Tuesday 31 May 2016

May competition

To win one of five copies of Louisa Young's new novel, Devotion, please answer in the Comments section below.

Then send a copy of your answer to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk

Closing date 7th June

We're afraid our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

Give an example  of a little known fact you have come across in your reading about a well documented period or event or person. (Through history books or historical fiction)

Monday 30 May 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities: Mystery on Everest 1924

When I look around my office I realise that I am a serial offender when it comes to curiosities. I can’t resist them. I have a shelf, as you can see, full of little objects that mean something to me. 

A gold medal awarded to my great-great uncle for Classics at University College London. Amazing considering his father was illiterate; an origami butterfly made by my youngest son when he knew I was disappointed by a book proposal being turned down (haven’t we all been there?) and a note from my Dad when I stood up to speak impromptu.

The most curious object I used to have in my office, which is now in the collection of Merton College, Oxford, is a copper pressure kettle. It is a beautiful object in its own right – about 9” or 23cm high and sits on a frame under which a burner is placed to heat the water. It came back from 23,500 feet on Mount Everest in July 1924, just a few weeks after my great-grandfather had received the devastating news that his son had been lost somewhere close to the summit. He and his climbing partner, George Mallory, were last seen by Captain Noel Odell ‘going strong for the top’ at 1pm on 8th June. Although Odell made valiant efforts to find the two climbers he failed and the nature of their deaths was unknown for 75 years. The mystery of Mallory and Irvine, Sandy Irvine being my great-uncle, has fascinated generations of climbers and Everest-watchers ever since. There was something romantic in the heroic British failure and it was a full 29 years later that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally reached the top of the world from the south, rather than the north, side of Everest.

Sandy Irvine in his dark blue rowing blazer 1923
Did the two men reach the top? Was 22 year old Sandy Irvine the youngest Briton ever to stand on the billiard table sized summit? We will probably never know the answer. Even the discovery of Mallory’s frozen remains in 1999 did not provide an answer. If anything, it added more questions to the mystery. His watch and altimeter were broken in the removal of the artefacts from his body so we do not know how high they climbed nor at what time Mallory fell. For that much we do know. He was wearing a light weight walking rope around his waist, which means he was roped to Sandy Irvine. The rope was broken, probably on a rock, by the fall. He fell several hundred meters and broke his ankle and knocked himself out with a blow to his forehead. He probably died within half an hour and may never have regained consciousness. Sandy’s body has never been found and there is still speculation that if someone does come across his remains they might find the camera he was carrying and it might, just might, have a photograph of the summit. Or not. Even if they do find the camera and it does not have a photo of Mallory waving a flag, it does not mean they didn’t make it. The camera might have malfunctioned, Sandy might have been too hypoxic to take a picture. No, the only way we will ever know for certain that they did not reach the summit is if they find a note in Sandy’s pocket saying: ‘blow it, we didn’t make it’.

Sandy with mark IV Oxygen Apparatus at
Shekar Dzong © RGS with IBG
But why the pressure kettle? Sandy Irvine was practical and inventive. His role on the expedition was to look after the oxygen equipment. He redesigned the 1922 set in his room at Merton in the autumn of 1923 but Siebe Gorman ignored his suggestions and sent the 1922 design. When Sandy caught up with them in Calcutta he was disgusted and spent the whole of the trek across Tibet fashioning brand new sets in his tent-cum-workshop. They worked. They were 30% lighter and much more efficient and robust. The expedition leader was impressed when he, Mallory and Odell tried them out on rocks below Shekar Dzong. Sandy made a rope ladder to help the porters scale an ice-wall between camps 3 and 4 and the pressure kettle had been his attempt to design a device that would make water boil at a higher temperature than the normal 70°C on Everest. It was delivered by a Birmingham company the night before he left Liverpool for India on 29 February 1924.

When Odell had to go through Sandy’s possessions and discard what they could not carry back to Britain (they had a bonfire at base camp the morning they left) he kept the kettle as a reminder of Sandy Irvine’s brilliant practical mind and his sense of humour. The kettle has been in the family ever since and we are very proud of it. When I showed it to Chris Bonington last autumn he had tears in his eyes as he held it. He said he felt a powerful connection to Mallory and Irvine through it. A curious but wonderful object. The mystery endures and long may it last.
Sandy Irvine (left) and George Mallory at Base Camp, Everest,
April 1924. © Royal Geographical Society with IBG

Fearless on Everest was first published in 2000. I was inspired to write the book having named my youngest son Sandy as, like his forbear, he had blond hair and blue eyes. We were living in California and I saw a picture of Mallory and Irvine in a bookshop window. I became interested in a story I had only ever heard as a child and about which I knew very little. Research led to a fascinating cache of letters, an album of family photographs and finally, a trunk in the attic. That was in 1999. On 4th May I woke up to hear Charlotte Green reading the seven o'clock news: 'Climbers on Mount Everest have found the frozen remains of ...' I nearly jumped out of my skin. I thought they had found Sandy, who I knew they were looking for. '...George Mallory.' For the climbers it was like looking for the treasure map and finding the treasure. But for our family it was relief that Sandy's mortal remains were still hidden on the mountain. There they remain and I, for one, hope with all my heart he is never found. The mystery is so much more romantic for remaining unsolved. And besides, I want to remember him as he looked: young, handsome and curious.

Sunday 29 May 2016

Devotion by Louisa Young

Photo credit: Sarah Lee

It seems strange to welcome Louisa Young as our June guest. Until very recently and from the beginning she has been a full time History Girls and has only recently stepped back a bit to the role of Reserve, so we shall hear from her again.

Louisa Young is the author of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (HarperCollins), set between 1908 and 1919, a story of love, death and the origins of maxillo-facial reconstructive surgery in World War One. The sequel, The Heroes' Return, was published by Borough Press in 2014. She has also written The Book of the Heart (Flamingo), a cultural history of that most emblematic organ, and A Great Task of Happiness (republished 2012), a biography of her grandmother the sculptor Kathleen Scott, widow of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. Her first novel, Babylove, was listed for the Orange Prize.
  As half of Zizou Corder she has co-written five children's novels with her daughter, including the Lionboy trilogy, which is published in 36 languages.
She read history at Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in London, where she has written the second sequel to My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. Called Devotion, it deals with a long neglected aspect of WW2 in Italy and is another highly recommended read.

Welcome "back," Louisa!

A long long time ago I sat with an American friend of my dad’s, a photographer and art historian, who has lived in Rome since the late 1940s. When I was a child he lived in a house on the Tiber Island, which to me, then and now, was and is the most romantic place in the world. Now, it is all rather well-organised:

 When I first went, it wasn’t quite like this: 

with boats and mud, so that you could believe the legend of it being built on the bones of Tarquin the Superb, the tyrant whose body was thrown into the river in 510BC. The shape, boat-like, was first re-inforced in the First Century: slabs of marble gave it a prow and a stern, commemorating the boat which brought a statue of the healing god Aesculapius and one of his holy snakes from Greece, after an outbreak of plague in 293 BC. The snake apparently leapt off the boat and swam to the island, which was seen as a sign that this was the best place to build Aesculapius's temple, and after that came the hospitals which are still there. Of course an island is always a good place for a hospital, specially when diseases are infectious. A carving of the Aesculapian rod and snake are still visible on the rock at the prow.

The stairs in our friend’s house were made of white marble, and if you looked out the window at the back the river tumbled and rushed below. We ate fried artichokes, and the grownups drank gin and It (Italian vermouth i.e. martini) and we could nip and talk to the strange post with four heads on it, or try to climb into the hospital grounds so we could do a proper circumnavigation of the island. Alas he moved, later, to a flat in a palazzo in Sant’Angelo, known as Piazza Tartaruga, Piazza Turtle, because of the little turtles balanced on the bowl of its central fountain. But that was a lovely flat too.

Someone - my father? - pointed out to me in a neighbouring street - via della Reginella - how the building behind the palazzo, thought the same height, contained five floors, where the palazzo had three. The apartments in that building had lower ceilings, smaller windows, more occupants. This, I learned, was where the edge of the Jewish Ghetto had been. Big-roomed palazzo outside the gate; many-floored lodgings inside. It is too narrow a street to photograph this, but here is the street in 1944:

And here is the street now, four cobbles replaced and named in honour of Grazia di Segni, born 1889
Giuditta Spizzichino, born 1922, Ada Spizzichino born 1915, and Rossana Calò, who was two years old. They were all arrested on October 16 1943,  deported and murdered in Auschwitz.

Our friend the photographer told me a story about a room in a flat just outside where the ghetto walls had been, a room with no windows, discovered by a new tenant in the 1960s. The tenant asked the landlord about it, what it was, and after some trouble and pursuit of the matter received the answer that ‘This was where the Jews hid during the Nazi occupation’. He was surprised, as he knew the family concerned had been devoted Fascists. Why would they have been hiding Jewish people?

‘Oh, they were hiding the Fascist Jews.’

Like many people, I have had a tendency to look at history from where I am, rather than from where people were at the time. 'Fascist Jews’, in the 21st century, seems a nonsense, impossible. But from 1920 there were Fascist Jews: immigrants from eastern Europe determined to prove their nationalistic loyalty to their new home country, communities in the west and the south who had been in Italy for hundreds of years but still felt it best in the interests of self-preservation to go along with the flow of public opinion, and in Rome a community which was there before Julius Caesar, before Christianity, before the split of Jewry into Sephardi and Ashkenazi even. It is the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora.

Remember what a  mess Italy was after WW1? Remember the Russian Revolution, and how utterly terrifying that was? Remember D’Annunzio and his lances, and how useless the government was? Remember how Italy as a country was not yet fifty years old, and how the walls of the Roman Ghetto only came down in 1888 - not even thirty years earlier?  Now, we know exactly why Mussolini was a terrible, terrible idea. Then, they didn’t know. And Jewish families had no special gift of seeing the future, and all the more historical reasons to be nervous.

Which all added up, for me, to the setting for a novel.

It’s called Devotion, and it’s out on June 2, published  by Borough Press. It continues the story that started in WW1 in My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, moving things on to the next generation. Tom, the English boy, loves his Roman Jewish cousin Nenna. Nenna loves her father, Aldo. And Aldo loves Mussolini. The moral? Be careful what you devote yourself to.

Saturday 28 May 2016

Reconciliation by Julie Summers

At the moment I and about six million fans of the ITV drama series, Home Fires, are locked in a battle-royal with the network. After just two seasons the show has been axed in order for ITV 'to be able to refresh their drama portfolio'. There has been an outpouring of grief, anger, consternation and disbelief on social media. Fans have been bombing ITV with pots of jam and a petition had reached 23,000 signatures after just one week. To no avail, I suspect. No chance of reconciliation and I suspect ITV will just brush it off as an annoyance.

Bridge on the River Kwai (C) Rod Beattie

That got me thinking about reconciliation and I promised last month I was going to tell a story of the most remarkable show of reconciliation I have ever come across. In August 1945 prisoners of the Japanese were released after three and a half years in captivity. The had been used as slaves by their captors, most famously on the Thailand Burma Railway, but also in mines, on roads and in quarries. Of the 60,000 men who were forced to work on the notorious Death Railway, over 12,000 never returned. It is said that the cost was a life for every sleeper laid along its 415 kilometer length. In addition to the Allied soldiers who died, a shocking 83,000 Malay, Burmese and Tamils also perished, mostly of disease as a result of starvation and squalid conditions. In other parts of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere the death toll was even higher. In all, 130,000 prisoners of war and the same number of civilians were held captive. The story of their plight is well documented in books, films, broadcasts and newspapers. Some of their tales are truly harrowing. Less often does one read about reconciliation between the former prisoners and the Japanese. However, today I was reminded of one man who, despite suffering appallingly, forgave his captors.

Captain Bill Drower c. 1940

I first met Bill Drower, or Captain William M. Drower to give him his full name, when I was researching the biography of my grandfather, Philip Toosey, which appeared in 2005 as The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai. I had been out in Thailand with my mother to see the bridge over the river Kwai, the camps where Toosey had been senior British officer and to talk to some of the prisoners who had been in captivity with him. When I got home there was an envelope on my desk with spidery writing. I opened it and read the first sentence which began: ‘My dear Miss Summers, My name is William Mortimer Drower and your grandfather was kind to me when I got into a spot of bother in the camp gaol…’ Bill was by then 87 and had served in the diplomatic service in Washington for many years.

I knew the story of Bill Drower’s imprisonment, of course I did. Anyone who has read about the railway knows that he fell out with one the guards in the officers’ camp in May 1945, only to be hauled up in front of the psychotic camp commander, Noguchi, and condemned to spend the rest of his life in a hole in the ground. For 77 days he lay in solitary confinement, quietly losing his mind, being fed on just one rice ball a day. Once he woke to find a rat gnawing at his foot. On 16 August 1945 the camp at Kanchanburi was liberated and Bill Drower was dragged out of his prison, more dead than alive. He was suffering from Blackwater fever and was delirious. Some ‘spot of bother’. Amazingly he recovered and the next time my grandfather saw him was in London six months later, when Bill was physically restored to his spectacular 6’3” frame.
This drawing was made from a photograph taken of Bill the day after he was released from his prison

Fifty years later Bill was invited to go on a reconciliation mission to Japan. He agreed on one condition: that he would be allowed to give a speech in Japanese. He had worked at the Japanese Embassy in London in the 1930s and spoke the formal, honorific form of the language. As a translator on the railway he was expected to speak informal Japanese, the language accorded to the lowest in society. His wish was granted and he gave a speech, in honorific Japanese, in Tokyo. It went down extremely well and he received a standing ovation. As a sign of respect and gratitude to this great and humble man, the Japanese hosts offered Bill a trip on the Bullet Train, which he accepted with enthusiasm. He was chatting to the guide and translator about the train and learned from them that the bullet train had been designed by one of their most famous railway engineers.

The guide continued:

‘This engineer designed a railway in Thailand in the Second World War.’

‘I know,’ replied Bill, ‘I helped him to build it.’

Bill at my book launch 2005

Bill Drower was one of the most impressive men I have had the privilege to meet in the whole of my life. I think of him often and with great affection. Shortly before he died I visited him with my youngest son who was 10. Bill's health was deteriorating and I knew he had not long to live. He offered to play chess with Sandy, who was at that stage a junior school team player and very able. Bill told him to set up the game on an old board and as he did so, Bill explained that this board had been dropped into the officers' camp at the end of the war by the RAF so the men had something to entertain them while they waited to be sent home. The officers had given Bill the board as a gift. As they started to play I could see that Bill was way ahead of Sandy and very soon the boy found himself at check mate. A fortnight later I heard that the great man had died. When I told Sandy he said: 'but now I'll never have the chance to beat Bill at chess.' When I related this story to Bill's daughter she wrote back: 'I am amazed. My father had not played chess since 1945.' What an astonishing, impressive and wonderful man he was.

The Colonel of Tamarkan was published in 2005 

Friday 27 May 2016

World Menstrual Day by Janie Hampton

Now that I’m too old to have periods, I rely on writing my monthly History Blog to remind me of time passing. Because tomorrow is ‘World Menstrual Day’, that’s what I’m thinking about.
What’s the relevance of menstruation to history? Well, Queen Victoria had periods; as did Joan of Arc and Princess Diana. Yet this normal bodily function, that happens to half the world’s adults, is mentioned only rarely in the historical record.
Pliny the Elder 


2,500 years ago the Greeks believed that if a girl’s menarche (first period) was late, then blood would accumulate around her heart, and her womb would wander aimlessly around her body. This produced erratic behaviour, violent swearing, and even suicidal depression. Right into the 20th century these symptoms were known as hysteria, after the Greek word for womb.
Pliny the Elder, a Roman who died in 79CE, warned that menstrual blood: “turns new wine sour; crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens dry up, the fruit falls off tress, steel edges blunt and the gleam of ivory is dulled; bees die in their hives, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
In mediaeval times if a penis touched menstrual blood, a man’s penis would burn up and any child conceived during menstruation would be devil-possessed, deformed, or even red-haired. Some Europeans thought that touching menstrual blood was the cause of leprosy, while others reckoned it cured the disease.
Despite herbal books referring to menstruation as ‘the flowers’, a more positive image of blossoming and growth, menstruating women carried nutmegs and nosegays to disguise their condition. Amenorrhea (lack of periods) could be cured with potions of herbs and wine, or vaginal pessaries made from mashed fruit and vegetables. To reduce a heavy flow, women were advised to bind the hair from an animal’s head onto a young tree. If this failed, they could drink comfrey or nettle tea, while reciting numerical formulae. Or find a toad, burn it dry, and put its ashes in a pocket near her vagina.

Two menstruating women dancing. Rock engraving from the Upper Yule River, Western Australia.

Religion and menstruation

Such attitudes reinforced the Christian Church’s suspicion towards women. Catholic doctrine argued that Eve was to blame for the eviction from Eden and Abbess Hildegard of Bingen [1098-1179] claimed that menstruation was God’s reminder of Eve’s Sin. even today it is still called ‘The Curse’ by many people.
Until 1916, Roman Catholic women were forbidden to receive communion while menstruating. In Eastern Orthodox churches women are still expected to refrain from receiving Communion, and to remain outside the building. Many other religions, such as Judaism’s Halakha laws and certain Muslim traditions, forbid menstruating women from sharing a bed with their husbands. Given this history of ignorant prejudice, it is pleasing to read the theologian Carmody Grey writing recently in The Tablet, ‘We could begin to answer Pope Francis’ call by pointing out that, quite literally, shedding blood for the life of humanity is just what women do.’

Carmody Grey


How did women in history manage their periods? There is actually little evidence, other than frequent repetition of stories such as that ancient Egyptian women used tampons made from softened papyrus, or the Greeks from lint wrapped around bits of wood.
Until the advent of contraception and bottle-feeding, women were either pregnant or breastfeeding for many more years and so had far fewer periods. Poor diet and hard work meant that for most girls the menarche was not until age 17 or 18. Though well-nourished healthy girls such as Lady Margaret Beaufort [1443-1509] gave birth to the future King Henry VII when she was just thirteen. It nearly killed her, and despite four husbands, she had no more children.
“Menstruous rags”, as the prophet Isaiah called them, or “clouts” as they were termed in 1600s England, were made from any absorbent fabric, or even grass, hemp or sphagnum moss. Elizabeth I of England [1558-1603] owned three black silk girdles to keep in place her linen “vallopes of fine holland cloth”.
In the 19th century the subject was so taboo, that historian Laura Klosterman Kidd found not one reference to menstrual-management in North American pioneer women’s diaries, letters or inventories of wagon-trains.
And the mediaeval myths continued unabated. Even the British Medical Journal claimed that menstruating women were unable to pickle meat or churn butter successfully. Female factory workers in France were forbidden to work in sugar refineries during their periods for fear they would spoil the food; and a Viennese scientist thought menstruating women stopped dough rising and beer fermenting.

The paediatrician Dr. Bela Schick [1877-1967] believed menstruating women released plant-destroying substances through their skin, which he named ‘menotoxins’. He ‘proved’ it by asking housemaids to arrange cut flowers: if they were menstruating, the flowers died sooner. This notion was even repeated in The Lancet in 1974, with the modern addition that a permanent wave would not ‘take’ to a woman’s hair during menstruation.
As recently as 1980 I was told by a farmer’s wife in Shropshire that if a menstruating woman touched meat it would go rancid, and hams wouldn’t cure. When I queried this she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a female butcher?’ It was true, I had not.
My grandmother used linen rags held on with string and washed by hand, until French nurses in the First World War, discovered wood-fibre field bandages worked much better, and burned them after use. Kotex disposable pads were soon on the market.

Kotex brought comfort and relief

An American osteopath called Dr Earle Haas invented the ‘catamenal device’ in 1929, using two cardboard tubes and a cotton-wool tampon. Four years later he sold the patent for US$32,000 to an industrious woman called Gertrude Tendrich who made them with a sewing machine and an air compressor. My mother started her periods in 1930 and was one of the first to use Tampax, but insisted that her daughters had to be married before we could use them. (Did we listen? No!)
In 1946 Walt Disney’s animated educational film The Story of Menstruation was shown to over 100 million American high school students. The first film ever to use the word 'vagina’, it nevertheless managed to avoid any mention of sex or reproduction. Despite the narrator, the actress Gloria Blondell [1910-86], encouraging girls to bathe, ride a horse, and dance during menstruation, the emphasis on sanitation reinforced the idea that menstruation was a hygienic crisis.

In 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, a glue was finally invented which held sanitary pads into knickers and sanitary belts were consigned to history.
Judy Blume was reputedly the first novelist to mention the unmentionable, in ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ published in 1970. In keeping up with the times, her sanitary-towel belt has been deleted in recent editions of the book. It was not until 1985 that the word ‘period’ was used in a television commercial; and as recently as 2010, US TV networks banned a tampon commercial using the word ‘vagina’ or even ‘ down there’.
Only very recently has a method been invented by a woman – the menstrual cup. This revolutionary egg-cup-sized silicone device cannot be seen or felt, needs minimal water, leaves no rubbish and lasts for up to 10 years. It avoids the waste products of the 3,000 pads or tampons that each woman uses in her life.

Contemporary Social Beliefs

Menstruation has always been associated with lunar cycles and the moon remains central to myths and rituals across the world. 'Have you Gone to the Moon?' is said by boys to tease girls in Malawi, where the Chichewa word for menstruation also means 'Moon'.

Why do disposal bags feature a lady in a crinoline? 

In Britain and USA girls are taught that a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle is 28 days – any shorter, longer or irregular is classed as ‘abnormal.’ At school, I associated ‘regular’ periods with tidy girls with neat straight hair who always did their homework on time. My own irregular periods were obviously a symptom of my lazy, untidy mind. I never knew how ‘abnormal’ I was because even among my closest friends it was taboo to discuss such matters.
Unfortunately millions of women and girls are still disabled every month by practical as well as cultural barriers to menstruation. In many parts of Africa, girls lose as many days from school due to menstruation as they do from malaria. A quarter of women in Africa have to stop work during their periods, which means less food and money for their families. Like our grandmothers, they simply don’t have the products to feel safe walking, digging or playing netball.

Women's co-operative in Malawi making washable pads
Menstruation is a complex mixture of the positive proof of womanhood and fertility, combined with shame. In recent years most women’s lives have improved economically, politically and socially. But even though we’re now more comfortable physically during menstruation, we’re still embarrassed to talk about this normal part of our lives.

Pad made by Girl Guides in Malawi

The 28 May was chosen by the U.N. in 2014 for Menstrual Hygiene Day because the average menstrual period lasts 5 days, and happens every 28 days. But why did the UN add the word ‘hygiene’? I think it was because even in the 21st century, this normal bodily function is considered ‘unclean’. I prefer to call it simply World Menstrual Day to celebrate this important function us women have in reproducing humans.

More from the Museum of Menstruation 

Thursday 26 May 2016

History beneath my feet, Left Bank, Paris, by Carol Drinkwater

Caveau de la Huchette
 Sidney Bechet in 1922

What is in a street?
It was my husband, Michel's, birthday last week. We were in Paris. I decided that aside from taking him for a delicious dinner it was time for us to stay up late and go to a jazz club. We haven't done that in a while. Instead of choosing one of the spots we have visited in the past I thought I would find somewhere unknown to us both and after trawling through the pages of Pariscope ( a Parisian equivalent of Time Out, sort of), I settled on the Caveau de la Huchette which promised good jazz and dancing. Because I was busy I did not take the time to find out the history of the place. I looked up the Californian clarinetist, Dan Levinson, who was billed to play, but nothing about the building itself, housed at 5, rue de la Huchette, a small cobbled street running westward from Rue St Jacques,  and a very short walk from Shakespeare & Co. Quintessential Paris cinquième, steps from where Michel and I first lived when we began our love affair some years ago in Paris. (And where several chapters of THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER are set).

                                                    Rue de la Huchette, Paris 1900

The street itself is one of the oldest along the capital's Left Bank, running horizontal to the Seine and it claims some rather handsome buildings, once hotels. I did not know the meaning of the word huchette and neither did Michel. So, I looked it up in my four-volume Harrap's dictionary. The closest I found was huchet, a masculine noun meaning a hunting horn. I then read on Wikipedia that as early as the year 1200 the street was known as rue de Laas and ran adjacent to a vineyard which was sold off in the early thirteenth century for urban development. I have failed to find out anything further about the vineyard, or the wines grown there. If anyone reading this knows more, I would be fascinated to hear from you.

Rue de la Huchette, around 1900

When we lived around the corner from Rue de la Huchette,  I have to admit I always hurried by this narrow street, avoiding it when possible, because I found it rather touristy, full of slightly tacky Greek restaurants touting for clients. I have never really taken to its ambience.  I now discover that as early as the seventeenth century, the street was lively with taverns, hostelries, cabarets and rotisseries and that the cries and drunken shouts of laughter could be heard all over the quarter! It is claimed that Abbé Prévost (novelist and Benedictine monk) penned his short novel, Manon Lescaut, published in 1745, in one of these auberges. One wonders with such noise going on how he managed it!

The novel was a huge success and three operatic adaptations were made of the Abbé's oeuvre. The first, the least known, was Daniel Auber's published in 1856. In 1884, Massenet wrote his opera, Manon. Shortly after, Puccini adapted the book keeping the original title. This he wrote between 1890 and 1893.
There has also been at least one film adaptation of the book.

Théâtre de la Huchette

At number 23 stands the Théâtre de la Huchette. What is remarkable about this small theatre is that it has been staging the same two Eugène Ionesco plays, performed as a double bill, with the original production values and sets, since 1957:  La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) and La Leçon (The Lesson). This makes these two plays, as a double bill, the longest running show in the history of modern theatre. Also astounding is the fact that the theatre seats a modest 85 and yet over one and a half million spectators have seen the double bill. Now, a third play has been added to the repertoire, but this changes from time to time. Why, I asked myself, would the same two plays continue to be performed? This story is also fascinating. The theatre opened on the 26th April 1948, founded on a shoestring by Marcel Pinard and Georges Vitaly. In 1952, it was bought outright by Pinard who brought to its stage the works of Genet, Lorca, Ionesco, Turgenev amongst others. Some of whom, like Ionesco, were criticised, spurned by the mainstream theatrical community. When Pinard died in 1975, the theatre was threatened with closure, so the actors who were performing the two Ionesco plays formed a limited company in order that they could continue with the production and fight for the principle's that had been the life-blood of the theatre.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Paul Belmondo are but two of a long list of actors who made their first or early appearances there.

Outside Le Caveau de la Huchette 1949

Now to 5, Le Caveau de la Huchette. The jazz club exists in a sixteenth-century building, formerly a hotel, where the American journalist, and author, Elliot Paul, resided during the 20s and 30s. Paul left Paris in the thirties due to ill health and went to convalesce in Spain but moved back to Paris at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. When WWII was declared, he returned home to the States.  Once back in America, he went to work in Hollywood. One of Paul's most notable co-screenwriting achievements is the classic Rhapsody in Blue. (Clifford Odets was another contributor to this screenplay though uncredited)

Original poster for Rhapsody in Blue
Released in New York on 26 June 1945 and nominated for one of the Grand Prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in September 1946

Poster for the first Cannes Film Festival held in September 1946

Back to Rue de la Huchette.  No 5 is built of stone with a cavernous dungeon-like interior with dangerously narrow winding stairways that lead to two seating areas. The largest 'room' is the underground dance floor and stage where Dan Levinson was playing.
Caveau de la Huchette started its life as a jazz club in 1946 and today is hailed as the Temple of Swing.

But looking back centuries earlier into the history of No. 5, I discovered that it was a meeting place for the secret brotherhood of the Rosicrucians and also for the Templars. The history is a little woolly after that, but it seems that in the early seventeenth century, the building was used by a Brotherhood of Freemasons. (Freemasonry was founded from "ecclesiastical associations of builders formed by bishops from the Middle Ages, especially the Benedictines, Cistercian and Templars" so perhaps the use of the space was passed down from the Templars?)
The lodge was composed of two basement rooms, one on top of the other, which served as the meeting rooms. From these rooms, two subterranean tunnels were excavated. One led to Châtelet and the other to the cloister of Saint-Severin.
(This is not as incredible as it sounds. Paris is built on old holes, quarries, catacombs and subterranean trails. As Victor Hugo wrote, "to plumb the depths of this ruin seems impossible".)

                                             Georges Danton Lawyer and Politician  1759 - 1794

During the years of the French Revolution, No. 5 became an important gathering point for radical democrats seeking to dislodge the monarchy and create a republic. It hosted members of the Club of the Cordeliers. The upper room was transformed into a public house where such political luminaries as Danton, Marat and Robespierre came to drink and sing revolutionary songs, songs of La Liberté. Trials and executions took place in the lower room. A very deep well still exists there which is claimed to be where the corpses of those executed were thrown. Arms from that epoch still decorate the walls.

In 1946, Paris was a capital celebrating its freedom, a different liberty. The Germans had gone, the Occupation was at an end. The Americans were back. Everybody was in the mood to party. Jazz and its upbeat energy swept through Paris. The Caveau de la Huchette claims to be Paris' first jazz club but I would contest this because Sidney Bechet, to name just one, was playing with his own band in 1928 at the the chic nightclub, Bricktop's Club in Montmartre, owned by flaming red-haired, "one-hundred percent American negro",  Ada 'Bricktop' Smith.
The Caveau certainly welcomed the GIs and with them came the beginning of France's passion for be-pop and swing. It was nicknamed the Temple of New Orleans jazz.
Sydney Bechet's jam sessions down in those cellars after his return to France in 1950 have become legendary.

Sidney Bechet 1897 - 1959

The club's reputation has never faded. Lionel Hampton performed there for the club's thirtieth birthday celebrations in May 1976.

Every night of the week there is live jazz, and, what was an eye opener to Michel and me, was the dancing. Be-pop and swing are alive and jumping in Paris. Dozens of couples, singles too, congregate there to dance. It was a remarkable sight to see and you cannot help feel energised and uplifted. Dan Levinson, in from California to play for two nights, said that it is one of his favourite clubs to perform anywhere in the world. No musician could claim that the reception was anything less than 'très chalereux'.

My new novel - the one I am at work on now - its title for the moment, though for a very different reason, is All that Jazz (though I am sure Penguin will have other suggestions!) It begins in Paris in 1947.  I feel very tempted now to write a scene set at the Caveau de la Huchette.
Here, below, is the cover of THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, also partially set in Paris, published a couple of months ago.


Wednesday 25 May 2016

Hieronymus Bosch by Miranda Miller

                                                                 (c. 1450 – 1516)

   I’ve seen Bosch’s paintings in Vienna and Venice and have always found him a fascinating and mysterious figure, so when I heard that his birthplace in Holland was celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death with an exhibition I immediately booked. Just as well, because by the end of March the exhibition was completely sold out. The man who has been said to have had “the wildest imagination in the history of art” has a lot of devoted admirers all over the world and, as Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian, “The Noordbrabants Museum has put on one of the most important exhibitions of our century.”

   The exhibition itself is a remarkable achievement. Nine years ago Charles de Mooij, the director of this small museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch), decided to borrow every work by Bosch in the world. Amazingly, he managed to assemble twenty of the twenty-five surviving panels, including several reunited triptychs and panels that were scattered centuries ago, and nineteen of his twenty drawings. Most of Bosch’s work has disappeared and it would have included stained-glass windows, embroidery and glasswork. This exhibition, which has now moved to the Prado, will probably never be seen in one place again. Many of these paintings could only travel because the Getty Foundation paid for conservation work and also for a huge research project into Bosch. The Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington all agreed to lend their work to this provincial museum.

   Before our eagerly awaited time slot we wandered around the sleepy Dutch town and visited St John’s Church, where Bosch would have worshipped and where his funeral took place although his body seems to have been lost, as the lady in the church shop apologetically told me. We know almost nothing about the life of Hieronymus Bosch, whose real name was Jeroen Van Aken. His grandfather, uncles and father were all painters in this provincial Brabant city, which was prosperous in the fifteenth century, and Bosch seems to have lived there all his life. He married, had a big house and studio on the market square and was a “sworn brother” of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, a religious confraternity. However conventional his outer life was it is clear that he had an extraordinary inner life and we are fortunate to be allowed to glimpse it.

   I loved this exhibition, which is imaginatively displayed. His paintings are cinematic and the dark galleries are dramatically lit, with spots on each work and monitors which display high resolution images of the unfolding details of certain paintings; the seething, crazy, wonderful details. All fantasy comes from somewhere and when you look closely you see that all these monsters and bizarre inventions are based on images in our everyday world: owls, fish, lizards, trumpets, knives, funnels, all beautifully observed and drawn and then brilliantly reinvented. Somehow all these impossible figments convince us of their own reality. You feel that he lived in terrifying times (like us, like everyone,) and felt infinite compassion for the ingenious cruelties people inflict on each other. Here is his Ship of Fools, from the Louvre.

   This illustrates a popular fifteenth century book with the same name: “Who takes his place on the ship of fools sails laughing and singing to hell.” It hangs directly above another panel , Gluttony and Lust, from Yale. These can now be confirmed as two halves of the same continuous vertical composition, reunited here for the first time in centuries.

   This mix of the extraordinary and the mundane appears even more original when you compare Bosch’s work with that by members of his workshop. Whereas Bosch’s monsters are authentically horrible and frightening, those of his followers look merely kitsch. He was one of the first artists in the low countries to sign his work, so he wanted to be remembered. Here he is above his own signature, making fun of himself as a monster that is also a self portrait: an ascetic, gaunt, bespectacled man with the legs of a lizard and the wings of a bird.

St John of Patmos.

   Even when he paints familiar religious scenes Bosch adds details which bring the hackneyed images to life. For example, in this small oak panel of Christ as a baby he imagines Jesus as a baby pushing along a fifteenth century walking frame and carrying a toy windmill in his right hand:

   Bosch’s nightmare bestiary riots through the galleries and into our heads. I had always assumed, quite wrongly as it turns out, that Bosch’s paranoid and erotic visions would have been considered shocking and even insane in his own time. Early critics called him ‘the devil’s painter” and early art historians regarded him merely as "the inventor of monsters and chimeras" or "wondrous and strange fantasies ... often less pleasant than gruesome to look at".

   However, recent scholars have come to view Bosch's vision as less fantastic, and think his art reflects the orthodox religious belief systems of his age. His depictions of sinful humanity and conceptions of Heaven and Hell are now seen as consistent with those of late medieval didactic literature and sermons. According to Dirk Bax, Bosch's paintings often represent visual translations of verbal metaphors and puns drawn from both biblical and folkloric sources. He may have been part of the Modern Devotion movement, which wanted to bring Christianity closer to the people by making Christian teaching accessible to all through texts in the vernacular instead of Latin, and by employing provocative images and jokes  from popular culture to reinforce the message. Their aim was to encourage a direct personal relationship between the individual and God - in 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

   Some writers see Bosch as a medieval surrealist, and this is closer to my own view. As it says in the catalogue, Visions of Genius, “Bosch makes art personal, on different levels, and that makes him modern.” His private thoughts emerge in his drawings; only twenty survive in the entire world, and nineteen of them are in this exhibition. They show us the secret Bosch, with his imagination full of monsters. One drawing is called The Wood Has Ears, The Field Has Eyes – a saying inscribed on Goya’s Caprichos. Human ears hang from the trees, human eyes stare out of the ground and in this one, Beehive and Witches, who knows what is going on:
   By the time of his death, Bosch was internationally celebrated as an eccentric painter of religious visions and his works were in the private collections of noble families of the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Soon after his death. King Philip II of Spain became a serious collector of Bosch's work, and The Garden of Earthly Delights is said to have been hung in his bedroom. Bosch was imitated throughout the sixteenth century and his influence can be seen on Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who also used folklore and proverbs to create a fantasy world. Later, Bosch’s work influenced Goya and the imagery of Surrealism and Jung called him “the discoverer of the unconscious.”

Tuesday 24 May 2016


I was very saddened the other day to read about the death of much loved, multi-million selling historical and fantasy novelist Roberta Gellis.  You can read a brief obituary of this remarkable lady  HERE.    Roberta was a long-serving class act of the romantic historical genre and one of the major inspirations and influences on my early career.  She was also kind enough to talk to me via e-mail on occasion and we had several detailed and interesting discussions about our mutual interest in the twelfth century, its characters and politics. 

I first came across Roberta's work in my late teens.  By that stage I had already embarked on my own (unpublished and a hobby at that time) historical writing. Having developed a passionate interest in the Middle Ages, I would haunt the library and devour whatever historical novels set in that period I could find.  Being short of income at the time, the library was a godsend. The books that I wound up borrowing numerous times, I went out and bought when I had money from my Saturday job or was given book tokens for birthdays and Christmas.

Together with Cecelia Holland and Dorothy Dunnett, Roberta Gellis was one of my library discoveries and auto buys.  I picked up her novel Bond of Blood and was immediately captivated by the struggles of a young twelfth century bride and the scarred warlord husband thrust upon her by society during the anarchy period of Stephen and Matilda. 
Tortured heroes and Beauty and the Beast are stereotypical features in fiction of all categories but have a particularly entrenched home in historical romance where they can often be much of a muchness, but Gellis was an  author who soared above the cliche.  Her hero, the badly battle-scarred Cain had a club foot and his mother had died giving birth to him and his twin brother. His father, in grim bitterness had bestowed on him the biblical name of the man who had slain his own brother.  
Leah comes from a family where she is only valued as breeding stock, and has learned to be very nimble with her wits when it comes to peace-keeping and making the best out of her circumstances.  However, she is no Mary-Sue but a resourceful and quietly determined young woman.  She and Cain are married by force of dynastic and political circumstance, and how they come to deal with each other's flaws and fears, and to appreciate the finer points  amid all the political machinations, makes for a terrific story full of emotional triumph and pain as well as edge of the seat adventure and skulduggery.  For me the reader it was a wonderful absorbing, believable read.
I enjoyed the more flighty historical romances I read, (I loved Kathleen Woodiwiss's way over the top epic historicals) but now I could clearly appreciate the difference between what felt like reality and what was more akin to getting out the dressing up box to flounce around in the costumes.  Roberta Gellis made history live for me more than any other author had done up to that point.  As a fledgling writer, she also taught me that it was possible to write romantic tales that were about people who were of their time. They thought like medieval people, they behaved like medieval people.  They drew you into their world and made you believe in them and their dilemmas, all of which were utterly realistic.  This was why I loved reading Gellis novels and this was what I wanted to write.  Something that felt real to me.

I continued to devour Roberta Gellis's medieval novels at speed. Knight's Honour, The Sword and the Swan, the Dragon and the Rose (where she took a positive view of Henry VII). 
 But then, for me, Robert Gellis excelled her own already high standards and produced something rather special when she brought out her 4 book Roselynde Chronicle series - Roselynde, Alinor, Joanna and Gillian.  In my opinion she hit the top of her game with these novels set in the time of King Richard, King John, and the early years of Henry III.  Alinor, a wealthy young heiress who has been raised by her grandparents and given a somewhat enlightened education  for a young woman, (although an education still of its time for the privileged) is given the middle-aged but vigorous and experienced knight Simon LeMagne as her guardian.  What starts out in a certain amount of resentment, gradually blossoms into friendship, then love and marriage, but not without numerous trials and difficulties, including a journey on the third crusade where Alinor joins the household of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Simon is attached to Richard's household.
The other books in the quartet follow the fortunes of Alinor and her loved ones through the ending reign of John and into the early 1230's.  In the course of the story, Gellis brings to life one of the 'hottest' romantic historical heroes ever in the second book, Alinor, in the form of Ian de Vipont, Simon leMagne's squire and later lord in his own right.  Any woman who has not encountered Ian de Vipont and gone weak at the knees is lying. 
Gellis's skill lay in her ability to create a man who was drop dead gorgeous but at the same time the complete antithesis of the cardboard cutout he could so easily have become in less skilled hands.  Ian de Vipont lives, breathes, walks off the page with all of his believable flaws and insecurities and sweeps the reader into his and Alinor's very real 12th century world.  I read those books to shreds, especially Alinor.  
When they were published in a special hardcover edition along with two more in the series,  I saved up to buy the two new ones, Rhiannon and Sybelle, and made sure I had enough over to by myself a new copy of Alinor.  I have to say that the covers do not particularly do the content justice. The latter always outshines the former.

Gellis was later asked to write more in this series, and completed one more - Desiree in 2000, but she said that she did not want to go further into the series really because that would mean having to write the death of Alinor and it was not something she was willing to do.

In her later career Roberta Gellis dabbled in the popular historical mystery genre and introduced readers to the wonderful  new heroine Magdaelne la Batarde, high class brothel keeper of mid 12th century London.  Just as her earlier medieval novels straddled the line between the romance and the straight historical, so her Magdalene novels - A Mortal Bane, A Personal Devil, Bone of Contention and Chains of Folly, were as much historicals as mysteries, with the same evocative sense of period and personalities.

I have yet to read Gellis's novels set in the world of Greek mythology and there are sundry medieval and other works that are still on my to read pile but it means I still have work m of hers that is new to me even though no more will be written -  a poignant thought.

Roberta's website is still with us online and it gives a warm glimpse into the personality of this remarkable author, who, if she hadn't taken that particular career path, might have made her career as a bio-chemist.  Do go along and take a look.  ROBERTA GELLIS WEBSITE 

I am so sorry that such a lovely, talented lady, who has given millions of readers so much pleasure for so many years has passed away, but what a legacy she has left behind, and I honour her now and extend to her my heartfelt thanks both as a reader and a writer.