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    We used to have my grandparents over for Christmas Day. I didn’t realize my grandfather was nearly blind or that his deafness dated from the Somme, and can only remember the frustration of watching ‘The Towering Inferno’ while he sat four inches from the screen and turned round after an hour to ask in a hoarse whisper, ‘Is there a fire?’

    Yes, I hate myself now. But it wasn’t only my grandparents’ own history that I missed, and I was always puzzled when at the end of the meal my grandfather would raise his glass and make a solemn toast to ‘Absent Friends.’ The gravity whizzed straight over my childish head, and it was many years before I realized we weren’t just drinking to family in Canada for Christmas, but to people who were actually dead.

    It seemed a strange way to celebrate what should be a happy occasion, but Christmas is a time of ritual togetherness, and when everything else is the same we feel more acutely the sense of what is lost. The first Christmas after bereavement is terrible, with every little treat an aching reminder of those no longer there to enjoy it, but as time goes on the season becomes a pleasure rather than a pain, a way of keeping our loved ones alive and with us in memory. This year (as every year) I’ll be preparing sprouts and stuffing to the sound of 'Carols from Kings’, and smiling at the memory of my father.

    But there's more to this than any one individual's recollections. Ritual is a repetition of acts performed in the same way over the long parade of years, and in its performance we are opening the door to history. That the Commons doors should be slammed in Black Rod’s face at the opening of Parliament derives from the 17th century, that the Lord Chancellor should sit on the ‘Woolsack’ goes back to the 14th, and when we see these things done then we’re watching history.

    We saw it in July when the board at Buckingham Palace announced the birth of Prince George. We can see it every day – in the lowering of a flag, the wearing of a Judge’s wig, the Changing of the Guard. When a Latin Grace is recited at High Table, when monks chant Plainsong, when a bugler plays the Last Post, then we are hearing it too. And when we take communion, or drop a penny in wishing well, or even say ‘Bless you’ to someone who sneezes, then we’re not re-enacting history, we’re living it for real.

    Popular wishing well in Kyoto

    It’s perhaps this last which matters most to historical novelists. It’s true we spend our time recreating worlds profoundly different from our own, but when we want to engage our readers’ emotions then we concentrate most on those things that are the same. Love, death, friendship, betrayal – everyone can identify with these, and empathize with those characters who experience them. I would argue that the same is true of ritual.

    Obviously it’s harder in some periods than others. Not many of us have actually poked about in an animal’s entrails as a means of foretelling the future, and I can’t say I’ve ever made an offering to Athene, but even in the classical civilizations we can still recognize the familiar seeds of actions we perform today.
    When someone ‘tempts fate’ by a careless remark I may not say ‘Absit omen!’ and ‘spit in my bosom’, but I might well cry ‘Don’t say that!’ and jump to touch wood. Different actions, but when Robert Graves described a character doing this in ‘I, Claudius’ then the jolt of recognition was just the same.

    And as the centuries roll on it gets easier and easier. There are Christian churches where the readings still come from the King James Bible (1611) and the communion service is conducted by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. There are (secret) places in England where Morris Dancing isn’t a re-enactment, but continuation of a tradition handed down from generation to generation to keep alive the pagan ritual. My own favourite annual Fair is the one at Bampton in Devon, which has been going on even before Henry III granted its Charter in 1258. It’s not a quaint re-enactment like a Victorian ‘Christmas Fayre’, it’s a real county trade-meet which has quite simply never stopped. 

    The Bampton Mummers at this year's Charter Fair
    Ritual has a way of surviving, particularly when it’s fun. I doubt we’d really bother to ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November’ if it didn’t have fireworks and a bonfire thrown in – but we do, and it’s one of our strongest links to the past. In the Sussex village of Lindfield they even have a Guy dressed like Fawkes himself and the Lindfield Bonfire Society lead it to its doom with 17th century speeches and cries from the crowd of ‘Down with Popery!’

    But it’s not just Guy Fawkes we remember now, any more than it’s only Christ we think of at Christmas. The ritual has entered history in its own right, and ‘Bonfire Night’ links us to other centuries simply on the grounds that we have all celebrated the same thing. I remember experiencing a moment’s ‘double-take’ when Sergeant Timothy Gowing in the Crimea wrote of the Battle of Inkerman (5th November 1854) ‘That was keeping up Gunpowder Plot with a vengeance!’

    It can even apply beyond the specific event being commemorated. Bonfires and fireworks were around long before Guy Fawkes, but it was my experience of November 5th that made it easy for me to write about them. Describing a display in 1640’s Paris for ‘In the Name of the King’ I had to remember that the fireworks were white rather than coloured, and arranged mainly in static set pieces, but the effect on the crowd was one with which we’re all familiar. They made the same noises of ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’, and my rustic narrator noted with wonder how ‘men with hardened faces and swords on their hips turned suddenly into children.’ 

    From Claude Lorrain's Firework Series (1637)
    But in Europe at least, the biggest ritualized event has got to be Christmas. Traditions vary between countries, and some have faded altogether, but the ritual is still so powerfully laden with memory that for many people it’s become something to avoid. Divorce, bereavement, a reaction against an oppressive religion – hotels do a roaring trade on December 25th as customers flee the haunting shade of Christmas.

    It has the power to touch us like nothing else. This little video of Christmas in 1914 is only two minutes long, but it contains one image that hits me like a kick in the stomach.

    For me it’s the hats. The tins of pudding are unfamiliar to me, as alien as the trenches themselves, but those hats are identical to the ones that fall out of crackers at every Christmas table in Britain. Their remembered flimsiness is suddenly so vivid that the jollity becomes unbearable, everything so real and immediate that I want to reach into the screen and grab the men out of it, anything to save them from the horrors that only we know lie ahead.

    And Christmas is full of such ambushes, each a little sensory pool of memory to trap the unwary. The glittering decorations, the trees and fluttering candles, the taste of turkey and mulled wine, the smell of cinnamon and mince pies, the tearing of paper, the sound of carol singers, a Salvation Army band, the snap of crackers and the laughter of children. Even (heaven help us) bloody Slade. Memory catches in every particle of it, and the older we get the more we find nothing has been lost. If ritual is the doorway to the past, then on Christmas Day it’s gaping wide open.

    And to history too. Mince pies may no longer contain meat – but a recent culinary experiment proved that few could tell the difference between the modern pie and those created by Mrs Rundle 160 years ago. Health-and-safety may have killed the idea of charms in the Christmas pudding, but crackers still contain their substitutes – just as they in turn are the modern equivalent of ‘pulling the wishbone’. It’s true that many of our Christmas traditions date back only as far as the 19th century and Dickens, but some are far, far older, and carols like ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ are mediaeval in origin. The sole surviving manuscript of ‘Adam lay ybounden’ is dated to the fifteen century, and the song itself is believed to be even older. Listen to such things, and you won’t be going back just to your own youth – but to the childhood of Henry Tudor.

    Fragment of the surviving MS of 'Adam Lay Ybounden'
    That doesn’t always help when we’re writing about places with their own traditions, but my own favourite Christmas ‘ingredient’ is universal to all the so-called ‘Christian countries’. It’s rarer now, and whether we personally experience it depends entirely on the town or village in which we live, but to me it’s the most magical of sounds, and one that spans the years like no other. In 17th century Paris it would have been uttered most dominantly by the voices of Marie, Jacqueline, Gabrielle, Guillaume, Pasquier, Thibaud and the Sparrows, but the same kind of sound rang out from besieged Sevastopol in 1854, and can be heard today in every city in Europe. 

    This sound. This. You don’t need to be Christian to appreciate the gladness of this, or to share in the experience that’s been enjoyed across the centuries by rich and poor alike. This is the very sound of history, and if December 25th takes us back down the tide of memory, then in my mind it does so to the sound of Christmas bells. 

    A L Berridge's much less sentimental website is here.
    Her shameless appeal to Christmas charity for soldiers without graves is here.
    The rest of her is probably somewhere else scoffing mince pies.

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    My Dad making sure Christmas goes smoothly.
    I’m glad to say that my family tend to get on very well, particularly at Christmas. After considering this for some years, I’ve decided it’s because we start the day by drinking Champagne Cocktails. So, on that dubious premise, here’s my personal guide to festive drinking for History Girls:

    1. Champagne Cocktail
    Now I know this is just a Robertson Christmas tradition, but it’s a great tradition so I feel it only right to try and spread the word. Cocktails are an American invention - thanks, guys - and were regarded with a sort of delighted fascination when they crossed the pond in the 19th century. There is a sort of drooling delight in the way the British papers report on these strange American mixed drinks. In 1884 they list with palpable relish the huge range of cocktails available at the American Bar of the International Health Exhibition, London. A medal was awarded to Plymouth Gin at the same event, by the way. That sounds like my kind of Health Exhibition. Still, the Champagne Cocktail was King. It is described as a ‘capital soother for a sore head and coppery tongue.’ Which is true, and probably why it works for us in Darlington on Christmas morning. 

    Mr Gladstone was offered one in 1888 when he visited the United States Exchange in the Strand. After drinking it he offered a general invitation to the people of the Republic to write to him, giving his address as ‘Mr Gladstone, England’. Which is the sort of thing I do after a cocktail.

    2. Mulled Wine
    Ok. Back to more traditional Christmas fare. Well-ish. It is the mulled wine that Fred lifts to drink the health of his Uncle Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’, and it’s certainly associated with Christmas now, but basically I think the British were always up for the idea of mulling something whenever the weather got chill. 

    John Hutton’s Dictionary of Modern Slang in 1859 defines to mull as to spoil or destroy, which seems a bit harsh in this context, though maybe that depends on what you think of posset. 
    Let me explain. For Elizabeth Raffald in her mid-eighteenth century cookbook, mulling wine involves a lot of egg yolks as well as sugar, nutmeg cinnamon and optional orange peel, to create a drink that is ‘hot and pretty thick’ to be served with toast, so her mulled wine is basically boozy custard.

    Please tell me there's booze in that cup.
    By the mid-19th century recipes are offered with or without eggs, so the ‘egg-nog / posset’ tradition separates from the ‘adding spices and sugar to anything alcoholic’ tradition of mulling as we know it now in the UK. Possets were regarded as health drinks, which is perhaps why in the early 19th century mulled wine seemed to be the drink of choice for men who went in for ultra marathons. Well, at least it was for a Chairman named Spence who in 1801 went 42 miles in the space of eight hours at a ‘kind of trot or half-run’.  He had three rests of a quarter hour each when he took a little mulled-wine. In 1806 a Shropshire man was similarly sustained during his attempt to walk 142 miles in 30 hours. Neither news item states this is the 'with egg' version of mulled-wine, but it would make sense. Obviously it was the drink of champions - a sort of 19th century version of those protein shakes beloved by modern sports fiends.

    3. Punch
    Now degraded to a nasty neon concoction left at office parties to provoke the prankster and trap the unwary, it was the high holiday drink of the 18th century country squire. In 1792 he was already thought of as a creature of a former age, mourned over thus in the Annual Register: ‘[He] never played at cards but at Christmas when a family pack was produced from the mantle piece, was commonly followed by a couple of grey hounds and a pointer and announced his arrival at a neighbour's house by smacking his whip or giving the view halloo. His drink was generally ale except on Christmas, the fifth of November or some other gala days when he would make a bowl of strong brandy punch garnished with a toast and nutmeg.’ Again with the toast! Reminds me of my days drinking in Russia, when the locals repeatedly told me vodka could do you no harm if you had a bite of black bread after every shot. They were wrong.

    4. Spiced ale / Wassail!
    Laurie Graham has got ahead of me in this excellent post, but I can’t resist adding this 1784 account from a correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine: 

    In that part of Yorkshire near Leeds where I was born, and spent my youth, I remember, when I was a boy, that it was customary for many families on, the twelfth eve of Christmas […] to invite their relations, friends and neighbours to their houses, to play at cards and to partake of a supper, of which minced pies were an indispensable ingredient; and after supper was brought in the Wassail Cup, being a large bowl, such as is now used for Punch, filled with sweetened ale and roasted apples. I have seen bowls used for this purpose that held above a gallon. A plate of spiced cake was first handed about to the company, and then the Wassail Bowl, of which every one partook, by taking with a spoon, out of the ale, a roasted apple and eating it, and then drinking the healths of the company out of the bowl, wishing them a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. […] I am of opinion that the custom was very ancient, but from whence it arose, or why the mixture was called Lamb Wool, I do not at present pretend to account.

    Karel Van Mander III

    5. Nappy to finish
    I apologise, ‘nappy’ was just slang for strong ale, but mentioning it here means I can quote this, and having found it, I must. It’s from a volume called ‘The Oxford Sausage’ of 1772.

    Meanwhile then, make us Statesmen happy 
    This Christmas with a Cup of Nappy: 
    Bring forth your punch, your strong, and stale 
    The shivering Newsman's sure regale: 
    Nor let the authors of these rhymes 
    Find your hearts - harder than the times.  

    Merry Christmas, folks. 

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    Choosing a book for a reading at the newly opened Doha Children's Library, it was hard to select from the well-loved, (read: torn, chewed, scribbled on), selection on our shelves. I narrowed it down to Slinki Malinki, Six Dinner Sid, and We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Browsing the shelves of the library afterwards, it struck me how many children's books feature animals - and I couldn't think of a single adult book with an animal protagonist. Can you? The last ones I remember reading were in my early teens - Animal Farm, Duncton Wood, Stonor the Eagle, (following on swiftly from an entire bookshelf of horse books). So many of the great children's books are peopled with animals - Aslan in Narnia springs to mind, perhaps you can think of other favourites? What happens - when do we 'grow out of' books with complex animal characters?

    There's certainly a long history to the love affair between animals and literature, going all the way back to the medieval Bestiaries. As long as there have been books, there has been the desire to categorise, to illustrate, to understand the animals that share our world. I remember a copy of Diderot's 1751 Encyclopedie in the gallery I worked for in London - the illustrations were clearly not 'from life' and quite fantastical. But then, imagine trying to describe a duck billed platapus to someone who had never seen one before.

    One yearly December tradition is Masefield's 'Box of Delights'. I love Judith Masefield's illustrations for the first edition of her husband's work - stark and lovely: 'the wolves are running ...' It is a tale that weaves fantasy, magic and the 'real': Herne the Hunter transforming into a stag, a phoenix rising from the embers of a pub fire, and lovely Barney dog trotting faithfully at Hawlings' side down the centuries. 

    Perhaps it is 'children's' literature, but I know a lot of adults who still adore the story. Maybe the best of children's historical fiction does this, transcending age - Michael Morpurgo springs to mind for his animal characters, like noble Joey, the unforgettable War Horse.

    Writers and animals: 'Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this ... 
    but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’ Boswell on Johnson and Hodge

    Admittedly, I am the kind of person who is as likely to ask after your dog/cat/horse as your human family, but recreating 'real' historical animal characters is tremendous fun. The newly finished book deals with a particularly tense few months in Marseilles in 1940, and the presence of Dagobert the faithful black poodle who belonged to the young American heiress at the heart of 'the real Casablanca' humanised scenes of the novel. The fact that 'the artist's Schindler' then adopted Clovis, a black poodle puppy, instead of rescuing the war orphan his wife hoped he would bring home to New York, spoke volumes about his character. That must have been an interesting conversation. 'Poo-dog ...' (yes, that was his nickname for her) '... I know you wanted a baby, but I've brought home a poodle.'

    Virginia Woolf and Binka

    I'd be fascinated to know if anyone can suggest adult historical fiction with animal protagonists, because I'm still drawing a blank. I can think of a few 'bit parts', and there's even a classic scriptwriting text 'Save the Cat' which reinforces the value of animals as a reflection on the human characters' strengths and weaknesses, (the thought being that if the protagonist shows his decency and compassion by 'saving the cat' literally or metaphorically, we identify with them). When so many writers work with four-legged companions at their side, it's strange that they don't appear at the heart of their fiction more often. But then there is ...

     Beatrix Potter

    If you are enjoying some pre-Christmas boondoggling, there are
    more wonderful photos of writers and their animals here and here.

    I've written with a succession of dogs dozing under the desk, from a rescued husky/MalamuteX in Spain, to an Afghan hound who had more in common with Muir's 'What-a-Mess' than a show dog. This evening there's a pencil stealing pug snoring at my feet, and a rescue flame point SiameseX draped across the bookshelf. All three of us send the HGs and everyone reading good wishes for a peaceful and happy Christmas to those who celebrate it, and we look forward to reading and writing with you next year. If you write with animal companions, it would be fascinating to hear who shares your writing day?

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    When my mother-in-law was clearing out her house, prior to going into sheltered housing, she said to my husband and me, who were there for a visit: 'Fetch that out from the wardrobe. That's Mammy's post-card album. I'll put it in the bin.
    In chorus, we said: 'Oh no, you won't!

    The album opens a fascinating window on Ulster Protestant culture in the Edwardian era. Maggie Milford was clearly quite a lass, to judge by the amount of valentines that were sent to her. 'Are they from Grandpa?' David asked. 'Not at all!' said Maggie's daughter, proudly.

    This one, however, was not addressed to her or even sent by her, as the signature on the front is 'Sally' and it's addressed to  Mr Jim Craig at Point Street Bakery, Larne. I can't completely make out the message from Sally to Jim on the front, but the rear side sports this remarkable verse:

    If my heart it were a cabbage
    I would cut it fair in two
    I would share the leaves with many
    But the heart I would give to you
    Yours faithfully till Death do us Part

    Most of the postcards, however, are addressed to Maggie, and some of them are startlingly improper and not at all what I would associate with a good Presbyterian lass of that era. Like this one, dated 1906.
    Whoever wrote it wasn't too hot on spelling, that's for sure, and 'waste' for 'waist' is a little offensive, I think..For those not familiar with the old Imperial avoirdupois, Twelve oz means 12 ounces.
    This next one is even raunchier. The message says: 'This is the sort of trade goes on/Down by the six mile waterside. Just look how happy they are in each others arms, with love.' Presumably there is some irony there, given the precarious-looking position of the snogging couple. And the rear side says:
    Just like the ivy on yone (sic) Garden wall cling so tightly whatever may fall, As love grows older I will be constant and true. Just like the ivy I will cling to you sweet heart.' I think the message beneath the array of kisses is 'in a hurry' but I'm not quite sure. Perhaps this one was from William John Curran, since they got married about 1908-ish, and at that time they were saving up. He had inherited half of his father's farm, but no farmhouse - his elder brother got that - and so he had to build one. That was Ferndale, which David can just remember visiting before they retired, whose driveway was lined with daffodils in spring, planted by Maggie. She became a great gardener. By the way, the Six-Mile Water is a river in southern County Antrim.
    Here is Marie Studholme, a much-photographed music-hall star of the period. My grandma-in-law must have liked her, for she appears twice. She was one of the Gaiety Girls once, was divorced and remarried, scandalous even in my childhood! and also learned jujitsu! She toured the British provinces, so I wonder if she came to Belfast. Going there to see her would have been one big outing for Maggie, to whom even Larne or Ballyclare would have been the Bright Lights.

    And here is the metropolis of Ballyclare on a typical busy day.. The postcard comes from another lovesick swain. However, there is a postcard of the Big City, Belfast, and even one of New York with its skyscrapers. 

    The message on the front of the New York postcard is all the writing there is.
    Talking of lovesick swains, this one is really passionate, and it makes you wonder about the goings-on at the Bethel Harvest Home.   I hope this one was actuallly from the future Grandpa Curran! Especially with all the ferns, and the fact that they called their farmhouse Ferndale. Pity it is in such poor condition.
    We thought at first that this one must be, and that he was telling her he had saved so much towards building 'Ferndale' but the verse on the back is signed 'K' so this is another one who hopelessly adored Maggie Milford. There must have been some hearts broken when she did get married. There is probably some socio-historical significance to the clergyman, and I wonder whether Anglicans wore those kinds of hats, or whether this is a Catholic priest, in which case it would be a bit of Protestant cynicism about the methods and morality of the 'Cartholic' priesthood? If anyone has any idea, do let me know.
    This one has a definite Russian-ballet look about it. On the back, however, it says 'Kiss me Quick.'
    I picked out this one because it is much more what I would think of as a typical Edwardian postcard, though why is the lad got up like a Pearly King? Again, if you know, do tell me. However, the back reflects the usual preoccupation with love and flirtation.
    I must apologise for inadvertently chopping off the last line of this postcard. It reads: 'We were in the Belfast. Louisa. I wonder if the nice young man actually came in and was introduced to Louisa's parents, or whether he only saw her home? My impression of one-time Northern Irish country mores, gleaned from my mother-in-law's family, was that followers weren't encouraged at home until the engagement had happened. Indeed, 'not encouraged' is the understatement of the century, though when people did manage to get married, they were given a slap-up wedding. So these postcards happened in the midst of a hot-bed of romantic and sexual fantasy, which was kept, like farm dogs and cats, strictly outside the house, but crept in on the postcards, to be giggled over between the girls, probably in their chilly bedrooms, with innuendoes and blushes and cries of 'Away out o' that wi' you!' (one of my mother-in-law's exclamations which we use now with affectionate mimicry).

    That's just a small sample of the cards, some of which are just like today's text messages: Like this one - how idyllic Glenoe must have been, with practically no traffic! But a couple of stereotypically picturesque 'Irish types' and I think that is a jaunting car.
     The message on the rear side reads:
    Now who sent this, and was the shop a romantic rendezvous?

    There are plenty more of the raunchy ones, which all goes to show that our grandparents and great-grandparents were a lot less prudish, perhaps, than the likes of the Sitwells would have us believe. To be sure, it was the Edwardian age, but if you read Matthew Sweet's excellent 'Inventing the Victorians', you can see that the stereotypes were created and superimposed by the Victorians' children. Well, nobody wants to think about their parents having sex, do they?
    Since we are coming up to Christmas, here is the last postcard.
    A very happy Christmas to all our readers, from the Edwardians and from me.

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    Medieval kings, especially Angevin ones were a busy,  peripatetic bunch.  If they stayed in the same place more than a week it was a miracle. The task of government in the Angevin period was a hands on one. The King had literally to be seen exerting his authority and the royal itinerary was one of pillar to post and back again across England, and vast swathes of what is now modern day France, not to mention Ireland.  Accommodation was generally the Medieval equivalent of a five star hotel, often with a splendid few days' hunting laid on for the benefit of the King and courtiers.  Much of the royal finery was carried in the baggage wains that lumbered to the same destinations as their sovereign, although frequently along different roads or earlier in the day.

    I thought it might be interesting to look at where King Henry II spent the Christmas feasts of his reign from 1154 - 1188 (he died before Christmas 1189). Christmas gatherings were politically important events. While there was sport, mirth and merriment and largesse, it went hand in glove with meetings, with decisions of policy and government, with the declaration of interest and the issuing of charters.
    As an aside with reference to the entertainments, we know that one Roland le Pettour held his estates in Norfolk for the performing of one particular festive jape for King Henry II.  His brief was to appear at court each Christmas and perform a 'leap, a whistle and a fart' for the royal entertainment. The particular service was hereditary and the responsibility was passed on to his son.  What can I say?  Having watched the inimitable Mrs Brown's Boys on television, not a lot changes!

    To the itinerary:
    Beginning in 1154: Henry had been crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on December 19th, aged just 21 years old.  Red-haired, freckled, grey-eyed and bursting with energy, this was the promising start to a magnificent new reign after a generation of bloody civil war.  Henry's wife, Alienor of Aquitaine was most probably crowned with him. She was 7 months pregnant with their second son, and their heir, William was two years old.
    The Christmas celebration itself was held at the manor of Bermondsey across the river from the Tower of London.  Westminster royal Palace was not an option for the new king and queen. It had been neglected during the civil war and was something of a ruin.  Indeed, it was the first task of Henry II's newly appointed chancellor, Thomas Becket to put Westminster Palace in order and make it splendiferous.

    1155.  Christmas was held at Westminster this time around, so presumably Becket had pulled out all the stops and made the place habitable for a gathering.  By January 1, Henry was busy in Canterbury.

    1156.  No one is quite sure on this one, but Bordeaux is a likely candidate.  Certainly Henry was in his wife's lands rather than his own northern climes.  Sadly during this year he and Alienor had lost their firstborn son - cause unspecified. They had also had a daughter, christened Matilda after her formidable grandmother the Empress Matilda.

    1157.  The King and Queen were at Lincoln this year.  In September Alienor had produced another son, Richard, later to become Richard the Lionheart.

    1158. Cherbourg this year. Alienor had been in England until late in the year where she had given birth to yet another son, Geoffrey.

    1159. The royal pair spent Christmas at Falaise in Normandy. Earlier in the year Henry had tried and failed to take Toulouse which Alienor claimed belonged to her. What the atmosphere was like at this gathering is anyone's guess.
    The donjon at Falaiser

    1160. Henry and Alienor were at le Mans in Anjou this time.

    1161.  Christmas was kept at Bayeux in Normandy this year.  In October, Alienor had given birth to her second daughter, also christened Alienor at Domfront.

    1162. Henry and Alienor were intending to spend Christmas somewhere in England but because of bad weather in The Channel, had to keep the festival at Cherbourg.

    1163. Christmas this year was at Berkhamstead and marks a sign of the growing discord between Henry II and his recent Archbishop, Thomas Becket.  The castle, although belonging to the Queen, had been loaned to Becket on a chummy personal basis.  Now, with the dispute over criminous clerks looming large, Henry made a point of taking Berkhamstead for his own use and ousting Becket.

    1164. 1164 was another Christmas spend in England, at the royal castle of Marlborough in Wiltshire.

    1165.  Henry and Alienor spent Christmas apart.  He was in Oxford busy with politics and she was in Angers in Anjou, perhaps still recovering from the birth of their third daughter Joanna. Was the marriage in trouble or was it just politics?  We just don't know, but it is more likely the former, even if trouble was looming.

    1166. Another Christmas apart for the royal couple.  Henry was in Poitiers, the heart of Alienor's great Duchy of Aquitaine, and he was joined by his almost 11 year old son Prince Henry.  Alienor, meanwhile, was in Oxford giving birth to their last child, John.

    1167. This particular year the royal couple managed to have a family Christmas at Argentan, although some sources say Rouen.

    1168. The Christmas court this year was definitely at Argentan and Henry was still there at New Year.

    1169.  This year Henry was at Nantes in Brittany for Christmas with his third son Geoffrey who was Count designate of Brittany.  This was definitely politics. Queen Alienor inthe meantime was keeping her own court and Christmas in Poitiers.  Many historians and novelists see this period as the time of the split between Henry and Alienor, with her returning to her Duchy and occupying herself with her own concerns.  There is the suggestion (rather fanciful) that Henry had taken up with a nubile young mistress, Rosamund de Clifford and that Alienor had gone off in a jealous snit, but given Alienor's political acumen, it's not a likely scenario, even if it is soap-operishly romantic and dramatic.

    1170.  Henry and possibly Alienor were at Bures for Christmas not far from Bayeux.  It's from Bures, supposedly on misunderstanding Henry's orders, that the four household knights set out to cross The Channel and murder Thomas Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral  on December 29th.

    1171.   Henry spent Christmas 1171 in Dublin, sorting out the Irish and keeping away from all the furore over Becket's slaughter. Alienor was probably in Poitiers.

    1172.  In 1172, Henry and Alienor got together again at Chinon in Anjou.

    1173.  King Henry was in Caen. During the last year his sons Henry, Geoffrey and Richard had rebelled against him, as had their mother and he was still busy dealing with uprisings and insurrection.  His sons were still rioting but he had captured Alienor and imprisoned her. She spent Christmas at his pleasure, but we don't know where, although Chinon and Falaise are both likely.

    1174.  Henry spent Christmas at Argentan.  Alienor, now a permanent prisoner for the rest of his reign, was confined to various fortresses in the south of England, predominately Old Sarum and Winchester.

    1175. Henry was at Windsor with his eldest son Henry, now reconciled.

    1176.   Henry spent Christmas at Nottingham with his two youngest sons Geoffrey and John. His oldest son Henry was at Argentan with his wife, daughter of Louis VIII, and Richard was at Bordeaux.
    Restored gatehouse of Nottingham Castle

    1177  Henry was at Angers.

    1178  Henry kept Christmas at Winchester with his sons Geoffrey and John. There is no mention of Alienor being there, but she may have been.

    1179  The venue for Christmas this year was Nottingham for the second time.

    1180  This time the King was back across The Channel at Le Mans.

    1181  This year Henry spent Christmas at Winchester

    1182  Henry was at Caen.

    1183 Henry spent Christmas at Le Mans and Prince John now 17 was with him.  Henry's eldest son, Henry had died in rebellion against him in the summer of that year.

    1184  This was a big family gathering year. Christmas was spent at Windsor with Alienor joining the court, together with her sons Richard and John, her daughter Matilda who was now Duchess of Saxony with her husband and their children.

    1185.  Christmas this year was at Domfront.

    1186. Henry kept Christmas at Guildford with Prince John.

    1187.   Henry was in Normandy, at Caen this year.

    1188  Henry spent the last Christmas of his life at Saumur in Anjou.

    So in his 35 year reign, Henry II spent 12 Christmases in England,  2 in Aquitaine,  12 in Normandy, 1 in Ireland, 1 in Brittany and 6 in Anjou. All travel courtesy of horse, wagon, and occasionally Shanks' pony.

    A Happy Christmas/festival/holiday break to all wherever you happen to be!

    Elizabeth Chadwick

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    Here we are again.  It's the History Girls' third Christmas, and if you are stuck for something to read, you could do worse than to work your way backwards through the hundreds of posts there have been so far.
    Today, I'm giving you all a Christmas cracker.

    Here's what's inside:
    Instead of a silly paper hat, you're getting a crown.

    This is the ancient crown of Polish royalty, known as the Crown of Boleslaw the Brave.  More than a thousand years ago, he was given it by Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Actually, this is a replica - one of many.  Several replacements had to be made in the first seven hundred years of its existence. Polish royalty being a pretty precarious thing, the crown jewels have been hidden, stolen, and taken into exile over the centuries.  In the 18th century Boleslaw's crown was melted down by the Prussians to make gold coins, some of which were used in the most recent reconstruction, early this century.
    Of course, there's no one to wear the crown today, and it's held in a museum in Krakow.  Here's a picture of it atop King Stanislaus II August in the 1700s, shortly before the Prussian army arrived.

    Most crackers come with a little present - maybe a something useful like a keyring or a miniature screwdriver.  You get one of my favourite objects from the Victoria and Albert Museum.  It's a lock made in around 1680 by the master craftsman John Wilkes.

    © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
    It has the most intricate mechanism for locking and unlocking.  The keyhole is hidden behind the man's right leg and, best of all, the dial records how many times the lock has been opened.

    You can see a video of the lock in operation on the V&A site at /http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/w/video-wilkes-detector-lock/

     I did think of giving you a really old joke in your cracker.  Instead, you're getting a very old film.  I've been researching the film company founded by the great inventor Thomas Edison (for my new book, Montmorency Returns, available on Kindle and as a real book very soon). In 1910, Edison issued a version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol with what were then amazing special effects.  Here are some frozen frames:

    You can watch the whole thing (it's only about ten minutes long) at https://archive.org/details/AChristmasCarolhttps://archive.org/details/AChristmasCarol
    And then you can return to your own family, and your own Christmas, a better person for having seen it.
    As Tiny Tim would say,  "God bless us, every one."


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    If you buy a cake on 6th of January, chew carefully, you might find a porcelain charm in your mouth.

    I’m jumping ahead to the 6th to the feast of Epiphany when the arrival of the three kings, la fete des rois was celebrated with a cake. The custom dates back to the Middle Ages when a cake made of flaky pastry filled with frangipane paste, was cut into equal slices and placed on a table. Originally the trinket in the cake was a real bean, now replaced by a porcelain charm. A child was put under the table and when the mother pointed to a slice the child had to call out who the slice was for. Whoever found the feve in his slice became king for the day and wore a gold paper crown.

    The kings are of course Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. But the festival is a relic of pagan times when during the period of the winter solstice, the return of the sun was celebrated with a feast and during the festivities even a slave could become king for the day. Why a bean? Because of its similarity to the shape of a human embryo. The bean plant is usually the first to emerge from the earth after winter and celebrates life.

    I can’t recall celebrating Epiphany with a feve in a cake as a child. It seems it’s a Catholic custom but perhaps someone reading this might have their own memories of this cake known as the gâteau des Rois in France, the bolo rei in Portugal, rosca de reyes in Spanish countries but tortell in Catalonia, vasilopita in Greece and Cyprus and banitsa in Bulgaria. The closest I come to these feves, are the tiny chalky porcelain figurines that my mother took out of a box in the cupboard every year to put on top of the Christmas cake.

    Who remembers the scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s "Lacuna" when that fabulous cook Leandro is teaching the boy, Hamilton William Shepherd to make the Epiphany cake?

    The rosca de reyes is hardest to make: the cake called Ring of the Kings using white flour the same as for tortillas. A blob of dough fit for a king is rolled out on the table as long and fat as a sea slug. Poking it and laughing. The thing of a king… (the text is a bit ruder here but I’ve left off some words in case of complaints!)

    Leandro is usually much more pious. He made the cake into a ring by putting the-thing-of-a-king in a circle and pressing the ends together. The token goes inside, a small baby Jesus that looks like a pig.

    All the rest of the year, the clay token sits in a jar in the cabinet waiting to go into this cake. Leandro took the little pig Jesus out of the jar and kissed it before putting it in the rosca. Round jellied fruits go on top but he put a square piece where the token was inside, his way of marking it. Reach for that one he said when the dish of cake is passed around.”
    I first discovered feves at the market of L’Isle sur la Sorgue in the south of France. The little handful I bought with their exquisitely painted faces, is not with me now as I’m writing this from the southern tip of Africa. They are sleeping safely on gauze in their porcelain box in London – so I can’t show you my own Mary on her donkey, nor the shepherd with his crook, or my wise kings. Apparently there are so many collectors of feves nowadays that in France they have their own name – fabophile.

    The best feves to collect go back to before 1914. They were manufactured originally in Germany. And from about 1874 onwards bakers began to replace the original bean with a tiny doll made of soft paste hand-painted porcelain. Then after the war, Limoges took over production and the baby doll evolved into other shapes. The last manufacturer of traditional porcelain feves in France is a factory in Clamecy, Burgundy. 

    In Guy de Maupassant’s short story, Mademoiselle Perle from 1886, he writes:

    “They brought in the kings’ cake. Every year Monsieur Chantal was king and he always proclaimed Madame Chantal queen. So I was astounded when in a mouthful of cake, I felt something hard and came near breaking my tooth. I quietly removed this object from my mouth and discovered it was a tiny china doll, no larger than a bean.”

    So if you eat cake in the next few days, be warned – you might find a feve and be king for the day. But you might equally end up at the dentist


    Dianne Hofmeyr's latest picture book is The Magical Bojabi Tree

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    Plans changing . . .  requirements shifting . . . online flight-change situation . . .  £35 - no that's £35 per flight . . . yes per person . . . arrival time . . . onward journey . . . baggage . . . insurance . . . bus timetable . . . oh dear . . . taxi? Sweet Jesus! . . . Hire car . . . oh Lord . .  And the name of the child the festivities are in celebration of becomes mostly used as an expression of dismay/disgust at the inconveniences and expense of travel. Stop a moment, to think of the 99 per cent of humanity who over the centuries had to walk. Everywhere. Or maybe get a boat, row for years, and then drown.

    Ah, but when you write fiction things can be so convenient. As with the cinematic phone calls of yore, with dialling phones, where the beautiful actors only ever dialled three digits, because the full seven/ eight/nine digit numbers would take FOREVER and the audience would have fallen asleep, so we can if we choose gloss over the travel arrangements of our characters. Elizabeth Jane Howard famously observed that one has to get the numbers of the London busses right - no point saying that someone took a 31 to Harrods, when everyone knows the 31 goes from Chalk Farm to World's End, and not via Knightsbridge. Except - that it doesn't any more. The part that used to go from Notting Hill to Chelsea was renamed the 328, and then the 31 itself was extended from Notting Hill to Westfield at Shepherds Bush. No doubt the historical novelists of 1920, as they pored over ancient timetables and route maps, lamented in their turn the decline of the Horse Bus 36 (Finchley Road to Chelsea) which they had known by heart since their childhood days.

    So what do we do? We can leave the bus number out, we can gloss over, or - if its that kind of book - we can use new-yet-historical forms of transport.

    Oh, let's make a little leap of imagination.

    I'm sorry, EasytJet, but we will not be flying you. We will be flying -

    Hmmm - Icarus? 
    Perhaps not. 

    Flying squirrel? That could be good. A living breathing Flying Carpet.

    Carousel! Just don't think about Hitchcock.

    or -  a beautiful Lippizaner from the Spanish Riding School - we all know they can fly. 

    Certainly best to avoid a Threstal . . . the Ryanair of fictional modes of winged equine transport

    No. For me, it's always back to the best, the bravest, the finest, the original.
    Pegasus - take me away from all this -

    If I did have that pony, I wouldn't even need to ride him on a boat: 

    Wishing you all Bon Voyage in your seasonal movings around, 
    or, as they say in Ghana, 
    Travelling Mercies.

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    Earlier this month I was invited to contribute to a three-hour festive marathon; Channel 5’s ‘Greatest Ever Christmas Movies’ special, which was shown on Christmas Eve. As I went in to the studios, Aled Jones came out. My specialist subject was war films. War may not typically be associated with the Christmas film feel-good factor, but it led to some merriment in our house as we tried to work out whether Christmas had featured in The Eagle Has Landed, Downfall or The Hurt Locker. In the end it turned out there was only one war film among Channel 5’s festive top 40 list: Christian Carion’s very beautiful French film Joyeux Noel from 2005, about the Christmas truces down the Western Front in 1914.

    The Joyeux Noel poster (2005)

    Joyeux Noel is a visually stunning film, with wonderful music – not least the singing of ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Ave Maria’ between the trenches. However it does rather romanticize this most powerful moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent episodes in modern history, the First World War. When it was released, the New York Times film critic, Stephen Holden, neatly declared that the film was ‘as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth’. But while it is tempting to write off Joyeux Noel as purely Christmas feel-good, with a narrow focus that does little to help widen our understanding of this remarkable moment in the war, the film does prick interest in the truly extraordinary story of the 1914 Christmas truces.

    Joyeux Noel is pegged around a rather feeble love story. A handsome and feted German opera singer has been drafted to the front. His beautiful wife, who hails from the same trade, has negotiated his return from the trenches for the night of Christmas Eve so that they can duet at the officers’ party. Our hero then forgoes a night of peaceful romance to dutifully return to the front, prompting his wife to follow. As far as I am aware, there are no reports of female opera singers performing at the Christmas truces, but the premise certainly provides lots of powerful cinematic and surround-sound opportunities. However, despite this, and a few other historical inaccuracies, the fundamental premise of the film, the most apparently unbelievable thing of all, is entirely true – there were a series of unofficial ceasefires down the length of the Western Front, during which the men who had been killing each other one day put down their arms, climbed out of their opposing trenches, and met in no man’s land for a day of shared Christmas peace.

    German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment
    with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
    in no man’s land, Christmas 1914

    At the start of the Great War, as it was then known, there were several localized cease-fires and some fairly accepted codes of conduct among soldiers of both sides. In late 1914, the first winter of the war, 101 British women wrote an ‘Open Christmas Letter’ to the women of Austria and Germany, hoping to promote peace. Pope Benedict XV followed their lead, calling for an official Christmas truce, sadly without success.

    Nevertheless, on 24 and 25 December 1914, around 100,000 troops stopped fighting along the length of the Western Front. As in the film, along some stretches of the trenches, German soldiers set up small Christmas trees, lit with candles. Carols were sung collectively by the men of both armies, and some later met to exchange uniform buttons, photographs and gifts of wine and Christmas puddings. Over the following days the fallen were retrieved and buried in peace, religious services were held and, if not refereed football matches, there were at least informal kick-arounds.

    The ceasefires were not official policy, and they were not ubiquitous. In some places the peace lasted just one night, in others several days. Some soldiers were shot under cover of the truce, and along much of the front there was no cessation of hostilities at all. Most commanders opposed the truces as did, famously, one young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler. But the truces did take place, as hundreds of letters from both sides of the front testify.

    Letter from Major Hawksley, Warwick Regiment,
    27 December 1914

    ‘The Germans were quite friendly with us’ Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s wrote home. ‘They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return.’ ‘Fancy shaking hands with the enemy!’ scribbled Private B Calder of the 6th Gordons, ‘I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth’. Despite attempts at censorship the British press were quick to cover the story, some more sentimentally than others, and many quoted the soldiers’ letters. The Times endorsed the men’s lack of malice, and The Mirror regretted that the ‘absurdity and tragedy would begin again’.

    The Daily Mirror: 'A Historic Group;
    British and German soldiers photographed together'

    Like most of those articles, Joyeux Noel is a film with an intimate focus. It does not consider the political or military causes, or wider morality, of the First World War. At most, it hints at the later public swell of feeling to never let such an atrocity happen again, which led to the establishment of, among other organisations, the League of Nations, the Save the Children Fund, and the German Youth Hostel Association, the latter founded by a returning soldier who had taken part in the Christmas truces. There is also a poignant reference to the failure of this movement, when the Iron-Cross holding German commanding officer mentions that he is Jewish.

    Essentially however, Joyeux Noel is a statement about the insanity of war, the shared horror of trench warfare and, above all, about the men who found humanity in this least human of situations. Its message, that war is dehumanising, and that even our soldiers must not be made to demonise their enemies, is sadly still relevant today. With its sentimental romance, it might not make a list of top war films, but it does Channel 5 credit to include it in their Christmas list. Films about snowmen can be beautiful and important, but war, and peace, should be remembered at Christmas too.

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    Photo: David Ho
    Our December guest is Elizabeth Wein and we are thrilled to welcome her to the blog. Elizabeth's Code Name Verity, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, was hard-hitting and unusual, winning it rave reviews. Here she talks to us about Authority and Authenticity: An Author's Dilemma.

    My recent book, Rose Under Fire, is partly set in the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück in Germany during World War II. I am not a witness to the horrors that were the concentration camps. I do not even have a family member affected by those horrors. So what gives me any right to tell this story? Indeed—what gives anyone any right to tell a story that “belongs” to someone else? This seems like a question that those of us who write historical fiction of any kind must ask ourselves over and over again: What do I know? How can I ever know enough? How can I ever do this justice?

    Sue Purkiss addressed this issue in her recent History Girls review of Boy 30529 by Felix Weinberg pointing out that there is also a duty to “keep the memory alive, and introduce new generations to the appalling truth that such a thing can actually have happened, and not so very long ago.” I also hope that anything I write, even if it’s set in the past, has reason to resonate with the reader in the present. There’s a message in there not only to remember the atrocities of the past, but to be aware of the atrocities in our world today.

    The gate
    As I began writing Rose Under Fire, I thought hard about whether I should try to “experience” a little of what my fictional characters experienced—namely, on the simplest level, hunger and cold. And I couldn’t even begin. What would be the point? If I didn’t eat anything for three weeks and slept in the garage all winter, I was never going to experience the despair, the filthy conditions, the disease, the heartbreak, the dehumanization. It didn’t seem right to pretend even the smallest of deprivations. And, too, I was deeply touched by Micheline Maurel’s retrospective on her two years in the Ravensbrück satellite camp at Neubrandenburg:

    “…behind us is the multitude of the dead left at the camp, who fix us with crazed and envious eyes. Those millions of people, envy us and wish they could shout, ‘You fools, don’t you see that you are happy?’

    “Isn’t it so? What did we ask of the living when we were like the dead? To think of us? To pray for us? Yes, a little, in the beginning. But mainly to do all they could to send us material help, and then, when they had done all they could, oh, above all, to enjoy life to the fullest! We so often cried out to them, ‘Be happy, be happy! Be happy, you who eat, and you who expect alms and receive them. Be happy, you who live in fine apartments, in ugly houses or in hovels. Be happy, you who have loved ones, and you also who sit alone and dream and can weep. Be happy, you who torture yourself over metaphysical problems, and you who suffer because of money worries. Be happy, you the sick who are being cared for, and you who care for them, and be happy, oh how happy, you who die a death as normal as life, in hospital beds or in your home. Be happy, all of you: millions of people envy you.”


     The one thing I could do, and felt I must do, was to visit Ravensbrück. There is an annual week-long European Summer School held at the museum and memorial site, and I felt that by attending this seminar it would give purpose to my visit. I would not just be a tourist making a pilgrimage, but I would be learning something in addition to what the site itself had to offer, and I would be interacting with people. The theme of the summer school when I attended it in 2012 was “Remembrance and Media Biographies,” and the questions addressed by this theme seemed so appropriate to the fictional survivor account I was creating—which is, of course, based on many authentic survivor accounts, including the one quoted above.

    The seminar considered the following: Is there a memory without its media presentation? How do different media shape our memory and perception? Does media overwrite real memories? Underlying these and other questions is the very real concern that the reality will disappear in time, with its attendant torrent of images and accountings. With the death of the last witness, the transfer of authentic memories becomes increasingly important.

    During the course of the discussion at the summer school I was given much food for thought regarding the authenticity and authority of narrative—both in fiction and as documentary—and specifically regarding the reliability of my own role as an author, recreating a “witness” account of a concentration camp. Whether or not I have the right to tell this story is a dilemma that has bothered me from the beginning, and ultimately it comes down to this: I want to tell it and nobody has stopped me from telling it—quite the opposite. I’ve been encouraged. Tell the world—this is the mandate of the true witnesses, those who were dragged to their deaths in the gas chambers.

    The academic and mental experience of the 2012 European Summer School was balanced by the physical and practical experience of actually being on site at the Ravensbrück Memorial. In addition to the obvious—the moving international museum in the original “Bunker” prison, the roses floating in the lake just beyond the concrete walls, the sober crematorium and empty factory blocks—there were other things to process. The fact that we were sleeping in the former SS guards’ quarters, now a youth hostel, made many of the attendees uneasy. For me, being the dummy who spoke no German was a new and eye-opening experience. I had never before, in an academic situation, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to open up even the simplest communication (“Do you have a pen I can borrow?”). And I found myself continually amazed at the beauty of the changing sky of northern Germany, a thing that many Ravensbrück survivors have remarked on.

    Bunker and crematorium
    Indeed, my visit made me feel that I was returning to a place I’d been many years ago and finding it changed but recognizable—it was impossible for me to separate the pictures in my mind, built up over years of immersing myself in survivor narratives, from the solid landscape beneath my feet. The place is real. The physical place is real to me, and now legitimately part of my memory. Yet the reality of the concentration camp exists for me only in my imagination. It’s almost as though I’ve created a kind of false memory for myself.

    Claudia Lenz, Head of Research & Development at the European Wergeland Centre and author of The Holocaust as Active Memory (http://www.academia.edu/3499728/The_Holocaust_as_Active_Memory._The_Past_in_the_Present), told the seminar attendees: “Take your own personal expertise very seriously.”

    On the third day of the seminar, I found myself giving a tour of the Ravensbrück memorial site to a group of my German colleagues from the seminar. Unlike me, most of the people attending were there primarily for the summer school course and not specifically for the location. So in fact I knew considerably more about Ravensbrück itself than many of my companions, and because our time was restricted by our course schedule, we couldn’t always get tours with site staff. Not only did I know the layout of the camp without needing a map, I also knew its history and many individual stories associated with its existence.

    So I gave a tour. I did it because there was a demand for it, and because I could, and because I wanted to. And this makes me think that maybe I should look at my attempt to write a fictional account of this place as a kind of tour: there is a demand for it, and I can, and I want to. I don’t mean that “I can” in the sense of “no one can stop me”; I mean it in the sense that I have the background to give voice to this story, and I feel it needs telling. Mine is not an authentic voice. But I have listened to the authentic voices, and I can tell you whose they are, and I need to pass on their messages of despair and hope.

    Tell the world. For all the faults and flaws of my telling, I have no choice but to tell this story as best I can.

    Elizabeth Wein writes fiction for young adults. She is the author of Code Name Verity, as well as the The Lion Hunters cycle, set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. Her most recent novel, Rose Under Fire, has been shortlisted for the Costa Award in Children’s Fiction. Originally from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth has lived in Scotland for over fourteen years. She is married and has two teenage children.

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    Here's one for our Cabinet of Curiosities. I would be very glad to know what this is.

    Well, in a sense I know what it is. It's part of a very large shell, engraved with Mayan figures and glyphs. I bought it about fifteen years ago in a junk shop in a town called Horseheads in upstate New York, for fifty dollars.  Before I bought it, I turned it over, half expecting to see a legend on the back reading 'A Present from Guatamala City'. But no:

    I asked the owners of the shop if they knew anything about it.  Was it old?  Or a modern souvenir? What did it mean?  They hadn't a clue. They'd shown it to someone at Cornell University who'd told them that the scene depicted on it is a trial.  But that was it.  That was all they knew.  I have to say that the characters look stern enough.  Is this the plaintiff?

    Is this the judge?

    Is this tall resplendent person standing behind him, gesturing, arguing his case?

    And why is there another shell depicted on this shell?

    All I know for sure it that it's a beautiful object, the workmanship is wonderful, and I'm lucky to have it. But I'd love to know more. If there's anyone out there who can tell me anything about it - do get in touch!

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  • 12/30/13--16:01: December Competition
  • Open to UK residents only - sorry!

    To win one of five copies of Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire, please answer the following question in the Comments section below:

    What's the most convincing historical novel you've read where the author
    had no personal experience of the book's events?

    Closing date 14th January (we are giving you some extra time to recover from the festivities)

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    This is a really big day on the History Girls blog, so I hope you are not too hungover to focus! I can now announce with great excitement that we have produced our first ever publication. Daughters of Time will be published by Templar on 1st March 2014 and is a collection of stories written by some of our number about remarkable women, from Boudica to the protestors at Greenham common.

    It's intended for readers of 9+ years and so our contributors are thirteen of those History Girls who write for children (some of us do both of course). It took a while after Templar approached us to work out which women we wanted to cover and who would write about whom but by the beginning of the year we had an outline that has now morphed into a book that is at the printer's!

    Of course we could have done it all differently: there were so many subjects to choose from. So we have added a list of further women for readers to explore.

    The anthology sprang from a post by Adèle Geras, a History Girl who was writing about the influence of the book Our Island Story on a whole generation of children. In the comments, another History Girl, Louisa Young, suggested that we should create a modern version of Our Island Story, with each of us writing one story and Adèle editing it.

    An illustration from Our Island Story by H.E.Marshall

    Adèle quickly rejected the editing suggestion but the idea of our producing an anthology one day got itself lodged in a few minds and Templar enterprisingly called our bluff. After that, the rest was details. Oh, and writing it of course, but it's always like that with books (I currently have one announced in another publisher's catalogue consisting of a title and cover and not yet much else).

    In the end, I edited Daughters of Time and a dozen other History Girls contributed to it with me. Adèle's story was about Eleanor of Aquitaine, a very remarkable woman indeed, who was Queen of first France and then England. But we see her here in a private capacity, comforting a sick girl.

    Eleanor of Aquitaine

    We begin with Boudica - or rather with her resourceful and brave daughter, written about by Katherine Roberts, move on to Aethelfled, a rather less well known ruler, who was daughter of Alfred the Great and inspired Sue Purkiss to write her story, Lady of the Mercians. But it's not all about royal women.

    We have Kath Langrish's touching story of the unhappy maid to Dame Julian of Norwich, Dianne Hofmeyr writing about Elizabeth Stuart, who escaped being both victim and puppet of the Gunpowder Plot and Marie-Louise Jensen on playwright Aphra Behn.

    Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie

    Penny Dolan introduces us to Mary Wollstonecraft and Joan Lennon takes us back to the childhood of fossil-hunter Mary Anning. Catherine Johnson completes a trio of Marys with the one called Seacole, a heroine of the Crimean War. Celia Rees writes about Suffragette Emily Davison, Anne Rooney about daring aviator Amy Johnson and Leslie Wilson - from her own experience - about the women anti-nuclear protestors of Greenham Common.

    So a pretty varied bunch of subjects. I chose Lady Jane Grey, to liberate her reputation from the passive victim as portrayed  by Paul Delaroche in the famous and inaccurate painting of 1833, now in the National Gallery in London.

    The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
    I wanted to show how much she was still in charge of her own fate, however much the powerful men around her wanted her to be their political pawn. As a sixteen-year-old with a mind of her own and a will of steel.

    In many of the stories, History Girls have introduced and created young women alongside the historical figures, to provide a way in for young readers, allowing them to see through the eyes of girls from the Middle Ages to the end of the 20th century, who found themselves part of events bigger than themselves.

    We are launching Daughters of Time at the Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday 30th March at 2pm, when I will chair a panel consisting of Celia Rees, Penny Dolan and Leslie Wilson. And there will be several other contributors there to sign copies. We hope to see you there but, if you can't make it, then we hope you will read the book.

    Daughters of Time by The History Girls, Edited by Mary Hoffman Templar, £7.99 paperback,
    ISBN: 9781848771697 March 2013.

    For further details and review copies, please contact Laura Smythe on laurasmythecontact@gmail.com or 07881555530

    Mary Hoffman and The History Girls are available for interview

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    Lucy Inglis, the History Girl whose post should go up today, is without reliable Internet access because of storms. Bear with us and you will be able to read Lucy's post next month.


    Mary Hoffman

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    Now the New Year has arrived and we are packing away the tinsel and glitter, I wanted to ask if you have a favourite or a hated Christmas song?  If so, I'd like to hear about it because something happened to me this Christmas.  I have developed a serious aversion to the popular versions of seasonal songs, even the good ones.  As for Frosty, Rudolf, Santas stuck up chimneys: you all make me want to emigrate to a country with no Christmas traditions.  I suppose there is a perverse pleasure in listening to the Beach Boys' doing 'We Three Kings' - it is truly so awful I say listen to it at your peril - but mostly the songs manage to squeeze out all trace of Christmas cheer in me, particularly when I hear them in shops.

    This is not a new phenomenon.  My grandmother (b. 1910) worked in stores all her life and I remember her bemoaning the tape-on-loop of Christmas songs which was played from November onwards - this memory is from the 1970s and maybe started even earlier in her career.

    It started me thinking about the history of Christmas music as annoyance.  In Dickens'A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, of course, hates carols (adding another layer of meaning to the title). I find myself sympathising with him as one young caroller

    stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of
     'God bless you merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!'
     Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.

    The boy does it to punish Scrooge as everyone knows he hates all Christmas sentimentality and yes, it is very annoying to have a carol shouted at you through the door.  When we lived in London we had one bunch who came round in about October and only knew one verse - and collecting for themselves, we guessed.  They were not successful.

    The tradition of annoyance is much older though and can be traced to the old British and Irish tradition of mummers.  The tradition still going strong in many parts of the country.  Near where I live, in the villages south of Oxford, there are still bands of these mummers going about at Christmas as a kind of rough carol singers and play performers, often using the pubs as their venues (drinking and Christmas songs have a long history too!).  The key is they are disguised by their costumes so the behaviour has a carnival element of topsy-turvy about it.  They are worlds away from shop muzak and use annoyance for the right reasons: the shaking up of the social order, reminder of older practices, the release of a (E P Thompson) Customs in Common style under-class energy.

    Thinking back to some of the best loved carols, there is a hint of this in the words, isn't there?  'So bring us some figgy pudding…we won't go until we've got some etc.' There a menace to the words if sung vigorously enough!

    In modern England, this is perhaps more a memory than a reality (I imagine the costumes cover a fair amount of bankers and doctors) but mummers I've seen are happily untidy and amateur - not sickly slick like many other Christmas traditions.

    Perhaps you'd like to tell me your favourite and least favourite example of Christmas music in the comment section below?

    Happy New Year!

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    I had just turned seventeen when I started work in London in 1960.

    I'd spent the past four years at technical school on a commercial course.  This involved shorthand and typing, general studies and O-Level GCEs.

    My first job was at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers.  For this change of lifestyle my mother provided me with two suits: an olive green one of hers, and a new navy-blue one.  There were many rules about dress in those days.  Your skirt should not show below the hem of your coat; your slip should not show below your skirt; bra straps must never show; necklines were high and cleavage unseen.  Hair was permed or put in rollers or pin curls at night to give it body.  To protect it from the weather we all wore printed nylon headscarves.

    I loved being out at work.  By the beginning of 1961 I was earning £10 a week - a good wage at the time.  I paid my parents £3 a week, and probably paid about the same amount again in train fares from north Kent.  The morning train journey was crowded, and most people smoked, so a thick fug filled the carriage.  You usually had to stand, and men would open their newspapers and rest them on your head.  I soon began to think about moving to a bedsitter in London.

    In 1962 I changed to a job in the litigation department of a firm of solicitors in Fleet Street.  Solicitors' offices demanded high standards and were always busy, and I enjoyed that.  The work was interesting, since it involved people and conflict.  Solicitors in those days did not advertise, and they certainly didn't chase accident victims.  Their headed notepaper was discreet and simply carried the name and address of the firm; the word "solicitors" did not appear.

    All the solicitors working there were men, and from well-to-do families.  We girls each worked for one of them.  My boss, although quite a young man, always addressed me as "Miss Turnbull"; our relationship was friendly but formal.

    In the secretaries' room we would chat about boyfriends, hairstyles, nights out, wedding plans.  Girls expected to be engaged by around eighteen or twenty, and married at about twenty-two.  Soon after, they would leave to have a family.

    By now I was earning ten guineas a week, plus luncheon vouchers worth 2/6d each.  I flitted in and out of the shops in the Strand in my lunch hour, buying lipsticks and eye-liner and little straight knee-length dresses.  Fashions were changing, getting freer.  I abandoned my girdle and walked down the Strand feeling wobbly-bottomed.  I grew my hair long and wore it hanging loose - though I put it in a topknot for work.  In the evenings I'd go out with a boyfriend to pubs or folk clubs where everyone smoked and your eyes smarted and mascara ran.

    Around this time I left home and, for the next few years, lived in a succession of bedsits and flats in central London.  A cheap bedsitter cost about £3.10s.0d., and would have a gas-ring - on which I attempted nothing more adventurous than Vesta curries.  I often ate out in Wimpy bars and cheap cafes.  Dalton's Weekly was the place to find accommodation.  Shared flats often had ads for a "third" or "fourth" girl, but many of these said "graduate preferred".  I had never met a graduate, and I developed an aversion to these elite people who couldn't face sharing with the likes of me.

    Moving those few miles to live in London gave me the freedom of the city.  I loved London, and still do.  The Sixties - that fabulous decade - did not begin in 1960, but by 1963 it was on its way.  I moved into a mixed-sex flat.  I heard the voice of Joan Baez for the first time - a transforming experience.  I hung out in CND headquarters in Carthusian Street.  I went to Bunjie's folk club off Leicester Square.  I went on demos.  I went to student balls at UCL (yes, I finally got to know those graduates!)  I had some of my poems printed in small magazines, and in evenings and lunch-hours I sat and wrote my big historical novel and dreamed of publication.

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    It's January, when many of us heave a sigh of relief that the (relentlessly) festive season has passed again, more or less successfully, and we can subside, stroll or leap (depending on mood) back into the arms of whatever it was we've had to set aside.  But, while waiting for the coffee to brew, spare a moment for the month herself, and how artists have been seeing her down the years ...

    January from Les Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry 
    (between  and 

    Aquarius in his pants 
    (from a medieval book of astrology)

                     Woodcut illustration of Aquarius by Johannes Regiomontanus, 1512. 
                                  (clothed.  So much more comfortable.)

    (early 1820s)

    January by Grant Wood 1940 
    (painter of American Gothic and a complete surprise to me!)

    There, the coffee's ready.  Off you go now.

    P.S. I also learned the following:

    January starts on the same day of the week as October in common years, and starts on the same day of the week as April and July in leap years. In a common year, January ends on the same day of the week as February and October in a common year, and ends on the same day of the week as July in a leap year. In all years, January begins and ends on the same day of the week as May of the previous year. (Wikipedia)

    I find this interesting, not in itself, but in the fact that someone thought someone else out there might actually want to know.  Dear geeks, we love you all.


    Joan Lennon's website.
    Joan Lennon's blog.

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    Just think what I could have done with a blog...

    My thoughts on blogging range from "what a great way to reach readers all over the world!" to "complete waste of time" depending on my current mood and Amazon rankings. If you blog, you'll probably have your own opinion that falls somewhere inbetween. The fact is blogging takes time (and good blogging takes a lot of time), and whether that time and energy is well spent when you're also trying to write a book is questionable at best.

    The ideal solution for authors might be to use our blog posts to give a subtle shoutout for our published books - that's the way our publishers see them working, I'm sure. But all evidence points to this being a real turnoff for readers - and I know Ms Hoffman frowns upon too much self-promotion on this blog. Posts that give genuine value in themselves, however, are likely to spread far and wide - either because they are entertaining, or educational, or just somehow hit the zeitgeist where it hurts. Such posts get passed around the world by word-of-mouth (or, more likely these days, tweet-of-virtual-beak) in much the same way as word of a good book gets around, seemingly by magic. A great blog post can therefore lead to the book... but if a book is strong enough to generate its own word-of-mouth, then what purpose does a blog post by its author serve?

    It's a chicken and egg question, which I'm not even going to attempt to answer here. But as a mathematician, I find statistics interesting. So, since this is my first post of the New Year when people traditionally take stock of such things, I thought I would look up the stats for my own monthly posts on this History Girls blog and see which ones have proved most popular (they are all still live, so if you're curious to know why then just follow the links below to read the full post).
    Not so popular
    As I suspected, those posts ranking lowest are the ones I wrote to please my publisher. Nobody is much interested, it seems, in Camelot Castle, Dark Age Breakfasts, or Quests for the Holy Grail...which is a shame, since these are subjects I obviously feel quite passionate about or I would not have spent more than two years of my life writing a series of books based upon them. However, a couple of these "please the publisher" posts also sneaked into my top ten, so perhaps it's not the subject matter that is unpopular, but simply the way I wrote about it? (Note to self: same might apply to books.)

    Interesting for some
    'Midlist' posts, gathering several hundred views each, include Historical Plots, Retro Reading Lists, and How to Become an Author... mostly career/writing posts, which appeal to a slightly larger online audience but still not a large number of readers.

    My top ten posts on this blog are, in reverse order:

    10. From Anne Frank to War Horse (children's historical books)
    9. Grand National Memories
    8. In Search of King Arthur's Crown
    7. Ten things you can't do with a Kindle
    6. Why I didn't write The Hunger Games
    5. The Suffragette who Died to be Heard 
    4. Ancient Egyptian Adventures
    3. A Brief History of the Olympic Torch
    2. Have Written a Fairytale - will travel?

    And way ahead of all of these, with well over a thousand views and counting:

    1. Did Joan of Arc hear the Voice of God?

    Which is interesting when you consider Quests for the Holy Grail ranked so low, but perhaps encouraging that, in 2014, God (or possibly Joan of Arc) still ranks above Fairytales, the Olympic Games, Ancient Egypt, the Suffragettes, King Arthur, the Grand National, several popular children's titles, and Amazon's Kindle!

    *** Happy New Year to all our dedicated bloggers and readers! ***

    Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fantasy for young readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter. All four titles are now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook. More details at www.katherineroberts.co.uk/page3.htm

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    What do you know about the Duchess of Windsor? Probably you think you know quite a lot. Certainly the story of the King's Abdication in 1936 has been the subject of so many tv and movie variants that we all have our version of the story. I myself want most of all now to read GONE WITH THE WINDSORS by fellow History Girl Laurie Graham. The interest of the world peaks from time to time, and, for example, when the Duchess's jewels were put up for auction, images of gem-studded flamingos and the like filled the newspapers. The tale of a world well lost for love, the received wisdom about an American gold-digger determined to worm her way on to the throne of Britain are hard to shake in many people's minds.
    Anne Sebba, an experienced biographer and also a very good writer, has taken this narrative and through a great deal of research and access to many new documents, including the Duchess's own letters has presented us with a person who's altogether more complicated. She married twice, determined from a very young age not be be poor. Her first (very unhappy) marriage was to a naval officer called Earl Winfield Spencer and she was only 20 when she married him. Ernest Simpson to whom History has given the role of complaisant husband and well-known cuckold, was someone to whom Wallis remained attached in many ways even after she'd begun a relationship with the Prince of Wales. Sebba quotes from letters written by Wallis herself which provide good evidence for the assertion that she was far less keen on Edward than he was on her. She had no wish actually to be Queen and the impetus for the Abdication came both from  Edward and also, much more interestingly, from the Establishment which on the face of it were not backward in condemning Wallis as a divorced harpy with an eye to the main chance.
    And this was the reason: the Abdication was a consummation devoutly to be wished for political reasons. Edward was far too friendly with Hitler, Mussolini and their cronies and was deemed likely to turn Britain into a Fascist realm if he became King. He was also thought of as practically certifiable by many people and his brother Bertie, later to become George VI, was regarded as much better suited to be a monarch. So, it was to preserve the future of the monarchy that the liaison was outwardly discouraged but tacitly not in the least disapproved of.
    The very last page of all in the paperback edition shows a headline from the Daily Express which reads "I am willing to withdraw if such an action would solve the problem." So in this account of Wallis's life, we feel we are getting a glimpse into the motivations of someone who's not in the least what we've been expecting. Sebba is very good at giving us as much medical information as she can. She catalogues the reactions of doctors at Wallis's birth, for instance, where her gender alignment gave some cause for concern. And of course, Sebba deals sensitively with the end of the Duchess's days, under the hawk eye of the lawyer, Suzanne Blum. It's a desperately sad and lonely end and whatever one's feelings about Wallis, it's tragic to think of her wasting away, no more than skin and bone, all alone in that huge house in Paris. I do recommend this book to anyone interested in the period, both for its new insights and also for its intelligent and clear-eyed look at someone who, whatever you think of her, was both a star and conscious of being one. Wallis was, for instance, miffed to have been knocked off the front pages of newspapers by Marilyn Monroe and demanded to know who this person was, who was in the process of attracting to herself so much media attention. It's a fascinating story, very well told.

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    You always know Christmas is over and the New Year has arrived, because the annual ritual is announced – the latest initiative from the government to make us all lose weight and eat healthily. Will our rulers never learn from history? Kings and governments have been trying to control what we eat and drink since the Middle Ages through laws, taxes and outright bans. And here we are, 700 years later, still fretting about obesity.

    King Edward II (1284-1327) tried to legislate against ‘the outrageous consumption of meats and fine dishes’, in one of many Sumptuary laws which were regularly enacted right up to Elizabethan age in an attempt to control what the populace allowed were to spend on food, clothes and luxury goods. In 1336, Edward III, worried by excessive consumption and obesity among his subjects, attempted to limit all his subjects' meals to two modest courses.

    ' ... whereas heretofore, through the excessive and over many sorts of costly Meats which the People of this Realm have used … many mischiefs have happened to the People of the said Realm: for the great men, by these excesses, have been sore grieved, and the lesser People, who only endeavour to imitate the great ones in such sort of Meats, are much impoverished; whereby they are not able to aid themselves nor their liege Lord in time of need, as they ought; and many other evils have happened, as well to Souls as Bodies; …. That he would thereupon ordain … for the Profit of his People … that no man, of what estate or condition so ever he be, shall cause himself to be served in his house or elsewhere, at dinner, meal, or supper, or at any other time, with more than two messes, and each mess of two sorts of victuals at the utmost, be it of Flesh or Fish, with the common sorts of pottage, without sauce or any other sort of victuals: and if any many choose to have sauce for his mess he well may, provided it be not made at great cost: and if flesh or fish be to be mixed therein, it shall be of two sorts only at the utmost, either fish or flesh, and shall stand instead of a mess; Except on the principle Feast of the year … on which Days and Feasts every man may be served with three courses at the utmost, after the manner aforesaid …'

     Naturally people soon found a way round that. Previously, sweet custards and flavoured creams would be served as a different dish to a pudding, but if you claimed custard to be sauce, you could eat both together. Meat would have been served as separately from vegetable dishes such as leeks-in-sops, but if you combined the two on one platter they became one course or ‘mess’.

     It is often thought that obesity is a modern problem and people used to eat healthier in the past. That maybe well be true, if by the past, we mean World War II rationing. But obesity certainly wasn’t limited to the present time, as is abundantly clear from the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare. And little wonder, for a favourite dish served in medieval taverns was Brawn in Sharp Sauce. This consisted of the fat and head-meats of animals cooked and pressed into slabs of jellied brawn, which was then served deep-fried in lard. Was this really any healthier than popping in for a burger?

    Records of food provided for workers and servants in Medieval and Tudor times suggest they consumed nearly twice today’s daily recommended calorific intake especially in bread and meat. We explain that by saying that they because they burned it off in manual labour and walking. That was probably true if you were farm worker, a sailor or blacksmith, but the vast numbers of clerks, nobles and those in Holy Orders did very little hard manual work. Yes, horse-riding probably did burn off more calories than driving in car, but I doubt it reduced the weight of the wealth who were carried on their journeys and didn’t have to saddle the horses.

    Think of the vast quantities of salt ordinary people consumed especially during in winter and spring, when nearly every piece of meat, fish and even some vegetables would have been pickled or salted to preserve it. Then there was the drink. Records tell us that by the 15th Century those feeding the men and women harvesting in the fields were expected to provide either 6 pints of strong ale or a gallon of small ale daily to each person and that was just during working hours. In the Middle Ages ale, cider, mead or wine were the safe alternatives to water, even though these drinks may have been much weaker than those of today or watered down, the daily alcohol consumption, even of children, must have been a lot higher than today’s daily recommended intake.

     Did their health suffer? Did they die premature deaths? There were, of course many who died from malnutrition and starvation, as well as those who died as a result of over-indulgence. But provided a medieval man or woman survived fevers and accidents, they could expect to live just as long then as now, even on those diets.

    Yesterday I went to visit the tomb of Sir John de Sully in Crediton Parish Church, Devon. Sully died in 1387 at the age of 106, having fought in numerous battles including Bannockburn and the battle of Cressy (Crecy). He fought his last battle in Spain (la batille de Spaigne) when he was 86 years old. When he was 105, he was asked in testify in case involving a dispute over a coat of arms. His testimony was recorded along with a large number of other knights who were in their 80’s and 90’s at the time of the trial and also Sir John Chydioke who, like Sully, was over a 100 years old. I wonder what their dietary secret was.

    With the exception of World War II, I wonder which period in British history the majority of people would have eaten what today would be regarded as a really healthy diet and which was the worst. Have you ever been tempted to try any of the slimming or health diets of our ancestors?

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