Monday 30 April 2012

April Competition

We have five copies of Sally Nicholls' All Fall Down to give away this month. Just give the best answer to this question, to enter: "What historical place would you most like to visit, and why?"

Leave your answer in the Comments below.

As always, the competition is open only to UK residents.

Closing date 7th May

Sunday 29 April 2012

Visiting the Past by Sally Nicholls

We are very pleased to welcome Sally Nicholls to our blog today:

If you read the blog on 16th April, you'll have seen Sue Purkiss's review of All Fall Down, Sally's latest book. Now you can have the pleasure of seeing the story from the other side, how the author did the research that fed into the authenticity Sue found in the book. But first, a bit about Sally:

I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, just after midnight, in a thunderstorm. My father died when I was two, and my brother Ian and I were brought up my mother. I always wanted to write - when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to say "I'm going to be a writer" - very definite.
I've always loved reading, and I spent most of my childhood trying to make real life as much like a book as possible. My friends and I had a secret club like the Secret Seven, and when I was nine I got most of my hair cut off because I wanted to look like George in the Famous Five. I was a real tomboy - I liked riding my bike, climbing trees and building dens in our garden. And I liked making up stories. I used to wander round my school playground at break, making up stories in my head.

I don't have a very visual imagination. This is a problem when trying to decide what colour to paint your kitchen (yellow, like Anne Sexton) and also when trying to imagine what a medieval peasant girl's house looks like.

When I was writing All Fall Down, about a peasant family surviving the Black Death, I bought a book on fourteenth century peasants. It was very good. It was full of useful details such as the fact that medieval children were usually named after their godparents, and it was therefore not unusual to have siblings with the same name in a family. It had gruesome accounts of babies trampled to death by pigs, or burnt to death by chickens who picked up a smouldering piece of straw from the fire and dropped it in the cradle. It had a copy of the wedding vows (in which the woman promises to be bonere and boxom, in bedde and atte bord) and incantations against rats:

I command all ye rattens that be here about,

That non dwell in this place, nor within, nor without,

By virtue of Jesus Christ that Mary bore about,

To whom all creatures ought to lout …

This book informed me that a two-room peasant house was thirty-three feet long and thirteen feet wide, and that this space was shared by the family's animals – a pig, a cow, an ox, and some chickens.

I couldn't imagine it. My heroine, Isabel, has five siblings, three of whom are still living at home. Where would they all sleep? In one bed, in two? How would her father and stepmother have any privacy? And how on earth would you stop the cow trampling on the pots?

I decided I needed some help, and took a day off to visit Cosmeton Medieval Village, in Wales. From the website, I pictured a colourful place filled with cheerful museum attendants dressed in kirtles and hose. Not, it turned out, on a wet Thursday in term time. In fact, the little village was completely empty, although the hearth-fires were lit and the candles were burning.

As museums go, it wasn't much – a few houses, an oven, archery butts and some stocks, with a couple of pigs and some geese wandering around. But for an author? It was brilliant. Utterly brilliant.

It wasn't until I'd sat in a peasant's house that I realised how small it was. How this wasn't a space for living in, but for coming home to sleep in. I hadn't realised how much stuff would be there – looms, fishing rods, buckets, scythes, hoes, bags of corn, hammers, spades, ewers, spindles and distaffs, children's toys. Like a caravan or a houseboat, everything had its place, and if it wasn't kept tidy, chaos ensued. It was this visit that taught me that 'mattress' means sacking stuffed with straw, but that ewers could – and did – come all the way from France.

I hadn't realised how dark and smoky it would be. And the smells. I hadn't imagined the smells. All Fall Down is full of smells because of that visit – woodsmoke, and straw, and pig dung, and wet grass, and tallow candles, and herbs drying from the rafters – rosemary, and lavender, which later represent Isabel's family's only protection against the pestilential miasmas.

Even the biggest house didn't seem to have space for four children, so I did what any good writer would do – poked around until I found the guy in charge of the chickens, and asked him. My book had mentioned priests denouncing the immorality of brothers and sisters sharing a bed – but, as my new incredibly knowledgeable best friend pointed out, sometimes families didn't have much choice.

That visit changed the whole way I thought about Isabel's house. I still didn't have a very visual imagination. But now I didn't need one. I knew exactly what Isabel's house looked like – I'd been there.

All Fall Down is published by Marion Lloyd Books at £7.99
Sally's website

Saturday 28 April 2012

The White Horse of Uffington by Katherine Langrish

Not long ago, in the bright light of a half moon, I went up on to the Downs to visit the Uffington White Horse. This was an activity I discovered a few years ago, in winter – and believe me, visiting the Horse on a frosty winter night under a full moon is magic enough to make the back of your neck prickle.

For those of you who don’t know it, or aren’t lucky enough to live as I do, in the Vale which bears its name, the Uffington White Horse is a prehistoric chalk figure, cut into the turf to expose the white chalk beneath, close to the Iron Age hillfort known as Uffington Castle which rings the crest of the hill above it – but a bit older, late Bronze Age - around 3000 years old. Nobody knows anymore what it was for or what it signifies, but the impressive fact is that it has been maintained by local people - continuously - for the last three millennia, by a process of ‘scouring’ it every few years: this involves weeding it, and pounding lumps of broken chalk into the outline to rewhiten it. Otherwise, the turf would’ve reclaimed it within a few decades. In historical times, a huge country fair used to be associated with this. Nowadays, the National Trust turns up every so often with piles of chalk and baskets of hammers, and asks for volunteers. I’ve had a go myself – there’s a bit of the upper foreleg which is forever mine – and the thumping of about fifteen or twenty hammers pulverising the chalk up and down the length of the figure as it curls over the shoulder of the hill (it’s far too big to see all of it at once when you’re up close) sounds weirdly like galloping hooves…

Some people say the Horse isn’t a horse, but a dragon. It certainly isn’t a realistic representation of a horse, but it’s very much like horses on early Celtic coins: the Celts went in for abstract, flowing lines, and I’d agree with Granny Aching from Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld book ‘A Hat Full of Sky’: "Taint what a horse looks like, it’s what a horse be."

Anyway, by moonlight, the Horse glows. We walked over the top of the Iron Age fort (past the much more recent barrow where Roman soldiers were buried) and down the slope in the watercolour moonlight, in the teeth of a sweeping cold wind, and down towards the head of the Horse. It lay there on the dim hill, its great eye and strange, open parallelogram of a head glowing mysteriously, almost appearing to throw more light back to the moon than the moon could give. Its body swept in a serpentine line over the slope of the hill, away out of sight.

I would say I feel sure it was meant to be looked at by moonlight, except that I’m not sure. It’s hard to be sure of anything at all about the Horse. But I am sure that, intentional or not, once anyone’s seen it by moonlight, now or three thousand years ago, they’d agree that this is when the Horse comes into its power. I half expected it to lift its head, come alive and levitate off the hill.

You'd think there would be scores of poems written about the White Horse of Uffington, but the only one I can find is GK Chesterton’s immensely long ‘Ballad of the White Horse’ (written when the Horse was still thought to be as recent as King Alfred’s victory over the Danes, and much more about Alfred than the Horse). I think these lines from the poem do still suggest something of the Horse's wonder and power.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

Finally, here's a wonderful song about the White Horses of Wiltshire and Berkshire, written by Aidan McGee and posted on my brother's folk music website -you'll find the mp3 link at the bottom of the 'blurb' in the right-hand column beside the words. Aidan really expresses the weird magic of the Uffington Horse - the King of all the Hill Horses. Enjoy it!

Friday 27 April 2012

A Sterkarm's breakfast by Susan Price

(One in a series of occasional posts from History Girl Associates. Susan Price gives us a wonderful glimpse of the past through a 21st century breakfast tray.)

When I visit schools, or give other talks, I often read a particular scene from my book, The Sterkarm Handshake. It’s an everyday tale of time-travelling folk and, in this scene the young 16th century reiver, Per Sterkarm, has been badly wounded, and brought to a 21st century hospital.

While there, he’s presented with breakfast in bed. The scene was inspired by my realisation that there wasn’t a single thing on a typical 21st century breakfast tray that he would recognise. Since he believes he’s in Elfland, where no mortal who wishes to escape must eat or drink, he is doubly determined to resist all offers of food.

The heroine, Andrea, offers him a croissant, which he sees as being like‘ a large, fat grub with a ridged body…’ He dislikes its yeasty smell. At home in the 16th Century, on what is now the Scottish- English border, he would have eaten rye bread, oatcakes or flatbread, which was rather like crispbread and could be stored by stringing it from ceilings. Research brought home to me how restricted food was, in the past, by locality and season. Per eats oats and rye, because that was the grain best suited to the north before the agricultural revolution.

Andrea tries to make the croissant tempting with butter and jam, but the butter is yellow, and wrapped in foil and, to Per, ‘butter was white and hard and came to table in big lumps inside a crock.’ We think of butter as yellow because most of our butter is coloured.

The jam is even less of a hit. Since Per suspects the greasy Elvish ‘bread’ is made from men’s bones ground to flour, he is equally suspicious of this bright red goo. In the early 16th century, sugar was still a very expensive spice, since it wasn’t yet produced in bulk. Down south, rich show-offs may have been blackening their teeth with it, but I doubt that Per, in his god-forsaken ‘debateable land’ would have seen much sugar, or even have heard of jam. I wonder if our description of lucky people as ‘jammy’ is a reflection of this rarity value?

Per rejects, with disgust, a bowl of popping, snapping cereal, which he suspects of being hatching insect’s eggs, and so Andrea offers him a glass of orange juice.

Per admires the clear, straight-sided glass, and wonders if he could get it home to the 16th without breaking it. His mother has no glasses so fine. He also thinks the bright colour of the juice beautiful, as it reminds him of the ‘old story about a beautiful woman whose tears were liquid gold.’ (The goddess Freyja, remembered in folklore.)

Andrea hopes that he may have seen an orange ‘strung on a ribbon and stuck with cloves’. She tries the older form of the word: narange. There’s no response. Per’s never seen or heard of the fruit. Hardly anything in his world would have been that colour, or that bright. In his time, even carrots were dark purple or white. It’s telling that our name for the colour is the name of the fruit.

There is one last thing left on the tray. ‘It was long, thick, curved and as yellow as a coltsfoot flower. [Per] leaned to the left and right as he peered at it. He had no idea at all what it could be…

‘Andrea picked up the yellow thing. Curiosity silenced Per. He watched as she pulled at the thing’s top. The yellow came away in a long strip, white on the inner side. Long, sprawling white and yellow legs fell over her hand, leaving a white, curved stem standing up. It was like a dead man’s…

‘She broke off the pointed tip. He was surprised to see how easily it broke. Before his eyes, she put the tip in her mouth and ate it. “Try some…”

‘He shook his head.

‘”It’s good. It’s fruit.”

‘Unco Elvish fruit…’

The schoolchildren I read this to are highly amused, but find it hard to believe that Per would never have seen one of these unco elvish fruits, when they have them in their lunch boxes and can buy them at any corner grocery. I tell them that, in Per’s time, I doubt that either the English or Scottish king would have seen one.

I find it fascinating that a breakfast tray can give us a glimpse of another world.

More about the Sterkarm books can be found here:

Susan Price is one of the blog-team at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books? Her own blog is at

Louisa Young will be rejoining us soon 

Thursday 26 April 2012



Something extraordinarily vibrant is happening at the V&A right now. The pillars of the main atrium zing out with colour to celebrate: British Design 1948 – 2012. The exhibition traces the 64 years from when London first hosted the Olympic Games after the Second World War, until the present when Britain hosts the games once more – a celebration of design innovation in a modern age.

In 1948 London was a city devastated by bombing and austerity. But the years immediately after the war produced a surge of creative designers and artists responsible for gigantic leaps in innovation and creativity across a wide spectrum which impacted on objects, buildings, fashion and music. Walking through British Design 1948 – 2012, I was struck by the fact that everywhere I looked there were objects integral to what I lived with or saw or experienced as I was growing up. The Exhibition is a celebration of British Design but at the same time seems to be a potted history of my life.

I grew up with austerity – switching off lights, running shallow baths, watching my mother melt down the stubs of her lipstick in a little dish over a candle to remould a new lipstick in one of the empty cases. And then suddenly that marvellous day when my mother and I went into town by train to buy a new ‘look’ for our home. Out went the Art Deco furniture covered in drab green horsehair fabric and the chrome and glass coffee table and in came the new sleek look with fabric that was quite outrageous – geometric yellow and black and pistachio green shapes that were almost replicas of the designs covering the V&A pillars today – and a coffee table that looked like an artist’s palette on three legs!   The madness of the new age of design had seduced even my parents!        

Then came the 60’s and the King’s Road was transformed from a long street of unassuming shops to a string of boutiques where Mary Quant and Vivien Westwood encamped. On the southern tip of Africa I knew very little of the physicality of the King’s Road but the energy of those designers and the times came filtering through. I wore the white boots, the mini, the halter neck with cut-away armholes, the first version of tights, the pale lipstick and the dark eyes. And the exhibition sample of Zandra Rhodes’s 1964 ‘Gala’ fabric for Habitat with its zigzags and explosive red firework displays in the graphic style of Pop reflects exactly those times. I might have lived far from the swinging London scene but I quickly converted from the bob to the straight hair and fringe of Jean Shrimpton and the long dresses and flowery patterns of Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clerk. (my stalwart Singer hand-sewing machine knocking up the equivalent in a matter of hours)    

Standing impossibly low and small, with wire-thin steering wheel and sticklike gear shift, the first Morris Mini Minor that rolled off the conveyor belt in 1959 is part of the V&A exhibition. By 1963 my future husband was driving a replica in white and memories of the 1969 movie The Italian Job sprung to mind. By the late 60’s I was studying ceramics and British potters like Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Ruth Duckworth, David Leach and Micheal Cardew, all on view in the Exhibition, were my idols.  Then came the young innovators like Jacqueline Poncelet and Elizabeth Fritsch pushing the boundaries with slip cast bone china and jewel-like applications of coloured slip and I became the possessor of a triple beam balance and my days were obsessed with mixing kaolin to create my own translucent slip-cast porcelain and gruelling hours of piercing minutes holes through paper thin pots only to have them disintegrate in my hands.

Jacqueline Poncelet - 1976 - 2 bowls bone-china slip cast.
Elizabeth Fritsch - hand-built vessels painted with coloured slips

I haven’t even touched on the design magazines, book covers, posters or the music and film clips in the Exhibition – Vanessa Redgrave in Blow Up in 1966 - or the fact that David Mellor could design cutlery that’s sublime to hold and at the same time design the traffic light still in use today. Or that the Concorde, that awe-inspiring example of British design, made its debut in 1969 and or that the street sign for children crossing still used today was first designed by Margaret Calvert in 1964.

British designers make good design seem easy, accessible, enjoyable and fun. Emerging from the Exhibition and walking back through the patterned pillars of the V&A I found I was smiling at the brief glimpse into a very vibrant, quirky and energised 60 plus years… not just of British Design but a brief glimpse into the potted history of my own life. The Exhibition is well worth a visit. What appears at first as haphazard and incidental comes together after you leave and you don’t have to be born in 1947 or 1948 to enjoy it!

Cape Town 1967 - me in the middle & curtains that could have been part of V&A Exhibition

Wednesday 25 April 2012

CONSIDER YOURSELF... By Eleanor Updale

The other day, I went to a singalong screening of Lionel Bart's Oliver! and what a joy it was.  Such good songs, and how lovely to belt them out under cover of darkness (if slightly shaming to discover that I knew all the words).  I had never seen the film (released in 1968) on the big screen.  The quality of the cinematography is stunning.  It was a marvellous afternoon.

But the reason I am writing about it here is my astonishment at the level of historical accuracy in the film.  Don't get me wrong.  I know that cheery chimneysweeps and well-scrubbed milkmaids didn't dance around pristine London squares singing 'Who Will Buy?' -- but amidst all the inevitable flim-flam of a musical there was real attention to the intricacies of costume and ambiance.  For a couple of hours I really believed I was in Dickens' world.

Now, is that because I was in a good mood; because the director, Carol Reed really got things right; or because my idea of what Victorian London was like was shaped by the same filmic traditions out of which Oliver! was born?  However hard I try, I will never shake from my DNA the mutations brought about by exposure, Sunday by Sunday throughout my childhood, to BBC dramatisations of classic stories set in the past, and black-and-white film such as the David Lean classic Oliver Twist (1948).

What I'm getting at here is that our view of the past is coloured by (at least) two things:

1. The reality - actual facts, which can be ascertained (or at least got close to) through research on primary sources.
2. The generally accepted view of what things were like - which may not be the same at all, but which may be so strongly engrained in the national consciousness that to challenge it is to ask for trouble.

I thought of this again a few days after my trip to the cinema, when I was reading a student essay on  Barbarella (also released in 1968). That film is a sci-fi comedy sex romp, directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jane Fonda.

The essay discussed whether or not Barbarella is a feminist film.  What interested me most were the assumptions the young student made about women, and their attitudes, in the late 1960s.  We were, apparently, semi-conscious clones, unaware of our enslavement to men, and completely lacking in aspiration, sex drive, or a sense of humour.

Now, I was there.  I know that wasn't so,  But it was apparent to me that my view of the time carried little weight, because the rival picture was endorsed by respected 'academic' writers, and shared by the tutor for whom the essay had been written - who was probably not much older than the student.

This was mildly annoying, but I didn't stay irritated for long, because I realised that at the same age I made exactly the same mistake. In the late 1960s, I bought in to a popular depiction of the women of the early twentieth century which was similarly patronising and censorious.  It's only now, through reading their letters and diaries (and novels) that I have come to admire the women who lived through the two World Wars.  OK, so their economic horizons were limited (Oh how my generation benefitted from exposure to schoolmistresses who these days would be running hedge funds, publishing houses or government departments) but they were no less clever, funny and diverse than us.

That generation still isn't fully rehabilitated in the public mind, but things may shift -- for images can change, and often it's one particular book, exhibition or film that starts the shift.

Take, for example, the popular view of the First World War. When I was young, it was discussed only in terms of international diplomacy and military tactics -- softened occasionally by a consideration of the works of the (male) war poets.  Then, in 1979, the BBC dramatised Vera Brittain's diary Testament of Youth

and, almost simultaneously, Lyn Macdonald published her account of the front-line nurses The Roses of No Man's Land.  

A new narrative was born. By now, perhaps, it's even a new cliché  -- but that's a matter for another day.

Back to Oliver! and a couple of random reflections:

Isn't it always the hairstyles that give away when a historical drama was made?

It's a bit worrying to realise that in 1968 we thought Harry Secombe was fat.  Now, even done up as Mr Bumble, he looks smaller than most of the men at the bus stop.

Have we lost the art of hiding smut in songs like Oom Pah Pah (or radio programmes like Round the Horn)? Can anyone think of a something filthy that's happily peddled to children these days either with confidence that they won't understand it, or without any awareness on the part of some adults of what it actually means?

Tuesday 24 April 2012


By Essie Fox

An illustration of the Rhinemaidens

At the moment I am suffering from mental exhaustion, and also a sense of elation - an experience, I'm sure, many authors will know when they come to the end of writing a novel.

My second Victorian mystery, which is called Elijah's Mermaid, tells the story of an artist who buys a young girl from a brothel, thereafter becoming obsessed with painting his child-like muse in the form of a nymph or mermaid.

This new novel will shortly be made into proofs, and face the copy-editor's pen, and although I am immensely relieved I shall also miss the story - having been immersed for two long years. So, to make up for any sense of loss and to show some of the art that inspired my work I'd like to make a 'picture post'...

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

Hylas and the Nymphs by Waterhouse

The Wave by Bouguereau

Nymphs and Satyr by Bouguereau

Galatea by Dorigny

Water Baby by Herbert James Draper

The Fisherman and the Syren by Leighton

Lamia by Waterhouse

From Russian Folk Art

Essie Fox is the author of The Somnambulist, a Victorian gothic mystery. For more information see www.essiefox

For Essie's Victorian blog see:

Sunday 22 April 2012

On putting words into the mouths of the departed, by Jane Borodale

Popular myth has it that the hollow stalks of certain umbelliferous plants lead straight down to the place of the dead. I’m transfixed by this idea, that you might pour yourself through their narrow, jointed tubes, to arrive in the otherworld.

The virtues and dangers of individuals from the Umbelliferae family through history range from poison to plague cure – hemlock, fool’s parsley, water parsnip, lovage, alexanders, pepper saxifrage, sweet cicely, fennel, sanicle, angelica. These plants can be difficult for the unwary or careless to identify: see how similar they can look.

Hemlock Water-dropwort © Valerie Hill
Hemlock Water-dropwort © Valerie Hill

Hemlock Water-dropwort (not for nothing once called Dead Tongue, or Horsebane in Somerset) is so highly poisonous it could take you quickly to the otherworld in person, bypassing all metaphors. Mrs Grieve in her 20th-century classic A Modern Herbal describes how in April 1857, ‘two farmer’s sons were found lying paralysed and speechless close to a ditch where they had been working. Assistance was soon rendered, but they shortly afterwards expired. A quantity of Water Hemlock grew in the ditch, where they had been employed.  A piece of the root was subsequently found with the marks of teeth in it, near to where the men lay, and another piece of the same root was discovered in the pocket of one of them.

Angelica sylvestris © Valerie Hill
Angelica sylvestris © Valerie Hill
But the channel between worlds could go either way. In the 16th century (when my new novel The Knot is set) the umbellifer Angelica archangelica with its fat, crisp, candiable stems and potent properties against the plague could actively help you return from the dead, offer you a hand back up those hollow stems. Henry Lyte’s Niewe Herball or Historie of Plants (1578) is one of many that points out how, ‘the late writers say, that the roots of Angelica are contrary to all poyson, the pestilence, and all naughty corruption of evill or infected aire.’

And I like to think of writing about the dead, too, as being a two-way possibility. On the one hand we take from them and give them voices they didn’t necessarily have and they have no say in the matter, yet there is also an obscure reciprocal kind of deal whereby the living pay attention to the dead for a while, warm up thoughts towards them, listen harder maybe? I like to think it is an acceptable practice, if the unwitting participant is approached with utmost diligence and respect and a certain kind of openness to unspoken things beneath the surface – resonances, textures, fragments of things left over from the past that might be so small that they can’t easily be pinned down into immoveable ‘truths’. Isn’t it this gap that historical fiction can animate so effectively?

Even as I write this I can see a tangle of metaphors emerging that I don’t quite mean. Words – like plants, weeds, umbellifers – can rapidly get out of hand, and paths to questions of identity are fraught with hazard…

Angelica sylvestris © Valerie Hill

Jane Borodale’s new novel The Knot is about the botanist Henry Lyte (c1529-1607) and his translation of an influential 16th-century herbal.

Her website is here

Saturday 21 April 2012

Eleanor Coade by Imogen Robertson

I learned very little about the 18th century at school, but what I did learn left me with the impression woman had rather taken a back seat throughout the century and concentrated on their embroidery until, well until about 1960, frankly. It’s been one of the pleasures of researching the Westerman and Crowther books to discover more and more women who were active in science, in politics and in literature during the period. My latest heroine is someone who left behind very little in writing but is nevertheless an extraordinary example of a woman who succeeded in business when such a thing was seen as all but impossible. Mrs Eleanor Coade, inventor of Coade stone.

The Landmark Trust are currently fund-raising to restore her former home, Belmont, in Lyme Regis. It was for many years the home of John Fowles which is reason enough to contribute to the campaign, but it was the connection to Mrs Coade that caught my eye, and the beautiful decoration of the house she left behind. ‘Mrs’ was a courtesy title, she never married, but she left at her death a thriving business manufacturing this artificial stone which still decorates many major landmarks in London and the beautiful Belmont itself. Just to underline that; this was not a widow who inherited a business, but a single woman. Remarkable.

I learned more about her and her business on Tuesday this week when I went to hear The Landmark Trust’s historian, Caroline Stanford, talk at the Society of Antiquaries in central London. Now I am spotting Coade stone all over the place, dressing up with keystones and other exterior ornaments the regular, elegant lines of Georgian London. Eleanor was born in 1733, the daughter of a wool finisher who, it seems, moved to London after his first bankruptcy in 1759. Eleanor was already in business as a linen draper before her father died ten years later, but after his death she bought an artificial stone business at Kings Arms Stairs, now the site of the Royal Festival Hall. She turned this struggling enterprise into a startling success. Caroline Stanford has investigated exactly what Mrs Coade’s stone was and how it was made. A mix of ball clay from Devon, pre-fired material, crushed flint or quartz and soda lime glass was moulded and then fired. It seems Mrs Coade owed her success not to any particular magic formula but rather to the quality of the work she produced. It looked beautiful and was expertly finished. She also had an eye for talent, employing John Bacon as a sculptor. It was he who designed the River God you can still see looking out over the gardens of Ham House, and you can see the quality of the detailing possible with Coade stone on this close up.

It is Mrs Coade’s more modest contributions to London architecture I enjoy most though; the keystones, water spouts and ornamental urns such as the ones she used to decorate Belmont itself. Keep an eye out for them, the remarkable legacy of an exceptional woman. I wish Landmark Trust’s campaign every success.
Oh, and as I’m here (coughs, looks at shoes), the latest Crowther and Westerman mystery, Circle of Shadows, is out next week so you can expect blog posts on alchemy, freemasons and automata over the next few months. You have been warned.

Friday 20 April 2012

'Who Blundered? - The Mystery of the Light Brigade' by A L Berridge

All historical novelists need to be detectives sometimes. We can’t say ‘There are several possible theories about what happened next’ – we have to plump for one of them or come up with a version of our own. But I came up against a big one in ‘Into the Valley of Death’, and I’d very much like your opinion on whether I handled it correctly. It was the simple little matter of working out who was responsible for the most famous military blunder ever – the Charge of the Light Brigade.

I thought I knew. I’d read Cecil Woodham Smith’s ‘The Reason Why’, I’d seen the 1968 film ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and I knew both were based on the account by Alexander Kinglake, the official chronicler who accompanied the expedition to the Crimea. Here's a brief summary of Kinglake's version:

During the Battle of Balaklava, the Russians attacked and held three of the Turkish redoubts which were positioned along the slopes of the Causeway Heights. Commander-in-chief Lord Raglan watched impotently from the Sapoune Heights until a staff officer told him the Russians were attempting to take away the captured cannon. At this shameful prospect Raglan finally acted, dictating a message to General Airey:

 ‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R. Airey - Immediate’.

 The message was given to Airey’s ADC, Captain Nolan, along with the verbal order to ‘Tell Lord Lucan that the cavalry are to attack immediately!’ Nolan carried both to Lord Lucan, commander of the cavalry division, who was then positioned at the head of the North Valley and unable to see beyond the Causeway Heights to the redoubts. The infuriated Lucan pointed out that he could see neither enemy nor guns, at which Nolan ‘pointed with his sword towards the End of the Valley and cried out “There, my Lord, is your enemy, and there are your guns!’

He didn’t point towards the redoubts on the Causeway Heights. He pointed to the end of the North Valley where an entire Don Cossack battery was drawn up. To the left were the Fedoukhine Hills where another Russian battery was placed. To the right were the Causeway Heights where Russian cannon had already been firing all morning. Nolan pointed the way, and Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan to lead the Light Brigade into what we know now as the ‘Valley of Death’.

Light Brigade Charge at Balaklava - after Colin Robins

 A mistake then. A tragic mistake, and all down to Captain Nolan.

The conventional account claims he did try to stop it. The Brigade had advanced less than 200 metres when he charged ‘from left to right’ towards Cardigan, as if suddenly realizing the error. Two eyewitnesses, Nunnerley and Morley of the 17th Lancers, later claimed to have heard him shout the order ‘Threes right!’ that would have turned them towards the correct route of the Causeway Heights. What else he might have said is unknown, because at that moment the battery on the Fedoukhine opened fire. Nolan reeled back with his chest torn open, uttering a scream so unearthly no-one who heard it ever forgot it, and his horse careered wildly back down the ranks carrying a corpse with its arm still upraised in that final, frantic gesture.

David Hemmings as Nolan in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Great stuff. Highly convenient too, since it left no-one alive to blame. The mistake was made by a dead commoner, rather than any of their Lordships Cardigan, Lucan or Raglan, and even poor Nolan did at least try to redeem himself at the end. 

 Shed a tear for the gallant captain – and move on.

 Or not. It seems to me that focussing attention on Nolan only serves to distract us from the worse mistake – Lord Raglan’s unbelievably stupid order. ‘Advance to the front’ – what front? ‘Follow the enemy’ – which enemy, especially when none of them are moving? ‘Prevent them from carrying away the guns’ – whose guns and where? ‘French cavalry are on your left’ – full marks for observation, none for the slightest indication as to what Lucan is to do about it.

If we can’t blame Lucan for being baffled by this, what makes us think Nolan understood it any better? When he pointed to the North Valley, mightn’t he have believed that was truly what Raglan meant? One witness refutes this, insisting Raglan gave Nolan additional ‘careful instructions’ – but the witness is Somerset Calthorpe, who was not only Raglan’s junior officer, but also his nephew. If we were in a court of law, how much weight would we give to his evidence today?

That’s the rub with history. We naturally place high value on primary sources and eyewitness accounts – but would we accord them the same hallowed status today? Witnesses lie to protect themselves, to protect other people, for financial or political gain – we’d never need a jury trial if they didn’t. If we apply the same standards to 1854 then we can be sure of only one thing. Lord Raglan gave a stupid and confusing order – and everything else is speculation.

The cover-up began almost at once. Lucan realized the significance of Raglan’s order before the Charge even began, and gave it to civilian interpreter John Elijah Blunt for safe-keeping. Airey realized it too, and after the disaster asked ‘more than once’ for the original order to be returned, but Lucan was wise enough to let Blunt hand over only copies. By doing so, however, he sealed his own fate. Lucan was blamed (with justification) for not having clarified the order, and recalled to England in disgrace. Twice he demanded a court martial and the right to say what had happened in open court – and twice he was refused. That alone should make us think.

Lord Raglan - was he to blame?
Lord Raglan had to be protected. The key to his defence was ‘Nolan’s turn’, the fact he appeared to know perfectly well the direction they ought to have taken, and that was the theory duly advanced by Kinglake in his ‘Invasion of the Crimea’. Kinglake’s work, however, is notoriously biased, and his increasingly embarrassing attempts to whitewash Raglan make the whole account suspect. 

Nunnerley’s statement is doubtful too, since it makes clear that both Nolan’s movement and the cry that he admitted only SOUNDED LIKE like 'Threes right!’ were made after the captain had been hit. Only Morley insists they came before, but Morley’s account (30 years after the event) is so cheerfully slapdash as to be highly unreliable. It is also directly contradicted by Cardigan’s ADC Maxse, who wrote in a letter that ‘Nolan was killed close to me and Kinglake’s account was… absurd as to Nolan wanting to charge any other guns than those that he did.’

So did Nolan try to turn the Brigade? Having walked the ground myself, I’m fairly sure he didn’t – for the simple reason that he must have known where they were going from the start. It’s been argued he might have thought Cardigan still intended to wheel right for the Causeway Heights, but John Wightman of the Lancers recalls his specific order as ‘The Brigade will advance – First Squadron of 17th Lancers direct!’ If a commander intends a brigade to turn right he’s extremely unlikely to order them to take direction from the squadron on the left of the front line. As soon as that order was given it would have been obvious where they were going – as all the eyewitnesses in fact insist it was. Captain Thomas Hutton of the 4th Light Dragoons even wrote ‘A child could have seen the trap that was laid for us; every private dragoon did.’  It is inconceivable that Nolan, the most experienced cavalryman in the field, should have been the one man who didn’t. If it was the wrong way he’d have said so at once, and not waited 200 metres before trying to make the turn.

'Charge of the Light Brigade' by William Simpson

I don’t believe Nolan turned. He might have charged forward to force the pace (as Lord Cardigan himself believed) and any subsequent wild movement could be attributed to the panic of his horse when its master was dead in the saddle. He certainly screamed after he was hit, and since he was still upright it’s perfectly possible his cry might be taken for an order. I think he died following the order he genuinely believed he had been given, and the blunder was made by Lord Raglan when he failed to make his meaning clear.

But that’s not, in the end, what I wrote. Mine is just one of many theories, and to present it convincingly I’d need to show why Calthorpe and Morley might have lied or been mistaken – which would have taken me well off the track of my story. ‘Into the Valley of Death’ is fiction, the story is what matters, and it would be self-indulgent to introduce a massive digression just in order to show off a pet theory of my own. In the end I have dutifully followed the eyewitnesses and shown at least an approximation of Nolan’s turn.

Was I wrong?

 The historian in me says yes, because I perpetuated a lie. The novelist in me says no, because I put the story first. But something else that's both storyteller and historian says I was right because I had bigger fish to fry.

 To focus on what Nolan thought would have been to repeat the cover-up of 1854, by diverting attention from the real blunder of Raglan’s order. Lord George Paget, who led the 4th Light Dragoons and 8th Hussars, pointed out at the time that even if they’d taken the intended route of the Causeway Heights, the Charge would still have ended in disaster. Mark Adkin makes the same point in his excellent book ‘The Charge’, and so does Major Colin Robins in a brilliant article here. Nolan made no difference. It was the order that was wrong, the order that was stupid, and the real question is why Raglan ever gave it.

Now that really IS a mystery. He gave the order because he thought the enemy were taking his guns - but we know now this wasn't true. Kinglake communicated with the Russian generals after the war, and they denied any attempt at removing the guns. Indeed, it would have been madness while the British cavalry sat right across the only road back to the Russian camps. The only reason Raglan thought it was happening is because a certain staff officer told him so – and who that staff officer was, nobody knows. We have so much detail about that discussion on the Sapoune, yet not one of the witnesses names the man who set the entire thing in motion.

That’s my mystery. That’s the one I’m weaving throughout ‘Into the Valley of Death’. This one I could pursue without contradicting a single eyewitness, but the more I looked, the more I realized this one little incident was the tip of a very large iceberg. One that’s never been investigated – until now.

Or at least I think so. But then I’m a historical novelist, and I do love a good mystery...

'Into the Valley of Death' comes out May 10th.

A.L. Berridge's website is here.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Hammers, pins and dampers, by K. M. Grant

My current brush with Bach’s Goldberg Variations has led me deep into the world of hammers, pins, dampers, levers, jacks, strings, regulating screws, pedal boards, lift rails, belly rails, wrest planks, escapements and the common or garden spring. This is the world of the oldfashioned, i.e. not electronic, keyboard.
We’re so used to the external shape of painted harpsichords, shiny black concert grands or knocked about family uprights that few delve inside. We employ special tuners to do that kind of thing and thank goodness for that. I’ve been having a good squint at the inside of my lovely Yamaha 6’ 6” grand. Though I study diagrams and read idiot guides, my piano’s innards remain as mysterious as my car’s. Were I to approach it with a lever and tuning fork, it would be well advised to slap down its lid and twang for help.

How on earth did anybody dream up instruments with such fantastically complicated action? It was not necessity. That's for sure. I mean, there was no music hanging around waiting for a keyboard. Music for the harpsichord followed the introduction of the instrument, the first pieces written down in the early sixteenth century to suit its particular idiosyncrasies. I wonder what it was that inspired Bartolomeo Cristofori to think ‘Hang on! What happens if we hit these strings instead of plucking them?’ Whatever, he certainly set something in motion. After the early eighteenth century, when pianos couldn't quite decide whether they were a species of organ, a species of harpsichord or a musical wrong turning, development was rapid. Pianos went from a giraffe piano

to this high spec, high tech Fazioli in less than two hundred years. The pictures don't tell the whole story, of course. The real story lies in those muddling innards.

Pianos get a raw deal on the historical fame front. We hear about venerable violins because of the violinists who play them: Yehudi Menuhin’s Soil Strad; Paganini’s ‘Il Cannone’ Guarnerius; and of course the Amati played, in a most unlikely way, by Patrick O’Brien’s hero, Jack Aubrey, brought to brilliant filmic life by Russell Crowe in Master and Commander.
We revere both the fiddles and the fiddlers.

Pianos are different. Since they don’t improve with age, once they've done their duty, they’re for the scrapheap. It’s fun to see a reconstruction of Mozart’s Walter piano, pedalboard and all.

It's a thrill to touch a piano played by Chopin who, incidentally, gave piano lessons to Emma Wedgewood, later Mrs. Charles Darwin. But you’d not want to play such an ancient old thing. The history of the piano is the history of the discarded.

Yet the piano is good for dramatic moments. In 1837, Paris was agog with the news that an Italian princess had orchestrated a pianistic duel between legato cantabile Thalberg and animatissimo vigoroso Lizst. The result was declared a draw, something Thalberg gallantly, or perhaps rather drippily, accepted. Since Liszt had labelled him a ‘failed nobleman who makes an even more failed artist’, the evening might have been enlivened by a jolly unpianistic punchup. Not that Liszt needed his fists or a poison pen to inflict damage. During one recital in Vienna, he crippled two grand pianos before the interval.

Rather less dramatically, although possibly more painfully, on 14th December 1921, in London’s Belgrave Square, Paderewski, ‘the most highly paid pianist of all time’* was giving a concert downstairs as my father was born upstairs. My grandmother always maintained that she stifled her cries in deference to the maestro. She couldn’t remember what he was playing, which I considered pretty feeble until I had a baby myself. Perhaps it was Paderewski's own charming minuet, here performed by the great man himself, or this Chopin waltz. I can't get over this performance being recorded in 1917. Hurrah for technology, but a more major hurrah for the piano, without which no house is, in my opinion, ever quite fully furnished.

Hamilton, K. 1998, in The Cambridge Companion to the Piano, ed. David Rowland, p.57

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The good, the great and the just plain bad. How do you judge? - Celia Rees

Recently, I received the following e mail from a reader:

I read a lot and I'm wondering how you, as a writer, decide which book is a great one and which is just one more book on the shelf.
Are there any specific conditions or you rely on your gut-feeling?

Forgive me for being dim, but at first I interpreted this as asking me about writing, so I answered as follows:

Thanks for you interesting enquiry. As far as writing a book is concerned, you have to think every one is great - if it feels like a shelf kind of book, it isn't worth taking the time and effort to write it. Every book is special if it gets as far as publication. After that, it is up to the publisher and readers to decide if it is great or not, but they are all important to me.
But no, that is not what she wanted to know. She wanted to know how as a reader I would judge between a great book and 'one more book on the shelf'. I answered as follows:

I'm sorry, I kind of misunderstood your question. As a reader, for a book to be great (or even good) it has to:

1)Grab my attention and keep it all the way through by being a good story, intriguing and interesting, thought provoking and intellectually stimulating (but being a really good story will do).
2) Not annoy me by being badly written, badly researched, ill thought through (or not thought through at all), unoriginal and stereotyped characters, an obvious rip off of another book.

I have very little patience (or time) so if a book does not capture my attention, or I can see the strings by the end of Chapter, it is on its way to the charity shop.

Harsh, perhaps, but true. I realised that being a writer has sharpened me as a reader. I used to be an 'if I start, I finish' kind of reader, now I just don't have time; there are so many things I should be reading that my own personal reading time is precious and not to be clogged up with duff prose or pages of pointless padding. Also, I have become far more intolerant. I am like the master puppeteer at a puppet show. I know there are strings, and I can admire a skilful disguising, but I don't want to see the workings, don't let it show. If I can divine the writer's intention, see how he or she is trying to manipulate me as a reader, or worse, if the author doesn't even realise you are supposed to hide it, then I won't finish the book. If it is really bad, it becomes what a friend of mine calls a 'hurler' - a book you want to hurl across the room (not recommended for the Kindle edition).

I have to confess to being even worse with historical fiction. If I find an unintended anachronism or sloppy factual inaccuracies, I will not finish the book. Partly because I consider it to be 'my' genre, I don't like people playing fast and loose. I don't like history being used as a mere backdrop for adventures that involve lots of galloping about and where boys fight and girls flounce. I don't like books that deal in ill considered cliche or unquestioning nostalgia. I want a book that uses the freedom that writing fiction gives to look at history from a different angle, to tell me something I don't know, or makes me look at something familiar in a new way. Knowledge has to be matched with thought and imagination. At the other end of the spectrum, I don't like authors who have obviously done a mass of research and are going to make sure we know it, putting all those hours in the library to good effect by stuffing the narrative with endless facts.

Obviously, these rules limit and restrict my reading, but when I do find a book or an author I like, then the experience is proportionately rewarding. It just doesn't happen all that often. I guess that is one of the prices a writer has to pay.

So, good, bad, hurler? How do you judge?