Saturday 31 December 2011

December Competition

Competition to win a copy of Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution (UK only).

Just answer this question:

The Dauphin was the name given to the heir to the French throne. Which Dauphin lost both his parents to the guillotine during the French revolution? Christian name and number please!

Closing date 10th January

Friday 30 December 2011

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Reviewed by Marie-Louise Jensen

Two girls are united in a quest to save a young prince, but separated by over two hundred years. Andi lives in present-day New York and is haunted by the memory of her younger brother’s death, while Alexandrine is desperately trying to save the young Dauphin from death and despair at the hands of the revolutionaries. The stories become tangled, across the centuries, in a complex tale of love, guilt and loss.

In the aftermath of the loss of her brother, Andi’s family and her life have fallen apart. Neither she nor her mother is functioning, despite their gifts. When Andi’s father insists on her accompanying him to Paris, she discovers the diary of a girl who, just like her, tried to save another innocent boy. The story unlocks Andi’s own grief and
suffering and helps her confront the issues of life and death in new ways.

Like Sally Gardner, Jennifer Donnelly has looked to the era of the French revolution for her second historical novel for young adults. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of this
particular place and time: in the chaos and blood lust of the revolution, we see civilisation both at its most idealistic and simultaneously at its most brutal and self-destructive. To watch the ideals of liberty and equality turned by those grasping for power into a blood bath is a sobering study in humanity, or rather in its failure.

As readers of A Gathering Light will expect, Donnelly writes with superb talent and depth. There are no clichés or easy answers to be found here. Revolution is an unflinching confrontation with human loss and cruelty. Both Andi’s and Alexandrine’s tales are compelling and engrossing. Like
any account of the French revolution, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Andi’s own world and inner thoughts too, are dark and bleak, as she walks the thin line between survival and self-destruction.

The narrative moves between the lives of the two girls; the two centuries. Often the current story feels too compelling to leave, but the reader is swiftly caught up in the parallel one again, until ultimately the two stories merge unexpectedly. Both are centred on a heart; a loss; the death of a child. And both are connected by music.

 This is a remarkable tale and draws to a satisfying conclusion. The shadow of the dark events of the revolution is still there, even in the sunshine of the ending, however, because for most of the characters, there was no happy solution.

Jennifer Donnelly

In Revolution, Donnelly shows once again that she is an exceptionally talented writer. Readers can expect this to be a darker, more disturbing tale than her first novel, and no less haunting. Highly recommended for older teens and adults alike.

Visit us tomorrow for a chance to win one of five copies of Revolution by answering a simple question.

Thursday 29 December 2011

'Eels and Ely: The Slippery Side of History' by Karen Maitland

We are delighted to welcome Karen Maitland as our guest blogger for December. She has given us a suitably spooky and squirmy post for our month of ghostly Christmas adventures.

Karen Maitland is fascinated by the myth, magic and life of the Middle Ages, which she draws on for her novels. Her medieval thrillers include Company of Liars set in the time of the plague and The Owl Killers about a beguinage, a medieval city of women. Her most recent novel is The Gallows Curse in which a woman is tricked into becoming a sin-eater during the Interdict of King John. Karen is also a member of the Medieval Murderers, six historical crime authors who together write an annual medieval crime novel, the most recent being The Sacred Stone and Hill of Bones.

A few weeks ago I found myself clambering over the roof of Ely Cathedral on a freezing winter’s day looking for a convenient place to conceal a corpse – or at least part of one. Before you call the police, perhaps I should explain that this was research for a joint medieval crime novel I write every year with a team of five other medieval crime and thriller writers known as the Medieval Murderers – Philip Gooden, Susannah Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight, and Ian Morson. It was not the best day to have chosen to venture up on to a cathedral tower, but I only had one day to do it. It was blowing a gale. My fingers and face were numb with cold and I was trying not to be sick every time I looked down. (I never used to be bothered by heights – is it an age thing, I wonder?)

The day before I’d been reading an interview with chick-lit author Victoria Connelly in which she talked about how she did the research for her latest book, ‘A Weekend with Mr Darcy’, by lying on the sofa watching Jane Austen films. I thought of that as I squeezed through an impossibly tiny medieval door high up in a turret and wondered why on earth I’d chosen to write historical novels instead of chick-lit. I too could have been tucked up cosily by the fire with a box of chocolates, drooling over Colin Firth.

But when I did eventually reach the top of the octagon tower, I remembered exactly why I love historical novels. From the tower you can see as far as Cambridge and the shape of the landscape spread out around you for miles. As I looked, the modern buildings seemed to disappear and I saw Ely as they must have done in the Middle Ages: that safe beacon of a hill rising up out of dark and dangerous watery fens.

 I saw boats on the River Ouse bearing the great blocks of limestone to build the Cathedral and the thousands of live eels in barrels being sent back along the river to pay for the stone. Far below I saw the shadows of chattering medieval pilgrims making their way to the shrine of the 7th Century princess, St Etheldreda’s, and every one of those ghosts had a story that was begging to be told.

But the most magical moment was yet to come. The sun was setting blood-red in the sky as I was travelling home. As I passed a stretch of fenland I suddenly saw a modern eel catcher wading through the water dragging his woven eel traps (eel hives) on an identical boat to one my characters, Raffe, borrows from the eel catcher in my medieval thriller ‘The Gallows Curse’. Except for the eel-catcher’s clothes, it was a scene that hasn’t changed for more than 1,000 years. 

Peter Carter: 'The Last Eel Catcher on the Ouse'
(Image courtesy of Allan and Debbie on their wonderful website on the waterways)

Did you know…
Eels, as well as being an important food in the Middle Ages, had many other uses, not least that wives were advised that if they wanted to cure their husbands of drinking too much they should pop an live eel into a flagon of his favourite tipple, leave it there to die, then serve it to their husbands. They were assured he would never again touch a drop of that drink.  I wonder how many husbands survived the shock of that treatment. But if your partner over indulged on the Christmas – you now know what to do come New Year’s Eve. First catch your eel…

And should you be suffering from aches and pains this winter, eels were thought to be a certain cure for ague or rheumatism. Medieval housewives would advise that you should first cut off the head of your eel – a wise precaution as they have a vicious bite – soften it with fat and stuff it with thyme and lavender, then cover it with mint and bury it in peat all summer. In the autumn dig it up and fasten it above the knee as a garter. It might not go with your party dress, of course.

 But even if your New Year’s Party doesn’t involve eels, I wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2012.

Thank you, Karen, for visiting.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Ted Milligan and Jon England: a response through art to life in the prisoner of war camps: by Sue Purkiss

Sixty seven years ago, just after Christmas in 1944, a young airman named Ted Milligan woke up to be told that he, along with thousands of others, was to leave the relative safety of his prisoner of war camp in Poland, in order to march west, away from the advancing Russians. The prisoners did not know what to expect. They did not know how far they would have to march, or what would happen to them when they reached their unknown destination. They had very little time to decide what to take; those who packed too much soon found they were unable to carry it, and had to jettison the excess along the road.

In the terrible, freezing winter of 1945, Ted and his fellow kriegies marched - or stumbled - through the icy wastes of wartime Poland and Germany until eventually, those who survived reached camps in the west, from which they would eventually be liberated. But they didn't know that this was what was going to happen. Rumours were rife. Perhaps they were to be a kind of human shield, a bargaining counter to use against the Allies. Perhaps they were being taken out of the official, recorded world of the camps to be shot. Tiny pawns in the horrific endgame of the second world war, they simply did not know what was planned for them.

Ted Milligan had a gift for drawing, and when he arrived in a POW camp in June 1944 after being shot down over France, he realised that the one thing he now had was 'endless time'. He met an artist called Adrian Heath, and realised that this was his chance; with Adrian's help, he could practise his drawing, using the camp and all that was in it and around it as subject matter.

He wasn't alone in using his time as a prisoner to study and learn new skills. The kriegies got hold of books and correspondence courses from home, they gave lectures and lessons, they put on plays and concerts. As Ted later said about his drawing, all this was 'a means of escape'; not through tunnels, but into an absorbing activity which could take you into another world.

After the war was over, and the prisoners returned to England, it was difficult to adjust. The route that most of them took was to suppress the memories of their time in the camps: they just didn't talk about it. My father, a prisoner for five years, was one of these. For years he didn't talk about his experiences at all. When he did begin to, he would tell funny stories about things that happened, only alluding to the more serious stuff in passing: his face would turn dark and still, and he would come out with things like: 'No-one knows what they're capable of, not till they're up against it.' And then he would fall silent, and you wouldn't dream of pushing it any further.

But a few years ago, Ted Milligan met up with a young artist called Jon England, and their collaboration enabled him to open up and explore his memories. He decided he would produce a new body of work based on the march - he had his diaries still to help him. Jon, in turn, wanted to produce his own response, using materials that would have been available at the time - thousands of nails, for instance, to produce an image of Ted in the cockpit of his plane.

I was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to hear of an exhibition of this week, in a pub near Bruton in Somerset. I've previously written a couple of posts (on 16th August and September) which explain my interest in the seldom-heard story of the prisoners of war - I'm in the process of writing a novel arising from my father's experiences. So of course, I was eager to see the exhibition - and it was marvellous. The pictures are from it, and I will attach a link to a video which will give the flavour of it more successfully than I could hope to do.

I have tried to get in touch with Jon England, but unsuccessfully - I hope he will not mind that I have included these images. I don't know if his work will be exhibited in other places, but if it is, I urge you to go and see it. It strikes me that, in a sense, he is doing in visual terms what we as historical novelists do in words: he is responding to an event which happened in the past and which moves him, in the medium in which he is most at ease. I certainly found the exhibition absorbing and moving - and not only because I could imagine that my father could have been one of those bundled-up figures trudging through the snow. Like my father, like so many of that generation, Ted Milligan has now died: but I think it's wonderful that, thanks to his collaboration with Jon, his work, and his experiences, live on.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Location Envy: on knowing your place, but still envying others theirs, by Louisa Young

I write this in bed, with a turkey sandwich and a good book. A friend has given me this Christmas that mixed blessing: a copy of her bound proof of her novel, so that if I like it I might provide a pithy comment for the cover of the actual book.

What if I hate it it? Oh god. Why did I agree? Normally I don't - like Stephen Fry, only considerably less often, I decline gracefully, specially if I know the author. So why did did I say yes to this one? I don't even have the security of knowing beforehand that she's a good writer - though she is an experienced and skilled scriptwriter, this is her debut novel.

I'll tell you why: location envy. Location that is, not only in place but in time. (Is there a word for placing in time? There should be. Is there a dictionary where you can look words up by their definition? There should be.) Her book is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1940s.

Ah, the images which swim before my mind! The jumble of wooden buildings, the long low cars, the junks silhouetted against the gunmetal surface of the harbour at dusk, the cocktail dresses, the flat white faces and the scarlet lipstick, the men in uniform, the shadows, and the waft of opium and jasmine . . . .
I have never been to Hong Kong. But I have seen In the Mood for Love (yes I know it was set in the 1960s) and The World of Suzie Wong and Macau and Shanghai Express and Shanghai Cobra and Empire of the Sun and even that terrible one with Madonna in it, so I know all about the imaginary landscapes of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

But I would never have the nerve to approach them as locations. Too alien! The very thing which makes them attractive scares me off. I prefer to have at least one foot in territory which is in some way familiar to me: the time, or the place, or the gender, or the political outlook, or at least something of the who what where why and when.

But I do not know what motivates the heart beneath the turquoise or crimson cheongsam. I cannot understand the dark purposes of the man with the thin moustache, the camellia buttonhole and the handmade silk suit. Look at this woman - what is her story?

Alas, I am not the one to tell you . . .

Yet I have written books set in ancient Greece and future London, imaginary Paris and the Caribbean, in 1918 and in 2046, in Cairo and god knows where else.

Strange how some times and places are possible for us to approach, and some are just not. Thankfully, we have other people to write about them for us.

*The Harbour by Francesca Brill, Bloomsbury, May 2012

Monday 26 December 2011

Carnivals and Confederate Ships – Dianne Hofmeyr

Boxing Day or St Stephen’s Day (with Good King Wenceslas looking out) is linked to the tradition of landowners allowing their servants to take the 26th off to visit their families. Servants were given boxes containing gifts, bonuses and leftover food. And alms boxes in churches were opened and money distributed to the poor. But as a child growing up in South Africa I recall Boxing Day being the time when the Cape Malays started rehearsing in earnest for the Cape Carnival.
With the summer southeaster tumbling down Table Mountain, I remember the sound of strumming banjos and banging drums reaching a crescendo. The main celebration takes place on the 2nd of January when more than a hundred minstrel troops dressed in dazzling multi-coloured outfits, jump and jive through the streets of Cape Town pumping tiny parasols and crooning in the local dialect that mixes Afrikaans and English.

The Carnival started as a celebration of the end of slavery in the Cape Colony on 1 December 1834. Slavery had been abolished in Britain the year before. People taking part in the Carnival can trace their origins back to the Dutch East Indies, Madagascar, India, Ceylon, the Philippines, Japan, Macau and Malacca. They were captured or sent into exile and brought to the Cape to help establish the Dutch VOC refueling station. Collectively the group came to be known as Cape Malay despite their diverse origins.
They were often skilled artisans - silversmiths, milliners, cobblers, singers, masons and tailors and they brought with them culinary secrets that still infuse Cape food and are part of my childhood memories – pickled fish in a fragrant curry sauce served on Friday nights, babotie, minced lamb spiked with almonds and apricots and chutney and covered by an egg custard cream infused with tumeric or saffron, samoosas, the phyllo type pastry triangles filled with curried vegetables and koeksusters, those strands of plaited dough deep-fried and dipped in a cinnamon-flavoured syrup so sweet it put my teeth on edge.
Today a small pocket of brightly painted houses in the heart of the city, called the Cape Quarter, celebrates their culture. But originally many Cape Malays lived in an area called District Six, which was controversially demolished when they were removed to the townships during the ‘apartheid’ era. Since then the area has remained empty - a scar on the mountainside which serves as a constant reminder of an inhuman act.

But back to the swaggering troops of my childhood, dancing and singing of hardship and love and rivalry and mocking the men who were once their ‘masters’ and like the griots of Senegal, also singing of history. One of their most famed songs I remember from my childhood is about the day the Confederate ship, the Alabama, came sailing into Cape Town. Roughly translated its first line goes: Here comes the Alibama…The Alibama comes across the sea…
You have to imagine the long, crooning Cape Dialect that pronounced Alabama as Alee baa maa! (as in Obama). I was convinced they were singing about Alibaba flying over the sea on his magic carpet.
On 5 August 1863, a huge crowd of excited spectators gathered on Cape Town’s Signal Hill to watch the spectacle of the Alabama towing a prize, conquered right in the Bay – a ship called the Sea Bride. In his logbook Captain Semmes of the Alabama wrote that he gave chase to a barque with the United States colours in Table Bay.
The Master might have saved himself if he had stood directly
in for the land; but we ran down upon him under English colours, and he had no suspicion of our character until it was too late. The United States Consul at once protested against our violation of British waters! . . . Put a crew on board the prize (Sea Bride), and directed her to stand off until further orders. The moment the anchor dropped we were crowded with visitors.
As a child I never considered it odd that descendants of slavery should sing of a Confederate ship, nor that the second verse of the song should tell of secret liaisons between slave girls who slept with their masters between the reeds of the riverbed.
So with carnivals and Confederate ships… history is celebrated again and again in the month of December and January in the Cape.

Sunday 25 December 2011

ANOTHER SIDE OF CHRISTMAS 1918 by Eleanor Updale

Merry Christmas! Today's the day.

I hope you haven't been driven here by a ghastly family argument or loneliness heightened by the propaganda of the season. As you can see, the History Girls never rest, and I have taken time off from basting the turkey to bring you today's reflections on the past.

Most families have long-established traditions for the big day, ranging from the pre-lunch walk to the endless game of Monopoly. My household is no exception, though for us, the pattern is newly formed. Our children lack living grandparents on both sides, and my own father had no history of family Christmases to pass on.
He was brought up in the Foundling Hospital: the great orphanage founded by the extraordinary 18th century philanthropist, Captain Thomas Coram.

Some of you may know the site,near King's Cross in London, where the original building stood. It is now known as Coram's Fields - a splendid play area where no adult is allowed unless accompanied by a child.

Balloting for admission to the Foundling Hospital in the early days:

My father was admitted as a baby in 1913. Like all the Foundling Hospital children, he was baptised with a new name (Edmund Updale) and sent out to a foster family until his fifth birthday, when he was scooped back into the main school. In later life, he talked very little about his experiences there. That was partly because of a lingering (and deliberately induced) sense of shame at his mother's disgrace and his own dependence on charity, and partly a reflection of the age in which he lived. Glorying in disadvantage was not yet fashionable in the brief time we had together. He died in 1976.

Throughout my father's lifetime, the law prevented him from finding out about his true background, but shortly after his death the rules were changed, and I have discovered much of the story, and met some of the foundlings who shared his upbringing. I will keep his personal details for another time (and perhaps another place) but today, since it's Christmas, I will (after a bit of a digression into the history of the Foundling Hospital) tell you about a pair of twins who were classmates of his. I had the privilege to meet them in the 1980s, shortly before they died.

The Foundling Hospital was always good at PR. In its earliest days, with Handel and Hogarth as patrons, it was the glitterati charity of choice, and a venue for society concerts.
The wonderful Foundling Museum still holds an art collection of staggering quality, including this magnificent portrait of Captain Coram by Hogarth, and treasures such a manuscript of the Messiah, donated by Handel himself.

In the 20th century, photographers did their best to portray Christmas at the Foundling Hospital as a time of unrestrained joy.

Mixing the pudding/ Learning Carols /Putting up the decorations:

I think we can all guess the degree to which those images were staged, but no doubt special events did happen. However, for most of the time, nothing was allowed to challenge the rule of routine, and that is where the twins come in.

They were born on Christmas Eve, 1913. One can only imagine the circumstances that drove their mother to give them up. It would be possible now for any descendants to find out her story - up to a point.
Like all official records, the Foundling archives must be approached with caution. Getting your child into the institution was not easy. The mother had to produce a deposition explaining how she had landed in her predicament. Unless she had been widowed, she had to portray herself as as a respectable girl led astray, preferably with the promise of marriage in the background. The midwife was required to declare that this was the unfortunate woman's first confinement. You weren't allowed to make the same mistake twice.
Heaven knows what happened to the children of women who failed the tests. The pressure to lie was intense. My own natural grandmother wrote convincingly of he fiance absconding to America. I traced him through electoral registers, still living in London at the time of my father's birth, and for years afterwards.

Love tokens, left by the mothers of babies given over to the care of the Foundling Hospital:

But back to the twins...

Their first four years were spent in the relative normality of a foster home. During that time they were never disabused of the notion that the people looking after them were their parents, and no one did anything to prepare them for the arrival of a car to take them away on their fifth birthday.

the two old men were visibly moved when they told me about being wrenched from their foster parents. But their sadness was not caused only by losing people they had come to love and depend upon. They were still angry, seven decades later, about missing that family Christmas. The date had given the memory of the separation extra force, and that was why it was one of the first things they spoke of when I met them. Other former foundlings talked of cold dormitories, harsh teachers, and the horror of hitting puberty unprepared. For the twins, it was the lost Christmas that dominated their memories - and of course, though they cannot have known it at the time, it must have been a very special Christmas for families everywhere: 1918 - the first since the end of the Great War.

My father and the twins are probably somewhere in this picture. Apparently the teacher was every bit as nasty as he looks:

These days, it's hard to imagine how anyone could have been so cruel as to deny the twins a few days of family fun. And yet those involved probably felt they were doing the right thing. We are all prisoners of the orthodoxies of our times, and we have different ways of torturing children in care now: from serial fostering to surrounding them with low expectations (including the assumption that most will get only four GCSEs,). Many are thrown into the outside world at 16, and those who want to stay on to do A levels may have to fight - particularly if their eighteenth birthday falls before the exams.

But it's Christmas, and I shouldn't be ranting...

Instead, I can tell you some positive things about what has become of Captain Coram's 18th century vision for deprived children.

The Foundling Hospital no longer exists as a residential institution, but in its new incarnation as the charity, Coram, it is a leading force for improving adoption practice throughout the country. It has a formidable record. 97% of adoptions organised by Coram remain secure (one in five of those arranged by other agencies breaks down). Coram also unites children with their prospective adopters remarkably quickly, which may be a reason for the success.
The charity is also in the forefront of innovation in family law, music and art therapy, and all sorts of services for children and families in need.

You can find out more at where there are links to more details about the history of the Foundling Hospital.
If you haven't yet made your Christmas charity donations, you would be hard-pressed to find a better cause.

I've told you the story of the twins because at Christmas they are always on my mind. But even though, to modern eyes, the authorities acted shockingly in their case, those two boys had a lot to be grateful for. Like their classmate, my father, they may have lacked love, but they were given shelter, healthcare, and an education which fitted them to make the most of the opportunities created by the social upheavals of the 20th century. They were lucky - and to be the child of a foundling is to be privileged indeed.

I never pass the statue of Thomas Coram outside the Foundling Museum without touching his foot and saying thank you.

By saving my father, the philanthropists of long ago made possible my own easy passage through life. Just one generation on, our family's fortunes are transformed. Was that institutional care really so bad?

Now. Why not turn off the computer, go and hug your loved ones, and have a very merry time for the rest of Christmas day?

Saturday 24 December 2011


By Essie Fox

The royal Christmas tree at Windsor Castle

It's sad when Christmas is over, when the tree begins to dry out and die, the branches all drooping, the needles shed over the carpet, and what once glittered and shone with light is discarded for yet another year.

Victoria and Albert enjoying Christmas with their children

It's hard to imagine how devastated Queen Victoria must have felt when, just a few weeks before Christmas, on December 14th, 1861, her beloved husband died. I wonder if the tree had already been set up at Windsor - the seasonal decoration that Prince Albert was said to have popularised, which went on to become the fashionable tradition during and after his wife's long reign.

In the years that followed Albert's death, Victoria still celebrated Christmas, but she could not bear to spend it at Windsor and travelled instead to the Italianate palace of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile, her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, preferred to spend his holiday at Sandringham, finding Osborne 'utterly unattractive.'

Bertie, the Prince of Wales on the left, and Prince Albert on the right.

But, perhaps an element of guilt influenced the Prince of Wales' decision. Shortly before his father's death there had been a scandal involving the future king and an actress by the name of Nellie Clifton which was much publicised in the press, and which caused his father extreme distress. Albert first wrote to Bertie and then set off in appalling weather to implore his son to behave and change his decadent ways. But the stress of the situation combined with a pre-existing illness - and some say the state of the drains at Windsor - led on to Albert's premature death.

 Prince Albert's deathbed at  Windsor

Albert came home and died in the Blue Room at Windsor castle. He was 42 years old. Victoria never recovered from his loss, forevermore blaming the Prince of Wales, writing in a letter to one of her daughters: 'That boy... I never can or ever shall look at him without a shudder.'

To read more about Albert's death, with new research into its probable cause, and the consequences for  Victoria's reign, A Magnificient Obsession by Helen Rappaport has been gaining some truly outstanding reviews.

Friday 23 December 2011

German Christmas

by Leslie Wilson

We had a half-German Christmas when I was a child and teenager; Christmas Eve was special, and the adults always had their presents then, after we'd had a simple meal with fish (always plaice) and sung Christmas carols and lit all the fat red candles on the Advent wreath. When my brother and I were small, we left out pillow-cases in our bedrooms for Father Christmas to fill, and it was only when we were older that we opted for the Christmas Eve Bescherung, or present-giving. On Christmas Day we went to church and sang English carols, and then we had Christmas dinner, with turkey and pudding. I still do a Christmas Eve meal, but my daughters like to have the presents on Christmas Day. But I love the tree, lit up against the nighttime, with all the presents beneath it, wrapped up, pregnant with possibility.

My mother always disapproved of the spindly 'English' Christmas tree we had and told me about the thick, bluish trees she had as a child, decorated with long strings of foil, 'lametta' and white candles. Her stories mixed themselves up with the scene on the Advent calender I had and adored so much I kept it through about six successive Christmases, of a black-and-white German town with a Christmas market and people bringing their Christmas trees and provisions home on sledges, through the thick snow. The first time I saw a Nordmann spruce on sale in this country I bought it at once, and got my mother round to show it to her, and she of course at once headed off and joyfully bought one in her turn.

In my mother's childhood - she's pictured below, when quite small - the snow was probably often grey with pollution from the heavy industry in the mucky Gleiwitz-Zabrze-Kattowitz area of Silesia, where she lived till she was thirteen, but she never talked about that. The fish they had then was carp - it was only when I wrote Saving Rafael and started to ask German friends about their Christmases that I realised how specific to extreme Eastern Germany the carp was, but it was OK for people in Berlin to have it; Berlin was full of Silesians in those days, and Raf's mother came from Breslau (now Wrocław). The carp had to swim in the bath for several days to clean the mud out of its system, and little Gerda felt so sorry for it. I had carp in my grandfather's birth-village of Podgorzyn (once Giersdorf) the summer before last, from the local pond; it was delicious, quite like trout.

The other thing that was definitely specific to Upper Silesia was something I will be making tomorrow night, Mohnklöße, which in my family was made from white rolls with the crusts cut off, covered in a mixture of ground poppy seeds, sultanas and icing sugar, and soaked in warm milk, then baked in the oven till it's fluffy. It's simple and utterly delicious.

For weeks beforehand, every time the sky was red in the evening, my grandmother told my mother - as she told me and my brother later on - that 'the angels are baking for Christmas.' I used to imagine them in their huge, celestial kitchen, making enormous trayfuls of Lebkuchen and putting them into a massive oven, with big white aprons over their robes, and their otherwise pale faces rosy with the heat. On Christmas Eve the Lebkuchen appeared, many more kinds than you can get in this country, but when I was small my grandfather sent them over, as well as wonderful Lübeck marzipan (like Niederegger).

Later on, the family moved to Graz in Austria, and there my mother, in her memoir, described walking home through walls of thick snow, past the scent of roasting chestnuts, apples, oranges and Lebkuchen, on Christmas Eve of 1939, and walking later to Midnight Mass under the stars, brilliant because the blackout had eliminated light pollution. She wrote; 'Uniforms are very much in evidence this year, but the joy is not yet muted as it will be in years to come.' After that, she stopped describing Christmases, except to say that in 1945, when she'd met my British father and become engaged to him, they spent Christmas apart (maybe he was on duty in the hospital?) But I have the card he sent her that Christmas, which I'm putting up here.

The following Christmas must have been dreadful; turnips for dinner and bread bulked up with sawdust, which blew her belly up horribly, but she ate it all the same. My grandfather was a prisoner - they had no idea where - and she and my grandmother lived in a room with no glass in the windows while outside the snow of that terrible '46-'47 winter landed on the war-destroyed buildings and a wild boar, desperate with hunger, came into Siegburg and chased my grandmother down the main street. Luckily, she got away.

'We look like rag-bags' she wrote in her memoir, 'as we trudge wearily through the snow and ice, with the endless east wind cutting through us like a knife.' People suffered all over Europe from that winter, and millions died of the cold.

By the time I was born, of course, Germany was prosperous again; the source of the wonderful Advent calendars - which nobody else had in those days - of delicious things to eat and wonderful decorations. The wax-headed angel on top of the Christmas tree, with her foil wings, cotton-wool body bound with gold foil, and drifting golden hair, will go on top of our tree when it gets decorated this afternoon. She came from Germany - I don't know when, but she has topped the tree for as long as I can remember. Here she is, looking rather resigned, having just emerged from almost a year's seclusion in a box.

My grandfather sent us a record of German Christmas carols, too, which began and ended with German churchbells, not mathematical and abstract like British peals, but bundles of sound, musical and mellow. My favourite carol was Süßer die Glocken nie Klingen, (Never do the bells ring sweeter than at Christmas) I had Jenny and Rafael, in Saving Rafael, listen to those bells, ringing out over the ruins of Berlin at midnight on Christmas Eve 1943. I can't paste sounds into this blog, but you can hear the bells at:

Happy Christmas to you all! Frohe Weihnachten!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Christmas at Borough Market by Imogen Robertson

I admit it. I live a double life. Most of the time I am a mild-mannered writer of historical crime fiction, but sometimes the mask slips, and I am a cheesemonger.

My betrothed, Ned, runs the Gorwydd Caerphilly Stall at Borough Market and at Christmas when things get busy I find myself dragged out of the nice warm flat and shivering in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral selling cheese. I’m not complaining, in doing so, I am taking part in a great tradition, and at least this year the cheese hasn’t been snowed on. There has been a market here for the best part of a thousand years. It was recorded as causing trouble by extending onto London Bridge itself in the 13th century, (this being the period when the bridge was covered in houses and shops), then it was settled further down the High Street until it caused such congestion there that Parliament closed it down in the mid-18th century. Luckily though the parishioners of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) got together to set up the market again in Rochester Yard. That area is still the heart of the market, though it and lots of the other street names have changed since my 1740s map was made. Seems a shame, I would love it if London foodies were now saying to each other ‘you must try this fantastic dried ham I found in Foul Lane!’, ‘But have you tried the Eccles Cakes from Dead Man’s Place?’ Funnily enough in the early days of the new incarnation of Borough, stall holders would head up onto the bridge again, samples in hand, to persuade commuters to come and see what was on offer. Plus ça change... It's a great place for a history lover to hang out. Layers upon layers of the city's growth, evidence of its pleasures and pains are all around here and the Globe is a couple of strides up the river - just turn left at the Golden Hind. I wanted Ned to hang a sign up saying 'Shakespeare shopped here', but he told me that was going too far. I bet he did though. His brother is buried in the Cathedral after all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the nineteenth century the Borough became a wholesale market, but over the last twenty years things have changed again and the whole placed is thronged now with specialised stalls and small producers selling gorgeous foods straight to customers. In a way this new version of Borough Market is closer to the 18th century than the 20th. Let me explain that. Something bad happened to British food in the 19th and 20th century. The processes became industrial and food ceased to be an individual pleasure for maker and consumer. Old artisanal methods of food making got lost somewhere, and it’s only recently we’ve begun to get those skills back and learn to value them. When Todd Trethowan decided he wanted to learn how to make a traditional unpasteurised Caerphilly he had to go to Somerset to learn how to do it. He did, and now Ned and I get to boast about it. The stall next door to ours on Saturdays sells mustards made by Noel Fitzjohn in his home. He goes foraging for the wild garlic. When Burnt Sugar started out, the fudge was made on Justine’s kitchen table. Peter Gott raises boar and will sometimes hand out the resulting pies and sausages to you himself. So we’ve sort of come full circle at Borough; you can have the experience of shopping in an 18th century style, only with 21st century hygiene standards and more fragrant sounding street names. God bless us every one.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Cruising into Christmas, by A. L. Berridge

‘Christmas,’ they said. ‘If you’re blogging on 20th December, it’s got to be about Christmas.’

That seemed reasonable. It was true I was going to be on a Caribbean cruise at the time, but that oughtn’t to make any difference. December may be winter in Bethlehem as well as in England, but Christmas is Christmas the whole world over and has nothing to do with climate. So why did it feel wrong this morning when I stepped off the ship and saw this?

You hate me now, don't you?

Is it because our idea of Christmas is so inextricably linked to Dickensian notions of snow and winter that we can’t accept it in any other setting? The spirit of Christmas is everywhere in the Caribbean: the churches are humming, little girls in white dresses sing carols, and even taxi drivers call ‘God Bless You!’ quite as unselfconsciously as Tiny Tim could do it. Perhaps what makes it seem so bizarre is only the imposition of our own British (and American) commercial tastes over the top. The steel band in St Lucia greeted us enthusiastically in the 30 degree heat – but the tune they played was ‘Jingle Bells’. The main street of Barbados was exotically festive – but the piped music in the department stores was ‘Winter Wonderland’. The age of global travel may bring us a wonderful diversity of culture, but I think sometimes there’s a danger of homogenization that can swamp the real roots of our traditions and heritage.

That’s part of what I love about studying history. Much of what we do can be seen as reconstruction, the painstakingly recreation of details of a lost world – but some of it is almost the opposite. An archaeologist does not construct a dinosaur’s bones; he blows away the sand grain by grain until he can finally reveal what’s underneath. As a History Girl, I thought that’s what I’d try to do here – to peel away the layers of modern culture in an attempt to discover our real sense of Christmas underneath.

But there’s a snag. While the ship’s library is admirably well-stocked with light reading, there’s a decided shortage of primary historical source material. The internet is available even here on the Atlantic, but after one look at the cost of a minute on the Maritime Network my scholarly instincts began to take a back-seat to those of Scrooge. I decided on a cheaper option - to deconstruct purely on the basis of the decorations on the ship itself.

MV Queen Elizabeth

And it’s all there. Some of it is very modern and commercial, as exemplified by the piles of gaily-wrapped gifts ready for the Santa’s Grotto of the next cruise, but even that is of interest to a History Girl. The tradition of present-giving goes right back to the gifts of the Three Kings, but it’s the details of what was given that tell us most about what it was like to live in a particular age. I was fascinated as a child by Susan M Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ (1872), where the hand-made gifts circulated among the children are listed in loving detail, including pin cushions, a handkerchief – and a mysterious felt object referred to as a ‘pen-wiper’. Even something as recent as Rebecca West’s semi-autobiographical ‘The Fountain Overflows’ (1957) shows a little boy’s excitement at a simple sugar pig, while his sisters eagerly delve in their stockings for the exotic rarities of nuts and oranges we might dismiss today as simply ‘groceries’. Perhaps modern children might feel pity for the poverty of such a Christmas, but I’m not sure I do. The joy of giving was the same - and so was the anticipation and joy in receiving.

I found the same kind of story in studying the menu outside the ship’s main dining room. Christmas has always been a feast, and the nature of the meal tells us only about the prosperity of the period in which it’s eaten. Roast goose or roast turkey might be the staples now, but in the boom of the 1980’s I remember people insisting on prime joints of beef because white meat was simply ‘not special enough’. Louis XIV might well have had roast goose for his Christmas dinner, but judging by the 17th century French cook-book I used to research my second novel, it would only have been acceptable if it was first stuffed with pigeons, then itself stuffed inside the carcase of a wild boar. Louis’ peasants, however, would have considered even a leg of rabbit a luxury, since for most days of the year they couldn’t afford meat at all. The traditions haven’t really changed here, only our means of honouring them.

And yet they have changed – they must have. Gifts and feasting are centuries old, but so much of what we consider essential to a ‘British’ Christmas derives from the 19th century that it is almost as if Dickens invented the concept. Even the Christmas trees with which the ship is forested are a largely German tradition that was only popularized in Britain during Victoria’s reign. My current novel is set in the 1850s, just ten years after the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the selling of the first commercial Christmas card – but what came before? Little sprigs of holly along the ships’ rails offer the only glimpse of the older time, when the plant of the old Druids’ religion became absorbed respectably into the Christian story, but few outside the universities can explain their religious significance, and it seems unlikely the heart of our popular Christmas is really here.
Then I see it. Tucked away behind a grand coffee bar is this little scene, and at once everything falls into place.

The Crib

This is it. This is Christmas, right here. Cribs and static Nativity scenes go back at least as far as the 13th century, and the more I look at this one the stranger it begins to seem. There’s nothing new in devotees producing statues and figurines to illustrate their gods and goddesses, but what’s startling about the Christmas scene is its very ordinariness. There’s nothing magic here, only scruffy badly-dressed people sharing a stable with some rather surprised looking animals, but at once it’s something even the poorest can relate to. Louis XIV’s peasants mightn’t have seen much of the goose and even less of the presents, but they could see and believe in this scene – and they could participate in it too. France is still famous for its santons – the little terracotta figures of saints and holy figures produced at least as far back as the 16th century, and now a thriving specialized industry in Provence.

Antique French santons

Some of the earliest are only primitive wood-carvings, but produced with love and displayed with reverence - a show of the real Christmas spirit I’ve seen in the Caribbean, in Europe, all over the world, and which owes nothing to fashion, or climate – or time.

Because, as always, it’s the story that’s the thing. That’s a truism, of course, but the Christmas story is an unusual one because in one sense it’s the very first dramatisation of history for education and entertainment.

‘Living cribs’ have been around since at least the 12th century, and by the mid 14th century England was following the German traditions that dramatized the entire Christian Story in a cycle of so-called ‘Mystery Plays’ performed outside the churches. There’d been history plays before, of course, and even Greeks and Romans enjoyed drama about their own heroic roots, but the Christian ‘Mystery Plays’ were the forerunners of modern theatre - realistic, down-to-earth, and often bawdy. I remember being mildly shocked when I first read a scene in (I think) the York Cycle, where Joseph makes some very blunt remarks about Mary’s claims to virgin pregnancy and her relationship with this dodgy bloke called Gabriel. A stand-up comic today might be censured for such jokes – but the 13th century saw nothing disrespectful in them. They were bringing the Christmas story to life, making it real, taking it off its pedestal and helping people understand what its true impact would have been.

And I find that comforting – because on a different, very much lower level, that’s what we try to do too. The key to celebrating the past is understanding it, and that’s certainly what I aspire to in my writing. Those French peasants who crafted the terracotta figurines and arranged them to tell a story were exploring history just as we do, and it’s a tradition to which I can feel proud to belong.

But not too proud. I don’t even want to mention any of my own books today, because that’s not what this post’s about. Today is about Christmas and a story that’s held millions spellbound for more than two thousand years. In that context even thirty degree heat and a chorus of ‘Jingle Bells’ make sense, and so do the most sentimental utterances of Dickens. My cruise is nearly over, I’m heading back to the horrors of winter, but right now I’m raising a cocktail to all the History Girls and all our readers of 2011 - and wishing a Very Happy and Peaceful Christmas to you all.

Monday 19 December 2011

It's Christmas, and unto us a child is born by Theresa Breslin

Yes, I did indeed have a Christmas baby!

My youngest child arrived earlier and more quickly than expected. Approaching midnight on Christmas Eve we made a fast dash to the maternity unit where she was born about half an hour later. I ran the gauntlet of a rather grumpy consultant who gave me a 30 second examination, muttered something to the midwife and left.

'What did he say?' I asked.

'That you've hours to go yet. You're nowhere near delivering and might have waited until morning before coming in.'

'How did he work that out?' I gasped between now very severe contractions.

'He's going by the book. The thing is...' the midwife sighed, 'the babies don't read the medical text books.'

Giving credence to my claim that my baby was on its way she took me to the delivery room, as opposed to the waiting room / ward suggested by the consultant. In attendance was a junior doctor (male) who engaged in such jolly japes as reading out the jokes from the staffs' Christmas crackers and inflating festive balloons from the canister of gas & air. How I laughed...

In the past, no matter their social status, the majority of women gave birth at home surrounded by relatives, friends and hopefully (?) a midwife. There's a question mark after 'hopefully' as, unlike in my case, the presence of a midwife was not always a plus. Their assistance often consisted of trying to speed up delivery by trying to physically haul the baby from the womb by any means possible. Women expected to die. Like many others of the age Mary, Queen of Scots made her will before going into confinement and delivering her son, the future King James.

Known from earliest times as poena magna, extreme discomfort has always been associated with childbirth. Despite it being acceptable to relive pain during surgery e.g. with alcohol or mandrake root, in 1591 Agnis Sampson was burned at the stake for, among other supposed transgressions, using opium to ease birth pain. A century later recipes to ease the pain were written down, although the feelings of the woman in labour who drank the following one is not recorded:

.......... a lock of vergin's hair... cut small to a powder, 12 ants eggs dried in an oven... all mixed with a quart of red cow's milk, or strong ale wort...

Let's hope the ale wort was particularly strong that day.

Natural remedies abounded. Ergot was commonly administered, as was inducing women to sneeze. Weird and wonderful applications included the ankle bone of a rabbit or the eyes of a March hare, extracted whole and tied to the belly. Certain stones were carried as amulets and laid on the skin. Jasper was considered beneficial, but for maximum effect one needed to hold it in the hand for the whole nine months of pregnancy. Sir John Mandeville extolled the use of aetites or eagle-stone as did Nicholas Culpepper, the famous eighteenth century herbalist.

..........held to the privities... instantly draws away both child and afterbirthen...

In the seventeenth century the Chamberlen brothers devised a set of forceps and were in great demand to attend births as the length of labour was shortened. Very unhelpfully the family kept their new invention a secret for about a hundred years. The use of these contributed to an increasing presence of men during childbirth, the midwife's place being superseded by a doctor. It's believed that the fashion for delivering lying on a bed was devised to suit male midwives and doctors, as it was only in the eighteenth century, when men were a more common presence in the delivery room that women began regularly to give birth lying down. Previously women squatted, knelt, or even sat on someone's lap and birthing chairs were very popular throughout Europe.

We have Queen Victoria to thank for helping to reduce the opprobrium surrounding the desire to have pain-free deliveries. She and Prince Albert summoned Dr James Simpson for the birth of Prince Leopold where he administered chloroform. Churchmen registered their disapproval, referring to Biblical texts as it being a woman's lot to suffer in this way. The Lancet chose to deny it had happened, approving that although an incalculable amount of agony could be averted by the employment of chloroform in surgery, yet its use could not be sanctioned during childbirth, which (they stated) was, after all, a natural occurrence.

Advancements in housing, sanitation, and a more nourishing diet improved women's chances of survival but even at the beginning of the last century childbirth was a hazardous experience. My copy of Black's Home Medical Companion from that time, still consulted by family members (with Hogmanay approaching there is nothing to beat the hangover cure) advised that the birthing bed should have ropes for the woman to pull on during duress.

Recently in the UK there has been a change in the guidelines re childbirth to allow women in England and Wales the right to choose a Caesarean Section. In Scotland this is not be the case. Quote from a Scottish Government spokesperson: "How a woman gives birth in Scotland is a clinical decision, which is fully informed by discussions between the woman and her clinician." Hmmm.

I have to own up to using an expletive to the jolly junior doctor, snatching from his hand the mouthpiece of the unit pumping out the gas & air and clamping it firmly over my mouth and nose. Shortly afterwards my beautiful Christmas baby arrived.

Happy Christmas everybody!

Theresa Breslin's latest historical novel PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION has won the teenage section of The Historical Association, Young Quill Award, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children's Book Award and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards. A youth performance of DIVIDED CITY will appear at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2nd Feb - 4th Feb 2012