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    A couple of months ago at the launch party for Rivals in the City, I read aloud a scene that takes place outside Newgate Prison. The year is 1860. A wooden scaffold has been built outside the prison gates, as it was before each public execution. The hangman, William Calcraft, is testing the gallows and trapdoor to ensure that they work. And the crowd is eagerly, boisterously, anticipating the day’s entertainment. All this is historically attested.

    The human face of Victorian execution, William Calcraft, ca 1870. Image via wikipedia.

    In the scene, I add a detail featuring ragged children “playing Calcraft”: taking turns pretending to be executioner and condemned. I invented this game, and have never formally researched “macabre children’s games, past and present” (although now that I’ve typed that phrase, it sounds like a fascinating topic). But the idea of the game rings true for me. Games of the imagination are how children process the world around them, and how they imbibe their culture. In my novel, the game of “Calcraft” has several functions: it’s a means of including children in the Victorian streetscape; a way of shifting and blending perspectives of the execution-day milieu; and, of course, a comment on the idea of a public execution in general.

    West view of Newgate Prison in the mid-nineteenth century. Image via wikipedia.

    After I’d read this scene aloud, one of my listeners expressed concern about the scene. Was it, he asked, appropriate to explore violence and death in a book that was written for children? Didn’t it glamorize violence and death, to see it represented in fiction? He was talking about the contemporary young adults to whom my book is marketed, but I wonder if the presence of children in the Newgate scene is what triggered his very real anxiety. It was an earnest question and I attempted to answer it with the seriousness it deserved. The party was hectic, though, and I compressed my response into a couple of brief points. Now, I think it’s time to answer the question more fully.

    So is it, in fact, appropriate to explore death and violence in children’s literature? My first instinct at the party was to cite historical realism. During the Victorian era, people were much more pragmatic about death and suffering. Infant mortality was much higher than it is now; adult life expectancy was shorter. A death in the household also meant a corpse laid out in the parlour or spare bedroom. And in many cases, the women of the family washed and dressed that corpse themselves. The Victorians were less squeamish about death in general. People didn’t spay or neuter their pets; they simply drowned the unwanted litters. In Wuthering Heights, Hareton Earnshaw famously “hang[s] a litter of puppies from the chair-back in the doorway”. The shocking part of the scene is not the puppies’ deaths, but the fact that their suffering is a form of entertainment for Hareton. But remember: in Emily Bronte’s vision, even Hareton Earnshaw, Animal Sadist, is redeemable. With Cathy Linton’s love and support, it becomes possible to imagine a somewhat happy ending for Wuthering Heights.

    Still, the defense of historical realism only takes us so far. After all, history contains an endless amount of truly gruesome detail. How do we decide which of those bits belong in historical fiction for young people? Let’s go back to human developmental principles. Children learn about death in bits and fragments, starting in toddlerhood. By the time they are eight years old, they are “consistent in showing adult ideas of death”. So the idea of death – with variations according to age and circumstance – is a normal part of children’s understanding. I’d go a step further, here: if a novel like Rivals in the City (which is written for teens) deliberately downplays the existence of death, it’s insulting the intelligence of its readers.

    Knowing this, perhaps we can agree to acknowledge historically realistic deaths. But what about violence, and the much-feared “glamorization” of violence? Once again, let’s think about real, present-day children. Children understand violence because they are human beings. They negotiate conflict from toddlerhood. They can act violently towards others. They hear about violence on the news. They see instances of injustice all around them. The real question here is, What do they do with all this experience and all this unformed knowledge?

    At this point, we must return to the specific scene or image that prompts the question. Is it an image or description of violence on the news, presented without context or consequence? I imagine that would be haunting, confusing, and possibly traumatic. Is it a video game, in which the hero-player is rewarded for acts of violence? In that case, I see how that trivializes the gravity of violent acts. In my novel, however, the threat of violence is mediated by a heroine, Mary Quinn. She is a former victim of violence who understands its impact. She has strong feelings about the uses and abuses of power. She offers readers a thoughtful perspective on the violence of her culture, and how to resist it.

    If anything, I’d argue that this kind of ethically grounded violence is essential to children’s literature, and to the project of learning about the world and about oneself. I’m proud to be part of a long tradition of children’s authors who imagine the world as fully as possible, as humanly as possible, as respectfully as possible.

    ---
    Y S Lee blogs every Wednesday at www.yslee.com.



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    So on the First of May we got up in the grey twilight at 4.45am and drove into Oxford to listen to the choirboys singing the May in from the top of Magdalen Tower.

    The sky was crimson, every moment changing and brightening towards amber and gold. We found a parking place somewhere near the station and hurried up through the town, which was strangely awake for such a time in the morning. Scattered pedestrians striding purposefully. Cyclists creaking by on ancient bicycles. Groups of worse-for-wear students who’d been up all night, noisy, laughing, hugging one another, stumbling along. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young… All of us heading the same way and for the same reason.  Kebab and burger vans on Queen Street were doing a great trade. The air was chill, the buildings still shadowed. Towery city and branchy between towers, cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded… On the High, a homeless man sat in a college doorway and watched the crowd passing downhill towards Magdalen College and its bell tower.



    No one is quite sure, it seems, how old this ceremony is, but it’s been going on for many hundreds of years. Every year at 6am on May Day, the choir of Magdalen College climbs to the top of Magdalen Tower to sing from the roof to celebrate the spring – first the Hymnus Eucharisticus and then English country songs and madrigals. 

    As the crowd around the base of the tower became thicker, we came to a halt among a happy bunch of May morning sightseers – many in May costumes, crowned with real flowers and greenery. Tipping our heads back, we could just see the white robes of the choir moving between the finials of the tower top, and imagine the scene up there as Holman Hunt depicted it in his painting ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’ (1888-90).



    This must be the most popular of Oxford’s colourful college traditions. Some are stranger than others. All Souls (full name: The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed) for example, owns to a custom as weird as anything out of Gormenghast: the Hunting of the Mallard. Once a century, the respectable Fellows of this wealthiest of colleges partake of a feast followed by a crazy ritual in which, led by a ‘Lord Mallard’ carried in a chair, they parade through the college with flaming torches in pursuit of a man carrying a wooden duck tied to a pole. This is to commemorate a huge mallard which, startled by workmen digging a drain, supposedly flew out of the foundations when the college was being built in 1437.  Whilst parading, the participants sing the Mallard Song, which dates from about 1660.

    The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
    Let other hungry Mortalls gape on
    And on their bones with Stomacks fall hard,
    But let All Souls’ Men have the Mallard.

    Chorus:
    Hough the bloud of King Edward.
    By the bloud of King Edward
    It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

    I have sometimes wondered, if Mervyn Peake knew of this ceremony, whether it inspired any of Gormenghast’sstrange rituals, such as the ceremony to Honour the Poet.  Barquentine,  Master of Rituals, outlines the requirements to Steerpike. Have the cloisters been painted the correct shade of darkest red? Has the Poet completed his poem? Has he been told about the magpie?

    ‘I told him that he must rise to his feet and declaim within twelve seconds of the magpie’s release from the wire cage. That while declaiming his left hand must be clasping the beaker of moat-water in which the Countess has previously placed the blue pebble from Gormenghast river.’
                ‘That is so, boy.  And that he shall be wearing the Poet’s Gown, that his feet shall be bare, did you tell him that?’
                ‘I did,’ said Steerpike.
                ‘And the yellow benches for the Professors, were they found?’

    All Souls’ Mallard ceremony was last held in 2001 and so will not be held again until 2101, but the song (which has six verses) is apparently still sung twice a year. I don’t know if the Fellows have re-included the fifth verse which was ‘expunged on grounds of decency’ in 1821 – but most 21stcentury sensibilities will find it enjoyably ridiculous rather than obscene. Anyhow, no one prepared to canter through college after a duck on a pole has any right to complain.

    Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
    Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh,
    His swapping tool of generation
    Oute swapped all the winged Nation.

    Chorus:
    Hough the bloud of King Edward.
    By the bloud of King Edward
    It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

    Hunting the Mallard is a ceremony exclusively for the lofty Fellows of All Souls College, but the Magdalen College ceremony is for everyone, town and gown. As we watched, the corner of the tower slowly glowed in the sunrise. The clock chimed six. The crowd, five thousand strong by now, hushed. The chimes faded and the choir at the tower top began to sing. Their voices were amplified – and for a moment, braced as I’d been to listen for the high, clear, distant notes, I was disappointed. Then I realised that it was the only practical solution, given the numbers waiting below. And it was still lovely.  



    After the Latin hymn, a prayer was read thanking God for the light of morning, remembering St Mary Magdalene and the women who were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus at the break of day, and praising God’s creation Mother Earth with all her spring flowers. As a happy combination of Christianity and nature worship, it seemed faultlessly medieval. Then the choir sang Thomas Morley's songs ‘Now is the Month of Maying’ and'My Bonnie Lass She Smileth'– and it was over, the sun was up, and it was time to wander back through the city with the rest of the teeming multitude and find somewhere to eat breakfast. Our attention was caught by someone waving aloft a hand-written placard declaring the existence of  ‘Free Bacon Sandwiches at the Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street’ – but that seemed too far away from the action. 






     
    The thump of a big drum lured us into Radcliffe Square where we found a colourful band playing oddly dirge-like marches on the cobbles around the Radcliffe camera. Then we looped back to the High for an expensive but delicious breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon, bacon rolls and coffee. And one Bucks Fizz, which we shared between us. It was still only 7am.  

    Merry May!  








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  • 05/04/15--16:30: Still Life - Joan Lennon
  • BBC 4 documentaries - I love them.  Even the ones where the voice-over narrator repeats what the expert has just finished saying, only less well.  Even the ones where they get the background music totally wrong.  Even the ones where they disappear from iplayer just after I've discovered them, but before I can show them to anybody else.

    Luckily, I found this - Apples, Pears and Paint - on youtube here - so I was able to watch again, recommend it to you, and write about it here.  

    I've seen still life paintings before - everybody has - but I just hadn't paid attention to them.  While watching the programme, I learned that still lifes (somehow "still lives" doesn't seem right) are most frequently lit from the left.  That elements of the pictures often overlap the edge of the table, as if just about to topple.  I learned that the vanitas element was there in the bugs and the blemishes, not just in the skulls.  I learned that musical instruments in a still life were there because they, too, were emblems of mortality and transience - before the invention of recording, a sound only lasted as long as a bow or a breath and then it died. The story behind the 17th century Dutch still life industry was fascinating.  

    And then, the programme turned to the paintings of Juan Sanchez Cotan, of whom I had never heard, and I was blown away.




    Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602)


       
    Still Life with Thistle and Carrots (about the same time)

    So stark.  So incredibly modern.  That bare stone frame and the blank black background and the harsh lighting (from the left).  It wasn't uncommon to suspend fruit and veg from strings to keep them from rotting at the points where they touched each other, but that swoop from top left to bottom right has nothing to do with storage techniques and everything to do with the way the eye moves.  Or top right to bottom left and back again, from blackened carrots to alien thistle.

    Wow.

    I have a whole new favourite artist in my life - and a new genre - and that would have plenty, but then the programme gave me one last fillip.  It introduced me to Ori Gersht.  Here is his response to Cotan ...





     Pomegranate (2006)


    Two other Gersht works I really like can be seen here, and here - see what you think.

    And thank you, BBC4.


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

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    I spent a lot of time thinking about point of view when I was writing Liberty’s Fire.  So many of my sources saw Paris as a stage, a spectacle, a panorama, and I kept trying to find a way to convey this without becoming overly theatrical myself.  But while I was actually walking the streets of Paris, I often found myself looking down.  I stared at the paving stones, and thought how different they were from London slabs, and how much better for building barricades:


     

    I became an expert in ventilation shafts for cellars:


    Their different sizes and gratings. . .













    And how they could be blocked up. . .



    Thanks to Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (the forefather of the werewolf sub-genre, which is set in 1871 and, despite this lurid cover, impressive in its historical accuracy) I even discovered the name for these openings in French: soupirail(Another new word I learned was ‘délation’, which has a very interesting history in France.)  


    In the last days of the Commune, a rumour sprang up that would be the death of many women. 
    ‘The Emancipated Woman Shedding Light on the World’
    1871, Lithograph by J. Lecerf

     

    “Petroleuses!” writes novelist Lucien Descaves in his spirited introduction to that rare thing, a published memoir by an active Communarde, Victorine B. [Brocher]. “Until the last days of the Paris Commune, during the red week, this designation was fatal to the unlucky women who received it from a vindictive concierge, a perfidious neighbour, a passing hallucinator, from no matter whom. . . But much later, in exile, the word marked the shoulder not just of refugees, but even their friends.” (Souvenirs d’une morte vivante*, 1909)


    Paris Incendie, night of the 24-5 May 1871, Michel Charles Fichot

    Paris was in flames: the Tuileries Palace was burning, part of the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville, the Finance ministry. . .the river ran red with the reflected conflagration.  The situation felt apocalyptic.  The world decided to blame women, who had already been far too active in the Commune, with their club oratory and public pronouncements, their vigilance committees and the Union of Women.  Of course they were represented as ugly, impoverished, unnatural, wicked women with loosened hair and dishevelled clothing.  Femelles’ (‘bitches’), so maddened and unsexed or oversexed by politics that they would rather see Paris destroyed than give up their dangerous socialist ideals. 

    In his 1873 illustrated catalogue of Commune ‘types’, Bertall naturally includes a Picture of ‘a pair of pétroleuses’ stealing out at night with petrol cans and matches.  He cheerfully admits that even if they didn’t exist, thanks to the fact that plenty of women had been summarily shot by soldiers on suspicion, ‘they existed in every one’s imagination’ and so the mania continued long after ‘the Insurrection’.  For weeks people bricked up cellar openings and even keyholes.  Bertall’s pétroleuses represent feverish panic rather than reality, ‘an embodiment of what all the World believed in, and feared at the Moment.’
     


    Bertall’s image is relatively kind.  Another shows a petroleuse with a pig's snout.  They are furies, viragoes, tigresses.  They had to be punished, and they were.


    The word ‘pétroleuse’ has been almost forgotten now, but it quickly became one of the most powerful and most negative political symbols of the nineteenth century, according to Gay Gullickson, author of Unruly Women of Paris: ‘The female incendiary became an international symbol, not only of the Commune itself, but also of the evils of revolution.’  


    Fifteen years after the invention of the pétroleuse, Eleanor Marx Aveling’s rallying introduction to Lissagaray’s History of the Commune explains the necessity for her translation:
    ‘To most English people the Commune still spells ‘rapine, fear and lust’, and when they speak of its ‘atrocities’ they have some vague idea of hostages ruthlessly massacred by brutal revolutionaries, of houses burnt down by furious petroleuses.  Is it not time that English people at last learnt the truth? Is it not time they were reminded that for the sixty-five hostages shot, not by the Commune, but by a few people made mad by the massacre of prisoners by the Versaillese, the troops of law and order shot down thirty thousand men, women, and children, for the most part long after all fighting had ceased?’


    Eleanor Marx
    A year later her call for the truth was echoed, rather surprisingly, by a public schoolmaster best known for the anthem ‘Forty Years On’, in a lecture to the Harrow Liberal Club on 31st October 1887.  Edward Bowen decided to put together an outline of the facts as he’d experienced them because, he said ‘there are no books on the subject which are even approximately truthful’.  (I'm not sure if he includes Lissagaray's or simply hadn't come across it.)  Bowen's account is vivid, balanced, humane and also quite angry.  He concludes - and most contemporary historians agree – that shells from Versailles forces on the heights of Montmartre caused some of the fires, while others were probably started deliberately and strategically by retreating soldiers of the Commune.

    ‘A crime…a barbarous act…to destroy the monuments of history’ says everyone, but remember you are speaking of men who did not look on the glories of Louis XIV and the trophies of art as we do. I think they saw in them big buildings into which a common man was never allowed to penetrate, which existed for the pleasure of emperors & courtiers, and moreover, buildings the blaze of which might give the defenders some twenty-four hours longer life in this world.’


    ©Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections,
    Northwestern University Library
    As for the women incendiaries, Bowen is categorical:

    ’Every woman who looked ragged, or who could not stammer out a good account of herself, fell under suspicion, and no sooner was the cry of petroleuse raised than all hope for that woman was gone.  No one knows how many wretched creatures perished under the accusation.  Well, it was false from first to last.  Not one single woman was ever proved to have acted thus from one end of the week to the other.  If you wish to know on what authority I say this, it is on the authority of the chief law officer of the Versailles government.’


    Liberty’s Fire is published by Hot Key Books on May 7th.  Full details of all my sources can be found on my website, where I’ve also written about some of the real women who supported the Paris Commune, such as Louise Michel, Nathalie Lemel, Elizabeth Dmitrieff, André Leo, Paule Minck and Anna Jaclard.


    * I consulted a translator friend about how best to render Souvenir d'une morte vivante in English and she immediately assumed it was a book about zombies – the ‘living dead’.  Horror and the Commune are rarely far apart. ‘The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth. Now is the time of monsters’ (attributed to Gramsci) is the epigraph for a compelling article by Eric Smith analysing the Paris Commune as an important but unacknowledged source for the ‘deep social distress’ expressed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: it’s expressed in red fogs, rats, Dracula’s pseudonym ‘de Ville’ which recalls the burning of the Hôtel de Ville, and Lucy Western as the ‘oblique invocation of the quasi-mythic female agent of the latter-day Commune, the reviled petroleuse, the loathsome embodiment of the Commune’s political/libidinal excess’. Appalled at the brutality with which the Commune was suppressed, massacres on a scale which dwarfed the endlessly decried execution of hostages, the narrator of The Werewolf of Paris concludes that we are all monsters now.  Why pick on werewolfs?


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

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

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

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





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



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

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

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

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

    William Alexander, lavender farmer and High Sheriff of Kent

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

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

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



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

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

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



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



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





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

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

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

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


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

    Penny Dolan

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

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

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

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


     For the Military Alliance, Vogue, London, 1941














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


    Ration Book and coupons

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

    Corporal Elspeth Henderson & Sergeant Helen Turner, Laura Knight 1941

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

    Land Girl


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


    Celia Rees 

    www.celiarees.com






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


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


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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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







         



       
               








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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

    Medical Care

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




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

    St Bartholomew the Great gatehouse


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


    Children

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




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

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

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


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


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




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


    Sturdy Beggars

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




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


    The Prospect of BridewellJohn Strype (1720)

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


    Madmen

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


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


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

     
    A later image of shackled inmate of Bedlam

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


    Poor Laws

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




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


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


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


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


    Ann Swinfen


    www.annswinfen.com



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     On a perfect April day, when the trees were "coming into leaf/like something almost being said," (Philip Larkin)



     I visited Castle Rising with Stephanie Nettell. The older readers of this blog will remember Stephanie as the Guardian's children's book reviews editor in the days when we had four foolscap pages of children's book reviews a year....those, as they say, were the days.

    We'd had a lovely lunch and set off to this castle, which is very close to where Stephanie lives. I had, to my shame, never heard of it before, but I'm always up for visiting a castle - I like them  almost as much as I like  cathedrals and this one, as you will see from the picture below, is the most castle-y of castles...it looks like the kind of thing a child might draw.





    It was built in the twelfth century by William d'Albini, to show how much he'd risen in the world on his marriage to the widow of Henry I, Alice of Louvain. I wonder whether that was the reason for the name RISING but I think that's a frivolous idea....in any case it's most beautiful.







     The walls are intact, although the roof no longer exists. Stephanie and I were each given a wonderful hand- held audio device which took us in order through all the rooms in the palace, pointing out fine details and letting us admire everything in  our own time. As a contributor to "DAUGHTERS OF TIME" the History Girls anthology of stories, I was impressed that they'd adopted a 'history girls' approach to the commentary and some of the information was given to us in the voice of a fictitious lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella. She was the wife of Edward II. As  we  know  he was murdered in a most brutal way.   After his death, Isabella was imprisoned here for more than thirty years and was visited in her captivity by her son Edward III.

     After her death, it became a hunting lodge for the Black Prince and in 1544 passed to the Howard family, who still own it today. 







    You can see much of the original fabric of the building and Stephanie and I wondered how the 12th Century folk got up and down those spiral stairs in a hurry and especially at night. They were vertiginous, even with a  rope to hang on to....how did ladies  manage it in long skirts?  Or at night? 







    After we left the Castle, we went to see the lovely church of St Laurence in the village of Castle Rising. It's an idyllic looking  place and the church stands surrounded by lovely houses and a most beautiful set of almshouses.

    I liked particularly the font decorated with three cat faces .....








    ...and this kneeler, which shows the coat of arms of Castle Rising. I've only photographed one lion but the kneeler runs  all along the bottom of the altar rail....there is a long line  of little yellow lions, looking very friendly. 

    I do urge anyone near King's Lynn to go and visit this delightful place.  It's quite close to where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be bringing up Prince George and his forthcoming sibling and the shop attached to the Castle is full of wooden swords and small t shirts printed in a  chain mail pattern: they'd like those, as would any child. 




      


    Many thanks to Stephanie Nettell for taking me there. 








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    St John of Beverly on the Minster.
    Photo: Graham Hermon
    Yesterday (7th May) was the Saints Day of St. John of Beverley, one of the few men who can claim to have frightened William the Conqueror, even though John died 345 years before the Battle of Hastings. According to legend, King William sent Toustain, one of his most ruthless men, to loot Beverley Minster in Yorkshire and drag out the people who had taken refuge in there. But, the moment Toustain approached the altar, St John felled him to the floor with a blinding light, all his limbs swelled up and his head revolved in a full circle.
    William the Conqueror invasion of England


    The reason for the saint’s anger was that Toustain had violated the ancient right of sanctuary granted to Beverley by King Æthelstan (the first Saxon King of all England) in 938, who attributed his victory over the Scots to the intervention of St. John. In gratitude, he had a firth stool placed in Beverley and the sanctuary area extended for a mile and half in any direction from that stool. If someone was accused of a crime which carried the death penalty, they could temporarily save themselves by claiming sanctuary there. If their accusers attempted to seize them within this holy circle, they would face a huge fine, and dragging a man away from the altar or off the frith stool itself was punishable by death.

    The word frith comes from the Old Englifh fiðu meaning peace, protection and safety. It has many different associations in Anglo-Saxon culture, but friþgeard, meaning sanctuary, was an enclosed sacred space where the gods were worshipped.

    After the Norman Conquest, there were two kinds of sanctuary. The first was general sanctuary within any church, which could be claimed in some cases by grasping the door knocker or in others by touching the altar. But that did not always offer as much safety as you might hope, because although the church was supposed to feed and protect you if you claimed sanctuary, in practice you would often be hounded out, since your accusers would surround the building and blockade it. This happened to Hubert de Burgh who’d taken sanctuary in Brentwood Church, Essex and was starved into surrender on the orders of the boy king Henry III.

    Frith stool at Beverley Minster
    The second kind was the wider sanctuary area, like that at Beverley, which might extend to a mile or more around the church, but which was only granted to a few places by charter. These including Battle Abbey, Beverley, Colchester, Durham, Hexham, Norwich, Ripon, Wells, Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and York Minster.

    Sanctuary crosses or stones in the town marked the boundary of the sanctuary area around these churches. The period of sanctuary granted varied between churches, but most were between 30 to 40 days. Anyone accused of a capital offence could claim sanctuary, unless they were accused of heresy or they were a serf, a Jew or had been excommunicated. Of course, there are many instances throughout the centuries of powerful men simply ignoring the rights of sanctuary, such as when John of Gaunt’s men murdered Frank de Hawle  by stabbing him twelve times in Westminster Abbey when he claimed sanctuary there.

    When period of sanctuary was ended, the fugitive could try to escape or, in Beverley, he could opt to
    Sanctuary Stone or cross marking the medieval boundary of
    the St John of Beverly Sanctuary
    become a Frithman of Beverley, by swearing to serve the Church and surrendering all he owned to the Crown. But this meant he could never leave the town again.

    The third option to those leaving sanctuary from any church was to plead guilty and swear to ‘abjure the realm’ in order to escape the death penalty. If this was accepted, the guilty man was instructed to walk barefoot to a designated port along the king’s highway, dressed in penitential clothes and carrying a cross-staff as a symbol that he’d been granted safe passage. Once there he had to stand knee-deep in the sea during the hours of daylight until he could find a ship willing to take him out of the country. Obviously, the victim or victim’s relatives would try to ensure he never reached the ship alive and many felons ran off, the moment they were out of sight of the authorities, to become outlaws. But they would then be declared wolf’s heads, which meant anyone could kill them with impunity and claim a bounty.

    But this right to sanctuary had some interesting consequences for other towns. The sanctuary at Beverley brought a host of criminals to the little town of Barton on the opposite side of the wide river Humber, where it opens into the North Sea. There was a ferry at Barton, but the strong tides and currents in the estuary meant it could only operate every twelve hours. So if a fugitive could clamber aboard just before it sailed, he could leave his pursuers fuming helplessly on the bank, while he was rowed to safety. If he could get hold of a horse, he could reach Beverley before those hunting him could cross. Large numbers of thieves, murderers and innocent men too must have hidden up in Barton and the surrounding countryside waiting for their chance to make it to the ferry, very like modern asylum seekers. Many were caught, but many escaped, including one resident of Barton in the 1300’s, Elias de la Hill, who had struck Richard de la Hill and found himself fleeing for his life to Beverley.

    As for William the Conquerer, after he heard what had happened to Toustain, he wisely decided to leave Beverley’s sanctuary unviolated. Even he knew he couldn’t defeat a saint. The 1,000 year old frith stool is still inside Beverley Minster, though if you were thinking of committing murder I must warn you that the right to sanctuary there was abolished by Henry VIII in the 1530’s.
    7th Century Frith stool in Hexham Abbey
    Photo: Mike Quinn





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    I've been thinking about food a lot recently because I'm going to be talking about Roman cuisine at the end of this month as part of an exhibition called Food For Thought at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. 

    The exhibition came out of the research of Zena Kamash, Lecturer in Roman Archaeology and Art, Royal Holloway, University of London. Long fascinated by the relationship of food and memory, she recently took part in a project called Memoria Romana. As I understand it, this is an ongoing attempt to look at Classical history in a more intuitive way. 

    That's what we authors of historical fiction do every day: we take the facts from archaeology and primary sources, then go into our imaginations and try to construct a version of the past that feels real. 

    For example, modern sources about food in ancient Rome usually trot out the same old 'facts': 

    1. Romans reclined to dine
    2. There were three courses
    3. Slaves waited on you
    4. Romans ate basic food like bread, olive oil and wine
    5. And disgusting food like stuffed dormice and flamingo tongues
    6. Not to mention fish-gut sauce
    7. When you’d eaten too much you vomited

    Some of these are mainly false, some true and some partly true.

    It’s a bit like saying all Americans have cornflakes for breakfast, supersize hamburgers for lunch and turf'n'surf for dinner. Or that all French eat croissants and café au lait for breakfast, a Gauloise cigarette for lunch and steak frites for dinner. Remember the 80s in the UK, when we scoffed prawn cocktails, fondue, chicken kiev and Angel Delight? Those foods already seem bizarrely retro, but a future historian might have us eating them for decades. 

    What scholars like Zena Kamash realise is that you can’t sum up a thousand years of Roman history into such a simple formula. 

    Food varies in time and place. One of the fascinating aspects of first century British cooking is the number of new foods introduced by the Romans. And it's fun to think about the British equivalents of Mediterranean foods: butter for oil and beer instead of wine. These are some of the topics addressed by Zena and other experts in conjunction with the Corinium Museum in Food for Thought.



    But as well as looking at the physical evidence, Zena has gone creative. She knows that every Roman must have had their own way of eating, their own preferences, their own habits, their own cuisine, just as we do today. On her Not Just Dormice - Food for Thought blog she has shared her 'first food memory' and her favourite cuisine, and she has encouraged the other contributors and guest bloggers to do the same.

    Accordingly, Zena notes that her 'earliest food memory' is going to her village shop to buy sweets and her favourite cuisine is Middle Eastern. 

    One of the contributors to the exhibition is Lisa Lodwick, an archaeobotanist who studies plant remains from Roman sites. Her earliest food memory is 'a dinosaur shaped birthday cake' and her favourite cuisine is '(modern) Italian'. 

    Dan Stansbie specialises in Iron Age and Roman Britain; he is especially interested in the relationship between food and ceramics. His earliest food memory is a chocolate birthday cake and his favourite cuisine is Modern British/Anglo Indian. 

    Miranda Creswell is also involved with the project. Her best food would be 'a simple Italian tomato sauce, and chestnuts'. Her earliest food memory is crunchy bread and unsalted butter, from when she lived in France. Doesn't the idea of unsalted butter on a baguette make you think of France, too?



    My own earliest memory of food is probably the kosher dill pickles my Jewish father used to buy. Whenever I had an upset stomach, I would nibble one and immediately feel better. If I had to eschew all other cuisines and settle for just one, it would be Tex-Mex. That way, I’d still be able to enjoy chocolate, corn tortillas, chilli peppers, sour cream, avocado, cheese, beans, rice, beer and margaritas. Can you guess I grew up in California?

    My English husband Richard says his first 'food memory' is of white bread soaked in warm milk with sugar sprinkled on top. His preferred cuisine is modern Italian. 

    See how much these two simple questions hint at a person's age, ethnicity and even racial background?

    Amanda Hart, director of the Corinium Museum chipped in, too: 'Probably vegemite toast 1st memory and tuna avocado sandwich fave food. This is making me hungry!' she tweeted.

    Guest blogger Martyn Allen's favourite food is curry. It makes him happy. His earliest food memory is 'sprinkling the salt sachet into a packet of Smith's Salt'n'Shake whilst standing under a tree in a pub garden. Crisps, trees and pubs all continue to make me happy!' he adds.

    (To see more examples from the guest bloggers, go HERE.)

    Notice how emotion has crept in. We know from Proust's famous madeleine episode how powerfully evocative the sense of taste can be. 

    All this food memory talk got me thinking about the characters in my new series of books set in Roman Britain. One writing exercise I often do to flesh out a character is to have them 'pack a suitcase for the weekend'. Or I imagine my character in the nude, as recommended by Sol Stein in his book Solutions for Writers

    It occurred to me that Zena's two questions are ones I could ask my characters as I develop them and help them 'come alive'.

    Juba, the twelve-year-old hero of my work in progress, is dutiful and diligent. Aeneas is his hero and, like Aeneas, Juba is of a melancholy disposition. Romans believed that people of a melancholic temperament were cool and dry, and that they needed hot, moist foods to balance these humours. So Juba will like moist roast chicken, a dish often prescribed in Roman times for melancholy.  He comes from a rich Roman mixed-race family, so maybe his first memory could be of an exotic and expensive food like flamingo tongues, clichéd though it is. Or – counterintuitively – something comforting like the Roman equivalent of French toast

    Vesuvio, Juba's 14-year-old brother, is slightly OCD. Named after the volcano that erupted in the year of his birth, Vesuvio is not choleric as you might expect, but phlegmatic, i.e. easy-going and with 'cold, wet' humours. According to the Roman medical writer Galen, he should eat bread, roast meat and fish. My intuition tells me he loves 'white foods'. So high-quality bread, roast chicken breast and oat porridge with a dollop of cream are his faves. Maybe his first food memory is of Roman libum or honey-cake, a scrumptious combination of ricotta-type cheese, flour, egg and honey with the unexpected addition of a bay leaf for flavour.
    Sally Grainger's recipe for Libum or Honey-cake & my husband's effort

    I had the idea of a younger sister named Ursula who like me is choleric (hot and dry) and will find herself perfectly at home in cold, damp Britannia. Galen tells me that she should eat cool, moist food like soft cereals, lettuce, cabbage and cold beans. Like me, one of her favourite foods could be bitter salad with an oenogarum (wine vinegar, olive-oil and fish-gut) dressing.




    How about your characters? What is the first 'food memory' of each? And what is their preferred cuisine? 

    And what about YOU? 

    Caroline Lawrence will be talking about Roman Food: Disgusting and Delicious at the Corinium Museum on Saturday 31 May 2015 as part of their Roman Food Festival. And Dr Paul Roberts of the British Museum will be talking about Eating and Drinking in Pompeii and Herculaneum on Sunday 31 May 2015! 


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  • 05/09/15--13:30: April competition winners
  • April competition

    The winners of Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl are:
    Elizabeth Hopkinson
    Pippa Goodhart
    Elspeth Scott
    Lauren Gent
    Marjorie Taylor

    Congratulations

    To claim your prize, please contact Susie Dunlop - susie@allisonandbusby.com - with your land address.



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    A few weeks ago I received a delightful letter from Mariagrazia Dammicco, garden historian and writer. In her company, I have spent many idyllic hours over the years learning about the historical and hidden gardens of Venice, courtesy of tours organised by the Wigwam Club for Historic Gardens, of which Mariagrazia is president.

    Many of the scenes in my stories are set in these Venetians gardens, so naturally I sent Mariagrazia my first children’s book, The Undrowned Child, as soon as it was translated into Italian by Salani in 2011. The book’s protagonists are greedy foul-mouthed mermaids, a monster in the lagoon, the ghost of an historical traitor and some extremely clever children.

    Mariagrazia’s letter said: ‘Sometimes fruit needs time to mature … and so finally it seems that I will be able to present your book in Venice, or rather propose a reading of it and a workshop for children in the great garden of Thetis at the Arsenale.

    
    the Garden of Thetis
    ‘But let’s do this in order,' continued Mariagrazia. 'Wigwam was recently asked by the Comune of Venice and the Garden of Thetis to organise some events for the public, and in particular for families and children. The first day will be Saturday April 25th, an open day at the Arsenale. There will be workshops, games, activities in the orchard, tastings … and I immediately thought of your book: because Thetis was a marine divinity (like your own mermaids) and because we will be at the Arsenale, where you set some epic scenes of your book
    .’

    The actor, musician and artist Oreste Sabadin, she told me, had offered his voice and his clarinet to perform a musical reading of some extracts of the book. And Mariagrazia’s daughter, the artist and photographer Francesca Saccani, would work with the children to paint watercolours of monsters and mermaids. Francesca and Anna Saccani had designed Wigwam’s first calendar.

    I leave you to imagine how excited I was about this. Especially when I saw the beautiful poster.


    Now the Italian edition of The Undrowned Child is called Il Grimorio di Venezia… roughly translated as The Magical Almanac of Venice. It has a rather provocative cover.


    Don’t you think this mermaid looks as if she has really lived? Lived in ways beyond the realm of the intended 9-12 readers of the book? Or is it just that I need to get out more? (I’m sure you’ll tell me.)

    the original 'Papy'
    I suppose the ‘Papy’ market must be catered for in Italian bookshops. Indeed I’m increasingly pleased to note that most Italian men still seem quite fond of mature female breasts and don’t go seeking androgyny or embryonic ages in their women. There used to be a wonderful programme on Italian television called Festa in Piazza, where the rustic set mimicked everyone’s dream idea of a village square. (I believe there is new decorating term called ‘Rough Luxe’, which would cover it). The piazza was accessorized with plastic plants and barely dressed beauties, gratuitously placed. The cameraman used his equipment as a heat-seeking device. It was always panning in on some mammaries, the more ‘prosperosa’ the better. We always knew if the alternative cameraman was working, because he was a thigh and buttock man. On his days, we really got to know the loins and rear ends of the ladies on the show.


    The audience were mostly in their later middle ages, as were, delightfully, many of the performers, and the songs. At moments of extreme sentimentality, the audience would stream onto the stage and start dancing, becoming part of the phenomenon, and the breast-favouring cameraman enjoyed himself with the mature voluntary bosoms as much as he had with the paid ones.

    Anyway, perhaps this long digression explains the difference between the Italian and the British cover (left) of The Undrowned Child, which takes a more innocent approach to the idea of a teen mermaid in a hist-fic book.

    Getting back to exciting news that my book was to be presented in Venice … naturally I planned to be there, and secretly hoped to be asked to judge the best mermaid drawing, or even just to paint a mermaid of my own. I couldn’t help noticing that Oreste Sabadin was a ferociously handsome man.

    I rehearsed my impromptu speeches and off the cuff jokes in the bath for a week; I’d chosen the outfit; I’d had my hair cut and my toenails were freshly gelled in the kind of courtesanly red that the Italian cover’s mermaid would have favoured, had she owned toes to paint instead of a tail.

    As it happened, a last-minute logistical hitch meant that I was unable to get to Venice but I received reports of the event in image, word and sound. I am pleased to report that this was an occasion properly dedicated to the imagination, to innocence and to children - and to gardens.

    My lovely friends, the artist Deirdre Kelly and the architect Rosato Frassanito sent me texts, emails, photos and videos all through the performance, during which Oreste read from the book, and played,


    while Francesca created images in watercolour using, appropriately, brushes fashioned from vegetables.


    The children sat around in a neat semi circle. I would love to show them but it’s never a good idea to publish photographs of children on the internet, sadly. With permission, however, I can show you a talented young Venetian friend of mine, Martina, who attended the event.


    Sheets of paper were also laid out for the children, with generous dollops of colour and vegetable paintbrushes.



    I was informed of everything minute by minute - even my own round of applause at the end.

    So, sitting looking over the Thames, I could feel myself by the lagoon in Venice.

    Many, many thanks to all involved.


    Michelle Lovric’s website


    You can learn more about the work of Wigwam, and find a schedule of their private garden openings and visits here


    Mariagrazia Dammico’s latest book is A Guide to the Gardens of Venice, La Toletta Edizioni 2013.

    It also features illustrations by Francesca Saccani.


    Photos by Rosato Frassanito and Deirdre Kelly, the collage artist, who is currently preparing a new exhibition of her work for the Scuola Grafica in Venice.






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    Anyone over the age of sixty will remember the school exercise books of the 1950s that had, on the back cover, multiplication tables and a list of arcane weights and measures: bushels and pecks, rods, poles and perches, chains and furlongs.  Even if our maths lessons never ventured much beyond feet and inches, how lucky we were at least to see those other words, so rich in history. Sometimes you only appreciate things after they’ve disappeared.

    Furlongs (there are 8 of them to a mile), have survived in the world of British horse-racing.  The Epsom Derby, for instance, is run over a mile and a half but this is customarily expressed as 1 mile 4 furlongs. It only recently occurred to me that the word ‘furlong’ might be related to ‘furrow’. And so it is. It dates from a time when ploughing was a critical time in the farming year.

    Turning an ox and plough at the end of a furrow was a difficult manoeuvre, particularly on heavy soil, so farmers preferred each furrow to be as long as possible. A furlong, so they say, was the distance an ox could plough before needing a rest. Furthermore, an acre was the estimated area one ox could plough in one day. A rough and ready calculation to be sure (I guess it depended on your ox's attitude to life), but it was a measure that would have been commonly understood and agreed.

    How extraordinary it seems to 21st century urbanites who hardly know a sheep dip from a five-bar gate, that there was once a whole lexicon of ploughing. An oxgang was the area an ox was able to plough in one season. It was about 15 acres, which tells us, give or take and allowing for wet weather and sacrosanct Sundays, how long the ploughing season lasted. A virgate was the area two oxen could cover in a season. And if you had a team of 8 oxen  - you should be so lucky -  you could expect them to plough a carucate of land.  Carucate: a wonderful word now lost to everyone but compilers of crosswords.

    Then there were poppy seeds and barleycorns, perhaps the most picturesquely named measurements of all. Three barleycorns, dry and round and placed end to end, were the original standard for the British inch. This was officially the case up to 1824 when the Weights and Measures Act was passed by Parliament. We adopted the word ‘inch’ from the Romans, by the way. Their uncia, or pollicus, the breadth of the base of a man’s thumb, was one-twelfth of a Roman foot. And speaking of feet, barleycorns are still used in shoe-sizing: the difference between, say, a size 10 and a size 9 being one-third of an inch, or 1 barleycorn. A poppy seed was reckoned to be a quarter the length of a barleycorn. So if the shoe pinches you might need an extra 4 poppy seeds of toe room.



    One more measurement for your entertainment. You will know the expression, ‘give him an inch and he’ll soon take a mile’. An earlier version was, ‘he’ll soon take an ell.’

    So what, pray, was an ell? It was the distance from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger, about half a yard. A double ell, a yard, was the commonly used measurement for cloth and in any tailor’s workshop you would have found a wooden measure called an ell-stick or ell-wand.  

    Today we have centimetres and metres. How excruciatingly dull.

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    For anyone who’s even vaguely interested in history or politics Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is a fascinating exhibition. For a historical novelist, it’s an inspiration.

    I’d heard about it on the radio and was itching to see it, so when Mary Hoffman passed on an invitation for a History Girl to attend a private view I grabbed it. Travelling up to London I was ridiculously excited. There’s something magical about seeing historical documents and artefacts in the flesh – no reproduction, however good can convey the thrill of the real thing. And this was the Magna Carta. THE MAGNA CARTA!!! I’d been taught about it in Primary School. Bad King John who ‘shamed the throne that he sat on.’ King versus barons, democracy versus tyranny. The triumph of the People’s rights, cornerstone of the British constitution.




    And yet, of the 63 original clauses, only three remain on the statute book today. One defends the freedom of the English church, another the liberties of London and other towns. The third is the most famous –
    No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
    To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

    In Medieval England ‘free men’ were actually an elite minority but that concept of universal justice was hugely powerful and has inspired lawyers, politicians and activists (including Nelson Mandela) ever since. Chief Justice Lord Bingham wrote, “the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it had said.”

    Curators Julian Harrison and Claire Breay and researcher Alex Lock are to be congratulated on creating a narrative that leads us from the granting of the charter in 1215 right up to the present day.

    There are excellent reviews that give an overview of the exhibition here

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/11459576/Magna-Carta-Law-Liberty-Legacy-British-Library-review-rich-and-authoritative.html

    http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/12/magna-carta-exhibition-lessons-modern-politics-peoples-rights


    However, I’m coming at it from a different angle and taking an author’s eye view.

    At every school or library visit I can guarantee someone will ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I reply that I’m like a magpie, constantly on the lookout for bright little nuggets of information. And then there are the holes in history, the gaps that can be filled with ‘what-ifs?’ and ‘maybes...’ and ‘just supposes..?’ In Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy there’s material to fill several volumes. I’ll concentrate on just three that sparked off novel ideas.








    First of all was a striking statue of one of the barons - Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey de Mandeville. A small label states that he was deeply in debt to King John after paying £13,333 for the right to marry the monarch’s first wife.

    My brain started ticking right away. Geoffrey married the king’s ex-wife? King and queen were divorced? Why? How? What happened? I was so intrigued that I looked her up as soon as I got home.

    It was Henry II who arranged the betrothal between Isabel (or Isabella) of Gloucester and his son John, but only after Henry had disinherited Isabel’s two sisters and declared she was sole heir to Gloucester. The couple were married, but as they were distant cousins the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage null and void. The Pope granted a dispensation but banned them from having sexual relations.









    When John came to the throne in 1199 he almost immediately obtained an annulment of the marriage. He did, however, keep Isabel’s land and property and retained the feudal right to decide who his former wife could marry. He demanded an extortionate price for her hand yet Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey was willing to pay it.

    A woman cast aside by her first husband, her second husband so deeply in in debt that his land was in danger of being seized by the crown, the king – her cousin - loathed by his subjects…there’s plenty of material in Isabel’s story.

    Matthew Paris, a 13th century chronicler said King John‘was a tyrant. He was a wicked ruler who did not behave like a king. He was greedy and took as much money as he could from his people. Hell is too good for a horrible person like him.’

    King John died (probably of dysentery) in 1216. But even then people were saying ‘what if?’ and ‘just suppose…’ Rumour had it that he’d been poisoned. There’s a thriller here just begging to be written…

    As someone with an interest in American history the second thing that had me enthralled was the draft Declaration of Independence. Jefferson calmly and neatly lays out a set of charges against the tyrant George III but his language becomes inflamed and his handwriting briefly explodes into furious block capitals when writing about slavery -







    He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…

    Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner himself, so there’s an element of hypocrisy here. This particular passage was struck out of the finished declaration, but what if it hadn’t been? Just suppose Jefferson’s original draft had carried the day? Maybe things could have been different. How would the USA look now if they had been?

    My third and possibly my favourite part of the exhibition - simply because it seems to say so much about human frailty and man’s capacity for blundering blindly towards disaster - was the copy of the Magna Carta that was damaged by fire in 1731 and then ‘restored’ in 1836 by Mr Hogarth.







    Mr Hogarth had been regularly employed as a book binder when Josiah Forshall requested permission from the British Museum Trustees to conserve the document.

    It seems that Mr Hogarth first flattened the precious manuscript with a heavy weight, then soaked it in water and glued it to a backing sheet. Using blotting paper to dry the parchment he lifted off much of the ink. It was a total catastrophe, yet the Trustees report declared the work to be ‘satisfactory’.
    This incident really fuels the imagination. Was Mr Hogarth full of gleeful enthusiasm and oblivious to the disaster he’d wreaked? Was it an Only Fools and Horses chandelier moment? Did he have to make his excuses and run for it?

    As for the Trustees - I can’t help imagining their expressions when they saw what he’d done. Tight lipped, ashen-faced, declaring it ‘satisfactory’ and then burying it deep in the basement in the hope that no one would ever find it?

    There’s definitely a book there. Mr Hogarth’s Bad Day perhaps, or Mr Hogarth Messes Up?



    Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy runs at the British Library until 1st September 2015. Go see it.














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    Matthew Macfadyen as a smouldering Mr Darcy
    For some weeks now we've been bombarded with images of a sultry Aidan Turner, topless, with a tanned and rippling six pack. Now personally, enjoyable though Poldark has been on a Sunday evening, I'm not one of those multitudes who finds Mr Turner's phwoar factor off the scale. So I was rather pleased to find Matthew Macfadyen, a regular costume drama hero, speaking out about the narcissism and the inaccuracy of the historical drama six-pack.

    'But all those men from the past were doing manual work, even the posh ones were riding and generally doing manly things, weren't they?' I hear you say. But Macfadyen rightly points out that a character in a period drama wouldn't have done crunches. A six-pack is something that can only be achieved in the gym with specific exercises – it is a modern phenomenon.

    He talks of being expected to sculpt his torso for his role as Mr Darcy and also having acted in a series about soldiers in the former Yugoslavia and working with the Royal Greenjackets –  some of the fittest men he had ever encountered and none of them sporting a six-pack. Macfadyen is taking a stand against the vanity of it all and I thoroughly approve.

    Some gratuitous nudity – not a sculpted calf in sight!
    The ideal body changes over the years, but filmmakers are hamstrung in needing their heroes to appeal to modern audiences. We know that Henry VIII was inordinately proud of his manly calves but I can't imagine the people who produced The Tudors requesting lingering shots of Jonathan Rhys-Meyer's lower legs instead of his ripped abs.

    It is the female body that has been scrutinised for centuries and wilfully shaped to meet the desires of  men and now our inherently narcissistic culture is forcing a similar set of expectations on men. It's tempting to say as women that we have been subject to the male gaze for long enough and now its our turn to shift the gaze onto men. But this makes me uncomfortable; I feel it is something we should resist as it is reductive and shallow.

    If Macfadyen can manage to be a sex symbol and remain fully clothed then more power to him and, if truth be told, I'd take him over Turner any day.


    Elizabeth Fremantle's novel WATCH THE LADY will be published in June.
    To find out about her Tudor trilogy go to ElizabethFremantle.com
    Twitter – @lizfremantle
    Facebook – Elizabeth Fremantle Author




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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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