Saturday 31 October 2015

October Competition

Open to UK Followers only - sorry!

Closing date 7th November

To win one of five copies of James Shapiro's Book 1606, answer the following question in the Comments section below:

"Which of the three plays Shakespeare probably wrote or part-wrote in 1606 means the most to you and why?" (The plays are: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra)

Then copy your answers to me at this address: so that I can get in touch with the winners.

Good luck!


Friday 30 October 2015

Cabinet of Curiosities - Gillian Polack presents the objects of her dreams

I wanted to give you a whole set of curious objects today. Haunted objects. They represent a haunted city. Instead, I gave myself nightmares. They're perfectly ordinary objects in perfectly ordinary places. They still give me nightmares.

This is isn’t the first time I’ve done that. Given myself nightmares. A friend is an expert in the ghosts that haunt Canberra and she gave me a tour so that I could use them in my novel, The Time of the Ghosts. There is a plane at the Australian War Memorial I can’t look at for other people have looked at it and seen the dead pilot looking out at them. There is a staircase at a local high school where a hanging woman floats, her feet just a bit too high above the stair. There is an empty ballroom in a major hotel where, if you walk past at the wrong time, you can hear someone’s finger running over the edge of all the glasses at once, making you want to scream. There is no-one there. There is never anyone there. 

I have been in the room where one of our Prime Ministers died. He haunts it, I'm told. There is no-one there either. There is never anyone there.

This was to be my Cabinet of Curiosities. Many objects, all haunted: the plane, the staircase, the ballroom and those glasses were just the beginning.

Instead, I find myself thinking of the car. It burns. It’s a 1976 electric blue Toyota Celica. If you travel the wrong road at the wrong time, you will see it burning. 1985 was when it crashed, and rumour has it that the people who answer the emergency phone line gets calls about it regularly. This happened in a place I know, and I’m very grateful I do not drive, for I do not want to see the car. I do not want to go into the ballroom, I will not look in the cockpit of that plane and I refuse to go anywhere near that staircase. 

My Halloween present to you is a spooky, haunted Cabinet of Curiosities. My insult to injury is that I’m writing this just after midnight. Five minutes ago the burning car seemed the object I least wanted to haunt my dreams.  Right now, I’m thinking of the dead pilot looking out of that ancient airplane. 

I’m not ready to go to bed anymore.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Shakespeare's 1606 - Interview with James Shapiro

Photo Credit: Mary Cregan
We are delighted to welcome James Shapiro to the History Girls as our October guest.

James Shapiro, who teaches English at Columbia University in New York, is author of several books, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (winner of the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006), as well as Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? He also serves on the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear is published by Faber and out now. Find out more at

Mary Hoffman: Thank you so much for agreeing to appear on our blog. We know how busy you must be with your new book 1606 out this month and your academic teaching.

Confession time: you are being interviewed by a fan, who has read 1599, Contested Will and now the new book. Like you, as you said in your YouTube interview about 1606, I never tire of thinking about Shakespeare’s work.

OK, on to the questions: First 1599 and now 1606; what do you think it was about those two years, one Elizabethan and one Jacobean that turned them into such fruitful periods for Shakespeare?

James Shapiro: The great challenge for Shakespeare in 1599 was writing plays that would draw Londoners to the Globe his company’s newly erected theatre in Southwark, rather than to the plays of their rivals, the Admiral’s Men, who were well established at the adjacent Rose Theatre. The pressure to write a string of box office successes, culminating in Hamlet, must have been intense. 1606 turned out to be a great year for Shakespeare—one in which he wrote three remarkable tragedies—in large part because it was such an awful year in England: he made much in the plays he wrote this year of the tumult of the times. Shakespeare seems to have written plays in inspired bunches—though the sources of inspiration, and the pressure to produce, necessarily changed over time, as they do for all writers.
The new Globe on Bankside
MH: You’ve said that you hated Shakespeare as a kid and didn’t acquire your addiction until you were a young man visiting London and saw the plays performed. Have you encountered any of Shakespeare’s plays first on the page or did it take seeing them to bring understanding and enjoyment?

JS: Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not read; so I’ll take Shakespeare onstage rather than on the page any day. I reread and teach the plays every year but it is only when I see them staged, or work with acting companies in rehearsal (something I am doing more and more these days), that I really get excited or discover new things in them.

MH: I watched your BBC4 series “The King and the Playwright” about Shakespeare as one of James the First’s King’s Men acting company. Did 1606 grow out of your research on that?

JS: I’m glad that you had a chance to see it. After finishing 1599 on the Elizabethan Shakespeare I realized how little I knew about the Jacobean one who wrote plays—including some of his greatest tragedies and romances--from 1606 to 1613. So I was very lucky to be asked to co-author and present that 3-hour BBC series. It forced me to learn a great deal in a brief time period—and do so in a vivid way and imagine the period visually. There was a lot to learn. So, yes, 1606 definitely grew out of the research for that documentary and is a much better book because of that.

MH: Your chapters on Lear made me look at the play afresh, even though I’ve known it since it was a set text for my English Literature ‘A” Level exam. Stupidly, I had never made the connection between Lear’s dividing of the kingdom and James’s pressing for Union. Can you outline that argument briefly?
Lear and Cordelia by William Blake
JS: The play famously begins with a discussion of Lear’s “division of the kingdoms.” Everyone in the playhouse in 1606 would have heard echoes of what was going on at this moment outside the Globe: King James’s plan to unite his kingdoms into a Great Britain. Should the kingdoms unite or remain divided? James, as King of Scotland and now England (and by extension Ireland and Wales and even France), complained that he would be a bigamist were he married to more than one nation. His efforts to create the Union this year failed. He would create an identity crisis where none had existed before, one that Shakespeare was quick to exploit, turning in his plays from questions of Englishness to those of Britishness. The fault lines that threaten to divide Scotland and England today can be traced back to the bitter debates over Union in 1606, and which powerfully inform King Lear.

MH: You set the three plays, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra, in the political and social context of that year: the influence of debates on Union, the aftermath of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, the plague and the visit of Queen Anne’s brother Christian of Denmark to London. It all makes perfect sense. Why do you think no one has taken quite this approach before?

JS: Many, many scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which these plays respond to their times, and my long bibliographical essay at the end of my book acknowledges my debt to them. But they tend to do so in studies or editions devoted to one of the plays or have done so in scholarly articles or books that aren’t intended for broader audiences. Academics aren’t rewarded for writing popular books or for taking more than a few years to complete a monograph. I’ve drawn on a lot of scholarship, added to it some of my own, and, as with 1599, tried to frame it within a more gripping narrative, tried hard, as well, to bring that moment to life, using the plays to illuminate the times, and the times to illuminate the plays.

MH: You’ve been a Sam Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe in London and have clearly been involved in the new indoor theatre there. How closely do you think it replicates seeing Shakespeare performed in the indoor theatre at Blackfriars where the later plays were staged and perhaps written for? (though later than 1606 of course).

JS: As plague raged in late 1606—and threatened the survival of the boys’ playing companies, including the one renting the indoor Blackfriars Theatre—Shakespeare knew that it would only be a matter of time before he and his fellow players would acquire Blackfriars (they were already in negotiations for it). I love the indoor Wanamaker stage at the Globe thetre, and am thrilled whenever I get to stand on the stage there (though always worry about banging into the candles when I do). It’s probably the closest we will ever get to recreating the experience of Blackfriars, and seeing productions of Jacobean plays like The Duchess of Malfi in that space has been thrilling. I can’t wait to see Pericles there next month.

(NB: I wrote about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse here last year. MH)

MH: From the hideous executions of the Gunpowder Plotters in January to Lancelot Andrewes’ Christmas sermon “of warning and consolation” 1606 was a dark year. Is this the reason ultimately that all three of the great tragedies written in that period end so bleakly? Even with Malcolm taking the throne in the Scottish play we know his line will be overthrown by Banquo’s heirs.
JS: It certainly was a grim and divisive year. I agree that the three plays he wrote this year all end tragically, though I would say that the endings are not dark in quite the same ways. The ending of Lear is certainly unrelievedly grim, with the deaths of Lear and his three daughters (all the more grim when we remember that in his source play, King Leir, the king survives and is reconciled with his youngest daughter). Macbeth ends more hopefully, if equivocally; as you rightly note, we are left wondering why Malcolm and not Banquo’s heirs, are in power at play’s end. Antony and Cleopatra ends on a surprisingly different tragic note: yes, the two title characters commit suicide, but there is something defiant and even nostalgic in Shakespeare’s portrayal of their ends.

MH: Most of the members of this blog write historical fiction, covering many different periods. Hesitantly I ask if you ever read books in that genre and whether you have ever found fiction or narrative non-fiction illuminating in your study of Shakespeare? (I’m thinking of books like Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare)

JS: I’m friends with quite a few writers of historical fiction (I’m thinking especially of Grace Tiffany, author of The Turquoise Ring and Andrea Chapin, who recently published The Tutor). I enjoy their books and hugely admire their gifts. But it is very important for me to draw a line (one that they can cross and I cannot) between fact and fiction. Given the scarcity of facts about Shakespeare’s life, especially during the so-called “Lost Years’ of his early adulthood, it is a boundary that many scholars all too often ignore. So what I mostly feel about historical fiction is jealousy.

MH: Finally, can we expect a 1611? I’d love to read that.

JS: 1599 took me fifteen years to research and write, 1606 another decade. I’ll have some challenging decisions to make about what’s next. I’m not sure that I have many more books (given how long these ‘years’ take to research) in me. But if I undertake another about another slice of Shakespeare’s life, 1610-11, in which he wrote The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest would definitely be it.

MH: I hoped you'd say that! I have a sort of PS for you: I had always taken the Fool’s metaphorical egg in King Lear to be a boiled one, not raw, because of eating the “meat” or yolk. But your analogy with the jagged edges of the shell resembling crowns has got me thinking. Thank you!

JS: You are very welcome—these were terrific and engaging questions. I hope that I have done justice to them. (And am glad you like the image of the broken egg with the pair of jagged crowns)

MH: You certainly have! Thanks so much for being our October guest. And readers look out for the competition to win 1606 on 31st.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal, by Clare Mulley

When researching biographies I am privileged to meet and exchange letters with many people whose observations, perspectives and actions present new insights into the past, and sometimes into the present. My current work, on two remarkable female pilots from the Second World War, has led to interviews with veterans and other witnesses from several sides of that terrible conflict. As always, many tales have emerged that have no bearing on the story I am telling – but which I cannot bear to let go unrecorded. This is the story of some USAAF servicemen who crashed into an enemy field, and the young German boy who was desperate to find them... 

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)

On 25 March 1945, twenty unescorted US B24 bombers were releasing their lethal load over their target when they were attacked by a set of seven of Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters whose approach had been deliberately concealed by the glare of the sun. These pioneering machines were far faster than any Allied planes, and they were about to show how devastating they could be to heavy bombers. Their first target blew up in mid-air. Only the navigator survived after he was blown free from the nose of his B24. Crew in the other planes saw his boots suddenly jerked from his feet as his chute openned above him. He was taken POW. The lead bomber in the formation was then attacked, and tragically spiraled down into a shoe factory in the town below – loss of life unknown. The three of its crew who managed to bail out were all also captured. A third, badly damaged, bomber made it to the Swedish coastline, only to swing round and ditch into the Baltic Sea to avoid crashing into local housing. Its surviving crew were interned in neutral Sweden. 

The crew of the Do Bunny,
Charles 'Chuck' Blaney is standing, back right.
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)

Another plane, the Do Bunny, also took extensive damage. Having been caught in a storm of cannon shells, one engine burst into flames and had to be shut down. The attack had left no time to close the bomb-bay doors, and damage now made this impossible. Despite returning fire, the Do Bunny took several more hits, eventually leading to the loss of a second engine - with one of the propeller blades left dangling below. ‘Time seemed to stand still’, the radio operator and top gunner, S/Sgt Charles ‘Chuck’ Blaney, later wrote. ‘The flight engineer was knocked out of his top turret and he dropped to the flight deck. The plexiglass in the rear tunnel shattered in the tail gunner’s face. Fuel and hydraulic liquid from pierced pipelines were pouring and swirling out of the still open bomb bay, which we were never able to close. Do Bunny was in real trouble.’ 

Charles 'Chuck' Blaney
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)

Suddenly the attack ended. Perhaps the Messerschmitts were out of fuel or ammunition. Either way, forced out of formation, the Do Bunny began a slow descent while its crew threw out ‘everything that was not nailed down’ to lighten their load. When a third engine packed up it was clear that they were not going to make it the last 220 miles to friendly territory. Opting to stay together instead of bailing out, they prepared to make an emergency landing.

Down below, a class of schoolchildren in the German town of Soltau were watching the crippled plane bleeding smoke across the sky. One girl shouted out, and twelve-year-old Gerhard Bracke rushed to the window to look but, by the time he got there, the Do Bunny was already out of sight. Disappointed, Gerhard decided to search for the remains of the plane on his own, as soon as he got the chance. Lt Joachim Grauenhorst, the Wehrmacht officer in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy, had also witnessed the B24’s final descent. Surprised not to hear an explosion soon after it had passed directly over the Academy building, he quickly assembled some soldiers to find the downed plane.

Gerhard Bracke in 1944
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)

Inside the coasting Do Bunny, ‘all went well until a wing dipped into the ground as we lost speed,’ Blaney wrote, ‘and then all hell let loose’. The torn, burnt and battered B24, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, broke apart on impact. Miraculously five of the nine crew managed to jump to safety. It was not long before they were joined some scared and angry locals, some carrying pitchforks, followed by Grauenhorst and his soldiers who kept the crowd back while they began working to free the last four of the crew still trapped inside the wreckage. Incredibly, despite injuries including a broken leg, none of them had been killed.

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)

The prisoners were escorted to the town square. Here two SS officers started building up the growing crowd’s resentment against the Americans as an enemy bomber crew. It was probably only because Grauenhorst had command of several soldiers that, after some tense moments, he was able to take the men back to the Riding Academy under his command. Here they were locked in the stables, partly for their own safety. ‘He probably saved all our lives’ Blaney believes.

Lt Joachim Grauenhorst
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney) 

A passionate member of the Hitler Youth, Gerhard was keen to learn everything about the downed B24 and the enemy soldiers being held at the Academy. After school that afternoon he went exploring until he found the crash site. There he stood in awed fascination, looking at the wreck with its crushed nose, splintered fuselage and open bomb-bay doors which were now cut into the ground. It was a seminal moment for the impressionable boy, and he stayed for a long time.

The next morning the Do Bunny’s crew were driven to an interrogation centre, and started the long journey to a prison camp. They were liberated by the Russians in late May 1945.

Gerhard was still a schoolboy when the Second World War ended. He grew up to become a respected biographer and historian of the war. During our conversations, he not only told me about the downing of the Do Bunny, but of a rather wonderful postscript to the story.

Many years after the war, Gerhard spent some time researching what had happened to the Americans who had so miraculously survived the Luftwaffe attack and their own crash landing. Having tracked down Chuck Blaney and the other surviving crew members, he arranged a 50th anniversary reunion. In 1995 he travelled to Ohio, USA, to join them. With him, Gerhard brought a biography of the Luftwaffe pilot who had shot them down. Fighter pilot Ace Lt Rudolf Rademacher had survived the war only to die in a glider crash in 1953. Gerhard had also found the archived ‘missing crew’ reports from the other B24 bombers in the formation, and old photographs of the destroyed Do Bunny from the Soltau local newspaper. But what touched Chuck Blaney most was the warm personal letter Gerhard brought from Joachim Grauenhorst of the Soltau Riding Academy, along with an invitation from the Mayor of Soltau to a reunion in their town the following year.

Soltau newspaper coverage, 1995
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)

Former enemies, Gerhard and Chuck are in touch to this day. 'He is still a best friend forever', Chuck told me touchingly of Gerhard. Both men were pleased that there is continued interest in their story, and that it might now reach a new audience. Sometimes, when certain people find themselves acting for, or representing, one side of history or another, it appears that time, rather than ideologies or national boundaries, is the greatest barrier. How awful it is, among the many terrible tragedies of the war, that a German shoe factory was hit by a downed American bomber, and that so many airmen lost their lives altogether. But how uplifting that one young witness to history was compelled to restore the common bonds of humanity between people once torn apart.

I'm sad to say that this is my final regular blog for The History Girls, though I hope to come back as an occasional guest. It has been a wonderful 20 months. Thank you for reading, and do keep in touch and visit me on my website:

copyright: Clare Mulley

Tuesday 27 October 2015

A Brief History of Writers’ Misery by Janie Hampton

Many people aspire to it, but the job of writing is not easy, and never has been. ‘The most seductive, the most deceiving, the most dangerous of professions,’ said the Victorian biographer John Morley of writing. 

Juvenal warned in the first century AD that ‘An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts.’
William Caxton 1422-91

William Caxton's celebrated the invention of printing by publishing The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the 15th century equivalent of The Little E-Book of Text Messages. Publishers soon cottoned on that people really wanted something a bit more lively and an early best-seller was Merry Tales of the Madmen of Gotham.  Martin Luther was not keen on the opportunity given to non-religious books: ‘The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this fever of writing; everyone must be an author; some out of vanity to acquire celebrity; others for the sake of lucre and gain.’

Dr Johnson was quite clear on the matter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’
Dr Johnson 1709-84

Even Gustave Flaubert said, ‘To practise art in order to earn money, flatter the public, spin facetious or dismal yarns for reputation or cash – that is the most ignoble of professions.’

Louis XIV didn’t like books, ‘I see no point in reading’; and Jean Jacques Rousseau agreed, ‘For they only teach people to talk about what they do not understand’. When Edward Gibbon finished writing The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire in 1776, he knelt on bended knee and presented a copy to HRH the Duke of Gloucester. ‘Another damned, thick, square book!’ said The Duke. ‘Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh Mr. Gibbon?’

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1771-1845) was a barrister, a Whig politician and so prolific an author that Sydney Smith said of him, 'He not only overflows with learning, but stands in the slop. He is like a book in breeches. He has occasional flashes of silence, that make his conversation perfectly delightful.’
Elizabeth Montagu 1718-1800

Mrs Elizabeth Montagu was immensely rich, well educated and loved parties – she once gave a breakfast in her feather-lined boudoir to 700 guests. After she became bored of card-playing, she only invited people who liked books, such as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and Horace Walpole. Rousseau was not amused by these early Book Reading Groups which encouraged women: ‘Every blue stocking will remain a spinster as long as there are sensible men on earth.’

Mary Russell Mitford  1787-1855 
Women writers have never had it easy, even from each other. Mary Russell Mitford wrote in 1815 that before her success, Jane Austen was ‘the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly ever and was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen.’ After her success poor Jane ‘stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn, piece of wood. She is still a poker - but a poker of whom everyone is afraid.’
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806–1861 

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in 1861, Edward Fitzgerald, the translator of  Omar Khayyam, wrote to a friend ‘Mrs Browning’s death is rather a relief to me. A woman of Great Genius I know, but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and the children; and perhaps the Poor. Except in such things as Little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better.’  The letter was read by Robert Browning 28 years later. Understandably upset, he wrote a poem to the now dead Fitzgerald, threatening to spit at him with the lips that had once kissed his beloved wife.
Lucile-Aurore Dupin, alias George Sand, 1804–1876, was described by Nietzsche as ‘a great cow full of ink.’ 

Amanda McKittrick Ros 1860–1939

Supporting the argument against women writers, the American critic George Jean Nathan believed that ‘perhaps the saddest lot than can befall mortal man is to be the husband of a lady poet.’ Sadly, Amanda McKittrick Ros, the wife of a stationmaster in County Antrim, did not help. Mark Twain considered her 1897 novel Irene Iddesleigh ‘one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.’ The novelist Barry Pain failed to notice she had no sense of humour when he reviewed it as ‘a thing that happens once in a million years’, and mockingly termed it ‘the book of the century.’Mrs Ros took such a dislike to him that in her next book the whole introduction was devoted to Pain’s appalling character and defective personality. She then made a point of tracking down her critics and loved to see if she could ‘wring from the critic-crabs their biting little bits of buggery.’

Eric Blair alias George Orwell 1903-50
Maybe writing is bad for us. 

George Orwell died only four years after announcing: 
‘Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, 
like a long bout of some painful illness.’

Monday 26 October 2015

The Deluge, by Carol Drinkwater

                                                           The Deluge,  Gustave Doré

Some of you may have read about or seen on the news the appalling floods that hit my homeland of Cannes and its environs in the south of France at the beginning of this month. We were there; we had driven down the day before to spend a quiet week together, olive harvesting and writing. We arrived late on the Friday evening and woke to a sunny Saturday. I swam and pottered in the garden enjoying the autumn colours and the swelling fruits on the silvery trees. It was during dinner at about 9pm that it began to rain with cracks of distant thunder and flashes of lightning somewhere off in the distance.

‘Oh, I love storms,’ I cried. Little did I know what was to come.

It drew closer and the sky grew black. The force of the falling rain surprised and then begin to worry us. The rain slanting towards the front of the house from the direction of the sea began to creep in under the French doors. We ran to gather towels and bank its flow. Such downpours, when they come, last twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour at most and then they move on out to sea or just rain themselves out. This one didn’t. The water kept falling. We have a flat roof, such as those in Greece or north Africa, and we remained at the dinner table in the candlelight -  that upper level of the house did not lose electric power so we weren’t at that stage aware of the severity of the event – listening to it drum and tap dance on the roof.

We were astonished. It kept up its force for over two hours. I went outside to confirm that the dogs in their stable were not freaked and found I could not reach them. Our olive farm is on a hillside overlooking the sea and the water was cascading down from the summit. It flooded down stone stops that descend to the foot of our land and sounded like Niagara Falls. I began to be afraid.

Finally, it was over. By now it was midnight and we had discovered that the floors of the kitchen and guest loo on that level were swimming in about an inch of water. Michel, my husband, thought a pipe had burst.

But he was wrong.

The following morning we awoke to a glorious sunny 25C day. Of course, the land was sodden and steaming. We began to take stock. It was then we realised the extent of the damage. Every room that is built into the mountainside, into the rock, at the rear of the house had been infiltrated. The water had come in through the walls, had actually seeped through the walls and plasterwork.

On the Friday, the day we arrived, the decorator had completed a four-month redecoration of the whole house. The new paintwork was bubbled and flaking. I could not believe it. Books, paintings stacked like card packs on the floor – all were water-stained or ruined.

The lower house was without electricity. Upstairs, I switched on the television for the local news. We were the lucky ones. Cannes’ streets were a river more suitable for white-water rafting that cruising by in a convertible. Seventeen were dead, more than twenty missing. Homes had been crushed; folk drowned in their vehicles; others pushed out to sea and drowned in the swells. The homeless numbered hundreds. Our president, François Hollande, was there on Monday morning assessing the damage, allocating funds, meeting with the destitute.

We cleaned up our mess as best we could. Our electrician set our fuses and boxes right and, other than the artwork lost and the walls which will all need to be stripped and redecorated when thy have dried out, we got on with lives but I cannot say we were not shocked.
Our olive trees, at least, were looking sprightly and well-fed.

This deluge - on the third day of this tenth month - has made Côte d’Azur history. The like of such had never been seen before... or perhaps once during the early part of the twentieth century… People talked of nothing else.

It set me thinking. We read on a daily basis about the horrors taking place around the world. A tsunami, a flooding, an earthquake... but until you have been a victim of such you never really comprehend the extent of its perpetration, its human impact.

Being a writer, and I have no doubt that every HG reading this will agree, one immediately begins to think ‘how can I use this, where to put drama of such an epic scale into my story?’ And it has already found its place in the early stages of the novel I am at work on.
But, of course, I am not the first to use a deluge as writing material...

The Story of a Great Flood goes back to the Bible. Genesis 6: 5-8
God is angry with Man and decides to wipe him and his animals out, regretting the creation of them. However, Noah, a six-hundred-year-old man, finds favour with the Lord who suggests he builds an Ark and take a pair of everything with him... well, you know the story.

When I was travelling through the eastern Mediterranean I came across some very interesting thoughts on the story of the Great Flood, which is also narrated in several other texts with slightly varying details. The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably the other popular and well-known example in our western culture. However, so many cultures have written about a Great Flood in their ancient history that scholars have asked themselves whether they have all taken from each others’ sources or whether there really was one devastating deluge that flooded the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
The scientific community is divided about the historical authenticity of such an event. Most archaeologists and geologists recognise that there were many major floods and they devastated substantial civilized areas, but the majority do not hold that there was ever one single deluge that in the last 6,000 years covered a major portion of the inhabited western world.

However, when I was in Crete ferreting out olive clues and studying the Minoans who were worshippers of the olive tree, terrific seafarers, sailing far and wide in the commercialisation of their liquid gold and the perfumes they created from their oil, I heard a fascinating theory about the unexplained disappearance of these people who were wiped off the face of their island with no explanation and no trace.

Santorini, classic name is Thera, is a neighbouring island one hundred and ten kilometres north of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea. It, along with several other smaller islands in its archipelago, is all that remains of one far larger island destroyed by an enormous volcanic eruption. The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, the Minoan eruption, which occurred some 3,600 years ago. In other words at the height of the Minoan civilization.

Here is where it gets really interesting. The volcanic eruption is fact. The theory that accompanies it is that the force of the eruption left volcanic ash deposits that were hundreds of metres deep and could have caused a tsunami that rolled all the way to Crete and literally swept away the entire Minoan civilization. When I first heard this some twelve years ago, I thought it fanciful, unlikely, and then I was in Syria. I had the good fortune to travel for a short while with a guide who was an archaeologist. He told me that inland of Latakia on the Syrian coast, towards Aleppo, which is just south of Turkey, south of Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark was situated (and was supposedly found in 2010), deposits of ancient volcanic ash were discovered. The provenance of these, geologists have traced to Santorini. That is a distance of some 1,600 kilometres. Some explosion, don't you think?

                                                Santorini in relation to Crete, to its south

The tsunami that rolled from the volcanic eruption to Crete crashed onto the land, destroying all in its wake. It brought about a massive disruption in the weather patterns and caused rains, deluge and flooding.
                         Mount Ararat in Turkey where explorers claim to have found Noah's Ark

Why did the dove bring an olive sprig back to Noah? The olive tree is, has been for over 5,000 years at least, the cornerstone of the Mediterranean kitchen. It provided sustenance and medicine. The people respected its value, its importance, and it was great deal taller than the vines or the wheat, both of which would have been wiped out by the weather.
As the floods subsided, the canopies of the olive trees were no longer submerged. They were visible, accessible. The sight of them, the ability to pluck off a twig from a branch was proof that the waters were lower than the tree tops. The rains were subsiding. The worst was over. The world was returning to calm.

                                  The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, Thomas Cole 1829

As I said there are several different variations of this tale, including my own humble version, but the fact is that such a monumental event did take place in the Aegean Sea and its impact was experienced, lived through in the Middle East.

It makes our deluge of a few weeks back seem like a shower, but it does give pause for thought. And it certainly offers material for the next novel.

Sunday 25 October 2015


Some place names always raise a smile. Residents of Nether Wallop and Chipping Sodbury must be wearily accustomed to the suppressed giggles or open guffaws that their address can evoke. I’ve had to get used to it too, since I moved to Morningside in Edinburgh. People pucker up and squeal “Ooo Murrrningseeyed!” in an attempt to mimic the tone of those Edinburgh ladies who think they don’t have an accent. It’s a voice made famous by Dame Maggie Smith in her wonderful performance in the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The other day I went to a talk which sent me straight to Muriel Spark’s original book (different from the film in several important ways) and introduced me to an episode of Edinburgh history of which I knew nothing, despite the fact that some of its ugliest scenes took place outside my front door. Did you know about Morningside Riot of 1935?  It's not featured in the film or the book, but in the book especially there are echoes of the religious tensions that led to the trouble.

One of the things that appears in both the book and the film is Miss Brodie’s infatuation with the demagogues of the 1930s: Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. In the book, she maintains her admiration for the fascists well after the War, although she admits 'Hitler was rather naughty’. The leaders she admired were forceful, uncompromising, and charismatic. It turns out that Muriel Spark, a Morningside resident, had a local model to hand. A political rabble rouser in the style of Oswald Mosley, but driven by a different creed: his passionate Protestantism.

This was John Cormack, a councillor for South Leith, who drove round the city in a van with ’No Popery’ painted on its side. After serving in the Black and Tans during the nationalist uprisings in Ireland, in 1933 he set up his own political movement in Scotland: The Protestant Action Association. It was his populist (and popular) anti-catholic campaign, firmly centred on himself, that led to the events of June 25th 1935 - a clash which he had rightly predicted would be ‘a real smash up’.
Four weeks before the riot, supporters of Cormack overflowed the Usher Hall (which holds about 3,000 people). They were gathered to protest about the Catholic Church’s proposal to hold a grand gathering described as a 'Eucharistic Congress' in Edinburgh. When the event went ahead, there was trouble all over the city. In a letter to The Scotsman, the Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh said this was the culmination of months of trouble:

The office which I have the honour to hold has been the object of gross insult and of the vilest accusations. For some time it has hardly been possible for a priest to appear in the city without being subjected to unspeakable indignities. They have been not only the target for vile abuse and most filthy and obscene language, but they have repeatedly been spat upon and molested in public streets. In the factories and public works Catholic employees, and particularly defenceless girls, have suffered bitter persecution, as contemptible as it is cowardly, and strenuous efforts have been made to induce employers to dismiss Catholics on the ground of their religion alone.

On 25th June 1935, when 10,000 catholics converged on St Andrew’s Priory in Morningside for the climactic ceremony of the Eucharistic Congress, an equal number of Protestants came out to meet them.  The police, many on horseback, spent hours dealing with a throng of people crammed into three-quarters of a mile of road.  Accounts vary as to Cormack's role in the unrest, which included violence and damage.  Tram after tram disgorged Protestants ready to fight. The Scotsman noted that a van with 'No Popery" on its side was seen early on, but then apparently left - implying that Cormack was unwilling to face the consequences of unleashing a rabble.  No one was killed, and so the event's appeal to journalists and historians beyond Edinburgh was limited.  But it was an extraordinary day, nonetheless.

From The Scotsman, the next morning
But why was Edinburgh's anti-Catholic fervour focussed on respectable Morningside? Well, despite its reputation as the natural habitat of repressed and prim Presbyterianism, the area has a strong Catholic heartbeat, even now. Catholic churches are often architectural horrors, but St Peter’s in Morningside - designed by the great architect Sir Robert Lorimer, and completed only a few years before the riots - is a striking Italianate building, inexplicably off the tourist trail.

Not far away, is St Benet’s, the grand domestic base of the Catholic Archbishop.

It’s now rather under a cloud. In 2013, the then Cardinal Archbishop Keith O’Brien was removed from his post and kicked out of the house after sexual misdeeds were revealed just as he was hoping to go off to vote for the new Pope.
Round the corner from there, in 1935, stood St Andrew's Priory, where the Catholics gathered on the day of the riot.

Of course, anyone who has studied history, even in England, will not be surprised that a ferocious form of Protestantism has thrived north of the border. We’ve all been taught about that grim old Edinburgh resident, John Knox - indeed he’s one of the few non-royal names from Scottish history familiar to those of us educated down south.

Add John Calvin's teachings into the mix, and you'd got a pretty uncompromising national mindset on your hands even before Irish immigration added new Catholics to those who had survived the Reformation.

The effect of centuries of Calvinism on the Scottish temperament is a standing national joke. Who can forget Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: 'We’re all doomed!'?.
In the book, though less so in the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the clash between Catholicism and Calvinism is a resonant theme. Towards the end, one of the Brodie set, Sandy, ponders on Calvin’s view of the almighty:

God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read about John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

In the novel, Sandy eventually becomes a Catholic nun.  In the real world, a year after the riot, Cormack was still fighting. He spent at least one night in prison, for refusing to pay caution money to keep the peace.

His campaign seems to have fizzled out with the advent of the Second World War, and though he remained on the City Council until 1962 (a year after Spark’s novel came out), his death in 1978 appears to have gone unmarked in The Scotsman. His memory is kept alive now by the present Orange Lodge, but otherwise he seems to have disappeared from the memory of the city.

This is from the Scotsman website.  I'm not sure whether the Orange Lodge know 
about the site's addition of an invitation to light a candle in Cormack's memory, 
or what 
they make of it if they do
Although sectarian rivalry remained fierce in Glasgow well after the War and into the present century, to hear that as recently as 1935 there was such extremism in Edinburgh seems surprising - even shocking.

A young boy who had been caught up in the riot spoke to The Scotsman more than 70 years later, after a career as an undertaker:

I was chased along Canaan Lane by a group of gentlemen when I was just seven-years-old because I was dressed in the uniform of St Andrew's Priory, which is where the Catholic Congress was being held when Cormack's lot turned up. It was a terrifying experience at the time. But while that was a horrible experience, I can honestly say it was the only anti-Catholic thing that ever happened to me. It's in the past and I just don't think you'd come across anything like that now in Edinburgh.
I remember my dad telling me about problems he faced, but again that was mostly Cormack's crowd. Many years later I actually met Cormack's son and a nicer person you couldn't meet.
I really don't think sectarianism or bigotry has been an issue in Edinburgh like it is in Glasgow. I'm in the funeral business so you come across all sorts of religious types but I've never experienced any prejudice or discrimination.

Nevertheless, some Catholics still talk of discrimination. As recently as 2006, Cardinal Keith O’Brien said:

It is not poverty, alcohol or football which underpins most cases of religiously aggravated crime in Scotland, but blatant anti-Catholicism.

But today the main feature of the many Protestant churches in the capital is their emptiness. True, the population is over catered for, after the 19th century competitive orgy of church building which accompanied the many schisms in the Presbyterian camp, but the city on a Sunday is nothing like the bleak, buttoned-up place I first encountered more than forty years ago.

A personal note:
This is my last post for The History Girls. I haven’t written an historical novel for a few years now, and I’ve only read a handful in that time, so I no longer have the essential credentials. As Jean Brodie would say, I am past my prime. It’s been great to be part of Mary Hoffman’s bold enterprise, and some wonderful new writers (the Creme de la Creme) are about to join the gang.
Before I go, may I return to the hobbyhorse I rode in my first ever contribution, more than four years ago? That piece was a plea for everyone involved in broadcasting about history to stop using the present tense - or 'Nowspeak' as I call it - when they are talking about the past; or at least to be consistent if they really can’t help themselves. If you listen to or watch history programmes, you will know what a failure my campaign has been. Maybe I should paint my message on the side of a van and drive around like John Cormack.
But there is new hope. The Royal Literary Fund asked me to do a podcast about it, and you can listen to it here:

Come on, History Girls. Let’s send this ugly and unhelpful fashion to the abyss in which it belongs!