Sunday 31 May 2015

May Competition

To win one of five copies of Lucy Coats' YA novel Cleo, just answer the following question:

"Who is your favourite female character from ancient history or mythology - and why?"

Put your answers in the Comments section below and copy them to so that winners can be contacted.

Bonus: in addition to a book the very best answer will receive a stunning Cleo mug.

Closing date is 7th June. We are sorry but our competitions are open only to UK readers.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Cabinet of Curiosities: Taxidermy by Sarah Gristwood

Other people have friends who take up tennis or tatting. I have friends who take up taxidermy. (Also skull collection: ‘Can I call you back? I’m beheading a badger’, has to be one of the best can’t-talk-now lines in history.) Drop in on Jane for coffee, and you find the emptied skin of a magpie draped over the kitchen tap to dry, the way a tea towel might be. An open taxidermy supply catalogue advertises plastic eyes and false tongues, each modelled for the species, precisely.

Sarah's stuffed jay
Not that I have a problem with that - on the contrary, the stuffed jay she gave me is one of my favourite possessions. The first thing any taxidermist today is keen to tell you is that they are using creatures which died naturally. Roadkill, birds brought in wounded to the local vet. Or, in the case of some professionals, beloved pets whose owners can’t quite bear to say goodbye.

Of course it wasn’t always that way, as the heads on the wall of any country house can testify. But then the form has gone through a lot of changes, since some stuffed rarity was first part of any collector’s cabinet of curiosities. The oldest piece of taxidermy in existence is said to be the crocodile suspended from the roof of a church in Lombardy, and documented as having been taken down (later found stored in the roof) in 1534. The horse of Sweden’s king Gustav Adolphus, shot from under him in the Thirty Years War, and skinned and mounted as a trophy by his German enemies, can still be seen today.

The first big boost for European taxidermy came from the explorations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the pressure was on to find a way of proving to those back home just how strange far flung nature could be, (Or trying to prove - when the skin and a sketch of a duck billed platypus was sent back from Australia in 1798, it was dismissed as a hoax.) Specimens could be sent home preserved in alcohol, to be skinned, cleaned, and filled with some kind of aromatic packing - herbs, hops, tobacco; later much improved with an arsenic soap - meant to keep the insects away.

What was at first the preserve of the scientific and the wealthy soon became a museum staple: Bullock’s Museum in London at the start of the nineteenth century advertised ‘the Lofty Giraffe, the Lion, the Elephant . . . as ranging in their native wilds’. When taxidermist John Gould put up twenty four cases of humming birds as rival attraction to the Great Exhibition he got 75,000 visitors. But by then taxidermy was moving on in several different ways.

New techniques - such as the creation of moulds onto which the skin could be arranged, in whatever pose - allowed more naturalistic museum display. This, in the hands of great taxidermists like Rowland Ward, was the start of the dioramas on which many of us grew up (and in England places like the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent, the Natural History Museum at Tring still show their collections with pride; while the National Museum of Scotland is rare in still having a working department of taxidermy). In America Carl Akeley created ‘Jumbo’ and ‘the Feejee mermaid’ for the great showman P.T. Barnard before moving on to the American Museum of Natural History.
Hares in a bookshop in Stamford
Naturalism, however, was never the goal of a whole other strand of Victorian taxidermy. A young and impressionable Walter Potter had seen Hermann Ploucquet’s anthropomorphic displays at the Great Exhibition and was struck all of a heap. Potter’s most famous tableau showed the death of Cock Robin. Guinea pigs playing cricket, kittens at a tea party - nothing was too bizarre for his imagination, and children were still revelling in his creations long after his death in 1918.

Much about the Victorian sensibility - and the Victorian fetishism of death - seems strange to us today. But perhaps it was yet another strand of Victorian and early twentieth century taxidermy that did most to dismiss the form from fashion by the latter part of the last century. That was the huge number of heads collected by ‘big game hunters’; shot without qualm and displayed without artistry. Taxidermy begun itself to look like a relic of the past; while the spread of the motion picture camera meant a Western public could see those same exotic beasts, not framed in a case, but running free.

(That said, of course, fashion never changes completely - or not in my home town anyway. When I was a child in Dover, the pride of the town museum was a stuffed polar bear, donated by the relatives of an Arctic explorer as recently as 1960. It stood in the entrance, just where mothers used to park the pram, sometimes with the baby still inside it. So the child awoke and looked up into the snarling jaws of this rearing monster, claws outstretched . . . Explains a lot about those of us from Dover, actually.)

But in the last years, there has been a widespread resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy - and in the creativity with which it is used. The original shock value of the stuffed birds swirling around above the model’s head, in a fantastical piece of Alexander McQueen millinery from 2001, has dwindled until a dusty decades old bison’s head seems to leer down at you from the wall of every fashionable bar, every house interior in a magazine spread.

At the Hayward Gallery in 2012, artist David Shrigley’s taxidermied Jack Russell held up a placard reading ‘I’m Dead’. Damien Hirst, anybody? As the art critic Brian Sewell said, ‘there may well be more art in a stuffed pike than a dead sheep’; while artist and animal activist Angela Singer makes a point with her use of vintage taxidermy.

A recent TV documentary, All Creatures Great and Stuffed, went straight for the shock horror stories - the man who spreadeagled the corpses of cats, and tried to make them fly. But the work of someone like artist Polly Morgan seems both beautiful and significant to me. A handful of taxidermy quail chicks bursting out of a telephone receiver, obviously in mid-squawk. A taxidermy fox with a silicone octopus bursting out from its belly, Alien-style; the octopus itself being ‘pollinated’ by stuffed wrens. Yes, in a way it’s sinister; but so is nature, actually; Morgan was first inspired by the decaying corpses she saw on a trip to the Serengeti. She like others argues against any idea of disrespect to the animal. ‘It’s a form of recycling as far as I can see.’

I think it’s the respect that for me is the key - the reason it seems strange to me to shrink from taxidermy, while eating meat and wearing leather shoes. The reason I’d be repulsed by an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot, while still cherishing my jay . . . All right, so it’s a sliding scale - those anthropomorphising pieces of Walter Potter’s do seem strange to me. But when taxidermy is done right, it is a gesture of rage against the dying of the light, isn’t it, really?

Stuffed crocodile belonging to History Girl Clare Mulley

Friday 29 May 2015

On The Trail Of Cleopatra by Lucy Coats

Photo credit: Peter van den Berg

Our May guest is Lucy Coats, friend to many History Girls and lover of all things mythological. Welcome, Lucy, and thanks for filling in the background to your new YA novel.

Lucy Coats has written over 30 children's books for all ages, and has also worked as an editor, journalist and bookseller. She has just published a YA novel, Cleo, a paranormal/historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra, as well as a new mythological middle-grade series Beasts of Olympus. Lucy lives with her husband and three out-of-control dogs in a house mostly furnished with too many books.

The Art of Researching a YA novel

I cannot imagine writing a book on any subject and NOT researching it. For me, research enables me to write from a position of knowledge. Even if I don't use much of the material I find (and I am always aware of the dreaded sin of 'info dumping'), the fact is that I need to know this stuff, even if my reader doesn't. I am always aware of the reader at my shoulder, especially my teenage reader. So what I put in has to be interesting, relevant, and germane to the story in some way. For a YA novel, a light touch with facts is essential.

With Cleo I gave myself a huge task from the outset. Writing a novel about a real historical personage is always tricky - and more so if it's a personage about whom everyone has their own view and opinion. When I decided to take on (arguably) the most famous woman in the ancient world - Cleopatra - for my first proper YA novel, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, research-wise. Not only did I choose to write about her undocumented younger life (before she slides into the historical records), but I also chose to mix history with fantasy, and bring in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. I knew that the former gave me a certain amount of leeway - if I wanted to write a story within a 'hole in history' where the gods helped her to the pharaoh's throne, then I could do that without fear of being contradicted. But even if I had no historical 'facts' to go on, I was determined on one thing. This book would give my readers as proper a 'feel' of Ancient Egyptian life and customs as I could provide.
Cartouche of Cleopatra's name in the House of Horus at Edfu - Wikimedia commons
 I don't read Latin well (or Greek at all), but there are many good translations of Lucan's Pharsalia - a fertile source for descriptions of royal banquets (see quote below), and one I plundered shamelessly for my own purposes. I didn't need to invent any of the party and feast scenes in the book - the real descriptions I found in the research were much more magnificently opulent than I could ever have imagined (and I'm not even showing you the bits about wreaths of nard and roses, and cinnamon hair oil!).

'Jewels glittered on the couches; the cups, tawny with jasper, loaded the tables, and sofas were bright with coverlets of diverse colors - most had been steeped in Tyrian dye and took their hue from repeated soakings, while others were embroidered with bright gold, and others blazed with scarlet.' 

An Egyptian Feast by Edwin Long - Wikimedia commons
Then there was Cassius Dio - writing two hundred years after Cleopatra, true, and also through the somewhat skewed lens of a Roman triumphalism which considered my heroine a dangerously seductive witch. He was an important primary source, and had seen earlier (and now destroyed) evidence from Cleo's time, as had Plutarch. It was little quotes like the one below which set my mind whirring for the Roman scenes I needed to write for the second book, Chosen, which will follow next year.

'For Caesar and Pompey had known [Cleopatra] when she was still a girl and inexperienced in affairs.'

When did Caesar and Pompey meet her? Did she accompany her father into exile in Rome - or did she perhaps join him there? I spent some time recently following a trail which theorised that she did, and put my own spin on it to suit the purpose of my story.

Cleopatra making an offering to Isis (Louvre) - Wikimedia commons
 If reconstructing a historical personage was difficult, so too was reconstructing the physical landscape around her. I have some experience in tracking down 'ancient historical geography', gained during the writing of my Atticus the Storyteller book on Greek myths, but mostly I didn't have to describe those locations in too much detail. This time, I had a whole royal palace to reconstruct, plus the most important library in the ancient world - the Great Library of Alexandria. I made several serendipitous discoveries along the way, including one which would be crucial to both books. Ptolemy I Soter, when he built Alexandria, included a series of cisterns under the royal palace, connected by narrow passages. What better way to allow people to sneak about unnoticed?

The Great Library was destroyed either during or soon after Cleopatra's reign, but I took the view that as an educated woman who spoke several languages, and studied mathematics and much else, she would have spent time there. So I had to find out how they stored the scrolls (in custom made cubbyholes), and who might have been working there in Cleo's time (I dug out Apollonius of Tyre, who appears briefly in the book as one of her ex-tutors).

Research is time-consuming, and mine has taken me from the bigger questions of geography and physical descriptions of journeys and modes of transport up and down the Nile through costume, jewellery, make-up, puffer-fish poison, embalming techniques, songs sung by ancient Nile boatmen, the ancient board game of senet, temple ceremonies, weapons, armour, soil types, flora, fauna and much more. Some totally fascinating facts have had to be discarded, unused, but that's all right. They will simply go into my vast store of 'useless knowledge', to be brought out at some opportune later moment.
Senet pieces - Wikimedia Commons

However much research I've done, though, however many dusty books I've read and scholarly articles I've trawled through, one thing had to come first. I had the opportunity to make Cleopatra come alive for a new generation, in a way that had not been tried before. Not everyone will agree with the way I've done it - my Cleo's 'voice', for instance, is quite modern in tone - but there is one thing I hope everyone who reads it will recognise. I've done my damnedest to get the backdrop to my story right! When I wrote the initial synopsis for the first book, this is what I said:

'I want my readers to smell the harshness of the hot, dusty winds of the simoom (the ‘poison wind’), to feel the way its gritty residue gets into clothes and nostrils, ears and eyes and to know that its touch is a curse of dryness, not a blessing of coolness in the fierce heat of a desert day.

I want them to be desperate for the soothing touch of blood-warm water mixed with camels’ milk and rosepetals on their skin—and want to try for themselves the only recipe that works for keeping a young princess-priestess’s complexion dewy and glowing. I want them to see the way sun turns blazing white against a blue sky in which Egyptian Vultures (Pharoah’s Chickens) soar on the thermals and wait for something to die down below.

I want them to look over the shoulder of the embalmer as he learns his trade on the linen-wrapped body of a young priestess—to smell the herbs he uses, to hear the sound of pestle and mortar grinding the sacred and secret preparations that preserve the shell of the body for the afterlife.

I want them to feel the way the stifling, incense-laden air in the dark corridors of the royal palace in Alexandria presses down on a person and makes everything slow and confusing—to blink with the shock of light reflecting off gold and lapis and a million jewels as they enter the blinding magnificence of the Great Throne Room.'

Only if I've actually succeeded in taking my teenage reader away from the 21st century for a while, and made her feel some of these things, will I know that I've done my job as a writer.

You can find out more about Lucy at: and also on Twitter at @lucycoats

Thursday 28 May 2015

Plotting the Second World War, by Clare Mulley

Earlier this month I was delighted to speak at a commemorative day at Tempsford, in Bedfordshire, being held in recognition of the RAF Special Duties Squadrons that delivered SOE's special agents behind enemy lines from the village’s top-secret airfield during the Second World War.

Memorial Plaque in Tempsford village church
(courtesy of Martyn Cox,

Among the guests was Doreen Jeanette Galvin, nee Grey, a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, better known as the WAAF. Doreen served as an Intelligence Officer at RAF Tempsford during the war. She now lives in Canada, and this was her first visit back to her wartime base. Finding a squashy sofa in the memorial hall, Doreen told me how moving it was to return to this tiny village, attend the service of remembrance, and see the beautiful memorial to both the female special agents who were dropped behind enemy lines, and the Special Duties pilots who flew them there.

What I was not expecting was for Doreen to tell me how she had plotted the Second World War. Not in an evil god-of-destruction way you understand, but as a WAAF processing data about aircraft movement provided by radar stations and observation posts, and plotting the changing positions of Allied and enemy planes on a map.

Me with Doreen Galvin at Tempsford, May 2015
(courtesy of Mary J Miles)

Doreen joined the WAAF in March 1941. Her family’s association with the British Air Force went back to the First World War, but it was not until the late autumn of 1940 that she decided to volunteer. The trigger was watching the Battle of Britain at close quarters from her south coast garden, which was on a steep hillside looking down to the sea. At one point the planes flew so low that she felt they might knock the television aerial off the roof of her house, and she threw herself into a ditch in the garden. When she looked up there were black crosses on each wing of a German fighter above her, which was followed by a Spitfire which shot it down into the sea. She knew then that she had to volunteer.

Doreen in uniform
(courtesy of Doreen Galvin & Martyn Cox,

Doreen’s first position as a plotter was in Liverpool, receiving aircraft information and translating it into representative counters moved across a large map. On her third evening she found herself plotting the course of an enemy plane. Soon more followed; it was the start of the Liverpool blitz. Nothing could have better brought home to her the vital importance of her work, and how essential it was to be accurate.

Doreen's long and often exhausting career eventually led her to a Commission interview with ‘a very frightening Squadron Leader’ and, as the result of her courage to refuse the more regular roles she was encouraged to take in admin, or codes and ciphers, either of which she felt would ‘drive me crazy’, she was accepted for Intelligence.

Doreen in the WAAF
(courtesy of Doreen Galvin & Martyn Cox,

Doreen was then trained as a Photographic Interpretation officer at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire. Here she worked with Constance Babington Smith, known to all as ‘Babs’, who was ‘charming, not gushing, but she knew what she was doing’, as well as Sarah Churchill, the red-haired daughter of the PM, among others. Their role was to examine photographs and identify tell-tale troop movements, the build up of fleets and tanks, the creation of fuel and ammunition dumps, the construction and development of weaponry and key sites for military production and other bombing targets. Once, when particularly sensitive photographs and maps had to be examined, Sarah Churchill was segregated in the bathroom, with a 3-ply plank across the huge claw-foot bathtub on which to spread the pictures. She did not know it at the time, but she was working on images of North Africa. ‘We always used to say,’ Doreen told me with a laugh, ‘that for us, North Africa started in the bathroom’. 

Among a wealth of other material, including pictures of her family's former house in the Channel Islands (garden doing well, she noted), Doreen’s photographs provided early images of the German Messerschmitt 162 and 163 rocket planes. She also worked on photos of a series of ramps in northern France, all facing London. ‘It was obvious something was going to be shot off them’, Doreen said, but they couldn’t see what. Nearly two years later she was spending the night with a friend in Bromley when the first V1s to reach London ‘flew over the roof like an express train’. Wearing a hard hat on the early morning journey into work the next day she suddenly realized that these new flying bombs must be what she had been looking for at Medmenham. 

Doreen during the Second World War
(courtesy of Doreen Galvin)

After a year in Aerial Reconnaissance, Doreen moved to Bomber Command, with an office next to the famous ops room. From there she became an Operations Officer at RAF Feltwell, in Norfolk. At times it was almost unbearable work. One morning twelve planes left to bomb a hydroelectric station, and just one damaged aircraft returned late that afternoon. It was ten days before Doreen learned that she was in no way to blame for the high losses through any inaccuracies in her work - the planes had simply had the misfortune of coinciding with a Luftwaffe squadron.

Finally Doreen was sent to RAF Tempsford to work as an Intelligence Officer, without yet knowing the operational nature of the secret little airfield. On arrival she was surprised to see the odd variety of aircraft of all vintages and sizes that operated from the airfield, including a number of old-fashioned Lysanders, affectionately called ‘Lizzies’, which she thought must have come from the previous war. The intelligence office seemed ‘very dull’, the maps ‘uninspiring’, and Tempsford struck Doreen altogether as ‘a mediocre station, full of left-overs, in a forgotten backwater’.

A Lysander at Tempsford during the war,
with officers from Special Duties squadron 161
(courtesy of Hugh Verity & Martyn Cox

Only after she was taken through a security door did Doreen see a map covering the entire wall opposite. ‘On it were hundreds of brightly coloured pins, each holding down a small label with a number and a code name typed on it.’ These represented the dropping and landing sites for Britain’s special agents and supplies across Europe. Her role was to ensure the pilots were fully briefed on the sites, and their routes, using aerial photographs and other intelligence. Doreen stared at the map in amazement, thinking, ‘If only the Germans could set eyes on this wall map, they could surely eliminate the entire Underground Movement in Europe in a week!’ 

Tempsford brought its own tragedies, although nothing quite on that scale, but also many lighter moments among friends who became very close. Here the WAAF Officers’ Mess was so close to the vicarage and the old stone church that one morning, after an RAF dance the night before, the vicar’s wife accused Doreen's friend of getting their chickens drunk. The hens had come wandering in unnoticed and drunk from the dregs of the slop bucket behind the bar. 

Doreen at the Special Duties memorial plaque in Tempsford Church
(courtesy of Martyn Cox,

Reverend Margaret Marshall with Doreen Galvin
at Tempsford's memorial to the SOE women and Special Duties pilots
(courtesy of Clive Bassett)

Last Sunday, after the morning of talks, Doreen visited Tempsford’s old stone church again, this time for a service of remembrance conducted by the Reverend Margaret Marshall (how times have changed), before laying wreaths at the memorial opposite. For Doreen it had been a moving experience to return to the village where she had spent so much of her war, and to see that neither the special agents, nor the brave pilots who flew them behind enemy lines, have been forgotten. Not only are there beautiful memorials in the church and on the village green, but there are often events here which welcome everyone from family members who come to remember, to school children who may be hearing for the first time about the history of the village, the airfield, and the many brave people who once passed through.

Aerial photograph of RAF Tempsford during the war
(courtesy of The Bob Body Collection & Martyn Cox,

I am delighted that Doreen has written and self-published her memoirs, From Arts to Intelligence, available from Amazon in kindle and EPUB formats, and paperback. 

I should also mention that the very good Temspford commemorative event this May was organised by educational charity Secret WW2 for which, many thanks.

Copyright Clare Mulley

Wednesday 27 May 2015

The Paraclete, by Louisa Young

I went to church at the weekend, itself almost a historical activity in England. It was a grey and beautiful Somerset church, which exquisite windows from about 1912, in a pre-Raphaelite style. There were eight in the congregation, including my friend and I who were mostly there because her mother,  for sociable, widowed reasons, plays the organ. We sang Come Down Oh Love Divine, and giggled like schoolgirls at the bit about lowliness becoming our inner clothing, and o'er its own shortcomings weeping with loathing. The shortcomings of underwear!

The Vicar, Stephen, was kind, involved, and sad about the death of the wife of the vicar in the next Parish. His sermon, he said, was going to be personal. He told us he had visited his friend, the other vicar, and that the phrase which had stayed with him all through this grief-filled week was: 'I will not leave you comfortless'. He said he had tried and failed to find it in his Bible (I think the vicar doesn't google: it's John 14, 18, since you ask: the same chapter as my father's house having many mansions, and 'I am the way, the truth and the life'). But in looking for the phrase, he had come across the term Paraclete. 


Of course he made a 'No, not parakeet' joke. Of course one would hear it as parakeet.  My daughter, who's in the middle of her finals, did this morning when I said on the phone that if she needed me I would fly to her side like a Paraclete. The use of 'fly' was probably a distraction.

'Is it a kind of cleat for parachutists to attach their ropes to?' suggested Gavin, who's a sailor.

Nope. It is a Comforter. It is someone who when called will come to you, and speak for you. In Christianity it is mostly the Holy Ghost; in Islam both Jesus and Mohammed are Paracletes. The nearest it comes to being a bird is the Dove. 

The word is from the Greek παράκλητος (paráklētos)which can mean one who comforts or consoles, one who encourages or uplifts, or one who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court. It is passive: 'called to one's side'. The Called One. 

I got a bit teary at this stage. The Called One! The one you'd call. The friend you'd ring. Not in a phone-a-friend/Who-Wants-to-be-a-Millionaire way, but in the fly-to-your-side during finals, strap-your-ropes-to-me, will-not-leave-you-comfortless way. 

We looked the word up over Sunday lunch, and used it all weekend. 'Be a Paraclete and pass my cup of tea would you?' 'You've always been my Paraclete, darling!' By Monday night somebody (it may have been me) had uttered the phrase 'Paraclete me, baby!' and we had discussed at length what a pleasure it was both to have a Paraclete to call on, and to be called on as a Paraclete. Because of the trust involved, the vulnerability and the honesty, it becomes something of an honour. 

If you google Paraclete, you get a lot about the early Christian history and a fair amount, alas, about a brand of plate-carrying body armour, which is pretty . . . ironic? Doves and body armour?

But it is a beautiful word. Might we not bring the word back, in something like its original meaning? The one you'd call? 

Try it. I think it might turn out to be useful.  

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Celebrating Film, by Carol Drinkwater

By the time you read this, the 68th Cannes Film Festival will have packed
up its wares and the pantechnicons will be back on the road. The awards will have been handed out and celebrated at illustrious parties, Elton John will have hosted his annual Aids event, and the stars will be on planes flying off to their various countries of residence, while this coastal city of Cannes, once a humble fishing village, will be preparing for its next onslaught of visitors: the summer tourists.

I am writing this blog hours before l’ouverture du festival. Excitement is riding high as all has yet to be revealed. This year, the American filmmakers, the Coen Brothers, are jointly heading up the jury for the Official Competition Selection. They say they are delighted to be here, to be able to take the time to sit back and watch some movies! Last week in Paris, I went to see a re-run of their wonderfully anarchic film, The Big Lebowski. Their take on life and cinema should make for a fascinating and, hopefully, surprising choice of award-winning features.

Strolling the famous Croisette at this time of year, it is impossible not to pick up on the excitement, the anticipation, as Cannes readies itself to receive 25,000 visitors over the next two weeks. The festival always commences on a Wednesday evening and concludes ten days later on a Sunday night with an out-of-competition screening that follows the awards ceremony.
The restaurants have been glammed up, prices hiked, all shops have evening wear displayed in their windows; the beaches have been cleared of all flotsam and jetsam, decorated with potted palms and new sand trucked in. Meanwhile, on the city side of this glamorous promenade, the rental of a three-bedroom apartment with sea views will set you back somewhere in the region of 30,000 euros for the ten days! Don't worry, it usually includes daily cleaning services.

The Cannes Film Festival is seriously big business for those living and operating in this seaside resort and for those flying in with high hopes of selling their films, pitching their projects to distributors and investors or, for those chosen few, to bask in the glory of winning the Palme d’Or, the Golden Palm, the highest accolade of several festival prizes.

With all the razzamatazz going on, it is all too easy to forget the genesis of this exceptionally high-flying affair. Its original purpose is frequently overshadowed. So, I thought this May blog would be the perfect opportunity to recall how this festival came about, and why.

The Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated on 20th September 1946, but its inception goes back to the year before the outbreak of WW11.

                                                  The poster for Venice's first film festival

During the 1930s, Venice had become a leading light in European cinema, mainly due to its successful film festival, which commenced in 1932. Here in France, Jean Zay, visionary Minister of National Education and Fine Arts from 1936 to 1939 (appointed by Léon Blum), decided that the time had come for the French to host an international cultural event to rival Venice. One of the reasons that Zay and other leading intellectuals in France were eager to set up a national festival of their own was because in September 1938, hours before the Venice awards were due to be announced, the jury members at the Mostra, under pressure from Hitler and Mussolini, changed their voted results in favour of a Nazi propaganda film.

                                                                           Jean Zay

Zay proposed that the first Cannes festival debut in September 1939. Each European country, including Germany and Italy, although both refused to participate, was invited to select one film to be screened in competition. Nine countries, I believe, sent films. Louis Lumière agreed to take on the role of President of the Jury.

On 31st May 1939, the City of Cannes and the French government signed the international Film Festival’s birth certificate, proposing that the festival run from 1st to 20th September of that year.

"The aim of the Festival is to encourage the development of the art of filmmaking in all its forms, while fostering and maintaining a spirit of collaboration among all filmmaking countries."

Much was readied for the inaugural event. The artist Jean-Gabriel Domergue designed the first official poster and festival-attendees began to arrive during the hot days of August. Sumptuous parties were thrown.

A cardboard replica of the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was built on the beach as a promotion for William Dieterle’s Quasimodo. Hollywood stars such as Mae West arrived by boat from the United States. Cannes was gearing up for a prestigious affair.
However, the clouds of war were gathering over Europe. In the first instance, the festival was postponed for ten days, but as we know Germany marched into Poland on 1st September and on 3rd September, both France and Britain declared war on their enemy. The festival was cancelled. The only film screened was Quasimodo at an invitation-only soirée.

Mobilisation was underway. All festival attendees returned home.

It was not until 1946 - from 20th September to 5th October - that the inaugural event eventually took place in the old casino of Cannes. Tragically, Jean Zay did not live to see the birth of this now internationally renowned festival. He was assassinated by the Millice in 1944, condemned for being an active member of the resistance and a Jew. Zay is a national hero, but history was at risk of forgetting him.  Until, in February 2014, François Hollande confirmed that the body of Jean Zay, along with three other courageous figures, including two women, from the Resistance, will be moved to the Panthéon in recognition of his invaluable contribution to France.

The choice of Cannes for the film festival rather than, let’s say, Paris is not so surprising, although for a few short weeks in May 1939, it was mooted that the event would be held in Biarritz, but, eventually, the Riviera won out. So why Cannes? Thirty kilometres east along the coast in the once Italian, ochre-toned city of Nice, lies the Victorine Studios, (still semi-active today but under new ownership and a different name). It was a part of the glamorous world of “French Hollywood” - a city on the sea making films. The studios had been the location for many silent films and when “talkies” came in, the Victorine adapted swiftly and became a profitable enterprise. This French Riviera coast was becoming synonymous with filmmaking. So, to locate a festival close by made perfect sense. Added to which, Jean Cocteau along with other writers and cineastes had plans to build another huge movie lot in Mougins, six kilometres inland of Cannes. The land was purchased, but due to the outbreak of war this dream never materialised.

                                                                Poster for 1946 Festival
(Is it just me or does this poster, the angle of the camera, the dominant black outfit, resemble a weapon of war?)

The Cannes International Film Festival was finally born in the heady atmosphere of victory in 1946, although the funds to pay for the event were hard to come by. The French State and the municipality of Cannes were strapped for cash and the money was raised through public subscriptions. The Cannes Festival was finally underway. It was the naissance of what has developed into a world-class event; a gathering of filmmakers from every country and every political and religious persuasion. It has become a place where filmmakers want to be, where they jostle to participate.

Still, although, the baby was born, it was not an easy growth and in both 1948 and 1950, the festival did not take place due to financial constraints.

Ironically, the early years introduced the world to Italian cinema, to neorealism and the masterpieces coming out of Italy.
In 1951, the Cannes festival was moved to the spring - which is where it has remained ever since - to avoid clashes with the autumn Venice festival. Now that both nations were at peace with one another, films and the survival of the art of cinema took first place.

From the 1950s onwards, Cannes went from strength to strength. During the Cold War, the United States helped to keep it operating and Hollywood stepped in in force.

In 1955, the Palme d’Or replaced the Grand Prix as the most coveted award, given to the best film in competition.

As the years rolled on, other selections were created in parallel to the Official Selection: Semaine Internationale de la Critique, Directors’ Fortnight, Cinefondation, to name but three.

1965 welcomed the first female president of the jury, Olivia de Havilland. Followed directly the following year by another stunning actress as president, Sophia Loren. Jeanne Moreau was not given this prestigious duty until 1975.

                                            Sophia Loren, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider

1968 was a memorable year for the festival and worth mentioning. The 21st film festival - 10th to 24th May - opened with a restored version of Gone With the Wind, directed by Viktor Fleming. On the morning of 18th May 1968, François Truffaut along with Louis Malle, a member of that year's jury, and fellow directors Claude Berri, Claude Lelouch, Roman Polanski, Jean-Luc Godard and others, took over the large screening room, the Grande Salle, in the Le Palais, interrupting a projection, to call for the festival's  closure. It was, they said, an act of solidarity against the government and with the soixante-huitards, the students and labour movements striking throughout France, including cinema unions. They called for the festival to be shut down. Milos Forman whose brilliant film, The Fireman's Ball, was scheduled to be screened withdrew his work.
Godard is quoted as saying: ' There's not a single film that shows the problems that workers and students are going through. Not one. Whether made by Forman, by me, by Polanski or François. We've missed the boat! It's not a matter of continuing or not continuing to watch films. It's a matter of cinema showing solidarity with the student movement and the only practical way of doing this is to stop all the projections immediately.'
The spirit of the barricades prevailed and the remaining days of the festival were eventually cancelled.
I have been fortunate to have performed as an actress in several films that have been shown here in one selection or another. It is a thrilling experience. These days, when I drive down the hill as a spectator to watch a movie or two, I am sometimes a little saddened to see the insanity that has taken over the event. Its market can give the impression of a bazaar and a lot of hot air is overheard. Also, alongside the official entries, another event has been spawned: a very successful porn film festival. The legitimate and the porn never rub shoulders with one another, as far as I am aware, but I have noticed that some of the biggest, glitziest yachts are hired out for porn parties.
As I said, the Cannes Film Festival is big business and it turns the spotlight full on to this coast, upholding the glamorous image for the tourist trade. Yet, I see another side to the coin. One cannot help but notice that there are visitors, wannabes, hopefuls, trawling the streets with dreams that will never see the light of day, and for some of them it proves to be a cruel, cold sojourn in the sun.


Federico Fellini was a regular guest here accompanied his lovely actress-wife, Giulietta Masina. In 1960, he was honoured with the Palme d’Or for La Dolce Vita. When I am down in amongst the thick of this jamboree, I sometimes ask myself whether Fellini’s vision of the world with its Jungian influences and its multi-layered humorous and tragic aspects best suits the circus that is the twenty-first century film festival and market.

Yet, when one is clad in evening dress (de rigueur for the evening screenings), sitting beneath the stars late at night on a warm spring evening listening to nightingales singing, while enjoying an al fresco dinner with companions who are also in Cannes to celebrate film, there is a palpable sense of inspiration, of participation, of collective exhilaration. It is during those moments that I silently remind myself what it has cost the men and women who worked to bring this international celebration of the Seventh Art into being and I feel very proud and humbled to have been given the opportunity to have shared in just a few tiny moment's of its history.

Monday 25 May 2015


I love looking at old magazines. They let slip huge amounts of unintended information about how the world used to be, and how people thought we would be living in the future.
Recently, I got hold of a publication called Everybody's for June 1945.

Quite a lot of things surprised me. There are some signs of post-war austerity (it's in a newspaper 'broadsheet' format and the paper isn't great) but it is far more lavishly illustrated than I expected. It's also a pretty demanding read. The print is small, and the articles are long. Although its imagined reader seems to be an 'ordinary' man or woman, they are assumed to be sufficiently interested in the arts, politics and culture to read articles of several thousand words on each. By the time you have ploughed through the lot, you feel as if you have read a book. It seems that our parents were right: before TV, attention spans were longer, and general knowledge more extensive.
As I read my copy, I imagined it had once lain on the suburban sideboard of Celia Johnson and her husband in Brief Encounter.

So, what were they interested in, 70 years ago, in June 1945?
Just a month after VE Day, all eyes were on the future, with a post-coalition General Election looming; world-beating talent blossoming in the theatre and opera house (There's a review of the first night of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, and of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson at the Old Vic); and wonderful adverts (Mr and Mrs Futura on holiday in the Stratosphere). The overriding message is of hope.

Alas, some of the hopes expressed in this article still haven't materialised yet!
I dare say I'll find material for more than one History Girls blog here. Today I want to tell you about post-war predictions for the wonder metal, aluminium

It's easy to scoff. But how could our mothers and grandmothers have guessed that the lightweight, easy-to-clean pots and pans they raved about would be a prime suspect for causing their dementia in years to come? In June 1945, with fewer aircraft to manufacture, their minds were on how aluminium could be turned to peacetime use.

One of the plans actually happened. As Everybody's went to press, the government had already ordered 60,000 pre-fabricated houses for people made homeless by the Blitz. Five years later, more than a million prefabs had been built. They were made of four interlocking pieces, complete with fitted cupboards, indoor plumbing and heating, and could be erected in a couple of days. 

The Prefab at St Fagans, 2010, National Museum of Wales. 
Prefabs were meant to be temporary, but I knew people who lived in - and loved - them, well into the 1960s, and as far as I know, later examples still stand in Catford, London, having been listed as being of historic importance - which, of course, they are.
Other aluminium buildings outlived expectations. At my inner-London primary school, when my class went up into 'The Juniors' in 1960, we were told that we would be the last children to be taught in 'The prefab'. When I was invited back, to talk about my books, in the early years of the 21st century, it was still there. Looking on Google Earth, I'm not 100% sure that it's gone even now.

Many of the predictions in the Everybody's article didn't come true. Or if they did, I haven't come across the products that were forecast. I don't know anyone with a light-weight, maintenance-free aluminium garden gate. I don't think I've sat at an aluminium table. I have never seen anybody wearing a metal cardigan like the one in the picture at the top of this article.
But, apparently, it is possible to extrude thin sheets of aluminium into such fine strands that they have all the softness and flexibility of wool or cotton with much greater durability. The fabric could be washed or dry-cleaned, and coloured to your liking. And it wouldn't wear out.
It's hard not to think of that wonderful Alec Guinness film The Man in the White Suit and to wonder whether the textile industry cheated us of our right to aluminium knickers. Maybe they turned out to be less gentle on the backside than expected. Or perhaps some of you are wearing them now, If you are, do let me know what I'm missing.

Sunday 24 May 2015

RESEARCH BOOKS - Lucky Dipping! By Elizabeth Chadwick

When I began writing at the age of 15, I didn't have any research books on the Middle Ages, nor much of the wherewithal to buy them.  I do remember my mum asking me what I wanted for Christmas and instead of clothes or make-up or the latest Cat Stevens LP, I said that I would like Sir Steven Runcima's History of the Crusades volumes one and two please. I think she was slightly taken aback, but that was what I received, and it was one of the best presents I'd ever had!
I would trawl various libraries and borrow every book they had covering the 12th and 13th centuries. I haunted library sales and saved my Saturday job money to buy research books (I did spend some of my small income on shoes and going out, but plenty of it went into books to inform my writing). 

Down the decades I have continued to add to my library on a regular basis and now that writing is my full-time job, I always set aside a portion of my royalties to enhance my reference collection. Sometimes I have to save up for bookshelves too, or improvise ways of turning furniture into book storage. These chaps might be a bit kitsch but I like them and they've turned the top of a cupboard into yet more room for books.

With the Internet being so well established now, there is a wealth indeed sometimes what seems like a surfeit of information out there on any given subject. One needs a very good inbuilt crap detector to separate the wheat from the chaff. Obscure books that were once the musty preserve of library archives are now available to read online. There are articles by historians and experts. One can ask their advice on Facebook or Twitter and follow their blogs and websites. This is all absolutely wonderful, but still not quite a substitute for having one's own eclectic library of reference books to touch and browse.  In my own collection there are retirees and old hands. There are sturdy and dependable everyday work horses. There are vibrant newcomers, special guests with necessary but short shelf lives, and glamorous coffee table types, perfect for snack browsing.

I buy my books both online and from high Street bookstores, museums, seminars, and conferences. I buy brand-new and second-hand.  My period being the mediaeval one, I am in thrall to Oxbow Books  and second-hand booksellers Bennet&Kerr  whose catalogues I have been mining for useful tomes.  
Sometimes I know exactly which book I want. On other occasions it's a case of 'that might come in handy at some point. It's a good price, so I'll have it.' The problem is when I get lots of books at a good price, I find that suddenly I've spent all my royalties!   But still, buying books isn't a bad steppingstone on the road to impoverishment!

I thought I'd share some of last month's purchases here.

 Fabulous to get this second hand; I've been after it for a while. It's Walter Map's De Nugis Curialium - or Courtiers' Trifles. Written at the time of Henry II, it's packed with gossip and information about the movers and shakers of the day. It's not always reliable, but it is wonderfully colourful. For example he tells us that Cistercian monks were obliged to wear breeches (underpants) in church when serving at the altar, but that they were not to wear them when going about their ordinary business, because it might increase the heat in that area and provoke lustful thoughts!  He also tells us about Welsh clothing habits in the 12th century. He says that the Welsh wore short woollen cloaks and went barefoot and bare legged. He says the Welsh also don't eat bread, a detail confirmed by a 13th century chronicler during the campaign of 1265. Every page is laden with anecdotes and opinions from which the fabric of everyday life can be unrolled.

I have long wanted to read a biography of King Philip Augustus. He tends to be rather vilified in British history because he was the nemesis of the Angevin dynasty. I don't think I'll end up becoming a fan, but at the same time I want to understand him better and gain a more nuanced impression.

Here's another man I want to know about. The kingdom of Sicily had strong Angevin connections, and was one of those lands that was a highway between Europe, Byzantium and the Holy Land. Richard the Lionheart's sister Joanna was Queen of Sicily for a time. I'm looking forward to a spot of background reading.

Here's another background book. I already have several on the kingdom of Jerusalem and this area in the Middle Ages with concerns beyond just that of the crusades and military matters.  This book covers the Holy City in the eyes of the chroniclers, visitors, pilgrims and prophets from biblical times to modern day, so will be a good overview one to read.

The Justiciar was the official that the King left in charge of the country when he had to be elsewhere. It was a highly organised and important judicial and official role, and the men who took it on had to be farsighted and wise. They were the King when the King wasn't there. I have a working knowledge of their role, but I'd like to know more and this book will prove very useful.

This one is for a project a little further down the line, and as such it's on the backburner TBR at the moment. It's one of those 'I'll grab this now while I have the opportunity, because I am going to need it later' sort of books.

Then there are the books that I pick up at conferences. I heard Daniel power of Swansea University speaking at the Mortimer Conference the other weekend, and was impressed enough to buy his book from the bookstall there. We have a mutual interest in the Marshals!

This is one of the coffee table sort of books I mentioned in the main text. It's not too heavy on the information, although it is good, and it has lots of pictures for browsing when the brain isn't able to process too much detailed information and wants to look at nice pictures!

The most recent research book I finished. Marc Morris' new biography of King John. I found this utterly fascinating. Morris is especially good on detailing John's financial genius in his ability to ruthlessly squeeze almost every last drop out of the people he ruled - the success of which in part led to Magna Carta.  This is no revisionist biography that turns John into a lover of fluffy kittens sort of monarch. As far as Morris is concerned, the jury stands. King John was one of the worst kings England has ever had! 

Lastly, my best non-fiction read of the year so far is this one.
If you're going to read any of the available biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, make sure you read this one too because it will open your eyes to just how much you're being sold a mythology.