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    They were building the new Reading Railway Station, which was to carry businessmen to London, to transact their business in a day and get home in time for dinner, connect Reading to the West Country, so that its citizens could go on holiday, and so on, when what the Reading Mercury called 'an unfortunate accident' took place. A shed about 200 feet long had been put up at the back of the Station-House, for 'the reception of the trains and the convenience of passengers.'

     This shed featured a lantern to allow light in, and at about half past three on Tuesday, March the 24th, a young man called Henry West (the paper, however, couldn't be bothered to get his name right, and called him William, was working up on this lantern, as yet unglazed, when a loud noise, like thunder, shocked the people in the area around the station.

    There had been a high wind, which had turned into a whirlwind and blown poor Henry right off the roof; his body was discovered about 200 feet away. Several other men were 'more or less injured' including Mr Grissel,  belonging to the 'extensive' firm of Grissel and Peto, contractors for the building of this section of the line, was wounded on the head by bricks falling from the chimney. He was taken to the George Inn and attended to, and the newspaper was glad to report that he was out of danger.

    They picked the remains of Henry West up and took him to the Boar's Head pub in Friar Street (presumably choosing a different pub to protect the injured from the sight of a corpse? Later, an inquest was held, and a respectable jury gave a verdict of accidental death.

    Henry was a single man of about 25 years old, a journeyman carpenter, born in Wilton, in Wiltshire.
    I haven't been able to find out anything else about him. There used to be a rail in his memory at the far end of Platform 4, which was the busiest platform in the old station (now Platform 7), but when they revamped Reading Station they took the rail away. Perhaps they didn't want passengers to be unnerved by the realisation that they were standing in an area subject to miniature tornadoes?

    The monument pictured stands in the churchyard of St Lawrence in Reading, on land that once was part of Reading Abbey, close to the old hospitium, or guesthouse of the Abbey, which was to become the first premises of University College Reading. It's a peaceful spot for a memorial to one whose life ended in such sudden violence.

    The wooden board reads:
    Sudden the change, in a moment fell, and had not time to bid my friends farewell,
    Yet hushed be all complaint, 'tis sweet, 'tis best, to change life's story scenes for Endless rest
    Dear friends, prepare, take warning by my fall, so shall you hear with joy your Saviour's call.

    The board was put up by his fellow workmen, about 40 of whom attended his funeral at St Laurence's. It was renewed by his brother George in 1862, and by his niece F G Rixon in 1924. Reading Corporation renewed it in 1921.

    I'm sorry that the rail was taken away from Reading station, but glad the monument is still there in the churchyard. It stands, in a way, for all the  men and women whose lives have for the most part been completely forgotten, yet whose labour was crucial in constructing our railways, our public buildings, our canals, our roads, and the many old houses which we still value.

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    I've had a couple of food for thought moments this week that I thought I'd share with you.  Putting together historical facts is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing and some that have more than one piece for the same slot, and thus the ability to change the picture

    Moment Number 1.
    Checking my twitter feed a couple of days ago I came across a comment by Historian Marc Morris, quoting fellow historian John Gillingham concerning the effigies of King Henry II and King Richard the Lionheart at Fontevraud Abbey in France.  Gillingham said: "I do not know on what evidence if any (apart from later tradition) one effigy is identified as Henry II's and one as Richard's."

    I have always believed - because it's what I've always read - that this effigy, clean shaven is identified as King Henry II


    And this one, bearded, is Richard the Lionheart.

    I have often pondered about the effigies of these two Angevin kings.  In an era when beards were a powerful symbol of masculinity and authority, how come Henry II's effigy doesn't have one?  The more so because we know he was bearded in life.  Chronicler Gerald of Wales drew an impression of him. Gerald was well acquainted with his appearance. Of course, that doesn't stop him from shaving off his beard on another occasion.
    Impression of Henry II by Gerald of Wales

    It is highly likely that the effigies of Henry II and Richard were commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spent her later years at Fontevraud in semi retirement.  I often wondered if she chose to emasculate Henry by depicting him without a beard, and giving Richard one in order to subtly (or not so subtly) hint at who was the greater man.  But now it seems that there are no solid markers beyond tradition to nail down who is actually who.

    The effigies themselves have suffered from the vagaries of time and politics.  Originally they (including an effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine by a different sculptor) stood in the choir. but the extent of the choir at that time and the effigies' exact location is not known. The effigies are made from tuffeau limestone that comes from the Loire valley.  Historian Kathleen Nolan in her article on the tombs 'The Queen's Choice'  in Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady edited by John Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler, (A tremendous book of essays on Eleanor of Aquitaine and well worth the read) suggests that Henry and Richard are dressed as kings lying in funereal state and in their coronation robes.  The bearded effigy, usually presumed to be Richard has dark hair, but we know that both he and his father were red-heads.  I am assuming that later restorations are responsible for that one.

    Richard has a second tomb in Rouen Cathedral where his heart is buried, but that effigy too is a matter of more questions than answers.  The current effigy has a 19th century look about it, but is thought to be a representation of the earlier medieval one as drawn in 1730 by Bernard de Montfaucon, sometimes called the father of modern archaeology.
    Here is the current clean-shaven depiction of Richard in Rouen Cathedral and below it, de Montfaucon's 1730 sketches of the effigy he says is Richard at Fontevraud, and the clean shaven one from Rouen.  This tells us that the identification of who was believed to be who (rightly or wrongly) dates at least back to 1730.  I do not know at this stage if anyone can date the tradition earlier than that.   Montfaucon's work is titled 'Les Monumens de la Monarchie Francoise qui Comprennent L'Histoire de France ave les Figures de Chaque Regns.' Vol 2.
    Richard I's current effigy at Rouen Cathedral, very possibly dating to the 19th century
    Bernard de Montfaucon's  illustrations of Fontevraud Richard (Left with the beard) and to the top right, the Rouen
     clean shaven version of Richard as observed in 1730.  Montfaucon  in 1730believed  the bearded Fontevraud effigy
    to be Richard and not Henry.   There is further confusion because the current Richard effigy in the black
    and white photograph  above this drawing is actually posed as Montfaucon's sketch of the Young King, not Richard.
    Above: Montfaucon's sketch of the effigy of King Henry II's eldest son Henry the Young King, which has been taken as the model for the current tomb sculpture of Richard the Lionheart, (black and white photo). It's the top right effigy on the sculpture sketch above this one with a different hand position that Montfaucon identifies as Richard in his book. (which all adds to the confusion!).

    It's also interesting to note that a manuscript illustration showing Richard being captured on his return from crusade shows him as clean shaven on his travels. Whether or not this is an indicator for the Fontevraud depiction is another matter.   If one switches one's notion of who is who on the Fontevraud effigies and ascribes Henry II the beard, then all the ducks line up in the known illustrations and Richard then appears clean shaven at Fontevraud, at Rouen and in the pilgrim manuscript.  However, from this point so far away in time we're never going to know.  You pay your money and you choose what you want to believe. 
    A clean shaven Richard I  about to be captured on his way home from crusade.
    Now onto my next food for thought item this week.
     Not so long ago, the search was on for the tomb of Henry I at Reading Abbey with archaeological explorations of the vicinity being much in the news. For example The Guardian on the Reading Abbey remains of Henry I
    I was reading through a History Girls blog I'd written some time ago about the death of Henry I A Surfeit of Lampreys and reading down to the end of the comments came to one by Dunkit42 who remarked on a letter in The Times of London in December of 1785 commenting on the discovery and subsequent destruction of Henry I's tomb.  While we don't know it for certain, again because of the passage of time and lack of recording, it seems a decent possibility.  Strange that there's been no mention in the modern press, not a even a qualifier or disclaimer.   I looked up the article.

    From The Times.  Thursday 8th of December 1785.

    "It lately happened that the workmen employed in digging a foundation for the erection of a house of correction at Reading in Berkshire on the spot where the old abbey stood, that diverse bones were thrown up.  This being the burial place of Henry I, each bone was seized as a kind of treasure, contemplating it as one of the King's, till at length a vault was discovered, the only one there, and which was of curious workmanship.  In the vault was a lead coffin almost devoured by time.  A perfect skeleton was contained therein, and which undoubtedly was the King's, who died at the castle of Lyons in Rouen on the 2nd September 1133 (they have the wrong date, it was November, but that's newspapers for you!), was then embalmed, and sent from thence according to is own desire to be interred in the Abbey of Reading.  Antiquaries have frequently inquired where this monarch's remains might be found but time has effaced every possible mark, though it must be presumed heretofore, the spot had been royally and peculiarly distinguished.  After a series of 650 years, and upwards, it was hardly probable anything but dust could remain; but the distinguished appearance of the coffin and the vault in which it was interred, put it out of doubt.  The account given us in Rapin of the King's death, and embalming the body, further justifies the presumption that this coffin was the King's, especially  as he says, his body was cut in pieces, after the rude manner of those days, and embalmed. And Gervase of Canterbury, confirms this account by saying they cut great gashes in his body with knives, and then powdering it well with salt, they wrapped it up in tanned ox hides, to avoid the stench, which was so great and infectious that a man who was hired to open the head, died presently after.  The gentleman to whom I am obliged for this account adds, that fragments of rotten leather were found in the coffin.  His curiosity was great, and so was that of the persons assembled insomuch that the bones were divided among the spectators, but the coffin was sold to a plumber.  The under jaw bone has been sent to me, and a small piece of the leaden coffin.  The jaw contains sixteen teeth, perfect and sound; even the enamel of them is preserved."

    Yes or no?  I remain on the fence, ruminating the information and thinking very possible, but again no absolute proof. 
     I do love a good delve into the past. We think we know things but we don't!

    Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of 24 historical novels.  Her latest book, Templar Silks, looks at what the great William Marshal might have done with his time in the Holy Land. She will be lecturing on that subject at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre  on the 18th of August from 2:45 pm - 3:15 pm

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       In the eighteenth century Italy was the centre of the art world. Young artists flocked to Rome, Venice and Florence and were dazzled by the achievements of past generations. It was widely believed that the great artists of the Renaissance knew a ‘secret’ that had been lost. How did Titian achieve his “divine” colours? Nobody knew but many artists became obsessed with the idea that if they could only discover this secret, which Titian supposedly got from the Greeks, they would outshine their rivals. Paintings by Giorgione and Titian like the one illustrated above, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1523), had a luminosity and richness of colour that eluded living artists who continued to search for the ‘secret’, rather like medieval alchemists pursuing the formula for gold.

       Joshua Reynolds used to buy up old masters (some of which were probably forgeries) in auctions and literally take them apart to see how they did it. Reynolds hid himself away from his pupils so that they would not discover his manner of working and his many experiments with colours and varnishes. He allegedly bought a painting by Titian in order to strip it slowly, layer by layer and analyse its makeup. But, later, Reynolds’ canvases famously faded and ‘the colours fled.’

       Benjamin West , seen here as a young man, was an American who claimed to have been instructed in the preparation of pigments by native Indians. After his Death of General Wolfe caused a sensation in 1770 he was appointed Historical Painter to King George 111 and later succeeded Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy. Ever since his trip to Venice when he was  young  West had longed to discover the ‘secret’ of Titian’s magnificent paintings. Thirty years later, this made him vulnerable to a hoax.

       Ann Jemima Provis was a young miniaturist whose work was exhibited at theRoyal Academy and her father, Thomas Provis, was a "sweeper of the court" at the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace. The Provises approached West and told him they had found an ancient Italian manuscript which revealed the Venetian Secret. The original manuscript, they told West, had been destroyed in a fire but fortunately Provis had cannily made a copy. Initially the ‘secret’ was only to be divulged to seven artists and West and six other painters gladly paid 10 guineas each to be initiated. Provis then became even more greedy and suggested that all the artists who were interested in sharing his secret manuscript should form a syndicate of 53 artists. Each member would contribute 10 guineas, which would have earned Provis a total of more than 600 guineas, then a fabulous sum.

       In addition to allowing paid up members of the syndicate to read the manuscript, Ann Jemima offered to give the artists lessons demonstrating the Venetian technique which, she said, included the application of a dark red ground, or foundation layer, to the canvas. She also taught them to use thin linseed oil as a medium to bind the paint’s pigments. It was also essential, she said, to use the “Titian shade,” a mix of ivory black and Prussian blue that was used under glazes of bright colors. Prussian blue was actually invented more than 100 years after Titian’s death. In his own paintings, Titian used lapis lazuli .

       West experimented with these techniques and, with great excitement, used them in his history painting, Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes , exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1797. Critics were not impressed. The review in The Observer said that “ Instead of possessing Titian’s warmth divine" his new painting had  "nothing but the chalky and cold tints of Fresco, and that gaudy glare and flimsy nothingness of fan painting.’’

       When the scandal about the hoax broke West was the main victim because It was through his influential position as President of the Royal Academy that the Provises were able to meet so many other artists. A popular bawdy song, Paul Sandby’s Song for 1797, hinted that Ann Jemima's secret art lessons also had a sexual dimension. The brilliant satirist James Gillray enjoyed West’s embarrassment in this wonderful engraving:

      Titianus Redivivus; or the Seven Wise Men Consulting the Venetian Oracle – a Scene in the Academic Grove. Seated in a row are some of the artists in the syndicate, including Farington, Westall, Stothard, Smirke, Opie, and Hoppner. Other artists, whose names appear on the far left, had not been taken in by the scam. These include Bartolozzi, Fuseli, and the 22-year-old Turner, whose own later experiments with colour still astonish us. Ann Jemima Provis appears on a rainbow, painting a “portrait” of Titian, her train supported by the Graces. On the far right, in the foreground, Benjamin West sneaks away. The ghost of Sir Joshua Reynolds rises up from the stone floor. In the background, the brand new Somerset House façade of the Royal Academy is cracking, presumably as a result of the scandal.

       There is no record that the Provises were ever prosecuted. Seven years later West painted an almost identical version of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, using more traditional techniques. The colours in this painting have survived and it is now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. West’s career recovered from this embarrassing scandal and he produced many more distinguished paintings. When he died in 1820 he was buried in St Pauls Cathedral.

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    Every now and again I feel fortunate to stand face to face with a remarkable piece of history. Last week, while I was in Paris, I swung off Boulevard Saint-Michel and strode to the Panthéon where hangs a huge photographed image of Simone and Antoine Veil. They are backdropped by the European flag. 
    I stood alone. There were no tourists, no fellow citizens near me, aside from those passing by. I was able to steal that private moment to reflect upon the life of a truly remarkable women whose sorrows and battles seeded a vision and an energy that changed the fortunes of millions, most especially French women.

    The week previous I had sat in front of the television for two hours on a Sunday morning, 1st July, with my husband watching the entire ceremony, the panthéonisation, of Simone and her "beloved Antoine". The coffins containing the remains of the pair were being brought for burial to the Panthéon. It was a very hot morning and I applauded the members of the French royal guard who carried the two coffins for approximately an hour during which time there was music, readings and dance.

    Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, a professor of political science at the University of Reims and author of a number of books on feminism and women in politics, commented that "It is Simone Veil's achievements that are being recognised and it is her husband who joins her in their final resting place, at the request of the family."
    Many members of their family were present at the Sunday morning ceremony. Afterwards they, along with Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron, followed the coffins into the interior of the city's famous mausoleum.

    Simone Veil, born Simone Annie Jacob in Nice on 13th July 1927 died 13th June 2017, is only the fifth woman to be laid to rest within the great domed building that dominates that corner of the Latin Quarter. The Panthéon, built originally as a church  to honour St Genevieve, later became a secular mausoleum to house the remains of the distinguished citizens of France. Men. The first to be buried there was in 1791, the comte of Mirabeau, who was later  disinterred and buried in an anonymous grave. 
    All who rest within the mausoleum, including Voltaire (also 1791), Victor Hugo (1885)  were men. It took till 1907 for a woman to enter that sacred space, when a 'great man', scientist Marcellin Berthelot requested that his wife be buried with him. In 1907, Sophie Berthelot became the first woman to rest within these magnificent walls. In 1995, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, twice Nobel Prize Winner, was buried along with her husband Pierre Curie, also a Nobel Prize Winner. Thus Curie became the second woman entombed at the Panthéon, but the first to be placed there in recognition of her own professional merits. Although Marie Curie died in 1934, it took sixty years for her to be given the honour of the Panthéon. And, I have recently learnt, it was Simone Veil who helped persuade French President François Mitterrand to transfer Curie's ashes as an acknowledgement of her contribution to science and medicine.
    The gender imbalance was, is, embarrassing.
    In 2015, two more women were laid to rest. Ethnologist and member of the French Resistance, Germaine Tillion's was a symbolic internment with soil from her graveside because her family did not want her body to be moved from where it had originally been laid.  The same is true of Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthoniez (niece of Charles de Gaulle and member of the French Resistance), hers was also a symbolic internment for the same reason.

    Simone and Antoine Veil had been buried alongside one another at Montparnasse Cemetery before President Macron's decision to move them to the Panthéon, exactly one year after Simone's death. This time, it is the woman who was being panthéonisée for her merit not because she is the wife of a remarkable man, even though Antoine has been  recognised for his contribution to society as a civil servant at the highest level.

    Interior of the Panthéon.

    On the Pediment of the Panthéon is written: "Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.""To the great men, the grateful homeland."

    Honour guards stand next to the coffins of Simone and Antoine at the Shoah Memorial in Paris on June 29th, 2018. Two days before their last journey. As one of more than 76,000 Jews deported from France during World War II, Veil appears on the Wall of Names at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, under the name Simone Jacob. Her father, mother, sister and brother are also listed. Only Simone and her sister, Madeleine, survived their torturous ordeal. Tragically, Madeleine was killed in a car crash seven years after the war ended, leaving Simone without family.

    Simone Veil has been a heroine of mine for many years, one of the most remarkable of modern women. A survivor of the camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she returned to France at the age of seventeen emaciated and traumatised. She threw herself into her studies, gained her masters in law and swiftly rose within the ranks of public life. She played an important part in raising awareness of the Holocaust and also of speaking out about France's role in the deportation of French Jews.  A subject that many in France have been reluctant to own up to. The collaborationists were not called out as vocally as perhaps they should have been. Veil played her part in making sure that France did not forget its past. This experience also fired within her a lifelong dedication to the ideal of Europe, European integration and Franco-German reconciliation.  She was elected the first President of the European Parliament, a role she held until 1982. She never lost that fire, that passion for Europe. She said, "When I look back on the last 60 years, it is still our greatest achievement."

    She never called herself a feminist and yet as Minister for Health (1974 -1979), she fought for women's rights. She facilitated access to contraception, pushing through a bill that legalised the sale of contraception and contraceptive pills. Perhaps her greatest achievement for women was the determination with which she fought for the legalisation of abortion in France. This was no easy battle. France is, or was back then, a country rooted in Catholicism. It was a very hard fight and many raised their voices against her - Simone and her family were publicly reviled - but she did not give up and in January 1975, abortion was legalised n France.

    Throughout her career she played an important role in human rights issues, the environment, public health, food and safety, Aids care. She worked with young mothers, single mothers, disabled children and HIV-positive patients.

    She entered the Académie française in 2008, only the sixth woman to take a seat there. On her sword - every member of the Academy is given one - is engraved the motto of the French Republic (liberté, egalité, fraternité), the motto of the European Union, (Unis dans la diversité.) and her Auschwitz number: 78651.
    Emmanuel Macron, in his speech on 1st July, spoke out this number, Simone's tag and it was followed by a minute's silence which was heartbreakingly moving.
    I asked myself again about the girl who bore that series of figures.
    That pretty adolescent, dark-haired girl in the camp stamped with the number 78651, can you imagine her heartache, and her strength? Losing her family, perhaps too scared, too depressed and alone to believe that the horrors would ever be over. Yet, in spite of all that she endured, suffered, the profound losses she faced, a seed was born. The seed of humanity, the courage to fight for all that is good and peaceful. I think this is why she was and remains a heroine, a role model, for me. She could have come home from those horrors angry and broken. Instead, she grew up to fight for the plights of those who were not in a position to fight for themselves. She pushed with enormous determination and vision for the vision of a United Europe, a Europe within which the member countries are working together, respecting their differences, but working towards an integrated and peaceful future. A dream I hope we can continue to fight for.

    78651, Simone Jacob, Simone Veil, I pray you rest now in peace and in honour beyond a life richly and generously lived. You remain an inspiration.

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    Warning: This blog is much longer than usual, but it reviews a fascinating book.

              Why does the human race - supposedly intelligent - keep fighting wars, despite all that can be said against the habit?
              Why do empires, such as the Roman and the British, periodically rise and then fall or fade away?
               Why do leaders such as Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler periodically arise to lead their people into war -- and why do the people willingly, even eagerly, follow them?
              Why has Europe been, for centuries, a 'cockpit of war'? And revolution. 
              Can the EU prevent such 'Wars of Civilisation' in the future?
              Why are so many vicious, murderous political gangs -- I could say 'IRA' or  'Baader Meinhof' or 'Daesh' -- drawn from the nicely brought up and spoken boys and girls of the middle-classes? Who, on the face of it, have comfortable lives and little need to fight for 'freedom.'
              And why, in every part of the world and at all times, have the poor always had many more children than the rich, despite being less able to afford them? Why does contraception and education make little difference to this trend?

              All these many questions, and more, can be answered very simply, according to Paul Colinvaux in his'The Fates of Nations.'The answer is: Niche-Space and Breeding Strategy.

              Colinvaux was an ecologist, and The Fates of Nations answers all these questions by applying the rules of ecology, not to salmon or brown bears or wildebeeste, but to that other animal, the Naked Ape.

              Colinvaux defines 'niche-space' as 'a specific set of capabilities for extracting resources, for surviving hazards and for competing; coupled with a corresponding set of needs.' It describes not only the amount of physical space an animal requires to live naturally and healthily, but also the animals' requirements in terms of climate, type and amount of food, type and size of home or lair and so on. Each species has evolved to dove-tail into its niche-space. For instance, camels live in places short of water, and have evolved an ability to store water in their bodies and live without access to water for longer than most other species.

             Some niche-spaces are larger than others. An acre of land can support many hundreds of deer, if there is enough water and vegetation. It gives them all they need.
              However, that same lush, well-watered acre would not support a single tiger. As a dedicated carnivore, a tiger needs access to many, many deer to feed itself. Deer run away from tigers and many are too fast to be caught. Also, all deer become skittish when there's a predator about. So a tiger needs to be able to shift ground frequently, to find more unsuspecting prey. Every single tiger needs a large territory, which it will defend from others.
              This is, as Colinvaux put in in the memorable title of another of his books, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare. Long before humans became a plague on the earth, before tigers' habitat was remotely threatened, long before they could be efficiently slaughtered for the supposed medicinal value of their bones, even then, tigers were still rare compared to deer or mice or strawberry plants. They were rare because they had a comparatively wide niche-space. Making a living as a tiger demands a lot of resources in terms of space and prey animals.
              Colinvaux calculates that when humans were living their natural, Ice-Age life, as hunter-gatherers, they were about as common as bears. That is, more common than tigers, because bears and humans are omnivorous and will stoop to eating fruit, vegetables and grubs, but a lot rarer than deer or mice.

    That's Niche-Space. Then there's Breeding Strategy.
              Every species that has ever lived has always had the same breeding strategy: to have as many off-spring as it's possible to raise to adulthood.
              For most animals, this is more or less fixed, so much so that naturalists can write of the 'typical' litter or clutch size for a particular species. This is because an animal's niche-space is usually fixed. As Colinvaux puts it, a squirrel, or any other kind of animal, is 'highly tuned to a very specialized profession.' A squirrel cannot decide that, hey, it would rather be a tiger -- any more than a tiger can decide that it would like to try out life as a dolphin.
              Evolution has therefore roughly fixed the optimum number of off-spring an animal can have. A very good year may result in birds producing a second clutch of eggs or other animals having a second litter, but that's an exception. In a bad year, when the land can't support the numbers, the animals starve and the population falls. The population of predators is linked to that of their prey. A good year for mice and deer means a good year for wolves and foxes -- and vice versa.

    Evolution has also fixed the approach most species take to child-rearing: low-investment or high-investment. Low investment species, such as salmon, spawn and fertilise hundreds of eggs at a time. Almost all of them will be eaten, either as eggs or fry. One or two might survive and that's all that matters. The salmon might have made an almighty effort to reach its spawning place but once the eggs are laid, it troubles itself no further about its off-spring.
              High-investment species, such as bears, cats and naked apes have one or two off-spring at a time, and they invest a lot of time and effort in feeding and training them. It's a high-risk strategy because, in a bad year, the off-spring might die or be killed to ensure the survival of older off-spring or the parents. Some animals are known to kill and eat their young if faced with a threat to their own survival. Colinvaux argues that early humans almost certainly regulated their population not only by leaving granny on the ice-flow, but by leaving junior with her. Historically, we know that people frequently abandoned children they did not think they could afford to raise.

    Changing Niche Space

    Animals can't change their niche-space - not by themselves, anyway. Some have become domesticated, some have learned to live alongside humans, but that came about as a result of human actions
              The Naked Ape, however, learned to change its niche-space, and has done so repeatedly.

    The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
              First, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, as common as bears. But they learned to hunt and gather in almost every part of the world -- in the Europe of the Ice Ages, in the rain forest and deserts of Australia, in Africa, on Siberian tundra, in the far North of Alaska. In doing so, they increased the niche-space of their species. Probably no other species occupies as many different habitats as humans do.
              But this population was still limited by the resources available to hunter-gatherers. They followed the high-investment breeding strategy of having one or two children at a time, and spending much time rearing them. As with all other animal species, their population increased during good times, when more children were born and survived but crashed during bad times when fewer mothers were in condition to give birth and more children died. So the population remained relatively stable.

    But then, astonishingly, these animals learned to stop hunting and to herd the animals they needed, whether reindeer, or goats or cattle. They maintained the population of their prey-animals by protecting them from other predators and helping them to find food. This meant that the naked apes themselves could confidently expect to raise more children to adulthood because there was a more certain food supply. Their population increased -- and increased, because it was much less effected by bad years.
              Moving from hunter-gatherers to herders meant an increase in niche-space: more resources were available. But, as ever, the increase in resources was soon absorbed by the increased population.

    Not to worry, though, because herding led on to settled farming, another huge increase in niche-space. Now, not only were the prey animals kept in one place, protected and provided with food, but the neccessary plant foods were too. Food could be produced more efficiently, and also stored more efficiently when it didn't have to be carried with a nomadic group, or hidden in caches.
              These were huge changes in life-style for the naked ape but the breeding strategy remained the same. A great many more naked apes were created to take advantage of the increased niche-space, but not to worry. The creation of settled communities and city-states also created lots of little nooks and crannies in the niche-space.
              Greater food security meant more time to develop new technologies -- the smelting of metals, stone-masonry, ship-building. Mastery of these technologies meant status and a livelihood. They created a new 'niche-space' which absorbed many among the growing population who had not inherited land from which to produce food.
              New governing classes, priest and warrior castes were more niche-spaces, all provided livings.

    City State - wiki

    Niche Space Runs Out

    But eventually, as the population grows, there comes pressure on resources. So long as there's enough space in the world to enable more land to be cleared or mined, this isn't a problem -- but if there's another city-state over there -- and another one over there -- then the solution is more difficult.
              One way of avoiding the problem of shrinking niche-space is to impose a very strict caste or class system. Most societies of Naked Ape have tried this, in some form, at many different times over the centuries. For instance, only males are allowed to do certain jobs, usually high-status jobs, while females have to find a male to support them.
              Or restrictions may be applied to certain ethnic or religious groups, or simply to 'a lower class' who are deemed 'serfs.' This tactic buys time, for a while, but the breeding strategy ensures that the population continues to grow -- and, ironically, it's usually among the higher classes where the squeeze of narrowing niche-space is felt first and most painfully, by those children born to affluence who suddenly realise that, for instance, the city already has far more priests and acolytes than it needs and is unwilling to find places for more -- or that the army is over-staffed with officers. The affluent youngsters are shocked to find there is no space left for them in the wider, freer niche-space their parents enjoyed and they will have to do plebeian work.

    Another way out of the problem is to trade. You go to those states who are crowding your own, and you offer to exchange surplus goods with them. You can even build ships and cross the seas to trade with foreigners. This, for a while, solves the problem, creating livelihoods in the merchant class and in ship-building.
         But every increase in niche-space means an increase in population -- because the breeding strategy rolls on unaltered. Every single person in these growing cities produces as many off-spring as they think they can raise. Up and up goes the population, particuarly among the poorest.

    Why do the poor have more children, even where their more prosperous countrymen crush them into a smaller and smaller niche-space?
    'Slum Tourism' - wikipedia
           Because if you live, say, on a sheet of cloth spread on a pavement, and your biggest aspiration for your children is that they eat once a day, then children are cheap. They won't cost you much -- indeed, it will possibly cost you more to prevent their birth. They'll also start earning for you while still in infancy, so where is the incentive to limit their number?
           If, however, you are rather better off -- if your plans for your children include a nursery, a crib, a nanny, a bed, rooms of their own in a comfortable house, good clothes and shoes, three or more meals a day, a good education, toys, books, music-lessons, dance-classes, training in a trade, a car (or horse) on their 18th, a good marriage (with a dowry or big wedding) a house of their own, prosperity and children of their own -- well, then each child is going to cost you thousands. One way or another, you make sure you have fewer. It's the well-off who sit down with pencil and paper (or Excel) and work out if they can afford a child. The poor, in this as in almost every other life-situation, just get on with it.
         It's, again, about niche-space. The niche inhabited by the poor is narrow. They have few choices and, as a result, few aspirations. But this narrow niche is cheap. It requires few resources. The people crammed into it are satisfied with little. My aunt, who grew up in a slum during the 1930s, has often told me that, until she won a scholarship to grammar-school, where she met girls whose families, astonishingly, owned cars, fridges and telephones, she'd had no idea her family were poor. She'd had nothing to compare their way of life with.
          The niche-space occupied by the better-off is wider (that is, it holds far more opportunities and possibilities), and increases with wealth. Indeed, Colinvaux remarks that the richer a naked ape is, the more their life includes aspects of the ancient hunter-gatherer life: -- acres of beautiful countryside as their 'territory', hunting as a pastime, closeness to dogs and horses. But although this niche is broad, offering many choices and freedoms, it is very expensive in terms of resources. It can, therefore, be occupied by far fewer than the narrow niches of the poor. The poor are like deer -- hundreds to the acre. The rich become rarer and more tigerish as they grow richer.

    Herein also lies the answer to the question: Why are revolutions always led, not by the oppressed, but by the middle-classes? and Why are so many vicious, murderous political gangs drawn from the nicely brought up and spoken boys and girls of the middle-classes?

    Delacroix - wikipedia
          The aspiring and prosperous -- from the middle to the upper classes -- have always had fewer children than the poor and higher aspirations for the few they have. So when the pressure on resources mounts -- when there aren't enough houses or enough food or enough 'good' jobs to earn enough money to buy, say, a house -- who feels the pinch first and the most keenly? Answer: the better-off 'middle-classes.'
          The very wealthy, the oligarchs or aristocracy are insulated by their extreme wealth. The poor are used to hardship and never expected much anyway. They're grateful to 'have a roof over their head and a loaf on the table.'
          But those caught in the middle, those who grew up expecting that their life would include a comfortable house with a big garden, an interesting, rewarding job, the wherewithal to travel and follow interests, whether it be rock-climbing or pottery -- what happens when they find that they are going to have to settle for much less than their parents had? That they can't find a job, can't afford a house, or a car or a holiday -- or a child?
           It understandably comes as a humiliating, painful shock. And why shouldn't it? After all, nothing about the situation is their fault. They didn't choose the time they were born in, or the way they were raised. They'd never even heard of niche-space and breeding strategy and, even if they had, couldn't do anything about it.

    When Trade Is Not Enough

     Colinvaux argues that niche-space can be created or increased by trade and technological advance -- because a new technology, whether it's ship-building, smelting metal, or programming computers, creates jobs.
              But, in some periods there comes a point when no new technology is coming to the rescue and trade is no longer supplying enough resources or enough profit to support the growing population. What then?
              Then it inevitably occurs to the naked ape that if, instead of trading with a particular country, if they just tookover the country instead, that would be more profitable.
              At any given time, there are always several ambitious Apes seeking power. If one of these ambitious Apes happens to coincide with a squeeze on niche-space -- well, then you have an Alexander, an Augustus, a Clive of India, a Napolean, a Hitler, all of them whole-heartedly supported by their tightly-squeezed countrymen, longing for more niche-space -- which answers all those questions about war. Hitler even spoke about 'living-room.'
              These 'wars of civilisation,' Colinvaux points out, are always a stronger, more technologically advanced state grabbing a weaker (if not geographically smaller), less advanced, less organised country. Whatever high-flown reason is given, whatever excuse is put forward, it is always a straight-forward bullying snatch of land and resources by the stronger state. There has never been an example of, say, a small tribe of acquisitive Bushmen attacking France or Britain. Barbarians took down Rome, yes -- but they were, in fact, highly organised and well-equipped barbarians, quite wealthy in their own opinion -- just as Genghis Khan's 'barbarians' were at a later period. In each case the 'barbarians' faced large states exhausted by their efforts to find new niche-space for their cramped and fractious people; states that had run out of options.

    War and colonisation creates niche-space not only by gaining access to resources such as food and materials at less cost -- it also creates interesting and generally well-rewarded jobs for the young of the better-off. They become viceroys and governors of the colonies, merchant-traders, spice-growers, tea-planters. The armies needed to enforce colonisation also provide niche-space for 'the sweepings of the gutter.'
              But breeding strategy continues to do its stuff and the new niche-space gained at the cost of war is filled up by the increasing population.
             Sometimes, it takes a while. The colonisation of Australia and the Americas (and the destruction of the native civilisation,) siphoned off surplus population and relieved pressure for several centuries.'Go West, young man.' There will never, Colinvaux remarks, be access to such a pressure-release valve again.

    Why was Europe the 'cockpit of war?' Colinvaux argues that there were too many nations crammed into one land mass, their populations increasing and aspiring. Every time the pressure of falling resources was felt, another revolution or war was triggered as the prosperous classes felt the pinch and grew angry.

              To win big, final victories and establish an Empire to last for hundreds of years, as the Romans did, you have to go against less well-armed and organised opponents with a tactic they cannot withstand. Alexander won his victories with the phalanx. The Romans had the legion and the tortoise.
    Wikipedia: printing press
              But in Europe was developed a piece of technology than not only created a lot of niche-space, it meant that no war-like state was going to be able to win crushing, final victories ever again:-- the printing-press. Once the printing-press was invented, any new tactic you invented was, within a few years, available to everyone else. Hence the endless round of revolutions and wars in Europe, which had no direction, not north, west, south or east, to send its restless and disappointed young and no way of winning new niche-space by winning a lasting victory over another European state.
             This is still true and will probably ensure that Europe will be riven with war again.

    Oh, but the European Common Market was created, in part, to prevent war in Europe ever happening again. But all over Europe are nations seething with people whose niche-space has just crashed in on them, thanks to machinations of the wealthy in the bankers' niche. These people, many of whom qualified as lecturers, lawyers or doctors are crushed into a place where they don't want to be. If Colinvaux is right, revolution and war will follow.

              In the last year, the IRA have started attacks again (albeit fitfully.) Daesh commit atrocities. Journalists confess themselves puzzled that the boys and girls who run away to join Daesh are not only 'middle-class' but often appear to know little about Islam. Nor, often, it seems, do the people who recruit them.
              Colinvaux argues that this is because it's not, at bottom, about religion or politics. It never was. It is, and always was, about niche-space. And breeding strategy.

              Left-wingers in the UK at the moment are puzzled and despairing at the political swing to the right -- by the fact that the 'Nasty Party' keeps being re-elected, despite their proving, again and again, just how nasty they are. Good-hearted people are dismayed by the increasing xenophobia, the increasing tendency to stigmatise, punish and isolate the poor. They are distressed by the push to turn schools into academies which can refuse admission to pupils who, to be blunt, they consider not good enough and by the push to privatise the NHS, which would take us back to my great-grandparents' age, when one of their children died because sending for a doctor would have cost twelve and a half pence, which they didn't have.
              If Colinvaux is right, this isn't puzzling at all. The shift to the right, the hardening of class-barriers, is shrinking niche-space in action. As niche-space shrinks people move to protect the space they have. They harden their attitude, become more callous, more prejudiced and xenophobic, less open to argument or new ideas. This is shown in the way they vote. Wealthier people, of course, have more ability to protect their niche-space: and they do so, aggressively. And as the niche-space of others contracts, that of the very wealthy becomes ever wider and more comfortable since the cost of labour falls, making them more profit.
              Our present Tories are eager to rid themselves of 'red tape' which protects workers' rights and the environment. They want back those good old Victorian Values so beloved of the Tories -- when servants were plentiful and cheap, the lower-classes knew their place and weren't there workhouses?

    Humans, in common with all other life on earth, have never changed their breeding strategy. They have as many children as they think they can raise to adulthood within the niche-space they occupy at the time. It's natural, it's Nature -- and with all other species, it works pretty well.

    But human beings, uniquely, learned to expand their niche-space beyond all other species. We long ago left behind the basics of food, water and a lair. Now we not only live in every region except the poles but we include a home of our own, fashionable clothing and electronic gadgets among our needs -- if not as necessities, then as aspirations.

    We now not only have as many children as we think we can afford in our niche-space, massively increasing demand on resources year on year on year -- but we are now occupied in trying to escape death for longer and longer, in trying to ensure that infertile couples can have children too, and in preserving the lives of those who would have naturally died young. It is ruinous to our societies and the planet.

    I first read Colinvaux's 'Fate of Nations' over 20 years ago. It lit up my head then, and it does now.
    The book is fascinating. Not cheerful -- in fact, rather depressing -- but clarifying. Clarity often is depressing.

    'Fate of Nations' is particuarly uncheering for a left-winger like me; but it's hard to deny the truth behind it. The theory doesn't aim to justify war, cruelty, infanticide and so forth. It isn't trying to make people who have children or want to live longer feel guilty -- after all, these perfectly natural desires are so much a part of us, how could we avoid them?

    The book simply makes clear the pattern that underlies it all.

    In short, a great book if you want to think. But not if you want to sleep easy.

    And I'd be interested to know what other History Girls think of the theory. Do you find it convincing, over-ambitious, old hat -- or 'other'?

    This is a post from one of our Reserve History Girls and we are very grateful to Susan Price for it. Janie Hampton will be back next month.

    Susan Price won

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    This summer we travelled around Scotland with American friends, touring through the Highlands via the Pass of Glencoe, where our tour guide told us all about the famous massacre.  I’d known about it before, but somehow travelling through that bleak, beautiful countryside whilst hearing what had happened in 1692 brought home the stark horror of the event.

    The Pass of Glencoe

    A 19th century depiction of the site of the massacre.

    As ever, it was religion that caused the problem.  In England William and Mary, staunch Protestants, were on the throne.

    William and Mary
    They had heard that many of the Highland clans were equally staunch Catholics who called themselves Jacobites because they were still hoping for the return of the Catholic King James VII who was still living in exile in France. 

    James VII
    Fear of a French invasion in support of the deposed king led the Government to make payments to the Highland clan chiefs in return for their allegiance to William and Mary.  In order to claim their payments the clan chiefs must sign a declaration of allegiance before 1 January 1692.  The Under Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir John Dalrymple, was in charge of the operation, though he was far from impartial in his fulfilment of his role, having already a long-standing feud with the Macdonald clan.

    From a 19th century picture of Macdonald of Glencoe
    On hearing of this ultimatum, Alexander Macdonald of Glencoe made it a point of honour to delay his signing of the document until the last moment.  Eventually, however, on 31 December, he made his way to Fort William to sign it.  When he arrived there he was informed that he couldn't sign it there at Fort William, but must go to Inverness - a distance of some 65 miles even today, on good roads with good transport, so even more in those days, especially in the dead of winter.  By the time he made it to Inverness he had missed the deadline by several days, but officials there told him it would be all right because he had done his best to sign on time.  He returned home to Glencoe satisfied that he would get his payment and all would be well.

    It is now thought that he may have been deliberately misled, as Sir John Dalrymple then decided to make an example of Macdonald and his clan in order to deter others.  Accordingly troops under the leadership of Campbell of Glenlyon were sent to the village of Glencoe with orders to befriend the villagers.  The Highlanders were famous for their hospitality to strangers, so when the troops arrived they were greeted with friendship and offers of food and beds during their stay.  And there they stayed for almost two weeks, on good terms with the Macdonald clan.
                                                                                                                                                                      However, on 12 February Campbell received his orders from Sir John:

    The order to kill the Macdonalds

    That night the Campbells turned on their hosts and murdered 40 of them.  They then burnt down their houses and destroyed the village of Glencoe.  Several of the Macdonalds managed to escape, but due to the weather and the bleak terrain, and the fact that most of them were in their nightwear, many died of exposure.  

    The atrocity aroused widespread condemnation, not least because the Campbells had enjoyed the hospitality of the Macdonalds before killing them, but an enquiry into the incident didn’t take place until 1695.  This resulted in Sir John Dalrymple’s dismissal, but William’s failure to deal swiftly with the matter intensified anti-English feeling in Scotland.  For many years afterwards the feud between the Macdonalds and the Campbells continued, and is reputed to still rankle in some areas.  In the episode “Time and Life” from the TV series Mad Men there is a reference to the massacre when headmaster Bruce MacDonald in the year 1970 still holds a grudge against Pete Campbell.                                                    

    Glencoe was a popular topic with 19th century poets, the best known work being Sir Walter Scott’s "Massacre of Glencoe".   And in 1998, the so-called Henderson Stone was set up at Glencoe which purports to mark the location used by associates of the MacDonalds to warn of impending raids. 
    The Henderson Stone at Glencoe
    The inscription reads as follows:

    See my website:

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    Author photo by Kate Gren

    L.J. MacWhirter was born just outside London, grew up in the North of England and today lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family. After studying English Literature, Liz went on to become an award-winning copywriter. Black Snow Falling is her début novel for young adults and up. It draws on her fascination with the inner workings of minds and mechanical machines, and how people can be controlled by cultural dynamics. Black Snow Falling launches on 1 August 2018 and is nominated for the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

    Facebook @LJMacWhirter

    Twitter and Instagram @LizMacWhirter

    Without libraries, I doubt I’d have written my début novel for young adults, Black Snow Falling. I doubt I’d even be a writer. I spent my childhood with my nose in books, many from our local library in Bramhall. When I had the idea for this novel, I burrowed into the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Yellow request slips piled up as high as my thumb. Numerous notes became compost. I discovered that the 16th century was the perfect time to locate this story about hopes and dreams snatched away. The book research also revealed key facts that shaped the story.

     “The Rainbow Portrait” of Elizabeth I, which is featured in Black Snow Falling. Photo: Hatfield House

    A number of books also feature strongly in the story of Black Snow Falling. Ruth smuggles a book to Silas, her secret love, when they meet in their hiding place in Crowbury woods. Silas is a stable hand who longs for more in life; his hunger is fed by her books. “The words show me other worlds, Ruth,” he says, and it’s driving him to leave Crowbury.

    Ruth’s wealthy family possess a whole library, together with a Cabinet of Curiosities from the New World and an Armillary Sphere from Italy.

    The Armillary Sphere in Black Snow Falling, representing the geocentric understanding of the heavens.

    I decided to make Ruth one of the very few privileged educated young women because this unmasks the sexism of the age. Not only is she to be forced into marriage at the age of 15, but she is to be denied her books, too. My library research had revealed that, at the time, it was actually believed that reading made women infertile – as if using their minds would ruin their wombs. Talk about patriarchal control. A thinking woman was a threat. Dress all the young women in red and you’d be one step away from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Linking reading with fertility is, of course, as nonsensical as the geocentric belief that the earth was at the centre of the universe, which was upheld across the Western world until hundreds of years later.

    The 1593 geocentric Armillary Sphere at the Museo Galileo, Florence, which helped to inspire Black Snow Falling

    This brings me to another plot-changing fact I found. Everyone has heard of Copernicus and Galileo who proposed that the earth was turning around the sun – the heretical theory of heliocentricity. But I, for one, had never heard of Thomas Digges, who also quietly published a book in 1576 proposing the same. I found this modern copy of his book, The Prognostication Everlasting of Right Good Effect in the National Library of Scotland. I’d only ordered it up from the stacks because I liked the title.

    The Prognostication Everlasting of Right Good Effect by Leonard Digges and Thomas Digges 1576, The National Library of Scotland

    Perhaps it’s no surprise that Thomas Digges was the ward of John Dee, who owned the second biggest library in the country. Dee’s library numbered over 4,000 books when both Cambridge and Oxford Universities had fewer than 900 between them.

    Connecting this to Black Snow Falling, Dee and Digges would have lived at the same time as Ruth and they could have known her adventurous father, the merchant-turned-noble, Earl of Crowbury. So I put Dee and Digges in Black Snow Falling, as one of Ruth’s flashbacks. It was a significant meeting for her because she knew that Copernicus and Digges were both so radical and heretical, her father had to keep their books secret. Their ideas – printed and disseminated – were seen as a threat to the establishment.

    Mid the umpteenth draft of the novel, I went with some visiting friends to an Open Day at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, just a mile from where I live. Incredibly, there I saw Copernicus’s original book from 1543, De Revolutionibus (On the Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs) in a private library called the Crawford Collection. It is one of only 276 surviving copies. This book shook the world.

     On the Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs by Nicolas Copernicus, 1543, The Crawford Collection, Royal Observatory of Edinburgh

    “Books did have a habit of turning things on their head,” as Ruth says in Black Snow Falling.

    Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, placing the sun at the centre of the heavens. The Crawford Collection, Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.

    Because she is educated through her love of books, my character Ruth is even more terrified by the prospect of her world snapping shut. The novel is about her struggle to somehow find agency.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the freedom to follow the question, to think, is vital for us individually and for the health of society as a whole. To do this, we all need broad access to books and content to help us see beyond our own horizons. At this time when libraries are closing all over the country, it’s more than doors that are being shut. It will almost certainly close minds, as well.

    Black Snow Falling
    will be published in hardback by Scotland Street Press on 1 August 2018.

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    Typical. I started writing this article a couple of days ago, at 5.30am after yet another sticky, close night. In the end I gave up trying to sleep and decided to do something useful instead. It is now Sunday morning and the weather is cool and grey and rainy, making this one of the most poorly timed blog posts ever.

    But all is not lost. According to my phone, the heat is coming back. So, for those of you who love a heatwave - and those like me who just want it to be 20 degrees and cloudy LIKE NORMAL FOR JULY IN BRITAIN - here’s a quick overview of a few ways people have kept cool through history. At the end I’ll pick my favourite to go into this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

    1. Caves. Ok, so they won’t fit into my cabinet, but many caves are Nice Cool Places. On holiday in Sicily this year, this was brought home to me in two different ways. The first was that my bedroom in our rented villa was one! It was by far the coolest (in both sense of the word) room in the house and despite the temperatures being well into in the 30s during the day, I slept well and long every night (and sometimes for afternoon naps too).

    My bedroom in Modica, Sicily, 
    always cool and comfortable! 
    Photo: C Wightwick

    We also visited the Cava d’Ispica, a series of caves which were inhabited from prehistoric times through to the middle ages. Obvious evidence of inhabitation ranged from soot markings, to stone-cut tombs, shelves and niches for lighting or possessions and the remnants of medieval frescos – a really stunning landscape detailing the different ways that people shape and use the natural world around them.

    Cava d'Ispica, Sicily. 
    Photo: C Wightwick

    2. Air-con. Yup, it existed prior to electricity. Wealthy Romans, for example, pumped cold water through the walls of their houses in the summer months to keep things cool. And of course the Romans also had the Frigidarium at the Baths to plunge into…

    3. Fans. So this is where the photos get really pretty. Used across different cultures for thousands of years (evidence dates from C4th BC in Greece and C2nd BC in China, for example), fans became a major fashion accessory in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Disappointingly though, the so-called ‘language of the fans’ is, apparently, just a myth (or rather a later marketing ploy). While I’m normally one for historical accuracy in my fiction, please don’t let that put you off, romance writers! 
    C18th hand fan, showing Hector's 
    farewell to Andromache, 
    Victoria & Albert Museum London 

    4. Back to Sicily. I seem inexplicably not to have taken any photos of the frankly vast quantity of gelato I consumed on holiday earlier this year (I can’t imagine why that would be) so you’ll have to imagine it. Ice cream. Mmm. Again existing in some form (at least for royalty) for thousands of years, it seems to have developed in Europe into what we would recognise as ice-cream in around about the C16th and was gradually popularised as ice houses and then refrigeration became more available.

    So – my winner? Well, I can’t fit my bed-cave into even my imaginary Cabinet of Curiosities, so it will have to be a fan. Practical and pretty – it can act as a reminder of this summer’s heat wave long after we’re shivering in our beds and longing for summer again…

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  • 07/30/18--16:01: July competition

  • To win a copy of L J MacWhirter's Black Snow Falling, just answer the question below in the Comments section. Then copy your answer to so that I can contact you for your land address if you win.

    "Which book would you most miss if you had no access to it? "

    Closing date: 7th August

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

    Good luck!

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    By the time you read this, the exhibition Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, at the British Museum, will be over but I caught it in its last week.

    What three sculptures of Rodin would you expect to see in such an exhibition? The Kiss? The Thinker? The Burghers of Calais? Well, you would have been right. They were all there in some form or another. The Kiss was a plaster copy of the marble sculpture in Paris.

    What is - or isn't - Greek, or classical about this? Well, for a start, it is much more intimate and personal than anything from the ancient world. It is Romantic in the History of Art sense but not the popular one. It scandalised its first viewers as a work of erotica, because the female figure is as involved in the embrace as the male. Also in the original, the male is aroused. It was intended as a portrait of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Maltesta, her brother-in-law, immortalised by Dante in his Inferno, Canto 5. But their lips haven't actually touched - it is a case of basium interruptum.

    And indeed the lovers were interrupted and killed. All this is lost if you see it just as an anonymous smooch. The Italian subject seems at first to make and obvious link from the ancient Greeks to Rodin via Michelangelo and the French sculptor did visit Italy and greatly admired the statues by Michelangelo that he saw, especially the Prisoners, fighting their way out of their blocks of stone. And the Dying Slave in Paris was another influence.

    Michelangelo himself saw many Greek statues, though some were Roman copies of Greek originals. Such as the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze. The same is true of the Laocoon and his sons sculpture, unearthed in 1506 and believed at first to be a Greek original.

    The Thinker was represented in the exhibition by a cast in "patinated plaster," giving it a reddish tinge. This, like the Kiss, was a figure originally intended to embellish The Gates of Hell,  a work commissioned from Rodin in 1880, to form an entrance to a Museum of Decorative Arts. Neither the Museum nor the gates was ever built but Rodin's designs for it occupied him for decades and formed the basis for many of his subsequent achieved works.
    What a sight it would have been if ever completed! A sort of counterpoint to Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise doors on the Baptistery in Florence.

    But to revert to the Greeks, Rodin never saw the Parthenon itself but was deeply influenced by the marble friezes he saw in the British Museum. And plaster casts seen in France. However, he bought into the theories of  eighteenth century art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was immensely influential on European art and aesthetics.

    For Winckelmann, Greek sculpture was 'pure" and white but we now know that the Parthenon friezes were coloured and closer to mediaeval effigy art than to some theoretical aesthetic of purity.  Here is just one example of a restored figure, a Trojan archer,painted in the colours it would have had originally:

    Credit: Marsyas
    Rodin would have been surprised if not appalled. It is only relatively recently that it has become generally accepted that Greek marble sculptures were painted.

    But Rodin wasn't copying the Greeks; he was doing something different. If you like, his marble, bronze and plaster figures were putting Greek sculpture into inverted commas, giving it a modern twist.

    Influenced by Michelangelo, he practised the non finito technique, leaving his statues deliberately incomplete. And he was fascinated by fragments of classical sculpture and deliberately created "fragments" of work. These figures were not damaged by time and accident but created to be only partial.

    What about the great bronze group, The Burghers of Calais? The original is of course in the eponymous city but Rodin gave permission for a limited number of copies to be made and one is familiar to Londoners from its position in Victoria Gardens on the Embankment of the Thames.

    Credit: Roman Suzuki
    This looks like figurative art, plain and simple. These are the six substantial citizens of Calais who were prepared to die to save the other inhabitants under siege from Edward lll. We know their names and a bit about them. They were saved by the intervention of Edward's queen, Philippa of Hainault, but they did not know their fate when they bravely offered to sacrifice themselves for the good of the rest of the population, who were starving after holding out for eleven months.. They have nooses around their necks and are holding the keys to the city.

    As with so many of Rodin's monumental pieces, this one was controversial, because the figures were too human, showing fear and reluctance. It wasn't heroic for the nineteenth century burghers five and a half centuries after the event commemorated. Rodin's is a very modern view of heroism - scarifice in full knowledge of fear and weakness.

    It seems a long way from the Greeks, whether the colourless or painted art. Rodin had no referents for what his actual burghers looked like but they are far from idealised; they are real men, who we can believe are hungry, frightened and hopeless. They are Everyman and that's what makes them important. We can identify with them and wonder if we would have done what they did.

    Although Rodin clearly was influenced by classical sculpture, he does make  something new, of his own. His work is far from derivative, always distinctive.

    (All images are Creative Commons)

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    When I was a child, my mother (a science teacher) tested her excursions during the school holidays. We didn’t just go to Ballarat (an old gold town in Victoria), then, we visited the town and the museum and then walked through an old mine. We went to Vaughn Springs and panned for gold and gems. I normally sum this up as going to the beach to study the ecology of rockpools, but today I’m not interested in rockpools. 

    What I saw when I was a child was what mining did to landscapes. It created tunnels and hills and dredged streams deeper or reshaped them. In one of my childhood landscapes, the streams had been destroyed entirely in the search for gold. I looked at small hills and, as a child brought up on English books, I loved them. Then Mum explained those hills and I found out that, in the making of a tiny hilled landscape, everything had been destroyed. The water from local streams had been targeted to help force the gold out under pressure. Those small hills everywhere were the refuse from the urgent search for gold. There was so much destruction in the old goldfields that it wasn’t until later that I learned how to interpret landscapes. Mining can leave land permanently changed.

    Interpretation is important. And one never stops learning. Earlier this year, I read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?This book questioned the way we interpret the Australian landscape historically. I realised that I’d factored mining into my interpretation of agriculture, but hadn’t considered the wider ramifications of farming before the early 1800s in exactly the same place. The mining had obliterated a lot of the evidence of farming, but Pascoe found more evidence in explorer’s journals and records from early European settlement. 

    This was in my mind when I went to Amiens this July. I only returned last week, so it’s very fresh.

    The cathedral in Amiens. It survived the wars.

    I was investigating a heap of things for a heap of reasons, but when I began my research a few months ago, I realised that the debris of World War I lies on Somme landscape the way the debris of goldmining lies on the Victorian goldfields. I needed to understand three periods in that region (the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century, and the end of World War II) but before I could interpret them, I had to understand World War I.

    My big advantage in the interpretation is that it’s a centennial year: everyone was willing to talk with me and the museums were stuffed with information. There were pictures of before and after, for example, for bombed sites and for major battlefields. I could take all this out and catch a train and visit a once-destroyed town and check out the fields and wander the streets of Amiens and interpret… everything.

    I thought you might like to see some of the things I saw. This is not a complete guide. Not even close to one, in fact. This is one small element and even that element is something I’ll be processing what I saw until I’ve finished the novels I’m working on. Maybe longer. It will take far more than a blogpost to explain that landscape.

    My focus today, then, is on the effect of World War I on the area of the Somme around Amiens. I went up to two trainstops away in more than one direction to see what I could see.

    The first thing that struck me was the missing places. There are some complete landscape changes in the region. Some of it is the usual (villages deserted because the people moved elsewhere) but in the Somme region, there is a very disturbing type of desertion. The satellite map shows places where trains and roads still do not go. This is the worst remaining parts of the Zone Rouge. The Zone Rouge was much larger a hundred years ago, but the web tells me it will take 700 years before every part of the battlefront region from World War I is liveable again.

    The Red Zone is that part of the front line that was so destroyed by battle that it needed to be mended before it could be lived in. I visited part of it that had been mended and looked at maps of those parts that I can’t get to.

    This is a street in a torn named Albert, which was rebuilt almost from scratch. 

    “You can’t live here, it’s dangerous” was the official word. 

    “It’s home,” said the locals and rebuilt.

    I visited because that rebuild was so important to me for so many reasons. It reminded me that houses are not the only thing in a hometown. Places of beauty and places of awe make a difference, too. Albert has all of these. It was mostly built in the 1920s, but it remembers the earlier past through its landmarks.

    Each place in a ruined landscape makes different decisions or has decisions made for them. I talked to a potter in Amiens, and he told me about his family. Their town was never rebuilt. There’s a museum there, he said, but there are no trains or buses. Also no residents. His family moved to Amiens because there was nothing left for them.

    Not everything is destroyed on or near a military front line ,even one as destructive as that in World War I. Amiens was partly destroyed, Bits of it are old. Bits of it are new. Bits of it are rebuilt in older styles, in an attempt to not lose its past. Amiens has an important history and a lot of rebuilders commemorated that history by having houses that have an earlier ‘feel’ or that take  stones and carvings from the rubble and make them part of a home. I have hundreds of pictures of Amiens, because its way of balancing survival and rebuilding and moving forward is very much its own. This means that the city’s character emerges in all the sectors of the town, whether they’re the once-a-citadel or whether they’re tourist sections or whether they’re remnants of the nationally important seventeenth century place.

    Amiens added to this complex streetscape as part of its commemoration of World War I. It has photographs of the war telling stories using the streetscape. Those pictures show us who fought; they show us the damage: they remind us that scars do not heal easily.

    It’s easier to think that war is past if one lives on the other side of the world. It’s harder if one sees a new house where the family home once rested. It’s much harder still if one looks at a plantation of pines that once held the town one’s family had lived in for generations.

    Something that tangles the Somme landscape is the sorrowful tourism for families of soldiers.  People from outside the region want to see the destroyed landscape. Only some of them have interest in the region itself. Right now, there are Aussies everywhere, retracing the tracks of their fallen relatives. It’s become a replacement industry for the region, making up for everything that was lost in World War I and then World War II.

    This is not new. The extent of the tourism is something that’s only a hundred years old, but the memory of war in what used to be Picardy is not new at all. This landscape is scarred because of where it is and how rich the soil is. Some of the best farmland. Old cultures, cool people. And so it has suffered in war after war after war. The stuff, in fact, of stories. Some of the great French battle epics are set in this part of France. English-speakers think of the English/French interface. Readers of Dumas think of La Rochelle. Everyone thinks of Paris. But this area has a special history and the landscape is much harder to read because of this history. 

    What looks like fields and forest may also be layers of buried sorrow.

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    I love my children, and know how lucky I am to have them. But I also love writing, and writing and young children are not necessarily compatible. Hence summer holidays pose a challenge.

    There has been much discussion in recent years about how modern writers deal with the so-called ‘pram in the hall’, but I began to wonder how writers occupied their children in the days before Peppa Pig. And how did families and writing intersect?

    The gender divide

    Asked recently how she had had produced so much work with two children, author Lauren Groff replied: ‘I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.’

    It’s true, of course, that women are still asked this question far more than men, but go back a century or two and no would even have considered asking a male author about his work/life balance. The time-honoured way of writing with children was to have a dutiful wife to look after them, and ideally a hoard of servants. Charles Dickens had ten children. Tolstoy had thirteen. I don’t believe anyone ever asked them about their childcare arrangements.

    Mark Twain’s children weren’t allowed anywhere near his study and would ‘blow a horn if they needed him’. Thomas Mann angrily removed any child who disturbed his work. However, E.B White said he often wrote in his living room 'despite the carnival that is going on all around me.' George Orwell’s adopted son remembers him as a ‘hands on’ father who looked after him following his mother's death. After JG Ballard lost his wife to pneumonia in 1964 he brought up their children alone while continuing with his writing, and his children remember him as a kind and dedicated father. These were still, however, the exceptions.

    From kitchen tables to different contintents 

    For women, historically the primary caregivers, the situation varied greatly. During 19th century, some female writers had wealth that enabled them to pay for nursemaids or governesses to occupy their children while they wrote. However, that was not always the case. Elizabeth Gaskell often wrote at the kitchen table, with her children around her. Frances Trollope, who began writing at age of 53 to support her sick husband and six children, sat down at her desk each day at 4 a.m. and completed her writing in time to serve breakfast.

    Some writers left their children with others for long stretches in order to write. Daphne Du Maurier left her young daughters with a nanny and their grandmothers for many months so that she could finish Rebecca. She once wrote, ‘I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time.’

    Enid Blyton, though she wrote of idyllic childhoods, seems to have had little time for her own children. In her memoir, A Childhood At Green Hedges, Enid Blyton’s youngest daughter recalls that, ‘Most of my mother’s visits to the nursery were hasty, angry ones, rather than benevolent. The nursery was a lonely place.’

    Some took it a step further. Doris Lessing, in her autobiography, Under My Skin, writes of ‘committing the unforgivable’ and leaving her ten-year-old son, John, and six-year-old daughter, Jean, to grow up with their father in Rhodesia. But, as ever, the full story is more complex. The woman who once claimed ‘No one can write with a child around’ in fact kept her young son Peter with her and continued to care for him throughout his life.

    Similarly, though Muriel Spark acquired a reputation as un-motherly for leaving her son with his mentally ill father in order to pursue her writing career, the reality seems to have been far more complicated and painful.

    The prize for deserting ones children in order to write in fact goes to a man: Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned all five of his children at foundling hospitals. And then of course wrote Emile, a novel lauded for its insights into the nature of children.

    Carving out space

    Most writers, however, did what we all do, which is to try to carve out writing time from our daily lives.

    Some wrote at night. Ursula Le Guin said, ‘I would go up to the attic, and work 9:00 to midnight. If I was tired, it was a little tough. But I was kind of gung-ho to do it. I like to write. It’s exciting, something I’m really happy doing.’ Toni Morrison began writing as a single mother to two young children. 'Writing was something for me to do in the evenings, after the children were asleep.'

    Others, like Trollope, woke ridiculously early in the morning. Sylvia Plath rose at 5am when the sedatives wore up and wrote until her children woke up. Within two months she had produced nearly all the poems that comprised Ariel.

    Adapting writing 

    Many writers had to alter their working practices or style in order to fit around family life.

    When, in the 1780s, Hester Thrale was criticised for having written Anecdotes of Dr Johnson rather than a full biography, she countered that'if one is to listen all Eveng and write all Morning what one has heard; where will be the time for... having one's children about one?'

    Others used the constraints of family life in order to create. Celia Fremlin's brilliant Hours Before Dawn came from her sleep-deprivation following her second baby. Alice Munro has said that she began writing short stories because as a young mother she had no time to write novels: ‘When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time.’

    Shirley Jackson told herself stories while doing the laundry. ‘All the time that I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories,’ she said in one of her lectures. According to Jackson’s biographer, ‘The idea for “The Lottery” came to her while she was grocery shopping with her daughter Joanne, then age 2. After they came home, she put away the groceries, put the child in her playpen, and wrote the story.’ One can only assume she didn’t much like the other shoppers.

    Now it’s not just the women who have to adapt their writing to family life. Michael Chabon and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, have four children and share the childcare so that they can both write. Karl Ove Knausgaard has said, 'When I started to write I thought I had to be isolated. I went to lighthouses in the sea, and uninhabited islands. But then I had children and I realised I had to do it at home. I’ve never written as well as I have since having children.' In a recent interview, Robert Harris also dismissed the notion that you had to write somewhere remote, saying, ‘You really need domestic routine and life going on around you, I think.’

    I question, however, whether their domestic routines involve small children regularly coming up to their desks demanding that they locate small plastic toys or separate a fight. Perhaps I should do as another (unnamed) writer does: hang a sign on the door saying, 'Only knock in the event of blood.'


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. And a mum.

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    Thomas, Second Baron Lyttelton
    “Sir,” said Dr Johnson to his friend Dr Adams, “it is the most extraordinary thing that has happened in my day.” 
    He was speaking of the mysterious circumstances attending the death of Thomas, Second Baron Lyttelton, known in true Georgette Heyer fashion as ‘the wicked Lord Lyttelton’, born 30 January 1744, and died - as we shall see - on the night of the 27th November 1779.
    Lyttelton was educated at Eton and Oxford, a charming and talented boy; too charming and talented for his own good, perhaps, for he became a notorious rake.  He fought duels, and ‘excelled the ordinary model of young debauchery everywhere’. He married to pay his gambling debts and then ran off to Paris with a barmaid; he entered the House of Commons in 1768 as MP for Bewdley, but was unseated for bribery the following year; he disappeared again to the Continent; but when his father died in 1774 he returned and took his seat in the Lords where, to secure his support, ministers bought him over with a lucrative sinecure – something which would pay him money and for which he would have to do little or no work – the ancient post of Chief Justice of Eyre beyond the Trent. 
    Four years later, however, on the 25th November 1779, (possibly disappointed by his failure to obtain another sinecure and become a Keeper of the Privy Seals) Lyttelton changed sides and denounced Government and Court in a vitriolic speech. Horace Walpole comments ‘Lyttelton … has turned against the Court.'  Regarding his existing sinecure, Lyttelton said, ‘Perhaps I may not keep it long.’
    He was correct.  By midnight on November 27th, he was dead.
    On the night before his speech – the night of Wednesday 24thNovember – Lyttelton saw a ghost which told him he would die within three days. Between the Wednesday and the Friday, he mentioned this to various friends and acquaintances: Rowan Hamilton, and one Captain Ascough, who told a lady, who told another lady named Mrs Thrale who wrote it down in her diary on Sunday 28th November, the morning after Lyttelton’s midnight death:
    Yesterday a lady from Wales dropped in and said that she had been at Drury Lane on Friday night.  “How,” I asked, “were you entertained?” “Very strangely indeed!  Not with the play, though, but the discourse of a Captain Ascough, who averred that a friend of his, Lord Lyttelton, has SEEN A SPIRIT, who warned him that he will die in three days.  I have thought of nothing else since.”
    Horace Walpole, writing to a friend on Monday November 29th, says:
    Lord Lyttelton is dead suddenly.  …The story is given out, that he looked ill, AND HAD SAID HE SHOULD NOT LIVE THREE DAYS; that he had gone to his house in Epsom… with a caravan of nymphs; and on Saturday had retired before supper to take rhubarb; returned, supped heartily, went into the next room and died in an instant. 
    Within a short time, however, Walpole has picked up on the gossip around town: Lyttleton had claimed to have seen a robin – or some other bird – which changed into a woman and delivered him a death warning.  By December 11th Walpole writes with dry humour to another friend that ghost stories are back in fashion!
    Lord Lyttelton’s vision has revived the taste; though it seems a little odd that an APPARITION should despair of getting access to his lordship’s bed, in the shape of a young woman, without being forced to use the disguise of a robin red-breast.
    The ‘nymphs’ to whom Walpole refers in his first letter were the three Misses Amphlett; residing with their ‘chaperon’ Mrs Flood at Lyttelton’s house in Hill Street, Berkeley Square.  A few months later, in February 1780, Lord Westcote, Lyttelton’s uncle, questioned them, and wrote:
    On November 25th, at breakfast in Hill Street, Lord Lyttelton told the young ladies and their chaperon that he had had an extraordinary DREAM.
    He seemed to be in a room which a bird flew into; the bird changed to a woman in white, who told him he should die in three days.
    He ‘did not much regard it, because he could in some measure account for it; for that a few days before he had been with Mrs Dawson, when a robin red-breast flew into her room.’  On the morning of Saturday [the 27th] he told the same ladies that he was very well and believed he should ‘BILK THE GHOST’. On that day – Saturday – he …went to bed after eleven, ordered rolls for breakfast, and, in bed, ‘died without a groan’ as his servant was disengaging him from his waistcoat.
    Myself, I'm particularly taken with the juxtaposition of the caravan of nymphs and the rhubarb, and with Walpole's crack about the spirit not really needing to disguise itself as a robin to get into Lyttelton's bed... There was no inquest. 

    And there's a postscript: on the fatal night, 27th November 1779, Mr Miles Peter Andrews, a friend of Lyttelton’s who was staying at Dartford, was woken when his bed-curtains were pulled open and he was confronted by Lord Lyttelton ‘in his robe de chambre and nightcap’. Suspecting a practical joke, Andrews rang the bell for his servant, and on turning back found Lord Lyttelton gone.  The house and garden were searched in vain, and about four in the afternoon of the next day, a friend arrived with news of Lyttelton’s death. The event was recorded in the next number of the Scots Magazine,December 1779.
    But let us return to Dr Johnson, with whom we began, speaking of the mysterious affair with his friend Dr Adams.  Johnson was famously afraid of death.  He continues, “I heard it with my own ears from his uncle Lord Westcote. I am so glad to have evidence of the spiritual world that I am willing to believe it.”
    Dr Adams replies (doubtless alluding to the Scriptures), “You have evidence enough – good evidence, which needs no support.”
    “I like to have more!” Dr Johnson growls.

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    It's been a hot, dry summer.  And so I thought I'd share some paintings from hot, dry summers in the past. 

    Edward Atkinson Hornel Summer 1891

    Childe Hassam Summer Sunlight (Isles of Shoals) 1892

    Mary Cassatt Summertime 1894

    Shoen Uemura Firefly 1913

    And some rain would really help.  If, by the time you read this*, we're still in need, here's a poem about summer rain to remind you of what it's like.

    A drop fell on the apple tree
    Another on the roof
    A half a dozen kissed the eaves
    And made the gables laugh

    A few went out to help the brook
    That went to help the sea
    Myself conjectured, Were they pearls
    What necklaces could be!

    The dust replaced in hoisted roads
    The birds jocoser sung
    The sunshine threw his hat away
    The orchards spangles hung

    The breezes brought dejected lutes
    And bathed them in the glee
    The East put out a single flag
    And signed the fete away

    Emily Dickinson 1890

    P.S. When you read this, I will be in Jakarta for my son's wedding.  Now that's hot!

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

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     Another of my occasional series about books from the past.

    Last week I went to a conference in Bristol, a biannual affair discussing a wide range of mostly twentieth-century children’s books. I enjoyed hearing talks on writers like Rosemary Sutcliff, Noel Streatfeild and Geoffrey Trease, as well as the Chalet School, etc.

    One of the highlights is the book sale. Specialist dealers and delegates alike bring hundreds of children’s books – the rare, the eye-wateringly expensive and occasionally the shabby old friend that you have to buy because it’s exactly the edition they had in the Cregagh Library in 1979. I told myself I had to be ruthless. I’d had a huge clear-out, and  I’m not a person of great means. 

    But I couldn’t pass this by.The Story of the Treasure Seekers, along with The Railway Children, was always my favourite E. Nesbit. (I have always preferred my stories without magic, where possible.) This copy, dated 1907, is not a first (the book was published in 1899) but it's certainly the oldest copy I have seen. As you can see, it's fine and clean, a vibrant red with gilt tooling. An object of beauty. My own old copy was a 1960s Puffin paperback from a jumble sale, charming because it was my own, but not to be compared to this beauty. My fiftieth birthday is a fortnight away; I decided to treat myself. 

    This isn’t about the humour and heart of the story, though if you are unfamiliar with the fortunes of the house of Bastable, I suggest you remedy that forthwith. It’s about the book itself. It’s dedicated to‘Baby’, with all love from Daddy & Mummy on her birthday, Sept 13th, 1912.   It was customary then for children  to be known as Baby for the first year or so of life, especially in larger families, but I don’t know if ‘Baby’ received this book as an infant –  it doesn’t say which birthday, so it might indeed be her birth day – or as an older child. In which case, how embarrassing still to be known as ‘Baby’ -- she might have been the soppy sort of child the Bastables would have despised. The book had been around for 13 years by 1912: I like to think it was a childhood 

    favourite of 'Daddy' or 'Mummy', and they were impatient to pass it on to their own child. 

    But ‘Baby’ never read The Story of the Treasure Seekers; I am sure of it. Not this copy anyway. It’s very, very clean. Suspiciously so for a child’s book that is now 111 years old. Perhaps she grew up not to care much for reading. 

    what Baby was missing 
    If, as I suspect, she was given the book as an infant, to ‘grow into’, she would have been ready to read it around 1922. Maybe she preferred Angela Brazil or the first of the Dimsie books. Or perhaps, as she would have been six in 1918, she was one of the 50 million people who died in the great flu pandemic. Or her parents did, and she was orphaned, sent away perhaps without her books.

    We will never know. And whatever happened to ‘Baby’, this book, carefully chosen by her parents, has outlived them all. I don’t know where it has been through the whole of the twentieth century, but I know where it’s going to be for the rest of my life. And it may not stay quite so pristine because it is going to be taken down, and loved, and most importantly read.

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    When the proof of The Skylarks' War arrived in my house, I did what I always do with books: opened it at the first page and began to read. I was so overwhelmed that I photographed the page, put it up on Twitter and declared it to be an example of the perfect opening of a novel.  I'm still of that opinion, so I'm reproducing it here.

    I hope very much that you can read it because it sets the tone for the rest of the book. To my mind, this is elegant and  succinct and also, most importantly, an invitation to turn the page.

    Too often, a beautiful writing style can hide a dearth of plot, or a paucity of interesting and well-developed characters. Not so here. The Clarry whom we meet as she's being born on the first page carries the story through twenty years and more and so does her brother, Peter. We follow their lives, but just saying that is not enough. We see, through the prism of their stories, a whole social landscape which is changing almost before our eyes. Education is important in this book and its effect on both Clarry and Peter, in different ways, absolutely crucial.

    We have small town suburban life complete with delicious domestic detail of the kind that I love finding in a book. We have school, both boarding and grammar. And we have a kind of paradise in Cornwall, where Clarry and Peter's grandparents live. It's here they meet the third main character in the book: the charismatic, gorgeous and delightful Rupert, who is, to anyone familiar with the literature of the Great War, the very embodiment of the young men, the flower of Europe, mown down in those years. He's the sort of person everyone falls in love with. This includes the reader, and also a fascinating and loveable  character called Simon, whose devotion to Rupert will be seen for the homosexual longing it is, at a time when being gay was punishable by imprisonment and a social disgrace. 

    The War, when it comes, is treated in a slightly different way from what I've seen other writers do. Through Clarry, the Home Front is most important. Letters are important. What's happening in France and Belgium is only shown briefly, but Mckay has one chapter (Chapter 27) which tells us  about the War in three and a half pages...again, a model of economy and elegance. Anyone teaching this period would do well to read this chapter and use it with their classes. 

    The other thing I love about this book is this: it's a family book, like  those of Noel Streatfeild or R F Delderfield. It's a book that you can all read: you, your mother, your children, your granny, your uncle, your can give to to a whole family for Christmas. Buy multiple copies and just distribute them. I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it. You will smile, and you will cry. You will rejoice and mourn with Clarry. You will recognise yourself and your friends. I hope you don't recognise your own father because Clarry and Peter's surviving parent is a monster of a very particular kind. 

    I'm going to finish with a passage which can stand, I think, for the whole book. 

    "Simon thought that if the only way of being in contact with someone was by words written on paper, then those words must be both worth reading and true."

    The words in The Skylarks' War are exactly that. 

    Below, I've asked Hilary Mckay a few questions and I'm grateful to her for answering. The photos used in this piece are all from her and I thank her for letting me use them.


    1) You've written many books and different kinds of books too. This is a new departure it seems to me. Can you tell us a bit of how the idea first came to you.

    The idea has been with me for a long time, five years at least, when I began to write a book called Binny in Secret (later reissued as Binny Keeps a Secret.) It was a story with a present-day plot - the Binny story - and a subplot which eventually enlightened the present-day plot...(gosh this is complicated. It was a much too complicated book) set one hundred years before. The characters in the sub-plot were the three main characters in The Skylarks' War. As soon as I began writing about Clarry, Peter and Rupert (after Rupert Brooke, who captured my fourteen-year-old heart by way of a book of poems from my mother and never quite let go of it, whatever I learned about him after that.) I knew that there was much more to them than the few thousand words I gave them. They were so alive to me. I wrote another book or two after Binny in Secret, but always the Skylarks were there, and gradually on my desk I acquired a 1911 sovereign, a book about stars and constellations, and an old Victorian key. (the photos, shown together below are Hilary's own.)

    2) Did you have a certain kind of reader in mind when you began? Were you aiming it at children? It seems to me to be the epitome of a Family Book: one that all generations can read together

    I wrote it for myself. Sometimes writers are advised to write for themselves, but as a children's writer, this is rarely completely possible. This was one for me, though, entirely, and for the generation who were lost and hurt a hundred years ago. The only thing childish about it is the length. Of course an intelligent child could read it but so I hope could an intelligent adult. [A bit of Hilary's text here is complimentary to me, but I'm afraid I'm including it. Adèle] You know what I mean, because your own young adult novels are just the same. I read Troy and Happy Ever A
    fter at the same time as my fourteen-year- old daughter and we both loved them equally.

    3) Many books about the Great War deal either with actual fighting or the home front. You do both. Was there any editorial pressure on you to beef up the fighting in any way? If there was, how did you resist it.

    There was no editorial pressure on me at all, not for any part of the book. The editing was so light. It was mostly to do with chronology actually, because it covered such a long time span. I had a huge spread sheet with everyone's ages, historical events, etc running through the twenty odd years that the story covers.

    4) The emotional battlefields are as devastating in their way as the real ones. In particular the father of the Penrose family is....I have no words for him....and I'm struck by how little he is condemned in the novel either by his children or by you? Do you have a particular reason to let him off the hook a bit?

    Did I let him off the hook? I didn't mean to. He was an awful man. My characters knew that and so did I. I found him frightening: the thought of Clarry living with him, his utter coldness. They diminished him in the end with pity and laughter, but he was never redeemed. He remained what he was from the start. Devoid of love. Not off the hook at all!

    5) 1918 was a moment when women were more and more coming to the fore in education and suffrage and so forth. Your novel seems to be a clarion call ( Clarry-on!) for education, kindness and understanding. Would you be upset or pleased if your readers took it as an 'issue' novel?

    I would be delighted if readers took it as a Clarion Call...I like Clarry-on call! I am all for the girls. I found such a brilliant second-hand book when I was researching the novel, called "Somerville for Women." When I looked inside, I found it had been signed by a group of Somerville friends. One of them, Jill Brook (Lewis) says: "It can't be 40 years!" There are eight or nine signatures. So moving. We had a similar 'Eight' at St Andrew's and now at our own nearly forty years later, we say to each other: "Are you coming? I've got five of the eight...." etc.

    6) Is there going to be a sequel? I feel there could be a few...a series!

    I don't know. I wish I did. Maybe I could follow one of the next generation into WW2.

    A brief autobiography:

    I grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire, the eldest of four sisters in a very small house. My entire family read books like starving wolves eat their dinners, reading was my first great escape. The second was St Andrew's University. After a variety of jobs I settled down in Derbyshire to write books, which has just about kept the show on the bumpy road these last twenty five years or so.

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    Attribution: Gwy Jones/Sheepstor Village/CC BY-SA 2.0
    One of my great delights is stumbling across unassuming little villages that hold unexpected historical secrets. One such is the remote Dartmoor village of Sheepstor. The strange stone carving over the door of St. Leonard’s church, which some say resembles a skull with ears of corn sprouting from the eye sockets, became the inspiration for my new historical thriller. But this remote Devon village has become place of pilgrimage not just for the medieval obsessives like me, but also for visitors from Sarawak, Malaysia. For this little village not only boasts a holy well, a beautiful reconstructed rood screen, two ancient stone crosses, the remains of a bull and bear baiting field, and a Pua Kumba, but also the tombs of three Rajahs of Sarawak.
    Photo: Nilfanion. 
    Carving over door of Sheepstor Church

    The story of the Rajahs of Sarawak and Sheepstor is told on a plaque inside the church which seeks to cast a benevolent spin on a bizarre episode of history. According this, James Brooke wasborn in Bengal in 1803. Having been badly wounded in the Burma War of 1825, he was forced to resign from military service and spent his time travelling in the Far East. He bought a schooner and eventually sailed it to Singapore in 1839. There the Governor asked him to take gifts to Rajah Muda Hassim of Sarawak in North West Borneo, to thank him for the great kindness he had shown to shipwrecked British sailors.

    Surveying the seventy miles of uncharted coast as he sailed, Brooke reached Sarawak and, though hospitably received, he found a country ravaged by rebellion and tribal wars and under constant attack from pirates. His experience meant he was able to offer advice and help to the local administrators who eventually asked him to stay on and become the Rajah. He served as Rajah for 22 years helping to prevent slavery and piracy and bring some measure of peace between warring tribes. He raised money to help the people using not only his own wealth but borrowing funds from Baroness Burdett-Coutts.
    Photo: Nilfanion
    Rood Screen in St Leonards Church, Sheepstor

    He wrote – ‘Sarawak belongs to the Malays, the Sea Dayaks, the Land Dayaks, the Kayans and other tribes: not to us. It is for them we labour, not ourselves.’
    Other accounts cast Brooke in role of arch- colonialist, and the alternative view of how Brooke came to be Sultan is rather more Machiavellian.The coastal region of Sarawak was under the control of the Brunei Sultanate, while in the interior of Sarawak the Iban, Kayan, and Kenyahs fought continual territorial battles. A rich seam of antimony had been discovered and the Brunei Sultanate demanded higher taxes from Sarawak, which had led to widespread rebellion.

    In 1839, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II ordered his uncle Pangeran Muda Hashim to restore order. Pangeran asked for James Brooke’s help. He initially refused, but agreed when he returned in 1841 and Pangeran signed a treaty surrendering Sarawak to Brooke as Governor. In 1843, Brooke attempted to get his ally, Pangeran, accepted as a member of the Brunei Court, more-or-less at gunpoint, but in 1945 they retaliated by having Pangeran assassinated. Brooke promptly attacked Kampong Ayer, the capital of Brunei. The Sultan of Brunei found himself compelled to apologise to Queen Victoria, confirm Brooke's possession of Sarawak and concede Brunei’s right to tribute on antimony mining rights. It was then in, 1846, that Brooke became the Rajah of Sarawak.

    Tombs of the three Rajahs in Sheepstor, Devon. 
    James Brooke's tomb (left) made of red polished granite

    So, James Brooke, champion of Sarawak against the oppressive Sultanate of Brunei and the evils of slavery, or autocratic colonial adventurer? - the truth is seldom found in labels.

    James Brooke retired in 1863 to England to live in the Dartmoor parish of Sheepstor and was buried there after his death in June 1868. His eldest nephew, Captain John Brook Johnson, was nominated by his uncle as Rajah Muda. But his uncle seems to have regretted his choice of heir and there is some suggestion that James banished his nephew from Sarawak. John died in England in the same year as his uncle.

    In the meantime, John's younger brother, Charles Antoni Johnson, had taken leave from the navy in 1852 to help administer Sarawak and managed to win the trust of the people, which was not lightly given. He was appointed Rajah and ruled for nearly 50 years. He inherited a debt-ridden country, but in 1871, had managed to repay Baroness Burdett-Coutts the money she had lent to James. According the account in the church, other tribal groups in Borneo sought the protection of Sarawak, and in this way the territories were extended to 50,000 square miles. Though described even by his admirers, as ‘austere, direct,  and autocratic,’ Charles travelled constantly through Sarawak, engaging with the leaders of the different ethnic groups, and developing schools, medical facilities and trade. In 1888, Sarawak became a fully independent state under British Protection. Charles died in 1917, aged, 88.

    His first three children had perished from cholera, but he had three further sons, the eldest of whom, Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke, became the Rajah after the death of his father in 1917, during the First World War. In 1941, at the centenary celebrations he announced his intention of renouncing the title and establishing a Constitution, but in December of that year Sarawak along with the rest of Borneo had been invaded by the Japanese.

    The three tombs of the Rajahs can be found in the north-eastern corner of Sheepstor churchyard, incongruously facing the most English of rural scenes with sheep grazing on the hillside. James Brooke’s has the grandest tomb made from polished red Aberdeen granite, while the other two Rajahs' tombs are of local Dartmoor granite. The larger of the two took 11 horses to pull it to the churchyard.

    Photo: Nilfanion
    Pua Kumba presented to Sheepstor Church
    Inside St Leonard’s church you’ll find a Pua Kumbu, or a ceremonial mat, given to Sheepstor Church by the people of Sarawak, and presented by Dr James Masing, the assistant minister of tourism when he visited the tombs on 7th of March 1996. A fascinating exhibition in the church explains that the Pua Kumbu acts as a ‘sacred space’ in ceremonies performed by the Iban tribe and for rites of passage. It is a place where the spirit world and the world of the living meet. Each Pua Kumbu is different and the unique designs are revealed in dreams or visions to groups of Iban women who have dedicated themselves to seeking great spirituality. 

    The church also contains a memorial dedicated to the members of the Sarawak Civil Service who died in Japanese prisoner of war camps during WWII. Wonderful to find these men remembered so many miles from home in a tiny Devon village.

    If you are travelling through the West Country, it is well worth taking a detour to visit Sheepstor, not least for the beautiful moorland setting and if you have time perhaps climb up to the tor behind the village whose granite rocks conceal a pixy cave or ‘knocking cave.’ And if you find that the village and church look familiar, that maybe because Steven Spielberg used Sheepstor for some of his location shots in the brilliant film War Horse.
    Attribution: Guy Wareham/Sheepstor Cross/CC BY-SA 2.0

    Karen Maitland's new medieval thriller, A Gathering of Ghosts, set on Dartmoor,  is published on 6th September 2018.

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  • 08/08/18--16:17: Roman Dead for Kids
  • With its skeletons, skulls, tombstones and ashes of the dead, some will find the current Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands disturbing. For this reason it is not recommended to bring children 8 years old or under. But many children will find it as fascinating as I do. I recently attended several school workshops at the Museum of London Barbican where children aged 8-11 engaged in activities about bones and grave goods with a real skeleton in the room. They were told not to touch the real remains but to treat them with respect and they seemed to accept this as perfectly normal. 

    (For more info about these FREE workshops go HERE)

    If you think your child or grandchild might be interested in the fascinating customs of Roman Dead, here are my tips for making the most of your visit.  

    When you first arrive, go straight to the welcome desk and pick up a Family Trail sheet. This can be folded to make an origami ‘Quiz Machine’ which poses questions to get you thinking. It is fun and interactive and addresses four different categories: Bones, Rituals, Imports and Cremations. For example, IMPORTS Objects found in London graves are made from materials from the furthest part of the Roman Empire and beyond. Can you find the case with these artefacts?  Match their materials to where they came from. 1. Ivory leopard-shaped knife 2. Tortoiseshell bracelet 3. Gold-in-glass beads. Answer- 1 = C, 2 = A, 3 = B

    Once you are in the exhibition keep an eye out for the Family Trail cards, down at kids’ eye level. They have a jolly skeleton and look like the one on the left. The exhibition is laid out so that you can go around the perimeter and not have to confront any skeletons close up (apart from some skulls). In the central area, seven full skeletons are laid out in glass cases in the middle of the dimly lit space so you can either approach or avoid them. Chances are your kids will be fascinated!

    One of the first things you see upon entering the exhibition is a map of Roman London showing the locations of the several cemeteries we have found. In Roman times, cemeteries are always outside the main area of habitation. In London proper, north of the Thames, they were outside the town wall. In marshy South London where there was no town wall, burial areas were demarcated by canals or ditches. 

    APOTROPAIC– This is a big word but a useful one. It is Greek for ‘turns away evil’. Because the Romans didn’t know about germs and viruses, they thought many illnesses were caused by evil spirits and demons. For this reason they had lots of different ways of turning away evil. Bad smells, loud noises and staring faces were all apotropaic. I wonder if fierce animals like stone lions and ivory leopards also protected the person who owned them against evil spirits or tomb raiders. 

    SMELL– What did an ancient funeral smell like? Take the circular lids off three different containers and see if you can tell Frankincense and Bay apart. Mastic is a gum from the Greek island of Chios. It was used to flavour drinks as well as make things smell nice. It was also a kind of ancient chewing gum, used to freshen the breath. We get the word ‘masticate’ from mastic. Bad smells were used to drive away demons but these are all nice smells, perhaps to attract protective gods. 

    SOUND– Roman funerals were often noisy, not just with tears and wailing but often with music and rattles to keep away evil spirits. Your kids can try out an iron rattle just like some on display, found in and around the cemeteries of Roman London.

    TOUCH– You can touch replicas of items in the exhibition: a hobnail shoe (bottom as well as top), a copper-alloy wrist torque and a clay jar. Each one feels different. Be sure to bring some wet wipes for after, or wash your hands! 

    SIGHT– I love some of the tiny objects like the die made of Whitby jet and the teenie-tiny glass bottle. I also like to think that the bones of a chicken in a child’s grave were those of a beloved pet rather than a last supper. And don’t miss the jar with a face on it. That face is probably apotropaic. So is anything made of Whitby jet. Because it generates static electricity when rubbed, it was thought to repel evil spirits. 

    BIZARRE - There are some real mysteries in the exhibit. Why does a woman have a skull over her hips? Why do some bodies have iron rings that can’t be removed? Why are parts of the bodies missing, like the heads? Perhaps Romans thought some of these things would keep the spirit of the dead person from haunting the living. Perhaps some involved black magic. But we’re not sure. It’s a mystery. I am currently writing a book about the girl who owned the ivory leopard knife. Her bones are not in the Roman Dead exhibition but back at the Museum of London Barbican site for those free workshops I told you about. 

    INTERACTIVE– Near the end of the exhibit you will find a foam skeleton. Kids can put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

    THE GIFT SHOP– Afterwards, kids can buy a replica oil lamp to try out at home (under parental supervision!). There are also other little souvenirs and lots of good books, some factual and some fiction. 

    The Roman Dead is a wonderful kid-friendly exhibition. I hope you and your young relatives enjoy it as much as I did! 

    I will be giving a sneak preview of my work in progress, ‘The Girl with the Ivory Knife’, at the Museum of London Docklands on Saturday 18 August. My new book is inspired by an exotic and mysterious ivory knife on display in the Roman Dead exhibition. The event is family friendly and free but you must go HERE to book your place. See you there, I hope! 

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    I’ve already written at length about the visual pollution caused by the monster cruise ships in Venice. In a post that’s enjoyed over 17,600 views, I also wrote about the Venetians whose homes are deprived of light by these incredible hulks; about people who cannot sleep for the all-night noise pollution grinding out of megaship generators; about the young and old citizens of Venice who develop illnesses and cannot use their computers or televisions.

    Humans can speak for themselves, even if no-one’s listening in the offices of the cruiser liners who disgorge as many as 14,000 passengers a day or the tour companies that bring coachload after coachload to Piazzale Roma. But there are other victims who cannot: the lagoon itself, its wildlife and the very infrastructure of the city.

    This week I talked once more to Barbara Warburton Giliberti (right) of Nograndinavi, the Venetian association taking on the cruise liners. This time I asked Barbara about the silent victims falling to the depredations of mass tourism.

    I understand that there is a threat to the bricole, the wooden poles that mark out navigable routes through the lagoon?

    When the monster cruise ships return to the lagoon from a voyage in the Far East they have tenacious, voracious little worm-like molluscs attached to their hull. The scientific name is Teredo navalis. It's sometimes called the common ship worm. Or the Termite of the Sea. In Venetian, we call it “el bisso”.

    When these aliens arrive in the lagoon, they decide to stay, fixing themselves to the wooden bricole, which they devour at an astonishing rate. El bisso is a dangerous parasite that feeds on every type of wood it finds in water. It eats not just the bricole but the poles where people tie their boats and the boats themselves. It feeds on the underwater wooden poles that support the bridges. Any kind of wood that is submerged can be prey to these creatures, yet another gift of the cruise liners.

    And of course the Soprintendenza says no to anything but wood for these vital poles, which have been part of the Venetian landscape for centuries. (Here at left is one painted by Canaletto).

    Indeed. So experiments have been made, putting vertical strips of metal around them, or painting them with a special type of varnish.

    But nothing seems to deter the little devils. You can almost hear them munching.

    Crossing the lagoon you can see many bricole teetering on spindly legs. Some have collapsed altogether. The jagged under-water stumps are, if possible, even more dangerous to boats. The bricole cost a fortune to replace and cash is short in Venice. But the cruise companies are not offering to pay for the damage.

    The infrastructure of the city is also at risk not just because of the cruise ships but because of the need to service the millions of tourists?

    The streets and houses of Venice are silent victims due to the massive increase in the number of flood tides caused by the excavation of Canale dei Petroli. Originally excavated for petrol tankers to reach the industrial areas of Marghera, it is now also used for the massive container ships and – with further excavation – is suggested as an alternative route for the mega-ships. The dangerous mix of nearby fuel storage tanks, the over-crowding of maritime traffic, forcing an alternate in/out one-way system can only exacerbate the situation.

    Most of Venice was built at a time when boats were rowed. The palazzi and houses are victims of the vibrations caused by engine-powered ships and boats. Water displacement and wave motion are eroding the foundations. The bridges are victims because the transport boats, originally made of wood, but now made of iron, sometimes crash into and shatter them.
    The Istrian stone borders of the steps are sometimes smashed by the iron wheels of big porter trolleys used to deliver goods to shops. The recent restoration of Rialto Bridge is already damaged. Mosaic floors are silent victims because of the excessive number of tourists tramping over them.

    Meanwhile, Venice – with her residents numbering 53,000 – is daily forced to deal with the rubbish of 175,000. Who pays to dispose of this rubbish? Not the day-trippers who fill the overflowing bins and litter the streets with the packaging of their take-away pizza and pasta-to-go, their soft-drink cans and their water bottles. Not the companies who profit from bringing day-trippers into the city. And certainly not the cruise companies.

    If only the winged lion of Venice could intervene as it does in this video (below)  by young Venetian artist Carolina Ferrari, who created it with a desire to re-sensitize people, inoculating them with respect for her city. With many thanks to my lovely friend Ross Frassanito who alerted me to it.

    It's heartening to see young Venetians actively asserting the right of their city to cleanliness. Individual voices can count, especially when they are as gently insistent and creative as that of Carolina Ferrari. But what of the general social fabric of Venice?

    There is a general impoverishment of the social tissue in Venice. Not only is the population decreasing by 1,000 each year but the mix of citizens is changing. Young couples cannot afford a house in Venice. People can let out their apartments on Airbnb for a couple of weekends and earn as much as they would in a month of regular rent. So there are fewer children in the historic centre. If there are no more babies, the schools cannot be sustained because the class sizes will be too small.

    The monoculture of tourism means that small arts and crafts shops or workshops are being evicted to make way for yet more chocolate shops with rollers dripping extra-dark, milk or white mixtures. Or garish shops selling huge tubs of jelly-babies and liquorice all-sorts – nothing to do with the traditional biscuits and cakes of Venice.

    You now have to look very carefully to find an artistic iron-monger, marble engraver, gold-leaf decorator, upholsterer, furniture restorer – all very necessary in a historic centre full of wonderful old houses filled with antiques. Even bakeries, butchers, dry-cleaners and cobblers are closing down. Everything is in the supermarkets, packed in single portions, and if it isn’t there then you can’t have it.

    Even the Coin department store is closing, with a loss of many jobs, to make way for yet another hotel … and therefore more tourists.

    What of the birds and animals of the lagoon? How are they coping with mass tourism? It seems as if the cruise-liners have legal Teflon as well as Teflon in their souls when it comes to protecting Venice’s ecosystem?

    Like the humans, the birds and beasts of Venice are being poisoned. And it’s happening with impunity here.

    There is a code for toxic emissions from cruise ships. The problem is that it’s voluntary. NoGrandiNavi photograph the black smoke billowing from ships that have signed up to the code and clearly don’t follow it. It would cost relatively little to install filters on the smoke stakes of all vessels, something that is required for road vehicles. But this city, which has sold the cruise terminal to the cruise companies, doesn’t have the power to enforce sanctions by, for example, blocking known polluters from entering the lagoon. It’s not apparently interested in doing so. 

    The pollution from the cruise liners is particularly damaging to health. The toxic emissions are heavy in diesel and particulates. One journalist, Riccardo Bottazzo, has done his own measurements and now advises people to don protective face masks as the mega-ships pass by. The cruisers themselves are in peril as the worst place for air pollution is actually on the decks from which they gaze down on Venice. Riccardo Bottazzo points out that the association of German lung doctors advises people with pulmonary issues to avoid cruising. But this is not something that the cruise companies mention in their glossy brochures, which make abundant use of images of Venice to sell their profitable product.

    But Venice doesn’t have to shrug her shoulders? There are muscular options to deal with the poisoning of the Venetian atmosphere?

    Yes, it works differently in Marseilles, for example, where the captain of a cruise ship was recently put on trial for exceeding the emission limits. He risks a €200,000 fine and one year in prison. However, the cruise line operator P & O were not sued.

    Surprise, surprise. But it’s not just the cruise liners causing damage?

    Even individual tourists can cause severe problems to the wildlife, simply out of ignorance. LIPU, the birdwatchers’ association, tries to protect the habitats of nesting birds. (There's also a branch of LIPU in the UK). The tiny fraticelli birds, for example, lay their little eggs in the sand-dunes of the Lido. Someone spreading out their towel to sunbathe could easily kill a whole generation in the egg. LIPU placed tape around places where the eggs are known to nest. Unfortunately tourists seem to be colour-blind and simply do not notice the red and white warning tape, or they just ignore it. Only two weeks ago there was an article in the local paper describing an act of vandalism at the Lido – a brainless dune-buggy driver devastated the fraticelli nesting site.

    Speaking of silent victims, it was heart-breaking to read of the polar bear shot recently by the security guard of a cruise company in Svalbard. Even animals in danger of extinction can be slaughtered in the name of mass tourism. It wasn’t the bear that was in the wrong – it was the tourists who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

    Seagulls are not very silent in Venice, but I understand that they are reduced in numbers since the form of rubbish collection changed in order to deal with the massive amounts of refuse generated in this tiny city, only a small proportion of it coming from the locals. Gulls and rats used to have free reign, ripping open bags and scattering the contents, when selfish people left their rubbish out overnight, against a law that Venice was powerless to enforce. The situation with rats and seagulls became so grievous that new forms of rubbish collection have been imposed. Now you must either carry your rubbish to a disposal boat early in the morning or wait at home to hand it to the spazzini who ring every doorbell … at some point. Not very convenient for the Venetians, but it has proved positively devastating for the seagulls who are now starving?

    Seagulls are now reduced to eating the crabs and mussels growing on the mossy skirts of the palaces. They also eat rats, when they can find them. And they hunt down pigeons mid-air, often working together in packs to chase, exhaust and down the smaller birds.

    The largest populations of seagulls are now nesting in the cemetery, where people trying to reduce their numbers are not permitted to take the eggs away. Instead, they pour hot wax on them, which stops the chicks inside from growing or hatching.

    Fish and algae are disappearing. Some fish farms want to cull the cormorants who live in the lagoon. And now, rather like the Venetians struggling with the influx of tourists, the indigenous lagoon species now face rivalry for their resources from new creatures who are finding their way to Venice, including flamingos and Egyptian ibises.

    And it’s not just living beings who are suffering?

    These terrible toxic emissions damage not only human lungs but remain as a patina on the surface of the statues and marble decorations, chemically changing the marble into chalk which – with the next rainfall – is washed off. Some of the statues no longer have real faces but just the shape of a head.

    A sampling of the damage can be seen in this image of the delicate carving on the sixteenth century façade of the church of Spirito Santo, which faces the Giudecca Canal where the cruise ships pass.

     … and in this inscription below which, like so many others, is rapidly eroding to illegibility.  Sometimes it feels to me as if the last fifty years are silencing centuries of Venetian life.

    Is there any hope, Barbara?

    Little bits of hope.

    There are heroic attempts in progress to repopulate the lagoon bed with transplants of different kinds of seaweed which, once they have taken root, could provide habitat for all kinds of other plants and animals. 

    One island in the lagoon suffered a loss of all its inhabitants because the water had become too salinated to fish. But someone came up with the idea of re-introducing some of the original algae … and the fish have come back and so have the people.

    A group of volunteers have already de-silted three of the railway arches in the lagoon, to allow the tides to flow and refresh the water of Venice.

    But if our population drops below 50,000, then there is little hope.

    That's a frightening and saddening thought to end on. But thank you, Barbara. I am sure we will talk again.

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  • 08/10/18--16:00: Ghostly Oxford
  • Who doesn't love a good ghost story? And ghost stories abound in the city of dreaming spires. Now, I've never seen a ghost, but I know people (very intelligent and well-adjusted people) who swear that they have. So I'm willing to keep an open mind.

    I'm not surprised that there are many supernatural sightings in Oxford. The city is amazingly romantic at night, when the day trippers have left and it is the haunt of students, Oxonians, the homeless . . . and hoards of teenaged foreign language students.

    Merton College

    Lovely Merton College library (below) has the ghost of poor Colonel Francis Windebank, a Royalist who was executed by his own side in 1645, during the English Civil War.


    It’s a sad story. Windebank was a young, newly married colonel in the Royalist army  and was appointed governor of Bletchingdon Park, near Oxford (below).  

    In April 1645 he invited his young wife and friends for a ball at the house to raise their spirits (not the ghostly kind).  But a Parliamentarian spy may have been present, as during the ball the house came under attack by Cromwell’s forces. 

    The house was well protected, and probably could have withstood the attack, but Windebank surrendered immediately. It is likely that he did so in order to protect the lives of his wife and friends.

    Windebank went to explain to the King in Oxford (where the King had his headquarters), but his excuses were not accepted and he was tried by a Royalist court-martial for failing to protect Bletchingdon Park.

    They took just three hours to find him guilty and sentence him to death by firing squad.

    His execution took place against the length of town wall abutting Merton College. Windebank bared his chest to the muskets and exclaimed “God Save the King.”

    Windebank’s ghost haunts the site of his execution at Dead Man’s Walk, (above) which abuts Merton College, and has also been seen in the college library.

    He’s a well known Oxford ghost, and is thought to haunt because of his lingering feeling of injustice at being executed for what he considered a chivalrous action.

    It is also said that Colonel Windebank walks around on his knees. Rational thinkers (?) say that it is more likely that he is walking on the original (lower) ground level of the seventeenth century.

    I couldn’t find a picture of poor Francis, but here’s a generic Royalist Cavalier, so if you’re wandering along Dead Man’s Walk, you’ll know what to look for.

    Wadham College

    In my husband's family Wadham is known as Wadham-Oh. His uncle was a student there in the '50s and when someone asked him what college he was a member of and he said "Wadham", the inevitable reply was, "Oh."

    And yet Wadham is not a new college. It was founded in 1610 by Dorothy Wadham, in accordance with the terms of her late husband's will. She was the first woman not of the Royal family to found a college at Oxford.

    The land she chose was originally the site of an Augustinian Priory. In those days its lovely gardens were a series of orchards and market gardens.
    Perhaps this is why Wadham's well-known ghost is thought to be a priest. A white figure in robes walks from the chapel door (in the left-hand corner in this photo) across first quad and into the hall (in the right-hand corner, out of sight), and then across the hall to vanish just in front of High Table (below).

    The ghost has been observed over the years by witnesses of veracity, including one head porter and two scouts. And the former Head-Steward, Mr Maurice Howes, would complain on a regular basis of hearing footsteps late at night from his office. They seemed to enter the hall, but never left it...
    Augustinian Friar

    I go to the College every year to see Shakespeare performed in the gardens. This year it was a lively production of Love's Labours Lost. In the interval I went from the garden, past the chapel door and into the first quad to visit the amenities, but I didn't see the resident ghost. 

    New College Lane/Queen’s Lane

    One of my favourite places at night in Oxford (and during the day) is the atmospheric New College Lane, which becomes Queen’s Lane once past New College. Down this winding lane the cavaliers rode on their way to do battle with Cromwell’s New Model Army.

    Sometimes, they say, particularly on a windy autumn evening, you can hear the ghostly hoofbeats… 

    And this is what was heard by an Australian tourist, as reported by the Oxford Mail in 2010:

    Another tourist captured a ghostly image in that very lane (left). 

    I have to admit to feeling a real sense of spookiness if I walk down that lane alone as dusk falls. The wind dances through the winding lane, picking up little sounds and magnifying them. It has a sense of timelessness that is compelling. 

    St John’s College

    The distinguished College has a most distinguished ghost, Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who was beheaded in 1645, after being impeached by the Long Parliament.

    (The Long Parliament lasted from 1640 until 1660, and passed, among other acts, the first Habeas Corpus Act – which as a lawyer gets me quite excited, because a Writ of Habeas Corpus provides that the Crown must “certify the true cause” of imprisonment. It’s one of the fundamentals of English and Australian criminal law).

    Here’s a particularly horrible depiction of Laud's execution:

    Laud was educated at St Johns, and his bones are buried under the altar of the chapel.

    His ghost has been known to disrupt students in St John’s College Library.

    Some say he pulls his head from his neck and rolls it at people, others say he kicks it along the floor with a candle in his hand. Here’s the library where he plays football with his head.

    Now those who read Harry Potter will recognise the similarity to Nearly Headless Nick. But Laud looks nothing like John Cleese. In fact, I don’t think the Archbishop looks like the ghostly sort, myself. I certainly don’t see him playing football with his head. (I’ve always seen him as an honourable man, on the wrong side of history.)

    University College

    The wonderfully named Obediah Walker (the ghost who walks – get it!) was the Catholic Master of University College in the seventeenth century.

    He tried to follow James I into exile in France but was captured and imprisoned for ten years. When released he was a broken man and his ghost supposedly haunts Staircase VIII (where the Master’s residence used to be).

    I could find no picture of Obediah, but here is Staircase VIII,
    the place where Walker walks.

    Christ Church College

    Oxford was a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War. The King made the Christ Church College Deanery (below) his palace and held Parliament in its Great Hall (right).

    The spirit of King Charles I has been known to appear in the grounds of Christ Church College and in the Great Hall, sometimes with his head, sometimes without.

    Apparently King Charles also appears in the Bodleian Library. While in Oxford, the King was denied leave to take books from the Bodleian in 1645. He has been seen at night running around in the upper reading room pulling books from the shelves reading one line and placing them back in an endless game of fortune telling, again sometimes with and sometimes without his head.

    But that is not why I eschew the Upper Reading Room (above) and always do my study in the Lower Reading Room. I'd be quite chuffed to see a Royal ghost, actually...

    Magpie Lane

    In the former bank that stands on the corner of Magpie Lane is now the Quad restaurant, and I had a lovely brunch there last Thursday.

    Next door is the entrance to delightful Magpie Lane.

    The lane leads to Merton Street and is reputedly haunted by the ghost of Prudence Bostock who died of a broken heart when her Cavalier lover ran away. She continues to roam the lane in the hope that he will return.

    I've walked down this pretty little lane many times, and never has Dear Prudence come out to play (you have to be a Beatles fan to get that reference!!)

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  • 08/11/18--22:00: Tiree - an historical gem.

  • by Antonia Senior

    This month's post comes live from the island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. We arrived a week ago, inside a drizzling cloud. At first sight, Tiree was a little underwhelming - it is very flat, and I am a lover of hills. Beside the grandeur of Skye, the mountainous beauty of Harris or Jura or Mull, this pancake of an island seemed a little low.

    But the sun came out, and this island's beauty revealed itself in colour. The wild flowers are thick in the fertile soil. The beaches are unbelievable; the Atlantic's fury has crushed rocks into a powdery white sand. The sea in the island's bays is a startling turquoise. Up on the tiny hill we climbed, the heather was riotous and purple. The skies, I'm told, are dark and thronged with stars. I have not seen the dark, collapsing into bed early after days of surfing, walking, snorkelling, beach-combing and child wrestling. And there is history. History everywhere.

    Image may contain: cloud, sky, ocean, mountain, outdoor, nature and water
    Yesterday's walk. Traigh nan Gilean. 

    I can't love a place without a sense of its past. My second novel, The Winter Isles, was set in these seas. The book is about Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles and the twelfth century world in which he lived - a maelstrom of clashing cultures: viking, gaelic and Norman. To get to Tiree, we sailed up the Sound of Mull and I saw the ruined castle at Ardtornish on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula which is said to be his stronghold. We clambered over those ruins five or so years ago, before my littlest child was born.

    My then littlest at Ardtornish on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula

    Tiree was part of the tussles between the Lords of the Isles and local war clans. But its history is older by far. Worked flints found on the sea-shore are evidence of early hunter gatherers here, about 7,500 years ago.

    Tiree is also home to the famous Ringing Stone. This huge boulder seems to have been brought over from nearby Rhum and propped up. When you hit the stone it makes a ringing sound - hence the name. The stone is covered in circular indentations called cup marks, which are prevelant in early Scottish rock art. Archeaologists are not sure of their significance to their Bronze age makers, but the hypothesis is that they are religious in intent.
    Image result for ringing stone tiree
    The Ringing Stone

    Each of the high points of the island has its own crumbled  iron age fort - there are twenty on the island dating from around 500 BC. They look to the sea, and to each other. Easy to imagine the eyes scouring the dark waves, and the beacon fires laid ready to light.

    Only one of these has been properly excavated, and shards of pottery which pre-dated the brochs were found. In about 800 BC, then, pottery and tools were being used.

    Christianity came to the island early - St Columba brought the new religion from Ireland in the sixth Century, and established the centre of the Celtic Church in Iona - a beautiful island just across the water from Tiree. A monastery was built on Tiree not long after.

    After the Christians came the Vikings. There are over 3,300 place names recorded on this island, which is only twelve miles long and three miles wide. There are layers of history in the names. A few around the forts seem neither gaelic or norse - such as Caldrium. The next are gaelic names which seem rooted in the Irish based early Christian entity, Dal Riata. After that come the Norse names, which seem to root Tiree in the Norwegian lands. Then a resurgent gaelic culture (started by my hero Somerled), led to a rich seam of gaelic place names such as Tobar an Deididh - the well of the toothache. (For more on the names, there is a treasure trove at

    There is more to tell, so much more. About crofters and landlords and emigration. About Tiree's unlikely part in the DDay landings. About the U-boat on next door Coll. But I have a beach to walk and a sea to surf* and an iron age fort to visit. Next time..

    *this sounds way cooler than it is. I haven't managed to stand up yet. But today's a new day!

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    by Deborah Swift

    Like most writers I'm a prolific reader. This week I took a look at my reading pattern to see what I read, and how much I read, and whether this has changed over the last few years.

    When I had my first book published in 2010 nearly all my reading was in paperback or hardback. At the Historical Novelists Conference in that same year, someone showed me the Kindle. Fascinated, yet also baffled, by this new technology I bought one. I still have the same ancient model and do most of my digital reading on that machine. I often use it when travelling on public transport or when on holiday, and I use it to carry some research books I can't do without.

    Digital -- Kindle

    This week on the Kindle I have been reading a historical novel recommended to me by a friend of a friend. The book had been self-published for a short while but failed to find an audience, and the author had withdrawn it from sale. What did I think? Would I read it and give an opinion? My heart sank. I get many of these requests and although the friend said it was a 'brilliant' book, I'd been burnt by this before and found myself spending precious reading time wading through a book that should be confined to a bottom drawer.

    But joy of joys! This was a gem. Well-written; unusual history, set in a little-known time and location. I found myself burning with enthusiasm for the book and wondering how on earth I could get it better known. Then realising; I can't even get my own books better known, let alone someone else's. Still, I'm working on it, and can at least send word out to everyone I know. The Lacemaker by Sukey Hughes, if anyone out there is listening.

    Also read on the Kindle this week,'The Illumination of Ursula Flight' by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. I'm writing a book about Mary Knepp, an actress in Restoration London, and this book sounded worryingly close to what I was writing. Curious, and slightly aggrieved at someone poaching my territory (I know, that's ridiculous) I dived in. Phew. Not like my book at all, but great to see the world I was writing about through another writer's eyes. I constantly find myself veering between wanting to read things set in 'my own era' and being terrified of being influenced by them. And I am constantly humbled by other people's writing skills. A highly recommended read.

    The other book I've been reading on Kindle this week is my own. I often send my own books to Kindle as then I can spot errors more easily, and read it as a digital reader might. The book sits differently on the page in kindle format. I'm aware that many readers have abandoned paper altogether and read on their phones, but I'm not one of them. And this is something people often forget, that reading your own work takes just as long as reading someone else's  -- that as well as writing the darned things, we have to actually read them too. If I become engrossed in my own book and forget to take notes, then that's a good sign. Historical fiction never seems to be short, does it? All three of these books amounted to over 1000 pages!

    Digital -- The PC
    I read a lot of research documents on the PC -- Gutenberg Library Texts, papers from various universities, and relevant passages from Google book searches. I can't pretend I don't use Wikipedia - it's excellent for getting a quick overview of what I need to know.  Last week I was reading Broken Boundaries; Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama from the University of Kentucky. I am a great Googler and search for relevant papers that might help my current novel - at the moment it's papers on Restoration Drama and The Fire of London; I'm researching these for the third in my trilogy about Pepys' Women.

    My research books are in hardback if I can get them. Here's the current pile of books I'm dipping in and out of.  Over the last few years in what I'm calling my 'Pepys Period' I've used them so much that most of them have been read cover to cover. Of course there are paperbacks in there too, but I hate research books on Kindle; they're just too difficult to bookmark or navigate, and real books are much easier to find on my desk. Also there's something very satisfying about research in solid form. I've read quite a few excerpts from these books in the past week whilst fact-checking my novel. I occasionally buy fiction in hardback, but only as a gift for someone else. My groaning shelves wouldn't support it! One of my most interesting research books this week was "And So To Bed" A Comedy by J B Fagan, a play first published in 1926 about Samuel Pepys and his wife, and featuring Charles II.  A very enjoyable light-hearted romp. My edition was from AbeBooks, who do out of print editions by post.

    I love Twitter and it has persuaded me to buy quite a few books, many by indie writers. Some authors I see frequently online are never in bookstores, and some authors I see frequently in bookstores have no online presence. I only have a few paperbacks by indie authors, because most I buy on Kindle. I still buy full-price paperback fiction from bookshops because I enjoy to browse there. The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine came from my local bookshop, Carnforth Books, and it attracted me because it's set in The Outer Hebrides in Scotland, a wild and nartural place, and the title appealed to me. It's a Victorian/present day dual narrative, and I'm nearly at the end of it, and really enjoying the atmosphere the writer creates. This has been my bedtime reading. I had never heard of the author, but I'm glad I took the risk as the book is gripping and well-written. The local bookshop does a good job of curating the stock so that there are big-name authors but also debut novelists on the shelves.

    Coffee time reading
    I love my Historical Novel Society Magazine and often read it cover to cover. Mine arrived a couple of days ago, and it helps to keep me in touch with the industry, with what other people are writing, and with what is 'hot' in historical fiction. I spotted a couple of books in there that will be on my reading list for the near future. I also get various other industry magazines such as The Society of Authors Magazine, and of course I read blog posts of authors who I know or have read, (like this blog) and articles from BBC History and Historia Magazines online.

    Books and Time
    When I added up my reading for this week, it seemed enormous. And this is a typical week. I read far more than I did before I was a writer, and I used to be a bookworm then. Whenever I'm not writing I seem to be reading, and now we are so wired up to our digital machines, I'm reading more or less constantly. The digital world has broadened my reading in one way, but also made some of my reading feel rushed. I try not to skim, but I'm aware that I often do, and that this doesn't give time and attention to the person who has devoted time to writing it. We are all drowning in content, but it is only really with a novel that I can savour the content and immerse myself in what I'm reading.

    As a historical fiction writer I find I am actually spending far more time reading than actually writing. Reading used to be something where I had to set aside a quiet time and space and buy or borrow a physical book. Now I have several documents open on my PC all the time and can flip from one to the other. And it's delicious, to someone who loves reading, to have unlimited access to so much stuff -- and so much of it with free access. But I also feel its dangerous side, that it could become an addiction.

    I remember complaining to my mother, 'I've nothing to read!' and having to save my pocket money for my next book. Those hard choices, are gone. Those spaces, where the mind is free of a book, are also precious. I'm learning to build those spaces in, to clear the palate.

    How do you read? What do you read? Are you a Kindle fan or a paperback reader? How do you prioritise your reading time?

    Do feel free to find me on Twitter @swiftstory or on my website 

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    Playing the shamisen by Felice Beato (1860s)
    In 1867 a 24 year old Englishman called Ernest Satow was travelling around Japan. Satow could speak and read Japanese - he was the legation interpreter - and had heard all about the ‘famed singing and dancing girls’ of Ozaka (Osaka). He was referring to geisha, though the word with all its titillating associations had yet to enter the English language. Japan had been open only a few years and no one in the west knew much about it, nor had the geisha and the myths that surround them become the source of fascination that they now are.

    Satow went to a party where some performed but was not impressed. ‘Some of them were certainly pretty, others decidedly ugly, but we thought their looks ruined any case by the blackened teeth and white-lead-powdered faces,’ he wrote.
    Kiyoka of Shimbashi
    by Kazumasa Ogawa, 1902

    For centuries there had always been twenty stalwart Dutch merchants who inhabited the tiny Dutch trading post of Dejima, but apart from them Japan had been closed to westerners. Westerners first arrived in any quantity in 1853, when the American Commodore Matthew Perry hove into view with his four gunships bristling with cannon. The following year his crew billeted at the port of Shimoda demanded women. Anxious to protect respectable women and to limit contact between foreigners and ordinary Japanese, the shogunate sent them geisha, who were in any case the only sort of women suitable for such a job. Having enjoyed their company and spawned a fair number of mixed raced babies, the Americans wrote in shocked tones in their journals and reports about what a sexually lax race the Japanese were.

    Thus from the very start of western interaction with Japan, the western arrivals - initially entirely men - had a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards Japan and Japanese women.
    Kobayakawa Okichi of Shimoda by
    Kobazakawa Kizoshi, 1930s

    In 1858 the first American Consul, Townsend Harris, and his Dutch secretary, Hendrick Heusken, arrived. They too demanded women and put their negotiations on hold until they got them. As before, the only women available for the job were geisha. Townsend Harris was given a geisha called Okichi and Ofuku moved in with Heusken. According to legend Harris later left Okichi without a second thought and she ended up turning to drink and drowning herself.

    Townsend Harris’s negotiations forced the Japanese to allow westerners to settle in Japan. They built a town - Yokohama - to house them. They also provided a pleasure quarters just outside, on the not unreasonable assumption (to the Japanese way of thinking at the time) that westerners, being men, would need one. There were geisha, courtesans, dancing, feasting - but mysteriously not many westerners went. The Japanese managers finally worked out that while westerners had the same impulses as them, they preferred to satisfy them surreptitiously, rather than be seen walking into the pleasure quarters in broad daylight.
    The Teahouse Beauty
    by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 - 1825)

    One of the most sympathetic visitors to Japan was Ernest Satow’s friend and colleague at the British Legation, Algernon Mitford, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He spent three years there in the 1860s and was very impressed by the orderly society he saw. He visited the most famous pleasure quarters of all, the Yoshiwara, which was, he wrote, a decorous place where prostitution was confined and ritualised and kept well away from ordinary people. Yokohama, however, with its western seamen and adventurers, was almost ‘as leprous a place as the London Haymarket’ - prostitution being, of course, at least as prevalent back home.

    Eventually Japan opened up fully and westerners began to flood in, bringing with them all their Victorian preconceptions and prejudices.

    Early visitors were shocked to the core to discover that men and women cheerfully bathed together in large hot baths. They concluded the Japanese were licentious, promiscuous and immodest, with a shocking lack of moral fibre - not surprising, given that they were pagans and thus inferior to the European master race. Then in 1882 one British visitor, well ahead of his time, began to wonder if perhaps the Japanese ‘simply did not look at each other’s nakedness with lust or lewdness, inconceivable though this may seem to the European mind.’

    The easily shocked Victorians were also horrified by the way Japanese women casually slipped their arms out of their sleeves and rolled down their kimonos to breast feed in public. And once or twice a Victorian was out riding when a whole family- grandparents, parents and children - leapt from the bath and rushed out stark naked to have a good look at the extraordinary sight.
    Girl playing a Gekin by
    Baron Raimund von Stillfried, 1890

    But the Japanese soon got the measure of western prudery and thereafter kept their clothes on, at least when westerners were around.

    It didn’t take long before the word ‘geisha’ entered the English language. To this day people still worry about whether geisha do or don’t. There’s also the confusion between who is a geisha and who is an ordinary girl in a kimono.

    One problem is that westerners are ignorant of the different sorts of kimono (the word just means ‘clothing’) and the different ways of wearing it and what they signify and thus can’t distinguish between respectable kimono-wearing women and geisha or courtesans. As a result geisha and ordinary young Japanese women exist ‘interchangeably in the western imagination in the twilight zone between respectability and decadence, between prudery and immodesty’ (to quote a wonderful book on the subject called Butterfly’s Sisters, by Yoko Kawaguchi.)

    All of which is rather satisfying to western men, who have long been convinced that Asian women are of deliciously dubious morality, a quality embodied above all in the concept of the geisha.
    Kyoto maiko by me

    When I lecture on the geisha, I start out by explaining that the word means ‘artiste’ and that geisha undergo a rigorous five year training in classical Japanese dance and music, akin to becoming an opera singer or joining the Bolshoi ballet. But no matter how often I repeat that geisha are independent, empowered women, sooner or later someone will stand up and ask, ‘But are they prostitutes?’ The fantasy that geisha are ‘submissive’, trained in the arts of pleasing men, is one that western men are not prepared to relinquish.

    My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. 

    If you’re curious about geisha you could also take a look at my oldie but goldie, Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World

    And the marvellous Butterfly’s Sisters by Yoko Kawaguchi, Yale University Press, 2010
    For more see

    Old photographs and woodblock prints of geisha courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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    On Twitter this week, the writer Neil Gaiman responded to the debate on libraries’ decline. Rejecting claims that libraries were obsolete, he suggested that they are actually “more relevant and useful than they were 30 years ago”. He’s right, and not only because libraries lend books. 

    Libraries have political, social, emotional and educational relevance. Their history is long and complex. The earliest libraries, based on cuneiform script on clay tablets, date back to 2600 BCE. They recorded mostly business transactions and inventories of goods. Over 30,000 clay tablets from the 2600 year old Library of Ashurbanipal remind us that the Middle East was, for centuries, a global centre of knowledge and education in medicine, art and culture. 

    In the sixth century, the great libraries of the Mediterranean world were Constantinople and Alexandria. Egypt's Library of Alexandria is the most famous library of Classical antiquity. Dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts, the library was patronised by the Ptolemaic dynasty and a global site of scholarship from the 3rd century BC until the Roman Conquest. Filled with papyrus scrolls, the Library is most famous now for having burned down, resulting in a devastating loss of treasures. 

    The Library of Alexandria
    In the ancient world, libraries were a means to announce power, status, identity and civic pride; the same drive that was behind the expansion of libraries in the Enlightenment West. This so-called golden age of libraries saw many important European libraries being founded. The British Library was established in 1753 and Chetham's Library in Manchester, said to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, opened in 1653. The Mazarine Library and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève were also founded in Paris and the Austrian National Library in Vienna. 

    An aisle of Chetham's Library, Manchester

    The principal of libraries being open to the public was increasingly commonplace, reflecting their educational and civil status. Knowledge mattered; to be seen to be knowledgable arguably mattered more. Where once libraries open to the public had chained their books to the desks, the principle of lending libraries provided a means for people to carry that learning into their own homes, providing they had enough literary, space and leisure time. 

    The Public Libraries Act of 1850 gave local boroughs the power to establish lending libraries, while the Education Act of 1870 expanded literacy. These two moments connected the desire for civic pride to the equally strong desire to educate the working classes, and to encourage their leisure time to be both clean and moral. Libraries represented civility and the pursuit of knowledge for social advance, and for its own sake.

    What has changed? Why are libraries no longer seen as crucial to the social fabric, and therefore not worthy of investment? Why have there been such massive cuts to library budgets since 2010? 

    Leaving aside the social indifference of successive Tory governments, and the wholesale impoverishment of institutions and structures that represent collective interest (the NHS, state schools, care homes), there is no longer any definitive sense of what kind of knowledge matters. In the age of Trump there has been a movement away from intellectual reason towards primitive impulse; we might argue that this precondition allowed Trump's rise, rather than being a direct result of his presidency. 

    But there are other reasons too, including a lack of financial investment and support. Part of the reason why libraries are supposedly in decline is the growth of digitisation. More resources online, it is argued, provides better access than outdated buildings, with limited books; it also eliminates the problems of access: geographical, economic, physical. But not everyone has access to reliable internet resources. Books and papers and physical objects are critically needed in countries with dodgy internet connections and limited electricity. 

    Besides, libraries are not just spaces to hold books. They are filled with insightful librarians and curators, who can link you to the source that you need (and even borrow it from other libraries); perhaps not as quickly as Google, but certainly with more humanity.

    As a girl growing up in rural Wales, the weekly visit across the border to Shropshire town of Oswestry and its library, gave me hope. Searching the shelves, feeling limitless as my gaze drifted from Mills and Boon to Shakespeare, from Dryden’s poetry to local history, there were options available to me. Potential and places that reached beyond the narrowness of the shelves and the chlorine smell of the nearby municipal pool.

    Oswestry Library
    As a lonely child with a difficult family life, I treasured those moments of escape. I loved everything about the routine: the piling up of six books - SIX! - with their tattered and grubby plastic covers, cherry-picked from a dozen different shelves; queuing for the librarian; smiling as she expressed interest (or sometimes shock) in what I was choosing; watching as she flicked through the pages to find the sweet spot and oh the muffled clunk of the date stamp, those were physical moments of bliss. 

    Carrying that stack home, holding it on my lap as a shield that protected me from the inevitable arguments of the car that backfired, squirrelling it up in my room where I could smell the pages and look at all the different people who had borrowed each book before me - or the joy of being the one single stamp of newness - was a special kind of bliss. I belonged to a community of readers who stretched beyond the narrow, sad confines of my bedroom. 

    And for me that is the point. Libraries are far more than buildings to hold books. They are pivots of connections between individuals and the world outside; not only in the date stamps that nestle aside one another, but also in a more literal, physical way. Libraries are spaces where anyone can go, to browse, to sit, to read the newspapers they can't afford to buy, to keep warm, to think, to meet other people. And in an age of loneliness this collective, free-to-use space is crucially important, and critically endangered. 

    Books bring people together, literally, figuratively, physically. When we imagine that libraries aren’t needed, and we allow governments to shut them down on the basis they aren’t viable, or God forbid necessary, we toe a line of individualism that weakens society as a whole. 

    I don’t use libraries like I did when I was a child, though half the adult population do. I did try, when my own children were younger, and the weekly run to the library to perform those rituals of choosing, carrying, stamping (and inevitably mislaying) are treasured moments of motherhood for me. The moments of drawn out time are a distant memory for me - and no doubt for many, caught up in our technologically driven, imperative age where every second counts, and Amazon Prime has a same day delivery option. 

    The depressing thing about libraries closing down is that lack of use becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; an ideological sleight of hand by which cut backs appear justified. Deprive public libraries of millions of pounds to buy resources, to fund decent opening hours and enough staff, and people inevitably spend less time there. Create a narrative of decline and obsolescence and libraries become - especially the local, public libraries that sustained me as a child, redefined as an unnecessary and unsustainable expense. 

    Communities need libraries. Like they need hospitals and schools and roads and utilities. Libraries are spaces of learning and information, yes, but they are also spaces of acceptance and belonging and engagement in ways that are neglected in the 21st century. Many libraries are changing to adapt to the needs of their users; some have knitting circles and board game groups, tea mornings and yoga alongside Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice. And adaptation may be key to this survival. But don't let people say libraries don't matter. They have never mattered more. 

    My new book, A Biography of Loneliness will be published in Spring 2019 by Oxford University Press. 

    You can follow my blog and website for updates: 

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    A couple of months ago, I wrote about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I'm afraid you're going to be hearing a good deal more about him and his ship, the SS Great Britain, because I recently started volunteering at the restored ship which is back in the dry dock in Bristol where it was originally built and then launched, in 1843 - and I'm finding it endlessly fascinating.

    A visitor rather shyly asked me yesterday why it's so special, and you may be wondering the same. Well - at the time it was built, it was the biggest ship in the world. It was the first ship made of iron (which was why it was able to be so big; believe it or not, an iron ship is lighter than a wooden ship), and it was the first ocean-going liner to have a screw propellor, which made it much faster than sail-driven ships - or even than the paddle steamers which preceded it. It was also the world's first luxury liner. In many ways, then, it was the grandmother of all our modern ships.

    The weather deck of the SS Great Britain

    The ship has been restored with enormous imagination, skill and flair: so that as you wander through the elegant dining saloon or peer into the cabins with their tiny bunks, it's easy to imagine what it would have been like to travel on the ship as a first class passenger. And then you walk along the dimly lit corridor and enter steerage, and see how the other half lived - and how they ate: moving from six-course dinners with fresh meat and elaborate desserts - to ship's biscuit, watery stew and porridge, all prepared in a crowded kitchen in the centre of the ship near the engine room. You hear the sounds, too, and smell the smells and experience the heat - there was no air-conditioning, and no heating.

    The ship was intended to sail from Bristol to New York, but she had only done this trip a few times when she ran aground at Dundrum in Ireland, due to an error on the part of the captain. And there she lay for twelve months, when Brunel got her refloated. But of course she was badly damaged, and she was vastly under-insured. She was sold to Gibbs, Bright & Co, which refitted her to travel between Liverpool and Melbourne in Australia, carrying migrants and, on occasion, huge nuggets of gold back from the gold fields. She did 32 round-the-world trips, and it's said that around a million Australians and New Zealanders are descended from people who went out on the Great Britain.

    As well as the ship itself, there is the new Being Brunel Museum (which features all sorts of clever things - more of that another time), the dockside, the dry dock which is beneath the ship and allows you to see the rusty underneath of the ship, in a very fragile state after years of being immersed in sea water in the Falklands - and there is the Dockyard Museum, which shows the history of the ship - and of its passengers. In the Dockyard Museum, there's a new feature: the boarding card stand. This is one of the many ways in which the stories of individual passengers are brought to life - as well as Brunel and the ship itself.

    Some of the boarding cards

    It is a spin-off from a project called Global Stories, which seeks to find stories associated with the passengers who travelled on the Great Britain. There is now quite a lot of information about some of these passengers, and boarding cards have been created for them. You can choose one - or more - and use the QR code on the card to find out more about the passengers. I picked out Rachel Henning, who came from my county, Somerset - and I'll tell you more about her next time!