Saturday 31 January 2015

January competition

Our competition are open to UK readers only - sorry!

Please remember to email your responses to as well so that I can contact you easily if you win.

To win one of five copies of The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, our January guest, please leave an answer to the following in the Comment section below:

"Tell us what aspects of the enclosed religious life, whether as an anchoress or as a nun in an enclosed order, either appeal to or appall you." (You don't have to be female to enter!)

Closing date is 7th February. Good luck!

Friday 30 January 2015

Cabinet of Curiosities - the Blue and White Jar - Woman's Work? by Leslie Wilson

I found it in an antique shop; the wonderful Aladdin's cave of Stuart House which I always go to when I visit Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. My birthday was coming up and I knew immediately what I wanted as a present. When I saw it across a room crowded with porcelain and pottery, I thought it was Chinese, but when I got closer to it, I recognised that it was European. The mark suggests that it is, in fact, Delft, made by Pieter Adriaensz Kocks (it was sold me as a Pieter Kocks jar), which would date it between 1701, when Pieter took over the workshop from his father Adriaen Kocks, who became a director of the De Grieksche A factory in 1687. The factory produced tinware inspired by Kangxi blue and white porcelain.

I love blue and white pottery and porcelain, and also am very fond of the European ceramics that drew on the Chinese styles, like the Onion Design I mentioned in my blog about Germany: Memories of a Nation. I find the fusion between Eastern motifs and Western interpretation particularly pleasing, and so I was thrilled to be able to buy this piece - it wasn't as expensive as you'd suppose, perhaps because it is not perfect; there are little chips out of it here and there and the dog, or tailless cat - I'm not sure which, but a charming animal - who sits on the top of it is damaged. I don't care.

Being Delft, though it looks like porcelain, it is not - the secret of porcelain was still closed to the West when it was made. It is tinware, which means it is made out of pottery, whitened with a glaze based on lead oxide and tin, and that is what gives the porcelain-like milkiness.
At a speculative guess, I would say that it probably was produced towards the beginning of the Pieter Adriaensz period; this is based on the information I have gleaned (and I haven't been able to find out that much, alas) which suggests that later on the factory concentrated on Imari-style ware. My jar looks more like Adriaen's productions - it could, of course, be a fake, but I do hope not. It is certainly very beautiful and skilfully made. However, I do find the de Grieksche factory interesting, because after Pieter's death, only two years after he had taken over the business, 'he' continued to produce Delft ware, because his widow, Johanna van der Heul, kept the workshops going. I tried as hard as I could to find out more about that, but without success so far, so if any reader of this blog can point me in the right direction? I would be very pleased.

However, I turned to Alice Clark's invaluable The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women, and found that in England at least, shortly before my jar was made, it was quite usual for widows, and sometimes sisters, to take over businesses after their husbands' or brothers' death. Whether they actually did the work is another matter and harder to discover; however, I do seem to remember that intricate decorative work on chinaware has historically been done by women. It does make me feel quite strange to see that a piece of Delftware was 'produced by Pieter Adriaensz' at a period when he was already dead, and demonstrates all too clearly how women's work has become invisible in history. Indeed, it was from only one Internet site that I discovered about Johanna. I salute her, though, across the centuries. I hope my jar was produced under her direction.
Now, when I look at it, I don't see 'Chinese' but eighteenth-century interiors, where it sits on a high mantelpiece in some home probably much better-off than mine, originally. De Grieksche made items for King William and Queen Mary at Hampton Court, and I have read in one source that the more European designs, which the flower-panels on mine seem to be, were produced for the British market. The grooves were made by drawing fingers down a pot made on the wheel; sometimes I put my own fingers in them and imagine I am touching the fingers of that long-ago workman (or woman even?).

I do wonder who owned it before me - it is a constant fascination to me, since I shall almost certainly never find out - and I love to imagine. It may have been made and brought to England in William of Orange's last year of life, or else in the reign of Queen Anne. It connects me to those times, across three hundred years, and is very beautiful. It sits now opposite my Meissen vase, behind a  studio glass scent bottle my husband bought me in Paris - on receipt of which I stood, as I did when I was given the Delft jar, speechless and breathless with excitement - and beside the blanc-de chine Kuan Yin, dating from the mid-20th century, that I found in an antique shop in Hollywood Road in Hong Kong. They all get on very well together.
PS: the colour on the last photograph is truer than the other ones, which come out just a little too blue. In fact, the colour exactly matches the blue of an antique Chinese snuff-bottle (Qing Dynasty) that I also possess.

Thursday 29 January 2015

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

Our January guest is Robyn Cadwallader, whose début novel, The Anchoress, is garnering enthusiastic reviews.

Photo by Che Chorley
Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous, prize-winning short stories,
poems and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a non-fiction book
based on her PhD thesis which explored attitudes to virginity and female
agency in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside the Australian
capital when not travelling to England for research, visiting ancient
archaeological sites along the way.

Robyn will be visiting the UK in August and September for the Edinburgh
International Book Festival and as a writer-in-residence at the Gladstone
Welcome, Robyn, to the History Girls and thanks for being interviewed long distance in Australia!

Mary Hoffman: As soon as the reader realises that this is the story of a woman enclosed for life in a small space there is a feeling of claustrophobia. Did this give you any pause as a writer?

Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, it did give me pause in terms of crafting the story, but I knew that it was essential — not only as an idea, but as a vividly felt experience for Sarah and for the reader. One of the first things that drew me to telling this story was the fascinating and, in some ways horrific, idea of a woman being shut away for the rest of her life in a stone cell. What would it be like to have light only from an oil lamp and candles, and to have such a small space — nine paces by seven — to live in? Enclosure and the attempt to shut out the world is the essence of Sarah’s commitment, so it was key to what I had to convey. It is such a different kind of experience from what we know today, and so I worked really hard at keeping the balance between evoking the claustrophobia and not overwhelming the reader.

 I also recognised that the claustrophobia of the cell could mean that the story as well was shut down — just like Sarah, with nowhere to go. But the more I ‘sat with’ Sarah, and imagined her cell, built next to a church, her maids, her visitors and her confessor, the more the story began to take shape and tell itself.

MH:  And yet you found ways of “bringing the outside in.” Tell us something about the different ways in which you did that.

RC: As soon as I read about anchoresses, I began to wonder what it would be like inside that cell, in a space with small windows that are covered, so that the sense of sight is severely restricted. It seemed to me that by limiting one sense, the others would be enhanced. Inside her cell, each taste of her simple food would be clearer, the few things she touched would be more vivid, and the sensations of her body would be heightened. Even though there is stone between her and the world outside, I imagined that she would develop an acute sense of the smells and sounds of the village around her.

This would be especially so because anchorholds were attached to a church, and at the centre of town or village life, in physical and in social terms. Apart from services and religious feasts, meetings would be held in the church, and sometimes, it would be the place for a private tryst. Sarah would hear it all through the small opening between her cell and the church wall. Outside the church on the village green, people would celebrate the many rituals that structured their year, from May Day to the harvest Lammas to Michaelmas. In many ways, Sarah is in the centre of village life, and it comes to her, albeit on the other side of the walls of her cell.

Although she is enclosed, visitors (only women and clerics) come to the tiny parlour window to speak to her and bring news of the world outside the cell. As she tries to understand and empathise with the women, she begins to imagine their lives, even though she hasn’t even seen their faces. Maud, in particular, brings in the daily experience of work in the fields in a very detailed way, from ploughing to the seeds beginning to grow. She and the other women reveal the life that goes on in the village, and their requests for prayer help to further draw Sarah into their experience. Louise and Anna, Sarah’s maids, are also a key line of connection to the village.

MH:  You have unequally alternating chapters headed Sarah and Ranaulf. Why did you decide to tell Sarah’s story in the first person but Ranaulf’s in the third?

RC: I experimented with telling Sarah’s story in third person, but I realised very quickly that in order to convey the sense of enclosure, of being so thoroughly inside the walls, she had to tell her experiences first hand. Everything else then had to be outside. That included her relationship with Father Ranaulf, her confessor, who comes to hear her confession once a week.

One way of ensuring the interiority of Sarah’s experience was to write Ranaulf’s chapters in third person. While I thought that Ranaulf’s life in the priory would provide relief from the limits of the cell and Sarah’s first-person account, I decided to write it in limited third-person: to restrict the narrative to his experiences and encounters. I did this, in part, to maintain something of the atmosphere of claustrophobia — that is, while Ranualf’s chapters offer, as it were, some fresh air and light, I didn’t want them to ‘burst out’, either in tone or in scope.

MH:  The most famous anchoress in the UK is probably Dame Julian of Norwich but she comes a whole century after Sarah. Is there a nod to her in your book? You name Sarah’s church as Saint Juliana.

RC: I have read some of Julian of Norwich’s writings, but I deliberately did not read them while I was writing, in order be sure that Sarah remained entirely of my imagination.

The church in the novel isn’t named after her, but it is named after one of the most popular saints in England at the time, St Juliana. Her story, along with the stories of St Margaret, St Juliana and St Catherine, were bound with the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule for Anchoresses, and provided as devotional material for some anchoresses in thirteenth-century England. St Juliana was a virgin martyr who was killed because she refused to marry, even though the Devil sent a demon in the likeness of an angel to deceive her, telling her that she should give up her virginity (Sarah makes a brief reference to her when she first hears from Agnes). I found the story of St Margaret — a woman who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out its back, becoming the patron saint of women in childbirth —so intriguing that I wrote my PhD about it. It was through my research that anchoresses captured my imagination.

MH:  Is Sarah a nun? Do you have to be a nun to be an anchoress?

RC: In 1255, while there were many ways for men to be involved in the religious life, opportunities for women were limited. Sarah could really only become a nun if her family could afford to pay the dowry. She could become an anchoress if the bishop approved, and if she could find a patron who would provide for her physical needs. A patron would willingly ensure that an anchoress’s physical and spiritual needs were provided, in return for her prayers — a kind of spiritual insurance for those who could afford it. Anchoresses were highly esteemed.

For holy women, the emphasis was on enclosure from the world, while for men, a vocation could lead to an active position in society, including political power, money and status. Some men became anchorites, but they were not necessarily permanently enclosed in a cell.

MH: The book was full of new words for me. Some like “squint” are guessable; others like “corrody” are very specific medieval legal terms. Did you consider putting a glossary in the finished book?

RC: I was aware that there could be words that are new to readers, but I included them because I wanted to keep the sense of unfamiliarity that they created. Although many of the issues in the novel resonate with our lives today, the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).

MH: I found it hard to visualise the arrangement of rooms in relation to the church; It would have helped to  have a diagram.

RC: Sarah’s experience of the cell is the heart of the novel and I considered long and hard how to draw the reader into how that space felt for her. The god’s-eye view of a diagram would have given an objectivity that would have counteracted that. I felt it was important that the reader’s first encounter with the cell was through Sarah’s own exploration of it. The texture and shape of the stones, the squint, the darkness, the straw or her curtain, are where the real story lies.

MH: Are Sarah’s motives for enclosure more spiritual or more because she fears marriage and childbirth?

RC: Sarah’s motives for enclosure are complex and not completely clear to her. It seems to me that this is a very human and real quality, and motivations are rarely, if ever, simple and easily labelled. Spiritual desires do not, I believe, exist on a ‘pure’ plane, but involve our physical, mental and emotional being as well.

MH: At the beginning of the story, Sarah and Ranaulf clash. Do you think they understood each other at the end?

RC: Sarah is singularly unimpressed with Ranaulf when he replaces the avuncular priest who had been her understanding and supportive confessor. For his part, Ranaulf, who is a scribe, resents the interruption to his time with his books, and is unsure how to counsel a woman, even a holy one. Their disagreements are both profound and trivial, but each of them develops as a result of their encounters. Their relationship is an ongoing and developing one, and in many ways, at the end they’ve just begun to lay the foundations for communication.

MH: Is this “women’s fiction”? The focus is very much on what a woman is, in relation to a man, whether she is a creature of sin and temptation or a flawed version of the male.

RC: The novel is an exploration of the experience of one woman, and my aim has always been to honour the woman who made the choice to be enclosed — a choice that might seem to us strange and weird. It’s true that theological, philosophical and medical thinking of the time considered women only in terms of the male, and although this is important context for the novel, the narrative shows an alternative way of understanding ‘woman’. I have never intended to say, ‘but in this (male) world, there were some interesting women’, but ‘ in this world, there were men and women, and this is one woman’s experience’.

I don’t think the term ‘women’s fiction’ is a helpful one because we don’t speak of man’s fiction; to do so is to speak of woman in terms of a man and continue patriarchal thinking. The novel is historical fiction / literary fiction and I hope people will read it and enjoy it. It may be that more women read it, but that is more likely to be because stories about men are thought to be universal, while stories about women are treated as domestic and specific. And stories about holy women locked in small cells may be seen to be very, very specific, although I think this particular one is universal in its themes.

MH:  Is Hartham a real place?

RC: Sarah is completely a product of my imagination, and so I decided that all the places mentioned in the novel should not refer, as far as I could tell, to real places. I discovered after I had finished writing the novel that there is a place called ‘Hardham’; perhaps I knew it, and adjusted it a little, perhaps not!

MH:  There is a magical realist thread in the novel with the sense that the bones of Agnes, an earlier anchoress buried in the same cell can cause physical wounds to Sarah’s body and influence her mind. This felt a bit like early Hilary Mantel. What was your thinking about this?

RC: There are some fascinating ways that magical realism can express and explore the more liminal aspects of mind and body. At the beginning, Sarah knows that Agnes was a holy and revered anchoress who once lived in the cell, someone she should emulate. When Sarah discovers that Agnes’s bones are buried beneath the floor where she kneels to pray, the memory and the presence of the holy woman take on extra power. That becomes rich ground for all kinds of extra-ordinary and psychological exploration.

Thanks! That was really interesting. 

I have been pondering why it is that historical fiction tends to be more often written (and read?) by women, even when the subject is male. What do our readers think? And you'll have a chance to win Robyn's novel on 31st January.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Memory and Humanity, by Clare Mulley

In 1939 Dame Stephanie Shirley’s father, a distinguished German judge, tried to prepare his daughters for a new life in England by teaching them some useful phrases. ‘Slow-combustion-cooker’ was one. Another was ‘wined-screen-wiper’. Stephanie was five years old; her elder sister, Renate, was nine. The girls were leaving Vienna on one of the kindertransport trains bringing Jewish children out to London Liverpool Street Station. They did not know anyone else, they did not even know how to ask for the loo, but they made it to England, sleeping on corrugated cardboard laid out the floor, or sometimes in luggage racks, occasionally frightened by interruptions from uniformed guards, and remembering above all the oily smell of the sea and the nauseous night crossing. When they arrived at Liverpool Street station, ‘we spilled out, speechless and wide-eyed, as if in a dream’. Each child had a luggage label around their neck, as if they were lost luggage, ‘which in a sense we were’, she says.

Stephanie in the 1940s
(Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley)

Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Red Army - now Holocaust Memorial Day - and Dame Stephanie was speaking at London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust archive, under the theme of ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’. For Dame Stephanie, memory has proved complex. Arriving at such a young age, her memories of her journey and arrival are emotional as well as factual. Was the platform really silent, as she remembers but now doubts it could have been? Were the trains really sealed, as she has read, although she recalls one boy being repeatedly sick outside?

Dame Stephanie Shirley, Weiner Library, London
for World Holocaust Day 2015
(Courtesy of the Weiner Library)

More than this, while Dame Stephanie vividly remembers her father’s last attempts to teach them a little English, perhaps as much as a distraction during their desperate farewell as anything else, she found that in England she soon ‘deliberately forgot’ her German. She quickly bonded with her warm foster family, her aunty and uncle – people who did not know her but had saved her and her sister, and who joyfully took on the role of parents. Brought up within the Church of England, she now has no faith. Incredibly, both her Jewish father and Gentile mother survived the war, but although Dame Stephanie spent time with them individually, she did not live with them again. In 1951, she and her mother adopted an English name when they took British citizenship – choosing Brooke after the quintessentially English poet. ‘I found that name change empowering', Dame Stephanie says, and so much did she inhabit her new name that once, when post arrived under her German name, she had reached the second flight of stairs to her apartment before she realized it was meant for her. As an adult she even found herself giving 1939 as her date of birth on official forms, ‘entirely subconsciously’.

Since then Dame Stephanie has taken steps to remember her past. She, her sister and mother returned to Vienna to meet old friends. Their mother had sentimental memories of the city, but Dame Stephanie found strangers asking her whether she was from the camps - so rare was it to see a Jewish face. At that point she knew that Vienna meant nothing to her, and ‘felt the weight of the past vanish’. She and her sister passed time wondering, as people walked by, ‘what were you doing when they threw stones at me’.

Dame Stephanie vowed to make hers ‘a life worth saving’. Brilliant at maths and business and fascinated by computers she set up a pioneering software company. Seeing the numbers of women now out of work, she promoted innovative home-working and flexible hours for an all-female workforce. She gave 25% of her company to the team, and they built it together, until in 2001 many were millionaires and Dame Stephanie herself was on the Sunday Times female rich list, just a few places below the Queen. She is no longer on that list. She reinvested over £15 million in IT and donated £50 million to autism organizations, following the death of her only son who was autistic.

Dame Stephanie is proud of her Jewish heritage but chose to become aligned not with refugee organizations or Jewish groups, but with IT development and autism, the passions of her life. She has chosen her own identity, but that does not mean she wishes to forget her past or has a simplistic view of who she is. When asked why she did not choose to live in Israel she has replied that she is not Jewish. When asked why she does not visit as a tourist, she says she feels she cannot go as a tourist because she also is Jewish.

Dame Stephanie says her terror of persecution was deep-rooted. For a long time she felt such hatred, bound up with survivors’ guilt, that she could not revisit her past. But although seeing images of Auschwitz are still almost more than she can bear, last night she said that, ‘Germany has made impressive efforts to come clean with its Nazi past’ and ‘it is precisely for people like me to reach out’.

Dame Stephanie's autobiography, Let IT Go
(Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley)

It is important both to honour the memory of those killed, of those who resisted, and those who had no such opportunity, and also to work towards preventing the repetition of atrocities. Another former kindertransport veteran at the Wiener Library event told me that Hitler had been encouraged by the lack of international memory of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Remembering makes repetition less possible.

Dame Stephanie's life talks of courage, determination, identity and above all humanity. Asked about growing anti-Semitism she talks also about rising anti-Muslim feeling, and her opinion that that some politicians are doing Britain ‘an enormous disservice’ by pushing anti-immigration. ‘My own belief,’ she told me at the end of the talk, ‘is that people are people, and most people are just trying to get on with their own lives’. What we need to do is take small steps against intolerance.

Not so long ago, Dame Stephanie, now in her 80s, was driving through the countryside when she saw a large swastika painted on a barn. Her first reaction was horror, a rush of painful memories. Her second was to find the farmer and explain how this graffiti made her feel, and how important it was to get it removed. The farmer did not consider it his responsibility. She then went to the local police station with similar lack of result. Finally she bought a large tin of paint, got up at 4am the next morning, and went and painted over it herself. I will remember her example. 

Tuesday 27 January 2015

A Tiny Nautical Quiz, by Louisa Young

I have sealag, or jetlegs, or both, or vice versa . . .  I have been sailing, far away, and I am swaying mildly at my desk as I write this. Forgive me if it comes out jumbled. My arms ache and though tanned and wild-haired I am also covered in the inexplicable bruises of a rowdy passage and quite a long night sail.

Several questions came up in the course of the voyage, and we decided, as we lay about on deck, or  drinking rum below, late at night, that rather than googling we would use the old-fashioned, the historic, way of gathering information.

'And what is that?' the younger reader inquires.

'Oh child,' we answer. 'Long ago, before the mighty Google, if we didn't know something we used to ask each other, and, if nobody knew, we would make it up.'


Q1: What is grog, actually?

Q2: Why is St Lucia the Helen of the Caribbean?

Q3: What are the Pitons? Very small volcanos? Very picturesque slagheaps?

Q4: Was Josephine black?

Q5: Did she actually have free passage for all the roses she bought from an English supplier? And was the French navy really under instructions to confiscate all seeds and seedlings and plants it found on English vessels, on her behalf?

Q6: What happened to Josephine anyway?

Q7: And what happened to Emma Hamilton?

Q8: Would you sail the Atlantic?

Q9: How do you pronounce Bequia?

Q10: Is this an orange, a lime, a lemon, or what?

Q11: Why is that called a Bimini?

Q12: Who was the only woman to sail with the Argonauts?

Q13: Are there any place names more romantic than Soufrieres and Malgretoute?


1) Undrinkable bilge-water rendered drinkable by the addition of lime juice and your naval ration of rum.

2) Because she was passed from hand to hand so often between the English and the French. Seven times, to be precise, in the 17th/18th/19th centuries.

3) Volcanic plugs, like King Arthur's Seat. Only pointier.

4) No.

5) Yes.

6) He put her away; and she died before the wars were over.

7) The country wouldn't recognise her, and she took to drink, and brought up her daughter in a sort of mirror image of what so often happened. Emma admitted that Nelson was the girl's father, but not that she herself was her mother. So young Horatia never really knew.

8) Yes, but then you'd wonder why you bothered. It is however only possible to wonder why you bothered after having done it. Rather like University. (NB: I have not sailed the Atlantic.)

9: Beckway.

10. Hmm. Don't know. It smells like an orange but it's green. Put a slice in the rum, anyway.

11: Because it's a cross between a bikini and Rimini. (No it's not. It's a sort of fitted maritime canopy, a sunshade like on the surrey with the fringe on the top, only on a boat. Perhaps it was invented in Bimini, which we think is in Cuba. Or Florida. Something to do with Hemingway, and fishing anyway. The Bahamas?)

12: Atalanta!

13: No, except perhaps Finisterre.

Overall lesson learned:
Never trust a seafarer's version of events. They know nothing. They come back with no proper historical accuracy and just give you a load of all my eye and Betty Martin. Which is from the Latin prayer much used by Portuguese mariners: Ora pro mihi Beato Martine - pray for me, Blessed Martin, St Martin being the patron saint of taverns and landlords and reformed drunkards. Or perhaps not.

I should probably go to bed.

Monday 26 January 2015

JE SUIS CHARLIE Carol Drinkwater

I am writing this ahead of my regular blog date because I will be away on a work commitment and possibly without internet. Much could happen between today and the 26th...


This month of January has been a tragic opening to the year of 2015. One of the murdered Charlie Hebdo team collaborated with my husband on a film proposal quite recently, so we feel the loss personally.

For twenty-two years here at our Olive Farm in the south of France, we employed an Algerian gardener whose family name I gave in my series of Olive Farm books as “Quashia”. In fact, his real family name is Kouachi. “Quashia” is a man I have described as owning a passport stamped direct to heaven. His heart is huge and his soul is just. He is a practicing Muslim who doesn’t smoke or drink, although he indulged in both when he was younger, and who has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When his eldest son was killed in a car crash some years ago, he wept in my husband’s arms. When one or other of his daughters or daughters-in-law gave birth to yet another of his thirty-three grandchildren, we celebrated with him. When one of our farm dogs died, he dug the grave with Michel and together we grieved the creature’s loss.

When his carte d’indentité needed renewing Michel accompanied him to the immigration offices because in this high-percentage Le Pen area of France the officers are not always known to be gracious to the Arabs. When “Quashia” had an accident, I drove him to the hospital and sat with him in Emergency until they were ready to treat him and then I signed myself as his local next of kin to allow him to be released from the hospital. When one of his comrades died and he was helping to raise the money to have the body returned to its family in Algeria, we, of course, chipped in.

“Quashia” is family. Now that he has finally retired, aged eighty-two, and returned to his wife and children in his Berber village near Constantine in Algeria, I miss him deeply. Every day, I hear his laughter.
Imagine my horror then as I watched the events of early January play out. “Quashia” has five sons. Dear God, I was praying, please don’t let these murderers be related to our man. Of course, they were not. The two Kouachi terrorist brothers were Parisian born, runts of a society that does not always make it easy to be Maghrebian and unemployed here, does not pave the way for immersion...

On 11th April 2007, I landed in Algiers intending to travel the length and breadth of the country alone questing the history of the olive tree. 

As I was leaving the airport, chaos ensued. I assumed it was the usual state of affairs. In fact, Al Qaeda had bombed the offices of the prime minister in Algiers and then set off another bomb close to the airport. The death toll was frightening, shocking. The phone lines were all down. I couldn’t get a signal, couldn’t ring home to let Michel, my husband, know that I was safe because for sure he would have heard the news and would be concerned. I was meeting up with an Algerian historian working at the university who also happened to be a beekeeper. His contact details had been given to me by our beekeepers back here on the farm. Finally, he and I managed to locate one another and he drove me directly out of town south of the capital to lunch with the man who was the president of Algeria’s national beekeeping society, a vast network. The three of us sat together in a restaurant in the middle of what seemed to me to be nowhere, drinking soft fizzy drinks and eating grilled Halal lamb and chips.

I suppose you will go home? the president sighed.

The truth was I was still digesting this Algerian welcome and had not considered my immediate future. All I knew for certain was that I had a book to complete, a Mediterranean journey, and that no other modern travel writer had included Algeria in their itinerary. I really wanted to make this leg. Paul Theroux skipped Algeria when he wrote his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Pillars of Hercules. I was determined that I wouldn’t. And I am a woman. An even greater coup, I had been smugly reckoning. Monsieur Le Beekeeping President and the historian talked me through modern Algerian politics: before, during and most importantly after their exceedingly bloody war of independence with France. It was a sobering afternoon.

The bottom line was, they said, they needed me.

Need me?

You can be a witness to what we are living through. You can take what you see out of Algeria and help us. We need a life line, a voice.

The two men struck a deal with me. If I agreed to continue with my planned month-long trip they would guarantee hospitality and, as far as they were able, my security. It was a madness to accept, to stay on. American Express who serve as my travel insurance declared the country a high risk zone. This meant if I stayed on of my own accord, I was travelling without cover.

I stayed on.

I was parcelled east across the country and then south towards the Sahara always staying with beekeepers, many of whom have remained friends. My book, The Olive Tree, recounts my experiences of that extraordinary month, unforgettable and very challenging, so I won’t re-narrate those chapters here.

I am mentioning the experience now in the light of these recent events in Paris.

There have been so many articles written over these last few days, so many opinions set out, which is as it should be. We, in Europe, are exceedingly fortunate to live in countries where freedom of speech and debate are essentials; food for our daily lives. For others, this is not necessarily the case. Algeria is a land in question. Algeria is still reeling from over one hundred and fifty years of French colonialization and before that Ottoman rule. The vast landmass of desert, mountains and coast, that is a nation of Berbers more than Arabs has not yet established its own post-colonial identity. This has left it wide open to the fanatics.

I am reading articles everywhere saying that Muslims worldwide if they are TRULY peace-loving Muslims MUST speak out now against the horrors that have been perpetrated in recent months. We all must speak out, of course we must, but such a command is simplistic.

South Africa is an example where at least two generations suffered from lack of education because education was not provided for them. The same is true in countries such as Algeria where the French colonials took the best pickings and left little opportunities for the indigenous people, where many of the colonials treated the local people cruelly and seeded resentment, hatred. The same was true in my own land of Ireland. Catholics under centuries of British rule were forbidden education and we know how long it has taken to sort-of iron out that complex legacy.

I am sometimes accused of being soft, hippy, peace-loving... yes, I am all of these. Most importantly, I believe in dialogue and education and taking responsibility. I think we need to look, to penetrate, to understand the seeds of this Islamic fanaticism. We need to understand that millions of Islamised peoples are ignorant of what is really going on. They are just being fed violent shortcuts.

When I penetrated the sandy wilds south of Constantine to villages and settlements where herders trudged the desert distances alone with their beasts, where young boys received no education and had no future and were facing the same illiteracy as their grandparents, I passed many Al Qaeda bases on my way to nowhere, to where the winds roared and the sand whorled. How simple, I thought back then, to lure these boys with promises of a future, offering them the opportunity to make their mark as martyrs to a cause, offering a false spiritual wealth to their closed-in impoverished lives, offering their families a little money to help them along and the assurance that their offspring would, for the first time in centuries, be educated.

I don’t have any simple answers. I can only ask questions, point at unresolved situations, attempt to understand some of the complexities.


I feel these murders acutely, this attempt at destruction of freedom of speech and of expression, the mindless loss of talented work colleagues, but I also believe that if we don’t begin to take responsibility, everyone of us, for the ignorance, the lack of direction these murderers have lived with, we give the word to the fanatics and lost forever will be the path to dialogue. 

The 11th January demonstrations all across France have proved that this nation will stand up proudly for its right to freedom of speech. Three and a half million people on the streets, and no skirmishes, in the biggest national demonstrations this country has ever known.

‘Paris is the capital of the world,’ said our President Hollande. ‘Our entire country will rise up towards something better.’

There was barely a dry eye in the house, as we say in show business.

But this is just the beginning.

What I hope now is that we all begin to ask ourselves in which ways we can reach out to those who are disenfranchised, to the nations who are cut off from the west, to provide education and opportunities for those who live amongst us and are lost. The outer suburbs, for example, where the Kouachi brothers were brought up would be a very good place to start to turn fine words and sentiments into actions. 

What do you think or hope for from this experience?

PS: I have used "Charlie" photos taken from the internet and I could not find names to credit to them. I apologise for using others' copyright. If anyone knows who took these images, I will happily credit them.

Sunday 25 January 2015

WHAT A CAREER by Eleanor Updale

One of the joys of the Internet is how quickly we can now answer questions that we would once have parked in the back of our minds - even when all the libraries are closed.  Here’s a chain of discoveries I made over Christmas.  It all started with a board game, and it led me to a very interesting 20th century man who turned out to share a lot with a 17th century natural philosopher about whom I once knew a great deal. 

For those of you who don’t know it, Careers is the best board game in the world

I’m talking here about the original 1950s version, not the feeble ‘updated’ editions of more recent times. We play using a set that has been in my husband’s family for nearly sixty years, and unlike its evil, boring, family-busting cousin, Monopoly, Careers never fails to generate laughter and good will.

The rules are pretty simple.  You go round the board according to throws of the dice, entering various careers along the way, trying to achieve a formulae of money, fame and happiness that you set for yourself before the game starts. 

The genius of the game is that it is impossible to tell who is winning until the victor emerges, and fortunes change rapidly, so you are always in with a chance.
One of the most amusing things about Careers is what it says of its own time.
Look at the Expedition to the Moon, for example, plotted out long before the era of space travel:

So the game is a bit of a history lesson for the younger members of the family.  It’s cheering to realise from the causal sexism throughout that feminism has achieved  something  since 1957: 'Gorgeous secretary. 4 Hearts'. But some things that raised a laugh a few years just back have reverted to their old status and no longer shock: In the University section: "Sweetheart has rich uncle. Draw 2 Opportunities". At the turn of the century we would have chortled at getting only £5000 for writing a successful book. Now it sounds like a pretty good deal.  And paying to get out of hospital used to seem strange.  Now you can imagine it being in someone's election manifesto.  But don't get me started on that...
For all its anachronisms, the game still captures something true about human beings and human society.  I wondered who had invented it, and it turned out to be a very interesting man, with an intriguing career of his own.

James Cooke Brown was born in 1921, and lived till 2000.  He was a sociologist, a civil rights campaigner, and above all an idealist.  He believed in the possibility of constructing a fairer society, and set to work devising methods by which that might be done. Shortly after the died, his publishers released The Job Market of the Future in which he foresaw a role for computers in a globalised world of work.

'I shall be bringing an inventor’s perspective to the solving of economic problems' he wrote. 'Blaming people who some might think had “caused" the problems is no part of the inventive process…all we need to know is how to solve them now - preferably with a solution that can remove their structural causes, and so have some chance of being a permanent solution.'

What James Cooke Browne proposed (to grossly oversimplify his theory to fit this space) was a new system for organising work - rebalancing the power relationships so that the person supplying the labour had control of its use.  The ultimate aim was to ensure security of employment combined with a living wage.

All this was prefigured in his even more fascinating book The Troika Incident, a  Science fiction novel published in 1970.

This book is interesting on two levels.  It looks forward to the world in 2070; but its immediate plot is set in 1975 which, at the time it was written, was still in the future.  So characters reflect on who won the Vietnam War (correctly diagnosed as ‘nobody’) and look back on the abandonment of conventional, and in particular nuclear, warfare in 1993 (oh well…) and to the arrival or a more equal society with enough money and plenty of sex.  The job market of 2070 would be a constantly shifting scene, where the least popular jobs were the highest paid.
It’s one of those novels you read for its quirkiness and background message rather than to find out what’s going to happen next - but it’s worth downloading it to one of the electronic readers whose invention James Cooke Brown predicted in this very book, back in 1970. 

For people who know about such things, James Cooke Brown is most famous for his tireless work to establish and develop a new universal language: Loglan

His motivation was (at least) twofold: the primary aim of facilitating universal unambiguous communication between people and between machines; and to test theories that our thinking is determined and constrained by the linguistic apparatus we use.
Obviously, Loglan has not taken over the world, but its exponents still exist, and there is a site you can visit to see how it works
By the way, history is hisri, and girl is nirli  -  but it’s much, much, more complicated than that, and I haven’t cracked all the rules that would enable me to say History Girls correctly.

Loglan may not yet have been a resounding success, either as a language in its own right, or as a tool for linguistic study, but it is an amazing achievement nevertheless, and it puts James Cooke Brown in good company.  One predecessor, who seems to have shared JCB's ability to drop the preconceptions of his day to enquire, invent and explain was the seventeenth-century academic and cleric John Wilkins.

Wilkins was one of the founder members of the Royal Society, who not only predicted space travel and a moon landing, but invented his own ‘universal language.’

Wilkins’s attempt was more phonetically based, and looks to the modern eye rather like shorthand, 
but his reason for developing it was very like James Cooke Brown’s.  Alas, much of the work for it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but Wilkins soldiered on.  Wilkins also had a profound effect on the way the Royal Society wrote about itself and its achievements, establishing a clarity of expression that survived until the deliberate self-aggrandising obfuscation of specialists in the past century or so.

Across the ages, Wilkins and Cooke are brothers.  And what fun that Cooke’s board game, which has given my family such joy over the years, led me appreciate the link between them, and to find out more about a man who deserves to be better known.

James Cooke Brown photo: Marshall Anderson 

Saturday 24 January 2015

Alternative Research: The Psychic Strand by Elizabeth Chadwick

sun prism at Pembroke Castle, 
I use many research methods to weave the braid of my history stories.  I use primary sources in Latin and Old French (in translation when I can get them). I use a variety of secondary sources ranging from the work of academic presses to children's books. I visit locations, I research online. I re-enact with early medieval society Regia Anglorum to try and create a 3D feel for the words on the page.  And...I use the psychic.  Let me explain.

I need to take you back 30 years. At that time I was a young mum with small children. One afternoon, while attending a group set up for mothers and toddlers, I met fellow mum Alison King who would become a very dear friend and colleague. At the time I was a hopeful but unpublished author, and she was taking a job break to bring up her family. We hit it off and began meeting  once a week for a coffee and a chat at each other's houses while the children played together. Later, when our offspring had gone to school and we both had part time jobs, we still met up every week. Gradually as we got to know each other in more depth, Alison told me that she had awarenesses that I suppose you'd say come under the umbrella of being psychic. She could see auras and sense energies.  It's not the sort of thing you tell people until you get to know and trust them, because there is often  stigma, scorn and even hostility attached to such admissions and Alison, being soft, shy and unassuming, only told me once she had come to know me well.  I accepted it as part of who she was. I had an open mind even though I wasn't gullible and I had come to know that she was a very genuine person.

In the fullness of time I realise my dream and became a successful published author, and Alison, on her own path trained in Reiki and neuro linguistic programming (NLP) and became a therapist.  We began working together in the psychic sense quite by accident in 2004. I was writing my bestselling novel THE GREATEST KNIGHT and was about three quarters of the way through it when I went round to Alison's for our usual coffee and chat. She asked me how I was getting on with the novel and I said that it was going very well except that I was having difficulty finding out about the woman who had been the mistress of William Marshal's brother. I knew her name and had a few dates but that was about it. Alison in her therapy job had been dealing with clients who had had a traumas in the past and she had discovered that her abilities enabled her to tune in and go back to when that trauma happened and to work through it with them. She offered to go back for me and look for this lady, reasoning that if she could go back 20 or 30 years, then she could go back 800 or further. As I said at the beginning, I have an open mind, so I thought why not?  

Alison doesn't go into any sort of weird mediumistic trance when she accesses the information. She is fully awake and aware, although she may close her eyes the better to see what she is accessing.  She tunes in to the vibrational pattern of the past and what comes through to her are visuals, sights, sounds, smells and emotions the latter in particular. For her, it's like seeing a film but with full sensory perception and from all angles. She then relays back to me what she is experiencing. When I say full sensory input, that includes the smells and tastes of the time! I recall once she was with a character who was very hungry and impatient for his dinner. She could actually smell the good food smells that were making his mouth water but to make sure it wasn't coming from an external source, she made me go in the kitchen and check that my husband wasn't secretly cooking a casserole!

What came through in those 10 minutes was astounding. I didn't write it down, we were just sitting there over the coffee and biscuits and it was totally impromptu. At the outset Alison came across a lady swinging what she described as a bag on a string. 'Do you think she's drying lettuce?' Alison asked me - not knowing anything about the Middle Ages. I said I suspected the lady in question was actually swinging a hawking lure!   She proceeded to describe a meeting between this lady and William Marshal's brother that was detailed and fascinating. I was amazed and could immediately see how useful this ability would be for me the novelist if Alison was able to do this on a regular basis. The possibilities knocked the ball way beyond the boundaries.

We agreed to meet next week and have another go, this time perhaps going to William Marshal himself, and taking notes. Again, what came through was astounding. This is Alison's description of William Marshal from our first ever 'official' session we did.  I've followed it with some quotes from Professor David Crouch's biography of The Marshal 'William Marshal, Knighthood, War and Chivalry 1147-1219.'

I asked her to go to William Marshal in the spring of 1168 when he was in the entourage of his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and in the company of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Alison:  "He has incredible courage. He's like a bouncy castle: very buoyant. He's riding with a lot of highborn people. He's awed by them but not overawed. He feels as if he's in the right place. He has a good sense of his own worth. He's very flexible and alert, responds not just in a chitchat way but deeply and appropriately. He knows how to say the right thing at the right time and it comes easily to him. He's alert and all his senses are awakened. He has dark hair, long cheeks, strong nose. His clothes are intricate. His eyes look dark but inside they feel light. I'm seeing the youth and the older man mingled. It is difficult for others to gauge what he's thinking. He has very dark eyes: might be brown might be blue.
There is a woman laughing and William is making her laugh by telling her jokes about the English being loutish and stupid. It's probably Poitiers they are going to. The woman is Eleanor of Aquitaine (Alison has several stabs at saying Poitiers, and prompted by me. She was unsure how to pronounce it). 

Here's what David Crouch has to say on the character of William Marshal. (Alison didn't know any of this beforehand. All she had to work on was a name, date and a place).
"He was undoubtedly a big, healthy and prepossessing man, a fine athlete and horseman. This mixture of quick wit and hand made him as perfect a warrior as he was in time commander. The crown of his fortune was that he had an open face, a ready humour and an underlying alertness for his own advantage that made him as natural courtier as he was a soldier. The Queen of England, as good a judge of a male animal as might be found in mid 12th century France, was bound to be impressed. William's face was his fortune.'... With tact and a well bridled tongue he had no need to be a master of manoeuvre and dissembling. What for others was merely the carefully constructed outer mask was for him his natural disposition. His ambition rode easily beside his own disposition... He rose effortlessly, without needing to plot and subvert the position of others. His only danger was his own success.
And re the jests against the English: 'that the English were more fond of drinking and boasting and fighting was a routine insult thrown by the Norman French at their English cousins 12th century English writers took great exception to it... And Williams lying in self-deprecation is a very good example of this form of defence. He was filing down the teeth of persecution by jokes against himself.'

Alison's assessment of William Marshal was a wonderful character study and spot-on with history that I had already read but Alison hadn't. (there is more than the above paragraph but I've not included it here).  I accept that it could be coming from her imagination, or she could have been somehow plucking it out of mine, But it could also be the real deal. It all depends on what you believe. Whatever the source, it was something I knew I needed to tap into. What a fantastic strand to add to the research threads - a glinting gold line taking me straight back to the past. 

99%  of the time the history is spot on where it can be corroborated. For the minor percentage when the known fact and the psychic readings go awry, I take that as margin for error. If it's really weird I discard. If it goes against the grain but has some plausibility, it goes in the pending file.  There was the time Alison was accessing 12th century Lincoln castle for me and told she could see a tunnel.  I said there weren't any tunnels at Lincoln Castle.  6 months later this turned up. Tunnel at Lincoln Castle
It's always fascinating when Alison describes the people she sees. King Henry II 'never sits still.' She describes all his fieriness and energy and his red hair. Of course she could have got this out of a book or from general knowledge.  Knowing her, I suspect not, but it can't be ruled out. I remember her accessing William Marshal's second son Richard. With a delighted laugh of surprise she said:  'He's a lovely roly-poly lad with red hair.' Now we don't know what Richard Marshal looked like, but we do know that his maternal grandfather was a red-head and that the de Clare line was very busy with folk bearing that particular hair colour. It's circumstantial, but it's a great handle for me the novelist.

Since I had almost finished writing  when we began our journey, The greatest Knight, that novel only contains a few small sections from what Alison calls The Akashic Record - a handle name for the way she taps into the past.  But from that point every novel I have written has contained that golden weave throughout. I have friends in the historian community who have looked at the material and have told  me that what is being accessed is mediaeval culture and mindset. So wherever it comes from, I am delighted because getting the mindset right is one of  the holy grails of historical fiction.
Alison (left) with me taking notes at a session. This was a
few years ago - my hair is shorter now!

What Alison accesses for me helps me think outside the box for conventional research too.  It helps me shovel aside the detritus of secondary source opinions. While these can be enlightening some have a tendency to obfuscate and get in the way of clarity or be downright wrong. That is particularly true where Eleanor of Aquitaine is concerned. Her biographers have taken  a lot of liberties.  It was heartening to find that my research on Eleanor with Alison has paid dividends behind the scenes. Professor Michael Evans in his recent work Inventing Eleanor (Bloomsbury Academic)  has cited me as a novelist who follow the newer academic research and avoid the pitfalls of making the egregious mistakes garnered from the popular biographies.  If only he knew about my gold thread research and its contribution to my work!

Leaving Eleanor, here's an example from my research when I was writing a novel titled A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE  about William Marshal's father John and his chequered career during the anarchy between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. There was an incident described in a chronicle called the Gesta Stephani where, in 1140, a mercenary thug, attempted to take John's Castle at Marlborough away from him.  I was interested in the dynamics of this incident and asked Alison to go to it and see it from John Marshal's point of view.

Taken from my notes:

Elizabeth:  I want to look at a situation between John Marshal and a mercenary named Robert FitzHubert. In 1140, FitzHubert was serving Robert of Gloucester. FitzHubert made a surprise attack on Devizes castle, and took it for himself, renouncing his contract with Gloucester. Then he started looking around for others to conquer and his eye fixed on John Marshal at Marlborough. He approached John by way of intermediaries and mooted the notion that the two of them might join forces and carve up the surrounding area between them. John was suspicious but wanted to know what FitzHubert was really up to, so invited him over to Marlborough to discuss the situation. This is known history. Go to the meeting.

Alison: I can see parallel lines going upwards and light between them. I think it's a window in a church. It's very quiet and still. I get the sense that John is in a church thinking, praying, enjoying the stillness. He needs that stillness to be able to think. He is trying to figure out what FitzHubert's intentions are. He needs to work it out before FitzHubert arrives at Marlborough. He's given himself a good amount of time. He's figuring it out like you would in a chess game, working out all the possible moves FitzHubert could make and all the directions he could be coming from. John can see that none of them are good. A pact doesn't make sense for FitzHubert whichever way John looks at it. Now he's ruled out that perspective he has to work out what FitzHubert's motive really is, what he's trying to do. If he can do that, he can make his own response more effective. He has sussed out that the man is coming to threaten him, that the visit is going to be about threats and bullying. Alison sees a symbolic image of FitzHubert with a big sword pointing at John. 'Do what I say or else.'

 FitzHubert is an intense small, broad, thorough ball of muscle. John is cool about the notion of threat. He thinks 'Who tells me what to do? Certainly not this little worm.' He thinks he will fight force with force. He's figuring out which of his own men are going to look the most forceful. He will have them in the meeting with him and dressed in an intimidating way. He is going to put all his men on the alert and on guard. He will contain FitzHubert's men in the hall with guards at the door and he will make them disarm and promise them wine and nourishment after their long journey. He's going to instruct his wife to see that they are occupied. He's pleased with his plan and clasps his hands. 'Thank you God.' He lights a candle and leaves the church.

There is still quite a bit of time before FitzHubert arrives. John has something to eat and drink himself. He's relaxing in his chair with his dogs and discussing the above plan with his senior men in an easy way around the fire. They all know what they are doing. John goes to get himself ready. He instructs his steward to make the hall ready and goes to have a word with his wife. She agrees to do as he asks. She doesn't say a lot. She looks plumper than I've seen her before; she might be pregnant.
All John has to do now is wait. He sees to his equipment, inspects the men. He makes sure they know what they are doing by asking them. They are all in the areas where they should be and know what they're doing next. There are meeters and greeters at the hall door and they have concealed weapons or weapons where they can grab them quickly if needed.

The word has gone out that FitzHubert is coming. He arrives faster than he should i.e. at a gallop, but John stands his ground and FitzHubert has to rein in. John welcomes him as he dismounts and shows him where his men can go. He takes him to the private chamber for their discussion, and as the door closes, FitzHubert looks round and sees that as well as John there are two burley well armed men coming up the stairs behind them. John says 'Don't mind them, these are my subalterns.' FitzHubert swallows hard. He's been outwitted; he's left all of his men in the hall and he's on his own. He thought he was on strong ground. He thought that with everyone being so friendly, he was in a powerful position, but now he finds himself at a disadvantage and he doesn't like it.

John offers him wine and nibbles from the sideboard. It's not the sort of food a ball of muscle goes for. He's a doorstop sarnie type, but John is showing off his cultured and courtly ways and again putting FitzHubert at a disadvantage. Plus FitzHubert is hungry after his ride and this stuff won't even fill a gap, whereas John's already eaten.

John is now settling down. Let's have this chat then. What have you come to talk about?
FitzHubert starts his spiel. 'We're friends and neighbours. We might have things in common that we could investigate. Things we might be able to do together. Swap men for example. You lend me men when I need them, and I'll do the same for you.'
John: 'what advantage is there in that for me?'
FitzHubert: 'Well, if you wanted to take on something bigger than you normally would, you'd be able.'
John: 'why should I want to do that?'
FitzHubert: 'You haven't been able to do it before, but now you're in a position to do so: certainly I've thought about it myself.'
John raises his eyebrows. 'Have you indeed? And where would that be? '(knowing bloody well FitzHubert means Marlborough).
FitzHubert can't answer that one and looks away. He continues talking about ambition. 'Who knows where ambition takes us. Who knows where ambition is - but he doesn't say anything specific or definite.
John just says: 'Indeed, indeed, so glad I've met you. Enjoyable visit.'
Alison says she can see John giving FitzHubert a hug. He's saying 'We'll always be friends.' They go into the main hall and there's cheering and carrying on. John gets a nasty feeling seeing FitzHubert's men in his hall. He has a snarl his face. He doesn't like this at all. He's tempted to put something in the wine - pepper? Alison isn't sure if this is what he'd like to do or whether he actually does it. John leaves the hall, really disgusted. FitzHubert's men are getting very drunk and are incapable. FitzHubert thinks that he is a big man and in control. Basically John decides to imprison him. Wrap him up like a present. He'll make a valuable offering to someone. John's men are seizing FitzHubert's  and the latter is now thinking to paraphrase 'Oh shit.' He might be a ball of muscle but there's not much brain in there. John's wife isn't in the room when John orders the taking. She'd left before it got to that stage.
I asked Alison if John had intended arresting FitzHubert from the start but she said no. John was waiting to see what FitzHubert's plans were first. 

The history here is spot on. It's mentioned in a couple of pages in the Gesta Stephani and also John of Worcester, chronicles of the period that Alison certainly had not read when she reported on the episode to me.  What she told me, fleshed out these incidents from an emotional and motivational point of view whilst corroborating everything the chronicles say. 
Incidentally, after that John sold FitzHubert back to Robert of Gloucester, the mercenary's former employer for 500 marks.

From the Gesta Stephani:
"There was in the neighbourhood a certain John, a man cunning and very ready to set great designs on foot by treachery, in forcible possession of a very strong castle belonging of right to the King, named Marlborough.  Robert was anxious to gain possession of it, either because it was near his his own castle and conveniently situated, or because if that too were brought under his power he could more freely cause discord in the whole of England.  He sent word to John by intermediaries that he would make a pact of peace and friendship with him, that he wanted to ask admission to his castle for the sake of giving and receiving advice, that it was his intention to keep the pact unbroken and their harmony unimpaired. But John, perceiving that he made all these promises in the hope of surprising the castle (which was the fact), gladly and affably agreed to his requests, and after admitting him to the castle, shut the gates behind him and put him in a narriw dungeon...and falling with his men on Robert's companions, whom he had brought with him as accomplices of his treachery, he laid hands on some at once, captured them and imprisoned them with their leader, others he put to shameful and discreditable flight and compelled them to retreat all the way to Devizes."

Using this resource is like, I suppose, conducting journalistic interviews with the persons involved, except that one gets to see it from the inside to and with sensory input.

Truth vibrating along a wire from the past to someone who can access the signal or vivid imagination? Whatever one's take on it it's a marvellous resource for a writer of historical fiction to have in his or her toolbox.   I'm busy researching my third Eleanor of Aquitaine novel THE AUTUMN THRONE at the moment and the research with Alison is proving as fascinating, insightful and intriguing as ever.

Alison's website can be found here: Alison King