Thursday 31 May 2012

May Competition

We have two lovely History Girl titles to give away this month:

To win one of five hardback copies of A.L. Berridge's Into the Valley of Death, please answer this question:

‘We all know about heroic victories – but which do you consider to be the most heroic defeat by anyone at any time? The Alamo? The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Or something else?’

To win one of three hardback copies of Jane Borodale's The Knot, answer this one:
'Just tell us your favourite herb and why, in a sentence or two...'

As usual the competitions are open only to readers in the United Kingdom. The closing date for for this one is 7th June. Just leave your answers in the Comments section of this post.

And Good Luck!

Wednesday 30 May 2012

I don't quite get Sir Thomas More, by K. M. Grant

One in an occasional series in which History Girls talk about their historical blind spots. Sir Thomas More seems a particularly suitable choice in the month of our interview with Hilary Mantel.

Even before I listened to the whole of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on a long car journey, I had been suspicious of Thomas More (1478-1535). At my convent school, he was Saint Thomas More, a brave man, an important man, but above 
everything, a man who was, at all times and in all circumstances, right. 

Thomas More was brave: the times demanded bravery and he stepped up to the plate. He was important: he rose to be Lord Chancellor of England. I’m not sure he was, at all times, right. Certainly, he believed in righteousness, but that’s not quite the same thing. In Utopia, he advocated freedom of religion, yet he sent people to be burned when they exercised this freedom. So whilst not decrying his many virtues – he was a keen proponent of free speech – I’m not sure I get the uncritical reverence with which his name is usually uttered.

More was a man of his times, not a man too good for his times. His duties to God and king included extracting confessions, doling out punishments and generally harassing the heretics undermining what he believed to be the one true path to salvation. Even given the fashionable overblown rhetoric, we’ve been far too ready to buy into the adulation expressed by Will Roper, his son-in-law:
FO R A S M VC H, as Syr Thomas More, Knight, sometymes Lord Chancellour of England, a Man of singular Vertue, and of an vnspotted Conscience; & (as witnesseth Erasmus) more pure, and white then snowe: of so Angelicall a Wit (sayth he) that England neuer had the like before, nor euer shall againe:

However, let’s not get carried away. I've no truck with those who accuse More of misogyny because, when asked why he liked short women, he answered ‘best to choose the lesser of two evils’. It was a joke! A veritable joke! More was a wit. I like that. Yet I can still understand why Simon Slater, the narrator of the Wolf Hall unabridged audio-book, reads More’s words in a snooty drawl. I think More was more the snooty drawler than the mild-mannered charmer depicted by Paul Schofield in Fred Zinneman’s film A Man for All Seasons (a perennial favourite at my convent school). He was a man who knew his own worth and was confident of heavenly approval. I imagine him taking his place at God's right hand without bothering to defer to St. Peter.

In short, though More was without doubt a man of courage and dignity in adversity, he was too human and too much a man of his time to be a saint of unimpeachable sanctity. He may have been one of England's great and glorious, but was he really a great and glorious goody? I’m not saying he was wicked. I'm not saying I wouldn’t have liked him. I just wonder whether any man who scrambled up the greasy pole of Tudor politics, even if eventually falling off it, is quite worthy of the halo that has been plonked so very firmly upon Sir Thomas More's handsome head.

Would Thomas More would have liked my blog, the year of playing the piano? I think he'd have been very gracious, and I'd probably have wanted to wallop him.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

La valvola di non-ritorno – Michelle Lovric

Someone asked me recently if I still feel so passionate about Venice now that I live here.

My unthinking response: ‘Yes, I still love Venice, but now I have plumbing.’

As fellow History Girl Penny Dolan has recently written, life with defective plumbing does not really constitute life. It is not only that body that perishes – but also the writing mind.

Our own palazzo restoration was afflicted with one of those gangsta-plumbas who reduce life to a wetly stinking misery. Indeed, some of the romance of Venice did wash off in the gushing slews of dysfunctional soil, central-heating and water pipes. Over two years, I learned not only the sorry history of own home’s plumbing since 1355 but also how to plumb an entire apartment.

That was because  I, unlike our gangsta-plumba, learned from his mistakes.

The best thing I learned about was the ‘valvola di non-ritorno’. As in Harry Potter and the Valvola di Non-Ritorno; The Valvola di Non-Ritorno and the Plumbing of Doom.

In fact, a valvola di non-ritorno is simply a one-way valve. The kind that allows your washing machine to drain without filling your tumble drier with suds. And your w.c. to flush down the drain instead of onto your bathroom floor and your downstairs neighbours’ electrics. (Yes, that happened to us too. A curtain of waste fell right down the front of their fridge.)

My theory is that some writers have a valvola di non-ritorno too. In such cases, all the generosity streams one way. You find that out the hard way, usually, and then you avoid those writers as you would a stagnant drain in summer.

But fortunately, in my experience, nearly all writers are extremely generous to one another in spirit and in the flesh. Most of them operate busy two-way valves, with plenty of granting and returning of favours.You find a fast-flowing exchange of morale boosting, practical advice and technical detail in writers’ cooperatives like The History Girls or The Scattered Authors Society. With other History Girls and Sassies, I have conducted ‘boot camps’ where work is close-tooth-combed. With fellow writers, I have received and given hard-won advice, raised money for charity, shared vivacious panels. And now I am also sitting side by side in a new anthology with our own Mary Hoffman, whose generous valvola is a well known organ of the publishing world, though there are surely more elegant ways of explaining how brilliantly Mary, a.k.a. the Book Maven, helps so many other writers along their ways.

When we were both invited to submit short stories for an anthology called Venice Noir, the Book Maven and I agreed that neither of us find la Serenissima intrinsically noir. In fact, to these two History Girls, Venice may well be the least frightening city in the world, a sleek purring kitten of a city, one who wants to curl up and sleep on your lap rather than stab you in a narrow alley.

But noir we had to write, so noir we went to find. We both did research on site. We took a gondola trip in the dark, which completely failed to frighten us, especially with the delightful Giacomo as our gondolier. We sat up late at night on a little balcony leaning over the black water. The worst thing we saw was a seagull feeding frenzy, more grey than noir.

We found we needed to deploy our finely honed History Girl techniques to dredge up tales that worked with the antique architecture and ancient topography of the city, intertwined with the opportunities they offer human nature now as they did in ages past. We took characteristically different approaches, The Maven’s “A Closed Book” is a knotty, plotty, terrifying roller-coaster through a dysfunctional family’s vendettas, via the machinations of a publisher. A series of crimes reach a climax in Venice and a gondolier ends up in peril. The Maven’s tale is so dry that it glitters and smokes.

Me, I went wet. I wrote about a plumber. A gangsta-plumba who meets the end he deserves. The story is called ‘Pantegana’, the Venetian dialect word for ‘rat’. Such is my narrator. Into my Venice Noir plumber, I’ve ploughed every plumbing insult visited on my home and my working week. My boiler has a walk-on part. My fissured water pipe is there. So is the doorbell that my plumber so often failed to ring when he’d promised to do so. And so is a hard, shiny piece of Giacomo’s gondola, but in this case it’s impaled somewhere painful.

My sister, who reads ‘Pantegana’ last week, has warned me, ‘If there’s a single literate plumber in Venice, you’ll never get plumbing done again.’

Was that risk worth the exquisite relief of the rant in my story, the chance to open my own valves and let it all gush out? Yes, it was. And it was grand fun to share a brief with an admired friend and colleague too.

Put two History Girls in a gondola, and it’s surprising what comes out.   

Michelle Lovric’s website 

Michelle Lovric and Mary Hoffman appear in Venice Noir.
For more about the city Noir series, see

Monday 28 May 2012

Journeying with the jaggerman, by K.M.Grant

j is for jaggerman*

my mother and Muffet on Exmoor
My mother was mad about packhorse trails.  And I mean mad.  ‘Shall we go for a ride?’ was not an invitation wise people accepted lightly since it often meant upwards of thirty miles in the saddle, scrambling over unmapped hill and uncharted dale, picking over lethal bogs, fording swollen rivers, getting lost, getting found, being miserable in the drizzle or burning in the sun.  On one occasion we had to jump over a pig. The horses loved it (except for the pig).   My father did not:  Parisian restaurants were more his thing (still are).  But my mother’s madness had a purpose, which was to rediscover, remap and re-open all the trails used by packhorses over the centuries.  The alternative was to lose them behind fencing and ‘F-OFF’ signs, or equivalent.  My mother was having none of that.

singing ringing tree at Crown Point
By the end of her life – felled by cancer at 65 – there was little she, or we, didn’t know physically about either packhorse trails or the weather their users endured.

I know for a fact that it’s always blowing a gale where the Langfield Long Causeway rises to Stoodley Pike, just above Hebden Bridge; that the horse able to trot all the way from Walk Mill to Crown Point must be fitter than any flea;  that whatever the weather, man and beast are equally grateful for the watertroughs at Mankinholes; and that feeling you’ll die if you don’t get home soon doesn’t mean you actually will.     

watertroughs at Mankinholes
There was something very special about those long, rough rides.  They were not, let me say quickly, a chance for a mother/daughter talk.   My mother was far too busy gleaning information from Ancient Creatures in tumbled farms untouched since the Flood, and the going was usually too untrustworthy.
Stoodley Pike

In any case, on these adventures her horse, Miss Muffet, a sparkling brilliant creature on whom I based Hosanna in the de Granville Trilogy, was her real companion - Muffet and the ghosts of the jaggermen and packanimals whose leather or iron shod feet had, over the centuries, worn the causeway stones to treachery. 

solid going
My mother loved the tracks for their importance to the living and their value to the dead.  For the living, particularly for riders of horses, they offered an escape from the tarmac road into wild country where the world looks quite different.  As for the dead, she liked nodding to the long trails of horses, panniers creaking and bells jangling to the plodding rhythm of old-world commerce.

not such solid going
Not that plodding meant peace.  Far from it.  The packhorse trails were busy as the M6 and noisier.   From Sue Hogg’s masterly introduction to Seen on the Packhorse Trails (Thornber, 2002) we learn of trains nearly 1000 horses long regularly carrying cloth from Lancashire and Yorkshire to Stourbridge Fair in Cambridgeshire, and that the Staffordshire trails constantly rang with the thud thud slither of horses and asses hoiking coal, ground flint and clay.  Imagine the swearing of the carters.

packhorse bridge at Wycoller
Emily Bronte based Thrushcross Grange
in Wuthering Heights on the hall
I’ll bet it was pretty exotic, particularly as carts and wagons soon reduced the trails to a ‘boggy mass of ruts’ (xvii), not helped, I imagine, by the herds of sheep and pigs en route to London, or the 40,000 Highland cattle descending on Norfolk for fattening.  In 1750, who would not have rushed to see 150,000 turkeys crossing the Stour at Stratford?  And who can cross those Billy Goats Gruff bridges – arch, hump-back, saddle, clapper, clam – without sensing the scuffle and jostle of ancient hoof, paw, foot or webbed paddle? 

my mother's memorial stone
I ride the trails infrequently now, but when I do, along with the ghostly horses, turkeys and cattle I see my mother hung about with camera, pen and paper, and Muffet, ears pricked, tail clamped against the rain or riotous in the breeze.   I see them clearly but I never call out.  It’s perfectly obvious from the lick they are going that they’re far too busy to stop for me.

* packhorse driver
the Mary Towneley loop, named after
my mother
Thornber, T. (2002) Seen on the Packhorse Trails, Todmorden: The South Pennine Packhorse Trails Trust
images from the web, apart from my mother and Muffet

Sunday 27 May 2012

Kathleen Scott, Part One by Louisa Young

It has been said that my ancestors are too interesting, and I have to accept the accusation. But what can I do about it? Hide them? I prefer to tell their interesting stories.

Kathleen Bruce was my father's mother. She was born in 1878 and died in 1947 so I never knew her, but statues she had made were all over the house and garden, and sometimes my father would point one out in a public place: Adam Lindsay Gordon in Westminster Abbey; Lloyd George in the Imperial War Museum, and The Man Who Wasn’t My Grandfather on Waterloo Place. I knew he wasn't my grandfather because my grandfather had only one arm and wasn't all bundled up. Gradually I realized who he was: Con, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Kathleen's first husband; and that he was heroic and tragic and had died of cold and hunger in a tent in a blizzard in the Antarctic, having got to the South Pole too late. I knew this was unspeakably sad but I was worried too because if he (and Oates and Evans and Bowers and Wilson) had come back, Kathleen would never have married my grandfather, and my father and I and my five siblings would never have been born. I wondered if Uncle Pete, who was nine months old when he last saw his father, minded about us. I realized quite soon that he probably didn't, as he had named a family of swans after us.

Kathleen had written a short autobiography, largely for her own pleasure, in 1932; it was published along with a tiny selection from her thirty-six years' worth of diaries after her death. I read it when I was sixteen, and was delighted to find that a grandmother could have lived like a vagabond on a Greek island, could have had friends who got pregnant out of wedlock, could have been annoyed by the hounding of the press, could have worried about what to wear, could have fallen in love and ridden with cowboys, could have run away to Paris to be an artist, and to Macedonia to tend to refugees, could have been financially independent and brought up a son alone. Equally I was shocked to find that a grandmother — my grandmother — could have not supported female suffrage, could have visited South Africa and not exploded at the injustices there, could have moved happily in circles where people referred to 'little Jews'. I had to accept that I could not in justice expect one woman within her generation to be in every way ahead of that generation in matters of humanity and justice. Things unacceptable to me now were generally accepted then; some of them (not all) Kathleen accepted.

But then the humanity in her friendships, with passing strangers or with famous people — George Bernard Shaw, Isadora Duncan, Asquith, Sir James Barrie, Lawrence of Arabia, Max Beerbohm, Austen Chamberlain, Rodin, Colonel House—delighted me. The details of how a woman was, and how women could be, in those days, were fascinating. She was funny and adventurous and innocent and proud. She travelled all over the world. I was pleased to be descended from her.

I was thirty before I realized that I could read all her diaries, written almost every day for thirty six years. She started them for Con when he went south; they were to be a record for him of their son and of her day-to-day activities. After she learnt that Con was not coming back she kept them up. No one knew she did. Her handwriting races along (illegible unless you really practice reading it) recording adventures, anecdotes and observations, interspersed with photographs and little sketches, from 1910 to 1946. She covers politics and exploration, art and sex, literature and travel, Mexican trains and plastic surgery, love and death, folly and creativity, child birth and flying, iguanas and vicars and eating chicken sandwiches out of her coronet at the coronation of George VI. They notably lack self absorption, self pity and self indulgence. I realised that the story sitting in her papers — she kept many letters too— at the University Library in Cambridge was begging to be searched out.

My father wanted me to do it, and if I mentioned her, people would say, 'Oh, I know about her, wasn't she the one who . . . I remember in so-and-so's biography she. . . Oh yes, she was extraordinary, wasn’t she?' But the reason I finally got round to it was more wordly: I heard Beryl Bainbridge on the radio one morning saying that someone really should write Kathleen Scott's biography, and I was seized with fear that someone else might. So I did. It was not a discourse on feminism and the Empire, or another contribution to the well-documented and much-discussed arguments over the comparative merits of dogs/ponies/skis/motor sledges in pre-First World War Antarctica, or what really happened to the oil supply at the Southern Barrier depot. It was the story of a woman's life. There was no special reason why it should be extraordinary, but it is.

A Great Task of Happiness

It was my first book, and time has passed. It is now a hundred years since Con was at the South Pole; sixteen years since the book was first published. Kathleen's son Wayland, my father, has been dead for three years, and Kathleen herself has reappeared in fiction, casting the face of the wounded hero in my most recent novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. For 2012 I corrected and updated the book, and included various of the interesting things that people had told me about Kathleen since the first edition came out. Here’s how it starts:

Kathleen with Captain Scott
KATHLEEN BRUCE wanted written on her gravestone: 'No happier woman ever lived'. The first thing to happen to her, however, was that her brother — her favourite brother — slapped her face, complaining that her eyes were too red. Then her mother went blind and died. Then her father died, then the great uncle who had been looking after her. Then she was packed off to school, and then she ran away to Paris to study with Rodin, then to Macedonia to sit in freezing mud and give blankets to the dying. She nearly died there in an epidemic of typhoid fever, and again later during surgery. She helped to deliver Isadora Duncan’s illegitimate child. At twenty-nine she found love with a man named Robert Falcon Scott, married him and had a son. A year later her husband died, frozen and starving on his journey back from the South Pole. By the time she found out, he had been dead a year. After that things looked up a bit.

Kathleen was descended from the brother of the fourteenth-century king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, of cave and spider fame. On her grandmother’s side she was descended from Nicolae Soutzo, who was in turn Grand Drogman of the Sublime Porte, Grand Logothete, Grand Postlenik of Wallachia and Grand Cepoukehaya, and decapitated in 1769. This side of the family was Phanariot: Greek from Constantinople. The glorious titles denoted positions in the Turkish imperial rule of central Europe. An early ancestor was Michael Rangabe, Michael I, who was Emperor of Constantinople for a very short time in the year 800. His son married an illegitimate daughter of the rather more successful Emperor Charlemagne, who brought as part of her dowry a little fishing village now known as Venice.

One thousand and thirty-two years later their descendant Rhalou Rizo-Rangabe, aged sixteen, was frightened by a mastiff in a street in Athens: so frightened, she said, that she rushed into a nearby house and jumped on the table. The dog’s master, a twenty-one-year-old soldier from Edinburgh named James Henry Skene, over from Malta to shoot duck, followed her in, lifted her off the table and fell in love. They were Kathleen's grandparents. Rhalou was the daughter of Jacovaki Rizo Rangabe, the last Grand Postlenik of Wallachia, and Princess Zoe Lapidi; James was the son of Sir Walter Scott's best friend, James Skene of Rubislaw, a brilliant watercolourist whom Scott described (in the preface to Ivanhoe) as 'the best draughtsman in Scotland', and who is the only non-Greek to have a room devoted to his work in the National Gallery in Athens. James junior's mother was Jane Forbes, whose great uncle, Lord Pitsligo of Monymusk, had dashingly served the Young Pretender, disguised as a beggar, at the age of seventy.

James and Rhalou were married in 1833. Later James's sister Carrie married Rhalou's brother Alexander Rangabe. James sold his commission in the King's 73rd (later the 2nd Black Watch) to become a writer and diplomat, and they moved in with his parents, who, following their children's example, had moved to Athens. James and Rhalou had seven children, including a daughter named Janie after James's mother: she was to be Kathleen's mother. The children's aunt, Fifi Skene, would take them on walks to the Acropolis and tell them how the caryatids wept each night for their sister, kidnapped by wicked Lord Elgin (who was another cousin) and imprisoned in the British Museum; and their Greek nurses told them tales of Turkish cruelty. The family travelled a great deal: James Skene lived 'as a sheik' in Syria, and Fifi took the children to Paris, introduced them to a pasha's wife in Bulgaria and, when the opportunity arose, showed them slaves being sold in the market and the head of a decapitated bandit.

When Janie was seven the Skene grandparents returned to Britain, and Janie and her sister Zoe, aged eight, went too. They lived a while in Oxford, where the sisters took lessons with dons and attended lectures. At seventeen Zoe married Dr William Thompson, a cleric who was promoted every time Zoe had a child: when he became Archbishop of York, Bishop Wilberforce commented that Mrs. Thompson had better be careful, because 'there are only Canterbury and Heaven before him'. (Their son Basil became prime minister of Tonga.) Janie was twenty-seven when she found a priest of her own, the Rev. Lloyd Bruce, whom Zoe described as 'dull, shabbily dressed and too old' (he was thirty-four). Janie felt otherwise: 'Oh, dear Zoe,' she wrote, 'I wish you could see him a little more with my eyes!' In 1863 they were married at St Michael's, Oxford.

Janie was energetic and charming and something of a beauty: Rossetti asked her to pose for him. However, her health was intermittently bad. Having six children (including two sets of twins) in three-and-a-half years did not improve it, though she said it was the raising not the bearing that wore her out. In 1868 she had a complete collapse and had to be fed at half-hourly intervals:

9am Beef tea
9.30 Champagne
10 Chicken broth
10.30 Arrowroot with milk
11 Turtle soup or beef tea
11.30 Medicine
11.45 Champagne
12 Custard pudding
12.30 Beef tea
1pm A sandwich of chicken or mutton with a little brandy and water
2 Medicine
2.30 Chicken broth
3 Champagne
3.30 A cup of milk
4 Brandy and water
5 A cup of cocoa
5.30 Turtle soup
6 A cup of tea with two teaspoonfuls of brandy with a little heated butter
7 Medicine
7.30 Beef tea
8 Cocoa with a rusk
9 Chicken broth followed by champagne
10 Arrowroot with milk
11 Cup of tea with brandy
12 Chicken broth and champagne
1 Cocoa
2 Cup of tea. Brandy
3 Beef tea and a glass of champagne
4 Arrowroot and medicine
5 Cocoa
6 Beef tea and champagne
7 Tea and toast
8 Arrowroot with brandy and medicine

Janie largely recovered from this illness (hysteria, said a London specialist, and who could blame her on that diet?) and on the advice of her doctor had more babies. Between times she took to illustrating photo albums with beautiful pictures of flowers, to raise extra money for the family (the pre-Raphaelite William Riviere had taught her to draw in Oxford). Zoe would sell them for three guineas each. The Bruces were not as well off as Zoe's constantly elevated family, and Zoe continually (and in the face of Janie's well-bred protests and deeply felt gratitude) plied them with petticoats and soldier outfits and whatever was needed. 'You really are a witch to find out our wants as you do,' Janie wrote.In 1878 the Bruces were living in the Jacobean rectory at Carlton-in-Lindrick, near Worksop. It was a grand place, which stables and a lake, a millpond, pillars in the drawing room and Italian mosaic floors upstairs, and a garden large enough to hold the village fete. Archbishop Thompson was to thank for putting this suitable living the way of his impoverished but fecund brother-in-law. Here Janie gave birth to her eleventh child, which made it another five in seven years. This last, born on 27 March 1878, was Kathleen.

We are happy to welcome Louisa back with this first of three extracts from her book about one of her fascinating ancestors.

Saturday 26 May 2012

The Royal Tour, 1947 – Dianne Hofmeyr

On the 21st April 1947 (her real birth date) Princess Elizabeth delivered her  21st birthday speech from Cape Town and promised that her life ‘whether it be long or short’ would be devoted to her people and the Commonwealth. On the BBC recording she speaks in the measured, enunciated tones we know but every now and then ebullience bubbles through betraying her youth. Her birthday was celebrated with two balls – one at the City Hall and another at Government House in Cape Town. I imagine she was surrounded by stiff dignitaries and that already the duties of a future monarch were weighing in but she was glorious in this newspaper cutting below in her 21st dress – Norman Hartnell? 

A few years ago a cousin of mine came across a scrapbook made by my father of the 1947 Royal Tour to South Africa. It’s nothing more than a child’s drawing book covered in brown paper with the unmistakable lettering of my father showing it as scrapbook: no 2. I wonder what happened to no 1 and was there perhaps a third or even a fourth scrapbook?

What’s very clear from the old, yellowed cuttings is that both the princesses and their parents though on official duty, were having a marvellous holiday. The princesses experienced their first aeroplane flights while in South Africa (they’d travelled to Cape Town on the HMS Vanguard). For safety Princess Margaret travelled with her father and Princess Elizabeth travelled separately with her mother. Cuttings below show the princesses galloping along beaches in the sunshine, (Peter Townsend, the King's Equery alongside but not seen in the photograph) visiting a snake park (Princess Elizabeth pointing) and watching hippos on the bank of a river (in rather formal safari attire) with Princess Elizabeth taking charge of her father’s camera. 



At the Victoria Falls (above) they stand at the edge of the precipice with no railings to prevent them from slipping over the vertiginous drop. Princess Elizabeth is right in front with her father and slightly to the left of her (unseen in this photograph but I know from my own experience) is a small wooden stave knocked into the ground that reads simply ‘Danger - keep away from the edge’

There are quite a few cuttings of the family with Field Marshall Jan Smuts, the then Prime Minister of South Africa. Smuts had been part of Churchill’s War Cabinet and wrote the preamble to the United Nations Charter and was on good terms with the King. We see them walking on Table Mountain together and in this photograph above, visiting the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) with Smuts attired in suit and tie and the King looking suitable casual in shorts. 

A photograph of the family having tea with Isie Smuts or Ouma (Grandma) as Mrs Smuts was known, is taken in the garden of the farmhouse, Doringkloof in Irene. The walls of the farmhouse were (and still are... as it's a museum today) made of corrugated tin and the floors of cement. I wonder what the princesses made of this?

I wasn’t there for the bunting, flag waving and Royal processions through the streets of Cape Town and the send-off in the Royal Train – eight luxurious, air-conditioned, ivory-painted coaches - that took the family through the Karoo up north to what was then Rhodesia. But alongside the Royal Train was a pilot train which carried journalists and reporters and I found this report:

In the cool of the evening, strolling along a strip of soil between the rail tracks where the Royal and pilot trains are pulled up, the Royal Family often emerge from the shadows of pines, blue gums, or wattles nearby. With the simplicity and charm that give a touch of graciousness to everything they do, the King and Queen will bow good evening as we stroll past each other. Princess Margaret, who is first to bed, rarely enjoys these brief, happy moments of relaxation, but Princess Elizabeth - a cardigan thrown casually over her shoulders - is a girlish, glamorous figure in the group.

Yes she was glamorous and in her sixty years as reigning monarch, the promise the Queen made in her 21st speech in 1947 still holds. My father's very simple scrapbook put together 65 years ago, gives a small glimpse and insight into the woman she would become. The days ahead will be a marvellous celebration. I might not be producing a scrapbook but I'm delighted to be here witnessing it.


Friday 25 May 2012

Mirror, Mirror... by Eleanor Updale

I've just been sold on eBay.  I went for £99.55 (if you include the postage) which is an enormous relief.  I was scared that no one would bid.  It turns out that I'm worth 2% of Tracey Emin and 22% of Tim Minchin. Astounding.

I was part of an auction of self-portraits organised by the charity Children & the Arts. They sent us all a canvas and some paints and told us to get on with it.  The brief was to do a picture that summed what you did for a living, and that's how I found myself inside my laptop, with the keys spelling out my name.

I can't imagine why anyone would want the picture, and can only thank whichever relative or friend saved me from adding the shame of being unwanted to the embarrassment of painting the picture in the first place. At least some money has gone to a good cause.  And the episode has given me a topic for this month's post, because I want to send you all to see the largest collection of self-portraits I’ve ever come across, which is hidden away in the Vasari Corridor in Florence.

Should any of you have read my book Montmorency and the Assassins, you'll know about the Vasari Corridor.  It's a passageway running  from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. For more than half a mile it flows alongside, between, round and over all sorts of buildings; finally opening out at the bottom of the Boboli Gardens.  The corridor was built in the mid 16th century to give the Medici rulers a secure route from one side of the Arno to the other, with a stop along the way for a private booth from which the Grand Duke could observe services in the church of Santa Felicita.

In my book, the corridor is the site of a frantic chase after a 19th century anarchist.  In real life, it's been severed by Nazi mines, and damaged by a mafia bomb in 1993.  Now, restored, it is full of pictures hardly anyone sees.  The corridor is open on only a few days a year, and you have to book a pricey guided tour to get in, but it’s worth it.  I went there to work out how it fitted in to my story, not knowing about the self-portrait collection it houses. This includes pictures of (and, obviously, by) Rembrandt, Velazquez, Van Dyck, Durer, Van Gogh Corot, Ingres, Delacroix, Andy Warhol and many more. 

It's a funny thing, a self portrait.  Inherently vain  (even - perhaps especially - when intending to depict a humble, tortured soul) and sometimes unintentionally revealing, just as an autobiography or a castaway's choice of Desert Island Discs can be.  Do you go for warts and all, or spruce yourself up?  Do you paint an imaginary country estate in the background, or surround yourself with the trappings of learning? 

What follows is, as Peter Snow would say, Just A Bit of Fun...

For more than a century, artists aiming for a likeness have been able to construct self portraits using photographs as references, but in the days before the camera they must have used mirrors. So I wonder whether, to find out what they really looked like, we should look at mirror-images of their work, because that double flip would show us their faces as they appeared to those around them.

Would it make any difference?  It might.  After all, There is no such thing as a symmetrical face.  If there were, some people we know well might look very different. 

Here’s Charles II as we are used to seeing him:

Although his face looks pretty symmetrical, if both sides were exactly the same, he would either look like this (two right sides) :

Or this (two left sides):

So when an artist paints a self portrait using a mirror, they may be presenting the face they recognise as their own, but it won't be exactly the same face those around them see.  Obviously, the difference won't be as marked as in the examples above, because the two different halves of the face will still be there, but I've chosen a couple of self portraits at random to see whether the artists look any different turned round.

Do we feel any differently about Rembrandt as he saw himself…

Or as others saw him?

I fancy he looks older and sadder in the second picture.

How about Van Gogh?

 His self-portrait                                                               Flipped

Here, I think that beady little eye at the back somehow has more prominence in the second image.  Could it be that I read faces left to right (like print) and give more importance to what I see first? So in the Rembrandt picture the wrinkles in the 'big' side of the face (the right side in the first picture) are balanced out by the smaller side, whereas in the second picture, they dominate - not just because that side is bigger, but because I see it first.

And what about the sitters in ‘normal’ portraits? Surely, until very recently their most frequent (sometimes their only) source of self-image must have been the mirror; so when they saw themselves in portraits painted by people looking directly at them, they might have got a surprise (I suppose the nearest thing we have these days is our shock on hearing a recording of our own voice for the first time).
Perhaps, if we want to see what the sitters thought they looked like (rather than what everyone else saw) we should flip over their portraits.  

I can’t help thinking that Queen Anne might have had a higher opinion of her looks than those who saw her in the flesh or only knew her from this portrait.

In the mirror, she looks prettier, and a little more cheerful, at least to my eye:

Maybe that's because I'm seeing her 'good' side first.
Or perhaps I'm fooling myself.

Anyway, it’s been fun to play.  Have a go with some of your favourite historical characters.  And remember, if you happen to be in Florence on one of the rare occasions when  the Vasari Corridor is open, book yourself a place on a tour.

Thursday 24 May 2012



Today, if you wander down Oxford Street you might chance to view a building that still bears the name of Henry Heath's Hat Manufacturers.

Founded in the reign of King George 1V, during the nineteenth century Heath's provided gentlemen's headwear of 'the most brilliant silk plush' which 'retains its glossy brilliance in wear.'

A discerning client of the firm might have first chanced to see an advertisement that enquired -


A subsequent visit to Henry Heath's would subject individual craniums to a personal and 'successful system of Head Measurement that ensures the luxury of a well-fitting Hat adapted to the form of the wearer's head.'

EXTRA QUALITY, Silk Hats (Cash Price) 17/-
Other Qualities (Unequalled for Hard Wear) - 13/6 & 10/6
BEST FELT HATS 7/6  9/6  10/6

The Heath Hat Factory employed upwards of seventy people and refused to supply its goods to 'any Co-operative stores'. The hats were purchased direct, with cash, and customers could always rely on 'receiving business-like attention' and, for an extra shilling, once that perfect hat was firmly in hand (or upon head), the proud and well-fitted owner could take home THE NARROW HAT BRUSH which had hard bristles at the one end and was perfect for keeping the brim of the hat 'free from dust and spots. By post one stamp extra'.

In the Victorian era, most gentlemen wore a hat, whether for occupational use or as a fashion accessory. Top hats, which went by several names - including Toppers, Chimney Pots, and Stove Pipes - first became popular when they replaced the Tricorne, most fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century.

However, in 1797 when a certain Mr Hetherington strode through the streets of London wearing a top hat on his head he was said to have gathered such a crowd that scenes of chaos went on to occur, with that gentleman duly arrested and accused of disturbing the public order, and the police officer who dealt with the problem going on to testify in court that:-

'Hetherington had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.'

In reply The Times was to write:-

'Hetherington's hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.'

Coppers in Toppers

Indeed they had. The top hat could not be put back in its box. Initially made of felted beaver or rabbit fur it was set to become quite 'the thing' and, somewhat ironically, was to be later adopted as part of the uniforms worn by the police.

For a brief period during the 1820's and 30's a version with concave sides was produced - and this was called the Wellington. But straight sides were to win out and as the century progressed the crowns became higher, the brims narrower,  the Stovepipe being popular with the American president, Abraham Lincoln, who was said to have stored his letters inside.

President Lincoln

Back in England, Prince Albert also liked the style -  his fine silk plush being made from cheesecloth, linen, flannel and shellac, onto which was attached the silk weave with a long defined nap, and the brim of the hat would have a ribbed band of varying proportions.

Albert and Victoria - is she convinced by that hat?

A folding version was produced for visitors to the opera - with internal springs that allowed the item to be compressed and stored away unobtrusively under the theatre seat.

But, even with such natty innovations in mind, as time passed by the common man began to wear the more practical, smaller Bowler hat. The Topper became more widely connected with the aristocracy, bankers and politicians, and those who attended public schools such as Eton - though in reality top hats have not been worn at that establishment since the 1940's.

Eton boys

Essie Fox is the author of The Somnambulist, a Victorian gothic mystery.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

A Vision of True Equality by Leslie Wilson

As the country gears up to an expensive celebration of sixty years of one monarch's reign, I would like to look back to an event that until recently was largely uncelebrated in our history yet which was absolutely crucial to the development of democracy in this country. I'm talking about the Putney debates.

They happened at St Mary's Church in Putney, between the 28th October and the 9th of November 1647 - Charles I was still alive at this time - when soldiers from the New Model Army, which was fighting for Parliament, joined together with civilians to debate the future shape of England. This came about because of pressure from radicals in the ranks of the Army - Oliver Cromwell had been trying to negotiate a settlement still fundamentally based on monarchy and privilege - but there were multitudes of others, in England at that time, who had other ideas.

Radical, crazy visions. Like giving every man in England the right to elect members of Parliament. There were even activists who believed women should have the vote, though they were something of a minority. This was, after all, a time - inevitable, really, given the fact that the translation of the Bible into English had given ordinary people the ability to read it for themselves - when previous ideas of religious and social hierarchy had been seriously questioned. The Civil War itself was a challenge to the concept of the Divine Right of Kings - the idea that Kings, being set in their places by God, were answerable only to God and that the common people had a duty to obey them, no matter what they did.

I haven't room here to enumerate all the ideas that fermented in England then - and there are plenty of websites that give a detailed account of them - but to me there are two phrases which sum them up. One is Colonel Rainsborough's rallying call for universal manhood suffrage. 'For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.' (I'd want to add Woman and shee - but hey..)

The other was the cry of George Fox, one of the founders of the Society of Friends (Quakers) - still probably one of the most radical religious groups in Britain. 'There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to your condition.' After years of agonised searching for salvation and inner peace, Fox had realised that God could speak directly to ordinary people, without the permission or control of priests. Given that the monarch was the head of the Church of England, this conviction was considered to pose a drastic threat to the fabric of society - as was the Quaker practice of sending out women to travel 'in the ministry.'

The concomitant passionate belief in equality - everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and it's important to live in God's way now, rather than wait for Heaven to make everything OK - led Quakers to refuse to take their hats off to so-called social superiors, and to call everyone 'thou' - which then, in England, was the familiar form, like 'tu' in French, and to call them, moreover, by their first and last names only, leaving off all titles. If a ploughboy spoke to the monarch, he still spoke as human being to fellow human being.

The visions of ordinary men and women in England at that time prefigured our modern ideas of a good society - of fundamental British values, indeed - and many of those courageous and far-seeing people suffered for them. Quakers certainly did. And yet our schoolchildren aren't taught about the English Revolution. Why not? Have we ever had Jubilee celebrations for the Putney Debates, country-wide? Why not? Instead, at a time when people are beginning to question the idea of an unelected Second Chamber of Parliament, the institution of unelected monarchy remains largely unchallenged - to a point where, when a member of the Royal Family made a mess of his ambassadorial role recently, Parliament was instructed that the Royal Family were not to be criticised. Incidentally, until the Human Rights Act was passed, it would have been illegal for me to write this blog piece, as it was a felony (I think that's the correct term) for anyone to advocate in writing the abolition of the Monarchy.

I'm sure that Elizabeth Windsor has worked very hard, in her way, during her years as monarch. But I doubt if she's worked any harder than any nurse, foster-parent, social worker, or other professional who works for the public good - and she certainly has never worked for peanuts. She is one of the world's super-rich. And it is deemed, in this country, that she and her family, by an accident of birth, deserve unconditional respect from the rest of us. Yet the rich, the aristocracy, and the monarch and her family are, simply, human beings, and thus deserve no less and no more respect or honour than any other human being in this country.

The discrepancy between the Windsors' status and that of their 'subjects' - which under the present arrangement every British national is deemed to be - iconises the inequality which turns many parts of our country into hell-holes. I am thinking of the recent Guardian report on accommodation, for example. People crammed into one sordid room, with inadequate heating or food. Or the parts of the country where - for the profits of shareholders - employment is simply no longer on offer and there are generations who haven't worked. It's convenient and easy to say that this is their fault. But if you shove people to the bottom of the heap, you can't expect them to be bright, motivated, and optimistic. Their hopes and faculties decay.

At a time when misfortune, illness, and disability, or simple poverty, are being seen as a crime, and when the obscenely wealthy are cosseted and rewarded, it seems to me more vital than ever to stand up for the concept of fundamental human worth divorced from wealth or status. The radicals of Putney wanted to remake England and they seemed like crazy visionaries to many of their contemporaries, who preferred what they saw as sensible pragmatism. Yet their ideas have born fruit, though they never lived to see it. Let's continue to pursue that vision of equality, especially at times like the present where it's under attack by the forces of cynicism, greed, callousness and despair.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

THE PAST AS PLACE by Jane Borodale

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
What is it exactly that makes a place? It’s something I think about a lot. Trying to describe the experience of being in a place is a very layered, shifting kind of thing. I love the way that linear time makes no sense when applied to the physicality of a location, it’s all muddled up, bits of the past can be utterly current under our feet.

And landscape itself is filled with clues of how it might have been when people used it differently. I always think of place as one of the main protagonists in any story, speaking volumes without dialogue, not as a backdrop but as an active player. And trying to read a landscape or environment is one step closer towards knowing the people who live or have lived previously in it.

Poplar Cottage from Washington, Sussex
I was recently lucky enough to spend a year as writer-in-residence at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, where over 50 vernacular buildings have been rescued from destruction and painstakingly reassembled on a beautiful 40-acre site in the Sussex chalk Downland. These are buildings that were used by peasants, labourers and tradesmen – people intrinsic to their working landscapes. It’s a place close to my heart as I grew up in the Downs nearby and spent formative hours at the museum as a child, sneaking in through the fence. In those days there were only a few houses, mostly unfurnished, but to a child it was a delicious portal to the past.

Now it’s a fully assembled village, in itself an entirely new place: 15th-century Wealden hall-houses, smoke-bay cottage, 17th-century farmhouse, medieval barns, working watermill, granaries, early 19th-century tollhouse, working Tudor kitchen. Many of the houses are authentically furnished to a specific period.

Bayleaf, Wealden hall-house from Chiddingstone
The museum community includes skilled carpenters and conservators, curator, an on-site historian (who was very generous with her expertise), woodsman, gardener, miller, blacksmith, stockman, working animals of traditional breeds. It’s the combination of rigorous scholarship and physical experiment there that I found so inspiring. There is so much for the imagination to feed on – but not in a vaguely ‘heritage’ or theme-parkish way; this museum is an ongoing investigation into building technology across six centuries and the ordinary lives of ordinary people of the south-eastern region. It’s a large-scale celebration of the commonplace embedded in its landscape.

During my residency I wrote about four of these houses at the museum, but in the context of their original sites. I wanted to try to make each house-portrait into a narrative arc that gave a sense of time swooshing along, a kind of flipbook of moments. (The end result was The Visitor, which at the moment you can download as a free eBook at to read on a computer or Kindle etc.)

Medieval house from North Cray
During research I spent a lot of time absorbing the character of these buildings, as well as facts and social history, through the seasons. (In winter huddling gratefully near the fires kept burning in many of the hearths – how extremely smoky, ashy, cold and draughty the past was!) I also found reading historical maps and applying or mentally layering them over existing sites really fascinating. 19th-century tithe maps, particularly if looked at alongside census records across the century, reveal tantalising glimpses of lives and occupations and family relations to the land. Who owned a particular set of fields, who lived at the blacksmithy, how old the shoemaker’s son was in a given year and whether he had a wife… Having these place-specific kind of shards or snippets from the past and standing in the same place today, makes a kind of double-place – an overlapping or convergence of times that we’re free to animate with our imaginations whether we’re visitors, readers or writers.

The more I write fiction the more I realise how my idea of the past is bound up with place, and that what I write is an attempt to pin down aspects of time that are captured tangibly in the actual matter of place (building or landscape) as traces, marks, buried pieces, snagged things, steepings, footprints. Maybe ‘pin down’ is too dry and specific; I suppose I mean that writing stories is a way to create the illusion of somewhere that appears whole enough to climb inside, if only for the duration of reading. (When it really works of course it becomes an entirely new place in its own right, lodged in the head and carried around indefinitely.) The past is a place we can only visit in our minds – and how very many ways it can be constructed. Historical fiction positively demands that we try to dwell in it, to ‘be’ inside its moment, trying it out in time and space. And places like this museum are a rich source of information about how things actually worked in terms of scale and physical effort within a given environment.

Winkhurst Tudor kitchen
I miss those residency mornings shivering in the marvellously-stocked timber-framed library, buried in copies of WH Hudson learning about shepherds; afternoons propped in corners of soot-blackened halls with a biro and notebook. I miss finding out the practical details: how extremely heavy the churn handle becomes as the cream turns to butter, what the strain and creak of millwheels driving stones to grind the flour sounds like, the particular smell of pig meat being freshly butchered. And I miss the site-visits out across the southern counties to where the buildings came from, armed with maps and thermos, ducking under barbed wire, looking for clues, often finding that curious whisked-away feeling of something physically gone from a place but somehow still current in so many ways. It goes without saying how loss or absence itself can have a powerful presence on the flavour of a place – and as writers of historical fiction we’re all occupied in describing absences, aren’t we?

Bayleaf farmstead from Chiddingstone, Kent
I’ll end this rather elliptical set of thoughts with the happy news that the Weald and Downland Museum are holding their first ever Historical Fiction Day on 5 Aug 2012, to consider and explore aspects of writing that draws on the past through place and character.

Speakers include bestselling authors Alison Weir and Maria McCann. Click here to buy tickets for the day or to find out more.

And their Historical Short Story Competition (1st prize 1000 pounds, judges include Kate Mosse and Emma Darwin) has a deadline of 22 June – just one month away today!

It would be really nice to meet some of you at the HF day, or read your stories…