Monday 31 October 2011

October Competition

More lovely goodies in our October giveaway for answers to the following questions. Leave your answers in the Comments below.

Alas, as always, books can be posted only to UK addresses so only UK entries are eligible.

To win one of five copies of Pauline Francis's Traitor's Kiss (Usborne)

Q: What did Elizabethans celebrate on 17 November with bonfires and bell-ringing?

To win one of five copies of Mary Hooper's Velvet (Bloomsbury)

Q: In Velvet, a regular visitor to Madame Savoya was Lily Langtree, a (real) society beauty and mistress to the future king. In the Sixties a song was inspired by her. What was it and who sang it?

Answers by 7th November, please.

Sunday 30 October 2011

My First History Teacher by Mary Hoffman

She had long dark hair, a purple silk shirtwaister dress and was my first form teacher at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich. But the most fascinating thing to me was that she was married, as so few of the teachers in this all girls independent school were. She was Mrs Grisbrooke and I thought she was absolutely beautiful. To this Scholarship Girl she was a romantic dream of what a grown-up woman might be.

She was also my History teacher but not Head of department; that was a white-haired "old" lady whose name was Miss Wren. But Mrs Grisbrooke taught us about Villeins and strip farming and the Feudal system. In fact, I now realise that she planted a seed of interest in the Middle Ages in me that - although slowly - grew into the abiding passion I have now. You might even stretch a point and say that I owe my career as a historical novelist to Mrs Grisbrooke.

Mrs Grisbrooke - I never knew her first name. But she had a huge oblong topaz ring, too big for her finger, which she used to twirl round it and play with while she spoke to us. (Her engagement ring?). Although she had a lovely noble, rather Roman face, her figure was a bit lumpy. I remember overhearing a mother asking her one parents' evening, "When's the baby due?"

I hardly had time for the terrible implications of my teacher's possible departure to sink in before Mrs Grisbrooke had answered cheerfully, "Oh, I'm not pregnant. I'm always this shape."  I found out her name when I saw her obituary in the school magazine a few years ago. Maureen. She and her husband, who is also dead, never had any children. I do hope she didn't mind that mother's thoughtless remark too deeply.

I wonder who inherited that topaz ring? I hope Mrs Grisbrooke had a niece or a god-daughter who still swivels it round their finger.

But of course she did have children; she had Lower lVi and all the many other classes she must have taught,  many of whom must have caught the History bug as I did. Is it too fanciful to think that my books are her grandchildren in a way?

There was only a delicious few years of History teaching by Mrs Grisbrooke and Miss Wren before a terrible choice was placed upon me. ( I must have been  fifteen). I had to choose one subject from Chemistry, History and Art.

I had done Chemistry for a year and hated everything about it: the smell of the laboratory, the teacher, the fact that I couldn't understand it. So it was a relief to be able to step aside. Art was always going to be one of my A levels and indeed was. So it was History that had to go.

But, like English Literature, it is a subject you can return to as an adult and rediscover (unlike Chemistry - I'm afraid I blew my chances there). At least I had a good start from my first - and really only - History teacher. Thank you Mrs Grisbrooke.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Queen Elizabeth I, Perfume and Illusion: A guest post by Pauline Francis

Our guest today is historical novelist Pauline Francis; this is what she says about herself on her website:

I love books.  I translated them when I lived in Africa – and I worked with them when I was a teacher and a librarian, but I never thought about writing them.

One day, about ten years ago, I decided to become a full-time writer.

My first books were for younger readers. In Drake’s Drummer Boy (1998), Will sails around the world with Sir Francis Drake; in Sam Stars at Shakespeare’s Globe (2006), Sam works with William Shakespeare.

As you can see, the sixteenth century fascinates me. A few years ago, I started to write for older readers, about people who faced very tough decisions in a world that was changing quickly: Lady Jane Grey, in Raven Queen; the lost colonists in A World Away; and the young Elizabeth in Traitor’s Kiss.

What is a typical writing day? I write very early in the morning in a coffee shop. Then I use my computer to re-write and to do my research at home in my study.

I am married with two grown-up children, and I live in Hertfordshire close to London and to Cambridge. I enjoy going to the cinema and the theatre – and anywhere where I can watch other people.

Here is a rather blurry photo, taken on a phone, of Pauline taking part with History Girl H.M.Castor in an event at this year's Cheltenham Festival.

Traitor's Kiss

When I was writing Traitor’s Kiss, this little nursery rhyme kept popping into my head, because I was thinking about sugar and spice in the sixteenth century:

“Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.

Frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails – that’s what little boys are made of.”

Not true, of course.

I decided to write about Tudor women because they didn’t have many choices in life: they were often forced to marry (like Lady Jane Grey); executed to make way for a new wife and hopefully a son (Anne Boleyn); or expected to marry and produce an heir (Elizabeth 1). It was also the time when explorers first brought sugar back to England and only rich people could afford it.

Sugar sweetens our food. But it also sweetens life. I always eat chocolate to cheer me up if the day hasn’t gone well and as a reward if it has. So did Elizabeth – although her sugar was made into pretty rose petals.

Spice gives the illusion of good taste. Not only to bland dishes, but to hide the taste of rotting meat at a time when there were no refrigerators. Perfumes were – and still are - used to hide sweat and other smells. When Elizabeth’s father (Henry V111) was dying, his room was filled with rose-scented water to hide the disgusting smell of his pus-filled leg sores. He had a strong sense of smell, like his daughter. Elizabeth made her servants chew peppermint and thyme to scent their breath.

Not so nice: I like to look at what’s hidden – the not-so-nice bit. It’s like sitting in a boat on a sunny day, watching the clear water sparkle like a Renoir painting. But you know that the bottom of the river is murky and muddy and stinking. (I love the words stench and stink).

This is a portrait of Elizabeth 1, aged about 52, painted to commemorate the most famous conflict of her reign: the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. She is smothered in pearls, rubies and diamonds. Her dress is embroidered and elaborate. Her hair is thick and red.

Doesn’t she look magnificent?

But we know that her teeth were already rotten from eating too much sugar. We know that she suffered from panic attacks which made her sweat and she smothered herself with perfume. We know that her beautiful jewel-encrusted dress smelled of damp and it would have been rubbed with lavender and roses and thyme to mask it. We know that the hair is real – but a wig.

Elizabeth was very clever. She knew how to create an illusion - an image – that her people would never forget. She gave them what they wanted.

It still happens today. Celebrities, film stars, actors – all play the game of illusion.

I do.

I always rinse my hair with colour before an event. I always put on the clothes I feel best in. I always use perfume. We all do it, don’t we? And the media persuade us to do it.

Next time you’re reading a magazine, count the number of advertisements for perfumes, deodorants and air freshener products. You can even buy a room freshener with a sensor that sprays when somebody walks past. Elizabeth would have loved them.

Something to think about: should we try to hide the bad smells? When we write about difficult situations, we use phrases like, ‘smelling of fear,’ ‘smelling of blood-lust.’ We can pick up signals from other people if they don’t try to mask their smell with perfumes or deodorants because we sweat more when we’re angry or afraid. Bad breath can be a sign of disease and is a useful symptom for a doctor. Disease in the sixteenth century could kill you between breakfast and dinner if it was the plague or the sweating sickness (but there wasn’t a cure, so perhaps it was better to die smelling fragrant!).

What’s your favourite ‘smell’ word?

One of mine is incense. Incense is made of spices and gum and burned to ward off evil spirits and to create a warm, safe feeling. Incensed means very angry, like being set alight.

I love looking up the meaning of words because they too hide so much. I did it long before I became a writer. One of my favourite books is A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Some of the chapters are headed by unusual words, because her female narrator longs to be well-educated, although she has to look after her siblings.

Sugar derives from the Arabic word for gritty and gravelly. Beneath the sweet lies something gritty that gets into your teeth.

Perfume derives from the Latin words per fumam: from the smoke. Fragrant herbs used to be placed on the bodies of human sacrifice to hide the stench of roasting flesh. Church yards in cities used to give off the stench of rotting corpses and I wonder if that’s why trees and flowers were always planted?

Over to you! Which is your favourite smell? Why? Do you recognise your friends by their smell? Which smell do you hate most? Why?

Do you know that Japanese people used to say that meat eaters and milk drinkers had a distinctive smell when those items weren’t a big part of their own diet?

A last thought. If this blog gave off a smell it would be: crisps, coffee and Coco Mademoiselle.

What are they hiding?

Traitor’s Kiss was published in July, 2011

Friday 28 October 2011

Wiggery by K. M. Grant

Not a bloody blog this month; a wiggy one instead. Perhaps it’s because I have such awful hair - a miserably skinny plait in childhood – that when meandering round the web, gearing up to write, I suddenly ordered wigs. Not wigs to wear every day – things are not that dire yet. I wanted wigs to get me in the mood. Hard choices had to be made. I toyed with Saloon Madam, Medeia and Geisha and eventually plumped for Marie-Antoinette, Pompadour, pink milkmaid and a blue Marge Simpson affair. Wigs without heads look rather silly. Dotted about this post are photographs of me bewigged. I also look rather silly.

Indeed, wigs are always funny. When my mother had cancer and lost all her hair, we found much to amuse in the proffered wig selection. She opted against, in the end, and went for the bohemian scarf look. It was a light moment at a dark time.

It’s not just our era that hoots at wigs, though. I think wigs have always raised a smile. The splendidly named Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing from Paris in 1718, was most amused by friends with their Hair cut short and curled round their faces, loaded with powder that makes it look like white wool, and then on their cheeks to their chins, unmercifully laid on, a shining red japan that glisters in a most flameing manner that they seem to have no resemblance to human faces, and I am apt to believe took the first hint of their dress from a fair sheep new raddled.
(From Anne Buck’s comprehensive Dress in Eighteenth Century England, B. T. Batsford Ltd., London 1999.)

The word ‘wig’, short for ‘periwig’, seems to have appeared in 1675, but the idea of the wig has been around since the ancient Egyptians suffered sunstroke. As with so many other things, wigs were born of practicality but, because humans are really peacocks, soon found themselves suborned into the great world of vanity. Decorated with preposterous appendages and all stuck together with bacon fat, they were not only 'must wears', they also made useful homes for assorted creepycrawlies. It wasn't unknown for a lady to go to a party bearing one family of mice on her head, only to return with another. Wigs were useful to balding men and even if you weren't bald, saved you the bother of washing your hair. Royalty turned them into a character statement: Elizabeth 1st famously wore a smart red wig to show she was a smart, fiery kind of gal; Charles II preferred a loose silky one, to show he was a loose, silky kind of chap.

Powdering the wig, as Alice’s grandmother does in my How the Hangman Lost His Heart, was not without its dangers, as Gay’s poem ‘Trivia’ illustrates:

You sometimes meet a Fop of nicest Tread
Whose mantling Peruke veils his empty Head
Him, like the Miller, pass with Caution by
Lest from his Shoulders Clouds of powder fly.

(again, courtesy of Anne Buck)

A Powder Tax instituted in 1786 indicates that there were enough 'clouds' for the Exchequer to take an interest. I can find no record of this tax being abolished.

My wigs (unpowdered, let me assure HMRC) are supposedly strictly for procrastination purposes. They live in a bag by my desk and when I can’t think of anything better to do, I put one on. But our house is chilly and the wigs are beautifully warm. Here lurks a danger. Sometimes I forget to take the wig off, and once got all the way onto the main road before realising the top of my head was still Duchess of Devonshire Aiming to Shock. Unsurprisingly, my children were never keen for me to meet them at the school gate. I considered that a wiggy bonus.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Nancy? Yes! Nancy! by Louisa Young

I don't, of course, being a lady of dignity, respond to reviews. But one point came up which filled me with such fury that I cannot let it lie.

A character in my novel My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, set during the First World War, has a homosexual experience, fraught with drink and misunderstanding. He - Riley Purefoy, a heterosexual semi-educated working-class eighteen-year-old in 1914 - is upset. He reacts badly, and refers - in thought - to his seducer as a 'nancy'. My reader was shocked by this and called it homophobia.

Ai ai ai!

It is so simple. That was then. This is now. In that other country, the past, they did things differently. We, the novelists, have a responsibility at least to bear that in mind, while we work out our own relationship to it and how we are going to write about it. Are we going to get the underwear and the numbers of the busses right? Or are we going to invent a fantasy history that works for us and the story we are telling, where we make up the rules, it being, after all our book? That's our choice, and our job. In this particular novel - which is for adults - my history is pretty spotlessly factually accurate (and I say that as a history graduate, a former sub-editor and a grotesque pedant).

So: one of the first things you notice, when researching, is how difficult it was for certain things to be spoken of or portrayed at different stages of human development. At the time I was writing about, homosexuality was 1) against the law, 2) socially unacceptable, 3) unmentionable in respectable society and 4) probably just as prevalent as it is today. And it was absolutely not referred to directly in novels.

Theodore Winthrop, in Cecil Dreeme (1862), can only mention 'a friendship I deemed more precious than the love of women'.

Radclyffe Hall had only to write
(in The Well of Loneliness, 1928)
of her female protagonists that
'that night, they were not divided', for the editor of the Sunday Express to announce that he would 'rather give a healthy girl or boy a phial of prussic acid
than this novel'.

E.M. Forster's Maurice was not
published till after his death.

This was the background. It was the love that dared not speak its name.

Now, in our freer times, we have opportunities that our ancestor-writers did not have: not only to address things in our society, but to address things in theirs which they could not. We have a chance to cast modern open eyes over a closed society, and wonder what might have been going on in people's minds and hearts and beds, and write about it, with modern openness. And we may also want to remain historically accurate.

And isn't this a most wonderful and fascinating area of what we do? To work out those relationships and balances, across the centuries? Of course it is.

Look at, for example, Pat Barker and Sarah Waters, mistresses of the art.

'How would I have been, if I had been then, and there . . . ?' is one of our basic questions. Of course we're all certain we would have been Resistance not Nazi. We like to think - or tend to assume, if we're not thinking - that we would never have shared any of the sexual or racial or class prejudices of other times and places. But why wouldn't we? Chances are, we would have. I read the words 'little jew' in my own grandmother's diaries and winced - but she was far from anti-semitic, he was little and Jewish and it was 1927. We grow in the garden where we are planted.

So when we look back, however open and modern our eyes may be, we need to see through our characters' eyes too - particularly when writing things they would never have been allowed to write or to read. And then we have to work out how to deal with it. Not every hero or heroine can be a time-transcending neo-liberal vanguard-leader with 21st-century sensibilities. But that doesn't mean they're evil.

Dammit, of course he would have said 'nancy'.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

AND THE BOOKER GOES TO… posted by Dianne Hofmeyr

This is a cheat. I’m only going back in history as far as 1969 – the year the Booker Prize was instituted. Do you remember what you were doing in 1969? Probably half of you reading this post weren’t even born. Do you remember the winner? I didn’t. I glanced through the Man Booker booklet and found it was P.H. Newby for his novel Something to Answer For.
1969 was a year when I wore skirts shorter than any I’ve ever worn and will ever wear, and my bikini was smaller than any I’ve ever worn and certainly will ever wear! Dr Chris Barnard had only just performed the first heart transplant. I’d seen Francois Hardy perform live in Cape Town. I’d heard Neil Armstrong speak from the moon. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and the Beatles were all doing their thing and Woodstock took place on a New York farm.
In 1969 my days were defined by reading on the beach, dancing the nights away and earning a paltry salary as an art teacher, dreaming of saving enough money for a ticket on the mail-ship to Southampton so I could get to London where it was all happening! I lived in a wooden cottage above one of the most famous and beautiful beaches in the world – Clifton, where surfers were still using longboards and where across the water, Nelson Mandela was chipping stone in a quarry on Robin Island.
I hadn’t heard of the Booker. I was reading Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, Robert Ruark, Doris Lessing and a few Dostoevsky’s thrown in. The first Booker I ever read was 5 years later in 1974 when Nadine Gordimer won with The Conservationist. A discomforting book about a capitalist who believes he has won privilege through hard work and not birth, which jabbed at my conscience. After that it was easy jump to other South African writers… Andre Brink’s An Instant in the Wind (the story still haunts me) won in 1976 and his Rumours of Rain short-listed in 1978 when Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea won, and J M Coetzee’s 1983 winner Life and Times of Michael K. I didn’t read Thomas Keneally’s Shindler’s Ark which preceded Michael K but I did read Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac which won the next year. I’m sure I pass Anita Brookner on the Fulham Road. She seems to be getting more fragile and like the characters in her books, seems rather alone.
Right now I’ve just read Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie and have started Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. But what I most wish is that (like Adele Geras and Linda Newbery and I’m sure many others too) I’d kept a detailed list of all the books I’d ever read. It would be interesting to know what I thought as a 20 year old, a 30 year old and a 40 year old and how the history of the day impacted on me as a reader.
If you were to choose your best Booker ever over the last 43 years since 1969, what would it be? Would it be Salman Rushie’s Midnight’ Children which won the overall 40 year winner by popular online vote, or would it be:
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty
Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day
And if you could include books from the short list too:
Emma Donoghue’s Room
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room
Tim Winton’s Dirt Music
Ian McEwan’s Atonement
Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries
A S Byatt’s Possession or The Children’s Book
Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
Or something from Rose Tremain? Beryl Bainbridge? Graham Swift? Margaret Atwood? Anne Enright? Iris Murdoch? My list might become very long.
What overall winner would you choose since 1969? And if not one overall winner, what short-list would you have for the past 43 years?
And what book would you choose for one that never made it? Mine would be Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (1950) which I haven’t read for years but which still resonates with me. But perhaps like Julian Barnes’s narrator in The Sense of an Ending… ‘What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Turning The Lights Out – by Eleanor Updale

How to put children off history with one little book

A few years ago there was a cinema advert with the tag line ‘No one forgets a good teacher’. Various celebs talked about the person who had turned the lights on for them, setting them up for success. Some of the posts on this site have testified to the importance of encountering the right person or book at the right time.

It’s fitting that such folk are celebrated, but I think attention should also be given to people and things that have the reverse effect. I still resent the maths teacher who approached each lesson with the subliminal message ,‘You’re not going to like this, let alone understand it,’ and whoever wrote the mind-numbing text books that repelled my children from French has a lot to answer for. Will I ever forgive the diligent but remorseless woman who taught both my daughters to hate school?

A few weeks ago, I came across a book that seems highly likely to put children off history. I bought it in the Museum of Scotland. I recently moved to Edinburgh, and I love it here. However, I am acutely aware that I know very little of Scottish history. I need to mug up fast, and so it seemed like a good idea to buy a slim work for children, called Scottish Kings and Queens, which was on sale in the museum shop.

I am not in favour of burning books, but if I were forced to contribute to a conflagration, this would be the second volume I’d fling in the flames -- after Penelope Leach’s ‘Baby and Child’ (or The Doormat Theory of Motherhood, as a friend of mine calls it).

This book ought to be good. It's published by the museum service itself, and the producers claim to have had access to its wonderful collection to help them tell their story. There are, indeed, plenty of illustrations, but many of them are the sort of black and white line sketches familiar to some of us from cheap post-war text books. Very few of the colour pictures originate from the museum. The small print at the back reveals that many have been lifted from other publications. The images slice up the text almost at random, and the tone of that narrative combines with them to turn the book into a jumble of factoids and false deductions, with some profoundly misleading juxtapositions of words and pictures. I can’t help feeling that any child for whom this book was an early encounter with history would come out of the experience not only uninspired and misinformed, but also misdirected about how to think historically.

Here are some examples, with my shouty comments in square brackets:

The book opens with a one page essay on Kings and Queens, apparently assuming that the reader has absolutely no idea what they are. Alongside an unlabelled sketch of a man in doublet and hose with a bird of prey on his ungloved hand, it says:

Although it was often thought [When? By whom?] that monarchs did very little except hold court and hunt, there is much more to the job. Below: the present Queen, Elizabeth II, opens the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1998. [Black and white photo of the Queen, which could have been taken at any time, anywhere]
The next page is labelled ‘Royalty at War’. Here is the entire text of the author’s thoughts on this rather large issue:
Monarchs, such as Queen Victoria (below) [scrappy line drawing of QV] 1819-1901 [i.e. her birth and death dates, and not the dates of her reign] honour their subjects for courage in time of danger. [WHAT?? It turns out that this is an excuse for a large photo of a Victoria Cross] The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 to award [sic] ‘acts of valour in the face of the enemy’ at the end of the Crimean War against Russia (1853-56).
The image of the medal partly overlaps a photo of George V in uniform, walking along with a handful of unidentified soldiers. Beneath that is a picture of the present queen in overalls. Here’s the accompanying text:
Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) contributed to the war effort during the Second World War by learning about car mechanics [Never mind the double-entendre, what child is going to understand how that helped the fight?] Her grandfather, George V (1865-1936) [birth and death dates again] played a major part in Britain’s military action during the First World War, as the picture (above) demonstrates. [No it doesn't. It's impossible to deduce anything from the picture, apart from the fact that the king was once in the company of some soldiers. If you'd never seen an image of George V, you might not even be able to work out which man is the king. There is nothing to indicate where he was, or when, or why. And does anyone really think that George V played a 'major part' in military action?]

There’s one more paragraph in this ‘Royalty at War’ section:

Back in the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -87) [Birth and death dates again, though she abdicated in 1567] was likewise [!!!] engaged in warfare, although it was against some of her own subjects and even her own son. In this picture she is cradling a dying member of her army, supposedly [Whose supposition? What is the nature of the doubt about this?] George Douglas at the battle of Langside [ie, in 1568, after Mary's abdication, so this is not an example of a monarch at war at all] When the battle was lost, Mary was forced to flee south to England to avoid capture.

That’s it. Those few words on the Victoria Cross, Elizabeth II, George V and Mary Queen of Scots (in that order) encapsulate the author’s thoughts on ‘Royalty at War’ in the context of a book called Scottish Kings and Queens. It is utter balderdash.
To the left of the words about Mary is the picture mentioned in the text. The book doesn't tell you this, but it's a lithographic print of a painting by Charles Landseer.
Landseer's image was created some three centuries after the event, but there is no date for it here, or later in the book, when a detail reappears. Delving into the small-print credits at the back, you can find that the image comes from the US Library of Congress, but there is no other information at all. What, then, is this picture doing in a history book – twice? Children are being implicitly invited to see it as ‘evidence’, but, as presented, it provides evidence of absolutely nothing, and there is no warning whatever that the image drips with a Victorian view of Scottish history which, though interesting in its own right, has little to do with the realities of the sixteenth century. It's tempting to think that the publishers chose it for the same reason I am using it here: it is free of copyright.

So we're on page 5, and the clock is already striking thirteen. But things get worse. The book lurches between giving the birth and death dates of monarchs and the dates of their reigns. In some cases it gives no dates at all, leaving us to dive back to the timeline at the front (which gives the reign dates, though without saying so). Another timeline in the back of the book, which has a potentially useful alignment of events in Scotland with what was going on in England and France, inexplicably ends in 1328 – just before the international links get really interesting.

The author and designers seem to fight clarity at all costs, darting around between and within reigns. There are some pieces of complete linguistic nonsense:

Even after the Union of the Crowns, visits to Scotland by rulers of the combined kingdoms were rare [ Derr -- Before that, surely they would have been impossible?]

No distinction is made between women who were ’Queen’ by virtue of being married to a king (eg, as far as I can work out, an eleventh-century consort called Margaret, of whom it is said:

It is thought [By whom?] that around 1069, Malcolm persuaded her to marry him [is the doubt about the date, or about whether he had to persuade her, or whether the marriage happened at all?]. Margaret became Queen of Scotland. [Then? Later? In her own right, or what?]

Another Margaret turns up a couple of hundred years (but only 6 pages) later. This one does appear to have been a ‘proper’ queen, though only a child. The political confusion after her death ‘possibly of sea-sickness’ in 1290 is illustrated with a painting of a glamorous eighteenth-century soldier on a horse. This sits under the words: In 1294 Edward I was at war with France. The text around the picture refers to the beginning of the ‘Auld Alliance’ in 1295 [but surely it wasn’t seen as ‘Auld’ then?].
At last, right down at the bottom of the page, the man on the horse is explained. There’s a note about the Garde Ecossais (set up a couple of centuries after everything else on the page, and three hundred years before the picture was painted). This information is separated from the Frenchified horseman by a wide black band.

That’s typical of the design of the book. It seems to work on the principle that children’s attention span is limited, and that since they will shoot around from one thing to another the information they are given should do the same. The result is not only confusing, but also pretty boring. There is no real narrative, no sense that one thing might be the consequence of another, and frequent interruptions by cutesy anecdotes, leadenly told. A special box artlessly obliterates part of a picture of Dunfermline Abbey to tell us:

Big Head

King Malcolm III was also known as

Malcolm Canmore.

Canmore in Gaelic

means ‘Great Chief’ but it could

also mean ‘Big Head’!

[A generation groans]
But at least that is actually about a king. Take a look at page 23. Suddenly, we hit a heading Wolves in Scotland , followed by drawings of a wolf, a piece of bone, and a diagram of a wolverine skull. Together they take up more than a quarter of the page. Here’s the text:
Wolves were living in the wild in Scotland in the 15th century, although James I ordered that the numbers should be kept down. The last wolf in Scotland was thought to have been killed in 1743. Below, left, is a fragment of the upper jaw of a wolf, found in Midlothian. The skull diagram shows the position, in red, of the fossil fragment. [This is not an excerpt. It is everything the book has to say on the subject. But why say it at all? What has that got to do with ‘Scottish Kings and Queens’?]

The rag bag is rounded off with a brain-dead game completely unrelated to any real events, thereby missing a chance to reinforce information in a palatable way.
Square 51: New Rebellion! You’re taken prisoner. Throw a six to escape execution and move on to 52. If you don’t throw a 6, return to START! Square 55: Establish a monastery to give thanks for your survival. Move forward one space.
Oh dear.

Children are not stupid. They know when they are being patronised, they know dodgy work when they see it, and they know when two and two are being made to add up five. What they don't have is a repository of facts in their heads, or a feel for the traps of false links and anachronisms. It's hard to imagine that this book will add to their store of knowledge, and worrying to see the sloppy habits of deduction it seems to be encouraging.

There are many reasons to admire the Museum of Scotland, but I’m embarrassed on behalf of my new homeland that Scottish Kings and Queens is being sold there, with official backing.

I hope that it is not typical of the history books children are being given in schools.
If it is, the lights must be going out all over Britain.

Monday 24 October 2011


By Essie Fox

My novel, The Somnambulist, opens up in a Victorian music hall – in Wilton’s to be precise – a hall which is situated in Grace’s Alley in London’s East End and which still opens its doors for productions today. I really do recommend a visit, especially for one of the conducted tours which tell all about the hall’s history. And do prepare to be utterly charmed by the crumbling beauty of the place in which you can very almost ‘taste’ the glamour and 'bang’ of a bygone age.

The entrance doors to Wilton's hall

When I entered Wilton's entrance doors for a performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, I was entirely seduced by such an intimate theatrical space, where the frieze-fronted balcony of papier mache is supported by brass sugar-barley-twist posts.

Inside Wilton's music hall

Sitting in the darkened hall and seeing those metal posts sparkle when reflecting the glint of the stage lights, I imagined them as mirrors into the past, and however blurred and distorted those reflections might happen to be, I wondered what stories they might have to tell – what glorious pictures they might have to show from Wilton’s in its heyday.

One of Wilton's most famous faces - and one who appears in my story too - was the singer George Leybourne whose career really took off when he co-wrote That Daring Young Man on his Flying Trapeze, a song based on the acrobat Jules Leotard who was also quite a star, and after whom the item of sports clothing - the leotard - was named.

Jules Leotard

But it was the song, Champagne Charlie that really brought George Leybourne fame, when he appeared as a West End swell, very elegant in his topper and tails and carrying a silver-topped cane in his hand. Soon he was being sponsored by the champagne producer, Moet and Chandon – thereafter almost always seen with a bottle of Moet in his hand. which probably did more harm than good as George died in his early forties from what might well be described as a surfeit of the ‘the high life’ and 'the phizz'.

Wilton’s would have hosted many different kinds of act – from performing dogs to acrobats – and to continue with this month’s blog theme of ‘cross-dressing’ I’ve no doubt there would also have been ‘Drag Kings’ – acts in which women dressed up to imitate men such as Leybourne which (despite the sense of the Victorian age being one of repression and prudery) was always a popular turn – as were many of the songs  performed, full of 'sauce' and double entendre.

Two of my favourite Victorian male impersonators, or ‘mashers’, are the fictional Nan King and Kitty Butler from Sarah Waters’ wonderful novel, Tipping the Velvet which, whilst being very entertaining and providing a vivid picture of the Victorian music halls, is a fascinating commentary on gender and sexual acceptance, as well as the politics involved on the road to social justice and suffrage.

Vesta Tilley in drag costume 

One such real life character was Vesta Tilley who was born into a theatrical family in Worcester, England, in 1864. Vesta often appeared on stage as a child and from very early in her career preferred to play a boy or a man, saying, ‘I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.’ Vesta’s attention to the detail of her stage costume was such that she became a fashion icon for men. But, the females in her audience also adored her – enjoying the wry nods to illustrate men’s foibles and eccentricities to which her songs often alluded. 

She performed as a swell, a judge, a clergyman and a soldier – and to such acclaim that when she retired in 1920, nearly two million people signed the People’s Tribute as a mark of their thanks and respect. 

I think it both ironic and somehow rather touching that this woman who preferred to act as a man had a husband who went on to receive a knighthood, which meant that Vesta Tilley was thereafter known as 'Lady’.

Vesta Tilley as 'herself'

Sunday 23 October 2011

We Were Born To Die For Germany

by Leslie Wilson

First the Nazis killed disabled children, Jewish children, Roma children, Slav children; then the 'Aryan' children started to die in air-raids and later in battle. In 1945 the shrinking borders of the Reich were defended by young lads and sometimes even by girls. By the time it was only a ten-pfennig tram ride between the Eastern and the Western Fronts, little lads as young as twelve were being conscripted to fight in the battles. One of the things that started me writing 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' was the account I read of these children being gunned down by the SS when they cracked. Hitler thought that was OK. After all, death was what the German youth had been trained for.  'We were born to die for Germany.'

And while their leader was committing suicide in the bunker, little German girls were being raped by soldiers of the Red Army.

One of the famous horrors of this death-fest was Magda Goebbels' killing of her own children in Hitler's bunker. She and her husband chose to bring them there - she could have escaped with them to Switzerland - but she didn't want to survive the Nazi regime and she decided that her children shouldn't be forced to live in the terrible world that would succeed it. 'Our magnificent idea is dying, and with it everything that is admirable and beautiful that I have experienced in my life.'
The accounts of how she drugged the children vary - some say they were given an injection, others 'medicine', but when they were asleep, she went to each and cracked a poison capsule into their mouths. Later, when the Russians entered the bunker, they found them lying there. But Helga, the eldest, had heavy bruising to her face, which suggests that she wasn't as heavily drugged as the rest, and struggled against her mother.
Recently, I was sent a copy of a novel about Helga; 'The Girl in the Bunker,' which I read with interest, and finally, with distaste, I'm afraid. I'm not attempting a review of this title because I haven't really got the necessary distance to do so. Rather, I want to talk about the feelings it engendered in me.
I have always been horrified by Magda Goebbels's action - yet I found that this novel actually diluted my sympathy for Helga and her siblings, and this was because - though this is to the credit of the author - she so credibly portrayed Helga's Nazified little soul. Even at the end, when Helga was trying to escape her death, she was still hoping to run away and keep the Nazi flame burning somewhere. I'm sure that is how she did feel. Why would she have any other views? She was a princess, under Nazism. A star.

'You're not like the others,' a soldier says to Helga in the novel. But she is. Not like her parents, Hitler, and his floozie Eva Braun, but like the other Nazis who didn't want to commit suicide. If she'd lived, she might have changed, but this novel can't show us that.

Helga Goebbels's anguish lasted for only a few minutes before she died. Of course it is appalling that a mother would be so attached to Nazism that she chose to murder them - but compare that to the Jewish children who died in the gas chambers, or who cowered, naked and terrified, in front of the mass grave they had been forced to help dig, often having to see the brutal murder of others before it was their turn. Or to the little girls who were gang-raped, sometimes to death, or to my own mother, who escaped from the Russians who wanted to rape her, in May, up into the freezing Austrian mountains, all on her own for days and days till she finally collapsed onto a road - and was found, luckily, by a British Army patrol. There must have been many others who weren't so lucky.

Towards the end of Tracey S. Rosenberg's novel, the author makes the German chauffeur rape one of the children as they wait to be driven to the bunker. I couldn't bear that. There is no evidence for that - OK, I know it's fiction - and given the relatively easy death the children had, this episode really sticks in my gullet.

This is my personal, emotional, maybe extreme reaction. But given the shadow that my mother's experiences cast on my childhood, since she confided her story to me when I was eight - I feel entitled to express it.

What is this glamour - as Ian Kershaw puts it - that attracts so many British readers to Hitler and his circle? Is it really an attempt to find out what went wrong, or is it a kind of 'Hello' syndrome, a fascination with celebs, no matter how monstrous or criminal? Or does it validate the view of Germans which, alas, still hangs around in the British psyche, that they are all genetically and culturally debased and evil? Forgive me - I know there are many other people who hold a far friendlier view.

Why is a Nazi princess so fascinating?

Here are some Germans you should read about. Yad Vashem has a whole list of them. People like Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi functionary who warned the Danish resistance that their Jewish citizens were about to be deported. Without him, the Danes wouldn't have succeeded in their spectacular rescue operation. Or Elisabeth Abegg the prototype for my fictional Quaker Agnes Hummel in 'Saving Rafael,' who hid Jews, and helped them to safety. Or Bernt Engelmann, who as a young lad also helped rescue Jews and opponents of Hitler. There are many more. Isn't the extreme of lovingness and courage as worth hearing about as the extreme of evil?

Saturday 22 October 2011


A few weeks ago, my daughter's school Chamber Choir was singing Evensong in Southwark Cathedral, so I went along to listen. Many years ago, when I first crossed the Thames to live South of the River (which as all Londoners know is slightly more drastic than crossing the Channel to live permanently in France), in the daytime Bankside was busy with suits, doctors, and wholesale cabbages. But outside the working week it was Tumbleweed Town: anyone who could fled to the salubrious suburbs, and those few who couldn't had nothing to tempt them out of their grim blocks of flats.

Now the council blocks have been done up, there are university halls of residence, lofts and flats and family houses for urban living, there's Borough Market, the Globe, the Golden Hinde, the London Assembly, at least ten branches of Prêt à Manger, and you can walk along the Thames Path, from Deptford on your bank and St Katherine's Dock on the other, to Lambeth Palace and the Houses of Parliament. It's full of people living and working and drinking and talking. In becoming more modern, Southwark has become more ancient: it's once again the mirror-image of the city across the tide that gave birth to it.

Southwark Cathedral wasn't built as a cathedral, but as a church: St Mary Overey (as in, Over the Thames). So although it's a fine bit of Early English Gothic it's not particularly large or complex. But it still has that unity in difference which is the great joy of mediaeval architure: the pointed Gothic arches don't come just in large and small, but can stretch broad or high, vaulting above your head, or stooping to make a canopy over a baby's little tomb. Some of the columns are like bundles of saplings, others are great, ribbed tree-trunks; you walk through puddles of colours where the light from the stained glass windows splashes down as regularly as a wave.

There was a hymn, all solid, Anglican harmony, and then the Responsory: call-and-answer with the choir. And then the choir sang alone, weaving in and out of each other as pitched and patterned by Orlando Gibbons, and I remembered Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night, saying to his Harriet, "Anyone can have the harmony, if they'll leave us the counterpoint".

As one of Gibbons' contemporaries nearly wrote: Licence my roving notes and let them go / before, behind, between, above, below... But I couldn't - for good manners' sake - rove on foot during the service, thought I've done so in many other churches. So I sat still, and allowed my mind's eye to rove instead, imagining how as you walk and look the clusters of saplings in the different aisles set to partners and then pass on, the ribs like branches stretching out to join those of another tree overhead; triplets of windows dancing between bigger trunks; the arch that opens to a whole new chapel of variations; the path that leads you on, curls you round the back of the altar and brings you to the centre again, under the still, pendulum point of the crossing.

They say that architecture is frozen music. In which case, I thought, gazing up the column by my shoulder to where it sprang up and out into the vault, music is surely liquid architecture. What I'm sitting in - what those nameless medieval masons built - is a fugue in stone; a fugue that you can live inside. And perhaps a piece of music is therefore a building that sings.

So where does that leave the reader and writer of fiction? Like music, writing can only exist for the reader in time but, unlike music, it can only sing one note at once. The Donne (mis)quotation suggests that poets may be closer to music: their words have explicit patterning, repetition and sound. But fiction does have architecture: a novel has pace, scale and proportion, as I found when I started thinking about writing a novel as building a bridge. Ian McEwan says the first thing he knows about a new novel is "the maths", by which, as Pythgoras and Stravinsky would have agreed, he also means "the music". In fiction we can play as we choose with echoes and repetitions of ideas and images, as well as with sounds, and build them into something which you can live inside: the world of the novel not just in the sense of setting and characters, but a structure of sound and rhythm and image.

And historical fiction? Well, there's your answer: Bankside. Many historical novels take the reader to live in the year and moment of the action: - steam trains screeching and puffing above Dickens' head as he tries to rescue a six year old prostitute; two monks turned out of their priory as Henry VIII's men pull the lead off the roof; families emerging from the Tube station air raid shelters to see if their homes are still standing.

Other historical novels are also novels about history. The Golden Hinde is a replica of Francis Drake's ship that he sailed round the world, and there are modern American schoolchildren clambering about on it, snapping each other on their mobiles. But in the 1970s it was moored across the river, and my sister was on it - only because the Tower queues were too long - when the IRA bombed the Tower, killing one and injuring forty people. The Golden Hinde is a world you can enter and live in, a world at once Now, and many Thens, a world built of ribs and beams: wood, tarred and caulked to sail as well as it did five hundred years ago, dancing over the waves with the wind singing in the rigging. The replica embodies the history that it hasn't actually seen but also what it has seen, as novels about history do: a historical novel is history you can live inside.

Friday 21 October 2011

Cross Dressing and the Chevalier D'Eon by Imogen Robertson

I haven’t had a chance to use him in a novel as yet, but I can’t let cross-dressing month go by without reminding everyone of the wondrous story of the Chevalier d’Eon whose gender was a national obsession in 18th century Europe and who remains, I reckon, one of the most fascinating mysteries of the time. Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont was born in Tonnerre in 1728 and having received a standard masculine education, became a bit of a star among the diplomats of Louis XV. He did particularly well in the Court of the Empress Elizabeth in Russia. He became a Captain of the Dragoons on his return to France and was wounded during the Seven Years War. 1762 saw him in London, but although he did well in his negotiations with the government here, he got into trouble with the French Court. He was eventually granted a pension by the French government (possibly to buy his silence over his spying activities) but continued to live in England.Where the rumours about his sex began, it is difficult to say. Kirkby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum of 1820 suggests that he might have disguised himself by dressing in female clothing when he wanted to disappear from time to timeduring this period. Anyway, by the mid 1770’s large sums of money were being wagered on his gender. His attitude appears to have been one of ‘no comment’, but in 1777 one of these bets resulted in a court case in London. A Mr Hayes demanded payment of seven hundred pounds and produced witnesses who swore under oath that they knew for certain d’Eon was female. D’Eon did not take part in the trial, and swore that he himself stood to gain nothing from the bets placed. Then he returned to France and declared he was, in fact, a woman. Louis XVI said in that case he must dress and behave as one. D’Eon was at this point 49 years old.

From that point until her death she dressed in female clothing. It was said that her father had been so disappointed on the birth of a daughter, he had decided to bring up Mademoiselle D’Eon, as she was now called, as a man. Plenty of stories circulated as to how she was finding behaving as a female difficult. She could not be properly modest, refused to wear rouge and curtsied ‘in the rustic fashion’.She came back to England in 1785 after getting into trouble with the French Court for trying to serve again in the army. Her finances seemed precarious, but she gave various exhibitions of her fencing skills including one against Chevalier Saint George (another star of the age) at Carlton House on April 9th 1787.

In 1792 having sold all of her goods in London she petitioned the French Assembly to be allowed to take up arms again, saying that although she had now worn the dress of a woman for fifteen years she had never forgotten that she was formerly a soldier, and she demanded instead of her cap and petticoats, her helmet, her sabre and her horse. ‘I have been the sport of nature, of fortune, of war and peace, of men and women, of the malice and intrigue of courts. I have passed successively from the state of a girl to that of a boy from the state of a man to that of a woman. I have experienced all the odd vicissitudes of human life. Soon I hope with arras in my hands, I shall fly on the wings of liberty and victory to fight and die for the nation the law and the king.’
The petition was warmly applauded, but applause was all Mademoiselle received.
She died in poverty in London in 1811 having been cared for in the last years of her life by a widow called Mrs Cole… and the morning after her death was found to have been a man after all.
A number of surgeons were called and Mr Kirby reports the following statement was circulated:
So why did he dress as a woman? Kirkby believes it is because he stood to make money from the bets on his sex. Perhaps, but for 33 years? Transvestite? Transgendered? I wonder if it might be that during his years in Russia he learnt that he rather liked dressing as a woman. The Empress held regular cross-dressing balls and apparently looked very good in male costume. You can see what is very probably a portrait of her in male dress by following this link. The article is fascinating too. I don’t think anyone has the answer, but the reactions to the Chevalier at all stages of his life shed a fantastical light on gender attitudes in the 18th century, just as the glittering reflections from the chandelier in the Empress’s ballroom over the splendid transvestite costumes of her guests.

Oh, and on a totally unrelated note, (coughs and looks at shoes), I’m delighted to say my latest book, Island of Bones has been short listed for the CWA Ellis Peters Award. Fingers crossed.

Thursday 20 October 2011

'What It Says On The Sheet' by A L Berridge

Pub quizzes are evil.
I’m still haunted by an evening ten years ago, when having failed to contribute anything on the subjects of baseball teams, Big Brother contestants, or the private life of Bjork, I was finally asked which Shakespeare play opens with the line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’? ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ said our quiz veteran, ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ guessed the others, but I pulled rank as an ex-English teacher because I just KNEW it was ‘Twelfth Night’. The quiz ended, I folded my arms smugly, and heard the answer read out as – ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’.

I was right...
It’s wrong. Just wrong. I argued with the quizmaster, but was answered only by a shrug and the unchallengeable statement ‘That’s what it says on the sheet.’

Obviously I’m far, far too mature to allow such a thing to rankle after ten years, but I’ve never forgotten that phrase. We’re surrounded by the kind of sub-knowledge it represents - popular misconceptions, urban myths, what ‘Everyone Knows’ and no-one knows at all. To perform successfully in tests of popular knowledge you need to suppress what you do know in favour of What It Says On The Sheet. You need to believe Benjamin Franklin invented electricity, that bats are blind, that lemmings deliberately jump off cliffs, and Columbus lived in a society that believed the world was flat. When asked ‘Who invented the light bulb?’ you must forget Joseph Swan (or any of the other possible 20 candidates for the honour) and dutifully write ‘Thomas Edison’. That is how you win.

But what if you’re a historical novelist, what then?
In many ways it’s easier. It’s part of our job description to challenge the stereotypes, and readers expect it of us. Most will be genuinely interested to discover that Napoleon wasn’t short, Cleopatra was actually Greek, and that Marie-Antoinette was only ten years old when Rousseau wrote the phrase ‘let them eat cake’. As long as they don’t attempt to use this new-found knowledge in pub quizzes then everyone’s happy.

Not short...
The devil, however, really is in the details. It’s the little things that can surprise a reader when they go against a popular misconception – and not in a good way. Perhaps it’s because of the rise of easily accessible information on the internet, perhaps because we’ve all encountered mistakes in works previously considered sacrosanct, but either way we seem to have lost a quality of trust in what we read. Fifty years ago readers might say ‘that’s interesting, I never knew people wore spectacles in the 14th century,’ but these days we’re more likely to assume the writer has simply got it wrong.

I wouldn’t want people to read my books uncritically. I like to be questioned, it keeps me on my toes and always opens the possibility of my learning something useful. The problem only arises when the error is imaginary but there’s no chance of defence. I once saw somebody boast on a writers’ forum that they threw a book across the room in disgust because the writer gave blue eyes to a character with two brown-eyed parents – but that’s genetically perfectly possible. This hasn’t happened to me yet (as far as I know!) but it's only a matter of time.

Which is what makes it so horribly tempting to try to defend ourselves in advance. That’s when we make our characters implausibly present in Pisa to hear the monk declare in 1306 ‘It is not yet twenty years since the invention of spectacles’. It’s when we include hideous dialogue along the lines of ‘Hullo, Bob, what are those glass things on your nose?’ and ‘Yes, clever, aren’t they? Only invented a few years ago.’ It’s when our books do indeed get thrown across the room, and frankly when they deserve it.
Of course there’s that totally wonderful thing, the ‘Historical Note’. Ostensibly there to help the reader, I’m very conscious mine are also there to defend me. In ‘In The Name of the King’ it’s a blatantly transparent way of saying ‘I know you think Richelieu was a Bad Guy, but he really wasn’t’, or even ‘I know you think it’s implausible that Louis XIII took a young male lover, but it’s honestly what people believed at the time.’ I was talking to Karen Maitland at the ‘History in the Court’ bash last month and learned that even she felt the need to explain the different kinds of Plague in the Historical Note to ‘Company of Liars’ because she was afraid people might think she’d got it wrong in not blaming the rats.
But there’s a snag. Apart from the fact my Historical Notes are already threatening to become longer than the novels, the pesky things always go at the back – and a reader like the one who reacted so violently to blue eyes is simply never going to make it to the end.  
So I do what I can in the writing. I knew, for instance, that someone would find it odd that my 17th century French hero in ‘Honour and the Sword’ should own a tennis ball, so I carefully had my peasant narrator refer to it as ‘a hard little rag ball used for a game called tennis’, and even had the thing ‘unravelling’ later on.

17th century tennis balls
 I still had an e-mail from a reader complaining about the anachronism.
Sometimes I’ve been so desperate I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t just leave the detail out – or even give in and write ‘what it says on the sheet’. It would certainly be safer, but then I think I really would be betraying the reader, and selling myself short too.

This has been a lot on my mind lately. I’m lucky to have an expert on the Crimean War giving ‘Into the Valley of Death’ a historical proof-read, and he’s pointed out (quite rightly) that it’s dangerously improbable to have my soldiers drinking tea because it was very expensive and hard to get.  I can defend myself, I’ve found eyewitness accounts that have ordinary soldiers genuinely drinking tea at those times, but there’s no doubt that if I include those scenes there will be readers who think I’ve just been sloppy.

4th Light Dragoons socializing with the French in the Crimea
The easy solution is to give them coffee instead, but I’m not doing it, and this is why. The cavalry went out without breakfast on the morning of the Charge of the Light Brigade, they sat for six hours before going into action, they breathed in cannon smoke and dust, and their mouths would have been dry with fear. I don’t think my hero would have been craving coffee, he’d have wanted the clean, thirst-quenching taste of tea. It’s significant to me that the trooper who wrote an account of drinking tea the morning after the Charge should remember it so clearly thirty years later, and I think under the circumstances we would too. I want my readers to feel what those men felt, so I’m ignoring the improbability and going for authenticity instead.

In my novels, that is. The next time I go to a pub quiz I’m going to grit my teeth and jolly well write what it says on the sheet.