Saturday 30 June 2018

June competition

To win a copy of Sara Sheridan's latest novel (see yesterday's guest post), just answer the following question in the Comments section below. Then copy your answer to me at so that I can get in touch with you if you win.

"Who are your favourite  WW2I heroines?"

Closing date: 7th July

We are sorry that our competitions are open to UK Followers only

Friday 29 June 2018

Where are the Women? by Sara Sheridan

Our June guest is Sara Sheridan:
Author photo by Bethany Grace
Sara Sheridan writes the popular 1950s Mirabelle Bevan Murder Mysteries as well as historical novels set 1820-1845. She occasionally also writes commercial non-fiction including last year, a companion book to ITV’s Victoria. Fascinated by female history, in 2016 she founded REEKperfume to challenge beauty industry norms and memorialize forgotten women. She is currently writing a Female Atlas of Scotland. 

Welcome Sara to the History Girls!

Where are the Women?

At the end of last year I visited Val McDermid’s brilliant light installation ‘treasure hunt’ around Edinburgh as part of the city’s legendary Hogmanay festival. Val highlighted the city’s literary history though not the one generally promoted by the tourist industry – she chose to focus on inspirational stories of writing success – female successes. Edinburgh has a long tradition of writers and Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson head a band of worthies constantly touted to the public but the city’s women enjoyed writing success just as much as the men. Stevenson’s second cousin, DE Stevenson, sold 7 million copies of her light novels at the turn of the century. Scott declared the city’s Susan Ferrier a better novelist than he was (a comment which incensed Jane Austen.)

Susan Ferrier
Then of course, there is Muriel Spark whose centenary is being celebrated this year and whose decades-long, glittering literary career up until this point, has scarcely been included in the city’s honour role of writers. There are more – Catherine Sinclair, a phenomenally successful, Victorian, children’s writer, for example – consigned to history.

D.E. Stevenson
This isn’t a new story and certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to the writing industry. Across the UK only 15% of statues represent women and most of these are in memory of Queen Victoria. This stretches into the archive with female material often lost because it simply wasn’t thought important enough to preserve either by the principal’s family or by archivists and historians. From early in my writing career I was fascinated by the whispers I found of women among the papers and every historical novel I’ve written is in some measure an attempt to commemorate our female history whether I do that using real characters or fictional ones.

Over the last couple of years I decided to extend my commemoration activities and I co-founded a perfume company, REEK. We sell two scents – one dedicated to the memory of the Jacobite women and one to the witches - and we have more planned for next year. We also run a feminist blog, Bitches Unite, highlighting female history, talking to activists and campaigners and providing a platform to challenge beauty industry norms. The big question is why are so many campaigns fronted by young, size 6-8 white women? This is a question for our times and is something we don’t do at REEK. We feature a wide variety of women - our oldest model is in her 80s - and every picture we take remains unretouched. Our bitches, we always say, are beautiful just as they are. As a result in its first year REEK has been featured in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle and Grazia – many of the larger fashion magazines. But the core question we’re asking largely remains unanswered. I figure as we continue to knock at that door, at least we’re making everyone smell good and reminding them of phenomenal women from the past. We shouldn’t forget our sheroes. We shouldn’t be forgotten ourselves.

Meantime in my writing life, I continue to find female stories that fascinate me. Working in the archive is like mining – sometimes you turn up a diamond. The women of WW2 provide many sparkling moments. When I started to write the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries I knew about Florence Szabo and some of the more famous resistance fighters. As time has gone on I’ve discovered more – not only the everyday heroism of the women left behind but also the shocking fact that our gender is seldom commemorated on war memorials. This seems particularly awful to me. While men killed even in training feature, female nurses and doctors are not included even though they gave their lives in the services of our country, often at or near the front. I like to think that the stories I write don’t scream this kind of sentiment but say ‘come down here – here’s a great story – oh, look, a post-modern feminist dilemma. Well, we’re here now.’ Still, the function of story is to promote imaginative thought, to entertain, to question and like many historical novelists I’m fascinated by where we come from. Especially if we can use it as a signpost to change where we are going.

Thursday 28 June 2018

An Island Story by Lynne Benton

Last week I travelled back in time.  My husband and I spent a night on Burgh Island, a tiny island just off the South Devon coast which contains a hotel, a pub and nothing else.  It is an island only at high tide, since you can walk across the sand to it when the tide is low, which adds to its attractions.  And the Burgh Island Hotel is a very special place indeed - a place where you really do feel you have slipped back in time to the 1930’s.

Burgh Island Hotel
Its history is fascinating.  It began in the 1890s when the music hall star George H Chirgwin built a prefabricated wooden house on the island, which was used by guests for weekend parties.

In 1927 the filmmaker Archibald Nettlefold bought the island and built a more substantial hotel in the Art Deco style which was all the rage at the time.  By the 1930s it had become one of the most popular hotels of its day, and improvements and further additions were made during the 1930s.  These included the Captain’s Cabin, which was modelled on the captain’s cabin of HMS Ganges, the last British wooden flagship in the Royal Navy.

Inside the captain's cabin

The cabin from outside
In World War II the hotel was used as a recovery centre for wounded RAF personnel, probably because of Burgh Island’s convenient seaside location.  At one point the hotel was actually hit by a bomb, thankfully with no loss of life, but the top two floors were damaged.
Although the bomb damage was subsequently repaired, the hotel became largely neglected after the war, and during the sixties many of its original features were brutally ripped out when it was converted into self-catering apartment accommodation.

Fortunately by the end of the 20th century when the island was sold again, the new owners realised what had been lost and decided to restore the hotel to its former glory.  They painstakingly searched for and installed replacement Art Deco furniture and fittings, so that by the first decade of this century the hotel had regained its reputation and was now recognised as a perfect example of one of the great hotels of the era.  Inside the hotel everything is in the Art Deco style, so that you truly feel you have slipped back in time.  Today the Burgh Island Hotel is a Grade II listed building, and one of the prime examples of Art Deco style in Europe. 

Ceiling of the cocktail lounge

The reception desk
In its heyday it became the favourite haunt of many famous people, including Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Amy Johnson, Winston Churchill and Nancy Cunard, but one of its most famous visitors was Agatha Christie, who stayed on the island many times and set two of her books there.   This is the Beach House where she stayed.
The Beach House

“Evil Under the Sun” was written and set on the island (in 2001 a TV version, starring David Suchet as Poirot, was actually filmed there) and so was “And Then There were None” (though in the latter book Christie “moved” the island further out to sea so it really could be cut off!) 

Today most of the rooms in the hotel are named after its former illustrious guests.

The key to our room!
Today’s guests are not required to come dressed in 30s costume, though 30s-style bathing costumes are available for hire should anyone feel brave enough to venture into the Mermaid Pool immediately below the hotel (filled every day from the sea, so  very cold!) in full view of all the other guests.  However, at the weekly Dinner Dances the advice given is that “it is impossible to be overdressed”, which is an invitation not to be taken lightly!  Most people really took it to heart.

We could only afford to stay there for one night – but that night was truly one to remember.

Wednesday 27 June 2018

My Family & Other Typewriters by Janie Hampton

My mother Verily Anderson typing her next book
in 1956, watched by my father Donald.
I have always loved typewriters. Both my widowed mother and my older sister were full time writers, so I was brought up with the clickety clack of typewriters resonating through the house. It was the first sound I heard every morning when I woke. My mother used an old, black Remington with worn down keys. When I heard the bell ping frequently as she neared the end of a line, I knew her work was going well. My sister had a modern Olivetti, with a lighter sound than the solid Remington. She touch-typed, whereas my mother, despite publishing dozens of books, wrote with only four fingers in a jazzy, syncopated rhythm. 
My grandfather, the Rev. Rosslyn Bruce,
with the typewriter he named ' Jane' c 1910.
As our mother’s Remington was the tool which fed us five children, we were not allowed to touch it. But I soon learned how to remove and replace the two sheets of ‘bank’ paper and carbon paper so that she didn’t notice. I had to work out the worn vowel keys and muzzle the bell, so that my mother, busy elsewhere in the house, did not hear. I still have the manuscript of my first book ‘The Year of Mr Goodbery’, written when I was 10, with its uneven lines and many typos. The rejection letter from Brockhampton Press was polite and encouraging.
I bought my first, very own typewriter in Portobello Road market when I was 12. It was a huge, office ‘Imperial’, that cost me 15 shillings (75p). I could barely lift it and the stall holder gave me an old shopping trolley to drag it home. Oh! the hours I toiled over the pangram, ‘Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, trying to use all my fingers.
My 1915 Corona
My next typewriter was given to me when I was 15 by my mother’s publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis. It was made in 1915; a tiny, fold-up Corona ‘Personal Writing Machine’. The ribbon cartridges were no longer available, so I got inky fingers rewinding my mother’s old ribbons onto the tiny cartridge. When the ribbon became too faint to read, I used an old piece of carbon paper. There was no key for number 1 or 0, so I had to use a capital I or O; and for and exclamation mark , a full stop, backspace and then an apostrophe were required. Even though it had only three rows of letters, I loved it, and wrote my first published poem on it - about a kestrel.
My aim was to look like this efficient typist.
Typewriters took a long time to develop. More than 50 inventors worked independently over the years, each one adding details that eventually resulted in the successful machine. In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a British patent for ‘an artificial machine for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print’. He recommended its use for public records as they could not be counterfeited. Several Italians in the 19th century invented versions including the 
tacitipo – ‘quiet printing’ – and the Cembalo scrivano da scrivere a tasti - ‘scribe harpsichord for writing with keys'.
'Daily News' by Dona Nelson, oil on canvas, 1983.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA.
The first commercial typewriter was sold in 1873, with a QWERTY keyboard, on which the word ‘typewriter’ could be written using only the top row of keys. The typewriter soon became an indispensable tool for professional and legal writing and the QWERTY layout became standard, even though there is now no risk of the keys becoming entangled if the typing is too fast. By about 1910, all "manual" or "mechanical" typewriters were made with each key attached to a typebar with the corresponding letter moulded, in reverse, into its striking head.
 The word typewriter originally meant a man who used a ‘typing machine’. Then by 1900 it was noticed that women could type too, and the status and pay soon dropped. However, being a typist became a respectable job for a nice girl before she wed. In 2005, Barbara Blackburn of Oregon beat the world record by typing 212 words per minute, with an average of 150 wpm over 50 minutes. However, she used a Dvorak keyboard, which has vowels on one side and consonants on the other, with the most frequently used letters in the middle.
London Transport poster featuring a  lonely typewriter to encourage
Londoners to 'Go Out into the Country' by Graham Sutherland, 1938.
Mark Twain was the first writer to present a typed manuscript to his publisher, with ‘Life on the Mississippi’ in 1883. Ernest Hemingway wrote his books standing up in front of a Royal typewriter placed on a tall bookshelf, while J.R.R. Tolkien had no room in his attic-room for a desk so balanced his typewriter on his knees in bed. In 1951, Jack Kerouac typed his book ‘On the Road’ in two weeks, on a roll of paper 120 feet long so he didn’t have to keep changing the paper. Fellow author Truman Capote said, ‘That's not writing, it's typing.’ Two years later, Ray Bradbury wrote ‘Fahrenheit 451’ on a typewriter he had rented from the local library.
Typewriting technology changed very little in 100 years, and the last typewriter made in Britain was a 2012 ‘Brother’. Typewriters are still used in remote parts of Africa, the South Pacific and South America where there is no electricity, and in US prisons where computers are banned. In Romania under President Ceausescu, people with criminal convictions or those deemed to be ‘a danger to public order or to the security of the state’ were refused police approval to own a typewriter and it was forbidden to borrow, lend or repair typewriters without authorization. 
Typewriter erasers were often attached to the machine with string.
Unlike pencil rubbers, they rubbed a hole in the page.

Many authors still use typewriters, believing they improve their work. The American Harlan Ellison claimed, ‘Art is not supposed to be easier!’ while Will Self has said, ‘the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head.’ Cormac McCarthy writes all his novels on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter. In 2009, he auctioned his 1963 Olivetti for charity at Christie’s for US$254,500 (£192,000); he then replaced it with an identical one for US$20 (£15).
The television series ‘Murder She Wrote’ opens with fictional sleuth Jessica Fletcher touch-typing a manuscript with a 1940s Royal KMM. Every well-used typewriter develops an individual ‘fingerprint’ or signature and typewritten evidence of crime first appeared in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Case of Identity’ in 1891.
Musical compositions using typewriters include Leroy Anderson’s 1950  The Typewriter for orchestra and typewriter; Dolly Parton's song ‘ Nine to Five’; and ABBA’s 1986 Musical ‘ Chess’. The satirical Boston Typewriter Orchestra  has half-a-dozen percussionists playing typewriters under the slogan, ‘The revolution will be typewritten’. 
French typists prefer to work naked, even on birthday cards.
My last typewriter, in 1985, was an unwieldly electric Smith Corona, with a Daisy wheel instead of type bars. It remembered the last 10 letters so that I could go back and correct typos with a roll of sticky tape which plucked the offending letters off the page. I thought that very clever. Within two years I had acquired an Apple computer, which suited my unreliable typing even better. There is a revival of interest in typewriters now among steam-punks and street poets. But they aren’t getting my 1915 Corona!
French cats are good at writing novels.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux, by Carol Drinkwater

The Kings Arms in Askrigg was the real name of the pub we used as The Drovers Arms in All Creatures Great and Small. I returned there seven years ago when I was writing a feature for the Mail on Sunday. I ordered a glass of red wine and sat alone, deep in reflection. In the days when it was the Drover's Arms, late 1930s to 1940s, it certainly wouldn't have served red wine by the glass!

I remember my very first bout of filming for the television series All Creatures Great and Small, it was autumn, late seventies. The three actors playing the leading roles of the vets in a Yorkshire practice had already been on location for a week or two. It was about then that I arrived in Richmond to complete the quartet of players. Although we didn't know it at the time, we were to continue working together very happily for many years. To celebrate our newly-bonded foursome, Robert Hardy, the wonderful late Robert Hardy, threw a dinner party at his hotel, the Punchbowl Inn, Swaledale. The hunting season had just opened and the grouse were delivered to the table almost fresh from the fields. I was a little horrified, partially because, during those years, I was a vegetarian.
Up until that time, I had been an impoverished actress living from job to job, praying a role would fall into my lap so that I could cover the next electricity or telephone bill. Robert Hardy's dinner party was lavish, certainly by my standards. I can see him now - (to his close friends, he was Tim, not Robert) - at the head of the table relishing every second of the evening, ordering this and that with gusto and taking great care to make sure that the wines were the ideal companions to each course. He called for two bottles of 'claret' to accompany the main plate. I think I can honestly say I had never heard of 'claret', or if I had, I could not have said which or what wine, or range of wines, it described. I would not have dreamed of asking because I was too awestruck by the company and the splendour of the occasion and because I thought it would be expected of me to know such details.

I have since learned that the notion of 'claret' is a very English one and refers to red Bordeaux wines. However, the origin of the word comes from the Latin, clarus, clear, and then pale. It was used originally to describe light wines, usually a pale red in colour or even yellow.

           La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux's new museum dedicated to celebrating its most famous produce.

Bordeaux has come on leaps and bounds since those Middle Ages days of wine-making where the wine almost resembled a rosé. Bordeaux is now world famous for its full-bodied reds. It was the British who first used the word claret sometime in the 1700s to describe those dark red wines.

I recently paid a visit to the city of Bordeaux. While there, Michel, my husband, and I decided to take the time to see its newly inaugurated museum, La Cité du Vin, where you can happily spend four or five hours learning the history of wine, its place in the world, its place in literature and the arts and round off your outing with a wine-tasting on the eight floor with stunning views over the city.

The building itself is well worth pausing over. As you can see from the photograph above, it sits between city and river and it is not conventional architecture. Its facade, made up of silk-screen printed glass panels and perforated, lacquered aluminium panels, gleams in the sunlight like a polished ducat, or a magical golden boot. In fact the architects, Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières, have attempted to create the movement of both wine splashing into a glass and the movement of the Garonne river which flows at the foot (the toe) of the building. They also claim they were inspired by and have attempted to capture the trunk of a gnarled wine plant.

                                                             Gnarled trunk of grape plant

Whether you see that or not, the edifice really is a dazzling sight and, like both wine and water, its appearance changes with the light, the time of day, the weather.

                                                                         Sunset Red

Its interior is equally innovative and pleasing. It is exceptionally spacious. There is none of that cramped feeling frequently common in more conventional museums. In fact, at some moments this is more a Son et Lumière show. There is a wealth of material to learn and discover - plenty of areas where the information is highlighted with short animated sequences, which make it ideal for children. There are cinemas, one in-the-round which is visually so exciting.There are other areas where you can sit at a table as though in conversation with such luminaries as Voltaire and listen to him or many other historical greats give their opinions on the role of wine in their/our lives.

                                       This area resembles giant wine bottles sliced in half.

Elsewhere, you can learn a little of what wine has meant to the Church, to Jewish communities, to the Holy Land, Egypt, to Europe's elite, and plenty more.

The Holy Land stop along the Cité un Vin journey took me back to a very special experience of my own when I was in the West Bank with a group of Israelis from Tel Aviv. We were planting olive saplings paid for and transported to the fields by my Israeli companions. We were there to replant several Palestinian groves that had been destroyed by the IDF and neighbouring Settlers. Someone at my side, a stranger, said to me as we stared into the sunny distance on that late February Saturday: "This land, as far as the eye can see, has been producing olive oil and wine for at least three thousand years."
Palestine was supplying wine to Egypt circa 3100 BC. In ancient times, Palestinian wines were consumed by everyone as a social experience and for alimentation and medicinal purposes.
The story of wine, I was thinking to myself, is possibly almost as old as that of olive oil.

When your Cité du Vin visit has been completed take the lift to the top floor where you will be offered a glass of wine. The choice is as wide as the world. I chose a crisp white Rioja from Spain. Michel took a sparkling white wine from Hungary. If you stroll with your glass out onto the terrace and take in the views of Bordeaux, here is what you will see:

or can you view this very short film ...

After our afternoon of discovery we took the exceedingly efficient new tramline from the Cité du Vin back to the heart of the fine old city of Bordeaux itself and ate dinner at a leafy restaurant just off the Place du Théâtre where we ordered a very fine bottle of Saint-Emilion, a highly regarded Bordeaux wine.
By the way, you can if you fancy take a half-day trip to the medieval village of Saint-Emilion, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are several of the wine-producing villages in the region offering such tours.

                                                                          Alain Juppé.

A word about Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, who was Prime Minister of France from 1995 to 1997 during Jacques Chirac's presidential tenure. Bordeaux is a city reinventing itself for the 21st-century. Its poorer quarters are being refurbished; its waterside zones bursting into life. Juppé has transformed the city into a vibrant metropolis where inhabitants and tourists can easily interact. I was very impressed. In these days where, particularly in Britain, so many cuts are being made in the name of austerity, it was genuinely uplifting to walk about and discover a city that is working for its community, offering new opportunities and celebrating its very special history, both agricultural and urban.

I asked Michel if he knew what 'claret' was. Yes, of course, a general name used by the Brits to describe a long-redundant style of wine from this region. Well, there we are. I would have loved to have spent an afternoon at the Cité du Vin with Robert Hardy. He would have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, as did we.

Monday 25 June 2018

Mussolini’s Downfall by Miranda Miller

    Last month I spent a few days in a state of near bliss, drifting around Lake Como in boats and swimming in the clean waters, overlooked by the foothills of the alps, pretty ochre, pink and yellow villages, lovely gardens and the villas of billionaires. This lake, which Shelley wrote,  "exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty, with the exception of the Arbutus Islands in Killarney,” is also the place where the Second World War ended for Italians. As new right wing politicians come to power in Italy it feels urgent to consider this period. Whereas the last months of Hitler are a familiar story, the downfall of Mussolini is not so well known.

   In the evenings I read Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia, a reminder that Italy wasn’t always so peaceful. She kept this diary while she and her husband opened their house in Tuscany to refugees and partisans fighting the fascists. It’s a fascinating book because, like the characters in historical novels - like all of us - she doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Here are a few extracts from Origo’s remarkable wartime diary:
                                                                    Iris Origo

   July 26th 1943. The long-expected news has come at last: Mussolini (who had been in power since 1922) has fallen. The news was given by radio last night but we did not hear it until this morning. Mussolini has resigned, The King has appointed Marshal Badoglio in his place and has himself taken over the command of the Army.

   On July 28th, she writes that in Rome:” A great crowd of working people from all the outlying quarters surged into the city and made its way to the Quirinale (the Presidential Palace), …they broke into all the offices and club rooms of the Fascio, destroyed every bust and statue of Mussolini, set fire to (the offices of newspapers that had supported Mussolini)….Similar demonstrations took place in Milan, Turin, Bologna and Florence.”

   As the news spread down a train that an armistice had been signed, ”flags and carpets were hanging from the windows; at Florence the great bell of the Bargello had been rung; people were weeping for joy and embracing each other. But after half an hour the rumour was contradicted and the excited and disappointed crowd had to be dispersed by the police.”

   By December 23rd:” Of Mussolini no one now speaks and it is said that he himself, on being asked to make a speech on the wireless on October 28th, said: What can a dead man say to a nation of corpses?”

   Mussolini was imprisoned at an hotel in Italy's Gran Sasso massif, high in the Apennines . On 12 September 1943 he was daringly rescued by SS troopers, who landed a dozen gliders on the mountain and overwhelmed Mussolini's captors. The SS leader, Otto Skorzeny, greeted Mussolini with "Duce, the Führer has sent me to set you free.” Mussolini replied, "I knew that my friend would not forsake me!"

                                                           Mussolini leaving the Hotel

   Mussolini was then made leader of the Italian Social Republic  usually known as the Republic of Salò, a German puppet state which lasted for nineteen months. Although he declared that Rome  was its capital, the tiny state was in fact based in Salo,  a small town on Lake Garda where Mussolini and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had their headquarters. They had nominal sovereignty in Northern and Central Italy but depended on German troops to maintain control. Only Germany and Japan gave them diplomatic recognition and there was no constitution or organised economy - Salo’s finances depended entirely on funding from Berlin.

   On 25 April 1945 Mussolini's fascist republic collapsed.  In Italy this day is known as Liberation Day. A general partisan uprising, together with the efforts of Allied forces, ousted the Germans from Italy.
                                                    Clara Petacchi, known as Claretta.

   Mussolini had left both his wife, Rachele, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, behind in Milan. But Petacci could not live without her Duce and she joined him in Como. She was 33 and Mussolini was 63. As the allies got closer, she and Mussolini went into hiding in nearby Gardone Riviera at the Villa Fiordaliso (now a very expensive Relais & Chateaux hotel). Mussolini, La Petacci and other fleeing fascists were heading for the Swiss border at the northern end of Lake Como. Mussolini was wearing sunglasses and had disguised himself as a German corporal. In the village of Dongo Mussolini’s convoy ran into a roadblock manned by partisans, one of whom recognised Mussolini’s profile from the thousands of propaganda posters that had been plastered on walls all over Italy for the last twenty years.

   On 28 April, two days before Hitler committed suicide in Berlin, the partisans shot Mussolini and Petacci in Giulino di Mezzegra, a tiny village in the mountains above Lake Como. Their corpses were driven to Milan and dumped in Piazzale Loreto. A huge angry crowd gathered to defile their corpses, which were strung upside down from the metal girders of a petrol station, beaten, shot at and hit with hammers.

   This black cross marks the spot where Mussolini and Petacci were killed and in Dongo you can visit the End of WWII Museum. Mussolini was buried in an unmarked grave then, in 1946, his body was dug up and stolen by fascist supporters. Four months later it was recovered and hidden for the next eleven years. In 1957 his remains were allowed to be interred in the Mussolini family crypt in Predappio. His tomb has become a place of pilgrimage and every April the anniversary of his death is marked by neo-fascist rallies.

   Since the war this official version of Mussolini's death has been questioned in Italy, rather like Kennedy’s assassination. Amongst the many conspiracy theories is one about Churchill: that he was desperate to get hold of letters from him that Mussolini was carrying in which Churchill is said to have made all sorts of embarrassing offers to keep Mussolini out of the war.

   I was living in Italy in 1975 when Pasolini, the Marxist film director, poet and intellectual, made a film called Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Set in Fascist Italy in 1944, Pasolini’s film is based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel, 120 Days Of Sodom. I’ve never had the stomach to watch this film, which is still controversial and is banned in several countries (not that there is any point in banning a film in the age of the internet). Pasolini explores political corruption: four wealthy fascist libertines kidnap eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture before finally killing them. Before the film was released Pasolini himself was murdered and I vividly remember the sensation this caused.

   It has often been said that Berlusconi (one of several billionaires who now own magnificent villas on Lake Como) has modeled himself on Mussolini - with considerable success. It is impossible to spend much time in Italy without becoming aware that Mussolini is still an important figure. His granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, is a member of the Italian Senate. She was elected for a party called The People of Freedom, launched by Berlusconi in 2007, which later became part of  Forza Italia (this can be translated as ‘Let's Go, Italy’). Matteo Salvini, who is now Italy’s Interior Minister, was previously in coalition with Berlusconi. Salvini’s political allies include Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen in France and Victor Orban in Hungary. A few weeks ago Salvini forced the Aquarius, an NGO ship carrying 600 migrants,to divert from Italy to Spain. The President of Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities, Noemi di Segni, said this was reminiscent of Mussolini’s fascist race laws. Salvini has called for a new census of Roma and for all non-Italian Roma to be expelled from the country.

Sunday 24 June 2018

LET THERE BE LIGHT by Elizabeth Chadwick

It's a couple of days past the Solstice as I'm writing this post.  Where I live in the UK, the sun will rise at 4.40am and set at 9.35pm tonight although it won't be fully dark until around 10.45pm.  That's gettting on for 18 hours of daylight.  But at the other end of the equation in December, the dawn arrives circa 8am and sunset is before 4pm, giving us only 8 hours of daylight, and if the weather is murky, that time is swiftly curtailed.
I was thinking about this the other day and it led me to ponder upon the kind of lighting medieval people had at their disposal.  Eight hundred years ago, how would I have lit my hours of darkness?

Since all cooking and heating relied on fires, ambient firelight would have provided a certain amount of light, but with dim parameters and not always useful. One of the reasons main meals were eaten early in the day in the Middle Ages was that trying to perform tasks in a kitchen without clear light was a hazard. Certainly in a castle kitchen there might be fires for heating water and cooking food, but the fire was at ground level and any preparation would have to be done on tables which would be cast into shadow, so in itself firelight, while providing warmth and cheer was only of background usefulness. Actually for kitchen work in dark circumstances, the most often used lighting appears to have been something called a cresset. This was a series of hollows in a stone block.

The hollows would be filled with oil or fat and a wick floated in them. The lamps would be placed on a flat surface or in a niche. There are frequent references to cresset lamps as items of kitchen equipment. Candles and candlesticks seem not to have been as popular in a kitchen environment  but to have been used elsewhere.
Bartholomew the Englishman was of the opinion that there should be plenty of light from candles, prickets and torches when people were eating 'for it is a shame to sup in darkness and perilous also for flies and other filth.' I am reminded of my father-in-law on active service in North Africa in 1942. He said he always waited until after dark to eat his rations because then he wouldn't see the weevils!
For the present household and the less well off, lighting was provided by tallow candles and by rush lights. These were frequently home-made in the summer months by carefully peeling the long cylindrical pith of the juncus rush, and dragging it through molten animal fat. These, however, burned down quickly and could not be used for any length of time. They were better than nothing, but not ideal. People make use of local resources, and some communities living near the sea would make lamps out of a fish called a thornback. The fish was stuffed full of linen waste, compressed until the wick was saturated, and then actually burned as a candle. Two or three tied together in an iron holder made a torch. The phosphorescent light cast by rotting fish was sometimes used to light the way up the garden path...
Candle stick fit for a queen.  12th century V&A
The aristocracy and the church opted for candles made from beeswax. These gave a clear burning light and a pleasant smell and were long-lasting. Although beeswax was locally available, there was never enough to satisfy demand in the big cities, and supplies were augmented from the forested less sparsely populated areas of Europe, such as Russia, Hungary and Bohemia. People in royal service were entitled to candles or remnants of them as one of the perks of their job. If John Marshal my hero of A Place Beyond Courage was eating outside the court he was entitled to a daily provision of one small wax candle and 24 candle ends. Royalty only burned fresh candles, and whatever stubs remained at the end of each day were cleared away and finished off in the departments of the household officials. If John was working in-house on a particular day he was entitled to an ample supply of candles all the time. John's ushers were entitled to 8 candle ends a day for their own use. Candles could be placed in candlesticks, wall mounted holders, ceiling suspended holders, or arranged on large multi-holder candle stands – whatever suited the purpose.
Candle holder that could be used either free standing
or on a wall bracket. Museum of London.
Ceramic lamps were another form of lighting. These look a bit like ice cream cones and are ubiquitous in medieval illustrations. They are frequently found in museum exhibits. Basically, they worked on the same principle as the cresset lamp and were often suspended by chains from the ceiling. There are references in the pipe rolls to the use of oil lamps. Queen Eleanor had 30 shillings and five pence worth of oil bought on the Surrey account to use in her lamps in 1176/1177. 'Et pro oleo ad lampadem regine xxxs, et v.d.' In 1159 that sum was greater but only by two pence. The second sum appears time and again throughout the reigns of Richard I and of John while she was still living. Were they for religious or personal use? The pipe rolls don't say. 
Hanging lamp mid 13th century.  Maciejowski Bible.
Norman ceramic oil lamp.  Museum of London. 
When one needed to carry a light about, lanterns proved useful, and there are many surviving examples in the archaeological and illustrative record. 
Ceramic lantern from the the Poitou region
Torches were also used. But we don't know a great deal about them as they have not survived well in the archaeological record and it's an area that still requires more study.
Lantern from the mid 13thc Maciejowski Bible.

During the broad spread of the middle ages and in various circumstances, there were rules about lighting. George Duke of Clarence's household ordinances for December 1468 gives the detail that wood and candles should only be issued between 1 November and Good Friday at the rate of two shides (unit of measure - I don't know its meaning)  and three white tallow candles to be shared between every two gentlemen of the household. At the monastery of Barnwell, the monks were forbidden to sit by a lamp in the dormitory to read, or to take candles to bed in order to do the same. We might think it was because of the fire hazard but no, it was because reading in bed was discouraged as at that time, reading aloud was the norm and would have kept everyone else awake, not to mention the disturbance of light.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins out and about with their full and empty lamps
15thc Carthusian Miscellany. British Library. 

So basically it wasn't a world without light, but it was certainly one more deeply shadowed, more golden, more smokily scented (among other smells!) than ours. It could not be had for the flick of a switch but provision of light had to thought about and toiled over. What you never have you never miss, but 1000 years ago, the return of daylight as the northern hemisphere turned toward spring must have been a truly keen pleasure of life.

Sources used in this article.

Cooking and dining in mediaeval England by Peter Frears prospect books, 2008

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley published by Little, Brown.

The senses in late Medieval England by C.M. Wooglar Yale University press.

Constitutio Domus Regis: The establishment of the Royal Household edited and translated by the late Charles Johnson. Oxford Medieval Texts.

Elizabeth Chadwick is a multi award-winning bestselling author of historical fiction and a member of the Royal Historical Society.  Her latest novel Templar Silks tells the story of what William Marshal did during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.