Friday 31 July 2015

July competition

Our competitions our open to UK Followers only - sorry!

To win one of five copies of Joanne Limburg's A Want of Kindness, post an answer to the question below in the Comments section and send a copy of your answer to so that you can be contacted if you win.

"Which monarch  do you think has been unfairly neglected in literature until now?"

Good luck!

Closing date 7th August

Wednesday 29 July 2015

A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limberg

Photo credit: Chris Hadley
Our July guest is Joanne Limberg, talking about her début novel, A Want of Kindness, about Queen Anne.

Joanne Limburg began her writing career as a poet, publishing two collections with Bloodaxe Books. She has also published a memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much and a book of poems for children, called Bookside Down. A Want of Kindness is her first novel, and is published by Atlantic Books. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and son.

At the centre of my novel, A Want of Kindness, are a series of extraordinary letters – real letters – which Anne sent to her sister Mary, Princess of Orange. They were written in the years leading up to the Prince of Orange’s invasion in November 1688, and the subsequent deposition of the sisters’ Catholic father, King James II, events which the winning side were quick to call the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Anne would be on that winning, Protestant, side, and her letters show her to have taken as active a role in events as her circumstances allowed. Using a postal network of sympathetic ‘safe hands’, she was able to send her sister intelligence as to Catholic goings-on in the royal household – Latin Grace at meals and other such – to her – abominations. She could confirm that the King and her step-mother, the Queen, were most certainly under the influence of Jesuit priests, that the Earl and Countess of Sunderland had flattered their way into royal favour and that Sunderland in particular was encouraging her father the King in all his Catholic, tyrannical, most un-English excesses. In doing so, she was able to reassure her sister – and, in the process, herself – that England, its Church and its Liberties were indeed threatened and that, therefore, the momentous act they were contemplating would be entirely justified.

Anne’s most significant pieces of intelligence concerned the Queen and the progress of her pregnancy. For the Catholic Queen, or so it was claimed, was pregnant by the Catholic King. And if the child turned out to be a boy, then the Catholic succession would be assured, and, from the point of view of the fiercely Protestant Anne, England’s undoing – and her own –would be complete. She and Mary would be displaced from the succession.

Anne’s gender meant that many avenues of power and influence were closed to her. She could not wield a sword. She could not hold office. She could not make speeches to the Privy Council or to Parliament and was unable to attend Privy Council meetings. It would not have occurred to either her father or his ministers to consult her on any matters of policy. She could not take Holy Orders and preach either for or against him. Nevertheless, she was the highest-ranking Anglican in England, standing in for the King in the Royal Chapel, providing a royal presence in his Catholic absence; also, as a Princess at Court, she was often in attendance on the Queen when she dressed in the morning. She could, if she wished, vouch for two very crucial things: the King’s good intentions towards the Anglican Church and the genuineness of the Queen’s pregnancy. If she did, she would strengthen the King and Queen’s position significantly; if she did not – or even appeared not to – she would just as surely undermine it.

So, what did Anne do? Despite the fact that she sometimes put on the Queen’s shift herself and must – I am certain – have seen her pregnant belly with her own eyes, she was quite determined not to believe them. She told Mary that what she had seen was unconvincing, and, having done so, left London to take the waters at Bath – a place far more distant than her usual summer watering-place at Tonbridge – thus making it most unlikely that she would be with the Queen when he presence as witness would have been most useful to the King – that is to say, at the birth. After the baby was born, in her artfully-contrived absence, she was instrumental in spreading the now-notorious rumour that an imposter baby – the child of a Catholic brick-layer – was brought into the royal birthing chamber in a warming-pan, to take the place of what was either a stillborn or non-existent prince. She avoided attendance at Court, using her own supposed pregnancy as an excuse, but made sure that she could be seen at various Anglican houses of worship, avidly listening to sermons against the King’s religion.

The bedchamber in which the baby prince was born - or not
By the end of that Summer, Anne knew that the Prince of Orange was going to sail to England, and that she had to be prepared for what might happen. She had a staircase built at the back of her lodgings, providing her with a direct route from her privy chamber to the grounds of St James’s Park, and, once she had received word that her husband defected from the King on the battle-field, she descended it at the dead-of-night and fled London under the protection of Bishop Compton, one of the King’s most prominent opponents. After her father’s defeat, she returned to London and made her first public appearance, bedecked in Orange ribbons.

Despite James’s unpopularity, there were many who were shocked by the sisters’ behaviour. They were unnatural, ungrateful daughters, who in dishonouring their father, they had broken a Commandment. They were compared to Goneril and Regan, and to Tullia the daughter of the murdered King Servillius Tullius, who ran over her father’s body in her chariot. One poem of the time terms them the ‘Female Parricides’, and accuses the sisters of ‘ambition, folly, insolence and pride.’ Anne’s Victorian biography, Agnes Strickland, agreed, seeing Anne as entirely self-interested.

Anne & Mary and their parents by Peter Lely
P.F William Ryan, writing in the early 1900s, makes his disapproval very clear:
"Nature had apparently implanted in Anne no sense of duty, and art had done nothing to fill the void… It was… after her marriage, when entirely removed from the influence of the gentle Mary of Modena [her step-mother], that malice and envy began to flourish luxuriantly in the young Princess’s bosom. Surrounded by every luxury that her father could provide, his generosity seemed only to inflame the envy, which, with the perfection of art, was concealed by this Royal actress. "[from Queen Anne and her Court, Vol. I, p 84]

Such is Ryan’s disgust at Anne’s shocking character, that I am baffled as to why he chose her as his subject. If I agreed with him, I don’t think I could have stood to write a whole novel about her. His Anne is somewhat one-dimensional, her motives transparent and her actions predictable. But the Anne that emerges from later biographies, from her letters to Mary and to her friend Sarah Marlborough, seems to me to be far more complicated and a good deal more sympathetic. It is true that, if we consider her dealings with her father and step-mother in isolation, she seems two-faced, unkind and devious, but Anne had many other relationships in her life, and in these she behaved very differently.

Anne could be loving and loyal. She was concerned with the health of her husband and children, nursing them herself when they were ill. She was an extraordinarily generous friend, and a considerate mistress to her household. When she eventually became Queen, she would prove to be remarkably conscientious, taking part in all her cabinet’s meetings despite her continuing ill health, and attending Parliament whenever she could. She had her opponents, but unlike many of her predecessors, was not in habit of having them executed. Faced with the choice between prolonging the War of Spanish Succession and accepting a settlement, she chose the latter, being weary of bloodshed and other people’s suffering. It is not hard to see why the Duke of Marlborough described his patroness, simply, as ‘a very good sort of woman’.

Queen Anne Wikimedia Commons
When I looked at Anne’s life, then, the story it suggested to me was one in which a good woman does, knowingly, a bad thing. My sense is that Anne was not lying, precisely, when she said her step-mother’s baby was not her brother. I think she was deceiving herself, entertaining this cognitive dissonance, because she needed him not to be. She did what we are all capable of doing when our conceptions of ourselves and our worlds are put under extreme pressure, and constructed a truth she could live with: an England justly destined for Protestant rule. The thought that God might after all not be on her side, but with the Catholics, was simply too horrific to contemplate – if it were true, then the very ground under her feet would be rendered insecure, and, even worse, she would no longer be able to see believe a good person, on the right side of things. Anne’s moral thinking was not subtle, pragmatic or flexible enough to allow her to lie simply for political expedience’s sake, to make the ends justify the means. So she constructed a story, a false belief, to enable her to live with herself and what she would be doing.

And the story held together as long as it needed to, seeing her through the dangerous adventure of her defection from her father, but, it could not hold much longer. Faced with criticism from inside and outside Court, and their own increasingly uneasy consciences, the sisters would struggle with the consequences of what they had done.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Imagining Eglantyne, by Clare Mulley

‘We have to devise a means of making known the facts
 in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world.’ 
Eglantyne Jebb 

Poster for Anne Chamberlain's production, Eglantyne

Earlier this month I was fascinated to see a new one-woman play called simply, Eglantyne, written, produced and acted by the New Zealand artist Anne Chamberlain. Eglantyne Jebb, around whose life the play is built, was the remarkable founder of the independent children’s development agency Save the Children, and author of the pioneering statement that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. She was also the subject of my first biography: The Woman Who Saved the Children, and it is wonderful to see that her life is still inspiring people, both to write, and to support the vital work of Save the Children today. Proceeds from both my book and Anne’s play are donated to the charity. You can read my History Girls blog on Eglantyne’s life and achievements here.

Among Eglantyne’s many skills was an extraordinary ability to communicate the facts in such a way as to inspire others. She had a very vivid imagination and clearly loved words, writing numerous poems and romantic-social novels, as well as her pioneering statement of children’s rights. She also wrote and gave speeches, published leaflets and press articles, and made pioneering use of photographs and film footage to win support for her cause, often from initially hostile audiences.

Anne’s play opens with Eglantyne’s very public arrest in Trafalgar Square in the spring of 1919, for distributing leaflets calling for an end to the economic blockade that was contributing to the starvation of thousands in Germany and Austria. These leaflets had not been cleared under the Defence of the Realm Act – it had never struck Eglantyne that they might need to be. The crown prosecutor did not mince his words, but Eglantyne chose to represent herself and focused on the moral case. By the end of the session she had been found guilty, but the court reporters had plenty to pad out their stories with, and the crown prosecutor insisted on paying her fine.

Eglantyne Jebb, c.1921
Anne Chamberlain, as Jebb 2015

Save the Children was swept into existence on the wave of publicity that followed this trial, culminating with an exciting public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall. After listening to Eglantyne and her sister’s speeches, the crowds, who had arrived armed with rotten fruit to throw at the traitor women who wanted to give succour to the enemy, were instead inspired to put their hands in their pockets and fund a herd of Swiss dairy cows to provide milk for the children of Vienna.

Eglantyne gained the support of factory girls and aristocrats, the Pope and the Mining Unions, the British aristocracy and the Bolshevik government. She even won the backing of the wife of the Prime Minister whose policies she had campaigned against. ‘When she spoke’, her friend and colleague Dr Hector Munro later wrote, ‘everything seemed to lose importance and one agreed to do whatever she wished.’

Little surprise then, that Eglantyne’s words are still inspiring people today. In her play, Anne manages to integrate many wonderful examples of Eglantyne’s own phrases, from speeches and letters, into her script:

- ‘Humanity owes to the child the best it has to give.’

- ‘Every generation… offers mankind anew the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world.’

- ‘The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative, and very busy.’

As I often still give talks about Eglantyne, and use many of the same quotes, it was strange to hear these words in someone else's mouth, with different intonations. But it was also really lightening - and heartening. At the end of the evening I felt as though, in a way, I had been kindly exorcised of Eglantyne. She will always be an inspiration, but my relationship with her feels less intense – it feels shared.

Eglantyne Jebb, c.1925

Anne Chamberlain as Jebb, 2015

Before I saw Anne’s play, I had wondered whether I would see a very different Eglantyne on stage, to the one I had come to picture to myself, someone I might not recognise even. This happened once before when I went to a production of Tony Harrison’s play in verse, called Fram. Fram, which means ‘Forward’ in Norwegian, was the name of the arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s ship. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Nansen became an associate of Eglantyne’s, helping to bring desperately needed relief to Russia during the famine of 1921. She greatly admired his spirit and energy, calling him a ‘solid viking’. Harrison’s play explored the relationship between art and aid, at times in quite provocative and painful ways. Eglantyne’s lines are the best in it, I think, and she was excellently played by Carolyn Pickles when I saw the production at the Royal National Theatre. But although Carolyn made me laugh by signing my programme ‘Eglantyne’, I did not feel a strong connection with the figure she had portrayed on stage. Perhaps, I thought for a while, I had imagined her wrongly...

Save the Children feeds starving Russian children, 1921 

As we slowly approach Save the Children’s centenary in 2019, the charity has asked whether it might be possible to re-imagine Eglantyne, to bring her story to a new and younger audience – with a picture book about her life, adventures and achievements. I think this would be wonderful, and look forward to seeing yet another interpretation of this wonderful woman on the page… If anyone has suggestions for brilliant and inspiring children’s illustrators I would be delighted to hear them!

Sadly there is no one alive today who knew Eglantyne. There are photographs and sketches, but no one who heard her voice, and no recording of her. However, much of her writing survives, her actions speak volumes, and her energy, spirit, determination and often rather dark sense of humour, are palpable throughout. When I watched Anne Chamberlain’s play earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that I felt very familiar with the Eglantyne that she brought to life, which makes me hope that perhaps we both found something of the truth in this remarkable woman.

Anne and me, holding each other's writing about Eglantyne Jebb 

I think that Eglantyne herself would have been fascinated by each reincarnation, and on the whole pleased, given that each helps to promote the cause – the welfare and rights of the world’s children – that she cared so passionately about. ‘A friend of mine once said to me that our minds, contemplating the truth, were like so many cameras turned towards the same building’, she once wrote. ‘No two cameras can be in the exactly the same position… so that no two precisely similar photographs can be taken; hence also, though some may be better than others, no single photograph, always supposing that it had not been faked, will be without its value.’

Sadly Anne’s play has now finished its British run, but it may be back next year and if so I will pass on the tour dates. I hope that between Eglantyne the play, my biography, and any new portrait, many more people, of all ages, may yet come to picture Eglantyne Jebb in their own way, and be inspired.

Monday 27 July 2015

Procrastination and Hedgerow Jelly by Janie Hampton

While thinking about my blog for History Girls, my mind wandered and I looked out of the window.
What did I see?
The view from my study
A reason to leave my desk - my vegetable bed was calling out to be hoed. This was an ideal opportunity for procrastination. Without my immediate intervention the as-yet-inedible beetroot had only hours to live.  The tiny seedlings would soon get smothered in giant horrible weeds. So out into the garden I went, picked up the hoe, and noticed it needed sharpening. Looked for the sharpening stone, I wondered what the proper name for a sharpening stone is. 
As I spotted it on the shed shelf, I remembered it is a whetstone, spelled with an ‘h’. Is that to do with water or something quite different? Made mental note to look it up.  Sharpened hoe. On the way down the garden path I noticed the courgettes needed watering.  So the hose had to be untangled. And on it went- one procrastination opportunity surpassing the last. By lunchtime I had found the whetstone, sharpened the hoe, sliced through several rows of weeds, watered the courgettes, and the beans for good measure, put the garden tools in a neat row, and even swept the ground beneath them. I’d also learned that whet is from the Anglo-Saxon whaet, meaning keen or bold which led to sharpen or stimulate (as in ‘appetite’.) But I was still no further on with my blog.

I am skilled in the art of procrastination, defined as  'putting off,  delaying,  deferring,  postponing, especially something that requires immediate attention.’ Crastimus is the Latin for ‘pertaining to tomorrow’ – and we all know that tomorrow never comes. It’s the Roman equivalent of ‘manana’. Synonyms include ‘dithering, stalling, delaying tactics and vacillations’, to which I would add ’seeking out distractions, around any corner.’ 

I suspect that most History Girls and our readers indulge in various levels of procrastination, and can spot a handy distraction a mile off.  The most rewarding kinds of procrastination for writers are those that somehow connect to the writing one is supposed to be doing.  While researching my book ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’, I found a Second World War recipe that took procrastination to new levels. In one fell swoop, I could procrastinate and be ‘researching’ my book at the same time: the recipe demonstrated the historical economics of food rationing, the philosophy of Make Do and Mend and offered an opportunity to practice Real History. And unlike most procrastinations and distractions, there is something delicious to eat at the end.

Hedgerow Jelly - free from a hedge near you
Find some hedges in late August or September, preferably containing many varieties of fruit-bearing bush.
Blackberries in July, waiting for you.
Harvest the fruit on your own and the time spent is both ‘exercise’ (walking along a hedgerow) and ‘work’ (you are silent, so obviously thinking important thoughts). If this stretches your conscience too far, then go with some friends as ‘recreation’ - an essential time of ‘re-making your creativity’. Wander  down lanes in the countryside, or  seek out rogue wild bushes in parks and along footpaths in cities. Carry a woven basket for authenticity, or a cotton bag for Green credentials, or a plastic supermarket bag for practicality.

Pick as many berries as you can find, or can be bothered to pick, or can carry. Mix together hawthorn, rose hips, elderberries, both black and red blackberries (red contain more pectin which helps jelly to set), crab apples, wild gooseberries and raspberries. Do not include holly, ivy, privet, yew nor deadly nightshade – they are all poisonous.
The Army & Navy Stores Catalogue of 1940 had all the equipment needed for jam-making
After washing them in a colander, boil up the berries together in a little water until soft, and then mash them up a bit.  Then put into some clean, old tights, and hang from the back of a chair over a large bowl to drip overnight. If you wish to remain historically accurate, use cotton muslin or an old, clean tea towel. In the morning, or after a few hours, squeeze the tights (or muslin) to get out all the juice.  Put the seedy pulp into the compost, or feed to wild birds or your chickens.
For every pint of thick red juice, add one pound of sugar. In a big jam-pan, boil up until the jelly reaches a lovely rolling setting point - drop a blob on a bottle from the fridge. If it sets like jelly, stop cooking. Don’t let it burn. With practice, you can tell when it’s ready: the boiling jelly rolls at a certain speed and plays a certain note.

Delicious and healthy jelly to be proud of
Pour into very clean glass jars, or tea cups if you don’t have enough jars. Put circles of greaseproof paper on the surface of the jelly, and screw on a metal lid while still hot. For presents, add circles of dress fabric or old shirts, tied with brown string. You can use ribbon, but it is a bit twee.
Make labels that say ‘Best War-time Hedgerow Jelly, 2015’. Then get back to work.

During breaks, eat this delicious, clear, red jelly with bread, or meat, or cheese. Or put some in hot water on cold winter days to remind you of sunnier times.
         After your berry-picking walk, sit down with a friend and chat to a squirrel.
If you don’t manage to make this jam this year, then don’t worry, next year will do instead. It’s a deadline that you are allowed to miss.  Photos copyright Janie Hampton 

Sunday 26 July 2015

Scorched Earth, by Carol Drinkwater

A few days ago I headed north, driving from our home on the French Côte d’Azur to our home in the Brie, mid-centre between Paris and Reims, fifteen minutes from the Champagne district. I love these long trajectories penetrating and discovering France. In the years I have lived here I have driven in every season, at every hour of the day or night and some of the trips have been memorable for the landscapes, colours, temperatures beyond the car windows. Landscape films. My recent journey will join the memorable ones because of the heat. Down in the south, most days this late June and first half of July, the temperature has hovered at around 30C, occasionally rising to 32 or even 33C. Because we live within view of the Mediterranean, the sea breezes, the humidity, keep the climate reasonably constant. No rain down our way for months on end is to be expected and we have the vegetation to handle it, and plenty of it, including the olive tree.

The olive tree is the most drought-resistant plant in the western world. It has a magnificent and complex perspiration system and a message service between root, branches and the underside of its leaves that monitors the level of water dispensed during perspiration. If a serious drought sets in, a warning signal goes up through the tree, telling it to hold back its sweat, to conserve the liquid and use it for survival. It really is extremely sophisticated and remarkable.

Effects of Desertification, California

As I drove from Cannes to Avignon before turning north towards Lyon, the world around me remained green and thriving. Cypress trees, olives, palms: each surviving in the canicule (midsummer heat wave). And then I moved towards landlocked regions and the temps rose. By the time we reached the southern outskirts of Lyon, the thermometer in my car was reading 42.5C. I never use air-conditioning as a rule but I was drenched and it was blasting at full strength and I was wondering whether it was broken or I hadn’t set it correctly, it made so little difference. Once through Lyon into the Beaujolais region and the land was telling a very worrying story and what I witnessed grew worse as I moved north. I have never seen France so parched. The golden wheat fields were bled of hydration and the gold had turned to a pallid sand colour. Even the fields of sunflowers drooped like worn-out washer women. The countryside around me looked as though it was a sand desert not corn fields.

Desertification, I thought.

Everybody is talking Climate Change and Global Warming. Some scoff at the concept. Others dread it. Some say our planet’s temps have always varied while others again believe that we have just a short time left to drastically change our lifestyles before the the effects of our carbon expenditure, our over-use of fossil fuels which is causing the layer of gases that protect our planet to get thicker and cause Earth to heat up to a degree that will make our lives here unpalatable and eventually impossible.

This is such a complex issue, whichever side you take. And for the majority of us it is little more than a serious of debates. We talk about the natural legacy we are passing on to our children and grandchildren but mostly we cannot visualise what this heating up of Earth means, what it looks like.

I have seen it. Not because I am a visionary or brilliant in any way at all, but simply because I was travelling, searching for stories, gleaning facts about the history of the olive tree.

I was in Algeria, a country four times larger than France, ten times the size of Britain and the second largest country in Africa. It has a population of 34 million and most of them are living close to its Mediterranean shores or just inland in the mountains. Beyond, heading south, is desert. Nothing but Sahara sand where little grows and few survive except in oasis towns. But it wasn’t always so. Algeria was, along with Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, an agriculturally rich part of the Roman Empire. Olives for oil and wheat were mass produced here and I was soon to find out to what extent a terrain can change in a matter of a mere two thousand years.

For the first weeks of my Algerian travels I hugged the coast visiting families working with bees and olive farming, and during all that time it rained. It rained incessantly so I have comparatively few photos of those very important days.

For my own sake I was disappointed, but for Algeria the rain was essential. It was the first they had seen in over four years. Dry earth was an understatement. And so, even though it made my own plans difficult, I celebrated for the Algerians as I lay in bed in modest homes with no running water listening to the downpours fall into tin buckets. I visited deserted Roman sites such as the World Heritage site of Timgad, a magnificently laid out city all but forgotten now where a forty-kilometre wide lake had once irrigated the surrounding countryside rich with Mediterranean trees and wheat fields and fed the Romans’ exceedingly advanced plumbing systems.

                                                            Roman site after rain deluge

In The Olive Tree I wrote the following while standing in some weed bedraggled thermal baths:
‘Those evergreen woods and the abundance of fresh water had been deciding factors in the choice of Timgad for the Roman soldiers’ metropolis. Twenty-first century Timgad claimed neither copse nor pond. The Romans felled the bulk of the trees; they denuded the ancient forests to heat the gallons of water required for their public baths...
Waterless was the ruined city I stood in; a desolate, windy outcrop....’

                                                          Windblown olive tree, Algeria

Today in Algeria, all these inland Roman sites, World Heritage Sites, barely visited, sit in the middle of nowhere. If you didn’t know the history you would ask yourself why on earth such an advanced civilization had bothered with such isolation. It was food for thought, but nothing prepared me for my march towards the desert.

Triumphal Arch, Timgad, Algeria

After almost a month of travelling rough, washing out of buckets, wearing the same mud-stained clothes, in and out of danger zones where Al-Qaeda was marking out its territories and setting up training camps in the midst of Berber tribal territories and the wind blew raw and rough, I climbed in an old yellow taxi to the mountainous portals of the desert, into a town called Tébessa from where, two millennia earlier, a busy road had run back to the coast. A ‘Roman bread basket’ rich with tablelands of wheat fields. This region had once been one of Rome’s most bountiful granaries. The grain was freighted to the sea and put on boats to feed the Empire. No more.

I was on my way to visit what I had been told was the 'oldest olive mill' in North Africa, built by the Romans. To find it I travelled through the dustbowl that was Tébessa, and on southwards another fifty or more kilometres into the Sahara. In fact, where I was headed was not the oldest olive mill in North Africa but it turned out to be the largest. Finding it, in the middle of this empty desert zone, was no easy task but find it we did as I and my driver bumped over, descended into a dried up wadi, a sand track that had once been a flowing river, damaged the jalopy’s axle and approached El Ma el Abiod, the oil mill’s Arabic name. It is also the name of a region inland of coastal Annaba. No Roman name for the mill or the location has been discovered.

After days of travelling, I had found it. It rose up before me in the middle of nowhere like a magic castle, a stupendous sandstone construction of a size that beggared belief and I thought might melt away at any second. I stood dumbfounded.
How many mills were once operating within this complex? How many thousands and thousands of gallons of olive oil were pressed here on a daily basis? How many olive trees were required to produce the fruits to feed this humungous enterprise? I could not imagine the acres of cultivated trees that must have grown here. I looked about me. Nothing but wind and sand.

I scooted from the car to the mill’s green gate. The site was fenced, locked with a substantial padlock. Lord knows why. I turned about. One small Berber mud abode with goatherd boy and mother. She was the keeper of the key. It was like a prop out of a Harry Potter sequence. I could barely lift it. But it opened the gate and in I went. There were clues of every kind, witnesses to the magnitude of the commerce that had once taken place. More oil was pressed here than is pressed today in the entire French olive oil sector. The river so dry and sunken today had been a vital water source for the vegetation and for the turning of the mill wheels.

I closed my eyes and pictured this place in its heyday and then looked about me at the nothingness. There was not a tree in sight. Nothing but a few yellow weeds that fed the skeletal goats.

   Alas, I have no photographs but here is a shot from the internet of a few miles of the Algerian Sahara.

Desertification. The process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agricultural practices. The loss of topsoil, pesticides killing off vegetation and ground cover which are essential food sources for birds and insects. Erosion is a consequence. Loss of species is another such as the endangered honeybee.

                                                        Bumblebee at our Olive Farm

I am regularly asked what I brought back from seventeen months of travelling round the Mediterranean in search of Olive Tree stories. It is impossible to sum it up in a few sentences but I did discover that there are multi-million dollar programmes being implemented in the southern Sahara to reforest areas of the desert. The olive tree has a principal root that seeks out deep water levels and encourages rain, when there is any, to follow its path and settle deep in the earth, hence encouraging the replenishment of groundwater. I stood witness to Man’s mismanagement of the earth on many occasions and I wept. Equally, I shared moments of joy when a project of regrowth, reforestation was showing early signs of success.

This week as I made the hot and arduous journey up through France in temperatures that hit 42.5C, an unheard of level of heat in central France, I took it as a warning. We cannot debate and procrastinate any longer. Time is running short. The parched earth is a first stage warning. It is time to repair our damaged planet.

Below is a link to Nasa's website on global climate change and another to UNESCO's

Saturday 25 July 2015


I have a good friend with a gift for finding the perfect book. A few weeks ago she appeared with a slim volume that had been languishing in a charity shop: Life Among the English, by Rose Macaulay.
Yes - THAT Rose Macaulay, the author of The Towers of Trebizond.

Dame Rose Macaulay by Howard Instead
matte bromide print, early 1920s
NPG Ax20446 © National Portrait Gallery, London
This little book, published in 1942, was one of a series published by William Collins of London, aimed at capturing, for a wartime readership, the essence of the Englishness they were fighting to preserve. 

Each book was very short - in this case, just 48 pages - but the list of authors is impressive. Graham Greene was signed up to do British Dramatists, John Betjeman British Towns and Cities, and John Piper British Romantic Artists.

It fell to Rose Macaulay to romp though English social history from 'the first two or three centuries AD' to the middle of the Second World War.  What a daunting task. But Macaulay launched on it with spectacular verve, right from the start. Here's the opening:

Owing to the weather, English social life must always have largely occurred either indoors, or when out of doors, in active motion.

Macaulay's voice is one of the prime attractions of the book. Any modern academic historian would have little difficulty finding 'facts' to quibble with, or quotations infuriatingly unsourced, but who could fail to enjoy forays into mind reading, and tongue-in-cheek passages such as this vignette of post-Roman Britain:

....toga-wearing Celtic chieftains whose wives vainly aped Roman manners, but seldom went so far as to use the fashionable baths in their courtyards and did not really grasp the plumbing system (possibly some Romans, if they at all resembled Romans today, did not grasp it either).

The Dark Ages and the Medieval period are crunched into one (much as they still were when I was at school).  They are summed up as having provided:

A full life for both men and women, and if one adjective had to be selected to describe it, perhaps the aptest would be 'quarrelsome.'

The book really fizzes into life when it gets to the Tudors. Like so many history books, this one tends to describe the manners and lifestyle of the upper classes as if they pertained to everyone, but most of the time, Macaulay catches herself when she falls into this trap. What she is remarkably 'modern' about is her concentration on the lives of women -- and for most periods she portrays them (especially those who were monied and married) as having had a pretty good time, quoting a Dutchmen who saw England as The Paradise of married women...Their bodies satisfied and their heads prettily mizzled with wine.

Lack of space drives Macaulay to almost poetic concision.  Here's how she opens the section on the Stuarts:

We slide, with the seventeenth century, into a gentler, less rampageous age; socially more civilized, intellectually less at the boil, but more adult. 

Amidst the racy detail of fashions in clothes, food, learning and manners, the message throughout this little book that people, and especially social climbers, don't change. And though Rose Macaulay inevitably sticks with the standard narrative of events, she does challenge some clichés.  For example, she rejects the idea of a crudely polarised clash of cultures in the run up to the Civil War.

There were then, as now, a hundred different Englands. Through one recorder's eyes we see frivolous court-goers, scent-soaked, ornament-hung, wearing little mirrors in their hats, crowding round gaming tables and drink bars, furnishing texts for puritan invective; through another's, quiet, well-bred thoughtful country squires...

The Civil War itself gets hardly a mention. The Commonwealth paradoxically presents a disciplinary problem for young people on the make. Macaulay quotes from Dorothy Osborne::
"The want of a court to govern themselves by is in great part the cause of their ruin. Though that was no perfect school of virtue, yet vice yet wore her mask."

It seems that the 'Interval' was not as successfully straight-laced as we have been led to believe.  Macaulay sums it up like this:

People idled, joked, sang and played, talked in coffee houses, courted, travelled, consulted astrologers and quacks, hunted witches, met for secret worship, laughed at 'the canters' and their comical ways, wrote verse, read romances, kept journals, drank the waters at Tunbridge and Bath, went by Smithfield and 'saw a miserable creature burning that had murdered her husband,' then on, unperturbed, to see curiosities in ivory.

It's hard not to wonder whether, writing when Britain's very Britishness was under threat in World War Two, Macaulay wasn't making a contemporary appeal not to let fear cramp fun and individualism.

She goes on to capture the relief and release of the Restoration with equal zest, once again revelling in the intellectual and social power of women.  In her eyes, that power increased still further in the 18th century Augustan age, with the birth of the Bas Bleus (bluestockings) and their salons.
There's a swift transition from this to the nineteenth century (and what follows is only the second half of a very long, but elegant sentence):

Ladies flocked to lectures, pressed flowers, made purses of beads and mats of Berlin wool, read Keepsake, and floated round ball-rooms with lovely shoulders sloping up from gowns that passed from classical to puff-sleeved rococo and thence to stately Victorian flow; while gentlemen, progressing from bucks and dandies into swells, curled their hair and grew side whiskers.

While making fun of those 'swells', Macaulay nevertheless acknowledges that they were probably little different from their dandy, buck, beau and maccaroni ancestors.

But women, she insists, were, as the Victorian age progressed, subject to more change, heralding the rise in education for the sake of pursuing a professional career, rather than the simple acquisition of 'accomplishments'.

Although the series prided itself on being lavishly illustrated (especially for wartime) the pictures are pretty dreadful.  The blurring of this image is not entirely down to my photography, and the colours are the same for everything from medieval documents to eighteenth century cartoons.
Other aspects of the Victorian era are swept aside dismissively. Writing in the early 1940s, Macaulay could only see Victorian architecture and taste as 'monstrous'.  As for the Edwardian society of her own youth, she celebrates its class-squashing social provisions such as Old Age Pensions and Health Insurance, but derides its pleasure-seeking excesses.  Her wit carries through into an account of the domestic effects of the war that was going on around her in 1942:

Bare legs became a feminine summer fashion; men, more sartorially conservative, clung to such socks as they had.

Within the same paragraph, as the book comes to a close, we get a taste of of the dangerous world in which Macaulay was celebrating her homeland:

English social life is, in these curious, troubled years, moving a few steps nearer that democracy for which we say we are fighting and which have never yet had.  Only a few steps; and whether these will be retraced or continued when the solvent furnace of war dies down, and we are left to grope a way through the wreckage and smouldering ashes, we cannot yet know.

If only Macaulay could have carried on to cover the rest of the twentieth century.  But what a joy it is to read such a quick romp through English history, even if it is packed with assumptions and prejudices from which we now recoil. Wouldn't it be fun if there were a similar book from the perspective of the twenty-first century, and one of today's great writers could make it as easy for a new generation to get a feel for the sweep of our strange little island's story?

Friday 24 July 2015

THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED: Elizabeth Chadwick interviews the authors.

About 15 years ago I met medievalist historian, lecturer, editor and author Gillian Polack on an online forum and over the years we gradually got to know each other. (she's also a History Girl!)  I often send her historical queries and she's my go to person if I want to ask anything about French or English 12th and 13th century culture. 

Gillian Polack

I have only recently met textile archaeologist, teacher and academic Katrin Kania but she is lovely and highly knowledgeable.  I recently sent her a query about men's shirts in the 12th century and she was able to give me the answer!
Katrin Kania 

For as long as I have known Gillian, she has been writing The Middle Ages Unlocked. It has gone through several changes from catterpillar to butterfly. Its working title was 'THE BEAST' because of its vast scope.   I was uitterly delighted for both Gillian and Katrin when they found a publisher for what I consider is an essential work that should be on every medievalist's bookshelf.  I was also honoured and delighted when they asked me if I would write the introduction.

I thought it would be interesting to ask Gillian and Katrin a few questions about UNLOCKING THE MIDDLE AGES and their journey together so far, so here they are, complete with some enlightening answers!

ELIZABETH:  Can you give the blog readers a quick resume of THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED and its purpose. What do you think readers will gain from it? 

GILLIAN: The original main purpose behind the book was because there wasn't anything quite like it (though a few came close) and there was a crying need for it.  I know there was a crying need because people kept telling me so.  So many readers wanted an introduction that didn't assume that they knew a vast amount of history, but that alseo didn't treat them as intellectual lightweights.  This is why it was begun, originally, and why it kept changing form and content.  It was quite hard to establish what people really did need when the main thing they knew was that they hadn't seen it.

KATRIN: The main purpose of the book for me is to provide a basic understanding of the topics and how they interconnect.  With a basic understanding, the reader can go on to research, for instance, stone masonry or stained glass or Arthurian legends or Judaism.  But to find scholarly articles for research and to really profit from them you need a solid basis to stand on, and that can be difficult to find.

ELIZABETH: Is there anything you would like to say to potential readers?

KATRIN: Be aware that you will have deeply ingrained cultural assumptions and biases that will colour how you read and interpret history.  While working together, Gillian and I kept stumbling across little differences in our basic assumptions that made big differences in how we read the same text with the same facts.  Working together has been an eye-opener for me in that regard, and although I was theoretically aware of how one's own background can be an influence, actually dealing with effect of these influences really drove the point home.

ELIZABETH: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED has been a long labour of love for you - Gillian, I can remember you were working on it more than ten years ago and its unofficial title has always been 'THE BEAST'. What made you begin writing it in the first place and allied to that, can you tell us a little about its journey to publication?  I know that it has been a tale of ups and down.  How did the collaboration work between you and Katrin as part of that journey?

GILLIAN: There once was a mail list called LMB. Seriously it's where I met you and a lot of my friends. It's where we all chatted and swapped tales and a friend called Tamara Mazzei said (and everyone else echoed) 'We need this book.'  Tamara Mazzei was key to the first team, as was Wendy Zollo, who did some lovely sketches for clothes, and Lara Eakins (an astronomer) who was going to do the astronomy.  Life caught up with everyone and somehow I was left to carry THE BEAST through to publication.  I've joked so many times that it was my albatyross, for it was one of those tasks that one does for others and finds that it takes over one's life.  Now it's out there and people are finding it useful.  I'm glad I did it, but I'm also glad that Katrin joined me about this time of year in 2011: THE BEAST is not a book to be written by one person alone.  I'd like it if the material Tamara worked on saw the light of day sometime; she did some lovely work.  I'll hand over to Katrin to talk about the publishing end. 

KATRIN:  We did have a lot of ups and down - many of the editors we spoke to were interested in the book and did like it, but it still didn't work out.  There is more to getting a book into a publishing house catalogue than pleasing the editor: it also has to fit in with the rest of the programme, sales and marketing has to decide - whether it's saleable and so on.  Which means that we heard 'I like this book, but we're not the right house for it' more than once.
Our collaboration in finding a publisher was much like our collaboration in writing the book itself.  We tried to play to each other's strengths - I would often draft the letters and e-mails and provide the basic structure and Gillian made sure it was proper English (she can tell a tale or two of how German and English spelling clash at key points in letters) and that there was proper narrative.

ELIZABETH: How did you go about organising your sections? Did you always know that it would begin with 'Rich and Poor. High and Low: The People of Medieval England'  and end with 'How Many Miles to Babylon? Measuring Things?  How did you decide?  And how did yu decide on the great, evocative chapter headings?  Incidentally I love 'Death and Taxes you cannot avoid.'  Too true!

KATRIN:  We swapped chapters around more times than I like to remember.  Any book about a complex topic with lots of cross-connections will run into chapter structure problems, and we had them all the way through. Many of the tings we write about are relevant to more than one topic.  The final chapter order is a mixture of a big restructure that we did while discussing the book with another editor and our original structure - for a long time the book started with the government and religion sections.  The chapter headings were actually one of the last things we did before handing in the manuscript, our working titles were much less interesting.  Apart from the one about the land which was 'Nature Calls' for a long time!

GILLIAN: Some of our working titles were fun but not usable. We had one that was perfect for Katrin but reminded me of a well-known Australian song for instance, and it took ages for us to find a workaround that didn't bring the tune to mind.  I don't work with soundtracks because my soundtracks become earworms and that's exactly what Way Out West was.  Let me share it with you.
Way Out West

ELIZABETH: Which areas of this period do you think are well represented in terms of what we know and which have scarcer resources?  What would you liked to see researched in the future?  Is there anything  that especially interests you that you'd like to see? And are there any changes you'd like to see in the way we study history? 

GILLIAN: That's such a huge question.  I'm going to be quite evil and let Katrin answer.

KATRIN: I think that whatever topic you are looking into, as soon as you delve deep, you will find there are a lot of things we don't know.  On the surface many aspects seem to be well researched and well known but once you burrow down, there are holes in our knowledge and so many details that are confusing or unexplained.  As for changes in how we study history, I'd like to see more interdisciplinary work.  We can learn so much from our colleagues in adjacent disciplines - but it can be hard to get started because questions and methods are often very, very different.  So what I would like to see for future research is a way of teaching scholars how to communicate with those from adjacent disciplines.

ELIZABETH: If you could write a reference work as big as you liked, is there anything else you would add to 'UNLOCKED.'

GILLIAN: All the things we left out!  A vast and detailed bibliography, footnotes, lists of birds and animals and plants and comets and eclipses.  For THE BEAST as I would have preferred it, we would have needed four times the number of pages.  It would be unpublishable alas.  Most of the things we left out, we left out because there are limits to what one can do with a print book.

ELIZABETH: Can you give us examples of common misconceptions about this period that you have come across? 

 KATRIN:  Clothes were drab, grey sacks.  Making a fire with flint and steel was difficult and took a long time.  That's just naming two of them that irk me on a very personal level but Gilliam can tell you many, many more...

GILLIAN: So many misconceptions!  That castles were built in the geographical centre of towns, always. That people never washed and were deeply superstitious and weren't very bright. That people in the Middle Ages disguised rotting meat with expensive spices. That chastity belts and iron maidens were not later inventions. much.
I teach whole workshops in breaking down misconceptions.  We have a lot of fun, but there often comes a moment when I explain very gently to someone that these are our ancestors we're talking about and if their ancestors really did all these things, then I'm terribly sorry for them. We generally come to an agreement that I won't be rude about their ancestors and that they will pay attention to the historical evidence and do some serious thinking.

ELIZABETH: THE MIDDLE AGES UNLOCKED brings together a vast range of subjects under one cover - the life cycle from cradle to grave, languages, religion, taxes, the military, economics, travel, clothes, food and so on.  I am struck by the breadth, depth and scope of the work which never fudges or skimps, and unites disciplines.  It's one of those books that in my opinion should form part of the backbone in the library of anyone interested in the Medieval period.

GILLIAN: Thank you!  I learned more from working on it than from my doctorate.  I now have a a much better insight into how my own work fits into the wider medieval world.  I'd read a squillion books about the Middle Ages and of course I'd studied my own specific subjects, but it takes the depth of a big and broad project to see how it all fits together. Working with Katrin was also very good for expanding my horizons.  I studied a bit of archaeology as an undergraduate but that was all.  I know so much more about what archaeologists do and the insights they can give us.  It's been a roller-coaster ride, but I am very pleased to have ridden that roller coaster.

KATRIN; I can only second what Gillian says - both the thanks and the statement.  It really was a wonderful and very long roller-coaster ride!

Thursday 23 July 2015

Atticus Finch, by Leslie Wilson

So: it's out at last, the long-awaited 'sequel' (though it was actually the precursor) of the beloved 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' I can't have been the only one who, when she first read that 'Go Set a Watchman' dealt with the later life of Scout and Atticus Finch, imagined them both marching forward into the '50s with anti-racist banners waving. How naïve of me! Because even 'Mockingbird', when I read it, left me uneasy about Atticus's views.

The book has generated a furore; unsurprisingly. It is deeply upsetting to see the lovable father of 'Mockingbird' growling his racist opinons in the most repellant manner. I think it is this shock and disappointment that has also provoked some hostile receptions of the book itself, with some critics describing it as 'less lovable' and even 'mediocre.' As Hadley Freeman said in the 'Guardian', this maybe validates Lee's initial decision not to let it be published.

Personally, I think publishing it as a novel in itself, 'an unforgettable novel', the jacket blurb tells us, was a wrong decision in absolute terms, though not, doubtless, in commercial ones! I would prefer to see it published in a back-to-back edition with 'Mockingbird', because it is a first draft, unedited, and a valuable piece of archival material which deserves to be published on that account. But it is anything but mediocre.

What I read in 'Watchman' was a piece of compelling and horrifically fascinating writing; much darker than 'Mockingbird', and undoubtedly less of a superb achievement - but after all, this draft was written first. To me, the most remarkable thing about 'Mockingbird' is the way in which a whole adult world, not ducking out of its darkest aspects - rape, lynchings, incest - is evoked from the point of view of an eight year-old. The childhood parts of 'Watchman' display the same wry humour and unerring characterisation - and they are all a joy, and new, for most of them deal with Scout's adolescence. 'Watchman' would be worth reading for these alone.

Only - only there is this older, repellent Atticus. How can we bear him? Perhaps by trying to comprehend what he really is.

Listen to Jem in 'Mockingbird', describing the society of Maycomb County.

'There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbours, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.' The children then try to work out what the difference is between the four kinds of people - education, property? and Scout opines that there's no difference at all, really, they're all just 'folks.' Because Walter Cunningham, for example, is 'as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy.'

Contrast this insight of Scout's with Atticus's remarks in the courtroom, disparaging people who 'promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious.. because all men are created equal, the educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inequality.' I take it that 'promote' means allowing children like Walter Cunningham to move up a class, rather than keeping them back if they didn't make the grade. Atticus doesn't recognise his intelligence, nor does he contradict his sister when she forbids Scout to play with Walter because he is 'trash' (and he doesn't allow his daughter to go and visit the black servant Calpurnia at her home, either.) And what is one of the crucial things that Atticus objects to in 'Watchman?' To black kids being offered the same opportunities, education-wise, as the white ones. He loathes the NAACP - the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, who have a long history of fighting for equal educational rights for black people. His objection to the advancement of black men and women to full citizenship is that they are 'backward', and he deeply mistrusts the organisation that is seeking to make them less so.

The society of Maycomb contains impoverished 'aristocrats' and ex-slave owners like the Finches; then the Cunninghams who are 'deserving poor' (or 'deserving trash), then the totally undeserving 'white trash' like the Ewells, and finally the black people who are totally at the bottom of the heap. It's a stratified and rigid class system, and the Finches sit at the top of it.

Atticus, talking to Jem about the black people's lot in Maycomb, tells him: 'As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, or how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.'

This is an aristocrat speaking about noblesse oblige. It doesn't mean that Atticus wants to reverse the order of society or even change the condition of black people in any other way than giving them justice. It is almost on a level with kindness to animals. If you are in a privileged position, you should justify it by behaving properly to those below you.

Both this novel, and 'Watchman' were written in the '50s, in a very different world from now, and 'Mockingbird' is set in 1935. The fact that Uncle Jack brings Scout to her senses (in the book's terms) by clouting her across the head is pretty shocking to me, but this was an era when that kind of behaviour was considered acceptable. Consider the Georgette Heyer stories where the heroes talk blithely about husbands beating their wives. In 'Watchman', the involvement of Communists in the struggle for racial equality is tacitly considered to discredit those struggles, though in fact the most famous 'rape' case of the inter-war years, that of the Scottsboro Boys, was defended, not by a noble-minded Southern aristocrat, but by Communist lawyers. But in the Cold War 50s, ridden by terror of Reds under the bed, 'Communist' was a dirty word. We have at least come far enough now to acknowledge that not all actions carried out by Communists were evil. But the past is another country.

And on that topic; quite a lot of commentators have expressed their horror that the word 'negro' is used interchangeably with 'black' in 'Watchman', as it is in 'Mockingbird', come to that. That's another example of the past being another country. When I was a child in the '50s, and we had black YMCA secretaries coming to stay in the house, I was taught that the respectful way to refer to them was 'negro.' 'Black' (as in 'Little Black Sambo') was dreadfully offensive. It wasn't till the Black Power movement took off that the word was reclaimed and 'negro' became offensive. I do wish people would trouble to find this simple fact out. The other 'N-word' has always been offensive, but that is a different matter.

So let's look at Atticus Finch, a man of his time, who has been given the job of defending a black man accused of rape, when most of his own class, and the other local white people, expect him not to defend Tom Robinson at all. Even if it is noblesse oblige, even something like kindness to animals, is it easy for Atticus to stand up for his aristocratic principles and his belief in abstract justice? Of course not. He is vilified by his own class, Bob Ewell, the father of the supposed 'victim,' spits in his face; his children suffer, and finally only just escape death at Ewell's hands.

If the Atticus who sits alone outside the prison to protect Tom from the lynch mob is far from a modern anti-racist, can we vilify him for that? We may feel that we've come further than he has, like Scout herself in 'Watchman' - and even she has views that grate on a modern reader. But it takes real courage for Atticus to go as far as he does. He actually believes a black man deserves the same justice as a white person! Most of the residents of Maycomb County don't share that conviction.
Harper Lee

There is a tendency in modern life to dissect the reformers of the past and almost gloat over what we consider to be their failings. To criticise the initial campaigns against slavery because they 'only' focussed on the abolition of the trade, rather than abolition altogether. But as far as I know nobody, up till the eighteenth century, had ever questioned the institution of slavery. It was part of the world set-up, and had been for as long as history went back. The astonishing fact is that people did get up and become uneasy about it - and then went on to campaign against slavery altogether. Our ideas about racial justice and equality are based on the actions of those who went before us. The steps they took make it possible for us to take further ones.

In fact, how much do modern Britons (to say nothing of Americans) have to be proud of even now? In a country where a black lawyer, entering a conference chamber, can be assumed by her colleagues to be the tea-lady, and where if the police are called to a disturbance, their reaction is too often to arrest the black victim of violence. Black people are discriminated against on a daily basis at all levels of British society. Those of us who are white sit on a cushion of privilege which perhaps we're barely aware of and it ill behoves us to sit in judgement.

So I would like to say to Atticus Finch - yes, you are a racist, and many of your opinions make my hair stand on end - but all the same, I salute your courage.