Friday 30 September 2016

September Competition

To win a copy of Snowdrift, short stories by Georgette Heyer, just answer the following question in the Comments below:

What is your favourite Georgette Heyer novel and why?

Then send your answer to so that I can contact you if you have won.

Closing date 7th October

We regret that our competitions are open only to UK Followers

Thursday 29 September 2016

New Georgette Heyer stories!

We could almost say that our September guest is posthumous! The late Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) is very popular with many History Girls and our Followers but we are aware that she is sometimes considered a bit of a Marmite author.  So if you are not a fan, look away now. If you are we have a real treat for you.

Snowdrift has just been published, a collection of short stories, including three previously unpublished tales. These were found by our actual guest Jennifer Kloester, who has written an introduction. We asked Jennifer to tell us about her researches.

Jennifer Kloester, photo by Greg Noakes
Tell us about the re-discovery of the three new short stories.  What were your feelings on realising that they hadn’t been read since 1939?

It was an incredible research experience finding new Heyer short stories, most of which had not been seen since their publication in the 1920s and 1930s. I will never forget being in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library and turning the page of Sovereign magazine and seeing Georgette Heyer's beneath a new short story title. I literally had to stop myself from jumping up and down with excitement. I spent weeks searching over three thousand individual magazines at the Newspaper Library at Colindale. Of the nine stories I eventually found several were contemporary romances but the four were historical. Two of those historical shorts: 'Runaway Match' and 'Incident on the Bath Road' have now been included in the new anthology, Snowdrift and Other Stories and the third one, 'Pursuit' I found in a delightful publication, The Queen's Book of the Red Cross. Every new story was like discovering gold. I love research and gain a tremendous sense of satisfaction from searching archives and finding new details about the past. Researching Georgette Heyer's life and writing had been hugely rewarding and I feel immensely privileged to have spent so many years (since 1999) pursuing the reclusive Miss Heyer.

How do you think that they add to her existing body of work?

These short stories were written in the 1930s - 1936 and 1939 to be exact - when Heyer had only written her first couple of Regency novels. In 'Runaway Match, 'Incident on the Bath Road' and 'Pursuit', Heyer readers will find hints of books to come. Heyer often used her short stories as starting points for her later novels and I think that's really interesting in terms of her development as a writer. Heyer has iconic status as a historical novelist and created the hugely popular Regency genre and these short stories are part of that early evolution. By considering them in their context I think they add a few more pieces to our growing understanding of an intensely private author.

Do you have a favourite?

I like them all but 'Incident on the Bath Road' is my favourite of this group. Heyer draws her characters so well and there are some lovely lines in it.

What do you think keeps people coming back to her books after all this time?

 She is the consummate storyteller and, as we see time and time again in books, movies and on television, a good story always sells. Heyer is also masterful in depicting character. Her characters are so memorable and not only her primary but her secondary characters are three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood creations. Her plots are brilliantly crafted and no one does imbroglio endings like Heyer. Best of all she makes you laugh out loud with her wonderful dialogue and memorable scenes. You only have to think of moments from her novels like Freddy and Nemesis or Claude and Polyphant or Lord Dolphington (Heyer fans will know what I mean) and you'll be smiling. It has often been said that Georgette Heyer is one of the great re-reads and I think that's absolutely true. She is the author you turn to when life is hard, or sickness prevails or you just want to escape. A.S. Byatt called Heyer's novels 'Honourable Escape' and I think that's a very apt description.

You've written two non-fiction books (a biog of GH and one about the regency world in which many of her books are set) and two novels. Has your view of GH's writing changed since you started writing/ writing novels?

Writing my own novels has made me appreciate Heyer's achievements even more. She wrote with such extraordinary facility - sometimes penning an entire book in a couple of months. She wrote Faro's Daughter in eight weeks, straight to the typewriter and single-spaced on account of the wartime paper shortage. I envy her the ease with which she devised her plots and created her characters though she always said the writing was hard! I have also gained a deeper understanding of her inner struggles - her yearning for recognition and for wanting to be told that her novels were good. She was so often self-deprecating about her work even though she loved writing books and deep down believed they were worthwhile. Recently, I've been re-reading her novels from the 1950s and have been struck anew by the brilliance of their structure. I don't think I'd ever fully appreciated the cleverness of her plots until I'd written my own novels. I'd love to write as well as Heyer.

Your favourite GH heroine?

Such a hard question because I love so many of her female characters. Hester Theale from Sprig Muslin always springs to mind because she is so well-drawn and has real depth. I adore Mary Challoner from Devil's Cub because she is Heyer's first anti-heroine and I adore the scene she's on the ship and tells Vidal she's about to throw up. Jenny Chawleigh from A Civil Contract is superbly written and she evokes great sympathy. Then there's Venetia who is undoubtedly one of Heyer's finest creations. But perhaps my top pick is Sarah Thane from The Talisman Ring because I just love her scenes with Sir Tristram and she's so feisty and cool-headed.

What’s next for you?

I'm about to finish writing my latest novel. This one's contemporary fiction but with a strong Regency element. I've had great fun writing it and I'm quite excited by the story. The Regency bits have been a joy to write - there's something about the period that I just love. I suspect that's because of my Jane Austen/Georgette Heyer addiction! The novel also has a supernatural theme which I've really enjoyed writing. I'm hoping it will be out next year. I'll keep you posted!

Thanks, Jennifer! Mary Challoner is my favourite heroine too.

You can win a copy of this gorgeously-produced book in our competition tomorrow and enter the world of Nonesuches and Nonpareils, Bucks and Corinthians with Roman profiles, impossibly complicated neckcloths and multi-caped riding cloaks.  Your destination will be Bath, London or Gretna Green and the ride is bound to be enjoyable.

(Many thanks to Charlotte Wightwick for her help with this guest post)

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Making History ... by One Foot by Julie Summers

I write a great deal about life in the middle of the last century and about people who made history in a variety of different ways. Today I want to tell the story of a group of young men who made history nine years ago and who have joined the pantheon of greats in the small but exclusive field of Henley Royal Regatta rowing winners. Sunday 8 July 2007 and the market town of Henley-on-Thames is enjoying a warm afternoon. On the Buckinghamshire bank of the river the scene is one of colour, pageantry and tradition: blue-and-white striped boat tents marshalled neatly between the pink-and-cream Leander Club hard up against Henley Bridge, and the white marquees housing the grandstands and Stewards’ Enclosure on the downstream side. It is finals day of the regatta, the day when lives are changed for ever by the outcome of an individual race. At 3:50pm two crews of nine young men line up at the start, next to the lozenge-shaped island in the middle of the river crowned by an elegant temple designed by the eighteenth-century English architect, James Wyatt. The umpire is standing in a handsome launch, arms raised, holding a red flag vertically above his head waiting for the two coxes to indicate that their crews are all set. Are you ready? He sweeps the flag down sharply. Go! Sixteen blades dip into the water. They are off.
There is expectation and excitement all along the river bank – not least in the Stewards’ Enclosure where nervous parents fidget, check their watches, exchange anxious glances and wonder why the commentator has not mentioned the race yet. But patience. Then the deadpan announcement over the loudspeaker: The final of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup is in progress between Brentwood College School on the Berkshire station and Shrewsbury School on the Bucks station. Brentwood College School are the Canadian National School Champions. No mention of Shrewsbury’s pedigree. Upwards of 100,000 people attend Henley Royal Regatta each July. It is an event caught in a bubble of history with echoes of a bygone era everywhere: fine hats, striped blazers, picnics in the car park come rain or shine, decorated launches bobbing on the white booms that line the course, Pimms jugs clinking with ice, champagne and oysters, a brass band playing military tunes, and all the while a titanic battle is being fought on the water. Brentwood had dispatched the favourites, Eton, in the semi-finals the day before and Shrewsbury had beaten Radley in a slower time.
At the end of the island, both crews rating 42, Brentwood College School lead Shrewsbury School by half a length. Forty strokes in from the start and the Canadians already have a half-length lead. Six minutes to go. The grandstand is full of Shrewsbury supporters. There is barely a free seat, the atmosphere tense. Elsewhere people are milling around the bars and chatting. Henley is, after all, a great social event. It marks the end of the summer season, after Ascot, and coincides with finals’ day at Wimbledon. At The Barrier, Brentwood College School maintained their lead of half a length over Shrewsbury School. Time to The Barrier, 1 minute 58 seconds. A buzz. One second faster than yesterday. The Barrier is one of two points where intermediate times are taken, times that later will be scrutinised, compared, delighted at or despaired over. The spectators downstream can see the action first. Crowding along the river bank they get close-up views of the two crews battling it out in the early stages of the race.
The next timing point is Fawley. Now there is a change: At Fawley, Brentwood College School’s lead over Shrewsbury School has been reduced to a quarter of a length. The grandstand is in spasm, spectators begin to move towards the river bank sensing a spectacle. Downstream the shouting has increased and the excitement is palpable. Can the home crew crack the Canadians? At The Three-Quarter Mile Signal Brentwood School led Shrewsbury School by 2 feet. The grandstand is on its feet, a roar is moving up the bank like a giant wave. Half the race gone. At the Mile Signal, Shrewsbury School had taken the lead. Wild elation but fear too. The Canadians were not about to give up and Shrewsbury supporters knew that. ‘We could see them now and it looked hell’, wrote housemaster Martin Humphreys to crew member Tom Hanmer’s parents. ‘Shrewsbury on the far side pounding away, looking a bit scrappy and tired, to be honest. Brentwood on the near side and neat and long. When they came past us Shrewsbury had a quarter of a length lead, but I could see the Canadians were eating into it with every stroke. This was grim.’ The two boats cross the line neck and neck. Then there is silence. The commentary ceases and the Finish Judge has to make his call. The wait seems interminable, time stands still. Then: The result of the Final of the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup was that Shr …. No need for the rest: the name of the winning crew is always announced first. The grandstand explodes in ecstasy … the verdict, one foot. More cheering. The narrowest, the shortest, the tiniest of winning margins imaginable, less than a sixtieth of the length of the boat.
For Brentwood College School a bitter blow. To be a member of a losing crew, however epic the race, there are no prizes. For the boys of the winning crew and their parents, unsurpassed joy, a matter of lifetime pride and for one man in particular this is a sweet victory. Eighty-three-year-old Michael Lapage watched his grandson, Patrick, help to win this great battle. Nearly seventy years earlier, on the same stretch of river, Michael had won silver for Great Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games. The legacy of a Henley win is a long one. It unites generations and brings tears to the eyes of the strongest of men.
An extraordinary footnote to this story is that Patrick Lapage stroked the Harvard University boat to victory five years later. The verdict: ONE FOOT. Now there is history for you...

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Jellicoe and the U Boats by Janie Hampton

There has been much in the news this year about the 1916 naval Battle of Jutland and the role of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.
Admiral Sir John Jellicoe
But has anybody mentioned another Jellicoe who was also employed by the British Royal Navy and active during the First World War? I doubt it, because the other Jellicoe was a sea-lion. He belonged to Captain Joseph Woodward from Ramsgate, Kent, whose family had one of the first touring sea-lion shows. The sea-lions were trained to juggle, balance balls on their noses and dive for chocolates.
During the First World War, German U-boats were sinking tons of British merchant shipping. Captain Woodward was sure that Jellicoe and his under-water colleagues could help. Sea-lions have excellent underwater vision and hearing; can swim 25 mph (40 kph); dive repeatedly to a depth of 1,000 feet - 300 metres; and are as intelligent as dogs. The British ‘Board of Invention and Research’ agreed it was worth a try. Trials were undertaken first in an outdoor swimming pool, and then in Lake Bala in Wales. Captain Woodward’s idea was that Jellicoe would track the sound of a U-boat engine -however deep it was in the ocean- and swim towards it with a float attached to a cord. The Navy would follow the floats, and know that a U-boat was underneath. The first trick was to encourage them to track U-boats, and not fish. All went well, until they were put to work in the actual sea off Southampton. Despite wearing muzzles, they ignored the Royal Navy submarine, and went straight for the fish. The sea-lions returned home but after yet more training, in 1917 the experiment was abandoned. However, it was agreed that important developments in 'hydrophone science' had been made. Jellicoe and his comrades were demobilized and returned to civilian life. But Jellicoe’s career was not over. Hailed as "the actual Admiralty U-boat hunting sea-lion", he continued to perform in theatres such as The Hippodrome in London.
The Other Jellicoe
I first learned about Jellicoe when I found a yellowing press-cutting among my late uncle’s papers. The  Birmingham Mail revealed that in January 1921 Jellicoe was performing in the Victory Circus at Bingley Hall, Birmingham. This was not far from where my grandfather Rosslyn Bruce (great nephew of the afore-blogged Felicia Skene) was a vicar. He wanted to raise money for the poor children of Birmingham, and he loved animals. He persuaded Captain Woodward that Jellicoe would bring great publicity to the Fund – and, no doubt, the circus too.
Birmingham Mail January 14, 1921.
 "Extra-ordinary scenes were witnessed in Birmingham today," reported the Birmingham Mail, "when the sea-lion ‘Jellicoe’ drove to the Mail offices on his motor cycle combination." The convoy included two motor cars "decorated with flags and red, white and blue ribbons...Jellicoe was apparently oblivious to the flattering reception received from the huge concourse" – estimated to be the largest crowd ever seen in Corporation Street. "He sounded his horn repeatedly when anyone threatened to get in the way. Jellicoe’s instinct, however, is so intense that he requires little help to avoid obstacles. Throughout the journey he never seemed like losing control of his machine." No mention was made of Mrs Woodward, hidden beneath his flippers. "Arriving at the office of the Birmingham Mail, Jellicoe dismounted and proceeded up the steps to the front door. Introductions having been effected, Jellicoe indicated a desire to proceed to the editorial department and was directed upstairs." Around the neck of "this amphibious messenger" was a cheque for £251 8s 8d, raised at a charity concert for the Christmas Children’s Fund. "Jellicoe shook hands, saluted and descending the stairs, made his way to the motor cycle which he at once mounted and drove away, sounding his horn furiously to the great delight of the crowd." In the faded newspaper photo, my uncle Merlin, then aged 11, can be seen sitting in the side car beside Jellicoe as it travelled down New Street.
A year later Merlin Bruce went to Dartmouth Royal Naval College from where he became commander of an early aircraft carrier and was later awarded an OBE for defusing bombs.
Merlin Bruce RN, circa 1930

Since the 1960s, the US Navy has been training California sea-lions to locate sea-mines and lost divers, and even attach leg-cuffs to suspected saboteurs who can then be hauled to the surface. Sea-lions can also film live videos of the ocean floor with cameras attached to specially-designed harnesses. So far, the US Navy has not admitted to training them to drive motorcycles, with or without sidecars.
On friendly terms with its commanding officer, a sea-lion on board a submarine, 'Illustrated London News', 1919


Monday 26 September 2016

A vineyard in southern France, by Carol Drinkwater

It is that time of year again. Late September. The season of ‘mellow fruitfulness’. There are no mists here at this time of year in the south of France but there is a great deal of mature sunlight oozing its warm beams for long hour after long hour. I love this time of year and what has been extra special for me this year is that THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER was published last week in paperback.
To celebrate its publication, my husband and I visited one of our local Foire aux vins, a rendezvous for all lovers of good wine where a vast selection of French wines are on offer at slightly reduced prices.

THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER is set, predominantly, on a family-owned vineyard in the south of France. The book opens with the harvest, la vendange.

When I was a student, many of my colleagues would zip off to France or Italy about now and help with the grape-picking. The stories they returned with, along with their healthy sun-kissed cheeks, always made me a little wistful. I was one of those students who couldn’t really afford to travel, (which is possibly why I have been on the move ever since!) I had never visited a vineyard. I didn’t know anything of the back-breaking work, the heat in the fields, the sweet juice staining my fingers. All of these joyous experiences came to me later, and whilst writing on THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER I spent a great deal of time on several vineyards throughout all seasons to learn the entire wine-making process, but I particularly loved being out of doors in the fresh air at harvest-time. As well, I enjoyed the camaraderie that grows out of working with a small thrown-together team. It is all about picking by hand, just as we do with our olives. One of the main reasons for this is that discerning pickers will know to leave the poor fruits alone and not mix them in with top quality fruits.

The moment of when to pick is an ancient art and getting it right is vital to the quality of the wine to come. Most winemakers decide their moment dependent on the sugar and acid levels in the fruit. Weather, too, is an important factor. This becomes clear in THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER when an unpredicted hail storm arrives from nowhere and beats down on the newly-picked grapes, destroying entire baskets of the estate's most cherished variety.

The south of France with its abundance of rosé wines has been capturing the attention of wine connoisseurs the world over. Wine production here in the Midi has come of age, experts are claiming. It is true that until recently it has never been held with the regard given to Burgundy or Bordeaux productions but since Phoenician times it has been an active if not always top-notch business here.
                             The cave where the earliest known winery was located in southern Armenia

I read on Wikipedia that the oldest-known winery, -and judging by the remains excavated there it was a reasonably sophisticated affair - was found in Vayots Dzor, Armenia, and dates back to around 4100 BC. If this were the oldest winery it would date the industry at approximately 6,000 years old, which is at least 1,000 years younger than olive cultivation in the Middle East.

I wonder.

                                     Mosaic with Armenian writing depicting grapes and birds

Georgia was producing wine during the same period as the Armenians and possibly earlier. They discovered wine-making when they buried wild grape juice underground in shallow pits throughout the winter. When the juice was dug up it had fermented. The next step was to sink grape juice in clay vessels with sealed wooden lids and leave these kvevris sometimes for up to fifty years.
                                                         Ancient kvevris in Georgia
The kvevris resemble early amphorae which, from at least Phoenician times, were used to transport liquid produce such as wine or olive oil all around the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians played a vital role all along their maritime trading routes in disseminating both wine and olive knowledge.

                                           Roman amphorae used to transport olive oil or wine

The search for the origins of viticulture is as complex a journey as my own Olive Route expeditions. It is possibly why the history of wine-making fascinates me as much as the olive culture.

                                                       Egyptian wine jars 6th - 4th century BC

I can remember standing in the West Bank on a very sunny February morning planting olive saplings in groves where the old trees had been felled, and looking about me. Unrestricted views in every direction. Palestine. Ancient Palestine. Canaan, Phoenician fields. Israel. On each of these territories wine production has had an impact and that impact has been carried to ports all across the Mediterranean.

                                         An exquisite Greek wine-mixing vessel, from southern France 500 BC

Southern France, the original small port that was founded as Massilia, modern-day Marseille, would have seen the arrival of wine stock and olive trees somewhere around 600 BC. The Phoenicians first or possibly the Phocaean Greeks who came from the Asia Minor coast, from the port-city of Phocaea – today Foca in Turkey. Both peoples would have transported with them cultivation know-how as well as a floating nursery of sorts. The resident Gauls were choosy about what they accepted from these long-distance foreigners, but they did welcome wine. After, came the Romans who planted up vast swathes of the Languedoc, the Mediterranean coast, Provence with vines.

A couple of years ago I was invited to the Robert Mondavi Institute, University of California, Davis, to give a couple of lectures on my Olive Route experiences, embracing both the two travel books and the films. While there I came across a very excellent book, which I thoroughly recommend if the history of viticulture is of interest to you.

                                                    ANCIENT WINE, by Patrick E. McGovern

It is a vast and intoxicating subject, and one I would love to travel to discover further.

THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, unlike THE OLIVE ROUTE and its sequel THE OLIVE TREE, is a novel. It is full of love, fine food and wines and intrigue. I hope that it is also imbued with my passion for southern France's agricultural past and the region's history.

I leave you with Dionysus, or Bacchus. Such a handsome god in whose company I would enjoy driving a glass of wine.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Fanny Burney by Miranda Miller

    I’m so glad to have finally read some of the work of this extraordinary women. The daughter of the musicologist Dr Charles Burney, whose amanuensis she was, she daringly wrote an epistolary novel, Evelina, in her twenties. She published it anonymously, without her father’s knowledge, and when it became known that she was the author she became famous. Hester Thrale, David Garrick and Dr Johnson, (who infamously remarked that "Public practice of any art, and staring in men's faces, is very indelicate in a female"), were amongst her admirers. Like so many novels of the period, the plot hangs on illegitimacy, honour, chastity and now seems fairly conventional: Evelina’s virtue is rewarded as it turns out she is, after all, the legitimate daughter of a rich man and therefore deserves her Lord. At the time the novel was considered remarkable for its originality and wit. Evelina’s embarrassing grandmother, Madame Duval, is a satirical portrait of the stepmother Fanny and her sisters hated.

    Jane Austen read Fanny Burney’s novels and was influenced by her. Near the end of Cecilia, her second novel: “The whole of this unfortunate business," said Dr Lyster, "has been the result of pride and prejudice.” She wrote more novels and also plays, one of which, The Woman Hater, was first performed in 2007 at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond. During her lifetime her father and other friends constantly feared that her work would cause offence or make her appear unladylike.

   Queen Charlotte offered her the post of "Keeper of the Robes", with a salary of £200 per annum. Fanny hoped that the improved social status and income might allow her greater freedom to write but, although she became fond of the queen and princesses, her role at court was exhausting and tedious and left her little time to write. After five years she asked her father, who was then the organist at Chelsea Hospital, to help to release from the post.

   Fanny’s own later adventures were, I found, more gripping and moving than her novels and her own love story was far less conventional than her heroines’. Her journals, written in a lively style punctuated by those eighteenth century dashes that are like bolts of energy, are very readable. In her late thirties she married a French refugee, Monsieur, later General, Alexandre d’Arblay, a Catholic. He was considered so unsuitable that her father refused to attend the wedding.

   D'Arblay was offered service with Buonaparte’s government in France, and in 1802 Fanny and her son Alexander followed him to Paris. She refers to them, endearingly, as My Alexanders. They expected to be in France for a year but due to the outbreak of war between France and England they had to stay for ten years and she desperately missed her family.
   She wrote a terrifying account of her mastectomy in 1811. She was conscious throughout as there were of course no anaesthetics then: “I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? so excruciating was the agony.” Being squeamish, I must admit I could hardly bear to read this. Despite this ordeal she lived until the then ripe old age of 87.
   For me, the most fascinating part of her journals is her account (some of it written many years after the events) of the atmosphere before and after the Battle of Waterloo. Thackeray drew on these pages when he wrote Vanity Fair.

   Fanny describes, wonderfully, the confusion in Brussels, the heartbreaking sight of so many maimed and dying soldiers, the wild rumours and the general conviction that Napoleon was invincible. On the day of the battle, in central Brussels, she heard ” a Howl, violent, loud, affrighting and issuing from many voices. I ran to the window, & saw (the street) suddenly filling with a rushing populace, pouring in from all its avenues, & hurrying on, rapidly, & yet in a scrambling manner, as if unconscious in what direction; while Women with Children in their arms, or clinging to their cloathes, ran screaming out of doors...that the French were come!”
   I was riveted by her description of her journey to join her wounded husband, who had been fighting to defend Louis XV111 and lay, dangerously ill, in Trèves (now Trier) in Germany. Fanny, in her sixties, left Brussels, without a new passport and almost without money, as soon as she heard that Alexandre was wounded. Her intrepid journey by stage coach took five days and at each town she had to show her French passport and get it signed by an official.

   In Cologne she stayed with a French family and summed up the timeless suffering of ordinary people in a time of war: “Death, Misfortune and Opression had all laid their Iron hands: they had lost their Sons, while, forcibly, fighting for a Usurpation which they adhorred; they had lost their property by emigration; & they had been treated with equal hardness by the Revolutionists because they were suspected of lack of loyalty, & by the Royalists because their Children had served in the armies of the Revolutionist.”
   In Coblentz she feared missing the weekly diligence that left at 4 in the morning and desperately ran around in the middle of the night trying to wake up the Prussian official whose permission she needed to continue her journey. As always, name dropping worked wonders: “”I had no sooner pronounced this name, than my new associate, giving me gaily a nod, seized my passport, &, opening the door without waiting for leave, carried it to the Bedside....& again, in a few minutes, my benevolent new friend came to me with his triumphant success. I blest him!”

   Finally: “Oh Alexander! What a meeting of exquisite felicity! - to Both-”

Saturday 24 September 2016

A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR: A commodity of Outremer By Elizabeth Chadwick

modern sugar loaf, but little different
to a medieval one.
I am currently deep into the research and writing of my next project TEMPLAR SILKS, the story of William Marshal's missing years during his journey, sojourn and return from the Holy Land between 1183 and early 1186. 

The Holy Land, known as Outremer to Medieval folk and translating as  'Lands Beyond the Sea' tended to refer to the countries that are now Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, with bits of Turkey and Egypt thrown in.
My research is entailing detailed study of all aspects of life in the Holy Land, some of which will find its way into the novel and some which will inform my own background knowledge. I haven't as yet written a sugar production scene, but if I want to, I now have the basics to hand and should William see sugar in his travels, he will know what it looks like and the processes involved.

In almost every book I have come across detailing the commerce, culture and agriculture of the lands under Christian control in the period between 1100-1187, there has been a reference to sugar. A rare and expensive commodity in Northern Europe its use in the Middle Ages was mostly medicinal.  The medieval idea of good health was to have all one's humors in balance. Not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet. An imbalance of any of these things could bring on various states of malaise. Sugar as a substance on the table of humours was hot in the first degree and moist in the second. This made it a balanced and agreeable foodstuff, but it was also thought to have properties that enhanced other ingredients and was thus a frequent component in medicinal recipes.

modern sugar cane growing in
Australia, but little different to
the Medieval version.
Sugar cane, of Asian origin, could not be grown in northern Europe because it required consistent warmth and the only country able to grow it in mainland Europe was southern Spain. However, by the end of the Middle Ages it was being successfully grown in Cyprus and Sicily. It also required copious amounts of water, which might not immediately seem a match with the Middle East, but there were areas of good rainfall and clever use was made of irrigation channels and aqueducts to carry water to the plantations.  In the mid 13th century sugar plantations near Tyre in modern Lebanon stretched for miles. Centres of sugar cane growing also existed in Galilee.  It was sometimes grown as a two year crop rotation, corn being grown on part of the fallow land on alternate years. (corn here, having the meaning from ancient times of wheat and associated grains, not corn on the cob which is a product of the Americas). Some of the sugar cane was was cut into 6 inch lengths and sold raw as a treat to be chewed for its sweet juices, although most of the harvested cane ended up as sugar loaf and molasses.

In the period I am writing about, the late 12th century, the main producers of sugar cane in the Middle East were the military orders the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallers as well as the Teutonic Knights, and they had a major role to play in the development and expansion of the medieval sugar industry. 

sugar cone mould and molasses jar
One of the reasons for the role of the Templars and Hospitallers in the development of sugar production was that they had the financial resources to take the industry forwared. They had the capital to construct the necessary equipment and infrastructure - the mills, the refineries, the aqueducts and irrigation systems. They had the money to buy the ceramic jars and moulds to separate the sugar into moulded crystal cones and liquid molasses. They also had the resources to employ a workforce to produce the sugar. The Knights Hospitallers had their major sugar plantations near Tiberias, fed by a complex irrigation system. Much of the sugar grown by the Hospitallers was used to provision their hospital in Jerusalem where they cared for sick pilgrims, often more than a thousand at a time. Sugar was vital in the production of lectuaries, syrups and other medicines.

Excavations of the Templars quarter in Acre in 1997 uncovered hundreds of conical sugar moulds and molasses jars. The same for their refinery at Manueth, 14 km north-east of Acre where there was also a water driven mill and a sugar press. The sugar moulds were made from rough clay in the shape of a cone with a hole in the end.  First the sugar cane was chopped, crushed then boiled in bronze vats. The resulting mixture was poured into moulds which were placed over ceramic jars. As the sugar syrup cooled and thickened, the liquid sugar dripped slowly into the jar as molasses, while crystallised sugar began to form in the mould. By the end of the process the mould was full of sugar and the jar full of molasses. At some point too, there was a clarifying process to clean the sugar.

Sugar was produced this way for centuries as proven by the cone sugar one can see in many illustrations much later than the mediaeval period.  Even today refined sugar is still produced by crushing and boiling the cane or beet and then refining to the end product. The technology has improved but it's still the same process.

The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174-1277 by Jonathan Riley-Smith Macmillan 1972

The Crusaders' Kingdom: European Colonialism in the Middle Ages by Joshua Prawer Phoenix Press 2001

Archaeology of the Military Orders by Adrian J. Boas Routledge 2006

Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East by Adrian J. Boas.  Routledge 1999

Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination by Paul Freedman Yale University Press 2008

Interesting archaeological report on a sugar mill in Jordan

Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning author of historical fiction.  Her most recent work is a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Friday 23 September 2016

How much did ordinary Germans really know about the Holocaust? by Leslie Wilson

'I know no one ever believes us nowadays – everyone thinks we knew everything. We knew nothing, it was all kept well secret.' Thus Brunhilde Pomsel, one of Goebbels's typists, recently quoted in The Guardian, talking about the Holocaust.

And I found myself, as so often, thinking: 'Yes, you can say that, but how can I believe you?' It was the eternal question for people of my generation, fuelled, often, by our parents' and grandparents's total silence or the repeated 'We didn't know anything about it.' It felt like banging your head against a brick wall.

'You didn't know what it was like!' my mother told me, furiously. She was right, and I've spent years trying to find out, and to imaginatively reconstruct what it might have been like for her, who was eight when Hitler came to power. She was wrong, though, when she told me it was nothing to do with me and I shouldn't try and form my own opinions about it. 'What one generation can't deal with,' a rabbi once told me about the Holocaust, 'they pass on to the next generation who must then wrestle with it.' It has been a long but necessary journey for many, both Jews and Germans and people of part-German descent, like me.

What my mother did once tell me was that she heard things, but she thought they were atrocity stories, such as were told about German soldiers during World War 1, and so people didn't believe them. I thought  then that she was talking about the gas chambers. She's dead now, and so it's too late to ask her for clarification on this, but the Holocaust had two stages, and this is a crucial factor to bear in mind.

 When the German Army went into Russia in June, 1941, they went with an agenda to wipe out huge amounts of people, Russians, but particularly Russian Jews. Police units, SS units, and ordinary soldiers in some cases, became what was called 'Einsatz' units, which I suppose you could translate as 'Action Units.' It was a euphemism, of course, for murder units. The involvement of ordinary servicemen was brought back into public consciousness in the '90s, when an exhibition called 'Crimes of the Wehrmacht' toured Germany to  demonstrations of support and howls of protest, but there is convincing evidence that these horrible massacres 'leaked' out to the general public. Soldiers came home and they talked, or, in some cases, boasted, as I made the Nazi lad next door boast to my heroine and her brother in 'Saving Rafael.'

They wrote home about it, like this man: 'About 2,007 of the 8,000 odd Jews of our (sic) little town have been shot at the command of the area commissar.. among them many women and children.' Another wrote this description of brutal reprisals after the Army had found captured German soldiers dead and mutilated in the cellar of the municipal law courts: 'Yesterday we and the SS were merciful, for every Jew we found was shot at once. Today it's different, since we found another 60 mutilated comrades. So now we made the Jews carry the dead up out of the cellar, lie them down nicely and then we showed them the disgusting crimes. After they had looked at the victims they were beaten to death with clubs and spades. We've already sent about 1,000 Jews into the other world.'
These letters passed the censor, so clearly, at this stage, nobody minded allowing the information to leak out.
monument to deported Jews, Berlin Grunewald station.

So it does seem inevitable that a fair proportion of Germans all over the country were aware of this phase of the Holocaust. Also Jews, including German Jews, were being murdered in the same way in Poland. Maybe this was what my mother meant when she spoke of 'atrocity stories'.

How much, though, were these stories at the forefront of ordinary Germans' minds at the time? From early 1942 onwards (the time when 'deportations' of German Jews really got going), the British began to target civilians in German cities. The effects (which went far beyond the war years) on urban populations of trauma, lack of sleep, and loss of their homes, can be imagined. There would also be a feeling of powerlessness. Yes, your Jewish neighbours, your doctor, and so on, might well have disappeared, but what could anyone do about it? And this was largely true, with a few exceptions. Powerlessness brings apathy in its train. Many people must have got on with their lives, focussing on their own survival and that of their families. 'Why should I care about the Jews?' one woman said. 'I've got enough to worry about, with my husband and brother at the Front.' If this sounds unpalatable or shocking, I can remember, on the day of the Chernobyl accident, going to collect my kids from school, shaken by what had happened, to hear the other mothers talking about new washing machines, and similar concerns. Humans have a staggering ability to ignore the bigger picture, which is why some British children were allowed to play in radioactive rain that day.

The second phase of the Holocaust was thought up following the secret Wannsee Conference, and in this context, it's worth considering a speech that Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, made to SS leaders in October 1943. 

'I also want to talk to you quite frankly about a very grave matter. We can talk about it among ourselves yet we will never speak of it publicly.. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation programme, the extermination of the Jewish people.. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and - apart from a few exceptions due to human weakness - to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written..'

This speech is horribly fascinating for a variety of reasons; first, because he is referring to open-air massacres, which were widely known, and so he is persuading himself, and the SS (how successfully I have no idea) that nobody did know about them. Then, of course, one wonders what he means by 'remaining decent.' Perhaps retaining their allegiance to Nazism? It also demonstrates that even the SS found the murders repugnant - maybe just from squeamishness, or did they really have a vestige of conscience?There's that episode in 'Schindler's List' where the Jewish violinist, brought in to entertain the SS, deliberately plays a piece that he knows gets to one SS man's nerve. Eventually the man goes out and shoots himself. This would doubtless be one of the 'exceptions due to human weakness.'

Anyway, the methods of mass murder were overhauled. Firstly, because in fact increasing numbers of perpetrators did suffer PTSD. Secondly, because the corpses didn't stay in the mass graves.I won't go into details about that, but suffice it to say that normal decomposition didn't take place. You can read about it elsewhere if you want to. It's horrible.

And so the death camps were built, at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Birkenau, Majdankek,Chelmno; and new methods of murder dreamed up, along with huge ovens to get rid of the evidence. There was a lot of experimentation before prussic acid became the murder instrument of choice; putting people in vans and asphyxiating them with exhaust fumes was an early practice, which had already been tried out as part of the 'euthanasia' murders of disabled Germans. But from then on, the methods became more and more 'refined', and great efforts were made to keep the people unaware that they were about to be murdered.

It's vital to remember that the death camps were not the same as the concentration camps in Germany/Austria, terrible though such places were. There is a gas chamber at Dachau, but it was never used. The concentration camps, in Germany, Buchenwald, Oranienburg, Ravensbrück, Dachau etc, incarcerated criminals, gay people, some political prisoners, and some Jews, who were worked to death, also prisoners of war, particularly from the East. I have read people who should have informed themselves better saying: 'Oh, but didn't they realise about the gassings when they saw the smoke coming out of the chimneys; the people who lived near the camps must have known.' Well, the locals did realise what was going on, we're talking about Poland here. Auschwitz was the only camp which was a labour camp as well as a factory of death (that was the satellite Birkenau, carefully hidden behind trees). I think the confusion arises because, as is well known, large amounts of Jews from Auschwitz,  who were evacuated to the West, fetched up in these camps, Belsen being the horor everyone knows about. However, the horror of Belsen at the end of the war was different from the horrors of the extermination camps; except that its living skeletons and piles of corpses provided a potent image of the Nazi ideology of murder and death.

Secrecy was maintained about the operations of the death camps. The intention was to raze them after they'd done their work, so that nobody would ever know what had happened there. There were leaks of information: people listened to the BBC, who did talk about the destruction of the Jews, though as far as I know even they didn't give the full picture. If anyone knows better, please tell me. I have sat in the BBC written archive reading through the text of broadcasts to Germany. I remember reading about the attack on the Warsaw ghetto; and in the dazzling memoir of a Jewish German, the actor Michael Degen, who with his mother spent the war years in hiding in Berlin (Nicht alle waren Mörder; They Weren't All Murderers, alas not available in translation), he describes hearing the BBC talking about the exhaust gas murders, which was bad enough for a young lad to hear. He also describes another leakage of information, from a train driver who had driven many transports east, who'd witnessed the corpses falling out of the cattle trucks when the doors were opened, and whose son told Michael: 'Hitler has your people taken to Poland, by day and by night, and there they're gassed like cockroaches. They've built up a whole industry there.' To which the young Michael answered: 'You're crazy!'
The rails at Grunewald station, from which so many Berlin Jews went to their deaths.

I do remember reading somewhere - but I've forgotten the reference- that Jews managed to escape from transports and returned to Berlin, to beg the Jews still there to go underground and not to let themselves be taken east - but the Berlin Jews refused to believe them. This was also the case when the Polish diplomat Jan Karski came to the Allies during the war, to alert them to what was going on in Poland and ask for their support. As Clare Mulley told readers of this blog in  'Jan Karski, messenger from the past,' nobody wanted to do anything, but most tellingly: 'Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, possibly the most influential Jewish man in the USA, simply said he could not believe Karski’s report. When asked if he was suggesting that Karski was lying, Frankfurter replied only that not being able to believe was not the same as doubting the reliability of the source.' In other words, what he was expected to believe was so abominable that he simply couldn't take it in.

In the early 1980s, we were threatened with 'limited nuclear war' being waged in Europe.' A staggering amount of people simply blocked this out, and I can remember standing at a CND stall in the centre of Reading asking shoppers if they knew of any nuclear weapons establishments nearby. About 60% of those who'd agreed to be surveyed said they didn't, in spite of the presence in the neighbourhood of Greenham Common, Aldermaston, and Burghfield, to and from which nuclear bomb convoys still carry deadly payloads of weapons-grade plutonium. Many householders who lived close to the runway at Greenham loathed the Greenham women because they said they were affecting the value of their houses. The fact that they were living opposite to weapons that might (and nearly did on one occasion) bring about a nuclear holocaust and death to us all, didn't seem to bother them half as much as their house prices. But perhaps the reality was too ghastly for them to contemplate, too frighteningly alien, even. Humankind,as TS Eliot famously wrote, 'cannot bear very much reality.'

When I wrote both 'Saving Rafael' and 'Last Train from Kummersdorf', I made the knowledge of the mass shootings general, but the stories of the gas chambers something dreadful that my protagonists hoped wasn't true, and suffered when they discovered that it was. I think it's likely that many Germans, hearing, or hearing about, the BBC bulletins (and a phenomenal amount of Germans did listen to the BBC towards the end of the war, because it was the only reliable source of information about how things were going), simply blocked these stories out of their minds because they were too monstrous.

And perhaps they forgot that they'd blocked them out.

I was talking to a friend who grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, and she told me that if you live in an atmosphere of lies, you become inclined to lie yourself (frequently as a matter of personal survival), and you end by believing the lies you tell.  Memory is not a recording device, which you can play back at will. Memories decay, are corrupted in storage, and false memories can be easily implanted (like the man who, in a famous experiment, was told that he was once lost in a supermarket as a child,  and ended up believing it and constructing his own story about it, though it never happened.

So the question of 'did they know', is a complicated one to answer. It could be better stated as 'was evidence available to them?' and 'did they choose not to know, and block it out?' or: 'Did they forget that they ever knew?'

In her memoir, written in the '80s, my mother wrote: 'In the face of incontrovertible evidence, my mind still refused to believe that any human being, least of all members of my own people, could be capable of such bestiality… In the end, and this is undoubtedly cowardice on my part, I closed my mind to anything that reminded me of what had happened in these camps because the thought of it filled me with such horror and revulsion that I became physically ill, unable to sleep or eat.'

And what does all this mean for us today? If we say 'Never again' about the Holocaust, we must consider what appalling things are going on nowadays, and be well aware of the blocking mechanisms that make us accept them. 'We need a strong economy' is one mantra deemed to be sufficient when we sell arms to regimes, such as the Saudi government, who are dropping British bombs on civilians and hospitals in Yemen. Every time I see an appeal for refugees, from reputable charities on Facebook, I see a rash of posts from people who say nobody should give money to refugees, even in camps thousands of miles away from Britain, because it is 'only encouraging them.' Such people have chosen to view all refugees as economic migrants, looking for a better life; it's easier, perhaps, than to face up to the enormous problem we're faced with, and the problems that the refugees themselves, more than anyone else, are faced with. And Trump, wanting to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US, never mentions that the skewed economic systems that exploit the developing world are precisely what makes their citizens want to come to the countries who profit from their own countries' resources. Then there is climate change, a growing and lethal threat to all of us, and yet most of us do 'get on with their lives.' 'I have to drive my car,' we say, or: 'I must have a new smart-phone.' Yet someone, or some part of our world, too often pays a terrible price for our impulse-purchase or bargain clothing, and one day we too will pay.
Monument to a transport of Jews, Grunewald station

The mechanisms of denial are a survival mechanism, as Eliot pointed out, but they have enormous destructive power as well. Yes, we must be able to give ourselves comfort zones, for the sake of our humanity. Yet what we need also is to regularly emerge from these, as we emerge from our homes, see what is going on in the world outside, and take what action we can.

All photographs by David Wilson

Thursday 22 September 2016

The Green Children of Woolpit: Superstitions Past and Present by Catherine Hokin

There's been a bit of a trend on social media recently for parents posting back-to-school pictures of their offspring. I'm not sure a snap of my 21 year old lugging beer back to Manchester would be quite so edifying but his return to university did get me thinking about my study days (at the same place - many veils have been drawn). His last week at home was marked by much amusement over my
old (typewritten) history notes and thesis and a walk around our local area that showed how close our past really is to our present.

 Medieval Votive Objects Exeter Cathedral
My over-confident undergraduate ramblings were centred on politics, witchcraft and superstition in medieval England. The main thrust was the treatment of women but there was also a chapter on votive objects.These examples of medieval piety can be found at all the great 'tourist' pilgrimage stopping points across England and Europe and have their roots in practices stretching as far back as the human need to look at the world around them and search for answers to unsolvable problems. Votives can be separated into two kinds: 'thank you' objects for a prayer answered, often hearts stamped with the letters VFGA (Votum Fecit, Gratiam Accepit, a vow was made and grace was obtained); requests for help, particularly to cure sickness and in the form of wax figures or body parts.

This practice has not died out and votives can still be seen in Catholic countries and, perhaps more surprisingly, in Scottish woods.  

 The Fairy House
 Doonhill Fairy Trail
The Doonhill Fairy Trail, just outside the town of Aberfoyle, seems at first sight to be a whimsical thing. The first marker you meet as you follow the signs to the trail is a cutely carved house and a whole collection of little fairy figurines and pixies dotted about the tree roots. So far so tongue-in-cheek and we were quite giggly by the time we reached the fairy clearing at the top. What greeted us there was very unexpected and enough to quieten our mixed and, let's be honest, cynical group. The whole glade was covered in rag trees, something I had read about in my early research but never seen. These votive sites have an ancient history in Scotland and Ireland and many similarities with the medieval Christian practice of asking for aid in times of trouble: strips of cloth, sometimes from the sick person's clothing or from cloth used to wash the affected part, are tied to the tree and, as the rag disintegrates, the affliction is meant to fade away. We spent quite a while in the glade, it is hard not to, reading the messages accompanying the ribbons and what was particularly fascinating was the range of beliefs addressed, sometimes fairies and more traditional religions implored in the same small letter. Writers of historical fiction, myself included, often say that people don't change, times do - standing in that clearing, feeling years of human helplessness in the face of an uncontrollable world stretching from the present to a very distant past, there was no arguing with the truth of that.

 Battle of Mortimer's Cross
Some superstitions stay just that, some get unpicked by history and explained. The three suns which apparently appeared in the sky at dawn on the morning of the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461 can be explained nowadays as the meteorological phenomenon known as a parhelion: a pair of bright spots appearing horizontally on each side of the sun, often with a halo-like glow. To the soldiers waiting to fight it was simply frightening; to the Yorkist leaders it was a wonderful propaganda opportunity, a living symbol of the Holy Trinity and proof that God was on their side. I am currently researching the twelfth century, a time when 'pagan' beliefs and stories were still closely inter-woven with the Christian teachings that had overlaid them. A prevailing belief was in an underworld inhabited by 'faerie folk' - an 'otherworld' reached through caves or underwater which existed side-by-side with our world and could intrude into ours, eg. at midsummer. The folk who lived here were often thought to be green-coloured and the colour green frequently appears in myths such as the Green Man and the Arthur stories.

 The Sussex Wolfpits
In the middle of the twelfth century, during the chaotic civil war period known as The Anarchy, it seems the faerie world wandered into ours. Two near contemporary chronicles (the Historia rerum Anglicarum and the Chronicum Anglicanum) report the story of two children found wandering in Thetford Forest near the village of Woolpit, by the wolfpits which give the village its name. The boy and girl had green skin, spoke a language no one could understand and wore odd clothing. The children were taken to the house of Richard de Calne where all attempts to feed them failed until the children found some bean pods which they ate, continuing to eat only these for many months until they could be induced to eat bread and other foods. This added to the mystery surrounding them as beans had associations with food eaten by the dead. When the children eventually learned English, they talked of living in a dark land where the sun never shone and everything was green. The boy died within a year of being found but the girl survived and has been, possibly, identified as Agnes Barre who worked as a servant for de Calne and eventually married a royal official, Richard Barre. The Chronicum Anglicanum describes her as "very wanton and impudent" but this may simply be to underscore her strange heritage as faeries were commonly associated with lascivious behaviour.

In 1998, historian Paul Harris put forward the theory that the children were Flemish, hence the strange language, had fled into the forest after their parents had been slaughtered and lived there, either in the dark undergrowth or in the miles of ancient mine workings in the area, until they were found. Some of his reasoning about the children's Flemish origin has been questioned but what I found interesting was his explanation for the children's colour. When they were found, they were very malnourished and only recognised bean pods, which they would have encountered variations of in the forest, as food. His theory is that the children were suffering from what was known at the time as 'green-sickness' or what we know today as hypochromic anemia which is caused by a diet very deficient in iron and protein and causes the skin to have a markedly green tinge. Given that the chronicles state that both children, once they began to tolerate a wider range of food, lost the green colour and turned pink, this seems like a logical explanation. Not green children then, just very sick ones.

The superstitions of the past are fascinating things as is the science that unpicks them. The lesson of the Doonhill Fairy Trail, however, suggests that even our increased understanding of the world can't totally unpick us: scratch the surface and we're all still mentally throwing salt, crossing our fingers and wishing.