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    This week I’ve been lucky enough to meet Vicky Bennison, who happens to be a neighbour of mine in London. Being myself an author of extremely greedy historical novels set in Italy, it was a great pleasure, mixed with just a little mouth-watering jealousy, to interview a writer who has spent the last five years researching culinary and social history in the bel paese.

    Except it is much more fun than that. Vicky’s project is called ‘Pasta Grannies’. And you can see the results in over 100 videos online.

    For this month’s post, I have talked to Vicky about her fascinating archive and how it came about.

    What is your mission with Pasta Grannies?

    Pasta Grannies is on a mission to document traditional handmade pastas still being prepared from scratch in the home. I’m interested in women – housewives not chefs – over 65 years old.

    I’m a food writer, but I’ve been filming these sessions, as it’s such a visual technique and I think it’s a good way of paying homage to these wonderful, characterful women and the flavours they create. Of course, I am also simultaneously documenting the recipes to turn into a book.

    The book is organised regionally, which effectively means according to the ingredients available. In the past, you had no choice about what you ate. You were grateful for what came out of the ground within walking distance or a cart jolt from your home.

     Styles of pasta are also regional. Northern pastas usually include egg. Southern pastas have less variety in their shapes, but the sauces tend to be more interesting. The mother-lode of pastas is the Po Valley, home to fascinating ravioli of all shapes and sizes.

    The book has inevitably become a kind of social history as well, as each Granny tells tales of her life – not just of her work in the kitchen.

    In a way, the book is a kind of reaction against the cult of celebrity chefs who tend to graft themselves onto a particular cuisine, often not the one they were born to. They rely on a huge team of people behind them. My Pasta Grannies are doing it all for themselves, including raising their own chickens, growing their own tomatoes, foraging for herbs.

    Celebrity chefs are often men or beautiful women. These filters of celebrity rule out the very people, like my Pasta Grannies, who occupy the heart of the family kitchen. (Of course, I have a few glamorous Grannies too). Cooking for the Pasta Grannies is about love, not business. I think that’s why so many of them have been proud to take part in this project, and perhaps also why, in front of the camera, they are quite unselfconscious. The food is the thing. Communicating the story of the food is the thing. It is not about them.

    And yet, of course, it is.

    Do you eat what you film?

    Vicky with Giuseppina
    who makes zuppa gallurese
    Yes, you bet. Pasta, three or four times a day, sometimes. When you’ve watched it being made, your appetite is sharpened by the aromas and the camaraderie that you’re offered. It is extraordinary how the Grannies welcome us into their kitchens. Part of sharing their recipes includes having us taste the finished product. So yes, of course we eat!

    What kind of professional/personal background led you to this project?

     I spent many years working in international development in places like Siberia, South Africa, and Turkmenistan. The next decent meal was always on my mind and I began writing about my culinary adventures: like mushroom hunting with the Russian mafia and cooking zebra stew in near Lake Turkana in Kenya.

     I progressed into writing books. 'The Taste of a Place' food guides tell you where to find good cooking and wine in Corfu, Mallorca and Andalucia. They were recommended by the Observer, The Times, and Delia Smith Online, amongst others. I also co-wrote Seasonal Spanish Food with London-based Spanish chef Jose Pizarro.
     My husband, Billy, and I have a home in Le Marche, central Italy, and I divide my time between there and London. I had bought an old school-house in Italy because I wanted a big kitchen and couldn’t afford London house prices. Fortunately, Billy loves it too.

    How did you come up with the idea of Pasta Grannies? Was it one particular Granny and one lightbulb moment?
    Everyone loves a Granny. Especially an Italian Granny. And everyone loves pasta. But pasta-making skills are dying out domestically. This was something I noticed when I was researching for another book – that there are all these amazing older women getting up at 5am to make pasta but their grandchildren are being brought up on industrially produced pre-packaged pasta, which is often extremely smooth. It quickly turns soggy and its nutrient value is reduced. Proper dried pasta has a rough texture like a cat’s tongue. It gives the jaws and gut something to work on.

    The Italian family is changing. Divorce is now a commonplace in Italy. The birth-rate is declining. Women are going out to work. They buy their pasta in the supermarket. They get their sauces in jars. In twenty years’ time, a new generation of Grannies won’t even know how to cook pasta from scratch. We are on the cusp of losing something precious. So I decided to do something about it.

    The first Granny I encountered was when I asked a local supermarket manager to bring his grandmother, Maria, along for a session of pasta-making and documentation. Maria is in her 80s; she was a seamstress and cleaner. But in her retirement, she makes pasta for a local restaurant.
    The very first Pasta Granny - Nonna Maria with her ravioli stuffed with ricotta
    Our filming session was the first time her grandson had ever cooked with her. He loved it. He even got his hands dirty, helping with the sauce. A man who had always been too busy to take an interest, he suddenly stopped taking pasta for granted. He saw how special it was. It was an extraordinary day. There was such an emotional connection between family members and the food.
    I was inspired.

    How do you track down your Grannies?
    I work with Livia de Giovanni, my Granny-Finder in Italy, who persuades friends and friends of friends to introduce us to their elderly female relatives. Connections are what matter in Italy. So naturally I found Livia herself through friends of friends.

    We record the pasta making in live-time in one session, and I prepare a voice-over afterwards with the help of an editor. This is necessary so that the recipes can be followed by someone at home. Grannies tend not to work in scientific recipe-book quantities. When you ask, ‘How much flour?’, they usually say, ‘Quanto basta’ – as much as you need.

     Naturally, we retain a lot of Granny chat and their stories. The Grannies often talk about their own childhoods, and in many cases about the food privations they endured.

     Can you describe a few Pasta Grannies?

    Vanda is 88 years old and continues to work in her family’s restaurant. This was the family home and it gradually evolved, becoming a village shop where you could mend your bikes, have a haircut and buy a snack – each of these services being provided by a different member of the family. I like that there are three generations of women working in the kitchen – her daughter, Maria Grazia and granddaughter Elettra. Vanda’s recipe is for Tagliolini with a local shrimp.

    While we were filming her gnocchi-making, gentle Selvina suddenly started talking about her experiences of being a ‘mondina’, a female rice paddy worker. She found it hugely traumatic, working in bare feet with the rats and snakes in the mud, having to go outside the dormitory to go to the loo. The pay was terrible too, and was always partly in rice. This experience contrasted with an interview I’d done a couple of years previously with a rice producer who recalled his father thinking the influx of thousands of women to their tiny village as a kind of heaven. Automation and pesticides has consigned the role of the ‘mondina’ to the past – but a 1949 film called Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) by director Giuseppe de Santis dramatises it well.
    Nonna Selvina and her family
    Nonne Maria and Peppina with Su Succu
    One time I teamed up with a whole group of women who were willing to share their pasta skills. It became a kind of ‘food as theatre’ afternoon. We met Maria and Peppina in a little town called Busachi. Here around 80 women continue to wear traditional costume made in exactly the same way as the clothes displayed in the town’s museum. Busachi’s speciality dish is called ‘Su Succu’– a pasta cooked in a saffron flavoured mutton stock. And the women put on a show for us.

    Concetta is 93 years old, a widow, and still making pasta, although we filmed her making a typical flatbread from Modena called crescente. She doesn’t go shopping. Instead, she operates a kind of barter system where she makes pasta and mends clothes. In return, neighbours supply company and cooking ingredients. Her home was once the local post office and an osteria– the phone that was once the only one in the village is still on her dining room wall. Her husband, with whom she ran the osteria, was in the Resistance during WW2 and their home is just below the site of the old German line. Montese, the area, was eventually liberated by the Brazilians. It’s a fascinating part of Italy where what happened during the war still looms large.

    It’s not just Grannies. You have some Pasta Grandpas too, don’t you?

    Yes. Traditionally, men have not been the cooks in the Italian family. But I have met a number of widowed men who have taken over in the kitchen. And they are included in this project. For example, there is Roberto Ferretti who makes ‘Tajuli Pelusi’, Hairy Tagliatelle with foraged wild herbs.

    Occasionally, we have also filmed Future Grannies, young women – who have been taught their skills by their grandmother, and who have developed a fierce enthusiasm of their own. If nothing else, I hope that Pasta Grannies fosters more of this handing down of kitchen secrets, not just in Italy but in the Italian diaspora. I have filmed Italian Grannies in the UK and other places. I have recently been told of a Pasta Granny in Australia who has a special dish to share.

     What is the place of pasta in the Italian home? Can you give a little of the history of pasta?

    Today even dogs eat pasta for lunch in Italy, but it’s only in the last 70 years or so that pasta has become properly Italian in a national sense. The notion of Italian food was popularised by cookery writers like Ada Boni, but food on the peninsular was and remains very regional. So, traditionally in the north of Italy, polenta (made from maize) and rice are staple carbohydrates. Dried pasta has now joined them at the table, thanks in part to workers from the south coming to work in the northern cities.

    The origins of pasta remain a mystery. A Greek writer called Athenaeus in the second century AD described a first century recipe for ‘lagana’, which involved thin layers of dough made with wheat flour, lettuce juice and spices and then deep fried in oil; so it was a forebear of lasagna. Then it’s another 400 years before an early archbishop, Isidore of Seville, in the early seventh century mentions boiling sheets of dough in water.

    In fact, Sicily is probably birthplace of handmade dried pasta as we know it today. An Arab geographer called Idrisi in the 12th century was impressed by the ‘great quantities made and exported to other Muslim and Christian lands’

    pasta making in the 15th century
    Dried pasta used to be sold loose, by weight, and it was something only the middle classes could afford to eat regularly. You needed the disposable income to buy it.

    To make fresh pasta, housewives needed access wheat flour. But, if you were a farmer, then most of your crop went to your landlord, or else you had to have the money to buy it. Hence the local pasta was often made with other cheaper or more easily found flours like barley in southern Italy. In central Italy, an essential ingredient is eggs to mix with the lower gluten, soft wheat flours found there. But frugal housewives sold their eggs if they could. So pasta for centuries was a high days and holidays food for working class folk – not an everyday staple as it is today.

    The reality is that, for everyday sustenance, the really poor people relied on pulses and foraged greens.

    What is the origin of the popularity of Italian food in Britain?

    Italians have been coming to live in Britain since the Ancient Romans invaded. Ever since then, there have been waves of immigration. Glasgow has an Italian community partly thanks to the Italians from Lucca selling plaster figurines of saints to the local Catholics in the 19th century. The mining boom in Wales attracted large numbers – mostly from a single village called Bardi in Emilia Romagna. The London Brick Company in Bedford even had a recruitment office in Naples to encourage workers over to the UK after the war.

     But most Italians settled in Clerkenwell in London (St Peters is the Italian church) and, apart from producing musical instruments and spectacles, often went into the catering and hospitality – delivering blocks of ice to restaurants is one example I’ve come across. So when Brits started eating out, it was often at Italian-run cafes and restaurants.

    Why do Brits still love pasta? It is quick, easy and the ultimate comfort food. It also plays into a general assumption that Italian really know how to live, and how to eat, and how to enjoy family life. Don’t we all want to be like Italians?

    What are the pastas and the Grannies that remain elusive?
     Bigoli are a kind of thick spaghetti made domestically using a bigolaro– a pasta extruder which looks like a pump. There must be someone in the Veneto region still using one … I’d love to film it.

     Vincisgrassi is a lasagne special to Le Marche. These days cooks do not differentiate between this one and the lasagne al ragù in the style of Emilia Romagna. But a true vincisgrassi is ‘al bianco’– it doesn’t use tomatoes, and the ragù includes chicken livers. This dish used to be served to harvest workers. It’s on my list.

    Lorighittas are a Sardinian pasta in the shape of braided hoops. They’re jolly difficult to make. Sardinians are wonderfully hospitable but wary in the first instance. We haven’t been successful in persuading someone to let us into their kitchen - so far.

    I love the strange names of some pastas, like strozzapreti (priest strangler). You must have collected some amusing ones in your researches? 
    There’s Filindeu– from Sardinia. That’s dialect for ‘the yarns of God’. They are in fact fiendishly difficult to make.

    And Creste di Galli– ruffled semicircular pasta like a chicken’s crest.

    The one that always raises a laugh is Minchiedereddi– which means male sexual organs, on the small side. Beatrice and her daughter Antonella made them for me in Puglia.

     How many recipes have you filmed and compiled?
    I am close to 120 now, and I have been nearly all over Italy. I still have a few places to do, including Calabria and Piedmont. Of course, I have been documenting the recipes as I go along, so the manuscript of my book is keeping pace with the videos.

    Thank you so much, Vicky. And please remember that anyone can be a Granny-Finder! So, if anyone knows any Italian Pasta Grannies they’d be willing to share with Vicky, please do contact her via the website: http://www.pastagrannies.com

    Michelle Lovric's website
    And here's a post she wrote about pasta for another place.

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    Post Office Row, Tyneham c. 1900

    In November 1943, the inhabitants of the small, isolated village of Tyneham in Dorset, were given 28 days to evacuate their homes. As the Second World War headed towards D-Day, the War Office needed to requisition land for troop training and had settled on an area ‘suitable for the army's purpose and which, at the same time, will involve the smallest number of persons and property.’

    Tyneham’s 225 inhabitants were forced to leave before Christmas. A note, pinned to the church door on departure, implored the Army to be mindful of the homes they left behind, concluding: ‘We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.’

    But there would be no return. 

    In the following years, with the Cold War looming, Lulworth firing ranges were declared crucial to national defence and in 1952 the entire valley was compulsorily purchased for £30,000. The temporary evacuation became permanent.

    Evacuation Notice, dated 16th November 1943

    For decades the village was closed to the public, barricaded inside a danger zone behind barbed wire fences, buildings left to decay. The Elizabethan manor house was dismantled. Campaigners fought for the return of the village through the 1960s and 70s, enlisting former residents and their descendants in a crusade that cast Tyneham as ‘the village that died for D-Day’. The issue was even debated in the House of Lords, and a recommendation put forward to release the land, but this was soon overturned. They changed tactics and pressed for the land to be given to the National Trust as a heritage site, but as the original residents passed away and interest waned, campaigners had to settle for increased access to the village and surrounding land. 

    Post Office Row, Tyneham c 1979.

    Today, Tyneham remains the property of the MoD but is open to the public most weekends and public holidays. Volunteers have done a fantastic job of clearing the overgrown ruins and making them safe. The church and school have been restored and now house information and displays, telling the story of the village and the families who lived there.

    Ruins of Post Office Row 2017

    Visiting last weekend, I was struck by the unique atmosphere. The site is without any of the usual facilities that you might expect, for example the cafes and shops of a National Trust estate (though there is a loo – thank goodness!). The church hosts a fascinating, evocative display about life before the evacuation. It’s clear from this that Tyneham was a village in decline long before the war.

    Most villagers worked as farm hands or fishermen, or were employed by the local landed gentry, the Bonds. Many had lived there all their lives; some families had settled there for generations and lived a way of life that was fast disappearing. The school had closed in 1932 for lack of pupils. Only one house had running water. 

    On a warm summer’s day it’s easy to imagine a nostalgic, picturesque fantasy right out of Lark Rise to Candleford, but a long winter must have been cold, dark and gruelling. Tyneham was a village stuck in the past before 1943. I wondered what would have happened had the villagers been granted permission to return. 

    Would the younger men and women, horizons expanded by war service and life outside the valley, have wanted to do so? Would the place have declined anyway, like so many gentry estates after the war? Or would it have slowly transformed into a tourist hot spot, packed with caravan parks and cream teas? Government ownership, with bye laws preventing commercial development, has prevented all that and preserved Tyneham as a unique time capsule, if one with a melancholy history. They call it a ghost village and the past certainly feels close. It’s well worth a visit.

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  • 06/11/17--23:00: Sulpicia's birthday
  • by Antonia Senior 

    It is mid-afternoon on a Saturday and I am in a pub. Alone. With no children. I am hanging around, waiting for child 1 to emerge from a dreadful, dark din of trampolines and neon, where she is at a birthday party. I seize the quiet. 

    I am working on some translations of the poet Sulpicia. Partly for fun - now that I review books for a living, my lifetime devotion to reading for pleasure, relaxation and solace has been tainted. Books are work, now. A minor, personal tragedy. I need something to fill the book-shaped hole.

    That aside, Sulpicia is a real (probably) and fascinating character, and she might find her way into the book I am writing which is set in Augustan Rome. So I have dusted off my latin dictionary, clutched a dog-eared Loeb, and set about translating her. 

    Happiness. Quiet and Loeb.
    Sulpicia is not widely known, and yet hers are the only surviving lyric poems written by a woman in Latin. According to Ellen Greene, editor of Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome, we know the names of about 100 Greek and Roman women writers; but only 50 of those wrote words which survived - mostly in fragment form.

    Remarkably, we have 6 surviving poems by Sulpicia. Less remarkably, male critics have split into two camps on the poems. Camp 1 believes that the poems have no merit. Camp 2 insists that as the poems have merit, they cannot possibly have been written by a woman.

    Sulpicia's poems have passed down to us as part of the Corpus Tibulliarum - a body of work written mainly by Tibullus and other members of the coterie surrounding Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. A one-time co-consul with Octavian, he was also a patron of the arts - and, it seems, Sulpicia's Uncle and guardian. 

    Sulpicia's poems are conventionally structured elegiac couplets about love - specifically the passion she feels for a man called Cerinthus. The fashion at the time was for love poetry addressed to pseudonymous objects of passion, who may or may not exist. 

    Some critics, notably Thomas Hubbard, have suggested that Sulpicia is fake - an invention of Tibullus, to pastiche the feelings of a young, love-sick, aristocratic girl.  Professor Alison Keith, a leading classicist, has refuted this argument, citing the rather tortuous logic that Hubbard uses to reach his conclusion.

    The reality is, that we don't know. All we have are the poems, that profess to be written by a woman. As a writer of historical fiction, I get to wade in with my hobnail boots, and declare that I choose to believe in Sulpicia's existence. There are few enough female poetic voices echoing down from Augustan Rome, without deciding that the one we have does not exist. And in the absence of facts and secondary sources, it is a choice; a leap of faith. 

    When in Rome last week, I visited the frescoes kept in the Palazzo Massimo which were found in the ancient ruins of a mansion on the banks of the Tiber - in the grounds of the standing Villa Farnesina. Lord, they were magnificent. They are believed to have been painted in the Augustan era, perhaps even at the behest of his daughter, Julia. And the subject of all the frescoes were women; women at work, at play, at home, in the fields. Women as slaves. And women as enthusiastic lovers. 

    A fresco from the Villa Farnesina in the Palazzo Massimo museum, Rome.

             IS it really too much of a leap to see Sulpicia's work being read aloud in this room? 

    Anyway. Enough of unknowables. We have her words, and we should celebrate them. This is my favourite poem, with my bash at a translation. Forgive me, for I'm sure she put it better. 


    Here comes my loathsome


    I will be dragged to the odious countryside,


    and without Cerinthus.

    What is sweeter than the City?

    No country-house suits this


    Nor the freezing river of Arretium and all its


    Now, peace, Uncle Messala!

    Your eager care oppresses


    Journeys are often

    timed so very badly.

    There, they take me.

    Here, I leave my heart and soul.

    Since power forbids me

    to be

    judge of my own life.

    For those that are interested, Here is a picture of the Latin, with the Loeb translation by its side. Loeb translations are much more exact renditions of the Latin itself - but what sounds poetic in the rhythmic syntax of a Latin poem can sound stiltedly awkward when directly rendered. I'm a bit new to translating (apart from under exam duress 100 years ago) so please, tell me if you think I've messed it up!


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    A visit to the Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich the other day got me thinking about how the way we represent war culturally has changed over the last two hundred years and how this relates to our attitudes to conflict.

    The Ypres Salient at Night (1918) confronted me as I descended the stairs. I was captivated by its obvious echo of representations of the magi following the Star of Bethlehem. But in this case the three figures are hunched together in terrified awe in the face of an exploding shell in the night sky. The irony is cutting. This is a wasteland bereft of hope or redemption, in the gloom everything is dead and the light from the shell casts sharp light over the angular shadows of the trenches. This depicts a post-Neitzschean world abandoned by God.

    I was reminded of an earlier painting: Arthur William Devis's depiction of Nelson's deathbed. Similarly it references religious iconography, the supine figure of Nelson at the centre is lit like a Christ figure. But in this case it is a straightforward application of symbolism to glorify the sacrifice Nelson has made for his country. There is no irony here. Indeed most nineteenth century war painting seeks to emphasise courage, strength and patriotism. Take Elizabeth Butler's charging cavalrymen, full of glorious bluster and bravery at Waterloo, in Scotland Forever! (1881) as an example. In it the Scot's Greys gallop at full tilt when it is known that in reality in the deep mud they could barely make a canter. Butler has manipulated, sanitised if you like, the notion of battle, leaving no place for death in this image in which everything is bursting with life. Of course death looms and perhaps there is a hint of it in the exclamation mark of the title but the artist seems to refuse to face it head on.

    It is only with the First World War that artists begin to show the feebleness of man in the face of war, the terrible waste and suffering, the pointlessness, the death. John singer Seargent articulates this vividly in Gassed (1919). There is no sense of glory in this desolate line of broken men walking amongst their dying comrades. It is an image of utter despair and of course brings to mind Wilfred Owen's brutally ironic and devastating poem Dulce et Decorum Est

    By the Second World War Nash's work became increasingly symbolic, reaching its apotheosis in Totes Meer – Dead Sea (1941). In it he depicts the sea of destroyed fuselage from the crashed aeroplanes of the Battle of Britain. The mess of twisted metal lies in peaks and troughs like a stormy ocean, a kind of nightmare landscape in which nothing is quite what it appears to be. There is no death here unless it is in the absence of life, just at the centre a wing with a cross on its tip that resembles a coffin. Yet death infuses the canvas and though it is day the moon hangs in the sky in place of the sun.

    It is cinema that is the medium that best depicts modern warfare. The brilliant war films, The Hurt Locker, Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields are those that immediately spring to mind, amongst many. There are few contemporary artists who tackle the subject but Bran Symondson, who has served in Afghanistan, has. His work is a critique of modern warfare that doesn't depict scenes of battle or destruction but drills down with powerful imagery into the causes of war. He takes the deadly paraphernalia of conflict and presents it in such a way – a grenade wrapped in dollar bills, and AK47 covered in red, white and blue butterflies – that his message is crystal clear and coldly symbolic. It seems to me to reflect exactly the feelings we have about war now, our cynicism about those who pull the strings of modern conflict, so very far removed from that nineteenth century sense of glory and courage.

    Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower, is published by Penguin.

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    In pre-modern Japan the belief was that we start a whole new lifecycle at the age of 60. The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum focuses on the celebrated artist’s work after this seminal age. Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) was in his early seventies when he created his iconic Great Wave and he looked forward to making more and more progress as he got older.

    The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa,
    from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1, by Hokusai
    He wrote, ‘Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. ... When I reach 80 years I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.’

    The exhibition begins with a few pictures he did as a mere youngster, before the age of sixty, which are of course spectacular. One of these brilliantly-brushed works depicts a pop-eyed dragon with long whiskers like a gargantuan shrimp, bursting through clouds clutching a koto - a Japanese zither - in its long curved claws.
    Dragon with koto, 1798

    In the 1820s, when Hokusai was in his sixties, he was commissioned to create some prints by the Dutch East India Company, the only westerners allowed in Japan at the time. This brought him into contact with western art with its intriguing use of perspective. Traditionally in Chinese and Japanese art distant objects like mountains were painted at the top of the picture. Hokusai began to play with perspective in his own work, making distant objects smaller, depicting Fuji seen through the curve of the Great Wave, for example, or rather humorously through a barrelmaker’s hoop. Depicting the mighty mountain as a small cone is the running gag of his Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, of which The Great Wave is one.

    The Dutch also brought over the fabulous new paint colour, Prussian blue, which Hokusai used to dramatic effect in the Great Wave.
    A Boat Moored at Ushibori in the province of Hitachi
    (Fisherman rinsing rice to make breakfast)

    These Hokusai prints are the very first to spring from the meeting of eastern and western traditions. The influence soon began to flow the other way as well. Ten years after Hokusai’s death, in 1859, Japan opened to the west. The British Museum bought its first Hokusai in 1860. In 1871 Claude Monet was on his first trip to Holland, in a shop in Amsterdam, haggling over a piece of Delft porcelain. ‘Suddenly I saw a dish filled with images below on a shelf,’ he wrote. ‘Japanese woodblocks!’ The merchant, unaware of their value, threw them in as a job lot with the jar. By the end of his life Monet had collected 231 woodblock prints and they much influenced his work. Many western artists were hugely influenced by Japanese art - the emphasis on line, on design, the extraordinary perspectives - including Van Gogh who in 1888 wrote, ‘All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.’ To his brother Theo he wrote of the Great Wave, ‘These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.’

    Cover of Debussy's La Mer
    Hokusai’s prints are art for the people. The Great Wave cost the same as a couple of bowls of noodles. While the rich beautified their alcoves with incredibly expensive hanging scrolls, Hokusai made long narrow woodblock prints which were much cheaper, so ordinary folk could have a beautiful image in their alcove too.

    The focus of the British Museum exhibition is the Great Wave but there’s much more than that, fabulous prints displaying Hokusai’s crisp, sharp brush strokes which, having studied Japanese ink painting myself, I am in awe of. There are many examples of his incredible imagination and sense of humour, his quirky way of looking at the world, wonderful scenes of everyday life - not the life of samurai but of the humble workers who surrounded Hokusai and were a part of his world. 

    In his later years Hokusai lived with his daughter Oi who was a fine artist in her own right. She may well have designed some of the prints that are signed with Hokusai’s name. Obviously they’d go for far more if they were signed with the master’s name, not hers. There are works signed by her in the exhibition, portraying the courtesans of the pleasure quarters, for example, through a woman’s eyes.

    Courtesans of the Yoshiwara by Oi Hokusai
    In the end Hokusai didn’t live quite as long as he’d hoped. When he died at the age of 89, he left a death poem:

    ‘Maybe I’ll unwind
    by roaming the summer fields
    as a will o’ the wisp.’

    His last picture was of another of his fabulous dragons soaring above Mount Fuji, as his spirit soared off into eternity.
    Dragon over Fuji, 1849

    Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave continues at The British Museum until August 13th 2017.

    Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, comes out in paperback on July 27th. For more see her website, www.lesleydowner.com.

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    In pre-modern Japan the belief was that we start a whole new lifecycle at the age of 60. The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum focuses on the celebrated artist’s work after this seminal age. Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) was in his early seventies when he created his iconic Great Wave and he looked forward to making more and more progress as he got older.
    The Great Wave at Kanagawa by Hokusai 

    He wrote, ‘Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. ... When I reach 80 years I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.’

    The exhibition begins with a few pictures he did as a mere youngster, before the age of sixty, which are of course spectacular. One of these brilliantly-brushed works depicts a pop-eyed dragon with long whiskers like a gargantuan shrimp, bursting through clouds clutching a koto - a Japanese zither - in its long curved claws.

    Dragon by Hokusai 1798
    In the 1820s, when Hokusai was in his sixties, he was commissioned to create some prints by the Dutch East India Company, the only westerners allowed in Japan at the time. This brought him into contact with western art with its intriguing use of perspective. Traditionally in Chinese and Japanese art distant objects like mountains were painted at the top of the picture. Hokusai began to play with perspective in his own work, making distant objects smaller, depicting Fuji seen through the curve of the Great Wave, for example, or rather humorously through a barrelmaker’s hoop. Depicting the mighty mountain as a small cone is the running gag of his Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, of which The Great Wave is one.

    The Dutch also brought over the fabulous new paint colour, Prussian blue, which Hokusai used to dramatic effect in the Great Wave.

    Fisherman rinsing rice for his morning meal -
     from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji
    These Hokusai prints are the very first to spring from the meeting of eastern and western traditions. The influence soon began to flow the other way as well. Ten years after Hokusai’s death, in 1859, Japan opened to the west. The British Museum bought its first Hokusai in 1860. In 1871 Claude Monet was on his first trip to Holland, in a shop in Amsterdam, haggling over a piece of Delft porcelain. ‘Suddenly I saw a dish filled with images below on a shelf,’ he wrote. ‘Japanese woodblocks!’ The merchant, unaware of their value, threw them in as a job lot with the jar. By the end of his life Monet had collected 231 woodblock prints and they much influenced his work. Many western artists were hugely influenced by Japanese art - the emphasis on line, on design, the extraordinary perspectives - including Van Gogh who in 1888 wrote, ‘All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.’ To his brother Theo he wrote of the Great Wave, ‘These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.’
    Debussy's La Mer

    Hokusai’s prints are art for the people. The Great Wave cost the same as a couple of bowls of noodles. While the rich beautified their alcoves with incredibly expensive hanging scrolls, Hokusai made long narrow woodblock prints which were much cheaper, so ordinary folk could have a beautiful image in their alcove too.

    The focus of the British Museum exhibition is the Great Wave but there’s much more than that, fabulous prints displaying Hokusai’s crisp, sharp brush strokes which, having studied Japanese ink painting myself, I am in awe of. There are many examples of his incredible imagination and sense of humour, his quirky way of looking at the world, wonderful scenes of everyday life - not the life of samurai but of the humble workers who surrounded Hokusai and were a part of his world.

    In his later years Hokusai lived with his daughter Oi who was a fine artist in her own right. She may well have designed some of the prints that are signed with Hokusai’s name. Obviously they’d go for far more if they were signed with the master’s name, not hers. There are works signed by her in the exhibition, portraying the courtesans of the pleasure quarters, for example, through a woman’s eyes.
    Dragon rising above Mount Fuji
    day of the dragon 1849

    In the end Hokusai didn’t live quite as long as he’d hoped. When he died at the age of 89, he left a death poem:

    ‘Maybe I’ll unwind
    by roaming the summer fields
    as a will o’ the wisp.’

    His last picture was of a dragon soaring above Mount Fuji, as his spirit soared off into eternity.

    Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is set in Hokusai's Japan and comes out in paperback on July 27th. For more see her website, http://www.lesleydowner.com/.

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    For as long as I can remember I have been interested in the history of the plague. I learned about the village of Eyam in Derbyshire while studying at the University of York. And a few weeks ago, I dragged my kids off for an explore. We stayed at the YHA’s Ilam Hall, an enormous, rambling place surrounded by green countryside. Perfect for a cheap base from which to explore points of interest in Derbyshire, including a trip to Eyam.

    Ilam Hall, YHA

    Eyam is a beautiful village in the Peak District National Park. It is most famous for an outbreak of bubonic plague that occurred in 1665, a year before the Great Fire of London. The present village was founded by Anglo-Saxons, though lead had been mined in the area since Roman times. The village was once industrial but now most of its economy is based on its status as ‘the plague village.’

    That story began when a local tailor obtained a flea-infested bundle of cloth from London. Within a week the tailor’s assistant, George Vicars was dead, and more began dying in the household soon after. By pure coincidence when we stopped at Eyam we parked next to the ‘plague house’ where the outbreak had started. This house - like the others in the village where many people died - are a kind of living monument. People living there now must be used to visitors gawking up at the windows, trying to imaging how it would have been to live alongside loved ones dying of the plague: the smells, the sounds, the sights, the fear.

    The ‘plague cottage’ of Eyam where the plague first broke out. The names of the dead in this and many nearby cottages are listed on signs outside

    As the plague spread rapidly through the village, precautions were taken at the advice of the Reverend William Mompesson, the village rector and his Puritan Minister, Thomas Stanley. St Lawrence church was central to the lives of villagers, just as the church was generally for people in the seventeenth century, many of whom viewed the plague as God’s punishment for wrong doing (a particularly challenging thought so soon after the English Civil Wars). It was there that baptisms, weddings and funerals as well as the daily homilies on obedience and devotion reminded one of one’s place in the temporal and spiritual realms. Standing in the small church today, looking up at the now-faded wall paintings that would once have been brightly painted, one has a sense of how narrow and limited the world would have seemed if one was trapped there. Mompesson started to hold his services outside the church, as people were increasingly reluctant to stand shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours.


    St Lawrence church at Eyam, with its famous stained-glass windows depicting the quarantine of the village and the now faded wall paintings. Can you spot the skeleton?

    It was Mompesson who encouraged the villagers to isolate themselves from the outside world, quarantining its population rather than allowing the disease to spread further. The sacrifice of the people is told in a stained-glass window commemorating Eyam’s story. The number who died is disputed, but we know that at least half the village died to the plague – upwards of 273 people (the number recorded in the Eyam church register). The danger lasted for fourteen months, and it was far longer before anything like normalcy was resumed.

    A list of residents who died from the plague 1665-1666, held in Eyam church

    Survival was random. Several who remained alive had close contact with those who died from the plague but did not contract the disease themselves. One Elizabeth Hancock was uninfected though she buried six children and her husband in eight days. The unofficial village gravedigger Marshall Howe also survived.

    Critics of the village’s quarantine have recently pointed out that wealthier residents were able to circumvent the ban.  Indeed, Mompesson sent his own children away to Sheffield so that that could escape the quarantine. He wanted his wife to go with them, but she refused, deciding instead to stay with her husband and tend to the people of Eyam. Catherine died of the plague and her grave still stands in the churchyard. Mompesson himself was forever associated with the plague and not universally welcomed at his next parish. He did remarry, however and eventually became Prebendary of Southwell, Nottinghamshire.  

    The grave of Catherine Mompesson

    Eyam is well worth a visit. Not just for the village itself and the glorious church which is filled with seventeenth-century detail, but also for the attractions around it. Some of these are plague-related – such as the Coolstone or Boundary stone, where money soaked in vinegar (believed to kill the infection) was placed in exchange for food and medicine for the isolated villagers. 

    The Boundary Stone

    You can visit Eyam museum, too, which was founded in 1994 and which tells the story of Eyam before the plague, as well as the various medical attempts to protect the villagers. This includes the traditional seventeenth-century plague doctor's costume that looks like something from a modern nightmare. The mask had a curved beak, shaped like that of a bird. Straps held the beak in place and the beak held dried flowers, including roses and carnations, herbs and camphor or vinegar. These contents were to keep away bad smells, which were believed to be the cause of plague in the seventeenth century (the theory of miasma being that bad smells were bad 'air' which was the cause of disease). 

    The garb of the plague doctor, complete with beaked nose stuffed with herbs and spices. 

    Much to the delight of the children, the museum also has waxwork models of people at various stages of bubonic plague, covered in sores and pustules. There is also a lot of information about rats, which spills over into the souvenirs for sale in the shop. Which is how we ended up with a pair of stuffed toy rats, Doris and Dave, who accompanied us on the rest of our tour.  

    Doris and Dave explore Derbyshire 

    Picture credits: 

    The Boundary Stone, Wikipedia. 

    Ilam Hall: yha.org.uk 

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    This time last week, during a holiday in Copenhagen, we decided to head north to Helsingør. It was only a short train-ride, and there was someone we were eager to meet - someone who has intrigued me (and a few zillion others) for many, many years. Yes: Helsingør's English name is Elsinore, and the enigmatic hero we were searching for was - Hamlet!

    The station's palatial entrance hall set the scene. Clearly, we were on the right track. Outside, sea birds circled overhead, calling plaintively. We crossed the road into the town, alert for any glimpse of a slender, black-clad figure. Was that a swirl of his cloak, just disappearing at the end of this narrow cobbled street?

    Was he one of the characters in this painting? Was this perhaps the ship in which his stepfather sent him off to England with his perfidious friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

    We reached the water's edge again - you are never far from it in Elsinore. Now here was a curious structure, made entirely of brightly coloured plastic cast-offs. Perhaps he was behind that...?

    No. He wasn't. It probably struck the wrong mood - too cheerful, too silly. Then I spotted something promising - this dark figure, striding purposefully away. But no - too, too solid.

    And then, across the water, almost looking as if it was floating, we saw it - the castle. Now it's known as Kronborg: Shakespeare just called it Elsinore. It stands guard over a narrow sound which divides Denmark from Sweden, and through which ships had to pass in order to access the Baltic: for centuries, the kings of Denmark built up their wealth by exacting tolls - the sound dues - from every passing ship. Elsinore then was prosperous and powerful, a famous royal court. At last - we were on the right track! We hastened towards the castle. Storm clouds gathered overhead: the wind pushed back at us and sudden heavy raindrops pelted us - but on we went.

    Soon we were in the royal apartments. We passed through a sitting room, the chancellery, the king's rooms - no sign. Then - we arrived at the queen's apartments. We couldn't help but notice the arras to the right of the fireplace, and hoped Polonius wasn't so foolish as to be hiding there.

    Suddenly, we heard shouts and the sound of clashing swords along a passageway. Hearts in mouths, we hurried along - and in a huge banqueting hall, there at last he was: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark! But had his sea of troubles finally overwhelmed him? Had he taken up arms to end them? Happily, no - it was just a practice bout with Horatio. Phew.

    Our final glimpse of him was as he shared a tender moment with Ophelia - it would, we thought, be unkind to disturb them. I do hope that this time, it all works out for this charming young couple...

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    As a young teen, I spent many school holidays wandering round the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, gazing, sketching and daydreaming about the objects around me. Since then, as teacher and later as a writer, I’ve visited many more, and had the joy of running writing workshops for children in smaller museums, galleries and historic sites> Museums are my places of inspiration.

    Consequently, I am in awe of the people who work within such places, and also quietly fascinated about how museums work and change as organisations, especially in a period of funding cuts. 

    Then, recently, I heard someone with a lifetime’s experience talking, informally, about collections and displays.Among many interesting moments, what stuck in my mind was this archivist’s view that the need to attract “footfall” - meaning children and families and schools – was shaping and simplifying the way that information was presented.

    Vizier Khay: reign of Rameses II.
    The example quoted was a notice seen on display within an Egyptian gallery: the word Vizierhad been made “accessible” by changing the term to Prime Minister, with the implication that children would not understand the word Vizier.

    This led to a long discussion as to why this was not a Good Thing. All the writers present felt that Vizier was an interesting and evocative word, one we’d discovered through childhood versions of the Arabian Nights and other stories.

    The sight and sound of that word – even that unusual V and Z - suggested other places and other people and the sense of exploring different societies. 

    Somehow, through those stories, we’d all understood that the Vizier was the most powerful man next to the throne, personally chosen by the king or ruler to do his bidding and certainly not elected.  

    (Reading this as I write, questions about subconcious "imperialist" views murmur gently in the back of my mind . . .)

    None of us, particularly at this time of electoral turmoil, felt that Prime Minister matched our cultural understanding and interpretation of Vizier

    The loss of that word and language was also a reminder that “nature” words like harebell and conker had been excised from a certain children’s dictionary a year or so ago to make room for frequently-used "modern" words.

    The main point being made was that the continual funding for and emphasis on education and general accessibility is transforming our museums into visitor attractions, or as was suggested "somewhere to take children on wet Sunday afternoons" - and if that was so, what were museums offering to  invite, interest or inform the individual “grown-up” visitor?

    On the train afterwards, as I replayed this conversation in my head, I wondered whether the new, noisier museums are still places where young people can simply muse and wonder and think? Are they still places where young people can start to make up stories of their own and begin to grow into writers and novelists? Or is that a fantasy?
    What, I wonder, are your thoughts?

    Penny Dolan

    Out of interest, a definition for Vizier from a simple dictionary was
    A high official in some Muslim countries, especially in Turkey under Ottoman rule, origin mid 16th century: via Turkish from Arabic wazīr ‘caliph's chief counsellor’ 
    and from an “Ancient Egypt” website:  
    The vizier was a special advisor to the pharaoh. He made sure that the local governors were doing their jobs well and that the country was running smoothly.

    A Prime Minister, in a dictionary definition, gave:

    One can see how such a word-change worked, but it doesn’t feel quite right to me. It's as if something in the flavour has changed.


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    My last month's History Girls blog was about the gothic ruin,  Guy's Cliffe House, and the history and legend attached. One or two of the comments wanted to know more about Guy of Warwick, legendary knight and renowned hero who gave his name to Guy's Cliffe.

    Guy of Warwick is one of those figures, like Robin Hood and King Arthur, whose existence is more legend than history. His story has been told and re-told over the centuries in early English 'Histories', Medieval Romances, chapbooks and ballads. There may be a kernel of history there. He was probably Anglo Saxon. His name is connected to the family of Wigod, Lord of Wallingford under Edward the Confessor and events re-counted place his adventures in the reign of King Athelstan. He is always firmly placed in Warwick and the surrounding area, just as Robin Hood is associated with Sherwood Forest, and I always think there must be some truth within these stories, or why would they endure?

    Embellished, and expanded, Guy of Warwick has taken on the trappings of the times in which his story was told, or re-told. The Anglo Norman warrior, Gui de Warewic, first appears in the early thirteenth century. He was further transformed in the fourteenth century in a number of romances, adapted from the French.

    Guy of Warwick, from an illumination in Le Romant de Guy de Warwik et d'Heraud d'Ardenne
     Guy's 'History' would not look out of place as a plot line in Game of Thrones. It goes like this:

    Guy was a humble cupbearer, a page at the court of the Earl of Warwick. He falls in love with the Earl's lovely daughter Felice but he is rejected as being too low born to win her hand. He has to go out and prove himself worthy of her. He embarks on a series of heroic tasks, ridding the country around of the Dun Cow, a monstrous beast twelve feet high and eighteen feet high. A rib bone (actually a whale bone) was on view for many years at Warwick Castle - a nice example of how the legend passes as history. The castle also holds Guy's two handed sword. The Dun Cow is remembered in place names like Stretton-on-Dunsmore and Dunchurch and there are many Dun Cow pubs in the area. Once he has despatched the Dun Cow, Guy takes on a giant boar that has been terrorising Coventry.

    Guy of Warwick slating the Dun Cow, tableaux in the Bull Yard, Coventry City Centre

    He returns to Felice after completing these superhuman tasks but it is not enough. To win her, he has to be famous, he has to gain renown. He leaves for Europe to prove himself as a knight in battle and combat, now more a figure of chivalric romance than a heroic beast slayer (although he does kill  dragon). After knightly adventures on the Continent, he returns triumphant. Felice marries him but this is not the end of Guy's story. Full of remorse for all the violence in his past, he decides to embark for Jerusalem disguised as a pilgrim, leaving a distraught wife who is only prevented from committing suicide by the thought of her unborn child. He wears a gold ring as his promise to return.

    Guy of Warwick

    Guy reaches the Holy Land but on his return journey he is involved in more adventures, fighting as a champion and doing battle, righting wrongs and delivering justice for various people he meets on the road. He also discovers a magnificent sword (see above) hidden in a cave. He travels in disguise, refusing to reveal his name and is often underestimated in battle by his opponents, to their cost.  When he reaches England, he finds the country under threat from the Danes. Still disguised as a pilgrim, he goes to Winchester where King Athelstan and his court are praying for deliverance. The king has called for a knight to fight the Danes' huge African champion, Colbrond but no-one has come forward. The king is visited by an angel in a dream and told that his champion will be the first pilgrim to be at the North Gate of the city on the next day. That pilgrim is Guy. In an epic encounter, worthy of Game of Thrones, Guy defeats Colbrond. He then returns to Felice in Warwick. Still disguised as a pilgrim, he joins a group of poor men being fed at the castle gate. Unrecognised, he is invited to eat with her in the castle but leaves to visit a hermitage, on the nearby banks of the Avon, where he hopes to receive instruction. 

    Guy of Warwick's Cave. Guy's Cliffe

    When he finds that the hermit has died, he replaces him. On the point of death himself, he sends a message to  Felice in the form of the gold ring. She comes to him as he lies dying and the pair are re-united. Felice dies soon after and is buried alongside Guy. 

    And there ends the story. Told and re-told, more myth than history, it contains a wealth of different motifs: the mythic monsters of English folklore: the questing adventure, the dreams and miraculous discoveries, the battles and single combat of chivalric romance and the exile and return narrative,  the long separation, the disguise and discovery, common to so many myths and stories including the The Odyssey. 

    Guy of Warwick has been rather eclipsed by Arthur and the Matter of Britain but his story is full of romance and adventure. He is a very English hero and his name lives on, not least on that quintessential symbol of England, the pub sign.

    Celia Rees


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    Adaptations of The Man in the High Castle (original story by Philip K Dick, 1962) and SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) have been the most prominent ‘what if’s in front of the viewing public’s eyes recently. These stories have fascinated us as they depict the most horrific thing that could have happened to Western Europe and America in modern history. Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) gave Nazi alternative history fiction a good nudge and then along came C J Sansom’s Dominion in 2012. Perhaps the first two are a projection of fears about the Cold War, the second two a re-examination after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

    But as the Tudors are not the only historical period, so the Nazis are not the only alternative history subject. Our cousins in the US enjoy speculating about the outcomes of the War of Independence or the American Civil War, while any respectable French bookshop inevitably has a section on the ‘what if’ of Napoléon winning at Waterloo.

    Alexander the Great, Naples Museum (author photo)

    Alternative history is nothing new

    Roman historian Livy speculated on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he’d lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome, Titus Livius). In 1490, Joanot Martorell  wrote Tirant lo Blanch about a knight who manages to fight off the invading Ottoman armies of Mehmet II and saves Constantinople from Islamic conquest. This was written when the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was still a traumatic memory for Christian Europe.

    What is alternative history fiction?

    Althist is a speculative genre with two parents: history and science fiction. Like any genre there are conventions:
    – the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence (POD) – must be in the past.
    – the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.
    – stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.

    The world of the alternative timeline can partially resemble our own or be very different. Sometimes documented historical characters appear with or without changed roles and views; sometimes the story centres on entirely fictional characters or a mixture of both. Stories such as Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca or Alexandre Dumas’s The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, although ‘what if’ in nature don’t result in a change of the course of history as we know it.  Noami Novik’s excellent Temeraire series where dragons fight in a Napoleonic era is, of course, historical fantasy. Time travel machines, heroines falling through temporal portals, time travellers dropping in to sort out history then popping back out, or goddesses putting everything back as it was are not included. Once the historical timeline diverges, that’s it.

    In alternative history, the jumping-off point is the point of divergence from the standard timeline, so wise writers research that period to death; religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups. Landscapes and climate should resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. And no serious alternative history writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. Every living person is a product of their local conditions; their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.

    Writers need to imbue their characters with a sense of living in the present, in the now. This is their current existence, for them it’s not some story in a book(!). Character-based stories are popular; readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as taking part in major historical events. Sometimes it’s more interesting to follow the person’s story than the big event itself.

    Whether a historical story is fictitious or a near biographical novel, readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust. If the story world doesn’t feel plausible and consistent, the reader’s trust will break. However fantastic that imagined world, it also needs to have reached the setting for the current story in a credible way, i.e. have good backstory and history of its own. But no amount of plausibility, research or attention to ‘the rules’, or sense of fun, will disguise poor writing, shallow characterisation and losing the plot.

    But how plausible is alternative history?
    Alternative history varies in ‘hardness’ with readers and fans grading it by how plausible the 'alternation' is when measured against historical reality. At the ‘hard’ end are well-researched pieces that take into account historical sources and trends and try to relate events that flow from the point of divergence by using historical logic. Having a grasp of how history works despite, or perhaps because of, the butterfly effect is essential. At the ‘soft’ end are works of pure fantasy and ‘Rule of Cool’, generally a result of alien space bats (more classically, the dei ex machina).

    I’m very grateful to TV Tropes for dissecting and qualifying the main types so clearly on the sliding scale of alternate history plausibility, and I’ll use their categories to explain in more detail.

    Type I – Hard Alternate History: These are works that stick to strict, sometimes scientific, standards in their plausibility. Research is often detailed and intensive. Most historical counter-factuals fall into this category.
    Type II – Hard/Soft Alternate History: Often well researched with historical logic and methodology, but allows room for adventurous outcomes or Rule of Drama/Cool/Comedy
    Type III – Soft Alternate History: Here, setting up a world that fits the writer’s creative objectives is more important than the plausibility of the setting’s alternate history. Research is often minimal to moderate and plausibility will take a back seat to Rule of Drama/Cool/Comedy.
    Type IV – Utterly Implausible Alternate History: These are works that are so ‘soft’ that they melt and so implausible as to be effectively impossible. Often, the author puts their own ideology to the fore at the expense of research, historic details or sensible logistics. Readers with even a passing familiarity with history can’t take it seriously. The original term 'alien space bats' was coined to refer to this level of implausibility.
    Type X – Fantastical Alternate History: In contrast with Type IV, these works are deliberately designed as pure fantasy, typically following the Rule of Cool. Mad ideas prevail such as Nazis on the moon in the 2012 film Iron Sky.

    Perception is, of course, subjective and depends upon the individual reader’s personal interpretations or on whether they are looking for serious historically logical development, a lighthearted, if not positively wacky, adventure story or something in-between. I stand at the historical end of the scale because I’m a historian as well as a thriller writer.

    As with all historical fiction, characters must act, think and feel like real people. The most credible ones live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes. Of course, it makes a stronger story if the permissions and constraints of their world conflict with their personal wishes and aims. But that’s what happens in all good fiction!

    Some alternative history themes and stories

    England has remained Catholic – Pavane, Keith Roberts or The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
    Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have a son and Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain have a daughter – The Boleyn Trilogy/Tudor Legacy Series, Laura Anderson
    Alaska rather than Israel becomes the Jewish homeland – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
    Roosevelt loses the 1940 election and right-wing Charles Lindbergh becomes US president – The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
    Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from St. Helena and winds up in the United States in 1821 – Napoleon in America, Shannon Selin
    Is John F. Kennedy killed by a bomb in 1963? Or does he chose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev? – My Real Children, Jo Walton
    A secret fifth daughter of the Romanov family continues the Russian royal lineage –The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina’s Legacy, Jennifer Laam
    An England in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy – Children’s favourite The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
    A dystopian anti-female religious theocracy – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Prolific writers of althist especially from the US viewpoint include Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint and S.M. Stirling.
    The Roman Empire has survived into the present day – Romanitas, Sophia McDougall


    Alison Morton's latest alternate history thriller, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.
    www.alison-morton.com @alison_morton

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    I have always thought, perhaps along with many people, that, after the devastation caused by what we call The Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, huge numbers of communities, villages and hamlets, must have become deserted. But historians and geographers have known for quite a while now that this was not in fact the case, but rather, where medieval villages were “lost”, and they obviously were, it happened over a matter of centuries, not as a direct result of that terrible plague.
    Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

    But perhaps what happened in the longer term did have its genesis in the events of the fourteenth century, and I thought it might be interesting to examine how the change in the structure of the English countryside unfolded.

    It is hard to imagine what it must have been like – indeed, felt like – to see a third to a half of all your family, friends and neighbours killed within the space of a couple of months, or maybe even only a few weeks.

    In the fourteenth century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People did not believe they were in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I am not suggesting that this means people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

    Nonetheless, how truly devastating it must have been to witness death on such a scale! You can imagine that survivors might have found it too grim a prospect to try and carry on in a place where the memories – ghosts? – of so many dead friends and family still lingered. Despite the fact that their families had lived there for generations, they might well have preferred to abandon their community for somewhere new, where they could start again.

    Some chroniclers of the fourteenth century, such as Henry Knighton, a canon in Leicester, have suggested that many settlements were abandoned, as a direct result of the plague:
    After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins…many villages and hamlets became desolated…probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.
    But, while you can easily envisage that whole communities would have been wiped out, especially small hamlets, where every member of the few families who lived there succumbed to the disease, in fact, according to what records show us, it seems that this happened only rarely.

    The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of relative growth and prosperity. Fair weather and successful harvests produced surpluses that financed the building and rebuilding of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches, and encouraged and created flourishing towns and expanding villages. Expansion and wealth meant a growth in population, which in turn meant a demand for more land to sustain it. As a consequence, some new settlements were created on more marginal land, including heathland and woodland areas, and, for example, on the higher downland of Hampshire. Assarting, the clearing of land to make new settlements, took place on the edges of the Forest of Bere, in the Soberton area, close to my fictional “Meonbridge”.

    Chalk downland, Hampshire cc-by-sa/2.0© Oswald Bertram geograph.org.uk/p/4425731

    The countryside around “Meonbridge”, the valley of the River Meon, being relatively close to Winchester, was probably quite prosperous. The area between Havant and Fareham, a bit further to the south, was highly productive in cereal growing. But prosperity was also growing on the back of an expansion in the farming of sheep, including in the areas around Winchester, to support that city’s thriving wool and cloth industry.

    The Great Hall, added to Winchester Castle by Henry III 1222-1235

    However, while England was a reasonably prosperous place by the end of the thirteenth century, the growth in population and the resulting pressure on land was already bringing inevitable poverty and, with it, unrest, particularly among the poor and landless. Then, by the second decade of the fourteenth century, increasingly poor weather brought a series of bad harvests, and with too many mouths to feed and too few resources, people began to show their vulnerability. Famine took hold and continued for several years. Cynically, one might say that it began to ease the strain of overpopulation, but it must have been seriously debilitating to soul as well as body, even to those resilient medieval fatalists.

    Then, in 1348-50, came the worst plague in history, taking a much more dramatic toll on the population. Further outbreaks of plague occurred throughout the century (and indeed beyond, up until the 1800s), and it took a very long time for the population to even approach again that of the thirteenth century.

    But, for those mid-fourteenth century English men and women, the Black Death meant that, with far, far fewer of them, working people – the farming and labouring majority – were suddenly much more valuable, while land was no longer at a premium. The world had turned upside down, and things were going to – had to – change.

    The shape of the countryside and its communities were perhaps most affected by two principal factors: the breakdown of the feudal system and a gradual change in farming practices.

    Peasants harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.
    Queen Mary's Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), 
    fol. 78v (Public domain)
    The old order, the system of lords and bonded tenants, had already begun to change. But when a third to a half of the tenants in a manor died in the space of a few months, it soon dawned on the tenants how valuable they had suddenly become, and also that the emptier world offered them considerable opportunities. Tenants became increasingly less prepared to submit to their lords’ wishes, such as forcing them to provide “boonworks” (unpaid work provided as partial “rent” for their tenancies) on their demesnes, or imposing constraints on their freedom of movement, and labourers were no longer willing to work for low wages, if they could get more elsewhere. The lords, if at first they resisted change, pleading with the government to help maintain the status quo, at length had to accept that change was happening and they could not stop it. Despite the government’s labour legislation, the 1351 Statute of Labourers, working people did not submit.

    Some undoubtedly did leave the manors their families had lived in for generations, sometimes to receive better wages elsewhere, either on other manors or in the towns, sometimes to take up valuable land holdings on other manors, sometimes, perhaps, to occupy “abandoned” hamlets or villages. Despite the memories and ghosts, the draw of land was probably very strong and, like pioneers and settlers everywhere, they repopulated many initially deserted locations surprisingly quickly. The evidence from records does seem to suggest that, if hamlets or villages were abandoned, mostly it was only for weeks, months, or perhaps a few years. Some communities were invigorated by “fresh blood” and a determination among the incomers to succeed in the new window of opportunity. It is said that Winchester city could not in fact attract sufficient workers from the countryside to replace those it had lost because the opportunities of taking up abandoned land holdings were simply too attractive to pass up.

    Even in the most tragic of times, some people – lord, freeman or bondsman – might respond in opportunistic vein. For every one who died in the plague, there was perhaps someone else who simply saw the availability of more resources. They were probably not actually grateful that the plague had given them these opportunities (to do so might invite some sort of divine retribution!), but the entrepreneurial spirit in those who would go on to make England prosperous again was perhaps released. In some cases, freemen or even wealthier tenants grew rich on the acquisition of land, eventually building holdings that would become the grand estates of later centuries. In contrast to the generally rather gloomy picture one has of the fourteenth century, in fact, in Hampshire at any rate, for some, there was a considerable expansion of fortune in the latter part of the century and beyond.

    So, change in the structure of society was one concomitant outcome of the Black Death. Another was the change in farming practices.

    Again, farming practices had already begun to alter, but the change accelerated in the century following the Black Death. The farming of arable land further declined. It must, after all, have been difficult to sustain such a labour-intensive form of agriculture with the availability of far fewer workers, both skilled and unskilled. Equally, with fewer mouths to feed, it was perhaps neither necessary nor worth the effort to maintain it on the previous scale. The growth of sheep farming was already happening, and the wool trade was thriving. With fewer working people available, farming sheep was undoubtedly easier to manage than arable. Evidence from the Winchester bishops’ estates shows that, by the mid-fourteenth century, a third of the arable land had ceased cultivation by comparison with a hundred years earlier. Presumably, the bad weather and poor harvests, and also a possible decline in soil fertility caused by poor husbandry, meant a move from arable to sheep was likely to prove more profitable, especially perhaps in Hampshire, where the downland was perfect for rearing sheep.

    From The Luttrell Psalter, British Library.
    Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
    Lords, freemen and tenants, any of them might make the change to farming sheep, anyone indeed who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the burgeoning wool economy. In some cases, sheep presumably simply became a more important aspect of farming life in a mixed agricultural economy. But, in the worst cases, the change had a profound effect on the community, where a particularly acquisitive lord might turn his tenants out of their homes to make room for more pasture. Some “generous” lords might build cottages for the displaced tenants elsewhere, but others just pushed them out – they were simply not needed any more. So, in some cases, communities were indeed deserted through these actions, although in practice it did not happen all at once. For example, Lomer, a small community just above the villages of the Meon valley, did eventually die out through such a gradual change of land use, but not until the seventeenth century.

    Certainly sheep farming did change the shape of the countryside. But other structural changes also had an impact, the creation of parks – “emparking” – being one of them. In the fourteenth century itself, these often took the form of hunting parks. However, in the next couple of centuries, one of the eventual results of some wealthy people acquiring more (and more) land was that their expanded holdings would one day develop into great estates. And owners of such estates wanted the trappings of their wealth, a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in, and they were again more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Again they might build them a new village outside the estate, but equally they might not. In the Meon Valley, the village of Warnford is an example of a village where the medieval settlement was moved to a new site, to be replaced by a landscaped park. The still standing church and the ruins of the manor house are evidence of the location of the original village. At Idsworth, a few miles to the south-east, a church stands in the middle of ploughed fields, showing where a community was once removed entirely in favour of a park for the owners of Idsworth House.

    Idsworth Church cc-by-sa/2.0 © Roger Pagram geograph.org.uk/p/2046565
    But much of this emparking and widespread eviction of tenants from communities came in later centuries. Famously, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote of it in his 1770 poem, The Deserted Village, where he bemoans the fate of a settlement destroyed by the ambitions of the landowner:
    "The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage and hounds"
    Although it seems clear that the Black Death did not directly lead to the long term desertion of villages, maybe what happened in the middle of the fourteenth century – the huge loss of population, the breakdown of the old way of life and the large scale move towards sheep farming – did at the very least accelerate changes that had already begun, changes that would, eventually, have significant effects on the shape of the English countryside.

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    Being a Londoner feels a bit tough this month. I’ve worked in Borough Market and lots of my friends still do, as does my husband from time to time. Now the horror of that attack has been subsumed by the nightmare of Grenfell Tower and as I write this, news is coming through of an attack on the Finsbury Park mosque. I’m not going to draw any historical analogies or share any platitudes about how London will carry on, but I will say this: I believe that the divide between rich and poor in this city is a greater threat to its health and character than any terrorist plot however tragic and grim those are. It is the diversity of the capital, the mix of nations, religions, and backgrounds, artists, opportunists, adventurers and refugees which has formed London's enduring appeal and is the corner-stone of its particular and particularly rich culture. I don’t think there has ever been a time when living here has been as precarious as it is now for the vast majority of Londoners. The empty luxury flats, the crippling rents forcing out middle and low income earners and the horrific squeeze on social housing is making us all poorer. Surely at some point we have to realise the greater good is not always compatible with maximising private profits.

    These are some of my favourite books about London in all her messy glory to celebrate what the city is, and a reminder of what we could lose if we abandon the streets to the oligarchs and landlords. Two novels, three non-fiction, all brilliant.

    This lyrical, deeply felt novel tells the story of another London tragedy. The novel explores the lives of the people of Walworth in 1912 and renders their voices with subtle care. It is rich with folklore and closely observes how tradition changes with the movement of people into the capital, and adapts, as they do, to the city.

    Subtitled The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum, this is a remarkable history of a particular culture in place and time. Wise is a great historian, but also has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, the particular incident, person or story which makes the general feel vivid and personal. This is the opposite of nostalgia and a study which does not patronise or smooth off the rough edges of a society on the margins, but brings it to full-bloodied life. 

    A wonderful collection of traditions, histories, ghosts and legends from an expert in folklore. Bad behaviour in Mayfair, the Lion Sermon, the rose rent, Dogett’s boat race and the story of the first ‘pearly king’. Written with fluency and affection. 

    One of the most important books on immigration and the growth and culture of Black Britain you can read. Vast in scope and scholarship and as relevant today as when it was published in the 1980s.  

    A wild celebration of the multi-cultural mashup which is London and built on all sorts of strands of magic myth and folklore, it’s no surprise that these novels are favourites of mine. They are also witty, thrilling and kind which makes them a much needed balm. I suspect you’ve all read them already, but if you haven’t I envy you the delight in store. 

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    I have recently started working on a project with the Glasgow Women’s Library as a Community Curator which is all a bit fab. I will be doing a post about the library shortly and, when we work out what it is going to be from the trove of delights in the archive, a preview about the exhibition we are planning in 2018. One of the many things we have been reflecting on as a team is what makes a museum memorable. From my own experience I know that you remember museum visits for all kinds of reasons which may having nothing to do with the exhibitions. My eventual refusal to leave the Barcelona FC museum because I loved it is remembered far less than my behaving like Kevin and Perry at the suggestion of going and the irony of the Dunbrody Ship and Famine Experience in Ireland having scones bigger than our heads will live on as a family folk tale.

    Pritzker Military Museum
    So to my own shared tale. In 2010 I found myself stranded in Chicago for a week following the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It was an odd experience, coming as it did at the end of a holiday: we were mentally adjusting to returning to everyday life (and physically adjusting – we were actually airborne on a plane that was sent back) and no longer felt like tourists. I was teaching at the time and had touched on the origins of photo-journalism with a class – the American Civil War (which I have always been obsessed with) was the birthplace of this so I decided to use my time to do some research, which was when I discovered the wonderful Pritzker Military Museum and Library. 

    Once the staff recovered from their hilarity at my pronunciation of Antietam they fell over themselves to help me; once they realised I had an interest in women’s history, they pulled out a whole new set of photos and documents about the women who had fought in the conflict disguised as male soldiers. These women were astonishing. Not all cases could be documented but estimates suggest 400-750 ordinary American women actively participated, fighting as men. Writing in 1888, Mary Livermore of the US Sanitary Commission wrote“Someone has stated the number of women soldiers known to the service as little less than 400. I cannot vouch for the correctness of this estimate, but I am convinced a large number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or another, than was dreamed of. Entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty. Some startling histories of these military women were current in the gossip of army life."

     Family Devotion: the ideal wife and mother
    Choosing this active, masculine role was a step outside the social boundaries of the period which rigidly fixed the female role. The American Civil War lasted from 1861-65 and was fought to determine what kind of a nation it would be: the war’s coming challenged most of the attitudes that held sway across the country, including the ideology of domesticity that shaped the lives of men and women in both the North and South. In the antebellum period, life for women was shaped by a set of ideals American historians often refer to as The Cult of True Womanhood. As men’s work moved more into the external sphere of offices and factories, the household became more feminized and private, a haven in which ‘true women’ were encouraged to strive and build their husbands a comfortable home. Under this world-view, women were perceived as frail, subordinate and passive creatures with no interest in the outside world. The war changed all this and is seen by many as the first step towards emancipation.

    From 1861 women were actively involved in the war effort on both sides, engaged in domestically-based work such as knitting, baking and fund-raising galas as well as the horrors of front-line nursing such as experienced by author Louisa May Alcott. For some women, however, even nursing, which remained strictly socially-controlled, was too small a step beyond the domestic sphere. The reasons they became soldiers were as different as the women themselves: for some it was freedom, for others it was patriotism, or more money than they could hope to earn in their narrow worlds, to follow their husbands or, simply, to have an adventure. One of the few women very open about what she was doing was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who served with the 153rdRegiment out of New York and wrote to her strict family about her choice saying she was “as independent as a hog on ice.”The reasons differed but all broke the stereotype of how women should think and live.

     Jennie Hodgers
    These women did everything the men did, including working as spies and fighting in some of the worst combat: at least four women were known to have fought at Antietam on 17 September 1862 which, with its 30,000 casualties, was the single bloodiest day in the conflict. They were rarely discovered: physical examinations were scant, uniforms were baggy and so many young boys volunteered that the lack of a beard was nothing remarkable. Jennie Hodgers fought the whole war undiscovered as Albert Cashier and then lived the rest of her life as a man. Sarah Edmonds, who served for two years as Franklin Flint Thompson and whose career only ended when she contracted malaria, was described by comrades as a “frank and fearless”soldier and was awarded a military pension for her services.

    After the war ended the existence of these soldier-women became widely known, at least among the reading public. An 1866 publication, The Women of the War by Frank Moore, included a chapter on female military heroines and some women, including Loreta Valazquez who fought as Harry Buford, published their memoirs. The US Army, however, denied women had played any role. In 1909, in response to a query about women who had served, Adjutant General Ainsworth responded: “I have the honor to inform you that no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted…at any time during the period of the civil war. It is possible, however, that there may have been a few instances of women having served as soldiers for a short time without their sex having been detected, but no record of such cases is known to exist in the official files.” This was despite the detailed records that existed, including examples of discharge on the grounds of ‘sexual incompatibility’. A poorly timed attempt to put women back in the doll’s house.

    The women who fought were ordinary soldiers, not generals or commanders: they did not change the course of battles. They were not, however, ordinary women: they displayed revolutionary attitudes by refusing to stay in their socially-delineated place. It is heartening how many of their stories are now being uncovered after too long a period in which their role was denied or reduced to the activities of a few oddities and eccentrics. For anyone who wants to find out more, can I recommend She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by Bonnie Tsui. And, if you are in Chicago, go to the Pritzker and lose yourself: they’ll welcome you with open arms.  

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    It is in flower in my garden now, and on warm days and evenings it fills the air with scent. It is a healthy, beautiful rose, flowering only once, but profusely, over a long period. Fly sometimes appear on it, but it seems to shrug them off, and it never gets black spot, though it's grown in shallow, poor topsoil (though I do mulch it with compost and horse manure).
    It is rosa gallica officinalis, the apothecary's rose, and its history in these islands goes back to the Middle Ages. As its name implies, it was used in medicine. Nicholas Culpeper wrote of it: “Red roses cool, bind, strengthen both vital and animal virtue, restores such as are in consumptions, strengthen.' In 1597, Gerard's Herbal suggested that the petals of red roses 'should be ground with sugar and used to "strengthen the heart and take away the shaking and trembling thereof".

    Its origins are in Central Asia, but it was grown in many countries in the ancient world -Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome - not surprisingly, given its virtues and beauty, as well as its medicinal applications.It was used for medicinal purposes long before Gerard or Culpeper recorded its use in their herbals. It's also called the 'Provins Rose' because it was grown in this town in France, and the name 'rosa gallica' means 'the rose of Gaul', indicating its French origin; though Jenny Uglow, in her 'Little History of British Gardening', says the Romans first brought it to Britain and grew it in the gardens of their villas. The wild form is single; the ancient cultivar is semi-double, which means it is still of use to pollinators, and there is usually a  bumble-bee's eager rear end to be seen in the heart of many of the blooms throughout the day in my garden.

    Shakespeare told the tale of the different contenders in the Wars of the Roses picking blooms to indicate which side they supported; the Yorkists picked white roses, and the Lancastrians red ones. The rosa galllica was the emblem of the House of Lancaster, as the rosa alba, the Great White Rose, was the emblem of Eleanor of Provence, and became part of the design of Edward I's Great Seal of State.I went to school in North Lancashire, and it was important, in the late 50s, that it was Red Rose country.It is still the official emblem of Lancashire.

    My daughter got married in the Walled Garden at Cowdray, a venue that had personal historical significance  as my great-grandparents lived in Midhurst, and my grandmother was born there. But of course, the Walled Garden was the garden of the now ruined castle, and when the original manor was built, I should think it extremely likely that rosa gallica was grown in the garden, though I didn't notice it in today's walled garden. It might be there. However, the petals were there that day, as I brought a bagful of them from our garden to throw over her and her new husband. One of the things that impressed the ancients about the gallica was the ability of the petals to retain the scent, even when dried, which made it the rose of choice for pot-pourri, and then of course there were the medicinal applications. I opened the bag, before we did the petal-throwing, and let privileged guests inhale the scent and be enraptured.

    When I go out there and put my nose to the blooms, or just stand there and let the scent waft into my nostrils, I am just the latest of people who, over the centuries, have benefited from this rose. I love it that it's so sturdy and vigorous and not at all a challenge to grow. It's survived for a long time, so why wouldn't it be tough?

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    The other day a signed copy of this beautiful book landed on my desk, courtesy of David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.
    I think I have most of Professor Crouch's works on my book shelf.  The first one I bought was his biography of William Marshal (now recently in its third and updated edition) and I have since added many more.  David Crouch has an easy, conversational writing style that at the same time remains erudite.  He knows his history and does not suffer fools gladly.  He also has a dry and sometimes mischievous sense of humour.  For example, one of his sub-chapter headings is playfully titled 'One King to Rule Them All.'

    This most recent work features the striking jewelled crown of Ann of Bohemia (or possibly Edward III)  on the  cover. museum information here.

    The book itself (in my opinion) is aimed in the direction of history students finishing their secondary education and looking to take a degree in Medieval history, and perhaps new undergranduates who need to get themselves up to speed on the subject it matter.  It will also suit curious and switched on members of the general public who enjoy reading historical non fiction.  In content the work is a broad overview of Britain between the years mentioned in the title. Some reigns are covered in more depth than others.  Readers seeking a full analysis of the reigns of Richard the Lionheart or Henry IV will not find them, for example, whereas the reigns of John and Richard II receive more attention by contrast. Professor Crouch explains that he has been "deliberately selective, focusing on those events  which span the centuries and have a broader significance for Medieval life.' Personally I would like to have seen Professor Crouch air his views in these areas, but I understand the constraints of word count, and also that the main narrative of the subject matter has to be kept on track.

    The work is arranged in three major parts.

    The Empire of Britain
    Living in Medieval Britain
    The Great Divorce.

    Each part is then divided by clearly delineated large sub-headings with an overview.   The Empire of Britain for example has the headings 'A Century of Conquest 1000-1100' and 'Francophone Britain 1100-1217.'
    Living in Medieval Britain has clearly numbered sub-headings dealing with - among others - monarchy, language, the state, the church, establishing the church, life experience, Material Britain.  Part 3 looks at redefining Britain, Scotland between 1306 and 1513, and dynastic struggles.  

    All of these larger sub-heading sections are further divided up into concise but informative essays on particular subjects, all clearly numbered in progression.  So, for example,  Life Experience, number 9 in the progression begins with an overview. It's followed by a headed section on The Expectations on Women,  then the same for men. The Shape of the Family, Ancestry and Kingship,  Family Love,  Marriage, Sex outside Marriage, Sexuality, The Tyranny of Normalcy, The Widow, Medieval Childhood,  Life Expectancy,  Anxiety and Disease, Mortality Crises, Ageing.  Each section is discussed with examples cited from primary sources.

    The end of each of these numbered sections features a post script and suggestions for key texts to be read as well as further reading. Also some end notes on quotations in the essays.  

    It's all very clearly laid out and excellent for absorbing, not so much in bitesize chunks, as in satisfying but not over-filling small meals. 

    The work is illustrated throughout with black and white photographs and maps.  There is a handy timeline at the front of the book to keep the reader on track with who was who and what was happening at a given time.  There is also a useful glossary at the end. 

    Every part of the British Isles is covered and discussed both separately and in connection with the individual nations and territories. Again, not in great depth, but sufficient unto a clear overview leading to further investigation. 

    I would recommend this work as a great addition to the bookshelf if you are in any way interested in Medieval history. It is lucid and set out in a way that makes the content easy to absorb. It's highly readable and occasionally raises a smile.  It also might challenge various mainstream preconceptions. Readers interested in the fine details of a specific reign may not find them here beyond the broadest brush strokes, but that is not what this book is about or intended for. Its aim is to point out the general trends taking place over time and to act as a launchpad into further reading.

    Definitely recommended. 

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       I’ve spoken to several friends who feel that there have been too many elections lately and that voting, far from being a privilege, is a bit of a bore. It’s worth remembering that in this country women didn’t get the vote until 1928, there was  no secret ballot until 1872 and until the Reform Act was passed in 1832 voting was a very different experience.

       You had to be a male freeholder with an income of at least forty shillings a year - about 250,000 men. Voting was by a show of hands and each man had to go to the Returning Officer and register his vote. If you lived in the country, as most people did, the local Squire could scrutinise the poll book to make sure his tenants voted the ‘right’ way. If necessary the candidate’s agent would take voters to the polling booth and bribe them with beer and beef.

       Elections could go on for weeks and were usually accompanied by riots, civil disorder, corruption and drunkenness. The local militia or troops were often called out to restore order. Until 1785, when the length of any single election was limited to fifteen days, a general election could take months. A candidate who was unsuccessful in one constituency could move to another as long as he was sufficiently determined and rich: elections were the stage on which great families acted out their rivalries and they sometimes spent as much as £100,000 to secure a seat.

       Why did they bother? Although MPs got no salary they had enormous influence. A rotten borough, with a tiny number of voters, could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence in the House of Commons. One example of this was Old Sarum, a hamlet on a hill near Salisbury. the Pitt family owned it from the mid-17th century until 1802, when they sold it for £60,000, even though the land and manorial rights were only worth £700 a year. Many towns which had grown up recently, like Manchester, had no MP at all.

       Once elected to the House of Commons, an MP would be offered substantial bribes. The phrase `before you can say Jack Robinson' comes from the name of King George III's agent, who persuaded MPs to vote whichever way the king wanted with his ' golden handshake.' As the MPs went out to cast their votes, Robinson waited for them at the door, shook their hands and filled them with gold coins.

       Women who were educated enough to be interested in politics could play a part although they couldn’t vote. Westminster was of course an important constituency because of its position and also because it had more voters than anywhere else in the country. In 1784 there was an electoral battle there between Cecil Wray and Lord Hood, both Tories, and the Whig Charles James Fox. Fox was a very attractive man and a small army of glamorous women canvassed for him.

       In this satirical print from 1784 we see Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, canvassing a fat butcher who stands holding the duchess's left hand in his left hand, while he wipes his mouth on his sleeve and leers jovially towards her. Another butcher leans, knife in hand, grinning as he he says, "By George I'd kiss the Dutchess". The duchess has a fox's brush in her hat, inscribed 'Fox'. Behind her walk two ladies arm in arm, both wearing Fox favours. They might be Lady Duncannon, the Duchess’s sister, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s wife, Elizabeth. One of them turns her head to kiss an artisan wearing an apron while she slips a purse into his hand. Whether due to the support of all these fashionable women or his own charisma, or both, Fox won the election.

       This hand covered etching in the British Museum is anonymous. If the Georgians were unlucky in their politicians they were extremely fortunate to have wonderful satirical artists and I think they can tell us more than anyone about the corruption of elections at the time. These prints were public and hugely popular; people would crowd around the windows of the London print shops to gossip and laugh at each one as it was issued.

       In 1784 Rowlandson produced both this pro-Fox print, The Champion of the People, and also the anti-Fox print below, The Covent Garden Night Mare - he was quite happy to work for whichever side would pay him more. In the first, Fox wears armour as he fights the Hydra (representing the King's attempt to influence Parliament), with a sword and 'shield of truth'. English, Irish and East Indian supporters stand and kneel and in the background a group of men representing foreign powers dance around the 'Standard of Sedition'.

       This is a parody of Fuseli's famous painting, The Nightmare, with the sleeping girl replaced by a naked Charles James Fox. A demon is sitting on top of him and a dice table beside him reminds viewers of his outrageous gambling.

      Hogarth wrote that his aim was “ to compose pictures on canvas similar to representations on the stage. ... Let the figures in either pictures or prints be considered as players dressed either for the sublime – for genteel comedy, or farce – for high or low life. I have endeavored to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer. ...”. His four oil paintings ( later popular engravings), The Humours of an Election, illustrate an election in Oxfordshire in 1754 when the Whig candidate, the Duke of Marlborough, challenged the incumbent Tories. You can see the originals in John Soane’s Museum. In the first, An Election Entertainment, Tories are protesting outside a tavern where Whigs are hosting a wild drunken dinner for their supporters. The Mayor has eaten too many oysters and the Election Agent has been concussed by a brick thrown through the window.

       Here is the second, Canvassing for Votes. The inn is the headquarters of the Tory party, covered with signs satirizing the Whigs, for example: "Punch Candidate for Guzzeldown". The local Tory candidate is buying ribbons and jewels to give to two admiring girls on the balcony and at the bay window two men are guzzling the food they have been bribed with. In the centre a man is furtively taking bribes from two men at the same time while in the background a Tory mob is violently attacking the Whig headquarters.

       The third of the Hogarth series, The Polling, shows voters declaring their support for the Whigs (orange) or Tories (blue). Agents from both sides are using unscrupulous tactics to increase their votes or challenge opposing voters. The Tories are bringing a mentally disabled man to vote and a dying man is being carried in behind him. In the background a woman in a carriage with a broken axle is a symbol of Britannia.

       Here is the fourth of Hogarth’s great series, Chairing the Member. In a traditional ceremony, the victorious Tory candidate is being carried through the streets on a chair, led by a blind and ragged fiddler and surrounded by a disreputable crowd. The new MP is about to be dropped because one of the men carrying him has has just been accidentally hit on the head by a rural labourer who is fighting a Whig supporter, an old sailor with a bear. Frightened pigs run across the scene (the gadarene swine) and dishes of food are being carried into an elegant house where victory is being celebrated.

       I’m going to finish with this image by James Gillray, my favourite of all those wonderful eighteenth century satirists. In Election Troops, Bringing in Their Accounts, his 1788 hand-coloured etching, Gillray shows us Pitt’s “troops” marching on the “Treasury”. Pitt, embarrassed, disowns them: "I know nothing of you my Friends, Lord H------d pays all the expences himself - Hush! Hush! go to the back-Door in Great George Street under the Rose!" Pitt is handed the bill “For Puffs & Squibs and for abusing opposition.” A ragged newsboy holds a newspaper, The Star , and another bill for bribing “ Ballad Singers & Grub Street Writers.” Next to him a publican holds out yet another bill “For Eating & Drink[ing] for Jack Ass Boys.” Behind them three Foot Guards demand payment “For the attack in Bow Street.” One of them holds a bayonet dripping with blood. A ragged cobbler holds out yet another bill “For Voting three times” and next to him a female ballad-singer demands payment “For Singing Ballads at 5 Shill pr Day.” A sailor with a bludgeon holds out yet another paper: “For kicking up a Riot”.... you begin to see how it could cost a hundred thousand to acquire a seat in parliament.

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    In just a few days time, my new novel THE LOST GIRL will be published.

    I have already written on my HG blogs that the story is set in two time zones: post WWII in France and 2015 Paris and includes a few flashbacks to London in the 90s.

    The Paris 2015 sections take place during the long weekend of the atrocious terrorist attacks of the night of 13th November 2015. Six locations were targeted. During that evening one hundred and thirty diners and concert-goers were murdered and another 368 injured.

    How to research such an event? Last month I mentioned that I watched on national television the live progression of the attacks as they unfolded and as they were reported. It was almost unbearable viewing, exceedingly moving and distressing. I was in shock and crying. This is all very well but it needs precision to fuel a story. I am very fortunate to be a member of the BnF, the Bibliothèque National de France, in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris. The National Library of France is a very impressive institution. If you are at all interested in the value of libraries and their functionality do take a look at their website. 

    The four buildings in the photograph make up the Bibliotèque national de France François Mitterrand. The bridge that crosses over to them is the Simone de Beauvoir passerelle.

    In amongst all their facilities and events on offer, the BnF has a truly impressive mediathèque where members can watch filmed material and entire reels of news footage and much more. I took myself off to the audiovisual department where I ordered reams of footage of the weekend of 13th November and I spent approximately a month enclosed within the silence of their walls, watching over and over and over material from everywhere, shot at every moment. It included news items, special investigative programmes, sometimes Smartphone footage, speeches made by François Hollande, our President during that period.
    During my research at the library, taking notes obviously, I began to create the timeline for the weekend. My fictional timeline began an hour or two in advance of the first terrorist incident at 20.16 pm on Friday 13th November 2015. 

    Firstly, I began with facts, with real events. At which minute was President Hollande - who was in the audience for a football match at the State de France, which was one of the targeted locations - at which moment did Hollande learn of the first of the events? At which moment did play stop? When did Hollande hurriedly leave the stadium? How much later were the thousands in the audience allowed to leave the stadium and make their way to their homes? When did they all begin singing our national anthem,  La Marsellaise? A song of revolution, of victorious spirit and determination. Those voices of thousands resonated across parts of eastern Paris to other areas where attacks were underway. The singing was televised. The nation was there, singing in their homes, rallying to the call.

    These timings were essential. The emotional journeys of my characters were being influenced by the progression of events.

    When did RAID eventually gain access into the Bataclan concert hall where 1500 concert-goers were being held hostage, many already murdered?
    Who are RAID, the special police unit tasked with leading the French police in times of terrorism and other forms of serious crime?

    History and fiction. 
    My fictional characters were being brought into play during that month of research. A mother, Kurtiz, is praying for a sighting of her daughter, Lizzie, praying for a reconciliation with a the girl who disappeared from home and went missing four years previously. The daughter is attending the concert at the Bataclan. Or is she? Certainly, her father, Oliver, believes Lizzie is there and, carrying that hope in his broken heart, he too has purchased a ticket for the rock concert.
    How could these two grieving parents ever have imagined that this night of what they prayed would be reconciliation would turn into one of bloodshed?

    It became a business of weaving. Bringing together the reality and the fictional lives woven through the timeline. At which stage did Kurtiz visit one of the Paris hospitals? As she enters the hospital, in the novel, she sees the queues and queues of Parisians waiting to give blood, to do their bit to re-establish harmony within their damaged city. Hundreds of people standing in line on a freezing November night to help save the lives of others. These details make the difference. They begin to paint the picture of a city under attack. The responses of the individuals inhabiting the city.

    I remember when I was travelling for my two Mediterranean Olive Route books (The Olive Route and The Olive Tree), I spent a fair amount of time in war zones, in regions under attack or where lives were being constrained by others. The West Bank, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Al-Qaeda bombings in Algeria ... the most poignant memories for me were those of human kindness, the strength and indomitability of individuals. While watching all the footage of that weekend in Paris and its aftermath, interviews with music-lovers who had attended the concert and survived, others who had not attended but had lost a loved one ... etc. I was profoundly moved by the generosity of the human spirit. Not the hatred. I wanted my novel, THE LOST GIRL, to portray that. A tale of man's humanity to man. Not the opposite. In this case, the story of two women sharing their hearts with one another.

    After the recent UK Manchester attacks, Facebookers were writing comments such as "this is like London during the Blitz, "Britain's stalwart spirit". True, yes, but in my experience this deep seam of humanity is not exclusive to Britain. I have witnessed it displayed all across the globe. The Parisian footage I watched over that month at the BnF confirmed that. #portesouvertes. Hashtag portes ouvertes. Open doors. If I had not engaged in such detailed research I might not have found the thousands of messages written by citizens. Open Doors. Our doors are open. 'Stay the night, we have beds.''We can drive you somewhere when the streets have reopened'. All public transport had been shut down. Roads were gridlocked. These tiny researched details - not always so tiny - contribute to the layers and complexities of a story. I am certain that every other History Girl will confirm this.

    The sections of the book set during London in the 90s and early 2000s were the easiest for me to write because I was able to pick from my own experience. Years attending drama school (Kurtiz, my protagonist, trained as an actress before eventually turning her talents to photography, specialising in war photography). I had great fun and many nostalgic moments playing music I had listened to back in the 90s, looking through magazines to hit the right fashion notes. I was recalling a London, a city that had for a while been my home.

                                                        A street in Grasse, Provence, Alpes-Maritimes.

                                                              An old perfume factory in Grasse

    The sections set after WWII involved a different kind of research. Masses of reading, watching old films, learning about the perfume industry in Grasse, the Perfume Capital of the World. Studying the mechanics of flower production when the flowers are destined for the perfume factories. The requirements, the demands involved. These sections of the novel, set in the south of France also take place at the Victorine Film Studios in Nice, which I have written about in an earlier blog on this site. The part that came for free for me was the scents and perfumes of Provence. The colours, the feeling of the heat on the baked earth. I have lived here - just ten miles from Grasse and overlooking the Bay of Cannes with its annual film festival - that I know the seasons well. They are imbedded within my own rhythms of life. I wake to the scents of jasmine and the May rose which is a vital ingredients for Chanel in its iconic Chanel No 5 perfume.
    Provence of the late 1940s and the early 1950s is not so different to my Provence of today, not when I am writing about the cycles of nature.  The perfume of a rose is always the perfume of a rose.

    So, two female protagonists - one in her early forties arriving from London, the other in her eighties who had spent her youth living near Grasse after the Second World War. A chance encounter in a bar brings them together over one harrowing weekend in Paris in 2015. Their stories become intertwined and criss-cross decades. The women, strangers and then friends, offer a new optimism to one another and undreamed-of futures. Their encounter brings, I hope, that golden seam of generosity, of humanity, that sits at the core of each and every one of us.

    THE LOST GIRL, published 29th June. I really hope you will enjoy it.

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    Exactly 175 years ago this month, Queen Victoria, who had then ruled Britain for five years, was the first British monarch ever to travel by train. The first railway line in Britain had been opened in 1830, between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, when Victoria was 11 years old. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, loved new inventions, and persuaded her to try this new form of transport.
    On June 13, in 1842, the 23-year-old queen and her family took a horse-drawn carriage from Windsor Castle to Slough railway station, four miles away. There they boarded the royal saloon carriage, specially designed like a grand home. It had a padded silk ceiling, blue velvet sofas, matching silk curtains, fringed lampshades, fine mahogany wooden tables and thick carpets. The Times described it: "the fittings are upon a most elegant and magnificent scale, tastefully improved by bouquets of rare flowers arranged within the carriage." 
    Imagine traveling from Slough to Paddington in this carriage!
    The train was pulled by a locomotive engine powered by coal and steam, and took only 25 minutes to reach Paddington Station in West London. (Today the fastest journey from Slough to Paddington takes 14 minutes.) The engine was called Phlegethon of the Fire Fly class and had been built in 1840. A replica of the original Fire Fly is now at Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire, just up the Great Western Line from Slough. On the footplate was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous engineer who had designed Paddington station, the railway line from London to Slough and the world’s first iron ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean the SS Great Britain. The young queen wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, that she was ‘quite charmed by this new way of travelling’. However, the Queen worried that the normal speed of 43 miles per hour would affect her health, so she insisted that her trains never went more than 30 miles per hour. Later a signal was fitted to the roof of the royal saloon in case the Queen wanted to tell the train driver to slow down.
    The next day The Times newspaper reported: "Yesterday Her Majesty the Queen, for the first time, returned from her sojourn at Windsor Castle, accompanied by her illustrious consort, Prince Albert, Count Mensdorf, &c.by way of the Great Western Railway. The intention of Her Majesty to return to town by railroad was first intimated to the authorities at Paddington on Saturday afternoon, and in consequence preparations on an extensive scale were ordered to be made for the transit of the Royal pair from Slough to the Paddington terminus, which were carried into effect with the greatest secrecy."
    Queen Victoria and her family of 11 children spent every summer holiday at Balmoral Castle, 500 miles north of London, near Aberdeen in Scotland. To travel by road from London to Scotland took several days by horse and carriage. But by train it took only one day, or a night sleeping on the train.
    After Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went even more often to Balmoral, always by train. The local railway station, Ballater, had a special platform long enough to accommodate the royal train made up of a locomotive, coal truck and up to eight carriages. Queen Victoria’s royal saloon carriage was the first in the world to have a lavatory. Another carriage had a fully-equipped kitchen and separate dining room. At night time, servants prepared the beds with fine linen sheets. Each sleeping compartment had hinged sinks that tilted into the panelled wooden walls. Next to each bed was a special hook to hang one’s watch, with a suede-leather pad to prevent the watch-glass from breaking as the train rattled over the points or swerved round corners. One carriage carried the servants – dressers, valets, footmen, maids and tutors. There were special carriages for the royal horses and another carriage for the royal luggage. The royal dogs went too, among them greyhounds, Skye terriers and pomeranians. Even the royal waiting room at Paddington station was designed like a palace with a marble fireplace, gold painted furniture and glass chandeliers.
    Queen Victoria’s grandchildren ruled seven of the European monarchies, so dukes, princes and aristocracy often came from all over Europe to visit Balmoral Castle. The men wore Scottish kilts, and went shooting deer or grouse on the heather moors. Pony carts carried baskets of fine food and wine for picnic lunches, with special treats such as grapes grown in glass houses.
    From The Home Alphabet Book, 1857 Dean & Son, London
    In 1897 Queen Victoria had been on the throne for sixty years. After a grand procession through London for her Diamond Jubilee, she went by royal train to Balmoral. For this special occasion, the engine trains were not their normal black: from London to Crewe they had been painted red; from Crew to Carlisle, near the Scottish border, they were white; and from there to Balmoral they were red – all the colours of the British flag! By then trains could travel from London to Edinburgh in less than ten hours.
    Queen Victoria's funeral train took the same
    journey as her first trip.

    Queen Victoria was 82 years old when she died in 1901 on the Isle of Wight. Her coffin was transported to the mainland by sea and then transferred onto a train to London. From Paddington in London it went by train to Windsor – the same journey she had made 61 years earlier. She was buried in the Royal Mausoleum in Windsor.

    Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the anniversary of her great great
    grandmother's train journey by opening the new electric
    train line to Paddington on 13 June 2017.

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    'Wartime fashion? Was there such a thing? Is there enough to write a book about it?' That was my immediate reaction when I was asked to write a book for the Imperial War Museum about wartime clothing and clothes rationing. I thought it was rather a flippant topic and was not sure it should be taken too seriously. How wrong I was. After two years intensive research I understood that it was far from trivial. By the end of the Second World War the government had control over every aspect of people's lives, from the length of men's shirts to the width of a gusset in women's knickers. The resulting book Fashion on the Ration tells the story of how fashion and clothing was an issue from the top to the bottom of society and the democratisation of fashion as a result of clothes rationing and mass production has had an impact on the way we view clothes and fashion today.

    A Ministry of Information photograph encouraging
    young women to dress well and show defiance

    When I give a talk about wartime fashion I listen with fascination to memories from audience members who recall parachute silk dresses, Make-Do-And-Mend shirts, thrice darned stockings and coats made from blankets. Some people remember the era with pleasure and tell me about how they loved their Liberty bodice or their Land Army uniform. Others recall patched jumpers and empty department stores. But almost everyone has something to say about underwear. I suppose it is the most intimate detail and it is endlessly fascinating. There is something that is very ingrained in the collective memory about wartime knickers, bras and, above all, corsets.

    A child's Utility Liberty Bodice 1943
    There is almost a whole chapter devoted to corsets in Fashion on the Ration because it was a topic that exercised not only women who wore them but the civil servants in the Board of Trade who had to guarantee their supply. And it was no easy job. Over 18 million women wore corsets in the late 1930s but wartime production dropped to just 9 million a year and this was the cause of much heartache, not to say irritation. The reason is simple: corsets were made up of three important constituent parts, all of which were necessary for the war industry. Metal was needed for aircraft production so the stays were replaced with compressed cardboard, with disastrous results. Cotton supplies dropped during the war as world cotton prices rose and the number employed in the cotton spinning and weaving industry fell by thirty percent. Rubber became a rare and precious commodity after the fall of Singapore in spring 1942 as the Japanese held the majority of the world’s rubber supplies in the Far East. Finally, the expert corset makers, with their highly skilled workforce of machine operators, often switched to making parachutes, to which their expertise and equipment was ideally suited. As a result, corsets were in short supply and what was available was often very poor quality.

    A corset designed by Berlei for the Women's Armed Forces had a
    handy pocket for loose change as girls in uniform could not carry 
    handbags and their pockets were easily picked in the blackout
    One young mother, who had just given birth in the summer of 1944, wrote a furious letter which was published in Time magazine in which she took the Board of Trade to task, even naming Hugh Dalton, the then president, in her diatribe: ‘There should be no false modesty about this very essential article … After the birth of my second child the sight of my figure enclosed in a utility corset nearly paralysed me. True, it caused a certain amusement to my family, but I didn’t feel funny, only ill and unhappy … I found that the boning at the front consisted of three pieces of compressed cardboard. I defy even the most pugnacious cardboard to do anything but follow the shape of the figure it encloses … A band of infuriated housewives should force Mr Dalton into a utility corset and a pair of the best fitting utility stockings he can buy. I would add a saucy black felt hat for which he had to pay four guineas and a pair of those ghastly wooden-soled shoes. He should be made to walk one mile, then stand in a fish queue for an hour. By the end of this time his utility stockings would [droop] from knee to instep in snakelike coils and twists. His corset would have wilted into an uncomfortable, revolting mass of cotton and cardboard. He would find himself supporting the corset, instead of the corset supporting him. May I suggest this would be a very speedy remedy?’

    This glorious image may raise a smile but it was a serious matter and many women, who had been used to the support of their pre-war Berlei or Spirella corset felt uncomfortable and very aggrieved. The women’s fashion magazines did their best to advise women on ways of keeping their corsets in good order and they encouraged young women to learn to do without by practising core body exercises.

    Fashion on the Ration was not just a story of utility corsets, grey Forces bloomers and austerity designs for skirts and coats. There was another side to the story which I had not expected to find and this was the significant role played by the haute couture houses in designing fashion for the export market. The appeal of export sales was that it brought in much-needed currency and over the period of 1938 to 1946 fashion exports rose from £98,000 to £507,000. Paris, as the centre of the fashion world, was out of the picture from 1940 until the liberation of France in 1944 and London was quick to take its place. Shows were organised for South America, South Africa and the USA with designs by Molyneux, Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, Norman Hartnell and Bianca Mosca rising ‘phoenix-like…from our dustsheeted London life.’ So popular were British designers that they had major shows in America, South America and South Africa over the course of the war.

    A Utility dress designed by Digby Morton

    The government was quick to realise how useful the high-profile designers such as Norman Hartnell, Dibgy Morton and Edward Molyneux were both for the export but also for the home market. In 1942 the Department of Trade introduced the Utility Clothing Scheme that ran alongside the government's austerity programme that limited the length of men's socks, the number of pleats in women's skirts and the design of children's underwear. In a move of exceptional emotional intelligence it commissioned eight of the country's top fashion designers, including those three giants named above, to design eight garments each for the Utility Scheme. The press was delighted and so was the public. Women on the street could be dressed by the Queen's designer for 30 shillings rather than 30 guineas.

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