Sunday, 2 August 2015

Australia (and my family) from the 1920s - Gillian Polack

The anniversary of my father’s death is coming up. I will light a candle in his memory and I will tell bad jokes so that his sense of humour is not forgotten. I will miss him, as I always do. 

This year is different. Dad died in 1988, but a whole group of his friends died this year, in their early 90s. The last of his generation is fading. 

My parents

When I thought about this, I realised that the adults who were around when I was a child represent a world that’s almost alien to us. I’ll talk about other groups of them on other days, for they represent a variety of very different life experiences. People who were in their twenties and thirties when I was a child may have been Holocaust survivors or refugees from civil war. Some of them came from very poor backgrounds, made more parlous by the Depression. Some of them were new migrants to Australia, facing what was then a terrifyingly suburban and Anglo culture.

My father was part of the suburban and Anglo, but he was Jewish. He came from Melbourne, but grew up in small-town Victoria in the 1920s and 1930s. He grew up in the days of open fireplaces and outdoor toilets. Many houses still had coppers, which were only just now being replaced by electric machines. If washing machines were exotic, even electric beaters were something to be marvelled at. My father’s mother acquired on in the early forties and she apparently treasured very greatly for it made the best sponge cakes ever. 

I barely remember my father’s mother. I have one possible memory of her (and even that is hazy) for she died when I was two. There are big generations in my family, which is why my father’s memories go back to the twenties and his mother’s equivalent memories are late Victorian. Three of us cover well over a hundred years. Grandma Polack was born in Melbourne and moved out when she was the mother of a young family then moved back again when the marriage disintegrated. This is how my father had a semi-rural childhood.

Victorian rural house, 1970s

He had stories from that childhood. Milk, for him, was always better straight from the cow. He dealt with pasteurisation, but homogenisation made him livid (in a gentle, stubborn way) and the amount of cream at the top of the bottles left outside our door in the early morning was never enough. Just once in my life have I encountered milk the way my father described it, and that was at an old-fashioned dairy in the South Australian town of Strathalbyn, in the seventies. Dad poured himself a glass and drank it, then promptly poured himself another. Mum thought he’d make himself sick, because that milk was a third cream. I had a glass alongside him and it was rich and full of flavour. It was missing the odd aftertaste that we’re used t with pasteurised and homogenised milk. This surprised me, for I’d thought the stories of his childhood were simple nostalgia. Milk genuinely was different in Dad’s childhood. Dad’s childhood wasn’t as different to mine as mine is to anyone born since the 1980s, however. We’ve had so many big changes that the flavour of life is different, just as the flavour of that milk was different.

Dad was born before penicillin was discovered, and before cortisone. He was born when planes were new-fangled and telephones had manual switchboard operators who (in country towns) knew everything about everybody. There was no television: people listened to the radio in the evening. 

My father, in his fifties, learned to program computers using punchcards, which we then made into Christmas door ornaments and gave to our non-Jewish friends. Dad fell in love with the thought of transferring his card system onto computers, but computing didn’t advance quickly enough and he died before it was possible. He didn’t die before the Sinclair ZX80, however, and it was on that computer that I learned basic programming. It wasn’t an office machine, but it was a lot easier to program than the punchcards.

His childhood, however, didn’t only predate desktop computing: it predated ballpoint pens. Dad was taught to write using a nib. There were no ink cartridges. The nib was not attached to a fountain pen, my mother reminds me (she says that fountain pens were luxury and that Jewish boys turning thirteen would joke on their Bar Mitzvahs “Today I am a fountain pen.”), it was just a metal nib on a wooden handle, and the inkwell was a small open pot, sunk into each desk. There was an inkwell monitor in each class, who had to make sure that there was ink in each desk. I suspect it was Dad who taught me that the seeds of the stink wattle made a very good addition to those inkwells. I was the last generation to use pens with nibs in primary school, you see. I remember when we switched over to cartridges and was very glad that, in early primary school, I’d followed my father’s thought and crushed a few stink wattle seeds and put them in a couple of inkwells. Time passes and opportunities can be lost forever…

My mother (who is – thankfully- still alive) is ten years younger than Dad and she noticed the differences between her world and Dad’s. Dad’s teen years were the Depression and he moved into adulthood during World War II. His parents lost a whole generation of friends during World War I, but my parents’ friends lost all their European relatives in World War II (my family had only a few European relatives by this time, since we’re of an older generation of Australians, but many other fountain pen boys lost most of their family). The two wars were very different experiences for Australians living through them. They marked their generations profoundly.

The Depression left its mark on Dad in a very particular way, and I seem to have inherited that mark. When things go wrong around me, I stock up on tinned food, bottled food, dried food and toilet paper, just like my father did. Even if I don’t have the money for a bus fare, my inner child says, I will have food. When I was a child we used to buy boxes of everything from beans to tissues, and we had extra storage space, just in case the world came to an end (or the grocer ran out, or the money ran out) and we needed all that food. 

We didn’t. It was the Sixties. It was the third decade of continuing prosperity in Australia. There was a generation (the Baby Boomers) that had never known that kind of need. But my father wasn’t a part of that generation. He lived through the many decades of prosperity knowing that it would come to an end (which it finally did) and he kept the habit of hoarding.

I was born in the year between the Baby Boom and the next generation, and so I needed my father’s caution. My habit of filling my cupboard when I have money has got me safely through some very lean times. This is how the habit of a generation becomes a family trait. For years this filling of the cupboards seemed a daft thing to do and right now, it’s wise again.

Mum’s mark on me was the habit of going to markets once a week and getting seasonal produce. Two very different food habits based on two very different childhoods, just ten years apart. The two habits came together every summer. We’d go to the orchards on the outskirts of Melbourne and spend a day picking cherries and berries and apricots and peaches and nectarines. Then we’d spend the rest of the weekend preserving them. Rows and rows of delicious conserves for winter, was Mum’s thought. More food to protect against the incoming scarcity was Dad’s. 

I recently gave the Fowlers’ kit to a friend: I found I’d reached my limits when it came to making food I’ll not eat. It turns out that bottles of fruit and jars of jam are not part of my personal safety net. And this is how we change our culture over time: I don’t have a sweet enough tooth to warrant three days’ labour in an impossibly hot kitchen during the Australian summer. Not all family customs survive the terror of time.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Cleo rides again or How to have a historical launch party by Mary Hoffman

You remember that our May guest was Lucy Coats? She talked about the masses of research she had done for her latest YA novel, Cleo (published by Orchard). Well, last month the book was thoroughly launched at the Thames-side apartment of a friend, which is rapidly becoming the go-to venue for all History Girls and their guests.

The first rule of any launch party: get a book cake made!

On the left, the fabulous cover of Cleo designed by Thy Bui. On the right, the equally fabulous cake made by a friend of Lucy's (this one was hand-painted but there are sites you can find in the Internet which will make you a cake topper based on a photograph).

The room was dressed with appropriate detail:
As was the author:
The inventive canapés were labelled things like "Bastet balls" and "Sobek Surprises" and the prosecco flowed. You can name the most ordinary nibbles acording to your book's theme - they don't have to be as spectacular as these actually were. Even a Twiglet will sound more exciting as a "Devil Stick" if your novel happens to be about the persucution of witches.

So, what to do if you don't have a friend with a fabulous apartment? Candy Gourlay recently wrote about book launches (and she has attended a couple by the Thames) and makes it clear that you cut your party coat according to your cloth. Those readers of this who aren't writers might be surprised to discover that we have been organising these things ourselves. "Isn't that what publishers' publicity departments do?" I hear you ask.

The fact is that publisher launches are increasingly rare and if you want a splash, you must part with some cash. Many bookshops, especially the independents will be having to host your party without charging room hire as long as you organise the food, drink and glasses. And your editor will graciously come and say a few words, relieved that you haven't thrown an author wobbly and deminded cocktails at the Ritz.

And if you've written a historical novel, so much the better, as these lend themselves best of all to a little room-dressing and indeed dressing up.

Nothing says Ancient Egypt like a few gingerbread pyramids on a tray of soft brown sugar sand! And a quick trawl of the Internet will bring you some essential items, like a pink plastic flamingo:

And if you are shy and averse to dressing up, you can usually count on some young people to do it for you. What you can't avoid is the "author reading" unless you have an actor friend to do it for you. Your public (i.e. all the happy friends at your party) will expect it.

And who are these people? You will invite some journalists and reviewers in a spirit of hope for some attention to your book but you will be lucky if one or two show up. Bloggers are usually happy to come so choose some who write about your genre or books for the age group your title is for. But paper the room with your nearest and dearest, family and close friends, who will be genuinely happy for your book and listen with rapt attention to the reading.

But beware of cultural differences when checking your RSVP list: I recently discovered it's customary to bring a "Plus One" to parties even when that hasn't been specified on the invitation - a complete no-no in the UK.

If your launch isn't in a bookshop, see if you can get an independent bookseller to come along with copies for sale. It spreads the word and people are very amenable to buying books when mellow with wine and charmed by your set dressing ideas.

Above all, enjoy yourself! You've written and published a full-length book, something that thousands of people dream of doing and very few achieve. Let your hair down - maybe twist it up into an elegant style or wear a hat or a wig, like the amazing Sarah McIntyre. (try the About or Events pages to see what I mean!)

My next launch will be of Shakespeare's Ghost and I'm definitely willing to dress up. But I need a beautiful young man and a baldy with a beard to be the bard. Any offers?

Friday, 31 July 2015

July competition

Our competitions our open to UK Followers only - sorry!

To win one of five copies of Joanne Limburg's A Want of Kindness, post an answer to the question below in the Comments section and send a copy of your answer to so that you can be contacted if you win.

"Which monarch  do you think has been unfairly neglected in literature until now?"

Good luck!

Closing date 7th August

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limberg

Photo credit: Chris Hadley
Our July guest is Joanne Limberg, talking about her début novel, A Want of Kindness, about Queen Anne.

Joanne Limburg began her writing career as a poet, publishing two collections with Bloodaxe Books. She has also published a memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much and a book of poems for children, called Bookside Down. A Want of Kindness is her first novel, and is published by Atlantic Books. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and son.

At the centre of my novel, A Want of Kindness, are a series of extraordinary letters – real letters – which Anne sent to her sister Mary, Princess of Orange. They were written in the years leading up to the Prince of Orange’s invasion in November 1688, and the subsequent deposition of the sisters’ Catholic father, King James II, events which the winning side were quick to call the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Anne would be on that winning, Protestant, side, and her letters show her to have taken as active a role in events as her circumstances allowed. Using a postal network of sympathetic ‘safe hands’, she was able to send her sister intelligence as to Catholic goings-on in the royal household – Latin Grace at meals and other such – to her – abominations. She could confirm that the King and her step-mother, the Queen, were most certainly under the influence of Jesuit priests, that the Earl and Countess of Sunderland had flattered their way into royal favour and that Sunderland in particular was encouraging her father the King in all his Catholic, tyrannical, most un-English excesses. In doing so, she was able to reassure her sister – and, in the process, herself – that England, its Church and its Liberties were indeed threatened and that, therefore, the momentous act they were contemplating would be entirely justified.

Anne’s most significant pieces of intelligence concerned the Queen and the progress of her pregnancy. For the Catholic Queen, or so it was claimed, was pregnant by the Catholic King. And if the child turned out to be a boy, then the Catholic succession would be assured, and, from the point of view of the fiercely Protestant Anne, England’s undoing – and her own –would be complete. She and Mary would be displaced from the succession.

Anne’s gender meant that many avenues of power and influence were closed to her. She could not wield a sword. She could not hold office. She could not make speeches to the Privy Council or to Parliament and was unable to attend Privy Council meetings. It would not have occurred to either her father or his ministers to consult her on any matters of policy. She could not take Holy Orders and preach either for or against him. Nevertheless, she was the highest-ranking Anglican in England, standing in for the King in the Royal Chapel, providing a royal presence in his Catholic absence; also, as a Princess at Court, she was often in attendance on the Queen when she dressed in the morning. She could, if she wished, vouch for two very crucial things: the King’s good intentions towards the Anglican Church and the genuineness of the Queen’s pregnancy. If she did, she would strengthen the King and Queen’s position significantly; if she did not – or even appeared not to – she would just as surely undermine it.

So, what did Anne do? Despite the fact that she sometimes put on the Queen’s shift herself and must – I am certain – have seen her pregnant belly with her own eyes, she was quite determined not to believe them. She told Mary that what she had seen was unconvincing, and, having done so, left London to take the waters at Bath – a place far more distant than her usual summer watering-place at Tonbridge – thus making it most unlikely that she would be with the Queen when he presence as witness would have been most useful to the King – that is to say, at the birth. After the baby was born, in her artfully-contrived absence, she was instrumental in spreading the now-notorious rumour that an imposter baby – the child of a Catholic brick-layer – was brought into the royal birthing chamber in a warming-pan, to take the place of what was either a stillborn or non-existent prince. She avoided attendance at Court, using her own supposed pregnancy as an excuse, but made sure that she could be seen at various Anglican houses of worship, avidly listening to sermons against the King’s religion.

The bedchamber in which the baby prince was born - or not
By the end of that Summer, Anne knew that the Prince of Orange was going to sail to England, and that she had to be prepared for what might happen. She had a staircase built at the back of her lodgings, providing her with a direct route from her privy chamber to the grounds of St James’s Park, and, once she had received word that her husband defected from the King on the battle-field, she descended it at the dead-of-night and fled London under the protection of Bishop Compton, one of the King’s most prominent opponents. After her father’s defeat, she returned to London and made her first public appearance, bedecked in Orange ribbons.

Despite James’s unpopularity, there were many who were shocked by the sisters’ behaviour. They were unnatural, ungrateful daughters, who in dishonouring their father, they had broken a Commandment. They were compared to Goneril and Regan, and to Tullia the daughter of the murdered King Servillius Tullius, who ran over her father’s body in her chariot. One poem of the time terms them the ‘Female Parricides’, and accuses the sisters of ‘ambition, folly, insolence and pride.’ Anne’s Victorian biography, Agnes Strickland, agreed, seeing Anne as entirely self-interested.

Anne & Mary and their parents by Peter Lely
P.F William Ryan, writing in the early 1900s, makes his disapproval very clear:
"Nature had apparently implanted in Anne no sense of duty, and art had done nothing to fill the void… It was… after her marriage, when entirely removed from the influence of the gentle Mary of Modena [her step-mother], that malice and envy began to flourish luxuriantly in the young Princess’s bosom. Surrounded by every luxury that her father could provide, his generosity seemed only to inflame the envy, which, with the perfection of art, was concealed by this Royal actress. "[from Queen Anne and her Court, Vol. I, p 84]

Such is Ryan’s disgust at Anne’s shocking character, that I am baffled as to why he chose her as his subject. If I agreed with him, I don’t think I could have stood to write a whole novel about her. His Anne is somewhat one-dimensional, her motives transparent and her actions predictable. But the Anne that emerges from later biographies, from her letters to Mary and to her friend Sarah Marlborough, seems to me to be far more complicated and a good deal more sympathetic. It is true that, if we consider her dealings with her father and step-mother in isolation, she seems two-faced, unkind and devious, but Anne had many other relationships in her life, and in these she behaved very differently.

Anne could be loving and loyal. She was concerned with the health of her husband and children, nursing them herself when they were ill. She was an extraordinarily generous friend, and a considerate mistress to her household. When she eventually became Queen, she would prove to be remarkably conscientious, taking part in all her cabinet’s meetings despite her continuing ill health, and attending Parliament whenever she could. She had her opponents, but unlike many of her predecessors, was not in habit of having them executed. Faced with the choice between prolonging the War of Spanish Succession and accepting a settlement, she chose the latter, being weary of bloodshed and other people’s suffering. It is not hard to see why the Duke of Marlborough described his patroness, simply, as ‘a very good sort of woman’.

Queen Anne Wikimedia Commons
When I looked at Anne’s life, then, the story it suggested to me was one in which a good woman does, knowingly, a bad thing. My sense is that Anne was not lying, precisely, when she said her step-mother’s baby was not her brother. I think she was deceiving herself, entertaining this cognitive dissonance, because she needed him not to be. She did what we are all capable of doing when our conceptions of ourselves and our worlds are put under extreme pressure, and constructed a truth she could live with: an England justly destined for Protestant rule. The thought that God might after all not be on her side, but with the Catholics, was simply too horrific to contemplate – if it were true, then the very ground under her feet would be rendered insecure, and, even worse, she would no longer be able to see believe a good person, on the right side of things. Anne’s moral thinking was not subtle, pragmatic or flexible enough to allow her to lie simply for political expedience’s sake, to make the ends justify the means. So she constructed a story, a false belief, to enable her to live with herself and what she would be doing.

And the story held together as long as it needed to, seeing her through the dangerous adventure of her defection from her father, but, it could not hold much longer. Faced with criticism from inside and outside Court, and their own increasingly uneasy consciences, the sisters would struggle with the consequences of what they had done.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Imagining Eglantyne, by Clare Mulley

‘We have to devise a means of making known the facts
 in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world.’ 
Eglantyne Jebb 

Poster for Anne Chamberlain's production, Eglantyne

Earlier this month I was fascinated to see a new one-woman play called simply, Eglantyne, written, produced and acted by the New Zealand artist Anne Chamberlain. Eglantyne Jebb, around whose life the play is built, was the remarkable founder of the independent children’s development agency Save the Children, and author of the pioneering statement that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. She was also the subject of my first biography: The Woman Who Saved the Children, and it is wonderful to see that her life is still inspiring people, both to write, and to support the vital work of Save the Children today. Proceeds from both my book and Anne’s play are donated to the charity. You can read my History Girls blog on Eglantyne’s life and achievements here.

Among Eglantyne’s many skills was an extraordinary ability to communicate the facts in such a way as to inspire others. She had a very vivid imagination and clearly loved words, writing numerous poems and romantic-social novels, as well as her pioneering statement of children’s rights. She also wrote and gave speeches, published leaflets and press articles, and made pioneering use of photographs and film footage to win support for her cause, often from initially hostile audiences.

Anne’s play opens with Eglantyne’s very public arrest in Trafalgar Square in the spring of 1919, for distributing leaflets calling for an end to the economic blockade that was contributing to the starvation of thousands in Germany and Austria. These leaflets had not been cleared under the Defence of the Realm Act – it had never struck Eglantyne that they might need to be. The crown prosecutor did not mince his words, but Eglantyne chose to represent herself and focused on the moral case. By the end of the session she had been found guilty, but the court reporters had plenty to pad out their stories with, and the crown prosecutor insisted on paying her fine.

Eglantyne Jebb, c.1921
Anne Chamberlain, as Jebb 2015

Save the Children was swept into existence on the wave of publicity that followed this trial, culminating with an exciting public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall. After listening to Eglantyne and her sister’s speeches, the crowds, who had arrived armed with rotten fruit to throw at the traitor women who wanted to give succour to the enemy, were instead inspired to put their hands in their pockets and fund a herd of Swiss dairy cows to provide milk for the children of Vienna.

Eglantyne gained the support of factory girls and aristocrats, the Pope and the Mining Unions, the British aristocracy and the Bolshevik government. She even won the backing of the wife of the Prime Minister whose policies she had campaigned against. ‘When she spoke’, her friend and colleague Dr Hector Munro later wrote, ‘everything seemed to lose importance and one agreed to do whatever she wished.’

Little surprise then, that Eglantyne’s words are still inspiring people today. In her play, Anne manages to integrate many wonderful examples of Eglantyne’s own phrases, from speeches and letters, into her script:

- ‘Humanity owes to the child the best it has to give.’

- ‘Every generation… offers mankind anew the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world.’

- ‘The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative, and very busy.’

As I often still give talks about Eglantyne, and use many of the same quotes, it was strange to hear these words in someone else's mouth, with different intonations. But it was also really lightening - and heartening. At the end of the evening I felt as though, in a way, I had been kindly exorcised of Eglantyne. She will always be an inspiration, but my relationship with her feels less intense – it feels shared.

Eglantyne Jebb, c.1925

Anne Chamberlain as Jebb, 2015

Before I saw Anne’s play, I had wondered whether I would see a very different Eglantyne on stage, to the one I had come to picture to myself, someone I might not recognise even. This happened once before when I went to a production of Tony Harrison’s play in verse, called Fram. Fram, which means ‘Forward’ in Norwegian, was the name of the arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s ship. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Nansen became an associate of Eglantyne’s, helping to bring desperately needed relief to Russia during the famine of 1921. She greatly admired his spirit and energy, calling him a ‘solid viking’. Harrison’s play explored the relationship between art and aid, at times in quite provocative and painful ways. Eglantyne’s lines are the best in it, I think, and she was excellently played by Carolyn Pickles when I saw the production at the Royal National Theatre. But although Carolyn made me laugh by signing my programme ‘Eglantyne’, I did not feel a strong connection with the figure she had portrayed on stage. Perhaps, I thought for a while, I had imagined her wrongly...

Save the Children feeds starving Russian children, 1921 

As we slowly approach Save the Children’s centenary in 2019, the charity has asked whether it might be possible to re-imagine Eglantyne, to bring her story to a new and younger audience – with a picture book about her life, adventures and achievements. I think this would be wonderful, and look forward to seeing yet another interpretation of this wonderful woman on the page… If anyone has suggestions for brilliant and inspiring children’s illustrators I would be delighted to hear them!

Sadly there is no one alive today who knew Eglantyne. There are photographs and sketches, but no one who heard her voice, and no recording of her. However, much of her writing survives, her actions speak volumes, and her energy, spirit, determination and often rather dark sense of humour, are palpable throughout. When I watched Anne Chamberlain’s play earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that I felt very familiar with the Eglantyne that she brought to life, which makes me hope that perhaps we both found something of the truth in this remarkable woman.

Anne and me, holding each other's writing about Eglantyne Jebb 

I think that Eglantyne herself would have been fascinated by each reincarnation, and on the whole pleased, given that each helps to promote the cause – the welfare and rights of the world’s children – that she cared so passionately about. ‘A friend of mine once said to me that our minds, contemplating the truth, were like so many cameras turned towards the same building’, she once wrote. ‘No two cameras can be in the exactly the same position… so that no two precisely similar photographs can be taken; hence also, though some may be better than others, no single photograph, always supposing that it had not been faked, will be without its value.’

Sadly Anne’s play has now finished its British run, but it may be back next year and if so I will pass on the tour dates. I hope that between Eglantyne the play, my biography, and any new portrait, many more people, of all ages, may yet come to picture Eglantyne Jebb in their own way, and be inspired.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Procrastination and Hedgerow Jelly by Janie Hampton

While thinking about my blog for History Girls, my mind wandered and I looked out of the window.
What did I see?
The view from my study
A reason to leave my desk - my vegetable bed was calling out to be hoed. This was an ideal opportunity for procrastination. Without my immediate intervention the as-yet-inedible beetroot had only hours to live.  The tiny seedlings would soon get smothered in giant horrible weeds. So out into the garden I went, picked up the hoe, and noticed it needed sharpening. Looked for the sharpening stone, I wondered what the proper name for a sharpening stone is. 
As I spotted it on the shed shelf, I remembered it is a whetstone, spelled with an ‘h’. Is that to do with water or something quite different? Made mental note to look it up.  Sharpened hoe. On the way down the garden path I noticed the courgettes needed watering.  So the hose had to be untangled. And on it went- one procrastination opportunity surpassing the last. By lunchtime I had found the whetstone, sharpened the hoe, sliced through several rows of weeds, watered the courgettes, and the beans for good measure, put the garden tools in a neat row, and even swept the ground beneath them. I’d also learned that whet is from the Anglo-Saxon whaet, meaning keen or bold which led to sharpen or stimulate (as in ‘appetite’.) But I was still no further on with my blog.

I am skilled in the art of procrastination, defined as  'putting off,  delaying,  deferring,  postponing, especially something that requires immediate attention.’ Crastimus is the Latin for ‘pertaining to tomorrow’ – and we all know that tomorrow never comes. It’s the Roman equivalent of ‘manana’. Synonyms include ‘dithering, stalling, delaying tactics and vacillations’, to which I would add ’seeking out distractions, around any corner.’ 

I suspect that most History Girls and our readers indulge in various levels of procrastination, and can spot a handy distraction a mile off.  The most rewarding kinds of procrastination for writers are those that somehow connect to the writing one is supposed to be doing.  While researching my book ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’, I found a Second World War recipe that took procrastination to new levels. In one fell swoop, I could procrastinate and be ‘researching’ my book at the same time: the recipe demonstrated the historical economics of food rationing, the philosophy of Make Do and Mend and offered an opportunity to practice Real History. And unlike most procrastinations and distractions, there is something delicious to eat at the end.

Hedgerow Jelly - free from a hedge near you
Find some hedges in late August or September, preferably containing many varieties of fruit-bearing bush.
Blackberries in July, waiting for you.
Harvest the fruit on your own and the time spent is both ‘exercise’ (walking along a hedgerow) and ‘work’ (you are silent, so obviously thinking important thoughts). If this stretches your conscience too far, then go with some friends as ‘recreation’ - an essential time of ‘re-making your creativity’. Wander  down lanes in the countryside, or  seek out rogue wild bushes in parks and along footpaths in cities. Carry a woven basket for authenticity, or a cotton bag for Green credentials, or a plastic supermarket bag for practicality.

Pick as many berries as you can find, or can be bothered to pick, or can carry. Mix together hawthorn, rose hips, elderberries, both black and red blackberries (red contain more pectin which helps jelly to set), crab apples, wild gooseberries and raspberries. Do not include holly, ivy, privet, yew nor deadly nightshade – they are all poisonous.
The Army & Navy Stores Catalogue of 1940 had all the equipment needed for jam-making
After washing them in a colander, boil up the berries together in a little water until soft, and then mash them up a bit.  Then put into some clean, old tights, and hang from the back of a chair over a large bowl to drip overnight. If you wish to remain historically accurate, use cotton muslin or an old, clean tea towel. In the morning, or after a few hours, squeeze the tights (or muslin) to get out all the juice.  Put the seedy pulp into the compost, or feed to wild birds or your chickens.
For every pint of thick red juice, add one pound of sugar. In a big jam-pan, boil up until the jelly reaches a lovely rolling setting point - drop a blob on a bottle from the fridge. If it sets like jelly, stop cooking. Don’t let it burn. With practice, you can tell when it’s ready: the boiling jelly rolls at a certain speed and plays a certain note.

Delicious and healthy jelly to be proud of
Pour into very clean glass jars, or tea cups if you don’t have enough jars. Put circles of greaseproof paper on the surface of the jelly, and screw on a metal lid while still hot. For presents, add circles of dress fabric or old shirts, tied with brown string. You can use ribbon, but it is a bit twee.
Make labels that say ‘Best War-time Hedgerow Jelly, 2015’. Then get back to work.

During breaks, eat this delicious, clear, red jelly with bread, or meat, or cheese. Or put some in hot water on cold winter days to remind you of sunnier times.
         After your berry-picking walk, sit down with a friend and chat to a squirrel.
If you don’t manage to make this jam this year, then don’t worry, next year will do instead. It’s a deadline that you are allowed to miss.  Photos copyright Janie Hampton 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Scorched Earth, by Carol Drinkwater

A few days ago I headed north, driving from our home on the French Côte d’Azur to our home in the Brie, mid-centre between Paris and Reims, fifteen minutes from the Champagne district. I love these long trajectories penetrating and discovering France. In the years I have lived here I have driven in every season, at every hour of the day or night and some of the trips have been memorable for the landscapes, colours, temperatures beyond the car windows. Landscape films. My recent journey will join the memorable ones because of the heat. Down in the south, most days this late June and first half of July, the temperature has hovered at around 30C, occasionally rising to 32 or even 33C. Because we live within view of the Mediterranean, the sea breezes, the humidity, keep the climate reasonably constant. No rain down our way for months on end is to be expected and we have the vegetation to handle it, and plenty of it, including the olive tree.

The olive tree is the most drought-resistant plant in the western world. It has a magnificent and complex perspiration system and a message service between root, branches and the underside of its leaves that monitors the level of water dispensed during perspiration. If a serious drought sets in, a warning signal goes up through the tree, telling it to hold back its sweat, to conserve the liquid and use it for survival. It really is extremely sophisticated and remarkable.

Effects of Desertification, California

As I drove from Cannes to Avignon before turning north towards Lyon, the world around me remained green and thriving. Cypress trees, olives, palms: each surviving in the canicule (midsummer heat wave). And then I moved towards landlocked regions and the temps rose. By the time we reached the southern outskirts of Lyon, the thermometer in my car was reading 42.5C. I never use air-conditioning as a rule but I was drenched and it was blasting at full strength and I was wondering whether it was broken or I hadn’t set it correctly, it made so little difference. Once through Lyon into the Beaujolais region and the land was telling a very worrying story and what I witnessed grew worse as I moved north. I have never seen France so parched. The golden wheat fields were bled of hydration and the gold had turned to a pallid sand colour. Even the fields of sunflowers drooped like worn-out washer women. The countryside around me looked as though it was a sand desert not corn fields.

Desertification, I thought.

Everybody is talking Climate Change and Global Warming. Some scoff at the concept. Others dread it. Some say our planet’s temps have always varied while others again believe that we have just a short time left to drastically change our lifestyles before the the effects of our carbon expenditure, our over-use of fossil fuels which is causing the layer of gases that protect our planet to get thicker and cause Earth to heat up to a degree that will make our lives here unpalatable and eventually impossible.

This is such a complex issue, whichever side you take. And for the majority of us it is little more than a serious of debates. We talk about the natural legacy we are passing on to our children and grandchildren but mostly we cannot visualise what this heating up of Earth means, what it looks like.

I have seen it. Not because I am a visionary or brilliant in any way at all, but simply because I was travelling, searching for stories, gleaning facts about the history of the olive tree.

I was in Algeria, a country four times larger than France, ten times the size of Britain and the second largest country in Africa. It has a population of 34 million and most of them are living close to its Mediterranean shores or just inland in the mountains. Beyond, heading south, is desert. Nothing but Sahara sand where little grows and few survive except in oasis towns. But it wasn’t always so. Algeria was, along with Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, an agriculturally rich part of the Roman Empire. Olives for oil and wheat were mass produced here and I was soon to find out to what extent a terrain can change in a matter of a mere two thousand years.

For the first weeks of my Algerian travels I hugged the coast visiting families working with bees and olive farming, and during all that time it rained. It rained incessantly so I have comparatively few photos of those very important days.

For my own sake I was disappointed, but for Algeria the rain was essential. It was the first they had seen in over four years. Dry earth was an understatement. And so, even though it made my own plans difficult, I celebrated for the Algerians as I lay in bed in modest homes with no running water listening to the downpours fall into tin buckets. I visited deserted Roman sites such as the World Heritage site of Timgad, a magnificently laid out city all but forgotten now where a forty-kilometre wide lake had once irrigated the surrounding countryside rich with Mediterranean trees and wheat fields and fed the Romans’ exceedingly advanced plumbing systems.

                                                            Roman site after rain deluge

In The Olive Tree I wrote the following while standing in some weed bedraggled thermal baths:
‘Those evergreen woods and the abundance of fresh water had been deciding factors in the choice of Timgad for the Roman soldiers’ metropolis. Twenty-first century Timgad claimed neither copse nor pond. The Romans felled the bulk of the trees; they denuded the ancient forests to heat the gallons of water required for their public baths...
Waterless was the ruined city I stood in; a desolate, windy outcrop....’

                                                          Windblown olive tree, Algeria

Today in Algeria, all these inland Roman sites, World Heritage Sites, barely visited, sit in the middle of nowhere. If you didn’t know the history you would ask yourself why on earth such an advanced civilization had bothered with such isolation. It was food for thought, but nothing prepared me for my march towards the desert.

Triumphal Arch, Timgad, Algeria

After almost a month of travelling rough, washing out of buckets, wearing the same mud-stained clothes, in and out of danger zones where Al-Qaeda was marking out its territories and setting up training camps in the midst of Berber tribal territories and the wind blew raw and rough, I climbed in an old yellow taxi to the mountainous portals of the desert, into a town called Tébessa from where, two millennia earlier, a busy road had run back to the coast. A ‘Roman bread basket’ rich with tablelands of wheat fields. This region had once been one of Rome’s most bountiful granaries. The grain was freighted to the sea and put on boats to feed the Empire. No more.

I was on my way to visit what I had been told was the 'oldest olive mill' in North Africa, built by the Romans. To find it I travelled through the dustbowl that was Tébessa, and on southwards another fifty or more kilometres into the Sahara. In fact, where I was headed was not the oldest olive mill in North Africa but it turned out to be the largest. Finding it, in the middle of this empty desert zone, was no easy task but find it we did as I and my driver bumped over, descended into a dried up wadi, a sand track that had once been a flowing river, damaged the jalopy’s axle and approached El Ma el Abiod, the oil mill’s Arabic name. It is also the name of a region inland of coastal Annaba. No Roman name for the mill or the location has been discovered.

After days of travelling, I had found it. It rose up before me in the middle of nowhere like a magic castle, a stupendous sandstone construction of a size that beggared belief and I thought might melt away at any second. I stood dumbfounded.
How many mills were once operating within this complex? How many thousands and thousands of gallons of olive oil were pressed here on a daily basis? How many olive trees were required to produce the fruits to feed this humungous enterprise? I could not imagine the acres of cultivated trees that must have grown here. I looked about me. Nothing but wind and sand.

I scooted from the car to the mill’s green gate. The site was fenced, locked with a substantial padlock. Lord knows why. I turned about. One small Berber mud abode with goatherd boy and mother. She was the keeper of the key. It was like a prop out of a Harry Potter sequence. I could barely lift it. But it opened the gate and in I went. There were clues of every kind, witnesses to the magnitude of the commerce that had once taken place. More oil was pressed here than is pressed today in the entire French olive oil sector. The river so dry and sunken today had been a vital water source for the vegetation and for the turning of the mill wheels.

I closed my eyes and pictured this place in its heyday and then looked about me at the nothingness. There was not a tree in sight. Nothing but a few yellow weeds that fed the skeletal goats.

   Alas, I have no photographs but here is a shot from the internet of a few miles of the Algerian Sahara.

Desertification. The process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agricultural practices. The loss of topsoil, pesticides killing off vegetation and ground cover which are essential food sources for birds and insects. Erosion is a consequence. Loss of species is another such as the endangered honeybee.

                                                        Bumblebee at our Olive Farm

I am regularly asked what I brought back from seventeen months of travelling round the Mediterranean in search of Olive Tree stories. It is impossible to sum it up in a few sentences but I did discover that there are multi-million dollar programmes being implemented in the southern Sahara to reforest areas of the desert. The olive tree has a principal root that seeks out deep water levels and encourages rain, when there is any, to follow its path and settle deep in the earth, hence encouraging the replenishment of groundwater. I stood witness to Man’s mismanagement of the earth on many occasions and I wept. Equally, I shared moments of joy when a project of regrowth, reforestation was showing early signs of success.

This week as I made the hot and arduous journey up through France in temperatures that hit 42.5C, an unheard of level of heat in central France, I took it as a warning. We cannot debate and procrastinate any longer. Time is running short. The parched earth is a first stage warning. It is time to repair our damaged planet.

Below is a link to Nasa's website on global climate change and another to UNESCO's