 9th century
Salt becomes the engine of both Venetian and Genoese trade. Venice tries to dominate the salt industry by buying salt from as far away as the Crimea and and Cyprus while Genoa has its salt industry in Ibiza. Prosciutto makers use salt from the salt wells of Salsomaggiore. Cheesemakers use salt from Venice and Genoa. The opening up of the Atlantic sea route makes a giant out of Genoa. Venice is left behind. Christopher Columbus himself is born in Genoa. It’s the 15th Century.
I’ve sprinkled and steeped you briefly in salt’s history across the ages, now look out for the book SALT – a History of the World
by Mark Kurlansky, who has also written a book about COD
and another on The Basque History of the World.
Every page is fascinating.
You won’t find anything about a pink lake in the book but it does exist. I saw it 20 years ago in Senegal. I’m sure it’s as pink as ever made so by an algae in the water that produces a red pigment. I’m sure the salt gatherers are still out there today smeared in shea butter to protect their bodies from the sting, as they wade through the briny mix in the glare, without sunglasses, in tattered clothing and mismatched shoes. Even in the 21st century, it’s the salt workers who still lack everything – except salt.
I told the publishers, I just don't want a cover with a woman without a face - viewed from behind, or with no head. Of course I don't want a face either. It would be the wrong face - not my character's face. Anyway I have lots of characters. But I don't want lots of people. And I don't want one of those hand-tinted vintage photos. Or a couple kissing in a station, or a bloke in uniform. Or a woman in a red dress with lots of flesh showing. And it must be historically accurate. And I don't want curly writing or anything which would look at home near a cupcake. I want something powerful and beautiful and which wouldn't look ridiculous with a male author's name on it. Or something saying 'Shortlisted for the Booker' or 'by the Nobel Laureate'. I want something intelligent but accessible, best-selling yet highbrow, arty yet popular. You know - what we all want. I sent a bunch of vintage pictures to show what I meant. This is 'Unidentified Woman', by Hugh Cecil.
Hm. I used to be annoyed by the way fashion magazines would tell us what scent the model in the photograph was wearing, but not her name. Something of the same thing happens here. I want to know who she is, and why she has that expression; what is her sadness? She wears the pearls of English lady-hood. Is she a deb? Is she to be married? Is she to sit for decades in a silver frame on a never-played grand piano in Surrey, while her husband carries on with a west-end dancer and her children play cricket at boarding school? Or was she parachuted into France for the Secret Service?
This is another Unidentified Woman, by Edward Steichen. I know about Steichen. He was a very glamourous character, and he kissed my grandmother when she was art student in Paris. But I don't know about this woman, with her messy hair and her firm mouth. She looks pissed off. Has she been arrested? Is she mad? She doesn't want to be here, being photographed by a famous great man. Or perhaps he asked her to look like that.
Lilian Gish! She has her own name and history. Her hair is more artfully mussed; her lipstick is perfect, she's a film star - but again: you wouldn't mess with her.
Guess who? Unidentified Woman again.
Why does one face catch us, decades later, and another not?
I was taken by the idea of the beautiful posh girls in the old-fashioned glossy magazines. Look at them! You can buy some of these ones on the Country Life website
, going back to 1946, even if they're no longer on the marriage market. Traditionally, they were photographed on engagement, a stream of Arabellas and Nicolas and Amandas and Carolines about to change their names.
Here is Rachel Johnsons's stepmother - Miss Iris Peake.
and here's Carola Harvey, 1962, and Patricia Waddington, 1964
Caroline Barrie, 1950; and Suzanna Crean, 1981
Lady Helen Windsor, 1982, and Tessa Wolfe Murray 1969
Lucinda Prior-Palmer, 1981 and Patricia Shann, 1978
Rosalie Bradshaw, 1965, and Eirolys Elizabeth Horton Fawkes, 1950
There was an article written in the Telegraph about being chosen as a Girl in Pearls, a jolly account of getting cold during the shoot, and not knowing what to wear, and your friends mocking you. It could have been written any time this century. You can read it here
. I think any of us could write a novel about any of these young women, and start just by looking at their bland faces so blandly presented. I can hear the skeletons starting to rattle. Bags I Eirolys and Rosalie.
These portraits look for innocence and beauty, and convey prosperity and belonging above all, but the young women do not on the whole look very happy. They do not carry the show-offy smiles of celebrity photos. They look somehow sacrificial . . . And then there is this one below. This lady is both identified and not. History has not so far related her name, but the picture is called 'Grief'; it's by Hugh Cecil again and was used in the Tatler in the edition for November 1919, the first anniversary of the Armistice. She wears an engagement ring on her widow finger - third finger right hand - which tells something of her story. Though not many people nowadays know the significance of that ring on that finger. I first came across this photograph years ago, and then found it again a while ago in The Great Silence
, Juliet Nicolson's excellent account of the immediate aftermath of WW1,
A strange correlation of traditional female figures. She's young, beautiful, elegant, engaged to be married, on the society pages - but she has more in common with these women below than with the ones above. They've got it all in the future, that's why they look nervous. Miss Grief, and the stone women below, are going through it.
How traditional. how beautiful, how familiar, from gravestones and war memorials and classical art across Europe. The widow, the mother of the lost son. Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary. We know her well. Here she is again, in black and white, in colour, in a less familiar guise, and - oh! - brought to life on the face of a living woman. Again, the story calls out of the picture. Why did she do that? What's going on there?
Among the Country Life portraits I came across this one, of another sweet girl about to married, with all her grief before her; a portrait of the beginning of a story we all know ended in tears.
Anyway, I hope you'll forgive me putting up this, the cover my publishers sent me. There she is: the woman with no face, in a red dress, lots of flesh, hand-coloured vintage photo, curly writing . . . It's perfect.
Last week I was delighted to meet Ruth Ive, ‘the woman who censored Churchill’, as she is styled in her memoirs.[i]As a war-time telephone censor, Ruth is probablythe last person still with us who once listened in on conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt, but then we still don’t know for sure exactly who else was party to the great men’s conversations. For those who have been surprised by recent phone tapping and state surveillance revelations, it is sobering to remember that hacking has been a recognized policy since a least the Second World War.
|Ruth Ive in the 1940s|
when she worked in the Postal and Telegraph Censorship
In 1942, Ruth’s shorthand skills led to her being picked out of her job at the postal-censorship offices for a role monitoring the Transatlantic radio link between Britain and America. For three and a half years she worked long shifts, tucked into a small office in a partly destroyed building in St Martins Le Grand. Here Ruth listened in to conversations between the dispersed members of European royal families, a ‘rather bad-tempered’ Mme Chiang Kai-shek, and senior political and diplomatic staff including Churchill and Roosevelt, or Mr Smith and Mr White as they were known over the phone. Ruth’s job was two-fold; to note down everything that was said, and to pull the plug, literally, on any conversation that might in any way compromise the Allied war effort if overheard.
Churchill was ‘a natural telephoner’ Ruth told me over tea and sandwiches in her North London care home, ‘very effusive with Roosevelt and often unguarded in his comments’. Listening down the line, she felt that she never knew what he might say next, and she suspects that Roosevelt did not either. Their conversations might start with a description of Churchill’s dinner, or Roosevelt’s polite enquiry after his opposite number’s family, but would soon develop into often quite passionate discussions. Churchill ‘didn’t hide his emotions’, Ruth remembered. Although he was always confident about ultimate victory, ‘he did not have that clipped, buttoned-up quality’. On one occasion, when he was distraught at the devastation caused by a V2 that had landed near Holborn Circus, Ruth had to cut the line on Churchill twice in quick succession, for fear he would reveal the exact location and extent of the damage caused. And yet the PM only spoke to Ruth directly once, demanding ‘what did you do that for?’ when the line went dead unexpectedly. Ruth had to explain that this time it was her US counterpart who had cut the line on Roosevelt – something Ruth was never allowed to do herself. The only consistent thing in the calls was the way that Churchill always signed off saying, ‘Kaye Bee Oh’. Eventually, unsure how to transcribe this curious farewell, Ruth asked her boss who told her it was K.B.O. for ‘Keep Buggering On’.
|The room where Churchill made his Transatlantic calls. |
The outside door was disguised it as a toilet,
with a sign that could be moved from 'Vacant' to 'Engaged'.
Ruth knew that all her shorthand notes on the Churchill/Roosevelt conversations were shredded once she had transcribed them and in any case, she told me, a few days later ‘no one could read them, not even me’. After the war, in October 1945, Churchill was asked to attend a US Congressional hearing with the longhand transcripts, and responded that they, too, had been ‘destroyed’. It seemed that that was end of that. Ruth married soon after the war and raised two sons and, having signed the official secrets act, she never spoke about her work listening in to the hottest British hotline of the war.
|Ruth's July 1945 reference, noting that she was 'the best censor'|
and 'highly recommended for work requiring tact and discretion'.
Fifty years later Ruth was ‘horrified’ to learn about the existence of a German listening station at Valkenswaard, near Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where Philips electronics are based. Up till then she had imagined that her role had been little more than a necessary war-time precaution. ‘If I had had any proof [that the Germans were listening] at the time, I would have just laid down my pencil and made a run for it’ she told me laughing. Looking back, however, she has become fascinated by just who, besides herself and the American phone censor, was eavesdropping on ‘these two old men, talking to each other’.
In 2004 Ruth travelled to the Netherlands to search for the Valkenswaard listening station. Major Tony Bayley, of the British Battalion of the Irish Guards, had introduced her to members of the military team who, just after the war, had found the abandoned Dutch farmhouse that had once served as the German listening station hidden away in some woods. Sadly the building had already been stripped, and all the equipment either thrown into the nearby river or evacuated with the staff. Visiting nearly sixty years later, Ruth found the building was still standing and used as an Arts Centre, but she met ‘a blanket of silence’ when she began asking questions at the Valkenswaard Heritage Centre and other official archives. ‘You imagine that the Dutch are liberal’ she sighed, ‘it is shocking that this happened there’. However she did meet a man who remembered the high security around the building when he was a local teenager during the war.
The former German Intelligence Centre disguised as a Dutch farmhouse.
The American historian, David Khan, has written about the German facilities at Valkenswaard, describing the underground bunker where the technology was kept, and the radio masts hidden among the trees.[ii]Here the thirty-five staff, all fluent English-speakers, lived in comparative luxury, with comfortable bedrooms, an on-site kitchen preparing fresh meals, and a lounge with an open fireplace. ‘Apparently, the quality of the reception was good too’, Ruth added ruefully as we spoke, thinking about her own cramped office, lack of lunches, and sometimes terribly static lines.
On her last day in Amsterdam, ‘this little man turned up on the doorstep’ Ruth told me. Hans Knap was a retired TV journalist who had written a history of official postal monitoring dating back to the end of the nineteenth century.[iii] While researching Valkenswaard he, too, had also drawn a blank with the Dutch authorities. Nonetheless Knap’s research led him to conclude that ‘after forty years of German-Dutch colonial co-operation, German engineers listened to the “hot-line” of Churchill and Roosevelt with the help of the facilities of the Dutch PTT and Philips Electronic Industries’. David Khan, who has looked at records in the USA and elsewhere, even asserts that translations of all the Churchill/Roosevelt talks landed on the Fuehrer’s desk within hours of the calls being made.
Now in her 90s, Ruth is still a woman with a mission. ‘I’ve had a lot of fun’, she told me, ‘and I’ve got very irritated and very angry…’ In a way though, she says, it did not matter that the Germans were successfully listening in. Given the coded nature of the conversations, and her own and her American counterpart’s quick action to prevent any sensitive information from being discussed, she feels sure that they ‘gained little original intelligence’ from the Transatlantic radio line. However, her memoirs tell just one side of a conversation, she explained, and she would still like to know just who these ‘original hackers’, as she calls them, were. ‘I am surprised at people now – that the authorities were so amazed by the recent hacking’, she told me as we said goodbye. ‘Why was it a scandal? We’ve all been doing it for years.’
|Ruth Ive's book, The Woman Who Censored Churchill|
(The History Press, 2008)
[i]Ruth Ive, The woman who censored Churchill (The History Press, 2008).
[ii]David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication fro Ancient Times to the Internet(Scribner, 1996)
[iii]Hans Knap, Forschungsstelle Langeveld: Duits afluisterstation in bezet Nederland (De Bataafsche leeuw, 1998)
The History Girls: The Original Hackers, by Clare Mulley: Last week I was delighted to meet Ruth Ive, ‘the woman who censored Churchill’, as she is styled in her memoirs. [i] As a war-tim...
A big welcome to Lydia Syson, who is our guest for November. Appropiaitely enough in theis onth of Remembrance, she has written a novel set in 1940.
About Lydia: she is a fifth-generation North Londoner who now lives south of the river. Although writing a novel was a very early ambition, it took her rather a long time to get round to A World Between Us, set during the Spanish Civil War and published by Hot Key Books in 2012. In the meantime, she went from being a World Service radio listener in Botswana to a producer in London, leaving the BBC after her first child was born. Three more children later she wrote a biography of Britain’s first fertility guru, Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed, telling the full story of the charismatic eighteenth-century ‘electric’ doctor. Getting to Timbuktu is still on the ‘to do’ list – explorers, poets and Timbuktu fever were the subject of the PhD she finished in 2003 – but recent travels have been closer to home. Her new book, THAT BURNING SUMMER, is set in July 1940 as the Battle of Britain was raging over Kent. Sixteen-year old Peggy faces a test of love and loyalty when a young Polish pilot crash-lands near the family farm.
|Photo: Sanne Vliegenthart|
“That Burning Summer” emerged, layer by layer, almost entirely from the place in which it’s set. Years of mooching around Romney Marsh
(cycling between its pubs and churches, and walking, windswept, along that peculiar triangle of Kent coast which juts out towards Boulogne, made me see the summer of 1940 in an entirely new light. The more I dug, the more intrigued I became by the ‘underbelly’ of the Battle of Britain: all those elements of wartime life which the propaganda posters are precisely designed to cover up. The uncomfortable truths.
Posters like this have supplied our most enduring images of the era. Propaganda deals in myth of course, and wartime myths - invariably more palatable than the reality – quickly and powerfully come to dominate memory and imagination. So in my childhood, like most Britons, I’d absorbed a fairly standard narrative of World War II: ‘we’ won. It was the ‘good’ war, the ‘just’ war, unlike the futile one that preceded it, and “Britons never, never will be…”
And I here I stop. Because one subversive grandmother (London Granny) used to finish this song off with ‘marrai-ed to the mermai-eds at the bottom of the deep blue sea’ while the other (Country Granny) memorably brought me up short one day in conversation in her kitchen when I was about ten years old with the information that she and everyone else on the South coast of England were firmly convinced in 1940 that Hitler actually would invade. For the first time in my life, I learned that the prospect of losing the war was at one time extremely real. I was shocked. I’d really had no idea.
One half term, exploring a flooded pillbox on the Royal Military Canal (http://www.royalmilitarycanal.com/pages/index.asp
) with my children, that conversation suddenly came back to me. The Canal, which curves efficiently from Hythe to Rye, was originally built to repel Napoleonic invaders, and also to control smugglers. It was the first effective line of defense in these parts in 1940, when German invaders were anticipated at every moment. What would it have been like, I wondered, to live on the Marsh then, between canal and coast, listening to the guns as France fell, knowing that your turn was coming next? I imagined the vast and beautiful skies above scribbled over with vapour trails left by dogfights. I pictured a parachute descending, a falling plane, an unknown airman…
These thoughts were mostly prompted by that fact that one of my children was deep in the grip of an obsession with flight, and World War Two with it. After several years of intense discussions of the relative merits of mangonels and trebuchets, we’d moved on to Merlin engines, Hawker Hurricanes and Heinkels. Words like ‘aileron’ had suddenly entered my vocabulary. Eventually, I took my place in the back of a frail 4-seater plane and my ten- year-old son flew me 2,000 feet over the Marsh: his tenth birthday present was a flying lesson. Seeing the Marsh from this height was, unsurprisingly, a revelation.
An even more significant revelation for That Burning Summer came from below the ground. In Brenzett Aeronautical Museum (http://www.brenzettaero.co.uk/Brenzett_Aeronautical_Museum_Trust/Home.html
) I first encountered the discoveries of another generation of obsessives: the amateur aviation archaeologists of the 1970s and 80s. Unlike the RAF, they refused to give up their efforts to trace long-lost pilots and planes. In a slightly ramshackle building that once housed land girls, we peered at a scorched German parachute [IMAGE: ‘Remains of German parachute] treasured for years by the girl whose brother had rescued it from a tree, read stories of pilots who’d bailed out of burning planes only to be mistaken for the enemy, and were simply amazed at the sight of aircraft parts that had been buried in the Marsh for decades.
It seemed unbelievable. How could entire aircraft simply be swallowed up like that, invisible and untouched for decades?
Not just aircraft, but often their pilots too.
Arthur William Clarke, a Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain, was listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ at the age of 20. In a letter to Arthur’s mother, grimly typed a week after his disappearance, his Squadron Leader strikes a weary note:
‘I am afraid that there is very little hope of hearing from him now. We were on Patrol over Kent, when we intercepted about 30 Enemy Bombers with Escort Fighters and attacked about 10 miles west of Folkestone, we went into attack three at a time and your son was in the second three to attack, nobody saw anything happen to him and after the attack we were split up and returned home separately as usually happens, as nobody saw anything one really cannot say what happened.
It is conceivably possible that he jumped out by Parachute and was carried by the wind out into the Channel where he might have been taken prisoner by a German Torpedo Boat, but I am afraid that is very unlikely…I am sorry I cannot tell you anything more than this, but nobody saw anything. I am afraid this is often the case in these Air Battles.’
Arthur Clarke’s Hurricane had come down unseen, to vanish immediately into Romney Marsh. Forty-six years later, the dogged work of a freelance aviation historian made it possible for his family to put up this memorial near this lonely spot not far from the tiny village of Newchurch. Like many families in the same position, they decided to leave his mortal remains in peace.
‘Nobody saw anything.’ That stuck with me. If a plane could just disappear like that, its pilot with it, and nobody see, what else could happen? What if you were a pilot who had got to a point that you actually wanted to disappear? What if you bailed out just in time, and realised that nothing, nothing on earth, could make you get back into a cockpit? Surely not every fighter pilot was as brave as the smiling young Englishmen celebrated in Churchill’s famous speech, with its electrifyingly Shakespearean echoes. What if you simply lost your nerve? What happened to the Unhappy Few?
Here’s another lonely memorial.
We came across it one day walking with friends at Dungeness, heading east into scrubland, lighthouse and power station at our backs.
“What’s that flag?” one of us wondered out loud.
“Poland,” came my son’s authoritative reply. (There was slightly more of the flag to go by five years ago than there is today.)
Bogusław Mierzwa was killed here on 16th April 1941, after having flown missions in combat against the Luftwaffe since September 1939. This tattered flag made me want to find out more about the Polish pilots who took to the skies over Britain in the summer of 1940. They’ve been described as the ‘forgotten few’. The stories I discovered made me ashamed to have known so little about them before.
When the men of the Polish air force arrived in Britain – over 8,000 were evacuated - they had already experienced multiple invasions. In the first month of the war, Poland was invaded twice: by Germany and then the Soviet Union. Contrary to the myth that their planes were destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war, these men fought bravely then, and many went on to make dangerous odysseys halfway round the world, spending time in virtual prison camps en route, and fighting in the Battle of France too before reaching ‘the Island of Last Hope’. Probably the best-trained pilots in the world at the time, they then had a struggle to convince the RAF to let them fly. Before long, Polish pilots had a reputation in Britain for almost insane courage: they fought with the desperation of the already occupied.
The story I had begun to hatch about a pilot in hiding became suddenly more interesting. I discovered a chilling term: ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’. LMF was hastily introduced in April 1940 to deter aircrew from refusing to fly. Effectively, you were branded a coward. Historians have found RAF medical records on psychological welfare suspiciously incomplete, so I don’t know if any Poles were officially ‘diagnosed’, but I had reached the point by then where imagination could take over. I couldn’t imagine anything more shameful for a Polish pilot than a failure of courage. The character of Henryk began to take shape.
Can anyone know how he or she will respond when truly tested? In June 1940, every household was issued with a leaflet: ‘If the invader comes: what to do and how to do it’. I imagined a child becoming obsessed with the confusing advice it contained. Rule 2 (‘Do not believe rumours and do not spread them’) included the worrying advice to keep your head. Common sense was apparently the best way to tell whether ‘a military officer is really British or only pretending to be so.’ All very well, but what if you were one of those people whose senses weren’t like everyone else’s? I’d recently been finding out about dyspraxia. For various reasons, multiple instructions, short-term memory and organisation can be incredibly difficult for people with dyspraxia. It’s little understood even now. In wartime Britain, any child like that would probably have been automatically dismissed as ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’. So how terrifying such a set of instructions would have appeared to a boy like Ernest, in That Burning Summer, a quiet, bird-watching boy who’d never had to be ‘manly’ before.
Rumour and the control of information were issues of huge concern to the Government in the months before the ‘Blitz spirit’ emerged. Two weeks after Dunkirk and five days before the fall of France, the over-crowded troopship Lancastria was sunk off the French coast, and as many as 6,000 lives may have been lost. It was the worst disaster in British maritime history but the news was kept secret for fear of its impact on morale. I’d interviewed a number of Lancastria survivors for a radio documentary many years ago, and found the contradictions between the ‘official’ war narrative and their own stories both moving and fascinating.
By 1940, up and down the country, people were (overheard) complaining about the increasingly heavy hand of the state. The pro-democracy Mass-Observation movement had become a tool of the Ministry of Information and ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’ were quickly compared to the Gestapo. Meanwhile Mass-Observation diarists like Nella Last continued to record the kind of casual anti-Semitism we prefer to forget was rife in 1930s Britain, and Communist families on the South coast destroyed potentially incriminating papers in anticipation of invasion and imprisonment or worse. My London grandparents made preparations for a friend to look after my mother in case of their own arrest. Others stockpiled suicide medication and buried treasures of all kinds.
In this climate of mistrust, spyfever inevitably broke out. In playgrounds and post office queues, front parlours and cinemas, it was fed by radio programmes like ITMA and films like Contraband and The Spy in Black. On Romney Marsh itself, suspicions were confirmed by the appearance of four rather incompetent spies on the coast in early September.
But there was another secret threat: from Madrid, and the Spanish Civil War, came the fear of the Enemy Within – ‘The Fifth Column’, ready and waiting to support the invaders when they came. Oswald Mosley and 740 other active fascists were interned in May 1940, but that still left plenty of sympathisers at large to worry about.
Pacifists made easy targets. Orwell declared them pro-Fascist, the Daily Mail called for the Peace Pledge Union to be banned, and an article in the Sunday Pictorial soon after Dunkirk referred scathingly to our ‘national pansies’. Across the country, Conscientious Objectors were dismissed from teaching positions.
The more I read, the more torn I felt. I thoroughly admired the morality of their absolutist stand against war, and the complicated kind of courage it took to maintain. Yet the experience of writing A World Between Us, set among International Brigaders during the Spanish Civil War, had made me less sympathetic than ever with the disastrous policies of appeasement: the non-intervention agreement that turned a blind eye to Hitler and Mussolini’s support for Franco and enabled him to win the war was part of the same thinking. If I felt like this, now, how much harder must it have been to work out the right thing to do in the summer of 1940.
All these ideas kept swirling around my head as I wrote, and found their way into the isolated church on Romney Marsh where much of That Burning Summer is set, and some of it was actually written. You won’t find many direct references to them in the story that finally came out, the tale of ‘a girl, a boy and a crash-landing…’ - Peggy, Ernest and Henryk - but they’re there in the warp and weft of the novel. And I’ll never walk beside the ditches and across the fields of the Marsh and see them in quite the same way again.
Open to UK readers only - sorry!
We have five copies of Lydia Syson's book That Burning Summer to give away to the best answers to this question:
'Who do you wish you could have hidden and protected in an isolated church, and why?'
(If you missed her guest post, take a look at yesterday)
And find out more at: http://www.lydiasyson.com/that-burning-summer-links-and-background-resources
Closing date 7th December