Articles on this Page
- 08/23/17--16:30: _WHEN CLARET WAS PIN...
- 08/24/17--17:30: _Richard Dadd by Mir...
- 08/25/17--16:01: _Pesticides, the his...
- 08/26/17--16:01: _: IN SEARCH OF ST W...
- 08/27/17--16:01: _Children and War by...
- 08/28/17--16:01: _Three Extraordinary...
- 08/29/17--16:30: _The 'Poo Table': Au...
- 08/30/17--16:01: _August competition
- 08/31/17--16:01: _The House of Beaufo...
- 09/01/17--16:30: _Victoria's voice, t...
- 09/02/17--16:01: _The Vanishing Child...
- 09/03/17--22:30: _Comfort Me With App...
- 09/04/17--16:30: _Science Fiction fro...
- 09/05/17--20:00: _Granda's Google by ...
- 09/06/17--17:30: _THE RASPUTIN DAGGER...
- 09/07/17--16:30: _'Wyspes, Kexis and ...
- 09/08/17--16:22: _Bad Dogs by Carolin...
- 09/09/17--16:30: _Beaver Country - Mi...
- 09/10/17--15:59: _The writer, the spi...
- 09/11/17--22:00: _On swimming in Anci...
- 08/23/17--16:30: WHEN CLARET WAS PINK: Wine production in the Middle Ages.
- 08/24/17--17:30: Richard Dadd by Miranda Miller
- 08/25/17--16:01: Pesticides, the history of ... by Carol Drinkwater
- 08/26/17--16:01: : IN SEARCH OF ST WINEFRIDE by Ann Turnbull
- 08/27/17--16:01: Children and War by Julie Summers
- 08/28/17--16:01: Three Extraordinary Women by Amy Licence
- 08/30/17--16:01: August competition
- 08/31/17--16:01: The House of Beaufort by Mary Hoffman
- 09/02/17--16:01: The Vanishing Children of Paris, by Anna Mazzola
- 09/03/17--22:30: Comfort Me With Apples - Katherine Langrish
- 09/04/17--16:30: Science Fiction from 1752 - Joan Lennon
- 09/05/17--20:00: Granda's Google by Sheena Wilkinson
- 09/06/17--17:30: THE RASPUTIN DAGGER by Theresa Breslin. Reviewed by Adèle Geras.
- 09/07/17--16:30: 'Wyspes, Kexis and Cokenay in Medieval Tottenham' by Karen Maitland
- 09/08/17--16:22: Bad Dogs by Caroline Lawrence
- 09/09/17--16:30: Beaver Country - Michelle Lovric
- 09/10/17--15:59: The writer, the spies and leaf-mould memories
- 09/11/17--22:00: On swimming in Ancient Roman fishponds, by Antonia Senior
|Noah, first treading grapes and then getting drunk! |
|Angel giving grapes to a devil sitting on a wine press. |
|Noah wasn't the only one getting drunk. An Italian illustration|
of women, one in particular, the worse for wear...! British Library
|Saintonge wine jug 1350-75. British Museum|
The artist Richard Dadd appears as a minor character in my sixth novel, Nina in Utopia.
When I finished writing it he was still very much alive for me, so I decided to give him a novel of his own, The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd.
Richard Dadd was born exactly 200 years ago, in Chatham, in Kent. His father, Robert Dadd, was a chemist who lectured on Chemistry and Geology and was interested in both science and art. Richard was the fourth of seven children, four of whom were considered insane at the time of their death. When he was seven Richard’s mother died and his father remarried, but his second wife also died, leaving two sons. As a widower with nine children Robert Dadd must have worried about money and about their future. Richard, in his early teens, showed signs of talent as an artist and it may have been because of his vicarious ambition for his son that in 1834, when Richard was 17, the family moved from Chatham to London. Robert Dadd bought a framing, gilding and bronzing business in Suffolk Street. After teaching himself to draw in the British Museum, Richard became a student at the Royal Academy schools, which had just moved from Somerset House to the very new National Gallery, a five minute walk from his family house.
As an art student at the prestigious Royal Academy Schools Richard was taught by Maclise, Etty, Landseer and Turner. He was considered exceptionally promising and won three silver medals, including one for the best life drawing. His closest friends were William Powell Frith and Augustus Egg, both of whom later had enormous success.
Frith’s paintings, Ramsgate Sands, The Railway Station and Derby Day were immensely popular as pictures of everyday life that were just sentimental enough to flatter the idea of themselves that middle class Victorians had. When they were first shown at the Royal Academy they attracted so many admirers that a railing had to to put up to keep the crowds back. In Derby Day, (1858), Richard Dadd appears, wearing a fez. In my novel, which is set the previous year, Frith comes to visit Richard in the hospital. Augustus Egg’s most famous works, also painted in 1858, are three oil paintings called Past and Present, which show a woman who commits adultery and so falls from a state of married bliss, surrounded by her children, to become an outcast.This is the final painting. Didactic and moralistic, it appealed to Victorian taste.
In Tate Britain you can see The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, Richard Dadd’s most famous painting, which appears on the cover of my novel (see above), Derby Day and Past and Present. I think it’s very moving to imagine these three ambitious young art students in the 1840s, getting drunk together and criticising each other’s work arguing furiously - and then, 170 years later, having their paintings hung in the same world famous gallery.
Richard’s family couldn’t support him and when he finished his art course he had to struggle to get commissions. He had already exhibited work at the Society of British Artists, almost next door to his family house in Suffolk Street, and at the British Institution in Pall Mall. He was interested in imaginative art and was painting fairies, and although he managed to get various commissions then, as now, it was very hard to earn a living as an artist.
He never would have been able to afford any kind of grand tour by himself but a Welsh solicitor, Sir Thomas Phillips,who had just been knighted by Queen Victoria for shooting Chartists, invited Richard to accompany him as his pet artist. Twenty years later, of course, Phillips would have taken a camera. In July 1842 the two men set out on a ten month journey to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Here’s a drawing Richard did of his patron, all dressed up in traditional Arab robes.
That summer Richard’s behaviour became increasingly strange and paranoid. His friends and family were naturally very worried about him and his landlady was terrified of him. Richard’s father, Robert, insisted that his son was suffering from sunstroke and needed rest and quiet. Soon after Richard’s twenty-sixth birthday, Robert Dadd took him to see Dr Alexander Sutherland, a famous ‘mad doctor’ at St Luke’s Hospital in Old Street, who told him that his son was very ill and should stay in the hospital.
Despite this Robert Dadd was convinced that he knew his son better than anyone else and that a trip to the country would help. Father and son set off together for Cobham, in Kent, to revisit the area where Richard had grown up. That night they went for a walk in the grounds of Cobham Park, where Richard stabbed and killed his father.
It was one of the most sensational Victorian murders. Richard had brought a spring knife, passport and money to Cobham with him, so the murder was clearly premeditated. After killing his father Richard fled abroad. He later told a doctor he was on his way to assassinate the Emperor of Austria and was soon arrested after he tried to cut the throat of a fellow passenger in a carriage in France. Eventually he was extradited and in August 1844 was confined for life to the criminal lunatic department of the Bethlem hospital, or bedlam, which was in the building that is now the Imperial War Museum.
The most impressive thing about those long years of incarceration is that they were not lost; Richard continued to draw and paint and here is one of my favourites.
It’s known as The Flight out of Egypt but we don’t know what Dadd himself called it; it certainly isn't a straightforward biblical story. The colours are vivid and beautiful and it seems to be a mixture of his own intense experience of travelling through the hot desert and encountering a phantasmagoria of palm trees, people of all ages and races, pilgrims on their Haj, soldiers in Roman uniforms and, perhaps, unexpected aspects of himself. Like The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, this painting remains mysterious however many times you look at it.
I expected to find that patients in a mental hospital in the 1850s were treated abominably but, when I visited the Bethlem archives at Eden Park in Kent, I discovered that in 1853 a new young Resident Physician, Dr Charles Hood, was appointed. He carried out a number of reforms after a public scandal about the way the inmates were mistreated. Dr Hood abolished chains and other mechanical restraints and tried to make the wards comfortable. In 1857, the year my novel is set, an article in Household Words, the magazine Dickens edited, described a visit to the hospital and concluded hat “thousands of middle class homes contain nothing so pretty as a ward in Bedlam,” and that, “as to all the small comforts of life, patients in Bethlehem are as much at liberty to make provision for themselves as they would be at home”. Dr Hood removed bars from the windows and introduced aviaries, pets, plants and pictures to the wards. Keepers were given training and became more like nurses and patients were encouraged to occupy and entertain themselves.
All the time I was writing about Richard Dadd this photograph of him haunted me and I looked at it constantly.
In fact 1857 was the year when Dadd was moved from the grim, Home Office block at the back of the hospital, where the criminal lunatics were housed, to the main part of the hospital, where he was given a spacious room to paint in. He went, quite literally, from darkness to light and this resulted in his best work, although he had heroically carried on painting and drawing even during the thirteen years when he was incarcerated in the overcrowded and dungeon- like conditions of the criminal lunatic block. The doctors in the hospital encouraged and even collected his work. In 1863 he was transferred to the new Broadmoor hospital in Berkshire, where he remained until his death in 1886.
These are ordinary every day sights; the to-ing and fro-ing of wildlife. We have eagles who nest up in our pine forest towards the summit of the hill. Sightings are rarer. An occasional red fox suns itself on one of the terraces.
These ordinary activities, which delight me, sometimes bring to mind the opening chapter of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Its description of the death of flora and fauna.
And I ask myself, suppose all this were destroyed?
Here, in the south of France, we are living through what the French describe as ‘la canicule', a wave of scorching hot weather. The temperatures have risen to mid-thirties. In some areas inland of us, the figures have hit the forties. Are these summer temperatures escalating year by year? It certainly seems to be the case. Will we adapt and survive? Over the past month, there have been horrendous forest fires in the area. They have spread fast, taking hold, causing devastation, because the earth and vegetation are too dry to resist them.
Here, overlooking the Bay of Cannes, we have had no rain, not a drop, since April. The land is baked like a biscuit. Still, this time we have been fortunate to have not been - not as yet - caught up in any of the hinterland fires. One downside of the relentless heat for us is that insects are taking up residence on the plants, weaving nests, webs, damaging flowers, eating into the fruits. Our farm is organic. I usually count on the midsummer storms to wash the critters away, because I won't poison them, but there is no such redemption this year.
Why, you might ask, do I not just buy an insecticide and spray all the shrubs and trees? Well, because we are organic and have been so for almost a decade now. If we target one insect, we set off a chain reaction that damages other forms of life.
When we first purchased this Olive Farm it was a crumbling property perched halfway up a hillside nestling amongst a jungle of overgrowth. You could barely spot even the highest tips of the olive trees, while the vineyard spoken of by the estate agent had long since been overwhelmed by a million rogue plants. The estate, or what remained of the original estate since the land had been mostly sold off, needed everything doing to it. Due to lack of funds it took us two years to call in a gardening company with the required heavy machinery to cut back the land. Once achieved, our denuded hill was a revelation to us. There, growing in rows on drystone wall terraces, were sixty-eight, 400-year-old olive trees. Gnarled, majestic beings. Their silvery tops were high; they were desperately in need of pruning and reshaping but they were healthy and they were fruiting generously. Everywhere about them were butterflies, small song birds, insects I could not put a name to. Bees and myriad other pollinators were buzzing from one tall flowering shrub to another. The farm was alive, it was buzzing, working.
Jump cut to a handful of years later and we were beginning to farm our olive trees to produce olive oil. Serendipity had found us a local man, Réné, who, in return for a large percentage of the produce, was husbanding the trees for us. I was taken aback when, as the fruits, the olive drupes, began to plumpen, he arrived with a van laden with machinery and liquids. I watched on as he began to spray the trees. He advised me to go back indoors and close the windows as he donned face mask, a long-sleeved overall and gloves. The process seemed to take the best part of a day and it was repeated every six weeks or so throughout the summer and autumn months until harvesting had been completed. For hours after his visits, the land seemed to be cloaked in a rather foul-smelling cloud. When I questioned Réné about the product and its functions, he explained that there is no other method for controlling the fly that lays its egg in the drupes. It has to be destroyed. It is considered a serious pest in all areas where olives are cultivated. The fly's larvae live off the flesh of the fruits and cause them to fall, shrivelled and empty. He was adamant when I protested against the use of chemicals. Every farm, he argued, employed the same products and there was no alternative to Dacus oleae. Or yes, one alternative: no crop. I shut up and let him get on with it. This continued for several years. Each summer, I grumbled and growled and no one took any notice of me. It had to be done.
I remarked to my husband that the songbirds were gone. There were fewer butterflies, less life flitting about the land. The buzzing, the insect activities were being silenced.
Then several things happened more or less at once or over a short period of time. I got chatting to a local gardener, André, who came to lend us a hand. He mentioned in passing that a series of new pesticides were causing concern to beekeepers. It seemed that these products, known as neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of synthetic insecticides, might very well be harmful to honey bees. This was somewhere around 2001/2002. We had hives on our land at that stage and I was keen to know more about this little-known concern. I began to research the subject. There was not too much information out there, which in itself caused me to persist. What I found out after considerable delving and investigation because back then this information was not easily accessible is the following:
Something is this system seemed to me to be very wrong.
Farming, the practice of agriculture, began some 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, The Fertile Crescent. The name Mesopotamia comes from the Greek, meaning in between two rivers, The Euphrates and Tigris. Roughly-speaking it was situated in what today is Iraq, and also included parts of Syria, Iran, and the tip of modern Palestine. Until then, man had been a hunter-gatherer, a nomad, taking/hunting what he needed as he travelled, when he needed it. The decision to create a more sedentary lifestyle and plant food for consumption was a major turning point in our history as a species. In fact, this move towards a more sedentary, agricultural lifestyle was beginning to take place all over the planet. One of the challenges that arose was how to avoids crops being attacked by pests and causing famine within the community. The first recorded use of a pesticide is by the Sumerians about 4,500 years ago. Theirs was a sulphur compound or bricks of sulphur used as a fumigant. As there was no chemical industry, all pesticides had to be of plant or animal derivation or a few from mineral sources. There is quite a bit to be found in Greek and Roman records. Various mixtures of dried plants were smoked to keep insects out of vineyards. Tar was applied to the base of tree trunks to trap creepy, crawling creatures. Pyrethrum, derived from the dried flowers of a chysantheum, Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium, has been used as an insecticide for over 2,000 years. I came across it on several occasions during my Olive Route travels. There are even some small communities of olive farmers in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean who were, when I met them, using it to repel the olive fly by planting up their groves with this daisy. Crusaders brought these dried daisy heads back from the wars to use against head lice.
It was officially banned as an insecticide in August 1988. Studies were showing a high mortality rate, frequently through respiratory cancers, amongst farm labourers who were in direct contact with lead arsenate.
Replacements, alternatives needed to be found.
Big businesses were getting heavily involved. Warfarin was brought onto the market for rodent control. Over the next twenty years a devastating variety and tonnage of chemicals were sprayed, dripped, dropped onto the land, onto fruit farms and agricultural enterprises of every sort. Synthetic pesticides were the new order. Although no one had as yet sounded the alarm bell, food was already being contaminated and the consumers of those foods - beast, man and wild life - were also being contaminated. Our environment was under threat. And many scientists and experts were aware of it.
As early as 1945 when DDT was being heavily used as an agricultural and household pesticide, there had already been concerns about its dangers. Findings support DDT being classified as an endocrine disruptor and a trigger for breast cancer. Its Hazard Rating is "high risk".
Yet, it is still used, today, in Africa as a deterrent - 'disease vector control' - against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
In January 1958, a woman, Olga Owens Huckins, wrote a letter to the The Boston Herald stating that the birds around her property had been found dead after an aerial spraying of DDT. She sent a copy of her letter to an eminent scientist friend of hers, Rachel Carson.
A couple of extracts from the letter:
All bees in a large section of the state were killed.
The "harmless" shower hath killed off seven of our lovely songbirds ...
... the grasshoppers, visiting bees, and other harmless insects are gone ... died horribly ...
Carson began to look more deeply into the issues cited. She found a body of scientists who had been documenting the physiological and environmental effects of synthetic pesticides. Unsurprisingly, the material was all classified. Through personal connects she managed to find allies and gain access to the materials.
The public alarm call was sounded on 27th September 1962, which was the publication date of Rachel Carson's now classic book Silent Spring. Today, fifty-five years later, the book is cited as the seed that gave birth to the environmental movement.
"What we have to face is not an occasional dose of poison which has accidentally got into some article of food, but a persistent and continuous poisoning of the whole human environment."
Not surprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition from the chemical companies. Still, it did achieve something amazing; it led to a ban on the use of DDT in the United States. Banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001, it remains in use in small quantities in Africa, for example, as a mosquito repellent. even though exposure even at low levels can have disastrous heath results.
Carson's book, her work, brought a new awareness to the general public. People began to ask themselves: what cost insect-free fruits. But it has not stopped the spectacular growth of the agrochemical companies. Monsanto, recently purchased by Bayer in Germany, has caused devastating damage worldwide with its Round-up Ready soya beans and Round-up weedkiller, first put on to the market in 1996. As I wrote above, dimethoate-based products were patented in the 1950s by the American chemical company, American Cyanamid. The company, founded in 1907, grew to be a leading conglomerate into the 1970s and 80s. It pioneered the development of feed additives which contain antibiotics and are given to cattle and pigs and can be added to drinking water. The subsequent widespread use of the feeds began to create concern that a resistance to antibiotics was taking place. This is an ongoing and very hotly debated subject. Resistance to antibiotics in animals reared for their milk or meat can/are causing a worldwide resistance in humans to antibiotics. Imagine life before penicillin.
In its later years, American Cyanamid was involved in a series of legal issues related to earlier environmental pollution. Yet, still, right into the twenty-first century, we were able to buy and use products with a base of dimethoate crystals.
It has now been proven that neocinotinoid insecticides, first produced in the 1990s, are threatening the existence of the honeybee; dramatic numbers of hive losses have been recorded in Europe and the United States. By the 1990s, we should have known better. Science did know better. But we have not listening to the warning bells as far as synthetic agents are concerned. Why are they still being produced? The chemical giants, such as Bayer and Sygenta, have a great deal of power. Greenpeace claimed in 2016 that both Bayer and Sygenta had both chosen not to publish certain research papers which proved that their neonicotinoid products are killing bees. Sygenta went further. It posted on its website: "there is no direct correlation between neonicotinoids use and poor bee health".
It is seventy two years since DDT was give the green light for civilian, public use. Recent research into the longterm effects of DDT show several concerning results including that girls who were exposed to DDT before puberty are five times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age.
In 2067, seventy years after neonicotinoids were first put on the market, what will be our post mortem?
We are poisoning ourselves, we are destroying our planet, we are preparing to leave a legacy for future generations that will give them untenable living conditions. Weather patterns are crazy. This summer in Europe the temperatures have been hitting the mid-forties. Way above the norm for these areas of the Mediterranean.
One hundred and ninety five countries came together in Paris in December 2015 to sign COP21, adopting the first ever universal, legally-binding global climate deal. The COP21 is a bridge to a better, cleaner planet. It is not specifically about the reduction of chemical use on the earth but agrochemical products have a major part to play in the dangers our planet is currently facing.
This is a massive issue. Thanks to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, her evidence brought about the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. But all bodies, agencies, are only as efficient and as honest as though who are managing them. A denial of Climate Change by one of the most influential nations in the world is a vote for the agrochemical companies, it is a vote for those making fortunes out of fossil fuels. It is not a vote for a cleaner, safer planet.
One courageous woman in her time gave her voice. Rachel Carson made a monumental difference. Yet, still, fifty-five years on, we remain at the mercy of synthetic chemicals - newer, more advanced chemicals - and our problems have escalated. I have seen on our own tiny patch a transformation, a return towards something healthier. The giant chemical companies who state that they are about 'feeding the planet' are lying to us, fudging facts. They are about greed and money. They do not have our planet's best interest at heart.
I do not believe we can sit back and remain silent. We have little time left. There is no time to remain silent.
Research for a new novel has taken me on the trail of a Welsh saint.
St Winefride's Well is at Holywell, near Flint in north Wales, and was a famous place of pilgrimage both before and after the Reformation.
Legend tells how Winefride fled from the advances of a suitor named Caradoc. She ran towards the church built by her uncle, St Beuno, but the furious Caradoc caught her and cut off her head. As St Beuno lifted the severed head a spring of water rose from the ground beneath. He restored the head to Winefride's body and his prayers brought her back to life. Caradoc sank into the ground and was never seen again.
The story of a head being restored to the body is one that recurs in folktale and legend. However Winefride herself was a real person who lived in the 7th century. Her Welsh name was Gwenfrewi and she was the daughter of a local prince, Tewyth, and his wife Gwenlo. Caradoc was a chieftain from Hawarden. Winefride became a nun and later joined a community at Gwytherin where she eventually became Abbess. Holywell has been a place of pilgrimage and healing ever since and is the only such shrine to have had an unbroken history of pilgrimage for more than thirteen centuries. Even during the most difficult times for Catholics, during the 16th and 17th centuries, pilgrims still flocked to St Winefride's Well, and many inscriptions cut into pillars in the shrine date from these years.
It is customary for pilgrims to pass through the water three times and then to kneel on St Beuno's stone to complete their prayers. This stone - near the steps in the outer pool - is believed to be the one on which St Beuno sat when instructing St Winefride.
The shrine that now houses the well was built in the early 16th century and is a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic. The statue of the saint dates from 1888. She carries a crook and the palm of martyrdom and there is a thin line around her neck to show where her head was severed. In the picture below you can see the central boss over the well, which shows scenes from St Winefride's martyrdom. Smaller - and very weathered - bosses apparently display the emblems of many noble benefactors, among them Queen Katherine of Aragon and Margaret, Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry VII. Theirs was a time when the fame and popularity of this shrine was at its height.
In 1138 St Winefride's relics were removed to Shrewsbury Abbey. The shrine that was built for her there was destroyed during the dissolution of the abbey in 1540, but part of the reredos remains.
Above it is the beautiful St Winefride Window by Jane Gray, part of which can be seen in this link:
King Henry V sought the protection of St Winefride at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the following year he visited her relics at Shrewsbury Abbey, before walking in pilgrimage the sixty miles or so to Holywell to give thanks. In June 2016 the Diocese of Wrexham re-enacted this pilgrimage along the route most likely to have been taken by the king. Quoted in the Shropshire Star, the Rt Rev Mark Davies, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, said, "Whether we are able to physically or spiritually take part in this journey, the ancient pathways of Shropshire will remind us of the rich Christian heritage of this country."
|A Jewish child in Bergen Belsen April 1945|
In the simplest sense that is right but it ignores a whole aspect of children’s lives and development which, during the twentieth century, was profoundly affected by the First and Second World wars as well as other, more recent, conflicts.
|A tank made out of a packet of woodbines reminding one|
that war produces toys and games as well as terror.
For Boy Scouts and Girl Guides the opportunities presented by the lack of young men and women, who had been enlisted for the services and war work, were exciting. They worked as fire fighters and nursing assistants, couriers and stretcher bearers. Some were even sent to relieve the concentration camps in Europe in 1945.
It is a topic worthy of examination since most of us, in one way or another, have some sort of experience of war, even if for children of today it is only what we see on the television.
|A boy soldier in 1907 (C) Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum|
|Children being evacuated to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, 31 August 1939|
|Basque children in Britain 1938|
|Given to an evacuee child and found in a second hand book in 2009|
Our August guest is Amy Licence:
Amy Licence is an historian of women’s lives, from queens to commoners. Her particular interests lie in Modernism, specifically Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Picasso and Post-Impressionism. She has an MA in Medieval and Tudor Studies and has published several scholarly articles and books on the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century: focussing on gender relations, queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion. Her magisterial study Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Portrait of Henry VIII’s True Wife was published in 2016 by Amberley.
Amy has written for the Guardian, the TLS, the New Statesman, BBC History, the English Review, the Huffington Post and the London Magazine, She has been interviewed regularly for BBC radio, including Woman’s Hour, and made her TV debut in the BBC documentary The Real White Queen and Her Rivals. She also writes literary fiction and has been shortlisted twice for the Asham Award.
She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children.
It is said that successful artists remember the days when they were poor with sad nostalgia. There can be no doubt about this. They have left in those places where they lived when they were young and poor all that was best in themselves … When they leave poverty behind them they are also bidding farewell to a purity and a dedication which they will try in vain to find again … Picasso’s restless spirit, continually needing to delve and look further, could only develop satisfactorily in an atmosphere undistracted by glamour and wealth.
The bohemian life was not an easy one. The lives of Sophie Brzeska, Ida Nettleship and Fernande Olivier were acts of consistent bravery in the face of censure, hardship and illness. Their freedom was bought at considerable personal cost. Sophie, Fernande and Ida each fell in love with an artist, a man who found significant fame, sharing their life and witnessing, even participating in, the creation of works that would enter the artistic canon.* While canvases were being covered or stone carved, Sophie, Ida and Fernande were creating and maintaining a domestic and emotional foundation for the production of art; a home, a centre, an essential continuity and stability. But they rarely did so as passive witnesses. Not only were they facilitating their men’s work, they were also acting as models, supplying food, comfort, guidance and attempting to engage in their own artistic pursuits. Few people today know anything about their painting or writing: their obscurity is partly a product of these men’s colossal success as well as the limited machinery of culture, biography and history. Their aspirations have been forgotten, their efforts subsumed in domesticity. And yet they lived bravely, even radically.
Polish aristocrat Sophie Brzeska was to have her literary efforts frustrated through decades of privation and poor health, yet she continued writing stories, until insecurity and illness broke down her mental health completely. Illegitimate French beauty Fernande Olivier had the potential to become a writer or teacher before a chance encounter altered the direction of her life forever. Later, her artistic talent was eclipsed by the immense presence of her lover, on whose name she would continue trading as a way out of poverty. English middle-class Ida Nettleship sacrificed a promising career to be the muse of the man she loved, only to feel that she had failed, and to die young, worn down by a string of pregnancies. Yet their lives sing with determination and vitality. As frustrated artists, beset by the insurmountable obstacles resulting from their moment in time, they matter. As women, their stories tell a familiar and universal truth. They deserve to be brought out from the shadow cast over them by their more famous menfolk and allowed to shine. But they also beg the question of whether such sacrifice was worth it.
To the twenty-first century eye, the lives of Sophie, Ida and Fernande can read like relentless tests of endurance. Existing in pitiful and harsh conditions, often isolated and lonely, they can surely inspire sympathy in an era when women’s lives have been altered forever by advancing technology, emancipation, contraception and drastic social change. All three found their choices affected by the struggle to balance domesticity with creativity and as a result, saw their early promise curtailed by the difficult daily business of survival. Children, poverty, ill-health, lack of opportunity and their devotion to a man got in the way. Yet this was the world as they knew it. The demands placed upon women were complex and constant. Although the laws surrounding marriage and divorce were changing, health provision was improving and the suffrage cause was advancing, such liberties did not fully penetrate even the most enlightened families. Nor could they change the basic dynamics of male-female relationships.
Inescapably, the late nineteenth century shaped their health. Born into financial dependence, Sophie and Fernande were perhaps better equipped to deal with later privations in adulthood, their survival partly due to a learned resilience the middle class Ida lacked. Poor diet, health and sanitation provided constant challenges in the adult lives of all three and, in some cases, the impacts were permanent, even fatal. An additional side effect for Fernande and many other women in similar deprived situations, was the irreparable damage to their reproductive abilities, through disease, violation or aborted pregnancy. However, in spite of the obvious suffering this caused, infertility meant they were never exposed to the huge risks of childbirth repeatedly faced by Ida and other contemporaries. Additionally, Sophie, Ida and Fernande found their developing sexual identity challenging; the transition from adolescence brought danger, discomfort and often disappointment. At varying points in their lives, all three suffered from a lack of control over their sexual activity and the physical and emotional aspects of their relationships with men. Ida was overwhelmed by John’s fecundity, Fernande’s beauty made her a target for predators and Sophie insisted on a platonic relationship with Gaudier.
Outside the confines of a protective family unit, the world they inhabited was fraught with dangers for young women; Ida and Sophie travelled independently but, as Sophie and Fernande’s experiences testify, the more immediate threats to physical safety and virtue could be closer to home, even within it. Sometimes their choices, or lack of, caused them to be isolated from friends and family and their brave attempts to adapt to this loneliness were not always successful. In turn, each sought the consolation of more reliable and sympathetic female companions, who had shared similar experiences. This is not to suggest the development of a powerful solidarity or ‘sisterhood’; their biographies make clear that these attempts at female connection could be disappointingly short-lived, sometimes rebuffed, marred by rivalry or frustrated by conditions beyond their control.
None of them can be claimed for the suffrage movement. They did not fight for women’s rights or make any stand that was politically motivated; they were essentially private individuals rather than spokeswomen yet, in their own way, they played a part in the redefinition of the boundaries that defined female lives. Each experienced specific moments when changing social and moral expectations informed their decision making and resulted in deliberate acts of defiance which, although frequently motivated by personal desire, expose a complex interrelation of individual and context. Millions of Sophies, Fernandes and Idas fought out their own personal battles before the minority stood up for them. What seems most strikingly and inescapably time-specific, was the power of men to define and limit their artistic achievement: their success being as durable as contemporary masculine understanding and generosity.
Separated by the passage of a century and vocal women’s movements, it is easy to talk about wasted opportunities and romanticise these women as heroines sacrificed to male success. As artist Edna Clarke Hall put it in response to her critics, women’s responsibilities lie equally with their children and ‘…in the development of the powers in herself which are her true expression.’2 The early twentieth century does provide examples of comparable women who became successful artists as well as raising children: Bloomsbury’s Vanessa Bell, poetess Frances Cornford, Ida’s friends Edna Clarke Hall and Gwen Salmond, as well as Montmartre’s Suzanne Valadon and the Impressionist Berthe Morisot – all persisted despite complicated personal arrangements. Yet there was also a significant number of successful women who remained single, delayed marriage, or did not have children, featuring on the fringes of these three lives: artists Ursula Tyrwhitt, Dorothy Brett, Dora Carrington, Gwen John, Nina Hamnett and Marie Laurencin; writers Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield.
For some it was a deliberate choice, predicated upon circumstances or sexuality, whilst some exercised little control over their own fertility. Of course there are many others but, although equal success in the realms of domesticity and creativity was achievable, it was significantly more difficult than for the women of the later twentieth century. Possibly of the three, Ida came the closest to having what would now be considered the most successful, if short-lived, ‘career’, studying at the Slade throughout her teenage years. A handful of Fernande’s pictures have been reproduced in biographies of Picasso and, until recently, Sophie’s unpublished diaries and short stories languished in a Colchester library, unread. Their posthumous existence has been allied to the fame of those who directly affected their output but it is significant that they have been remembered primarily as women and not artists or writers.
*Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Augustus John and Pablo Picasso
Bohemian Lives is published by the Amberley Publishing ISBN: 978-1445670645
(Drawings by Geoffrey Licence)
I hope you all had a great Bank Holiday Weekend. Mine was brilliant: I stayed with friends in Weymouth. The sun (unusually, for Bank Holiday) shone and we had a great time at the beach and barbequing. While I was there, I started to think about what I should include in this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and I remembered another trip to the Jurassic Coast, last year.
The Jurassic Coast is a 95-mile long World Heritage Site, made up of sedimentary rocks which together form a near-complete record of 185 million years of history. Last summer we took a day trip to Lyme Regis. Obviously, I was excited to see the Cobb (famous to all Jane Austen fans as the site of Louisa Musgrove’s accident in Persuasion).
But the Jurassic Coast – and perhaps in particular Lyme Regis - not only has some of the best fossils in the world, but was also home some of the most dramatic scientific discoveries of the early and mid-nineteenth century. Regular readers of this blog will know I have a strong interest in the early fossil hunters and scientists, and their discoveries (see January’s Cabinet of Curiosities http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/cabinet-of-curiosities-first-dinosaur.html )
So I was looking forward to the fossils: seeing them and learning more about them, maybe even finding some for myself on the beach. (Which I did, by the way!)
What I didn’t expect to find, but what forms today’s entry for the Cabinet of Curiosities, was a table made of fossilised poo.
|William Buckland's coprolite table, Lyme Regis museum|
You can find the ‘Poo Table’ (as it is un-technically called) in the excellent museum at Lyme Regis. It belonged to William Buckland, first Professor of Geology at Oxford University and later Dean of Westminster. He spent a lot of time in Lyme, working with the fossil hunter Mary Anning. One type of fossil they studied resembled strange round stones. Anning observing that were often found within – or very close to - the skeletons of the sea creatures she had excavated. Buckland reported to the scientific world that these were fossilised faecal matter from the sea creatures, opening up a whole new area of study.
|William Buckland, c. 1845|
I would love to say that the reason I’ve chosen this table is because of its symbolism, as an artefact of an amazing time in scientific history. I could talk about the importance of the discovery of coprolites in understanding the reality of the prehistoric world. Or I could talk about the relationship between Mary Anning – who was, until recently, largely excised from the historical record - and the ‘scientific gentlemen’ like Buckland who often took the credit for describing and interpreting her discoveries.
|Mary Anning (and dog Tray), before 1842|
"[William Buckland’s] son Francis remembered this table in his father’s drawing room where ‘it was often admired by persons who had not the least idea of what they were looking at. I have seen in actual use ear-rings made of polished portions of coprolites… and have made out distinctly the scales and bones of the fish which once formed the dinner of a hideous lizard.’ The ‘belles’ who wore the ear-rings had no idea what they were made of."
Who can resist the idea of prim Victorian ladies placing their tea cups demurely on the Dean of Westminster’s side table, with no idea of what it was made of? Or wearing jewellery, thinking only that they were the height of fashion and not that they were wearing something which, if they had known, they would not be able to discuss in fashionable society? Even better, perhaps some of them knew perfectly well what they were doing, and the joke was on the more ignorant members of that society who admired them?
We can’t know – but it is tremendously good fun to speculate. At least it is if you have my childish sense of humour. In my own defence, it’s clear I’m not the only one to find the even the idea of coprolites entertaining. John Shute Duncan, a contemporary of Buckland, wrote the following verse (quoted in Deborah Cadbury’s ‘The Dinosaur Hunters’.)
“Approach, approach ingenuous youth
And learn this fundamental truth
The noble science of geology
Is firmly bottomed on Coprology”
Lavatory humour, it seems, like so much else, is not a modern invention.
Deborah Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters: A true story of scientific rivalry and the discovery of the prehistoric world (Harper Collins, 2000)
Photos of Buckland and Anning from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of coprolite table my own.
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Unlike many History Girls, I never read the novel "Katherine" by Anya Seton. It was published in 1954 and has remained popular ever since but somehow passed me by. (The only historical fiction I read before adulthood was the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer).
Perhaps it was the RSC's performances of Shakepeare's History Cycle, from Richard the Second to Richard the Third in Michael Boyd's exhilarating productions of a decade ago. We saw them as they came out, in Shakespeare's writing order and then plunged a terrifying amount of money on seeing all eight in their chronological, historical order in four days, named "The Glorious Moment," in Stratford in the spring of 2008. And there were many glorious moments in that long weekend at the Courtyard Theatre, from the astonishing appearances of Jonathan Slinger as both Richards, and Katy Stephens as both Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou, to John MacKay as the Dauphin, along with the rest of the French court in dazzling costumes on trapezes, while Geoffrey Streatfeild excelled on the ground as Henry the Fifth and Jonathan Slinger (again) popped up through a trapdoor as the Bastard of Orléans.
Thrilling stuff. But what of the Beauforts? Well, it all begins with John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward the Third. Which of us did not learn at school the "sceptred isle" speech from Richard the Second? I remember even singing it in the setting by Parry in school choral competitions.
But I didn't know then that the dying Duke of Lancaster, King Richard's uncle and father of the perplexingly named Bolingbroke, was the richest and most hated man in the England Shakespeare makes him praise so lyrically. The man whose most lavish home, the Savoy palace, was burned to the ground in the People's Revolt of 1371, the proud and arrogant lord who liked to be called king, by virtue of his second marriage, to Constance of Castile, the venal man whose sexual adventures might have caused him to die horribly of an STD and – mind-bogglingly – Chaucer's brother-in-law.
|The wedding of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt|
And Shakespeare dramatises the cardinal's feud with Henry the Fifth's brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and his presiding over the trial of Joan of Arc in the next play.
This Beaufort was Henry, the second child of Katherine Swynford by John of Gaunt and brought up to go into the Church, like many second sons.
Shakespeare doesn't portray Katherine, or her daughter Joan. The only female Beaufort descendants we see on stage are – briefly – Joan's daughter, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, who was mother of Edward the Fourth and Richard the Third, and Anne Neville, Cecily's great-niece, who is so memorably seduced at the beginning of Richard the Third.
And yet, the more I researched this remarkable family, the more I became aware that it is the women who drive the story of the House of Beaufort, from Katherine Swynford to Margaret, the mother of Henry the Seventh. After all, Henry claimed the throne through his mother's line and his descent from John of Gaunt; without Margaret we'd have no House of Tudor.
Along comes Nathen Amin's The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown (Amberley Publishing) a beautifully produced hardback that satisfying fills out the history of the women as well as the men who descended from John and Katherine's long-lasting relationship and provided the backbone of the house of Lancaster.
And yet, and yet ... Cecily Neville, Katherine and John's granddaughter, married Richard Duke of York, a possibility of uniting the houses of Lancaster and York long before Henry Tudor came along. It was not to be.
Amin reminds us of the entangled and complex relationships within the royal line of England. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster by virtue of his first marriage, to Blanche of Lancaster, who inherited her father's great wealth, was the third son of Edward the Third. The first was Edward the Black Prince who died before his father, leaving Richard the Second to inherit the throne when his grandfather died. The second was Lionel Duke of Clarence, who died without male heirs, but his daughter Philippa married Edmund Mortimer and their granddaughter Anne Mortimer married Richard, Earl of Cambridge. The fourth son of Edward the Third was Edmund, Duke of York and it was his second son that Anne Mortimer married.
So if you accept inheritance through the maternal line, as you must if you believe Henry Tudor had a legitimate claim to the throne, then the Yorks had the better case.
(If you find any of this confusing, I urge you to read John Julius Norwich's Shakespeare's Kings, which sorts it all out once and for all.)
Born Katherine de Roet in Hainault, she came to England where her sister Philippa was lady in waiting to Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt's first wife. Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote The Book of the Duchess, to celebrate Blanche, at the request of his friend and almost exact contemporary, John of Gaunt. Katherine married Sir Hugh Swynford and bore him at least three children. He died in 1371 and Katherine must have started her affair with John soon afterwards, since their first child John was born a year or two later.
By then Blanche had died of the plague and John had married Constance of Castile, by whom he had one daughter and a son who died in infancy. But in the course of that marriage he fathered John, Henry, Thomas and Joan on Katherine Swynford, who had been governess to two of his daughters by his first wife.
Not laudable behaviour on either side and the medieval equivalent of the tabloids had a field day with the scandalous story. But what was remarkable was that two years after after Constance had died, John married his mistress. She brought no fortune to the marriage or any dynastic advantage, unlike his first two wives, so one must conclude it was a love match.
Whatever you think of Katherine's morals, she was clearly a remarkable person with a strong hold over the richest lord and most powerful person in England after the king.
The children were all given the surname Beaufort, after a lost castle in France. After their parents married, Richard the Second declared them legitimate. Joan, like her three elder brothers, was cousin to the king and there was clearly some contact between them.
When Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard, the Beauforts were now even closer kin to the throne, half-siblings to the new king. Like her mother, Joan married twice, first to Robert Ferrers by whom she had two daughters before he died. Her second husband was Ralph, Earl of Westmorland, who had also been married before, He had twelve children by his first wife and went on to have fourteen more with Joan. (This is a story of fecundity; if Edward the Third and his wife Philippa hadn't had quite so many sons to war for the succession, history would have been very different).
Joan and Ralph made advantageous marriages for all their children, playing on their close relationship with the king. Their youngest child was Cecily Neville, famed for her beauty and nicknamed "the Rose of Raby." When Joan died she was buried with her mother in Lincoln Cathedral.
|Katherine Swynford and Joan Neville's tomb|
Married Richard, Duke of York, who so nearly became king and fathered two sons who did, Edward the Fourth and Richard the Third. Shakespeare portrays her as a strong matriarch, the Duchess of York, who rails against her youngest son as misshapen and evil.
She was a tenacious and fiercely loyal woman who fought for the rights of the house of York and believed she should have been queen.
The granddaughter of John Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, Henry the Fifth's half-brother by his mother's second marriage. She gave birth to her only child, Henry, when she was only thirteen. Although Margaret married twice more, there were no more children and it is assumed that the difficult birth at such a young age damaged her physically. She was separated from her son for most of his childhood and youth, as the Wars of the Roses raged, but remained fanatically attached to her only child and devoted to the idea of his inheriting the throne.
This aspect of her was memorably portrayed by Amanda Hale in the television adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen, a somewhat fanciful re-imagination of what was known then as The Cousins' War.
Nathen Amin has done his research and filled in a lot of the gaps. No-one interested in the remarkable Beaufort line will want to be without it.
The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown by Nathen Amin (Amberley Publishing 2017)
John of Gaunt by Anthony Goodman (Longman 1992)
Shakespeare's Kings by John Julius Norwich (Viking 1999)
A Pride of Bastards by Geoffrey Richardson (Baildon Books 2002)
Katherine Swynford: the Story of John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Duchess by Alison Weir (Jonathan Cape 2007)
|I have yet to see a moustache cup as part of a TV series.|
May, 1750. Children have been disappearing from the streets of Paris. A lawyer named Barbier writes in his diary: 'For a week now people have been saying that police constables in disguise are roaming around various quarters of Paris, abducting children, boys and girls from five or six years old to ten or more, and loading them into the carriages which they have ready waiting nearby.’
‘a leprous prince whose cure required a bath in human blood, and there being no blood purer than that of children, these were seized so as to be bled from all their limbs’.
|Louis XV by Hyacinthe Rigaud|
The riots begin
An official inquiry was instigated. The police, speculating wildly, blamed the riots on a variety of sources: organised criminals, bands of disreputables, mysterious men in black who mingled with the crowds and whipped up trouble.
|Policemen of the Guet, 1745, Étienne Jeaurat|
'A hard, haughty, cruel man'
‘all beggars and vagrants found in the streets of Paris…of whatever age or sex, shall be arrested and taken to prison, there to be detained for as long as shall be deemed necessary.’
No justice, no peace
"In one of the planets that revolve around the star known by the name of Sirius, was a certain young gentleman of promising parts, whom I had the honour to be acquainted with, in this his last voyage to our little ant-hill..."
Thus begins Voltaire's scifi romp Micromegas, published in 1752. You can read the whole story in its English translation from the eminently addictive Public Domain Review here. A treat for the mathematicians and philosophers among you, it's also a quirky pleasure for those of us who are neither. I loved the great man's flamboyant comparisons, such as when one character makes a derisive, but mistaken, first judgement of Saturnians, "just as an Italian fidler laughs at the music of Lully, at his first arrival in Paris." When Micromegas and his new friend, the Saturnian philosopher, decide to go on a jaunt through the solar system, the philosopher's girlfriend berates him - "our five moons are not so inconstant nor our ring so changeable as thee!" - and bustles off to find herself a new beau. When the rambling aliens reach Earth, their enormous size (did I mention that Micromegas is 34 kilometres tall? while the Saturnian dwarf is only a mere 12 fathoms in stature, so that when they walked together it was "like a very little rough spaniel dodging after a Captain of the Prussian grenadiers") makes them wonder if there is any intelligent life to be found, so what do they do? Coming across a, to them, minuscule boatload of human philosophers returning from a trip to the Arctic, they create a hearing tube out of their fingernail clippings to catch their tiny voices!
Great literature? Of course not. But a guy with a big brain having some fun? Just look at that smile!
P.S. On no level would I compare myself to Voltaire, but my little ears pricked up when he wrote of his character being "a wonderful adept in the laws of gravitation, together with the whole force of attraction and repulsion, and made such reasonable use of his knowledge, that sometimes, by the help of a sunbeam, and sometimes by the convenience of a comet ... glided from sphere to sphere, as a bird hops from one bough to another." Not a million miles from the way my own comet-riding Drivers manipulate their meteor herds in Walking Mountain. Me and Voltaire - techno-babble buddies!
(The Church of the Spilled Blood)
All Photos: Theresa Breslin Books: ©Scarpa
Nina is forced to flee her home in Siberia when her father dies. A horrible lawyer wants to marry her and also incidentally steal her inheritance. She runs away, hiding among her possessions a dagger studded with pearls and with a huge ruby set into the handle.
(Tsar Nicholas's tomb)
Later, when she meets Rasputin, it turns out that he has a matching dagger. What is the connection between the two weapons? Is one blessed and one cursed? And why does the dagger belong to Nina?
(The Winter Palace)
We find out the answers to this and other things along the way. The historical story of what happens to Rasputin and the Romanovs is known to many adults but in Breslin's account it's made more accessible and understandable. The novel is also framed as a love story. The terrible fate that befell the Romanovs occurs, as it were, out of the frame, but it's clear what's going to happen to them and a postscript from the author tells us what happened next.
(Basement of Monskoi Palace)
Breslin is very skilled at showing day to day life, as lived in houses, streets, universities, hospitals and she does so mostly through the eyes of a heroine of singular charm and bravery. Nina is a very sympathetic character and we are rooting for her all the way through the book.
I hope very much that this novel will be read by many, not only in a 'this looks like a really good read'spirit but also in a classroom context where it would provide a wonderful stepping stone to further reading about the world-shattering events of 1917.
I've taken advantage of knowing Theresa personally to ask her a few questions which follow:
I've always loved history and am attracted to writing about it. It's such a great opportunity for adventure as young people lived in dangerous and daring times. When growing up our family home was full of books of Folk and Fairy Tales from many lands, which made me want to travel. I found Russian tales fascinating - with stories of deep forests and enormous snowy mountains and bears and wolves. Probably about five years ago I was aware that the centenary of the 1917 Revolution was approaching and, after the success of The Medici Seal and Remembrance, it seemed a natural progression to focus on Russia. And the mysterious monk, Rasputin, is a fascinating character. Then I found out about the actions of the women of the Bread Queues in St Petersburg. On International Women’s Day 1917, (quite newly created to be celebrated on 8th March, but in Russian Old Calendar in 1917 it was late February) they came on to the streets to protest about the lack of food and the continuing slaughter of World War One. Over the next few days they encouraged both female and male factory workers, and then others, to join them, thus bringing the city to a standstill. Many sections of the army, who’d been ordered to stop them by any means, refused to fire upon the crowds. This led directly to the abdication of the Tsar. This was the February Revolution, which is somewhat overlooked in favour of the more well-known October Revolution. By the summer of 1917 in Russia, women aged 20 and over had won the right to vote and stand for election – compare that with the UK! I felt strongly that this story must be told.
Yes, I think that is a fair comment. Essentially they were trapped in a golden cage - with no way out. Prince Harry has spoken about this recently re his own family situation. Tsar Nicholas II watched his grandfather, the liberal Tsar, Alexander III, die a most violently horrible death at the hands of an assassin which put Nicholas off continuing with reforms. Also the Russian Empire was so vast as to be almost ungovernable. And the Tsarina, who could not feel a twinge of sympathy for her? She gave birth (no epidurals then!) to daughter after daughter, until finally the fifth ‘essential male’ child arrived who would inherit the throne and carry on the line of the Romanovs. Then she finds out that her son has haemophilia, a debilitating and incurable condition. On a personal level this is an exceptionally painful discovery for any parent; on the level of the responsibilities of State, it was a catastrophe. I believe the Tsarina was constantly physically and mentally unwell. However…, my emotions see-sawed. I was endlessly frustrated at the actions of the Imperial Family and angeredby their appalling ignorance, determined foolishness, and lack of empathy. Towards the close of the book I sympathised with them through the last years of their lives – drawn out days of suffering, which they bore with fortitude – ending in brutal murder.
4) Who do you hope will read this book?
5) Can you say anything at all about what you're working on next?
The poem tells the story of a tournament in which the men of the village, some of whom already have wives, compete for the hand of Tyb, the reeve’s daughter, after the potter, Perkyn, boasts that he is the only man worthy of her. To add to her charms, the lovely Tyb comes with a dowry of an old grey mare and a spotted sow. The men ride to the joust on field mares, with pots and buckets on their heads instead of helmets. The tournament quickly descends into a pitched battle and come nightfall, the women and wives have to take their bruised and crippled menfolk home on hurdles, cratch (fodder rack) and in wheelbarrows.
Academics continue to argue over the target of the humour in this poem. It’s been suggested that it could be depiction of a mock battle which might have been enacted by villagers during Shrovetide, a time of the year notorious for the performance of bawdy plays and songs full of sexual innuendo. Others have claimed that the poem was penned as warning to those participating in the increasing rowdy knights’ tournaments telling them not behave like peasants, or was it a warning to the lower classes not make fools of themselves by trying to ape their masters?
|Men using flails the thresh grain|
|Cow parsley with its hollow stem|
'All the wives of Tottenham come to see that sight,
With wyspes and kexis and ryschys their light,
To fetch home their husbands, that were them troth plight.'
There is so much history hidden in those three words wyspes, kexis and ryschys or wisps, kexes and rushes, for these were the poor man’s means of lighting. Wisps or wispies were made when extracting honey from the bee skeps. The warmed honey comb would be pressed through straw, and after the honey had dripped through, the straw, covered in melted wax, would be pressed into bundles and left to harden. These would be used as candles or tapers when bright light was needed, though they did not burn for long.
Kexis, kexes or kex refers to hollowed-stemmed plants of the umbelliferous family, such as hemlock, cow-parsley and chervil. The folk-name for cow-parsley in some parts of England is still keckies. The stems of these plants would be dried and stuffed with tow, the waste fibres of flax or hemp, to make lights. These would burn longer than wispies, but would be much smokier.
|Soft Rushes. Photo: Christian Fischer|
Ryschys or rushes, were either bulrushes with the heads soaked in wax or, more likely, rush candles. These were not easy to make, though children had to master the art early on, for a great many were needed especially during the winter months. Soft rushes, Juncus effusus, were cut in summer and plunged into water straightaway, so they didn’t shrink and bend. They then had to be peeled, leaving just one narrow rib of peel to support the pith. It took skill to do this evenly and leave the pith intact. The rushes were then left out for several days to bleach and absorb the night dew before finally being sun-dried. Finally came the eye-stinging process of dipping them in scummings, melted animal fat saved from cooking. Sometimes this could be mixed with melted wax if you had any to spare, which would make them burn longer and clearer. A rush light of around two and half feet long was reckoned to burn for an hour.
Another plant used to make these ‘rush candles’ was Common Mullein (verbascum). One of its old folk names is the Roman name Candelaria, because since ancient times it has been stripped of its leaves, and the resinous dried stalk dipped in tallow, and burned as lights or tapers. Hence its other names such as hedge-taper and Our Lady’s candle.
By the way, if you don’t know the ending of the story in the poem, Perkyn the potter wins the tournament by being the only man left standing. He and Tyb spend the night together as result of which they find they are compatible and agree to marry or in other versions are declared by the poet to be married - an interesting allusion to the wide-spread custom of common-law marriages.
Guests are invited to a marriage feast, at which each fifth man is served with a cokenay. Some define this as a bad egg or a small egg, otherwise known as a cock’s egg. Misshapen or small eggs were said to be laid by cocks. It is also a vulgar pun, in that this term was also used for small or misshapen testicles or men believed to be impotent.
One of my recurring themes is scary dogs. I’m not sure where this obsession came from because I hardly think about dogs in my waking hours and have not had one as a pet since childhood, but there they are, popping up in all my books.
My first Roman Mystery features running dogs on all three versions of the cover. I often say it has ‘good dogs, bad dogs and dead dogs’ because someone is killing the watchdogs of Rome’s ancient seaport. I thought canicide was more suitable for a children’s detective novel than homicide.
I thought wrong. After outraged complaints from British readers, I vowed never to kill another dog. And in thirty subsequent books I’ve hardly ever broken that vow.
So where does my primal obsession with dogs come from?
I vaguely remember being scared by a barking dog behind a fence when I was a little girl. And I remember having nightmares of being chased by dogs. When I was about eight or nine my family acquired a delightful black and white Boston Terrier named Duchess. She had an adorably ugly little face and loved to play with us. Her favourite game was Tug Towel. One of us kids would hold one end, she would clamp jaws on the other and then pull, with ecstatic growls and bulging eyes.
But I also remember my distaste at finding red spots of her menstrual blood dotted around the house. One day she was seduced by Sandy, a big golden lab who belonged to a neighbour. They got stuck together mid-coitus and the entire neighbourhood came out to witness them waddling about in the middle of the road like the proverbial two-backed beast. Duchess rolled her eyes with embarrassment, or so it seemed to me. The ultimate humiliation came when someone trained a hose on the ignominious pair, drenching them with water as well as mocking laughter.
Duchess died of old age and after a suitable period of mourning we went to the animal shelter to find a replacement. There were no Boston terriers so we settled for a pretty Sheltie mix cowering in a corner. I was going through an African phase and insisted on naming her Simba, (Swahili for ‘lion’), on account of her white mane. Far from being lion-like she was neurotic and cringing, with a tendency to snap at men who made sudden moves to stroke her. When I went to college I was relieved to leave her at home, in the care of my long-suffering parents.
I only spent a year studying at U.C. Santa Barbara before I transferred to another campus, but I still remember the packs of dogs that roamed the streets and beaches. Abandoned by their feckless student owners, these once-beloved pets had become feral. There was a story, no doubt apocryphal, that a band of them had once cornered an undergraduate in a vacant lot and forced him to throw a stick for hours. Readers of The Thieves of Ostia now know where I got the idea for the cover scene.
In our affluent culture saturated by images of cute animals, it is hard to think of dogs as sinister, but as I read ancient texts I am often reminded of the deeply unpleasant aspects of canine behaviour. Throughout most of human history, dogs have been considered unclean scavengers and dangerous killers.
Dogs appear in the very first line of Homer’s Iliad, where they vie with carrion birds to feed on the bodies of dead warriors. They’re in the Odyssey, too, where a savage pack of them strike terror into the heart of our hero:
Suddenly the baying dogs caught sight of Odysseus and flew at him, barking loudly. He had the sense to sit down and drop his staff. Even so he would have suffered ignominious injuries there and then, at his own farm, had not the swineherd dashed through the gateway, shouted at the dogs and sent them scurrying off in all directions with a shower of stones.
(Homer Odyssey 14.28)
In fifth century Greece, the poet Euripides died after being torn apart by a pack of his host’s watchdogs as he returned late from a banquet. ‘Such a great genius did not deserve this cruel fate,’ laments the Roman who tells this story.
(Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 9.12.4)
In the Jewish scriptures, dogs are presented as consistently negative. They lick human blood, devour corpses and return to their vomit. (e.g. 1 Kings 22.38, 2 Kings 9:10 & Proverbs 26:11) To be called a ‘dog’ was the most degrading epithet imaginable.
(e.g. 1 Samuel 17:43 & 2 Samuel 16:9 )
In the New Testament even Jesus refers to dogs as unclean, showing how deeply engrained this attitude was in the ancient Middle East. (Matthew 7:6 & Matthew 15:26)
We know from naturalists like Pliny the Elder and doctors like Galen that rabid dog bites were common enough to be genuine concerns. Today, this problem has been all but eradicated in the prosperous first world, where dogs have to get their shots, but in poorer parts of the third world dog bites account for a horrifying number of child deaths.
In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses also known as The Golden Ass (a mid-second century fable sometimes called ‘the first Latin novel’) our hero meets many dogs, none of them pleasant. At one point a bandit recounts the death of his fellow robber, who was wearing the ill-judged disguise of a bearskin.
Guards called long-eared, bristling hunting dogs and commanded them to attack Thrasyleon. Hiding behind a door, I clearly saw my friend bravely fighting off the dogs… Finally he slipped out of the house and sought safety in flight. But as he ran along the streets of the town, all the dogs from neighbouring alleys poured out, just as fierce and numerous as the hunting dogs who were still in pursuit… I witnessed a pathetic and ghastly sight: that of my friend surrounded by the seething pack of dogs and ripped to pieces by their jaws.
(Apuleius, Metamorphoses IV.19 ff)
Similarly, the myth of Actaeon has the eponymous hero torn apart by his own hunting dogs after Artemis has turned him into a deer. This adds a horrible new layer to our primal fear of being devoured by predators: that of being eaten by our own faithful pets.
For Greeks and Romans did not keep dogs solely for hunting, herding and guarding. Some of them, especially women and children, had small lapdogs purely for companionship and play.
From the Roman world we have Helena, a dog beloved enough to receive an expensive tombstone praising her as her ‘matchless’ and ‘well-deserving’. Even the poet Martial who can be very rude about certain women and their lapdogs, penned a charming poem about a pet dog called Issa, who (unlike Duchess) never soiled the bedcovers with a single drop but put an imploring paw on her master’s neck whenever nature called.
(Martial Epigrams 1.109 )
Perhaps the most famous dog from ancient sources is Argos from Homer’s Odyssey. Tick-ridden and lying on a heap of manure, the old hound recognises his returning master after twenty years and, with a feeble wag of his tail, he dies of happiness.
(Homer, Odyssey 17.290ff)
I suppose not all ancient dogs are bad.
Caroline Lawrence’s latest book, Death in the Arena, has a good dog on the cover. Set in Roman Britain, it is suitable for kids 9+
In the late springtime of this year, nine poets went into a primaeval forest. Each one came out of that experience just a little different from the way they were before.
I was one of them.
I’m fortunate enough to be among the four women and five men who participate in the long-running poetry seminar led by Robert Vas Dias. Our time in the forest was part a retreat Robert had organised for us at Jaczno, an absurdly picturesque lodge perched over two lakes amid clusters of proper fairy-tale woods in the north east of Poland. The word ‘idyllic’ is too banal for the beauty of the place.
For the previous two years, I’d been working full-time on a hard-hitting non-fiction book, the partial object of which was to make sure that there was absolutely no poetry in the portrayal of a brutal crime. That would simply not have been appropriate.
So the week in Poland was a chance to retrieve anything writerly and poetic in me that had survived the project. Two years is a long time. I feared that I would be a disappointment to myself and the group.
But at Jaczno, it all came crowding back with a force that took me by surprise and wrapped me in happiness. To be in such a place, with such intelligent and creative companions, also had the effect of reminding me what my sense of humour is for.
All gateways were open, and beckoning. Everything was elevated. Some things were darker than the forest. Many things were just a little bit hilarious. Storks and mosquitoes became creatures of myth. Each of us produced a completely different response to a graveyard of seven faiths in Suwalki. To me, Rutka Tartak, a harmless little village, seemed the name of a Mata Hari with cheekbones like the steppes of Asia, tall red heels and a hungry womb, who smiled like lightning and fed like a shark. She became the protagonist of my first ever pantoum. And when I discovered that beavers are the totemic animals of the region, well, I just couldn’t help myself …
I have occasionally posted some of my poetry on this site, with the excuse that the poems in question had an historical bent. But I have never before posted a first draft written in a couple of hours.
However, that’s exactly what I am going to do now – just to show the effect of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, with all creaturely comforts provided too and a magical atmosphere of kindness.
When I next have some poet-time, this poem will be shortened and tightened so that it is less autobiographical and therefore easier on the reader – but it will never again be as good in the sense of pleasure it gave me as a writer to untether, be wild outdoors, and to play in the word Badlands without caution or constraint.
Beaver CountryA diligence of poets drove to Wigry
collecting hope-twigs in their notable books
for the typical infrastructures – thought-palaces moated
against doubt-wolves; dams to defend against block-bears.
Poets’ fingers grow continuously and
must be filed down by pressing on pens and keys
or they may become too long to be gloved.
Poets live up to ninety-five stanzas in the wild.
They generally have poor foresight, making up for it
with keen senses of tickling, trombone and liquorice.
Poets wear their hearts on their glands, recognise their kin
by literary secretions. They can smell blood.
Poets work late into the night, sometimes throwing up
an entire manuscript in the lifecycle of a single moon.
They have been hunted almost to extinction,
decried as an invasive species because of forests written off
to build their villanelles and canticles. For this reason
a poet has not been seen in London since May, 1812.
While more diligent poets forage in the forest,
she stays home nursing her delicacies.
But a disembeavered poem-shoot warm-noses
out of her wrist and begins to build a sonnet.
While she’s slapping that down, behind her back,
up lurches the scaffolding of a sestina,
stuttering on quaking-aspen and swan-bone
barely held together by Vaseline and irony.
Meanwhile, there’s a tapping at the back of her mind,
like the throb of a scaly tail slapping the hell
out of the serenity of a flowing transcript’s meniscus.
It’s reminding her she knows too much about poets.
In Venice, she taught Worshipful London Apothecaries
about castoreum, the yellow exudate of the poet’s heart-
shaped castor gland. Tinctured in alcohol, its perfume honks
a leather-bound must-note, which must be aged some years
for its harsh rawness to mellow. Only then is it
also good for hysteria, headache and that difficult second novel.
Dried poet testimonies were for centuries used to relieve pain.
Aesop himself footnoted that poets would chew off
their own testimonies to save themselves from hunters.
Because of the overlapping scales on their, pardon me, envois,
the Catholic Church defined poet-flesh as fish
so poetry may be consumed in godly fashion on Fridays.
Poet pelts have been bartered by publishers for centuries.
The European colonisation of Canada had at its secret heart
the quest for frontier poets, and especially their silky sub-texts,
the very best thing for making warm hats.
Enough! She takes a walk to get away from so much
involuntary beavering; promptly trips on a large white root.
Except it’s the thigh bone of Trogontherium, the giant
Eurasian beaver long since believed to be out of print.
Michelle Lovric’s website.
Photos from the Jaczno lodge website; beaver/poet courtesy of Wellcome Images.
It is a fascinating museum, in many ways representing the triumph of eccentricity over evil. At Bletchley a group of dedicated men and women – many of them amateurs with a gift for crosswords or mathematics – managed to decrypt German secret service messages sent over the German secret coding ‘Enigma’ machines. They did so by building their own ‘Ultra’ code-breaking machine.
[Harry Hinsley, The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War, retrieved 10 September 2017] http://www.cix.co.uk/~klockstone/hinsley.htm
The reason for this was that once the Enigma code was broken Britain was able to read all the top secret communications of the German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr. This included communications relating to the arrival of German spies into the United Kingdom. Every spy who entered the country was captured as a result. Most of these were turned into double agents under the British Double-Cross Operation. From then on, all intelligence information received by the Abwehr was false intelligence and MI5 knew exactly what the Abwehr did with it.
At the very time the Bletchley Park code-breakers were working so hard to break the German Enigma code, Agatha Christie was writing her first spy thriller. “N or M” was published in 1941, simultaneously in the UK and the US. In the book, the daring detective pair, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, are recruited by Military Intelligence to find an evil fifth columnist or German spy hiding in a seaside resort.
“The final words of a dying man ... the code names of Hitler’s most dangerous agents ... the elusive clue that sends that elegant detective team, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, to a fashionable seaside resort on a mission of wartime intelligence. But not as husband and wife. As strangers, meeting by chance, setting an elaborate trap for an elusive killer.”
MI5 was concerned about the naming its top secret installation in a popular novel, but it was loath to send agents or the police to interrogate Christie about her choice of character name, as this might bring damaging publicity. They did question Knox, who was dismissive of the idea that Christie knew anything at all about what was going on at Bletchley. However, he agreed to talk to her. Over tea and scones at his home in Buckinghamshire, he asked Christie how she came to name her characters. Major Bletchley for instance. Christie's reply was that she had been stuck at Bletchley Station on her way by train from Oxford to London and took revenge by "giving the name to of my least lovable characters."[Richard Norton-Taylor (4 February 2013), Agatha Christie was investigated by MI5 over Bletchley Park mystery, The Guardian, retrieved 10 September 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/04/agatha-christie-mi5-bletchley
MI5 were apparently reassured by this explanation. I am less so. In the 1940s the "Varsity Line" went between Oxford and Cambridge through Bletchley, but it seems to me a most peculiar route to go through Bletchley from Oxford to London when there was a direct Oxford-London line. However, I accept that the UK railway service was in a parlous state during the war because of the bombings. Diversions and long delays for non-military transport were common and very irksome to travellers. Perhaps Christie's explanation for the name of the character is indeed the simple truth.
There is another, very interesting but probably not sinister, facet to the story behind the writing of "N or M". During the Second World War, Christie lived at the Isokon building in Lawn Road, Hampstead. An avant-garde building in which reinforced concrete was used in British domestic architecture for the first time, it attracted as tenants those who wanted a minimalist lifestyle, with few possessions. It is now accepted that the building was a haunt of Soviet Russian spies. It is estimated that between the mid-1930s and mid-1940s, around twenty-five Soviet spies came to live next to each other in the Isokon.
One of Christie's neighbours was Arnold Deutsch, a university lecturer who was the controller of the infamous group, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald McLean and Anthony Blunt. All four turned against Britain during the Second World War. [Alex Bellotti (3 April 2014) How Agatha Christie secretly lived amongst Soviet spies in Hampstead. Retrieved 10 September 2017] http://www.hamhigh.co.uk/etcetera/books/how-agatha-christie-secretly-lived-amongst-soviet-spies-in-hampstead-1-3520592
It is in that building, among those people, that Christie first tried her hand at a spy novel, so far removed from a murder in a vicarage.
The Isokon is not a large building and Christie must have come to know her neighbours. Is it mere coincidence that she should write her first spy novel when she was living cheek by jowl with real spies? Is it coincidence that she should give a character in that novel the name of the top secret establishment where British code-breakers led by her close friend were hard at work trying to decipher Nazi messages, including those relating to German spies in Britain?
“grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.” [Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (Harper Collins, 2011)]
[all photographs taken by me, other than the book cover which is from http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=16728778815]
This Summer, we snorkelled in an Ancient Roman Fishpond.
The setting was the incredible island of Ventotene, some 50 kilometres off the coast of Lazio. Just 800 metres wide and 3 kilometres long, Ventotene is a gorgeous, volcanic haven of what my kids call "cool Roman stuff". It is brimful of stories and tragedies.
Mussolini imprisoned some of his opponents on Ventotene - more specifically on the even tinier island next door - Santo Stefano. One of them, Altiro Spinelli, dreamed of a federal Europe to end Europe's ceaseless wars - and his Ventotene Manifesto is widely seen as the ideological founding document of the EU.
|A view of Santo Stefano (the large island) at sunset. (There's a Brexit metaphor here, but it's too depressing)|
|A graphical reconstruction of the fishponds (from the report of 2004 archaeological work of Annalisa Zarattini – Simone L. Trigona – |
Dante G. Bartoli – Ayse D. Atauz
|Inside one of the tunnels - the archaeologists' picture.|