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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    When I was a History student (in the 1970s and again at the turn of the century) one of the things I liked most was being buried in the library.  In those days, part of the joy of historical research (and one of the main things we were being tested on) was slogging through cardboard indexes and untangling illegible handwriting.  We were looking for something no one else knew about, or which had been routinely overlooked.
    In those days, it was perfectly in order to spend several years doing a PhD.  Some people never finished at all.  In the great mahogany stacks there were old men who never spoke to anyone, but shuffled to the same seat every day to slog away at a great work no one would ever see.  The true professionals sat in a strange huddled posture, their arms guarding their books and papers from the prying eyes of rival scholars, like children protecting their chips from hungry siblings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

                                                                       Bison, Altamira

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                  Hand with fish, Picasso

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

    Twitter: Carol4OliveFarm

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

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

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

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

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

    Then you wrap it in clay. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Before and after the drawing lesson. Oh well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ears. Dear god, ears.

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

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

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

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

    Work in Progress:

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

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

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

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    Guestling Woods East Sussex
    That's what started me off a walk in those woods last week, I couldn't get this skipping rhyme out of my head;

    Bluebells, cockleshells,
    Evey, Ivy, O-ver,

    Did you play this one? You'd need a big group, and a big rope with two enders, or one ender (nobody wanted to be an ender) and then you'd tie the other end to a drainpipe. Anyway on 'Bluebells, cockle shells' the rope would be swayed, not turned all the way over until the word 'over' in the rhyme. At this the next girl, it was always a girl (and there was only Barry Morgan in our school who could skip I may be wrong here) would run into the rope. She'd sing;

    I like coffee I like tea 
    I like Sheila in with me

    And then Sheila would jump in and you'd both skip together and spell out her name as you jumped. But sometimes, and this would be around 1970 in London, I can remember singing;

    I like coffee I like tea,
    I like sitting on a black man's knee

    Which seems completely shocking today - although we didn't think about it then - and did I think I was skipping about my Dad? Not at all, this was the same mythical black man who famously got caught by his toe, best mates, no doubt with the man from China who was forever doing up his flies. Skipping rhymes were always odd and sometimes rude and sometimes completely scatological. Can I just say I am glad those days are gone? I never felt these rhymes were a sign of any kind of innocence.

    But that picture, of my walk last week near my new home got me onto the subject of this months' blog and one of my favourite books, Iona and Peter Opie's wonderful book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. 

    I first bought this book in a school fair on a second hand bookstall. Since then I have sought out loads more of their books, collections of rhymes from British playgrounds from the 1950s to the 1980s. These include The Singing Game, and The People In the Playground. If you don't know them and are at all interested in children's play or children's history in general it is so worth seeking them out.

    The collected rhymes and songs from all over the country, singing games and clapping games with slight variations depending on north or south. We used to sing (in London);

    Under the brown bush
    Under the tree
    My darling

    becomes, in the midlands; 

    Under the bram bushes
    Down by the sea

    And thinking about it I can still do loads of the verses of Under the Brown Bush, which was a clapping, not a skipping song.  As was When Susie was a baby the verse that chronicles Susie's life from baby to skeleton and finally ghost.  The verse for 'teenager' sticks in my mind.

    When Susie was a teenager,
    A teenager Susie was.
    She went 'Ooh, ahh, I lost my bra
    I left it in my boyfriend's car

     There were lots of skipping rhymes that involved the word Mississippi for no good reason. My generation was, I think, very in love with America.

    But I think this one was my favourite, it's another skipping one;

    Bubble car, bubble car,
    Number 48
    Goes round the co-ooooo-rner (runs out of skipping rope and round the enders)
    And slams on the brakes (runs back in and traps rope on the word brake).

    What was yours?

    Catherine Johnson's next book is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo out on July 2 published by Random House

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  • 05/14/15--17:30: Settings
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    I love having a real place to set my books. It helps me see the story playing out if I know the place. I used real settings which I named in my first two books. A little tricky, because I was then bound to the real history of the place. I made freer with my Icelandic books. I knew the places, but I didn't name them. So I was free to visualise the bay and hillsides, but could play a little with them.

    In Runaway, I needed a big stately home for my setting. I chose Dyrham Park, which was just the right era, built in the early Georgian period, but wary of my experience of using Farleigh Castle, I renamed it Deerhurst Park. Now I had all the freedom I could want, to explore the beautiful setting on visits and imagine it, but without tying myself to its actual history and the people who lived there.

    I could imagine the horses and carriages travelling down the wide sweep of the carriageway into the picturesque park. I could place characters at the lodge house (now a ticket office). I could describe negotiating a team of horses through the sharp turn into the gates and the archway into the stableyard:
    I even knew what the stable yard was like - though it's now a tea room and a shop; as mentioned in an earlier post:
    Here, I was able to imagine tethering and grooming the horses, harnessing them, riding them in and out, even walking them when they had colic. And I could imagine and describe all the daily coming and going of a busy stable yard and the people who once worked there.
    I even felt familiar with the gardens and the view of the back of the house, which the servants would have crossed to go to church on Sundays:

    An image of Dyrham Park even made the back cover of the paperback. So it's an open secret, but I still got to invent my own people and story for the place. 
    I'm sure other authors can successfully use imagined settings, but I definitely find real ones easier and more vivid. And it gives me an excuse to post all these lovely pictures. Perhaps the real secret is that when I visit these incredible places, I love to imagine what it must have been like to live there. I suspect that might be the basis of a lot of our historical fiction.
    Follow me on twitter: @jensen_ml

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    Vincent Van Gogh must be one of the best-known and most popular painters of them all. Who wouldn’t recognise his painting of sunflowers? Or the self-portrait with the bandaged ear? Or the picture of a bedroom in his house in Arles? Parts of his life story are almost equally well-known: the story behind that bandaged ear, for instance.

    And yet in his lifetime, he had little success, and much sadness. This much I knew. But after a recent visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I know so much more. And his paintings – well, seeing them for real was an absolute revelation: reproductions simply don't do them justice. I have never, ever seen colours which sing from the canvas so brilliantly, with such luminosity, with such – ironically, given his suicide – zest for life.

    The interior of the museum

    The museum is a big, airy, modern building – so although it’s busy, it doesn’t feel crowded. Do take advantage of the offer of an audio-guide – it really helps to tell the story. And it may not be quite the story you expect: it’s ultimately sad - he was only 37 when he died - but he lived his life with suchintensity: and you only have to look at the paintings to see that he experienced a great deal of joy alongside the pain, and to read some of his letters to know that he had friends and family who loved him.

    You begin with some of the many self-portraits that he did. He often used himself as his subject because he couldn’t afford to pay a model: he had a small income from his brother Theo, an art-dealer, but in his lifetime, he made very little from his work. The paintings are created from tiny brush strokes. When you look closely, you can hardly believe the colours he uses; his hair, which from a distance is reddish, is made up of individual short strokes of green, red and orange; his (blue) coat consists of two shades of blue, orange and white. He is aptly quoted as saying: “You’ll certainly see that I have my own way of looking.’

    You’ll search in vain for a smiling Vincent – but then you don’t generally see a smiling Rembrandt either: if you’re painting yourself, it’s difficult to reapply your best smile every time you glance in the mirror – much easier to stick to a serious face.

    As far as I recall, the actual narrative of Van Gogh’s life begins on the first floor. All through, there are examples of other painters’ works which inspired him. He strikes me as being touchingly humble about his work – so eager to learn. As a young man he made a series of false starts, and only began to learn painting (at Theo’s suggestion) when he was 27. He threw himself into it, at first combining his passion for painting with a deep-felt respect for the lives of peasants, which he wanted to capture on canvas. The Potato Eaters is perhaps his best known work from this period; it is an interior, showing five peasants eating their evening meal round a table, their heavy faces lit by a single overhead lamp. Vincent had high hopes for this painting, but it was greeted with criticism and incomprehension. The museum has a large collection of his letters, and they reveal how hurt he was by this response; his reaction was to conclude that he still had a great deal to learn, and he would study until he had learnt it. At the end of 1885 he went to Paris, and his palette quickly changed, becoming lighter, luminous, far more colourful. His world opened up: he saw paintings by Delacroix, Jean-Francois Millet, Manet and Monet: he met Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Signac and Emil Bernard. And, fatefully, he met Paul Gauguin.

    Montmarte: windmills and allotments

    In 1888, Vincent decided to go south, to Arles in Provence. He was hopeful that the warmer climate would improve his health – but also he thought he might find there brighter colours, a more vivid light, and in this he was not disappointed. In the south, he painted some of his most enchanting pictures – the three images of blossoming orchards, the view of his street with lemon and yellow ochre buildings in front of a deep cobalt blue sky, the iconic sunflower paintings, and the picture of a bedroom, again in shades of yellow and blue. This is such a familiar picture it’s almost become a cliché, yet when you see it for real, its impact is breathtaking: I have never seen colours which sing out from the canvas with such brilliance.

    I've included this, but no reproduction remotely does justice to the original painting.

    He rented four rooms in what became known as the Yellow House, and hoped to found there an artists’ colony – a ‘Studio of the South’. He thought Gauguin with his dominant, charismatic personality, would be the perfect man to lead it, and he invited him to come and stay.

    The two men admired each other’s work, but before long they began to argue. Gauguin wasn’t particularly interested in painting from nature, whereas to Vincent, nature was immensely important as an inspiration. Gauguin expected others to defer to him; Vincent tried his methods but found them alien. My impression is that Vincent, emotional and needy, was eager for Gauguin to like him, hopeful that this partnership might lead to great things. Revealingly, the museum guide tells us that Vincent painted companion pictures of chairs. One, elegantly curved and polished, represented Gauguin: for himself, Vincent chose a simple, sturdily constructed kitchen chair with no airs and graces.

    Vincent’s frail mental health could not cope with the disappointment when it all fell apart, and just before Christmas a crisis was reached when he cut off a piece of his left ear. Two days later Gauguin left Arles, and Vincent was admitted to hospital.

    Almond blossom

    In May the following year, Vincent Van Gogh was voluntarily admitted to an asylum in St Rémy, not far from Arles. Even now, he didn’t stop painting: still lives and interpretations of religious works by other painters when he was confined indoors, paintings of the gardens when he was allowed outside. There’s a touching story behind one of the paintings he did at this time. It’s of almond blossom set against a turquoise sky. It’s utterly beautiful, and he painted it as a gift for Theo and his wife Jo on the birth of their baby – whom they had named Vincent. It’s expressive of such joy, such a sense of new life – and yet in a few months, Vincent would be dead by his own hand. Less than a year after that, loyal Theo would also be dead.

    But Jo was convinced of the importance of her brother-in-law’s art, and she proved to be an excellent trustee of his work. Her son, the baby for whom Vincent had painted the almond blossom, took over the task, and eventually played a key part in the opening, in 1973, of the museum.

    It’s very sad that in his own lifetime, Vincent did not know how widely-known, highly-respected, and well-loved he would one day become. But recently, this was redressed by the magic of television - and story-telling - when Vincent was the subject of an episode of Doctor Who, the iconic British TV sci-fi series. At the end of the episode, the Doctor brings Vincent forward in time, and takes him to a special exhibition of his work. Bill Nighy, doing a brilliant turn as the curator of the exhibition, is asked by the Doctor to assess how Vincent’s reputation stands at the beginning of the 21stcentury. Watch, but have a handkerchief ready!

    I can’t recommend this marvellous museum highly enough. (It has an excellent cafe too!) But do book in advance to avoid the queues. You can book online, or you can buy a voucher when you get there from one of the tourist shops – if you get there reasonably early, as we did, you won’t then have to queue for very long at all.

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  • 05/16/15--22:00: WRITING TIME? by Penny Dolan

  • Most of my writing is for children and when I’m asked "When's your novel set?", the easiest response is to name a historical period, such as The Victorian Age.

    However, on reflection, another answer might be “A historical time that I’ve found something to say about.” Which then leads into a slightly worrying question: “And quite how will the young reader read themselves into your intended historical world? How will they hear what you have to say?”

    Children’s knowledge of history is often minimal. On school visits, I enjoy using history topics as starting points for writing workshops. Unfortunately, curricular pressure at Key Stage 2 has thinned history and humanities teaching so greatly that this doesn’t seem the rich ground it once was, alas!

     I’d be pleased to be proved wrong - and no doubt a visit to museum or from historical re-enactors and / or authors like Caroline Lawrence would help immensely. 

    Therefore, given the young reader may well be on unfamiliar ground, how can they be attracted into this or that historical period? Where, exactly, should their young feet be planted for the journey? Should I stand them in "then" or "now", the "past" or the "present"?

    Historical fiction placed firmly in the past gives reader the immediate experience of walking in another’s shoes, especially when written in the first person or diary form. Examples of “past history” novels for teens are Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Geraldine McCaughrean’s Tamburlaine, Tanya Landman’s The Goldsmith’s Daughter or the first of Catherine Johnson’s Sawbonesseries. 

    Each writer entices the reader onwards with strong plot and subtle historical information, creating a believable “platform” for the young reader to stand on. This kind of storytelling seems to come from the conviction that the past is an interesting enough place for its own sake. 

    Another form -  the “slip back in time” novel- makes that historic distance explicit. The writer offers the reader a fictional step or still point to ease them into this particular historical journey. The young reader identifies with the “present time” hero/heroine and is then lured back into historic time. The “slip” need not be mysterious. Michael Morpurgo is an expert in the “I found a diary/ a letter / an object/ a photo and this was the story” approach.  My personal Morpurgo favourite is The Wreck of The Zanzibar about pilot boat crews on the Scilly Isles. 

    Traditional time-slip novels have a slightly ghostly quality: classics include Tom’s Midnight Garden or The Children of Green Knowe,characterised by a circular structure and a mysterious link revealed at the end of the plot. Were those writers – Philippa Pearce and Lucy M. Boston– eager to tell the reader that history’s “past” and today’s “present” are deeply connected?
    Then there are the complex time slips– time travel, in fact - when the book moves between the past and the future, with the reader’s own present world as a balance point between the two. Susan Price’s books, The Sterkarm Handshake and The Sterkarm Kiss, balance future greed against the culture of the border rievers. (Any fans out there will be glad to hear a third Sterkarm will soon to be published.) 

     Joan Lennon’s Silverskin takes her reader into an even more distant community: her “future character” travels back to the world of Skara Brae. It seems to me that such time-slips, aimed at the teen and Y/A audience, invite the reader to learn lessons from the past, to examine the consequences in the future and consider choices being made now, for good or ill.
    Finally, there’s the joy of writing historically rooted fantasies, books like Katherine Langrish’s West of the Sun troll trilogy, Michelle Lovric’s Undrowned Child Venetian fantasies, or Mary Hoffman’s world of Stravaganza. Is the fantasy reader being invited to experience the possibilities of story, or explore “what might have been” or just to play – and not always in pleasant ways - with the whole idea of “past times”?


    Such a range of historical riches!
     So how does one choose where to plant the reader’s feet? Historical fiction is many layered activity - inspired by a person, a place, an event, an object, a document or map or more – but how does one decide to tell about a true-but-fictitious historical world? Gut instinct? Maybe you don’t know until you’ve begun to scribble anyway? Or does the historical intention consciously supply the starting shape of your story? Or is it all a mystery anyway?

    What do you think?

    Penny Dolan

    NB. Today’s post came into my mind after I’d read The Spirit of the Place, a book by Dennis Hamley, aimed at academic or adult readers. Originally written in 1993, this time-slip novel links the master plan of Nicholas Fowler - a fictitious minor eighteenth century poet, alchemist and grotto-builder - with Lyndsey Lovelock - a literature student, studying Fowler’s Pope-like poetry – and Rod, her suspicious boyfriend  who starts to investigate the secret research going on in Coswold, Fowler’s old house.

    When the book was originally written, the human genome project was only just in the public’s consciousness and any effects were unknown. Republishing The Spirit of the Place twenty years later, Dennis Hamley could add to the novel, tell the 21st century  reader what had happened to Lyndsey and Rod and add a post-script to his original predictions. Now there’s time slipping indeed!

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    When I was a child, as a change from playing Cowboys and Indians, we would charge about the woods and fields being Roundheads and Cavaliers. I was always a Cavalier, a choice based entirely on feathered hats,  swashbuckling outfits and Captain Marryat's The Children of the New Forest. A book I absolutely loved. I couldn't imagine a more wonderful life: living in the forest, hunting deer, feasting off venison and hiding from pesky Roundheads who were obviously The Enemy.

    As I grew older and wiser, I changed my allegiance. I became a Roundhead. I first encountered the Putney Debates when I was studying history at university. I was struck most forcibly by the radical nature of the ideas being discussed and that they were being debated openly by men from all walks of life, from gentlemen landowners to labourers, button sellers and shoemakers, all with a voice that would be heard.

    Sir Thomas Fairfax and the General Council of the Army
    The debates took place in St Mary's Church, Putney in the Autumn of 1647. This was at the end of the first Civil War period. The forces of the King had been defeated. The New Model Army had triumphed. So much so, that when parliament voted for the army to be disbanded, they refused to go. Instead, the rank and file elected their own representatives, 'agitators', to resist any moves to send them home or to Ireland. A General Council of the Army was established which was made up of not just senior officers but also the agitators, elected by the rank and file, and junior officers from each regiment, so that ordinary soldiers would be heard, their opinions, respected,  alongside 'grandees likeSir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell.

    The General Council of the Army met at Putney to agree terms with the King which they set out in The Case of the Army Truly Stated but discussion of this submission led to a much more radical paper: An Agreement of the People.

    The radical ideas in the Agreement were the subject of the Debates that subsequently took place at St Mary's Church. Ordinary soldiers, sent as the delegates from their regiments, sat alongside junior and senior officers. Even civilians, Levellers, were allowed to participate in open and free debate. No army has ever behaved like this, before or since, and the ideas that emerged from the debates were quite extraordinary for their time, or any time. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough expressed the core of the matter most memorably.

    Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a Government ought first to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...

    These words call to us down the years, sounding modern to our ears, as simple and clear as on that day in October 1647 when they were first expressed.

    The voices that argued so fiercely for freedom and equality on those Autumn days in Putney were soon stifled and repressed. The Debates fell out of history, the transcripts only discovered 250 years later in the archives of Worcester College, Oxford. Not long, ironically, after the franchise demanded so fiercely and eloquently all those years before was finally granted with the Representation of the Pepole Act 1884, and still not every 'he' was included and certainly not every 'she'. Universal adult suffrage was not achieved until 1928.   .  

    Those voices might have been stifled, but they were not silenced. They joined a chorus of radical dissent that ran beneath the surface of British history like an underground river, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but always there, deep and strong, reaching back to the Lollards and on to the Known Men of Tudor England, the Dissenters and Puritans of Elizabethan England, the Levellers and Diggers, the Quakers who would bow their heads to no man and on to the American Revolution, to the Corresponding Societies in London at the time of the French Revolution, given open expression by Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecroft, running on to the Luddites and Dark Lantern Men, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists and finally emerging with the ILP when Keir Hardie took his place in the Parliament that had denied the demands of the New Model Army all those years before. The work was not finished, the cry was taken up by the Pankhursts and the Suffragettes until every she was given her representation.

    Standing in the quiet of St Mary's in Putney, surrounded by the passion of the past,  I thought it ironic  that, after the most recent exercise in democracy, we should find ourselves governed by a small clique from a wealth and privileged elite, most of them closely linked to the aristocracy. Roundhead or Cavalier? Do we have to even ask? You get what you vote for, I suppose.

    Celia Rees

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    With the 85th anniversary of Amy Johnson’s record-breaking flight from England to Australia having passed a couple of weeks ago, and the 75th anniversary of her death coming up next year, it seems an opportune moment for me to attempt my own ‘homage’ to the great aviatrix, by taking to the air myself. This, you understand, was in the spirit of research, since I’m currently midway through a novel - Time of Flight - which is set in 1931 and which deals, amongst other things, with the era’s craze for flying. And so, donning an imaginary leather jacket and flying helmet, I climbed into the cockpit of a decidedly modern version of the Gipsy Moth in which Amy flew the 11,000 miles from Croydon Airport to Port Darwin.

    My own flight would last no more than an hour, all told - of which I would take the controls for only a few minutes. But I can honestly say that at the end of it my admiration for my distinguished predecessor had increased a thousandfold. Not for her the luxuries of a closed-in cockpit and state-of-the-art modern technology. She did her flight in a machine made of wood and canvas, with a cockpit open to the elements, and very little in the way of instruments to guide her - not even a radio. She crossed oceans, and battled sandstorms, fog, and Monsoon conditions - as well as surviving several near-fatal crashes. My own flight, though it felt just as daring to me, was a tame affair by comparison.

    If I can claim one thing in common with my heroine, it’s that I’ve always believed in taking on challenges - whether it’s white-water rafting on the (very turbulent) Orinoco River, or giving a talk on the Modern Novel to a packed audience at a literary festival with no more than twenty minutes to prepare. So I like to think that - even though I’m nowhere near as brave or as resourceful as Amy Johnson - I can now tip my hat to her remarkable spirit, and feel I’ve experienced something of what she felt, as she took to the skies, that May morning in 1930.

    I’m hoping to follow up my ‘maiden flight’ with a slightly more authentic experience - piloting (or at least co-piloting) a 1935 de Havilland Hawk Moth, which is a somewhat more sophisticated version of the plane in which Amy first achieved fame. Here’s a photo of me sitting in the Moth, looking much more cheerful than I suspect I’ll feel when we eventually get off the ground… The things one does for Art.


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    Why do we remember certain episodes in our history and teach them in our schools, while we conveniently forget others?

    When I was a graduate student, I shared a room in the university with a French girl from Poitiers, also studying for a postgraduate degree. We became good friends, and one day I asked her (tactfully!) if there was any archaeological evidence remaining of the Battle of Poitiers. She looked at me in total mystification.

    It seems that schoolchildren in Poitiers are taught nothing about the Battle of Poitiers.

    For those who aren’t familiar with this bit of the Hundred Years War, the Battle of Poitiers took place on 19 September, 1356, and was one of a series of victories by Edward the Black Prince over the French. An English army of approximately 6,000 inflicted a massive defeat on a French army of approximately 11,000 – in other words, nearly double their number. There were a few hundred English casualties. The French suffered around 2,500 killed and wounded and 2,000 prisoners. Poitiers schoolchildren, it seems, are not encouraged to remember the battle.

    A short walk from our home stands Broughty Castle, guarding the mouth of the river Tay and thus a major ancient naval route from the North Sea to Dundee, Perth and the heart of Scotland. In the mid sixteenth century the merchant communities of Scotland’s east coast had important trading links with the Low Countries and the German states. Like them, this part of Scotland had become Protestant. The government of Scotland, however, was in the hands of the Regent, Mary of Guise (French and Catholic), during the minority of her daughter Mary Queen of Scots.

    England proposed a marriage between Henry VIII’s young son Edward and the child queen Mary, and sent a mission, backed by a strong navy, which came to be known as ‘the Rough Wooing’. Such marriages were not unknown, the most recent having been that of Henry’s sister Margaret to James IV of Scotland. (English Margaret was thus the child queen’s grandmother.)

    Now, at this present time of rampant Scottish nationalism, it may be dangerous to mention something which – like the Battle of Poitiers – tends to be conveniently forgotten. The fact is, the English were welcomed along this Protestant east coast with open arms. BroughtyCastle was handed over to the English in the autumn of 1547 without a shot being fired. Sir Andrew Dudley, brother of the Duke of Northumberland, took charge of the English garrison, and sent for a supply of Tyndale’s Bible, eagerly sought by the locals. All the area, including the city of Dundee, joined an alliance with the English and supported the marriage.

    Mary of Guise and her French Catholic party, however, had other ideas. They shipped the child queen off to be reared up in the French court (where French became her mother tongue), betrothing her to the heir to the French throne. It was part of the power game being played by the Guise family.

    I doubt whether many in this eastern half of Scotland choose to remember that warm alliance with England together with the opposition to the Scottish government and the attempted French take-over of Scotland (for that is what lay behind the French marriage). Another case of selective forgetfulness.

    France and Scotlandare hardly alone in forgetting inconvenient past events. Few in England have heard of the Counter Armada. (Even my husband, a professor of history, though not a specialist in the Tudor period, admits to not having heard of it until I wrote about it.) Of course, every English schoolchild knows about the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the (possibly apocryphal) story of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before embarking. What they are unlikely to know about is the misconduct of Drake during the battle, which went on for several days. During the darkness of one night, Drake was supposed to be leading the fleet with a lantern in the stern of his ship. Instead, he slipped away on a little looting expedition of his own, which might have had serious consequences.

    However, the great Spanish fleet was defeated by a combination of English seamanship and fighting skills, the incompetence of the Spanish commanders, and weather which favoured the English. The winds which blew the Armada out of the Channel into the North Sea also prevented the launching of the barges which were to carry the experienced Spanish army, then fighting in the Low Countries, across the Channel to invade England by land and march on London. A tactic to be adopted in the opposite direction nearly 400 years later with the D-Day landings in Normandy.

    The Armada, a glorious, resounding, never-to-be-forgotten victory!

    To understand what happened in the period of euphoria afterwards, we need to remember events over the previous decade or so in Portugal. In 1580, Spain invaded Portugal and drove out the king, Dom Antonio of the House of Aviz. Dom Antonio was now living in England as a guest of Her Majesty, who was always on the lookout for useful tools in her on-going struggle with Spain. For some years many from the Portuguese Marrano community had been fleeing to England. Jews forced to convert to Christianity, they were persecuted by the Inquisition even before the Spanish invasion. It grew much worse afterwards.

    With much of the Spanish fleet destroyed, a number of interests came together to propose a ‘Counter Armada’. Elizabeth and many of her advisers saw it as an opportunity to destroy the rest of the fleet before Spaincould rebuild. Dom Antonio saw it as the chance to regain his throne. Leaders of the Marrano community in London– including notably the queen’s personal physician Rodrigo Lopez – dreamt of regaining their homeland and rising to positions of importance in the new government. Drake, of course, saw it as an opportunity for his favourite pastime: looting Spanish treasure ships.

    Coat-of-Arms of the Aviz family

    Funds were raised from the queen, from London merchants, from the Marrano community. The queen, however, tied up her support with such conditions to Dom Antonio and his future government that Portugal would have been financially crippled and effectively a colony of England.

    Early in the spring of 1589 the English fleet gathered at Plymouth. A call had gone out for soldiers to join the expedition and a ragtag crowd assembled there. These men had no military training whatsoever. Supplies for the expedition were bought and stored in warehouses in the town. Then everyone waited. A contingent of trained and experienced soldiers was to be shipped over from the Low Countries, where they had been helping the Dutch fight the Spanish invaders. Once again, the winds were unfavourable. Days passed. Weeks passed. The restless recruits broke into the warehouses and stole the food and drink. Some simply went home. Eventually the experienced men arrived and the expedition set sail, with Sir Francis Drake in command of the fleet and Sir John Norreys in command of the army.

    There is no room here to tell the full story, which is the subject of my third Christoval Alvarez novel, The Portuguese Affair, but here is the bare outline.

    The intention was to sail straight to Lisbon and restore Dom Antonio. His supporters would flock to join the English, and by acting quickly the Spanish could be defeated before they could move more of their army into Portugal. On the way to Lisbonor afterwards, as many Spanish ships as possible would be destroyed. A third objective was to conclude the expedition by driving the Spanish out of the Azores. However, before the English ships could reach Portugal, they had run out of food, owing to the raids in Plymouth. The decision was therefore made to attack Coruña on the north coast of Spain, seize provisions and carry on.

    Here was the next blunder. The undisciplined soldiers went berserk in Coruña, and the leaders decided to stay and attack the garrison there. Several fruitless weeks were wasted, while news reached Spainof the expedition and every Portuguese believed to support Dom Antonio was executed.

    Eventually the expedition moved on down the coast of Portugal, where they were joined by the queen’s favourite, the Earl of Essex. He had been expressly forbidden by her to join the expedition, but slipped away, with his usual pig-headed arrogance believing he could pacify her and win glory for himself.

    Next blunder: the fleet put in at Peniche, where the gallant Essex leapt out of the ship into deep water, causing many of his followers to drown. The local people welcomed Dom Antonio warmly, but soon grew tired of providing for the English army and fleet. At this point the leaders made their fatal mistake – the army and the fleet would part company. Drake would sail the fleet down the coast to Cascais, then up the river Tejo to Lisbon. Norreys would lead the army by land to Lisbon, about forty miles across unforgiving countryside with no provisions, unless they could be begged from the locals.

    The English army on  more successful campaign

    It was a disaster. The men died like flies, of starvation, heat exhaustion, thirst. When the ragged remnants of the army reached Lisbon, there was no sign of Drake, who was busy looting treasure ships on the coast. No supporters of Dom Antonio joined the English, even if any were still alive. Essex shouted a challenge at the gates of Lisbon– let anyone meet him in single combat for the honour of Queen Elizabeth. Laughter from within. The desperate and dying soldiers made one last march of nearly twenty miles to meet Drake and the fleet.

    As for Drake’s final betrayal . . . well, you’ll need to read the full story!

    It is not known just how many men died on the expedition, but estimates are that something like 15,000 to 20,000 perished, possibly more, mainly on the march from Peniche to Lisbon. The whole expedition was a shameful failure, due to appalling leadership.

    Is it surprising that we remember the Armada, but the Counter Armada is conveniently forgotten?

    Ann Swinfen

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    The fronticepiece from John Playford's 
    "Musicks recreation on the lyra viol"
    There are writers who can’t write without music, and those who can’t write with it. 

    I like to have music playing as I work - it tends to quiet down my non-writing brain. You know the bit I mean; the bit that, just when you are crafting a particularly beautiful sentence starts wondering if there’s anything to eat in the fridge, or suggests you check your email in case some really important message has arrived.

    It needs to be shushed and it seems to like classical music. While writing the 18th century Westerman and Crowther novels I listen to Boccherini and Bach (JS. and CPE.), when I wrote Paris Winter there was a lot of Chopin going on, but the current novel is set in the mid-17th century and all of a sudden my late baroque is just way too modern, so I have gone back a hundred years or so and found, to my delight, the work of William Lawes, Matthew Locke and John Jenkins.

    Lawes was killed during the civil war, Locke survived it and went on to be composer for violin to Charles II. He was followed in that post by Henry Purcell. And then there is John Jenkins. He was the son of a carpenter and apparently a remarkable player of the lyra viol, a beautiful sort of bass violin but with more strings and it was designed to play chords as well as single melodic lines. Jenkins too survived the civil war, and during the Protectorate he composed an extraordinary amount of music for amateur musicians while living in East Anglia. It’s that music I am listening to now, and it has such elegance, delicacy and range of feeling, I hope something of it will seep into my prose. 

    You can hear the consort music composed by Lawes, Locke, Jenkins and Purcell for viols beautifully played by Fretwork on this collection. Enjoy. 

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    And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
    Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
    And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
    Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
    When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
    And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
    Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
    Following,--her womb then rich with my young squire,--
    Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
    To fetch me trifles, and return again,
    As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.

    William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream

    "The mysterious death of a young mother damages the precious, protective bonds of family love" is the tagline for Josa Young's new novel, an ambitious multigenerational, multicultural exploration of the lives of four women in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Young has said: "For me, writing fiction is instinctive, a rag bag plucked from life lived and books read, of memories, ideas, impressions and thoughts about love, relationships, parenting, society, class and history, goodness and the opposite". This gives some hint of the richness of this novel, and the themes that Young tackles with an unflinching eye with all the clarity of cut crystal.

    This is above all a story of maternal love - of Sarah, a nurse during WW2, her daughter Melissa, her granddaughter Damson, and her great-grandaughter Mellita (Leeta). It's not a frothy novel by any stretch, exploring tough topics - rape, abortion, birth defects, abandonment, through the lives of the women. Each reader will have their own favourite of the characters - for me the prologue bonds you so firmly with dear, decent Damson it was her story I was most curious to see unfold.

    A House in Ooty, India

    Young's previous novel 'One Apple Tasted' was also set in India and the UK. This new story begins in India, at the ravishing home of dastardly Ronny, with poor Damson's ordeal. The narrative then flows seamlessly backwards and forwards through the generations. The novel may deal with tough topics, but Young writes with a deft, conversational style which brings the challenges each woman faces vibrantly to life. She has a great ear for upper-middle class dialogue, which feels charmingly authentic: "'Darling, I think we shouldn't risk a pregnancy. Do you mind?' He dealt with the French letter".

    VAD Nurse - inspiration for Sarah's character

    The relationships feel real, and the women are fully fledged individuals. For example, a wounded Sarah, stabbed by an SS officer says "Oh, it's nothing much, just a puncture ..."

    Schutzstaffel (SS) dagger, motto: "My honour is called loyalty"

    Very much of the 'kind of women who built the Empire' ilk, Sarah's stiff upper lip only wobbles in the darkest moment any woman could face. Sarah kept the dagger she was stabbed with as a wartime trophy, and it reappears later in the book during this moment of unimaginable grief. Details such as this are extremely good in this novel, weaving between the times and linking the characters and events.

    60s fashions - lovely, frail Melissa

    From the 1930s, with Sarah and Arthur's wartime love affair, to Melissa's battle with depression in the 60s, Damson's struggles in the 80s and on to Leeta's story, Young develops characters you can't help caring about. It's fascinating seeing the women grow through the life stages which face us all, and particularly learning how each deals with childbirth and motherhood.

    Crumbling English Gothick inspiration for Castle Hey

    Young said "Ideally, good writing should eliminate friction in the reader's mind", and this is the great strength of 'Sail' to me - it weaves the family history of Sarah, Melissa, Damson and Leeta together, seamlessly creating a rich tapestry from their lives. There have been comparisons to women writers of the C20 - Macaulay, Kennedy, Wesley, Howard, Pilcher. If you enjoy such multigenerational family stories set in the upper middle classes, this is one for you.

    About the author: Josa Young was born on a chicken farm in Kent, England, the fourth of five children. With poet John Donne, pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, writer Virginia Woolf, and Archie Cameron, the last Jacobite, to be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, in her family tree, she always expected to do something interesting.

    At Cambridge University she studied English Literature, wrote abysmal, derivative short stories, went to lots of parties and danced on the Edinburgh stage in red camiknickers.

    In her last year she was a finalist in the Vogue Talent Contest and worked for Vogue magazine after graduating. She has been a features writer and commissioning editor for Vogue, Country Living, Elle Decoration and The Times.

    Her first novel, One Apple Tasted, was published in 2009 by Elliot & Thompson. Her second novel, Sail Upon the Land, was published in December 2014.

    Sail Upon the Land is currently a bargain 99p http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sail-Upon-Land-Josa-Young-ebook/dp/B00OVJIUOY

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    photo: German Federal Archive
    Here are Hitler's Storm Troopers, marching triumphantly after he was made Chancellor of Germany on the 30th January, 1933. That evening, the young man who became the distinguished writer Sebastian Haffner, (his real name was Raimund Pretzel), read the headline: 'Cabinet of National Unity formed - Hitler Reichschancellor.'

    His first reaction was 'icy horror'. Then he sat down with his father to discuss it. 'We agreed that it had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long.. Even with the Nazis, this government would not have a majority in the Reichstag.'
    In fact, only three members of the cabinet were Nazis, and Hitler could be dismissed at any time by the Reich President. So though opponents of Hitler were dismayed, they could see reasons for optimism.

    Hilary Mantel has observed that we tend to see history backwards, ie, we know how the story ends, and cannot imagine how the people concerned could fail to see it. But history at the point of unfolding (if you can call it a point, since it is always unfolding) is murky, confusing, and uncertain.This observation is particularly relevant when people look at the Third Reich, an area of history where the desire to exhibit moral correctness frequently trumps objectivity.

    What I mean by that is that there is an emotionally-motivated tendency to simplistically divide people into goodies and baddies, even now. I am the last person to dismiss the reality of feeling when looking at the Nazi period and its crimes. My family was too deeply involved and scarred. At the same time, the desire to apportion blame (and therefore somehow to achieve the moral high ground onesself) can distort one's comprehension of those events - and even historians all too often exhibit this tendency.

    Looking back now, it seems to me that the four weeks following the 30th January represented a tiny window of opportunity (maybe more of a cat-flap of opportunity) when Germany could have averted Nazi rule. The normal judicial processes were still technically intact; Hitler did not have a majority in the Reichstag, as Haffner and his father observed. Goering had yet to perfect the apparatus of repression, and leftist leaders were still (just) alive and free.

    Nor did Hitler have the majority of Germans on his side. The Nazi share of the vote had actually fallen, from 37% to 33% in the November 1932 election. In fact, the Social Democrats and Communists together had 37% of the vote, and could easily have trumped the Nazis, if they could have worked together. But the Communists had their own aims and parliamentary democracy was not one of them.
    To the right-wing, aristocratic and elitist parties, typified by the Reich President, the ageing Paul von Hindenburg, the Communists were a horror, and so they plumped for Hitler, believing they could neutralise him. It has to be said that, looking at the near future, civil war was a very alarming possibility; the Nazis and the Communists were already fighting it out on the streets, and so the right wing decided that to take the Nazi leader into the government, under their control (as they believed), was far the safest option.

    Sebastian Haffner: Wikimedia Commons
    'How could things turn out so completely differently?' Sebastian Haffner reflected, writing in 1939, when the catastrophe of war was already on the doorstep. 'Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so' (ie turn out as they did) '-and relied on that with far too much confidence.'

    This is not to say there weren't signs of what was to come. In what the Nazis called 'the national uprising' the storm troopers attacked their opponents, in particular the Left and Jews, and this began on the night of the 30th January, after the torchlight procession.

    Berndt Roesel, 1925
    I wonder what my grandfather, a young policeman in Silesia, felt on the 30th January 1933? I'd have thought that 'icy horror' would be about right. He belonged to a Social Democratic police association and had refused to join a Nazi one; he had freely said that he couldn't understand how anyone could belong to the Nazi party, least of all a policeman. He knew exactly what the Nazis were, and what they were capable of; brutal thugs, whose riots he'd had to try and keep in order, and if he stopped his men from joining in and beating them up, it was only because of his respect for the law. Immediately post 30th January, though, he still had enough faith in the law to argue with a Nazi-inclined colleague  that a Communist demonstration that had happened locally had been authorised and legal, and should not have been stopped just because there was now a Nazi chancellor.

    The issue of legality is maybe why there was no effective resistance to Hitler during those weeks between the 30th of January and the Reichstag fire of the 27th of February, after which terror was unleashed. Hitler was in power as part of Parliamentary process; he had been appointed by the President. To take up arms against him, if you weren't an extremist, would have meant civil war. Ordinary, law-abiding people had had enough of the pitched battles on the streets, the attacks on passers-by, the smashed windows and flying bullets. The last thing they wanted was to escalate the disorder.

    Also, nothing quite like Nazi rule had happened before - or not for a long time, at least.The monarchical Prussian/German state, whatever criticisms one may make of it, was largely a state of legality, and even the monarchs were subject to the law. Many Germans - including many Jewish Germans - felt that Hitler would be tamed, his excesses muted, by the responsibility of government and the sheer weight of state structures.

    And during those all-too short four weeks between Hitler's rise to chancellorship and the Reichstag fire, people had their own lives to get on with, that tangle of private worries, personal exhaustion, busyness, confusion, and often powerlessness. They had no idea of how short the time was, perhaps never even knew what the opportunity was that they were losing.
    I think history is the slow movement forwards of trillions of moments in the lives of the human race: babies are born, fed, cleaned up and winded, washing is done and hung out to dry; a million men and women come home from work, having spent a day servicing the machinery of a world that is maybe heading for disaster; documents are signed that will put thousands of people off their traditional lands (or expedite the deaths of six million Jews), and then the cleaners move in and exhaustedly mop up behind the 'important' people. . You remember something you need for tonight's dinner and get in the car, thus adding your mite to the carbon already in the atmosphere. Or, on a more cheerful note, you decide to walk or bike instead, and thus you don't.
    The history of the world is the story of real life in all its mundanity and unclarity, when what is happening to you, what you hear on the news has happened to other people, has not yet got its name and been assigned a page in the history books. It is raw and new. I think novelists and biographers have a unique opportunity to portray this, since we write about how individual humans live history.It's certainly what I tried to do, when I was writing Last Train from Kummersdorf.


    This is a first instalment; next month I'll be writing about what happened after the Reichstag fire.


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    When I began writing at the age of 15, I didn't have any research books on the Middle Ages, nor much of the wherewithal to buy them.  I do remember my mum asking me what I wanted for Christmas and instead of clothes or make-up all the latest Cat Stevens LP, I said that I would like Sir Steven Runcima's History of the Crusades volumes one and two please. I think she was slightly taken aback, but that was what I received, and it was one of the best presents I'd ever had!
    I would trawl various libraries and borrow every book they had covering the 12th and 13th centuries. I haunted library sales and saved my Saturday job money to buy research books (I did spend some of my small income on shoes and going out, but plenty of it went into books to inform my writing). 

    Down the decades I have continued to add to my library on a regular basis and now that writing is my full-time job, I always set aside a portion of my royalties to enhance my reference collection. Sometimes I have to save up for bookshelves too, or improvise ways of turning furniture into book storage. These chaps might be a bit kitsch but I like them and they've turned the top of a cupboard into yet more room for books.

    With the Internet being so well established now, there is a wealth indeed sometimes what seems like a surfeit of information out there on any given subject. One needs a very good inbuilt crap detector to separate the wheat from the chaff. Obscure books that were once the musty preserve of library archives are now available to read online. There are articles by historians and experts. One can ask their advice on Facebook or Twitter and follow their blogs and websites. This is all absolutely wonderful, but still not quite a substitute for having one's own eclectic library of reference books to touch and browse.  In my own collection there are retirees and old hands. There are sturdy and dependable everyday work horses. There are vibrant newcomers, special guests with necessary but short shelf lives, and glamorous coffee table types, perfect for snack browsing.

    I buy my books both online and from high Street bookstores, museums, seminars, and conferences. I buy brand-new and second-hand.  My period being mediaeval one, I have been in thrall to Oxbow Books  and second-hand booksellers Bennet&Kerr  whose catalogues I have been mining for useful tomes.  
    Sometimes I know exactly which book I want. On other occasions it's a case of 'that might come in handy at some point. It's a good price, so I'll have it.' The problem is when I get lots of books at a good price, I find that suddenly I've spent all my royalties!   But still, buying books isn't a bad steppingstone on the road to impoverishment!

    I thought I'd share some of last month's purchases here.

     Fabulous to get this second hand; I've been after it for a while. It's Walter Map's De Nugis Curialium - or Courtiers' Trifles. Written at the time of Henry II, it's packed with gossip and information about the movers and shakers of the day. It's not always reliable, but it is wonderfully colourful. For example he tells us that Cistercian monks were obliged to wear breeches (underpants) in church when serving at the altar, but that they were not to wear them when going about their ordinary business, because it might increase the heat in that area and provoke lustful thoughts!  He also tells us about Welsh clothing habits in the 12th century. He says that the Welsh wore short woollen cloaks and went barefoot and bare legged. He says the Welsh also don't eat bread, a detail confirmed by a 13th century chronicler during the campaign of 1265. Every page is laden with anecdotes and opinions from which the fabric of everyday life can be unrolled.

    I have long wanted to read a biography of King Philip Augustus. He tends to be rather vilified in British history because he was the nemesis of the Angevin dynasty. I don't think I'll end up becoming a fan, but at the same time I want to understand him better and gain a more nuanced impression.

    Here's another man I want to know about. The kingdom of Sicily had strong Angevin connections, and was one of those lands that was a highway between Europe, Byzantium and the Holy Land. Richard the Lionheart's sister Joanna was Queen of Sicily for a time. I'm looking forward to a spot of background reading.

    Here's another background book. I already have several on the kingdom of Jerusalem and this area in the Middle Ages with concerns beyond just that of the crusades and military matters.  This book covers the Holy City in the eyes of the chroniclers, visitors, pilgrims and prophets from biblical times to modern day, so will be a good overview one to read.

    The Justiciar was the official that the King left in charge of the country when he had to be elsewhere. It was a highly organised and important judicial and official role, and the men who took it on had to be farsighted and wise. They were the King when the King wasn't there. I have a working knowledge of their role, but I'd like to know more and this book will prove very useful.

    This one is for a project a little further down the line, and as such it's on the backburner TBR at the moment. It's one of those 'I'll grab this now while I have the opportunity, because I am going to need it later' sort of books.

    Then there are the books that I pick up at conferences. I heard Daniel power of Swansea University speaking at the Mortimer Conference the other weekend, and was impressed enough to buy his book from the bookstall there. We have a mutual interest in the Marshals!

    This is one of the coffee table sort of books I mentioned in the main text. It's not too heavy on the information, although it is good, and it has lots of pictures for browsing when the brain isn't able to process too much detailed information and wants to look at nice pictures!

    The most recent research book I finished. Marc Morris' new biography of King John. I found this utterly fascinating. Morris is especially good on detailing John's financial genius in his ability to ruthlessly squeeze almost every last drop out of the people he ruled - the success of which in part led to Magna Carta.  This is no revisionist biography that turns John into a lover of fluffy kittens sort of monarch. As far as Morris is concerned, the jury stands. King John was one of the worst kings England has ever had! 

    Lastly, my best non-fiction read of the year so far is this one.
    If you're going to read any of the available biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, make sure you read this one too because it will open your eyes to just how much you're being sold a mythology.

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    I love looking at old magazines. They let slip huge amounts of unintended information about how the world used to be, and how people thought we would be living in the future.
    Recently, I got hold of a publication called Everybody's for June 1945.

    Quite a lot of things surprised me. There are some signs of post-war austerity (it's in a newspaper 'broadsheet' format and the paper isn't great) but it is far more lavishly illustrated than I expected. It's also a pretty demanding read. The print is small, and the articles are long. Although its imagined reader seems to be an 'ordinary' man or woman, they are assumed to be sufficiently interested in the arts, politics and culture to read articles of several thousand words on each. By the time you have ploughed through the lot, you feel as if you have read a book. It seems that our parents were right: before TV, attention spans were longer, and general knowledge more extensive.

    As I read my copy, I imagined it had once lain on the suburban sideboard of Celia Johnson and her husband in Brief Encounter.

    So, what were they interested in, 70 years ago, in June 1945?
    Just a month after VE Day, all eyes were on the future, with a post-coalition General Election looming; world-beating talent blossoming in the theatre and opera house (There's a review of the first night of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, and of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic); and wonderful adverts (Mr and Mrs Futura on holiday in the Stratosphere). The overriding message is of hope.

    Alas, some of the hopes expressed in this article still haven't materialised yet!
    I dare say I'll find material for more than one History Girls blog here. Today I want to tell you about post-war predictions for the wonder metal, aluminium

    It's easy to scoff. But how could our mothers and grandmothers have guessed that the lightweight, easy-to-clean pots and pans they raved about would be a prime suspect for causing their dementia in years to come? In June 1945, with fewer aircraft to manufacture, their minds were on how aluminium could be turned to peacetime use.

    One of the plans actually happened. As Everybody's went to press, the government had already ordered 60,000 pre-fabricated houses for people made homeless by the Blitz. Five years later, more than a million prefabs had been built. They were made of four interlocking pieces, complete with fitted cupboards, indoor plumbing and heating, and could be erected in a couple of days. 

    The Prefab at St Fagans, 2010, National Museum of Wales. 
    Prefabs were meant to be temporary, but I knew people who lived in - and loved - them, well into the 1960s, and as far as I know, later examples still stand in Catford, London, having been listed as being of historic importance - which, of course, they are.
    Other aluminium buildings outlived expectations. At my inner-London primary school, when my class went up into 'The Juniors' in 1960, we were told that we would be the last children to be taught in 'The prefab'. When I was invited back, to talk about my books, in the early years of the 21st century, it was still there. Looking on Google Earth, I'm not 100% sure that it's gone even now.

    Many of the predictions in the Everybody's article didn't come true. Or if they did, I haven't come across the products that were forecast. I don't know anyone with a light-weight, maintenance-free aluminium garden gate. I don't think I've sat at an aluminium table. I have never seen anybody wearing a metal cardigan like the one in the picture at the top of this article.
    But, apparently, it is possible to extrude thin sheets of aluminium into such fine strands that they have all the softness and flexibility of wool or cotton with much greater durability. The fabric could be washed or dry-cleaned, and coloured to your liking. And it wouldn't wear out.
    It's hard not to think of that wonderful Alec Guinness film The Man in the White Suit and to wonder whether the textile industry cheated us of our right to aluminium knickers. Maybe they turned out to be less gentle on the backside than expected. Or perhaps some of you are wearing them now, If you are, do let me know what I'm missing.


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    By the time you read this, the 68th Cannes Film Festival will have packed

    up its wares and the pantechnicons will be back on the road. The awards will have been handed out and celebrated at illustrious parties, Elton John will have hosted his annual Aids event, and the stars will be on planes flying off to their various countries of residence, while this coastal city of Cannes, once a humble fishing village, will be preparing for its next onslaught of visitors: the summer tourists.

    I am writing this blog hours before l’ouverture du festival. Excitement is riding high as all has yet to be revealed. This year, the American filmmakers, the Coen Brothers, are jointly heading up the jury for the Official Competition Selection. They say they are delighted to be here, to be able to take the time to sit back and watch some movies! Last week in Paris, I went to see a re-run of their wonderfully anarchic film, The Big Lebowski. Their take on life and cinema should make for a fascinating and, hopefully, surprising choice of award-winning features.

    Strolling the famous Croisette at this time of year, it is impossible not to pick up on the excitement, the anticipation, as Cannes readies itself to receive 25,000 visitors over the next two weeks. The festival always commences on a Wednesday evening and concludes ten days later on a Sunday night with an out-of-competition screening that follows the awards ceremony.
    The restaurants have been glammed up, prices hiked, all shops have evening wear displayed in their windows; the beaches have been cleared of all flotsam and jetsam, decorated with potted palms and new sand trucked in. Meanwhile, on the city side of this glamorous promenade, the rental of a three-bedroom apartment with sea views will set you back somewhere in the region of 30,000 euros for the ten days! Don't worry, it usually includes daily cleaning services.

    The Cannes Film Festival is seriously big business for those living and operating in this seaside resort and for those flying in with high hopes of selling their films, pitching their projects to distributors and investors or, for those chosen few, to bask in the glory of winning the Palme d’Or, the Golden Palm, the highest accolade of several festival prizes.

    With all the razzamatazz going on, it is all too easy to forget the genesis of this exceptionally high-flying affair. Its original purpose is frequently overshadowed. So, I thought this May blog would be the perfect opportunity to recall how this festival came about, and why.

    The Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated on 20th September 1946, but its inception goes back to the year before the outbreak of WW11.

                                                      The poster for Venice's first film festival

    During the 1930s, Venice had become a leading light in European cinema, mainly due to its successful film festival, which commenced in 1932. Here in France, Jean Zay, visionary Minister of National Education and Fine Arts from 1936 to 1939 (appointed by Léon Blum), decided that the time had come for the French to host an international cultural event to rival Venice. One of the reasons that Zay and other leading intellectuals in France were eager to set up a national festival of their own was because in September 1938, hours before the Venice awards were due to be announced, the jury members at the Mostra, under pressure from Hitler and Mussolini, changed their voted results in favour of a Nazi propaganda film.

                                                                               Jean Zay

    Zay proposed that the first Cannes festival debut in September 1939. Each European country, including Germany and Italy, although both refused to participate, was invited to select one film to be screened in competition. Nine countries, I believe, sent films. Louis Lumière agreed to take on the role of President of the Jury.

    On 31st May 1939, the City of Cannes and the French government signed the international Film Festival’s birth certificate, proposing that the festival run from 1st to 20th September of that year.

    "The aim of the Festival is to encourage the development of the art of filmmaking in all its forms, while fostering and maintaining a spirit of collaboration among all filmmaking countries."

    Much was readied for the inaugural event. The artist Jean-Gabriel Domergue designed the first official poster and festival-attendees began to arrive during the hot days of August. Sumptuous parties were thrown.

    A cardboard replica of the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was built on the beach as a promotion for William Dieterle’s Quasimodo. Hollywood stars such as Mae West arrived by boat from the United States. Cannes was gearing up for a prestigious affair.
    However, the clouds of war were gathering over Europe. In the first instance, the festival was postponed for ten days, but as we know Germany marched into Poland on 1st September and on 3rd September, both France and Britain declared war on their enemy. The festival was cancelled. The only film screened was Quasimodo at an invitation-only soirée.

    Mobilisation was underway. All festival attendees returned home.

    It was not until 1946 - from 20th September to 5th October - that the inaugural event eventually took place in the old casino of Cannes. Tragically, Jean Zay did not live to see the birth of this now internationally renowned festival. He was assassinated by the Millice in 1944, condemned for being an active member of the resistance and a Jew. Zay is a national hero, but history was at risk of forgetting him.  Until, in February 2014, François Hollande confirmed that the body of Jean Zay, along with three other courageous figures, including two women, from the Resistance, will be moved to the Panthéon in recognition of his invaluable contribution to France.

    The choice of Cannes for the film festival rather than, let’s say, Paris is not so surprising, although for a few short weeks in May 1939, it was mooted that the event would be held in Biarritz, but, eventually, the Riviera won out. So why Cannes? Thirty kilometres east along the coast in the once Italian, ochre-toned city of Nice, lies the Victorine Studios, (still semi-active today but under new ownership and a different name). It was a part of the glamorous world of “French Hollywood” - a city on the sea making films. The studios had been the location for many silent films and when “talkies” came in, the Victorine adapted swiftly and became a profitable enterprise. This French Riviera coast was becoming synonymous with filmmaking. So, to locate a festival close by made perfect sense. Added to which, Jean Cocteau along with other writers and cineastes had plans to build another huge movie lot in Mougins, six kilometres inland of Cannes. The land was purchased, but due to the outbreak of war this dream never materialised.

                                                                    Poster for 1946 Festival
    (Is it just me or does this poster, the angle of the camera, the dominant black outfit, resemble a weapon of war?)

    The Cannes International Film Festival was finally born in the heady atmosphere of victory in 1946, although the funds to pay for the event were hard to come by. The French State and the municipality of Cannes were strapped for cash and the money was raised through public subscriptions. The Cannes Festival was finally underway. It was the naissance of what has developed into a world-class event; a gathering of filmmakers from every country and every political and religious persuasion. It has become a place where filmmakers want to be, where they jostle to participate.

    Still, although, the baby was born, it was not an easy growth and in both 1948 and 1950, the festival did not take place due to financial constraints.

    Ironically, the early years introduced the world to Italian cinema, to neorealism and the masterpieces coming out of Italy.
    In 1951, the Cannes festival was moved to the spring - which is where it has remained ever since - to avoid clashes with the autumn Venice festival. Now that both nations were at peace with one another, films and the survival of the art of cinema took first place.

    From the 1950s onwards, Cannes went from strength to strength. During the Cold War, the United States helped to keep it operating and Hollywood stepped in in force.

    In 1955, the Palme d’Or replaced the Grand Prix as the most coveted award, given to the best film in competition.

    As the years rolled on, other selections were created in parallel to the Official Selection: Semaine Internationale de la Critique, Directors’ Fortnight, Cinefondation, to name but three.

    1965 welcomed the first female president of the jury, Olivia de Havilland. Followed directly the following year by another stunning actress as president, Sophia Loren. Jeanne Moreau was not given this prestigious duty until 1975.

                                                Sophia Loren, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider

    1968 was a memorable year for the festival and worth mentioning. The 21st film festival - 10th to 24th May - opened with a restored version of Gone With the Wind, directed by Viktor Fleming. On the morning of 18th May 1968, François Truffaut along with Louis Malle, a member of that year's jury, and fellow directors Claude Berri, Claude Lelouch, Roman Polanski, Jean-Luc Godard and others, took over the large screening room, the Grande Salle, in the Le Palais, interrupting a projection, to call for the festival's  closure. It was, they said, an act of solidarity against the government and with the soixante-huitards, the students and labour movements striking throughout France, including cinema unions. They called for the festival to be shut down. Milos Forman whose brilliant film, The Fireman's Ball, was scheduled to be screened withdrew his work.
    Godard is quoted as saying: ' There's not a single film that shows the problems that workers and students are going through. Not one. Whether made by Forman, by me, by Polanski or François. We've missed the boat! It's not a matter of continuing or not continuing to watch films. It's a matter of cinema showing solidarity with the student movement and the only practical way of doing this is to stop all the projections immediately.'
    The spirit of the barricades prevailed and the remaining days of the festival were eventually cancelled.
    I have been fortunate to have performed as an actress in several films that have been shown here in one selection or another. It is a thrilling experience. These days, when I drive down the hill as a spectator to watch a movie or two, I am sometimes a little saddened to see the insanity that has taken over the event. Its market can give the impression of a bazaar and a lot of hot air is overheard. Also, alongside the official entries, another event has been spawned: a very successful porn film festival. The legitimate and the porn never rub shoulders with one another, as far as I am aware, but I have noticed that some of the biggest, glitziest yachts are hired out for porn parties.
    As I said, the Cannes Film Festival is big business and it turns the spotlight full on to this coast, upholding the glamorous image for the tourist trade. Yet, I see another side to the coin. One cannot help but notice that there are visitors, wanabees, hopefuls, trawling the streets with dreams that will never see the light of day, and for some of them it proves to be a cruel, cold sojourn in the sun.


    Federico Fellini was a regular guest here accompanied his lovely actress-wife, Giulietta Masina. In 1960, he was honoured with the Palme d’Or for La Dolce Vita. When I am down in amongst the thick of this jamboree, I sometimes ask myself whether Fellini’s vision of the world with its Jungian influences and its multi-layered humorous and tragic aspects best suits the circus that is the twenty-first century film festival and market.
    Yet, when one is clad in evening dress (de rigueur for the evening screenings), sitting beneath the stars late at night on a warm spring evening listening to nightingales singing, while enjoying an al fresco dinner with companions who are also in Cannes to celebrate film, there is a palpable sense of inspiration, of participation, of collective exhilaration. It is during those moments that I silently remind myself what it has cost the men and women who worked to bring this international celebration of the Seventh Art into being and I feel very proud and humbled to have been given the opportunity to have shared in just a few tiny moment's of its history.


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    I went to church at the weekend, itself almost a historical activity in England. It was a grey and beautiful Somerset church, which exquisite windows from about 1912, in a pre-Raphaelite style. There were eight in the congregation, including my friend and I who were mostly there because her mother,  for sociable, widowed reasons, plays the organ. We sang Come Down Oh Love Divine, and giggled like schoolgirls at the bit about lowliness becoming our inner clothing, and o'er its own shortcomings weeping with loathing. The shortcomings of underwear!

    The Vicar, Stephen, was kind, involved, and sad about the death of the wife of the vicar in the next Parish. His sermon, he said, was going to be personal. He told us he had visited his friend, the other vicar, and that the phrase which had stayed with him all through this grief-filled week was: 'I will not leave you comfortless'. He said he had tried and failed to find it in his Bible (I think the vicar doesn't google: it's John 14, 18, since you ask: the same chapter as my father's house having many mansions, and 'I am the way, the truth and the life'). But in looking for the phrase, he had come across the term Paraclete. 


    Of course he made a 'No, not parakeet' joke. Of course one would hear it as parakeet.  My daughter, who's in the middle of her finals, did this morning when I said on the phone that if she needed me I would fly to her side like a Paraclete. The use of 'fly' was probably a distraction.

    'Is it a kind of cleat for parachutists to attach their ropes to?' suggested Gavin, who's a sailor.

    Nope. It is a Comforter. It is someone who when called will come to you, and speak for you. In Christianity it is mostly the Holy Ghost; in Islam both Jesus and Mohammed are Paracletes. The nearest it comes to being a bird is the Dove. 

    The word is from the Greek παράκλητος (paráklētos)which can mean one who comforts or consoles, one who encourages or uplifts, or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court. It is passive: 'called to one's side'. The Called One. 

    I got a bit teary at this stage. The Called One! The one you'd call. The friend you'd ring. Not in a phone-a-friend/Who-Wants-to-be-a-Millionaire way, but in the fly-to-your-side during finals, strap-your-ropes-to-me, will-not-leave-you-comfortless way. 

    We looked the word up over Sunday lunch, and used it all weekend. 'Be a Paraclete and pass my cup of tea would you?''You've always been my Paraclete, darling!' By Monday night somebody (it may have been me) had uttered the phrase 'Paraclete me, baby!' and we had discussed at length what a pleasure it was both to have a Paraclete to call on, and to be called on as a Paraclete. Because of the trust involved, the vulnerability and the honesty, it becomes something of an honour. 

    If you google Paraclete, you get a lot about the early Christian history and a fair amount, alas, about a brand of plate-carrying body armour, which is pretty . . . ironic? Doves and body armour?

    But it is a beautiful word. Might we not bring the word back, in something like its original meaning? The one you'd call? 

    Try it. I think it might turn out to be useful.  

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    Earlier this month I was delighted to speak at a commemorative day at Tempsford, in Bedfordshire, being held in recognition of the RAF Special Duties Squadrons that delivered SOE's special agents behind enemy lines from the village’s top-secret airfield during the Second World War.

    Memorial Plaque in Tempsford village church
    (courtesy of Martyn Cox, www.secret-WW@.net)

    Among the guests was Doreen Jeanette Galvin, nee Grey, a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, better known as the WAAF. Doreen served as an Intelligence Officer at RAF Tempsford during the war. She now lives in Canada, and this was her first visit back to her wartime base. Finding a squashy sofa in the memorial hall, Doreen told me how moving it was to return to this tiny village, attend the service of remembrance, and see the beautiful memorial to both the female special agents who were dropped behind enemy lines, and the Special Duties pilots who flew them there.

    What I was not expecting was for Doreen to tell me how she had plotted the Second World War. Not in an evil god-of-destruction way you understand, but as a WAAF processing data about aircraft movement provided by radar stations and observation posts, and plotting the changing positions of Allied and enemy planes on a map.

    Me with Doreen Galvin at Tempsford, May 2015
    (courtesy of Mary J Miles)

    Doreen joined the WAAF in March 1941. Her family’s association with the British Air Force went back to the First World War, but it was not until the late autumn of 1940 that she decided to volunteer. The trigger was watching the Battle of Britain at close quarters from her south coast garden, which was on a steep hillside looking down to the sea. At one point the planes flew so low that she felt they might knock the television aerial off the roof of her house, and she threw herself into a ditch in the garden. When she looked up there were black crosses on each wing of a German fighter above her, which was followed by a Spitfire which shot it down into the sea. She knew then that she had to volunteer.

    Doreen in uniform
    (courtesy of Doreen Galvin & Martyn Cox, www.secret-ww2.net)

    Doreen’s first position as a plotter was in Liverpool, receiving aircraft information and translating it into representative counters moved across a large map. On her third evening she found herself plotting the course of an enemy plane. Soon more followed; it was the start of the Liverpool blitz. Nothing could have better brought home to her the vital importance of her work, and how essential it was to be accurate.

    Doreen's long and often exhausting career eventually led her to a Commission interview with ‘a very frightening Squadron Leader’ and, as the result of her courage to refuse the more regular roles she was encouraged to take in admin, or codes and ciphers, either of which she felt would ‘drive me crazy’, she was accepted for Intelligence.

    Doreen in the WAAF
    (courtesy of Doreen Galvin & Martyn Cox, www.secret-ww2.net)

    Doreen was then trained as a Photographic Interpretation officer at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire. Here she worked with Constance Babington Smith, known to all as ‘Babs’, who was ‘charming, not gushing, but she knew what she was doing’, as well as Sarah Churchill, the red-haired daughter of the PM, among others. Their role was to examine photographs and identify tell-tale troop movements, the build up of fleets and tanks, the creation of fuel and ammunition dumps, the construction and development of weaponry and key sites for military production and other bombing targets. Once, when particularly sensitive photographs and maps had to be examined, Sarah Churchill was segregated in the bathroom, with a 3-ply plank across the huge claw-foot bathtub on which to spread the pictures. She did not know it at the time, but she was working on images of North Africa. ‘We always used to say,’ Doreen told me with a laugh, ‘that for us, North Africa started in the bathroom’. 

    Among a wealth of other material, including pictures of her family's former house in the Channel Islands (garden doing well, she noted), Doreen’s photographs provided early images of the German Messerschmitt 162 and 163 rocket planes. She also worked on photos of a series of ramps in northern France, all facing London. ‘It was obvious something was going to be shot off them’, Doreen said, but they couldn’t see what. Nearly two years later she was spending the night with a friend in Bromley when the first V1s to reach London ‘flew over the roof like an express train’. Wearing a hard hat on the early morning journey into work the next day she suddenly realized that these new flying bombs must be what she had been looking for at Medmenham. 

    Doreen during the Second World War
    (courtesy of Doreen Galvin)

    After a year in Aerial Reconnaissance, Doreen moved to Bomber Command, with an office next to the famous ops room. From there she became an Operations Officer at RAF Feltwell, in Norfolk. At times it was almost unbearable work. One morning twelve planes left to bomb a hydroelectric station, and just one damaged aircraft returned late that afternoon. It was ten days before Doreen learned that she was in no way to blame for the high losses through any inaccuracies in her work - the planes had simply had the misfortune of coinciding with a Luftwaffe squadron.

    Finally Doreen was sent to RAF Tempsford to work as an Intelligence Officer, without yet knowing the operational nature of the secret little airfield. On arrival she was surprised to see the odd variety of aircraft of all vintages and sizes that operated from the airfield, including a number of old-fashioned Lysanders, affectionately called ‘Lizzies’, which she thought must have come from the previous war. The intelligence office seemed ‘very dull’, the maps ‘uninspiring’, and Tempsford struck Doreen altogether as ‘a mediocre station, full of left-overs, in a forgotten backwater’.

    A Lysander at Tempsford during the war,
    with officers from Special Duties squadron 161
    (courtesy of Hugh Verity & Martyn Cox www.secret-ww2.net)

    Only after she was taken through a security door did Doreen see a map covering the entire wall opposite. ‘On it were hundreds of brightly coloured pins, each holding down a small label with a number and a code name typed on it.’ These represented the dropping and landing sites for Britain’s special agents and supplies across Europe. Her role was to ensure the pilots were fully briefed on the sites, and their routes, using aerial photographs and other intelligence. Doreen stared at the map in amazement, thinking, ‘If only the Germans could set eyes on this wall map, they could surely eliminate the entire Underground Movement in Europe in a week!’ 

    Tempsford brought its own tragedies, although nothing quite on that scale, but also many lighter moments among friends who became very close. Here the WAAF Officers’ Mess was so close to the vicarage and the old stone church that one morning, after an RAF dance the night before, the vicar’s wife accused Doreen's friend of getting their chickens drunk. The hens had come wandering in unnoticed and drunk from the dregs of the slop bucket behind the bar. 

    Doreen at the Special Duties memorial plaque in Tempsford Church
    (courtesy of Martyn Cox, www.secret-WW@.net)

    Reverend Margaret Marshall with Doreen Galvin
    at Tempsford's memorial to the SOE women and Special Duties pilots
    (courtesy of Clive Bassett)

    Last Sunday, after the morning of talks, Doreen visited Tempsford’s old stone church again, this time for a service of remembrance conducted by the Reverend Margaret Marshall (how times have changed), before laying wreaths at the memorial opposite. For Doreen it had been a moving experience to return to the village where she had spent so much of her war, and to see that neither the special agents, nor the brave pilots who flew them behind enemy lines, have been forgotten. Not only are there beautiful memorials in the church and on the village green, but there are often events here which welcome everyone from family members who come to remember, to school children who may be hearing for the first time about the history of the village, the airfield, and the many brave people who once passed through.

    Aerial photograph of RAF Tempsford during the war
    (courtesy of The Bob Body Collection & Martyn Cox, www.secretWW2.net)

    I am delighted that Doreen has written and self-published her memoirs, From Arts to Intelligence, available from Amazon in kindle and EPUB formats, and paperback. 

    I should also mention that the very good Temspford commemorative event this May was organised by educational charity Secret WW2 for which, many thanks.

    Copyright Clare Mulley

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    Photo credit: Peter van den Berg

    Our May guest is Lucy Coats, friend to many History Girls and lover of all things mythological. Welcome, Lucy, and thanks for filling in the background to your new YA novel.

    Lucy Coats has written over 30 children's books for all ages, and has also worked as an editor, journalist and bookseller. She has just published a YA novel, Cleo, a paranormal/historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra, as well as a new mythological middle-grade series Beasts of Olympus. Lucy lives with her husband and three out-of-control dogs in a house mostly furnished with too many books.

    The Art of Researching a YA novel

    I cannot imagine writing a book on any subject and NOT researching it. For me, research enables me to write from a position of knowledge. Even if I don't use much of the material I find (and I am always aware of the dreaded sin of 'info dumping'), the fact is that I need to know this stuff, even if my reader doesn't. I am always aware of the reader at my shoulder, especially my teenage reader. So what I put in has to be interesting, relevant, and germane to the story in some way. For a YA novel, a light touch with facts is essential.

    With Cleo I gave myself a huge task from the outset. Writing a novel about a real historical personage is always tricky - and more so if it's a personage about whom everyone has their own view and opinion. When I decided to take on (arguably) the most famous woman in the ancient world - Cleopatra - for my first proper YA novel, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, research-wise. Not only did I choose to write about her undocumented younger life (before she slides into the historical records), but I also chose to mix history with fantasy, and bring in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. I knew that the former gave me a certain amount of leeway - if I wanted to write a story within a 'hole in history' where the gods helped her to the pharaoh's throne, then I could do that without fear of being contradicted. But even if I had no historical 'facts' to go on, I was determined on one thing. This book would give my readers as proper a 'feel' of Ancient Egyptian life and customs as I could provide.
    Cartouche of Cleopatra's name in the House of Horus at Edfu - Wikimedia commons
     I don't read Latin well (or Greek at all), but there are many good translations of Lucan's Pharsalia - a fertile source for descriptions of royal banquets (see quote below), and one I plundered shamelessly for my own purposes. I didn't need to invent any of the party and feast scenes in the book - the real descriptions I found in the research were much more magnificently opulent than I could ever have imagined (and I'm not even showing you the bits about wreaths of nard and roses, and cinnamon hair oil!).

    'Jewels glittered on the couches; the cups, tawny with jasper, loaded the tables, and sofas were bright with coverlets of diverse colors - most had been steeped in Tyrian dye and took their hue from repeated soakings, while others were embroidered with bright gold, and others blazed with scarlet.' 

    An Egyptian Feast by Edwin Long - Wikimedia commons
    Then there was Cassius Dio - writing two hundred years after Cleopatra, true, and also through the somewhat skewed lens of a Roman triumphalism which considered my heroine a dangerously seductive witch. He was an important primary source, and had seen earlier (and now destroyed) evidence from Cleo's time, as had Plutarch. It was little quotes like the one below which set my mind whirring for the Roman scenes I needed to write for the second book, Chosen, which will follow next year.

    'For Caesar and Pompey had known [Cleopatra] when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs.'

    When did Caesar and Pompey meet her? Did she accompany her father into exile in Rome - or did she perhaps join him there? I spent some time recently following a trail which theorised that she did, and put my own spin on it to suit the purpose of my story.

    Cleopatra making an offering to Isis (Louvre) - Wikimedia commons
     If reconstructing a historical personage was difficult, so too was reconstructing the physical landscape around her. I have some experience in tracking down 'ancient historical geography', gained during the writing of my Atticus the Storyteller book on Greek myths, but mostly I didn't have to describe those locations in too much detail. This time, I had a whole royal palace to reconstruct, plus the most important library in the ancient world - the Great Library of Alexandria. I made several serendipitous discoveries along the way, including one which would be crucial to both books. Ptolemy I Soter, when he built Alexandria, included a series of cisterns under the royal palace, connected by narrow passages. What better way to allow people to sneak about unnoticed?

    The Great Library was destroyed either during or soon after Cleopatra's reign, but I took the view that as an educated woman who spoke several languages, and studied mathematics and much else, she would have spent time there. So I had to find out how they stored the scrolls (in custom made cubbyholes), and who might have been working there in Cleo's time (I dug out Apollonius of Tyre, who appears briefly in the book as one of her ex-tutors).

    Research is time-consuming, and mine has taken me from the bigger questions of geography and physical descriptions of journeys and modes of transport up and down the Nile through costume, jewellery, make-up, puffer-fish poison, embalming techniques, songs sung by ancient Nile boatmen, the ancient board game of senet, temple ceremonies, weapons, armour, soil types, flora, fauna and much more. Some totally fascinating facts have had to be discarded, unused, but that's all right. They will simply go into my vast store of 'useless knowledge', to be brought out at some opportune later moment.
    Senet pieces - Wikimedia Commons

    However much research I've done, though, however many dusty books I've read and scholarly articles I've trawled through, one thing had to come first. I had the opportunity to make Cleopatra come alive for a new generation, in a way that had not been tried before. Not everyone will agree with the way I've done it - my Cleo's 'voice', for instance, is quite modern in tone - but there is one thing I hope everyone who reads it will recognise. I've done my damnedest to get the backdrop to my story right! When I wrote the initial synopsis for the first book, this is what I said:

    'I want my readers to smell the harshness of the hot, dusty winds of the simoom (the ‘poison wind’), to feel the way its gritty residue gets into clothes and nostrils, ears and eyes and to know that its touch is a curse of dryness, not a blessing of coolness in the fierce heat of a desert day.

    I want them to be desperate for the soothing touch of blood-warm water mixed with camels’ milk and rosepetals on their skin—and want to try for themselves the only recipe that works for keeping a young princess-priestess’s complexion dewy and glowing. I want them to see the way sun turns blazing white against a blue sky in which Egyptian Vultures (Pharoah’s Chickens) soar on the thermals and wait for something to die down below.

    I want them to look over the shoulder of the embalmer as he learns his trade on the linen-wrapped body of a young priestess—to smell the herbs he uses, to hear the sound of pestle and mortar grinding the sacred and secret preparations that preserve the shell of the body for the afterlife.

    I want them to feel the way the stifling, incense-laden air in the dark corridors of the royal palace in Alexandria presses down on a person and makes everything slow and confusing—to blink with the shock of light reflecting off gold and lapis and a million jewels as they enter the blinding magnificence of the Great Throne Room.'

    Only if I've actually succeeded in taking my teenage reader away from the 21st century for a while, and made her feel some of these things, will I know that I've done my job as a writer.

    You can find out more about Lucy at:
    www.lucycoats.comand also on Twitter at @lucycoats

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