Saturday 28 February 2015

All About Ida, by Clare Mulley

This year’s Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film went to Ida, an extraordinary, haunting, Polish historical drama directed by Paweł Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The film follows the story of two fictional women. Ida is a young novitiate nun on the verge of taking her vows when she is directed to meet her only living relative. Wanda, her aunt, a deeply-damaged former Communist state prosecutor, curtly informs Ida that she is Jewish, ‘a Jewish nun’. The two then embark on an uncomfortable road trip into the Polish countryside and their own family’s devastatingly sad war-time past. You can watch the trailer here.

Universally admired for its expressive use of stillness and sparse dialogue, its stunning and original cinematography, and understated explorations of anger, grief, guilt, choice and national and personal identity, picked up a host of awards in Britain and Europe, before collecting its Oscar. And yet, the film has also proved to be controversial.

Ida is fictional narrative set in the Poland of the 1960s, and commenting both on the suffering inflicted by the Second World War, and the difficulties faced by those coming to terms with their loss, their actions, and the possibility of redemption. It is at once deeply personal and unavoidably political.

Some Polish critics fear that while the history behind Ida would be known and understood by most Poles, internationally the film might promote false stereotypes of Polish complicity and collaboration in the Holocaust. This is not an unfounded concern. Reports and documentaries sometimes still talk about ‘Polish concentration camps’ when referring to the Nazi German camps set up inside Nazi-occupied Poland, and Polish contributions to the Allied war effort, from providing the first German enigma coding machine, to vital contributions in campaigns in North Africa, Italy and even in the Battle of Britain, are often underplayed in the press, books and films.

At the same time, across the board, whether provoked by Tudor novels or Polish films, commentators are increasingly challenging the seemingly porous boundary between historical fiction and non-fiction, and the debatable responsibilities of authors and directors to convey not just the ‘truth’, but ‘the whole truth’, through their fictions. With painful recent histories such as the events and aftermath of the Second Word War, these tensions are all the more raw.

Me with Rebecca Lenkiewicz
at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden
(courtesy of Steven Larcombe)
A few months ago I was delighted to interview Ida co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz when she visited my local independent cinema, Saffron Screen in Saffron Walden. Previously best known as the author of Her Naked Skin about the suffragettes, the first original play by a female playwright to be performed at the Royal National Theatre, Rebecca is not unknown to either success or controversy.

As well as talking about the powerful minimalism of the script, the casting and cinematography, I asked her about the relationships in the film, not just between the two women, but between innocence and knowledge, honesty and concealment, and Poland and its past. ‘Poland has a complicated history with its past’, Rebecca replied. ‘Ida is the story of the tragic events around one family and its consequences. It is about unearthing knowledge, a meditation about love and loss. It's not a political statement. It questions faith and knowledge and tells a fictitious story that might well have happened.’

More recently, when I asked about the responsibilities film-makers have regarding historical accuracy and contextualisation, Rebecca emphasised that ‘it's important to be informed and to honour the subject, but fiction is not reportage. I would never feel comfortable attempting to write about an era or a real person without as much knowledge as I could garner before trying to recreate them. Research is one of the joys of writing. When you have some grounding then you have more scope to imagine.’

Ida director and co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski’s past work also rests on political themes, such as war, and deportations, but his focus has deliberately stayed personal. ‘Every good film is a bit like a dream,’ he told the BBC recently, ‘that’s what I usually aspire to, rather than some social document.’ 

Rebecca Lenkiewicz
taking questions at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden
(courtesy of Pawel Komorowski)

Opinion remains divided however. Interestingly, during the discussion after the film screening in Saffron Walden, the Brits and the Poles in the audience focused on quite different aspects of the film, and there was certainly some concern around the depiction of Polish history. Now Warsaw's Jewish Historical Institute has criticised the film for being anti-Semitic, and the Polish Anti-Defamation League has set up a petition, already signed by 50,000 people, asking Ida’s producers to state, at the start or end of the film, that:
  • Poland was under Nazi German occupation.
  • The occupiers conducted a programme to exterminate the Jews.
  • Poles hiding Jews risked the death penalty not only for themselves, but for their entire family.
  • Thousands of Poles were executed for helping their Jewish neighbours.
  • The Polish Underground State harshly punished those Poles who harmed Jews, and 
  • The Yad Vashem Institute recognises Poles as the largest group of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for helping Jews.

Since Ida won its Oscar I have been asked several times whether I think it is an ‘anti-Polish’ film. I do not. And, as an independent work of art, I do not think that it should have contextual facts imposed on screen before it starts, or after it finishes. A film, like any work of art, is always open to interpretation by its audiences, but it must remain independent if it is to have an authentic voice. Its own voice.

Ida may not explicitly state the loss of a fifth of Poland’s population, including three millions Jews, during the war, or the appalling dilemmas forced onto the surviving population. However, the pain and conflicts are built into the atmosphere and locations, and embodied within the characters, and the story encompasses both fear and courage, crime and compassion. This is a film stripped down; a film that implies far more than it says, and shows just how much more, less can sometimes convey. At the heart of Ida, both the film and character, is the question of how to deal with the past when it is uncovered and laid bare. That it has provoked such controversy around this very issue should be seen as a compliment. While I regret that many British people may not know the full historical context behind the film, I feel that Ida adds greatly to that conversation, and does so in the most elegant, thought-provoking whisper.

Friday 27 February 2015

Emma Homan, painted by John Bradley, observed by Louisa Young

I met this little madam at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She's American, a New Yorker; her name is Emma Homan, and she was painted around 1844. Look at her! She's two.

Look at her face: 

Her bracelet - her ring and her rose!

Look at her slippers - her pantalettes - her embroidered borders!

Look at her cat! It's in a rose bush. And it's quite clearly bonkers -

She was painted by an artist called John Bradley, one of those elusive characters who leave behind a common-enough name, some work, an address or two, insubstantial dates, and an air of mystery. Though he is thought of now as an American painter, there's reason to think he was originally English: he signed himself as being from 'Great Britton', and this magnificent cow -  Painting of a Prize Cow in a Field, is signed 'Drawn by I Bradley, Honington, Suffolk 1827' - I Bradley being Iohannes Bradley. 

This pair of portraits of children,  and 'consigned to Bonhams Ipswich from a deceased estate' in 2005, are signed 'I. Bradley, Limner, Suffolk 1830'. For a while I thought ah, he must have moved around, from Honington to Limner - and then I realised ah no, limning is what he does. He is a limner - from illuminator, I suppose. 
1. a person who paints or draws.
2. an itinerant painter of C18th America who usually had little formal training.
3. a person who describes or depicts in words.
4. an illuminator of medieval manuscripts. 

Two years later he usefully placed himself in New York by painting a Staten Island merchant, Asher Androvette, holding a copy of the November 29 1832 edition of The New York and Richmond County Free Press. It was signed, I. Bradley Delin. 1832. 'Delin' meaning, what delineator? He who drew the lines? One of his techniques was to put pale lines around faces, figures and objects to highlight them. It's what gives his paintings their air of light. Illuminating them.

The Met label for Emma Homan says:

Though there was a John Bradley of unlisted profession who arrived from Ireland in August 1826 on a ship called Carolina Ann, he probably was not been the John Bradley who was painting pictures of cows and children in Suffolk in 1830. Blogger Milton Trexler reports that 'After a thorough investigation of passenger ship lists, [we find that] four individuals named John Bradley arrived in New York between 1830 and 1832: one on March 27, 1832, aboard the ship Citizen out of Liverpool, age 21, listed as Irish and a laborer; another on June 14, 1832, abbreviated as Jno. Bradley, on the ship Robert Peel out of Hull, age 20, listed as from Great Britain and a farmer; another on August 27, 1832, on the ship America out of Liverpool, age 20, listed as from Ireland and a labourer; and a boy, aged 15, listed as Irish and a farmer aboard the William Byrnes on August 14, 1832. Yet none of these gentlemen, due to either age or occupation, seem likely candidates. A search of Boston and Philadelphia port records and a search of original U.S. naturalization papers with John Bradley signatures also produced inconclusive results.' 

Since our John Bradley was a professional painter in Great Britain before leaving for the US, one would expect him to record his profession on the ship's passenger list as 'painter' or 'limner'. He was known as being 'of the English school'; the music on the piano in another painting is a well-known Irish ballad, The Angel's Whisper. There were several Bradleys, some of them called John, living in Staten Island in the 1830s. One is registered as having 'aliens' living with him - perhaps one was John, during the five years before he could apply for citizenship. One was in an asylum.  Well, by the 1840s he was living in Soho - on Hammersley Street and later Spring Street, making his living as a painter, portraitist and miniaturist. An artist living downtown! After 1847 there is no more trace of him. We don't know how old he was, whether he married, had children. But I fell in love with young Emma, and the idea of a man who could paint a two-year-old like that - such a little queen. These vague scraps of story set one to wondering. I imagine John Bradley in a Joseph O'Connor novel, Star of the Sea or Redemption Falls, leading a wicked and complex life. During the times when people in New York lived in their community of origin - Irish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, Jewish - the Village was where you went to live if your own community wouldn't have you, or you could not longer stand it in your community for whatever reason. As we know it retains the reputation of being home to the gays, the artists, the drugtakers. the musicians, the transgressors . . . There is a suggestion that John Bradley was originally a painter-and-decorator. I find I like him. I could make up a life for him. 

A tiny bit more research brought me to these girls, Emma's almost-twins: Little Girl in Lavender, whose cat is rather less psychotic, and her roses a little redder. Vice President Bush chose her from the National Gallery of Art in 1981, to hang on the wall in his home. And Young Girl in a Green Dress: same basket, same trousers, same flower pot, same fat little hands. 

And here is a boy, feeding rabbits.

and this chap, about whom I can find nothing whatsoever.

And here, The Cellist, with his abnormally long arm and tiny delicate musical feet.

 These two have borrowed his red curtain

Why do I love these portrait so much? It's partly the colours and the items, so strong, delicate and simple - the little red book, the parti-coloured hobby-horse, the coral necklaces, the lace, the bunch of leaves, the sheet music. But more, it's the eyes - so particular, such a straight gaze. 'I am here', they say, just as clearly as any Velasquez. And you think about what they might have had to do to get there, to the stage of being painted, albeit by a self-taught chap who gets the arms wrong. 
They remind me, actually, of Lorenzo Lotto's Portraits: The Young Man, and the Woman inspired by Lucretia. 

But back to Emma. The Met gives her dates, and a married name emerges - Emma Holman Thayer. She - if she it is - grew up to be a writer!  I am delighted beyond reason by this discovery. She wrote a novel called The English-American, published in Chicago in 1890. 

I investigate. It is terrible. It is set in a London that has clearly never been visited by Emma, nor anyone else, and has characters like this, the maid: 

That is one of the better pages.

My disappointment is considerable. I had hoped for better from Emma.

She has also, though, written and illustrated some books about Wild Flowers: Wild Flowers of the Rocky Mountains and Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast. The text is just as bad:

But the drawings are nice. Really nice.     

So I forgive her, and I still love her. 

Here is her neighbour at the Met - not painted by Bradley. 
He's a boy. No wonder he looks so furious. 

Thursday 26 February 2015

A potted history of French Algeria, Carol Drinkwater

Last month I wrote a little about the events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris along with my reflections, observations while travelling in Algeria seven years ago. I am continuing along a similar theme today: Algeria and a broad brushstroke of the events that led to the Algerian War of Independence.

The French colonial empire constituted colonies, protectorates and mandated territories. In fact, there were two French colonial empires - the first was in decline by 1814. Its second began with the conquest of Algeria in 1830 followed soon after by territories in southeast Asia known as Indochina or Indochine. Vietnam was amongst them.

                                                                      Abd al Qadir

The French invasion of Algeria began in early July 1830 and continued through to 1847. Within a short time, the French had gained control of the coastal areas as well as Algiers, the capital city, and before long, they began infiltrating the rural areas into the mountains and desert. Algeria is a vast and diverse land which at that time was under Ottoman rule. There were rebellions and pockets of Muslim resistance led by such heroes as Abd al Qadir but, eventually, France conquered Algeria. They colonised it and Europeanised it. They ruled it as a French colony with Christian values and paid little attention to the traditions and tribal customs already in place. The Muslims and Jews lost their education systems, their lands, their rights. They were French subjects but not citizens. The countryside was taken for agriculture. Private demesnes, estates were erected. The majority of Algerians were forced to vacate the fertile lands. The colons, European settlers, moved in. Massive vineyards sprung up in a land of abstinent inhabitants. Tobacco, olives, citrus fruits, wheat, all were being produced in abundance and most of the crops were shipped back to France from ports built by the French. The cities and coastal resorts were designed along French planning lines. Some of the cities were beautiful, architecturally elegant. Ports were constructed, roads built… But the lifestyle being assembled had little to do with the Algerians' way of life. This Mediterranean land was a mixed population of predominantly Berbers and Arabs with communities of Jews who had fled Spain during the years of the Reconquista and had settled peacefully in Algeria. A few Christians were resident there before the French arrived, but they were a minuscule minority.

In 1856, Napoleon III offered the Algerians the right to French citizenship. Few accepted because they would have been obliged to renounce sharia law. Later in the nineteenth century – between 1870 and 1880 - the French offered the Jews an automatic right to citizenship. This gesture split the Muslims and resident Jews. From that time on, the Muslims began to perceive their Jewish neighbours as accomplices, friends of the colonisers.

                                                            Jews and Muslims together

Education was a privilege offered to citizens, not to subjects.
The Algerian Muslims began falling behind academically. Denying a colonised people the right to education is a very efficient weapon to keeping them under control. Without the means to read and write and therefore to learn and develop, they are rendered impotent.
Even when a basic education was on offer, it was a Christian one.

In spite of the challenges, during the first part of the twentieth century, Algerian nationalist movements were springing up and gaining ground. The most important and enduring was the National Liberation Front (FLN). By the 1930s, the FLN was protesting loudly against French rule. Even so, the Algerians fought with France during the Second World War, as they had done during the Great War. They were loyal to France and the Allies.
In a curious way, their loyalty was the straw that broke the camel's back and fed the seeds of the War of Independence. The French government had promised the Muslims, the Algerians, that if they fought with their ruling nation, they would be given a voice within the decision-making of their territory. However the colons, the settlers, who held the political power and wealth in Algeria (and many supported the Vichy government), strongly opposed this. They saw danger, perceiving all Muslim intervention as a threat against their sovereignty, their right to Algeria.

In 1943, Muslim leaders met with the French to hand over a manifesto. It demanded that Algerians be given equal rights. The request was more or less denied. Tensions rose and by the end of the war, when thousands of Algerians went out on the streets to demand their rights, they were met with violence.
On the 8th May 1945 in the city of Sétif a bloodbath occurred.

                                                         Sétif's very imposing central Mosque

During my travels for The Olive Tree, I visited the city of Sétif, which today is staunchly, exclusively Muslim. I walked its streets and was the only woman out and about in public. No restaurant opened its doors for me. Men only. Men sat in huddled groups in outdoor cafés smoking and they studied me with dark mistrusting eyes as I passed by. I have rarely felt so ill at ease, such an outsider.

I have often been asked about the locations I have most enjoyed visiting on my travels round the Med and Algeria has always been high on my list.
Here is a link to an article I wrote for the Guardian

But Sétif stands out in my mind as the exception. It was the only place where I stayed in a hotel and not with a local family. I was warmly invited, but I declined. I felt the need to be alone for a few nights, to catch up on my notes and to allow the thousands of sights and experiences I was receiving on a daily basis to sink in quietly. While I was there, using it as a base for excursions to some of the most magnificent Roman ruins in north African, I began to learn a little about the city's modern history. On 8th May 1945, while the Allies were celebrating victory, approximately 10,000 citizens from in and around Sétif also took to the streets to celebrate, but also to demonstrate. The demonstrations soon turned nasty. Scarringly nasty. Some Algerians began chanting words against their colonizers. They unfurled Algerians flags, which were banned at the time. The police began to crack down, to confiscate the flags. Crowds turned on the police, several of whom were killed. The police retaliated and began to shoot into the crowds. This, in turn, caused more violent responses and within no time not only the city but the surrounding countryside was, literally, up in flames. For days after, French planes bombarded villages, wiped out farms and homesteads while warships trained their weapons on the cities and the mountains where ‘the rebels’ had gone into hiding.

Somewhere in the region of forty thousand people lost their lives over those few days (no precise figure has ever been agreed upon). Approximately two hundred were French. The rest, Algerians. It was a massacre that was barely reported in the press. It took until 2005 for the French ambassador to Algeria to acknowledge France's responsibility.

Although the Sétif Massacres were barely reported, it was a turning point. The French began to implement changes: they passed school reforms, they offered limited opportunities for Algerians to enter politics but, tragically, it was too little, too late. The relationship between France and Algeria and the French colonials living on this amazing territory was deteriorating fast. By 1954, the war for independence was underway. It was a long and savage war. Both sides have much to answer for. To this day, the history of the French occupation of Algeria with its cruel colonial legacy is a blight on the French psyche. It is unusual to find anyone who will talk about it although that is slowly changing.

President François Hollande made a state visit to the country in December 2012. While there, he acknowledged that France’s occupation was brutal and he called for a new relationship between the two countries. “For 132 years, Algeria was subject to a profoundly unjust and brutal system of colonization,” he said. Hollande listed several sites of massacres including Sétif where seven years ago, the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, compared French war strategies to those used by the Nazis. He begged France to “make a gesture.. to erase this black stain.”
Hollande’s visit was the first step towards a rapprochement. A gesture towards turning a page in what many consider the darkest chapter in France’s modern history.

The Franco/Algerian story is a very complex one. I have been fascinated by this chapter in French history for a long while, but more so now because I have just delivered my new novel, The Lost Domain, which centres around a family of Pieds-Noirs and their relocation into France from Algeria. Pieds-Noirs, which translates as Black Feet, are Europeans, French citizens, who were born on the continent of Africa. The name comes from the idea that they took their first steps on the soil of the Black Continent. Hence, black feet.
During and after the Algerian War of Independence (1952 - 1964), nearly one million Algerian-born French citizens were forced to leave the only homeland they had ever known, to make a new start in France. Their arrival was not greeted with warmth. The Pieds-Noirs were not popular in France. Many mainland French still hold them largely responsible for the war that tore Algeria apart and almost bankrupted the motherland.

Living in France today are upwards of four to five million French-Algerians, including (but not exclusively) the Harkis. Harkis are Algerians who collaborated with France, who fought against the Resistance during the War of Independence. When Algeria won its independence, the Harkis fled their native land and settled in France.
They were traitors in Algeria, but they were certainly not greeted as heroes in France. Most live their lives, now with their children and grandchildren, as second-class citizens. For decades they have been struggling to find employment, war pensions, decent living conditions, respect. They live in the banlieus, the suburbs, in ghettos riddled with poverty and tensions. They live in a narrow, dispiriting interstice, neither members of one society nor the other. How easy then for those seeking the next batch of jihadists to find their material: young men with an uncomfortable identity, with little to hope for....

Of course, I am not suggesting that every son or grandson of a Harki or French-Algerian is a sure target for the Jihadists, but I do believe that there is a lack of support and opportunities for the majority of these French residents. Life is very exacting for them.

By contrast, here is an exception. This photograph is of the brilliant footballer, Zineddine Zidane, born of Algerians in the banlieus of Marseille. This is very tough Le Pen country and Zidane struggled as a youth to make his way.

And here a Nobel laureate, (who also loved and played football), born into a poverty-stricken Pied-Noir family, Albert Camus, whose monument, headstone, I visited at the Roman seaside ruined city of Tipasa.

                   …."this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow"….

Blue and yellow. Vibrant Mediterranean colours. The sun and the sea. In Algeria, it is also the sky and the desert.

My new novel, The Lost Domain, uses some of the historical material written about here as an almost silent background, a haunting of the past. It is the story of two women. One, a Pied-Noir, who escapes to France in 1962 as the war is ending, with her small son and her sister-in-law. They have lost everything in Algeria and are obliged to begin again in the mother country where they find themselves most unwelcome… and then a small girl is pitched into their lives and befriends the son….

Coincidentally, while I was writing this blog I received an email from a woman who had read my last month's History Girls post. She lived in Algeria during the seventies, over a decade after the country had won its independence. She told me that her cleaner, a woman called Fatima, missed the French. She "lamented their departure and felt that they had taken good care of the local people". I thought I would add this because every story has so many layers, every history page a thousand footnotes. I will post more about The Lost Domain at a later date.

Wednesday 25 February 2015


When I was young, I watched a lot of black-and-white films. They were on the telly every wet weekend afternoon, and although I must have seen some of them many times over, I never lost the sense that the people in them looked odd. Those women with their cinched waists, full dark lips and tightly waved hair were peculiar. You ever saw anyone looking remotely like them anywhere else. The past really was another country.

Not one of us
Earlier fashions were even more foreign: skirts to the floor, flapper dresses, even men’s hairstyles such as buzz cuts and slicked-down college boy styles were unfamiliar on the eye.

Something has changed. The people around us in our everyday lives now wear such a wide range of clothes that almost nothing surprises. It seems to me that there is almost no distinctive ‘21st century’ style - at least, not yet.  Fabrics may be different and easier to launder, but almost all looks are (often deliberately) reminiscent of something that has gone before. Even school photos now feature blazers, badges and boaters that would have looked antiquated fifty years ago.

Until very recently, it was only the shoulder pads and big hair of the early 80s that looked comic to the modern eye. Now they are beginning to make a comeback, and soon nothing from the 20th century will raise a laugh. If you see television archive material from the 60s, 70s or 80s, the language and attitudes might be a clue to their date. The green tinge of the film (caused by the copying and storage customs of the time) will tell you it is old. But the clothes? it’s only the fact that everyone in shot seems to be wearing a version of the same style (and the presence of cigarettes) that suggests this isn’t the present day.

Of course, our lives have changed in many ways, the new role of technology being the most obvious. As I type this, a robot is vacuuming the floor for me. But innovations are not always for the better. The machine I am working on now makes me unhappy every day - and cost me more than the proceeds of the last piece of work I wrote on it. 

All of writers know that, thanks to the capabilities of our software, we are now not only composers, but editors, typesetters, and accountants. Our days are spent battling with printers instead of sharpening pencils. But, on the plus side, at least we can back things up, and don’t lose whole manuscripts on trains any more.  And, with a few clicks, we can actually see people from the past.

One of the influences my generation’s perception of near history was in the way we viewed old newsreel footage. Until recently, this was shown on ‘modern’ cine equipment, which ran at a slightly different frame-rate from the cameras on which it had been recorded. The result (as anyone over about 45 will remember) was a comic jerkiness. People in the past were not like us. They were less sophisticated. They couldn't even walk properly.  Their regrettable political judgements were somehow the product of their less formed minds.

Lloyd George with the King in a clip from 1922
You can see the whole thing here:

Lloyd George was one of the first politicians to feature regularly in newsreels.  I always thought he looked a bit of a prat.  Now that we see the films at (almost) the proper speed, it’s easier to appreciate that people like him were, in most of the ways that really matter, just like us.

Last night, while doing the very 21st century task of assembling furniture using wordless instructions, I watched an old edition of Steptoe and Son. I’m old enough to have seen the first episode on transmission, in 1962. In those days, we laughed at the shambles of junkyard that surrounded Harold and Albert. Now the programme looks like an edition of the Antiques Roadshow. If the sad couple auctioned off the contents of their house, they would be made for life. 
What would a teenager of today make of it, I wonder? Almost certainly, they wouldn’t see anything remarkable in a man in his thirties still living with his father. That was a crucial ingredient in painting Harold’s pathetic character way back then.

Maybe I’ll try muting the sound and writing a 21st century script to go with the pictures.  It might be the story of a poverty-stricken academic caring for his dementing father (a retired doctor?) with insufficient help from Social Services.  The words will be different, but the set and the costumes can stay the same.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE: Some thoughts from Elizabeth Chadwick

LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE: English Society 1200-1250. Edited and translated by Martha Carlin and David Crouch: University of Pennysylvania Press ISBN 9 780812 223361

I love historical reference works that involve Martha Carlin* and David Crouch** and have several on my keeper shelves.  This is because their style, while academic is readable, and I know that I can trust the depth of their research and their attention to detail.  Which is the long way round of saying that whenever I am looking for reference works to add to my personal bookshelf,  theirs are names that I automatically type into my search engine.

A few months ago on one of my periodic searches, I came across Lost Letters of Medieval Life and ordered it.  However, even though I expected to receive a strong addition to my reference shelves, I hadn't been quite prepared for the full extent of the content and to put it colloquially, I was 'blown away.'  This is an absolutely fantastic work for anyone who wants to know about the material culture of the late 12th and early 13th century. 

So, what are these lost letters?  What's the story?
The first line of the introduction tells us that "This is a book about everyday life in thirteenth century England, as revealed in the correspondence of people from all classes of society, from peasants and shopkeepers to bishops and earls."

While letters of the great and good are known from the late 12th and early thirteenth century, regular and business correspondence from the average Joe has been generally thought not to survive, or not to have existed. However Martha Carlin and David Crouch have discovered all kinds of examples of such letters by trawling what are called formularies.  These are documents used to teach the art of letter writing and account keeping to scribes, and to act as sample correspondence.  While many examples concern the movers and shakers of the time,  hidden among them are letters concerned with the business of ordinary, daily lives.  Two of these formularies are still in existence - one at the Bodleian Library, and one at the British Library and it's these which Carlin and Crouch have used as illustrative examples in this marvellous book.

The selected letters, a hundred in all, are set out in the original Latin, followed by an English translation. and are divided into subject headings.  Following a detailed introduction to the texts to help guide the reader through the book and a handy map of the British Isles in the early thirteenth centure,  the subject headings begin with Money and a sub-text of Credit, Debt and Commerce. Among the letters in this sample section is one from an earl ordering wine from his vintner and then the vintner's reply. The vintner's reply is written in a couple of different forms which are to be used depending on the earl's credit rating. The first is warm and compliant, the second is compliant but a little less effusive and contains a polite demand for payment. "I shall accomodate you with the five tuns of wine you have requested, beseeching your earnestly that you pay me in full your old debt, which is in arrears, equally with this new debt, on the said day.  Farewell." 
Included in the earl's request letter, is information on the sort of wine he wants (Gascon and Angevin), how many tuns, and how much he is prepared to pay for it.

What adds an extra layer to this exchange of letters is that Carlin and Crouch then give detailed explanations and examples of the wine trade at the time, so the reader receives a concise but thorough grounding into the background details informing the letter. To add even more icing to the cake, there are highly detailed end notes to each section, giving references, sources, and further reading.

Other letters in the 'Credit, Debt and Commerce' section include orders similar to the above, but to a draper for cloth (which means plenty of excellent detail on the medieval textile industry)  and to a skinner for furs for the earl's Easter garments. (ditto information on the early 13th century fur trade. I was fascinated as to how the skins were rated and sold).

Further sub-texts in this chapter include The Jews, Household provisioning and Hospitality, and Accounts.  We move on then to chapter 2: War and Politics, Chapter 3:  Lordship and Administration:  One such sample letter from this section is "The King orders the shcriff to find and hang the thieves who have been burgling village homes by night." Which then leads on to an enlightening discussion on 13th century law enforcement.  There is a chapter on Family and Community and among the letters in that section are examples for students sending begging letters to their parents for cash (nothing changes!) and from a man who warns his friend he's seen his wife naked in bed with another man and sends her girdle as proof of adultery!  Chapter 5 is an exchange of correspondence concerning the building of a windmill - very new fangled for the early 13th century.

There is a detailed bibliography for further reading at the end of the book, and the endnotes to the chapters themselves as aforementioned are rich in bibliographical detail. There are a few useful maps and some enlivenment provided by black and white photographs, such as this one (in colour here) of Gilbert Marshal coming a cropper at a tournament (there are letters about tournaments) in 1241.
Gilbert Marshal, son of William Marshal, comes a cropper at a tournament.
Wikipedia.  Matthew Paris 13thc

I wrote to David Crouch with whom I occasionally correspond to say how much I'd enjoyed the book. He was delighted - it has been a labour of love for him and Martha Carlin. They had visualised it as seminar source for undergraduate medieval courses, and a book for the dedicated amateur of medieval studies.  It is certainly that - and more. Reference books like this restore my faith in historical scholarship.  Not only are they thoroughly researched and annotated with meticulous attention to detail, they are also highly readable to non scholars and fascinating.  This is going to be a frequent 'Go to' book on my shelf and will join my 'Desert Island' keeper section in my study library.

If you have an interest in the Middle Ages, if you are a teacher, student, re-enactor,  historical novelist or just plain want to know more, either rush out and buy this book or ask your library to buy a copy.

 *Martha Carlin is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

**David Crouch is professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull.

Elizabeth Chadwick owns most of their books and with good reason!

Monday 23 February 2015


David Starkey has announced in various media that Wolf Hall is a 'deliberate perversion of history', (though he has neither read the books nor seen the television adaptation so I do wonder how he can assert this). Someone, however, has told him that Mark Rylance, playing Thomas Cromwell, is portrayed as showing grief when his wife and daughters are carried off in a day by the sweating sickness. 'I gather Hilary Mantel has imagined this wonderful tender experience of Thomas Cromwell losing wife and children,' he says, and 'there is not a scrap of evidence for it at all.'

Not all historians hate historical fiction, and many of them are hugely generous towards fiction writers  - I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Professor Michael Biddiss, for one, who referred me to several useful texts on Nazi Germany and particularly to the invaluable documentary history of Nazism by J Noakes and G Pridham - so helpful, particularly when I was writing Saving Rafael. However, much as I respect and value historians, I do not need their permission to write my fictions.
The thing is (Doctor Starkey), that a novel set in the past is not an easy-read alternative to a history book (however carefully we do our research, and some of us, notably Dame Hilary, do it very carefully indeed. Indeed Hilary Mantel's work is widely respected by historians). The term historical fiction may perhaps be a tripwire here. We are writers of fiction, and some of us choose to write about historical subjects.That means that we apply our imagination to those subjects, which is what writers do, and of course we go to places (like someone's probable response to a bereavement) that historians must in honesty hold back from.
In exactly the same way, I might write a story about someone, say, who is a teacher in a North of England town. There is no evidence that such a character exists or that any given human being ever behaved exactly as this character did. If I cannot find it, it is not incumbent in me to leave it out, because the job of a writer is to say: 'What if? Supposing?' It is to write a story.
My grandmother in the '30s

Actually, I researched the novels I set in Nazi Germany very carefully, but this was because my enterprise was to understand what it was like to be a person who had to live in Nazi Germany. That is - as readers of my blogs here will readily understand - something very important to me. The enormous amount of reading I have done about the period, as well as watching videos, talking to people who remembered those times, reflecting on the things that came to me from my own family, was not directed at making my works good textbooks for Year 9s. Some people have found them so, but what drove me was that need to open a window for myself on twelve dreadful years that marked and scarred my immediate family as well as damaging and bereaving millions of others.
In the end, though, it came down to 'What if? Supposing?' Supposing one of the boy soldiers who were drafted into the German Home Guard in 1945 was the sole survivor of his unit; supposing he met a girl on the run from Berlin, who had a very different background; supposing the interaction and relationship between them changed both of them as they trod the refugee road with the fighting going on round them? Supposing  the girl was jazz-crazy, and could play the harmonica, and supposing a fantasy grew legs and desperate people started to believe it? Then you get Last Train from Kummersdorf.
There's another idea about historical fiction that is popular among the chattering classes, even post Wolf Hall. It is that it is somehow tacky, chocolate-boxy, that the proper enterprise of novelists is to describe the present day (preferably grittily). Now I have no objection to grit, but there was just as much of it around in the past - and indeed there is a whole generation of excellent novels that deal with the undersides of history, some written by fellow-contributors to this blog. 
One of my history teachers at school took this line: she said we should avoid historical fictions, which were always misleading and trashy, and concentrate on fiction written at the time we were studying. Maybe she would have liked to have a go at the English literature syllabus and excise such trashy works as Henry IV Part One, (which I studied for A Level). Also, she must have despised such trivial works as War and Peace, Schiller's Maria Stuart, Vanity Fair, all of Shakespeare's History plays, Büchner's Danton's Death, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (which I first saw, incidentally, at Kendal Grammar School with my brother as one of the Women of Canterbury and David Starkey in the star role. The poetry blew me away.)

If the past is another country, it's one that is part of our present. Humans have many means of visiting it and trying to inhabit it; through histories, biography, visiting historical sites, and drama, in which I include the novel. To talk about, mythologise, and speculate on the past is part of what it means to be human, and that makes it a valid subject for literature.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Tears of the Gods by Kate Lord Brown

Driving along the Corniche the other day, it struck me that it is one of the few places left in the city where you can still see history living side by side with the towering skyscrapers springing up from the desert. The pale turquoise waters still shelter old dhows as they have for centuries, and among them the pearling boats. Pearls from the oyster beds of the Persian Gulf have graced the crowns and tiaras of monarchs to the east and west. These mysterious jewels that the ancient Greeks believed were the tears of the gods formed an important part of the Qatari economy before the discovery of oil in the region.

When Qatar was settled in the 1700s, the pearling industry thrived, and local pearls were particularly prized in India. The 'chow' of a pearl is still calculated based on a system devised by Indian merchants in the sixth century, which considers size, weight and lustre. While cultured pearls still impart glamour and status, the quality of natural pearls is beyond compare - a cultured pearl may have five concentric layers of nacre around a bead, whereas a natural pearl has hundreds.

Men like 73 year old Saad Ismail Al Jassim, one of the oldest surviving pearl divers in Qatar, spent months at sea during the summer, living a perilous life in search of these elusive gems. It was hard work: 'We dived from dawn til dusk,' Al Jassim told me, when I met him in Souq Waqif recently. There were shorter diving seasons, but the boats would go out for the main 'big dive' from June to September. The divers risked malnourishment and dehydration, the effects of pressure from quick, deep dives up to a hundred times a day, and the ever present threat of sharks and sea snakes.

Each boat would have up to twenty divers, and twenty helpers to assist them. The divers would gather oysters using a leather glove, the 'khabt', and a 'dayyeen' oyster basket suspended from their neck. Wearing a simple nose clip, and with their feet weighted by heavy stones they could stay down for up to two minutes at a time, holding their breath, before signalling for their assistant to haul them to the surface. In winter it was too cold for the divers to hold their breath, so the summer season was intense. As Al Jassim says: 'if you want a pearl, take many oysters.' He explained that a lot depends on luck - you may open thousands of oysters and find nothing, then open a dozen and find six pearls. Any gems found were kept with the captain of the boat, until the trader visited to buy what had been found.

'God helps those who help themselves,' Al Jassim says. He became a captain in his twenties, and then a 'tawwash' or trader. He is known as the Pahlwan, or strong man, a testament to his years as a champion body builder (that is a photograph of him in his prime, hung behind the till in his store). His years in the pearling industry were followed by twenty eight years with the Qatari police, where he was a major. Al Jassim still likes nothing more than to go to the sea and dive, but now he uses scuba gear.

Natural pearls had their heyday in the nineteenth century as the great jewellery houses of Europe sought the rare gems. As affordable cultured pearls found favour, the industry declined, and Qatari pearls are now rarer and more valuable than ever. Al Jassim showed a delicate bracelet of natural pearls worth thousands of riyals. But perhaps the old pearl diver is as much of a national treasure as the pearls themselves.

A Pearl Museum is planned for Doha, and a recent exhibition curated by Qatar's Museum Authority and the V&A, London, highlighted the finest natural and cultured pearl jewellery. The exhibition toured Japan, London and Brazil, and a beautifully illustrated book 'Pearls' by Hubert Bari and David Lam explores the culture and value of the pearl. 

Saturday 21 February 2015

Serendipity and Ada Leigh by Imogen Robertson

There are many advantages to living in the modern age -  dentistry, antibiotics - and, for the record, I’m also delighted to have the vote and be allowed a mortgage without my father’s permission. Then there’s the internet and the access to information and individuals it brings sweeping along in its digital skirts.

For most writers the internet is a mixed blessing. It does no one any good to be able to read nasty reviews on amazon, and the endless distractions of the wikipedia vortex are, well, endlessly distracting - not sure why, but I spent part of this evening reading about deers’ milk cheese. Once in a while though the stars line up neatly and something really special turns up. Such a day came, for me, a month ago when I got an email from Michael Armitage of Hawkhurst, Kent. 

I’ve written about Ada Leigh and her Home for Impoverished English and American Girls in Paris before on this blog. Ada was a remarkable woman - conservative, devout, young and unmarried, she fought against the prejudices of her time, class and family to help women who had nowhere else to turn. She raised vast sums of money to offer lost girls a home and a future during the Belle Époque and managed the enterprise herself. I based a character in The Paris Winter on her, very closely, and learned a great deal about the lives of poor English women in Paris from her slim autobiography.  

Since finishing the novel, I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to learn more about her and looked with frustration at my notes from her book. At the time it felt as if I were transcribing most of it, but I was sure there were gems I had missed and wondered if I could track down an expensive copy online or make a couple more trips to the British Library to read it again. How to justify the time and expense? A screenplay, perhaps? But there’s a novel here that needs finishing and… Well, you know how it goes. Time melts away. (Feel free to add a sarcastic comment about deers' milk cheese here). 

Then Michael's email arrived. Michael was walking his dog through the churchyard of St Laurence, Hawkhurst and noticed a grave, previously hidden in long grass. It was a memorial to John Travers Lewis, who died at sea on May 6th 1901 and also to his widow, Ada Maria, born 3rd March 1840, died 10th April 1931, Founder of the Ada Leigh Homes, Paris. He made the connection to Paris Winter and me and on the off-chance I might be interested, sent me an email.

Churchyard of St Laurence (c) Michael Armitage
I was delighted to get it. I knew that Ada married Dr John Travers Lewis, Bishop of Ontario in 1889 and was widowed in 1901, but after that no more. Michael and I have done a bit of research, and it seems one of the Bishop’s daughters from his first marriage, married local land-owner Mr Llewellyn Foster Loyd. The Bishop was on his way to visit them, with Ada, when he died. Ada wrote about it in her biography of her husband:

“The open grave was hung with flowers by his three remaining daughters Mrs. Robert Craigie Hamilton, Mrs. Llewellyn Foster Loyd, and Sister Evangeline and the service was not one of grief, but rather of  triumph.”  

There is also a memorial plaque for the Bishop on the gate.

I find it deeply satisfying to know that Ada was buried alongside her husband in this lovely churchyard thirty years later, and that her role as founder of the homes is recognised in stone. There is also a particular pleasure in the fact that Michael happened to notice the memorial and remember me. He was even kind enough to find and send me a picture of the church from 1909 - 8 years after the Bishop died and the year in which Paris Winter is set.

Another blessing of the internet: After getting Michael’s email I wondered again how much a copy of Ada’s biography would cost me, and began searching online. At some point since I last looked Ada’s biography has appeared on so it is now at my fingertips and free. I better get on with that screenplay. But perhaps before I do I’ll go down to Hawkhurst, see if Michael and the dog fancy a walk and lay some flowers on Ada's grave. 

(c) Michael Armitage