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       One morning last week I went on a rather doleful shopping trip to Oxford Street. In the clothes departments shop assistants outnumbered customers and full racks of garments pleaded to be liked. As I walked through those designer mausoleums I remembered my childhood, when my shopaholic mother and grandmother took me on all day shopping trips . After an orgy of trying on clothes in bustling department stores these trips ended in the ground floor cafeteria in Selfridges with me, as a fat little girl, standing up to eat an enormous ice cream called a Knickerbocker Glory. Now that some people think that department stores will disappear from all our High Streets, it seems a good idea to remember their interesting pasts.

       Towards the end of the 19th century Oxford Street changed from residential to retail. The first department stores were exciting and innovative. In Zola’s wonderful novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), a department store in Paris is the main character: a self contained world, a kind of paradise where women of all ages revel in colour and choice and sensuality. Not exactly a feminist message - but in fact, for middle class women, the arrival of department stores did represent a kind of independence. In mid-Victorian England it was not considered acceptable for a ‘respectable’ woman to go out unchaperoned whereas, a generation later, a shopping trip to a department store, where clothes, furnishings and lunch or tea could all be found under one roof, was allowed. 
    This photo shows a horse drawn John Lewis delivery van.

       John Lewis was a buyer of silks for Peter Robinson, which has now disappeared. It was on the site at Oxford Circus where Topshop is now. He bravely set up his own draper’s shop at 132 Oxford Street in 1864. Over the next thirty years he expanded and when a court injunction banned him from extending his shop into Cavendish Square he defiantly spent three weeks in Brixton Jail. He eventually won and the stuffy residents of Cavendish Square had to put up with his enormous shop. His son, Spedan Lewis, was not a conventional businessman. As a young man Spedan had a serious accident when he fell from his horse whilst riding to work through Regents Park. He took two years to recuperate and seems to have thought hard about the unfairness of a world where he and his family took more money from the business than all the rest of their employees together. When Spedan eventually inherited both John Lewis and Peter Jones ( in Sloane Square) he spent decades setting up a trust, or Partnership, which transferred some of the benefits of ownership to his employees.

      The original John Lewis shop was destroyed in the blitz and remained a bomb site until it was rebuilt in the late 1950s. The winged figure on the east wall is by Barbara Hepworth. Many other buildings nearby were damaged during the war. In 1941 George Orwell wrote in his diary that Oxford Street was "completely empty of traffic, and only a few pedestrians". He saw "innumerable fragments of broken glass."

       Debenham, next door to John Lewis, started as a small drapery store on Wigmore Street in the 18th century, when Mary-le-bone was a village. The shop later grew and sold drapery, silks, haberdashery, millinery, hosiery, lace and family mourning goods.The latter involved a complex and expensive etiquette; after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 Queen Victoria wore her widow's weeds until she died in 1901. Many people felt obliged to follow her example and after a death entire households were expected to wear black. This sad photo shows a baby with black armbands.

       D H Evans, which my mother and her friends called D H Heavens, once stood where House of Fraser does now. In 1879 Dan Harries Evans, a farmer’s son from Llanelli, bought a small draper’s shop in Oxford Street. His wife did the dressmaking and other members of the family helped out. They specialized in fashionable lace goods and eventually,in the 1930s, their shop became a department store.

       Selfridges has the most colourful history of all these department stores although not, perhaps, quite as lurid as the TV series Mr Selfridge.

       This photo of Selfridges under construction shows how many buildings were demolished in order to build it. Harry Gordon Selfridge was 51, and already very rich, when he opened his new emporium. He began his career a stockman in the warehouse of a Chicago department store and, 25 years later, was a junior partner. His wife, Rose, was a shrewd business woman and property developer.

       On a visit to London he was shocked to see how old fashioned British shops were. His new building managed to be both modern and classical (In 2003 it was awarded a English Heritage plaque). There was a roof garden and new ornate window displays. A clock with an enormous figure called The Queen of Time still reigns over main entrance. Selfridge said his aim was "to make my shop a civic centre, where friends can meet and buying is only a secondary consideration." Could he be held responsible for introducing the consumer society? Some of his catchphrases were: “The customer is always right;” “Only [so many] Shopping Days Until Christmas,” and "I am prepared to sell anything from an airplane to a cigar".

       In fact when the vast store did open, in 1909, the monoplane in which Louis Blériot flew across the Channel for the first time was on public display. Over the four days of the launch event about 150,000 people visited the store and 30 policemen were needed to hold back the crowds. For the first time cosmetics and perfumes were put on display at the front of the store. In other London stores make-up. which many people still disapproved of, was sold in side rooms or even in areas hidden by blinds.

       The huge success of his new store made Selfridge more innovative - and more megalomanic. The 'Earl of Oxford Street' introduced a Bargain Basement to attract poorer customers. After the First World War he wanted to erect a massive tower (very Trumpian!) and a subway link to Bond Street Station, which was to be renamed “Selfridge’s". The book department expanded to become the biggest in the world. In 1925 the inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated the first television in the store and, later, the BBC transmitted live music broadcasts from the roof garden. There was a library, reading and writing rooms, reception rooms for French, German, American and "Colonial" customers, a First Aid Room and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double glazing. Selfridge even - a most revolutionary idea then - installed toilets for women shoppers

       During the Blitz Selfridge's windows were bricked up for safety. Although the roof was damaged by German bombs the shop continued to trade and the basement was converted into a communications base, with a dedicated line run along Oxford Street to Whitehall so that Churchill could make secure direct telephone calls to Roosevelt.

       After his wife, Rose, died during the flu epidemic in 1918 Selfridge became wildly extravagant. He lost a lot of money gambling and had expensive affairs with (amongst others) the famous Dolly Sisters and Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who later become Syrie Maugham. He entertained lavishly. both at his house in Mayfair and on his his yacht. In 1941, when he was 83, Selfridge was forced to resign because he was deeply in debt, and the apostrophe was removed from the department store's name.

       So department stores were once great centres of urban life. Chaplin recognised this in his 1916 silent film The Floorwalker, in which the little tramp has fun with escalators and mirrors.

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                                                                             May 1968, Paris

    These photos were taken by Bruno Barbey who was a twenty-five-year-old photographer in '68 and a superb visual chronicler of the events of May 1968. He wrote later, "I went with Cartier-Bresson to buy helmets to protect us from the stones, but with them we couldn't use our Leicas.'

    It is always an exciting moment for an author when she receives an email from her editor confirming the date of publication of her next novel. That has been one of the highs of this week for me. My new novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, is to be published in Britain on 16th May 2019.

    I had hoped to have the book out on the shelves this autumn to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of 1968 in France, a year that changed modern French history. However, due to various issues, I am a little late. The main point is it is on its way!

    The book is set principally in two time zones: 1968 and the present. There is a small section that takes place in the 1990s but that is not the main body of the book.

    I was a gauche teenager in 1968 and really rather ignorant of politics. My thoughts were all about training to be an actress by winning a place at one of the more prestigious London drama schools. So 1968 passed me by, which, I think now, is a great pity. It has, however, made the research for the new novel all the more fascinating, and if I could live those adolescent years of mine again, I like to think that I would get myself to Paris to participate in the student revolution. To have been what the French call a 'soixante-huitard', one who participated in the events of May 68. It is for that reason that I have had a very exciting time writing of the involvement of my young English protagonist, Grace, who finds herself in Paris at that time and gets drawn into the fight and the building of the barricades.

    The subject is hugely complex and I will come back to it again between now and publication of the novel and again perhaps afterwards. Who knows? But I want to offer a brief resumé of what the revolution was about, rather than dates and details, and I hope that it will whet your appetite to discover more with me along the way.

    In 1968, the US was in Vietnam. Americans and youngsters elsewhere in the world were beginning to voice their opposition to the US involvement in Asia. Young Americans were burning their draft cards, some were escaping the country to avoid being called up. For the first time in history a war was being relayed on a daily basis into our sitting rooms via television. The world could directly witness the killings, the violence and the sacrifice of lives, and many people were, quite understandably, horrified, appalled. The year previous, in 1967, in San Francisco, it was the Summer of Love, the Hippy Movement was making news worldwide, Make Love Not War. I found this video on Youtube that will take you back to San Francisco in 67. 

    By 1968, there were movements of dissatisfaction breaking out all over the western world, marches against the war, a growing call for Peace. In France, the dissatisfaction went further, deeper. There was a fervent desire to change French society from within the system. Many were saying that the nineteenth century was a long time in ascent, meaning that they felt France was backward, had not moved into the modern world. The young were tired of De Gaulle, a right-wing military man. They were calling for changes to the educational system, describing it as outmoded and inefficient.They wanted fairer opportunities for the worker, the man in the street. Paris '68 began with the students and then it spread fast, when the Communists came on board, to include striking workers all across the country. By late May, close to eleven million people in mainland France were on strike. The country had, literally, come to a standstill and De Gaulle went, briefly, into hiding before he returned with resolve to crack down and break the back of the revolution. 
    But he did not break its spirit, its resonances.

    In 1968, the only TV stations operating in France were government controlled. If the Élysée did not approve of the information being broadcast, it did not go out. De Gaulle, his cronies, were monitoring, censoring the news. During the weeks of rioting in Paris, the only means for the young, and those involved in the fight, to learn what was actually going on was through two radio stations: Europe One and Radio Luxembourg. 

    After several weeks, those working for the TV station also went on strike so no news of the revolution was being televised at all. At this time, Bruno Barbey (the photographer mentioned at the top of this page) got together with filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard to make short films. About 30 in total were shot. These were sent out to striking factories and cities throughout France, to keep the people informed. So the nation could see what was really going on in Paris. By this time, the movement was huge. 

    Barbey said later that it was not easy to get their pictures out of France for the world to see what was happening. He worked for the prestigious Magnum Agency (later became its vice-president). Once every two days, a Magnum messenger riding an old BMW motorbike travelled to Brussels and from there the pictures were distributed worldwide.

    I think one of the facts that has most astonished me during all the research I have been doing for the novel is to comprehend the reach of political censorship at that time in France. And this is one of the profound effects the revolution had on the country. France was opened up. Communication and dialogue between people of all classes became an urgency. De Gaulle and his government failed to rein this in. This is one of the major achievements of the 68 movement. 

    Another aspect that has really shocked me was the level of police violence against the young, hence the building of the famous barricades. In order that the students and those fighting with them - because by May 6th/7th white collar workers and some of the university professors had joined the students - could protect themselves they spent nights building defences against the police. The amount of tear gas, the arrests, the convictions, the rescinding of the students' right to continue their studies is all very shocking to read about. You could believe these were the acts of a government in some Banana Republic, not France.

    The night of 6th May was particularly violent. 600 people were wounded and 422 arrested, many taken to trial, a few losing their right to study. Again overnight on 10th May, the city, mostly on the Left Bank, was burning. Cars upturned, pavements dug up. The students were building barricades to protect themselves against the police weapons including rifles, the tear gas, the violence. Hundreds were hospitalised.

                                © Bruno Barbey. Student passing stones to build the barricades

    One thinks of France - and I live here - as a liberal country. Certainly, more liberal than most. But French women were only able to vote for the first time in April 1945 after decades of campaigning. 1968 did a great deal to bring France into the late twentieth century. It proved itself to be a cultural and social revolution that had long lasting waves.

    Bruno Queysanne, who at the time was an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, said: "In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned the intellectuals but also manual workers." Many living in France today say that it engulfed their lives, changed the way they perceived their society, gave a new emancipation to women. The sexual revolution was also a part of it. 

    "The feeling we had in those days which has shaped my entire life," these words are taken from an essay written by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders of that time (and now a member of the European Green Party), "was, We're Making History. An exalted feeling - suddenly we had become agents in world history."

    Not only the cars, but life in France had been upended. It would never be the same again.

    I so wish I had been there, but as I wasn't I have buried myself in my novel in the skin of a young Englishwoman, Grace, and through her eyes and passion, I have lived the experience.

    Here are some photos from those amazing, heady days.

                                  Renault workers on strike at Bologne-Billancourt 27th May '68

                                                                        © Bruno Barbey

                         Jean-Paul Sartre speaking to students within the occupied Sorbonne

    All photographs  © Bruno Barbey and Magnum Photos

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    Frida Kahlo 1907-1954 

    Image courtesy of Museo Frida Kahlo.
    © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México. 
    My oldest grand-daughter, Matilda, is 9 and a self-confessed ‘Victorian Expert.’ So for a summer holiday treat we went to the Victoria & Albert museum in London. After splashing in the fountain and admiring the Victorian frocks, we queued for the Frida Kahlo exhibition.
    Matilda was fascinated by the surreal self-portraits with Kahlo’s signature mono-brow, painted using a mirror attached to her bed. After a near-fatal bus crash at 18 years, she was in constant pain and unable to walk. ‘She was a woman that suffered many injuries but who was able to transform this pain into art,’ wrote Hilda Trujillo, Director of the Museo Frida Kahlo. 
    “I’d rather sit on the floor of the market of Toluca,” said Kahlo,
    “and sell tortillas than have anything to do with those artistic bitches.”
    Now her image sells like hot tortillas. photo Nikolas Muray, 1939.
    As well as Kahlo’s own distinctive paintings, the exhibition includes masses of votives - small, primitive paintings on tin. Mexican Catholics with sick relatives hoped that by placing them in a church, the relatives would recover. I wondered if this would also work in the V&A? Though most had presumably died already. 
    When Kahlo herself died in 1954, all her possessions were locked in a bathroom at her home, La Casa Azul, in Mexico City by her husband, the artist Diega Rivera, (1886 –1957). By the time it was finally opened in 2004, she was already a cult figure, so everything was conserved to archaeological standards. Trujillo wondered if it was right to intrude after so long. ‘At times I thought I wasn't entitled to do this, that no-one was. However, it was also important to restore, rescue the letters and photographs [which] had been left as they were, frozen in time.’ They have yet to restore all the 22,000 documents and 300 items of Frida's clothing and textiles.
    However, many are now on display at the V&A, having left Mexico for the first time. Being housebound, Kahlo painted everything around her, including the plaster corsets she had to wear to support her spine. It’s sad to see the one she painted with an unborn baby– knowing that she never bore a live child.
    Kahlo’s laced boots are gorgeous - red leather, with stacked platform heels and Chinese embroidery along the side. But one boot is prominently displayed on the prosthetic leg she wore for the last year of her life. Would she have liked that? She didn’t show off about her disabilities and wore long skirts to cover her polio-damaged legs, even when she still had two. 
    Art, fashion or function?
    Would Kahlo have approved? Photograph Javier Hinojosa.
    © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México,
    There is something voyeuristic about the glass case containing her ‘Everything’s Rosy’ red lipstick and her empty Revlon nail varnish bottles, displayed like a saint’s relics. Was that the point the curators were making? That despite her rejection of Catholicism, she used its imagery and iconography repeatedly in her work. We admired the self-portrait featuring a white lace ruff framing the face. Also on display is an excerpt from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film Que Viva Mexico! which shows that these holánes were worn by women at church weddings in the Tehuantepec region of Southern Mexico. 
    Kahlo’s colourful and eccentric image has been appropriated
    by feminists, fashion designers, artists and souvenir factories.
    Photo: Robin Richmond, 2018
    Kahlo often chose to wear the rich Tehuana costume - pre-Columbian jewelry, fringed rebozos (shawls), embroidered huipiles (square-cut tops) and long, gathered enaguas (skirts). Her striking appearance was a political statement to show she identified with the oppressed indigenous Mexicans. But as Robin Richmond, author of  Frida Kahlo in Mexico says, ‘Frida was no Tehuana. She was the well-educated, literary daughter of an Hungarian intellectual. Under her vast petticoats Frida was a shy damaged person who hid a tragic soul under this mantle of disguise.’

    ‘In Mexico now, Frida is everywhere. On children’s knapsacks.
    On wallets. On handbags. On shopping bags. On socks. On Barbie Dolls.
    On the 500 peso bill. On tortilla packets,’ says Richmond. photo: Robin Richmond, 2018
    All the rooms in the V&A exhibition are small and rather dark. Emerging into the light, Matilda was shocked by the gift shop where you can buy a pair of 1950s gold sunglasses quite like Kahlo’s, for £150. Richmond agrees, ‘I think she would have been horrified. She hated exploitation of any kind according to Arturo Garcia Bustos and Rina Lazo from Oaxaca, friends of mine who knew her very well.’ Cheapest at £1 is a badge that says ‘I am my own muse’. Fine for Kahlo to say it, but what does it mean when anyone else wears it? And if you were your own muse, wouldn’t you make your own badge? The things ‘inspired’ by Kahlo and made by artists who are obviously not their own muses, are terrible, especially the caricatures of her self-portraits. An ‘easy to wear’ fuchsia headdress was pretty, but it cost £245. Matilda and I went home and settled down to make our own for a couple of quid. 
    Cultural appropriation, or a grand-daughter dressing up?
    Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs at the V&A, South Kensington, until 4 November 2018. 

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    Rachel Hore is the author of nine novels, nearly all with historical settings.  Last Letter Home was chosen for the Richard & Judy Book Club in association with W.H. Smith.  She lives in Norwich and teaches creative writing part-time at the University of East Anglia. 

    We hope that Rachel will soon be joining us on The History Girls. Meanwhile, here is a taster of her work.

    Researching LAST LETTER HOME

    Research for an historical novel can be a chaotic affair.  I’d always imagined a process whereby I’d read everything relevant I could lay my hands on, visit the sites, study objects in museums all before I began planning and writing the fiction. 

    Unfortunately, I’m not the sort of novelist who discovers exactly what interests me about a subject until I start writing.  My relationship with research is therefore one that changes throughout the journey to the finished work. I thought it interesting therefore to reflect on that journey with my recently published novel, Last Letter Home (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

    Last Letter Homehas a dual narrative, featuring a youngish woman historian in the present, who investigates the story behind a collection of letters from the Second World War past between an English girl and a German refugee and finds in it connections to her own family.

    I’d set novels in this period before (A Gathering Storm, A Week in Paris), so already had a general feel for the background. It was the locations and the characters that were different this time. Scenes in Norfolk, Egypt, Sicily and mainland Italy would all require detailed research, as would the possible trajectory of an enemy alien who was determined to join the British war effort.  I also intended to write about military engagement, a first for me. Part of my pleasure in writing is to try something challenging and new.

    Before I thought of any of this a fuzzy, dreamlike scene of a woman in a wild garden kept coming to me, I think because I’d been visiting walled gardens in East Anglia. My favourites were the mature working garden at Felbrigg Hall, near Sheringham, and a more desolate one at Thornham Magna near Diss, which was being brought back into use.  I liked the communal purpose of these gardens, but also the sense of security they imparted; they felt like places of sanctuary from the troubles of the wider world.   A fictional walled garden became a central motif in my novel - a safe harbour for my wartime characters, and a liminal space between past and present.  A garden in Italy became important, too.

    A garden in Italy rather like one in the novel

    I love gardens, but am not a plantswoman, so I resorted to books and the advice of a good friend who is.  I relished an excellent tome published in 1930 entitled The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers by Sutton & Sons, and explored plans of walled gardens until the details of an imaginary one flowered in my mind.  Indeed it felt so real that I was dreadfully sad when I had to write about its spoliation as a result of wartime directives to grow more vegetables.

    If a walled garden in Norfolk was where the past story began, wartime Italy is where it was to end.  The gruelling Italian campaign of 1943-45 particularly fascinated me because of the physical intensity of the fighting and the high level of psychological strain that participants endured.  The first scenes that I wrote take place in the present, in the mountains near Naples where historian Briony Wood is on holiday with friends. Here she views old wartime footage and is handed the all-important collection of letters.  By writing this episode I committed myself to featuring Italy, but in doing so my problems began.

    It is my belief that historical fictions that purport to be realist, as opposed to fantastical, should be respectful of known fact and not betray the reader’s trust.  I  set out on this novel with Norfolk at one end of the past story and Italy at the other after reading in Frank Meeres’ Norfolk in the Second World War that infantry from the Norfolk Regiment took part in the Italian campaign, and in the firm belief that my German refugee, Paul Hartmann, could join the Norfolks and wind up in the aforementioned part of Italy where Briony went on holiday.  It was only when I was deep in the writing that I discovered to my annoyance that the movements of the Norfolk Battalion in Italy had not taken place where or when I had imagined them to, and nor had the men necessarily been involved in the preceding Egyptian battle that I’d planned to feature.

    When faced with such a stumbling block the historical novelist has several options.  One involves substantial recasting and rewriting of the book.  Another involves fudging it and confessing this in an author’s note.  A third involves less rewriting, but more research – looking for evidence that underpins a slightly recast version.  In this case, the third option worked.  I uncovered examples of soldiers who’d become separated from their platoon, or whose companies had been decimated, who might then find themselves part of new ones in a completely different regiment.  In the chaos of war, all sorts of confusing and ridiculous things happen.  The challenge for the historical writer is to make  fictional versions of these seem authentic.   

    Wartime chronology, again, nearly did for me when it came to tracing a realistic path for a German refugee who wished to fight for the Allies.  The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens by Helen Fry recounts the experiences of many such men, but most of them had not become combatants until quite late in the war – the Normandy Landings being most commonly cited – because of earlier rules preventing them bearing arms.   How, therefore, could I credibly send Paul from an internment camp near Liverpool in May 1940 to fight near Cairo in June 1942?  Again, more detailed excavation provided the answers.  Paul could join the Pioneers, a non-combatant force.  From there appeals to his previous employer, a Norfolk baronet, led him to active service with the local regiment, then onto a ship bound for Suez. These odd kinds of things actually happened.

    Should this level of detail actually matter to the historical novelist?  It depends how hardline you are, but they certainly matter to me and I believe they matter to readers.  Most often it’s even tinier details that thwart one, the ones not mentioned in the history books.  Fiction written at the time and memoir are good sources for discovering answers to problems such as how extensively electricity has been installed in rural areas, when people did and didn’t shake hands, who did someone’s laundry, how the telephone system worked.  Some of these snags the writer can save to check once they’ve finished writing, but occasionally key aspects of the story can hang on them so solutions can’t wait.  The writer must sigh, put down their pen and investigate.

    The worst traps of all, though, are the questions you didn’t think to ask in the first place. I had no idea, for instance, when I wrote A Week in Paris, that a Wren wasn’t generally allowed on a ship until a reader with first hand knowledge pointed it out.   I’m still waiting for someone to challenge me with something similar in Last Letter Home. No doubt it will happen. It’s an occupational hazard, I’m afraid!


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    This month's "guest post" is a bit unusual. Don't worry - you'll still have a chance to win a book tomorrow; it's not that different!

    Readers may be aware that I run, with my husband, a small independent publishing company called The Greystones Press. We publish YA and adult fiction and most of our books have a historical element. Take the two we are bringing out on 4th October.

    The adult novel is by Sophie Masson and is called Black Wings:

    It is set in the French Revolution and covers many years in the lives of four people who started out as childhood friends but whose lives are pulled apart by the changes in France.

    It’s 1788 in the Vendée in western France, and change is in the air. Reform is being talked of in the great world beyond, in Paris, and even the peaceful village inhabited by Jacques Verdun and his friends – aristocratic painter Edmond de Bellegarde, his beautiful cousin Flora, and young farmer Pierre Bardon – seems touched by new possibilities. But as events both in Paris and in the local community start to gather pace, as revolution breaks out and the traditions of centuries start to break down, friendships will be severely tested in the most unexpected of ways.
    Jacques is a lawyer's son, madly in love with Flora, and friends with both Edmond the aristocrat and Pierre the farmer. The four of them take no notice of the social differences between them as they grow up and, as the three boys grow into men, they are all drawn in different ways to the principles behind the revolution. But when the Reign of Terror comes, they are pulled in different directions. Not all of them will survive.

    Photo by Cat Sparks
    Born in Indonesia to French parents and brought up in Australia and France, Sophie Masson is the award-winning, internationally-published author of over 60 books, for children, young adults and adults. Her latest books include the adult thriller duology, Trinity: The Koldun Code and Trinity: The False Prince, set in modern Russia; the YA historical thriller, Jack of Spades, and the picture book, Two Rainbows, illustrated by Michael McMahon. These are her social media details:
    ✽ Website:
    ✽ Blog:
    ✽ Facebook:
    ✽ Twitter: @SophieMasson1 

    Obviously, since Sophie lives in Australia and The Greystones Press is UK-based, we had to conduct all the editing by email. This was a very enjoyable process, with a cordial to and fro across the ocean, through the ether, and we had enough time for the time difference between our countries not to matter.

    I remember reading her submission on my Kindle, by a pool in a holiday home in Rhodes in the summer of 2016. It was a week after the Brexit vote and I was still traumatised by the result. Being plunged into another, older political upheaval was quite cathartic. And now, nearly two and a half years later, we have the finished book, with its fabulous cover designed by Justin Brown. 

    In between, there has been a lot of hard work on both sides and yet, as we are now only a few days away from publication, it still seems like a kind of alchemy. Not base metal into gold, of course, but gold into even more polished gold.

    The second book is YA fiction but also with a strong historical angle.

    I have known this book, or its earlier incarnations, for many years. At one time it was called Blood and Roses but many other books share that name. There is no copyright in titles; you can call your novel Pride and Prejudice if you like, but I don't recommend it. We always search on the Net for existing books in order to avoid confusion but the best way to come up with the right one is to brainstorm and that is how this book was re-named.

    This is its second cover, designed by Giorgia de Micheli, who is Italian herself, appropriately enough for a book set in Florence and the Tuscan countryside.
    It's a story with a split timeline. The first hinges on family secrets. Three modern teenagers meet in Florence to discover the truth about a revered grandfather and a literary recluse. Their searches overlap and intertwine to reveal the shocking truth about past betrayal and present revenge.
    For Jade and her twin sister Amber, it’s a family matter, trying to find out the truth about their Italian grandfather, who has just died. But they have no idea what a can of worms they are opening as they delve into a past full of betrayal, murder, sex and love.

    Nico’s quest interweaves with the girls’ as he searches for the true identity of E J Holm, the author of the detective thrillers he devours. The victims and the killers in Holm’s books all seem to be linked to the Partisans who resisted the Fascists in Italy in World War Two.

    Gradually, Jade discovers that her grandfather’s secrets are linked to that too. Who is E J Holm really? And what is his connection with the girls’ grandfather? 
    We describe it as a double detective story that combines the secrecy and betrayal of Mal Peet’s Tamar with the search for an author as elusive as Elena Ferrante. 
    It was easy working with Gill, who is UK-based and a regular visitor to Oxfordshire where the press is.
    Gill won the Kathleen Fidler First Novel Award with her book The Ivy Crown (Hodder). Her later books include the DragonChild series and the Franklin’s Emporium series for A & C Black. She currently teaches Writing Fiction to adults in Rugby.

    She has loved Italy ever since her first visit there in 1973 but it was 25 years later that she became fascinated by stories of the partisans who formed the WW2 resistance to Fascism. 
    We share a love of Italy, and of Florence in particular, and an appreciation of Italian art. One inspiration for Gill was Botticelli's painting Primavera, in the Uffizi museum in Florence. You'll have to read the book to see how that fits in the plot, along with WW2 partisans and family secrets.

    Publishers don't like YA historical fiction, which is odd, since it has never been more popular as a genre among adult readers. And it's one I feel comfortable writing myself, so we were delighted to take this book on.

    So that's our list complete for this year and we hope you don't mind this ad and that you might want to read these yourselves.


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  • 09/29/18--16:01: September Competition
  • To win either of the two books featured yesterday jsut answer the following question in the Comments section:

    "What book set in a European country, in the past, is your favourite and why?"

    Then copy your answer to:

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    Good luck!


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    Recently, we’ve been remembering the two World Wars: rationing, evacuees, bombs, black-outs…

     I thought I’d jot down a few of the family stories my parents told me about their war-time experiences because they seem, to me, a little different to the image of the war years we are fed by more ‘official’ history.

    My grandad, George Price was born in 1900 and so was too young for the First War. At fourteen, he
    was already the wage-earner of the family. He left school and started work at 12 because his father, a miner, was out of work. He lived with his family in a row of cottages with slate roofs.

    Grandad at the brickyard. He's on the right. No idea who the other two are.

    At the time there was a tremendous scare about zeppelins, which were expected to float overhead at any moment, dropping explosives or incendaries. My youthful Grandad’s contribution to the war effort was to take the metal dustbin lids and shy them up onto the roofs. They landed on the slates with a terrific echoing clash and then slid and bounced down the slates making a din you can imagine.

    My Grandad and his mates drew deep breaths and yelled, “Zeppelins!” The cottage doors were flung open and people came running out, the women with their aprons flung over their heads. (This sounds like a Dickensian joke but I’m assured that — for reasons I find hard to comprehend — many women used to do this when alarmed. I can only imagine that it was something like Zaphod Beeblebrox’s peril-sensitive sunglasses: what you can’t see can’t frighten you.) When the sober elders saw the youths doubled over with laughter, they were not pleased. Grandad and friends waited a few days and then did it again — and again, until the only reaction was, “That bloody Price kid needs a good hiding.”

    I’m told that when an elder of ‘the row’ found out that it was George Price who’d invented the prank, he was not surprised. “The brighter they am,” the elder observed, “the more ways they can think of to make trouble.” Grandad was also well-known for disturbing peaceful evenings by knocking on doors and politely asking what the time was. The factory at the end of the row had an enormous clock over its gate.

    When I was told this story, I was always given the impression that the neighbours' fear of zeppelins was unfounded: that they were being rather silly and that the dustbin lids rattling down the slates was a great joke on them.

    I've since found that this wasn't the case at all. The neighbours had very good reason to fear zeppelins as the nearby towns of Wolverhampton and Walsall, about ten miles away, had very recently been bombed by zeppelins.

    It happened on January 31st, 1916 and the zeppelin L21 was heading for Liverpool but became disorientated. The crew were looking for the Manchester ship canal as a landmark and, thinking they were further north than they were, mistook one of the Black Country's many canals for the one they were searching for. The bombing killed 67 people and injured many more.

     This puts another complexion on my 16-year old grandad's little joke. I'm inclined to think he should have had a good hiding -- although as he'd been the family breadwinner for four years, nobody was going to do it.

    George Price grew up to marry Elsie Savage. I'm told they first met when his younger sisters invited her round. George (when not shying dustbin lids onto roofs) was a quiet man who liked to eat his meal and read his paper in silence. The girls were talking and laughing and annoying him. He told them to be quiet. Elsie stood up, put her hands on her hips and said something like, "You're not the boss of me, George Price!" He folded his newspaper, got up and threw them all out of the house.

    But reader, she married him and it was a long and, as far as I know, happy marriage. They had two children: my father and aunt who were ten and five respectively when the Second World War broke out. Many accounts of the war give the impression that all city and town children of this age were evacuated. Certainly the Black Country, as a centre of industry, was heavily bombed and some neighbours’ children were evacuated. But my Grandad absolutely refused to consider it. He is reported as saying, to neighbours, “You can send your kids away to strangers if you like but mine am staying with me. Whatever’s coming, we’ll all go through it together and I shall know where they am and what’s happening to them.”

    The 'formidable' Elsie Price - author's own photo
    Since my Grandmother Price was anything but meek — ‘formidable’ is usually the word that people find themselves using to describe her — I can only conclude that she was in complete agreement with this. My aunt suspects, for various reasons, that there was sexual abuse in her mother’s family. There was certainly physical abuse. The refusal to send their children away to live with complete strangers may have been my Grandmother’s idea.

    Elsie worked all her life -- in fact, she had quite a career, going from canteen worker to supervisor of School Meals for Oldbury (at a time when that meant cooking real meals in kitchens and coming up with a menu that supplied most of the daily nutritional requirements of a child.) She also became a Cordon Bleu cook and managed the VIP dining room at a company which entertained customers from all over the world.

    But during WW2 she managed a canteen at Accles & Pollocks, where they made parts for Spitfires and Hurricanes. "I'd much rather have women work for me," she said. "A woman does what you ask her to do, and when she's finished, looks round, sees what else is to be done and gets on with it. A man does what you tell him to do and when he's finished, he goes outside for a smoke." (I'm saying nothing.)

    When the air-raid sirens sounded, Elsie was supposed to go into the works' shelter. Instead she went outside and ran through the streets to home, with shrapnel ricocheting off the walls and pavements as the anti-aircraft guns fired. She wanted to join her children in their own shelter.

    After she'd done this a few times, someone she worked with told my Grandad what she was doing and he told her, angrily, that she wasn't ever to do that again. What was her being missing from their shelter a few times compared to her being killed by shrapnel or a bomb and never coming home again? I suppose Elsie saw the point, as she started going into the works' shelter.

    I'll end with an alleged joke. This is an heirloom joke, worth one and sixpence, passed down to me through generations.

    A VIP, visiting A&P, stopped beside a workman and asked, "How many fighters do you make here in a week, my man?"

    "Oh, hundreds," the man said. "Hundreds, easy."

    "My word! You make hundreds of Spitfires a week?"

    "Spitfires? -- Oh, you said fighters. I thought you said, 'lighters'."

    (The men who worked at A&P often used the machinery and materials to make cigarette-lighters  which they traded or sold.)

    Susan Price is the award winning writer of The Ghost Drum and The Sterkarm Handshake. 

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    This morning I’m dreaming of France. 

    I suspect this is a problem that writers who use history in their fiction tend to have. Not specifically to dream about France, but to wake up mentally in the place and time of a novel. This morning I was certain that I would step out of bed into a cave system and that, just outside the main entrance, I’d find the Languedoc I used for Langue[dot]doc 1305.

    I can tell you exactly how this strange moment came about, and the story of how it came about is actually more interesting than the moment itself.

    My favourite research time was when I walked in the countryside, on the pilgrim’s route. I saw the flowers and felt the air. That gave me a mental toolkit for walking from the channelled air and warm streets of St-Guilhem-le-Désert to a flowing path of the pilgrimage to what I already knew about the stillness and chill of limestone caves. To be honest, caves are seldom entirely still if they are alive, but compared with the different feel of the air in different parts of the hillside outside the caves, they felt so still that they became contemplative.

    Leaving town to go on pilgrimage. Photogr aph: Gillian Polack

    The caves became my hallmark moment for the novel, the one I used as a bridge to get into it. This isn’t because that’s how the time travellers got there. It’s because I’ve loved cave systems since I was a child. The feel of my caves was from Australia, married with research into how the caves in that part of France were different to those I knew.

    I still have a scribbled diagram somewhere of how I drew the caves and built them. My town is real and my countryside is something I could walk on today if I didn’t live so very far away. This whole blogpost is being written by someone in Canberra who woke up in Languedoc then got out of bed and thought, “Bother. Still Canberra.”

    There be caves in these rocks! Photograph: Gillian Polack

    But my caves are a place that cross time and space and I can wake up in them from time to time. Today a group of triggers tricked me into waking up to a cool and still world. Another blanket and I’d’ve stayed in bed an hour longer and dreamed dreams of France. 

    The first of the events that triggered this morning’s moment of strangeness was my return to France this July. I was in the north. A different type of warmth. Amiens is clammier in summer, with marshes rather than hot hillside. Cooler, but it felt warmer. I found respite in a boat rather than in stone houses and in dreams of caves. Still, each time I’m in France, I remember other times and Languedoc was lurking.

    The pilgrim route. Photograph: Gillian Polack

    Then someone read my novel and didn’t like it. We all have our audiences and this reader wasn’t one of mine. He gave a neutral review, which was very fair, and I nodded to myself and hoped that he’d find a book to his taste in the next one he picked up.  The reviewer not enjoying it was not a problem.

    One thing he said, though, niggled me.

    When I built up that very careful Middle Ages, I put in a lot of history that people were living. It wasn’t explained. 

    The way my Medieval people behave is based on research concerning lives, economy, religion and a range of other things. I already had The Middle Ages Unlocked to play with and all the notes on the French Middle Ages that went with earlier research (for I am a Medieval historian, when all’s said and done), and I also had all the material that didn’t go into that volume. This was my starting point for Langue[dot]doc 1305. I then spent several weeks building up the commerce of the region and understanding it and working out where each character fitted and how it affected their lives. I knew the flow of trade and what made that trade. I knew the seasons and the hierarchies and the odd little opportunities that came up.

    There were no explanations of these commerce systems because my characters were living them. Bona’s apprenticeship was derived from some comments made in a teaching document from Montpellier. The document existing assumptions about the opportunities for girls in medieval Montpellier. I measured its challenge against what we knew about local trades and crafts. from a commercial history of Montpellier and its region to see how to give her that path out of small town living that would have been so very desirable.

    Modern Montpellier. Photograph: Gillian Polack

    I researched how the sale of cloth took the sales part of the of a weaving team to fairs outside the town and why a particular type of horse should neither be kept in a small hilly town without the social infrastructure that would enable it to be used and why it was unlikely to simply be sold locally. I showed where people bought different items and how a noble would move from being in the world of his peers to being in the Mediterranean trade world and what it would cost him. I only showed these things as the story and its characters required it. 

    I didn’t explain any of this. Anyone wanting a primer on Medieval commerce or politics or… most things… needs to go to non-fiction. My characters were living the world and didn’t tell each other the obvious. If I were to tell you I was typing this article on my trusty computer, it would be very tactful of you to stifle a laugh because, right now, it’s only if I get the article together in another way (by dictating as I swim in the local streams, especially given I cannot swim) that really, it’s worth of comment. 

    It’s a difficult decision that each writer makes. Worlds don’t come magically to life. We work at them and think them through and decide which bit works for us and how it will work and, today, why one particular approach worked for me for one particular novel and why this one approach is not a universal one and doesn’t work for all readers. 

    The bottom line is which parts of daily life need explaining and which don’t. Some writers would give a description of that commerce and their book would be perfect for that reader. I did not and my book was not. Thinking about it and working out why I did not and just how important it was to me to have my townsfolk live and my scientists talk about things led me into the cultural differences between the my time travellers and the Languedocian townsfolk. 

    That was why I made the choices I made. I wanted readers to see my Middle Ages from the inside, since I already had The Middle Ages Unlocked to show them from the outside. And that was the thought I went to bed on last night.

    I may be a Medieval historian, but bringing the Medieval world to life in my novel meant I had to make it so believable that I myself can step into it and it’s there when I wake up in the morning. This morning I did just that.

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    As the nights draw in and the spirits move closer, it’s time to huddle beneath your Victorian counterpane with an unbearably creepy book. Many brilliant Gothic reads are being released in time for Halloween: Melmoth, The Corset, House of Ghosts, The Lingering, and The House on Vesper Sands, to name but a few. All play with and develop ideas and tropes that have been ghosting about since the 18th century. Ever since Conrad was crushed to death by a giant helmet in The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic genre has been evolving strangely and blooming darkly.

    Here, as a discussion/fight-starter rather than a definitive list, are my top ten favourite Gothic reads.

    1. Jane Eyre (1847)

    Sinister boarding schools, ghostly visions, eerie laughter, suppressed sexuality and angry women in the attic. Charlotte Brontë used gothic elements in Jane Eyre to create a new female language. Critics of the time were not impressed, however. The Quarterly Review did 'not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.’

    2. Wuthering Heights (1847)

    Wuthering Heights was also controversial in its time because of its unflinching depictions of cruelty and its challenge to Victorian societal ideals. Even now, Wuthering Heights remains a raw and powerful read, and many authors cite its influence in their own work. Many of us have wondered what else this formidable author might have written, but Emily Brontë died at the age of 30, saying that she would have ‘no poisoning doctor’ near her.

    Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey, were all published in the same year.

    3. The Turn of the Screw (1898)

    Henry James said he preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality: ‘the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.’ For nearly 120 years, readers have been trying to work out whether the ‘strange and sinister’ were only in the unnamed governess's mind, or whether the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are real.

    4. Rebecca (1938)

    Though dismissed by many critics at the time as romances, novels such as Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel (and many of Du Maurier’s short stories) are more akin to mysteries or psychological thrillers strongly embued with gothic elements. As with Henry James, the real and the ghostly often elide, so that Mrs Danvers is part human, part malevolent ghost, and Rebecca herself haunts the imaginations of the characters, and also that of the reader, long after they’ve finished the book.

    5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

    ‘My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.’ 

    It’s my favourite first paragraph so had to be quoted in full. We Have Always was Shirley Jackson’s last novel and, in my view, her best. In fact, it’s probably my favourite book on this list: deceptively simple, darkly funny and profoundly unsettling. Jackson's biographer referred to it as a 'paean' to the author's agoraphobia. If you haven’t discovered Shirley Jackson yet, you’re in for a rare and disturbing treat.

    6. The Bloody Chamber (1979)

    Angela Carter was hailed as the ‘grand-dame of the modern English gothic’, saying that she’d ‘always been fond of Poe and Hoffmann – Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious.’

    The Bloody Chamber is perhaps her most gothic work. In her collection of stories about witches, forsaken castles, haunted forests and howling wolves, Carter gave fairy tales a fantastic, feminist twist.

    7. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)

    Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with an exceptional sense of smell. He survives his mother’s attempt to kill him at birth and grows up in stinking, extraordinary 18th century Paris. Grenouille becomes a perfumer in order to preserve that most precious of smells: his murder victim. Dark, brilliant and building in bizarreness to a climax you’re unlikely to forget. Kurt Curbain wrote a song about it.

    8.  Beloved (1987)

    Gothic fiction often connects with the fears and anxieties of its time. Beloved is the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery. Their home in Cincinnati is haunted by a revenant, whom they believe to be the ghost of Sethe's daughter, Beloved. This astonishing book uses the gothic to expose the horrors and silence of slavery.

    9. The Little Stranger (2009)

    Sarah Waters has apparently said she did not set out to write a ghost story, but she seems accidentally to have written one of the best ones. It is the 1940s and, as Hundreds Hall decays, peculiar powers take hold. Superbly measured and deeply chilling. As with the best gothic tales, we’re left unsettled and unsure. And probably wanting to see the movie.

    10. The Loney (2015)

    Of the many brilliant gothic novels from recent years, The Loney stands out like a moss-covered tombstone. Both old and new and suspended somewhere between the supernatural, the strange, and the outright horrific, Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel is, as Sarah Perry has said, a real Gothic masterpiece.

    And yes, I realise I’ve missed off many of the classics usually included in lists of this kind. But what would be the point of a Gothic list, if it conformed to expectations?


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. Her second novel, The Story Keeper, is a tale of dark folklore and missing girls on the Isle of Skye.

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    Following on from my last month's post on the mound at Dowth, here I am, thrilled to be standing in front of the magnificent passage grave of Brú na Bóinne or Newgrange, in Co. Meath, Ireland.  Another of the Elf-mounds of Ireland, it was explained in later years as the palace of Oengus, foster-son of Midir, king of the Sidhe.

    Thrilled? I was blown away! As a Neolithic junkie, this has been on my bucket list forever. Yes, I know the facade has been restored - and yes, I know the restoration has raised eyebrows in various quarters; in fact when it gets really nasty the word 'Disneyfication' is thrown around - but I kind of appreciate the attempt to try and give the visitor some idea of the way the place used to look. Or might have looked...

    It's not as though we inherited a pristine site to begin with. The exterior of the great mound had suffered much damage in the past. It was dug into during the 1600s, and by the early 19th century a folly had been built close to the site, using stones taken from it (it's still there). By the late 19th century the entrance of Brú na Bóinne looked like this...

    ...while by the early 1900s some of the debris and earth had been cleared away and it looked like this.

    Between 1962 and 1975 the site was excavated by Professor Michael J. O'Kelly, who decided to reconstruct the facade of the monument from the collapsed stones lying at its base: an intriguing mixture made chiefly (here I quote from Wikipedia) of  "white quartz cobblestones from the Wicklow Mountains about 50 km to the south." But there were also "dark rounded cobbles from the Mourne Mountains about 50 km to the north; dark gabbro cobbles from the Cooley Mountains; and banded siltstone from the shore at Carlingford Lough." Noting where the stones had fallen, Professor Kelly looked at how the ratio of white quartz to dark cobblestones changed along the facade, and restored it according to his own impressions of how it might have appeared. I particularly like the gradation from dark at the far edges, to white in the middle.

    Here's a close-up of the whiter part, studded with those round dark 'statement' boulders.

    It's been much hated. In 1983 the French archeologist Pierre Roland Giot said it looked like "cream cheesecake with dried currants distributed about"while more recently the tv archeologist Neil Oliver has criticized as "a bit overdone, kind of like Stalin does the Stone Age". Maybe so... especially since the stones of the new wall have been set in reinforced concrete. "Another theory is that some, or all, of the white quartz cobblestones had formed a plaza on the ground at the entrance." Who can say? As a Yorkshirewoman I have a lot of respect for the dry-stone-walling techniques of our forbears. Today however, the entrance looks like this (see below) and those dark cut-outs on either side, faced in black stone, are unashamedly modern, making room for the steps by which visitors can come and go - serving the practical purpose of protecting the vast carved stone in front of the doorway from people who might otherwise scramble over it.

    I know what Neil Oliver means, though... but however the stones were once arranged, their presence is still impressive, and the vast kerbstones which rim the foot of the mound are in their original places. Just protected from rainfall erosion here and there. Here's myself and my husband, book-ending one of them.

    If the impressive, restored exterior leaves doubts as to its authenticity, the interior has not been touched. The stone-lined passage into the mound (where amateur photography is forbidden) and the amazing, high, corbelled chamber like the inside of a witch's hat, with its intricate spiral and chevron carvings, and the two huge stone dishes laid in the side chambers - these remain as they were in prehistory - as incredibly moving as they must always have been. 

    The marvellous website Voices from the Dawn tells how when Professor O’Kelly began the excavation in the early 1960,  he became aware of a recurrent local tradition that the sunrise used to light up the triple-spiral stone at the end recess far within the tomb. Professor Kelly wondered, having recently uncovered Newgrange’s unusual ‘roof-box’ - that rectangular aperture you can see in the photos above the entrance - whether it had been intended to admit the light of the rising sun. He tried it out at the winter solstice on 1967,  and two years later repeated the experiment:-

    "At exactly 8.54 hours GMT the top edge of the ball of the sun appeared above the local horizon and at 8.58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess. As the thin line of light widened to a 17 cm-band and swung across the chamber floor, the tomb was dramatically illuminated and various details of the side and end recesses could be clearly seen in the light reflected from the floor. At 9.09 hours, the 17 cm-band of light began to narrow again and at exactly 9.15 hours, the direct beam was cut off from the tomb. For 17 minutes, therefore, at sunrise on the shortest day of the year, direct sunlight can enter Newgrange, not through the doorway, but through the specially contrived slit that lies under the roof-box at the outer end of the passage roof.”

    Since the light-box had been blocked with stones, and covered for many centuries with the collapsed walls of the mound (see the early black and white photos above) no one could possibly have seen this effect in modern times until the professor uncovered it. This, then, may be a very old memory indeed. And for more about Brú na Bóinne's Elf-mound connections, see next month's post!

    Quartz stone and round river boulders

    Picture credits:

    Photos copyright Katherine Langrish except for the two black-and-white ones which can be found on the Wikipedia entry for Newgrange

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    Coraline, The Box Trolls, Wallace and Gromit, A Town Called Panic, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! Kubo and the Two Strings, Isle of Dogs, and so many more - stop motion animation films are going from strength to strength in the 21st century.  Where did it all begin?  We have the multi-talented Willis O'Brien to thank, and here is his stop motion film from 1917, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link.  Enjoy!

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

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    Today is 50 years since the Civil Rights march in Derry  the reaction to which is generally thought to have sparked off the NI Troubles  I wrote this poem in response to a photo of Belfast 1918, but 1968 and what came afterwards was very much in my mind too. 

    Belfast 1918

    I was never here before

    At least not in these black-and-white

    Silent movie days.

    I won’t be born for fifty years.

    These streets are not silent. Trams clatter

    Past blank-blinded brick terraces

    These streets are not sepia.

    Nor do they run with the blood 

    Of the thousands who have lately marched

    Down them on their way to the Somme,

    Though they will in time run red. 

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    Early in June, right at the beginning of one of the hottest and sunniest summers on record, I went to spend a couple of days at Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, North Wales with a group of writer friends.  William Ewart Gladstone, as every schoolchild used to know, (though may not know now) was Liberal Prime Minister for four terms during the years 1868 and 1894. Below is a picture of him taking tea with his wife and his Library is now a beautiful place where groups and individuals can go for intellectual stimulation at events put on by many organisations related to the arts and humanities, or at away days or gatherings like ours. We met to discuss our work and enjoy the surroundings and (let's be honest) to spend time with friends over good food and wine.  

    The building as you approach it looks like this.

    I felt at home immediately for the very good reason that I'd spent eight years of my childhood at a very similar building: Roedean School, Brighton.

    The actual library is most beautiful and this is where famous thinkers and writers give talks and where you can study the whole day long if you are a guest. 

    But what really made me feel as if I were back at school again was the windows. They are exactly like the windows I remember so well from my childhood....

    even down to a strong resemblance in the soft furnishings and the catches on the windows.

    There is a wonderful restaurant for the use of  guests and you can take your food outside if the weather is good. We did this several times and I can remember hunting out my sunscreen and hat to  sit outside on a couple of occasions. The food is excellent and if you fancy something even more splendid in the food department, there's a superb restaurant called THE OLD GROCERY just up the road. I do recommend that most strongly.  We had a very wonderful meal there on our last night in Hawarden.

    If you can tear yourself away from the delights of the Library, there's a wonderful castle, just opposite where you can walk and explore. Above is a picture of the ancient Keep. And below, is a photo of the brochure produced by Gladstone's Library which advertises what's going on there all the time. Together with the lovely Bernard Johnson slate paperweight which was a 70th birthday present from one of the friends who came to Gladstone's Library with me. It was a very enjoyable and stimulating few days and as good a mini-break as any I've been on. If this post reads like an advertisement, it's really meant to. I can't recommend it enough to any small group of people who want to get together for a couple of days. All details about booking etc from

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    What do a Medieval dove cote, a Regency rolling pin and the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens have in common? The answer is salt.
    Medieval Dove Cote, Llantwit Manor, 
    Belonged to the Abbey of Tewkesbury
    Photographer: Peter Wasp

    Let’s start with the dove cote. My latest medieval thriller is set in 1316, during the time of the great famine which ravaged Europe from Russia down to southern Italy from 1315 to 1317. Extreme cold, wet weather caused widespread crop failure and outbreaks of ergot poisoning due to mouldy grain. Thousands of people died. The death of livestock due to starvation and cold was particular catastrophic for families, because the weather conditions had caused an extreme shortage of another vital commodity in Medieval society – salt.

    If the animals died or had to be slaughtered because they were starving, the precious meat which might have saved human lives couldn’t be preserved without salt. As the French proverb wisely says - 'Don't slaughter more pigs than you can salt.'But they had little choice. 

    First there was the problem of producing the salt itself. The salt pans along the coast were filled with rain or washed away by floods and even where they were intact, in order to produce salt, sea-sand and silt had to be washed and the resultant brine boiled in lead pans over peat fires to allow the salt crystalize out. But the peat used to boil the brine required weeks of sun to dry before it could be burned, as did wood. The lack of salt also badly affected leather tanning and cloth-dying, both vital industries in producing everyday goods. Many lost their jobs.
    Laos. Boiling brine to make salt in the medieval tradition.
    Photographer: BigBrotherMouse

    Even the wealthy households and monasteries began to run out of the precious commodity, which soon cost a king’s ransom. They are tales of people trying to recover the salt from the most unsavoury sources, such as animal salt licks in the byres and salt cats from pigeon or dove cotes. 

    Salt cats for dove cotes were made in the salt-works, using brine-soaked clay mixed with salt and a little saltpetre. After it had baked hard in the sun or near a fire, the cat was placed in the dove cote on short blocks to raise it off the damp floor for the birds to peck. Even though they were covered in bird dung, those dove cotes that still had them were raided by those desperate to try an extract the salt from the cats for preserving food or simply because they needed salt which is so necessary in the diet. It is believed that one of reasons so many of Napoleon’s troops died on the retreat from Moscow was a salt deficiency which made them more susceptible to diseases and wound inflictions.
    American Salt Box circa 1850.
    Gift of Mrs Robert W. Forest, 1933
    Metropolitan Museum of Art

    But the three years of wet weather did more than limit the product of salt, it also meant that what salt you had in store might simply dissolve and trickle away. If you own a salt candle today or even have salt in a cardboard packet in a cupboard you know how easily it turns to liquid even in a mildly damp atmosphere. So, a wooden or clay salt box has been a very important little item in most homes for generations. The salt box was hung against a warm chimney breast or on a wall near a stove to keep the salt dry in the damp winter chill. Earthenware salt pigs did the same job, with the unglazed interior absorbing the moisture.

    Salt hung in the house, often alongside phials of holy water or charms, was also considered to purify and protect the house from evil, and a salt box hung near the chimney would ensure witches and evil spirits couldn’t enter the home that way. It was also handy in case anyone unwittingly said or did anything that might bring a curse on house or any family member. A pinch of salt quickly dashed onto the fire would hopeful negate the curse before any harm could be done.
    Glass Rolling Pin. 1820-1837
    Auckland War Memorial Museum 

    One very attractive way of keeping salt dry was the glass rolling pin. Towards the end of the 18th century, glass blowers in Britain began to make hollow glass rolling pins, which were cheap to produce and were made in works centred around ports where there was a ready supply of coal for the glass furnaces. They became popular among sailors as gifts for mothers, wives and girlfriends, and they would personalise them by painting them with images of their ships, flowers, messages and names. Then they would fill the rolling pin with things they had bought in foreign ports such as spices, cocoa or salt. Salt was heavily taxed in England at this time which made it expensive for poorer families, and this was a good way of smuggling in cheap salt as gifts for family or friends, in the same spirit that some people today try to sneak in duty-free cigarettes for their mates. Cords were attached to the knobs of the rolling pin at either end so that it could be hung in a warm spot in the kitchen to keep the salt dry. In time the idea spread inland and glass rolling pins filled with salt became a popular and ‘lucky’ wedding present to give the bride.
    English Salt Box
    Auckland War Memorial Museum

    As salt was valuable, having salt in a box on the wall or hung in a rolling pin, where a guest might help themselves was regarded as sign of hospitality and in ‘Master Humphries Clock’ (1840-41) Charles Dickens used a description of a house where the salt box was kept locked as a way of showing misery of the home and the meanness of the owner.

    Karen Maitland's latest medieval thriller 'A Gathering of Ghosts' is published by Headline.

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    Trying a garland made by Patty Baker (Kent)
    by Caroline Lawrence

    [This is a shortened and edited amalgam of two papers I gave in early-October 2018, one for the University of Kent and one for a conference called Sensory Experience in Rome's Northern Provinces in London. #SERNP2018.]

    Archaeologist Lindsay Allason-Jones, a visiting fellow at Newcastle University recently said, ‘It wasn’t until I wrote a book from the point of view of a Romano-British woman that I started to think about things like where did she keep her house key?’  

    This is what I have discovered. As I write characters who have adventures in the ancient world, I have to imagine them moving through space with the sights, sounds, smells, and all other sensory experiences in order make it seem real to my young readers. This is especially important for children who need to be grounded in a sensory world. 

    Here is how I used the seven senses to portray Roman Britain in my most recent series of books for kids, the Roman Quests, and also in my new work-in-progress The Girl with the Ivory Knife, in which a 12-year-old London schoolboy travels back in time to 3rd century Londinium (Roman London). 

    SIGHT is the first of the five senses. For my Roman Quests I wanted to get an overview of what Roman London would have looked like. 
    Model of London's port at Museum of London Barbican 
    • Ruins aren’t so helpful to me… I need more
    • Museums are useful, with their statues, inscriptions and artefacts. The Museum of London and its archaeology department MOLA gave me tons of material. 
    • Models are very special. Storytellers know the power of the miniature.  
    • Interactive maps like the one produced by MOLA are super.
    superb Bath Roman Baths
    • 3D computer walk-throughs on YouTube are too clean but often introduce light effects. 
    • Google maps and Google Earth help me get a birds’ eye view of your terrain or walk along a road from , for example. 
    • Alan Sorrell’s marvellous paintings and drawings. See my blog about him HERE
    • Visiting sites like Butser Ancient Farm, Bath Roman Baths & Fishbourne provide 3D spatial and sensory experiences especially when they are peopled by re-enactors. 
    Hard to Be a God (2013)
    • Re-enactment events provide an abundance of unexpected revelations especially when they are performed by those who are passionate about getting details right. I particularly admire the members of Britannia, the Ermine Street Guard and Leg II Augusta. 
    • Watching movies. For my book set in Roman London, a place you would NOT want to visit, I watched Hard to Be a God (2013), like Fellini Satyricon only with more mud, excrement and chickens. 
    • Film sets can give you inspiration, too. 

    London’s Mithraeum hadn’t reopened when I was writing the Roman Quests and besides, those books are set in the late first century. But I could use the Mithraeum for my new work in progress about the boy travelling back in time.

    For my Time Travel book, I tried to think of things we don’t see today that would have been commonplace then. 
    • A sky full of stars
    • Crucified man on a cross
    • People in rags and barefoot
    • Indoor darkness – a world with no electricity
    • Someone carrying a torch, a very symbolic object
    • Someone with a staff (Main purpose? To beat off dogs!)
    • The different stages of animal sacrifice
    • A mind-boggling array of diseases & deformities
    • Especially eye infections, skin disorders and toothache

    For the first time I could relate ancient objects to modern ones. E.g.
    • Tunics would have been like a big T-shirt and a toga like a blanket
    • Mithras’ Persian cap is like a Smurf hat
    • A Mithraeum initiation could be described as a flight simulator 
    • And the seven grades as levels of a video game...

    Sophie Jackson on what smells to put in the Mithraeum
    SMELL is one of the most evocative senses, and one of the hardest to convey in words. Giacomo Savani, one of the organisers of the conference, started with a quote from Rosemary Sutcliffe in which she speaks of the blue reek of wood-smoke. Evidence hints that my time travelling boy Alex might have  smelled burning pine cones in Londons Mithraeum, which he will use as the site of a portable portal to third century Londinium. However, Sophie Jackson (above), one of the key archaeologists involved in recreating the Mithraeum Experience, said the smell of men, cooked chicken and damp might have drowned out any pine freshness! 

    A Saturnalia dinner with Stephen Cockings
    Other scents from Roman London:

    • To Alex, a girl smells like apple pie (clove oil for her aching teeth) and church (frankincense perfume)
    • Someone’s breath smells of garlic
    • Alex gets headache from breathing oil lamp smoke 
    • He also smells the peaty smell of outdoor braziers
    • And the roast pork smell of body being cremated 
    • With an undercurrent of incense burned against demons

    Smelly and Tasteable things
    TASTE is one of the easiest of the senses to tap into.
    • Posca, water with a splash of vinegar, was often drunk by soldiers.
    • I make mine with red wine vinegar but you could use white, too.
    (Adding even a little wine or vinegar to water kills bacteria. The Romans didn’t know about bacteria, germs or viruses but somehow they knew adding vinegar to water was good.)
    • Honey was a hot food, prescribed for those of a phlegmatic humour. 
    • Olives, especially the little bitter black ones are ‘a taste as old as cold water…’ (Lawrence Durrell in Prospero’s Cell)
    ELMA mastic gum from Chios
    • How did they serve a hot sausage in Roman London? Probably with a cabbage leaf wrapper. A clever idea I got from a fast food stall at a Reenactment event.
    • Mastic gum. One of the sniffable objects at the Museum of London’s Roman Dead exhibition (on until 28 October) is something called mastic. I first discovered mastic while reading the first century AD epigrams of Martial. He talks about a man who picks his teeth with a mastic toothpick. But it was mainly used as gum to be chewed to freshen the breath. In fact, we get the word ‘masticate’ from mastic. Read more HERE.

    SOUND is harder to replicate than taste in my opinion, especially music. Armand DAngour has been doing fun experiments into ancient Greek music and I often listen to Indian music to try to get an idea of how exotic Roman music might have sounded. We do know about other sounds, such as: 
    interactive sound at Museum of London Docklands
    • The crowing of a rooster or cluck of chickens in the street
    • Dogs barking in the night 
    • The wailing of bereaved, more common and more audible then? 
    • The shouts of peddlers, bread sellers, a rag-and-bone woman...
    • Tepidarium echoes with the sound of slaps and grunts of masseuse
    • Blacksmiths hammering
    • Door hinges squeaking
    • Bells and rattles to frighten off demons and cover unholy sounds

    TOUCH can be experienced not just with fingertips and lips, but also with our bare feet. Here are just a few a time traveller might have encountered in Londinium. 

    interactive touch at Museum of London Docklands
    • Wet grass against bare legs in a tunic
    • Bare Feet on a muddy, gravel-studded road
    • Or on a mosaic floor or on London brick
    • Glutinous mud of the south bank foreshore
    • Warmth of a kiln and hard-baked earth around it
    • A piglet snuffling at someone’s armpit
    • Itchy mosquito bites on bare legs
    • Stepping in squishy, still-warm manure
    • loom-woven linen & woollen belt pouch
    Carbantinae (one-piece leather shoes) rub top of feet
    (The Roman Dead also has a display where you can touch a replica hobnail boot, top and bottom.)

    KINESTHETIC means the awareness of the position and movement of the body. Many of the objects I’ve been talking about are interactive. You have to engage with them in a kinesthetic way. 
    Richard and Caroline Lawrence in Nimes
    • Wearing the clothes including hobnail shoes on the cobbled streets of a Roman town like Nimes.
    • Playing with an oil-lamp or a pigskin lamp
    • A Saturnalia Dinner
    • Leather bikini bottoms as worn by girl acrobats
    • NO Bogus Roman Handshake
    • NOT using a sponge stick
    • Trying out a wax-tablet
    • Using a strigil and oil

    Tom, Giacomo and Patty try out a strigil and scented oil
    At the Sensory Archaeology Conference, co-presenter Tom Derrick brought homemade oil-based Roman perfume. To demonstrate the difference of smell in the bottle and on the skin he borrowed my replica strigil to let people rub his scented olive-oil on their arms and then scrape it off. One conference member observed, One thing that surprised me was the amount of oil left after a good strigiling (is that even a word?). Unless the Romans were a lot better at it there must’ve been a lot of sticky people leaving the baths plus the oil slick on the water! 

    THE SIXTH SENSE is the final sense I want to think about. 

    A double flame lamp at a Saturnalia dinner
    Have you ever meditated about your site, your text, your historical character, your artefacts, your bones? By meditation I mean a contemplation of your world, characters, etc using your non-verbal visual imagination. It's like a virtual reality game but with added sounds, smells and things you would feel? If you meditate, try it. If you find meditation hard, try writing a fictional piece about your subject. Maybe not the main subject but something peripheral. Someone or something on the edges of your topic. You can even do a poem or haiku. 

    At the moment I’m involved in a marvellous project based around the archaeology of the House of Amarantus in Pompeii. I had the idea to write a scene from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old slave girl who has recently arrived in Pompeii from Britannia. She sleeps on a mat in the doorway of her mistress’s bedroom. My idea of showing not telling the kids about the layout of the house is that she wakes up one night in pitch black and has to grope her way to the loo. 

    So close your eyes for a moment and imagine waking up in the peristyle walkway of a fairly posh Roman house. Think of five different things your fingers might encounter as you push yourself to your feet and start to grope your way along the corridor. Think of five different things you might hear. Think of five different things you might smell. Where do you have to avoid evil spirits in the house? Think of five different ways your body is reacting to this night-time grope. 

    Whether we are scholars, writers, historians, teachers or all of the above, let us study the past not just with our heads but with our hearts and with all the senses.

    My Roman Quests are perfect for kids studying the topic of Romans in Key Stage 2. My first time travel book, The Girl with the Ivory Knife, is out early April 2019. It is based on real bones and sites from Roman London. 

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  • 10/09/18--16:30: cod fail - Michelle Lovric
  • I've done a lot of crazy things in cars on the terraferma of the Veneto. It always seems to go wrong. Some might say that I'm better off never leaving Venice. This post feels like a continuation of Not the Villa Pisani at Stra, in which your correspondent swotted up on said stately home only to be delivered to a completely different Villa Pisani.

    This time I thought I'd done my homework properly. I'm currently on the trail of the historic trade route that brings dried cod from the Lofoten island of Røst all the way to Venice. I have written previously about the slightly salty start to the six-hundred-year-old relationship between the fishermen of Norway and the diners of la Serenissima. It started with a shipwreck in 1431 and the cod-lines have never been broken since then. But lately ‘stoccafisso’ or cod has become a talismanic plot device in my WIP. Venetian revolutionaries known as 'Carbonari' will use it when fermenting some trouble for their Austrian occupiers in 1818.

    At any Venetian bar or restaurant, you can to this day eat Baccalà mantecato (dried Norwegian cod soaked in water or milk and then whipped up to a fluffy paste with olive oil). And of course it was the two islands of Røst and Venice that set up the whole unlikely business. Surprisingly, however, the mother-lode of modern stoccafisso research in the Veneto turns out to be on dry land.

    In 1987, the Confraternità della Baccalà alla Vicentina (cod served with polenta) was established in the small terraferma town of Sandrigo, half an hour’s drive from Bassano del Grappa. A partnership brought together gastronomists and local personalities who resolved to promote the baccalà that was, they feared, in the process of disappearing from the Veneto.

    Two years later, the plans came into effect. September 30 and October 1 of 1989 saw the arrival of the first stockfish from the Lofoten Islands to be cooked by restaurants and served to the public in a Saturday night supper and a Sunday lunch in Sanrigo. On Saturday afternoon those involved paraded around the town, which was bedecked with Norwegian flags, a sight said to have moved the Norwegian Ambassador, whose countrymen had donated 5 quintals of stockfish for the occasion. Sandrigo welcomed 10,000 visitors that weekend, too many to be fed the main meal. Many had to settle for a pasta seasoned with a "tocio" of baccalà. And for the last thirty years the tradition has continued, each year enriched with new activities and festivities. Innovative dishes have been added to the repertoire. Now you can get gnocchi and risotto with baccalà, croquettes with baccalà and many other dishes. There is even, God help us, baccalà pizza. According to the website, the baccalà festival is now one of the biggest and most important in Italy. In 2017 the 10,000 kg of the fish were consumed, a record.

    Relations with the Norwegians have strengthened: thanks also to land-bound Sandrigo twinning with the island of Røst and to the ever-increasing presence of Nordic guests and students who, in alternate years, come to visit Sandrigo.

    Given my current research, I was of course keen to see the festival of the baccalà. So to Sandrigo recently, in a day of limpid sunshine, hoping to catch sight of the promised processions, the handsome (surely!) Norwegian fisherman, to taste the many dishes prepared for the occasion and to generally enjoy the sagra. (A sagra is a festival usually devoted to a local food of some kind. As nothing much grows in Venice, except cruise ships and tourist inundations, we are deprived of sagre. So it was especially piquant to feel that I was about to get a little involved in this one.)

    Naturally, I did my research on the website of the Confraternità. September 27th was listed as one of the active days of the festival. Personally, I was hoping to meet some Røstians whom I could visit next year when I do the Norwegian part of my research. I had a million questions for them.

    My little party was encouraged when the first thing we saw in Sandrigo was a banner over the road, welcoming us to Baccalà Country.

     Then, with mounting excitement, we noted the Norwegian flags at every corner. At the excellent Sandrigo restaurant where we had lunch, wooden models of stoccafisso were piled in the window. We were told by our host that perhaps forty or fifty Norwegians were in town for the festival. He was curious too: ‘And why are you here, Signori?’

    Siamo alla caccia di Pescatori Norvegesi’ we told our host. ‘We are on the hunt for Norwegian fishermen’. Under my breath, I added, ‘Tall, handsome ones!’

     But … on making our way to the sports ground which is the epicentre of the festa, we found only empty seats …

    empty bars …

    a huge pavilion set up for hundreds of dinners …

    also totally empty …
    The only person we saw in the whole realm of the cod was a solitary man on a bicycle.
    As for Norwegians, not a one, except painted on windows of pizzeria.
    (I am assuming that the tall one with the red beard is a Pescatore Norvegese).
    also, the ones below with the Viking horns …

     We found the menus of all the different dishes prepared with cod …
    and even a picture promising cod pizza.
    But no cod, except these wooden ones at our restaurant:

    It turns out that I was misinformed about the true excitements of the sagra. We should have committed ourselves properly to the cod and made a weekend of it.

    We had already missed the previous Saturday’s show: TIRACCHE MATTE PRESENTS THE CRAZY GIRAFFE - a duo of jugglers grappling with the objects of everyday life. And Sunday’s
    Mediaeval Show with waders (?) and jesters.

    Just two days after our visit, Saturday 29 September was to be one of the highlights, with pavilions of foods, tastings, and a Magic Night with street arts, including fakirs, tightrope walkers and fire-eaters, all accompanied by live music. And on the morning of Sunday, September 30th there’d be the Investiture ceremony of the Confraternità of the Baccalà in the presence of the Norwegian delegation from Rost, with flag-raising - national anthems and performances by the drummers of Conegliano Veneto and the flag-wavers of the Cerva di Noale, historical costumes, a parade of the Food and Wine Confraternities and of the Baccalà Club, followed by more live music and street shows. Monday 1 October was to be the GRAN FINALE, with the specialty of RISOTTO DI GRUMOLO DELLE ABADESSE… with baccalà. Since the 16th century, rice is a speciality of the small hamlet of Grumolo delle Abbadesse, between Vicenza and Padua. It was introduced to the area by nuns ('abbadesse') from the Benedictine abbey of San Pietro di Vicenza.

    But by Monday October 1, I was long gone, sadly. I was back in London, having scored a comprehensive fail on my cod research. However, I do not count my golden day in Sandrigo as wasted. I could not have wished for more hilarious and sympathetic companions. I’d never been to Sandrigo before. We were shown inside the lovely Villa Sesso Bourdignan by its kind owners, who now live in the part of the building that was the original post office, being the home of the carrier pigeons who used to deliver the mail.

    We also got to press our noses against the gates of this villa and glimpse its frescoes through a cracked keyhole.

    Those of you who speak Italian, will know that its name translates as ‘Villa Sex Slave. but in fact the ‘Sesso’ is a family name (We had earlier seen the villa of Camillo Sesso) and Schiavo is a locality. (Still!)

    But sadly, now I am back in London, writing this. I’ll hope for better luck in Røst next June, where a Puffin Festival is promised … maybe … if I can get the day right … perhaps ...

    Michelle Lovric's website

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    I am lucky enough to live in the village of Iffley, about 2 miles from the centre of Oxford. One route  from the centre of Oxford to Iffley runs along the side of Thames, another traverses the ancient Meadow Lane that linked the village with the city from time immemorial. The third route is along the busy Iffley Road. 

    Most people know of Iffley due to its outstanding Norman church, dating from 1160, with its exceptional wealth of Romanesque decorative carving, but it is much more. 

    To quote the Iffley Conservation Area Appraisal:
    “The ancient village of Iffley sits between the more suburbanised developments of Iffley Road (Donnington) and Rose Hill. Despite the increasing suburbanisation, Iffley retains a strong rural character and an extensive green setting to its west. The village centres upon a small network of lanes and pedestrian routes, with development spanning the 12th century to the present day.”

    There is only one road into the village by car, so it has retained a sense of cohesion, and has a thriving community of residents. There are many groups of eager villagers united by their love of the beautiful Norman church, the village’s history, or by music or poetry. We have a community shop, run by volunteers. Each month there is a film night at the local thatched village hall, and there are often concerts or lectures in the church or hall. We even had French film festival in the  hall last month.

    Iffley lies on the east bank of the Thames. The riverside land is low-lying, but it rises away from the river to a plateau about 250 ft. above sea-level, reaching 295 ft. at its highest point. The Church of St Mary the Virgin (completed in 1160) stands above Iffley lock on the Thames. The main street, Church Way, runs northwards from the church, and has lanes and roads branching off. On the river is the pretty Iffley Lock.
    Archaelogical finds at Iffley span both the Palaeolithic (185 objects) and Neolithic (476 objects). Palaeolithic stone tools date from the period known archaeologically as the Mid Acheulian (between 250,000 and 350,000 years ago approximately), and were made by early hominids (Homo Erectus).

    The Romans were there. Iffley village lies on the edge of what was an extensive distribution of Roman manufacturing sites related to a pottery industry of national significance. More exciting for me is that a number of Roman burials were identified near Iffley Turn, where I live. These may represent part of a cemetery on the edge of the manufacturing area, where the land slopes down to the flood plain. The cemetery is now covered by modern flats, but every time I pass by I think of the Romans who lived and worked nearby and were buried there.                                                                                                              
    Then came the Anglo-Saxons. An Anglo-Saxon spearhead was recovered near Iffley Lock and this beautiful 6th century Anglo-Saxon garnet and silver-gilt brooch from Iffley is now in the British Museum. 

    What of Iffley’s name? Apparently, it is a puzzle. In the chronicles of Abingdon Abbey (941-46) the place is called Gifteleia. It is referred to as Givetelei in the Domesday book (1086), and Merton College records from the 1290s refer to Iftele and Yiftele. By 1543 Lincoln College accounts refer to Ifley. The Domesday of Inclosures (written in Latin in 1617-18) mentioned it as Yeftley. But by the Civil War in 1642-46, the sound of the name was fixed, as there are written accounts of Iffley or Iflie. After that, only lawyers bothered with the T. 

    The Ley bit is either from a Saxon word for cleared ground (it appears again in neighbouring Cowley), or a word for woodland where pigs grazed. As to the Iff, the origins are a puzzle, but a similar, related, Old English word. Gibitz means plover or lapwing, which neatly fits with cleared ground, where the birds are found.

    In the Iffley Tapestry which hangs in the church hall, a lapwing takes pride of place.
    There is a little more known of medieval Iffley. The Grade I listed Church of St Mary the Virgin stands among the trees and gravestones of the churchyard. Dating from 1160, it is one of the best preserved Norman churches in the country. 
    St Mary the Virgin, Iffley.
    The western elevation exhibits fine Romanesque zigzag carving around the recessed doorway. One of the oldest yew trees in England overhangs the medieval cross. 

    The Rectory north-south block probably goes back to the 13th century, with additions in the 16th to the north range, while the east wing may be of 17th-century date. Our Vicar, Andrew, told me that they “live in the modern bit, the Tudor part.”

    The local building stone of the old village structures is limestone that was taken from the hillside locally. Iffley stone was used at Merton College in the 1290s: not co-incidentally, Walter Merton (the founder) held Iffley manor at the time. Quarrying was on a small scale, but the former industry is kept alive by the name of Stone Quarry Lane.
    Various old cottages in the village are made of this locally quarried stone. Tudor Cottage, one of the oldest surviving buildings in the village, dates from the 16th/17th century. The thatched cottage in Mill Lane is another made of local stone.


    Not much remains from Iffley's medieval period, except the Church and Rectory. However, apparently behind Rivermead in Church Way (below)  is a barn-like building which “may be a rare survival of a medieval farm-house”. It is a “one-storied stone building with fragments of medieval tracery and later carved stone-work reset in the walls”. In a deposition of 1640, it is said that at the end of the 16th century it was named the 'parlour'; that it then had a loft above with “a little hearth in the middle which seemed for the making of fire”.   
    From 1393, when Richard II’s queen gave Iffley to Sir Richard Abberbury, who transferred the village to an almshouse for 12 poor men of Donnington near Newbury. It was the Donnington Hospital Trust (which is still in operation) that exercised considerable power over development until after the Second World War. Thus Iffley had no ‘lord of the manor’ and this to a large extent protected the village from unrestricted development (and the church from later ‘improvements’).

    The medieval township operated a three-field system, but traces of the ridge and furrow from these open fields have largely been lost since the fields were enclosed in 1830.
    Iffley saw some disorder in the early 15th century, when armed bands from Oxford twice attacked the property of a landowner there. In July 1643 two troops of horse of the queen's forces were billeted in the village, and in the following year Parliamentarian forces were housed there during the siege of Oxford. But it was a sleepy little village for most of its history.

    The appearance of the township was dramatically altered in the 19th century. Its fields were inclosed in 1830 and by 1852 it boasted 23 “gentlemen's households” (three of them clerical), a ladies' school and as many as seventeen tradesmen. The houses of the gentry (mainly tradesmen seeking higher social status) were set in large gardens and spread out between the old village and the Iffley Road. The Priory, Iffley's "Strawberry Hill" is an example of one of these.

    Hawkwell House, now a hotel, is another:

    At the beginning of the 20th century Iffley was still a village surrounded by fields. Its lanes kept their old names—Tree, Mill, Baker's, and Meadow Lanes – fritillaries grew by the lock, and the Oxford Road was bordered with meadows and may hedges. Communication with the city was provided by a horse-bus which ran half-hourly from Oxford and heavy traffic went by river barges.
    Village life persisted well into the twentieth century. There were mummers at Christmas, May Day celebrations, visits of Jack-in-the-Green and travelling bears from Oxford. The feast day of the Iffley Foresters Club held in early July and it was the occasion of a fair. Another fair was held in September. Walking weddings and funerals were still the village custom and if it was a baby's funeral, girls dressed in white and carrying white posies were the bearers.
     It's all quite different now, but still retains that sense of being a rural village. There are many old houses, two pubs, plenty of green areas and, of course, the river. A lovely place.
    Fritillaries in Iffley meadow


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  • 10/11/18--21:00: The Great Courses
  • Some years ago, in a quest to lose weight, I took up running. Running, as many of you will know, is unbelievably boring - especially for those of us shaped less like runners and more like flat-footed sweet potatoes. I am also tone deaf, and like Horatio Hornblower, derive less pleasure than other people do from music. So my husband recommended The Great Courses by The Teaching Company; a treasure trove of lectures from US college professors.

    There are hundreds of courses to choose from. The one I went for first was a History of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl (his courses are fantastic, by the way - particularly his Vikings one). Like a lot of people who studied history, my knowledge was patchy - good on the Julio-Claudians, hopeless post-Constantine. Good on the Renaissance, hopeless on the Enlightenment. Good on the Russian Revolution, sketchy on the French. You get the drift.

    The Great Courses has acted as a sort of join-the-dots for my patchy knowledge of world history. The Harl lectures had another consequence - they brought me to writing historical fiction. I remember running through St James' Park, and listening to him talk about the Empress Theodora - the courtesan turned sixth-century Empress, and religious activist. I'd never heard of Theodora. I remember I stopped running, and sat on a park bench. Listening. People strolled by, pigeons fought over bread for the ducks, swans glided.

    By the time the lecture finished, I had resolved to write Theodora's story. And reader, I did. OK, I did it badly, no one wanted to publish it, and then Stella Duffy did it better. But hey. My first novel, which I think of as akin to a Patronus Charm in Harry Potter - it helps to cast the spell, knowing already that you can achieve the spell.

    In the fourteen years since, I've listened to loads of Great Courses. My absolute favourites are those by Garratt Fagan, an Irish born historian of Ancient Rome who taught in the US and died aged only 54 last year. This blog is a peculiar echo chamber, and perhaps its readers will understand the particular joy of walking somewhere beautiful, listening to a mellifluous and searingly insightful voice talking about the third century crisis in Imperial Rome.

    In the old days, if you bought a Great Course, it came in a box set of CDs, with accompanying leaflets. We would burn them on to MP3 players. Now, I can download them onto my iPhone from my audible account (incidentally, this massively decreases the price of lots of the courses).

    My husband, who is not tone deaf, is a huge fan of Professor Robert Greenberg's lectures on music, particularly his history of opera and his talks on Beethoven.

    I don't run any more while listening to the courses. Partly because I really, really hate running. But also because I've been listening to a lot of philosophy, and you need to concentrate. Say you are running along, and Professor Lawrence Cahoone is talking you through Hegel's three stage dialectical interpretation of history, and you suddenly think: Oh look, a pigeon. And, bang, just like that you are lost in Hegel. To listen to these bad boys, you need easy access to the go-back-30-seconds button on your phone.

    Here's the link: It's a treasure trove.

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  • 10/12/18--23:00: The Etiquette of Apples
  • by Deborah Swift

    Jeanne Illenye - The Fateful Temptation

    I have been lucky enough to be given a huge plastic bag full of apples from my friend's orchard, and have been busy cooking up stewed apples and freezing them, so I can enjoy them through the winter. Whilst looking up different recipes I cam across snippets of applelore, which I hope will give you a taste of apples and of Autumn.

    The Latin malus means both “apple” and “evil,” which, according to some historians, is probably why the apple gained a reputation as the Forbidden Fruit, when most scholars agree the original fruit was probably a pomegranate, though Michelangelo’s Temptation and Fall on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel features forbidden figs. By the 17th century, the apple being the commonest fruit in Europe, the fruit responsible for man's Fall from Grace was widely believed to be the apple.

    Victorian Costermonger

    The first evidence of deliberate cultivation dates from the period of the Roman invasion of Britain, but by the 9th century records show that cider making was already well established, and the Norman French brought with them a number of new varieties of apple, including the Costard. This apple is no longer grown, but its existence is preserved in the word costermonger -- a seller of Costard apples.

    In North America nearly everyone has heard of 'Johnny Appleseed'. During the late 18th Century he planted orchards right from Pennsylvania in the east through to Indiana in the west. According to legend, the indigenous population regarded him as a medicine man, because of his combination of enthusaism for nature and his religious devotion, which involved distributing tracts along with the seeds.

    When eating apples at the table or in company, a range of 'apple etiquettes' became common. In Georgian times, coring the apple was done with a silver apple corer. When they first appeared in the 1680’s they were a long silver cylinder, with a scallop shaped cutting blade. Some rare examples have a hollow compartment at one end in which sugar, cinnamon and other spices to add flavour would have been kept. Gentlemen carried these, as it was fashionable for the genmtleman to assist the lady, and peel and core the fruit for her. Some had a handle that unscrewed, so the device could be stored in a pocket more easily. Apple corers in this form were popular until about 1820.
    Gentleman's Silver Apple corer from 1690
    Fruit was widely used as a dessert and special cutlery was used in the Victorian era to eat it. When fresh fruit was served, a small plate accompanied by a fruit knife and fork were exchanged for the dessert plate.

    Above is a Victorian mother of pearl handled pocket fruit knife and fork, each with its own little leather carrying case.

    There is a knack to peeling the fruit elegantly in polite company. Holding the fruit by the fork, the apple is stood straight up and peeled from top to bottom without being touched by the hands. When the entire fruit has been peeled, it should be carefully sliced into small morsels and eaten one piece at a time. I should think many people found their apple shooting unexpectedly across the table!

    For more information on how to eat fruit correctly with or without cutlery, (including bananas and all sorts of other fruit) I recommend you go hereOf course I can't imagine many of us will feel the need for such extreme etiquette, but it is fascinating!
    Still Life -  Balthazar Van Ast .17th Century
    Happy Autumn everyone.

    Find my books at
    or follow me on @swiftstory

    More 'apple' links:

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    My Idealed John Bullesses 
    by Yoshio Makino 1912
    London in 1900 was like New York today, a city where you craned your neck gazing up at the towering stone buildings while all around people rushed hither and thither, sleek and well-dressed, full of importance. At least that was how it seemed to a sensitive 33 year old Tokyoite called Natsume Soseki who arrived on October 28th that year. 

    Tokyo too was prosperous and had its share of stone buildings, built largely by western architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. But it was primarily a low rise city full of narrow streets of dark wooden houses with bamboo shutters and tiled roofs. London was not just huge - a ‘maze’, Soseki called it - but the heart of the greatest empire in the world, whereas Japan had only just had the insulting ‘unequal treaties’ with Britain and other western powers nullified. When the actress Sadayakko performed here, also in 1900, reviewers expressed amazement that someone ‘primitive’ (i.e. not European, let alone British) should seem perfectly sophisticated.
    Fleet Street by James Valentine c 1890

    Soseki (his first name and pen name) was a pre-eminent scholar of English literature and one of the first graduates of Tokyo Imperial University’s English Literature department. He had been sent to study for two years by the Japanese government, keen to learn as much as possible from the most powerful country in the world.

    But he really didn’t want to go. For a start he had to leave his pregnant wife behind. He had a very small stipend and spent most of it on books, which didn’t leave much for rent. He stayed in a succession of shabby lodging houses - in Gower Street near the British Museum, Priory Road in West Hampstead, the ‘gloomy, squalid neighbourhood of the notorious slum Camberwell’, Tooting and lastly Clapham Common, the one place where he felt even remotely contented. 

    Farewell photo before Soseki's departure
    for London. Soseki is bottom right
    From the start he was lonely and miserable. He hated the weather, the food and the tube, ‘the foulness of the air and the train’s swaying.’ He spent most of his time holed up in his room. The only English people he got to know were his landladies and their families.

    When he did go out for a walk, he felt terribly self conscious about his smallness of stature. Everyone he met was ‘depressingly tall,’ he wrote. Once he saw an ‘unusually small person’ approaching and thought, ‘Eureka!’, then realised this person was still 2 inches taller than he was. Finally ‘a strangely complexioned Tom Thumb approaches, but now I realise this is my own image reflected in a mirror.’ In the park ‘herds of women walk around like horned lionesses with nets on their heads.’ He was struck by the fact that even tradesmen ‘are for the most part better dressed than many a high ranking official in Japan ... A butcher’s boy, when Sunday rolls around, will proudly put on his silk hat and frock coat.’

    Behind his back he heard people referring to him as a ‘least-poor Chinese’, a very strange adjective, as he noted. He was also mistaken at the theatre for a Portuguese.

    To improve his health his landlady suggested that he take up cycling so he set off for the horse riding area on Clapham Common where there would not be too many spectators. His efforts resulted in a series of comic mishaps with him nearly running down a policeman.
    Soseki in 1912

    Eventually he became so isolated and miserable that his landlady, doctor and fellow lodgers advised him to take a holiday. So he went to Scotland, where he made the discovery that British people didn’t go moon-viewing or appreciate moss and began to doubt whether the British were really worth the reverence in which they were held in Japan.

    He did experience some kindnesses. A beefeater at the Tower of London went out of his way to show him a suit of Japanese armour, ‘presented to Charles II from Mongolia.’ He was in London when Queen Victoria died in January 1901 and his landlord lifted him onto his shoulders so that he could see the funeral cortege. 

    Nevertheless all in all it was a miserable experience. ‘The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life,’ he later wrote. ‘Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves. I understand the population of London is about five million. Frankly speaking, I felt as if I were a drop of water amid five million drops of oil.’
    Plaque at 81 The Chase, Clapham

    But in fact Soseki’s lonely years were the making of him. He wrote about them wryly and humorously in several early works and went on to become one of the most beloved Japanese novelists of all time, author of Kokoro, Botchan and I am a Cat, among many others.

    Yoshio Makino in contrast adored London. A artist three years younger than Soseki, he arrived a few years before him, in 1897, though there is no evidence that their paths ever crossed.

    Makino particularly loved the mist and fog of the English landscape. He wrote, ‘London in mist is far above my own ideal ... the colour and its effects are most wonderful. I think London without mists would be like a bride without a trousseau ... The London mist attracts me so that I do not feel that I could live any other place but London.’

    He lived in London for 45 years, mainly in Kensington, and did many paintings - of the Thames, Earl’s Court Station, Sloane Square, all studies in mist; of Fulham Road with a church spire looming out of the gloom, pavements glittering on a rainy night, shadowy nightspots with crowds of women emerging from brightly lit houses into a dark street. 

    He also admired British women and painted many pictures of them. He called them John Bullesses (after John Bull). ‘Some John Bullesses bury themselves into such thick fur overcoats in winter. You can hardly see their eyes; all other parts are covered with foxes’ tails, minks’ heads, seals’ back skin, a whole bird, snakeskin, etc. ... But when they get into a house and take off all those heavy wearing, such a light and charming butterfly comes out,’ he wrote.

    Soseki’s stay came to an end in January 1903 but Makino stayed on till 1942 when he was reluctantly repatriated. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back to England.

    Quotations from The Tower of London, Tales of Victorian London, by Natsume Soseki, translated and introduced by Damian Flanagan, the great enthusiast of and authority on Natsume Soseki. Published by Peter Owen, 2005.

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

    For more see

    All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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    I have just finished reading the second volume of Sylvia Plath's Letters, published by Faber and Faber. They make for sober reading. The first volume, published in 2017, covered the period 1940-1956. In those, a smiling, bikini-clad Plath beams out from the front cover, while the pages are filled with the optimism and hope of youth. There are pockets of doubt and difficulty, the hint of rape and a suicide attempt, but also Plath's growing certainty of herself as a writer, a woman and an equal to the towering figure of Ted Hughes, with whom she is forever linked.

    Letters, volume 1

    It is evident from the book jacket that the second volume will be a more serious affair. Gone is the summer sun and the happy expression. Viewed from the side and in monochrome, Plath's expression is serious, her hair tied up in a no-nonsense style. In nearly 600 letters, we follow Plath's marriage to Hughes, their movement around the globe and the UK, her library successes and his more immediate recognition, childbirth and child loss, a breaking-down marriage and her suicide at the age of 30.

    Letters, volume 2
    To Plath, Hughes was a giant, a genius, a literary God. He must be fed steak for breakfast and waited on, his needs tended to. Yet she also resented her domesticity, her entrapment to the demands of her husband - first moving to Devon because he wanted space, searching for childcare in order to write,  and juggling the demands of that writing along babies, cooking, cleaning and tending to Hughes. The marriage was intense. It was also violent. She wrote to her psychiatrist that Hughes beat her when she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry their second child. 

    In the foreword to the book, their daughter Frieda meets these claims head on. She writes in defence of her father, justifying his apparent violence towards Sylvia - which is also recorded in Plath's journals - on the problematic grounds that what was meant by 'a beating' is unclear (a hit, a swipe, a push?) and that her mother had been difficult, needy, disruptive. It is difficult to read this perspective, and to compare it with the plaintiveness of Plath's own journals, the constant fretting about existence that hovers at their margins, her need to do right, live right, be right. 

    Yet it is clear in Frieda's foreword how difficult it must be to have parents so utterly in the public eye and simultaneously capable of creating division. Plath was better known after her death than in life, with her books The Bell Jar (a semi-autobiographical novel about a nervous breakdown) and her poetry. Her writing is said to have contributed to the development of the confessional style in literature. And yet it is Hughes who is remembered in Westminster Abbey, not Plath.

    The Bell Jar, first published in 1963 
    Plath's final letters were written just a few days before she died by suicide in her London flat. She had successfully moved back to the city after being left by Hughes (he was unfaithful with their tenant Assia Wevill, who, in a terrible mirroring would kill herself and her daughter in the same way that Plath died). Plath seemed to be getting better; she had been knocked by Hughes' infidelity and the subsequent rejection of some friends, and she struggled with Frieda missing her father. She was convinced that her daughter had 'latent schizophrenia', and she fretted constantly about her wellbeing. 

    It took such effort on the part of Plath to reestablish herself, to find childcare, to push herself back into the London scene, that the exhaustion is apparent on the page. Her letters to people become repetitive as she tells one after another about Hughes' adultery and abandonment, the money he is to pay, his family's turning on her, her living in Yeats' house and how that was fate, and finally, the endless illness, colds and flu of her children. 

    In the main, Plath's letters have an enforced jollity even when she is struggling. From time to time she was angry and critical with her mother, but she also felt responsible for her, writing to her sponsor, the American author Olive Higgins Prouty, not to pass on information that might cause Aurelia worry. Prouty had suffered with mental health problems too, so Plath felt she was an ally. Plath was convinced that Hughes wanted her to kill herself, something she refused to contemplate. 

    But by the beginning of 1963, despite all her contrived hope and determination, Plath was sleep deprived, unwell, lonely and depressed. On 11 February, having previously convinced herself, and her psychiatrist that she was no longer a suicidal 'type', she left out a snack for the sleeping children, took precautions to seal the kitchen and gassed herself in the oven. 

    23 Fitzroy Road, London, last residence of Sylvia Plath

    Two years after her death, Plath's collection of poems Ariel was published by Ted Hughes. These poems, including the eponymous poem written on her 30th birthday, drew on the pain of abandonment and loss that had followed her marriage breakdown. This is the writing for which she is best remembered. 


    And now I
    Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
    The child's cry 

    Melts in the wall. 
    And I
    Am the arrow, 

    The dew that flies 
    Suicidal, at one with the drive 
    Into the red

    Eye, the cauldron of morning. 

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  • 10/15/18--18:00: Lovely Lucca
  • We have just returned from a few days in Lucca, a walled mediaeval city in Tuscany - and my post is due for tomorrow; so it's going to be something of an extended postcard! Looking out today at the wind and rain and banks of cloud, I certainly wish I was there again, enjoying the sunlit squares, the narrow streets, the beautiful city walls...

    The narrow streets...

    This is taken from on top of the wall - sadly, I don't have one of the wall itself.

     Those walls. Everyone I'd spoken to who'd been to Lucca had said that walking the wall was a must, and they were absolutely right. Lucca was a Roman town - the streets are still laid out in a Roman grid pattern, and it's easy to trace where the forum was, and the amphitheatre (more of that later). It was the Romans who built the wall, and it's testament to their extraordinary engineering skill. It's massive: a steep bank, wide enough on top for a road with a verge on either side, planted now with trees which last week provided welcome shade, though their leaves were starting to flutter down like gleaming copper pennies. There are numerous gates to allow access into the city, and people stroll, cycle and run on top, with the mountains on one side and the towers and domes of the city on the other. It was easy to imagine carriages rolling along, and ladies and gentlemen on horseback, exchanging greetings, making assignations...

    San Martino

    I'm not someone who's sensitive to ghostly presences. But just as on the wall I could imagine people from the 18th and 19th centuries, in the streets at night, quiet, lit by lamps which cast soft shadows, it was easy to sense the presence of earlier inhabitants: silk and velvet skirts sweeping the paving stones, smiles and laughter, secrets shared, promises made. We went to one museum which really helped to make that older time come to life: called the Palazzo Mansi, it was partly the house of wealthy merchants as it had been and still was, and partly the home of the city's art collection. One of the most extraordinary things there was this ceiling: centuries old, but the colours as fresh and light and clear as if it had been painted yesterday, instead of to celebrate a long-ago wedding. It was so cleverly done that it was really difficult to discern what was really three-dimensional ad what just gave the impression that it was. (A word of warning, though, if you ever go: mysteriously, you can only get into the museum at certain times of day, and it's not easy to spot. As a result, it's very uncrowded!)

    I loved the vase of flowers, centre right.

    There are of course lots of churches. The cathedral, San Martino, has a number of features which particularly intrigued me. One was this marble statue of Illaria del Caretto, who died in 1405 at the age of 26, after giving birth to her second child. She was the second wife of Paolo Guinigi, the Duke of Lucca - and not the last. This sarcophagus was commissioned by her husband, but she was laid to rest elsewhere, not inside it.

    Isn't she lovely?

    She's so beautiful, so young. Her husband was later deposed by the people as a tyrant. Quite unfairly, perhaps - apparently the Duke grieved greatly (though that didn't stop him remarrying soon after) - I was reminded of Browning's poem, My Last Duchess, which is an immensely skillful and chilling monologue by the Duke of Ferrara, during which he gradually, 'inadvertently' reveals that he had his wife killed out of jealousy. I gave commands/ Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/ As if alive.

    Another thing was this, which is carved on quite a small stone on the outside of the building. I thought it was a maze, but discovered on looking it up that it's a labyrinth. I was struck by the difference - that with a maze, you try to reach the centre: with a labyrinth, you try to get out. Not sure why that seems significant, but it does. I'd like to know more about the script chiselled into the stone on the right: mediaeval graffiti, or a commentary of some kind by the artist? It's quite difficult to see.

    And this picture is specially for Mary Hoffman. She mentioned that she particularly liked the pillars of the churches in Lucca. I hadn't even noticed them, but because of her comment, I looked again, and saw these beautiful, intricate carvings.

    There are so many other things I was going to write about, but this post is already quite long enough. So I'll end with a picture which isn't of Lucca at all. It's of Viareggio, where we spent a glorious day on the beach. (Unbelievably, only three days ago...) It's a long time since I saw Death In Venice, but it made me think of the scene at the beginning, where the protagonist first sees the beautiful boy with his family on the beach. Except that it wasn't in Venice, and fortunately, nobody died...

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    Some time ago, visiting Manchester for the first time, I “discovered” what seemed an impressive square. An enormous Victorian gothic building dominated the site but, even so, I did wonder why such a large expanse of rain-puddled pavement was – well, there.
    My A-Z map book gave the name as St Peter’s Square; a small plaque on the wall informed me the area was once an open space known as St Peter’s Field where gatherings and public meetings had traditionally been held.

    For a moment, I thought of similar places in London that I knew: Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, and a green space out at Hampstead and, opposite Wood Green Tube Station, Spouters Corner, a patch of tarmac where, at weekends,  speakers stood with their placards, promoting vegetarianism, the rights of workers or eastern philosophy, often accompanied by the Salvation Army band, preacher and rattling tins. Occasionally, if one was lucky, there might be a man with novelties in a suitcase, or a three-cup trickster or a half-naked escapologist . . .

    However, I was now standing in Manchester, staring at a rather jokey-sounding word for the first time: Peterloo. Remembering, I feel ashamed of my  ignorance then because the incident was not amusing at all. Peterloo was a vicious attack on a public gathering of our own people on that very site. 

    The year was 1819.  The date was the 16th August. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and a large crowd of Manchester’s working people, dressed in their respectable Sunday best, had gathered in St Peter’s Field.  

    It was an uncertain time, Although Napoleon was now defeated, the early nineteenth century so far had been a period of worrying unrest. In 1813, a few years before, the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, had been assassinated. The new manufactories had problems with machine-breakers, and the restrictive Corn Laws had brought widespread poverty, hardship and famine across the land.

    The people wanted their grievances heard and they wanted representation, but for many the question was “How?” Parliament no longer reflected the distribution of the increased population and was mired in the scandal of the “Rotten Boroughs”, a situation where even men wealthy enough to have a vote had no Member of Parliament to represent their wishes.

    The North suffered badly under this system. For example, the whole county of Lancashire, with its growing industrial towns and increased number of inhabitants, had only two MPs. At the other extreme, the one, single enfranchised voter living in the small, now-decayed borough of Old Sarum could elect two whole MPS’s to represent his views. Many felt this as a growing injustice.

    All of this was why, on that sunny day in August, a mix of grievances and curiosity brought people from all around Manchester to St Peter’s Field. They wanted to hear the words of a well-known Radical orator, Henry Hunt, who the members of the Manchester Patriotic Union Society had invited to speak on the topic of parliamentary reform.

    The local magistrates, wary of Hunt and what might become an unruly mob,, had arranged for soldiers to be in town. Clearly they wanted to be very sure there would be no civil unrest:  they had called up 4 squadrons (600 men) of the 15th Hussars; several hundred Infantry; the Cheshire Yeoman Cavalry; a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery, two six-pounder guns, the Manchester Yeoman and six hundred special constables.

    William Hulton, the Chief Magistrate and others watched St Peters Field from the window of a nearby house. Although there was no trouble at all, the crowd kept growing. Finally, when Hulton estimated there were 50,000 attending, he sent his local officials and 400 special constables into the moving crowd to clear a wide path through to where Hunt would be speaking and then sent in soldiers to arrest Hunt. The inevitable happened: faced by a hostile, uncertain, milling crowd, the cavalry galloped in with raised sabres, attacking people as they tried to escape the onslaught. By the end of the day, eleven people were killed, including a baby-in-arms, around five hundred men and women were injured and maybe more who would not seek public aid for injuries for fear of further trouble.

    As reports of the St Peter’s Field’s massacre spread, many radical thinkers wrote letters and articles condemning the slaughter and questioning the actions of the Magistrates and the military. It was during this furore that the name “Peterloo” was given to this incident: a mocking, bitterly satirical reference to the victorious cavalry charges during the Battle of Waterloo three years before.

    However, constantly afraid of real civic revolution, the Government backed the actions of the Magistrates and cracked down on anyone involved in such groups. Soon, under Lord Liverpool, Parliament imposed what became known as the Six Acts.

    As a result of these new laws:
    -         training in arms and drilling was forbidden
    -         the seizure of any arms was authorised
    -         prosecutions were simplified
    -         seditious assemblies were forbidden
    -         blasphemous libels were punished
    -         presses were restricted in what they could publish.
    And so the battle for representation and suffrage continued, well into the twentieth century.

    Peterloo, it seems to me, was an act of hope but it was not the victory that the people hoped for, not then. Yet it was not an insignificant event and, as I write this post, there are aspects of this story that feel far too relevant. (Even at a simple level, was one of those acts why the British people do not normally carry guns?)

    This brings another question into my head. As my Manchester introduction demonstrated, “Peterloo” was not an event I had ever been taught about. My own, long-ago Social and Economic History course swept over this specific people’s gathering, losing it among tales of come-by-night Luddites, the machinery of Industrial Revolution and the various Factory Acts.

    Puzzled, I asked friends with children at secondary school right now about this matter – thank you! -  but I am still not sure of the result.

    Peterloois not, I think,  specifically included within National Curriculum Key Stage Three History topics (ie in lower secondary school classes, when history is compulsory). And then, post-Options, Peterloo may well depend on exam boards & teachers including the incident within their own particular syllabus. Is it ever raised in schools in a significant way now? If so do let me know.

    It surely should and will, because Peterloo is about to be better known. Next year - 2019 - is the two hundredth anniversary of the massacre, so there should be plenty of commemorative events and media attention, particularly from the Guardian newspaper whose roots lie in that same radical Manchester ground. And, before that, on 3rd November 2018, something else is happening too. 

    The film-maker Mike Leigh will be releasing his long-awaited project:


    Although the History Girls blog is about historical fiction, especially novels, I really needed to mention the film here.Why? Just so people will know it is out there.

    The great big Christmas circus of films about to descend on multiplexes everywhere with Winter season blockbusters filling every screen from Fireworks Night through to New Year, so you may need to look very hard to find the far-less-festive bread of "Peterloo".

    I suspect it is the kind of film that may well appear fleetingly, at “selected screens only” and am not sure how the general distribution will work out. There’s no evidence – yet - of Mike Leigh's film appearing at my local Odeon, but I have spotted that"Peterloo" is scheduled for a single noonday showing on Saturday 3rd November at City Screen York. 

    So, if you want to see Peterloo, and the interpretation that Mike Leigh brings to his film, start studying your arts cinema venues now. Here's the trailer:

    After the event, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had been in Italy at the time, wrote his famous poem The Masque of Anarchy, which includes these lines, and unknowingly, a by-line for the film:

    Rise like lions after slumber
    In unvanquishable number.
    Shake your chains to earth like dew
    Which in sleep had fallen on you -
    Ye are many – they are few.

    Penny Dolan

    A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E

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    I've got a new book coming out on November 1st.

    With any luck, I'll be asked to talk about it and will have to answer that most commonly asked of  questions: 'Where do your ideas come from?': I've been trying to remember. When was that first seed planted? What other ideas, experiences, added to it? Nourished it? Allowed it to grow out of and over all the other ideas that never got as far as becoming a book? 

    I think I've found the 'first cause'. In the 1990s, I worked part time at a Further Education College in Coventry to supplement my meagre earnings from writing. I was teaching Wuthering Heights to a group of Malaysian students and as part of the course we went on a trip to The Brontë Parsonage and Museum in Haworth. I'd never been before and I was as excited as any of the students. I love visiting writers' houses and have written about it here before. Indeed, that post details some of the fascinating things owned by the Brontës and on display at the Parsonage, but that post was based on a much later visit. What intrigued me most that first time was the tiny little books that the Brontë siblings had written as children. 

    In those days, you could buy facsimilies of the miniature books. I remember buying two of them but, of course, when I really wanted them, needed them, I couldn't find them anywhere. They elude me to this day. The little books contain the writing that they did as children and adolescents about the imaginary world that they created and peopled.  The world that they called Glass Town. 

    A few years later, I was in Yorkshire again, visiting The Salts Mill Museum, outside Halifax, not  far from Haworth, There was a street market and on one of the stalls was a porcelain figure of a soldier, a Rifleman in a green uniform.

    I can't really say why I was attracted to him, maybe I remembered something about Branwell Brontë being given a set of toy soldiers and that being the starting point for the stories the Brontë children began to make up, but I don't think it was anything as conscious as that. Maybe I just liked him and thought there was a story in him somewhere. Whatever the reason, I bought him and took him home and he lived on the shelf in my study while I got on with writing other things.

    Charney Manor
    Years later, I was at a Scattered Authors' Retreat at Charney Manor in Oxfordshire. Different people were discussing ideas for books and stories. Some History Girls, past and present, may have been there. One person described something she'd been thinking about for a book about the Brontēs. I remember thinking, I wouldn't do it like that. Time travel but not back to the Brontës in their Parsonage in Haworth but pitched into their fantasy world and it would be a boy, not a girl making this journey. But how? Why? What could happen next? I didn't have those answers yet. A few more years went by and I found the idea again, or it found me. Another retreat at Charney and I wanted to start something new. I remembered the Brontë idea and thought I might work on that while I was there, so I bought Christine Alexander's: The Brontës: Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal to take with me.

    One of the traditions at Charney is the Three Minute Read, when writers read from their work in progress. The proof of the writing is in the reading. The piece I wrote is now in Glass Town Wars, substantially unchanged. It gave me the How? and the Why? Boy in a coma.  Let's call him Tom. Best friend is a computer whizz (let's call him Milo) with the ultimate virtual gaming gizmo, a small, thin sheet of graphene small enough to fit in the ear. It allows you to actually live in the game. Only problem is, it's experimental. No-one knows where you'll be going, no-one knows how you'll get back...  

    I knew where Tom would go. I knew he would go there as a soldier, a Rifleman in a green uniform, I knew he would meet Emily Brontë, or her persona in the Brontës fantasy world, but what would happen then? That was going to be the hard bit...

    (To be continued...)

    Glass Town Wars by Celia Rees is published by Pushkin Press, 1st November, 2018 

    Celia Rees

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    It hangs in a glass case in dimmed lighting: a small phallus carved in white with wings
    made from bronze.
    The label informs me it comes from Pompeii and that such items were symbols of fertility and strength. I could easily churn out 2,000 words on the subject of phallic imagery and objects in ancient Rome. There’s a lot of them. But that’s not what I’m writing about this month. For my second thought after, “Wow that’s beautiful." Was “I wonder how it got here?”

    I found I couldn’t shake that thought. Just how did a tiny phallic amulet from the lost city of Pompeii end up in a gallery on London’s Euston Road? I suspected there might be a story there.
    I was right. It is quite a story. One involving an eccentric American millionaire, a dashing ex naval captain with a love of fast cars & hobnobbing with grandees, and a quite extraordinary collection.

    The American

    Henry Wellcome courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
    If there is a better example of the self made man than Henry Wellcome I've yet to find it. He began life in a wood cabin in the slowly forming United States of America, the son of a travelling preacher.
    This was proper frontier country. Aged eight Henry's home town was attacked by the Sioux. The young boy assisted his uncle in caring for the wounded.

    Aged 15 he created and marketed his own version of Invisible Ink. Aged 19 we find him at the Chicago School of Pharmacy. A promising and developing career as a salesman for a drug company was interrupted when his friend Silas Burroughs suggested Wellcome follow him to London. Burroughs had in mind a British pharmaceutical company, but run with American panache, drive and most importantly American style marketing.
    Henry took the leap to London and in 1880 Burroughs, Wellcome and Co was founded.

    To say Burroughs, Wellcome and Co was successful is a gross understatement.
    Burrough’s sudden and untimely death in 1895 left Wellcome as sole proprietor and enormously wealthy. What to do with all this money piling up?

    Well there was partying for a start.
    Henry Wellcome in fancy dress.
    Courtesy of The Wellcome Collection

    There was travel. 
    Wellcome in Sudan.
    Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

    And then there was collecting.

    Wellcome had a dream, a grand ambition with his collecting. It was to;
    “Trace the history of the human body in sickness and in health throughout the whole broad sweep of history.”
    He intended to create a museum called the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (and succeeded, the WHMM opened in 1913) and set about acquiring the objects that would articulate this aim.
    Gentleman collectors in the Victorian era were ten a half penny but the way Wellcome went about collecting was something entirely different: it was industrial.
    Partly this was born of his innate curiosity. Partly his American drive that had taken him from a wood cabin in frontier country to a multi-millionaire living within the fashionable London set. But mostly it was driven by the huge resources he had at his disposal.

    Reading about Wellcome’s collection is jaw dropping and ultimately a little dispiriting. How was I to find a record of my little phallus in this lot? To give you some idea of just how much Wellcome collected you need only know that they measured it by the ton.
    There was 3 and a half tons of swords, five tons of photograph albums, 2 and half tons of guns and cannons and shields.
    There were 110 cases of Graeco-Roman objects.
    In all a million plus objects made up Wellcome’s collection. Somewhere in this million was my little phallus.

    Though Henry Wellcome travelled extensively seeking objects for his museum (Much to the disgust of his wife Syrie “Ever since our marriage, the greater part of our time has been spent in places I detested collecting curios” - they later divorced) he did not take sole responsibility for acquiring objects for his museum. He did have a company to run after all, but also because he recognised that his presence at auctions was likely to push the price up of his desired object. To overcome this he was known to effect disguises, as he told a friend:
     “I usually put on very plain clothes. A top hat usually excites the cupidity of the dealer and the higher the hat the higher the price."

    Alongside his own undercover missions he also employed a team of agents to travel the globe to find suitable objects for his museum. A bit of internet research brought me to one Captain Johnston Saint, one of Wellcome’s agents who undertook a tour of Europe on behalf of Wellcome. I wondered if he might be the man who purchased my little white phallus. I wondered how I might find out whether he was.

    The Captain

    Peter Johnston Saint.
    Courtesy of The Wellcome Collection
    Peter Johnston Saint was born in 1886. He had served in both the Royal Flying Corp and the Indian Army. Well connected, (one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters was a childhood friend), he adored socialising, travel and fast cars.
    He joined the, now named, Wellcome Institute in 1921 and had soon impressed Henry Wellcome. Within a very short time he was given the title of Foreign Secretary. The sole purpose of this role was to travel and buy up objects suitable for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. It was a job Johnston Saint was well suited to involving, as it did, much hobnobbing with Ambassadors, Cardinals, Directors of key museums and other such notables.
    A friendly member of staff at the Wellcome Collection (thank you Ross!) pointed me towards the papers they hold on Peter Johnston Saint. There were letters to Henry Wellcome, reports on his activities as Foreign Secretary and (joy!) his travels diaries.
    Somewhere in these diaries I might find my little white phallus. Hoping he had decent handwriting I began to read about Johnston Saint's trip to Italy.

    Johnston Saint began his Italian quest on Saturday 19th January 1930:
    “Arrived in Rome 8pm. Found thick snow here also, which I am told, is almost unheard of"

    His diary is an interesting insight into how objects were sourced and brought for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. Some of the work involves making contact with the right people. Such as on Monday 21st January when Johnston Saint meets with Cardinale Gasquet, the Prefect of the Vatican archives. The Cardinal is presented with a gift:
    “The Cardinal was very interested in the research studies and medical history which we sent them through the foreign office and he says he has placed these at the Vatican library on behalf of the Duce (Mussolini).”

    Johnston Saint also meets with the Ambassador and secures a letter of introduction to the Heads of Italian Museums. But alongside hobnobbing with Directors, Ambassadors and Cardinals, Johnston Saint spends a great deal of time browsing through the small shops of Rome:

    “In a shop near Forum Romano I found some very interesting objects. Several very interesting Roman large surgical instruments…. A Greek pornographic vase in terra cotta in perfect condition…. A small bronze amphora and a Roman votive foot in bronze. Also a very curious object which may be an amulet or perhaps a form of pomander.
    I purchased all the objects above for £21. The pornographic vase being worth half this sum.
    I then visited the shop where I saw this collection of 99 phallic objects.”

    I thought for a moment that within those 99 phallic objects might be my phallus but as Johnston Saint drily records:
     “The price asked is a very high one and I do not think the collection worth it”

    He did not purchase them.

    But later that same day he is to be found in further small establishments:
     “At another a shop I found a fine Roman lancet, a bronze stigel with unusual form of handle – a weight decorated pornographic subject and a Roman bronze probe. Price £4.”

    To put this in some context the average annual wage in 1930 was £200 per year. Johnston Saint spent £25 in a single day and this compared to some days was a low amount. Later this same week he spends £64 on a single drawing. Henry Wellcome's pocket was swimming pool sized, however, as we have seen Johnston Saint is very much using his own judgement on artefacts. Several he rejects as inadequate or over priced but not:
    "A huge terracotta Priapus from Pompeii"

    Which he snaps up. Priapus is the Roman God of Fertility and is usually represented with a grossly oversized erect penis.
    A Priapus from Pompeii. Not
    the one JS purchased.
    Attributed to Aaron Wolpert

    It's not all buy, buy, buy though. Johnston Saint takes the time to visit the sites. A trip to the Vatican Library on Friday 25th January impresses him much:
     “This marvellous collection particularly rich in manuscripts,.. And housed in the most luxurious surroundings. What impressed me most was the excellent state of all the books and manuscripts... although the library consists of some 300,000 books there was sufficient room for 4 times that number”

    The baths of Caracalla have him recording wistfully:
     “Their magnificence, their luxury and their marvellous efficiency are only one of the many wonders of ancient Rome.”

     Writing Roman based Historical Fiction I have visited Rome numerous times for research and I found it quite fascinating to read Johnston Saint describing the exact same sites I have visited only eighty years before.

    What I found really special was his description of a day trip to the nearby Lake Nemi on Sunday 27th January

    “I was anxious to see the Largo di Nemi, the Lake in the Alban hills which the Italian government are draining in order to recover the two Roman galleys which were sunk there in the time of Caligula. The level of the water in the lake has already been reduced by ten feet,exposing the small Roman habour….. The bad weather and the recent heavy falls of snow have more of less held up the work for the present.
    ..... I think when these galleys are recovered we might be able to get hold of something. At this moment it is not possible to do anything nor there anything to be found.”

    Bad weather might have prevented the work that day but work did continue and these massive ships were eventually exposed.

    The now lost pleasure barge of Caligula. Look
    at the man to the left to see the huge awesome scale
    of this boat.
    Sadly they were destroyed during the second world war. All that is left of them is a few artefacts recovered and displayed in Rome’s National Museum and photographs that show the epic scale of these ships. They were truly awe inspiring and to think that Peter Johnston Saint was so close to seeing these epic pleasure barges revealed from the water!

    On Tuesday 29th January Johnston Saint reveals that he is leaving for Naples. Would he visit Pompeii? Would he stumble across a certain small white phallus, and hopefully write down that he did? Or did the phallus not come from Pompeii at all? Was it maybe discovered in one of those small shops by the Forum selling phallic objects by the hundreds?
    There was only one way to find out. I kept reading.....

    Those letters of introduction obtained from the Ambassador come in handy now as they gain him access to the Director of the Naples Archaeological Museum and a very famous cabinet:
    “I also inspected the Pornographic Cabinets which is ordinarily closed. Here they have many friezes and stuccos found in various houses in Pompeii - a collection of lamps, phallic objects.”

    The Pornographic Cabinet of Naples Museum was where some of the most extreme (to Western eyes of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries) were housed. It contained, as Johnston Saint mentions, many phallic objects and imagery. As well as a truly stupendous statue of the God Pan having it away with a goat.
    From Naples Museum's famous cabinet. Photo attributed Kim Traynor.

    It’s probably worth me pointing out, if you hadn’t already gathered, that Wellcome was very much interested in acquiring erotic/sexual material. The Wellcome Historical Medical Museum contained 300 sexually themed Roman objects. They were very much in keeping with his ambition of a museum dedicated to human kind and biology.

    Dr Jen Grove of Exeter University has written a very thorough account of the collecting of sexually themed materials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is what she has to say about Wellcome’s collection:

    “In the large, richly bound accession registers which the museum used to record acquisitions, a member of Wellcome’s staff entered the term 'PHA' next to each of these items. This stood for 'Phallic Worship' and this label would also be given, almost uniformly, to each of the hundreds of objects featuring phallic and other sexual imagery in Wellcome’s collection from across world history. This tells us that Wellcome was interested in an anthropological theory, first developed in the Enlightenment period, which looked for the origins of religion in the worship of procreation. “

    He also collected images and objects outside of this sex/religion theme including materials dealing with the pleasure aspect of intercourse:
    “Objects which seem to indicate an interest in sexual pleasure for its own sake include a collection of historical and cross-cultural sex aids.”

    This was why Johnston Saint was dutifully examining and purchasing statues of Priapus and other phallic related materials. Although Johnston Saint cannot purchase anything from the pornographic cabinet he does buy an extensive range of photographs of the objects it contains.

    One of Peter Johnston Saint's photographs from his 1930 trip to Rome. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection

    The next day on Thursday 31st January Johnston Saint is given a tour of Herculaneum. His mood is greatly different from the interest and excitement at securing his photographs from Pompeii. To see the theatre at Herculaneum he had to walk down through 60 feet of lava (this is still the case today).

    “One proceeds down a tunnel to the excavated portion and it is here that one can realise to some degree what a tremendous catastrophe the eruption of 79AD was.”

    He is deeply moved by what he sees. One description he gives is particularly poignant and evocative:

    “In one of the bedrooms on the first floor I saw a lamp, a glass bottle, and other objects including the marble table on which these things stood exactly as they were in AD 79”

    That afternoon after his tour of Herculaneum he’s taken to see a local Hotel Proprietor. The hotelier's estate borders the Pompeii site and he has excavated his own grounds and found some objects he wishes to show off (and sell).   The hotelier had the permission of the Italian Government to offer these objects for sale, but with 50% of the receipts going back to the government. A fact that does not please Johnston Saint, as he notes;
     “So naturally there were no great bargains to be picked up.”

    However what the hotelier shows him is so impressive that he cannot hold back the bucks:

    “I brought some interesting objects. The following are the details. Excavated at Pompeii 1927. A Roman bronze lancet, a bronze probe on spatula handle decorated, a fine pair of tweezers in bronze and two surgical needles both fine in bronze. Then a terra cotta figure of a woman which is very interesting anatomically”

    Also he buys a votive leg and foot. And records one final item of purchase:
    ”A marble phallus about 4 inches long with bronze wings, a chain and ring for suspending – perfect -used against the evil eye.”

    A marble phallus you say? 4 inches long? Bronze wings? And a chain for suspending?
    A bit like this one then?

    Miraculously I had found it! I had found my phallus! It had been excavated in 1927 by the proprietor of a hotel that stood on the Porta Marina gate into Pompeii. He met Peter Johnston Saint on Thursday 31st January 1930 and showed him his collection of artefacts. Johston Saint purchased several of these objects on behalf of Henry Wellcome, including the phallus.
    And that folks, is how my little white phallus ended up in a gallery in London’s Euston Road!


    For some reason I feel this piece needs an epilogue. So here it is.
    Henry Wellcome and Peter Johnston Saint
    Courtesy of The Wellcome Collection
    Henry Wellcome died in 1936. He left quite a legacy. Not just for his vast collection of curios (of which a very small slice can be viewed today in London’s Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection which stands on Euston Road) but also for science. His will set up a charity named The Wellcome Trust. He wanted the profits from his business to advance medical science.

    The company Henry founded with Silas Burroughs went through several incarnations (including Glaxo Wellcome) before it was finally sold off and GlaxoSmithKline one of the largest pharma companies on the planet was formed. The money from this sale was ploughed into the charitable Wellcome Trust. Today the Wellcome Trust has assets worth £20 billion and in 2017 spent £1.1 billion advancing medical science.

    And as for that small marble phallus? Well 700,000 people visit the Wellcome Collection each year and let’s assume absolutely all of them stare at that little white phallus and think firstly “Wow” and then secondly “I wonder how it got here?"

    Further Reading

    I'd highly recommend Frances Larson's "An Infinity of Things: How Henry Wellcome collected the World." if you are at all interested in Henry Wellcome and his mania for collecting. This book gave me much of the material for this article.
    Special thanks also to Dr Jen Grove and Ross Macfarlane for their assistance.

    L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series set in ancient Rome. She also runs the hashtag #phallusthursday on Twitter, which examines the use of  phallic imagery in ancient art and has a bit of a puerile snigger about it all.