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    In my recent novel, Rivals in the City, a young gentleman in 1861 jokes about body art: "'Perhaps I'll have your name tattooed on my arm so there's no doubt as to whom I belong', he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and resuming their steady walking pace. 'What would you say to your initials in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?'" I loved being able to include this moment of dialogue because it's such a familiar cultural motif for us now. It's another way of bringing the Victorians closer to us, one of the projects at the heart of my fiction. But it's also rooted in a fairly well-documented tradition.

    There are brief mentions of tattoos in Victorian literature. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sybil Vane's brother, James, is identifiable as a sailor because of his tattoos. I believe Sherlock Holmes notices and assigns tattoos the same kind of cultural value. According to wikipedia, it was during Captain James Cook's voyages to Polynesia from the 1760s to the 1780s that the idea of tattoo (from the Tahition word, tatau) was introduced into English culture.

    Apparently the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, a member of Cook's expedition, came back to England with a tattoo. (portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1773)

    By the mid-nineteenth century, tattoos were firmly established as the domain of seamen and soldiers - working-class Englishmen who had travelled widely and come into direct contact with tattoo culture.

    Tattoos, however, were about to make an interesting social transition. In 1862, when the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) toured the Middle East, he acquired a tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross.
    The Prince of Wales in Constantinople at the end of his Grand Tour (1862). Somewhere on his body, there is a fresh tattoo. (image via the Royal Collection)

    By 1870, the trend had spread not only amongst the English aristocracy, but into the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain. And beginning in the 1880s, upper-class women also began to sport discreet tattoos. One of the most celebrated was Lady Randolph Churchill, who had a "dainty" and "elaborate" tattoo of a serpent entwining her left wrist.
    Lady Randolph Churchill, with her signature bracelet. (image via NYPL)
     She frequently covered it with bracelets, but it was described in the New York Times in 1906. Tattoos were fashionable enough that Country Life magazine featured them in an article dated 27 January, 1900 - as if to kick off the new century. As you might expect from Country Life, it described “one of the most popular Masters of Foxhounds in England” who had “tally-ho!” tattooed on his forearm along with a fox’s head and brush and a hunting crop.

    Like all fashion trends, however, tattoos were fairly swiftly brought down by mass imitation.
    Nora Hildebrandt claimed that she was forced by Indians to receive hundreds of tattoos. The truth was more mundane: her father was a tattoo artist. (image via the Human Marvels)

    Once performers like Nora Hildebrandt began displaying her hundreds of tattoos for the horror and delectation of the masses (she travelled as part of P. T. Barnum's American circus), aristocrats promptly lost interest in tattoo art.

    I haven't. I've always been intrigued by the idea of a tattoo, yet never been able to choose a single motif or image that I'd want to wear on my body forever. In the meantime, I'll keep reading. May I suggest Margot Mifflin's Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo? To start you off, there are some amazing images pulled from Mifflin's book right here.

    Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries (Walker Books). She blogs weekly at www.yslee.com.

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    Not long ago my mother handed over to me this book, which had been my grandfather's.

    I suppose my grandfather must have been given it by someone else - in fact, it must have been handed down for generations.  It's an atlas of the classical world, dated 1785: 'Designed for the Ufe of Schools, and of Gentlemen who make the Antient Writers their Delight or Study.'

    The maps cover all areas which such Gentlemen might wish to consult while following the journeys of Herodotus, or perhaps the campaigns of Alexander, or the Gallic Wars.

    Of course they are deliberately limited to the parts of the world known to ancient geographers: but they aren't themselves ancient. They're drawn to an eighteenth century knowledge of the shapes of coasts and continents.

    Like any historical atlas of today, they fit the old stories into what was then a modern frame. Here for example is Mesopotamia, with its squiggly rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

    But I wanted to go looking for griffons, and in a way I found them. In Book Two of Paradise Lost, Milton describes how Satan launches himself out on his 'Sail-broad Vannes'  into the abyss of Chaos:

    As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
    With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
    Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
    Had from his wakeful custody purloin’d
    The guarded Gold...

    So - who were the Arimaspians?  It turns out they come into the first century 'History of Alexander the Great' by Quintus Curtius Rufus: they were also known as the the Euergetae, the Benefactors, whose kindness had once saved the army of Cyrus the Great of Persia. Alexander, a fan of Cyrus, respected these people for assisting his hero, and also for their laws and customs which the 2nd century historian Arrian reports 'had as good a claim to fairness as the best in Greece.'  Nothing, sadly, about stealing gold from griffons.  That's left to Herodotus, in Book 4 of his History: 'Aristeas ... son of Caystrobius, a native of Proconnesus, says in the course of his poem that wrapt in Bacchic fury he went as far as the Issedones. Above them dwelt the Arimaspi, men with one eye; still further, the gold-guarding griffins; and beyond these, the Hyperboreans, who extended to the sea.'

    Wow. They have only one eye, and still succeed in robbing griffons?  But here they are, the Ariaspae, Euergetae, halfway down the map on the left-hand side.

    I went hunting for more. Here, at the top of the map of Scythia and Serica (peppered with cities called Alexandria), on the very verge of Terra Incognita, are the Anthropophagi, Eaters of Men, while below them, fittingly a little less distant, a little less uncivilised, we encounter the Hippophagi, eaters of horseflesh.


    Pliny the Elder describes them: "The Anthropophagi, whom we have previously mentioned as dwelling ten days' journey beyond the Borysthenes, according to the account of Isigonus of Nicæa, were in the habit of drinking out of human skulls, and placing the scalps, with the hair attached, upon their breasts, like so many napkins."

    It doesn't sound impossible, but I feel that Ammianus Marcellinus was embroidering when he adds: "And these men are so avoided on account of their horrid food, that all the tribes which were their neighbours have removed to a distance from them. And in this way the whole of that region to the north-east, till you come to the Chinese, is uninhabited."  Although that's the China Sea, there, at the eastern edge of the map...

    I've always had a soft spot for the Anthropophagi since first meeting them in The Sword in the Stone:  Robin Hood explains,

    ‘Now, men... You know about these Anthropophagi, and how we have lost Matthew, Peter, Walter, Colin and many others. God rest their souls.  Tonight the Anthropophagi are holding one of their feasts of sacrifice and it behoves us to slay them at it.
    ‘You know how many varieties they have.  The Scythians, who wrap themselves in their ears, can hear a twig break half a mile away. The Pitanese, who live by smell, can detect a man upwind for three miles.  The  Nisites, with three or four eyes, can distinguish the faintest movement anywhere. All these men, or beast if you prefer to call them so, are ... armed with poison arrows.  Our chances are small.’

    Sir John Mandeville knew of creatures like these, living in the Island of Dodyn - not to be found anywhere in my maps, alas - and had more to say on griffons, this time from Bactria, north of the Arimaspians:

    'In that land are trees that bear wool, as it were sheep, of which they make cloth. In this land are ypotains that dwell sometimes on land, sometimes on water, and are half a man and half a horse, and they eat naught but men, when they may get them. In this land are many gryffons, more than in other places, and some say they have the body before as of an Egle,  and behind as a Lyon, and it is trouth, for they be made so, but the Griffen hath a body greater than viii Lyons and ... worthier than a hundred Egles. For certainly he will bear to his nest flying, a horse and a man upon his back... for he hath long nayles on his fete, as great as it were hornes of Oxen,  and of those they make cups there to drink of, and of his rybes they make bowes to shoot with.'

    Ypotains equal hippos, I suppose - and the wool growing on trees, might that be cotton - or even silkworms?  Then why not griffons?

    What fun for the eighteenth century Gentleman to muse on all this as he sat in his study, drinking his port.

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    As I write, the doors and windows are rattling, sand piling up on the steps outside. The shamal is blowing flurries of sand along the road, snaking, disappearing like djinns. The wind is always unsettling - I remember working for a children's charity in Westminster, and anarchy reigned in the playground on windy days. If people are driven mad by the Mistral, living in the only true desert country in the world also has its challenges. The photo above was taken in our garden last week during what has already become known as 'The Great Sandstorm of 2015'. Sandstorms or 'haboobs' sound rather Lawrence of Arabia, make you think of Cain's lovely etching of a camel train ...

    The reality was screeching shamal winds bringing a dust storm of such magnitude from Saudi that the government closed all the schools. It felt apocalyptic, the sky a sulphurous yellow, all the plants coated with a dense grey dust. Physically, your throat and eyes burn, you can't breathe - even indoors there is an unsettling smell like burning, and the dust gets everywhere.

    Throughout history, duststorms have proved devastating - the five year 'Dustbowl' of 1930 - 35 in the US, the sandstorm that preserved the 'Pompeii of the Silk Road' in Western China, or the Persian King Cambyses II whose entire army was buried alive by a vast storm. I first learnt about desert life, and the challenges of surviving in a harsh environment when the photographer Ronald Codrai visited the gallery I worked at in Chelsea some years ago. He brought with him a portfolio of stunning photographs, taken over many years in the Arabian Peninsula. Like his contemporary, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Codrai captured a changing world on film. Life altered rapidly in the region thanks to the oil industry, but his photographs of Bedouin preserved Cain's world of camel trains and trading routes, skilled falcons and hounds and a strong nomadic people whose way of life had changed little for a thousand years.

    'Bedu' literally means an inhabitant of the desert. Whether defined by their beliefs and culture, or a wandering, migratory lifestyle, Bedouin traditions are valued here, and the qualities of chivalry, courage and patience. Famed for their generosity and hospitality, any guest of the Bedouin would be given food and water for three days, and protection. The tribes were ruled by sheikhs chosen for their wisdom and skill, and they have passed on a rich culture of storytelling, poetry and music.

    By the 1950s only a thousand Bedouin were still living a migratory lifestyle in the region, and many had settled as 'hadar' town-dwellers. It is a fast changing world, but in Qatar some of the oldest residents can still remember a life spent travelling by camel, and this "longing for a simple past" was recorded in a recent anthology 'Qatari Voices'. These memories are to be treasured before they fade, just like the work of the photographers who recorded a vanishing way of life. Perhaps it is inevitable that the past is romanticised. On moving to the desert, I'd hoped it would all be more Kristin Scott Thomas reciting Herodotus by a camp fire than cleaning up dust. Inevitably, someone said last week: 'Call this a sandstorm? You should try being stuck in the middle of the Sahara'. If it involved Ralph Fiennes reciting the names of the wind, it does sound tempting:

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    My novel 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' will be reissued  next month, and it made me think about its inception and the ingredients that went into it. I'd started to write it seven years before it was actually published, and it was a very different book then.

    I began to write it because:
    I went to see 'Schindler's List' and the images of heaped-up personal goods from murdered Jews suddenly fired up such fury and rage in me, I knew it would have to find an outlet in writing.
    Because I read about the Battle of Berlin, how in the last stages lads as young as twelve were drafted in to fight, and the SS shot these kids if they cracked and begged to go home.
    Because my mother is German, and one day - I think we were looking at an episode of 'Heimat' together - the Nazi Horst Wessel song was played and she began to sing along with apparent pleasure. I was horrified, but to her it was just a bit of her youth, and she didn't even connect it with the horrors of a society that had threatened both her parents' lives.
    Because though I adored her when I was small, I found it harder and harder to understand her as I grew up, and I hoped, through finding out and writing about childhood in Nazi Germany, to somehow get to understand her.
    So it was about things that I found intolerable, incomprehensible - and really needed to understand, because your mother is part of you, in a way.
    I began with the boy, Hanno. He was the hardest to write. He's fourteen (almost fifteen) and he's been drafted into the 'Volkssturm', the Home Guard, to fight against the incoming Russians. This was an organisation that was largely characterised by the phrase in Henry Reed's 'Naming of Parts,''which in our case we have not got.' Hanno's entire unit has been wiped out around him, including his twin brother (I couldn't have done this now, not since the birth of my twin grandsons). Aching with loss, cut off from his mother and sister - who have fled to the West to escape the Russians - Hanno has no idea where to go or what to do now. In that state, he meets Effi.

    Effi is a mass of prickles, and Hanno can't understand why she's so hostile to him, but they stay together, at first just because it's better than being completely alone. She is the daughter of a political refugee from Nazism, and got marooned in Germany when her mother insisted on coming back to be with her own mother, who was dying. The war broke out before they could get back, and then Effi's mother died of TB. Effi then went to her aunt, who was part of the Communist resistance to Hitler, and remained with her till she was also killed by a bomb. Now she is trying to cross the battle zone and get to the US army, because she knows her father is with them.

    In writing about Effi's life in the then working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, I owe an enormous debt to Bernt Engelmann, whose two books of mixed autobiography and oral history (published in Britain as 'In Hitler's Germany' told me about that left-wing resistance. I'd had no idea about it; I suppose the Cold War led to its suppression, so that all most people in England know about is the attempted coup of July 1944. But Communists and Social Democrats did what they could; admittedly, it wasn't much, but it included sabotage of munitions factories, at enormous risk, by those who worked there, getting Jews and others at risk out of Germany, and also reporting on conditions in the country.
    Effi has learned to keep her mouth shut, and has a very different perspective on things from Hanno's - and of course, she wasn't difficult to write at all, because I could put my own thoughts and feelings on the page through her. She's jazz-obsessed, uses music as a way to get along in a dreadfully dangerous world. She carries a bag of things that might be useful to sell after the war's ended, and a harmonica which she uses to express her feelings, to torment other people when she feels like it. My brother sent me Sonny Terry's 'Freight Train rolling', so I could hear how Effi might imitate a train when she and Hanno are selling fake tickets. When she wants to be nice to Hanno, she calls him 'Swing Boy,' and promises him a great life when everything's over, listening to hitherto forbidden jazz. She wants to be a singer and have a lion, like Josephine Baker. She isn't callous, but she's tough, a survivor - I think it was good for me to write her.
    Hanno from the hardback jacket

    Hanno was the difficult proposition, but he was the reason I wrote the book, to try and understand what it was like to see the world through the lens of Nazi lies, I was enormously helped by my tai chi teacher, whose father was persecuted in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, who told me: 'You didn't have the language to see that things could be different.' At university, we had a unit in History of the German Language on the language of propaganda in the Nazi period. I found it really fascinating, I think because there were things in it that spoke to me subliminally, from my family background. It chimed in with what the 'Eighties women's movement pointed out, that society can gag people by withholding the means to name what is going on. Hanno was very young, younger than my mother, when Hitler came to power, and the Nazi society is all he has really known. Effi - often brutally - forces him to understand the reality behind the lies and the glorification of inhumanity.
    My mother was on the run, in the open, in April 1945, as some readers of this blog know, escaping from Russians who'd tried to rape her. When that trauma, which she repressed for many years, came back to her, I was a young child. I can remember it well, because she had nobody but the family to talk to, and I, as well as my father, became her therapists. I've met other people who found themselves, as children, the only available people to listen to their parents' trauma. I can see why it happened, but of course she shared the horror with me, which is perhaps why I feel partly as if I had experienced these things. It's a common phenomenon known to therapists, who call it 'reverse transference', I think. I've written about second generation trauma before on this blog, so shan't go on about it now.
    I heard that my mother had seen a man crucified on his own barn door for trying to stop the Russians raping his wife and daughter; she also told me about a child of eleven or twelve who was haemorrhaging to death because she'd been gang-raped. That dreadful image haunted me, and even now, I can't write it without crying. I was able to give it expression in the novel when Effi exclaims about a child who has been raped: 'That little Barbara, what has she done?' - If you want to hear more details of what the Russians did to German women and children, there are plenty of sources. Me, I've never been able to read the sections of Anthony Beevor's 'Berlin, the Downfall' that deal with rape. Or the diary of the unknown Berlin woman that is now published in English and so many people have told me about. The challenge was to write about the rapes without going into too much horrible detail, and I got the image that would carry the horror without being explicit, in an account by a Russian officer, Lev Kopelev (who was himself horrified at this crime - not all of the Russians raped) of a child with blood streaking down her stockings.

    The other issue was how you survive, when you're on the edge, in the open, with very little to eat. It was a situation my mother knew all too well, from the post-war period. You barter. You filch, even. You forage if you can, but in springtime, there's not much to eat except nettles. If a horse is killed, it's valuable meat. And every bit of food counts.
    The crucial difference between the 'adult' version and the 'Young Adult' version, was determined by what happened in between the initial drafts and when I took the book up again. I had gone to Berlin and read my grandfather's file. Rachel Seiffert, in her debut novel 'The Dark Room,' writes about a grandson who sets out to discover the truth about a beloved, kindly, grandfather. It turns out that he was involved in the murder of Jews in Russia.
    Shortly after reading that book, I investigated my grandfather's file. He was an authoritarian, angry man, and frankly, I could always imagine him involved in incredible brutality. I expected to make a similar exposé; but in fact, what I found was the story of his persecution in 1933, and the only evidence regarding an atrocity was the underlining (in red ink) by a British investigator of a demand to know why he had not come back to his regiment at a certain date. I do still feel that when my brother and I were told that our grandfather had 'seen terrible things', it probably means that he also did them.
    All the same, reading his file made me understand the pressure that there was on him to conform; that Germany under Hitler was truly a terror society. And just before I began to rewrite the novel, I was volunteering for the Refugee Support Group in my home town, and the stories I heard from refugees drove it home that those of us who condemn people who went along with the Nazis should be grateful they haven't had to make those kinds of choices. None of us knows what we'd do in a terror state; and it's not just an issue of onesself, but of the people who depend on one. 'I could have resisted,' my grandfather told my mother after the war, 'but there was you, and your mother to consider.'
    The line between victim and perpetrator is not anything like as finely drawn as we'd like to believe - and I apologise to anyone who's read me saying this before on this blog. And so the novel's tone changed, very importantly, I think. It was no longer the vehicle for sheer anger (why did my grandparents' generation load up my generation with all this guilt and shame?) and really became a journey to understanding. If what I came to understand was bitter and dreadful, I think it has made me stronger.It was a great help that I actually went and walked round the area, with a reluctant teenage daughter in tow, when I first started to write, making notes about terrain, trees, plants, soil, animals and birds. I must assure my readers that I did give her a nicer time in our other days in Berlin, and she was glad she'd come with me - though not glad she'd had to trudge round those Zossen woods.
    the pond where Effi and Hanno go fishing?
    Things I enjoyed about writing the book: that knowledge of the place, which made it vivid to me, and, thank goodness, to my readers as well, as the many responses to it have shown me. The black humour, drawing on the jokes people told at the time. The music. The dog, Cornelius, who did magical things while behaving exactly as dogs do.
    And however dreadful the events that surround this novel are, it turned out to be about hope, and new growth with a new generation; and about unexpected humanity and humour, love, even, in bad places. People often ask authors which is their favourite book, and I am usually cagey about replying; but Last Train from Kummersdorf is my favourite book, and I feel privileged to have been able to write it.

    Last Train from Kummersdorf will be published by Faber and Faber on the 7th May

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    When an author writes about people who actually lived, one of the challenges is finding out about the secondary characters; the people who interacted with the stars of the show but have left less of a trace. When writing my Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, I needed to find out about the life and circumstances of a lady called Isabel de Warenne, countess of Surrey and Warenne. She was a contemporary of Eleanor's and sometimes moved in her circles. Although she has left traces in the historical record, they're more hidden and fragmentary than Eleanor's, so it has involved some digging around.

    I became interested in Isabel de Warenne because her second marriage was to Henry II's illegitimate half brother Hamelin, the latter of whom features as a strong secondary character in my Eleanor trilogy.  As I wrote his story into the fabric of Henry and Eleanor's, it became obvious that his wife was a major part of that thread, and when I began digging, I came across some very useful details and plot opportunities.

     Isabel de Warenne belonged to an illustrious line of Anglo Norman nobility with extensive lands in England and Normandy. Lewes Castle belonged to her family and they had the patronage of the Cluniac priory there founded by Isabel's grandfather.  Castle Acre in Norfolk, Conisbrough Castle and Sandal in Northern England were also theirs. In Normandy the castles of Bellencombre and Mortemer were de Warenne strongholds.   We don't know exactly when Isabel was born; dates are obscure, but a ball park of 1130 is not unreasonable to suggest.  Her family were one of the first to adopt a distinctive personal blazon of blue and yellow chequers and were already using the chequered device on their seals by the mid 12th century.
    seal of John de Warenne, Isabel and Hamelin's grandson: 13th century

    Her father, William de Warenne joined the Second Crusade in 1146 and never returned. He was cut to pieces when the army of Louis VII of France was crossing the slopes of Mount Cadmos (now  Mount Honaz) in Turkey and suffered a heavy mauling from the Saracens,

     Isabel's widowed mother married again, to Patrick Earl of Salisbury. Isabel herself, now in her teens and a great marriage prize as the sole child of the Earl of Warenne, was married to William of Boulogne, the youngest son of King Stephen, who, was a child of about eleven years old.  King Stephen at the time was at war with his cousin Matilda over the right to the English crown and Isabel would have grown to adulthood during a time fraught with anxiety and violence.  The situation was eventually resolved  when Stephen came to an agreement with Empress Matilda's son Henry, that the crown would pass to him when Stephen died.  Stephen's sons would be required to step down from their claims to the throne. Stephen's older son Eustace, died during these negotiations (some say very fortuitously) thus removing one stumbling block from the agreement. During this delicate time of settling the matter of the succession, there seem to have been plots by both sides to be rid of the opposition. An assassination attempt on  Henry II was foiled, and there may have been one on Isabel's young husband William, whose leg was broken in a fall from a horse.

    Eventually, matters settled down.  William abjured his right to the throne. Given a different set of circumstances, he may have become King, and Isabel would then have been queen of England,  In the event, Stephen died and  Isabel and William of Boulogne swore allegiance to the new king.  Henry kept William on a tight leash and he was obviously watched just in case there was a chance that others would see him as a figurehead for rebellion.  Did Isabel stay on her estates during the early years of Henry;s reign or play her part at court?  We don't know, but she and her husband had no children and in my novel The Winter Crown I have thought it not inconceivable that some of her time was spent at court with the Queen to whom she could have imparted valuable information about the dealings of the English court prior to Henry's accession.  She was also in the same position as Eleanor of having married a husband several years younger than herself.

    Isabel and William were still childless in 1159 when he went on battle campaign with King Henry to Toulouse and died later that year of disease during the retreat. He was buried at the abbey of Montmorel in Poitou.
    His death left Isabel an heiress of considerable wealth, still only in her twenties. In usual medieval fashion this state of affairs had to be remedied and Henry II thought she would be the perfect wife for his youngest brother, also called William like her first husband.  What Isabel thought about this notion is not recorded, but if she had been at court in earlier years, she probably knew him and he her.
    As it happened, the marriage never took place because Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury banned the match on the grounds that it was consanguineous.  Usually when this happened - that the couple were too closely related within the proscribed degree - a dispensation could be obtained, but Becket, whose quarrel with Henry II was beginning to escalate made his position clear. There was to be no dispensation.  Becket may have been making a stand because of Henry's dreadful behaviour in 1159/60  where he was behind the hauling of Isabel's sister in law Mary of Boulogne out of the convent where she had been a nun (an abbess no less) for ten years and forcing her to marry his nephew Matthew of Alsace.
    There was nothing to be done. William went off empty handed to Normandy to visit his mother, and died soon afterwards - of a broken heart so the anti-Becket propagandists of the time were quick to say. However, no Angevin princeling ever died of such a complaint. One of the murderers of Becket, Richard Brito, had been one of William FitzEmpress's knights and as he struck his blow is supposed to have said 'And that is for the love of my lord William, brother of the King.' One suspects that as a household knight Brito would have been hoping for gifts of land and money from the largesse William would have access to by marrying Isabel. This now being denied to him, he was bound to be miffed!

    Henry II was furious at being thwarted but there were always ways round. Becket had played the consanguinity card, but there was still another Angevin brother waiting in the wings - Hamelin, Henry's bastard half brother and he had no blood ties to Isabel that would prevent the marriage taking place. Thus Henry still managed to draw the de Warenne estates firmly into his own family enclave.

    Hamelin and Isabel were married at Easter 1164.  In March of that year a record appears in the pipe rolls for clothes for Isabel amounting to £41 10s 8d, presumably a wedding dress and trousseau.  She was now the King's sister in law and also sister in law to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Did this bring the women closer to each other still? We don't know, but there is a later reason to think that the two branches of the family kept close company - some of the time at least.  Isabel was no mere cipher and witnessed charters under her own seal during her widowhood and in her own court.

    'coram Isabel comitissa Warennie domina nostra' heads one such charter. 'Before Isabel, our lady, Countess of Warenne' is the heading on one such charter.
    Example of 12th century silk textile from Sicily. Possibly Isabelle's wedding dress was
    made of fabric like this.  She and Hamelin may have visited Sicily in 1176. V&A
    We don't know from this far distance of time if Hamelin and Isabel's marriage was a happy one, but certainly in financial and business terms it appears to have been compatible, and was also a dynastic success.  Isabel had not borne any children to her first husband William of Boulogne, but she and Hamelin were to have three girls and a boy. William, their son and heir, and daughters Isabel, Adela and Matilda.  We don't have a specific birth order for the children,  Hamelin took his wife's family name and became Hamelin de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Warenne.
    In 1176, Hamelin escorted his niece Joanna, daughter of Henry II to Sicily for her marriage. We don't know if Isabel was with him, but Joanna would have had female attendants, so it's possible her aunt Isabel accompanied her, although again it is one of those grey areas where novelists have the leeway to explore the spaces between the lines.

    Some time in the 1170's Hamelin set out to build a fine castle for himself and his countess at Conisborough in South Yorkshire.  The keep, recently refurbished by England Heritage is well worth visiting and features Isabel's own chamber near the top of the keep.  You can see a cutaway diagram of the keep at Conisbrough on the Castle's English Heritage website. with Isabelle's chamber near the top of the keep and Hamelin's below. There was also a chapel dedicated to St. Philip and St. James.
    Conisbrough today
    Isabel's chamber, complete with fireplace

    An artis's impression of the chamvber brightened up and lived in.

    Access onto the battlements from the chamber
    One of the reasons I am positive that Isabel and Hamelin kept in close touch with their royal Angevin kin is because of an event that happened some time after 1180.  One of the de Warenne daughters became pregnant by her cousin John Count of Mortain, later to become the infamous King John.  We don't have a date for the event and we don't know which daughter.  Only one chronicle tells us that a daughter of Hamelin de Warenne bore John's son, and there are no charters mentioning her name in connection with the birth to give us any sort of idea. Popular histories online make all sorts of claims for this one or that one, but basically it's all utter speculation because we just don't know.  What we do know is that young John was sufficiently close to his de Warenne cousins to get one of them with child. While royal illegitimate children were often accepted as a matter of course, I suspect this particular pregnancy was regarded with a degree of dismay!
    The child was christened Richard and can be found in various charters and in Henry III's pipe rolls. He is variously known as Richard of Dover, Richard of Chillham, Richard Fitzroy, and Richard de Warenne. There may be a clue to his mother in that Richard named his own daughter Isabel, but at the same time it was his mother in law's name (and his grandmother's), so there are no guarantees, however, it may be a pointer.

    Another link that Isabel may have had with Eleanor of Aquitaine is Old Sarum which in the 12th century housed a royal palace and a cathedral. (It was the original Salisbury. The town and cathedral we now know as Salisbury was relocated from Old Sarum in the first quarter of the 13th century).  Eleanor was kept here under sometimes strict house arrest several times in  her 16 year imprisonment by Henry II.  Isabel may have visited her here, or have had some access to her because her own half-brother was the Earl of Salisbury and her mother the dowager countess, and family connections counted for much.  Again, it's one of those things we can't say for certain but it's one of those areas where as the novelist I can explore the possibility as a story line and know I am not going wildly outside the parameters of what is known.

    To complete Isabel's story, she died on July 12th 1203, a year after her husband Hamelin and 9 months before Eleanor herself died at Fontevraud Abbey. Isabel was buried at Lewes Priory beside Hamelin and although their graves have been lost over the centuries, their bones are still there somewhere and near each other.

    Since William Marshal and his family are my specialist subject I was interested to discover that Isabel's mother Adela was William Marshal's aunt by marriage, and her son William, Isabel's half-brother, was the Marshal's cousin.  There is a further link in that Hamelin and Isabel's son William, later married William Marshal's eldest daughter Mahelt when her first husband died in 1225.
    When you begin looking, everything is connected to everything else!

    Selected Sources:
    Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay - Cambridge University Press
    Noblewomen Aristocracy and Power in the 12th century Anglo Norman Realm by Susan M. Johns. Manchester University Press
    Thomas Becket by John Guy - Penguin
    Blog article by Elizabeth Chadwick Hamelin de Warenne
    Online Dictionary of National Biography - article by Susan M. Johns
    The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1o00-1300 by David Crouch

    Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling, multi-award winning author of fiction set in the Middle Ages. She is currently completing The Autumn Throne, the 3rd book in  trilogy of novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine - and featuring among its cast Isabel and Hamelin de Warrene and their children.

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    When I was a History student (in the 1970s and again at the turn of the century) one of the things I liked most was being buried in the library.  In those days, part of the joy of historical research (and one of the main things we were being tested on) was slogging through cardboard indexes and untangling illegible handwriting.  We were looking for something no one else knew about, or which had been routinely overlooked.
    In those days, it was perfectly in order to spend several years doing a PhD.  Some people never finished at all.  In the great mahogany stacks there were old men who never spoke to anyone, but shuffled to the same seat every day to slog away at a great work no one would ever see.  The true professionals sat in a strange huddled posture, their arms guarding their books and papers from the prying eyes of rival scholars, like children protecting their chips from hungry siblings.

    Not much changed for four hundred years
    Those of us who were on time limits of three or four years for delivering a thesis laughed about the Gnomes, as we called them, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who silently envied their secret world. I learned, like them, to feel a frisson of superiority when a new person arrived at an archive, unaware of the particular bureaucratic gymnastics that particular institution had invented for ordering something up.  I remember the thrill of finding letters and notebooks that ad languished, unread, for hundreds of years.
    My excitement was only slightly dimmed by the knowledge that I was the only person in the world who cared.
    I was even a little sad at the thought that when my thesis was done, anyone with the detective power to trace a copy, and the muscular strength to lift it down from the shelf, would be able to find the location of 'my' documents in the bibliography.
    My idea of a fun place
    But then, in the early years of this century, the grown-ups taught me to share.

    I was lucky enough to be taught by some truly wonderful scholars.  They were all equally brilliant, but in academic esteem, some were more equal than others.  Those whose books were commissioned by commercial publishers and sold in normal bookshops were condemned by the Gnomes as 'popular' historians.  Their success in spreading their knowledge to people outside the magic academic circle was taken as proof of their intellectual inferiority.  It's not surprising that the collective noun is a 'malice' of historians.
    The popular historians got their own back in the late 20th and early 21st century, when well researched, beautifully produced history books temporarily became money-spinners, but that was also the time when the Gnomes' contempt for such authors reached its highest point.

    When broadband came along, even popular historians were tested in their belief that their work - and, more importantly, their source material, - should be available to the masses.  Many ancient documents are now online in facsimile form.  You can zoom in and out of indistinct lettering until a meaning emerges. You can compare documents housed a world apart, wearing your pyjamas or over a cappuccino. And you can do all this without any entrance exams, just for fun.

    Try deciphering this by the light of a 40 watt bulb in a library
    I know that is a good thing, and I love using the Internet. But I'm ashamed to say that somewhere deep in my heart, I am sad. I miss our old secret world.  I'd like to think that there's something noble in that sentiment, but if I'm honest it's founded on a pretty despicable form of snobbery.  I liked knowing things that other people didn't know - and stood little chance of finding for themselves.  I adored my old work tools (pencil, notebook, magnifying glass and silence).  I thrived on the simultaneous torture of being kept away from my source material when the library was shut and the blissful encounter with real life that the closure forced on me. 

    Many professionals whose status depends on feats of memory are being undermined by our new world of information.  Imagine how medics feel when patients arrive having correctly diagnosed their own illnesses online. It is becoming more difficult for them to appear omnipotent, or to bury their mistakes.

    It is still (just) possible to do an historian's work in the old way.  Some of the Gnomes are still there, bending over their books.  Many more must have died of starvation in a world that only rewards published results.  Others may have been driven out by the clicking keyboards of students using the library as a place to access the Internet while saving on heating bills at home.

    I have said goodbye to my inner Edward Casaubon.  But sometimes I secretly wish that I'd been born a little earlier, and could have carried on gnoming forever.


    pictures :Wikimedia Commons.  Library picture: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons.

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                                                A cave painting of lions at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc

    It has been reported in the press this week that a replica of the Grotte Chauvet has been created. It will be open to the public by the time you read this.  The original, containing thousands of prehistoric animal and figure drawings, will no longer be accessible to visitors because our human presence is putting the artwork at risk. This is not a question of hooliganism or graffiti. It is simply the erosion caused by our attendance there, our exhalations near the paintings. A friend who is staying with us remarked that it was a great pity that one should buy a ticket to visit a copy, even one hailed as a near masterpiece. I disagreed with him, recalling one of the most memorable experiences of my travelling life: a visit to the caves of Altamira.

    Altamira (a UNESCO World Heritage site), located a few kilometres from Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, northern Spain, was the first site with cave paintings to be discovered, in 1880. How the discovery came about was quite by chance and a rather lovely if sad story.

                                                                       Bison, Altamira

    In 1875, a Spanish landowner, lawyer and amateur anthropologist, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, learned that a stone mason, while quarrying locally, had unearthed some rather unusual caves. Don Marcelino went to take a look. He found a pencil-thin aperture. It had been revealed after millennia by the landslides caused by the mason’s gunpowder explosions. Don Marcelino slid through the opening and found himself within a series of labyrinthine caves, chambers and tunnels that measured in length some 270 metres, almost a quarter of a kilometre. This dark hidden space had not been visited for at least ten thousand years. Don Marcelino, even in the crepuscular light, noticed markings on many of the cave walls but he could not make out what they were.

    Three years later while he was attending the Anthropological Sciences pavilion at the World Fair in Paris, he spotted a display of prehistoric tools. He learned that they had come from caves in France. This knowledge inspired him to return to the Cantabrian caves and begin excavations. Digging around outside, he unearthed bones, spears, shells and tools. He returned to the site on a regular basis and on one of these trips he took his eight-year-old daughter, Maria, with him. As the story goes, penetrating the caves, oil lamp in hand, the small child looked up at the very low ceiling and remarked, ‘Look, Daddy, at the painted bulls.’ In fact, the child was pointing at a series of paintings in red ochre of a herd of prehistoric bison.


    I try to picture that moment. The moment when Don Marcelino was witnessing, confirming what he had found. The relevance of his discovery, the realisation that his work had not been in vain. This revelation was a moment he had been working towards for several years. Back then, one hundred and thirty years ago, cave art was a completely unknown archaeological science. De Sautola was the first to propose it. A pure, untouched paleolithic universe.  He was standing in the midst of what had once been a prehistoric settlement or meeting place, where the hunters or their wives, their women perhaps, were artists, a community of artists who whiled away their time painting the world that existed for them beyond those caves where they lived or sheltered.
    One of the sights that touched me deeply were the handprints.  Those early artists have imprinted the cave walls and ceilings with impressions of their hands. Handprints. Their signatures, perhaps?

    Don Marcelino published a small book on his findings, with copies of many of the illustrations he had seen at Altamira and other, lesser sites in the area. He was mocked. The scientific world did not take him seriously. The Church also declaimed him, vociferously so. They were keen to discredit such findings for fear the discoveries threatened the omnipotence of God or put the subject of evolution into the spotlight. Tragically, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautola died in 1888, a disillusioned man. The brilliance of his investigative work and his findings were not recognised until 1902.

    My reason for making the pilgrimage to Altamira was because I was searching for ancient olive stories. The birth of, the beginnings of agriculture. Olive pressing, the cultivation of olive groves, for my book The Olive Tree. Might these hunter-gatherers have lived on a diet of fruit, berries? Might they have pressed juices from these fruits? To create lighting, for food? Might there have been wild olive trees growing in the vicinity?

    I had bought my ticket to visit the caves of Altamira online weeks in advance and had arranged my travel schedule to fit in around the date allocated to me. The guided visits are limited to ten persons and they are not very frequent. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that I would not be visiting the original caves but a neighbouring replica. I felt a little cheated (It was probably mentioned on the website where I purchased my ticket but the information was in Spanish and I must have missed it).

    During the 1960s and 70s, the paintings were showing early signs of damage caused by the damp breath, exhalations of carbon dioxide from those flocking to visit the rupestral art. I was assured the neo-caves opened in 2001 would not disappoint.

    And they did not. The reproduction has used identical colour pigments fashioned from the same powders as the originals. Every bump and incline, every rockface, nuance and contour has been represented down to the minutest detail.

    I think we were nine in my group plus the guide. Everyone of us was moved to tears. I am not exaggerating. One couple, Japanese if I remember correctly, were on their knees in front of one of the images, weeping at the sheer beauty, the purity and exhilaration of the artwork. Picasso, who from his earliest days was fascinated by primitive art, visited these caves, the originals, before 1939, when he exiled himself for the rest of his life from Franco’s Spain.

    His words when he exited las cuevas were: 'Beyond Altamira, all is decadence.'

                                                                  Hand with fish, Picasso

    I left the site in a state of euphoria, wandering the hillsides for hours looking at, into colours, at light, as though I had never seen grass or trees or cows before, reluctant to return to the town, to noise and modernity. I had seen the world anew. I did not find olive clues in the vicinity but the experience did put a new spin on my journey. The first time. Man’s very first experiences. It was as though my sight had been unshackled. My travels continued for another nine months or so. No other place I visited reached back in time as far as Altamira - how could it? - but when I sat beneath millennia old olive trees trying to imagine the people who had planted the trees, who harvested them and pressed their fruits, I frequently recalled the simplicity and purity of the artwork at Altamira. Once Upon a Time… when Man and Nature lived hand in hand.

    Twitter: Carol4OliveFarm

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    Many are the strange places to which our writing leads us. Last week it led me to a four-day sculpture course for maxillo-facial reconstructive surgeons. (Those who know my books will know that historical maxillo-facial reconstruction is rather key to them.) The idea is that as the surgeons' training tends to the scientific and the two-dimensional, it is a good idea to let them build a human head from scratch, out of clay, so as to learn the true nature of the shape of a head, hands-on. The pioneers of this type of surgery in the UK, Major Harold Gillies and Sir Henry Tonks, were both trained artists - Tonks was a professor at the Slade School of Art, as well as a surgeon. Many of you will have seen the profoundly moving pastel portraits he made during the time Gillies ran the Queen's Hospital at Sidcup for the facially injured of WW1, as a record rather than as, specifically, art. Here is one -  

    Gillies employed sculptors as well to make masks of the wounded men out of plaster, so he could design their surgery without having to pester them all the time. My grandmother, at the time a successful portrait sculptor in London, was one who worked with him. (My sister Emily Young is a sculptor too. I am curious about sculpture and women.) Gillies entirely recognised the importance of art - his first book, published in 1919, was called The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery. I won't go on again about the injuries and the soldiers and the genius of those times; today's story is more about the importance of art for reconstructive surgeons, and history trickling down. And why is art important? Because it really makes you look, and it records what you see. Including, in sculpture, seeing with your fingers. Purely practically, sketches were a lot less faff than photography at that time, and still today a skilful diagram or model saves a thousand misunderstood words of explanation.

    We all pitched up at a school near Harley Street, and the portrait sculptor Luke Shepherd took us in hand. First he showed us a beautiful pre-Roman terracotta head of  a lady. Not this one, but this sort of thing. Get some clay, sculpt it, fire it . . . the techniques haven't changed much. It's an innate, isn't it, the desire to replicate ourselves?  

    The surgeons included three consultants, one of them 'the best nose man in London', and a surgeon from the Jordanian military. The trainee surgeons included three beautiful young women - one Egyptian, one from York, one Chinese and pregnant, and a young man who after a day's sculpting was going on to do the nightshift in a hospital which shall remain nameless.  

    We started by wrapping newspaper in a plastic bag, and taping it to a wooden stand. Then you stick a stick though it. Not so ancient, but I seem to remember people used to do it with chicken wire, so of course techniques change a little. 

    Then you wrap it in clay. 

    Of course you need a lady. Ours is called Hannah; she is a paragon of patience. We measure her with calipers, from her temporo-mandibular joint (just in front of the ear) to her other temporo-mandibular joint. Then from her temporo-mandibular joint to the tip of her nose, then from her other temporo-mandibular joint to the tip of her nose. Humans can be wonky. It's lucky we are, or how would we tell each other apart? 

    Put a small black dot on each point you measure. Write down ALL the measurements. Clip the stick to length, so each end of the stick represent a temporo-mandibular joint. Measure the angle and distance to her eyes - draw the line. Mark where the eye will be.

    Then measure out to where the tip of her nose would be . . . a point, in the air, as yet unrecognised, unacknowledged. 

    And the same with the chin. The points in space become points on the end of a piece of clay.

    Measure her again. And again. And again. Measure every angle and plane as you come to it. 'If your work is well done,' Luke says, quoting the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, 'resemblance will come of its own accord.' I like this phrase. I suspect it can apply to writing as well.  

    Did ancient sculptors work like this? We know that painters didn't recognise perspective till the 14th century, but sculptors seemed to know the difference between a mask and a head - which is more than I do, at the start. It had never occurred to me that a mouth is curved like a jaw, the middle further forward than the ends. But of course it is! I cry now. But it had never cross my mind. Eyes too. They're practically diagonal. We smile as we work. We are learning stuff.

    We give them temporary ears, for guidance - see below. I feel she is verging on a perfect likeness. One of our consultants is a top ear man. Later he explains to us how to make an ear - a real one - from scratch, by carving it out of a piece of rib, and growing it under the skin. 

    Oh. Maybe not such a perfect likeness. Also she seems to have had a sex change while I wasn't looking. 

    No. Terrible. We need to look from every angle, at the topology and geometry of the skin. Return to measuring. I measure the eyes. The sticks mark the inner and outer canthus, the corners of the eye, and the pupil.

    There are good new words. Canthus. Philtrum. Conca, scafa, fossa, tragus, Darwin's tubicle, incisura intertragica. The ear-building consultant teaches us drawing on Day Four; he loves this last term so much he almost dances as he says it, and comes and writes it on my sketches of my drawing partner, the Jordanian military surgeon. Have you ever spent eight hours staring at and being stared at by a man you do not know who has recently been sewing people back together in Iraq and DRC? It is - surprising. You are required to stare at him, and he at you. You see each other's thoughts - not what they are, necessarily, but that you are having one. 'Why are you smiling?''What are you laughing at?' It is only after many hours of staring, towards the end of the day, that I see he has the little bruise on his forehead that denotes a lot of praying. His devoutness - devotion? - is right there to see. He sees me see it. He is a nice man. Not very good at drawing though.

    Before and after the drawing lesson. Oh well.

    Back to the sculpture. I nickname mine Cecil. He is clearly a minor Cambridge poet of the inter-war years. At the end of the day I spray him, and he goes into a bin-liner for the night.

    Next Day: Good morning Cecil. You are all wrong.

    Luke is an extremely good teacher. Within moments, Cecil has a softened, female brow, filled in eye-sockets, lots more flesh, and some hair.

    She gets a neck. Her jaw is wrong, but he points it out. You have to look. And measure. And look and look and look and record how it all fits together, all those planes and angles, all that topography. You do that to Hannah, and then to your sculpture. Take her off her stand and look at the top of her head; kneel before her and look up her nose, the underside of the back of her head, every curve and camber. The surgeons know the names of the muscles. 

    Here an academic from Essex appears to be sculpting the actual lady.

    Getting there. The mouth is not flat, and nor is it just what the surgeons call 'the vermilion'. It is a muscular outcrop - most visible in sexy French film stars, the 'mouth on a stalk' pout. But we all have it to some degree. I give it to Cecil, or Cecile as she is now, and s/he becomes all the more female. 

    I like still having the lines demarcating the planes and angles. It makes it look rather fifties, and kind of like I know what I'm doing.

    Hair! How can you make hair out of clay? Clay is the very opposite of clay. 
    Spot the difference. Hair, and ears. 

    Ears. Dear god, ears.

    They go in a lot further than you'd think. They are a series of helices. They have a Y shape - is that the bifid tragus? No, the tragus - well there's two of them - are the, how to explain - the bits at the bottom  above the lobe, the forward one is just behind the TMJ, the posterior is the sort of horizontal ledge just behind and below it, and the icisura intertragica is the dip in between . . . what, you're not following? This is why surgeons need to be able to draw. How swiftly I could point it out on a sketch. 

    And finally, with many a Bake-Off joke, we lay down our tools and line up our host of Hannahs. Here she is, a flock of her, all in a row.

    This is mine. As I said, Luke is a VERY good teacher. 

    Are you still wondering about the TMJ? See the dot just by her ear? That's it. That's where we pull the stick out at the end.

    Work in Progress:

    And here are the surgeons at work. Bear in mind that they usually sculpt in flesh. Some of them did have to dash off occasionally for a little light operating in the course of the days, but they all without exception found it a very enlightening and useful course. As the Jordanian said, 'Few things in life sculpt its effect inside us, and this course is one of these things'.

    And as I can't offer you a picture of my own deep concentration, 
    here instead is a sculpting selfie

    And here's our lunch. It's true what they say about medics and their diets.

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    Last weekend marked 100 years since the start of the First World War’s tragic Gallipoli land offensive, aimed at securing the strategic peninsula in the Dardanelles - the vital sea route to what was then the Russian Empire. It was the first combined naval-army operation in history, but both offensives were effectively repelled by Turkish forces. After eight gruelling months, Allied forces had to be withdrawn to Egypt. This was a serious defeat with significant political and military repercussions, and an estimated over 60,000 men from Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand killed and possibly 87,000 from Turkey, as well as huge numbers dying from disease.

    My grandfather, Alfred Smith, a naturally quiet and peaceful young man, was among those who served at Gallipoli. Having worked in the local post office in Malton, Yorkshire, before the war, Alf had chosen to enlist with the Signals Division of the Royal Engineers, serving his country by laying the insulated telephone cables that would enable rapid military communications, and as a signaller himself.

    My grandfather, Alfred Smith's 1915 war diary

    Alf's war-time diaries start on 14 April 1915 when he left Biggleswade to join the ship that would transport him across the Bay of Biscay; ‘sick’ he scribbled in pencil. He then continued to the African coast, ‘Boxing contest aboard ship’; and past Malta to Alexandria in Egypt. From there he was sent to Imbros, now Gökçeada, the largest Turkish island in the Aegean, just across from Gallipoli, where he watched the ‘checking of Dardenelles by warships’. His diaries are never effusive, at most four short lines a day, with more space given to notes on signal flags and so on, but they provide a fascinating glimpse into his months at Gallipoli.

    Because of its strategic location, Imbros had been retained by the Ottoman Empire in 1913 when the other Aegean islands were ceded to Greece. However the island remained under Greek administration. The first Allied attack on the Dardanelles had been launched in February 1915, followed by more sustained action a month later. During the battle, according to an account by the Ottoman General Staff, ‘all telephone wires were cut, all communications with the forts were interrupted’, but the enemy forces rallied and the British fleet was forced back, giving a huge morale boost to the Ottomans. Over the following month Allied ground forces assembled in Greece and Egypt, tasked with eliminating the Ottoman artillery so that Allied minesweepers could clear the way for the larger vessels to return. The Royal Engineers were also sent in to lay communication lines. However, a month’s delay allowed the enemy to prepare effective defences. The land campaign was launched in late April, with appallingly heavy casualties on both sides from the start.

    Alfred's diary, April-May 1915

    It was now that Alf’s ship arrived in the area. Although his was not an active combat role, he would soon find himself serving under fire. In early May, still onboard ship, he noted the ‘heavy bombardments’, and reported watching ‘severe fighting all morning’ on shore. Nevertheless, whenever there was a lull in the fighting and he was not sending cables, Alf managed to swim from the ship or listen to piano on deck. They docked on 19 May, and for the first few weeks Alf’s diary is filled with the heavy work of laying cables, as well as cleaning rifles, blue skies, desert winds, and ‘rumours of pay’.

    The battles continued through the spring, and by mid-June Alf was noting ‘heavy bombardments’ again, and on 1 July, ‘shells falling all day… near our dug out. One, just behind, killed two men and eight horses’. Later that week he witnessed a troopship torpedoed and sunk in five minutes, and after that there is little let up in the bombing. ‘Turks using incendiary shells’ he wrote on 22 July, ‘which fired gorse on left flank’. Alf chose not to dwell on the horrors he must have witnessed, although he recorded when one friend was killed while bathing, and others were killed or wounded during the shelling of the signals camp. A few lines later he noted that ‘fresh fruit is obtainable’. Small pleasures had become remarkable.

    In August Alf was sent to Suvla Bay on the mainland peninsular, five miles north of the Anzac sector, as part of the final British attempt to break the deadlock of the Battle of Gallipoli. Fortunately, he was in the second landing. Had he been in the first, his chances of survival would have been slim as wave after wave of men were shot down as they disembarked. The land there even today is full of bones and spent bullets among the broken seashells. With no picture of the wider battle strategy, Alf's diary comments only on the action nearby, the courage of the Australians, casualties among his signals staff colleagues as they worked to repair and extend communications, and the consolation provided by their meagre pay, mostly spent on cigarettes.

    Alf's Royal Engineers cigarette case

    The failure of the August Offensive finally showed the Allied leadership that the Gallipoli campaign could not be saved, but the knowledge was slow to effect change on the ground. Alf was still there when autumn brought relief from the heat, but gales presented new problems. He was now tormented by ‘dust and wind’ and often ‘terribly cold’ at night, even after second blankets had been issued. The dugouts flooded when the rains arrived, and a friend died from hyperthermia during one freezing period.

    From late September through to December Alf was busy filling in old dugouts and digging in new foundations, helping to mend roads, make mortar and lay bricks as they shifted camp, as well as spending long days laying new cables. He must have been extremely fit. Perhaps it was a relief to work hard physically, although he was saddened to have to destroy ‘an old Turkish house, rather fine old place which has had very fine gardens’. His humanity shows in such details. He used his rare days off to inspect a downed aeroplane, explore the local town, help some fishermen to haul in their nets, and bring back sour oranges picked from roadside trees. 

    Alfred Smith, front right, and friends from
    the Royal Engineers Signal Corps,
    Imbros, November 1915.

    A black and white photo shows Alf and five sun-tanned pals in front of their heavy canvas tents back on Imbros in late November, all in shirt-sleeves and army trousers, one wearing a Fez, and each with a pipe or cigarette clamped into their mouths. The British Cabinet confirmed the military decision to evacuate in early December. Alf was finally shipped out to Egypt, heading for the ‘Cleopatra Camp’, two days after Christmas. ‘Not a bad ship,’ he wrote, if ‘somewhat crowded’. He would spend the rest of the war laying cables and sending signals from Egypt and Palestine.

    Alf had a hard war, losing many friends and, while in Egypt, contracting the malaria that would plague him for the rest of his life. However he was fortunate to have been accepted into the Royal Engineers and, unlike so many, to survive both the Gallipoli campaign and the rest of the conflict. His greatest achievement, he said, was to have done his duty without having had to kill anyone. In 1919 he returned to work for the Post Office, moved to London, married his sweetheart, and in 1930 became father to my mother. Like many, he rarely spoke about his experiences or elaborated on his diaries – but he did not destroy them either.

    Alfred Smith's war medals: The 1915-18 Star,
    The British War Medal 1914-1918, and the Victory Medal.

    Along with a few possessions, photos and some letters, I have Alf’s service medals. Still kept in the small cardboard box in which they were posted to him are his British War Medal 1914-1918, and his 1914-15 Star, stamped on the reverse to ‘Spr; A, Smith.’ – a more modest name you could hardly imagine. He also received the beautiful golden Victory Medal with a great winged angel on the front, and on the reverse the inscription ‘The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919’. This was never threaded onto its fine rainbow-striped ribbon, and it is clear that Alf did not choose to wear it. Indeed I wonder how much any of his medals saw the light of day; my mother says she never saw them during his lifetime. Perhaps as these were fairly standard medals he did not seem himself as a hero, or perhaps he could not share his nation's official sanction of the conflict, having witnessed slaughter on such a scale to so little end at Gallopoli.

    Back of Alf's Imbros, 1915 framed photograph

    Alf's 1915 photograph, however, of himself and his mates from the Royal Engineers, who all courageously served during the Gallipoli campaign, was carefully dated, annotated with their names and home towns on the back, and framed with a hook to be hung on a wall. The photo is yellowed from exposure to the light, and was clearly highly prized. Alf died when I was a child and I never spoke to him about his war-time experiences, however I think this says much about how my gentle, very decent grandfather chose to remember his war. 

    I would be very interested to know if any readers have inherited similar papers, photographs or possessions?

    c. Clare Mulley

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    This is not the first occasion I've indulged my delight in guide books and Orkney (see The Elevated Limpet) but this time I've brought things right up-to-date.

    Caroline Wickham-Jones is an experienced archaeologist who has worked on and written about sites across Scotland and Scandanavia.  Her Orkney: A Historical Guide was first published in 1998 and has been updated and re-issued a number of times since then.  Wickham-Jones' clear writing, expertise and obvious enthusiasm for her subject make her brand-new 2015 Guide a must-read for anyone drawn to this approximately 70-island-strong historical treasure trove.

    There is so much to see, and one of the confusing things about visiting Orkney is the way remains from so many different historical periods often sit cheek-by-jowl in the landscape.  Wickham-Jones'Guide is extremely helpful in separating the layers out, starting with a series of maps, which show:

         Neolithic sites
         Bronze Age, Iron Age and Pictish sites
         Norse and Scottish Earls sites
         18th- and 19th-century sites
         20th-century sites

    The chapters of the book take the same approach, with an overview for each block of time and then a description of sites of interest - and accessibility.  She also explores the effects of geography on the Orkney Islands' history.  The power of the winds, the fertility of the soil, the lack of trees and the easily splittable sandstone rock - all have their place in the way human life here was shaped and preserved. 

    I would thoroughly recommend this Historical Guide for your reading and research pleasure - and I would also thoroughly recommend using it on a visit to Orkney.  Orkney may seem a bit out-of-the-way (though you can't really see the edge of the world from there, as Pytheas of Marseille claimed in 330 BCE).  But for a large part of her 10,000 years of habitation, the sea roads made her nearer to being at the heart of things than the edge.  Granted those roads were treacherous* and, as Wickham-Jones says,

    "Rather like a six-lane motorway today, you have to know what you are doing, but the northern seas could lead you directly to your destination and provide varied benefits in the form of sheltered harbours and plentiful supplies."

    Reading her book, I defy you not to be convinced that those "plentiful supplies" include history preserved in abundance, to excite the imagination and furnish us with thoughts and ideas, whether as readers, writers or historians. 

    * Don't worry - the roads to Orkney are much safer now. 

    Caroline Wickham-Jones'Orkney: A Historical Guide
    pub. Birlinn Books

    pub. date 12 March 2015
    ISBN: 9781780272641          

    (With a YA novel inspired by Skara Brae coming out mid-June, and therefore at too late a stage to change anything, I approach all archaeological writing on my period with some uneasiness ... I'll be talking more about that another time!)


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

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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    Not far into writing Liberty’s Fire, I realised that my male characters would have to have facial hair.  There was just no getting round it.  Pretty much the only clean-shaven men in Paris in 1871 were priests, and the sensible ones were either in hiding or trying to escape the city dressed as women.  (I exaggerate just a little.)

    I consulted my daughter.  She made a face.  Just don’t mention it, she said.  Specially not when there’s kissing involved. There’s something about the word moustache. 

    I knew exactly what she meant, but I’d hoped it was a private prejudice.  Are YA readers ready to embrace romantic heroes with facial hair?

    Looking around my neighbourhood, I feel she can’t be entirely right.  The beards have been moving in for a few years now. Around the same time as the London orbital came our way – something between the train and the tube, and an excellent thing for us transport-deprived South-East Londoners –  an explosion of facial hair (and fixies) took place in and around the local bars and cafés.  Young beards.  In fact, I notice, intrigued, not unlike Communard beards. 

    Photograph: Brock Elbank
    Photograph: Brock Elbank

    The Beard exhibition at Somerset House has now closed but Mr Elbank’s brilliant contemporary beards can be seen in all their glory on Tumblr and will give you a good idea of what I'm talking about.  Beardseason, the Australian-born campaign to raise awareness of melanoma which was the start of this portrait series, continues to go from strength to hirsute strength.  To support it, I bring you a small selection of inspirational facial hair from nineteenth-century France, complete with links to more information about the revolutionaries (and one reactionary) sporting them.

    Jules Vallès, journalist and author of the intensely vivid and highly autobiographical Commune novel, L'Insurgé (The Insurgent), as painted by fellow Communard Gustave Courbet:


    himself (photographed by Nadar):

    Journalist and politician Henri Rochefort…

    And as painted by Manet…


    ore than once…here he is again, this time escaping from New Caledonia (4,500 Communards were deported to the Pacific penal colony after the fall of the Commune):

    Napoléon La Cécilia, who found refuge in London where he taught French at the Royal Naval School then in New Cross:

    Jarosław Dąbrowski, Polish activist, who died on the barricades during the final Bloody Week of the Commune.  His nom de guerre was Dombrowski, and was honoured in the name of an International Brigade battalion made up mostly of Polish miners during the Spanish Civil War.

    Maxime du Camp, probably the Commune’s most vitriolic and effective critic and author of the 4-volume attack Les Convulsions de Paris, whose representations of women in the Commune endure to this day:

    And finally, a man from a different kind of commune altogether, the transcendentalist Fruitlands, which was established by Louisa May Alcott's father in 1843. Joseph Palmer's interest in utopian politics, free speech and prison reform was sharpened by his own imprisonment after he fended off some men attempting to shave his beard in 1830, when beards were anything but fashionable. His gravestone in Massachussetts is apparently marked 'Persecuted for Wearing the Beard': 

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    I hope readers of this blog will indulge me. I recently wrote this essay about one of my literary heroines, Dorothy Whipple, and because I am keen for as many people to read her as possible,  I'm posting it on this blog which is my public forum, as it were. It's quite long...if you don't want to read it, that's fine, but please heed the message: READ DOROTHY WHIPPLE"S NOVELS. They are all published by the admirable Persephone Books, whose beautiful dove grey covers and carefully-chosen endpapers make each volume a 'thing of beauty and a joy forever.'  I have taken photos of some of them and interspersed them here, to break up the text a bit. 


    A funny thing happens when I discuss books with my friends. We  talk a lot about what we’re reading. Many of us are writers, so I suppose it’s talking shop, in a way. Mainly, I’m thinking of conversations with women, but on occasion this has happened in mixed gatherings, too.  I mention the name of Dorothy Whipple and there follows a bemused and (to be fair) interested silence. No, no one has read her.  Who is she? Never heard of her…

    This dismays me. My friends are very literate. Literary even and yet , almost always, I’m the one who has to explain to them about Whipple. Many of them have gone on to read her books and they have all thanked me for pointing them in her direction.  
    I am an evangelist about Dorothy Whipple for reasons which will make up the greater part of this essay, but one question to which I have no answer is this: how does it happen that  her novels  (which are published by Persephone Books in the most beautiful way imaginable) have made no discernible mark on the Great British Reading Public?

    One answer is: Persephone Books does not waste money on unnecessary advertising. The books have not been televised, (though goodness knows they’d make good television) They are not entered for literary prizes because they’re reprints of novels which first came out decades ago. For this reason, they are not reviewed in the press.  They are not controversial, and they are in competition daily, even hourly, with the latest sensation to make into the public consciousness.  Also, there’s this inconvenient fact: if someone one has heard of Whipple, it’s because they know that when  Carmen Callil set up Virago, she famously said that there was something called ‘The Whipple Line’ below which she was not prepared to go as a publisher. In other words, Dorothy Whipple’s novels were dismissed as not being worthy of publication by Virago….for reasons which no one can remember any longer but basically, as I recall, that these works were deemed too easy to read and too undemanding to be of any great literary merit.

    My response to this is a question: How wrong is it possible to be?  And the answer comes back clear as clear: dreadfully wrong. In order to show why and how Callil’s judgement is flawed,  I must describe for those readers who don’t know it, what Dorothy Whipple’s work is like. This is hard to do in a short piece but I’m going to try. I am going to attempt once again (I’ve written about this before, here and there) to demonstrate that those who haven’t read her are missing a huge treat. 

    The internet will give you the main facts about her life, so I’m not going dwell on the biography, but as a bit of sic transit gloria, I’ll note simply that in her day she was very popular indeed. Her books were Book of the Month, and so forth. One of them ‘They Were Sisters’ was made into a (not terribly good) film starring James Mason. She fell out of print and it was not until Persephone books began to publish her work that she was brought to the attention of today’s readers. And she does have  many appreciative readers. She is, I think, the bestselling author in the ranks of those Persephone have rescued from oblivion, to our great delight and pleasure. 

    So why the lack of recognition? The first reason is: Whipple’s novels are DOMESTIC.  That’s to say, they deal with families, and relationships and concerns (love, children, siblings, older parents, money and how to cope when you don’t have it, etc. working women, clothes, home making etc )  which historically have been bunched under the heading: Women’s Fiction.  What this means is: many men don’t even try to read them. I can report that when they do, they are often as keen on them as any woman. My late husband was a huge fan and read every one of the novels and the short stories and I’m sure he wasn’t alone. 

    I cannot imagine why the domestic novel has such low status. We live in an age where women have a larger measure of equality than ever, even though there are, of course, sundry inequalities  and injustices still in place.  But the novels which get noticed, mainly, are those which deal with war, ideas, history, crime, horror, fantasy, almost everything, in other words that isn’t WOMEN’S FICTION. Under this latter heading you will find chick lit, sagas, mum lit, and a huge, spreading lake of Romance in all its guises.  There are a few women writers, (Margaret Forster comes to mind) who still write intelligent novels about proper people in interesting situations, but if a woman does break through into the bestselling mainstream, it will generally be under a Historical, or Crime or Literary heading. The ordinary real life of contemporary women is still being written about, of course,  but not many such books make it into the Bestseller lists. It seems that most people like to flee, in their reading matter, from all they know and rush towards the fantastical (Game of Thrones, and lots of other fantasy) the distant past (Historical) or versions of reality that most of them will never encounter: books about movie stars, big business types, the very rich, the very promiscuous, the very drug-addicted, etc etc. They like gruesome, Baroque killings in exotic places, not ordinary murders which are often shabby and squalid and do not reach levels of inventiveness that we find in a great many crime novels.

    I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I am as fond of the outrageous as the next person, as long as it’s well written and about fascinating characters (Lizbet Salander of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes to mind)  but I also love and am comforted by the existence of, novels that mirror real  life and real people as I know them. I like the suburban and I make no excuse for that. I have nothing against the Middle Class.  I don’t require obvious strangeness to make me aware of the truth of the saying: “There’s nowt so queer as folk.” This desire to lead a whole variety of different lives is one reason why I am so fond of Whipple. I can imagine myself inhabiting these houses, with these people. I will  return to the matter of Whipple’s depiction of the Middle Classes.

    Others have written learned articles about the ratio of men to women writers being reviewed in the press. Most books reviewed seem to be by men. On the other hand, space for reviewing of every kind has shrunk drastically over the last few years. The movers and shakers in the literary world are busy promoting the latest thing and there is only so much reading time available so fitting in a book that is published quietly and decorously with no huge razzmatazz is probably not going to happen. 

    Whipple’s novels have another mark against them from the start. They are not hard to read. You know where you are, what you’re dealing with, who the protagonists are from the very first pages. You’re introduced properly to a set of people and there are no barriers to your understanding. You do not have to puzzle out what the writer is doing. There are no tricks being played. You don’t have to go over a sentence to make sure you’ve read it correctly.  You are plunged straight into a situation which is most often ordinary.   There is  not enough money, perhaps. How do we deal with that problem? Three sisters, devoted to one another, nevertheless have issues with one another and especially with some of their respective spouses. How do they cope? A prosperous son, looking for a companion for his mother, hires a Frenchwoman…what happens to everyone next?  A young woman goes to work in a shop in a Northern town. What happens to her? Does she succeed? Who will she meet? Will she fall in love? A grandmother and her relationship with her granddaughter is the basis of one book; a big house is at the centre of another. It’s not exactly Lee Child. Nor is it John Updike. It isn’t noisy. It isn’t blustering. It isn’t headachingly clever. Nor is it the world of  much modern fiction. 

    It has most in common, I think…and this is a large claim…with the work of Jane Austen. Like her, Whipple is interested in how people interact. She is often witty, like Austen. She’s ironic too. She’s got a quick  eye and  sharp tongue as well as a kind heart. But she spreads her social net much wider than Jane Austen. She is extremely good, for example, at writing about France and the French. She’s good at the daily grind of work and knows how commerce operates. She’s brilliant at children, who play a full part in the action of several of the novels.

    Back to the Middle Classes. A criticism that’s sometimes levelled at Whipple is that she writes middle class books about middle class people. This is not entirely true. She manages, in each world she creates, to vary the kinds of people she’s writing about. She’s very good at the middle class, but also knows about being a poor young woman working in a dress shop. She knows about the agonies of not having the right thing to wear because you can’t afford it, and one of the more heartrending moments in They Were Sisters  occurs when  a much poorer sister is lent a blouse by her richer sibling.  She knows a great deal, like Jane Austen again, about money and the corrosive effects of having both too little of it and too much. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of a family whose paterfamilias sells his soul to the Devil in order to be rich. And in They Were Sisters, she gives as good a picture of domestic abuse as any I’ve read anywhere. Here’s an understated, unhysterical, moment which nevertheless chills the blood:
    Charlotte, changing for dinner, put down her brush and paused. She was seized by one of her old impulses to run down, throw her arms round Geoffrey’s neck and implore him to let them be happy, to let them all be open and candid with one another, she, Geoffrey, the children, the maids. They could all be so happy together if only he would let them. But she took up her brush again. The last time she went down like that, he unloosed her arms and said with disgust: ‘Don’t fawn on me.’ Not once had any of these appeals succeeded.”

    Another thing that might conceivably irritate a reader, though it’s one of the things I like best about Whipple’s writing, is her love of detail. You know exactly how her houses are furnished. You can see the clothes, the gardens, the rooms, the landscapes: everything physical about the world of her books is there in front of your eyes.  This  is a short piece from Greenbanks.
    “Laura returned with the albums,massive with brass clasps and backs of stamped and padded leather. Rose took one on her knee and opened the stiff pasteboards, decorated round the inserted prints with painted sprays of rose and maidenhair, forget-me-not and lily.”
    That album is so much there in your imagination that you can practically smell it.

    Whipple writes about love a great deal but with no illusions as to the suffering and anguish it can cause. Someone At A Distance (possibly my favourite from among her novels) describes the progress and results of an adulterous relationship not only on the lovers, but on all the members of the family who are affected. 

    And in They Were Sisters, she has created possibly the most horrible husband in the whole of literature. Geoffrey, whom I have mentioned before,  is a monster and Whipple doesn’t mince her words. She draws no veils over the agonies he causes his family, especially his children.  There’s a scene where he’s almost ridiculously cruel to his son’s dog which is quite appalling and which, once read, will never leave you. 

    Here’s the thing about Whipple’s novels: her clear belief that she is telling a story designed to draw readers into her world does not lead her into the trap of sugaring the reality she describes. There are cruel, unkind, thoughtless and stupid people everywhere and Whipple gives them more time and attention than many other writers. She does this so well that every ‘baddie’ is seen as having other sides, other possibilities, other paths they might have taken.  She does not quite believe, like Oscar Wilde,  that fiction means the good end happily and the bad unhappily but she provides hope even in the direst of circumstances.  Often, too, a seemingly unhappy ending turns out to have a silver lining.

    There’s little more I can say without lengthy quotation, which is boring to read and which, taken out of context, would  not do  full justice to Whipple’s gifts. What I would say to sum up is this: her novels are perfect for anyone  who likes to read about characters leading recognisable lives, in recognisable places, but  lives and places most carefully, elegantly and perceptively rendered.

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    Today's guest is Australian author Kate Forsyth. Gillian Polack took the opportunity to ask her some questions that she's wanted to ask for quite a while.

    I met Australian author Kate Forsyth back in 1999. There are a couple of questions I want to ask her. They’ve been lurking, all this time.

    Normally, when I interview someone, I have a pile of linked questions and I weave through them more or less elegantly. In your case, Kate, I just want to know everything, instantly, and I’ve given up on elegance. I had to rewrite the questions, in fact, so they weren’t all “Tell me now!”

    Kate, to get us started, would you tell us about yourself and your fiction?

    I've always known I wanted to be a writer. Even as a small child, I was always writing poems and stories and telling people it was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wrote my first novel when I was only seven, and have never had a day since when I wasn't writing something (even if its only my diary that I've kept since I was twelve). I am passionately interested in history and folklore and fairy tales, and they weave their way into all of my work, whether I am writing poems or essays or novels. My first poem was published (in the school magazine) when I was eleven and my first novel was published when I was thirty (it was the first in a heroic fantasy series set in a magical world very much like seventeenth century Scotland). I am now the proud author of thirty-six books ranging from picture books to poetry to epic historical sagas for adults. My best-known book is BITTER GREENS, which is a retelling of Rapunzel in a Renaissance Venice setting, interwoven with the dramatic true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the 17th century French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force who had been banished to a convent after a series of scandalous affairs. The book won the American Library Association Award for Best Historical Novel of 2015, and has also just been voted one of Australia's Best 101 Books. I then wrote THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most favourite fairy tales, against the heart-rending backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. It was voted the Most Memorable Love Story of the year by Australian readers, a wonderful endorsement! It is just about to come out in the US and is already getting some wonderful reviews.

    I've also just finished writing a five-book fantasy adventure series for children called THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, and am in the final stages of another historical novel for adults called THE BEAST'S GARDEN, which is a retelling of the Grimms' Beauty & the Beast, set in Nazi Germany. So you can see I really do spend most of my time writing!

    I’m fascinated by your fascination with fairy tales. Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl instantly come to mind when I think of this, but your work has had an element of fairy and folk since your very first novel, hasn’t it?

    Yes, indeed. My early fantasy books all have a strong element of fairy tale and folklore woven through them, from motifs of cursed towers overgrown with roses to girls who change into owls or wolves. And DANCING ON KNIVES (which is the first novel I wrote as an adult but was not published until a few years later) draws upon The Little Mermaid fairy tale even though it has a contemporary Australian setting.

    It all began, I think, because I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child after being savaged by a dog when I was just two years old. There was not much to do in hospital in those days except read, and so I read a great deal. I think I was particularly drawn to tales of magic, adventure and escape because my own life was so constrained by illness and the fear of illness. My mother gave me a beautiful red leather-bound copy of Grimms' Fairy tales when I was about seven, and I read the book so many times it fell to pieces. Those wonderful, frightening stories wove themselves into my imagination and have continued to fascinate me ever since.

    My greatest interest is that you don’t simply take the tales and re-tell, you find their cultural and historical contexts and weave them into the tales. Would you tell us more about your relationship with fairy tales and folk tales?

    I love fairy tale retellings. Growing up I devoured the work of writers such as Eleanor Farjeon, Nicholas Stuart Gray and - a little later, Robin McKinley - who wrote what I call 'pure' retellings - ones set in a fairy-tale-like setting with plots that closely follow the best-known variant of a tale, which is usually the Grimm Brothers'. Such 'pure' retellings have become very popular and we have seen work by such writers as Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, and Edith Pattou, who have all written fairy tale fantasies for a young adult market. Then we began to see such fairy-tale-inspired fiction for adult readers, by writers like Juliet Marillier and Margo Lanagan and Jane Yolen, who have taken old stories and reworked them in marvellously new and innovative ways. And I loved their work as well.

    I have also always loved historical fiction - its my favourite genre of all. Growing up, I read Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease and Leon Garfield, and now I read as much historical fiction and non-fiction as I can. I think it was because I loved history so much that I first got the idea of re-writing 'Rapunzel' as a historical novel, rather than as a fantasy. Or perhaps it was because I come from an academic family (my father was a scientist and my mother studied psychology & anthropology) and so I was raised to question everything and to dig deeper, to look for facts rather than hearsay. And because I am an oral storyteller as well as an author, I was always going to be interested in who told the tale. All of these obsessions - history, psychology, folklore, storytelling - led me to want to know as much as I could about the background of the tale and the tale's tellers. I ended up doing my doctorate on 'Rapunzel' - since I was doing so much research I thought I might as well use it! - and along the way discovered the extraordinary life of an all-but-forgotten 17th century fairy tale teller. Bringing Charlotte-Rose de la Force's story to life meant trying to understand the milieu in which she lived, and so I was also researching the life and times of her cousin, Louis XIV, the Sun King, and the world of the royal court at Versailles.

    In all, it took me seven years to research and write BITTER GREENS and to finish my doctorate. And my later fairy-tale-inspired-historical novels, THE WILD GIRL and the upcoming THE BEAST'S GARDEN, both arose out of discoveries I made during those years of research.

    THE WILD GIRL in particular was a challenge, because very little was known about Dortchen Wild, who told a quarter of all the tales collected by the Grimm brothers and published in their first edition of fairy tales. Like so many women of her time, she left very little behind her in the way of letters, diaries, stories and other writings, and I had to use the stories she told Wilhelm as a template for her inner life. It was a truly fascinating process!

    Now, of course, you’ve done a doctorate on fairy tales. How does it fit with your earlier work? Has it changed your writing and the tales you want to tell?

    As we discussed earlier, I have always been interested in fairy tales and folklore, and so undertaking a doctorate in that area has only fed my obsession. During the time I was doing my doctorate, I also studied oral storytelling and am now an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. So these two interests of mine have continued to lead me deeper onto the dark, tangled woods of fairy tale studies. I cannot tell you if it has changed my writing, though I can see a difference in style to the books I wrote in my 20s and the ones I am now writing in my 40s. I think that is a natural growth and progression.

    For the moment, I am bubbling over with ideas for new books that combine historical fiction with fairy tale retellings in new and innovative ways. One that I am just beginning to play with is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty set amongst the love affairs and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I am coming to the UK in June to run a writing retreat in the Cotswolds and plan to spend my spare time gazing at paintings and prowling around At and Crafts houses. It's very exciting!

    You also have an interest in history. Is it the pull of a period or place? Is it an interest in research and the past? Is it the need to delve into the background of the story and to ground it in something our culture knows? Why history? Which history? Whose history?

    It's all these things! And yet, each book is a little different too. Setting is very important to me, and so I am drawn to certain times and places, such as Renaissance Venice or Paris and Versailles in the time of the Sun King, which were the settings of BITTER GREENS. Yet I was not at all interested in the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations during the Napoleonic Wars ... it was the untold love story Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild that drew me to that time and place and I had to do a great deal of research before I could even begin to understand it and bring it to life in THE WILD GIRL. I was always deeply fascinated by the Second World War, and in stories of heroism and resistance during that dark time, and had always wanted to set a book then. Somehow my subconscious mind put that wish together with the desire to retell Beauty and the Beast, and came up with something truly surprising and unexpected.

    I am also very interested in art and poetry and music and so these things work their way into my fiction. The Venetian artist Titian was a key character in BITTER GREENS. In THE WILD GIRL, I grew very interested in the German Romantic poet Novalis and also listened to a great deal of Beethoven. And I've always loved the Pre-Raphaelites and their art, and so this new book is born out of a desire to know more about them ... and also to rescue the all-but-forgotten Victorian fairy tale teller, Mary de Morgan, who was a shadowy figure on the edge of their bright circle,

    Many of my books are about untold stories ... and forgotten women ... and the redemptive power of storytelling in its many different forms. Why I am drawn to telling these stories? I don't know. Mystery is at the heart of all creation. I suspect it has something to do with a fear of being forgotten myself ... which is in itself a fear of death. I just know that these stories come to possess me, and that I cannot rest until I have brought them to life, in the most beautiful and meaningful way that I can.

    Speaking of history, would you tell us something about your work as the patron of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia?

    It would be my pleasure. About twenty years ago, when I was a young woman who desperately wanted to be a writer, it was hard to find the kind of books I wanted to read. I felt very alone in my passionate love for historical fiction, and would search the bookshop shelves for anything I could find that had a historical or quasi-historical setting. Some years later, I wrote my first historical novel (THE GYPSY CROWN, a children's adventure story about two Romany children during the final weeks of Oliver Cromwell's life.) I heard that there was a Historical Novel Society, which published magazines of book reviews and held an annual conference somewhere in the world. I was tremendously excited and joined up straightaway. I poured over their magazines and highlighted books I wanted to read, then hunted them down over the internet. When my novel THE PUZZLE RING was published (a children's time travel story about a twelve year old girl who goes back in time to the days of Mary, Queen of Scots), I used my a good portion of my US advance to go to my first-ever HNS conference in Chicago. It was so wonderful! I made so many friends and I learnt so much. If I could, I would go every year - but its hard for me to be away from my little family too often and it can be very expensive. I wished that we could have a conference here in Australia. Other Australian writers and readers wished the same thing. And a few stalwart souls did something about it (Chris Foley, Elisabeth Storrs, Wendy Jean Dunn, Diane Murray, and Greg Johnstone) and put together an absolutely brilliant weekend event in late March. My job as patron was to spread the word as best I could, make a rather alarming amount of speeches, and turn up and smile. Which I was very happy to do. It was a resounding success, and the next conference is already being planned for Melbourne in 2017. Any English historical fiction who have ever dreamed of visiting Australia may want to plan about it (A Tip: Australian readers are big book buyers!)

    Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel at seven, and is now the award-winning & internationally bestselling author of 36 books. Recently voted one of Australia's Favourite 20 Novelists, Kate has a doctorate in fairy tale studies and is an accredited master storyteller. Her adult books include The Wild Girl, the story of the forbidden romance behind the Grimm Brothers’ famous fairy tales, and Bitter Greens, called ‘the best fairy tale retelling since Angela Carter’. It won the 2015 ALA Prize for Best Historical Fiction and came in at No 27 in Dymocks 2015 list of Australia’s Top 101 Books. Kate’s children’s novels include The Impossible Quest, The Puzzle Ring and award-winning The Gypsy Crown. Kate is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia Read more at www.kateforsyth.com.au

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  • 04/29/15--16:01: April Competition
  • To win one of five copies of Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl, answer the question below in the Comments section:

    "What is your favourite re-telling of a fairy tale, whether by Kate Forsyth or another writer in the genre?"

    Please also send your answers to: maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk so that I can notify you if you win.

    Closing date 7th May

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    The History Girls blog began nearly four years ago, on 1st July 2011, and had its origin in a desire on my part to let the world know I had written a novel about Michelangelo's sculpture of David. The sitehas grown to be so much more than that but it is quite satisfying to come full circle and write about the new suite of educational materials, based on that novel, that I am going to write for an innovative new company called Time Traveler Tours & Tales.

    Photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unner, Creative Commons

    The book was a historical novelist's joy to write because it offered the perfect opportunity for fiction. So much was known about this famous figure: we have the contract the sculptor was given, the date he made the first chisel cut, the minutes of the committee meeting to decide where the sculpture was to be displayed (where Leonardo da Vinci was present).

    And in the middle a great big hole. Who was the model for this, probably the most famous sculpture in the world? Or was there even a model at all? Maybe this David sprang from the imagination of the sculptor, who, it is worth remembering, was twenty-six years old when he asked the Operai del Duomo for the old block of Carrara marble that two previous artists had abandoned and which just lay about for forty years  in a building behind the Duomo in Florence for people to trip over.

    My first visit to Florence was at the end of my first year at university, when I spent a month there. It was probably the most influential four weeks of my life, directing my interests and enthusiasms from then on. I already knew I preferred Michelangelo to Leonardo but this sojourn, in a pensione overlooking Piazza San Lorenzo, confirmed it.

    In my new project I'll be devising an app to take readers on a tour of the city visiting "hotspots" connected with the sculpture and the sculptor. And it occurred to me that readers of the History Girls blog might like an expanded version of my list - a sort of "print out and keep" guide to which works of art by Michelangelo you can see in the city I have now visited so many times I have  lost count.

    Bronze of Michelangelo's head by Daniele di Volterra

    Casa Buonarroti Michelangelo never lived here but it houses two early works: the bas reliefs of The Madonna of the Stairs and The Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths.

    • The area behind Brunelleschi’s Dome on the Duomo (now the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo). This is where the workshop was where Michelangelo made the David statue. On the day it was moved from there to the Piazza della Signoria the doorway had to be broken down to allow the giant statue to be trundled out. It took three days to move it to its final position.

    Santa Croce church. Michelangelo is buried there (under a hideous tomb by Vasari) and lived near there. His mother is also buried there.

    Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine (Oltr’arno). The frescoes by Masaccio (Big Tom). It was here that Michelangelo’s nose was broken by Pietro Torrigiani when they were both teenagers and protégés of Lorenzo de’ Medici and were sent there to sketch the frescoes. (You can see the broken nose quite clearly in Volterra's bronze above.)

    Piazza della Signoria The David statue was here for hundreds of years. Also this is where Savonarola had his Bonfires of the Vanities and where he was executed.Michelangelo and several of his brothers were followers of Savonarola.

    San Marco convent Michelangelo’s older brother Lionardo was a friar there, as was Savonarola. It houses great art by Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio etc.

    The Bargello for Davids by Donatello and Verocchio (Leonardo’s teacher) and Michelangelo’s Pitti Tondo, Brutus, Bacchus etc.


    Palazzo Medici Riccardi Where Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo de’ Medici.
    Santo Spirito, Oltr’arno. Where Michelangelo dissected bodies. His wooden crucifix (the earliest recorded work) is in the Sacristy.

    Piazza Santa Trinita Where Michelangelo had his very public argument with Leonardo. 

    The Medici Chapels behind San Lorenzo church.Michelangelo designed the tombs for two of the de' Medici family. His statues of them are flanked by Dawn and Dusk, Night and Day.

    The Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo. This and the magnificent staircase to it were designed by Michelangelo.

    The Uffizi houses the Sacred Family painting by Michelangelo.

    • And of course. TheAccademia where the original David now stands. But don't neglect to look at the slaves/prisoners and St. Matthew who line the gallery leading up to David.

    Photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unner, Creative Commons

    On my first visit to Florence, I and some other students, none of us studying Art, managed to blag our way into the Casa Buonarroti, which was in restauro at the time and saw the two reliefs and the very touching little wooden crucifix, now in Santo Spirito, which was waiting to be authenticated. None of us was in any doubt.

    On my last visit, a year ago, Sarah Towle of Time Traveler Tours and Tales and I went to the Medici Chapels at San Lorenzo and looked through the door leading to the underground hiding place that the sculptor used on a visit to the city, long after he had made the David. It is not open to the public but the whitewashed walls are covered with his drawings.

    Michelangelo's relationship with Florence was fraught. As a protegé of Lorenzo de' Medici (the "Magnificent"), he was loyal to the family, but after Lorenzo's death became a Republican. Florence itself had an on/off love affair with the powerful de' Medici family, expelling them and welcoming them back more than once.

    My relationship with Florence and Michelangelo has undergone no such upheavals. I can't wait to work with Sarah Towle to bring this Renaissance sculpture to life for 21st century children and teenagers. You can read more about the project below.

    But in the meantime, if you are going to Florence this summer, do follow the Michelangelo Trail. I'm only sorry I won't be doing it with you!

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    I asked my readers for suggestions for this month’s post, and I’m torn between telling you about Esther Abrahams and medieval cosmetics. Of the suggestions, those were the two that have the most interesting stories. 

    I chose cosmetics. Not because I can give you chapter and verse on them (which I won’t today), but because in research terms, they’re fascinating. We don’t know much and we can’t know much and yet what we know opens so many doors for us and shows us how women lived. Next month I’ll talk about sources for cosmetics and for other aspects of medieval life: that’s when I’ll point to where to find out more. Today is all about us, and how we see history. Cosmetics are my excuse for talking about my favourite subject.

    First, the stereotypes. 

    I often feel that I can’t talk about the Middle Ages without breaking down a thousand walls of false assumptions. We all own the Middle Ages. It’s one of the most popular periods in Western history. Owning it doesn’t mean we understand it. Owning it doesn’t mean we know it.

    How does this relate to cosmetics? 

    We filter our interpretation of evidence about medieval cosmetics through several vectors. One is what we think historians have to say about them. 

    Why do I say “What we think”? This question is because I’m full of rhetorical questions today. Obviously I got out of the rhetorical side of bed this morning: the rhetorical side of bed is the side that doesn’t face the wall, it’s the one that forces you to go in that direction. And my brain is a butterfly brain, and it would be helpful if I stayed on topic.

    "What we think" refers to the fact that we all carry mental images of the work historians do. There is overlap between these mental images and the actual work historians do, but sometimes that overlap is less than we realise. Kelly Gardiner discusses this in her analysis of the debate from the Historical Novel Society’s Australasian conference recently. She quotes me as saying quite straightforward things because it was a debate and we were all full of soundbites, but the reality is more complicated and can't be summarised in soundbites. The baseline however, is that only a very few people can keep up fully with current debates on what history actually is to us and what cultural functions it serves. These people can often be found between the pages of journals such as History and Theory and Rethinking History, their ideas pressed flat to meet the pages halfway. Most people think history is something simpler and grander. Those who like stability in how they see history (for the theory is constantly changing) are likely to fall into following a particular path of historical thinking. One of those paths is a rather nineteenth century variety. I encounter this latter one a lot, which is why I used it as an example at the debate.

    The reason I encounter it a lot is because it’s much easier to relate to historical fiction than the  new histories are. It produces narratives and story without too much angst. It’s straightforward and it has emotional appeal. 

    It assumes a static past, where facts can be proven and where we know where we stand. We can argue “Richard III was innocent” or “He was guilty” much more easily using this model, for instance. It’s a popular one because of this. The values system implied by simply demanding that innocence or guilt be proven is part of this way of thinking about history. It’s much easier to interpret history when we can use our own judgement.

    The trouble is that history is more complicated than this.

    Surely cosmetics aren’t complicated? (I want a live audience so that I can ask someone to ask me this. Then it will be obvious when I’m asking rhetorical questions.) The trouble is that everything’s complicated. We’re reconstructing the past to make sense of it for ourselves. We’re using available evidence. And evidence can include value judgements and our interpretation of evidence can include value judgements.

    The ‘fact’ I’ve seen quoted in various places that all medieval women used lead-based paint to make their cheeks white and beautiful, for instance, seems to come from just one source and that source is the same one that hates women for using urea and fish scales (which we still use in makeup:  urea softens things and fish scales make them glitter). The descriptions of cosmetics in his writing is part of a statement about what women ought to be doing and just how mucky things are. The (male) writer is trying to present negatives, and so of course he uses the less enticing methods of beautification. His view of the world colours how he described female beauty, and so does the underlying position he took in this particular piece of writing. Polemic shades the way we all see cosmetics when we read his work unless we recognise it and say “I know what he’s doing” and make allowances or find other sources, or both.

    The same applies to statues and paintings. We’re seeing the artist’s interpretation of what they want to carve or paint. In the Middle Ages this was mostly ideal beauty, so we know more about the ideal than about the everyday. The ideal female beauty in portraits and carvings matches very closely to the way a fairy is described in twelfth century French literature, so this is how I teach it. We have Hollywood and advertising. They had Arthurian romances and knights discovering their dream woman: beautiful and rich and powerful and somewhat magic.

    Then, elsewhere (in recipes and formulae for medicines) we get an inkling of some of the makeup people actually used. We have toothpaste recipes and we have eyeliner and… we don’t know who used these recipes, or how often or under what circumstances.

    Elsewhere, we hear that prostitutes use too much rouge and too much powder and paint their eyes. The implication is that bad women are identifiable and that cosmetics are an important tool for such identification. I’ve wondered for a while whether the warning is to identify prostitutes because they’re providers of services, or because they should be avoided, or because they’re quite possibly a really solid source of local gossip. I think it depends on the viewer. I also think that there are more options than these three. Which one we choose as our own depends on how we read the source, or how we read the information taken from the source and places elsewhere (in a modern text). There are many medieval readings of medieval texts, and there are at least as many modern readings. 

    Consensus can be forced. If we agree that only prostitutes wear makeup from that evidence then some late medieval paintings of noble women are of prostitutes. One source isn’t enough to understand a society.

    The reality of understanding any object or practice in any period isn’t through one source. It’s not the fairy’s beauty or the “Thou shalt not decorate” of the conservative. It’s all of these and a whole heap more. Historians discuss continually. Interpretations are a moveable feast. It isn’t one interpretation. It’s a series of linked interpretations over time, some feeding into each other and supporting a strong common view and some standing bravely alone.

    Fifty years ago we knew almost nothing about medieval cosmetics. Now we are gradually reaching the stage (though we’re not there yet) where we know enough to trace changes over time and place and maybe begin to form some kind of consensus. This is what those changes in the way we view history have given us. We can include archaeological work into our voyage of discovery, and understand how important medieval values are to interpreting evidence, and how important the values of earlier historians are to the way evidence has been interpreted and we can draw our own conclusions from bringing it all together.

    This is where I bring things together myself and admit that I chose cosmetics because it’s a good excuse to talk about how wonderful historical study is and how complicated and how important it is to question our own stance at every point. We can’t interpret history unless we have a narrative for it and we can’t have a narrative for it until we understand the narratives we give ourselves. Unless we question the very ground we stand on, our narratives are always linked to consensus narratives. 

    I have personal codes for reminding myself of these things. Mine for this is “Not all medieval women who wore makeup were damned.” This is because so many of our assumptions concerning the Middle Ages forget that religious condemnation of makeup wasn’t universal. The code reminds me that I don’t have answers yet, just many questions and a bit of data. That’s why I love history: one never stops learning.

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    In aditu autem ipso stabat ostiarius prasinatus, cerasino succinctus cingulo, atque in lance argentea pisum purgabat. Super limen autem cavea pendebat aurea in qua pica varia intrantes salutabat.

    "At the entrance of Trimalchio's townhouse stood the doorkeeper, decked out in grass green and belted with a cherry-red sash. He was shelling peas on a silver platter. Above the threshold hung a golden cage in which a particoloured magpie greeted all those who entered." 
    The Satyricon of Petronius XXVIII

    I love these lines from Petronius's Satyricon – a book written 2000 years ago – because they give us a wonderfully vivid snapshot of a scene from ancient Rome. Or perhaps instead of snapshot I should say gif because you get a shudder of animation as you read it.

    You can almost see the door-slave in bright green with the red sash, perhaps leaning against the doorframe, cradling the silver platter in the crook of his left arm while he uses his right hand to shell the darker green peas with little pops. Above his head swings the golden cage with the chattering magpie inside, fluttering his white and petrol blue wings.
    In those two Latin lines are colour, movement, taste, sound, smell and humour. All elements, incidentally, that memory masters like Tony Buzan encourage us to use when we want to fix something in our memory. 

    I love colours and the words that describe them. I especially love colour-words with attached synaesthetic qualities: movement, scent, sound. 

    Peacock blue shimmers. 

    Rose pink smells delicious. 

    Silver makes me think of bells. 

    Best of all are colours associated with taste: chocolate, vanilla, tomato, peanut butter, mocha, orange, whisky and bubblegum. Yum.

    But wait! I write historical fiction and all the taste-colour words I just listed are anachronistic because none of them existed in Imperial Rome.

    What to do? 

    Taking a leaf out of Petronius's codex, I started using taste-colours that the Romans would have known about: nutmeg-coloured tunic, sea-green eyes, tawny hair, etc. 

    Procrastinating one day by surfing Twitter, I came across this Writers' Color Thesaurus, a visual prompt to "help you name any color imaginable". 

    I don't quite agree with all the shades, so I thought it would be fun to make my own Pinterest scrapbook of colours that would be allowed in Roman times. 

    Because I am linking the colour to an object, I get a special flavour (sometimes literally) for each colour. So a visual thesaurus like this is great for poets as well as writers of historical fiction. 

    Here are some of the tasty colours I've uploaded: nutmeg, cinnamon, peach, pear, mulberry, grape, pomegranate, pear green, cherry, pistachio, cream, milk, whey, clove, celery and almond.

    Here are some luxury colours: gold, amber, silver, amethyst, green bronze, lapis lazuli, ivory, cinnabar red, egyptian blue, emerald green and frankincense. 

    Here are some textured colours: charcoal grey, dove grey, peacock blue, rust orange, tawny, moss green, egg yolk yellow, eggshell beige, bran and mud. 

    Here are some fragrant colours: pine green, violet, mint, salmon, beeswax, sardine, lavender and grass. 

    Here are some sinister colours: blood red, bone white and coal black. 

    And as with all good synaesthesia, some colours can do more than one thing. Check out my Ancient Roman Colour Thesaurus. I hope it inspires you to create your own!

    Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence has just signed up to write four history-mystery books for kids set in Roman Britain in the year AD 94. With a provisional series title of Seekers of Britannia, the first book, Escape from Rome, will be published in May 2016.  

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    It was Casanova’s birthday this week.

    He was born on April 2nd, 1725.

    A little celebration was in order, I thought.

    A man so gifted in many ways was not adverse to gifts himself. He loved novelty of all kinds.

    I gave Casanova words for his birthday. He liked words, and was a great connoisseur of them. He was also keen on oysters, stinking ripe cheese, the smell of a woman’s sweat, but I couldn’t deliver any of those items to his sadly unmarked grave in Bohemia.

    My gift was in fact one I’d prepared earlier, and published in my first novel for adults, Carnevale, which tells the story of Cecilia Cornaro, a young portrait painter who becomes one of Casanova’s lovers. I believe it was the first novel written from the point of view of a woman who loved him. The book is about to be reissued by Bloomsbury with a new cover.

    I’m not the only one celebrating Casanova at the moment.

    My gift of words is to be displayed as part of Il Grande Mosaico, Opus magnum, a collection of tiny canvases on the most controversial of Venetians. Only in this prismatic way can one hope to glimpse even a paltry proportion of the many sides of this fascinating character, who was, in his time, a trainee priest, a necromancer, a violinist, the author of a science fiction novel, a philosopher, a diplomat, an inventor, a spy.

     The idea is the masterpiece of Manuel Carrión of the Carrión Gallery, founded in January 2014 at the Giudecca.

    Here is how I made my tile.

    Obviously, I began with the poem ...

                                             Casanova's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

    First, you need the lips to eat it.

    Lips of purple heather, lips of persimmon, lips like mandarin skins scraped through honey.

    And then the occasion to eat it.

     The first time you make love to her, the last time you make love to her, one of the times in between (may they be many, or at least long).

    Of course you also need the sweet wine to moisten it.
    With the soul of a bottle inside you, your tongue sees more clearly. This is true, be it Falernian, Scopolo, Tokay, Burgundy, pink partridge-eye Champagne, or that liquid chalk they make in Orvieto. No matter. Maraschino from Dalmatia, even, with cinnamon and sugar. Or milk. Once I myself, on my knees, suckled from the rose-pink spigot of a young mother in Milan.

    In those days, I had teeth.

    Where was I? O yes, chocolate cake.

    Then you need a bed.
     A bed to lie on, a bed to feed on, sleep on, in which to lose the crumbs to lick off the next morning.

    And a surprise is always acceptable, too.

    A snuffbox with a secret spring, an unexpected dearth or luxuriance of hair,
    a fruit preserved for just this moment,

    a virgin who proves as amorous as a pigeon.

    Oh, and yes, you need a chocolate cake, too.
     Send out for one immediately!

    (from Carnevale 2001)
    A birthday present needs attractive packaging. So I made my unusual shopping list of images - spigot, breast, chocolate cake, snuffbox ... Then I searched my collection of ephemera to find them. I used to be a packager of illustrated books, so I happen to have useful drawers full of images for 'devices', 'death' and 'body parts'.

    I found what I wanted and arranged them around the poem.

    Then glued them.
    And photographed my tile

    And sent it to indefatigable Rosemary Wilmot who’s been kindly coordinating the UK end of operations for the Carrión Gallery. She and her husband Brian had it printed to the right size and mounted on the tile … to go to Venice.

    So Happy Birthday, Casanova.

    Wish I could blow out your candles.



    Michelle Lovric’s website

    Here's a sneak preview of the new Carnevale jacket at left.
    The Bloomsbury edition is out in June.

    You can see all the Casanova tiles here:

     Carrión Gallery
    Venetian Soho
    Giudecca 317
    30133 Venezia (VE)
    +39 335 1587654
    +39 328 3526992

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    Three weeks ago I was in Leicester for the re-interment of King Richard III. Amidst the modest but beautiful ceremonies and the sincerity of the thousands who lined the streets and queued for hours to pay their respects at his coffin, there was something else: the television imperative to keep talking in excited voices even when there was nothing new to say.


    Richard III, by Graham Turner
    ‘Why?’ asked presenter Jon Snow, so forcefully I thought he might levitate clean out of his chair, ‘Why on earth would a King risk his own neck by going into battle?’ 

    Granted, the Royal Health & Safety Directorate would advise against it these days, but seriously, it was a question that encapsulates our difficulty of getting into a medieval frame of mind. It’s too easy for us to think of the 15th century as being like the 21stcentury but without indoor plumbing.

    Why would a King risk his life leading a cavalry charge? Because he was a warrior, that's why, trained from childhood in military skills, and because in the 15th century might was right. There was no arbitration. Battlefields were where crowns were won or lost.  

    Did Richard fear for his life that August morning at Bosworth Field? Like every other soldier mustered there he knew how flimsy the veil is that separates life from death. Death was a fact of daily life. Richard’s wife, whom he apparently loved, had died, but he was already thinking of the Plantagenet succession and shopping for another bride.  His only child had died too. There was nothing remarkable about that either.

    Richard’s personal Book of Hours shows us that like all his contemporaries he lived in the fear of God and the hope of salvation, and if Jon Snow had been around on the eve of the battle to ask him why he insisted on riding forth the next morning, you can be sure that King Richard would have been baffled by the question. His world view was not the same as ours.

    It’s a problem every historical novelist faces, to get beneath the sallet and the wimple and into the minds of people who saw the world very differently than we see it today. Tudor historian David Starkey misses no opportunity to sneer at historical novelists but here’s the thing: ‘Serious’ historians aren’t so very different from us.  There are facts and figures, verifiable to a certain extent. Interpretation of them is a matter of joining the dots.  A novelist aims to join the dots in an engaging and entertaining way. When they succeed they may whet a reader’s appetite to know more and to read to read more widely and even more deeply. Nothing wrong with that, Dr Starkey.   

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    On 19th February 1999 President Clinton officially pardoned Lt. Henry O.Flipper in a ceremony at the White House.

    I hadn’t heard of Henry Flipper until I started researching Buffalo Soldier.  Here’s an extract from the President’s speech.

    “The man we honor today was an extraordinary American. Henry Flipper did all his country asked him to do. Though born a slave in Georgia, he was proud to serve America: the first African American graduate of West Point; the first African American commissioned officer in the regular United States Army. He showed brilliant promise and joined the 10th Cavalry. While stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he perfected a drainage system that eliminated the stagnant water, and malaria, plaguing the fort. Still known as "Flipper's Ditch," it became a national landmark in 1977. He distinguished himself in combat on the frontier, and then was transferred to run a commissary at Fort Davis in Texas.

    In 1881, Lt. Flipper was accused by his commanding officer of improperly accounting for the funds entrusted to him. A later Army review suggested he had been singled out for his race, but at the time there wasn't much justice available for a young African American soldier. In December, a court-martial acquitted him of embezzlement, but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer. President Chester A. Arthur declined to overturn the sentence, and in June of 1882, Lt. Flipper was dishonorably discharged.

    His life continued. He became a civil and mining engineer out West. He worked in many capacities for the government, as special agent for the Department of Justice; as an expert on Mexico for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He died in 1940, at the age of 84. But even after his death, this stain of dishonor remained. One hundred and seventeen years have now elapsed since his discharge. That's a long time, even more than the span of his long life. More than half the history of the White House, indeed, of the United States itself. And too long to let an injustice lie uncorrected.

    The army exonerated him in 1976, changed his discharge to honorable and reburied him with full honors. But one thing remained to be done, and now it will be. With great pleasure and humility, I now offer a full pardon to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper of the United States Army. This good man now has completely recovered his good name. It has been a trying thing for the family to fight this long battle, to confront delays and bureaucratic indifference, but this is a day of affirmation. It teaches us that, although the wheels of justice turn slowly at times, still they turn. It teaches that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause. Most of all, it teaches us -- Lt. Flipper's family teaches us -- that we must never give up the fight to make our country live up to its highest ideals. Outside of this room Henry Flipper is not known to most Americans. All the more reason to remember him today. His remarkable life story is important to us, terribly important, as we continue to work -- on the edge of a new century and a new millennium -- on deepening the meaning of freedom at home, and working to expand democracy and freedom around the world, to give new life to the great experiment begun in 1776. This is work Henry Flipper would have been proud of. Each of you who worked so hard for this day is a living chapter in the story of Lt. Flipper. I thank you for your devotion, your courage, your persistence, your unshakable commitment. I thank you for believing, and proving, that challenges never disappear, but in the long run, freedom comes to those who persevere.”

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