Thursday 31 July 2014

July competition

Give a good answer to this question in the Comments below and win one of five copies of July guest Sue Reid's novel, By My Side.

What place, monument or building most inspires you with a sense of its past?

We're afraid our competitions are open to UK residents only.

Closing date 7th August.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Cabinet of Curiosities, by Laurie Graham

was a tool of my grandfather's trade. Any guesses?

My childish impression of my grandfather was of a man who knew lots of people, most of them with funny names, and that he sometimes had rolls of banknotes in the inside pocket of his commodious coat. I had no idea he was a criminal.

Between 1853 and 1961 the only legal way to bet on a horse race was at the track, and that was no use to the working man, stuck at his factory bench for fifty weeks of the year. Necessity being the mother of invention, the bookmaker's runner was born.

I can see that my grandfather had all the qualities required in a bookie's runner: sociable, reliable, discreet. His betting slips were written on scraps of envelope or the back of a cigarette packet and the punters' names were disguised. That's why he knew all those men with names like Nobby and Bandy and Half-Pint. He also  -  how clear it becomes now  -  was very friendly with the local policeman, who I suppose should have been nicknamed Blind-Eye, and had a slightly more formal relationship with the only man in the neighbourhood who owned a car. Mr Taylor.  He was the bookmaker and Grandad was his runner, earning a nice but illegal little commission.

The bets went into a leather bag which was secured with a time-lock before the race started. That little gadget ensured there could be no betting after the Off. Some bookie's runners worked on street corners. My grandfather was more of a Lounge Bar man, but he also did business in the kitchen while my grandmother pretended to polish the front door knocker and, I now realise, kept an eye out for snoops or zealous new bobbies. Sunday morning was pay-out time for those who had winnings and I recall one week when the kitchen floor was carpeted with enormous white £5 notes. A bad day for Mr Taylor, but my Grandad seemed to have done all right. The following week I accompanied him into the big city where he bought me a knickerbocker glory and a fountain pen and treated himself, ever the Dapper Dan, to a very expensive Crombie overcoat.

He died in 1959 and so didn't live to see his role disappear when off-course betting was legalised in 1961. I wonder what he'd have done with himself after betting shops appeared on every High Street. And I would dearly love to know what became of his clock bag.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Life and Love during the Occupation, Amsterdam - by Sue Reid

 Our guest for July is Sue Reid, whose work is always triggered by a historical event or character.

Sue Reid has always had a passion for history, and for writing stories about it, but it wasn’t until she had grown up and tried several careers that she  decided to try and get a story published. Her first book, Mill Girl, was published by Scholastic in 2002. Since then she has written a number of short stories and dramas for schools radio,  and  has had several more books published.

First love. Surely we can all remember it - its pain, its heartache, its joy. My book By My Side is about first love, between two teenagers living in Amsterdam. But unlike most of us, these two teenagers had to contend with issues that went far beyond the usual teenage romantic ones - Katrien was a Gentile, and Jan Jewish – and the time and place they lived in was the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands in WW11.

What made me choose such a time and place for a love story? I’m not sure that I can answer that easily. Maybe it’s the stories that choose us, rather than the other way round.

I’d often found myself thinking about the Nazi Occupation, and wondered what it must have been like to live through it – a fate we in Britain were fortunate to escape. And when I thought of the Occupation in Europe, it was always Amsterdam that came to mind.

Photo credit: Massimo Catarinella

I’d visited Amsterdam many years ago, and been bewitched by it – its beauty, its culture and the friendliness of its people. It was in Amsterdam too that I encountered one of the most poignant memorials to Nazi persecution I know – the annexe in the canal house on Prinsengracht, now a museum - a short walk from Herengracht where I was staying - where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. Since I visited it the museum has expanded and recent pictures of the exterior show long queues waiting outside. There was no queue the day I went, and it wasn’t crowded inside, but the atmosphere was so overpowering that I found I couldn’t stay inside it for long. The annexe had a profound effect on me then and I can recall it even now.

Round the corner from the house is the famous life-size bronze statue of Anne Frank, sculpted by Mari Andriessen. It stands in front of the famous Westerkerk, surely one of the city’s most beautiful churches, inside which fittingly the artist Rembrandt is buried. The regular chiming of its tower clock comforted Anne - its familiarity a reminder of another time, a safer time.

Photo credit: P.H. Louw

Other memorials in Amsterdam remind you of the Nazi Occupation – in Jonas Daniel Meijer Square, in front of the Portuguese synagogue the statue of ‘De Dokwerker’ stands framed by trees. It too was cast in bronze by the sculptor Mari Andriessen and unveiled in 1952 to honour all those who took part in the General Strike of February 1941. It was in May 1940 that the Nazi ‘Blitzkrieg’ had overrun the neutral Netherlands and imposed a policy of ‘Nazification’ and anti-Jewish decrees on the country, beginning with the gradual dismissal of Jews from public life. The strike was organized by the Communist party – banned by the Nazis like all other Dutch non-Fascist parties - as a protest against the treatment of the Jews and the forced labour draft that sent young men to work in Germany. There is nothing idealized about the sculpture – it shows a rather portly man, stomach bulging over the waistband of his trousers - and to me is all the more affecting for that. The strike, which began in Amsterdam and spread to other Dutch towns and cities, was the first organized protest against the Nazis’ treatment of Jews in Occupied Europe. Reprisals were harsh, but in spite of this two more strikes were to follow, though resistance after this was mostly conducted covertly, underground. Each year now the town’s officials and members of Holocaust organisations march past the statue, in remembrance of the strike, on its anniversary, 25 February.

Photo credit: P.H. Louw

In the heart of the Jewish Cultural Quarter stands the Hollandsche Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre), its façade restored, now a teaching centre, and memorial to the many Jews who were held there, while awaiting deportation.

Memorials like these help keep a city’s past alive - the stories of the people who lived there woven into their bricks and mortar. Stories like Katrien’s and Jan’s – two young people brought together and divided by war. I didn’t know when I visited Amsterdam that I would write about it one day. That Katrien and Jan would walk down the streets I walked down, gaze over the canals I gazed over, wake like me to see Herengracht muffled by winter fog. I begin their story early in 1942, when a chance meeting with a courageous boy who goes to the aid of an elderly man inspires Katrien to begin a diary. Her unfolding friendship with Jan she tries to keep secret – within the pages of her diary - to protect him and their relationship. A diary written now about a long gone time. But I hope there is something of the feeling of that time and place in its pages, of the poignancy of first love experienced under such difficult conditions.

Of course there are many other places where the past is preserved. When I was researching my book I spent hours listening to recordings, reading newspapers and obituaries, diaries and other personal accounts written by people who lived through that time, discovering tales of heroisim like Jaap Penraat’s, who safely marched hundreds of young Jews out of the city at the height of the Occupation – a real-life escape I model my fictional Jan’s on. But there is I think something particularly affecting about walking about a city and suddenly being brought face to face with its past. A monument maybe. Or an old building. The atmosphere in a house. It lingers in the mind, helps us to remember. And it is important that we do. The past inspires us. Teaches us. Warns us. In a year like this, when we remember an earlier world war, when the ugly spectres of extremism, racism, fascism, are rising again, its messages are timely.

Sue's website is:

Monday 28 July 2014

A Comic Strip War, by Clare Mulley

Can war be seriously examined through art inspired by American comic strips? As a biographer I am fascinated by the different ways in which human stories from the past can be effectively examined and presented, particularly when this touches on my own current area of interest, the Second World War. So I was captivated when a friend and neighbour, Brian Sanders, published a stunningly beautiful and evocative picture book memoir, Evacuee. Sandy, as I know him, is now working on the sequel, about his life in post-war London, and invited me over to have a look. 

If you are as stunned as I was by the cover of Evacuee, I should perhaps mention that Sandy has had a wonderful fifty-year career as a professional artist with commissions ranging from magazine illustration, Penguin book covers and postage stamps to being the official artist portraying the making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during 1964-65, and designing the advertising poster for last year’s acclaimed television series, Mad Men. However, it is Sandy’s work portraying war, and the impact of war on lives, that fascinates me most.

As a young man, Sandy served in 45 Commando Royal Marines during the Suez Invasion and later in Cyprus. His irrepressible talent for capturing the scenes around him was soon noticed by the intelligence officer, and he was recruited into the Intelligence Section to record events, the movement of people and so on, as well as producing occasional private portraits. When he returned to Britain all his drawings were in his sea-kit bag, and had been stolen before he arrived. The only piece he has from this time is the one published in Soldier magazine, below, showing how far from reality the public image of life in the Libyan desert was at the time:

Tripoli 1957 

Sandy never sought a career as a war artist but commissions for various publications, and several series of stamps including those commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Second World War, naturally followed his experience and the trust placed in him as an artist who, as he put it, ‘had been there, and understood what war was’.

Some of Sandy's stamps commissioned to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of the Second World War

Now a pacifist, Sandy has always aimed to report historically rather than comment through his art, letting events speak for themselves. ‘I wouldn’t glorify war’, he told me, but ‘in fact I have advertised war, I have done pieces for Officers Magazine and so on’. It was only when he came out of the Royal Marines that he gained a new perspective on Britain’s involvement in Suez, and his attitude started to shift.

After a rich career in what is called ‘lifestyle illustration of the 1960s', Sandy is now taking a very different look at the Second World War, focusing on his own childhood as a London evacuee in Saffron Walden, a market town in Essex. Free from the constraints of commission or briefs, this is a very personal project, the impact of which comes from both its clear sincerity and its wonderful evocation of time and place.   

Sandy told me that his great blessing is that he has always known he had to draw. The Evacuee project began with loose sheets of pictures drawn from memories, and collected in a small black folder until he suddenly realized there was a book there. He found no problem remembering what he saw, and felt, as a child; ‘my problem is eliminating pictures, not finding them’, he told me. Soon he realized that the book was naturally going to be told from the perspective of his younger self in the form of the American comics that he had collected during the war, and long afterwards. In this way the book speaks directly to ‘children of all ages’, from three or four, up to 65 or 70; ‘the people who were there’. As a result Evacuee is great fun, with hundreds of wonderfully evocative visual details, and the echoing refrain that rang in his ears as a boy; ‘because there’s a war on’. And yet although Sandy’s own father survived the war, he makes a point of recording without unnecessary elaboration that those of two of his friends did not. 

Evacuee is an honest book and this, combined with the stunning art-work, is where its power lies. ‘It’s about the people that I love, that I loved at the time’ Sandy says simply. Although increasingly conscious from readers’ reactions that the book is seen as a much-loved contribution to social history, his intentions were always just to record and let the pictures speak for themselves. This is a world beautifully observed by a child and reproduced by his adult self, which is at once deeply personal and yet also gloriously familiar. ‘It is deliberately for everyone’ Sandy told me, but because it is his own story it is also compellingly authentic. Surely this is social history at its best.

Sadly Evacuee is currently sold out, but the good news is that as I left Sandy this afternoon he was heading to his studio to work on the sequel about his life in post-war London and Saffron Walden holidays. I will let you know when it is out, but here is a sneak preview of a page in progress:

Sunday 27 July 2014

Something to Do, by Septima - by Louisa Young

 Did you have this? Did you? 

I looked at it today for the first time in decades and I realised: I am history. Things are not now as they were when this fat, heavenly book was normal. (Also, can you see what I did, when looking for something to do? I coloured in the Os. Of course I did.)

And if you had it, did you have one of these inside? Not with my name, obviously - but did you have the Puffin Club Bookplates? Where you a Puffineer? If I say 'Sniffup', will some ancient tribal voice within you cry out 'Spotera!'? Are you interested in my red-plastic-foldered full set of Puffin Post? If so, please be in touch.

And this history is important history, to me at least. It concerns dates. According to the bookplate, the book belongs to Louise Young. But then, in the same writing, we have Louisa Young, written five times, all around it like a garland. Five times! 'How must she have felt, when writing that? Why did she do it?' Well, I can tell you. I remember it clearly. I was changing my name. There was a new girl at school, called Louise. I didn't like her. I didn't actually like the name Louise, either - sounded like wheeze. I had been waiting for my chance, gathering my courage. I remember writing the new names many times, so it would be strong enough to outweigh the old name. I remember writing it in different pens so it would look as if it had been written on different occasions, which I felt would give further strength to its case. I misspelt my surname, so as to give variety within the evidence. I think I was already reading Agatha Christie, though it seems unlikely with that bad handwriting. I had definitely read the Tales of Ancient Egypt (Roger Lancelyn Green? A Puffin Book, anyway) and I knew that Isis had power because she knew Ra's real name.

I think I may have been doing different writings on purpose too. To mystify anyone who might  investigate, and find that my real name was, in fact, Louise, and would charge me with the crime of misrepresentation, or cart me off to a dungeon or make me get rid of my new beautiful romantic dashing Italianate fraudulent A.

And now, a little more historical analysis gives us crucial information about this important ontological shift: the date. 'To Louise' (old version, nb) 'with love from Nannie, Christmas 1967'. Nannie had not yet got with the programme re the new name, and her handwriting is of a generation which by now often, can't write anymore: a handwriting learnt in the 20s and 30s. Nannie is 92 now. She does write, though she's largely blind and its largely illegible. I can read it though, because mostly she says the same things: thank you for the - , it was so lovely to see -, my leg is - , God bless and love to you all. The were six of us, and Nannie was the extra mother.

But back to the book. 

Undoubtedly I was a terrible nuisance, but I loved the book and I'm sure it shut me up.

Things to make!  I made these, mostly as presents for the adults who wouldn't play with me, so that they would suffer: 

They weren't very good, though I was excellent at pomanders to hang off them. I had a box, full of things to make things out of. I might have made the box, come to think of it. There was a lot of cutting and folding, and tabs, and glue. Cotton wool. Pompoms made of wool I never got the hang of. But carnations made from tissue paper, or paper hankies! Oh, and it was the sixties, there boxes of paper hankies in which the paper hankies were all different colours. Violet, lemon, pistachio (were there pistachios then? Perhaps not) rose and tangerine. I think my mother was a little annoyed. The bouquet of carnations was adorable though.

I wore this. 

Note there is no nonsense about this being an outfit for boys. Nothing was gender related. It was sewing, cooking, building, playing in bed (February, month of colds - I can still make a delightful mouse out of  a handkerchief, and I know how to make him jump). This Month's Pet - April, a Muscovy Duck. Weeding,with a lovely little chart of illustrations: Sowthistle, speedwell, plantain, scarlet pimpernel. Oh, and the illustrations are by Shirley Hughes! Colouring in, again, by me.


 I still don't know who wrote the book. Here is the mysterious introduction. Once I got round to reading it (several years later I suspect - what nipper reads introductions?) I realised Septima was not some Roman lady so grand she had no surname. For a while I examined each family I met, seeking to match up the children's names, the Julias and Davids, Simon and Ian, with the list here, just in case, to see if I might catch them out. Nancy Shepherd was the editor. But the seven who add up to Septima remain a mystery.

The advice they gave was good, it encouraged us to think for ourselves, and remains in my mind as the kind of thing I think I have always known, like a Dylan melody or a Shakespeare quotation. But I must have learnt all those things somewhere.

'If you do light a fire - '! Lord, the nostalgia for back then when children were treated reasonably. My friend Chris bought a combine harvester when he was fourteen, and hired himself out with it in the summer holidays.  Many years later Puffin, who have always been a lovely publisher to me, went into a bit of a tailspin because in my ancient Greece book, Halo, I wanted to give instructions on making a bow and arrow, and how to cook baklava. Everything had to start with 'first find a grown up'. Pah. 

There is one thing that I do it to this day. Seeing the diagrams again brought tears to my eyes. 
The little legs! The little fat conkers! They look like tiny good-tempered spaceships . . .

And I adjusted it. Behold: the Champagne Cork Chair. 
You will need: a bottle of champagne (make sure it's the good stuff), and a pair of tiny pliers, though you can do it with a pair of tiny hands and your teeth if you're strapped for pliers. 

1) Open the bottle and drink the contents, with friends (the easy bit). 
2) Unravel the wire from round the bottom of the cage, and slither it out through the loops (the tricky bit).
3) Bend it into a chair-back, using the existing curves to make a slight 18th-century feel.
4) Twist the ends tightly and neatly round the legs (the other tricky bit). 
5) Accept lavish admiration (the other easy bit.
Here's one I made earlier.

Look how loved this book was, and how well used.  

Tomorrow, I might make some things. Or just think about how much I learned.
This is what it says on flower arranging, and I do believe this is extremely good advice for any child on how to exist at all. 
It may actually be my philosophy for life: 
'Think about each thing and when you have studied carefully how and where it grows, then you will have a feeling for it and know how to use it'.  

Saturday 26 July 2014

The Tree of Peace by Carol Drinkwater

I live on an olive farm in the south of France. Our property and its 300 olive trees have been an on-going source of inspiration for me and my writing for more than two decades. Four books (The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, The Olive Harvest and Return to the Olive Farm) recount episodes from my life on the farm while two others, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree are the result of a seventeen-month solo journey I made around the Mediterranean in search of the history, the secrets and the mythology of this most sacred of plants.

The olive tree and the oil that is pressed from its small stoned fruits have been the cause of many wars; olive culture and its trading earned ancient seafaring peoples shiploads of gold that was used to found empires. The fabulous city of Carthage, situated in modern-day Tunisia, was built by the Phoenicians on money earned through trading, and much of what they traded was olive oil. The Romans partially paid their soldiers in olive oil. Greece and Rome created a slave trade out of Africa to man their massive olive estates. King David hired armed guards to protect Israel’s olive groves as well as the warehouses where the nation’s precious oil was stored... I could cite stories from now till next year detailing the importance of the olive tree in the lives of Mediterranean people, a dominant weave in the historical tapestry of those who live on the banks of this shimmering sea.

One of my quests during my Med travels was to try to discover who, which nation, first cultivated the olive tree and pressed its fruits into rich golden oil. Who first plucked those bitter drupes and thought to squeeze them into an oil that has become a food, a cosmetic and a medicine? Olive oil was described by Homer as ‘Liquid Gold’. The Greeks jealously claim it as their heritage. The Israelis believe they own this ancient tradition. While the Phoenicians were largely responsible for the transportation of its agricultural knowledge to all points across the Mediterranean and even sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules out into the Atlantic Ocean, turning both north and south to the wilder coasts of Portugal and Morocco. I like to imagine that, as well as the tall clay amphorae brimming with oil they were carrying on board their oared ships and the horticultural knowledge they were offering to barter, those vessels might have been chock-a-block with young silvery trees waving in the winds, rather like sea-faring nurseries.

There are some who argue that perhaps the Minoans of Crete were the first to create perfume, which they sold to the Egyptians to place in the tombs of their Pharoahs, by infusing olive oil with herbs and scented plants. Later, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder (who died in the eruption that destroyed Pompeii), boasted that southern Italy produced the finest olive oil in the world. Of course, back then his land was not Italy and the 'world' to which he was alluding was the Mediterranean basin.

I have found clues and several plausible answers to my question, but no water-tight identity.

However, it seems more than reasonable to assert that the Middle East, in particular the swathe of fertile lands between what today is the Syrian-Turkish border all the way through Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, to the coast of Aquaba across to Eilat and into Egypt, gave birth to the industry that today has become a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and one of this region’s most lucrative comestible businesses. These were rich lands, warring lands where the tree of peace grew in abundance. It still grows in these parts in abundance. It remains a vital part of these countries’ diet and economy, but it has also become a weapon of war.

I began my seventeen-month quest in Beirut, the capital of modern-day Lebanon. Serendipity put wind in my sails and within my first two or three weeks on the road I had discovered in the mountains up behind the ancient port city of Byblos, two tiny groves of 6000-year-old olive trees. They are not wild trees, these are cultivated trees, and still fruiting.

This is one tree. Its central trunk has disintegrated over the centuries.
They were planted on manmade terraces bolstered by dry stone walls, which is a very common sight around the Mediterranean and is one of this region's oldest methods for preserving water, for keeping the soil irrigated. Standing alongside these sprawling ancients was an epiphanous moment for me. I had been hoping that my quest might unveil clues, facts, witness statements that would take my story back 2,000 years, but SIX thousand... This put a whole new perspective on history. These trees were planted by someone or a group of farmers before western man had an alphabet, before we could read or write. None of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity or Islam – had come into being at that stage. Those trees gave me a benchmark. What if they could talk, I asked myself. What stories could they tell me? The history of the Mediterranean, was my answer.

In the light of this extraordinary find, I set out to trace the eastern basin of the Med, followed in book two, The Olive Tree, by the western Med. That first book, The Olive Route, ended in Palestine/Israel where I hooked up with a group of Jewish activists who took me into the West Bank to plant sapling olive trees on farmland that had been destroyed, uprooted by Israeli extremists. The trees were funded by these peace-seeking Israelis, most of whom were from Tel Aviv. We travelled in a convoy of coaches, passing through checkpoints until we found ourselves in a small deserted Arab village riven in two by the Separation Wall. By the time we reached the groves where the Arab olive trees had been uprooted and the acres had been turned into a rubbish dump, we probably numbered over three hundred. Men, women, children and dogs. It was March, Spring, almonds in blossom, and the sun was shining. Our trees were perhaps six months old.

Each of us dug a hole and planted a tree while beyond the barbed-wire fencing, IDF Hummers were cruising, watching us. Soldiers called through their loudspeakers. “You are wasting your time. We’ll dig those trees up again tomorrow.” Letters, words in Arabic and Hebrew were hastily painted in red on old torn sheets: ‘You dig, we plant, and we will plant again.’
It was an unforgettable day. It was history in the making, peopled by those living on the ground in a time of war. Only a dozen Arabs were allowed out of their village for two hours to plant with us. They arrived in a broken-down van laden with food prepared by their women who we never even glimpsed. We picnicked in the sunshine. Speeches were made. Fortunately someone translated for me.

I would have travelled on from the West Bank into Lebanon to complete the circle, to the village where I had begun with the 6,000-year-old trees, but this is a war zone; I could not pass through.

I said to my sapling as I placed it, a little wonkily, in the earth, ‘May you live to be six thousand.’

The first seeds of the next millennium of history were being sown.

History, like war, has many faces.

Friday 25 July 2014


It was only an hour, but what fun. With a little group of local history fans, I was allowed into the store where Edinburgh Council keeps the exhibits for which it can't find space in the city's many museums.
Like so many publicly-owned facilities, this store is the victim of cuts, with hardly anyone left to look after it, but it is in good hands. Paul McAuley is one of
life's great enthusiasts, a skilled archaeologist and conservator, and probably a natural hoarder, too.
Once I got over my shock at the number of 20th century domestic objects that looked rather too familiar, I was hooked.
There was everything from fragments of wartime bombs to textiles, toys, ceramics, clocks, a Lord Provost's fancy chair,
and objects accidentally broken while on display.
This student from France was painstakingly restoring a pot from Lauriston Castle,smashed when an owl landed on a mantelpiece.
Mr McAuley himself has recently cleaned this ornate memorial to George Meikle Kemp, the self-taught architect who designed the Scott Monument.

 Under a table nearby was the bust on which the framed portrait was based, itself the victim of an accident, waiting for help.

The store was a glorious mixture: This is an 18th century overmantel depicting a local legend featuring a ghostly dog.

It (the picture, not the dog) was rescued from someone's coal cellar and donated to the city.
Not far away is a set of pantomime costumes -- so many were sent in by a theatre that many more have been passed on to local drama groups.
There are model stage sets sitting on top of a cupboard
alongside this evidence of a rather enlightened (to my eye)
policy towards youth employment.

The numbers, by the way, should read 15 and 18 - some wag long ago blanked out the1s.  And the dead arm hanging over the rail alongside belongs to a mannequin from a defunct display.
Round the corner is a seventeenth century sign for the guild of Hammer-men.

On the shelves behind that, there are radios, elderly computers, and even brown cardboard boxes of human bones dug up when they were preparing for the tram (which, incidentally, has no ventilation, is like an oven in the summer heat and - thanks to the scandalous budget over-runs - doesn't go anywhere near the burial ground that was disturbed to make way for it).

If I wasn't so old, I might have mistaken these hairdryers for ancient instruments of torture.

The council is still being given wonderful things. The original designs for the grand
Usher Hall have arrived from an architect's office in England. We were told that they include fine drawings for even the smallest detail of door furniture. They will go to an archive where they can be curated properly, and perhaps even (as originals or digital copies) displayed in the hall itself.

Of course, the city of Edinburgh is not alone in having so many exhibits that can't be shown. I wonder how much is in store at the National Museum of Scotland, which seems to pride itself on having acres of empty space, in the current fashion brought on by generous capital grants from the National Lottery. This money seems to have resulted in lots of exciting work for architects, but little for the back-room staff who might fill those spaces with interesting things...
But I'm a dinosaur. I like museums to be stuffed with the unexpected, and graced with labels explaining what you are looking at, where it came from, and why it's there. In the new world of cafes, push buttons, am-dram re-enactments and play areas, I have no hope of seeing that style of display come back in my lifetime, but I bet it will one day, along with employment and respect for the people who know about, and look after, the contents of our museums.
Until then, I'll rely on places like the Edinburgh Collections Store to cheer me up.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Monkey Business by Elizabeth Chadwick

In 1158, Thomas Becket, chancellor to King Henry II set out on a diplomatic mission to France aimed at promoting a marriage alliance between the two royal firms, and also one suspects  playing a game of 'mine's bigger than yours' between Henry II and King Louis VII.   Rather like modern commercial trade promotions, Becket arrived in France with a cavalcade that reflected all the riches of the empire over which his master was lord.  The circus had come to town and announced its arrival with music and fanfares.

The entourage consisted of over two hundred mounted followers to add dignity to Becket's standing, among them knights and pages, clerks, stewards and servants, all of them arrayed in costly garments. Becket himself had twenty four changes of clothing, most of which were worn once and then bestowed as gifts. He had several packs of hunting dogs with him and various birds of prey from his mews.

There were numerous baggage wagons each pulled by five horses in line. Each horse had a groom and each groom had a mastiff dog as big and strong as a lion to guard the wagon.  Two of the wagons carried barrels of  ale for handing out to French bystanders who were not familiar with such a beverage. The rest of the wagons contained more food and drink, cushions, bed linens, furnishings, and various other items of household paraphernalia - all high status and embellished.

Beyond the wagons came a caravan of twelve packhorses laden with the most valuable items - books, gold and silver plate, the items of Becket's chapel, basins, spoons, salt cellars, rich vestments.  Each packhorse once again had its groom, and on each pack animal's back, a monkey had been trained to sit like a little jockey.  The monkeys themselves were intended as gifts for the French high nobility and clergy.

UK publication
September 2014

While researching and writing my forthcoming novel THE WINTER CROWN due out in September, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the people who had to gather together this menagerie - the sheer logistics of assembling all the different aspects, and then transporting it across the Channel.  It must have been daunting but from reports in the chronicles, it appears to have succeeded and been one of the wonders of its age.

A scene in the novel required me to write about one of Becket's monkeys.  Not being a subject I had covered before in my research, it was interesting reading up on the background of such creatures in medieval daily life and I thought I'd share some of the information I came across.

When Medievals referred to monkeys they meant both the tailed and the untailed - they didn't differentiate between monkeys (tailed) and apes (untailed) as we do.  Tailed monkeys were the one of choice though and seem to have been widely available in Western Europe in the twelfth century.  They were popular bets, especially among members of the clergy, although not everyone was enamoured, and Hugh of St. Victor was of the opinion that they were 'filthy' and 'detestable.'  Scholar Albertus Magnus in his De Animalibus opined that while monkeys might play with other pets, they should never be viewed as completely tame and could be dangerous.  He calls it 'a trickly animal with bad habits.'  He describes monkeys as eating vermin  found on people's heads and clothing.  However, when not dining off their owner's parasitic occupants, monkeys would be fed a variety of foodstuffs, but nuts were a staple. Chronicler Richard of Durham reported on Robert of Coquina, Bishop of Durham 1274-83 who kept two spoiled pet monkeys that he fed on peeled almonds from a silver spoon.

Monkeys could be tamed by being chained to a heavy block, and they invariably wore a collar and chain. They were, of course, a high status pet to have and were frequently given as gifts, being seen as particularly suitable for clergy and women.

I was also interested to find out that animals in the Middle Ages, while having personal names, also had generic ones.  Redbreasts were called Robin, pies were called Mag, Wrens were called Jenny.  Tomcats were Gyb and monkeys were Robert.  I enjoyed making use of that detail in the novel!

Monkeys are ubiquitous in medieval imagery where frequently it is a symbol of sin, malice, cunning and lust -all the baser elements of humankind. They also stood for folly and vanity.- although none of this prevented them from being the popular pets of clergymen - perhaps as a constant reminder of the sins and follies of mankind!  It is ironic that Thomas Becket, a future Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr-saint should have travelled to Paris with twelve such in his entourage!

Wednesday 23 July 2014

NEWS ITEMS ON THIS DAY IN 1914 by Leslie Wilson

Local  pre-war cricket heroes
source;wikimedia images

You might have read in your newspaper, a hundred years ago today, that Black Jester had won the St George's Stakes at the Liverpool Races; Yorkshire had beaten Nottinghamshire at Leeds, by 97 runs; rain had spoiled play in the Hampshire v. Sussex match at Southampton. The game ended in a draw. Source: Daily Herald © Trinity Mirror.

Also in the Daily Herald you could have read:


Belfast Judge Powerless Before Her Protests

Lively scenes were witnessed in the Belfast Assize yesterday when Miss Dorothy Evans*, the Suffragist organiser, refused to allow her trial to proceed. The judge asked her to remember she was a lady, whereupon she declared she stood there as a woman. The accused interrupted so frequently that the case had to be adjourned. On resuming she informed the judge that she did not intend to allow the trial to go on. The judge then adjourned the case to the next Assizes, ordering the accused to be kept in custody.
Cartoon from Punch magazine, 1910, by Arthur Wallis Mills

The Devon and Exeter Gazette informed its readers where they could get the paper on holiday: in Bovey Tracey, from Miss A.M.Pook at the Post Office. In Budleigh Salterton, from F.W. Dalgliesh, bookseller; there were details of outlets among others in Lynton and Lynmouth, Lyme Regis, Ilfracombe, Paignton, Teignmouth and Tavistock. Alternatively, 7d (old pence) per week would get them copies forwarded post free. © Local World Ltd

The Cornishman reported that the United Methodist Band of Hope (a temperance organisation) of Marazion held their annual outing on Wednesday, and to the number of 80 visited Carbis Bay'. in jersey cars(??) furnished by Mr R.J. Hutchens of Penzance. It further reported on the sudden death of Mr Richard Sedgeman, aged 40, of North Road, Goldsithney, who was planting broccoli in a field when he 'fell on his knees and expired almost immediately.' The lad who was assisting him asked him what was the matter, and 'deceased only said, 'Go after some more plant.' He did not speak again'

The Cornishman further reported the annual 15-day training of the Cornwall R.G.A 1 and 2 Heavy Batteries, which 'obtained very useful results by practice over the ranges, which offer peculiar facilities for observation of fire, and much valuable knowledge has been gained by officers, non-com officers, and men.' The weather had been 'very favourable..on no occasion has firing been interfered with by mist and rain.' © Local World Limited.

The Birmingham Daily Mail told its readers about a workmen's strike in St Petersburg, and battles between police officers and strikers. Barricades were erected, police were wounded, and shops were shut. Tramway services in the capital were suspended. In addition, a band of strikers held up a passenger train from St Petersburg, forcing the driver to leave the locomotive and the passengers to leave their carriages. They then knocked down the telegraph posts and blocked the line. However, gendarmerie and troops were sent out to guard the line; subsequently every train was followed by an engine with an armed escort. Workers in Thornton's cloth mills and other factories belonging to British firms went out, and the strike was said to be of a pan-Russian nature. Meanwhile, the French president, Poincaré, was visiting the Emperor at the Peterhof Palace, and Sweden was said to fear an attack by Russia, 'and is reinforcing its army with a view to removing this misunderstanding.' M. Poincaré was to visit Sweden on Friday, and was supposed to explain that Russia did not intend to attack anyone. Meanwhile, M.Sassonoff and M. Viviani 'have examined the Balkan question.'
Drawn by unknown Austrian newspaper artist:
Wikimedia Images
The paper further reported that the view of 'official circles in Berlin' on the situation between Austria and Servia (as the country was then called) after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, was that if there was an armed conflict it could and ought to be localised. Count Reventlow, then a journalist writing in the 'Tageszeitung' (German Daily News) asserted that 'the tendency of German policy is not insistently warlike and..Germany does not wish an armed conflict between Austria and Servia' but that 'public opinion in Germany is without limitation on the side of our ally, and only desires that she may vigorously safeguard her rights and legitimate interests, stand fast, and not allow herself to be intimidated.' © Trinity Mirror.

But it was late that same afternoon that Count Giesl, Austria-Hungary's ambassador in Belgrade, visited the Serbian Foreign Ministry and read out to him the ultimatum to Serbia, which had been carefully composed so that Serbia would under no circumstances feel able to comply with its demands. The situation was one that we might recognise; a Great Power, feeling threatened by a terrorist outrage and determined to do something decisive, wanted to wage war, though there was scant evidence that the country concerned had anything to do with the act of terrorism. 9/11 and Iraq, anyone? The Dual Monarchy thought they could knock out Serbia, and if the conflict did spread, there was a fatalistic feeling both in Vienna and Berlin that war would have to come some time and it might as well be now. There was an Emperor in Berlin who was eager to prove himself in conflict (like George W.Bush).
Photo: Studio
Thomas Heinrich Voigt, court photographer

The ultimatum 'accused the Serbian government of tolerating criminal activities on its soil and demanded that it take immediate steps to end them, including dismissing any civilian or military officials Austria-Hungary chose to name, closing down nationalist newspapers and reforming the education curriculum to get rid of anything that could be construed as propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary.' In addition, Serbia 'was ordered to accept the participation of the Dual Monarchy in suppressing subversion within Serbia's borders and in the inevestigation and trial of any Serbian conspirators responsible for the assassinations.' (The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, Profile Books 2013)

Serbia was given 48 hours to respond.

On 25th July, the Daily Herald reported


The German government, it reported, was 'using its influence to localise the conflict.' © Trinity Mirror.

But the match had been applied to the cord and the flame was licking along to the powder-keg. On the 28th July, Austria declared war on Serbia.

*Dorothy Evans was arrested for possession of explosives, following arson attacks.

Newspaper quotes all obtained from the British Newspaper Archive.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Talking About Our Generation by Kate Lord Brown

How do you define historical fiction? Is it fiction set in the past? Over thirty years ago? Or set before the living experience of the writer? I've just finished the new draft of a novel set in the 1970s - so it is 'historical' if you use the 30 year rule. It is certainly ancient history to a group of schoolchildren I spoke to recently about 'bringing the past to life' - I showed them pictures of a penny farthing and a Chopper. Guess which one they thought we rode in the 1970s.

Yesterday involved a long, hot visit to the phone souq, thanks to a catastrophe involving an end of term pool party and an iphone, and there was plenty of time to ponder how accelerated our lives are now, and the rapid advances in technology. The display case in the photo above caught my eye. Nothing dates a work of fiction whether it's a novel or a film quicker than the technology used. The 'History' display reminded me of my first mobile, bought for my first job driving hundreds of miles around East Anglia for an arts festival. 'Brick' is an apt description. Researching old phones last night I came across these curious clips from 1928 and 1938 which claim to show early (or time travelling?!) users of mobile technology. A relation of the young woman shown has come forward recently to say that the factory was developing early wireless technology:

Anachronisms are the bane of historical fiction writers' lives - it is so easy to slip up, and there is always a kind reader ready to point out mistakes. Thinking of History Girls of the future, I feel for them, trying to keep track of  which phone, or computer, or tablet was around at the time their novels are set. Everything is changing so fast. I began my writing 'career' penning love letters on the Exe Valley school bus for friends to send to their boyfriends at the local boarding school, and still prefer pen and ink. My children are still taught cursive script at school, but are far more adept at keyboard skills. Dad's first computer, a huge Commodore that took up half his office in the 70s probably had less power than the dear, departed waterlogged iphone. Learning to type on huge clunky manual typewriters in the late 80s under Mrs Leach's formidable eye, ('I typed Le Carre's novels, girls'), early green screen computers were used for the 'word processing' Pitman's certificate, rather like those in 'Jumpin' Jack Flash':

That script, with Jonathan Pryce's delicious voice bringing the typed words to life, was one of the more successful uses of technology in fiction - but boy does it look dated now. 

One of the best things about writing historical fiction is that the need for suspense is supported by the lack of technology. Waiting for a letter is endlessly more romantic than the instant gratification of an email or the ping of a text. Ink and paper or an 'I luv u', which would you choose? If we are, as some believe, heading towards an Omega Point of singularity in 2040, a convergence of technology and humanity, I wonder what lies ahead for future History Girls. It is enough to keep you awake at 4am, but as long as even Apple's finest is fragile enough to be thwarted by a pre-teen diving into a pool with it in her pocket, perhaps we have a few years yet to ensure the future is bright.