Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Discovering Lost Culture, by Gillian Polack


Lost culture is exciting. How can something be exciting when we have lost it? Most times when we talk about loss, it’s in terms of the events that caused the loss. The political pressure, the murders – dire events that add up to big cultural losses. Yet, when a culture is lost because of irrepressible cruelty, it leaves traces. For years, I’ve been watching for such traces, to see how much we can know when remnants of a population have been forced away from their homes and when their lives have to be rebuilt from scratch. I don’t want to hear about horror. I want to find out what we can know about what was destroyed. I don’t look for the names of people: I want to know how they lived.

The first and most obvious relic is, in many cases, linguistic. I was just reading a study of eighteenth and nineteenth century Yiddish in Europe. It traced loan words from cultural areas such as food. Those loan words matched with a bunch of trade records and showed that there was a dynamic and strong Jewish butchers’ industry in the Polish-Lithuanain Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. These days most of the surviving descendants are in the US and may not even eat kosher, but some of the Yiddish has snuck into US English and so, in parts of the US, there is a memory of a life that people once led.

Other records come from the persecutors themselves. The records of the Inquisition have vast repositories of cultural information about Spanish Jews. They used it to technically prove that people were reverting to Judaism or had not dropped Judaism. While conversion to Christianity is by a claim of faith, the Inquisition demanded complete cultural change. Those who held religious power in the empire of Spain was key to maintained that Jews were impure and that impurity carried down the line to children and to children’s children so people with Jewish ancestry had to be watched forever in case they shifted back to their ancestral religion.

The “convert, leave or die” ultimatum in Spain in 1492 left a lot of people, then, having to forsake family traditions and local customs. It was not safe to wash and wear nice clothes of Friday, or to send for sweets made by your favourite Jewish confectioner, or even to eat salad on Saturday afternoons. It was possible to be burned alive if any of these small things informed the Inquisition that you were secretly Jewish. Because the Inquisition documented their research into what they regarded as lapsed converts, we know more about everyday life before 1492 as well as after it.

Another hidden aspect of culture is what happens when a whole cultural/religious group is suddenly missing: local culture changes to fill the biggest and most gaping holes. For example, in some places where Jews were sent into exile or mass murdered, the remaining Christian population would suddenly eat more pork. Why? I assume because it proved they were not Jewish and were therefore safe. Big cultural shifts have reasons. This is only one of them, but it’s a deeply-distressing one.

Let me finish on a less distressing note. Superstitions. Some superstitions are folk beliefs that have walked alongside popular culture and religious culture for a while. Others are what’s left when the framework and history for that belief or action is lost. I can imagine that, when we all have flying cars, people will still look both ways before crossing the road, because a hundred years of watching for regular cars instilled a habit so strong we mostly don’t notice we’re doing it.

What look like irregularities in a contemporary culture can tell us a lot about where that culture has been, historically. It’s not the core of my research right now. It’s something I keep an eye on. A lot of the lost elements of culture are the aspects that will bring a novel to life for readers. Understanding how they fit together and create living spaces for real people in our past also helps us write history into fiction more accurately. 


Someone sent me to a story the other day because they knew I was interested in alternate Jewish history (because my most recent novel, The Green Children Help Out, has superheroes and alternate Jewish history) and that story rested all of its research on Christian views of history. The concept was a terrific one: what would happen if the relationship between Christianity and Judaism were inverted, with Christianity the minor religion. Making Judaism more Christian both culturally and religiously meant the story didn’t even come close to exploring the concept. The major players were changed, but the everyday culture was not.

It’ll be a while before I can write a novel using these historical explorations, unless I want to follow the path of the story I so dislike. Before I can bring my imagination to play and tell stories based upon hidden and lost history, I need to find as much as I can about the hidden and lost histories. It’s a marvellously fun trail, but the research is happening now. Old and trusty studies aren’t nearly as useful as conferences and conversations with those doing the research.

Friday, 20 January 2023

The March Into Oblivion by Maggie Brookes

Seventy-eight years ago, in a bitter Polish January, an appalling atrocity of the second world war began, but it is not widely known about. Even in this age of excessive information, some historical events become distorted in the public imagination, and others are totally forgotten within the space of one generation.
Watch tower at Lamsdorf, Stalag 344.

Many people wrote to me after the publication of my first novel The Prisoner's Wife to say, 'I didn't know that happened,' about two different aspects of the book. Some were referring to the use of British PoWs as unpaid labour by the Nazis; others were talking about The Long March, in which perhaps 80,000 allied prisoners of war were force-marched more than 500 miles across Europe in mid-winter.

When I began my research for the novel, I was aware that British PoWs were put to work for the Third Reich. I knew this because my dad had been a Nazi prisoner in Austria and he and his comrades in arms spent a year building a road up to the village of Zedlach. 

The prison guards at my dad's labour camp.

Second world war media representation has established a different narrative about prisoners in Germany. Films like Stalag 17, The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape and The Colditz Story (with its long running TV series spin-off) show PoWs as incarcerated behind barbed wire for years at a time, with little to do but plan escapes and put on shows. But that's not the full story.

The PoWs, (including my dad) who built the road up to Zedlach in Austria

By 1944 the Nazis had established huge prisoner of war camps at the eastern reaches of modern-day Czechoslovakia and Poland in order to keep the captured allies as far as possible from home. The officers were held in camps like those in the movies, but the 1929 Geneva Convention allowed the lower ranks to be deployed into labour camps known as Arbeitskommado. About a third of all soldiers wearing a British Empire uniform were eventually moved to Lamsdorf POW camp (Stalag 344). The German authorities called it Britenlager, the British camp, though the 'Britons' included 271 Indians, 1,543 Canadians, 1,829 Australians, 2,217 New Zealanders, and 1,210 Palestinians, all of whom were Jewish.

Lamsdorf was like a massive labour exchange, supplying workers to keep the Third Reich running. The camp could hold thirteen thousand prisoners at any one time, but also controlled the deployment of twelve thousand additional men into labour camps. If they were lucky, they were sent to build roads or work on the land. If they were unlucky, they were sent to the mines. They were not supposed to be asked to do any work which aided the German war effort, but many were employed in factories and industries which directly supported the regime. In that case, they often found ways to delay orders or sabotage production. They were worked hard, without proper breaks or rewards, but generally found being employed was preferable to endless days sitting around in the camps. And sometimes there was the promise of extra food rations because they were doing physical work. The Arbetiskommando labour camps were denoted with an initial letter E, for 'English.' So when I was told the extraordinary story which became The Prisoner's Wife, my informant remembered that he was at E111 Saubsdorf quarry in Czechoslovakia.

Huts at Lamsdorf, Stalag 344.

I had known about the work camps, but the second element of my novel which people write to me about was a complete revelation to me when I began my research. How was it possible that I had never heard of The Long March across Europe? I knew about the Japanese forced marches, The Sandakan Death Marches and The Bataan Death March, so how was it I didn't know about the forced marches across Europe in temperatures as low as -25 c?

Eye-witness accounts exist of-course, particularly those so meticulously chronicled in The Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Rennell (Penguin 2002.) 

But this cover image is one of very few photographs, and the marches consisted of raggle-taggle groups of prisoners ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand together which took 3 different routes across Europe. The marches have also been known by various names, 'The Long March' 'The Death March' 'The March' 'The Black March' 'The Long Walk', 'The Long Trek', 'The Bread March', and 'Death March Across Germany.' Perhaps it's the lack of a consistent name and visual images which have made it vanish from public memory? And the fact that these men's harrowing experience was soon overshadowed (quite rightly) as the full horror of the holocaust became known, with photographs which burn into our minds.

So, what actually happened? The evacuation of Lamsdorf began on 15 January 1945 when seven hundred sick British POWs were removed by train, just before the mass departures on foot began in the middle of the night on 22nd January 1945. This continued over several nights, in groups of one or two thousand, until 21,867 British PoWs had set off into the blizzards.

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the 20th century in Europe. Poorly clothed, ill-fed men covered about 20km a day in icy conditions, sleeping in barns or out-buildings, or in the open, day after day for week after week, all the way from January through into March or April. A Red Cross official estimated that 80% of the men suffered the additional misery of dystentery.

It is impossible to know how many men died on the Long March because it’s even hard to be certain about the number of Allied prisoners held by the Nazis. In 1944 the number of British prisoners was thought to be 199,592, but at the end of the war, the number of PoWs logged as having returned home was only 168,746. What happened to those 30,846 men? It may be that the first figure was wrong, but many of them may have died on the Long March. According to a report by the US Department of Veterans' Affairs, almost 3,500 US and Commonwealth POWs died as a result of the marches. The records of one working party show that 1,800 men set out on the Long March, and only 1,300 completed it, with 30% dying on route.

Emaciated PoWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel, 17 April 1945 The British Army in North-west Europe 1944-45 BU3865.jpg

Why did the marches happen? The Soviet army was closing in on the Eastern Europe camps and the Nazis perhaps feared that liberated prisoners would swell their ranks. There are also theories that Hitler ordered the evacuations so he would have a human shield of prisoners for his last stand in the Baltic or to be used as hostages for a peace deal.

In a way, those theories are more believable than the shocking fact that perhaps 80,000 half-starved, ill-clothed men could be force marched 500 miles across Europe in mid-winter – and that within a generation it would be all but forgotten.

POWs at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel in Germany welcome their liberators, 16 April 1945. BU3661.jpgs

For more information about Lamsdorf and The Long March:
Twitter and instagram:  @maggie__brookes
Facebook: @maggiebrookesnovelist

Friday, 13 January 2023

Wonders and Warnings - by Ruth Downie

Head and shoulders drawing of a bearded man labelled "Pline lAncien"

Maybe Pliny the Elder was born 1900 years too early. As a man who was interested in everything and who needed very little sleep, he would have loved the possibilities of the Internet. As it was, he gathered together everything he’d learned in an early handwritten version of Wikipedia that stretched to 37 volumes, and if you want a splendid and entertaining overview of it, click back to LJ Trafford’s 2019 post on "The Curious Roman".

Pliny’s daylight hours were filled with a series of highly responsible jobs, so his writing was done largely at night. His reading relied on what we now call audiobooks, achieved by having his staff follow him around and read to him in every spare moment. With limited opportunities for fact-checking, he adopted an early version of the retweet – not claiming that what he wrote was accurate, merely reporting that someone else had said it.

I’ve restricted myself to a few highlights from his writings about the Human Animal, some of which may come as a surprise but all of which were thought to be accurate by somebody… unlike the picture of him above, which as far as I can make out is based on no evidence whatsoever.

First: wonders and marvels.

Should you travel where the north wind rises, you may run into the Arimaspi, people with one single eye in the middle of the forehead. You may also encounter the local griffins. Try not to be there when they meet each other. The Arimapsi have a bad habit of stealing the gold that the griffins have painstakingly mined out of their burrows, and there will probably be a fight.

There are wild men in the woods of Abarimon whose feet are fitted on back to front, but you may never see them because they can run very fast. Also, they’re unable to breathe in a foreign climate, so they don’t travel well.

Everything is bigger in India, and at this point I should probably mention the dog-headed men. They do little of interest beyond barking and hunting using only their nails, but as Pliny’s source says there are 150,000 of them, you are more likely to spot one than either a griffin or a man with his feet on backwards.

Drawing of various men with one leg, one eye, no head and dog head.

India is also the home of the men who have only one leg and jump everywhere. When the sun is fierce, the jumping stops and they lie down to shade themselves under their one foot.

Sadly Pliny does not dwell on the details of the men who are enveloped by their ears, nor the men without necks whose eyes are in their shoulders.

A little more time is devoted to the Astomi, a hairy people who clothe themselves in cotton-wool, have no mouths and get all their nourishment from smell. This is a mixed blessing, as a stronger-than-usual stench can easily be fatal.

Further away lies the mountainous home of the pygmies, which would be delightful were it not blighted by plagues of cranes. In spring the pygmies saddle up their goats, gather their bows and arrows and set out on a three-month cull of the crane breeding-grounds.

Drawing of horse with man's head and torso, waving a club

If you feel your credulity being stretched by any of this, bear in mind that Pliny actually saw a Hippocentaur - the exciting result of breeding a horse with a human. It was preserved in honey and had been brought from Egypt to show to the Emperor Claudius. 

Which brings me to reproduction – and here I want to change Pliny’s order slightly. It is no good starting with his warning that it is potentially fatal to yawn during childbirth. We need to lay down a few fundamentals first.

Since men can turn into women and vice-versa, it may be useful to know that a woman has fewer teeth than a man. Also, women are never left-handed.

If you are indeed a woman, you should be aware of the dangers of the menstrual flow. Should you venture abroad at the relevant time of the month, disaster will follow you. New wine will turn sour, crops will fail, seedlings will shrivel, fruit will fall prematurely from the tree, knives will go blunt, bees will die, metal will rust and even the local ants, should they catch a whiff of you, will drop the food they were carrying and run away. 

Photo of Roman iron dagger and sheath
Stay away, ladies. 

On a brighter note – should you wish for a beautiful child, take care to keep your gaze on something beautiful at the moment of conception. Remember that children can inherit birthmarks, moles, scars and – in the case of Dacian children – tattoos.

I’ve already mentioned the yawning. Also, try not to propel the infant out feet first. This is how both Caligula and Nero were born, which does not bode well. 

You may have noticed that the human race as a whole is getting smaller. This is because the earth is getting warmer and the heat dries up the fathers’ semen.

Despite all this, be encouraged. Your child has the potential for a bright future. Not only has Rome produced more outstanding individuals in every field than all the other nations put together, but Romans are the most virtuous people in the world.

The length of a human life is an uncertain business, but claims of humans living 500 or even 1000 years are only made by people who don’t understand that a year lasts for a whole twelve months. There are plenty more reliable records from Italy, including one region where fifty-four men were recorded as over 100 and three of them were over 140. 


Pliny was adamant that “nature’s supreme gift” of death was the end of every human existence, and there would be no afterlife beyond it. He received that gift himself at the age of only 55, while on a research and rescue mission during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. His nephew, who witnessed the disaster from across the bay, described the cloud above the volcano as in the shape of a pine tree.

Here, in honour of the splendidly enthusiastic and energetic Pliny the Elder, is the pine tree that now looms over the Getty Roman Villa.

Photo of pine tree with branches spread above roof of building.

Ruth Downie writes the MEDICUS series, featuring Roman Army medic Gaius Petreius Ruso - a man whose desire for a quiet life is thwarted both by unwanted murder investigations and by his British partner, Tilla.

This post was inspired by Mary Beagon’s “The Elder Pliny and the Human Animal – Natural History Book 7" – published by Clarendon Ancient History series. There is a fine selection of the complete Natural History published by Penguin Classics.

Photo credits -  

Pline L'Ancien -
Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Curious creatures in Zoology -
Public Domain

Hippocentaur -
Centaur with bull and maiden - edited
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Dagger - author's own photo

Pine tree - author's own photo



Friday, 6 January 2023

Speaking Scottish by V E H (Vicki) Masters

'Speak properly,' my mother was forever reminding me as a child. By which, of course, she meant don't use Scots - either the words or the grammar. Fortunately my dad did use it, so I know and understand the language of my country. How much richer is Haud yer wheesht than Be quiet.

On one memorable occasion, when Dad came to pick me up from university I introduced him to some American exchange student friends. His greeting was, ‘Aye, and it’s a gey dreich day the day is it no.’ Blank looks all around – although he was right. It was a damp, dreary day.

Because of the general injunction to speak properly I always thought Scots was a form of corrupted, and inferior, English. When I came to write my first book The Castilians, which is set in St Andrews, Scotland, one of the many things that exercised my mind was what would be considered ‘correct’ speak in 1546.

I soon discovered that Scots is a language in its own right. It seems both Scots and English, are descended from the same Germanic language — Anglo-Saxon, although Scots also contains words from and Old Norse, like bairn and kilt, and Dutch, like haar (a sea mist). From the early 1400s it began to replace Latin in formal documents and statutes. Court poets, playwrights and story tellers also started to write in Scots.

Here’s William Dunbar (1490s) complaining about having a migraine or, as we’d say in Scots, ‘a verrie sair heid.’

Cartoon by George Cruikshank

My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht

My head did ache last night
And today I could not write.
So sore does the migraine hurt me
Piercing my brow like an arrow
That I can scarce look at the light

(Any errors in translation are entirely mine – and my Scots dictionary)

When Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland in 1561 she could barely remember her country’s language after living in France from when she was a small child. French was spoken amongst the nobles but Scots was the principle language and so Queen Mary learned to speak it rather than English.

John Knox, on the other hand, returning to Scotland just in time to make life difficult for Mary, had slipped into speaking English. He’d lived in Geneva for a number of years, where he led an English congregation and also wrote his many works in English, including The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. 

John Knox in full counterblast

There were two main reasons that contributed to Scots ultimately being considered as not ‘proper’ speak.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland departed with all possible speed to wealthy London his language, certainly in papers and letters, becomes anglicised.

James VI and I

Here’s an extract from his Counterblast Against Tobacco… A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs…  Translated into Scots – ‘smokin’ is verra bad fur ye’. Perhaps a pity he didn’t use his kingly prerogative and ban tobacco at the time, but in any case he increasingly spoke English (no doubt with a good Scottish accent), so the upper classes did, and it rapidly became a sign of wealth, and standing, to speak English – and still is.

Scotland turned Protestant in 1560. A core component of Protestantism was that everyone should learn to read the Bible themselves rather than having the Latin version interpreted by the church. This meant that we needed bibles, and lots of them, quickly. Initially the Geneva version, which was written in English and published in 1557, was adopted. This was closely followed by the King James (sixth and first) version in 1611, also in English. Scotland soon had one of the highest literacy rates in the world – but everyone was learning to read in English, and not the Scots they spoke at home. And surely, the language you are communing with the Lord in must be the correct one to speak…

We did see a revival in the use of Scots in the 18th century, most famously exemplified by that charming philanderer Rabbie Burns, but it was more an entertaining curiosity for the wealthy than any genuine resurgence. Nevertheless Burns saved lots of songs in the vernacular which would likely have disappeared if he hadn’t written them down. 

Robert Burns

He’s probably most famous world wide for Auld Lang Syne (Old Times Past) sung at countless Hogmanay celebrations and then there’s Burns Night on the 25 January every year when the haggis is stabbed with gusto whilst being addressed in good Scots. 

In writing The Castilians I took the decision, since Bethia’s Mother had lived in England, that Bethia would speak an anglicised Scots although I do have some characters who use Scottish words, (I provide a glossary). Initially, I had far more Scots in it, but I did want the book to be read, and understood, widely. It’s always a balance…

Scots is the language of the Lowlands, Orkney and Shetland, and Northern Ireland (Ulster Scots) and even within that there’s much variation. The accent and some of the words used are quite different between say Fife and the Doric of the North East and then again Orcadian. 

But at least Scottish-speaking children didn’t suffer the fate of their Gaelic counterparts (Gaelic was never the language of Lowland Scotland). In the last century, children in the Highland and Islands were often beaten if they spoke Gaelic in school. I was fourteen before I first heard it, on holiday in the Western Isles. Thankfully Gaelic was saved in the nick of time, and is now more widely spoken. And as for Scots, well we’ve hung on tae it despite aywis being telt tae speak properly.

crabbit; scunnersome; drookit; gowk; oxters; guddle; midden; glaikit; besom

For more information on Scots see and also the Scottish Language Bill which the Scottish government is currently consulting on. 



Thursday, 29 December 2022

The Ireland of my Childhood, by Carol Drinkwater

Small Things Like These by the Irish novelist Claire Keegan is my Book of the Year. There have been several books especially by women authors that have 'spoken' to me but this one hit a deep chord. I am late to the party in the sense that this novel, published in 2021, has already been short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award  back in May. There have also been several other gongs for this haunting work including the Orwell prize. It is less than 100 pages in length, so little longer than a novella but it throws such a powerful punch, and its graceful writing has stayed with me, resonating, taking me back to my own Irish childhood, looking at many of my memories anew. 

The story is set late in the twentieth century in a small Irish town during a bitter December. Its principal character is Bill Furlong, a caring family man with five daughters who owns his own modest coal and timber business. A merchant of coal, anthracite, logs. These he delivers to his customers himself in his rather antiquated lorry. His yard is manned by a small crew of men who work for him. He is a kind boss and there are good vibes between them all.

Bill 'came from nothing'. He was born to a young woman, little more than a girl, who at the age of sixteen fell pregnant. She was a domestic servant in a big house on the outskirts of the town where Bill Furlong lives. The house was owned by a well-heeled Protestant woman, Mrs Wilson. Mrs Wilson took pity on the serving girl and did not dismiss her when she got pregnant. She kept her on and allowed her son to remain with her. Bill Furlong grew up on the estate, a happy child. He was never told the identity of his father who he assumed was possibly a gentlemen of some standing related in some way to the kind, widowed Mrs Wilson.

The novel takes place in the days leading up to Christmas in 1985. Bill is exceptionally busy with the orders,  his deliveries. These include a load of logs to the local convent. I don't want to give too much away of this marvellous story, but at the convent he discovers a girl locked in an outdoor coal shed. She is freezing, barely-clad, barefoot and traumatised. He is shocked by her presence there and by the condition of her. He releases her, leads her across to the main convent building and asks the nuns to take care of her. Little does he yet realise that it was the holy sisters who have locked the girl in the unheated shed. 

From the eighteenth century onwards, religious institutions in Ireland took in 'girls of ill-repute', prostitutes and girls who had fallen pregnant outside the 'holy order of marriage'. The first home was founded by Protestants but soon they became predominantly Roman Catholic asylums run by religious sisters, nuns.  These institutions were known as laundries because that was how the convents paid their way, by taking in laundry. It was the girls, the single mothers, who did the work, the drudgery.

Many of their babies were sold to families who wanted children, both in Ireland and abroad. Over 9,000 babies died while in the convents' care.

The last of these laundries closed in 1996.

Inside a Magdalene Laundry, 
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (found on the internet)

The revelations that started to come out in 1993 about the treatment the girls and their babies suffered, kept under lock and key like prisoners, working till they could barely stand, is one of Ireland's most heart-rending modern scandals. It is believed that over 30,000 girls passed through these 'asylum' doors over the two centuries the houses were operating.

It was in 1993 when the Dublin-based Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold off a portion of their land to a property developer that the scandal first came to light. When the land was dug up to begin construction work, more than one hundred bodies in unmarked graves were discovered. There were no death certificates, the deaths had never been registered, which was illegal. 

The bodies were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave.

This discovery led to the opening of an enquiry. It was all a great deal more horrific than anyone might have imagined, though both Church and State were aware of the existence of these homes. The tragedy continues today; many women are still looking for the bodies of their mothers, sisters, aunts etc.

Claire Keegan deals with the subject with great delicacy. Her touch is light, her words are powerful. She concentrates on one man, Bill, who was an illegitimate child himself but whose mother was shown kindness and was offered a home and shelter for herself and her baby. As a grown man with five daughters of his own in these days before Christmas, Bill looks back on his more fortunate past and considers the present and the young starving girl he has discovered in the coal shed.

The novel is not hard to read. Although it has been inspired by a harrowing chapter in Ireland's modern history, it does not bludgeon the reader with unpalatable details. It is rich in humanity and the power of ordinary love and courage. I highly recommend it.

Reading the novel set me thinking back to my own youth and my childhood in Ireland, in the fifties and sixties, and how little I knew or understood of what was going on.

I was born in London to an Irish Catholic mother and partially Irish Catholic father. I have always considered myself Irish rather than English. I am an Irish citizen and carry an Irish passport. Those early Irish days were, for the most part, the happiest ones of my childhood. However, it is perhaps fair to say that in some ways I romanticised my childhood in Ireland. I look back on those times as joyful, colourful, full of love with occasional recollections of harshness, which puzzled me at the time because I did not understand the roots of this behaviour.

My childhood was lived between school-term times in Kent in England where I attended a Catholic convent run by an order of nuns that had been founded near Lyon in France in 1675,  the Trinitarian Sisters of Valence. At our convent, they were ruled over by a fierce Irish Reverend Mother with a poker expression and mean thin lips. I was exceedingly unhappy there. We were educated to fear God, to recognise that we were born with the stain of original sin on our souls (hence our lifelong burden of guilt) and to be pure young girls in both mind and body. Compare this to the long leisurely holiday months which I spent in perfect harmony at my grandparents' and uncle's farm in rural Ireland. The excitement, for example, when a litter of pups was born. I watched on with wonder as the pups sucked milk from their mother's nipples. I was taught to milk cows, sitting on a tiny stool, squeezing and gently tugging with thumb and forefinger at the huge warm beast's udders. The smell of damp hay, the heat of the white liquid milk. Its odour. Nature and the seasons ruled. Life was about the earth, the rotation of crops, of harvests and planting. This was my mother's family home. She was born one village away where Protestants and Catholics lived and worked alongside one another in harmony.

I cannot remember the Irish Reverend Mother's name. I have erased it from my mind. No doubt because she so terrified and traumatised me, warning me that my father would rot in hell for his sins. The sleepless nights that caution caused me. I have never entirely recovered from it. For a short while at our convent in Kent, we had a French Reverend Mother, Genevieve, who I adored because she broke all the rules - 'serious' rules such as lifting up the skirts of her habit, revealing her black lace-up shoes and stockings and her trim ankles in order that she could more easily hare up and down the wooden staircases or hotfoot it along the corridors. I never saw her walk. Even though it was drummed into us girls on a daily basis that young ladies never run, they walk sedately with their heads held high as though carrying books on their head.

It was very sudden the replacement of Mother Genevieve. One day she was there, the next we were in the iron grip of the Irish ogre. It was whispered between us girls that Reverend Mother Genevieve had engaged in an illicit affair with the gardener, fell pregnant and was sent to Africa. I doubt there was a word of truth in this, but it brought simple amusement and a soupçon of naughtiness to our regimented  'holy-clean' days. 

A nun as a fallen woman was a delight to us. She'd bucked the system, broken the rules.  We, innocent girls, who knew nothing of the existence of the Magdalene Laundries and the shame of unlawful pregnancies. (By the way, I was conceived out of wedlock, but it was a long time before I discovered this and what it implied. Did my grandparents ever learn this? I have no idea. I was certainly never judged or blamed for it, if they knew. You might think this odd, that the child of an "illegitimate" pregnancy might be punished, but they certainly were. Back to the Magdalene Laundries where the offspring were taken from their mothers and either sold or ... many child corpses were later found when the truth of what had been going on at these asylums was, literally, unearthed.

I was so unhappy at that convent in Kent. I loved learning but the convent was a prison in my mind. 

When I wasn't in Kent during the term times, I was in Ireland with my mother staying with family. She had an older sister in Dublin who was rather strict with me, insisting I kneel on the kitchen floor to say my prayers in front of all her children. 'You must say your penance,' she bid. She was very religious - or so I looked upon her back then. I knew nothing of her past. Only later did secrets come to light.

As well as Dublin, there was the modest family farm in County Laois, in the Midlands of Ireland. I loved it there. It was my bucolic heaven: the fields growing with acres of tall ripening wheat, the river with its salmon, the farm dogs and chickens and geese all foraging in the yard beneath endless lines of washing billowing in the wind. My plump grandmother adored me. She'd cackle and pull me up onto her lap. She smelt of potatoes, peat, grass and carbolic soap. She had a few wisps of hair on her face which I found a bit scary, witch-like, but she was kind as kind to me. My gentle-natured grandfather was as thin as his wife was rotund. They adored each other. I never heard a cross word in that small farmhouse, unlike our family home in Kent, which was forever ringing with the sound of angry voices. 

I knew nothing of my grandparents' love story back then: how they had run away together when she was twenty and he eighteen. She, the daughter of not quite landed gentry but comfortably-off land-owning parents. He, hardly yet a man, the labourer employed by my granny's parents.  My grandparents, the young lovers, (still unmarried at the time?) crossed counties from Kilkenny to be free of the family wrath. The pair ended up in Laois where they spent their entire lives, dying within eleven months of one another. Granny was cut off by her family. Any financial assistance marriage might have brought her was denied to her and her beloved. 

I believe her parents did at some point forgive her. I don't know when.  I never met them and know very little about granny's side of the family. What I know is that my grandparents tale was a happy one, bolstered by love, courage and the choices they had freely made for one another, even though they had a hard life financially and must have been judged when young as an immoral couple.

The Ireland of my childhood (fifties, early sixties) was a very different island to the foreword-looking republic it is today. It lived in the long dark shadow of the Catholic church and, though politically unshackled from British rule, the British Monarchy still had a say in the running of the state, until as late as 1949. The Republic of Ireland only became a fully independent state in 1949 with the passing of the Republic of Ireland Act.

In 1960, Penguin Books published an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was immediately banned for obscenity. Penguin fought the case. The obscenity trial lasted six days at the Old Bailey. The jury found the novel to be Not Obscene. Penguin won. The book was not only a sensation but it became an overnight bestseller.  More importantly, it was a watershed decision for both literature and society. 

I was eleven or twelve at this time, an adolescent but still very much a naive girl. 

As the British poet Philip Larkin wrote in the opening lines of his poem Annus Mirabilis

"Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) -

Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban

And the Beatles' first LP"

After the Lady Chatterly trial and as the Beatles were emerging, according to Larkin, Britain was waking up to sex and the liberation of the written descriptions of it. The birth pill came on the market at the beginning go of 1964 and that brought a new freedom for young women. Sex and babies, as bestselling author Fay Weldon pointed out, were no longer intrinsically linked.

The Brits were dancing and singing, reading about and having sex ("doing it", as the Irish might have said). In the US, the Hippie generation was rolling out the sexual revolution. Free Love. Make Love Not War (the Vietnam War). While in Ireland, the Catholic church continued to keep its vice-like grip on the nation's morals. Birth control, the sale and import of contraceptives, was illegal in the Republic until February 1979 when, with a highly-controversial vote, the Irish government defied the Catholic Church and approved the sale of contraceptives. Even so, access was very limited. One needed a prescription from a practicing doctor.

I have a cousin who, to all intents and purposes, did not exist back in the 60s, in spite of the fact that he is ten years my senior.  No one knew about him or if they did they were keeping silent. The acknowledgement of his existence would have broken up at least one branch of our family. How many in our clan ever found out about him or acknowledged him, I don't know. He was born in a convent in Dublin and later adopted. The circumstances are not discussed. Most of those involved have died now. I am in touch with him. He is a senior citizen today, partially broken by all that he lived through.

It was not until 25th May 2018, that abortion was made legal in the Republic. I remember the powerful emotions so many of us felt when, from all over the world, thousands of women flew home to vote. I even read that some loaned others the money to pay for their air ticket. The hashtag  #hometovote became famous. The Irish diaspora mobilised itself with such a force that it felt to me, as I witnessed what was happening, that two centuries of pain and subjection was being rightfully overturned.

The law - the repeal of the 8th amendment, which had kept abortion illegal for so long - was overwhelmingly overturned. It was a watershed moment for men and women, for everyone in Ireland.

When the results were announced, I broke down. I wept for my mother who had so recently died, for her generation, those before her and those who came after (my own generation). I wept for my aunts and their offspring both known and unknown, my cousins and other loved ones, for all these innocent women's young lives lived, for some of them, shrouded in secrecy. In fact, I wept for all women, living or dead, who had been held in shame, some imprisoned in these convents, punished for acts that were born of love, passion, ignorance, rape ... For every woman who was obliged to travel beyond the frontiers of the Republic to obtain the healthcare, the assistance, she needed, which should have been available to her in her homeland.

I am delighted that Claire Keegan's novel has sparked so many emotions, exchanges, both outside Ireland and within the Republic. A short beautiful novel that has unpeeled layers of hidden pain and misjustices and shown us the power of love and courage.

Let us celebrate the power of the written word.

In the meantime, I hope you receive many books for Christmas. I wish you a wonderful 2023.