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    We hear so much about the hatchet jobs, the insults, the meanness and jealousy. Only today on Facebook one author was complaining about another calling him a ladypart, and a journalist was having the vapours in her misunderstanding of John Crace's satires in the Guardian - how dare anybody be mean about the sainted Robert MacFarlane?  Pah. I wish everybody would just be nice. Well, I kind of do, until I check the magnificent, virtuosic rudeness writers can produce for each other. 
    So today I offer you another Tiny Quiz. It comes in two parts: Insults and Compliments.

    Who said this about who? They're all by writers, of writers. 



    1) 'Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.'
    2) 'I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.'
    3) 'Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.'
    4) 'It took me days to go through it, gingerly, a page at a time, and blushing with embarrassment for him every ridiculous sentence of the way. How can they let him do it?'
    5) 'I don’t think XX was very good in bed.'
    6) 'I cannot abide XX’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches.'
    7) 'A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.'
    8) 'A great cow full of ink.'

    9) 'I suppose half the time X  just shoved down anything that came into his head.'

    10)  'X  is famous, not XXX (its author). XXX is an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.'

    11) 'X was a drug addict. XX was an alcoholic. XXX was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. XXXX took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire, then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized, anyhow. XXXXX killed himself. XXXXXX was accused of incest. Do you still want to a writer -and if so, why?'

    Ach well. Let's change channels to the happy dance of appreciation and positivity -  
    Two: Who said these wonderful things, and about who or what?


    1) 'She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book'

    2 'My favourite piece of information is that X, brother of XX and XXX, died standing up leaning against a mantlepiece, in order to prove it could be done.'

    3) 'If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'xxxxxx' is worth any number of old ladies.'

    4)  'XXXs aren’t made in the way that babies are: they are made like pyramids, There’s some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty, time consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison.'

    5)  'As a young child I wanted to be an XX because XXs were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.'


    Why was it so much harder to find compliments? I wonder. 



    ANSWERS- Insults:

    1) D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce 
    2) Mark Twain on Jane Austen
    3) Evelyn Waugh on Proust
    4) Elizabeth Bishop on Catcher in the Rye
    5) Auden on Browning
    6) Nabokov on Conrad
    7) Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound
    8) Gustave Flaubert on George Sand
    9) Wodehouse on Shakespeare
    10) Nabokov on Nabokov
    11) Bennet Cerf on Coleridge, Poe, Marlowe, Pope, Chatterton and Byron.

    Compliments

    1) Hemingway on Beryl Markham
    2) Douglas Adams on Bramwell Bronte, brother of Charlotte and Emily
    3) William Faulkner on Ode to a Grecian Urn
    4)  Flaubert on Books
    5) William Burroughs on Writers



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    Sporting history will be made this month when for the first time, on 11 April 2015, women will row in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the same terms, and on the same waters, as men.

    Although held intermittently since 1927, until recently the women’s race has been seen as the rather feeble younger sister of the famous men’s race. However this year the two women’s teams will follow the same tough 4.2 mile (6.8km) course on the Tideway - the powerfully tidal stretch of the Thames in London - from Putney to Mortlake, rather than the separate 1.25 mile (2km) stretch of the calm waters of Henley to which they have previously been relegated.


    Newnham College Cambridge crew, 1919
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    What has made this possible is not, of course, a sudden increase in female interest, fitness, strength or ability. Despite romantic images of ladies lolling their fingers in rivers as they are rowed upstream by strapping young men, women have in fact always enjoyed an active role on the water. The subject of my first biography, Eglantyne Jebb, the future founder of the charity Save the Children, was passionate about rowing on the Isis when she was a student at Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall in the 1890s, and she was a woman who regularly played hockey and fencing, and rode horses and bicycles - on one occasion with such vigour that she was cautioned by the police.

    Eglantyne was too early to participate in competitive rowing, as female Oxbridge rowing crews only started to compete against each other in 1927, provoking endless abuse from male and female spectators along with claims that the race was unfeminine and bad for female health. The first race between the Oxford University Boat Club and Newnham College, Cambridge, was held on the Isis. Since the two crews were not permitted on the river at the same time, they had to be judged separately on 'time and style’. Inevitably objections were still raised and, according to The Times, ‘large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath’.


    Miss Pomphrett, 1937 OUWBC cox with the Francombe Cup
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    It was only in 1935 that the race became a direct contest over a half mile (1000 yard) stretch of the Isis, the Camb or, just once, on the Tideway at Barnes. Betty Francombe, who had progressed from stoker to coach of the Oxford women's team, donated the cup, which is still being presented.


    The 1942 Cambridge crew
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org)

    In the mid-1950s however, drama struck when the Oxford crew went over a weir during training the day before the race and, as a result, were banned from the river. Funding evaporated overnight, the women's boat clubs almost sank from sight, and no more women's races would be held for almost ten years.

    It was two Oxford engineering students who revived the women's races, still in the face of open hostility, in the early 1960s. At first the crews had to fight even to take part in the inter-college ‘bumps’ races but, supported by a college Canon who enthusiastically coached the team he called the ‘Perspiring Persephones’ or ‘Swetty Bettys’, they had an impressive run of success. Despite being branded, ‘a ghastly sight’, and even ‘an anatomical impossibility’, the race now became an annual fixture, moving to the Thames at Henley in the 1970s.

    Rowing has recently been gaining enormous popularity as a sport among women, and British rowers are world class. At the 2012 Olympics, Britain topped the medal table for female rowing with four golds, and an impressive nine medals overall. Nevertheless the press still managed to send mixed messages. Britain's most successful rower, Katherine Grainger, who claimed gold after three consecutive silvers, was reported as having finally shaken off the nickname, ‘the bridesmaid of rowing’, and more coverage focused on her dreams of being introduced to David Beckham now that she had won gold. At the time she had been a world champion since 2000, and held a law degree, a master’s in medical law, and was working on a doctorate on the science of homicide which she has now achieved.


    Cath Bishop (L), Katherine Grainger (R)
    winning silver at the Athens Olympic Games 2004
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    While British women were leading the world at the Olympics, there was still little support for the sport at home however. The women’s Oxford and Cambridge teams have faced persistent lack of media interest, funding, and access to professional facilities. Until recently, the female crew even had to pay their own train fares to the rowing lake, while the men were driven in branded mini-buses. Now however, the women have won the support and sponsorship of a London based company. Shocked to discover that they had not had any commercial sponsorship previously, Helen Morrissey, the female CEO of Newton Investment Management, felt that simply putting the company’s name on the women’s shirts was not enough; she wanted to ‘influence the evolution of the event’, and has lent her support to campaigns for more recognition and investment in female rowing.

    Hopefully 2015 will prove to be a turning point. ‘It means a huge amount to have the boat races coming together on the Tideway’, rowing World Champion Cath Bishop, now chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, says. For her, the two crews, their sponsors and supporters, this is about putting the female rowers on ‘the same stage as the men’, and finally bringing parity and equality to the boat race. I think Eglantyne Jebb, Betty Francombe, and the other female rowing pioneers would have been delighted.


    The Men and Women's Blue Boats weigh-in together on 19 March 2015.
    The Cambridge mens crew and women's crew topped the scales.
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    The cherry on the cake is that this year the BBC will be covering the women’s boat race live, as part of the same flagship national sporting event as the men’s race, to be broadcast to 200 countries worldwide. Commentator Clare Baldwin has also decided to cover the women's race rather than the Grand National, scheduled for the same day, in the hopes that the equal billing being given to the female crews will have a 'ripple effect all across society, business and sport'.

    ‘I’m really hopeful that when people see the women rowing across that same course, on the same day, with the same buzz and excitement around them,’ sponsor Helena Morrissey says, ‘it will make people stop and think…’ History is being made on the Thames in two weeks time, and whether you back Oxford or Cambridge, I hope you will support this watershed moment.


    c. Clare Mulley
    With thanks to Lucy Ward

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    Photo credit: David Gwinnutt.

    A while ago my friend Patrick Gale, who I met at a reading a million years ago, when I was a tiny newbie and he was a glamorous experienced well-known writer, mentioned an ancestor of his, Harry, who had had to go to Canada at the start of the 20th century, and it wasn't clear why, or who had made him. Nothing gets us going like a family mystery, and his mother's Cowboy Grandpa, who fought Indians, built log cabins, slaughtered bears with his bear hands and so on, was a perfect one. Plains Cree garments and bearskin mittens in the dressing up box backed up the tales. And many years later, Patrick came across a little handwritten memoir, from which he hoped he might learn why his grandmother had been brought up by aunts and uncles after her own mother's death, and why his great grandfather was never spoken of.
    Well, he found out all sorts of things: that Harry and his brother had married two sisters, that his great-grandmother had been in love with another man at the time of the wedding; that some family members were rather controlling. A fortune was inherited but money ran short, the baby was born, and then Harry was obliged - but why? - to head out to the wild wastes of Canada. And why without his wife or child? And why, after his wife's premature death, was their daughter not sent to join him, nor even encouraged to keep in touch with him? And when Harry visited the UK in the fifties, why was no bond  kindled? Why, as an old man, did he return alone to Canada?
    What novelist could resist? What Patrick did with this half-formed tale was to find out all the facts - he took a long research trip to Canada and found Harry's homestead, still a working farm, near the town of Winter, now a ghost town. But what he really needed was the emotional heart of the story - the why. The one he found was simple, completely believable and utterly tragic. If Harry were gay, everything falls into place: the secrecy, the shame, the bloody old-fashioned Englishness of it all.


    HarryCane

        Harry at the time of his marriage, and
       below, in 1953, with Patrick's mother,
       grandmother and sister

    Cowboy Grandpa

    As somebody once said, 'There'd be no skeletons in closets if we didn't put them there.' Patrick takes out the skeleton of his great grandfather and gives him, in A Place called Winter, a terrifying and profoundly sympathetic story which makes the modern person gasp with gratitude that we don't live then, while having to acknowledge that actually, across our modern world, there are many places where things are no better now at all. Patrick calls it a cross between Maurice and Brokeback Mountain - but like all of Patrick's novels it has a complex and understanding web of human relationships, and alongside the love story, three very different women help Harry to really learn who and what he is as a man. I hugely recommend taking a look for yourselves. You could start with the two excerpts below.


    London
    From Jermyn Street Harry wandered down through St James’s to the park and then up on to the Strand. He went into a chemist’s shop and bought a small bottle of laudanum and, because it looked alarming on its own, a packet of blackcurrant pastilles in a pretty tin. He leant against a shopfront, uncorked the bottle and sniffed the contents, which smelled of alcohol and cinnamon, then remembered the stuff had to be taken in water. There was a Lyon’s corner shop nearby, so he went in there and asked for a pot of tea and a glass of water to go with it. Experimentally he added just the recommended number of drops to the water and knocked them back.
    It tasted bitter, rather unpleasant, but it was only right that death should. Given time and the right space in which to do it – a quiet corner of a park, perhaps – he could imagine tipping in the whole bottle and gulping it down. How much worse would it taste? And did it matter, since he’d be dying by then?
    A current of warmth began to surge through him to the top of his head, and suddenly everything seemed to slow down, the bustle of horses and buses in the street, the chatter of people and clatter of china and cutlery at the tables around him. It seemed as though all the joints in his body relaxed, every ache, even the memory of how an ache felt, lifted away. He could quite easily have lain his head on the table before him and fallen asleep.
    Then he noticed a crowd on the pavement opposite. They were milling around the window displays of a place that clearly had been a shop but now, instead of a shopkeeper’s name, announced CANADIAN EMIGRATION in large letters. Curious, doing his best not to slur his words, he paid for the tea, left the laudanum bottle behind, merely smiling at the nippy who called after him holding it up, and crossed the Strand for a closer look.
    It took him a while to press through the crowd. There was a model of a farm – a pretty wooden house with a veranda and gingham curtains – surrounded by an ingeniously simulated field of golden wheat, and above it an announcement he could not quite believe, of free land. One hundred and sixty acres could be had, it said, for nothing but three years’ partial residency on them and what sounded like minimal work. He read all he could of both window displays – the second had a similar announcement above a model train encircling a placid herd of identical cows – then pushed inside, queued to speak to a clerk and was sent away with a brightly coloured leaflet about homesteading in the Last Best West. It gave advice about shipping lines that sailed to Halifax from Liverpool and a list of outfitters who could equip him for the adventure. One of these was at the other end of the Strand, near the Savoy, as was an agency for the shipping lines.
    The outfitter, already used to such enquiries, handed him a list that was remarkably like those he and Jack had to tick off when packing for school. Dress suit, he read. Best tweed suit. Tennis suit. One cloth suit of ‘leather suiting’ and extra trousers for same. Three suits hard in wear. Cord trousers two pair. Ulster coat. Pea jacket. Mackintosh. Dressing gown (useful as extra warm garment in extremis).
    Flannel shirts twelve. White shirts two. Flannel pyjamas four. Winter and summer drawers – four pair apiece. Four vests. Twenty-four pair socks. Six collars. A cholera belt. An India rubber bath. Portmanteau for cabin. White cravats and cuffs. Cardigan. Two jerseys (Guernsey knit for endurance). Twelve pocket handkerchiefs. Six Turkish towels. Waterproof sheet (large and of best quality). Pair large blankets. Rug. Six pair dress gloves. Three pair hedging and ditching gloves. Two pair Canada mittens. A housewife with buttons, needles etc. including saddlery needles and waxed thread. One pair boots. One pair high boots. Dress shoes. Unnailed shoes. Slippers. Ambulance braces. Helmet of Jaeger wool.
    He had absolutely no idea how Canadian mittens might differ from the English variety and was faintly alarmed at the prospect of a cholera belt, whatever that might be, but reading the list evoked the adventure pleasantly even before it was under way.


    Canada
    As summer turned to glorious autumn, Harry bought himself a gun and learnt to shoot rabbit and duck, which Jørgensen showed him how to prepare for the kitchen, and his wife and Annie how to cook. He had worried that Jørgensen might renege on their handshake and ask him to move on with the coming of winter, not wanting an extra mouth to feed when there was less for a hired hand to do about the place, but his fears were groundless. Jørgensen still made good use of him every day. Until the snows came, there remained ditches to keep clear, fences to mend, and winter supplies to collect and store. And once snow lay thick around the place – shoulder deep or more where it blew into drifts – the animals still had to be fed and bedded in the barns, and ice melted for them so that they could drink. There was dung to be forked from the barns before it froze like rock, and logs to be piled for the kitchen stove. And of course there was always snow to shovel, snow of a texture and depth he would not have thought possible. As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze. Just once Harry lingered outside as a blizzard got under way, amazed at the scale and savagery of it, but was furiously dragged indoors by Jørgensen and given a lecture about losing fingers and toes to frostbite and the impossibility of getting a doctor out until spring.
    As winter progressed, he came to understand the hunger with which Goody had eyed his meagre library when she first saw it. He had soon read everything he had with him, rereading much of it, and fell to trading books with the Jørgensens. With so little choice of entertainment and such long nights amid the stupefying silence and snow, far from any neighbours, the usual demarcations of books for women and books for men, books for children and books for their elders became irrelevant before the imperative of diversion. He read Jane Austen, which he had never thought to do before, and Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Black Beauty as well as Jack London, Fennimore Cooper and Hans Christian Andersen. He even found himself, just like his employers, slowly turning the pages of the latest Eaton’s catalogue, which displayed everything from wooden house kits (up to eight bedrooms large) to cream separators, from guns to underwear, the latter modelled by coyly simpering women. (Men’s underwear, he noted, was listed but unmodelled, the men in the catalogues rarely appearing in anything less than evening dress.)
    Winter had come on them suddenly, whereas spring arrived by slow, unconvincing degrees, far later than he’d have expected. What Jørgensen called chinooks, warm winds from the western mountains, arrived and began to shrink the snow into patches of dirty ice rather than melting the lot overnight the way warmer weather would have done at home. A thaw was announced with loud cracks around the place before it turned all Harry’s laboriously cleared ditches to so many little canals. With the spring melt came a flurry of unexpected visitors, as neighbouring households emerged from the long freeze like so many bears, hungry for news and less familiar faces and other people’s baking. Mrs Jørgensen cursed these visitors, who often arrived at the least convenient moment, when she had her hands full of chores or nothing but leftovers to set before them, but she welcomed them, too, being as hungry for faces and talk as anyone else.



    Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight in 1962, raised in Winchester, where he studied at the Pilgrims choir school and Winchester College; he then read English at New College Oxford. He lives on his husband’s farm near Land’s End and is a keen gardener and cellist. He is a director of the Charles Causley Trust and the Cornish arts and spirituality charity, Endelienta. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is secretary of the Penzance Orchestral Society.

    He has written fifteen novels, including the bestselling Rough Music and Notes from an Exhibition. His fourteenth novel, A Perfectly Good Man, won a Green Carnation award and was a favourite recommendation among Guardian readers in the paper’s end of year round-up.. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, is a Radio 2 Book Club selection. He is currently writing an original, gay-themed, part-historical drama for BBC1 called Man in an Orange Shirt, and adapting Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for BBC2.




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    My brother Graham inherited a kilt from our father's uncle Andrew. It was made to last forever, and so it would have done if it hadn't been for the moths which turned it eventually into a fine lace.

    Uncle Andrew had his kilt tailored for him when he was transferred from the Highland Light Infantry into the Black Watch in 1916. The kilt was meant to be a practical garment, keeping the warmth in and the water and mud of the trenches out. He was probably wearing it when he wrote this short letter to my ten year old father, on 24th April 1916. (I've transcribed it below.)


                                                                              5thBlack Watch          
                                                                              Brit Expeditionary Force
                                                                                   France                                                                                                 

                                                                                       24/4/16

     

    My Dear Clelland,
                Very many thanks for your wee note from 2 Balmoral Place. I have just had a letter from your Father. So convey to him my thanks. I came out the trenches at 1 am this morning and arrived here about 4.30 a.m. after 4 days and 4 nights in. We had to find our way back, over unknown ground by compass. I am now in a French Farm so am very comfy. Well Clelland write me a letter whenever you feel inclined.

                Give my love to all at Lurland not forgetting yourself.

                            Your affectionate Uncle,

                                        Andrew

    The kilt eventually came to me - or what was left of it. Reluctantly, I took my scissors to it, hoping to salvage some useful bits. It was hard work. The woollen serge was so thick that it was quite hard to cut.

    In the same bag was Uncle Andrew's sporran. I put it aside, and it was only a few months ago that I opened it for the first time. In it I found his compass. Was it the same one he mentions in his letter? I suppose it must have been. On the back is an arrow mark, showing that it was government issue, and below that is the date. 1916.

    Shortly after Andrew wrote this letter, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He can't have had much time to become an experienced pilot, and his plane was lost over the Somme in November 1916. He is buried in the vast military cemetery at Varennes, along with so many thousands of other young men. The inscription reads "Second Lieutenant Andrew Clark Laird, the Black Watch, Attd Royal Flying Corps 22nd November 1916 Aged 22."

    I mistrust the patriotic hoo-ha over the centenary of World War One. It was a horrible, unnecessary, insane massacre of the innocents - and it was a long time ago. I really don't want, ever, to read another novel about the awfulness of trench warfare. I keep my memorials of Uncle Andrew, his letter, his compass and his medals, in a drawer and show them to young relatives from time to time. But I like to think that Uncle Andrew, and the millions who died with him (including my mother's uncle John) would prefer us to look forwards rather than back. Instead of re-imagining old wars in which we were self-righteously victorious, they might have encouraged us, if they'd had the chance, to pay attention to more recent wars for which we the British have been responsible, to do what we can to understand the causes of modern conflicts and fight against the ignorance and prejudice which give rise to lethal hatreds.







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    Hello there. You asked for it so I am attempting it. But I am just skirting the ends of a very unruly topic for an audience that I am patronisingly assuming knows very little. Excuse me. This is a very shallow resume through the Pacific Ocean that is African  hair.  This is a huge topic. Women of every colour have always had to cope with their appearance being something of  importance to society. Women must be careful not to appear too anything, they are judged and judged again. And not just by men and society as a whole, by our sisters, friends and mothers. There is so much prejudice (historical and present day) against natural African hair from the wider world as well as within the Black community itself (and of course that construct does not exist at all.)

    Angela Davis with her radical Afro
    I'm really just touching on things here. There are probably several anthropological studies of how and why and I really would be here all day. But the white community (see, that doesn't exist either) has always been afraid and in awe of the unfettered black woman and her hair and felt happier with it tamed and bludgeoned into as near a facsimile of favoured European hair as possible.

    As a mixed race woman with soft curls the one thing I always knew - old ladies would tell me in the street - was that I had lovely hair - this was before the tyranny of straighteners. Even my Mum knew I had the easier option, she didn't have to learn how to 'do' Afro hair and as a working woman with no time to fuss about she just kept my hair boy short until I was old enough to complain.

    It wasn't really long until secondary school, where my teachers would regularly tell me off for messy hair telling me I looked like 'The Wild Man of Borneo'. Yes, that. Many times.

    But although my hair was frizzy it did mostly hang down. If any of you have observed small black girls in a, say, nursery school, (not these days dressing up boxes routinely contain wigs) you might have noticed them tie long skirts or t-shirts round their heads to make the required, swishy,  'princess hair'. Black tightly curled hair was always described (by white writers) in a derogatory way as 'woolly' or  'wiry'.

    You might not be aware of the massively complicated politics of black hair. Is it right, for example that the only way to get on (be employed) is to apply shit loads of chemicals or tightly woven on extensions to obtain the necessary Michelle Obama straight hair style?  The chemicals in these products have been shown to increase the possibility of fibroids and are highly toxic, the weaves can pull and damage hair growth and cause all sorts of problems.

    You may be aware that Afro hair is different to European or Asian hair, heaps drier for a start. And that years of treatment or wig wearing (many black women of the previous generation to mine had wigs for work and church) could result in real damage.

    You might not know that many employers will not employ black women with natural hair - an Afro, or corn rows or locks. In fact I remember in one of my last proper jobs working in a bookshop in Whitechapel where the head of the arts centre that ran the shop - a lovely white woman told us employees - including the bookshop manager - who had short locks - that she could not abide them, because they looked 'dirty'. Airlines and the US army have banned braided hairstyles when surely these are the neatest going? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27626509 

    You might think that this sort of thing never happens these days.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-31914177


    You might not be aware that there is a movement among young women who rail against it and go natural - this I am happy to say is a thing nowadays with many many You tube channels chronicling the trails of going product free and  sharing information  about natural oils and conditioners to keep their hair healthy.

    If you think I am making much think about those big prize ceremonies, OK, there are much fewer Black actresses on any red carpet, but next time see how many of those actresses wear their hair naturally. The beautiful Lupita Nyong'o  was a trailblazer.
    Lupita Nyong'o

    It has been said by some that when black women refuse to make their hair conform to the European/Western standards it can be seen as dangerous, as a form of defiance. Think of Angela Davies and her Afro.  Society wants us to be something we're not. I am rather pleased there are so many women reclaiming their hair and deciding that they can be themselves rather than spend money and time trying to make themselves acceptable to the wider society.

    And as I said in an earlier post Chris Rock, the American actor has made a rather good film that explores the subject in more depth. It's called Good Hair.

    Catherine Johnson has always been lucky with her hair. She is also writing a film called Relax based on the story of the British company, Dyke and Dryden who first imported chemical hair relaxer into the UK.

    Her next novel is called The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, it's out in July.



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  • 04/14/15--17:30: Beaux on the Stage
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of men sitting on the stage during performances and disrupting the play, and read more about it when I researched my short story, A Night in the Theatre, for our History Girls anthology.
    I'm very far from being an expert on the Restoration period and the theatre (though I would love to learn more) but I understood a few things much better from what I did read.
    So how and why did the Restoration theatre-goers (and later) put up with fine bucks on the stage making a nuisance of themselves and disturbing the action?
    I think the first thing to bear in mind was how different the stage was. It was much bigger and had a huge, wide apron that sloped down towards the audience. So there was more space for this practice than there would be now.
    Secondly, going to the theatre was a more general entertainment experience than just watching the play. It was not generally considered to be a high point for drama. You went for the afternoon, you socialized, you showed off your new clothes, you ate and drank and there were even prostitutes on offer. Not just the actresses, though some of those fell into the trade too, as is general knowledge and no end of displaying of charms and intriguing went on in the dressing rooms, to which 'gentlemen' were admitted.
    Often the men in the pit were so noisy that you couldn't hear the play, let alone the men on the stage itself. Sword fights regularly broke out and everyone else had to scramble for safety.
    For many, the play itself was fairly incidental. But not for everyone, and audience grew steadily more annoyed.
    In the 1700s, a dramatic satire, called Lethe by David Garrick, was performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. There is a wonderful dialogue about beaux on the stage from the point of view of one of them:

    Aesop: How do you spend your evenings?
    Fine Gentleman: I dress in the evening and go generally behind the scenes of both play-houses; not as you may imagine to be diverted with the play, but to intrigue and show myself - I stand upon the stage, talk loud and stare about, - which confounds the actors and disturbs the audience; upon which the galleries, who hate the appearance of one of us, begin to hiss and cry "off off!" while I, undaunted, stamp my foot, so, take snuff with my right hand and smile scornfully - thus. This exasperates the savages, and they attack with vollies of suck'd oranges and half-eaten pippins.
    Aesop: And do you retire?
    Fine Gentleman: Without doubt if I am sober - for orange will stain silk and an apple may disfigure a feature.

    Garrick finally banished spectators from the stage in 1763 - not before time!





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    A couple of weeks ago, I attended a service in this tiny church in the Kent countryside. It's called St Botolph's, and it's in the grounds of Lullingstone Castle. It was a vile day with strong winds, scudding black clouds and heavy showers. Some of the ladies were dressed in wedding-type clothes, with smart dresses, fascinators and high-heeled shoes, which must have sunk into the lawn which had to be crossed to reach the church.



    But we weren't there for a wedding. We were there to witness the installation of a friend of ours, William Alexander, as High Sheriff of Kent. Sheriffs - originally 'shire reeves' or 'scir-gerefa' have existed since Saxon times. (There's one in my book about Alfred the Great, Warrior King - though I have to confess that at the time of writing it, I didn't make the connection between 'shire reeve' and 'sheriff'.) The office of High Sheriff was created in  992, in the time of Aethelred the Unready (or more accurately, the 'Unraed', meaning badly-advised.) By coincidence, I've just been reading about Aethelred. Unready or ill-advised, he certainly wasn't the best of kings, to put it mildly. Perhaps he thought up the idea of having a High Sheriff for each county as a last desperate effort to create a bit of law and order in a country which had, under his rule, become chaotically dangerous.

    Whatever the reason, he created the office - and it's now the oldest secular office under the Crown. Then, the High Sheriff was the chief executive in each shire. He was responsible for administering agriculture and collecting farm rents, as well as for dispensing justice. He could raise the hue-and-cry to hunt down felons, and he could summon - wait for it - the 'posse comitatus': the full power of the shire, to fight in the service of the sovereign. (Who knew sheriffs and posses weren't invented in the Wild West?)

    The office of High Sheriff has changed; many of its powers have been lost since the Middle Ages. But it's not purely ceremonial; lasting for a year, it's an apolitical appointment which brings with it the ability to do a tremendous amount that is useful: to play a supportive role in relation to public sector and voluntary agencies and their efforts in relation to crime reduction and social cohesion.

    So, back to the little church. We all waited expectantly. Trumpets sounded. Then along came the procession - which was just about as long as the church itself. There was the present High Sheriff . There was the Chief Constable. There was the Lord-Lieutenant. There were two judges, one of whom, in a long wig, robe and knee breeches, looked as if he'd walked straight out of a Dickens novel. There were chaplains and church-wardens. And there was the High Sheriff Elect, looking a picture in black velvet and snow white ruffles, with silver buckles on his shoes and a sword at his side. Marvellous!

    William Alexander, lavender farmer and High Sheriff of Kent

    William had to swear a magnificent oath full of sonorous phrases, the gist of which was: 'In all things I will well and truly behave myself in my office.' He was presented with his badge of office, and then he spoke about what he hopes to achieve in his year - because, aside from all the ceremonial things he or she has to do, a high sheriff these days is expected to take on a project of some kind, usually to do with the justice system. William is interested in the rehabilitation of prisoners, particularly focusing on improving literacy and educational standards. (Sadly, I don't think he'll be allowed to charge all over Kent leading a hue-and-cry or a posse comitatus. But you never know.)

    He also read extracts from the Magna Carta (of whose 63 clauses, 27 relate to the office of Sheriff) and from the Charter of the Forest. I'd never heard of this before, but apparently it was much more to do with the rights of the common man, as distinct from the rights of the nobles.

    I'm fascinated by the Dark Ages anyway, and this felt like a visceral link back to an England (scarcely then an England, let alone a Britain) of over a thousand years ago. It felt archaic, but still important. It was like being a tiny part of a long, long story. It was a privilege to be there.



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    The story I’m working on needs a character removed for a good while. Death is not possible, as I need an eventual re-union.  So I introduced a nasty planting of stolen goods, and that was that. She was off to her temporary destination.

    Idly, I’d imagined a bit of “transportation” - she’s a sturdy, determined individual– but then came a big awkward fact. 

    During the time of my novel, transportation was no longer happening. The colonies were no longer willing to accept Britain’s inconvenient criminals. Please note that I don’t take the subject of transportation lightly – just the plotting pieces.



    So I was stuck. What can happen to my character? I don’t want to keep that part of the plot “floating” any longer, yet I couldn’t picture what would happen. She wouldn’t be stowed in a hulk. I didn’t see her, somehow, in the solitary of  a Panopticon prison like Millbank. I needed to be able to imagine these small scenes and make them part of the story building.



    So today I visited Ripon’s Liberty Prison Museum - above - , and feel she’s in for much oakum-picking. She will have the hard task of unravelling old, tarry rope into “corkscrews”, then rolling the rope across her thighs until it unravels, then pulling it against the iron hook at her waist until it becomes soft enough to be used to caulk the seams and boards of wooden sailing ships.





    The ex-policeman at the desk also clarified the local sentencing process so I can now sort out a couple of swift scenes, and i have the name of someone to go to if I need to check more details.  Today's visit helped me un-knot my own knotty problem, although I’ll still keep checking on the facts.

    Writers often go to much greater lengths to stand fiction on fact, to create a realistic world. 

    For example, I’ve just read Lindsay Davis’s first two novels about Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, complete with maps of ancient Rome so that readers and historians can trace the locations.  Or were the maps as much for the writer herself? Mapping a location – real or imaginary - is a useful writing technique.

    Then tonight I’ll be finishing Christopher Fowler’s “A Full Dark House”, which is a quirky, many-bodied crime thriller, with Bryant and May, detectives with the Peculiar Crimes Unit. The novel's strength, so far, has been the darkly powerful view of the London of the Blitz, especially the Palace Theatre, and a host of other details. 


    Bryant, observing St Paul's ruined dome and the fiery sky beyond, mentions there's another model of St Paul's elsewhere in London. Do you know where it is? I’m delighted - so far - to find this book is the start of a long series. I feel as if this is a man who is having fun with his research.
     
     I know there are many more novels that offer places from the past to writers and to readers. I wonder what setting you’ve enjoyed writing? Or what novels have offered you the best-realised settings?

    Penny Dolan

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    Sporting history will be made this month when for the first time, on 11 April 2015, women will row in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the same terms, and on the same waters, as men.

    Although held intermittently since 1927, until recently the women’s race has been seen as the rather feeble younger sister of the famous men’s race. However this year the two women’s teams will follow the same tough 4.2 mile (6.8km) course on the Tideway - the powerfully tidal stretch of the Thames in London - from Putney to Mortlake, rather than the separate 1.25 mile (2km) stretch of the calm waters of Henley to which they have previously been relegated.


    Newnham College Cambridge crew, 1919
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    What has made this possible is not, of course, a sudden increase in female interest, fitness, strength or ability. Despite romantic images of ladies lolling their fingers in rivers as they are rowed upstream by strapping young men, women have in fact always enjoyed an active role on the water. The subject of my first biography, Eglantyne Jebb, the future founder of the charity Save the Children, was passionate about rowing on the Isis when she was a student at Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall in the 1890s, and she was a woman who regularly played hockey and fencing, and rode horses and bicycles - on one occasion with such vigour that she was cautioned by the police.

    Eglantyne was too early to participate in competitive rowing, as female Oxbridge rowing crews only started to compete against each other in 1927, provoking endless abuse from male and female spectators along with claims that the race was unfeminine and bad for female health. The first race between the Oxford University Boat Club and Newnham College, Cambridge, was held on the Isis. Since the two crews were not permitted on the river at the same time, they had to be judged separately on 'time and style’. Inevitably objections were still raised and, according to The Times, ‘large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath’.


    Miss Pomphrett, 1937 OUWBC cox with the Francombe Cup
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    It was only in 1935 that the race became a direct contest over a half mile (1000 yard) stretch of the Isis, the Camb or, just once, on the Tideway at Barnes. Betty Francombe, who had progressed from stoker to coach of the Oxford women's team, donated the cup, which is still being presented.


    The 1942 Cambridge crew
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org)

    In the mid-1950s however, drama struck when the Oxford crew went over a weir during training the day before the race and, as a result, were banned from the river. Funding evaporated overnight, the women's boat clubs almost sank from sight, and no more women's races would be held for almost ten years.

    It was two Oxford engineering students who revived the women's races, still in the face of open hostility, in the early 1960s. At first the crews had to fight even to take part in the inter-college ‘bumps’ races but, supported by a college Canon who enthusiastically coached the team he called the ‘Perspiring Persephones’ or ‘Swetty Bettys’, they had an impressive run of success. Despite being branded, ‘a ghastly sight’, and even ‘an anatomical impossibility’, the race now became an annual fixture, moving to the Thames at Henley in the 1970s.

    Rowing has recently been gaining enormous popularity as a sport among women, and British rowers are world class. At the 2012 Olympics, Britain topped the medal table for female rowing with four golds, and an impressive nine medals overall. Nevertheless the press still managed to send mixed messages. Britain's most successful rower, Katherine Grainger, who claimed gold after three consecutive silvers, was reported as having finally shaken off the nickname, ‘the bridesmaid of rowing’, and more coverage focused on her dreams of being introduced to David Beckham now that she had won gold. At the time she had been a world champion since 2000, and held a law degree, a master’s in medical law, and was working on a doctorate on the science of homicide which she has now achieved.


    Cath Bishop (L), Katherine Grainger (R)
    winning silver at the Athens Olympic Games 2004
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    While British women were leading the world at the Olympics, there was still little support for the sport at home however. The women’s Oxford and Cambridge teams have faced persistent lack of media interest, funding, and access to professional facilities. Until recently, the female crew even had to pay their own train fares to the rowing lake, while the men were driven in branded mini-buses. Now however, the women have won the support and sponsorship of a London based company. Shocked to discover that they had not had any commercial sponsorship previously, Helen Morrissey, the female CEO of Newton Investment Management, felt that simply putting the company’s name on the women’s shirts was not enough; she wanted to ‘influence the evolution of the event’, and has lent her support to campaigns for more recognition and investment in female rowing.

    Hopefully 2015 will prove to be a turning point. ‘It means a huge amount to have the boat races coming together on the Tideway’, rowing World Champion Cath Bishop, now chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, says. For her, the two crews, their sponsors and supporters, this is about putting the female rowers on ‘the same stage as the men’, and finally bringing parity and equality to the boat race. I think Eglantyne Jebb, Betty Francombe, and the other female rowing pioneers would have been delighted.


    The Men and Women's Blue Boats weigh-in together on 19 March 2015.
    The Cambridge mens crew and women's crew topped the scales.
    (courtesy of theboatraces.org

    The cherry on the cake is that this year the BBC will be covering the women’s boat race live, as part of the same flagship national sporting event as the men’s race, to be broadcast to 200 countries worldwide. Commentator Clare Baldwin has also decided to cover the women's race rather than the Grand National, scheduled for the same day, in the hopes that the equal billing being given to the female crews will have a 'ripple effect all across society, business and sport'.

    ‘I’m really hopeful that when people see the women rowing across that same course, on the same day, with the same buzz and excitement around them,’ sponsor Helena Morrissey says, ‘it will make people stop and think…’ History is being made on the Thames in two weeks time, and whether you back Oxford or Cambridge, I hope you will support this watershed moment.


    c. Clare Mulley
    With thanks to Lucy Ward

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    Photo credit: David Gwinnutt.

    A while ago my friend Patrick Gale, who I met at a reading a million years ago, when I was a tiny newbie and he was a glamorous experienced well-known writer, mentioned an ancestor of his, Harry, who had had to go to Canada at the start of the 20th century, and it wasn't clear why, or who had made him. Nothing gets us going like a family mystery, and his mother's Cowboy Grandpa, who fought Indians, built log cabins, slaughtered bears with his bear hands and so on, was a perfect one. Plains Cree garments and bearskin mittens in the dressing up box backed up the tales. And many years later, Patrick came across a little handwritten memoir, from which he hoped he might learn why his grandmother had been brought up by aunts and uncles after her own mother's death, and why his great grandfather was never spoken of.
    Well, he found out all sorts of things: that Harry and his brother had married two sisters, that his great-grandmother had been in love with another man at the time of the wedding; that some family members were rather controlling. A fortune was inherited but money ran short, the baby was born, and then Harry was obliged - but why? - to head out to the wild wastes of Canada. And why without his wife or child? And why, after his wife's premature death, was their daughter not sent to join him, nor even encouraged to keep in touch with him? And when Harry visited the UK in the fifties, why was no bond  kindled? Why, as an old man, did he return alone to Canada?
    What novelist could resist? What Patrick did with this half-formed tale was to find out all the facts - he took a long research trip to Canada and found Harry's homestead, still a working farm, near the town of Winter, now a ghost town. But what he really needed was the emotional heart of the story - the why. The one he found was simple, completely believable and utterly tragic. If Harry were gay, everything falls into place: the secrecy, the shame, the bloody old-fashioned Englishness of it all.


    HarryCane

        Harry at the time of his marriage, and
       below, in 1953, with Patrick's mother,
       grandmother and sister

    Cowboy Grandpa

    As somebody once said, 'There'd be no skeletons in closets if we didn't put them there.' Patrick takes out the skeleton of his great grandfather and gives him, in A Place called Winter, a terrifying and profoundly sympathetic story which makes the modern person gasp with gratitude that we don't live then, while having to acknowledge that actually, across our modern world, there are many places where things are no better now at all. Patrick calls it a cross between Maurice and Brokeback Mountain - but like all of Patrick's novels it has a complex and understanding web of human relationships, and alongside the love story, three very different women help Harry to really learn who and what he is as a man. I hugely recommend taking a look for yourselves. You could start with the two excerpts below.


    London
    From Jermyn Street Harry wandered down through St James’s to the park and then up on to the Strand. He went into a chemist’s shop and bought a small bottle of laudanum and, because it looked alarming on its own, a packet of blackcurrant pastilles in a pretty tin. He leant against a shopfront, uncorked the bottle and sniffed the contents, which smelled of alcohol and cinnamon, then remembered the stuff had to be taken in water. There was a Lyon’s corner shop nearby, so he went in there and asked for a pot of tea and a glass of water to go with it. Experimentally he added just the recommended number of drops to the water and knocked them back.
    It tasted bitter, rather unpleasant, but it was only right that death should. Given time and the right space in which to do it – a quiet corner of a park, perhaps – he could imagine tipping in the whole bottle and gulping it down. How much worse would it taste? And did it matter, since he’d be dying by then?
    A current of warmth began to surge through him to the top of his head, and suddenly everything seemed to slow down, the bustle of horses and buses in the street, the chatter of people and clatter of china and cutlery at the tables around him. It seemed as though all the joints in his body relaxed, every ache, even the memory of how an ache felt, lifted away. He could quite easily have lain his head on the table before him and fallen asleep.
    Then he noticed a crowd on the pavement opposite. They were milling around the window displays of a place that clearly had been a shop but now, instead of a shopkeeper’s name, announced CANADIAN EMIGRATION in large letters. Curious, doing his best not to slur his words, he paid for the tea, left the laudanum bottle behind, merely smiling at the nippy who called after him holding it up, and crossed the Strand for a closer look.
    It took him a while to press through the crowd. There was a model of a farm – a pretty wooden house with a veranda and gingham curtains – surrounded by an ingeniously simulated field of golden wheat, and above it an announcement he could not quite believe, of free land. One hundred and sixty acres could be had, it said, for nothing but three years’ partial residency on them and what sounded like minimal work. He read all he could of both window displays – the second had a similar announcement above a model train encircling a placid herd of identical cows – then pushed inside, queued to speak to a clerk and was sent away with a brightly coloured leaflet about homesteading in the Last Best West. It gave advice about shipping lines that sailed to Halifax from Liverpool and a list of outfitters who could equip him for the adventure. One of these was at the other end of the Strand, near the Savoy, as was an agency for the shipping lines.
    The outfitter, already used to such enquiries, handed him a list that was remarkably like those he and Jack had to tick off when packing for school. Dress suit, he read. Best tweed suit. Tennis suit. One cloth suit of ‘leather suiting’ and extra trousers for same. Three suits hard in wear. Cord trousers two pair. Ulster coat. Pea jacket. Mackintosh. Dressing gown (useful as extra warm garment in extremis).
    Flannel shirts twelve. White shirts two. Flannel pyjamas four. Winter and summer drawers – four pair apiece. Four vests. Twenty-four pair socks. Six collars. A cholera belt. An India rubber bath. Portmanteau for cabin. White cravats and cuffs. Cardigan. Two jerseys (Guernsey knit for endurance). Twelve pocket handkerchiefs. Six Turkish towels. Waterproof sheet (large and of best quality). Pair large blankets. Rug. Six pair dress gloves. Three pair hedging and ditching gloves. Two pair Canada mittens. A housewife with buttons, needles etc. including saddlery needles and waxed thread. One pair boots. One pair high boots. Dress shoes. Unnailed shoes. Slippers. Ambulance braces. Helmet of Jaeger wool.
    He had absolutely no idea how Canadian mittens might differ from the English variety and was faintly alarmed at the prospect of a cholera belt, whatever that might be, but reading the list evoked the adventure pleasantly even before it was under way.


    Canada
    As summer turned to glorious autumn, Harry bought himself a gun and learnt to shoot rabbit and duck, which Jørgensen showed him how to prepare for the kitchen, and his wife and Annie how to cook. He had worried that Jørgensen might renege on their handshake and ask him to move on with the coming of winter, not wanting an extra mouth to feed when there was less for a hired hand to do about the place, but his fears were groundless. Jørgensen still made good use of him every day. Until the snows came, there remained ditches to keep clear, fences to mend, and winter supplies to collect and store. And once snow lay thick around the place – shoulder deep or more where it blew into drifts – the animals still had to be fed and bedded in the barns, and ice melted for them so that they could drink. There was dung to be forked from the barns before it froze like rock, and logs to be piled for the kitchen stove. And of course there was always snow to shovel, snow of a texture and depth he would not have thought possible. As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze. Just once Harry lingered outside as a blizzard got under way, amazed at the scale and savagery of it, but was furiously dragged indoors by Jørgensen and given a lecture about losing fingers and toes to frostbite and the impossibility of getting a doctor out until spring.
    As winter progressed, he came to understand the hunger with which Goody had eyed his meagre library when she first saw it. He had soon read everything he had with him, rereading much of it, and fell to trading books with the Jørgensens. With so little choice of entertainment and such long nights amid the stupefying silence and snow, far from any neighbours, the usual demarcations of books for women and books for men, books for children and books for their elders became irrelevant before the imperative of diversion. He read Jane Austen, which he had never thought to do before, and Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Black Beauty as well as Jack London, Fennimore Cooper and Hans Christian Andersen. He even found himself, just like his employers, slowly turning the pages of the latest Eaton’s catalogue, which displayed everything from wooden house kits (up to eight bedrooms large) to cream separators, from guns to underwear, the latter modelled by coyly simpering women. (Men’s underwear, he noted, was listed but unmodelled, the men in the catalogues rarely appearing in anything less than evening dress.)
    Winter had come on them suddenly, whereas spring arrived by slow, unconvincing degrees, far later than he’d have expected. What Jørgensen called chinooks, warm winds from the western mountains, arrived and began to shrink the snow into patches of dirty ice rather than melting the lot overnight the way warmer weather would have done at home. A thaw was announced with loud cracks around the place before it turned all Harry’s laboriously cleared ditches to so many little canals. With the spring melt came a flurry of unexpected visitors, as neighbouring households emerged from the long freeze like so many bears, hungry for news and less familiar faces and other people’s baking. Mrs Jørgensen cursed these visitors, who often arrived at the least convenient moment, when she had her hands full of chores or nothing but leftovers to set before them, but she welcomed them, too, being as hungry for faces and talk as anyone else.



    Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight in 1962, raised in Winchester, where he studied at the Pilgrims choir school and Winchester College; he then read English at New College Oxford. He lives on his husband’s farm near Land’s End and is a keen gardener and cellist. He is a director of the Charles Causley Trust and the Cornish arts and spirituality charity, Endelienta. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is secretary of the Penzance Orchestral Society.

    He has written fifteen novels, including the bestselling Rough Music and Notes from an Exhibition. His fourteenth novel, A Perfectly Good Man, won a Green Carnation award and was a favourite recommendation among Guardian readers in the paper’s end of year round-up.. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, is a Radio 2 Book Club selection. He is currently writing an original, gay-themed, part-historical drama for BBC1 called Man in an Orange Shirt, and adapting Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for BBC2.




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    My brother Graham inherited a kilt from our father's uncle Andrew. It was made to last forever, and so it would have done if it hadn't been for the moths which turned it eventually into a fine lace.

    Uncle Andrew had his kilt tailored for him when he was transferred from the Highland Light Infantry into the Black Watch in 1916. The kilt was meant to be a practical garment, keeping the warmth in and the water and mud of the trenches out. He was probably wearing it when he wrote this short letter to my ten year old father, on 24th April 1916. (I've transcribed it below.)


                                                                              5thBlack Watch          
                                                                              Brit Expeditionary Force
                                                                                   France                                                                                                 

                                                                                       24/4/16

     

    My Dear Clelland,
                Very many thanks for your wee note from 2 Balmoral Place. I have just had a letter from your Father. So convey to him my thanks. I came out the trenches at 1 am this morning and arrived here about 4.30 a.m. after 4 days and 4 nights in. We had to find our way back, over unknown ground by compass. I am now in a French Farm so am very comfy. Well Clelland write me a letter whenever you feel inclined.

                Give my love to all at Lurland not forgetting yourself.

                            Your affectionate Uncle,

                                        Andrew

    The kilt eventually came to me - or what was left of it. Reluctantly, I took my scissors to it, hoping to salvage some useful bits. It was hard work. The woollen serge was so thick that it was quite hard to cut.

    In the same bag was Uncle Andrew's sporran. I put it aside, and it was only a few months ago that I opened it for the first time. In it I found his compass. Was it the same one he mentions in his letter? I suppose it must have been. On the back is an arrow mark, showing that it was government issue, and below that is the date. 1916.

    Shortly after Andrew wrote this letter, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He can't have had much time to become an experienced pilot, and his plane was lost over the Somme in November 1916. He is buried in the vast military cemetery at Varennes, along with so many thousands of other young men. The inscription reads "Second Lieutenant Andrew Clark Laird, the Black Watch, Attd Royal Flying Corps 22nd November 1916 Aged 22."

    I mistrust the patriotic hoo-ha over the centenary of World War One. It was a horrible, unnecessary, insane massacre of the innocents - and it was a long time ago. I really don't want, ever, to read another novel about the awfulness of trench warfare. I keep my memorials of Uncle Andrew, his letter, his compass and his medals, in a drawer and show them to young relatives from time to time. But I like to think that Uncle Andrew, and the millions who died with him (including my mother's uncle John) would prefer us to look forwards rather than back. Instead of re-imagining old wars in which we were self-righteously victorious, they might have encouraged us, if they'd had the chance, to pay attention to more recent wars for which we the British have been responsible, to do what we can to understand the causes of modern conflicts and fight against the ignorance and prejudice which give rise to lethal hatreds.







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  • 03/30/15--16:01: March Competition
  • We have five copies of Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter to give away to the best answers to the following question:

    "Name another book that re-creates for you the atmosphere of a country in a particular season and say why you chose it."

    Please leave your answers in the Comments section below.

    We regret that our competitions are open to UK residents only

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    No April Fools here - this is no joking matter.


    Here are two splendid volumes written by Elizabeth Norton and published by Amberley Press that will sort you out once and for all about English queens both regnant and consort. Read in conjunction with Helen Castor's splendid She-Wolves and Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters, they will earn a place on many a writer's reference shelves.

    It was a bit of a surprise to find the first book's opening section containing Guinevere but it was headed The Early and Mythical Queens. We start properly with Boudica and the much less well-known Cartimandua. There is no pictorial representation of Boudica (though a subject beloved of 19th century painters and sculptors, there seem to be no contemporary images of her) but I can't guarantee you will never feel the same about her once you read what she did to the women of the Roman settlement in London.

    Queen Bertha in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Norton.
    Queen Bertha (539 - c. 612) was the wife of King Ethelbert of Kent and is important for being credited with bringing Christianity to England. She certainly had Pope Gregory's blessing to try and she managed to convince her husband to be baptised.
    From a thirteenth-century English Manuscript. © Jonathan Reeve
    This much later picture shows a medieval king and queen embracing and I'm hoping that Bertha and Ethelbert handled his conversion as affectionately.

    From Liber Regalis (Coronation Book of Richard II) executed in 1377 or 1378. © Jonathan Reeve



    There seems to be evidence that Richard ll was very attached to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. She was a religious reformer too, ordering an English translation of the Gospels,  and the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. She died, like so many of the English queens consort, before the age of thirty, but not of childbirth. The teenage couple enjoyed a luxurious life together until her death from the plague in 1394 left Richard bereft. His second wife, Isabella of Valois, was a mere child but by all accounts the king was kind to her. The queen in Shakespeare's play is an amalgam of the two.
              
    Elizabeth Woodville. (Ripon Cathedral portrait)                                    

    Shakespeare gave us other queen consorts, including Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward lV, later presented in the fiction of Philippa Gregory as the White Queen. It was a love match - or at least a lust match, with Elizabeth being a widow with two sons when Edward's roving eye lighted on her. She played her hand well, holding out for marriage but the marriage with someone other than an European Royal princess infuriated many of his entourage including the Earl of Warwick. And Elizabeth had a vast family, who gained influential titles and positions.


    Elizabeth of York
    (Ripon Cathedral portrait)

    When the Cousins' War ended with the accession of Henry Tudor, he needed to bolster his claim to the throne by marrying the Lancastrian strain to that of York and he chose Elizabeth of York, oldest daughter of Edward lV and Elizabeth Woodville. She had narrowly escaped being married to her uncle, Richard lll. There have been rumours that she would not have minded this as much as you would think.

    Mary Tudor
    Image courtesy of Ripon Cathedral.


    Sometimes it's hard to remember that the first queen regnant of England was Mary Tudor, so overshadowed is her reputation by that of her more charismatic younger sister, Elizabeth the First. The second volume begins with Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon - surely England's saddest queen. (Though her daughter runs her a close second).

    The first section of the second book deals with all six of the wives of Henry Vlll, queens consort some of whom had that title for a very short time.

    Victoria as queen from stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. © Elizabeth Norton and the Amberley Archive.
    The two Elizabeths and Queen Victoria vye with one another for the longest reigns. Elizabeth the First for 45 years, Victoria for  65 and our current queen for 63 and counting. The very touching photo below shows Elizabeth as an unaware baby, with her mother later to become a queen consort herself, to George Vl.
    Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon with her daughter, the future Elizabeth II. © Elizabeth Norton and the Amberley Archive.
    Elizabeth Norton
    I'm very grateful to Elizabeth Norton for putting in all the work that these two books represent. And now I'm going to file them on my bookshelves.

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    I recently visited the Fashion On The Ration Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum with my daughter, Catrin. We both have an interest in 1940's fashion and the exhibition did not disappoint. It gives a comprehensive insight into not only what men and women were wearing but the constraints and changes that total warfare brought to all aspects of everyday life. We think we know a lot about life in the War but as Julie Summers warns in the accompanying volume to the Exhibition, Fashion On The Ration

    'How we see clothing in wartime Britain is shaped by our knowledge in hindsight of the whole war and the austerity that followed it ... Far from being a story of drabness and misery, it is a story of colour inventiveness and determination to carry on regardless of the shortages and constraints of the coupon culture.' 

    There is something important in the above quotation: for writers of historical fiction, hindsight can be a dangerous thing. 

    The changes to dress that occurred were dictated by necessity. Conscription meant enormous numbers of men and women in uniform. The increased demand for uniforms put huge pressure on the textile and clothing industries as raw materials and labour were directed away from civilian production. This affected fashion. Out went pleats, coats and dresses that used yards of fabric, in came close fitting suits (costumes), simple dresses and military style coats. This was not just a material saving exercise,  it became part of fashion itself, the cut and style of clothes influenced by the now ubiquitous uniform. 


     For the Military Alliance, Vogue, London, 1941














    By 1941, the pressure on materials and labour resulted in the imposition of clothes rationing. A points system was introduced: eleven coupons for a dress, two for a pair of stockings, eight coupons for a man's shirt or pair of trousers, and so on. Every adult was allocated 66 points for the year. The clothes still had to be bought however, the coupons handed over with the money, and not everyone could afford 14 & 1/2 guineas for the military style suit shown here (£657.90p in today's money - Vogue doesn't change much).


    Ration Book and coupons

    It soon became clear that while the rich could have well made, stylish clothing made out of good quality material, the poor would have to make do with something far shoddier but shoddy clothes would wear out quickly, replacements would have to be bought, taking up more coupons, material and labour, which was neither fair nor good for the war effort. Something had to be done. In 1942, the government introduced the Utility clothing scheme, offering a range of well-designed, quality and price-controlled clothes affordable by all. Strictly specified Utility fabrics and clothes made from these materials, guaranteed quality and value for money and coupons. The Utility clothing scheme also meant that the government could standardise production, which aided the war effort.

    Utility Clothing
    Not everyone could afford new clothes and clothing coupons had to be carefully hoarded. As the war went on, the number of points allocated shrank and had to be used for the whole family. The women of Britain could not be completely dependent on a hard pressed textile and clothing industry, they had to start doing it for themselves. Unlike these days, nearly all women then could sew and most had a sewing machine, or at least access to one, so one of the great contributions to the war effort was Make Do and Mend.



    Skirts, dresses, coats cut in more generous pre-war times were cut up and re-modelled. Worn out clothes were patched, darned, frayed collars and cuffs turned and when repair was no longer possible, cut up and used as patchwork. Make Do and Mend allowed women to be inventive and creative in their use of what was available to them. Embroidery and appliqué, not only covered darns, but gave old garments a bright new look. New materials were pillaged. Parachute silk was used for everything from wedding dresses to camiknickers. One group of women in a village near Redditch confronted a downed German pilot with pitchforks and broom handles, intent on getting his parachute which supplied enough silk to make knickers for all the women in the village.
    parachute silk knickers

    The silk escape maps issued to RAF pilots were begged from boyfriends and husbands to turn into scarfs.

    silk escape map scarf
    Many women were in uniform themselves and wore those uniforms with pride. Wearing that uniform and doing the job that went with it, did not make women less feminine, rather it made them feel smart, independent, responsible and powerful. Equal to men. After all, they were often engaged in the same activities. Even so, there was a concern that women should not let feminine standards slip for their own morale and for the morale of the nation's men folk. Makeup was never rationed and continued to be manufactured. Coty made face powder as well as army foot powder and helpful tips were given out about how to make lipstick go further by melting stubs together, or using beetroot juice as a substitute (I can't help feeling a man might have made up the last suggestion (or even the first)). 



    Some of the most powerful images of the time show women in uniform, going about their duties, or dressed for the practical work that they had to do. Rather than de-feminise them, these images show just how important women were to the war effort, and how important they knew themselves to be. The images below were made by women (war artist Laura Knight, photojournalist Lee Miller). They show women in uniform and overalls, helmets and fire masks. Women who don't need lipstick and boot black mascara to bring out their beauty. These are our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, who were young once and brave and powerful and to whom we owe a very great debt. 

    Corporal J.D.M. Pearson, Laura Knight, 1941

    Corporal Elspeth Henderson & Sergeant Helen Turner, Laura Knight 1941

    Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring, Laura Knight, 1943
    Night Life Now, ATS Searchlight Crew, London, June 1943, Lee Miller

    Land Girl


    Women with Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London, Lee Miller, 1941


    Celia Rees 

    www.celiarees.com






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    My latest novel, Game of Chance - the second in a series of detective stories set in the late 1920s - centres, as the title suggests, around a game of cards, specifically, Solo Whist. I chose this particular game, rather than Bridge (which was actually more popular in the period I’ve been writing about) for two reasons. One was the relative simplicity of the game, which lent itself to the plot structure I had in mind; the other was the peculiar resonance of the terminology. For a story featuring both an amateur detective and a policeman, the fact that one of the ‘calls’ in the game is ‘Prop & Cop’ was irresistible; so, too, were the no less resonant calls ‘Misere’, ‘Misere Ouverte’ and ‘Abundance’. Other details - the fact that the ‘play’ goes clockwise, and that the individual players are identified by the points of the compass - provided further indications of how the novel should unfold. 
    Nor was it a wholly arbitrary decision to make card-playing a dominant motif in the second of my stories about the ‘Blind Detective’. My protagonist, Frederick Rowlands, whom we meet a decade after he lost his sight at the Third Battle of Ypres, is a keen card player - as was my grandfather, Charles Thompson, on whom the character is loosely based. I still have two packs of Charles’s braille cards, marked in the upper left-hand and lower right-hand corners with the raised dots that denote their suit and value. With these, my grandfather was able to play to competition standard - against sighted, as well as blind, opponents. And so it made absolute sense to have him matched, in my fictional version, against a murderer, both playing for higher stakes than the shilling or two which might have changed hands in the drawing room.


    In researching the book, I started to think about the literary predecessors of my particular ‘game of chance’. Because of course card games - like chess, or billiards, or even croquet - are often to be found in novels, and films. They lend themselves so well to the dynamics of relationships. Card games are mock battles, in which much is at stake - not least the winner’s pride. Over the centuries, the language of card playing has become essential to the way we describe our experience. We talk about ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’, ‘putting your cards on the table’ and ‘playing your trump card’; about having been ‘dealt a bad hand’, having ‘a card up your sleeve’, being ‘unlucky at cards, lucky in love’, and so on. A number of these card playing analogies found their way into Game of Chance. In thinking about the novel, I also rather liked the idea that ‘Chance’, that mythical figure on whose favour all such games depend, is usually regarded as blind.


    And so to the literary antecedents - of which of course there are many. Card games are thought to have originated in China during the T’ang Dynasty, and the first reference to card games dates from the 9th century. The game - perhaps closer to what we now know as dominoes, since it was played with tiles rather than paper cards, was exported to Persia, from where the idea of dividing the cards into suits seems to have come. Further modifications of the design were to occur before the emergence, in Europe at least, of the familiar ‘deck’ of cards, with its four suits: Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs, with their numbered sequences and ‘court’ cards. This standardisation is by no means universal, by the way: some countries (Spain, for instance) still use the older suits of Coins, Swords, Cups and Clubs. (I have in front of me a pack I bought some years ago in Venezuela, which looks like this.) Swiss German packs use Roses, Bells, Acorns and Shields instead of the more traditional images.


    But for Alexander Pope, writing in 1717, the pack looked like this:

    ‘Behold, four Kings in Majesty rever’d,
    With hoary Whiskers and a forky Beard;
    And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,
    Th’expressive Emblem of their softer Pow’r;
    Four Knaves in Garbs succinct, a trusty Band,
    Caps on their heads, and Halberds in their hand;
    And Particolour’d Troops, a shining Train,
    Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.
    The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;
    Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were.’



    Card games were enormously popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as any reader of the novels of Jane Austen will attest. References to card playing are to be found in most of her novels - one thinks of Lydia Bennet’s fondness for ‘making bets’ in the game of whist being played while Lizzie and Mr Wickham are having their heart-to-heart in Pride and Prejudice. Here, as elsewhere, the game offers an analogue of the shifts and ambiguities inherent in the characters’ relationships. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the famous card playing scene in Mansfield Park, when Mary Crawford, conscious that she is in danger of losing the affection of Edmund Bertram, the man she hopes to marry, makes a last ‘bid’ for his attention:

    ‘Miss Crawford, a little suspicious and resentful of a certain tone of voice and a certain half-look attending the last expression of his hope, made a hasty finish of her dealing with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it”…’

    As always in Austen, it is the psychological aspect of the ‘game’ the characters are playing which most interests her. This is no less the case in another famous literary card game - the one played by Pip and Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which the themes of betrayal and sexual cruelty are explicitly set out:

    ‘“What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.
    “Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.”
    “Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards…’

    This, incidentally, is the game in which the youthful femme fatale shows her ‘disdain’ for her unfortunate playmate in a single telling phrase: ‘“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella…’ Enough to send a shiver up one’s spine.
    In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, and its wonderful film version, directed by Terence Davies, card playing has moved from being simply a metaphor for the human interactions to being an integral element of the plot. Here, the impoverished Lily Bart, who has hitherto refused to become embroiled in the ruinously expensive games of bridge which are a feature of the country house weekends to which she is invited, is forced to conform - or else risk being ostracised from the ‘best’ social circles:

    ‘For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality, and for the dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenished her insufficient wardrobe. And since she had played regularly, the passion had grown on her…’



    Aficionados of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories (and I am one) will be familiar with the ‘passion’ that bridge inspires in its devotees - none more addicted to this particular game of chance that the two principals, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas. Bridge is a thread which runs throughout this deliciously funny series of novels (the first of which was published in 1931) and gives rise to some of the most hilarious scenes. Here, Miss Mapp is indulging in a little bit of gamesmanship - to the annoyance of her fellow players:

    ‘Upstairs the geniality of the tea-table had crumbled over cards. Elizabeth had been losing and she was feeling hot. She said to Diva “This little room - so cosy - is quite stifling, dear. May we have the window open?” Diva opened it as a deal was in progress, and the cards blew about the table: Elizabeth’s remnants consisted of Kings and aces, but a fresh deal was necessary. Diva dropped a card on the floor and put her foot on it so nimbly that nobody could see what it was… Elizabeth demanded another fresh deal. That was conceded, but it left a friction.’

    Sometimes the ‘friction’ engendered by games of chance - especially, it would seem, by bridge - can end in murder. Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, a story I found extremely helpful when plotting my own murder mystery, concerns such a game. Set up by the sinister Mr Shaitana, it centres around a dinner party, to which four detectives - one of them our old friend Hercule Poirot - and four suspected murderers have been invited. When dinner is over, the guests sit down to cards.

    ‘“Thank goodness there’s to be bridge,” said Mrs Lorrimer in an aside to Poirot. “I’m one of the worst bridge fiends that ever lived. It’s growing on me. I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards…”’    
       
    Of course it all goes horribly wrong. But at least Mrs Lorrimer gets her game of cards.







         



       
               








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    If you were a pauper in Tudor England, how could you survive? Or would you survive at all?

    Throughout the Middle Ages, there had been two principal supports for the poor – the church and the rich citizen. Almsgiving was part of general church policy, but the mainstay for the poor consisted of the monastic institutions, which provided medical care for the sick, temporary lodgings for wandering labourers and craftsmen seeking work, and more permanent housing for the aged and infirm. The more generous-hearted of the aristocracy and gentry handed out leftover food and sometimes discarded clothing and small coins to the poor of their neighbourhoods.



    This system of aid was in contrast to a series of laws which regarded the poor as a blight on society, needing to be dealt with severely. These laws had developed during the period of social disruption following the Black Death, and were to be extended during the Tudor period. There was some compassion for those who were genuinely disabled or infirm, who might be given a licence to beg at certain locations within their own parishes, though this was hardly a generous provision for the poor, depending as it did upon voluntary gifts by other parishioners.

    The paupers who did not fall into the category of the ‘deserving poor’ were labelled ‘sturdy beggars’, no distinction being made between those who were lawless vagrants through circumstance or choice, and those who were merely unemployed and seeking work. The harsh solution to dealing with such people was a period in the stocks or a public whipping (or both). The victim would then be forcibly returned to his parish, which was hardly a solution for those who had left home in order to seek work. Repeated offences could result in more severe penalties, such as the loss of an ear or branding.

    Parishes were so reluctant to take on the responsibility for the poor that cruel practices were not unknown. There are documented cases of unmarried or vagrant pregnant women being hastily dragged off by the constables to a neighbouring parish before giving birth, so that the baby would become the responsibility of the latter.



    With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the system of welfare which they had provided collapsed completely. What had been a minor problem throughout the country escalated in a few years to disastrous proportions. It was further aggravated by the early period of enclosures, when large landowners – and sometimes wealthy townsmen with an eye to a profitable venture – began to fence in and seize control of the ‘commons’, the pastures and village fields which were held in common by the peasant community of a village. Deprived of their only means of a livelihood, these unexpectedly impoverished peasants flocked to the towns, and especially to London, in the hope of finding employment.

    Suddenly there was a huge proportion of the population which was dispossessed and poverty-stricken. Something needed to be done.

    Unfortunately, the old perceptions remained. The poor were still classified as either sturdy beggars or the deserving poor, the latter being those who were old, frail, or disabled. Provision was therefore made with this distinction in mind.

    Medical Care

    Various issues had to be addressed. Medical care was needed for those who could not afford the services of a private physician. Given the terrible epidemics which swept through the country, particularly London, it was quickly recognised that this had a high priority. The monasteries had established two hospitals in London, providing medical care for the sick and hospices for the permanently infirm: St Bartholomew’s north of the river, just outside the western City wall, and St Thomas’s south of the river, in Southwark. The city authorities persuaded Henry VIII to allow them to take over St Bartholomew’s and reopen it under the governance of London in 1547. It took a little longer to re-establish St Thomas’s, which reopened in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, in 1551. Both hospitals play a part in my Christoval Alvarez series.




    These two hospitals cared both for the destitute and for the working poor from Tudor times onward, and both are still major hospitals to this day, although they no longer retain their additional function as almshouses. Both were originally founded in the twelfth century, and St Bartholomew’s is the oldest hospital in Europe, possibly in the world.

    St Bartholomew the Great gatehouse


     Further care for the deserving poor came in the form of the many individual almshouses for the old and infirm established during this period. A few were built by towns or guilds, but more were the gift of charitable individuals. Many are still in existence.


    Children

    A particular group of the helpless poor were the children, especially orphans and foundlings, although it was recognised that there were also children whose parents simply could not support them. The frequent epidemics of killer diseases led to a large number of orphans living as street children. Unwanted babies were abandoned on doorsteps and in public privies. Children were exploited by beggars who used them to illicit sympathy. In times of hardship and starvation, such as the famine years of the 1590s, poor families could not feed their children. What was to be done about this growing problem of destitute babies and children? Those who managed to survive swarmed in the streets as beggars and potential criminals. It was an acute crisis.




    King Edward VI wrote to the Lord Mayor of London, asking him:

    to take out of the streets all the fatherless children, and other poor men’s children that were not able to keep them, and bring them to the late dissolved house of the Greyfriars…where they should have meat, drink and clothes, lodging and officers to attend upon them…the sucking children and such as for want of years were not able to learn should be kept in the country…

    Remarkably, Greyfriars, located in Newgate, across the street from Newgate Prison, had not been torn down, though it was in a derelict state. The Lord Mayor assembled a committee of thirty solid and benevolent citizens who immediately set to work to raise funds, repair the buildings and appoint a large staff. The first children were admitted in November 1552, before winter set in. They were issued with the famous ‘bluecoat’ uniform of blue tunics and yellow stockings, still worn by the pupils of Christ’s Hospital school today. 


    The site, which can be seen on the Agas map of London, was huge, incorporating a church, dormitories, quadrangles (like an Oxford or Cambridgecollege), and numerous outbuildings, which provided everything necessary for this model orphanage: bakery, brewery, laundry, and so on. Moreover, there were to be two schools, a petty school for the small children and a grammar school for the older ones. These children were not to join the unskilled and indigent paupers of Londonwhen they left Christ’s. They were trained in basic clerical skills, some were later apprenticed to craftsmen, some very clever boys would even go on to university and rise to high positions in the church.


    The numbers were initially to be limited to 250, then 300, but they frequently rose to as many as 700. From the outset it seems to have been a kindly and humane home, for cases are recorded where children apprenticed to cruel masters ran away and came home to Christ’s Hospital. At a time when life could be unbelievably brutal, Christ’s was an extraordinary exception. The orphanage plays a major part in the fifth Christoval Alvarez novel. 




    Children could be given a home, cared for, educated, but what was to be done about the adult sturdy beggars, the authorities’ nightmare, the nursery of crime?


    Sturdy Beggars

    BridewellPalace, located near the confluence of the FleetRiverwith the Thames, was one of Henry VIII’s palaces during the early years of his reign. Later it was used for a time as the French ambassador’s residence and it was during this period that it formed the setting for Holbein’s famous trick painting of the two ambassadors (1533).




    However, during the 1550s, when many of these social problems were being tackled in London, Edward VI gave BridewellPalace to the City of London Corporation (1553), to serve a double purpose as a place of correction for ‘disorderly women’ and an orphanage. By 1556 it was functioning fully as Bridewell Prison, where the sturdy but troublesome vagrants and beggars – both men and women – were confined and spent their time employed in useful labour. 


    The Prospect of BridewellJohn Strype (1720)

    Its secondary function as an ‘orphanage’ served to supplement the much more extensive Christ’s Hospital, mainly providing training and apprenticeships for older boys, apprenticeships which came to be well regarded. The combined institution was run by a Court of Governors.


    Madmen

    There remained one further group of troublesome citizens – those who were insane, or were believed to be insane. After the disruption of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, many of the ecclesiastical institutions in London (like the two hospitals) were destroyed or converted to secular use. Just outside the northern part of the City wall at Bishopsgate, in the parish of St Botolph, stood the BethlehemHospital, which had served a variety of purposes since its foundation in 1247. From the late Middle Ages it was certainly housing some mentally ill inmates, but – as with St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s – the ending of ecclesiastical care had led to the collapse of the institution, which was sorely needed.


     In 1546, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Gresham, petitioned the king to grant BethlehemHospital to the City. Henry VIII was reluctant, and insisted on retaining possession of the building, although he granted the City Council ‘the custody, order and governance’ of Bethlehem Hospital and of its ‘occupants and revenues’ in a charter which came into effect in 1547, the year of Henry’s death.


     The mention of revenues is significant, because Bedlam, as it was popularly known, did not provide a free service. Those who could afford it paid for their insane relatives to be housed in Bedlam. Poorer patients might be confined there if the courts judged it appropriate and agreed to pay the fees or imposed the fees on the inmate’s parish. The position of Master was regarded as a sinecure, which yielded a comfortable income, and little seems to have been done to treat the inmates, apart from keeping them out of trouble. Contemporary thinking advised confining them in darkened rooms away from any disturbing stimuli and shaving their heads once a month to cool the brain. (Compare the confinement in the dark of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.) Documents of the period refer to them as ‘the poor’ or ‘the prisoners’, not as patients.

     
    A later image of shackled inmate of Bedlam

    In 1557, the Court of Governors of Bridewell took over the management of Bedlam as well, and if inmates of Bridewell were transferred to Bedlam, the Bedlam fees were paid from BridewellHospital funds. In 1598 the Court of Governors made a long overdue inspection of Bedlam, finding it neglected and in a disgusting state: ‘it is so loathsomely and filthy kept not fit for any man to come into the said house’. This in the one fee-paying hospital in London.


    Poor Laws

    All through the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, various acts were passed to try to cope with the growing numbers of the poor. The introduction of a parish-based Poor Rate in 1547 went some way to provide for the impotent poor through compulsory contributions from those parishioners who could pay, the relief being in the form of money, food or clothes. More destitute paupers might be accommodated in almshouses. However, the treatment of sturdy beggars grew ever more severe as their numbers increased. Where in the early part of the period the punishment might be three days in the stocks, it increased to greater and greater physical punishment, including burning through the ear or – for a second offence – hanging.




    In this contemporary illustration a beggar is being whipped in the foreground. In the background, another is being hanged.


     Elizabeth’s government finally tackled the problem as a whole, requiring, in the Poor Act of 1575, that all parishes have institutions similar to Bridewell, where sturdy beggars could be put to productive work, instead of simply suffering physical punishment. These institutions were required to keep a supply of ‘wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff’, to provide useful employment. The inmates did wire-drawing, knitted woollen caps, carded, spun and wove various fibres, and stuffed mattresses.


     The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 further developed earlier provisions and established the position of Overseer of the Poor, responsible for the distribution of poor relief. There were to be two in each parish, appointed for a year. In addition to distributing poor relief, they were required to estimate the number of poor in the parish, use this as a basis for setting the poor rate, and then collect it from the parishioners. (Not a popular job!) This was followed by the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601, which further codified the duties of each parish. With a few modifications, it remained in force until the shift from a rural to an industrial society demanded a major overhaul. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed after the report by a commission set up in 1832. Interestingly, the whole act was not repealed until 1967!


     Today our attitudes toward the less fortunate members of society have changed radically. Some of the treatments meted out in Tudor times seem extraordinarily harsh, yet life in general was much harsher then. Faced with the collapse of the social welfare provided by the monasteries, officials and private individuals struggled to cope with what must have seemed at the time like a serious threat to peace, safety and health. They did their best. The provision of orphanages and poor relief by city authorities and Parliament, and the establishment by individuals of almshouses for the destitute and free grammar schools to educate poor boys, demonstrate how well they succeeded. The fact that the Elizabethan Poor Laws survived in part down to our own times speaks volumes for their achievements.


    Ann Swinfen


    www.annswinfen.com



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    What my world looks like

    I’m at the white knuckle stage of writing my new book so am refusing to leave the house, but I’m taking the opportunity of my monthly post to give you a list of the London places I would be visiting were I not chained to the keyboard and unfit for human society. My historical fiction tends to involve the not so great and the not so good, so I’m always on the look out for the smaller London museums and lesser known houses which can give you a sense of how people lived when they didn't have a palace to call home.

    Here are my top five for the last 500 years of London life:

    16th century - Sutton House
    A gem built by a courtier of Henry VIII in 1535 this red brick survival has hosted gentlemen, weavers, squatters and fire wardens. Some of the 16th century wood carving survives and you can see portraits there by the brillaint Mary Beale (1633-1699).

    17th Century - Fenton House
    Once the home of a London merchant, this is an often overlooked gem with an astonishingly varied collection. I’m particularly fascinated by the 17th century needlework and in weather like this, a visit to the 300 year old orchard is a must.

    18th Century - Handel House
    OK, so Handel was both great and good, but this is still a domestic space beautifully recreated to give a real sense of what it must have been to live and work there in the 18th century. The restoration is immaculate and there are portraits, manuscripts of Handel’s works and some beautiful instruments. There are regular concerts so you can get the full experience. Highly recommended

    19th century - Carlyle House
    This house in Chelsea was Georgian, but is preserved as it was in the times of historian and critic Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane in the mid to late 19th century. You can read the letters documenting their tempestuous marriage here http://carlyleletters.dukejournals.org/ 

    20th century - 575 Wandsworth Road
    Something a little different. A house that was transformed into a work of art by Kenyan poet Khadambi Asalache and preserved as he left it on his death in 2006. Just one of those astonishing treasures in which London abounds. You’ll need to book a tour to see it, but do.  

    www.imogenrobertson.com


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  • 03/30/15--16:01: March Competition
  • We have five copies of Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter to give away to the best answers to the following question:

    "Name another book that re-creates for you the atmosphere of a country in a particular season and say why you chose it."

    Please leave your answers in the Comments section below.

    We regret that our competitions are open to UK residents only

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    No April Fools here - this is no joking matter.


    Here are two splendid volumes written by Elizabeth Norton and published by Amberley Press that will sort you out once and for all about English queens both regnant and consort. Read in conjunction with Helen Castor's splendid She-Wolves and Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters, they will earn a place on many a writer's reference shelves.

    It was a bit of a surprise to find the first book's opening section containing Guinevere but it was headed The Early and Mythical Queens. We start properly with Boudica and the much less well-known Cartimandua. There is no pictorial representation of Boudica (though a subject beloved of 19th century painters and sculptors, there seem to be no contemporary images of her) but I can't guarantee you will never feel the same about her once you read what she did to the women of the Roman settlement in London.

    Queen Bertha in stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Norton.
    Queen Bertha (539 - c. 612) was the wife of King Ethelbert of Kent and is important for being credited with bringing Christianity to England. She certainly had Pope Gregory's blessing to try and she managed to convince her husband to be baptised.
    From a thirteenth-century English Manuscript. © Jonathan Reeve
    This much later picture shows a medieval king and queen embracing and I'm hoping that Bertha and Ethelbert handled his conversion as affectionately.

    From Liber Regalis (Coronation Book of Richard II) executed in 1377 or 1378. © Jonathan Reeve



    There seems to be evidence that Richard ll was very attached to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. She was a religious reformer too, ordering an English translation of the Gospels,  and the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. She died, like so many of the English queens consort, before the age of thirty, but not of childbirth. The teenage couple enjoyed a luxurious life together until her death from the plague in 1394 left Richard bereft. His second wife, Isabella of Valois, was a mere child but by all accounts the king was kind to her. The queen in Shakespeare's play is an amalgam of the two.
              
    Elizabeth Woodville. (Ripon Cathedral portrait)                                    

    Shakespeare gave us other queen consorts, including Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward lV, later presented in the fiction of Philippa Gregory as the White Queen. It was a love match - or at least a lust match, with Elizabeth being a widow with two sons when Edward's roving eye lighted on her. She played her hand well, holding out for marriage but the marriage with someone other than an European Royal princess infuriated many of his entourage including the Earl of Warwick. And Elizabeth had a vast family, who gained influential titles and positions.


    Elizabeth of York
    (Ripon Cathedral portrait)

    When the Cousins' War ended with the accession of Henry Tudor, he needed to bolster his claim to the throne by marrying the Lancastrian strain to that of York and he chose Elizabeth of York, oldest daughter of Edward lV and Elizabeth Woodville. She had narrowly escaped being married to her uncle, Richard lll. There have been rumours that she would not have minded this as much as you would think.

    Mary Tudor
    Image courtesy of Ripon Cathedral.


    Sometimes it's hard to remember that the first queen regnant of England was Mary Tudor, so overshadowed is her reputation by that of her more charismatic younger sister, Elizabeth the First. The second volume begins with Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon - surely England's saddest queen. (Though her daughter runs her a close second).

    The first section of the second book deals with all six of the wives of Henry Vlll, queens consort some of whom had that title for a very short time.

    Victoria as queen from stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral. © Elizabeth Norton and the Amberley Archive.
    The two Elizabeths and Queen Victoria vye with one another for the longest reigns. Elizabeth the First for 45 years, Victoria for  65 and our current queen for 63 and counting. The very touching photo below shows Elizabeth as an unaware baby, with her mother later to become a queen consort herself, to George Vl.
    Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon with her daughter, the future Elizabeth II. © Elizabeth Norton and the Amberley Archive.
    Elizabeth Norton
    I'm very grateful to Elizabeth Norton for putting in all the work that these two books represent. And now I'm going to file them on my bookshelves.

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    I attended the first Australasian Historical Fiction conference in March. I know some of you would be very interested in a detailed report, full of life and colour. I meant to write that report, but when I looked at my notes I realised that it was such a very good conference that if I were to write up a proper detailed summary, even from my notes (which are scatty, for I was very much engaged with conference happenings) I would be writing 5,000 words. I don’t want to work through the programme and give you elegant highlights, either. What do I do, then? I give you a quirky report, with pictures.

    Let me start with Kate Forsyth, the patron of the HNSA. My notes were riddled with quotable quotes by her. My notes would be more riddled if she had not given us a bedtime story about the history of the king and the oak tree, during the conference dinner. We were so busy participating that I quite forgot to record any of it. There's just one that's so important, I have to share it: thanks to historical fiction, she said, she’s never been without a book she wants to read, there’s always something to look forward to. She can always find the stories she wants. I’ve seen the piles of books that attendees bought at the stall (my Langue[dot]doc 1305 was there, among the timeslips and the historical romances) so Kate’s words have become, for me, the theme of the conference. There was so much advanced learning for writers going on, and so much sharing of stories and experience: it was an amazing event. 



    Kate Forsyth welcoming conventioneers to the conference (Balmain Town Hall).





    This focus was thanks to the committee. They did such a wonderful job that  when Colin Falconer gave his keynote address, he looked at us and explained how important HNSA was going to be to our region, to the world of fiction. He said we would say “I was there, at the first one.” 

    This would have been immensely more reassuring if he hadn’t soon after said “I have nothing against ripping bodies: I think it’s a fine pursuit.” He was discussing the cultural importance of historical fiction as a genre, but a few of us took it out of context, on purpose. We didn’t take his deeper statements out of context, however. The focus of his speech was on how historical fiction can help us understand, rethink and question our myths. It made me think that in Australia so many of those questions come from newer migrants and from Indigenous Australian writers. Patrick White and Alexis Wright offer question and reinterpretations that change our realities. Colin didn’t talk about this aspect, but for me it’s very important. Current Australian politics are partly what they are to reduce dissident voices and diminish the questioning of myth.


    Colin Falconer giving his keynote address at the HNSA conference




    I was part of the great debate, which was itself part of the opening events (alongside an address by Sophie Masson and the launch of Felicity Pulman’s new novel).

    Sophie Masson giving the opening keynote address at the State Library of NSW, Sydney.


    We were supposed to tear out each throats and create blood on the floor. Historians and fiction writers, after all, are dangerous beings and see the world so differently. 

    Except we didn’t. We came to amicable agreements and told jokes about pus. I am not guilty of the pus jokes, let it be known, though I did point to a certain scene in a Gabaldon novel (a long scene, with breast milk) as my contribution towards the use of the mundane in historical fiction.

    We talked about how changes in historiography make it easier for us to engage in polite discourse. In other words, if we all realise what modern historiography is about, then historians and historical fiction writers find we’re on the same page, just telling different stories and telling stories in different ways. The trick is, of course, understanding each others’ work, seeing that words like ‘research’ have a range of meanings, and understanding that a narrative can have an index and footnotes and careful definitions of a subject and still narrate. I’m afraid I made the obvious joke that even my first novel had footnotes (for I was there as the historian more than the writer) and yes, the audience laughed. It was a nice audience.



    Books on sale at the HNSA conference



    Jane Caro on a panel devoted to the Tudors  said what I’ve heard quite a few Tudor writers say “I think that when I was a young girl I was looking for a Tudor hero.” Wendy Dunn underlined this a little while later when she explained “I can’t write something that I can’t believe of my characters.” Elizabeth I became Jane’s hero because she never married and never had to share her power, while Anne Boleyn became Wendy’s. Jane is always political and so it wasn’t at all surprising when she said, very soon after, “Tony Abbott can’t be misogynist because he has three daughters; well, Henry VIII had six wives.”

    On another panel Linda Funnel, Sulari Gentill and Peter Corris talked about magic time. Gentill remembered lying on her back in a lawn. It was a hot Australian summer and she lay there, looking at the stars while her father told her stories. This encouraged her to take up astrophysics at university, but she left it behind because the lectures were “turning my beautiful constellations into balls of gas.” For her, as for most writers, story is at the centre of things and history is “the scaffolding on which my story is built.” The panel talked about this and agreed that one of the joys of historical fiction writing for some writers was to finding the gaps in history and filling them with story.

    It’s all about the story, isn’t it?

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