Friday 31 January 2014

January Competition

We have five copies of Katie Grant's Sedition to give away to the five best answers to this question:

'Can you match a novel with a piece of music (doesn't have to be classical) that would reflect the novel's story or mood?'

You can read about Sedition in the post for 29th January.

Just put your answers in the Comments section below. Closing date: 7th February

We are afraid that History Girl competitions are open to UK residents only.

Thursday 30 January 2014

You're never alone with Tineola by Maria McCann

When I spotted the first one, I didn't realise its significance.  Tineola Bisselliella is small, dull, and shuns light, so it isn't particularly visible, which is more than can be said for the destruction its grubs wreak on garments and furnishings.  Since I keep my clothes on an open rail in the room where I sleep, I wasn't happy about blasting them with poisons. I opted for conservative treatment: constantly turning the clothes on the rail and holding them in front of the window since the grubs drop away if exposed to daylight.

As I shook out each garment, I recalled Chaucer's Wife of Bath bragging that her lovely scarlet clothing suffered no moth damage because she was forever out and about in it.  When I first met with Dame Alice I was a teenager studying for A-levels and read her statement as a sly joke, equating adultery with good housewifery.  Now I know that wearing clothes outdoors, instead of folding them away in a chest, would indeed have kept down the moths, as would cold weather.  Our centrally heated houses with warm dark wardrobes are Moth Paradise: one reason I knew nothing about clothes moths back in 1972 was that we lacked the central heating and double glazing that extend their breeding season.  I find myself wondering how well mediaeval people understood why frequently worn clothes got fewer moth holes in them.  Did they notice the grubs falling away?  They were undoubtedly interested in finding solutions for such problems: the medical encyclopaedia Hortatus Sanitatis includes illustrations showing bed bugs and a woman combing lice out of a young man's (or boy's?) hair. 

Some terrifyingly large bed bugs and lice

In fact grooming routines go back beyond the middle ages, ancient history or even prehistory.  They are our inheritance from our primate ancestors.  Clean, Virginia Smith's wonderful 'history of personal hygiene and purity', shows how the animal behaviour knows as COBS (care of body surfaces) is the origin not only of such human grooming as parasite removal but also of much more sophisticated procedures such as cleaning wounds and massaging painful limbs.   

Monkey doctor and cat patient

Back to my moths.  It wasn't until I was reading in bed and a moth swooped out from the bedclothes that my skin began to crawl ― all right, it's a cliché, but an appropriate one.  In the modern world, we conceive of 'personal space' as a certain volume of air containing our own (clean, insect-free) body and garments.  Yet for centuries most of our ancestors had virtually no personal space in our sense.  Even royalty, who had more living room than most, had to share it with such democratic intruders as the clothes moth, the flea, the louse and the bed bug.   These were so much a part of everyday life that John Donne's  'The Flea' takes it for granted that his mistress will laugh rather than be insulted at the suggestion that both poet and mistress are flea-bitten.    But I am a child of the twentieth century, a post-Victorian.  What I felt was anxiety (suppose the moths never went away?  The internet is full of horror stories about people having to move house) and a flicker of irrational shame.

A woman tormented by fleas

Perhaps it was the presence of bugs that enabled Donne to think of fleas as comparative light-weights.  Even royalty had the occasional brush with the bed bug: two rival firms claimed to be bug-destroyers to George III.   Queen Victoria also had an official bug-catcher, the attractively named Mr Tiffin, who claimed to have found a bug in the bed of Princess Charlotte.  Bugs give off a foul odour (this at least warns people of their presence)  and the bites they inflict are agonizingly itchy.  Worst of all, they can walk upside-down, which means they can ambush you.  The British Museum warned in 1949: 'There are well authenticated records of people isolating their beds by means of saucers of paraffin placed under the legs so that the bugs could not climb up, and retiring to rest with a pleasant feeling of having foiled their enemies, only to be disturbed later in the night by bugs dropping from the ceiling.' [1]  It's not surprising, then, that 'lousy' is one of our older derogatory terms, dating back to the fourteenth century. 

An unrelenting battle against these pests formed the background to most human lives.  Like the plague, a disease carried by rat fleas, insect infestations peaked and dwindled according to the season but never quite went away.  At various periods women laboured to control infestations by sweeping out soiled rushes, beating fabrics and 'shifting' linen as frequently as their resources allowed.  Society developed polite strategies.  Boys were taught to sweep off their hats as a sign of respect while taking care to conceal the interior of the hat, where lice might be lurking (but what happened if the nits were clearly visible on your hair?).  Our ancestors' predilections for hats, bonnets and caps make sense in terms of cold houses, fear of 'chills', notions of modesty (in the case of women's hair) and a dislike of tanned faces.  Headgear might also serve, however, as a barrier against lice.  Despite the horror stories about nests of wildlife in high hair (not necessarily apocryphal ― see below) the extremely high styles were only popular for a comparatively brief period during the eighteenth century.  In contrast,  it's been suggested that the eighteenth-century male habit of wearing a wig over a shaven head might be an effective strategy against lice, especially if both head and wig were scrupulously cared for. 

Bottle for hair or wig powder 

In a different context, decorative cutting and peeling of fruits rendered them more attractive and advertised the culinary expertise of the household but was also a way, in an age before pesticides, of checking that nothing nasty was concealed beneath the skin and ensuring no guest would find 'the only thing worse than a worm', namely half a worm.     

How did it feel to know that creatures lurked everywhere, often in intimate contact with one's body or even inside it?  Weevils in the flour and the cheese, woodworm in the wainscot, cockroaches beneath the rug, rats and mice in the loft and the kitchen, silverfish in the cupboards, fleas in clothing and furnishings, bugs in beds, spiders everywhere.  Herbs were used to discourage or expel worms within the gut, but what of those worms which were thought to cause toothache?  How maddening to go about in the belief that worms were steadily boring into one's teeth.  The dividing line between self and world was fragile and permeable.    

Nowadays we understand that even the cleanest bodies are colonised, though not quite in the same way as our ancestors did.  We are used to the idea of yeasts in the body, of 'good bugs' in yoghurt.  It seems that the distinctive scent of human fingertips is created by microorganisms which colonise the sweat glands there; when I first discovered this, I felt queasy but there was no reflex of conditioned shame. Similarly, the man who wrote to the London Magazine in 1768 about seeing the coiffeur 'open his aunt's head' (dismantle her elaborate pomaded hairstyle, after she had worn it for over two months) seems to have found the vermin within repellent but not particularly shameful.  Nor did the hairdresser appear at all embarrassed.  'When the comb was applied to the natural hair, I observed swarms of animalculas running about in the utmost consternation and in different directions, upon which I put my chair a little further from the table and asked the operator whether that numerous swarm did not from time to time send out colonies to other parts of the body? He assured me that it could not; for that the quantity of powder and pomatum formed a glutinous matter, which like lime twigs to birds, caught and clogged the little natives and prevented their migration.'[2] 

Personally I'd find it easier to confess to petty theft than to 'swarms of animalculas' in my hair.  But then, I'm from a generation for whom verminous infestations carried a powerful stigma but were a very real possibility.  Until 1962 I lived in what was considered a slum, a Victorian terrace long since demolished.  The combination of urban and industrial grime with the conviction that 'cleanliness is next to godliness' meant that a dirty house was shameful (women would ostentatiously scrub their front steps) yet the houses were difficult to keep clear of vermin.  Rats were the biggest fear.  To discourage them, tins that had held fish or meat were burned in the fire to remove all food traces and only then put in the bin.  As far as I'm aware we didn't have rats, but we did have mice and cockroaches.  My father worried in case I put my fingers into the mouse traps.  My mother (who would be horrified if she knew I was writing this) came downstairs each morning, stepped onto the carpet and shuddered as a crackle informed her that she had just crushed a cockroach.  She saw these insects as a badge of shame and bitterly resented the woman next door who (she believed) was causing the infestation by lack of cleanliness.  'Then they come in here!' she moaned.  For all I know, the woman next door cherished a similar resentment against my mother.  The defining emotions were shame and disgust.  One of the worst things you could say about anyone was that their house 'had to be fumigated' (uttered in a shocked whisper).  It was like saying they were damned.

Nowadays people call Rentokil without embarrassment,  seeing infestation as a force of nature rather than a sign of depravity.  I'm glad that pointless shame is a thing of the past and I agree that while Donne could turn a flea bite to a weapon of seduction,  a body spotted with itchy blotches would be death to eroticism for a modern reader.  Yet I like to see the presence of lice, fleas and worse in historical fiction, along with the human responses to them.  They were, after all, like the poor: always with us.

[1] Quoted in McLaughlin, T.  Coprophilia
[2] McLaughlin, pp 113-114

Wednesday 29 January 2014

London, 1794.  Revolution creeps across the channel, coffee houses seethe with gossip and the City is full of upstarts, émigrés and speculators.  But even in unruly times, daughters need husbands.  For five City men, the question is how to get them.

The daughters.  Motherless Alathea, whose charms are grown disturbing, uses the whole of London exactly as she pleases.  Harriet, Georgiana, Marianne and Everina are cosseted at home, but home is not always a safe place.  As Claude Belladroit, piano-master, remarks, what’s the point of locking the shutters when danger comes through the front door?

In the shadow of Tyburn gibbet, Vittorio Cantabile, exile and instrument-maker, also has a daughter.  Born with a deformity her father cannot forgive, Annie is far from cosseted.  In her father’s workshop, resentments are fashioned as well as pianofortes, and dreams are smashed without mercy.

Fathers and daughters; mothers and daughters; husbands and wives; girls and boys; the pursued and the pursuing.  Whether in gilded drawing room or dusty workshop, when a city is infected with sedition, everything is reflected through a distorting prism of jealousy, revenge and sexual devilry.

Katharine Grant
Author of Sedition
Author Photo: Debbie Toksvig
in conversation with Theresa Breslin

Theresa:   I love the title. It has enormous impact - the way it sounds and the freight the word carries.
Katharine:   Titles are so important, aren’t they!  When I began work on this book, I called it the ‘Piano Book’, or the ‘Goldberg Book’, because it features both a piano and Bach’s variations.   But I remembered a previous conversation with an editor who listened patiently whilst I outlined a plot, then said, ‘but what’s the book actually about?’  Asking the same question of this book, the answer was clear.  Sedition.  Short and snappy, it stuck.

Theresa:   The novel is set in a very particular year.
Katharine:   Yes, a very particular year.   In Paris, the Terror came to gruesome climax; in London there were treason trials.  1794 was a year of political sedition in Europe and I liked the idea that domestic sedition was its mirror.   But I was also very taken with the discovery from Amanda Foreman’s excellent book that Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in Paris midst all the 1789 summer turmoil, was overwhelmed in her hotel not by rioting crowds but by tradesmen, including stay makers, and that she went to the opera.  As history unfolds, ordinary life goes on.   In Sedition, though the City coffeehouses seethe with émigrés, spies and speculators, domestic concerns still prevail.   I find that to be true.  Even on 9/11, though we were all shattered, those not directly involved bought groceries, made tea, helped children with homework, cleaned the loo.

Theresa:  Also, it’s close to the end of a century, which logically should make no difference, yet…
Katharine:   It was a time of transition:  classical music moving towards romantic – Mozart died in 1791, Schubert was born in 1797;  the pianoforte was taking over from the harpsichord; Wordsworth and Coleridge published the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads in 1798;  in 1800, Alessandro Volta invents the battery;  the industrial revolution was gathering pace.   There’s a nervous energy about the turn of the eighteenth century which made it very attractive as a setting.

Theresa:     The story is political as well as personal, seamlessly interwoven.
Katharine:   The ‘city’ men, fathers of five of the girls, congregate in a coffee-house that shipmasters, traders and activists frequent. The coffee-houses were conduits for gossip, political pamphlets circulated, and news, both British and foreign, was exchanged. They witness, read about and discuss current events, though always, always with an eye for trade.

Theresa:   One of the characters picks up a leaflet entitled ‘Pantisocracy and Aspheterism’. My computer spell check didn’t recognise these terms and couldn’t even make a suggestion as to what they might be!
Katharine:   A stroke of serendipity! When writing the book I happened to be reading a biography of Coleridge and came across this. It fitted perfectly.
(Comment from Theresa : This chimes with HG Celia Rees last post on Jan 18th)
Theresa:   Tell me about the music. It’s integral to the story.
Katharine:   Music was a big and natural part of my life. I was brought up in very musical household. We all played musical instruments and our nanny, who never liked to waste time, taught me and my siblings to sing in parts in the bath.  My parents hosted marvellous musicians and we were allowed to mingle and listen to performances.  The musicians were so open and kind.  Sometimes they allowed us to play their instruments.  So music’s something I grew up with and is still a source of great joy in my life. I learned the Variations – or as many as I could master in the time – with my characters, and continue to learn them.  Practising is also a form of therapy.  I’m a big-time stresser!  Music, being all-encompassing, leaves no room for angsting about the boiler, the roof, the all important key that’s strangely missing.

Theresa:   I found the detail fascinating. The underarm pomanders as a deodorant.  The arches at Newgate becoming narrower as the condemned person approached the site of their execution.     
Katharine:   All true! I drew on the resources of Glasgow University library, e.g. dress pattern books and fashion. I discovered that shoes had garden scenes painted on their heels (Sigh from Theresa. ‘I have a pair with similar on their soles!)  I studied (lots of) paintings. I researched by ‘walking’ London and absorbing how it is today. I think it can be a mistake to block out the present. We can use the present to see what it was like in the past. In some ways the scene locations are not so different now: noisy, air polluted, raucous etc. 

Theresa:   There are laugh-out-loud funny bits which appealed to my sense of humour.  And twists of wit… The storyteller stating that the selection of the bass A string from the harpsichord was the most suitable to make a hangman’s noose for a scorned lover! 
Katharine:   Ah, indeed. That carried a punch.

Theresa:   In contrast with above - there is some very dark matter within the book.
Katharine:   Yes, very difficult themes.  But I was given some advice very early on by Michael Schmidt, the poet.  ‘Be brave’, he said.  To me, this didn’t mean courting dark themes for the sake of sensation; it meant going where the story had to go.  Alathea Sawneyford’s character, for example, has been formed by her experiences.  It makes her complicated, but also allows you, as a writer, to explore places you wouldn’t otherwise explore.

Theresa:   In The Literary Review, Jonathan Barnes talks of plait[ing] together comedy and tragedy with sly skill. Hard to plait?
Katharine:   Yes – he was referring to the concert scene.  It was hard, but actually, by the time I got to the concert scene I was so inside that book that the plaiting wasn’t conscious … When I found the voice for the book I realised that nothing could be purely description. It all had to add to the individual. I took out anything that was descriptive unless it revealed or reinforced character, so the plaiting – and pressing the delete button – had become second nature.
Theresa:   Would you like to talk a bit about voice and perspective in the historical novel? 
Katharine:   That’s what takes the time, as you’ll know only too well!  Voice and perspective are key to all novels.  It took me quite a time to find Sedition's voice.  Not too arch, not too knowing, not too intrusive.  As for perspective, that took months – years – of paring away until I reached the book’s core.  It became an obsession, especially after I read Virginia Woolf’s insight that the success (in writerly terms) of all novels lies “not so much in their freedom from faults - indeed we tolerate the grossest errors in them all - but in the immense persuasiveness of a mind which has completely mastered its perspective".  That really gripped me.  As I wrote Sedition, I knew what was necessary and just hoped to goodness I’d found it!

Theresa:   I think you certainly did!

Sedition  by Katharine Grant [website] is published by Virago (UK) and Henry Holt (USA)                                                                                  

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Singing History with Anglo-Polish songsmith Katy Carr, by Clare Mulley

Sometimes art and music provide a much more immediate and powerful connection with the past than history books, or the biographies that I write. This month I would like to dedicate my blog to another wonderful ‘History Girl’: the truly original and talented Anglo-Polish singer-songwriter Katy Carr. 

Singer-songwriter Katy Carr

I first met Katy when she came to the National Army Museum to hear me lecture about Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born countess who was the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War, and the subject of my biography 'The Spy Who Loved'. Sporting a retro-chic 1940s look, topped by felt hat and red lipstick, Katy stood out among the audience, like an elegant ghost straying in from the post-war London streets. (The only other time I have been so struck by an individual member of an audience, was when WinStan Churchill, aka Stan Streather, professional Churchill doppelgänger, once turned up in a polka-dot bow-tie to hear me talk at the Imperial War Museum’s Churchill War Rooms.)
You can watch my National Army Museum lecture here: Clare Mulley talking about Krystyna Skarbek at the National Army Museum

Over lunch in the pub afterwards with our mutual friend, Paweł Komorowski, who is a distant cousin of Krystyna Skarbek, I began to learn what made Katy tick. Raised in Nottingham, Katy’s East Midlands accent belies her knowledge and passion for Poland, her mother’s country. This is a woman with a mission to communicate not just the culture and history of Poland, but the individual, and very personal stories, that compose and reflect the nation’s character.

Katy has released four indie-folk music albums, the last of which, the hauntingly brilliant Paszport, was produced in Poland and Britain in 2012. Described as ‘an epic, poetic journey through her past and that of her mother’s nation’, Paszport is dedicated to the Polish experience in the Second World War. Its sixteen songs explore the themes of love and loss, patriotism and resistance, hope and struggle through the prism of Poland’s modern history.

Paszport album cover

Paszport is full of wonderful tracks. The bitter-sweet ‘Mała Little Flower’ was inspired by Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic girl who not only saved the lives of twelve Jews by hiding them in the basement of an SS officer’s house, but who went on to join the Polish resistance with the codename ‘Mała’, which means ‘Little’ in Polish. This song is dedicated to the memory of Irena’s fiancé, Janek Ridel, who was killed in action the day before their wedding in May 1944.
Watch the video here: Katy Carr, 'Mala Little Flower'

The song of Katy’s that I find most moving, however, is ‘Kommander’s Car’, which tells the story of Kazik Piechowski. Kazik was imprisoned by the Nazis for being a Polish Boy Scout at the start of the war and sent on the second transport to Auschwitz in June 1940. It would be two years to the day that Kazik and three fellow political prisoners would realize a plan to steal SS uniforms and drive out of the camp in the car belonging to its infamous commandant, Rudolf Höss. The song, beautifully illustrated here by South African born artist and illustrator Galen Wainwright, manages to convey the emotional truths as well as the factual story of Kazik and his friends’ bid for freedom.
Watch the video here: Katy Carr, 'Kommander's Car'

Two stills from the music video for 'Commander's Car'

Katy had no idea that Kazik was still alive when she recorded the song, and she was thrilled when he got in touch, inviting her to meet him in his home city of Gdansk. Kazik had not only survived the war, but also seven years imprisonment by the Soviets afterwards, for his involvement with the Partisans and Polish Home Army following his escape from Auschwitz. ‘It is very difficult to make a film about Auschwitz’, Kazik, now in his 90s, told Katy. ‘But this music video, through the use of the symbols and artwork and music, is bringing something new to the world.’ 

Katy and Kazik’s meeting was documented by British film-maker Hannah Lovell in a short film: Kazik and the Kommander's Car short documentary

Kazik and Katy at a memorial in his local Gdansk park

‘Kazik is my inspiration’, Katy told me earnestly, ‘meeting him changed my life’. This is not just some flip patter. Kazik not only inspired Katy to learn more about her Polish roots, he showed her the importance of memory and reaching out to share stories. Kazik has written two books and many articles about his experiences, inspired by the words of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, ‘You did not survive simply to live, you have little time left, you must give the world the truth’. Katy now also tours schools and local community groups to bring Kazik’s story to new audiences, and to foster stronger relations with local Polish communities across Britain. It is work that has earned her the prestigious Polish Daily Award for Culture as part of their ‘People of the Year’ awards in 2013.

Last year, when my biography of Krystyna Skarbek was published in Poland, Katy and I flew over to Warsaw together, where Katy is something of a star! Paweł came with us too, to generously help promote the book and to toast Krystyna in her homeland. The launch was held at the wonderful Warsaw Uprising Museum, where Katy has performed in the past with her band, The Aviators. However, for me the night before was just as special. Paweł’s wonderful aunt Joanna had invited us over for dinner to meet family and friends including his mother, Babcia. After some fine barszcz czerwony (Polish borscht) and far too much good Polish liquor, Katy got out her ukulele and treated us all to some traditional songs like ‘Hej Sokoły’ - in which you can hear my faintly ludicrous ‘Hej’s’ towards the end! A camera, balanced on a wineglass, recorded the lot: Katy and Babcia Sing 'Hej Sokoly'

Katy singing with Babcia

There is a lot of talk about immigration at the moment, and this month Polish Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, who also came to the Warsaw launch of the Polish edition of my book, blogged that ‘if Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn't it also pay their benefits?’ I certainly believe that Britain is all the richer, in every sense, for remembering, celebrating and building on our historic connection with Poland during the Second World War. With singer-songwriters such as Katy Carr, I hope that another generation will hear these stories.

I am absolutely delighted to announce that Katy is now working on a song about Krystyna Skarbek for her new album, Polonia. Polonia will mark the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and the beginning of Poland’s long loss of independence which Krystyna and the Polish Free Forces fought so hard to regain.

Me, with Katy holding The Spy Who Loved

Monday 27 January 2014

What is that shoe doing there? by Louisa Young

This comes to you from North Norfolk, where the skies are wide and the sea turns gold at sunset, even in January. I am staying in the village where Nelson was born, where the pub - and indeed the bus-stop -  is called The Hero. You can guess which Hero. I'm not going to talk about him because he is a man who has Specialists, and Lord knows I am not one. 

But - my friend in whose honour I am here at the moment, was a builder - the kind of builder whose skill, hard work, intelligence, faultless taste, historical knowledge, local commitment and respect, as well as his splendid character, good cheer and extreme handsomeness, makes him very popular. He was the heart of the village, that's for sure. Some years ago he was working on a cottage where Nelson lived as a boy, and discovered, in the roof, a child's shoe. It was sent off, but alas was not the right age to be Nelson's own little baby shoe, to everyone's great disappointment. And why would that have been in the roof anyway? But then why would any shoe be in the roof, all alone? 

Well, it was a Concealed Shoe.  This is a technical term. Concealed Shoe. I am using a Concealed Shoe in my next novel but two, where a man goes slowly mad with grief in Dorset. Here is a bit of it:

'I started telling her about mummified cats in the roof against evil spirits, and how a concealed shoe
would distract the Devil, he’d step into it and get so confused he’d forget to curdle your milk or
seduce your daughter.
‘There’s a National Concealed Shoe Index,’ I said. ‘It’s in Northampton, which is of course the
Capital of Shoes. If you find a concealed shoe you can report it, but they advise you to put it
back.’ Which was true. ‘And I met this builder in the pub - it was quite funny actually - he was
complaining about finding all these dead cats in attics - he was a roofer - and what was all that
about, and everyone in the pub starts staring at him, as if he were a complete fool, as if he’d
said “why’s everybody hanging shiny things on a pine tree?” - anyway, one of them actually said:
“You’re not from round ’ere, are you? . . . ”.’

Usually it would be just the one shoe, otherwise the Devil could steal the pair of them, and wear them. That's why children's shoes are popular too - the Devil's feet are too big for them. Or, the shoes were hidden so the devil couldn't find it and steal it, thus taking away the protection it gave. Why would a shoe give protection? Oh - look at that again - protection is exactly what shoes give - to your feet, from the weather and the rough roads. Or they were a fertility charm, connected through time to the Old Lady who Lived in Shoe and had so many children she didn't know what to do, and to the practice of tying shoes to the bumper of the wedding car when the couple drive off on Honeymoon.

If you find a concealed shoe, Nelson's or otherwise, you should report it to the Concealed Shoe Index. They like to know the address where it was found; the date of the building and any information about alterations, rebuilds, new rooves etc; the use the building served (house, farm, pub or whatever); where in the building it was found; was it with anything else, what it looks like, and photos. They have nearly 2000 shoes on their list, from Spain and France, Poland and Canada, under the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, as well as all over the UK. 

And yes of course all sorts of other things were concealed too. will tell you more. 

I would show you pictures, but alas they have concealed themselves in the murky abyss of the internet, which is not North Norfolk's best friend. Sometimes they don't speak for days. Take it from me though that shoes which have been concealed in a roof for hundreds of years look . . .  old. And a bit manky. So here's a song instead: Hoyt Axton and Linda Ronstadt singing 'When the morning comes and you gotta get up, how you gonna find your shoes?'

Sunday 26 January 2014

A FRENCH AFFAIR – Dianne Hofmeyr

On New Years Day this year I embarked on a French affair. I drove into a small valley tucked between the mountains in an area known as Franschhoek… French Corner, situated not in France but in the Cape of Good Hope.

The name is derived from the nearly 300-strong group of Huguenots who arrived here during the Huguenot diaspora after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (which assured religious freedom) in 1685. They were given land by the Dutch in the Cape in a valley then called Olifantshoek ('Elephant’s Corner'). Where local farmers saw vast herds of marauding elephants, hardships by the bushel and bleak mountains, the Huguenots saw great wine terroir – and set to work.

I discovered no elephants trampling through the immaculate rolling vineyards or lurking behind the low white-washed walls of farms with names like La Motte, (named by Pierre Joubert after his village – La Motte d'Agues) Cabrière, Provence, Chamonix, L’Ormarins, Dieu Donné and La Dauphine ­– reminders of the huge impact the Huguenots had on the Cape. Spread out and given tracts of land amongst Dutch farmers and made to speak Dutch in order be absorbed into the culture as soon as possible, the Huguenots brought with them their French names, their French heritage and their French knowledge of producing fine brandy and wonderful fruit preserves especially figs.

L'Ormarins – Franschhoek
Surnames adopted a Dutch intonation but never lost their French source – names like Blignaut, de Klerk (from Le Clercq), de Villiers, du Plessis, Du Preez (from Des Pres), du Toit, Franck, Fouche, Fourie (from Fleurit), Gervais, Giliomee (from Guilliaume), Gouws (from Gauch), Hugo, Jordaan (from Jourdan), Joubert, Labuschagne (from la Buscagne), le Roux, Lombard, Malan, Malherbe, Maree, Minnaar (from Mesnard), Nortje (Nortier), Pienaar (from Pinard), Retief (Retif), Rossouw (Rousseau) Taljaard (from Taillard), TerBlanche, Theron, Viljoen (from Villion) and Visagie (Visage).

The stamp the Huguenots put on Cape cuisine was to refine it. They changed the way food was served, from laying it out all at once, to serving dishes in a sequence of multiple courses. Today there is a cheese named Huguenot and most famous are the wafer thin brandy snaps known as oblietjies. After baking the walnut-sized ball of dough, delicately flavoured with naartje peel (clementines), cinnamon and brandy, in an iron pan the cook would skilfully roll the oblietjie into a crisp cone. Tradition has it that the name 'oblietjie' was derived form the words 'Hoc oblatum est', spoken by the priest as he raised the fragile unleavened bread of the Host during the Latin Mass which although Protestants, the Huguenots would have been very familiar with.

Today the area attracts gastronomes and sybarites from across the globe. It’s famous for producing hand-turned sparkling wines in the French style, called Cap Classique rather than Champagne. And on the farm of Haute Cabrière. winemaker, Achim von Arnim still practices sabrage, ­ the art of cutting off the top of a champagne bottle with the swoop of a sabre.
Pierre Jourdan Cap Classique from Haute Cabriere – Franschhoek 
The farm Babylonstoren, (Tower of Babylon or Babel which suggests the melting pot of languages) named for the high mountain peak it nestles against, might not be French in name but marries past to present in the formality of its eight acre ‘werf’ (farmyard) garden based on the old Company Garden laid down in Cape Town in the 1650’s. The farm has been recently renovated by its present owner and by the French garden designer, Patrice Taravella from the Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan. Stone-lined channels of ‘leiwater’ (watering furrows), hen coops, geese, even a cactus maze (for prickly pear fruit) and old fashioned fruits like persimmon, quince, tamarillo and mulberry, plump figs and the sweetest reddest plums on earth have all been revived. 
Chickens and the white walls of the 'werf' at Babylonstoren– Franschhoek
The restaurant 'Babel' at Babylonstoren 
Water being pumped into the leiwater furrows 
A thirst quencher of pure plum, beetroot and apple juice for breakfast  
Gates weighted with heavy stones on pulleys to pull closed automatically. 
The quintessential Cape Dutch architecture, so striking as you drive around the valley of Franschhoek can be traced to those early wooden Huguentot homes, built from clay and stone and eventually Dutch-influenced with gables, though always with a slightly softer appearance. Materials changed. Floors originally made of peach pips or compacted earth began to be covered in Robben Island slate and shutters were added to protect windows. Later still, outbuildings began to appear which included a jonkershuis (house for the eldest son), stables, a coach-house, slaves' quarters and a wine cellar. Low white walls with the delicious texture of thickly dolloped meringue still typically encircle farmyards and mark off vineyards. 

Basse Provence – Franschhoek
Burgundy Bourgogne established in 1694 by Pierre de Villiers
When a hundred years later, during the discovery of vast indigenous forests in the the Knysna and Plettenberg Bay area, (needed for ship building) and Britain and Holland were at war (1780-1783), a  British fleet sailed to take ownership of the Cape but was attacked and disabled by the French. As a result two French regiments arrived in the Cape amongst them, Louis Michel Thibault, a Parisian architect who became one of the most significant contributors to Cape Dutch architecture.

For those of you who need not just a feast for the eyes and a taste of the food and wine, there's a monument and museum in the heart of Franschhoek village that celebrates the arrival of the Huguenots in the Cape. You won’t find any elephants but you will be able to raise a glass of Cap Classique, Voignier or Pinot Noir to the people who saw potential in the terroir of Oliphantshoek.

Saturday 25 January 2014

DON'T GET UP by Eleanor Updale

I’m writing this in bed. My inspiration for doing this comes from Lady Diana Cooper – superstar, socialite and general wonderful woman.

In his fabulous collection of her letters to him, Darling Monster, her son, John Julius Norwich, reveals that Lady Diana's bed was her centre of operations. It was where she did her correspondence, handled her diary, read, wrote, and received her most intimate friends.
For this, and many other more respectable reasons, she is one of my all-time heroines, but this blog is not about her. It’s inspired by a another book, first published in 1899 by a Church of Scotland Minister called Henry Grey Graham, of whom I had never heard till last weekend.

The book's title is The Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century. To my surprise, it turns out to be a jolly good read.
For a start, the very existence of this book is proof of what a load of rubbish some of us were told when studying History in in the mid 20th century. Then, the orthodoxy was that 'modern' historians were charting new territory: looking at the ‘real’ lives of the people of the past, rather than being fixated by battles and political intrigue. Here’s evidence that ‘social history’ was going on long before. And what’s great about Grey Graham’s narrative is that many of the tit-bits about the manners of the 1700s have been told him by people only a generation or so from the time he describes. Indeed some of his information comes from even earlier social histories, such as My Own Life and Times 1741-1814 by another cleric: Thomas Somerville.

So it is that we learn what the houses of all classes north of the border were like (hardly any carpets in even the grandest, for example), what and when people ate, their tastes in reading, clothing, entertainment, gardening and so on.
This is some of what Henry Grey Graham has to say about beds. Here, he talking about the arrangements in comfortably-off :
The beds were closed like a box in the wall, or in recesses with sliding doors, which imprisoned and stifled the sleeper; others stood out in the room with curtains of plaiding which the household had spun, as protection from the cold and draughts which came from ill-jointed windows and doors with ill-fitting "snecks." As houses were incommodious and hospitality was exuberant, it was usual for two gentlemen or two ladies, however unknown to each other they might be, to sleep together, lying over-whelmed with the burden of from six to ten pair of Scots blankets.

Even in the drawing-room it was usual to have a closed bed, which was used by the guests. Excepting on state occasions the dining-room in average-sized country houses was unused, left dark, dull, and musty, unventilated by the sashless windows, while dingy ancestral portraits stared vacantly on the empty apartment from their black frames.

The Bedroom was where all the action was:

It was in the bedroom the family lived chiefly. There they took their meals, there they saw their friends, there at night the family gathered round the hearth, with its high-polished brass grate, which stood detached from the back and sides of the fireplace ornamented with tiles. There the girls spun, and lads learned the rules of Despauter's Latin Grammar; and only after "family exercises" did the household disperse, and the heads of the family were left to rest and to sleep in the exhausted air.

For the servants, sleeping arrangements were rough - even in the finest households:

In the house of a gentleman who luxuriously kept his carriage the servant slept under a dresser in the kitchen, while his man slept over the stable ; and in the flat occupied by an eminent judge the maid slept as best she could in a drawer in the kitchen which was shut up during the day. Owing to the scantiness of space, the nurse and children would probably sleep in the study, if such existed, the beds being removed during the day, when the lord of session worked over his charges or the nobleman saw his friends, while the lady in her bedroom was entertaining her guests at tea.

There’s masses more in the book. For example, this on medicines:

Bufo, or toad, was used inwardly for dropsy and outwardly for carbuncles; slaters, otherwise wood-lice, or church bugs, were commended for colic, convulsions,and cancer, for palsy, headaches, and epilepsy; earthworms for spasms, jaundice, or gout; vipers prescribed for dysentery, ague, and small-pox ; excreta of sheep, horse, sow, and dog made up in decoctions and drunk for various ailments.

Another section talks about popular female writers and intellectuals who hid their talents, alowing
the public to believe that their works were ancient masterpieces, or written by men. Among them

No more intelligent company was to be found than in the rooms of poorly-jointured ladies — such as that of Dowager Lady Balcarres, who received her company in the bedroom, with a neat coverlet over the bed, while against one of the posts lent her consequential servant John, who handed the tea-kettle and joined in the conversation.

So here we are, back in bed again. I think I’ll click my fingers and summon up my own ‘consequential servant’ right now.