Saturday, 2 July 2016

Treasuring history through fiction, by Gillian Polack

This month other History Girls are writing about favourite books. I did that recently, so I thought, to balance those posts, I’d give you some context. Those books that we read and that we treasure and that we remember are part of a gorgeous cultural pattern. Right now, that cultural pattern means that historical fiction is changing. I want to look at what exactly is happening. 

Photo: Gillian Polack, Sydney 2015

Two decades ago there was a vast gulf between historians and fiction writers. This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t so much the case in the time of Walter Scott. And it’s not the case right now. It’s now socially far more acceptable to read certain types of fiction as part of enjoying history. The way history is written into many novels has changed: it’s more sophisticated, more aware and far more researched.

Writers have changed. Some of the writers who changed are here, in the History Girls. They looked at the history they fell in love with and they said “We can do this better.” They researched and they learned and they understood and they brought to their novels a greater depth of understanding. It didn’t happen overnight, but if you look at any of the established writers here, you’ll find that, over the years, their work has developed.

I discovered how this happened when I started researching historical fiction writers. Historical fiction writers have always loved history (why would someone write a novel on a historical theme if that someone didn’t enjoy history, after all) but what I discovered was that their attitude to research is at the heart of the sea-change in historical fiction. Some talk to scholars on their specialist subjects. Some frequent specialist archives. So many historical fiction writers do site tours and understand the place the novel is set. 

When I looked at the different attitudes towards research that writers of different kinds of novels have (for a book, which is still a new release and which I am still celebrating), the attitudes of historical fiction writers were closer to those of academic historians than those of science fiction writers, even of science fiction writers who write time travel or alternate histories. There’s still a big difference between history and fiction, but in recent years, historical fiction writers have worked to diminish that gulf.

Next came the readers. I discovered this very personally when I suddenly became more popular at conferences and conventions. Readers wanted to talk about my fiction with me, but they were even more interested in understanding history. These active and questioning readers of novels don’t just pose their technical questions to the historians: readers can be a lot tougher on the history fiction writers use than they used to be. 

There have always been some readers who knew a lot and questioned a lot and thought deeply about the subjects of novels, but the sea change means that there are a lot more of them. I meet them when they want a signature for the Beast (aka The Middle Ages Unlocked, which I co-wrote with Katrin Kania), for they love checking out the sort of background their favourite writers might use. Their favourite writers are usually those same writers who have done so much extra work on the history for their novels.

Some readers will spend as much money on books related to the history in their favourite fiction as they spend on that fiction itself. I’ve been asked about my sources for Langue[dot]doc1305 so often that I put a list of them on my blog, and written articles about them. And I’m not alone in this. So many writers end up talking about their experience in archives or in exploring primary sources or establishing an accurate date for an event as much as they talk about the characters their readers love and love to hate.

Readers do not work alone. They often join groups with similar interests. The Historical Novel Society has been a critical component of this change in historical fiction, and so have organisations like the SCA and the Richard III Society. 

Popular history and serious history are no longer as deeply divided. This opens the door to readers who want to approach novels with more insight into the history and more of an understanding of what possibilities it holds.

Writers respond to their readers. Often, they share similar interests. Elizabeth Chadwick, for instance, is a member of Regia Anglorum, a re-enactment group. She doesn’t just write the Middle Ages: she researches it, performs it and comes to understand it on many levels and from many angles. She is not alone. I can think of at least a half dozen writers who delve into the past during their spare time and whose novels reflect this. The tales these writers tell are still easy to read, but the history in them is better understood and more carefully thought out. It’s part of a complex feedback loop that has led to where we are right now, where historical fiction is successful commercially while its readers and writers see its historical contexts more clearly. They create possibly the best bridging between history and the general public that we’ve had since Walter Scott.

Compared with the demands of writers and readers, the critical world is a step behind. This is because the critical world is undergoing changes of its own. As I love saying, this is another story for another time, but it’s worth noting here. It’s also worth noting that blogs like the History Girls will help the world of criticism catch up, as it becomes clearer and clearer what audiences demand from historical fiction and what writers are willing to give.

Yesterday the History Girls turned five years old. I’m hoping it has many, many good years ahead because it’s very much a part of these changes in the way we see history and think about the past. It helps bring the work of scholars out of the university and gives it directly to the reader, whether the reader is on the train, on the beach or sneaking in a few pages of a favourite book on an e-reader.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Happy Birthday to Us! By Mary Hoffman and various History Girls

Today is the fifth birthday of the History Girls blog and we want you to celebrate with us, so pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of virtual bubbles:

Grab a slice of virtual cake:

and join us in celebrating the highlights since 1st July 2011.

A few stats first:

We have recently passed the 2 million mark as far as pageviews go! Most of our page views are now from the US, followed by the UK, Germany, France, Russia ... But some are from Ukraine and China.

The most popular post ever has been Leslie Wilson's on Maria von Maltzen, in our second year, which has had an incredible more than 92K hits. I keep telling Leslie she should write a book about this German Resistance heroine.

The History Girls are a shifting group and we have retained only twelve of the original twenty-eight members. We have lost Linda Buckley-Archer, Eve Edwards, Nicky Matthews Browne, Katherine Roberts, Teresa Flavin, Barbara Mitchelhill, Mary Hooper, Harriet Castor, Mary Hooper, Theresa Breslin, Louise Berridge, Emma Darwin, Essie Fox, Eleanor Updale, Dianne Hofmeyr, Louisa Young and Katie Grant, all to the demands of their writing schedules.

In the last five years others have come and gone, like Manda Scott, Kate Lord Brown, Laurie Graham and Tanya Landman. For a current list, see the About Us page.

We have had a stellar list of Guests (always the 29th of the month): Tracy Chevalier (twice), Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir, Helen Castor, Frances Hardinge and a bunch of History Boys including Kevin Crossley-Holland (our first), John Guy, Ian Mortimer and Dan Jones.

We have produced one book, Daughters of Time (Templar 2014) and I've lost count of the number of grandchildren. I'm hoping to put together further collections of essays and publishing them at my new independent house, The Greystones Press.

To celebrate our anniversary, some of the HGs are going to talk about a recently read or favourite historical novel or history book. This is mine:

Not a favourite in the sense I think I'll ever read it again but An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a novel I read recently. It's a long book and saw me through a coach trip, a plane journey, several bedtimes, the return plane and bus and as many bedtimes as it took to finish it.

In a sense, it's a murder mystery. It's set in Oxford in 1663, or rather that is when the events of the plot take place but they are told in four different accounts some twenty years later. They concern the death by poisoning of a don, Robert Grove, the investigation of his murder and the subsequent conviction and execution of a suspect.

With each new account we learn that almost nothing is as we at first believed. It is a masterpiece or convoluted storytelling and erudition, with 17th century post Restoration Oxford perfectly conjured up.

I could say more but it's time to hand over to the next History Girl. When you read this I will be sunning myself on the Island of Rhodes. I may or may not have WiFi and access to the site but I'll certainly raise a glass or cup of something in honour of our fifth birthday.

Catherine Hokin talks about …. Legacy by Susan Kay

I recently rediscovered my copy of this wonderful book which came out in 1985 - it was and, following the re-read, remains one of my favourite historical novels and I don't think it has been surpassed for its characterisation of Elizabeth I. The novel tells the story of Elizabeth and her relationships with the Earls of Leicester and Essex and William Cecil - three men whose destinies, as Kay puts it, belonged to her. These relationships, particularly the one with Leicester, are brilliantly drawn but it is the psychological study of Elizabeth and the impact of her mother's death that really elevate the story into something both gripping and terribly poignant. If you haven't read it, I urge you to - it's one of those rich, multi-layered books that will stay with you for many years

Adele Geras says of Broderick's Report by Philippe Claudel (also well-known as a film director)

[It] is a most unusual novel and completely unputdownable. A stranger arrives in a village, some time after the end of the Second World War. The whole village unravels around him, revealing secrets, horrors committed during the War, dreadful things happening in families and in the world. The setting is deliberately vague and this lends the book some of the atmosphere of a fairy tale, or a myth. It's an unforgettable (and now quite a timely) novel and you will thank me for having drawn it to your attention. I hope it's still in print!

Carol Drinkwater suggests: Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea

It is a sweeping saga of love, betrayal slavery and politics set in New Orleans, the Caribbean.

Allende is captivating. Her breadth of research and story-writing skills are on top form here. I read it while staying on the island of La Réunion which remains a part of France and was once an island of sugar plantations and slavery. So, the location added to the very evocative story.

Michelle Lovric says...

This is not my usual period (which is 18th century Italy) but I was enchanted by the new Chris Cleave novel set in Blitz London and on Malta during World War II. It’s called Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Everything about this book reeks of authenticity – the characters, the conversations and the preoccupations. The emotional engagement is searing. It’s not trying to impose anything on the era but has the effect of pulling the reader into the breathless vortex of the nightly destruction of London and her citizens.

We hope you enjoy these and many more wonderful books and much more history with us over the next five years! Thank you to all our readers and contributors for making the blog what it is.  We'll leave the final word to some of our guests:

Happy 5th Birthday, History Girls! I hope you will have jelly and ice cream. Probably port jelly, and ice cream made using a sorbetière and a spaddle...  Best wishes, Frances Hardinge

 Congratulations to all of you and well done. Charles Palliser

Sending very happy birthday wishes to the History Girls' Blog on your fifth birthday. Five years of bringing history alive and making it rock! All the best for the next five years and more, Alison Weir.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

June Competition

To win a a copy of Julia Gregson's Monsoon Summer, answer the question below in the Comments section:

"Who do you consider to have been the greatest female health educator in history and why?"

Then email your answer to: so that we can contact you if you win.

Closing date 14th July - you get a bit longer this time because of holidays.

We're sorry but our competitions are open to UK Followers only. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

English Midwives in India by Julia Gregson

Credit: Alex Pownall
Our guest for June is Julia Gregson. She says of herself:

In my career as a journalist I spent four days with Muhammad Ali in a boxer’s training camp in Pennsylvania, interviewed Buzz Aldrin in Houston; Ronnie Biggs in a Brazilian jail at midnight; president’s wives, film stars in Hollywood and several notorious criminals. All good grist to my story-writing mill.

I enjoy writing short stories and have had many published in places like The Literary Review, The Times, Good Housekeeping, and read on the BBC.

Orion published my first novel, The Water Horse, in 2005. I rode a horse across Wales to do the research- a wonderful experience- and then went to Istanbul and Scutari where the rest of the novel is set.

Writing East of the Sun and Monsoon Summer involved three research trips to India, A great highlight.

I’m married, have one daughter and four stepchildren and live in Monmouthshire with two chickens, two rescue ponies, and a collie called Jellybean.

Welcome Julia! 

It is day four of a midwife training course in Northern India. A group of dais, (midwives), have been given a piece of paper and a crayon and asked to draw the human body as they understand it. Here are two examples of what was drawn.

In another exercise , they are asked to describe the inside of a woman’s body. What follows, is a selection of their responses:

“There is a uterus, egg tubes and a passage for urine and menstruation, there are 900 blood vessels.”

“Three holes from the rectum, vagina and urethra.”

“There are seven layers in the stomach and the first is very hard, they are softened by age and each delivery comes from a softer layer.”

“Nobody knows what is inside the body, you can only see it by experience “

The images and the words come from  Birthing with Dignity, a fascinating and still timely handbook for training midwives and health workers , written in 2004 by the Canadian midwife Diane Smith, who went to India, to work with the village dais and share their experience.

It would easy to laugh, or be alarmed at the primitive drawings above, but Smith points out this would be both stupid and dangerous.

After seven years in India, she gained a deep respect for many of the local midwives and says, ‘’We learned from each other,” Western medicine, she says, “sees the body as a machine made up of moving parts, rather than a dynamic energetic form.” While Western knowledge can be helpful to a traditional Dai, particularly when handling the kind of life threatening complications, that require emergency medical care, Smith believes passionately, we ignore at our peril the other kind of wisdom, based on intuition, traditional healing methods, and centuries of watching, listening, and aiding women deliver their babies.

Her hope is that by listening and learning from each other, Eastern and Western midwives, can become happy bed fellows. ( Sounds like E.M. Forster’s famous dictum: ‘only connect.’)

There is a long tradition of Western midwives travelling East with their birthing kits, and knitted babies, and wall charts. From England. In the late 19th Century, The Countess of Dufferin sent many midwives to India, funded in part by Queen Victoria. Some were magnificent and brave, some, though well-intentioned were naive and misguided.

In my new book, Monsoon Summer, my heroine, Kit belongs initially, to the latter group, and walks into a minefield of dangers and difficulties when she travels to South India, in 1948, to help set up a midwifery school.

She discovers that there is no such thing as a typical Indian midwife. Some of her colleagues were exceptionally talented, better educated and far more experienced than she was , at the other end of the spectrum were dais who were considered the lowest of the low and were only allowed to cut the cord say, or do away with the placenta- some of these tasks undertaken with rusty knives and unhygienic rags. These unhygienic practices added to poverty, and poor transportation leading to some horrifying levels of maternal and infant morality.

She encounters difficulties familiar to any Western midwife, rolling up her sleeves in India, chief among them, the bewildering layers upon layers of caste complexity, and birthing traditions. Brahminical Hindus, for instance, regard childbirth as a polluted female act, and one in which the Dai’s role is seen as being one of the most menial and dirty jobs around. This makes recruiting educated women to their ranks a huge problem. Other dais are called on only to perform illegal abortions, or to dispose of newly born unwanted girl babies.

But things are changing in India: government policy makers are encouraging women to have their first babies in hospital. But the reality for the majority of people living in poverty - over half our world- is that many still cannot afford to go to hospital. The local midwife is their best, and only option.

So this urgent work continues today. A healthy baby after all, is what every woman wants, doesn’t matter where she’s from.

As for the midwives, we should celebrate them more. The best of them to quote from Diane Smith’s teacher, must be a healer, a physician, a magician, a politician, an actor, comedienne friend, acrobat, seamstress, nurse, doctor, shift worker, mechanic. It’s quite a list. I don’t think I could do it, could you?

Monsoon Summer by Julia Gregson is published in the U.K. by Orion on June 30th

In the U.S. by Touchstone, in August 16th

Birthing with Dignity, a guide for training community level midwives and health worker. by Diane Smith, published by Jagori in 2004

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Standing Alone on the Edge of Europe by Julie Summers

Earl Grey 1764–1845
© Lord Howick
I woke up on Friday morning in a strange house in an unfamiliar county with that lovely feeling of being somewhere new and exciting. That was until I went downstairs, passing the magnificent 1828 portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of the second Early Grey, the prime minister who introduced the Great Reform Act of 1832. In the kitchen a television was blaring and with a sense of growing disbelief I heard that British voters had opted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%. My city of Oxford had voted 70/30 in favour of Remain and so wrapped up had I become in the bubble that is our lovely city that I had not realised the enormous determination to leave that had spread to other areas of the country.

The campaign was fought on both sides with dirty tricks, lies and some of the most unpleasant rhetoric and scaremongering I have ever heard. Claims and counterclaims about EU funding, EU rules, an EU army, EU migrants flew around like swarms of angry bees. Amid the cries of joy, horror, sadness, despair, disbelief, excitement and any other sentiment you like to attribute to the sentence, a few thoughtful voices have been heard. I thought I might take time to reflect on one of those for my piece this month, rather than writing about 'the true cost of war' as I had planned. That will wait until next month when it might turn out to be rather topical if negotiations go badly...

Anthony Beevor is one of those rare historians who writes history that is both thoroughly readable and wholly to be trusted. He is a researcher par excellence and has an overview of history that is, in my opinion, almost unparalleled. He suggested that looking at history would be an interesting exercise in contemplating what Britain thinks it can achieve while standing alone. How will the country (or should it be countries because England and Wales voted out and Scotland and Northern Ireland vote to remain) defend itself in the future. He wrote:

'Ever since the late 17th Century, we have relied on continental coalitions to oppose the over-mighty oppressor threatening the peace of Europe. Britain alone was never strong enough in manpower to confront a major power alone on land.'

Howick Hall was used as a convalescent hospital for Other Ranks from 1941-1945.
Over 11 different nationalities were treated there including Finnish, Greek, Polish,
Czech, Dutch and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century and that was more evident than at almost any other time. I am currently writing a book about houses that were requisitioned in the Second World War and used for a variety of purposes, including of course the housing of troops. In 1940 Britain faced the full force of the German war machine on its own. France had fallen. Belgium and the Netherlands had been invaded and we were, as is so often repeated, completely alone on the edge of Europe. Heroic little Britain as we will be in the future. Except that we were not alone. The country was full of friendly fighters who supported us in our hour of need. There were 30,000 battle-hardened Polish soldiers and airmen who knew a thing or two about fighting the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. There were 5,000 Czechoslovak troops and pilots who had arrived in Britain in July of that summer. Pilots from both nationalities flew bravely in the Battle of Britain.

Canada had already sent thousands of troops to our shores in December 1939. They were joined by more divisions over the course of the war including the Canadian Royal Air Force. We had over three million American GIs in 1944 in the build up to D-Day, not to speak of Australian and New Zealanders who helped to defend these shores both on land and in the air. Far from standing alone, we were very much 'in it together'. Churchill knew that he could not win the war without Allies. He once said: 'There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.' That appears to be a risk for our future at the moment.

Anthony Beevor wrote in his article in the Mail on Sunday: 'No British politician will ever again dare to say that we are punching above our weight.' He concluded: 'We will be the most hated country just when we need to win friends.'

On this occasion I sincerely hope that he is wrong and that we will win back friends so that we have allies in the future but from this perspective and at this moment in time, it looks like we have precious few of either.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Maria Merian's Butterflies & Flowers by Janie Hampton

I have always loved detailed, exotic flower designs such as William Morris's 'Pomegranate' wallpaper and Osborne & Little curtains. But until I visited the Queen's Gallery recently, I had no idea that they were all inspired by an extraordinary 17th century woman.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647. Her father was Matthäus Merian, a successful printmaker and when he died only three years later, her mother married the still-life artist Jacob Marrel, who taught Merian to paint accurate and detailed flowers.
Pineapple with Cockroaches which Merian described  as 
‘the most infamous of all insects in America’.
While raising a family, teaching and painting, she also published books of flower engravings, as reference for embroidery and amateur painters.

From childhood, she was also fascinated by the life-cycles and habitats of insects. Merian's full colour compositions were not only elegant but also carefully observed and naturalistic. The caterpillars, chrysalis and adult butterflies are shown on the actual plants on which they fed. Most naturalists then still believed that caterpillars and butterflies were distinct species and Merian was one of the first to understand the metamorphosis of insects. Her pioneering work on the relationship between animals, plants and their environment, and that specific food was vital to the survival of each species, made her the first 'ecologist'.

After separating from her husband, Merian moved with her two daughters to a Labadist commune in Waltha castle in Holland. Choosing to live in simple austerity, she continued her studies including into the metamorphosis of frogs. When the commune broke up, she moved to Amsterdam, then a thriving centre of art and nature, and saw her first pineapple.
Ripe Pineapple (Ananas comosus) with Dido Longwing Butterfly (Philaethria dido), 1702-3. Merian noted that the wine made from pineapples had 'an unsurpassable flavour.'
Merian was also fascinated by the specimens of exotic insects that were arriving into Europe from South America. But as they were dead, she could not observe their life-cycles. In 1699, she sold all her paints, prints and copper plates, and set off with her 21-year old daughter, Dorothea for Suriname. A Dutch colony in South America, it had been called 'Willoughbyland' until 1667, when the British exchanged it for some swampy islands further North, now called New York.

Maria Merian lived in the capital, Paramaribo, with Dorothea and explored the surrounding forests for plants and animals to draw, and caterpillars to rear and observe. For two years she painted scientifically accurate illustrations, until her ill-health forced them to return home.
Banana (Musa paradisiaca) and bullseye moth (Automeris liberia). Merian commented that a banana ‘has a pleasant flavour like apples in Holland; it is good both cooked and raw.’  
Back in in Amsterdam, in 1705 Merian published a luxury book of beautiful, hand-coloured etchings called 'The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname'. She also produced partially printed and  hand-drawn coloured plates printed on vellum to sell to her richer patrons. Merian, probably assisted by her daughters, inked sections of each etched plate and ran them through the press. While the ink was still wet, she transferred a reverse image onto a sheet of vellum. This ‘counterproof’ was then coloured by hand with watercolour mixed with gum arabic. Merian varied the arrangement of insects and plants so that each plate is a unique composition. She became one of the most celebrated natural scientists of her age and regarded throughout Europe as both an entomologist and an artist. She was also an astute businesswoman. ‘I had the plates engraved by the most renowned masters, and used the best paper in order to please both the connoisseurs of art and the amateur naturalists interested in insects and plants,’ she wrote.

Guava tree (Psidium guineense) with Army Ants (Eciton sp.), Pink-Toed Tarantulas (Avicularia avicularia), Hunstman Spiders (Heteropoda venatoria) and a Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus). Merian showed a tarantula carrying off a hummingbird which may have led to the erroneous belief that tarantulas eat birds.
Merian died in Amsterdam in 1717. Three hundred years later her meticulous, brilliant works continues to inspire and excite artists and designers. Several plants, butterflies and beetles have been named after her, such as the Split-Banded Owlet Butterfly (Osiphanes cassina merianae).

False Coral Snake and Banded Cat-Eyed Snake with  unidentified frogs. Merian shipped snakes from Suriname, preserved in brandy. This drawing may be by one of her daughters, Johanna or Dorothea who were also talented artists. Dorothea worked for Peter the Great in St Petersburg and left her mother's sketch books with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In 1810 George III bought the set of plates from Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium which are now in the Royal Collection in London.
Kate Heard's book Maria Merian's Butterflies [ISBN 978 1 909741 31 7] is a treasure to behold and tells the story of Merian's life and work with 150 colour illustrations.
All illustrations copyright Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016.  @janieoxford

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, by Carol Drinkwater

Many of my colleagues are writing glorious posts inspired by recent holidays. How envious I feel as I stay locked to my desk, moving inexorably towards my upcoming deadline. However, I did make a short trip to Krakow two weeks ago, for five days, taking all my work with me. I wrote all day in our lovely hotel room and then about 4pm I allowed myself out to revisit the city.

My husband, Michel, was on the jury for the Krakow Documentary Film Festival and I tagged along because it is a city I remember from two decades back. I first visited Poland months after the Berlin Wall had come down.

Of course, my first observation was how dramatically the city has changed. My first visit was, as all my trips have been, for work. I was filming there. In fact, I have been employed as an actress in Poland on several occasions. I have also taken the role of director of English dubbing on a couple of films, written the screenplay for a six-part film series partially shot in Poland, and, more recently, I have returned as an author on a book tour. Over the years, I have been a sporadic witness to its evolution.

When I first went to Poland it was, as I said, after the Wall had come down. Communism was still visible everywhere, of course. There were few foreigners except business folk. It was a time for enterprise, for overseas companies to step in and offer their wares or stake a claim in the opportunities for new business. It was grey. The streets were grey. The citizens, poor. There was little to buy in the shops. Many of their windows were bare with possibly one object on display. There was a subdued, vanquished, sense of national identity because the dominant identity was Communism. I observed certain overseas visitors treat the Poles badly, as the underdog but most were keen to express their enthusiasm at finally being offered the opportunity to collaborate, to create a mix of experience and skills.

Krzysztof Kieslowski 

In my sphere, I was exceedingly fortunate. I was given many opportunities to work with brilliant filmmakers. The Polish people have a marvellous history of cinema, and one of the finest film schools in the world is in Lodz. Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski (there was a small retrospective in his honour at this year's doc festival because, incredibly, 2016 is the 20th anniversary of his death), Jerzy Skolomowski (who I worked with in 1976 on The Shout which was honoured at Cannes), Andrzej Wajda,  Krzysztof Zanussi, who was the president of the jury when I was part of the team at the Monaco TV festival some years ago, and a remarkable lady I have never met, Agnieszka Holland. These directors amongst many others have given Polish cinema a fine reputation internationally, and an exceptional body of work.

                                                                 Agnieszka Holland

I had little opportunity for sightseeing this time, revisiting places I had been to years ago. I did go to the castle again and to light candles for my recently-departed mother at the cathedral, and I did make a special trip to see Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, which I had not seen before. It is magnificent and I was humbled to stand before such a work. I felt profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be there in that room in the company of such a masterpiece even if I had to share the moment with many Asian and European tourists. I left the castle and wandered down into the old town where tourists were seated in every restaurant and every bar, none of which had existed a decade or two ago. There were the inevitable lager louts behaving badly, getting drunk loudly, sloshing pints everywhere, making the most of cheap beer, having flown in off the cheap flights. I sighed at the sight of them, and I then I remembered what my driver had said on the way into town from the airport. "Life is good for us now. We have every nationality visiting us here, enjoying our food, our culture, our way of life, our art. We can afford to eat better and we can travel too. For those of us who remember Communism, this is a real step forward, a liberation. And our children can travel anywhere throughout Europe, experience new horizons, learn languages. The world has expanded." 
His words seemed more poignant than ever at this time. Communism is Poland's past. Europe is its present and its future. Borders have been removed; diversity is celebrated; free trade and access to elsewhere is the norm now.

Since I wrote this post on Wednesday 22nd June, Great Britain has been to the polls.  52% of British voters, as the world knows, put their cross in the box 'Leave', to leave the European Union. I cannot describe the overwhelming sadness I felt when the outcome was announced. Britain is choosing a new, more independent, more isolated path and for the moment the decision has caused a financial free fall. I fear for the uncertainty that lies ahead, which will probably include the splintering of the United Kingdom.

This afternoon as I visited various shops and made stops here and there in the south of France where I live, while talking to traders, it became clear that 27 states are moving forward, shocked by the UK's vote. The European Union was built out of the rubble of two world wars. It has ensured peace across Europe for half a century. It has laid down the basis for humanitarian values. It has made a historical shift in how the individual entities, countries, perceive and interact with one another.
For all its faults, I believe in Europe, in working together; the exchange of ideas and cultures.  Immersion not estrangement.
The loss of the UK is  a sorrow for one and all. This was a united journey, sometimes bumpy, but one that contained a united vision. It still does, except tragically, Britain has gone.
We cannot yet see the full impact of this split. I pray that we who remain in Europe can work together to overcome the loss of such an important member and move forward as an entity, redoubling our efforts towards solidarity and open-mindedness. Now more than ever, with so many parts of the world in turmoil, we need unity not disparity.