Sunday 31 August 2014

August Competition - old pongs!

Debbie Taylor has given us a lovely question to help to win one of five copies of her latest novel, Herring Gull, kindly donated by publisher OneWorld.

Just write you answer below in Comments. Closing date is September 14th, to allow for holidays.

We regret our competitions are open to UK readers only.

"What aroma from the past are you grateful no longer to smell? And what past aroma would you like experience again as a part of everyday life?"

Please also email your answers to, so that it is easier to get in touch with you if you have won a copy.

Saturday 30 August 2014

We're going to need a bigger cabinet by Mary Hoffman

On the 30th of each month, when it's not the last day (i.e. in January, March, May, July, August, October and December) a History Girl puts up an extra post about something she would like to put in our virtual Cabinet of Curiosities. This month it's my turn and I'm afraid I'm going to be greedy.

You see, I want the Bayeux Tapestry.

I have already written about it on my Book Maven blog. And Adèle Geras has written her own post here on the History Girls.

You will have to bear with us. We both saw it this summer and it makes a huge impact. But because it is 70 metres long and difficult to stuff into our cabinet, I'm going to concentrate on the Alderney Finale, a brilliant initiative carried out on the Channel Island to complete the Tapestry, which is missing its final panels.

It was the brainchild of Librarian Kate Russell and artist Pauline Black and was unveiled in April of last year. This summer it has been on display in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum and in fact tomorrow is the last chance to see it there. Then it will return to Alderney.

From the 1st February 2012 when Kate and Pauline applied the first stitches 400 people have had a hand in working on the Finale, including Prince Charles and and Duchess of Cornwall.

There are Four scenes. In Scene one, the victorious William of Normandy has a celebration dinner with his half brothers Odo, who is thought to have commissioned the Tapestry, and Robert. The remnants of the Battle of Hastings are shown: corpses, severed limbs, grieving widows. After the battle is when William gets his nickname of "the Conqueror" though this is not shown here. (Formerly he was known as William the Bastard - no comment on his nature, just that his parents were not married).

Scene two shows William at Berkhampstead, charmingly rendered in Latin as "Bercheha(m)steda," accepting the surrender of English nobles, including the Archbishop of York.

Scene three is the climax of the piece and surely a subject very likely to have been in one of the lost panels: the Coronation of William at Westminster. It is Christmas Day 1066.

Scene four is a little tailpiece showing the beginnings of the White Tower at the Tower of London, built with Caen stone, from Normandy, that shines out to this day.

The Latin inscriptions are by Robin Whicker in forms appropriate to the 1070s. And the style and design is satisfyingly close to the original Altogether an inspired piece of work. You can see lots more pictures on Flickr.

Just as in the 11th century work, there are other scenes enacted and symbols added in the strip that goes along the bottom. A big favourite is the one showing the donkey, toad and puffin, representing Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney itself, all encircled by the tail of the lion of England.

Well worth constructing a bigger cabinet, especially since anything is possible in cyberspace.

Friday 29 August 2014

Why writing history is like science fiction by Debbie taylor

Our August guest is Debbie Taylor, whose life seems to provide enough material for a whole bookshop of novels. Welcome to the History Girls, Debbie!

Debbie Taylor is Editorial Director of Mslexia, which she founded in 1999. She has written for Oxfam, UNICEF, Anti-Slavery, WHO and others about women and social issues. Her books include My Children, My Gold (Virago), a nonfiction travelogue about single mothers, and The Fourth Queen (Penguin), a novel set in a harem in 18th Century Morocco. Her latest novel, Herring Girl (Oneworld), a paranormal historical thriller set on the banks of the Tyne, came out this month.

We historical girls often like to wax lyrical about the amount of research we do to source the details of the era and characters we're writing about to recreate an authentic period atmosphere.

Sarah Waters immerses herself in the literature of the time, reading letters, newspapers and magazines, as well as novels of all kinds – and latterly, I assume, seeking out radio recordings and transcripts for her 20th Century historicals like The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Her policy of total immersion continues while she's actually writing, too, so that it becomes well-nigh impossible not to imbue her prose with the nuances of her chosen period.

Other historical novelists go even further. I'm reliably informed that you can take part in themed weekend extravaganzas, attiring yourself in period clothing and eating and drinking as people did at a particular time in history. (I once suggested this as a joke in a talk to the Historical Novelists' Association, only to be told in no uncertain terms that it was already de rigueur for some hard-core novelistas)

Then there's the method used by Rose Tremain, which is basically to write the book first, making up the historical details as she goes along – and do the research later to correct anything she's got wrong.

Which is the opposite method to that used by Margaret Atwood, who collects boxes and boxes of information on every aspect of her work-in-progress (aided by several research assistants) and plots all her characters' timelines on an elaborate grid, before she starts writing. This is partly because she finds real life far stranger than fiction – indeed she boasts that every bizarre, brutal or arcane event or practice in her novels has actually occurred somewhere at some time in the world – and partly because she lives in fear of some old timer popping up at a reading to correct a detail she's got wrong about butter-churning in the 1920s.

Much of my own 'historical' knowledge comes not from reading about fishing communities in the 1890s or listening to old recordings of Tyneside voices – though of course I did all of that for my novel Herring Girl (published by Oneworld and out now!). Most of my sense of what life might have been like in 19th Century Northumberland comes from living amongst people in third world countries when I worked as a development journalist. I've slept four to a bed, for example, been bitten by fleas, ticks and mites, gulped down water from sources I didn't dare enquire about, and witnessed traditional healers in the throes of a spirit possession. I know first-hand how to resurface a mud wall, wash head to toe without taking off my clothes, and go to the loo in public – in daylight in an open field, as well as in a bucket inside with an entire family watching.
Debbie's house in Botswana
However we go about it, all historical novelists are striving for some kind of authenticity. But I want to argue that, no matter authentic we are trying to be, what we actually end up producing is more akin to science fiction than history. Because we are not simply relating the facts about people's lives in the past, we are trying to project ourselves – and our readers – backwards in time to imagine what it was actually like to live those lives.

And however much we research our subject matter, however many old letters we read or museums we visit, we can never be sure that we have got it absolutely right. All we can do is use the incomplete information we have to hypothesise what it might have been like in 18th Century Morocco, say (as I did in The Fourth Queen), or 11th Century England (as Paul Kingsnorth does in The Wake). Which is exactly what science fiction authors do.

Starting with a series of assumptions – melting ice caps, mass infertility, alien entities – they painstakingly construct a viable and believable alternative world, along with the viable and believable human (or humanoid) beliefs and experiences that would result.

Indeed many novels in the fantasy genre are set in a sort of hybrid world, part historical part paranormal part science fiction. The recent emergence of the steampunk genre, which marries science fiction plotlines with a sort of grungy late 19th Century milieu, makes this connection even more obvious. Which is why it's not surprising that Margaret Atwood, for all her enthusiastic amassing of contemporary and historic fact, bestrides the fictional world so comfortably between the past and the future. And who knows, perhaps Hilary Mantel's next novel might be set on a far planet in the 23rd Century. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.

Resurfacing a courtyard in Zimbabwe

Thursday 28 August 2014

The History Girls: Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley

The History Girls: Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley: This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek . Described by Ant...

Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley

This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek. Described by Antony Beevor as, ‘one of the great modern books not just of the Cretan resistance; it is one of the great books of the Second World War’, Hide & Seek recounts with powerful immediacy, humour and unsparing honesty the drama, tedium, exhilaration and anguish of organising reconnaissance and resistance behind enemy lines on Crete.

The Folio Society's new edition of
Xan Fielding's Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society.

I first read Hide & Seek when I was researching my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the war. Christine had saved Xan’s life, at huge personal risk, in the summer 1944 while they were both serving in occupied France. Xan never forgot his debt, and dedicated Hide & Seek to Christine’s memory, so I was thrilled when Folio asked me to write the introduction for their new edition of the book. I now had the chance to look more deeply into the other side of the story, reading around Xan’s life and talking to many people who knew him.

In my experience the people connected with an extraordinary character, such as Christine Granville or Xan Fielding, have been unfailingly generous with their time, papers, photos and stories. Xan had many remarkable friends, from Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bill Stanley Moss, both of whom also served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, to Laurence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Millar, Dirk Bogarde and Lucien Freud. Friends, children, and children-of-friends, kindly shared stories with me over sandwiches, or over the internet.

Anecdotes covered everything from Freud’s dead monkey, which was apparently usually kept in his fridge but eventually decomposed when left forgotten in his studio, to Daphne Fielding’s budgerigar, the only creature allowed near Xan’s Remington typewriter, as it ‘delighted in the ping of the bell at the end of each line which heralded an exciting struggle to maintain balance as the roller rotated and carriage whizzed back’. I learnt of revealing private dedications hidden penned inside personal copies of Hide & Seek, and discovered the wonderful advert Xan placed in The Times, when he was seeking work in 1950: ‘Tough but sensitive ex-classical scholar, ex-secret agent, ex-guerrilla leader, 31, recently reduced to penury through incompatibility with post-war world… Would do anything unreasonable and unexpected if sufficiently rewarding and legitimate’. There are, of course, many wonderful stories, and you can read more of them in my introduction to the Folio edition of Hide & Seek.

Paddy Leigh Fermor with Xan Fielding
courtesy of The National Library of Scotland

Besides the stories of this remarkable group of friends I also found - and this is a first – the editorial issues fascinating! I wanted to see the manuscript that Folio was using so that I could page reference my quotes, but here was another issue... Hide & Seek was first published in 1954. Xan wrote from his wartime notebooks - a collection only missing the one volume inconsiderately eaten by Cretan pigs in 1942 - and the book is refreshingly immediate. But in the 1980s he had sat down with Paddy to amend the manuscript for a new Greek-language edition. They removed a few offensive phrases that had not dated well, and modified some of the less flattering character portraits, but Xan did not seem happy with the process.

With admirable diligence Folio tracked down Paddy and Xan’s revisions and set to work deciding which version of the manuscript to print. In the end, being, their editor told me, ‘very conscious of… the risk of tearing the fabric of the text’, they made very few editorial interventions to the original manuscript. As a result, in this edition Xan again speaks his mind freely, vividly expressing his not-uncritical love for the place and people of Crete, as well as the fierce anger he felt at much of the conduct of the war.

Reproduction SOE map of Crete, annotated by Paddy Leigh Fermor
and included in the new Folio edition of Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society

Hide & Seek is not the only one of Xan’s books to have been republished recently, nor is The Folio Society the only publisher interested in this rich seam of war memoir. Paul Dry Books republished this and his other Cretan book, The Stronghold, last year, as well as, in 2010, Bill Stanley Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlit, the account of his and Paddy’s kidnapping of the German General of the island that was later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. (Xan had been otherwise engaged, and also too dark-skinned to pass as the requisite ‘Aryan’ German officer, so did not take part in that exploit, but some years later he did serve as advisor during filming, lending his own clothes to Bogarde to give an air of authenticity. Striding around in chinos and espadrilles, apparently Xan was amused to overhear Bogarde’s dresser describe him as still looking, ‘like a fucking little killer’.) Moss’s other book, A War of Shadows, was also republished, by Bene Factum Publishing, earlier this year, and Paddy Leigh Fermor's previously unpublished account of the kidnapping, 'Abducting a General' will soon be published by John Murray, while Bloomsbury has just signed up a new account of the same incident by Rick Stroud. Both Paddy and Bill Stanley Moss also knew Christine Granville in war-time Egypt, and Bill and his Polish wife, Zofia Tarnowska, later named their daughter Christine in her honour.

When I write a biography I am always sadly aware of all the fabulous stories that I cannot include, and the incidental but remarkable characters that there is no room to develop although they are often fully deserving of biographies of their own. So I am delighted to have been able to contribute to this Folio edition of Hide & Seek, and even more so that Folio has also added lots of new photos, a pull-out reproduction of his and Paddy's SOE map of Crete, along with some of Xan's previously unpublished correspondence, making it a really terrific new edition.

It turns out that manuscripts also have lives of their own, with hidden stories, strategic translations and freshly edited republications and, as with people, it is only a matter of judgment which versions are the most authentic, which voice most true, and which should be remembered or retold.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Books are a problem, by Louisa Young (note the importance of a comma . . . )

Todays blog is short; forgive me.
Also, it is a question, and a request.

I am due to deliver a novel in October.

For perhaps four years I have been reading books about the time (1930s), setting (Italy), characters (Jewish Romans), theme (how was fascism for you, if you were both Jewish and fascist? - or, more broadly, how is it for you when you are one thing and also another, and one thing turns against the other?). 

You'd think I'd have read quite a lot, and you'd be right. Our illustrious leader Mary Hoffman provided me with a splendid reading list earlier this summer - already way too late, in the grand scheme of things, for a book which is already up to 90000 words - and it is keeping me busy. And yet yesterday I popped into Daunt's and bought Antonio Pennacchi's The Mussolini Canal (550 pages), Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew by Dan Vittorio Segre, and Susan Zucotti's The Italians and the Holocaust . . .  

I suppose it's procrastination. Distraction? Desperation?

Is it?



Dear ladies, I can't write more. I have a book to write and, more fool me, books to read. Help!

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Scarlet Beauties as ancient as Olive Drupes by Carol Drinkwater

Flowering Pomegranate tree in our garden in the South of France
Various parts of a Pomegranate

Tangerines remind me of childhood Christmases. Can you recall that tangy aroma once you’d pierced the skin with your thumb, peeled it away and the juice began to spray out like an ignited sparkler? Dates were rare in my childhood home. Amber-coloured like big sad eyes, dry and sugary, they arrived in elongated oval boxes, shaped as though to contain school pencils. Each lid had a coloured illustration of a one-humped camel, head held high, clopping over sand.
“It’s a desert the camel is crossing,” explained my father who had spent his war with the RAF gang show entertaining the troops in Africa and the Middle East. He regularly recounted tales to me of Arabian nights, magic and mischief in hot climates and he frequently imitated haunting nocturnal sounds of the desert. His stories, true or exaggerated, gave me a hunger for travel, a desire to uncover the roots of where these exotic foods we ate on special occasions were originally sourced. I longed to hitch a ride with one of those caravans.

It is not surprising then that once I had settled in the south of France on our olive farm, I set off on a seventeen-month journey in search of the history of the olive tree and the early cultivation of its stoned fruit. It is also not surprising that during those months on the road, other flavours, foods, fruits began to excite my interest as well. One was the delectable pomegranate.

When I was in Malta, I stayed in the home of a fascinating couple who were singlehandedly at that stage attempting to ‘re-green’ their island, to reintroduce their neighbours to Malta’s once renowned olive culture by planting saplings grafted with cuttings from a tiny grove of giant Roman trees still flourishing in the twenty-first century on a southern tip of the island.

One morning when I went into breakfast, I spotted on their table a locally-fired pottery dish piled high with pomegranates. Such beautiful fruits, I remarked. Sammy, my host, immediately chose the ripest, skilfully opened up its leathery shell, allowing the juice to bleed on to his plate. He handed it across to me to enjoy. Its seeds and sweet, sweet juice clung to my chin.

I knew that, along with olives and grapes, it was a biblical crop and that it was a fruit much prized in antiquity. I had come across artifacts designed with it at the hauntingly beautiful Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit, on the Syrian coast near Latakia, but I had not known that camel trails traversing Africa invariably carried pomegranates. In arid climes, the fruit was an essential source of liquid; it was deemed to be a super-food (I doubt anyone back then used my host’s modern description!). Along with the olive, this unusual fruit’s complex history was drawing my attention. Like the olive, it has an honoured place in the religious beliefs of the three western monotheisms. It is mentioned in the Quran, the Torah, the Old Testament, Babylonian texts, Greek mythology, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and has been used many times as a Christian image of fertility and eternity (see Celia Rees’ HG post on the Madonna del Parto ). It also found its place in Egyptian mythology. Pomegranates were cultivated in Egypt before Moses was born. Look at this exquisite silver pomegranate vase from 1323 B.C found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.

There are some who believe that this may be the fruit that grew on the tree of life while other religious academics have claimed it was the pomegranate and not the humble apple that tempted Eve on the tree of knowledge.

Although one single fruit can produce anything up to 2,000 seeds, Jewish tradition teaches 613 seeds, one for each mitzvot or commandment in the Torah. Designs of the fruit were woven in blue and purple fabric into the hems of the High Priests’ robes. Brass pomegranates were also found as border designs on the capitols of two pillars of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is traditional to eat the fruit at Rosh Hashanah. It represents wisdom and knowledge to the Jews.

In The Odyssey, Homer describes them growing in Corfu, in the fertile gardens at King Alcinous’ palace (Alcinous was leader of the Phaeacians. His people settled in Scherie, modern Corfu, possibly arriving from Sicily).

Sicilian fruit
The Romans imported their pomegranates from Libya, which was also one of their most lucrative olive-producing regions.

Although not a symbol of peace, it is revered as a divine gift by Middle Eastern nations who today are fighting one other; its roots lie with the roots of so many of those divided peoples.

The pomegranate is, as was the olive tree originally, a small drought-resistant plant that botanists would more accurately describe as a large shrub. The difference is that the olive is not deciduous. In the Middle East, both of these fruit-bearing trees can be traced back to 4,000 BC.

Its name, Pomegranate originates from Medieval Latin, pomum granatum, meaning ‘seeded apple’. In Herbrew, it is rimmon.

Since millennia, it has been cultivated in Persia – modern-day Iran, as well as Iraq, Israel, Syria, Mesopotamia: the cradle of the Olive Route. It was traded by commercial travellers along the Silk Road and found its way to China. Today in Southeast Asia, it is a highly-prized fruit, a symbol of abundance.

I asked three Chinese students staying with us what the pomegranate meant to them. One, from the south, recounted a lovely story, perhaps a stanza from a Chinese poem? When a lover declares his affections to the woman of his dreams, if she in return is equally attracted, she wears a robe the colour of a pomegranate and allows her suitor to rest his head between her knees.
I suspect that the robes were the scarlet of the flowers rather than the more discreet red of the fruit’s thick skin.

fruit blossom
In Greece, the fruit played an important role in the nation’s classical mythology. It was the fruit of the dead, the underworld... The goddess Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and forced to live in his underworld. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvests, mourned her daughter’s loss and caused all green things to cease to grow. Zeus stepped in and commanded Hades to return the girl, lest the earth grow arid and die. Hades, smart fellow that he was, knowing that no food was to be consumed in the underworld, tricked Persephone into consuming six pomegranate seeds (to quench her thirst from the hot fires perhaps?). The result was that she was condemned to spend six months of every year with Hades underground. Here was the ancient Greeks’ explanation of winter, of the change in the seasons.

Persephone  - Empress of Hades
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Today, in Greece, a porcelain fruit is frequently offered to those moving house. Sometimes, an actual fruit is thrown to the ground. As it splits open, the juice seeps out and blesses the new home and its inhabitants.

Granada, Spanish for pomegranate, named one of its most magnificent Andalucian cities after it. It is the symbol of the city. Every street sign has the fruit painted above it. Federico Garcia Lorca, poet, native of Granada, victim of the Spanish Civil War, executed beneath an olive tree, wrote of the pomegranate:
‘The fruit is hard and skull-like on the outside, but on the inside it contains the blood of the wounded earth.’

Coat of Arms of Granada

Pomegranates were possibly introduced to Spain by the Moors after their arrival in 711 AD. However, I like to fancy that it was earlier, that they were transported to the peninsula’s southern shores by the Phoenicians who sailed the knowledge of olive cultivation from the coast of what today is Lebanon, all around the Mediterranean. Then, passing beyond the Pillars of Hercules, they founded their trading post of Gadir along the way, (modern-day Cadiz), before pushing the learned world, its knowledge of botany, maps and exploration further, out into the Atlantic Sea. The Phoenicians were not conquerors; they were traders and they took their business to the coastal cities of Essaouira in Morocco and Portugal in the north. Some say they crossed the Atlantic waters and were the first discoverers of the Americas, but there is no solid evidence, so far, of that.
Whether the pomegranate first reached the Untied States earlier I do not know but it was certainly brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadores. Trees growing wild were found as far afield as US Georgia in the eighteenth century...

I could go on. I haven’t touched upon the fruit’s medicinal or cosmetic properties. What excites me is nature’s role in our evolution, our human history, our diet. It is an interactive story. The seeds of history growing wild, nurtured initially by one or several tribes until the knowledge spreads, until we begin to trade, to battle for land to grow our produce, to cultivate, to protect our knowledge and our crops.
Who knows -  The Pomegranate Route could be my next travel book!

I will finish with a word from Shakespeare, spoken by the young Juliet...

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

and these more erotic lines from the Song of Solomon:

'I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of pomegranates.'

I have never tasted pomegranate wine, but I certainly intend to now.

Carol Drinkwater

Monday 25 August 2014

TESTAMENTS OF VERA by Eleanor Updale

This month I was given the highly enjoyable task of talking about Vera Brittain’s great book Testament of Youth at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  Don’t worry,  I’m not going to reprise my entire talk here, but I thought I might share some thoughts with you.
Like many other people, I was first alerted to Testament of Youth in 1979, when the BBC produced a superb (and surprisingly loyal) television adaptation, with Cheryl Campbell playing Vera.

In case you don’t know the book, Testament of Youth is autobiographical, but it reads with the verve of a novel.  At its heart is the journey from the idealism of the early days of the First World War through the heartbreak of losing friends and the horror and drudgery of work as a VAD nurse, to Vera’s espousal of the pacifist convictions which she held for the rest of her life.
The book was published in 1933, and was an instant best seller - as is clear from the cover of my copy, an edition published two years later.  I love the classic yellow Gollancz cover.

 I think that’s one of the most intriguing publisher’s blurbs I’ve ever seen:  One of the two most famous autobiographies?  Which was the other?  And what comic scene at the Gollancz office resulted in that wording?
I suppose it’s likely to have been another book published by Gollancz, which narrows things down a bit. My money is on Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which also came out in 1933.

But Victor Gollancz may have been showing generosity to some other publishing house (Goodbye to All That?) or even looking abroad (Mein Kampf?).  If any of you have ideas, do let me know. 

To get a better feeling for Brittain, I looked at many of her other books too.  She wrote novels (some of them transparently based on her own life) but was best known for her polemics and memoirs.  

Brittain must be an early example of the cultivation of an author as a brand, with new titles harking back to her first big success.  During her lifetime, and after her death in 1970, the names of her books, and posthumous compilations of their source material, involved various permutations of the the words ‘Testament', ‘Chronicle;, and ‘Youth'.
For example, Testament of a Peace Lover (letters written in the Second World War) came out in 1988, eighteen years after Vera’s death,  Her collected Journalism from the 20s to the 60s was given the title Testament of a Generation. Vera’s own wartime diary, on which Testament of Youth was based, was not available to the general public until 1981, when it was published under the title Chronicle of Youth.  
Testament of Youth's searing account of the deaths of Vera's brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton and their close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow was partly responsible for the popular concept of a ‘lost generation’ which has been so widely questioned recently. All those men were born in 1895, two years after Vera, who saw them through a youthful prism of devotion and loss.  Their letters to each other  were published in 1998, twenty-eight years after Vera’s own death, under the title Letters From a Lost Generation

It’s worth following Vera’s story beyond the end of Testament of Youth. Her account of her friendship with the novelist, Winifred Holtby (continued in Testament of Experience and Testament of Friendship) gives compelling insight into the lives of the women who served in and survived the war.  It’s also an intriguing picture of one particular household - with much of Vera’s self-styled ‘semi detached’ marriage to her academic husband ‘G’ Catlin conducted with Winifred on hand under the marital roof.
But it’s the collections of journalism  and political polemic that say most about Vera Brittain the feminist and pacifist.  A particularly remarkable book - published in 1942, with a striking cover designed by Arthur Wragg - is Humiliation with Honour.  

It’s a collection of letters Vera wrote to her children, John and Shirley (later Shirley Williams) about why she was sticking to her pacifist principles despite the rise of the Nazis, and the public vilification she was experiencing because of that stance.

Vera Brittain was, of course remarkable among the women of her generation. You can see that just by looking at the photographs in some of the books, where she is often alone in groups of men agitating for political reform or international peace. But away from the public realm, she was not alone in her in her refusal to be cowed by the conventional treatment of women in her time.  Many who shared her approach to life, and read her books, were working and/or raising families across the land.  Their daughters were the generation of women by whom many of us were taught - a generation which, to my mind, was unfairly underestimated by the feminists of the late 20th century.  The image of the submissive, air-headed household drudge was not always accurate. Many of the women who found themselves teaching in the1960s would today be running companies, or ruling the country.  We were very lucky to have them as teachers, wherever we went to school.  That’s a subject I may return to in another blog, soon.

PS A note for those who remember my earlier post about Catherine Sinclair.
I did go to her memorial on the 150th anniversary of her death.  It was a very rainy day. I laid some flowers, and my fellow author, Vivian French placed a little doll there, in honour of her books for children.

Sunday 24 August 2014

FINDING 'ALIENOR': The Journey so far by Elizabeth Chadwick.

 It doesn't seem a minute since I was sitting over lunch with my agent and editor discussing my next project, which we decided would be three novels on Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Her life story had been on my radar for quite some time while I worked on other projects in which she often appeared in cameo roles. The more mini performances she had, the more my curiosity grew and the more I wanted to write about her.  It didn't matter to me or my editor that a few other authors had recently written about Eleanor. She was their particular version, as was right, and mine would be mine - and very different.

Following on from THE SUMMER QUEEN, September sees the hardcover publication of the second book in the trilogy, THE WINTER CROWN and I am currently  working on the final book The Autumn throne. (we decided on a seasonal theme, although without the seasons in order and just three of them - like a gestation). How time has flown.  

So, how has it been for me and Eleanor so far? 

The first thing I did to make my Eleanor different to the majority was to change her name to Alienor, which is the French version and how her name was written and spoken in her own lifetime.  One source tells us it is supposed to mean 'Another Aenor' since Aenor was her mother's name. Another version (the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, written within 20 years of her death and from eye witness reports) says that it was an amalgam of 'Pure' and 'Gold'.  Personally I don't see why both cannot be correct. It wouldn't be the first time a double pun has been used. The bottom line was that I chose to go with the version of the name that was hers from birth.

Mural of hunting party in the chapel of St Radegone, Chinon. The middle
figure is said by some to be Eleanor of Aquitaine. Others say the figure is
probably male and represents the Young King with his three brothers.
photo courtesy of John Phillips.
I soon discovered when trying to find out what she looked like, that everyone had their own notions and that her biographers played fast and loose with the none existent facts and invented notions of her appearance either from their own fantasies or from enthusiastic but misplaced reliance on questionable evidence. You will hear it mooted that Alienor's visage may be viewed on a mural in the chapel of St Radegonde at Chinon, but such evidence is conflicting and far from proven with points argued for and against her identity as middle crowned figure.

Some biographers envisage her as a sultry brunette with a superb figure, others declare that she was a blue-eyed blond, and still others belive she was a green-eyed red-head. All of this is speculation without proof since no description of her colouring has come down to us.   A scrap of evidence exists in that she had a paternal ancestor named William 'L'Etoupe' which means 'Straw Head'  i.e. he had fair hair, but who is to say he passed it down to his several times great grandaughter?  Nevertheless,since this is at least family evidence, I have made my Alienor blue-eyed and dark blond.

Appearance was only the start of the dilemmas. There was Alienor's age when she married her first husband. Older biographies say she was fifteen. Newer research with better scholarship puts her at thirteen. Twelve was the age of consent for a girl in the Middle Ages, and so Alienor was within that parameter, but the difference between thirteen and fifteen, even though only two years is a telling one. Alienor is often portrayed as a sexy, controlling siren, in charge of her own destiny and able to wrap her seventeen year old first husband around her little finger. But when you look at it from the angle of her being thirteen, her father newly in his grave, and adult movers and players surrounding her like vultures round a kill on the plains of the Serengeti, then you have a very different scenario on your hands.

I found myself constantly having to make choices between opposing takes on situations that meant big changes for the way I portrayed Alienor. For example some biographers had her gadding off on the second crusade with wild enthusiasm - she couldn't wait to escape the stultifying confines of the French court. Others more conservatively suggested that actually she might rather have stayed at home and ruled France in Louis' absence and was in fact coerced into going.  There's no proof either way. I chose the path of reluctance for my Alienor because it seemed to better suit the person I was seeing as I read between, through and under the lines.

Another controversy - I think everyone agrees she was controversial - is the supposed affair she had with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers. I have spoken of this before, and you can read my take on the business here I would add that I am delighted that a recent biography of Melisande of Jerusalem, a contemporary of Alienor's, written by historian Sharan Newman, agrees with my take on the matter that it is highly unlikely  Alienor slept with her uncle.

Effigy head of Henry II. Cast Court version V&A
It was interesting when I came to the matter of Eleanor first meeting the future Henry II in Paris in 1151 where she and the 18 year old young Duke of Normandy are thought to have arranged a marriage alliance between them as soon  as her marriage with her current husband Louis VII was annulled. Biographers have speculated that they fell for each other in Paris and that it was lust at first sight, never mind the skulduggery of interesting politics.  I took a step back and asked myself about the situation. Alienor was indeed in the act of procuring an annulment from Louis (or he from her, depends who you read) and she would need to marry again in haste once the deed was done. A rich woman still of childbearing age and with vast lands to her name, could not remain unwed for long. Either by rape or by negotiation she would be a bride again on a very fast turnaround.

Effigy plaque of Geoffrey le Bel
The eighteen year old Henry came to court with his father to negotiate on various political issues. His father at the time was thirty eight and Count of Anjou. A man in the prime of his life, renowned for his good looks and education. Henry had been conceived when he was just nineteen years old. For decades he and his family had been trying to draw Aquiitaine and Poitou into their field of influence. Geoffrey had tried to betrothe Henry to one of Alienor and Louis's daughters some years earlier, but the plan had fallen through when Louis had turned the offer down. Now, here under their noses was a golden opportunity. My question is: Who actually brokered that marriage deal?  Geoffrey le Bel who was still head of the household, the pater familias and in charge of operations, or his 18 year old son, still in training, accomplished though he was? Here was a woman nine years older than Henry, a woman and queen with whom Geoffrey had been accustomed to dealing for almost 15 years. Alienor at that point was of Geoffrey's circle, not Henry's. She had been queen of France while Henry was still tied to his nurse's apron strings.  That they met each other and were not averse to the match is plain, and that they went on to  to produce at least 8 children during their marriage, some at relentless one year intervals, shows that they were compatible, but Geoffrey's very presence at the French court as head of his household and the past history of the Angevin counts to make that link with Aquitaine, tells a story of political wheeling and dealing that seems to me to be obvious, but often overlooked.

As a caveat, Geoffrey is said to have warned Henry against the match with Alienor, declaring he had already slept with her and therefore the union was blasphemous in the eyes of God, but I suspect that the chronicler in question was on a mission to blacken Alienor's name and call Henry into disrepute because he had quarrelled with him. I also think he may have got the wrong man, but that's a whole different path of speculation!  It stands to reason that Geoffrey, known to be eager for the alliance of Aquitaine and Anjou, would wholeheartedly approve the match. Of course, having an uppity older wife himself in the Empress Matilda, he may have cautioned Henry about just how to treat such a woman!

THE WINTER CROWN, the middle novel of my Alienor trilogy, covers Alienor's marriage to Henry II as far as 1174 when he brought her to what is now Old Sarum and imprisoned her there and thereabouts under varying degrees of house arrest for 15 years for her part in supposedly encouraging his sons to rebel against him. It has been a fascinating novel to write and the controversies and differing opinions surrounding Alienor have continued.  There's the view that she turned against Henry because he deserted her for his mistress Rosamund Clifford, but that doesn't hold water when viewed against Alienor's political astuteness and the fact that whores and concubines were a natural part of court life.  Far more likely to have driven her to oppose Henry, was his attempt to annex Aquitaine to England, Normandy and Anjou by underhand means. He marginalised her and he sought to undermine her power. That's what it was about, not a spat over a favourite concubine.
Then there's the suggestion that she ignored her children and wasn't much of a mother. Again, that doesn't hold water in terms of the fact that wherever she travelled she usually had at least two of them with her. While in the usual medieval aristocratic sense the children were attended by a plethora of wet nurses and carers to whom the children became attached, Alienor was generally there in the background somewhere.  How she and the children interacted and behaved with each other is not known, but all of them in their early lives at least had contact with her, except perhaps Joanna and John who would have been little more than toddlers when they were sent to Fontevraud while Alienor dealt with matters political. Even so she had contact with these youngest children at a later stage in their lives, giving sanctuary to one in a time of distress and need and fighting tooth and nail for the other.

I am now in the middle of the first draft of THE AUTUMN THRONE, the final novel in the trilogy, and wondering what other discoveries and controversies await me as I research and write. I am enjoying finding out, and going off the well worn paths to find fresh trails!

Saturday 23 August 2014

History and Bigotry, by Leslie Wilson

Paul von Hindenburg, one of the two generals
commanding German troops on 23rd August
1914 at Allenstein

A hundred years ago today was the start of the battle of Tannenberg. It was fought at Allenstein,(Polish Olsztyn), in what was then East Prussia, which is actually 30km away from Tannenberg but in the fifteenth-century battle of Tannenberg, the Teutonic Knights were defeated by the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania, and this battle was renamed in order to wipe out what was seen as shame.

In the 20th-century Battle of Tannenberg, the Second Russian Army was annihilated, and the subsequent Battle of the Masurian Lakes consolidated that defeat. It was also notable for being a battle in which trains were used to transport corps of German soldiers about; the Russians could not use railways, because their trains used a different gauge from German rolling stock. So technology entered the war.
I should be very surprised to read any mention of this in any of the papers today, or read that it would appear on any of the commemorative broadcasts, though it was strategically so important, and the human cost was so enormous (78,000 Russians killed or wounded, 12,000 Germans. 92,000 Russian soldiers became prisoners of war. The Russian general shot himself.) I have been looking at the schedules and not one that I have seen (readers of this blog are very welcome to point out anything I have not noticed) has dealt with the German experience of World War 1, though there have been many which have dealt with hitherto unnoticed contributors or combatants. But these are all on 'our side.'
I find this deeply depressing. I fear it only reinforces the old jingoistic stereotyping which has made the war something to be celebrated, (particularly by our current Prime Minister) as a war 'we' were right to fight, which validates current and future wars. It makes me think of the memorial I saw in a church in Dorset, which bore the quotation from the Bible: 'He who loses his life for my sake shall gain it.' The radical rabbi Jesus, who said: 'Love your enemy', would surely have been appalled by the suggestion that the mass killing of WW1 was done for his sake.
I would love to see the British exploring the German and Austrian experience of the war, while the Germans and Austrians look at what it was like for the British, the French and the Russians (and all the other combatants). This might begin to change people's mindsets and perhaps ward off further wars, with all the death and misery they involve.
In contrast to the Dorset memorial however, what I have seen on many visits to Germany is the transformation of war memorials, originally erected to glorify 19th-century military victories, into what is called a 'Mahnmal' or a warning memorial, complete with an inscription pointing out the evil of waging aggressive war. Clearly, this is a reaction to the glorification of war in Nazi Germany, and the murderous bellicosity of Adolf Hitler (he was furious after the Munich agreement, for 'peace in our time' was absolutely not what he wanted).
Mahnmal in the Luebbener Hain National
Park in Brandenburg. The plate reads:
Millions of victims of two world wars
call for peace.
Photo: J-H Janssen
However, in spite of all the work that has been done, I was horrified to see that there was an arson attack on a synagogue in Wuppertal this July (the old Wuppertal synagogue was burned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938). The attack, and the hostile anti-semitism which German Jews are now suffering, is thought to be the work of Muslims (FREE PALESTINE was daubed on the walls), but nevertheless there seems to be a resurgence of anti-semitism among other Germans. Part of this may be the legacy of the Communist state, which dismissed the Holocaust as the work of 'the fascists' and thus never engaged with it, as eventually happened in the West. Be that as it may, Jews are being attacked and insulted again in Germany - but not only there, or even chiefly there. It is happening all over Europe and also in Britain.

Clearly, in an atmosphere where racism is becoming respectable again, prejudice against Jews will arise, as well as against Muslims, other Asians, Afro-Caribbean people, Eastern Europeans, and so on. But there is an anti-semitism that is not confined to extreme right-wingers; it can be heard among members of the liberal left.
It is 'justified' by the actions of the state of Israel in Gaza. Israel, according to this narrative, is a gigantic bully, supported by America, powerful, nuclear-armed, aggressive and murderous, and comparisons are even made with Nazi Germany. There is an assumption that all Jews, wherever they are, support all Israel's actions, or are responsible for them. Karl Sabbagh, replying in the Guardian letters page to Jon Henley's account of anti-semitism in Europe, says that since Israel describes itself as 'the Jewish state', 'Jews can hardly complain that the actions of the self-identified Jewish state are sometimes criticised as Jewish actions.'
Photo: Doronef via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving aside the crashing lapse of logic in this statement, it does typify this kind of anti-semitism. Jews, according to this argument, have no right to their own individual views and opinions; they must be judged by the actions of the Israeli government. So the Jew you see in the local supermarket is made responsible for the deaths of children in Gaza. And this kind of hostile (and simplistic) assumption is being made by people who condemn other forms of racism. Yet I know that many Jews (including Israeli citizens) are appalled by the bombardment of Gaza and have wanted ja just peace with Palestinians for years and years. 

What is needed here is a sense of history (though what I have been talking about is the last unrolling of a dismal historical scroll), for that image of Israel is itself a monstrous, deceptive construct of self-righteous prejudice. I know that many people (including some who write to the letters page of the Guardian) may dismiss what I am going to say as specious, yet it is not.
pogrom, Bialystock, 1906, by Henry Nowodworski

Zionism began as a result of the pogroms in Russia and the Dreyfus case, at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries; the state of Israel was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust and a war that was emphatically not fought for the Jews. The British, for example, were reluctant to take in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany (though most people believe otherwise) and though I was always told how horrified Britons were by the documentary about Belsen, I watched that documentary through, at the Imperial War Museum, and at no point in the commentary was it stated that the dead and dying people in the camp were mainly Jews. Anne Karpf writes extensively about this blanking-out of the Holocaust, post-war, in The War After. And no sooner was the war over than Mosley and his fascists were out on the streets of London, attacking London's Jews (many of them ex-servicemen) while the police turned away and did nothing.
Furthermore, the Nazis found eager accomplices in most of the countries they invaded; France, Hungary, Romania, Latvia, the Ukraine spring to mind. It is that historical indifference or murderous hostility that fires Israel's determination to defend herself. And as soon as Israel came into existence, its neighbours declared war on it, and many of them are still determined to wipe it out. To be an Israeli has been, from the outset, to be the object of attack, and it helps nobody to dismiss that fact.
This is not to deny the historic and present suffering of Palestinians. For what my personal opinion, as an outsider, is worth, I wish all success to the enormously courageous organisations which have spent years working to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Some of these have been set up by people who have lost loved ones in the conflict, and are still prepared to enter into dialogue with their counterparts on the other side. We hear little about these initiatives in the newspapers, just as, during the Northern Ireland conflict, the media told us little about the work of groups and individuals, without which the peace process would have stood little chance.
Daniel Barenboim wrote movingly in the Guardian last month: 'Only through trying to understand the other side’s plight can we take a step towards each other.' Those of us who stand outside the Middle Eastern conflict should surely consider the plight of Israelis as well as Palestinians, and Barenboim's words also apply to the WW1 commemorations, for the heirs of the conflict should surely do all they can to learn about and understand the plight of all participants in that horrific tragedy.

Friday 22 August 2014

Art Lovers

It ought to be illegal for an artist to marry.... If the artist must marry let him find someone more interested in art, or his art, or the artist part of him, than in him. After which let them take tea together three times a week.
EZRA POUND, letter to his mother, 1909

Thinking of this post, I did a search for 'art lovers' (with varied success), then 'writers and marriage'. Alarmingly, the first few posts suggested were not how gloriously creative life can be, but - to paraphrase - '41 Reasons You Should Not Marry Writers'. (Or Artists). 'Why Writers Should Not Marry'. 'A Spouse's Survival Guide ...' You get the picture. Which begs the question: what's so hard about being the partner of a creative person?

I'm just back from a recharging visit home, and a couple of literary festivals in Cornwall and Hampshire, talking about the inspiration for the first two novels. The idea of writing about a creative partnership in my next book is bubbling away at the back of my mind, and I was interested to notice again that none of the writers I met had partners who were writers or artists. Not one. Is it a case of when writers or artists pair up with their peers it can be very, very good - or totally disastrous?

I'm hoping people will offer up suggestions of successful pairings - creative and romantic partnerships fascinate me. Lee Miller and Man Ray, for example, whose brief relationship burnt out but left a great legacy of photographs. Shrugging off the mantle of surrealist muse, Miller went on to have an incredible career as a war photographer.

Hemingway's romantic life has inspired some wonderful novels lately - Paula McLain's 'The Paris Wife' and Naomi Wood's 'Mrs Hemingway.' 

Hemingway and Gellhorn

In 'Die letzten Tage des Sommers', just published in Germany, I wrote about the summer Andre Breton and his wife Jacqueline Lamba spent as refugees in the south of France during WW2, sheltering in a fishing shack in Martigues. Breton was the magnetic heart of the surrealist movement, Lamba a mercurial painter who was earning a living as a nude underwater dancer in Paris when they met. It was a passionate and equal pairing tested to its limits by the danger they faced during the war.

 Andre Breton

 Jacqueline Lamba (left) with Frida Kahlo

Kahlo and Rivera are another interesting pair - perhaps the secret to creative and romantic success is space (in their case, separate houses if not tea three times a week as Pound suggested). I'd like to think creative partnerships are about inspiration, challenge and support but perhaps finding balance in a relationship is difficult enough without throwing professional competition into the mix. 

How many truly successful pairings between writers, artists and musicians do you think there have been through history - who are your favourite art lovers?

Die letzen Tage des Sommers published August 2014 by Piper

Thursday 21 August 2014

Josselin by Imogen Robertson

I’ve been away on my holidays. This gives me the chance to put up a picture of the town I went to, Josselin in Brittany. Among other things, it has this magnificent castle.

You can read about it in detail here. The castle is still a private home - that of the Duke of Rohan - but during the summer months tourists are allowed in to the grounds and some of the main rooms on the ground floor. It is a rather wonderful place - that fantastic war-ready frontage looking out over the Oust - the river used to flow right along the castle walls until the Nantes-Brest canal was built - and on the inside a riot of renaissance stone work. 

There is also a lovely market every Saturday morning, an interesting and ancient church and a profusion of half-timbered buildings. 

So of course we had a wonderful time and I learned just enough about the history of Brittany to realise I really need to read The Discovery of France by Graham Robb again. 

Then there’s a second, personal layer of history overlaying our time there. My parents first bought a house in Josselin in 1989. It was a complete wreck - ‘épouvantable’ the estate agent whispered ominously, and I remember my Dad peering about the place on the day they signed the contracts saying ‘Oh Celia, what have we done?’ 

My brother, a student at the time, and I, celebrating my 16th birthday, thought it was marvellous. There were trunks in the attic with address labels still glued to them and shreds of purple wallpaper hanging off the walls. There were pans with some strange pottage preserved in the kitchen and plastic cladding hiding the 17th century beams in the living room. My Dad discovered while taking measurements for his plans that there wasn’t a single straight wall or right angle in the place.

Mum and Dad threw themselves into the reconstruction and rebuilding, taking off the modern facade to expose the half-timbering, taking down the barn in the back yard and getting rid of the wall paper (despite my protestations). I spent the following summer with my best friend, Emma, scrubbing the beams in the sitting room, and my 17th birthday polishing the floor in the same room. Mum and Dad found that the house opposite was going for a song and bought that too. I think they’d just run out of things for me to scrub. 

This summer was a bit special then - it marked 25 years since Mum and Dad bought the first house we had a big party to celebrate. Afterwards Mum said all their friends had been talking about what good French my brothers and I speak, but she said it with a certain air of suspicion, as if we’d been keeping it a secret. Mostly though the specialness came from having so much of the family there, we missed one of my nephews, Gregory who was working away in Belgrade, but the rest were all with us  - from Philip who is twenty-three and rather brilliant, to Tessa who is one and the only girl. She seems like a tough cookie though.  Darko looks like an elf and Ranko is very handsome and obsessed with his tan. Adam’s two sons, Dylan and Theo, made sure we played proper games every night - especially the werewolf one - and after a string of friends and boyfriends over the years, I distinguished myself by bringing a husband who sees cooking for 14 people as a really good time.

Places with which we have a long association hold a history that is both personal and universal. There is nothing, for instance, like walking by the Hotel du Chateau where Emma and I celebrated getting our GCSE results to trigger the sort of Proustian reactions so useful to any writer. There is nothing like then walking through the thickness of the castle walls to make you think of the teenagers celebrating their own small victories a hundred or five hundred years ago.