Friday, 18 September 2020

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. 

Friday, 11 September 2020

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 gives me 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.

Friday, 4 September 2020

'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.

Friday, 28 August 2020

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. 

Friday, 21 August 2020

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! 

Friday, 14 August 2020

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 -


Friday, 7 August 2020

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 spoke about justice and revenge in historical crime fiction at St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Festival and the video will be available until 31 August 2020. 

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