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    Research can lead a person down the most surprising byways. At the end of the day it may not add a pennyweight of value to the book one is writing but it can be fun and so very absorbing.

    I am currently working on a novel about the Whitechapel murders and one of the very human little anecdotes that has stuck in my mind concerns Catherine Eddowes.

    A few hours before she was murdered Kate was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was taken to Bishopsgate police station to sober up. She was reported as having, ‘attracted a crowd on Aldgate High Street by doing an impersonation of a fire engine.’

    It conjures a comical scene. We all know what silly things people do in drink. But what, I wondered, in 1888, could an impersonation of a fire engine possibly mean? Clang-a-lang-a-lang? Not neenaw neenaw, that’s for sure. Then I discovered a revealing name for a 19th century fire vehicle: a steamer. The water pumps that forced the water through the hoses were powered by steam. Of course.

    Firefighting used to be a very local affair. Insurance companies would often maintain their own corps of firefighters, particularly if they had insured a warehouse containing high value goods. Otherwise parishes had to provide their own equipment and recruit volunteers either to pull the parish fire engine to the scene of the fire and man the pumps, or to provide a horse to haul it for them.

    In 1865 London at last got an organised, publically funded fire brigade, and coal-fired steam pump appliances became the firefighters’ new toy. The boiler was fired up as the engine set off from the station and an engineer would stand on a rear footboard, stoking the flames under the boiler as they raced through the streets. By the time they arrived at the fire enough steam should have been raised to power the pumps. That was the theory. Sometimes, inevitably, they’d get to the fire and have to wait for a full head of steam, as happened on Commercial Street in October 1888 when a fur warehouse caught fire.

     Can’t you just imagine what the public had to say about that? ‘Call this progress! We never had delays like this when men did the pumping.’    

    An hour reading about steam pumps brought me a little closer to understanding what Kate Eddowes’ fire engine impersonation might have been: the kind of choo-choo steam train noise still beloved of small children. One of the sounds that belong to history. Perhaps Kate had just heard an engine go past. Or perhaps she’d simply had too much rum. But then I stumbled upon another possible explanation.

    Kate Eddowes was known to suffer from chronic nephritis or what used to be called Bright’s disease, a kidney condition that was quite likely to have made her breathless. Yesterday, when I had an asthma attack brought on by my own foolish negligence, going out in the freezing air without a scarf over my nose and mouth, I found myself huffing and puffing along the street,  stone cold sober but nevertheless impersonating a steam engine. Maybe that was what Kate was up to. We can never know and indeed the are many Ripperologists who regard the fire engine story as apocryphal. But there, for what it’s worth, is my tiny contribution to the ever-growing mountain of Whitechapel Murder arcana and crackpot theories.

    What tragic bad luck anyway for Kate Eddowes that by 1 a.m. she was sufficiently sober to be released from the cells and sent on her way. Half an hour later she lay dead on Mitre Square and another sound, familiar then but now consigned to history, would have been heard. The frantic blowing of a police whistle.     


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    An article about the wonderfully gifted actor Sophie Okenedo in The Guardian (4th July 2014) mentioned that in order to find good parts she has to travel to the USA.  She said,  “I think a lot of it is [due to] costume and period drama, which must be, what, at least 40% of what we do here? Which means 40% of opportunities are closed to me already.”

    Now this statement bothered me and not just because one of our best and brightest actors can’t find enough work in the UK.  What’s really troubling is the apparent assumption amongst programme makers that costume and period drama is a Whites-Only zone. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power– the definitive history of black people in Britain – really ought to be required reading for anyone who produces period drama in the UK. Africans, Asians and their descendants have shaped British Culture and society from Roman times until the present. So why isn’t that represented on TV?  Are programme makers in the UK simply ignorant?  Or is something more sinister at work here? Have we whitewashed our history the way Hollywood has whitewashed it in the USA?

    I grew up on a steady diet of B-movie Westerns in the cinema.  On TV you just couldn’t get away from the things -  Bonanza, The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones, Rawhide the list goes on and on.  The cowboys were always white, clean shaven, morally upright and remarkably clean for men that lived a roving life on the open prairie.

    When I started researching Buffalo Soldier I came across some startling statistics.  Around 25% of cowboys and 25% of the US army during the “Wild West’ period were black.

    I must have seen John Ford’s 1954 classicThe Searchers for the first time when I was around five years old.  I have a very clear memory of watching it with my father.  Starring John Wayne it tells the story of Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier who swears revenge after Comanches kill his brother’s family and abduct his niece, Debbie.  The film made a huge impact on me at the time: I remember finding the idea of being captured by the Indians absolutely terrifying.  But what was more terrifying was what happened when – after 5 years of searching - Ethan finally found the now grown-up Debbie.   I was expecting a joyful reunion.  Instead there was a moment when Ethan - so revolted by Debbie living “with a buck” – is going to kill her.  I found it profoundly upsetting back then.  I still do.

    The Searchers was based on Alan Le May’s book which was inspired by the real life story of a father who went in search of his family.  It’s only recently that I discovered the original Searcher was black.

    Britt Johnson, born a slave, was the property of Moses Johnson, a landholder in West Texas. Britt had the relatively privileged foreman’s position and was allowed to raise his own horses and cattle.  But in October 1864 his son was killed in a raid in a Comanche raid and his wife and two children were captured.  Britt Johnson searched for his family until the summer of 1865.  Some sources say he went to live with the Comanches and managed to arrange their ransom.  Others say they were ransomed and released as part of ongoing peace talks.  No one asked him for his version of events.  No one wrote it down.  Shame.  It would have made fascinating reading.  Either way, Britt Johnson’s family was rescued and after that (with the end of the Civil War bringing freedom) they moved to Parker County.  From then on he worked as a teamster and freighter, hauling goods from place to place. 

    On January 24th, 1871, a group of Kiowas attacked a wagon train manned by Britt Johnson and two other black teamsters.  Heavily outnumbered, after a desperate fight all three were killed.  They were buried in a common grave by the side of the road. 

    We’ve had 12 Years A Slave.  It’s time for a re-make of The Searchers, I think: one that hasn’t been whitewashed.

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    I discovered Giovanni Battista Moroni when seeking inspiration for characters and atmosphere for a novel I was writing, set in the late sixteenth century and encountered his tailor in the National Gallery gazing out at me through time. Often the sitters in Italian portraits of this period seem trussed into their finery, worn by their clothes, displaying their status, but not this tailor. Rather, his white notched doublet, cut in the fashionable peas-cod style looks worn in like a favourite garment, slightly baggy at the elbows and a little creased, and not at all alien as garments such as this often do in portraiture, stiff and peculiar and uncomfortable. The ruff too, is small and unobtrusive and an ordinary, thin leather belt follows the contours of his waist. Indeed it is only the hose, voluminous and slashed, like the hideous bubble-skirts of the eighties, that seem unfamiliar reminding us of the four hundred and fifty years that separate us from this man.

    He gazes at us with a beguiling directness, as if he has overheard us talking about him and wants us to know.  He appears confident in his everyday clothes, with no need of the accoutrements of status to shore him up. His head is tilted slightly, his hair cropped short and a beard and moustache give him the look of any young man you might see on the streets of London today – no silly hat with an ostrich plume for our no-nonsense tailor. I always thought it was Caravaggio who coined the portraits of ordinary people performing the manual labours of quotidian life but this tailor predates Caravaggio's work by a good twenty years. There he is, living and breathing, his mind churning, on the gallery wall collapsing time – you can almost hear the sound of his shears cutting through the marked out cloth, feel the velvet beneath his fingers. The effect is utterly disarming.

    My greatest frustration on discovering Moroni was that his body of work was scattered around the world and that an 'unfashionable' artist like him was unlikely to be the subject of a solo show. He never achieved the status of Titian or Bronzini, not through lack of talent, for it is clear his work stands up next to theirs, but more likely because he remained a provincial artist in his own time. He had a moment in the nineteenth century, when the National Gallery dedicated an exhibition to him (perhaps the Victorians liked his uncomplicated and understated directness) and then in the nineteen-eighties when the same gallery hung a number of his works as part of a Venetian exhibition. Strictly speaking though, Moroni was not part of the Venetian school, coming from Bergamo not far from Milan and working in Albino and Trent but never straying towards the regional capitals where he might have been noticed by Vasari and included in his exhaustive catalogue of renaissance painters, The Lives of the Artists, another reason, perhaps, as to why Moroni was ignored for so long.

    So imagine my delight when I discovered that the Royal Academy were to put on an entire exhibition of his work and I would be able to encounter all the images, the fuzzy cousins of which I had scrutinised online. Work in reproduction can never satisfy like the real thing, it is flattened, divested of life, offering only a partial experience, like Plato's shadows. But to see the body of Moroni's work, the early paintings, mostly devotional: a pastel Christ hovering on candy-floss clouds; a serious man praying before the virgin; an ancient, goitered woman gazing at a prayer book, all revealing an attention to detail and humanity that is the precursor to his later portraits.

    For me it is the portraits that are Moroni's triumph; each one reveals his extraordinary rendition of the particulars of jewellery and clothing, the variety of fabrics exquisitely depicted and so lifelike you can sense their weight and smell and how they would feel beneath your fingers. Just look at the genial Gerolamo Albani with the frizz of his white beard, that would tickle were you to kiss him on the cheek, and the luxury of his spotted fur, soft as a cat, a finger keeping the place in his book as if he was disturbed while reading.  But beyond these textures it is the deep exploration of his sitters' expressions revealing something of what lies beneath and the way they appear to examine the viewer, as with the Portrait of a Young Lady who scrutinises us, as we do the same to her. What is it behind that challenging look, is it disapproval, has she been interrupted or is it that shyness that is often mistaken for disdain? Perhaps she is disturbed by our scrutiny.

    The Exhibition is on only until 29th January and I urge you to go.


    Find out about Elizabeth Fremantle's historical novels on her website ElizabethFremantle.com

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    I thought I'd share one of my most favourite and useful books; The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie (yes that Alison Lurie) and it's a dream of a read, accessible as well as heavily and lavishly illustrated.

    I was thinking about last years Fair Isle post, and almost posted a short story that was inspired by a visit I made to the island over 30 years ago when I was researching my thesis. Yes, it  was knitting based, but I was on a film course.  And I couldn't have done my thesis without Alison Lurie's wonderful book. It was published in 1982, just at the time I needed it and one of my tutors at St Martin's School of Art recommended it to me. 

    Alison Lurie is a wonderful novelist and writer, she's a Pulitzer Prize winner and  her fiction includes The War Between the Tates, filmed as The War of The Roses.

    I know that many of us came to historical fiction partly through clothes and costume, (or is that just me?).  But it really has to be said that fashion is always political, and women have used dress to express themselves sometimes when it was the only avenue open to them.  Corsets, heels, how we wear our hair, how much we reveal about ourselves, or how much we hide.  It's all completely fascinating.

    Having re read the book,  I have to admit it can seem simplistic and obvious at times, especially about colour  - blue's for fidelity work and service, red for love and anger. But she's useful on the differences of black - Modern Bohemian, Dancers' and Brando Black. She looks at concealment, at how clothes unite and divide, the decline of the symbolic hat and much more. 

    If you don't have a copy I cannot recommend it enough. My one cavil is that it could do with being throroughly updated and expanded. It looks at fashion very much from the North American/ North European point of view at the close of the twentieth century.

    These days there are far fewer clothes 'tribes'. Older women (me!) dress much the same in our 50s and 60s as we did in our 30s. Nightwear as street wear seems far more commonplace. 

    And clothes in cities have changed not only because of fashion and music but because of culture too. I knew so many little girls desperate to wear trousers AND dresses at primary school in East London in the 90s.

    And There was a programme on  Radio 4 this morning  that illustrated this point beautifully.  Hip in a Hijab http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wwtsn . The presenter interviewed London girls from two schools I know well, Central Foundation in Bow and The Mulberry in Whitechapel and addressed, amongst other things the current fashion for enormous headscarves, one girl referred to this as 'like a beehive only with scarves,'. 

    The politics of clothes and hair in the 21st Century is ripe for addressing.  Black Hair especially is incredibly political - if you are interested a good starting point is the film, Good Hair.  

    In the meantime, until that book comes out, read this. It's lovely.

    Happy New Year!

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  • 01/14/15--17:00: The Goddess Sulis Minerva

  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    Living in Bath as I do, I've trailed around the Roman Baths dozens of times with and without visitors. What is fascinating is that no matter how many times I visit, I always learn something new. 
    Photograph of the Baths showing a rectangular area of greenish water surrounded by yellow stone buildings with pillars. In the background is the tower of the abbey.
    The Great Bath as it looks today: Wikipedia
    Before Christmas, I went for a wander around in order to be inspired for a story for 7-8 year olds. I hardly dare mention I'm writing a Roman story with resident History Girls' expert Caroline Lawrence on the blog! But I consider the Roman Baths at Bath practically home, so that will serve as my excuse to dip my toe in Roman waters. 

    On my last trip, they had a new innovation at the baths: actors dressed in Roman costumes who could tell you 'their' story. I had a long chat with the slave girl, maid to a grand Roman lady. I learned that the only way she had of making money was to grow and sell her hair. I also learned lots of fascinating information about Roman cosmetics and the fact that Romans disliked body hair. 

    As I'm in the process of writing the e-book now, I'm particularly interested in the goddess of the baths, Sulis Minerva. She was an amalgamation of the local Celtic deity Sul, goddess of healing and sacred waters, and the Roman deity Minerva, goddess of wisdom. The largest Roman baths in Britain, built to make use of our only hot springs, are dedicated to her. The city was named Aquae Sulis in her honour.

    Sulis Minerva: image courtesy of Wikipedia
    There was a huge temple, which only the priests could enter, next to the baths complex, but the altar was outdoors in the temple precinct. Here sacrifices of food or animals were made by the priests.
    But the public had their own way of communicating with the goddess. It was believed that the Sacred Spring was the point at which the human world touched the world of the deity and that here communication could take place. Prayers, wishes and above all curses were scratched onto thin sheets of lead or pewter and thrown into the spring. They seem to have been accompanied by a gift thrown into the spring: a wealth of jewellery and coins from the era have been recovered along with the prayers. 
    I love the idea that the deity could intervene in human affairs through the spring and so have had my young characters ask Sulis Minerva to bring down a plague of carbuncles upon a thief. That should serve him or her right. Let's just hope the goddess is listening. 

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
    Your IP : - Country : - City:
    Your ISP TRACKS Your Online Activity! Hide your IP ADDRESS with a VPN!
    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    A few years ago, I wrote a book about Alfred the Great, called Warrior King. The Vikings launched a surprise attack on Alfred, on Twelfth Night, 878. His army had been stood down for the winter: he had no choice but to flee. He headed for Somerset, for the marshes - he knew the country well because he had hunted there. With him (in my story) was his daughter, Aethelflaed...

    When she awoke, the snow had stopped again, and veils of wispy dark cloud were flung out against a sky that flared with bands of gold and orange and scarlet. Oddly, the ground seemed at first to be the same colour as the sky, till she blinked and realised that she was in fact looking at a great sheet of water... Treetops stood out above the water, and the surface bristled with spiky dark patches, which she supposed must be reeds.

    "This is the summer country," explained Alfred. "Somerset. In the summer, it's land. But it's very low lying, and in the winter, it floods and the hills turn into islands. Mostly you need a boat, but there are a few ways through on foot, and I know them."

    He knew them, but the Vikings didn't - and so he was safe. One of those islands was Athelney (the Isle of Princes), which was his refuge; another is the small hill now called Burrow Mump.

    This time last year, the news was dominated by images of the flooded Levels. I went down there not long after Christmas - it's about twenty miles from where I live - and took some pictures. There is very often water lying on the fields - it's not unusual not to be able to get to Athelney. For instance, I took this picture several years ago, when I was there researching Alfred's country; this level of inundation is routine.

    Water lying near Athelney

    However, last year was different. This is what I saw. And this was before the water had risen high enough to flood whole villages.

    This is normally a field.

    So's this.

    The water here was almost over the road, but so far, not quite.

    This is Burrow Mump, a small hill with a ruined church on top. Close by is the King Alfred Inn, which became a centre for community action when local people decided that the authorities weren't going to give them the help they needed, so they'd better help themselves.

    This was the view from the top of Burrow Mump. The water is almost into the village, but so far, not quite.
    So - the levels were very watery in Alfred's time - flooding is not a new phenomenon. The area is below sea level, so it's not surprising that it floods. It has been drained to some extent since the Middle Ages - the monasteries at Athelney, Muchelney and Glastonbury led the way. Then last century, much bigger drainage channels were constructed.

    The two main rivers are the Parrett and the Tone, Towards the end of the last century, the management of the rivers and rhynes was rejigged, and they stopped dredging the rivers. The local people were not happy; the new regime seemed to go against what common sense, and years of experience working this very unusual landscape, suggested.

    Last year, a system of land management which had apparently worked well for so many years failed. Although the moors had always flooded previously, people's homes had not. There were exceptional factors; unusually high tides forced water up the Parrett till it had to overflow, and there had been so much rain in previous months that the ground was sodden and could not absorb all the excess water. But the people insisted that, had the waterways been properly dredged, the water would have flowed more easily and the disaster would not have occurred. At first the authorities demurred, but now they seem to have changed their minds, and dredging has begun again.

    Some of the people who were forced out of their homes have only just been able to return. A few, in despair, sold up at rock-bottom prices. Most didn't. Livelihoods were affected: it's been a very hard year.

    I'm no expert, obviously. But it just strikes me that, particularly where you have a difficult and unusual environment which has been worked for centuries - then you really should listen to the people who live there and in particular, those who work the land. They are the keepers. They're in tune with the land, and they know what they're talking about.

    Pictures: copyright Sue Purkiss

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    To begin at the beginning – although it’s rather more the opposite – this year I am thinking about investigating my family tree. Of course, I should have started at least a decade or more ago, but the task seemed haunted by silent ghosts and their conflicts.
    I suppose I’ve envied those mythical family gatherings: those occasions when, over the clink of tea cups and glasses, and possibly with a flickering fire in the hearth, Great Aunty Somebody starts gossiping about her childhood and then Uncle That - known to be a great storyteller – takes up another tale and everyone murmurs “Well, I never knew that!” or “What an amazing character!” and the stories almost tell themselves. 

    This "family story" daydream has a companion:  the old attic – of course - when one carefully searches dusty, half-familiar boxes in the attic,  uncovering all sorts of interesting documents,  photographs, diaries, travel journals and more. (Beware. If this fantasy comes from the Agatha Christie school of narrative, a murder may be about the happen) 
    I do enjoy such romantic idling, but the truth is that my family, on both sides, was a family of silences, which has stopped me putting more than toe in the muddy waters.  

    First, there are complicated documentation gaps: the Irish record office  blown up during the Uprising; Fulford Barracks. York, where the army marriage records were destroyed by fire, let alone all those semi-official relationships that weren’t what one was told. Among my dozen grown-up relatives, I had at least two named “Aunties” who weren’t married to my related Uncles. What name does one search for then?

    Personal silence hasn’t helped – these were generations bound by the tradition of the stiff-upper-lip:  tragedies and bad behaviour often stayed hidden. Also, as I’m currently reminded inmy reading of the Cazalet novels, the lives of men and women were often quite separate, no matter what class or wealth. So how can you find those absent ones? My war-damaged grandfather died when my father was about two - but in which county? or country?  - and my father’s birth is registered somewhere – but where? Someone else holds that certificate, so I'll have to start searching for myself.

    Besides, the lines aren’t always straight. Families - of all sizes - can be riven by feuds or estranged by long distances or mistrustful about inheritances. Relatives don’t always want to relate, or to share documents or stories. Some, in fact, take a perverse pleasure in not doing so. This blocking rarely happens in “Who Do You Think You Are?”, where distant relatives are always pleased to see each other, although perhaps it happened for the celebrities whose family trees didn’t make it all the way to the screen.

    That family attic isn’t much help either, because the army wasn’t sentimental about personal memorabilia. Ordinary army families got into the habit of travelling light and shedding things as they moved between postings. My grandmother, born and married in India, probably kept the habit, destroying all her wedding and family photographs when she moved in to live with my mother. One family photo - my grandfather as a twelve year old boy soldier, playing a fife - only lives on in my memory. Even my “army” cousin recalls packing all her things – clothes and toys - into one small suitcase whenever they moved from one Mediterranean posting to another.

    I do, however, have one large suitcase from my mother. I’ve tried peering at the contents and peeking into the letters but, up until now, the ghosts have come too close. Maybe 2015 will be the year for being brave and starting to unpick the mysteries, just so that there can be stories for others in time to come.

    How about your own investigations? And are you descended from royalty yet?

    Penny Dolan

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  • 01/17/15--13:30: December competition winners
  • December competition

    The winners of  Dan Jones's Magna Carta are:
    Ruan Peat
    Linda Lawlor
    Elspeth Scott

    You can get your prizes by sending your land address to: Becci Sharpe becci@headofzeus.com


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  • 01/17/15--16:30: The Co-op - Celia Rees
  • One of the delights of 2014 was my Heart of England Co-operative Society Calendar. 

    I'm not quite sure why I was sent it, I must have joined on purchasing some item from the local co-op, but I found it fascinating, not only as a time machine taking me back to my childhood, but as a record of how shopping has changed over the last fifty years. 

    The Cooperative movement generally traces its origins to the Rochdale Pioneers Society  established in 1844 and based on the 'Rochdale rules', which included: 

    1. Open membership.
    2. Democratic control (one person, one vote).
    3. Distribution of surplus in proportion to trade.
    4. Payment of limited interest on capital.
    5. Political and religious neutrality.
    6. Cash trading (no credit extended).
    7. Promotion of education.

     Some Co-operative societies pre-date this, however, and one of these is The Heart of England Co-operative Society which can trace its origins to the Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society founded in the parish of  Foleshill, Coventry in 1832. 

    Co-operative Societies grew into existence in order to give ordinary working people access to affordable and reliable goods and services, not just food stuffs, but clothing, insurance and funeral services. 

    One of the most important benefits that they offered was the 'divi', a share of profits according to purchases made. Most people of a certain age remember their co-op number - 1786 - since you are asking. It was the first number I memorised and I remember being sent with list and shopping bag up to the Co-op, reciting the number to myself as I went (kids were sent out on errands on their own back then - it was a different world). For my family, the 'divi' was a treat, cashed in and spent at Christmas but for many families it was a lifeline, a vital source of extra money to extend over stretched family budgets or to meet the unexpected, extra expenses, like grammar school uniforms, that without the 'divi' would not have been met. 

    I can just about remember the Co-op Grocery with white coated assistants behind counters weighing and wrapping and windows rather like this wonderful Marmalade display from the Bedworth Co-op but even when I was a child retailing was changing. On our High Streets, the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer and the fishmonger cling on but the grocer has gone, replaced by the supermarket. The change is graphically depicted in the calendar. This early example shows what is almost a hybrid shop, with open shelving but the walls still stocked high, a white coated assistant standing by and a notice to instruct the public on to how to go about this new style of shopping:
    • Take a basket
    • Help yourself to goods
    • Pay the cashier

    A few years later we have what is much more recognisable as a supermarket, although the white coats are still in evidence and shoppers are still being reminded to take a basket. 

    Whatever we might think of supermarkets now, they had yet to be seen as a Bad Thing. They were beacons of modernity and Openings were often greeted with much excitement, as evidenced by this scene with everyone from old ladies with dogs to boys on bicycles present at the opening of the Southam Co-operative Store. 

    The picture for October was one of my favourites.

     I particularly love the Hopper-like quality but also relish the brands on display in the window: Tide, Horlicks, Crysella Soap Flakes, Birds Eye, Quaker Oats and Daz washing powder. These photographs perfectly capture a place, a time, the local co-op as an everyday part of ordinary lives. 

    (All photographs taken from Heart of England Co-operative Calendar, 2014)

    Celia Rees

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    How do novels start? I have to confess I’m fascinated by the whole process. From the germination of an idea to the end result - a published book - often seems to depend on a quite random sequence of events. Chance plays as much of a part in determining the final outcome, as deliberate choice - or perhaps it’s a mixture of the two. I’m always interested to hear about the way other writers approach the task of rendering historical fact into fiction - or indeed into memoir or biography. Does an idea for a book come to you ‘out of the blue’ - or is it arrived at after months of painstaking research?

    In the case of my own 2010 novel, The Dark Tower, it was very much a ‘Eureka’ moment - although the months of research, much of it in the British Library, followed soon after. I had been looking through some old family papers, and turned up a diary, written by a great-great-aunt, which described her horrified reaction to the news of a terrible defeat by the British Army at the hands of the Zulu army, at Isandhlwana, in what is now KwaZulu- Natal, on 22nd January 1879. This discovery was the starting-point for the novel. Because I realised that I knew almost nothing about the conflict during which this military catastrophe occurred. I’d heard of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, of course - anyone who’s seen the 1960s film Zulu, starring Michael Caine, will have some idea what that was about. But of course that was a victory for the British - one might almost say a necessary victory, given that it occurred only a day after the disaster at Isandhlwana. I decided that the only way to find out more about this largely forgotten event was to go to where it happened.   

    Isandhlwana is a disturbing place. Even if one knows nothing of the grim events enacted there, it still leaves a powerful impression – with its barren outcrops of low hills, surrounding a grassy plain, seamed with dry river-beds, and with the squat, tower-like shape of the mountain, from which it takes its name, looming overhead. It is the landscape evoked, with eerie prescience, by Robert Browning, in his 1855 poem, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, which supplied me with the title, for the book, and its epigraph:

    ‘Burningly it came on me all at once, 
    This was the place! Those two hills on the right, 
    Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight; 
    While to the left, a tall scalped mountain…’

    Here, at around mid-day on January 22nd 1879, over two thousand men lost their lives, in one of the bloodiest battles, fought on foreign soil, the British army had ever faced. What made the defeat even more of a blow to the esteem of the British imperial forces was that it was inflicted by an enemy most would have regarded as ‘savages’; an enemy which – though numerically superior - was woefully under-powered in terms of weaponry. In fact, as anyone interested in the history of the Anglo-Zulu wars will know, the Zulus were far from being the undisciplined rabble of popular supposition, but were a formidable fighting-force. Nor – despite the myths that have since grown up about the conflict – were the British soldiers as inexperienced, or their leaders as incompetent, as has been suggested. Bad luck certainly played a part in the tragedy, as did poor judgement by at least one of the commanding officers – but in the main, the British army fought heroically against overwhelming odds, and died, as so many have in conflicts before and since, defending ‘a little piece of ground’ not worth the fighting for.

    After such a crushing disaster, morale – both of troops in the line of battle and of those back home – had to be restored, without delay. On the day after the battle of Isandhlwana, came the ‘famous victory’ of Rorke’s Drift. It is perhaps hardly surprising that this incident – in which 139 British soldiers successfully defended the mission station at Rorke’s Drift from an attack by 4,000 Zulus – is far more widely remembered, by the British at least, than what happened on the previous day. The fact that eleven Victoria Crosses – the most ever awarded for a single military action – were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, whilst only three out of a far greater number of the no less heroic combatants at Isandhlwana received the same honour, is surely no accident.

    Now, if one visits the place, it is hard not to be moved by the thought of what happened here – reminders of which are everywhere to be seen, in the cairns of white stones which mark the mass-graves of soldiers, who, like Drummer Hodge in Thomas Hardy’s poem of that name about another South African conflict – the Boer War – which was to leave deep scars on the British psyche, have become part of that foreign land they once set out to conquer.

    ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest 
    Uncoffined — just as found: 
    His landmark is a kopje-crest 
    That breaks the veldt around…’

    In the little museum at Isandhlwana are memorabilia – cap- badges, belt-buckles, letters, drawings, diaries – retrieved from the field of battle and preserved, as a poignant reminder that wars are fought by human beings, not machines. If the recent upsurge of interest in the lives of the ordinary soldiers on the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War has demonstrated anything, it is that we are no longer prepared to consign those who fought and died in such conflicts to the anonymity which was the fate of the ‘common soldier’ for centuries.
    In writing The Dark Tower, I wanted to show the devastating effects of war on individual lives, and to make the point that, even though the nature of modern warfare has changed, and its technology has become vastly more powerful, the physical and psychological damage suffered by those caught up in such conflicts remains largely unchanged. In depicting what, arguably, might be described as the first ‘modern’ war, I have chosen to focus, not only on the combatants, but also on those left behind – that is, the women.

    For if my novel had a starting-point, or a single moment of inspiration, it was not my visit to Isandhlwana, nor David Rattray’s wonderful talks on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society, but an entry in a slim, cloth-bound diary:

    ‘February 13th 1879 I must not wait a moment longer because I want to write down the dreadful news we have had from the Cape where our troops are fighting against the Zulus…’

    Great-Aunt Laura then goes on to copy out the account of the battle, sent by the Commander of the British forces in Natal, Lord Chelmsford, to the Secretary for War, and published in the previous day’s Times:

    ‘I regret to state a very disastrous engagement took place on the 22nd of January between the Zulus and a portion of No. 3 Column left to guard the camp about 10 miles in front of Rorke’s Drift. The Zulus came down in overwhelming numbers and in spite of the gallant resistance made by five companies of the 1st battalion of the 24th Regiment… they overwhelmed them…’

    ‘This terrible news,” writes the then twenty-four year-old Laura Barrett, ‘has caused a most profound sensation all over the country, & eight regiments are ordered out in ten days…’ A later journal entry strikes a more anguished note:

    ‘I have been through the cloud, & have known what real trouble is, and in the dark & cloudy day I could not write…’

    A section of the diary has been torn out at this point. It was this – and the confessional tone of the above – which led me to speculate about whether Laura herself might have had a more personal connection with the ‘terrible news’ she has related, and, if so, what that connection might have been. The few facts I knew about her – a woman who, though living into her nineties, never married, but was said to have once been engaged to a man (perhaps a soldier) who had died in Africa – provided further food for thought.

    I realised that Laura’s story was also one I wanted to tell. Out of that realisation, came the opening pages of The Dark Tower.

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    Even today, many novels and plays use certain recognisable archetypal characters, although they may be heavily disguised – the young couple thwarted by an intransigent parent, the clever and lovable rogue, the swaggering and boastful alpha male (who may be a coward at heart), the fraudulent professional or swindler, the rich and miserly businessman. Such characters may take many forms in the hands of a skilled writer, but their roots lie deep in remote literary history.


    These archetypes were employed repeatedly by the Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, though some had been used even earlier by Greek comedians like Aristophanes. However, it was the Roman writers who refined the types and certain stock situations which their large audiences greeted with glee. As in all theatrical performances of classical times, the actors wore masks, particularly exaggerated masks in the case of comedy, which crudely emphasised the essential characteristics of each type. Since all the parts were played by men, the female characters wore female masks and wigs to denote their sex.


    With the collapse of the Roman empire came the collapse of professional theatre, but it seems unlikely that all forms of play-acting could have disappeared altogether. During the somewhat mis-named ‘Dark Ages’ and early Mediaeval centuries, there were certainly jongleurs and bands of travelling entertainers who may have carried forward fragments of the old traditions. Traces can be seen in the mummers’ plays and the early morality plays, with their stock characters and use of masks and symbolic costumes.


    Peeter van Bredael - Commedia dell'Arte

    The true commedia dell’arte appeared in Italy in the sixteenth century, and it must be significant that it emerged in the country which had produced the Roman comedies, even though no direct line of descent can be traced. Commedia dell’arte used stock characters, stock situations, stock costumes, stock props, and symbolic masks, like its Roman predecessors. Unlike the Roman plays, however, the commedia was not performed in permanent theatres, but by itinerant companies, like those of the Middle Ages. Also like them, and like the actors in morality plays, the performers appeared in the open air, on temporary platforms or movable stages. And unlike other forms of theatre developing at the time, the commediacompanies included women. Ben Jonson referred to one such as a ‘tumbling whore’.


    Four Commedia Figures - Claude Gillot c.1715

    The commediaquickly perfected its standard cast of characters: the braggart soldier Il Capitano; the rich but miserly merchant Pantalone; the bogus scholar Il Dottore; the old woman La Ruffiana, intent on thwarting the young lovers; the ugly hunchback with his large nose, Pulchinella, lusting after pretty girls; witty and mischievous Arlecchino, who dressed like a jester and was a skilled acrobat; Brighella, the vicious and mercenary villain; the melancholy dreamer Pedrolino; Scaramucchia, with his black clothes and sword, a kind of roguish hero. Set against this cast of mostly unpleasant characters who satirised contemporary social types were the charming young lovers who sought escape from their elders and a future together, cheered on by a sympathetic audience.


    Karel Dujardin - Commedia dell'Arte Performance

    Staging was minimal. These travelling players could not transport elaborate scenery, so the most they might have would be a painted backcloth depicting a street or country scene. Props, however, were important: plenty of exaggerated wooden swords, food to be thrown about, watering pots to sprinkle the unwary, huge stuffed paunches worn by Pulchinella and Pantalone. The most distinctive were the pair of flat sticks tied together and carried by Arlecchino, which he slapped together to make a loud noise – hence our term ‘slapstick’.


    All of the satirical characters wore leather masks, generally the type of half-mask which covers the upper face and nose, forerunner of the masks worn at the Venetian carnevale to this day. Some were very specific – for example, Arlecchino wore a cat mask and Pedrolino’s mask was white (ancestor of the white-faced clown). The ‘straight’ characters like the young lovers Inamorato and Inamoratadid not wear masks.


    Commedia Masks - photo by Hugh Dismuke

    Costumes were elaborate and sometimes very fine, the best the company could afford. For the companies themselves varied greatly. There were the famous companies such as I Gelosi, I Fedeli, I Accessi, and I Confidenti, who had noble patrons and performed at ducal courts as well as to the public, but there were also small itinerant bands which might last for a few years only. As well as the patronage enjoyed by the more established companies, finance was obtained by passing round a hat at public performances.


    These performances were vivid and exciting affairs, structured around standard episodes, but also full of extemporised incident and horseplay, music, song and dance, juggling, acrobatics. The players all had to be multi-talented. Local and contemporary affairs were often the targets of the satire. Excitement must have run high in a village or small town when the commediaplayers arrived, for nothing else so entertaining would have come their way. Although the commedia began in Italy it very quickly spread throughout Europe as the companies travelled abroad, during the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries. Some forms of the commedia became merged into various carnivals, not only in Venicebut in Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras celebrations elsewhere.



    Although the true commedia dell’arte eventually fell out of favour, its themes and influence have survived to this day - in specific characters like Mr Punch, descended from Pulcinella, and the sad, white-faced clown from Pedrolino. Less obvious, but just as persistent, are the types and the situations found in the commedia. Even at the time when the commedia was going strong, Shakespeare used many of its stock characters and situations in his comedies, as did Ben Jonson. They may have derived them directly from the Roman comedies (some of the plots are borrowed unashamedly), but they may also have drawn on this new theatrical form which was spreading across Europe. Moliêre certainly borrowed from the commedia, in plays like Le Misanthrope. Elements of the commedia can even be traced in some of Shakespeare’s plays which are not comedies (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest).


    Watteau - Pierrot c.1718-9

    By the time the comedies of the Restoration period came to be written, the similarities to elements of the commedia dell’arteare unmistakable. In the eighteenth century, pantomime developed as a kind of side-shoot from the commedia, but the original satirical form could still be seen as politically dangerous. Napoleon outlawed it, even in Italyitself.


    The traditional stock characters may take on many forms – sometimes as satirical as the originals, sometimes more mellow – but they crop up even today in such popular dramatic forms as television situation comedy. The form is flexible. It can be used as readily for political satire as for gentle family comedy. It is a great legacy in our theatrical tradition, surely because it deals with many fundamental truths about human behaviour.


    In the fourth novel of my sixteenth-century Christoval Alvarez series, Bartholomew Fair, I have a troupe of Italian puppeteers who perform at the Fair. Their marionettes act out a commedia dell’arte, but the puppets depict major figures in Elizabethan society and the satire is a vicious attack, intended to be subversive. Italywas, of course, the home of the Pope, who had granted a pardon to any assassin taking the life of Queen Elizabeth, declared a bastard heretic by the papacy. My puppeteers are part of a wider conspiracy to bring terror to the streets of London. It seemed to me fitting that the commedia, a public display of satire, might be used as an instrument of something altogether more sinister.

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    I’m writer in residence at Plymouth University at the moment and am thoroughly enjoying myself. Mostly I’m there to try and give students some insight into writing as a profession and supplement their already excellent teaching of creative writing. I’ve done talks such as ‘How to write a prize winning short story and why you should’, and ‘A writer’s year’ for instance. Tomorrow though, I’m going to talk about researching historical fiction with particular reference to 'The Daughter of Time' by Josephine Tey. This is for a module that some of the English students are doing on Historical Fiction. I rather wish I was doing the course - it looks like a fascinating opportunity to study the interplay between fiction and recorded history. 

    For those that don’t know the novel, ‘The Daughter of Time’ is about a policeman, Tey’s regular detective Alan Grant, who is stuck in hospital after breaking his leg during a chase and is very, very bored. His friend, the actress Marta Hallard, who knows his love of faces and mysteries brings him a collection of prints - portraits of individuals concerned with unsolved historical crimes - to distract him. After rejecting a few he lights upon the portrait of Richard III. When he looks at the portrait, he sees no sign of the villainous, and is disturbed to discover who it is. He begins asking his visitors, the nurses and his doctor what they think of the portrait, what they know of Richard and his crimes, and sending them out on research errands works his way through the standard accounts of the Princes in the Tower. Soon he recruits an available and amiable researcher, and is able to probe the sources a little further.  He ends up convinced that the accepted story is a lie, and that Henry VII was the real villain of the piece. As a wider point he also learns to question a lot of accepted historical truths. 

    Tey, and through her Grant, are so persuasive that many of her readers joined and reinvigorated what is now The Richard III Society. 

    What strikes me as a writer of historical fiction and of crime when reading the novel, is how Tey manages to have her cake and eat it. Several cakes. This is a detective story without threat, action or suspects - not ones alive at the time is story is set anyway. It is a work of historical revisionism without being a history book, and it is a piece of historical fiction (well, it has bits of historical fiction in it), without having to create a convincing portrait of 15thc characters and their world. Hardly seems fair. Nevertheless it is an excellent and thought provoking novel. 

    It works, I think, for two reasons. One is the considerable charm of the writing. Someone is always coming in to talk to Grant and his discoveries are dramatised in his conversations. Tey manages to show not tell, while telling. These cameos are neatly and amusingly drawn as are the politics of floral gifts, Grant's boredom and the shock of his guests when they realise the accepted facts of history are not as sacrosanct as they thought. The text is also studded with arch references - Marta is annoyed because the author she wants to write a play for her is doing ‘one of her awful little detective stories’ instead. Grant knows about Richard II because he saw the play Richard of Bordeux several times. It is a play Tey wrote herself under her other pen name, Gordon Daviot. There are various casual, caustic asides about different popular fiction genres.

    The second reason the novel works is that is does do the one essential thing quality detective novels and historical fiction should make you do. It makes you question your beliefs and look again at the evidence. There is always an element of sleight of hand in detective fiction, you want the reader to think one thing, then find out they were wrong. Tey is reminding us that many of the individuals who created the story of history were as unreliable as the distraught fiancée in an Agatha Christie. Equally the best historical fiction is there to remind us any period is made of of the experiences of individuals, and those individuals and experiences have always been a lot more varied and complex than the flattened history of school books has room to allow.  She’s also reminding us of of the importance of approaching any received wisdom with both sympathy and scepticism. 


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    "If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles"
    Colette quoted by Maurice Goudeket

    Research has a strange effect upon writers - it can make you crave other countries, other times. Having lived in a literal desert for five years, I am grateful on a daily basis to spend the majority of my working day lost in more interesting places. Lately the new research has induced an unquenchable craving for truffles, however. The closest I have found here was a disappointing truffle oil which had none of the feral allure of the real thing (I doubt it ever came within sniffing distance of a real truffle). Scrambled eggs will have to wait until we are home.

    Expat TV is as limited as the options for fresh produce, and similarly imported (I watch a lot of Antiques Roadshows). Five years ago I laughed at the dated reruns of 'As Time Goes By', and 'One Foot in the Grave', now I put on 'Midsomer Murders' just for the English accents and lingering shots of green countryside. One episode last week caught my eye - a landowner was tied to a tree smeared with truffle oil (clearly a better vintage than the one I found here), and savaged by wild boar. Ingenious.

    Truffle hogs (or sows), lust after the fungi because they contain something which smells like the sex pheromone of boar saliva - which is why they eat the truffles given half a chance, unlike truffle dogs. These fruiting subterranean fungi which Brillat Savarin called the diamonds of the kitchen are enjoyed, white and black, across Europe. Most are the size of a small pebble, but the Guinness World Record breaker was a hefty 2lb 14oz. The first mention of them dates back to Sumerian times, and their existence puzzled many (Plutarch thought lightning had something to do with it). Truffle hunting grew in popularity during the Renaissance, but it wasn't until the seventeenth century that they took their place in French cuisine (but Brillat Savarin noted they were so expensive they appeared only on the tables of nobles and kept women).

    I've cooked along with my research over the last few months, rediscovering all of Elizabeth David and M K Fisher, but the gorgeous, musky truffle recipes will have to wait. The pungent smell always conjures up open air markets, and leisurely breakfasts in the sun. Perhaps it's good in this 'have it all and have it now' society to have at least one thing to lust after that is still rare and looked forward to. Although, if you are like Colette you would rather go without if you cannot have plenty. I found a passage describing her cooking method. Once a year, when she was able to eat truffles 'like potatoes', she would cook an enormous pot, boiling them in champagne, scenting the entire house. What a woman.

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    I was thinking of this as we drove out of London just before New Year; when I saw a pub sign that was a metal bunch of grapes, thought: That looks old! looked again, saw it was modern, and lost interest. It is one of the downsides of being a historical novelist, I fear. Mentally cutting out all the buildings that weren't there during your period. Clearly, if you are writing about medieval times, you might find your London tends to be largely non-existent, but even if you are in Georgian times, as I am, it means that large swathes of towns have to be fuzzed out as you look at them. In Berlin-Charlottenburg, when I was writing Saving Rafael, I was always crossing out the modern bits annoyingly at the entrance floors of buildings. Here is Jenny's house from Saving Rafael, having had The Treatment. Later in the novel, a lot of damage had to be added from bombing.

    I remember returning to Hong Kong in 2000, having spent eighteen months there in the early '80s, and then having written a novel set in the Hong Kong of the 1880s (The Mountain of Immoderate Desires). There are still some old buildings left in HK, but not many (one Hong Kong friend appalled me when he came to Henley and demanded: 'Why don't you knock all this old stuff down and build high-rises? You could just keep one or two old houses, to show people how it used to be). But I had, by then, spent so much time peering at numberless old photographs of the territory, that when I looked at the new city, I could see the old scenes like a veil over the new buildings.
    Stage One of the process
    Stage Two
    Stage Three; more or less back in old Taipingshan
    My father used to like to quote Marshall McLuhan's saying: 'We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror', saying that people (this included me, even in childhood obsessed with history) looking into the rearview mirror and seeing a coach and horses behind instead of a dull and boring car. I thought, in those days, that this would be an improvement. Adulthood, which is supposed to bring maturity, has at least brought me the insight that the coach and horses, to those living at the time, would be just as mundane as a Mondeo, whereas of course to those who experienced the first cars, and had to cope with their horses' fear of them, the car was anything but dull and boring.
    Chinese junk, Hong Kong harbour 1982

    Though on the Marshall McLuhan theme, skippers of vessels in Hong Kong harbour in the 1980s did still sometimes see junks (sometimes whole fleets of them) and sampans from their bridges. It all added to the vivid panorama of the port which one captain told the South China Morning Post, risked reducing him to a jibbering wreck. I know the above photo does look as if I'd photoshopped an old picture onto a new one, but believe me, I haven't a steady enough hand to do the scissoring out; those junks really were sepia-coloured.
    I fear, however, that I am still looking in the rearview mirror; at present, for example, I have a tendency to mutter that we need Charles James Fox. I read the paper, more or less, every morning, only to let modern politics fall out of my mind and be more concerned with the state of Parliament in the late eighteenth century, and the state of play in the battle to win control from the meddling George the Third. His descendant, Charles Windsor, bids fair to rival him in going beyond his constitutional role, it has to be said - and there you are, I'm off… But tell me, have you heard whether the King is truly going mad again?
    You have to button up your mouth for fear you become a bore - unless talking to other Historical Novelists, who understand.
    Charles James Fox by Samuel Cotes (Parliament via Wikimedia Commons)

    If you have adopted some of the language of your chosen period - something I normally find myself doing, except when I wrote about Nazi Germany, and had to translate all the dialogue out of German into English, you find yourself using its expressions, especially when writing. To be sure, I normally managed NOT to start talking German to incomprehending Brits, but it is much harder if your characters do speak the language you normally speak. Unless you are Hilary Mantel, whose characters all talk modern English. When she asked me for help with German for Wolf Hall, I was reaching out to my shelves for my 15th-century German books, and was a little disappointed to hear that she wanted modern German. It was easier, however! Hilary, however, does get kept awake, as she told the Guardian, by Tudor courtiers gossiping.
    Finally: if the screening process I have mentioned above does fail in order to allow one to notice anything happening in the present day, specific to the present day (as opposed to eternal things like sex, grandchildren, human relations, gardening and making bread*), you are riddled with frustration because you CAN'T PUT THEM IN YOUR NOVEL!

    So what does being a historical novelist/novel reader do to you???

    *Though on that topic, you have the perennial problem and eternal/internal talking point: Is the Past Another Country? Did kneading dough feel different a hundred years ago? It has to be said that baking must have been a whole lot different without a thermostatted oven!

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    sun prism at Pembroke Castle, 
    I use many research methods to weave the braid of my history stories.  I use primary sources in Latin and Old French (in translation when I can get them). I use a variety of secondary sources ranging from the work of academic presses to children's books. I visit locations, I research online. I re-enact with early medieval society Regia Anglorum to try and create a 3D feel for the words on the page.  And...I use the psychic.  Let me explain.

    I need to take you back 30 years. At that time I was a young mum with small children. One afternoon, while attending a group set up for mothers and toddlers, I met fellow mum Alison King who would become a very dear friend and colleague. At the time I was a hopeful but unpublished author, and she was taking a job break to bring up her family. We hit it off and began meeting  once a week for a coffee and a chat at each other's houses while the children played together. Later, when our offspring had gone to school and we both had part time jobs, we still met up every week. Gradually as we got to know each other in more depth, Alison told me that she had awarenesses that I suppose you'd say come under the umbrella of being psychic. She could see auras and sense energies.  It's not the sort of thing you tell people until you get to know and trust them, because there is often  stigma, scorn and even hostility attached to such admissions and Alison, being soft, shy and unassuming, only told me once she had come to know me well.  I accepted it as part of who she was. I had an open mind even though I wasn't gullible and I had come to know that she was a very genuine person.

    In the fullness of time I realise my dream and became a successful published author, and Alison, on her own path trained in Reiki and neuro linguistic programming (NLP) and became a therapist.  We began working together in the psychic sense quite by accident in 2004. I was writing my bestselling novel THE GREATEST KNIGHT and was about three quarters of the way through it when I went round to Alison's for our usual coffee and chat. She asked me how I was getting on with the novel and I said that it was going very well except that I was having difficulty finding out about the woman who had been the mistress of William Marshal's brother. I knew her name and had a few dates but that was about it. Alison in her therapy job had been dealing with clients who had had a traumas in the past and she had discovered that her abilities enabled her to tune in and go back to when that trauma happened and to work through it with them. She offered to go back for me and look for this lady, reasoning that if she could go back 20 or 30 years, then she could go back 800 or further. As I said at the beginning, I have an open mind, so I thought why not?  

    Alison doesn't go into any sort of weird mediumistic trance when she accesses the information. She is fully awake and aware, although she may close her eyes the better to see what she is accessing.  She tunes in to the vibrational pattern of the past and what comes through to her are visuals, sights, sounds, smells and emotions the latter in particular. For her, it's like seeing a film but with full sensory perception and from all angles. She then relays back to me what she is experiencing. When I say full sensory input, that includes the smells and tastes of the time! I recall once she was with a character who was very hungry and impatient for his dinner. She could actually smell the good food smells that were making his mouth water but to make sure it wasn't coming from an external source, she made me go in the kitchen and check that my husband wasn't secretly cooking a casserole!

    What came through in those 10 minutes was astounding. I didn't write it down, we were just sitting there over the coffee and biscuits and it was totally impromptu. At the outset Alison came across a lady swinging what she described as a bag on a string. 'Do you think she's drying lettuce?' Alison asked me - not knowing anything about the Middle Ages. I said I suspected the lady in question was actually swinging a hawking lure!   She proceeded to describe a meeting between this lady and William Marshal's brother that was detailed and fascinating. I was amazed and could immediately see how useful this ability would be for me the novelist if Alison was able to do this on a regular basis. The possibilities knocked the ball way beyond the boundaries.

    We agreed to meet next week and have another go, this time perhaps going to William Marshal himself, and taking notes. Again, what came through was astounding. This is Alison's description of William Marshal from our first ever 'official' session we did.  I've followed it with some quotes from Professor David Crouch's biography of The Marshal 'William Marshal, Knighthood, War and Chivalry 1147-1219.'

    I asked her to go to William Marshal in the spring of 1168 when he was in the entourage of his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and in the company of Eleanor of Aquitaine

    Alison: "He has incredible courage. He's like a bouncy castle: very buoyant. He's riding with a lot of highborn people. He's awed by them but not overawed. He feels as if he's in the right place. He has a good sense of his own worth. He's very flexible and alert, responds not just in a chitchat way but deeply and appropriately. He knows how to say the right thing at the right time and it comes easily to him. He's alert and all his senses are awakened. He has dark hair, long cheeks, strong nose. His clothes are intricate. His eyes look dark but inside they feel light. I'm seeing the youth and the older man mingled. It is difficult for others to gauge what he's thinking. He has very dark eyes: might be brown might be blue.
    There is a woman laughing and William is making her laugh by telling her jokes about the English being loutish and stupid. It's probably Poitiers they are going to. The woman is Eleanor of Aquitaine (Alison has several stabs at saying Poitiers, and prompted by me. She was unsure how to pronounce it). 

    Here's what David Crouch has to say on the character of William Marshal. (Alison didn't know any of this beforehand. All she had to work on was a name, date and a place).
    "He was undoubtedly a big, healthy and prepossessing man, a fine athlete and horseman. This mixture of quick wit and hand made him as perfect a warrior as he was in time commander. The crown of his fortune was that he had an open face, a ready humour and an underlying alertness for his own advantage that made him as natural courtier as he was a soldier. The Queen of England, as good a judge of a male animal as might be found in mid 12th century France, was bound to be impressed. William's face was his fortune.'... With tact and a well bridled tongue he had no need to be a master of manoeuvre and dissembling. What for others was merely the carefully constructed outer mask was for him his natural disposition. His ambition rode easily beside his own disposition... He rose effortlessly, without needing to plot and subvert the position of others. His only danger was his own success.
    And re the jests against the English: 'that the English were more fond of drinking and boasting and fighting was a routine insult thrown by the Norman French at their English cousins 12th century English writers took great exception to it... And Williams lying in self-deprecation is a very good example of this form of defence. He was filing down the teeth of persecution by jokes against himself.'

    Alison's assessment of William Marshal was a wonderful character study and spot-on with history that I had already read but Alison hadn't. (there is more than the above paragraph but I've not included it here).  I accept that it could be coming from her imagination, or she could have been somehow plucking it out of mine, But it could also be the real deal. It all depends on what you believe. Whatever the source, it was something I knew I needed to tap into. What a fantastic strand to add to the research threads - a glinting gold line taking me straight back to the past. 

    99%  of the time the history is spot on where it can be corroborated. For the minor percentage when the known fact and the psychic readings go awry, I take that as margin for error. If it's really weird I discard. If it goes against the grain but has some plausibility, it goes in the pending file.  There was the time Alison was accessing 12th century Lincoln castle for me and told she could see a tunnel.  I said there weren't any tunnels at Lincoln Castle.  6 months later this turned up. Tunnel at Lincoln Castle
    It's always fascinating when Alison describes the people she sees. King Henry II 'never sits still.' She describes all his fieriness and energy and his red hair. Of course she could have got this out of a book or from general knowledge.  Knowing her, I suspect not, but it can't be ruled out. I remember her accessing William Marshal's second son Richard. With a delighted laugh of surprise she said:  'He's a lovely roly-poly lad with red hair.' Now we don't know what Richard Marshal looked like, but we do know that his maternal grandfather was a red-head and that the de Clare line was very busy with folk bearing that particular hair colour. It's circumstantial, but it's a great handle for me the novelist.

    Since I had almost finished writing  when we began our journey, The greatest Knight, that novel only contains a few small sections from what Alison calls The Akashic Record - a handle name for the way she taps into the past.  But from that point every novel I have written has contained that golden weave throughout. I have friends in the historian community who have looked at the material and have told  me that what is being accessed is mediaeval culture and mindset. So wherever it comes from, I am delighted because getting the mindset right is one of  the holy grails of historical fiction.
    Alison (left) with me taking notes at a session. This was a
    few years ago - my hair is shorter now!

    What Alison accesses for me helps me think outside the box for conventional research too.  It helps me shovel aside the detritus of secondary source opinions. While these can be enlightening some have a tendency to obfuscate and get in the way of clarity or be downright wrong. That is particularly true where Eleanor of Aquitaine is concerned. Her biographers have taken  a lot of liberties.  It was heartening to find that my research on Eleanor with Alison has paid dividends behind the scenes. Professor Michael Evans in his recent work Inventing Eleanor (Bloomsbury Academic)  has cited me as a novelist who follow the newer academic research and avoid the pitfalls of making the egregious mistakes garnered from the popular biographies.  If only he knew about my gold thread research and its contribution to my work!

    Leaving Eleanor, here's an example from my research when I was writing a novel titled A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE  about William Marshal's father John and his chequered career during the anarchy between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. There was an incident described in a chronicle called the Gesta Stephani where, in 1140, a mercenary thug, attempted to take John's Castle at Marlborough away from him.  I was interested in the dynamics of this incident and asked Alison to go to it and see it from John Marshal's point of view.

    Taken from my notes:

    Elizabeth:  I want to look at a situation between John Marshal and a mercenary named Robert FitzHubert. In 1140, FitzHubert was serving Robert of Gloucester. FitzHubert made a surprise attack on Devizes castle, and took it for himself, renouncing his contract with Gloucester. Then he started looking around for others to conquer and his eye fixed on John Marshal at Marlborough. He approached John by way of intermediaries and mooted the notion that the two of them might join forces and carve up the surrounding area between them. John was suspicious but wanted to know what FitzHubert was really up to, so invited him over to Marlborough to discuss the situation. This is known history. Go to the meeting.

    Alison: I can see parallel lines going upwards and light between them. I think it's a window in a church. It's very quiet and still. I get the sense that John is in a church thinking, praying, enjoying the stillness. He needs that stillness to be able to think. He is trying to figure out what FitzHubert's intentions are. He needs to work it out before FitzHubert arrives at Marlborough. He's given himself a good amount of time. He's figuring it out like you would in a chess game, working out all the possible moves FitzHubert could make and all the directions he could be coming from. John can see that none of them are good. A pact doesn't make sense for FitzHubert whichever way John looks at it. Now he's ruled out that perspective he has to work out what FitzHubert's motive really is, what he's trying to do. If he can do that, he can make his own response more effective. He has sussed out that the man is coming to threaten him, that the visit is going to be about threats and bullying. Alison sees a symbolic image of FitzHubert with a big sword pointing at John. 'Do what I say or else.'

     FitzHubert is an intense small, broad, thorough ball of muscle. John is cool about the notion of threat. He thinks 'Who tells me what to do? Certainly not this little worm.' He thinks he will fight force with force. He's figuring out which of his own men are going to look the most forceful. He will have them in the meeting with him and dressed in an intimidating way. He is going to put all his men on the alert and on guard. He will contain FitzHubert's men in the hall with guards at the door and he will make them disarm and promise them wine and nourishment after their long journey. He's going to instruct his wife to see that they are occupied. He's pleased with his plan and clasps his hands. 'Thank you God.' He lights a candle and leaves the church.

    There is still quite a bit of time before FitzHubert arrives. John has something to eat and drink himself. He's relaxing in his chair with his dogs and discussing the above plan with his senior men in an easy way around the fire. They all know what they are doing. John goes to get himself ready. He instructs his steward to make the hall ready and goes to have a word with his wife. She agrees to do as he asks. She doesn't say a lot. She looks plumper than I've seen her before; she might be pregnant.
    All John has to do now is wait. He sees to his equipment, inspects the men. He makes sure they know what they are doing by asking them. They are all in the areas where they should be and know what they're doing next. There are meeters and greeters at the hall door and they have concealed weapons or weapons where they can grab them quickly if needed.

    The word has gone out that FitzHubert is coming. He arrives faster than he should i.e. at a gallop, but John stands his ground and FitzHubert has to rein in. John welcomes him as he dismounts and shows him where his men can go. He takes him to the private chamber for their discussion, and as the door closes, FitzHubert looks round and sees that as well as John there are two burley well armed men coming up the stairs behind them. John says 'Don't mind them, these are my subalterns.' FitzHubert swallows hard. He's been outwitted; he's left all of his men in the hall and he's on his own. He thought he was on strong ground. He thought that with everyone being so friendly, he was in a powerful position, but now he finds himself at a disadvantage and he doesn't like it.

    John offers him wine and nibbles from the sideboard. It's not the sort of food a ball of muscle goes for. He's a doorstop sarnie type, but John is showing off his cultured and courtly ways and again putting FitzHubert at a disadvantage. Plus FitzHubert is hungry after his ride and this stuff won't even fill a gap, whereas John's already eaten.

    John is now settling down. Let's have this chat then. What have you come to talk about?
    FitzHubert starts his spiel. 'We're friends and neighbours. We might have things in common that we could investigate. Things we might be able to do together. Swap men for example. You lend me men when I need them, and I'll do the same for you.'
    John: 'what advantage is there in that for me?'
    FitzHubert: 'Well, if you wanted to take on something bigger than you normally would, you'd be able.'
    John: 'why should I want to do that?'
    FitzHubert: 'You haven't been able to do it before, but now you're in a position to do so: certainly I've thought about it myself.'
    John raises his eyebrows. 'Have you indeed? And where would that be? '(knowing bloody well FitzHubert means Marlborough).
    FitzHubert can't answer that one and looks away. He continues talking about ambition. 'Who knows where ambition takes us. Who knows where ambition is - but he doesn't say anything specific or definite.
    John just says: 'Indeed, indeed, so glad I've met you. Enjoyable visit.'
    Alison says she can see John giving FitzHubert a hug. He's saying 'We'll always be friends.' They go into the main hall and there's cheering and carrying on. John gets a nasty feeling seeing FitzHubert's men in his hall. He has a snarl his face. He doesn't like this at all. He's tempted to put something in the wine - pepper? Alison isn't sure if this is what he'd like to do or whether he actually does it. John leaves the hall, really disgusted. FitzHubert's men are getting very drunk and are incapable. FitzHubert thinks that he is a big man and in control. Basically John decides to imprison him. Wrap him up like a present. He'll make a valuable offering to someone. John's men are seizing FitzHubert's  and the latter is now thinking to paraphrase 'Oh shit.' He might be a ball of muscle but there's not much brain in there. John's wife isn't in the room when John orders the taking. She'd left before it got to that stage.
    I asked Alison if John had intended arresting FitzHubert from the start but she said no. John was waiting to see what FitzHubert's plans were first. 

    The history here is spot on. It's mentioned in a couple of pages in the Gesta Stephani and also John of Worcester, chronicles of the period that Alison certainly had not read when she reported on the episode to me.  What she told me, fleshed out these incidents from an emotional and motivational point of view whilst corroborating everything the chronicles say. 
    Incidentally, after that John sold FitzHubert back to Robert of Gloucester, the mercenary's former employer for 500 marks.

    From the Gesta Stephani:
    "There was in the neighbourhood a certain John, a man cunning and very ready to set great designs on foot by treachery, in forcible possession of a very strong castle belonging of right to the King, named Marlborough.  Robert was anxious to gain possession of it, either because it was near his his own castle and conveniently situated, or because if that too were brought under his power he could more freely cause discord in the whole of England.  He sent word to John by intermediaries that he would make a pact of peace and friendship with him, that he wanted to ask admission to his castle for the sake of giving and receiving advice, that it was his intention to keep the pact unbroken and their harmony unimpaired. But John, perceiving that he made all these promises in the hope of surprising the castle (which was the fact), gladly and affably agreed to his requests, and after admitting him to the castle, shut the gates behind him and put him in a narriw dungeon...and falling with his men on Robert's companions, whom he had brought with him as accomplices of his treachery, he laid hands on some at once, captured them and imprisoned them with their leader, others he put to shameful and discreditable flight and compelled them to retreat all the way to Devizes."

    Using this resource is like, I suppose, conducting journalistic interviews with the persons involved, except that one gets to see it from the inside to and with sensory input.

    Truth vibrating along a wire from the past to someone who can access the signal or vivid imagination? Whatever one's take on it it's a marvellous resource for a writer of historical fiction to have in his or her toolbox.   I'm busy researching my third Eleanor of Aquitaine novel THE AUTUMN THRONE at the moment and the research with Alison is proving as fascinating, insightful and intriguing as ever.

    Alison's website can be found here: Alison King

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
    Your IP : - Country : - City:
    Your ISP TRACKS Your Online Activity! Hide your IP ADDRESS with a VPN!
    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    One of the joys of the Internet is how quickly we can now answer questions that we would once have parked in the back of our minds - even when all the libraries are closed.  Here’s a chain of discoveries I made over Christmas.  It all started with a board game, and it led me to a very interesting 20th century man who turned out to share a lot with a 17th century natural philosopher about whom I once knew a great deal. 

    For those of you who don’t know it, Careers is the best board game in the world

    I’m talking here about the original 1950s version, not the feeble ‘updated’ editions of more recent times. We play using a set that has been in my husband’s family for nearly sixty years, and unlike its evil, boring, family-busting cousin, Monopoly, Careers never fails to generate laughter and good will.

    The rules are pretty simple.  You go round the board according to throws of the dice, entering various careers along the way, trying to achieve a formulae of money, fame and happiness that you set for yourself before the game starts. 

    The genius of the game is that it is impossible to tell who is winning until the victor emerges, and fortunes change rapidly, so you are always in with a chance.
    One of the most amusing things about Careers is what it says of its own time.
    Look at the Expedition to the Moon, for example, plotted out long before the era of space travel:

    So the game is a bit of a history lesson for the younger members of the family.  It’s cheering to realise from the causal sexism throughout that feminism has achieved  something  since 1957: 'Gorgeous secretary. 4 Hearts'. But some things that raised a laugh a few years just back have reverted to their old status and no longer shock: In the University section: "Sweetheart has rich uncle. Draw 2 Opportunities". At the turn of the century we would have chortled at getting only £5000 for writing a successful book. Now it sounds like a pretty good deal.  And paying to get out of hospital used to seem strange.  Now you can imagine it being in someone's election manifesto.  But don't get me started on that...
    For all its anachronisms, the game still captures something true about human beings and human society.  I wondered who had invented it, and it turned out to be a very interesting man, with an intriguing career of his own.

    James Cooke Brown was born in 1921, and lived till 2000.  He was a sociologist, a civil rights campaigner, and above all an idealist.  He believed in the possibility of constructing a fairer society, and set to work devising methods by which that might be done. Shortly after the died, his publishers released The Job Market of the Future in which he foresaw a role for computers in a globalised world of work.

    'I shall be bringing an inventor’s perspective to the solving of economic problems' he wrote. 'Blaming people who some might think had “caused" the problems is no part of the inventive process…all we need to know is how to solve them now - preferably with a solution that can remove their structural causes, and so have some chance of being a permanent solution.'

    What James Cooke Browne proposed (to grossly oversimplify his theory to fit this space) was a new system for organising work - rebalancing the power relationships so that the person supplying the labour had control of its use.  The ultimate aim was to ensure security of employment combined with a living wage.

    All this was prefigured in his even more fascinating book The Troika Incident, a  Science fiction novel published in 1970.

    This book is interesting on two levels.  It looks forward to the world in 2070; but its immediate plot is set in 1975 which, at the time it was written, was still in the future.  So characters reflect on who won the Vietnam War (correctly diagnosed as ‘nobody’) and look back on the abandonment of conventional, and in particular nuclear, warfare in 1993 (oh well…) and to the arrival or a more equal society with enough money and plenty of sex.  The job market of 2070 would be a constantly shifting scene, where the least popular jobs were the highest paid.
    It’s one of those novels you read for its quirkiness and background message rather than to find out what’s going to happen next - but it’s worth downloading it to one of the electronic readers whose invention James Cooke Brown predicted in this very book, back in 1970. 

    For people who know about such things, James Cooke Brown is most famous for his tireless work to establish and develop a new universal language: Loglan

    His motivation was (at least) twofold: the primary aim of facilitating universal unambiguous communication between people and between machines; and to test theories that our thinking is determined and constrained by the linguistic apparatus we use.
    Obviously, Loglan has not taken over the world, but its exponents still exist, and there is a site you can visit to see how it works http://www.loglan.org/Download/Loglan1.pdf
    By the way, history is hisri, and girl is nirli  -  but it’s much, much, more complicated than that, and I haven’t cracked all the rules that would enable me to say History Girls correctly.

    Loglan may not yet have been a resounding success, either as a language in its own right, or as a tool for linguistic study, but it is an amazing achievement nevertheless, and it puts James Cooke Brown in good company.  One predecessor, who seems to have shared JCB's ability to drop the preconceptions of his day to enquire, invent and explain was the seventeenth-century academic and cleric John Wilkins.

    Wilkins was one of the founder members of the Royal Society, who not only predicted space travel and a moon landing, but invented his own ‘universal language.’

    Wilkins’s attempt was more phonetically based, and looks to the modern eye rather like shorthand, 
    but his reason for developing it was very like James Cooke Brown’s.  Alas, much of the work for it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but Wilkins soldiered on.  Wilkins also had a profound effect on the way the Royal Society wrote about itself and its achievements, establishing a clarity of expression that survived until the deliberate self-aggrandising obfuscation of specialists in the past century or so.

    Across the ages, Wilkins and Cooke are brothers.  And what fun that Cooke’s board game, which has given my family such joy over the years, led me appreciate the link between them, and to find out more about a man who deserves to be better known.

    James Cooke Brown photo: Marshall Anderson http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=122109824


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    I am writing this ahead of my regular blog date because I will be away on a work commitment and possibly without internet. Much could happen between today and the 26th...


    This month of January has been a tragic opening to the year of 2015. One of the murdered Charlie Hebdo team collaborated with my husband on a film proposal quite recently, so we feel the loss personally.

    For twenty-two years here at our Olive Farm in the south of France, we employed an Algerian gardener whose family name I gave in my series of Olive Farm books as “Quashia”. In fact, his real family name is Kouachi. “Quashia” is a man I have described as owning a passport stamped direct to heaven. His heart is huge and his soul is just. He is a practicing Muslim who doesn’t smoke or drink, although he indulged in both when he was younger, and who has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When his eldest son was killed in a car crash some years ago, he wept in my husband’s arms. When one or other of his daughters or daughters-in-law gave birth to yet another of his thirty-three grandchildren, we celebrated with him. When one of our farm dogs died, he dug the grave with Michel and together we grieved the creature’s loss.

    When his carte d’indentité needed renewing Michel accompanied him to the immigration offices because in this high-percentage Le Pen area of France the officers are not always known to be gracious to the Arabs. When “Quashia” had an accident, I drove him to the hospital and sat with him in Emergency until they were ready to treat him and then I signed myself as his local next of kin to allow him to be released from the hospital. When one of his comrades died and he was helping to raise the money to have the body returned to its family in Algeria, we, of course, chipped in.

    “Quashia” is family. Now that he has finally retired, aged eighty-two, and returned to his wife and children in his Berber village near Constantine in Algeria, I miss him deeply. Every day, I hear his laughter.
    Imagine my horror then as I watched the events of early January play out. “Quashia” has five sons. Dear God, I was praying, please don’t let these murderers be related to our man. Of course, they were not. The two Kouachi terrorist brothers were Parisian born, runts of a society that does not always make it easy to be Maghrebian and unemployed here, does not pave the way for immersion...

    On 11th April 2007, I landed in Algiers intending to travel the length and breadth of the country alone questing the history of the olive tree. 

    As I was leaving the airport, chaos ensued. I assumed it was the usual state of affairs. In fact, Al Qaeda had bombed the offices of the prime minister in Algiers and then set off another bomb close to the airport. The death toll was frightening, shocking. The phone lines were all down. I couldn’t get a signal, couldn’t ring home to let Michel, my husband, know that I was safe because for sure he would have heard the news and would be concerned. I was meeting up with an Algerian historian working at the university who also happened to be a beekeeper. His contact details had been given to me by our beekeepers back here on the farm. Finally, he and I managed to locate one another and he drove me directly out of town south of the capital to lunch with the man who was the president of Algeria’s national beekeeping society, a vast network. The three of us sat together in a restaurant in the middle of what seemed to me to be nowhere, drinking soft fizzy drinks and eating grilled Halal lamb and chips.

    I suppose you will go home? the president sighed.

    The truth was I was still digesting this Algerian welcome and had not considered my immediate future. All I knew for certain was that I had a book to complete, a Mediterranean journey, and that no other modern travel writer had included Algeria in their itinerary. I really wanted to make this leg. Paul Theroux skipped Algeria when he wrote his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Pillars of Hercules. I was determined that I wouldn’t. And I am a woman. An even greater coup, I had been smugly reckoning. Monsieur Le Beekeeping President and the historian talked me through modern Algerian politics: before, during and most importantly after their exceedingly bloody war of independence with France. It was a sobering afternoon.

    The bottom line was, they said, they needed me.

    Need me?

    You can be a witness to what we are living through. You can take what you see out of Algeria and help us. We need a life line, a voice.

    The two men struck a deal with me. If I agreed to continue with my planned month-long trip they would guarantee hospitality and, as far as they were able, my security. It was a madness to accept, to stay on. American Express who serve as my travel insurance declared the country a high risk zone. This meant if I stayed on of my own accord, I was travelling without cover.

    I stayed on.

    I was parcelled east across the country and then south towards the Sahara always staying with beekeepers, many of whom have remained friends. My book, The Olive Tree, recounts my experiences of that extraordinary month, unforgettable and very challenging, so I won’t re-narrate those chapters here.

    I am mentioning the experience now in the light of these recent events in Paris.

    There have been so many articles written over these last few days, so many opinions set out, which is as it should be. We, in Europe, are exceedingly fortunate to live in countries where freedom of speech and debate are essentials; food for our daily lives. For others, this is not necessarily the case. Algeria is a land in question. Algeria is still reeling from over one hundred and fifty years of French colonialization and before that Ottoman rule. The vast landmass of desert, mountains and coast, that is a nation of Berbers more than Arabs has not yet established its own post-colonial identity. This has left it wide open to the fanatics.

    I am reading articles everywhere saying that Muslims worldwide if they are TRULY peace-loving Muslims MUST speak out now against the horrors that have been perpetrated in recent months. We all must speak out, of course we must, but such a command is simplistic.

    South Africa is an example where at least two generations suffered from lack of education because education was not provided for them. The same is true in countries such as Algeria where the French colonials took the best pickings and left little opportunities for the indigenous people, where many of the colonials treated the local people cruelly and seeded resentment, hatred. The same was true in my own land of Ireland. Catholics under centuries of British rule were forbidden education and we know how long it has taken to sort-of iron out that complex legacy.

    I am sometimes accused of being soft, hippy, peace-loving... yes, I am all of these. Most importantly, I believe in dialogue and education and taking responsibility. I think we need to look, to penetrate, to understand the seeds of this Islamic fanaticism. We need to understand that millions of Islamised peoples are ignorant of what is really going on. They are just being fed violent shortcuts.

    When I penetrated the sandy wilds south of Constantine to villages and settlements where herders trudged the desert distances alone with their beasts, where young boys received no education and had no future and were facing the same illiteracy as their grandparents, I passed many Al Qaeda bases on my way to nowhere, to where the winds roared and the sand whorled. How simple, I thought back then, to lure these boys with promises of a future, offering them the opportunity to make their mark as martyrs to a cause, offering a false spiritual wealth to their closed-in impoverished lives, offering their families a little money to help them along and the assurance that their offspring would, for the first time in centuries, be educated.

    I don’t have any simple answers. I can only ask questions, point at unresolved situations, attempt to understand some of the complexities.


    I feel these murders acutely, this attempt at destruction of freedom of speech and of expression, the mindless loss of talented work colleagues, but I also believe that if we don’t begin to take responsibility, everyone of us, for the ignorance, the lack of direction these murderers have lived with, we give the word to the fanatics and lost forever will be the path to dialogue. 

    The 11th January demonstrations all across France have proved that this nation will stand up proudly for its right to freedom of speech. Three and a half million people on the streets, and no skirmishes, in the biggest national demonstrations this country has ever known.

    ‘Paris is the capital of the world,’ said our President Hollande. ‘Our entire country will rise up towards something better.’

    There was barely a dry eye in the house, as we say in show business.

    But this is just the beginning.

    What I hope now is that we all begin to ask ourselves in which ways we can reach out to those who are disenfranchised, to the nations who are cut off from the west, to provide education and opportunities for those who live amongst us and are lost. The outer suburbs, for example, where the Kouachi brothers were brought up would be a very good place to start to turn fine words and sentiments into actions. 

    What do you think or hope for from this experience?


    PS: I have used "Charlie" photos taken from the internet and I could not find names to credit to them. I apologise for using others' copyright. If anyone knows who took these images, I will happily credit them.

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    I have sealag, or jetlegs, or both, or vice versa . . .  I have been sailing, far away, and I am swaying mildly at my desk as I write this. Forgive me if it comes out jumbled. My arms ache and though tanned and wild-haired I am also covered in the inexplicable bruises of a rowdy passage and quite a long night sail.

    Several questions came up in the course of the voyage, and we decided, as we lay about on deck, or  drinking rum below, late at night, that rather than googling we would use the old-fashioned, the historic, way of gathering information.

    'And what is that?' the younger reader inquires.

    'Oh child,' we answer. 'Long ago, before the mighty Google, if we didn't know something we used to ask each other, and, if nobody knew, we would make it up.'


    Q1: What is grog, actually?

    Q2: Why is St Lucia the Helen of the Caribbean?

    Q3: What are the Pitons? Very small volcanos? Very picturesque slagheaps?

    Q4: Was Josephine black?

    Q5: Did she actually have free passage for all the roses she bought from an English supplier? And was the French navy really under instructions to confiscate all seeds and seedlings and plants it found on English vessels, on her behalf?

    Q6: What happened to Josephine anyway?

    Q7: And what happened to Emma Hamilton?

    Q8: Would you sail the Atlantic?

    Q9: How do you pronounce Bequia?

    Q10: Is this an orange, a lime, a lemon, or what?

    Q11: Why is that called a Bimini?

    Q12: Who was the only woman to sail with the Argonauts?

    Q13: Are there any place names more romantic than Soufrieres and Malgretoute?


    1) Undrinkable bilge-water rendered drinkable by the addition of lime juice and your naval ration of rum.

    2) Because she was passed from hand to hand so often between the English and the French. Seven times, to be precise, in the 17th/18th/19th centuries.

    3) Volcanic plugs, like King Arthur's Seat. Only pointier.

    4) No.

    5) Yes.

    6) He put her away; and she died before the wars were over.

    7) The country wouldn't recognise her, and she took to drink, and brought up her daughter in a sort of mirror image of what so often happened. Emma admitted that Nelson was the girl's father, but not that she herself was her mother. So young Horatia never really knew.

    8) Yes, but then you'd wonder why you bothered. It is however only possible to wonder why you bothered after having done it. Rather like University. (NB: I have not sailed the Atlantic.)

    9: Beckway.

    10. Hmm. Don't know. It smells like an orange but it's green. Put a slice in the rum, anyway.

    11: Because it's a cross between a bikini and Rimini. (No it's not. It's a sort of fitted maritime canopy, a sunshade like on the surrey with the fringe on the top, only on a boat. Perhaps it was invented in Bimini, which we think is in Cuba. Or Florida. Something to do with Hemingway, and fishing anyway. The Bahamas?)

    12: Atalanta!

    13: No, except perhaps Finisterre.

    Overall lesson learned:
    Never trust a seafarer's version of events. They know nothing. They come back with no proper historical accuracy and just give you a load of all my eye and Betty Martin. Which is from the Latin prayer much used by Portuguese mariners: Ora pro mihi Beato Martine - pray for me, Blessed Martin, St Martin being the patron saint of taverns and landlords and reformed drunkards. Or perhaps not.

    I should probably go to bed.

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    In 1939 Dame Stephanie Shirley’s father, a distinguished German judge, tried to prepare his daughters for a new life in England by teaching them some useful phrases. ‘Slow-combustion-cooker’ was one. Another was ‘wined-screen-wiper’. Stephanie was five years old; her elder sister, Renate, was nine. The girls were leaving Vienna on one of the kindertransport trains bringing Jewish children out to London Liverpool Street Station. They did not know anyone else, they did not even know how to ask for the loo, but they made it to England, sleeping on corrugated cardboard laid out the floor, or sometimes in luggage racks, occasionally frightened by interruptions from uniformed guards, and remembering above all the oily smell of the sea and the nauseous night crossing. When they arrived at Liverpool Street station, ‘we spilled out, speechless and wide-eyed, as if in a dream’. Each child had a luggage label around their neck, as if they were lost luggage, ‘which in a sense we were’, she says.

    Stephanie in the 1940s
    (Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley)

    Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Red Army - now Holocaust Memorial Day - and Dame Stephanie was speaking at London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust archive, under the theme of ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’. For Dame Stephanie, memory has proved complex. Arriving at such a young age, her memories of her journey and arrival are emotional as well as factual. Was the platform really silent, as she remembers but now doubts it could have been? Were the trains really sealed, as she has read, although she recalls one boy being repeatedly sick outside?

    Dame Stephanie Shirley, Weiner Library, London
    for World Holocaust Day 2015
    (Courtesy of the Weiner Library)

    More than this, while Dame Stephanie vividly remembers her father’s last attempts to teach them a little English, perhaps as much as a distraction during their desperate farewell as anything else, she found that in England she soon ‘deliberately forgot’ her German. She quickly bonded with her warm foster family, her aunty and uncle – people who did not know her but had saved her and her sister, and who joyfully took on the role of parents. Brought up within the Church of England, she now has no faith. Incredibly, both her Jewish father and Gentile mother survived the war, but although Dame Stephanie spent time with them individually, she did not live with them again. In 1951, she and her mother adopted an English name when they took British citizenship – choosing Brooke after the quintessentially English poet. ‘I found that name change empowering', Dame Stephanie says, and so much did she inhabit her new name that once, when post arrived under her German name, she had reached the second flight of stairs to her apartment before she realized it was meant for her. As an adult she even found herself giving 1939 as her date of birth on official forms, ‘entirely subconsciously’.

    Since then Dame Stephanie has taken steps to remember her past. She, her sister and mother returned to Vienna to meet old friends. Their mother had sentimental memories of the city, but Dame Stephanie found strangers asking her whether she was from the camps - so rare was it to see a Jewish face. At that point she knew that Vienna meant nothing to her, and ‘felt the weight of the past vanish’. She and her sister passed time wondering, as people walked by, ‘what were you doing when they threw stones at me’.

    Dame Stephanie vowed to make hers ‘a life worth saving’. Brilliant at maths and business and fascinated by computers she set up a pioneering software company. Seeing the numbers of women now out of work, she promoted innovative home-working and flexible hours for an all-female workforce. She gave 25% of her company to the team, and they built it together, until in 2001 many were millionaires and Dame Stephanie herself was on the Sunday Timesfemale rich list, just a few places below the Queen. She is no longer on that list. She reinvested over £15 million in IT and donated £50 million to autism organizations, following the death of her only son who was autistic.

    Dame Stephanie is proud of her Jewish heritage but chose to become aligned not with refugee organizations or Jewish groups, but with IT development and autism, the passions of her life. She has chosen her own identity, but that does not mean she wishes to forget her past or has a simplistic view of who she is. When asked why she did not choose to live in Israel she has replied that she is not Jewish. When asked why she does not visit as a tourist, she says she feels she cannot go as a tourist because she also is Jewish.

    Dame Stephanie says her terror of persecution was deep-rooted. For a long time she felt such hatred, bound up with survivors’ guilt, that she could not revisit her past. But although seeing images of Auschwitz are still almost more than she can bear, last night she said that, ‘Germany has made impressive efforts to come clean with its Nazi past’ and ‘it is precisely for people like me to reach out’.

    Dame Stephanie's autobiography, Let IT Go
    (Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley)

    It is important both to honour the memory of those killed, of those who resisted, and those who had no such opportunity, and also to work towards preventing the repetition of atrocities. Another former kindertransport veteran at the Wiener Library event told me that Hitler had been encouraged by the lack of international memory of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Remembering makes repetition less possible.

    Dame Stephanie's life talks of courage, determination, identity and above all humanity. Asked about growing anti-Semitism she talks also about rising anti-Muslim feeling, and her opinion that that some politicians are doing Britain ‘an enormous disservice’ by pushing anti-immigration. ‘My own belief,’ she told me at the end of the talk, ‘is that people are people, and most people are just trying to get on with their own lives’. What we need to do is take small steps against intolerance.

    Not so long ago, Dame Stephanie, now in her 80s, was driving through the countryside when she saw a large swastika painted on a barn. Her first reaction was horror, a rush of painful memories. Her second was to find the farmer and explain how this graffiti made her feel, and how important it was to get it removed. The farmer did not consider it his responsibility. She then went to the local police station with similar lack of result. Finally she bought a large tin of paint, got up at 4am the next morning, and went and painted over it herself. I will remember her example. 

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    Our January guest is Robyn Cadwallader, whose début novel, The Anchoress, is garnering enthusiastic reviews.

    Photo by Che Chorley
    Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous, prize-winning short stories,
    poems and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a non-fiction book
    based on her PhD thesis which explored attitudes to virginity and female
    agency in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside the Australian
    capital when not travelling to England for research, visiting ancient
    archaeological sites along the way. http://robyncadwallader.com/

    Robyn will be visiting the UK in August and September for the Edinburgh
    International Book Festival and as a writer-in-residence at the Gladstone
    Welcome, Robyn, to the History Girls and thanks for being interviewed long distance in Australia!

    Mary Hoffman: As soon as the reader realises that this is the story of a woman enclosed for life in a small space there is a feeling of claustrophobia. Did this give you any pause as a writer?

    Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, it did give me pause in terms of crafting the story, but I knew that it was essential — not only as an idea, but as a vividly felt experience for Sarah and for the reader. One of the first things that drew me to telling this story was the fascinating and, in some ways horrific, idea of a woman being shut away for the rest of her life in a stone cell. What would it be like to have light only from an oil lamp and candles, and to have such a small space — nine paces by seven — to live in? Enclosure and the attempt to shut out the world is the essence of Sarah’s commitment, so it was key to what I had to convey. It is such a different kind of experience from what we know today, and so I worked really hard at keeping the balance between evoking the claustrophobia and not overwhelming the reader.

     I also recognised that the claustrophobia of the cell could mean that the story as well was shut down — just like Sarah, with nowhere to go. But the more I ‘sat with’ Sarah, and imagined her cell, built next to a church, her maids, her visitors and her confessor, the more the story began to take shape and tell itself.

    MH:  And yet you found ways of “bringing the outside in.” Tell us something about the different ways in which you did that.

    RC: As soon as I read about anchoresses, I began to wonder what it would be like inside that cell, in a space with small windows that are covered, so that the sense of sight is severely restricted. It seemed to me that by limiting one sense, the others would be enhanced. Inside her cell, each taste of her simple food would be clearer, the few things she touched would be more vivid, and the sensations of her body would be heightened. Even though there is stone between her and the world outside, I imagined that she would develop an acute sense of the smells and sounds of the village around her.

    This would be especially so because anchorholds were attached to a church, and at the centre of town or village life, in physical and in social terms. Apart from services and religious feasts, meetings would be held in the church, and sometimes, it would be the place for a private tryst. Sarah would hear it all through the small opening between her cell and the church wall. Outside the church on the village green, people would celebrate the many rituals that structured their year, from May Day to the harvest Lammas to Michaelmas. In many ways, Sarah is in the centre of village life, and it comes to her, albeit on the other side of the walls of her cell.

    Although she is enclosed, visitors (only women and clerics) come to the tiny parlour window to speak to her and bring news of the world outside the cell. As she tries to understand and empathise with the women, she begins to imagine their lives, even though she hasn’t even seen their faces. Maud, in particular, brings in the daily experience of work in the fields in a very detailed way, from ploughing to the seeds beginning to grow. She and the other women reveal the life that goes on in the village, and their requests for prayer help to further draw Sarah into their experience. Louise and Anna, Sarah’s maids, are also a key line of connection to the village.

    MH:  You have unequally alternating chapters headed Sarah and Ranaulf. Why did you decide to tell Sarah’s story in the first person but Ranaulf’s in the third?

    RC: I experimented with telling Sarah’s story in third person, but I realised very quickly that in order to convey the sense of enclosure, of being so thoroughly inside the walls, she had to tell her experiences first hand. Everything else then had to be outside. That included her relationship with Father Ranaulf, her confessor, who comes to hear her confession once a week.

    One way of ensuring the interiority of Sarah’s experience was to write Ranaulf’s chapters in third person. While I thought that Ranaulf’s life in the priory would provide relief from the limits of the cell and Sarah’s first-person account, I decided to write it in limited third-person: to restrict the narrative to his experiences and encounters. I did this, in part, to maintain something of the atmosphere of claustrophobia — that is, while Ranualf’s chapters offer, as it were, some fresh air and light, I didn’t want them to ‘burst out’, either in tone or in scope.

    MH:  The most famous anchoress in the UK is probably Dame Julian of Norwich but she comes a whole century after Sarah. Is there a nod to her in your book? You name Sarah’s church as Saint Juliana.

    RC: I have read some of Julian of Norwich’s writings, but I deliberately did not read them while I was writing, in order be sure that Sarah remained entirely of my imagination.

    The church in the novel isn’t named after her, but it is named after one of the most popular saints in England at the time, St Juliana. Her story, along with the stories of St Margaret, St Juliana and St Catherine, were bound with the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule for Anchoresses, and provided as devotional material for some anchoresses in thirteenth-century England. St Juliana was a virgin martyr who was killed because she refused to marry, even though the Devil sent a demon in the likeness of an angel to deceive her, telling her that she should give up her virginity (Sarah makes a brief reference to her when she first hears from Agnes). I found the story of St Margaret — a woman who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out its back, becoming the patron saint of women in childbirth —so intriguing that I wrote my PhD about it. It was through my research that anchoresses captured my imagination.

    MH:  Is Sarah a nun? Do you have to be a nun to be an anchoress?

    RC: In 1255, while there were many ways for men to be involved in the religious life, opportunities for women were limited. Sarah could really only become a nun if her family could afford to pay the dowry. She could become an anchoress if the bishop approved, and if she could find a patron who would provide for her physical needs. A patron would willingly ensure that an anchoress’s physical and spiritual needs were provided, in return for her prayers — a kind of spiritual insurance for those who could afford it. Anchoresses were highly esteemed.

    For holy women, the emphasis was on enclosure from the world, while for men, a vocation could lead to an active position in society, including political power, money and status. Some men became anchorites, but they were not necessarily permanently enclosed in a cell.

    MH: The book was full of new words for me. Some like “squint” are guessable; others like “corrody” are very specific medieval legal terms. Did you consider putting a glossary in the finished book?

    RC: I was aware that there could be words that are new to readers, but I included them because I wanted to keep the sense of unfamiliarity that they created. Although many of the issues in the novel resonate with our lives today, the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).

    MH: I found it hard to visualise the arrangement of rooms in relation to the church; It would have helped to  have a diagram.

    RC: Sarah’s experience of the cell is the heart of the novel and I considered long and hard how to draw the reader into how that space felt for her. The god’s-eye view of a diagram would have given an objectivity that would have counteracted that. I felt it was important that the reader’s first encounter with the cell was through Sarah’s own exploration of it. The texture and shape of the stones, the squint, the darkness, the straw or her curtain, are where the real story lies.

    MH: Are Sarah’s motives for enclosure more spiritual or more because she fears marriage and childbirth?

    RC: Sarah’s motives for enclosure are complex and not completely clear to her. It seems to me that this is a very human and real quality, and motivations are rarely, if ever, simple and easily labelled. Spiritual desires do not, I believe, exist on a ‘pure’ plane, but involve our physical, mental and emotional being as well.

    MH: At the beginning of the story, Sarah and Ranaulf clash. Do you think they understood each other at the end?

    RC: Sarah is singularly unimpressed with Ranaulf when he replaces the avuncular priest who had been her understanding and supportive confessor. For his part, Ranaulf, who is a scribe, resents the interruption to his time with his books, and is unsure how to counsel a woman, even a holy one. Their disagreements are both profound and trivial, but each of them develops as a result of their encounters. Their relationship is an ongoing and developing one, and in many ways, at the end they’ve just begun to lay the foundations for communication.

    MH: Is this “women’s fiction”? The focus is very much on what a woman is, in relation to a man, whether she is a creature of sin and temptation or a flawed version of the male.

    RC: The novel is an exploration of the experience of one woman, and my aim has always been to honour the woman who made the choice to be enclosed — a choice that might seem to us strange and weird. It’s true that theological, philosophical and medical thinking of the time considered women only in terms of the male, and although this is important context for the novel, the narrative shows an alternative way of understanding ‘woman’. I have never intended to say, ‘but in this (male) world, there were some interesting women’, but ‘ in this world, there were men and women, and this is one woman’s experience’.

    I don’t think the term ‘women’s fiction’ is a helpful one because we don’t speak of man’s fiction; to do so is to speak of woman in terms of a man and continue patriarchal thinking. The novel is historical fiction / literary fiction and I hope people will read it and enjoy it. It may be that more women read it, but that is more likely to be because stories about men are thought to be universal, while stories about women are treated as domestic and specific. And stories about holy women locked in small cells may be seen to be very, very specific, although I think this particular one is universal in its themes.

    MH:  Is Hartham a real place?

    RC: Sarah is completely a product of my imagination, and so I decided that all the places mentioned in the novel should not refer, as far as I could tell, to real places. I discovered after I had finished writing the novel that there is a place called ‘Hardham’; perhaps I knew it, and adjusted it a little, perhaps not!

    MH:  There is a magical realist thread in the novel with the sense that the bones of Agnes, an earlier anchoress buried in the same cell can cause physical wounds to Sarah’s body and influence her mind. This felt a bit like early Hilary Mantel. What was your thinking about this?

    RC: There are some fascinating ways that magical realism can express and explore the more liminal aspects of mind and body. At the beginning, Sarah knows that Agnes was a holy and revered anchoress who once lived in the cell, someone she should emulate. When Sarah discovers that Agnes’s bones are buried beneath the floor where she kneels to pray, the memory and the presence of the holy woman take on extra power. That becomes rich ground for all kinds of extra-ordinary and psychological exploration.

    Thanks! That was really interesting. 

    I have been pondering why it is that historical fiction tends to be more often written (and read?) by women, even when the subject is male. What do our readers think? And you'll have a chance to win Robyn's novel on 31st January.

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