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In the Ghetto by Mary Hoffman

In Autumn 2019 I spent two and a half weeks as Writer in Residence in Venice, invited by the university (Ca' Foscari) and its Center for Humanities and Social Change. My task was to write a book for children, treating themes of climate change and cultural diversity and having a connection to Venice itself. As time went by, I discovered I must also link this novel in some way to Edmund de Waal's installation, psalm, which was in the city at that time. Psalm came in two halves, one in the Jewish Museum and one in the Palazzo Ateneo, where I took part in a Symposium called Library of Memories. So now I had to add the themes of exile, loss, identity and memory.

Like everyone else, I knew de Waal from his wonderful book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which traces the fortunes of his ancestors in Odessa, Paris and Vienna.
Edmund de Waal Credit:Bernhard Holub
I re-read it before meeting him and was struck again by the poignancy of the loss of his great-grandfather's library in the Anschluss in Vienna. The Gestapo just burst into the luxurious apartment on the Ringstrasse and took everything: old masters, clothes, furniture, bibelots, jewellery as well as books. Well, not quite everything, because a maid, Anna, hid the family's collection of netsuke under her mattress and it survived and came down to Edmund from his great-uncle who lived in Japan.

That lost library is one of many behind the idea of the installation in the Ateneo. A large white cube with the names of all such book collections scribbled on the sides housed a library of books written in or about exile.

Alongside the books were four vitrines filled with de Waal's signature white ceramics. There were more ceramics too in the Jewish Museum, which is in the original Jewish Ghetto in the north of the city.

Tehillim (psalm) in the Canton entrance

(There are two ghettoes in Venice: the Nuovo (new) and the Vecchio (old). Almost needless to say, the "new" one is older than the "old" one!)

The first Ghetto in Europe was instituted on 29th March 1516 when the Government of Venice issued special laws.  It was an area where Jews were forced to live and which they could not leave from sunset to dawn. The area was closed by gates watched by guards and to the present day the marks of the hinges are still visible there. The Ghetto continued for more than two and a half centuries, until Napoleon conquered Venice and finally eliminated every gate in 1797.

Edmund de Waal describes it thus: "The Ghetto is a place of connections, a place of plurality of languages and cultures: of German, Flemish, Persian, Ottoman, Spanish and Portuguese Jews alongside Italian. This was a place of constant translation, a testing ground for comprehension and nuance. It was noisy with learning, debate, poetry and music. It should be again. Everything is plural here, one history reaching out to another, a palimpsest of voices."  (guide to psalm, Venice 2019)

The Jewish Museum of Venice, where one part of psalm was displayed, was set up in 1955, having previously been a synagogue. From the Canton entrance, you can look down into the old synagogue. de Waal says," This installation, Tehillim – the Hebrew word for psalm – consists of 11 vitrines, each one holding a thin sheet of gilded porcelain of almost unimaginable fragility and a piece of translucent white marble. It is a call-and-response between materials. It is made to catch the reflected light from within the dense and dark goldenness of the synagogue itself." (Guardian, 24.04.2019)

During my residency in Venice I spent a lot of time in the Campo de Gheto Novo, as it's called in the local dialect. It is one of the biggest squares in the city, after San Marco, and practically the only one without a church. It has three wells, a water fountain, eight marble benches and - unusually for Venice - about half a dozen mature trees. Some people find it sad, thinking of its history of repression and containment of a population, but I find it peaceful and a good place to reflect.

It was inevitable that it would find a place in my novel. It is where the two main characters meet:  a Muslim boy and a Jewish girl. He, having escaped from a capsizing boat in the Mediterranean and corruption in a refugee camp, is in search of a new future. She, adopted as a baby, is more interested in the unknown past. The Ghetto is a place of connections.

The other half of de Waal's installation was also productive of ideas. The Library of Exile contains books from fifty-two countries, two thousand titles "written by those who have been forced to leave their own country or exiled within it." It commemorates the lost libraries of the world, "from Ninevah and Alexandria to the recent destruction of Sarajevo,Timbuktu and Aleppo and Mosul." And of course the library of Viktor Ephrussi, Edmund de Waal's greatgrandfather, plundered  by the Gestapo.

Like Edmund de Waal, I have a Jewish greatgrandfather. Not a banker with a twenty-four room apartment in  Vienna but a farmer from Heildelberg. Georg Hoffmann bequeathed me my surname , give or take a letter, and very little else. Certainly not his mother tongue, but maybe my fascination with languages and words, with etymology, semantics and grammar.  I doubt he had a library to plunder. But by 1938 he was long out of reach of the Nazis; he had emigrated to England, married an Englishwoman and never returned to his native home. He was luckier than Victor Ephrussi because, although he had far less to lose, he kept what he had.

"This library celebrates the idea that all languages are diasporic, that we need other people's words, self-definitions and re-definitions in translation. It honours the words of André Aciman, himself an exile from Alexandria, that he understands himself 'not as a person from a place, but as a person from a place across from that place. You are - and always are - from somewhere else.'"

This part of the installation, The Library of Exile, left Venice at the end of September last year and travelled to Dresden. When it closed there it came on to the British Museum in London, where it opened on 12th March. I went to the private view on 11th, when we were all still able to embrace without fear. The British Museum, The Library of Exile and its associated programme of lectures and workshops, all closed a week later.

We are now, so many of us, living "in exile in our own country." Quarantine gives us the smallest taste of what real exile is like.

The Library of Exile's ultimate destination is Mosul, which lost its library just over five years ago, when it was blown up by ISIL, destroying 8,000 rare volumes and manuscripts. But for the moment it sits in lockdown inside the British Museum.

My book sits at a publishers' office in London. Exile is a form of Limbo. We are all on pause, waiting for the new enemy to be defeated. Like Siddiq in my novel, we are hoping for a new future.

The Ancient Guide to Coping with Lock-down by L.J. Trafford

These are strange times when we find ourselves constrained to our homes. As a result the country is awash with glossy Sunday supplements offering advice and suggestions for how we should spend our lock-down time.

Which made me think of a good way I could kill some lock-down time; by compiling my very own glossy Sunday supplement guide. Which got me thinking further. We all know the ancients were terribly wise, what with inventing philosophy and drama and concrete. Surely, they would possess some insightful knowledge, some great wisdom that can help us navigate this new normal?

Having scoured ancient texts for inspirational quotes I bring you my (irreverent) guide to coping with lock-down with input from the grand minds of antiquity

Self-isolating chums

Being holed up for weeks on end it is very important that you get on with your fellow incarcerates.
Something that Martial is clearly struggling with:  “Though I can’t live without you. I can live without you in the house.”

Over to Seneca who has some extremely good advice on the subject: “You should be extending your stay amongst writers whose genius is unquestionable.”

Which is exactly what I told my husband and children. They looked at me blankly.

Facing up to hard times

The ancients have much advice on how to handle hard times, such as this gem from philosopher
Epictetus, “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer has paired with a tough young buck.”
As an additional boost why not picture your opponent wrestler as being particularly attractive and muscly, maybe like Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender.
Or as someone you really dislike and then picture yourself wrestling the crap out of them.

Plutarch has a different approach, “Reflect on famous men and how they have not been affected at all by circumstances identical to one’s own.” Which I believe is a call to stalk celebs on social media and boggle over their choice in internal design.

Alternatively, why not reflect on the Queen and her stoical stance to all the troubling times throughout her long reign? God bless you ma’am!

Her Majesty is thrilled to meet L.J. Trafford

Make the most of the lock-down 

Whereas modern social media is awash with people growing sour dough monstrosities, completing 10k jigsaw puzzles and squat thrusting to within an inch of their lives, Pliny the Younger has a more chillaxed approach.

“I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honourable more rewarding than any ‘business’ can be.” 

Seneca echoes Pliny’s take that quietness and stillness can be a reward in themselves and that we should let go of our busy, busy endlessly moving lifestyles.
“The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet; will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.” 

Another saying from antiquity tells us: “Contentment is impossible for anyone who busies himself with personal or public affairs”

Which is what you should tell your other half when they berate you for lying on the sofa all day doing nothing.


If you’re had all the stillness and quiet you can handle, why not try taking up a hobby.  Here's some examples you might wish to follow, courtesy of Rome’s emperors

Emperor Augustus had quite a collection of “skeletons of extinct sea and land monsters”, Suetonius tells us, which he had on display in his house. Why not see if amazon is delivering monster skeletons so you too can have a collection like Augustus.

You might also want to follow Augustus’ example by spending your lock-down time to write an account of all the marvellous things you have achieved in your life. Augustus’ Res Gestae covered such accomplishments as; “ At the age of nineteen, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.” 

Which might pale your student union drinking exploits somewhat, but we can’t all be Augustus.
Augustus had his accomplishment carved into whopping big stones and displayed outside his mausoleum and all over the empire. Why not do similar by making multiple copies of your achievements, sticking them in your window next to your kids’ rainbow picture and then sharing them by posting copies through your neighbours letterboxes. 

Augustus kindly points out where the toilets are located.

Emperor Nero, of course, was dedicated to the art of song. Dedicate yourself to the art of song and don’t fret if you aren’t any good, because neither was Nero.

Alternatively, you might want emulate emperor Domitian, who “would spend hours alone every day doing nothing but catch flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”


It's not surprising that during this lock-down period many people have acquired a fluffy friend to keep them company.
Romans were big on pets too, particularly the aquatic kind. Fish ponds were wildly popular, so much so that sour puss Cicero took a swipe at ‘fish fanciers'.
Fish are relaxing to watch but should you tire of being relaxed why not follow Crassus’s example. He had a pet eel which he trained to swim up to him when he called it’s name.
Crassus also dressed up his eel as a lady in earrings and necklace, which gives new meaning to Cicero’s ‘fish fanciers’. This is an example you might want to avoid copying, if only for the slippery difficulty of putting a ring on a goldfish. 

Remember the downsides 

It can be difficult being away from people, shut up in your own house. But this can be countenanced by remembering how awful the outside world is and everyone who lives in it.
Martial for instance won’t be missing those dreadful dinner parties he was forced to attend : “Though each dish is lavish and superb the pleasures nil since you recite your poems.”

Juvenal won’t be missing the commute certainly, “The endless traffic In narrow twisting streets the tide ahead obstructs me, And the huge massed ranks that follow behind crush my kidneys;
This man sticks out his elbow, that one flails with a solid pole,
This man strikes my head with a beam, that one with a barrel.
Legs caked with mud, I’m forever trampled by mighty feet
From every side, while a soldier’s hobnailed boot pierces my toe.”

And not forgetting those irritating pieces of flesh and blood known as other people. Boy are they annoying, as Juvenal notes.  “Always ready to throw up their hands and cheer
If their ‘friend’ belches deeply, or perhaps pisses straight,
Or gives a fart when the golden bowl’s turned upside down.”

Really very, very annoying;
"You always whisper into every one's ear, Cinna; you whisper even what might be said in the hearing of the whole world. You laugh, you complain, you dispute, you weep, you sing, you criticise, you are silent, you are noisy; and all in one's ear.” 

With disgusting habits:
"To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy." 
Pompeii graffiti

In short, people are annoying and horrible and disgusting and you are better off without them. In fact, you are a better person without them. As Seneca notes.
“You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this; a mass crowd”
“I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out.”
So as you sit at home revel in this improvement to your moral character. Then WhatsApp all your friends to inform them that in their absence you are a much better person.

Having lost all your friends you may as well go the full misanthropic route favoured by Martial.
“You ask me what I get out of my country place. The profit, gross or net, is never seeing your face.”

L.J. Trafford is the author of four fiction and two non fiction books on Ancient Rome. She is spending the lock-down doing jigsaws, colouring things and contemplating important things, like how you put earrings on an eel. 

Pandemic then and now... by Carolyn Hughes

My series of historical novels is set in the middle of the 14th century, a period (in)famous for its devastating plague. The first novel wasn’t actually about the Black Death, but about its aftermath and the social consequences for a community that lost between a third and a half of its population.

Now, however, I’m writing the fourth novel in the series and, unfortunately, it is at least partly “about” plague, for the pandemic returned to England in 1361. As a result, right now I’m in the rather curious, and admittedly somewhat uncomfortable, position of writing about a pandemic whilst living through one. I suppose I could have steered the story away from such ghastly happenings, but I planned the book’s storyline long before we’d even heard of COVID-19, and I’m disinclined to ditch a narrative I’ve been working on for a year… For a while I was too unsettled and distracted by the unfolding present-day disaster to even think about the “plague” chapters, let alone write them, but recently I’ve got a grip and am at last making some progress.

But, because I’ve had to think about plague all over again, I’ve also been rereading some of the textbooks on medieval plague, to refresh my understanding about what medieval people thought and felt about it, and how they responded to and dealt with it.

The way COVID-19 has spread so fast and so easily is frightening enough, but doctors and scientists do at least know what it is (they understand the nature of viruses), understand how it spreads (for example, coughing), have some idea of how to mitigate it (for example, isolation, ventilators), have found a way of testing for the disease and are hopefully well on the way to finding a vaccine.

Whereas in the 14th century, people had no idea what the disease actually was, or how it spread. The black rat and its fleas have always been implicated in the spread, but there is also a view that human fleas and lice might also have carried it from person to person, given the speed of the disease’s transmission. Of course, people then didn’t necessarily understand the role of fleas as vectors for disease, though it’s clear they did believe that close contact with a victim was to be avoided.

Perhaps not quite the culprit he’s been made out to be? But not this cute either!
(Etching by W. S. Howitt, 1808. Wellcome Library, London. 
http://wellcomeimages.org. Public domain.)
People did seem to understand the value of isolation as a way of avoiding plague although, practically and logistically, running away cannot have been easy or even feasible. But keeping oneself to oneself was certainly understood. Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for going into “lock-down” in 1665 after plague invaded the village (from fleas in a bolt of cloth apparently). But Boccaccio’s Decameron (completed in 1353) is based on the isolation premise, being a collection of stories told by a group of young men and women who fled Florence to a secluded villa in order to escape the Black Death.

A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse, 1916.
National Museums, Liverpool. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the 14th century, death was of course everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life generally subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people ascribed every mishap or disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, to either God’s will or the Devil’s work. So it was presumably entirely understandable, if terrifying, to be told that the coming of the plague was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin. Especially when God was supposed to be merciful rather than vengeful.

This was what priests told their congregations. In September 1348, at the behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the coming of the Great Mortality was seen as divine punishment for sin:
“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises… he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.” #
Letters were then sent by the bishops to every parish in their diocese, reiterating this assertion that the Great Mortality was God’s punishment for mankind’s sin, and urging priests and their parishioners to repent earnestly of their sins and beg God for His mercy. These words come from the bishop of Winchester’s letter to his clergy:
“…God often strikes us, to test our patience and justly punish us for our sins… it is not within the power of man to understand the divine plan… the most likely explanation is that human sensuality has now plumbed greater depths of evil, producing a multitude of sins which have provoked the divine anger, by a just judgement, to this revenge.” #
So, according to the bishop, it was “sensuality” that had provoked God’s especial anger…. And one particular aspect of sensuality that some held up as a prime cause of God’s anger was allegedly the fashion for clothing that was considered by some to be both outlandish and indecent.

In 1344, an English monk spoke of the “grotesque fashions of clothing” then current in England, and he upbraided the English for abandoning the “old, decent style of long full garments” for:
“clothes which are short, tight, impractical, slashed, every part laced, strapped or buttoned up.” #
A few years after the second outbreak of the plague in 1361, a chronicler associated the lewd style of clothing with the evil that would undoubtedly follow:
 “…the English…remained wedded to a crazy range of outlandish clothing without realising the evil which would come of it.” (From a chronicle of 1365) #
This chronicler was writing twenty years after the monk, so one presumes the “outlandish” clothing was still in vogue.

So, what was it like, this clothing? Indecency and impracticality, as well as frivolousness, seem to have been the main complaints. Here are a few examples from the 1365 chronicler describing men’s fashion:
“…full doublets, cut short to the loins” “…which failed to conceal…their private parts.”
“…particoloured and striped hose…which are called harlottes, and thus one ‘harlot’ serves another, as they go about with their loins uncovered.”
“…a long garment reaching to the ankles, [but] not opening in the front, as is proper for men, but laced up the side to the armhole in the style of women’s clothes, so that from the back their wearers look more like women than men.”
“…little hoods, tightly buttoned under the chin in the fashion of women…the liripipe ankle-length and slashed like a jester’s clothes.”
“They also possess shoes with pointed toes as long as a finger…more like devil’s talons than apparel for men…” #
The three images below give you some idea of very short doublets, and very pointed shoes (the chap on the right in the middle image). These are Italian men so maybe Englishmen’s clothes would have looked a little different but, from the criticisms above, one might deduce that the principles of style were much the same!

All these images are from the 14th century treatise on health Tacuinum sanitatis.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Women of course didn’t escape censure – far from it. I think some members of the church were always very willing to find fault with the “daughters of Eve”…

As an example of women’s “lewd” clothing, the sideless surcoat became fashionable in the mid-14th century, a long, sleeveless overdress, with very large armholes, which revealed the fitted gown underneath. Some moralists abhorred the style, saying it drew unwarranted attention to the shape of the woman’s body, in a titillating way that would surely inflame men’s thoughts…

This image shows the style rather well, albeit she is very much a member of the nobility.

Miniature in the manuscript Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis, showing 
Maria of Brabant’s marriage with the French king Philip III.
British Library Royal MS 20 C VII, fol. 10. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Tight clothing does seem to have been the principal concern, and the monk in 1344 gives us another example of it:
“Women followed with the tides of fashion…even more eagerly, wearing clothes that were so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down insider their skirts at the back, to hide their arses.” #
All these clothes were seen as signs of both lewdness and pride, for men and women alike, and the inevitable precursor to disaster. The monk predicted:
“The sin of pride manifested in this way must surely bring down misfortune in the future.” #
And the later chronicler said much the same, but brought all the other sins into the equation too:
“Because the people wantonly squander the gifts of God on…pride, lechery and greed – and all the rest of the deadly sins – it is only to be expected that the Lord’s vengeance will follow.” #
Clearly all the clothes in these illustrations were worn by the better off rather than peasants although, as some peasants and artisans became more prosperous, they too aspired to, and acquired, more fashionable clothes, which was even more deeply frowned upon. In the 1360s, sumptuary laws were brought in to curb this unseemly blurring of the social hierarchy, but this was presumably more about the upper classes wanting to maintain their fashionable distinction than worries about indecency…

But doesn’t it all seem rather odd – hilarious, even – that fashion was held responsible for the coming of the plague? Or even that immorality should take the blame? But the chroniclers were certainly moralists of one kind or another. And plague was perhaps a good pretext for them to criticise the masses for their bad behaviour. Not that most people, of course, would, or could, have read the chronicles, though I suppose they might have heard similar sentiments coming from the mouths of their priests. But I wonder to what extent the average Englishman or woman believed them? How I’d love to know…

# All texts are taken from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox.

Sex, Death and Eternal Love by Elisabeth Storrs

I was inspired to write my A Tale of Ancient Rome series when I found a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of a man and women lying on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple) was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that existed from before archaic times in Italy and was mainly situated in the areas we now know as Tuscany and Lazio.

Sarcophagus of the Married Couple - Late C6th BCE
Etruscan women were afforded education, high status and independence. As a result they were often described as ‘wicked’ by Greek and Roman historians and travellers whose cultures repressed women. Etruscan women dined with their husbands at banquets and drank wine. In such commentators’ eyes, this liberal behaviour may well have equated with depravity. One famous account claims that wives indulged in orgies. And so modern historians continue to debate the contradictory depictions of Etruscan women –were they promiscuous adulterers or faithful wives? 

Etruscan society clearly celebrated both marriage and sex. The image of men and women embracing is a constant theme in their tomb art and ranges from being demure, as in the case of the Married Couple, to the strongly erotic (Tomb of the Bulls) and evenpornographic (Tomb of the Whippings.) The latter illustrations seem to confirm the more prurient view of Etruscan women but the symplegma or ‘sexual embrace’ was not a gratuitous portrayal of abandon but instead was an atropaic symbol invoking the forces of fertility against evil and death.

Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai
Late C4th early 3rd BCE
No better example of this is a particularly striking double sarcophagus found in Vulci in Italy and which is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wrought in fine white limestone, the man and woman lie entwined in each other’s arms. However, unlike the anonymous Married Couple, this husband and wife can be identified. They are Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai. The very fact that Tanchvil has two names is evidence of the status of Etruscan women. In early Rome, females only had one name – that of their father’s in feminine form. In Etruria, the bloodlines of both sides of a woman’s family were often recorded on their casket.

The image of the couple is both intimate and yet openly erotic. The spouses are not young but are nevertheless beautiful. Tanchvil gently clasps the nape of Larth’s neck as the lovers gaze into each other’s eyes. They are naked, the outline of their limbs evident beneath the sculpted folds of the mantle that covers them. However nudity cannot hide their status. Their luxurious hairstyles and elegant jewellery declare their wealth, as does the wide, decorated double bed upon which they lie.

There was a second sarcophagus found in the sepulchre at Vulci. It is narrow and only held the remains of a woman, Ramtha Visnai, but its lid depicts her embracing her husband, Arnth Tetnies. They are the parents of Larth. This coffin is made of rough nenfro stone. Wrapped in their shroud, the figures embrace each other on their bed. Unlike the sexually charged younger couple, the older pair is more contemplative as they face each other although the sight of their feet peeping from beneath the covers hints at the relaxed familiarity of their marriage.

Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies
C450-400 BCE

The Married Couple inspired me to write my trilogy, but the two caskets in the Tetnies tomb were the inspiration for the title of The Wedding Shroud. For both couples lie beneath mantles that I came to understand could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the spouses were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity, their union protecting them from the dark forces that lay beyond the grave.  

As for the conflicting views of Etruscan women, it is clear from studying this society’s art that they celebrated life. Many worshipped the religion of Fufluns (the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus) whose later cult adherents were famous for indulging in debauchery but in its purest form was a belief in the power of regeneration. So which version is correct? Sinners indulging in group sex or steadfast wives? Perhaps both, because the concept of a culture that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to females occurs in many present-day Western cultures today.

Either way, the erotic and sensual image of an embrace transcends any moralising in which historians might indulge.  Ultimately I believe that the symplegma is not just an atropaic symbol but something more powerful. Whether sculpted in stone, moulded in terracotta or painted in a mural, the embrace of two lovers remains, above all, an eternal celebration of abiding love.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com
This post first appeared on Feather of the Firebird blog.
Tarnai_Tetnies Sarcophagus courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Visna_Tetnies Sarcophagus courtesy  AncientRome.rus
The Married Couple courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful Libraries & Travel Dreams by Catherine Hokin

Like every writer I know, I am wedded to libraries and bookshops and, ten weeks into this strange new world we are now living in, I am missing my regular haunts.

I have two libraries I regularly spend time in - my local university library in Glasgow and the Wiener Holocaust Library in London - and too many virtual ones to count. Independent bookshops in Glasgow are, unfortunately, thin on the ground but Edinburgh is only a hop away and we have a suitably eccentric second-hand bookshop at the bottom of our road that I really hope survives the current closures.

 El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore - Flickr
Travel seems a long way away but I have been digging through the photos and planning trips, and libraries and book stores are always part of the itinerary. Last year, while researching my novel The Fortunate Ones, I was lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires and the incredible El Ateneo Grand Splendid. This bookshop was built in 2000 inside the Grand Splendid Theatre which itself opened in 1919. The shop retains many parts of the original theatre, including the stage - which is now a cafe - the balconies and boxes and even the red curtains. I have never seen a shop like it, and we lost hours in there.

 Washington National Library - my picture
A few months before that, I was in Washington where I almost broke my neck craning for a better view of the magnificent ceilings in the Library of Congress.The decoration is breath-taking, the library is in the Beaux Art style which means it is theatrical and heavily ornamented. It was the largest library in the world when it opened in 1897, and still is. Its collections number more than 170 million items and that number is constantly growing - about 10,000 items are added to its lists every working day.

The Library of Congress is, however, a long way from being the world's oldest library. That honour falls to the Library of Ashurbanipal, which was founded in Ninevah in modern day Iraq in the seventh century BC. The ancient world also housed the legendary Library of Alexandria which attracted scholars from around the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by fire - either in 48 B.C., 270 A.D or at the end of the fourth century depending on which record you read. The oldest surviving library collection - roughly 1800 scrolls - dates from 79 A.D and was discovered in the Villa of the Papyri when Herculaneum was excavated in the eighteenth century. The scrolls were blackened and carbonized after spending so long entombed in the mud and ash left by the volcanic eruption which buried Herculaneum along with Pompei. Much of the catalogue has yet to be deciphered, but studies have already revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.

Libraries have always been viewed as an essential part of our world and I, for one, cannot wait to walk into one and breathe that special printed page smell again. We are currently, I think, evaluating many of the things that are important to us, and I hope libraries continue to get the support and funding they, and we, need. In a time of fake news and sometimes too fast news, they have never been more essential to us - libraries provide equality of information and they are the custodians of truth. They are also, many of them, stunning works of art in their own right. I am sure many readers of this blog have their own favourites - Trinity College Library in Dublin is another of mine - but the following pictures are top of my my wish list. As soon as the world opens up again, I'm on my way...

Royal Library, El Escorial, Madrid, Flikr

 George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Wikicommons

What's in a Name ? by Judith Allnatt


What's in a name? Well, often quite a nod to history. Our own names often tell us something of the occupations off our ancestors, as in Potter, Shepherd, Smith (blacksmith) and Whitaker (white acre).  Some, of course, would be difficult to guess. Who would have known that the first name Gary means 'spear-carrier',  Kimberley 'a wood clearing' or  Everard 'strong boar'?

Some names have suffixes that suggest the nature of an occupation. 'Wright' means someone who makes something, as in Wheelwright or Wainwright, 'wain' being short for 'wagon'. Suffixes can also imply gender. The surname Webb was commonly used for a male weaver. The suffix 'ster' was often added for a female labourer, as in 'Webster'. Words on this pattern have even entered the language as nouns.  'Spinster' no doubt originated from an occupation commonly taken up by single women needing to support themselves. Prefixes can also be revealing. 'Fitz', from Old French,  means 'son of', as in Fitzpatrick or Fitzgerald, or in the case of Fitzroy the (illegitimate) son of the King (Roi).

When choosing names for characters, novelists generally think carefully about the nature of the character and the impression they want to create. Thomas Hardy, in Far from the Madding Crowd, introduces his character, Gabriel Oak, through his robust clothes and steady nature but his name also underpins this impression. A man named after an archangel and the sturdiest of English trees must surely be a moral benchmark and a reliable, all round solid chap.

Sometimes historical research can lead a writer to a name that chimes with their idea of a character.When I was writing The Silk Factory, set in the early 1800s, I drew on the history of John English, the overseer in the silk manufactory in my Northamptonshire village. He was described by the outraged schoolmaster of the time as 'an inhuman taskmaster'. Like Gabriel Oak, John English seemed far too traditional and forthright a name for a character who was to cruelly exploit and mistreat his workforce. I would have to rename him. In researching the industry, I read about weaving  workshops in Spitalfields in London and how nets would sometimes be set up on the rooftops  to catch songbirds to sell. A bird catcher was known then as a 'fowler' - the perfect name for the silk master overseeing a workforce trapped in a stuffy attic working sixteen-hour days.

John English also had a mysterious past. An advert in the Northampton Mercury offered a reward of ten guineas for his capture as he was accused of several felonies, including theft and cruelty. It said: 'He has many wounds upon his head and in different parts of his body, wears a wig and the general turn of his conversation is directed to Travelling, Voyages, Mechanics and discovering Mines and the North-West passage.' Because  of this, I wanted a first name that had elements of mystery and exoticism. I chose 'Septimus', the name used for a seventh son, a role imbued with mystery in fairy tales through the ages. 'Septimus  Fowler', I felt would be a character that the reader would recognise as villainous from the moment of his introduction.

We don't tend to think about the origins or meanings of names as we use them in everyday life. They've become commonplace over the generations through their frequent use. However, I think perhaps we sometimes have an unconscious awareness of their associations. When writing A Mile of River, which features a farmer obsessed with expanding his land and controlling his family, I drew a blank for his name. After a night sleeping on it, I came up with the name 'Henry Garton'. It seemed to click although I couldn't have said why. Looking up the meanings I found "Henry - head of the household" and "Garton - a fenced farm, a walker of boundaries". A salutary lesson on trusting one's writerly instincts!

No wonder many peoples have superstitions about telling a stranger their names. Perhaps they have a sense that to do so is to part with more information about themselves  than they would like to give. What's in a name? Quite a lot it would seem.

On Purbeck Marble


Tomb of William Marshal: Temple Church.  Author's photograph
Purbeck Marble was a highly prized building material in the Middle Ages especially from the 11th to 16th centuries, with its heyday in the 12th and 13th.

It can only be obtained from one place and that is the land in the area of Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in south-east Dorset.  It is not a marble technically speaking, but a polishable limestone, characterised by tightly-packed fossil shells of the water snail viviparus carinfer.  It comes in a variety of shades including blue-grey, red-brown and green.  The vein of this limestone is between 18 and 24 inches thick and was worked from the surface.

Thousands of architectural objects have been fashioned from Purbeck stone, including the the columns at the Temple Church in London, various knightly effigies, including that of William Marshal, and a magnificent fountain that used to stand outside the private apartments at the Palace of Westminster.  Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to King Stephen, used Purbeck for wall shafts, capitals and bases at Wolvesey Palace in the mid 12th century and also for elaborate colonettes at Hyde Abbey.

Working the marble is difficult because of its denseness and it required expert craftsmen for the task.  Such men worked at Purbeck itself and in London.

One of the reasons for the success of Purbeck was the coastal location of the source which made it easy to transport. Columns were shipped up to Durham Cathedral in 1175. Capitals and bases went to Norwich, to Westminster, to Vale Royal.  In 1375 a ship called the Margarite out of Wareham was listed as transporting cargoes of Purbeck to London, including two high tombs for the Earl of Arundel and a large slab for the bishop of Winchester.  In 1386 the same ship took Purbeck from Dorset to London intended for the tomb of Edward III.

Tomb of King John Worcester Cathedral.  photo taken by the author
The London craftsman originally came from Corfe but settled in their community in London. The biggest influx seems to have come with the requirement for building and beautifying at Westminster Abbey instigated by Henry III in 1245. By 1253 there were 49 marblers on the site all cutting and polishing the marble blocks and shafts.  There were probably also centres of marbling at other great ecclesiastical sites - Salisbury Cathedral for example, which was sending worked marble to Southampton in 1231-2.

The most successful Purbeck items for the mass market in the 12th and 13th century were tomb slabs and effigies.  William Marshal's effigy as aforementioned, Henry Bishop of Winchester, King John, Hubert Walter - Archbishop of Canterbury.

Later on Purbeck continued to be in high demand when funeral brass effigies became all the rage and the marble was used as a background to the brass.  It was still also being used for paneled tomb chests and large canopied wall tombs.

Today it is no longer quarried on the former sites except for specialist restoration projects.

Temple Church interior showing the Purbeck columns - these are restored ones following
bomb damage in World War II

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Angelica, Paintress of Minds by Miranda Miller

   When I was writing my novel about the fascinating painter Angelica Kauffman there were two things I found difficult to understand: her devout Catholicism (I am not religious) and her fear of change in her last years, when she was living in Rome, widowed, waiting for Napoleon’s army to invade. In early nineteenth century century terms she was an old lady - actually younger than I am now - and she wanted to continue to shine in the brilliant world of art and culture in London and Rome that no longer existed because of the wars. Change is inevitable, I thought rather impatiently as I wrote about her sadness and fear of the new century.

   The last few strange months have changed all of our lives and now I think I have more empathy for people who lived through past wars and pandemics. We spend most of our lives deluding ourselves that we are important and then some disaster comes along to remind us that we are actually tiny and have no control over these great events.

   Angelica was a determined woman who controlled her life from childhood, when her precocious gift was regognised and exploited by her father, an unsuccessful painter. Hers was one of those talents that was perfectly attuned to the taste of her age and she made the most of it, painting portraits of the rich and famous that were flattering and also psychologically acute, like this one of the great classical scho;ar Winckelmann, who was a friend,.

   Angelica was good looking and charming, a talented singer who spoke German, Italian and English. When she was twenty-five she moved to London where she very quickly established herself in the highly competitive art world. A new word was coined: Angelicamad. Joshua Reynold liked and encouraged her and as well as portraits she did History and literary paintings, often showing melancholy women left behind by the macho exploits of their men, She also painted many aristocrats and members of the royal family, including Queen Charlotte, who befriended her. These two intelligent cultivated young women were about the same age and the Queen, who was lonely in En gland, was relieved to be able to speak German . This ia a mezzotint of Angelica’s allegorical painting of the Queen about to awaken the sleeping arts in Great Britain.

   Angelica was always aware that as a ‘paintress’ she did not have the sexual freedom of male artists. Remarkably, her career and reputation were not damaged by the one mistake she made, her first marriage to the ‘Count de Horn’ who turned out to be a con man. It was probably due to the influence of the Queen that Angelica was one of only two women to become founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts when it opened in 1768. She was a shrewd businesswoman who made a lot of money during her years in London. Here is one of many self portraits she painted from the age of thirteen. I found them very helpful as a guide to exploring her life.

    In her late thirties, after her first bigamous marriage was annulled, she married Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian decorative painter fifteen years older than her. She had seen many other women artists ruined by marriage because their husbands were jealous of their talent or objected to their earning money as painters. She drew up what we would call a pre-nuptial agreement, giving her total control over her own money. In fact Zucchi was happy to be supportive of his more famous wife and their marriage seems to have been a happy one.

   In 1780 Lord George Gordon let a violently anti-Catholic mob on a rampage of rioting, looting and burning in London that lasted for several days. As Catholics, Angelica and her household were terrified and decided to move back to Italy.

   Rome was then the centre of the European art world,where all the Grand Tourists came. Angelica and her husband lived in a very grand house at the top of the Spanish steps. When I was researching my novel I visited Rome, thanks to a generous grant from the Authors’ Foundation, and found that her house has been demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel.

   Her house became an international cultural centre and during those years Angelica painted the Queen of Naples, Antonio Canova, Germaine de Stael, Emma Hamilton and Goethe, all of whom were her friends. After Zucchi died in 1795 she wrote, ‘These happy times are over,’ and for the last years of her life she lived in fear that the soldiers of Napoleon, would arrive and loot her valuable art collection. Lucia, an invented character in my novel, is a young woman Angelica helps who is infatuated with the glamour and excitement of Napoleon and his sister, Princess Pauline Borghese, who was living in Rome. As a conservative Catholic Angelica detested both and mourned the old world that was being swept away by Napoleon. This argument runs throughout the novel. In Lucia’s unconventional spirit Angelica recognises a youth she missed:“She is the girl I trained myself not to be.”

   Like us, Angelica lived at a time of enormous change and was often bewildered by it. At the end of her life, still anxious to avoid scandal, she made a bonfire of most of her private papers. I’ve presumptuously tried to bring them back to life in my novel, Angelica Paintress of Minds, which is now out on kindle and will be published by Barbican Books in August.

Jean Giono's Legacy, by Carol Drinkwater


                               Jean Giono born in Manosque in 1895 and died in the same village in 1970.

I am frequently asked who my favourite writers are; authors I return to time and time again. One of the first who springs to mind is Jean Giono. Son of a cobbler and a laundress, he is a Provençal writer through and through. Henry Miller, the great American writer, described Giono as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Yet he is little know outside his native France, although many of his books have been translated in to English.

In 1953 he published perhaps his most famous book, THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES. If you haven't read it I certainly urge you to. You won't be disappointed. The tale narrates the story of a berger, a shepherd, who spends thirty years reforesting a region in the Haute Provence. The book was made into a film produced in Canada. Here is the link to the very beautiful  animation film:

Or in English:

In these hard days full of sickness and bad news, I heartily recommend this beautiful little film and, of course, the novel, which in my opinion is a small masterpiece.

By serendipity, I recently discovered the group, Friends of Jean Giono/ Les Amis de Jean Giono. They meet every year in early August in Manosque, watch films of his work, read from his books and take walking tours to parts of the Provençal countryside Giono wrote about. I am hoping that I will be able to attend this year.

Coincidentally, Michel and I are attempting to plant up a forest of oak trees grown from acorns fallen on our land at the Olive Farm ... a small gesture for the future.

Enjoy your summer reading and I hope you find inspiration from Giono and this marvellous little film.

Why I’m not busy doing publicity for my new novel - Michelle Lovric

It’s hard to write or speak right now without mentioning Covid, so I’m not even going to try to avoid the subject. Here’s the question all writers are asking one another: have you blossomed into lockdown creativity? Me, I can’t say, objectively. Yes, I have written a lot – at least thirty thousand words of something that might be prose, but I don’t know if it’s emotionally legible, let alone good. I may not know until we’ve come out of this dreamlike time and can think clearly again.

I have loved writing for a poetry seminar led by the wickedly inspiring Christina Dunhill. We’ve been working on Ghazal, Rubai, Rhyme Royal and other contortions, form being, in my opinion, the poets’ Sudoku. (In the case of sestina or pantoum, form is more like the poets’ Rubik’s Cube). Zoom works surprisingly well for a poetry seminar, with much deployment of the chat function, so there’s lots of subtext, literally. The screen has exploded with talent, passion and humour. Christina’s group will be one of my best memories of the lockdown. Meanwhile, my own far-flung family has resorted to a new post-Covid poetic form on WhatsApp – Gangsta Haiku, which involves a lot of swearing and, I fear, disrespecting of one another’s cats. Our cats are also voiced, and they turn out to be quite outstandingly rude. (For shame, Caramella, Guppy, Jessie. For shame.)

However, I have spent most of my lockdown time bare-knuckle wrestling with a planning application presented to the City of London as a 'simple reinstatement' of historic Swan Lane Pier by London Bridge at the heart of the Thames.

I'd support the reinstatement of the old pier, of course.

You can read about its colourful history on this excellent website: https://alondoninheritance.com/the-thames/old-swan-stairs/.

If only we could reinstate the Swan Lane Pier of Samuel Pepys, the old Swan Upping ceremony and the 'Waterman, naked all but his shirt, rowed in a Butcher’s Tray from the Old Swan Stairs, to Greenwich, for a Wager of four Guineas, and won the same.'

But I'd also support a new pier with a gentle footprint on the river - a pier that ran on solar, tide or wind renewables, providing a mixed hub for public transport, safe water sports for London's children and adults and a responsible truly green freight offering to ease road congestion. Who wouldn't be in favour of giving Londoners more free access to our river and City commuters new healthier journeys? I'd support more pier work for the Company of Watermen and Lightermen who must have been hard hit by the virus: in a thousand years, the Thames cannot have looked as glassy and silent as it's been in the last few months, but the beauty has surely come at the cost of some hardship. More than anything, I'd love to see the return of the old Royal Sovereign and Belle steamers. If only I liked fish-paste, I'd love to sit on deck eating fish-paste sandwiches from a linen handkerchief while I traced the Thames all the way out to sea and into Yarmouth, a jolly whole-day trip starting off at Old Swan Lane ...

The current proposal, however, is not for a reinstatement of old Swan Lane Pier. In fact, the plan was revealed last year as a massive reinvention of the site as private pier complex specifically designed to host Europe’s biggest party boat, the Ocean Diva. (Everything you need to know about style and scale lies in the name. You can look on YouTube if you want to see the parties). This would be a private pier, joint-funded by the Ocean Diva itself, and would be privately run too. With up to1000 partygoers filling the single narrow ramp between pier and shore up to four times a day, there just physically couldn't be much of a window for kayakers or scheduled public transport or regular freight. Water-sport and public transport have been scoped out anyway; the freight offering, shall we say, bespeaks the core operation and raison d'être of this particular scheme.

Moreover, to accommodate the Diva's 282-foot length, the developers would need to dig a kind of private underwater harbour into the Thames, quaintly styled as a 'pocket'. This would entail dredging 2200 cubic metres of sediment so contaminated with lead and mercury that it's too dangerous to dump at sea. This vast dredge would take place on the very foreshore of Roman London, a Tier One site of archaeological interest. Lara Maiklem devotes a whole chapter to this stretch of foreshore in her beautifully-written bookMudlarking.

Yet, via various planning loopholes, the Ocean Diva might well arrive in London unscrutinised as to its aesthetics (and effects on protected views) and unenforceable as to its emissions and its noise. Given the number and size of the loopholes, it's easy to see how the Thames must have seemed a most attractive site for this kind of development. So efforts to resist this one mega-boat's dedicated pier are not just about shining a light on a single pier's fate but really about trying to futureproof the historic river – London’s biggest public realm – against large-scale privatisation and commodification, while still allowing the river and those who work on it to thrive economically. 

 As followers of this site will know, I have long campaigned against the cruise ship invasion of Venice. I have seen what it has taken from the city without giving much back except a tourist monoculture and an air quality disaster, not to mention damage to infrastructure, as in last year's terrifying incident when the MSC Opera went out of control and collided with another boat and the shore, injuring five people. Budapest was not so lucky: on May 29th last year, 28 were killed when a large cruiser ran down a smaller boat in front of the Hungarian parliament building on the Danube. Megaships and narrow metropolitan waters: just not safe. 

My colleagues at NoGrandiNavi have been sad and sorry to hear about the Ocean Diva. So have residents in Amsterdam, home of the Ocean Diva. In both cases, they  have warned that if we let one megaship in, soon there will be fleets of them. Use Venice, a Venetian friend urged, as a terrible example of what can happen. The Ocean Diva team has not acceded to our request to supply images of their boat on the Thames. A planning loophole means they don't have to do so. Instead, here's a Canaletto adapted by artist Vince McIndoe for NGN, to show the incongruous scale and aesthetics of the megaships compared to the fragile beauty of Venice. 

The Thames has this going for it: there's a huge community who cares about it very much and that community is paying attention. So many people have taken a good hard look at the scheme proposed at Swan Lane and have understood its wider implications. Living Bankside has set up a web page to explain the issues. Amanda Craig (whose utterly absorbing new novel, The Golden Rule, just out) set up a petition on Change.org. Artist Déirdre Kelly, who lives in Venice, created this beautiful collage. It shows how the heart of the old Thames needs to be protected. 

There's a deliberate reference to the NoGrandiNavi campaign logo (right) in the typography above, as there are many ways in which the Thames and the Grand Canal can be seen as twin waterways at the moment: both beleaguered by those who would make money of them at the expense of the environment and liveability. For this reason, passionate letters of protest about the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane have flooded in from Venetian academics and Venetophiles all over the world.

Nor do the Thames and its many concerned riverside villages lack for local support: Southwark Cathedral, the Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tower of London have all written meaningful and powerful objections to this particular iteration of Swan Lane Pier, as have many thoughtful writers who love our river, archaeologists and naturalists.

While Swan Lane Pier has edged closer to its decision date in the City of London, the publication date of my own new children’s novel has also been approaching. But it's been doing so on slippered feet. This is not just because of the dissonant noise around Swan Lane Pier but also because everything (else) seems muffled at the moment, doesn’t it? It has been muffled by the quiet of the streets, the silence of the Thames below me, the absence of aeroplanes and the shuttered bookshops. To lessen the sense of writerly isolation, I’ve been exchanging pre-pub thoughts on this strange situation with fellow History Girl, Celia Rees, who has a compelling adult historical out soon: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook. I was fortunate to have a preview copy to enliven the beginning of the lockdown. I hope very much that Miss Graham is just the first volume of a trilogy, because Celia has a gift for an engaging female character and there are two other ladies whose stories I’d be fascinated to know.

Apart from writing and reading and Thames-ing, I was invited to participate in the celebrations of the Great Get Together, inspired by Jo Cox. Our usual wondrous street party was coronavirused, but Bankside Open Spaces Trust hosted a celebration broadcast across a network of radio stations including Resonance FM 104.4 , K2K Radio and SOAS Radio on June 21st. The Water’s Daughter (published yesterday) is my sixth novel for children – and yes, I shall eventually get to it! – but it’s my second Venetian children’s book that has gained more attention in the last few weeks. I was interviewed about it by Tim Wood for The Great Get Together, because of the novel's rather shudder-inducing prescience.
The Mourning Emporium opens in late 1900 with a disastrous ice-flood that reduces Venice to ruins. This is followed by a pandemic that is called the Half-Dead disease because it makes people fade away and die. The Mourning Emporium follows a tribe of orphaned Venetian children who sail in an old wooden boat to London … only to find that the Half-Dead disease has got there ahead of them. And their boat, the Scilla, is slapped in quarantine. 

The strange thing is that The Mourning Emporium was written ten years ago and it’s strange not just because of Covid but also because of disastrous flood that swept through Venice in November 2019, just before the virus took hold.  For The Great Get Together, a few pages describing the Scilla’s arrival in London were beautifully read by the talented Douglas Clarke-Wood, who really made the scene come alive with wonderful Italian accents. The piece of music I chose to accompany my interview was this.

The real pandemic – the one not invented by writerly imagination – is loosening its grip in Venice now. The city is determined to come out of Covid better than it went in. Venezia Fu-Turistica is a new idea, expressed in a day of peaceful marching, banners and speeches on June 13th. It is hard to translate this pun. It means in one sense ‘Venice was touristical’ but you can also run the words together as Venezia Futuristica… meaning ‘Futuristic Venice’, a better city conceived for a new future. The plea is that the post-pandemic rebirth should be as a different kind of Venice, one where the principles of social and climate justice are not just greenwashing but actually embedded in society and infrastructure.

Many in this country are talking about similar ideas. Which in turn raises the question: exactly what kind of reinstatement of Swan Lane Pier would be compatible with a green (and not a greenwashed) campaign to Build Back Better? Or in line with Poets for the Planet's Begin Afresh campaign? Or on the same page as so many other initiatives that give hope of better, cleaner, quieter, more genuine, more wholesome, more respectful, more considerate culture post-Coronavirus? In this context, a private bespoke pier for a mega-partyboat on public river ... feels like an uneasy fit.

As our community organisation Living Bankside says, 'Covid 19 has thrown into relief how important it is for people to have access to natural space and particularly public realm, because not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden or balcony of their own ... The Thames is London’s biggest public realm and should belong to everyone. Let’s not let it get commodified. Let’s learn from Venice before it’s too late and keep the mega-ships out of the heart of our city.'

Finally, back to The Water’s Daughter, which is what I really should be writing about today of all days, and about which there would be plenty to say, at any other time.

However, I have detained the Patient Reader far too long already. 

Long story short then: according to my publishers, 'It’s an exquisitely imagined fantasy novel about a girl who can see history with her touch.’ It’s also about a vengeful Arabian Djinnir, a talking leopardess and a fleet of ferocious Barbary pirates whose surprisingly young leader bears a deep and understandable grudge against Venice. The Water’s Daughter also brings back the rude and greedy Venetian mermaids of the previous books, winged cats and I Fedeli,  a secretive organisation that promises to protect Venice from the water, but instead lines its own pockets and leaves her perilously vulnerable. The name 'Fedeli' is ironic: it can translate as 'Those of Good Faith', or 'The Faithful Ones'. I came up with the idea for this book back in 2013. Any similarities between I Fedeli in The Water’s Daughter and those whose corruption bankrupted Venice’s real life flood defence programme … and any similarities between I Fedeli and those whose financial interests may have tipped them in favour of embracing the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane… are purely quite interesting. 

With the help of designer Helena Wee, I’ve prepared some new Water's Daughter pages for my website. Once more, they include the haunting photographs of the talented David Winston, with whom I have collaborated in previous blogs. 

Last word goes to Guppy of Tokyo, because it really takes an international village to take care of our Thames. Other protest cats are available, on the Peaceful Thames facebook page.

Michelle Lovric’s website

The Water’s Daughter web pages

The Water’s Daughter

The Living Bankside pages are here  (and include a guide to making a quick and effective objection to City of London Planning).

The Ocean Diva petition can be signed here

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WeAreLivingBankside/

Twitter: Please search for hashtag #NOOCEANDIVA to interact and retweet

Gold in them there hills - the Roman hunt for treasure in Wales - by Ruth Downie


Those of us who have been watching “The Luminaries” know exactly where gold comes from. It’s found by a ragged creature in a broad-brimmed hat who spends hours squatting by a stream, shaking a large flat dish and staring into it.

Perhaps that’s how the earliest miners worked at Dolaucothi in South Wales, but who they were, what they did or when they did it remains a mystery. Unfortunately for archaeologists, later miners and quarrymen tend to hack away the work of earlier ones, and a Roman mine manager with professional engineers, plenty of labour and official backing tended to hack away more than most.

When the legions turned up in the first century AD and declared South Wales to be Under New Management (a statement greeted with less than universal joy, and followed by much bloodshed) it was inevitable that they would commandeer the local resources for their own benefit. What could be more glamorous to commandeer than gold?

The reality was less glamorous than the end product. Especially for the poor souls who were condemned to tramp up the never-ending steps of a waterwheel in the dripping dark in order to keep the workings below from flooding. We know about them because some 1800 years later, modern miners found part of the wooden wheel in a Roman underground chamber. Here’s a scale model:  

The hollow rim of the wheel is divided into compartments which fill with water when they’re at the bottom. As the wheel turns over at the top, the water spills out and away down another channel. To add to the woes of the operator, it’s not even very efficient. Now imagine doing it underground with no electric light:

The fragment of wheel is one of the few finds that is incontrovertibly Roman because the wood has been dated. Much of the rest of the evidence at Dolaucothi is delightfully enigmatic. My husband and I were were very glad of the guide on our trip, because while we would have enjoyed a bracing country walk, we would have strolled past most of the sights with no idea of what we were looking at.

Here, for instance, is a shot of the peaceful valley where the National Trust has repurposed twentieth-century mine buildings to welcome visitors.

Except… that is not a valley. That is a massive opencast mine, and the valley floor (once used as a caravan site) is flat because it’s made up of backfill.

The tunnels below and around it are the work not only of Romans but of Victorians, Edwardians and miners of the 1930’s. (The Trust also offers a splendid Victorian mine tour.) What united them all is the search for this:

Clearly in need of some further refinement. Below is the amount of rock needed to yield enough gold for a ring.

Yes, all those truckloads to make one ring. No wonder Gollum thought it was precious.

It’s sometimes said that the ancient world barely bothered with mechanization because slaves (of whom more in a moment) could be forced to do all the heavy work, but that’s not necessarily true. Consider the stone below, which is within sneezing distance of the mine.

It may be the pillow of five Celtic saints who fell asleep in the mine after taking refuge from a thunderstorm. Despite the removal of their pillow, complete with the indentations of their heads, the saints are sleeping still, awaiting the return of King Arthur.  (Or the arrival of a pious Bishop. Sources differ.) This is why it’s called the Pumsaint (Five Saints) Stone.

On the other hand, it could be the anvil from a Roman water-powered stamping mill, built to crush the stone ready for processing.

To justify using a machine like that, rather than a gang of workers wielding lump hammers, they must have been digging out a LOT of rock. Here’s where some of it came from:

Even a duffer like myself can see it’s a tunnel, but why it’s that unusual shape and size and runs more or less straight through the hill and out the other side is anybody’s guess. An overengineered drain? A short cut to carry ore through the hill instead of over it? An exceptionally neat access to a seam of gold-bearing quartz? Theories abound.

We might sit and ponder them beside this tranquil pool...

…which is part of the massive and sophisticated system of water engineering that once surrounded the site, extending for miles out into the hills beyond. Water power, stored and then suddenly released, would have been used for earthmoving on a spectacular scale. Apparently there’s still gold in the pond, but there are also so many noxious chemicals that removing it safely would cost more than it’s worth.

Leaping forward through time - this is what used to be a Norman castle motte beside the pit…

…until archaeological digging proved it to be a very neat Roman spoil heap. I like to think it would have pleased whoever organized the very square tunnel.

Which brings me to the question of who did all this work. The fort just up the road tells us that Rome was in charge, but were the miners themselves locals or incomers, contracted or conscripted? They may have been condemned criminals, branded in the middle of the forehead, fitted with heavy chains, and sentenced to a grim servitude from which few were expected to return.

I’d like to think that somewhere nearby, a cemetery with some answers awaits excavation.

In the meantime, here’s something we can all identify with certainty - the site of the local Roman fort. Also, by a happy coincidence, the pub.

The Dolaucothi Arms is owned by the National Trust and was Countryfile’s Country Pub of the Year in 2019. It’s the perfect place to end a day scrambling around the hills in search of long-dead gold-diggers.

To find out more, visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dolaucothi-gold-mines

Ruth Downie writes a series of crime novels set mostly in Roman Britain and featuring Roman medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla. When she is not writing her happiest moments are spent wielding an archaeological trowel.www.ruthdownie.com








Miss Graham's Cold War Cook Book by Celia Rees


It was a very long time coming but it is here at last! Yesterday was publication day! I must confess to thinking that the day would never come. The book was in my mind when I joined the History Girls in June 2011.  I had always written Children's and Young Adult fiction but I knew that this book would be an adult novel. This would be a departure for me and and a challenge and I welcomed the chance to join a group of fellow writers who wrote historical fiction for all ages, including adults. I could not have asked for a more supportive group. Over the years, I've always been able to rely on a sympathetic ear through the book's vicissitudes and I have to thank History Girls, past and present, for their help, encouragement, and their generosity in reading and commenting on the finished book. 

I could have stopped writing at any point, not even started, turned back to YA, the writing world I know, but the idea wouldn't leave me alone. Neither could I change it, introduce some young characters, turn it in to a YA title. I knew it had to be an adult book. It had been brewing away in my mind for years. 

It began with the chance find of an old cookery book among my mother's effects. 

The book was a mystery in itself. I'd never seen it before. When, I opened it, I found clippings and cuttings from newspapers and magazines, some dating back to the war, and handwritten recipes - I recognised my mother's, my aunt's and what I took to be my grandmother's writing. As far as I knew, these were the only written connection between these three women. I had found no letters. I put the book aside. I knew there was something I wanted to write about there but I had no idea what it might be. 

Years later, I was with my daughter in the in the Espionage Gallery of the Imperial War Museum. I read on a wall panel that after the war, the British Zone in Northern Germany had been a hotbed of spying. One of us said, 'Perhaps Aunty Nancy was a spy!'. We both laughed. My Headmistress maiden Aunt a spy? How ridiculous was that? But then again, it was perfectly possible... 

She'd been in Germany directly after the war, working as an Education Officer for the Control Commission, the civilian branch of the occupying forces,  tasked with bringing some linked of order to the post war chaos. She'd been stationed in Lübeck, practically on the border with the Russian Zone. She had spent the war at home, teaching in Coventry and looking after my grandmother. Then, as soon as the war was over and much to the consternation of the family, she'd upped sticks and gone to Germany. She didn't come back until the mid 1950s. I remembered her coming back bringing presents for everyone, Benson & Hedges cigarettes for my mother, a carved bear for my brother and a stuffed monkey for me. I remembered other things about her. She'd led a bit of a hidden life. She was a fluent German speaker and had had a relationship with a German boy before the war. She'd also spent a lot of time 'jaunting about Europe' according to my mother, accompanying her her cousin who was rumoured to have been involved in something 'hush, hush' during the war.      

My Aunty Nancy
I had been her executor, one of the reasons I knew there had been no letters. I'd kept some things that related to her time in Germany. She had sent photographs of ruined cities and sunken ships in bombed harbours; a shocking addition to the family album. I found more in a German chocolate box. 

I'd also kept her passports, so I knew when she had entered and left Germany.


Among the photographs were holiday snaps of Bavarian villages, ox carts, two women walking along a street festooned with swastikas and a photograph of a young man in a cricket sweater. Could that be her friend Karl? 

I knew enough about life to create the skeleton of a story. If she had been a spy, then who would she have been working for and why? What would she be finding out? If she was going to be sending messages via recipes, to whom would she be sending? I needed to know more about post war Germany and what was going on there. As for the I coded messages and the recipes, it would make sense for the exchange to be between women. 

The more I found out, the more possible it became. There were, indeed, women involved in post war work in Germany. Vera Atkins, ex SOE, working with War Crimes, trying to find her missing agents.

Vera Atkins
Krystyna Skarbek

I already knew about the women who had worked for SOE during the war. I had read ex History Girl Clare Mulley's excellent biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, The Spy Who Loved. Suddenly a real plot was forming, new characters arriving and Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook was born. 

Celia Rees
Follow me on Twitter @CeliaRees
Instagram @celiarees1
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Why the eighteenth century? By Gillian Polack


My mind has been in the eighteenth century again. This is a bad habit. I studied the eighteenth century as an undergraduate and never quite escaped it.

When I went to put it into fiction, some years ago, I wondered why I did this. Why, when I was a specialist in an entirely different period, did I keep returning to the eighteenth century? I had to write a novel to find that out. The novel was just released https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1012689 (not a full release yet, COVID-19 has the strangest side effects) and so I find myself in the eighteenth century again, wondering what I learned about it from writing that novel.

It helped that the cover artist (Lewis Morley) is a friend and that he asked me questions about my novel when he designed the miniature street scene. I keep telling myself that this street lives in the Blue Mountains now, and that it perfectly summarises what I learned and why I had to write a novel to learn why I keep returning to the eighteenth century. Let me explain the image – that’s the simplest way of talking this through.

It’s not that what I do and did is complicated, it’s because I love what Lewis did with my world.

First things first: the story is fiction but I used a lot of primary sources and historical studies to write it and I used some of the primary sources in the novel itself.

The vendor in the picture reflects this. Lewis used pictures of London streets from the eighteenth century and then modified them. That modification is the heart of the questions I have been asking myself: our eighteenth century, the one I keep returning to, is never the eighteenth century at all.

The past is gone. We can’t get it back. When we return to it and return to it and return to it, we’re consolidating emotions and memories and creating our eighteenth century. It’s based on a real one. That research matters. Just as my cover picture shows, however, we start with our world and then add a doorway here or change the roofline there. It’s a work in progress. Often it’s a glorious work in progress.

This is why I keep returning there. I want to see what I remember as having enjoyed, sure, but I also want to add what I just discovered when I read a political harangue from the period. I want to use it to change my remembered eighteenth century and make it more like what I think the real one might have been like. I want to watch my eighteenth century grow and I want to look at its relationship with historical sources and with the work of archaeologists and… it’s an ongoing intellectual inquiry that fills a profound emotional need.

One day, I’ll discover why the eighteenth century is one of five places I visit to feed this emotional need. Right now, I’m enjoying the voyage. I’m enjoying it so very much that I created a future world far away from here, where the whole population is involved in a reinvention and re-creation of the eighteenth century. If I can do it, so can they.

The Idea of Justice in Historical Fiction – by Anna Mazzola


Dostoyevsky famously said: ‘The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.’ Winston Churchill said, ‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.’ Or, of course, it’s lack of civilisation. Look at the rising prison numbers in America and the system’s treatment of black people in particular; look at the crisis in our own criminal justice system, and you understand a lot about society and government. Look at the treatment of crime and criminals in a crime fiction novel and you’ll learn a lot about what the author is trying to say, and about the historical era in which they’re writing.

No matter what my novels are ostensibly about – and my second one is about dark folklore on the Isle of Skye, and my next one is about moving clockwork dolls and Versailles – I always end up talking in them about justice and what it means to obtain justice for the victims and survivors. That may be because I’m a criminal justice solicitor, but then again perhaps I ended up in that field because I’m fascinated by how society treats its criminals and its victims.

I’m not alone in finding the topic compelling. We all have highly personal beliefs and emotions about what constitutes a crime; when someone is responsible for their crimes; and how the legal system ought to deal with them. Defining and punishing crime, and protecting citizens from crime, are key roles of government and often lead to public debate: who should we imprison and where and how? How much of a role should victims have in the system? Are there ever circumstances where capital punishment or torture are justifiable? These are debates we’ve always had, only the answers have varied across the ages.

That leads to a rich subject to explore in fiction, where we can walk readers through a search for justice, and through the ambiguities and frustrations along the way.

Window onto the past

What constituted a crime, who constituted a criminal, and how those people were dealt with gives us a unique window onto the past. And punishment of crime can of course be one of the most terrifying uses of state power, capable of ruining lives, producing serious injustice, and sure-ing up the authority of oppressive regimes.

Part of the reason the Tudors have always held such fascination for us is the bloody and tyrannical nature of their so-called justice system, which was as much about settling scores and seeking revenge as it was about attaining justice, something which is depicted most brilliantly in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose showed us the complex and shady power exercised by the Church in the 14th century. Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy exposed the corrupt system that, in late 19th century France led to Alfred Dreyfus being false convicted of espionage, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Antonia Hodgson’s Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity showed us the injustice and inhumanity of the prisons of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The protagonist as finder of justice

As well as exploring the justice systems of the era in which they are set, many historical novels seek to attain justice or revenge or payback or some kind of catharsis for their characters within the terms of the novel.

This is of course in line with the classical detective story model, which gives us the story of the crime, followed by the story of the investigation, involving enquiry, revelation and closure. The rise of detective fiction happened at about the same time as the beginning of detective policing i.e. in the mid 19th century. If crime was the problem, then the solution was the capture and removal of the criminal. That was how justice would be achieved. So in fiction, removing the offender from the scene healed the breach in the social fabric. The problem was solved, be it by Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Jackson Brodie.

The assumption of the detective genre is that not only is there a motive and a true meaning to the crime, but the detective can uncover it, deliver the criminal, achieve justice and narrate the story in a form that transmits that coherence to the awaiting reader. And that is why it’s so satisfying. Because of course real crime is usually not like that, and I say this as someone whose day job is dealing with where things go wrong in criminal investigations and prosecutions. Even if a crime is reported, it may not be properly investigated. Even if it is, the Crown Prosecution Service may decide not to charge. Even if it gets to court, it may collapse. Even if a conviction is secured, the criminal may refuse to explain why they acted as they did, or the sentence they are given may fail, in the eyes of the victim, to reflect the severity of their crimes. There is rarely any neat conclusion to real criminal cases, rarely any feeling among victims that justice has been achieved and normality restored. Often the detective figures are too busy doing other things or too hampered by funding cuts, poor training and huge caseloads to go about achieving a cathartic ending for the victims.

Not so in detective fiction. Or at least, not usually. Many of the detective figures in modern historical mysteries are focussed on achieving justice for victims. ‘Justice, Sergeant Shardlake. I know you have always believed in it, and have sometimes sought it in dark corners.’ So says Lady Elizabeth to CJ Sansom’s Shardlake who is always questing to find justice for the underprivileged. The same is true of Mick Finlay’s Arrowood, forever fighting for the underdog.

Alternative forms of justice 

Of course obtaining justice within a novel does not always meaning sending the criminal to jail and throwing away the key. Particularly where the justice system is shown to be corrupt and unfair, justice may have to be achieved in a different way.

In my second novel, The Story Keeper, I wanted one of the evil characters to be punished, but – because this was the 19th century and the character was an upper class man of status - I knew there was no chance he would ever be arrested, never mind prosecuted, for sexual offences against poor girls. (Looking at some recent cases, it’s arguable things haven’t changed hugely). I spoke to an academic who suggested that, instead, I use the divorce courts that were beginning in that era: the police might not arrest the man, but his crimes could be aired in a different kind of court.

Other historical authors have found other solutions. At the end of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Maud also destroys the thing that she knows will destroy the wicked uncle who has abused her: his library. In The Crimson Petal and the White, Sugar never lives out the bloody revenge she has described in her own writings, but she frees the other woman William Rackham has tormented - his wife, Agnes - and she escapes with the little girl to whom he’s never shown any love.

In some novels, the possible injustice or unfairness of the character’s fate is the point of the novel. When Burial Rites opens, Agnes has already been convicted and sentenced to death for murder. In Jill Dawson’s Fred & Edie and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, both based on real women, unpick the emotional climate of their times and show us – whatever the truth of these cases – these women were damned before their trials even began.

My first novel, The Unseeing, was also based on the life of a real woman, Sarah Gale, who was convicted with her lover of murder in London in 1837. The focus of the novel is whether or not she did in fact carry out the crime she is accused of and if so, why. That is because when I first read about the case I began to wonder whether – due to the inadequacies of the justice system particularly in relation to women, and particularly in relation to so called ‘fallen women’ - there had been a miscarriage of justice. One of the key themes of the novel is what constitutes justice, and the detective character, who is the lawyer appointed to investigate her appeal, must determine what justice means for Sarah.

Perfume by Suskind subverts the ‘justice must be done’ formula altogether. Grenouille escapes the scaffold for the murders he’s committed, but then pours an entire bottle of his final perfume on himself, leading to a group of criminals being so overcome by what they later claim is ‘love’ that they tear him to pieces and eat him.

The impact of the justice system

For Antonia Hodgson, author of the Thomas Hawkins series, it’s not so much about getting justice for her characters as looking at what ‘the pursuit of justice and revenge does to them, how dangerous it can be for their souls (to use an eighteenth-century term). How their life experiences and character lead them to make certain choices, and the consequences of those actions.’

In each of Hodgson’s books, Tom is confronted with a by a (real) authority figure – the Marshalsea keeper William Acton, Queen Caroline, magistrate Sir John Gonson, former chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie - only to discover they are self-serving, corrupt, and/ or hypocritical. ‘In a corrupt world, the question becomes - do you take justice in your own hands? How does that look, and what does it do to you?’ We see Kitty and Tom both impacted by the actions they take, and the abuses that have been done to them. By the time we reach the latest in the series, The Silver Collar, the whole question of justice and revenge becomes central - particularly in the final act. Once Jeremiah and Tom know they have found the enemy, Lady Vanhook, they have to decide what they are going to do. How do they punish her? And in fact Hodgson plays a rather clever game to bring the reader into the story. We must ask what we ourselves think is right.

Punishment without crime

And then there are novels where people are punished, but their punishments don’t fit their crimes, or they aren’t remotely guilty at all.  Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell brings offenders to account, but usually not for the crimes they’ve actually committed. People pay for crime, but not necessarily their own. And Cromwell often commits crimes of his own in order to secure their convictions – surveillance, torture, deceit, fraud. The trilogy is so fascinating because we are never quite sure who to root for – the endlessly resourceful outsider, Cromwell, or the more or less innocent but unlikeable people whose heads end up on the chopping block.

A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel’s first work of historical fiction, is a fascinating study of how what started as a just revolution became a bloody massacre, where the so-called justice system descended - by Robespierre’s era - into an arena for different factions to send each other to the Guillotine. She begins one of her chapters with this quote from Robespierre: ‘Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.’

In fact, by that point, so-called justice was terror and retribution, and it wouldn’t be long before it came for Robespierre himself.

Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. She will be talking about justice and revenge at St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Festival on 15 August 2020. 

Featured image: 'Waiting for the Verdict' by Abraham Solomon (1857) 

Tom Lehrer and the Cold War by Joan Lennon


Watch this, recorded in September 1967.  Does it bring back memories, or is it something new?

We Will All Go Together

Or how about this one, recorded at the same time:

So Long, Mom (A Song For World War 3)

I've been thinking about the Cold War a lot lately.  Joan Haig and I are writing a non-fiction book on 17 speeches from Abraham Lincoln to Greta Thunberg, aimed at  8-12 year-olds and called Talking History: 150 Years of Speeches and Speakers (due out from Templar in July 2021).  I've been working on a chapter on Rene Cassin and another on Yuri Gagarin and Sally Ride.  So I've been trying to find ways to present the Cold War to primary school and first year secondary school pupils in a way that makes sense.  Sadly, I realise Tom Lehrer isn't exactly the way to do that.  But it brought him back to mind - that sardonic humour - the piano playing - the voice - the smile - those eyes -

Tom Lehrer, who is 92 now, was a ferociously talented mathematician, entering Harvard aged 15 and going on to teach political science and mathematics at MIT and University of California - where he also taught a course in musical theatre.  He is alleged to have invented the Jello Shot.  He started out producing and hand selling his own records, a process of which he said, "Lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola."  He performed; he wrote; he composed; he recorded; he produced work for television comedies and academic mathematical journals; and he spoke with brilliant intelligence to a world gone crazy-stupid.

I grew up in the Cold War.  I was taught to Duck and Cover in school.  The possibility that the world might end in a nuclear holocaust was an ongoing reality.  And those are perhaps the things that made Lehrer's dark satire so vividly one of the voices of the time.  It would be interesting to know if others feel the same.  I listened to his songs with my dad; I introduced my children to Lehrer (I let them get to 15 or so first) via Poisoning Pigeons in the Park on YouTube; Joan Haig remembers her father singing Lobachevsky and The Elements around African campfires; Isaac Asimov heard Lehrer in a nightclub and quotes some of his lyrics in his autobiography.  Is he new to you, or do you have memories of your own of when you heard Tom Lehrer first?  

And, as a dark little theme song for our own times, I leave you with Lehrer's 1997 recording of I Got It from Agnes -


Five New Historical Novels for Young People Sheena Wilkinson


Five years ago this week my first historical novel, Name upon Name, was published, thus fulfilling a long-held dream. If I’d known then that it would be the first in a trio of books about young women coming of age during the turbulent years of early 20th-Century Ireland, I’d have been even more delighted. 2017’s Star by Star was my most successful book ever, and then, earlier this year, came Hope against Hope. In two of my historical novels, the main characters are deeply affected by a pandemic (Spanish Flu). I could have had no idea that Hope against Hope would be launched in the middle of one, and that every event scheduled to promote the book would be cancelled. And of course, set against the prevailing worries about Covid-19 and the state of the world, this is a small concern. Isn’t it funny how writing about crisis is much more fun than living through it?


My trilogy of historical novels 

Obviously I’m not alone. Hundreds of books have been, or are about to be launched during this time. Authors, being creative folk, are doing wonderful things online, and generally finding ways to keep their particular baby afloat, but it’s very hard, and nothing beats the actual book launch and the real-life event. We all need help from our friends, and so this blog post I’m giving love to some wonderful historical novels for young people which have been – or are just about to be – published during Covid-19. I know all the authors, and I make no apology for that! They don't know I'm featuring their books, though, so I hope they get a pleasant surprise. 


Chasing Ghosts – Nicola Pierce (O’Brien Press)


This is an enthralling novel about Franklin’s 1845 ill-fated Arctic voyage to find the fabled North-West Passage. Thousands of miles away in Ireland, Ann and brother William are convinced that the spirit of their dead sister Weesy is haunting them. Nicola Pierce is well known for her ability to weave fascinating, spooky tales around real-life events, and the way she brings these two separate stories together is masterful. This is a moving and epic story. I’d known very little about the Franklin voyage apart from in folk songs, and the story was even more heart-breaking than I had imagined.

On Midnight Beach – Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Faber)

Funnily enough this book is also related in my mind with song. Set in the hot summer of 1976, which is long enough ago to count as historical even though I remember it, On Midnight Beach is a reimagining of a famous Irish legend, the Táin, or Cattle Raid. I knew the story of the Táin from a 1973 album of that name by Irish folk-rock group Horslips. On Midnight Beach is a piercing love story set against a sweeping background of sea caves, a mysterious dolphin and the intense passions of a small community. A really original read. 


The Boldness of Betty – Anna Carey (O’Brien Press)

Anna Carey, like me, has written widely about young women in early-20th-Century Ireland, specifically the Irish Suffragettes. The Boldness of Betty is about the1913 Dublin Lockout. When Betty has to leave school at fourteen to work in a cake shop, she doesn’t imagine that she will end up on a picket line, playing her part in the most defining incident in Irish labour history. Like all Anna Carey’s novels, The Boldness of Betty is meticulously researched, with a lovely lightness of touch. 



Kicking Off – Eve Ainsworth (UCLAN Press)

Again, this is very much ‘my’ period, so I’ve always vaguely known about the women’s football teams during World War One, whose hugely popular games raised a lot of money for the war effort. Eve Ainsworth’s story is based around the team at the Dick, Kerr munitions factory in Preston. It’s 1917 and women have got used to fulfilling some of the roles traditionally taken by men. When Hettie goes to work in the Dick, Kerr factory she gets the chance to develop her love of football, an interest she’s had to suppress until now. This is a great story of female solidarity, sport and progress. 


And finally, because I am not that altruistic, here’s a bit about my own Hope against Hope (Little Island).


It’s 1921. Ireland has been partitioned after a brutal war. Polly runs away to Belfast to escape family and community violence in her small border town. Helen's Hope hostel is a progressive space where young women live and work together - a haven of tolerance and diversity in a fractured city. But some people hate Helen's Hope and its values, and when Polly tries to bring people together, she can’t foresee the tragic consequences. 

All these books are about events of historical significance; all are about young people being caught up and responding to these events. None of them deserves to be less well-known because they were published at the 'wrong' time. I'm sure other people have 2020 historical novels they would like to show some love to. Don't hold back! 

Phoebe Anna Traquair by Adèle Geras

This is a self -portrait of the Scottish artist,  Phoebe Anna Traquair.  Until about eighteen years ago, I had never heard of her and when I mention her name, very few people in England know who she is. Although she was born in Dublin in 1852, she's associated with Scotland and in particular with Edinburgh where she lived with her husband, Ramsay Traquair, a professor of palaeontology  She is an artist of the most astonishing variety and as well as her murals, she illustrated books, designed jewellery and created the most beautiful embroideries. She died in 1936.
Many years ago, I received a Christmas card, with a beautiful image of angels on it. I made a note of Traquair's name, and of the fact that the image was from the Song School of a Cathedral in Edinburgh. And I put it in the box where I keep all images I can't bear to throw away. Then, in 2009, I was a speaker at the Edinburgh Literary Festival.
 To cut a long story short, we found the Catholic Apostolic Church. It is now a wedding venue called the Mansfield Traquair Centre and I do urge anyone who can to make every effort to see it in real life. 

When we visited, the place was quite empty. Only the building itself was there to wonder at. The walls were covered with most beautiful murals, illustrating for the most part, the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I fell in love with Traquair's images at that point and determined to find out what I could about the woman who painted them.

Flash forward many years. Much happened. We moved to Cambridge. My husband died. I decided to write a different sort of novel under a pseudonym: Hope Adams. My first novel under this name, Dangerous Women, comes out from Michael Joseph (and Berkeley in the USA)  in February next year, and that's about the Rajah Quilt. I have written about it on this blog.

What I do in the Hope Adams books is: I superimpose a fictional story, invented entirely by me, on to what's known about a real artist. In the case of Dangerous Women, it was Kezia Hayter, and when I began thinking about what I could do next, my thoughts immediately turned to  Phoebe Anna Traquair.

I bought a book by Elizabeth Cumming, called  Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1852-1936,  published by the National Galleries of Scotland and in 2019, I made a trip with Helen Craig to Edinburgh and met Elizabeth, who showed us round the Mansfield Traquair Centre and told us  much both about the artist and the way she went about the work. She has been enormously helpful to me throughout the process so far and I'm very grateful to her.  Traquair was a small woman and used a scaffold to reach the enormously high spaces.  The thought of her, in her overall, and with her red hair bound up in a cap, covering that vast space with beautiful images was fascinating and moving. 

In the 1880s and 1890s, mural decoration was an art form much admired by the Art and Crafts movement. Traquair was part of a thriving artistic community in Edinburgh and beyond. 

Between 1885 and 1901  she worked on the decoration of three Edinburgh Buildings: the Mortuary Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, (later moved to a new hospital and repainted), the Song School at St Mary's Cathedral and lastly, the Catholic Apostolic Church in Mansfield Place.

This is an image from the Song School and when I saw it,  I recognised the scarlet-winged angels from that long ago Christmas card. 

I am now in the process of  working out my fictional story with which the work and life of this marvellous, under- recognised artist will be entwined. The title is there already, I think, though nothing is ever fixed till it's fixed. Her Scarlet Wings is what the book is called at this stage....I'm looking forward to spending the next few months with these images in front of my eyes. 

'Tearing down the Past' by Karen Maitland


Bishop Absolon topples the statue of the god Svantevit in 1169
Painter: Laurits Tuxen 1853-1927, 
Ferederiksborg Hillerod Museum, Denmark
Ever since kingdoms first began waging war on others, conquerors have begun their reign by pulling down the statues and emblems of the old regime. Likewise, rebels and reformers in every age have defaced, drowned, smashed or burned the statues of those who represent their present or historical enemies. The physical symbols of religion or power have always been the focus of attack in times of change and none more so than Cheapside Cross in London, which repeatedly became the unlikely target of hatred throughout the Reformation.

This seemingly innocent cross was one of the 12 Eleanor Crosses, erected in memory of Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, between 1291-1295. It stood at the commercial heart of London, then called Westcheap, and presided over many transactions made in the market there. It was one of the places where notorious wrong-doers were punished; important civic speeches made and new kings proclaimed. Heretical literature and seditious writings were publicly burned there.  

Statue of Jesus toppled by
Spanish Republican Forces
in anticlerical action, 1936
Photo: Sharon Mollerus

Cheapside Cross was remoulded several times over the centuries and in Tudor times it stood 36ft high, with three tiers whose niches housed statues of religious figures, such as Edward the Confessor, the Virgin Mary and infant Christ. The edifice was crowned by a great gilded cross and a dove. 

By the time of the Reformation, it had become both a Catholic and royal symbol. Even in 1553, the authorities feared it might become a target for vandalism by those opposed to the visit of Catholic King Phillip of Spain during Mary’s reign and a high ‘pale’ was erected to protected it, which was later removed by Elizabeth. But on Midsummer’s night 1581, a group of young men defaced the statue of the Virgin and child, and dragged down some of the other statues with ropes. Despite a handsome reward of 40 crowns being offered, no one was arrested. It was possibly just an act of drunken vandalism fuelled by Midsummer celebrations, but the figures which were mutilated suggest it might have been carried out by fervent Protestants against perceived symbols of Catholicism and the Pope. 

There had been several previous defacings of the Virgin on the Cheapside Cross. So, after this last one, Elizabeth had the statue of the Virgin Mary replaced with the goddess Diana which, in complete contrast, spouted Thames water through the nipples of her bare breasts – Diana representing the virgin Queen Elizabeth herself.  In 1601, the cross was again renovated and the bare breasted goddess was replaced by the Virgin Mary once more. Railings were erected to protect the cross. But within two weeks, the statue of Virgin Mary had been vandalised again, her chest stabbed and her crown ripped off. 

'Coronation Procession of Edward VI passing Cheapside Cross 1547'
Published in Vol1 'Old & New London'  by Walter Thornbury, pub. 1873 
based on a mural (now lost) at Cowdray House, Sussex
Book held in British Library

There were many vociferous Protestant campaigns to have the Cheapside Cross removed as idolatrous, some Puritans even saw it as symbol of Dagon, ancient god of the Philistines. But although most other Catholic symbols were removed, Cheapside Cross continued to be preserved by the London authorities, and ever greater defences were erected to protected it from repeated attacks. But in January 1642, the statues on the cross were severely damaged by attackers overnight. One man was mortally wounded when he fell on the spikes of the railings whilst trying to pull down the figures. Such was the heated emotion on both sides that people passing the cross over the next few days found themselves confronted by gangs demanding to know if they were for or against it. 

'Ancient View of Cheapside' 
in 'Old & New London', Vol 1 pub.1873

The cross had become a focus for the hatred of Charles I who had left London and the city authorities were forced to deploy soldiers to protect it at night. Puritan demands for its removal grew with countless pamphlets and petitions. Finally, in April 1643, Parliament appointed a Commons Committee chaired by Sir Robert Hale who had long campaigned against Cheapside Cross. The committee was set up to oversee the destruction of offensive religious images and three days later the London Court of Aldermen ordered the removal of Cheapside Cross because of the ‘idolatrous and superstitious’ figures. The soldiers who had been protecting it were now forced to guard the demolition crew from those who were determined to prevent it coming down, even at the cost of their lives.

'Demolition of Cheapside Cross', in 'Old & New London' pub 1873
Book in British Library

The funeral of the cross was marked with ringing of bells and bonfires, and in a final sting in this sad tale – the ‘Book of Sports’, considered ‘profane and pernicious’ because promoted such ‘abominations’ as maypole dancing, was ritually burned by a hangman on the spot where Cheapside Cross had stood.

Remnants of Cheapside Cross in
Museum of London
Photo: MattFromLondon

Most of the other Eleanor Crosses were also torn down during the Civil War, but three survived and still stand at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross.

Procrastination Jelly by Janie Hampton

Procrastination helped me create a way to look at my goldfish above water.
In theory the lock-down of 2020 has been good for thinking and writing. But many of us have found concentrating on anything very difficult. My mind often wanders and I look out of my study window.What do I see? A reason to leave my desk - my garden calls out to be tended. The vegetables want to be harvested; and the fruit picked. This presents an ideal opportunity for procrastination. Without my immediate intervention the pears will disappear. I can see six rooks perched on branches pecking away at the tops of the pears. One by one they crash to the ground. Squirrels do the same annoying trick, only eating a small part. When they bounce on to the lawn, they split, and the wasps attack them. If the potatoes are not dug up this very minute, worms will eat them.
So out into the garden I go with my basket. Jumping up for the pears, I realised that the cabbages need hoeing. After I picked up the hoe, I noticed it needed sharpening. I looked for the sharpening stone, and wondered what the proper name for a sharpening stone is. As I spotted it on the shed shelf, I remembered it is a whetstone, spelled with an ‘h’. Is that to do with water or something quite different? Made mental note to look it up. Sharpened hoe. On the way down the garden path I spotted that the courgettes needed watering. So the hose had to be untangled. And on it went- one procrastination opportunity surpassing the last. Soon I had found the whetstone, sharpened the hoe, sliced through several rows of weeds, watered the courgettes, picked some runner beans, and for good measure even put the garden tools in a neat row. I’d also learned that whet is from the Anglo-Saxon whaet, meaning keen or bold which led to sharpen or stimulate (as in ‘appetite’.) But I was still no further on with my blog.
My vegetable patch provides plenty of procrastination opportunities.
During this pandemic lockdown, we have all had plenty more time for the art of procrastination. It is defined as ‘to put off, to delay, to defer, to postpone, especially something that requires immediate attention.’ Crastimus is the Latin for ‘pertaining to tomorrow’ – and we all know that tomorrow never comes. It’s the Roman equivalent of ‘manana’. Synonyms include ‘dithering, stalling, delaying tactics and vacillations’, to which I would add ’seeking out distractions, around any corner.’ I suspect that most History Girls and our readers indulge in various levels of procrastination, and can spot a handy distraction a mile off. 
A skip outside a party shop provided me with some
dummy fireworks to hold up my tomatoes.
That consumed a happy afternoon.
The most rewarding kinds of procrastination for writers are those that somehow connect to the writing one is supposed to be doing. While researching my book ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’, I found a Second World War recipe that took procrastination to new levels. In one fell swoop, I could procrastinate and be ‘researching’ my book at the same time: the recipe demonstrated the historical economics of food rationing, the philosophy of Make Do and Mend and offered an opportunity to practice Real History. And unlike most procrastinations and distractions, there is something delicious to eat at the end. 
Hedgerow Jelly - free from a hedge near you
Find some hedges in late August or September, preferably containing many varieties of fruit-bearing bush. Harvest the fruit on your own and the time spent is both ‘exercise’ (walking along a hedgerow) and ‘work’ (you are silent, so obviously thinking about your next book). If this stretches your conscience too far, then go with some friends as ‘recreation’ - an essential time of ‘re-making your creativity’. Wander down lanes in the countryside, or seek out rogue wild bushes in parks and along footpaths in cities. In your own garden you may find autumn raspberries, elderberries, apples, pears or random gooseberries. Carry a woven basket for authenticity, or a cotton bag for Green credentials, or a plastic ‘Bag for Life’ for practicality. Pick as many berries as you can find, or can be bothered to pick, or can carry. Mix together hawthorn, rose hips, elderberries, both black and red blackberries (red contain more pectin which helps jelly to set), crab apples, wild gooseberries and raspberries. Do not include holly, ivy, privet, yew nor deadly nightshade – they are all poisonous.
Hedgerow jelly comes in many colours.

After washing them in a colander, boil up the berries together in a little water until soft, and then mash them up a bit. Then put into some clean, old tights, and hang from the back of a chair over a large bowl to drip overnight. To remain historically accurate, use cotton muslin or an old, clean tea towel. In the morning, or after a few hours, squeeze the tights (or muslin) to get out all the juice. Put the seedy pulp into the compost, or feed to wild birds or your chickens. 

For every pint of thick red juice, add one pound of white sugar. In a big jam-pan, boil up until the jelly reaches a lovely rolling setting point - drop a blob on a bottle from the fridge. If it sets like jelly, stop cooking. Don’t let it burn. With practice, you can tell when it’s ready: the boiling jelly rolls at a certain speed and plays a certain note. 

Pour into very clean glass jars, or tea cups if you don’t have enough jars. Put circles of grease-proof paper on the surface of the jelly, and screw on a metal lid while still hot. For presents, add circles of dress fabric or old shirts, tied with brown string. 

Good pans make good jam. 

 Make labels that say ‘Best War-time Hedgerow Jelly, 2020’. Or 'Procrastination Jelly, 2020'  Then get back to work. During breaks, eat this delicious, clear, red jelly with bread, or meat, or cheese. Or put some in hot water on cold winter days to remind you of sunnier times.  If you don’t manage to make this fruit jelly this year, then don’t worry, next year will do instead. It’s a deadline that you are allowed to miss. 

This year, when friends are not around, 
chatting to a bantam is a useful waste of time.


A Latin Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Caroline K. Mackenzie discusses the concepts behind her illustrated compendium of Latin words and English derivatives 

'vinum’ (wine) - vine, vinegar, vineyard, vintage 

I have always been fascinated by the Latin language. It helped that I had a kind and fun teacher at school whose lessons I loved. Mrs Ruscoe inspired us to master the grammar and vocabulary and we learned to read some wonderful literature together. 

Since trading a legal career for a teaching vocation, I have often reflected on those lessons and how they motivated me. This year, lockdown has changed the way I teach, which is currently via Zoom as I tutor children in Latin (and Greek) with one-to-one sessions external to their school timetables. My Classics Club (for adults) is presently also online, with the major change being that the coffee and cake (possibly the most essential ingredients for a good discussion) must now be ‘bring your own’. 

However, one thing that never changes in teaching Latin is the importance of the vocabulary. Words are quite simply the building blocks of a language. Unfortunately, vocabulary is often presented in a long list - usually in black and white, crammed onto the pages in small font and is, quite understandably, not particularly appetising. So, together with my pupils, I devised a game where we would think of an English derivative from a Latin word, which would then provide a clue to the meaning of the Latin; e.g. ‘rideo’ means ‘I laugh’ or ‘I smile’, and some English derivatives are ‘deride’ or ‘ridiculous’. We soon discovered that the Latin words were easy to recall, and learning became much more efficient as well as fun. 

Some derivatives may seem obvious, e.g. ‘resist’ from ‘resisto’ whereas others are more surprising, e.g. why does a ‘tandem’ bike derive from ‘tandem’ (at last)? If we translate ‘tandem’ as ‘at length’ this begins to make more sense when we think of a tandem bike (for two people) simply as a lengthened version of a one-person bike. ‘Tandem’ is often confused with ‘tamen’ (however) but by imagining a picture of a tandem bike and knowing the pun in the meaning, the distinction between the two words can easily be made. 

‘tandem’ (at last, finally) 

And so the book was born. The vibrant and witty illustrations, including the beautiful image of the Roman Forum on the cover, were created by Amanda Short, whose work I have long admired. 

Initially, I conceived the idea as a revision aid for GCSE students: therefore, it includes some grammatical information for each word, such as the declension and gender of a noun and the conjugation of a verb. However, the book has evolved into a secret weapon for anyone tackling crosswords or word games, where the associations between Latin vocabulary and the English derivatives will spark the imagination and encourage a deluge of possible answers. There is even a Latin derivative for someone who loves crosswords: a ‘cruciverbalist’. 

Choice of derivatives 

Many of the Latin words I chose have ubiquitous derivatives in English and one of the most difficult aspects of writing the book was having to limit the number of derivatives per entry. The book has been designed to include plenty of space on each page for readers to add some more derivatives if they wish to do so. 

The Lexicon includes a glossary of Latin words and phrases in common usage, e.g. ‘mea culpa’ and ‘prima facie’. One of the rarer ones that I could not resist including is ‘quidnunc’. Literally translated as ‘what now?’ it describes an inquisitive gossiping person. That is a derivative worth intermittently slipping into conversation, with a nonchalant air.

You may discover your name among the derivatives: Max, Miranda, Clare, Patricia, Benedict, etc. Whatever your hobbies, you are likely to find some Latin which relates to your favourite past-time: musicians will know ‘cadence’ from ‘cado’ (I fall) and anyone who uses a computer or laptop will be familiar with ‘cursor’ from ‘curro’ (I run) and ‘delete’ from ‘deleo’ (I destroy). Gardens are grown from Latin (‘gladiolus’) and nature abounds with it (‘brevipennate’); anatomy (‘vertebra’), vocations (‘horologist’), theatre (‘exeunt’) and sport (‘equestrian’) are further examples. I could go on ‘ad nauseam’… 

Even the word ‘derivative’ is itself a derivative, being literally something flowing downstream (the verb ‘derivare’ means to turn into another channel or to divert from). Likewise, ‘language’ stems from ‘lingua’ (tongue) and ‘dictionary’ from ‘dico’ (I say). 

As for Latin abbreviations that we use daily, you have already been translating these as you read this blog, possibly without even realising it, ‘e.g.’ or ‘exempli gratia’ (for the sake of example), ‘etc.’ or ‘et cetera’ (and the others). 

October evenings 

‘dormio’ (I sleep) - dormant, dormitory, dormouse 

As we begin to contemplate curling up with a hot chocolate (or perhaps imbibing a glass of wine) on these cosy autumn evenings, I hope the book may become a welcome companion (a ‘vade-mecum’) providing both entertainment and intellectual challenges. 

The Latin Lexicon contains just over 365 entries. Fortuitously, that provides one for each day of the year, and a couple of bonus ones for your birthday and other special occasions. Here, as my final offering, I have selected ten of my favourites to whet your appetite: like a verbal pre-prandial treat. 

My Top Ten Latin Lexicon entries 

(I) ambulo - I walk. 
amble, ambulance (do you know why? clue: history), ambulatory, noctambulation (sleepwalking). 

(II) bibo - I drink. 
bib (babies dribble their drinks), bibation, bibber, imbibe. 

(III) castra - camp. 
‘castle’, ‘caster’, ‘cester’ and ‘chester’ in names of places in Britain, e.g. Chester, Chichester, Cirencester, Grantchester, Lancaster, Leicester, Winchester. (Perhaps your home town, too?) 

(IV) gravis - heavy, serious. 
grave, gravitas, gravitate, gravity. 

(V) hortus - garden. 
horticultural, horticulture. 

(VI) laudo - I praise. 
applaud, applause, laud, laudable, laudatory. 

(VII) liber - book. 
librarian, library. 

(VIII) magnus - big, large, great. 
magnificent, magnify, magniloquent (I call this a ‘double derivative’), magnitude. 

(IX) nomen - name. 
denomination, nomenclature, nominal, nominative (useful when learning Latin!), nominee, noun. 

(X) quaero - search for, ask. 
enquiry, inquiry, query, quest, question, questionnaire. 

As you may have anticipated, I have incorporated numerous Latin derivatives in this blog. I contemplated highlighting them in some manner, but that would spoil the fun for those of you who like a challenge - how many can you find? (Answers on a postcard, please.) 

With thanks to: all the History Girls, especially Ruth Downie, Janie Hampton, Mary Hoffman, Michelle Lovric and Celia Rees; Caroline Lawrence; Dr David Davison, Patrick Harris and Ben Heaney at Archaeopress; Amanda Short; Dr John Taylor; Professor Paul Cartledge; and Dr Daisy Dunn. 

Special offer available on pre-orders of A Latin Lexicon available here:

P.S. (post scriptum.) Do tell me your favourite Latin word/derivative and any memories of learning Latin at school: I’d love to know! 

Twitter @carolinetutor 

All images © Amanda Short Design. 

September 1939: the Polish perspective


by Antonia Senior

In late August 1939, the Polish Ambassador in London visited Bognor with his wife and children for the weekend. Count Edward Raczynski writes in his 1962 memoir, In Allied London, that the weather was glorious. '..the sea [was] warm and everybody cheerful. The girls were bronzed and extremely fit, the sky cloudless, and the moon at night like a glorious lantern.'

Reading Raczynski's memoirs in this odd September eighty-one years later is salutary and a little chastening. I'm reading them as I try to keep my own children happy as the storm-clouds gather, conjuring for them a metaphorical cloudless sky.  

Raczynski returned to London on the Monday, and resumed his task of trying to flog his reluctant allies into action as Hitler's anti-Polish belligerence grew. The following Friday, on 1 September, the Ambassador rose early 'after a restless night'. At 10 AM, he was informed by Warsaw, via the Embassy in Paris, that the Germans had crossed the frontier into Poland. Raczynski was given formal instructions from Warsaw to declare to the British that 'The Polish Government is determined to defend its independence and honour to the last...'

Count Edward Raczynski

The story of the German invasion of Poland is brilliant told in First to Fight by Roger Moorhouse, newly out in paperback. Roger is a friend - and it was friendship that led me to the book. It was not friendship which kept me there - but the compelling sense of reading something entirely new about a period I thought I understood. I knew nothing. The extraordinary story he tells so eloquently led me to read some of the sources too, chiefly Raczynski's memoirs. 

Raczynski's memoirs are written as a diary, and this lends immediacy and urgency to his account. On 1 September, the afternoon of the invasion, he visits the House of Commons."The building was blacked-out, and small ghostly electric lamps, covered with metal shades, cast a blueish light on the paved floor of the corridor."  To Raczynski's relief, the Prime Minister gave a bombastic speech about defying Hitler. 

 But the next day,  he watches a House of Commons 'full of irritation and disquiet'debate what to do, and 'sick at heart' hears Chamberlain attempt to explain away Hitler's refusal to respond to the British warning of the day before. Churchill rings him that afternoon, while the British and French were still prevaricating."He said slowly and in a strangled voice: 'I hope - I hope that Britain will keep its...' - and could get not further. His voice stuck in his throat and I was startled to hear him sob. He sounded both anxious and deeply humiliated."

The declaration of war by Britain and France changes nothing for the Poles. In First to Fight, Roger describes how the expectation of Allied helped define Polish military tactics, and how valiantly the outnumbered Poles fought. Meanwhile, in London, Raczynski spends the next two weeks attempting to persuade the British to offer military help, not words, to their Polish allies. Nothing is forthcoming. He visits the US ambassador Joseph Kennedy "who startled me by his pessimism and lack of enthusiasm for the war. He wondered aloud: 'Where on earth can the allies fight the Germans and beat them?'"

On Sunday the 17 September, Raczynski visits the Polish church for Mass. That morning, he had received the news that the Soviets had invaded Poland from the East. "The news of this stab in the back was like the sensation one feels in the theatre when a crime which has long been impending is finally perpetrated."

At the Polish embassy, he organises a 24-hour radio listening service. The Press Attache, Bauer-Czarnomiski receives the news from Poland and pieces together events. The London Press gain a source beyond the relentless German propaganda, and Raczynski describes his PressAttache: "scribbling on his knee one message after another and shaken all the while with tears over our country's fate."

This is just a small taste of a remarkable book. It is odd to read history, while living so vividly through it. Here is Raczynski sounding oddly like a contemporary, if articulate, twitterati: "One must admit that at the present time a large part of Europe, not to speak of other parts of the world, is governed by people who are past praying for."

Roger warned me that Polish history, as fascinating and terrible as it is, does not let go easily once you are gripped. I was fascinated too by Carolyn Kirby's excellent new novel When We Fall, which tells the story of Poland later in the war - and the Katyn massacres of Polish officers by the Soviets. 

First to Fight is full of remarkable stories, many of them uncomfortable reading as a citizen of one of the allies who promised so much but did so little. When Warsaw, destroyed beyond recognition by the German attack, finally capitulated, its mayor, Stefan Starzynski continued to be defiant. He addressed the people of Warsaw:"For the last time, I call upon our allies. I no longer ask for help. It is too late. I demand vengeance. For the burnt churches, for the devastated antiquities, for the tears and blood of the murdered innocents, for the agony of those torn by bombs, burnt by the fire of incendiary shells, suffocated in the collapsed shelters and cellars. And you, bandits, barbarians, who have attacked our country - carrying death and destruction - know this, that there is justice, that there is a judgment, before which we shall all stand to answer and be held responsible for our actions." 

Surviving the Edinburgh Plague of 1645

by Deborah Swift
This is a wheel charm, in 16th Century Gaelic, to be used as a protection against death by poison and demons of the air, which were thought to spread the plague. (National Library of Scotland)

Many people have heard of The Great Plague of London, but fewer have heard of the Great Plague of Edinburgh in Scotland. The outbreak was earlier in Scotland and in 1645 proved to be the most devastating epidemic Scotland had ever seen. At that time Edinburgh was a much smaller city flanked by the Port of Leith, into which ships from all over Europe came and went, bringing their trade of furs and coal, of grain and cloth. You can view a fascinating site map of the city in 1647, and see how cramped it was, and make a guess as to why the disease spread so quickly, here on the National Library of Scotland.

Half the people dead
The outbreak was so severe that it is estimated that nearly half of the population died, while in the Port of Leith the percentage was even higher. Corpses were piled high in the streets and people infected with the disease were either forbidden to leave their homes,  or alternatively sent to rudimentary huts outside the city walls, where they had to stay for three weeks until they had a clean bill of health. Below you can see typical Edinburgh tenements of about 1635, where many people lived cramped together and the disease spread exponentially.

Lockdown 17th Century style
If you showed any symptoms you were immediately evacuated to the huts outside the town. The huts were rudimentary shelters located on the slopes of The Burgh Muir, which also housed a burial ground for those who didn't survive. The Burgh Muir is the historic term for an extensive area of scrubland lying to the south of Edinburgh. Volunteers called "Bailies" wearing grey tunics emblazoned with black St Andrew's crosses would take the ill out of the city by handcart or horse-drawn cart. On the way their clothes would be disinfected by "clengeris" - people who boiled the clothes in giant cauldrons to try to rid them of the '"pest" and theywould be issued with clean nightgowns until their clothes dried.

The huts were situated around the Chapel of St Roche, the patron saint of plague victims, presumably the idea that the intercession of the saint would help the afflicted. St Roche is a Catholic saint particularly associated with healing the sick and his church was built there so Catholics could confess and atone for their sins before they died. 

I imagine that the dread of arriving at such a place, seeing your home was to be a hovel, with very little hope of escaping alive, must have been grim. Any Edinburgh person with plague symptoms was supposed to inform the Bailies within twelve hours. It must have been tempting not to do so, and to sit it out at home,  but if they failed to inform the Bailies, they could be branded, banished or even executed.

The Foul Hangman
Why would you want to be a Bailie and subject yourself to such a risk? Of course you kept people at arm's length with a long stick, with a white kerchief tied to the end of it, to signal people you were passing by, and you rang a warning bell. Corruption though was rife, and rich pickings could be had from homes that were ordered to be shut up or cleansed. Stealing infected goods on the Muir though, was punishable by death and a specific "foul" hangman was employed to deal with any offenders, who of course also included those who tried to escape or break curfew. 

On record is the case of public outcry against those who risked others' lives. Marion Clerk from Edinburgh was drowned for visiting her sister when recovering from plague.

Herbal Medicine
Below - a tombstone embedded in the mausoleum of John Livingstone an  apothecary, paid for by his widow Elizabeth Rig. The headstone carries the date 1645.

There were of course many plague doctors practising their profession, wearing the leather protective cloak and beak stuffed with herbs that are so familiar to us from other illustrations. Water germander was a popular herb known from ancient times and was widely prescribed, as was washing the affected parts with vinegar or wine.

I was interested in this history long before Covid 19 emerged and had written a story set in Edinburgh in 1645 for a short story collection. Then, I did not know how the time would mirror our own. I was interested in how the old religion (Catholicism) and the new Covenant in Scotland would hold up in the face of such a catastrophe. My story focusses on Irish immigrants to Scotland, of whom there were many, who came to Leith seeking work, only to find themselves in the middle of a deadly epidemic.

You can chat to me about my post on Twitter @swiftstory
Or find me on my website www.deborahswift.com

Along the Silk Road to Bukhara - by Lesley Downer

The sands of Oxus, toilsome though they be,
Beneath my feet were soft as silk to me.
Glad at the friend's return, the Oxus deep
Up to our girths in laughing waves shall leap.
Long live Bukhara! Be thou of good cheer!
Joyous towards thee hasteth our Amir! 

                                                                                Rudaki (859-941)
                                                                    translation by A. J. Arberry, 1958.
The Escher-like domes of Bukhara 

With the nights closing in and lockdown looming, I offer a trip on my magic carpet to anyone who yearns for escape to another time and another place. And who better to start our journey with than Bukhara’s great poet, Rudaki, who became the court poet and companion of the Samanid king and left a wonderful legacy of Persian verse?  
Ishmail Samani Mausoleum -
burial place of the Samanids

For a couple of thousand years, until the middle of the 18th century, a network of Silk Roads linked Europe to China, crisscrossing Persia and Central Asia and the lands to the north of India. One of these highways led through the great city of Bukhara, the capital of the emirate of Bukhara of which Samarkand was a part. Bukhara had long been a centre of trade, culture, scholarship and religion. It was Central Asia’s holiest city, legendary for its wealth and beauty. 

It was said that while elsewhere daylight shone down from the skies, it radiated up from Bokhara to illuminate the heavens.

Central Asia’s Holiest City
A thousand years ago, when Anglo-Saxon bards were telling the tale of Beowulf and a Japanese court lady was composing The Tale of Genji, Islam was enjoying its Golden Age. Bukhara, under the rule of the Samanid dynasty (819 to 999), was the intellectual centre of the Islamic world.

The Samanids were patrons of scholarship and scholars. Bukhara was home to many of the greatest figures of the age - the brilliant court poet Rudaki (859-941), famous as a musician, player of the chang (harp) and declaimer of verse; Firdausi (940-1020), also spelt Ferdowsi, author of Iran’s epic poem, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings; and Ibn Sina (981-1037), known in English as Avicenna, physician, astronomer, thinker and author of seminal medical tracts.
Jester in Bukhara

In the years that followed Bukhara’s fortunes rose and fell. In 1220 Genghis Khan besieged the city for 15 days. He conquered it but spared the populace. Then in 1260 Marco Polo’s father and uncle stayed three years and learnt Tartar (Mongol). Eventually they went to Cathay and met Kublai Khan.

In the nineteenth century Bukhara was still the holiest city in Muslim Central Asia. To Europeans it was a mysterious but alluring place surrounded by a natural barrier of mile upon mile of impassable desert. It was the Emir’s capital from where he ruled over a kingdom almost the size of the British Isles.

The British arrive

George IV was on the throne when the first British caravan arrived in Bukhara in February 1825. They had travelled from northern British India across the Khyber Pass to the Oxus and across desert lands which snow had turned into quagmire, only to discover to their chagrin that the Russians had got there before them. One of these Russians, the German-born Dr Eversmann, had infiltrated the capital in disguise and reported among much else that in this city ‘all the horrors and abominations of Sodom and Gomorrah’ were being practised. Besides his harem the Emir had the ‘services of forty or fifty degraded beings,’ he wrote. Things went on which ‘even in Constantinople’ were taboo. 

The mammoth walls of the Ark, the Emir's palace

Alexander Burnes - later famous as Bukhara Burnes - arrived on June 27 1832. He visited the Grand Vizier at the Ark, the Emir’s fortress palace. He described him as a wizened old man with small crafty eyes and a long grey beard. Burnes was a charmer and got on well with the vizier who saw him as an invaluable source of information about the outside world. Burnes saw the minaret from which criminals were hurled to their deaths and visited the square in front of the Ark where beheadings were conducted with a huge knife. He also went to the slave market where ‘these poor wretches are exposed for sale and occupy thirty or forty stalls where they are examined like cattle.’ When he left the vizier asked him to bring him back a good pair of English glasses if he ever returned. Burnes’ three volume Travels into Bokhara, published in 1834, introduced the romance, magic and mystery of Central Asia to the British reader. 


Things did not always go well for the British in Bukhara.
A year after Queen Victoria came to the throne, on December 17th 1838, a daunty Englishman called Colonel Charles Stoddart rode through Bukhara’s great gates. He had been sent by the East India Company to try and forge an alliance with the Emir against the Russians, whom the British were convinced would storm across barren steppes, bandit-infested deserts and impassable mountain ranges down into British India and capture it if they weren’t held back. 

Nasrullah Khan 

Rather foolishly Stoddart arrived in full regimental uniform and didn’t even bother to get off his horse in the presence of the Emir, Nasrullah Khan, who had also heard rumours that he was a spy. He immediately had him arrested and thrown into a twenty foot deep pit known as the Black Hole, to which a rope was the only means of access and which he shared with three criminals and an assortment of vermin. 

Three years passed. Then on November 10th 1841 Captain Arthur Conolly arrived to try and negotiate his release. He too ended up in the Black Hole. Finally the two were executed in the grand square in front of the Ark.

In 1868 Russian troops captured the kingdom of Bukhara. It remained under Russian, then Soviet rule until the break up of the Soviet Union and became part of Uzbekistan when the country was given its independence.

Beautiful Bukhara
Of all Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities, Bukhara most retains the flavour of its past. The city is full of domes of pink brick, built in geometrical designs like M.C.Escher’s drawings. You can ramble the lanes and explore the bazaars, lined with stalls selling silks, fabrics, goods from all the neighbouring countries - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan - or heaped with spices, filling the air with the scent of cumin. At the centre of the city is the Kalyan Minaret which dates from 1127, so tall that when Genghis Khan put his head back to look at it, his helmet fell off and he decided to spare it.
Kalyan Minaret 

You can gaze up in wonder at the Ark, a mammoth fortress whose formidable concave mud walls are impossible to climb. It broods over the city still, as it did in the days when Stoddart and Conolly met their end. You can even see a replica of the prison cell where they were incarcerated. The heart of the town is Lyabi Hauz pond, shaded by mulberry trees, where people sit all day drinking tea out of blue and white ceramic cups.

By pure chance we managed to arrive just as the city was celebrating the annual Silk and Spice Festival. People had come in from miles around, all dressed in their best. Musicians played lutes, fiddles, tambourines and drums, singers belted out folk songs, dancers undulated with intricate hand movements and a jester in a multi-coloured coat pranced about. The crowd raised their arms and danced too while an old man in a white turban leaned on a stick, observing. 

The moon's the prince, Bukhara is the sky;
O Sky, the Moon shall light thee by and by!
Bukhara is the Mead, the Cypress he;
Receive at last, O Mead, thy Cypress tree! 

One of Bukhara's many bazaars 

From Bukhara the Silk Road traveller went on to Samarkand, which I’ll tell you about in my next post.

For the whole thrilling story of the opening of Central Asia, please read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk - a wonderful book.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more, much more, see https://www.lesleydowner.com/

The picture of Nasrullah Khan is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are mine.

Nostalgia, or, Be careful what you wish for


by Susan Vincent

I often find myself yearning for the past. Not for a time of personal recollection and experience, but for The Past, a lost time of history.

As a child I read voraciously, historical novels a speciality. My favourites were those where the protagonist slipped through the boundary between then and now, and pitched up in another time. Compared to the past, the here and now can seem so unsatisfactory, so rushed and uncertain, so disappointing.

On all sides I am assailed by a sense of loss, the ‘now’ falling short from the pre-lapsarian ‘once-was’: fewer birds and animals, the ice caps in retreat, even a dwindling of the darkness, harried into the few remaining parts of the planet as yet unlit. I am even thinking nostalgically of the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’. The reaping and sowing, the building up and breaking down seem now to have been replaced by a solitary time of unending consumption.

Compared to this, the past looks measured and well-run, with predictable, proper seasons, a clear social order, and vintage homewares like those sold in National Trust shops.


Frequently I feel as though I don’t fit in the now; I was born out of my time. And if you’re reading a blog about History, chances are you feel that too.


Maybe we all have a period that we yearn for more than any other. The one that captures my imagination and nostalgia – the one that I long to experience – are the interwar years. Basically, I want to go on holiday in the 1920s and 1930s.

This might seem like an odd period to pitch up into, but just look at its advantages. As a dress historian, I’ll start with the clothes: chic but simple; a new look but without the nauseating turnover of fast fashion; body adaptable but not skimpy. Thanks to the new fashion of the bob a woman could have short hair, and if she were daring enough, could even wear trousers.

But there were other things possible for a woman in this period too. She could go to school and even university. She could vote (full suffrage in 1928), divorce on equal grounds (1923 Matrimonial Causes Act), and thanks to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, earn her living in the professions. And since I’m also a bit of a Golden Age detection junkie, we may as well add that she could become an all-time best-selling crime author. (Thank you Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey…)


There were also aspirins, luxury ocean liners, English villages straight off a chocolate box, and sensible brogues for country walking.





But this is all rubbish of course. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia - that desperate, sweet longing for an unattainable place or time – was considered to be a disease. In the twentieth century we turned it into a marketing opportunity. It is a longing that we now both assuage and nurture with heritage visits and retail therapy. But as yearningly pleasurable as nostalgia is, I think there is something to be said for its earlier pathologizing.

Obviously, having your eyes fixed on a distant horizon means you’re blind to the here and now – including to all its advantages and joys and beauty.

But it is also bad history, for the yearning gaze sees only what it wants to. Let’s face it, if I were magically transported back I would not cruise the Atlantic, look fashion-plate perfect, or live what I consider to be an emancipated life. I would have fewer opportunities, miss modern dentistry, and be bereft without trainers. There may have been corncrakes in every field, but the cities were also clogged with choking smoke. My view of the interwar years conveniently starts up after the Spanish flu, pans quickly over the maimed WWI servicemen begging on the streets, ignores the Depression, and very handily stops short of the next war. I am blind to incalculable loss and past trauma.

And perhaps the most important thing that I need to remember is that while I look to a golden past, so did that very past look back and itself yearn for an earlier time. Where I see certainty and a wonderful retro-design aesthetic, the interwar years were experienced very differently by those who lived them. This was a time of self-conscious newness, jagged and uncompromising. The First World War had shorn the world from the past and in its place was modernity: angular, fast, and utterly different from old fuddy-duddy bewhiskered Victorianism. And where I see a rural, unchanging paradise, contemporaries experienced a swamping tide of technology and suburban expansion.

Take electricity for instance. When Stanley Baldwin announced plans for the National Grid in 1926, it released the slow march of pylons. This was bitterly contested, especially in areas of the countryside renowned for their beauty. In a letter to The Times in 1929, W.H. Cormack of Mungrisdale Vicarage called the pylons a ‘hideous disfigurement’ on the Lakeland scenery. Electricity, he said, was not even needed: ‘in the country we get on very well with oil’ (The Times, 6 July 1929).

The following year, 1930, a correspondent from Kent deplored plans that would leave ‘all lovers of our beautiful country, all lovers of history and tradition’ mourning a landscape that ‘will be utterly ruined’. He suggested siting the proposed pylons next to the London to Folkestone road, which had already sprouted ‘the usual crop of bungalows, petrol pumps, tea shops, and advertisements for Continental watering places’ (The Times, 16 January 1930). Where I look back on quaintness and romance, all Lewis Biggs of Treetops in Wrotham could see was nasty new-builds, brutal modernity, and ugly commerce. 

So what’s the moral?

One. I need to remember that in time, others will come to see my crippling present – even with a global pandemic – as their nostalgic place of safety.

Two. Nostalgia makes for very bad history. 

And three. Be careful what you wish for.




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Brunel and his family - by Sue Purkiss


I've mentioned before that I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, which sits in the dry dock where it was originally built on Bristol Harbourside. (I've also written a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage.) I was there the other day, and spent part of the afternoon in one of my favourite places there, in the new museum called Being Brunel, which is about the man himself and all the other projects he worked on apart from the beautiful ship.

Part of the Duke Street Office

I was in the replica of Brunel's office in Duke Street, London - he lived in London, though he had a close association with Bristol since he came to recuperate there after a serious accident in the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which he and his father Marc were constructing beneath the Thames. Never one to be idle, he became aware of a competition to design a suspension bridge to cross the Avon Gorge - and then later, decided to tender for the new railway line to be built from London to Bristol. Then after that, he decided, with typical panache, that the next step was a passenger ship to cross the Atlantic, so that people could travel from London all the way through to New York. So he built first the Great Western, a paddle steamer - and then the immensely innovative Great Britain, noted for being built of iron, for running on steam as well as sail, for being driven by a propellor rather than a paddle wheel - and of course for its size.

The Duke Street office is a large and pleasant room. The window looks out on St James's Park. It is lined with wooden panelling, and there are, from memory, two large desks. On one of them Brunel's cigar sits ready for him to pick it up - he was an inveterate smoker, getting through more than forty a day. Letters and other papers are scattered over the desk. In one corner is a comfortable armchair, with a glass of sherry on the table beside it. On a shelf is a model of a machine which his father, another engineer, had designed to facilitate the production of the wooden blocks required to operate sails. Family was very important to Brunel, and his father was a great influence.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

It feels as if he has just gone out of the room, and might wander back in at any minute. He feels very close. Mind you, if he did appear, it could well be very disconcerting (apart from for the obvious reasons). He was an impatient man who could be irascible: one of my favourite quotes is something he wrote to an associate whose work he deemed to be inadequate: "You have wasted more of my time than your whole life is worth!" He drove himself mercilessly, and he expected similar dedication from others. Probably he sensed, towards the end of his life, that his time was unusually limited: he died when he was only fifty three.

I'm very interested in the extent to which history is affected by charismatic individuals. That was partly why I was drawn to King Alfred, about whom I also wrote a book, Warrior King. Certainly, if Brunel had not had the character he did, the Great Britain would not have been built in the way that it was. The fact that it was successfully constructed from steel meant, counterintuitively, that ships could be bigger: there is a line that directly connects the vessels which carry goods around the world today with Brunel's ship. It meant that that they could carry sufficient coal to power steam engines, which would carry them further and faster. (Though at this point in time, as we slowly begin to realise what we are doing to the environment, we may wonder about whether this was or was not 'a good thing'...)

Marc Brunel

But as I chatted to visitors about Sir Marc's machine, and about how different in character the two of them - both brilliant engineers - were, I realised that my interest in the Brunels is not just down to their engineering achievements. I'm interested in the family, and I'd like to know more about it. In his portraits, Sir Marc looks like a much more genial character than his son was; there's a glint of humour in his eyes. He was French, but was on the wrong side of the Revolution and so had to leave his country, spending some time in America before eventually arriving in Britain, where he was reunited with an English girl, Sophia, whom he had met in France during those turbulent years. Their marriage was evidently a long and very happy one.

Colleagues at the ship, who know far more about engineering than I do (not difficult), think that Marc was actually the more innovative, creative engineer of the two. But he seems to have lacked the drive of his restless son; he had brilliant ideas, but he didn't have a sure hand when it came to making money - and was indeed in a debtors' prison at one stage, where his loyal Sophia joined him.

Sophia Hawes

He was a devoted father. There are letters and diary entries that show this. There's one from his daughter Sophia, where she fondly remembers how her father would take the children for walks and teach them to observe nature, and then go back home and draw it: there's a lovely drawing of a horse which Isambard did at at the age of six. Sophia says wistfully something to the effect that of course Isambard, being a boy, was able to pursue his studies seriously: she, a girl, could only do so up to a point.

Also in Being Brunel there is a replica of Brunel's dining room, where there are three talking portraits. One is of Sophia. She speaks fondly of her brother, to whom she was evidently very close - he spent a great deal of time at the home she shared with her husband, Sir Benjamin Hawes.

I'm intrigued by Sophia, but there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of information available about her. There's even less about the middle child, Emma: and very little about Brunel's wife, Mary. Hm... I wonder...