Tuesday, 16 September 2014

South of Granada, by Sue Purkiss

I’m afraid this is another holiday post – about Spain – so look away now if you’ve had enough of them!

I have been to Spain before, but only very briefly. The first time was when I was a teenager, and I was spending a few weeks with a French family who had a holiday cabin in the Landes. From there, we went for a day trip to San Sebastian. I remember narrow dark streets, shops hung with hams and festooned with strange-looking sausages, old women enveloped in black clothes.

The second time was a few years ago, to Barcelona. But the Alpujarra is something very different. It's a remote area in the Sierra Nevada, north-east of Malaga, and its landscape is different to any I've ever seen. This much was already obvious from the aeroplane window. The mountains were a sandy colour, patterned with black dots - trees - and turquoise rectangles. I thought at first that these must be swimming pools, but later realised that most must have been reservoirs; each farm has its own. Later, as we drove along the coast road from Malaga the heat was almost solid, but the sky was unexpectedly cloudy, and the strangely shaped hills looked parched and drab.

Trevelez, high in the Alpujarra
But then we turned off into the mountains. The Alpujarra (or Las Alpujarras – both forms are used) lies behind one range of mountains and on the slopes of another. So it’s not easy to get to. Gerald Brenan, a friend of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey etc, lived here in a very remote village called Yegen for many years after the first world war, and wrote about his experiences in South of Granada. Then, he had to use mostly mule tracks to get about: roads were few and far between, and none of them were paved. (Virginia and Lytton visited him there - imagine them on mules!) Now there are roads – truly terrifying roads (to a wuss like me)  – which leap across viaducts and bridges over deep gorges, and cling – just – to the mountainsides.
A plaque to 'Don Geraldo', on the house where he lived in Yegen. The book's been in print ever since he wrote it, and everyone knows who you're talking about when you ask where he lived.

In the summer, there is virtually no rainfall. But in winter it snows, and the people of the Alpujarra have, over the centuries, become expert at harvesting and conserving the melt-water. They direct it through ancient stone channels, originally made by the Moors, and through pipes, to irrigate certain areas of the land for farming, to supply villages and farms, and to flow from the fountains of which there are several in every village. So although in high summer much of the landscape is burnt brown, there are also patches of green – woods with chestnuts, Pyrenean and holm oaks, gardens punctuated with slender evergreen spires, and small fields and orchards with olives and figs, pears and apples, quinces and mulberries. (Which are the most delicious fruits EVER – like huge blackberries, but sweeter and with the most intense flavour.)
This particular well has naturally carbonated water - very invigorating!

The villages are a jumble of white cubes, perched on steep slopes – they’re said to be very like the Berber villages of north Africa, which isn't surprising as, like the irrigation systems, their architecture derives from the time when the Moors ruled Spain. The flat roofs were useful during hostilities – villagers could use them to get about, and to throw rocks at their enemies as they milled about in the narrow, winding streets. They’re made of local materials – a framework of chestnut beams, topped with slates and stones and then a kind of cement made from local rocks: the walls infilled with stones and earth, the

roofs topped with chemineas ( white chimneys), essential in the cold winters. Now they are painted white and decorated with pots of bright geraniums and purple morning glories, but this is recent; in Brenan’s day they were unpainted, so that they looked to him like ‘something that has been made out of the earth by insects.’ In the house where we stayed there were farm implements carved from wood: the people had to rely as much as they could on what was around them, because the only way to bring goods in was by mule, over steep mountain paths.

A street in Busquistor.
It’s a difficult, uncompromising land – yet over the centuries, the people who live there have bent it to their will – or at least they’ve found a way to live with it. Terraces and small fields have been carved out of the mountainsides, buttressed with stone walls and carefully irrigated to produce tomatoes, peppers, beans, potatoes – and wheat, which used to be threshed on circular paved terraces called eras; nowadays they make good viewing points.

Of course, things are changing. But you can still see the results of an intimate relationship between the people and the land. It’s all so utterly different from an English landscape. What would they think, the people who have learnt how to live in this dry land over centuries, of a country with a climate like ours, which far from irrigating its gardens, often bans hosepipes in summer?

Next month, the Alhambra - a lasting monument of the Moors' achievements in Spain, and a dream of intricate beauty.

PS I meant to say something about how when you first visit a place, your impressions are very vivid, and you soon feel as if you know it. But of course you don't. You have to live there, season after season and year after year - and particularly, you need to be able to talk to the people who live there. I couldn't do that, because I don't speak Spanish.

But Chris Stewart (who has a measure of fame for having been the drummer with Genesis on their first album) does live there on a farm called El Valero, and he's written several books about his experiences. The first was a best-seller, and is called Driving Over Lemons. They're very funny, and enjoyable whether you've been to the Alpujarra or not. But I was reading the fourth one this morning - Last Days of the Bus Club - and it has a chapter on a recent Christmas when, after months of drought, the heavens opened. 'There were slender cascades where there had never been cascades before... adding to the tumult, the crash and tumble of rockfall after rockfall, as familiar crags and pinnacles dissolved before my eyes and vanished in the raging grey water.' In one night, the river Trevelez forged for itself a different route, and much of Chris's farmland was swept away.

That chapter went a long way towards explaining how that landscape, with its dramatic gorges and strangely sculpted peaks and valleys, was formed. As a visitor, all you get is an introduction.

Right - off to learn Spanish, ready for next time...

Monday, 15 September 2014

August Competition winners

We had lovely answers to the "old pongs" competition! This month's winners are:

Pippa Goodhart
Elspeth Scott
Roz Cawley
Mark Burgess
Anne Rooney

To get your copies of Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, please email your land addresses to: Lamorna Elmer in publicity at OneWorld

Congratulations to you all!

Laurits Tuxen 1853-1927

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Den druknede bringes i land

The drowned man is brought ashore
Wikimedia Commons; no restriction.

I was lucky enough to be in Skagen this summer at the time of the Tuxen Exhibition at Skagens Museum. This ran from 3rd May to the 14th of September 2014 (its last day is in progress as I write this). 
The exhibition is a gathering together of the work of artist Laurits Tuxen. In the picture above, Laurits Tuxen has painted a Skagen scene. In many ways this is typical of the Skagen paintings; its focus on everyday life and death in the isolated community at the time of the artist community in the late 1800s. The focus on fishing, fishermen and drowning was a frequent motif. It resembles paintings by Ancher, Krøyer and others; though it has a more photographic quality to it, to my mind. (Tuxen worked from photographs). I have grown up going to see the paintings and they were important to the writing of my first novel Between Two Seas.
But Copenhagen-born Tuxen was not a typical Skagen artist.
Like many of the Skagen artists, he lived and studied abroad for spells. He married a French wife and they had three children together. But he was commissioned to paint portraits of many of the European royal families. It must have been quite a career. It certainly surprised me to come face to face with paintings of the British Royal family (including Queen Victoria) and of a Buckingham Palace garden party in the exhibition.
What struck me most about his life was the tragedy. He lost his wife and his first three children to tuberculosis and meningitis. It must have been such torture, watching them fade and die one after another, until he was left alone. I felt heartbroken, reading his life story in the museum. It was heartening to see that he remarried and had more children (what courage!) and eventually settled in Skagen with his new family. Tuxen was instrumental in founding the Skagens Museum, where so many of the artists' works are preserved and displayed.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The News Where You Are Catherine Johnson

I think a book came out with that title recently I think by Catherine Flynn, but that's not what this blog is about. It is, like a lot of books, about identity and local TV news and is more than a little muddled.

Deedee Cuddihy's Glaswegian Yes Egg

This goes out on the 14th, a few days before the momentous Scottish referendum. There as been so much said about this and I am in no way Scots, although there is a good chance that one of the plantation owners in the hills of Jamaica who gave his name (and no doubt his genes) to my family was.  And I have no say in the vote and when all is said and done if I did, I  certainly see the optimism and hope that comes with the power to vote in a high taxing, high spending socialist/green government along Icelandic lines.

There have been a lot of posts from English people who want the status quo, who feel Scotland shouldn't go, there's talk of family break ups... This does not resonate with me at all. I don't think Scots will be foreign, they'll still be British, there are not building a wall or using the Trident missiles to disengage Scotland from England and sail their new country down to the more salubrious Med.

So while it has been fascinating to see the excitement of the debate, I still feel that it is fundamentally nothing to do with me. What has got to do with me is being English. I have never - I don't think - typed I am English anywhere ever before. I don't go around saying 'I am English'. I think at the age of 52 I probably ought to start. I have always been happy with British, but English? It's not got the excitement of the Celtic fringe, we're not the downtrodden we're the ones (usually) doing the treading.

My previous get out was that I was a Londoner, and if I still lived there would see all kinds of advantages in (so long as we lost Boris) cutting loose from the rest of the UKIP addled country, slashing house prices and letting out the Shard and every other half empty ball swinging 'look at me' tower block as utterly affordable housing.

 One of the worries that have been raised about Scottish nationhood is the possible rise in English Nationalism. English Nationalism for any of our overseas readers, unlike the Celtic sort has always been problematic. This is to do with history of course. In the UK family England has always been the bossy one, the one who ate all the pies and told the others what and how to do.
Jim Murphy talks to Nos. From the BBC

Scots Nats have had in the past, a reputation for anti Englishness, Welsh Nats too. Those pesky Welsh - they are just like the French and the Spanish - they will insist on speaking their own language in pubs and shops even when English people walk in....

English nationalism is probably best  illustrated by the hearty lads and lasses of UKIP or  the EDL or the now almost defunct BNP. These parties stated aims include an end to immigration and an end to 'Politically Correct Culture'.

I believe the difference in the two forms of nationalism is that the Scots and the Welsh sort are not - these days anyway - driven by fear in a way that English Nationalism seems to be. I am well aware I may be wrong, this is just my viewpoint.

I was always terrified of moving away from London. London is  a bubble of comparative safety and normalcy for the brown skinned. In the past year and a half out of London enjoying fresh air and sea views, I have only experienced friendly enquiries about my provenance, in fact the most recent was from a woman who introduced herself as a Tanning Consultant. She informed me that my skin shade was the one her white clients aspired to most.

God I have got completely off the topic. Excuse me.

Right, so I love local news. In Hackney I loved the Gazette, and here in Hastings we have our precious Observer. There's also that bit on the end of the BBC News at Ten - The News Where You Are.
So the first spring I was here the one big  thing I noticed was how often they referenced Calais. Calais with it's desperate hordes, just across the water, all waiting to jump on lorries, cars, trains, little boats, maybe soon, with global warming they will be walking across and taking our jobs. I am being facetious but the fear level was high. The way they have told this story must engender fear.  Fear among these Kent and Sussex residents that they are suddenly going to be swamped.  Fear among those of us whose melanin levels are higher than most.

And then this summer there has been the explosion in anger and desperation among the (mostly) men camped out desperate to find work and help their families back wherever they came from. Can we imagine (perhaps with the help of Gillian Cross's excellent book After Tomorrow) what these people have gone through to get here?

What am I saying here?  You're thinking, does this woman want the floodgates open? She should go back to where she came from if she's going to mouth off? What exactly is her argument?

I suppose it is this. We all want safety, we all want hope, and we all want fairness. Please lets not talk up fear, and please lets emphasise similarities not differences. In whatever country we happen to be in,


Saturday, 13 September 2014

THE MARMITE TENSE: Pondering on the Present Historic – Elizabeth Fremantle

There are lots of people who don't like stories from the past retold in the present tense and they can be very vocal about this aversion, especially on Radio 4. But the present tense is the mode of drama, it is the mode of conversation, so why not too, the mode of story telling? Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion but as an historical novelist, I tend to seek the best possible way to recount a particular story depends on many factors, not least, and particularly with first person accounts, the fate of the narrating character. Often in historical fiction the reader is aware of the protagonist's outcome but even if the reader knows that, say, Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard are going to end up on the block, the fact that the character does not have the benefit of hindsight creates an effect that is filled with dramatic irony and tension.
Hilary Mantel employs this to spectacular effect in Bring Up the Bodies, a novel that is tightly plotted, like a thriller, and written in a third person that is so close to protagonist Thomas Cromwell that it creates the illusion of the world seen through his eyes alone. We watch in horror as Cromwell unravels the Queen's world and even though we all know what will become of Anne Boleyn and the five men she is accused of adultery with, neither she nor they know and somehow we, as readers, are drawn into their world so completely we forget what we know about the outcome and are shocked when it comes. 

Another example, though one much more straightforward and written in the first person, is from Philippa Gregory in The Boleyn Inheritance.  The teenaged narrator Catherine Howard is about to be carted off to the Tower. She still believes she will be pardoned when her uncle Norfolk comes to tell her she is to die. 
'You should acknowledge your sins, and ask forgiveness,' he says promptly.

I am so relieved I could almost weep. Of course I will be forgiven if I say I am sorry.
We are entirely drawn into this poor child's world watching her articulate the belief that a simple apology will suffice, when we know that nothing can save her. It is a powerful device. This moment simply wouldn't have the impact or poignance if written with hindsight. And indeed, how does one write a first person past tense account of someone who is about to die, and get away with it? But then again, anything is possible in fiction if you can make it work. 
Other writers use the present historic to create layers of meaning in a text. Take Sarah Waters for example:

I do not know who cries it, she or I: I reel away unnerved. But in the second I have her skin between my fingers, my own flesh leaps in a kind of relief. I shake horribly for almost an hour. 'Oh, God!' I say, hiding my face. 'I'm afraid, for my own mind! Do you think me mad? Do you think me wicked, Sue?' 'Wicked?' she answers, wringing her hands. and I can see her thinking: A simple girl like you?

This quote from Fingersmith, illustrates the intensity and immediacy of the present. We inhabit the flesh of narrator Maud as it 'leaps' and 'shakes', and we are able to observe her watching Sue, who is not party to what the reader and narrator know. We are drawn right into the plot because we are on the inside of Maud's narration. Waters has used both present and past tenses to tell this story. Sue, the sly cockney girl relates her part in the past. This seems to be an inversion of our expectations; wouldn't a girl like Sue employ the more casual tense of the raconteur? But the past is the knowing tense, and Sue knows, or thinks she knows, exactly what is going on. Maud's narration is told in the moment, as if without hindsight. Again there is an oddness to it; Maud is a refined girl employed to read to her uncle and surely more suited to the formality of the tense of literature. 
This quote from 

Waters's subterfuge is clever here because, as it turns out, neither girl is what we first think and so the tense they narrate their stories in works as a key to our overall understanding. But the action is almost subliminal because, if the writing is good enough, the reader, lulled into the voice and world of the novel, loses awareness of the tricks perpetrated by the author.

Viennese author from the early twentieth century, Stephan Zweig, uses tense in a very particular way moving between present and past like a conjurer. In Beware of Pity he introduces his story in the voice of a kind of faux author; a writer who encounters a man, a so called, 'historically authentic hero,' Hofmiller, in a cafe. The story is then told as if from Hofmiller's mouth, going back in time twenty years, and shifting in an apparently casually conversational manner between past and present tense: 

So one afternoon – it must have been the middle of May 1914 – I was sitting in the cake shop with one of my occasional partners...We had long ago finished playing our usual three games, and were just idly talking about this or that... but the conversation was drowsy, and as slow as the smoke from a cigarette burning down. At this point the door suddenly opens, and a pretty girl in a fulll-skirted dress is swept in on a gust of fresh air...

This is exactly what happens when people tell stories, they slip back and forth from the now to the then. But beneath this appearance of veracity lies a device that manipulates the tone of the piece. We are with the narrator in his provincial town, in his state of lassitude and boredom and something happens. The girl is characterised as a breath of fresh air, which is the function she performs in the story, bringing the excitement of possibility with her, we are jolted out of our torpor into the moment. Indeed the appearance of this girl heralds the true beginning of Hofmiller's story. Zweig is using this mode of story telling to enhance our experience of the atmosphere in which our narrator exists. It is a beautifully conceived trick, hidden behind the guise of an 'authentic' raconteur's voice.

Fiction is, by its very nature, a deceptive art and writers have only a limited number of tools at their disposal: mostly grammatical; so the use of tense is crucial to the crafting of a novel. To simply use the past tense because we are recounting past events is missing the point. after all, any narration is necessarily describing past events, even if they happened only a few moments ago. Novelists are creating an artificial world and how better to bring the distant past, its sounds, smells, textures, the inner worlds of its inhabitants, to life, than to speak of it as if it's happening now. It is sometimes said that the 'fashion' for the present tense is the result of the ubiquitous Creative Writing MA, with the suggestion that it is the preferred tense of such courses. This is nonsense of course, the use of the present tense is more a natural progression of Modernism, via authors like Zweig, in which writers strive to build ever more convincing worlds and climb further into the minds of their characters. So it could be seen as a contemporary style, and let's not forget that even historical fiction is contemporary fiction.

Find out about Elizabeth Fremantle's novels Queen's Gambit, about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, about the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, on ElizabethFremantle.com

Friday, 12 September 2014

The tragedy of John Glasgow by Tanya Landman


When researching Buffalo Soldier I came across some heartbreaking stories, perhaps none more so than that of John Glasgow  (related in Slave Life in Georgia, a Narrative of the Life, Sufferings and Escape of John Brown a Fugitive Slave).

Born a free man in British Guiana,  John Glasgow went to sea as a cabin boy and worked his way his way up on vessels that sailed between Britain and the West Indies.

He married a woman from Lancashire and they took on a small farm.  He had saved his money while he’d been at sea and invested in three horses, a plough and a cart.   But John Glasgow knew nothing of farming and so, leaving his wife to manage their land,  he returned to sea.  The couple prospered, but in 1830, when John Glasgow was around twenty five years old and the father of two children, he signed for an English vessel bound for Savannah, Georgia, for a cargo of rice. He promised his wife that this would be his last voyage to a distant country, and that in future he would confine his trips to the English coast.

Georgia law required black seamen to remain on board their ships from 6pm until 5am.  As soon as John Glasgow set foot on shore he was seized, handcuffed and incarcerated in gaol.  There he was kept confined for several days until the ship had discharged her cargo, re-loaded and was ready to start the return journey to England. His fate lay in the hands of the ship’s captain who would have  to pay the high gaol fees to release him.  The captain – who’d had to pay for a slave to do John’s work while he was in gaol - chose not to do so and set sail without him. On the day John’s wife and children expected him home he was put on an auction stand and sold as a ‘green hand’ to a Georgia farmer for  $350.

John Glasgow had the carriage and bearing of a free man.  His ‘brave look’ offended his new master, Thomas Stevens, who swore to flog the pride out of him. 

There was no hope of escape for John Glasgow.  He couldn’t read or write; he was utterly friendless in a distant country.   After three or four years in Georgia his master ordered him to find himself a wife.  John picked Nancy – a young woman from a nearby plantation but Thomas Stevens didn’t approve his choice.  Any children Nancy bore John would be the property of Thomas Steven’s neighbour and it was his own ‘stock’ he wanted to increase.  Stevens commanded John to pick a woman from his own plantation but John Glasgow refused to do so.   For slipping away on Christmas Day to see Nancy once more he was punished.  When John still refused to choose a different woman Thomas Stevens vowed,   “He’d cure him of Nancy any how.”

This time John Glasgow was given ‘the Picket.’  In his autobiography John Brown describes the procedure in detail and it makes gruesome reading.  After that particular punishment John Glasgow,   “could not stand, much less walk, so they carried him to his quarters where the usual application of salt and water and red pepper was made to his wounds.  It was a month before he stirred from his plank, and five months elapsed ere he could walk.  Ever after he had a limp in his gait.”

John Brown made his escape from the plantation some time afterwards.  “The last I know of John’s history is that in 1840, or thereabouts, the poor fellow was felling a white oak in the woods, which in falling struck him on his right thigh, just above the knee, and broke it in two.  As he was thus rendered comparatively useless for field-work, Thomas Stevens gave him to his son, who kept him to shell corn off the cob.”

John Brown eventually made his way to England. “One of my chief regrets is that I cannot remember the name of the place where John’s wife lived.”

I am haunted by the idea that John Glasgow’s English wife never knew what had happened to her husband, that his children grew up without their father.  But there’s a small gleam of light in this sad, sad story.  I like to think the spirit of John Glasgow remained intact and unbroken because John Brown concludes his account with this tribute,   “To John (Glasgow) I owe a debt of gratitude, for he it was who taught me to love and to seek liberty.”

Thursday, 11 September 2014

An Old Man and His Cat, by Laurie Graham

  The research for my new novel The Grand Duchess of Nowhere required me to untangle the vast network of the Romanov dynasty as it was in the early years of the 20th century. There was much discussion with my editor about Russian names  -  to give people their full name with patronymic? Always? Sometimes? And then what about nicknames and diminutives? The Russians do love their diminutives. Compromises had to be made in the interests of being reader-friendly, and my solution, given that I am no Tolstoy, was to focus on just a few members of this very large family. Size apart, the Romanov family was much like any other. It contained roués and straight-shooters, the prim, the giddy and the seemingly normal. Factions were on no-speaks with other factions, and some of the rifts that appeared as the Revolution gathered pace and loyalties were tested were never repaired.  

The story of what happened to Tsar Nicholas II, his family and his closest retainers is well-known, though none the less chilling for being so often retold. But what about the rest of the dynasty? At the time of Nicholas’s abdication in 1917 there were more than fifty recognised Romanovs living in Russia, plus a number of semi-detached scions, principally morganatic wives and their children. Romanov men were never afraid to follow their heart rather than the rule book on suitable brides.  Of these fifty or so Romanovs the majority escaped into exile. But eleven of them suffered the same fate as the Imperial Family, and a recurring theme struck me as I researched their deaths: the Bolsheviks always executed their enemies in the dead of night.

The first Romanov to be killed was Tsar Nicholas’s brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. In the family he was known as Misha. For just a day or two after Nicholas’s abdication he was Tsar Michael II. You see what I mean about names?  

In March 1918 Grand Duke or ex-Tsar Misha, pictured here with his beloved (but unapproved) wife Natalya Brasova, was exiled to Perm. His faithful friend and secretary, Brian Johnson, went with him and so, for a while, did Natalya and their son. Brian Johnson, by the way, was half English, half German, born in Russia, and was more generally known by his Orthodox name, Nikolai. See, names again?  Early on June 13th, in the gloaming of a Russian white night, Grand Duke Misha and Johnson were driven to a forest clearing and shot. Their bodies have never been found though several searches have been made in recent years. You may find this link of interest.

A month after Misha’s death, on July 17th 1918, in Yekaterinburg, the Imperial Family were woken from their sleep and murdered. The following day, in the town of Alapaevsk, a further six members of the Romanov family were killed:  Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna (the Tsarina’s elder sister) with one of her fellow nuns, Varvara,  three Grand Dukes from the Konstantinovich branch of the dynasty, and 22 year old Vladimir Paley, a young poet and one of the morganatic offspring of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich. Here is a photograph of Vladimir in his cadet uniform.

In the dead hours of the early morning they were bundled into a cart, driven to an abandoned iron working and thrown down one of its shafts. What the fall failed to accomplish was finished off with grenades and bundles of burning brushwood. None survived.

There was then a six month hiatus before the final Bolshevik cull of Romanovs. Grand Dukes Paul Alexandrovich, Dmitri Konstantinovich, Nicholas Mikhailovich (aka Bimbo) and George Mikhailovich aka Gogi) had at first been detained under a fairly lenient form of house arrest in Vologda, free to associate with one another, but after the assassination of Nicholas and his family they were transferred to the Shpalernaya House of Detention in Petrograd (now St Petersburg).

On January 29th 1919, long before dawn, they were brought by truck to the Peter & Paul Fortress. Grand Duke Paul was so frail he had to be carried to the place of execution and was shot where he lay on a stretcher. The other Grand Dukes had the briefest moment to embrace each other on the edge of the trench that had been dug to receive their bodies. For me one of the most poignant details of that scene -  four elderly men, taken from their beds, stripped of their shirts in sub-zero temperatures, and shown the grave that awaited them  -  is that Grand Duke Bimbo, the Romanov’s oddball intellectual, botanist, historian, enthusiast and prankster, had brought his cat with him from jail and his very last act was to entrust it to one of his executioners and ask him to care for it.

Here is Bimbo decked out for an official portrait. I'd like to think there was a cat just out of shot on that button-back chair or perhaps already making its scornful way out of the door.

This is recent history. There is abundance of photographs of all the people I’ve mentioned in this post and I studied those faces often as I was writing The Grand Duchess of Nowhere. But as novelists we’re always searching for the little human stories beneath the starched collars and corsets. For me, Grand Duke Bimbo and his cat were just one such.  

THE GRAND DUCHESS OF NOWHERE, Quercus Books, will be published on October 2nd.