Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Paris by the book, by Carol Drinkwater

Paris in the spring is like no other time of year, no other place on earth. April in Paris.

Grace, my young English heroine in THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, who is trying to escape the scars of her violent upbringing, is in search of adventure and perhaps a romantic encounter. When she steps off the train from London into the unknown exotic world of Paris in April 1968 she has no idea what lies ahead, the future that awaits her. 

I have spent this last weekend wandering the streets of the Left Bank because my husband, Michel, has a festival in progress - the first GrecDoc has been unveiled; his newly-founded festival of modern Greek documentary films is underway.  I am not in the cinema watching all the films because I have been on the jury to choose the winning three, so I have seen and enjoyed them already. They represent a fascinating window into modern Greek life and its recent, sometimes turbulent history.

This photo was taken by the young Greek director, Stathis Galazoulas, during the screening on Friday of his award-winning short film, My Grandmother, the Tobacco Grower. 

The audience is assembling for the very first Grecdoc festival in Paris
photo: Stathis Galazoulas, March 2019 

I had considered writing about modern Greece and some of the fascinating facts I have learned and discovered through these films, but I am going to leave that subject for another day, another blog. Who knows, another novel?
Because, the publication of my novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF  is drawing close, 16th May - as I write, there are 53 days to go - I want to touch upon the role Paris plays in the book. If you read my blog of last month you will know that vital sections of the book are set in Paris in 1968. 

During April and May '68, the lead up to and the unfolding of the students' uprising. It was a time of hope, of dreams of peace and a new order. A vision of a fairer world.
It was the Sixties, hippies, flower power, anti-Vietnam War peace marches, the murder of Martin Luther King.

Michel's Grecdoc festival is being screened at a fabulous little cinema on the Left Bank at 5, rue des Écoles. Le Grand Action is an art house cinema in that it is not in the business of showing the latest American blockbusters. It opens its doors to lesser known films and to small festivals such as GrecDoc.  It is in the heart of Paris's student land. Further along the street is the famous Sorbonne University. This area of the city is central to the action of the '68 sections of THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF.  It is the stage upon which many scenes are set. 

Although I know this area well and over the years have spent many hours walking these streets, this weekend I began to see the quartier anew. Perhaps because the structuring and writing of the novel is behind me now and I know these characters so well. I have lived with them, inhabited their hopes and dreams for the best part of two years. This weekend, I could look quietly at all that was around me, through my characters' eyes rather than my own. I was pacing the very same streets, gazing upon buildings, statues, parks, seeing them as Grace, the novel's central character, and Peter, one of the two young men she meets during that summer of '68, (both of whom impact dramatically on the rest of her life, but in very different ways), might have seen them.

                                          The front façade of the Sorbonne University, Paris 5, 
                                                              Founded in 1257.

Peter is a student at the Sorbonne, studying politics and social sciences, when he first meets sixteen-year-old Grace, on her first day in Paris. He might have walked in and out of these great doors almost on a daily basis. Perhaps Grace waited outside for him before they went off to explore the city? During the uprisings in May '68, the Rector of the Sorbonne locked the doors of the university, in response to a peaceful student demonstration, thus shutting out the students from their belongings and lectures halls. This act was partially responsible for the escalation from civil urest to street violence, the involvement of the police, the building of the barricades and, after days of riots, the occupation of the university by the students themselves.

Grace and Peter were participants in these events. For a young girl of sixteen, May 68 was a life-changing experience. Grace was waking up to some of the possibilities that life could offer her, to her own sexuality and the power of her own convictions and voice. Women's rights, sexual liberties. A better education system. Respect and opportunities for the working classes. The rights of the people.

Across the street, still strolling along the rue des Écoles, is a fine statue I have never noticed before. Michel de Montaigne, one of France's most renowned philosophers, famous for establishing the essay as a literary genre. I stood in the spring sunshine taking photos of the statue, asking myself might Grace have lingered here, leaning against this statue, reading a book, while waiting for Peter? Or might she have walked right by it on many occasions as I have done?

                                  Michel de Montaigne  1533 - 1592. Renaissance philosopher.

On one of my recent afternoon strolls along rue des Écoles, I took a right hand turn, descending to Place Maubert (where I lived with Michel in the tiniest and most romantic of studios when I first came to Paris). It's famous food market was in full swing. In the bar, Feignes Alain, on the corner of rue Frédéric Sauton and 18 Place Maubert, after an incident occurs during the demonstrations, Grace stops to buy herself a glass of wine. She is shaken by what she has witnessed and what has befallen her personally. The shadows of real life are beginning to cloud over her. Her dreams of a carefree summer are slipping away. It is time to quit the city, she feels, and travel south in search of sun and new adventures.

Alone and unnerved by the rising violence in the capital, Grace eventually catches up with Peter and a few of his comrades at Chez George, 11 rue des Canettes, Paris, 6e arrondissement. They are deep in conversation, mulling over the escalating events. Chez George was one of the students' regular hangouts in the Sixties. Today, it has become almost a Left Bank institution and you can still enjoy its 'great vibes', a decent meal or simply a glass of wine. Late in the evenings it is a very lively joint. Downstairs, in the candle-lit cave, where the music rocks, young locals come to dance and swing. Today, it is in the very capable hands of George's daughter and his grandson, Jean François. Do pop in, if you are in Paris.
While in the vicinity, why not visit one of my favourite churches in Paris, Saint Sulpice? The present church is the second on the site. The original was Romanesque. The one that dominates Place Saint-Sulpice today was founded in 1646. Its interior is quite daunting, exceedingly high ceilings, little ornamentation and usually, outside the time of Mass when its great and very splendid organ is played, eerily quiet. The Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were both baptised here. Victor Hugo celebrated his marriage to Adéle Foucher within these great stone walls.
If you are a visitor to Paris, Sunday organ concerts are held regularly in the church.

But I digress.... Saint Sulpice plays no role in the novel except as a landmark when Grace is discovering her new city while searching for a place to stay.

A short walk away is the rue Guy-Lussac. In a studio in this street, Peter and Grace camp out, sleeping on the floor of a fellow student's pad while he, arrested during the student riots, is being held in a prison cell. This rather attractive little street played an important role in the '68 students' revolution. In the novel we find Grace here, spending back-breaking hours, working all through the night, building barricades in the company of other students and citizens. By this point in the story, the revolution has caught the attention of the nation. Parisians from all walks of life were shocked by the clamp down and the violence shown by de Gaulle's military-minded government towards the young. Many joined the cause, which escalated into violent clashes with the police who used tear gas and brutality to quell the growing force of the voice of the people.

Unfortunately, the uprising and the national strikes that followed were short-lived. By mid-June, de Gaulle had the country back under control. Elections were called and his government was brought back with a greater majority.

However, the long view of history shows us that it was not in vain. Many historians claim that May '68 transformed France, bringing it - kicking and screaming perhaps - into the second half of the twentieth-century. It is seen as a cultural turning point, "a social revolution rather than a political one." (Alain Geismar.)

For a young girl like Grace who suffered violence in her childhood, the street fighting is too confronting. She needs to get out, to move on.

Peter and Grace's flight from Paris during the turbulent month of May '68 leads them to the south, to a secluded house on a cliff's edge not too far from Marseille. It is the house of Peter's aunt, a renowned artist. Overlooking the most spectacular landscape of sandy bays and rocky inlets, Grace believes she will find the harmony she has been seeking.

                A few photos I took of the Calanques area when I was researching the novel.

But here in the south, Grace meets another young man and falls under his spell. Here, at the House on the Edge of the Cliff, which stands high above these magnificent bays, witnessing all, summer arrives. The days grow hot and emotions reach a fever pitch until a tragedy ensues and Grace's life is never to be the same again ...

Over the years right up to the present time, when Grace looks back on that summer of '68, it is not the weeks in Paris that haunt her but the months that followed ...

THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF is published on 16th May.

The publishers are saying: "Carol Drinkwater's epic story of enduring love and betrayal, from Paris in the Sixties to the present day."

It can be preordered and shipped worldwide free from

I hope you will read and enjoy it.


Monday, 25 March 2019

Strawberry Hill by Miranda Miller

   Last month I was lucky enough to catch the last day of an exhibition called Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill.  Horace Walpole was a great original, the son of Robert Walpole, a powerful, corrupt statesman and de facto first prime minister.  Horace had exquisite, if camp, taste and inherited enough money to indulge it. Walpole has been called the father of British art history as well as the inventor of gothic and he was also, as the  author of The Castle of Otranto, the founder of gothic fiction. In this portrait by  Rosalba Carriera we see Horace as a rich young aristocrat in Venice on his Grand Tour, looking fey and delicate with  his powdered face.

   He never married or had any illegitimate children and is generally assumed to  have been gay.  At the age of twenty-three his father pulled strings to get him elected as Whig MP for Callington in Cornwall, a seat he held for thirteen years without ever visiting it. When he was about thirty he bought a small villa in Twickenham, originally called "Chopped Straw Hall", which was not nearly elegant enough for the fastidious Walpole. He He called it “my little plaything” and spent the rest of his life transforming it, filling it with his wonderful art collection.  This was not just a private collection; he used to charge a guinea for a tour by his housekeeper. although he insisted that no children were to be admitted. "The highest personages of the realm," including the royal family, came to visit his creation. In a letter to a friend he complained: "I have but a minute's time in answering your letter, my house is full of people, and has been so from the instant I breakfasted, and more are coming- in short, I keep an inn; the sign, the Gothic Castle...my whole time is passed in giving tickets for seeing it, and hiding myself when it is seen- take my advice, never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court, everybody will live in it but you. " He loved jokes and once wrote,The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”  He used to receive guests wearing this wooden trompe l'ceil cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons. 

   After his death in 1797 the house and contents were inherited by a cousin.  After  a famous  sale in 1842 that lasted for twenty-four days all four thousand objects in his collection -  paintings, miniatures, furniture, coins  - disappeared into private collections around the world. Luckily Horace kept meticulous records of everything he collected and wrote to a friend: “How merry my ghost will be, and shake its ears to hear to hear itself quoted as a person of consummate prudence!” 

   A brilliant art detective, Silvia Davoli, spent years tracing his collection and,for a few months,  a hundred and fifty works  from fifty-five lenders brought this unique house back to life. Walpole  coined the word  "gloomth" to describe the mixture of warmth and gloom he wanted to create in his fake ancestral castle, which was complete with an armoury and battlements. The lavish use of deep red, as in the gallery you can see below, creates a sympathetic atmosphere.  He wrote of it, rather disingenuously, “Well! But I begin to be ashamed of my magnificence.  Strawberry is growing sumptuous in its latter day...in truth my collection was too great already to be lodged humbly.”

   He loved objects that told a story, the more macabre the better. For example:  a clock Henry V111 gave Anne Boleyn on the morning of their marriage; Mary Tudor’s hair;  an Aztec mirror which Queen Elizabeth’s necromancer, Dr John Dee, is supposed to have used in his supernatural research. Hogarth, one of his favourite artists, visited the the convicted triple murderer Sarah Malcolm in her cell and painted a sympathetic record of her. Another exhibit was Hogarth’s painting of a production of John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera, which satirized the corruption of Hioace’s father Robert .

   This  portrait of Horace aged about forty by Joshua Reynolds suggests complexity, wit and subtlety.  He holds a print of an imperial Roman  marble eagle.  He loved anuimals and once wrote, “ I know that I have had friends who would never have vexed or betrayed me, if they had walked on all fours. His beloved  cat was also resurrected in this remarkable exhibition;  when his pet tabby fell into a tub while trying to catch goldfish and drowned, Walpole commissioned his old schoolfriend Thomas Gray to write a poem in its memory,  Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes:

on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow.

  The blue and white Chinese porcelain  vase refersred to in this poem could be seen in the hall of the house. This famous poem was first published by the Strawberry Hill press, which Walpole set up in 1757 in the grounds. Here he printed his own works and also designed his own typeface,   His four volume Anecdotes of Painting in England is still admired by art historians and his poshumously published memoirs are very entertaining and shrewd about politics.
   Other exhibits were a portrait of the Percy sisters by Van Dyck; a formidable portrait of Catherine de Medici and her children; a double portrait of Henry VIII and Francis I and a cabinet full of Walpole's miniature collection, which was  considered one of the best in Europe. He also supported many female artists,  including Anne Damer and Diana Beauclerc. Like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and John Soane’s museum in Lincoln Inn Fields, Strawberry Hill is imbued with the eccentric personality of one man.

                                                                      A boy as a Shepherd by Peter Lely

Sunday, 24 March 2019

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS: How tall were the people of Medieval England? by Elizabeth Chadwick

Medieval people were small and weedy right?

Here's a list from the London and Middlesex Archaeology Society's publication The Cemetery of St Nicholas Shambles.  The cemetery, now occupied by the British Telecom Centre in Newgate Street, London, was excavated between 1975 and 1979 and consisted of 234 skeletons dating from the 11th and 12th centuries and comprised the first large group of human burials to be reported from the city of London.  The book discusses the remains in detail, but what I find particularly interesting is that it gives details from other cemetery excavations and lists the average heights of the males and females buried.  It's something of an eye opener.  So often when the matter of the height of medieval people is discussed on online forums, there is a notion that they were stunted and small.

From the archaeological evidence this is far from the truth. Yes they had food insecurity due to periods of famine caused by weather and war and animal sickness, but when all was going well, the men and women of medieval England were of the same height more or less as the people of the early and mid 20th century.

At the cemetery of St. Nicholas Shambles itself, the average height of the men came out at 5ft 8inches with a range from 5ft ins to 6ft 2 ins.  For the women the average was 5ft ins (my own height) and a range of 4ft 11ins to 5ft 8ins.

However, don't just take the one cemetery as an example.  The book posts samples from another 16 excavations.

Bideford on Avon. Dateline Saxon: Men 5ft 7.5ins.  Women 5ft 1.5 ins large sample
North Elmham Norfolk. Dateline Saxon. Men 5ft 7 3/4 ins.  Women 5ft 2ins.  20 people
Porchester Castle. Saxon.   Men 5ft 91/4 ins.  Women 5ft 5ins.  15 people
St. Helen Aldwark, York. 10th-16thc. Men 5ft 6.5 ins. Women 5ft 2ins.  Large sample.
Durham Cathedral. 12th c. 5ft 7.5  No women. 20 people.
Pontefract Priory. 12th-14th century. Men 5ft 7.5.  No women 34 people
Wharram Percy. Medieval. Men 5ft 6ins.  No women. Large sample
Greyfriars Chester. Medieval.  Men 5ft 6.5 ins.  Women 5ft 3ins 20 people
Austin Friars Leicester. Medieval. Men 5ft 10 ins. Women 5ft 3ins. 13 people
Bordesely Abbey. Medieval.  Men 5ft 8ins.  No women. 19 people
Rothwell Charnel House.  Medieval. Men 5ft 5in.  Women 5ft 2ins.  Large sample.
Dominican Priory Chelmsford.  Medieval. Men 5ft 7ins. Women 5ft 1.5 25 people
Guildford Friary Surrey.  Medieval.  Men 5ft 8ins.  Women 5ft 3ins 56 people
St Mary's Priory Thetford. Men 12th-13thc. 5ft 9 3/4 ins.  No women. 5 people.
South Acre Norfolk. 12th-14th century.  Men 5ft 6ins.  Women 5ft 1.5ins. 5 people
St Leonard's, Hythe, Kent. 14th-15thc.  Men 5ft  8 ins.  Women 5ft 2 ins.  Large sample.

The average height of a British male in 2010 was slightly taller at 5ft 9ins but it's not a vast difference. The average height of a British female was 5ft 3ins, so virtually no change.  Aft 5ft 2 ins myself I'd fit into the Medieval world perfectly!
As an incidental, chronicler Gerald of Wales tells us that King John was somewhat under average height. When his tomb was opened and his body measured, he proved to be 5ft 6.5ins tall, which would accord with general data. Apparently his brother Geoffrey was on the short size of average too.  Their father Henry II was average and the other two sons, Henry the Young King and Richard (the Lionheart) were of above average height.

information plaque I photographed at the Museum of London a few years ago.

Elizabeth Chadwick is an award-winning bestselling author of historical fiction.  Her most recent novel Templar Silks was recently published in paperback by Sphere, and will be available from Sourcebooks in the USA from June 2019.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

King’s Residence or Riot Control? - by Judith Allnatt

In the Northamptonshire village of Weedon, where I live, there stands an imposing garrison that shipped out arms to Wellington’s forces in the Napoleonic wars. As well as the massive storehouses still in existence for canon, muskets and gunpowder, there were once barracks, hospital, chapel, and three spacious white brick buildings known as the ‘Pavilion’, which are said to have been built as a retreat for George III, should Old Boney invade.

Other Ordnance Establishments nearer the coast, such as the Tower of London or Faversham Powder Mills, risked being destroyed or captured, whereas Weedon is pretty much in the centre of England and is about as far away from the sea as one could possibly get. Therefore, it seems plausible that the decision to build here could have been influenced by a need to spirit the king away to the safer Midlands.

He would have been well defended. Five hundred soldiers manned the place (suddenly the village had thirty pubs!) and vast quantities of firearms and ammunition were constantly being shipped in and out by canal (barges being smoother carriers of barrels of gunpowder than carts).

On the other side of the case, it has been mooted that the King’s retreat theory is just a Royal Rumour, suggested by the palatial appearance of the white buildings on the hill, which were only ever intended for the Governor and his Principal Officers.

Adherents to this argument point out that a site where every second ‘blast house’ was filled with earth in case an explosion should occur and bring them all down like dominoes seems an unlikely haven. In government plans outlined by the prime minister on Christmas Day 1803, it was stated that, in the event of an invasion, the king would lead his army and move to Chelmsford if the enemy landed in Essex, or to Dartford, if they arrived in Kent.

When researching for my novel, The Silk Factory, I became fascinated by the question of why the massive garrison had been built here, in Weedon. If it was not for the purpose of putting distance between the King and Bonaparte’s invading armies, why choose the Midlands? It didn’t seem practical that Arms stored here would have to travel long distances to port in order to reach their destinations abroad. I started to look at what was going on in the area at the time and to form a new and somewhat more sinister theory of my own.

At that time, there was terrible poverty and government fears of revolution were sharpened by events in France. Textile workers in the Midlands were dreadfully exploited: children started work as young as six, and men and women laboured long hours for starvation wages. On top of that, employers were bringing in new machines that were putting men out of work, some of which produced inferior quality goods. (The word ‘shoddy’ originally meant the thin, low-grade silk stockings that wide frame machines produced). In desperation, textile workers broke into premises and smashed the looms.

The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 made it a hanging offence to damage an employer’s looms, yet poverty was so extreme that the crime was almost commonplace. Lord Byron, prompted by pity for the weavers, spoke in parliament against the bill, saying: ‘Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows?’

In the centre of the Midlands, an area where textile workers were starving and turning to violence and rebellion, the fact that 500 men and a reserve stock of 1,000 small arms were always kept at the garrison at Weedon is unlikely to be coincidental. Its force was well placed to crush any riot or insurrection and, sure enough, it was reported in 1816 that the cavalry rode out from Weedon to quell an ‘uprising of ribbon weavers in Coventry.’

The walled garrison on its hill overlooking the village and silk factory must have seemed horribly intimidating to the inhabitants and impoverished weavers below. Perhaps the rumour that the garrison was to act as a royal retreat was started even at this early point, as propaganda to make the building of the massive military complex seem more palatable. Writing on location, literally in the shadow of the huge buildings, helped me to channel the sense of might and authority of the Establishment over the populace.

Find out more at  The Depot Visitors Centre  A leaflet giving a guided 'Silk Factory Walk' is also available on site.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Stories From the City of the Dead by Catherine Hokin

Going out-out - the big night out that demands special clothes and a day off to recover - is one of those phrases I would never willingly use (along with party as a verb). I am, however, now tempted to declare that I've just been on a holiday-holiday. I've spent the last year working on a WWII story set partly in Buenos Aires (it's out on submission, send kindness) not knowing that, while I was in the thick of researching it, my OH was planning a surprise trip. Yes, he's a keeper. I've just returned and would go back in a heartbeat. Buenos Aires is an astonishing city bursting with contradictions. It is part of a once-colonised country with a love of all things European; its public history is both extravagantly told and tightly controlled, masking a troubled, hidden past; it harbours real poverty against architecture that will make your jaw drop. It could spawn a thousand blogs (if that book makes it, it will) but I'm going to focus here on the famous Recoleta Cemetery where we went for a couple of hours and lost a day.

The cemetery covers over 13 acres and, although the surrounding land was once orchards and fields, it is now situated in the middle of one of the city's priciest neighbourhoods. The cemetery takes its name from the monks of the Order of the Recoletos and is built around their convent and a church (which can both be visited) dating from the 1730s. The cemetery itself opened in November 1822, after the monks had been expelled, and was opened to all religions after 1863. Inside its high walls there are over 6,400 statues, coffins and crypts, and some 30,000 inhabitants. It is laid out in blocks, with narrow sidewalks branching out from wide walkways. The mausoleums are built from marble in a variety of styles including art deco, art nouveau, baroque and neo-gothic, each style grouped together and adding to the sense that you are wandering through a city's neighbourhoods - some of which are more up-and-coming than others. Many of the buildings have glass fronts and coffins above ground as well as below and the state they are in varies considerably. A grave in Recoleta is bought for eternity: even if the annual fee for maintenance isn't paid, it won't be cleared. Several of the older tombs have been shored up but are crumbling and the coffins that are visible lie under thick layers of dust. Some, however, are still used and gleam with polished glass and starched cloths. 

The cemetery is, of course, full of stories which run the full gamut from the personal to the political. There are generals on every street, surrounded by plaques commemorating their long-forgotten victories. It has a resident ghost - a grave-digger who worked for 30 years saving money for his own plot and statue and killed himself once the architect finished the work, walks round at dawn jangling his keys and unable to leave. There is also a great statue of a couple who fought so much in life their effigies are now placed back-to-back.

Rufina Cambacere
However, as befits a place where you feel quite certain Edgar Allen Poe would have thrived, the most tragic (and popular) stories centre round beautiful young women. The story of Rufina Cambacere is actually the stuff of nightmares. Having been taken ill at her 19th birthday party, either with a heart problem/an epileptic fit/because she found out her mother was having an affair with her boyfriend (the stories all have stories) Rufina was buried in a beautiful marble tomb. Unfortunately the poor girl wasn't dead. Screams were heard on the night of the burial and, when the groundsmen plucked up the courage to investigate the next morning, the coffin had moved and poor, now dead, Ruffina was all covered in scratches where she had clawed at her face and throat. This incident is credited with leading to an Argentinean law stating that a body cannot be buried any earlier than twelve hours after the death certificate has been signed. Why it prompted her parents to add a statue of the poor girl emerging alive out of the tomb is anyone's guess. 

Another cemetery favourite is the tomb of Liliana Crociati. Although the bronze statue looks far older, this mausoleum in fact dates from the early 1970s. 

 Liliana Crociati de Szaszak
The young Liliana met her end on her honeymoon aged 26 when an avalanche swept over her hotel in Innsbruck, Austria and she died of suffocation. Rumour has it that she and her dog Sabú were so attached to each other that he died in Buenos Aires at the same time. The tomb, none of which is visible at ground level, is apparently a reconstruction of Liliana's childhood bedroom. That and the statue of her in her wedding dress patting Sabú was paid for by her grief-stricken parents. Interestingly there is no mention anywhere of the widowed groom. As you might be able to tell from the photograph (apologies for the quality, it was a very bright day), the green patina has been completely worn off Sabú's nose because visitors nowadays rub it for luck. 

In Buenos Aires, Recoleta Cemetery also goes by the names the City of the Dead, the City of Cats and the City of Angels. Although it was the only place in the city where we actually saw a cat, Angels are really the place's emblem. They are everywhere although you need to crane up to see most of them. Some represent the Angel of Death and carry an hourglass, many carry trumpets or baskets of flowers; without exception they are beautiful and every face looks different. Which accounts for why we lost a day there.

Recoleta angel
There is one grave I haven't mentioned although many visitors flock to it clutching their flowers to poke through the gates and that is the one belonging to Eva Duarte Peron. Although Eva died from cancer in 1952, her body only arrived in the cemetery in the 1970s and the story of what happened to her body in the intervening years is as shrouded in myth as her life. A great mausoleum was planned following her death but the overthrow of her husband, President Juan Peron, in 1955 led to all references to Peronism in Argentina being erased. Eva's embalmed body disappeared - its alleged hiding places including a storage container labeled radio parts at a Buenos Aires military intelligence office and a graveyard in Milan - until Peron was restored in 1971 and brought the body back to Madrid. According to the (many and lurid) stories, he then stored the coffin in the dining room of the house he shared with his third wife, frequently opening it to look at Eva's preserved face. After Peron's death in 1973, it was left to his wife Isabel (who was now President) to take over control of the body. She had it interred in the presidential place, most likely to shore up support for her own power grab as Eva's name was now in the ascendant again. When Isabel herself was overthrown in 1976, Eva's body was turned over to the Duartes who were, by then, keen to acknowledge their illegitimate family member. Eva's mother was the mistress not the wife and she was turned away from all claims on the family estate when the wealthy Juan Duarte died. Its interesting to speculate what might have happened to Eva if the Duartes had been a little more welcoming in the 1920s - presumably not the harsh choices grinding poverty left her with. Eva is now interred in their crypt at Recoleta where her body is buried 5m below ground under two trapdoors and three plates of steel to prevent any further threat to it - Eva continues to be a controversial figure in Argentina, both despised for her brand of politics and worshipped to the point of a cult. Being in the former group, we gave that particular tomb a swerve and went back to the maze of mausoleums and angels we could more comfortably admire.

My advice if you visit - don't take a tour, do what we did and get lost. And then go to the barking mad cafe over the road and sit at a table with a frighteningly realistic Borges. They don't let go of their dead in Buenos Aires.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

HNSA Conference 2019 - making a noise about historical fiction

Back in 2017, Gillian Polack interviewed me about my role as program director of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Australasia conference in Melbourne. Hard to believe that 2 years has passed. I'm excited to say we've now launched the program for our 3rd biennial conference in Sydney on 25-27 October, 2019  in partnership with Western Sydney University. Writing historical fiction is my passion, and making a noise about the genre through programming  is a very rewarding labour of love.

As Chair and program director of HNSA, here’s an overview of what's on offer at the conference instead of my regular monthly history post. Forgive me, I've been a little preoccupied of late:) And if you're keen to learn more about Australian historical fiction in general, you can read my state of play for the Historical Novel Review: Indigenous Origins, Colonialism and Diaspora.

What’s on offer at HNSA 2019
The HNSA committee  never thought we’d get this far - our 3rd biennial conference. We hope fans of the genre, both readers and writers alike, will gather as a community again –this time at historic Parramatta (the second oldest town in Australasia). There is a lot to celebrate at HNSA 2019!

Guest of Honour, Jackie French
HNSA 2019 Guest of Honour and Keynote Speaker
Jackie French is our Guest of Honour. Historian, ecologist, literacy advocate, and author of over 140 books for all age groups, she holds more than 60 awards in Australia and overseas. Our keynote speaker, New Zealand author and academic, Dr Paula Morris, will address our theme of History Repeats to explore whether historical fiction can engage readers who might not see the parallels between past and present. Our HNSA patron, Kate Forsyth will warmly open the conference.  Our theme will be explored further in a panel that ponders subtexts in historical novels with Winton Higgins, Michelle Aung Thin and Lucy Treloar (Learning from History). We also look forward to Marie Munkara talking about recovering the 'erased' history of First Nations people (Dispossession & Betrayal) due to shameful government policies and law that saw Indigenous children stolen from their parents. 

A treat for readers and writers
Our general stream is aimed at both readers and writers. We have over 60 esteemed authors discussing their books, inspiration, favourite history, personal journeys and thorny topics. On Saturday 26 October enjoy the insights of adaptable writers, Sophie Masson and Kelly Gardiner (The Versatile Writer); hear why Jane Caro and Ali Alizadeh are drawn to write about famous characters like Elizabeth I and Joan D'Arc (We Need to Talk about Bette and Joan); and explore the innocence, guilt and psychopathy of criminal protagonists with Janet Lee, Pip Smith and Catherine Jinks (The Criminal Mind).

On Sunday 27, October Nicole Alexander and Ella Carey explain the attraction of drawing on family legends (Personal Histories); and Kate Forsyth and Nastasha Lester travel back into France’s history (A French Affair). Alison Goodman, Anne Gracie and Anna Campbell will inspire us with Regency madness (George & Georgette) while Jock Serong, Rachel Leary and Stephanie Parkyn take us into the mind of characters who battle both internal fears and their environment (Survival of the Fittest). Meg Keneally and Gay Hendriksen will discuss the benefits of historical novelists and historians actively collaborating together (Walking Side by Side.) 

Kate Forsyth & Paula Morris
Honing your craft
Running parallel with our general stream is our second dealing with the craft and business of writing. On Saturday 26 October we kick off by delving into how to keep the sizzle factor in your historical romance series (Stoking the Flame) with Lizzi Tremayne, Renee Dahlia and Elizabeth Ellen Carter; and discover the hard work required to market your novel after your ‘book baby’ is born with author Lucinda Brant, publicist Debbie McInnes, and Berkelouws Books' Melanie Prosser (Connecting with Readers). Paula Morris, Isobel Blackthorn and Greg Johnston explain the challenges of imagining a dead person’s life (Respectful Research); while Jesse Blackadder, Rachel le Rossignol and Majella Cullinane discuss the value of writing degrees (It’s Academic).

On Sunday 27 October, Robert Gott returns with Katherine Kovacic and Tessa Lunney to divulge how to weave a web of truth and lies in detective fiction (History & Mystery); Gillian Polack, Ilke Tampke and Pamela Hart ponder the individual challenges of researching different eras (The Things We Don’t Know); Belinda Castles, Robyn Cadwallader and Julian Leatherdale explore the nuances of point of view (I am a Camera); and  Tea Cooper, Emily Madden and Carla Caruso describe the mystery element in parallel narratives (Intertwining Lives Revealed). The skills required to create a strong and plausible female protagonist is revealed by Lauren Chater, Kirsty Murray and Elizabeth Jane Corbett (The Feminine Mystique); while Jesse Blackadder and Mira Robertson discuss the secret to scriptwriting (The Silver Screen). 

Finally, to round off the conference we decided to leave the bedroom door closed and summon some black magic. I'm looking forward to joining  Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins to conjure weird and wonderful superstitions and concoctions to keep readers spellbound in Love Potions and Witchcraft.

A fresh approach – Friday Craft & Publishing Program
At HNSA 2017, we held short workshops concurrently with the main program. Attendees were frustrated they were missing out on panels on the main program to attend these - spoiled for choice! As a result, the committee has decided to take a fresh approach in 2019. Instead of holding a round table at a Friday Opening Reception, we're conducting a Craft & Publishing program on Friday 25 October with practical workshops for writers, masterclasses, and manuscript assessments.

There’ll be a suite of 9 two hour workshops by top rate tutors offering insights and practical tips on various aspects of the writing craft, research, and sub-genres. Our wonderful team includes Kate Forsyth (Spice & Swashbuckle – Writing Romantic Historical Fiction), Sophie Masson (Writing Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults), Alison Goodman (Writing Historical Fantasy), Robert Gott (Writing Crime Fiction), Pamela Hart (Making Research Work for You), Kelly Gardiner (Scrivener for Beginners), Rachel Franks (Trove for the Historical Novelist ), Paula Morris (Writing Family History) and Evan Shapiro (Self-Publishing Essentials).

Our popular 1:1 manuscripts assessments will also happen on the Friday – this year with Scholastic publisher Clare Hallifax, and agent Irina Dunn. And Gillian Polack is offering 1:1 masterclasses on writing and research instead of teaching small groups. 

Munkara, Masson, Serong, Alexander, Gott & Jinks
And the winner is….
Our signature First Pages Pitch Contest will be held on Saturday 26 October. This year we’re offering $200 in prize money.  So polish up your pitch and the first few paragraphs of your work-in-progress. Rachel Nightingale returns as our narrator with Clare Hallifax (Scholastic Australia), agent Margaret Connolly, and Michelle Lovi (Odyssey Press), acting as our judges. Every writer in the audience can benefit from hearing the critiques of experts on which words first attract a publisher’s attention. It’s entertaining for everyone else too. 

The ARA HNSA Short Story Contest also returns thanks to our generous sponsor, ARA, which  is donating $500 prize money. Our HNSA Conference patron, Sophie Masson, is our judge. 

An evening by the river
Our conference dinner on 26 October will be held at Sahra by the River, a restaurant nestled on the banks of the Parramatta River. Historical Romance author, Anna Campbell, will regale us with stories after Sophie Masson announces the winner of the ARA HNSA Short Story Contest.

En garde!
Fancy some sword play? Or curious to know how to wear armour or hold a longbow? Richard Halcomb from the Medieval Archery Society is joining us this year to provide hands-on advice on Medieval Arms and Armouring while Richard Cullinan from Stoccata School of Defence will give an Introduction to Historical Fencing. So indulge your inner Robin Hood or Arya Stark at our Historical Reenactments and Weapons demonstrations.

Challenging the genre
In our extended Academic stream on Sunday 27 October, we’ll bring together postgraduates, academics, and other interested scholars to consider the complexities of the genre of historical fiction and its readership. This will also be open to general admission for conference delegates. A Call for Papers is currently been made. 

Say hello
Thanks for letting me share my news. I know many of you live in the northern hemisphere, but I hope you might travel Downunder later this year. If you do, please say hello!

For more information about HNSA 2019, you can visit our 2019 Conference page and go from there. And if you're keen, you can buy tickets here.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome, and co-founder of HNS Australasia. Learn more at her website.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Inspirational homes (1) by Carolyn Hughes

“Inspirational homes” might put you in mind of a strapline blazoned across the front of a glossy interior décor magazine, but that’s not the sort of inspiration I’m going to talk about. In this post, and my next two, I thought I’d reveal a little about the real-life buildings that “inspire” me as I write about the homes in which my characters spend their lives.

In my novels, set in 14th century southern England, my characters are peasants, artisans of various sorts, and the gentry. The peasants might be poor or wealthy, and free or unfree, so some are on the lowest rung of village society, whereas others, even if they owe service to their lord, are well off enough to be the equivalent of a middle class.

Depending on their station in life, these people would have lived in:
  • One-roomed cottages, barely better than hovels, in which every part of life for a family was spent in the same space;
  • Bigger two- or three-roomed cottages, perhaps with a platform for sleeping and possibly small storage spaces;
  • Houses with two storeys, a hall downstairs, and a solar upstairs for sleeping accessed by a narrow staircase;
  • Large manor houses with several rooms, but still centred on a main great hall, and with a solar perhaps divided into chambers. Some manor houses might be fortified. 

Above and beyond the manor houses there were of course great castles, but I have none of those kind of aristocratic folk in my novels, so I need no castles to inspire me!

To get some idea of what 14th century homes might look – and indeed feel – like, I am very fortunate to have quite close by, in West Sussex, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, a living museum, whose mission is to rescue and conserve historic buildings from across the south of England. Buildings are saved from being demolished, or from simply falling down, by being carefully dismantled and rebuilt on the museum’s site. The museum has more than fifty buildings, spanning nine centuries. Most are open for you to go inside, so that you can get a real feel for what it was like to live and work in them. The museum is a wonderful resource.

As also is English Heritage, which manages over 400 historic monuments, buildings and other places of historical interest, including both some modest homes and wonderful castles.

The buildings I am going to discuss in these posts can be visited either at the Weald and Downland Museum or at an English Heritage site.

Today I am going to discuss the homes at the bottom end of the scale, peasants’ cottages. Because they were the homes of the poor, and were often built of materials that were given to decay – timber, wattle and daub, thatch – few such buildings survive to the present day. Of course some houses with origins in the Middle Ages are still standing, but they were likely to have been constructed of stone, and presumably will have been maintained and refurbished over the centuries to keep them structurally sound.

Two of the five mediaeval houses re-erected at the Weald and Downland Museum are the 13th century cottage from Hangleton in Sussex and a house from Boarhunt in Hampshire that dates from the 14th century. These are both small peasant houses.

Some peasant houses might have been designed to accommodate animals in one end of the building, but that is not the case with either of these. It must be presumed that animals would have been kept in a separate byre or barn.

The two-room cottage from Hangleton is a flint cottage reconstructed using archaeological evidence from excavation of the mediaeval village. The cottage was probably built in the 13th century and abandoned in the 14th. Hangleton itself, which is about 4 miles (6.5 km) north-west of Brighton, seems to have been already in decline by the middle of the 14th century as a result of the climatic and economic upheavals of the early part of the century. The arrival of what we call the Black Death in 1348-1350 might have been the last straw.

Oast House Archive/Mediaeval Cottage at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex/
CC BY-SA 2.0

Although this is an entirely flint-built cottage, other cottages from the area were built with a framework of wooden posts, and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub, though later this was replaced with flint. The walls of this cottage are about three or four feet (one to one and a half metres) high. Above the eaves is the timber framework of the roof, which is covered in thick straw thatch, although apparently the roof could have been wooden shingles or turf, some other type of thatch, or possibly even clay tiles.

The cottage has two rooms. The main room is where the family – on average five people – would have lived their entire lives: cooking their food, eating it, sleeping and carrying out all the essential tasks of everyday life. It must have been very cramped! I don’t have the exact dimensions, but I don’t think it can be much more than 15 feet (3 metres) square.

The second room has an oven, which is not usual for an ordinary cottage at a time when villagers were expected to have their bread baked in the lord’s oven, but perhaps the occupier of this house was a baker...

Most of the homes at this time (even relatively wealthy ones) would have had a hearth in the middle of the floor of the main (or only) room, and this is true of the main room here. A circular stone hearth has been laid on the floor, not quite in the middle but somewhat to one side. The room is open to the rafters, and the smoke from the fire would have risen and found its way out through the thatch. Most people assume that there would have been a hole of some sort in the roof’s ridge through which the smoke escaped, but I have read that the gaps in the thatch would have provided sufficient egress. It is also said that the smoke was good for keeping the thatch insect free, though I daresay creepy-crawlies were pretty abundant in mediaeval cottages.

The museum has dressed the room with a couple of small tables, a bench and a few stools, a fairly strong-looking chest, perhaps for storing linen, clothes and any valuables, and an array of baskets, tubs and cooking and eating utensils. Tools and other items are shown hanging from the rafters, or stored on the top of the wall, but there is clearly little space for much in the way of furniture or possessions. No bed is shown here, so we must assume that the family would lay down their pallets when they were ready for bed, at a suitable distance from the open hearth.

There is just one small window and, of course, it is not glazed. It has vertical struts offering a measure of security, and a sort of blind – oiled cloth perhaps – has been installed to keep out the weather. I suppose that a shutter might have been added for greater protection, but one isn’t shown here. It must have been very dark indoors, even with the blind open, and exceedingly gloomy with it closed. Given that these poor folk’s only source of light after sundown was the fire and smelly tallow candles or feeble rushlights, one presumes that, as soon as evening came there was no point trying do anything other than rolling out their straw pallets and seeking sleep!

I have spent a day (well, more like a few hours) in this little cottage, dressed in medieval clothes, learning how to spin, crouching round that central hearth, making soup (“sowpys dorry”) and cheese pottage. I discovered how very hot and smoky it was inside, and thought that maybe I wouldn’t have much enjoyed being a 14th century peasant...

The author, enjoying being "mediaeval" for the day

The “hall house” from Boarhunt, 7 miles (11 km) north of Portsmouth, in Hampshire, dates from the late 14th century (1355–1390). It is a bit larger than the Hangleton cottage, having three bays, and is built with a cruck frame over the middle of the central hall. In the museum’s view, this building was particularly well constructed for its size.

Keith Edkins / Boarhunt Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0

The central bay is the main living room – the “hall” – again with the hearth in the middle of the floor. The hearth is shown as a rectangle, taking up a surprisingly large portion of the space available. The roof timbers in this central hall show the blackening effects of smoke from the open fire. Although this is a somewhat larger house than Hangleton, the main living area is still quite small, say 20 feet (just over 6 metres) square. The furniture used to dress the hall is much the same as for Hangleton, and again there is no sign of a bed.

It is thought that the bay to the right of the main entrance was probably a service or storage room, while the third room accessed by a door to the left of the hall is thought to be a “solar”, a private room. This inner room has no windows, so perhaps it was simply used for sleeping. It was also completely sealed off from the smoke-filled hall, whereas the service room was only separated from the hall by a screen below cross-beam level.

I have spent time in both these buildings so, when I am writing about peasant cottages in my novels, I can recall what it felt like to be inside them and I try to replicate that feeling in my descriptions of domestic life. Some of my peasant characters do live in one- or two-room cottages, while others' houses might be a little larger. I have seen it conjectured that some people might have constructed sleeping platforms under the rafters and, liking that idea, I have given one or two of my families that arrangement. It would seem to me to be a safer place to sleep than clustered around the hearth, though it would presumably be quite unpleasantly smoky up there!

I think it would be true to say that, for mediaeval peasants, their homes would mostly be cramped from lack of space, dark from a lack of windows, smoky from the central hearth and, in bad weather, cold, draughty and damp. But I suppose that, if you know no different, you would accept that level of discomfort as simply normal, and be grateful that at least you had a place of your own in which to eat and sleep and spend time with your family.

Next time, I will discuss homes of a somewhat higher standing: one belonging to a wealthy farmer and another built by a Souhampton wine merchant.