Articles on this Page
- 02/17/15--16:30: _Life Patterns - Ce...
- 02/18/15--23:37: _Down among the arch...
- 02/19/15--16:30: _Sir Francis Walsing...
- 02/20/15--16:30: _Serendipity and Ada...
- 02/21/15--16:30: _Tears of the Gods b...
- 02/22/15--16:30: _(HOW) DARE WE WRITE...
- 02/23/15--16:30: _LOST LETTERS OF MED...
- 02/24/15--18:30: _HISTORY DOESN’T LOO...
- 02/25/15--16:01: _A potted history of...
- 02/26/15--16:30: _Emma Homan, painted...
- 02/28/15--00:23: _All About Ida, by C...
- 02/28/15--16:01: _Child migrants to A...
- 03/01/15--16:30: _Women, history and ...
- 03/02/15--16:00: _Author Maths, by Y ...
- 03/03/15--22:00: _Historical Fictions...
- 03/04/15--16:30: _Mrs Humphry, Miss P...
- 02/10/15--13:30: _January Competition...
- 02/10/15--17:30: _Dinner with Verones...
- 02/11/15--16:30: _YA - A Double Edged...
- 02/12/15--22:00: _CAN WE TALK ABOUT W...
- 02/17/15--16:30: Life Patterns - Celia Rees
- 02/19/15--16:30: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Marranos - by Ann Swinfen
- 02/20/15--16:30: Serendipity and Ada Leigh by Imogen Robertson
- 02/21/15--16:30: Tears of the Gods by Kate Lord Brown
- 02/22/15--16:30: (HOW) DARE WE WRITE HISTORICAL NOVELS? by Leslie Wilson
- 02/23/15--16:30: LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE: Some thoughts from Elizabeth Chadwick
- 02/24/15--18:30: HISTORY DOESN’T LOOK THE SAME ANY MORE by Eleanor Updale
- 02/25/15--16:01: A potted history of French Algeria, Carol Drinkwater
- 02/26/15--16:30: Emma Homan, painted by John Bradley, observed by Louisa Young
- 02/28/15--00:23: All About Ida, by Clare Mulley
- 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.
- 02/28/15--16:01: Child migrants to Australia by Rosemary Hayes
- 03/02/15--16:00: Author Maths, by Y S Lee
- 03/03/15--22:00: Historical Fictions, Fictional Histories - by Katherine Langrish
- 03/04/15--16:30: Mrs Humphry, Miss Post and the Last Word on Bananas - Joan Lennon
- 02/10/15--13:30: January Competition winners
- 02/10/15--17:30: Dinner with Veronese, by Laurie Graham
- 02/11/15--16:30: YA - A Double Edged Sword? by Tanya Landman
|Quilt, Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Centre, Lampeter|
|Stitch and Write American Museum, Bath|
|Jen Jones “Early to Bed” Exhibition, Welsh Quilt Centre, Lampeter|
|Shirt of a Lad - Julia Griffiths-Jones|
|Barbara Crowther and her daughter, Georgia Leith|
David Sillitoe for the Guardian
|David Sillitoe for the Guardian|
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.
|Sir Francis Walsingham|
The first well organised secret service in
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 England at 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. Paris
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 Laneto 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 a 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 . 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 would mean, not only for the queen but for her Protestant subjects, by this time the majority of the population. England
There was another community living in
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. London
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. 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 Spain , where at first they were more or less tolerated, until Spanish influence increased. In 1580, Portugal Spain seized , bringing with it the Inquisition and its elaborately staged autos-da-fé for the burning of heretics and the scourging of ‘penitents’. Portugal
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 , 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 London by Henry VIII, and Aemilia was one of the next generation, who was certainly Christian. England
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
. All three were wealthy men. The first two were graduates in medicine from the London 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 . 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. College of Physicians
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
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. London
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 . Thus it was that these trading networks came to serve a second purpose, as a route for intelligence pouring into Walsingham’s France office. 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. London
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
, 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. Coimbra
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.
And what would happen to the Marranos, with Walsingham gone? Ah, well, that too is another story.
|Churchyard of St Laurence (c) Michael Armitage|
|(c) Michael Armitage|
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.
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|
|Gilbert Marshal, son of William Marshal, comes a cropper at a tournament.|
Wikipedia. Matthew Paris 13thc
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|
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3. a person who describes or depicts in words.
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.
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:
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)
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.’
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
(Mary Hoffman is still away but in a different place)
|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).|
|The US/Canadian cover (Candlewick Press)|
|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 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.
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'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.
The winners of Robyn Cadwallader's The Anchoress are:
Spade and Dagger
You can get your prizes by sending your land address to Kate McQuaid: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q. Do you know why you have been called here?
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.
|Mark Rylance with director, Peter Kosminsky (Radio Times)|
|Anne Boleyn plus PA (Daily Mail)|
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|
|Lewis's Henry VIII|
|Rhys Meyer's Henry VIII|