Friday, 9 April 2021

Cherry Blossom Tales - by Lesley Downer

Cherry blossoms at Yoshino. Katsushika Hokusai 1833. 
Met Museum, Rogers Fund 1922. Public domain

Like the world
Hollow as a cicada’s empty shell -
Oh cherry blossoms -
The moment that we see you bloom
You have already fallen.

                                Anonymous. From the Kokinshu anthology of poetry (915-929 AD)

April is cherry blossom season in Japan, when people gather to eat, drink, sing, make music and sometimes dance under the spreading branches of the beautiful pink cherry trees. For well over a thousand years the cherry blossoms have inspired poetry, art and stories and have held a special place in the hearts of Japanese people. 
Cherry blossom viewing on the hill of Tenjin Shrine. Utagawa
Hiroshige 1833. From the series Famous Views of Osaka.
MFA Boston. Public domain.

The most famous place of all for cherry blossom, all the way back to the time of the artist Hokusai and long before, is Mount Yoshino in Central Japan. In fact Yoshino is emblematic of cherry blossom. In poetry the word ‘Yoshino’ evokes cherry blossom and the word ‘hana’ (flowers, cherry blossom) evokes Mount Yoshino. 

Most cherry trees bear their blossom on leafless branches. First come single pink blossoms, then white blossoms, then double blossoms. The blooms last only a few days before they fall.

The Pathos of Things
The cherry blossoms are said to be like clouds as they bloom all at once and hang above the trees as if shrouding them in mist. They last just a few days before withering and falling, raining white petals all across Japan. The falling petals are often compared to snow. Their transience is what is treasured, symbolising the poignant evanescence of existence - the impermanence of all things, mono no aware, ‘the pathos of things’, the poignancy at the root of all existence, the fragility of life, beauty and love.

Cherry blossoms symbolize birth and death, beauty and violence. They are part of Shinto, part of the Japanese worship of nature, but historically they also signified the short but dramatic life of the samurai. The youthful kamikaze pilots were celebrated as being like cherry blossom, with its vivid beauty and brief existence.

So on the one hand they’re heralds of spring, of nature’s revival after the cold winter. They represent the beauty of nature, renewal of life, first love. But on the other the brevity of their existence gives them has a melancholy quality, a painful beauty.
Portrait of the Emperor Saga, Imperial
Collection, Tokyo, Japan. Public domain.

Gods inside the Cherry Trees
According to the eight century chronicle Nihon Shoki, there were cherry blossom festivals as early as the third century AD. The blossoming of the cherry trees marked the beginning of the planting season. Through the timing of the blossoming seers could divine whether the harvest would be good that year or whether the gods within the cherry trees needed to be propitiated. Worshippers made offerings of food and drink, then ate the food and drank the sake and thus the custom of eating and drinking under the cherry trees began.

In the Heian period, around the ninth century, Emperor Saga was so moved by the beauty of a particular cherry tree at Jishu Shrine (now within the Kiyomizu Temple complex in Kyoto) that he decided to hold a cherry blossom viewing party. There was eating, drinking, dancing, singing and poetry writing. Thereafter he held regular parties with sake and feasting under the blossoming boughs of the cherry trees in the Imperial Palace. 

Ki no Tomonori, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 
1840, William Sturgis Bigelow 
Collection, MFA Boston. Public domain.

People would write poems celebrating the flowers, like life itself, luminous and beautiful but fleeting and ephemeral, such as this waka (31 syllable poem) by Ki no Tomonori (850-904 AD), in the Kokinshu and also in Hyakunin Isshu (A Hundred Poems by A Hundred Poets), Japan’s most all time popular collection of poetry:

In these spring days
When tranquil light encompasses
The four directions,
Why do the blossoms scatter
With such uneasy hearts?

Cherry blossom features large in the 11th century Tale of Genji. The eighth chapter, entitled Hana no En (The Cherry Blossom Party) begins with a cherry blossom celebration with poetry, singing, drinking, eating and dancing. The party goes on well into the night. Afterwards the beautiful Prince Genji hears a lady singing a snatch of a famous poem. He catches her by the sleeve in his casual way and draws her gently inside, ‘closing the door behind them.’ Fortunately for Genji #metoo was still far in the future. 

Genji, Hana no En. Utagawa Kunisada 1857. 
From Lady Murasaki's Genji cards. 
MFA Boston. Public Domain.

The Biggest Tea Party of All Time
Up till now it was the imperial court and the samurai who enjoyed cherry blossom viewing. But then came the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He brought about the unification of Japan, then ushered in a glorious golden age of the arts. He particularly loved the tea ceremony. He twice invited the entire population of Kyoto to a huge tea ceremony and cherry blossom viewing. The first was in 1594 when he invited 5000 people for a huge party at Mount Yoshino.

For the second he invited 1300 guests. First he had Daigo-ji Temple in Kyoto renovated and had 700 cherry trees of different varieties brought in and planted along the approach and grounds.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's cherry blossom viewing parade,
Daigo-ji, Fushima-ku, Kyoto Pref., Japan. 12 April 2009.
By Motokoka. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The party began with a huge procession. Dancers led the way to the doors of the huge main gate. Then came Hideyoshi’s samurai followed by yamabushi mountain ascetics and feudal lords. Hideyoshi, beaming joyously, decked out in colourful robes emblazoned with gold, was carried aloft on the shoulders of white-clad bearers. His son Hideyori followed together with his wife Nene and his concubines, including the famous beauty Lady Yodo (also known as Lady Cha-cha), the mother of the heir.

The party kept stopping for entertainment and the ascent took hours. The women changed outfits multiple times and many teahouses had been set up to cater to the 1,300 guests. Finally the entourage reached the great hall of the temple and the festivities began.

How Many Many Things They Bring to Mind

Under the Tokugawa shoguns the cultural centre shifted to Edo (now Tokyo). Successive shoguns planted cherry trees around the city. 

The eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1781), was a particular enthusiast of the cherry blossom and wanted to make cherry blossom viewing accessible to ordinary folk as well as to courtiers and samurai. He had cherry trees planted along the banks of the River Sumida, across the hills of Goten'yama in Shinagawa and along the banks of the River Tama, to provide places where impoverished commoners could relax and enjoy themselves.
Blossoms on the Tama River Embankment.
Utagawa Hiroshige 1856. MFA Boston.
Gift of Anna Ferris. Public Domain.

Meanwhile the merchants grew wealthier and wealthier. The shogunate passed sumptuary laws to prevent them from spending their wealth on ostentatious luxury. So they spent it in red-light districts, on geisha, and on cherry blossom parties in public parks. They modelled their parties on the courtly cherry blossom parties of the Heian period when the Tale of Genji was written but of course there was considerably less courtly entertainment and considerably more drink and rowdiness.

The poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote many haiku celebrating the cherry blossom and drawing on their symbolism. He wrote one melancholy nostalgic haiku when he had gone back to his old home in Iga Ueno. The cherry blossoms there reminded him of a dear friend who had died twenty years earlier, cut off in his youth:

How many many things
They bring to mind -
The cherry blossoms! 

All pictures in the public domain.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. She also appears on Netflix's Age of Samurai! For more see

Friday, 2 April 2021

My blog is actually a book - making the most of your backlist blogs

by Deborah Swift

The Blogger

I've been blogging for more than twelve years now, both here, on my own blog and on other people's blogs. The purpose of the blogging was to make people aware of my books by choosing sites that focussed on historical fiction. So the question is, did it drive much traffic to my books, and why only now, after all this time, am I starting to ask these questions?

The Backstory 

Late last year I decided I wanted a new website. My old one was outdated and looked tired, and I wanted to integrate some new ideas like giving away something free to generate traffic. I went to what I thought was a reputable company that specialized in WordPress websites. This was a massive mistake which I only realized once I'd got involved in the re-design and paid a large chunk of deposit. There never seemed to be the same person answering my queries twice, and when one thing was fixed another broke. Eventually after months of wrangling, crashes and disasters I asked someone for a recommendation and a new designer took over - phew! But what neither of us realized was that all the photos and links to my hundreds of blog posts were now missing or dead and didn't transfer over.

They are now lost and can't be reinstated and to individually find the links or pictures for each post is a massive task. Only posts since August 2020 are visible as they should be. Fortunately I had backed up my posts on Authory, (thank God!) but it doesn't save the pictures, so it would still be hundreds of hours of work to reinstate all the pictures, and the posts still be dead links from other websites. So it led me to the question of was it worth doing and...

Who reads blogs?

I decided to look at how many hits I got on my blog posts and the results were depressingly low. Mostly in single figures. I host blog tours on my blog for other Historical Fiction writers, and these posts were also getting very few hits, despite my desperate tweeting. I began to wonder if I should blog at all, and what was the point of writing stuff no-one would read. Certainly each post took hours of my time to write or set up, for the benefit of a handful of people who my Amazon rankings showed, probably never went on to buy a book. Supposedly traffic 'raises awareness', but what use all this awareness was, and how to cost it into my precious time, was debatable.

The Eureka moment - it's all writing

Following the 'lost blog post' disaster, I copied all the posts from Authory into one document. It was then that I realised - hey, it's all writing! This might seem obvious, but its not until you have more than 100,000 words in front of you that you realise you have produced a substantial body of work. I decided to divide this output into themes, and found I had many posts on the craft of writing, and even more posts on themes around the 17th Century. I began to collate them into e-booklets which could be given away and the first one on writing historical fiction is now available for free to anyone who wants to download it on Bookfunnel. It is a rough and ready document, not to be published or sold, but is there for anyone who wants to read it. The joy of it is that I can just give away this material, and it can have a second life.

How to do this if you want to have a go

First of all, it costs nothing - all the programmes to do it are free. The first collection  - Historical Fiction: 30 Posts on the Craft of Writing was made up as a simple Word Document. (I used the standard Headings function to make sure it would have a Table of Contents when converted.) 

The booklet is an hour's worth of e-reading and just over 20,000 words long, so the posts are in bite-size chunks. I made it into epub and Mobi (for Kindle) files using Calibre, and then made the simplest possible ebook cover in Canva. The whole thing took me a day to do. Yesterday eight people downloaded it. Yes, I know that's not very many, but there are links in it to my books - and who knows, maybe I'll be lucky and sell some! And instead of the posts being lost or never looked at again, they are having new eyes on them. In the next few weeks I'll do the second hour's worth of posts in another booklet to give away. What's more, it feels good to produce something from all those hours of work.

The Pay Off

Because I can see that there is the potential for another booklet on writing, and at least three on historical snippets of the 17th Century, it has re-enthused me to blog. If no-one reads the posts, well it's still writing. I love to write about the craft of writing, and each post goes to make up a larger body of work, which at some time, might become another free booklet that I can give away. The fact the posts might become something bigger has made me keen to write more of them. Because these are not 'officially published' and free I feel no pressure to make sure they are perfect. It is more important to get the work out there to be read.

My next booklet will probably be one called something like 'The 17th Century Miscellany' and will include many posts from this blog, my own blog and other places where I've blogged on history. I look forward to giving it away! If you're reading this, perhaps you've a collection of posts that can be made into a booklet?

Happy blogging!

Deborah's all new website is at

Find me on Twitter @swiftstory

Friday, 19 March 2021

Classics Club during Covid by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Caroline K. Mackenzie tells the story of her Classics Club and how it has provided her with companionship and inspiration during lockdown.

Classics Club began with an odyssey around the art and archaeology of Greece and Rome (Image: The Caryatids of the Erechtheion in Athens).
This image appeared on my flyers as a visual ‘amuse-bouche’.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

A couple of years ago, I decided to set up a ‘Classics Club’. I had moved to a new area and thought it would be a good way to meet new people and share my love of the ancient world. The village has a lovely Pavilion, next to the cricket pitch, and this seemed an ideal venue: not too large to be impersonal, but spacious enough to feel like a classroom. I resolved that, even if no-one turned up to Classics Club, I would still happily spend Monday mornings there with my books in the tranquil surroundings.

The first term was to be a series of lectures on Classical Art and Archaeology. I had just completed an MA on this subject, so my research was fresh in my mind and I was keen to share it. I printed some flyers and set about distributing them. Local businesses were brilliantly supportive and displayed my flyers on notice boards, included them in e-newsletters and generally spread the word. This also gave me the perfect excuse to visit every local coffee shop and pub, leaflets in hand: much coffee and cake was consumed en route, all in the name of marketing.

If you have read my previous post (A Latin Lexicon) you may already have gathered that I am rather fond of coffee and cake. So it seemed natural to include these as part of Classics Club (not least as I liked the alliteration). I hoped it would be an incentive for people to try out Classics Club and would make meeting at the Pavilion a more sociable event.

Classics Club before Covid.
Coffee and cakes were the secret to keeping the numbers up!
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

For the second term, we planned a smaller reading class which would allow more group discussion and an in-depth look at some of the wonderful Classical literature. Homer’s ‘Iliad’ seemed the perfect place to start. However, after just a few weeks, the pandemic had taken hold and all group meetings had to be abandoned. What were we to do? Zoom came to the rescue.

We had a rather bumpy first session - I kept losing my internet connection so constantly moved around the house until I ended up sitting on the bedroom floor in half-darkness to avoid screen glare. However, everyone was very patient - the thrill of actually being able to ‘see’ each other after the abrupt confinement to our homes gave us the drive to persist. Within a few weeks we had settled into our new routine, and Homer led the way.

Coffee and cake or ‘dainties’ (to borrow a popular translation of Homer’s word for ‘nibbles’) were now ‘bring your own’. However, holding the class online meant that members from further afield could join us, even from abroad. We tackle about 300 lines of Homer a week and even at this steady pace we run out of time to discuss all that we should like to. Homer is such a rich quarry of material, with his observations on the frailty of humanity seeming as urgent and relevant as ever. Not only does Homer bring reassurance but also much needed escapism. We have had some hilarious debates about our favourite characters (mine’s Hektor: I even named my rescue cat after him) and we can’t decide whether to love or hate Achilles, with his arrogant swagger and shameful treatment of Hektor’s corpse.

The longevity and popularity of Homer’s work may largely be thanks to the skill and sensitivity with which he examines human emotions and experiences: hope, fear, love, friendship, family and, of course, death. The poet even seems to have known (or at least hoped) that his work would be immortalised when his leading lady, Helen of Troy, delivers this telling line as she bemoans her ill-fated affair with Paris, the cause of the Trojan war: ‘On us two Zeus has set a doom of misery, so that in time to come we can be themes of song for men of future generations’. That line fills me with delight every time I read it, sending a shiver down my spine: I can’t help wondering, ‘What would Homer have thought of us (three generations in one group no less) discussing his poem 2,700 years later, via Zoom?’. It’s certainly a new twist on the ‘oral tradition’.

Achilles, star of the ‘Iliad’: petulant Mummy’s boy or heroic role model?
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Perhaps just as important as celebrating Homer’s legacy, Classics Club during Covid has provided an anchor to the week - for me, there is a comforting routine to our regular Monday morning meetings which set me up for my week of teaching (one to one Latin and Greek tutoring, much of which is based on Homer’s works and stories). The group has formed firm friendships and this last year feels almost like a rite of passage - the unique experience of having travelled together through every line of the ‘Iliad’ in such unprecedented times. Homer’s compelling narrative of tragedy, drama and, at times, comedy is beautifully framed by his famous similes depicting the power of nature. In many ways, his narrative has reflected our experiences through the pandemic - the losses we have suffered among family and friends, our finding comfort in those close to us, and our longing to be outdoors among nature for peace and reflection. One of the ‘Iliad’s’ best-known phrases ‘Before the Greeks came…’ seems ironically reflected in our own words (heard rather frequently these days) ‘Before the pandemic came…’.

One of our group was even inspired to create a Classics Club logo, pictured below. It depicts Hektor and Achilles in action, with the Trojan horse behind them, and incorporates the lovely diagonal composition that was a favoured technique of the Greek sculptors and artists. The grapes are a nod to the wine which the Homeric heroes frequently drink and offer to the gods and are also reminiscent of Homer’s epithet for the sea as ‘wine-dark’. Framing the image are the words ‘Classics Club’ in English, Greek and Latin. The Greek version means ‘Greek club’ and the word for Classics in Latin should strictly also be ‘Greek’ (Graecus) but we thought we should give the Romans their due, hence ‘Romanus’. The Greek word for club also means ‘companionship’ and the Latin one is literally ‘a circle or group for conversation’. Both these descriptions fit our group rather well. We also had a competition to compose a motto for our class to accompany the logo. The winning entry was: ‘legere, loqui, libere’, the Latin for ‘To read, to discuss, to enjoy’.

‘legere, loqui, libere’. Classics Club logo: © Lang.

The future of Classics Club

Before Covid, Classics Club had also had some fun days out together. We attended lectures at the British Museum and combined these with tours of the Greek and Roman galleries. Of course, all trips have had to be postponed for the time being but we are looking forward to some more Classical adventures in due course.

Classics Club visit to the British Museum - the rain didn’t keep us away.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

I have also promised the group a party. As soon as we are permitted, Classics Club will reunite in the Pavilion where I shall ensure the wine is flowing as abundantly as the Homeric hexameters.

In the meantime, we shall shortly be setting sail with Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, arguably the sequel to the ‘Iliad’, but an epic that can be enjoyed in its own right (and it is actually my favourite of the two works). In due course we shall return where we began, to the picturesque Pavilion, in the manner of ‘ring composition’ (a narrative framing device favoured by Homer whereby an episode begins and ends symmetrically). But for those Classicists further afield, I shall also be running a parallel class on Zoom.

As I type this, Classics Club ‘online’ is approaching the end of its first year, so it seems rather appropriate that we are just embarking on the concluding books of the ‘Iliad’. It has been quite an odyssey (forgive the pun). Our meeting next Monday will fall a day before our first birthday - I think I shall put a candle in my slice of cake…

Free lecture on Lullingstone

The final lecture of Classics Club pre-Covid was about Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent, the subject of my first book and also my first ever blog for the History Girls: Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa. Last week I delivered an updated lecture on the same topic hosted by my publisher, Archaeopress. So by way of offering you a slice of Classics Club (without the cake, I’m afraid) I attach a link below in case it is of interest. P.S. If you watch the talk you will find a code for a 25% discount on both my books.

An evening with Archaeopress: ‘Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa’. 
Click here to watch the recorded lecture: An Evening with Archaeopress: Caroline K. Mackenzie

Classics Club - new classes starting soon!

I shall be starting a new Classics Club reading group on Monday 10th May 3pm GMT. We shall be reading Homer's ‘Odyssey’ over the course of the year. Meetings will be via Zoom every week for 1h30mins. The first hour is a presentation of the text by me followed by 30mins discussion. Cost is £10 per session. For more information or to reserve a place, please get in touch:

Twitter:  @carolinetutor
LinkedIn: Caroline K. Mackenzie


First, thank you to Mary Hoffman and all the History Girls.

Thank you to our local Pavilion and its committee for providing Classics Club’s first home. Looking forward to coming back to you soon! (Hopefully we won’t take as long as Odysseus to return home.) Thank you also to all the local businesses who happily displayed my flyers (and for the delicious ‘dainties’).

Thank you also to everyone at Archaeopress, especially Patrick Harris.

Last but certainly not least, huge thanks to all the members of Classics Club for your support and friendship, particularly all of you who have joined me throughout lockdown.

Friday, 12 March 2021

A Balkan story by Mary Hoffman

As you may be tired of hearing, I moved house in December (yes in midwinter, in the middle of a pandemic and just before Christmas). Our books and CDs went into storage until we could get shelving installed. This has happened over the last few weeks and the books have started coming home; we are having them delivered in three batches, of which the third (CDs) arrived this morning.

Naturally, being us, we had brought with us crates of “emergency books and CDs” which have kept us going (thanks Hilary Mantel, Susanna Clarke and numerous crime writers for your long and/or absorbing works). But when the publicity department at Windmill Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House) got in touch to ask if I would like review copies of Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy, I jumped at the chance and they have helped me through many a week.

I first read these three books in the 1980s, when of course I also watched the Fortunes of War series on TV, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Harriet and Guy Pringle. That comprised both the Balkan and Levant trilogies in a masterpiece of compression, but Windmill have dropped the omnibus title and re-issued the first three books under their original titles: The Great Fortune; The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. The first book came out in 1960 but begins on the way to Bucharest in autumn 1939. It wouldn’t have counted as an historical novel then but it does now.

Harriet and Guy have married in the summer, after knowing each other for a matter of weeks and are now on a train to Rumania, where Guys teaches English for the British Legation, unable to enlist as he has terrible eyesight. The first two books are set in Bucharest, where the young couple adjust to marriage, war and the complex political situation around them. All the books are told in the third person but very much from Harriet’s point of view and it is a very particular one. 

She knows no-one but Guy in this city which is so alien to her, but he has been teaching there for a year. There is an annoying, ever-present Rumanian student called Sophie, who had wanted Guy to marry her to give her a British passport and is thwarted by his suddenly being rendered no longer nubile. There are other students with many claims on Guy, other Legation men, like Inchcape and Dobson, and a British White Russian prince, Yakimov, who will be important throughout the trilogy.

Harriet soon realises that her relationship with her new husband can never be exclusive; he is all things to all men (and women), relentlessly gregarious, hopeless about time, cowardly about confrontation, unable to think through the consequences of his generous gestures. But everyone loves Guy and Harriet is no exception.

I was struck this time round by how Harriet has nothing to do in the first two books. She meets friends for coffee and cakes or dinner and goes for walks but her life revolves around when Guy is going to come home, like a patient dog. That makes Harriet sound pathetic, but somehow she is not. She is politically ignorant but very interested. And she’s a feminist, even though she wouldn’t recognise the term.

Soon after arriving Bucharest, the Pringles are told by a man called Woolley, who regards himself as the leader of the English colony, that “the ladies must return to England.” Harriet immediately asks who has given the order and Woolley prevaricates but tell her he has sent his own “lady wife” home “as an example.” Harriet’s reply, “I never follow examples,” is both true and a gauntlet thrown down in the face of all the stuffy old gammons she encounters.

The older men mansplain to her or ignore her; the younger ones fall in love with her. And Harriet can be soft-hearted, especially towards animals. It’s Guy who makes them take in first Prince Yakimov, who is a penniless sponger, and then more dangerously Sasha Drecker, his Jewish student whose wealthy father is imprisoned as a result of a German sting and who has deserted from the army. But Harriet, who does not shirk confrontation, lets them stay because they have nowhere else to go.

                                                                     Bucharest, Rumania

As the war progresses, there are shortages in Bucharest: nothing to buy in the market, nothing edible in the restaurants. Inchcape is attacked and badly beaten, the Pringles constantly worry about whether it’s safe to stay, Guy’s name is on a list of men wanted by the Gestapo.

After another poor dinner in a restaurant with a friend of Guy’s, they return to find their apartment ransacked and empty with no sign of Sasha (Yakimov had already decamped). The next day Harriet leaves for Athens and the second book ends with her meeting Prince Yakimov there. He has a sort of a job and a little money and Harriet surprises herself by being pleased to see him.

In Athens the pattern repeats itself. Guy comes to join Harriet and at first there is a lull, a sense of safety and plenty but, as Germany declares war on Greece, the truckloads of soldiers depart optimistically for the front and their broken survivors return. Guy is denied work by inferior men but is still always busy. It’s Harriet who has a job, working in the information Office. 

                                                            The Erechtheum in Athens
Food becomes in short supply. There is a heart-breaking scene when Harriet invites friends to lunch and has nothing to give them but potatoes. Thinking everyone has had enough, she puts the platter on the floor and a friend’s dog clears it in one swoop of his tongue. There is an anguished cry from the kitchen and Harriet is stricken with remorse; that could have been a meal for the servant.

Even Sasha turns up in Athens but there is to be no happy reunion, as he thinks the Pringles have betrayed him. That is typical Manning, to re-write what could have been a happy scene as a much more nuanced meeting between complicated individuals. The trilogy ends, as the second book did, with the Pringles escaping again, this time to Egypt, which is where the Levant trilogy begins. I do hope Windmill will bring those books out again too.

                                                                         Olivia Manning

(I should like to dedicate this review to Ronald Pickup, who played Prince Yakimov so brilliantly in Fortunes of War and who died just as I finished reading the Balkan Trilogy)

Friday, 5 March 2021

'Mighty Hills of Water' by Karen Maitland


Plaque marking the flood of 1606/7 in
Kingston Seamore Church
Photo: Anthony Wood
Fact is not truth – that’s something both the historical fiction writer and readers know well.

My new historical thriller The Drowned City, is set in the aftermath of a 17th century disaster when a storm-surge or a tsunami devastated the west coast of England and Wales. The bare facts are these –  In January 1607, on calm, clear day, a gigantic wave swept up the Bristol Channel. It thundered inland as far as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles from the coast, destroying whole villages and leaving 2,000 people dead or missing. 200 square miles of agricultural land were flooded with seawater, so that even when the water receded, the fields were poisoned with salt. The Welsh coast was hit even harder than the English side, particularly the town of Cardiff. At its height, the wave is estimated to have reached 25ft, over 7.5 meters, travelling at a speed of around 38 miles per hour. 

Christmas Flood 1717 that struck the coasts of
Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia

The historical facts about this terrible disaster are chilling. But facts don’t convey the truth of the experience of being caught up in such an event. Thankfully, I’ve never personally experienced a tsunami. The nearest I came was some years ago when I was sunbathing on a beach on Greek island and I saw a long black shape speeding over the mirror-calm sea towards us. No one moved, we all just stared, trying to work out what this thing was, then everyone seemed to realise the danger at once. Adults ran, shouting, to drag children out of sea. Others grabbed possessions and we scrambled up the sand to higher ground as the large wave raced up right the beach at our heels. The wave was only few feet high and did no major damage apart from carrying off towels, bags and anything else people had abandoned as they fled. But that small experience, helped me to understand why according to the eyewitness accounts of the 1607 tsunami, people simply stood and watched as the monstrous wave charged towards them, unable to interpret what they were seeing until it was far too late. 

US army medics moving a wounded solider into
8225th MASH unit, Korea 1951
Photo: Stewart/US army

In one episode of the American TV series MASH (1972-1983) set during the Korean War (1950-53), the characters were interviewed by a famous reporter. Instead scripting this episode, the actors were told to respond to the questions put to them giving the answers they thought their own character would make. Several of the actors later said that in researching their characters they had talked to war veterans about their experiences in Korea. One unscripted answer given to the reporter by the actor William Christopher who played Father Mulcahy has stuck in my mind for years.

“When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold – the way it is now – steam rises from the body, and the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound. How could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”

You couldn’t invent a detail like that. You know when you hear it that someone had actually witnessed that first-hand.  It that kind of truth which conveys more about the conditions the surgeons were operating under, than the fact that each 200-bed MASH unit was treating 400 injured people every day.

2004 Tsunami, Ao Nang Province, Thailand
Photo: David Rydevik, Stockholm, Sweden

I felt that same moment of truth when in the course of researching my novel, I read the non-fiction book Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry about the aftermath of the 2011 disaster which struck the north-east coast of Japan, killing more than 18,500 people.  It is a remarkably moving and beautifully written book, and learned a lot about the search for bodies and the problems of survival afterwards. But one account told by a mother on finding the body of her little daughter after her school was engulfed by the wave, conveys more of the truth of the human experience of that terrible event than any of those numbers of dead or financial cost of the devastation.

"I rubbed the mud from cheeks and wiped it out of her mouth. It was in her nose too and in her ears. But we only had two small towels. And soon the towels were black. I had nothing else so I used my clothes … But there was muck in her eyes, and there were no towels and no water and I so licked Chisato’s eyes clean with my tongue… but I couldn’t get them clean, and the muck kept coming out." From 'Ghosts of the Tsunami' by Richard Lloyd Parry. Pub. Jonathan Cape, 2017.

Facts are important for understanding what happened, but it is the little details, these truths that only someone who experienced the event could know, which turns a report into a story we can fully connect with.


The Drowned City
by K.J. Maitland is published 1st April 2021, Headline

Friday, 26 February 2021

TOUR D'HORIZON by Adèle Geras

The phrase 'tour d'horizon' is one I heard on  the 4th February, when I was on my walk, listening to one of my favourite podcasts. It's called The Rest is History and every episode is a conversation between Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland, both of them wonderful talkers and excellent historians and writers of accessible and fascinating books.  For this episode, on China, they had Michael Wood as their guest and the hour -long discussion of China's history was described as only touching the surface....glancing across the whole horizon...of an enormous subject.


So I decided to call my post by the same name because that's what it is: a glance across the last six months of the Pandemic, which has changed our lives in all kinds of ways and done very strange things to the ordinary unrolling of each day. In many ways, I'm leading exactly the same life I always do: in my house, by myself, getting on with my stuff.  There was a time, as recently as September 16th, which is when the photograph above was taken, when it was possible for me to get on a bus and go and meet my friend Caroline Wilson in the garden of Emmanuel College. She showed me this magnificent tree, the oldest in Cambridge and we sat there on a bench in the sunshine having coffee from a flask and wondering what the autumn would bring. I'd just read a book by Richard Powers called  The Overstory and so trees were on my mind and this one  had a history of many hundreds of years. 

Trees again....all through this time, in hard lockdowns and easier times too,  I've been walking in my own neighbourhood. I always have an eye out for the trees and this shot taken in late October shows them at their best.  I do an hour a day and sometimes I go through a suburb which has grown up from scratch about five minutes from my front door. When we came to Cambridge in 2010, there was nothing but fields between our house and Addenbrooke's Hospital. Now there's a whole suburb there, called Great Kneighton, complete with school, Medical Centre, and lots of imaginatively designed (for the most part) houses and flats. There's Hobson's Park  in the middle  of Great Kneighton and that has a lovely bird reserve. You can look over the bird reserve and see the blue curve of Royal Papworth Hospital in the distance. You'll see a photograph of this towards the end of this post. One of the things I most admire about the design of Great Kneighton is the imaginative planting of many different varieties of trees and shrubs which is still going on. Only yesterday gardeners were busy putting in lots of saplings. 

One of the joys of being in Tier 2 in November was still being able to meet a friend in the park for a walk. Judith Lennox and I walked a lot on Jesus Green in Cambridge and ended our walk sitting outside at a pavement cafe back in the day when this was still allowed. The weather was cold but it was such an enjoyable thing to do. 

The date on the photo above is New Year's Eve. Helen Craig (of Angelina Ballerina fame) and I went walking in Great Shelford Recreation Ground. I went there once about nine years ago to watch my grandson playing football but here it had been raining.  There's a lot of Great Shelford history attached to Helen. Her daughter-in-law is the writer Sally Christie who still lives in the village.   Sally is the daughter of Philippa Pearce, who is arguably the most famous person to have lived here. Philippa's children's books,  especially Tom's Midnight Garden, are classics and several (like Minnow on the Say) are set along this stretch of river. There's now a memorial arch to Philippa a few yards away from the river, at the entrance to the children's playground. 


On another walk, on January 6th, I came across the little star labelled HOPE. I regarded this as an omen for my new book, which is being published on March 4th under my pseudonym HOPE ADAMS. It's a novel called Dangerous Women, and my publishers, Michael Joseph in the UK and Berkley in the USA (where it came out ten days ago) have done wonders online to publicise it and ensure that the world  is aware of it. Still, it's odd  not being able to visit bookshops and I'm looking forward to the world of books returning to normal by the time the paperback appears.

What the little star did turn out to be an omen for was the Vaccine. I had my first jab at my local Medical Centre and was able to walk there and back. This lovely young woman was my vaccinator and the whole process took minutes. All most efficiently and kindly done and it's the vaccines which give me the expectation that one day this pandemic will end and we will be able to see everyone again, just as we did in those long ago days before Corona virus hit us. It goes without saying that I'm full of admiration and praise for everyone in the NHS who has worked hard to deal with everything that's been thrown at them. But I'm also grateful to shop workers, delivery drivers, bus drivers, teachers, home schoolers and everyone else who's worked their socks off to make things bearable. Most of all, though, I'd like to thank every scientist who's worked on ways of vaccinating us, finding drugs to  help us if we get sick and every single person who's had to deal with this strange situation in the best possible way. 

The blue building is Royal Papworth Hospital, part of the Cambridge University Hospitals, which with Addenbrooke's just behind it, employs thousands of people and contributes to the welfare of the area and the nation in so many ways.  I'm not about to write any fiction about the Pandemic, but it will be interesting to see the novels and dramas that emerge in future, reminding us of what went on, all over the world. This is a particular moment in history and I've had a ringside seat for it, in front of my television. We take television for granted but it's been a real life saver. I've also read reams and reams about the situation in newspapers and  I'm grateful to all journalists, film makers and broadcasters. They showed us the world and explained it at a very strange time.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Belfast 1921 by Sheena Wilkinson

 A photo can tell you so much. 

When I was writing Hope against Hope, set in Belfast and along the new Irish border in 1921, I spent a lot of time walking round East Belfast and trying to see it as it would have been one hundred years ago when I placed my fictional girls' hostel there.  I also pored over old photos. Some streets and buildings – terraced houses, churches and mission halls and shops – haven’t changed too much, but there are new housing estates where once were factories; new motorway links and huge junctions have replaced back allies and tramlines.


Belfast in 1921 was on fire – often literally. Northern Ireland, which commemorates its centenary this year, was born from compromise and conflict, an expedient solution to an age-old problem. It was not really designed or expected to succeed; many would argue that it has not. But this is not a political post. This is about two little girls who had their photo taken in East Belfast in the early 1920s – it might not have been 1921, but I like to imagine it was because of the novel. 

Their names are Frances and Annie Duff. Frances is about thirteen and Annie nine or ten. They are my grandmother and my great aunt. They smile out, both with the expressions I remember so well from their later lives as elderly women. (They both lived into their nineties.)  They are well dressed, with the extravagant hair bows I remember from early school story illustrations. Both wear pearls and Annie has a wristwatch. This is clearly An Occasion. 

I like to think that it is June 1921 and that they are all dressed up to go and see the King and Queen open the first Northern Irish parliament at City Hall, as thousands of other unionists did. But possibly not. Gran, an inveterate teller of Stories of the Olden Days,  never mentioned such an outing. But then I knew nothing of this visit myself until I did the research for 
Hope against Hope, so perhaps I just didn’t ask the right questions. When I look closer at their frocks – all their lives they would call dresses frocks -- I see that they are fashionably short, but with huge hems –  made to last. They contrast with the lace edgings of their best frocks in the photo taken some years before – and I think this is not just a change in fashion, but a change in family fortunes. Their mother, Fanny, made their clothes, and took in sewing after their father died – which I believe was in between the two photos. As was the death of their big sister Sadie. 


Unlike the first photo, which was definitely taken in a photographic studio, I fancy this one was taken at home in Beechfield Street. I imagine that I remember that very vase, that little table with its barley-twist legs, but both would have been commonplace in 1921, so they may well have been in a studio.  Wherever they are, I do know that outside was a troubled city, disturbed by rioting and burnings. I know their local Catholic church was attacked in 1920, and that same year, thousands of Catholic workers were run out of the shipyard where Frances and Annie’s father and brothers worked. Nothing of that shows in the photo, but then neither does the tragedy even closer to home – except that Frances, now unexpectedly the Big Sister instead of the middle one, leans rather protectively into Annie – perhaps she is thinking of how fragile a sister’s hold on life can be. Or perhaps she is just doing what the photographer asked: all her life she was a gentle and compliant woman, unlike her granddaughter.

My favourite scene in Hope against Hope is a garden party, where the girls of the hostel at the centre of the story invite neighbouring families for tea, sports and entertainment. Of course I know that’s not where Frances and Annie are going, a treat after the family deaths, a distraction from the troubled city outside their front door. Because I made it up.

But without Gran’s stories, and photos like this, I couldn’t have.