Monday, 19 March 2018

How Not to Besiege a Town by L.J. Trafford

The fortress of Masada.
The Roman war machine: All powering, all conquering. A huge force of highly trained soldiers who created and maintained an empire the likes of which the world had never before seen.
It wasn’t just the sheer number of recruits that made Rome a power to reckon with. It was also their innovation in battle, and particularly in sieges.
Roman history is rich with some truly impressive examples of siege warfare. There was Veii in the 4th century BC where, after years of stalemate, the Roman forces dug a tunnel underneath the walls and conquered the town from within.
The siege of Carthage in the 2nd century BC lasted three whole years. It was finally broken when Scipio Africanus ordered a series of massive siege walls to be built outside the town. These were used to relentlessly attack, and ultimately conquer Carthage.

In 70 AD to gain access to the Judaean Fortress of Masada, which sat on top of a hard to navigate rock, the Romans built an alternative route up the cliff that they could haul their siege towers up. They also built a seven km siege wall in an impressive 3 days.

Battering rams, siege towers, ballista and archers were often used in besieging fortresses and towns.

The story I am about to tell is not of an impressive victory . It is not a story of Roman ingenuity and cunning. Nor is it a tale of the type of patience and persistence that felled Carthage. It’s the story of an unsuccessful siege. A gloriously unsuccessful siege; the siege(s) of Placentia.

A Bit of Background
The year is 69AD. On 15th January Marcus Salvius Otho enacted a coup against emperor Galba in one singular day of bloodshed. The emperor and his associates were decapitated in the Forum whilst all around was bloody mayhem.
By sunset the Senate had no choice but to declare Otho emperor. Escorted up to the palace the new emperor soon realised he had made a horrible, horrible mistake. For amongst Galba’s papers was a horrifying revelation: There was another emperor .

Otho hadn’t known, couldn’t have known when he staged his coup, that two weeks earlier on the banks of the Rhine the German legions had declared their Governor, Vitellius emperor. Vitellius‘ two generals, Valens and Caecina, were on the road marching a force of  nearly 70,000 men to Rome.
The Rhine legions were the toughest of the Roman legionaries. Otho had nowhere near the same number of men at his disposal. Realising he was hopelessly outmatched, he tried everything to turn them back. Vitellius was promised money beyond his wildest dreams, influence and a quiet spot to retire in. This didn't move Vitellius and so assassins were sent to Germania. Though evidently not terribly good assassins for Vitellius continued to breathe and the German legions marched onward.

There could be only one emperor and there could be only one way to decide who that should be: War.

The Othonians
Emperor Otho
The town of Placentia was situated in the north of Italy between modern day Milan and Bologna. In the spring of 69AD this was where Caecina was marching his half of Vitellius' forces, some 30,000 men, straight towards.

Charged with holding Placentia for Otho was a pragmatic general named Spurinna. At his command he had three cohorts of Praetorians (the emperor's private bodyguard, and cause of much of Rome's current instability), 1000 infantry and a small gang of cavalry. At most this was 4000 men. 4000 men versus 30,000. Even worse Spurinna's forces were untrained novices, they'd no experience of battle. Neither had the Praetorian Guard who mostly spent their days in the capital enacting crowd control on the locals and thinking up plots. Marching ever closer to these keen amateurs were Caecina's highly experienced, battle scarred German legions

Spurinna was a sensible and practical man. He knew his troops had absolutely no hope against the Germans in an open battle. Every last one of them would be slaughtered within hours. So he ordered that the gates of the town be closed and that they should prepare for a siege.
It was by far the most sensible of decisions. However, Spurinna's men disagreed. Eager for battle they insisted they could take on the German legions. That insistence grew throughout the day until Spurinna realised he was facing a mutiny
Fine, the general demurred, if they wanted to fight, what were they waiting for?

So off they all marched, Spurinna included, to intercept Caecina's army. 20 miles into this march it was decided to set up camp for the night. The Roman way was to construct a camp from scratch, it's what Caecina's forces had been largely doing the whole long march from Germany. But these were new recruits and Praetorians (whose own camp was already nicely built for them on top of the Viminal Hill in Rome). Neither was prepared for such hard labour. Spurinna we can assume watched their efforts with dry amusement. This hard graft broke their mutinous spirits and when someone suggested that Caecina's forces might stumble upon them at any moment, panic ensued. Which was when Spurinna stepped forward and calmly suggested that maybe they'd be better off safe within the fortified walls of Placentia. Lots of eager nodding and then back they marched the way they'd come.
Back behind the walls of Placentia they set to building up ramparts, adding parapets and collecting up anything and everything of any use.

Then they waited for the German legions.

The Vitellians.
Emperor Number 2, Vitellius

The famously critical Tacitus describes Caecina as "Young good-looking, tall and upstanding." From which we may deduce that he was six foot plus of man hunk. Tacitus also grudgingly accepts he had superficial charm. So let us put him firmly in the fanciable and charismatic camp. Even more strikingly, despite having only been stationed in Germania a few years, Caecina had gone full native and habitually wore Germanic trousers, tunic and plaid cloak.

This trousered giant of manhood had marched 30,000 of Rome's meanest, toughest soldiers thousands of miles across country and mountainside. Though they'd fallen foul of a local Gallic tribe on route, the soldiers were itching to meet a real enemy. One that would challenge them. The town of Placentia was firmly in their sights.

The First Siege Of Placentia
It should have been a foregone conclusion. 30,000 hardened fighters against a small force of boys and Praetorians grown soft by too much hanging around the palace. And yet Caecina's Germans failed to conquer the town. Why?
Fear not this is not going to be a dissection of battle techniques, an exhaustive examination of tactics. There will be no little diagrams with arrows pointing all over the place to denote troop movements. There will be no pictures of the battlefield terrain from every perceivable angle.

The reason Caecina's soldiers failed to penetrate the walls of Placentia can be explained in four words: they showed up drunk.
Actually make that very drunk. Very, very drunk. They were so drunk that they turned up to besiege the town without bringing any siege equipment with them. Tacitus tells us they advanced without cover. One can only imagine Spurinna's expression as 30,000 German troops ran at his walls, presumably hoping that they would just fall down spontaneously. Though Placentia got off dent free from this attack, the amphitheatre next to the town mysteriously burnt down. Which shows someone's aim was decidedly off.

Unable to break into the town without equipment and under heavy missile fire from Spurinna's troops, Caecina and his men were forced into a humiliating retreat.
As Tacitus drily notes; "The first day's action was marked by a vigorous offensive rather than by the skilled techniques of a seasoned army."

Which is polite a way as ever committed to papyri of describing a total cock up.

The Second Siege of Placentia
I think it is safe to say that the Germans had been a little over confident in their abilities. A little bit cocky and reliant on their scary reputation. I think we are right to suspect that their trouser wearing hunky general may have given an over rousing speech to them prior to the disaster.

Celtic trousers the like of which Caecina might have worn
But the fact that they all on mass happily believed they could bring Placentia down by sheer force whilst highly intoxicated, does show they were a cohesive army.
They were bruised, they were no doubt suffering horrendous hangovers, but they were not out. Pride needed to be restored. Caecina set them to work overnight constructing the siege equipment they so casually forgot the first time round.

At first light the plains outside the town began to fill with men. Bare chested men. They'd opted to fight the traditional German way: Nipples alfresco.

The soldiers battered and smashed their shields together, singing traditional German war songs. These were soldiers of Rome, yes, but there wasn’t much of Rome about them.

Such was how it must have looked to Spurinna’s young troops as they saw the semi naked troops commanded by a trouser wearing giant line up outside their town. It must have been horrifyingly clear quite how outnumbered they were.
The Germans advanced under cover of the towers they'd spent the night building and set to the gates with crowbars. Others dug down trying to undermine the foundations of the town. An earthen siege mound was constructed. These were proper Roman techniques.
Above them the Othonians rained down javelins at them. Slingshotters and archers bombarded the Vitellians. But by far the deadliest weapon was one Spurinna's men had gathered together overnight from the town; huge millstones. These the praetorians rolled down from certain parts of the wall directly onto the Vitellians beneath. Tacitus tells us the injuries were drastic, men were crushed to pieces beneath the pounding weight. To others seeing their comrades so destroyed, panic set in when further millstones were pushed forward.

Under such a barrage Caecina ordered a retreat. The plucky underdogs had held onto the town!

The Aftermath
There was no third siege of Placentia. The epic patience witnessed in those sieges of old was not present in this army. This army, and more particularly their young commander, were itching for a victory.

In the grand scheme of things Placentia was not so important. Or so Caecina no doubt told himself. The best thing was to plough on and face down Otho’s main forces. One highly suspects that Caecina’s eagerness was linked to the fact that Valens was now only a few days march away with his army. Caecina did not want to share any of the glory with his colleague.

Caecina however did not get his great victory. The Othonians had no intention yet of facing the Rhine legions in battle. Instead they sent a small force of gladiators (which gives you some idea as to how hard up Otho was for troops) on ambush missions. Through these skirmishes Caecina lost most of his auxiliary soldiers.

In the end Caecina had to wait until Valens arrived with his own fresh forces to achieve his much desired victory. The Othonians were finally overwhelmed by their enemy's greater numbers. Vitellius was sole emperor.

L.J. Trafford's latest book, Otho's Regret, covers the strange siege of Placentia and other notable failures of the handsome Caecina.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them” by Rowena House

At the start of the centenary of the 1914-18 war I had a notion that we would by now, as a nation, have found some sort of collective closure on the individual suffering of the dead of the Great War, and be ready to move on, to toss their bones in the air as it were, and free the spirits of the fallen to join with our distant ancestors.

As a writer, I agreed with Pat Barker’s comment that World War I had “come to stand in for other wars … it’s come to stand for the pain of all wars.” Our stories might be about that particular conflict, but the larger subject was war itself.

"Voie Sacrée" supply line to the militarized French region of Verdun
Researching and writing my own First World War novel, The Goose Road, dented that conviction. Wherever I looked, the power of individual suffering endured and the personal stories were endlessly shocking, intimate and enthralling.

I fell under their spell time and again while listening to the first-hand accounts of veterans of the Western Front, their scratchy voices forever locked in a sound archive, or when reading a collection of letters home, or interviews granted to earlier researchers. I’d suddenly be caught unawares by a moment of humanity or courage, or dark gallows’ humour.

Occasionally an old soldier would admit to cruelty. More often they shared memories of the drudgery of the trenches, punctuated by terror. To walk those trenches – or at least one of the few fragments that remain, in Beaumont Hamel, say, zig-zagging through a meadow – is to walk in a haunted place.
Near Verdun, there’s a hill called Mort Homme. The name isn’t connected to the 1914-18 war, although the WW1 artillery battles fought there between the French and the Germans were so fierce that engineers found afterward that meters of the entire hilltop had been blown off. Local farmers still aren’t allowed to plough its soil because of the human remains.
The French memorial to the fallen of Mort Homme: “They did not pass”
When researching closer to home I found that WW1 objects as well as places had the power to take my breath away. Once I was in the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich Arsenal, investigating a particular week in October 1916 and a specific section of the Western Front near the occupied French town of Peronne. The archivist bought me out a trolley laden with original material from that time and that place, on top of which was a small moleskin notebook, written in pencil by an English major, the pages still stained with the mud of the Somme. I sat and stared at it for ages, feeling as if the battle itself was within touching distance.

Poppies and cornflowers planted by the local council on the road to Pozières in remembrance of Australian, Allied and German troops who died during fighting in the immediate area
Just before I returned for the second of four research visits to France, my mother died unexpectedly. It was a release: she’d been ill for a long time. Among the heirlooms she left to me was a forget-me-not locket with a photograph of her father, Frederick Clarke, in his WW1 uniform. A stern old lady stares out of the locket’s other frame – my great-grandmother, Selena, I believe.

My great-grandmother (I think) and her younger son, Frederick
Mum also left me a heart-shaped locket, which I think must have belonged to Selena as it contained the pictures of two uniformed soldiers, her sons. One is Frederick, who served in the 10th (Irish) Division as a medical clerk and stretcher bearer in the Dardanelles in 1916 and later in Salonika. The other is Frederick’s older brother, Thomas Clarke, a private in the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment, killed in action on the Somme, on July 30th, 1916.
I’d never seen Thomas Clarke’s picture before I inherited this locket. Mum thought he’d died near Ypres, and as far as I know, until my husband tracked down his regiment’s military records, no one in the family knew the details of his last day. The official War Diary and Intelligence Summary of that engagement is chilling:

“29/7/16 battle position in the MALTZ HORN TRENCH.
30/7/16 BATTLE began. Zero hour 4.45 am. The Battalion reached its objective, but suffered heavy losses, and had to evacuate its position owing to no reinforcements. At 12 noon the roll call was 7 officers and 43 men.
Total casualties were: Lieutenant-Colonel G. Rollo wounded.
KILLED. [Six officers named]
WOUNDED. [One officer named.]
WOUNDED AND MISSING. [Three officers named.]
Total casualties in Other Ranks: 425, of which 76 were killed, 172 wounded, 177 missing.”
Barry Cuttell’s account of that morning in 148 Days on the Somme is more detailed: “Morning mist prevented communication by visual signals, and almost all underground cables had been damaged. The only way of relaying messages to divisional headquarters was by runner, which would be a dangerous task once the fog had lifted as the runners had to cross the open ground between Guillemont and Trone’s Wood, over which German machine guns … enjoyed an excellent field of fire.
“While waiting for zero hour, 19/King’s Liverpool were subject to High Explosives and gas (shelling) … The 19/King’s in the centre was also badly hit by enemy fire, only a few men reaching the road. A little further north, a company of the 19/King’s succeeded in getting forward towards the south-eastern entry to Guillemont.” But later that morning, “Under the impression they were cut off, the 19/King’s withdrew from the edge of Guillemont.”
Thus out of 486 soldiers of the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment who advanced at dawn on that summer’s morning, north and east from the Maltz Horn Trench towards the German artillery and machine guns, only fifty remained standing seven hours later. The rest were wounded, dead or “missing”, that is, their bodies were either too badly mutilated for individual identification or otherwise unrecoverable from the battlefield.
The rolling fields where Thomas Clarke fell were bronzed with ripening wheat when I saw them, flanked by the once devastated trees of Trone’s Wood. My husband, a former Royal Marine, returned there on July 30th, 2016, to pay our respects, both on the battlefield and at his graveside in the Bernafay Wood cemetery. Perhaps his locket – the brother to the forget-me-not one I inherited – is buried there with him.
Bernafay Wood cemetery
Rowena House’s debut novel, The Goose Road, a coming-of-age quest set in France in 1916, will be published by Walker Books on April 5th. Website:

Thanks, Rowena, for your timely post. (Celia Rees will be back on 18th April)

Saturday, 17 March 2018

LANDSCAPES AND LOOKING: Reflections on Eric & James Ravilious. by Penny Dolan

This week, I am sorting through the too-many books here at home. I am culling some, and collecting others into “families”: shelves of books inspired by the same theme.

One bookcase is now home to a family of books about aspects of the English landscape, from Alison Utley’s A Country Childhood through to Oliver Rackham’s books about trees to George Ewart Evans Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay and more. Some we bought and some were given as gifts. Others, often the hardest to discard, were inherited.

Standing within the waves of scattered volumes, I start wondering what other titles should join this family: those by Robert Macfarlane, perhaps, or Roger Deakin? Or large-format books about landscape art or painting or photography? Where does the family of "landscape" end?

All at once I remember landscapes by a favourite artist: Eric Ravilious, painter, wood-engraver and designer. I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s retrospective Ravilious exhibition in 2015, and in the video below you can see James Russell, the curator, talking about Ravilious and his pictures and the “scratch” technique that gives the artists pieces such luminosity.

Entry was for strictly limited periods but, once inside, I avoided the exit. I wove my way up and back though the exhibition, living with the Ravilious paintings throughout a wonderful afternoon. His work seems full of rolling downs, of chalk cliffs overlooking the sea and of lanes winding through peaceful fields: an essentially English rural landscape. 
For some time, Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood (also an artist and wood engraver) were part of an influential group of figurative artists living around Great Bardfield in Essex, although the landscapes of the South Downs dominate many of his most popular images.

In 1939, Eric Ravilious signed up as a war artist with the Royal Marines, moving from one posting to another. He painted on land and from the moving decks of warships, watching the planes overhead. Ravilious brought the same sense of enigmatic light to all these harsher subjects: the airfields, the waiting planes and broken machinery, the men walking across wet sand to defuse a beached mine. 

He learned to fly and was sent to Iceland. On the first day of September 1942, he joined one of three planes sent out to search for a lost aircraft. Ravilious’s aircraft never returned and, four days later, he and the crew were reported lost at sea.

I am often intrigued by how the making of art can run in families, both through what could be called the genes and also through the family culture: those families where the possibility of making art is acknowledged and celebrated. So, very recently, hearing the same surname again, I was immediately interested.  

This “new” name was James Ravilious, Eric’s middle child. Born in 1939, James's only memory of Eric was running down the lane to hug his father as he left for war, and being given a threepenny coin from father's coat pocket. Sadly, after Eric's death, Tirzah’s already poor health worsened. She died, leaving her children orphans. James was only eleven. Growing up, he studied at St Martin’s School of Art, and afterwards taught painting and drawing in London. He fell in love and married a kindred spirit, Robin, in 1970. She was the daughter of the glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler, and she also shared a sorrowful childhood.

During 1972, James and Robin left London for the countryside, and around that same time, James abandoned drawing and painting and took up photography. They settled by the village of Beaford, in what was then a largely unspoilt area of North Devon. James started taking photographs to record the landscape, the seasons, community, customs and people, but what began as a short project grew into a seventeen-year archive covering the changing rural life of the area. James added to it as well, copying earlier photographs of the same area. All the collected images now form the Beaford historical archive, whose images have been exhibited around the world.

Whether James’ talent was inherited though the genes, or learned through the artistic culture of his parents and family friends, one thing stands out for me. James Ravilious’s black and white photographs seem to share the same quality of quiet observation and love of the light visible in his father’s work. They both seem filled with a quiet but real passion for the English landscape.

James Ravilious died too, in 1999, but his wife Robin has published an account of his life in 2017.  Here, also is a clip about an influential film that James Ravilious made about photography:

So how does this post link with History Girls and writing? 
James Ravilious met the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and was very influenced by him, adopting Cartier-Bresson's approach in his own photography, even down to using the same model of camera, a LeicaM3. James followed Cartier Bresson’s approach, including the rule about never posing a subject or cropping an image, so his subjects display a natural grace.

Additionally, James also took to heart Cartier-Bresson’s most fervent mantra:
There is such a thing as The Moment. 
It is mysterious, but if you look at several shots of the one scene, 
there is one that has it – as if there were a little poem there.

Today, revising a piece of fiction, I paused and pondered about this concept of that one essential mysterious “Moment”. Although painting and photography are visual art forms, I think that writers, too, try to choose that one specific “Moment”, try to write the one specific, telling scene, try to capture that one perfectly imagined visualisation in the hope that the magic (and poetry) will make the words live?

Oh, and then the scene after? And then the scene after that . . .?

I’m going back to sorting out my book families: it’s easier than art.

Penny Dolan

ps. A travelling exhibition, “Ravilious and Co”, about Eric and his contemporaries opens at Compton Verney Gallery, Warwickshire, in March 2018.

Friday, 16 March 2018

A big apple, and Europe on six floors - Sue Purkiss

I quite often go to Brussels, because I have family living there. While there a couple of weeks ago, I visited two museums that were new to me. The first, the House of European History, I'd never heard of before: I'd read about it in the free magazine they give you on the Eurostar, and it sounded interesting, so my son and I went off to visit it, knowing next to nothing about it.

The House of European History

It's in what's known as the Eastman Building, in the complex which also houses the European Parliament. An icy wind howled around our ears and numbed our fingers, and we were relieved to find the entrance - it took some doing: then a little startled to go through airport-style security. We realised straight away we hadn't allowed enough time to visit it; it covers six floors. Less than a year old, it's the most modern museum I've ever been to: there is nothing so old-fashioned as a label on any of the displays - you are given a tablet, and you have to use that to find out what you're looking at. It's fine when you get used to it, and of course it has the advantage that you can set it to any one of a number of languages - but I couldn't help feeling a little wistful for the simplicity of a label.


The museum focuses on the history of Europe since 1789. It doesn't do it country by country, but focuses on different strands, or significant events. But at the moment there is a temporary exhibition downstairs (which actually looked pretty permanent) of Europe's earlier history - which was interesting and had helpful audio recordings, to familiarise you with, for instance, the Thirty Years War, or the way that banking developed. This exhibition did have labels - though it was almost too dark to read them. I sound a little carping, but I don't mean too; the exhibits are imaginatively displayed, and it's intriguing to see history presented from different viewpoints. A concrete example of this was a display of maps in the permanent exhibition; one was a Chinese map, so naturally it showed China at the centre - and Europe, with all its multiplicity of countries, suddenly looked strangely small. Another was an upside-down view of the world, which showed the southern hemisphere at the top and the northern at the bottom. That was odd.

Shell cases from the First World War. I found it utterly bizarre that they were so beautifully decorated.

There were exhibition areas devoted to the First and Second World Wars, and one to the Shoah. There was a display about the legend of Europa, the nymph abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. I'm really not sure what that choice of names signifies.

And that's really all we had time for - but I will certainly go back. I know now (thanks, Wikipedia) that the museum cost vast sums of money, and is therefore the subject of controversy. I expect they said the same about the Louvre and the Prado, and I'm not sure where I stand on that. But I love the idea of a museum which looks at the story of Europe as a whole, and I'm impressed by the innovative design. As it happens, we heard just afterwards that my grandson is going there with his school, and the children have been asked to take along a story of immigration from their own family - and I like that too: that the museum is not merely a means of recording the past, but that it also reflects on and celebrates the disparate origins of the city's present inhabitants.

I hadn't intended to go to the second museum. This was the Magritte Museum. I'd planned to go to the Fine Art Museum - but I'd forgotten that most galleries etc are closed on Mondays; for some reason Magritte's doors were open. He must be one of Belgium's most famous artists, but I'm not much of a fan of surrealism, so I'd never bothered to go before. You'll be familiar with some of his paintings: a man with a bowler hat and an apple in front of his face, for instance. I still don't really understand surrealism - I suspect Magritte might say that's fine: you don't need to understand - just look. And that's all I did - all I could do, as I'd stupidly failed to spot the audio-guides at the entrance.

And as I walked round, I became more and more intrigued. I saw that he is incredibly skilled at the actual craft of painting: that apple, for instance, is exquisitely painted. He rarely uses texture: the surface is usually satin smooth. His portraits may have strange things going on, but they usually give a crystal-clear impression of the person who's his subject. Most of all, I liked the paintings he did not long before he died, which feature trees, the moon, and often a house. But the moon, impossibly, is in front of the foliage; and the sky is blue and sunny - but the house and garden are in darkness, lit perhaps by a lamp. They're beautiful, but eerie and a little unsettling: rather like the maps in the House of European History, they make the familiar seem strange - they make you see things differently.

'The Dominion of Light'. You can't see from this small image, but it is exquisitely painted: the reflections in the water are quite beautiful.
I was still thinking about Magritte as I travelled home the next day. I tried to take a picture of the Belgian countryside as it flew past, and when I looked at the image, I saw it contained reflections from the carriage and even the view from the windows opposite. Aha, I thought. There's a touch of Magritte there. It's good to find your perceptions have shifted.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Mikado and the Japanese Village in Victorian Knightsbridge - by Lesley Downer

‘We are gentlemen of Japan:
On many a vase and jar -
On many a screen and fan,
We figure in lively paint:
Our attitudes queer and quaint -
You’re wrong if you think it ain’t, oh!’

A hundred and thirty three years ago today, on March 14th 1885, The Mikado premiered at the Savoy Theatre in London. It was hugely successful and ran for a record 672 performances. As W.S. Gilbert wrote, he was inspired by a Japanese executioner’s sword hanging on the wall of his library. Setting the opera in distant and exotic Japan allowed him to satirise British politics and institutions by disguising them as Japanese. He was certainly not overly bothered with authenticity. As he wrote, ‘I believe the chief secret of practical success is to keep well within the understanding of the least intelligent section of the audience.’

Nevertheless he did take steps to give his opera a few Japanese elements. The Mikado really was the word used by the Japanese for their emperor and the Miya sama chorus, which Gilbert and Sullivan unashamedly filched, words and all, was the marching song of the Mikado’s troops as they advanced on Edo (soon to become Tokyo) in 1868, written by Yajiro Shinagawa, a samurai, and put to music by his geisha lover.

Gilbert also sent for a young woman from the Japanese Village which had just opened in Knightsbridge to give the Three Little Maids lessons in dance, deportment and use of the fan. He describes her as ‘a very charming young lady’ who came every day to put her charges through their steps and adds, ‘It was impossible not to be struck by the natural grace and gentle courtesy of their indefatigable little instructress, who, although she must have been very much amused by the earlier efforts of her pupils, never permitted them to see that the spectacle of three English ladies attempting for the first time a Japanese dance in Japanese dress had its ridiculous side.’ She must have taught in the Japanese way, by imitation, as she didn’t speak any English other than ‘Sixpence, please’, being a tea server, and the English actresses only knew ‘Sayonara’.
Kate Forster, Geraldine Ulmar and
Geraldine St Maur as
the Three Little Maids 1885 

It’s rather extraordinary to think that there was a Japanese Village with 100 residents in the middle of Victorian Knightsbridge. Japan had opened to the west only 27 years earlier, in 1858, when the first American consul, Townsend Harris, signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The prohibition forbidding Japanese to leave the country under threat of execution was lifted shortly afterwards.

People soon began to take advantage of the new freedom to go abroad. The first were official delegations and diplomats, plus students and circus artists. The first Japanese performing artists arrived in England in 1867. Led by a man called Matsui Gensui, the troupe consisted of twelve Japanese jugglers - seven men, two women, two boys and a girl. ‘The children are whirled around in huge humming tops,’ reported The Times. ‘The others walk on the slack rope and do the famous butterfly trick’ (which involved making paper butterflies appear to flutter at the end of a fan). Other acrobats and jugglers quickly followed.

Meanwhile, with the end of the old order, daimyo warlords and samurai found themselves broke and took to selling their swords and other heirlooms, to be snatched up at bargain prices by western collectors. Japanese artefacts flooded the west - screens, fans, kimonos, lacquerware, blue and white porcelain, vases, curved swords, netsuke and bonsai. Japonisme became the flavour of the day and fashionable ladies disported themselves in kimono, as in James Tissot’s distinctly un-Japanese-looking 1864 La Japonaise au Bain and Monet’s 1876 La Japonaise, later to cause a scandal at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
La Japonaise, Claude Monet 

The Japanese Village opened in January 1885 in Humphrey’s Hall, a large splendid building used for exhibitions, a kind of Victorian Earls Court. It was in Knightsbridge Green, near Albert Gate, a couple of blocks from Hyde Park, around the corner from Charles Digby Harrod’s recently established Harrods’ Stores Limited and a couple of streets behind Harvey Nichols, founded some fifty years earlier in 1831 by Benjamin Harvey and James Nichols.

Humphrey’s Hall was ‘very handsome’, open, light and ‘exceedingly well ventilated,’ with a single span arched roof, a raised skylight, white marble floors and a gallery at either end.

The Village was intended to enable visitors to imagine they really were in Japan. Running down the centre was a broad street of one or two storey Japanese houses built by Japanese workmen of bamboo, wood and paper, with sliding trellis shutters and translucent paper screens, with red lanterns hanging from shingled or thatched roofs. Behind this main road were five more streets of smaller shops where there were displays of pottery, wood and ivory carving, toys, fans, cabinets, inlaid metalwork, lacquerwork, textiles and embroidery, though nothing was for sale. Painted backdrops showed distant hills and snow-capped Mount Fuji. Here Japanese in traditional dress strolled up and down and engaged in all the activities of everyday life.
Photograph of the Japanese Village
by W.S.Gilbert

Everything was done to bring the Village to life. Visitors could watch artisans at work, then take tea, served on lacquered trays by kimono clad attendants, in two teahouses equipped with chairs in deference to stiff western joints. There was a Shinto shrine and at the far end a Buddhist temple where two priests officiated, though they steered clear of any rites that might offend their hosts’ Victorian sensibilities. There was also a Japanese garden.

In a second hall, the newer part of the building, there were displays of kendo, sumo wrestling and martial arts. There were rickshaws to ride in and ‘Japanese Musical and other Entertainments’ throughout the day. Posters promised Wire Walking, Pole Balancing, Top Spinning, The Great Ladder Feat, ‘The Gayshas or Dancing Girls’, Wrestling, Sword Exercise and much else.

All this was greeted with considerable consternation in Japan. The government there wanted to present themselves as an advanced civilisation on a par with the west, that should be treated on equal terms - whereas the Japanese Village was patronised largely because westerners thought of the denizens in their quaint costumes as medieval. The hundred performers had had a hard time getting passports because they were thought to be low class travelling players, not the sort of people the Japanese government wished to represent their country in the west. The government feared the Japanese Village would bring shame on Japan. As Ito Hirobumi, who became Japan’s first prime minister that same year, 1885, put it, ‘How can they take us seriously if we dress as novelty dolls?’
The Mikado, Casternet Club Montreal, 1886

In fact the hundred were made up of all sorts of people - samurai down on their luck, metalworkers, rickshaw pullers, artisans and dancers. The mastermind behind the project, a man who went by the splendid name of Tannaker Buhicrosan, emphasised that they would not take any geisha (contrary to what was promised on the posters); they would not do anything that would tarnish the image of Japan. Nevertheless a lot of applicants were refused passports and a couple travelled illegally without passports. Some got passports allowing them to go only as far as Hong Kong and had to leave Yokohama rather quickly before they were found out. A couple got passports to Paris then crossed the Channel to London.

The Village was a huge success. Cost of entry was one shilling (sixpence for children) and it was open 11 to 10 daily. Two hundred and fifty thousand visitors passed through the gates in the first few months. But then on May 2 1885 came disaster. The Village caught fire and burnt down, destroying the hall, damaging nearby Albert Gate Mansions and killing a Japanese woodcarver. It was immediately rebuilt bigger and better. While it was being rebuilt the troupe went to Berlin. By the end of the year there was a new Japanese Village with several streets of shops where goods were offered for sale. There were also two temples, ‘various free standing idols’, a pagoda and a pool spanned by a rustic bridge. The Sun Music Hall next door had been acquired by J.C.Humphreys just before the fire and now offered ‘astounding entertainments’ by Japanese artistes.

In all over a million people visited. The Japanese Village finally closed in June 1887. As for The Mikado, that continues to delight audiences to this day and has bestowed immortality on the 1868 marching song of the Mikado’s troops.

Lesley Downers latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

The poster of the Japanese Native Village is private collection. All other pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Hidden Gems

In my role as The Times' reviewer of historical fiction, I read a lot of books. I've also been a judge for the Historical Writers Association in two of the past four years. I estimate that over those four years I have read more than 300 works of historical fiction. Most engage, some disappoint, a few utterly transport me.  But there is, from what I can see, minimal correlation between excellence and sales.

I was thinking of this on Wednesday night. I was at a talk by the brilliant writer of comic spy novels, Mick Herron. Mick told us that he had made slight ripples with his first six books. He wrote primarily to amuse himself. His career is a story of late blooming. He changed publishers and his new outfit, John Murray have championed him onto the bestseller lists.

But this is, as he said, unusual these days. It is all about the debuts. Make waves with your first book and a decent career beckons. Make ripples, and you will bob unnoticed forever. It is, to the say the least, dispiriting.

In further musings, I thought of those writers of historical fiction whose books ought to thunk into the public consciousness with a tremendous splash. The underrated ones. The unsung ones. The ones whose prose shimmers in the darkness.

I thought I would share a few of those on my very subjective list.

Maria McCann.
Maria McCann is a historical ventriloquist. There is no writer of historical fiction I know whose words feel so steeped in time and place. She is the queen of authenticity. Her first two books were set in the seventeenth Century. Her debut, As Meat Loves Salt, is a dark tale set in the English Civil War. Her third, Ace, King, Knave, used thieves cant to bring the eighteenth century to life. McCann has garnered praise, fans, and even a slot on the Richard and Judy list - but this doesn't seem to have translated into an extensive audience. Why not? It's a mystery.

Philip Kazan.
Oh, how I love Philip Kazan's novels. My favourite is his last one, The Painter of Souls, about the early life of Filippo Lippi. It has everything you would want a in a book about early Renaissance art: beauty and an unmatched sense of place. But it also has a joyousness to it. Lippi loves life. It's easier I think, to write tragedy than joy. Kazan's next book is out next month. It's a departure - moving to the second World War in Greece. I'm almost scared to start it; I just keep looking at it and stroking it.

Livi Michael
The War of the Roses has enjoyed a flurry of popularity in recent times. There have been some big names tackling the interminable toing and froing of Henrys and Edwards. I am an admirer of Toby Clements' Kingmaker series. But Livi Michael's trilogy of books Rebellion, Succession and Accession ought to be widely lauded. They are astute, vibrant and beautifully written.

I asked around among my writer friends. Who should be more successful than they are? ME was the unspoken answer, but with typical generosity, other names were proffered. Jason Goodwin and Susan Fletcher were new names to me, but were championed by writers who know their stuff. Carol Birch, too, was mentioned. I adored her book Jamrach's Menagerie and yes, she definitely gets a spot on the list.

Who else should we be lauding, History Girls?

Sunday, 11 March 2018

1940s hairstyles - describing a character in bobs and curls

When I write I have to have a clear picture of how my characters look, including how they dress and style their hair. So before I began to write about the wartime era I looked into the sort of hairstyles that were around in the early 1940s. 

Hair was worn in a style that was feminine and soft, and always dressed off the face. It was often flat on top, so that a hat could be placed easily. One thing was sure - hair would not have been worn messy. A woman's hair had to always appear styled and neat. In the early 1940s, going out with "bed-hair" would have been social suicide. 

Hairstyles in the 1940s were fuller and longer than those of the 1930s and hair was cut in a rounded U-shape at the back, curving up towards the ears. There were always a lot of layers because the hair was usually worn in curls or soft waves, usually just below shoulder-length. Straight hair was simply unfashionable. 

To achieve the curls, girls who couldn't afford a weekly "wash and set" at the hairdresser would pin up their wet hair in bobby pins each night to make pin-curls. 
If you've ever been tempted, this is a good tutorial on how to set easy pin curls:

Although the loosely waved page-boy was a very popular style, so was a more sophisticated and set look such as those below. 
"ELEGANT SOPHISTICATION........ in these new coiffures" The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982) 17 August 1940: 39 (The Homemaker). Web. 9 Mar 2018 <>

As war rationing really began to bite, women still spent time and effort on their hairstyles, but no longer wanted lots of waves in intricate designs. Hair was worn shorter, in a practical style, still curly with a wave or two at the front. This sort of style looked good under small hats and military hats and could be hidden under turbans if the hair was dirty. One such style was the "Maria" style, which came in 1944 (

An iconic war-time hairstyle was the "Victory Roll". The name seems to have come from the corkscrew through the air by RAF pilots before landing, if they had successfully downed an enemy plane. The hair was divided at the front and curled up and out, in a rather aerodynamic form.

Here is Betty Grable, rocking a Victory Roll. 

And if you want to reproduce it, see this tutorial:

And how did I use bobs and curls to define my characters? Each of the heroines of my five novels to date has specific hairstyle. And just like a girl of the 1940s I found my inspiration in the hairstyles of the movie stars of the period.

A Stranger in my Street (2012) 

Personally, I don't think that there is any hairstyle more elegant than the loose pin curls we associate with 1940s Hollywood. 

I'm sure that is why sad, sweet Meg Eaton, the heroine of my first novel, A Stranger in my Street, has her light brown hair in a shoulder-length bob.   

In my mind's eye I saw Meg's hair as being similar to this gorgeous photo of Lauren Bacall. 

Taking a Chance (2013)

The heroine of my second novel, Taking a Chance, is Eleanor (Nell) Fitzgerald. As a fashion journalist with her own newspaper column giving tips on beauty and fashion, I thought that Nell was likely to style her hair into something a little more interesting than a bob. 

So I decided that her signature style would be the "unbroken roll." I got the idea for the hairstyle from an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly of 28 March 1942.

But even a fashion journalist has bad hair days. When her hair was not looking its best, Nell puts it into a snood. 

A snood is a lacy hairnet or crocheted bag (often homemade) that gathered up the hair so that it sits on the nape of the neck. 

Here is American actress Carole Lombard wearing a snood. 

Sometimes I wish that snoods were still in fashion, as they hide a lot of sins and (in my opinion) look very elegant. 

Apparently it was Vivian Leigh (or, rather, her costume designer in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind) who was responsible in no small part for the popularity of the snood in the 1940s. 

But that was not the whole story of course. A snood kept loose hair properly and safely confined when women were doing war work in factories. 

A Time of Secrets (2015)

My third novel is set among the military intelligence units of wartime Melbourne - the most elegant and European of the Australian cities. 

In the book, Stella Aldridge, the pretty, clerical heroine wears her thick, wavy ash-blonde hair at shoulder length and parted at the side. 

The side part was a feature of the 1940s, as it was the foundation for most styles of that era. 
I pictured Stella's hair as being similar to Katharine Hepburn's thick mop.

Ambulance Girls (2016) 

Lily Brennan, the Australian ambulance driver who narrates the first book in my Ambulance Girls trilogy, which is set in the London Blitz, has very curly hair and dimples. This, combined with her small stature, gives her a bit of a “Shirley Temple” look, which she detests. 

Not the most sophisticated hairstyle, but naturally curly-haired girls will understand the difficulty Lily had in making her curls behave.
The very sophisticated Celia Ashwin, “a thoroughbred, from the auburn hair framing her smoothly oval face in a loose bob to her aristocratically narrow hands and feet,” is the heroine of my most recent novel. 

Celia is not impressed when another character likens her to the oh-so-glamourous Rita Hayworth, but I did have the beautiful titian-haired Rita in mind when imagining Celia's full page-boy hairstyle and side part. 

Isn’t she gorgeous?