Monday, 17 December 2018


Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, In Prose. A Ghost Story of Christmas  was written in a single six-week burst of energy and, unusually at that time, appeared as one single volume.

Image result for a christmas carol wikipediaUp until that point, Dickens had worked in serial form, writing sections at a time, planning almost as the chapter before appeared in print. 

Even as he scribbled away, bringing Scrooge into life, he was struggling with Martin Chuzzlewit, his American novel, and with fears about his own popularity as an author.

Dickens wanted A Christmas Carol to be seen as his book. 

He commissioned Chapman & Hall as his publishers and then chose the look of his new book. He wanted a handsome red cloth binding and a gold design on the cover while the gilt-edged pages would include four black-and-white woodcuts set within the text itself and four full-colour etchings by the artist John Leech.

A Christmas Carol was published on 19th December 1843, reasonably priced at five shillings, and became the most popular book of the season.  By Christmas Eve, every one of the six thousand copies had been sold.  Dickens must have been delighted.
The novella quickly became a “national benefit”, according to Thackeray and, with its outspoken attack upon those who ignore the poorest in society, was seen as a piece of radical literature. Yet, at the same time, the story also celebrates family and food and fun alongside the Christian themes of mercy and love.

Image result for a christmas carol wikipediaThe story certainly feels haunted, in more ways than one. Even before their appearance in his story, Dickens recognised those two awful children, Ignorance and Want. He had become a friend of Miss Burdett-Coutts, a rich philanthropist with a deep purse, and so had been visiting Ragged Schools - schools set up by Evangelicals to save souls - so he could make practical suggestions to guide her charitable work.

However, when Dickens visited the Field Lane Ragged School, he had to walk through Saffron Hill, an area of London which had haunted him since his childhood: he had used it for some of the scenes with Fagin in Oliver Twist.

Once inside the school, Dickens found “a sickening atmosphere, in the midst of taint and dirt and pestilence, with all the deadly sins let loose and howling at the doors”. His companion left hastily while the unruly children, for their part, mocked Dickens stylish white trousers and bright boots.

Just as awful was the knowledge that Field Lane school was close to where he, as a boy, worked in a blacking factory. Dickens had been sent there by his bankrupt father, while his sister was sent to music lessons. The young Dickens was utterly ashamed of his fall from respectability, especially when he was placed in public view in the window, a disgrace that he felt so deeply that he kept it secret until almost the end of his life.

Revisiting the area, witnessing again all the filth, disease and vice of that “doomed childhood”, and the hopeless sense of destitution must surely have fed into the darkness of his Christmas Carol.

Dickens brought jollity to the story, of course. He was someone who loved parties and celebrations and surprises and plays and conjuring tricks and the playful side of his character is very much there in the joyful scenes and resolution of A Christmas Carol.

Yet even the plenty is ambiguous. Dickens, the self-made man, knew that it was his pen that brought in the good things that he and his extended family enjoyed and the money they spent.

Yet, a little like Scrooge, Dickens was a man for whom money and time were almost everything. He was cautious about his household expenditure, and spent phenomenal time and energy visiting or lecturing or going on long night-walks where he plotted his stories. Dickens, like many who have known poverty, was haunted by the fact that he had to be successful.

Furthermore, his worries were increasing: his wife was about to have another baby, another child that he had to keep fed and clothed and out of the gutter. Dickens enjoyed being with children, although very noticeably on his own terms, but he was worried about the cost of them. At the same time, he was growing far less fond of his poor, low-spirited wife Catherine and rather more sentimental about pretty young ladies that reminded him of his youth.

Scrooge’s memories of his own childhood echo those of his creator: does his miser draw on the ambivalence and shadow within Dickens?

Image result for a christmas carol wikipedia

Sadly, within two weeks of publication, Dickens had reason to feel even more ungenerous and suspicious. A simplified version of A Christmas Carol was issued by a pirate publisher and though Dickens immediately sued and won the case, the publisher also immediately declared bankruptcy and Dickens was forced to pay the court costs himself and felt he had been almost ruined by the whole venture. Moreover, errors in production costs meant that Dickens made hardly any money from that first beautiful edition. God Bless Us Everyone indeed!

Six years afterwards, however, in 1849, Dickens started to give public readings of A Christmas Carol. These proved so richly popular and rewarding that Dickens kept telling his strange, enigmatic Christmas ghost story until his own death, performing at the Bradford Alhambra, in 1870.

And, probably, if you look around locally, someone will be continuing that same tradition, and reading Dickens Christmas Carol this winter too – a tale that’s still, sadly, just as apt for our own age.

A Happy Christmas to you all.

Penny Dolan

Note: In this post, I’ve drawn on my own reading of Peter Ackroyd’s impressive biography of DICKENS, first published in 1990.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Mary Rose, by Sue Purkiss

So - you've spent years in search of the wreck of Henry VIII's flagship, the Mary Rose, which you know has lain under fourteen metres of water in Portsmouth Harbour since 1545 - somewhere. In 1971, after three years, you find four timbers: the frames of the port side of the ship. So far so good - but it's buried under four centuries of silt.

For the next eleven years, teams of divers, archaeologists and engineers work on releasing the ship from its muddy shroud - remembering always that this is the grave not just of a ship, but of the 500 men who went down with her. The enterprise is not financed by the government: it has to be paid for. So there's all that side of it to consider too. It probably helps that you acquire an influential backer in the form of Prince Charles, who dives down to see the ship for himself, and to lend a hand.

Eventually, in October 1982, the great moment arrives. 60 million people all over the world watch the longest outside broadcast yet undertaken, as an enormous floating crane, the Tog Mor, slowly raises a steel cradle in which nestle the remains of Henry's once-proud ship. Klaxons sound from all the vessels gathered to watch: a gun salute comes from Southsea Castle, where two years before his own death, Henry watched as his ship sank during an engagement with a French invasion fleet. It's a moment of high drama, a story of achievement against huge odds. Everyone holds their breath: something could still go wrong.

The raising of the Mary Rose, from Visit Hampshire

But it doesn't. The ship arrives safely at its new home, a dry dock in Portsmouth Harbour, next to that relative youngster, Nelson's Victory.

But then what?

What you have is historic and romantic and a tangible link with the world of the Tudors - but it is basically half a ship, and it's incredibly fragile. Its timbers have been preserved under the silt which excluded oxygen and all the organisms which happily munched on the half that wasn't covered up - but as soon as the wood is exposed to the air, it is at risk.

Clever scientists work out what to do about the wood. From the moment she emerges from the sea, pumps attached to the lifting frame begin to spray her with water, and this will continue for many years - except for a few hours a day, when the archaeologists can do their work. A shelter is built above her. The water washes the salts out of the ancient timbers, and she is sprayed with ployethylene glycol to stregthen them. Then, in 2013, the sprays are turned off, and large air ducts take on the job of removing the water from the timbers, now that they have been stabilised.

So that's the preservation side taken care of. But part of your remit is to establish a museum to house the Mary Rose and all the artefacts which were found inside her - and how do you do that? The SS Great Britain, Brunel's beautiful ship, which I've written about here before, was also battered by the elements and by the years - but it was possible to restore her to the extent that you can see her now almost as she was when she was a 'living' ship. That was never going to be feasible with the Mary Rose. So how was she to be displayed?

The solution the architects (Wilkinson Eyre and Pringle Brandon)found is breathtakingly clever. The museum is on three levels, corresponding to the lower decks, main decks, and upper decks. On each gallery, you walk along a passageway with glass partitions on either side. On the right is the cross-section which is what remains of the ship itself. You can see the cabins, the gunports - the whole structure of the ship. On the left, you can see the objects which were found on the deck you can see on your right. And what a wealth of objects there are: weapons, of course, as this was a warship - but also the personal possessions of the men on board, and the tools of their trades.

The Mary Rose - picture by Rosie Smith

There are also moving tableaux on board the ship, showing groups of sailors about their tasks - holograms, perhaps? I don't know, but whatever they are, they're very realistic. The passageway you walk along dips, and somehow you have the impression that you're on a moving ship - I don't know how they manage this, but they do. It's all very clever.

Then when you leave the viewing gallery, there's a section with displays of the artefacts and explanations of what they have learnt from them. So for instance, you are shown what was found in the surgeon's cabin, and given notes on each object - what they were used for, what they tell us. And they have reconstructed from some of the skeletons what the living men may have looked like, and have made videos using actors who look similar to show them using the objects found - so the surgeon wears the hat which was found, and the leather shoes, and demonstrates some of his intruments.

I'm fascinated by the ways that museums and art galleries have found in the last twenty or so years to display their artefacts. There are some beautiful extensions and remodellings, such as in the Ashmolean and the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum, and such clever uses of technology, as in the Museum of European History in Brussels, the Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, and this Mary Rose Museum. Sometimes, it seems that when you look out at the world, you see so much horror. It's as if civilisation is going backwards, not forwards, and as if nothing has been learnt from history. But in this area, the reverse is true. So much has been and is being learnt, both of history, and of how to display it and make it meaningful. Thank heavens for museums!

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Homes and homelessness at Christmas by Fay Bound Alberti

This month my blog is a brief one. The reason is simple: I am moving house for the second time since August. I write surrounded by boxes that are yet to be unpacked and glasses without a home. But amidst the debris of the move, I am minded how lucky I am to have a home when so many do not.

We have become accustomed, of late, to think of the lonely at Christmas; those without family or friends, those who are widowed or suddenly alone after a period of togetherness. Media coverage tends to focus on elderly people at Christmas, quite justifiably conscious of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of social connection and belonging during a season marked by togetherness.

The world's first Christmas card, produced in 1834

Of course, for many people, families bring sadness and discomfort and a gap between the real and the ideal. The Victorian invention of Christmas, with all its trimmings: turkeys and sprouts, long hours spent at leisure, Christmas cards and carols, is just that for many: an invention. I have written about this invention for the Wellcome Collection, which is devoting a series of articles to loneliness during the Christmas week.

There are many kinds of Christmases, many different versions of family. Yet for homeless people and refugees, Christmas brings a particular kind of loneliness. The history of loneliness has received very little attention, though we know it is both an urban, modern problem. Early modern politicians worried about 'masterless men' roaming the countryside, many of whom were soldiers, but homelessness grew exponentially as a result of urbanisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth century.

It is impossible as 2018 draws to a close, not to see the numbers of homeless people increasing.  Since the 1980s, homelessness has been a particularly growing problem in the UK (and the US), but never before has it been so visible on our streets. Tory austerity and benefit cuts have resulted in more people than ever before being homeless at Christmas, as well as all year round. This Christmas, more than 24,000 people will sleep rough in Britain over the festive period. It's a shocking statistic.

As the weather becomes colder and the spirit of Christmas falls upon us, why not spare a thought for those with no place to call home. Organisations that support the homeless at Christmas include Crisis, which not only provides a Christmas meal and companionship, but also crucial medical and physical care. The Salvation Army provides support for homeless families and individuals, while other charities support specific groups, like veterans.

Support for the homeless is needed all year round, not only at Christmas. Charities facing a glut of volunteer in the festive season find themselves chronically understaffed  the rest of the year.  Like loneliness, the emotional effects of homelessness are exacerbated by the symbolism of the season. Not everyone wants to be with other people at Christmas; not everyone celebrates Christmas. But everyone wants a place to feel safe, and somewhere to come home to.

Wishing all readers and fellow History Girls a safe and happy Christmas.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Under the Volcano - by Lesley Downer

On August 11th 1863 seven British warships steamed into Kinko Bay in the southern Japanese province of Satsuma and dropped anchor in the shadow of the great volcano, Sakurajima, draped, then as now, with a plume of black ash.

The British crew and marines and legation officers on board were some of the first westerners ever to see the beautiful bay with its fringe of palm trees, balmy blue skies and precipitous hills soaring behind. I was there just last month and found myself trying to imagine how they must have felt as they saw this scene which has changed surprisingly little in the last 155 years. Later visitors called it the Naples of Japan.

But the British hadn’t come to sightsee. They’d come to attack the city of Kagoshima on the opposite shore.
Sengan-en Villa with Sakurajima behind

In those days Japan was made up of two hundred and sixty princedoms, each ruled by a daimyo lord, much like the earls and barons of Elizabeth I’s day. The Satsuma domain, in the far south, was so far from the capital, Edo, that it felt like another country. To this day the people of the area still think of themselves not so much as Japanese but Satsuma. The old clan loyalties remain.

The Prince of Satsuma was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the land. Besides his imposing castle set against a dramatic hillside covered in dense forest, he had an exquisite seaside villa surrounded by pleasure gardens, overlooking the bay.
Replica of Princess Atsu's lavish palanquin,
 belonging to Shimazu Nariakira

But the lord who had brought the domain to its pinnacle had died five years before the British arrived. Shimazu Nariakira, a brilliant and wise man, was fascinated by Dutch knowledge, the only western knowledge available in Japan at the time. He spoke Dutch, met the Dutch scholars who spent time in Japan, collected western books, studied western technology, and even kept a diary written in the Roman alphabet. He had a telegraph system, the only one in Japan, installed in his castle grounds, and owned Japan’s first camera, a daguerreotype, bought in 1853 in Nagasaki. The first photograph to be taken in Japan was of his castle and the first photographic portrait was of him.
Kagoshima Castle

He also established Japan’s first glass works which produced beautiful red and blue Satsuma cut glass. And he had built a whole industrial complex under the cliffs down by the bay, looking across to the volcano. There he had a foundry and the first reverberating furnace in Japan where he cast cannon. He also had a secret shipbuilding yard on the lower slopes of the volcano where he built his own warships in defiance of the shogunal decree forbidding such activity because he anticipated western attack and wanted to be ready.

But this great and enlightened lord had no surviving children and when he died was succeeded by the young son of his ruthless and unscrupulous half brother, Hisamitsu, who thereafter held the reins of power.

Satsuma glass ware with Sakurajima behind
  When the British sailed into Kinko Bay it was ten years after Commodore Perry had appeared in Edo Bay with his four Black Ships to force Japan to open to the west. So the people of Kagoshima had certainly heard of these monstrous ships even if they hadn’t seen them. All the same it must have been an awe-inspiring sight - seven mammoth warships, fifteen times bigger than the largest Japanese ship, steaming into the bay in a long line, bristling with cannon..

First the British seized three merchant ships and pillaged them. But the people of Satsuma were not easily frightened. Hearing the British were on their way they set up gun emplacements all along the seafront and turned the cannons, cast in the late lord Shimazu Nariakira’s iron foundry, on the British ships.

Bombardment of Kagoshima by the Royal Navy
August 15th 1863, Le Monde Illustre
They also knew there was a typhoon coming and that it would cause havoc for the British ships. The British were taken by surprise. They'd seen themselves as administering punishment to unruly natives; they didn’t expect the Satsuma to fight back. It took them a couple of hours to regroup. Then they sailed along the coast bombarding the city.

The reason for the attack was the death of a British merchant, killed the previous year by samurai of the Satsuma domain. Charles Richardson, a British merchant from Shanghai, had been visiting Yokohama for a few days and wanted to go riding. He’d been warned not to go on the highway because there was a huge procession coming through. But he ignored the advice. After all, he was British.

He and three friends were on the Tokaido highway riding towards Edo. At Namamugi village they met Hisamitsu himself, Nariakira's haughty half brother, heading straight towards them at the centre of a huge procession with an escort of a thousand retainers. The procession was a mile long. It filled the entire road, from one side to the other. Like Trooping the Colour, it didn’t do to barge into it. When such a procession passed, Japanese fell to their knees and bowed their heads. An American merchant, Eugene Van Reed, meeting this same procession did the same, to the disgust of the foreign community. But at least he managed to keep his head.

Richardson (in the middle, with hat) meets Hisamitsu (to the right) at Namamugi
Richardson refused to dismount. He rode down the middle of road and came between Hisamitsu’s palanquin and his bodyguards - like getting right up close to the queen’s carriage at Trooping the Colour. The bodyguards cut him down. 

The British were outraged. The death of an Englishman was an unforgivable offence. They demanded that the shogun’s government pay a huge indemnity of £100,000, more than £10 million today, and 1/3 of the Japanese government’s annual revenues, enough to bankrupt the shogunate. They threatened to bombard Edo if payment was not made. They also demanded that the offending clan, the Satsuma, arrest the perpetrators and pay £25,000 compensation, nearly £3 million today.

The shogunate paid up but Satsuma refused. The British waited a year and eventually sent seven ships from Yokohama to attack Kagoshima.

In the end Kagoshima burnt down and many beautiful buildings and treasures were lost. However the city had already been evacuated and only 5 Japanese were killed as opposed to 11 British.
Under the volcano: Sengan-en Villa with Sakurajima behind

To the British it was just another small war, a very long way away. Probably very few British people ever even heard of it. This was an era when Britain was waging wars and taking colonies all over the globe. It was not long after the Crimean War in which Britain along with France and the Ottoman Empire had defeated Russia while in China the Second Opium War had only recently come to an end. Britannia definitively ruled the waves. But in the annals of Satsuma it looms large as the Anglo Satsuma War.

The long term result was that Satsuma recognised the superior fire power of Britain and wooed the British who were impressed in their turn by the spirit of the Satsuma. They ended up backing them against the shogunate and, as usually happened in those days, the side the British backed won.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is the epic tale of Princess Atsu, Shimazu Nariakira's adopted daughter, whom he sent to Edo to marry the shogun. Out now in paperback. 

For more see

The pictures of Kagoshima Castle, the bombardment of Kagoshima and Charles Richardson at Namamugi are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The rest are mine.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Jersey in WW2 - Organisation Todt

by Deborah Swift

Russian Slave Workers of Organisation Todt

My latest research has been into the German Occupation of Jersey during WW2. At first, the surrender by the British and the occupation by the Germans was polite, and the aim by both sides was to make as little disruption as possible, but inevitably as time progressed, relationships between the German occupiers and British citizens began to break down, leading to many reports of trauma and atrocity.

One of the things that caused fear and distress on the island of Jersey was the treatment of the forced labourers of Oganisation Todt. Named for its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi, Organisation Todt was a civil and military engineering confederation responsible for building infrastructure such as defence works and railways.

Hitler saw The Channel Islands as key to the control of Europe and Great Britain. With this in mind, he became obsessed with the idea that The Channel Islands should not be lost, and became determined to defend them, with the idea that eventually, after Europe was defeated, they would become the ideal base for Nazi families to enjoy holidays in a 'Strength through Joy' (Kraft Durch Freude) Camp. Worryingly, when I searched for more about the KDF, I found it still exists, and has branches in the North of England. Here is a typical Propaganda poster, the only one I could find not emblazoned with swastikas.

In order to defend the islands a massive programme of fortification began, and the Organisation Todt provided the labour. This obsession with Jersey was seen by many Germans as Hitlers inselwahn - island madness. Before Hitler's supposed final victory, the islands were to be a stronghold and submarine base for forays into English waters.

For those living on the island, they had to endure the appearance of nearly 500,000 metres of reinforced concrete to make anti tank walls, gun emplacements, underground barracks and bolt holes. Historic castles were fortified with concrete, and new roads cut through the previously quiet lanes to carry truckloads of building materials, plus the many workers needed for this enormous enterprise. To prevent landing by sea, the beaches were mined by more than 100,000 mines.

The workers for this frenzy of building were imported labourers and prisoners of war from Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. According to Nazi propaganda, the Slav races were untermenschen and treated as slaves to the Nazi building machine.

To house the workers,  camps known as lagers were constructed in several places, all named after famous German poilots such as ‘Richthofen’ and ‘Immelmann’. The treatment of the workers was appalling, and most were on inadequate rations because the food was progressively stolen by German employees and guards - either for their own use, or for sale on the black market. The lorry that brought the inadequate soup to the quarries and construction sites, also took away the corpses of those who had died from malnutrition, cold, exhaustion or disease.

Note the armed guard supervising these construction workers

Jersey people were suddenly reminded through these atrocities, that their occupying force could treat pepople in this barbaric way, and this made the constant fear of the occupation much worse. The Germans shot workers caught stealing potatoes from the fields. Suddenly, their Germman neighbours seemed much less civilized when the treatment of their 'slaves' was exposed. Civilians were warned of the penalties for giving the workers food, but a number of Jersey people did try to rescue them, taking them into their homes at great risk to themselves.

According to 'The IslandWiki' - the Channel Island Website, German records show that by May 1943 there was a total of 16,000 foreign workers in Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney. In November of the same year, numbers had halved to 8,959 and by July 1944 only 817 remained.

Workers from Organisation Todt feature in one of the stories in a new collaboration by writers fron many countries - all proceeds are in aid of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The stories focus on the theme of Resistance, and the collection of ten novellas is available now.

More about the stories here

Sources: The Model Occupation - Madeleine Bunting
The First Casualty - Jersey's Occupation Experience
Jersey Evening Post

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Reading for pleasure

by Antonia Senior

I was a bookish child who became a bookish teenager. I was not entirely the introverted stereotype - there was a sociable wildness as well, and a fondness for boozing, smoking and boys. But always with a book, just in case.

Always. I would leave parties early to read; or if I couldn't escape, hide behind a sofa with a book. I would abandon the dancing, and read in the toilets of dodgy nightclubs, waiting for my friends to be ready to leave. My college boyfriend once almost dumped me when he caught me reading my book underneath the table during lunch with friends. 'But it's A Suitable Boy!' I argued, to little effect.

I'm telling you this to remind myself of that girl - the one who curled into the corners of loud rooms to read; the one who was never, ever bookless. About 60 per cent of the time, the book was historical fiction: Mary Renault and CS Forester, Patrick O'Brian and James Clavell. Some people used those nightclub toilets to shag someone or snort something - I was on a frigate rounding the Horn, or standing shield by shield with my lover against the advancing Spartans.

My shelves of best beloved books I have carried round with me for twenty odd years. Minus my lost, much lamented copy of Last of the Wine.

Sometimes, I need reminding of that girl because the downside of reviewing historical fiction is that it has turned my passion into something which can feel a little joyless. A compulsory TBR pile is daunting. A chore. But it also a privilege, and when I look askance at my 2019 pile building up, book by book, I imagine turning to that girl and telling her that she will one day review historical fiction for The Times. She would swear, and leap for joy, and down a shot of something.

My TBR Jenga
There are books which still make me excited. Books I would hide in toilets to read, in the unlikely event I ever again find myself in a nightclub in Hoxton at 2AM. These are the ten books I loved best in 2018, which appeared in The Times' Christmas pics:

Top Ten 2018
The Black Earth, Philip Kazan (Allison & Busby, £14.99)
Mr Peacock’s Possessions, Lydia Syson (Zaffre, £12.99)
Only Thieves and Killers, Paul Howarth (One, £16.99)
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker, £12.99)
Frieda: The original Lady Chatterly, Annabel Abbs (Two Roads, £14.99)
Little, Edward Carey (Aardvark Bureau, £14.99)
The Poison Bed, EC Fremantle (Michael Joseph, £12.99)
A Treachery of Spies, Manda Scott (Bantam Press, £16.99)
Smile of the Wolf, Tim Leach (Head of Zeus, £18.99)
Dark Water, Elizabeth Lowry (Riverrun, £16.99)

There are plenty of upcoming books that are making my pulse quicken. Top among these is Philip Kazan's The Phoenix of Florence, out in February from Allison & Busby. Kazan's The Black Earth was one of my favourite books of 2018, a love story set in WW2.  He is back on his usual ground of Renaissance Italy in this one. Kazan writes beautifully - and has a rare knack of conjuring joy as deftly as sorrow.

I'm also looking forward to Wakenhyrst, the new adult novel from Michelle Paver, out in April from Head of Zeus. Her previous horror-laced stories were mesmerising. My daughters love her children's books as well, and they have entertained all of us on more than one long car journey, which makes me well disposed towards her.

Blood & Sugar, a debut from Laura Sheperd-Robinson, out in January from Mantle, looks tasty; as does A River in the Trees by Jaqueline O'Mahoney, also out next month from Quercus. I'm hearing good things about The Binding by Bridget Collins, from HarperCollins. What are you looking forward to reading in 2019? What have I missed.

When the TBR jenga gets too high, or I get eye-rollingly irritated by the deluge of books with ghosts in them, or historical celebrities investigating murders (fashions come and go in publishing) I need to imagine a conversation with the young me. 'When you are old and saggy, you will get to review historical fiction for The Times.'

'Fuck me, you're not serious,' she'd say, drawing deep on a B&H. 'You get sent a load of books for free, and you get to review them in a national newspaper, and champion the ones you really, really love. And you get paid for that? And she'd whoop, and cheer, and crack open a beer and settle in the corner of any room for a celebratory read of HMS Surprise. 


Monday, 10 December 2018

The Good Death II – Michelle Lovric

Five years ago I posted a piece about a fascinating and little-known Venetian scuola – The Company of Christ and the Good Death, the kind men who retrieved drowned bodies from the canals and provided funerals for those corpses who were not reclaimed by any family or friend.

On many afternoons, over many years, I’ve stood wistfully outside this 1644 building at San Marcuola and tried to imagine what it was like inside. It was always closed. Until I could see the interior for myself, I could not use it in my latest novel.

My interest was regenerated when I came across this strange painting at the tiny museum above Sant’Apollonia. It shows the Company at work, accompanying a corpse, dressed in extraordinary and rather terrifying costumes. (Apologies for the bad photograph, snatched against the rules.)

Then, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I limped off the vaporetto at San Marcuola. I was tired, full of notes that desperately needed transcribing (before even I myself would be unable to decipher my doctor’s-daughter scrawls). But, for some reason, instead of turning right towards home, I wandered off to the left. And so I came across the entrance of the scuola – not only open for the first time in my experience, but also bedecked with intriguing objects.

The scuola had been opened for a charity sale to support the parish.

The items for sale would be described in Italian as 'cianfrusaglie' - stuff/bits & pieces. A judgmental person might translate 'cianfrusaglie' as 'junk' or even 'frippery'. I am not that person.

You can guess how fast I scampered inside, and how earnestly I asked for permission to take photographs. Here they are.

Surely these are the processional lamps brandished by the Company in the painting above left?

The building’s interior appears greatly foreshortened – there are two rooms and a staircase behind the altar. Surely these steps (below) lead up to the chambers where the bodies were laid out and prepared for burial. What remained up there? I was shooed away from a full inspection when I dared to open the doors for this tantalizing glimpse.

Now my imagination needs to declutter the space and find my way to its original state, with at least three important paintings on the wall, the candle-holders arrayed with fragrant wax and disposed with dignity, men quietly praying.

I’m working on it.

Michelle Lovric's website