Saturday 30 November 2013

November Competition

Open to UK readers only - sorry!

We have five copies of Lydia Syson's book That Burning Summer to give away to the best answers to this question:

'Who do you wish you could have hidden and protected  in an isolated church, and why?'

(If you missed her guest post, take a look at yesterday)

And find out more at:

Closing date 7th December

Friday 29 November 2013

The Summer of 1940 by Lydia Syson

A big welcome to Lydia Syson, who is our guest for November. Appropiaitely enough in theis onth of Remembrance, she has written a novel set in 1940.

Photo: Sanne Vliegenthart

About Lydia: she is a fifth-generation North Londoner who now lives south of the river. Although writing a novel was a very early ambition, it took her rather a long time to get round to A World Between Us, set during the Spanish Civil War and published by Hot Key Books in 2012. In the meantime, she went from being a World Service radio listener in Botswana to a producer in London, leaving the BBC after her first child was born. Three more children later she wrote a biography of Britain’s first fertility guru, Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed, telling the full story of the charismatic eighteenth-century ‘electric’ doctor. Getting to Timbuktu is still on the ‘to do’ list – explorers, poets and Timbuktu fever were the subject of the PhD she finished in 2003 – but recent travels have been closer to home. Her new book, THAT BURNING SUMMER, is set in July 1940 as the Battle of Britain was raging over Kent. Sixteen-year old Peggy faces a test of love and loyalty when a young Polish pilot crash-lands near the family farm. 

“That Burning Summer” emerged, layer by layer, almost entirely from the place in which it’s set. Years of mooching around Romney Marsh (cycling between its pubs and churches, and walking, windswept, along that peculiar triangle of Kent coast which juts out towards Boulogne, made me see the summer of 1940 in an entirely new light. The more I dug, the more intrigued I became by the ‘underbelly’ of the Battle of Britain: all those elements of wartime life which the propaganda posters are precisely designed to cover up. The uncomfortable truths.

Posters like this have supplied our most enduring images of the era. Propaganda deals in myth of course, and wartime myths - invariably more palatable than the reality – quickly and powerfully come to dominate memory and imagination. So in my childhood, like most Britons, I’d absorbed a fairly standard narrative of World War II: ‘we’ won. It was the ‘good’ war, the ‘just’ war, unlike the futile one that preceded it, and “Britons never, never will be…”

And I here I stop. Because one subversive grandmother (London Granny) used to finish this song off with ‘marrai-ed to the mermai-eds at the bottom of the deep blue sea’ while the other (Country Granny) memorably brought me up short one day in conversation in her kitchen when I was about ten years old with the information that she and everyone else on the South coast of England were firmly convinced in 1940 that Hitler actually would invade. For the first time in my life, I learned that the prospect of losing the war was at one time extremely real. I was shocked. I’d really had no idea.

One half term, exploring a flooded pillbox on the Royal Military Canal ( with my children, that conversation suddenly came back to me. The Canal, which curves efficiently from Hythe to Rye, was originally built to repel Napoleonic invaders, and also to control smugglers. It was the first effective line of defense in these parts in 1940, when German invaders were anticipated at every moment. What would it have been like, I wondered, to live on the Marsh then, between canal and coast, listening to the guns as France fell, knowing that your turn was coming next? I imagined the vast and beautiful skies above scribbled over with vapour trails left by dogfights. I pictured a parachute descending, a falling plane, an unknown airman…

These thoughts were mostly prompted by that fact that one of my children was deep in the grip of an obsession with flight, and World War Two with it. After several years of intense discussions of the relative merits of mangonels and trebuchets, we’d moved on to Merlin engines, Hawker Hurricanes and Heinkels. Words like ‘aileron’ had suddenly entered my vocabulary. Eventually, I took my place in the back of a frail 4-seater plane and my ten- year-old son flew me 2,000 feet over the Marsh: his tenth birthday present was a flying lesson. Seeing the Marsh from this height was, unsurprisingly, a revelation.

An even more significant revelation for That Burning Summer came from below the ground. In Brenzett Aeronautical Museum ( I first encountered the discoveries of another generation of obsessives: the amateur aviation archaeologists of the 1970s and 80s. Unlike the RAF, they refused to give up their efforts to trace long-lost pilots and planes. In a slightly ramshackle building that once housed land girls, we peered at a scorched German parachute [IMAGE: ‘Remains of German parachute] treasured for years by the girl whose brother had rescued it from a tree, read stories of pilots who’d bailed out of burning planes only to be mistaken for the enemy, and were simply amazed at the sight of aircraft parts that had been buried in the Marsh for decades.

Hurricane cockpit
It seemed unbelievable. How could entire aircraft simply be swallowed up like that, invisible and untouched for decades?

Not just aircraft, but often their pilots too.

Arthur William Clarke, a Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain, was listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ at the age of 20. In a letter to Arthur’s mother, grimly typed a week after his disappearance, his Squadron Leader strikes a weary note:

‘I am afraid that there is very little hope of hearing from him now. We were on Patrol over Kent, when we intercepted about 30 Enemy Bombers with Escort Fighters and attacked about 10 miles west of Folkestone, we went into attack three at a time and your son was in the second three to attack, nobody saw anything happen to him and after the attack we were split up and returned home separately as usually happens, as nobody saw anything one really cannot say what happened.

It is conceivably possible that he jumped out by Parachute and was carried by the wind out into the Channel where he might have been taken prisoner by a German Torpedo Boat, but I am afraid that is very unlikely…I am sorry I cannot tell you anything more than this, but nobody saw anything. I am afraid this is often the case in these Air Battles.’

Arthur Clarke’s Hurricane had come down unseen, to vanish immediately into Romney Marsh. Forty-six years later, the dogged work of a freelance aviation historian made it possible for his family to put up this memorial near this lonely spot not far from the tiny village of Newchurch. Like many families in the same position, they decided to leave his mortal remains in peace.

‘Nobody saw anything.’ That stuck with me. If a plane could just disappear like that, its pilot with it, and nobody see, what else could happen? What if you were a pilot who had got to a point that you actually wanted to disappear? What if you bailed out just in time, and realised that nothing, nothing on earth, could make you get back into a cockpit? Surely not every fighter pilot was as brave as the smiling young Englishmen celebrated in Churchill’s famous speech, with its electrifyingly Shakespearean echoes. What if you simply lost your nerve? What happened to the Unhappy Few?

Here’s another lonely memorial.

We came across it one day walking with friends at Dungeness, heading east into scrubland, lighthouse and power station at our backs.

“What’s that flag?” one of us wondered out loud.

“Poland,” came my son’s authoritative reply. (There was slightly more of the flag to go by five years ago than there is today.)

Bogusław Mierzwa was killed here on 16th April 1941, after having flown missions in combat against the Luftwaffe since September 1939. This tattered flag made me want to find out more about the Polish pilots who took to the skies over Britain in the summer of 1940. They’ve been described as the ‘forgotten few’. The stories I discovered made me ashamed to have known so little about them before.

When the men of the Polish air force arrived in Britain – over 8,000 were evacuated - they had already experienced multiple invasions. In the first month of the war, Poland was invaded twice: by Germany and then the Soviet Union. Contrary to the myth that their planes were destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war, these men fought bravely then, and many went on to make dangerous odysseys halfway round the world, spending time in virtual prison camps en route, and fighting in the Battle of France too before reaching ‘the Island of Last Hope’. Probably the best-trained pilots in the world at the time, they then had a struggle to convince the RAF to let them fly. Before long, Polish pilots had a reputation in Britain for almost insane courage: they fought with the desperation of the already occupied.

The story I had begun to hatch about a pilot in hiding became suddenly more interesting. I discovered a chilling term: ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’. LMF was hastily introduced in April 1940 to deter aircrew from refusing to fly. Effectively, you were branded a coward. Historians have found RAF medical records on psychological welfare suspiciously incomplete, so I don’t know if any Poles were officially ‘diagnosed’, but I had reached the point by then where imagination could take over. I couldn’t imagine anything more shameful for a Polish pilot than a failure of courage. The character of Henryk began to take shape.

Can anyone know how he or she will respond when truly tested? In June 1940, every household was issued with a leaflet: ‘If the invader comes: what to do and how to do it’. I imagined a child becoming obsessed with the confusing advice it contained. Rule 2 (‘Do not believe rumours and do not spread them’) included the worrying advice to keep your head. Common sense was apparently the best way to tell whether ‘a military officer is really British or only pretending to be so.’ All very well, but what if you were one of those people whose senses weren’t like everyone else’s? I’d recently been finding out about dyspraxia. For various reasons, multiple instructions, short-term memory and organisation can be incredibly difficult for people with dyspraxia. It’s little understood even now. In wartime Britain, any child like that would probably have been automatically dismissed as ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’. So how terrifying such a set of instructions would have appeared to a boy like Ernest, in That Burning Summer, a quiet, bird-watching boy who’d never had to be ‘manly’ before.

Rumour and the control of information were issues of huge concern to the Government in the months before the ‘Blitz spirit’ emerged. Two weeks after Dunkirk and five days before the fall of France, the over-crowded troopship Lancastria was sunk off the French coast, and as many as 6,000 lives may have been lost. It was the worst disaster in British maritime history but the news was kept secret for fear of its impact on morale. I’d interviewed a number of Lancastria survivors for a radio documentary many years ago, and found the contradictions between the ‘official’ war narrative and their own stories both moving and fascinating.

By 1940, up and down the country, people were (overheard) complaining about the increasingly heavy hand of the state. The pro-democracy Mass-Observation movement had become a tool of the Ministry of Information and ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’ were quickly compared to the Gestapo. Meanwhile Mass-Observation diarists like Nella Last continued to record the kind of casual anti-Semitism we prefer to forget was rife in 1930s Britain, and Communist families on the South coast destroyed potentially incriminating papers in anticipation of invasion and imprisonment or worse. My London grandparents made preparations for a friend to look after my mother in case of their own arrest. Others stockpiled suicide medication and buried treasures of all kinds.

In this climate of mistrust, spyfever inevitably broke out. In playgrounds and post office queues, front parlours and cinemas, it was fed by radio programmes like ITMA and films like Contraband and The Spy in Black. On Romney Marsh itself, suspicions were confirmed by the appearance of four rather incompetent spies on the coast in early September.

But there was another secret threat: from Madrid, and the Spanish Civil War, came the fear of the Enemy Within – ‘The Fifth Column’, ready and waiting to support the invaders when they came. Oswald Mosley and 740 other active fascists were interned in May 1940, but that still left plenty of sympathisers at large to worry about.

Pacifists made easy targets. Orwell declared them pro-Fascist, the Daily Mail called for the Peace Pledge Union to be banned, and an article in the Sunday Pictorial soon after Dunkirk referred scathingly to our ‘national pansies’. Across the country, Conscientious Objectors were dismissed from teaching positions.

The more I read, the more torn I felt. I thoroughly admired the morality of their absolutist stand against war, and the complicated kind of courage it took to maintain. Yet the experience of writing A World Between Us, set among International Brigaders during the Spanish Civil War, had made me less sympathetic than ever with the disastrous policies of appeasement: the non-intervention agreement that turned a blind eye to Hitler and Mussolini’s support for Franco and enabled him to win the war was part of the same thinking. If I felt like this, now, how much harder must it have been to work out the right thing to do in the summer of 1940.

All these ideas kept swirling around my head as I wrote, and found their way into the isolated church on Romney Marsh where much of That Burning Summer is set, and some of it was actually written. You won’t find many direct references to them in the story that finally came out, the tale of ‘a girl, a boy and a crash-landing…’ - Peggy, Ernest and Henryk - but they’re there in the warp and weft of the novel. And I’ll never walk beside the ditches and across the fields of the Marsh and see them in quite the same way again.

Thursday 28 November 2013

The History Girls: The Original Hackers, by Clare Mulley

The Original Hackers, by Clare Mulley

Last week I was delighted to meet Ruth Ive, ‘the woman who censored Churchill’, as she is styled in her memoirs.[i] As a war-time telephone censor, Ruth is probably the last person still with us who once listened in on conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt, but then we still don’t know for sure exactly who else was party to the great men’s conversations. For those who have been surprised by recent phone tapping and state surveillance revelations, it is sobering to remember that hacking has been a recognized policy since a least the Second World War.

Ruth Ive in the 1940s
when she worked in the Postal and Telegraph Censorship

In 1942, Ruth’s shorthand skills led to her being picked out of her job at the postal-censorship offices for a role monitoring the Transatlantic radio link between Britain and America. For three and a half years she worked long shifts, tucked into a small office in a partly destroyed building in St Martins Le Grand. Here Ruth listened in to conversations between the dispersed members of European royal families, a ‘rather bad-tempered’ Mme Chiang Kai-shek, and senior political and diplomatic staff including Churchill and Roosevelt, or Mr Smith and Mr White as they were known over the phone. Ruth’s job was two-fold; to note down everything that was said, and to pull the plug, literally, on any conversation that might in any way compromise the Allied war effort if overheard.

Churchill was ‘a natural telephoner’ Ruth told me over tea and sandwiches in her North London care home, ‘very effusive with Roosevelt and often unguarded in his comments’. Listening down the line, she felt that she never knew what he might say next, and she suspects that Roosevelt did not either. Their conversations might start with a description of Churchill’s dinner, or Roosevelt’s polite enquiry after his opposite number’s family, but would soon develop into often quite passionate discussions. Churchill ‘didn’t hide his emotions’, Ruth remembered. Although he was always confident about ultimate victory, ‘he did not have that clipped, buttoned-up quality’. On one occasion, when he was distraught at the devastation caused by a V2 that had landed near Holborn Circus, Ruth had to cut the line on Churchill twice in quick succession, for fear he would reveal the exact location and extent of the damage caused. And yet the PM only spoke to Ruth directly once, demanding ‘what did you do that for?’ when the line went dead unexpectedly. Ruth had to explain that this time it was her US counterpart who had cut the line on Roosevelt – something Ruth was never allowed to do herself. The only consistent thing in the calls was the way that Churchill always signed off saying, ‘Kaye Bee Oh’. Eventually, unsure how to transcribe this curious farewell, Ruth asked her boss who told her it was K.B.O. for ‘Keep Buggering On’.

The room where Churchill made his Transatlantic calls.
The outside door was disguised it as a toilet,
with a sign that could be moved from 'Vacant' to 'Engaged'.

Ruth knew that all her shorthand notes on the Churchill/Roosevelt conversations were shredded once she had transcribed them and in any case, she told me, a few days later ‘no one could read them, not even me’. After the war, in October 1945, Churchill was asked to attend a US Congressional hearing with the longhand transcripts, and responded that they, too, had been ‘destroyed’. It seemed that that was end of that. Ruth married soon after the war and raised two sons and, having signed the official secrets act, she never spoke about her work listening in to the hottest British hotline of the war.

Ruth's July 1945 reference, noting that she was 'the best censor'
and 'highly recommended for work requiring tact and discretion'.

Fifty years later Ruth was ‘horrified’ to learn about the existence of a German listening station at Valkenswaard, near Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where Philips electronics are based. Up till then she had imagined that her role had been little more than a necessary war-time precaution. ‘If I had had any proof [that the Germans were listening] at the time, I would have just laid down my pencil and made a run for it’ she told me laughing. Looking back, however, she has become fascinated by just who, besides herself and the American phone censor, was eavesdropping on ‘these two old men, talking to each other’.

In 2004 Ruth travelled to the Netherlands to search for the Valkenswaard listening station. Major Tony Bayley, of the British Battalion of the Irish Guards, had introduced her to members of the military team who, just after the war, had found the abandoned Dutch farmhouse that had once served as the German listening station hidden away in some woods. Sadly the building had already been stripped, and all the equipment either thrown into the nearby river or evacuated with the staff. Visiting nearly sixty years later, Ruth found the building was still standing and used as an Arts Centre, but she met ‘a blanket of silence’ when she began asking questions at the Valkenswaard Heritage Centre and other official archives. ‘You imagine that the Dutch are liberal’ she sighed, ‘it is shocking that this happened there’. However she did meet a man who remembered the high security around the building when he was a local teenager during the war.

Post-war Valkenswaard
The former German Intelligence Centre disguised as a Dutch farmhouse.

The American historian, David Khan, has written about the German facilities at Valkenswaard, describing the underground bunker where the technology was kept, and the radio masts hidden among the trees.[ii] Here the thirty-five staff, all fluent English-speakers, lived in comparative luxury, with comfortable bedrooms, an on-site kitchen preparing fresh meals, and a lounge with an open fireplace. ‘Apparently, the quality of the reception was good too’, Ruth added ruefully as we spoke, thinking about her own cramped office, lack of lunches, and sometimes terribly static lines.

On her last day in Amsterdam, ‘this little man turned up on the doorstep’ Ruth told me. Hans Knap was a retired TV journalist who had written a history of official postal monitoring dating back to the end of the nineteenth century.[iii] While researching Valkenswaard he, too, had also drawn a blank with the Dutch authorities. Nonetheless Knap’s research led him to conclude that ‘after forty years of German-Dutch colonial co-operation, German engineers listened to the “hot-line” of Churchill and Roosevelt with the help of the facilities of the Dutch PTT and Philips Electronic Industries’. David Khan, who has looked at records in the USA and elsewhere, even asserts that translations of all the Churchill/Roosevelt talks landed on the Fuehrer’s desk within hours of the calls being made.

Now in her 90s, Ruth is still a woman with a mission. ‘I’ve had a lot of fun’, she told me, ‘and I’ve got very irritated and very angry…’ In a way though, she says, it did not matter that the Germans were successfully listening in. Given the coded nature of the conversations, and her own and her American counterpart’s quick action to prevent any sensitive information from being discussed, she feels sure that they ‘gained little original intelligence’ from the Transatlantic radio line. However, her memoirs tell just one side of a conversation, she explained, and she would still like to know just who these ‘original hackers’, as she calls them, were. ‘I am surprised at people now – that the authorities were so amazed by the recent hacking’, she told me as we said goodbye. ‘Why was it a scandal? We’ve all been doing it for years.’

Ruth Ive's book, The Woman Who Censored Churchill
(The History Press, 2008)

[i] Ruth Ive, The woman who censored Churchill (The History Press, 2008).
[ii] David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication fro Ancient Times to the Internet (Scribner, 1996)
[iii] Hans Knap, Forschungsstelle Langeveld: Duits afluisterstation in bezet Nederland (De Bataafsche leeuw, 1998)

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Girls in Pearls, Girls in Tears, by Louisa Young

I told the publishers, I just don't want a cover with a woman without a face - viewed from behind, or with no head. Of course I don't want a face either. It would be the wrong face - not my character's face. Anyway I have lots of characters. But I don't want lots of people. And I don't want one of those hand-tinted vintage photos. Or a couple kissing in a station, or a bloke in uniform. Or a woman in a red dress with lots of flesh showing. And it must be historically accurate. And I don't want curly writing or anything which would look at home near a cupcake. I want something powerful and beautiful and which wouldn't look ridiculous with a male author's name on it. Or something saying 'Shortlisted for the Booker' or 'by the Nobel Laureate'. I want something intelligent but accessible, best-selling yet highbrow, arty yet popular. You know - what we all want. I sent a bunch of vintage pictures to show what I meant. This is 'Unidentified Woman', by Hugh Cecil. 

Hm. I used to be annoyed by the way fashion magazines would tell us what scent the model in the photograph was wearing, but not her name. Something of the same thing happens here. I want to know who she is, and why she has that expression; what is her sadness? She wears the pearls of English lady-hood. Is she a deb? Is she to be married? Is she to sit for decades in a silver frame on a never-played grand piano in Surrey, while her husband carries on with a west-end dancer and her children play cricket at boarding school?  Or was she parachuted into France for the Secret Service?

This is another Unidentified Woman, by Edward Steichen. I know about Steichen. He was a very glamourous character, and he kissed my grandmother when she was art student in Paris. But I don't know about this woman, with her messy hair and her firm mouth. She looks pissed off. Has she been arrested? Is she mad? She doesn't want to be here, being photographed by a famous great man. Or perhaps he asked her to look like that. 

Lilian Gish! She has her own name and history. Her hair is more artfully mussed; her lipstick is perfect, she's a film star - but again: you wouldn't mess with her.

Guess who? Unidentified Woman again. 
Why does one face catch us, decades later, and another not? 

I was taken by the idea of the beautiful posh girls in the old-fashioned glossy magazines. Look at them! You can buy some of these ones on the Country Life website, going back to 1946, even if they're no longer on the marriage market. Traditionally, they were photographed on engagement, a stream of Arabellas and Nicolas and Amandas and Carolines about to change their names.   

Here is Rachel Johnsons's stepmother - Miss Iris Peake.

and here's Carola Harvey, 1962, and Patricia Waddington, 1964

Caroline Barrie, 1950; and Suzanna Crean, 1981

Lady Helen Windsor, 1982, and  Tessa Wolfe Murray 1969


Lucinda Prior-Palmer, 1981 and Patricia Shann, 1978

Rosalie Bradshaw, 1965, and Eirolys Elizabeth Horton Fawkes, 1950

There was an article written in the Telegraph about being chosen as a Girl in Pearls, a jolly account of getting cold during the shoot, and not knowing what to wear, and your friends mocking you. It could have been written any time this century. You can read it here. I think any of us could write a novel about any of these young women, and start just by looking at their bland faces so blandly presented. I can hear the skeletons starting to rattle. Bags I Eirolys and Rosalie.
These portraits look for innocence and beauty, and convey prosperity and belonging above all, but the young women do not on the whole look very happy. They do not carry the show-offy smiles of celebrity photos. They look somehow sacrificial . . .  And then there is this one below. This lady is both identified and not. History has not so far related her name, but the picture is called 'Grief'; it's by Hugh Cecil again and was used in the Tatler in the edition for November 1919, the first anniversary of the Armistice. She wears an engagement ring on her widow finger - third finger right hand - which tells something of her story. Though not many people nowadays know the significance of that ring on that finger. I first came across this photograph years ago, and then found it again a while ago in The Great Silence,  Juliet Nicolson's excellent account of the immediate aftermath of WW1,

A strange correlation of traditional female figures. She's young, beautiful, elegant, engaged to be married, on the society pages - but she has more in common with these women below than with the ones above. They've got it all in the future, that's why they look nervous. Miss Grief, and the stone women below, are going through it.


How traditional. how beautiful, how familiar, from gravestones and war memorials and classical art across Europe. The widow, the mother of the lost son. Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary. We know her well. Here she is again, in black and white, in colour, in a less familiar guise, and - oh! - brought to life on the face of a living woman. Again, the story calls out of the picture. Why did she do that? What's going on there?

Among the Country Life portraits I came across this one, of another sweet girl about to married, with all her grief before her; a portrait of the beginning of a story we all know ended in tears.

Anyway, I hope you'll forgive me putting up this, the cover my publishers sent me. There she is: the woman with no face, in a red dress, lots of flesh, hand-coloured vintage photo, curly writing . . .  It's perfect. 

Tuesday 26 November 2013

WORTH YOUR SALT? – Dianne Hofmeyr

Imagine a lake so pink, it’s the colour of a flamingo feather. Picture it surrounded by white, crystal mountains, glistening and sparkling in the sunlight. Out in the middle of the lake there are small boats and people wading through the pink as one would wade through a strawberry milkshake in a dream, their limbs etched dark against the reflection and glitter. Sunglasses might help bring this surreal world into focus. This is Lac Rose or Lake Retba in Senegal and these are salt gatherers. It’s the 21st century.

You sit at a dinner table. Your host is Charles V of France. You are Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor. You glance down towards your son, King Wenceslas, who will inherit your title and who sits further down the table. In front of him is the nef, the jewelled salt cellar in the shape of a ship – both salt cellar and a symbol of the ship of state that declares the stability of a nation. Your host, the King of France has been wise if somewhat indecisive. He has had three nefs of gold forged and placed them strategically in front not only of himself but in front of you as well as your son. It’s the 14th century. 

‘There is no better food than salted vegetables' are the words written on an ancient papyrus. You are a priest preparing the tomb for an important Egyptian body. Preserving the food is as important as preserving the body. You know salts present in desert sand preserve flesh. Protein unwinds when exposed to salt. Salting resembles cooking. Were it not for your aversion to pigs you would have probably invented ham, instead you content yourself with preserving olives in salt and you dry and salt and press the eggs of mullet to create a food that will later become known as bottarga. It is 4000 BC.

You are part of a think tank. A substance needed by all humans for good health must surely make a good tax generator. Everyone has to buy salt. A tax on salt is the answer. A few centuries later some of your Chinese compatriots will find that mixing potassium nitrate, a salt otherwise known as saltpetre with sulphur and carbon will create a powder that when ignited will produce an explosion. But for now, you are dealing in salt more urbane – salt found under the ground in the form of brine. As yet you don’t know that by the 11th century, the salt producers of Sichuan will develop percussion drilling for retrieving salt brine and will be using bamboo piping which is salt resistant to transport the brine to boiling houses where it will be reduced to salt crystals. These salt crystals aren’t added to food by sprinkling but with a salt-based sauce. Fish and soybeans are fermented with salt in earthernware pots. It’s about 500 BC but in time the fish is removed and only the beans are used. The sauce becomes known as jiangyou or soy sauce as we know it today.

You’re a Roman soldier and paid in salt. Rome not wanting to be dependent on Etruscan salt from the northern bank of the Tiber, starts its own saltworks on the river in Ostia, and the first Roman road is built, the Via Salaria, the Salt Road to bring the salt to Rome. The Latin word sal becomes the French word solde which is the origin of soldier and Roman salted vegetables gives us the word salad today. The Romans much like the Chinese, devise a sauce where fish scraps are put in earthernware jars with layers of salt and made into a type of garum. Sardines which derive their name from a fish caught and cured in Sardinia are favoured for garum. It’s 640 BC. By Pliny’s time salt is being used to extract the purple dye, murex, from this tiny whelk and Cleopatra can demand enough of this expensive colourant to dye the sails of her warship purple.

You are a Celt moving southwards across central Europe. You are a salt miner who chisels tunnels into rugged mountains, called a Celt by the Greeks, meaning one who lives in hiding – but known as a Gaul by the Romans and Egyptians, which comes from the word hal, meaning salt. You have sacked Rome travelling on horseback with heavy swords when Western Europe has never before seen mounted cavalry. Some years later you invade what is now known as Turkey. You are tall, blond and often red-bearded and your women wear braids and bright clothing. You sell salt. It is you who devises a method of salting pig to create the finest hams. It’s 390 BC.

Herring is the dominant fish in the booming medieval markets, so much so that you, who are salt fish dealers in Paris, are called harengères, herring sellers. But it is the Basques who, on their whaling expeditions discover a northern fish that is to take Europe by storm. It is white and fatless, therefore easier to cure. It is cod. The Vikings have been air-drying it for centuries but they have no salt. The Basques have salt – plenty of it. The baccalà industry is born. It’s the 9th century

Salt becomes the engine of both Venetian and Genoese trade. Venice tries to dominate the salt industry by buying salt from as far away as the Crimea and Cyprus while Genoa has its salt industry in Ibiza. Prosciutto makers use salt from the salt wells of Salsomaggiore. Cheesemakers use salt from Venice and Genoa. The opening up of the Atlantic sea route makes a giant out of Genoa. Venice is left behind. Christopher Columbus himself is born in Genoa. It’s the 15th Century.

I’ve sprinkled and steeped you briefly in salt’s history across the ages, now look out for the book SALT – a History of the World by Mark Kurlansky, who has also written a book about COD and another on The Basque History of the World. Every page is fascinating.

You won’t find anything about a pink lake in the book but it does exist. I saw it 20 years ago in Senegal. I’m sure it’s as pink as ever made so by an algae in the water that produces a red pigment. I’m sure the salt gatherers are still out there today smeared in shea butter to protect their bodies from the sting, as they wade through the briny mix in the glare, without sunglasses, in tattered clothing and mismatched shoes. Even in the 21st century, it’s the salt workers who still lack everything – except salt.

The Magic Bojabi Tree is on the nomination list for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Award.

Monday 25 November 2013

Hats On for St Catherine - Joan Lennon

Today is the Day of St Catherine - patron saint of unmarried women.  (Well, one of them.  There's also St Andrew, St Agatha, and a disconcertingly large number of others.)  I've always envied Roman Catholics all their saints for odd things.*  And I love the way something as ghastly as martyrdom can morph over the years into, for example, a day of wearing outrageous hats and celebrating the notion that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.  

It didn't start that way, of course.  According to good old Wikipedia:

The French say that before a girl reaches 25, she prays: "Donnez-moi, Seigneur, un mari de bon lieu! Qu'il soit doux, opulent, libéral et agréable!" (Lord, give me a well-situated husband. Let him be gentle, rich, generous, and pleasant!") After 25, she prays: "Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!" (Lord, one who's bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable in the world!") And when she's pushing 30: "Un tel qu'il te plaira Seigneur, je m'en contente!" ("Send whatever you want, Lord; I'll take it!"). An English version goes, St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant that I never may die an old maid. 

And there was certainly a side to the St Catherine's Day festivities that was aimed at humiliating unsuccessful (i.e. unmarried) women - just look at that mocking gargoyle face peeping round the corner below!  

(Two Catherinettes in Paris in 1909)

But then look into the faces of the Catherinettes themselves and see the confidence.  The strength.  The sisterhood. 

(A bevy more in 1932)

(Henri Matisse drew this sketch of a Catherinette in 1946.)

(And here are Issaac Israel's confident beauties)

I look at these images and I see subversion!

If I'd known about it, I would have loved being a Catherinette, tromping about the place in a crazy hat and enjoying being taken out to lunch and given flowers and drinks all day.  Sisterhood, solidarity, and silly hats.  St Catherine, I salute you!

*  To read more History Girl posts on saints look here.  My favourite so far is still St Neot, patron saint of fish.  With or without a bicycle. 

Joan's website.
Joan's blog.

(Thank you to On this day in fashionBlackriders  and Wiki commons for these images.)