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    I have just returned from a brief stay in Palermo and the western coast of Sicily. Autumn at the heart of the Mediterranean can hardly be bettered. The grape harvests have been completed, the olives are soon to picked and the weather is usually absolutely splendid.

    I first visited Sicily in 2005. This trip kept me on the island for a month. I hired a car and went wherever the trail took me. I was searching for stories for my books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree. What I was intending was to discover and disclose the secrets roles the Mafia had played in the island’s olive oil history. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, due to exceeding poverty and mob rule, many Sicilians fled their homeland and set sail for America. A few of these immigrants were Mafia members on the run. Once these crooks arrived in the States, they established new Mafia organisations, and these proved to be fabulously remunerative, particularly during the years of Prohibition. These gangsters, Al Capone and his cronies or his gangland enemies, for example, needed a front for their nefarious dealings to keep the law off their backs. So they set up olive oil businesses for money-laundering purposes. The quality of olive oil in Sicily in the early twentieth century was very poor. The oil could be bought for next to nothing, which suited Mafia purposes perfectly. Shiploads of olive oil was exported to the States and sold as ‘Italian Olive Oil’. Who in the United States knew anything about olive oil? Once the oil was there, an international understanding that all olive oil was Italian was born. It is only in very recent decades that both American and other consumers have become aware of a far wider market range. For those who remember, in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone as a young man started his own olive oil import business, Genco Pura olive oil.

    Another little olive oil snippet, Puzo took the name of his leading character from the hilltop town of Corleone inland of Palermo. It was from here that the grandfather of the actor, Al Pacino, emigrated.

    Fiction aside, the Mafia’s role in Sicily’s modern agricultural history is not only a complex story, it was a very challenging for me to unearth. I completed The Olive Tree,  but felt that there was far more to be mined than I had succeeded in doing.

    Over the course of the following years, I returned to the island regularly because I love it and because I still wanted to get beneath the surface of the place. After the two books were published, UNESCO invited me to work with them to help map a Mediterranean Olive Route and from there several television stations contacted me with interest to turn the inspiration for the books into documentary films. I was thrilled, of course. One of the bonuses was the possibility of getting another crack at Sicily.

    When we came to breakdown the storylines for the five documentaries, the very first story I proposed to the television stations was 'Sicily and its olive oil history'. Naturally, the idea grabbed because everybody loves a good Mafia story. I returned to the island to recce the storyline and on this occasion the budget provided me with an Italian journalist whose expertise was in food and modern Italian politics.

    Where I had been unable to gain access myself, doors would now open, I thought. Alas, it was not so simple. As soon as I hit on a name, a person who might make an excellent ‘character’ for the film and who was willing and not afraid to talk, to go public, my ‘man on the ground’, Sandro, found out their contact details, rang them and arranged a clandestine meeting. But how many afternoons did we spend sitting at roadsides waiting for the appearance of a lawyer, a land specialist, family members of --- who never showed up? I was beginning to lose heart until Sandro and I hit on a new angle to my story. Libera Terra . The name translates as Free Land. Briefly, Libera Terra  was founded by a Catholic priest, Don Luigi Ciotti, living and working in Turin in northern Italy. Ciotti is a brave and visionary man, a social activist in a country that is being destroyed by greed and corruption. He has quite literally changed the way the Italian government handles lands and assets owned by Mafia members. In the past, when a high-ranking member of the Mafia was imprisoned, their assets just sat about doing nothing. Ciotti and others of like mind raised a petition with over one million signatures requesting of the Italian government (at the time it was Berlusconi, so no mean feat), to offer the lands out to be farmed in a manner that was good for the earth and free of all fear and Mafia influence. What a terrific concept, and it has taken off

    A movement of small organic cooperatives springing up all over the island to farm lands confiscated from the Mafia and to bring their produce to global markets.
    I had the outline for my story: New Sicily and the unpicking of the Mafia stranglehold within the agricultural sector.

    During the worst years of Mafia control of the island, people were employed for a pittance because there was basically only one employer: the Mafia. They called the shots (in every sense!). There was no social care, merely a pitiable wage. If someone else offered employment with more decent terms, the labourers refused because they were far too scared to quit and move on. They feared the threats of physical violence being meted out against them or members of their families. Tourism was almost non-existent because foreigners feared the bombings and shootings and the horror stories they saw on the news or in the movies. Who wants a horse’s head in their bed?! In any case, building permits for all construction including hotels were in the hands of who? The Mafia, of course.

    In a sense, the island was becoming isolated and the young were leaving in droves in the hope of building a new, Mafia-free life elsewhere. This is an old agricultural story. When the villages and fields are emptied and only the older generation remain to tend them, the sector begins to die out. Knowledge and competence is lost.

    Sicily has one of the richest histories of the Mediterranean. It has been conquered by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Spanish and onwards until 1860 when Garibaldi landed and integrated it into the new state of Italy. Because of its colonizers, particularly the Romans, Sicily (also other parts of southern Italy) has been at the mercy of the feudal land system for two thousand years. One of the upsides of having been invaded by so many conquering powers is that it has a multi-layered tapestry of cuisines and agricultural expertise. But if there are no young left to grow the produce, to tend the lands and livestock, to learn the ways of the land?

    In 1992, tragedy struck but it brought about a new seed of hope. In 1992, two shocking Mafia murders took place. Two leading Sicilian magistrates, colleagues and friends, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino who had vowed publicly to rid the island of its Mafia poison, were both murdered, one after the other within the space of a matter of months. The island reeled. It was grief-stricken. These men had been heroes, now they were martyrs. No one could now deny that the Mafia would not go to any lengths to protect its own system. For our film, we bought newsreel and archival footage of these assassinations and their two public funerals. It is very moving material. Sheets were hung from balconies offering prayers, promises to remember, the streets were flooded with waves of flowers. Thousands and thousands followed the funeral corteges.

    Out of these grotesque deaths, came the seed of hope. Father Ciotti in Turin and others elsewhere on the mainland but most importantly the young of Sicily cried, ENOUGH, BASTA. It was the seed of regeneration. In 1995, Libera Terra  was founded along with one or two other organisations such as Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to extortion monies’.

    Several godfathers were arrested in quick succession and their assets were handed over to be used for organic farming and agroturismo. During one of my visits, I stayed in a Mafia hideout. It was very well concealed, sitting off a goat track high in the mountains, as one might expect for a hideout. Today it is rented out as a chalet to tourists. The monies earned from the rentals and sale of the organic food produced, particularly wine and olive oil, help to pay the working people decent wages. 

    There were setbacks. An entire, newly-planted olive grove was set alight one night as a ‘warning’. But Ciotti retaliated, and loudly. He organised a massive campaign all across across Italy. Pop stars, young people, celebrities flew to the island and replanted the groves on camera for the various news channels. We have a clip of this also in our film. It is very uplifting to see such courage and hope.

    By the time we had finished our film, I believed that the island had broken free of its chains. There are indeed many signs of growth and there are many young who have returned to work where they were born and where they can today expect to be paid a living wage and feel secure that health care will be available and that their lives are not at risk. Tourism is on the ascent. Sicily is, in my opinion, producing some of the finest olive oil in the world. And it is not just oil from one or two isolated farms. Consistently, it wins awards internationally and the farmers, the producers, are setting themselves high standards. The quantity is not enormous but it is very fine.

    But history is a slow mover, and the grip of an organisation as powerful and as invasive as the Mafia does not let go easily. It takes fearlessness and tenacity to push against a system that has snaked itself in and around every sector, to build reform, to take back what has been stolen. Italy’s financial crisis (in part due to corruption) is critical. Sicilian unemployment is running at twenty per cent. This last week in and around Palermo showed me that there is still an on-going struggle to be fought. Still, I like to think that this page – one hundred and fifty years old, at least – might be turning and that before too long these islanders might be able to hold their heads high and celebrate the land wealth that is theirs and very hard won.

    PS: The five films in The Olive Route series are available on DVD (US and international formats) at olivefarmbooks@gmail.com

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    As a history undergraduate at Cambridge in the early eighties, I learnt a lot about Balkans, Corn Laws,  Reforms Acts, Causes of Wars. I had no female teacher after the age of 16. I loved history, but it really was the wars and the laws, the high thoughts and the doings of great men. If I had then the knowledge curiosity and confidence that I have now, I would have said: I've had it with the economic, can we do some social now?  Enough men, bring me women. No more big things please - I want the small. 

    By the small, I mean of course the big small. I mean, while Mussolini was making those speeches, what were the farmers' eating? When all those Jews were waiting on the Polish border, what did they sit on? Those cholera figures - so what did those parents actually do, when symptoms appeared in their children? Who did you turn to? What colour was it? What was the greeting commonly used? When did you get your money? How did you clean your bed?

    As novelists we need the small - but it's not just that. It's not irrelevant. It's not just amusing, or a curiosity. It's the finding of a voice for those who had none. This is why we need Sarah Waters, single-handedly, it sometimes feels, reintroducing the lesbian to a history which entirely left her out, blanked her, removed her even. Radclyffe Hall's line 'That night they were not apart' is no substitute for a true and proper set of accounts for innumerable lives lived in shadow - or at least loves loved in shadow. And she gives us housework. God, the joy of lying in a warm delicious bath, listening to the washing machine tumbling my sheets, reading in The Paying Guests exactly how much elbow grease and copper-boiling and boiler-twiddling and lugging and bleach and mangling and hanging women were putting into washing sheets in houses just like mine, ninety years ago. 

    Jo Baker, in her superb novel Longbourn, based on Pride and Prejudice, describes the maid, Sarah, cast down not only at Lizzie Bennet's carelessness with mud and her petticoats, but at the time of the month when all five daughters, Mrs Bennet, the maids and the cook are - literally - on the rag, at the same time as happens in households of women - and it's Sarah's job to deal with those rags. Esther Freud, in Mr Mac and Me, tells us so movingly and delicately about a small boy's response to his mother's miscarriage. These everyday historical things, tragic but small, normal but fascinating, novelists can give us back, when official history - or mainstream literature (ie, most literature) chose to, or had to,  ignore it. I LOVE that these voices are being slipped back into history through novels. 

    My favourite at the moment happens only in the 1970s, the poet Salena Godden's memoir, Springfield Road. It's her life, her childhood. Her mother the go-go dancer, her father the jazz cat, her grandmothers, English and Jamaican (and a great grandmother with a pipe and a red bandana), her brother, her sister, holidays, sweets, chopper bikes, fingerless gloves, skateboards, dandelions, squashing berries with a stick, going farther than you were allowed, falling in love aged seven with the new boy, who pulled up his shirt and said: 'Punch me. Go on, harder.' Her father left, to join the house band of the QE2. Her new dad was not nice. The shared bedrooms, the housing estates, the ice cream vans, white carpets, a tea tray with a pictorial map of Jamaica on it . . . root beer . . . Liking being upside down. Waiting. Missing your dad. Tragedy, comedy, life . . It is another wonderful book.  

    I never quite knew what root beer actually is, so when a historian turned micro-brewer turned up at dinner last night I thought well, how convenient, and asked him. He told me about sassafras, and the market for non-alcoholic fun beverages during prohibition. (We looked up sassafras and discovered that its chemical, safrole, was also used in MDMA, and had been banned by the FDA at various stages.) Why was I asking, he wondered. I told him about the book. We'd been talking about grandmothers - his was there; she ran a home store in Boise Idaho in the 60s and 70s. One of Salena's Jamaican great great grandmothers was a Maroon. We knew it meant runaway rebel slave, but  none of us knew the origin of the word - was it the same root as being marooned? Was that anything to do with mare, the sea? Marrone, the big sea? No, marrone means chestnut, or brown . . .  Or the Jamaican band, the Cimarrons? 

    We looked it up.  Cimmaron means wild, feral, fugitive and runaway; maroon is from cimarron. It's from the TaínoTaíno? An Arawak language, historically spoken by the Taíno people of the Caribbean, in the BahamasCubaHispaniolaJamaicaPuerto Rico, and the northern Lesser Antilles. This leads us to the Garifuna, the Caribs, and to this, which I offer direct from Wikipedia: 

    In the Lesser Antilles, the Carib conquest (which had advanced to Puerto Rico by the time of the Spanish conquest, and is still occurring to some extent among the Carib and Arawak in South America) created a sociolinguistically interesting situation. Carib warriors invading from South America took Taíno wives, or raided north and took female Taíno captives back to the southern Antilles. The women continued to speak Taíno, but the men taught their sons Carib. This resulted in a situation where the women spoke an Arawakan language and the men an unrelated Cariban language. However, because boys' maternal language was Arawak, their Carib became mixed, with Carib vocabulary on an Arawak grammatical base. 

    That shut us up. Different languages for the different sexes! 

    Here are some more words from that language none of us had heard of. 

    barbecue - barbacoa
    potato - batata
    cacique (Latin American native chief) - cacique
    cannibal - caniba
    canoe - canoa
    Caribbean - Caribe
    cassava (yucca) - casaba
    coquí (a small frog found in Puerto Rico) - cokí
    guava - guayabo
    iguana - iguana
    hammock - hamaca
    hurricane - hurakan
    cay - kayo
    mauby (a type of Caribbean tree whose bark is used in making a fermented drink) - mabí
    tobacco - tabacú
    maize (corn) - mahiz
    mangrove - mangue
    papaya - papáia
    savanna - zabana

    Mauby! The brewer got excited at that. We looked it up. The internet tells us it's sort of like - haha! - root beer. Only nicer. 

    I remembered, later that night, a sweet appley drink a friend at school's dad used to make, back in 70s, known to us as mavvy. I looked it up: you can buy it.  Get some in, for the next barbacoa. 

    Ah, the joys of going round in circles.

    It's all history. Keep it coming. Big and small. And poo to the Corn Laws.

    (NB The novels I mention are all widely available. Springfield Road though is published by Unbound, so most easily found here.)

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    As I understand it, biography is about finding out the truth about people and reporting back. This seems perfect work for me, as I am naturally nosy about - let’s say interested in - people and the world in which we live. However I quickly discovered that researching the life of a secret agent, as I did for my last biography, The Spy Who Lovedcontains inherent difficulties. Many official and unofficial papers relating to Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the war, have been destroyed - on accident or by purpose - while others may remain unreleased. Furthermore agents like Christine were trained to cover their tracks, and not leave a paper trail. Christine certainly kept few records. Until I started my research there were only a couple of letters known to have been written by her.

    Letter from Christine Granville to Harold Perkins, March 1945

    The letter above is kept at the National Archives. It was written in March 1945 to Christine's SOE boss, Harold Perkins. Here she is volunteering desperately for a final mission: 
    ‘For God’s sake do not strike my name from the firm [SOE]… remember that I am always too pleased to go and do anything for it. May be you find out that I could be useful getting people out from camps and prisons in Germany just before they get shot. I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day’.
    I laughed when I read this, thinking at first that Christine was joking – but, no, she was absolutely sincere. When this letter was written, she had already given five years of voluntary service, repeatedly working behind enemy lines at huge risk to her life. Her desperate request here tells us so much about her, her determination, her love for action and service and, above all, her courage.

    But letters, so wonderful at preserving the evidence of that most intangible thing, emotion, are notoriously unreliable for facts. Letters are often full of mistakes, opinion rather than fact, or attempts to mislead. During my research I found many more letters to and from Christine, and what I discovered was that while the facts often did not add up, Christine’s character did: she loved to tell a good story.

    'Let Gold Eat Gold', courtesy of Countess M Skarbek 

    Stories were always an important part of Christine’s life. Her father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, had brought her up with proud Skarbek family stories intertwined with patriotic Polish history. The etching above illustrated one of these stories, when the first Count Skarbek (with outstretched arm, right) refused to bow before a German Emperor (seated). Scorning the coffers of riches he was shown to try to buy his loyalty, the Count took off his own signet ring and threw it in the chest declaring ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles trust our steel’, meaning their swords. He later helped rout the invading German mercenary forces. Listening to her father tell this tale, and many others, Christine quickly learnt how stories could be used for propaganda!

    As a special agent Christine would later use her own stories to effectively cloud the details of her activities or motivations. I came across several versions of the same, wonderful story about her flirtatiously securing the unwitting help of a Wehrmacht officer to smuggle clandestine documents through train checkpoints in occupied Poland. Intriguingly however, in each version, the departure and destination train-stations were different. Perhaps Christine sensibly wished to keep her precise movements hidden, even years later. Certainly duty had required her to frequently change her name and identity, and arguably also her age and date of birth: fictions were part of her life. 

    Sometimes, however, Christine simply seemed to enjoy not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story. This might explain some of the more colourful reports I found of her parachute descent into France in the summer of 1944. In his memoirs, Patrick Howarth, an SOE colleague, wrote that Christine indulged ‘in the most outrageous fantasies when talking to people to whom she was not disposed to take seriously'. Who can blame her? But the net result was that it was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish fact from fiction.  

    Me, in front of Christine's childhood home, Trzepnica

    To try to get to the bottom of things, I decided to retrace Christine’s steps, gathering evidence on the way - a process that Antonia Fraser calls ‘optical research’. First stop was Poland. The photo above shows me in front of Christine’s childhood home, Trzepnica, about an hour from Warsaw. It was wonderful to walk on Christine’s lawns, see the vast oak trees she loved, the house and the stables. My kind friend Maciek, who had come with me to translate, even managed to find the key to this now derelict building, so that we could look around inside.

    As you can imagine, I got very excited and took photos of everything. At one point Maciek asked me why I was taking a shot of a blue plaque on the outside wall. ‘You never know what secrets it might hold’ I said in jubilation'. ‘It says…’ said Maciek dryly, ‘Please don’t play football on the grass.’

    From Trzepnica we went on to Warsaw, where Maciek stayed with his aunt while I was lucky enough to have the use of a beautiful flat in the restored old town that belongs to Jan Ledochowski, the son of Count Wladimir Ledochowski, one of Christine’s close friends from the Polish resistance. 

    One morning I came out of the flat at 9am to meet Maciek and head off to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, in search of more facts. As I emerged into the morning light a Wehrmacht officer in full uniform started shouting at me. Then he charged up and started jabbing at me with the perforated barrel of his hand-held machine gun. It was one of the most frightening experiences I have ever had. At first I thought, ‘OMG, I have just been arrested by the Wehrmacht’. Then I thought, ‘OMG, I have just completely lost my marbles’. Luckily Maciek soon arrived and managed to straighten things out. It turned out that, not understanding the polite Polish notice put through the door, I had walked into the middle of filming for a Polish WWII drama, ruining the take. But even this bit of fiction taught me something. I knew, rationally, that it must be something like TV filming, but I was still nearly crying to see that gun waved near my head. Christine, who was working for the British secret services, and was part-Jewish, was arrested several times behind enemy lines during the war, and always kept her cool, managing to talk her way out of danger more than once. Nothing could have brought home more clearly to me just how courageous this woman was, and what sang froid she had. 

    Polish TV WWI drama being filmed

    Among my primary sources for my last book were reports, awards and certificates held in British, Polish and French archives, and various public and private collections. These things all helped to build up a clear picture of when Christine worked where. But the fact is that there are emotional, as well as factual, truths. A good biography will reveal why people acted as they did, how they felt and what they believed, and ‘the truth’ - or perhaps I should say ‘the many truths’ - of someone, must be found in both the facts and the fictions of their lives.

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    Photo credit: Chas Gibbions
    We are very pleased to welcome our October guest, Helen Castor, well known to those interested in History for her book and TV series, She-Wolves. She is also famous on this blog for being the big sister of Harriet Castor, who has only just stopped being a History Girl.

    This is what Helen says about herself: Helen Castor is a medieval historian and a Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Blood & Roses, her biography of the 15th-century Paston family, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005 and won the English Association's Beatrice White Prize in 2006. Her last book She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth was widely selected as one of the books of the year for 2010. She presents Radio 4’s Making History and documentaries for BBC television, including a three-part series based on She-Wolves and, most recently, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death.

    Harriet: Thank you so much, History Girls, for this opportunity to come back and visit you! Thank you, too, for giving me this chance to interview my sister, Helen Castor, about her new book Joan of Arc: A History (published in the UK by Faber this month, and in the US by HarperCollins next May). You might think we’d have talked about Joan many times already… but the reality of busy lives – plus the fact that we live in different parts of the country – means that we don’t get the chance to see each other as often as we’d like, and so to have this excuse to chat about Helen’s new project has been a pleasure, as well as very interesting. You might accuse me of family bias (I can’t do anything about that!) but I can say with complete honesty I absolutely loved reading Joan; it is gripping, moving, and explains with vivid clarity the immensely complex and constantly shifting political scenes of the time, both in England and France – a huge achievement in itself, and one that succeeds in setting Joan the woman in her proper historical context.

    Harriet: Your last book, She-Wolves – The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, was about four medieval queens. How did She-Wolves lead on to Joan of Arc?

    Helen: In She-Wolves I was exploring the constraints on female power in a world that expected its rulers to be male – and one of the most significant of those constraints was that women couldn’t lead armies on the battlefield. As I talked about the book, I kept finding myself saying, ‘The only woman who did lead armies on the battlefield was Joan of Arc – and look what happened to her…’.

    And eventually it dawned on me that I didn’t really know what had happened to her. I knew the outline of her story, as most people do; but I didn’t really understand how she’d come to do what she did, or what she thought she was doing, or how those around her – friends and enemies – had reacted. Once those questions had occurred to me, I wanted to know more.

    Harriet: Many books have been written about Joan. What did you feel still needed to be explored?

    Helen: There are countless books about Joan – as well as plays, films, music, art – which meant that sitting down to write was a fairly terrifying prospect. But what I felt was missing was a book that told her story forwards, not backwards.

    By that I mean that most books about Joan start with her in the fields at Domrémy, hearing her voices for the first time. But all our evidence for that part of her life comes from the transcripts of her two trials – one that condemned her as a heretic, and the other, held twenty-five years after her death, to clear her name.

    And that leaves us with a problem. The trials took place when it was already clear what Joan had achieved, so the evidence they present is deeply infused with hindsight of one kind or another. And if we start with Joan in the fields, that hindsight is built into the narrative: it’s obvious from the start that she has an extraordinary destiny in front of her, so we’re already telling the story of the icon and the saint.

    What I wanted to do instead was put hindsight aside as much as possible; to understand the war in France, and then to experience the shock of a seventeen-year-old peasant girl appearing from nowhere, claiming to be sent by God. Then, we can start the story by asking why on earth anyone would listen to her…

    Harriet: What were the particular challenges of the research for this book?

    Helen: I knew the fifteenth century very well, but almost entirely from the English perspective. So it was a challenge – and a fascinating one – to find myself in fifteenth-century France, within a civil war every bit as complex and brutal as our Wars of the Roses a few decades later.

    Beyond that, the transcripts of Joan’s trials are deeply testing sources to use. Utterly absorbing, but never straightforward – the process shaped by medieval canon law and theology, the testimonies full of inconsistencies and contradictions, and many of the witnesses’ stories growing in the telling. Every time I go back to them I see new things.

     By Clément de Fauquembergue
    (The only surviving image of Joan made during her lifetime: a picture drawn in the margin of the records of the Paris parlement by its notary, Clément de Fauquembergue, on 10 May 1429, the day when news arrived of the liberation of Orléans. He had heard that the Armagnacs were accompanied by a maid carrying a banner, but he had never seen her, and so depicted her with long hair in female dress).

    Harriet: There seems to be a push, in the non-fiction history market, towards adopting a fiction-like style of writing. In this context, how would you describe your approach to writing narrative history?

    Helen: For me, the point of writing narrative history is that it allows the past to be immersive. I’m trying to look through the eyes of the people who were there, to understand what they thought and felt – and that, of course, means there are many points of comparison with what writers of historical fiction are seeking to do. It’s crucial to remember that the people I’m writing about don’t know what hasn’t yet happened, any more than we do in our own lives; so any mention of what’s still to come, or of what later historians have said about their experiences, jolts us out of their world – and I try very hard to avoid that. Instead, all that contextual and historiographical discussion goes into the notes, where it can stand on its own terms.

    So I suppose I’m saying that historical imagination always has to be at work in attempting to recreate the past – but at the same time there are boundaries to what I’ll allow myself to do. I’ll try to summon up a scene from all the available details in contemporary sources, or put flesh on the bones of my protagonists using every scrap of information I can find; but I won’t, for example, put words into their mouths. Most of the transcript of Joan’s trial is in the third person (‘she said that…’). Very occasionally something is recorded in direct speech – and those are the only moments when Joan speaks directly in my text. There remains the question of the accuracy of the notaries who recorded her words and translated them into Latin; but at least I can be faithful to the transcript.

    Harriet: As you explain in the book, Joan wasn’t the only holy ‘simple’ person to emerge at this time. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

    Helen: It can be tempting for us to assume, I think, that Joan’s exceptional career came about because she was a completely exceptional figure in her own time. Though she was extraordinary in many ways, it’s important to realise that God was present everywhere in her world, and that she wasn’t the only person – or the only woman – in late medieval France to claim that she heard messages from heaven.

    What was unique about Joan was her claim that she’d been sent to lead the king’s army, which of course could be regarded as a miracle for as long as she was winning battles, but rapidly became a liability once the victories stopped. And, once she’d been captured, her own side adopted another messenger from God who was almost an ‘anti-Joan’: a simple boy, known as William the Shepherd, who carried no weapons but rode side-saddle, with stigmata on his hands and feet. He didn’t last long either… But if we understand the landscape of belief in which she lived, we stand a better chance of seeing what was truly remarkable about Joan herself.

    Joan of Arc depicted in a 1505 manuscript.
    Harriet: I had always thought of Joan’s adoption of male dress principally in terms of its symbolic value, but you point out that there were very important practical issues involved – not simply connected to horse-riding, but to personal security too. How much detail were you able to find out about this?

    Helen: Her male dress appears to have started as a practical thing. When she set off for Chinon from Vaucouleurs, near Domrémy, the townspeople gave her a horse and an outfit of men’s clothes – which made complete sense, given that she would be riding across dangerous country for many days in the company of a small band of soldiers. But by the time she reached the Dauphin’s court, her male dress seems, for her, to have become part of her mission – an outward manifestation of the work she had been sent to do.

    It’s very hard, though, to get a clear sense of what the balance was between the two – perhaps because they became so completely intertwined. At her trial, Joan said many different things about her clothes; she always defended her male dress, but not in consistent or completely coherent terms. Certainly, she was physically less vulnerable dressed as a man, because the cords with which hose were knotted on to a doublet offered some practical protection against sexual assault – and some later witnesses suggested that, during the three days towards the very end of her trial when she was dressed in women’s clothes, she was raped in her cell. We can’t know for sure; but it’s an important reminder of quite how vulnerable she was as a lone female prisoner in a castle full of soldiers who hated and feared her.

    Harriet: Did your view of Joan change during your work on this project?

    Helen: She moved from two dimensions to three. I felt I’d found the real person, standing squarely within her own world, rather than the icon who somehow escapes from history altogether. What I found particularly moving was coming to an understanding of her voices and visions that made sense to me in human terms. On the last morning of her life, some of her judges visited her in her cell in a last attempt, as they saw it, to save her soul. Some historians have completely rejected this part of the transcript as a fabrication after the event, but for a whole number of reasons that doesn’t convince me historically; and what Joan says during that meeting about her voices and visions – when she knows she’s about to die, and all her grandiose stories of angels and saints have gone – seems to me to have a real psychological truth. I’ve tried to leave room throughout the book for anyone who reads it to come to their own conclusions, but that, for me, was the moment when I felt I understood.

    Harriet: She-Wolves became not only a book but also a series of BBC TV documentaries, which I know many readers of this blog thoroughly enjoyed (me included!). Can we hope for the same with Joan?

    Helen: I’m working with the same director and producer and most of the same team – all of them brilliant – on a one-hour programme for BBC Two, to be shown sometime next year. We’ve just finished filming in France, following in Joan’s footsteps from Domrémy to Rouen – and one of the things we’re hoping to do, as well as going to all those glorious places, is bring the transcript of her trial to life as much as we can. It’s an exciting process.

    Joan of Arc: A History is published in the UK by Faber & Faber, and will be published in the US by HarperCollins in May 2015.

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    Into this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities, I want to put my chair (of uncertain date but most likley Elizabethan) because it is a curiosity in itself with a past steeped in mystery.

    When I was a little girl I used to visit an elderly great-aunt about four times a year. She lived in the mill town of Radcliffe, Lancashire in a terraced house halfway up a steep hill. It was an end terrace, separated from its neighbour by a narrow alleyway that used to resonate with echoes when I stamped on the flagstones and shouted. Entering through the front door into the hallway I always remember the varnished wood electric meter box, and standing beside it a darkly gleaming old oak chair that just fitted into the space at the bottom of the stairs. Great aunt Elizabeth was meticulous about waxing and polishing the chair, and I was always fascinated by its intricate carving. However, as a little girl I never thought any more about it, it was just auntie’s old chair, and another piece of furniture. My lust at that time was all for the cuckoo clock in her sitting room.

    However, as I became an older teenager and entered my 20s, my interest in all things historical had begun to spark and I became curious about the chair. I think we struck up a conversation about it after Auntie grumbled about having to keep polishing it. She was much older now and her arthritis made it difficult to bend and her eyesight had deteriorated,  hence her hinting about preparing to pass it on. 

    Auntie (born in 1901) told me that the family story went that her great-grandfather had rescued it from a church during a period of refurbishment. The chair had been thrown out because it was badly broken. Said ancestor being of a waste not want not mentality brought it home and repaired it - rather crudely it has to be said. Round the back of the chair are some screwed in iron plates that show his fixings. The same with the seat which is screwed on firmly but rather brutally. The top of the chair shows holes for either finials or a decorative top but these are long gone.

    Victorian ancestor's crude cobblings to hold the chair together. Now a part of its history too!

    The chair is beautifully carved, and where my great, great-great-grandfather’s early Victorian vandalism hasn’t run, one can make out screws made out of wood. We’ve never had the chair looked at by an expert, but from trawling online and some domestic researches, it would seem that what we have is a chair of the Elizabethan period or just perhaps early Jacobean. When my ancestor came to rescue it in the 19th century, it was of an age where it wasn’t particularly treasured antique, but rather a piece of junk. So, rough and ready repairs or not, my great, great-grandfather Sykes rescued the chair for posterity.

    I have tried to work out which church it came from. Sadly my great-aunt has passed away and also my grandmother her sister. My father in his 80s, knows only as much as I do. We think that the chair may have come from the church of St Mary and St Bartholomew parish church of Radcliffe, because the other churches within walking distance of my aunt’s house are 19th-century and without the history to have housed such an item of furniture. Who sat in it? For what purpose was it used?  I don’t know, but it’s endlessly fascinating to imagine.  In my turn I shall pass it on to my eldest son and  it will go to his children after that.  In the meantime, I intend to find out more about the chair if I can and add knowledge to curiosity!

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    We are lucky enough to have two competitions this month. Both are open only to UK residents.

    Firstly, our usual one linked to this month's guest. You can win one of five copies of Helen Castor's Joan of Arc: a History, by answering this question in the Comments section below:

    "Why do you think Joan of Arc has had more pop songs written about her than any other historical figure?"

    Please also copy your answers to me at: readers@maryhoffman.co.uk so I can contact the winners.

    Secondly, Flybe have generously offered a pair of tickets for return flights from London Southend Airport to Caen. I wrote about the sights to be found at Caen and Bayeux. And more about Bayeux here and here, both places I visited courtesy of the airline Flybe and the Normandy Tourist Board.

    All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning the tickets is Follow us on Twitter and send me an email at: readers@maryhoffman.co.uk to say you have done so. We are @history_girls. We will pick the winner out of a hat and notify you by email.

    Closing date for both competitions is 7th November.

    Terms & conditions for the Flybe competition:

    Flybe operated by Stobart Air Travel Voucher Terms and Conditions
    1. Flight vouchers can only be redeemed on www.flybe.com.
    2. You will be required to enter the voucher reference number provided at the time of
    3. Seats can only be booked in Q Class or lower.
    4. Seats must be redeemed together and seat availability is at Stobart Air’s discretion.
    5. While every effort will be made to facilitate your preferred travel dates bookings are
    subject to applicable seat availability on flights. Furthermore please be aware that
    weekend availability is limited and a minimum of 14 days advance booking request is
    6. The voucher cannot be used to redeem flights on bank holiday weekends, school
    holidays or dates for major sporting events.
    7. This voucher covers the cost of one piece of checked baggage per person per flight
    (up to 20kgs) and one piece of cabin baggage (up to 7kg, subject to cabin baggage
    terms & conditions). Please note this excludes all sporting equipment.
    8. Routes and validity dates are not changeable.
    9. Please retain this voucher as confirmation of winning.
    10. The voucher does not entitle you to a cash value in lieu and is non-transferable. The
    prize must be used by the winner and a companion travelling together.
    11. Please check with your local authorities regarding passport and visa requirements
    12. The prizewinner, if under 18, must be accompanied by an adult on the flight.
    13. The winner may be required to take part in any publicity accompanying or resulting
    from this competition.

    The tickets must be redeemed by 26 February 2015. Also, please bear in mind that Flybe is only covering the flights, not accommodation, transfers etc.

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    Starting off November in this centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, inevitably leads to thoughts of Remembrance. Just how do we honour the dead, particularly those fallen in war?

    Hugely successful has been the idea of artist Paul Cummins to fill the moat of the Tower of London with ceramic poppies. This has proved a very successful installation, with crowds flocking to see the growing "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" artwork, while volunteers plant the poppies. The last of the 888,246 flowers, each representing "a military fatality during WW1"will be set in the moat on November 11th, Remembrance Day.

    From Tower of London website
    I can't be there then, as it's midweek, but hope to go on Remembrance Sunday, November 9th and attend a service in the Tower Chapel, St Peter ad Vincula, where the bones of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and so many other names from English history lie under the stones.

    I always buy and wear a red poppy, alongside one of the Peace Union's white poppies. Leslie Wilson wrote about the poppy's symbolism here on 23rd October. Jonathan Jones, the Guardian's Art critic hates the sea of them at the Tower, calling it "a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial."

    Both feel, with good reason, that we are prone to honour only the British dead and those who were combatants. We are of course free to think of whom we wish in the two minutes' silence: men and women, Allies and Germans, military and civilian deaths, the "Great" war or any other conflict.

    We need to honour the dead; it is hard to think of any culture where this is not important. Antigone needed to bury her brothers, Achilles had to retrieve Patroclus' body from the battlefield where he had been killed and Priam in his turn had to beg Achilles for Hector's desecrated corpse.

    Where we don't have an identified body to bury, we take one unknown to stand for all:

    Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey
    The British soldier buried here in 1920 represents all those who fell in France but whose families were unable to retrieve their mortal remains and give them their funeral rites.

    Which brings me to Richard the Third.  I'm sure you are aware of the latest on the funeral arrangements to inter appropriately the skeleton found in the Leicester car park, which was proved to be that of England's most notorious king (just pipping Henry the Eighth to that title)

    National Portrait Gallery Wikimedia Commons
     (All photographs of the skeleton are copyright of the University of Leicester but you can see one here).

    Anyway, I'm sure you all remember the excavation in the car park which revealed the remains later identified as those of Richard, under a parking spot conveniently marked "R" and the subsequent TV programmes, press conferences and so on. And then the fascinating court case about where those remains were to be interred.

    The Plantagenet Alliance, consisting of  "collateral descendants" of the king was formed by Stephen Nicolay, the 16th great-grandson of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (father of Richard III). They were granted a judicial review of the burial place, wanting the king to be interred in York rather than Leicester. But in May of this year Lady Justice Hallett, sitting with Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, ruled there were no public law grounds for interfering with the plans for reburial at Leicester Cathedral.

    The re-interment will cost £2.5m and will take place in Leicester cathedral as planned. It will receive the King’s remains on March 22, 2015 and they will then lie there for three days. The king will then be reburied during a ceremony on March 26, likely to be conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. And from March 28, the area of Richard III’s tomb will be open to the public.

    There has been controversy throughout - were these Richard's bones? Where should they be buried? Should a king with his record be honoured at all? What was that record?

    One thing is clear. A million pounds has already been raised towards the cost of the funeral of the last English king to die in battle. There are many people who want to see this thing done properly. Dr Alexandra Buckle of Oxford University has reconstructed the form of a medieval re-burial service.

    I do hope they use it. In includes this prayer:

    "Let us pray. Omnipotent and eternal God, creator and redeemer of souls, who through the prophecy of Ezechiel are worthy to bind together truly dry bones with sinews, to cover them with skin and flesh, and to put into them the breath of life, we suppliants pray to you for the soul of our dear [INSERT NAME] whose bones we now place in the grave."

    We can all "insert name" this month, whether it is that of King Richard or not.

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    We welcome a new History Girl today: Gillian Polack, who will be posting regularly on the 2nd of each month. You can read about her on the About Us page.

    First can I say how very pleased I am to be here and to meet you all. I tend to approach life directly and straightforwardly and it all comes out aslant and sidewards and different to the way I expected: my history and fiction loves are this in spades. I thought the best way to introduce myself, therefore, wasn’t with a general post about who I am, but a quite specific post about a technique I was playing with for my new novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305. I type ‘new novel’ but by the time you’re reading this, my little work of subversive time travel or my little subversive time travel work will be properly out – blogging sometimes feels like time travel itself.

    Langue[dot]doc 1305is what you get when a historian of the Middle Ages introduces herself to herself properly for the first time. Or maybe just when this particular historian of the Middle Ages does that, for, as I said, life works a bit differently around me. Instead of researching it and writing it and then moving to my next novel, I used it partly to test some theories I had about research into history and about writing novels and I played with techniques and approaches. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel: it’s a novel, not an exegesis. I thought you might like to know, however, how I worked out dialogue so that it wasn’t “ye olde” or too modern. Some of the dialogue by the medieval characters sounds modern, in fact, but the way I established it means that every bit of it is grounded on a quite specific medieval reality.

    Wattle and road: Australia in Spring

    I did the bulk of this thought experiment in the hours I sat on a bus travelling to Sydney to teach some writers the secrets of grammar. On the highway I saw much yellow wattle and a lot of green and a terrifying amount of tarmac. Inside the bus was crowded and sweaty and noisy, and I started my analysis as a way of switching off the discomfort. After about ten minutes, I realised I had a technique that would work for my novel. I forgot everything else and was very surprised when the journey was suddenly over. In fact, the moment I got home I noted much in my journal (I don’t normally keep a writing journal, but for this, I did) and that’s why I have loads of lovely detail about what I did. I used my journal for my doctoral dissertation, so there’s a bit of overlap between the dissertation and this post. I should write journals more often!

    My reasons for looking at dialogue in a different way were mainly because I was heartily tired of reading what I have taken to calling the Berlitz phrase-book approach to dialogue and character-thought. In the phrase-book approach all language is modern, except when specific words are inserted. Sometimes words from entirely the wrong language are used: Modern French instead of Old or Middle French for the Middle Ages, for instance. Get me after a drink or two and I’ll tell you which writers in particular get their languages wrong, but otherwise I shall mutter their names to myself, unhappily.

    The Berlitz phrase-book approach is colourful and it’s cute and it’s simple to do, but it makes the intestines of historians writhe. I don’t like it when my intestines writhe – I’m sure they have better things to do. Since I defined it and discovered just how much of a problem I have with it, I’ve been actively developing techniques that writers can use to move from phrase book reality to getting across to the reader that this is a language and these are people who use it.

    When I teach novel-writing, I explain to writers that they need to construct a world for the novel. It’s not history as we know it: it’s a believable reality that pulls people in and makes them live in that novel for as long as it lasts. A really wonderful historical novel (or novel that uses history) is more than a smattering of words, therefore, it’s an immersive reality. Readers don’t need to know how many public toilets archaeologists recently found for Medieval London (someone told me the number the other day and it weighs heavily upon me) unless a character is using one of them, or can’t use one of them and mourns all these seats and none of them available! They also don’t need to use the word 'Oui' or even the word ‘Merde” when all the rest of their French is rendered in English.

    The physical setting for the novel: Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert

    As writers we need to know a lot more about what goes into that built world than we tell the readers (and I’ll probably talk about this another day), but the big thing today is that one of the tools a writer has that instantly draws a reader into the story is credible dialogue. It gives the sense that the characters are real and that the history in the novel is true.

    Mostly, for a writer, this is done by feel. We develop a sense of what kind of expression we need for what sort of novel to make the reader believe (while they’re reading) that our little world is the true one. Some writers have a natural instinct for this and some… don’t. What I’m after are tools that will help the latter.

    What I did on that bus was find the precise and perfect kind of text from the period (or as close as I could get) and look at it (or them, actually) for what they told me about speech patterns. I wanted vocabulary and the sort of politeness you hear in conversations every day. This latter is very culturally-specific. Let me give you a modern Australian example of this (for I am a modern Australian): if a middle-aged gentleman says “Bluey, you old bugger” to a dignified gentleman his own age, he’s probably greeting an old friend perfectly politely. I don’t think this greeting works in quite the same way in the US.

    Something else that was round at the time my novel was set, the abbey of Gellone

    In other words, instead of writing from a general sense of how France in 1305 might sound with the expectations of readers in mind, I worked towards creating a sense of how speakers of the time might have created their own dialogue, using those texts and reflecting concepts from the period.

    I focussed on two characters: Guilhem (who was from 1305) and Artemisia (the historian with the time travel team, who was from modern Australia). I used two groups of sources: collections of proverbs and sayings, and a set of plays (the Miracles of Nostre Dame). The proverbs gave a sense of how one of my characters described colour and gave me the actual proverbs and sayings that Guilhem enjoyed using. One of the plays, however, was my magic key to writing effective dialogue. I annotated that play very heavily on my bus trip to Sydney.

    The play was religious: this is important, because developing dialogue was not simply a matter of translating how medieval people might have spoken. Guilhem's speech had to reflect not only his status in life and his character, but his intellectual interests. His interests would have to reflect his class, personality and life history. This is usually a much easier achievement for contemporary fiction writers than for historical! Artemisia's use of Old French had to reflect something additional to all of this – she was a historian and had never actually spoke Middle French.

    The following dialogue was an early (failed) attempt to convey all this:
    "I know bon frances from books. Writing."
    "Escripture et…" Artemisia joked. "Outside these writings, complex ideas are very difficult."
    "Let me explain again, then."Guilhem explains again.
    Artemisia said, "I hate it that I understood."

    This dialogue fragment demonstrates the path I was taking initially. It also shows why I left that path and found another: Guilhem and Artemisia would not have shifted languages in that way. Artemisia would have said "good French" meaning "Good Establishment French, preferably from the Île-de-France region." This level of meaning cannot be carried in translation (because then everything gets boring fast), but shifting languages where characters would not have done so is not comfortable for many readers. The conversations, therefore, had to be very carefully framed to reflect topics where Modern English was sufficiently similar in meaning, or Artemisia had to be given (which fitted her character) the capacity to run an internal commentary on what they were saying in cases where the reader needed to know more. What I learned from this, mainly, was that I had to limit my dialogue to what I knew my characters could say, rather than writing it about precisely what the story demanded. I was painting with a restricted palette.

    There was another problem. The approach I used for this early fragment had no emotional link to the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages in that region had to be not-neutral, it had to have the emotional force of the street where I live when I wrote about it. Why I love historical fiction is because the best of it gets this passion for a place and time across to readers: I had to give this gift to my readers.

    Another emotional link to the period for me was this stream

    I tested more ideas using random samples of dialogue. The Miracle plays were very useful for establishing things people might say that underlined the importance of religion to everyday thought in the Middle Ages. Here’s an example of a bit of dialogue that uses this idea:
    "I may not tell you much," Artemisia said, reluctantly. She understood the reluctance of holiness and she didn't like being the explainer of apparent miracles. Her own distrust in God was too great to lead an innocent into…whatever.
    "Good," said Guilhem. "It is enough then to have this amount of knowledge. We will talk about this place, this time-"
    "As I was instructed."
    "As God obviously wills."

    Additionally, the Middle French play I most focused on gave me some important phrases that were fairly contemporary to my story— for example, line 231 "Sire, vous dites bien, par foy" ["Lord, that's the truth, in faith"] — and of formulae that were echoed in the proverbs and thus likely to be in widespread use (see line 243 "Mon seigneur, Dieu de mal vous gart" ["My lord, God protect you from harm"]).

    I hunted phrases that reflected the character's voice. When I’d collected enough, I used those phrases to write speech that sounded natural, reflected my characters, and that hopefully shattered the Berlitz approach into tiny fragments.

    I also found a nice range of Old French words with direct descendants in modern English to be able to write a bit more fluidly. For instance, "Certes" from line 401 could be replaced with "Certainly" or "Definitely". This gave me a bigger vocabulary. To use a joke from my novel – my horizons grew: I added another colour to my palette.

    Eventually, dialogue began to develop its path (I could stop intellectualising every minute), as I wrote on my blog:
    I have a little translation-thing happening. I start to write dialogue for my people-who-actually-belong in 1305 and something in my mind says "Can't use that idea, the concept didn't exist. Need different wording because the implications of *those* words are impossible in my languages. Once the dialogue was established, establishing the sense of the past further through use of telling detail came into play. A key decision was to make it plausible to readers and to make it feel as real as possible. I used the techniques more usually associated with women's fiction (dialogue, character interaction, the minutiae of daily life) as the vehicle for this apparent realism.

    In other words, I was writing natural dialogue using my phrases and vocabulary. It took quite a bit of work, but the combination of looking at words from the historical place and time, at the character’s needs, at the cultures underpinning the conversation all meant I could successfully mine the very limited number of good sources I had. And thus I had dialogue. And also thus, I can teach dialogue. That was one useful bus trip!

    Never underestimate the creative power of an Australian road trip

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  • 11/02/14--16:00: THE KING'S EVIL, by Y S Lee

  • Hello, HG readers. I’ve been reading Liza Picard’s juicy social history of Restoration London. It is GRIPPING! Until now, I had only a hazy overview of the period, acquired during an undergraduate course on Restoration and Eighteenth Century literature. I loved the course but apart from a few gossipy snippets about Aphra Behn and the Earl of Rochester, I’d shed most of the details.

    So when I ran across the phrase “the King’s Evil” in Picard’s book, I tripped over it. The what? “The King’s Evil” is another name for scrofula, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck. It’s often associated with tuberculosis. Apparently, the swelling itself is not painful but it is disfiguring and is further associated with fever, chills, and weight loss. 

    image via wikipedia

    That’s interesting enough, but what has it to do with the king? Apparently, in both France and England, monarchs held ceremonies in which they laid healing hands on those suffering from scrofula. This was called “the royal touch”. It was both a demonstration of their paternal care for the people and an affirmation of their divine right to rule. The ceremonies included prayer and sometimes the gift of a gold coin or ribbon to the sufferer, a talisman of the king’s power.

    Here’s an image of Charles II, England’s most enthusiastic practitioner of the royal touch. (This makes perfect sense: Charles II had a lot to prove, as a freshly restored king.) According to Picard, he held weekly ceremonies, kept up the practice when he travelled outside London, and touched about 4500 petitioners in each year of his reign!

    Charles II, administering the royal touch

    The last English monarch to practise the royal touch was Queen Anne. Her most famous “patient” was the young Samuel Johnson, who contracted scrofula as an infant. His family took him to St James’s Palace in March 1712, when he was two years old. Queen Anne took her healing duty seriously, usually fasting the day before the ceremony. 

    Queen Anne, "healing" a subject

    Predictably (to us), Queen Anne’s touched failed to cure Johnson. He later endured surgery that left him with permanent scars on his face and body.

    To our minds, it might seem strange that so many people clamoured for the royal touch. There is a medical reason: scrofula is rarely fatal and often goes into remission on its own. If one’s remission coincides with the king’s touch, one has anecdotal proof that the royal hands can heal. If it doesn’t, one can always try the king again.

    Beyond this, I’m fascinated by the royal touch because it’s a vivid reminder of how slowly popular beliefs change. By 1660, we’re well out of the Medieval era. Literary scholars would say that the “Early Modern” period is past, leaving us (presumably) in the modern world. Yet many traces of the Renaissance belief in magic remain. It’s a time when confusing things can be explained by mystery and miracle. The English people believe in astrology, witchcraft, divination – and the healing touch of a divinely appointed king.

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    Geasa’ – the magical prohibitions or tabus laid upon Irish heroes such as Cú Chulainn – must have been very difficult and frustrating to endure, especially since it seems to have been the fate of most heroes eventually to violate them. (Difficult to pronounce as well, for the non-Irish among us. I'm indebted to a recent Facebook discussion in which an expert offered an approximate pronunciation for geas as'gash'.)

    You remember how the young Setanta, son of Sualtim, gained the name Cú Chulain (‘Chulain’s Hound’), after killing the fierce guard-dog belonging to the smith Chulain? When Chulain complains of his hound’s death, the boy offers to make it up to him:
    “If there is a whelp of the same breed to be had in Ireland, I will rear him and train him until he is as good a hound as the one killed, and until that time, Chulain,” he said, “I myself will be your watch-dog, to guard your goods and your cattle and your house.”
    (Trans. Lady Augusta Gregory, ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’,1907)
    After that, Cú Chulain was laid under two geasa: never to refuse a meal offered to him by a woman, and never to eat the flesh of a dog.  At the end of his life, when he is riding out to fight against Maeve’s great army, these geasaare used against him by three witches at least as deadly as those in 'Macbeth':
    After a while he saw three hags, and they blind of the left eye, before him in the road, and they having a venomous hound they were cooking with charms on rods of the rowan tree.  And he was going by them, for he knew it was not for his good they were there. 
    But one of the hags called to him, “Stop a while with us, Cuchulain.”  “I will not stop with you,” said Cuchulain.  “That is because we have nothing better than a dog to give you,” said the hag.  “If we had a grand, big cooking hearth, you would stop and visit us, but because it is only a little that we have, you will not stop.”
    …Then he went over to her, and she gave him the shoulder-blade of the hound out of her left hand, and he ate it out of his left hand. And he put it down on his left thigh, and the hand that took it was struck down, and the thigh he put it on was struck through and through, so that the strength that was in them before left them. 
    It couldn’t be more ominous, and presently, in forlorn battle against the odds, Cú Chulain is mortally wounded and straps himself to a pillar-stone, or standing stone, west of the lake of Muirthemne, so that he will not meet his death lying down: and his horse, the Grey of Macha, defends him with its teeth and hooves, until at last the hero dies and the crows descend upon him.  Fans of ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ will notice that Alan Garner has used this scene for the death of the dwarf Durathror, who straps himself to the pillar of Clulow on Shuttlingslow, defending Colin and Susan from the morthbrood.
    In ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, which is another part of the Ulster cycle, King Conaire, whose father was a magical bird-man, is placed under a truly startling variety of geasa:
    “Do not go righthandwise round Tara and lefthandwise around Bregia. Do not hunt the evil beasts of Cerna.  Do not go out beyond Tara every ninth night; do not settle the quarrel of two of your own people; do not sleep in a house you can see the firelight shining from after sunset; do not let one woman or one man come into the house where you are after sunset; do not let three Reds go before you to the House of Red.”
    But of course, one by one Conaire breaks all the geasa. He goes out to make peace between two of his subject lords, and travels the wrong way around Tara and Bregia to avoid raiders; he hunts the beasts of Cerna without realising what they are.  
    And it was the Sidhe that had made that Druid mist of smoke about him, because he had begun to break his bonds. 
    At last, on his way to find shelter in the hostelry of his friend Da Derga of Leinster, with its seven doors, Conaire sees himself preceded by three horsemen clad in red:
    Three red bucklers they bore, and three red spears were in their hands: three red steeds they bestrode, and three red heads of hair were on them. Red were they all, both body and hair and raiment, both steeds and men.
    (Trans. Dr Whitley Stokes, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, 1902)
    Knowing another geas has been broken, Conaire sends his young son Lefriflaith after the men to ask who they are.  Lefriflaith calls out to them three times, and the third time one of them calls back that they are three of the Sidhe, banished from the elfmounds:
    Lo, my son, great the news.  Weary are the steeds we ride.  We ride the steeds of Donn Tetscorach from the elf-mounds. Though we are alive we are dead. Great are the signs: destruction of life: sating of ravens: feeding of crows: strife of slaughter: wetting of sword-edge, shields with broken bosses after nightfall.  Lo, my son!
    This passage too was taken up and adapted by Alan Garner in the chapter called ‘The Horsemen of Donn’ of ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, when Colin and Susan kindle fire on the mound. King Conaire’s last two geasaare broken when a lone woman comes to the door of Da Derga’s hostel (or inn):  she has the Druid sight, and ill-wishes the king: 
    “It is what I see for you,” she said, “that nothing of your skin or of your flesh shall escape from the place you are in, except what the birds will bring away in their claws. And let me come into the house now.”
    With great unwillingness the king allows the woman to enter, though not unnaturally “none of them felt easy in their minds after what she had said.”  Finally, firelight from the hostel is spotted by Conaire’s enemy, Ingcel the One-Eyed and his army of reivers.  They attack the hostel, great destruction is wrought, and Conaire dies.
    A last example, just as ill-fated, is the geasa placed on Diarmuid by Gráinne, daughter of King Cormac and the promised bride of Finn MacCool. At the wedding feast Gráinne is put off by Finn’s age (older than her father!) and falls in love with one of his warriors, young Diarmuid.  After sending Finn a cup that makes all who drink of it fall asleep, she asks Diarmuid to marry her, and when he refuses, she says,
    I place thee under geasa, and under the bonds of heavy druidical spells, that thou take me for thy wife before Finn and the others awaken.
    (Trans. P W Joyce, ‘Old Celtic Romances’, 1879)
    Diarmuid replies: 
    Evil are those geasa thou hast put on me, and evil, I fear, will come of them.
    He asks those of his friends whom Gráinne has not put to sleep what he should do, and they all agree he must follow the geas even if it results in his death, which of course it eventually does, though not before many others have died first. Wounded by a boar, Diarmuid explains to Finn that Gráinne ‘put me under heavy geasa, which for all the wealth of the world I would not break,’ and begs Finn to save his life with a drink of water cupped in his healing hands.  But, thinking of Gráinne, Finn spills the water three times and Diarmuid dies. 

    Maybe geasa were just a poetical, literary device, the equivalent of the prophecies about Greek heroes like Achilles and Oedipus, where the narrative imperative says that Achilles’ heel will be his undoing; that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, etc. If not, though – if they ever had any real currency – you have to wonder. Could anyone use them? If so, how often? How carelessly?  Could you do the equivalent of putting your children under geasa to pick up their socks and tidy their rooms?   Or would that kind of thing backfire just as badly as most of them seem to have done in the tales?  Geasa seem to have been impossible to refuse, however arbitrary or awkward they might be.

    So what on earth were they all about?  There’s a note by PW Joyce at the back of his translation of 'Old Celtic Romances’ in which he comments,

    Geasa means solemn vows, conjurations, injunctions, prohibitions.  It would appear that individuals were often under geasa or solemn vows to observe, or to refrain from, certain lines of conduct – the vows being either taken on themselves voluntarily, or imposed on them, with their consent, by others.  It would appear, also, that if one person went through the form of putting another under geasa to grant any reasonable request, the abjured person could not refuse without loss of honour and reputation.
    Interesting as these comments are, they don’t seem quite to cover the range and quality of all geasa.  Was it a ‘reasonable request’ when Gráinne asked one of Finn’s faithful warriors to marry her under Finn’s nose at a wedding feast that had been arranged partly to settle an old enmity between Finn and her father?  It’s true that Diarmuid doesn’t have to agree, but the unanimous decision of all is that though Diarmuid may decline Gráinne’s geasa, he will lose all honour if he does. 
    Thus there seem to me to be different types of geasa.  Gráinne’s geas on Diarmuid is an almost insuperable injunction to do something he would never otherwise have dreamed of doing, and it involves him in loss of honour no matter what action he takes. The fact that he chooses to obey the geasarather than keep faith with his lord shows how incredibly powerful the injunction was considered to be.  (So: not at all something you’d use to get the children to tidy up their rooms! Not something you’d use lightly!)  Gráinne had given her father her consent to be Finn’s bride, but casually, ‘without giving much thought to the matter’:
    “I know not whether he is worthy to be thy son-in-law; but if he be, why should he not be a fitting husband for me?”
    When she sees Finn, however, she changes her mind.  She uses the power of the geasas an extreme, last-minute measure: her only chance of escape.  
    Other geasa, however, are more in the style of prophetic warnings or tabus. King Conaire is not to shoot birds, for example, because his father was a bird-man, the male equivalent of the swan-maidens of many folktales who can cast off their feathery skins and appear in human form.  This is a straightforward tabu: you don’t kill the animal which is your totem, to which you are ‘related’ by spiritual bonds and by blood.  
    But the complicated geasaabout not going righthanded (sunwise) about Tara or lefthanded (widdershins) about Bregia, or following three Reds to the House of Red, or sleeping in a house from which firelight can be seen at night, these are prophetic warnings.  They are not, perhaps, quite as inescapable as the prophecies of Greek myths.  When the oracle at Delphi tells Oedipus he will slay his father and marry his mother, you know it’s a done deal. No matter what Oedipus does, no matter how hard he tries, this is what will happen.  The event is foretold.  In the case of the Irish King Conaire, however, the geasa merely indicate unlucky actions which ought to be avoided; and although the assumption is that somekind of bad luck will follow, they don’t spell out exactly what the consequences will be.  Also, the prohibitions laid down by the geasa seem arbitrary: they are in themselves innocuous actions.  We would all want to avoid killing our fathers and marrying our mothers.  But most of us could ride clockwise around Tara, or sleep in a house with firelit windows, without coming to harm.  
    The geasapiled upon Conaire spell out a sequence of actions and omens which will lead to his death; but he cannot know this in advance. For the reader, or for the audience hearing Conaire’s tale told or sung aloud,  the geasa are a highly effective literary, poetic device for building up tension and the sense of approaching doom.  And in the same way, the two geasa laid upon Cú Chulain – not to eat the flesh of a dog, and never to refuse an offer of food from a woman – having lain dormant for much of the tale, snap together like the  jaws of a trap as the old hags call him to turn aside from his journey towards the army of Maeve to taste the meat of the hound they are cooking. It’s a signal that the end is coming, a sign of doom.  And Cú Chulain cannot escape it, although the tale makes it clear that he has the opportunity – he may refuse, but not without dishonour, not without falling short of his own greatness. “A great name outlasts life,” he says – like Achilles. 
    Cú Chulain has already seen the Washer at the Ford:
    A young girl, thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was all stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. 
    “Little Hound,” said Cathbad, “do you see what it is that young girl is washing?  It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.  And take the warning now, and turn back again.”
    “I will not turn back” [says Cú Chulain] …”And what is it to me, the woman of the Sidhe to be washing red clothing for me? It is not long till there will be clothing enough, and armour and arms, lying soaked in pools of blood, by my own sword and spear.  And if you are sorry and loth to let me go into the fight, I am glad and ready enough myself to go into it, though I know as well as you yourself I must fall in it.  Do not be hindering me any more then,” he said, “for, if I stay or if I go, death will meet me all the same.”
    (Trans. Lady Gregory
    I can’t confidently answer the question of whether geasa were ever truly used in real life, outside the tales and the epics, but I would hazard a guess that they were, just as we know that the oracles were regularly consulted in ancient Greece and in Rome.  I’m willing to bet that there were geasa - prohibitions, tabus - against the killing or eating of various animals associated with ancestry and with luck, like Conaire’s bird/spirit father, and Cú Chulain’s iconic struggle with the hound which gave him his name.  Once Cú Chulain had – effectively – become a hound, as he did when he offered himself to Chulain the smith in exchange for the dog he had killed, then in a sense all dogs became his kin.  Of course he could not eat them.  
    I’m willing also to believe there were geasa or prohibitions concerning all kinds of other omens and lucky or unlucky actions or directions, because after all they still exist today:  feng shui, not walking under ladders, not having thirteen at a dinner table.  But the geas that one person could lay upon another, to compel them to do something even against their will and honour - that's something else again, and as far as I know doesn't seem to appear in other mythologies.  Did it ever exist? Was it a metaphor for what we now call emotional blackmail?  Or was it something far more fearsome and holy, reserved perhaps for special occasions, for religio-political purposes?  Was it a remnant of Druidical power?

    Picture credits:
     Cuchulain in Battle by Joseph Christian Leyendecker, Wikimedia Commons

    Grainne - artist unknown, image from this link http://www.squidoo.com/diarmuid-and-grainne where you can find more Irish and Celtic stuff from http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/susannaduffy - if anyone recognises the artist please let me know and I will gladly credit him or her.

    Statue of Cuchulainn by Oliver Sheppard in the window of the GPO, Dublin - commemorating the 1916 rising.
    Source: Wikipedia, under Creative Commons License. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cuchulain_at_GPO.jpg#filelinks

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

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    Sometimes research can seem to go frustratingly, time-wastingly wrong.  Last month I went to Paris to do some final (ha!) research for my new book Liberty’s Fire, which is set in the ‘terrible year’ of 1871 when Paris, under the Commune, found itself besieged for the second time in a few months – not by the Prussians, but by France’s own army.  Among other things, I planned to fill a hole by getting myself to the National Museum of Photography, recently reopened at Bièvres.

    The museum boasts 30,000 different cameras and accessories dating back to the earliest years of photography.  I’d checked the website numerous times.  I knew I had a fairly short window of opportunity, as the museum only opened a few afternoons a week.   On my previous research trip to Paris last March, I’d been fantastically efficient about communicating with certain museums and archives in advance to make sure I’d definitely be able to see the material I needed.  This time I was in a more relaxed, end-of-project, flâneury sort of mood.  It simply didn’t occur to me to phone the museum in advance.  

    Bièvres, which claims to be the ‘capital of photography’, styles itself ‘un village aux portes de Paris’ – a village at the gates of Paris.  I was coming from St Germain-en-Laye and the journey took hours: three complicated train changes, each one involving a long wait between trains, culminating in a decent walk from a deserted station.  Plenty of time in which to fantasise about all the wonderful material I was going to find when I finally arrived, all those telling details that would bring key moments in my book to life.  I convinced myself that I would stumble on exactly the camera my photographer character would have used, and get a real sense of the scale and design of the developing equipment.  I could already practically see the reconstruction of a mobile darkroom which the curators of this museum would naturally have lovingly installed, for how could any visitor truly understand the curious processes of wet collodion photography without such a thing? I was prepared to be granted insights that could be acquired nowhere else.

    Remembering the photograph on the website, I walked on, expecting at any moment to come upon a grandish stucco’d house in landscaped gardens, and a warm welcome.  Instead, I found scaffolding, an abandoned marquee and some silent prefabs.  Also an unapologetic sign saying that the museum would be closed until late November for ‘works’.  Works which showed absolutely no sign of being in progress.  I almost wept.  In fact, I think I probably did, because stomping furiously back to the station, I skidded on one of those white plastic bumpy things on the pavement which marks a crossing, and tore up my hand and elbow so badly I had to call at the Mairie to wash off the blood.  (The receptionist there had no idea the museum was shut for months, and told me helpfully that ‘It does have certain opening hours, you know…”)

    All that precious time wasted.  It was unbearable.  Back at the deserted station, waiting another aeon in the first leg of another complicated multi-suburban-trained journey into the centre of Paris to visit the National Army Museum, whose website had assured me that the collections covering the years from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the Commune were now on display, I gnawed at a pear and despaired.  

    And then the train arrived. I got on, and nearly burst out laughing.  It had grubby orange vinyl seats and smelled like a pissoir, but every wall and ceiling was lavishly decorated with photographs from the Château de Versailles. 

    Luxury and poverty seemed in violent collision on this train, just as they had been at the end of Second Empire France, when Napoleon III fled to Chislehurst after his defeat at Sedan, and the people of Paris rose up to claim their municipal rights.  At that moment I turned psychogeographer and let myself drift.   I am absolutely no expert on Debord, my acquaintance with the Situationists is passing, and I can only really cope with Iain Sinclair in bite-sized chunks (his London Review of Books articles suit me perfectly).  But Walter Benjamin has been by my side for months, and I suddenly saw a serendipity in this journey becoming the main event.  My expedition ceased to be a failure and became something else.  This kitschest of trains (my photographs don’t do justice to its photographs) then trundled me through places I’d been reading about for the past eighteen months.

    Coming from La Defense earlier, I’d already passed through St Cloud.  In 1871, photographers like Adolphe Braun had come there to photograph the devastation caused by the Franco-Prussian war.  The most dramatic of St Cloud's ruins was the vast château where Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie used to hold court in spring and autumn.

    No sign of that now, but from the train window, I’d looked at the cranes and a few stray fin de siècle turrets and out across the trees to Paris.  On the far side of the city, I could see the Sacre Coeur hovering whitely over Montmartre.  The basilica was built as a symbol of conservative moral order, a penance for the sins of the Franco-Prussian war, but more significantly, for the ‘crimes’ of the Commune.  It covers the very spot where the revolution of 1871 erupted, when the Government of National Defense (which had ruled the new Republic since the fall of the Empire) tried to remove the cannons bought by public subscription to protect the French capital from Prussian attack.  It was only twenty-three years since the capital’s last bloody uprising.  The Government immediately fled to Versailles, recently vacated by the victorious Prussians, the Commune was duly elected and declared in the capital, and then the fighting began between Paris and ‘Versailles’, between the National Guard militiamen and the Army of France.  It was a civil war in miniature. 

    My journey that day took me right over its battlegrounds.  Nearly every station we stopped at, all those names flickering on departure boards, triggered images and memories connected with my research.  Issy, near the Porte de Versailles, had been a key strategic point in the war: as long as the Communards held the Fort, they could block the route of the Army into Paris.  They lost control of it disastrously, on the night of 7th April, after which the fighting and bombardment became ever more bitter until Paris itself was invaded on the night of May 21st.  No sign of it from the train – I discover now that the wasteland where the fort once stood has recently been turned into an ‘ecoquartier’, a fifth of which is social housing - but I felt an odd (psychogeographical?) frisson when I noticed the office building of Safran, a multinational defense group. 

    All these edgelands of Paris - Puteau, Montretout, Mont-Valerian, Boulogne…all had been the sites of significant battles or artillery batteries at a time when French shells were falling on the Arc de Triomphe. 

    My gaudy train pulled into Versailles Chantiers and a young woman in front of me revealed a gold-embroidered crown on the pocket of her jeans as she lifted her glittery cardigan to retrieve her ticket.  I looked at the station name again, and felt quite chilled. That morning, it hadn’t struck me. Changing trains here for the second time, I suddenly realised its significance.  During and immediately after the slaughter of Bloody Week, about 43,000 suspected Communards were marched from Paris to prisons in and around Versailles.  Conditions were unbelievable. The women prisoners at Versailles Chantiers were the subject of one of Eugene Appert’s now notorious photomontages: distorted, composite images created to justify the government’s extraordinarily brutal suppression of the Commune. 

    At last I reached the Army Museum in its impressive setting at Les Invalides.  How on earth would a museum like this deal with the subject of the slaughter that was carried out by the Army itself that terrible week in May 1871?  I hunted high and low for an answer.  There was indeed a large display that ended in 1870, where I encountered this National Guardsman.  In another part of the building, another section of the museum took visitors from 1871 through to the two world wars.  Of the massacre of approximately 20,000 people on the streets of Paris, there was no mention whatsoever. 

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    This is my new novel for adults, COVER YOUR EYES. It's published by Quercus Books in paperback and ebook and I have a few things I'd like to say about it which seem to be more appropriate for this blog than for any piece I've written to publicise it. 

    On the face of it, CYE (from now on) doesn't look like a historical novel. There is a young woman called Megan  in it and she goes through various romantic vicissitudes. This has been enough to summon the dread term 'chick lit'from one reviewer.  However, it's not only a book about a young woman etc etc. There is also a second heroine, who in many people's eyes, including mine, is the real centre of the story. She is Eva Conway...she has adopted the name of the woman who took her in... and she came to England when she was 4 in 1938, which makes her 78 in the novel...it's not quite contemporary.  She came here on one of the Kindertransports and that brings the book firmly into a historical realm. 

    I have been obsessed with the Kindertransports for a long time. It strikes me as an almost unbearable predicament. Do you keep your children close, as you want to do, as you feel you really, really need to do, or do you send them off into the unknown, far away from you and with a label round their neck, trusting to luck that they will land with a kind family?  There were some children who 'came alone' who were only two years old. When I think about that, that parting, my heart goes into a kind of spasm.  I try to imagine myself in that situation....it's the most horrendous possible thing, but it saved lives which would otherwise would have been lost. In 1995  I published a short novel for top juniors called A CANDLE IN THE DARK (A&C Black) This is one of my most successful books, because an excerpt from it was used, years ago in a SATS test. This book is the story of Clara and her little brother Max who come to England in December 1938 and are flung right into the middle of an English family. The children go to the local school which of course is preparing for the Nativity Play. There is much in CANDLE about the feelings of the host child, Phyllis, and the problems she has in adjusting to the arrival of these strangers who have to share her house, her friends, her life.

    The book I used to research CANDLE  is shown below. I have a copy signed by Bertha Leverton, one of the editors. It is a wonderful compendium of first person accounts by people who were part of the Kindertransports and it's a very moving and inspiring volume.   I am constantly surprised at the  number of people who know nothing about this event in our history. There is now a statue to the Kindertransport children in London, at Liverpool Street Station,  so perhaps the knowledge is growing.

    The facts, very briefly, are these. After Kristallnacht, on November 9th, 1938, when gangs of Nazis destroyed Jewish properties and rounded up many men and took them off to camps, thousands of children were sent out of Germany and other countries of Eastern Europe on trains which took them to Holland where they were transferred to boats which carried them to Great Britain and also to the United States of America. Of the 10, 000 children who were saved in this way, 9,000 never saw their parents again.  I sometimes wonder what the reaction would be today if our government announced that it was allowing 10, 000 children to come here from Africa, or Syria or anywhere else in the world. That's by the way. This episode shines out in a dark time for its unusual humanity. And by coincidence, as I write this, Sir Nicholas Winton is receiving a prize in Prague for helping Jewish children escape by rail from Czechoslovakia.  He is one of the heroes of this time. 

    It seems that writing CANDLE IN THE DARK didn't end my interest in this time and this historical event.  When I began CYE, I knew that Eva was a Kindertransport child.  How this would affect the novel I didn't know, but it turned out to be the most important thing in the story and the events which happened back in 1938 inform  Eva's subsequent life. They also provide the 'spooky' element in the book, because not only did Eva come to England as a small child, she is also haunted by things that happened on that journey. Pictured  below is the full-length mirror in my wardrobe...it's covered in a few of my scarves to illustrate something about Eva...she has covered all mirrors since she was seven. This is because something, or rather someone, sometimes  comes floating up through the glass....I will say no more.

    Eva has now retired but she was once  a famous dress designer. The novel, I hope, conveys enough of her past to show readers the kind of designer she used to be....she's like Armani, or Jean Muir: immensely stylish and elegant but she has a liking also for the Baroque, the over the top, and especially she's fond of colour and not afraid of it. I trawled the internet for you in order to come up with photos of the kind of thing she might have designed and have found these three images. 

    I can tell you for a fact that Jacqueline Kennedy would have been one of Eva Conway's best customers. 

    But the beautiful thing about writing fiction rather than fact is that you don't have to show anything  and you can allow your reader to provide a dress, or blouse or scarf that will be very much more beautiful in their imagination than any real garment.  I confess that I did no fashion research whatsoever. I have a kind of mulch in my head,  made  of the  thousands and thousands of images from magazines and movies  that I've looked at since I was about 8.   Remember Audrey Hepburn's clothes in Charade?  Those could have been designed by Eva Conway. I can  conjure any kind of outfit out of my head at the drop of a hat and describe it and it was only the strict attention of editors (and quite right too!) that prevents CYE being full to bursting of descriptions of garments, fabrics, ornaments and so on. I could probably make a short book from the bits of the text that were left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak.

     I think the present is much more interesting when it's aware of the past; when it  looks back in some way. In CYE, Eva's early years are woven through  the text, threading scenes set in 1938 and at various times in the 1960s into a story that takes place in the present day. I hope that everyone who reads it enjoys this novel and relishes, like me, travelling magically through time. 

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    ‘Sorry I’m late,’ a family member said, rushing breathlessly into the train station late the other night. ‘I was held up by a wallaby on the road.’

    If you're reading this post in Australia, this is probably an excuse you hear regularly, but we were in the middle of Devon, a rural English county not noted for its wild wallabies.
    ‘Are you sure it wasn’t a large squirrel?’ I asked, somewhat testily.

    When we reported the sighting to the local police, I thought they might take the same sceptical line. But no, they had already had several reports of a wallaby hopping long the perilously narrow Devon lanes that evening. ‘But we don't know what we can do about it,’ they said, leafing through a copy of 'The Dangerous Dog Act' which, thanks to a Government oversight, singularly fails to cover marsupials, dangerous or not.

    Devon has its fair share of strange animals, not least the fictional Hound of the Baskervilles, said to be based on the legend of the great spectral dog, the black shuck. And then there have long been rumours of the mysterious big black cats roaming across the moors, More recently warnings have been posted in several areas of Devon about what do if you encounter wild boar on walk, as they are now breeding in the forests.

    But more controversially wild beavers have mysteriously returned to Devon and established a family, causing much debate about whether these creatures, should be removed before they start to change the landscape. One side argue they will cause flooding by damming streams, while others say that they will help to stop flooding by bringing back the wetlands that used to protect us.

    But unlike the wallaby, beavers were native to Britain. The town of Beverley in Yorkshire derives its name from ‘beaver stream’, while Beavercoates in Nottinghamshire means ‘beaver huts’. But during the Middle Ages beavers were driven to extinction in Britain through hunting. They were killed for their scent gland which produced the valuable castoreum and also for food, because the Church declared that their tails were ‘fish’ and could therefore be eaten in Lent and on other fast days, when meat was prohibited. Recipes of the period suggest stewing their tails with ginger. After beavers were wiped out in England, a huge market grew up importing the glands and tails into England from the rest of Europe, through ports such as Bishop’s Lynn
    Medieval Beaver shown with 'fish' tail
    (now known as King’s Lynn) on The Wash.

    The castoreum or castor extracted from the beaver gland was burned by the Romans to bring about abortions and used to help suffers of epilepsy. (This is not to be confused with the oil called castor that comes from Castor oil plant, which is used today as a food additive) In the Middle Ages, they believed castoreum from the beaver could increase the honey production of bees. There may have been some truth behind this since it has been found to have strong antibiotic properties and might have protected the bees from disease or acted as deterrent to bee-mites.

    Medieval physicians also used beaver castoreum to relieve headaches, hysteria and impotency. In later centuries, it was used a basis for perfume making and often found in the bottles of quack medicine sold by peddlers in the America who would mix American beaver castor with alcohol or spices and claim it was an elixir which could cure just about anything.
    Hunted Beaver biting off its own testicles

    There is curious legend about beavers to be found the medieval bestiaries which is also recorded in ancient Greece. In Medieval times both the animal and its oil were known as castor meaning ‘castrated’. It was believed that this oil was to be found in the beaver’s testicles. If hunted, the beaver would chew off its own testicles and fling them at the huntsman to save its life. Thereafter, the castrated beaver would turn round, stand up and expose itself to any huntsman, so that he could see its testicles were missing and it was not worth pursuing.

    In fact the castoreum doesn’t come from the testicles but from a gland near base of the tail which is used for scent marking. But the beaver’s testicles are internal so it would appear to our ancestors to have been castrated. And it is interesting that the legend not only persisted down through the centuries, but was employed by the Church who used the beaver as a symbol of chastity.

    Beaver exposing himself to the huntsman to show he is castrated.

    ‘Every man who would live chastely must cut himself off from all vices and lewdness as does the castor and fling them in the face of the Devil. Thereupon the devil shall depart from him.

    Perhaps the next wild animal that might return to Devon will be the wolf. Though last time he lived in England he fared no better than the beaver.

    'If a woman does not desire you and you would arouse her and make her lust after you, take the genitals of a wolf together with the hair on its cheeks and eyebrows and burn them together. Then give the ashes to the woman to drink in such a manner that she does not suspect. Then she will desire you and no other man.'

    But that’s another story.

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    Bertie (right) on his way to Cairo
    Early in 1862, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, went on a royal tour of the Middle East.  Known to his friends as Bertie, the future King Edward VII was sociable, charming and diplomatic. He loved hunting and eating, and already at the age of twenty had a reputation as a playboy. Bertie and his entourage took the train to Cairo and from there went up the Nile and back down, over to the Holy Land, then onto Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece before returning home by royal steamer. It was one of the first times a trip to such exotic regions had been so thoroughly documented by photography, in those early days a laborious, expensive and time-consuming process. 

    Bertie (centre with fez) and entourage in Capernaum
    Cameras were large and heavy, the photographs themselves were on A4 sized sheets of glass. Imagine trying to developed these in makeshift darkrooms containing dangerous chemicals in blistering heat, dust and wind. Imagine transporting a couple of hundred sheet of glass several thousand miles on horseback or by sea. Subjects had to remain still for 12 seconds, but if they did their faces came out beautifully sharp and detailed. 

    Upon their return from the royal tour, the photographer Francis Bedford displayed his work and even offered the collection for sale to the public. Cairo to Constantinople is a new exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in London showcasing about half these photographs, along with half a dozen paintings done during the tour, a few cases of artefacts bought along the way and – for the first time – the diary kept by the prince. It is a fascinating exhibition and no historian or writer of historical fiction should miss it. 

    I was particularly interested in this exhibition because it documents part of what was happening in the year 1862, the year my first two P.K. Pinkerton books are set. In the Eastern states of America, the U.S. Civil War was claiming thousands of lives in some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen. Out West, Americans were virtually untouched by the war. 1862 was the year a failed prospector named Sam Clemens walked into a Nevada mining town and decided to return to his first love, writing for newspapers. He soon became known by the pen name Mark Twain. 

    Meanwhile, Bertie was shooting quail on the banks of the Nile and enjoying multi-course banquets with sultans and pashas while Francis Bedford was taking landmark photographs. The Royal Tour of 1862 galvanised the western world and soon the rich of Europe were flocking to the exotic Middle East in the footsteps of the young Prince of Wales. 

    USS Quaker City in which Twain sailed in 1867
    Five years after the prince’s four month sojourn, the American Civil War was over and rich Americans had also started travelling to Europe in unprecedented numbers. In 1867, Mark Twain finagled a place on a steamer full of wealthy and pious protestants called the Quaker City. The cost of a place on the five month voyage to Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Holy Land was an eye-watering $1250 per traveller. Normally, Twain could never have dreamt of paying this amount but he went as a guest of three newspapers on condition that he send back regular reports.  

    Mount Lycabettus, Athens 1862 by Francis Bedford
    Aged 32, Twain was relatively young and fairly wild. For example, when the passengers of the Quaker City found Athens closed to them on account of a cholera outbreak, Twain convinced some of the more daring souls to sneak ashore and make their way from Piraeus to the Parthenon... by night and on foot! 

    The book that resulted from Twain's letters home became The Innocents Abroad, one of the best selling travel books in the history of the world. Writing as a ‘the celebrated California humorist’ Twain had to be wittily critical of his fellow passengers and especially of ‘foreigners’, but in his accounts of the Holy Land he sometimes forgot humour to comment on the terrible poverty of the people and harsh conditions of animals.

    detail of Water Carriers by Bedford
    Like Bertie, Twain and his party often travelled on horseback when moving from town to town. In the Holy Land, Twain tells how hoards of men, women and children would pour out of villages, stretching up their hands and begging for food or ‘bucksheesh’. At a fountain in Syria he bemoaned the wretched nest of human vermin about the fountain—rags, dirt, sunken cheeks, pallor of sickness, sores, projecting bones, dull, aching misery in their eyes and ravenous hunger speaking from every eloquent fibre and muscle from head to foot. (Innocents Abroad chapter 44) 

    He described how badly the horses were treated: sometimes ridden up to nineteen hours per day without ever being brushed down or even having their saddles removed at night. Soft-hearted Twain chose the only horse whose back he had not seen. The others all had dreadful saddle boils that had not been doctored in years. He reasoned his horse must be like the others, but I have at least the consolation of not knowing it to be so.

    Twain also touched on the horrible deformities of the beggars of Constantinople and the packs of dogs lying in the streets or scavenging the outskirts of towns. Another striking aspect of his account is that, unlike today, parts of Greece and the area around Galilee were almost treeless. Flies, dirt, dust and poverty were everywhere. 

    Water Carriers in Albania
    Things must have been very similar on the Royal Tour of 1862, but at first glance there is no sign of this desperate poverty, either in Bedford’s photos or Bertie’s journal. But on closer examination you can see hints of something bleaker. Have a look at the water carriers in this photograph. Some of them are literally dressed in rags. 

    The prince must have known his journal would be read, if only by his mother the Queen, but amid his mild descriptions of banquets and hunting there are a few clues to the squalor he must have glimpsed. He describes Tiberias on the shore of Galilee in terms Twain might have used five years later: Easter Sunday April 20th 1862 - we walked into the town wh. is the filthiest, the worst built & the most wretched heap of buildings I ever saw.   

    Jemima Blackburn's 1862 watercolour of Bertie in Thebes
    I saw no dogs or beggars in Bedford’s carefully composed photos, (every non blurry figure must have been told to ‘hold still’ for at least 12 seconds), but there is a dog in this watercolour by Jemima Blackburn that gives an idea of the sort of cur Bertie and Twain might have come across.

    Jemima Blackburn was an Englishwoman who happened to be travelling in Egypt and came across the royal entourage. She presented this watercolour of the Prince receiving the newly-discovered mummy of a child. Her depiction is charming, but when I recall Twain’s description of horses in miserable agony and children’s faces with ‘goggles of flies’ clustering on their eyes, I wonder how idealised it is. 

    This raises an interesting question. Which medium most accurately shows us the Middle East in the 1860s: photography, painting or the written word? The answer must be that all three are able to hide aspects, but with careful scrutiny and comparison of sources, a good historian might be able to tease out the truth.

    To paint or to click? Learning to look at portraits in photography and paintings
    is one of the sessions offered to pupils in Key stage 2 to Key stage 5. For more information, go here.

    Cairo to Constantinople is on until 22 February 2015. Audio guide and study packs are included in the entry price. 

    Caroline Lawrence’s P.K. Pinkerton mysteries for kids feature Mark Twain and lots about photography. They are perfect for schools studying America at Key stage 3. 

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    Another march from Jarrow to London? - this time to protest against privatisation of the NHS. For many people that’s a crusade for today; for others, looking back to the 1930s, it’s just a colourful piece of history. It means something else to me. The original Jarrow march was made by many men, one woman, and a dog - and it’s the woman of whom I’ve always wanted to write a biography.

    I’ve never succeeded, and that may say something about our reaction to politicians, and women politicians in particular (‘the two unsexiest words in the language’, one man said to me). But it also, surely, says something about what we want from a biography. Yet Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Jarrow, is someone who should be easy to pitch, surely?

    She wasn’t just an early woman politician, trade union leader, feminist and socialist - try any of those on a publisher’s marketing department, and you can guess what they’re going to say. But she was also a writer and novelist, and, as ‘Red Nellie’, a hugely popular public personality. Reporting on the German refugee camps and the Spanish Civil War; visiting Gandhi in prison; making speeches with Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells; in the Tube tunnels during the Blitz . . . Something in that, surely?

    The nuts and bolts of her career are easy. Born on 8 October 1891, near Manchester, into a nonconforming Methodist family. Into the ‘proletarian purple’, as she put it herself; a terraced two up, two down, with outside privy. Her mother was bed bound for much of her childhood; her father was an insurance agent, who had started out in a cotton mill at 8, and been head of a household at 12. Ellen herself won a teaching bursary to a Manchester school; was only 16 when she joined the Independent Labour Party.

    In 1915 she became National Woman Organiser to the union of shop assistants and factory workers, crusading against the idea ‘that a woman’s wages are practically settled forever when she becomes 21, and that however important a woman’s work may be she must be considered as assistant to some male manager’, as she wrote. Manchester was a centre of suffrage protest; the Pankhursts lived nearby. But the young Ellen was a non militant feminist: a suffragist, rather than a suffragette; one, moreover, who regarded women’s suffrage as only one step towards a broader equality. A brief membership of the new Communist Party lead to a rapid resignation, but in 1923 she was elected to Manchester City Council and in 1924, as a trade union sponsored candidate for Middlesborough East (‘a book of illustrations to Karl Marx’, she called it), she became Ellen Wilkinson MP.

    Only four women were returned to Parliament in that election, and each of the other three had inherited their husband’s seat. Lady Astor, the Duchess of Atholl and Mrs Philipson, a former actress. Women were only allowed to vote at 30. She was 33. Her maiden speech demanded the extension of female franchise; deplored the penalisation of women in pension and unemployment. Ellen Wilkinson’s ghost is still there when you speak the size of school classes, or questions of equal pay. These were issues on which she campaigned in her day.

    Many of her favourite causes had particular relevance for women. She fought for the extension of child welfare centres; to allow women who married foreigner to keep their British citizenship, and to end women’s exclusion from the diplomatic corps on the grounds that they were unsuited to secrecy. There was a row when she equated wifehood to slavery . ‘A man never learns the cash value of a good wife until she falls ill and then he has to pay a housekeeper!’ Within the House she lamented the long hours and lack of female-oriented facilities. She knew that she was wielding a double edged sword. ‘I have women’s interests to look after but I do not want to be regarded purely as woman’s MP’, she said. Nonetheless she found herself with, in effect, a dual constituency. It’s still an issue for women Members today.

    Her nicknames reflected her tiny size – under five foot – and her flaming red hair. The ‘fiery particle’, the ‘Mighty Atom’. The ‘Pocket Pasionaria’ and ‘Topsy MP’. She was aware of the dangers of being a ‘pet lamb’; but she was conscious also of the advantages of having an easily recognisable image, and one which bought her a certain amount of leeway. All her life in fragile health, she was not above playing on her very frailties. The Glasgow Herald once wrote of her ‘histrionic ability . . . She seats herself almost lost in the great chair, tiny feet dangling. Such a forlorn, child-like figure . . . “Ellen is overdoing it”, remarked a delegate.’

    In 1926 - when only the miners held out, after the collapse of the General Strike – she chaired the Women’s Committee for the relief of the miners’ wives and children. She brought a miner’s hauling rope into the House of Commons, and raised cash in America with stories of children standing by soup kitchens in the rain, because they liked the smell. She was returned as MP for Jarrow – ‘The Town That Was Murdered’ as she called it - in 1935, at a time when the closure of the great shipyard had lead to 80% unemployment, so that men, as she told the Minister of Health, were actually dying of malnutrition. When a deputation set out to walk to London and present their petition to Parliament, Ellen went with them, covering much of the journey on foot.

    Because of her links with European socialists, she was one of the first to warn against ‘treating Hitler as a bad smell, a temporary nastiness to be disinfected by boycott, or perfumed by legality.’ Visits to Germany in the early Thirties gave her the raw material for several brutally detailed pamphlets; as did relief work with the children of concentration camp victims. With the war, and Churchill’s wartime coalition, she became one of the Parliamentary secretaries to Herbert Morrison, the new Home Secretary.

    Five sixths of her job, she said in 1940, was nights spent in endless visits to the air raid shelters that were to her special responsibility; dispensing ‘hygiene and cheer’ in the teeming tunnels of the London Underground. Serving on the Fire Service Council, she came under attack for conscripting women as well as men to Civil Defence duties. But the end of the war brought a return to party politics – along with a tidal wave of hopes and expectations that were unlikely to be fulfilled, since no-one could expect ‘to get a Socialist State tied up in pink ribbon as an armistice present’, as Ellen put it warningly.

    As Minister of Education in Attlee’s new government, she was faced with the task of implementing the 1944 Education Act – a Herculean task and something of a poisoned chalice. The eighteen months of her tenure laid the groundwork for the much of the education system as we know it today - saw the raising of the school leaving age; saw free milk and school meals; and more state scholarships for further education. But it brought her a punishing workload, and the distress of finding herself at odds with many in her party. In 1947 she caught pneumonia and died at the age of 55. An inquest decided that she died from pulmonary problems, accelerated by an overdose of the drugs prescribed for her asthma. The Coroner felt it necessary to state that there was nothing to suggest she had taken the overdose deliberately.

    But those who thought differently could suggest a cause – less Ellen’s problems as a minister than her feelings for Herbert Morrison, the unhappily married Deputy Prime Minister. Their relationship went back a long way; even to Morrison’s days at the London County Council. (‘An able administrator and a bit of a brute – the rudest man I know’, she called him. ‘Stick to women’s issues’, he himself once told another MP.) Great stuff! - just what a biography needs, a little love interest, and with a bit of a brute, ideally. But it may be because of her relationship with Morrison that Ellen left instructions her personal papers should be destroyed after her death . . . Bad, very bad, that, for anyone dreaming a conventional biography.

    But, dammit, does that mean we have to leave it there? Is there no room for negotiation in the nature of the narrative? Any of us who write about more distant history are used to working with a infinitely more daunting paucity of sources. We have Ellen’s novels as well as her articles; colour and controversy; a Cinderella story.

    Ellen Wilkinson’s sterling work in pushing through the Hire Purchase Act of 1938 isn’t going to make a page turner, granted. (Though it made a real difference to many in her day.) But a word picture of Gandhi sitting on the floor of her Bloosmbury flat, with its poster of Lenin above the bed . . Surely that would do nicely?

    Yet she has been forgotten to a great degree. Back in the days of ‘Blair’s babes’ I found myself at a party to meet the new, unprecedented, influx of women MPs. I hoped, foolishly, for someone who had admired Ellen, someone who had read her speeches. Someone whose mother saw her in the wartime bomb sites, as mine did. Instead, I met with a blank, ‘who?’, unfamiliarity. But (if those women had but known it) her concerns and her challenges, her conflicts and her compromises, mirrored their own to an extraordinary degree. And without some awareness of how many have been battles fought before, we are going to be reinventing the wheel into eternity.

    We thank our Reserve History Girl, Sarah Gristwood, for today's post. Michelle Lovric has been called away on a family emergency and should be back here on 10th December

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    I recently took a tour around  Leinster House, the Dublin home of Ireland’s Parliament. It seemed to have many features that echoed its historic links with the Palace of Westminster but none of Westminster’s idiosyncrasies. Then I discovered that since 1998, when modernisation fever struck, even Westminster has been purged of much of its quirkiness.  But not entirely.

    First the casualties.  The opera hats have gone.  Before 1998 if a Member of Parliament wished to raise a point of order during a division he had to do so ‘seated and covered’.  At all other times an MP must stand to speak. That’s why, if you watch a televised debate, they’re up and down like meerkats with haemorrhoids trying to catch the Speaker’s eye. ‘Covered’ meant wearing a hat, and for that purpose two collapsible top hats were kept in the Commons’ chamber, to be passed hastily along the benches to whichever MP required ‘covering’ before he could raise a point of order.

    I’ve searched in vain for a photograph. I wonder what happened to those redundant opera hats. I did enquire at the Commons' Information Office but they didn’t get back to me. I guess it wasn’t the most urgent enquiry of the week.

    Eating is now prohibited in the Chamber though this wasn't always the case.  In the 18th century MPs would crack nuts and suck oranges and leave the debris behind them, much appreciated by the resident vermin (of which, more anon). Nowadays the problem must be getting MPs to turn their phones and pagers to Vibrate.

    ‘I spy Strangers’ has been hollered for the last time. The public gallery is now rarely closed. And what used to be the Strangers’ Cafeteria is now called The Terrace Café, which sounds much more appealing. Espresso macchiato instead of tea and buns? The Strangers’ Bar lives on, and the Strangers' Dining Room, and why not? Parliament can do its business efficiently without rearranging all the furniture.

     And there are some gratifying (to me) survivors of a bygone age.  On the eve of the State Opening of Parliament a group of Yeoman Guards still searches the cellars for barrels of gunpowder. Here they are, advancing with cat-like tread and storm lanterns.  

    An MP’s coat hanger still has a loop of pink ribbon from which he can suspend his sword before entering the Chamber. It is sometimes alleged that the expression ‘toe the line’ originated in the Commons, referring to the lines  -  two precautionary sword lengths apart  - which MP must not cross no matter how heated the debate. In fact swords were never worn in the Chamber even in the days when no gentleman would leave home without one, so the derivation is bogus.

    So no swords, not now, not ever, and there is still a non-negotiable proscription against wearing armour. Just so you know.

     Smoking in the Commons’ Chamber has been prohibited since the 17th century but not the taking of snuff.  In fact snuff is still freely available to MPs. It was traditionally English Rose mixture, available from a box kept by the Doorkeeper and paid for out of petty cash. 

    The last MP known to have been a regular user was the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. Given what we now know about him free snuff was possibly the least of his vices.

    When the House rises, often at an ungodly hour, the Doorkeeper still calls, ‘Who goes home?’ though it apparently sounds more like ‘Hooooome?’  This is a revealing relic. It dates from a time when Westminster was a dangerous place, the haunt of cut-throats and footpads. It was safer for MPs to leave the building in groups, and for those who lived on the Surrey side of the river, there was also the possibility of splitting the cost of a ferryman. Rather like sharing a taxi today.

    Finally, no account of the oddities of Parliament would be complete without mentioning its non-human members. The story that Charles II obtained an exemption from the general ban on dogs so his beloved spaniels could accompany him to Parliament is apocryphal. Blind MP David Blunkett’s succession of guide dogs have had the place to themselves.   

    The Palace of Westminster used to have a falconer on the payroll but that work is now put out to tender. A self-employed falconer brings in his Harris hawk on an As Required basis. His mission: to encourage the pestilential pigeons to... relocate.

    Vermin  -  no jokes, please  -  have always been a problem in the Palace of Westminster, as in any old, riverside building. The Parliamentary Estates Directorate keeps a monthly record of Mouse Sightings. Moth Sightings are also recorded. Somewhat surprisingly there is no register of Rat Sightings. Perhaps the humans aren’t expected to distinguish a small rat from a big mouse. You’d think they’d employ a cat but whenever the matter has been raised  -  ‘given full and proper consideration’ is the actual phrase, it has been rejected on the grounds of  ‘clear practical and technical difficulties’.  Perhaps the cat food bill would have implications for the snuff budget.



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    At the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ in the 19th century many Native American children were taken away from their parents and sent to school to become ‘civilized.’  The policy - ‘kill the Indian to save the child’ - meant cutting their hair, putting them in white people’s clothes, forbidding them to speak their own languages.

    When the First World War broke out in Europe American Indians were not citizens of the country they lived in (in fact, they were only granted US citizenship in 1924).  Their languages were considered obsolete.  But then, in 1917,  a group of 19 young Choctaw men arrived in Europe as part of the US Expeditionary Force.

    Their story is told in the following memorandum:

    Headquarters 142nd Infantry, A.E.F.

    January 23, 1919, A.P.O. No. 796

    From: C.O. 142nd Infantry

    To: The Commanding General 36th Division (Attention Capt. Spence)

    Subject: Transmitting messages in Choctaw

    In compliance with memorandum, Headquarters 36th Division, January 21, 1919,to C.O. 142nd Infantry, the following account is submitted. 

    In the first action of the 142nd Infantry at St. Etienne, it was recognized that of all the various methods of liaison the telephone presented the greatest possibilities. The field of rocket signals is restricted to a small number of agreed signals. The runner system is slow and hazardous. T.P.S. is always an uncertain quantity. It may work beautifully and again, it may be entirely worthless. The available means, therefore, for the rapid and full transmission of information are the radio, buzzer and telephone, and of these the telephone was by far the superior, - provided it could be used without let or hindrance, - provided straight to the point information could be given.

    It was well understood however, that the German was a past master of ‘listening in’ Moreover, from St. Etienne to the Aisne we had traveled through a county netted with German wire and cables. We established P.C.’s in dugouts and houses, but recently occupied by him. There was every reason to believe every decipherable message or word going over our wires also went to the enemy. A rumor was out that our Division had given false coordinates of our supply dump, and that in thirty minutes the enemy shells were falling o n the point. We felt sure the enemy knew too much. It was therefore necessary to code every message of importance and coding and decoding took valuable time.

    While comparatively inactive at Vaux-Champagne, it was remembered that the regiment possessed a company of Indians. They spoke twenty-six different language or dialects,  only four or five of which were ever written. There was hardly one chance in a million that Fritz would be ale to translate these dialects and the plan to have these Indians transmit telephone messages was adopted. The regiment was fortunate in having two Indian officers who spoke several of the dialects. Indians from the Choctaw tribe were chosen and one placed in each P.C.

    The first use of the Indians was made in ordering a delicate withdrawal of two companies of the 2nd En. from Chufilly to Chardoney on the night of October 26th. This movement was completed without mishap, although it left the Third Battalion, greatly depleted in previous fighting, without support. The Indians were used repeatedly on the 27th in preparation for the assault on Forest Farm. The enemy’s complete surprise is evidence that he could not decipher the messages.

    After the withdrawal of the regiment to Louppy-le-Petit, a number of Indians were detailed for training in transmitting messages over the telephone. The instruction was carried on by the Liaison Officer Lieutenant Black. It had been found that the Indian’s vocabulary of military terms was insufficient. The Indian for “Big Gun” was used to indicate artillery. “Little gun shoot fast”, was substituted for machine gun and the battalions were indicated by one, two and three grains of corn. It was found that the Indian tongues do not permit verbatim translation, but at the end of the short training period at Louppy-le-Petit, the results were very gratifying and it is believed, had the regiment gone back into the line, fine results would have been obtained. We were confident the possibilities of the telephone had been obtained without its hazards.

    A.W. Bloor, Colonel

    142nd Infantry


    Within 24 hours of the Choctaw's deployment the tide of the battle had turned and in less than 72 the Allies were on full attack. Victory soon followed.

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  • 11/12/14--13:30: October Competition Winners
  • October Competitions

    The winner of the Flybe tickets is Pippa Goodhart - congratulations to her!

    The winners of copies of Helen Castor's book on Joan of Arc are:

    To obtain your prizes, please email Kate Burton: kate.burton@faber.co.uk with your land address.

    And congratulations!

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    What could be more beguiling than secret love and what more tantalising than such a love advertised in a way that was indecipherable to all but the lovers themselves. By the middle of the eighteenth century the miniature portrait was the requisite token exchanged between lovers, to be held in a pocket or slipped beneath a pillow, or carefully nested in a box of treasures. The Elizabethan miniature had performed many functions, one being a sign of political affiliation but it was not long before the art was entirely hijacked by love. Miniatures had become the selfies of their day, reflecting a life less public than the one we live now, when such portraits were destined for only a few eyes. But for some the miniature lacked sufficient mystery and secrecy to convey their feelings, and so was born the lovers eye.

    Worn as pendants or brooches and often intricately jewelled, the lovers' eye could be worn publicly, as a badge of unavailability, without revealing the identity of the beloved. Who other than a lover can easily identify a disembodied eye?  It is easy to picture the characters in a Jane Austen novel exchanging such tokens of clandestine affection, with perhaps even a mistaken identity causing an amorous plot to twist and turn. The symbolism is evident, with the eye being the window to the soul and the lover's gaze being so redolent of erotic desire. It was not considered demure or proper for a woman to look directly at a man, but rather allow the gaze to flicker furtively in his direction, so imagine the erotic charge of a female eye looking unstintingly out at the absent lover, a reminder of what they are missing but also a reminder to the wearer that they are watched.

    But lovers' eyes were not always displayed; some can be found cached away in their own miniature boxes, so not the public signifier of love at all but perhaps a symbol of the kind of love that can only exist in absolute secrecy. It sets the imagination on fire to think of who such objects might have belonged to and the stories behind them – people whose lives and loves are forgotten in time, yet still exist in some small way in these bewitching eyes gazing out from the past.

    For more about Elizabeth Fremantle and her books go to elizabethfremantle.com

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