Wednesday, 23 April 2014

THE DAY THE WAR ENDED, by Leslie Wilson

My grandfather's WW1 medal, the one everyone
got for taking part, with the black-red-white
Imperial colours.

Last year I was asked to contribute a story to an anthology that does what it says on the tin: 'Stories of World War One.' It is published this month by Orchard and has turned out to be a brilliant collection that I am proud to be part of. Full of wonderfully-written, thoughtful stories. Tony Bradman, the editor, asked me to write about the German side of WW1 for 10-14 year-olds. I demurred: I said the German experience of the trenches wasn't so different from the British experience (except that, by all accounts, their trenches were a bit better built and equipped), but Tony said what he really wanted was a story about a young girl in Berlin during wartime. That seemed much more attractive and interesting, and there was a bit of family history I could integrate. None of my English family fought in World War 1 - except for Uncle Sam, my great-aunt Nellie's husband (who she had, it was said in the family, reclaimed from a life of Vice and Drink). He was an ex-soldier, so he must have fought, but I never knew him or heard any stories about his wartime experience.

On the other hand, my German grandfather was a teenage soldier (he joined up, as a trainee non-commissioned officer, when he was seventeen) and my German grandmother lost two of her brothers in the war, including her favourite brother, Leo.

German soldiers in a trench. Photo: Bundesarchiv
The other thing I really wanted to do was to write about the German revolution, which occurred just two days before the Armistice was signed. I have discovered that a great many British people don't know anything about the German revolution; when I've asked them they've said that they vaguely supposed the Kaiser was removed by the Allies, as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

This was not the case. There has been a bit of a spat between historians recently, and what it has usefully opened up is that in Imperial Germany, in 1914, all adult males had the vote (though you still hear people suggest that the Kaiser's regime was as bad as the Nazis. That is viewing WW1 through the prism of WW2, a great mistake, historically). Many of the British Tommies who fought and died did not. But just as in Britain, before the Parliament Act of 1911, the dead hand of the Lords lay on the Commons, in Germany the Kaiser and his ministers kept the Reichstag  (The Parliament) firmly on the constitutional leash.

The German Social Democrats had been gaining ground however. They needed to; as in Britain, there was an enormous gulf between rich and poor and the workers in the factories were badly exploited. The slums of Berlin were as big a disgrace as the slums of London, and when during the war the British blockade cut off food supplies, the poor suffered worse than anyone else and unrest grew. There was a winter called the 'Kohlrabi winter' when kohlrabi was literally almost all there was to eat. Though I like kohlrabi as a salad vegetable, I would hate to have to live on it.Towards the end of the war the Kaiser's government tried to save itself through the carrot of parliamentary reform; the military government was replaced by a democracy and various electoral and economic reforms were promised. But it was too late.
Sailors in revolt: the placard says SOLDIERS' COUNCIL; LONG LIVE
THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC. Photo: German federal archive
The revolution began in October 1918 (only a year after the Russian Bolshevik revolution), when the sailors of the German navy refused to go out and fight the British in the channel. Arrests were made, but there was further unrest and demonstrations: Freedom and Bread was the slogan. The military fired on the demonstrators, killing seven people and severely injuring twenty-nine. The demonstrators fired back. The protest became an uprising, spreading all over Germany. It was very much a grass-roots revolution, with the people forming 'workers' councils' and 'soldiers' councils.' I can't put my finger on chapter and verse right now, but I am pretty sure that at the Front whole regiments threw down their arms and surrendered. They were motivated by war-weariness and a revulsion from the pointless slaughter, but many also were sick of fighting other 'small people' just like themselves, at the behest of the military/capitalist/aristocratic authorities. On the 9th November (a recurringly fateful date in 20th-century German history) the Revolution came to Berlin.

Demonstration Berlin 1918. Photo: German Federal Archive
The fourteen year-old young girl in my story has a brother at the front, and is falling in love with a bright worker's son, Lukas, who lives near her in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. Her elder brother, Leo, was killed at Verdun, like my own great-uncle Leo. She is aware of the war-weariness and really wants her brother Paul to survive, yet is reluctant to let go of the idea of her eldest brother's heroic sacrifice. Lukas gets her to join one of the marches, and she ends up witnessing the Social Democrat Scheidemann announcing the Revolution and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, from the balcony of the Reichstag.
Before I wrote the story, I spent some time reading the war-time diaries of the great print-maker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, who lived in Prenzlauer Berg and lost one of her own sons early in the war. Honest and anguished, they gave me a handle on what it felt like to go through those times. Kollwitz was a Social Democrat, not a rightist, and certainly didn't reverence the military or Kaiser Wilhelm, but like many people, when war happens, she was swept along by what Vera Brittain called 'those white angels who fight so naively on the side of destruction.' Ideas of self-sacrifice, of courage in the face of loss (and both her sons went willingly to the Front), of endurance and solidarity with the nation. And one must remember that the main threat the Germans saw in the war to their freedom was Russia, and that means Tsarist Russia with its secret police, its prison camps in Siberia, its autocratic government and its pogroms.
The Grieving Parents; monument by Kollwitz to her dead son Peter,
in Vladslo, Belgium. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The other tremendous value of Käthe Kollwitz's diaries was that they gave me a day by day account of what was going on, so I owe her a great debt of gratitude. From the memoir of Sebastian Haffner, called in German Geschichte eines Deutschen, and in English Defying Hitler, I got some more thoughtful insight into the problems posed by the Revolution, and also that invaluable and hard to come-by information, what the weather was like. It was foggy. I thought that was a marvellous metaphor for the uncertainty of the future for defeated Germany.
The trouble was that the new Republic was sabotaged from the start by the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. They had announced that the war would end; the German envoy was already in France discussing the Armistice; and the only way they could have got a better settlement was by fighting on, which was impossible. So they told the envoy to sign. This was the basis of the 'stab in the back' legend, which was so useful to Hitler later on, and yet, looking at the circumstances, I cannot see what else the new Government could have done.
I have read historians stating that this treaty was perfectly 'fair' because Germany had imposed just as harsh a treaty on Russia a year earlier, or else because Germany began the war (though in fact it was Austria who began it). They then go on to say that because the treaty was fair, it couldn't possibly be blamed for the rise of Hitler. This strikes me as an irrational and slightly childish argument.
Fairness is not the issue here: what matters is cause and effect. Though all countries were hit by post-war depression, it hit Germany worse, because she had lost the industrial base in the Ruhr to France. The treaty imposed enormous reparations on Germany, while depriving her of the means to pay them. The result was hunger, the traumatic hyper-inflation of 1919, when people had to spend their wages within hours before they became valueless, and my grandmother's family once exchanged their grand piano for a loaf of bread - and a fragile economy. If you want to understand what those times felt like, read Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now? (Kleiner Mann, was nun?).
Five-million Mark note. Photo: Boeing 720 via Wikimedia Commons.
When the double-whammy of the Wall Street crash hit, those who had hated the Revolution from the start thought democracy had failed Germany, and looked for an alternative. Leftists despaired of capitalism and voted Communist. Those inclined to vote for the Right looked to the nascent Nazi movement, which promised the restoration of prosperity and order, which meant no more pitched battles on the streets.
Going back to November 1918, even if it had been sensible to pulverise the German economy as revenge for 'starting the war,' the war had been started and conducted bythe Imperial government, which was no longer in place. The Germany that was punished was the new democracy. Clearly, those who made the treaty, especially the French, could not know what was to come, but the lesson was learned and put into practice by the victors of World War II, who took care to let Germany build herself up again.
This may seem too much weight of history and foreboding for a short story for teenagers to carry, but I had five thousand words, which helps, and also what matter most are the feelings; grief, fear, hope, humiliation, hunger. A bespectacled boy comes out of the fog and says: 'We'll have to fight them again'; an old Conservative, tears running down his face, accuses the Socialists of betraying Germany with the treaty; a young working-class man who has lost his right arm during the war, shouts back, furious with the military ethos of Wilhelmine Germany which he blames for the conflict. And people are still queueing up for scarce food. Those were the feelings which drive voting patterns, then as now.
And on the Western Front, shedding tears of fury that day, was a young skinny man with a dark moustache who was to rise to the head of his party at just the most hideously appropriate moment.
Hitler, on right, with fellow soldiers in WW1. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Town That Didn't Stare by Kate Lord Brown

The Hero: 
Flight Lieutenant Richard Hope Hillary
1919 - 1943

Fear no more the heat o' the sun; 
Nor the furious winter's rages, 
Thou thy worldly task hast done, 
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages; 
Golden lads and girls all must, 
As chimney sweepers come to dust. 

- William Shakespeare

Few lads were more golden than Richard Hillary. One of the 'Brylcreem Boys', an Oxford grad, who is described as 'mobile, graceful, beautiful, coolly objective'. He was tall, slim, fair - a knight of the modern round table, whose battles were fought in the air. He wanted to fight and die on his own terms. His brief, and glorious life was lived on an heroic scale, his character at once brave and selfless yet full of hubris. I first read 'The Last Enemy' researching 'The Beauty Chorus', along with Richey's 'Fighter Pilot' and Wellum's 'First Light', trying to get under the skin of my wounded, male pilot protagonist, Beau. All are extraordinary first hand accounts of what it is like to be at war - the stress, fear and ecstasy of being a fighter pilot, the sense of only really belonging in your squadron. Something about Hillary stuck with me, niggling away at the back of my mind in the way that the seed of a story does. He was certainly tenacious in life - he pursued the publisher Dickinson relentlessly until he gave in and published Hillary's account of the war. I'm not sure any of us would storm into a publisher's office and refuse to leave until he read the manuscript - on the spot, while we waited - these days.

'The Last Enemy that shall be destroyed is death'

Hillary wrote 'The Last Enemy' during World War II, while he was recovering from horrific injuries sustained in the air. He was shot down on 3rd Sept 1940, and became one of the legendary NZ surgeon McIndoe's 'guinea pig club' in East Grinstead. McIndoe, know to 'his boys' as 'The Boss', pioneered facial reconstructive surgery at Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital (or 'the beauty shop' as the boys called it), and part of the convalescence involved going out into the local community, visiting local pubs, dating local girls. East Grinstead became known as 'the town that didn't stare'.

The surgeon - Archibald McIndoe

From the biographies of Hillary, he evidently fell into the category of 'fly fast, live faster' pilots - his injuries did not affect his success with women, and during a tour of the US to drum up support for the war effort in 1941, he had a passionate affair with the movie star Merle Oberon. When his US hosts cancelled his planned public appearances, Hillary coolly said he had 'a good face for radio'. It didn't stop Oberon falling for him.

The Lover - Merle Oberon

When I decided to write about this moment in time for the RNA anthology, it made sense to focus on Hillary's romantic history, rather than his well-documented heroism. His adoration of his best friend Peter Pease's wife, Denise Maxwell Woosnam, who he called 'the most beautiful person I've ever seen' was well known. Then there was his well documented affair with Mary Booker. I began to wonder about the other, faceless women who fell under Hillary's spell. He may have lacked his old beauty, but not his old manner. The East Grinstead hospital was full of nurses and civilian volunteers. The nurses looked down on the VADs, declaring that they just wanted to sit on the bedsides and hold the officers' hands. Hillary himself wrote that he was 'a little in love with Sue and Anne ... Bertha preferred a cup of tea to talk of sex during the night'. Then there was kind Sister Hall, who gave the men brown make up: 'you want to look your best for the girls'. Who were these women? Once the seed of a story takes root, and your imagination begins to play fast and loose with history, you begin finding all these 'what if' questions shooting up, don't you? What if a young volunteer fell head over heels in love with him? What if two people from vastly different backgrounds were thrown together? What if she was just as deeply wounded by the war, but her scars were not on the surface? 

From those questions that wouldn't go away emerged 'The Language of Flowers' about a young, damaged girl who brought flowers to a young, damaged airman's hospital ward. What shines through in the accounts of the hospital are instantly understandable feelings of bewilderment, loneliness, a hunger for humanity and humour. And there, in the middle of all this emotion was Hillary, with his red pyjamas the nurses nicknamed his 'passion pants' - and his 'ghoul' like face, with 'livid eyes, lips in a grimace, with a cigarette holder and hands in lint bandages'. Such contrast, tragedy and romance - the story practically wrote itself. I've always loved 'Brief Encounter', so the train station at East Grinstead was the obvious place to begin their story.

Hillary's real story ends with predictable, tragic grace. He begged, badgered and fought to get back in the air, and a few short weeks after 'The Last Enemy' was published, Hillary was flying again. He died, aged 23, shot down in flames in 1943. His life is the stuff of myths - the beautiful golden boy transformed into a disfigured creature, whose legend soared again in death, beauty restored for eternity.

The Friend - Arthur Koestler

His friend, Arthur Koestler, wrote about the timeless, instinctive appeal of stories like Hillary's in 'The Birth of a Myth: In Memory of Richard Hillary'. 'A myth may grow and appeal to us,' he wrote, 'may make us respond like tuning forks to the vibration of the right chord - and yet we may not know why.' Perhaps there are historical figures you have responded to like this? Hillary, Koestler pointed out, was 'burnt thrice' - 'after the first time they patched him up and made him a new face. It was wasted, for the second time his body was charred to coal ... They burned him a third time on the 12th January 1943 (in cremation), and the coal became ashes.' Just like all the golden lads' and lasses'.

'The Language of Flowers' has just been published as part of 'Truly Madly Deeply' the RNA's new anthology, and in a shorter ebook of historical stories with Anna Jacobs and Sarah Mallory.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The First Georgians by Imogen Robertson

Gerorge I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Elector

Britain is going 18th century crazy. I know that because I read it in The Times. 

We have good reason to take this chance to pay a bit more attention to this crucial and often over-looked period of British history. 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian Succession when the British Crown, after doing a surprising number of back-flips through the family tree and landing on the lap of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, slid thence onto the head of her eldest son Georg Ludwig, who became George I on the death of Queen Anne. 

Just to confirm how important this is, Lucy Worsely is presenting a series on BBC4 about the Georgians starting on 1 May, the Historic Royal Palaces are having a Glorious Georges Season; the V&A are focussing on the leading architect of the period, William Kent and the music of Handel is going to be everywhere.  

If you want to be part of the cognoscenti, then I heartily recommend a visit to The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. I also recommend a certain series of brilliant mysteries set towards the end of the century, but that probably doesn’t come as a great shock. Theft of Life is out 22 May, by the way.

A Natural History of English Insects
Eleazar Albin (c. 1680- c. 1742)
Writing for this blog brings many pleasures, and this time it was the chance to have breakfast at Buckingham Palace and get a preview of the exhibition in the company of its curators, including Desmond Philip Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. He's a brilliant communicator, and they do a mean bacon croissant, the Royals. I had a lovely time. All the items here are from the Royal Collection, and many of the pictures, pieces of furniture and even the silver gilt tableware are in regular use in the Working Palaces. 

‘We have to replace whatever we take, of course,’ one of the curators told me. ‘We can’t just leave a gap.’ It gave me a pleasurable image of members of the Royal Family being in a constant state of mild confusion, putting down a glass on the coffee table and thinking, hang on, didn’t that used to be white marble, or wandering down to breakfast and finding one of the portraits has changed clothes and is now looking in the opposite direction. Then again, that’s probably not the oddest thing about being an HRH.

Johann Sebastian Müller (1715-1792) (engraver)
It’s a great little exhibition, complete with a education room done out as a Coffee House where you can eavesdrop, via tricorn hats with built-in headphones, to the gossips in St James’s Park, and thumb through copies of the Gentleman’s Magazine. It opens with a room of portraits to explain the succession from Anne to George I, and by clever use of a pair of images in the corridor into the first large exhibition space, shows the violent tensions underlying it. On one wall is an engraving of Britannia and Liberty crowning George I, and stamping down Catholicism in the process, and on the other a very elegant oil of the other Royal Family in exile, James II and a young Old Pretender - if you see what I mean.

The exhibition also gives us the chance to see some of the paper treasures of the Royal Collection and the juxtaposition of a display of plans of Royal Palaces with a collection of battle maps, including that of Culloden remind us of those tensions. 

Melchior Baumgartner (1621-86) (clockmaker (case))
In the rooms that follow, visitors get to see some of the decorative works and paintings the first Georges collected or had made for them. The Old Masters include a superb Holbein, and a there is a ridiculous rock crystal and enamel dust-magnet cabinet which plays various Handel tunes, and turns out to be a clock. 

 There are side rooms with displays of miniatures and cameos, botanical works, and cases of fancy wear - snuff boxes, porcelain etc, all of which suggest the wit, sensuality and confidence of the Georgian artists. The pair of Canelettos showing a panoramic view of the Thames from Somerset House is worth the price of admission alone, and in the final room there is a silver gilt dinner service that I think would look excellent in my flat. Particularly the golden crab salts.  Just in case Queen Elizabeth is wondering what to get me for Christmas. 

William Hogarth (1697-1764)
Harlot's Progress 
It’s important to remember the shadows behind all this delicious flim-flam. So much of the wealth that poured into Britain, funding a flowering of the arts and sciences, was the result of colonialism at its worst and the turning of slavery into a profitable industry. The rich and poor lived side by side, but in completely different worlds. I’m glad to say that while celebrating the Georgians, the exhibition doesn’t ignore those contradictions. Hogarth gets a room of his own and he was an exemplar of these paradoxes which make the period so fascinating. He painted his confident, charming portraits of his contemporaries - the example here being the portrait of David Garrick and his wife - at the same time as he was chronicling the horrors of urban poverty and the hypocrisies of the elite - the greed and ruthless use of force which now fills our galleries and museums with such civilised treasures. 

St James's Park and the Mall 
British School c.1745
The exhibition runs until 12th October 2014, but for those who can’t visit in person it’s worth pointing out the superb website. You can see high quality images of all the items in the exhibition, watch videos introducing the period, and listen to Robert Woolley playing Handel on the harpsichord made for Frederick, Prince of Wales. 

All the images above are from the site, and clicking on them will take you to the Royal Collection's information page on each. For those in town, there are various events, including lots of music, linked to the exhibition.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Researching Girl with a White Dog: Guest Post

Marie-Louise Jensen: Today on the History Girls blog, I'm pleased to introduce Anne Booth, author of Girl With A White Dog, which I reviewed here on the 15th of this month. Anne has written a fabulous guest post for us today. Welcome, Anne!

Anne Booth: I feel very honoured to have been asked to write something for this blog, as I have been following it and enjoying it for ages, and I was very proud that my debut book ‘Girl with a White Dog’ was reviewed on it last week, and loved what was said about it. Thank you so much!

I was wondering what I could say for this post, and I thought I might write about my research and influences. I thought I would start with a quote that frequently came into my head during the research for ‘Girl with a White Dog’, and I think, motivated my story telling.

1) ‘Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.’

I realised when I started writing this post that I still wasn’t sure who wrote it, and whilst trying to find out just now, discovered that it has been attributed to a number of people, including Winston Churchill. However, (and I trust ‘The History Girls’ to put me right if this is incorrect) it seems to be by Edmund Burke (1729-1797) whose work I remember reading when I was at university 30 years ago.

Looking at the other quotes from him, I realise that other things he said may well have lodged in my unconscious and have also driven my story, like:

2) ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

This seems to be a very apt quote for anyone looking at the rise of Nazism, and is something I believe to be true in life in general, and in particular in reference to the way the disabled and the sick, immigrants and ‘the other’ are being treated in our nation today. I read about the rise of ant-semitism and the far right in Europe, the links that ‘nice’ UKIP have with far right groups in the European Parliament, and I worry.

I see now that I practically paraphrased this following quote at the end of ‘Girl with a White Dog’:

3) ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.’

I know that I can easily get overwhelmed when I read about bad things happening and think that things are hopeless, and remembering that quote, though forgetting who said it, has helped me over the years to avoid despair. So I have Ben’s grandmother on page 124 of ‘Girl with a White Dog’ telling the children

‘Please, do not despair. Do not think that kindness is worthless, or because you cannot do everything, you should do nothing.’

So here are three quotes which I probably first read 30 years ago, when I was past my childhood, by a man whose name I had forgotten, and which seem to have helped form my attitude to the past and its relevance to the present. I had never realised how influential Edmund Burke’s thoughts have been on my life and perhaps I should have acknowledged him at the back of ‘Girl with a White Dog’ ! I have to be careful though. I can’t remember what else he wrote, and I want to re-read him to see if I agree with everything else he said. I don’t want to say Edmund Burke has been a major influence on my life until I find out more about him!

Steve Biddulph, the educational psychologist, on page 4 of his excellent book ‘The Secret of Happy Children’ says that

'...hypnosis is an everyday event. Whenever we use certain patterns of speech, we reach into the unconscious minds of our children and program them, even though we have no such intention......’

He says

‘Parents, without realising it, implant messages in their child’s mind, and these messages, unless strongly contradicted, will echo on for a child’s lifetime.’

(I give you the Amazon link as you can look inside and read the first pages. It is an excellent book which I strongly recommend getting from wherever you get your books from!)

Imagine then, the power of words explicitly taught to children in Nazi Germany as they were growing up, as illustrated by a display of Nazi textbooks and toys at the Jewish Wiener Library in London. This exhibition had a major influence on my book.

Dr. Lisa Pine’s wonderful history books ‘Education in Nazi Germany’

and ‘Nazi Family Policy’

were vital for my research, and I consciously drew on them for Chapter Fourteen of ‘Girl with a White Dog’, when Ben’s Gran is telling the children about what it was like growing up in Nazi Germany. I actually saw a copy of the poodle-pug-dacshund-pinscher book mentioned by Ben’s Gran, in the Wiener Library exhibition.

So, in my unconscious were (amongst other things!) quotes from Edmund Burke, and I consciously set out to read as many history books as I could about what it was like to grow up in Nazi Germany. I read political history, social and economic history, and books based on oral history. I watched documentaries and films. I read as many children’s books - fiction and non-fiction- about the war as I could, including some reviewed on this very blog. I have an M.A. in Children’s Literature from Roehampton Institute, where I studied part-time from 1993-95; I first studied German fairytales and first learnt about Bruno Bettleheim’s book ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ on that course.

I went to Germany and to Dachau itself. I visited the concentration camp. I went to Dachau town and (with the help of my German-speaking friend ) talked to people in the Art Gallery. I prayed in a Catholic church in Dachau, and wondered about my fellow Catholics who prayed there during the war, and their feelings about the concentration camp on the outskirts of their town, and the starving prisoners they saw marched through their streets. Did they feel guilty? Powerless? Would I have done anything if I had been in their position?

There were other, even more fundamental influences that guided how I told the story and related to the History.

Things like the fact that I am myself the daughter of immigrants, and have found myself present in conversations where people are criticising immigrants in front of me, taking it for granted that I am English for generations back. And that makes me feel worried. I try to always challenge them, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think ‘what if I was a German Jew in Nazi Germany, and the government was explicitly telling my neighbours over and over again for years and years that I was the cause of their troubles? How long would neighbourliness last under such sustained propaganda? When would challenging such talk be infinitely more dangerous than risking simply creating an embarrassing pause in a conversation?’

l also found myself asking - ‘what if I wasn’t a German Jew at all? What I was an Aryan German in Nazi Germany, and if I questioned the government I could be punished? Would I have found relief in blaming my family’s problems on others, whilst knowing I was regarded as blameless and ‘hard-working?’ I must at least acknowledge that I would be tempted. I am not a rebel by nature.

And then, now, looking at our nation’s economic difficulties, I see in our headlines today the same tendency to blame the outsider. We have the same rhetoric we saw in the early years of the Nazis - respectable people against scroungers, nationals against immigrants, We are constantly being told that we are being bled dry or cheated by sections of our own people - we have headlines about people pretending to be disabled, or lying or cheating, or simply about the cost of looking after the elderly and the sick, and how our health service cannot sustain this, whilst we can still afford to pour vast amounts of money into weapons.

And so in my story I have Jessie and her Aunt Tess soaking this propaganda up, hypnotised by the stories we are being told by our press and politicians.

But because I don’t want to despair, or cause others (especially children) to despair, I want to go back to Steve Biddulph and Edmund Burke.

I want to remind us of what Steve Biddulph, the educational psychologist says:

‘Fortunately...hypnosis can be countered if the subject becomes aware of the process.(p.4)

and in the light of that I want to re-present Edmund Burke’s saying as

‘Those who learn from the past are freed to not repeat it.’

I really hope and pray that the way history is dealt with in ‘Girl with a White Dog’ will help readers - child or adult- be more aware of when they are being manipulated or hypnotised, and to be able to stop past terrible mistakes being repeated in the present and future.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

JOHN MUIR, environmentalist, nature lover: by Theresa Breslin

Image Copyright Scarpa

John Muir, considered to be the founder of the world’s National Park movement, is one of my big heroes.
He was born in Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland, where you can visit his home and museum, and there is also a rather lovely statue of him on the main street of the town. 

His family left Scotland when he was eleven years old. They moved to Wisconsin, and it was in the USA that he was particularly active in his conservation work.Although he lived over a hundred years ago he recognised the potential destructive force of increasing industrialisation 
and actively campaigned to preserve the natural landscape. 

He is widely revered in the USA as the founding father of their National Parks. I visited the John Muir Park just outside San Francisco, home of some stunning redwood trees
Image Copyright Scarpa

Image Copyright Scarpa

An inventor, naturalist, artist, mountaineer, geologist, glaciologist and writer, John Muir spent his life exploring wild places and it is due to his efforts that there are still a lot of wild places left for us to enjoy.

2014 is the 100th anniversary of his death and to help young people develop a deeper understanding and awareness of the natural environment a graphic novel John Muir, Earth – Planet, Universe has been published by Scottish Book Trust

The novel, based on the key moments and life adventures of John Muir, is illustrated by artist William Goldsmith and written by award-winning author Julie Bertagna. 

Julie Bertagna is the perfect fit to be the author of the book. Passionate about the environment, she wrote the hugely popular trilogy of books - Exodus, Zenith, and Aurora - about a future flooded world.

When I asked her about writing the John Muir book Julie said:

There's a lot of appeal for children today in the story of a Scottish boy from Dunbar who grew up to be a world famous global explorer and adventurer -  an American hero who ended up on stamps and coins, with all sorts of places and things named after him, from mountains to millipedes.

As a youngster, John was a real wild spirit who escaped every moment he could from schoolwork and Bible studies to roam outdoors, getting into scraps and all sorts of mischief. Dunbar is where his love of nature began so we've included funny, quirky stories from his early life that proved a real hit with when we trialled the book in schools across Scotland.

Young people today are deeply interested in the future (as seen in the current craze for dystopian, futuristic books and films, including my Exodus trilogy about an environmentally-devastated world) and as the first modern environmentalist John Muir speaks to them about the kind of world they want - and don't want - to live in.

My aim was to tell John Muir's story in a lively and page-turning way, combining powerful images (by illustrator William Goldsmith) with Muir's own words that would resonate with a young audience - the head-spinning idea that they are citizens of the universe, spinning through space with all the other planets and stars, and as the up-and-coming new caretakers of the Earth, its future soon will be in their hands.

 Another major event of the anniversary year will be the opening of the John Muir Way on the 21st of April. Stretching from his birthplace in Dunbar, through Scotland’s first National Park at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, to the River Clyde and Helensburgh, it carves a path through the splendid scenery of central Scotland.  

There’s a whole John Muir Festival going on just now with walks conducted by the Ramblers Association plus a street ceilidh and firework festival finale at Loch Lomond on the evening of 26th April.

See you there!  

NOTE: There will also be an accessible pdf version of John Muir, Earth – Planet, Universe available to download from
as well as teaching support notes and pupil activities which accompany the book.

Images and Photographs Copyright:  © SCARPA
Book Covers via publishers


Friday, 18 April 2014

The Road Goes Ever On... Celia Rees

So begins The Walking Song, composed by Bilbo Baggins and sung in J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and sometimes in the Lord of the Rings. They do a lot of walking in both, so a walking song must have come in handy. Both books are quests and quests often involve a lot of journeying, often on foot, sometimes on horseback. Quests never seem slow moving, although the characters might move slowly. That is because being on the move allows things to happen. Journeying allows the characters to have new experiences; to learn more about the world and about themselves. 

Quests and journeying are most often associated with fantasy but they are the mainstay of all kinds of fiction. If you want things to happen, send your main character on a journey, voluntarily, or not. If they don't want to go, have them kidnapped.

I often take my characters on journeys. It gets them out of the house, out of their comfort zone, puts them on their mettle, presents them with new challenges, new places to see and new characters with whom they can fight or fall in love. In Witch Child, Mary goes to America and then off into the wilderness in Sorceress,. In Pirates! Nancy leaves Bristol for the West Indies and in the company of her friend Minerva, she sails the seven seas. In Sovay, the eponymous heroine journeys first to London and then to Paris.  In The Fool's Girl, Violetta travels from Illyria to London. I don't write about stay at home kind of girls.

Sending your heroines (or heroes) on journeys demands a certain kind of research: modes of travel (beyond shanks's pony), travel times - how long to x from y using z transport, where to stop on the way.  This, in turn, leads the writer to a certain kind of writing, in particular travel journals. It is always best to read a contemporary account of the kind of journey that you want your character to make if said account is available, particularly if it is written by an excellent writer, as these accounts often are. Daniel Defoe's  A Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies , for example, or Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, Being the Diary of Celia Fiennes

Memorial to Celia Fiennes
Even if the intrepid traveler is not an exact contemporary of your fictional character, I always reason that, until quite recently, travel didn't change markedly for quite long periods of time. Fifty years here or there doesn't make a whole lot of difference. The detail and insights such writers provide are far more important than a slavish adherence to dates.

Research has introduced me to a whole new area of literature and one I have come to thoroughly enjoy, especially since I don't have to stir from chair or study to have the most fantastic adventures, visit places, landscapes, cityscapes, even countries that are not there any more. Books like Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her account of her travels in Yogoslavia before the Second World War, or Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water where he describes his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, allow us to time travel, which is what the writer of historical fiction wants to do most of all.

 Books like these, or Robert McFarlane's The Old Ways make me want to pack an old knapsack like Bilbo Baggins and be on my way, off to find my own adventures, but if that's not possible,  and it rarely is, then reading about someone else doing it is the next best thing. The other best thing is writing about it: taking the journey in your own head, with someone like Patrick Leigh Fermor or Celia Fiennes guiding your every step.

Does anyone else have favourite travelling companions of a literary kind?

Celia Rees

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Children and Puppet Thing - by Penny Dolan

Why children, I wonder?   

On Monday, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Shakespeare Puppet show mentioned by Louisa Young in her History Girls “Fear of Puppetry Overcome” post a few weeks back.

I took two children - 7 & 10 - and the noon-time show was the first public performance. 

As well as displaying and demonstrating different kinds of puppets, the script was cleverly woven through with lines from Shakespeare’s great plays to introduce his phrasing and poetry, and very enjoyable it all was.

However, the quantity of very small children in the audience set me thinking. Why, here in England, are puppets almost always seen as something for young audiences? Even those magnificent Warhorse puppets – like the horse on display in the V&A Theatre Gallery – originated in a story written for children.

I started wondering whether this attitude had any historical link. Might our national response to puppets go back to the Reformation, and the destruction and defacing of so much religious statuary and images? Did that great ferment turn all forms of images into suspicious objects, especially any used in processions or plays and likely to deceive souls by seeming "alive"? 

Did whatever puppets existed back then – in whatever was street theatre or as part of mystery plays -  become deceits of the devil and casualties of the Puritan view? Or were puppets far too close to  the venerated icons and miraculous statues of enemy Papist practices, and all those other suspicious customs of “foreigners”?  

(European puppet companies still have a tradition of producing shows for adults as well as for children, and many other world traditions are intended for all ages.)

Would the fear of witchcraft or, worse, accusation of witchcraft, make people shun puppets in case such objects were seen as evidence of their crimes?  Were children's "poppets" and "babies", used to encourage mothering skills, seen as innocent when puppets themselves were not?

And if so, does that mean that Henry VIII, Good Queen Bess and Old Noll killed the English love of puppets? Note: I'm just wondering here. I don’t know, not yet. Do you?

However puppets are still around, hanging on at the edge of our culture.  We still have Punch and Judy shows, even though the rascal originated in Italy. Occasionally, the art of puppetry resurfaces in the theatre, or on our televisions whenever Spitting Image's satirical caricatures become newsworthy.

We still have human puppets like the “’Osses” of the mumming tradition, and speaking dolls like the ventriloquist’s dummy. Sometimes whole communities get involved with puppets: the town of Skipton has a bi-annual puppet festival and procession, next due in 2015, and not so long ago a huge Elephant puppet paraded through London to great audiences and acclaim.  

Even so, I bet any publicity about a puppet show will be – unless there are very explicit warnings - read and seen as “for children” - and very little children at that.

By the by, I once read that the violent destruction of so much religious art during the Reformation created such intense trauma that English visual tradition ceased. The main means of expression shifted towards words, which brings me very back nicely to the glory of Shakespeare’s language and that V&A puppet show.

Penny Dolan

ps. I'm rather fond of puppets and created an old Punch and Judy man as an important character in my children's novel. A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. (Bloomsbury)