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    Whenever I have a spare moment in London,  I will invariably head for a museum. A couple of weeks ago I was there on business and happened to have an afternoon free which was spent very profitably in the British Museum. 
    I enjoy photography, but I am in the realms of keen amateur and happy snapper.  It's something that gives me pleasure and it's a hobby outside of my day job, but purely for off the cuff fun.  For some time I have been trying to get a good shot of the citole in the medieval exhibit at the British museum, but lighting and reflection makes it extremely difficult and I have yet to succeed in obtaining a great image.  This is a photo from the British Museum's own website and used as per the permission on the site.

    This beautiful object is a Citole formerly known as a gittern.  A citole, pronounced 'sit-oll' was originally a plucked instrument but it was later converted into violin form to be played with a bow.   Its life as a complete instrument began in the late 13th to early 14th century and the original parts are the back, the sides and neck.  The new parts consist of the sound board, finger board, tail piece and bridge. Above the peg box there is a silver-gilt plate engraved with the garter arms of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley.  The carved, decorated panels depict hunting scenes, and the end terminates in a fabulous dragon with a jewelled green eye. The hunting scenes are typical of 14th century manuscript illustration, but such details are much rarer to find in wood.  The best comparison are the early 14th century choirstalls in Winchester Cathedral.
    You can hear an example of a replica citole being played here by its owner Ian Pittaway here on Youtube. Ian Pittaway Citole

    As to my photos.  Although as usual I didn't have much luck with the citole in its entirety, I did take a rather good one of the ends, and especially the green-eyed dragon.  What marvelous, skilled wood carving!

    Elizabeth Chadwick is a multi award winning bestselling historical novelist. Her latest novel The Irish Princess will be published on September 12th under LittleBrown's Sphere imprint.


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  • 07/24/19--03:21: Cornwall by Miranda Miller

  •     Holidaying in Cornwall last month, I was struck by the two very different faces of the county: the beautiful, cheerful, prosperous coast and the strange ruined melancholy industrial buildings that lie abandoned on many cliffs and moorlands. It still feels quite remote and in fact many Cornish people don’t consider that Cornwall is an English county at all but a British country, Kernow. The Cornish nationalist movement demands a devolved legislative Cornish Assembly with powers similar to those in Wales and Scotland.

       Before the railways arrived, the journey from London to Penzance took at least two days by road. By the 1860s the rail journey had reduced this to twelve hours. A traditional Cornish tale claims that the devil would never dare to cross the River Tamar into Cornwall for fear of ending up as a pasty filling. Tourists didn’t come either until the nineteenth century.

       Virginia Woolf’s father, the literary critic and historian Sir Leslie Stephen, rented Talland House overlooking St Ives Bay in Cornwall, which he described in an 1884 letter as “a pocket-paradise with a sheltered cove of sand in easy reach (for ‘Ginia even) just below”. For her first twelve years she spent a few months each year at Talland House. The Godrevy Lighthouse could be seen in the distance and although Woolf set To the Lighthouse on the Scottish Isle of Skye, much of its imagery comes from her time in Cornwall.

        For nearly four thousand years before the first tourists arrived Cornwall was an important producer of tin, which when mixed with copper forms the alloy bronze. Although there are few Roman sites in Cornwall it is thought that they mined here. After the Romans left Cornwall remained under the rule of local Romano-British and Celtic elites and there were strong links with Brittany.

       Miners had the right to look for tin in any open land, as laid out in the Charter of Liberties to the Tinners of Devon and Cornwall in 1201. The same Charter also allowed miners to be exempt from military service and to pay lower taxes.

       In the eighteenth century deep mining of copper was made possible by the invention of pumping equipment to remove some of the water from underground and Cornwall became the greatest producer of copper in the world.  A Cornishman, Richard Trevithick, developed high pressure steam engines which, mounted on wheels, became the world’s first locomotives.

       A miner's life was always hard and brutal. Arsenic, which was used in insecticide and in paint, is a by-product of the processing of copper and tin. Because it is so poisonous workers needed to keep their mouth, nose and skin covered at all times, using clay to protect their skin at work. Women and girls didn’t go underground but were an essential part of the mining industry. Known as ‘Bal Maidens’, these women helped to separate tin from other mined substances.“Bal” is a Cornish word for mine.

        By 1839 about seven thousand children were working in the Cornish mines. Sons often followed their fathers down into the mines from the age of twelve. One particularly dangerous job they had to do was sweeping arsenic out of the flues.

       Temperatures underground sometimes reached 60 c. The miners worked stripped to the waist and after their shifts their bodies were covered in red dust from the lodes of tin, copper and zinc they exploded out of the bare rock. Death and injury from rockfalls and explosions were quite common and many miners developed bronchitis, TB and rheumatism. Few miners were fit to work beyond the age of forty.

       Then tin lodes were discovered in Australia, the Far East and South America, creating huge competition for the Cornish mines. Many mines closed in the 1890s and there was a “Cornish diaspora”, as miners left Cornwall to seek their fortunes in other mining areas across the world.
        This is the South Wheal mine, used in filming the TV series Poldark.

         The remaining mines still employed a lot of men and despite the dangers of the job it was lucrative. “Some weeks I would bring home £180 thanks to the bonuses,” said one ex-miner.“The average wage in Cornwall at that time (in the 1960s) was £12 a week.”

       Then, in October 1985, the price of tin crashed from over ten thousand pounds a ton ton to about three and a half thousand pounds a ton. This was because new alluvial tin was discovered in Malaysia and Brazil and also because the United States released their tin stockpile reserve onto the open market at the London Metal Exchange. Overnight, the remaining Cornish mines became unviable.

       In 1998, after more than three hundred years, one of the biggest mines, South Crofty, was forced to close with losses of thirty-three million pounds. Thousands of people were thrown out of work and towns such as Camborne, that once had thriving mines, now feel sad and impoverished.

       In 2016 a Canadian company, Strongbow Exploration, acquired a one hundred per cent stake in South Crofty, along with mineral rights over a further seven thousand hectares of land across Cornwall. A spokesman said: “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think South Crofty could open again. It was the jewel in the crown of an area with a rich mining history, and we believe that there’s a really good chance we can get it open again. We are extremely optimistic and feel that if everything goes well the mine could be open by 2021, and by open we mean with tin coming out of the ground.”

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    I am frequently asked about good wineries to visit as a day trip from our Olive Farm in the south of France. The fact is there are dozens to suggest. So I thought it would be fun this month during these very hots days - in French we call such a heatwave la canicule - to offer a few snippets about our local wine history as well as making one or two suggestions of fabulous chateaux or more modest vineyards. Havens, where you can sit in the shade and sip a chilled glass or two of local wine.

    From Banyuls,  close to the Spanish border, to Bellet above the coastal city of Nice, wines are produced. The South of France is a rich wine area with many varieties growing in the vineyards. Although all colours are being produced, the Midi is most renowned for its rosés. The hot climate marries well with a chilled lighter variety. This is a land of hilltop towns and sleepy villages where the most exciting event of the week is market day and where the playing of boules or pétanque in the village squares, shaded by plane trees, is still the most popular pastime.

    The south was its own country. Links with Paris were almost non-existent. Southerners, with their own rich cultural identity, communicated and conversed in their own language, the langue d'oc, until 1539 when the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets made French, the langue d'oil, the administrative language of France. By 1789,  the time of the French Revolution, these richly-poetic southern tongues had been outlawed. Provençal is a dialect of Occitan and was spoken in the eastern half of southern France. These are romance languages, once the language of the troubadours.

    The great port city of Marseille, originally Marsilia then Massalia was founded by Greeks from Asia Minor sometime around 600 BC. These intrepid sailors were Phoceans from Phocaea, known now as Foça in Modern Turkey. That entire western coast of Asia Minor, today Turkey, was inhabited by Greeks until the population exchange of 1922/1923 that followed the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922.

    Within striking distance of Marseille, you will find:
    The Calanques National Park is on Marseille's doorstep.

    This is where my latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, is set. A very moody shot taken on a wet and windy spring day.

    Turning north, follow the D9 towards Aix-en-Provence, then direction to Puy-Sainte-Reparade and you will find Chateau la Coste.

    This vineyard estate, also a hotel and art gallery, is a unique experience. The 600-hectare property is owned by Paddy McKillan an Irishman from Belfast. The chateau, more a country house, where his family resides, dates from the 17th century. The views while walking in the vineyards are memorable. Timeless. There are works of art scattered all about the place.

    Until recently, southern French wines have been rather looked down upon even by the French. That is changing rapidly. The rosé wines from this area, though few are grand crus, are possibly the best in the world and perfectly adapt to the long hot days of our southern summers. 
    Paddy McKillan of Chateau La Coste aspires to produce the best rosé in the world.

    The Bandol area, west of Marseille, has an abundance of vineyards to visit. The coastal strip is very well-known for it rosés. Bandol itself has become a rather touristy resort town but take a short drive inland and you will find peace and quiet and time to reflect within the dozens of vineyards, most are ready to welcome you.

    We usually buy a couple of cases for summer at Moulin de la Roque Bandol. Outside Bandol near Le Castellet. The winery was founded in 1950 in an old wheat mill. It boasts 305 hectares of land and straddles eight communes.

    The Phoenicians visited our coast of southern France around the same time as the ancient Greeks, possibly even a little earlier. Both the Greeks and the Phoenicians were experts in agriculture. Wine and olive oil were two of their most valued commodities. The Phoenicians, who came from city-states in what today is Lebanon, Syria and parts of the coast of modern-day Israel, were not conquerors but traders. Traders, par excellence. They were on the look-out for tin and precious metals. They founded or visited ports, entrepôts, emporia, all around the Mediterranean bringing with them olive oil, wine, peacock feathers along with a wide range of exotic goods including marijuana seeds. They also transported aboard their ships, plants and agricultural utensils. They taught the local peoples they encountered how to farm and cultivate the products they were trading (not marijuana as far as I know!). Palestine, a neighbouring terrain to the Phoenicians in the Middle East, was renowned for its wines.

    It was the Syrians who first put wine into glass containers and the Gauls who invented the use of the barrel.

    There is some evidence to suggest that the Celts were cultivating grape vines here - vitis vinifera, which is the most common of all grape plants - even before the Phoenicians or Greeks arrived. It is a plant native to the Mediterranean. Cultivars of vitis vinifera are the basis of almost all the wines produced worldwide so this small plant, this liana, has certainly travelled and impacted on cultures everywhere and has been around for millennia, rather like the olive tree.

    It is not Bordeaux or Burgundy but Provence that is the oldest wine-growing region in France. The Phoenicians transported wine to trade, possibly also vines for planting, but it was the Greeks who established the vineyards. This means that wine production in southern France dates back 2,600 years.

    Archaeological remains found in this region indicate that the terraces were handcrafted as early as the 6th century B.C. Irrigation was achieved by the construction of the famous drystone walls. It is possible that the Greeks or even Phoenicians brought this skill to the local people.

    After the Greeks came the Romans who, while empire-expanding, spread the knowledge of viticulture throughout France giving birth to France's most famous wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne amongst others.

    After the collapse of the Roman Empire, France's agricultural prowess went into decline. Charles 1, Charlemagne, crowned Emperor of the Romans by Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800, brought unity to Europe and power to the Catholic Church. The church was involved in the development of viticulture.  Wine was an important part of monastic life. There are many Benedictine and Cistercian abbeys that in their day offered rooms to travellers, spiritual repose and were centres of learning. Hospitality, of course, included food and wine.

    Right on our doorstep, a half an hour journey by boat from the old port of Cannes, lies the island of Saint-Honorat. This pretty little island is home to a community of Cistercian monks who grow their own food, keep bees and produce their own wine from eight hectares of vineyard. They have been producing fine wines and liqueurs since the Middle Ages.

    (A little fact about Saint-Honorat Island that always pleases my Irish soul is that Saint Patrick studied here during the 6th century).

    The vineyards of Bellet nestle quietly up in the hills behind the port-city of Nice which became a part of France in 1860 when it was ceded from Italy. Nice is the only city in France - aside from one small vineyard in Montmartre in the heart of Paris - to claim vineyards within its city boundaries. This area was once an important viticultural department. This is no longer the case. Still, the Bellet wines are well regarded and sell for a good price. I recommend a visit to the vineyards of the Château du Bellet with its rather lovely private chapel.

                                 The interior of the private chapel, once part of the family estate of the Château du Bellet, Nice. The chapel has been deconsecrated and converted into the wine-tasting area.

    The Château de Bellet is approximately twelve kilometres inland, high above Nice. The vineyards are no longer owned by the de Charnacé family, the ancestors of the Barons of Bellet. The present owner, Ghislaine de Charnacé, grandson of the last Bellet Baron, inherited the estate from his mother Rose de Bellet, whose family gave its name to the local wine. In 2012, the family sold off the vineyards and chapel but not the ancestral home with its round towers and ochre and red façades. The vineyards are now in the hands of a conglomerate, 'La Française Real Estate Managers' - a rather unattractive moniker that conjures up none of the romanticism and history of 'Barons of Bellet'. To be fair, this company has kept the traditions, the local cépages, while bringing its winemaking technology into the twenty-first century.
    A day trip from Nice is easy and, when I last looked, you did not need an appointment. Lovely views, four to five degrees cooler than down at the coast and well worth a visit.
    By the way, this is an organic vineyard and has been since 2013.

                                          Views from one of the Château du Bellet vineyards.

    There are many influences and a wide variety of political histories, Greek, Roman, Catalan, Provençal to name but a few. Each has brought something to our wine story.

    Cheers! This is me sipping our homemade orange wine.

    My novel, The Forgotten Summer, is set on an vineyard in the south of France. A French family who fled Algeria after the War of Independence buy a rundown vineyard overlooking the Mediterranean ...


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    The tower of Magdalen College was built in 1492 beside the River Cherwell
    Copyright Janie Hampton, 2019.
    The River Cherwell (pronounced ‘Charwell’) flows into the River Thames- but where it flows through Oxford, the Thames is called the Isis! It then goes back to being the Thames until London and then the English Channel. On May Morning, Magdalen choir sing from the top of the tower at dawn. Then drunk students leap off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. It is shallow enough to punt, so a dangerous pastime. On the left are the Oxford Botanical Gardens, home to many exotic and wonderful plants.
    It is far too hot here in Southern England to read much. So here are some drawings of the history of Oxford you may print out. Then go and sit under a tree, or any shadey, cool place, and colour them in. Choose your favourite. Or print out several and offer them to friends, or neighbours. But don't sell them or use them for commercial gain. You can use paint, coloured pencils or felt pens, or a combination of all three. There are no rules for colouring. Use any colour you like, stay in the lines, go over the lines, add your own flowers, leaves and people. The only rule is that you should enjoy doing it. This is not work, or school prep, it is for fun!
    Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) visited Oxford once, in 1566.
    The castle mound in the background is still there. Copyright Janie Hampton, 2019.
    In 1566 Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) visited Oxford during her annual ‘Royal Progress’ around England. The Queen and her courtiers were entertained by university students with debates, plays and music. She attended discussions at the Church of St Mary the Virgin and closed the final debate herself with a speech in Latin. Five years later in 1571, she founded Jesus College, the first Protestant college. Her father, Henry VIII, had ensured she was well-educated and although she had no children of her own, she paid for the education of many of her 100 godchildren.
    Alice Lidell (left) and her sisters Lorina and Edith with ukuleles in 1848.
    From a photograph by Lewis Carroll, author of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
    Copyright Janie Hampton, 2019.
    The drawing above of Alice Lidell (1852-1934) and her sisters is possibly the first ever photo of anyone playing a ukelele. Though some people dispute these were exactly like ukeleles that we play today. Can you spot the characters from ‘Alice in Wonderland’? 
    Stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) . Copyright Janie Hampton, 2019.
    Christ Church cathedral was built on the site of St Frideswide's monastery, which dates back to the 12th Century. Christ Church College, where many British Prime Ministers were educated, was built in 1525, funded by Henry VIII as part of his dissolution of Roman Catholic monasteries and establishment of the Church of England.
    Oxford, originally called Oxnaforda, (the place where Oxen could cross the river without a bridge) has been here for over a thousand years. I have lived in Oxford thirty four years this week, and little has changed, apart from more traffic, more visitors and more cafés with wi-fi. It is not often I really look at this beautiful, old city. Doing these drawings made me look, and think, and appreciate. One day I may have enough to make a whole book. But for now, I share a few of them with you, gentle readers. If you like them I shall do some more.

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    Comfortable, convenient and ready to move in - welcome to your new home in the Iron Age!

    A well-built house will stand up to whatever the weather gods throw at you.*

    The central fireplace will keep the family warm all year round.*

    The neatly-finished conical roof has no pesky ventilation holes to let in the rain or cause dangerous updraughts, and the smoke rising from the hearth will repel bothersome insects as it finds it way out through the thatch.

    Your new home is designed with the traditional east-facing doorway so all the family can enjoy light and warming sunshine first thing in the morning.
    Handy fuel store within easy reach!*
    You will find secure on-site grain storage to see you through the winter months.
    Further storage pits can be added as you need them.*

    There's no escaping the daily grind if we want to enjoy our daily bread!
    Where better to turn wheat into flour than by the comfort of your own hearth?*

    Your plot includes fine farming land, so with a little planning, honest toil and the goodwill of the gods, everything you need to feed the family will be just outside your door.
    A promising litter of piglets*

    Milk, meat, skins...*

    Wheat and barley grow well in the British climate, so if the water from the nearby wells and springs is not to your taste, why not take up home brewing?

    New clothes for all the family? Here’s where you start!

    Top-quality fleece in the making.*

    Colour your clothing with the natural dyes available on-site.

    Woad is easy to grow!

    Weaving: a creative and useful pastime*

    Although we are thrilled to welcome you to the Iron Age, where visiting smiths will happily supply you with iron tools and weapons if necessary...

    Hopefully for display purposes only***

    ... you can be confident that all the old familiar metals are still available.

    Bronze (plus enamel!) for chariot fittings***

    Gold for wearing on those special occasions***

    Rest assured also that when the exciting sounds and smells of modern metalworking fade away, your home will be just as quiet and peaceful as you would expect, leaving you to enjoy the songs of the birds, the chirrup of grasshoppers, and the bleating of your happy sheep in the meadow.

    And finally... at the end of the day, sleep in peace, knowing that you and your neighbours are surrounded by a secure boundary. 

    It may look a little bare now..

    ...but this is how it will look before long.*

    We think you’ll agree that the privacy, safety and comfort that you and your family deserve has never been so beautiful!


    Be the envy of your friends with an individually-refurbished seaside residence!

    Adventurous home-makers will thrill to the exciting potential of Chysauster, a highly original development of exclusive courtyard dwellings in the far West. Enjoy an alternative to the Roman style that is becoming popular elsewhere in these islands.

    Glimpse the sea from your front door!**

    Chysauster offers stunning coastal and countryside views and its very own underground shared storage facility.

    Ample underground storage: a luxury known locally as a "fogou".**
    Each unit is made up of a central courtyard surrounded by private rooms.**
     These properties are ripe for modernization, so don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a truly bespoke rural hideaway!


    For full details of the splendid properties and facilities marked with *, please visit Butser Ancient Farm, either online or better still, in person. You will be welcome to stroll through the impressive range of show houses on display from several eras, all carefully based on archaeological evidence.

    The delightful site of Chysauster (marked **) is near Penzance, and the houses are open to visitors - find out more here.

    All the items labelled ***, and very much more, can be seen in Norwich Castle Museum.

    Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, featuring a Roman military medic called Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. The latest book in the series is a novella, PRIMA FACIE.

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
    Your IP : - Country : - City:
    Your ISP TRACKS Your Online Activity! Hide your IP ADDRESS with a VPN!
    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    You might well have heard of the Kennis brothers before.

    If you have, never mind. An excuse to look at their work again is always a good thing.

    The Kennis brothers, Adrie and Alfons, are unsettlingly identical

    Dutch twins. They refuse to call themselves artists, though they are. They are also anatomists and anthropologists and they create the most startlingly original portraits of ancient people that I’ve ever seen.

    I was unaware of their work until my brother (and illustrator) Andrew, started outgrabing about a programme we were watching. It had one of those forensic recreations based on a medieval skull. The result always looks much the same, whatever skull is being used: a bland, expressionless face, rather like that of a shop-window dummy.

    “Don’t waste our time!” Andrew said. “Send for the Kennis brothers! There should be a law that only the Kennis brothers are allowed to do reconstructions!"

    I had never heard of the brothers Kennis, but once directed to their website, I could see Andrew’s point. When you look at one of their recreations, it looks back. It almost speaks. You feel that if you could catch it at the right moment, it would tell you a joke or the story of its life. And I would be all ears.

    I think the Kennises refuse to call themselves artists because everything they do is based on research and evidence. Their approach is meticulous. Each of their sculptures is based on an individual skeleton. After much research into the anatomy of that individual and its species, they first build a skeleton -- a neanderthal skeleton or an erectus skeleton. They even build it a flexible spine.

    They add muscles of clay. They add rope for arteries. They layer on the skin in translucent layers of silicon, as an oil painter does with layers of coloured pigment.

    They don’t guess at the colouring. DNA analysis provides them with the most likely eye, hair and skin colour. One of their most controversial – and beautiful – sculptures is based on the skull of a young man found in Cheddar Gorge. Often known as ‘the oldest Briton’ he dates from 10,000 years ago.(Though one of his direct descendants was found living just down the road. And it's reckoned that 10% of modern Britons are descended from him. That's about six and half million of us.)

    The Kennises portrayed him as having dark, wavy hair, quite dark brown ‘black’ skin and blue eyes.

    Some people were simply surprised, especially by the contrast between the dark skin and light eyes. But there was the usual ‘political correctness gone mad’ reaction from the usual sources, with the insulting implication that the Kennis brothers had given their subject this colouring on a whim, to gain publicity or kudos for being ‘woke’ and ‘progressive.’

    The truth is, they gave him that colouring because that is what their research and the DNA analysis of his bones indicated. The DNA results are never absolutely definitive but they indicated something like a 75% probability that his skin was dark and his eyes light.

    What strikes me most forcibly when I first saw the sculpture was not its colouring but its personality: its expression and liveliness. These sculptures change with the angle and lighting. From some angles, Cheddar Man seems about to burst into laughter. His face conveys warmth and friendliness. I don't like the expression but, god help me, he has 'a twinkle in his eye.'

    Since it’s moulded around a reconstruction of his skull, he must have looked something like that. Maybe in life he was a miserable so-and-so without a good word for anyone. We'll never know. But even if the personality given him by the Kennises is completely wrong, their sculpture strongly conveys a great truth to us in a way more direct and compelling than words: that these ancient bones we dig up were once living people, as vital as we are.

    This post has been all text and no pictures because the Kennis brothers work is copyright. However, here you can read an article about their work, which has many photographs.

    And here’s a link to their website, with many more photographs of their work. I’m particularly fond of the Neanderthal grandmother, with the child hugging her.

    I think their recreation of Australopithecus Lucy is astonishing — she isn’t human and yet she is, in spades. Chin up, arms on her hips, she looks down her nose at us and stares us out. She has personality all right: she has Attitude. And sass. Looking at her I feel that, any moment, her mouth is going to open and the voice of one of my great, great, great, great, great grandmothers is going to tick me off.

    Turkana Boy, too, is an amazing piece of necromancy. (Click down through the pictures on the right of the Moesgaard Museum page.) There he is, stave across his shoulders, head cocked, giving someone some cheek. Looking at them all, I think each one holds a story — is telling us a story — if we could only hear it.

    I leave you with a film of Adrie and Alfons at work.

    Susan Price won the Carnegie medal for The Ghost Drum


    The Guardian Award for The Sterkarm Handshake.

    Her website, with reviews, writing tips, short stories and book extracts

    is here.

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    The time has come to confess. I've got clothes moths. And I have spent a ridiculous amount of this summer in trying to get rid of the little buggers.

    I have to say, when we finally twigged what they were, I was surprised. Up till then I had just assumed they were, well, just regular moths. You know - modest-looking and brown, harmless – the Jane Eyre of the Lepidoptera order. In fact, given the plummeting numbers of insects and the serious problem this is for all of us up the biodiversity chain, I was even rather pleased at their plentiful, fluttering presence. But now I know better. Now I know they are rapacious, cunning and persistent, and can smell a pure wool jumper at fifty paces.

    But the profundity of my initial ignorance interests me. Of course I knew the word ‘mothball’, but – seriously – I actually thought it was a redundant remnant of changed historical circumstances, like the plague or ink made out of walnut galls. I didn’t even register that a mothball must have been used to protect against moths. How did I get to middle age without realising that there were insects that fed on fabrics? 

    But I am not alone in having my ignorance enlightened. 

    Apparently clothes moths are bucking the extinction trend, and in the UK numbers are rocketing. This has been put down to a series of mild winters – though this explanation actually begs more questions than it answers. If their appearance is now being put down to milder climatic conditions, why were they so prevalent in the centuries that also experienced the Little Ice Age (a period from around the thirteenth to the second half of the nineteenth century, when the winters were much colder)? Why are we seeing an increase in clothes moths when – with the proliferation of synthetic and blended fibres – there must be so little for them to eat? And, most perplexing of all, what did clothes moths do before evolution handed them humans and their textiles?

     In today’s terms and in the context of my wardrobe, they certainly have champagne tastes, delicately nibbling the embroidery off crewel work (above), skimming the silken fibres from scarves, and even chewing through the carpet (below). 

    No doubt this is a damning indictment of my housekeeping skills (though I apportion a good deal of blame on my non-vaccuming husband). But it also tells us something about historical experience. Thanks to fast fashion, the dominance of petroleum-based fibres – easy-wash and easy-care – not to mention our nauseating levels of consumption and waste, the contemporary experience of acquiring and maintaining a wardrobe has little in common with the ways of the past. But, courtesy of the clothes moth, here is an experience that directly links us (or those of us with moths) with older problems and their solutions. I decided to do a little digging, to see what our foremothers and fathers made of it all.

    The first thing that becomes clear is how often the clothes moth made an appearance as a metaphor in an entirely unrelated subject. Writers of early modern spiritual tracts used this familiar concrete experience of their readers – the depredations of the moth and its larvae – to make the moral point that the unrighteous and all things worldly would inevitably crumble away. In this, they were drawing on biblical paradigms. As it says in Isaiah (51.8): ‘For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm [i.e. the caterpillar] shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation.’ Religion aside, this tells us that even hundreds of years BCE, clothes moths were a familiar problem.

    On the practical side, advice and products also start to appear in early printed books and newspapers. Perusing the advertisements in the Morning Chronicle of 1774, for instance, you would have been informed of ‘a varnish for the preservation of woollens, silks, furrs, and every other article subject to moths and insects’. The inventor of this varnish, with the expenditure of ‘much time and attention, and many tedious and expensive processes and laborious experiments’ – you can sense the inventor’s emotional investment in the knotty problem of moth damage – has brought it to perfection. You could either buy the varnish straight, or – if you didn’t fancy the phaff – you could settle for pre-varnished linen bags, into which you could then pop your apparel (Morning Chronicle, 30 March 1774).

    But I particularly like the article ‘British Moths and Butterflies’, featured in The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, which describes the clothes moth as ‘a bitter and unrelenting enemy’ to the wardrobe (‘British Moths and Butterflies No. V.’ [date unknown] p. 24). 

    The recommended remedies and preventatives have changed little over the centuries, if at all. The most important is the regular and repeated airing of garments (the moths hate to be disturbed). They are also dissuaded by certain strong scents, such as camphor, cedar wood and lavender. Various insecticides kill them at the larval stage; others target the adults. More recently we’ve added pheromone traps to our arsenal, and English Heritage recommend the best thing to kill moths, caterpillars and eggs alike is to put affected items into deep freeze (-18 degrees C for two weeks).

    I don’t want to use insecticides. I have to report that so far my pheromone traps have proved useless. And my freezer is taken up with food rather than clothing. But on the bright side, the drawers and their new-laundered contents now smell nicely of lavender, which seems to be helping for the moment. 

    But history would suggest that I will ultimately lose. While remedies are effective in the particular, and I may triumph this season, it is unlikely to be a lasting victory. The persistence of our bitter and unrelenting enemy, and the similarity in our coping strategies over centuries – or maybe even millennia – hint that the moths are here to stay.

    In some ways I find it rather satisfying at being humbled by this ancient and simple problem. Clothes moths are a remedy for hubris, a whisper from the past, and an invitation to own less but look after it more.


    1. Case-bearing Clothes Moth, Tinea pellionella, photo by Patrick Clement. Source: flickr, Creative Commons licence
    2. Clothes moth damage on crewel work, photo Author
    3. Clothes moth damage on carpet, photo Author
    4. Case-bearing Clothes Moth, Tinea pellionella, photo Patrick Clement. Source: flickr, Creative Commons licence
    5. Clothes moth and its stages of development, The Popular Science Monthly 76 (New York: The Science Press, 1910), p. 220. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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  • 07/30/19--16:01: Competitions
  • There is no July competition. In fact there will be no more competitions. The History Girls are making some changes.

    Read Mary Hoffman's post tomorrow, 1st August, to see what these changes are.

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    (Skip to the red section at the end to read the changes.)

    The History Girls blog began on 1st July 2011. With a lot of help from friends, I set it up and invited writers of historical fiction to join. This was our first line up:

    Mary Hoffman, Linda Buckley-Archer, Julia Golding (as Eve Edwards), Katherine Langrish, NM (Nicky) Browne, Katherine Roberts, Adèle Geras, Teresa Flavin, Caroline Lawrence, Michelle Lovric, Barbara Mitchelhill, Harriet Castor, Mary Hooper, Catherine Johnson, Marie-Louise Jensen, Sue Purkiss, Penny Dolan, Celia Rees, Theresa Breslin, AL (Louise) Berridge, Imogen Robertson, Emma Darwin, Leslie Wilson, K M (Katie) Grant, Nicola Morgan, Eleanor Updale, Dianne Hofmeyr and Louisa Young.

    Louisa Young
    Of those, after some departures this summer, only six are left: me, Adèle, Michelle, Sue, Penny and Celia.

    So you can see we have had a lot of changes over time. People who have come and gone in the last eight years include Essie Fox, Laurie Graham, Manda Scott, Lucy Inglis, Clare Mulley, Kate Lord Brown, Lydia Syson, Elizabth Fremantle, Ann Swinfen and Tanya Landman.

    There have been bereavements, a marriage, the birth of grandchildren, a Carnegie Medal - one great sadness was the sudden and unexpected death of Ann Swinfen, though she had already left the group by then.
    Hilary Mantel
    As time passed, there was not such a preponderance of writers for young readers; the balance is better now. We don't have any historians/writers of non-fiction in the group but we have often had historians as guests. And what guests we have had! Hilary Mantel, Tracy Chevalier, Sally Gardner, Alison Weir, Steph Penney, to mention only some. And some History Boys too: Kevin Crossley-Holland, Marcus Sedgwick, Patrick Gale, John Guy, Ian Mortimer, Dan Jones, James Shapiro and Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
    Chris Skaife and Merlina
    After about a year, we fell into the pattern of having a guest on the 29th of every month and a competition to win one of their books on the last day of the month. With 28 History Girls, posting daily, there was still often a date without a name beside it. For a while we took turns to do double duty, posting on the 30th of seven months in the year but eventually we hit on a theme for those 30ths - The Cabinet of Curiosities - in which an HG would write about a particular object or objects.

    For some months now this task has been undertaken by Charlotte Wightwick.

    We had other themes, sometime for a month, like Christmas or cross-dressing (!), a favourite history teacher or a historical person we just didn't "get.". We had some joint posts, such as on our blog birthdays and Charles Dickens' bicentenary.

    And in 2014, some of us published a book - Daughters of Time (Templar)

    We've had over 4 million hits since we started and nearly 1500 Followers, from everywhere from Canada to Ukraine. There have been, incredibly, 3,000 posts.

    A success then? Certainly!

    So why change anything?

    Well, if you have read all the above, you might guess that it's quite a lot of work - and you'd be right. I have had sterling help from Sue Purkiss, Katherine Langrish and Caroline Lawrence as admins but the two latter are leaving. 

    One of the biggest and most annoying tasks is deleting Spam comments, some of them quite disgusting. We made the decision to disallow Anonymous comments some time ago but now we are disabling comments altogether and one large task for admins disappears at a stroke. (I haven't been able to disable them altogether but they are now limited to other members of the blog. This is the most limited option Blogger allows.)

    You can still write to me at readers@maryhoffman.co.uk and with the subject History Girls feedback and I will pass you comments on to the right HG.

    Finding a monthly guest and organising the competitions has been a lot of work and the same people have been winning books every month, so we are discontinuing that feature of the blog.

    But the biggest change is that we are no longer going to post every day. From tomorrow, 2nd August 2019, there will be a new HG post EVERY FRIDAY! Make a note to yourself to check every week. The posts deserve more webtime so keeping them up for longer will allow more people to enjoy them.

    And do trawl back over all the posts from 2011 onwards and you will find gems awaiting you there.

    I will copy this post to News so you can remind yourselves of the new system. I hope you will keep following us. We are still your dedicated team of History Girls.

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    My first novel, Carnevale, published eighteen years ago. I was anxious then – because I was daring to be the first female writer to describe how it might have felt to be loved by a man like Casanova. Today I would be much more afraid. For Casanova has fallen foul of the Me Too movement, something I learned at a fascinating symposium held in Venice last month.

    Delegates explained how last year’s touring exhibition about Casanova met with fierce criticism in the United States. Some galleries even stoked the fire to court publicity. Today’s sensibility has judged him harshly on his interest in very young girls, the avidness of his seductions and two cases of violence against women (for which he also condemned himself).

    I cannot defend him on any of those points, but those who now vilify him would find some surprising material if they went so far as to read any of his 3000 pages of memoirs. Casanova was no Don Giovanni. He deplored cold-hearted notchers of bedposts. He thought women had more pleasure from sex than men, ‘because the feast takes place in their own house’ and because they risked the pain and danger of childbirth with each sexual act. As Malina Stefanovska observed during the symposium, Casanova may have been projecting somewhat when he declared that the visible pleasure of his lovers made up four-fifths of his own. However, he took responsibility for contraception. He would stay celibate rather than transmit a sexual disease. He would not sleep with England’s premier courtesan Kitty Fisher because his English would not have allowed for the all-important post-coital chatting. For these reasons, and because he once declared that he would like to be reincarnated as a woman, I suspect that he might have been rather on the side of the Me Too movement.

    'Casanova in Place', beautifully choreographed by Kathleen González, was a multidisciplinary event, uniting an international cohort of academics, biographers and novelists in a spirit of amity, curiosity and sometimes hilarity. In this, it would have delighted the man who inspired it.

    I was honoured to sit on a panel of writers discussing how to render in fiction or biography a man who had written 3000 pages about himself. The day before, novelist and academic Gregory Dowling had delivered a lecture about Casanova in fiction, in which I found my work discussed in rather starry company. Then it was time for the writers to speak for ourselves.

    You can see us here above, left to right. Malina, our facilitator, had previously treated the symposium to a reading from one of her own letters to Casanova, in this case on the subject of exile. (This hybrid form, part personal essay, part academic study, proved a moving and apt way to encounter Casanova. I was so inspired by Malina’s rendering that I wrote a poem in response.) Next right there’s myself, author of Carnevale and The Wishing Bones. Then Ian Kelly, who wrote and researched Casanova, a biography, which has been turned into a ballet by Kenneth Tindall , which was also screened for the symposium. Barbara Lynn-Davis wrote Casanova’s Secret Wife, an intense and lyrical first-person account of one of his most famous love affairs through the eyes of his teenage lover Caterina Capretta. Kathleen González is the author of Seductive Venice: In Casanova’s Footsteps (published in Italy by Supernova Edizioni as Casanova’s Venice: A Walking Guide).

    Kathleen herself has written here a precis of our discussions about how, as a writer, one handles the hot property that is Casanova’s life.

    I was the unicorn in the room, not because I wrote about Casanova in a novel, but because I’d put him into a novel for children aged nine to twelve. So I had the opportunity to explain why, against all expectation, I felt that Casanova was not just an acceptable but even an excellent protagonist for a children’s book.

    The Casanova of The Wishing Bones is thirteen rising fourteen, and on cusp of adulthood. All transitions are potentially perilous. You need lots of peril in a children’s book. The symposium seemed rather bemused when I explained that the rule in all children’s books is that you must immediately get rid of the parents - otherwise, someone is looking out for the children and they cannot have proper adventures. Well, Zanetta and Gaetano, Casanova’s parents, delivered that for me without being asked. Gaetano died when Casanova was eight. Zanetta took little notice of her son, regularly abandoning him to travel the courts of Europe as an actress/courtesan/whatever, and even despatching him to the mainland as a very young child to board in terrible conditions on the pretext that the air in Venice was bad for his frequent nosebleeds.

    I then explained that the child-protagonist must have an urgent agenda of their own - an inconsolable need or want. As Malina eloquently pointed out the day before, Casanova needed to make the world pay for his abandonment. His issues triggered behaviours that I could use as storylines.

    Casanova’s unusually intense youthful physicality made him a useful character. Children can identify with Casanova’s sense of being an outsider, in a bodily and emotional sense, till he was eight. This was manifested in his muteness, his outrageously prolific nosebleeds and the strange cure he underwent for them. In The Wishing Bones, I originally used the entire episode of the trip to Murano with his adoring grandmother, who put him in the hands of a witch who cured his muteness and his bleeding in a series of picturesque acts and visions. However, in the end, this part of my book was abbreviated and accessorised with other elements more appropriate to this age range, such as beating hearts in buckets and rude talking cats. (Casanova's own witch had black cats, but they were silent).

    Casanova’s frank greed for particular foods makes him a suitable character for children’s book. Children are very interested in food. It is one of the few things in which they can exercise power, even if it is the power of 'NO!' And Casanova's totemic foods - his ‘Madeleine moments’ - are even character-aligned … the crab soup his abandoning mother craved when he was in the womb, for example.

    I explained that I write for children in the specific genre of junior ‘histfantfic’, which allows for magic. Casanova dabbled for profit and pleasure in occult practices, notably with the elderly Marquise d'Urfé, the richest woman in France, whom he pretended to impregnate with her own cloned spirit. In so far as his memoirs are an act of self-creation, there are many metaphorical rabbits pulled out of many plumed hats. He even wrote his own magical-real novel, with science-fiction elements. So I think Casanova would have enjoyed histfantfic.

    His love of novelty also made Casanova an ideal candidate to be the protagonist of a children’s novel. Most of my children’s books feature young, lovely and rather rude mermaids, who speak sea-salt slang because how else would they learn Humantongue except by eavesdropping on pirates? Casanova loved new faces - new ‘title pages’, as he styled them – so imagine Casanova with a cavern full of beautiful young women whose ‘treasure’ (as he would put it), is mysteriously situated – almost like that of the Bellino of his memoirs. Obsessively attracted to this young ‘castrato’ male singer, Casanova unmasked Bellino as a girl masquerading as a boy using an ingenious rubber device that rendered her a virtual hermaphrodite.

    Moreover, the mermaids of The Wishing Bones are compelling, strong women who wear scallop shells on their breasts. How is Casanova not going to be fascinated by them? For me, it was a kind of chemistry experiment: put young Casanova with magical creatures possessing a powerful femininity – and see what bubbles up.

    I was also able to make use of Casanova’s invention of himself as an extrovert, a larger-than-life person. People like that always mess up. In The Wishing Bones, Casanova’s innocent enthusiasm for the witch on Murano – the one who stopped his nosebleeds - leads him to betray his friends, almost fatally.

    I was asked to keep Casanova rather polite in The Wishing Bones. My original draft included verbal hints of his burgeoning sexual awareness, but that did not survive into the final manuscript. Even though in real life he had already acquired sexual experience by the age I show him in the novel, that side of his life is not visible. Instead, I tried to show the abundance of his joys, his lively greed, his charm and his desire to please ladies. He is attracted to one of my young female protagonists, and she takes pleasure in his warmth. But there is no question of precocious sexual activity being allowed when writing for this age group.

    Among my embellishments is Casanova pre-shadowing his work as a violinist. He is hired to entertain the English guests at their Venetian 'Hotel of What You Want’ with singing, violin-playing and heart-tugging recitals of romantic verse. The violin – restrung with mermaid hair – becomes young Casanova’s tool for repainting the colour in a city that has been drained of its beauty by the enactment of an ancient prophecy.

    Of course he needs to stare deeply into the eyes of a lovely girl while he goes about this important work.

    Will this site me in the sights of Me Too? I hope not.

    Michelle Lovric’s website

    P.S. Apologies to anyone who was planning to attend my Wishing Bones event at the Finchley Road O2 Waterstones on this coming Sunday August 4th. Almost appropriately, for a book set in Venice, this event has been delayed by a flood. It will be reconvened as soon as possible.

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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  • 08/08/19--17:30: SLATE by Adèle Geras

  • This beautiful paperweight was a present to me from Linda Newbery on my 70th birthday, five years ago. It's always on my desk and is one of my Top Treasures. 

    It was made by a master craftsman called Bernard Johnson out of slate.  I've always been very fond of this material. We take it for granted most of the time. Many people use slate chips in their gardens, and I bought a set of slate coasters from a gallery shop in a museum that I can no longer locate in my memory. It's beautiful stuff and the best slate in the world comes from Wales. 

    Last month, I wrote about the copper of Parys Mountain on Anglesey. And on the same visit, to my friends Bob Borsley and Ewa Jaworska, they took me also to Snowdonia. We went to visit the National Slate Museum at Llanberis which was just up the road from this idyllic scene.

    The museum is located in the now disused workshops of the Dinorwic Slate Quarry and it's beautifully organised and laid out. We started out by looking a very informative video, which explained how four slate workers' cottages had been moved lock, stock and barrel to this site, and set up to show how the men who worked in the quarry lived at different historical periods. We were also told that nowadays, no slate is quarried here because China produces it much more cheaply.  

    We then went into a large, pleasant space, where a delightfully chatty man was about to demonstrate the art of cutting slate. He had an enormous rectangle resting against one knee and with a thin chisel he chipped away at it, knocking it gently all the way round and after a few knocks, a layer of the whole thing seemed almost to fall of the bigger block as single sheet, which looked impossibly thin. Below is a photo of the various sizes of the slate and I took this photo because I loved the names given to the different proportions: Princesses (24" by 14") Duchesses (24" by 12") Countesses (20" x 12") Wide Ladies (16" by 12") Broad Ladies (16" by 10") Narrow Ladies (16" by 8")

    Below is a photo taken in one of the cottages. This is the parlour and the only downstairs room apart from the tiny kitchen on the ground floor. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century. There's one cottage that is from 1969 and in that one we saw a bath and an inside toilet  and I recognised many of the fixtures and fittings from the days of my youth.

    After visiting the Slate Museum, we went to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, near Blaenau Ffestiniog.  You can do all kinds of things there, like zip across disused workings on a wire. Which was clearly not the kind of thing I was up for! But we did go on the Explorer Tour, which involved strapping yourself into a Army truck and driving to the highest point of the old workings. And  then down again. Malcolm was our intrepid driver. At one point, we had to reverse down a slope with a dizzying gradient and I just shut my eyes. There were other times on the drive when I decided I didn't want to look but mostly, it was amazing and very exciting.  The photos below show what the terrain looked like...

    ...and also what used to be there before work stopped in the quarry. 

    After I got home, I started not taking my slate for granted. I looked more carefully at my garden slate chips. I admired anew the coasters I use every day and thanked Linda and took my hat off to Bernard Johnson all over again. And the very next day, in the Times, I saw the photo below. It shows the roof of the Serpentine Gallery in London, made from slate by artist Junya Ishigami. What cam I say? Slate rocks!

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    Clooties hanging on tree above Madron's Well
    Earlier this summer, I was travelling on a country lane just north-west of Penzance in Cornwall, when I spotted a sign to St Madron’s Well. I followed a surprisingly well-worn footpath twisting through a woodland of ancient, lichen-covered blackthorn trees and ferns, which seemed to go on for miles. I confess I was on the verge of turning back, thinking I had missed the well, because many holy wells in Devon and Cornwell are simply little springs trickling out of a bank and easily covered by summer vegetation. Then I saw a few rags tied to a tree. As I walked further along the path, the trees around me became festooned with rags, ribbons, single shoes, tiny fabric bags and messages written on cloth in many languages, including Chinese. Some were weather-faded to the colour of fallen leaves, others so vibrant they clearly been tied there yesterday.

    Stone stile and walls of St Madron's chapel beyond.
    Had it not been for these ‘clooties’, I could easily have missed the well itself which was little more than a shallow pool of clear water, just a few inches deep, surrounded by trees and muddy bog. But further on down the track, I came across mossy stone stiles, standing like the battlements of an enchanted castle, and beyond them was the rough-hewn stone walls of the chapel of St Madron, its entrance guarded by a huge yew tree. Water bubbles out into a baptistry in the far corner, which comes from the same spring as the well in the wood. The baptistry, and the stone altar were covered in crumbling posies of withered flowers, shells, three-armed and four-armed Brigid crosses, and other offerings visitors had laid there. It was evident that this place is as much revered in new millennium as it has been for the last thousand years.

    Entrance to the ruined St Madron's Chapel, Cornwall
    Those who first sought it out in pre-Christian times dedicated this spring to the Welsh Celtic Mother Goddess, Modron, who some authors link to the medieval Arthurian figure - Morgan Le Fay. When Celtic Christians arrived, they wisely didn’t try to prevent people coming for blessing and healing to this well, but quietly replaced the old goddess with St. Madern or St Madron. But whereas Modron had been a goddess, St Madron or Madern is thought to have been 6th century male Celtic saint, possibly a disciple of St Piran. The chapel probably began life as a cell for a Christian hermit. He or she would have ministered to those coming to the leech well for healing and would have received food or gifts from the supplicants.

    Stone altar in St Madron's chapel.
    The pagan and Christian traditions practised at this site seemed to have co-existed in peaceful harmony until the Reformation, when Thomas Cromwell ordered the destruction of the chapel. The roof was torn down and the statue, which probably occupied the niche, was removed. But whether from superstition or laziness, Cromwell’s men could not bring themselves to destroy the chapel itself, and the walls, baptistry, stone seats and altar remain intact until this day. It is still roofless, but the canopy of trees provides a far more beautiful roof than either thatch or slate.

    Thomas Cromwell and the Reformers may have thought they’d put an end to St Madron’s well, but local people continued to use it. In 1640, John Trelil, unable to stand or walk because of childhood injury to his back, had a dream telling him to seek healing at the well. On a Thursday in May, the day the well’s healing powers were believed to be at their strongest, he crawled to St Madron’s well on his knees, spent the night at the altar in the ruined chapel, bathed in the holy water, then slept on a grassy hump nearby known as St Madron’s Bed, where he began to feel tingling in the nerves of his legs. He returned twice more on subsequent Thursdays and was cured to such an extent that he became fit enough to join the royalist army, though that was perhaps a mixed blessing for he was sadly killed in battle four years later in Lyme, in Dorset.

    Baptistry or second holy well inside St Madron's chapel
    By the Victorian era, they realised there was money to be made from such places and a keeper of the well charged visitors for access. On Thursdays, during the month of May, ailing children were dipped naked in the well three times and passed around it nine times, then dressed and left to sleep on St Madron’s bed. To effect a cure, the ritual had to be performed in silence. Unwed girls threw crosses and pins on the water counting the bubbles to discover when they would marry. It was also thought that by asking how long you had to live, you would be answered by a series of bubbles giving the number of years.

    Today, on the first Sunday in May, people come to stand in a circle and take turns blessing the person next to them with health and peace using a mixture of the water taken from the baptistry and from the well outside. They ask for healing of Mother Earth and provision of water for all people. It would seem that given the current concerns about climate change, Madron’s Well is just as meaningful to people now as it was to our ancient Celtic forbears.
    Clooties hanging in the blackthorn above St Madron's Well

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    I’m writing this post weeks before it gets put online because I’m off to Ireland for the World Science Fiction Convention and for a bit of research and to see a lot of friends. Another person attending the conference asked about Regency dances the other day, and named specific English dances. There are several possible reasons for there being no dances announced at that precise moment in time, but the first thing that came to my mind was the element of Pride and Prejudice that is all about the military. The Bennet sisters who were so excited when beautiful young men in uniform came their way. 

    Some types of story (and the way the military is depicted in Pride and Prejudicemeans that it’s one of them) let us think that historical hurt can defended with a parasol or with gentle intervention. 

    In fact, this is true for some people in some places at some times, including in the early nineteenth century. In New South Wales in 1808, Governor Bligh’s daughter, Mary, defended her father against the military that was deposing him. She used her parasol. She later married into the military, however. Jane Austen depicted a truth about the relationship of women of the right background and their relationship with the British military at that time, and Mary was, for me, the young woman who exemplified it in real life.

    It was not the only type of relationship.

    Those same military personally, if they were in Ireland, presented differently to different parts of the population. They may still have been an excitement and beautiful young men to those of the right ancestry (mainly English and Church of England) but they were certainly not kind to much of the Irish population. Social events that included these soldiers were not something many wanted to attend. Re-enacting those events is re-enacting historical problems. Having modern parties that features those problems, including English dances that celebrate the military, is celebrating hurt.

    This can be extreme. We all have our own examples of historical incidents that are almost too painful to talk about. Mine is food-related from the 1940s, and has nothing at all to do with Jane Austen or dancing. I’ve mentioned it before and no doubt I’ll discuss it again. It’s something I still haven’t resolved or come to terms with and I am forever repeating myself on matters historical until I sort things out. 

    I have a cookbook I still have not used, because every time I bring it out I say “I will use it and remember these women” and I look through the recipe (which are delightful) and I make plans… and I can’t bring myself to cook. Every single one of the authors of this book was dying while they were remembering food they used to make for friends and family. Their particular cuisine was almost wiped out by the murder of the Jews of Middle Europe. How can I have a dinner party with this in mind? How can I not?

    What I can do is what Edna Ferber did, and find a way of translating the complex and awful history into fiction. That way we see more than one view. That way we look at Ireland and can see why some dances had different values to those same dances in England, and we can see why.

    We know that historical experiences are not shared, but when an exciting narrative comes along we can forget. Fiction helps cement us in the forgetfulness, but it can also help us see views other than our own. I was going to talk about how wonderful Tara was before the Civil War in Gone with the Wind, but then I remember how a couple from different backgrounds had their lives destroyed when someone found out in Showboat. This is how Edna Ferber handled part of the painful past, in the novel Showboat. There was a hero-moment when Steve drank a tiny amount of Julie’s (his wife’s) blood so that he could claim he had the right blood in him and so that they could stay together. The reality in Showboat was that the hero moment didn’t take the pressures off. It didn’t allow Steve and Julie to continue making a living as a couple. It didn’t allow them any happiness. 

    The reality in Gone with the Wind was that Scarlett O’Hara’s life was privileged. She suffered during the war, but she wasn’t a slave before and she wasn’t treated like a lower part of society afterwards. The reality in Jane Austen’s stories is that most of her characters are similarly privileged.

    Dances are one of my clues to how people were treated and what they did with their lives. In Showboat, Julie dances in a particular way that demonstrated her background. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet girls dance in the way that demonstrates theirs.

    I need to discover what someone not linked to British troops and English rule danced in 1808. I already know about the dances Mary did around the time she defended William Bligh using her parasol. William Bligh may have had the worst bad luck – first the mutiny on the Bounty and then the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales – but he was not lacking in privilege in most ways and his daughter danced the dances of the gentry, just like the Bennet daughters.

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    This time last week you’d probably never even heard of proroguing. Now you have prorogues coming out of your ears. If it’s any consolation, it’s been causing problems for millennia and Queen Victoria didn’t much like it either.

    What the hell is proroguing, and where does it come from?

    Prorogation in itself is no big deal – it’s simply the formal term for the end of a parliamentary session. Parliament is ‘prorogued’ between the end of one session and the State Opening of Parliament that begins the next.

    Historically, the King or Queen would turn up to do the proroguing themselves. That’s why the modern-day ceremony begins with the Leader of the House stating, ‘My Lords, it not being convenient for Her Majesty personally to be present here this day, she has been pleased to cause a Commission under the Great Seal to be prepared for proroguing this present Parliament.’ Of course, Queen Liz has absolutely no intention of turning up.

    Queen Victoria used to, however. At least she did until 1854, when she refused, apparently on the basis she didn’t like the ceremony. No decent biscuits, perhaps.

    Controversial proroguings

    So much for the normal proroguings. Things get controversial when the power is used for political ends, say by stopping Parliament from carrying out its job of keeping a check on the Government. There’s a long history of monarchs summoning Parliament purely so it could authorise the taxes the King wanted to levy, and then proroguing it to limit its ability to meddle.

    King Charles I – ‘didn’t end well’

    In March 1628, after several years of squabbling about taxation, Charles I tried to prorogue Parliament. Enraged, members of the house literally held the Speaker down in his chair so that the ending of the session could be delayed long enough for resolutions against Catholicism, Arminianism and tonnage and poundage to be read out and approved. In revenge, Charles dissolved Parliament and had nine parliamentary leaders thrown into jail.

    For the following eleven years, he ruled England without a Parliament – a time that’s sometimes referred to as the ‘eleven years' tyranny’. In 1642 the arguments boiled over into full-blown civil war, which lasted for nearly a decade and culminated in the king’s execution. So John Major wasn’t wrong when he said recently that proroguing parliament ‘didn’t end well’ for Charles I.

    The Great Reform Crisis

    We might think we have big problems with our political system, but it used to be even worse. The Great Reform Act of 1832 introduced huge changes to the corrupt electoral system, famously getting rid of ‘rotten boroughs’. But it wasn’t passed without a fight. When the House of Commons defeated the First Reform Bill, the government urged William IV to immediately prorogue Parliament in person, to prevent the passing of an opposition motion. When told that his horses wouldn’t be ready in time, the King supposedly insisted, ‘Then I will go in a hackney cab!’

    Disappointingly, the horses were got ready and he raced off in his flashy carriage, cheered on by crowds all the way to the House of Lords, where he strode in wearing his crown and prorogued Parliament. The Reform Bill was eventually passed, mainly as a result of public pressure. (Worth noting it does sometimes work).

    Deadlock with the Lords 

    In 1948, just after the Second World War, the Labour government of Clement Attlee set out to reduce the power of the House of Lords so as to stop them from delaying their programme of welfare reform and nationalisation. The Lords, not keen on having their powers curbed, repeatedly blocked the Bill. To get around this, Atlee used the Parliament Act 1911 which allowed legislation to go through without the Lords’ agreement if the House of Commons approved it over three sessions. In order speed that process up, the Government announced it would hold a short session between September and October 1948. The Lords, of course, were furious.

    Cash for Questions

    In 1997, John Major, then Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, prorogued Parliament at a time that conveniently avoided parliamentary debate of the Parliamentary Commissioner's report on the cash-for-questions affair. You might remember that the scandal began when two Tory MPs were bribed to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of the owner of Harrods.

    Major prorogued Parliament for just under three weeks before it being dissolved ahead of the General Election to avoid proper debate on cash for questions. But it was of course the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, who won that election, so arguably proroguing didn't end all that well for John Major either...

    There are also several Commonwealth examples of proroguing being used to evade Parliamentary scrutiny. In 2009 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament for two months, which had the effect of limiting an inquiry into the Government's awareness of the abusive treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.

    'Only rogues prorogue'

    That, then, is your super-fast history of political proroguing, generally the tool of the tyrannical or the desperate. But then you’d probably worked that out already.


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of dark historical fiction. She is also a public law and human rights solicitor.


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    Linda Wilkinson
    Under our new regime, today should have a post by Joan Lennon. But Joan kindly lent me her space so I could introduce a piece about a fascinating historical project set in my own part of London, near Blackfriars.

    I am honoured to be a part of the Living Bankside History Committee. One of my fellow committee members is Adrian Chappell, an artist, educator and researcher. Adrian has collaborated to create a play about one of the great historical debacles of the late 18th century: the dramatic burning of the Albion Flour Mill at Blackfriars. Albion-in-Flames will be staged in the last week of September, close to the historical site of the fire, as part of the Totally Thames Festival.

    Adrian worked with playwright, historian, scientist and memoirist, Linda Wilkinson to create the play and this is her account of how Albion in Flames came to be.


                                               “Who thought flour could be so interesting?”

     A rather forlorn and lonely patch of land by the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge seems an unlikely place from which the Industrial Revolution was kick-started in London in the late 18th century.

    Myself and artist Adrian Chappell have been investigating the history of areas that abut the Thames for some time. As a playwright and historian, London is my playground as it is his. We met many moons ago on a project in East London and have remained friends ever since. As colleagues, he does the talking and the images, I do the words. It’s a fun and fruitful relationship.

    A couple of years ago we devised a prototype app about a walk along the Thames linking the two Tate Galleries. Arising from this we uncovered the depth of Southwark’s importance in the industrialisation of London: the story of one building in particular piqued our interest.

    The Albion Flour Mill stood on the south bank of the Thames at 245 Blackfriars Road. Today the site is being redeveloped having been occupied until recently by the Daily Express’s HQ at Ludgate House.

    As the traffic thunders by and the announcements from the railway station punctuate the air it is hard to imagine the presence and stately grandeur of this once impressive building as it sat directly on the river.

    The Albion was the world’s first steam-powered flour mill and London’s first great wonder of the Industrial Revolution. Using the new steam technology, developed by pioneering Midlands’ based engineering company Boulton & Watt, the Albion Mill opened in 1786 and aimed to meet London’s ever-increasing demand for bread. Since the middle of the 18th century London’s population had grown from three quarters of a million to well over one million.

     Albion’s creation was one of a long-list of firsts from that era but as a Londoner it surprised me that this mill was here, in my town, and not in the industrial North, the heartland of steam and steel.

     Precisely because of its location in the middle of London, the Albion Flour Mill quickly became the talk of the town, attracting large crowds from home and abroad who watched in awe as the gigantic arms and condensers of the mill’s steam engines were winched into place. Steam was harnessed to power the millstones and engines for fanning, sifting and dressing wheat, as well as loading and unloading barges moored alongside on the Thames. 20 pairs of millstones could grind 10 bushels of wheat per hour, day and night. The owners were also determined that the modernity of the interior should be reflected in the external façade. The frontage was executed in an elegant neo-classical style with huge Venetian windows that made the Mill look like a well-appointed country house.

    But not everyone was happy. London’s traditional millers (wind and water) watched in horror as this five-storey titan rose over the rooftops of Bankside and beyond. They were well aware of the blaze of publicity regarding the Mill’s production capability. It was said that the Mill could produce as much flour in a month as their own mills could in an entire year.

    On the morning of March 2nd 1791, the Albion Flour Mill caught fire and burnt down. Foul play was suspected immediately, not least because of the quick responses with which London’s traditional millers greeted the news of the fire and the fact that the tide was so low the water boats could not pump onto the flames. The poet Robert Southey walked among the crowds that lined Blackfriars Bridge that morning and noted that there were groups of millers dancing with joy by the light of the flames. The sudden appearance of placards bearing slogans such as Success to the mills of Albion but NO to Albion Mill seemed to provide evidence that the occasion was pre-planned. However, while many speculated that the fire was the work of machine-breaking radicals, the cause of the fire was never firmly established. Samuel Wyatt, the Mill’s owner, and John Rennie, its youthful engineer, insisted that the cause was due to poor lubrication in the grinding mechanisms which created friction leading to the fire. It was known that corn dust was highly combustible.
    The charred remains of the Albion Flour Mill stood for 19 years on the banks of the Thames before Rennie himself built an iron works on the site. However, this was not before William Blake, who regularly walked over Blackfriars Bridge between his home in north Lambeth and the City, coined the infamous phrase that dark satanic mill.

    We wanted to share this interesting and seemingly unknown history with a wider audience. As a playwright I thought I could potentially write a drama about it. Truth be told I am not very excited by pistons and engineering, imaginative or not, so I did wonder how I was going to turn it into an entertainment. Happily, as we delved further into the cast of characters who lived in and around Bankside during that period it became obvious that there was a provocative tale to tell.
    The play Albion-in-Flames interleaves the short history of the Mill and its owners with the contemporary events of the French Revolution and the loss of the American Colonies. The lives, and loves, of local luminaries such as William Blake, Dr Samuel Johnson and diarist Hester Thrale provide the dramatic backdrop to social unrest and the emerging feminism of the period. A future American President and amorous music masters enliven the proceedings and a working-class woman called Annie, speaking for the traditional millers, grounds the play in the reality of the times.

    It seems fitting that the play is being staged at the Union Theatre just a stone’s throw from the site of the Albion Mills.

     Albion-in-Flames is at the Union Theatre in Southwark 24-28 September 2019. The play is part of the Totally Thames Festival and supported by Southwark Council’s Blackfriars Stories fund. To find out more and book see below:

     http://www.uniontheatre.biz/albion-in-flames.html and


    Finally, a piece of good news about the inimitable Pasta Grannies, about whom I wrote here back in 2017. I was privileged to interview Vicky Bennison who conceived the project and has spent years tracking down the Italian grandmothers who hold the secrets of the best home-cooking. Vicky has persuaded these fascinating ladies to share both their recipes and the stories of their lives.

    The Pasta Grannies book is out next month. It's beautiful and I warmly recommend it, not just for the recipes but for the joyous photographs and the biographies of the nonne themselves.

    The Pasta Grannies YouTube channel now has hundreds of thousands of followers, and you'll be seeing lots about the book in the media over the next few weeks.

    Michelle Lovric's website

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  • 09/12/19--20:30: Family Furniture
  • My parents are hoping to move house soon, which means downsizing. Suddenly some of the furniture that’s been, well, part of the furniture for my whole life is under threat. It won’t all fit in the new house, and most of it is too big for my own wee home, which is adequately furnished already anyway. There is talk of Getting a Few Quid for that big old sideboard, and Aunt Annie’s Edwardian mahogany wardrobe. That’s if anyone actually wants such monstrosities these days. 

    Belfast, early 1920s when Granda was first working
    I’m a terrible sentimentalist about objects, and I found myself worried especially about that wardrobe, carefully brought from her family home by my good old spinster aunt and installed, incongruously, in her tiny council flat in the 1970s. Polished every week. How would it feel sad and unloved at the back of the Oxfam furniture shop, or in a skip? 

    Which made me start to think about my own furniture. It’s a mish-mash – a few nice antiques bought in richer times (before being a writer!), some bookcases hand-made by my late father, and plenty of ordinary modern stuff that I wouldn’t miss if I had to dispose of it. Nothing with as much family history as Aunt Annie’s wardrobes.

    Except the bookcase in the study. I remember this from my grandparents’ home, where it lived in The Good Room. At some stage it passed on to me and for many years, in my twenties, it was the only decent piece of furniture I had. 

    It looks like an ordinary glass-fronted mahogany bookcase, but my understanding is that it began life as a display cabinet in a shoe shop where my grandfather worked. He was a bright boy who had to leave school at fourteen to help support his family. He studied at night school to become a chiropodist, but as far as I know the shoe shop was his first job. I’m not sure how he got hold of the display case – was the shop offloading old furniture, or maybe closing down? Did he have to pay for it? He can’t have had much spare cash, so maybe he was able to get it for a few pence a week. Was he proud of it? Its position in his eventual marital home would suggest so. 

    Granda filled the bookcase with his library of theology books, Charles Dickens, and an array of reference books. (Granda's Google). In my home it houses school stories by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Dorita Fairlie Bruce. Granda would have considered these very frivolous but I think they’re perfect for his bookcase. He left school in about 1918, just before these books started to be published. His little sister Olive might well have been given titles like Dimsie Goes to School at just the same time as Granda brought home the bookcase. 

    I don’t know if I’ll ever move house – in all likelihood I will, some day – and there’s plenty of furniture I’ll be able to send to a charity shop without a thought. But the bookcase, or display case, which Granda got from an unknown Belfast shoe shop about a hundred years ago, will be staying with me. 

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    Bacchus with a wine cup, Naples Museum
    1987 - our first trip to Pompeii. We were staying, with our three daughters in Santa Maria di Castellabate, which is about one and a half hour's journey by road from Naples. We made the mistake of hiring one of the guides who tout for business outside the walls of Pompeii. Never do this. Read a book before you go and show yourself around and you won't have to stick to what the guides want to show you. Nevertheless, we were as impressed as everyone is by the rutted roads, the many shops, the wide forum.

    We also climbed Mount Vesuvius and a strong young German plucked my five-year-old out of my arms and carried her on his back to the summit. I later discovered that husband and oldest daughter had expected to see bubbling red lava!

    1989 - We found out on our previous trip that most of the good stuff from Pompeii was in the Archaeological museum in Naples. So on this, our second trip to Santa Maria, this time accompanied by my sister, we got the children up at 5.30am to catch a coach from the village square. The complaints got louder when we reached Naples and found ourselves, in summer dresses and sandals, caught in an absolute downpour.

    I suspect the daughters remember best the huge breakfast we had on the top floor of the Jolly Hotel, overlooking the bay of Naples, allowing ourselves to dry out and warm up! But we did make in to the museum, which indeed is full of good stuff, including the partner to the Portland Vase in the British Museum, which they already knew.

    Photo by Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons
    And the frescoes from Pompeii are there too (I hope Blogger doesn't censor this one):

    Satyr and Maenad, Wikimedia Commons
    not to mention many mosaics and other artifacts.

    1990 - back in Santa Maria, we decided on another crack at Pompeii and this time we waved the guides away and made it to the Villa of the Mysteries, which is what we wanted to see most last time and which wasn't on any guide's itinerary.

    The Initiation, Villa of the Mysteries, Wikimedia Commons

    Scroll forwards an incredible nearly 30 years and 2019 takes us to the Last Supper at Pompeii exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Do go, if you are anywhere within reach. It's on till 12th January 2020. You are greeted by the statue of Bacchus at the top of this post and you will find the wine god's influence everywhere in the exhibition.

    For this is not yet another the-volcano-erupted-in-AD79-and-lots-of-people-were-killed-and-preserved-in-ash fest. It celebrates the living Pompeiians, who loved wine and food and fine art and who were happily carrying on their lives in a bustling Roman town until the fateful day. Bacchus is even featured alongside Vesuvius in a fresco in the exhibition:

    The people of Pompeii were very well aware of the volcano on their doorstep, much as modern Sicilians talk about Etna. So much so that it makes itself present in their art. The city was especially devoted to Venus and Hercules as well as Bacchus and it was fond of feasting and banquets.

    Much of what we know of Roman daily and domestic life comes from the perfectly preserved utensils, vases, frescoes, mosaics, statues and indeed bodies of humans and animals from Pompeii. It was close to the coast and a famous mosaic celebrates the bounty of the sea that would have ended up in a typical Pompeiian kitchen.
    And there is the famous Roman predilection for "garum" or fish gut sauce, also represented:

    Mosaic from the house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus       

    I think this vegetarian would have had a hard time and a Pompeiian dinner party! Of course, there was always bread, of which a carbonised loaf is displayed and other food items.

    These simple objects speak to us over the centuries of daily life and ceremonial and religious occasions, of evenings of carousing and days of bargaining, shopping and cooking.

    There is one preserved body, or cast, of a Pompeiian woman, but I chose not to look at it. As with Egyptian mummies, I try not to forget the actual humans who lived no matter how many hundreds or thousands of years ago, and accord them their due respect. But it will be fascinating to many, I'm sure.

    [All photos author's own, except where otherwise indicated]

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    by Deborah Swift

    Lady with a servant in a meadow - circa 1500
    by an anonymous German Engraver
    In my life today I have no servants living in my house. The work done by servants in previous centuries is now done by machines, or automation has rendered it unnecessary. For a historical fiction writer the presence of servants in the house is a massive opportunity for drama and for insight.

    In previous centuries a strict hierarchy was maintained and social classes were firmly divided. However it’s a mistake to think that all servants were lowly, as a life in service was usual, whatever your rank. In Tudor and Stuart times wealthy children could become servants at court, and this was regarded as an essential part of their upbringing. Tradesmen’s apprentices were treated like servants, but could also live as family with their masters.

    The beauty of servants for a novelist is that their level of invisibility can shift and change – for example in Victorian households it was preferable that servants did their duties silently and unseen. This was often so successful that the employers forgot they were there, and revealed far more than they had intended to those below stairs. Servants have always been in an ideal place to observe. Expert at listening, because they had to be, they were students of mindfulness before the term was invented, and could become experts at ‘reading’ what might be required, or what the mood of their so-called ‘betters’ might be. For a writer, an eavesdropping servant can create any number of misunderstandings. Likewise, the fact that servants were entrusted with personal messages and correspondence is deliciously open to abuse.


    The relationship between a servant and a master can obviously vary enormously, but can be used by a novelist to great effect. Both tension and humour is created in PG Wodehouse’s books by the servant Jeeves, of whom Sebastian Faulks says;

    The important things in life are handed on by subtler methods, by ‘breeding’ or instinct; and it is the life’s work of the gentleman’s personal gentleman to see that it remains so.

    Here is a servant who has the upper hand over a master, feels himself superior, and this works particularly well if the ‘master’ is new, inexperienced, or lacking in status. The reader suspects that Jeeves has actually more ‘class’ than his master.

    When Jeeves is first consulted his advice usually regrets that he is ‘unable to offer a solution’. Naturally the plot could not develop the necessary complications if Jeeves were able to cut through all difficulties in the first act, but whether help might be more swiftly forthcoming had he been feeling less affronted is something we can never know for sure. The suspicion however adds piquancy to the master-servant relationship. Faulks on Fiction

    Some servants, such as Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ reverse the roles to such a degree that they become sinister antagonists to the main character. In the film based on the book by Daphne du Maurier, here’s how the chilling Mrs Danvers manipulates the second Mrs de Winter.

    Mrs. Danvers: [moving towards her] You thought you could be Mrs. de Winter, live in her house, walk in her steps, take the things that were hers! But she’s too strong for you. You can’t fight her – no one ever got the better of her. Never, never. She was beaten in the end, but it wasn’t a man, it wasn’t a woman. It was the sea!
    The Second Mrs. de Winter: [collapsing in tears on the bed] Oh, stop it! Stop it! Oh, stop it!
    Mrs. Danvers: [opening the shutters] You’re overwrought, madam. I’ve opened a window for you. A little air will do you good.
    [as the second Mrs. de Winter gets up and walks toward the window]
    Mrs. Danvers: Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you… he’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you, he wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?
    [softly, almost hypnotically]
    Mrs. Danvers: Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on. Go on. Don’t be afraid… 

    The servant can often be more aware of the irony of their situation than the master. The master, intent on good works within his/her limited frame of reference, fails to see the exploitation within their own household. This is a gift for a fiction writer who can revel in the double standards that ensue. 

    For example in the 1930s the socialist campaigner Ethel Mannin had a maid whose very assistance was the thing that enabled her employer to campaign to abolish class distinctions. 
    “It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,” the novelist Mannin wrote later. (Lucy Lethbridge, The Guardian)

    In earlier eras it was an anathema for a servant to ape his master. In a Victorian play, when one character is mistaken for a coachman, another character explains:

    I see the error, and hope you’ll forgive it; but when gentlemen associate with their servants, talk like their servants, do their servant’s work, and dress like their servants they ought not to be offended at a stranger’s not knowing the master from the man. Hit or Miss! A Musical Farce (1810)

    It was imperative to be able to distinguish the master from the servant, so much fun can be had with ‘The Prince and The Pauper’ type reversals, and the cases where servants impersonate, either willingly or unwittingly, their masters. All my books have servants as major characters, and it is one of the reasons I love the historical fiction genre. In only one of them, a Young Adult novel, does the maistress impersonate the maid, but it was such good fun to write.

    Do comment below with your favourite fictional servants!
    (Pictures from Wikipedia)
    Thanks for reading - find me on Twitter @swiftstory on on my website 

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    Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
    In Japan the accession of a new emperor initiates a whole new era. Year 1 of the Reiwa Era, the Era of Beautiful Harmony, began on May 1st this year, the day that Emperor Naruhito took the throne. His father, Akihito, abdicated the previous day.

    The emperors of Japan are said to be descended in an unbroken line from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. For many centuries the emperors had a ritual rather than a political status; they were more like popes than kings. The emperor (and the occasional empress) acted as an intermediary with the gods, offering up prayers to protect Japan and ensure good crops, and at some periods they were worshipped as gods themselves.
    Naruhito in his enthronement robes

    As a result the emperor’s enthronement is a bit different from the coronation of a temporal monarch like Elizabeth II. There are no crown jewels, no golden carriage, no public procession.

    There are three successive ceremonies.

    Presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures
    The first ceremony is the presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures - the sword, the jewel and the mirror - which were given by the Sun Goddess to her grandson when he descended to earth to become the founder of the imperial dynasty. All three once belonged to the Sun Goddess and date from legendary times.

    The day Naruhito took the throne, he was formally presented with the sword and the jewel as proof of his rightful succession. The Sword is a replica. The original Grasscutter Sword is enshrined at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. The Jewel is an ancient and profoundly symbolic necklace. But the most important of the three, the Sacred Mirror, never leaves the Grand Shrine at Ise, Japan’s holiest shrine, akin to the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral. Where western religions have an altar, at the heart of every shrine in Japan is a mirror, embodying the god. The Sacred Mirror embodies the Sun Goddess herself.

    Enthronement Ritual
    Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC)
    by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
    The second ceremony, the enthronement ritual, will take place on October 22nd and international royalty, including Prince Charles, and heads of state will attend. Part is public and part seen only by the emperor and a few Shinto priests. The emperor, wearing full dress regalia, ritually informs his ancestors that he has ascended the throne. He then sits with the empress in a curtained octagonal pavilion topped with a golden Phoenix. The curtains swish open and he declares his ascension to the assembled dignitaries.

    The Great Thanksgiving Festival
    The third and most important ceremony is a religious one. It takes place in the middle of November. This is the legendary and tantalisingly secret Great Thanksgiving Ceremony, held by torchlight in dead of night deep in the imperial palace grounds in Tokyo.

    It takes months of preparation. Special sacred rice has to be grown in paddies chosen and purified by elaborate Shinto purification rituals. Two thatched huts in the ancient native Japanese building style, preceding the arrival of Chinese influence, are constructed in the palace grounds. One represents the ancient style of houses in eastern Japan, the other of western Japan. The furnishings are also in ancient Japanese style. In one there is a vestigial straw bed and the other is for musicians.

    Nintoku's tomb
    The ritual takes place after nightfall. The emperor, dressed in the white silk robes of a Shinto priest, enters the first darkened hut at 6.30 p.m. Surrounded by chamberlains and assisted by court maidens he offers sacred rice and sake to the Sun Goddess, partakes of them himself and prays for bumper crops and national peace.

    Then, after midnight, at 12.30, he enters the second hut. No one knows precisely what goes on, but according to some accounts he receives the soul of the Sun Goddess or even joins with her in sexual union, presumably symbolic, and thus assumes his divinity.

    Descent from the Sun Goddess
    Emperor Nintoku (313-399AD) by
    Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912)
    According to the story the first emperor of Japan was Jimmu, descended from Ninigi, the grandson of the Sun Goddess. Traditionally his accession is dated from 660 BC. He is famous for his long bow and the three-legged crow who accompanied him on his journey to Yamato, central Japan. The next 124 emperors are said to be descended directly from him.

    Dotted around central Japan, mainly in the Nara area, are some 20,000 ancient burial mounds. Among them are 896 imperial tombs, including those of the 124 emperors, from Jimmu to right up to Hirohito, who died in 1989. Every year envoys arrive to conduct Shinto rituals at the tombs and to offer gifts from the emperor. Many of the most important are in and around the two ancient capitals, Nara and Kyoto. The biggest, a vast keyhole-shaped mound near Osaka, is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, the sixteenth emperor (313 - 399 AD).

    For many years it was forbidden to excavate the imperial tombs on the grounds that they are sacred religious sites. Then twelve years ago the Imperial Household Agency, that governs all matters to do with the imperial family, gave permission for archaeologists to enter the fringes of two of the tombs but not to excavate there. One suspicion is that the Agency fears that inspection of the tombs will reveal evidence that far from being descended from the Sun Goddess, the Japanese imperial family actually originated from China and Korea. 
    Emperor Naruhito and Empress
    Masako wait to greet President
    Trump May 2019. Official White
    House photo by Andrea Hanks

    In 2001, on his 68th birthday, Emperor Akihito mentioned his Korean ancestry, saying, ‘I for my part feel a certain kinship with Korea, given that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of [the Japanese] Emperor Kammu was descended from the line of King Muryong of Paekche [in Korea].’ 

    The new Emperor, Naruhito, is very much a twenty first century monarch. He studied at Oxford University where he wrote a thesis on river transport on the Thames and went on to marry a multilingual diplomat, now Empress Masako. He knows Prince Charles and admires the way in which the British monarchy has made itself more accessible to the public. He has said that he wants to ‘stand close to the people’ and ‘bring a fresh breeze’ to the monarchy. Nevertheless he still has to begin his reign by paying his respects to the legendary founder of his dynasty - the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami.

    Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale of love and death set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. It tells the story of how the Emperor was transformed from a reclusive religious eminence to the figurehead of the new political order in the middle of the 19th century. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

    All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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    By Susan Vincent

    Okay, here’s the thing. According to the United Nations, a truck full of textiles and garments gets dumped or burnt every second. Measuring this way, how many trucks full of waste clothing got thrown away in the time it took you to read to this point? Maybe around ten?

    We all know that fast fashion is an ethical and environmental disaster. We know we have to consume less and reuse more. So let’s take a look back in time and see if we can learn anything from the practices of the past.

    Any curator of costume will tell you that many – perhaps most ­– of the garments in their collections bear the signs of repair and alteration. For those skilled enough to read them, these seams and stitches are eloquent testimony to a garment’s changing life and also to the changing age, shape and desires of its wearer. Clothes are astonishingly malleable, although most of us have forgotten this. They can be made bigger or smaller; they can be augmented to assume a different shape; they can be cut apart into new incarnations. Surface decoration comes and goes, function changes, and one colour transforms to another.

    Here are just four examples, one for each century.


    This Armenian cope – an ecclesiastical vestment – dates from the seventeenth century. It is made from Persian velvet with an embroidered panel, or orphrey, edging the front. But the main body of the cope is constructed of joined-together pieces. Their shape and size – as you can see in the close-up – show clearly that they were once part of other garments. One or more of these was cut up, its scraps and panels husbanded, and carefully pieced together to form this new item.

    The second example is a baby’s jacket that may have originated in India. It is made of a linen chintz, with four ties added as closures – both practical and jaunty – and dates from the second part of the eighteenth century. Like the cope, it has been sewn from reused fabric, either unpicked from an adult’s garment or cut out from a bed cover.

    Here is a dress from the nineteenth century. Unlike most of the garments in museum collections, it has a documented provenance: we know exactly who wore it and when, and how it was altered and why. It belonged to a young woman called Amelia Beard (1844–1918; married to John Welles Hollenback in 1874), who lived in Brooklyn, New York. She first wore it in 1862, to be bridesmaid at the wedding of friends. Around ten years later, in response to a last-minute party invitation and finding herself with ‘nothing to wear’, Amelia adapted the gown to its present Polanaise style, the fine cotton muslin re-sewn as an overskirt cut away at the front and gathered high behind. 


     And from the 1920s–30s, here is a delicious pair of silk lounging pyjamas. (The item is not in the public domain so I can’t include the image, but you can see it on the Met’s website here.) When originally made the legs were wide; sometime later they were narrowed for a new look.

    While the signs of reuse lie within existing garments like these, they live also in documentary evidence. Letters are a great source for this. Look at Jane Austen’s to her sister Cassandra, for instance. 
    The trend at the time was for dresses to be cut fuller towards the hem and increasingly trimmed at the bottom 
    with frills and borders. When Jane reports to Cassandra on the modishness of this, she adds:

    ‘You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morning gowns just in a happy state for a flounce, too short?’(Letter dated 14 Oct. 1813)
    Cassandra must have agreed and got busy with her needle, for twelve days later Jane enquired: ‘How do you like your flounce?’

    The Austens also adapted the colour of garments, to change the purpose or extend their life. But dyeing – undertaken by a more or less skilled professional – could be expensive and the process hazardous for fabrics:

    ‘My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to peices [sic], & means to have it dyed black for a gown [...] how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. [sic] – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away; – to be added to my subjects of never failing regret.’ (Letter 7 Oct. 1808)

    Should we be trying to copy the reuse employed by Jane and Cassandra and almost every other wearer in the past? Is it possible to move forward to the future by going back to older ways?

    We mustn’t kid ourselves that the Austens or any of our other forebears were any better than us. I’m sure that if they’d had the opportunity, they would have done precisely as we have. Theirs was a practice of necessity; ours – until environmental disaster forces our hand – is a moral choice. And in our time-poor and materially rich lives, it will take both commitment and resolve to change our habits, and the investment of buying better-made garments in the first place.

    But one thing is certain. In producing cheaply, buying easily, and discarding without thought, we have not only misused our resources and polluted on a global scale. We have also killed the wonderful, ongoing life of our clothing.

    1. Waistcoat (close-up on armhole alteration), 1610–20, silk and linen, V&A Museum, London, no. 179-1900

    2. Cope, first half of 17th century, velvet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1914, no. 14.67

    3. Detail of cope

    4. Baby’s jacket, c. 1760–c.1800, linen chintz. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Gift of Jonkvrouw C.I. Six, 's-Graveland, no. BK-1978-784

    5. Evening dress, c.1877, cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of Amelia Beard Hollenback, 1966, no. 2009.300.3290

    6. Evening dress, back

    7. Journal des Dames et des Modes, 5 October 1813, Costume Parisien: ‘Coeffe à la Chartreuse. Par-dessus de Perkale’. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. RP-P-2009-2432

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    I first came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round.

    The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

    She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine.

    There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

    Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

    The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable and informative about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

    I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. Black Roses is the first one, and it's an absolute cracker.

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    The Isles of Orkney and the seas around Scapa Flow make a natural harbour, and have been used by sea voyagers and travellers through the ages. The scattered islands seem to circle around each other, providing bays and beaches and inlets that have been used by viking raiders, by the Earls and their descendants, by lairds and lords and by the folk of the islands.

    File:Wfm orkney map.svg - Wikipedia
    However, in the 1940's, a huge construction project was begun which changed the pattern of the waters and many aspects of life on Orkney.  

    The Royal Navy had had reasons to worry about the wide harbour of Scapa Flow. Back in 1918, after the Surrender, the fleet of German warships was anchored there while the powers at Versailles decided their fate. 

    The Fleet Commander, Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter, sent a secret message to all seventy-four German ships, giving orders for each ship to be scuttled by their crews. The date he chose was 21st June, 1919, the date then proposed for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

    Just after 11am on that day, all valves and sea-cocks were opened, bore-holes driven through bulkheads and portholes and doors unsealed. About an hour later, the crews on the Royal Navy guard-ships saw the captured fleet avoiding further disgrace sinking before their very eyes. Although some vessels were beached, fifty-four German ships were scuttled at Scapa Flow. This year, 2019, is the hundredth anniversary of that event.

    Then, on 14th October 1939 - more than a decade later, and at the start of WWII - there was another blow to the Royal Navy's morale.  

    Although Scapa Flow was considered invulnerable to submarine attack, a German U-47 submarine passed through the block-ships and torpedoed the elderly HMS Royal Oak which was anchored there. Over eight hundred sailors, including many young recruits, lost their lives.

    In 1940, in response, Churchill decided that a set of concrete causeways would be built, blocking the eastern lanes into Scapa Flow and linking the islands South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimps Holm and Lambs Holm to the orkney Mainland
    The Churchill Barriers were completed in 1944 and opened in May 1945. While the narrow causeways did make road travel between these islands possible, the changes to the flow of the water also damaged local fishing grounds.

    Of course, Churchill's bold scheme would need a quantity of labourers, so a work force of over twelve thousand Italian prisoners-of-war was brought from the sands of the North African Campaign to the wild, wind-scoured Orkneys 

    Under the Geneva convention, POW's were not supposed to take part in war work, so the barriers were described as "improvements to communications."

    La capilla de los italianos | EL CAJÓN DE GRISOM
    Here, amid all the seafare and warfare, is a small piece of history that I found inspiring and hopeful. 

    While the men were working there as prisoners, they also built two chapels. The chapel on Lambsholm still exists: it is cared for, used for very occasional services and open for visitors.

    The chapel was simply built. It was constructed from two concrete-covered nissen huts and given a bitumen coating. Only the ornate concrete facade hints at what can be found within.

    In their spare time, prisoners decorated the inside of their nissen huts so that it resembled the stone, marble and mosaic interior of  their chapels and churches back in Italy.

    Two men were largely responsible for the creation of the chapel and organising all the careful work. Signor Guiseppe Palumbi was the person who made the iron work and screens from whatever metals he found available. This hanging sanctuary lantern, below, is made from a bully beef tin.

    Signor Domenico Chiochetti was the creator and painter of much of the artwork, especially the large mural behind the altar: a copy of "Madonna and Child" by the artist Nicolo Barabino. 

    After so much about men and their machines in this post, I am glad of the fact that Chiochetti used the image from a card that his mother had given him as he left home and which he carried in his pocket throughout the war. He got home safely and he returned several times to the little chapel he had created on Lambs Holm.

    After the wrecked ships and the concrete blocks and the evidence of past wars, the love spent on this tiny chapel - and the magic of the Orkney landscape and light - were things that lifted the heart.  

    Penny Dolan 


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    At the end of September I met my New Zealand friend, Ismay, in Bordeaux. With my husband as expert driver, we were about to embark on a long planned research trip, looking at Romanesque churches, searching for carvings of binaural mermaids and what are euphemistically known as exhibitionist figures.  

    We were staying for a week in a gite adjacent to a chateau and surrounded by vineyards.  The chateau was a shell. During the war, it had served as temporary head quarters for the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Das Riech, infamous for their brutal massacre of the inhabitants of Oradour - sur - Glane.  During their time in the chateau, they had emptied the cellar and smashed every single item in a thousand piece collection of china. They had despoiled the place so thoroughly that the family did not return until 1989. 

    We set out to explore the villages around, looking for Romanesque churches, on the hunt for bicaudal mermaids. I've written about bicaudals before on this blog, so I won't expand on them now. Suffice it to say that, much to our delight, we did find them, proudly displaying their two tails, on arches and corbels.

    We were also looking for their sisters, female exhibitionist figures, also known as Sheela na gig. These figurative carvings of naked women boldly displaying themselves are found on churches and castles all over Europe, from Ireland (where they acquired their name) to Italy and Spain. 

    12th Century Sheela na gig on Kilpeck Church, Herfordshire, England
     Male figures are often to be found close by displaying their genitals. 

    Male figure from behind
    There is disagreement among scholars about almost everything to do with the Sheela na gig and their continental counterparts. Their purpose, their origin, the etymology of the name itself are all hotly debated. The traditional view was that they were a warning against lust and the sins of the flesh, although it's hard to see them as in any way erotic. They were often placed above liminal spaces, windows and doorways, so they may have had some apotropaic function, to ward off evil, to guard and protect, perhaps specifically for the women of the community as they entered these portals for weddings, baptisms or churching after childbirth. They are also found in different cultures that have nothing to do with European Christianity. This is a Maori image from New Zealand.  

    Maori carving from the marae at Waitangi 
    One of my favourite theories comes from Ireland and draws parallels between the sheela na gig and the ancient Irish myth of the goddess who granted kingship. She would appear to prospective candidates as the Loathly Lady, a hideous hag, rejected by all except the one true king. When he slept with her she transformed into a beautiful maiden who gave him his crown and blessed his reign.  
    Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady
    We found what we were searching for in the small, ancient and isolated church of Monbos.  

    Female Figure - Monbos Church
    In the apse, at the far end of the small, dark church, were a number of pillars with carved and painted capitals. They showed foliage, vines and wheat ears, animals, hunting scenes, both male and female naked figures and a couple copulating. The effect was strongly pagan and seemed to me to confirm one of the other major theories relating to these figures: that they are pagan in origin and are to do with fertility.
    Male Figure Monbos Church
    There is no doubt that even to modern eyes they appear shockingly rude and seem to have no place in or on a religious building. Yet they have not been removed, they have survived the centuries, so they must have held importance for the people who gathered there to worship.  We can never know the true meaning of these images, or what belief lay behind their carving, or what was in the minds of those who worshipped in the churches where these figures display themselves. Did they really gaze up at them and reflect on the dangers of lust, the sins of the flesh and the prospect of eternal damnation? On the contrary, these figures look celebratory to me. Proud in their nakedness, shame-less, celebrating life and the natural abundance of field, vine and forest.

    My belief that these images are essentially pagan and part of what might be an extremely ancient tradition was confirmed by a visit to the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. Practically the first thing I saw there was the majestic and wonderful Venus of Laussel. An unassailable celebration of the feminine, she is approximately 25.000 years old. She is painted with red ochre and in her right hand she holds a crescent moon, marked with the thirteen lunar cycles. She has large breasts, ample hips and her left hand points to her vagina. She is an unambiguous celebration of the divine feminine and was found carved onto the wall of a rock shelter at Laussel in the Marquay area of the Dordogne, less than 50 miles from Monbos. 

    The Venus of Laussel, Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France 
    Celia Rees

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    Rome being grand.
    Photo by Scott Rowland

    Ancient Rome is awash with Great Men, particularly in the era of the Republic when Rome was conquering all in her path on her way to becoming a full blow empire.
    So, I thought I would pay tribute to a couple of them.

    Fabius Maximus 

    Known for: 
    • Being Warty
    • Facing an army of flaming cows
    • Trying not to fight Hannibal 
    The 3rd century BCE brought Rome a series of stunning victories one after the other. As Rome picked off such islands as Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, it was inevitable that this would bring them into conflict with the other power in the Mediterranean: Carthage. Rome faced off Carthage in three separate wars, known as The Punic Wars. But as in the case of most series, the second one was the best. Because it was the one with the elephants.
    Yes, it’s this second Punic War that features Hannibal, his elephants and one of the worst defeats Rome ever suffered at the Battle of Cannae.

    Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus was born in around 280 BCE. Verrucosus was a nickname meaning warty. Let us assume it was a cracker of a blemish given that Greek historian Plutarch felt the need to mention it 300 years later in his life of Fabius.
    As was as having to carry around the name Warty, Fabius was also nicknamed Lambkin for his calm, gentle nature. Fabius Maximus might seem an unlikely man to face off Hannibal and his elephants but Italy was in somewhat of a panic after that ascent of the Alps and nothing else had worked so far, so why not give Warty Lambkin a go?

    Fabius was given the title of dictator and handed the job of expelling the invading Carthaginians from Italy. If you’re expecting a series of fierce battles between man and elephant, think again, for Fabius’ tactics are rather unexpected; he decided to defeat Hannibal by not fighting him.

    One can imagine the loaded silence that followed. The gaping jaws and shocked expressions as the general in charge of defending Rome from invasion announced that they would not engage the enemy in battle. Or as Plutarch puts it, 
    “(they were) convinced that he was a nonentity who was utterly devoid of warlike spirit.” 
    The Man with the elephants, Hannibal.

    However, a man who has spent his life being called Warty Lambkin has a thick skin by necessity and Fabius stuck to his plan. He had his army follow the enemy but stay that little bit too far away to be caught up with. His reasoning was the Hannibal’s invading force was not a large one and by the gods did his elephants need feeding. Fabius’ plan was to cut off supplies to the enemy and slowly wear them down, without actually fighting them.

    We are told that Hannibal saw the shrewdness of this plan. He was alone in that one. Fabius’ own soldiers were soon raging against him. Not least after the Carthaginians went on a rampage destroying farm land. All except for Fabius’ own country estate which they cleverly left untouched. Unsurprisingly fingers began to point right at Warty Lambkin.

    Matters did not improve for Fabius. At one point they had Hannibal’s army completely surrounded. This could have been decisive had the Romans not fallen for a terrible trick.

    By cover of night the Carthaginians gathered up two thousand oxen. To their horns they fastened bundles of twigs and then set them alight. They then drove the cattle forward. To Fabius’ lurking Romans it looked uncannily like a massive torch holding army marching their direction. This became even more terrifying when the twigs burnt down to the oxen’s flesh, sending them wild and on the stampede. With the landscape rapidly catching fire the Romans were given sufficient light to see the rampaging, blazing bovine army heading their direction. I don’t think anyone can blame the Romans for legging it as fast as they could.

    After the flaming cow debacle Fabius did manage to clock up some significant victories over Hannibal. Perhaps proof that his plan of depleting his forces had actually worked.

    It was for this that Fabius gained yet another nickname Cunctator. Meaning the Delayer.

    Cato the Elder 

    Known For:
    • Excessive lack of excess
    For Romans Cato was the epitome of the Roman traditional virtues of self-restraint, resilience and hardness. Not that anyone, even in his own lifetime, wanted to emulate his example. For Cato took things to the extreme. 
    The time of Romulus when things were harsh and Cato would certainly have approved
    Bronze statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. In the Capitoline museum, Rome CC Wellcome Collection
    He boasted that he never wore any item of clothing that cost over 100 drachma and that he never paid more than 1500 dramacha for a slave. When he inherited a patterned Babylonia rug he despised it’s luxury so much that he sold it off immediately. Though one wonders what he did with the money, perhaps he buried it or purposefully kept it on full display in his house to show his absolute restraint in not spending it.
    He was heavily into farming but not the usual Patrician route of owning acres of land and letting the slaves work it. No Cato worked alongside his slaves in the same clothes they did in winter and in summer just in his underwear.

    However, it was not enough for Cato to deny himself the pleasures of life. No, he wanted everyone else to as well. This was first inflicted on his household slaves who suffered various indignities and then in the education his son, which he undertook himself. He taught the young lad reading and writing and how to ride a horse. Which all sounds sensible until you get to the bit where Cato junior’s education included how to endure extreme heat and cold. As well as becoming such a good swimmer as to be able to cross a hazardess river. You have to wonder how many failed attempts the bedraggled boy suffered on route to his success.

    Still Cato itched for his way of life to be taken up further beyond the perimeters of his land. So, he decided to stand for the post of Censor. The main role of the Censor was to make a census of all Roman citizens and review the ranks of the Senate. Essentially this was to ascertain the size of the army and the taxable population. But it also involved accessing the suitability of men for inclusion into the ranks of the Senate.
    Nobody could pretend they did not know what Cato was going to do with this power. Part of his canvassing involved standing on the rostra and crying out:

     “that the city needed a thorough cleansing and insisted that if they were sensible the people of Rome would choose the most forceful doctor.” 

    He declared that he would be:
     “cauterising the Hydra like diseases of luxury and effeminacy.” 

    Roman surgical instruments possibly like those Cato had in mind to cauterise effeminacy
     cc Wellcome Collection

    The people of Rome decided they liked this, and duly elected him. Cato soon got to work expelling those he thought unsuitable from the ranks of the Senate for such crimes as daring to kiss their wives in broad daylight!

    He then turned his attentions to the general population by increasing the value of such items as clothing, jewellery and utensils to raise more tax and discourage people from living a luxurious utensil heavy life.

    Though this made him hugely unpopular with those wedded to their utensils, he was surprisingly popular with other slices of society. So much so they put up a statue dedicated to his censorship, the inscription read:
     “When the Roman constitution was in a state of collapse and decline he became censor and set it straight again by effective guidance, sound training and sensible instruction.” 

    L.J Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series set in 69 AD.

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    In September, our family revisited a favourite holiday destination. We hadn’t been there for several years and were eager to return. It being autumn, the weather was mostly chilly, and rainy, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Indeed, that sort of weather, we always think, suits the landscape and, of course, without it, the flora of heather, oakwoods, ferns and abundant moss would not be there.

    Anyway, the rain held off often enough and long enough to enable us to enjoy the beauty, the magnificence, of this relatively remote location. So, where were we? The far west coast of Scotland, in the region of Moidart, part of the Morar, Moidart and Ardnamurchan National Scenic Area, a remote area of islands, lochs, ancient woodlands and narrow winding roads, an hour’s drive to the west of the nearest town of any size, Fort William (population 10,500). Moidart is part of the area also known as the Rough Bounds, justifiably so, it might seem, for it is famous for its wildness and inaccessibility and remains very sparsely populated. It feels rather like being at the edge of the world...

    And it is this very wildness and inaccessibility that is both part of the appeal for us coming here at all, and also a spur to my imagination.

    The house we stay in, Dorlin, has history: it was once part of a much larger house that was demolished in the early 1960s. This larger house wasn’t especially old, having been built in the 19th century. Our “cottage” was a wing of the house, and may originally have been a chapel. It remained standing and was converted to the cottage that is now used for holiday lets.

    Dorlin Cottage beneath Cruach nam Meann cc-by-sa/2.0 –
    Stuart Wilding – geograph.org.uk/p/3679214
    (The cottage is that lone building in the middle of the picture.)

    There was an earlier house on this site, built in the late 18th century “in the Georgian style” by Aeneas R. Macdonald, a nephew of the estate’s owner, Alexander MacDonald, known as “Lochshiel”. Apparently Aeneas assumed he’d succeed to the estate and planned an extensive tenant clearance scheme. But he was thwarted when his plans came to the notice of Lochshiel’s family and the estate was sold from under him to James Hope Scott. Scott was married to Charlotte, a granddaughter of Sir Walter Scott. Apparently Scott proved a benevolent landlord and did much to improve the property, constructing roads, improving the dwellings of tenants and erecting a church and school and so on. Today Dorlin can be reached only by sea, or via a very narrow, winding road that runs alongside the lively Shiel River. One wonders what sort of access the property might have had in the mid 19th century?

    After Charlotte’s death in 1858, Scott married Lady Victoria Fitzalan Howard, daughter of the 14th Duke of Norfolk, who was christened Victoria in honour of one of her godmothers, the Queen. It was now that Scott built the three-storey Dorlin House. The work was completed in 1864, exactly one hundred years before it was demolished. One is led to wonder at the lifestyle of these, one presumes urbane, people in such a remote, inaccessible region. For nearly six years a goddaughter of the monarch hosted parties for members of the aristocracy. I have always wondered at the heroic logistical efforts that these people’s servants must have had to make to supply all the provisions necessary to keep these grand house parties satisfied.

    Dorlin House in 1964 cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Iain A Robertson – geograph.org.uk/p/3233457

    The house changed hands a number of times over the next half century or so until, during World War Two, it was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and, as HMS Dorlin, was used for special boat and beach signal training, particularly for Royal Marine Commando units.

    The history of Dorlin House is interesting, of course, but not – to me, at any rate – quite as fascinating as that of the building that lies in the tidal bay on the shores of which Dorlin stands.

    For in the bay is Eilean Tioram (“dry island”), a tiny island that becomes accessible on foot only for a few hours each day when the sea withdraws sufficiently to reveal a causeway. And on the island stands a ruined castle – Castle Tioram – that probably dates from the 13th century and, as the seat of the Clan Ranald, a branch of the Clan mac Donald, had a surprisingly important role in Highland history, given its extreme remoteness.

    Castle Tioram from the Silver Walk cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Bob Jones – geograph.org.uk/p/2927242
    (The cottage is along the beach over to the left of the photograph.)

    The castle seems to have been built (or more likely extended) by Amie mac Ruari, a 14th century noblewoman, who was a sister of the Lord of Garmoran, a medieval lordship that included the areas of Moidart, Morar and Ardnamurchan, as well as the Small Isles. This lordship formed part of the Lordship of the Isles, a title of Scottish nobility with historical roots that go back beyond the kingdom of Scotland. Despite paying technical homage at times to kings of Norway, Ireland and Scotland, for the most part the Lords of the Isles remained independent and extremely powerful: at their height they were among the greatest landowners and most powerful lords in Britain after the kings of England and Scotland. Castle Tioram, for all its remoteness, was once the main residence of the lords of Garmoran and, subsequently, of the chiefs of the Clan Ranald.

    Anyway, Amie was the wife of John of Islay, chief of the Clan Donald (mac Donald), and the (first?) Lord of the Isles. John was ambitious and, to cement his alliance with Robert, who would become king of Scotland, he divorced Amie and married Robert’s daughter, Margaret, disinheriting Amie’s children. Ranald, Amie’s son, having lost his claim to be the Lord of the Isles, founded the Clan Ranald, and had his residence at Castle Tioram.

    The castle remained in the family’s possession until the 19th century, despite turbulent times and several declarations of forfeiture. Until the mid 16th century, the Clanranalds were intermittently involved in the struggle between the Crown and the Lordship of the Isles and later with the Jacobite uprisings. The history is undoubtedly colourful, with much fighting, sea battles and hints of piracy.

    But one of the aspects of life in Castle Tioram that has always intrigued me hugely, much more so really than the warring, is how the rich and powerful in these incredibly remote regions managed to lead the richly provisioned lives they did. Throughout the years of its occupation, Castle Tioram was obviously a centre of power for the Clanranalds as well as a dwelling. Under the clan system, the chief would provide land and security for his people and bore his responsibility in exchange for their loyalty and military service. The clan expected their chief to be strong, fearless in battle but also generous. Hunting and feasting, and music, were important. And, just as with the parties held centuries later at Dorlin House, at a time when there were few but at least some roads, in the earlier centuries of Castle Tioram’s existence, all provisions presumably had to be brought either by sea or somehow overland…

    Until the 19th century, the castle could only be approached overland by narrow, rough hill tracks passable only on foot or by sturdy highland ponies. The castle itself was almost certainly a hive of activity but somebody was making this possible: the clan chief obviously supplied the money but again it had to be an army of servants who would have had to source the provisions and have them delivered, taking into account the inevitable periods of highly inclement Highland weather…

    Anyway, I would just like to round this piece off with a story from the 17th century, about Donald, the 13th of Clanranald, who lived for the most part at Castle Tioram, and whom local stories painted as a man of courage in battle but also as a man whose behaviour was autocratic and even savage and cruel. These stories were written down in the 19th century by a parish priest of Moidart, Charles MacDonald, in his book charting the history of the Clanranald clan, Moidart: Among the Clanranalds. And there is one story in particular that fired my storytelling imagination…

    One of the tales became a well-known local tradition and illustrated the power and jurisdiction held by a chief over his clansmen. When a quantity of silver went missing, Donald suspected three castle servants, two men and one woman who, apparently, walked daily to their work at Tioram across the moor along one of those rough tracks, having set out from Kinlochmoidart, several miles away. Although he was unable to prove their guilt, Donald had the two men executed by hanging on the gallows hill south of the castle, and the woman was tied to one of the rocks in the estuary by her hair and allowed to drown in the rising tide. Execution of men by hanging and women by drowning was evidently used in more ancient times, so the story may in fact apply to a previous era, or indeed be quite untrue. However, Father MacDonald reported that a rock on the shore of Eilean Tioram was once known as the Rock of James’s Daughter, so maybe there was some truth in it…

    Anyway, in the 19th century, when a path was being constructed around the Loch Moidart shore, a hoard of silver Elizabethan coins was discovered. The story of course then claimed that they were Donald’s missing coins, hidden on the path by the thieving servants as they made their way to work across the moor. But those coins were one hundred years old at the time of Donald’s loss, so maybe the conjecture was fanciful. But it made a good story, and in honour of the tale, the newly constructed path became known as “The Silver Walk”.

    After Donald’s death in 1686, Castle Tioram lost its role as the Clanranald family residence, for his son Allan lived elsewhere. The castle was garrisoned by Government troops from 1692, because of Allan’s support for the Jacobite cause, and fell into disrepair. But, in September 1715, Allan retook the castle but then ordered it to be burnt down before he left for the battle of Sherriffmuir, to prevent it falling into his enemy’s hands. It is thought he had a premonition, for he died at Sherriffmuir. At any rate, it was the end of Castle Tioram as the seat of the Clanranalds, and the beginning of its decline into the rather romantic ruin it now is.

    It is certainly a place that sparks a writer’s imagination: the remoteness and the beauty of course feed the soul’s desire for spiritual nourishment but it’s not hard, either, if you stand alone in the bay as the sun dips beneath the horizon throwing the castle into gloom, and the tide begins to ripple back again, to let tales of terror conjure up a quite different sort of spirit…

    Castle Tioram from the Silver Walk cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Russel Wills – geograph.org.uk/p/1842658
    (With the sea now covering where Donald’s poor serving woman was allegedly tied to a rock
    as the tide came rushing in…)

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