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    Hinksey Pool is a welcome oasis in Oxford
    Oxford has one of Britain’s best outdoor swimming pools. Surrounded by trees and blossom with a view of distant hills between the flowering bushes, Hinksey Outdoor Pool is one of Oxford’s special summer places. When it opens at 7 a.m., local residents arrive in their swimming costumes and dressing gowns. After a few lengths they stroll home for breakfast, and are replaced by laughing schoolchildren, grannies like me getting fit and everyone in between. And it is all thanks to cholera. 

    Oxford from Hinksey Hill, by William Turner of Oxford, 1789-1862, painted c.1840.
    The railway line and swimming pool are now beyond the two bushes on the right.
    Up to the mid-19th century, the citizens of Oxford drank straight from the River Thames, and there were regular outbreaks of cholera. Despite the authorities banning pig sties next to the streams running into the Thames, there were three main outbreaks of the ‘Indian Disease’ in the 19th century. In the first, in 1832, there were 200 known cases and a 50% death rate. ‘Beware of late and long sittings, dancings, revellings, surfeitings, and such like,’ warned the Oxford Board of Health just before the St Giles Fair in 1832. ‘Beware of  unknown Companies in the distempered atmospheres of Booths , Show Rooms, and Canvas or Boarded Apartments. — Infection lurks a long time in Stone or Brick Buildings; it may continue in the materials of Wooden, Woollen, and Hempen inclosures; and who knows where the Booths of a Fair were last erected? But especially beware of Drunkenness, for it has been found to bite as a serpent and to sting as an adder. Many who have raised the cup in merriment to their lips, have in agony lamented their excesses, and at their deaths have left a last legacy of warning to the Drunkard. — Death smites with its surest and swiftest arrows the licentious and intemperate — the rash, fool-hardy, and imprudent.’ 
    Contaminated 'Monster Soup' flowed through Oxford in the River Thames.
    Better times began for the residents of Oxford when in 1844 the Great Western Railway line was constructed from London, terminating in south Oxford near Hinksey village. Railways need a lot of gravel, and there was plenty in Hinksey. So a vast quarry was dug, which soon filled with fresh spring water. When in 1854 the connection between drinking water and cholera was made, the City of Oxford spotted an opportunity to bring health to their people, and bought the new lake and land around it from the Earl of Abingdon. They then built a pumping station powered by steam engines, which served the local residents during the day with clean water. If a fire broke out at night, a policeman woke the boilerman who fired up the pumps. To ensure the water was not contaminated, the Waterworks Committee kept animals and people out with high fences and to inspire confidence in the quality of the water, the land was landscaped with trees and neat hedges. However, the Oxford photographer Henry Taunt complained of the number of freshwater shrimps coming out of his taps, and mussels regularly blocked the valves in the fire brigade’s engines. 

    So in 1884, after a law was passed that drinking water had to be filtered, huge water tanks and filter beds were dug near the lake and a dozen men were employed at the improved water works. Filtering sand was dredged from the river, while coal brought in carts from canal barges was then taken away as ashes. By 1934, Oxford’s population had risen to over 80,000 and Hinksey could not supply enough water. It now all came from Swinford Water Works, 5 miles west of Oxford. The Water Committee handed over the lake, land, pumping station and filter beds for recreation. The pumping station is still South Oxford Community Centre; Hinksey Lake is popular for swans, fishing and junior rowers; the cooling pond is used by ducks, model boat enthusiasts and in cold winters, skaters; and Hinksey Park has tennis courts, football and a playground. 
    The new diving board at Hinskey Pools, 1936. 
    But best of all was the Jubilee Pools which opened in 1935, the 25th year of King George V’s reign. The filter beds were converted into three swimming pools and two changing rooms were built – one for men, one for women and children.  On the opening day, children from St Matthew’s Infant’s School were invited to sing to Alderman Brown, the Mayor of Oxford. ‘The Jubilee Pools had no fences around them, just the pools,’ recalled Peter Horwood one of the schoolboys. ‘You put your swimming costume on in the morning when you got up, go and have a swim, play in the fields out the back, then go and have another swim. It was all free.’ During the Second World War, the pools were closed and the RAF used them for dinghy and life-saving practice. After a drowning accident in 1958, fences were erected and adult swimmers charged 1 shilling (5p) and children sixpence (2p). Individual changing huts were also installed with a balcony above for spectators.
    Hinksey Pools in 1965. copyright Oxfordshire County Council.
    In 1960 a roof top café opened, but by 1990 the season lasted only 6 weeks and the pool closed in 1994 when the filter system broke down. 
    Hinksey Pool by Bruno Guastalla, in 1994.
    Bob Price is retiring this May after 35 years as Labour Councillor for Hinksey Park ward. He told me that his proudest achievement has been the refurbishment of Hinksey Pool. Since it reopened in 1997, two of the filter pools have been filled in and grassed over for sunbathing, the heated pool (temp 25oC) now has a shallow area for children and a deeper section for serious swimmers, clean individual changing rooms, hot showers, and on sunny days a café serving cappuccino, panini and ice cream. On cold days, the pool steams and swimmers are rewarded with free hot chocolate. When the moon is full the pool stays open until midnight. Bliss. 
    Clean, warm water now greets swimmers whatever the weather. history
    The Changing Faces of South Oxford and South Hinksey, Book 2, Carole Newbigging, Robert Boyd Publishing, 1999.

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  • 04/27/18--18:30: Princess Ida by Lynne Benton

  • I’ve just come back from seeing a 21st century production of a 19th century operetta by the late, great Gilbert and Sullivan.  The reason for my attendance at this event was because my oldest granddaughter, at university in St Andrews, was directing the show, so of course we went to support her, and had a thoroughly good time.  We were most impressed by the talents and professionalism shown by the cast and the small group of musicians, and felt that our granddaughter had done a grand job in this, her first, directorial role.  (Of course, we weren’t a bit biased!)

    However, we couldn’t help wondering how relevant the story is today.

    Princess Idaopened at the Savoy Theatre on 5 January 1884, the eighth of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourteen collaborations.  The opera satirises women’s education and Darwinian evolution, which were controversial topics in conservative Victorian England, but Gilbert was also aiming his satire squarely at Women’s Emancipation. When Princess Ida was revived in 1926, The Times said: “It was after the fairies of Iolanthe had wrought havoc in the British Constitution that Gilbert turned to the companion task of showing how fatal it would be if women ever presumed to be anything but fairies, and cocking a cynical eye at Tennyson’s Princess, wrote Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant.

    The Times was right, in that the story is based on a narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson called The Princess (1847), written following the founding in the same year of the first college of women’s higher education, Queen’s College, London.  In 1870, when women’s higher education was still a radical concept, Gilbert wrote a farcical musical play, based on the poem, also called The Princess,and subsequently lifted much of the dialogue of Princess Ida directly from his 1870 farce.  However, Girton College, Cambridge, had been established in 1869, and by the time Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on Princess Ida in 1883, the idea of a women’s college was no longer considered revolutionary.  Indeed, Westfield College, the University of London’s first women’s college, which had opened in 1882, is cited as the model for Castle Adamant, and certainly women’s higher education was very much in the news in London at the time.

     Based, as several of Gilbert’s plots are, on misunderstandings, children married or affianced at an early age and brought up with no knowledge of each other, and a certain amount of cross-dressing, mistaken identities and so on, at first sight Princess Ida would seem to have little relevance to the world of today.  (Mind you, some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Twelfth Night, involve similar problems, so maybe we shouldn’t blame Gilbert too much!)

    It is hard to tell the story of Princess Ida simply, but I will try.  The story concerns the young Prince Hilarion, who was married at the age of one to Princess Ida, a few months younger than he.  Since then they have never seen each other, but now Hilarion is 21, his father, Hildebrande, insists that it is time he claimed his bride.  However, when Ida’s father, Gama, arrives with his three sons, he tells Hildebrande that Ida has forsworn the world of men and formed an all-female university at Castle Adamant.  Indeed, he says, “No men are allowed within its walls, and it is so feminist an establishment that although the ladies rise at cockcrow, every morning the crowing is done by an accomplished hen”.

    Naturally, this being G&S, Hilarion and his friends, Florian and Cyril, decide to break into Castle Adamant dressed as women and impersonate female students, hoping to persuade Ida to change her mind.  Princess Ida is intrigued by these three “new students” and feels a strange connection with Hilarion.  However, Florian’s sister Psyche recognises them and explains the philosophy of the university to them: namely, that women are superior to men and should rule the world in their stead.  But having by now taken a fancy to Cyril she promises to keep their secret, and warns them to avoid Lady Blanche, who originally helped Ida form the university but now wishes she was in charge herself.  Then Melissa, Lady Blanche’s daughter, arrives, discovers their secret and falls in love with Florian, so that when Lady Blanche sees the boys and guesses their secret immediately, Melissa convinces her that if she helps Hilarion to gain his love, Ida will leave Castle Adamant to marry him and leave the university to Lady Blanche.  This is music to Lady Blanche’s ears, so she agrees to help the boys.

    But just as all is about to go well, Hildebrande arrives with his army and threatens to kill Ida’s father unless the princess agrees to marry Hilarion.  Ida refuses, and rousing her students to fight the male invaders, declares that she will die before she will be Hilarion’s wife.

    As the army lays siege to Castle Adamant, Ida prepares her students to fight them, but soon discovers that the girls are not too keen on the idea of fighting all these young men.  She is distressed by her students’ betrayal of all she has taught them, so when her father, Gama, and her three brothers arrive, Ida agrees to allow them in.  

    Her three foolish brothers, having just removed their armour as being too heavy and uncomfortable, challenge Hilarion, Florian and Cyril to a battle to decide Ida’s fate, but are roundly defeated.  

    Hilarion then makes an emotional appeal to Ida, pointing out all he has learned about women and marriage during his time at Castle Adamant, and declaring his love.  Moved, Ida admits that she does love him, so she accepts him as her husband and, along with Psyche and Melissa, leaves the university, leaving a delighted Lady Blanche to rule over Castle Adamant.

    It remains one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s less frequently performed operettas, but retains much of their perennial charm.  However, I do wonder what Gilbert would have thought of it being performed by students of both sexes at a mixed university!

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    Our April guest is Katherine Roberts. Not only was Katherine one of the first History Girls; the book she talks about here, Bone Music, is published by The Greystones Press, the independent publisher set up by Mary Hoffman and her husband. Here is a photo that Katherine posed for on the occasion of the virtual launch of Bone Music and The Sword of Ice and Fire by John Matthews.

    If that doesn't whet your appetite enough, here is a bit more about Katherine:
    Katherine Roberts won the inaugural Branford Boase Award for her debut novel Song Quest (Chicken House/Scholastic 2000). Since then she has written many more fantasy and historical books for young readers, including the Seven Fabulous Wonders series based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and I am the Great Horse, telling the story of Alexander the Great from the horse's mouth. She lives in Devon and is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Penryn in Cornwall.

    A recent study of the genetic legacy of the Mongolssuggests that 1 in 200 males alive in the world today are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. If you consider the infamous Mongolian warrior lived well into his sixties and took several wives as was the custom of his people, who between them bore him 11 legitimate children, and that he no doubt sired an unspecified number of illegitimate children as he built an empire four times the size of Alexander the Great's, this is not as surprising as it first seems. So who were the women in Genghis Khans life, and what did they think of the small boy, originally named Temujin, who grew into such a ruthless conqueror?
    The quotes below are from my novel Bone Music, which is in turn based on a 13th century Mongolian text known as The Secret History of the Mongols (Chinese: Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shih) thatcombines legend and history to tell the story of Genghis Khan's early years.

    Princess Borta (or Borte) – Genghis Khan’s childhood sweetheart and first wife.
    We first meet the Khan's first and most important wife when she is 10 and Temujin is just nine. Temujin's father Yesugei the Brave, leader of the Mongol Alliance, rides with his eldest son across the steppe in search of a suitable girl. They find her in Dei the Wise’s camp, a chief blessed with beautiful daughters and rich herds. At this stage, Temujin and Borta's betrothal has the flavour of a royal wedding, with the camp's shaman joining the young people’s hands and calling on the spirits of their ancestors to bless the match:
     As the two chiefs linked our hands together with a chain of flowers, a strange shiver went through me and I wished they would let me have a drink, too. Our shaman blessed the union with his horsetail staff, which tickled, making me want to giggle. Apart from that idiot Jamukha throwing a stone at Temujin when he tried to kiss me, we got through it without too much embarrassment.” (‘Bone Music’, Borta’s Story)
    Jamukha later becomes Temujin's blood brother, or anda. I used artistic licence in having Jamukha here at the start of the story, but historically the two boys became bitter rivals for the leadership of their people and, however their rivalry started, it was never going to end well.
    In Bone Music, Borta also has a pet deer called Whisper, which she rescued from the forest and that later becomes her shaman-animal, carrying her spirit in reflection of the Mongol people's ancestors, Blue Wolf and Fallow Doe. Later, she fashions a violin from the skull of her deer and plays it in battle to call down a storm to frighten Jamukha's forces, while the other shamans play an imaginary version of the Mongolian horse-head fiddle known as a morin khur:
    Behind the old men, my beautiful wife stood on a rock against the sky, her black hair loose to her waist, holding her delicate deer-bone violin. (Bone Music, Temujins Story.)
    Horse head violins are still an important part of Mongolian culture, although these days the sounding box is usually made of wood rather than covered with horse hide, and the traditional horsehair strings have been replaced by nylon, leaving just the carving of a horses head on the neck of the instrument as a reminder of its legendary origin.
    Mizu basyo at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
     Lady Hogelun – Genghis Khan’s mother.
    Yesugei the Brave originally stole Temujin’s mother from the Merkid tribe when she was travelling to her wedding and made her his first wife, at the same time making bitter enemies of the Merkid people. When Yesugei is poisoned on his way back across the steppe from Temujin and Borta's betrothal ceremony, Hogelun immediately recalls her son from Dei the Wise’s camp and tries to get the Mongol Alliance to accept the boy as their new leader. But an ambitious chief called Kiriltuk takes advantage of Temujin’s youth to seize control of the Alliance, and drives the family out of his camp todie of starvation over the winter. However, Lady Hogelun (who is pregnant with Yesugeis daughter at the time) has no intention of letting her sons die, and orders Yesugei's second wife to help her gather berries and dig for onions, until their boys are strong enough to bend their bows and hunt for meat. She also takes on the unenviable task of raising her sons to be honourable warriors - a job made difficult because Temujin and his eldest half-brother Begter are always at each others throats. When Temujin kills Begter after a violent quarrel that started over some fish their younger brothers had caught, a furious Lady Hogelun gives the boys the old bundle of arrows' lesson:
    Snap it! Mother said, handing Khasar one of my arrows. Khasar gave me an apologetic look, but obeyed. The shaft broke at once, and I groaned inwardly at the thought of having to whittle another one. Then Mother took five of my arrows and held them together in a bundle, which she passed to me. Now you, Temujin, she said, knowing very well I wouldnt break them even if I could, because making good arrows to replace them would have taken me ages. After the bundle has been passed around all the boys, who in turn fail to break the arrows, Lady Hogelun presses her lips together and tells them sternly: The broken arrow is Begter. These five are the rest of you, strong only if you stick together. Up here, we have no friends except our own shadows, and no whips except our horsestails, so you ungrateful horde of savages had better stop fighting each other if you want to live to see your children grow up!(Bone Music, Temujins Story)
    This is a lesson Temujin takes to heart, and he later makes alliances with the other tribes in order to defeat his enemies.
    Old Khoga– Borta’s servant.
    When Temujin finally arrives to claim his bride, Borta’s mother (no doubt worried about her daughter in the young khan’s war camp) gives Borta one of her most trusted servants. Khoga is devoted to her young mistress and tries to save her when the Merkid raiding party attacks their camp while Temujin is away, after Borta falls off her horse and breaks her arm:
    Old Khoga turned out to have more sense than any of us that morning. She had been following us along the track, seen me fall, and came puffing up the slope to help. She took one look at my arm, bundled me into the yak cart and pulled the sheepskins over me to hide me from the raiders.(Bone Music, Bortas Story).
    Khadagan–warrior girl.
    Some Mongol girls trained as warriors so they could ride and fight alongside their brothers. When Temujin is captive in Chief Kiriltuk’s camp awaiting punishment for killing his half-brother Begter, he persuades one of the braver girls to help him escape. Her name is Khadagan, and later she joins the rebellion among the Alliance families who defect to join Temujin. Towards the end of the story, Khadagan is entrusted with a message by the increasingly desperate Jamukha:
    I needed a messenger who could get into Lady Borta’s yurt alone, someone Anda Temujin would trust.Is that girl still around?” I asked Yegu. “The warrior girl who came to my tent the winter we spent with Kiriltuk’s Alliance? Send her to me.” Jamukha hopes to win Borta's aid by returning the skull of her pet deer, which he rescued from Temujin's camp following her capture by the Merkids but lost to a wolf. Needless to say, this does not go down well with Borta: The gift of the deers skull didnt work out quite as Id planned. Khadagan returned with news that Borta had given birth to a son, together with Bortas threat that if I came anywhere near her or her child, shed tell Temujin that I was the wolf. (Bone Music, Jamukhas story.)
    Temulun– Temujin’s little sister, given a boy’s name to protect her from the evil spirits who steal babies from their mothers in the night.
    Temulun was born in exile and grows up in a rough camp with her four brothers and remaining half-brother. She thinks she is a boy, but as the Khan’s sister she will be valuable for making alliances with other tribes through marriage when she grows up. Jamukha recognizes this and, in one of his attempts to remain in Temujin’s camp (and close to Borta), he asks his anda for the girl's hand in marriage.
    “I was thinking of your sister, actually,” Jamukha said into the silence that had fallen between us and threatened to divide us again. “She’s strong and pretty, rides well too.” Temujin, who is still thinking of which Merkid bastard might have got his wife pregnant during her captivity in their camp, is caught completely unawares: “Be serious!” I said, realizing what he meant. “Temulun’s only nine!” (‘Bone Music’, Temujin’s story).
    Upon which, Jamukha points out that Temujin was only nine when he was promised to Borta, rubbing salt into the still-raw wound. It might actually have been a good match when Temulun was old enough to marry, but by then the rivalry between Temujin and Jamukha had escalated beyond repair.
    Genghis Khan and three of his four sons

    Bone Music ends when Temujin becomes Genghis Khan and ruler of all the people who live in felt tents at a large gathering of the clans in 1206. After that, he goes on to conquer many other people, from the Chinese Kin and Sung people to the east, the ancient Tanghut people of northern Tibet, and the Moslem kingdoms to the west as far as Hungary and the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, he took other wives to cement alliances:
    Yesugen and Yesui  - Tartar sisters, who became good friends with Borta.
    Ibaka - Kereyid girl, later given to one of Temujin's generals Jurchedei as a reward for service.
    Gurbesu - Naiman girl.
    Khulan- Merkid girl who accompanied the Khan on his western campaign.
    Chaka- Tanghut girl.
    Genghis Khan died in 1227 on campaign, possibly of sickness after a hunting accident when he took a fall from his horse. But there is another, more colourful, version of his death involving the wife of a Tanghut chief, whom he seized as spoils of war after killing her husband on his (second) Tanghut campaign.
    Gorbeljin the Fair - Queen of the Tanghuts.
    Ashamed that she has been violated by her people's enemy, she sends a message by bird to her father vowing to drown herself into the Black River. But first she washes herself until her beauty returns and shares Temujin's furs one last time, thus 'passing a mortal illness into his blood'. When the old Khan eventually falls asleep, Gorbeljin slips away and throws herself into the river as she has promised to do - although, in true legendary fashion, her body is never found.

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  • 04/29/18--16:01: April competition

  • To win a copy of Katherine Roberts' Bone Music (see yesterday's post), answer this question in the Comments below

    "If you had Borta's power to spirit-travel in the body of an animal, which animal would you choose and why?"

    Then copy your answer to so that we can get your prize to you.

    Closing date: 7th May

    We are sorry our competitions are open to UK Followers only

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    The "other" Mary Tudor

    No, not England's first  Queen Regnant but Henry the Eighth's favourite sister.

    If this new biography had its title translated into The White Queen, readers might think it was fiction, like Philippa Gregory's novel of the same name, about Elizabeth Woodville.

    As it is, the subject's life is so extraordinary that Sarah Bryson might well have presented it as fiction. (The subtitle is a bit misleading: it's not just a collection of letters, though these are drawn on.)

    I have written about the first Mary Tudor on here before. I am particularly interested in her and her second husband, Charles Brandon, at least partly because one of my sons-in-law is their descendant. I know, I know. It's only two days since Katherine Roberts told us that 1 in 200 men in the world is directly descended from Genghis Khan.

    But I look at my son-in-law's hooded eyes and a Plantagenet looks back at me. I have his family tree going back to Frances Brandon and can see back to Henry Vll beyond that. Another ancestor helped that same Henry become king by rallying to his side at the Battle of Bosworth.

    Family connections aside, Mary Rose, sister of Henry the Eighth, would be a fascinating subject to anyone. Henry Vll and his wife, Elizabeth of York famously married both to legitimate his rather shaky claim to the throne and to bring an official end to the "Wars of the Roses," or Cousins' War. They had four children who survived infancy: two boys and two girls. The boys were Arthur, who died as a teenager a few months after marrying Katherine of Aragon, and Henry whose marital history is all too often rehearsed.

    The older daughter was Margaret, named for her formidable grandmother Margaret Beaufort, and married to James lV of Scotland  (Mary Queen of Scots was her granddaughter). She came between the two sons. The last surviving daughter was Mary Rose, five years younger than the brother who would become king.

    This portrait suggests she shared the red-gold hair of her brother and niece Elizabeth. Prized as sons were, the royal couple had two already and no reason to anticipate Arthur's early death so perhaps they were relaxed about the new baby's being a girl. Because royal princesses had their own advantages: they could be married off to other European royals.

    Mary had her first marriage proposal when she was three; it was rejected. But then the proposed husband was "only" the son of a Duke. The royal toddler knew nothing about it of course; such matters were sorted out by fathers. Her older sister was to be married to a king and her father intended nothing less for his second daughter.

    In fact Mary was first "married" at the age of five to Charles, who would not only go on to be King of Spain but Holy Roman Emperor too. Her father would not have known this for certain at the time of their proxy wedding and indeed Charles - an infant himself - was also "only the son of a duke"  but that dukedom was Burgundy, one of the richest and most influential in Europe.

    So Mary Rose could have become Empress but settled for Duchess. But not until she had first been a queen.

    Her life was filled with all the little luxuries her brother could give her, especially rich fabrics for clothes. He became king when Mary was only thirteen and seems always to have favoured her, sending her letters and presents whenever she was not at court. And of course Mary had gained a sister-in-in-law, Katherine of Aragon, to whom she became very close.

    Her brother became impatient with the way that negotiations for Mary's marriage to Charles, now Prince of Spain, were being dragged out, by Charles's father Ferdinand and grandfather Maximilian, who was Holy Roman Emperor . So Henry started to cast around for another suitable husband for her.

    His choice fell on Louis Xll of France, aged 52, who had been married twice before. His first marriage had been annulled and his second ended in the death of his wife, Anne of Brittany, who was worn out by stillbirths and miscarriages both with Louis and her first husband.

    Mary was eighteen when this marriage was suggested to her and this is the point when she leaps out of the pages of history and becomes a real woman, just as fearless as her brother. This is when she famously extracts the promise from him that, if she "did marrie for our pleasure at this time ...that you will suffer me to marry as me liketh to do." This is how she puts it in the letter she sends Henry after Louis' death.

    And straightaway we can imagine these redheaded siblings facing off and the teenager telling her big brother (who happens to be king of England)  "I'll marry this old guy to please you, but when he dies I get to choose my next husband."

    It is inconceivable that she didn't already have her eye on Charles Brandon, lately made Duke of Suffolk, as a candidate for spouse number two. He was a dashing figure at court and the nearest thing Henry had to a best friend. He was very attractive to women and had already been married twice, in slightly scandalous circumstances and was now an eligible 30-year-old widower (albeit betrothed to his ward!).

    But if we think that Mary was anything other than a compliant and obliging wife to the man who was over thirty years her senior, Sarah Bryson puts us right. She seems to have behaved in relation to her husband King Louis and his court with exemplary modesty and courtesy. She was equipped with the most gorgeous clothes and jewels - a sop to her vanity from her brother to sugar the pill of marrying this much older man?

    Whatever their marriage was like, it lasted only three monhs and then Louis was dead. It was at this time that Mary was dubbed "La Reine Blanche."

    I imagine the calumny that Louis died because of over-exerting himself in the bedchamber with his teenage bride started almost immediately. He was more likely to have fallen victim to the gout that plagued him. But whatever the cause of his death, it seems clear that Louis doted on his young wife and treated her with great favour and kindness.

    Mary had got off lightly. A wonderful trousseau, loads of bling and only three months of having to submit to an old man's embraces. But now she had to extricate herself from France. And who was sent to bring her home? Why, none other than Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

    Henry must have known what a risk he was taking in sending his glamorous friend. He even extracted a promise from Brandon that he would not marry Mary without the king's permission. And such permission would not have been forthcoming, since Mary was now back on the marriage market, still young and beautiful and with the added advantage now of having been a queen. And Charles was of a far inferior social rank.

    But Mary was no longer a pliant child or even a bargaining teenager; she took matters into her own hands and proposed to Brandon herself! Within days of his arrival in France they were married.

    To marry in secret, without the king's permission, was very dangerous but Henry was caught in a trap. This was his beloved younger sister and his best friend. Although he was furious and stung them with a huge fine, of course he took them back into his confidence and favour.

    It took a lot of hard work for the errant couple to regain Henry's trust . There were letters full of flattery, there were tears and protestations, self-abasement and promises for the future. And a whopping great diamond, known as The Mirror of Naples, given to Mary by Louis on their marriage and now offered to the English king.

    They returned to England together 503 years ago, almost to the day, on 2nd May 1515. Mary had to hand over all her returned dowry to her brother but she must have thought her new husband worth the financial sacrifice.

    They lived mainly at Suffolk Place. Mary was the second-highest ranking lady in England after her sister-in-law, Queen Katherine, and by February 1516, Charles Brandon was restored to all his roles at court. Katherine gave birth to a daughter in February 1516, after Mary's unsanctioned marriage, and the child was named after her aunt. This little girl became the woman the world knows as Mary Tudor.

    Just under a month later Mary and Brandon had their first child, a boy, whom they named Henry. By such reciprocal gestures was the reconciliation sealed. Their second child, Frances, was born in the following year. Another daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1519.

    In 1520, Mary, still only 24, twice-married and mother to two children, attended with her husband the fabulous Anglo-French encounter known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. But  before that, she met for the first time the man who had been her  fiancé, now King Charkles V of Spain. It makes her seem a woman we can recognise when Sarah Bryson tells us she ordered a whole new wardrobe for this occasion.

    In France, Brandon was the star of the jousts and how Mary must have rejoiced at his prowess. Here she was, a Dowager Queen, married to the man of her choosing, sister of a king and dressed and bejewelled in splendour while her handsome, athletic husband shone in the lists. In the five years since she had last been in the country her life had changed much for the better.

    But then two years later Mary and Charles's son Henry died. And the next decade showed a decline in her happiness. Another son, also called Henry, was born but lived until only eleven years of age.

    By 1527 Henry was trying to get an annulment of his marriage to Katherine and was focused on marrying Anne Boleyn and fathering a legitimate male heir. Until such time as he had one, little Henry Brandon, Earl of Lincoln  was a candidate for the English throne.

    Mary was horrified. Not at the thought of her son losing his place in line to the throne but because Katherine was genuinely her friend and she thought her brother's behaviour reprehensible. She developed a hearty dislike for Anne Boleyn, whom she had known in France.

    And how painful it must have been for Mary that her brother enlisted her husband to take messages to to the stricken queen, telling her of her fate. In 1533, shortly after Anne's coronation, Mary died. She was only 37 years old.

    Her little son died the following year but by then Charles Brandon had re-married. Three months after Mary's death he married his 14-year-old ward (no not the one he was engaged to before he married Mary). Catherine Willoughby, a great heiress, had been picked out to be little Henry's bride but Charles decided he would be the more suitable husband, especially because he was greatly in need of money.

    Sarah Bryson makes it clear that, although it was a love match, Charles and Mary had their burdens to bear. With the return of her dowry to Henry and the huge fines they had to pay the king because of their unauthorised marriage, the couple was always strapped for cash. They had to keep up the most lavish of appearances at court and Brandon often had to seek loans.

    They lost both of their sons (albeit the second after Mary's death), Mary missed a good friend in Katherine of Aragon and she herself suffered many episodes of an unspecified illness throughout her life. She retained the title Queen of France for the rest of her days and was clearly proud of it. But for eighteen years she was married to a man whom, for all his faults, she clearly loved.

    The daughter, wife and sister of kings and grandmother of the queen with the shortest reign in English history, the first Mary Tudor has at last found a worthy biographer in Sarah Bryson, who has done her subject a great service in this vivid and absorbing book.

    Sarah Bryson
    (All photos public domain)

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    This month, whenever I read a book I react to it. My reactions are visceral. The systems of names in fantasy worlds (historical and other) gave me negative ones. I wanted to invite the authors over, get out my trusty whiteboard, talk them through all their decisions and show them what they did then I wanted to sit back and watch them do better. “Their next novel,” I said,’ Would work for more readers. And it would have more resonance. And it would be more sparkly.” I stopped myself there, for ‘sparkly’ made me think of another negative visceral reaction: the one I had to sparkly vampires. Bingo. My reaction to poor naming systems in any kind of fiction is the same as my reaction to sparkly vampires. 

    This cute realisation led me into temptation. Grand and gross temptation. I wanted to write about all the ways some writers get names wrong because they want to use the history they know and they really don’t know as much history as they think… but in this company (where the writers and readers don’t make such daft assumptions) it would be nothing more than me sounding off. In fact, it’s probably my body telling me that I need a coffee.

    The feelings I got a month earlier when I read a kinda-historical sword and sorcerer series (“lace and blade” they call themselves) were more comforting. I find it interesting that a couple of volumes of lace and blade stories took some of the key facets of good historical fiction and transformed them into fantasy without triggering my ‘this is wrong!’ emotions. So many of my historian friends read fantasy rather than historical fiction. This might be one of the reasons why.

    Every genre and sub-genre has something that tells readers “this is us.” I’ve talked a lot to writers – for I teach these things – about word choice and sentence structure, period-of-preference and place-of-preference (some of my serious thoughts and other writers thoughts on this can be found in History and Fiction) and all of these are important genre attributes. They’re not, however, what lace and blade fiction borrows so successfully from historical fiction.

    Let me start with historical fiction, for it isn’t a single genre, and lace and blade doesn’t borrow from all historical fiction. I could equally start with sword and sorcery , for lace and blade still has some of sword and sorcery’s bold language and larger-than-life events. Today, however, I’m interested in the historical side.

    There were several concepts that pushed the stories in a certain direction. I want to call them names; the highwayman one; the smuggler one. Where criminal activity is presented as sexy. Vampires in lace, but with more action and less drinking from humans. Some of Anne Rice’s vampire fiction comes close in how it’s framed, which is why I thought of vampires. Rice also has a sense of place and a sense of time (the novels have a historical sense), and that’s closer to lace and blade (or lace and blade is closer to it. Which is closer to the other depends on who one asks and how much of a fan of a given writer that reader is) but it’s not our world. It’s not our history.

    This is where lace and blade starts. Almost our world, but not. It has a bit in common, too, with the movies of the 1950s, like Burt Lancaster swashbuckling around a ship in The Crimson Pirate. Very romanticised, often somewhat tongue in cheek and slightly sophisticated. The past as it could have been, with magic and more derring-do. 

    This is one area of overlap with historical fiction novels. Going back as far as anything that contains Sir Percy Blakeney, derring-do and charm and elegant deception and derring–do, redeeming someone from an impossible situation has been an aspect of historical fiction for a log time. Some novels contain it in spades. Especially the derring-do. 

    As far as Sir Percy, however? That’s drawing a line where no line is. Sir Percy is a point of time to remember, not the first. Nor even close to the first. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is another first-but-not-first. If we go back earlier, there are some wonderful romps by Italian writers, who use French heroes and ...change the stories. 

    Lace and blade, therefore, belongs to a long tradition of stories that make life more exciting in a safe way. I already knew that. This wasn’t what I was reacting to.

    I felt the emotions. For some stories, I felt the dream “This is the way the world could be.”
    These reoccurring themes come straight from historical fiction. Some sword and sorcery work also contain them, but in all cases it’s possible to trace it back to a sense that honour and love and, in many cases, tricking evil into doing good that itself comes from a particular type of historical fiction. This historical fiction was dominant in the twentieth century but really began with Jane Austen’s England and with John Gay’s operetta.

    My change of vocabulary in that last sentence means I need to stop soon. I’m turning into my academic self and she’s capable of being terribly tedious on this subject, albeit more accurate. Just think of highwaymen in love (John Gay), of manners and people and a quietly elegant society (Jane Austen). Add Georgette Heyer into the mix, and a dozen other writers. Transform the story, step by step and lo, lace and blade emerges. If I were writing lace and blade then I’d say ‘emerges triumphantly from the ruins’ for the sub-genre really enjoys a magnificent turn of phrase. It’s not for the subtle. 

    It’s also strongly linked to historical fiction, but it’s a fantasy genre. The history is part of the fabric. The power, the passion* and the elegance are its hallmarks. Magic, mystery and a certain trickiness.

    What struck me was that the passion side of it comes from historical fiction. Each emotion can be traced and, in the best stories, it matches rage of love and loss in historical fiction. By this, I mean that it can be passive, and it can be deep, and it can govern the whole story. While lace and blade is a variety of adventure fiction, it’s one that shares something very important with one less fantastical genre in particular.

    *Australian political jokes creep in on weeks like this

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    The criminal history of London in the late 19th century is dominated by one man: Jack the Ripper. But he may not have been the only serial murderer stalking the streets of London. During the 1880s and 1890s a series of children and young adults disappeared from West Ham in London’s East End. The crimes were never solved and it's not clear whether they were the victims of one person, or of several. However, the author of a recent book claims to have found the killer.

    Strange and secret people

    I first came across the West Ham Vanishings in Carole G Silver’s Strange and Secret Peoples where she notes that the second girl to disappear, twelve year old Eliza Carter, ‘returned briefly before her final disappearance to tell her school friends that "They" (the fairies) had kidnapped her and now forbade her to go home.’

    This seemed very curious to me. I read as much as I could about the disappearances, including newspapers of the time, but Silver's was the only reference I could find to fairies. Other reports noted that Eliza had been terrified of a man, or simply of returning home. Whoever it was she was terrified of, it seems she had good reason to be. Eliza was never seen again. However, the blue dress she had been wearing was recovered from West Ham Park, all of the buttons sliced off.

    The killer identified?

    Like Eliza, most of the other victims went missing from the streets and were never seen again. The first was Mary Seward, 14, who lived only a few houses away from Eliza Carter. The third was Clara Sutton, her friend. The fourth was Amelia Jeffs, 15, who lived on the same street as Mary Seward. However, Amelia, or “Millie” was found, violated and strangled.  

    In a 2016 book, Rivals of the Ripper, author Dr Jan Bondeson put forward the theory that a builder named Joseph Roberts, a key suspect in the murder of Amelia Jeffs, was responsible for both the West Ham vanishings and another series of horrible crimes against young girls in Walthamstow in the 1890s.

    Others have suggested that, given reports of several strange individuals, including women, in the West Ham vanishings, the abductors may have been human traffickers. Which brings me back to Eliza Carter and the fairies.

    ‘Fairy’ was one of the many terms for a prostitute in the Victorian era, and I initially wondered if Eliza was hinting that she was being forced into prostitution. I now think that, given the lack of references elsewhere, Carole Silver’s comment may simply be a mistake or a misreading. That's a view shared by Dr Beachcoming on his blog.

    However, I owe Carole Silver a thank you because it gave me the inspiration for my second novel, The Story Keeper. That too features a series of girls who disappear, one of whom is called Eliza. However, rather than use the real children of West Ham, I decided to transport the story to the Isle of Skye. There the girls are said to have been taken not by fairies exactly, but by the Sluagh, spirits of the restless dead. It is for Audrey, the protagonist, on Skye to collect the local folklore, to establish whether the abductors are indeed spirits or something altogether more human. 


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. The Story Keeper will be published in July 2018.

    2nd image - West Ham Park
    3rd image - Village street in England, 1890, via News Dog Media

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    It’s Act 4, Scene 3 of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and Autolycus the thief is singing a song about spring.

    When daffodils begin to peer
    With hey, the doxy over the dale,
    Why then comes in the sweet of the year
    For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

    The white sheet bleaching on the hedge
    With hey, the sweet birds, O how they sing…

    Introducing himself to the audience as a follower of Mercury (god of thieves) and a ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’, he intercepts a country yokel heading to market to buy provisions for the sheep-shearing festival – a shopping list which includes sugar, currents, rice, saffron, mace, nutmegs, ginger, prunes and raisins. (How and why did the English turn from these yummy groceries to our 20th century taste for the plain and boiled?) Relieving him of his money, Autolycus heads for the festival itself, where he expects to ‘make this cheat bring out another’.

    Next scene: Perdita arrives at the sheep-shearing festival like a vision of spring – ‘No shepherdess/But Flora, peering in April’s front’ – to hand out flowers like a more positive version of Ophelia. ‘Reverend sirs,’ she welcomes Polixenes and Camillo, ‘For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep/Seeming and savour all the winter long./Grace and remembrance be to you both/And welcome to our shearing/.’  When the middle-aged Polixenes protests with mild irony: ‘Well you fit our ages/With flowers of winter’, Perdita adds to them ‘flowers of middle summer’: ‘lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,/The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun/And with him rises, weeping.’ If it’s springtime though, how does she have these summer flowers to hand? 

    The answer is simple: it isn’t springtime. As Thomas Tusser points out in ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ (printed in 1557,  a year before Elizabeth I became queen and seven years before Shakespeare was born) sheep-shearing happens in June.

    Wash sheepe (for the better) where water doth run,
    And let him go cleanly and drie in the sun,
    Then shear him and spare not, at two daies an end,
    The sooner the better his corps will amend.

    Besides reminding us with his jog-trot lines just how wonderful Shakepeare’s poetry is, Tusser underscores the rural reality that lies behind the play. Though probably not with quite so many expensive ingredients, English as well as Arcadian farming wives were cooking plentifully for the sheep-shearing feasts.

                   Wife make us a dinner, spare flesh neither corne
                   Make wafers and cakes, for our sheepe must be shorne,
                   At sheepe-shearing neighbours none other thing crave
                   But good cheere and welcome like neighbours to have.

    Act 4 of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is, therefore, set firmly in the month of June and that is why Perdita has only summer flowers to distribute. (And rosemary and rue, which are available all year round). But then why has Autolycus just been singing so merrily of spring? And Perdita herself conjures spring in her next words as, speaking to Florizel, to Mopsa and Dorcas, she wishes she had some springtime flowers to gift and suit their youth.

    That come before the swallow dares, and take
    The winds of March with beauty; violets dim
    But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
    Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
    That die unmarried ere they can behold
    Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady
    Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
    The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
    The flower de luce being one. O these I lack
    To make you garlands of.

    Well, Shakespeare is able to have it all ways: and why not? Sheep-shearing happens in early summer, but Autolycus’s song and Perdita’s speech conjure up springtime too. Both are times of rejuvenation and hope, the sweet of the year… and the young lovers Perdita and Florizel represent the hope of healing for their parents’ breach. ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is steeped in a tisane of flowers.

    ‘With fairest flowers,’ says Arviragus in ‘Cymbeline’, speaking sad words over the body of the boy Fidele (actually his sister Imogen, not really dead, just drugged):

    Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,
    I’ll sweeten thy sad grave. Thou shalt not lack
    The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose, nor
    The azured harebell, like thy veins; no, nor
    The leaf of eglantine, who not to slander
    Outsweetened not thy breath...   [Act 4 Sc 2]

    Shakespeare associates primroses with youth and beauty, but often in contexts of fragility and death. (Though, growing en masse, these delightful flowers appear as ‘the primrose path’ of worldliness or temptation: Ophelia begs Laertes to avoid ‘the primrose path of dalliance’ and the Porter in Macbeth claims to have ‘let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to th’everlasting bonfire.’) Perdita’s primroses ‘die unmarried’: a sentiment echoed by Milton in ‘Lycidas’: ‘the rathe primrose that forsaken dies’. The archaic  word ‘rathe’ means ‘over-eager’, ‘too early’. Primroses don’t live to see the summer… but then neither do daffodils, and no poet seems ever to have regarded them as emblematic of early death. Flowers affect us in very different ways. Our native daffodils ‘come before the swallow dares/And take the winds of March with beauty’: they are tall, daring, triumphant flowers with actual golden trumpets. In ‘Shakespeare’s Wild Flowers’ (1935) Eleanour Sinclair Rohde says:-

    "In Shakespeare’s day daffodils were favourite flowers for chaplets, and he refers to this fact in ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’:

    … I’ll bring a bevy,
    A hundred black-eyed maids that love as I do
    With chaplets on their heads of daffodillies…"[Act 4 Sc 1]

    In fact Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher was probably responsible for these lines, and the context in which they occur is an obvious borrowing from the death of Ophelia – a mad, lovesick girl, knee-deep in a lake, singing and plaiting garlands of waterflowers. It’s nothing like as good, though. I’m tempted to imagine two professional playwrights, writing to deadlines:

     ‘Will, what am I going to do with the Jailer’s Daughter?’ – ‘The one with the unrequited love for Palamon?’ – ‘Yup.’ – ‘The usual, I suppose. Can’t she run mad?’ – ‘I suppose so. What do mad girls do?’ – ‘I don’t know… mess about with flowers? Look, I’m busy. Read this and do your own version.’ [Will tosses over a copy of Hamlet…]

    Primroses are pale, low, poignant, early, ‘rathe’ – they come before the spring is well advanced and we wonder if they’ll survive the next frost. Gertrude’s words at Ophelia’s funeral – ‘I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, And not t’have strewed thy grave’ – might echo the sentiments of many an onlooker at a spring funeral, as the wastage of winter took its toll of young people made ‘lean’ by January blasts.   

    But spring is always a time of resurrection. Fidele lives and, revealed as Imogen, is reunited with her repentant father and husband. Perdita’s mother Hermione, long thought dead, descends from her plinth to embrace her daughter and bless her marriage with Florizel. Wounds are healed. Families are made whole. It is the sweet of the year and time to rejoice. 

    Picture credits

    John Fawcett plays Autolycus in The Winter's Tale (1828) by Thomas Charles Wageman
    Perdita distributes flowers in Act 4 of The Winter's Tale [untraced origin]
    Flower de luce, or yellow flag iris: Redouté's Les Liliacées, 1808
    Primroses and Bird's Nest: William Hunt, 1790-1864
    Wild Daffodils, Narcissus Pseudonarcissus:, Antoine de Pinet, 16th century
    Ophelia, detail: John Millais, 1852, Tate

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    Before there were DIY paint charts and high-fidelity digital shade matchers, there was Werner's Nomenclature of Colours.  In 1814, Patrick Syme (Flower-Painter of Edinburgh) adapted the pioneering work of Abraham Gottlob Werner to make it "highly useful to the Arts and Sciences, particularly Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Morbid Anatomy".  His aim was "To remove the present confusion in the names of colours, and establish a standard".

    In Syme's arrangement, each colour is numbered, named, its constituent parts explained, a small square of colour shown, and then comparisons made to exactly which bit of a well-known animal or plant or mineral it is most like.

    No. 24, for example, "Scotch blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a considerable portion of velvet black, a very little grey, and a slight tinge of carmine red."  It is most like the tint seen on the "Throat of Blue Titmouse", the "Stamina of Single Purple Anemone" and "Blue Copper Ore".

    And that is where I get completely hooked.

    Gold Fish lustre abstracted ... Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake ... Breast of the Robin round the Red ... Old Stems of Hawthorn ...


    Today, the book's most well-known user was Charles Darwin, who took it with him on the HMS Beagle and referred to it, as the Publisher's Note describes, "to craft his descriptions of what he saw, such as the changing colour of cuttlefish ... 'clouds, varying in tint between hyacinth red and chestnut brown' ... and the 'beryl blue' colour of the glaciers he saw in South America."

    Werner's Nomenclature of Colours is published as a Natural History Museum facsimile volume.  It is a pleasure to hold in the hand, and full of the quaint and the poetic as well as the historical, the practical and the scientific.  I recommend it for your antiquarian browsing delectation.

    Joan Lennon's website.
    Joan Lennon's blog.
    Walking Mountain.

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    My house doesn’t have much history. It was built in 2002 and I’m the only person ever to have lived there. Of course the land it was built on has a history – everywhere does, but there’s nothing in the house itself except what I have brought to it.

    Not so for my friend Claire Davis, whose Bow home announces its distinguished history proudly in the blue plaque by the front door. For this tall 19th century terraced house played an important role in women’s history. The early twentieth century East End of London was a hub of feminist activity, including a suffragette shop at Bromley-by-Bow, and a working women’s hostel on the Old Ford Road. But it was in Claire’s very house where, in 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst and her friend Nora Lyle-Smyth set up one of the most forward-looking and practical initiatives of them all, the East London Toy Factory and Babies’ Nursery.

    I’ve been a frequent visitor to the house since the late 1990s when Claire and her husband Frank bought it, and I’ve always assumed that the attractive brick building in the back garden was purpose-built for the toy factory. Not so, Claire tells me: the building was already there when Sylvia and Nora found the house. ‘It was quite common then to have small-scale factories in domestic settings.’ Of course the building made the premises perfect for Pankhurst’s plan. What made the factory special was that it included a workplace nursery, the first place to do so, some sources say. Sylvia Pankhurst’s feminism was of the sort which recognised the realities faced by working-class women, especially in wartime conditions.

    The toys they made were high-end dolls and wooden and stuffed toys, sold to outlets such as Selfridge’s. The factory closed in 1934 when such luxury toys became too expensive to produce and not economically viable.

    women at work in the factory 

    But you can find this out in a book or online. What I was really interested in what it feels like to live, and bring up four daughters, in a house with such a feminist history. Claire says she was always aware of the toy factory, because of the blue plaque. Local history walks often include a visit to the house, especially recently when interest in the suffrage movement has blossomed. I wondered if Claire’s own professional life, which has included supporting women through early parenthood, was directly influenced by the house, but she says it’s more of a happy coincidence. ‘Women are not always given choices,’ she explains, ‘and it’s empowering for them to be able to share information with other women.’

    the toy factory in the garden

    Happy coincidence or not, I think Sylvia Pankhurst would have approved. A couple more coincidences – Claire and her youngest daughter Agnes travelled to Ethiopia some years ago, to visit a friend. Ethiopia is, of course, where Sylvia retired to, and she is buried there. Claire and Agnes visited her grave. And I, browsing through a 1918 art magazine, found an advertisement for a painter/supervisor in the very factory I knew so well. Naturally I sent it to Claire and it’s framed and displayed in the hall, which makes me happy every time I visit.

    I suppose we all add little bits of history to the places we go to, whether there’s a blue plaque or not.

    My own small addition to the house's history 

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    This novel is pleasurable on so many levels that it's going to take me a while to list them all, and to do so without any spoilers.

    MPP, as I'll call it, is a novel that explains and illuminates a short moment of history in a place so remote that I'd never (to my shame) ever heard the name Kermadec Islands before. This is where the story unfolds.

    The time is 1879. Mr Peacock and his family have bought an island some way off the coast of New Zealand. Some Polynesian Islanders arrive on Monday Island to help the Peacocks turn it into a paradise. It was the dream of such a Utopia that drove the family there, but things are desperate for a while until Kalala and Solomona and the others appear.

    The narrative is divided between two points of view, which belong to  Kalala and Lizzie, the second Peacock daughter. There are six children at the beginning of the novel and a baby, Joseph,  is born soon after they get there. Ada, Albert, Billy, Queenie and Gussie are the names of the others. Gradually, nature is brought somewhat under control and matters improve. Then Albert goes missing...

    That's all I'm going to say about the plot, except that it's full of twists and turns and surprising development.  It unfolds in tantalising ways, moving from one event to the next in a series of shocks and revelations that are breathtaking but also quite logical. You, as a reader, keep saying: yes. Yes, of course, I ought to have realised that.

    In her answers to my questions that follow that review, Lydia Syson, who used to be one of our number on this blog, tells us that the story is based on her husband's family history. This gives a solid layer of fact and real events to the novel. She has also clearly fallen in love with Monday Island and she brings it so beautifully to life that we are there with the Peacocks, in this lush but unforgiving place. We get to know the landscape and the immensity and beauty of the ocean that surrounds the island. 

    Her greatest skill though is her ability to inhabit her characters. Kalala tells his story in the first person and that works perfectly, where it could easily have been embarrassing. I'm going to quote a passage from the beginning of the book to demonstrate: 

    High and dry we stand on deck on the big palagi ship called Esperanza, Auckland-bound, and the two-blooded deck boy from Samoa tell me as he passes, without a smile, that the Esperanza is word that signifies hope, in the language of the silver mines. Then on flies my mind, wayfinding without a body, all over and everywhere, wandering, wondering. How long will we voyage in this ever-cooling air, and see no other island?

    Lizzie and her siblings are equally well-drawn. You miss their company when you turn the last page. And that's perhaps the greatest achievement of this novel: it stays with you. I've been haunted by it since I finished reading it.  I hope very much that it gets the attention and praise it deserves. 


    Many thanks, before I ask these questions, to Lydia who's allowed

    me to use the photographs, and helped me with posting them here.)

    1  1)  How did the idea first come to you, and what has changed in the novel between your first impulse and the finished book.

    Like my last three books, Mr. Peacock’s Possessions takes off from family history – but this time it’s my husband’s.  On a visit from New Zealand, his aunt Madeleine told me the extraordinary story of her uncle’s family, the Bells, who in 1878 decided to make their home on an otherwise uninhabited Pacific Island, hundreds of miles from any other human settlement. Exceptionally remote, it was then called Sunday Island – now Raoul – and it’s the largest in the Kermadecs, a chain of small volcanic islands about halfway between Auckland and Tonga. My husband’s great-aunt was married to the youngest child, ‘King’, who was born on the island in 1889. Tom and Frederica Bell first arrived on Sunday Island in 1878 with six children aged from eleven to one, and high hopes for the future. The captain who brought them sailed away, promising to return in three months.  They found their provisions were rotten and they never saw that ship again. 

    (Frederica Bell, Denham Bay, 1907/8)
    I could see the possibilities for a novel almost as soon as Madeleine began talking, and I quizzed her furiously – she remembers it well! It turned out that a journalist had written a book about the ‘Crusoes’ of Sunday Island' in the 1950s, based on the memories of King’s sister Bessie, who was nine when they first landed.

     But this was a very sanitised account, Madeleine warned me. The real father was even more brutal than the iron-willed ‘despot’ described by Elsie Morton. Morton’s book was gripping in the way survival narratives and island stories so often are: full of hardship and catastrophe, every disaster eventually overcome by hard work and bitter determination – and usually some hymns and prayers. But I found the holes in it more interesting than anything. Who were the unnamed Pacific Islanders who came to work for the Bells two years into the thirty-five they spent on Raoul? Why was one of these ordained? 

    (The Patriach, Tom Bell, aboard the Amoruku in 1911, after a terrible cyclone had destroyed everything the family had built. just one of many setbacks over three decades.)
    The novel had originally been commissioned for Hot Key’s YA list. But what had started in my mind as a thrilling Robinsonade – a tale of goat hunts, hut-building, cyclones and near starvation, – grew quickly darker and more complex, and my publisher soon moved it onto a newly launched list for adults, Zaffre. 

    I picked away at different aspects of Oceania’s broader history. I explored the fascinating history of Niue in particular – named Savage Island by Captain Cook. I read Melville, Ballantyne, Stevenson and a variety of seafaring memoirs And I discovered a world in flux: missionaries, whalers, beachcombers, traders and work gangs criss-crossing the seas, land and people both seemingly up for grabs.

    (King Bell on Raoul Island, 1907/8when the first scientific expedition came to the Kermadecs.)
    The island – so beautiful, so fertile and yet so treacherous - was a gift in terms of setting, plot and metaphor. Family relationships remained at the heart of the novel. But I became preoccupied with faith and doubt, blindness and insight.  The parallels I found between the intimate world I was creating and the bigger historical picture allowed the book also to became an exploration of power and possession, and migration, forced and voluntary. 

       2) How long did it take you to write and what are your working methods? You have 4 children so I imagine juggling doesn’t begin to cover it.  

    I wish I could pretend I have a writing routine and religiously write x number of words a day. I don’t. Mr Peacock’s Possessions has been made possible by three years of a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship at The Courtauld Institute of Art. So I’ve been teaching for one or two days a week, and trying to research or write for the rest – but of course there are also school visits, CWISL events and organisation (Children’s Writers and Illustrators for Stories and Literacy -(Children’s Writers and Illustrators for Stories and Literacy -, and the usual domestic demands faced by anyone who works freelance at home and has multiple teenagers. I have a fantasy of reaching to the floor for my laptop as soon as I wake up, not speaking to anyone, and writing for several hours in bed first thing in the morning. This never happens. But I do often go back to bed when the house has emptied, especially in winter, and I definitely do my best and most concentrated writing tucked up under a duvet at the top of our South London Victorian terrace, with a view of sky and treetops.

    I am devoted to the writing software Scrivener, which I use to keep my research in order and get a very rough first draft in place. I like to get a good sense of my chronology from the outset, but don’t necessarily write in order. (Scrivener makes this easier than it sounds, and takes the agony out of planning, and also restructuring when you realise it’s not quite working.) 

    This time I wrote the past tense sequences first – how the Peacock family arrive on the island, and the extreme challenges they faced in the first two years. The events here closely follow what actually happened to the Bell family, and as I started I imagined these sections might have something of the feel of a nineteenth-century adventure story for children. And then the weaving began. . . I started to develop Kalala’s first person present voice – more on that below – and this is intercut with the close third person perspective of Lizzie, Mr. Peacock’s golden girl.  And all along beside this, crazy amounts of research – not just history, but linguistics, anthropology, psychology, ornithology, midwifery, botany, geology. . . 

    After nearly a year, I had the slabby clay of the first draft.  My partner read it on his kindle on our summer holiday, and was gratifyingly entranced in canoes and buses and boats while we backpacked with the family around Nicaragua, and I looked at volcanoes and black sand and cloud forest and wondered how different these might be in the Pacific.  (An exceptional summer holiday for us – we were meeting our eldest who had been travelling for 7 months.) Another few months followed of fairly substantial rewriting, during which I asked my agent to read just the first 5,000 words, mainly to get her reaction to the voice(s). Then it was time to send it to my new editor.  Terrifyingly, but not unusually, she was not the person who’d commissioned the book. I was utterly convinced that my contract would be cancelled any day. I braced myself for weeks. But she loved it. And then the publication date moved back, and we had a great long period of time to work together on the manuscript, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Eleanor Dryden is an extraordinarily dedicated editor, prepared to spend hours discussing every nuance and layer, and brilliant at teasing out what she needed from me. She managed to be patient, demanding, ruthless and supportive in all the right ways. I can hardly even say how many drafts there were in total, but I know that under Eli’s guidance, I went on writing, re-writing and researching for another year before the book was ready to be typeset and shared further. Along the way I had feedback from my brother, my agent, an agency intern, a very old and very trusted friend,Tig Thomas, who very generously reads all my manuscripts just before line-editing stage and always improves them, and also from historian Mark Darby, whom I’d come to know by email after reviewing his Spanish Civil War book for The History Girls, and he read it with a New Zealander’s eye.  

    I didn’t think then I had the faintest hope of making it to New Zealand, let alone ‘my’ island, so I was particularly grateful to Mark. But to my amazement I ended up emailing my very last corrections in March from Auckland, still swaying from my voyage on the HMNZS Canterbury. Thanks to the Pew Trusts, who’ve been campaigning for years for a much-needed ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs, [in late February I joined a crew of scientists, educators and young environmentalists on a Sir Peter Blake Trust expedition ] in   to Raoul. So now I know what colour the sea there really is and how flying fish behave; I’ve seen the giant limpets, muttonbirds, wideawakes, tropic birds, gropers and turtles in my book; I’ve swum with sharks; I’ve flown over the volcanic crater and I’ve watched the horizon for hours and days without seeing another vessel or habitable land. But, disappointingly, despite months of planning, biosecurity measures and lack of resources meant we were refused landing permits. So I never actually set foot on the island! 

    (Lydia Syson in the beautiful sea.)
    So many different stages then. Seeing the finished hardback just a week ago was a glorious moment.  If only – and most authors will sympathise - I hadn’t immediately spotted a typo. Mea culpa. My very final proofread was under difficult circumstances and a mortifying error crept unnoticed into my author’s note: the Maori name for New Zealand is of course spelled Aotearoa – ‘the Land of the Long White Cloud’.

        3) Was it your intention to educate your readers in certain aspects of history that they may not have known about? No spoilers, but how the story unfolds reveals something surprising and horrifying...

    Yes and no. I was horrified myself by what I learned, and I also wanted to suggest through the storytelling how easily horrific histories can become buried.  

    We often think of the nineteenth century as the great era of abolition and emancipation, but in fact the slave trade simply changed its name, its organisation, its victims and its locations. After the American Civil War, cotton and sugar production shifted to the Pacific. The people of the small scattered islands of Oceania were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.  First the blackbirders came. Then the indentured labour recruiters. The Pacific Labour Trade tore families and communities violently apart, and far too many people have never been able to recover their ancestors’ stories.  Slavery and human trafficking continue to thrive all over the world, including in the UK.  Purely in terms of numbers, more people are enslaved now than at any time before in history. So though I never want to be didactic, actually, yes – I did hope to draw attention to all these things.

    I’m in the middle of putting together an online bibliography for readers who want to follow up on any of my sources, as I have with all my books, and this should be available from publication day – May 17th.  Of course I’d recommend reading Mr Peacock’s Possessions first, but after that this article

    offers excellent insight into New Zealand’s slaving history. It’s by Scott Hamilton, NZ historian and author of The StolenIsland (2016).  Australia’s hidden history of slavery is explored  here.   And you can join Anti-Slavery International – the world’s oldest human rights organisation – here.

    4) When I reviewed Jane Harris's SUGAR MONEY, I asked her whether she was nervous at reactions to her writing (very well) in the voice of a young man of different racial origin from her own. In these days of 'cultural appropriation' and the like, did this give you any pause at all? You write very beautifully partly from the point of view of a native Islander!

    Thank you! And it certainly did.

    As I began work on Mr. Peacock’s Possessions, the world of children’s publishing was waking up to the call for more diverse and inclusive representation. Young readers of all backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities urgently needed to see more characters in books who reflected their own lives and experiences. Protagonists, not token side-kicks. Most writers for children felt a shared responsibility to make this happen, with sensitivity and care, no matter what their own identity might be. Meanwhile, in adult publishing, a reverse move was taking place, for equally valid and important reasons.  Writers whose colour and class give them easier access to a public voice through publication – including me – have been forced to think more carefully about what stories they have the right to tell.  

    I always felt it was extremely important politically to put my young Pacific Islander, Kalala, at the centre of this story. I don’t want to overemphasise my own anguish – particularly in the context of the truly agonising histories I’m exploring here – but it was a huge dilemma. If, once it became an adult novel, I abandoned my attempt to create a convincing voice for Kalala, if I didn’t allow him to speak for himself, I risked marginalising him and all the Polynesian people in the book. Mr. Peacock’s Possessions could have become just another book about an encounter with the ‘other’ told through the eyes of an ‘innocent’ white girl.  One predictable point of view. In rendering the entangled stories of two imagined groups of people meeting and living alongside each other on an invented version of a real island, I needed to portray the ways in which all my characters navigate between cultures. I wanted to draw upon and expose, but never, I hope, abuse the very real and horrific histories which inspired the novel, histories currently little known beyond academia. And I wanted readers to be completely swept up by these histories.

    I write about other times and places because my circumstances mean most of my travels are necessarily in my head, and my explorations take place largely in libraries and archives.  Of course I’d have loved to go to Niue.  I couldn’t. I hope one day I will. I still can’t quite believe that at the very last minute I reached the Kermadecs. 

    I don’t expect all readers to agree, but it felt wrong to censor myself for fear of an anticipated judgment. And novels simply can’t be written by committee, so a book has to get to a certain stage before it can be shared.  In the end, family circumstances in the last six months made it very hard for me to get the manuscript into the hands of the readers who mattered most to me, as I had planned. But before Mr Peacock’s Possessions went to print in the UK, I was overjoyed to be introduced to one very important reader - the multi-talented teacher and writer Ioane Aleke Fa’avae, an expert in the history, culture and language of Niue, and winner of the 2014 Creative NZ Pacific Heritage Award. Thanks to his warm blessing – and a spelling correction – my anxieties about the book’s reception have diminished considerably. And copies of the finished book are on their way to Niue now. 

    5) Can you speak at all of your next book? 

    I’m afraid not. No mystery…just don’t quite know myself yet.

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    The Old Red Lion Inn, Holmes Chapel. Photo: David Dixon
    When I was a little girl I became obsessed with the dream of finding a secret drawer and spent many fruitless hours searching and prodding every piece of furniture in the house. I was doomed to failure, because everything was a mass-produced, post-war, utility piece. I also almost knocked myself out on several occasions trying to walk through the back of wardrobes in the vain hope that one day I’d emerge into Narnia. I quite quickly realised the Narnia adventure was never going to happen, but my 'secret drawer' fantasy never really went away. So, I was thrilled when, a few weeks ago, two dear and generous friends sent me an unexpected parcel. It turned out to be a George III writing slope made between 1795-1810, which contained not one but two secret drawers.

    My friends restore antique boxes and in stripping this one down to clean it, they discovered its secret. If you merely opened up the writing slope you’d never guess they were there, but remove one of inkwells and lift out a series of tiny wooden panels in the right order and you find a hidden catch which releases a false back, behind which the drawers are concealed.

    Dragon's Blood trees (Dracaena cinnabari
    Socotra Island, Yemen. Photo: Rod Waddington
    One drawer contained a residue of a blood red powder. The novelist in me would like to think it might be powdered ‘dragons blood’, the costly resin from a tree such as Dracaena cinnabari, believed by alchemists and physicians to have great healing powers and later used for dyeing wood to make violins. But the red substance is probably powdered red ink of the kind once used on legal documents.

    The other drawer contained a stained fragment of paper which looks as if it might have been torn from the top right-hand corner of a much-folded letter. Written on it is a name and address.
    Red Lion,
    Holmes Chapel,

    My friends decided to research the address and discovered the wonderful story that the Old Red Lion Inn at Holmes Chapel is reputed to be haunted by a pale woman in a dark habit and white wimple. Legend has it that she was the victim of immurement and was walled up alive in one of the rooms. Just a legend of course and there are many such tales all over the country, with little or no basis in historical fact, but the idea is remarkably persistent in folk myth. There is also a story that in 1745, some of Bonny Prince Charlie's men stopped off for a little refreshment at the Red Lion on their way south to try to take the throne.
    Holmes Chapel with the Red Lion Inn, 1853

    Holmes Chapel was originally called Hulme and then Church Hulme. The earliest document discovered which mentions the Red Lion Inn comes from the will of Thomas Gandie in 1625. The inn became an important stop-over for travellers using the daily stage coaches. And in 1738, John Wesley, travelling between Oxford and Manchester, is reported to have preached at the inn. Perhaps his blessing protected it, for tragically on 10th July 1753, fire broke out in the village burning down 18 of 20 houses. Only the church, two cottages behind it and Red Lion Inn were spared.

    London to Birmingham Stage, 1801
    Painting by John Cordrey
    Of course, my writing slope dates from some years after these events, but here the novelist in me takes over. Why was this address torn from a letter and left in the box? Was it simply a correspondence address the owner of the box wanted to keep because he had to write to someone working or staying in Chapel Holme? The Booths were certainly a prominent family in that area. Had the owner arranged to meet this person at the inn, perhaps for an hour or so, as they transferred between stage coaches on route to Oxford or Manchester or somewhere else? Does the red legal ink, if that’s what it is, give a clue to the owner’s profession and was it in that capacity he'd perhaps arranged to meet W.Booth at the Red Lion Inn? And why was the address put in the secret drawer? Was it simply to ensure they didn’t mislay the scrap of paper or did they have some reason for concealing it? The possibilities are endless.

    When I was a child searching for a secret drawer I had longed to find a magic stone hidden in it or charm that would take me back in history, like the bed knob in Mary Norton’s ‘Bedknob and Broomstick’. As an adult, I've found a scrap of paper that does just that, and I am just as childishly thrilled now as that little girl would have been all those years ago.

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  • 05/08/18--16:16: London's Mithraeum Liturgy
  • On the evening of Thursday 17 May 2018, just over a week from the date of this post I, Caroline Lawrence, will be meeting with children aged 8-12 (and their guardians) at an ancient Roman underground temple: London’s Mithraeum. This will be the first #MuseumsAtNight hosted by the Mithraeum at Bloomberg Space, which only opened to the public last year. 

    I will be doing some fun interactive activities with the children to prepare them for the Immersive Experience on the site of London’s Mithraeum, now back in its original place. (If you want to see what I’ll be doing with the kids, check out my blog post: Interactive Mithras.) 

    Mithraism was a mystery cult that arose in Rome (or possibly the coast of Turkey) in the middle of the first century AD, around the same time as Christianity. Unlike Christianity, Mithraism was a mystery cult and by definition kept its rites and rituals secret. There were no scriptures so almost everything we know about it is guesswork based on archaeological evidence and a few peripheral literary sources, some of them hostile. 

    The god Mithras seems to have had elements of the Indo-Iranian god Mithra (without an S), but with added qualities from other deities. Like Serapis and Sulis Minerva, he was syncretistic, i.e. a hybrid god, one to be added to hundreds of others.

    If the symbol of Christianity is the cross, the symbol of Mithras was a very complicated scene of the god stabbing a bull while surrounded by signs of the Zodiac and other heavenly figures, including two torchbearers called Cautes and Cautopates, possible threshold guardians to the Gates of Heaven. Also crowded into the scene were creatures such as a dog, a snake, a raven and a scorpion. 

    Trying to reconstruct the rites, rituals and beliefs of Mithras based on this mysterious image would be like someone trying to reconstruct Christianity based on the image of a crucified man along with accounts of a few of his miracles. 

    One theory is that Mithras was a god who created the world by slaying a cosmic bull. (However the word ‘tauroctony’, i.e. ‘bull-slaying’, does not appear anywhere in antiquity.)

    Another theory is that the bull represents evil which cannot be destroyed, only disabled, and that the stabbing is an apotropaic attempt to weaken its power and bring some good out of it. 

    The definitive book on Mithras
    However there are also scenes of Mithras and the sun-god Sol enjoying a banquet on a bull’s skin, so it seems the first theory is more plausible, though the bull-stabbing did also seem to have apotropaic powers. 

    Unlike almost every other religion known to us, Mithraism was only open to men. The small, exclusively male congregations met not in a temple but in an underground space designed to partly resemble a cave. In fact the use of the word ‘mithraeum’ is nowhere attested. Instead we find references to Caves of Mithras

    Another of the aspects we can be fairly sure of is that there was a hierarchy of different grades in this Mystery Cult. The idea of rising by promotion would have been a familiar one to soldiers and male citizens of the Roman Empire.

    We believe there were seven grades of initiation ranging from Raven to Father. Each grade had its own name, ruling planet, colour, attributes and possibly even noises. The aim of moving from grade to grade was possibly to achieve immortality of the soul by ascending through the seven heavenly spheres of purification or knowledge. 

    A fascinating mosaic showing the grades by attributes can be seen on one of Ostia’s seventeen Mithraea, named after Felicissimus, who dedicated the mosaic. 

    The seven grades, from lowest to highest, were these: 
    (Latin  – English – special planet – colour – attributes)
    Corax – Raven – Mercury – Black – raven, beaker, caduceus
    Nymphus – Bridegroom – Venus – Yellow? – lamp, diadem
    Miles – Soldier – Mars – Orange – sling, helmet, spear
    Leo – Lion – Jupiter – Red – thunderbolt, sistrum, fire spade
    Perses – Persian – Moon – White? – crescent moon, dagger
    Heliodromus – Sun-Runner – Sun – Gold – torch, crown,  whip
    Pater – Father – Saturn – Purple – Persian cap, staff, sickle

    Pictoral evidence hints that each grade could only be achieved by enduring a humiliating and frightening initiation. This often involved the initiate being stripped, blindfolded and threatened with death. Following the initiation of a new member the followers of Mithras would celebrate a banquet, an important part of the brotherhood as the layout of over four hundred Caves of Mithras show. 

    The Mithraic feast by Judith Dobie, snapped at the Museum of London

    Another tantalising find concerning Mithras is a possible liturgy written on the walls of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum at Rome. 

    For those of you who have studied Latin, (children included), I thought it would be fun to publish the Latin liturgy created especially for Londons Mithraeum by Roger Tomlin, the brilliant scholar who has translated many of the Vindolanda and Bloomberg tablets, ancient Roman documents that have defeated mere mortals.

    Roger has replicated a possible liturgy based on the graffiti from the Santa Prisca Mithraeum. 

    What follows are Latin phrases that sharp-eared visitors to London’s Mithraeum might ‘overhear’ when they descend to the ancient temple for the Immersive Experience. The one word you might not recognise is Nama. This is the Persian word for ‘Hail!’ and the Sanskrit word for ‘I bow’, still used today by everyone who takes a yoga class when they say, Namaste: ‘I bow to you’ or ‘I thank you’.  

    London’s Mithraeum Liturgy 

    (spoiler alert: don’t read this if you want the immersive experience to be a surprise)

    [The lights in the Mithraeum go down and there is silence for a moment. Then the sound of a door creaking open and footsteps. Men greet one another. The splash and trickle of water. Footsteps on gravel. The haunting sound of a horn blares out.] 

    [PATER] Nama Coracibus, tutela Mercurii 
    Hail to the Ravens, under the protection of Mercury  

    [RAVENS] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni  
    Hail to the Father, under the protection of Saturn

    [sistrum joins the horn]

    [PATER] Nama nymphis, tutela Veneris
    Hail to the Bridegrooms, under the protection of Venus

    [drums join the horn]

    [BRIDEGROOMS] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni   
    Hail to the Father, etc. 

    [drum, horn, rattles]

    [PATER] Nama Militibus, tutela Martis
    Hail to the Soldiers, under the protection of Mars

    [RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

    [PATER]  Nama Leonibus , tutela Iovis   
    Hail to the Lions, under the protection of Jove

    [drum, horn, rattles]

    [RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

    [PATER] Nama Persis, tutela Lune  
    Hail to the Persians, under the protection of the Moon  

    [RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

    [the men’s voices are getting louder and louder.]

    [PATER] Nama Heliodromis, tutela Solis  
    Hail to Helios’ couriers, under the protection of the Sun  

    [RESPONSE] Nama Patri, tutela Saturni

    [PATER] Nama Patribus ab oriente ad occidentem, tutela Saturni 
    Hail to the Fathers, from east to west [lit. from rising to setting sun], under the protection of Saturn.

    [RESPONSE] Nama Patribus! Et patri nostro 
    Hail to the Fathers and to Our Father
    Silvano et Pontifici, tutela Saturni
    and priest Silvanus, in the protection of Saturn

    Nama Patribus, Nama Patribus!

    [drumming and rattling reaches a crescendo then the trill of a single flute. Sound of men eating, laughing, clink of cutlery, glugging of wine… The sound of a spoon on a glass beaker for attention:]

    Honesti, socii, propinemus!
    Gentlemen, companions, a toast! 

    Mithras quoque miles, robora nos ad diem,
    Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!
    Roma regit populos, rex tu tamen omnium.
    Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all!

    Nama Mithras! Nama Mithras! 

    [Everyone cheers]

    [Partly muffled by banter, the Father utters final prayers]

    Mithras, salva nos... orare… nocturnos… 
    placatos… vias multas fecisti..

    [We hear solitary footsteps receding…
    Then the creak of hinges, the slamming of a door and…
    … the wind, the universal sign of abandonment and desolation.]

    And when the lights come on again you are in for a surprise!

    Caroline Lawrence is currently working on a time travel book involving a 12-year-old Londoner named Alex Papas, London’s Mithraeum and the bones of a 14-year-old girl from Africa who died in 3rd century Londinium. The working title is Ways to Die in Londinium. Caroline will be brainstorming ideas and doing a reading from this work in progress at London’s Mithraeum on the evening of Thursday 17 May 2018. Book your FREE place HERE

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    The weather could not have been more golden, and the company could not have been more intelligent, attractive and beloved. Before we set off for the villa, I printed out some information that I translated for said company as we drove through the rolling plains of the Veneto. It’s always hard – emotionally and physically – to leave Venice, but it seemed that it was worth tugging against nature to visit the magnificent Villa Pisani at Stra.

    The villa was built by the Golden Book Pisani family of Santo Stefano, who grew wealthy through their mercantile and property businesses. Their principal seat in town is now the glorious Conservatorium of Music just behind the Palazzo Barbaro. Other seats include the Gritti and the Pisani Moretta palaces, both on the Grand Canal. Alvise Andrea Pisani (1664-1741) was appointed ambassador to the court of the Sun King and became doge (1735). But the family vice of gambling, along with the fall of the Venetian Republic, led to crippling debts. The Pisanis sold their vast villa at Stra to Napoleon in 1807 for 1,901,000 Venetian lire. Napoleon, then King of Italy, appointed as viceroy his stepson Eugène Beauharnais, who was installed in the villa – until the Battle of Waterloo in 1814 delivered the estate to the Habsburg imperial family, who enjoyed it as a summer retreat. In 1866, when the Veneto entered the Kingdom of Italy, the Villa Pisani became the property of the State. Notable visitors included Wagner and D’Annunzio. The first official meeting between Mussolini and Hitler was staged here in 1934. Meanwhile, the vast garden has long been acknowledged as one of the finest in Italy.

    All this was so very interesting that I was a little disappointed when it turned out that I’d made a mistake. None of us realized this until we actually arrived at a different Villa Pisani, this one being the Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin at Vescovana. Oops.

    Well, it was still a Pisani villa. A quick regrouping of research materials revealed that after the sale of the sumptuous Villa at Stra, the Pisani family lavished their attention on this one. The last Countess Pisani, Evelina van Millingen, enriched the splendid garden and the park, particularly with tulips. (Her name sounded familiar, and she turned out to be, as I suspected, the daughter of Julius Millingen, who attended Byron on his deathbed. There’s no getting away from that man! And the ‘van’ therefore appears to be an aspirational affectation).

    Less grand, more crumbling than the one at Stra, the Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin also boasts a beautiful though small formal garden. According to the website, the garden was designed to be admired from the villa’s central terrace and rooms on the first floor. It is called "Crispin de Pass’, referring to an image in the Hortus Floridus by Crispin de Pass (1614). According to the villa’s website, ‘It was an extraordinary project keeping in step with the new style that was popular in England and was influenced by the Edwardian architect Sir Reginald Blomfield (1856 - 1942) with architectural pieces and topiaries, a historical throwback to when garden and house were a single project. The publication "The Formal Garden in England" proposed the return to the tradition of the garden of the 1600s. The garden of Vescovana shows in every element the two souls of Evelina van Millingen: her strong English roots expressed in her Victorian taste - moderated by the secular history of the Pisani family, is united with the Italian traditions, and became a well-balanced blend of a highly architectural setting and the naturalness of the surrounding park. The presence of statues, vases and fountains are clearly due to the Italian influence.’ 

    The Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin had advertised its Spring ‘GIARDINITY PRIMAVERA’ far and wide and had succeeded at pulling in what I would estimate as a minimum of 5,000 guests to picnic and dine the day we were there. The villa had printed tickets – 8 euros each for adults, and there were plenty of those to go around. Nor did I notice any shortage of wine or plates of food being carried from the kitchen. There were other ways to spend money too – handicrafts and artwork for sale, and a treasure hunt for children.
    just mentioning it: the ducal corno
    rendered on somegarden ironmongery
    The weather stayed beautiful. The food was reasonable for catering on such a massive scale. The waiters dashed about valiantly in the heat. It was pure pleasure to lunch overlooking the topiary, flowerbeds, statues and decorative ironmongery, including a small rendition of the Doge's corno hat, in case anyone missed the fact that the Pisani family had risen to the highest office of state.
    No label
    and no staff to ask but
    Perhaps this is Evelina?
    The Pisani family died out in 1880 with Evelina's husband Almorò. In 1900, after her death, the villa passed to a distant nephew of Almorò, the Marquis Carlo Guido Bentivoglio of Aragon, whose daughter Elisabetta was married to Count Filippo Nani Mocenigo. At the end of the 1960s, the grandchildren of the Marquise Bentivoglio, the Nani Mocenigos, sold the property to Mario and Mariella Bolognesi Scalabrin.

    But the advertised 70,000 tulips appeared somewhat sparser than those shown in the publicity. Instead of a formal planting, paths had been set through a pretty wildlflower meadow dotted with some tulips. Beyond that, the gardens were more on the wild side.

    The frescoes inside the villa were possibly the worst I have ever seen.

    Some space was devoted to a collection of specialized tulip vases.

    Among the ornaments was quite the ugliest statue in Northern Italy, in my opinion.

     Modern sofas and conference chairs took up most of the space.

    However, the thingthat was most in evidence was … queues. For the enormous stream of people arriving in response to the publicity, only two staff members were selling tickets. You were requested to book in advance, which my hosts had done, but there was no separate admission for those who had obeyed the directive. There was no list of names. You still had queue all the same along with those who had not booked, and you had to physically buy the tickets with cash. Nor did the restaurant and bar accept credit cards, no matter how big the party. In fact, it turned out that the waiters did not take money at all, so you had to queue up to pay at the cassa. A distracted woman handed me half my due change, until I protested. Worst of all, for all the thousands of people who arrived from far and wide … there were three toilets, one of which was broken. Those were the longest queues of all, with many children and older adults in visible distress, as they waited up to 40 minutes.

    Being a public holiday, the Guardia di Finanza were not in evidence. The whole fiesta was run on a full cash economy that must have netted the owners of the Villa Contarini Bolognesi Scalabrin a very fat payday.

    The family symbol in the garden appears to be a proud strutting peacock, much in evidence. After I’d risen to the cream of my third queue, it occurred to me that I had spent more time queueing than strutting proudly about the garden, the villa and its offerings. It did seem that the owners of the Villa Pisani might have shown more consideration for its two-legged golden eggs, by hiring portable lavatories and adequate staff to man the tills and the ticket office. It appeared somewhat cynical to accept the bookings and do so woefully little to provide for the comfort of the guests. Cynical and maybe a little contemptuous. 

    After all, such costs could have been set against all the tax they will of course pay.

    Michelle Lovric’s website

    PS I was delighted to see that you can buy a Pisani family crest mouse mat on Amazon, ‘made with polyester surface for easy and smooth mousing’.

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    Although I'm fascinated by the Second World War and write novels set in that period (1), I also have a Master of Philosophy degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and that's why I am sitting in Harrison Stinson Hall at the University of Michigan, Kalamazoo. I'm at the 53rd International Congress of Medieval Studies, munching a banana and free chocolate.

    The chocolate came from my friend Lisa Fagin Davis (2), and is a gift from the Medieval Academy of America. I have just returned from a stall in the merchandising section of the conference, where a charming man is selling pages of medieval manuscripts. Lisa sent me over there and I asked to see the work she thought might interest me.

    Here it is in all its glory:

    It was lovely to hold and view up close. It is gouache and gold with traces of pencil on vellum, and from a series called 'The Hunting Party'. The colours are bright, the picture beautifully rendered, and the illumination glorious. It can be yours for a mere $3,700.

    Only, it's a fake.

    The painting is by an unidentified artist who worked in the nineteenth century known as 'The Spanish Forger' (although it is likely that he actually was French). 

    The Spanish Forger was spectacularly successful in selling his work as original medieval illuminations. Nowadays they pop up in collections all over the world.

    Here is one of his pieces in the University of Sydney:

    Spanish Forger cutting, University of Sydney,
    Special Collections, s.n. (
    Voelkle Catalogue L134)

    A glorious piece in The Walters Art Museum:

    The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

    And this one's at the University of Pennsylvania:

    Univ. of Pennsylvania, LJS MS 33

    His works fooled many experts and art collectors. No one suspected forgery until 1930 when the curator of the Pierpont Morgan Library, Bella da Costa Green (who will one day be the subject of a blog of her own), refused to support the purchase of the lovely piece below for the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

    The Betrothal of St. Ursula
    (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

    The panel was later tested using neutron activation analysis and it was discovered that the green pigment was copper arsenite, otherwise known as Paris Green, a paint pigment not available before 1814. Bella was absolutely correct. There was no way the painting could be authentic, although it had been painted on medieval vellum.

    And that is how he got away with it for so long. The Spanish Forger (as Bella da Costa Green dubbed him) painted his works on the vellum or parchment leaves of genuine medieval books, by painting in blank margins or scraping off original writing. He also 'completed' unfinished miniatures or added miniature paintings to illustrate genuine medieval choir books. He knew full well that illustrated leaves were much more valuable than plain ones and probably made a fortune.

    Lisa told me that several pointers now clearly give him away. As she put it, 'backs and boobs', but also gold, head tilt and facial expressions.

    Backs: If you look at the back of the paintings you can sometimes actually see where he has scraped away the original writing. In the piece I saw (pictured above) at the back of the painting faint lines are visible, from its original purpose as a choir book. This is a lovely picture of two noble ladies and a gentleman playing chess. The back (dorse) of the page tells a different story. It's a snippet of liturgy and never would have been in the same book as such a secular scene.

    NY, Columbia Univ.,
    Plimpton Add. MS 18
    NY, Columbia Univ.,
    Plimpton Add. MS 18 (dorse)

    Boobs: He appears to have been rather obsessed with large-breasted women in low-cut gowns. The sort of cleavage he painted is just 'wrong' in an authentic medieval work.
    We are not subtle
    medieval maidens

    Just not medieval cleavage...
    Still not medieval cleavage.

    Gold: Lisa tells me that the Spanish Forger painted his miniatures in the wrong order, by applying the colour before the gold leaf. In medieval pictures gold was always applied first and then burnished. Only then was the illustration added, so that examples exist of unfinished miniatures where the only thing that has been applied is the gold. In the Spanish Forger's work, the gold sometimes overlaps the colour and that's absolutely wrong!

    Head tilt: Many of the Spanish Forger's individuals have a tilt to their head that would not have been seen in medieval paintings.

    The Betrothal of St. Ursula
    (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

    Way too much cricked neck.

    Ouch! My neck hurts.
    Expression: his subjects tend to look a bit too 'sweet', cloying rather than pious. Here is an original fifteenth century artwork from the University of Pennsylvania collection. The Virgin's expression is pious and not cloyingly sweet: 
    Lewis E 96 Book of Hours, Use of Paris
    from the Special Collections
    of the Free Library of Philadelphia
    Psst, I'm not a forgery.
    (detail from above)

    I am! But I'm still worth money
    (detail from picture at right)

    Univ. of Pennsylvania, LJS MS 33

    Ironically, the Spanish Forger's work is now highly collectable, and worth real money. And when items are valuable, forgers appear. The Spanish Forger's work is itself subject to forgery. 

    Caveat emptor...

    (1) See My latest novel, Ambulance Girls Under Fire, is out in e-book form and the trade paperback is available in Aust/NZ. The novel will be published in the UK in July 2018.

    (2) Lisa's blog on the Spanish Forger may be found here:

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    The #Metoo movement has claimed its first scalp among male authors, with the disgrace of Pulitzer-prize winning author, Junot Diaz. A bookshop in Maine has pulled all his books. 
    The owner of the bookshop is quoted in a local newspaper as saying: "Some people thanked us in person and commented that it can be really triggering for survivors of sexual assault to see those names out there… There have been some people who think we are banning books, and to that, I say it is our choice not to carry products. It’s not the same as a book being banned. We have a ‘safe space’ commitment, and that extends to our shelves.”

     This blog is not yet another meditation on #metoo. But rather, on changing historical attitudes and the terrifying notion of safe space bookshelves. Who would be left upon it?  Look at any book written before about 1976, and bin it. Sexism, racism, thinly veiled paedophilia, homophobia. There's barely a book on my classics-heavy shelf which would pass a safe space test. And that's just the content. Stop to consider the personal failings of the writers and what would be left? A clutch of modern women: safe, yes. Brilliant, yes. But not the whole story. 

    I am reading Trollope at the moment. Now, I love Trollope in part because of his nuanced and vivid portraits of women. The man was anti-suffrage and obviously a misogynist - so far, so representative of a man of his class and time. But he was worse than that: consider this passage from the book I am currently reading, The Bertrams. In Jerusalem, our manly, English hero comes across a group of washerwomen: half of them are Jewish and half of them Muslim. He describes the Muslim women's half-veils: '.. they concealed one side of the face and the chin. No one could behold them without wishing the eclipse had been total. No epithet commonly applied to women in this country could adequately describe their want of comeliness.'

    In the next paragraph, he describes a beautiful Jewess. "She was very unlike the Jewess that is ordinarily pictured to us. She had no beaky nose, no thin face, no sharp, small, black bright eyes.'

    Trollope: Not woke.

    Shocking. Uncomfortable to read. Trollope is not woke. Hemingway is not woke. Few of the literary canon are woke. (For those of you unaware of the term "woke"; the Oxford English Dictionary included it for the first time last year and defined it as an adjective meaning “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”)

    Children's books of the past don't come out much better. I've been reading Blyton to one of my kids. In the Island of Adventure, the two girls cower on the sidelines while their brothers take the lead on exploring caves and jumping into secret passages. The girls cook a mean bacon and eggs, though, when the boys’ sleuthing makes them hungry. Jack and Philip may be drawn to the Island of Adventure; Dinah and Lucy-Ann are still tethered to the Hob of Crushed Ambitions.

    Blyton. Not woke.

    Blyton is pretty racist too. And she definitely does not like Romany people. As a person, she was pretty horrible, by her own children's account. Not woke.

    Hans Fallada was alleged to have shot at his wife in a drunken row. Hemingway was a violent, mean, racist boor. William Golding's unpublished memoir describes his attempted rape of a fifteen year old girl. JD Salinger dated a 14 year old girl when he was 30. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife, when she said he was not as good as Dostoevsky. Drug-addled William Burroughs shot his wife in the head when pretending to be William Tell. The history of writing is awash with white, middle-aged men with suspect attitudes and wandering hands (Dickens, I'm looking at you). And some of them were damn fine writers. 

    Here's the thing. I am an adult. I am an adult reader. I am capable of understanding context. 

    As adults, we are equipped to deal with historical attitudes we find unpalatable. We can put sexism, racism and other isms into historical context. We can separate the artist from the art. We should not dismiss Anthony Trollope because of his shocking, causal antisemitism because he lived in an era of shocking, casual antisemitism. 

    The historical misdemeanours in fiction can be managed, mediated by our own self-conscious lack of prejudice. We shift the perspective where possible - making Shylock a hero, for example, in spite of the text. We excuse where necessary – forgiving Joseph Conrad his racism because his white characters are as venal as his black characters are crude and two-dimensional.

    We re-invent Jane Austen as a feminist icon, on the basis of Lizzie Bennet’s wit, forgiving her women their tendency to contract life-threatening illnesses at the merest spatter of rain. We skate entirely over the insufferable and wet Fanny in Mansfield Park, in our rush to celebrate Austen as a writer of strong women.

    We are readers: we bring our own views, prejudices and opinions to the words on the page - and what emerges is a tango between us and the writer. The words do not have to be safe; the writer does not have to be safe.

    I have not read the works of Junot Diaz. But I will now, with a bullish two-fingers to those who deem his work unpalatable for my too-sensitive soul. Because unlikeable, criminal, venal, horrible, sexist, racist people can write brilliant books, too. And they frequently have.

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    by Deborah Swift

    Despatch Rider 1648
    Every time I write a book  there is nearly always a point in the plot where a letter or message needs to be sent, and I am obliged to calculate how long it will take for the letter to reach its destination. And of course someone in the novel is waiting for the reply, which doubles how much fictional time the reader has to wait to find out the outcome. This calculation nearly always involves the speed of a horse and rider, the distance, the state of the road, and the reliability of the postal service. Nowadays, mail is instant - a few seconds and it's on your screen. In the medieval Chronicle of Croyland, (named for its place of origin, the Benedictine Abbey of Croyland or Crowland, in Lincolnshire, England) we read:
    ' Richard III followed the practice which had been recently introduced by King Edward in the time of the last war with Scotland, of appointing a single horseman for every twenty miles, by means of whom travelling with the utmost speed and not passing their respective limits, news was able to be carried by letter from hand to hand 200 miles within two days.'
    This was the beginning of the despatch rider, at first a temporary measure to take mail of national urgency, and later a method of sending mail along organised routes.Under this new 'stage' system, a fresh horse was available every twenty miles, and so a  hundred miles could be covered in a day.

    In Tudor times as the court moved from place to place, so despatch routes would be organized between London and the designated palace. The earliest mention of a Master of the Posts is in the King's Book of Payments where a payment of £100 was authorised for Brian Tuke to take on the role February 1512. Tuke was the secretary of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey and was asked to look into the King's Posts. He sent a memorandum to Thomas Cromwell which stated that only the London to Dover route was a regular post, and the rest a hotch-potch of disorganisation, with people pulling carthorses from the fields if a message was urgent.

    Brian Tuke by Holbein

    Because of this shortcoming, the idea of always having a horse in readiness became essential. So the postmaster was born, a man who would have a horse always available for despatches (and of course he could hire these horses out to private persons too.) On major routes now there would be a postmaster appointed in each town, and they were instructed to have the sign of a posthorn hanging on the door, for the couriers to be able to find the source of their next mount.

    For this reason, we often still see the image of a posthorn on our mailboxes, stamps, and on taverns or pubs that were former staging posts. Some are still called the Post Horn Inn, the Horn or the Bugle Horn.

    By Elizabeth's reign, entrepreneurs had begun to set up rival companies, until a proclamation was made that the only mail that could be sent abroad was to go by the official posts. By 1598 it was possible to send mail to Ireland via two routes - Holyhead and Bristol. However, unofficial postmasters still plied their trade until the reign of Charles I when Thomas Witherings was apponted Postmaster of England. In April 1633 Witherings was sent on a visit to the Calais and Antwerp to regularise the foreign mail service, and he subsequently became so efficient that he gained a virtual monopoly on the routes from the capital to Bristol, Norwich, Plymouth, Edinbugh, Holyhead and Dover, all places linked to foreign trade.

    Mail in Early Modern England was notoriously unreliable. Footpads and thieves lurked on all the highways, and the post was often the target. Some post boys had 'arrangements' with local thieves. Added to this, many roads only had a weekly or bi-weekly service. I soon realised it was no good, as a novelist, thinking that the letter your character has sent would go the same day. It might be a week before the letter even began its journey.

    The post was then subject to the vagaries of its individual riders, and in the 18th Century John Palmer of Bath described the problem of postboys:
    'an idle boy without character, mounted on a worn-out hack, who, so far from being able to defend himself against a robber, was more likely to be in league with one.'
    John Palmer, who owned a theatre in Bath, used a coach to take his theatrical scenery from town to town. Finding this quicker than the mail,  he conceived of the idea of doing the same for the post. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt, allowed him to make a trial run carrying the post between Bristol and London. Under the 'stage post' system the journey had taken 38 hours. The coach, funded by Palmer, left Bristol at 4 pm on 2nd August 1784 and arrived in London just 16 hours later. The government was impressed, so the mailcoach was born.

    Royal Mail Coach , Science Museum London

    To increase speed and efficiency, mail coaches in England were made to an approved design. Mail was held in a box at the rear where the only Royal Mail employee, who was armed, was allowed to stand. The guard's seat could not be shared with a passenger. The service ran to a punishing schedule, which meant that aside from quick changes of horses, the coach only stopped for collection and delivery of mail. The toll and turnpike gates had to be open by the time the mail coach passed through, and the gatekeeper was warned to open the gates by the blaring of the posthorn.

    Mail coaches were able to travel the roads toll-free, but even by Regency times the frequency of foreign correspondence was limited. Just before the advent of the railways, Horne's Foreign Mail Service left St Martin's le Grand  each Tuesday and Friday night. It travelled all night and arrived in Dover at 8.15 the next morning. This gives some idea of the speed and the state of the roads.

    Even after researching postal history, I still find myself calculating anew for each novel what sort of length of time my characters might expect to wait for their mail.

    BBC  History of the World - Packet Bag

    Images from Wikipedia
    From Track to Highway -- Gibbard Jackson
    Masters of the Post; The Authorized History of the Royal Mail -- Duncan Campbell-Smith

    My website and books Twitter @swiftstory

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    ‘a little yellow house with green door and shutters, whitewashed inside - on the white walls - very brightly coloured Japanese drawings - red tiles on the floor.’ 

    A couple of weekends ago I was in Amsterdam to see an irresistible exhibition - Van Gogh and Japan at the Van Gogh Museum. I wondered what Vincent, poor tormented soul, would have made of that vast glitzy museum devoted to his works and memory, with its mobs of visitors and museum shops selling everything from Van Gogh luggage to Van Gogh dog coats. He was not exactly poor. His brother Theo who worked for a Paris art dealer took care of him. But he never found much success either during his life. He only sold one painting to anyone other than Theo.

    Sudden Shower over Shin Ohashi, Atake, Hiroshige (L)
    Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), Van Gogh (R)
    In February 1886, when Van Gogh was thirty three, he arrived back in Paris after ten years roaming from Ramsgate to the Low Countries. He lived there with Theo for two years and made friends with artists such as Émile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac. 

    He also became acquainted with the celebrated art dealer Siegfried Bing. Pretty much ever since Japan opened to the west in 1858 the west had been flooded with Japanese arts and crafts. All Paris along with half the western world was afire with Japonisme, unbridled enthusiasm for all things Japanese, and Siegfried Bing had largely cornered the market.

    Over the following winter Van Gogh bought up more than 600 Japanese woodblock prints. He planned to sell them. But as he leafed through them he was transfixed by the dramatic designs, compositions, bright colours, strong lines and extraordinary viewpoints, all startling and fresh to western eyes.

    It’s well known that Van Gogh was much influenced by Japanese art but this is the first exhibition to bring together so many of Van Gogh’s paintings alongside the prints that inspired them. It also broadens out the picture to reveal how much Van Gogh’s view of life was brightened by what he called these ‘cheerful prints’ - and how they played a part in shaping other aspects of his life.
    Courtesan (after Eisen) by Vincent Van Gogh

    Van Gogh’s first forays into Japanese art were to paint copies of three woodblock prints. One was Keisai Eisen’s Courtesan which featured on the cover of a special Japan edition of the magazine Paris Illustré. The others were landscape prints by Hiroshige which he had bought. It’s extraordinary to contrast Van Gogh’s dense impassioned brush strokes with the clean cool lines of the Japanese originals. The images are the same though he’s surrounded his courtesan with Japanese motifs - bamboo, cranes, frogs and waterlilies. But the techniques and mood and final effect are radically different.

    He also painted a portrait of his art dealer, Julien Tanguy, against a backdrop of woodblock prints, including Van Gogh’s own courtesan painting.
    Portrait of Pere Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh

    After two years in Paris he couldn’t stand the hustle and bustle any longer and in 1888 moved south. It was as if he was besotted with Japan, looking for it everywhere. On the way south he kept gazing out of the train window to see ‘if it was like Japan yet.’ He was sure he would find his dream of Japan there. He took with him a few woodblock prints, not famous or expensive ones but cheerful colourful depictions of landscapes and women.

    In Arles, the natural beauty and bright light and cheerful colours recreated Japan for him. The southern light, he wrote, turned everything into ‘Japan’. There was a field of irises there which he painted and described as a Japanese dream. He writes of the landscape of La Crau with its peach trees, ‘Everything there is small, the gardens, the fields, the trees, even those mountains, as in certain Japanese landscapes, that’s why this subject attracted me.’ ‘I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here,’ he said in another letter. ‘That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.’ 
    Rock of Montmajour by Vincent van Gogh

    Hakone by Ando Hiroshige
    In the exhibition Van Goghs paintings hang close to the Japanese prints which inspired them. He sought out subjects akin to those which he saw in the prints. There is a dramatic painting of a quarry, The Rock of Montmajour, dotted with trees, of which he writes, Youll well remember there are Japanese drawings where grasses and little trees grow there and there’. Hung opposite is Hiroshiges dramatic print of the crags at Hakone with a huge crag, with grass and trees growing out of it, dwarfing the people and hanging at an impossible angle over the water.
    The paintings Van Gogh did in Arles are very different from his earlier work. ‘After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently,’ he wrote to Theo. He plays with colour, laying on bright flat areas of intense colour with impassioned brush strokes. He painted The Yellow House set against a flat blue sky almost more solid than the house itself and his bedroom and yellow bed using ‘flat plain tints like Japanese prints,’ with strong outlines, flat colour planes and no shadows. Inspired by the Japanese prints which hung around his studio, he applied thick black contour lines and played with extraordinary perspectives and viewpoints. He painted Almond Blossom, seen from below against a dazzling turquoise sky, in honour of the birth of his nephew, Theo’s son. In The Sower, the dramatic diagonal of the tree trunk cuts across the picture, silhouetted against a huge yellow sun.

    Self-portrait dedicated to
    by Vincent van Gogh
    In Arles Van Gogh hoped to enjoy his dream of a Japanese way of life. He imagined humble Japanese woodblock print artists living and working together like monks in a monastery and decided to set up an artists’ colony with his friend Paul Gauguin as the leader. Like Japanese artists, they exchanged self portraits. In the portrait he sent Gauguin he depicts himself as a very un-Buddha-like Japanese monk with a shaven head and intense wild eyes, somewhat slanted.

    But as we know it didn’t work out. The collaboration with Gauguin came to an end, the artists’ colony fell through. Van Gogh cut off his ear, checked himself into a hospital and painted feverishly, producing a painting a day. When he couldn’t go outside he painted through the bars of his window.

    The last part of this absorbing and fascinating exhibition takes us right inside Van Gogh’s studio, surrounded by the Japanese prints that he had pinned to the wall - unframed, working tools, some torn and paint-stained. He often mentions the cheeriness of the brightly-coloured prints of landscapes and beautiful women. Perhaps he hoped to find peace of mind by surrounding himself with such serene images. But alas, that was the one thing he was destined never to find.

    Van Gogh and Japan at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, continues till June 24th 2018.

    Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

    All Van Gogh images © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

    All other images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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  • 05/14/18--17:12: The history of Schengen
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    I am currently writing a children's book - a contemporary not an historical one - set in the Schengen area. My publisher is an interactive e-book publisher and is now European, so it seemed appropriate.

    I picked a point in the Schengen area where the borders of three different countries meet. A three country or tri-point border is obviously far less common than a standard border and therefore so much more fun. This one is between Holland, Belgium and Germany.

    To celebrate the open borders in Europe, a public park has been established and straddles all three countries, with viewing towers in Holland and Belgium. There is a maze, a cafe and a central point at this three-point border.

    I have created a character from each of the three bordering countries, and together they have an adventure within the park. It was inspired by reading (I can't remember where) about how the local young people love to meet and mingle there, and enjoy their borderless existence. I thought this was inspiring at a time of hardening of borders and attitudes in the UK.

    This set me wondering about the Schengen area. When did it come into existence? When did I first hear it mentioned? I know it wasn't here in the UK; it was in Denmark, and it wasn't so very long ago either.

    I wasn't aware that the Schengen agreement wasn't originally an official part of the EU. Although some member states of the EU have been working towards and hoping for more integration for many years, no agreement could be reached. Thus the Schengen Agreement was originally made on the 14th June 1985, between only five European nations - France, Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. It was signed at a small village called Schengen in southern Luxemburg.
    Internal borders between seven countries were finally abolished in March 1995; the original five plus Spain and Portugal.
    It wasn't until May 1999 that the Schengen area was finally incorporated into the legal framework of the EU by the Treaty of Amsterdam.
    The Schengen area now comprises 26 states, four or which aren't EU members. Two EU states opted out - the UK and Ireland too, in order not to cause border problems with Northern Ireland.

    So far, my international characters are having an exciting adventure, roaming between the three countries, hunting down international smugglers. One more chapter to go this week. I shall be sorry to leave the park and return to real life where borders feel all too real.

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    In memory of Beth Chatto, who died earlier this week, aged 94. Apparently she believed that the secret of successful gardening is 'the right plant in the right place'. It's taken me a long time and a lot of failures, but I've eventually come to the same conclusion!

    Not so very long ago, museums used to be places full of glass display cases, crammed with dusty artefacts: you would wander past, peering at closely typed labels, wondering what it was you were supposed to be looking at and why. I remember as a child going to visit Wollaton Hall near Nottingham: we used to take a picnic and walk through the beautiful park, admiring the deer. And we would go into the natural history museum, which was full of cases containing miniature landscapes, against which were set stuffed animals and birds, which gazed defiantly out at us.

    And much more recently than that, twelve or so years ago, I visited the Ashmolean Museum - Britain's oldest museum -  in Oxford (more of the Ashmolean later). I was researching Alfred the Great, and I knew the Ashmolean had the Alfred Jewel, an object exquisitely made of gold and enamel at the behest of Alfred himself, and found centuries later in a Somerset field. It took some finding. Eventually I found it in a case jumbled up with quantities of other artefacts. Not long after that, the museum was given a stunning makeover, and now the Alfred Jewel is at its centre, beautifully displayed in solitary splendour.

    Museums have changed enormously over the last ten or twenty years. Now, thanks to innovative design and a realisation that people want to be told the stories behind what they are looking at, museums are not just informative places - they're exciting and creative.

    A corner of the Garden Museum

    Because of all that, they are not necessarily peaceful places. But recently, I visited one that is just that: it's a haven of peace in a busy, noisy world. It's the Garden Museum, on the south bank of the Thames, near Lambeth Bridge. So it's in the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world, with traffic and tourists hurtling past. And yet there it is, a small green oasis of calm and birdsong. Perhaps it's partly because the building which houses it was formerly a church. The museum was set up by Rosemary Nicholson in 1977, to preserve the building of the Church of St Mary's-at-Lambeth - and the tomb of the Tradescants, father and son, 17th century plant hunters.

    And thank heavens she did. The building has been beautifully re-purposed. It still has its stained-glass windows and pale, soaring stone arches. But it also contains eclectic displays concerning the history, art and design of gardens in Britain. It has special exhibitions, too - the one at the moment concerns a 20th century painter, gardener and plant hunter called Cedric Morris - and you can watch a series of short films about significant gardeners. I watched two, about Penelope Hobhouse and Beth Chatto; it was like wandering round their gardens with them as they reminisced, with extraordinary modesty, about their lives and work.

    John Tradescant the Elder

    And there's a small exhibition of objects from the Tradescants' Ark. This had the modest intention of representing 'the nature, art, religions and ways of life of all nations on earth'. The Tradescants, both gardeners to kings, travelled widely plant hunting and collecting all kinds of curios and interesting objects, and the collection was added to by their friends. The Ark was open to anyone who could pay the sixpenny entrance fee.

    The Tradescants' neighbour was one Isaac Ashmole, a lawyer, astrologer and scholar who was a great admirer of the Ark. So much so that he somehow managed to persuade the younger Tradescant to leave the contents of the Ark to him. John's widow, Hester, contested the legacy, but to no avail: Ashmole got everything, even portraits of John and his father; this miniature is the only one Hester managed to keep. Everything else was shipped off to Oxford - where it formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum. The small exhibition in the Garden Museum consists of objects loaned from the Ashmolean. It includes the portrait of the elder John Tradescant; a bizarre object called a 'Vegetable Lamb', which was believed to grow in southern Russia and was said to grow on a stalk, and eat all the vegetation around it; a statue of St Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners (apparently God granted him a miraculous staff, whose tip would topple trees and uproot bushes); a wooden clog from the Island of Johana in the Indian Ocean; beads; Roman coins; reindeer antlers; and so on.

    On the first floor are displays about the history of gardening in Britain; here are a few snippets which caught my eye:
    • Britain became the home of lawn tennis after the invention of the lawnmower in 1830 - before that, tennis was played on an indoor court.
    • New dyes and bleaches at the end of the 19th century allowed women to wear brilliant white dresses for the first time - now, who knew that?
    • John Nash is principally known as a war artist - but in the second half of his life, gardening became his first love, and he created a garden at Bottengoms Farm in Suffolk.
    • In the 19th century, the state determined to create public parks, partly for their value to the health of the urban poor. It was claimed that the first London park, Victoria Park, increased the life expectancy of east Londoners by three years. 
    • During the first world war, soldiers of all nations grew flowers in the trenches and picked flowers where they could. (I've recently seen somewhere pictures of flowers grown in empty shell cases and suchlike; maybe it was at the Museum of European History in Brussels.) The Garden Museum has an example of pressed flowers which a soldier collected and later gave to his sweetheart.
    • And in a piece about flower shows: 'In 1843 the first show dedicated to chysanthemums took place in Norwich.' I was interested in this because my mother used to grow chrysants for shows: I remember how she carefully tied a paper bag over each flower to protect it as it grew.
    Beyond the museum is a courtyard where there is relaxed green planting set around two tombs. One belongs to the Tradescants, and has scenes from their travels engraved on its sides: the other belongs to a certain William Bligh. Bligh was a member of Captain Cook's crew, and was an associate of Joseph Banks, the first director of Kew and godfather of many planthunting expeditions. and many other enterprises too. He was also the Captain Bligh of the mutiny on the Bounty, which, as you can see from the inscription on his tomb, he survived, to die at home in Lambeth at the age of 64.

    The tomb of Captain Bligh

    There's a pleasant cafe, a soothing green garden, and a church tower which apparently has wonderful views over London - I quite forgot to go up and see for myself: something for next time.

    The Tradescants' tomb

    (NB Philippa Gregory has written two novels about the Tradescants, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth, and I've written a novel for children about planthunters, called Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley.)

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    The book stood on the shelf at the local library, with both famous names printed equally large across the cover: 

    Image result for Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow large print
     Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow.

    I was having a fresh look at a half-written historical fantasy novel for older children. Much of the research is in place, the plot is plotted and the characters, though neglected, are still “alive” and so, as my book set within the Victorian theatre world, a brisk trip back in time with Simon Callow was an easy attraction as well as a distraction.

    This neat volume was published in 2012, just as Claire Tomalin’s book on Dickens was attracting attention. Callow acknowledges her work, as well as Peter Ackroyd’s wide and weighty biography and many other sources including John Forster, Dicken’s friend and original biographer.

    The value of this book is that Callow, as an actor has lived very close to Dickens. He has acted the role of Charles Dickens, performing a long run of the author’s famed Reading Tours, as well as studying Dickens work and letters deeply beforehand. 

    As Callow says, borrowing a quote for his introduction: “I’ve been‘im!”

    Callow’s energetic prose offers Dickens as the showman, the “Sparkler” who had loved performing and the theatre since infancy. The young Dickens was a child entertainer in Portsmouth, constantly encouraged and admired within his wide family for his lively recitations and play-acting and his inherited art of mimicry. At one of his many childhood lodgings, the boy would fall asleep each night to the sounds from the adjoining theatre coming through his bedroom wall.  Later, this childhood idyll was shattered by poverty and a wretched change in his situation, leaving scars that were hidden until after the successful writers death.

    Throughout his life, Dickens cultivated a sense of performance. He acted out his characters as he wrote, read dialogues and long idiosyncratic character passages out to friends, revelling in the range of voices he’d captured on his pages.  Moreover, Dickens novels did not appear in single volumes. They came as cleverly-paced serials, creating an audience eager for the next act of his dramatic plot, ready to read his words aloud within their own family circles, his voice becoming part of the national voice.

    Ever a night-walker, Dickens worked out his plots as he paced the streets, often walking for miles. Did he speak his ideas aloud as he walked, I wonder, or recite his scenes? Alternatively, by day, Dickens paced noticeably about town in flamboyant, brightly-coloured clothes, being the "Inimitable" Dickens.

    This restless night-walking also underpinned his reputation as an eloquent public speaker: as Dickens paced, he thought and worked out the topics in his argument, each point imagined as a spoke on a wheel. Giving a speech, Dickens imagined moving his way around that wheel, silently knocking away each spoke as he made that particular point. One observer even noticed that Dickens made a small flicking-away gesture as he shared each point of his apparently off-the-cuff, note-less speech with his audience.

    The Dickens that Simon Callow describes is almost constantly involved with theatrical ventures of one sort or another. He often toyed with the idea of being an actor or running a company. He relished playing dramatic games with his children and at one time appeared as a fully dressed oriental conjuror, demonstrating a range of impressive tricks.

    As Dickens wealth and fame grew, the various plays he directed and acted in for his family and circle of friends became expansive celebrations, staged with almost professional crafts-people and with a cast filled with distinguished writers and notable friends along with his ever-growing family. Dickens even met his “invisible woman”, Ellen Ternan, when she took a minor role in one of his productions, The Frozen Deep.

    The popularity of Dickens work brought other theatrical consequences: not only were his works published by other publishers, the stories were often dramatised, sometimes appearing on stage before the writer’s own conclusion had been printed. This must have been one of the irritations that made Dickens a champion for the rights of writers to receive more than small, one-off fees.

    Callow’s book gives a sense of the relentless, manic, mecurial drive of Dickens, highlighting his determination and ability and the pace at which he worked and lived his life. He felt a burning need to communicate and share his condemnation of Victorian society with the working men of Britain.

    Dickens love of performance culminated in the physically demanding Reading Tours of his later years. He toiled hard, preparing several best-loved scenes and characters from his books, as well as re-writing, adapting and adding in his own performance notes. He made them into demonstrations of his own theatrical skill, interpretation and artistry and adoring crowds were eager to see and hear Dickens wherever he travelled.

    As Callow explains, these Reading Tours were reassuring triumphs for Dickens but gradually their number, duration and emotional intensity wrecked his health. By the age of 58, Charles Dickens' own great show was over.

    However, as Callow writes, ending this engaging biography “As long as men and women want to hear stories, Charles Dickens remains and will always be a leading player on the stage of our imagination.” Meanwhile I, now Callow’s book has been read, must try and get back into my own.

    Penny Dolan

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    Eric Ravilious - The Greenhouse:Cyclemen and Tomatoes
    This beautifully curated exhibition at Compton Verney Museum and Art Gallery chronicles the collaborations and significant relationships, personal and professional, between Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942) and various other artist-designers: friends, mentors, wives, lovers. The group included Paul Nash, John Nash, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Eileen ‘Tirzah’ Garwood, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, Peggy Angus, Helen Binyon, Diana Low and Edward Bawden. Many of them were at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, a group of exceptional students that Paul Nash termed 'an outbreak of talent'. It's good to see the work of so many women artists exhibited here and given equal space to their male compatriots.The exhibition brings together nearly 500 works (many rarely shown). The paintings, prints, drawings, engravings, books, ceramics, wallpapers, and textiles highlight significant moments in the artists’ lives and work and also demonstrate the deep influence this group of artists had on British Art and their profound impact on Art and Design in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. A previous exhibition at Compton Verney Britain in the Fifties - Design and Aspiration served to demonstrate just how pervasive their influence was. 
    Enid Marx moquette design for London Underground
    Eric Ravilious - Wedgwood Pottery Mug
    Ravilious and his friends, with their teacher and mentor John Nash, believed that an artist could turn his or her hand to anything and their mission was to bring Art out of the Fine Art Gallery and into the lives of ordinary people through applied design. Quite apart from this lofty ambition, an artist had to earn a living. It made sense, therefore, to seek design work from various sources. The group were very successful. Their patterning, pastel colours and precision of line, their distinctive style of wood and copper engraving and lithography evoke a particular time so exactly that it has become that time. For us, it is the essence of nostalgia but in the 1930s and 40s, it was cutting edge modern. Their influence extended well into the 1950s and 1960s. Through applied design, their work became all pervasive, even ubiquitous. It could be seen at railway and tube stations, on advertising  hoardings and film posters, the walls of people's homes, the fabrics they wore, the furniture they sat on, the plates they ate from, the magazines and books that they read as they travelled, even the seating of their underground train. 
    Eric Ravilious - Child's Handkerchief
    Wisden - Eric Ravilous 
    Eric Ravilious - The Windstorm 1931

    Enid Marx - paper design

    Everyman Books - Ravilious cover design

    Edward Bawden - book cover

    Their work is particularly powerfully present in book design. The Bookshop installation in the exhibition demonstrates the wide and far reaching influence these artists had on book production. Their hand can be seen everywhere: in covers and cover design, bookplates, endpapers, lettering, bordering and illustrations. Instantly recognisable, even if we cannot name the artist, and fiercely nostalgic. As my writer friend and companion Linda Newbery pointed out, we grew up with them. Art work so timeless and unequalled that it is still being used today.  
    Edward Bawden - Film Poster

    It is impossible to do justice to such a wide-ranging and comprehensive exhibition here. These artists concerned themselves with far more than art and design. They were committed to enhancing the lives of ordinary working people, bringing beauty and culture to them, rather than confining it to an art gallery. Many of the artists contributed original lithographs to the School Prints, a scheme designed to bring art into every classroom in the country and a whole section of the exhibition is devoted to the Morley Murals created by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden to adorn the walls of the canteen of Waterloo's Morley College for Working Men and Women. Sadly, their work was lost during the war. A grainy, black and white film and their sketches and drawings show us what a loss that was. 

    The emphasis is not just on design, there are plenty of paintings on display. Principally those of Ravilious and Bawden, perhaps the best known of the group, but also their friends and associates. The paintings of Eric Ravilious are distinctive and hugely evocative. One can almost smell the tomatoes in The Greenhouse:Cyclemen and Tomatoes, the painting on the poster for the exhibition. Through his unique painting style, his use of pattern, texture, his palette of muted greens, greys and browns he made the landscape of Sussex, 'his own country', as particular and individual as Suerat's Paris or Van Gogh's Provence. To us, his paintings seem nostalgic, pastoral records of a lost rural past. But this is deceptive. This is no rural idyll. A Steam train puffs through the timeless landscape of the Downs. The same view is seen from the interior of a railway carriage, perhaps in the same train that is steaming past. 

    Eric Ravilious - Westbury Horse 
    Eric Ravilious - Train Landscape

    A roller stands in the foreground of the cold, stark beauty of a winter landscape. A reminder that an agricultural labourer would be working in that cold all day.

    Eric Ravilious - Downs in Winter

    Eric Ravilious Hurricane in Flight
    Eric Ravilious - Drift Boat
    The Second World War cut across all their lives. Like their mentors, the Nash brothers, Ravilious and Bawden became War Artists. The patchwork of the British countryside was now viewed from the inside of a plane. A south coast beach is covered in snarls of barbed wire, the sea cut off from the land by coastal defences. Eric Ravilious was assigned to the Admiralty. In 1940 he was posted to Norway and swapped his muted greens and browns for the blues, whites, greys and black of the Arctic seas.  

    H.M.S. Glorious

    In 1942, he requested a transfer to the RAF. On 28 August he flew to Iceland to join a base outside Reykjavik. The day he arrived a Hudson aircraft had failed to return from a patrol. The next morning, three planes were despatched to search for the missing plane. Ravilious opted to join one of the crews. His plane failed to return. The log book recording him as missing is on display here, his name poignantly mis-spelt.  Four days later he was declared lost in action. One of the brightest talents in British Art had disappeared into the sea.
    Celia Rees

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    The list of the crimes of Nero runs something like this: He had his first wife executed, he had his mother executed, he kicked his pregnant second wife to death , he castrated a boy and made him to pretend to be his dead wife, he cheated in the Olympics, he allegedly fiddled whilst Rome burned, he was responsible for the first persecution of the Christians.


    I want to look at just one of these in detail. I want to look at the castrated boy made to dress as Nero's deceased wife. His name was Sporus.

    In 65AD Nero fell into an argument with his wife Poppaea Sabina, in a fit of anger he kicked her in the stomach. She was heavily pregnant at the time and this moment of temper killed her. There were naturally rumours that Poppaea's death was suspicious, she was said to have been poisoned. Nero had ordered his mother Agrippina to be killed, he was surely capable of anything. 
    Tacitus, surprisingly for he accounts all other crimes to Nero and sees nothing in the way of positive traits in the emperor, takes issue with this. He does not believe it ,"For Nero wanted children and he loved his wife"

    Nero was absolutely devastated by Poppea's death. She was not cremated , as was standard in Rome, but rather embalmed with spices. Her widower spoke at her state funeral, praising her looks and virtues.
    And here enters Sporus, or rather here enters a boy that will be known as Sporus.

    The Replacement

    Bust said to be of Poppaea who Sporus
    greatly resembled
    Cassius Dio tells us: 

    "Nero missed her so greatly after her death that on learning of a woman who resembled her he at first sent for her and kept her; but later he caused a boy of the freedmen, whom he used to call Sporus, to be castrated, since he, too, resembled Sabina, and he used him in every way like a wife."

    Sporus was handed over to Calvia Crispinilla, Nero's mistress of the wardrobe, who took care of the boy and was responsible for turning him into an Empress. 

     "He actually wore his hair parted, young women attended him whenever he went for a walk, he wore women's clothes and was forced to do everything else a woman does in the same way." 
    Dio of Prusa

    This was no private hobby.
    “ This Sporus, decked out with the finery of the empresses and riding in a litter, he took with him to the assizes and marts of Greece, and later at Rome through the Street of the Images,fondly kissing him from time to time. “

    Sporus even accompanied Nero on his tour of Greece where:
     “He married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife.” 


    But what are we the modern audience to make of this? What is Sporus to Nero? 
    Does Nero truly believe Sporus is his dead wife, Poppaea? Is Sporus’ role to keep Nero’s grief at bay by the pretence that Poppaea isn’t dead?

    I rather doubt this. Nero wasn’t so wrapped up in grief that he couldn’t see the imperative of remarrying and producing a much needed heir. Shortly after Poppaea's demise he took Statilia Messalina as be his third wife. Indeed she appears on the coinage with her husband, the emperor. Nero was certainly aware that Poppaea was dead. He was not deluded into thinking Sporus actually was Poppaea.
    So let’s go back to our question: what was Sporus to Nero? 

    The Actress
    Coin of Nero and Poppaea

    One important point to note is that Sporus was the name Nero gave to the boy.
    Sporus in Greek translates as seed /semen or if we take it coarser, spunk. Nero castrates a boy and then names him spunk. How cruelly apt and one that begs the question, was it a joke? Is castrating a boy, dressing him up as your dead wife and parading him round the city Nero’s idea of fun?

    There’s a certain theatrical element here that is very Nero; the dressing up, the extravagant public kisses, the wedding.
    This wasn’t Nero first ‘unofficial’ wedding. There’s been a previous one to his freedman Doryphorus. Only this time Nero had been the bride not the groom

    “He was even married to this man in the same way that he himself had married Sporus, going so far as to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being “ 

    This puts the Sporus wedding in another light. A bit of play acting?
    It seems likely. Nowhere in any of the accounts of Sporus does it state that Nero loved him. Early in his reign Nero had fallen deeply in love with a freedwomen named Acte. So much so that:

    "He all but made his lawful wife, after bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth." 
    Forbidden by the differences in their class from marrying Nero here is desperately trying to make it legitimate. There is no such attempt in the marriage to Sporus.
    This is a faux wedding, a faux marriage.
    A bit of sexual role play?

    A rather odd scenario described by Suetonius suggests that Nero had incorporated dressing up and role play into his pleasures:

    “He at last devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes, and when he had sated his mad lust, was dispatched by his freedman Doryphorus” 

    “Dispatched” in this case has a double meaning. This appears to be some sort of role play based on the beast hunts of the arena. The participants being Nero's household slaves and freedmen. Note again Doryphorus is present, Nero’s ‘husband’.

    Sporus to Nero was part of an act, an elaborate play with defined roles. Sporus the bride. Nero the husband.
    Interestingly both Richard Holland and Edward Champlin in their biographies of Nero are doubtful on whether the relationship between Nero and Sporus was sexual.

    Holland states:
    "The Emperor may only ever have pretended to have sex with his Poppaea-substitute as part of the protocol sustaining the fantasy." 

    Note that in the wedding to Doryphorus Nero 'imitated' the noises of a maiden being flowered. However the wild beast scenario very definitely involves actual consummation, Nero's lusts are said to be sated. 

    The Eunuch's Tale

    In 68AD Nero's fantasy world came crashing down. A revolt in Gaul had rapidly spread. Galba had been named emperor. Nero was declared an enemy of the state. On the morning of 9th June Nero awoke to find the palace empty. His praetorian prefect Nymphidius Sabinus had convinced his private body guard to desert. Nero fled the city, with him went two of his freedmen and Sporus. They holed up in a villa outside the city, here Nero"would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example" Suetonius
    Sporus did not set the example. Nero stabbed himself in the throat, aided by his freedman, the artist was dead.
    Emperor Otho, another of Sporus' conquests

    What did Nero's death mean for Sporus?
    Apparently business as normal, for he pops up almost instantly in the company of Nymphidius Sabinus, the Prefect who had aided Nero's overthrow.

    "Whom he had sent for at once, while Nero's body was yet burning on its pyre, and treated as his consort, and addressed by the name of Poppaea), he aspired to the succession of the empire. " 

    And then after Sabinus meets a sticky end there is a short pause and here new emperor Otho is described as having 'intimacy with Sporus'Cassius Dio.

    There's somewhat of a profession empress air about this. We've been asking what was Sporus to Nero? We've examined what Nero might have felt about the eunuch. At no point have we asked what Sporus' view was. 
     That Sporus pops up twice later playing exactly the same role suggests that either he was irresistibly gorgeous to both Sabinus and Otho or maybe just maybe he offered himself as 'Empress'. 
    Perhaps even if Nero didn't truly buy the fantasy of his reborn Poppaea, Sporus did. When Nero was forced to flee, maybe Sporus accompanied him as a dutiful wife.

    After Otho's death in the spring of 69AD Vitellius became emperor. He did not require an empress. He had quite different plans for Sporus.

    "It was proposed that Sporus should be brought on to the stage in the rôle of a maiden being ravished" Cassius Dio.

    If Sporus was purely the play thing in a succession of emperor's fantasies wouldn't we expect him to play along with this? He'd participated in his public marriage to Nero. He'd paraded about on the arm of Nymphidius Sabinus. But Sporus doesn't. Tragically this is what happens

    "He would not endure the shame and committed suicide beforehand." 
    Cassius Dio

    Was this the final escape for a much abused slave? Or was it to do with the role itself, one as a maiden and not the Empress Sporus felt himself to be? 

    There are a lot of perhapses and maybes here. We shall never truly know exactly what role Sporus performed for Nero and others. We shall never know how he felt about this performance. Was he sadly abused slave who could take it no longer or was he the lowly born eunuch enjoying his moment in the light of the distinctly glamorous palace life?

    What we do know is that he was, for a brief but wondrous period, Empress in name.

    L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of books that features Nero and Sporus. 

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    In this second part of my story of the manorial structure of Soberton parish, in the Meon Valley, I continue my discussion of the various manors distributed across the parish. If you would like to read part 1, which includes an introduction to the purpose of my investigation into Soberton’s medieval past, click here.

    Last month, I discussed the principal manor of Soberton, located, I presume, around the site of the existing village. But within the parish of Soberton there were (eventually) six other manors: Longspiers, Flexland Englefield, Wallop’s Manor, Russell Flexland, Bere, and East Hoe. 
    Bensted is identified in the Domesday Book, as Benestede, although it is attached to the Droxford Hundred rather than the Meonstoke Hundred, as Soberton is. The Victoria County History, however,doesn’t mention such a place at this location. I am interested in it largely because of its proximity to the other Soberton manors, especially Bere, and I have found another source of information to fill in the History’s gap.
    This sketch shows the likely positions of the
    various Soberton manors.  © Author

    A large part of the estate held, in 1086, by Herbert the Chamberlain was, in the 13th century, held by a Thomas de Windsor, and throughout the 14th by the de Winton family. This manor is possibly, though it isn’t at all clear, the same manor as one called Longspiers. However, according to the Victoria County History, nothing is known after 1384 about this manor of the de Wintons, unless it is indeed the same as either Longspiers, or another manor held by the Fawconer family for the following three centuries. (Exactly where Longspiers or this Fawconer manor were located is unclear. Confusing!) However, in the late 15th century, a manor called Longsperys, with lands in Soberton and Flexland (for more about Flexland, see below) was sold to the John Newport we met briefly in last month's post, the lord of Soberton manor.
    In 1544, as already noted in relation to Soberton manor, Longspiers was sold, along with the manors of Soberton and Flexland Englefield, to Walter Bonham who, five years later sold them all on to the Earl of Southampton.
    And I presume it was these three manors, Soberton, Longspiers and Flexland Englefield, that were purchased, probably in 1714, by the same Thomas Lewis who had married Anna Curll in 1678.
    The combined manors ultimately passed into the possession of Humphrey Minchin of County Tipperary in Ireland, who was a member of Parliament, first in Okehampton, Devon and later in Bossiney in Cornwall. In 1791, the manor that was Longspiers was referred to in a document as Faulkner’s Pleck or Pluk or Pluck, but that name subsequently disappeared. Although it does appear as one of those lordship titles on the Manorial Counsel website I referred to earlier, but then so does “Longspiers”, so it’s hard to know whether Longspiers and Faulkner's P are the same manor or two different ones!
    Anyway, the manors remained in the Minchin family at least until the early 20th century.

    Flexland Englefield
    A modern reproduction of
    mediaeval falconry gloves
    So, we already know something of Flexland Englefield. At Domesday, this appears to have been part of the Soberton estate owned by Herbert the Chamberlain, which he later granted to his daughter on the occasion of her marriage into a member of the de Venuz family. But it was not referred to as Flexland until the beginning of the 13th century, when it was still held by a de Venuz, Robert. When Robert died, his widow Constance gave to her son John a third of the rents from the estate, which she was holding in dower, in exchange for rents of de Venuz estates elsewhere. When John died, he was succeeded by his brother Thomas, whose daughter Agnes, in 1249, granted one carucate (the land eight oxen could plough in a single annual season) of land in Flexland to William de Cobham, for the rent of a pair of white gloves or 1d. at Easter. How charming!
    In the same year William bought more land in Flexland and, thirty years later, his daughter Joan passed the manor to an Agnes de Cobham (what relationship Agnes had to Joan is not mentioned – aunt, perhaps?) to hold for life for the rent of a chaplet of roses. Charming, again! By this time, the manor was called Flexland Cobham.
    Some years later, Joan’s sister, Mary, laid claim to the manor (presumably against her relative, Agnes) and by 1316 she succeeded. Nine years later, Mary granted a portion of the land and a pound of pepper to a Roger de Englefield. Twenty years after that, Roger obtained a licence from the bishop of Winchester to celebrate mass in the oratory of his house in Flexland. When Roger died in 1361, the ownership of the land, rents and facilities of his Flexland property seems to have been divided between the king (Edward III), Beaulieu Abbey and a Sir Maurice le Bruyn. Sir Maurice granted the custody of his portion of the lands in Flexland Cobham to a Geoffrey Dene of Chidden (5.5 miles to the north west) to hold during the minority of Maurice’s son and heir. However, Constance, Roger de Englefield’s widow, subsequently forcibly ejected Geoffrey and was prosecuted by him for doing so in 1364. What the outcome of the dispute was I don't know. 
    This seems to be the last mention of the manor of Flexland Cobham, its name thereafter changing to Flexland Englefield or Inglefield. Its history then becomes obscure until 1544 when, as we have already seen, it was purchased by Walter Bonham, along with Soberton and Longspiers. 
    So, in this story of Flexland Englefield, we have Constance, Agnes, Joan, Mary, and another Constance, all inheriting property and dealing with it in a way that suggests they had considerable control over their own affairs. And a couple of them sound decidely ruthless!
    The site of the manor is today marked by Ingoldfield Farm, which apparently has early 13th century origins.

    Wallop’s Manor
    The estate called Wallop’s Manor was probably in origin the manor which Henry the Treasurer held at the time of the Domesday Book. The Wallop family held a manor here from very early times. In the 13th century the overlord was the abbot of Hyde, and the manor was held by a Richard de Wallop but, in the 14th century, the overlordship changed to the bishop of Winchester. However, three centuries later, the manor was still in the Wallop family, being held by Sir Robert Wallop, whose principal estate was at Farley Wallop near Basingstoke. Robert made a very good marriage, to Anne Wriothesley, daughter of Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton.
    But Robert was one of the judges at the trial of King Charles I and, although he did not actually sign Charles I’s death warrant, at the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, Parliament denied Robert receipt of any benefit from his estates, and sentenced him to be drawn upon a sledge to and under the gallows of Tyburn with a halter round his neck, and to be imprisoned for life. The sentence was carried out in 1662. He died intestate in the Tower in 1667, and was buried at Farley. In 1661 the king had granted Robert Wallop’s property in Soberton (and perhaps elsewhere?) to Thomas Wriothesley, the fourth Earl of Southampton, and others, empowering them to sell the whole or part of the premises for the benefit of Lady Anne, sister of the earl and Robert’s wife, and of their son and heir, Henry. 
    At the beginning of the 18th century, the manor was sold, probably to Thomas Lewis, the lord of the chief manor of Soberton, who was adding to his property in the parish. He was now in possession of the best part of Soberton’s manors.
    The site of this manor is marked by Wallop’s Wood Farm, which apparently has its origin in the early 13th century.

    Russell Flexland
    John de Drokensford,
    Bishop of Bath and Wells (1309-1329)
    The manor of Flexland or Russell Flexlandwas originally a dependent of the main Soberton manor belonging to Beaulieu Abbey. In the 15th century, it was held from the Abbey for the rent of a pound of pepper. However, in the 13th century it was held by a Ralph Russell, and remained in the Russell family until the early 14th century, when it passed to Sir John de Drokensford (Droxford), who was the bishop of Bath and Wells from 1309-1329.
    In the 1370s, Sir Maurice le Bruyn pops up again, with his wife Margaret, who was probably the sister and heir of John de Drokensford’s grandson, also John. The le Bruyns’ holding of the manor was entailed in two parts on Margaret’s two daughters by a previous husband, both apparently called Margaret (?). But, in 1405, it was the husband of (the younger?) Margaret, Sir Peter Courtenay of Devon, who held the whole manor on behalf of Margaret. She passed it to her grandson, William, Lord Botreaux, and his heir was his daughter, another Margaret.
    The manor then seems to have been subdivided and settled on several different people: a William Warbleton and his wife Margery; William's aunt, Elizabeth Syfrewast; and three of his cousins, Agnes Skulle, Margaret Breknok and Sybil Rykys, all Elizabeth's daughters. When William died in 1469, his heirs included a male cousin, but also his cousins Margaret Breknok and Sybil Rykys, and his second cousin William, son of Agnes Skulle. And it was this William to whom Russell Flexland descended. 
    The history of this manor for some time after this is obscure, but it eventually fell into the hands of the William Dale of Soberton, whom we have met before, and at length the manor was sold to Thomas Wriothesley, the first Earl of Southampton (again!). 
    The site of the manor is marked by Russell’s Farm, which apparently has its origins in the 13th century, and Russell’s Wood, in the east of the parish. It is extraordinary, in a way, that the manor continued to be called “Russell”, and that the farm maintained that name, despite the Russell family holding it for less than a century…

    The remains of Soberton Mill © Author
    From early times the Wayte family held the manor of Bere in the extreme west of the parish and to the north of the Forest of Bere. They held it from the bishop of Winchester, and it had a mill, later called Soberton Mill, which still has a turning wheel, though it is not a functioning mill.
    In 1561, William Wayte, who owned extensive lands throughout Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, died leaving six daughters and coheirs, Eleanor, Mary, Honor, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Susan, and, I presume, no son. The manor of Bere passed to Elizabeth, and from her to her son, Sir Richard Norton. When Richard died in 1612, Bere is referred to only as a “messuage” (a dwelling with its adjacent buildings and lands) rather than a manor, even though it included 100 acres of land, and it does seem that “manorial” rights, if Bere had them, had by this time lapsed.
    The site of the manor is marked today by Bere Farm.

    East Hoe
    In the reign of Edward the Confessor, the crown manor of East Hoe was held by Ulward (or Wulfward) but, by the time of Domesday, it had become another of the many possessions of Hugh de Port. It continued with the de Ports until, in the 12th century, it passed to the Hoe family. 
    In 1302 there is a record of another charming (and rather curious) form of rent, when half the manor was granted to a Roger Launcelevee and his wife Joan for the rent of one rose annually on the feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24th).
    In the late 14th century, the lord of the manor of East Hoe was Sir Bernard Brocas, who was a prominent commander in the English army during Edward III’s French campaigns of the Hundred Years War. He was also a close friend of both the Black Prince and William of Wykeham, who became the bishop of Winchester. 
    Bernard married an heiress, Mary des Roches, who brought him a residence at Roche Court (now a private school) near Fareham in Hampshire, though the Brocas’ main residence was Beaurepaire, also in Hampshire, and they owned another manor at Clewer Brocas in Berkshire. Presumably, then, Bernard didn’t spend much time, if any, in East Hoe. Apparently, he was a great patron of Southwick Priory, which is six or so miles to the south of East Hoe. The Priory was founded by Henry I in 1133 for Augustinian canons, originally within the walls of nearby Porchester Castle, although it had moved to Southwick by 1153. In 1385, Bernard granted his East Hoe manor to the Priory, in return for the canons praying daily for the benefit of the king, Richard II, of Bernard himself and his wife Katherine while they lived, and for their souls after death, and for the souls of the late king, Edward III, Mary des Roches, Bernard’s previous wife, and the parents and ancestors of Bernard and Mary.
    East Hoe manor continued to be the property of Southwick until the Dissolution, when Henry VIII granted it to a Thomas Knight, and it continued in the Knight family until 1619.
    A century later, East Hoe was sold to the same Thomas Lewis we have met before, lord of the chief manor of Soberton, and by this time the owner of nearly the whole parish.
    The Victoria County History suggests that the site of East Hoe is marked by Hoegate Farm, but an East Hoe Manor still exists, which is presumably the actual site of the original manor. Hoegate Farm is about two miles to the south, closer to the putative manor of Huntbourn(e) (according to the lordship title indicated on the Manorial Counsel website), but which has no record in either Domesday or the History.

    Finally, I am including mention of Bensted, despite it not being part of Soberton parish, because it sits on the boundary of Soberton – the River Meon – about a mile and a half from Soberton village, and its ownership as a manor includes many of the names we have already met: the bishop of Winchester, Hugh de Port, the Waytes, Richard Newport and (of course) Thomas Lewis…
    My information about Bensted has come from a document written for the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, The manor of Bensted St Clair.
    In the 10th century, the place was known as Bienestede, and was a possession of the bishop of Winchester. At Domesday, it was still in the bishop’s possession, but the manor was held, again, by Hugh de Port. Although there is scarcely any settlement now at this location, in 1086 it was a fairly significant estate. According to Domesday, the estate had six tenant households and six slave households, so perhaps 50 or so people. Interestingly, the manor was among a minority in Domesday where the demesne lands (the lands farmed for the lord's personal benefit) were much larger than tenants’ lands and, until the 16th century, the manor was worked almost entirely for the demesne.
    Over time, Bienestede became the manor of Bensted St Clair, then Seyntcleres Court, and eventually St Clair’s Farm. The change of name came from the family of St Clair (or Seyntcler, Sencler, Sinklar, Sinkles – there are many variations), which held the manor from about 1160 until the end of the 14th century. It seems to have last been referred to as Bensted in 1558, after which the name disappeared.
    What of those other Soberton people who had an interest in Bensted St Clair?
    During the 14th century, associations grew between the St Clair family and the Waytes, from Bere manor, a short distance across and down the river, and it seems likely that the Waytes were tenants of the Bensted fulling-mill, shown as Sinkles Mill on Taylor's 1759 map. The mill was located a little over half a mile downstream from the manor house, here shown simply as Sinkles.
    From the 1759 map of Hampshire by Isaac Taylor.
    In 1450, Richard Newport, the then holder of the chief Soberton manor, was appointed firmarius (a sort of farm manager) of Bensted manor.
    Finally, in the early 18th century, Thomas Lewis, by then the lord of almost the whole of Soberton parish, extended his holding still further by acquiring St Clair’s farm under a lease from the bishop of Winchester.
    The manor of Bensted St Clair is marked today by St Clair’s (Sinkles) farmhouse, a 17th century building.

    The picture I have drawn of Soberton's manors is not, perhaps, as lucid as I would like. I might of course obtain further clarification by reading more widely but, for now, I feel I have learned enough to sate my immediate curiosity. To get a fuller, clearer picture of the manorial structure of Soberton, I could explore other, contemporary, documents. The Victoria County History’s information is detailed but, as I have said, at times confusing. But to be honest I don’t need more, well, not right now. I wanted to gain a general picture of the shape of mediaeval Soberton, and perhaps to discover some of the people involved, and I’ve done that. I have learned, at any rate, that, by the early 18th century, after all that complicated toing and froing of ownership, one man – Thomas Lewis – held nearly all the manors in the parish. However, he died in 1736 and whether he passed his great holdings on to his heirs I haven't discovered.
    But, to finish, a couple of thoughts occur to me about Soberton’s manors...
    Firstly, I do wonder again – for I have mentioned it in previous posts – what the ordinary Soberton inhabitant made of all the toing and froing of ownership, or indeed whether it even affected them very much. I suspect “not much”, in either case. I imagine it was largely of little concern to them who their “lord” was. They probably just kept their heads down and got on with their work... I suppose, in many cases, tenants scarcely even knew who their lord was, especially if the lord was of the absentee variety. As far as tenants were concerned, their masters were the reeve and steward or bailiff, and their own lives were lived with little or no connection to the individual who actually benefited from their labours.
    Secondly, there do seem to me to be quite a lot of manors here in Soberton within a relatively small area. I wonder to what extent they were successful economic units? Presumably they must have been reasonably lucrative otherwise wealthy men would not have been so eager to acquire them. But what I also suspect is that the Soberton manors were, for many of the owners, not their main, or even a major, source of income. To what extent the owners, especially those higher up in the social hierarchy, spent any time in their little Soberton manors is anybody’s guess. One suspects that the answer is, not much!
    Although I do like to think that perhaps Thomas Lewis might have been the exception… 

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    The kitchens at Hampton Court have re-opened and I had meatballs with ginger and cinnamon to celebrate. I wrote a while ago about my involvement scripting the sound landscape for Hampton Court Place Base court and how much fun I had doing it. Once that was complete we moved on to the kitchens and this time we got to use pictures as well as sound. I was hired by Matthew Rosier of Chomko Rosier again, and once Matt had done all the hard stuff like working out the initial concepts for each area we were working on, the budgets and where all the wires went, I got to join forces with him, James Bulley and Kyle Waters for the fun stuff. Researching, scripting and, as we filmed and recorded, a little light directing.

    We were providing elements for five areas. The Carpenter’s Court was where food stuffs arrived throughout the day. The Board of the Greencloth was the administrative centre of the operation. A group of senior household officials gathered there each morning to make sure the needs of the Court were being met and accounted for, supported by clerks doing the counting and book keeping. They worked out what they would pay suppliers, what dishes would be served to whom and kept a close eye on all of the money flowing out of the palace, and all the food stuffs coming in. 

    Installing Board of the Greencloth

    In the Boiling House vast numbers of joints were seethed for the table in a giant copper. 

    In the kitchens themselves, visitors can touch the chopping boards to see the cooks preparing the meat in front of them. The special speakers used for this bit mean you can feel the knife coming down to mince the meat and the vibration of the pestle and mortar as the spices are ground. 

    On the other side of the wall, invisible fires crackle and the pots seethe, spit and bubble as the cooks go to and fro.

    Intensive pot listening with Matt and James

    My job was primarily getting into the detailed research with the guidance of the brilliant Hampton Court team, and coming up with the words. The research was much trickier than it was for Base Court - general gossip about historical figures of whom we know a fair amount is one thing, making sure you’re getting it right quoting the price of fish in 1538 is another. What does a 16th century cook say to himself as he’s making a pie mix, stirring his pottage or shredding herbs from the garden? It’s quite like novel writing in fact. You have to find those small very specific details to make a place and a time come alive, and then find a way to make them feel natural.

    Filming Board of the Greencloth
    I do miss the collaborative elements of this sort of work. Novel writing is a megalomaniac’s paradise in many ways. It’s your world, and you get to run it as you see fit. Film and sound production is a team sport - especially when you are dealing with the complex demands of a three dimensional sound scape and visual field. The technical side of the projection mapping, speakers, media players, loops and channels flew over my head like a cool breeze, but I think the results are pretty impressive. There’s also a particular pleasure in hearing what you’ve written come alive in the voices of talented actors. We were very lucky in our Greencloth performers who handled very complicated scripts with aplomb. As we filmed I read in the lines of the clerks coming to hand over their accounts wearing an odd hat to get the shadows right and the fact I didn't put them off completely is a testament to their professionalism. 

    Kitchen Selfie. It was ironically cold.

    When we were clearing up after filming the preparation of the meat, one of my take home perks was the meatballs, so if you go to the kitchens and see that dish being made, rest assured it was delicious.