Friday, 13 September 2019

Family Furniture

My parents are hoping to move house soon, which means downsizing. Suddenly some of the furniture that’s been, well, part of the furniture for my whole life is under threat. It won’t all fit in the new house, and most of it is too big for my own wee home, which is adequately furnished already anyway. There is talk of Getting a Few Quid for that big old sideboard, and Aunt Annie’s Edwardian mahogany wardrobe. That’s if anyone actually wants such monstrosities these days. 


Belfast, early 1920s when Granda was first working
I’m a terrible sentimentalist about objects, and I found myself worried especially about that wardrobe, carefully brought from her family home by my good old spinster aunt and installed, incongruously, in her tiny council flat in the 1970s. Polished every week. How would it feel sad and unloved at the back of the Oxfam furniture shop, or in a skip? 

Which made me start to think about my own furniture. It’s a mish-mash – a few nice antiques bought in richer times (before being a writer!), some bookcases hand-made by my late father, and plenty of ordinary modern stuff that I wouldn’t miss if I had to dispose of it. Nothing with as much family history as Aunt Annie’s wardrobes.

Except the bookcase in the study. I remember this from my grandparents’ home, where it lived in The Good Room. At some stage it passed on to me and for many years, in my twenties, it was the only decent piece of furniture I had. 


It looks like an ordinary glass-fronted mahogany bookcase, but my understanding is that it began life as a display cabinet in a shoe shop where my grandfather worked. He was a bright boy who had to leave school at fourteen to help support his family. He studied at night school to become a chiropodist, but as far as I know the shoe shop was his first job. I’m not sure how he got hold of the display case – was the shop offloading old furniture, or maybe closing down? Did he have to pay for it? He can’t have had much spare cash, so maybe he was able to get it for a few pence a week. Was he proud of it? Its position in his eventual marital home would suggest so. 

Granda filled the bookcase with his library of theology books, Charles Dickens, and an array of reference books. (Granda's Google). In my home it houses school stories by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Dorita Fairlie Bruce. Granda would have considered these very frivolous but I think they’re perfect for his bookcase. He left school in about 1918, just before these books started to be published. His little sister Olive might well have been given titles like Dimsie Goes to School at just the same time as Granda brought home the bookcase. 

I don’t know if I’ll ever move house – in all likelihood I will, some day – and there’s plenty of furniture I’ll be able to send to a charity shop without a thought. But the bookcase, or display case, which Granda got from an unknown Belfast shoe shop about a hundred years ago, will be staying with me. 

Friday, 6 September 2019

A play about love, lust and flour - Michelle Lovric

Linda Wilkinson
Under our new regime, today should have a post by Joan Lennon. But Joan kindly lent me her space so I could introduce a piece about a fascinating historical project set in my own part of London, near Blackfriars.

I am honoured to be a part of the Living Bankside History Committee. One of my fellow committee members is Adrian Chappell, an artist, educator and researcher. Adrian has collaborated to create a play about one of the great historical debacles of the late 18th century: the dramatic burning of the Albion Flour Mill at Blackfriars. Albion-in-Flames will be staged in the last week of September, close to the historical site of the fire, as part of the Totally Thames Festival.

Adrian worked with playwright, historian, scientist and memoirist, Linda Wilkinson to create the play and this is her account of how Albion in Flames came to be.

                                                         ALBION-IN-FLAMES

                                           “Who thought flour could be so interesting?”

 A rather forlorn and lonely patch of land by the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge seems an unlikely place from which the Industrial Revolution was kick-started in London in the late 18th century.

Myself and artist Adrian Chappell have been investigating the history of areas that abut the Thames for some time. As a playwright and historian, London is my playground as it is his. We met many moons ago on a project in East London and have remained friends ever since. As colleagues, he does the talking and the images, I do the words. It’s a fun and fruitful relationship.

A couple of years ago we devised a prototype app about a walk along the Thames linking the two Tate Galleries. Arising from this we uncovered the depth of Southwark’s importance in the industrialisation of London: the story of one building in particular piqued our interest.

The Albion Flour Mill stood on the south bank of the Thames at 245 Blackfriars Road. Today the site is being redeveloped having been occupied until recently by the Daily Express’s HQ at Ludgate House.

As the traffic thunders by and the announcements from the railway station punctuate the air it is hard to imagine the presence and stately grandeur of this once impressive building as it sat directly on the river.

The Albion was the world’s first steam-powered flour mill and London’s first great wonder of the Industrial Revolution. Using the new steam technology, developed by pioneering Midlands’ based engineering company Boulton & Watt, the Albion Mill opened in 1786 and aimed to meet London’s ever-increasing demand for bread. Since the middle of the 18th century London’s population had grown from three quarters of a million to well over one million.

 Albion’s creation was one of a long-list of firsts from that era but as a Londoner it surprised me that this mill was here, in my town, and not in the industrial North, the heartland of steam and steel.

 Precisely because of its location in the middle of London, the Albion Flour Mill quickly became the talk of the town, attracting large crowds from home and abroad who watched in awe as the gigantic arms and condensers of the mill’s steam engines were winched into place. Steam was harnessed to power the millstones and engines for fanning, sifting and dressing wheat, as well as loading and unloading barges moored alongside on the Thames. 20 pairs of millstones could grind 10 bushels of wheat per hour, day and night. The owners were also determined that the modernity of the interior should be reflected in the external façade. The frontage was executed in an elegant neo-classical style with huge Venetian windows that made the Mill look like a well-appointed country house.

But not everyone was happy. London’s traditional millers (wind and water) watched in horror as this five-storey titan rose over the rooftops of Bankside and beyond. They were well aware of the blaze of publicity regarding the Mill’s production capability. It was said that the Mill could produce as much flour in a month as their own mills could in an entire year.

On the morning of March 2nd 1791, the Albion Flour Mill caught fire and burnt down. Foul play was suspected immediately, not least because of the quick responses with which London’s traditional millers greeted the news of the fire and the fact that the tide was so low the water boats could not pump onto the flames. The poet Robert Southey walked among the crowds that lined Blackfriars Bridge that morning and noted that there were groups of millers dancing with joy by the light of the flames. The sudden appearance of placards bearing slogans such as Success to the mills of Albion but NO to Albion Mill seemed to provide evidence that the occasion was pre-planned. However, while many speculated that the fire was the work of machine-breaking radicals, the cause of the fire was never firmly established. Samuel Wyatt, the Mill’s owner, and John Rennie, its youthful engineer, insisted that the cause was due to poor lubrication in the grinding mechanisms which created friction leading to the fire. It was known that corn dust was highly combustible.
The charred remains of the Albion Flour Mill stood for 19 years on the banks of the Thames before Rennie himself built an iron works on the site. However, this was not before William Blake, who regularly walked over Blackfriars Bridge between his home in north Lambeth and the City, coined the infamous phrase that dark satanic mill.

We wanted to share this interesting and seemingly unknown history with a wider audience. As a playwright I thought I could potentially write a drama about it. Truth be told I am not very excited by pistons and engineering, imaginative or not, so I did wonder how I was going to turn it into an entertainment. Happily, as we delved further into the cast of characters who lived in and around Bankside during that period it became obvious that there was a provocative tale to tell.
The play Albion-in-Flames interleaves the short history of the Mill and its owners with the contemporary events of the French Revolution and the loss of the American Colonies. The lives, and loves, of local luminaries such as William Blake, Dr Samuel Johnson and diarist Hester Thrale provide the dramatic backdrop to social unrest and the emerging feminism of the period. A future American President and amorous music masters enliven the proceedings and a working-class woman called Annie, speaking for the traditional millers, grounds the play in the reality of the times.

It seems fitting that the play is being staged at the Union Theatre just a stone’s throw from the site of the Albion Mills.

 Albion-in-Flames is at the Union Theatre in Southwark 24-28 September 2019. The play is part of the Totally Thames Festival and supported by Southwark Council’s Blackfriars Stories fund. To find out more and book see below:

 http://www.uniontheatre.biz/albion-in-flames.html and

 https://totallythames.org/event/albion-in-flames-a-play-about-love-lust-and-flour

Finally, a piece of good news about the inimitable Pasta Grannies, about whom I wrote here back in 2017. I was privileged to interview Vicky Bennison who conceived the project and has spent years tracking down the Italian grandmothers who hold the secrets of the best home-cooking. Vicky has persuaded these fascinating ladies to share both their recipes and the stories of their lives.

The Pasta Grannies book is out next month. It's beautiful and I warmly recommend it, not just for the recipes but for the joyous photographs and the biographies of the nonne themselves.

The Pasta Grannies YouTube channel now has hundreds of thousands of followers, and you'll be seeing lots about the book in the media over the next few weeks.

Michelle Lovric's website

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Proroguing: A Very Short History - by Anna Mazzola


This time last week you’d probably never even heard of proroguing. Now you have prorogues coming out of your ears. If it’s any consolation, it’s been causing problems for millennia and Queen Victoria didn’t much like it either.

What the hell is proroguing, and where does it come from?


Prorogation in itself is no big deal – it’s simply the formal term for the end of a parliamentary session. Parliament is ‘prorogued’ between the end of one session and the State Opening of Parliament that begins the next.

Historically, the King or Queen would turn up to do the proroguing themselves. That’s why the modern-day ceremony begins with the Leader of the House stating, ‘My Lords, it not being convenient for Her Majesty personally to be present here this day, she has been pleased to cause a Commission under the Great Seal to be prepared for proroguing this present Parliament.’ Of course, Queen Liz has absolutely no intention of turning up.

Queen Victoria used to, however. At least she did until 1854, when she refused, apparently on the basis she didn’t like the ceremony. No decent biscuits, perhaps.


Controversial proroguings


So much for the normal proroguings. Things get controversial when the power is used for political ends, say by stopping Parliament from carrying out its job of keeping a check on the Government. There’s a long history of monarchs summoning Parliament purely so it could authorise the taxes the King wanted to levy, and then proroguing it to limit its ability to meddle.

King Charles I – ‘didn’t end well’


In March 1628, after several years of squabbling about taxation, Charles I tried to prorogue Parliament. Enraged, members of the house literally held the Speaker down in his chair so that the ending of the session could be delayed long enough for resolutions against Catholicism, Arminianism and tonnage and poundage to be read out and approved. In revenge, Charles dissolved Parliament and had nine parliamentary leaders thrown into jail.


For the following eleven years, he ruled England without a Parliament – a time that’s sometimes referred to as the ‘eleven years' tyranny’. In 1642 the arguments boiled over into full-blown civil war, which lasted for nearly a decade and culminated in the king’s execution. So John Major wasn’t wrong when he said recently that proroguing parliament ‘didn’t end well’ for Charles I.

The Great Reform Crisis


We might think we have big problems with our political system, but it used to be even worse. The Great Reform Act of 1832 introduced huge changes to the corrupt electoral system, famously getting rid of ‘rotten boroughs’. But it wasn’t passed without a fight. When the House of Commons defeated the First Reform Bill, the government urged William IV to immediately prorogue Parliament in person, to prevent the passing of an opposition motion. When told that his horses wouldn’t be ready in time, the King supposedly insisted, ‘Then I will go in a hackney cab!’

Disappointingly, the horses were got ready and he raced off in his flashy carriage, cheered on by crowds all the way to the House of Lords, where he strode in wearing his crown and prorogued Parliament. The Reform Bill was eventually passed, mainly as a result of public pressure. (Worth noting it does sometimes work).

Deadlock with the Lords 


In 1948, just after the Second World War, the Labour government of Clement Attlee set out to reduce the power of the House of Lords so as to stop them from delaying their programme of welfare reform and nationalisation. The Lords, not keen on having their powers curbed, repeatedly blocked the Bill. To get around this, Atlee used the Parliament Act 1911 which allowed legislation to go through without the Lords’ agreement if the House of Commons approved it over three sessions. In order speed that process up, the Government announced it would hold a short session between September and October 1948. The Lords, of course, were furious.


Cash for Questions


In 1997, John Major, then Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, prorogued Parliament at a time that conveniently avoided parliamentary debate of the Parliamentary Commissioner's report on the cash-for-questions affair. You might remember that the scandal began when two Tory MPs were bribed to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of the owner of Harrods.

Major prorogued Parliament for just under three weeks before it being dissolved ahead of the General Election to avoid proper debate on cash for questions. But it was of course the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, who won that election, so arguably proroguing didn't end all that well for John Major either...


There are also several Commonwealth examples of proroguing being used to evade Parliamentary scrutiny. In 2009 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament for two months, which had the effect of limiting an inquiry into the Government's awareness of the abusive treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.

'Only rogues prorogue'


That, then, is your super-fast history of political proroguing, generally the tool of the tyrannical or the desperate. But then you’d probably worked that out already.


_____________________________________

Anna Mazzola is a writer of dark historical fiction. She is also a public law and human rights solicitor.

https://annamazzola.com
https://twitter.com/Anna_Mazz

Friday, 23 August 2019

Dance and privilege - interpreting the past, by Gillian Polack


I’m writing this post weeks before it gets put online because I’m off to Ireland for the World Science Fiction Convention and for a bit of research and to see a lot of friends. Another person attending the conference asked about Regency dances the other day, and named specific English dances. There are several possible reasons for there being no dances announced at that precise moment in time, but the first thing that came to my mind was the element of Pride and Prejudice that is all about the military. The Bennet sisters who were so excited when beautiful young men in uniform came their way. 

Some types of story (and the way the military is depicted in Pride and Prejudice means that it’s one of them) let us think that historical hurt can defended with a parasol or with gentle intervention. 

In fact, this is true for some people in some places at some times, including in the early nineteenth century. In New South Wales in 1808, Governor Bligh’s daughter, Mary, defended her father against the military that was deposing him. She used her parasol. She later married into the military, however. Jane Austen depicted a truth about the relationship of women of the right background and their relationship with the British military at that time, and Mary was, for me, the young woman who exemplified it in real life.



It was not the only type of relationship.

Those same military personally, if they were in Ireland, presented differently to different parts of the population. They may still have been an excitement and beautiful young men to those of the right ancestry (mainly English and Church of England) but they were certainly not kind to much of the Irish population. Social events that included these soldiers were not something many wanted to attend. Re-enacting those events is re-enacting historical problems. Having modern parties that features those problems, including English dances that celebrate the military, is celebrating hurt.

This can be extreme. We all have our own examples of historical incidents that are almost too painful to talk about. Mine is food-related from the 1940s, and has nothing at all to do with Jane Austen or dancing. I’ve mentioned it before and no doubt I’ll discuss it again. It’s something I still haven’t resolved or come to terms with and I am forever repeating myself on matters historical until I sort things out. 

I have a cookbook I still have not used, because every time I bring it out I say “I will use it and remember these women” and I look through the recipe (which are delightful) and I make plans… and I can’t bring myself to cook. Every single one of the authors of this book was dying while they were remembering food they used to make for friends and family. Their particular cuisine was almost wiped out by the murder of the Jews of Middle Europe. How can I have a dinner party with this in mind? How can I not?

What I can do is what Edna Ferber did, and find a way of translating the complex and awful history into fiction. That way we see more than one view. That way we look at Ireland and can see why some dances had different values to those same dances in England, and we can see why.

We know that historical experiences are not shared, but when an exciting narrative comes along we can forget. Fiction helps cement us in the forgetfulness, but it can also help us see views other than our own. I was going to talk about how wonderful Tara was before the Civil War in Gone with the Wind, but then I remember how a couple from different backgrounds had their lives destroyed when someone found out in Showboat. This is how Edna Ferber handled part of the painful past, in the novel Showboat. There was a hero-moment when Steve drank a tiny amount of Julie’s (his wife’s) blood so that he could claim he had the right blood in him and so that they could stay together. The reality in Showboat was that the hero moment didn’t take the pressures off. It didn’t allow Steve and Julie to continue making a living as a couple. It didn’t allow them any happiness. 



The reality in Gone with the Wind was that Scarlett O’Hara’s life was privileged. She suffered during the war, but she wasn’t a slave before and she wasn’t treated like a lower part of society afterwards. The reality in Jane Austen’s stories is that most of her characters are similarly privileged.

Dances are one of my clues to how people were treated and what they did with their lives. In Showboat, Julie dances in a particular way that demonstrated her background. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet girls dance in the way that demonstrates theirs.

I need to discover what someone not linked to British troops and English rule danced in 1808. I already know about the dances Mary did around the time she defended William Bligh using her parasol. William Bligh may have had the worst bad luck – first the mutiny on the Bounty and then the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales – but he was not lacking in privilege in most ways and his daughter danced the dances of the gentry, just like the Bennet daughters.

Friday, 16 August 2019

'Still they come' by Karen Maitland

Clooties hanging on tree above Madron's Well
Earlier this summer, I was travelling on a country lane just north-west of Penzance in Cornwall, when I spotted a sign to St Madron’s Well. I followed a surprisingly well-worn footpath twisting through a woodland of ancient, lichen-covered blackthorn trees and ferns, which seemed to go on for miles. I confess I was on the verge of turning back, thinking I had missed the well, because many holy wells in Devon and Cornwell are simply little springs trickling out of a bank and easily covered by summer vegetation. Then I saw a few rags tied to a tree. As I walked further along the path, the trees around me became festooned with rags, ribbons, single shoes, tiny fabric bags and messages written on cloth in many languages, including Chinese. Some were weather-faded to the colour of fallen leaves, others so vibrant they clearly been tied there yesterday.

Stone stile and walls of St Madron's chapel beyond.
Had it not been for these ‘clooties’, I could easily have missed the well itself which was little more than a shallow pool of clear water, just a few inches deep, surrounded by trees and muddy bog. But further on down the track, I came across mossy stone stiles, standing like the battlements of an enchanted castle, and beyond them was the rough-hewn stone walls of the chapel of St Madron, its entrance guarded by a huge yew tree. Water bubbles out into a baptistry in the far corner, which comes from the same spring as the well in the wood. The baptistry, and the stone altar were covered in crumbling posies of withered flowers, shells, three-armed and four-armed Brigid crosses, and other offerings visitors had laid there. It was evident that this place is as much revered in new millennium as it has been for the last thousand years.

Entrance to the ruined St Madron's Chapel, Cornwall
Those who first sought it out in pre-Christian times dedicated this spring to the Welsh Celtic Mother Goddess, Modron, who some authors link to the medieval Arthurian figure - Morgan Le Fay. When Celtic Christians arrived, they wisely didn’t try to prevent people coming for blessing and healing to this well, but quietly replaced the old goddess with St. Madern or St Madron. But whereas Modron had been a goddess, St Madron or Madern is thought to have been 6th century male Celtic saint, possibly a disciple of St Piran. The chapel probably began life as a cell for a Christian hermit. He or she would have ministered to those coming to the leech well for healing and would have received food or gifts from the supplicants.

Stone altar in St Madron's chapel.
The pagan and Christian traditions practised at this site seemed to have co-existed in peaceful harmony until the Reformation, when Thomas Cromwell ordered the destruction of the chapel. The roof was torn down and the statue, which probably occupied the niche, was removed. But whether from superstition or laziness, Cromwell’s men could not bring themselves to destroy the chapel itself, and the walls, baptistry, stone seats and altar remain intact until this day. It is still roofless, but the canopy of trees provides a far more beautiful roof than either thatch or slate.

Thomas Cromwell and the Reformers may have thought they’d put an end to St Madron’s well, but local people continued to use it. In 1640, John Trelil, unable to stand or walk because of childhood injury to his back, had a dream telling him to seek healing at the well. On a Thursday in May, the day the well’s healing powers were believed to be at their strongest, he crawled to St Madron’s well on his knees, spent the night at the altar in the ruined chapel, bathed in the holy water, then slept on a grassy hump nearby known as St Madron’s Bed, where he began to feel tingling in the nerves of his legs. He returned twice more on subsequent Thursdays and was cured to such an extent that he became fit enough to join the royalist army, though that was perhaps a mixed blessing for he was sadly killed in battle four years later in Lyme, in Dorset.

Baptistry or second holy well inside St Madron's chapel
By the Victorian era, they realised there was money to be made from such places and a keeper of the well charged visitors for access. On Thursdays, during the month of May, ailing children were dipped naked in the well three times and passed around it nine times, then dressed and left to sleep on St Madron’s bed. To effect a cure, the ritual had to be performed in silence. Unwed girls threw crosses and pins on the water counting the bubbles to discover when they would marry. It was also thought that by asking how long you had to live, you would be answered by a series of bubbles giving the number of years.

Today, on the first Sunday in May, people come to stand in a circle and take turns blessing the person next to them with health and peace using a mixture of the water taken from the baptistry and from the well outside. They ask for healing of Mother Earth and provision of water for all people. It would seem that given the current concerns about climate change, Madron’s Well is just as meaningful to people now as it was to our ancient Celtic forbears.
Clooties hanging in the blackthorn above St Madron's Well

Friday, 9 August 2019

SLATE by Adèle Geras


This beautiful paperweight was a present to me from Linda Newbery on my 70th birthday, five years ago. It's always on my desk and is one of my Top Treasures. 





It was made by a master craftsman called Bernard Johnson out of slate.  I've always been very fond of this material. We take it for granted most of the time. Many people use slate chips in their gardens, and I bought a set of slate coasters from a gallery shop in a museum that I can no longer locate in my memory. It's beautiful stuff and the best slate in the world comes from Wales. 





Last month, I wrote about the copper of Parys Mountain on Anglesey. And on the same visit, to my friends Bob Borsley and Ewa Jaworska, they took me also to Snowdonia. We went to visit the National Slate Museum at Llanberis which was just up the road from this idyllic scene.



The museum is located in the now disused workshops of the Dinorwic Slate Quarry and it's beautifully organised and laid out. We started out by looking a very informative video, which explained how four slate workers' cottages had been moved lock, stock and barrel to this site, and set up to show how the men who worked in the quarry lived at different historical periods. We were also told that nowadays, no slate is quarried here because China produces it much more cheaply.  

We then went into a large, pleasant space, where a delightfully chatty man was about to demonstrate the art of cutting slate. He had an enormous rectangle resting against one knee and with a thin chisel he chipped away at it, knocking it gently all the way round and after a few knocks, a layer of the whole thing seemed almost to fall of the bigger block as single sheet, which looked impossibly thin. Below is a photo of the various sizes of the slate and I took this photo because I loved the names given to the different proportions: Princesses (24" by 14") Duchesses (24" by 12") Countesses (20" x 12") Wide Ladies (16" by 12") Broad Ladies (16" by 10") Narrow Ladies (16" by 8")






Below is a photo taken in one of the cottages. This is the parlour and the only downstairs room apart from the tiny kitchen on the ground floor. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century. There's one cottage that is from 1969 and in that one we saw a bath and an inside toilet  and I recognised many of the fixtures and fittings from the days of my youth.




After visiting the Slate Museum, we went to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, near Blaenau Ffestiniog.  You can do all kinds of things there, like zip across disused workings on a wire. Which was clearly not the kind of thing I was up for! But we did go on the Explorer Tour, which involved strapping yourself into a Army truck and driving to the highest point of the old workings. And  then down again. Malcolm was our intrepid driver. At one point, we had to reverse down a slope with a dizzying gradient and I just shut my eyes. There were other times on the drive when I decided I didn't want to look but mostly, it was amazing and very exciting.  The photos below show what the terrain looked like...


...and also what used to be there before work stopped in the quarry. 


After I got home, I started not taking my slate for granted. I looked more carefully at my garden slate chips. I admired anew the coasters I use every day and thanked Linda and took my hat off to Bernard Johnson all over again. And the very next day, in the Times, I saw the photo below. It shows the roof of the Serpentine Gallery in London, made from slate by artist Junya Ishigami. What cam I say? Slate rocks!


Friday, 2 August 2019

Casanova and me, and Me Too - Michelle Lovric

My first novel, Carnevale, published eighteen years ago. I was anxious then – because I was daring to be the first female writer to describe how it might have felt to be loved by a man like Casanova. Today I would be much more afraid. For Casanova has fallen foul of the Me Too movement, something I learned at a fascinating symposium held in Venice last month.

Delegates explained how last year’s touring exhibition about Casanova met with fierce criticism in the United States. Some galleries even stoked the fire to court publicity. Today’s sensibility has judged him harshly on his interest in very young girls, the avidness of his seductions and two cases of violence against women (for which he also condemned himself).

I cannot defend him on any of those points, but those who now vilify him would find some surprising material if they went so far as to read any of his 3000 pages of memoirs. Casanova was no Don Giovanni. He deplored cold-hearted notchers of bedposts. He thought women had more pleasure from sex than men, ‘because the feast takes place in their own house’ and because they risked the pain and danger of childbirth with each sexual act. As Malina Stefanovska observed during the symposium, Casanova may have been projecting somewhat when he declared that the visible pleasure of his lovers made up four-fifths of his own. However, he took responsibility for contraception. He would stay celibate rather than transmit a sexual disease. He would not sleep with England’s premier courtesan Kitty Fisher because his English would not have allowed for the all-important post-coital chatting. For these reasons, and because he once declared that he would like to be reincarnated as a woman, I suspect that he might have been rather on the side of the Me Too movement.

'Casanova in Place', beautifully choreographed by Kathleen González, was a multidisciplinary event, uniting an international cohort of academics, biographers and novelists in a spirit of amity, curiosity and sometimes hilarity. In this, it would have delighted the man who inspired it.

I was honoured to sit on a panel of writers discussing how to render in fiction or biography a man who had written 3000 pages about himself. The day before, novelist and academic Gregory Dowling had delivered a lecture about Casanova in fiction, in which I found my work discussed in rather starry company. Then it was time for the writers to speak for ourselves.


You can see us here above, left to right. Malina, our facilitator, had previously treated the symposium to a reading from one of her own letters to Casanova, in this case on the subject of exile. (This hybrid form, part personal essay, part academic study, proved a moving and apt way to encounter Casanova. I was so inspired by Malina’s rendering that I wrote a poem in response.) Next right there’s myself, author of Carnevale and The Wishing Bones. Then Ian Kelly, who wrote and researched Casanova, a biography, which has been turned into a ballet by Kenneth Tindall , which was also screened for the symposium. Barbara Lynn-Davis wrote Casanova’s Secret Wife, an intense and lyrical first-person account of one of his most famous love affairs through the eyes of his teenage lover Caterina Capretta. Kathleen González is the author of Seductive Venice: In Casanova’s Footsteps (published in Italy by Supernova Edizioni as Casanova’s Venice: A Walking Guide).

Kathleen herself has written here a precis of our discussions about how, as a writer, one handles the hot property that is Casanova’s life.

I was the unicorn in the room, not because I wrote about Casanova in a novel, but because I’d put him into a novel for children aged nine to twelve. So I had the opportunity to explain why, against all expectation, I felt that Casanova was not just an acceptable but even an excellent protagonist for a children’s book.

The Casanova of The Wishing Bones is thirteen rising fourteen, and on cusp of adulthood. All transitions are potentially perilous. You need lots of peril in a children’s book. The symposium seemed rather bemused when I explained that the rule in all children’s books is that you must immediately get rid of the parents - otherwise, someone is looking out for the children and they cannot have proper adventures. Well, Zanetta and Gaetano, Casanova’s parents, delivered that for me without being asked. Gaetano died when Casanova was eight. Zanetta took little notice of her son, regularly abandoning him to travel the courts of Europe as an actress/courtesan/whatever, and even despatching him to the mainland as a very young child to board in terrible conditions on the pretext that the air in Venice was bad for his frequent nosebleeds.

I then explained that the child-protagonist must have an urgent agenda of their own - an inconsolable need or want. As Malina eloquently pointed out the day before, Casanova needed to make the world pay for his abandonment. His issues triggered behaviours that I could use as storylines.

Casanova’s unusually intense youthful physicality made him a useful character. Children can identify with Casanova’s sense of being an outsider, in a bodily and emotional sense, till he was eight. This was manifested in his muteness, his outrageously prolific nosebleeds and the strange cure he underwent for them. In The Wishing Bones, I originally used the entire episode of the trip to Murano with his adoring grandmother, who put him in the hands of a witch who cured his muteness and his bleeding in a series of picturesque acts and visions. However, in the end, this part of my book was abbreviated and accessorised with other elements more appropriate to this age range, such as beating hearts in buckets and rude talking cats. (Casanova's own witch had black cats, but they were silent).

Casanova’s frank greed for particular foods makes him a suitable character for children’s book. Children are very interested in food. It is one of the few things in which they can exercise power, even if it is the power of 'NO!' And Casanova's totemic foods - his ‘Madeleine moments’ - are even character-aligned … the crab soup his abandoning mother craved when he was in the womb, for example.

I explained that I write for children in the specific genre of junior ‘histfantfic’, which allows for magic. Casanova dabbled for profit and pleasure in occult practices, notably with the elderly Marquise d'Urfé, the richest woman in France, whom he pretended to impregnate with her own cloned spirit. In so far as his memoirs are an act of self-creation, there are many metaphorical rabbits pulled out of many plumed hats. He even wrote his own magical-real novel, with science-fiction elements. So I think Casanova would have enjoyed histfantfic.

His love of novelty also made Casanova an ideal candidate to be the protagonist of a children’s novel. Most of my children’s books feature young, lovely and rather rude mermaids, who speak sea-salt slang because how else would they learn Humantongue except by eavesdropping on pirates? Casanova loved new faces - new ‘title pages’, as he styled them – so imagine Casanova with a cavern full of beautiful young women whose ‘treasure’ (as he would put it), is mysteriously situated – almost like that of the Bellino of his memoirs. Obsessively attracted to this young ‘castrato’ male singer, Casanova unmasked Bellino as a girl masquerading as a boy using an ingenious rubber device that rendered her a virtual hermaphrodite.

Moreover, the mermaids of The Wishing Bones are compelling, strong women who wear scallop shells on their breasts. How is Casanova not going to be fascinated by them? For me, it was a kind of chemistry experiment: put young Casanova with magical creatures possessing a powerful femininity – and see what bubbles up.

I was also able to make use of Casanova’s invention of himself as an extrovert, a larger-than-life person. People like that always mess up. In The Wishing Bones, Casanova’s innocent enthusiasm for the witch on Murano – the one who stopped his nosebleeds - leads him to betray his friends, almost fatally.

I was asked to keep Casanova rather polite in The Wishing Bones. My original draft included verbal hints of his burgeoning sexual awareness, but that did not survive into the final manuscript. Even though in real life he had already acquired sexual experience by the age I show him in the novel, that side of his life is not visible. Instead, I tried to show the abundance of his joys, his lively greed, his charm and his desire to please ladies. He is attracted to one of my young female protagonists, and she takes pleasure in his warmth. But there is no question of precocious sexual activity being allowed when writing for this age group.

Among my embellishments is Casanova pre-shadowing his work as a violinist. He is hired to entertain the English guests at their Venetian 'Hotel of What You Want’ with singing, violin-playing and heart-tugging recitals of romantic verse. The violin – restrung with mermaid hair – becomes young Casanova’s tool for repainting the colour in a city that has been drained of its beauty by the enactment of an ancient prophecy.

Of course he needs to stare deeply into the eyes of a lovely girl while he goes about this important work.

Will this site me in the sights of Me Too? I hope not.

Michelle Lovric’s website

P.S. Apologies to anyone who was planning to attend my Wishing Bones event at the Finchley Road O2 Waterstones on this coming Sunday August 4th. Almost appropriately, for a book set in Venice, this event has been delayed by a flood. It will be reconvened as soon as possible.