Friday, 11 June 2021

Pigeon Post by Judith Allnatt



Communication was no easy matter during World War One. There’s an old joke about a message that originated as ‘Send reinforcements; we’re going to advance’ but which eventually arrived as ‘Send three and fourpence; we’re going to a dance!’ Although admittedly amusing, the joke has a dark side when one thinks of the consequences of inaccurate communication when applied to crucial military messages, and the difficulties of passing on messages verbally were by no means the only ones encountered.

Signallers using flash lamp near Bouzincourt, 10th July 1916.
Where military positions were established, messages could be sent to and from HQs telephonically once Signallers had laid down cables along trenches or buried them in the ground. This was dangerous work in itself and wires often needed repairing, leading to loss of life. However, when attacking, it was difficult to keep pace with an advancing force and impossible to connect sideways to other battalions moving forward in parallel. As a result, some ingenious communication methods were adopted.


In addition to the use of rare and cumbersome radios and runners who may or may not survive a journey fraught with mines, artillery fire and snipers, vast numbers of pigeons were housed in mobile pigeon lofts so that they could be moved around the field of conflict. A smaller number could then be carried in a wicker basket on a man’s back to a position in the line and released to return ‘home’ with messages in tiny cylinders attached to the bird’s leg. 

The Royal Engineers Signals Service on the Western Front, 1914-1918
A former London double-decker bus camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918.

 Pigeons have a ‘sixth’ sense – the ability to detect and navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. Although the mechanism for this homing sense was not understood during the Great War, in the 1980s researchers discovered tiny crystals of magnetite inside nerve endings in the upper part of the beaks of pigeons which detect the strength of the earth’s magnetic field. Others found that chemical reactions induced by light entering the bird’s right eye allow awareness of the direction of the magnetic field. These two together enable the bird to ‘see’ the magnetic field and find their way home.

As well as taking messages from the trenches to the rear, pigeons were taken up in planes being used for reconnaissance to bear messages from aviators to HQ. Even more ingenious was the practice of fastening a small camera to the bird’s chest and releasing it at a pre-planned time. Aware of the route the bird would take to get home, the camera could be attached to a timer that operated the shutter, thereby collecting aerial images – literally a bird’s eye view!




Sergeant of the Royal Engineers Signals Section putting a message into the cylinder attached to the collar of a messenger dog at Etaples, 28 August 1918. McLellan, David (Second Lieutenant) (Photographer)








Dogs were also used to carry messages or sometimes even to carry other messengers, as pigeon baskets could be strapped onto their backs.

Before basic radio transmitters, communication from a plane, to inform on the fall of enemy artillery for instance, was initially by dropping messages inside weighted streamers over the side. Kite balloons were also used for reconnaissance over enemy lines. Two observers went up in the wicker basket fixed beneath. One cable was used to tether the balloon to a lorry and the other to relay telephonic messages. The balloons made easy targets and, under fire, men ‘bailed out’ with parachutes. 

Disembarking from a kite balloon


Despite these resourceful methods, communication difficulties must have hamstrung officers making decisions on the ground. Once an attack had started there was no quick, reliable way to contact troops to redirect them or to call for reinforcements. There may be other reasons underpinning the epithet ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ but the lack of timely, dependable communication must have been a contributory factor in many decisions that turned out to be bad ones and resulted in an incalculable number of casualties.

Friday, 4 June 2021

These are not the hands - Michelle Lovric


I’m making this short, as Covid-brain has inoculated me with attention deficit disorder, hop-skipping eyes and a dislike of detail. I don’t believe I am speaking just for myself when I say that I flinch away from length and complication the way we used to recoil from a mosquito when on holiday in the Mediterranean …

In 2020, my hands took a Great Leap Forward, not in a good way. They aged twenty years faster than the rest of my body. They don’t look like my hands any more.

Covid cleanliness is not next to pellicular loveliness. Add regular hand-washing to Corona-brain daydreaming, and I often find myself washing my hands for far too long. I can never remember when I last sanitized, so it’s always the right time to do it again. Result: mummification.

My messed-up hands had more use than normal during the lockdowns. They made many meals. They produced battalions of home-made cards collaged from antique ephemera and beads. They set up a guerrilla garden in my London street (only to have it stripped, night by night, by a thief); they spent quite a lot of time in the belly-puff of my fur-friend Caramella. They grew herbs and planted exotic tulip bulbs. They dispensed picnics on night-time boat trips in Venice.

But month by month, they looked more and more like leather carved out of a butcher’s apron. Caramella the cat, normally up for a belly rub at any time, began to cringe from my thorny touch.

I researched all kinds of moisturisers – finding ‘Hand Jam’, ‘Crack Attack’, ‘French Lavender Goat Lotion’, ingredients including chocolate-orange, pumpkin and Parma violets.

I was reminded that I’d been here before.

In an anthology about quack medical cures for women, produced some 20 years ago, I’d included a section on the products sold to women eager to keep their hands supple, soft and elegant. Ironically, marketing for such potions was targeted at the gullible rich, and were likely to have been beyond the pockets of the women whose hands were regularly punished by washing and scrubbing.

As ever, with quack medicine, the charm for me lay in the language. Quacks were the poets of their day, tellers of adult fairytales of the perfectability of health and beauty.

Skin treatments for women have always been sold as more than simple creams or lotions: they are magical solutions to life’s problems, if the advertisers are to be believed. No metaphor was too extreme, no allusion too exotic, no caution too terrifying.

As Carl A. Naether observed his book Advertising to Women (1928): ‘I can think of no commodity field in which superlatives are used more excessively than in cosmetics.’

One must add these superlatives to the quack’s usual arsenal of terms that sound scientific, and may well be scientific in origin but have nothing to do with rejuvenating ageing skin – and also, perhaps more than in any other field, the quacks have always scoured the world for exotic ingredients, or at least the names of them, when it comes to beauty preparations. A skin tonic could hardly expected to be effective without containing some ‘May-dew sublimated’, or ‘Ready-drawn Spirit of Mint and Saffron’. Precious stones and flower essences were favourite stated ingredients, but often the contents were more prosaic, as was demonstrated in a series of books published in the early 20th century. 

Secret Remedies analysed the contents of various well-known products. Part of the remit was to show how much very cheap ingredients were marked up by the manufactures (very much). Boric acid, maize starch, paraffin were popular ingredients but the most common one was … water. ‘Rino Curative Ointment’ was advertised as containing ‘napthalan, Peru balsam, chrysarobin’ but was found to consist of turpentine, oil of cade, boric acid and egg yolk.

Secret Remedies also pointed out that prices often started low, but those who wrote off for a simple cream would receive an answer that specified a complete treatment including a special soap, a medicine to be taken internally and a dusting powder. The treatment could not be expected to work unless all four products were used together, of course. 

Preparations for women were often sold with a female name in the title, such as ‘Mrs Merroll’s Face Bleach and Skin Food’. Lady beauticians handbills survive from as early as the seventeenth century. Naturally, none but ‘Gentlewomen’ pursued this elegant trade. In London they were usually to be found in the upper-class parts of town, like Mayfair and Bond Street. Their handbills invariably boasted that they were patronised by ‘Persons of the Highest Quality’. Like the medical quacks, these ladies often claimed to have trained in France, Italy or Germany, and to be the possessors of certain secrets and special formulas, created by all kinds of scientific processes, ‘chymical’, ‘hermetical’, ‘chirurgical’ etc.

An advertisement for a miracle worker in London’s Bond Street is typical: ‘… this Lady preserves Youth and Beauty. She beautifies without any paint and increases the Radical Humour in some and restores it in others, corroborating the spirits, animals or vitals and the whole body…’

Restoration ladies had a horror of yellowing complexions, sometimes described as a ‘wainscot’ colour, and of red hair. Unmarried girls could easily look pasty – victims of the ‘green-sickness.’ Help was always at hand.

One of the most picturesque preparations to come out of the 17th century beauty industry was the so-called ‘Water of Talk and Pearl.’ Ground pearls were claimed to be the ingredients of many beautifying powders but ‘Talk’ (talc) was more likely to be the real basis for this kind of tonic, which, it was claimed, could turn an unfashionably brown complexion to clear, bright white.

Victorian advertising cast different kinds of veils, with pseudo-scientific terms appearing in the names and marketing, as in ‘Scurfgofus – ‘a scurf preparation’ and ‘Emollio Tablet’ for ‘softening and whitening’ the hands’.

‘Otto of Rose’ (‘cooling, healing, emollient’) was a popular scent for Victorian hand creams. There were also glycerine and benzoin preparations ‘unrivalled for softening, whitening and preserving the skin. 
courtesy of Wellcome Images

But these ingredients were too cheap and accessible on their own. An exotic name or ingredient was still required to ‘sex it up’. Hence, Snowfire Glycerine Jelly, Holloway’s Glyco-Vazin Cream for Eczema’, ‘The Egyptian Salve’ ‘Machin’s Infallible Pearl Ointment’, ‘Northern Foam’ whereas ‘Sootheen’ has a rather Irish flavour to it, ‘Saponaceous Cream of Almonds’. Number 1 Mannina Ointment claimed to cure not just skin lesions but cancer and tumours. ‘Zam-buk’, made of beeswax and oils of eucalyptus, camphor, red thyme and pine, first appeared in 1903 in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The name is said to come from a ridge of mountains in South Africa. This product is still available to buy.

In my own research for something to cure my hands, I finally discovered a cheap, greasy, fragrant supermarket product that worked far better and smelled much nicer than so many creams on which the marketing dollar had been lavished. There was nothing tricksy about its packaging. There were no grand claims for the expense and exoticism of its ingredients, most of which I could have found on my own balcony or in my fridge.

My formerly mummified scrag-ends are now so soft that the cat once more consents to hold hands on the sofa while we watch her preferred bird documentaries. All good.

I hope you’ve found your equivalent, or even made it. 

Michelle Lovric's website

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Greek courtesans - beautiful and savvy by Elisabeth Storrs

Through the female characters in my ‘A Tale of  Ancient Rome’ series, I explore the lives of women in the ancient world. One of my favourite characters is a Cretan courtesan or hetaira (literally translating as a ‘companion’ in Greek) who teaches my naïve Roman female protagonist to compare the cloistered lives of Greek and Roman wives to those of Etruscan women who were afforded independence, education and sexual freedom (See Ancient Girl Power and Sex, Death and Eternal Love).

Greek women in the ancient world were cloistered in the homes of their fathers or husbands and confined to the roles of mothers and housewives. Roman matrons had a similar fate albeit granted status as second-class citizens ie disenfranchised. Their lives were passive and disempowered as encapsulated by the C5th playwright, Sophocles:

‘But now outside my father's house, I am nothing. Yes, I have often looked on women's nature in this regard, that we are nothing. When we reach puberty and can understand, we are thrust and sold away from our ancestral gods and from our parents. Some go to strange men's homes, others to joyless houses, some to hostile. And all this once the first night has yoked us to our husband. We are forced to praise and say that all is well.’

In comparison, hetairai (Greek) or hetaerae (Latin) were professional courtesans in ancient Greece who cultivated their beauty, intelligence and commercial acumen to gain a degree of independence far beyond that allowed to married women and their daughters. A hetaira was not a prostitute (pornos) who sold sex, but a sophisticated, educated and talented companion who wealthy and middle-class men hired to act as a hostess at parties known as symposia. Many were known for their prowess as artists and performers. 

Hetaira and symposiast Kylix 490-480 BCE

Heteirai were reputed to be educated and expected to participate in political discourse with guests. These courtesans were generally foreigners not born in Athens (metics), slaves or freedwoman but were well compensated and able to run businesses which employed entertainers such as musicians, jugglers, dancers, singers and flute girls (who performed sexual favours) to entertain at symposia. However, the world of a hetaira should not be romanticised. As it was usual for them to be supported by upper class protectors with whom they formed intimate liaisons, withdrawal of patronage could adversely affect their security. Furthermore, due to the sexual aspects of their profession, the companions were subject to religious disapproval and lived in a demi-monde subject to male authority. Nevertheless, compared to the lives of most Greek women whose primary purpose was procreation, and who were considered to be chattels to be bought, sold and inherited, the hetairai enjoyed a rare status in the Attic world.

Among the most famous was Aspasia of Miletus (approx. 470-410 BCE), long-time companion of the Athenian politician Pericles. She was a metic and, accordingly, was not allowed to marry an Athenian and had to pay a tax to live in Athens. She bore Pericles a son out of wedlock known as Pericles the Younger. She is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plutarch and other ancient writers whose opinions varied between praising her as a talented rhetorician who was the centre of Athenian intellectual life, or deriding her as a brothel-keeper who procured young girls for her lover.

Aspasia surrounded by Greek philosophers, Michele Corneille the Younger 1670s

The name Aspasia means ‘the desired one’ and, as such, may have been a professional name used when working as a hetaira. She operated a salon and a girl’s school which her detractors claimed were brothels. Pericles’ enemies derided him by asserting Aspasia was the true author of his speeches. In comparison, Socrates felt no shame in stating Aspasia had taught him the art of eloquence (which was also mentioned by Plato in his dialogue Menexenus). Socrates marvelled at her persuasiveness, and credited her with composing the funeral oration Pericles delivered after the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War.

Attacks continued on Aspasia by Pericles’ adversaries. A charge of impiety was brought against her for disrespecting the gods. At her trial, Pericles reputedly spoke in her defence before a court of 1500 jurors leading to Aspasia being exonerated. Three years later, in 429 BCE, Pericles died of the plague but, before his death, allowed a change in the citizenship law to make his half-Athenian son, Pericles the Younger, a citizen and his legitimate heir.

After Pericles’ death, Aspasia was said to have become the companion of his friend Lysicles, whom she helped transform into an Athenian political leader. Lysicles was killed in the campaign of Caria in 428/427 BCE and nothing else is known of Aspasia after that with any certainty.

Aspasia - Roman copy of C5th Greek original

Plutarch accepts Aspasia as a significant figure both politically and intellectually and expresses his admiration for a woman who ‘managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length’ although he also claimed Aspasia held undue influence over Pericles and was ultimately to blame for every mistake he made! Aeschines (a pupil of Socrates) wrote a dialogue ‘Aspasia’ about her, which is now lost save for a few fragments, which seems to have been a favourable portrayal but Aristophanes, the comic poet, generally speaks ill of her. Other later writers, however, such as the rhetorician Quintilian held her in high regard and lectured about her to his students while the satirist, Lucian, called her ‘a woman of wisdom and understanding’.

In modern literature, Aspasia’s reputation has been treated favourably, if not a little too romantically.   In the classical romance, Philothea (1835), Lydia Maria Child, an American abolitionist and novelist, portrays Aspasia a great beauty. Walter Savage Landor’s popular Pericles and Aspasia (1836) presents a work of fictional letters between the two lovers (albeit rife with historical inaccuracies). This work later inspired Gertrude Atherton to publish her equally popular novel The Immortal Marriage (1927), presenting Aspasia as the ‘power behind the throne’ who made Pericles the popular speaker and statesman he was.

Undoubtedly, the range of contradictory portrayals casts a shadow on the historicity of Aspasia's life. Yet what a charismatic and intelligent person she must have been to galvanise so many writers to opine about her over the centuries! Whether she was an intellectual giant or a flagrant companion, no one can dispute Aspasia continues to impress as a woman who gained a foothold in public life denied other women of her time.

 Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com

Images courtesy of Wikimedia commons and Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Friday, 21 May 2021

The wonders of medieval wall paintings by Carolyn Hughes


Recently, I read a book that I was surprised I hadn't read before, as it was absolutely my kind of book: A Month in the Country, by J L Carr. The central story concerns a young man, Tom Birkin, who, in the aftermath of the First World War – from which he has returned damaged, mentally as well as physically – has been engaged by a church in Yorkshire to uncover a medieval wall painting. The book was written in 1980. It is quite a short book, so a quick read but, for me, a thoroughly enjoyable one. 


The essence of the book is not really the uncovering of the painting, interesting as that is (and more about medieval wall paintings in a moment…). The narrator, Tom, is looking back on that summer of 1920 from the standpoint of his old age. The story explores pain and loss, as experienced by Tom both in the trenches of the First World War and in his failed marriage, but also the joy that can be found in simple pleasures and the bonds of friendship, even if they are temporary or fleeting.


It is a gentle read, but a thoughtful one, and I do recommend it.


The story of A Month in the Country aside, I was originally drawn to the book partly because of Tom’s commission to uncover the medieval wall painting. The painting that Tom uncovers does seem to be of that most popular of subjects, the harrowing of hell, of which more below.



The story is set in the village of “Oxgodsby”, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the area where Carr grew up. There is a real village called Osgodby in the south of the area, but I can’t identify that it has a church, let alone one with wall paintings. However, forty miles or so to the northeast is the little town of Pickering, whose church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is famous for its collection of medieval wall paintings.


They are thought to date from 1450 but were apparently covered over in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation. They were discovered accidently in the 19th century but, unfortunately the vicar of the time didn’t like them – well, I suppose they are very “graphic”! He had them covered over again, though he did also arrange for them to be sketched before they were whitewashed over. However, twenty years later, a more enlightened vicar had them once more uncovered, and restored. And what a wonder they are! 


They cover the majority of the nave walls, above the pillared arches that run down either side of the church. They depict scenes from saints’ lives, the seven acts of mercy, the passion and resurrection of Christ, and also that favourite topic, the harrowing of hell.


I had hoped to be able to tell you that I had seen them “in the flesh” for, earlier this month, we went for a short break to Yorkshire, and stayed close to Pickering. I had thought we might be able to visit the church but, sadly, it had not yet opened again to visitors following COVID restrictions. So I have to make do with photographs sourced online…


But even the photographs show how remarkable the paintings are for the vibrancy of their colour and the energy of the images. Of course they were restored in the 19th century, so they haven’t, so to speak, survived in this wonderful condition for nearly six centuries, though one imagines that the colours are indeed as they would have been in the 15th century.


Let me show you four of them. They are all pretty gruesome, intended no doubt both to terrify and teach the pious folk of Pickering…


First, the death of Saint Catherine. I’m not sure which Catherine this is but I think it may be Catherine of Alexandria, a young devotee of Christianity in the 4th century, who was persecuted by the Emperor of Alexandria, Maxentius. She was condemned to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but it shattered at her touch, and so she was then beheaded. She was only 18 years old.



By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61217634)


Next, the martyrdom of Saint Edmund, a 9th century East Anglian king who defied the invading Danes and was shot with arrows and then beheaded.



By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61453320)


Now, the beheading of John the Baptist, who was beheaded by Herod Antipas in the 1st century, for rebuking Herod for marrying Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Mark’s gospel says that Herodias’s daughter danced before her stepfather, who was pleased and offered her a reward. The girl – who was, some say, called Salome – asked her mother for advice on what to ask for, and Herodias told her to demand the head of John the Baptist. Herod was apparently reluctant to kill John, knowing he was a holy man, but nonetheless ordered his death, and his head was delivered to Salome on a plate. In this painting, John’s head appears to be both on the floor and on the plate…



By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61217626)


And, finally, the “harrowing of hell”, which refers to the descent of Christ into Hell between his Crucifixion and his Resurrection, when he triumphantly granted salvation to the righteous who had previously died. I assume that, in this painting, Christ is the larger clothed figure on the left giving his blessing to all those poor naked souls being surrounded by the fiery furnace.



By Helge Klaus Rieder – Own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons (61217627)



Much older than the Pickering paintings are those in a little church very close to where I live, in the tiny village of Corhampton. The subjects of the paintings are considerably less gory than those in Pickering, though saints are still to the fore…


Here is a short extract from a blog post that I wrote in 2018 about the church: 


“Corhampton Church is particularly renowned for its wall paintings. The collapse in 1842 of the east end of the church damaged these remarkable works of medieval art, but they were uncovered in 1968 and restored. There is some uncertainty about the age of paintings: they could be as late as 1225, but it is generally thought that they date from the middle of the 12th century.


Not all the scenes in the paintings can be deciphered. However, the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from the life of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. One is the miracle of the eggs. Here, Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But Swithun puts the broken eggs back together. To the right of this, the painting is thought to relate to the story of a young man who fell into the Itchen after being frightened by two wild women. He was judged to be dead when he was pulled from the river, but his body was laid for three days by Swithun’s tomb and was restored to life. Below these paintings is a border pattern coloured red and green, and below that are swags and a large medallion featuring two doves back to back with their heads turned to face one another. I understand that designs such as these are very rare for this early period. I really recommend a visit to Corhampton to see the paintings in their full glory!”

 

Corhampton Church wall painting © David Hughes



Corhampton Church wall painting © David Hughes


If you’d like to read more about this lovely little church, the whole blog post is here: https://carolynhughesauthor.com/2018/01/01/corhampton-church-a-saxon-gem-in-provincia-meanwarorum/

Friday, 14 May 2021

The Good Bits of Nero - by L.J. Trafford

John William Waterhouse - The Remorse of Nero after the murder of his mother


The British Museum has been proudly boasting about the opening of its new blockbuster exhibition on the Emperor Nero, tagline The Man Behind The Myth.
Apparently, it questions the traditional narrative of the ruthless tyrant and eccentric performer revealing a different Nero” And asks whether he was the “merciless, matricidal megalomaniac history has painted him to be?”
This certainly attracted the attention of the tabloids who have gleefully rehashed all those stories about Nero you’ll no doubt have heard of that show him to be a merciless, matricidal megalomaniac.

Which all seems reason enough for me to jump on this particular bandwagon and write my own piece on Nero. Because like The British Museum exhibition sets out to show, Nero wasn't all bad. In fact sometimes he could be described as good. Let us put aside tales of matricide, eunuchs* and sexual depravity and consider the good bits of Nero.

*If you happen to be interested in eunuchs, or indeed sexual depravity, click here for one of my previous history girls posts that features Nero.

He knew how to impress

From Museum of
Classical
Archaeology, Cambridge

I’ve never understood the ‘bicycling’ monarchies of Europe. I mean what’s the point of a monarchy if it behaves just like you and I. Surely if you are going to have a royal family it should feel, well royal, with their preferred mode of transportation being huge golden coaches accompanied by many shiny helmeted soldiers riding a top the finest horses available. There should be crowns and jewels and full on grandiose pageantry. 

This is something that Nero really gets. He understands that to be Emperor is to put on show that demonstrates just how powerful, mighty and loaded Rome is to the rest of the world. He does this by never wearing the same outfit twice, refusing to travel anywhere with less than 1000 carriages (presumably to hold all the costume changes) and, most gloriously, fishing with a golden net woven with equally ludicrously expensive purple threads.


When the Armenian King, Tiridates was sent to Rome to be crowned as part of a peace settlement between Rome and its rival empire Parthia (both of whom fancied sucking up Armenia into their territory), no expense was spared. The visit cost a staggering 800,000 sesterces per day. 
Ancient currency is always difficult to equate meaningfully to modern money, but I shall attempt to put this in context: IT IS A SH*T LOAD OF MONEY.
 
You could in the 1st century AD buy 800 hectares of land for 800k sesterces, the equivalent of 1,976 football pitches. Alternatively, you could hire the services of 666 soldiers for a year or for the bird fancier among you, purchase 500 carrier pigeons.
 
But Nero wasn’t done, oh no. Pliny the Elder tells us he filled Pompey’s theatre with gold to impress the king – who he clearly hoped would go running to Parthia with stories of Rome’s inexhaustible resources. And just to hammer home that point with the subtly of, yes a hammer, Nero gave Tiridates a parting gift of a hundred million sesterces. We can only assume that King Tiridates went back to Armenia and instantly brought 62,500 pigeons.

 
Nero’s extravagance hits its peak with the building of his golden house whose walls squirted perfume onto visitors and which included a rotating ceiling (note a similar swirling effect can be achieved by over indulging in wine and laying down). 
With such colossal amounts of money available, Nero does what all of us would do once we’d sorted out our basic needs of accommodation, pigeons, golden nets and unlimited changes of clothes, he has a 98-feet high gold statue built of himself in the nude and commissions a 120-foot painting depicting his likeness.
 
A rear shot of that Nero statue. Picture Marco Pontuali, wikicomms CCBY  


This was the grandeur of Rome and its ruler on full display. Few visitors would leave the city without an appreciation of the might and wealth of the Empire. Not to mention a vision of what Nero looked like sans loincloth.



He was a man of passions
Bearded Nero, image in public domain



Nero’s famous much quoted final words were “what an artist dies in me!”
Nero’s pretension at art is something that sets our sources in full sneer. But I would argue that it’s nice that he has interests and hobbies. Everyone needs a passion in life and Nero has passions a plenty; he sings, he writes poetry, he plays the lyre and water organ, he acts and he races chariots. All things to round the character.

But these interests of Nero's are no whims mind, no passing fancies. The Emperor puts real efforts into his passions, as Suetonius tells us:
“For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice.”

Whilst in Greece he races a 10 horse chariot, yes he crashes but that he dares to attempt something so ludicrously dangerous (chariot racing even with the standard four horses has a high level of crash potential) surely shows a certain fearlessness and willingness to try new things.

But these aren’t just private passions Nero shares them with Rome. He inaugurates new games and festivals, including the Neronia which consisted of  events usually only seen in Greece, such as music, gymnastics, and riding.
Although I personally fancy the show that included a naval battle in sea monster inhabited waters alongside pyrrhic dances by Greek youths
Ships fighting! Monsters in the sea! Gyrating teenagers on a gap year! What’s not to love?


However, not only did the audience get a fabulous spectacle to enjoy, there were also prizes to be had:
“Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.”
And to think all we get is the Royal Variety Show.





He had the popular touch.
Nero by Paulus Pontius
Metropolitan Museum of Art


Given Nero’s reputation today we might be forgiven for believing that his demise by his own hand aged only 32, was roundly greeted by all.
Not so at all, Suetonius tells us :”There were some who for a long time decorated his tomb with spring and summer flowers, and now produced his statues on the rostra in the fringed toga, and now his edicts, as if he were still alive and would shortly return and deal destruction to his enemies”
Tacitus talks about the dregs of the common people being distraught by Nero's death. Tacitus is quite the snob, so these dregs might likely constitute a majority. 

That he was a figure held in affection by Romans is shown by the lengths one of his near successors, Otho (who ruled briefly the year after Nero's suicide) took to associate himself with the late Emperor. He restored statues of one of Nero's wives, pledged to finish the construction of the golden house and began signing despatches as Nero Otho. That Otho saw this as a winning tactic is telling, there had to be a bubbling of public affection and love for the late emperor for him to capitalise on.

And this affection held sway because in the following two decades after Nero's death in 68 CE three men pop up claiming to be him. That each of those imposters is so enthusiastically embraced, at least for a short time, by their supporters shows how deep the hope went that their fallen Emperor might not have perished. In our times only Elvis Presley has attracted a similar style of afterlife.

But why? Why does Nero, of all the Emperors of Rome, manage to endear himself so firmly in the hearts of his people?
For all the reasons listed above; he was generous, he knew how to put on a show, he had passions which he shared, he built amazing statues and palaces. And then there's those sea monsters....
In short he knew what the people wanted in their Emperor.


L.J. Trafford is the author of Palatine, the story of the final days of Nero (good bits and bad). As well a guidebook to Rome in the year 95 CE, How to Survive in Ancient Rome.



Friday, 7 May 2021

Journeys with Miss Graham - Celia Rees

Every book is a journey. A journey from first idea to publication with all the adventures, challenges, pitfalls and complications that an actual journey can entail. Even after a book has been published, its journey is not over. It is out in the world, beyond the author's control, subject to the vagaries of the market, the judgement of readers and critics, transitioning from hardback to paperback with a new cover and in this case a new title. Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, which I have blogged about here and here , is now Miss Graham's War.

When a book is published, it does not necessarily leave you. Miss Graham's War was eight years in the writing, a continual presence which comes back in glimpses and flashbacks. 

In the stasis of Covid, with travel impossible, I thought of the journeys taken by the eponymous Miss Graham and the journeys I had taken to follow her. It isn't completely necessary to visit the places that you are writing about, of course. The internet is a great resource, full of images and virtual tours. I find Trip Advisor particularly useful. There can't be anywhere on the planet that doesn't have an accompanying video or photomontage thoughtfully uploaded by a helpful traveller but, for me, research trips are important, giving travelling a clear purpose, sharpening awareness and observation. Research is an adventure in itself. It creates it's own stories and spying and writing have much in common: tracking your characters, their movements, where they go, who they meet. 

 Miss Graham's journey begins in London. My research began with scouting locations. I went on spy walks with my daughter, Catrin.  We went to the squares near Paddington Station to find Dori's house. It was now a particular house in a particular square. Then the journey is back through time to London in the war.

Dori's house was close to Paddington Station. One side was a great yawning cavity, the buildings flanking the gap showered with beams wedged against the walls. Dori's row was more or less intact, although some of the houses were boarded, either unsafe or waiting for their owners to return.
Miss Graham's War

From Dori's square we went to Baker Street to find SOE Headquarters. The building has kept its anonymity and is now offices above a Holland & Barratt. At the bottom of Baker Street, is a porticoed building which was also rumoured to be used by SOE. It was perfect. Not only that but just down the road was a spy shop selling surveillance equipment. Synchronicity. Always a good sign when researching. 

From London, Miss Graham goes to Northern Germany to her job with the Control Commission. She went by steam train from Liverpool Street Station to Harwich, then across to the Hook of Holland, on through Holland and into Germany, finally arriving in Hamburg. 

 I couldn't take that same journey, but I could map it in the Miss Graham's Notebook. For every book I keep a journal, just as one might when going on a real journey. It is a record of the progress of the book from first ideas to completion. 




Hamburg Station 1946
When she arrived in Hamburg, the station would have looked like this. Hamburg had been devastated by some of the most concentrated Allied bombing of the war. I flew to Hamburg and, of course, the city has healed but the church of St Nickolai has been left as it was, as a memorial, much like the cathedral in Coventry, Miss Graham's home city. She had seen devastation before, but not on the scale that confronted her in Hamburg. This is where fiction and life merge. Miss Graham is based on my aunt who took the same journey. Her story was where the book began. These and some of the photographs  she sent back to the family to show them what Germany was like in 1946. 




From Hamburg, her journey took her to Lübeck, the Hanseatic port on the Baltic where she was stationed. Lübeck had much in common with Coventry, both smallish, compact, medieval cities, both laid waste by bombing. Lübeck by the R.A.F on Palm Sunday, 1943; Coventry by the Luftwaffe on the evening of November 14th, 1940. Both city centres were devastated, both had cathedrals and churches destroyed.

When I arrived in Lübeck there were very few reminders of the destruction wrought on the city. The Marienkirche had been re-built, its iconic copper clad towers restored. Much of Lübeck's historic centre had been painstakingly re-developed, although a swathe of modern buildings through the centre indicated where the worst of the destruction had been. 

Marienkirche, Lübeck, Palm Sunday, 1943
Marienkirche now
 




Holsten Gate
Holsten Gate, Lübeck 

Miss Graham's journey did not end at Lübeck, she went to Berlin. I followed her there. Again, the city had been restored, re-built and was utterly changed from the city she found in 1946. 

The destruction wasn't necessarily worse than Hamburg or any other city. It was just bigger, more spread out, going on for mile after mile. 

Miss Graham's War

Berlin 1945 from the air



Brandenburg Gate 2013
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1946

Berlin had suffered doubly, not only from Allied bombing, but from Russian shelling. It would continue to be scarred by the division of the city into Allied and Russian Zones which would eventually become East and West Berlin, divided by a wall with acres of no man's land on either side. The Wall was an extension and expression of the Iron Curtain, the division right across Germany and on through Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. 

The Iron Curtain started on the Baltic coast, only a few miles from Lübeck. A museum close to its starting point commemorates the division of a nation and a continent. A collection of concrete posts and rusting barbed wire fences, shows the border's evolution from a simple stringing of barbed wire between wooden posts and ending with three or more wire barriers, guarded by regular turrets,  the gaps between them sewn by mines. A chilling reminder of the development of the Cold War and the growth of the distrust between east and west. 

The land was the same on both sides. Undulating country, fields dotted with cattle ... The Green Border began on the Baltic. Lübeck was only a couple of miles away from it. An arbitrary line marked with sagging strands of barbed wire strung between rough-hewn poles from the forest. It followed the contours of the land, an inexorable progress up hill and down dale, through farmyards, railway stations, even houses, all the way to Czechoslovakia. The Great Divide had begun. The line had been drawn. A visible border for an invisible war. 
Miss Graham's War




I couldn't have written that if I hadn't been to that place. 

We can't travel back in time but we can go to the places we are researching. You will always see something, learn something that adds to the book, sometimes in profound ways. In the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the great bells that fell from the tower in that night of destruction are still there, melted and embedded into the stone floor. 
Marienkirche, Cross of Nails  

The bells in the Marienkirche, Lübeck


Close by, in an alcove, which still bears the signs of fierce destruction is a Cross of Nails sent from Coventry Cathedral to a sister city which had suffered just as cruelly. 


It seemed to me that in comparing Germany then to Germany now, I was witnessing a miracle of recovery and renewal, not just from the appalling and utter destruction of the Second World War, but the further bitterness and scarring of a Germany divided. 

I chose to start Miss Graham's War, not in 1946 but on the 10th November, 1989 and the falling of the Berlin Wall, a reminder of just how far and fast we have come on the road to redemption and reconciliation. 

Part of the Berlin Wall in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum


Celia Rees
www, celiarees.com
@celiarees1
@CeliaRees
Miss Graham's War, HarperCollins,  paperback publication, June 10th 2021