Friday, 7 August 2020

The Idea of Justice in Historical Fiction – by Anna Mazzola

Dostoyevsky famously said: ‘The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.’ Winston Churchill said, ‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.’ Or, of course, it’s lack of civilisation. Look at the rising prison numbers in America and the system’s treatment of black people in particular; look at the crisis in our own criminal justice system, and you understand a lot about society and government. Look at the treatment of crime and criminals in a crime fiction novel and you’ll learn a lot about what the author is trying to say, and about the historical era in which they’re writing.

No matter what my novels are ostensibly about – and my second one is about dark folklore on the Isle of Skye, and my next one is about moving clockwork dolls and Versailles – I always end up talking in them about justice and what it means to obtain justice for the victims and survivors. That may be because I’m a criminal justice solicitor, but then again perhaps I ended up in that field because I’m fascinated by how society treats its criminals and its victims.

I’m not alone in finding the topic compelling. We all have highly personal beliefs and emotions about what constitutes a crime; when someone is responsible for their crimes; and how the legal system ought to deal with them. Defining and punishing crime, and protecting citizens from crime, are key roles of government and often lead to public debate: who should we imprison and where and how? How much of a role should victims have in the system? Are there ever circumstances where capital punishment or torture are justifiable? These are debates we’ve always had, only the answers have varied across the ages.

That leads to a rich subject to explore in fiction, where we can walk readers through a search for justice, and through the ambiguities and frustrations along the way.

Window onto the past

What constituted a crime, who constituted a criminal, and how those people were dealt with gives us a unique window onto the past. And punishment of crime can of course be one of the most terrifying uses of state power, capable of ruining lives, producing serious injustice, and sure-ing up the authority of oppressive regimes.

Part of the reason the Tudors have always held such fascination for us is the bloody and tyrannical nature of their so-called justice system, which was as much about settling scores and seeking revenge as it was about attaining justice, something which is depicted most brilliantly in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose showed us the complex and shady power exercised by the Church in the 14th century. Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy exposed the corrupt system that, in late 19th century France led to Alfred Dreyfus being false convicted of espionage, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Antonia Hodgson’s Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity showed us the injustice and inhumanity of the prisons of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The protagonist as finder of justice

As well as exploring the justice systems of the era in which they are set, many historical novels seek to attain justice or revenge or payback or some kind of catharsis for their characters within the terms of the novel.

This is of course in line with the classical detective story model, which gives us the story of the crime, followed by the story of the investigation, involving enquiry, revelation and closure. The rise of detective fiction happened at about the same time as the beginning of detective policing i.e. in the mid 19th century. If crime was the problem, then the solution was the capture and removal of the criminal. That was how justice would be achieved. So in fiction, removing the offender from the scene healed the breach in the social fabric. The problem was solved, be it by Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Jackson Brodie.

The assumption of the detective genre is that not only is there a motive and a true meaning to the crime, but the detective can uncover it, deliver the criminal, achieve justice and narrate the story in a form that transmits that coherence to the awaiting reader. And that is why it’s so satisfying. Because of course real crime is usually not like that, and I say this as someone whose day job is dealing with where things go wrong in criminal investigations and prosecutions. Even if a crime is reported, it may not be properly investigated. Even if it is, the Crown Prosecution Service may decide not to charge. Even if it gets to court, it may collapse. Even if a conviction is secured, the criminal may refuse to explain why they acted as they did, or the sentence they are given may fail, in the eyes of the victim, to reflect the severity of their crimes. There is rarely any neat conclusion to real criminal cases, rarely any feeling among victims that justice has been achieved and normality restored. Often the detective figures are too busy doing other things or too hampered by funding cuts, poor training and huge caseloads to go about achieving a cathartic ending for the victims.

Not so in detective fiction. Or at least, not usually. Many of the detective figures in modern historical mysteries are focussed on achieving justice for victims. ‘Justice, Sergeant Shardlake. I know you have always believed in it, and have sometimes sought it in dark corners.’ So says Lady Elizabeth to CJ Sansom’s Shardlake who is always questing to find justice for the underprivileged. The same is true of Mick Finlay’s Arrowood, forever fighting for the underdog.

Alternative forms of justice 

Of course obtaining justice within a novel does not always meaning sending the criminal to jail and throwing away the key. Particularly where the justice system is shown to be corrupt and unfair, justice may have to be achieved in a different way.

In my second novel, The Story Keeper, I wanted one of the evil characters to be punished, but – because this was the 19th century and the character was an upper class man of status - I knew there was no chance he would ever be arrested, never mind prosecuted, for sexual offences against poor girls. (Looking at some recent cases, it’s arguable things haven’t changed hugely). I spoke to an academic who suggested that, instead, I use the divorce courts that were beginning in that era: the police might not arrest the man, but his crimes could be aired in a different kind of court.

Other historical authors have found other solutions. At the end of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Maud also destroys the thing that she knows will destroy the wicked uncle who has abused her: his library. In The Crimson Petal and the White, Sugar never lives out the bloody revenge she has described in her own writings, but she frees the other woman William Rackham has tormented - his wife, Agnes - and she escapes with the little girl to whom he’s never shown any love.

In some novels, the possible injustice or unfairness of the character’s fate is the point of the novel. When Burial Rites opens, Agnes has already been convicted and sentenced to death for murder. In Jill Dawson’s Fred & Edie and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, both based on real women, unpick the emotional climate of their times and show us – whatever the truth of these cases – these women were damned before their trials even began.

My first novel, The Unseeing, was also based on the life of a real woman, Sarah Gale, who was convicted with her lover of murder in London in 1837. The focus of the novel is whether or not she did in fact carry out the crime she is accused of and if so, why. That is because when I first read about the case I began to wonder whether – due to the inadequacies of the justice system particularly in relation to women, and particularly in relation to so called ‘fallen women’ - there had been a miscarriage of justice. One of the key themes of the novel is what constitutes justice, and the detective character, who is the lawyer appointed to investigate her appeal, must determine what justice means for Sarah.

Perfume by Suskind subverts the ‘justice must be done’ formula altogether. Grenouille escapes the scaffold for the murders he’s committed, but then pours an entire bottle of his final perfume on himself, leading to a group of criminals being so overcome by what they later claim is ‘love’ that they tear him to pieces and eat him.

The impact of the justice system

For Antonia Hodgson, author of the Thomas Hawkins series, it’s not so much about getting justice for her characters as looking at what ‘the pursuit of justice and revenge does to them, how dangerous it can be for their souls (to use an eighteenth-century term). How their life experiences and character lead them to make certain choices, and the consequences of those actions.’

In each of Hodgson’s books, Tom is confronted with a by a (real) authority figure – the Marshalsea keeper William Acton, Queen Caroline, magistrate Sir John Gonson, former chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie - only to discover they are self-serving, corrupt, and/ or hypocritical. ‘In a corrupt world, the question becomes - do you take justice in your own hands? How does that look, and what does it do to you?’ We see Kitty and Tom both impacted by the actions they take, and the abuses that have been done to them. By the time we reach the latest in the series, The Silver Collar, the whole question of justice and revenge becomes central - particularly in the final act. Once Jeremiah and Tom know they have found the enemy, Lady Vanhook, they have to decide what they are going to do. How do they punish her? And in fact Hodgson plays a rather clever game to bring the reader into the story. We must ask what we ourselves think is right.

Punishment without crime

And then there are novels where people are punished, but their punishments don’t fit their crimes, or they aren’t remotely guilty at all.  Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell brings offenders to account, but usually not for the crimes they’ve actually committed. People pay for crime, but not necessarily their own. And Cromwell often commits crimes of his own in order to secure their convictions – surveillance, torture, deceit, fraud. The trilogy is so fascinating because we are never quite sure who to root for – the endlessly resourceful outsider, Cromwell, or the more or less innocent but unlikeable people whose heads end up on the chopping block.

A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel’s first work of historical fiction, is a fascinating study of how what started as a just revolution became a bloody massacre, where the so-called justice system descended - by Robespierre’s era - into an arena for different factions to send each other to the Guillotine. She begins one of her chapters with this quote from Robespierre: ‘Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.’

In fact, by that point, so-called justice was terror and retribution, and it wouldn’t be long before it came for Robespierre himself.

Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. She will be talking about justice and revenge at St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Festival on 15 August 2020. 

Featured image: 'Waiting for the Verdict' by Abraham Solomon (1857) 

Friday, 31 July 2020

Why the eighteenth century? By Gillian Polack

My mind has been in the eighteenth century again. This is a bad habit. I studied the eighteenth century as an undergraduate and never quite escaped it.

When I went to put it into fiction, some years ago, I wondered why I did this. Why, when I was a specialist in an entirely different period, did I keep returning to the eighteenth century? I had to write a novel to find that out. The novel was just released (not a full release yet, COVID-19 has the strangest side effects) and so I find myself in the eighteenth century again, wondering what I learned about it from writing that novel.

It helped that the cover artist (Lewis Morley) is a friend and that he asked me questions about my novel when he designed the miniature street scene. I keep telling myself that this street lives in the Blue Mountains now, and that it perfectly summarises what I learned and why I had to write a novel to learn why I keep returning to the eighteenth century. Let me explain the image – that’s the simplest way of talking this through.

It’s not that what I do and did is complicated, it’s because I love what Lewis did with my world.

First things first: the story is fiction but I used a lot of primary sources and historical studies to write it and I used some of the primary sources in the novel itself.

The vendor in the picture reflects this. Lewis used pictures of London streets from the eighteenth century and then modified them. That modification is the heart of the questions I have been asking myself: our eighteenth century, the one I keep returning to, is never the eighteenth century at all.

The past is gone. We can’t get it back. When we return to it and return to it and return to it, we’re consolidating emotions and memories and creating our eighteenth century. It’s based on a real one. That research matters. Just as my cover picture shows, however, we start with our world and then add a doorway here or change the roofline there. It’s a work in progress. Often it’s a glorious work in progress.

This is why I keep returning there. I want to see what I remember as having enjoyed, sure, but I also want to add what I just discovered when I read a political harangue from the period. I want to use it to change my remembered eighteenth century and make it more like what I think the real one might have been like. I want to watch my eighteenth century grow and I want to look at its relationship with historical sources and with the work of archaeologists and… it’s an ongoing intellectual inquiry that fills a profound emotional need.

One day, I’ll discover why the eighteenth century is one of five places I visit to feed this emotional need. Right now, I’m enjoying the voyage. I’m enjoying it so very much that I created a future world far away from here, where the whole population is involved in a reinvention and re-creation of the eighteenth century. If I can do it, so can they.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Miss Graham's Cold War Cook Book by Celia Rees

It was a very long time coming but it is here at last! Yesterday was publication day! I must confess to thinking that the day would never come. The book was in my mind when I joined the History Girls in June 2011.  I had always written Children's and Young Adult fiction but I knew that this book would be an adult novel. This would be a departure for me and and a challenge and I welcomed the chance to join a group of fellow writers who wrote historical fiction for all ages, including adults. I could not have asked for a more supportive group. Over the years, I've always been able to rely on a sympathetic ear through the book's vicissitudes and I have to thank History Girls, past and present, for their help, encouragement, and their generosity in reading and commenting on the finished book. 

I could have stopped writing at any point, not even started, turned back to YA, the writing world I know, but the idea wouldn't leave me alone. Neither could I change it, introduce some young characters, turn it in to a YA title. I knew it had to be an adult book. It had been brewing away in my mind for years. 

It began with the chance find of an old cookery book among my mother's effects. 

The book was a mystery in itself. I'd never seen it before. When, I opened it, I found clippings and cuttings from newspapers and magazines, some dating back to the war, and handwritten recipes - I recognised my mother's, my aunt's and what I took to be my grandmother's writing. As far as I knew, these were the only written connection between these three women. I had found no letters. I put the book aside. I knew there was something I wanted to write about there but I had no idea what it might be. 

Years later, I was with my daughter in the Espionage Gallery of the Imperial War Museum. I read on a wall panel that after the war, the British Zone in Northern Germany had been a hotbed of spying. One of us said, 'Perhaps Aunty Nancy was a spy!'. We both laughed. My Headmistress maiden Aunt a spy? How ridiculous was that? But then again, it was perfectly possible... 

She'd been in Germany directly after the war, working as an Education Officer for the Control Commission, the civilian branch of the occupying forces,  tasked with bringing some kind of order to the post war chaos. She'd been stationed in Lübeck, practically on the border with the Russian Zone. She had spent the war at home, teaching in Coventry and looking after my grandmother. Then, as soon as the war was over and much to the consternation of the family, she'd upped sticks and gone to Germany. She didn't come back until the mid 1950s. I remembered her coming back bringing presents for everyone, Benson & Hedges cigarettes for my mother, a carved bear for my brother and a stuffed monkey for me. I remembered other things about her. She'd led a bit of a hidden life. She was a fluent German speaker and had had a relationship with a German boy before the war. She'd also spent a lot of time 'jaunting about Europe' according to my mother, accompanying her her cousin who was rumoured to have been involved in something 'hush hush' during the war.      

My Aunty Nancy
I had been her executor, one of the reasons I knew there had been no letters. I'd kept some things that related to her time in Germany. She had sent photographs of ruined cities and sunken ships in bombed harbours; a shocking addition to the family album. I found more in a German chocolate box. 

I'd also kept her passports, so I knew when she had entered and left Germany.


Among the photographs were holiday snaps of Bavarian villages, ox carts, two women walking along a street festooned with swastikas and a photograph of a young man in a cricket sweater. Could that be her friend Karl? 

I knew enough about life to create the skeleton of a story. If she had been a spy, then who would she have been working for and why? What would she be finding out? If she was going to be sending messages via recipes, to whom would she be sending? I needed to know more about post war Germany and what was going on there. As for the coded messages and the recipes, it would make sense for the exchange to be between women. 

The more I found out, the more possible it became. There were, indeed, women involved in post war work in Germany. Vera Atkins, ex SOE, working with War Crimes, trying to find her missing agents.

Vera Atkins
Krystyna Skarbek

I already knew about the women who had worked for SOE during the war. I had read ex History Girl Clare Mulley's excellent biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, The Spy Who Loved. Suddenly a real plot was forming, new characters arriving and Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook was born. 

Celia Rees
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Friday, 17 July 2020

Gold in them there hills - the Roman hunt for treasure in Wales - by Ruth Downie

Those of us who have been watching “The Luminaries” know exactly where gold comes from. It’s found by a ragged creature in a broad-brimmed hat who spends hours squatting by a stream, shaking a large flat dish and staring into it.

Perhaps that’s how the earliest miners worked at Dolaucothi in South Wales, but who they were, what they did or when they did it remains a mystery. Unfortunately for archaeologists, later miners and quarrymen tend to hack away the work of earlier ones, and a Roman mine manager with professional engineers, plenty of labour and official backing tended to hack away more than most.

When the legions turned up in the first century AD and declared South Wales to be Under New Management (a statement greeted with less than universal joy, and followed by much bloodshed) it was inevitable that they would commandeer the local resources for their own benefit. What could be more glamorous to commandeer than gold?

The reality was less glamorous than the end product. Especially for the poor souls who were condemned to tramp up the never-ending steps of a waterwheel in the dripping dark in order to keep the workings below from flooding. We know about them because some 1800 years later, modern miners found part of the wooden wheel in a Roman underground chamber. Here’s a scale model:  

The hollow rim of the wheel is divided into compartments which fill with water when they’re at the bottom. As the wheel turns over at the top, the water spills out and away down another channel. To add to the woes of the operator, it’s not even very efficient. Now imagine doing it underground with no electric light:

The fragment of wheel is one of the few finds that is incontrovertibly Roman because the wood has been dated. Much of the rest of the evidence at Dolaucothi is delightfully enigmatic. My husband and I were were very glad of the guide on our trip, because while we would have enjoyed a bracing country walk, we would have strolled past most of the sights with no idea of what we were looking at.

Here, for instance, is a shot of the peaceful valley where the National Trust has repurposed twentieth-century mine buildings to welcome visitors.

Except… that is not a valley. That is a massive opencast mine, and the valley floor (once used as a caravan site) is flat because it’s made up of backfill.

The tunnels below and around it are the work not only of Romans but of Victorians, Edwardians and miners of the 1930’s. (The Trust also offers a splendid Victorian mine tour.) What united them all is the search for this:

Clearly in need of some further refinement. Below is the amount of rock needed to yield enough gold for a ring.

Yes, all those truckloads to make one ring. No wonder Gollum thought it was precious.

It’s sometimes said that the ancient world barely bothered with mechanization because slaves (of whom more in a moment) could be forced to do all the heavy work, but that’s not necessarily true. Consider the stone below, which is within sneezing distance of the mine.

It may be the pillow of five Celtic saints who fell asleep in the mine after taking refuge from a thunderstorm. Despite the removal of their pillow, complete with the indentations of their heads, the saints are sleeping still, awaiting the return of King Arthur.  (Or the arrival of a pious Bishop. Sources differ.) This is why it’s called the Pumsaint (Five Saints) Stone.

On the other hand, it could be the anvil from a Roman water-powered stamping mill, built to crush the stone ready for processing.

To justify using a machine like that, rather than a gang of workers wielding lump hammers, they must have been digging out a LOT of rock. Here’s where some of it came from:

Even a duffer like myself can see it’s a tunnel, but why it’s that unusual shape and size and runs more or less straight through the hill and out the other side is anybody’s guess. An overengineered drain? A short cut to carry ore through the hill instead of over it? An exceptionally neat access to a seam of gold-bearing quartz? Theories abound.

We might sit and ponder them beside this tranquil pool...

…which is part of the massive and sophisticated system of water engineering that once surrounded the site, extending for miles out into the hills beyond. Water power, stored and then suddenly released, would have been used for earthmoving on a spectacular scale. Apparently there’s still gold in the pond, but there are also so many noxious chemicals that removing it safely would cost more than it’s worth.

Leaping forward through time - this is what used to be a Norman castle motte beside the pit…

…until archaeological digging proved it to be a very neat Roman spoil heap. I like to think it would have pleased whoever organized the very square tunnel.

Which brings me to the question of who did all this work. The fort just up the road tells us that Rome was in charge, but were the miners themselves locals or incomers, contracted or conscripted? They may have been condemned criminals, branded in the middle of the forehead, fitted with heavy chains, and sentenced to a grim servitude from which few were expected to return.

I’d like to think that somewhere nearby, a cemetery with some answers awaits excavation.

In the meantime, here’s something we can all identify with certainty - the site of the local Roman fort. Also, by a happy coincidence, the pub.

The Dolaucothi Arms is owned by the National Trust and was Countryfile’s Country Pub of the Year in 2019. It’s the perfect place to end a day scrambling around the hills in search of long-dead gold-diggers.

To find out more, visit

Ruth Downie writes a series of crime novels set mostly in Roman Britain and featuring Roman medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla. When she is not writing her happiest moments are spent wielding an archaeological trowel.








Friday, 10 July 2020

Why I’m not busy doing publicity for my new novel - Michelle Lovric

It’s hard to write or speak right now without mentioning Covid, so I’m not even going to try to avoid the subject. Here’s the question all writers are asking one another: have you blossomed into lockdown creativity? Me, I can’t say, objectively. Yes, I have written a lot – at least thirty thousand words of something that might be prose, but I don’t know if it’s emotionally legible, let alone good. I may not know until we’ve come out of this dreamlike time and can think clearly again.

I have loved writing for a poetry seminar led by the wickedly inspiring Christina Dunhill. We’ve been working on Ghazal, Rubai, Rhyme Royal and other contortions, form being, in my opinion, the poets’ Sudoku. (In the case of sestina or pantoum, form is more like the poets’ Rubik’s Cube). Zoom works surprisingly well for a poetry seminar, with much deployment of the chat function, so there’s lots of subtext, literally. The screen has exploded with talent, passion and humour. Christina’s group will be one of my best memories of the lockdown. Meanwhile, my own far-flung family has resorted to a new post-Covid poetic form on WhatsApp – Gangsta Haiku, which involves a lot of swearing and, I fear, disrespecting of one another’s cats. Our cats are also voiced, and they turn out to be quite outstandingly rude. (For shame, Caramella, Guppy, Jessie. For shame.)

However, I have spent most of my lockdown time bare-knuckle wrestling with a planning application presented to the City of London as a 'simple reinstatement' of historic Swan Lane Pier by London Bridge at the heart of the Thames.

I'd support the reinstatement of the old pier, of course.

You can read about its colourful history on this excellent website:

If only we could reinstate the Swan Lane Pier of Samuel Pepys, the old Swan Upping ceremony and the 'Waterman, naked all but his shirt, rowed in a Butcher’s Tray from the Old Swan Stairs, to Greenwich, for a Wager of four Guineas, and won the same.'

But I'd also support a new pier with a gentle footprint on the river - a pier that ran on solar, tide or wind renewables, providing a mixed hub for public transport, safe water sports for London's children and adults and a responsible truly green freight offering to ease road congestion. Who wouldn't be in favour of giving Londoners more free access to our river and City commuters new healthier journeys? I'd support more pier work for the Company of Watermen and Lightermen who must have been hard hit by the virus: in a thousand years, the Thames cannot have looked as glassy and silent as it's been in the last few months, but the beauty has surely come at the cost of some hardship. More than anything, I'd love to see the return of the old Royal Sovereign and Belle steamers. If only I liked fish-paste, I'd love to sit on deck eating fish-paste sandwiches from a linen handkerchief while I traced the Thames all the way out to sea and into Yarmouth, a jolly whole-day trip starting off at Old Swan Lane ...

The current proposal, however, is not for a reinstatement of old Swan Lane Pier. In fact, the plan was revealed last year as a massive reinvention of the site as private pier complex specifically designed to host Europe’s biggest party boat, the Ocean Diva. (Everything you need to know about style and scale lies in the name. You can look on YouTube if you want to see the parties). This would be a private pier, joint-funded by the Ocean Diva itself, and would be privately run too. With up to1000 partygoers filling the single narrow ramp between pier and shore up to four times a day, there just physically couldn't be much of a window for kayakers or scheduled public transport or regular freight. Water-sport and public transport have been scoped out anyway; the freight offering, shall we say, bespeaks the core operation and raison d'être of this particular scheme.

Moreover, to accommodate the Diva's 282-foot length, the developers would need to dig a kind of private underwater harbour into the Thames, quaintly styled as a 'pocket'. This would entail dredging 2200 cubic metres of sediment so contaminated with lead and mercury that it's too dangerous to dump at sea. This vast dredge would take place on the very foreshore of Roman London, a Tier One site of archaeological interest. Lara Maiklem devotes a whole chapter to this stretch of foreshore in her beautifully-written book Mudlarking.

Yet, via various planning loopholes, the Ocean Diva might well arrive in London unscrutinised as to its aesthetics (and effects on protected views) and unenforceable as to its emissions and its noise. Given the number and size of the loopholes, it's easy to see how the Thames must have seemed a most attractive site for this kind of development. So efforts to resist this one mega-boat's dedicated pier are not just about shining a light on a single pier's fate but really about trying to futureproof the historic river – London’s biggest public realm – against large-scale privatisation and commodification, while still allowing the river and those who work on it to thrive economically. 

 As followers of this site will know, I have long campaigned against the cruise ship invasion of Venice. I have seen what it has taken from the city without giving much back except a tourist monoculture and an air quality disaster, not to mention damage to infrastructure, as in last year's terrifying incident when the MSC Opera went out of control and collided with another boat and the shore, injuring five people. Budapest was not so lucky: on May 29th last year, 28 were killed when a large cruiser ran down a smaller boat in front of the Hungarian parliament building on the Danube. Megaships and narrow metropolitan waters: just not safe. 

My colleagues at NoGrandiNavi have been sad and sorry to hear about the Ocean Diva. So have residents in Amsterdam, home of the Ocean Diva. In both cases, they  have warned that if we let one megaship in, soon there will be fleets of them. Use Venice, a Venetian friend urged, as a terrible example of what can happen. The Ocean Diva team has not acceded to our request to supply images of their boat on the Thames. A planning loophole means they don't have to do so. Instead, here's a Canaletto adapted by artist Vince McIndoe for NGN, to show the incongruous scale and aesthetics of the megaships compared to the fragile beauty of Venice. 

The Thames has this going for it: there's a huge community who cares about it very much and that community is paying attention. So many people have taken a good hard look at the scheme proposed at Swan Lane and have understood its wider implications. Living Bankside has set up a web page to explain the issues. Amanda Craig (whose utterly absorbing new novel, The Golden Rule, just out) set up a petition on Artist Déirdre Kelly, who lives in Venice, created this beautiful collage. It shows how the heart of the old Thames needs to be protected. 

There's a deliberate reference to the NoGrandiNavi campaign logo (right) in the typography above, as there are many ways in which the Thames and the Grand Canal can be seen as twin waterways at the moment: both beleaguered by those who would make money of them at the expense of the environment and liveability. For this reason, passionate letters of protest about the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane have flooded in from Venetian academics and Venetophiles all over the world.

Nor do the Thames and its many concerned riverside villages lack for local support: Southwark Cathedral, the Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tower of London have all written meaningful and powerful objections to this particular iteration of Swan Lane Pier, as have many thoughtful writers who love our river, archaeologists and naturalists.

While Swan Lane Pier has edged closer to its decision date in the City of London, the publication date of my own new children’s novel has also been approaching. But it's been doing so on slippered feet. This is not just because of the dissonant noise around Swan Lane Pier but also because everything (else) seems muffled at the moment, doesn’t it? It has been muffled by the quiet of the streets, the silence of the Thames below me, the absence of aeroplanes and the shuttered bookshops. To lessen the sense of writerly isolation, I’ve been exchanging pre-pub thoughts on this strange situation with fellow History Girl, Celia Rees, who has a compelling adult historical out soon: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook. I was fortunate to have a preview copy to enliven the beginning of the lockdown. I hope very much that Miss Graham is just the first volume of a trilogy, because Celia has a gift for an engaging female character and there are two other ladies whose stories I’d be fascinated to know.

Apart from writing and reading and Thames-ing, I was invited to participate in the celebrations of the Great Get Together, inspired by Jo Cox. Our usual wondrous street party was coronavirused, but Bankside Open Spaces Trust hosted a celebration broadcast across a network of radio stations including Resonance FM 104.4 , K2K Radio and SOAS Radio on June 21st. The Water’s Daughter (published yesterday) is my sixth novel for children – and yes, I shall eventually get to it! – but it’s my second Venetian children’s book that has gained more attention in the last few weeks. I was interviewed about it by Tim Wood for The Great Get Together, because of the novel's rather shudder-inducing prescience.
The Mourning Emporium opens in late 1900 with a disastrous ice-flood that reduces Venice to ruins. This is followed by a pandemic that is called the Half-Dead disease because it makes people fade away and die. The Mourning Emporium follows a tribe of orphaned Venetian children who sail in an old wooden boat to London … only to find that the Half-Dead disease has got there ahead of them. And their boat, the Scilla, is slapped in quarantine. 

The strange thing is that The Mourning Emporium was written ten years ago and it’s strange not just because of Covid but also because of disastrous flood that swept through Venice in November 2019, just before the virus took hold.  For The Great Get Together, a few pages describing the Scilla’s arrival in London were beautifully read by the talented Douglas Clarke-Wood, who really made the scene come alive with wonderful Italian accents. The piece of music I chose to accompany my interview was this.

The real pandemic – the one not invented by writerly imagination – is loosening its grip in Venice now. The city is determined to come out of Covid better than it went in. Venezia Fu-Turistica is a new idea, expressed in a day of peaceful marching, banners and speeches on June 13th. It is hard to translate this pun. It means in one sense ‘Venice was touristical’ but you can also run the words together as Venezia Futuristica … meaning ‘Futuristic Venice’, a better city conceived for a new future. The plea is that the post-pandemic rebirth should be as a different kind of Venice, one where the principles of social and climate justice are not just greenwashing but actually embedded in society and infrastructure.

Many in this country are talking about similar ideas. Which in turn raises the question: exactly what kind of reinstatement of Swan Lane Pier would be compatible with a green (and not a greenwashed) campaign to Build Back Better? Or in line with Poets for the Planet's Begin Afresh campaign? Or on the same page as so many other initiatives that give hope of better, cleaner, quieter, inclusive, less secretive, more genuine, more wholesome, more respectful, more considerate culture post-Coronavirus? In this context, a private and privately run bespoke pier for a mega-partyboat ... feels like an uneasy fit and a sadly lost opportunity for a true mixed-use pier accessible to all.

As our community organisation Living Bankside says, 'Covid 19 has thrown into relief how important it is for people to have access to natural space and particularly public realm, because not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden or balcony of their own ... The Thames is London’s biggest public realm and should belong to everyone. Let’s not let it get commodified. Let’s learn from Venice before it’s too late and keep the mega-ships out of the heart of our city.'

Finally, back to The Water’s Daughter, which is what I really should be writing about today of all days, and about which there would be plenty to say, at any other time.

However, I have detained the Patient Reader far too long already. 

Long story short then: according to my publishers, 'It’s an exquisitely imagined fantasy novel about a girl who can see history with her touch.’ It’s also about a vengeful Arabian Djinnir, a talking leopardess and a fleet of ferocious Barbary pirates whose surprisingly young leader bears a deep and understandable grudge against Venice. The Water’s Daughter also brings back the rude and greedy Venetian mermaids of the previous books, winged cats and I Fedeli,  a secretive organisation that promises to protect Venice from the water, but instead lines its own pockets and leaves her perilously vulnerable. The name 'Fedeli' is ironic: it can translate as 'Those of Good Faith', or 'The Faithful Ones'. I came up with the idea for this book back in 2013. Any similarities between I Fedeli in The Water’s Daughter and those whose corruption bankrupted Venice’s real life flood defence programme … and any similarities between I Fedeli and those whose financial interests may have tipped them in favour of embracing the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane… are purely quite interesting. 

With the help of designer Helena Wee, I’ve prepared some new Water's Daughter pages for my website. Once more, they include the haunting photographs of the talented David Winston, with whom I have collaborated in previous blogs. 

Last word goes to Guppy of Tokyo, because it really takes an international village to take care of our Thames. Other protest cats are available, on the Peaceful Thames facebook page.

Michelle Lovric’s website

The Water’s Daughter web pages

The Water’s Daughter

The Living Bankside pages are here  (and include a guide to making a quick and effective objection to City of London Planning).

The Ocean Diva petition can be signed here


Twitter: Please search for hashtag #NOOCEANDIVA to interact and retweet