Wednesday, 18 July 2018

RESERVE POST Following in the Footsteps of Dirk Hartog by Rosemary Hayes RESERVE POST

In October 2016 I went on a month long trip promoting my shipwreck books in Western Australia and taking part in the celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Dutch mariner, Dirk Hartog, in Shark Bay, 500 miles north of Perth.
My fascination with the 17th and 18th century Dutch voyages began eight years ago when I visited the Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle for the first time.
I was aware of the powerful Dutch East India Company (the VOC), its establishment of headquarters throughout Asian countries and, in particular, its hugely profitable trade in spices: during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ a handful of nutmegs was so valuable that it was worth more than the price of a house and just a single nutmeg would buy you a horse! But what I didn’t know was that, by 1617, all the great VOC trading ships were required to adopt the new Brouwer route, sailing South from the Cape in South Africa before turning West to pick up the ‘Roaring Forties’ winds and then North towards the East Indies, parallel with the coast of Western Australia or, as it was called at the time, ‘The Unknown Southland’.
The Shipwreck Galleries were a revelation and as soon as I entered I was hooked. As I stared at the salvaged hull of the doomed ship Batavia, at the stone blocks destined for the castle gate in Java and all the rescued artifacts and then read about the mutiny, the shipwreck, the massacre on the Abrolhos Islands, the eventual retribution and the marooning of two young mutineers in 1629, I knew that this was a story which would haunt me and that some day I’d have to write about it.

Why had I never heard of this appalling event in Australia’s history? What if those two young men, Jan Pelgrom, a cabin boy of 18 and Wouter Loos, a soldier of 24, had survived and integrated with the coastal aborigines? If they had, then they would have been the very first European settlers in Australia, nearly 150 years before Cook sailed into Botany Bay!

Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey. I have written two books about the early Dutch shipwrecks off the West Australian coast, ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ (about the notorious Batavia’ shipwreck) and  ‘Forgotten Footprints’ (about the wreck of the Zuytdorp which disappeared in 1712, dashed against remote cliffs, but with evidence of survivors) have visited the Abrolhos Islands where all the Batavia horrors occurred, toured schools in the Eastern States, flown over the Zuytdorp cliffs, travelled by boat parallel with Red Bluff, South of Kalbarri, from which so many early Dutch mariners took their bearings, given the Batavia lecture at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle and, most recently, had an unforgettable trip from Yallingup in the South of the State up to Shark Bay, speaking to schools and other groups about my books and about the rich maritime history of Western Australia and shadowing the voyage of the Duyfken, a replica of the smallest ship of the first fleet to set sail from Amsterdam in 1595.

The replica Duyfken took nearly three months to sail from Bunbury in the south of WA, calling in at ports as she made her way north, with a fantastic exhibition about the Dutch traders and welcoming thousands of school children and others on board, finally arriving in Shark Bay in time to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of Dirk Hartog at Cape Inscription.

I felt very privileged to be part of the celebrations, to attend the moving opening ceremony, watch the procession of cardboard boats made by local children, admire the costumes for the 17th century ball, crawl over the Duyfken and travel across to Dirk Hartog Island and see the new commemorative plaques and the cleft in the rock into which Dirk Hartog had rammed his original post, with a flattened pewter plate attached. On the plate he had scratched a record of his visit to the island. Its inscription (translated from the original Dutch) reads:
1616 On 25 October arrived the ship Eendracht, of Amsterdam: Supercargo Gilles Miebais of Liege, skipper Dirch Hatichs of Amsterdam. on 27 d[itt]o. she set sail again for Bantam. Deputy supercargo Jan Stins, upper steersman Pieter Doores of Bil. In the year 1616.

The day I left WA to return to the UK, I was able to fit in a visit to the newly opened exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle – ‘Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean’ and see the original of the Dirk Hartog plate (on loan from Holland and having just been brought over by the Dutch King and Queen) and to learn that the very latest research will soon be available into whether Western European DNA found in some Aboriginal coastal tribes can be traced to pre-settlement days.
And yet, whenever I go into Australian schools and ask the question: ‘Who was the first recorded European to set foot on Australian soil?’ nine times out of ten the answer is still ‘Captain Cook.’

Our thanks to Rosemary Hayes for posting this while Celia Rees is delayed in Italy by Ryanair

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS by Alison Light. A reflection by Penny Dolan.

While visiting Helmsley Walled Garden, within the grounds of the castle, I was lucky enough to find MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS by Alison Light, published in 2007, on the second-hand book shelves.
A single scan of the book’s main headings drew me in: The Family Treasure; Housemaid’s Souls; The Question of Nelly and The Lavatory Attendant. Each is followed by a pair of names, one the famous writer and the other a domestic servant. Light’s Bloomsbury servants get almost equal billing with the famous social set.

Light begins by pointing out that in the great Bloomsbury archives, there is little evidence of the other women who were part of  households, the ones who “lived-in”, though far less comfortably, the same walls. Yet the free, independent and creative lives of Virginia the writer and Vanessa Bell the artist depended on the servants who worked for them: in other words, on other women not being free.

Despite the silent archive, Alison Light noticed how frequently Virginia, Leonard and their circle wrote about their servants in their letters and diaries, and so she set out to discover these missing women. Light writes about three servants in particular: Sophie Farrell, who had first worked for Virginia’s beloved mother, charity-case Lottie Hope and the cook Nellie Boxall. She shows a pattern where servants often stayed for many years, although they were passed between members of the wider family as need or as tempers suggested, and poaching of prized servants was often attempted.

The book is a pleasingly thorough inquiry, sharpened by having the viewpoint of someone whose own mother was in service. Light read unpublished letters and documents, visited houses and places where the servants had worked and interviewed descendants and local historians. She looked into their childhood homes, their education, the changing patterns of their employment and at the practical and emotional relationships that existed between a mistress and servant sharing the same roof year after year.

I did enjoy the variety within  this book. Thoughtfully written, each section opens with a long passage of Woolfian lyrical  prose which contrasts well with Light’s brisker accounts of a world where long hours, the collecting of chamber-pots, the carrying of coal-buckets, the lack of hot water taps, the management of unreliable ovens, and days spent in dank basements or cold bedrooms were a constant part of the servants life. Incidentally, she makes it clear that the wealthy rarely saw any need for new labour-saving devices or domestic improvements: they already had household servants saving them labour.

As the new century progressed, the distant mistress and servant relationship was harder to maintain. Back in 1892, Vanessa and Virginia’s childhood home, 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, had been an elegant five-storied mansion where the servants slept in the spaces under the eaves or lived down in the basement. 

Almost two decades later, when Virginia and Leonard Woolf were running their small printing press at Hogarth House and Vanessa and Duncan Grant lived a paint-spattered bohemian existence at Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, there was only a wall marking the distance between the rooms of mistress and servant .

Through several different lives, including glimpses of the Bloomsbury "stars", Alison Light brings in topics as diverse as the popular habit of “poor-visiting”, agricultural changes, the development of the kitchen and celebrity cooking for Charles Laughton. She looks at Virginia’s troubled life both as a feminist writer trying to develop a new style of writing and as an independent woman whose mental health forces her into dependence on her servants. Her own worst instincts often flare out against the servants but they seem to have a way of responding: an uneasy relationship that cannot have been calm.

Furthermore, national events, such as the outbreak of war in 1914, epidemics, the growth of factory work for women, female education and emancipation, new taxes and economic depression brought on more social change. The ideal of “service” no longer fitted the modern world with its increasing demand for equality for all, and the Woolfs – and their servants – had to change along with it. Even so, I wonder how easily discussions went at the Labour party meetings at Rodmell House, which included the Woolf’s servants and employees among its members. 
MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS by Alison Light was a useful if sometimes uncomfortable book to read. I enjoyed it because, from a writing point of view, one has to consider the role of any servants “attending” to a story set in the past, as appropriate to the time and place. 

Are the servants to be included or not, named or not?  Are the servants who live closely with the family, like the Sterkarms in Susan Price’s historical sci-fi novels? Or are they hired servants and bearers, as in Sue Purkiss’s Jack Fortune and the Hidden Valley adventure?

Or are they invisible, with the place run, like Nampara on screen in Poldark, with barely a servant evident? Or would they be no more worth mentioning than a washing machine in a modern house? I suppose it all depends on when: different times have brought different relationships, and that is maybe what I need to think about for the work in progress.

Moreover, reading MRS WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS rather makes one think about  celebrity and other households and the kinds of domestic help and helpers that are needed today.

Penny Dolan

Monday, 16 July 2018

James Cook: The Voyages: at the British Library - by Sue Purkiss

This August, it will be 250 years since James Cook's first voyage to the southern seas. As the introduction to this exhibition states: 'In 1768 the coasts and islands of the pacific, although inhabited for thousands of years, were largely unknown to Europeans. Cook made three voyages and when the third returned to Britain in 1780 most of the blank spaces on European maps had been filled in. Cook's voyages have been celebrated, but also sometimes condemned, ever since.'

Cook's chart of Botany Bay

This points to a difficulty. If you'd looked Cook up in an encyclopaedia when I was a child, it would have told you that he was a hero, a great explorer, who discovered hitherto unknown lands. (A couple of years ago, in a fit of manic decluttering, I got rid of just such a set of encylclopaedias. If I hadn't, I'd be able to quote the appropriate entry to you. There's a lesson there...)

Now, it doesn't look quite that simple.

Cook's first voyage, with the Endeavour, was purportedly to observe the Transit of Venus (now there's a title for a book!) across the face of the sun at Tahiti (or Otaheite, as he knew it), in June 1769. But he also had secret Admiralty orders to search for land in the south Pacific, including the Great Southern Continent, if it indeed existed. If he found land, he was 'to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance' with its inhabitants, to chart its coastline and to investigate its potential in terms of trade. Further, he was 'to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the name of the King of Great Britain' - albeit with the consent of the inhabitants.

Cook and his ship

On that first voyage, he took with him as a naturalist the young Joseph Banks. I've written about Banks in various History Girl posts, and he features in my recent book for children about plant hunting, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - he was a fascinating and very influential character. He was also tall, handsome, genial, and one of those charismatic people who gets on very well with everybody - whereas Cook was more dour and introverted: they made a good team. So when it came to getting the 'consent of the inhabitants', Banks was a great help. Certainly in Otaheite he threw himself into socialising with the (mostly) welcoming inhabitants with great gusto. He became good friends with Tupaia, the chief priest of the island - so much so that Tupaia asked to accompany the Endeavour when it was time for the visitors to continue their voyage, and did so as a translator and interpreter. Tupaia also drew and painted scenes from their travels, some of which are displayed at the exhibition, alonside many other contemporary images, artefacts, letters and journals. Sadly, both Tupaia and his young son, Tayeto, died when, on the way back to England, after various adventures in Australia and New Zealand, the ship docked at Batavia for repairs: unfortunately Batavia was rife with fever, and almost half of the company, including the two Tahitians, succumbed.

And the exhibition doesn't shy away from revealing that, although Cook was indeed a great explorer who achieved an enormous amount for his country, there was another side to what he did. The lives of the people he 'discovered' were not just touched by his arrival on their shores: they were to be changed forever, even when the intentions of the explorers were good. Tupaia and his son were one example. Another concerns a later voyage, when Cook, meaning to be helpful, presented the Maoris in New Zealand with domesticated animals - sheep, pigs etc. He thought it would make life easier for them if they didn't have to hunt for their food. But the animals had a huge effect on the indigenous flora and fauna, leading to the extinction of a number of native species.

And it was Banks who suggested that Australia would be a good place for a penal colony - which on the one hand led to the creation of modern Australia, but on the other to the near-destruction of the indigenous Aborigine culture.

Tupaia's drawing of Sir Joseph Banks trading with a Maori - a piece of cloth in exchange for a lobster.
It's such a difficult subject; it's so easy to look at events at that time through 21st century eyes. (I dread to think what inhabitants of the earth in the 24th century might think of some of the things that are going on around the world at the moment.) But I think that the British Library exhibition succeeds brilliantly at celebrating Cook's achievements, while at the same time re-evaluating them to take into account the effect of his 'discoveries' on the lives of those he 'discovered'. The objects on display are interspersed with video interviews with modern descendants of those peoples, and they make sobering listening. Yet the message in the end was, I felt, a nuanced one: that, to paraphrase, we are where we are: but we must take account of how we got there, and not pretend that exploitation didn't take place: we must respect not only the 'discoverers', but also the 'discovered'. The exhibition helps towards that - not least by giving us an insight into the lives and cultures of the peoples of the southern and other seas at the time that Cook first encountered them.

You can find out more about the exhibition on the British Library website, here.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Big Lie

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Hitler first mentioned die große Lüge  - the big lie - in his work Mein Kampf. The principle behind it was that people tell small lies themselves all the time in their everyday lives, and thus they are good at spotting small lies told by others.

Big lies on the other hand, seem shameful, most people don't like to tell them, so when someone does, they seem too outrageous to be made up - the listener is inclined to believe there must be a grain of truth in there somewhere.

Hitler, of course, claimed this was a technique used by Jews to get people to believe their propaganda.

Sixteen years later, Goebbels also mentioned the big lie. He claimed English leaders 'lie big' and stick to their lies. And that they keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking stupid.

When the Americans profiled Hitler, they drew the conclusion that this was exactly the technique Hitler himself used; he lied, he lied big and he stuck to it, never admitting a fault. Thus proving how much of demagoguery is projection. Corrupt leaders accuse others of doing what they themselves practise.

It is hard to refute a huge lie. We all know of one, for example, on a bus in our more recent past. So obviously a lie and all the harder to call out for its breathtaking brazenness. Surey no one would paint a whole bus with a lie? A simple, catchy lie is especially hard to contradict.

It's also hard to call out projection. Many of us will know that from interpersonal relationships. If someone accuses you of something they do themselves, you quickly sound ridiculous and weak claiming 'No, that's what YOU do.' And it's no different in politics.

When unscrupulous politicians of all nationalities use these techniques, they are not doing it by accident. It is calculated, in the way any abuser calculates their behaviour, intending it to undermine, confuse and confound their opponents.

It has recently come to be called gaslighting, after the 1938 stage play Gas Light. But originally, it was the big lie, and it is as effective and difficult to combat in the present as it was in the past.
We know we should learn from history, and yet it seems at times we are doomed to helplessly repeat the very worst aspects of it.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Things that go bump in the night - by Lesley Downer

Assorted strange creatures by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
In the 19th century, a time of particular upheaval and uncertainty in Japan, people would spend a summer evening sitting around telling ghost stories, lit by candles and lanterns (a hundred was the canonical number). At the end of each story they’d extinguish one until at the end of the last (and most frightening) story the last candle would go out, plunging the room into utter darkness - at which moment everyone would hold their breath, hoping a real ghost might materialise.

This year, as you will all know, there have been terrible and unprecedented floods in the south west. But usually the dog days of summer are even hotter and more stifling in Japan than we have had this year in Britain. In the old days Japanese would take all the sliding wooden and paper doors out of their houses so that the house became a breezy pavilion. Those that live in traditional houses still do. People made a point of eating oily foods like grilled aubergine and grilled eel and drinking iced barley tea. Essential accessories included a fan and a parasol. Another essential was ghost stories to send shivers down your spine. To this day the kabuki theatre always shows ghost stories.

Maruyama Okyo paints a ghost by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a great master of the bizarre, made a woodblock print depicting a famous Kyoto artist called Maruyama Okyo. It was said that Okyo’s paintings were so true to life that bees tried to pollinate the flowers he painted. He once made the mistake of painting a ghost. To his horror it came to life, looming up from the block. 

Japanese ghosts are the spirits of people whose lives have been cut short while they still have unfinished business - people who’ve died violently, haven’t received proper funerary rites, or died while consumed by a desire for vengeance. Such spirits can’t pass on peacefully to join their ancestors in the afterlife. According to Buddhist teaching, the journey from the world of the living to the world of the dead takes 49 days, and while they are in this limbo they can revisit the land of the living to sort out unfinished issues. A lot of these are the ghosts of women who have been spurned or killed by their lovers or husbands. They are yurei, which means something like 'faint or dim spirit'. 

Lantern Ghost by Hokusai
At the kabuki theatre I once saw the great male performer of female roles, Tamasaburo Bando, playing the ghost of a woman who had been killed by her husband. Her skin was white, her eyes sunken and ghastly. She was wearing a long white gown and floating high up the wall and her floor length hair was dishevelled and tangled in great knots. Wailing, she started tearing it out by the handful as clumps piled up in a heap on the floor. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen.

Katsushika Hokusai, the great woodblock print artist, loved depicting Japanese ghosts. The most famous and frightening ghost story of all is Yotsuya Kaidan, the story of the beautiful innocent Oiwa, who is poisoned and horribly disfigured by a rival who wants to marry Oiwa’s lover, Iemon. Oiwa ends up killing herself and the lover goes off with the rival. But Oiwa returns to haunt her faithless lover, emerging from a lantern hairless and jawless and with one eye hanging out of her head, until Iemon finally goes mad.

But yurei are not always women. There are also men, like Kohada Koheiji, a kabuki actor who specialised in yurei roles and whose wife had an affair with one of his rivals. The rival took him out for a boat ride, pushed him into the water and drowned him. But Kohada rose from his watery grave and haunted his wife and her lover for the rest of their lives, suddenly appearing leaning over the top of their mosquito net and grinning down horribly at them at the most unexpected moments. Both these stories, by the way, are based on true events.
Kohada Koheiji by Hokusai

And if these haven’t cooled you down enough, I have a ghost story of my own to scare you with.

I spent 3 years living in the small city of Kamakura, exactly an hour from Tokyo by train. It’s a beautiful place, full of mossy old temples and vermilion painted shrines with a huge famous stone Buddha.

My western friends and I rented a haunted house there. Japanese refused to live in it, which made the rent very cheap. Japanese ghosts are localised; they torment their own family members or whoever’s done them harm but they don’t trouble people at random and they don’t bother foreigners. In fact foreigners are so radically different that even the most ferocious of Japanese ghosts would probably steer well clear.

My friends and I lived happily in this large, rambling, rather shabby old house. It was beautiful. It had a tea ceremony hut and a carp pond and a very overgrown garden.

Everything was fine until the third summer. That year my western friends by chance all went away at the same time leaving me alone in the house. I had Japanese friends over to stay.
The Great Buddha in Kamakura

‘Lucky you,’ I told them. ‘You can have a room each!’

‘No, thank you,’ they replied. ‘That would be too frightening.’

I’d almost forgotten that the house was supposed to be haunted. Instead they all slept together in one room with their futon mattresses side by side down the middle.

The night after they left was my first on my own in the house. I was lying in my futons on the tatami mats of my room when I heard a distinct banging coming from the other end of the house, at the far end of a long dark corridor.

I listened hard. It sounded like boxes being thrown around. There was no one else in the house. I was definitely all alone. It couldn’t be a human being making all that noise. It could only be an obake - a one-legged umbrella ghost - but I certainly wasn’t going to go and investigate. I pulled my covers over my head, screwed my eyes tight shut and hoped for the best.

Thereafter I stayed well clear of the end of the corridor.
[Scroll on down to see the obake!]

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale with plenty of ghosts, set in nineteenth century Japan, and is out now in paperback. For more see

Woodblock print images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of the Great Buddha by me.

Obake (on the right). The critters on the left are kappa.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Sleeping Your Way to the Top - The 17th Century Theatre

by Deborah Swift

In the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct at the Old Vic, and the scandal around various Hollywood directors, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the 17th century and how female actors at the onset of the profession were regarded, and look at how the seeds of this type of culture originated.

Up until the 17th Century, women had no reflections of themselves in entertainment; they were played by boys. Being an actress was a way of both gaining and losing power – because a woman was able to behave on stage in a powerful way, (eg Kate in  The Taming of the Shrew) but also women were still seen as commodities; an attraction or novelty to please those that mattered (ie men).

In the 17th century, status was always conferred on a woman by the man. Thus Pepys refers to his wife Elisabeth always as ‘my wife’. Although this seems in our ears to diminish her, in fact this is not an insult; it was designed to confer on her a status not accorded to his servants who were referred to as Dolly, or Deb, or Jane. The theatre was the one place where this did not hold sway – female actors were always called ‘Mrs’ as a mark of respect. 

Nell Gwyn
Beauty was a woman’s currency in the early theatre, and in life in general. A frank and unflattering assessment of women’s looks was commonplace, their ‘assets’ as if it was a calculation – a checklist of features: how straight the nose, how even the teeth, how pale the complexion. In the theatre a good pair of legs was essential as in many roles the women played boys to show their legs. For a woman to reveal her legs, usually hidden beneath skirts, was considered extremely daring, and this is why so many 'cross-dressng' roles were written in this period. These were called ‘breeches’ roles. Voyeuristic? Certainly, but it was a way for a woman to counter invisibility, and to have a public voice. And a degree of freedom must have been felt by these women as they played assertive men’s roles – the reverse of what had been the status quo before. 
Elizabeth Barry
The idea of sleeping your way to the top in the entertainment industry was commonplace in the 17th Century Theatre. An example is Mrs Barry, who was ‘procured’ by the rake Rochester at 15 years of age and then moulded (like Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady) to be an actress. At the onset of acting as a career for women, beauty was a necessity, it was supposed (by men) that acting skills could be taught. Rochester’s letters give confessions of the progress of their affair. Ironically, Mrs Barry was then most famous for her tragic parts depicting an innocent maiden. 
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
The Casting Couch

 A popular idea in the early theatre was that of the “couch scene”. This was a scene where an attractive woman was placed centre stage on a bed or couch, with the scene calling for her to be asleep and therefore in a state of undress.

Why would any woman want to go along with this idea? Well, in this period the theatre & entertainment was one way for women to transcend social boundaries. In researches into Pepys’ diaries we can witness Nell Gwyn, who sleeps her way to the top from bawd’s daughter to mistress of a King. Was this a bad thing? Evidence shows Mrs Gwyn certainly had a mind of her own and of course now she has achieved some sort of national status. In Pepys' Diary, the actress Mary Knep is invited to musical soirees with Pepys and his civil servant friends. Being in the theatre conferred a ‘celebrity’ status not available to other women. 
Pepys Diary
A woman’s fortunes in the 17th century could change dramatically. In Pepys’s Diary, Abigail Williams, known as ‘Madam’ Williams, began life as the daughter of a baronet, was married off for her lands at age 12 (and had a daughter at that age). After her husband died, she returned to England from Holland and became an actress. There is some suggestion she was a spy (like Aphra Behn), but she re-emerged in high society as the mistress of Lord Brouncker, a well-respected mathematician and founder and president of the Royal Society. Her fortunes rose and fell, and rose again. It is tempting to think beauty alone did this – but it takes a skilled mind to manipulate and use what used to be called ‘assets’ to best advantage.

The theatre, even then, was a reflection of society. Scenes on stage echoed or parodied scenes at Court. And Charles II was a rake of a King. Only recently has the convention of the fourth wall arisen. At the beginning of women’s life in the theatre, there was constant badinage across the divide between stage and audience. There was an emphasis on wit and banter on both sides of the stage. Pepys went to the theatre to be seen. 

In Pepys' Diary there’s a notable argument at the theatre between Pepys and his wife. Pepys insists the maid sit beside him, and Mrs Pepys, scandalised by this flouting of the proprieties, refuses. Maidservants were supposed to sit behind their mistresses. The women in the plays by Sheridan, Etheredge and Wycherly (for example, Lady Gimcrack and Mrs Figgup) were imitations of the rich women attending the play. Actresses of the time trod the line of impersonating women who were almost always of a higher class to themselves, but in doing so, acquired the gloss of the characters they portrayed.
Through my trilogy of novels based around Pepys' Diary, I'm investigating the women Pepys knows, and re-imagining their lives. My first novel Pleasing Mr Pepys features actress ‘Madam Williams’ alongside Mrs Pepys and her maid Deb Willet. The second, A Plague on Mr Pepys features Pepys most long-cherished mistress, Bess Bagwell, and Entertaining Mr Pepys (in progress) is about his friend, Mary Knep the actress.

More on Hollywood and the Casting Couch 
Images from wikipedia.
The Play of Personality in the Restoration Theatre - Masters
Nell Gwyn - Beauclerk
Every One A Witness : The Stuart Age - Scott
Pepys' Diary

Find Deborah at or on Twitter @swiftstory

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Flawed heroes of the RAF. A tribute to Derek Robinson

On Tuesday, I took my children to St James' Park to see the RAF's 100 anniversary fly-past. It was extraordinary. History flew above our heads - Spitfires and Hurricanes. Early jet planes. The deep roar of the modern fighters. And the Red Arrows, of course, streaming their colours against the blue sky.

Children and adult alike were entranced. The power of it! The glory of it! What must it feel like, I wondered, to fly such a machine?

I will never know. But I can come close, through the transporting magic of fiction. More specifically, in the wonderful, underrated, utterly brilliant books of Derek Robinson. Robinson has written a series of books about the air force, with settings ranging from World War 1 to the Cold War.

When I got home, I turned to A Piece of Cake, his 1983 novel about a squadron of Hurricanes in the Second World War. Here, early on, is a description of a Hurricane taking off:

"As soon as he released the brakes and let it roll for take-off, Mother Cox began to sense the wash of air over and under the wings, the hint of lift in the tailplane, the hurrying stutter of the wheels, and then that vast invisible rush that rewarded the whole machine with the gift of flight."

Derek Robinson came close to winning the Booker prize in 1971 with his debut novel, Goshawk Squadron. The prize that year went to VS Naipaul, but Saul Bellow was one of the judges and fought for Goshawk to win. It is a superb book, about a squadron in the Royal Flying Corps. Stanley Woolley, the Squadron Leader, is the anti-Biggles. Cold, cynical and violent, Woolley unravels before our eyes. The humour is sharp and bleak; the death toll in the Squadron is high and miserable. Robinson has a trick of sketching a character closely, making him human and recognisable, and then killing him off with a laconic flick.

Robinson has been compared to Joseph Heller, but I think he is better. All Heller's bleak anti-war comedy comes from authorial trickery. Robinson's humour is darker and more truthful, coming as it does from the dialogue between young men who are brutal and brutalised by the horrors of war.

Woolley batters his men into forgetting notions of chivalry. He teaches them to shoot the Germans in the back. "The amateurs played at fighting, they kept their scores and rejoiced in their adventures and they were brave, good-humoured warriors. But Woolley took it seriously. He had asked the ultimate question - what's it for? - and got the obvious, only answer. You flew to destroy the enemy. You did not fly to fight, but to kill. It was neither fun, nor adventure, nor sport. It was business."

There is a poetry, too, in his sharp prose: these casual, unsentimental young men recognise that lonely impulse of delight experienced by Yeats' Irish airman. They would take the piss out of him, though, for expressing it. "It was part of Fighter Command's undergraduate quality: an implacably bright, slangy, superficial attitude, the kind of outlook that took nothing seriously except the supreme importance of being in Fighter Command, and that went without saying."

In a Piece of Cake, Fanny Barton thinks he has shot his first German bomber: ".. the bombers slid into view, ahead and above, perfectly silhouetted.; three Junkers 88s. They appeared so beautifully, so cleanly, that his lungs expanded for sheer joy. "Attack, Attack!" he called. He hauled back on the stick and tasted jubilation as the leader swam steadily bigger and blacker in his sights. Every muscle was tensed to hold the hurricane steady when he pressed the button, but even so the blaze of fire that raced from his wings made him flinch. His eight guns shaped a long cone of golden destruction."

Robinson served in the RAF as ground-crew. Every one of his books resonates with that clear, deep authenticity that we all, as writers of historical fiction, hope to achieve. Yes, you say to yourself as you put down Robinson novel - exhausted, and sad and a little fretful. Yes, that is how it was.