Friday, 22 January 2021

Pandora and her container



Greek women are on a roll. No, not Arianna Huffington, Melina Mercouri and Irene Papas, but their counterparts in ancient mythology. We had Madeleine Miller's cracking Circe (her first book having focussed on the men - Achilles and Patroclus); Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (the sequel, The Women of Troy, will be out this August) and Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships, which all worked from the premise made explicit in Barker's title: that we know the women of Greek myths only through a male perspective.

At the same time, there has been a trend in presenting both myth and history as if they have to be funny in order to be interesting. I blame Horrible Histories myself. I have not always enjoyed Natalie Haynes on radio 4 because of this tendency, so approached Pandora's Jar with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation

There are jokes. Haynes can't help herself: she used to be a stand-up comedian. But there is also a great deal to illuminate and enjoy. Although she says at the end that it isn't "a scholarly book," her frame of reference takes in Stesichorus, Theognis and Diodorus Siculus as well as Hesiod, Pausanias and the Greek tragedians. There is no need for her to self-deprecate, although an index would have been nice.

But this is marketed as a book with popular appeal and the production is gorgeous. I want to give a shout-out to Swedish artist Petra Bӧrner for the beguiling cover. 

Let's get that business of Pandora's container out of the way. If asked, I would have said "box;" wouldn't you? That is the common expression but we get it from Erasmus in the 16th century who translated pyxis instead of pithos, which is a tall jar. So if we've got that so wrong, what else have we mis-believed about Pandora?

Well her name means "all-giving" as well as "all-gifted," according to Haynes, which certainly puts a new spin on her actions. She was created as the first woman, being given assets by the gods, and was then presented to Epimetheus as a wife. (He was the brother of Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus). In some versions, she brings the jar with her as a dowry. But in no ancient Greek source is she forbidden to open it; that has been tacked on by later re-tellers of the story, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Roger Lancelyn-Green. There isn't even agreement that the jar is full of evils. Theognis says Pandora released good things like self-control and trust, which flew away, explaining why they are so rare among men.

                                               Pandora - artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons)

Having sorted us out on Pandora, Natalie Haynes moves on to nine other women or groups, which are worth naming: Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and Penelope.

After a discussion of their places in popular mythology and a look at Greek sources, Haynes goes on to look at more recent interpretations in a variety of art forms. It's a real shame she doesn't mention Stravinsky's short opera, Oedipus Rex, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau, based on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. It's true that Jocasta has no more prominence in terms of number of lines in that work than she does in Sophocles. But what lines and what music!

Oracula, oracula, mentita sunt oracula.

It's also true that "the fixation on Oedipus sucks all the light and air"  out of the story, as Haynes observes

Helen "of Troy" is probably the most famous of the women in Greek mythology in this book. She was abducted by (or went willingly with) Paris, prince of Troy, from her marital home and caused a ten-year war between Greece and Troy to restore her to her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. But how many people know the alternative version in which an image of Helen was taken in her stead and the real Helen kept safe for the duration in Egypt? It is found in Euripides' play, Helen.

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on The Amazons. How many Amazons can you name? Haynes says there are more than sixty names on depictions of them on Greek vases. I could summon up only Hippolyta and, at a pinch, Penthesilea. The great things about the Amazons, as Haynes make clear, is that they fought together. They are not interested in single heroic acts like the men in Greek mythology; there are no Amazonian equivalents of Achilles or Hector. Even when Penthesilea takes on Achilles after Hector's death, she brings another dozen Amazons with her.

One of ways in which they have been diminished is the example of describing Hyppolita's war-belt as a "girdle." In Pseudo-Apollodorus' Biblioteca, Haynes tells us, one of the Labours of Heracles/Hercules is to bring back the belt of the Amazon for a princess called Admete. This belt would have held weapons and been a broad, sturdy affair, nothing like a loose waist-tie to cinch in a flowing tunic. Still less like the barely functional adornment of a naked woman as in the 16th century Dutch painting below

The chapter I was most looking forward to was the one on Clytemnestra and I must here declare an interest: I have long found her a subject of much calumny and wrote a short story in her voice for an anthology called Bloody Women, which ended up mothballed. Maybe its time has come now? Haynes does make much of the fact that Agamemnon sacrificed his and C's oldest daughter at Aulis in order to get a fair wind for his ships to Troy. And that would be quite enough to make you hate your husband and have some defence for killing him.

But few people take account that Clytenmestra's first husband, Tantalus and their baby son were both killed by Agamemnon before he married her. Haynes does mention this but doesn't give it the prominence I do. To recap: your sister is the most beautiful woman in the world and also semi-divine; your husband and baby son are murdered by an invading thug; you are then given to said thug as his bride; you buckle down to your fate and bear him three (or four) children; he murders the first child you bore him and goes off to war for ten years; you hear he has taken not one but two war-brides as part of his booty; he returns home, where you have ruled as queen for a decade, bringing a third war-bride with him. You then, with your lover, kill him. What court would not agree you have been provoked?

The trouble is that three great tragedians have written about this story and the focus is on Clytemnestra as the archetype of a bloodthirsty, vengeful wife, not a woman provoked to the limit of endurance by her murderous, unfaithful husband. Here I should have liked to know that Haynes was familiar with Richard Strauss's expressionist masterpiece, Electra. Not because it exonerates the queen but because it contains her fabulous aria about the nightmares she has about her son, Orestes, coming to exact bloody vengeance for the death of his father. Clytemnestra knows how differently women who kill are judged  from their male counterparts.

Of the remaining women in the book, only Medea has much agency. Eurydice, Phaedra and Penelope all seem to be women to whom things happen.

Eurydice, after being stung by a serpent, dies and goes down to Hades. Its eponymous ruler wants to keep her but her husband Orpheus has other ideas. Orpheus enters the underworld playing his lyre and the shades of the dead come to hear his music. Even Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, stands gaping. Eurydice is handed back to her husband, they leave together, with the woman walking behind.

The prohibition on looking back is not mentioned in Virgil until after Orpheus has forgotten and broken it. It is made more of in Ovid, who doesn't tell us that Eurydice was fleeing from her would-be rapist Aristaeus when the snake bites. The common theme as in so many of this myths is that no-one asks the woman what she wants. 

 Haynes  is good here on later representations, citing Gluck and, briefly, Cocteau, even Philip Glass's "bonkers" opera (but not Harrison Birtwistle's equally bonkers The Mask of Orpheus). What they have in common is all taking Orpheus' point of view: how would a man feel if his wife died young? Only Carol Ann Duffy's poem in The World's Wife, shows Eurydice content in the underworld and relieved to be shot of a husband "who follows her round/writing poems."

Phaedra's story is one that bears fleshing out. Her sister Ariadne has already been betrayed and abandoned by Theseus when this "hero" marries her. Her fate, decreed by Aphrodite, is to fall hopelessly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who has scorned the goddess of love in favour of Artemis, the patron of hunting. None of this has anything to do with Phaedra herself; she has to bear the tragedy of Aphrodite's pique.

In Euripides' play, Hippolytus, we see her almost dying for love of her stepson and, when she does hang herself, she leaves a note for Theseus that his son has tried to rape her. In Racine's play, Phèdre, the difference is that the queen's waiting woman has told the young man of his stepmother's passion and he has shown disgust at the idea. In both versions, the best known loci for Phaedra's story, Thesus curses his son for the alleged rape and the young man is horribly crushed by his own chariot. So Aphrodite gets her revenge and Phaedra is collateral damage.

Penelope is the last woman that Haynes tackles and again refreshes our image of the patient wife left waiting twenty years for her husband Odysseus (Ulysses), chastely rejecting other suitors - a passive figure. Firstly, Haynes makes it clear that Penelope is quite as clever as her husband; the wheeze of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law and undoing it every night is her idea. She has told the gaggle of suitors that she won't marry until it is finished and they are too dumb to twig her deceit. It it would be hard work too, as Haynes points out, not like undoing some knitting, where you just pull on one thread and the work unravels.

                                                       Athene watches Penelope "unweaving"

Penelope waits for Odysseus because, unlike his hundred would-be replacements, he is clever and therefore interesting. The story is taken from Homer's Odyssey but there is a modern version worth mentioning, Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, which begins with the hanging of the slave-women by Telemachus after the suitors have been killed and I'm glad that Haynes knows it.

But the star of this book is Medea, the seemingly irredeemable wife of Jason, who killed their children. I'm not specially interested in the vaunted introduction to the chapter linking her to Beyoncé; You can read it perfectly well without that. Haynes reminds of of the parallels between Theseus and Jason, who abandon the women who help them in their quests. Theseus dumps Ariadne, who has provided him with a way to navigate to the centre of the labyrinth, so that he could kill her half-brother, the Minotaur, and rescue himself and all future young Athenians from the annual sacrifice to the monster in the maze.

Jason simply could not have taken the golden fleece from Medea's father without her help. The two women help their boorish "heroes" because of being smitten by love. But here's a difference: Medea is a powerful witch and she is not to be scorned without a cost. She has been married to Jason long enough to have two young but not infant sons with him but then he decides to marry another woman, the daughter of the king of Corinth, and send Medea and their children into exile.

Euripides' play, Medea, gives her terrific speeches in which she gets the audience on her side as much as the Chorus she is ostensibly addressing. Medea is not going to go quietly. She manages to poison Jason's intended bride and her father the king. But then, believing that her children will be killed in revenge, she slays them herself. This is no less shocking today than it was in 431 BCE, when the play was first performed in Athens. We can't exonerate Medea but thanks to Natalie Haynes we can understand her a tiny bit better.

Pandora's Jar fulfils its promise to let us see these ten women afresh, to re-visit their stories by putting ourselves in their position rather than that of the men - and gods - who act upon them. Natalie Haynes' very readable text performs the same task as a picture-restorer or a mender of broken pottery; she allows us to see them without the ravages of the centuries, as believable women living in real time.

                                                          Natalie Haynes credit: Jamie Betts


Friday, 15 January 2021

Run Your Town Like a Roman - 12 tips from the past, by Ruth Downie

Human nature, it seems, has changed little since AD 91, when the emperor Domitian issued a set of laws for the town of Irni. Many of them made me laugh, because it was clear that the rules were designed to head off exactly the same sort of misunderstanding and mischief-making that still goes on today. Others were clearly based on a mindset very different to our own. Here are a few gems of advice from the past:

1 Everyone in town must know what the rules are. They must be engraved on bronze plaques and put up in the middle of town where they can clearly be read from ground level. There is to be no burying of bad news, hiding devilish detail in small print or placing plaques so high that nobody can read them without a ladder. 

Two people looking up at tall Roman building
"Did you bring the binoculars?"

 2 Remember that while mortal guardians sleep, the gods and the divine ghosts of emperors past are always on the lookout for wrongdoing. Everyone who holds office in the town must swear by Jupiter and the Divine Augustus and the Divine Claudius and the Divine Vespasian Augustus and the Divine Titus Augustus and the genius of the Emperor Domitian Augustus and the Penates that he will act in good faith.

3 There is to be no fake news. All decisions must be read out as soon as possible and council scribes are to make a public record of what’s been decided without entering anything false or leaving anything out, or else incur the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc.

4 Two men with equal authority should be placed in charge of the council. Ideally they will be so busy squabbling with each other that neither will pose any threat to the higher authorities. In order to get necessary business done even when relations are bad, some ground rules will be necessary – for example, nobody can make decisions about money unless three-quarters of the councillors are there to vote on them. And when one of the top men has called a meeting, the other one can’t demand that everyone abandon it and come to his own meeting instead. (Ordinary residents, of course, should not be allowed to hold large meetings at all. No good will come of it.)

5 Cheer everyone up by supporting the arts – as soon as possible, vote a budget for religious observances, games and public dinners.

Modern gladiators in the amphitheatre at Chester
Everyone enjoys the Games

6 Make it clear that the councillors in charge of drains, roads, etc. will have the help of municipal slaves to do the actual dirty work.

7 Are there still not enough willing councillors, despite the offer of free labour and public dinners? Have the names of every eligible man (obviously non-men are not eligible) written up in public. At ground level. Order them to nominate each other. You will have an instant rush of nominees.

8 Now you have the nominees - some advice on elections. Nobody is to do anything to prevent the election being held. Everyone seeking election can place a scrutineer by each ballot box. If two candidates have the same number of votes, the one who is married will be elected. If they are both married, tot up the number of legitimate sons each of them has. The one with the most sons wins. (For the avoidance of dispute, use the official points system to allow for any children who have not survived. If this still doesn’t settle the matter, draw lots.)

outline of ballot box
9 Get a grip on the grain supply and keep control of weights and measures and the retail sector. Ban hoarding and price-fixing. No-one is to corner the market in any one commodity - not even toilet rolls.

10 Tired of the endless grumbling from residents who demand that “the council ought to do something about…” x, y or z? Remind them that residents can be conscripted for five days each year to work without pay on major Council projects. This will test their resolve.

11 Ambassadors. Being sent away to represent the town’s views (whatever you think of them) is not always a popular job, so any man who claims to be ineligible because he is ill, or over 60, should be made to swear it in front of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc. If he is later found out to be lying, he will suffer not only the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc., but also a fine of 20,000 sesterces. This is enough to pay 16 legionaries for a year, so if a modern army private in the UK earns about £20,000 a year, set the fine at £320,000.

Bust of the Emperor Domitian - Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
The emperor is running out of patience.

12 And finally – the laws end with a special letter from the emperor Domitian himself. Its meaning is now lost to us, but if, in the light of recent legislation, you are concerned about the hasty marriage (?) that you contracted, this is for you. The emperor wants you to know that he is prepared to overlook the past, but he is now running out of patience. Don’t do it again.

The Lex Irnitana, the statement of law for the southern Spanish town of Irni, was discovered on bronze plaques in the 1980s. I’m immensely grateful to Paul du Plessis, who originally drew my attention to it, but who shares none of the blame for what lies above. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of it should consult:

The Lex Irnitana: A New Copy of the Flavian Municipal Law Author(s): Julián González and Michael H. Crawford Source: The Journal of Roman Studies , 1986, Vol. 76 (1986), pp. 147-243 Published by: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies Stable URL: JSTOR

Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. 

Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 8 January 2021

Basketry by Janie Hampton

Bronislava and Jan Madejscy with their kablacok willow baskets, are part of the Slow Art in Poland movement, in Lucimia Village which is on UNESCO’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ list. © Paulina Adamska, Serfenta Association, 2009.
Baskets have been part of our lives ever since humans first gathered fruit to eat. Since then, basketry skills have been used to make hats, water carriers, coffins, boats, furniture, lampshades and designer handbags.
Despite much speculation, the origin of the word ‘basket’ is obscure but is assumed to be from the early 13th C Anglo-French bascat. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest source is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor published in 1602: ‘Look, here is a basket…. he may creep in here.’
Because baskets are used until they fall apart, and are then either burned or decay, they rarely feature in archeology. The earliest known baskets survived through chance – in fish-traps left behind in waterlogged ditches; in permafrost; or in desert caves.
Baskets have been found in Turkey from the neo-lithic period of 7500-5500 BC. They left only impressions in the mud after they were wrapped around the dead. In Fayum, near the Nile Valley in Egypt, there are no traces of dwellings left, but over 100 grain storage pits made between 5000 and 4200 BC reveal patterns from baskets made from wheat straw. One whole boat-shaped basket with colours and fine patterns was found in a grain pit in 1924. Its discovery raised the question: ‘Does its quality indicate that the value of grain was very high? Or was it first used for something of higher status, and then when it was half worn out, recycled as a grain scoop?’
Early 20thC basketmaker in Kent.  © Mary Butcher
Humans have always been good at adapting whatever they can find, to live more comfortably and safely. In the Peruvian Andes, the Spanish Conquistadors were astonished that the only way across deep gorges was by bridges made from rope. Designed over 500 years ago during the Inca Empire, the bridges were made entirely of grass. One keshwa chaca still survives, spanning the Apurimac River (‘The Great Speaker’). Only humans and llamas can cross it, but the tradition and skills are so important to the people that it is rebuilt every year using the same local qqoya grass and methods passed down to each generation. The grass has to be soaked and softened, then pounded by children, and spun into cords by women. Each household produces 40 arms-length of rope. Once about 7 kms of grass cord has been made, the men twist bunches of 24 cords into ropes. Old men then braid the cables, while the young ones stretch them across the channel. The bridge is completed with a deck of brushwood matting. The combination of grass - a material with little strength on its own, community effort, and the design of the keshwa chaca is a wonderful example of engineering friction, social cohesion and human ingenuity. As Ian Ewart writes, the process is ‘a nexus of social regeneration and reinforcement.’ 
Nassa fish traps from Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea,
made by the late Salvo ta Bertu from split Mediterranean cane
and a grass similar to esparto. © Geraldine Jones. 

Materials for baskets come from plants - trees, grasses, cacti, heathers – whatever grows near the maker. In the islands of northern Scotland, there are stones to build houses, but few trees to use as rafters to hold up the rooves. But there is plenty of heather, which can be twisted into ropes to hold the thatch, made of more heather. 
The first Girl Guide uniforms in 1910 included a wide brimmed hat woven from rush.
This was made by Jean Francis for Salt Cellar Workshops in Cornwall in 2019. 
During World War One, baskets were so important for transporting carrier-pigeons and medical supplies, and for observation-balloon baskets and even aeroplanes, that basket-making was a ‘reserved occupation’ and the War Office appointed a National Willow Officer. Mary Crabb relates that the artillery-shell basket had ‘a curious, slightly sinister cyclic quality about it. Woven to offer protection to objects of death and destruction – those injured by the shells were then taught to weave baskets as a means of therapy and rehabilitation.’ Basket making was found to be a therapeutic activity for shell-shock, requiring meditative repetition, hand-eye coordination and creating a sense of purpose with the finished product. The materials were cheap, and when imported cane ran out, wild roses and brambles were available in hedgerows. Also, it could be done in bed or a wheelchair. 
Basket weaving therapy at Seale Hayne Military Hospital, 1919.
Seale-Hayne Archives. © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. 

Angus MacPhee was a Gaelic speaker brought up on South Uist – a remote island on the Outer Hebrides. During the 1940s he developed schizophrenia and was sent to Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in Inverness. An elective mute, he worked on the hospital farm where he invented his own therapy. He twisted and twined grass into yarn and then using only two pieces of broken fence wire, he looped, netted and stitched. He made coats, trousers, hats, boots and pouches, often interwoven with wild flowers and sheep’s wool from fences. Twice a year the hospital groundsmen tidied up his artefacts and burned them. He would watch apparently undisturbed, and make some more. A few pieces survived him, and basket-makers recognized the same looping techniques as used in 12th C socks found in a cave in Arizona, in Norse cultures, and by indigenous people of Australia today. 
A typical English fruit basket from the 1950s, designed for
occupational therapy and made of easily-manipulated cane. 
Basket making gained a bad name after the derogatory term ‘basket-case’ was coined in 1919, meaning someone who had lost both their legs in war and was now ‘useless’; and by the mid-20th century basketry’s association with the disabled and mentally ill meant its reputation declined. Recent research has shown the beneficial effects on brain injury and trauma that basketry can contribute to improving brain plasticity with sensory and motor signals, sequencing, recognition of mistakes and decision making.
Baskets have a protective role of containment and holding. ‘We are, after all, ’writes Hilary Burns, ‘nurtured in baskets from cradle to grave, literally from crib to coffin.’ 
Boks baskets from Vanuatu in South Pacific embody a rhythmic 
sequence of pandanus (pine palm) ribbons, passed down the generations. 
Whereas ’found materials’ or rubbish were originally used to make baskets for economic reasons, now basket makers use them to create political messages about sustainability. Lois Walpole used to buy rattan, until she realized the huge carbon footprint of transporting it across the world, and then dyeing it. Now she consciously uses only found materials such as disused packaging and ‘ghost gear’ – flotsam and jetsam from beaches- to make colourful, beautiful baskets and furniture. In the Shetland Isles she taught children to appreciate ‘ghost gear’ and not see it as ‘undesirable and untouchable but as something they could profit from as their forebears would have done [with grown materials]’. 
‘Ghost gear’ on Breckon beach, Isle of Yell. © Lois Walpole 
As more people buy plastic or factory-made baskets, the skills of different methods, knots, weaves and styles are dying out. In many places, only the oldest people still know how to make traditional baskets. A few basket historians, such as Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond, have sought out these basket-makers in places like Malta, Cornwall, The Azores and Northern Spain.
We take basketry for granted but now historians, artists, anthropologists and mathematicians are revealing stories, structures and skills in basketwork. The Material Culture of Basketry: practice, skill and embodied knowledge is a beautifully produced book which will inspire anyone interested in the interdisciplinary history of crafts, knots, plants. The book’s 36 authors remind us that baskets are not just craftily-made containers, but also holders of knowledge, history and design; and the textures, patterns and geometric forms in basketwork express maths, art, culture and engineering. 
Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond made this stainless-steel wire ball
following the mathematical pattern of a sepak raga football from Malaysia,
 usually made from split bamboo. © Geraldine Jones

The Material Culture of Basketry: Practice, Skill and Embodied Knowledge, Stephanie Bunn and Victoria Mitchell (Eds), Bloomsbury, 2020.

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs © Janie Hampton 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Saving lives in the French Alps. An Act of Love, by Carol Drinkwater


   An Act of Love will be published on 29th April 2021 by Penguin UK.
How do we find the stories, the ideas for our novels or how do they find us?

I am always on the lookout for ideas, for seeds that might grow like flowers into fully-realised stories. We writers are always digging about for nuggets. Magpies, we are, looking for what shines. Sometimes, the work involves weeks, months, of research, grappling with a vague idea for ages, knowing that it might or might not crystallise, until we are at the point of giving up and moving on to something else. On other occasions, a story, a voice, a person leaps out at you and you know - as much as in our guts we know anything for sure - that this lead will be the one we need to follow. 

So it happened with me a long time before An Act of Love was thought of.  I was at work on one of my Olive Farm books and took a short journey inland to visit some of the small hill towns that are situated in the hinterland up behind the city of Nice.


One of the Alpine towns, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, instantly drew my attention. I walked about its hilly medieval streets with its coloured houses and its astounding views in every direction within the Mercantour National Park. I knew nothing of its twentieth-century history at that time. Of its Second World War deeds of generosity and courage. Of the suffering, nor acts of humanity that had been lived out in this modest settlement. I chanced upon its tiny museum. It was there I hit upon the seed to my future story. 

By the autumn of 1942,  the greater number of the thousands of Jews who were living in France had fled from the German-occupied territories into the non-occupied zone, the Zone Libre or Free Zone. In May 1940 as the German army marched into Paris, more than one hundred thousand French-born Jews (known to the French as Israelites) fled Paris and the north, escaping to the south to avoid capture and deportation. Aside from the nationals, there were also the hundred of thousands of immigrants who had arrived from other parts of German-occupied Europe. They were fleeing their conquered lands, seeking refuge - a refuge that was looking less and less dependable. 

By the autumn of 1942, both French and foreign Jews were beginning to fear that their chances of survival were slim. Thousands had made it to the Free Zone in southern France but even there, their options were diminishing because by November of that same year, 1942, the Germans who had occupied the north and the southwest as far as Spain were ordered by Hitler to cross from the Occupied Zone into the Free Zone and take control of it. 

Until November 1942, those Jewish French citizens as well as the thousands of foreign refugees, most of whom were without legitimate papers and therefore stateless, who had found their way to Nice and the resort towns along the French Riviera had been living in a relatively relaxed freedom. However, in November 1942 a turn in the war in favour of the Allies, ironically, brought a dark cloud upon the lives of all those hiding from the Nazis. The Allies won North Africa. From there, the possibility of their armies moving north, crossing the Mediterranean into France, threatened Germany's hold on France. Hitler ordered his armies to move into the Free Zone, to take Marseille, move east towards Nice and be ready for any Allied invasion from the sea. Hitler also ordered Italy to send in troops to the south, to take control of the eastern corner of the Free Zone. 

Zones Occupé and Libre.

For those in hiding, no area of France was now safe. 

Nice, the eastern most city in the south of France, was now to be ruled by Italian soldiers. Up until that time, the Côte d'Azur had been the fugitives' safest bet. However, as good fortune would have it, the Italians, although a member of the Axis Powers, had no interest in harassing and imprisoning Jews. They did not follow Hitler's dictates to arrest Jews or any other 'undesirables' for deportation. 

In late November 1942, the Nazis marched into Marseille. Early the following year, 22nd January, the old port area of Marseille was ransacked. Entire streets were burned to cinders. As part of Action Tiger, over four thousand Jews were hunted down, arrested, put on trains, sent to holding camps such as Drancy in the north to await deportation to one of the camps in eastern Europe.

Nice would not be far behind. Nice, where until then, the Jews, both French and refugees, had lived in relative safety, but now knew that their days were numbered. Italy was still an Axis nation. There was no safety in trying to escape into Italy, not at that stage. Transport by boat to Palestine or the United States was limited, expensive. Special exit visas were required and they cost money, if they could be procured. The waiting list was long.

The Nazis were moving eastwards. If the Allies did not reach the south first, Nice would be occupied by Hitler's armies. Every enemy of Hitler would be rounded up and murdered. Until the thousands of Jews in hiding could be given safe passage onwards or the war was won by the Allies, other hiding places needed to be found. Urgently.

And this is where the hill town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie steps into the story. 

This small community agreed to house Jews. From November 1942 onwards, through to the spring of 1943, homeless, displaced Jews arrived by the busload into Saint-Martin. The residents welcomed them into their community, rented them housing, accepted them as a part of their lives - even while members of the Italian army were living there too. But, as I said, the Italians had no interest in harming Jews. They left them in peace. What grew up here in this alpine community was an unlikely convergence of peoples. Italian soldiers, local mountain residents, some of whom were living underground, fighting with the Résistance, and Jewish immigrants. These peoples of different faiths and a babel of languages lived together in peace for almost a year until September 1943, when Italy surrendered and its troops were withdrawn. Then the Jewish temporary residents found themselves yet again unprotected and in greater danger than ever before. Were they trapped? Where from here could they flee? The Wehrmacht had taken Nice. The coast was cut off to them. What options were left to them?

   Members of the French Résistance with Fugitive Jews.

The story in my novel, An Act of Love, begins in February 1943 when Sara, a seventeen-year-old Polish girl, arrives by bus into Saint-Martin-Vésubie with her parents. She is sad to leave the coast, the splendour of Nice, the Mediterranean way of life where she and her parents have made a home of sorts in relative safety since their illicit arrival into France eighteen months earlier. Settling into this backwater is yet another uprooting in her young life. She wants to live like an ordinary teenager, like any of the friends she makes in the village, but this is war-time and destiny has other plans for her ... 

The novel has been inspired by real events, courageous acts, but the characters are all of my imagining. Sara's story is the journey of a young woman in extraordinary times. I sincerely hope you will enjoy it.

Friday, 25 December 2020

Christmas Day 2020 by Miranda Miller

Victorian greeting card from the 1880s. A dead robin was regarded as a symbol of good luck in late 19
th Century England.


  Whatever you’re going today, it probably isn’t what you’d normally be doing on Christmas Day. I live in London so my family Christmas has been cancelled and I'm feeling a bit dead robin.  I thought I’d look back to other years when Christmas didn’t happen. For eight years in the seventeenth century there were no official Christmas masses or celebrations.

The Observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing up in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the offender liable to a fine of five shillings.

   Strict Protestants and Puritans believed that December 25th should be a fast day devoted to sober religious contemplation. In January 1645 parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, a radical alternative to the established Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all, and traditional festivities were abolished by order of the both Houses of Parliament.

   Naturally many people continued to celebrate in private but the issue became a political football and a war of words was fought in the wonderfully rich language of the period.

   The royalist satirist John Taylor published a pamphlet, The Complaint of Christmas, from the King’s stronghold of Oxford, lamenting that the “harmless sports” are now extinct and put out of use… as if they had never been.” “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster”.

   In his later pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas (1652), John Taylor provided a lively portrait of how, he claimed, the old Christmas festivities were still being kept up by the farmers of Devon.

The Vindication of Christmas, or his twelve years Observation upon the great and lamentable  Tragedy between the King and Parliament’

 (In the speech bubbles;) Keep out, you come not here.

Oh Sir, I bring good cheer

Old Christmas, welcome, do not fear.


  Puritans retaliated by conflating the elderly bearded Taylor with Old Father Christmas in their own pamphlets. 

   In 1653, this pamphlet attacked the Puritan tax on Christmas ale:

The Trial of Old Father Christmas

For encouraging Drunkenness Gaming, Swearing, Rioting, and all manner of Extravagance and Debauchery. At the Assizes held in the City of Profusion.

   After the defeat of Charles at Naseby the conflict became more aggressive. In the words of a contemporary ballad: “To conclude, I’ll tell you news that’s right, Christmas was killed at Naseby fight.”


   There were violent pro-Christmas riots. Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other. In December 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers who had opened on Christmas Day, and “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”.

   When the Lord Mayor despatched some officers “to pull down these gawds,” the apprentices resisted them, forcing the Mayor to rush to the scene with a party of soldiers and break up the demonstration by force. they set up Holly and Ivy ” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit.” In December 1646 a group of young men at Bury St Edmunds threatened local tradesmen who had dared to open their shops on Christmas Day, and were only dispersed by the town magistrates after a fight.The worst disturbances took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city.

   MPs demanded that the fast should be kept “with the more solemn humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending [to] the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.


    After Cromwell became Lord Protector in 1653, the celebration of Christmas continued to be  forbidden. Cromwell and his colleagues often  made a point of transacting government business on 25 December.

   John Evelyn, seen here in this portrait by Hendrick Van Der Borcht, was a Royalist and an Anglican. He describes in his diary the scene on Christmas Day 1657 when he was arrested, together with the entire congregation, while receiving Holy Communion at Exeter Chapel near Temple Bar:

   When I came before them they tooke my name and abode, examin’d me why—contrary to an ordinance made that none should any longer observe ye superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteem’d by them)—I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but ye masse in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture. I told them we did not pray for Cha. Stuart, but for all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors. They replied in so doing we praied for the K. of Spaine too, who was their enemie and a papist, with other frivolous and insnaring questions and much threatning; and finding no colour to detaine me, they dismiss’d me with much pitty of my ignorance. These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity. As we went up to receive the Sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us as if they would have shot us at the altar.

   If, like me, you’re feeling hard done today, it’s worth remembering that Evelyn, and many others, managed to live on through the fire of London and the plague less than ten years later.

                                            (This is the one we haven’t had yet.)

Friday, 18 December 2020



Some years ago I wrote up the peripatetic wanderings of King Henry II for The History Girls blog and it proved to be popular. You can read it here If it's Christmas it must be Chinon

At the moment I am writing about events that happened during the reign of Henry II's grandfather, Henry I, so I've been studying his itinerary, to see where he spent the Christmas feast for each year of his reign between 1100 and 1134.  He died just before Christmas 1135 while in Normandy.  His Christmas's were equally divided between Normandy and England. Of the 18 Christmasses Henry spent in England, 7 were at his palace of Westminster with the recently completed huge Great Hall built by his brother William Rufus. Five were spent at Windsor, two at Dunstable, one at Winchester, one at St. Albans, one at Norwich, one at Brampton.  In Normandy there are ten occasions when we do not know where he stayed, although a best guess for most of them would probably be the Norman capital of Rouen.  We do know  for certain of three Christmas stays in Rouen, then one in Bayeux, one in Argenten.  In the final year of his reign, he did not make it as far as Christmas, dying (supposedly) of a surfeit of lampreys at his hunting lodge at Lyons la Foret on the first of December while waiting to return to England. 

Without further ado, on to Henry I's Christmas itinerary. 

1100: Westminster. The First Year of Henry's reign after the unfortunate accident in the New Forest when his older brother William Rufus was shot by a 'stray' (cough) arrow.  Henry, fortuitously on the scene at the time, sped off to Winchester to claim the treasury and the crown.  He married Edith, daughter of the King of Scotland in the November, and spent Christmas at Westminster.

Photo (Wikipedia) shows Westminster Great Hall today.  The roof is 14th century, but the lower course of the wall shows the dimensions of the hall as built by William Rufus in the late 11th century. 

1101  Westminster

1102 Westminster

1103 Westminster

1104  Windsor - for a change. The King had been in Normandy for part of the year and returned to spend Christmas at Windsor. 

1105 Westminster again

1106 Rouen - Possibly.  The King was in Normandy and in Rouen on the Feast of St Andrew - 30th November. 

1107 Westminster

1108  Normandy - no indication as to where but possibly Rouen

1109  Westminster

1110  Windsor possibly. ''On this year the King did not wear his crown at Christmas'.

1111 Rouen possibly.  The King was definitely in Normandy.

1112  Normandy - unspecified

1113 Windsor

1114 Normandy - unspecified. In the early spring the King was at Rouen and caused the barons of Normandy to swear fealty to his son, William.

1115  St. Albans, 'where he caused the monastery to be hallowed'

1116  Normandy - presumably Rouen

1117 Normandy unspecified

1118 Normandy unspecified

1119 Bayeux, Normandy

1120 Brampton near Huntingdon.  This is the year of the White Ship where Henry's son and heir, William and many members of the younger English court were drowned on the 25th of November, returning to England from Normandy on a new, fine vessel, that then hit a rock off the coast of Barfleur and sank with all but one of those on board.  Henry kept Christmas with Theobald Count of Blois, older brother of the future King Stephen... 

1121 Norwich

1122 Dunstable

1123 Normandy - unspecified

1124 Normandy - unspecified. We are told that the Nativity was held at Winchester and that the king's Justiciar, Bishop Roger of Salisbury caused all false moneyers to be brought to Winchester and during the 12 days of the Feast of the Nativity, he caused each to be deprived of his right hand and emasculated. 

1125 Normandy - unspecified

1126 Windsor

1127 Normandy - unspecified

1128 Argentan - possibly

1129 Winchester

1130 Rouen. For those interested in the career of William Marshal's father, he is present witnessing a document confirming privileges of the priory of St Mary le Desert with the archbishop of Rouen. 

1131 Dunstable

1132  Windsor: Henry is unwell

1133 Normandy - unspecified

1134 Normandy - unspecified.  Possibly Argentan or Rouen

1135 - November Lyons la Foret.  Dies from 'A surfeit of lampreys.' I wrote about the event here in this blog for The History Girls.A surfeit of lampreys

Friday, 11 December 2020

Parlour Games for Christmas by Judith Allnatt

Like many people in these difficult times, I've turned to light reading as a bit of escapism and my most recent choice  has been to reread The Diary of  a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, published in 1892.  The 'nobody' in question is Mr Charlie Pooter, Edwardian bank clerk: a comic creation who tells  terrible jokes yet takes himself rather too seriously.  He dutifully records his household woes, for instance his threat  to walk out if the same blancmange is served up again after seeing it 'for every meal since Wednesday'. He and his wife Carrie are often visited by two friends: Cummings and Gowing (of course he makes a joke about that). Their entertainments include cards, singing, and impressions but also parlour games such as Cutlets.

Cutlets involves one person sitting down, and everyone else being asked in turn to sit on the lap of the person before them until they are arranged one on top of another in a pile, provoking general hilarity. Then, they are asked 'Are you a believer in the great Mogul?' to which they have to answer all together 'Yes, oh yes!' when unexpectedly,  the person on the bottom gets up, resulting in a toppling of the pile.  The game was clearly perceived as a little risqué, as Grossmith presents the husbands as insisting that the wives sit on their spouses' laps and not anyone else's! 

This made me think about how grownup  'play' often involves  a challenge to the propriety of the day: the rules of the game  temporarily replacing the normal rules of staid adult mores to allow behaviour that, in the parlance of the day, is a little 'naughty' or 'daring’.

Readers may remember playing Blind Man's Buff  as a child at parties. My memory of the game includes being spun around until you were dizzy when being the 'blind man' and the aim of the game being to catch one of the kids who were calling out and poking you, so that they would have to take over the role and you could escape. However, for centuries the game has clearly been played not only by children but by adults. Tennyson mentions playing it in 1855 and the painting below, by Pietro Longhi  shows it being played in an eighteenth century scene. The original version of the game had a further element that our childish version lacked, which is that the blind man  has to identify, by touch, the person they have captured, before they are allowed to swap roles. Like Cutlets, Blind Man's Buff involves physical contact normally outside the realm of polite behaviour, providing both humour and flirtatious opportunity.

Reverand Crawley's Circle demands that all the players hold hands, but not with the people immediately next to them. The resulting knot then has to be untangled by twisting, turning and stepping through gaps, without letting go, resulting in contortions much like the modern game of Twister. The identity of Reverand Crawley has long ago been lost. Was he even a real person? Or was the name chosen to give a spurious permission from religious authority to get 'up close and personal’?

Sardines is another game that involves close physical contact. The game is a back-to-front version of Hide-and -Seek. Only one player hides, then as each seeker finds them they have to join them in their hiding place so that it becomes progressively more 'cozy' or 'cramped', depending on one's attitude to the person  in close quarters next to you. 

Some games, rather than making mischief with polite gender norms, allow a playful expression of aggression. Where are you Moriarty? is a game that presumably makes reference to the longstanding enmity between Holmes and the criminal mastermind. It requires two players, both blindfolded, and each holding a rolled up newspaper, to lie on the floor head to head, with a gap of around a metre between them. One asks the question and when the other answers 'Here!' the first attempts to hit them with the newspaper whilst they roll about trying to avoid getting bashed.

More modern games sometimes have elements of older ones. Killer is a game played at Christmas in our household because it works for almost all age groups, including the elderly, who might prefer to sit. It starts with everyone receiving a piece of paper, only one of which has the word 'Killer' written upon it. The players then sit in a circle while the killer seeks to catch a person's eye and 'kill' them by winking. The victims have to count to twenty before they expire, to give the killer the chance to perform a further massacre before anyone can accuse them. The winner is the person who manages to level a correct  accusation before being winked to death and a wrong accusation results in exclusion from the game. The Victorian game If you Love me Dearest, Smile worked on a similar principle but was far more innocent. It required  a nominated person to smile at the other players to get them to smile in turn, the winner being the last one to hold out against smiling - a gift to a young lady  looking for an excuse  to catch the eye of a particular gentleman . . .

Parlour games may seem rather tame to us today when we're used to more sophisticated entertainment. However, over a Christmas that, at the time of writing, may well be constrained by Covid regulations, they have something to recommend them as a way to entertain the members of a single household, who may have a wide spread of ages. What they all have in common is that they tend to end in one thing - laughter - and we could all do with some of that.

Chat with me about this post @JudithAllnatt or read more about my writing and more blogposts here