Monday 31 August 2015

August competition

Our competitions are open only to UK Followers

To win one of five copies of Sheena Wilkinson's Name upon Name, answer the following question in the Comments below:

"Which book set in WW1 has the most resonance for you, and why?"

Please send a copy of your answer to:

so that I know how to contact you to let you know if you are a winner.

Closing date, to allow for holidays, is 14th September

Sunday 30 August 2015

In the Cabinet of Curiosities, with Laurie Graham

copyright: FIDM Museum, Los Angeles
 Any guesses what this is? If I didn't know better I'd have said it was something used in the construction of bagpipes. Let me help you get to the bottom of this. It is an item of apparel: a  health bustle (so-called) that dates from the mid 1880s.

Bustles had two periods of fashion favour. The first, in the early 1870s, created a substantial, rounded derriere, sometimes referred to as a Grecian bend. But by 1875 bustles were so last year and given the considerable discomfort of wearing them you'd have thought they'd have remained that way. Then along came Lily Langtry.

Lily, you will recall, was a sweetheart of the Prince of Wales and also an actress, always with an eye on her appearance and her bank balance. She was paid to endorse Pears soap.

The revived bustle, angular, jutting almost horizontally, which Miss Langtry helped to make fashionable, emphasised the slenderness of an already tightly-corseted waist. Here she is, the saucy minx.

One of the problems with early bustles had been sitting down. You couldn't. The best you could hope for was to perch gingerly or lean. Add to that the fact that you could barely breathe in your stays and were steaming like a turkish bath under all those petticoats, being a Victorian fashion plate can't have been much fun. But Lily had an idea how to make the bustle a little more user friendly. And here it is: the Langtry collapsible bustle cage.

   I've never had occasion to wear a bustle but I have been known to dress up as a historical protagonist in order to present a book so who knows, it may yet happen. I imagine anyway that some of you are eager to learn the art of sitting in a collapsible bustle so let me point you in the direction of this video. Any day now you may get invited to a steampunk costume party.  No harm in being prepared.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Ninety-nine years ago by Sheena Wilkinson

Sheena Wilkinson
Welcome to our August guest. Since the publication of the award-winning Taking Flight in 2010, Sheena Wilkinson has been established as one of Ireland’s leading writers for young people. Until now, her novels have all been contemporary, but she has had many short stories published set in the early twentieth century, the most recent being ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in Walker’s The Great War Anthology (2014). Name Upon Name (Little Island) is her first historical novel, set in Belfast 1916

Over to you, Sheena!

I used to be a teacher. Like Mr Chips, I’ve taught thousands of teenagers. Most of them, to be honest, I lost interest in once they left school. But there is one set of former pupils I can’t forget, even though I never actually taught them.

There are about one hundred of them. I know all their names, and as much else about them as I’ve been able to find out – the scholarships they won; the teams they played in; the names of the Belfast streets and country parishes they came from. They have names like Cyril and Fred and Percy. They are all boys. They have all been dead for about a hundred years. Most of them are buried, in mainly unmarked graves, in France and Flanders.

In 2004, I spent months researching this group of boys for an exhibition I put on in the school’s heritage centre. I became obsessed with tracking down the smallest details, in old school magazines, in local history books, on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Was Sydney Downey, killed on the 7th June 1917, aged 21, in the 20th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, as the school records say, or in the 14th as stated by the CWGC? Did it matter? Did the family of Percy Millar Tees know that he died on exactly the same day as Wilfred Owen? Did they, like Owen’s family, receive word of his death just as the Armistice was announced?

The exhibition was lovely, in a poignant kind of way. As was the trip I made that summer to Flanders, visiting as many of the graves as possible. It awakened in me a love of historical research that I’ve never lost. And it left me with a huge amount of information that I never knew quite what to do with but couldn’t bring myself to throw out: not just the details of the hundred boys, but all sorts of information about the school itself during WW1 – the routines; the girls’ fundraising concerts; the making up of parcels to send to Old Boys at the Front. When I left the school, the files and notebooks came with me, and so, in a sense, did the boys and girls of a hundred years ago.

The short stories I wrote and published between 2006-2013 often had a WW1 theme, but I never drew directly on my school research until, last year, I contributed a story, ‘Each Slow Dusk’, to Walker’s anthology The Great War, when I fictionalised details of the school’s war effort, foregrounding the experience (often overlooked in war literature) of a girl. Sixteen-year-old Edith’s dreams of higher education are shattered when she has to leave school to care for her older brother, invalided out of the army with rheumatism. All the stories in The Great War are inspired by artifacts from the war – I used the school magazines I own, a run of five years, from 1914 to 1919.

I’ve always wanted to write a historical novel. But when I was asked, by my regular publishers, Little Island in Dublin, to write a book set around the 1916 Easter Rising for the forthcoming centenary, I was initially reluctant. Irish history is such a minefield, and I’m always aware, as a northerner of mixed heritage, of standing rather on the outside of things. And yes, 1916 was my period but the war was my Thing, not the Rising. I couldn’t write about 1916 Dublin with anything like the confidence – or, to be honest, the interest – that I had about Belfast.

The truth is, I was scared of the Rising. Scared of being told that it wasn’t for the likes of me. Scared of having nothing new to say. Of being accused of cashing in on the centenary.

But then I remembered a paragraph from one of those school magazines: "The Easter holidays were times of great uneasiness and anxiety, on account of the Sinn Fein rebellion. When the first news of it came, most of us were horrified, and disinclined to believe the wild rumours… The boarders living in Dublin and further south west were unable to return at the appointed time…"

 Later in the magazine: "We are indebted to one of our Old Boys who is now in Trinity College, Dublin, for an account of his adventures during the rebellion." And I realised that I could write an Easter Rising story set in Belfast, and show how events in Dublin had an effect on people who weren’t necessarily politically inclined. In fact, the very fact that had always made me reluctant to engage in Irish politics was what could make the story interesting, for my heroine, Helen, is like me from a mixed Catholic/Protestant background, with a conflicted and insecure sense of identity, and relatives on either side of the political and cultural divide.

And as soon as I started writing – beginning with a scene in which Helen enrages her staunch Presbyterian aunt with a suggestion that she say a wee prayer to St Anthony, an actual memory from my own 1970s childhood, I was on very firm ground indeed. Helen has schoolmates and cousins caught up in the war, and another cousin caught up in the Rising, just as I grew up with relatives with fiercely opposing views. And in the Northern Ireland of the Troubles years those views mattered just as much as they did in 1916. My relatives, like Helen’s, certainly didn’t know each other.

If History tends to be written by the winners, what of the people who don’t really have a side? People like Helen, people like me? Writing Name Upon Name made me realise the extent to which I had allowed myself to be marginalised by the history of my own country. And so, although in some ways Name Upon Name is my most distant book, set ninety-nine years ago, in other ways it is my most autobiographical.

History can be funny that way.

Magazine photos are by Alison Moore


Friday 28 August 2015

Hiroshima: City of Peace, by Clare Mulley

Seventy years ago this month, on Monday 6 August 1945, the nuclear bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, immediately killing an estimated 80,000 people. Three days later a second bomb, the equally appallingly nick-named ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki, killing between 60-70,000 people. On 15 August Japan surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War.

It has been argued that President Truman’s decision to drop the A-bombs on these two Japanese cities saved more lives than were lost by ending the war so much earlier than any alternative course of action. As usual the truth is more complex. Truman’s primary objectives were certainly American lives and the earliest possible end to the war, but other pertinent considerations included impressing the Soviets as the Cold War approached, the lasting need to respond to Pearl Harbour, and the pressure to justify the development costs of the atomic project. In this war, sides of very different motivations and experiences all committed atrocities and suffered from traumatising war crimes. I don't seek to suggest equivalence. Nevertheless, it is still difficult understand the detonation of two separate Atomic bombs on the same country within a few days.

Cherry blossom in Hiroshima, April 2015

I visited Japan for the first time this Easter. It was cherry blossom season and the flowers were spectacular, frothing white and pink against bright blue skies. I was traveling around by bullet train and bicycle, visiting shrines and temples, stroking deer, feeding carp, and watching robots hop and skip in Tokyo. I also spent a day in Hiroshima, a vibrant city rebuilt after its almost total destruction in 1945. Modern Hiroshima has its fair share of cherry trees, but the official flower of the city is the Oleander, as this was the first plant to bloom again after 1945.

I was shown around the city by a local guide called Keiko. We started at the Peace Park that had opened in 1955. Here Keiko pointed out the new ground level, resulting from the vast amount of imported earth brought in to cover contaminated land. We visited the Genbaku Dome, the skeletal remains of the most central building left standing by the bomb which has been preserved as a memorial, as well as the eternal flame, and the peace pagoda erected in 1966.

Hiroshima Peace Pond in front of the Peace Flame
and Cenotaph in the Memorial Park

Keiko had married into a family from Hiroshima. Her husband’s mother was a young woman living less than two kilometers from the epicentre of the detonation in 1945. Of their large family only she, and a few others who were also away from home that August morning, survived. Keiko's husband was not born until a few years later but Keiko told me that, although rarely talking about it, he still carries the weight of these devastating events on his shoulders. 'As do all the city’s post-war generations', she added.

While other cities like Tokyo and Osaka had been severely bombed during the war, Hiroshima, where several Japanese armies were based, had not been targeted. Anticipating an eventual attack, that August the city authorities had mobilised school-children aged between eleven and fourteen to demolish certain houses to create fire-breaks, with the aim of limiting potential damage from firestorms. Many were helping with this work on the morning that the A-bomb fell, putting them close to the centre of the impact. Amongst other relics, such as melted road girders and roof tiles, the absolutely heart-wrenching Hiroshima Peace Museum displays possessions from some of these children including unopened lunch-boxes, scorched school books and several school blouses that had been beautifully hand-stitched by girls in classes just weeks earlier. In case these seem romantic, there are also some appalling human relics, kept by traumatised relatives who had nothing else. Thousands of other people left no evidence of their lives, abilities or personalities at all.

The museum also holds a display of many of the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was just two years old when she was exposed to radiation from the A-bomb further out in the suburbs of Hiroshima. Having developed leukaemia some years later, Sasaki began folding paper cranes in the hope that when she had made a thousand she might be granted a wish, as in Japanese legend. Too weak to continue, Sasaki died in 1955.

Origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima Peace Museum

Sadako Sasaki statue, holding a crane aloft

Such devastatingly personal effects and relics are deeply telling, but nothing can convey the enormity of the loss. Six thousand Hiroshima school-children were killed when the atomic bomb was dropped. Many more died later from their injuries. By the end of the year the death toll is estimated to have been between 90,000-166,000, possibly more than half of the city’s entire population. Cancer and other resulting conditions claimed many more lives, such as that of twelve year old Sasaki. Around 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings were also destroyed. Nagasaki suffered a similar level of destruction.

Hiroshima was proclaimed a City of Peace by the Japanese parliament in 1949. It has since hosted a series of conferences on peace, developed a dedicated Peace Institute within its university, and established the international ‘Mayors for Peace’ organization, calling for the abolition and elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2020. This may be an unrealistic goal but it serves as a guide to steer disarmament. When one thinks of mothers, their skin hanging off, running towards the suburbs of Hiroshima clutching their dead children to their chests, it seems impossible to conceive of ever using such a weapon again.

The American decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki resonates in other ways today as well. From a historian's perspective, earlier this year the USA took the decision to digitise the records generated by their Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, to make them readily available to researchers internationally. The ABCC was the US body established in 1947 to carry out a medical assessment of the effect of radiation on survivors from the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documents show that many of the US commission’s doctors were deeply affected by what they witnessed, although, as The Japan Times noted while I was visiting Hiroshima, many of the A-bomb survivors later criticised the commission for treating them like research guinea-pigs. Pity, without empathy or respect, is of little value. Preserved images in this collection include many taken to show the ‘atomic bomb radiation effects on the human body’, with some of the survivors photographed holding nameplates. Clearly issues around confidentiality and sensitivity must be paramount, and the full history behind the commission, as well as its findings, needs to be addressed.

Keiko nevertheless believes that the stories that stem from Hiroshima need to reach the widest possible audience. She told me that she feels deeply moved when showing visitors around her city and she hopes that, in this way, she can play a small part in helping to spread Hiroshima’s messages both of peace, and of the ‘evil of Atomic weapons’, around the world. I thought of Keiko as Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell silent for the seventieth anniversary this August, each city remembering the moment when tens of thousands of their citizens were killed. After doves were released and Buddhist bells tolled, vows were taken to redouble civic efforts to halt nuclear proliferation in a world where incidents, accidents, and the threat of nuclear terrorism is ever growing. Since then, countries including Japan and the USA, Britain, India, Australia, China and Russia have negotiated a controversial new deal to limit Iran's nuclear programme, while providing relief from previous sanctions and permitting the country to continue its atomic programme 'for peaceful purposes'.

As I left Hiroshima, Keiko gave me a white origami orizuru, or paper crane, which she had folded as we walked around the peace park. There are many important war anniversaries this year, but among them we must remember the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the message of peace with which Hiroshima has heroically chosen to reply to the world. Pity alone is not enough.

Copyright: Clare Mulley

Thursday 27 August 2015

Small boats in the English Channel by Janie Hampton

Refugees in small boats are much in the news, with governments determined to stop them coming, send them back, or keep them incarcerated in camps. In the summer of 1940, there were refugees in small boats in the English Channel. This is the story of one such refugee family.

Amsterdam, early 20th Century
The Kleins were a hard-working, bourgeois, Jewish family with a comfortable home in Amsterdam. When on 10 May, 1940, the German army invaded Holland, Simon and Maria Klein knew they had to leave everything behind.

Simon had already been a refugee twice. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in about 1900, his parents sent him to Leipzig to escape conscription, and a few years later his relations told him to go to Holland. ‘The land of the free,’ they said. He found work in a firm of tailors’ accessories and married the owner’s niece, Maria. As the representative of “Double-weave underwear” Simon took Maria to Germany but after a few years they returned to The Netherlands with their two small children. ‘In Amsterdam nobody took any notice what religion you were,’ remembered their daughter Josephine. ‘Whether you were Jewish or gentile didn’t make any difference.’

In the late 1930s cousins from Germany stayed with the Kleins en route for America, travelling on through Belgium and France. But by May 1940, that route was blocked.
German soldiers in Amsterdam, May 1940. 
Josephine, 13, and her brother Eli, 15, were asleep on the night of 14 May 1940, when their mother told them to dress quickly and grab their gas masks. With their uncle Ralph, the Klein family took a taxi twenty miles west to the fishing town of Ijmuiden. In the dark harbour, crowds of people were trying to get away from the advancing German army. Mr Klein had struck a deal with a man who owned a small rowing boat, and then given extra money for water and food. The Kleins climbed on board, as more people swarmed down the steps and jumped in.

It was soon full but even so, there were more desperate people. ‘Take me…’ ‘For mercy’s sake, take my son!’ ‘Let my wife come with you!’

German invasion 1940, from The Second
World  War,
W. Churchill, 1948.
As Mr Klein pushed off, tears were streaming down his face. The boat was about 15 foot long, and there was only just room to sit down. None of the dozen people on board were sailors, so Eli and another boy, both Boy Scouts, took the oars. As they rowed into the dark water they could see the flashes of guns behind the town of Ijmuiden. Mr Klein’s plan was to row out to sea, where they would be picked up by a passing ship.

Day came, and night again, and another day, with a rising wind at night and waves that crashed against the boat. They had been tricked and they had only one orange between them and a small tank of water, which they drank from a thimble. There were no passing ships.

On the third morning Josephine noticed the water rising in the boat, and quickly used her gas-mask box to bail out the sea water. The next day they sighted land. They believed they had rowed the hundred miles to the east coast of England. But they had simply drifted down the coast of Holland, towards another invaded port, possibly The Hague. Starving and parched with thirst, the Kleins and their passengers turned out towards the open sea again, and kept bailing.
Dunkirk in 1940
 As a Girl Guide, Josephine had learned to read the stars and she worked out North . But no-one had the energy to row, as they drifted in the English Channel. She tried to get the others to sing Guide songs but everyone was too thirsty. The days were hot for May, and the nights were pitch-dark. Twice they saw aeroplanes. One open plane dipped towards them and the pilot pointed with his arm towards England. They couldn’t lie down and sea water sloshed in the bottom of the boat. An  elderly couple sat up straight as if on a bus, and never spoke a word.

More than week after they left Holland, a British destroyer sighted the tiny boat. By then they were semi-conscious, and their feet were swollen from the sea water.  The British sailors carried them on board and they were taken to a hospital in Maidstone. The hospitals in Kent were all on stand-by for the imminent evacuation from Dunkirk: fully staffed but still empty.

The Kleins were soon recovering from ‘trench foot’ and when the evacuation  from Dunkirk began, they were sent to a refugee hostel in Chelsea filled with Belgian fishing families and run by English lady aristocrats.

Other refugees from The Netherlands in London, May 1940. Princess Juliana of the Netherlands pushing her daughter Princess Irene, with her heir Princess Beatrix beside her. Her friend Elizabeth Van Swinderen points out London barrage balloons.
The Kleins wanted to go to America, but they couldn’t get passports, so they settled in Chester. They were welcomed by neighbours with fresh vegetables, school uniforms and support. Josephine made friends through the local Girl Guides and then the Sea Rangers. European Girl Guides arriving in Britain were called not ‘Refugee Guides’, but ‘Golondrinas’, or ‘Swallows’.

Josephine Klein wrote Our Need for Others 
and Its Roots in Infancy, 1987,  and 
Doubts & Certainties in  the Practice 
of Psychotherapy, 1995. . 
After she left school, Josephine read French and Sociology at the University of London, became a social worker and then a psychotherapist and co-founder of the Refugee Therapy Centre in London. Eli joined the British army, and then went into business, married happily and had three children.

When refugees arrived in Britain in small boats 75 years ago, they were welcomed. Nobody described the men who sold the boats as ‘people traffickers’, nor the refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’. They too were escaping war and persecution, just as people from Syria and Mali are today. The 20th Century refugees contributed to Britain, and helped make it the country it now is.   @janieoxford

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Provence, My Inspiration by Carol Drinkwater

Provence. Provence-Alpes-Maritimes is my home, and it has also become my work. I never fail to remind myself how fortunate I am. When I first came here to this southern coast of France I was looking for a ‘house by the sea’. I had circumnavigated the world several times over, both as an actress and traveller, looking for this mythical house I dreamed of. Of course, I found many and some were to die for, frequently outside my price range, requiring too much work for a totally impractical woman or, for one reason or another, they were just not ‘it’, not 'the one'. I could not have said why.
Until I fell in love with a Frenchman (while filming in Australia!) and together we found an abandoned, way-too-expensive property set back from the Bay of Cannes. The Olive Farm series of books was born.

The jungle of land and ruined jumble of stones that constituted The Olive Farm (my title for this hillside property) was never to become the chill-out holiday place I had envisaged. The Olive Farm has become my destiny. It is a very unexpected shift that has taken place. I came here as a youngish actress with lots of energy and I find myself now someone who is invited to universities and schools and various other organisations to talk about olive trees, the history of the olive tree, the plight of the honeybee, the dangers of pesticides. How did this come about, I continually ask myself.

Provence, its nature, its colours, its perfumes has inspired me. Its beauty is a daily revelation to me. And I have humbly stepped to the back of the long line of artists who have been bewitched by this sunlit, fecund sea- and mountain-scape. And it never ends. Every day, there is something new. The Scarce Swallowtail butterfly, for example. A visitor to our grounds since before we came on the scene, this exquisite cream and black pollinator plays a role in my new book, The Forgotten Summer.

When I begin the writing of a new story, while I am still discovering my story, my subject, I walk the lanes, browse art books, visit galleries, go for walks on the beach. I look for images, inspiration, and frequently from the masters who have known this territory before and better than me.

                               (coincidentally when I was travelling in Morocco for The Olive Tree, I bought my      husband the same shoes in the same colour as Pablo is wearing here!)

So, because I am deep, deep in editorial notes on my new book The Forgotten Summer to be published in February 2016, let me please just share a few images with you so that you too can enjoy the source of my inspiration.

Do you know the works of the Provencal artist Paul Camille Guigou (1834 - 1871)? I found this one La Lavandière at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.  I hope you can see the tiny portion of Roman bridge or aqueduct in the background. Apologies that the jpeg is so small, I couldn't find a larger print.

Another of Guigou's is this woman walking  a dirt track along the hilly outskirts of Marseille

Guigou's work has been one of the inspirations for the world of the grape pickers in The Forgotten Summer. The book is not set in the same period - my story is modern and post Algerian War - but the figures, the shapes of the bodies, their gestures and movements were imprinted on my mind while I was writing the harvest scenes. The heat and dust of the landscape. I feel it grinding into my teeth!

A writer whose work I return to constantly is Jean Giono. I confess that I had never heard of him when I first came to live here. I saw streets named after him and I assumed he was a politician and then I came upon The Man Who Planted Trees. If you have never read his work, please do. The tales appear simple and yet they are steeped in nature, magic and wisdom. Henry Miller said of him: 'In Giono's work what every sensitive, full-blooded individual ought to be able to recognise at once is "the song of the world"'. And that says it all really. That is the gift Provence has given me: the song of the world. 
I wake every morning to its cadences, its colours, its rhythms, its magnificence, and I know that I am alive and profoundly fortunate. I hope that The Forgotten Summer will bring a tiny sliver of all this to the page, but it won't if I don't get back to the editorial notes!

One last image to set us up for the day. Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954) was fascinated by the endless blue of the Mediterranean sea. Here is his view from a window onto the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice. 

                                                                The Bay of Nice 1918

It makes me want to jump in the car, drive twenty minutes along the coast and find that balcony or, even better, stop my work and go for a swim in that warm, sunlit sea.

Oh, just two more from Matisse …

                                                          Interior with a Violin (1917-1918)
painted at the Beau Rivage Hotel, Nice. I can feel the harsh beat of light beyond the shutters.


                                                         Painter in the Olive Grove 1922

Back to my own olive groves and my own more humble contributions these eulogies to Provence

Carol Drinkwater

Tuesday 25 August 2015

DEATH OF THE SUN KING by Eleanor Updale

300 years ago today Louis XIV to took to his bed for the last time. His legs had been hurting for a while and his doctor thought he had sciatica. In fact it was senile gangrene. Louis' extremities were turning black. The disease is caused by the gradual death of peripheral blood vessels, and it is not a pretty sight.
If you want to see pictures of what it looks like you know how to Google for them. Here's a little (rather more tasteful) taster:

Discolouration and decomposition of the right foot
Watercolour by Barbara E. Nicholson, 1947.

Not a good look - but it's nothing like as bad as the real thing, which I have had the misfortune to see in someone who was dying.
The doctors have longer and less apocalyptic names for senile gangrene these days - among them, is postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome II (not to be confused with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome I, which is something quite different). Its short name is Pott II syndrome, which sounds quite jolly, but suffice it to say that if your legs start to rot, you know the game is up.
Nevertheless, Louis went out in the style for which he will forever be famous. His servants dressed him up, complete with a high wig, and for a week he held court from his bed, repeatedly saying his last farewells and yet failing to die until the first day of September. He was almost 77 and had reigned for 72 years.
I don't know about you, but I was never told anything about the deathbed scene when I was at school, nor have I read about it much in accounts of the Sun King's reign since then. 

Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743), ‘Louis XIV, King of France (1701),
Musee du Louvre, Paris. Image: Wikimedia commons

Louis XIV must be one of the best examples of image protection in European history. It's hard to picture him as an invalid literally decaying in his own bed. And what a miracle it seems that his dynasty managed to cling on to power almost to the end of the eighteenth century, despite the fact that, in 1715, Louis had outlived most of his legitimate descendants, and was passing on the throne to a great-grandchild who was only five years old. We have been so conditioned to see the collapse of the French monarchy as inevitable that it's easy to underestimate the achievement of the regency which followed Louis XIV's death, and of king Louis XV himself, who reigned for almost as long as his great-grandfather. 

The First Homage to Louis XV
Wikimedia images

But even more of a triumph is the way popular culture remembers Louis XIV as the Sun King: an autocrat perhaps, but somehow a 'good' one. The conventional portrayal is of a dashing monarch who employed and championed great artists, architects, gardeners, scientists and writers. No doubt one of the reasons he did those things was to forge the very image of himself which has endured. But as well as treasuring the cultural achievements of France during his reign,we should perhaps admire the brand management of those who came after him and made sure that, despite the Revolution of 1789, we still picture Louis XIV as a man with an elegant silk-clad calf, and not as an ageing despot hiding his festering legs under the sheets.

Monday 24 August 2015

Ten Favourite Research books by Elizabeth Chadwick.

We moved house 4 years ago to a red brick cottage on the outskirts of the country with a big garden where my husband could tend his allotment from the back  instead of having to rent one from the Parish (we are self sufficient in fruit and vegetables for most of the year).

My work study increased in size from a large single bedroom of our former home, to a decent sized double bedroom in our new place. There was a small downstairs study off the kitchen, but we've converted it into a pantry and laundry room.  I prefer being tucked away!

 I've been managing with my research books in several different places including the built in wardrobes in the bedroom which have good shelving, but a couple of weeks ago we bought some book cases to replace the old extra desk and haphazard shelving behind my main desk.
Happy as a pig in the proverbial, I have been sorting, arranging and cataloguing my reference book collection.  It is rather idiosyncratic in terms of order of books.  It's arranged by subject, beginning with cookery then going on to health, birth, old age, death, men, women, society, work, textiles and clothing etc and finishing up at primary sources.  There is also a top shelf for the big books, which I have yet to sort into order.
Some time ago I began a reference book blog to catalogue my titles.  When I became busy with my day job, that aspect fell by the wayside and I am gradually catching up.  If anyone wants to see my research library as far as I've written up, then here it is. Elizabeth Chadwick's Reference Books

If I could only take 10 of my research books to a desert island for a year, which ten would I choose?  I thought I'd post them here:

Outside of the 10, it goes without saying that I would HAVE to bring my copies of the History of William Marshal in translation volumes 1 and 2. Edited and translated by A J Holden and S. Gregory wih historical notes by David Crouch and published by the Anglo Norman Text Society.  They just have plain red board covers and wouldn't be very exciting to look at, but the content would keep me busy all year with ideas and first hand information about the life of a knight and courtier about his business in the late 12th century.

Now for the rest.

Not in any special order.
If you're only going to have one book about the Norman and Angevin period in England, it has to be this one.  It covers absolutely everything you ever wanted to know. Robert Bartlett is a genius.

The next one is a fascinating read covering medieval trade. The routes, the products, the money exchanges.  Who would have thought that merchants brought back superior quality olive oil soap from Spain - from Castile to be precise!

Book 3 is far more than just a cookery book.  It details how ovens were constructed, what fuels were used and how the whole dining system in a medieval castle worked.  So for example, the main meal tended to be eaten earlier in the day because cooking in the dark/dim lighting was something of a hazard.

Book 4 is a fascinating book exploring what the Medievals thought about taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. Some of their notions were very different to ours, but yes, they did bathe. The book makes it very clear.

Book 5 explores the often forgotten and obscure folklore of the Medieval period and is one of the most bizarre and fascinating books I have ever read. Who would have thought that shortbread biscuit moulds existed featuring the dildo seller?  And what about the winged phallus lower right of the jacket?

Number 6 I wouldn't be without on my desert island.  Essential reading for what daily life would have been like in the 12th century based on the observational writings of Alexander Nequam, whose mother was Richard the Lionheart's Wet Nurse.

Next up, number 7 would be this one - mainly because although I've read it once, I need to read it again. I was fascinated to discover that all monkeys were called Robert in the Middle Ages - a fact I used to write a scene in The Winter Crown. 

Number 8. I have to have something from Chronicler Gerald of Wales, if only because to paraphrase 'one should always have something sensational to read on the train' Gerald was never afraid of making things up if it improved the story!

Number 9 is the best ever book on Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It may not look like anything from the cover but trust me it's wonderful. It's like tough stain remover on all the detritus that's been heaped on her down the centuries and that includes a large pile contributed by some modern biographers. 

Last but not least, and remember this is only 10 favourite books not in order and could be replaced by 10 others completely different, The Survey of Medieval Winchester, which goes into all sorts of social detail about such items as waste disposal in the butchery process, and all the different occupations and what rules and regulations governed them in daily life. It also shows plans for the layout of a house owned by John FitzGilbert Marshal, hero of A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE. This one's huge and on the big book shelf.

I have more books waiting to be sorted in my built in wardrobe book space, and I keep books for immediate use handy above my writing desk - held secure by a pair of kitsch but in subject keeping bookends!  Would probably have to hide them if we ever moved house again and had to show people round, but I think they're fun!

Elizabeth Chadwick's award winning novels are all set in the Middle Ages. She has just handed in the third book of her trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine - THE AUTUMN THRONE and isabout to begin work on her next project.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Engineering and wineberries, by Leslie Wilson

This is my grandfather, James Baker, or Jim as he was known to his wife and his friends. He was a marine engineer who began his working life in dockyards (as a young apprentice at the close of the nineteenth century he worked on the Royal Yacht, the Victoria and Albert, but more of that in a future blog). Later on, he taught at the Merchant Venturers' College in Bristol, which developed into the renowned Bristol University Faculty of Engineering.
He was a Methodist Circuit Steward and lay preacher, and also taught in adult education, yet amazingly still had time for gardening, as this photograph shows. He had a large garden (but now, sadly, houses have been built in most of it) at the back of his house in Sea Mills lane, Stoke Bishop, where the Trym flows past the ancient Roman harbour and into the muddy Avon up which in those days the great ships sailed all day long on their way to the docks in the middle of the city. The ships were a constant excitement to his children, and I'm sure he chose to live there because he also loved to see them.
Grandad grew over a hundred different fruit trees in his garden, which must have kept my grandmother busy jamming and bottling for the winter, and also, as my father recorded in a little memoir he left behind him, Grandad grew wineberries, which, my father said, he had never tasted before or since, and had an incomparable flavour.
japanese wineberry in bud
I re-read this memoir about four years ago, and was fascinated, because a few years earlier I had planted wineberries in my own garden.
It's a beautiful plant, with bright red bristly stems in the winter (if you plant them where they catch the sunset glow they are spectacular then), pretty leaves and deep pink buds (when the flowers have been pollinated, they shut up again, and the berries develop inside a sticky calyx, to open later and show the new pale red berries). The ripe berries are ruby-coloured, also sticky, and, as my father wrote, have an amazing, unique refreshing  flavour.You can just see the berry, still green, peeking out of its protective calyx, on the photograph above.
photo: Rasbak, via Wikimedia Commons
The strange thing is, garden writers say that the Japanese wineberry or rubus phoenacolasius (what a wonderful name!) was only introduced to the UK in the 1970s. So where did my grandad's plants come from?

Next year's fruiting stems in winter
I wonder if some seaman friend of Jim Baker's had come across these berries - maybe in America, where they have become invasive in the wild. Or even in the Far East, and maybe he brought Grandad a root? They are really very easy to establish, and throw up suckers, so I am often looking out for homes for new plants. So maybe my grandfather was growing them in Bristol at a time when nobody else in the country was. Anyway, at this time of the year, when I'm picking them on a daily basis, and when my grandchildren descend and eagerly help themselves to the small delicious berries, I think about Grandad, and about my father, eating them in his childhood, and I do wish I could tell him about growing them now. I often also wish I could meet my grandfather, whose love of gardening I have inherited.
The children who ate the berries then; my father on the left
Does anyone else have a record of these plants in the UK before the 1970s? I'm sure the RHS would be interested to hear about it.

Saturday 22 August 2015

Hungry Heart by Kate Lord Brown

Even in the days of Kindle, Abebooks, Amazon and all the online book retailers there are some out of print books so rare that you have to be patient to find a copy, let alone one within budget. I had lusted after a copy of 'The Artists' & Writers' Cookbook' for years, but all the ones I'd come across were hundreds of dollars. Finally the stars aligned a couple of months ago - the (*coughs*) excuse necessity of research and a bookshop that was closing down in California brought a near pristine copy of the 1961 publication to me. I don't know about you, but I rather like the inscriptions in second hand books - it makes you feel like the caretaker rather than the owner of special books like this - Sybil Boucher had given this one to the previous owner in 1980.

It was worth the wait, a handsomely bound book on heavy stock, and it had me seduced from the dedication:

Couldn't agree more. The book was edited by Beryl Barr and Barbara Turner Sachs, and designed by Nicolas Sidjakov. The illustrations are idiosyncratic and rather wonderful, but have nothing on the recipes. Among the contributions from Alice B Toklas, Elizabeth Frink and Terry Frost ('Leeks a la Cornwall'), there is Man Ray's recipe for a Dadaist day ("Diner: gather wooden darning eggs ... pierce lengthwise. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane"). One of the most extraordinary is Pliny's recipe for recreating blood in paint:

One recipe I will be trying out is Marcel Duchamp's Steak Tartare, if only because he says 'it can be prepared on horseback at a swift gallop, if the conditions make this a necessity'. The idea of Cossacks lovingly preparing a 'bird's nest' of the finest chopped beef, in which 'two egg yolks recline' then arranging a 'wreath' of the following ingredients while in full flight is quite wonderful:

Serve with Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter and tall bottles of vin rose - enjoy.