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    British Library
    On Raisin wine:

    "One who takes this is especially exhilarated and restored by a raisin wine which is clear to the bottom of the cup, in its clarity similar to the tears of a penitent, and the colour is that of an oxhorn.  It descends like lightning up on one who takes it - most tasty as an almond nut, quick as a squirrel, frisky as a kid, strong in the manner of a host of Cistercians or grey monks, emitting a kind of spark; it is supplied with the subtley of a syllogism of petit pont, delicate as fine cotton, it exceeds crystal in coolness." 

     This lyrical analysis stands up to anything that today's wine critics might write.  It was penned in the early 13th century by one Alexander Nequam, a monk of St Albans who had grown up sharing his mother Hodierna's breastmilk with none other than Richard the Lionheart, whose wetnurse she was.  Clearly he was a connoisseur from the start of his drinking life.

    My characters imbibe a lot of wine in my novels.  The protagonists usually have a high status lifestyle and this tends to be their drink of habit.  Often the first thing they do when they walk into a room is reach for a flagon (or have the servant do it).

    But what sort of wine were they drinking?  

    I had always somehow assumed that the standard medieval wine was a robust red. That's how it always appears in films and books,  but researching recently I found that (as in all things when you actually begin digging) it ain't necessarily so.  Most of the wines produced in Northern Europe, including Britain were whites. During the 12th century  most of the wine imported across the Channel from the Continent was a light, acidic white and the wine of choice for the wine drinkers in the population.  Henry II granted the burgesses of Rouen a monopoly on the export of wines to England.
    When Rouen fell to the French in the early 13th century, trade turned for a couple of decades to the port of La Rochelle.  Here too, the Poitevan wines sold to the English market were similar acidic whites.  When in 1224, La Rochelle fell to France, the English had to look elsewhere for their wine. Fortunately for them, Bordeaux was still within their jurisdiction and for the next two hundred years, it became the focus of the wine trade between England and France.  Tastes had to change, for the wine of this region was red.  However, don't imagine that it was the full-blooded colour we see today on our supermarket shelves.  The 'vin ordinaire' of late medieval England was more akin to a modern rosé.  There was a wine known as 'clairet', the ancestor of modern claret, but it was pink.  There was a wine drink known as 'clarry' but it had nothing to do with claret and was a spiced wine sweetened with honey and with additions of ginger, saffron and pepper.
    Noah, first treading grapes and then getting drunk!
    British Library

    How was the wine made? 
    For white wine the grapes were collected in baskets and tipped into large vats where they were trodden by workers or crushed by planks of wood and the first juice collected to make wine.  The remaining mulch was put through a wine press to extract more liquid from the mulch.  This was put into barrels where fermentation occurred in a matter of days. The barrels were put in a fermentation barn and then it was the luck of the draw with regard to temperature how well that process would go.  Too cold and there would be no fermentation and too much heat would stop the process.  Too lively a fermentation and the barrel might explode!  Some German growers of Rhenish wine were known to keep their barns heated in order to promote fermentation.

    With red wines, fermentation was a longer process. Sometimes stalks were removed from the grapes before processing in order to lessen the tannin content and bring forward the time when they were ready to drink. Red grapes fermented rapidly and so it was necessary not to fill the vats to the brim lest they overflowed and also that the people treading the grapes always had their heads above the rim of the vat lest they were overcome by carbon dioxide poisoning.

    Once fermentation had begun - usually within hours, the vats were covered with planks.   On top of the fermenting must, the skins, pips and debris would float.  Now it was the wine-maker's professional skill to decide how many times to push this debric back into the fermenting mixture and how long to leave the ferment. The longer the ferment, the more strongly coloured the wine.  The earlier mentioned pink rosé or vin clairet for the English market was generally ready in a day. Meanwhile, the flotation material was eventually skimmed off and pressed through a wine press.  It might be pressed as much as three times, becoming more bitter with each pressing.
    Angel giving grapes to a devil sitting on a wine press.
    British Library
    Once all the juice had been extracted from the crushed grapes, the debris was then mixed with water and left to ferment for 3 days.  This produced an almost colourless drink at around 2% proof with various names in different regions, piquette being one such name, or buvande.  It was cheap and drunk by the poor and by thirsty workers.  Finally, the mulch was mixed with straw and put on the fields.
    This new wine was quickly sent from the producers to the market.  It didn't keep and transportation could play havoc with the contents.  Last year's wine was viewed as decidedly dodgy by buyers and the preference was always for 'New Wine'. We are told by cleric Peter of Blois who served at the  Angevin court, all about the terrible wine served by Henry II.  Apparently it was 'stale, sour, thick, greasy, and tasting of pitch from the cask.  'I have sometimes seen even great lords served with wine so muddy that a man must needs close his eyes and clench his teeth, wry-mouthed and shuddering, and filtering the stuff rather than drinking.' 
    Noah wasn't the only one getting drunk. An Italian illustration
    of women, one in particular, the worse for wear...!  British Library
    The most prestigious wines of all, known as 'sweet wines' came from Greece.  Known variously as malmsey, (malvoise in France) Romeney, Vernage, Tyre, muscadel, or Greek wine, it was produced in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially mainland Greece.  It was exported to Europe by the Venetians from the port of Monemvasia. Malmsey was also produced in Crete and exported via the port of Candia.  Sweet wine grapes were harvested late when the grapes had been semi-dried by the sun and were more like raisins.  This increased the sweetness and the alcohol content. The wine also stored better and could be kept for more than one season.
    It's one of these type of wines that Alexander Nequam praises so fulsomely at the top of this blog.
    Saintonge wine jug 1350-75.  British Museum
    Something else I came across recently with reference to wine was reading a plaque beside a wine jug in a museum (I'm afraid I've forgotten which museum, I've been on something of a fest recently!) but the comment was made that along with wine imports also came sales of fancy jugs in which to serve that wine and that opportunity was a big hit with consumers - a clever way of diversifying and maximising profits!

    There is far more to be said about the wine trade than I can fit into this short article.  I can highly recommend the below book for further reading though for anyone wanting to read up more thoroughly on the subject.

    I raise my jug

    Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the UK's best selling historical novelists with a passion for all things medieval.  She enjoys wine best in a casserole and prefers to drink tea! 

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       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.
        As Richard comments in my novel, Phillips looks more like a wet night in Pontypool than an Arabian one. This journey must have been fascinating, exhausting and confusing. Writing home to Frith, Richard said that when he lay down at the end of the day his imagination was “so full of wild vagaries that I have really and truly doubted of my own sanity.” He probably smoked hashish and it is now known that drugs can trigger schizophrenic episodes in vulnerable young people. Richard imagined that he was being persecuted by evil spirits who took on various forms: a sea captain, an old lady in the Vatican galleries in Rome and Phillips himself, and he became obsessed by the idea that he was a ‘catspaw’ of the Egyptian god Osiris. When they reached Paris, on the way home, Phillips wanted him to see a doctor but at the end of May 1843 Richard fled back to London.

       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.

       It was taken in about 1857, the year my novel is set, and shows Dadd, aged 40, in the hospital at his easel, where the unfinished oval of Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (another of his fairy paintings) sits, waiting for the brush he holds to continue to bring it to life. He stares at the camera, at us, with recognition and warmth, looking more like an artist in his studio than a prisoner in his cell.

       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.

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    Last night, while I was watering the land, I watched a small flock of ring-necked turtle doves gorging themselves on fruits in the fig tree, which have ripened very early this year. There were other birds feeding off the grapevines. A large toad crossed the driveway and paused to study me with bulging eyes. I greeted him but he simply plodded onwards into the shade and safety of the wisteria bushes.
    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.
    Bucolic bliss.

    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.

                                                                olives riddled with fly larvae

    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:
    Neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticide. They were first put on the market in the mid 1990s. They all share a common mode of action, which is that they affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in the creature's paralysis and death.
    Here are some of the insecticides that come under the heading of neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, clothianidin, nithiazine and quite a few others.

    I had not heard of any of them. These names were like another language to me but I set about trying to educate myself.
    The conversations I was having with André were taking place in the early 2000s. So, not a great deal of research had been undertaken to discover the longterm effects of the chemicals' use. It was a little too soon for scientists or environmentalists to grasp the far-reaching damage being caused by neonicotinoids. 

    The product being sprayed onto our olive trees, did it come under the heading of neonicotinoids? In fact, it didn't. We were using a crystal soluble in water known as dimethoate. It was patented in the 1950s by an American chemical company, American Cyanamid. Its function is to disable an enzyme which is essential for the health of the central nervous system. Its health hazard was rated as HIGHLY TOXIC. It  has since, in France at least, been more or less withdrawn from the market.
    I stood on the land and stared at the trees. These trees were being sprayed to protect their fruits against a fly. Fruits which were being harvested to be pressed into oil. An oil which is one of the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet. A basic food product. An oil which man has used and revered and respected for millennia.
    Something is this system seemed to me to be very wrong. 
    André leant me a book that is only available to registered farmers, professionals. We did not/do not qualify. This book, known in France amongst agriculturalists as Le Bible, lists every chemical product available for use on the land. It also lists its properties, its toxic rating and the effects it has on flora, fauna and on humans. The book, a rather heavy tome, made horrifying reading. Various cancers were listed, hormone disruption, skin problems, burning, nervous system damage, genetic defects.
    On the hazard warning scale, for example, if you see a product which has H351 on its label, it means the product is 'suspected of causing cancer'. H360 means 'may damage fertility or the unborn child'.

    I was about to embark on what turned out to be an odyssey of a research trip. Seventeen months travelling, circumnavigating the Mediterranean in search of the history, the culture of the olive tree. The travels produced two books: THE OLIVE ROUTE and THE OLIVE TREE. The two books inspired a five-film TV series, also known as THE OLIVE ROUTE.

    It was during these trips that I discovered the word 'desertification' and its meaning. I saw for myself the effects of desertification. One of the The Olive Route films concerns itself with the subject. 
    What is desertification? 
    In a nutshell desertification is the degradation of land caused by aridity and the loss of vegetation and wildlife. These losses can come about through overuse of chemicals, overexploitation of the soil, depletion of nutrients in the soil. It is soil death, you might say. Desertification is becoming a significant global problem. I visited olive farms in southern Spain of immense sizes. They were kingdoms of olive production boasting thousands and thousands of olive trees. To protect their potential product, planes were flying over the groves disgorging the chemicals necessary to combat the olive fly and any other nuisance. Here, I saw the effects of desertification: the earth was cracking open. Great fissures splitting open the arid, stony ground. There was not a weed to be seen in a hundred kilometres.  There was nothing to hold the top soil. When it rained, the chemical residue on the trees was washed to the ground. Any top soil still remaining, now polluted with chemicals, was also being washed away, into the rivers. Rivers used to stock reservoirs. Reservoirs that feed into cities and towns for drinking water. The water is contaminated with the chemicals being sprayed all over the farms, the olive trees, the land. In parts of southern Spain, desertification is a swiftly-developing environmental crisis.

    For my Olive Route books and films, I had transported myself back as far as 4,000 years BC in Lebanon and Syria where I had found olive trees of that venerable age, 6,000 years, still growing, still fruiting. Now, in Spain, I was staring at the future. The possible future if we do not heed the signs.
    By the time I returned from my travels, the plight of the honey bee, its disappearance, was escalating and growing as a topic in public awareness and I was returning full of new knowledge. Our farm has since been run as an organic enterprise. We produce less oil but there are no chemicals in it and the insects, songbirds have slowly returned to the land. We are not endangering nature. Nor are we, through the consumption of our produce, poisoning ourselves.

    On 1st June of this year, the US President announced that the US will be withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. I have read that he has now confirmed this decision in writing although the withdrawal cannot, due to the terms of the agreement, be made effective till 2020. 

    The history of the use of some form of pesticide dates back before even the Romans who recycled the paste left over after their olives had been crushed into oil. Roman farmers laid this paste at the feet of the olive trees as a repellant against pests.

                                                         Map of Mesopotamia 2,000 - 1600 BC

    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.

    During the 1850s in Bordeaux in France, a vineyard producer was having problems with people pilfering grapes from his vines. Thinking that he could make the grapes unattractive to the thieves, he applied a mixture of copper and lime to a section of his vineyards. The result not only deterred thieves, but it was also noticed that where the copper-lime mixture was applied, there was no disease incidence. This copper-lime mixture came to be known as Bordeaux mixture, a commonly used fungicide, even today. The discovery was the beginning of modern fungicide use.

    1874, in Strasbourg, Austrian chemist, Othmar Zeidler and Berlin-born, Nobel laureate Adolph von Baeyer, an organic chemist, first synthesised a colourless, tasteless and almost odourless crystalline organochlorine called Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, better known as DDT. However, its use as an insecticide was only discovered by the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Mueller in 1939.

    Orchard spraying with lead arsenate circa 1900. It was used in orchards in US until 1947 when most farers switched to DDT.

    The use of natural repellants continued more or less in the same manner until the second half of the nineteenth-century when lead arsenate was discovered to be useful in the protection of crops. The Chinese in fact had been using arsenic since 900 AD to control their garden insects. In the United States, in 1907, the pest control industry began production of lead arsenate. The birth of one of the world's biggest and most profitable industries was underway. By the beginning of the 1920s, small planes were being used to spray the crops with it.
    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.

    In 1942, DDT was made available to the US military. It was only a matter of time (1945) before it was put on the market for civilian use. In that same year of 1942, the herbicidal properties of phexoxy acetic acids were being described. This product used predominantly in the United States as a herbicide and grass defoliant contained the component dioxin, which was soon to be used in Agent Orange during the Vietnam War era. Even in 1942, scientists, chemical specialists, were aware that dioxin could easily penetrate the soil and contaminate groundwater.
    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.

                                              DDT as a pest control in cities and on beaches. Early 50s, USA

    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.

    Olga Owens Huckins's letter to the The Boston Herald

    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.
    Carson wrote:
    "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.


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    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."

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    A Jewish child in Bergen Belsen April 1945
    Children: War. Two words that perhaps do not sit together comfortably in one’s mind.  What have children to do with war?  What has war to do with children?  Surely, one would argue, children have to be protected from war, violence, horror, atrocities. 

    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.
    War changes lives.  It changes lives for the better and the worse, for the unexpected and the unpredictable.  For some children the Second World War had a devastating effect on their homes and families so that they never recovered from the shock of it.  For others it literally made them.  Evacuation during the war offered some city children the opportunity for a better life, a chance at education and even, for some, a place at university that would have been unthinkable from the standpoint of their pre-war lives.  For boys caught in the poverty trap at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century a career in the army could offer them a life away from the streets, from trouble.  Again, it could literally make them.  

    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.
    The subject of boy soldiers is one that conjures up the ranks of young men who lied about their age to enlist in 1914 and 1915 to fight for King and Country.  Yet it was not unusual for boys to be engaged by the Army and Navy.  The Army had a long tradition of boy drummers while the cavalry employed boy trumpeters.  For some boys, who had got into trouble with the Law, there was a choice for them between going to prison or ‘taking the option’ which meant agreeing to serve in the Forces. For those who took the option a life in the Army could offer them opportunities and adventure beyond their wildest dreams. 

    A boy soldier in 1907 (C) Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum
    The propaganda run by the government in the early years of the First World War appealed to young men’s sense of patriotism, which bordered on Jingoism.  It was hugely successful and drew in boys as well as to young men.  According to the historian, Richard van Emden, 250,000 underage boys succeeded in slipping through the net, despite protests from many parties.  Of those, thousands died and much of the pity of the First World War is directed at the lost generation of young men, those who had died young.  In the Second World War the government had no need for a general advertising campaign to recruit for the Forces as conscription had been introduced several months before the War broke out.  What the poster campaigns during the Second World War fixed on was specific appeals.  The RAF appealed to young men’s sense of adventure and patriotism; the WAAF and ATS encouraged young women to think of contributing actively towards the war by enlisting. 

    Children being evacuated to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, 31 August 1939
    But during the Second World War the government had an equally great concern which was the safety of civilians.  With the introduction of aerial warfare the civilian population was as likely to be targeted as military positions and the drive to put women and children beyond the reach of the Luftwaffe led to the greatest evacuation of civilians in British history.  As 3.5 million children moved from city to village, town to country, from Britain to America and the Dominions an upheaval of a kind was introduced that still has repercussions in the world today.  It was described by one historian as the greatest social experiment of all times and by another as delivering social mobility in a way that no one in government could possibly have anticipated. 

    The shake-up caused by the mass movement of civilians was felt to an even greater extent on the continent where children were fleeing not just from the threat of aerial bombardment but from a far greater menace, which was the threat of genocide and systematic annihilation.  England offered children shelter long before the Second World War.  In 1915 a quarter of a million Belgians, including tens of thousands of children, came to Britain.  
    Basque children in Britain 1938
    In 1937 4,000 Basque children arrived in Southampton to seek shelter from the Civil War that was tearing their country apart.  And then there was the threat from the Nazis for Jews, Gypsies, Siitis and other so-called ‘Undesirables’.  For these children the flight from terror often meant that almost everything they had had prior to the war was lost.  One Jewish refugee child, fleeing from Germany, was told she could bring one item with her on her journey to safety.  What should she choose from her array of clothes, toys, books and treasures?  In the end she brought her half-size violin.  The only vestige of her old life.  Today, children still come to Britain, fleeing persecution in some of the world’s worst trouble spots.  Like the children before them, they often have nothing to connect them to their past and similarly they have to start over to build a new life. Their experiences are terrifying and the sights they have seen so horrific that it almost defies our imagination. We have to hope that society will open its arms to them and give them some peace. Meantime, their plight should not be forgotten in the maelstrom of news coverage. Their stories need to be told, their violins heard.

    Given to an evacuee child and found in a second hand book in 2009

    This is my farewell blog for the History Girls. Thank you for inviting me and I shall follow the blog in the future. Good luck to all History Girls in their writing and everyday lives and to all the readers who follow the blogs daily, weekly or even just occasionally. Julie 

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    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.

    Sophie Brzeska

    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.

    Fernande Olivier
     Picasso was so jealous about about Fernande that he sometimes refused to let her go out alone; Augustus John continually impregnated his wife and was irritated by the noise of their children; Sophie refused to submit to Gaudier’s sexual requests yet feared he would be stolen away by another woman. The ability of these three women to fulfil their artistic potential was inseparable from their gender. For Ida, Sophie and Fernande, specific circumstances combined to create obstacles between them and their full artistic expression.

    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)

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    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
    The technical term for fossilised faeces is a coprolite, and they are surprisingly common.

    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
     Despite this, the table in the Lyme museum does not appear to be made from coprolites from the Lyme area – they are more likely to have come from Edinburgh, from a trip Buckland made in 1834.

    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
     But I’m afraid my motivations are considerably less academic. In the museum is the following label:

    "[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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  • 08/30/17--16:01: August competition

  • To win a copy of Amy Licence's Bohemian Lives, just answer this question in the comments section below, then email your answer to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk so that we can notify you if you win:

    "Who would you describe as the most interesting Bohemian of the 20th Century? and why is that your choice?"

    Closing date 20th September to accommodate holidays.

    We are sorry that our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

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    I can't remember when I first became interested in the Beauforts, the children conceived by Katherine Swynford by her lover, John of Gaunt, and later legitimised by their marriage.

    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
     Finding out all this was to come but in was in another of the History plays that I first encountered my first Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester, who later became a Cardinal. He is the one who has the huge speech about Salic law in Henry the Sixth, part one, justifying the English right to the French throne.

    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.)

    Henry Tudor
     These are the amazing "history girls" of the Beaufort family:

    Katherine Swynford

    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.

    Joan Beaufort

    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

    Cecily Neville

    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.

     Margaret Beaufort

    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)

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    Right now I’m revelling in different readings of historical periods. Normally I do this with my historian’s hat on and the different views are the different interpretation s of vast amounts of data and close and careful reading of sources by historians. Today, that’s not what’s happening at all.
    I borrowed the TV series Victoriafrom the library and have watched just one episode. When I finish my writing, I’ll watch some more. It’s addictive.

    I’m seeing early Victorian England from the view of the TV series and also from the view of the actors. Jenna Coleman’s accent isn’t even close to Victorian (I want to haul out my late Victorian dictionary of how to pronounce English to check, but really, it’s too late both the date of the dictionary and the time of night) but it does show us the way she feels Victorian English should be presented. She used the same accent when she was a governess in an episode of Doctor Who. It’s mostly her everyday accent, but not quite. Victorian England then, is like us but not quite to those who take their feel for the period from popular television.

    The choice of actors gives us a view of the period and place that is quite different to the actual period and place. I took a break to check this one out, too, for everyone looked wrong. Lord Melbourne and Rufus Sewell both don’t ring true. I was trying to think of why and it strikes me that Sewell doesn’t look like the person whose physical presence was so great that he dominated Victoria’s life for several years. Sewel has plenty of presence, so it isn’t lack of presence that’s the problem. It’s more that his body language in a crowd works quite differently to the body language from contemporary caricatures of important people. That is to say, when he is surrounded by other politicians, he doesn’t use his body language like the politicians of that time. We have some knowledge of their body language (although I’m very rusty on it) because there were publications that mock it. 

    These aren’t right history or wrong history, good history or bad history, but they are different ways of seeing and presenting history. This is very much with me today.

    Modern work is important to the way we think about the past. Thanks to Regency novelists (not English novelists of the late Georgian period, but modern novelists who use Regency settings) I’ve a picture of Lady Caroline Lamb that focusses on the exotic and the daring and the Byron side. I always have to stop and remember that she was involved in the political side of things through her husband, who, after her death, loomed large in the life of Queen Victoria. She was a lot more than Byron’s failed affair and the centre of gossip. She was a mover and a shaker in her own right. There often a lot more to history than we see on television. When I say this to a class, I often hand round a cup to make my point. Let me give you a photo of it.

    owner and picture: G Polack
    I have yet to see a moustache cup as part of a TV series.

    Given I’m adding more ways of seeing historical figures to my mental collection tonight, I need to add one for this woman. The one that needs to be added is the most important. It has nothing to do with society and everything to do with society. It’s the way I would enter into her life if I were writing a novel about her. 

    I wouldn’t start with her husband or her lover or her public arguments or the shocking things that some people liked to explain about her: I’d start with her fiction.

    The best element of her fiction to begin with is Glenarvon. It links all the elements we think we know about Lady Caroline Lamb and turns them into a Gothic novel, mocking them. She wrote a best-seller that laughed at the attitudes of people to her. I could move from the novel itself to what it did to her reputation, and be back on traditional grounds, or I could go from one work of fiction she wrote to all the others, and to the material she wrote to Byron that was apparently good enough to confuse Byron’s publisher. (I say ‘apparently’ because I need to check sources for this!)

    There’s a detective novel in Caro’s life. It consists of finding out who she actually was as a person. She’s left popular history littered with evidence and false leads. This is why we write about her a lot. And Victoria. And Lord Melbourne.

    Different views for different moods and different moments. This to me, is an evanescent form of history, resting on popular versions of stories of famous people. It’s a lot of fun, and, as long as we know we’re living in a temporary interpretation, we can take Jenna Coleman’s voice as true for Victoria and admire how Lord Melbourne has got over the loss of his novelist wife and become … whatever  the writers and actors make him become in Victoria’s life. Impermanent truths, full of charm and emotional understanding.

    This is how we read and how we watch. We immerse ourselves in a story and follow it. I love this. I love the way I can follow and yet not trust. I love pulling it to pieces and finding out where all the components come from and what other stories are told with them elsewhere.

    It’s more related to historiography (the study of how history is written) than to history proper. It’s understanding how complex our knowledge of the past can be, through seeing how people interpret history from as many angles as we can.

    Why am I thinking along these lines? There is a reason. I have a conference paper to work on and masterclasses to prepare for the Historical Novel Society of Australasia’s biennial event. I’ll report on the weekend itself next month. This month, though, I’m living the dream. I’m trying to see how many ways of envisaging history I can fit into my mind at once and what makes them come alive for me.
    Fitting everything in and understanding them is what I do while wearing my historian hat. Making them come alive for me myself is step one in making them come alive for other people and that’s for my teaching and, of course, for my own fiction.

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to return to the young Queen Victoria.

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    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.’

    Some said the children were being sent off to the colonies or to the wars. Some believed the police were using them to extract ransom money. But others thought something far darker was at work. Barbier noted the belief that the kidnappers were agents of 
    ‘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’. 
    And some said this prince was in fact their King.

    Louis XV by Hyacinthe Rigaud

    ‘The wicked people … are calling me a Herod,’ whined Louis XV, the so-called ‘Well-Beloved’ whose popularity was rapidly dwindling. But with no official explanation forthcoming, the panic continued to mount. School-masters placed posters on walls warning parents ‘not to allow their children to go to school alone but to accompany them and collect them for we can take no responsibility for the consequences.’ Parisian glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra later remembered being met from his primary school by his father, along with ‘seven strong cooper lads each carrying a crowbar over his shoulder’.

    The riots begin 

    On 22 May, street-fighting broke out in six different quarters of Paris. Crowds numbering four of five thousand people, women prominent among them, broke windows, forced down doors, stoned public buildings and looted shops for weapons with which to fight. The revolt flared up again, stronger, the following day after a constable called Labbé was seen trying to grab an eleven-year old boy from the Pont Marie. A crowd rushed to the scene, liberated the boy, then chased Labbé through the city. Despite the intervention of the Watch and exchange of gunfire, the furious crowd managed to drag Labbé away from his guards and beat him to death in the street. He was not the only casualty. Over the course of the revolt, at least twenty rioters were killed, and an unknown number injured on both sides. 

    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' 

    But it was in fact with the police that the trouble had begun. Specifically, it was with the Lieutenant General of Police, Berryer, one of the appointees installed by Louis XV’s mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour. According to Tocqueville, Berryer was 'a hard, haughty, cruel man, with much ignorance and even more presumption and stubbornness'. In November, 1749, an edict had been issued that:

     ‘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.’ 

    Berryer was the man in charge of enforcing the edict and he wanted instant, tangible results. Rather than pay his officers a flat rate, he decided to reward them according to the number of arrests they made. He also ordered that those arrested be taken immediately to prison, without first going to the commissioner, and he sanctioned the arrest of ‘all children of workers and bourgeois alike caught gambling in the squares and market places along with other little rascals and vagabonds’. This was why not just ‘vagabonds’, but the sons and daughters of tradespeople running errands, and children playing in the street, had been carted off in shuttered carriages and left in Paris’ bleak houses of detention until their parents could find them and pay for them to be released. 

    Tour du Temple, circa 1795

    No justice, no peace

    The inquiry sentenced three constables to a symbolic punishment, but Berryer himself was never explicitly criticised. The real role of the inquiry was not to investigate the causes of the vanishings, but to punish insurrection against authority. Three young rioters were condemned to the gallows, the youngest only sixteen years old. At the hour of their execution, the crowd rose up again to try to save the condemned men, but they were pushed back. 

    The people dispersed, but they did not forget. And their discontent crystallised on the figure of Louis XV. This, it was said, was the summer when it was discovered that the people of France no longer loved their King.

    Further reading:

    The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumour and Politics before the French Revolution, by Arlette Farge, Jacques Revel, Claudia Mieville.

    Fragile Lives: Violence, Power and Solidarity in Eighteenth-century Paris, by Arlette Farge.

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    It’s September, and our apple tree has been so laden with fruit this year that branches have actually cracked and broken off under the weight, as though taking Keats’ lines from Ode to Autumn –

    To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core… 

    far too literally. The lawn is now almost ankle deep in windfalls… 

    What is it about apples? Why are they so evocative?Why was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – not actually named in the Bible – assumed to be an apple? Why did the Firebird, in Russian folklore, steal golden apples from the garden of the Czar? Why did golden apples of immortality grow in the Garden of the Hesperides, why was the Norse goddess Idun the keeper of golden apples which preserved the youth of the gods? Why was the Apple of Discord – with its inscription To the Fairest – an apple, and why were three golden apples so irresistible to Atalanta that she paused to pick them up and lost her race? (Mind you, that dress wouldn't help.)

    The apple as the fruit of immortality, or perhaps equally of death, appears as a symbol in Celtic mythology too.  Heralds from the Land of Youth might bear a silver apple branch, with silver blossom and golden fruit, whose tinkling music lulled the hearers to sleep – perhaps to everlasting sleep…  And Arthur, after his final battle, went to the island of Avalon, the island of apples, to be healed of his mortal wound. Then of course there’s the apple given by the wicked Queen to Snow-White, one bite of which sends the little princess into a death-like sleep.   

    Apples are tokens of love and promises of eternity.In Yeat’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, the lovelorn Aengus seeks forever the beautiful girl from the hazel wood.

    Though I am old with wandering
    Through hollow lands and hilly lands
    I find out where she has gone,
    And kiss her lips and take her hands;
    And walk among long dappled grass
    And pluck till time and times are done,
    The silver apples of the moon,
    The golden apples of the sun.

    But such an eternity is probably also the land beyond death. 

    Where do apples even come from, why are they so ubiquitous?  Why, even today, are so many varieties available - even in supermarkets, usually the home of homogeneity? I went into our local Sainsburies the other day and counted eleven different named varieties of apple all on sale at once:  Empire, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russets, Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies, Jazz, Braeburns and Bramleys.By contrast, there were only four named varieties of pears, and everything else was generic – bananas, strawberries, oranges, etc.

    Apples are related to roses, I’m delighted to tell you.  According to a rather lovely book called ‘Apples: the story of the fruit of temptation’, by Frank Browning (Penguin 1998):

    ‘In the beginning there were roses.  Small flowers of five white petals opened on low, thorny stems, scattered across the earth in the pastures of the dinosaurs, about eighty million years ago. …These bitter-fruited bushes, among the first flowering plants on earth, emerged as the vast Rosaceae family and from them came most of the fruits human beings eat today: apples, pears, plums, quinces, even peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

    ‘The apple [paleobotanists believe]… was the unlikely child of an extra-conjugal affair between a primitive plum from the rose family and a wayward flower with white and yellow blossoms of the Spirea family, called meadowsweet.’ 

    Isn’t that wonderful? Apples as we know them today developed in Europe and Asia.  The Pharoahs grew them.The Greeks and Romans grew them. And they keep. You can store apples overwinter, eat them months after you’ve picked them: fresh fruit in hard cold weather when there’s nothing growing outside.So perhaps you would think of them as life-giving, immortal fruit.They smell fragrant.They feel good too: hard-fleshed, smooth, a cool weight in the hand.  

    The medieval lyric Adam lay y-bounden provocatively celebrates the Fall of Man when Adam ate the forbidden fruit:

    And all was for an appil
    An appil that he toke
    As clerkes finden
    Written in her boke.

    It ends on the mischievously subversive thought that if Adam had not eaten the apple, Our Lady would never have become the Heavenly Queen:

    Blessed be the time
    That appil take was!
    Therefore we maun singen:
    Deo gratias.

    Here is a poem by John Drinkwater (surely the most poetically-named poet ever!) which captures some of those mystical coincidences of apples, eternity, sleep, moonlight, magic and death. 


    At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
    And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
    Apples are deep-sea apples of green.  There goes
    A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

    A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
    There is no sound at the top of the house of men
    Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
    Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

    They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams
    On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
    Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams
    And quiet is the steep stair under.

    In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
    And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
    Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
    On moon-washed apples of wonder.

    Picture credits:

    Apple tree: Author's garden
    Atalanta racing Hippomenes: Willen van Herp, c1650
    Adam and Eve: Lucas Cranach, 1537
    Apple Tree: Arthur Rackham

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    "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!

    a pastel portrait from 1735 
    by Maurice Quentin de la Tour 
    of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known as Voltaire

    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! 

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

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    Another in my occasional series about books from the past.

    The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book is neither new nor of much practical use as a reference book in 2017.  It takes up too much space on my shelf. It’s cheaply mass-produced and worth nothing. But I won’t be throwing it out because it’s one of the few things I have which belonged to my grandfather.

    Granda died in 1978 when I was nine. I was close to him, but my memories  are piecemeal, mostly involving Fox’s Glacier Mints and evening walks around red-brick streets where we used to stand like the Bisto kids and breathe in the milky smell from the Co-operative Dairy and then the much nicer aroma of baking bread at the neighbouring bakery. He called sweets ‘ju-jubes’ and umbrellas ‘gamps’.

    He was bright, with a thirst for knowledge, but, as the oldest son, he had left school at fourteen to be the breadwinner. He worked in a shoe shop, studying at night school to be a chiropodist, which business he ran from his terraced house. He was a lay preacher in strange mission halls and believed in the literal truth of the bible. Had he lived until I grew up, we would have argued bitterly.

    But if we couldn’t share our religious beliefs, we would have bonded over our love for information. He’s one of the people who made me a History Girl. His bookshelves were crammed with Dickens and Reader’s Digest and an array of what I suppose were the self-help books of their day, 1920s and 30s editions of Home Lawyer, Home Doctor, Enquire Within (Upon Everything), The Book Of Etiquette, Home Nursing and of course The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book. As a child, already in love with anything old-fashioned, I pored over the tiny print and drank in their facts, out-of-date and useless as they might have been. (Today, as I watch University Challenge with my mother, she often says, ‘How did you know that?’ and I realise it’s fromone of Granda's books,  and not the benefits of twenty-one years of fulltime education.)

    The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book is a jewel. It speaks to me of more than nostalgia. It’s a leftover from a world where knowledge wasn’t at the click of a mouse, but at the turn of a page. Where you had to pay for the doctor and thus might want to consult the Home Doctorsection first; where you didn’t call in an expert to lag the boiler or wire the house, but consulted the Home Maintenance. One of the most interesting sections is the Home Gallery of notable paintings from the great art galleries of the world, pictures that the aspiring working classes of Belfast would have had little chance to see in real life. 

    In the Household Pets section, there is a great deal about keeping chickens and rabbits (for eggs, meat and fur) and even as a child I knew the ‘popular’ dog breeds were no longer fashionable. I had only ever seen a Sealyham in the pages of Enid Blyton.

    When did Granda buy this book? I thought at first it might have been a wedding present, when he set up home with my granny in the early 1940s, but it predates that. Like many books printed between the wars, it has no date – but I did some detective work in its pages, especially the Notable Biographies. It mentions treating diabetes with insulin, so it is post-1922. George V was king, so it was pre-1936; and there is no mention of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, so it was pre-1933. However, it mentioned a death in 1931, so my not-terribly-brilliant deduction is that this edition dates from 1932, when Granda was a young man, studying at nightschool, and eager, as later his granddaughter would be, for all kinds of knowledge.

    My gran was a widow from 1978 until her death in 2004, and she maintained a touching faith in the wisdom of her husband’s books, much to the scorn of my father. When she died, I rescued them. When I die, there will be nobody to reprieve them, but in the meantime I’ll keep reading and learning and remembering.

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    Theresa Breslin needs no introduction to the readers of this blog. She was one of the Founding History Girls and is well known as the winner of a Carnegie Medal and a writer of great distinction. She has never shied away from difficult topics, and has a deep interest in historical subjects. She's written about the First World War, the Spanish Inquisition, and about the divisions in her home city, Glasgow, in her wonderful novel THE DIVIDED CITY, which is about Catholic/Protestant divide as shown by characters' loyalty to either Celtic or Rangers.

    In THE RASPUTIN DAGGER, which was published last month, Theresa tackles a part of history which has entranced many: the end of the Romanov family, the death of the Mad Monk and the beginnings of the Bolshevik Revolution. This year marks the centenary of that event and this is the first novel I'm aware of that deals with this very thorny subject.

    Nina and Stefan are our heroine and hero. The book manages to be many things at the same time: a love story, an education in Russian history, a tale threaded through with the folk tales Theresa loves and has also retold to great effect. There are thrills and surprises along the way, and the invented characters mingle with those taken from the historical record. Most importantly, we meet the Romanov family and what a fascinating collection of people they were! Rasputin, who had such power over the Tsarina and many others, is someone of whom one could definitely say: you couldn't make it up. The novel is a very good way to introduce young adults to these extraordinary people. 

                                                         (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

    1) How long ago did you begin to think: I ought to write a book about Rasputin? Have you been interested in him, and the Russian Revolution etc for ages or is this a recent passion? And is is purely coincidence that this is the anniversary year of the Russian Revolution?

    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.  
    So, The Rasputin Dagger being published this centenary year of the Russian Revolutions is not a coincidence, no… 

    2) How much research do you do? And is it necessary for you to visit the actual places you're writing about?

    A LOT of research. The librarian in me is very meticulous, but I also research around the subject to get an emotional feel for the times. It's not always possible, but I do try very hard to visit the places I write about. I managed to visit St Petersburg and Siberia too - both locations are beautiful and amazing. 

    3) Did you find your sympathies changing as you wrote this book? What I mean is: did you feel sorrier for the Romanovs at the end than you thought you would be when you started?

    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?

    Everybody and Anybody – all ages and not gender specific. My older historical novels are read by 12 year olds and over, with a significant adult readership.  In particular, Remembrance, my book about youth in WWI,- has an adult readership of about 50%.  Because The Rasputin Dagger covers war and revolution, passion and politics, a Storyteller, touches on Folk Tales and their meaning, with some mysticism thrown in, I’m hoping it will have wide-ranging appeal. 

    5) Can you say anything at all about what you're working on  next?

    Mmmm.... it’s at that fragile little seedling stage where it needs to be cosseted. I’ll have to wait and see if it comes to anything.....  

    THERESA BRESLIN is the critically acclaimed Carnegie Medal winning author of over forty books for children & young adults whose work has appeared on stage, radio and TV, and is enjoyed worldwide in many languages. Her writing, which has won many awards, extends over a variety of genres and a wide range of ages: from picture books to longer novels with an adult following. Her historical novels include Remembrance a tale of youth in WWI: Prisoner of the Inquisition shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and voted favourite book by the school pupil shadowing groups: and The Medici Seal which features Leonardo da Vinci.
    Her latest novel is The Rasputin Dagger. Set one hundred years ago in St Petersburg during the stormy days of the Russian Revolutions, it tells of Nina and Stefan, two young adults caught up in the chaos of a city in revolt.   

    Event Bookings: info@authorsaloud.co.ukTwitter :  @TheresaBreslin1 

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    I've recently been re-reading the medieval satirical poem The Turnament of Totenham, (Tournament of Tottenham). It was written by an unknown author sometime before 1456 and is set in Tottenham which was, in the Middle Ages, a little village near London, though its country lanes are now city streets.

    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
     Whatever the aim of the poet, the interest for me is in the rich details of everyday day contained in some of the lines. The villagers rode to the tournament on their wooden saddles which could be piled all round with goods as high as the rider’s waist when he or she was going to market, which also helped prevent them falling off if the horse bolted. The poet has the villagers carrying winnowing baskets as shields, which in fact were used by the farm lads if pressed into battle. Their weapons were rakes, hoes and flails. Flails were used by the Cornish wool and tin smugglers in the Middle Ages to defend themselves against those sent to hunt them down, since a man who had years of practise using a flail on a farm could use it to disarm a man wielding a sword. And if the smugglers were caught with flails on the road they could not be accused of carrying weapons.

    Cow parsley with its hollow stem 
    But one of the most telling lines for me, comes towards the end of the poem -

    '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.

    Satire or not, the poet paints a wonderful picture of some of the everyday objects and tools that would have been so familiar to the medieval audience, and leaves such a valuable insight for us.

    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.

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    In nearly twenty years of trying to be a writer, I notice that authors tend to return to the same themes again and again. It’s as if certain incidents or impressions from childhood have branded our creative impulses. 

    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 masters 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+

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    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 Country

    A 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.

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    I first visited the museum at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, UK in 2014, and went again last month. 

    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.
    The official historian of the Second World War British Intelligence, Harry Hinsley, believes that the information obtained by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park shortened the war in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Europe by not less than two years and probably by four years. 
    [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.
    Obviously it was crucial that the enemy remained wholly unaware of the breaking of the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park. 

    One of the most important men at Bletchley Park was MI5's Chief Cryptographer, Alfred Dillwyn "Dilly" Knox, a British Classics scholar and papyrologist at Kings College, Cambridge. He was a key figure in the breaking of the Enigma code in October 1941. He was also a close friend of Agatha Christie. 

    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 blurb for N or M reads:
    “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.”
    One of the main characters in the book is an annoying retired Indian army major who professes to have inside knowledge of the war. His name? Major Bletchley. 
    Chillingly, the plot of ‘N or M’ deals with unmasking German agents who had been sent to Britain. By the time it was published, Knox’s work in breaking the Enigma code meant that all German agents sent to Britain could be unmasked. Was Christie sending a message to the Abwehr? Or was it a strange coincidence?

    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.

    Christie took character names from all sorts of places. In a letter to a fan who had asked her the origin of Miss Marple's name, she wrote that it lay in a visit to Marple Hall in Cheshire, where Christie had once bought two Jacobean Oak chairs. It is well known that writers pick up character names in all sorts of places. Beatrix Potter used to wander around Brompton Cemetery, which was near to where she lived from 1863 to 1918. In the graveyard are tombstones engraved with the names of Peter Rabbett, Jeremiah Fisher, Mr Nutkins, Mr Brock and Mr McGregor. The Beatles discovered Eleanor Rigby on a tombstone in a Liverpool cemetery close to Strawberry Fields.

    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?
    J.R.R Tolkien is quoted as saying that a story:
     “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)]
    Had Christie overheard something in the Isokon Flats that provided the seed for a story about spies? Had Dilly Knox let slip that he was popping off regularly to Bletchley Park? Or was it simply a strange coincidence that the name “Bletchley” allied to the idea of German spies slipped into the leaf-mould of her mind and took root?

    [all photographs taken by me, other than the book cover which is from http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=16728778815]

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    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)

    In antiquity, the island was called Pandateria. It was the place to which Roman Emperors shuffled off their inconvenient women. The first of the exiles was Julia, daughter of the Emperor Augustus, who was exiled for adultery and immorality. The terms of her imprisonment forbade her from seeing men or drinking wine. The ruins of the massive imperial villa complex are called the Villa Julia - and I will write of them in a later blog. Julia is the subject of the novel I am currently working on.

    Julia's daughter, Agrippina the Elder, and Grand-daughter, Julia Livilla, both ended up exiled on the same island and were allegedly starved to death there. Nero's unfortunate wife Octavia, the daughter of Claudius, was sent to Pandateria, and was executed there on her husband's orders. The last Roman to be sent to the island was Flavia Domitilla, the Grandaughter of Vespasian, sent by her Uncle Domitian for the crime of being Christian - at least according to the early church.

    A tragic island, then. An island of abused, abandoned, pilloried women.

    And now, a rather jaunty Italian holiday island - unfrequented by Brits, entirely Italian speaking, and utterly gorgeous. With one volcanic sand beach and glorious turquoise seas.

    Claudia modelling the volcanic sand of Ventotene

    But I want to tell you about the fishpond....

    Fishponds were a feature of early Imperial holiday villas. They served an obvious practical purpose - catching and storing fish utilising the surge of the tide. But they were more than this - they were part of the elaborate pursuit of otium (leisure) which characterised the aristocratic Romans at play. A marriage of architecture and nature.

    The ponds themselves were surrounded by partially submerged rooms - cave-like, man-made structures - which were gorgeously decorated and full of statuary. Seneca talks of these dining-rooms in a famous passage, where he describes the fish being freshly caught as part of the theatre of dining. Fresh mullet, sir?

    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

    An archaeological survey of the site in 2004 revealed the extraordinary complex engineering of the fishponds - which, like the nearby extant Roman harbour, was carved from the soft tufa rock. The whole system relied on tunnels which worked together to keep the water circulating so it would remain fresh and not stagnant.   

    Inside one of the tunnels - the archaeologists' picture.
    The amazing thing is that, by swimming from the rocks near the beach, and throwing yourself over a low sea wall, you can swim straight into this incredible feat of Roman engineering. With a mask, you can see the tunnels. And fish!. The atmosphere inside the vaulted space is incredible. History breathes on you, smelling of salt and seaweed. And we had it all to ourselves. Here are a few of me, the kids and my sister exploring. Forgive the indulgent holiday snaps, but we were SWIMMING INSIDE AN UNBELIEVABLE ROMAN MONUMENT - so I think you'll forgive me. 

    A magical experience. Next time: Julia's Villa....

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