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    Oh the joys of Midsummer: that part of the year when retailers begin to count down the shopping days to Christmas and those of us who live in Scotland wonder whether we can risk turning the heating off. Although we give it one name, the celebration actually comes in two stages. It starts with Solstice or the longest day (June 21st), associated with pagan festivities and then moves to Midsummer's Day itself (24th), one of the four Quarter Days in the UK legal calendar and also traditionally the Christian festival of St John. That means we are currently in a summer limbo - a little like the period between Christmas and New Year except with charred raw sausages rather than Quality Street and hopefully a prettier name. That last may mean nothing outside Scotland, suffice to say it's a biological term starting with p and ending in m and I'm sure you can work it out. Anyway, to badly paraphrase Dave Allen, whichever god goes with you, there's a celebration to be had.

     Kupala Summer Solstice Festival, Russia
    The summer solstice is the sun's most powerful day and has been celebrated for thousands of years with fires and and torch-lit processions. In ancient times, the fires, which included bonfires and flame deliberately set in motion such as burning wheels rolling down hillsides, were seen as a magical way of feeding the sun and strengthening its power. As Midsummer was perceived as one of those times in the calendar when the veil between mortal and spirit worlds lifted, fire was also important for warding off bad luck, stopping the evil spirits who might cross through, and encouraging prosperity in the year to come. Blazing gorse was carried round cattle to drive away disease and the most athletic revelers were encouraged to leap over high-burning fires. Supposedly, the highest jump predicted the height crops would reach in the new harvest season.

     Rowan Tree: no go for witches
    For pagans, the solstice also saw the Wheel of the Year coming to one of its most significant points: the Goddess, who took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of spring, is now at the height of her power and fertility. Midsummer was traditionally therefore a time for gathering flowers and herbs with 'magical' properties. Gathering is one of the traditions which survived the religious reformations of the fifteenth century aimed at putting the feast of St John the Baptist more to the fore than church-threatening superstitions and, in parts of Wales at least, Midsummer Day is still called Gathering Day because of this practise. Whatever they told the priests about new trends in decorating and design, people continued to pick their plants and protect themselves, their homes and their cattle with evil-spirit repelling garlands. In a nice fusion of old and new, it was especially important to pick the yellow-herb St John's Wort, known as 'chase-devil' which would be hung above doors as a protective measure. Rowan was also thought to be powerful against witches and was added to bonfires or specifically burned on Midsummer's Day in a number of places, including Cumbria. Other plants to look out for around this date include Orpine, which is also known as 'Midsummer's Men' but be careful: if a piece is picked on Midsummer's Eve and wilts overnight, disappointment is certain for the one who picked it, and possibly also death. Send someone else if you have a hankering.

     Mazey Day Cornwall
    Like many old traditions, much of the rituals associated with Midsummer are no longer practised on a countrywide scale. Perhaps the best way to experience them nowadays is at Stonehenge or in Cornwall where the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies has revived some of the old celebrations. The annual festival of the Feast of St John the Baptist in Penzance lasts a week, beginning on the Friday closest to the 24th and concluding with a parade on Mazey Day and includes traditional bonfires set all along the coast. I also remember climbing Glastonbury Tor in a swirl of magical lights and music one Midsummer a few years ago and genuinely wish I could remember it more but that's another story.

    Whatever you're celebrating this summer, be it Midsummer or Wimbledon or the World Cup or the ability to escape them all, you need something a bit more special than a washed-out barbecue. I have a wonderful old book called Catten Cakes and Lace which includes recipes for all the year's celebrations and for Midsummer they have a delightful creation called Queen Mab's Summer Pudding. If you really want to do the faery queen justice, bring out a different kind of Barbie, stick her in the finished creation and make the whipped cream into the ruffles on her skirt; just a thought...

    6-8 slices stale white bread with crusts cut off
    675g - blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries
    2 tablespoons water
    150g sugar

    Line a 1 litre pudding bowl with slices of bread. Cut more if needed to completely cover the bottom and sides. Wash and prepare the fruit, add to a pan with the water and sugar. Boil gently until the sugar melts and juices run but don't let the fruit disintegrate. Spoon the fruit into the prepared dish, make a bread lid, put a small plate on top, weight it down and chill for 8 hours or more. Remove the weights, turn onto a plate, decorate with the cream and celebrate summer.

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    Burghausen, in Lower Bavaria, is officially, according to the Guinness Book of Records, Europe's longest, at  1,051.02 metres, ie, well over a kilometre, so walking the length of it would count as a reasonable constitutional, particularly after the steep climb up to the ramparts. As one of the largest intact medieval castles in the world, it dominates the eponymous (and very attractive) town. From 1255 onwards, it was the second seat of the Dukes of Lower Bavaria. We stayed in the town in July last year, in sizzling heat, in the old Post hotel, which backs onto the castle rock, and our room had a view of the castle.
    This is not meant to be a discursive piece, rather (since it's getting into summer holiday time again) a stroll through the castle. If you want a panorama of the whole thing, look on wikipedia.
    This very pretty garden is set on the exterior of the old gaol, part of which is called the 'Hexenturm' or 'witch tower.' I was hoping to get images to illustrate a piece about the great witch hunt, but in fact Burghausen was not one of the great witch-burning centres of Lower Bavaria. The 'witch tower' was simply the place where women were shut up. I believe the name was attached to it later, and you can make what you want of that connection, and why it was so named.
    Next to the 'witch tower' is the 'torture tower' or 'Folterturm,' and that is definitely the right appellation. I'm not putting up photos of the instruments of torture, but there are still racks, scolds' bridles, Iron Maidens, and other horrible things on view in the museum here. It's a dreadful thought that torture is still very much a part of our modern world. However, here is the sign for the Folterturm museum. For the benefit of non-German speakers, the sign also tells you how to get to the snack bar and the entrance to the torture tower is through the souvenir shop. There is something slightly gruesome about this, I feel, torture as entertainment. Well, you get it at the Tower of London, too.

    One of the corridors in the gaol.
    Moving further along, you get to more cheerful parts of the castle; of course the Dukes wouldn't have wanted their dinner disturbed by screams, though no doubt they had no squeamishness about strolling along to visit an execution or even a bout of torture. Perhaps my scruples about torture as entertainment nowadays are over-sensitive, after all.

    Here are the ducal quarters; unsurprisingly, the castle is in great demand for film locations.

    What I liked best about the castle was this chapel, a little medieval gem. Interestingly, just as in England, medieval wall paintings were being rediscovered, which are just visible, I think, if you click on the picture. In England the disappearance of such frescos is usually blamed on the white-hot frenzy of religious reformers, and I commented on this to the room steward. Her response was: 'I believe they just went out of fashion.' Perhaps the fashion was less religiously motivated than the painting over of frescos in England, but it seems that might have happened even without the Reformation.

    Walking down another steep path along the ramparts to go back to the town for lunch, we heard goats bleating, yet they were, frustratingly, never visible, . You could hear them from our bedroom, too. They are organic goats who are kept on the steep slopes because they eat tree and shrub seedlings, which, if they grew up, might destroy the structure of the castle mound. They move indoors for the winter.

    The other thing I liked best about the castle was the old moat, part of which has become a swimming area. Particularly welcome when the temperature is over 30; it's so lovely to be able to swim among moorhens and ducks, to turn over on your back and enjoy the view of the longest castle high above you. As you can see from the photograph, the lido is among the outer ramparts, and you go through a curtain wall to get to them (there's a lovely garden, too).

    There are some pictures that show the extent of the castle on this blog

    For the goats:

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  • 06/23/18--16:30: LET THERE BE LIGHT
  • It's a couple of days past the Solstice as I'm writing this post.  Where I live in the UK, the sun will rise at 4.40am and set at 9.35pm tonight although it won't be fully dark until around 10.45pm.  That's gettting on for 18 hours of daylight.  But at the other end of the equation in December, the dawn arrives circa 8am and sunset is before 4pm, giving us only 8 hours of daylight, and if the weather is murky, that time is swiftly curtailed.
    I was thinking about this the other day and it led me to ponder upon the kind of lighting medieval people had at their disposal.  Eight hundred years ago, how would I have lit my hours of darkness?

    Since all cooking and heating relied on fires, ambient firelight would have provided a certain amount of light, but with dim parameters and not always useful. One of the reasons main meals were eaten early in the day in the Middle Ages was that trying to perform tasks in a kitchen without clear light was a hazard. Certainly in a castle kitchen there might be fires for heating water and cooking food, but the fire was at ground level and any preparation would have to be done on tables which would be cast into shadow, so in itself firelight, while providing warmth and cheer was only of background usefulness. Actually for kitchen work in dark circumstances, the most often used lighting appears to have been something called a cresset. This was a series of hollows in a stone block.

    The hollows would be filled with oil or fat and a wick floated in them. The lamps would be placed on a flat surface or in a niche. There are frequent references to cresset lamps as items of kitchen equipment. Candles and candlesticks seem not to have been as popular in a kitchen environment  but to have been used elsewhere.
    Bartholomew the Englishman was of the opinion that there should be plenty of light from candles, prickets and torches when people were eating 'for it is a shame to sup in darkness and perilous also for flies and other filth.' I am reminded of my father-in-law on active service in North Africa in 1942. He said he always waited until after dark to eat his rations because then he wouldn't see the weevils!
    For the present household and the less well off, lighting was provided by tallow candles and by rush lights. These were frequently home-made in the summer months by carefully peeling the long cylindrical pith of the juncus rush, and dragging it through molten animal fat. These, however, burned down quickly and could not be used for any length of time. They were better than nothing, but not ideal. People make use of local resources, and some communities living near the sea would make lamps out of a fish called a thornback. The fish was stuffed full of linen waste, compressed until the wick was saturated, and then actually burned as a candle. Two or three tied together in an iron holder made a torch. The phosphorescent light cast by rotting fish was sometimes used to light the way up the garden path...
    Candle stick fit for a queen.  12th century V&A
    The aristocracy and the church opted for candles made from beeswax. These gave a clear burning light and a pleasant smell and were long-lasting. Although beeswax was locally available, there was never enough to satisfy demand in the big cities, and supplies were augmented from the forested less sparsely populated areas of Europe, such as Russia, Hungary and Bohemia. People in royal service were entitled to candles or remnants of them as one of the perks of their job. If John Marshal my hero of A Place Beyond Courage was eating outside the court he was entitled to a daily provision of one small wax candle and 24 candle ends. Royalty only burned fresh candles, and whatever stubs remained at the end of each day were cleared away and finished off in the departments of the household officials. If John was working in-house on a particular day he was entitled to an ample supply of candles all the time. John's ushers were entitled to 8 candle ends a day for their own use. Candles could be placed in candlesticks, wall mounted holders, ceiling suspended holders, or arranged on large multi-holder candle stands – whatever suited the purpose.
    Candle holder that could be used either free standing
    or on a wall bracket. Museum of London.
    Ceramic lamps were another form of lighting. These look a bit like ice cream cones and are ubiquitous in medieval illustrations. They are frequently found in museum exhibits. Basically, they worked on the same principle as the cresset lamp and were often suspended by chains from the ceiling. There are references in the pipe rolls to the use of oil lamps. Queen Eleanor had 30 shillings and five pence worth of oil bought on the Surrey account to use in her lamps in 1176/1177. 'Et pro oleo ad lampadem regine xxxs, et v.d.' In 1159 that sum was greater but only by two pence. The second sum appears time and again throughout the reigns of Richard I and of John while she was still living. Were they for religious or personal use? The pipe rolls don't say. 
    Hanging lamp mid 13th century.  Maciejowski Bible.
    Norman ceramic oil lamp.  Museum of London. 
    When one needed to carry a light about, lanterns proved useful, and there are many surviving examples in the archaeological and illustrative record. 
    Ceramic lantern from the the Poitou region
    Torches were also used. But we don't know a great deal about them as they have not survived well in the archaeological record and it's an area that still requires more study.
    Lantern from the mid 13thc Maciejowski Bible.

    During the broad spread of the middle ages and in various circumstances, there were rules about lighting. George Duke of Clarence's household ordinances for December 1468 gives the detail that wood and candles should only be issued between 1 November and Good Friday at the rate of two shides (unit of measure - I don't know its meaning)  and three white tallow candles to be shared between every two gentlemen of the household. At the monastery of Barnwell, the monks were forbidden to sit by a lamp in the dormitory to read, or to take candles to bed in order to do the same. We might think it was because of the fire hazard but no, it was because reading in bed was discouraged as at that time, reading aloud was the norm and would have kept everyone else awake, not to mention the disturbance of light.
    The Wise and Foolish Virgins out and about with their full and empty lamps
    15thc Carthusian Miscellany. British Library. 

    So basically it wasn't a world without light, but it was certainly one more deeply shadowed, more golden, more smokily scented (among other smells!) than ours. It could not be had for the flick of a switch but provision of light had to thought about and toiled over. What you never have you never miss, but 1000 years ago, the return of daylight as the northern hemisphere turned toward spring must have been a truly keen pleasure of life.

    Sources used in this article.

    Cooking and dining in mediaeval England by Peter Frears prospect books, 2008

    Food in England by Dorothy Hartley published by Little, Brown.

    The senses in late Medieval England by C.M. Wooglar Yale University press.

    Constitutio Domus Regis: The establishment of the Royal Household edited and translated by the late Charles Johnson. Oxford Medieval Texts.

    Elizabeth Chadwick is a multi award-winning bestselling author of historical fiction and a member of the Royal Historical Society.  Her latest novel Templar Silks tells the story of what William Marshal did during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

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        Last month I spent a few days in a state of near bliss, drifting around Lake Como in boats and swimming in the clean waters, overlooked by the foothills of the alps, pretty ochre, pink and yellow villages, lovely gardens and the villas of billionaires. This lake, which Shelley wrote,  "exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty, with the exception of the Arbutus Islands in Killarney,” is also the place where the Second World War ended for Italians. As new right wing politicians come to power in Italy it feels urgent to consider this period. Whereas the last months of Hitler are a familiar story, the downfall of Mussolini is not so well known.

       In the evenings I read Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia, a reminder that Italy wasn’t always so peaceful. She kept this diary while she and her husband opened their house in Tuscany to refugees and partisans fighting the fascists. It’s a fascinating book because, like the characters in historical novels - like all of us - she doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Here are a few extracts from Origo’s remarkable wartime diary:
                                                                        Iris Origo

       July 26th 1943. The long-expected news has come at last: Mussolini (who had been in power since 1922) has fallen. The news was given by radio last night but we did not hear it until this morning. Mussolini has resigned, The King has appointed Marshal Badoglio in his place and has himself taken over the command of the Army.

       On July 28th, she writes that in Rome:” A great crowd of working people from all the outlying quarters surged into the city and made its way to the Quirinale (the Presidential Palace), …they broke into all the offices and club rooms of the Fascio, destroyed every bust and statue of Mussolini, set fire to (the offices of newspapers that had supported Mussolini)….Similar demonstrations took place in Milan, Turin, Bologna and Florence.”

       As the news spread down a train that an armistice had been signed, ”flags and carpets were hanging from the windows; at Florence the great bell of the Bargello had been rung; people were weeping for joy and embracing each other. But after half an hour the rumour was contradicted and the excited and disappointed crowd had to be dispersed by the police.”

       By December 23rd:” Of Mussolini no one now speaks and it is said that he himself, on being asked to make a speech on the wireless on October 28th, said: What can a dead man say to a nation of corpses?”

       Mussolini was imprisoned at an hotel in Italy's Gran Sasso massif, high in the Apennines . On 12 September 1943 he was daringly rescued by SS troopers, who landed a dozen gliders on the mountain and overwhelmed Mussolini's captors. The SS leader, Otto Skorzeny, greeted Mussolini with "Duce, the Führer has sent me to set you free.” Mussolini replied, "I knew that my friend would not forsake me!"

                                                               Mussolini leaving the Hotel

       Mussolini was then made leader of the Italian Social Republic  usually known as the Republic of Salò, a German puppet state which lasted for nineteen months. Although he declared that Rome  was its capital, the tiny state was in fact based in Salo,  a small town on Lake Garda where Mussolini and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had their headquarters. They had nominal sovereignty in Northern and Central Italy but depended on German troops to maintain control. Only Germany and Japan gave them diplomatic recognition and there was no constitution or organised economy - Salo’s finances depended entirely on funding from Berlin.

       On 25 April 1945 Mussolini's fascist republic collapsed.  In Italy this day is known as Liberation Day. A general partisan uprising, together with the efforts of Allied forces, ousted the Germans from Italy.
                                                        Clara Petacchi, known as Claretta.

       Mussolini had left both his wife, Rachele, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, behind in Milan. But Petacci could not live without her Duce and she joined him in Como. She was 33 and Mussolini was 63. As the allies got closer, she and Mussolini went into hiding in nearby Gardone Riviera at the Villa Fiordaliso (now a very expensive Relais & Chateaux hotel). Mussolini, La Petacci and other fleeing fascists were heading for the Swiss border at the northern end of Lake Como. Mussolini was wearing sunglasses and had disguised himself as a German corporal. In the village of Dongo Mussolini’s convoy ran into a roadblock manned by partisans, one of whom recognised Mussolini’s profile from the thousands of propaganda posters that had been plastered on walls all over Italy for the last twenty years.

       On 28 April, two days before Hitler committed suicide in Berlin, the partisans shot Mussolini and Petacci in Giulino di Mezzegra, a tiny village in the mountains above Lake Como. Their corpses were driven to Milan and dumped in Piazzale Loreto. A huge angry crowd gathered to defile their corpses, which were strung upside down from the metal girders of a petrol station, beaten, shot at and hit with hammers.

       This black cross marks the spot where Mussolini and Petacci were killed and in Dongo you can visit the End of WWII Museum. Mussolini was buried in an unmarked grave then, in 1946, his body was dug up and stolen by fascist supporters. Four months later it was recovered and hidden for the next eleven years. In 1957 his remains were allowed to be interred in the Mussolini family crypt in Predappio. His tomb has become a place of pilgrimage and every April the anniversary of his death is marked by neo-fascist rallies.

       Since the war this official version of Mussolini's death has been questioned in Italy, rather like Kennedy’s assassination. Amongst the many conspiracy theories is one about Churchill: that he was desperate to get hold of letters from him that Mussolini was carrying in which Churchill is said to have made all sorts of embarrassing offers to keep Mussolini out of the war.

       I was living in Italy in 1975 when Pasolini, the Marxist film director, poet and intellectual, made a film called Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Set in Fascist Italy in 1944, Pasolini’s film is based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel, 120 Days Of Sodom. I’ve never had the stomach to watch this film, which is still controversial and is banned in several countries (not that there is any point in banning a film in the age of the internet). Pasolini explores political corruption: four wealthy fascist libertines kidnap eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture before finally killing them. Before the film was released Pasolini himself was murdered and I vividly remember the sensation this caused.

       It has often been said that Berlusconi (one of several billionaires who now own magnificent villas on Lake Como) has modeled himself on Mussolini - with considerable success. It is impossible to spend much time in Italy without becoming aware that Mussolini is still an important figure. His granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, is a member of the Italian Senate. She was elected for a party called The People of Freedom, launched by Berlusconi in 2007, which later became part of  Forza Italia (this can be translated as ‘Let's Go, Italy’). Matteo Salvini, who is now Italy’s Interior Minister, was previously in coalition with Berlusconi. Salvini’s political allies include Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen in France and Victor Orban in Hungary. A few weeks ago Salvini forced the Aquarius, an NGO ship carrying 600 migrants,to divert from Italy to Spain. The President of Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities, Noemi di Segni, said this was reminiscent of Mussolini’s fascist race laws. Salvini has called for a new census of Roma and for all non-Italian Roma to be expelled from the country.

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    The Kings Arms in Askrigg was the real name of the pub we used as The Drovers Arms in All Creatures Great and Small. I returned there seven years ago when I was writing a feature for the Mail on Sunday. I ordered a glass of red wine and sat alone, deep in reflection. In the days when it was the Drover's Arms, late 1930s to 1940s, it certainly wouldn't have served red wine by the glass!

    I remember my very first bout of filming for the television series All Creatures Great and Small, it was autumn, late seventies. The three actors playing the leading roles of the vets in a Yorkshire practice had already been on location for a week or two. It was about then that I arrived in Richmond to complete the quartet of players. Although we didn't know it at the time, we were to continue working together very happily for many years. To celebrate our newly-bonded foursome, Robert Hardy, the wonderful late Robert Hardy, threw a dinner party at his hotel, the Punchbowl Inn, Swaledale. The hunting season had just opened and the grouse were delivered to the table almost fresh from the fields. I was a little horrified, partially because, during those years, I was a vegetarian.
    Up until that time, I had been an impoverished actress living from job to job, praying a role would fall into my lap so that I could cover the next electricity or telephone bill. Robert Hardy's dinner party was lavish, certainly by my standards. I can see him now - (to his close friends, he was Tim, not Robert) - at the head of the table relishing every second of the evening, ordering this and that with gusto and taking great care to make sure that the wines were the ideal companions to each course. He called for two bottles of 'claret' to accompany the main plate. I think I can honestly say I had never heard of 'claret', or if I had, I could not have said which or what wine, or range of wines, it described. I would not have dreamed of asking because I was too awestruck by the company and the splendour of the occasion and because I thought it would be expected of me to know such details.

    I have since learned that the notion of 'claret' is a very English one and refers to red Bordeaux wines. However, the origin of the word comes from the Latin, clarus, clear, and then pale. It was used originally to describe light wines, usually a pale red in colour or even yellow.

               La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux's new museum dedicated to celebrating its most famous produce.

    Bordeaux has come on leaps and bounds since those Middle Ages days of wine-making where the wine almost resembled a rosé. Bordeaux is now world famous for its full-bodied reds. It was the British who first used the word claret sometime in the 1700s to describe those dark red wines.

    I recently paid a visit to the city of Bordeaux. While there, Michel, my husband, and I decided to take the time to see its newly inaugurated museum, La Cité du Vin, where you can happily spend four or five hours learning the history of wine, its place in the world, its place in literature and the arts and round off your outing with a wine-tasting on the eight floor with stunning views over the city.

    The building itself is well worth pausing over. As you can see from the photograph above, it sits between city and river and it is not conventional architecture. Its facade, made up of silk-screen printed glass panels and perforated, lacquered aluminium panels, gleams in the sunlight like a polished ducat, or a magical golden boot. In fact the architects, Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières, have attempted to create the movement of both wine splashing into a glass and the movement of the Garonne river which flows at the foot (the toe) of the building. They also claim they were inspired by and have attempted to capture the trunk of a gnarled wine plant.

                                                                 Gnarled trunk of grape plant

    Whether you see that or not, the edifice really is a dazzling sight and, like both wine and water, its appearance changes with the light, the time of day, the weather.

                                                                             Sunset Red

    Its interior is equally innovative and pleasing. It is exceptionally spacious. There is none of that cramped feeling frequently common in more conventional museums. In fact, at some moments this is more a Son et Lumière show. There is a wealth of material to learn and discover - plenty of areas where the information is highlighted with short animated sequences, which make it ideal for children. There are cinemas, one in-the-round which is visually so exciting.There are other areas where you can sit at a table as though in conversation with such luminaries as Voltaire and listen to him or many other historical greats give their opinions on the role of wine in their/our lives.

                                           This area resembles giant wine bottles sliced in half.

    Elsewhere, you can learn a little of what wine has meant to the Church, to Jewish communities, to the Holy Land, Egypt, to Europe's elite, and plenty more.

    The Holy Land stop along the Cité un Vin journey took me back to a very special experience of my own when I was in the West Bank with a group of Israelis from Tel Aviv. We were planting olive saplings paid for and transported to the fields by my Israeli companions. We were there to replant several Palestinian groves that had been destroyed by the IDF and neighbouring Settlers. Someone at my side, a stranger, said to me as we stared into the sunny distance on that late February Saturday: "This land, as far as the eye can see, has been producing olive oil and wine for at least three thousand years."
    Palestine was supplying wine to Egypt circa 3100 BC. In ancient times, Palestinian wines were consumed by everyone as a social experience and for alimentation and medicinal purposes.
    The story of wine, I was thinking to myself, is possibly almost as old as that of olive oil.

    When your Cité du Vin visit has been completed take the lift to the top floor where you will be offered a glass of wine. The choice is as wide as the world. I chose a crisp white Rioja from Spain. Michel took a sparkling white wine from Hungary. If you stroll with your glass out onto the terrace and take in the views of Bordeaux, here is what you will see:

    or can you view this very short film ...

    After our afternoon of discovery we took the exceedingly efficient new tramline from the Cité du Vin back to the heart of the fine old city of Bordeaux itself and ate dinner at a leafy restaurant just off the Place du Théâtre where we ordered a very fine bottle of Saint-Emilion, a highly regarded Bordeaux wine.
    By the way, you can if you fancy take a half-day trip to the medieval village of Saint-Emilion, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are several of the wine-producing villages in the region offering such tours.

                                                                              Alain Juppé.

    A word about Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, who was Prime Minister of France from 1995 to 1997 during Jacques Chirac's presidential tenure. Bordeaux is a city reinventing itself for the 21st-century. Its poorer quarters are being refurbished; its waterside zones bursting into life. Juppé has transformed the city into a vibrant metropolis where inhabitants and tourists can easily interact. I was very impressed. In these days where, particularly in Britain, so many cuts are being made in the name of austerity, it was genuinely uplifting to walk about and discover a city that is working for its community, offering new opportunities and celebrating its very special history, both agricultural and urban.

    I asked Michel if he knew what 'claret' was. Yes, of course, a general name used by the Brits to describe a long-redundant style of wine from this region. Well, there we are. I would have loved to have spent an afternoon at the Cité du Vin with Robert Hardy. He would have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, as did we.

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    My mother Verily Anderson typing her next book
    in 1956, watched by my father Donald.
    I have always loved typewriters. Both my widowed mother and my older sister were full time writers, so I was brought up with the clickety clack of typewriters resonating through the house. It was the first sound I heard every morning when I woke. My mother used an old, black Remington with worn down keys. When I heard the bell ping frequently as she neared the end of a line, I knew her work was going well. My sister had a modern Olivetti, with a lighter sound than the solid Remington. She touch-typed, whereas my mother, despite publishing dozens of books, wrote with only four fingers in a jazzy, syncopated rhythm. 
    My grandfather, the Rev. Rosslyn Bruce,
    with the typewriter he named ' Jane' c 1910.
    As our mother’s Remington was the tool which fed us five children, we were not allowed to touch it. But I soon learned how to remove and replace the two sheets of ‘bank’ paper and carbon paper so that she didn’t notice. I had to work out the worn vowel keys and muzzle the bell, so that my mother, busy elsewhere in the house, did not hear. I still have the manuscript of my first book ‘The Year of Mr Goodbery’, written when I was 10, with its uneven lines and many typos. The rejection letter from Brockhampton Press was polite and encouraging.
    I bought my first, very own typewriter in Portobello Road market when I was 12. It was a huge, office ‘Imperial’, that cost me 15 shillings (75p). I could barely lift it and the stall holder gave me an old shopping trolley to drag it home. Oh! the hours I toiled over the pangram, ‘Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, trying to use all my fingers.
    My 1915 Corona
    My next typewriter was given to me when I was 15 by my mother’s publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis. It was made in 1915; a tiny, fold-up Corona ‘Personal Writing Machine’. The ribbon cartridges were no longer available, so I got inky fingers rewinding my mother’s old ribbons onto the tiny cartridge. When the ribbon became too faint to read, I used an old piece of carbon paper. There was no key for number 1 or 0, so I had to use a capital I or O; and for and exclamation mark , a full stop, backspace and then an apostrophe were required. Even though it had only three rows of letters, I loved it, and wrote my first published poem on it - about a kestrel.
    My aim was to look like this efficient typist.
    Typewriters took a long time to develop. More than 50 inventors worked independently over the years, each one adding details that eventually resulted in the successful machine. In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a British patent for ‘an artificial machine for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print’. He recommended its use for public records as they could not be counterfeited. Several Italians in the 19th century invented versions including the 
    tacitipo – ‘quiet printing’ – and the Cembalo scrivano da scrivere a tasti - ‘scribe harpsichord for writing with keys'.
    'Daily News' by Dona Nelson, oil on canvas, 1983.
    Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA.
    The first commercial typewriter was sold in 1873, with a QWERTY keyboard, on which the word ‘typewriter’ could be written using only the top row of keys. The typewriter soon became an indispensable tool for professional and legal writing and the QWERTY layout became standard, even though there is now no risk of the keys becoming entangled if the typing is too fast. By about 1910, all "manual" or "mechanical" typewriters were made with each key attached to a typebar with the corresponding letter moulded, in reverse, into its striking head.
     The word typewriter originally meant a man who used a ‘typing machine’. Then by 1900 it was noticed that women could type too, and the status and pay soon dropped. However, being a typist became a respectable job for a nice girl before she wed. In 2005, Barbara Blackburn of Oregon beat the world record by typing 212 words per minute, with an average of 150 wpm over 50 minutes. However, she used a Dvorak keyboard, which has vowels on one side and consonants on the other, with the most frequently used letters in the middle.
    London Transport poster featuring a  lonely typewriter to encourage
    Londoners to 'Go Out into the Country' by Graham Sutherland, 1938.
    Mark Twain was the first writer to present a typed manuscript to his publisher, with ‘Life on the Mississippi’ in 1883. Ernest Hemingway wrote his books standing up in front of a Royal typewriter placed on a tall bookshelf, while J.R.R. Tolkien had no room in his attic-room for a desk so balanced his typewriter on his knees in bed. In 1951, Jack Kerouac typed his book ‘On the Road’ in two weeks, on a roll of paper 120 feet long so he didn’t have to keep changing the paper. Fellow author Truman Capote said, ‘That's not writing, it's typing.’ Two years later, Ray Bradbury wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451’ on a typewriter he had rented from the local library.
    Typewriting technology changed very little in 100 years, and the last typewriter made in Britain was a 2012 ‘Brother’. Typewriters are still used in remote parts of Africa, the South Pacific and South America where there is no electricity, and in US prisons where computers are banned. In Romania under President Ceausescu, people with criminal convictions or those deemed to be ‘a danger to public order or to the security of the state’ were refused police approval to own a typewriter and it was forbidden to borrow, lend or repair typewriters without authorization. 
    Typewriter erasers were often attached to the machine with string.
    Unlike pencil rubbers, they rubbed a hole in the page.

    Many authors still use typewriters, believing they improve their work. The American Harlan Ellison claimed, ‘Art is not supposed to be easier!’ while Will Self has said, ‘the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head.’ Cormac McCarthy writes all his novels on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter. In 2009, he auctioned his 1963 Olivetti for charity at Christie’s for US$254,500 (£192,000); he then replaced it with an identical one for US$20 (£15).
    The television series ‘Murder She Wrote’ opens with fictional sleuth Jessica Fletcher touch-typing a manuscript with a 1940s Royal KMM. Every well-used typewriter develops an individual ‘fingerprint’ or signature and typewritten evidence of crime first appeared in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Case of Identity’ in 1891.
    Musical compositions using typewriters include Leroy Anderson’s 1950  The Typewriter for orchestra and typewriter; Dolly Parton's song ‘ Nine to Five’; and ABBA’s 1986 Musical ‘ Chess’. The satirical Boston Typewriter Orchestra  has half-a-dozen percussionists playing typewriters under the slogan, ‘The revolution will be typewritten’. 
    French typists prefer to work naked, even on birthday cards.
    My last typewriter, in 1985, was an unwieldly electric Smith Corona, with a Daisy wheel instead of type bars. It remembered the last 10 letters so that I could go back and correct typos with a roll of sticky tape which plucked the offending letters off the page. I thought that very clever. Within two years I had acquired an Apple computer, which suited my unreliable typing even better. There is a revival of interest in typewriters now among steam-punks and street poets. But they aren’t getting my 1915 Corona!
    French cats are good at writing novels.

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    Last week I travelled back in time.  My husband and I spent a night on Burgh Island, a tiny island just off the South Devon coast which contains a hotel, a pub and nothing else.  It is an island only at high tide, since you can walk across the sand to it when the tide is low, which adds to its attractions.  And the Burgh Island Hotel is a very special place indeed - a place where you really do feel you have slipped back in time to the 1930’s.

    Burgh Island Hotel
    Its history is fascinating.  It began in the 1890s when the music hall star George H Chirgwin built a prefabricated wooden house on the island, which was used by guests for weekend parties.

    In 1927 the filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold bought the island and built a more substantial hotel in the Art Deco style which was all the rage at the time.  By the 1930s it had become one of the most popular hotels of its day, and improvements and further additions were made during the 1930s.  These included the Captain’s Cabin, which was modelled on the captain’s cabin of HMS Ganges, the last British wooden flagship in the Royal Navy.

    Inside the captain's cabin

    The cabin from outside
    In World War II the hotel was used as a recovery centre for wounded RAF personnel, probably because of Burgh Island’s convenient seaside location.  At one point the hotel was actually hit by a bomb, thankfully with no loss of life, but the top two floors were damaged.
    Although the bomb damage was subsequently repaired, the hotel became largely neglected after the war, and during the sixties many of its original features were brutally ripped out when it was converted into self-catering apartment accommodation.

    Fortunately by the end of the 20thcentury when the island was sold again, the new owners realised what had been lost and decided to restore the hotel to its former glory.  They painstakingly searched for and installed replacement Art Deco furniture and fittings, so that by the first decade of this century the hotel had regained its reputation and was now recognised as a perfect example of one of the great hotels of the era.  Inside the hotel everything is in the Art Deco style, so that you truly feel you have slipped back in time.  Today the Burgh Island Hotel is a Grade II listed building, and one of the prime examples of Art Deco style in Europe. 

    Ceiling of the cocktail lounge

    The reception desk
    In its heyday it became the favourite haunt of many famous people, including Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Amy Johnson, Winston Churchill and Nancy Cunard, but one of its most famous visitors was Agatha Christie, who stayed on the island many times and set two of her books there.   This is the Beach House where she stayed.
    The Beach House

    “Evil Under the Sun” was written and set on the island (in 2001 a TV version, starring David Suchet as Poirot, was actually filmed there) and so was “And Then There were None” (though in the latter book Christie “moved” the island further out to sea so it really could be cut off!) 

    Today most of the rooms in the hotel are named after its former illustrious guests.

    The key to our room!
    Today’s guests are not required to come dressed in 30s costume, though 30s-style bathing costumes are available for hire should anyone feel brave enough to venture into the Mermaid Pool immediately below the hotel (filled every day from the sea, so  very cold!) in full view of all the other guests.  However, at the weekly Dinner Dances the advice given is that “it is impossible to be overdressed”, which is an invitation not to be taken lightly!  Most people really took it to heart.

    We could only afford to stay there for one night – but that night was truly one to remember.

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    Our June guest is Sara Sheridan:

    Author photo by Bethany Grace
    Sara Sheridan writes the popular 1950s Mirabelle Bevan Murder Mysteries as well as historical novels set 1820-1845. She occasionally also writes commercial non-fiction including last year, a companion book to ITV’s Victoria. Fascinated by female history, in 2016 she founded REEKperfume to challenge beauty industry norms and memorialize forgotten women. She is currently writing a Female Atlas of Scotland. 

    Welcome Sara to the History Girls!

    Where are the Women?

    At the end of last year I visited Val McDermid’s brilliant light installation ‘treasure hunt’ around Edinburgh as part of the city’s legendary Hogmanay festival. Val highlighted the city’s literary history though not the one generally promoted by the tourist industry – she chose to focus on inspirational stories of writing success – female successes. Edinburgh has a long tradition of writers and Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson head a band of worthies constantly touted to the public but the city’s women enjoyed writing success just as much as the men. Stevenson’s second cousin, DE Stevenson, sold 7 million copies of her light novels at the turn of the century. Scott declared the city’s Susan Ferrier a better novelist than he was (a comment which incensed Jane Austen.)

    Susan Ferrier
    Then of course, there is Muriel Spark whose centenary is being celebrated this year and whose decades-long, glittering literary career up until this point, has scarcely been included in the city’s honour role of writers. There are more – Catherine Sinclair, a phenomenally successful, Victorian, children’s writer, for example – consigned to history.

    D.E. Stevenson
    This isn’t a new story and certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to the writing industry. Across the UK only 15% of statues represent women and most of these are in memory of Queen Victoria. This stretches into the archive with female material often lost because it simply wasn’t thought important enough to preserve either by the principal’s family or by archivists and historians. From early in my writing career I was fascinated by the whispers I found of women among the papers and every historical novel I’ve written is in some measure an attempt to commemorate our female history whether I do that using real characters or fictional ones.

    Over the last couple of years I decided to extend my commemoration activities and I co-founded a perfume company, REEK. We sell two scents – one dedicated to the memory of the Jacobite women and one to the witches - and we have more planned for next year. We also run a feminist blog, Bitches Unite, highlighting female history, talking to activists and campaigners and providing a platform to challenge beauty industry norms. The big question is why are so many campaigns fronted by young, size 6-8 white women? This is a question for our times and is something we don’t do at REEK. We feature a wide variety of women - our oldest model is in her 80s - and every picture we take remains unretouched. Our bitches, we always say, are beautiful just as they are. As a result in its first year REEK has been featured in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle and Grazia – many of the larger fashion magazines. But the core question we’re asking largely remains unanswered. I figure as we continue to knock at that door, at least we’re making everyone smell good and reminding them of phenomenal women from the past. We shouldn’t forget our sheroes. We shouldn’t be forgotten ourselves.

    Meantime in my writing life, I continue to find female stories that fascinate me. Working in the archive is like mining – sometimes you turn up a diamond. The women of WW2 provide many sparkling moments. When I started to write the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries I knew about Florence Szabo and some of the more famous resistance fighters. As time has gone on I’ve discovered more – not only the everyday heroism of the women left behind but also the shocking fact that our gender is seldom commemorated on war memorials. This seems particularly awful to me. While men killed even in training feature, female nurses and doctors are not included even though they gave their lives in the services of our country, often at or near the front. I like to think that the stories I write don’t scream this kind of sentiment but say ‘come down here – here’s a great story – oh, look, a post-modern feminist dilemma. Well, we’re here now.’ Still, the function of story is to promote imaginative thought, to entertain, to question and like many historical novelists I’m fascinated by where we come from. Especially if we can use it as a signpost to change where we are going.

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  • 06/29/18--16:01: June competition
  • To win a copy of Sara Sheridan's latest novel (see yesterday's guest post), just answer the following question in the Comments section below. Then copy your answer to me at so that I can get in touch with you if you win.

    "Who are your favourite  WW2I heroines?"

    Closing date: 7th July

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

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    At the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (till 16th September, then 2nd October to 9th December at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) "Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings.

    Full disclosure: I am not a big fan of Virginia Woolf. The books of hers I like most are Orlando and Flush, which are not considered the best. Oh and everyone likes Mrs Dalloway, which really is rather fine. But I don't think I will ever read The Waves again.

    Still, I liked the idea of artworks inspired by her writings and all by women. My mother-in-law had two pen and ink drawings by  Laura Knight (who was almost her contemporary) in her bedroom, so I was interested to see more of her work, which is among the better art in this very uneven exhibition. It is Knight's The Dark Pool that is featured on the poster, showing a young women in a red dress blown about by the wind, standing on a boulder looking down at a rock pool, which might or might not be on a beach in Cornwall.

    Dame Laura Knight
    As you might expect, the star is Virginia's older sister Vanessa Bell and her portrait of Virginia was was my favourite piece (though could you say that was "inspired by her writings"?). I am hampered by copyright here and can't show you what I saw.

    Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell as children

    The story of the two sisters has been told many times. Both their parents, Leslie Stephen and Julia Chadwick, had children from their first marriages when, as bereaved spouses they married and had four more. Vanessa and Virginia were the oldest, followed by two brothers. For the first thirteen years of Virginia's life, until her mother died, she spent every summer in St. Ives, in Talland House, with a view of the Godrevy Lighthouse. She wrote in 1939 in "A Sketch of the Past," of this childhood memory of lying in bed in the nursery:

    Hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach, and then breaking one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.

    It's quoted at the beginning of a very good essay by the curator of the exhibition, Laura Smith, in Pallant House's magazine for May to October.

    The holidays ceased with Julia's death and it was ten years later, after their father died, before Virginia and Vanessa returned to St. Ives. But you can see how much those long Cornish summers had on both their lives' work. Virginia described it as "the best beginning conceivable."

    I wanted to see that lighthouse, waves on the beach and all but the closest you get (apart from the Laura Knight) is Frances Hodgkins'Wings over Water (1930) and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham's Rocks, St. Mary's Scilly Isles (1953). Perhaps I am just too literal.

    If Virginia Woolf gave women one undying concept it is that of "A Room of One's Own," symbolising financial independence and intellectual freedom.  As Laura Clark says, "the room becomes a metaphor for autonomy and choice within patriarchal limits, a sort of reclamation of the room's function to contain. Landscape, however, becomes a metaphor for freedom and power beyond existing culture."

    Hence, landscape seen through the window of a room combines both these important concepts. The only flaw with this beguiling theory is that many, many male painters use the same image.

    Some of the women artists in this exhibition are associated with dominant males, unlikely Woolf herself.
    Dora Carrington
    Carrington is for ever associated with her passion for Lytton Strachey. In spite of her affairs with both men and women and her marriage to Ralph Partridge, Strachey was the love of her life and she shot herself two months after his death, feeling there was no further point to her life.
    Carrington and Strachey at Ham Spray

    She was at least known by Woolf and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf writing of her in her diary: "She is odd from her mixture of impulse & self consciousness. I wonder sometimes what she’s at: so eager to please, conciliatory, restless, & active.... [B]ut she is such a bustling eager creature, so red & solid, & at the same time inquisitive, that one can’t help liking her."

    It's hard exactly to see how Carrington was "inspired" by Virginia Woolf's writings.

    Another woman artist overshadowed by a man is Gwen John, in her case, her much-admired younger brother Augustus.

    Gwen John Self-portrait (1902)
    It wasn't Augustus' fault: he acknowledged her greater talent and said that in time she would be valued more highly than him. But in their lifetimes her work was seen as "quiet" (I can hear women, particularly women writers, sighing).

    So, if Virginia Woolf were alive today and visited this exhibition, would she recognise any of her ideas? She would certainly know some of the names though other later artists shown include Ithell Colquoun, Gluck and Romaine Brooks. But she was a very stringent critic of others' work and a perfectionist about her own. And there is a lot of very inferior stuff in this exhibition.

    As I was writing this post, an email came from the Management Committee of the Society of Authors, embargoed till the next day, which is now past, so I can tell you all about it. You have probably all read it in the press by now anyway.

    It was the results of the latest ALCS survey on authors' earnings. It was not a well-designed questionnaire, as I can attest, having filled it in myself, but the results show that such earnings have dropped from £11K in 2013, at the time of the last survey, to £10,500 per annum. In 2005 it was £12,500. To tease this out, average earnings are down by 42% on 2005 and 15% on 2013. It is well below the minimum wage.

    Only 13.7% of writers can now make a living from this and no other work. And women get 75% less than men who write.

    So how many of us can afford that room of our own in which to write freely without financial worry about how to pay for it? What would Virginia say? It's all very well being inspired by her writing but where does that get us if we don't have the freedom to act upon our ideas?

    (All photos Wikimedia Commons)

    PS: If your views of Virginia Woolf are not TOO respectful, may I recommend my friend Sue Limb's sublimely funny radio 4 series Gloomsbury?

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    It's a very cold winter in Canberra. I ate lemonade fruit tonight and pretended it wasn't cold, but outside right now, it's zero degrees. It's easy to think about ghosts in the dark season and about being haunted.

    Some winters are haunted in a good way. A collection of my short stories was released in June and the new edition of my time travel novel will be out in just two weeks. This means I’m haunted by how my writing has changed over four decades. That’s not what I’m going to talk about here. This is because there’s an even more interesting change that has happened to my writing and it’s one that’s a lot more interesting to people in this corner of the internet: how I use history in my fiction has changed.

    In my heart of hearts I am an historian. I will always be one. 

    When I was a child, I didn’t bring history together with fiction the way I do now. They were two equally important parts of my life, but quite distinct. I built a wall between them in fat, and kept building whenever I noticed one from the vantagepoint of the other. This began to change when I was an undergraduate, because I became an ethnohistorian and historiographer. This means my most important sources for my history werefiction. I used fiction to interpret the period and place a story was written. In fact, for my undergraduate thesis, I used the Old French chanson de geste to get some insight into how people described history in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. My history back then was challenging and theoretical.

    My fiction back then was either straight literary (the story I won a prize for was about how an actor acted) or pure science fictional. Examples of both of these were included in my new collection and they made me wonder “Why wasn’t I writing historical short stories?”

    Sherwood Smith, in her introduction to Mountains of the Mind, gave me the answer. My fiction is generally very tight character-based narrative. And it’s much harder for a cultural historian to stay in the head of someone not from their vicinity. The very nature of my research until a few years ago kept me at arm’s length. I knew that I couldn’t think like someone from twelfth century France, so I didn’t write much fiction using the Middle Ages even though I was not only a medieval historian, but one to whom other writers came for help. My specialisation was a two-edged sword.

    I mocked myself about it. One of my short stories “Horrible Historians” is me laughing at my incapacity to break past the historian’s responsibility to not get too close to their subject.
    Langue[dot]doc 1305was a sea-change for me*. I didn’t just create time travellers going back to my period: I finally sorted out how to get inside someone’s mind without breaking faith with my historian self. I also explored how other writers worked with history, and began to understand so many things about the wall I'd built for myself.

    If I had a wall between my history and my fiction and if I was dismantling that wall, this novel was a volcano. It could erupt at any time and destroy a lot of things I loved. It didn’t. There were moments when I was researching and I had to write it in a particular way to deal with what we know about the past and what we cannot know about the past and the fact that a good novel makes the past real to readers regardless of how much we actually know and how little we can know. But those moments didn’t result in any volcanic action.

    Ever since it first came out, I’ve been waiting for fellow-historians to say “This is all so very wrong” or for fellow fiction writers to say, “Shame you can’t write a good novel.” Neither has happened. Either they like it (and tell me so) or they’re politely quiet. I haven’t had to breathe in fumes of outrage. There may be a volcano, but if there is, it hasn’t even breathed gas.

    This led, as night leads to day, to a change in my research. I wanted to know why we don’t get enough historical novels that have this placid effect on historians. What it is in our culture that helps us (as writers) choose what we put in our fiction? What do we put in our fiction without even thinking about it, by default? That’s what I’m working on now, and it’s illuminating. I’m writing more and more history into my fiction as I learn which choices come from where and what they actually do.

    What this means is that I’m still a cultural historian, still an historiographer and still an ethno-historian. I’m partly a specialist in the Middle Ages and partly a specialist in narrative.
    It turns out that my fiction and history were always linked. I just didn’t know what the links looked like and now they’ve morphed into something quite visible. Now that I can see them, I’m using a lot more history in my fiction. I finally understand what I’m doing, you see.
    What am I doing this month? History in France. It’s time for a research trip so that I can write a new novel that uses history in fiction. I want to push these ideas a bit further.

    *It’ll be out again on 17 July. Let me give you the new cover, to rejoice in its re-release.

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    Missing children make headlines: Madeleine McCann, Ben Needham, Jaycee Lee Dugard, Mary Boyle. They also line our bookshelves: The Girl in the Red Coat; What She Knew; Local Girl, Missing; Then She Was Gone.

    While we often think of the preoccupation with lost children as being a modern phenomenon, it is in fact an age-old fear, one that is reflected in the lost and abandoned children in fairy tales and myths – Persephone, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, The Snow Queen.

    Here I look at some of the infamous cases of missing children throughout history, focussing on cases that remain unsolved or shrouded in mystery.

    1.The Lost Children of Hamelin

    1592 painting of Pied Piper copied from the glass window of Marktkirche in Hamelin

    Many of us remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Few are aware that the legend came from a true story, one that is one recorded on the walls of a 16th century building in Hamelin now called The House of the Piper: ‘In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.’

    The earliest mention of the Pied Piper, in the 1300s, was on a stained-glass window in the Church of Hamelin, which showed a man dressed in colourful clothing leading away a line of children. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which states: ‘It is 100 years since our children left.’

    Although much research has been conducted over the years, there is no agreed explanation as to what happened to the children. Some believe they died of natural causes, were drowned in the nearby river, or were killed in a landslide, with the Pied Piper representing the figure of death. Others say the children may have died of the Black Plague (though the Black Plague didn’t reach Germany until later) or that the story represents mass emigration. Maria J. Pérez Cuervo explores the various theories in her excellent blog piece here.

    What is clear is that there were no rats in the original story. They were first added into the story in a 16th century version, and are absent from earlier accounts.

    2.The Princes in the Tower 

    Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury were 12 and 9 when their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had them locked up in the Tower of London in 1483. This was supposedly in preparation for Edward's forthcoming coronation as king. However, they were taken into the ‘inner apartments of the Tower’ and then were seen less and less frequently. In July 1483 an attempt to rescue them failed. Then they disappeared altogether.

    Richard took the throne himself, becoming Richard III, and many believed he had the princes killed in order to secure his hold on the throne. Certainly that was the complexion Shakespeare put on the story. But there are many other potential murderers including Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, or Henry VII. Some have suggested that the princes survived. In 1487, Lambert Simnel initially claimed to be Richard, Duke of York. From 1491 until his capture in 1497, Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, having supposedly escaped to Flanders.

    In 1674, workmen at the Tower dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. King Charles II had the bones buried in Westminster Abbey, where they remain, untested. In 1789, workmen carrying out repairs in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, rediscovered and accidentally broke into the vault of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville (the parents of the lost princes) discovering a small adjoining vault. This vault was found to contain the coffins of two unidentified children. However, no inspection or examination was carried out and the tomb was resealed. The fate of the princes remains unknown.

    3. Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony

    Virginia Dare was born in 1587, the first English child born in the New World. Her family was part of a group of 120 Englishmen and women who settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now Dare County, North Carolina. A few days after Virginia was born, her grandfather, Governor John White, left for England to obtain more provisions. When he finally returned three years later, Virginia and the entire colony had vanished. Only one clue remained: the word ‘CROATAN’ had been carved on one of the settlement's posts, leading many to believe that the Croatan tribe had kidnapped or killed the settlers.

    Governor White and his men continued to search but never found any trace of Virginia or the other settlers. Roanoke Island became known as the Lost Colony.

    4. The West Ham Vanishings

    During the 1880s and 1890s a series of children and young adults disappeared from the East End of London. The first to vanish was Mary Seward, 14. The second was Eliza Carter, 12, who was reported to have been terrified of a man, or of returning home. The blue dress she had been wearing was recovered from West Ham Park, all of the buttons sliced off, but she was never seen again. The third to disappear was her friend, Clara Sutton. 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. No one, however, was ever convicted, and most of the girls were never found. The story was partly the inspiration for my novel, The Story Keeper. 

    5. The Strange Case of Bobby Dunbar 

    Four year old Bobby Dunbar went missing on a family fishing trip to Swayze Lake, Louisiana, in 1910. After an eight-month nationwide search, investigators believed that they had found the child in Mississippi, in the hands of man called William Cantwell Walters. Dunbar's parents immediately claimed the boy as their missing son. However, both Walters and a woman named Julia Anderson insisted that the boy was in fact Anderson's son. Julia Anderson could not afford a lawyer and had three children out of wedlock, making her an unworthy witness in the eyes of the court, and they eventually found for the Dunbars. Percy and Lessie Dunbar retained custody of the child, who lived out the remainder of his life as Bobby Dunbar.

    However, in 2004, DNA profiling established that the boy found with Walters and ‘returned’ to the Dunbars as Bobby had not been a blood relative of the Dunbar family. The fate of the actual Bobby Dunbar remains unknown.

    6. Walter Collins: ‘The Changeling’

    Nine-year-old Walter Collins was abducted from his home in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, in 1928. His disappearance received nationwide attention and the LAPD came under increasing public pressure to solve the case.

    Five months after the disappearance, a boy claiming to be Walter was found in DeKalb, Illinois and the police organised a public reunion. However, at the reunion, Christine stated that the boy was not her son. Despite the fact that dental records proved the boy was not Walter, the police had Christine Collins committed to a psychiatric hospital for her refusal to say that the child was her son. Only after the boy admitted he was Arthur Hutchins Jr., a runaway from Illinois, did the police release Christine. She went on to win a lawsuit against Captain Jones of LAPD, but he refused to pay up.

    Walter Collins, left
    Arthur Hutchins Jr, right
    Walter was later determined to have been murdered by Gordon Stewart Northcott in what was known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. However, Northcott repeatedly changed his account, and seemed not to know what Walter had been wearing, or the colour of his eyes, leading Christine to believe that her son was still alive. He was never found.

    The story formed the basis of the 2008 film Changeling.

    7. The Sodder Children of 1945

    On Christmas Eve, 1945, a fire destroyed the Sodder home in West Virginia. George Sodder, his wife Jennie, and four of their children escaped. However, the bodies of five other children – Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 5 – were never found. No remains were located in the ashes the morning after the fire.

    Throughout their lives, the Sodders believed that the five children had survived. They disputed the fire department's finding that the blaze was electrical. They believed that they had been the victims of arson, leading to theories that the children had been taken by the Sicilian Mafia, perhaps in retaliation for George's criticism of Mussolini and the Fascist government of his native Italy. There were various alleged sightings of the children, including a woman who claimed to have seen the missing children peering from a passing car while the fire was still raging, and another woman who said she had seen the children a month after the fire ‘accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction’.

    The Sodder family converted the site of the razed house into a memorial garden to their lost children. Until the late 1980s a billboard remained at the site showing pictures of the five dark-eyed children and offering a reward for information. The Sodder’s one surviving daughter, along with their grandchildren, have continued to publicize the case and to search for answers. See Karen Abbott’s fascinating piece in the Smithsonian for more.

    8. The Beaumont Children: Australia’s Lost Family

    At 10am on January 26, 1966, Nancy Beaumont kissed her three children  - Jane, 9, Arnna, 7, and Grant, 4 – before they boarded the bus for a short trip to Glenelg beach near Adelaide. She never saw them again.

    Witnesses confirmed the children had made it to the beach and reported seeing them with a ‘tall, blonde, thin-faced’ man in his mid-30s. The last known sighting of the children was at 3pm, when they were seen by a postman they knew, walking up the main road in the general direction of their home. They were holding hands and smiling. They were alone.

    The search for the children attracted wide media attention, with various suspects, hoaxes, and theories emerging over the years, and still making headlines over 50 years on.

    Neither the children nor any of the items they were carrying have ever been found. For many years, their parents, Jim and Nancy Beaumont, remained at their Somerton Park home, hoping that the children would return. However, they later divorced and are now living separately, away from the public gaze. They still believe that their children may be alive.

    9. Megumi Yokata: Kidnapped by North Korea

    In November 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota went missing while walking home from her school in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast. Twenty years later, her family were told she had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. In 2002, North Korea confirmed that it had operated an abduction program, stealing people from Japan and forcing them to teach Japanese language and culture to Pyongyang agents.

    Five of the kidnapped were released. However, North Korea claimed that another seven abductees had died of illness or in accidents, and that four others had never entered the country. They said that Megumi had committed suicide in 1994, and been cremated.

    However, according to Japanese officials, DNA testing on the cremated remains that were sent to the Yokota family showed that they did not belong to Megumi. Further, her death certificate appears to have been falsified.

    To this day, her family, and those of the other abductees, are fighting for answers.


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. Her second novel, The Story Keeper, will be published on 26 July 2018.

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    They flee from me that sometime did me seek
    With naked foot stalking in my chamber…

    I’ve always loved Thomas Wyatt’s poetry, so I was delighted a couple of years ago to come across Nicola Shulman’s wonderful account of his life and poems, ‘Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy’ (Short Books, 2011).  I meant to review it then, but was distracted by other things. Having just read it for the second time with as much thrilled admiration as before, I feel impelled to tell you all about it. You have to read this book! 

    What makes it so different, besides being a detailed and knowledgeable biography, is Shulman’s fascinating interrogation of Wyatt’s lyrics. It is not a literary investigation, not an analysis of howhe wrote. Rather,

    This is a book about the uses of Wyatt’s love poetry; why he wrote. … At Henry’s [Henry VIII’s] court, Sir Thomas Wyatt and his poems were the hub and centre … and if we run the story of Wyatt’s life and times behind his lyrics, they – these apparently slight, unaddressed, undated, unadorned songs – will show us that they had more uses than we might imagine. Not all of their uses are evident to us now. Some of them would have been hidden even to Wyatt, at the outset. When Wyatt began to write poems he could not have guessed into what strange service they would be pressed by the changing times. To see their changing purpose is the purpose of this book. 

    Wyatt was a courtier, but what was a courtier? Shulman recreates for us the Tudor court of the 1520s and 30s with its formalities, its hierarchies, its dependence on chivalric games and lavish spectacles to ‘fill the new and potentially dangerous longueurs of peacetime’, its love of pastime (‘Pastime and good company/I love and shall until I die’, Henry VIII wrote) and above all, its youth. Aged only 21, Wyatt was one of fifteen esquires who challenged Henry – himself still in his early thirties – at the elaborate Christmas Joust at Greenwich in 1525. After the outdoor martial entertainments, the company would proceed indoors to be entertained with ‘diversions and amusements’ on the fashionable theme of courtly love. Lyric poetry was an integral part of this. 

    The primary social purpose of courtly love lyrics [was] that they and all the activity they generated were a way of dealing with sexual frustrations at court. In emulation of Francis I’s practices, attractive women were more and more visible at Henry’s court, and yet no more sexually available to the many young men in attendance than they had been before. Women were aloof, and men continually supplicated for favours that must not, under the rules of the system, ever come. The lyric operated in the gap between hope and expectation.

    Wyatt’s poems circulated in what amounted to a private Facebook group ‘intended for a closed, incestuous coterie consisting of the most precocious and sophisticated men and women of the court’, and Shulman vividly recreates the context outside of which these poems lose much of their point.

                Help me to seek, for I lost it there,
                   And if that ye have found it, ye that be here,
                   And seek to convey it secretly,
                   Handle it soft and treat it tenderly
                   Or else it will plain [complain] and then appair [be damaged].

    This riddling rondeau about something Wyatt has lost, which of course in the last verse turns out to be his heart, seems yawnworthy enough – but, Shulman asks, what if what’s happening here is an actual, physical game?

    What if ‘mine heart’ is also an actual object, a heart-shaped envelope made of cloth with a balloon, or squeaking thing inside?  Now the poem comes to life. Under that construction, the otherwise mystifying lines ‘Handle it soft and treat it tenderly/Or else it will plain and then appair’, make sudden sense: if you are rough with it, it will pop or squeal, and go flat. 

    Now we can imagine groups of giggling young people dashing about trying to smuggle an inflated heart from one room to another: a lost world in which a poem beginning ‘Comfort thyself, my woeful heart’ and includes lines such as, ‘Alas I find thee faint and weak,’ may conjure a vision of Wyatt making everyone laugh as he holds up a bladdered heart and makes it squeak. As Shulman says, 

    It casts new light on a tiny Holbein drawing where a young couple in elegant dress are shown with a cup and a large heart. 

    It wasn’t all sheer fun. Gossip and jealousy and spite must also have run rife through the court. Courtly love was an elaborate pretence; all the same, some young people probably really were in love – and in danger of losing their reputations.  

    Take heed betime lest ye be spied,
    Your loving eyes you cannot hide,
    At last the truth will sure be tried,
    Therefore take heed!

    For some there be of crafty kind
    Though ye show no part of your mind,
    Surely their eyes ye cannot blind,
    Therefore take heed!

    A poem like this could have been an uncomfortable thing to encounter, passed around and recited, as malicious smiles and sideways glances picked out the blushing subjects. Wyatt’s carefulness to name no names, the apparent anonymity and deliberate ambiguity of his verse, was as much a protection for himself as it was for others. He left it possible for himself always to protest innocence.

                For what I sung or spake
                   Men did my songs mistake.

    There was a fine line to be trodden between amusing people, and making enemies – a line which, once Anne Boleyn was queen, became a matter of life and death.  

    Shulman argues convincingly that Thomas Wyatt had, once, been in love with Anne Boleyn. In a sonnet written long after Anne’s disgrace and death, Wyatt declares himself to be in love again, this time with a blonde woman, someone very different from ‘Brunet that set my wealth [my well-being] in such a roar.’ 

    ‘Brunet’ is Anne Boleyn. There can be very little doubt about this, because Wyatt originally wrote,
    Her that did set our country in a roar.
    Then he thought better of it and amended the line in his own handwriting. In place of the too-explicit reference he put one word, ‘Brunet’ – just enough to invoke Anne, but only to those people at court who knew both that Wyatt was the author of this poem and that he had once pursued Anne Boleyn.

    Unpicking the ambiguities of Wyatt’s verse to reveal the secret life of the court, Shulman shows how the elegant game of courtly love, played by young courtiers to unwritten rules which everyone understood, was ripped into coloured shreds by Thomas Cromwell. Flirting with the queen and her ladies had been de rigeur, la politesse, the correct behaviour for a courtier who wished to shine. (And it was later to be revived by Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, for her own political purposes, once she became queen.)

    Cromwell … knew perfectly well how the courtly bargain worked in the case of a queen: amorous protestations were paid in, and favours paid out in grants, offices and promotions, not sex. 

    Choosing, deliberately, to interpret all those courtly flirtations literally and legalistically, Cromwell brought Anne and her coterie to the block – and Wyatt to the Tower, though he escaped deeper involvement because Cromwell rather liked him, and there were enough other victims. And yet Wyatt wasn’t silenced. Shulman shows again and again how, for those who knew how to read his ever-ambiguous lyrics, Wyatt speaks out – candidly, boldly, sometimes in anguish – about the tragic and dangerous events in which he found himself embroiled. To all fans of Thomas Wyatt, as well as to all lovers of poetry and history, I recommend this brilliant and fascinating book.

    Picture credits

    Courtly couple, Hans Holbein the Younger, Kunstmuseum, Basle, wikimedia commons 
    Sir Thomas Wyatt, Hans Holbein the Younger, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
    Anne Boleyn, artist unknown, National Portrait Gallery London, wikimedia commons
    Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Hans Holbein the Younger, Frick Collection, public domain

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    My whole life, I have known this phrase: 

    "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows!"  

    It was one of those sayings that every family accumulates and uses, sometimes without any idea why.  I had never heard the radio dramas that my parents were quoting from, but then my niece, who is a source of many links to historical back alleys, put me on to an article in USA Today titled "The web's best kept secret?  Free classic radio dramas" and I realised The Shadow could become more than just a catch phrase for me.

    The Shadow started life in Detective Story Magazine* which ran for 1,057 issues between 1915 and 1949.  Then it moved on to the airwaves in 1930 and stayed there until 1954. has a fabulous selection of episodes, complete with atmospheric crackling.  Organ music* punctuates the stories with melodramatic gusto, and the ads ... you really want to hear the ads!  If you weren't sure before listening to these dramas that "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit", by the end you certainly will be.

    Nov. 1930 
    Promotional photograph for the CBS Radio series The Detective Story Hour, the program that introduced The Shadow to radio audiences.  The character was initially played by James La Curto.

    The always understated Orson Welles,
    voice of The Shadow from Sept. 1937 to Oct. 1938

    I am not researching a novel set in the first half of the twentieth century, neither am I planning on writing any crime fiction any time soon.  But I do have some long flights coming up this summer, and will be packing The Shadow downloads in my carry-on.  Bwah-ha-ha-ha ... 

    P.S.  Of course The Shadow was not the only radio drama from the time.  More delights can be found on and Relic Radio.  Enjoy!

    * The opening music is in fact an excerpt from Saint-Saens'Le Rouet d'Omphale.

    ** Some Detective Story Magazine trivia - Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle both contributed to the magazine, and the philosopher Wittgenstein was part of the readership.

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

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    I’m at the Scattered Authors retreat this week, in lovely Charney Manor in Oxfordshire, a History Girl’s paradise. On Monday night I took part in a very enjoyable bookish version of Desert Island Discs, where castaways had to choose three books – a ‘classic’, a contemporary book and a ‘wild card’. It struck me, when it came time to think about my monthly post, that my choices all said a great deal about my love of history, though when I chose the books it was with no conscious awareness of that. So here they are for you, with some historical musings, and with thanks to Mary Hoffman (fellow panellist)  for the idea!

    1. Classic Children’s Book – Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild, 1936.

    I love Ballet Shoesfor its mix of grit and romance, for its three very different heroines, for the nuanced adult characters and the 1930s London setting. I first read it as a child in the 1970s, and knew immediately, when I read about the Fossils’ having to ‘save the penny and walk’, that I was in ‘the olden days’. At that age I wouldn’t have known exactly when in the olden days, because I don’t think I would have had the nous to check the date of first publication, but it didn’t matter. It was a world of nursery teas, omnibuses and genteel poverty. A world where your frock needed to match your knickers. Later I knew that this was the 1930s, and understood how shortly that inter-war period was to come to an end.

    Ballet Shoes, of course, is not a historical novel – Noel Streatfeild was writing about her contemporary world, which was forty years in the past when I first read it, and eighty years ago now. My second choice was very different:

    2.    Contemporary Book – A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson, 2014

    This is one of the best novels I have ever read, and is broadly historical – broad in that sense that its story encompasses about a century. It is, I suppose, a kind of family saga, except that suggests something much more conventional. A God in Ruins is structurally unconventional, moving backwards and forwards in time, and there is a conceit at its heart which I would not dream of spoiling for you which asks questions about the very nature of history and existence. Once again, as always, I loved the small material details, but unlike Noel Streatfeild, Kate Atkinson is looking back, particularly to the years around the Second World War.

    Which leads neatly to my third choice:

    3. Wild Card – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr, 197X

    This is a very different kind of novel. It is historical – Judith Kerr was writing in the seventies about the thirties, but it is also based firmly on her own personal history.  As in Ballet Shoes, we are in difficult circumstances, but here too the children are largely protected by heroic adults, in this case their parents. Once again, material things matter and help to bring the world to life – Anna having the right kind of pinafore for her French school, buying a pencil, travelling to Switzerland by train.

    I thought I had chosen these books randomly. And, yes, on a different day I might have chosen three others. Only now do I see the links between them: they all write about a similar period, in very different ways. Between them I think they contain everything I love as a reader of fiction set in the past, and everything I strive for as a writer of historical fiction.

    So – what would your Desert Island books be, and what might they say about you as a History Girl?

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    It's been three days since the 4th of July and it's only a few weeks till POTUS arrives in the UK, so I felt it was appropriate to put a USA - themed post up today. First things first and I'm writing it in BOLD type because it's the main thing I want to say: I love America. I've loved America since I was a very small child, going with my aunt to the main post office in Jerusalem to pick up parcels her sisters had sent from New York. These were full of treasures and ever since, I've thought of America as a cross between a cornucopia and a paradise. This love continued as I grew up, fuelled by Hollywood, which was a dominant influence on me in my childhood and which furnished my imagination in ways I can't even begin to describe. I love the landscapes and cityscapes (as shown in thousands of movies) I love the music, particularly Country and Western, and rock 'n roll but more than anything else,  musicals, which have been  the soundtrack of my life.   I became enchanted with the literature, from my first reading of Little Women. It was my favourite book in 1952 and it still is in many ways. Since then, there have been passions for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and more modern US writers than you can shake a stick at: Anne Tyler,  Philip Roth, Elizabeth Strout, Nora Ephron....the shining names go on and on.  The USA is also a vibrant democracy,  and has an admirable press.  I won't even begin to write about the Golden Age of the Box Set. American television is now the home of some of the very best drama ever.  Readers will no doubt be able to add much else. 

    So it was quite appropriate that on a recent visit to Bath, the first place I wanted to see was the American Museum. This is the only museum outside the USA to be dedicated to the decorative arts. It overlooks the Limply Stoke Valley and above you can see the terrace of the café which shows the magnificent view.

    Helen Craig and I were very lucky on the day we visited because, (see above) the oldest known patchwork quilt made in England was still on display. It's going to be put away soon to preserve it, and won't be seen again till 2028 so I was thrilled to see it. My photo is most inadequate but you can read about it  and see a better image if you follow the link on the website. 

    My main reason for wanting to visit the Museum, I have to confess, is my passion for patchwork. My book, Apricots at Midnight: stories from the quilt  (1977) was about a woman who had a patchwork coverlet on her spare bed and told stories inspired by different patches that she'd used to make it. I'm fascinated by this art: domestic, practical and capable of such beauty and of being so different when different people make it. Patchwork is often [sewn communally, with a group of women sitting together, and that's one of the reasons I like it so much. 

    One of the things that struck me as we looked at the many quilts   (brilliantly displayed) 

     was the enormous variety of patterns, materials, and imaginations of the people who made them.  In the quilt shown above the photo of the room, the pattern is very reminiscent of Matisse's paper cut-outs. There were Matisse - like patterns in quite a few of the quilts.

    Above is a detail from a quilt made from silk ties.  There are quilts from the Thirties, instantly identifiable as being of their time. Kaffe Fassett has a quilt here,  made up of images of hatboxes, in vibrant, light colours. 

    The effect of the whole collection is overwhelming and I do recommend a visit if patchwork is your thing. 

    There is much more here than the patchworks, however. Furniture, Native American Art, silver, crockery and cutlery, rooms set up as they would have been during certain historical periods, and many, many beautiful works of naive art. Below is a portrait of a nineteenth century girl called Emma Thompson, and it's one of the few portraits signed by the gorgeously-named Sturtevant J. Hamblen. The Hamblens were sign painters.  I love this portrait. 

     There is one room set up as if in a Shaker house, complete with chairs hanging up on the walls to save space. My favourite objects were the ones shown below: a sewing box, and a truly lovely bonnet. The Shaker style has been influential on modern furnishings and I find it most beautiful: simple and elegant and using natural materials. 

    So that's the American Museum....a terrific place to go to if you're in Bath. It has, appropriately enough, (see upcoming Presidential visit)  not forgotten MONSTERS and FOOLS. Below are two photos. The top one depicts many different monsters, and is full of wonders. Below that is the World, depicted as a Fool's Head.  Some of the Latin words on the Map have been translated and read:  

    The number of fools is infinite.  That's about right, but I'm more interested in beauty and the best of humanity and there's still plenty of that both in the USA and in this Museum. 

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    Review of 'BLACK DOG FOLKLORE' by Mark Norman

    I have long been captivated by the legends and folklore surrounding the spectral creature, the ‘black dog’, ever since some years ago in Nigeria when I was saved from being hacked to death with machetes by the appearance of a large black dog who protected me. I think that dog was real, at least he felt wonderfully warm and solid, though his sudden appearance at that terrifying moment certainly seemed miraculous.

    But my fascination with the black dog legends goes back even before that when, as a small child, I huddled under the bedclothes, listening to the 'Hound of the Baskervilles' on a tiny radio, when I was supposed to be asleep. Since my new medieval thriller, 'A Gathering of Ghosts', is set on Dartmoor, how could I write about that wild landscape without mentioning the huge black whisht hounds with glowing eyes that hunt the moors, terrorising anyone foolish enough to find themselves on the lonely tracks after dark.

    'Illustration from 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'
    in The Strand Magazine, August 1901
    So, in the light of this, I was delighted recently to discover a brilliant book called ‘BLACK DOG FOLKLORE’ by Mark Norman, who is leading folklore expert and researcher. This book is not merely a collection of legends. It is a scholarly, but immensely readable investigation into the origins of these tales though out history, how they are linked and how they have evolved to influence the way modern sightings are reported. The book also explores the symbolism of the black dog from ancient times and across many cultures.

    Mark Norman has divided his book up into the different types of Black Dog in legend, delving into the possible explanations behind the particular black dog encounters. This includes the ghosts of black dogs which curiously in England often seem to be associated with the Civil War; dogs which are significant to certain families, appearing in the coats of arms or which have haunted the family through different generations; the protective black dogs which appear at times of danger to help lone humans; the terrifying shucks, padfoots and barguests with glowing eyes, which in legend are sometimes shape-shifting creatures. The author suggests the name shuck probably stems from the Anglo-Saxon Sceocca meaning ‘devil.’
    'The Fiendish Black Dog
    Artist: Vasilios Markousis, 2015

    Then there are the legends of dogs that guard treasure or haunt certain roads or bridges. In many cultures around the world a dog appears as a guardian of the underworld, an ancient mythology which finds its way into tales such as Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale 'The Tinder Box', where the treasure rooms beneath a tree are guarded by three dogs, the first with eyes as big as teacups, the next with eyes as big as waterwheels and the third as big as round towers.

    One of the earliest records of the spectral dogs in England comes from a late version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle written after the Norman Conquest in 1154, which describes a sighting of what seems to be the ‘wild hunt’ in which the witnesses reported seeing huge huntsmen riding black horses or black he-goats accompanied by hounds that were ‘black, big-eyed and loathsome.’ By the twentieth century, people are reporting seeing these spectral dogs with ‘eyes as big as saucers’ or ‘dinner plates’.
    Artist: Spettro84, 2008

    One of the most compelling chapters is the one about ‘Church Grims’ and death. The author points out that in many cultures dogs are linked with death omens, not least because they seem to have an uncanny ability to sense when a loved member of the family is dying and will start to howl. In Islam, for example, they are said to be able to see Azrael, the Angel of Death, approaching.
    1577, An account of the Black Dog
    that appeared in Bungay, Suffolk

    This book covers much more than simply the legends of black dogs. The author examines many aspects of folk customs involving dogs, including the practise of burying dogs in the foundations of buildings to protect them, which is found as far back as the 13th century BCE in Greece, and the custom of burying a dog in a newly opened graveyard. I have found reports of this continuing right up until the 19th century in England, the explanation being given  by then was that the spirit of the first creature buried there would be compelled to protect the graveyard, so not wanting to condemn any person in the village to that fate, a dog was put in the ground first.

    The author of this book also debunks several black dog myths. When I first moved to Devon, I longed to live the village called Black Dog, wrongly assuming that was haunted by one of these supernatural hounds, but it appears that place names should be treated with caution, because though there are legends of the black dog in the surrounding area, old maps record the village as Black Boy. Nothing to do with the hound.

    Like many people, I was familiar with the legend of the foul monstrous dog that was supposed to haunt the Newgate prison, but it seems there were never any actual sightings of this dog and the whole fiction was based on a pamphlet of 1638 with that title which was actually denouncing the prison conditions. A poem, written in 1596, by Luke Hutton, who had been a prisoner in the infamous prison used the phrase as a symbol for the despair felt by the prisoners. Interesting then that Winston Churchill should adopt the term ‘black dog’ to refer to his own bouts of dark depression.
    From the pamphlet 'The Discovery of a London Monster
    Called the black dog of Newgate. 1638

    Finally, if you want to discover if there has ever been a record of a ghostly black dog where you are staying, the book ends with a comprehensive listing of the black dog sightings in Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands. It’s always worth checking before you go for that romantic midnight stroll!

    'Black Dog Folklore' by Mark Norman is published by Troy Books, 2016.

    Karen Maitland's new medieval thriller, ‘A Gathering of Ghosts’ is published by Headline, September 2018.

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  • 07/08/18--16:35: Mysteries of the Roman Dead
  • by Caroline Lawrence

    I have been obsessed with the ancient Graeco-Roman world for over forty years. I studied Greek and Latin at Berkeley and later at Cambridge. I have been writing books set in the Classical world for nearly twenty years. But the more I learn about the ancients, the less I feel I understand them. 

    An exhibition called Roman Dead currently on at the Museum of London Docklands presents ancient skeletons of the buried and ashes of the cremated. There are tombstones, urns and personal objects buried with the dead. It may sound gruesome, but it’s utterly fascinating. The contents of graves from Roman London show us how much we still have to learn about the ancient Romans.

    Here are just five of many displays that intrigue me. 

    1. Why such a big sarcophagus? 

    This is the star piece of the show. Found a year ago (in June 2017) at a site on Harper Road in Southwark, this massive box is made of limestone imported from Lincolnshire and weighs two and a half tons. Why put a body inside such a heavy stone box? To stop her spirit from haunting the living? To keep robbers from taking her jewellery? Or to stop grave robbers from doing something even worse? As dozens of surviving curse tablets show, many Romans believed in magic. In a recent blog post, Roman magic expert Adam Parker notes that witches used parts of dead bodies for their spells. So maybe this was a way of keeping the witches or sorcerers out of her grave, i.e. of protecting the dead from the living rather than vice versa.   Is that what’s going on here? Is this massive sarcophagus designed to protect the body from misuse or robbery? If so, it didn’t work. The top had been pushed aside and part of her arm is missing. Creepily, the partial skeleton of a baby was found with her skeleton. Was it originally buried with the woman? Or did it fall into the sarcophagus when it was robbed? 

    2. Why is her skull on her pelvis?

    From a grave at Hooper Street near Tower Hamlets, we have the complete skeleton of a woman aged between 36-45. She was buried in a wooden coffin on a bed of chalk powder. Some time after she was buried, when she had started to decompose, someone dug her up again, removed the top of her skull and it placed above her pelvis. Then the coffin was reburied and rocks were piled on top. Among the rocks was a copper-alloy key. Was the key part of the reburial? Or accidentally dropped? Why was she buried on a bed of chalk? But most importantly, why was the top part of her skull placed over her pelvis?! Maybe the newly positioned skull, rocks and key (along with a ceremony we can’t guess at) were designed to stop the woman’s spirit from haunting those still above earth. Romans thought the womb was the seat of uncanny power

    3. Why is the lucky amulet under a jug?

    Also found at the Hooper Street excavations was a young woman in a coffin with jet jewellery. Whitby Jet is not a precious stone but rather ancient fossilised wood from the Jurassic era. When you rub it against wool it produces a static charge that can move hair and other small particles without touching theme. Romans didn’t know about static and believed jet to be a magical substance that could keep away evil. Romans also believed that you could do harm to someone just by looking at them a certain way, hence amulets with staring faces like that of Medusa to ‘reflect back the evil eye’. So a jet medallion of Medusa’s face will be doubly protective. So far so good. But why was this jet medallion hidden under a small ceramic flagon? What is going on here? In addition, her other items of jet jewellery were not on her but near her. Is this magic? 

    4. Why a lion? 

    In 1876, Victorian workmen found the remains of a semi-circular tower in the Roman Wall at Bishopsgate, near where the Gherkin stands today. These bastions were built in the 4th century using material from earlier Roman structures. Among the rubble used to build the tower was a stone lion devouring a stag. The stone is imported limestone from the South Cotswolds (London has no local stone) and was carved in the round, so perhaps stood atop a mausoleum. Why a lion? The museum label says the lion stands for the power of death, but I’m not buying it. Why pay a fortune for an expensive carved sculpture made of imported stone just to state the obvious? Could the lion be a warning to people or spirits who might want to do harm to the grave? If the lion is on MY grave, then it’s MY lion. That would be worth paying for. This lion devouring his prey reminds me of the ivory leopard handle of another Roman girl’s folding knife. This is MY knife and therefore MY leopard. Watch out!  

    5. Why a pinecone?

    From Great Dover Street, Southwark comes a pinecone made of imported French limestone (shown in the picture above along with the lion). Similar pieces have been found on military sites from the North of England. Ever since I first noticed pinecones for sale in Sicily, I have wondered what they signified in the Graeco-Roman world. Actual pine cones and kernels were found on the site of London’s Mithraeum and also at Londinium’s amphitheatre, as well as at a cremation burial. It is thought that pinecones were burned as incense, perhaps to attract good deities and/or repel evil spirits. At the Roman Dead exhibition, the label suggests they were associated with the god Attis, who represented rebirth and resurrection. Was the pinecone the pagan equivalent of the Christian cross? 

    All these mysterious objects remind us that although the Romans were like us in many ways, in others they were very different.

    Roman Dead is on until the end of October 2018. I strongly urge you to see it.  

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    People often ask me how the diminishing population of native Venetians feels about the tourist hordes that dominate her more obvious streets. (Real Venetians go ‘through the linings’, as their saying goes, knowing routes the crowds never find).

    Salvatore Settis has written of the danger of Venice becoming a ‘servile monoculture’ of tourism. ‘Servile’ is an insult no Venetian would easily accept. So when I see irascible or emotional signs put up by Venetians, I take them as a proof of life. They demonstrate that Venetians have not given up on their city, care about one another and will vigorously defend her against the ‘maleducati’ – the vulgar masses, who dump their rubbish on Venetian doorsteps or use her quiet corners as urinals and worse. Years ago, I translated a set of Venetian proverbs that had never before been rendered in English. One that applies here seems to be: Dio ha mandà l’om per castigar l’om. God created man to shame man. And Venetians create signs to shame those who shame their city with unsanitary and inconsiderate behaviour. They also create signs about things close to their hearts.

    Those of delicate dispositions are advised to leave off reading here, as I’m afraid there is scatology to come. Honest, angry scatology, that there’s no prettying up.

     This Venetian sign is probably my favourite, because of the language. It translates as ‘This place is the depository for rubbish and other materials – only for the vulgar, the uncivil, the ignorant, the cuckolds, the yokels, the bumpkins, the dirty, the ugly, those who stink, whose relatives are dead dogs.’ One of the things I loved about this one is that it shows Venice’s quintessential maritime-metropolitan disdain for those who come from terrafirma. Or, as the proverbs say,

    Sete ciape tre cui e mezo.
    Seven buttocks, three arseholes and a half: Venetian description of a typical land-dweller.

    This one at right, with its porcupinery of exclamation marks, recently appeared in my own little campo. It says, ‘From the telecameras I have seen who you are!!! Don’t come to this door or this corner to defecate or urinate!! Videos of you are in police hands!!! Every urination and defecation will be recorded!!!!!

    Which recalls this old Venetian proverb …
    L'ànema a Dio, el corpo a la tera,
    e 'l bus del cul al diavolo per tabachiera

    The soul goes to God, the body to the Earth
    and the arsehole to the devil, for his snuffbox.

    Or this one:
    El tempo, el culo e i siori
    i fa quel i vol lori

    Time, arses, and lords
    do whatever they want

     In a ‘lively’ way, the one below invites ‘I Signori Passanti’– the Gentle Misters Passers-By – not to leave their rubbish here. In fact, it also asks other residents to desist from the practice. This place, it concludes, is not a rubbish bin (with a drawing of the same).

    As the proverb goes,
     El mondo no te dise vaca,
    co no ghe xe qualche taca

    The world doesn't point a finger at you,
    if you haven't done something wrong.

    At right, ‘Mr Citizen out on a walk’ is asked not to let his dog perform its ‘little needs’ in the entrance of the restaurant. Thanks to Rosato Frassanito for this sign.

    The one below is sadder. A lost dog is always sad. When he is 15 years old, and obviously very much loved, it is even sadder. His owner thanks ‘from his heart’ and offers a reward of 200 euros to anyone who can help him find Zizzul, a medium-sized German shepherd type.

    This sweet-faced dog was last seen on March 3 near the Stazione Marittima. I so hope he’s found.
    In honour of Zizzul:

    Loda el mar e tiente a la tera,
    loda el monte e tiente al pian,
    loda el gato, e tiente al can.

    Praise the sea but stay on the land,
    Praise the mountains but stay in the valley,
    Praise the cat but stroke the dog.

    This last one clearly contained an imprecation against dog owners that so angry-making as to make one canine-proprietor to clutch a handful of the paper and rake it off the wall.

    As the proverb goes,
    La lingua no ga osso ma la rompe i ossi.
    The tongue doesn't have bones, but it breaks bones.

    Michelle Lovric's website

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  • 07/11/18--04:36: Annora of Iffley

  • The Grade I listed Church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, near Oxford, is one of the jewels of Oxfordshire. It is a magnificent example of Norman architecture and style, largely unaltered by later generations and is well worth a visit.

     Most people go to Iffley church to see the magnificent carvings around the south and west doorways. The double beakhead carvings over the west door are supposedly unique.

    But the carvers' imagination really went wild in the south doorway, with centaurs, kings, mermen, green men and all sorts of wonderful things.

    St Mary the Virgin is possibly the last Romanesque church to be built in England and was finished around 1160.

    The church was built by the Norman St Remy family, with help from the de Clintons of Kenilwoth Castle. The building is remarkably untouched, although the east end was extended in around 1230.

    This is when a cell was constructed on the south-side for the anchoress, Annora., who lived for nine years enclosed in a cell beside the church. She died in the cell and is probably buried there.

    What is an anchoress?

    An anchoress (male, anchorite) is a recluse – someone who lives apart from other people. She is someone who withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead a life of intense prayer. Unlike hermits, anchorites and anchoresses they were required to take a vow to remain permanently enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church.

    A woman who wanted to be an anchoress applied to the bishop, who had to assure himself that the applicant had sufficient financial means to support herself, and that she was suited for the commitment required.

    The anchoress then underwent to a religious rite of consecration that closely resembled the funeral rite, because after this she would be considered dead to the world, a sort of living saint. She had a certain autonomy, though, as she did not answer to any ecclesiastical authority other than the bishop.

    Anchorite cells might be of wood or stone, and most were physically attached to a church. Within the simple cell would be an altar for prayer, and, often, a stone grave slab in the floor to remind the anchorite of their mortal nature. The anchorite would never leave the cell and was expected to live a life devoted to contemplation and prayer, but she might read books of a spiritual nature, and have access to writing material.

    It was a great honour for a village to have an anchorite or anchoress at their village church, and as there was no vow of silence, villagers would drop by to chat or seek her advice. She had a window open to the world on one side (with a curtain to allow her privacy), and a window opening into the church on the other, to enable her to see the high altar and view the church services. She also had a servant, who lived in a small ch

    amber attached to the cell. One of the requirements was that an anchoress be wealthy enough for a servant, who would prepare meals, fetch water, gather firewood, remove waste and such things for the woman who could never leave her cell.

    In the twelfth to the thirteenth century there were 92 anchoresses in England (and only 20 anchorites). Iffley had one of these.

    Annora, the anchoress of Iffley

    Annora, Anchoress of Iffley was born in 1179, one of the surviving six children who survived out of sixteen born to William de Braose, a powerful baron with large estates n the borders between England and Wales. Her mother, Mathilda, was a fiery tempered Norman lady who brought with her to the marriage lands in Gloucestershire, near Tetbury.

    One of Annora's brothers, Giles, became Bishop of Hereford, and her sister, Loretta, became Countess of Leicester.

    Annora married Roger Mortimer, another powerful Norman baron. She brought as her marriage portion the lands near Tetbury that had belonged to her mother. They had no children.

    Her story is a sad one. Although her father, William de Braose, had been a strong supporter of King John early in the reign, in 1207 he quarrelled with the king and was outlawed. When william fled to France John was so enraged that he behaved viciously to the whole de Braose family. Mathilda and her eldest son were put in Windsor Castle and left to starve to death. Loretta’s lands were seized, and she and Giles fled to France. Annora herself was imprisoned in Bristol Castle with four of her young nephews and was only freed in 1214.

    We know little of her life after her release, but her husband died in 1227.

    Her sister, Loretta, became an anchoress in a cell near Canterbury. It seems that Annora decided to follow her lead, and applied to become an anchoress at Iffley in 1232. Perhaps she sought a life of untroubled contemplation after her turbulent earlier life.

    Annora was allowed to retain her marriage portion, which amounted to l00s a year. Other gifts would have come, including from the people of Iffley. Court records show that Henry III himself gave instructions almost every year that oaks from the forest Shotover should be sent to “Annora the recluse of Iftele” for firewood “as a gift from the King”. One occasion he also sent a sack of grain, on another a robe, and on another timbers for building.

    Annora seems to have taken to the role of anchoress well, and it is thought that her money may have paid for the new chancel, extending the church eastward from its original format. Her cell would have been built out of timber or stone, more like a small house really. But on the floor of her cell there will have been a stone coffin lid to remind her of her death. This is the coffin:

    There is the ghost of an arch against the church wall, which is believed to be a blocked-up window marking the site of Annora’s cell. The window would have given her a view of the altar, making it possible for her to participate in the services held in the church without leaving her cell.

    It seems that Annora's life as an anchoress lasted nine years, because around 1241 records of gifts from Henry ceased, and nothing more is heard of her. Annora probably died and probably was laid to rest beneath the grave slab that was set in the floor of her cell. It is highly likely that the 13th-century grave set between the chancel wall and the old yew tree in the churchyard is Annora's grave.
    As Ruth Nineham says in her booklet: "Annora may have become an anchoress partly because, as a widow, she needed a safe haven in a turbulent world; but such a way of life could only have been chosen by someone who was highly motivated towards contemplation. Day after day she will have gazed on the altar in her cell and meditated on the psalms, on the lives of the saints and particularly the Virgin Mary — arid said monastic offices. The inner world will have been her reality."
    Thanks to:

    Ross, David. "Iffley Church". Britain Express.
    Ruth Nineham
    Living Stones, Iffley

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    On Tuesday, I took my children to St James' Park to see the RAF's 100 anniversary fly-past. It was extraordinary. History flew above our heads - Spitfires and Hurricanes. Early jet planes. The deep roar of the modern fighters. And the Red Arrows, of course, streaming their colours against the blue sky.

    Children and adult alike were entranced. The power of it! The glory of it! What must it feel like, I wondered, to fly such a machine?

    I will never know. But I can come close, through the transporting magic of fiction. More specifically, in the wonderful, underrated, utterly brilliant books of Derek Robinson. Robinson has written a series of books about the air force, with settings ranging from World War 1 to the Cold War.

    When I got home, I turned to A Piece of Cake, his 1983 novel about a squadron of Hurricanes in the Second World War. Here, early on, is a description of a Hurricane taking off:

    "As soon as he released the brakes and let it roll for take-off, Mother Cox began to sense the wash of air over and under the wings, the hint of lift in the tailplane, the hurrying stutter of the wheels, and then that vast invisible rush that rewarded the whole machine with the gift of flight."

    Derek Robinson came close to winning the Booker prize in 1971 with his debut novel, Goshawk Squadron. The prize that year went to VS Naipaul, but Saul Bellow was one of the judges and fought for Goshawk to win. It is a superb book, about a squadron in the Royal Flying Corps. Stanley Woolley, the Squadron Leader, is the anti-Biggles. Cold, cynical and violent, Woolley unravels before our eyes. The humour is sharp and bleak; the death toll in the Squadron is high and miserable. Robinson has a trick of sketching a character closely, making him human and recognisable, and then killing him off with a laconic flick.

    Robinson has been compared to Joseph Heller, but I think he is better. All Heller's bleak anti-war comedy comes from authorial trickery. Robinson's humour is darker and more truthful, coming as it does from the dialogue between young men who are brutal and brutalised by the horrors of war.

    Woolley batters his men into forgetting notions of chivalry. He teaches them to shoot the Germans in the back. "The amateurs played at fighting, they kept their scores and rejoiced in their adventures and they were brave, good-humoured warriors. But Woolley took it seriously. He had asked the ultimate question - what's it for? - and got the obvious, only answer. You flew to destroy the enemy. You did not fly to fight, but to kill. It was neither fun, nor adventure, nor sport. It was business."

    There is a poetry, too, in his sharp prose: these casual, unsentimental young men recognise that lonely impulse of delight experienced by Yeats' Irish airman. They would take the piss out of him, though, for expressing it. "It was part of Fighter Command's undergraduate quality: an implacably bright, slangy, superficial attitude, the kind of outlook that took nothing seriously except the supreme importance of being in Fighter Command, and that went without saying."

    In a Piece of Cake, Fanny Barton thinks he has shot his first German bomber: ".. the bombers slid into view, ahead and above, perfectly silhouetted.; three Junkers 88s. They appeared so beautifully, so cleanly, that his lungs expanded for sheer joy. "Attack, Attack!" he called. He hauled back on the stick and tasted jubilation as the leader swam steadily bigger and blacker in his sights. Every muscle was tensed to hold the hurricane steady when he pressed the button, but even so the blaze of fire that raced from his wings made him flinch. His eight guns shaped a long cone of golden destruction."

    Robinson served in the RAF as ground-crew. Every one of his books resonates with that clear, deep authenticity that we all, as writers of historical fiction, hope to achieve. Yes, you say to yourself as you put down Robinson novel - exhausted, and sad and a little fretful. Yes, that is how it was.

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    by Deborah Swift

    In the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct at the Old Vic, and the scandal around various Hollywood directors, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the 17th century and how female actors at the onset of the profession were regarded, and look at how the seeds of this type of culture originated.

    Up until the 17th Century, women had no reflections of themselves in entertainment; they were played by boys. Being an actress was a way of both gaining and losing power – because a woman was able to behave on stage in a powerful way, (eg Kate in  The Taming of the Shrew) but also women were still seen as commodities; an attraction or novelty to please those that mattered (ie men).

    In the 17th century, status was always conferred on a woman by the man. Thus Pepys refers to his wife Elisabeth always as ‘my wife’. Although this seems in our ears to diminish her, in fact this is not an insult; it was designed to confer on her a status not accorded to his servants who were referred to as Dolly, or Deb, or Jane. The theatre was the one place where this did not hold sway – female actors were always called ‘Mrs’ as a mark of respect. 

    Nell Gwyn
    Beauty was a woman’s currency in the early theatre, and in life in general. A frank and unflattering assessment of women’s looks was commonplace, their ‘assets’ as if it was a calculation – a checklist of features: how straight the nose, how even the teeth, how pale the complexion. In the theatre a good pair of legs was essential as in many roles the women played boys to show their legs. For a woman to reveal her legs, usually hidden beneath skirts, was considered extremely daring, and this is why so many 'cross-dressng' roles were written in this period. These were called ‘breeches’ roles. Voyeuristic? Certainly, but it was a way for a woman to counter invisibility, and to have a public voice. And a degree of freedom must have been felt by these women as they played assertive men’s roles – the reverse of what had been the status quo before. 
    Elizabeth Barry
    The idea of sleeping your way to the top in the entertainment industry was commonplace in the 17th Century Theatre. An example is Mrs Barry, who was ‘procured’ by the rake Rochester at 15 years of age and then moulded (like Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady) to be an actress. At the onset of acting as a career for women, beauty was a necessity, it was supposed (by men) that acting skills could be taught. Rochester’s letters give confessions of the progress of their affair. Ironically, Mrs Barry was then most famous for her tragic parts depicting an innocent maiden. 
    John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
    The Casting Couch

     A popular idea in the early theatre was that of the “couch scene”. This was a scene where an attractive woman was placed centre stage on a bed or couch, with the scene calling for her to be asleep and therefore in a state of undress.

    Why would any woman want to go along with this idea? Well, in this period the theatre & entertainment was one way for women to transcend social boundaries. In researches into Pepys’ diaries we can witness Nell Gwyn, who sleeps her way to the top from bawd’s daughter to mistress of a King. Was this a bad thing? Evidence shows Mrs Gwyn certainly had a mind of her own and of course now she has achieved some sort of national status. In Pepys' Diary, the actress Mary Knep is invited to musical soirees with Pepys and his civil servant friends. Being in the theatre conferred a ‘celebrity’ status not available to other women. 
    Pepys Diary
    A woman’s fortunes in the 17th century could change dramatically. In Pepys’s Diary, Abigail Williams, known as ‘Madam’ Williams, began life as the daughter of a baronet, was married off for her lands at age 12 (and had a daughter at that age). After her husband died, she returned to England from Holland and became an actress. There is some suggestion she was a spy (like Aphra Behn), but she re-emerged in high society as the mistress of Lord Brouncker, a well-respected mathematician and founder and president of the Royal Society. Her fortunes rose and fell, and rose again. It is tempting to think beauty alone did this – but it takes a skilled mind to manipulate and use what used to be called ‘assets’ to best advantage.

    The theatre, even then, was a reflection of society. Scenes on stage echoed or parodied scenes at Court. And Charles II was a rake of a King. Only recently has the convention of the fourth wall arisen. At the beginning of women’s life in the theatre, there was constant badinage across the divide between stage and audience. There was an emphasis on wit and banter on both sides of the stage. Pepys went to the theatre to be seen. 

    In Pepys' Diary there’s a notable argument at the theatre between Pepys and his wife. Pepys insists the maid sit beside him, and Mrs Pepys, scandalised by this flouting of the proprieties, refuses. Maidservants were supposed to sit behind their mistresses. The women in the plays by Sheridan, Etheredge and Wycherly (for example, Lady Gimcrack and Mrs Figgup) were imitations of the rich women attending the play. Actresses of the time trod the line of impersonating women who were almost always of a higher class to themselves, but in doing so, acquired the gloss of the characters they portrayed.
    Through my trilogy of novels based around Pepys' Diary, I'm investigating the women Pepys knows, and re-imagining their lives. My first novel Pleasing Mr Pepys features actress ‘Madam Williams’ alongside Mrs Pepys and her maid Deb Willet. The second, A Plague on Mr Pepys features Pepys most long-cherished mistress, Bess Bagwell, and Entertaining Mr Pepys (in progress) is about his friend, Mary Knep the actress.

    More on Hollywood and the Casting Couch 
    Images from wikipedia.
    The Play of Personality in the Restoration Theatre - Masters
    Nell Gwyn - Beauclerk
    Every One A Witness : The Stuart Age - Scott
    Pepys' Diary

    Find Deborah at or on Twitter @swiftstory

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    Assorted strange creatures by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
    In the 19th century, a time of particular upheaval and uncertainty in Japan, people would spend a summer evening sitting around telling ghost stories, lit by candles and lanterns (a hundred was the canonical number). At the end of each story they’d extinguish one until at the end of the last (and most frightening) story the last candle would go out, plunging the room into utter darkness - at which moment everyone would hold their breath, hoping a real ghost might materialise.

    This year, as you will all know, there have been terrible and unprecedented floods in the south west. But usually the dog days of summer are even hotter and more stifling in Japan than we have had this year in Britain. In the old days Japanese would take all the sliding wooden and paper doors out of their houses so that the house became a breezy pavilion. Those that live in traditional houses still do. People made a point of eating oily foods like grilled aubergine and grilled eel and drinking iced barley tea. Essential accessories included a fan and a parasol. Another essential was ghost stories to send shivers down your spine. To this day the kabuki theatre always shows ghost stories.

    Maruyama Okyo paints a ghost by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a great master of the bizarre, made a woodblock print depicting a famous Kyoto artist called Maruyama Okyo. It was said that Okyo’s paintings were so true to life that bees tried to pollinate the flowers he painted. He once made the mistake of painting a ghost. To his horror it came to life, looming up from the block. 

    Japanese ghosts are the spirits of people whose lives have been cut short while they still have unfinished business - people who’ve died violently, haven’t received proper funerary rites, or died while consumed by a desire for vengeance. Such spirits can’t pass on peacefully to join their ancestors in the afterlife. According to Buddhist teaching, the journey from the world of the living to the world of the dead takes 49 days, and while they are in this limbo they can revisit the land of the living to sort out unfinished issues. A lot of these are the ghosts of women who have been spurned or killed by their lovers or husbands. They are yurei, which means something like 'faint or dim spirit'. 

    Lantern Ghost by Hokusai
    At the kabuki theatre I once saw the great male performer of female roles, Tamasaburo Bando, playing the ghost of a woman who had been killed by her husband. Her skin was white, her eyes sunken and ghastly. She was wearing a long white gown and floating high up the wall and her floor length hair was dishevelled and tangled in great knots. Wailing, she started tearing it out by the handful as clumps piled up in a heap on the floor. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen.

    Katsushika Hokusai, the great woodblock print artist, loved depicting Japanese ghosts. The most famous and frightening ghost story of all is Yotsuya Kaidan, the story of the beautiful innocent Oiwa, who is poisoned and horribly disfigured by a rival who wants to marry Oiwa’s lover, Iemon. Oiwa ends up killing herself and the lover goes off with the rival. But Oiwa returns to haunt her faithless lover, emerging from a lantern hairless and jawless and with one eye hanging out of her head, until Iemon finally goes mad.

    But yurei are not always women. There are also men, like Kohada Koheiji, a kabuki actor who specialised in yurei roles and whose wife had an affair with one of his rivals. The rival took him out for a boat ride, pushed him into the water and drowned him. But Kohada rose from his watery grave and haunted his wife and her lover for the rest of their lives, suddenly appearing leaning over the top of their mosquito net and grinning down horribly at them at the most unexpected moments. Both these stories, by the way, are based on true events.
    Kohada Koheiji by Hokusai

    And if these haven’t cooled you down enough, I have a ghost story of my own to scare you with.

    I spent 3 years living in the small city of Kamakura, exactly an hour from Tokyo by train. It’s a beautiful place, full of mossy old temples and vermilion painted shrines with a huge famous stone Buddha.

    My western friends and I rented a haunted house there. Japanese refused to live in it, which made the rent very cheap. Japanese ghosts are localised; they torment their own family members or whoever’s done them harm but they don’t trouble people at random and they don’t bother foreigners. In fact foreigners are so radically different that even the most ferocious of Japanese ghosts would probably steer well clear.

    My friends and I lived happily in this large, rambling, rather shabby old house. It was beautiful. It had a tea ceremony hut and a carp pond and a very overgrown garden.

    Everything was fine until the third summer. That year my western friends by chance all went away at the same time leaving me alone in the house. I had Japanese friends over to stay.
    The Great Buddha in Kamakura

    ‘Lucky you,’ I told them. ‘You can have a room each!’

    ‘No, thank you,’ they replied. ‘That would be too frightening.’

    I’d almost forgotten that the house was supposed to be haunted. Instead they all slept together in one room with their futon mattresses side by side down the middle.

    The night after they left was my first on my own in the house. I was lying in my futons on the tatami mats of my room when I heard a distinct banging coming from the other end of the house, at the far end of a long dark corridor.

    I listened hard. It sounded like boxes being thrown around. There was no one else in the house. I was definitely all alone. It couldn’t be a human being making all that noise. It could only be an obake - a one-legged umbrella ghost - but I certainly wasn’t going to go and investigate. I pulled my covers over my head, screwed my eyes tight shut and hoped for the best.

    Thereafter I stayed well clear of the end of the corridor.
    [Scroll on down to see the obake!]

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

    Woodblock print images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of the Great Buddha by me.

    Obake (on the right). The critters on the left are kappa.

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  • 07/14/18--16:21: The Big Lie
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    Hitler first mentioned die große Lüge  - the big lie - in his work Mein Kampf. The principle behind it was that people tell small lies themselves all the time in their everyday lives, and thus they are good at spotting small lies told by others.

    Big lies on the other hand, seem shameful, most people don't like to tell them, so when someone does, they seem too outrageous to be made up - the listener is inclined to believe there must be a grain of truth in there somewhere.

    Hitler, of course, claimed this was a technique used by Jews to get people to believe their propaganda.

    Sixteen years later, Goebbels also mentioned the big lie. He claimed English leaders 'lie big' and stick to their lies. And that they keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking stupid.

    When the Americans profiled Hitler, they drew the conclusion that this was exactly the technique Hitler himself used; he lied, he lied big and he stuck to it, never admitting a fault. Thus proving how much of demagoguery is projection. Corrupt leaders accuse others of doing what they themselves practise.

    It is hard to refute a huge lie. We all know of one, for example, on a bus in our more recent past. So obviously a lie and all the harder to call out for its breathtaking brazenness. Surey no one would paint a whole bus with a lie? A simple, catchy lie is especially hard to contradict.

    It's also hard to call out projection. Many of us will know that from interpersonal relationships. If someone accuses you of something they do themselves, you quickly sound ridiculous and weak claiming 'No, that's what YOU do.' And it's no different in politics.

    When unscrupulous politicians of all nationalities use these techniques, they are not doing it by accident. It is calculated, in the way any abuser calculates their behaviour, intending it to undermine, confuse and confound their opponents.

    It has recently come to be called gaslighting, after the 1938 stage play Gas Light. But originally, it was the big lie, and it is as effective and difficult to combat in the present as it was in the past.
    We know we should learn from history, and yet it seems at times we are doomed to helplessly repeat the very worst aspects of it.

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    This August, it will be 250 years since James Cook's first voyage to the southern seas. As the introduction to this exhibition states: 'In 1768 the coasts and islands of the pacific, although inhabited for thousands of years, were largely unknown to Europeans. Cook made three voyages and when the third returned to Britain in 1780 most of the blank spaces on European maps had been filled in. Cook's voyages have been celebrated, but also sometimes condemned, ever since.'

    Cook's chart of Botany Bay

    This points to a difficulty. If you'd looked Cook up in an encyclopaedia when I was a child, it would have told you that he was a hero, a great explorer, who discovered hitherto unknown lands. (A couple of years ago, in a fit of manic decluttering, I got rid of just such a set of encylclopaedias. If I hadn't, I'd be able to quote the appropriate entry to you. There's a lesson there...)

    Now, it doesn't look quite that simple.

    Cook's first voyage, with the Endeavour, was purportedly to observe the Transit of Venus (now there's a title for a book!) across the face of the sun at Tahiti (or Otaheite, as he knew it), in June 1769. But he also had secret Admiralty orders to search for land in the south Pacific, including the Great Southern Continent, if it indeed existed. If he found land, he was 'to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance' with its inhabitants, to chart its coastline and to investigate its potential in terms of trade. Further, he was 'to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the name of the King of Great Britain' - albeit with the consent of the inhabitants.

    Cook and his ship

    On that first voyage, he took with him as a naturalist the young Joseph Banks. I've written about Banks in various History Girl posts, and he features in my recent book for children about plant hunting, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - he was a fascinating and very influential character. He was also tall, handsome, genial, and one of those charismatic people who gets on very well with everybody - whereas Cook was more dour and introverted: they made a good team. So when it came to getting the 'consent of the inhabitants', Banks was a great help. Certainly in Otaheite he threw himself into socialising with the (mostly) welcoming inhabitants with great gusto. He became good friends with Tupaia, the chief priest of the island - so much so that Tupaia asked to accompany the Endeavour when it was time for the visitors to continue their voyage, and did so as a translator and interpreter. Tupaia also drew and painted scenes from their travels, some of which are displayed at the exhibition, alonside many other contemporary images, artefacts, letters and journals. Sadly, both Tupaia and his young son, Tayeto, died when, on the way back to England, after various adventures in Australia and New Zealand, the ship docked at Batavia for repairs: unfortunately Batavia was rife with fever, and almost half of the company, including the two Tahitians, succumbed.

    And the exhibition doesn't shy away from revealing that, although Cook was indeed a great explorer who achieved an enormous amount for his country, there was another side to what he did. The lives of the people he 'discovered' were not just touched by his arrival on their shores: they were to be changed forever, even when the intentions of the explorers were good. Tupaia and his son were one example. Another concerns a later voyage, when Cook, meaning to be helpful, presented the Maoris in New Zealand with domesticated animals - sheep, pigs etc. He thought it would make life easier for them if they didn't have to hunt for their food. But the animals had a huge effect on the indigenous flora and fauna, leading to the extinction of a number of native species.

    And it was Banks who suggested that Australia would be a good place for a penal colony - which on the one hand led to the creation of modern Australia, but on the other to the near-destruction of the indigenous Aborigine culture.

    Tupaia's drawing of Sir Joseph Banks trading with a Maori - a piece of cloth in exchange for a lobster.
    It's such a difficult subject; it's so easy to look at events at that time through 21st century eyes. (I dread to think what inhabitants of the earth in the 24th century might think of some of the things that are going on around the world at the moment.) But I think that the British Library exhibition succeeds brilliantly at celebrating Cook's achievements, while at the same time re-evaluating them to take into account the effect of his 'discoveries' on the lives of those he 'discovered'. The objects on display are interspersed with video interviews with modern descendants of those peoples, and they make sobering listening. Yet the message in the end was, I felt, a nuanced one: that, to paraphrase, we are where we are: but we must take account of how we got there, and not pretend that exploitation didn't take place: we must respect not only the 'discoverers', but also the 'discovered'. The exhibition helps towards that - not least by giving us an insight into the lives and cultures of the peoples of the southern and other seas at the time that Cook first encountered them.

    You can find out more about the exhibition on the British Library website, here.