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    Last month’s blog looked at the literary and historical associations of the route along which the Meon Valley Railway once ran, many of which associations referred to people and times well before the railway actually existed. This month, I am going to relate a little more about the railway itself, and the purposes it served during its brief half-century lifespan.
    Route of the MVR, adapted from
    the map in R.A. Stone’s book,
    The Meon Valley Railway, 1983,
    Kingfisher Railway Productions.

    Agriculture and horticulture

    As might be expected in such an agricultural region, a good deal of non-passenger traffic for the Meon Valley Railway (MVR) came from shipping farm produce. In this part of Hampshire, the produce included watercress, fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. The London & South Western Railway (LSWR) put on special market-day trains, with both passenger carriages and livestock cars, that allowed farmers to accompany their livestock. There were local “pick-up/set-down” goods services all along the line, which called at every station to deliver and pick up any waiting goods.
    Watercress has been grown in Hampshire for centuries. The area’s geology, with its chalky downlands, cut by clear chalk streams, provides perfect growing conditions. Apparently, in the 1800s, working people often ate watercress sandwiches, collecting the wild leaves themselves from rivers and streams. Watercress had a reputation as a panacea for everything from lethargy to baldness, scurvy and even freckles. Its popularity led to watercress farms being established throughout Hampshire. It was grown in gravel beds over which ran a constant flow of water from the mineral-rich springs fed by rainwater leaching through the chalk.
    The commercial viability of Hampshire watercress received a boost in 1865, when a new railway line was opened between Alton and Winchester, connecting at each end with the existing LSWR line. The new railway was called the Mid-Hants Railway, although in time it became known as the Watercress Line, because it transported so much Hampshire watercressto London’s Covent Garden Market. One of the line’s principal stations was at Alresford, which was essentially the “watercress capital” of Hampshire. But watercress was also grown in the Meon Valley, at Warnford – in beds that are still actively producing watercress – and, when the MVR was built, it connected with the Mid-Hants railway at Alton, providing a fast route to London for the Meon Valley watercress growers. The Watercress Line is now a heritage railway.
    Watercress beds at Warnford Photo © Tony Grant / cc-by-sa 2.0
    The lower half of the MVR line ran through an extensive market gardening area. Strawberry growing was a very important industry for the area during the late 1800s to mid 1900s. An area just north of the Solent, around Titchfield and Fareham, bounded by the rivers Meon and Hamble, proved ideal for strawberry growing, the rather poor stony soil suiting the shallow-rooted plants, and a warm prevailing wind from the Solent reducing the risk of frost in the critical flowering weeks. In 1889, a LSWR station was built at Swanwick, a little to the north-west of Titchfield, specially to serve the local strawberry industry. In the late 1800s, the area produced as many as 7,000 tons of strawberries each year. During the weeks of the strawberry harvest, Swanwick station became one of the busiest stations on the south coast with the box vans of the “strawberry special” trains heading off to Covent Garden and across the country. But, while Swanwick was perhaps the focal point for the transport of strawberries, “strawberry specials” were also run on the MVR, with whole trains of strawberries being loaded at Mislingford and Wickham.
    In the mid 1800s, the owner of the manor of Wickham, which included an area of the Bere Forest, built a settlement of houses for his forestry tenants, each house having an acre of land, at a place that was then, and still is, called Hundred Acres. The tenants found that the area was very suitable for growing fruit, and in particular for the production of early strawberries, and a few years later strawberries began to be grown there commercially. Initially the fruit was taken to Fareham station, six miles away, for onward transport to the London market and elsewhere. But the viability of the enterprise improved even further when the MVR was opened with a station at Wickham, only two miles from Hundred Acres.
    It was in the 1960s that competition from imported fruit began to drive many producers out of business, and by the 1980s strawberry-growing as an industry in Hampshire was essentially over.
    Strawberry fields in Hampshire
    In the early days of the railway, all the MVR stations would have seen farmers bringing their milk in churns by horse and cart for despatch to the dairy at Portsea Island, in special milk vans attached to the normal passenger services. Livestock too travelled frequently on the line, to and from markets at Alton and Fareham. West Meon station was apparently the scene of the livestock of entire farms arriving by rail from such far away places as Cumberland and Northumberland, the farmers having hired special trains for the purpose. This must have been quite a sight!

    Wartime use
    With each outbreak of the two world wars, for the MVR, as for most railways, traffic increased, with the passage of troop trains bound for the docks and France. A box van was added to all MVR trains to cater for extra parcels and troops’ luggage.
    In 1940, the MVR line received some attention from the German bombers. Droxford Station was hit and two railway workers' cottages were demolished. Bombs were dropped either side of the line at Soberton although they missed the track, but West Meon tunnel was also targeted and a stretch of track was damaged. Apparently, desperate telephone calls were made after this attack, in an attempt to stop the train coming down the line from Alton, and what might have been a serious accident was avoided. 
    However, the MVR did have an important role in the Second World War. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford  goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage. Mislingford was also the site of a temporary wooden platform to serve the large number of Canadian troops who were encamped in the Forest of Bere.
    The remains of the Mislingford goods yard.
    Public domain.
    I have mentioned this before, in a previous History Girls post, but I will repeat a little anecdote about Mislingford. The old loading gauge at Mislingford still stands (if nowadays much hidden by vegetation) on what is now the Meon Valley Railway trail (which follows the old railway from West Meon to Wickham), so you can pass by it as you walk the trail. I’m not really a particularly mystical person, but I have occasionally sensed a “something” at this spot… The ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? The clanking of those tanks being unloaded from the trains? There is actually a timber yard close by, so maybe it has only ever been the rumble of machinery and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…
    But the railway’s most famous wartime role came in June 1944, when the War Cabinet met Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. When the train arrived, in it were just the British prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and the prime minister of South Africa, General Jan Smuts. Next day they were joined by Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, who arrived by car. And, the following day, the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia came too, and Dwight Eisenhower, the president of the United States, drove across from his nearby base at Southwick House. They were there to discuss the D-Day invasion.
    Although the meeting was officially kept secret from Droxford residents, it seems that Churchill had chosen the station because it was near the coast and to the Allied command centre at Southwick. But there was also some speculation that the site was thought particularly secure because the train could be largely hidden by overshadowing beech trees, and there was a deep cutting into which it could be shunted if it came under attack.
    Anyway, in the evening of the final day of their meeting, the 5th June, Churchill’s train pulled out of Droxford station and returned to London. And, shortly after midnight the following morning, Allied troops attacked Pegasus Bridge and, soon thereafter, the American airborne landings in Normandy began.
    Droxford Railway Station in 1968 By Lamberhurst
     from Wikimedia Commons

    Decline and death of the railway

    With all the early excitement and anticipation of what the MVR might bring to the region, and despite its obvious value to the local agricultural and horticultural community, the line never fulfilled its initial promise.
    As early as the years following the First World War, there seemed to be little or no demand for passenger traffic. The hoped-for London through-traffic never materialised, and after only a few years the London to Gosport services were cut back. During the summer months, Sunday excursion trains to the sea ran down the line, originating from Ascot and Farnham, but, without sufficient normal, daily passenger traffic, the line never really prospered, becoming only a rural branch line and a Hampshire railway backwater. The tourist traffic to the resort area of Stokes Bay (near Gosport) also failed to grow, with steamers preferring the more established ports at Portsmouth and Southampton. From then on the MVR only handled regular traffic between Fareham and Alton, and it wasn’t long before it became clear that there was no need for a frequent train service. Cutbacks were already being made by 1922.
    It does seem that insufficient effort was made to promote the railway's services, with cheap fares, convenient schedules and more publicity. But, as early as the 1920s, there was also increasing competition from road traffic, with more and more commercial vehicles making serious inroads into railway revenue by competing for the carriage of goods. This applied to all railways, not just the MVR: rail passenger travel, as well as freight traffic, declined everywhere. And all railways began to make cuts.
    Yet there did remain a demand for the MVR from local farmers: sometime in the 1920s, the parishes of Corhampton and Meonstoke asked LSWR to provide a halt in Meonstoke to “assist the local farmers in the transport of milk etc to the towns”. The potential site of such a siding was marked by a short piece of rail set into the ground, but the siding was never built. However, though the section of rail remained in place until 1960, when it was discovered by a farmer cutting hay, and damaged his machinery. The rail was then presumably pulled up!
    But the MVR was an early candidate for closure and, in 1955, passenger traffic was withdrawn completely and freight traffic reduced. Local people protested, but to no avail. However, when the National Farmers Union made a strong objection to the closure on the grounds that the line was much used during the busy sugar beet season, an enquiry was at least launched into their case. But the closure proceeded nonetheless.
    And so, in February 1955, a mere 52 years after the MVR had opened, the Hampshire Chronicle reported its final day:
    “On Saturday last, February 5th, the Meon Valley Railway closed, and the last public trains left Alton to travel “down” at 4.30pm and Fareham to do the “up” journey at 7.46pm.”
    Passenger numbers rocketed in the final weeks of operation, as people took their final ride on the railway. That very last train was apparently full of people, many of them, the paper asserted, people who often “attended the last rites of dying railways”. Many local people also watched the train’s final journey from the fields beside the track and from the stations’ platforms.
    This MVR closure was long before the “Beeching Axe” of the 1960s, when many well-used yet still “uneconomic” railways were closed. Although goods services did continue for a few more years on the MVR, with a once-a-day service from Fareham as far as Droxford, and a similar service from Alton as far as Farringdon, by 1968 both services had ended.
    There does seem little doubt that, when the Meon Valley Railway was closed to passenger traffic, it had been shown quite clearly to be unsustainable as a passenger railway. Yet it was nonetheless held in some affection.
    When, on 5th February, that final train arrived back at Alton station, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that:
    “…the final obsequies are observed. The Meon Valley Railway – friendly, pleasurable, beautiful – had come to its end.” 
    Trackbed of the Meon Valley Railway, Chawton, Hampshire,
    looking towards the south. Next stop along this line would
    have been the halt at Farringdon. cc-by-sa/2.0

    For detailed information about the old railway in the Meon Valley, see The Meon Valley Railway by R.A. Stone, 1983, Kingfisher Railway Productions.

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    This is a slightly different blog this month, a picking-all-your-brains exercise if you will. I've been asked to be the historical fiction voice in a discussion about the differences/overlaps and, who knows, clashing points between historical fiction and historical fantasy and I'd love your help. Actually I'm desperate.

     Tom Gauld, The New Yorker 2016
    Trying to get an historical novelist to pinpoint  the bit of this widespread genre we all write in can feel a bit like a trip to the pick and mix counter. As authors we want to sell our books so the temptation is to try and slot our work into as many sectors as possible - it's historical yes, but it's also got a crime and a bit of a romance and it's got these great sweeping themes of loss and guilt and... Booksellers and publishers also want to sell books (not necessarily the same ones as us but that's a different post). They, however, take the opposite approach, and want neat pigeonholes which signpost readers in a clear direction. To keep them happy, your historical crime-busting romance needs to pick one category and stay there.

    The point is that the genre historical fiction covers, and doesn't cover (bear with me) a lot of ground. Obviously the story has to be set in the past but even that is open to interpretation - the period has to be fifty years ago or more according to the Historical Writers' Association but only thirty for the Historical Novel Society. However, even if a novel fits that criteria, it may not be counted as historical. Joanna Cannon'sThe Trouble With Goats and Sheep is set in the 1970s and therefore, by the HNS definition, is an historical novel. It wasn't marketed that way but to anyone under 35 it's evocation of the period would surely feel that way. So perhaps it's a question of perspective, or life lived. Author Emma Darwin has talked about a period passing out of adult living memory for it to be counted as historical. She also suggests we consider historical novels as being a marker of historical change, not in the sense of  there being different "haircuts and menus" but "hearts and minds." There is also the question of what "counts" in our examining of the past. For some commentators, historical novels must deal with real events and real people, with all the problems of privilege this brings. For others it is the previously unheard voices that need to be brought to light. 

     The Daily Snooze
    Add up all that and then throw the word literary into the mix and the whole thing gets even more complicated - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was definitely historical but also, according to those who decide such things, definitely literary. A category Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, which was a huge commercial hit, would never find itself slotted into. And should we even care?

    So, if defining historical fiction is complicated, what about historical fantasy? The accepted definition (yes, Wikipedia but I also asked some people who know) is the addition to an historically-based (and Earth-based) story of an element which comes from outside reality - vampires, werewolves, dragons and magic, that kind of thing. All very straightforward: something like Jane Eyre and Zombies is an obvious fit, as is Game of Thrones (let's not even talk about the people who don't believe that statement). But what about Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? Or stories that cross into Arthurian myths or Celtic legends and relate them to actual events? Where do the boundaries start to blur? What about time-slip novels? Or novels set in a period when things we can now explain through science were considered as witchcraft or magic? If a medieval character firmly believes an illness or misfortune was caused by a demon and the novel follows this line of thought through, is that historical fantasy or historical realism? What about if your preacher sees angels? Or your healer sees ghosts? And where oh where do we put Lincoln in the Bardo? Real events, real people, contemporary texts quoted - and a whole cast of ghosts. Is that where we throw in the towel and just call it literary?

    Readers, my head is exploding which I think puts me firmly into the fantasy genre. While I go off and harness a dragon, please send me your thoughts.

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      In my childhood, I went to historical novels if I wanted to find out about the lives of ordinary people: even Trevelyan's 'Social History of England,' which my father gave me when I was a young teenager, was rather too general in its narrative. I always wanted to get an idea of what life was like for ordinary people, not just for the generals, the nobles, or the King. Above all, I was interested in the lives of women. When I first started to write historical fiction, very few historians seemed interested in women's lives; they were peripheral to the main action.When I started to write about Nazi Germany, I did begin to get access to these, through diaries and journals and also covert reports from Social Democrats on life inside the Third Reich. But the lives of women in earlier times, when women were largely illiterate, were much harder to come at (though Alice Clark's The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women was an invaluable resource.)

    But here is a work of history, written by a distinguished scholar, as fascinating as any novel. Of late years, I've noticed that historians are beginning to go through 'unimportant' bits of detail, diaries, account books, wills, to resurrect the lives of women, and though there is still much we cannot get at, we are getting enough to give us a much better idea than we previously had. Diane Purkiss is writing in this tradition; though The English Civil War does also give us the voices of men, and she tells the stories of the King and Cromwell, Henrietta Maria and women of the aristocracy.

    But in this book you also can hear  the common soldier , and ordinary, lower middle-class women whose voices were recorded because they became preachers in some of the Independent sects that grew during the ferment of this period, as well as those of the gentry are also heard. The book opens up the experience of a broad section of English society during the conflict.

    As well as giving voice to the ordinary people (and examining the role starvation, which was widespread as the war dragged on, played in people's actions and reactions,) this book gives an in-depth, considered analysis of the causes and drivers of the conflict. Too many authors, for example, have described the religious issues of the times in the convenient portmanteau phrase: 'the Royalists were Anglicans, the Parliamentarians were Puritans'. In fact, many of the Parliamentarians were Anglicans, and Anglicanism in those days meant Calvinism, a theology nowadays more likely to be associated with Presbyterianism. The distinction between those who believed some humans were predestined for damnation, some for salvation, was far more complex than the Cavalier/Roundhead divide. This is important, because religion was a crucial part of people's lives in those days and needs to be understood.

    Diane Purkiss also shows us the hideous anti-Catholic prejudice which meant many Catholics had their houses destroyed, were abused, attacked, and murdered. It was an atmosphere which reminded me of present-day Islamophobia, and gave an uneasy flavour of what might happen if it is nurtured, as it is at present. The mutilation of the Royalist camp followers after Naseby, who were considered to be whores and Irish Catholics (many of them were Anglican soldiers' wives), was what we would nowadays see as a horrific war crime. In addition, she tells the story of Matthew Hopkins's notorious Essex witchhunt, and makes a convincing case for the war's agency in the outbreak of a kind of witch prosecution otherwise absent from England.

    What comes across, crucially, in this history, is that the protagonists of the Civil War didn't behave the way we would like them to; they were people of their own time. It's far too common for even historians to be partisan in writing about the conflict (and most of them taking the 'Cavalier' side). But what matters in the end is not who won, who had flowing locks and was romantic, who were people we'd like to identify with (none of them, once you really look at it). These people had ideas, many of which filled the ruling establishment with horror, which we would now view as mainstream or even old-fashioned, since few even of the Levellers and Ranters wanted women to have the vote. Indeed, some Ranters thought women had no souls (one was set to rights by George Fox, one of the first Quakers, an organisation that did give women the right to speak and continued that after the ferment of the wartime period had died down). But they had those ideas, and that was important. Yes, works of art were destroyed and images in churches were destroyed, but that was also part of their passionate belief in a religion that didn't rely on outward show.

    As a Quaker, I can comprehend that, since I worship in a plain, unadorned room, mostly in silence, and the price of that precious worship was partly the destruction of statues in our cathedrals. Diane Purkiss says at the end of the book that she wouldn't exchange Milton's 'Paradise Lost' for the Rubens crucifixion that was destroyed during the war. 'Sometimes destruction is the price we pay for artistic breakthrough.' And spiritual, and political.

    There is not enough written about the English Civil War. If you want to start reading about it, or want to revisit the period, this is the book to get going on. I wasn't able to put it down.

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    I belong to several historical forums and every few months, the subject of medieval swear words will arise and a discussion will begin about the origins of the word 'fuck' and when it became a swear word rather than a reproduction word.  I thought I would do a little investigating.

    There are numerous theories as to the etymology of the word.  There is a false popular notion that it's an acronym for 'Fornicate Under  Consent of the King' (the instruction supposedly intended as a population booster) but it can be immediately be dismissed as a modern urban legend.  Acronyms were unknown in the Middle Ages.

    Melissa Moher in her work 'Holy Shit: A brief history of swearing'  believes that the more prosaic answer is that 'Fuck' it is a word of Germanic origin.  It is related to similar in Dutch, German and Swedish, and means to 'strike' and to 'move back and forth.'  Very possibly why, once arriving into the English language, it became another name for the bird of prey the kestrel known also as a 'fuckwind.'

    Mark Morton in his work 'The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through The Language Of Love and Sex'  tells the reader that the Norwegian 'fukka' means to copulate, as does the Swedish 'focca' and is closely related.

    So basically 'fuck' begins its life as a straightforward word for copulation, born from a meaning of striking and moving back and forth, and entered the English language somewhere between the waves of Scandinavian invasion and 1310 (see below).  It wasn't a taboo or blasphemy word but a function word and nobody would have blenched at its use.  It's supposed first observation of use as a copulation word in popular history comes from the early 16th century and a poem by William Dunbar titled 'In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nycht.'  It's an amorous poem where the hero desires to have sex with his love, the heroine. 'his feiris he wald haif fukkit.'  Also from the early 16th century, David Lindsay, tutor to the future King James V of Scotland wrote a poem with the line 'A fukkand like ane furious Fornicatour - accusing his subject of 'fucking like a furious fornicator.'  In another work he also criticised the clergy who may 'fuck thair fill and be unmaryit.'

    However, historian Paul Booth has recently found an instance of the word used in a copulatory context from the plea rolls of Edward II dated to 1310 and the mention of a certain felon named Roger 'Fuckbythenavele'.  The context is sexual, but quite what he was up to has not yet been sussed!  There is also a reference from 1475 from a work titled Flen Flyys, which has a line in mixed Latin and English 'fvccant vvivys of heli'  which translates as 'they fuck the wives of Ely.'

    It would seem then that the word had found its way with a sexual meaning into the English language by the early 14th century as far as written evidence goes, but since the written word tends to follow the spoken in terms of timeline, it argues for earlier useage.

    When did it change into a 'swear word' and travel beyond the basic verb meaning to copulate?

    There is an ambiguous comment in a piece of marginalia in a manuscript of Cicero from 1528 where the scribe has written 'O d fuckin Abbot.'  However, we don't know whether it was a comment on the licentiousness of his abbot who was apparently not exactly known for his moral purity, or if it was an intensifier and comment of anger or irritation.  If the latter, then it's 300 years before other recorded instances of the word's use in such a context so needs to be interpreted with that in mind.

    In the medieval period the worst thing you could do was to swear by God or his body parts.  That was true blasphemy and many a pastoral tale warned the blasphemer against swearing by the likes of God's eyes or legs. In effect it was dismembering, disrespecting and torturing Christ and would lead you into all sorts of after-life trouble.  Bodily functions on the other hand were just bodily functions as were intimate areas of the body.  Grape Street in London, once the haunt of prostitutes was known with a shrug as 'Gropecunte Lane.' The obscenity of body part mentions and the transformation of the 'F' word into one both embraced and shunned by society, had to wait until after the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism and secularisation.  The change in religious viewpoint also coincided with the rise of privacy.  The aristocracy and the middle classes had gradually developed homes with more private areas and private areas meant that more was hidden away and a certain delicacy and secrecy developed. Eductation played its part too and coarse words were seen as belonging to coarse people.  Sexuality and bodily functions gradually became the new obscene and religious expletives tumbled down the table of the worst thing you could say until they became the mild expletives and body parts and functions took their place.

    Once the F work expanded into the area of the swearword while still retaining its old meaning, there was no stopping its career and proliferation of useage. It retained its meaning as a verb meaning to copulate (although never used in polite company) 'They fucked in the long grass.'  It became a noun. 'That was a fantastic fuck' and an adjective. 'You fucking bitch' (Mark Morton tells us this one turned up in the mid 19th century).  It's an interjection - 'Fuck!' (1929)  It's an adverb 'that's fucking marvellous' (useage dating to 1940's)  And it's an infix - 'abso-fucking-lutely (1920's). Other 'fuck' phrases in use today have a slightly longer history than you might think. 'Fucked up' meaning ruined dates to the 1930's. 'Fucked' with the same meaning can be traced to the late 18th century.  'Fuck you! dates to 1895 and Fuck off! as a command to the 1940's although the phrase was in use meaning to run away in the 1920's (as in 'let's fuck off out of here before we get into trouble.)
    Bruce Willis's now famous quote in Die-Hard - (the words after the cowboy salute to Alan Rickman) dates to the 1920's.

    It's still a taboo word in many circles and certainly not one for polite society, but it has expanded well into the mainstream and is so often used in daily street speech, and in films and books that it is becoming normalised.  Its use has spread far and wide but in consequence its power to shock is gradually diminishing, like water wearing away a stone.  When I was a child, anyone who used the word was far outside the pale, but now it''s eased through the door and into daily life. As Hugh Grant said in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  'Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.'

    I do highly recommend the two books I've posted in the blog - they are hugely enlightening and entertaining and give much food for thought.


    Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning internationally best selling author of historical fiction set in the Medieval period.

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       While researching my current novel, which is set in 18th snd early 19th century Rome, I came across some interesting descriptions of how it was to cross the Alps before there were any railways. Crossing them on a train is still a memorable experience but our tourism is a very feeble experience compared to theirs. Most Grand Tourists had to cross the mountains to reach Italy, and a young man was not considered truly educated and civilised until he had experienced the wonders of Italian art and architecture.

       Crossing the Alps usually took eight days. There were no coach roads through the Alps until the end of the eighteenth century and so, to cross the Alps, your entire coach had to be disassembled and carried over the mountains on mule back. The Mount Cenis pass, on the route from Lyons to Turin, was the most travelled route into Italy during the heyday of the Grand Tour. Tourists were carried over the mountains by Swiss chairmen in a sort of open sedan chair.


         Miss Wilmot, one of the rare women to make the Grand Tour, reported that the Swiss chair carriers were happy men who burst into song as they approached Alpine villages. Some tourists had the thrill of sledding down a steep slope. When you reached Turin your carriage was reassembled. In 1775, “Mr. Greville drove his phaeton up the St. Gotthard, to every one’s amazement.”

       The mountains themselves inspired an awe that, perhaps, only mountaineers can know nowadays.The English journalist Joseph Addison described the Alps as this “awful and tremendous amphitheatre,” while the poet Thomas Gray said that Mt. Cenis carried “the permission mountains have of being frightful rather too far.” One route was the St. Gotthard Pass and its “Valley of Trembling,” which gave the name tremolite to a mineral found in its granite walls.

       Scientists, as well as rich young men, were fascinated by the terrifying mountains. Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, an 18th century Swiss botanist and mineralogist who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, made nine journeys in the Alps. As well as recording the elevations of mountains he included several reports of dragon sightings in his Itinera Alpina (1723). Although Scheuchzer dismissed some of these tales as fabulous, he concluded that “from the accounts of Swiss dragons and their comparison with those of other is clear that such animals really do exist.”

       In the early 19th century the Romantics found mountains endlessly - well, romantic. In Book VI of The Prelude Wordsworth describes crossing the Simplon Pass on foot as a young man of twenty:

    Imagination—here the Power so called

    Through sad incompetence of human speech,

    That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

    Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
    At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

    Halted without an effort to break through;
    But to my conscious soul I now can say—
    “I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
    Of usurpation, when the light of sense
    Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
    The invisible world,

       An invisible world, heroism, the sublime.... these ideas, even more than the physical danger and discomfort, caught the imagination of a whole generation. Schiller popularized the legend of a medieval Swiss hero, a freedom fighter of the mountains, in his play William Tell ( 1804).

       In his long poem Manfred Byron’s alter ego gazes in wonder at the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains:
    “Heard avalanches falling every five minutes nearly – as if God was pelting the Devil down from Heaven with snow balls... clouds rose from the opposite valley curling up perpendicular precipices – like the foam of the Ocean of Hell during a Springtide.”

       Here is Manfred, looking particularly Byronic, about to be blown off the Jungfrau. Byron’s poem was later set to music by Tchaikovsky. Byron, like many passionate nature lovers, didn’t think much of his fellow human beings: “Switzerland is a curst selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world. I never could bear the inhabitants, and still less their English visitors,” he wrote to Thomas Moore in 1821.

       Napoleon planned to launch a surprise assault on the Austrian army and in May 1800 he and his army of more than 40,000 men spent five days crossing the St Bernard Pass. Napoleon’s military tactic was successful and resulted in his victory at Marengo.

       Here is David’s great propaganda portrait of a dashing young hero on a white stallion leading his army over the mountains. Napoleon did not actually lead his troops over the Alps at all but followed a couple of days after them, travelling on a narrow path on the back of an unpicturesque mule. Napoleon refused to sit for this portrait : “Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there.” One of David’s sons stood in for him, dressed up in the uniform Napoleon had worn at Marengo, perched on top of a ladder. Napoleon, acutely aware of the power of symbolism, insisted on an equestrian portrait.

       Like everybody else in Europe, Turner was fascinated by Napoleon. He had not yet been to Italy in 1812 when he painted Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

       Another great warrior, Hannibal, is leading his armies over the mountains to attack Italy. For Turner there were obvious connections between the two men,  also between the Punic War between Rome and Carthage and the Napoleonic wars that were then raging between Britain and France. He had seen David’s heroic painting of Napoleon during a visit to Paris in 1802.

       By 1818 Mr. B. Emery, of Charing Cross London, was organizing stagecoach tours of Switzerland. Hikers, mountaineers and honeymoon couples began to cross the Alps and it all became rather less sublime.

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    I am two novels along since I published THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER with Penguin in March 2016. For those who read my post last month you will know that my latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, to be published 16th May 2019, is set in Paris during the 1968 student riots, and from there the story unfolds.

    Usually, when a book or any work of mine has been completed, I move on. Except for editorial or marketing purposes, I find it very difficult to revisit the material because I worry over how I might have improved it. THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER seems to be an exception. Not because I am pleased with my work but because there is such a richesse of material that I might have used, and might still use one day.
    The story is set on a family-owned vineyard in the south of France. Within the family, there are secrets and factions. Jane, the English woman who moves into the family when she marries Luc, the French son of Clarisse, the widowed proprietor of the vineyard, only begins to discover how deep and dark are those secrets when a tragedy occurs. Clarisse, her mother-in-law, is a pied noir, a black foot, a French woman, an ex-colonialist, born and raised in Algeria. Her son Luc was also born there. They fled to France at the end of the Algerian war in the summer of 1962, soon after De Gaulle gave independence to Algeria. Once safely arrived in France, they set up home on the vineyard, which is where the main action of the novel takes place.

    I must be honest and say that when I delivered the book to my agent and it went to auction there was a background seam within the story that I had not entirely dared to address. The shadows lurking from the Algerian past of two of the main characters were hinted at, but not followed through. It was only when Maxine Hitchcock, my editor at Michael Joseph, Penguin, acquired the book and sent through her notes to me that I was encouraged to face head on those shadows, the ghosts I was writing about.
    Behind the beauty and seductive landscape of the South of France, there lies a a more lurid past, Luc and Clarisse's, set in French-ruled Algeria.

    Why am I returning in my thoughts to THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER and that bloody period in French history?  President Emmanuel Macron has recently made a gesture that might go some way to healing this troubled past.

    France's relationship to the country that was, for close to one hundred and fifty years, its unwilling colony, remains complex and unresolved. The French colonials who inhabited that large tract of northern Africa lived well at the expense of the Algerians.

    In 1954, when the Algerian War of Independence, finally got under way, after many years of conflict, subordination and cruelty, France, not long after relinquishing all its claims to Indo-China, (its colonial territories in Southeast Asia including Vietnam) found itself yet again embroiled in an ugly and very costly war. This time on the southern side of the Mediterranean, the northern part of the continent of Africa.

    To this day, the very mention of Algeria causes many French citizens to draw breath. The cruelties that took place before, during the eight-year war of independence and even after Charles de Gaulle had granted the country its independence, conjure up feelings of shame, confusion, even pain and anger for many French. For a mixture of reasons. It remains the past that most prefer not to visit and don't talk about. Algeria, and France's treatment of its Algerian citizens, had been brushed under the carpet for a half a century. As well, there is a large population in France, French citizens, who are descended from Algerians who were obliged to flee the land of their birth at the end of the independence war because they had fought with the French. Once victory had been assured, they were condemned as traitors back at home. The punishments meted out by the new Algerian regime were harsh; in many cases death sentences by lynch mobs. France offered refuge to these ex-soldiers and their families. De Gaulle took them in, promised them equality, pensions, education for their children etc. Much of those promises have never been fully honoured or are only now recognised as debts that are due. It has created appalling conditions and resentments for the fourth and fifth generation French-Algerians living, mostly, in the poorest suburbs in France. They feel disenfranchised, lost, lacking allegiance. It makes them prime candidates for recruitment by the likes of ISIS.
    They are perceived as a French "problem". A result of the "troubles".

    In 2012 on a state visit to Algeria, fifty years after the end of that war, President François Hollande acknowledged the appalling treatment of the Algerians during the 132-year occupation of their country and during the French-Algerian war. Hollande was the first to take this step, to admit to the brutalities that had taken place during the occupation and during the war. He did not, however, apologise.

    François Hollande in Algiers in 2012

    Many Algerians and some French were disappointed by the fact that, although this was a very necessary and long overdue first step towards a new era, new relations, between the two nations, no apology was forthcoming. During the time I spent in Algeria when I was working on my non-fiction book, THE OLIVE ROUTE, I began to get a sense of the the damage done to Algerian people during all those years of oppression; it had rooted itself deeply. For example, many spoke to me about the lack of education opportunities for their children and, without schooling, the dearth of possibilities to rise within their own country's system, for them to have a voice.  As in South Africa and my own country of Ireland, when even one generation or two are given no opportunities to learn, to read, to engage, another form of poverty is created, an intellectual poverty, and that takes more than those one or two generations to re-enrich the system, to erase  the hatred and anger and frustration and replace those energies with more positive responses to oppression.

    In THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, Algeria and its occupation under the French, is not the central theme in the book, not by any means. It is more a shadow that hangs over the characters. One of the reasons I was hesitant about including this aspect of the material, of addressing it head-on, was because the French themselves have barely addressed it in their literature and cinema, although that is slowly changing. (Jean-Luc Godard attempted a film in 1960, but it was banned.) Also, because, as I have written above, it is an unresolved period in modern French history.

    I have received many letters from readers who tell me they had known little if anything about this period of France's twentieth-century past. France in Vietnam is far more widely written about. Some readers have gone on to dig out material, to acquaint themselves more fully with that period. This pleases me greatly, as it would any writer. And the subject stays with me. Questions nag at me. I feel reasonably confident that, at some point, I will return to this subject, to write another book set in France, in Algeria. I don't know precisely what it will be, but there remains so much there yet to be mined.

    It is an evolving story. Layers of history being peeled away to uncover what really lies beneath the surface. Fascinating for any writer.

    Maurice Audin, tortured and murdered by the French State at the age of 25.

    And so, when I read in the news several weeks ago ago that Emmanuel Macron (who was not even born at the time of the Algerian war) has gone a step further than Hollande, I felt that France might finally be making headway. Macron has offered up evidence to the torture and murder by the French state of one of their own citizens, Maurice Audin.
    Audin was French, a journalist. But orders had been given to do whatever it took to crush the fight for Algeria's independence, to punish anyone who showed allegiance to the Algerian cause. Audin was a twenty-five-year-old mathematician, a communist, a reporter, and an ardent supporter of the Algerian Nationalists. Since his disappearance in 1957, more than half a century ago, Audin's family have searched and badgered to find out the truth about what really happened to the young man, who disappeared without trace. His widow, Josette, wrote letters every day, letter after letter, determined to root out the truth. The truth of Audin's ignominious end was buried and has remained out of reach until last month when Macron revealed the truth. He handed to the family an official document confirming that the French state had been directly responsible for the death of Audin.

    I thought of this incident again last week after reading of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  The impenetrability of state lies and subterfuge.
    The pain and angst for the victim's loved ones. The never knowing.

                    Here is Macron in the presence of Michèle Audin, daughter of the late Maurice Audin. When this photograph was taken, they had both just left the home of 87-year-old Josette Audin, Maurice's widow, who has lived for sixty-one years without ever knowing what became of her young husband, the father of her three children. Michèle was three years old when her father went 'missing'.

    It was a summer evening, 11th July 1957. French paratroopers burst into the apartment on the third floor of the block where the Audin family lived in Algiers. Maurice was dragged away and never seen or heard of again. Now, it has been admitted by Macron that he was tortured and murdered on instructions from the State. At the time, Josette was told that her husband 'had been shot while trying to escape'.
    She never remarried. The fight for justice became her raison d'être. She wrote to every new president after his election begging for the truth.
    Until Macron, every French president has preferred to avoid the brutalities of the war, never owning up to France's role in the executions of those who sympathised with the Algerian cause.

    Shortly after he was elected, Macron contacted Josette to reassure her that he was willing to address the matter. The official statement from the Elysée Palace is the result. An end to the silence and denial. In this one instance.

    But will Macron's gesture make any real difference at this late stage? I hope it will offer Audin's family the possibility of laying the horrors and concealed past to rest. I also believe that it is an important step in the process of healing between the French State, its citizens, Algeria and the Algerians who are residents in France. It will, I think, help move all parties towards a reconciliation with the nation's recent colonial history, its shameful past.

    There is dignity is Macron's decision to come clean about this story. One story, I fear, of many.

    Maurice Audin was a young Frenchman who spoke out against his own government and openly reproached its inhuman behaviour towards its citizens. His open criticism cost him his life. Macron's admission of the facts of Audin's torture and death and the fact that France used torture as a means to its ends throughout the Algerian war came ahead of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but as the world looks on in horror at the lies, the foul play, the mourning and grief Khashoggi's family is suffering, it makes this almost forgotten French story all the more poignant. Both men died under conditions no wild beast should be obliged to suffer. Audin's death is history to most, except to his family and, perhaps, French political historians.  However, the calculated murder of journalists, the treatment of those who speak out against a regime is, tragically, obviously not history, given the recent events in Istanbul.

    Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, our right to criticise, to call to account those who govern on our behalf: this is what is at stake. Macron's willingness to admit to the state's guilt is, I believe, at this time, so important not only for the history of France but for all of us and the world we are living in.

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    The Norfolk wedding of Rachel Gurney & Rosslyn Bruce, 1908

    Just one hundred and ten years ago this month my grandmother, Rachel Gurney married Rosslyn Bruce at Northrepps in Norfolk. Rachel, aged 21, was the oldest daughter of untitled landed gentry, and Rosslyn, 37, the 7th child of a poor but well-connected vicar. Both of them were descended from 11th Century Norman invaders. They met after Rosslyn, the rector of a Nottingham parish, broke his leg out fox-hunting and was sent by his best friend, a socialist MP called Noel Buxton, to convalesce with Buxton’s cousins, the Gurneys of Northrepps.
    Rosslyn and Rachel fell in love. But it was not always easy. When Rachel’s nerves became frayed during their wedding preparations, she wrote to Rosslyn, ‘You Bruces are quite unordinary in your huge amount of love. I have got mine in me, only I can’t show it like you do.’ Rosslyn replied offering ‘double thoughtfulness, in thoughtful devotion, in not being too outwardly devoted.’ Rachel replied, ‘You don’t understand a bit… because you haven’t always lived in the same house with the same mother all your life and you are not very young like me, and you know all about the great world and I don’t.’ 
    The bridal carriage was pulled by two new horses called
    Bryant & May - because they were such a good match.
    As Rachel and her brother Quintin trotted in the family carriage and pair through the village festooned with bunting, Quintin asked her, ‘I suppose you know the facts of life? Because I don’t.’
    The year was 1908 and the Easter Daily Press reported: ‘Never before had the inhabitants seen so large a number of such beautifully appointed and powerful motor cars. Within the church, the pulpit was treated with chrysanthemums.’ 
    'Miss Gurney's wedding, bridesmaids, page's and travelling costumes' in The Queen
    Rachel’s wedding dress of white, silk satin was described by her mother Evelyn in the Parish Magazine: ‘made en princesse, with a Court train of satin, it was lined with masses of chiffon. Over a myrtle wreath was a veil of lovely old Brussells lace, which had been worn by her mother and grandmother. She carried a choice bouquet of lilies, carnations and stephanotis.’ Her seven adult bridesmaids, all sisters or cousins, wore huge hats swathed with tulle and their trailing bouquets were attached to shepherd’s crooks. The two page boys wore scarlet woolen Peter Pan suits, in homage to Rosslyn’s friend, James Barrie. Rosslyn’s uncle who was a Bishop, aided by three other related parsons, took the service. The 14th century flint church was packed.
    The bridal party (the groom still limping) left the church under a crimson striped awning. Evelyn conveyed the scene: ‘Brilliantly coloured beech leaves were showered upon the bride from baskets carried by children of the Sunday school’ in new scarlet woolen cloaks. ‘Meantime the wedding bells were firing away and ringing a merry peal.’ An arch of evergreen had been erected over the road bearing the mottoes ‘Health and Happiness to the Bride and Bridegroom’ and ‘God Bless You Both’. At the entrance gate to the bride’s home, Northrepps Hall, was another one reading ‘Joy and Happiness to Both’ and 'Success to Bride and Bridegroom'. 
    The evergreen arch leading to the bride's home, Northrepps Hall.
    After a reception in a marquee in the walled garden, the couple left for a five-week honeymoon in Italy. Thomas Cook’s first-class train tickets to Lugano cost £30 for two.
    A few days later the villagers were invited to tea in the marquee to look at the presents. They included a silver tea pot from the parish committee, a travelling clock from the church choir and silver sugar tongs from the Sunday school. Rosslyn gave Rachel an upright Bechstein piano; she gave him a watch and a shooting stick. Rachel’s mother gave her a trousseau costing £404 and 2 shillings, which included three riding habits, six pairs of hunting boots, and enough serge suits, cloaks, combinations (knickers) and flannel nightgowns to last her entire life. Mrs Carter, the coachman’s wife was paid a pound for marking bodices, linen and 96 pairs of stockings. I inherited one of the dozen hand-embroidered white lawn night-gowns and wore it while ‘lying-in’ after the birth of my babies.
    As a child, I watched my granny gardening in one of the Sunday School’s scarlet woolen cloaks. Beside her front door was a myrtle bush grown from her wreath, which she claimed came from the bush at Osborne House grown from Queen Victoria’s wedding wreath.

    Rachel's satin wedding shoes and gloves, on the Sunday School cloak.
    Just 63 years later I was married in the same Norfolk church; and two months after that Rachel’s funeral was held there too. At both events, the packed congregation included three of Rachel’s bridesmaids, and we all sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.
    The completed Bruce family at Northrepps in 1920.
    Verily, Erroll, Rhalou, Lorema and Merlin.

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    by Ruth Downie




    The loss of Vilbia is the most famous cold case that’s come down to us from the Romano-British town of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath). The aggrieved party – whose name we don’t know – called up the goddess Sulis Minerva’s help by writing the suspects’ names on a thin sheet of lead, rolling it up and throwing it in the pool above her sacred hot spring. It wasn’t alone: well over a hundred other curses have been found buried in the silt and others may be hidden there still.

    Most of the spidery letters on the scraps of lead are the work of victims asking Sulis Minerva to avenge a crime. Some name the suspects. Some don’t say what they did: presumably the goddess knew what Britivenda and Venibelia had been up to and could punish them accordingly.

    Often, though, the victim had no idea who had wronged them. The curse on the modern reproduction below translates as “the name of the culprit who stole my bracelet…” There’s a space left, but no name in it.

    When no likely evildoer could be identified, the aggrieved party often reminded the goddess to suspect everyone, “whether man or woman, slave or free.” Children could be in the frame too -“whether boy or girl” - and once, “whether pagan or Christian”.

    Some victims offered Sulis Minerva a share of the stolen goods if they were recovered – a sort of ‘no win, no fee’ deal, with the suggestion that the hot property could be handed in anonymously at the temple.

    A few of the lead sheets are blank. Others bear rows of squiggles, perhaps put there by people who knew what writing looked like but couldn’t actually do it. All but two seem to have been in different handwriting: some educated, some very clearly not. Writing backwards might have made the curse more powerful: it certainly made for more spelling mistakes. But no matter what was being written, the sight of a stylus waking the dull surface of the lead into a gleaming message for the goddess might have frightened the guilty party into repentance.

    If the culprit didn’t co-operate, though, bad things lay in store. Docimedis, whose gloves had gone missing, demanded that the thief should lose his minds [sic] and his eyes. Anyone even remotely involved in the theft of Basilia’s silver ring was to be accursed in blood, eyes and every limb, or even have all his or her intestines eaten away.

    Sometimes the thief’s whole family was cursed. And sometimes the curses were subtle enough to work on the conscience. Whoever stole Docilianus’s cloak was to be deprived of both sleep and children until the cloak was returned to the temple. Whether or not he [or she, slave or free] knew the exact wording of the curse, it’s not hard to imagine them lying awake in the night watches and wondering whether they would get a better night’s sleep tomorrow if they got up now and delivered the stolen goods to Sulis Minerva under cover of darkness.

    Bath isn’t alone in having a fine collection of curses: they turn up all over the Roman empire. There are attempts to silence witnesses, to sabotage racehorses, and to crush business competitors and love rivals. Most of the Bath curses, though, seem to be about thefts from the bath-house, although one poor chap had his house burgled. The crimes must have been very annoying for the victims, but as a writer looking to set a murder mystery in Aquae Sulis, I have to say there wasn’t as much instant plot in them as I’d hoped.

    Even the apparent kidnap of Vilbia might have been less dramatic than it seems. Roger Tomlin, the modern translator, points out that the word has never been found anywhere else. The stolen “vilbia” might simply be an inanimate object with a name that none of us now understands. But while Vilbia doesn’t provide a ready-made plot and cast of characters, the curses as a whole give a lively insight into a busy town and the everyday struggles of its people to thrive and survive. And perhaps of the wider divisions between them.

    We know that Roman citizens lived in the town (some of their tombstones have turned up, proudly announcing the three-part names that show social superiority), but none of the curses has a citizen’s name on it. All the complainants and culprits seem to be either lower-class Latin-speakers or native Britons. That might be because, as Pliny put it, the Britons were enthusiastic practitioners of magic while all good Romans ought to look down their noses at it (yes, I am paraphrasing wildly here). It might also be because the poorer you were, the less chance you had of owning a slave who would guard your kit while you were bathing.

    Even if you knew who’d done it, in the absence of a police force there wasn’t much you could do unless you had powerful friends or plenty of cash. At a guess, Arminia had neither. She knew exactly who’d made off with her two silver coins – it was Verecundinus, son of Terentius - but getting them back had to be left to the goddess. 

    Did Verecundinus pay up? Or did he suffer the punishment of being unable to sit, lie down, walk or sleep? We don’t know. For us, at least, none of these cold cases is resolved. But people believed in the curses enough to carry on throwing them into the spring for over two hundred years. There might have been no police officers to investigate crime, but even while you slept, that lump of lead hidden under the steaming surface of Sulis Minerva’s waters could be working its revenge on your enemies. And that must have felt good.

    Roger Tomlin’s work on the Aquae Sulis curses - from which much of this information is drawn - can be found in The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, Vol 2: The Finds from the Sacred Spring – Barry Cunliffe et al – OUCA Monograph no 16, 1988

    Read more about the site at

    Ruth writes a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. The latest is MEMENTO MORI, set in Aquae Sulis.

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    October's guest is Cynthia Jefferies, better known to some of us as Cindy, the name she used for her children's books.

    Cynthia Jefferies is a long-established writer for children, whose work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She was born in Gloucestershire and her love of history was encouraged by regular family outings to anything of interest, from great cathedrals to small museums. Having moved to Scotland and back to Stroud, she has always made time to write and her abiding interest in Restoration England has never left her. The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is her first historical novel for adults.

    Author's Website:

    The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan…not a jolly book for children!

    There I was, making a few notes about a new story for children. The protagonist would be a comic, rather hapless, gangly innkeeper, whose village had fallen on hard times, but I just couldn’t get the story to fly.

    Many writers will recognise that moment when you realise your idea is a non starter. I came at it from several different directions, but no matter how I approached it, the poor fellow simply became sadder. He obviously wasn’t cut out to be the main character in a funny story for 9-12’s, but neither would he leave me alone.

    He had recently returned to England from the continent after the Restoration and had every reason to feel distraught. Even so, it was quite a stretch to get from those faltering beginnings to researching C17th Prostheses, the teredo worm and early nurserymen. All of this was needed in the novel that grew out of that insistent character, but the research that took the most time and thought was the prosthesis, in the story that became The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan.

    Science Museum, London
    People have been making replacements for lost limbs with various success from the earliest times. There is the ancient Egyptian big toe, enabling the wearer to manage sandals, the unsavoury Italian who replaced his lost hand with a knife, and reputedly tightened the straps holding in on with his teeth. There is also the arm owned by Gotz von Berlichingen in the C16th. Actually he had two made, both of which are on display at Jagsthausen Castle. I haven’t managed to see them, but in the great hall at Cotehele, that wonderful National Trust property on the Tamar in Cornwall, there is another, similar metal hand and forearm. Its history isn’t known, but it attracts a huge amount of interest from visitors. So much so that a few years ago money was raised to make a replica, so that the workmanship could be explored more closely without damaging the original. It is a wonderful piece of engineering. The hand can be made to open or close into a fist by means of a lever at the wrist, and the thumb can close onto the fingers, making it a truly useful replacement hand.

    It was exactly what one of my characters needed.

    There can be little positive to be said about losing a limb. It has to be an extreme experience, performed in a modern hospital to save a life, or happening by accident or design, hundreds of years ago. Once a limb was lost, the question must have been the same in the C17th as it is now. How best to manage the situation, both emotionally and physically? As always, top of the range solutions cost money, lots of it, and the Cotehele hand must have been expensive, affirming status as well as practicality. Covered in skin coloured suede it must, at a cursory glance, have been almost indistinguishable from a real hand. Was that only to improve grip, or also to make the wearer feel happier with his appearance? What isn’t apparent with the Cotehele hand until you pick it up is its great weight. As far as you can get from Captain Hook or Edward Scissorhands, this hand doesn’t need attachments to become useful, or indeed to become a weapon.

    Neither Abel Morgan, nor his father own this hand, but it is outrageous fortune that brings them into contact with it, and its owner. From a sad character who wouldn’t leave me alone, to an artificial hand and arm, researching this novel has certainly indulged the autodidact in me. A bullet extractor, liquefaction, rumfustian and a remembered pair of shoes: writing The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan has led me down some blind alleys and has also turned up some absolute gems.

    For me, the journey has been fascinating. It has launched me into a new direction, writing historical fiction for adults. I had always planned to write for adults, but the success I had some years ago with series fiction for children pushed that plan to the back of my mind. Now, at last, thanks to the insistent character that wouldn’t leave me alone, I am following my original ambition, with a second C17th novel on the way. Will I ever write for children again? I have no idea, but when a character comes along and insists on being heard, it’s the job of a writer to listen. Where that can lead is anyone’s

    The outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is published by Allison and Busby in hardback on 22nd November 2018 at £19.99.

    (This novel will be reviewed by Adèle Geras on 7th November)

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    As its Halloween, it is almost obligatory that I should write about things that go bump in the night. This year, I’ve been enjoying my spooky fix via Sky’s Discovery of Witches– a TV series featuring witches, vampires and demons, based on the All Souls trilogy of books by Deborah Harkness. I first read – and greatly enjoyed - the books some years ago, and have to admit to rather mixed feelings about the TV series. The actors are generally great (although personally I’m not sure about all the casting choices!) and the cinematography and locations are beautiful. But, as is inevitable with any adaptation, they’ve had to leave things out, or at least not give them the prominence they receive in the novels.

    In Harkness’ books, the Twilight-style romance is leavened with a real passion for history. The protagonist Diana has a non-magical career an academic historian, and her love for the subject – or rather, that of Harkness (herself a professional historian before she turned to novel-writing) really shines through. In particular, significant time and space within the novels is devoted to loving, meticulous descriptions of the illuminated manuscripts Diana studies (and which cause her such supernatural trouble – her discovery of a bewitched book kicks off the plot).

    The only other place where I’ve read such bewitching (excuse the pun) yet accurate descriptions of medieval manuscripts is in Christopher de Hamel’s wonderful Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (if you’ve not yet read it, it is worth getting your hands on the hardback version for the beauty and quality of the reproductions.) Taking one manuscript per century between the C6th and C16th, de Hamel walks his readers through what it is like to see, feel, touch and smell the reality of these rare and precious objects, as well as explaining the historical and social conditions in which they were created. It is accessible, scholarly and passionate; beautiful and illuminating all at once, as perfect and jewelled as the manuscripts he describes. 

    So, my item for the Cabinet of Curiosities this month? Definitely a medieval manuscript. But I’m torn. My personal favourite from de Hamel’s book is the fourteenth century Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, with its stunning and intricate gothic illuminations. But I do wonder if I might be allowed Diana’s fictional, magical Book of Life, explaining through alchemical imagery the origins and destinies of vampires, witches, demons and humans?

    Well, it is Halloween, when the veil between the mundane and the magical is supposedly at its thinnest, so maybe, just maybe…

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  • 10/30/18--17:01: October competition
  • To win a copy of Cynthia Jefferies' The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan, just answer the question below in the Comments section:

    "Which character from a book you enjoyed as a child would you like to see in adult fiction, written as an adult or a child?"

    Then send a copy of your answer to, so that we can contact you if you win.

    Closing date 7th November

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

    Good luck! 


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    How to upstage a queen

    Jill Armitage's previous book was about Arbella Stuart, a possible claimant to the throne of England when Elizabeth l died, and she does make a cameo appearance here. But the star of the show - and the "Countess" of the title is Bess of Hardwick, who was Arbella's grandmother.

    I don't know if it's just that we know so much already about the Tudor queens and the Scottish thorn in Elizabeth's side but Bess would be a remarkable woman in any age. She was born in humble circumstances, the third child of a second son, a gentleman but only of minor gentry.

    Elizabeth was always known as Bess, fortunately for us, or there would be two Elizabeths as well as two Marys in this book. Her first marriage was as a teenager, to a boy younger than herself, who died the following year. She never lived with Robert Barlow and is likely to have been a virgin widow. Nevertheless she had some claim on his property and spent a long time at law, trying to get anything out of his family.

    Three years after Robert's death, Bess, still only around twenty years old, married Sir William Cavendish. They were married for ten years, until his death, during which time she bore him eight children, six of whom lived to be adults - a good record for the 16th century. Sir William had property in Derbyshire, including the Chatsworth Estates. (His heirs became the Dukes of Devonshire, who still own Chatsworth House. Andrew Cavendish was married to the famous "Debo," née Mitford, who made Chatsworth House what it is today. I think Bess would have approved of her.)

    Bess of Hardwick in later life
    When Sir William died, after ten years of marriage, Bess was responsible for his two surviving daughters from an earlier marriage as well as her own six children. By now Lady Cavendish was still only around thirty years old and good-looking and she attracted many suitors. So a couple of years later she married, for the third time, to Sir William St. Loe. He had two daughters by a previous marriage too but at his death, six years later, he left everything to Bess, cutting out his own children and his younger brother, who might well have poisoned him.

    Bess was now a very wealthy woman, with an annual income worth millions in today's terms. She soon attracted another husband, her fourth and last, George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Countess Shrewsbury's vast income was appropriated by her husband in the custom of the time. But she was now a significant person at court, being one of Queen Elizabeth's Ladies of the Bedchamber.

    The Earl had seven children already and two of his sons married two of Bess's young daughters in the year of their parents' marriage. Whether the Earl and Countess's marriage would have been happy in the long term, we can't know but Jill Armitage makes it clear that it didn't stand a chance once they had visited on them a Royal house guest.

    Mary, known as Queen of Scots, was billeted on them by her cousin Queen Elizabeth shortly after their marriage and remained with them, under virtual house arrest, for the next fifteen years. But they didn't stay in one place: they were constantly on the move from one of their homes to another. And Mary had an extensive entourage and was expensive to keep. And of course there were constant plots to release her, to topple or assassinate Elizabeth and put a Catholic queen on the throne again.

    Mary, Queen of Scots
    I have never understood the fascination with this Mary. At least, I do understand it but don't share it. She is supposed to have been very charismatic and charming but her actions are quite repellent. She and Bess, who would have been ten years or more older, a mature female confidante, who treated the imprisoned queen with kindness, used to sit together doing embroidery to pass the long days of Mary's imprisonment.

    It would have been natural for the two women to have chatted and gossiped, to have exchanged confidences, as women friends do. But, according to Jill Armitage,  Mary used the rumours Bess unwisely passed on about the English queen's love life, to get her into trouble and put her out of favour.

    And it seems she also used her charms on the ageing Earl, flirting with him and alienating him from his wife. Whether this is true or not, the Shrewsburys' marriage was on the rocks and they lived virtually apart for the ten years before his death. That was three years after Mary's execution at Fotheringhay Castle.

    The Earl's death left Bess as Dowager Duchess of Shrewsbury and mother-in-law to the new Earl, Gilbert, who was married to her daughter, Mary. She was free to do as she liked for the first time for decades and what she liked was building projects. She was a shrewd business woman and always fought for her rights, from the day of her first husband's death. She was the second richest woman in England after the queen, enjoying income from the Barlow, Cavendish and St. Loe estates and a third of that from the Shresbury estates.

    She also had a life interest in several properties, including land near her birthplace in Hardwick, where she set about building the new, now famous, Hardwick Hall. It had an unusual amount of glass for a late 16th century manor house and was much admired. Bess moved into Hardwick Hall around her seventieth birthday. She ordered a grand funeral monument for herself but lived until she was 81 in 1608, outliving Elizabeth and the other queens in this book.

    Before Elizabeth, there was Lady Jane Grey, the "nine days queen" and then Mary Tudor, the first Monarch of England in her own right.

    Lady Jane Grey - the Streatham portrait
     In any other context, Lady Jane would have been the heroine of this narrative. As I wrote in my story "Learn to Die" in the History Girls' anthology Daughters of Time (Templar 2014), she was not the helpless pawn she has sometimes been portrayed as, but a young woman of steely determination and unshakable Protestant faith. Bess of Hardwick was a friend of the family and Lady Jane was godmother to her second child, a daughter called Temperance, who sadly died in infancy.

    Four years after this Lady Jane Grey was named as Edward Vl's heir and embarked on the disastrous course that led to her execution.

    Because the people rejected her claim, albeit one sanctioned by the late boy king, and preferred Henry Vlll's daughter Mary.

    This was a tricky time for Bess and her husband of the time, William Cavendish, who were both Protestants. But Queen Mary became godmother to their fifth child, a son called Charles. A shrewd choice in the circumstances.

    Bess of Hardwick remains the real star of this book and I'd love to read a book just about her. She was one of the most remarkable women to emerge in Renaissance England and lived a life as eventful as any queen's.

    Jill Armitage, author of Four Queens and a Countess

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    This weekend reminded me that big events, especially tragic ones, can touch our lives and change our lives. When they appear in fiction, we have feelings about them. The reason I don’t read a lot of fiction set in Europe during World War II is because when I was six, I realised that a pile of corpses in a picture were not only human beings, but could well haveincluded cousins. I had to ask my parents about the pictures, even though I knew full well they’d not sugarcoat it and they said “Yes, that’s right,” and sat me down and talked me through the Holocaust and some of the things it meant for me. When I read Anne Frank’s diary as an early teen, I was ready.

    Why did I ask my parents and not my parents’ friends, some of whom were far more up on history and would have been able to explain things more gently? Melbourne at that time had one of the highest number of Holocaust refugees in the world. I was taught not to ask any of my parents’ friends about their childhoods or about modern history. 

    This is one of the historical events that changed my life, even though it happened before I was born. I knew from when I was a child that people would hate me because I was Jewish and that I had to be patient with them, because it was something they’d inherited without question and I was able to question. That it was my responsibility to handle the impossible. I don’t always handle it well, but that’s a different matter.

    Today I found out how many parents of Jewish children are having to explain to their children this week, “It’s not safe.” This is what I was told and it hurts to hear any child having to endure it. I’ve heard it said to children whose parents endured the Vietnam War, the Cambodian… this is an aspect of most wars and of far too much bigotry. There are groups who are not respected and who are more likely to be targeted or to be casualties. There are some books, then, we can’t read because of how the shape of history affects us. Fiction is not neutral in our lives.

    The hurt can help us find out what kind of approach the fiction writer takes to their work and help us work out of this is a book we should read or not. It can also tell us a lot about the writer and what sort of cultural baggage theycarry. 

    My research project includes many components and one is to find out how Jews are depicted in historical fantasy. I started the Jewish element two years ago because I could see the rise in hate and I wanted to understand how our fiction could be part of a culture that supports hate. It was research I would have been doing in any case, but it’s slow because I keep taking a break from it. My research is emotionally tough. It tells me over and over, “Your parents were right – you’re not safe.” Not because the writers themselves are going to hurt me. I know many writers and they are good human beings. The problem is that one doesn't have to be a bad human being to unintentionally support the cultural narrative of those who do the hurting.

    How does this work?

    Let me say up front, that historical fiction is quite different in this to historical fantasy, but there’s overlap. Also, that there are different patterns entirely when the work is by a Jewish writer. Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, for instance, breaks the rules in a glorious way.

    The first thing I discovered was that, for most historical fantasy, Jews are seldom allowed to be core characters. When there are central Jewish characters (CJ Sansom’s world, for instance) they do a certain amount of duty or suffer a certain amount before they’re allowed to come forward or they fit a set of stereotypes. Jews can be moneylenders or criminals or spies, for instance (Eric Flint’s work makes one of the great Jewish families subversive in this way). Secret power is given to Jews in fiction (unintentionally supporting the Jewish conspiracy fiction), but actual power is not.

    What did this mean to me when the news about Squirrel Hill broke on Saturday? What does it mean to the parents of the children who are scared? It means that the vast majority of strong models (strong characters appearing across fiction ie not secondary characters only, not contained to a tony field) are within noels written by Jewish writers. Jewish readers do not see acceptance of who we actually are in historical fantasy. We see stereotypes. Sometimes they’re fascinating attempts to break stereotypes: Naomi Novik’s new novel about a moneylending family is this. But it fails on the safety test, because her idea of moneylending is so far removed from what I know about real lives in small towns. 

    One of the powers of historical fiction (fantastical, realistic , somewhere in between or something else entirely) is that emotional link between events we know or that touch us and the reading we do. When bias emerges within story, however unintentionally, we, as writers, are reinforcing the situation that has parents telling their children, “Don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish – it’s not safe.”

    This applies to all the core characters in fiction. Are there other minority groups who would have been there in that place at that time (England after the Crusades was not as white as most fiction depicts it)? Are there women? Are there people with disabilities? 

    The question is not whether every single novel we read has characters that come from a range of backgrounds. The novel has to work as a novel and it ought to reflect the historical background.
    I said this to a group of writers last year and one said, “I’m writing about Richard I – I can keep it white and male and able-bodied because that was who he was and who he mixed with.” A novel about the private life of Richard I may have Jewish characters and someone he knew may well have been murdered at his coronation – that’s within the boundaries of likelihood. A friend of his might have damaged themselves due to archery (for archery is hard on the body and too much archery can hurt. There would certainly be women in his life, too. Just because Richard and his bet friends wee white and male and able-bodied doesn't mean that every single person he mixed with was the same.

    Leaving out all these people is a choice the author makes. 

    Did Richard ever meet anyone with dark skin? How could he not, when he went to the Middle East on crusade? He was in a place where there was big international trade: not everyone was White European and not everyone was Christian. 

    Authors choose what we want in our fiction and those choices reflect who we are. Because of that picture when I was six, I try to include major characters who are Jewish in over half my novels. I want people reading my fiction to know that those people who have told me (as some have), “The only good Jew is a dead Jew” are creating their own fiction, and that there are other stories one can tell.

    That’s the thing. It’s not the choices made for a specific book that create our culture. It’s how all the books in a culture fit together. It’s not having everyone from a single background in one or two novels, it’s applying those restrictions to all novels. It's how all the books we read create material which we use to interpret our own lives.

    There’s a link between the narrowness of the depiction of characters from a minority background and how that minority is treated in real life. Fagin was based on a real person. Ikey Solomon was depicted as a quite different person in fiction to what he was in real life. Dickens used stereotypes to create Fagin and every time “Oliver!” is shown around me, I can hear the questions and the tensions ramp up a notch.

    Writer choices are critical components in how we experience culture and how we interpret our worlds and live our lives.

    I didn’t intend to write a polemic. I feel as if I ought to apologise. Maybe I should do something one step better than an apology, though.

    If you have favourite historical fantasy that has key characters who aren’t villains from any of those backgrounds (minority religion, minority race, women, has disabilities or mental health problems) please write a comment here telling us about them or send me a note through twitter of Facebook. If the list becomes long enough (I can dream!) I’ll chase down more detail and share it with you all. Let me start the ball rolling with one of my favourite fiction characters: Benjamin January, in a series about him by Barbara Hambly.

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    Some months ago, the brilliant @WomensArt1 account tweeted an image of a small linen jacket embroidered all over with lettering. They explained it had been created by a woman forced into an  asylum in the 1800s, who had stitched her life story onto her clothing. It seemed an extraordinary item, so I determined to find out more about the jacket and the woman who created it.

    A Victorian Seamstress

    The woman was Agnes Emma Richter, born in March 1844 near Dresden, Germany, and who made her living as a seamstress. In 1893, police admitted Agnes to a local mental institution because of complaints from her neighbours. It seems she told them that people were plotting to steal her money and she ‘believed her life to be in danger’. This led to a diagnosis of paranoia. Increasingly angry and ‘non-compliant’ with her incarceration, she was transferred in 1895 to Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution near Dresden.

    The admitting physician described Agnes as a ‘poorly-nourished pale woman with very animated eyes and facial expression who looks old for her years.’ On admission, Agnes would have been stripped of her possessions, dressed in the uniform of the institution, and forced to submit to its rituals. It was perhaps in an attempt to retain her identity and her memories that she began to sew lines of writing into the linen jacket she was given.

    ‘I plunge headlong into disaster’

    The lines of overlapping red, yellow, blue, orange and white threaded text are almost impossible to read. Many were sewn on the inside of the jacket and have worn away with use. In some places the thread has unravelled. However, several phrases have been deciphered, including ‘I am not big’, ‘I wish to read’, ‘my jacket’, ‘my brother,’ 'no cherries', ‘I am in Hubertusburg’ and ‘I plunge headlong into disaster’. Her hospital number, 583m, appears repeatedly. It is clear that Agnes wore the jacket, as it bears marks of use, including sweat stains. It also has a darted back, which may be an alteration for what her recovered files described as a deformity.


    Agnes remained in the asylum for the rest of her life, dying there in July 1918. Her words, however, live on. Her jacket was rediscovered in 1980 during an exhibition of the Prinzhorn Collection in Germany. The jacket had been part of the collection of Hans Prinzhorn, an art historian with a particular interest in madness and creativity. Agnes’ jacket is now an iconic piece in the Prinzhorn Collection at Heidelberg, stored in a glass case, with a tag that reads simply, ‘Hand sewn jacket, Agnes Richter, circa 1895.’

    Further reading: 

    Gail A Hornstein, Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness. Rodale Press, Incorporated


    Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction and Gothic fiction. Her first novel, The Unseeing, is about a Victorian seamstress convicted of aiding a murder.

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    The Corlea Trackway

    Not so many elf-mounds this time, though there is a connection to Brú na Bóinne/Newgrange. This post is about an elf-labour undertaken by Midir, 'king of the elf-mounds of Ireland’. (If you missed them, my first two posts about Irish Elf-mounds are here and here.)

    In his fascinating, closely argued book ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’ (Thames and Hudson, 2016) archaeologist and linguist J P Mallory examines the suggestion that Irish mythological cycles preserve some memories and practices of the Irish Bronze or Iron Ages. He concludes (spoiler alert!) that there is little or no evidence for this - and that early medieval clerks mostly back-projected legends on to these highly visible, mysterious monuments. Newgrange, for example, appears in the Tochmarc Étaine (The Wooing of Étaine) as the palace of Oengus foster-son of Midir, ‘king of the elf-mounds of Ireland’, but of course the mound was never any kind of palace.

    There is however one suggestive detail. Midir, this prince of the Sidhe, comes to Bru na Bóinne to ask his foster-son for a gift, and Oengus offers him the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Étain, for his wife. The story soon becomes very complicated: Midir’s original wife Fúamnachis understandably jealous. She transforms Étain into a purple, singing fly which lives for a thousand years before falling into a cup of wine, where it is swallowed by another woman who subsequently gives birth to Étain Mk II.  (The accidental swallowing of small living things - insects or worms or  even grains of wheat - causing pregnancy and birth or rebirth, is a recurrent theme in Celtic mythology.) The reborn Étain is then married to Eochaid king of Tara, and the immortal Midir, still in love with her, has to perform a number of what might well be termed Herculean tasks in order to win  permission from Eochaid to embrace her. One of these tasks is to build a causeway over a bog called Móin Lamraige which no one had ever been able to cross.

     ¶7] Then Eochaid commanded his steward to watch the effort they put forth in making the causeway. The steward went into the bog. It seemed to him as though all the men in the world from sunrise to sunset had come to the bog. They all made one mound of their clothes, and Midir went up on that mound. Into the bottom of the causeway they kept putting a forest with its trunks and roots, Midir standing and urging on the host on every side. One would think that below him all the men of the world were raising a tumult.

    ¶8] After that, clay and gravel and stones are placed upon the bog. Now until that night the men of Ireland used to put the strain on the foreheads of oxen, (but) it was seen that the folk of the elfmounds were putting it on their shoulders. Eochaid did the same, hence he is called Eochaid Airem - or ploughman - for he was the first of the men of Ireland to put a yoke upon the necks of oxen. And these were the words that were on the lips of the host as they were making the causeway: ‘Put in hand, throw in hand, excellent oxen, in the hours after sundown; overhard is the exaction; none knoweth whose is the gain, whose the loss, from the causeway over Móin Lámraige.’ There had been no better causeway in the world, had not a watch been set on them. … Thereafter the steward came to Eochaid and brings tidings of the vast work he had witnessed, and he said there was not on the ridge of the world a magic power that surpassed it. 

    The Wooing of Etain, tr online at

    This legendary causeway is similar to the great Iron Age timber causeway running out into Corlea Bog which was discovered in the 1980s during mechanical peat excavation. The timbers were dated by dendrochonology to 148 BC, and the construction took no longer than a single year. The causeway ended at a small island and is thought to have been made for a ritual purpose: it's estimated to have used the wood of 300 oak trees and must have generated up to a thousand wagonloads. Maybe the Sidhe were involved... However as JP Mallory points out, “The bog swallowed up the trackway soon after it was constructed." This means that no one "a thousand years later .. could generate a contemporary account of its construction.” And he therefore concludes that “it would be churlish not to accept … the argument that that the tale does retain remembrance that once a magnificent road had been built to cross a specific bog.”

    Oh, you might like to know that the love story of Étain and Midir ends happily - for them, if not for poor King Eochaid. When Midir finally succeeds in holding Etain in his arms, the two of them fly up through the rooflight in the shape of two white swans.

    Picture credits

    The Corlea Trackway in County Longford, Ireland, 2009 (I assume a reconstruction):

    Midir and Etain flying up out of Eochaid's hall: “The Frenzied Prince, Being Heroic Stories of Ancient Ireland” 1943. Illustration by Willy Pogány

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    Venice is taking a small stand against all the Disneyfication, cruisification and forgetting of the last decade. A small piece of her history is … we hope … about to be restored to her: a column of infamy.

    I have written previously of my own long campaign to restore this fascinating and important relic of Venice’s early modern history. Not many cities have seven hundredth anniversaries. But Venice has: that of the conspiracy of Baiamonte Tiepolo in 1310, an event that led to the formation of the game-changing Council of Ten, which ruled Venice for the next four-and-a-half centuries.

    In my innocence, thought it would be an excellent idea to resurrect that column for the 2010 anniversary. Venice’s bureaucracy disagreed. Now, where I failed eight years ago, others have at last succeeded.

    Almost. In two senses.

    The restored column is a replica. It’s taken over five years to produce and get permission to put it in the campo of Sant’Agostin, the place where the original column stood as a warning to anyone else who might think of murdering the Doge and setting up a new kind of state.

    The original column has not been lost. It still languishes in the ‘deposito lapidario’ of the Palazzo Ducale, and for reasons best known to themselves, the Venetian Musei Civici are keeping it down there. They have at last included the column in their online register of  works. Catalogue entry Cl. XXV n. 0984 includes two photographs. This is certainly an advance on the tragicomical vacuum of information I found when I was hunting for the column all those years ago.

    Nor is the replica column returning to the site of the original. For years, that spot has been marked by a dirty, broken and hardly explicit stone slab (above), making it seem as if the city were ashamed of what it had – or what it had lost – in the column of infamy.

    The replica column is to be placed closer to the centre of the campo, near the well-head.

    the wellhead in Campo Sant'Agostin

    This drawing shows how the column was damaged
    by a supporter of Baiamonte Tiepolo some years after
    the original conspiracy

    Frustrated by lack of
    access to the real column,
    I commissioned this
    atmospheric painting of it by
    Kaitlin McDonough
    The Soprintendenza dei Beni Culturali has finally approved the new sculpture. However, apart from that intervention, it appears that the re-erection of the column is an entirely citizen-generated and privately funded exercise.

    Venice is indebted to Andrea Bizio Gradenigo and the Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso Carpentieri e Calafati. The work has been executed by the sculptor Riccardo Gatti with the help of Lorenzo Gersich, a student at the liceo artistico at Santo Spirito. The project is sponsored by a travel agent, Albatravel. To celebrate properly, the campo of Sant’Agostin was to a full cleaning at the hands of the Associazione Masegni e Nizoleti. All credit to everyone involved. And the column was supposed to be put in place on the anniversary of the conspiracy, which famously took place on Saint Vito’s day, June 15th, in 1310. It would have made an enormous difference to those of us who care about Venetian history and the column to let that happen.

    Unfortunately, to the very last minute, Venetian bureaucrats seem to have shown a Irish-style begrudgery towards this column that their indifference finally could not keep hidden. I should not have been surprised. Despite all the best-laid plans of the above-mentioned citizens, bureaucratic delays have meant that the replica has still not reached the Campo Sant-Agostin.

    Added to the bureaucracratic imbroglio there was apparently a Comune architect or engineer who was poorly and some other functionary who went on holiday at a crucial moment. I'm sure I wish them a speedy recovery and a lovely break respectively.

    For the last six months, I have been hoping to bring news of the column’s placement. And hoping. And waiting. And fuming.

    Meanwhile … back at the London loft … Some time ago, in this place, I wrote a very emotional post about the demolition of a Victorian tier gate belonging to the charming building that was once ‘Mr Roots Horse Hospital’. Now known as Blows Yard, it nestles by London’s Borough Market. The unpunished amputation of the column was a clear sign to me, and many people who wrote in, that something is not well, conservation-wise, in the Borough of Southwark.

    Ever since then, the site has been shrouded in hoarding. The hoarding has recently come off, revealing that the mate of the lamented column has also been done away with too.

    Michelle Lovric's website
    For those of you looking forward to Joan Lennon's latest piece, normally scheduled for the 5th of the month - she will post on the 10th, and this special post is well worth waiting for!

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    I’m writing this on 4 November 2018 at my home thirty miles from the Irish border. A border I cross at least weekly, a border whose future I worry about daily thanks to Brexit.

    The British border in Ireland during the Troubles

    On the radio today I have heard –

    Tributes to Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action 100 years ago today, including the playing of a German bugle he found on a dead German soldier. This was moving. 

    The president of the United States declare that barbed wire ‘used properly’ can be beautiful. This was horrifying. And disgusting. 

    Wilfred Owen
    A few weeks ago I was involved in a creative writing project in a local school, helping sixth formers to respond creatively to the  school’s World War One archive. The initiative was part of a wider school remembrance project called The Men Behind The Glass.

    Campbell College is a boys’ school in east Belfast -- C S Lewis was a pupil -- and between 1914-1918 many of its alumni served as soldiers, medics, and chaplains. This was, of course, typical of schools of the period, all over Europe.  In my previous career as a teacher I explored the wartime experiences of my own school, Methodist College as inspiration for the story ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in The Great War (Walker Books, 2014) and the novel Name Upon Name(Little Island, 2015). (I wrote about it for my first ever HG post --  So when I was asked to work with pupils  at Campbell, along with two neighbouring girls’ schools, Strathearn and Bloomfield Collegiate, I was delighted – this was so very much my kind of project. 

    Campbell College
    Photos of the 127 men who died in the conflict are displayed around the walls in the school’s central hall – hence ‘the men behind the glass’. Our work was designed to take their stories off the walls and into the hearts and minds and imaginations of the sixth formers who honoured their memories with their responses. I shared with the group my own experience of using an archive to inspire creative work, and we discussed the issues involved. They had biographies of some of the men, which they used as inspiration for their own work – mostly imagined letters home from the western front.

    My story in this anthology was inspired
    by research in another school archive
    The highlight of the project was hearing the students read their work in that hall, surrounded by the portraits of young men often barely older than they. I didn’t understand every word of the finished pieces – my A Level German studies are thirty years behind me now, but that didn’t matter. 

    Oh yes. Did I not say? The pieces were in German. It was a German A Level class, and the stories were shared online with a partner school in Germany who will be writing their own wartime stories in English.  Hearing these letters read in German was extraordinarily moving: not only had the students imagined themselves into the minds of young Irish soldiers from a century ago, but, by voicing the sentiments in German, they were also echoing the words of the thousands of German soldiers who would have written home from the same fronts. In that way, it was the most truly European project I have been involved with. Physically the students may not have left the school; imaginatively and emotionally they travelled beyond borders, with or without barbed wire. 

    When I heard that German bugle played today, in memory of Wilfred Owen, I detected the same notes of hope. I just hope they can be heard above the clamour of more raucous voices.

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    Cindy Jeffries is a friend of mine. My name appears in the acknowledgements of this novel. I always begin reviews of books by friends with a declaration like this because I don't want to end up on the back pages of Private Eye accused of logrolling.  I hope readers of this blog will believe me when I say I would not recommend a book  I didn't enjoy. If I'm not liking a book, I stop reading it.  Pleasure is what I'm after.

    And pleasure is what The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan provides. Not just a general pleasure either, but several different kinds of pleasure at the same time.

    First, there's the narrative, which follows two people: Christopher Morgan and his son, Abel. Chapters from each point of view alternate for most of the novel and Jeffries has Christopher's account unfold in the third person while his son gives a first person account of events. By doing this, she varies the tone and style, and  makes things much more interesting. 

    Left: Cornelius Claesz van Wieringen    Right: Willem-Alexander van de Velde ll

    Secondly, readers of this book won't be bored. I'm going to use a reviewer's cliché and call it a 'roller-coaster ride.' It's a very exciting story, full of adventures, secrets, mistakes that seem uncorrectable, wicked men, a woman who's far from angelic, pirates, slaves, and traffickers, smugglers and even a walk on appearance from King Charles II and Samuel Pepys. I'm going to give away nothing about the plot, except to say that the widowed Christopher is left with a baby to care for. He loses the child, then finds him, then loses him again. He spends the best part of the novel on a quest to find him. And while he does this, Abel is having adventures of his own.

    Thirdly, the characters (and we meet many) are brought to life very well. We can see them and hear them and several of them (especially the villain with the false arm and hand) stay in your mind long after you've closed the book. We care about Abel and his father because Jeffries has involved us so closely in their thoughts and feelings.

    Fourthly, every place we visit as we're reading is vividly there. We move from the West Country to Constantinople, to London, to the Caribbean, to Jamaica and the Netherlands and it's wonderful to be able to travel so far while sitting snugly by the fire. I did actually read some of this book in front of my gas fire while my central heating was briefly on the blink, and it's the perfect way to enjoy this story.  Because my main feeling as I  read was that this is an old-fashioned novel in the very best sense of the term: happy to tell a thrilling and moving story in elegant and evocative prose and above all, one that everyone in the family can share.  I really hope there's an audio version on the way. Listening to that would be a splendid way to pass a long car journey. Meanwhile, I can heartily recommend the book. 

    Photo of Cindy Jeffries by Tammy Lyn Photography

    All other photos provided by Cindy Jeffries.

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    St Martin renounces his weapons.
    Artist: Simone Martini (1284-1344)
    This week is the feast of Martinmas which begins on the evening of the 10th November. It is a festival, like many Christian celebrations, whose origins go back centuries before Christ. 

    Martin of Tours (c.316-397), a Roman solider who later became a monk and bishop, was a favourite saint of the Middle Ages. But the date had long been marked as the first day of winter and when, Pope Martin I (papacy 649- 655) established Martinmas as important Church festival, he may have been trying to wean pagan northern Europeans from the winter celebrations associated with the old gods. Bede (c. 672-735) records that the Anglo-Saxon term for November was Blot Monath, or ‘Sacrifice Month,’ when they slaughtered livestock which could not be kept over winter, but also, according to Bede, ‘in this month the cattle which were to be slaughtered were dedicated to the gods.’

    Martinmas quickly became established in the Christian calendar as the day when the work of killing and preserving of meat for winter began, and the community feasted before the 40 days of St Martin’s Lent or Advent. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, Falstaff, is referred to as ‘the martlemas’. The Martlemas’ or ‘Mart’ was an ox or a bull that was fattened and slaughtered for the Martinmas feast. In some towns and villages, the bull would first be run through the streets.
    'Falstaff'' by Edward Von Grutzner 91846-1925)

    Writing in 1646, Richard Butcher described the running of the martlemas in Stamford, Lincolnshire. The butchers provided the town with the wildest bull they could buy. The bull was released and the townspeople gave chase, trying to kill it with wooden clubs. Iron weapons were forbidden. The bull was then roasted and eaten, washed down with plenty of strong drink, for St Martin was also patron saint of wine growers and protector of the inebriated.

    The legend behind the bull running, which was probably derived from a pre-Christian custom, was that St Martin had encountered a wild cow possessed by the devil which he had exorcized. Of course, it is likely that this tale was created to explain why it was auspicious to begin the slaughter of livestock on this day. Pigs were also butchered and gifts of sausages and black puddings at Martinmas were known as ‘pig cheer’. Fixing a seasonal activity like ploughing, sowing or slaughter to a well-known saints’ day ensured the vital task was blessed and protected by that saint. It also helped to co-ordinate community life, so that everyone in village knew exactly when it would begin, and equipment could be made ready.

    But the very act of shedding blood was an important aspect of the festival. In Ireland it was said that ‘if blood is not drawn on Martinmas eve, the blood that is shed will be your own.’ In Scotland and Ireland, a fowl or goose had its neck cut on Martinmas eve and was allowed to bleed out. Its blood was daubed on the four corners of the house, or on lintels, doorsteps or doors, and was sometimes put on the foreheads of children, with the words, ‘I am killing this in honour of St Martin, and that he might keep trouble away from the house for the year.' 

    Right up to the end of 19th century there are reports of this being done to ward off the spirits of the dead who couldn’t find rest. If the family had no animal, someone would cut their own finger instead. A piece of cloth was also dipped Martinmas blood, dried and used in the coming year to press on the body to relieve pain while a prayer or charm was recited.

    There are several different versions of how St Martin met his death which in the Middle Ages gave rise to a number of superstitions connected with the festival. In one version, the saint plunged into a millpond and was killed by the turning waterwheel, and for many centuries it was considered unlucky to carry out any work that involved turning or grinding on this day. This meant people didn’t grind flour, spin wool or put to sea to fish because the boat would have to turn to come back. 

    An account published in 1867, tells of some Wexford fishmen who spotted a great shoal of herring offshore on St Martin’s Eve and foolishly put to sea. The ghostly figure of St Martin rose from the waves and pointed thrice to the shore, before sinking again. Two boats heeded the saint’s warning, cut their nests loose and returned immediately. The others continued to haul in the huge catch, but a violent storm sprang up, their boats overturned and 70 men drowned.
    'The Fishing Boat' by Gustave Courbet, 1865

    One of St Martin’s symbols is a goose, because it was believed he was tricked into becoming bishop and tried to escape this office by hiding in a barn, but a honking goose gave him away. So, a goose was traditionally eaten at his feast, and the wishbone kept. In 1455, the physician, Johannes Hartlieb, wrote -
    'When the goose has been eaten on St Martin's Day the oldest and wisest keeps the breast-bone and, allowing it to dry until the morning, examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.’
    On the Aran Islands, west of Ireland, there was a legend that St Martin begged for food at the door of a woman who was so poor she had nothing to give him, so she sacrificed her child and boiled the infant to provide meat. But after he left, the child was found miraculously asleep in its crib. Families on the islands used to slaughter an animal on Martinmas in memory of this miracle, and anyone who came begging at their doors on St Martin’s Day was offered roast fowl or goose.
    St Martin and a goose on 
    St Martin Busskirch in Jona, Obersee, 
    Switzerland. Photographer: Roland zh

    In Germany and Holland, the festival had been traditionally celebrated with bonfires on Martinmas Eve and with lantern parades led by ‘St Martin’ on horseback. But the Reformation in 16th century meant that in Protestant countries, Catholic saints could no longer be celebrated. But recognising they could not supress such a popular festival, the ‘Martin’ who was celebrated on ‘Martin’s Day’ became instead, Martin Luther, the German founder of the Protestantism who was born on November 10, 1483 and, according to legend, was baptized on the 11th November.

    The final twist in this blood-drenched festival was that the 11th November 1918, was the date chosen for the guns to fall silent at the end of World War I – the day dedicated to the saint who was a solider in the mighty Roman army and who laid down his weapons, declaring he would fight no more.
    Lantern Parade, St Martin's Day 2016
    Huisberden, Germany
    Photographer: Pieter Delicoat

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  • 11/08/18--16:20: Weaving Women's Stories
  • by Caroline Lawrence
    I was going to post a different blog but have just been listening to a brilliant podcast for Classics Confidential. It was specially produced in honour of the Being Human Festival and in particular two events centred around ancient weaving: a poetry performance next Friday 16 November and a hands-on weaving workshop on Saturday 17 November 2018

    Jessica Hughes (left) the host of Classics Confidential starts out by interviewing Dr Emma Bridges (Institute of Classical Studies) who talks about the links we still make between weaving and storytelling in phrases such as ‘spinning a yarn’ and ‘weaving a tale’. The word texta, woven, gives us the word text. The ancient sources also used metaphors of weaving. For example, Odysseus ‘weaves a scheme’ in Homer’s Odyssey

    Dr Ursula Rothe from the Open University talks about the different fabrics they used: wool, linen, cotton and silk, which was a very expensive (even decadent) prestige product. Camel and goat hair were used for bags and sacks and we know of felt workshops in Pompeii. 

    Replica loom at Fishbourne Roman Villa
    Because textiles were handmade – involving hundreds of thousands of hours of work – they were precious in both senses of the word. For many poor people their clothing would be the most expensive things they owned. This is why we have so many accounts of textiles being stolen, disappearing from baths and even being handed down in wills. (Many curse tablets are directed against the person or persons who stole a cloak, because this often served as a blanket as well as an article of clothing and could mean the difference between life and death.) 

    Professor Mary Harlow is a Roman historian who specialises in textile production. Her own warp-weighted loom will be one of the focal points of the Being Human Weaving Women’s Storiesperformance and activity day. Mary started out dutifully researching all the literary and visual sources but it wasn’t until she went to Denmark to work at the Centre for Textile Research that she had a revelation about ancient textiles. ‘I had to rethink the whole process from the beginning,’ she says. ‘And in so doing I’ve also become a practitioner. I’m an avid hand-spinner and addicted to natural plant dyes… And most recently I’ve begun to learn to weave on a warp-weighted loom.’ She goes on to say that she has really begun to realise that the idea of the finished garment must have already been in someone’s head, because every stage is geared to the specific product. 

    ‘Now I’ve started weaving,’ adds Mary, ‘the other thing I have begun to understand is the amount of inherent mathematics it takes to set up a loom…’ 

    Almost all the beautiful ancient textiles we have are woven rather than embroidered. This requires a huge amount of skill. When Mary considered the amount of mathematics involved, it led her to see the ancient texts in another way. ‘Philosophers use odds and evens to talk about the way the cosmos is developed… just like a warp-weighted loom.’ 

    Mary mentions a friend of hers, the scholar Magdalena Ormond, who is doing research on the sound a loom makes and the way the cadences of Ovid’s poetry possibly imitate this sound in some way. 

    Textile production was embedded in the ancient world. Everybody knew something about it and could use that knowledge. It would have been built in to everybody’s experience. ‘It’s a shame textile production is still not considered one of the very big themes of ancient history,’ concludes Mary, ‘because it feeds in to so much more.’ 

    There are many other great revelations in the podcast. 

    • Emma Bridges (again) shows how male poets like Homer and Ovid portray women who weave and also how the story of Penelope has been retold in more modern times. Emma points out that the loom provides a medium for women to express themselves when they are repeatedly silenced by men, e.g. the way Penelope is silenced by Telemachus in the Odyssey. Circe and Calypso both sing at the loom but Penelope is silent. So is Philomela, who is raped and then silenced by her abuser. Ovid has her ‘tell’ her story in her weaving. 

    Emma talks about Waterhouse’s 1912 painting of Penelope and her suitors and also an extraordinary art installation by Brazilian artist Tatiana Blass called Penelope

    • Ellie Mackin Roberts (Royal Holloway, University of London) talks about the arrephorroi (the group of very young girls who lived on the acropolis for a year and wove a peplos for Athena’s statue) and what their sensory experience would have been. For example these girls of perhaps seven or eight might have been asked to card the wool. This would have made their hands greasy with lanolin this would have made washing at the end of the day a different experience than usual. 

    • Ben Ferris (Sydney Film School) talks about his 2009 feature film, Penelope, a fantastical treatment of Homer's tale of Penelope, depicting her psychological struggle as she waits twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan War. 

    • Anna Fisk (University of Glasgow) is a knitting practitioner and academic researcher in contemporary craft practices and implicit religion. One of her observations is that some women find knitting almost like entering into a prayerful state.

    To hear the whole podcast either subscribe to Classics Confidential or listen on SoundCloud HERE

    A performance of women reading original poetry inspired by weaving will take place on Friday 16 November 2018 and on the following Saturday there will be weaving workshops.  The afternoon session is sold-out but the morning drop in is free. 
    I don’t usually emerge from my writer’s lair on dark winter nights but I’m making an exception for this and I am sure it will be worth it. I hope to see you there! 

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    The Armistice 100 Days project is the result of a collaboration between the Imperial War Museums and the writers' collective 26 to commemorate the lives of 100 people who experienced World War I.  One hundred writers wrote a 100 word piece (a centena) in which the first and last three words are the same, and a 500 word creation story about the research behind the writing.  Click here to see this moving display of photographs, paintings, artefacts, writing and research.  Each story is vivid, heart-warming, heart-breaking, poignant, inspiring.  Each takes an individual by the hand and draws them close to us now.

    My centena is called "Except ..." and was inspired by my grandfather, James Mortimer Clark, who was a doctor in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, before going to China as a medical missionary, where he died in 1925.  

    Dr James Mortimer Clark 
    Canadian Army Medical Corp

    The repeating words I chose were "not the end" and the poem begins like this - 

    Not the end – the beginning!

    the beginning

    of the end

                             of the World War wedge

    all those boys’ broken bodies

    driven between

                  this Ontario farmboy

    and his mission field 

    the shout that drowned out the call would be stilled

    the start and the end would be stitched back together

    except … 

    You can visit the page for Day 98 here.

    The project has been running since 5th August, and is coming to an end in two days.  It was a privilege to be part of it.

    (The 10th is usually Michelle Lovric's slot, but she kindly swapped with me this month.  You can find her excellent post Infamy Again on the 5th of November, here.)

    (There is a selection of centenas stunningly performed by their writers on YouTube here.  And a beautiful book has been produced which is available from Just Giving (profits to go to the charity War Child).)

    (I did a photo post for The History Girls back in 2013 about my mum in China before her father died called, unimaginatively, China and My Mum.)

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

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    [The text below is taken from my book, Nurses of Australia:the Illustrated Story: NLA publishing, 2018), which is now in all good bookshops.]

         Over the course of the First World War, more than 2,286 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (which included nurses, masseuses, some ward assistants and one bacteriologist) served overseas on active service. (It was a huge number given that in 1914 there were only 4,200 trained general nurses registered with Australian nursing associations.)
         Only fully trained nurses were eligible to enlist in the AANS. They had to furnish references recommending them for military service, pass a medical examination and submit to the same military regulations as the average military officer.
         Hundreds more Australian nurses who wished to serve but had not been accepted into the AANS joined the British nursing services, either the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) or the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Other Australian nurses volunteered to serve with organisations such as the Red Cross, French Flag Nursing Corps, the Australian Voluntary Hospital, Colonial Nursing Service, or St John Ambulance.
         The AANS nurses cared for Australian and allied servicemen in almost every theatre of war during the long four years of war. They also served in hospital ships off the coast of Turkey and in field and general hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations in countries as diverse as Egypt, Palestine, Greece, India, France, Belgium, and Germany. Australian nurses staffed British and French hospitals and assisted the British, French, Canadian, Indian and South African medical services. 
         During the War, 388 Australian nursing sisters were decorated, with 42 wining military nursing’s greatest honour, the Royal Red Cross. Eight were awarded the Military Medal, and 23 received decorations from the Governments of allied countries.
         The First World War took place prior to antibiotics. Surgery was often performed in the difficult and septic conditions of a Casualty Clearing Hospital and doctors left post-operative treatment almost entirely to nurses. 
         A patient’s recovery, although due in part to a patient’s own powers of resistance and recuperation, was often attributable to the nursing care he received. Careful nursing prevented the onset of secondary pneumonia or further infection which could be fatal, and constant observation allowed the nurse to act quickly to prevent dehydration and excessive blood loss.
         British nurses may have regarded their colonial colleagues with some disdain, refusing to work with them unless ‘fully qualified’, but Australian trained nurses knew they had much to offer. The willingness of Australian nurses to take on whatever type of nursing work presented itself made them highly prized in Casualty Clearing Stations on the front line, and for theatre work. Australian nurses were particularly proud of their ability to act independently when required, unlike the British nurses who were used to a more rigid nursing hierarchy. And the Australian nurses soon needed to use all their ingenuity and pluck.
         Twenty-four AANS sisters embarked on active service overseas with the first big convoy of 44 troop ships on 20 October, 1914. They arrived in Egypt in December 1914 and set up two general hospitals.
         No. 1 Australian General Hospital (AGH), under Matron Bell, (left) was established at the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, a magnificent building, luxuriously furnished, but wholly unsuitable for a hospital. 
         No. 2 AGH, under Matron Gould, took over Mena House (right), also a former luxurious hotel but smaller than the Heliopolis Palace. It may have had a spectacular view of the Pyramids, but it was just as unsuitable for a hospital. 
         The nurses’ home in Cairo was in a former Egyptian harem, ‘a queer, funny old home . . . with barred windows, and inside a huge stone wall twenty feet high.’ (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.80) Inside the walls was a garden with a pool where the ladies of the harem used to wash their feet. 
         In their early days in Egypt, before the Gallipoli campaign, the Australian nurses made time to enjoy themselves, despite the heat. A nurse who had seen active service in Egypt later recalled that she and her colleagues ‘used to go for donkey rides in the evening and wore divided skirts something like our uniforms. My donkey was called Whisky Straight.’ (Sun, Monday 25 April 1938, p. 9) 
         The Australian nursing sisters visited friends, shopped and took trips to the Pyramids and the Sphinx. A perennial problem, however, was shortage of money, as the Army was notoriously lax about paying its staff. 
         Everything changed after April 1915, when the wounded began pouring in from Gallipoli. In May, No.2 AGH took over another Cairo hotel, the Ghezireh Palace and No.1 AGH had expanded to 3,500 beds. The El Hayat hotel at Helouan, twelve miles from Cairo, became a Convalescent Camp with 1,000 beds. But the casualties kept coming.
         Auxiliary hospitals were established in Cairo and Heliopolis in whatever large buildings were available. Luna Park in Cairo became an Auxiliary Hospital. It had fifteen nurses, and by 16 May it held 1,620 patients, 700 of whom were accommodated on the skating rink (as in the photo to the left ). The Atelier Auxiliary Hospital was a former furniture factory that had been fitted out to take 500 beds.
         And still the Gallipoli wounded poured in. Tent hospitals were opened in tennis courts and sporting grounds. Hotels, the Aerodrome, the Casino, the Cairo Sporting Club, and Prince Ibrahim Khalim’s Palace all became Australian hospitals. By 10 June 1915, almost 8,000 patients had been treated.
         Tent hospitals were especially troublesome. In a tent, ‘nursing the room’ – making sure that the patients’ environment was safe, well ventilated and free from dust and infection control was in place – was impossible, as is clear from the photo right.
    Australian nurses often found Army regulations hard to stomach, especially those relating to uniforms.
         The heat in Egypt was almost intolerable (in a letter of 19 June 1915, Olive Haynes (below) mentioned that it was 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade (50 degrees Celsius)), and yet the nurses were expected to wear their long and heavy grey serge frocks with the thick red woollen cape over their shoulders. Haynes complained in a letter to her mother: 
    ‘Matron has a fit when she sees us without our capes. Everything military is quite mad and unreasonable; they can’t see a foot ahead of their noses for red tape.’ In the same letter Haynes took comfort in the news that the nurses were getting ‘new thin red capes – muslin collars and short sleeves with turn-back cuffs – will be much cooler.’(Letter Olive Haynes to her mother, 28 May 1915)
         Everyone in the Egyptian hospitals, whether nurses, doctors or wounded soldiers, suffered cruelly from the heat. Haynes wrote that the best part of being on night duty was being able to take her cape off, roll up her sleeves and turn her collar in. She was defiant: ‘I don’t mind if 40 Drs. or officers come along.’ (Letter Olive Haynes to ‘Mim’ 19 June 1915)
         This Australian tendency to independence became a necessity, as the nurses were pitched headlong into situations that no amount of training could have prepared them for. Work on casualty ships, in particular, required a great deal of competence, ingenuity and independent thinking. The photo right shows wounded men from Gallipoli arriving at a hospital ship. 
         From April 1915 these vessels would collect the wounded from Gallipoli and transport them to hospitals on nearby islands. Conditions on the overcrowded ships were horrific. Patients who could not be fitted below decks were treated on the open rolling deck, lying side-by-side on stretchers. On the Gascon, Hilda Samsing wrote of performing her duties as ‘stray bullets pattered on board like rain drops after a shower’, and she graphically described her experiences:
    The noise from the shore was most appalling. The incessant booming of the guns with the crackle of machine guns and rifles playing their accompaniment, made us wonder if the Anzac Hill was on a sound foundation. As for the poor old ship, it shook nearly all the paint off her sides, and she has worn a battered look ever since! At 7 a.m. our work began in earnest, and what a day it was! Men who could walk or hobble came up the gangway, and the derrick swung the cradle, with stretcher cases, without stopping, till at 4 p.m. every cot was full, and not a yard of deck space was left to place another man on. And such wounds, and such tired hungry men. We took 700 on board, and when you think they all had to be fed, the 400 cot cases washed, and all those dressings done, fractures set, serious cases operated on, and every man’s name and regimental details entered up in the 24 hours, you will realize a little what our work was like. (Letter Samsing to Watson, undated, reprinted in The Register, 24 November, 1915 p.9)

         In July 1915, Matron Grace Wilson and a contingent of 96 nurses were sent from Australia to Lemnos, a Greek island about 40 miles from the Dardanelles that had become an important army base. It was from Lemnos’ vast, ship-filled harbour at Mudros that troops and supplies were sent across to the Gallipoli beaches.
         Wilson and her nurses were instructed to set up No.3 AGH on the island’s stony, dusty hillside, but they were deposited on Lemnos before their hospital equipment. The photo left shows them arriving on the bare hillside.
         The August offensive on Gallipoli was in full swing and only one or two tents had been hoisted before the first load of two hundred wounded from Gallipoli arrived. 
         The injured men were laid on the ground and the tents that were to serve as wards were pulled up around them as the nurses attended to their wounds. The nurses simply had to make the best of things. When they ran out of bandages, they tore up their petticoats and anything else that they could find to serve the purpose. And, as is clear from the photo right, they had to sleep rough until the tents and equipment arrived.
         There were no streams or springs on Lemnos. The Greek villages that were located in the valleys had wells, but these could not be used for fear of typhoid. This meant that for the first few weeks the nurses were allocated only one small bottle of water a day to serve for drinking and washing purposes. Eventually some of the officers managed to fit up a water distiller. Although there was now enough water to drink, they never had enough for a luxury such as a bath. Nor was there was any electricity in the camp. They used hurricane lamps or candles in their tents, or they sat in the dark.
         Provisions were short and often the nurses went hungry. They subsisted for the most part of bully beef, rice and onions and army biscuits, although sometimes the nurses bought olives and dried fruit and coarse brown bread from the Greek villages. The photo left is of the tent hospital on Lemnos.
         In the blazing summer heat the nurses could not cool off with a swim in the harbour, for fear of contracting dysentery. When winter brought bitter frosts Matron Wilson had to insist that the Army issue them with warm tunics, trousers and boots. Eventually they discarded formal uniforms to wear men’s woollen socks, gum boots and sheep skin coats.

         Matron Wilson referred to some of the problems faced by her Lemnos nurses in a newspaper article in 1931:
    In the summer months it was terrifically hot, and the sun beat pitilessly down on our tents, but by December it was bitterly cold, and what had been only dust and stones before became a veritable sea of mud. We always had to go about our work in heavy gum boots. Night after night, when we were safely tucked in bed, our tents would be torn down by the wind and blown half way across the island. And always, in the whole six months we were there, there was such shortage of oil for our lamps and lanterns that as soon as the nurses had done their work in the wards they had to turn out the lights and sit in darkness. (Inverell Times, Friday 15 May 1931, page 6)
         The nurses kept up a brave front for the wounded men, but privately they sometimes despaired, as Anne Donnell described in one of her letters home:

    November 10th.

    Today in the lines I passed a dear little dog, stopped played with him, then it suddenly dawned on me what a changed life we are living, and growing accustomed to. No little children to love, no trees, no flowers, no pets, no shops, nothing dainty or nice, practically no fruit or vegetables, butter and eggs once in a month, twice at most. Please don’t infer from this that I am complaining, far from it, and we have much to be thankful for, but how we wish that we could give our serious cases the very best of food and delicacies. Of course it’s only natural that we would wish, for our health’s sake, to have some nourishing food. I do have them too in my dreams at night, when I visit the most beautiful fruit gardens and pick the sweetest flowers while little children play around; don’t smile, for it’s quite true. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.63-4)

         And yet, when Anne Donnell left Lemnos in January 1916 she wrote that she would miss ‘the unconventional freedom and the unique experiences we had there.’ (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.76.)
         In his official history of the Australian Army Medical Service, Butler said of the Lemnos nurses:
    It is clear, however, that the training in the nursing profession, severe beyond most in its standard of toil, self-discipline and resource in compelling order out of chaos, enabled these trained women to adapt themselves to circumstances, bend to clearly recognised ends such means as could be found, and in a short time obtain a comparative mastery of the situation. (Butler, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Vol.1, p.338)

         In April 1916 No.1 and No.2 AGHs were transferred from Egypt to France (to Rouen in Normandy and Wimmereux in Boulogne in respectively). After the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula No.3 AGH was transferred first to Cairo then to England and later to Abbeville in France. It was at No.3 AGH that a team including Sister F.E. Williams (a bacteriologist) continued valuable research they had commenced on Lemnos looking into the aetiology of dysentery.
         After the heat of the Egyptian desert the nurses thoroughly appreciated the beautiful French spring. But the rain was soon a curse in the tent hospitals. The flapping and leaky tent sides meant that their patients were drenched; often beds were so wet the nurses refused to put men into them. Sometimes there was no flooring under the tents, not even a groundsheet, and the nurses walked through mud to see to patients as beds sank into the ground.

    Our hospital consists of tents. My ward is a big tent with about a hundred beds, all surgical cases, and it is hard going every minute one is on duty. The weather has been dreadful. We have had the second Deluge, I think. Anyhow, the whole place is a quagmire, and we have to slosh through mud and water. My ‘uniform’ consists of a very abbreviated skirt, rubber boots tied round at the knees, a sou’-wester jacket and hat. In this rig the boys call me the ‘Little Skipper.’ Other times I’m ‘Little Ausie!’ We have to be ready to go out in the pouring rain, while the mud is awful. I sleep in a tent which leaks badly, so I have to put an oilskin right over my stretcher and put the clothes I want to keep dry when I go on duty under the same oilskin. There is an anti-aircraft gun stationed about 50 yards from my sleeping tent, and I had just dropped off for a few hours' sleep the other day when it started. By the time I got out the enemy plane, was almost overhead. Mr first thought was for my helpless patients in the ward close by, but the bombs fortunately dropped clear. This was my third-air raid, and I must confess I’m not fond of them. (Letter from unidentified Australian nurse, reprinted in the Mail, 20 October 1917, p.6)

         Then came winter. Housed in tents or lightly built huts, the nurses suffered terribly in one of the coldest winters on record in France. Bed sheets froze if a hot water bottle burst. The nurses took their boots into bed with them so that they would be wearable in the morning. Ink and medicine froze and they even had to melt the ice in basins to wash patients.
       The general hospitals were set up just in time to receive Australian casualties from the major battles of the Western Front: Fromelles, Somme, Ypres, Amiens, Poperinghe. The hospitals were within hearing, and often range, of the shells. Between April and December 1916 the three Australian general hospitals alone had eighty-seven thousand casualties. Their patients came directly from the Casualty Clearing Stations near the front line. Nursing staff who had thought (correctly) that Gallipoli was a nightmare came to realise that at least it was short. Then, after three and a half hellish years nursing on the Western Front, just as the fighting slackened closer to the Armistice in November 1918, they faced another, deadly enemy. The influenza epidemic had begun.
    Nurses who worked in the Casualty Clearing Stations such as that in the photo left were closest to the front line, and conditions were difficult and dangerous. During often nightly bombing raids, the nurses would sit in the dark fields with their tin hats and gas masks on as bombs fell nearby and anti-aircraft shells whistled over their heads. Then they returned to the tents that served as their bedrooms to find that their clothes had been shredded by shrapnel. 
         And always, there were wounded soldiers to be treated. Sometimes, in one room of a Casualty Clearing Station as many as ten operations would be going on while another fifty men lay waiting at the door for their turn. Members of the surgical teams, including the nurses, might operate for 24 hours straight, stopping only for food. 
         In a letter of 1 May 1918, written after she had been invalided out with nervous fatigue, Anne Donnell described the work of No.48 British CCS in France, near Amiens.
    You will all know that the C.C.S. Hospitals are the nearest to the front lines. The wounded first pass through the field dressing stations and then usually come by ambulance to the C.C.S, and then close to the C.C.S is a rail head, from which the hospital trains take the patients down to the various bases. It is usual for two C.C.S.’s to be close together and work in conjunction with the other. Our next door neighbour was 21 C.C.S., and we received the patients alternately, perhaps every two hours, or four, or twelve, just according to how fast we were admitting or how many. . . . One thing, I was free to use my own discretion in giving morphia or stimulants, and you may be sure I was ever ready with either, when I thought it the least bit necessary. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.212, 214.)
         Anne Donnell was the only Australian nurse at No.48 British CCS and missed her compatriots. Sometimes, just chatting to a fellow countryman was enough to lift the spirits:

    I think it was the 2nd December when in the morning the night sister greeted me with, ‘Sister, I’ve got an Australian here for you.’ . . . He suffered very much pain and shock and I kept him all day, and made myself snatch a minute now and then for a little chat. He seemed pleased to have met an Australian Sister and vice versa. I was delighted and proud of my Australian. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.218-9)
         Most AANS nurses worked in one of the big general hospitals or auxiliary hospitals. General hospitals were the largest medical units, and they were much larger than the Australian general hospitals that the nurses were used to. Although the authorised bed limit for the general military hospital was 520 beds, very soon most had doubled this, or more. 
         Every type of surgical and nursing work took place in these large and crowded hospitals, and the Australian nurses needed to take on increased responsibilities. In wartime conditions nurses also had to master the use of equipment that had formerly been used only by doctors. Often they did so with no formal training, such as this Red Cross nurse in the photo left who administers anaesthetic, which would never have occurred when she was a nurse in Australia.      
         And it was not just nursing care that they provided. Nurses were expected always to be cheerful and feminine and to give comfort to the wounded. They regularly took on the task of writing home to soldiers’ families to inform them of their patients’ progress. Or they would write to let a loved one know as gently as possible the circumstances of a soldier’s death. 
         Sometimes, however, maintaining a cheerful face was difficult:
    I only know that I am not a mere nurse, but represent to them for the time being their dearest ones, and many a time I find myself going to the marquee flap to hide the tears that will gather, and ask for strength to control a distorted face and go back. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.216.) 
         Lonely patients were often singled out for extra care. In June 1917, Anne Donnell was transferred to the British Hospital at Le Tréport, which was dealing with the masses of wounded from Bullecourt and Vimy Ridge. It was so close to England that the families of many seriously wounded patients were able to come over to visit them or take them home. Anne pitied a young man whose family had not yet arrived. 
    There was no time to special, one just did what one could for each, and then it was, I thought, a case of the survival of the fittest. . . . But this laddie in the corner, I thought, shall have some special care, and Matron brought him some lovely oranges that he fancied, so I quietly sat down and fed him and told him he would be mine until his mother came. He gave me the loveliest smile as he replied, ‘and I’ll make you my special,’ but quickly added, ‘You must forgive me, Sister, I wouldn’t have said that under ordinary circumstances.’ Next morning when I came on duty, his bed was empty. . . . His parents arrived – too late to see him, but I was so thankful to be able to give them his last message of love. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, p.170) 
         To give some hint of how difficult it was to ‘special’ one young soldier at that time, Donnell reported that in ten weeks over 12,000 patients went through that hospital.

         The Australian nurses found that the Armistice of November 1918 brought mixed feelings. As Anne Donnell wrote:
    There is a certain amount of quiet excitement with most of us. Some are overjoyed and I wish I could feel as they do, but I am terribly depressed. … I think of the gladness, then follows the sadness, and in the gladness I am saddest because I think of those who have lost, the mothers at home whose sunny boys are not going back to make them glad. (Anne Donnell, Letters of an Army Sister, pp.272-3) 
         No AANS nurses lost their lives due to enemy action in the First World War, but 21 died due to illness and disease: three in Egypt, four in India, two in France, three in England, one in Salonika, eight in Australia. Four Australian nurses who enlisted in the QAIMS also died on service. But many nurses never really recovered from the strain of those years and from what they had seen and experienced. 
         The status of nurses within the general Australian population – already high before the war – increased as soldiers returned full of praise for the nurses who had treated them or their mates. On Anzac day, nurses were allowed the privilege of marching beside the soldiers.
         And yet, the role played by Australian nurses in the war soon faded from memory. Nurses were little mentioned in the official war histories and in peacetime many nurses were reluctant to bring attention to themselves and what they had achieved, preferring to stand in the shadow of the Anzacs.
         Or perhaps they did not want to remember what horrors they had seen and experienced in those four years. As one newspaper article from 1931 put it:

    The epic story of the part that the army nurses played in the Great War can never be told in full — her own reticence is in itself an effective barrier — and it is a story that has been largely overshadowed by exploits more spectacular. (Inverell Times, Friday 15 May 1931, page 6)
         The exploits of the Australian Diggers at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Ypres, Passchendaele, Mons, Poizieres and the other famous battles may well have been more spectacular than those of the ‘girls in grey’, but they were certainly no more heroic.

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  • 11/11/18--23:00: Remembering all the Harrys

  • Private Harry Reynolds died in France on 29 October 1914, aged 25. A careerist soldier, his service was undistinguished. He appears in the army records only when he lost his equipment and slipped cigarettes to prisoners he was supposed to be guarding.

    Harry, who joined up at the age of 14, was 4ft 11, with defective eyes. This short, unremarkable soldier left no family behind. There is no grave for Harry.

    I found his story as part of a fantastic community history project in Herne Hill, the leafy corner of South London in which I live. The Herne Hill Society, in partnership with The Charter School and local volunteers, undertook a project to map the men and women connected to Herne Hill who were killed in World War 1. The team believe that as many as 700 local residents were killed. On my street alone, there were five telegrams delivered, five families left bereft.

    This is their website and I urge you to explore it:

    The team has unearthed many heart-breaking stories, including a family which lost its three sons. But somehow, Harry’s story is the one that has lingered. As historical writers, the lives we focus on tend to be the ones that are significant: either because they are remarkable, or they are important, or they fit the narrative pattern we’re seeking to impose.

    Harry’s story brings no clarity to the greater picture. It adds nothing but a single digit to an unbelievably large number. The mud of France cracked open, swallowed Harry, and sealed again. 

    Most of us will be invisible to posterity and to be troubled by that lack of significance is pompous and hubristic. But most of us will be mourned by someone. Perhaps Harry had friends in the army who missed him. Perhaps poor, short, squinty Harry had a girl at home.

    As the veterans of the World Wars die of old age, we need new ways to remember the Harrys. The map that this history project has created is hugely powerful. Children, in particular, need specific stories of flesh and blood people, not numbers, to force them to empathy. My older children were fascinated and appalled by the stories of the fallen soldiers who had lived on our road. The geographic specificity gave them a sense of connection and helped them really think about the lives, and deaths, of these men. 

    We talk of bringing history alive, in fiction and non-fiction. To do that demands an emphasis on the commonality of human experience even as we mine the past for instances of difference and uniqueness.

    But London, much as I love it, is a strange and hotchpotch place which constantly erodes a sense of commonality. People pass through, neighbours fail to connect. Most of us are incomers to our London villages. Most of us, too, are not church-goers. We don’t have that sense of belonging to a place that can make Remembrance Sunday so unbearably moving: I remember, in particular, being in a village church in Norfolk for one Remembrance Sunday service, and the surnames of the fallen were the names on the graves and, doubtless, in the records of marriages and baptisms.

    We Londoners live, secluded in our overpriced houses, and disconnected to our past. We are ancestor-less. 

    I was thinking about this, as I watched a friend’s ten year old find the story of a man who grew up in the house next door to her: Lieutenant John Hood. John was born in Herne Hill, and baptised in the church attached to my kids' old school. He studied at Cambridge, and was beginning a career as a teacher, before enlisting. He joined the 29th Siege Battery in France in November 1916 and for the next two years fought in Belgium and France. John Hood survived the German guns, but caught influenza on 11 November 1918, and died three days later in France.

    Image result for st paul's church herne hill
    An early image of the church where John Hood was baptised.

    One hundred years after John Hood caught influenza, the team behind the Memorial project organised a two minute silence in the centre of Herne Hill during the usually busy Sunday market. We stood amid the veg-sellers and the artisan butchers, the smell drifting past from the cheese stall; the fat from the burgers spitting and the steam rising from the giant vat of tartiflette. Kids and dogs and hungover youngsters clutching coffees.  All the busyness of a London Sunday.  Then a teenager from The Charter School played The Last Post, and we all fell still.

    Herne Hill's town crier announcing the silence

    There is a particular intensity to a silence that falls on a busy London street. I found it deeply moving - all these decent, unremarkable strangers standing together. It gave me a much needed dose of optimism. I have been dispirited of late by the mood music of public life, and its combative, fearful timbre. We seem to be more frightened than I can remember, more growlingly convinced of the coming apocalypse. Frightened people who feel powerless find anger easy.

    We have different visions of the peril: for some it is Trump and Brexit, and the rise of the right; for others Corbyn and a resurgent Marxism. Then there’s the climate. The decline of the US and the rise of a more brutal Chinese hegemony. The coming of artificial intelligence. Putin gurning at Europe’s growing chaos. The likelihood that future generations will, at best, be poorer than us; at worst, face horrors that we cannot imagine. There’s a competitive edge to the catastrophising – my vision is more true and more terrifying than yours. We are strangers, gawping at a pick ‘n mix of dystopian futures.

    I keep telling myself that there is an impulse in humans to anticipate an imminent Armageddon. True, yesterday’s silence reminded me that, sometimes, we are right and the Horsemen do sweep in and scythe us down. But it also reminded me that within all the tremulous cacophony of modern British life, there can also exist two minutes of meaningful silence.


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    German soldiers on British soil
    I've recently been working on a novella for a collection of stories set in WW2. My book is set on Jersey in the Channel Islands. Those of you who have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (or seen the film) will know about the food shortages on Guernsey during the German occupation. All the Channel Islands suffered under the occupation, not just Guernsey.  The geographical position of Jersey meant the Germans saw it as an ideal place of fortification before their planned invasion of England.

    When the Germans invaded The Channel Islands, Jersey was cut off from English food supplies, and with thousands more hungry Germans on the island, the finding of enough food became a priority. Potatoes and swedes were a staple, but food was so scarce in the Channel Islands that every last morsel of the potato was eaten, including the peel. By the Summer of 1941, the ration of meat was four ounces per person per fortnight. Bread was scarce, and soon become a rough, hard, mouthful, often adulterated with bran, chaff or sawdust. The British 'cuppa' was made with tea recycled by drying out the leaves.

    'The shops were empty, you couldn't buy anything. If you went into town, everyone was talking about food.'
    Dorothy Blackwell - farmer's daughter Jersey

    Finding and preparing food mostly fell to the women, and was enormously time-consuming. On an island as small as Jersey, the beaches were a source of food, though the beaches were mined by the occupying forces, so it was a dangerous mission to collect mussels or crabs. Seaweed, and moss were avidly collected, and used as vegetables or to make setting agents for preserves or blancmange.

    Sugar was not available, so islanders made syrup from sugar beet. Coffee substitute was made from collecting and drying dandelions or parnsips. In harvest time, corn was gleaned grain by grain from any missed by the Germans, and painstakingly ground in home mills originally intended for coffee or spices. Breeding rabbits for the pot, and catching sparrows from hedgerows supplemented the diet with a little protein. Bird's eggs of any type were filched from nests.

    Occupation Menu
    According to the book The Model Occupation by Madeleine Bunting - here is a typical day's diet on Jersey during 1943:

    'Grape nuts' made from mangel-wurzel with drop of rationed milk
    Bramble-leaf tea
    Bread with smear of cocoa substitute mixed with sago

    Boiled potatoes, peas, swede or cabbage
    Pudding made of baked breadcrumbs & milk thickened with maize meal.

    Bread & 'butter'
    Bramble-leaf tea

    Vegetable soup
    Stewed potatoes & peas

    Living in Fear
    Thousands of islanders traded on the Black Market, or stole from the Germans to survive. Farmers were luckier, if thery could hide a pig or chickens, but those in towns suffered real hardships. In the face of German authority, islanders were powerless. One wrong word could lead to an appearance before the court and transportation to a French or German prison camp. Islanders witnessed the inhumane treatment of the slave workers brought over from occupied territories in order to build the German fortifications, and they feared the same treatment. Between 1940 and 1945, more than 300 islanders were taken from Jersey to concentration camps and prisons on the continent, for crimes committed against the German occupying forces.

    As the occupation progressed, cooking grew difficult, as finding enough fuel became harder. The island was denuded of trees by the German forces. Not only was there no wood for fuel, but nowhere to hide for any type of Resistance, and no hope of escape from such a large invasion force, without capture.

    Communal kitchens were set up to minimize the amount of fuel needed for cooking, but to stay warm in the winter months it was still essential to search for kindling and wood, and anything else that could be burned. Everything had to be made - soap soon ran out, and toothpaste had to be made by mixing soot and chalk dust.

    By Christmas 1944, electricity was no longer available. Candles became scarce, and winter evenings were spent in semi-darkness by the light of a tin can full of oil, with a bootlace for a wick. Lack of warmth and gnawing hunger made winter on Jersey a true misery.

    All food supplies were cut off altogether after the D Day landings of 1944 when France was liberated. Starvation began to stare people in the face. Many succombed to illnesses associated with malnutrition. When the first Red Cross parcels arrived on 27 December 1944, people wept.

    My new novella, The Occupation is based on the story of  a Jerseywoman who hid her Jewish friend from the Germans. The real life story can be found here.

    You can order the book (in an anthology with another ten WW2 novellas) by clicking the picture.

    Channel Island website:
    Read more about the occupation of Jersey on the BBC
    Or in The Telegraph

    My website

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    November 1868: Emperor Meiji enters Edo in his phoenix palanquin
    On November 26th 1868, a hundred and fifty years ago this month, a vast procession three and a half thousand strong filed through the massive gates of Edo Castle, with musicians stepping out in front. Right at the centre, born on the shoulders of forty or fifty close packed bearers, was the imperial palanquin, topped with a golden phoenix, carrying the sixteen year old Emperor Mutsuhito, whom we now know as Emperor Meiji. 
    Emperor Meiji on his way to Edo

    He had been wending his way across the country from his ancestral home in Kyoto for twenty days. Ten thousand people lined the streets to watch him pass. Shortly afterwards Edo was renamed Tō-kyō, ‘Eastern Capital’, and Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace. The event was dubbed the Meiji Restoration. A whole new era had begun. 

    Shoguns had held power in Japan for many centuries. During those years the emperors had been like popes, spending their lives sequestered in the imperial palace in Kyoto and never leaving. For 250 years the country enjoyed uninterrupted peace. Japanese culture flourished - the world we see depicted in woodblock prints and on the stage of the kabuki theatre, the world of Basho’s haiku, Zen and much else. 

    During most of those years Japan was closed to the west. The only westerners were 20 Dutch merchants who were allowed to live on a small island off Nagasaki. A Dutch ship came once a year and kept the Japanese up to speed with western science and developments. Thus the Japanese knew a fair bit about the west but the west knew very little about Japan. 
    The rickshaw, invented in Japan in 1869

    Then, in a single day - July 8th 1853 - everything changed. Fishermen in their boats at the mouth of Edo Bay saw four monstrous ships surging towards them, spouting steam. ‘As large as mountains,’ the fishermen reported, ‘moving as fast as birds.’ It was as if aliens had landed. But it was not Martians. It was Americans. It was Commodore Matthew Perry and his famous Black Ships. 

    The fifteen years of turmoil that followed ended with the shogun being overthrown. The fifteenth and last shogun retired to his family lands and the teenage Emperor was borne in splendour into Edo, now Tokyo. And straight away things started to change. 

    Ginza Bricktown 1874
    Under the shoguns Edo had been an eastern Venice, lined with canals, with willow trees swaying along the banks. People went around by water, on foot, by palanquin or on horseback. There were no wheels for transporting people, only for goods. Wheels were quick to arrive. The rickshaw was invented almost instantaneously - in 1869. Soon rickshaws were everywhere, clattering through the streets, with the drivers shouting and threatening to mow people down if they didn’t leap out of the way fast enough. 

    Tokyo mushroomed much as China is mushrooming now. New buildings shot up in the western mode, of brick and stone, not wood. One of the first was the Mitsui House, a splendid wedding cake-like confection, owned by the wealthy shopkeeping and money exchanging Mitsui family, soon to found a business and banking empire.

    Then in April 1872 an area called the Ginza, full of furniture shops and second hand shops, mysteriously burnt down. No one was hurt, generating the suspicion that the fire had been set deliberately. The area was rebuilt entirely in sparkling new brick buildings and called Ginza Bricktown. The street was lined with all sorts of wonderful shops - a brand new newspaper office, a post office and a beef restaurant where people could dine on an exciting new dish - beef. In 1874 the Ginza was lit with Japan’s first gas lamps. 
    First train at Shimbashi station by Shōsai Ikkei, circa 1870 -
    donated to Wiki Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
      Also in 1872 the first train line opened linking Tokyo and Yokohama, built under the direction of the Englishman Edmund Morell. He had succumbed to fever and died at the age of 30 the year before the railway opened and is buried in the Foreigners’ Cemetery in Yokohama. The emperor was there in all his regalia to open it. He was 20 by now. He soon set an example by changing to western clothing (a military uniform with lots of medals) for official duties. He also made the revolutionary announcement, ‘I shall eat beef.’ 

    The empress followed suit. In 1873 she announced she was going to give up teeth blackening which was quite as shocking as if Meghan had suddenly announced she was going to blacken her teeth. Up till then adult women had always painted their teeth with lacquer to make them a lovely shiny black.
    View of Benten Shrine: The Emperor and Empress cherry blossom viewing with their attendants
    by Utagawa Hiroshige III 1881 - donated to Wiki Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
    In the cities at least everyone who could afford it was madly experimenting. Men rushed to the new-fangled barber shops - the first opened in 1869 - to have their oiled samurai topknots cut off and their hair cut in the latest style, the jangiri style, the cropped cut. People who had grown up wearing topknots and swords tried the bizarre new western fashions - trousers and Sherlock Holmes capes and incredibly uncomfortable leather boots.

    Women were more conservative in their dress choices. Geisha being trendsetters were the first to try western clothes - bustles and bonnets. The very first person to wear high heeled shoes was a Nagasaki geisha in the 1880s.

    Then in 1883 the Rokumeikan - the Hall of the Baying Stag - opened in central Tokyo right opposite the Imperial Palace. It was a rather flashy Italianate mansion of white painted brick with colonnaded verandas, set in landscaped gardens. There Japanese high society - gentlemen in frock coats, ladies in bustles, bows, corset and bonnets - dined on French food cooked by a French chef, using knives and forks, played billiards, had charity bazaars, sang western songs and played western musical instruments.

    Dancing into the future - at the Hall of the Baying Stag
    There were also famous balls. The idea was that gentlemen should appear with their wives on their arms as western people did. But unless you were an ex-geisha as quite a few of the ladies were, most upper class Japanese women were not accustomed to going out with their husbands, so a lot of the ladies at the Rokumeikan were actually the geisha of the gentleman in question, not the wife.
    From Aguranabe, 'Sitting round the beef pot'
    by Kanagaki Robun

    All this modernising was a lot of fun but it also had a serious purpose - to persuade the western powers that the Japanese were every bit as civilised as them so that they would repeal the hated unequal treaties, by which the Japanese had to pay inflated export duties and the exchange rate was rigged in the westerners’ favour and many other humiliating clauses besides.

    But despite all the dancing and modern clothes, the treaties were not repealed until 1895, after Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War. As a Japanese diplomat said wearily a decade later, after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War: ‘My people had been sending artistic treasures to Europe for some time, and had been regarded as barbarians. But as soon as we showed ourselves able to shoot down Russians with quick firing guns, we were acclaimed as a highly civilised race.’

    In case anyone might like to hear more, I’m giving a couple of lectures to mark the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration - at the Ashmolean in Oxford on Friday November 23rd from 1 to 2 and at the British Library on Tuesday November 27th at 7.15. 

    Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale very much based on a true story and set in Japan at the time of the turmoil preceding the Meiji Restoration- out now in paperback. For more see

    All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons or private collection.