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  • 08/17/15--16:30: Inspiration - Celia Rees
  • A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to accompany my friend, the artist Julia Griffiths Jones, and photographer Toril Brancher on a trip to Slovakia. This was a working trip. Julia was moving her installation, Room within a Room,  from a house in The Museum of the Slovak Village, located in Jahodnícke háje  to the Orava Village Museum, Zaberec

    Orava Village Museum
    Julia and I have been friends for a long time and although she works in a different medium we share many things in common. I find it easy to talk to her about my work. She understands the strange and sudden enthusiasms, the need to feed obsessions, the anguish when work doesn't go well, the elation when it does. She has always been a huge support as I hope I have been to her. She puts me back in touch with the well spring of creativity which should be the most important thing, the only important thing, the thing that makes the day to day donkey work bearable. She has also been a very useful source of information. Her background in textiles made her invaluable when I was researching quilts for Witch Child and I was touched and very honoured when she based a piece of work on my books Sorceress and Pirates! for her Stories in the Making Exhibition. 

    Julia says of her own work:

    My work is concerned with the translation of Textile techniques such as stitching, quilting, patchwork, embroidery, into a wire and metal form; thus changing its original nature and function but retaining the meaning and the decoration. I am very inspired and influenced by Textile work created by women alongside their domestic duties as much as for need as for warmth. This interest began when I was a student at the Royal College of Art.

    I won a scholarship to research and study Textiles in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Here I saw Folk Art for the first time; it was everywhere woven through all aspects of life. Gradually I began to transfer my drawings into three dimensions using wire and became totally enthralled by the possibilities of drawing in space using line and colour. My training and qualifications are in Textile Design so this change in materials was a huge departure for me but a very crucial one as through it I began to create, I believe, a unique language and a deeply satisfying one.

    In 2007 I began drawing from the collection of The National Wool Museum, and this experience inspired me to digitally print my drawings onto wool and cotton.The Museum then commissioned me to make five pieces of work which were installed throughout the mill as a contemporary trail in 2009.

    My current project is to research and explore new techniques and materials, thus developing my experimental work in wire to be able to create a room within a room, a museum, an installation of suspended objects, in metal, which preserves by its durable nature the visual motifs found in textiles from Wales and Eastern Europe and which will be the result of over thirty years of drawing and research.

    Room within a Room, photograph: Toril Brancher, July 2015
    It is best to let the work speak for itself. It is  difficult to see the whole room in a photograph but Toril has done a fantastic job in managing to capture something that works very much in 3 dimensions:  delicate, floating, occupying the space with the viewer.

    Room within a Room, photograph: Toril Brancher, July 2015

    Julia bases her work on traditional costume, folk motifs, embroidery and decoration which she translates first to drawing, then into wire. I love to see the actual objects and Julia's interpretation. While I was at the museum, I went to some of the houses and rooms that Julia had visited in her earlier times in Slovakia and where she had drawn these slippers tucked under a bed, embroidered pillow cases, table cloths, shirts, trousers, skirts and blouses; these images that had so fascinated her, now translated into the medium of wire.

    Slippers, Julia Griffiths Jones, photograph: Toril Brancher, July 2015


    Julia with trousers and jacket, photograph: Toril Brancher, July 2015
    Boy wearing trousers
    Metal working is a male preserve. One of the important things about Julia's work is she combines male and female domestic art together in one form.

    Wire working has a distinctive place in Slovak history and culture. From as early as the sixteenth century, the Drotari (wire workers or tinkers) were travelling from farm to farm,  village to village, selling their goods and metal working skills, moving out of their native Bohemia, travelling west to Germany, east to Russia, spreading all over northern and central Europe. Eventually, their restless wandering would take them to America, where their extraordinary skills gained new markets. Noted for their inventiveness and ingenuity, they even created the shopping trolley.

    I had been to Slovakia with Julia before in 1999 when she showed me the Wire Museum in Zilina. Readers of this blog will know how much I love museums, the stranger the better. I especially like museums that are about just one thing. The Wire Museum is devoted entirely to objects made from wire twisted and formed into all kinds of things both decorative and practical: bowls and birdcages, baskets and jewel boxes, life-size human figures, fairy tale creatures, animals and birds. 

    On this previous visit in 1999, I had been writing Witch Child. Every historical novelist has to answer  important questions, like Where do my characters live? What are their houses like? I was moving my main character, Mary, from 17th Century England to America where the colonists would have to build their houses from scratch. I was in a heavily forested area, one subject to extremes of climate, hot in summer but very cold in winter. Very similar. I found myself studying the wooden houses in the outdoor museums and thinking that the houses my characters built would need to be like these: sturdily constructed from forest trees, the gaps in between the shaped logs stuffed with moss to keep out the winter cold.

    So I invented a new character, Jonah Morse, based on a real apothecary who had travelled from London to Russia, to the court of the Czar. He could have travelled through these regions, I reasoned, and being an observant kind of fellow, noted how the houses were built and advised his fellow settlers in America to do likewise.

    So, in Witch Child, that is what the houses are like, this is how they are built. It might seem a small  thing but it's that kind of detail that lends a story veracity. Inspiration is everywhere, all around us; it is there for the finding in the places we visit and the things we see. I would never have visited Slovakia if Julia hadn't asked me to go with her and the houses in Witch Child would have been made differently and not so well. I love the way a passing thought, a sudden observation, spins a tale of its own.

    Celia Rees


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    I must confess that I started watching ‘Life in Squares’, the new three-part drama about the Bloomsbury Group, which was recently shown on BBC2, with considerable reservations. What on earth was there left to say about these - to be frank - rather self-indulgent and privileged people, that hadn’t already been said in a host of books by and about them, and latterly, in films and television programmes in which the whole gang - the Woolfs, the Bells, Duncan Grant, Keynes, Strachey, Roger Fry - were made much of? Wasn’t it time to call for a moratorium on the Bloomsburies and all their acolytes, past and present? From which it may be obvious that, with certain honourable exceptions (yes, I mean you, E.M. Forster), I’m not a fan of this particular ‘set’, whose achievements, though undeniably impressive, seem to me to have been over-valued, to the detriment of other, no less impressive, talents in twentieth century Art and Literature.

    ‘Life in Squares’, I thought, would be just another breathless hagiography, celebrating the already over-celebrated lives of the Blessed Virginia and her crowd. I promised myself I’d give it ten minutes, and then switch over to something more enjoyable. An hour later, I was still watching - and unashamedly riveted by - the successive dramas unfolding in Amanda Coe’s treatment of the lives of what was then a disparate group of Cambridge friends (and their sisters), meeting for tea and chat about art and books, in the Gordon Square house belonging to the orphaned Stephen siblings. With so many characters to incorporate - the list above is only partial, leaving out quite a few of the era’s major figures (no mention of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, or Wyndham Lewis) - Coe wisely chose to focus on the central relationship, between Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), and her sister Vanessa. Interestingly enough, and despite Virginia Woolf’s far greater posthumous fame, it is Vanessa who emerges as the more dominant character. From her impetuous - and soon to be regretted - marriage to the philandering Clive Bell, to her no less extravagant love for the painter Duncan Grant, she comes across as passionate, headstrong and likeable.

    Part of this is due, no doubt, to Phoebe Fox’s sympathetic portrayal - helped by her strong physical likeness to the beautiful Vanessa. Nor is she the only piece of great casting in this superior mini-drama: James Norton gave a wonderfully dissolute performance as Duncan Grant, convincing this viewer, at least, to reconsider him, not only as an artist, but as a key figure in what was to become a kind of blueprint for the Bohemian lifestyle, as the Bloomsburies metamorphosed into the ‘Charleston set’. Having visited Charleston - home to the Bells and Duncan Grant - and Monk’s House, at Rodmell, where the Woolfs established themselves during the same period, I was delighted to see both places featuring strongly in this television drama. That gave me another reason for continuing to watch, as well as the fact that I was now hooked on the tangled love affairs and intermittent crises which were unfolding. The period covered - from the 1900s to the 1940s - is one in which I have been interested for a long time. I was glad to see it reconstructed so accurately and (dare one say it?) aesthetically. From the Art Nouveau silks and velvets sported by Vanessa as a young woman, to the more austere wartime garb worn by her older self (of which more later), this was a feast of period detail: beautifully lit and shot. 

    Of course, there were a few things I’d like to have seen done differently. The decision to cast a second group of older actors - with the wonderful Eve Best playing Vanessa - in order to convey the passage of time, was not wholly successful, and might have caused confusion to anyone not familiar with the story. The need to compress the events of forty years into three hours led, inevitably, to certain things been glossed over - or left out altogether. The 1920s and 1930s - arguably the most important period, as regards the literary and artistic output of the group - was shown only in passing. Individual episodes - such as Duncan Grant’s decision to become a conscientious objector, at the outbreak of the First World War - were barely touched on. The relentless focusing on the Grant/Bell menage meant that even Virginia Woolf’s suicide got short shrift. But overall, this was a well-written and engaging dramatisation of a fascinating period. It certainly converted this Bloomsbury sceptic to a more appreciative frame of mind. Now - where’s my copy of To the Lighthouse?


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    In the early summer of 1553 three ships – the Edward Bonaventure, the Bona Confidentia and the Bona Esperanza– set sail from London on a voyage into the unknown. As they sailed past GreenwichPalace, the young king Edward VI, an enthusiastic supporter of the venture, lay dying, too ill even to look out of the window and see them pass. Of the three ships, only one would return.

    The voyage had been several years in the planning, and its purpose was kept secret. Chief instigator was Sebastian Cabot, now an old man, who, at the age of fourteen in 1497 had returned with his father John Cabot from an expedition to the Americas. Like Columbusfive years earlier, Cabot senior had hoped to reach the fabled lands of the Indies. Instead he planted the English flag on the rather bleaker terrain of Newfoundland.

    The Cabots were an Italian family and, although raised in Bristol, Sebastian spent much of his adult life outside England, which did not offer him the opportunities for exploration which he craved. His exceptional talents were recognised in Spain, however, where he was for many years Pilot Major, in overall charge of all Spain’s maritime expeditions.

    In 1494, under the aegis of  the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, the Treaty of Tordesillas had arbitrarily divided the newly discovered areas of the globe into two sections, one to be ruled by Spain, the other by Portugal. Englandnever entered the equation. However, stirrings of the same excitement about world exploration had begun in Englandas in the Iberian peninsula. This was well before the days of the piratical Drake, but it did not require a genius to see how well Spain in particular was doing out of the gold and silver it was looting from South America.
    Sebastian Cabot
    As early as 1538, Cabot was making approaches to England for a return from Spain, but was not encouraged under Henry VIII’s regime. After Henry’s death in 1547, however, circumstances changed. The boy King Edward and his advisors were keen to develop English exploration and later that year Cabot was in England, allegedly on a brief leave of absence from his service to the Spanish king. He never went back.

    Although Cabot had served a monarch whose interest was in conquest and exploitation of newly discovered lands, Cabot’s own views were quite different. He wanted to establish peaceful trading links with other countries, with respect for their culture and religion – a novel attitude for the time. Moreover, knowing that Spainand Portugalhad an iron grip on southern routes to the fabled rich lands of the far east, he realised that English expeditions via these southern routes would risk attacks from the Iberian nations.

    Englandlay in the north. Why not attempt to find a route to the north-east, the north-west, or even over the North Pole itself, as by far the shortest route to faraway Cathay?

    It was a daring – some said insane – concept.
    An optimistic view!
    But Cabot and his fellow enthusiasts were not deterred. Many of his supporters were merchants, and they had good cause to be interested in new trade routes. Henry VIII had destroyed England’s economy by a series of pointless and disastrous wars in France. Having spent the loot he had seized from the monasteries, he had debased the coinage to pay for his misguided exploits. The new government had to rescue the economy and started by restoring the value of English currency. Worryingly, almost the whole of the country’s overseas exports depended on a single commodity, woollen cloth. The trade had flourished throughout the European continent, as the quality of English woollen cloth was second to none, but the restoration of the currency made it suddenly much more expensive and exports crashed. The merchants were desperate for new markets and the far east seemed promising.

    To send an expedition over the top of the world where no one had ever ventured before was very risky and expensive, far too expensive for a single merchant or even the Crown to undertake. Cabot and his colleagues came up with a novel idea. They would set up a company – a “mystery” as they called it – to which many would contribute capital. This company would employ its own staff who would trade on behalf of the company, not individual merchants. Those who had invested would take a share of the profits in proportion to their investment. And so the first joint stock company was born, financed by stockholders.

    There was some debate as to whether the expedition should travel east or west, but on the advice of the best geographers and cosmographers of the time (including a young John Dee), it was decided that a north-east route around the top of Europe and down into the China seas offered the most promising prospect.

    At the time it was customary to allocate the senior position in major undertakings to a gentleman, since it was felt that such a person would possess the requisite authority and qualities of leadership. The man chosen as Captain General was Sir Hugh Willoughby, a courageous and successful military leader, but a man with no maritime experience whatsoever. Each ship had an experienced captain. However, the “experience” of English captains at the time was not extensive. They were accustomed to sailing the main routes to Continental Europe and to the Mediterranean. A few had ventured along the west African coast, despite harassment from other nations, but few had sailed far out of sight of land.
    Sir Hugh Willoughby
    Second in importance to Willoughby, as Pilot Major of the voyage, was a young man called Richard Chancellor, one of the new breed of intelligent men who studied geography and cosmography (including celestial navigation). He had been trained by Cabot and probably had a much clearer idea of what the expedition entailed than Willoughby. He would have known how ignorant Europeans were about this area of the globe and how severe the weather would become if the ships did not either break through to the warmer waters around Cathay or return to England.

    The largest ship was the Edward Bonaventure. On this Chancellor sailed, with Stephen Borough as captain, at twenty-seven already an experienced seaman. The middle ship, the Esperanza, was regarded as the flagship, as it carried Willoughby, and was captained by William Gefferson, while the smallest ship, the Confidentia, was commanded by Cornelius Durforth. Gefferson and Durforth were experienced, but only within the contemporary parameters of experience.
    Tower of London 1554
    Heavily loaded with cargo which the sponsors considered suitable for trade and for gifts to monarchs in the unknown lands which lay ahead, the three ships set sail from the shipyards at Ratcliffe, just downstream from the Tower, on 10 May, 1553. They made their way in a somewhat leisurely fashion down the Thames estuary and out into the North Sea. The plan was to sail across to the coast of Norway, then follow it north until it veered east. Thereafter, they would be sailing into unknown territory. Unfortunately, bad weather drove the ships back to the east coast of England. The first three weeks of June were lost, frustratingly, confined to English ports.

    Not until 23 June was the expedition able to sail forth at last into the North Sea. Worryingly it was already past the summer solstice. They were full of confidence, however, and Chancellor, who was extremely skilled in the use of the latest navigational instruments, recorded their position meticulously. When they reached the rugged and unfamiliar coast of Norway, Chancellor even landed when they were about halfway up the Norwegian coast and took further measurements. For the moment all seemed to be going well.

    Amongst the scattered islands further north they were again delayed by unfavourable winds. It was the end of July by the time they neared the top of Norway’s west coast and Willoughbycalled a conference of the expedition’s leaders. Once they rounded Finnmark, the northernmost portion of Norwaywhich wraps around northern Swedenand Finland, they would enter uncharted waters. There was, however, one safe port here, Vardøhus (Wardhouse to the English). Cabot had instructed the small fleet to stay together, but if anything should happen to separate them, it was agreed now that they would make for Wardhouse and wait till all were reunited.
    Vardøhus today
    It was a wise plan, for once they rounded the North Cape, a terrible storm blew up, accompanied by thick mist. Chancellor and Borrough immediately reduced the canvas on the Edward, but to their horror they watched the other two ships racing away from them under full sail. They never saw them again.

    Once the storm had eased, the Edward made for Wardhouse and waited for the Esperanza and the Confidentia. When Chancellor felt he could wait no longer, he set sail once more along the unfamiliar coast, heading east. It was now into August as the sole remaining ship sailed along a barren and unpopulated coast until it reached a wide opening into a huge gulf – the area now known as the White Sea. To their immense relief, the Englishmen found human habitation at last, as they dropped anchor near the Orthodox monastery of St Nicholas, close to where Arkhangelsk was later founded. To their astonishment, they learned that this was Russia, ruled by Tsar Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he has come to be known.

    The Englishmen knew there was a backward and barbarous country called Russiaor Muscovy, somewhere vaguely to the east of Poland in Continental Europe. They had no idea that it reached so far north. Indeed the young and warlike Tsar had been busy defeating his neighbours and extending his territory ever since he had come to the throne. Chancellor carried a warm and friendly letter from young King Edward to any ruler who might be met with, and he was anxious to travel to Moscow to meet and treat with this ruler. However, although the local people received the travellers kindly, they were clearly terrified of Ivan. The Englishmen could not travel through the country until Ivan granted his permission.

    As the waiting extended into weeks, the Edward was sealed in by the ice, the river Dvina which led into the interior froze solid, and the winter snows of Muscovy covered the land. At last a small party led by Chancellor was able to set out, and discovered that travel in these northern lands was much easier in winter. Bundled in furs they skimmed across an ice-bound land in horse-drawn sleighs.
    Ivan the Terrible
    In Moscowthey were well received by Ivan, who had his own reasons for welcoming an alliance with England, and before long he agreed to grant free-trading rights to the merchants of the new company, although the formalities would not be completed until the second expedition. Far from being a primitive country, despite the violent and tyrannical rule of its Tsar, Muscovy was rich (at least in the palace) in gold and silver dishes, rich clothing and tapestries, abundant food and drink. (Rather too much drink.) The Russians also considered themselves to be the true Christians, heirs not only of St Peter’s Rome but of Constantinople, now fallen to Islam. The Catholic church was a mere upstart, and the strange Protestant sects quite beyond the pale.

    When Chancellor and his small party returned north to the White Sea they were relieved to find that the Edward had not suffered from its icy winter. As soon as the sea was clear, they set out for home, an eventful voyage, including a skirmish with pirates.

    They were to discover an Englandprofoundly changed since they left. King Edward was dead. The brief attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne (in accordance with Edward’s wishes) had ended in mass executions, including that of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a major patron of the expedition. Queen Mary was on the throne, busily turning England back into a Catholic country and executing as heretics any who opposed her.
    Mary Tudor
    But what of the two missing ships? During the spring of 1554, as the Edwardsailed home, a group of Russian fishermen discovered the ships anchored in the mouth of the river Varzina. All those on board were dead, yet curiously they seemed to be reading or engaged in games of dice or cards. Willoughby was slumped at his desk in front of his papers, including his log of the voyage. This log revealed that the two ships had sailed before the storm away to the north-east, probably as far as Novaya Zemlya. When they realised they had far overshot Wardhouse, they turned back, following a zigzag course westwards, some distance off the north coast of Russia, by-passing the White Sea, where the Edward lay at anchor. When they discovered the Varzina estuary, they took refuge there from the increasingly bad weather, planning to overwinter in its sheltered waters.

    The area appeared bleak and uninhabited, but according to the log Willoughbysent out three scouting parties to attempt to contact any human habitations. They found no one. The mystery was: How had they died? For a long time it was assumed they had died of cold or starvation, but that coastal area is not as cold as many parts of Russia. Besides, they had plenty of warm clothing. There were still plentiful supplies of food on board. Recently, another theory has been put forward, which seems convincing. The bare tundra supports no trees, so once the men exhausted their supplies of firewood, they would need to look elsewhere. The beaches in the area provide ample amounts of sea coal washed up from coastal seams, a fuel familiar by now in England. On board the ships every hatch and door was kept tightly closed against the cold. If the men burned sea coal on their stoves to keep warm, it is likely they died of the insidious effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

    However, the fate of the two ships remained for the moment unknown as the Edwardreached an Englandso very different from the one they had left the year before. Was this first attempt to sail eastwards around the top of the globe successful, or would the whole enterprise be abandoned?

    They had failed to find the north-east passage.
    Seal of the Muscovy Company
    What they had succeeded in doing was to lay the foundations of a trading agreement for the first joint stock company, the Muscovy Company, which would survive until 1917 and which provided the structure for the many trading companies which followed, including the most famous, the East India Company. They also laid the groundwork for all future joint stock companies, whatever their business, and for the British Empire, which was to stretch across the globe, following in the wake of its merchant adventurers.

    More voyages of the Muscovy Company were soon to follow, marked by both success and disaster, including one remarkable journey 500 miles east of the White Sea.

    But that is another story.

    Ann Swinfen

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    While thinking about my blog for History Girls, my mind wandered and I looked out of the window.

    What did I see?
    The view from my study
    A reason to leave my desk - my vegetable bed was calling out to be hoed. This was an ideal opportunity for procrastination. Without my immediate intervention the as-yet-inedible beetroot had only hours to live.  The tiny seedlings would soon get smothered in giant horrible weeds. So out into the garden I went, picked up the hoe, and noticed it needed sharpening. Looked for the sharpening stone, I wondered what the proper name for a sharpening stone is. 
    As I spotted it on the shed shelf, I remembered it is a whetstone, spelled with an ‘h’. Is that to do with water or something quite different? Made mental note to look it up.  Sharpened hoe. On the way down the garden path I noticed the courgettes needed watering.  So the hose had to be untangled. And on it went- one procrastination opportunity surpassing the last. By lunchtime I had found the whetstone, sharpened the hoe, sliced through several rows of weeds, watered the courgettes, and the beans for good measure, put the garden tools in a neat row, and even swept the ground beneath them. I’d also learned that whet is from the Anglo-Saxon whaet, meaning keen or bold which led to sharpen or stimulate (as in ‘appetite’.) But I was still no further on with my blog.

    I am skilled in the art of procrastination, defined as  'putting off,  delaying,  deferring,  postponing, especially something that requires immediate attention.’ Crastimus is the Latin for ‘pertaining to tomorrow’ – and we all know that tomorrow never comes. It’s the Roman equivalent of ‘manana’. Synonyms include ‘dithering, stalling, delaying tactics and vacillations’, to which I would add ’seeking out distractions, around any corner.’ 

    I suspect that most History Girls and our readers indulge in various levels of procrastination, and can spot a handy distraction a mile off.  The most rewarding kinds of procrastination for writers are those that somehow connect to the writing one is supposed to be doing.  While researching my book ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’, I found a Second World War recipe that took procrastination to new levels. In one fell swoop, I could procrastinate and be ‘researching’ my book at the same time: the recipe demonstrated the historical economics of food rationing, the philosophy of Make Do and Mend and offered an opportunity to practice Real History. And unlike most procrastinations and distractions, there is something delicious to eat at the end.

    Hedgerow Jelly - free from a hedge near you

    Find some hedges in late August or September, preferably containing many varieties of fruit-bearing bush.
    Blackberries in July, waiting for you.
    Harvest the fruit on your own and the time spent is both ‘exercise’ (walking along a hedgerow) and ‘work’ (you are silent, so obviously thinking important thoughts). If this stretches your conscience too far, then go with some friends as ‘recreation’ - an essential time of ‘re-making your creativity’. Wander  down lanes in the countryside, or  seek out rogue wild bushes in parks and along footpaths in cities. Carry a woven basket for authenticity, or a cotton bag for Green credentials, or a plastic supermarket bag for practicality.

    Pick as many berries as you can find, or can be bothered to pick, or can carry. Mix together hawthorn, rose hips, elderberries, both black and red blackberries (red contain more pectin which helps jelly to set), crab apples, wild gooseberries and raspberries. Do not include holly, ivy, privet, yew nor deadly nightshade – they are all poisonous.
    The Army & Navy Stores Catalogue of 1940 had all the equipment needed for jam-making

    After washing them in a colander, boil up the berries together in a little water until soft, and then mash them up a bit.  Then put into some clean, old tights, and hang from the back of a chair over a large bowl to drip overnight. If you wish to remain historically accurate, use cotton muslin or an old, clean tea towel. In the morning, or after a few hours, squeeze the tights (or muslin) to get out all the juice.  Put the seedy pulp into the compost, or feed to wild birds or your chickens.

    For every pint of thick red juice, add one pound of sugar. In a big jam-pan, boil up until the jelly reaches a lovely rolling setting point - drop a blob on a bottle from the fridge. If it sets like jelly, stop cooking. Don’t let it burn. With practice, you can tell when it’s ready: the boiling jelly rolls at a certain speed and plays a certain note.

    Delicious and healthy jelly to be proud of

    Pour into very clean glass jars, or tea cups if you don’t have enough jars. Put circles of greaseproof paper on the surface of the jelly, and screw on a metal lid while still hot. For presents, add circles of dress fabric or old shirts, tied with brown string. You can use ribbon, but it is a bit twee.

    Make labels that say ‘Best War-time Hedgerow Jelly, 2015’. Then get back to work.

    During breaks, eat this delicious, clear, red jelly with bread, or meat, or cheese. Or put some in hot water on cold winter days to remind you of sunnier times.
             After your berry-picking walk, sit down with a friend and chat to a squirrel.

    If you don’t manage to make this jam this year, then don’t worry, next year will do instead. It’s a deadline that you are allowed to miss.

    www.janiehampton.co.uk Photos copyright Janie Hampton 

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    ‘We have to devise a means of making known the facts
     in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world.’ 
    Eglantyne Jebb 

    Poster for Anne Chamberlain's production, Eglantyne

    Earlier this month I was fascinated to see a new one-woman play called simply, Eglantyne, written, produced and acted by the New Zealand artist Anne Chamberlain. Eglantyne Jebb, around whose life the play is built, was the remarkable founder of the independent children’s development agency Save the Children, and author of the pioneering statement that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. She was also the subject of my first biography: The Woman Who Saved the Children, and it is wonderful to see that her life is still inspiring people, both to write, and to support the vital work of Save the Children today. Proceeds from both my book and Anne’s play are donated to the charity. You can read my History Girls blog on Eglantyne’s life and achievements here.

    Among Eglantyne’s many skills was an extraordinary ability to communicate the facts in such a way as to inspire others. She had a very vivid imagination and clearly loved words, writing numerous poems and romantic-social novels, as well as her pioneering statement of children’s rights. She also wrote and gave speeches, published leaflets and press articles, and made pioneering use of photographs and film footage to win support for her cause, often from initially hostile audiences.

    Anne’s play opens with Eglantyne’s very public arrest in Trafalgar Square in the spring of 1919, for distributing leaflets calling for an end to the economic blockade that was contributing to the starvation of thousands in Germany and Austria. These leaflets had not been cleared under the Defence of the Realm Act – it had never struck Eglantyne that they might need to be. The crown prosecutor did not mince his words, but Eglantyne chose to represent herself and focused on the moral case. By the end of the session she had been found guilty, but the court reporters had plenty to pad out their stories with, and the crown prosecutor insisted on paying her fine.

    Eglantyne Jebb, c.1921
    Anne Chamberlain, as Jebb 2015

    Save the Children was swept into existence on the wave of publicity that followed this trial, culminating with an exciting public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall. After listening to Eglantyne and her sister’s speeches, the crowds, who had arrived armed with rotten fruit to throw at the traitor women who wanted to give succour to the enemy, were instead inspired to put their hands in their pockets and fund a herd of Swiss dairy cows to provide milk for the children of Vienna.

    Eglantyne gained the support of factory girls and aristocrats, the Pope and the Mining Unions, the British aristocracy and the Bolshevik government. She even won the backing of the wife of the Prime Minister whose policies she had campaigned against. ‘When she spoke’, her friend and colleague Dr Hector Munro later wrote, ‘everything seemed to lose importance and one agreed to do whatever she wished.’

    Little surprise then, that Eglantyne’s words are still inspiring people today. In her play, Anne manages to integrate many wonderful examples of Eglantyne’s own phrases, from speeches and letters, into her script:

    - ‘Humanity owes to the child the best it has to give.’

    - ‘Every generation… offers mankind anew the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world.’

    - ‘The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative, and very busy.’

    As I often still give talks about Eglantyne, and use many of the same quotes, it was strange to hear these words in someone else's mouth, with different intonations. But it was also really lightening - and heartening. At the end of the evening I felt as though, in a way, I had been kindly exorcised of Eglantyne. She will always be an inspiration, but my relationship with her feels less intense – it feels shared.

    Eglantyne Jebb, c.1925

    Anne Chamberlain as Jebb, 2015

    Before I saw Anne’s play, I had wondered whether I would see a very different Eglantyne on stage, to the one I had come to picture to myself, someone I might not recognise even. This happened once before when I went to a production of Tony Harrison’s play in verse, called Fram. Fram, which means ‘Forward’ in Norwegian, was the name of the arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s ship. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Nansen became an associate of Eglantyne’s, helping to bring desperately needed relief to Russia during the famine of 1921. She greatly admired his spirit and energy, calling him a ‘solid viking’. Harrison’s play explored the relationship between art and aid, at times in quite provocative and painful ways. Eglantyne’s lines are the best in it, I think, and she was excellently played by Carolyn Pickles when I saw the production at the Royal National Theatre. But although Carolyn made me laugh by signing my programme ‘Eglantyne’, I did not feel a strong connection with the figure she had portrayed on stage. Perhaps, I thought for a while, I had imagined her wrongly...

    Save the Children feeds starving Russian children, 1921 

    As we slowly approach Save the Children’s centenary in 2019, the charity has asked whether it might be possible to re-imagine Eglantyne, to bring her story to a new and younger audience – with a picture book about her life, adventures and achievements. I think this would be wonderful, and look forward to seeing yet another interpretation of this wonderful woman on the page… If anyone has suggestions for brilliant and inspiring children’s illustrators I would be delighted to hear them!

    Sadly there is no one alive today who knew Eglantyne. There are photographs and sketches, but no one who heard her voice, and no recording of her. However, much of her writing survives, her actions speak volumes, and her energy, spirit, determination and often rather dark sense of humour, are palpable throughout. When I watched Anne Chamberlain’s play earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that I felt very familiar with the Eglantyne that she brought to life, which makes me hope that perhaps we both found something of the truth in this remarkable woman.

    Anne and me, holding each other's writing about Eglantyne Jebb 

    I think that Eglantyne herself would have been fascinated by each reincarnation, and on the whole pleased, given that each helps to promote the cause – the welfare and rights of the world’s children – that she cared so passionately about. ‘A friend of mine once said to me that our minds, contemplating the truth, were like so many cameras turned towards the same building’, she once wrote. ‘No two cameras can be in the exactly the same position… so that no two precisely similar photographs can be taken; hence also, though some may be better than others, no single photograph, always supposing that it had not been faked, will be without its value.’

    Sadly Anne’s play has now finished its British run, but it may be back next year and if so I will pass on the tour dates. I hope that between Eglantyne the play, my biography, and any new portrait, many more people, of all ages, may yet come to picture Eglantyne Jebb in their own way, and be inspired.

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    Photo credit: Chris Hadley
    Our July guest is Joanne Limberg, talking about her début novel, A Want of Kindness, about Queen Anne.

    Joanne Limburg began her writing career as a poet, publishing two collections with Bloodaxe Books. She has also published a memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much and a book of poems for children, called Bookside Down. A Want of Kindness is her first novel, and is published by Atlantic Books. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and son.


    At the centre of my novel, A Want of Kindness, are a series of extraordinary letters – real letters – which Anne sent to her sister Mary, Princess of Orange. They were written in the years leading up to the Prince of Orange’s invasion in November 1688, and the subsequent deposition of the sisters’ Catholic father, King James II, events which the winning side were quick to call the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Anne would be on that winning, Protestant, side, and her letters show her to have taken as active a role in events as her circumstances allowed. Using a postal network of sympathetic ‘safe hands’, she was able to send her sister intelligence as to Catholic goings-on in the royal household – Latin Grace at meals and other such – to her – abominations. She could confirm that the King and her step-mother, the Queen, were most certainly under the influence of Jesuit priests, that the Earl and Countess of Sunderland had flattered their way into royal favour and that Sunderland in particular was encouraging her father the King in all his Catholic, tyrannical, most un-English excesses. In doing so, she was able to reassure her sister – and, in the process, herself – that England, its Church and its Liberties were indeed threatened and that, therefore, the momentous act they were contemplating would be entirely justified.

    Anne’s most significant pieces of intelligence concerned the Queen and the progress of her pregnancy. For the Catholic Queen, or so it was claimed, was pregnant by the Catholic King. And if the child turned out to be a boy, then the Catholic succession would be assured, and, from the point of view of the fiercely Protestant Anne, England’s undoing – and her own –would be complete. She and Mary would be displaced from the succession.

    Anne’s gender meant that many avenues of power and influence were closed to her. She could not wield a sword. She could not hold office. She could not make speeches to the Privy Council or to Parliament and was unable to attend Privy Council meetings. It would not have occurred to either her father or his ministers to consult her on any matters of policy. She could not take Holy Orders and preach either for or against him. Nevertheless, she was the highest-ranking Anglican in England, standing in for the King in the Royal Chapel, providing a royal presence in his Catholic absence; also, as a Princess at Court, she was often in attendance on the Queen when she dressed in the morning. She could, if she wished, vouch for two very crucial things: the King’s good intentions towards the Anglican Church and the genuineness of the Queen’s pregnancy. If she did, she would strengthen the King and Queen’s position significantly; if she did not – or even appeared not to – she would just as surely undermine it.

    So, what did Anne do? Despite the fact that she sometimes put on the Queen’s shift herself and must – I am certain – have seen her pregnant belly with her own eyes, she was quite determined not to believe them. She told Mary that what she had seen was unconvincing, and, having done so, left London to take the waters at Bath – a place far more distant than her usual summer watering-place at Tonbridge – thus making it most unlikely that she would be with the Queen when he presence as witness would have been most useful to the King – that is to say, at the birth. After the baby was born, in her artfully-contrived absence, she was instrumental in spreading the now-notorious rumour that an imposter baby – the child of a Catholic brick-layer – was brought into the royal birthing chamber in a warming-pan, to take the place of what was either a stillborn or non-existent prince. She avoided attendance at Court, using her own supposed pregnancy as an excuse, but made sure that she could be seen at various Anglican houses of worship, avidly listening to sermons against the King’s religion.

    The bedchamber in which the baby prince was born - or not
    By the end of that Summer, Anne knew that the Prince of Orange was going to sail to England, and that she had to be prepared for what might happen. She had a staircase built at the back of her lodgings, providing her with a direct route from her privy chamber to the grounds of St James’s Park, and, once she had received word that her husband defected from the King on the battle-field, she descended it at the dead-of-night and fled London under the protection of Bishop Compton, one of the King’s most prominent opponents. After her father’s defeat, she returned to London and made her first public appearance, bedecked in Orange ribbons.

    Despite James’s unpopularity, there were many who were shocked by the sisters’ behaviour. They were unnatural, ungrateful daughters, who in dishonouring their father, they had broken a Commandment. They were compared to Goneril and Regan, and to Tullia the daughter of the murdered King Servillius Tullius, who ran over her father’s body in her chariot. One poem of the time terms them the ‘Female Parricides’, and accuses the sisters of ‘ambition, folly, insolence and pride.’ Anne’s Victorian biography, Agnes Strickland, agreed, seeing Anne as entirely self-interested.

    Anne & Mary and their parents by Peter Lely
    P.F William Ryan, writing in the early 1900s, makes his disapproval very clear:
    "Nature had apparently implanted in Anne no sense of duty, and art had done nothing to fill the void… It was… after her marriage, when entirely removed from the influence of the gentle Mary of Modena [her step-mother], that malice and envy began to flourish luxuriantly in the young Princess’s bosom. Surrounded by every luxury that her father could provide, his generosity seemed only to inflame the envy, which, with the perfection of art, was concealed by this Royal actress. "[from Queen Anne and her Court, Vol. I, p 84]

    Such is Ryan’s disgust at Anne’s shocking character, that I am baffled as to why he chose her as his subject. If I agreed with him, I don’t think I could have stood to write a whole novel about her. His Anne is somewhat one-dimensional, her motives transparent and her actions predictable. But the Anne that emerges from later biographies, from her letters to Mary and to her friend Sarah Marlborough, seems to me to be far more complicated and a good deal more sympathetic. It is true that, if we consider her dealings with her father and step-mother in isolation, she seems two-faced, unkind and devious, but Anne had many other relationships in her life, and in these she behaved very differently.

    Anne could be loving and loyal. She was concerned with the health of her husband and children, nursing them herself when they were ill. She was an extraordinarily generous friend, and a considerate mistress to her household. When she eventually became Queen, she would prove to be remarkably conscientious, taking part in all her cabinet’s meetings despite her continuing ill health, and attending Parliament whenever she could. She had her opponents, but unlike many of her predecessors, was not in habit of having them executed. Faced with the choice between prolonging the War of Spanish Succession and accepting a settlement, she chose the latter, being weary of bloodshed and other people’s suffering. It is not hard to see why the Duke of Marlborough described his patroness, simply, as ‘a very good sort of woman’.

    Queen Anne Wikimedia Commons
    When I looked at Anne’s life, then, the story it suggested to me was one in which a good woman does, knowingly, a bad thing. My sense is that Anne was not lying, precisely, when she said her step-mother’s baby was not her brother. I think she was deceiving herself, entertaining this cognitive dissonance, because she needed him not to be. She did what we are all capable of doing when our conceptions of ourselves and our worlds are put under extreme pressure, and constructed a truth she could live with: an England justly destined for Protestant rule. The thought that God might after all not be on her side, but with the Catholics, was simply too horrific to contemplate – if it were true, then the very ground under her feet would be rendered insecure, and, even worse, she would no longer be able to see believe a good person, on the right side of things. Anne’s moral thinking was not subtle, pragmatic or flexible enough to allow her to lie simply for political expedience’s sake, to make the ends justify the means. So she constructed a story, a false belief, to enable her to live with herself and what she would be doing.

    And the story held together as long as it needed to, seeing her through the dangerous adventure of her defection from her father, but, it could not hold much longer. Faced with criticism from inside and outside Court, and their own increasingly uneasy consciences, the sisters would struggle with the consequences of what they had done.

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  • 07/30/15--16:01: July competition
  • Our competitions our open to UK Followers only - sorry!

    To win one of five copies of Joanne Limburg's A Want of Kindness, post an answer to the question below in the Comments section and send a copy of your answer to readers@maryhoffman.co.uk so that you can be contacted if you win.

    "Which monarch  do you think has been unfairly neglected in literature until now?"

    Good luck!

    Closing date 7th August

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    You remember that our May guest was Lucy Coats? She talked about the masses of research she had done for her latest YA novel, Cleo (published by Orchard). Well, last month the book was thoroughly launched at the Thames-side apartment of a friend, which is rapidly becoming the go-to venue for all History Girls and their guests.

    The first rule of any launch party: get a book cake made!

    On the left, the fabulous cover of Cleo designed by Thy Bui. On the right, the equally fabulous cake made by a friend of Lucy's (this one was hand-painted but there are sites you can find in the Internet which will make you a cake topper based on a photograph).

    The room was dressed with appropriate detail:

    As was the author:
    The inventive canapés were labelled things like "Bastet balls" and "Sobek Surprises" and the prosecco flowed. You can name the most ordinary nibbles acording to your book's theme - they don't have to be as spectacular as these actually were. Even a Twiglet will sound more exciting as a "Devil Stick" if your novel happens to be about the persucution of witches.

    So, what to do if you don't have a friend with a fabulous apartment? Candy Gourlay recently wrote about book launches (and she has attended a couple by the Thames) and makes it clear that you cut your party coat according to your cloth. Those readers of this who aren't writers might be surprised to discover that we have been organising these things ourselves. "Isn't that what publishers' publicity departments do?" I hear you ask.

    The fact is that publisher launches are increasingly rare and if you want a splash, you must part with some cash. Many bookshops, especially the independents will be having to host your party without charging room hire as long as you organise the food, drink and glasses. And your editor will graciously come and say a few words, relieved that you haven't thrown an author wobbly and deminded cocktails at the Ritz.

    And if you've written a historical novel, so much the better, as these lend themselves best of all to a little room-dressing and indeed dressing up.

    Nothing says Ancient Egypt like a few gingerbread pyramids on a tray of soft brown sugar sand! And a quick trawl of the Internet will bring you some essential items, like a pink plastic flamingo:

    And if you are shy and averse to dressing up, you can usually count on some young people to do it for you. What you can't avoid is the "author reading" unless you have an actor friend to do it for you. Your public (i.e. all the happy friends at your party) will expect it.

    And who are these people? You will invite some journalists and reviewers in a spirit of hope for some attention to your book but you will be lucky if one or two show up. Bloggers are usually happy to come so choose some who write about your genre or books for the age group your title is for. But paper the room with your nearest and dearest, family and close friends, who will be genuinely happy for your book and listen with rapt attention to the reading.

    But beware of cultural differences when checking your RSVP list: I recently discovered it's customary to bring a "Plus One" to parties even when that hasn't been specified on the invitation - a complete no-no in the UK.

    If your launch isn't in a bookshop, see if you can get an independent bookseller to come along with copies for sale. It spreads the word and people are very amenable to buying books when mellow with wine and charmed by your set dressing ideas.

    Above all, enjoy yourself! You've written and published a full-length book, something that thousands of people dream of doing and very few achieve. Let your hair down - maybe twist it up into an elegant style or wear a hat or a wig, like the amazing Sarah McIntyre. (try the About or Events pages to see what I mean!)

    My next launch will be of Shakespeare's Ghost and I'm definitely willing to dress up. But I need a beautiful young man and a baldy with a beard to be the bard. Any offers?

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    The anniversary of my father’s death is coming up. I will light a candle in his memory and I will tell bad jokes so that his sense of humour is not forgotten. I will miss him, as I always do. 

    This year is different. Dad died in 1988, but a whole group of his friends died this year, in their early 90s. The last of his generation is fading. 

    My parents

    When I thought about this, I realised that the adults who were around when I was a child represent a world that’s almost alien to us. I’ll talk about other groups of them on other days, for they represent a variety of very different life experiences. People who were in their twenties and thirties when I was a child may have been Holocaust survivors or refugees from civil war. Some of them came from very poor backgrounds, made more parlous by the Depression. Some of them were new migrants to Australia, facing what was then a terrifyingly suburban and Anglo culture.

    My father was part of the suburban and Anglo, but he was Jewish. He came from Melbourne, but grew up in small-town Victoria in the 1920s and 1930s. He grew up in the days of open fireplaces and outdoor toilets. Many houses still had coppers, which were only just now being replaced by electric machines. If washing machines were exotic, even electric beaters were something to be marvelled at. My father’s mother acquired on in the early forties and she apparently treasured very greatly for it made the best sponge cakes ever. 

    I barely remember my father’s mother. I have one possible memory of her (and even that is hazy) for she died when I was two. There are big generations in my family, which is why my father’s memories go back to the twenties and his mother’s equivalent memories are late Victorian. Three of us cover well over a hundred years. Grandma Polack was born in Melbourne and moved out when she was the mother of a young family then moved back again when the marriage disintegrated. This is how my father had a semi-rural childhood.

    Victorian rural house, 1970s

    He had stories from that childhood. Milk, for him, was always better straight from the cow. He dealt with pasteurisation, but homogenisation made him livid (in a gentle, stubborn way) and the amount of cream at the top of the bottles left outside our door in the early morning was never enough. Just once in my life have I encountered milk the way my father described it, and that was at an old-fashioned dairy in the South Australian town of Strathalbyn, in the seventies. Dad poured himself a glass and drank it, then promptly poured himself another. Mum thought he’d make himself sick, because that milk was a third cream. I had a glass alongside him and it was rich and full of flavour. It was missing the odd aftertaste that we’re used t with pasteurised and homogenised milk. This surprised me, for I’d thought the stories of his childhood were simple nostalgia. Milk genuinely was different in Dad’s childhood. Dad’s childhood wasn’t as different to mine as mine is to anyone born since the 1980s, however. We’ve had so many big changes that the flavour of life is different, just as the flavour of that milk was different.

    Dad was born before penicillin was discovered, and before cortisone. He was born when planes were new-fangled and telephones had manual switchboard operators who (in country towns) knew everything about everybody. There was no television: people listened to the radio in the evening. 

    My father, in his fifties, learned to program computers using punchcards, which we then made into Christmas door ornaments and gave to our non-Jewish friends. Dad fell in love with the thought of transferring his card system onto computers, but computing didn’t advance quickly enough and he died before it was possible. He didn’t die before the Sinclair ZX80, however, and it was on that computer that I learned basic programming. It wasn’t an office machine, but it was a lot easier to program than the punchcards.

    His childhood, however, didn’t only predate desktop computing: it predated ballpoint pens. Dad was taught to write using a nib. There were no ink cartridges. The nib was not attached to a fountain pen, my mother reminds me (she says that fountain pens were luxury and that Jewish boys turning thirteen would joke on their Bar Mitzvahs “Today I am a fountain pen.”), it was just a metal nib on a wooden handle, and the inkwell was a small open pot, sunk into each desk. There was an inkwell monitor in each class, who had to make sure that there was ink in each desk. I suspect it was Dad who taught me that the seeds of the stink wattle made a very good addition to those inkwells. I was the last generation to use pens with nibs in primary school, you see. I remember when we switched over to cartridges and was very glad that, in early primary school, I’d followed my father’s thought and crushed a few stink wattle seeds and put them in a couple of inkwells. Time passes and opportunities can be lost forever…

    My mother (who is – thankfully- still alive) is ten years younger than Dad and she noticed the differences between her world and Dad’s. Dad’s teen years were the Depression and he moved into adulthood during World War II. His parents lost a whole generation of friends during World War I, but my parents’ friends lost all their European relatives in World War II (my family had only a few European relatives by this time, since we’re of an older generation of Australians, but many other fountain pen boys lost most of their family). The two wars were very different experiences for Australians living through them. They marked their generations profoundly.

    The Depression left its mark on Dad in a very particular way, and I seem to have inherited that mark. When things go wrong around me, I stock up on tinned food, bottled food, dried food and toilet paper, just like my father did. Even if I don’t have the money for a bus fare, my inner child says, I will have food. When I was a child we used to buy boxes of everything from beans to tissues, and we had extra storage space, just in case the world came to an end (or the grocer ran out, or the money ran out) and we needed all that food. 

    We didn’t. It was the Sixties. It was the third decade of continuing prosperity in Australia. There was a generation (the Baby Boomers) that had never known that kind of need. But my father wasn’t a part of that generation. He lived through the many decades of prosperity knowing that it would come to an end (which it finally did) and he kept the habit of hoarding.

    I was born in the year between the Baby Boom and the next generation, and so I needed my father’s caution. My habit of filling my cupboard when I have money has got me safely through some very lean times. This is how the habit of a generation becomes a family trait. For years this filling of the cupboards seemed a daft thing to do and right now, it’s wise again.

    Mum’s mark on me was the habit of going to markets once a week and getting seasonal produce. Two very different food habits based on two very different childhoods, just ten years apart. The two habits came together every summer. We’d go to the orchards on the outskirts of Melbourne and spend a day picking cherries and berries and apricots and peaches and nectarines. Then we’d spend the rest of the weekend preserving them. Rows and rows of delicious conserves for winter, was Mum’s thought. More food to protect against the incoming scarcity was Dad’s. 

    I recently gave the Fowlers’ kit to a friend: I found I’d reached my limits when it came to making food I’ll not eat. It turns out that bottles of fruit and jars of jam are not part of my personal safety net. And this is how we change our culture over time: I don’t have a sweet enough tooth to warrant three days’ labour in an impossibly hot kitchen during the Australian summer. Not all family customs survive the terror of time.

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    The Harrogate History Festival is coming up in October and I’m going along to see if I can grab a selfie with Neil Oliver and Melvyn Bragg. Ideally both at once. 

    I’m also chairing an event about historical crime fiction ‘Cloaks, Daggers and Masked Maurauders’ with Robert Goddard, Michael Jecks, Shona MacLean and Andrew Taylor. I do hope that some of you can some along to the festival. There are some fantastic people appearing and you can guarantee the bar will be full of friendly writers between talks. 

    So my panel is made up of superb writers who are all critical and commercial success stories - a testament to the success of the (sub)genre. And if you needed any more convincing that historical crime is still drawing the crowds, no less than half of the shortlisted authors for the HWA Debut Crown are writing crime. Antonia Hodgson, MJ Carter and Ben Furgusson in fact. So why is it in such rude health?

    The genre makes sense to me as a reader and as a writer. Crime fiction has the virtue of some clear genre rules, a contract with the reader. There will be a crime. You will find out the who, where, what, how and why of that crime before the book is finished, and you will be able to follow the investigation of that crime. The Detection Club have a fuller and funnier set of rules you can read here - but you get that idea.

    Crime, especially murder stories, means high stakes, a strong, clear narrative drive and characters under pressure. That always sounds like a good read to me. And why does it works so well in a historical context? Well, it it seems to me the great virtue of the crime novel is that a detective is given (or claims) the right to ask questions and ask them of unusual people in unusual places. That detective is then the avatar for writer and reader, looking at how things work with an outsider’s eye and that perspective can be a great help when writing historical fiction. 

    Outsiders see what insiders do not - I’m sure that’s was why when I was writing The Paris Winter I found the memoirs of foreigners living in the city much more useful than those of the French. Detective fiction is a licence to uncover, to snoop, to examine and to speculate and I think historical fiction is driven by a similar sense of curiosity - a fascination with the small details that imply larger stories. 

    But perhaps something entirely different will come across in the discussion in Harrogate. I’ll be asking the writers about how they mix fact and fiction in their work, what draws them to certain subjects, individuals and periods, why they are attracted to crime fiction, and the difference between characters in a standalone novel and those that carry a series, but I’d love to know what readers of the History Girls would like to ask them.   So what do you think? Questions for the individual writer or the whole group, please and I shall take them with me. 

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    Even in the days of Kindle, Abebooks, Amazon and all the online book retailers there are some out of print books so rare that you have to be patient to find a copy, let alone one within budget. I had lusted after a copy of 'The Artists'& Writers' Cookbook' for years, but all the ones I'd come across were hundreds of dollars. Finally the stars aligned a couple of months ago - the (*coughs*) excuse necessity of research and a bookshop that was closing down in California brought a near pristine copy of the 1961 publication to me. I don't know about you, but I rather like the inscriptions in second hand books - it makes you feel like the caretaker rather than the owner of special books like this - Sybil Boucher had given this one to the previous owner in 1980.

    It was worth the wait, a handsomely bound book on heavy stock, and it had me seduced from the dedication:

    Couldn't agree more. The book was edited by Beryl Barr and Barbara Turner Sachs, and designed by Nicolas Sidjakov. The illustrations are idiosyncratic and rather wonderful, but have nothing on the recipes. Among the contributions from Alice B Toklas, Elizabeth Frink and Terry Frost ('Leeks a la Cornwall'), there is Man Ray's recipe for a Dadaist day ("Diner: gather wooden darning eggs ... pierce lengthwise. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane"). One of the most extraordinary is Pliny's recipe for recreating blood in paint:

    One recipe I will be trying out is Marcel Duchamp's Steak Tartare, if only because he says 'it can be prepared on horseback at a swift gallop, if the conditions make this a necessity'. The idea of Cossacks lovingly preparing a 'bird's nest' of the finest chopped beef, in which 'two egg yolks recline' then arranging a 'wreath' of the following ingredients while in full flight is quite wonderful:

    Serve with Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter and tall bottles of vin rose - enjoy.

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    This is my grandfather, James Baker, or Jim as he was known to his wife and his friends. He was a marine engineer who began his working life in dockyards (as a young apprentice at the close of the nineteenth century he worked on the Royal Yacht, the Victoria and Albert, but more of that in a future blog). Later on, he taught at the Merchant Venturers' College in Bristol, which developed into the renowned Bristol University Faculty of Engineering.
    He was a Methodist Circuit Steward and lay preacher, and also taught in adult education, yet amazingly still had time for gardening, as this photograph shows. He had a large garden (but now, sadly, houses have been built in most of it) at the back of his house in Sea Mills lane, Stoke Bishop, where the Trym flows past the ancient Roman harbour and into the muddy Avon up which in those days the great ships sailed all day long on their way to the docks in the middle of the city. The ships were a constant excitement to his children, and I'm sure he chose to live there because he also loved to see them.
    Grandad grew over a hundred different fruit trees in his garden, which must have kept my grandmother busy jamming and bottling for the winter, and also, as my father recorded in a little memoir he left behind him, Grandad grew wineberries, which, my father said, he had never tasted before or since, and had an incomparable flavour.
    japanese wineberry in bud
    I re-read this memoir about four years ago, and was fascinated, because a few years earlier I had planted wineberries in my own garden.
    It's a beautiful plant, with bright red bristly stems in the winter (if you plant them where they catch the sunset glow they are spectacular then), pretty leaves and deep pink buds (when the flowers have been pollinated, they shut up again, and the berries develop inside a sticky calyx, to open later and show the new pale red berries). The ripe berries are ruby-coloured, also sticky, and, as my father wrote, have an amazing, unique refreshing  flavour.You can just see the berry, still green, peeking out of its protective calyx, on the photograph above.
    photo: Rasbak, via Wikimedia Commons
    The strange thing is, garden writers say that the Japanese wineberry or rubus phoenacolasius (what a wonderful name!) was only introduced to the UK in the 1970s. So where did my grandad's plants come from?

    Next year's fruiting stems in winter
    I wonder if some seaman friend of Jim Baker's had come across these berries - maybe in America, where they have become invasive in the wild. Or even in the Far East, and maybe he brought Grandad a root? They are really very easy to establish, and throw up suckers, so I am often looking out for homes for new plants. So maybe my grandfather was growing them in Bristol at a time when nobody else in the country was. Anyway, at this time of the year, when I'm picking them on a daily basis, and when my grandchildren descend and eagerly help themselves to the small delicious berries, I think about Grandad, and about my father, eating them in his childhood, and I do wish I could tell him about growing them now. I often also wish I could meet my grandfather, whose love of gardening I have inherited.
    The children who ate the berries then; my father on the left
    Does anyone else have a record of these plants in the UK before the 1970s? I'm sure the RHS would be interested to hear about it.

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    We moved house 4 years ago to a red brick cottage on the outskirts of the country with a big garden where my husband could tend his allotment from the back  instead of having to rent one from the Parish (we are self sufficient in fruit and vegetables for most of the year).

    My work study increased in size from a large single bedroom of our former home, to a decent sized double bedroom in our new place. There was a small downstairs study off the kitchen, but we've converted it into a pantry and laundry room.  I prefer being tucked away!

     I've been managing with my research books in several different places including the built in wardrobes in the bedroom which have good shelving, but a couple of weeks ago we bought some book cases to replace the old extra desk and haphazard shelving behind my main desk.

    Happy as a pig in the proverbial, I have been sorting, arranging and cataloguing my reference book collection.  It is rather idiosyncratic in terms of order of books.  It's arranged by subject, beginning with cookery then going on to health, birth, old age, death, men, women, society, work, textiles and clothing etc and finishing up at primary sources.  There is also a top shelf for the big books, which I have yet to sort into order.
    Some time ago I began a reference book blog to catalogue my titles.  When I became busy with my day job, that aspect fell by the wayside and I am gradually catching up.  If anyone wants to see my research library as far as I've written up, then here it is. Elizabeth Chadwick's Reference Books

    If I could only take 10 of my research books to a desert island for a year, which ten would I choose?  I thought I'd post them here:

    Outside of the 10, it goes without saying that I would HAVE to bring my copies of the History of William Marshal in translation volumes 1 and 2. Edited and translated by A J Holden and S. Gregory wih historical notes by David Crouch and published by the Anglo Norman Text Society.  They just have plain red board covers and wouldn't be very exciting to look at, but the content would keep me busy all year with ideas and first hand information about the life of a knight and courtier about his business in the late 12th century.

    Now for the rest.

    Not in any special order.
    If you're only going to have one book about the Norman and Angevin period in England, it has to be this one.  It covers absolutely everything you ever wanted to know. Robert Bartlett is a genius.

    The next one is a fascinating read covering medieval trade. The routes, the products, the money exchanges.  Who would have thought that merchants brought back superior quality olive oil soap from Spain - from Castile to be precise!

    Book 3 is far more than just a cookery book.  It details how ovens were constructed, what fuels were used and how the whole dining system in a medieval castle worked.  So for example, the main meal tended to be eaten earlier in the day because cooking in the dark/dim lighting was something of a hazard.

    Book 4 is a fascinating book exploring what the Medievals thought about taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. Some of their notions were very different to ours, but yes, they did bathe. The book makes it very clear.

    Book 5 explores the often forgotten and obscure folklore of the Medieval period and is one of the most bizarre and fascinating books I have ever read. Who would have thought that shortbread biscuit moulds existed featuring the dildo seller?  And what about the winged phallus lower right of the jacket?

    Number 6 I wouldn't be without on my desert island.  Essential reading for what daily life would have been like in the 12th century based on the observational writings of Alexander Nequam, whose mother was Richard the Lionheart's Wet Nurse.

    Next up, number 7 would be this one - mainly because although I've read it once, I need to read it again. I was fascinated to discover that all monkeys were called Robert in the Middle Ages - a fact I used to write a scene in The Winter Crown. 

    Number 8. I have to have something from Chronicler Gerald of Wales, if only because to paraphrase 'one should always have something sensational to read on the train' Gerald was never afraid of making things up if it improved the story!

    Number 9 is the best ever book on Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It may not look like anything from the cover but trust me it's wonderful. It's like tough stain remover on all the detritus that's been heaped on her down the centuries and that includes a large pile contributed by some modern biographers. 

    Last but not least, and remember this is only 10 favourite books not in order and could be replaced by 10 others completely different, The Survey of Medieval Winchester, which goes into all sorts of social detail about such items as waste disposal in the butchery process, and all the different occupations and what rules and regulations governed them in daily life. It also shows plans for the layout of a house owned by John FitzGilbert Marshal, hero of A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE. This one's huge and on the big book shelf.

    I have more books waiting to be sorted in my built in wardrobe book space, and I keep books for immediate use handy above my writing desk - held secure by a pair of kitsch but in subject keeping bookends!  Would probably have to hide them if we ever moved house again and had to show people round, but I think they're fun!

    Elizabeth Chadwick's award winning novels are all set in the Middle Ages. She has just handed in the third book of her trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine - THE AUTUMN THRONE and isabout to begin work on her next project.

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    300 years ago today Louis XIV to took to his bed for the last time. His legs had been hurting for a while and his doctor thought he had sciatica. In fact it was senile gangrene. Louis' extremities were turning black. The disease is caused by the gradual death of peripheral blood vessels, and it is not a pretty sight.
    If you want to see pictures of what it looks like you know how to Google for them. Here's a little (rather more tasteful) taster:

    Discolouration and decomposition of the right foot
    Watercolour by Barbara E. Nicholson, 1947.

    Not a good look - but it's nothing like as bad as the real thing, which I have had the misfortune to see in someone who was dying.
    The doctors have longer and less apocalyptic names for senile gangrene these days - among them, is postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome II (not to be confused with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome I, which is something quite different). Its short name is Pott II syndrome, which sounds quite jolly, but suffice it to say that if your legs start to rot, you know the game is up.
    Nevertheless, Louis went out in the style for which he will forever be famous. His servants dressed him up, complete with a high wig, and for a week he held court from his bed, repeatedly saying his last farewells and yet failing to die until the first day of September. He was almost 77 and had reigned for 72 years.
    I don't know about you, but I was never told anything about the deathbed scene when I was at school, nor have I read about it much in accounts of the Sun King's reign since then. 

    Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743), ‘Louis XIV, King of France (1701),
    Musee du Louvre, Paris. Image: Wikimedia commons

    Louis XIV must be one of the best examples of image protection in European history. It's hard to picture him as an invalid literally decaying in his own bed. And what a miracle it seems that his dynasty managed to cling on to power almost to the end of the eighteenth century, despite the fact that, in 1715, Louis had outlived most of his legitimate descendants, and was passing on the throne to a great-grandchild who was only five years old. We have been so conditioned to see the collapse of the French monarchy as inevitable that it's easy to underestimate the achievement of the regency which followed Louis XIV's death, and of king Louis XV himself, who reigned for almost as long as his great-grandfather. 

    The First Homage to Louis XV
    Wikimedia images

    But even more of a triumph is the way popular culture remembers Louis XIV as the Sun King: an autocrat perhaps, but somehow a 'good' one. The conventional portrayal is of a dashing monarch who employed and championed great artists, architects, gardeners, scientists and writers. No doubt one of the reasons he did those things was to forge the very image of himself which has endured. But as well as treasuring the cultural achievements of France during his reign,we should perhaps admire the brand management of those who came after him and made sure that, despite the Revolution of 1789, we still picture Louis XIV as a man with an elegant silk-clad calf, and not as an ageing despot hiding his festering legs under the sheets.


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    Provence. Provence-Alpes-Maritimes is my home, and it has also become my work. I never fail to remind myself how fortunate I am. When I first came here to this southern coast of France I was looking for a ‘house by the sea’. I had circumnavigated the world several times over, both as an actress and traveller, looking for this mythical house I dreamed of. Of course, I found many and some were to die for, frequently outside my price range, requiring too much work for a totally impractical woman or, for one reason or another, they were just not ‘it’, not 'the one'. I could not have said why.
    Until I fell in love with a Frenchman (while filming in Australia!) and together we found an abandoned, way-too-expensive property set back from the Bay of Cannes. The Olive Farm series of books was born.

    The jungle of land and ruined jumble of stones that constituted The Olive Farm (my title for this hillside property) was never to become the chill-out holiday place I had envisaged. The Olive Farm has become my destiny. It is a very unexpected shift that has taken place. I came here as a youngish actress with lots of energy and I find myself now someone who is invited to universities and schools and various other organisations to talk about olive trees, the history of the olive tree, the plight of the honeybee, the dangers of pesticides. How did this come about, I continually ask myself.

    Provence, its nature, its colours, its perfumes has inspired me. Its beauty is a daily revelation to me. And I have humbly stepped to the back of the long line of artists who have been bewitched by this sunlit, fecund sea- and mountain-scape. And it never ends. Every day, there is something new. The Scarce Swallowtail butterfly, for example. A visitor to our grounds since before we came on the scene, this exquisite cream and black pollinator plays a role in my new book, The Forgotten Summer.

    When I begin the writing of a new story, while I am still discovering my story, my subject, I walk the lanes, browse art books, visit galleries, go for walks on the beach. I look for images, inspiration, and frequently from the masters who have known this territory before and better than me.

                                   (coincidentally when I was travelling in Morocco for The Olive Tree, I bought my      husband the same shoes in the same colour as Pablo is wearing here!)

    So, because I am deep, deep in editorial notes on my new book The Forgotten Summer to be published in February 2016, let me please just share a few images with you so that you too can enjoy the source of my inspiration.

    Do you know the works of the Provencal artist Paul Camille Guigou (1834 - 1871)? I found this one La Lavandière at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.  I hope you can see the tiny portion of Roman bridge or aqueduct in the background. Apologies that the jpeg is so small, I couldn't find a larger print.

    Another of Guigou's is this woman walking  a dirt track along the hilly outskirts of Marseille

    Guigou's work has been one of the inspirations for the world of the grape pickers in The Forgotten Summer. The book is not set in the same period - my story is modern and post Algerian War - but the figures, the shapes of the bodies, their gestures and movements were imprinted on my mind while I was writing the harvest scenes. The heat and dust of the landscape. I feel it grinding into my teeth!

    A writer whose work I return to constantly is Jean Giono. I confess that I had never heard of him when I first came to live here. I saw streets named after him and I assumed he was a politician and then I came upon The Man Who Planted Trees. If you have never read his work, please do. The tales appear simple and yet they are steeped in nature, magic and wisdom. Henry Miller said of him: 'In Giono's work what every sensitive, full-blooded individual ought to be able to recognise at once is "the song of the world"'. And that says it all really. That is the gift Provence has given me: the song of the world. 
    I wake every morning to its cadences, its colours, its rhythms, its magnificence, and I know that I am alive and profoundly fortunate. I hope that The Forgotten Summer will bring a tiny sliver of all this to the page, but it won't if I don't get back to the editorial notes!

    One last image to set us up for the day. Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954) was fascinated by the endless blue of the Mediterranean sea. Here is his view from a window onto the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice. 

                                                                    The Bay of Nice 1918

    It makes me want to jump in the car, drive twenty minutes along the coast and find that balcony or, even better, stop my work and go for a swim in that warm, sunlit sea.

    Oh, just two more from Matisse …

                                                              Interior with a Violin (1917-1918)
    painted at the Beau Rivage Hotel, Nice. I can feel the harsh beat of light beyond the shutters.


                                                             Painter in the Olive Grove 1922

    Back to my own olive groves and my own more humble contributions these eulogies to Provence

    Carol Drinkwater

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    Refugees in small boats are much in the news, with governments determined to stop them coming, send them back, or keep them incarcerated in camps. In the summer of 1940, there were refugees in small boats in the English Channel. This is the story of one such refugee family.

    Amsterdam, early 20th Century
    The Kleins were a hard-working, bourgeois, Jewish family with a comfortable home in Amsterdam. When on 10 May, 1940, the German army invaded Holland, Simon and Maria Klein knew they had to leave everything behind.

    Simon had already been a refugee twice. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in about 1900, his parents sent him to Leipzig to escape conscription, and a few years later his relations told him to go to Holland. ‘The land of the free,’ they said. He found work in a firm of tailors’ accessories and married the owner’s niece, Maria. As the representative of “Double-weave underwear” Simon took Maria to Germany but after a few years they returned to The Netherlands with their two small children. ‘In Amsterdam nobody took any notice what religion you were,’ remembered their daughter Josephine. ‘Whether you were Jewish or gentile didn’t make any difference.’

    In the late 1930s cousins from Germany stayed with the Kleins en route for America, travelling on through Belgium and France. But by May 1940, that route was blocked.
    German soldiers in Amsterdam, May 1940. 

    Josephine, 13, and her brother Eli, 15, were asleep on the night of 14 May 1940, when their mother told them to dress quickly and grab their gas masks. With their uncle Ralph, the Klein family took a taxi twenty miles west to the fishing town of Ijmuiden.In the dark harbour, crowds of people were trying to get away from the advancing German army. Mr Klein had struck a deal with a man who owned a small rowing boat, and then given extra money for water and food. The Kleins climbed on board, as more people swarmed down the steps and jumped in.

    It was soon full but even so, there were more desperate people. ‘Take me…’ ‘For mercy’s sake, take my son!’ ‘Let my wife come with you!’

    German invasion 1940, from The Second
    World  War,
    W. Churchill, 1948.
    As Mr Klein pushed off, tears were streaming down his face.The boat was about 15 foot long, and there was only just room to sit down. None of the dozen people on board were sailors, so Eli and another boy, both Boy Scouts, took the oars. As they rowed into the dark water they could see the flashes of guns behind the town of Ijmuiden. Mr Klein’s plan was to row out to sea, where they would be picked up by a passing ship.

    Day came, and night again, and another day, with a rising wind at night and waves that crashed against the boat. They had been tricked and they had only one orange between them and a small tank of water, which they drank from a thimble. There were no passing ships.

    On the third morning Josephine noticed the water rising in the boat, and quickly used her gas-mask box to bail out the sea water. The next day they sighted land. They believed they had rowed the hundred miles to the east coast of England. But they had simply drifted down the coast of Holland, towards another invaded port, possibly The Hague. Starving and parched with thirst, the Kleins and their passengers turned out towards the open sea again, and kept bailing.

    Dunkirk in 1940
     As a Girl Guide, Josephine had learned to read the stars and she worked out North .But no-one had the energy to row, as they drifted in the English Channel. She tried to get the others to sing Guide songs but everyone was too thirsty. The days were hot for May, and the nights were pitch-dark. Twice they saw aeroplanes. One open plane dipped towards them and the pilot pointed with his arm towards England. They couldn’t lie down and sea water sloshed in the bottom of the boat. An  elderly couple sat up straight as if on a bus, and never spoke a word.

    More than week after they left Holland, a British destroyer sighted the tiny boat. By then they were semi-conscious, and their feet were swollen from the sea water.  The British sailors carried them on boardand they were taken to a hospital in Maidstone. The hospitals in Kent were all on stand-by for the imminent evacuation from Dunkirk: fully staffed but still empty.

    The Kleins were soon recovering from ‘trench foot’ and when the evacuation  from Dunkirk began, they were sent to a refugee hostel in Chelsea filled with Belgian fishing families and run by English lady aristocrats.

    Other refugees from The Netherlands in London, May 1940. Princess Juliana of the Netherlands pushing her daughter Princess Irene, with her heir Princess Beatrix beside her. Her friend Elizabeth Van Swinderen points out London barrage balloons.

    The Kleins wanted to go to America, but they couldn’t get passports, so they settled in Chester. They were welcomed by neighbours with fresh vegetables, school uniforms and support. Josephine made friends through the local Girl Guides and then the Sea Rangers. European Girl Guides arriving in Britain were called not ‘Refugee Guides’, but ‘Golondrinas’, or ‘Swallows’.

    Josephine Klein wrote Our Need for Others 

    and Its Roots in Infancy, 1987,  and 

    Doubts & Certainties in  the Practice 
    of Psychotherapy, 1995. . 
    After she left school, Josephine read French and Sociology at the University of London, became a social worker and then a psychotherapist and co-founder of the Refugee Therapy Centre in London. Eli joined the British army, and then went into business, married happily and had three children.

    When refugees arrived in Britain in small boats 75 years ago, they were welcomed. Nobody described the men who sold the boats as ‘people traffickers’, nor the refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’. They too were escaping war and persecution, just as people from Syria and Mali are today. The 20thCentury refugees contributed to Britain, and helped make it the country it now is.

    www.janiehampton.co.uk   @janieoxford

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    Seventy years ago this month, on Monday 6 August 1945, the nuclear bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, immediately killing an estimated 80,000 people. Three days later a second bomb, the equally appallingly nick-named ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki, killing between 60-70,000 people. On 15 August Japan surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War.

    It has been argued that President Truman’s decision to drop the A-bombs on these two Japanese cities saved more lives than were lost by ending the war so much earlier than any alternative course of action. As usual the truth is more complex. Truman’s primary objectives were certainly American lives and the earliest possible end to the war, but other pertinent considerations included impressing the Soviets as the Cold War approached, the lasting need to respond to Pearl Harbour, and the pressure to justify the development costs of the atomic project. In this war, sides of very different motivations and experiences all committed atrocities and suffered from traumatising war crimes. I don't seek to suggest equivalence. Nevertheless, it is still difficult understand the detonation of two separate Atomic bombs on the same country within a few days.

    Cherry blossom in Hiroshima, April 2015

    I visited Japan for the first time this Easter. It was cherry blossom season and the flowers were spectacular, frothing white and pink against bright blue skies. I was traveling around by bullet train and bicycle, visiting shrines and temples, stroking deer, feeding carp, and watching robots hop and skip in Tokyo. I also spent a day in Hiroshima, a vibrant city rebuilt after its almost total destruction in 1945. Modern Hiroshima has its fair share of cherry trees, but the official flower of the city is the Oleander, as this was the first plant to bloom again after 1945.

    I was shown around the city by a local guide called Keiko. We started at the Peace Park that had opened in 1955. Here Keiko pointed out the new ground level, resulting from the vast amount of imported earth brought in to cover contaminated land. We visited the Genbaku Dome, the skeletal remains of the most central building left standing by the bomb which has been preserved as a memorial, as well as the eternal flame, and the peace pagoda erected in 1966.

    Hiroshima Peace Pond in front of the Peace Flame
    and Cenotaph in the Memorial Park

    Keiko had married into a family from Hiroshima. Her husband’s mother was a young woman living less than two kilometers from the epicentre of the detonation in 1945. Of their large family only she, and a few others who were also away from home that August morning, survived. Keiko's husband was not born until a few years later but Keiko told me that, although rarely talking about it, he still carries the weight of these devastating events on his shoulders. 'As do all the city’s post-war generations', she added.

    While other cities like Tokyo and Osaka had been severely bombed during the war, Hiroshima, where several Japanese armies were based, had not been targeted. Anticipating an eventual attack, that August the city authorities had mobilised school-children aged between eleven and fourteen to demolish certain houses to create fire-breaks, with the aim of limiting potential damage from firestorms. Many were helping with this work on the morning that the A-bomb fell, putting them close to the centre of the impact. Amongst other relics, such as melted road girders and roof tiles, the absolutely heart-wrenching Hiroshima Peace Museum displays possessions from some of these children including unopened lunch-boxes, scorched school books and several school blouses that had been beautifully hand-stitched by girls in classes just weeks earlier. In case these seem romantic, there are also some appalling human relics, kept by traumatised relatives who had nothing else. Thousands of other people left no evidence of their lives, abilities or personalities at all.

    The museum also holds a display of many of the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was just two years old when she was exposed to radiation from the A-bomb further out in the suburbs of Hiroshima. Having developed leukaemia some years later, Sasaki began folding paper cranes in the hope that when she had made a thousand she might be granted a wish, as in Japanese legend. Too weak to continue, Sasaki died in 1955.

    Origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima Peace Museum

    Sadako Sasaki statue, holding a crane aloft

    Such devastatingly personal effects and relics are deeply telling, but nothing can convey the enormity of the loss. Six thousand Hiroshima school-children were killed when the atomic bomb was dropped. Many more died later from their injuries. By the end of the year the death toll is estimated to have been between 90,000-166,000, possibly more than half of the city’s entire population. Cancer and other resulting conditions claimed many more lives, such as that of twelve year old Sasaki. Around 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings were also destroyed. Nagasaki suffered a similar level of destruction.

    Hiroshima was proclaimed a City of Peace by the Japanese parliament in 1949. It has since hosted a series of conferences on peace, developed a dedicated Peace Institute within its university, and established the international ‘Mayors for Peace’ organization, calling for the abolition and elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2020. This may be an unrealistic goal but it serves as a guide to steer disarmament. When one thinks of mothers, their skin hanging off, running towards the suburbs of Hiroshima clutching their dead children to their chests, it seems impossible to conceive of ever using such a weapon again.

    The American decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki resonates in other ways today as well. From a historian's perspective, earlier this year the USA took the decision to digitise the records generated by their Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, to make them readily available to researchers internationally. The ABCC was the US body established in 1947 to carry out a medical assessment of the effect of radiation on survivors from the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documents show that many of the US commission’s doctors were deeply affected by what they witnessed, although, as The Japan Times noted while I was visiting Hiroshima, many of the A-bomb survivors later criticised the commission for treating them like research guinea-pigs. Pity, without empathy or respect, is of little value. Preserved images in this collection include many taken to show the ‘atomic bomb radiation effects on the human body’, with some of the survivors photographed holding nameplates. Clearly issues around confidentiality and sensitivity must be paramount, and the full history behind the commission, as well as its findings, needs to be addressed.

    Keiko nevertheless believes that the stories that stem from Hiroshima need to reach the widest possible audience. She told me that she feels deeply moved when showing visitors around her city and she hopes that, in this way, she can play a small part in helping to spread Hiroshima’s messages both of peace, and of the ‘evil of Atomic weapons’, around the world. I thought of Keiko as Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell silent for the seventieth anniversary this August, each city remembering the moment when tens of thousands of their citizens were killed. After doves were released and Buddhist bells tolled, vows were taken to redouble civic efforts to halt nuclear proliferation in a world where incidents, accidents, and the threat of nuclear terrorism is ever growing. Since then, countries including Japan and the USA, Britain, India, Australia, China and Russia have negotiated a controversial new deal to limit Iran's nuclear programme, while providing relief from previous sanctions and permitting the country to continue its atomic programme 'for peaceful purposes'.

    As I left Hiroshima, Keiko gave me a white origami orizuru, or paper crane, which she had folded as we walked around the peace park. There are many important war anniversaries this year, but among them we must remember the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the message of peace with which Hiroshima has heroically chosen to reply to the world. Pity alone is not enough.

    Copyright: Clare Mulley

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    Sheena Wilkinson
    Welcome to our August guest. Since the publication of the award-winning Taking Flight in 2010, Sheena Wilkinson has been established as one of Ireland’s leading writers for young people. Until now, her novels have all been contemporary, but she has had many short stories published set in the early twentieth century, the most recent being ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in Walker’s The Great War Anthology (2014). Name Upon Name (Little Island) is her first historical novel, set in Belfast 1916

    Over to you, Sheena!

    I used to be a teacher. Like Mr Chips, I’ve taught thousands of teenagers. Most of them, to be honest, I lost interest in once they left school. But there is one set of former pupils I can’t forget, even though I never actually taught them.

    There are about one hundred of them. I know all their names, and as much else about them as I’ve been able to find out – the scholarships they won; the teams they played in; the names of the Belfast streets and country parishes they came from. They have names like Cyril and Fred and Percy. They are all boys. They have all been dead for about a hundred years. Most of them are buried, in mainly unmarked graves, in France and Flanders.

    In 2004, I spent months researching this group of boys for an exhibition I put on in the school’s heritage centre. I became obsessed with tracking down the smallest details, in old school magazines, in local history books, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Was Sydney Downey, killed on the 7th June 1917, aged 21, in the 20th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, as the school records say, or in the 14th as stated by the CWGC? Did it matter? Did the family of Percy Millar Tees know that he died on exactly the same day as Wilfred Owen? Did they, like Owen’s family, receive word of his death just as the Armistice was announced?

    The exhibition was lovely, in a poignant kind of way. As was the trip I made that summer to Flanders, visiting as many of the graves as possible. It awakened in me a love of historical research that I’ve never lost. And it left me with a huge amount of information that I never knew quite what to do with but couldn’t bring myself to throw out: not just the details of the hundred boys, but all sorts of information about the school itself during WW1 – the routines; the girls’ fundraising concerts; the making up of parcels to send to Old Boys at the Front. When I left the school, the files and notebooks came with me, and so, in a sense, did the boys and girls of a hundred years ago.

    The short stories I wrote and published between 2006-2013 often had a WW1 theme, but I never drew directly on my school research until, last year, I contributed a story, ‘Each Slow Dusk’, to Walker’s anthology The Great War, when I fictionalised details of the school’s war effort, foregrounding the experience (often overlooked in war literature) of a girl. Sixteen-year-old Edith’s dreams of higher education are shattered when she has to leave school to care for her older brother, invalided out of the army with rheumatism. All the stories in The Great War are inspired by artifacts from the war – I used the school magazines I own, a run of five years, from 1914 to 1919.

    I’ve always wanted to write a historical novel. But when I was asked, by my regular publishers, Little Island in Dublin, to write a book set around the 1916 Easter Rising for the forthcoming centenary, I was initially reluctant. Irish history is such a minefield, and I’m always aware, as a northerner of mixed heritage, of standing rather on the outside of things. And yes, 1916 was my period but the war was my Thing, not the Rising. I couldn’t write about 1916 Dublin with anything like the confidence – or, to be honest, the interest – that I had about Belfast.

    The truth is, I was scared of the Rising. Scared of being told that it wasn’t for the likes of me. Scared of having nothing new to say. Of being accused of cashing in on the centenary.

    But then I remembered a paragraph from one of those school magazines: "The Easter holidays were times of great uneasiness and anxiety, on account of the Sinn Fein rebellion. When the first news of it came, most of us were horrified, and disinclined to believe the wild rumours… The boarders living in Dublin and further south west were unable to return at the appointed time…"

     Later in the magazine: "We are indebted to one of our Old Boys who is now in Trinity College, Dublin, for an account of his adventures during the rebellion." And I realised that I could write an Easter Rising story set in Belfast, and show how events in Dublin had an effect on people who weren’t necessarily politically inclined. In fact, the very fact that had always made me reluctant to engage in Irish politics was what could make the story interesting, for my heroine, Helen, is like me from a mixed Catholic/Protestant background, with a conflicted and insecure sense of identity, and relatives on either side of the political and cultural divide.

    And as soon as I started writing – beginning with a scene in which Helen enrages her staunch Presbyterian aunt with a suggestion that she say a wee prayer to St Anthony, an actual memory from my own 1970s childhood, I was on very firm ground indeed. Helen has schoolmates and cousins caught up in the war, and another cousin caught up in the Rising, just as I grew up with relatives with fiercely opposing views. And in the Northern Ireland of the Troubles years those views mattered just as much as they did in 1916. My relatives, like Helen’s, certainly didn’t know each other.

    If History tends to be written by the winners, what of the people who don’t really have a side? People like Helen, people like me? Writing Name Upon Name made me realise the extent to which I had allowed myself to be marginalised by the history of my own country. And so, although in some ways Name Upon Name is my most distant book, set ninety-nine years ago, in other ways it is my most autobiographical.

    History can be funny that way.

    Magazine photos are by Alison Moore


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    copyright: FIDM Museum, Los Angeles
     Any guesses what this is? If I didn't know better I'd have said it was something used in the construction of bagpipes. Let me help you get to the bottom of this. It is an item of apparel: a  health bustle (so-called) that dates from the mid 1880s.

    Bustles had two periods of fashion favour. The first, in the early 1870s, created a substantial, rounded derriere, sometimes referred to as a Grecian bend. But by 1875 bustles were so last year and given the considerable discomfort of wearing them you'd have thought they'd have remained that way. Then along came Lily Langtry.

    Lily, you will recall, was a sweetheart of the Prince of Wales and also an actress, always with an eye on her appearance and her bank balance. She was paid to endorse Pears soap.

    The revived bustle, angular, jutting almost horizontally, which Miss Langtry helped to make fashionable, emphasised the slenderness of an already tightly-corseted waist. Here she is, the saucy minx.

    One of the problems with early bustles had been sitting down. You couldn't. The best you could hope for was to perch gingerly or lean. Add to that the fact that you could barely breathe in your stays and were steaming like a turkish bath under all those petticoats, being a Victorian fashion plate can't have been much fun. But Lily had an idea how to make the bustle a little more user friendly. And here it is: the Langtry collapsible bustle cage.

       I've never had occasion to wear a bustle but I have been known to dress up as a historical protagonist in order to present a book so who knows, it may yet happen. I imagine anyway that some of you are eager to learn the art of sitting in a collapsible bustle so let me point you in the direction of this video. Any day now you may get invited to a steampunk costume party.  No harm in being prepared.

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