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  • 02/17/15--16:30: Life Patterns - Celia Rees

  • I will admit here, I am no quilter, although I know some of my fellow History Girls are and I'm sure we will number quilters among our followers.

    Quilt, Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Centre, Lampeter

    When I was in the Sixth Form there was a craze for quilting. In those days, Liberty's would send swatches of material to anyone who asked for them. I remember being entranced by the beauty of the Liberty patterns, the richness of the William Morris designs, but unlike some of my friends, I never actually made a quilt. One of my friends from those days still has the quilt she made. The Liberty pieces are mixed with humbler fabrics, bits of school shirt and summer dresses. When I see it, it takes me straight back to that time.

    I might not have actually done any sewing, but quilts and quilting stayed with me. Like many writers, I'm often asked where my ideas come from. They are often just there in the ragbag of past enthusiasms and passing interests waiting to be plucked out and worked up into something. So it was with quilts and quilting. I've blogged about my visit to the American Museum, Bath and its connection to Witch Child  Witch Child at the American Museum, Bath - Celia Rees . On my original visit, I didn't go there to look at quilts. I went to see the quilts on display because they interested me anyway. If I hadn't had that interest, I might not have bothered and I would not have had the idea that allowed me to write Witch Child.

    Stitch and Write American Museum, Bath

    Though researching and writing Witch Child, I learnt a great deal about quilts and quilting. Quilts at the time Witch Child is set (17th Century) would have been all of a piece (as the one shown above), not patchwork, with which we are more familiar. There could, however, I reasoned, have been quilts made out of pieces of material. This was mostly because I wanted one in the book, but it made sense to me, woman sense. My mother, my grandmother, her mother before her kept scraps of material and made bed covers, cushion covers, by piecing them together, nothing would be wasted. That was relatively recently, how much more precious would cloth have been in 17th Century America?  The fact that there are none of these kinds of quilts from this period doesn't mean that they never existed. It just means that they were worn out with every day use, not precious enough to be preserved.  

    These pieced quilts are my favourites. I can admire and appreciate the beauty and intricacy of patchwork quilt designs: Tumbling Dice, Log Cabin, Rose Wreath, String of Flags (even the names are wonderful); the striking originality of the Amish and Mennonite quilts; the ancient symbolism contained in recurring motifs of flowers, fruits, cups, the tree of life. Above all, I can celebrate and admire the women's work, the artistic creativity expressed through the designs. Even so, the quilts I love best are those that are made from every day materials, from clothes that have been worn and worn again: shirts, waistcoats, even pyjamas. Stiff flannel softened by wear and washing to the smoothness of heavy silk, the colours faded, one pastel shade blending into another.

    Jen Jones  “Early to Bed” Exhibition, Welsh Quilt Centre, Lampeter 
    This example is from the 2014 "Early to Bed" Exhibition of Folk Art and “Make-do and Mend” in the work of the rural quilters of 19th century Wales at Jen Jones wonderful Welsh Quilt Centre in Lampeter, West Wales: http://www.jen-jones.com . Quilts like these provide not only a palimpsest of rural economy and thrift but a record of working people's lives.

    Shirts provide many of the patches in these kinds of quilts. The shirt is personal to the wearer, carrying his scent, retaining his shape.  In the past, to sew and launder a shirt was an act of love.

    As I did the washing one day

Under the bridge at Aberteifi,

And a golden stick to drub it,

    And my sweetheart's shirt beneath it--

    A knight came by upon a charger,

    Proud and swift and broad of shoulder,

    And he asked if I would sell

    The shirt of the lad that I loved well.

    No, I said, I will not trade--

    Not if a hundred pounds were paid;

    Not if two hillsides I could keep

    Full with wethers and white sheep;

    Not if two fields full of oxen

    Under yoke were in the bargain;

    Not if the herbs of all Llanddewi,

    Trodden and pressed, were offered to me--

    Not for the likes of that,

    I'd sell 
the shirt of the lad that I love well.....

    The Shirt of a Lad - Anonymous (tr. Tony Conran)

    Artist and friend Julia Griffiths-Jones chose this poem to include in her body of work, Unwinding the Thread, translating words into the images that might be embroidered on such a shirt,  re-producing the designs in aluminium wire, pewter and enamelled copper wire.

    Shirt of a Lad - Julia Griffiths-Jones

    In the folk song, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, the making of a shirt without no seams nor needlework is one of the true love tasks impossible to achieve. So shirts gain significance, personal and sentimental. Shirts are so much a part of what a person is, or was. Another friend, Barbara Crowther, describes in a Guardian article how she has found a way to use the shirts left by her husband, Dick, who died suddenly and tragically three years ago. Dick was a man who loved his shirts, especially striped shirts, stripes of all kinds and colours: thick, thin, bright, dark and pastel.  Instead of leaving his shirts shut away in the dark, in a suitcase in the attic, Barbara brought them out into the light again and took them to her friend Louise Charters, an upholsterer and soft furnisher, who has turned them into something beautiful for Dick's daughters, Eleanor and Georgia, to remember their father by. 

    Barbara Crowther and her daughter, Georgia Leith
    David Sillitoe for the Guardian

    David Sillitoe for the Guardian

    This blog seems to have turned into a bit of a patchwork itself. I'll finish with an odd piece of serendipity. The day after I wrote  this blog, I went to Modern Art Oxford to see an exhibition: Love is Enough, William Morris and Andy Warhol. A young woman artist, Diana Taylor, had just finished a textile workshop. 

    Now here's the odd thing - my maiden name was Taylor and the beautiful hangings filling the foyer were made, in part at least, from William Morris designs. 

    Celia Rees


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    One of the joys of doing research is the incidental stuff one comes across while doing it: snippets of information; details of the ‘way they lived then’ which, thought inconsequential in themselves, can make the past come alive. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in the archives at the London Library, reading through copies of The Times for the period I’m working on - the late 1920s to the early 1930s - and enjoying myself very much in the process. What I’m looking for I’m not quite sure - but I know it when I see it.

    It might be the following headline which has caught my eye: ‘Big Game Hunter Sent For Trial’, and the following account of a case in which the accused, Thomas Henry Sarl, ‘described as a big game hunter, of Vivian-road, Wembley,’ was charged, on January 3rd, 1929, with ‘attempting to inflict grievous bodily harm on his brothers-in-law, Basil and Cecil Smith, of Litchfield-grove, Finchley, and further with damaging windows to the extent of £50’. Or this one, from the same month: ‘Willesden Communist Summoned for Desertion’, in which one Hubert Huggins, ‘Communist leader and Secretary of the International Class War Prisoners’ Aid Society’, was summoned for deserting his wife, and moving his private secretary, a Miss Sarah Ball, into the family home at Princess-road, Kilburn. Then there’s this, from August 1929: ‘Authoress Attempts Suicide’, and its subsequent account of what was then regarded as a crime: ’Stephanie Gray, 43, authoress and journalist, and the widow of a naval commander, living in a top back room in Molyneux-street, off Edgware-road, who was in despair because her novel, The Idol, had been rejected by a firm of publishers, attempted suicide by taking a large dose of a popular German sleeping draught, and has appeared before Mr Hay Hackett, of Marylebone Police Court.’

    As I’m writing a series of detective stories, my fascination with such material may be readily understood; but I also take a great delight in less obvious minutiae of the period: the advertisements, for example. Since newspapers at the time had very few photographs, most of these ads - for cigarettes, cars, wireless sets, refrigerators, gramophones, and of course clothes - are illustrated with delightful black-and-white line drawings, and described in the most florid of prose. Take this ad from Peter Robinson, for June 1929: ‘Dainty gowns of figured georgette with accordion-pleated panels (6 guineas)’. Or this ‘exquisite gown of crepe de Chine, finished at the waist with a buckle of diamante (8 guineas)’. ‘Harrods,’ we are sternly told in an article from April of the same year, ‘cannot stress the importance of the Little Jacket with Evening Gowns enough… The sleeves of the “coatee” are cut in a new manner. Scarlet and Oyster are particularly smart in this season of colour contrasts…’ At Marshall & Snelgrove, later that month, they are advertising ‘attractive two-piece dresses of floral crepe de Chine with cuffs and vest of pleated Georgette, in black and a few good colours…’ To set off your new dress, why not buy a pair of ‘kid shoes in black suede, with a smart Spanish heel’ at 55 shillings, or a Smart Hat of black Panamalaque straw’, for 65 shillings?Suitably attired in your evening gown of ‘rich satin beaute… cleverly cut to give a slimming line’ at 10 gns, and with your ‘coatlet in a range of colours from Cornflower Blue to Charteuse Green’ at a mere 49/6, you might take yourself to the theatre to see ‘On Approval’ (then packing them in at the Fortune), ‘Lady Luck’ at the Carlton, or ‘The Desert Song’ at Drury Lane. 

    If these seemed too tame, you might down a couple of cocktails before taking in the latest Charles Cochrane review, with the racy title of ‘One Damn Thing After Another’. While sitting back to enjoy the show, you might light up a Craven ‘A’ (‘made specially to prevent sore throats’), or a De Reszke, since ‘wherever the right people meet, there also will you meet the right cigarette…’ Or, wearing a ‘dressing-gown of pure silk foulard’ (him) or a ‘rich printed chiffon Tea-frock’ (her), you could relax at home with the papers, keeping up with the details of the latest crime story (the Charing Cross Trunk Murder was enthralling the public that year) or the goings-on of the ‘Smart Set’ in St Tropez (‘Countess Buxton distributed the prizes at the fancy-dress dance at the Grand Hotel. The prize-winners included Lady Alethea Buxton and the Hon. Daisy Dixon…’). You could listen to music on your newly acquired radiogram: ‘Touch a Switch, and Bring the Gayest Dance Bands to Your Home!’ Or you could reach for the latest bestseller, by Ethel M Dell or Elinor Glyn.

    Of course, it didn’t do to overdo things. ‘Nerve strain’ seems to have been an ever-present ailment - at least if one believes the ads. ‘Busy Streets Demand Strong Nerves’, asserts one such, adding darkly: ‘the rush and hurry of our town and city life make heavy demands upon the nerves. Tone and vitality is lost…’ Fortunately, help is at hand: ‘Take “Ovaltine” daily.’ Still more alarming is the tone of another: ‘Does the sound of a motorcar backfiring in the street make you jump out of your skin? A nightly dose of Doctor Fuller’s Powders will set you right…’ Given that this was a time of high unemployment and worrying fluctuations in the Stock Market, it seems hardly surprising that a lot of people were feeling jumpy. And of course what was then described as ‘nerve trouble’ might now be called ‘post-traumatic stress’ - a condition with which many of those who had been through the horrors of the First World War would have been all too familiar. 

    Interspersed with the more lighthearted stuff - the articles on ‘The Modern Girl and the Cocktail-Drinking Habit’, or reviews of the latest novel by Galsworthy, are those which offer more sombre insights. The front pages of The Times in the late 1920s had no photographs (those were confined to a single page inside the paper) but displayed columns of small ads. A decade after the Armistice, these still included lengthy lists of those who had died ‘On Active Service’, commemorated by their grieving relatives, as well as ads for those seeking work - or in search of domestic servants. Amongst the advertisements for ‘Housemaids’ (‘must be good-tempered’) ‘Cook-Generals’ (‘good references essential’), and ‘Between-maids’ (‘titled family; four servants kept’), one might find poignant items such as the following: ‘Work urgently required by married ex-officer (Indian cavalry) with two children; held position of trust, used to outdoor life; physically fit; excellent references; adaptable.’ Almost a short story in itself.

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    Sir Francis Walsingham

    The first well organised secret service in England was the lifelong achievement of Sir Francis Walsingham. During the early part of his career, he worked for William Cecil – Lord Burghley – Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor, undertaking a number of roles in the service of the state, including the post of ambassador to Parisat the time of the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Walsingham, his pregnant wife and small daughter, together with young Philip Sidney, who was staying with them, were caught up in a series of terrifying and horrific events in that August of 1572 which would mark them for life.

    The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre

    Burghley had developed an embryonic secret service, but when Walsingham took it in hand it became a sophisticated and highly skilled organisation which spread out from his Londonhome in
    Seething Lane
    to cover the whole of Europe and even reached into the Ottoman Empire. Its purpose was to safeguard the queen and the English nation from treason and foreign invasion. After the death of Catholic Queen Mary and the accession of her Protestant sister Elizabeth to the throne, the Pope had judged that England was likely to fall back into the heretical beliefs which had been promoted under Henry VIII and (even more vehemently) under his young son Edward VI. He declared Elizabetha bastard and an excommunicate heretic. (Henry VIII’s run-in with the papacy still rankled.) Moreover, he gave a pardon in advance to any man who succeeded in assassinating Elizabeth.

    The papacy thus fostered, encouraged, and sometimes financed repeated assaults on England for the whole of Elizabeth’s reign, including those undertaken by the Duke of Guise, cousin of the half-French Mary Queen of Scots, and by King Philip of Spain, widower of the half-Spanish Queen Mary, who still claimed that he had a right to the English throne. Having seen the violence and bloodshed in Paris, Walsingham knew exactly what a Catholic seizure of England would mean, not only for the queen but for her Protestant subjects, by this time the majority of the population.

    King Philip II of Spain

    There was another community living in London at the time which had as much to fear from the threats of a Catholic invasion as Walsingham. Indeed, its members frequently had had even more terrifying personal experiences than he had. These were the so-called ‘Marranos’. It is an unfortunate term, though now the best known, for it is a Spanish insult, meaning ‘pig’, a sneer at those who do not eat the meat of that animal. Their own name for themselves was ‘Anusim’ meaning ‘the Forced Ones’. They were the Jews living in the Iberian peninsula, forced by the rulers of Spain, and later by the rulers of Portugal (under Spanish pressure) to convert to Christianity, becoming the conversos, or novos cristãos, or New Christians.

     There had been a slow drift from Spain and Portugalof those New Christians who could afford to move to the more tolerant countries of northern Europe, primarily Englandand the Low Countries. As the Inquisition grew in power, so this drift became a flood. Spain had already driven out most of its Jewish citizens who, like the Christians, had, in the past, lived fairly peacefully in those parts which had been under the rule of the Moors, though without full citizenship. Ironically, once the Christian Spanish monarchs had driven out the Moors, they turned on the Jews, many of whom fled to Portugal, where at first they were more or less tolerated, until Spanish influence increased. In 1580, Spain seized Portugal, bringing with it the Inquisition and its elaborately staged autos-da-fé for the burning of heretics and the scourging of ‘penitents’.

    An auto-da-fé

    Those who saw the writing on the wall escaped ahead of the Inquisition. Those who survived its tortures followed them. Many of these Marrano refugees came from well-to-do professional classes – doctors, lawyers, merchants, university professors. They were tacitly welcomed in England, where most settled in London, and provided they kept their heads down, not too many awkward questions were asked. Probably some continued secretly in their Jewish faith, meeting to worship in each other’s houses, but the evidence seems to suggest that their forms of worship in this foreign land began to lose any strict orthodoxy. Others seem to have kept to the new faith into which they had been baptised. This is certainly true of Aemilia Bassano, English poet and perhaps Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. The Bassanos were a family of Italian Jewish musicians brought to Englandby Henry VIII, and Aemilia was one of the next generation, who was certainly Christian.


    Englishmen of the time – and particularly Londoners – were suspicious of all immigrants, labelling them ‘Strangers’. These immigrants were constrained by certain restrictions on their rights and the running of their businesses, but when times were prosperous they fared well. In periods of starvation and unemployment they fared less well, but that is another story.

     The three best-known Marranos contemporary with Sir Francis Walsingham were Dr Hector Nuñez, Dr Roderigo Lopez, and Dunstan Añez, who were the leaders of the Marrano community in London. All three were wealthy men. The first two were graduates in medicine from the universityof Coimbra, which had one of the finest medical schools in Europe at the time, where the advanced practices of Arabic medicine were studied. In London they continued to work as physicians, rising to the top of their profession, fellows of the College of Physicians. Dr Nuñez’s most distinguished patient was Lord Burghley. Dr Lopez rose even higher. He was chief physician to the queen herself. Dunstan Añez was first and foremost a merchant, and his daughter was married to Dr Lopez.


    But what has this to do with Sir Francis Walsingham?


    All three men were merchants with an international network of trading routes. The two physicians were involved in trade as well as medicine, Dr Nuñez in particular owning ships and trading in silks, spices and other exotic goods throughout the Mediterranean and as far away as the East Indies. Dunstan Añez was exceedingly prosperous, also trading throughout the known world, and so distinguished in the merchant community of London that he became the Queen’s Purveyor of Groceries and Spices. These men had family members and close colleagues placed in the major trading centres worldwide. And it was along the trading routes and through the great merchant houses that news mostly flowed.


    Sir Francis Walsingham recognised the potential of this information network and seized upon it. The Marrano merchants were happy to oblige, having their own compelling reasons for defending England against invasion by Spain or France. Thus it was that these trading networks came to serve a second purpose, as a route for intelligence pouring into Walsingham’s Londonoffice. Walsingham employed a large body of agents – some reliable, some less so, some even double agents – and these agents passed information along the trade routes. Coded messages could be hidden in bundles of cloth or barrels of spices, or slipped between innocent ship’s manifests. The agents also ‘diverted’ messages being passed by enemy agents, above all by the agents of Philip of Spain.


    In his
    Seething Lane
    office, Walsingham maintained a group of code-breakers, headed by Thomas Phelippes, who deciphered and translated coded despatches. When an enemy message had been decoded, it would be resealed by the skilled forger of seals, Arthur Gregory, and slipped back into the enemy network to go on its way. The work had to be done quickly, to avoid suspicion arising from any delay.


    I decided that it would be appropriate for a young Marrano physician with a gift for code-breaking, also from Coimbra, to be recruited into Walsingham’s service, and this was the starting point for my series of novels about late sixteenth century espionage. The first book is The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez.


    It has now reached the fourth book, Bartholomew Fair, and we are nearing the end of Walsingham’s life. Suffering for years from ill health and unflagging overwork, he was to die early in 1590 and the secret service would become the centre of a struggle between two factions at court, one led by the Cecils (Burghley and his younger son Robert) and the other by the ambitious but wayward Earl of Essex.

    Lord Burghley

    And what would happen to the Marranos, with Walsingham gone? Ah, well, that too is another story.

    Ann Swinfen


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    There are many advantages to living in the modern age -  dentistry, antibiotics - and, for the record, I’m also delighted to have the vote and be allowed a mortgage without my father’s permission. Then there’s the internet and the access to information and individuals it brings sweeping along in its digital skirts.

    For most writers the internet is a mixed blessing. It does no one any good to be able to read nasty reviews on amazon, and the endless distractions of the wikipedia vortex are, well, endlessly distracting - not sure why, but I spent part of this evening reading about deers’ milk cheese. Once in a while though the stars line up neatly and something really special turns up. Such a day came, for me, a month ago when I got an email from Michael Armitage of Hawkhurst, Kent. 

    I’ve written about Ada Leigh and her Home for Impoverished English and American Girls in Paris before on this blog. Ada was a remarkable woman - conservative, devout, young and unmarried, she fought against the prejudices of her time, class and family to help women who had nowhere else to turn. She raised vast sums of money to offer lost girls a home and a future during the Belle Époque and managed the enterprise herself. I based a character in The Paris Winter on her, very closely, and learned a great deal about the lives of poor English women in Paris from her slim autobiography.  

    Since finishing the novel, I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to learn more about her and looked with frustration at my notes from her book. At the time it felt as if I were transcribing most of it, but I was sure there were gems I had missed and wondered if I could track down an expensive copy online or make a couple more trips to the British Library to read it again. How to justify the time and expense? A screenplay, perhaps? But there’s a novel here that needs finishing and… Well, you know how it goes. Time melts away. (Feel free to add a sarcastic comment about deers' milk cheese here). 

    Then Michael's email arrived. Michael was walking his dog through the churchyard of St Laurence, Hawkhurst and noticed a grave, previously hidden in long grass. It was a memorial to John Travers Lewis, who died at sea on May 6th 1901 and also to his widow, Ada Maria, born 3rd March 1840, died 10th April 1931, Founder of the Ada Leigh Homes, Paris. He made the connection to Paris Winter and me and on the off-chance I might be interested, sent me an email.

    Churchyard of St Laurence (c) Michael Armitage
    I was delighted to get it. I knew that Ada married Dr John Travers Lewis, Bishop of Ontario in 1889 and was widowed in 1901, but after that no more. Michael and I have done a bit of research, and it seems one of the Bishop’s daughters from his first marriage, married local land-owner Mr Llewellyn Foster Loyd. The Bishop was on his way to visit them, with Ada, when he died. Ada wrote about it in her biography of her husband:

    “The open grave was hung with flowers by his three remaining daughters Mrs. Robert Craigie Hamilton, Mrs. Llewellyn Foster Loyd, and Sister Evangeline and the service was not one of grief, but rather of  triumph.”  

    There is also a memorial plaque for the Bishop on the gate.

    I find it deeply satisfying to know that Ada was buried alongside her husband in this lovely churchyard thirty years later, and that her role as founder of the homes is recognised in stone. There is also a particular pleasure in the fact that Michael happened to notice the memorial and remember me. He was even kind enough to find and send me a picture of the church from 1909 - 8 years after the Bishop died and the year in which Paris Winter is set.

    Another blessing of the internet: After getting Michael’s email I wondered again how much a copy of Ada’s biography would cost me, and began searching online. At some point since I last looked Ada’s biography has appeared on archive.org so it is now at my fingertips and free. I better get on with that screenplay. But perhaps before I do I’ll go down to Hawkhurst, see if Michael and the dog fancy a walk and lay some flowers on Ada's grave. 

    (c) Michael Armitage

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    Driving along the Corniche the other day, it struck me that it is one of the few places left in the city where you can still see history living side by side with the towering skyscrapers springing up from the desert. The pale turquoise waters still shelter old dhows as they have for centuries, and among them the pearling boats. Pearls from the oyster beds of the Persian Gulf have graced the crowns and tiaras of monarchs to the east and west. These mysterious jewels that the ancient Greeks believed were the tears of the gods formed an important part of the Qatari economy before the discovery of oil in the region.

    When Qatar was settled in the 1700s, the pearling industry thrived, and local pearls were particularly prized in India. The 'chow' of a pearl is still calculated based on a system devised by Indian merchants in the sixth century, which considers size, weight and lustre. While cultured pearls still impart glamour and status, the quality of natural pearls is beyond compare - a cultured pearl may have five concentric layers of nacre around a bead, whereas a natural pearl has hundreds.

    Men like 73 year old Saad Ismail Al Jassim, one of the oldest surviving pearl divers in Qatar, spent months at sea during the summer, living a perilous life in search of these elusive gems. It was hard work: 'We dived from dawn til dusk,' Al Jassim told me, when I met him in Souq Waqif recently. There were shorter diving seasons, but the boats would go out for the main 'big dive' from June to September. The divers risked malnourishment and dehydration, the effects of pressure from quick, deep dives up to a hundred times a day, and the ever present threat of sharks and sea snakes.

    Each boat would have up to twenty divers, and twenty helpers to assist them. The divers would gather oysters using a leather glove, the 'khabt', and a 'dayyeen' oyster basket suspended from their neck. Wearing a simple nose clip, and with their feet weighted by heavy stones they could stay down for up to two minutes at a time, holding their breath, before signalling for their assistant to haul them to the surface. In winter it was too cold for the divers to hold their breath, so the summer season was intense. As Al Jassim says: 'if you want a pearl, take many oysters.' He explained that a lot depends on luck - you may open thousands of oysters and find nothing, then open a dozen and find six pearls. Any gems found were kept with the captain of the boat, until the trader visited to buy what had been found.

    'God helps those who help themselves,' Al Jassim says. He became a captain in his twenties, and then a 'tawwash' or trader. He is known as the Pahlwan, or strong man, a testament to his years as a champion body builder (that is a photograph of him in his prime, hung behind the till in his store). His years in the pearling industry were followed by twenty eight years with the Qatari police, where he was a major. Al Jassim still likes nothing more than to go to the sea and dive, but now he uses scuba gear.

    Natural pearls had their heyday in the nineteenth century as the great jewellery houses of Europe sought the rare gems. As affordable cultured pearls found favour, the industry declined, and Qatari pearls are now rarer and more valuable than ever. Al Jassim showed a delicate bracelet of natural pearls worth thousands of riyals. But perhaps the old pearl diver is as much of a national treasure as the pearls themselves.

    A Pearl Museum is planned for Doha, and a recent exhibition curated by Qatar's Museum Authority and the V&A, London, highlighted the finest natural and cultured pearl jewellery. The exhibition toured Japan, London and Brazil, and a beautifully illustrated book 'Pearls' by Hubert Bari and David Lam explores the culture and value of the pearl. 

    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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    David Starkey has announced in various media that Wolf Hall is a 'deliberate perversion of history', (though he has neither read the books nor seen the television adaptation so I do wonder how he can assert this). Someone, however, has told him that Mark Rylance, playing Thomas Cromwell, is portrayed as showing grief when his wife and daughters are carried off in a day by the sweating sickness. 'I gather Hilary Mantel has imagined this wonderful tender experience of Thomas Cromwell losing wife and children,' he says, and 'there is not a scrap of evidence for it at all.'

    Not all historians hate historical fiction, and many of them are hugely generous towards fiction writers  - I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Michael Biddiss, for one, who referred me to several useful texts on Nazi Germany and particularly to the invaluable documentary history of Nazism by J Noakes and G Pridham - so helpful, particularly when I was writing Saving Rafael. However, much as I respect and value historians, I do not need their permission to write my fictions.
    The thing is (Doctor Starkey), that a novel set in the past is not an easy-read alternative to a history book (however carefully we do our research, and some of us, notably Dame Hilary, do it very carefully indeed). The term historical fiction may perhaps be a tripwire here. We are writers of fiction, and some of us choose to write about historical subjects.That means that we apply our imagination to those subjects, which is what writers do, and of course we go to places (like someone's probable response to a bereavement) that historians must in honesty hold back from.
    In exactly the same way, I might write a story about someone, say, who is a teacher in a North of England town. There is no evidence that such a character exists or that any given human being ever behaved exactly as this character did. If I cannot find it, it is not incumbent in me to leave it out, because the job of a writer is to say: 'What if? Supposing?' It is to write a story.
    My grandmother in the '30s

    Actually, I researched the novels I set in Nazi Germany very carefully, but this was because my enterprise was to understand what it was like to be a person who had to live in Nazi Germany. That is - as readers of my blogs here will readily understand - something very important to me. The enormous amount of reading I have done about the period, as well as watching videos, talking to people who remembered those times, reflecting on the things that came to me from my own family, was not directed at making my works good textbooks for Year 9s. Some people have found them so, but what drove me was that need to open a window for myself on twelve dreadful years that marked and scarred my immediate family as well as damaging and bereaving millions of others.
    In the end, though, it came down to 'What if? Supposing?' Supposing one of the boy soldiers who were drafted into the German Home Guard in 1945 was the sole survivor of his unit; supposing he met a girl on the run from Berlin, who had a very different background; supposing the interaction and relationship between them changed both of them as they trod the refugee road with the fighting going on round them? Supposing  the girl was jazz-crazy, and could play the harmonica, and supposing a fantasy grew legs and desperate people started to believe it? Then you get Last Train from Kummersdorf.
    There's another idea about historical fiction that is popular among the chattering classes, even post Wolf Hall. It is that it is somehow tacky, chocolate-boxy, that the proper enterprise of novelists is to describe the present day (preferably grittily). Now I have no objection to grit, but there was just as much of it around in the past - and indeed there is a whole generation of excellent novels that deal with the undersides of history, some written by fellow-contributors to this blog. 
    One of my history teachers at school took this line: she said we should avoid historical fictions, which were always misleading and trashy, and concentrate on fiction written at the time we were studying. Maybe she would have liked to have a go at the English literature syllabus and excise such trashy works as Henry IV Part One, (which I studied for A Level). Also, she must have despised such trivial works as War and Peace, Schiller's Maria Stuart, Vanity Fair, all of Shakespeare's History plays, Büchner's Danton's Death, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (which I first saw, incidentally, at Kendal Grammar School with my brother as one of the Women of Canterbury and David Starkey in the star role. The poetry blew me away.)

    If the past is another country, it's one that is part of our present. Humans have many means of visiting it and trying to inhabit it; through histories, biography, visiting historical sites, and drama, in which I include the novel. To talk about, mythologise, and speculate on the past is part of what it means to be human, and that makes it a valid subject for literature.

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    LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE: English Society 1200-1250. Edited and translated by Martha Carlin and David Crouch: University of Pennysylvania Press ISBN 9 780812 223361

    I love historical reference works that involve Martha Carlin* and David Crouch** and have several on my keeper shelves.  This is because their style, while academic is readable, and I know that I can trust the depth of their research and their attention to detail.  Which is the long way round of saying that whenever I am looking for reference works to add to my personal bookshelf,  theirs are names that I automatically type into my search engine.

    A few months ago on one of my periodic searches, I came across Lost Letters of Medieval Life and ordered it.  However, even though I expected to receive a strong addition to my reference shelves, I hadn't been quite prepared for the full extent of the content and to put it colloquially, I was 'blown away.' This is an absolutely fantastic work for anyone who wants to know about the material culture of the late 12th and early 13th century. 

    So, what are these lost letters?  What's the story?
    The first line of the introduction tells us that "This is a book about everyday life in thirteenth century England, as revealed in the correspondence of people from all classes of society, from peasants and shopkeepers to bishops and earls."

    While letters of the great and good are known from the late 12th and early thirteenth century, regular and business correspondence from the average Joe has been generally thought not to survive, or not to have existed. However Martha Carlin and David Crouch have discovered all kinds of examples of such letters by trawling what are called formularies.  These are documents used to teach the art of letter writing and account keeping to scribes, and to act as sample correspondence.  While many examples concern the movers and shakers of the time,  hidden among them are letters concerned with the business of ordinary, daily lives.  Two of these formularies are still in existence - one at the Bodleian Library, and one at the British Library and it's these which Carlin and Crouch have used as illustrative examples in this marvellous book.

    The selected letters, a hundred in all, are set out in the original Latin, followed by an English translation. and are divided into subject headings.  Following a detailed introduction to the texts to help guide the reader through the book and a handy map of the British Isles in the early thirteenth centure,  the subject headings begin with Money and a sub-text of Credit, Debt and Commerce. Among the letters in this sample section is one from an earl ordering wine from his vintner and then the vintner's reply. The vintner's reply is written in a couple of different forms which are to be used depending on the earl's credit rating. The first is warm and compliant, the second is compliant but a little less effusive and contains a polite demand for payment. "I shall accomodate you with the five tuns of wine you have requested, beseeching your earnestly that you pay me in full your old debt, which is in arrears, equally with this new debt, on the said day.  Farewell." 
    Included in the earl's request letter, is information on the sort of wine he wants (Gascon and Angevin), how many tuns, and how much he is prepared to pay for it.

    What adds an extra layer to this exchange of letters is that Carlin and Crouch then give detailed explanations and examples of the wine trade at the time, so the reader receives a concise but thorough grounding into the background details informing the letter. To add even more icing to the cake, there are highly detailed end notes to each section, giving references, sources, and further reading.

    Other letters in the 'Credit, Debt and Commerce' section include orders similar to the above, but to a draper for cloth (which means plenty of excellent detail on the medieval textile industry)  and to a skinner for furs for the early's Easter garments. (ditto information on the early 13th century fur trade. I was fascinated as to how the skins were rated and sold).

    Further sub-texts in this chapter include The Jews, Household provisioning and Hospitality, and Accounts.  We move on then to chapter 2: War and Politics, Chapter 3:  Lordship and Administration:  One such sample letter from this section is "The King orders the shcriff to find and hang the thieves who have been burgling village homes by night." Which then leads on to an enlightening discussion on 13th century law enforcement.  There is a chapter on Family and Community and among the letters in that section are examples for students sending begging letters to their parents for cash (nothing changes!) and from a man who warns his friend he's seen his wife naked in bed with another man and sends her girdle as proof of adultery!  Chapter 5 is an exchange of correspondence concerning the building of a windmill - very new fangled for the early 13th century.

    There is a detailed bibliography for further reading at the end of the book, and the endnotes to the chapters themselves as aforementioned are rich in bibliographical detail. There are a few useful maps and some enlivenment provided by black and white photographs, such as this one (in colour here) of Gilbert Marshal coming a cropper at a tournament (there are letters about tournaments) in 1241.
    Gilbert Marshal, son of William Marshal, comes a cropper at a tournament.
    Wikipedia.  Matthew Paris 13thc

    I wrote to David Crouch with whom I occasionally correspond to say how much I'd enjoyed the book. He was delighted - it has been a labour of love for him and Martha Carlin. They had visualised it as seminar source for undergraduate medieval courses, and a book for the dedicated amateur of medieval studies.  It is certainly that - and more. Reference books like this restore my faith in historical scholarship.  Not only are they thoroughly researched and annotated with meticulous attention to detail, they are also highly readable to non scholars and fascinating.  This is going to be a frequent 'Go to' book on my shelf and will join my 'Desert Island' keeper section in my study library.

    If you have an interest in the Middle Ages, if you are a teacher, re-enactor,  historical novelist or just plain want to know more, either rush out and buy this book or ask your library to buy a copy.

     Martha Carlin is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

    David Crouch is professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull.

    Elizabeth Chadwick owns most of their books and with good reason!

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    When I was young, I watched a lot of black-and-white films. They were on the telly every wet weekend afternoon, and although I must have seen some of them many times over, I never lost the sense that the people in them looked odd. Those women with their cinched waists, full dark lips and tightly waved hair were peculiar. You ever saw anyone looking remotely like them anywhere else. The past really was another country.

    Not one of us
    Earlier fashions were even more foreign: skirts to the floor, flapper dresses, even men’s hairstyles such as buzz cuts and slicked-down college boy styles were unfamiliar on the eye.

    Something has changed. The people around us in our everyday lives now wear such a wide range of clothes that almost nothing surprises. It seems to me that there is almost no distinctive ‘21st century’ style - at least, not yet.  Fabrics may be different and easier to launder, but almost all looks are (often deliberately) reminiscent of something that has gone before. Even school photos now feature blazers, badges and boaters that would have looked antiquated fifty years ago.

    Until very recently, it was only the shoulder pads and big hair of the early 80s that looked comic to the modern eye. Now they are beginning to make a comeback, and soon nothing from the 20th century will raise a laugh. If you see television archive material from the 60s, 70s or 80s, the language and attitudes might be a clue to their date. The green tinge of the film (caused by the copying and storage customs of the time) will tell you it is old. But the clothes? it’s only the fact that everyone in shot seems to be wearing a version of the same style (and the presence of cigarettes) that suggests this isn’t the present day.

    Of course, our lives have changed in many ways, the new role of technology being the most obvious. As I type this, a robot is vacuuming the floor for me. But innovations are not always for the better. The machine I am working on now makes me unhappy every day - and cost me more than the proceeds of the last piece of work I wrote on it. 

    All of writers know that, thanks to the capabilities of our software, we are now not only composers, but editors, typesetters, and accountants. Our days are spent battling with printers instead of sharpening pencils. But, on the plus side, at least we can back things up, and don’t lose whole manuscripts on trains any more.  And, with a few clicks, we can actually see people from the past.

    One of the influences my generation’s perception of near history was in the way we viewed old newsreel footage. Until recently, this was shown on ‘modern’ cine equipment, which ran at a slightly different frame-rate from the cameras on which it had been recorded. The result (as anyone over about 45 will remember) was a comic jerkiness. People in the past were not like us. They were less sophisticated. They couldn't even walk properly.  Their regrettable political judgements were somehow the product of their less formed minds.

    Lloyd George with the King in a clip from 1922
    You can see the whole thing here:

    Lloyd George was one of the first politicians to feature regularly in newsreels.  I always thought he looked a bit of a prat.  Now that we see the films at (almost) the proper speed, it’s easier to appreciate that people like him were, in most of the ways that really matter, just like us.

    Last night, while doing the very 21st century task of assembling furniture using wordless instructions, I watched an old edition of Steptoe and Son. I’m old enough to have seen the first episode on transmission, in 1962. In those days, we laughed at the shambles of junkyard that surrounded Harold and Albert. Now the programme looks like an edition of the Antiques Roadshow. If the sad couple auctioned off the contents of their house, they would be made for life. 
    What would a teenager of today make of it, I wonder? Almost certainly, they wouldn’t see anything remarkable in a man in his thirties still living with his father. That was a crucial ingredient in painting Harold’s pathetic character way back then.

    Maybe I’ll try muting the sound and writing a 21st century script to go with the pictures.  It might be the story of a poverty-stricken academic caring for his dementing father (a retired doctor?) with insufficient help from Social Services.  The words will be different, but the set and the costumes can stay the same.


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    Last month I wrote a little about the events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris along with my reflections, observations while travelling in Algeria seven years ago. I am continuing along a similar theme today: Algeria and a broad brushstroke of the events that led to the Algerian War of Independence.

    The French colonial empire constituted colonies, protectorates and mandated territories. In fact, there were two French colonial empires - the first was in decline by 1814. Its second began with the conquest of Algeria in 1830 followed soon after by territories in southeast Asia known as Indochina or Indochine. Vietnam was amongst them.

                                                                          Abd al Qadir

    The French invasion of Algeria began in early July 1830 and continued through to 1847. Within a short time, the French had gained control of the coastal areas as well as Algiers, the capital city, and before long, they began infiltrating the rural areas into the mountains and desert. Algeria is a vast and diverse land which at that time was under Ottoman rule. There were rebellions and pockets of Muslim resistance led by such heroes as Abd al Qadir but, eventually, France conquered Algeria. They colonised it and Europeanised it. They ruled it as a French colony with Christian values and paid little attention to the traditions and tribal customs already in place. The Muslims and Jews lost their education systems, their lands, their rights. They were French subjects but not citizens. The countryside was taken for agriculture. Private demesnes, estates were erected. The majority of Algerians were forced to vacate the fertile lands. The colons, European settlers, moved in. Massive vineyards sprung up in a land of abstinent inhabitants. Tobacco, olives, citrus fruits, wheat, all were being produced in abundance and most of the crops were shipped back to France from ports built by the French. The cities and coastal resorts were designed along French planning lines. Some of the cities were beautiful, architecturally elegant. Ports were constructed, roads built… But the lifestyle being assembled had little to do with the Algerians' way of life. This Mediterranean land was a mixed population of predominantly Berbers and Arabs with communities of Jews who had fled Spain during the years of the Reconquista and had settled peacefully in Algeria. A few Christians were resident there before the French arrived, but they were a minuscule minority.

    In 1856, Napoleon III offered the Algerians the right to French citizenship. Few accepted because they would have been obliged to renounce sharia law. Later in the nineteenth century – between 1870 and 1880 - the French offered the Jews an automatic right to citizenship. This gesture split the Muslims and resident Jews. From that time on, the Muslims began to perceive their Jewish neighbours as accomplices, friends of the colonisers.

                                                                Jews and Muslims together

    Education was a privilege offered to citizens, not to subjects.
    The Algerian Muslims began falling behind academically. Denying a colonised people the right to education is a very efficient weapon to keeping them under control. Without the means to read and write and therefore to learn and develop, they are rendered impotent.
    Even when a basic education was on offer, it was a Christian one.

    In spite of the challenges, during the first part of the twentieth century, Algerian nationalist movements were springing up and gaining ground. The most important and enduring was the National Liberation Front (FLN). By the 1930s, the FLN was protesting loudly against French rule. Even so, the Algerians fought with France during the Second World War, as they had done during the Great War. They were loyal to France and the Allies.
    In a curious way, their loyalty was the straw that broke the camel's back and fed the seeds of the War of Independence. The French government had promised the Muslims, the Algerians, that if they fought with their ruling nation, they would be given a voice within the decision-making of their territory. However the colons, the settlers, who held the political power and wealth in Algeria (and many supported the Vichy government), strongly opposed this. They saw danger, perceiving all Muslim intervention as a threat against their sovereignty, their right to Algeria.

    In 1943, Muslim leaders met with the French to hand over a manifesto. It demanded that Algerians be given equal rights. The request was more or less denied. Tensions rose and by the end of the war, when thousands of Algerians went out on the streets to demand their rights, they were met with violence.
    On the 8th May 1945 in the city of Sétif a bloodbath occurred.

                                                             Sétif's very imposing central Mosque

    During my travels for The Olive Tree, I visited the city of Sétif, which today is staunchly, exclusively Muslim. I walked its streets and was the only woman out and about in public. No restaurant opened its doors for me. Men only. Men sat in huddled groups in outdoor cafés smoking and they studied me with dark mistrusting eyes as I passed by. I have rarely felt so ill at ease, such an outsider.

    I have often been asked about the locations I have most enjoyed visiting on my travels round the Med and Algeria has always been high on my list.
    Here is a link to an article I wrote for the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2009/jun/14/drinkwater-algeria-mediterranean

    But Sétif stands out in my mind as the exception. It was the only place where I stayed in a hotel and not with a local family. I was warmly invited, but I declined. I felt the need to be alone for a few nights, to catch up on my notes and to allow the thousands of sights and experiences I was receiving on a daily basis to sink in quietly. While I was there, using it as a base for excursions to some of the most magnificent Roman ruins in north African, I began to learn a little about the city's modern history. On 8th May 1945, while the Allies were celebrating victory, approximately 10,000 citizens from in and around Sétif also took to the streets to celebrate, but also to demonstrate. The demonstrations soon turned nasty. Scarringly nasty. Some Algerians began chanting words against their colonizers. They unfurled Algerians flags, which were banned at the time. The police began to crack down, to confiscate the flags. Crowds turned on the police, several of whom were killed. The police retaliated and began to shoot into the crowds. This, in turn, caused more violent responses and within no time not only the city but the surrounding countryside was, literally, up in flames. For days after, French planes bombarded villages, wiped out farms and homesteads while warships trained their weapons on the cities and the mountains where ‘the rebels’ had gone into hiding.

    Somewhere in the region of forty thousand people lost their lives over those few days (no precise figure has ever been agreed upon). Approximately two hundred were French. The rest, Algerians. It was a massacre that was barely reported in the press. It took until 2005 for the French ambassador to Algeria to acknowledge France's responsibility.

    Although the Sétif Massacres were barely reported, it was a turning point. The French began to implement changes: they passed school reforms, they offered limited opportunities for Algerians to enter politics but, tragically, it was too little, too late. The relationship between France and Algeria and the French colonials living on this amazing territory was deteriorating fast. By 1954, the war for independence was underway. It was a long and savage war. Both sides have much to answer for. To this day, the history of the French occupation of Algeria with its cruel colonial legacy is a blight on the French psyche. It is unusual to find anyone who will talk about it although that is slowly changing.

    President François Hollande made a state visit to the country in December 2012. While there, he acknowledged that France’s occupation was brutal and he called for a new relationship between the two countries. “For 132 years, Algeria was subject to a profoundly unjust and brutal system of colonization,” he said. Hollande listed several sites of massacres including Sétif where seven years ago, the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, compared French war strategies to those used by the Nazis. He begged France to “make a gesture.. to erase this black stain.”
    Hollande’s visit was the first step towards a rapprochement. A gesture towards turning a page in what many consider the darkest chapter in France’s modern history.

    The Franco/Algerian story is a very complex one. I have been fascinated by this chapter in French history for a long while, but more so now because I have just delivered my new novel, The Lost Domain, which centres around a family of Pieds-Noirs and their relocation into France from Algeria. Pieds-Noirs, which translates as Black Feet, are Europeans, French citizens, who were born on the continent of Africa. The name comes from the idea that they took their first steps on the soil of the Black Continent. Hence, black feet.
    During and after the Algerian War of Independence (1952 - 1964), nearly one million Algerian-born French citizens were forced to leave the only homeland they had ever known, to make a new start in France. Their arrival was not greeted with warmth. The Pieds-Noirs were not popular in France. Many mainland French still hold them largely responsible for the war that tore Algeria apart and almost bankrupted the motherland.

    Living in France today are upwards of four to five million French-Algerians, including (but not exclusively) the Harkis. Harkis are Algerians who collaborated with France, who fought against the Resistance during the War of Independence. When Algeria won its independence, the Harkis fled their native land and settled in France.
    They were traitors in Algeria, but they were certainly not greeted as heroes in France. Most live their lives, now with their children and grandchildren, as second-class citizens. For decades they have been struggling to find employment, war pensions, decent living conditions, respect. They live in the banlieus, the suburbs, in ghettos riddled with poverty and tensions. They live in a narrow, dispiriting interstice, neither members of one society nor the other. How easy then for those seeking the next batch of jihadists to find their material: young men with an uncomfortable identity, with little to hope for....

    Of course, I am not suggesting that every son or grandson of a Harki or French-Algerian is a sure target for the Jihadists, but I do believe that there is a lack of support and opportunities for the majority of these French residents. Life is very exacting for them.

    By contrast, here is an exception. This photograph is of the brilliant footballer, Zineddine Zidane, born of Algerians in the banlieus of Marseille. This is very tough Le Pen country and Zidane struggled as a youth to make his way.

    And here a Nobel laureate, (who also loved and played football), born into a poverty-stricken Pied-Noir family, Albert Camus, whose monument, headstone, I visited at the Roman seaside ruined city of Tipasa.

                       …."this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow"….

    Blue and yellow. Vibrant Mediterranean colours. The sun and the sea. In Algeria, it is also the sky and the desert.

    My new novel, The Lost Domain, uses some of the historical material written about here as an almost silent background, a haunting of the past. It is the story of two women. One, a Pied-Noir, who escapes to France in 1962 as the war is ending, with her small son and her sister-in-law. They have lost everything in Algeria and are obliged to begin again in the mother country where they find themselves most unwelcome… and then a small girl is pitched into their lives and befriends the son….

    Coincidentally, while I was writing this blog I received an email from a woman who had read my last month's History Girls post. She lived in Algeria during the seventies, over a decade after the country had won its independence. She told me that her cleaner, a woman called Fatima, missed the French. She "lamented their departure and felt that they had taken good care of the local people". I thought I would add this because every story has so many layers, every history page a thousand footnotes. I will post more about The Lost Domain at a later date.


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    I met this little madam at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She's American, a New Yorker; her name is Emma Homan, and she was painted around 1844. Look at her! She's two.

    Look at her face: 

    Her bracelet - her ring and her rose!

    Look at her slippers - her pantalettes - her embroidered borders!

    Look at her cat! It's in a rose bush. And it's quite clearly bonkers -

    She was painted by an artist called John Bradley, one of those elusive characters who leave behind a common-enough name, some work, an address or two, insubstantial dates, and an air of mystery. Though he is thought of now as an American painter, there's reason to think he was originally English: he signed himself as being from 'Great Britton', and this magnificent cow -  Painting of a Prize Cow in a Field, is signed 'Drawn by I Bradley, Honington, Suffolk 1827' - I Bradley being Iohannes Bradley. 

    This pair of portraits of children,  and 'consigned to Bonhams Ipswich from a deceased estate' in 2005, are signed 'I. Bradley, Limner, Suffolk 1830'. For a while I thought ah, he must have moved around, from Honington to Limner - and then I realised ah no, limning is what he does. He is a limner - from illuminator, I suppose. 
    1. a person who paints or draws.
    2. an itinerant painter of C18th America who usually had little formal training.
    3. a person who describes or depicts in words.
    4. an illuminator of medieval manuscripts. 

    Two years later he usefully placed himself in New York by painting a Staten Island merchant, Asher Androvette, holding a copy of the November 29 1832 edition of The New York and Richmond County Free Press. It was signed, I. Bradley Delin. 1832. 'Delin' meaning, what delineator? He who drew the lines? One of his techniques was to put pale lines around faces, figures and objects to highlight them. It's what gives his paintings their air of light. Illuminating them.

    The Met label for Emma Homan says:

    Though there was a John Bradley of unlisted profession who arrived from Ireland in August 1826 on a ship called Carolina Ann, he probably was not been the John Bradley who was painting pictures of cows and children in Suffolk in 1830. Blogger Milton Trexler reports that 'After a thorough investigation of passenger ship lists, [we find that] four individuals named John Bradley arrived in New York between 1830 and 1832: one on March 27, 1832, aboard the ship Citizen out of Liverpool, age 21, listed as Irish and a laborer; another on June 14, 1832, abbreviated as Jno. Bradley, on the ship Robert Peel out of Hull, age 20, listed as from Great Britain and a farmer; another on August 27, 1832, on the ship America out of Liverpool, age 20, listed as from Ireland and a labourer; and a boy, aged 15, listed as Irish and a farmer aboard the William Byrnes on August 14, 1832. Yet none of these gentlemen, due to either age or occupation, seem likely candidates. A search of Boston and Philadelphia port records and a search of original U.S. naturalization papers with John Bradley signatures also produced inconclusive results.' 

    Since our John Bradley was a professional painter in Great Britain before leaving for the US, one would expect him to record his profession on the ship's passenger list as 'painter' or 'limner'. He was known as being 'of the English school'; the music on the piano in another painting is a well-known Irish ballad, The Angel's Whisper. There were several Bradleys, some of them called John, living in Staten Island in the 1830s. One is registered as having 'aliens' living with him - perhaps one was John, during the five years before he could apply for citizenship. One was in an asylum.  Well, by the 1840s he was living in Soho - on Hammersley Street and later Spring Street, making his living as a painter, portraitist and miniaturist. An artist living downtown! After 1847 there is no more trace of him. We don't know how old he was, whether he married, had children. But I fell in love with young Emma, and the idea of a man who could paint a two-year-old like that - such a little queen. These vague scraps of story set one to wondering. I imagine John Bradley in a Joseph O'Connor novel, Star of the Sea or Redemption Falls, leading a wicked and complex life. During the times when people in New York lived in their community of origin - Irish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, Jewish - the Village was where you went to live if your own community wouldn't have you, or you could not longer stand it in your community for whatever reason. As we know it retains the reputation of being home to the gays, the artists, the drugtakers. the musicians, the transgressors . . . There is a suggestion that John Bradley was originally a painter-and-decorator. I find I like him. I could make up a life for him. 

    A tiny bit more research brought me to these girls, Emma's almost-twins: Little Girl in Lavender, whose cat is rather less psychotic, and her roses a little redder. Vice President Bush chose her from the National Gallery of Art in 1981, to hang on the wall in his home. And Young Girl in a Green Dress: same basket, same trousers, same flower pot, same fat little hands. 

    And here is a boy, feeding rabbits.

    and this chap, about whom I can find nothing whatsoever.

    And here, The Cellist, with his abnormally long arm and tiny delicate musical feet.

     These two have borrowed his red curtain

    Why do I love these portrait so much? It's partly the colours and the items, so strong, delicate and simple - the little red book, the parti-coloured hobby-horse, the coral necklaces, the lace, the bunch of leaves, the sheet music. But more, it's the eyes - so particular, such a straight gaze. 'I am here', they say, just as clearly as any Velasquez. And you think about what they might have had to do to get there, to the stage of being painted, albeit by a self-taught chap who gets the arms wrong. 
    They remind me, actually, of Lorenzo Lotto's Portraits: The Young Man, and the Woman inspired by Lucretia. 

    But back to Emma. The Met gives her dates, and a married name emerges - Emma Holman Thayer. She - if she it is - grew up to be a writer!  I am delighted beyond reason by this discovery. She wrote a novel called The English-American, published in Chicago in 1890. 

    I investigate. It is terrible. It is set in a London that has clearly never been visited by Emma, nor anyone else, and has characters like this, the maid: 

    That is one of the better pages.

    My disappointment is considerable. I had hoped for better from Emma.

    She has also, though, written and illustrated some books about Wild Flowers: Wild Flowers of the Rocky Mountains and Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast. The text is just as bad:

    But the drawings are nice. Really nice.     

    So I forgive her, and I still love her. 

    Here is her neighbour at the Met - not painted by Bradley. 
    He's a boy. No wonder he looks so furious. 

    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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    This year’s Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film went to Ida, an extraordinary, haunting, Polish historical drama directed by Paweł Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The film follows the story of two fictional women. Ida is a young novitiate nun on the verge of taking her vows when she is directed to meet her only living relative. Wanda, her aunt, a deeply-damaged former Communist state prosecutor, curtly informs Ida that she is Jewish, ‘a Jewish nun’. The two then embark on an uncomfortable road trip into the Polish countryside and their own family’s devastatingly sad war-time past. You can watch the trailer here.

    Universally admired for its expressive use of stillness and sparse dialogue, its stunning and original cinematography, and understated explorations of anger, grief, guilt, choice and national and personal identity, picked up a host of awards in Britain and Europe, before collecting its Oscar. And yet, the film has also proved to be controversial.

    Ida is fictional narrative set in the Poland of the 1960s, and commenting both on the suffering inflicted by the Second World War, and the difficulties faced by those coming to terms with their loss, their actions, and the possibility of redemption. It is at once deeply personal and unavoidably political.

    Some Polish critics fear that while the history behind Ida would be known and understood by most Poles, internationally the film might promote false stereotypes of Polish complicity and collaboration in the Holocaust. This is not an unfounded concern. Reports and documentaries sometimes still talk about ‘Polish concentration camps’ when referring to the Nazi German camps set up inside Nazi-occupied Poland, and Polish contributions to the Allied war effort, from providing the first German enigma coding machine, to vital contributions in campaigns in North Africa, Italy and even in the Battle of Britain, are often underplayed in the press, books and films.

    At the same time, across the board, whether provoked by Tudor novels or Polish films, commentators are increasingly challenging the seemingly porous boundary between historical fiction and non-fiction, and the debatable responsibilities of authors and directors to convey not just the ‘truth’, but ‘the whole truth’, through their fictions. With painful recent histories such as the events and aftermath of the Second Word War, these tensions are all the more raw.

    Me with Rebecca Lenkiewicz
    at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden
    (courtesy of Steven Larcombe)
    A few months ago I was delighted to interview Ida co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz when she visited my local independent cinema, Saffron Screen in Saffron Walden. Previously best known as the author of Her Naked Skin about the suffragettes, the first original play by a female playwright to be performed at the Royal National Theatre, Rebecca is not unknown to either success or controversy.

    As well as talking about the powerful minimalism of the script, the casting and cinematography, I asked her about the relationships in the film, not just between the two women, but between innocence and knowledge, honesty and concealment, and Poland and its past. ‘Poland has a complicated history with its past’, Rebecca replied. ‘Ida is the story of the tragic events around one family and its consequences. It is about unearthing knowledge, a meditation about love and loss. It's not a political statement. It questions faith and knowledge and tells a fictitious story that might well have happened.’

    More recently, when I asked about the responsibilities film-makers have regarding historical accuracy and contextualisation, Rebecca emphasised that ‘it's important to be informed and to honour the subject, but fiction is not reportage. I would never feel comfortable attempting to write about an era or a real person without as much knowledge as I could garner before trying to recreate them. Research is one of the joys of writing. When you have some grounding then you have more scope to imagine.’

    Ida director and co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski’s past work also rests on political themes, such as war, and deportations, but his focus has deliberately stayed personal. ‘Every good film is a bit like a dream,’ he told the BBC recently, ‘that’s what I usually aspire to, rather than some social document.’ 

    Rebecca Lenkiewicz
    taking questions at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden
    (courtesy of Pawel Komorowski)

    Opinion remains divided however. Interestingly, during the discussion after the film screening in Saffron Walden, the Brits and the Poles in the audience focused on quite different aspects of the film, and there was certainly some concern around the depiction of Polish history. Now Warsaw's Jewish Historical Institute has criticised the film for being anti-Semitic, and the Polish Anti-Defamation League has set up a petition, already signed by 50,000 people, asking Ida’s producers to state, at the start or end of the film, that:
    • Poland was under Nazi German occupation.
    • The occupiers conducted a programme to exterminate the Jews.
    • Poles hiding Jews risked the death penalty not only for themselves, but for their entire family.
    • Thousands of Poles were executed for helping their Jewish neighbours.
    • The Polish Underground State harshly punished those Poles who harmed Jews, and 
    • The Yad Vashem Institute recognises Poles as the largest group of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for helping Jews.

    Since Ida won its Oscar I have been asked several times whether I think it is an ‘anti-Polish’ film. I do not. And, as an independent work of art, I do not think that it should have contextual facts imposed on screen before it starts, or after it finishes. A film, like any work of art, is always open to interpretation by its audiences, but it must remain independent if it is to have an authentic voice. Its own voice.

    Ida may not explicitly state the loss of a fifth of Poland’s population, including three millions Jews, during the war, or the appalling dilemmas forced onto the surviving population. However, the pain and conflicts are built into the atmosphere and locations, and embodied within the characters, and the story encompasses both fear and courage, crime and compassion. This is a film stripped down; a film that implies far more than it says, and shows just how much more, less can sometimes convey. At the heart of Ida, both the film and character, is the question of how to deal with the past when it is uncovered and laid bare. That it has provoked such controversy around this very issue should be seen as a compliment. While I regret that many British people may not know the full historical context behind the film, I feel that Ida adds greatly to that conversation, and does so in the most elegant, thought-provoking whisper.

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    Some years ago I was asked by my then publisher, Penguin Australia, to write a story about child migration to Australia, a subject about which I knew nothing. However, from the moment I began to research it, I became totally hooked, and the resulting book ‘Blood Ties’ was published in 2001.

    There were many religious and philanthropic organisations in the UK who sent children overseas ‘for a better life’ but it seemed sensible to focus on one – Barnardo’s – whose history was well documented and whose archives I could access.

    In my editing days I had worked on a children’s book about Dr Barnardo, so I knew something about him and his work.  He started his first ‘ragged school’ in London in 1867 which gave a basic education to poor children.  Then, in 1870, the first boys’ home, in Stepney, was opened.  This gave food and shelter to desperate boys and, following the death from exposure of an 11 year old who was turned away because the shelter was full, their policy was never to refuse entry to a needy child. Indeed a sign was posted outside the home ‘No destitute child ever refused admission.’ 

    In 1876, Barnardo’s home for girls was opened in Barkingside and it is still there today; this is where I began my research. The place is no longer surrounded by leafy countryside as it was in the late 19th century and the buildings have long ceased to house destitute girls, but there is a library there where friendly staff showed me records and explained how the home was run and the original thinking behind the child migration scheme, which began in the late 19th century and continued until 1967. But more of that later.

    For its time, the Barkingside home was enlightened.  Children were not housed in some grim institution, but in cottages which surrounded a large green area and each cottage had a ‘cottage mother’ who looked after up to 20 girls  Many of these cottage mothers were, apparently, well meaning, well bred, Godfearing spinsters and although some were loving and sympathetic to their charges, others had little understanding of the needs of children and were more rigid in disciplining them. However, a lot of the girls must have come with overwhelming problems and it can’t have been an easy job.

    The girls’ home was looking to the future, too.  When they were old enough, girls worked in a purpose build steam laundry on the site and were also trained for domestic service.

    There was a church on the site, too, and a church choir in which many of the girls sang, and celebrations held to mark such anniversaries as Empire Day.

    However, not all children in Barnardo’s care remained in the homes. Many were boarded out or emigrated. First to Canada then, after the First World War children began to be settled in large numbers in Australia. The Australian authorities welcomed immigration from Britain as a means of tackling the labour shortage after the war and curbing non-white immigration from Asia. Barnardo’s sent its first official party of 47 boys in 1921. They were followed two years later by 32 girls. The charity sent a total of 2,784 children to Australia, mostly in the years before 1939. Emigration was suspended during the Second World War and resumed in 1947 but the numbers sent after the war were much smaller and the scheme finally ended in 1967.

    What did surprise me, when I was reading through the experiences of ex-Barnardo’s children who had emigrated to Australia, was the randomness of the whole thing.  It seemed that children were selected, shown a few pictures of life in Australia and told that that’s were they were going then, a few weeks later, they were on board ship.

    Children were encouraged to see Barnardo’s as their family and weren’t allowed to access their records. In some cases, emigrating children were told that their parents were dead, even though this may not have been true.  It was a very different age and it was genuinely thought that this could help a child make a fresh start. The emphasis at that time was on moral and physical welfare rather than emotional wellbeing.

    My story ‘Blood Ties’ was based on an amalgam of the experiences of emigrant children and I based the Australian part of the story on the home at Picton in New South Wales. Here, all the children, to an extent, helped run the place, doing domestic and gardening jobs, then, when they were old enough most of the boys were sent to work on farms and the girls into domestic service.  Some of these ex-Barnardo’s children looked back with gratitude and had only good to say of the organization, others had had less than happy experiences.  Many of them, in later life, began searching for their roots.

    ‘Blood Ties’ tells the story of a young Australian musician, Katie, who is diagnosed with leukemia shortly before her grandmother dies.  Only then does the family learn that Gran was a Barnardo’s child, sent from England to live in the Picton home. Time is running out for Katie and as the family searches desperately for a bone marrow match, Katie begins to relive her gran’s experiences through a series of vivid dreams.
    One of the letters I received from readers was from an ex-Barnardo’s boy, then in his seventies, who was still searching for his natural family and was convinced he knew the grandmother in the story. I hated telling him that she was fictional but his letter was a powerful reminder of the importance of roots, of knowing where you come from, who you are, and of the psychological damage that can haunt you all your life if you do not.

    In its time, child migration was considered an appropriate response to the social problems of the day, even if, by today’s standards, the practice seems cruel. Charities genuinely believed that migration gave children a chance to escape from poverty and offered them a fresh start in a healthier environment. These ideas continued largely unchallenged until after the Second World War when the emphasis shifted towards keeping children and their families together in their own communities.

    (Mary Hoffman is still away but in a different place)

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    My post this month is about events, for I am surrounded by them right now. I want to talk about just two of them here: the first is Women’s History Month for 2015, which started today, and the second is the first ever Historical Novel Society Conference Downunder in three weeks.

    I’ve been involved in Australia’s Women’s History Month celebrations since before Australia had any. I was one of the very small number of women targeted by Helen Leonard in 1999. She said “We need a Women’s History Month. Let’s make it March so that we can get the benefit of America’s Women’s History Month.” And so we decided it would be so, over coffee. When people ask, I can still show them the location of the rather small coffee table, at a café in Canberra.

    Last year I handed all my papers to Lulu Respall-Turner (another of the founders) and the year before gave the electronic files to the Women’s History Month committee. So that’s it from me. Except it isn’t, because every year I throw a small shindig on my blog.

    This year I will have a group of women writers who are talking about things that are quite personal.
    It struck me that we (women) have fewer hero narratives than men. We not often the centre of narratives. So this year, throughout March, a group of living women are at the centre of narratives, often their own. If March weren’t so short, there would be more of these stories by women writers about themselves or people close to them: I ran out of days and had to stop asking writers I wanted to hear from. I strongly suspect I need a full year with this subject, and that even then I’d only scratch the surface.

    I didn’t tell any of the writers “I want your hero stories” – but women being women, that is what I’m getting. There's an astonishing amount of hero-story in everyday problems (Campbell described heroes from the wrong direction, I suspect). The first post has already gone up, and is Wendy Orr talking about breaking her neck. One of Australia’s most successful fiction writers emerged into public awareness about the same time as she was crippled, she was told, for life. 

    The posts will be at both my writerly blog and on LiveJournal throughout March. You can find Wendy’s story here and here.

    One of the Women's History Month launches, from the early days. Carmen Lawrence launching in the Speaker's garden at Parliament House, Canberra. Photograph: Gillian Polack (of course).

    And now, for the Historical Novel Society. I first encountered it more years ago than I can think of. It was members of the HNS who brought me into the historical fiction fold by saying “Yes, we know you don’t write historical fiction, it, but you can advise those of us who do.” 

    This is the first time the HNS has run a conference in Australasia. It's in Sydney in just a few weeks. The first evening is at the State Library, which is a building I always have time for. I’m hoping this conference will be the first of many and that its Australian chapter will be as vigorous as those elsewhere.

    The conference brings together those of us from all corners of history-in-fiction, including fantasy and, of course, the Middle Ages. Felicity Pulman is launching three books there (or rather, I am launching them for her, a fact that intimidates me), there will be super-sessions for writers, and the program is just amazing. So many of Australia’s best writers, and they all love history! You can find more about it from the HNS website.

    Note: This post is shorter than usual because I’m full of books. One coming out now (my new novel) and one in June (history!) and it’s peak teaching period and even finding time to breath feels difficult. Next month I’ll write something extra-juicy to make up. In the meantime, have a nice picture of a medieval mikvah in Montpellier (I took this in 2011). And no, I have no idea why I have an alliterative tendency today. No doubt I'll recover from it eventually.

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  • 03/02/15--16:00: Author Maths, by Y S Lee

  • The US/Canadian cover (Candlewick Press)
    One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. My Mary Quinn Mysteries (called the Agency series, in North America) are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed the country and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my novels takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city. 

    The UK/Australian cover (Walker Books)

    The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

    Timing the final action

    Distance in miles
    Walking (in mins)
    Running (in mins)
    Horseback (in mins)
    Vancouver to Toronto
    Toronto to New York
    New York to Montreal
    Montreal to Vancouver
    New York to Vancouver

    I assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour - a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

    I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

    As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

    - 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

    - 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

    - 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

    This left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period during which my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

    I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?
    Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries (Walker Books/Candlewick Press), a quartet of novels featuring a girl detective in Victorian London. Rivals in the City, the last in the series, is published in the US and Canada on March 10.

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    So we were sitting, just us two, tucked into the cosy corner of a pleasant dockside pub in Bristol, looking forward to a good chat over a hot meal before heading out into the frozen grey February air to visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s marvellous ship the SS Great Britain. Nothing could have been nicer. Or it would have been, if it hadn’t been for the over-energetic conversation of the three people at the next table: a man, rather full of himself – and two admiring women. The man held forth, the women chipped in, adding supporting anecdotes. Their voices were penetrating. It was impossible to ignore them. We tried to talk between ourselves, but every attempt failed. We were being drowned out.

    The man was going on about Iraq and Syria and Jordan and ISIS. After some time he got off the atrocities and moved to the jocular.  ‘… And you know, some people really are called that? Isis - it’s a real name? It’s the name of one of those Egyptian gods? There was this thing in the paper about a baby called Isis, they were wondering if they ought to change her name. And they could, you see, but it would all depend on what her brothers thought. There were three of them, one called Al, one called Kye, and one called Ida.  Ha ha ha!’  Both women laughed heartily. The man leaned back. ‘But that other disaster, the one in Glasgow, the bin lorry that ran away and killed that family. I don’t know what that was all about, the driver says he had a heart attack or something…’

    On it went, and on. Ghastly tragedies treated as lunchtime snacks. Our quiet meal was being ruined. D. muttered, ‘It’s like sitting next to a whirlpool, I keep being sucked in sideways.’
    ‘Maybe we should start a whirlpool of our own,’ I said.
    We eyed one another.
    ‘So,’ he said. ‘Who would have thought they could have kept the old lady locked up in the attic for three years?’
                ‘Terrible,’ I agreed. ‘The family tried to hush it up, but it was a shocking business.’
                ‘And feeding her on nothing but raspberries and brandy, all that time.’
    ‘To be fair,’ I said, ‘that was all she would eat. She’d insisted on that diet herself. She really could be very difficult.’
    ‘She was mad, of course.’
    ‘She was by the end of it.’
    ‘And then it all came out.’
    ‘It had to,’ I said, ‘once the neighbours reported the screams. There was money involved, I suppose?’
    ‘An inheritance,’ he said dourly. ‘All the money from the sheep-frogging empire her great-grandfather established.’
    ‘Remind me what that was?’
    ‘They were trying to make woolly jumpers.’
    I choked and recovered. ‘No no, that was just an old joke. I’ve remembered about it now.  It was a new technique of twisting wool into a special thread to make the braid, you know, that was used for decorating Army dress uniforms.’
    ‘Frogging!’ he said, enlightened. ‘Of course!’
    ‘Yes, for the Hussars and the other regiments. It was a very important business. In the end they were supplying the whole British Army. The family had mills all over Lancashire and Yorkshire. It all started in the 1840’s. Obadiah Blenkinsop was the founder. He was well thought of.’
    ‘He was a tight-fisted man, a pillar of the Church.’
    ‘Very moral. He built one of those model villages for his factory hands to live in.’
    ‘Like Saltaire.’
    ‘Yes, but this was on the Calder. Unfortunately, he took his obsession with social engineering a little too far –’
    ‘He wanted to lower birth rates. His employees weren’t allowed more than three children per family.’
    ‘That’s right. He had little flaps, like cat-flaps, built into the houses so he could spy on his workforce.  They were called Blenkinsop’s Peepholes. Stewards would go the rounds at night to check that no hanky-panky was going on…’
    ‘If a family had more than three, the spare children would disappear into the mills.’
    ‘Cruel times.’
    ‘Fatal. All that dangerous machinery…’

    The two women at the next table were still chattering blithely, but I’d noticed that the man had for some time been strangely silent. At this point he pushed back his chair and disappeared to the Gents. When he came back:

    ‘You’ve heard about the race to register the patent?’ D. asked me.
    ‘No, tell me!’
    ‘You see, Brunel had independently come up with an invention very similar to Blenkinsop’s Sheep-Frogger. The two men found out about it over dinner at a London club, and came to a gentleman’s agreement. They were to race one another to London by canal boat, one travelling along the Grand Union Canal, the other down the Kennet and Avon. The finish was the Patent Office at Somerset House on the Strand: whoever got there first would register the patent. It took weeks.’
    ‘What happened?’
    ‘It was a very close thing.  Blenkinsop was ahead, but as he was hurrying along the Strand he happened to look back – and there was a tall stovepipe hat, wagging along above the crowds in hot pursuit.’
    ‘Brunel’s trademark!’
    ‘Of course. It must have been a bad moment for Blenkinsop. He put on a spurt, but the two arrived almost simultaneously at Somerset House – only to find the gates shut. Neither of them could get in. There’d been a quarantine order slapped on all foreign patents…’
    ‘Ah,’ I broke in, ‘that must have been in the middle of the Great Tapioca Epidemic of 1842 –’

    But we shall never know more. At this point the three people on the table next to us paid up and departed, and we were left alone to laugh. 

    Picture credits:

    "Bristol MMB 43 SS Great Britain" Photo by mattbuck. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    "Isambard Kingdom Brunel"by Robert Howlett, 1857, Wikimedia Commons

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    It is World Book Day today - World Book Week/Fortnight for many writers - as schools and libraries up and down the land get into the spirit of the celebration and invite us to get out of our jammies/big sweaters/baggy jeans/slippers/the house.  And, frequently, onto public transport where we, blinking in the sudden light, meet the wide world in a small space.

    Be gentle with us.

    (Some of the advice below may appear to come from another world, but many of us live in other worlds a lot of the time, so it seemed appropriate.)

    I love Mrs Humphry.  (I've posted before about her Manners for Women and Manners for Menand barely scratched the surface of her awesomeness.)  Listen to her words from the 1897 edition of Manners for Men on omnibus travel -

    "True courtesy ... will prevent a man from infringing the rights of his neighbours on either side by occupying more than his own allotted space.  Very stout men are obliged to do so, but at least they need not spread out their knees in a way that is calculated to aggravate the evil.  Nor need they arrange themselves in a comfortable oblique position, with the result of enhancing the inconvenience ... Even a thin man can take up a quantity of room by thus disposing himself at an angle of forty-five ...

    The morning paper may be converted into an offensive weapon in the hands of the rude and careless ... Newspapers are rather unwieldy things to turn and twist about in a limited space, but this very circumstance affords a man an opportunity of displaying his skill in manipulating the large, wide sheets without dashing them in the face of his nearest neighbour, or knocking against anybody in a series of awkward movements that a little care could easily convert in leisurely, graceful ones ...

    It can never be out of place for a man to give up his seat in favour of the old and infirm, or for a woman with a baby in her arms.  But such matters as these belong to the region of heart and mind beyond mere manners, and it is useless to suggest any line of action on such subjects.  The impulse must come from within."

    And, moving from bus to train, and forward a decade or two -

    (Miss Emily Post 1912)

    Miss Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home has been revised and reprinted many times, but I like the 1922 original best.  And out of all her words of advice, I'd like to select these for your consideration as you pack your leather valise -

    "On a railroad train you should be careful not to assail the nostrils of fellow passengers with strong odors of any kind. An odor that may seem to you refreshing, may cause others who dislike it and are “poor travelers” to suffer really great distress. There is a combination of banana and the leather smell of a valise containing food, that is to many people an immediate emetic. The smell of a banana or an orange, is in fact to nearly all bad travelers the last straw. In America where there are “diners” on every Pullman train, the food odors are seldom encountered in parlor cars, but in Europe where railroad carriages are small, one fruit enthusiast can make his traveling companions more utterly wretched than perhaps he can imagine." 

    Just a thought.

    (If you want to browse more in Miss Post's or Mrs Humphry's books and don't have well-thumbed copies on your shelf, you can do so here - and here - but be politely warned - they are incredibly addictive!)

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

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  • 02/10/15--13:30: January Competition winners
  • January competition

    The winners of  Robyn Cadwallader's The Anchoress are:
    Andrea Peace
    KM Lockwood
    Karen Owen
    Spade and Dagger
    AS Olivier

    You can get your prizes by sending your land address to Kate McQuaid: kate.mcquaid@faber.co.uk


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    Paolo Veronese, avtoportret.jpgVenice and all things Venetian are the province of History Girl Michelle Lovric but today I’m venturing onto her territory. The topic came to me by a rather strange route involving my sluggish brain and the jungle of Russian grammar rules relating to dates. My tutor set me some homework: choose an artist and write an essay on him incorporating all the significant dates in his life. Not as self-evidently useful as learning, say, how to order vodka and blini, but nevertheless a good exercise and, Russian grammar aside, it gave me a delightful insight into the personality of Paolo Veronese. 

    In the 1570s Veronese was commissioned to paint The Last Supper. It was to hang in the refectory of the Dominican basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. Veronese, being the kind of man he was, populated the painting with many enchanting oddities: a jester, a parrot, two dogs, a cat, a man with a bleeding nose. Instead of the simple upper room of the Bible story he chose a magnificent colonnaded interior as his setting.

    What his Dominican patrons thought of it isn’t explicitly recorded, but this was the 16th century and the Counter-Reformation was a factor in the life of any artist. Veronese was summoned by the Office of the Inquisition to answer for his painting’s irreverence and lack of decorum. The word ‘heresy’ was whispered. 
    Veronese’s responses to the Inquisition’s questions provide us with one of those moments when a figure steps out of the frame of history and celebrity and becomes a real person. I offer you a few examples.

    Q. Do you know why you have been called here?

    A. No.

    Q. Can you imagine what those reasons may be?

    A. I can well imagine.

    Q. Say what you imagine.

    A. I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalen instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honor of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalen could be doing here.

    We live in times when freedom of creative expression is at great risk, as did Veronese, but he comes across as laconically stubborn. Perhaps, as a recognised maestro he felt he was safe from any harsh treatment. As the Inquisition gets down to particular objections one can sense his impatience.

    Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?

     A. It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.

     Q. Say them.

    A. We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

     Q. And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

     A. He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

    Q. Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?

     A. No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; it is very large and can contain many figures.

    There’s much more and it makes very entertaining reading. You can find the translated transcript here. I commend it to you.

    We know how it ended. Veronese received a reprimand and was ordered to ‘correct’ the painting within three months, and at his own expense. He went home, mulled it over and thought, ‘Damn this for a game of soldiers. I’ll just change the name of the painting.’ And so survived The Feast in the House of Levi, with all its charming detail.

    It’s the kind of painting that makes you wish you could have met the artist. Dinner with Veronese? Yes please.


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    Long ago, way back in the golden olden days when the world was full of lovely independent bookshops and I worked in one of them there was no Young Adult section.  So how did people manage? 

    Well, they browsed.  And if a customer was buying a book for someone else and they weren’t certain if the content was suitable they could ask the bookseller for advice because in those days knowing the stock was considered to be part of the job.

    There are still excellent independents out there but as we all know the numbers are dwindling and times are tough.  Bit by bit all that in-depth knowledge and expertise is being replaced by computers, labels and branding.

    When I started writing it was for KS 1 and 2 and  I was put in the children’s section.  So far, so straightforward.  But then Apache came out: my ‘breakthrough’ novel.  It was a big moment.

    I was delighted to be part of the YA brand:  it comprised the most brilliant, creative,  exciting writing that was being produced.  I was rubbing shoulders with my literary heroes – what was not to love?

    On my first visit to a secondary school I was asked why I’d called the book Apache.  The student pronounced it “Apaitch.”   I was a little perplexed.  When I asked the audience if anyone knew what an Apache was hands went up all around the room.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Then they all said an Apache was a  “helicopter”.

    It came as a shock to realise that teens hadn’t been raised on the relentless diet of wall-to-wall westerns that I had.  No problem – it didn’t affect their enjoyment or enthusiasm for the book – but I realised that Apache had an extra resonance for adults.  The teachers and librarians who read the book really ‘got’ it.  But they were adults who were ‘in the know’.  How could I get it into the hands of general readers? 

    With Buffalo Soldier I’ve got the same problem.  It’s accessible to teens, but I’d love adults to read it too.   And why wouldn’t they?  Well, because it’s a YA book.


    Over the years I’ve given various books  (by various writers) to friends who have looked both puzzled and offended when they realised I was handing them a “kids’ book”. They considered reading YA would be dumbing down; an insult to their intelligence.   There are thousands of potential readers who are missing out because they have a mental block about the YA label.

    A couple of months ago I had one of those in-between times, when I was waiting for a manuscript to come back from the editor. Instead of writing the synopsis I was supposed to be working on I went on Facebook (as you do) and asked a few questions.  And the warm, witty writing community came back with some wonderful answers. My apologies for reducing what were interesting and sometimes hilarious exchanges into this rather more banal summary:

    1) When is a YA novel not a YA novel? There are the very obvious 'teen reads', but what about books marketed to teens that deserve a wider adult readership too? I'm thinking Mal Peet in the first instance. More examples, anyone?

    Lots of names were put forward including Aidan Chambers, Celia Rees, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff. What was interesting was the amount of comments that came in alongside the suggestions: someone reported an adult who was embarrassed to be ‘caught’ reading The Book Thief because it was marketed for teens, for example.

    We all agreed the YA brand is simply a marketing device and something that makes life easier for bookshops, but inventing a label to attract certain readers will inevitably put others off.

    2) Which of the classics would get classified as a YA read if they were published today?

    Sometimes books get labeled YA simply because they have a teen or child protagonist.  Again, lotsof titles suggested – Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bonjour Tristesse, The Dud Avocado and all of Walter Scott’s 27 novels.

    3) Are there any books out there that ONLY teens will enjoy?

    Plenty of suggestions here too including Catcher in the Rye (“insufferably irritating”), Wuthering Heights (“barking mad”) and Twilight(“I died a little at each page I read”).  However, many of us know (and some of us weep over the fact) that there are grown, sensible adults out there who love the Twilight saga, so it seems the answer to my question is no.

    What conclusions can be drawn from all this?   That a book is a book is a book.  Writing something that’s accessible to teens shouldn’t exclude an adult readership.  Yet “most adults won’t touch teen no matter how good it is” as one contributor to the discussion remarked. 

    Love it or loathe it the YA brand is here to stay, so how do we get past the prejudice some adult readers have?  No idea, sorry.  I don’t have answers to this – just plenty of questions.

    0 0

    The airing of Wolf Hall’s small screen cousin has provoked a good deal of discussion: is it too slow; is it too confusing; is it too dark; wasn’t Henry fatter; wasn’t Cromwell more of a monster; is it accurate?

    Mark Rylance with director, Peter Kosminsky (Radio Times)

    The question of historical truth comes around again and again. The Imitation Game ruffled feathers for, amongst other things depicting Turing as possibly involved in (or knew about and turned a blind eye to) treachery when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this might have been the case. People have complained that there wasn’t enough science in The Theory of Everything, without stopping to think that the film is an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s book – it is her version of events not his. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner provoked tumultuous critical delight over Timothy Spall’s snorting, grunting performance, which I personally found grotesquely over-played. ‘But he was supposed to be just like that,’ people cried in response to my criticism. ‘Based on what exactly?’ I asked. 

    Anne Boleyn plus PA (Daily Mail)
    We can get so wrapped up in the idea of accuracy that it is easy to forget such a thing is impossible. With Wolf Hall it’s all been about the authenticity, with costume designers talking about how they only used fabrics of the period and correct fastenings – mostly pins, in case you were wondering and not zips, which was the accusation levelled (hotly denied, I might add) at the recent White Queen adaptation. But, I ask myself are they all going commando because as all self-respecting Tudorphiles will know, knickers hadn’t been invented in the sixteenth century.

    The ‘authentic’ lighting (mainly candlelight for interiors and nothing outside) has meant a good deal of viewers grumbling about not being able to see anything. ‘Ah but that is how it would have been,’ come the replies. That may be so but to our twenty-first century eyes, used to the brightness of the present, our response to it is jarring and confusing. A Tudor would not have responded in such a way; it would have been the norm, their eyes would have been accustomed to a dimmer world, more in tune with the seasons and fluctuating hours of daylight. What I’m trying to get at is that absolute authenticity remains out of reach, like Plato’s perfect forms, and to try so hard at it can be a futile project.

    Rylance as Cromwell
    Holbein's Cromwell
    I like the gloom of Wolf Hall, not because of its historical veracity, but mainly because it works with the shadiness of its protagonist. Though unfortunately in some of the exterior scenes, shot in the gloaming it looks, on my brand new super-duper-HD TV, rather than atmospherically shadowy, depressingly redolent of low-tech BBC costume drama from the 1970s. But I sympathise with the intention even if the outcome is not necessarily wholly successful because I find myself noticing other things, like the puzzling absence of mud in the exterior scenes and the manicured gravel driveways and the dog that looked suspiciously like a cockapoo and Anne pronouncing his name (Purcoy) phonetically rather than the French way (Pur-cwa) as she would have. Now I'm just being a pedant and the point I'm trying to make is that none of it really matters; what matters is the effect it has.

    Lewis's Henry VIII
    Then of course there’s the question of Cromwell and his character. Views on this are polarised. A historian friend of mine believes Mantel’s Cromwell is too modern in sensibility. It seems to be Mantel’s project to explore the possibility that Cromwell was a remarkable self-made man, and yes, darkly complex and Machiavellian but not just, to borrow Dairmud MacCulloch’s term, ‘a thug in a doublet’; whereas revisionist historians seek to expose the Reformation, the promotion of which was Cromwell’s life’s work, as an act of monstrous destruction akin to the acts of fundamentalists in North Africa today. We will never find a definitive truth but what is good is that texts such as this open up discussion.
    Rhys Meyer's Henry VIII

    What a TV show like Wolf Hall is attempting to do is to set itself above the usual costume drama. It’s narrative is convoluted, it refuses to spoon feed us, makes us work hard, makes us think. It says ‘I am authentic,’ suggesting that Jonathan Ryhs Meyers in his hopelessly anachronistic, yet very fetching, faux-Tudor gear, is not – I couldn’t possibly comment. But when we watch TV we know that only a few feet away is a fellow with a big camera and that we’ve seen these actors in other roles, that they’re all pretending. We want to suspend our disbelief, we’re in on the sleight of hand, and do we care if they are wearing knickers? I suspect not.

    Elizabeth Fremantle's Tudor novels Queen's Gambit about Katherine Parr and Sisters of Treasonabout the sisters of Lady Jane Grey are published by Penguin.

    Find out more about Elizabeth and her books on elizabethfremantle.com

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