Sunday 30 September 2018

September Competition

To win either of the two books featured yesterday jsut answer the following question in the Comments section:

"What book set in a European country, in the past, is your favourite and why?"

Then copy your answer to:

Closing date: 7th October

We are afraid our competitions are available to UK Followers only.

Good luck!


Saturday 29 September 2018

Publishing history by Mary Hoffman

This month's "guest post" is a bit unusual. Don't worry - you'll still have a chance to win a book tomorrow; it's not that different!

Readers may be aware that I run, with my husband, a small independent publishing company called The Greystones Press. We publish YA and adult fiction and most of our books have a historical element. Take the two we are bringing out on 4th October.

The adult novel is by Sophie Masson and is called Black Wings:
It is set in the French Revolution and covers many years in the lives of four people who started out as childhood friends but whose lives are pulled apart by the changes in France.

It’s 1788 in the Vendée in western France, and change is in the air. Reform is being talked of in the great world beyond, in Paris, and even the peaceful village inhabited by Jacques Verdun and his friends – aristocratic painter Edmond de Bellegarde, his beautiful cousin Flora, and young farmer Pierre Bardon – seems touched by new possibilities. But as events both in Paris and in the local community start to gather pace, as revolution breaks out and the traditions of centuries start to break down, friendships will be severely tested in the most unexpected of ways.
Jacques is a lawyer's son, madly in love with Flora, and friends with both Edmond the aristocrat and Pierre the farmer. The four of them take no notice of the social differences between them as they grow up and, as the three boys grow into men, they are all drawn in different ways to the principles behind the revolution. But when the Reign of Terror comes, they are pulled in different directions. Not all of them will survive.

Photo by Cat Sparks
Born in Indonesia to French parents and brought up in Australia and France, Sophie Masson is the award-winning, internationally-published author of over 60 books, for children, young adults and adults. Her latest books include the adult thriller duology, Trinity: The Koldun Code and Trinity: The False Prince, set in modern Russia; the YA historical thriller, Jack of Spades, and the picture book, Two Rainbows, illustrated by Michael McMahon. These are her social media details:
✽ Website:
✽ Blog:
✽ Facebook:
✽ Twitter: @SophieMasson1 

Obviously, since Sophie lives in Australia and The Greystones Press is UK-based, we had to conduct all the editing by email. This was a very enjoyable process, with a cordial to and fro across the ocean, through the ether, and we had enough time for the time difference between our countries not to matter.

I remember reading her submission on my Kindle, by a pool in a holiday home in Rhodes in the summer of 2016. It was a week after the Brexit vote and I was still traumatised by the result. Being plunged into another, older political upheaval was quite cathartic. And now, nearly two and a half years later, we have the finished book, with its fabulous cover designed by Justin Brown. 

In between, there has been a lot of hard work on both sides and yet, as we are now only a few days away from publication, it still seems like a kind of alchemy. Not base metal into gold, of course, but gold into even more polished gold.

The second book is YA fiction but also with a strong historical angle.

I have known this book, or its earlier incarnations, for many years. At one time it was called Blood and Roses but many other books share that name. There is no copyright in titles; you can call your novel Pride and Prejudice if you like, but I don't recommend it. We always search on the Net for existing books in order to avoid confusion but the best way to come up with the right one is to brainstorm and that is how this book was re-named.

This is its second cover, designed by Giorgia de Micheli, who is Italian herself, appropriately enough for a book set in Florence and the Tuscan countryside.
It's a story with a split timeline. The first hinges on family secrets. Three modern teenagers meet in Florence to discover the truth about a revered grandfather and a literary recluse. Their searches overlap and intertwine to reveal the shocking truth about past betrayal and present revenge.
For Jade and her twin sister Amber, it’s a family matter, trying to find out the truth about their Italian grandfather, who has just died. But they have no idea what a can of worms they are opening as they delve into a past full of betrayal, murder, sex and love.

Nico’s quest interweaves with the girls’ as he searches for the true identity of E J Holm, the author of the detective thrillers he devours. The victims and the killers in Holm’s books all seem to be linked to the Partisans who resisted the Fascists in Italy in World War Two.

Gradually, Jade discovers that her grandfather’s secrets are linked to that too. Who is E J Holm really? And what is his connection with the girls’ grandfather? 
We describe it as a double detective story that combines the secrecy and betrayal of Mal Peet’s Tamar with the search for an author as elusive as Elena Ferrante. 
It was easy working with Gill, who is UK-based and a regular visitor to Oxfordshire where the press is.
Gill won the Kathleen Fidler First Novel Award with her book The Ivy Crown (Hodder). Her later books include the DragonChild series and the Franklin’s Emporium series for A & C Black. She currently teaches Writing Fiction to adults in Rugby.

She has loved Italy ever since her first visit there in 1973 but it was 25 years later that she became fascinated by stories of the partisans who formed the WW2 resistance to Fascism. 
We share a love of Italy, and of Florence in particular, and an appreciation of Italian art. One inspiration for Gill was Botticelli's painting Primavera, in the Uffizi museum in Florence. You'll have to read the book to see how that fits in the plot, along with WW2 partisans and family secrets.

Publishers don't like YA historical fiction, which is odd, since it has never been more popular as a genre among adult readers. And it's one I feel comfortable writing myself, so we were delighted to take this book on.

So that's our list complete for this year and we hope you don't mind this ad and that you might want to read these yourselves.


Friday 28 September 2018

The Devil is in the detail by Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore is the author of nine novels, nearly all with historical settings.  Last Letter Home was chosen for the Richard & Judy Book Club in association with W.H. Smith.  She lives in Norwich and teaches creative writing part-time at the University of East Anglia. 

We hope that Rachel will soon be joining us on The History Girls. Meanwhile, here is a taster of her work.


Research for an historical novel can be a chaotic affair.  I’d always imagined a process whereby I’d read everything relevant I could lay my hands on, visit the sites, study objects in museums all before I began planning and writing the fiction. 

Unfortunately, I’m not the sort of novelist who discovers exactly what interests me about a subject until I start writing.  My relationship with research is therefore one that changes throughout the journey to the finished work. I thought it interesting to reflect on that journey with my recently published novel, Last Letter Home (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

Last Letter Home has a dual narrative, featuring a youngish woman historian in the present, who investigates the story behind a collection of letters from the Second World War past between an English girl and a German refugee and finds in it connections to her own family.

I’d set novels in this period before (A Gathering Storm, A Week in Paris), so already had a general feel for the background. It was the locations and the characters that were different this time. Scenes in Norfolk, Egypt, Sicily and mainland Italy would all require detailed research, as would the possible trajectory of an enemy alien who was determined to join the British war effort.  I also intended to write about military engagement, a first for me. Part of my pleasure in writing is to try something challenging and new.

Before I thought of any of this a fuzzy, dreamlike scene of a woman in a wild garden kept coming to me, I think because I’d been visiting walled gardens in East Anglia. My favourites were the mature working garden at Felbrigg Hall, near Sheringham, and a more desolate one at Thornham Magna near Diss, which was being brought back into use.  I liked the communal purpose of these gardens, but also the sense of security they imparted; they felt like places of sanctuary from the troubles of the wider world.   A fictional walled garden became a central motif in my novel - a safe harbour for my wartime characters, and a liminal space between past and present.  A garden in Italy became important, too.

A garden in Italy rather like one in the novel

I love gardens, but am not a plantswoman, so I resorted to books and the advice of a good friend who is.  I relished an excellent tome published in 1930 entitled The Culture of Vegetables and Flowers by Sutton & Sons, and explored plans of walled gardens until the details of an imaginary one flowered in my mind.  Indeed it felt so real that I was dreadfully sad when I had to write about its spoliation as a result of wartime directives to grow more vegetables.

If a walled garden in Norfolk was where the past story began, wartime Italy is where it was to end.  The gruelling Italian campaign of 1943-45 particularly fascinated me because of the physical intensity of the fighting and the high level of psychological strain that participants endured.  The first scenes that I wrote take place in the present, in the mountains near Naples where historian Briony Wood is on holiday with friends. Here she views old wartime footage and is handed the all-important collection of letters.  By writing this episode I committed myself to featuring Italy, but in doing so my problems began.

It is my belief that historical fictions that purport to be realist, as opposed to fantastical, should be respectful of known fact and not betray the reader’s trust.  I  set out on this novel with Norfolk at one end of the past story and Italy at the other after reading in Frank Meeres’ Norfolk in the Second World War that infantry from the Norfolk Regiment took part in the Italian campaign, and in the firm belief that my German refugee, Paul Hartmann, could join the Norfolks and wind up in the aforementioned part of Italy where Briony went on holiday.  It was only when I was deep in the writing that I discovered to my annoyance that the movements of the Norfolk Battalion in Italy had not taken place where or when I had imagined them to, and nor had the men necessarily been involved in the preceding Egyptian battle that I’d planned to feature.

When faced with such a stumbling block the historical novelist has several options.  One involves substantial recasting and rewriting of the book.  Another involves fudging it and confessing this in an author’s note.  A third involves less rewriting, but more research – looking for evidence that underpins a slightly recast version.  In this case, the third option worked.  I uncovered examples of soldiers who’d become separated from their platoon, or whose companies had been decimated, who might then find themselves part of new ones in a completely different regiment.  In the chaos of war, all sorts of confusing and ridiculous things happen.  The challenge for the historical writer is to make  fictional versions of these seem authentic.   

Wartime chronology, again, nearly did for me when it came to tracing a realistic path for a German refugee who wished to fight for the Allies.  The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens by Helen Fry recounts the experiences of many such men, but most of them had not become combatants until quite late in the war – the Normandy Landings being most commonly cited – because of earlier rules preventing them bearing arms.   How, therefore, could I credibly send Paul from an internment camp near Liverpool in May 1940 to fight near Cairo in June 1942?  Again, more detailed excavation provided the answers.  Paul could join the Pioneers, a non-combatant force.  From there appeals to his previous employer, a Norfolk baronet, led him to active service with the local regiment, then onto a ship bound for Suez. These odd kinds of things actually happened.

Should this level of detail actually matter to the historical novelist?  It depends how hardline you are, but they certainly matter to me and I believe they matter to readers.  Most often it’s even tinier details that thwart one, the ones not mentioned in the history books.  Fiction written at the time and memoir are good sources for discovering answers to problems such as how extensively electricity has been installed in rural areas, when people did and didn’t shake hands, who did someone’s laundry, how the telephone system worked.  Some of these snags the writer can save to check once they’ve finished writing, but occasionally key aspects of the story can hang on them so solutions can’t wait.  The writer must sigh, put down their pen and investigate.

The worst traps of all, though, are the questions you didn’t think to ask in the first place. I had no idea, for instance, when I wrote A Week in Paris, that a Wren wasn’t generally allowed on a ship until a reader with first hand knowledge pointed it out.   I’m still waiting for someone to challenge me with something similar in Last Letter Home. No doubt it will happen. It’s an occupational hazard, I’m afraid!

Thursday 27 September 2018

Frida Kahlo at the V&A by Janie Hampton

Frida Kahlo 1907-1954 

Image courtesy of Museo Frida Kahlo.
© Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México. 
My oldest grand-daughter, Matilda, is 9 and a self-confessed ‘Victorian Expert.’ So for a summer holiday treat we went to the Victoria & Albert museum in London. After splashing in the fountain and admiring the Victorian frocks, we queued for the Frida Kahlo exhibition.
Matilda was fascinated by the surreal self-portraits with Kahlo’s signature mono-brow, painted using a mirror attached to her bed. After a near-fatal bus crash at 18 years, she was in constant pain and unable to walk. ‘She was a woman that suffered many injuries but who was able to transform this pain into art,’ wrote Hilda Trujillo, Director of the Museo Frida Kahlo. 
“I’d rather sit on the floor of the market of Toluca,” said Kahlo,
“and sell tortillas than have anything to do with those artistic bitches.”
Now her image sells like hot tortillas. photo Nikolas Muray, 1939.
As well as Kahlo’s own distinctive paintings, the exhibition includes masses of votives - small, primitive paintings on tin. Mexican Catholics with sick relatives hoped that by placing them in a church, the relatives would recover. I wondered if this would also work in the V&A? Though most had presumably died already. 
When Kahlo herself died in 1954, all her possessions were locked in a bathroom at her home, La Casa Azul, in Mexico City by her husband, the artist Diega Rivera, (1886 –1957). By the time it was finally opened in 2004, she was already a cult figure, so everything was conserved to archaeological standards. Trujillo wondered if it was right to intrude after so long. ‘At times I thought I wasn't entitled to do this, that no-one was. However, it was also important to restore, rescue the letters and photographs [which] had been left as they were, frozen in time.’ They have yet to restore all the 22,000 documents and 300 items of Frida's clothing and textiles.
However, many are now on display at the V&A, having left Mexico for the first time. Being housebound, Kahlo painted everything around her, including the plaster corsets she had to wear to support her spine. It’s sad to see the one she painted with an unborn baby– knowing that she never bore a live child.
Kahlo’s laced boots are gorgeous - red leather, with stacked platform heels and Chinese embroidery along the side. But one boot is prominently displayed on the prosthetic leg she wore for the last year of her life. Would she have liked that? She didn’t show off about her disabilities and wore long skirts to cover her polio-damaged legs, even when she still had two. 
Art, fashion or function?
Would Kahlo have approved? Photograph Javier Hinojosa.
© Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México,
There is something voyeuristic about the glass case containing her ‘Everything’s Rosy’ red lipstick and her empty Revlon nail varnish bottles, displayed like a saint’s relics. Was that the point the curators were making? That despite her rejection of Catholicism, she used its imagery and iconography repeatedly in her work. We admired the self-portrait featuring a white lace ruff framing the face. Also on display is an excerpt from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film Que Viva Mexico! which shows that these holánes were worn by women at church weddings in the Tehuantepec region of Southern Mexico. 
Kahlo’s colourful and eccentric image has been appropriated
by feminists, fashion designers, artists and souvenir factories.
Photo: Robin Richmond, 2018
Kahlo often chose to wear the rich Tehuana costume - pre-Columbian jewelry, fringed rebozos (shawls), embroidered huipiles (square-cut tops) and long, gathered enaguas (skirts). Her striking appearance was a political statement to show she identified with the oppressed indigenous Mexicans. But as Robin Richmond, author of  Frida Kahlo in Mexico says, ‘Frida was no Tehuana. She was the well-educated, literary daughter of an Hungarian intellectual. Under her vast petticoats Frida was a shy damaged person who hid a tragic soul under this mantle of disguise.’

‘In Mexico now, Frida is everywhere. On children’s knapsacks.
On wallets. On handbags. On shopping bags. On socks. On Barbie Dolls.
On the 500 peso bill. On tortilla packets,’ says Richmond. photo: Robin Richmond, 2018
All the rooms in the V&A exhibition are small and rather dark. Emerging into the light, Matilda was shocked by the gift shop where you can buy a pair of 1950s gold sunglasses quite like Kahlo’s, for £150. Richmond agrees, ‘I think she would have been horrified. She hated exploitation of any kind according to Arturo Garcia Bustos and Rina Lazo from Oaxaca, friends of mine who knew her very well.’ Cheapest at £1 is a badge that says ‘I am my own muse’. Fine for Kahlo to say it, but what does it mean when anyone else wears it? And if you were your own muse, wouldn’t you make your own badge? The things ‘inspired’ by Kahlo and made by artists who are obviously not their own muses, are terrible, especially the caricatures of her self-portraits. An ‘easy to wear’ fuchsia headdress was pretty, but it cost £245. Matilda and I went home and settled down to make our own for a couple of quid. 
Cultural appropriation, or a grand-daughter dressing up?
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs at the V&A, South Kensington, until 4 November 2018. 

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Paris, May 1968, the student's revolution by Carol Drinkwater

                                                                         May 1968, Paris

These photos were taken by Bruno Barbey who was a twenty-five-year-old photographer in '68 and a superb visual chronicler of the events of May 1968. He wrote later, "I went with Cartier-Bresson to buy helmets to protect us from the stones, but with them we couldn't use our Leicas.'

It is always an exciting moment for an author when she receives an email from her editor confirming the date of publication of her next novel. That has been one of the highs of this week for me. My new novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, is to be published in Britain on 16th May 2019.

I had hoped to have the book out on the shelves this autumn to coincide with the fifty-year anniversary of 1968 in France, a year that changed modern French history. However, due to various issues, I am a little late. The main point is it is on its way!

The book is set principally in two time zones: 1968 and the present. There is a small section that takes place in the 1990s but that is not the main body of the book.

I was a gauche teenager in 1968 and really rather ignorant of politics. My thoughts were all about training to be an actress by winning a place at one of the more prestigious London drama schools. So 1968 passed me by, which, I think now, is a great pity. It has, however, made the research for the new novel all the more fascinating, and if I could live those adolescent years of mine again, I like to think that I would get myself to Paris to participate in the student revolution. To have been what the French call a 'soixante-huitard', one who participated in the events of May 68. It is for that reason that I have had a very exciting time writing of the involvement of my young English protagonist, Grace, who finds herself in Paris at that time and gets drawn into the fight and the building of the barricades.

The subject is hugely complex and I will come back to it again between now and publication of the novel and again perhaps afterwards. Who knows? But I want to offer a brief resumé of what the revolution was about, rather than dates and details, and I hope that it will whet your appetite to discover more with me along the way.

In 1968, the US was in Vietnam. Americans and youngsters elsewhere in the world were beginning to voice their opposition to the US involvement in Asia. Young Americans were burning their draft cards, some were escaping the country to avoid being called up. For the first time in history a war was being relayed on a daily basis into our sitting rooms via television. The world could directly witness the killings, the violence and the sacrifice of lives, and many people were, quite understandably, horrified, appalled. The year previous, in 1967, in San Francisco, it was the Summer of Love, the Hippy Movement was making news worldwide, Make Love Not War. I found this video on Youtube that will take you back to San Francisco in 67. 

By 1968, there were movements of dissatisfaction breaking out all over the western world, marches against the war, a growing call for Peace. In France, the dissatisfaction went further, deeper. There was a fervent desire to change French society from within the system. Many were saying that the nineteenth century was a long time in ascent, meaning that they felt France was backward, had not moved into the modern world. The young were tired of De Gaulle, a right-wing military man. They were calling for changes to the educational system, describing it as outmoded and inefficient.They wanted fairer opportunities for the worker, the man in the street. Paris '68 began with the students and then it spread fast, when the Communists came on board, to include striking workers all across the country. By late May, close to eleven million people in mainland France were on strike. The country had, literally, come to a standstill and De Gaulle went, briefly, into hiding before he returned with resolve to crack down and break the back of the revolution. 
But he did not break its spirit, its resonances.

In 1968, the only TV stations operating in France were government controlled. If the Élysée did not approve of the information being broadcast, it did not go out. De Gaulle, his cronies, were monitoring, censoring the news. During the weeks of rioting in Paris, the only means for the young, and those involved in the fight, to learn what was actually going on was through two radio stations: Europe One and Radio Luxembourg. 

After several weeks, those working for the TV station also went on strike so no news of the revolution was being televised at all. At this time, Bruno Barbey (the photographer mentioned at the top of this page) got together with filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard to make short films. About 30 in total were shot. These were sent out to striking factories and cities throughout France, to keep the people informed. So the nation could see what was really going on in Paris. By this time, the movement was huge. 

Barbey said later that it was not easy to get their pictures out of France for the world to see what was happening. He worked for the prestigious Magnum Agency (later became its vice-president). Once every two days, a Magnum messenger riding an old BMW motorbike travelled to Brussels and from there the pictures were distributed worldwide.

I think one of the facts that has most astonished me during all the research I have been doing for the novel is to comprehend the reach of political censorship at that time in France. And this is one of the profound effects the revolution had on the country. France was opened up. Communication and dialogue between people of all classes became an urgency. De Gaulle and his government failed to rein this in. This is one of the major achievements of the 68 movement. 

Another aspect that has really shocked me was the level of police violence against the young, hence the building of the famous barricades. In order that the students and those fighting with them - because by May 6th/7th white collar workers and some of the university professors had joined the students - could protect themselves they spent nights building defences against the police. The amount of tear gas, the arrests, the convictions, the rescinding of the students' right to continue their studies is all very shocking to read about. You could believe these were the acts of a government in some Banana Republic, not France.

The night of 6th May was particularly violent. 600 people were wounded and 422 arrested, many taken to trial, a few losing their right to study. Again overnight on 10th May, the city, mostly on the Left Bank, was burning. Cars upturned, pavements dug up. The students were building barricades to protect themselves against the police weapons including rifles, the tear gas, the violence. Hundreds were hospitalised.

                            © Bruno Barbey. Student passing stones to build the barricades

One thinks of France - and I live here - as a liberal country. Certainly, more liberal than most. But French women were only able to vote for the first time in April 1945 after decades of campaigning. 1968 did a great deal to bring France into the late twentieth century. It proved itself to be a cultural and social revolution that had long lasting waves.

Bruno Queysanne, who at the time was an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, said: "In the history of France it was a remarkable movement because it was truly a mass movement that concerned Paris but also the provinces, that concerned the intellectuals but also manual workers." Many living in France today say that it engulfed their lives, changed the way they perceived their society, gave a new emancipation to women. The sexual revolution was also a part of it. 

"The feeling we had in those days which has shaped my entire life," these words are taken from an essay written by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most prominent of the student leaders of that time (and now a member of the European Green Party), "was, We're Making History. An exalted feeling - suddenly we had become agents in world history."

Not only the cars, but life in France had been upended. It would never be the same again.

I so wish I had been there, but as I wasn't I have buried myself in my novel in the skin of a young Englishwoman, Grace, and through her eyes and passion, I have lived the experience.

Here are some photos from those amazing, heady days.

                              Renault workers on strike at Bologne-Billancourt 27th May '68

                                                                    © Bruno Barbey

                     Jean-Paul Sartre speaking to students within the occupied Sorbonne

All photographs  © Bruno Barbey and Magnum Photos

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Oxford Street by Miranda Miller


   One morning last week I went on a rather doleful shopping trip to Oxford Street. In the clothes departments shop assistants outnumbered customers and full racks of garments pleaded to be liked. As I walked through those designer mausoleums I remembered my childhood, when my shopaholic mother and grandmother took me on all day shopping trips . After an orgy of trying on clothes in bustling department stores these trips ended in the ground floor cafeteria in Selfridges with me, as a fat little girl, standing up to eat an enormous ice cream called a Knickerbocker Glory. Now that some people think that department stores will disappear from all our High Streets, it seems a good idea to remember their interesting pasts.

   Towards the end of the 19th century Oxford Street changed from residential to retail. The first department stores were exciting and innovative. In Zola’s wonderful novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), a department store in Paris is the main character: a self contained world, a kind of paradise where women of all ages revel in colour and choice and sensuality. Not exactly a feminist message - but in fact, for middle class women, the arrival of department stores did represent a kind of independence. In mid-Victorian England it was not considered acceptable for a ‘respectable’ woman to go out unchaperoned whereas, a generation later, a shopping trip to a department store, where clothes, furnishings and lunch or tea could all be found under one roof, was allowed. 
This photo shows a horse drawn John Lewis delivery van.

   John Lewis was a buyer of silks for Peter Robinson, which has now disappeared. It was on the site at Oxford Circus where Topshop is now. He bravely set up his own draper’s shop at 132 Oxford Street in 1864. Over the next thirty years he expanded and when a court injunction banned him from extending his shop into Cavendish Square he defiantly spent three weeks in Brixton Jail. He eventually won and the stuffy residents of Cavendish Square had to put up with his enormous shop. His son, Spedan Lewis, was not a conventional businessman. As a young man Spedan had a serious accident when he fell from his horse whilst riding to work through Regents Park. He took two years to recuperate and seems to have thought hard about the unfairness of a world where he and his family took more money from the business than all the rest of their employees together. When Spedan eventually inherited both John Lewis and Peter Jones ( in Sloane Square) he spent decades setting up a trust, or Partnership, which transferred some of the benefits of ownership to his employees.

  The original John Lewis shop was destroyed in the blitz and remained a bomb site until it was rebuilt in the late 1950s. The winged figure on the east wall is by Barbara Hepworth. Many other buildings nearby were damaged during the war. In 1941 George Orwell wrote in his diary that Oxford Street was "completely empty of traffic, and only a few pedestrians". He saw "innumerable fragments of broken glass."

   Debenham, next door to John Lewis, started as a small drapery store on Wigmore Street in the 18th century, when Mary-le-bone was a village. The shop later grew and sold drapery, silks, haberdashery, millinery, hosiery, lace and family mourning goods.The latter involved a complex and expensive etiquette; after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 Queen Victoria wore her widow's weeds until she died in 1901. Many people felt obliged to follow her example and after a death entire households were expected to wear black. This sad photo shows a baby with black armbands.

   D H Evans, which my mother and her friends called D H Heavens, once stood where House of Fraser does now. In 1879 Dan Harries Evans, a farmer’s son from Llanelli, bought a small draper’s shop in Oxford Street. His wife did the dressmaking and other members of the family helped out. They specialized in fashionable lace goods and eventually,in the 1930s, their shop became a department store.

   Selfridges has the most colourful history of all these department stores although not, perhaps, quite as lurid as the TV series Mr Selfridge.

   This photo of Selfridges under construction shows how many buildings were demolished in order to build it. Harry Gordon Selfridge was 51, and already very rich, when he opened his new emporium. He began his career a stockman in the warehouse of a Chicago department store and, 25 years later, was a junior partner. His wife, Rose, was a shrewd business woman and property developer.

   On a visit to London he was shocked to see how old fashioned British shops were. His new building managed to be both modern and classical (In 2003 it was awarded a English Heritage plaque). There was a roof garden and new ornate window displays. A clock with an enormous figure called The Queen of Time still reigns over main entrance. Selfridge said his aim was "to make my shop a civic centre, where friends can meet and buying is only a secondary consideration." Could he be held responsible for introducing the consumer society? Some of his catchphrases were: “The customer is always right;” “Only [so many] Shopping Days Until Christmas,” and "I am prepared to sell anything from an airplane to a cigar".

   In fact when the vast store did open, in 1909, the monoplane in which Louis Blériot flew across the Channel for the first time was on public display. Over the four days of the launch event about 150,000 people visited the store and 30 policemen were needed to hold back the crowds. For the first time cosmetics and perfumes were put on display at the front of the store. In other London stores make-up. which many people still disapproved of, was sold in side rooms or even in areas hidden by blinds.

   The huge success of his new store made Selfridge more innovative - and more megalomanic. The 'Earl of Oxford Street' introduced a Bargain Basement to attract poorer customers. After the First World War he wanted to erect a massive tower (very Trumpian!) and a subway link to Bond Street Station, which was to be renamed “Selfridge’s". The book department expanded to become the biggest in the world. In 1925 the inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated the first television in the store and, later, the BBC transmitted live music broadcasts from the roof garden. There was a library, reading and writing rooms, reception rooms for French, German, American and "Colonial" customers, a First Aid Room and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double glazing. Selfridge even - a most revolutionary idea then - installed toilets for women shoppers

   During the Blitz Selfridge's windows were bricked up for safety. Although the roof was damaged by German bombs the shop continued to trade and the basement was converted into a communications base, with a dedicated line run along Oxford Street to Whitehall so that Churchill could make secure direct telephone calls to Roosevelt.

   After his wife, Rose, died during the flu epidemic in 1918 Selfridge became wildly extravagant. He lost a lot of money gambling and had expensive affairs with (amongst others) the famous Dolly Sisters and Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who later become Syrie Maugham. He entertained lavishly. both at his house in Mayfair and on his his yacht. In 1941, when he was 83, Selfridge was forced to resign because he was deeply in debt, and the apostrophe was removed from the department store's name.

   So department stores were once great centres of urban life. Chaplin recognised this in his 1916 silent film The Floorwalker, in which the little tramp has fun with escalators and mirrors.

Monday 24 September 2018

A bit of a research break by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Husband and sons at Carcassonne. 
This is short blog for my turn this month because I am packing for an imminent holiday/research break.  By the time you read this, I will be chilling out somewhere in Monmouthshire!
I don't think that in the last 20 years I have ever been on a holiday that hasn't involved research for a novel.  Fortunately my family, has indulged my habit of dragging them to locations that involve castles, cathedrals and historical sights and sites.  Mostly in the UK, although we did venture to the South of France one year and climbed the Cathar Stronghold of Montsegur (where I almost put my hand on an adder (see photo taken by my husband above me!) and dined among the magnificent towers and turrets of Carcassonne.

Our various dogs have all joined in the fun and had a marvelous time exploring nooks and crannies, although a small collie-cross we had, was very disturbed by Middleham castle and refused to go inside!
At Pembroke Castle, taking a holiday break and giving a talk at the castle during that time. Me, my husband, Bill, Jack, Pip, and the big man himself, William Marshal!
Dogs at St Dogmaels! 
This time round we shall be staying in a rental cottage tucked somewhere deep in the Wye valley at the top end. On the agenda for me are visits to Goodrich Castle, Worcester Cathedral (tomb of King John) Usk Castle, Raglan Castle, and revisits to wonderful Chepstow and Tintern, familiar locations in many of my novels and featuring particularly in the forthcoming THE IRISH PRINCESS.  
Another part of the break will be taking lovely long walks in hills and woods on that cusp between summer and autumn and filling myself brimful of inspiration.  


Sunday 23 September 2018

Much In Little by Susan Price -

I usually post for Authors Electric and, a little while ago, my colleague, Griselda Heppel, wrote there about how annoying it is when people make wild unsubstantiated guesses about Shakespeare's life, based on very little evidence.

For instance, he left his wife his 'second best bed,' so, obviously, he didn't think much of her. And she was eight years older than him so, obviously it was an unwanted marriage of convenience. And he went away to be a playwright in London, so quite plainly, he hated the sight of her.

Any of these statements may be true. But it's just as likely that they aren't. They are much made out of very little.

The idea that Bill didn't get on with Anne because he was young and carefree and she was such a grumpy old hag is based solely on a line in Twelfth Night: 'Let still the woman take an elder than herself.' This is seized on as a hot-line to Shakespeare's heart. Aha! This is him regretting his unwise marriage and letting slip what he really thought.

Never mind that Shakespeare was putting words into the mouths of characters and making stuff up, never mind that it's just one among thousands of lines that he wrote. Perhaps he did believe that it was a mistake for a man to marry an older woman. But I have just as much evidence (none), to state that it was an in-joke between Shakespeare, Anne and their crowd. In my small circle of friends - to take a random sample - there are three very happy marriages where the wife is several years older than the husband. They sometimes joke about it - one older wife recently promised her 'boy' some pocket-money from her pension to buy sweeties.

Then there's the 'fact' that Shakespeare ran away to London to escape the crone. What's this based on? Nothing. We have exactly no idea how often Shakespeare went home to the country, or Anne made a trip into town. We have plenty of marriages today where one partner lives away from home for part of the time, perhaps even in a different country and yet some of those marriages survive. Travel was harder in the past, but people still travelled long distances very often - recent archaeology has shown that animals raised in the Orkneys were eaten during feasts at Stonehenge. How did these animals get from the Orkneys to Salisbury Plain? Clue: they didn't go by Ryan Air.

In the past there were also plenty of marriages where one or the other partner was absent for a long time. Ships made long sea-crossings, Vikings viked, fish-wives travelled from town to town, drovers were away for months as they droved cattle to market. It's certainly not out of the question that Shakespeare went home quite often -- and he obviously didn't cut all ties with Stratford, since he returned there and built himself a big house. His wife was one of those ties.

And that infamous 'second-best bed.' We only know of this bed because, in his will, Bill bequeathed it to Anne. From this, some people have concluded that, since he only considered her deserving of second-best, Bill didn't like Anne very much. Reading of this, my uxorious father commented, "Maybe it was the most comfortable bed." Which is entirely possible. Beds were a bit of a status symbol at the time -- if you were nobody, you slept on a straw-filled mattress on the floor. Or even, in pele towers, in a horizontal slot in the wall - where, I suppose, at least you were out of the draughts. The 'best bed' would have been the most showy and expensive, the one with the most carving and the most embroidered curtains. The one you put guests in. 'Best' doesn't always mean the most comfortable or the favourite.

It never seems to have crossed the minds of historians who take this line that Shakespeare may have discussed his will with his wife and the bed known in the family as 'the second-best bed' was the one she wanted. There is exactly as much evidence to back this view as the one that supposes it was Bill being spiteful.

Then there are all the guesses made about Shakespeare's 'lost years.' He must have spent them as an ostler because his plays reveal knowledge about horses. Some nautical terms are used in The Tempest, so he must have been a sailor. He mentions some weaponry and tactics, so he must have been a soldier.

I think anyone who's written any fiction can see through these arguments. Writers are experts in making much of little, so I doubt Shakespeare was a slouch at it.

I have myself been praised to my face for the knowledge of riding and weaponry revealed in my Sterkarm books and I don't know how I kept my face straight. Riding and weaponry -- two subjects of which I know even less, I would guess, than Shakespeare knew about sailing.

The Sterkarm Handshake

My reiver family, the Sterkarms spend a great deal of their life riding, so I knew I was going to have to mention horses now and again. There's one dodge always available to a fiction writer -- when something is so much a part of a character's life, they take it for granted and don't often gab on about it. As I type these words, I'm not thinking about the pros and cons of Microsoft versus Apple. So if the POV is Per Sterkarm, he's not going to detail every step in saddling and bridling his horse, or grooming it. He just does it, in his sleep if necessary, and goes on his way.

What's needed is not pages of detail but a few little telling points to mention in passing, to slip in between lines of dialogue, that will give many readers the impression that I know all of what I write, while, in fact, knowing almost nothing. Someone mounting, say, and then leaning down from the saddle to tighten the saddle-girth. And a bit of terming, like 'girth' helps as well.

Where do I find these details? Well, some are cribbed from books and, these days, from the internet. But the best little tid-bits always come from talking to people who know far, far more than I do. So, a big thank you from me to Karen Bush and Katherine Roberts of this parish, who are both excellent riders and know all sorts of good stuff. Karen, in particular, did me a big favour in reading A Sterkarm Tryst and correcting everything horse-related as well as giving me a few more details.
A Sterkarm Tryst

Shakespeare didn't have to work as an ostler to gain knowledge about horses. In his time and until quite recently, nearly all land transport involved horses. My grandfather was an ostler, which is how I  learned that odd word. ('Your grandad's first job was as an ostler.' -  'What's an ostler?') Grandad worked with the giant percherons who pulled the carts of a local brewery and I learned a few odd little horsey facts from stories about him. When Shakespeare needed a few similar pointers, I doubt he had to search very hard for an ostler to chat to. It must have been impossible to turn round without bumping into one.

The same goes for his 'knowledge' of ships and their ways. He lived in London. Wharfs and warehouses lined the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge and the Tower. Ships came and went all the time. There would have been sailors of different ranks in his audiences.

And my own vaunted knowledge of weaponry? For a while I was friendly with a couple of fellas who seemed to spend their every spare minute re-enacting. Most of the time they were Roman legionnaires and had impressive suits of Roman armour. But they often helped out another group at by pretending to be Americans in WW2. At the drop of a helmet, they would go and be Vietnam Vets. Now they were very knowledgeable about weapons. So I asked them: If it was necessary to equip mercenaries at short notice and on the cheap, what weapons would be supplied?

Without taking a moment to draw breath, they said, "Kalashnikovs." And went on to explain why. And, generally, the pros and cons of kalishnikovs. They did even better -- they borrowed a replica kalishniknov and let me feel how heavy it was, and showed me how to take it apart and slam it back together.

I lost touch with them but remain grateful and hope they are still happily marching behind the eagle all these years later. I went home and wove all they'd told me in and out of dialogue and background in my book. I made much out of little.

The joy of it is, that people who know far more about these subjects than I will ever do, read these little asides and often conclude that I know as much about riding or weapons as they do.

Much out of little. I'd put money on Shakespeare being a master of it. No clues or hints about his life taken from his plays can be trusted. All you can conclude from some mention of horse-doctoring or cannonades or sails being shortened is that Bill had probably been chatting in the pub again.

"You know when you're out at sea and a storm blows up, yeah? Like, whaddaya do?"

Saturday 22 September 2018

We're Going on a Witch Hunt by Catherine Hokin

Edgar Allan Poe Statue Boston
The schools having returned from their holidays, I've just been on mine - trust me the novelty of travelling during term-time will never wear off. We did an East Coast trip this year, visiting Boston and Washington, slightly on edge at the reports of Hurricane Florence although in the end we encountered only minor flooding. The architecture of the two cities shares commonalities - both retain pockets of beautiful nineteenth century clapboard houses and both have eighteenth century nods to ancient Rome and Greece although this is much more marked in Washington's neck-cracking take on empire. I've never felt more like an ant as I did on the Mall. 

Both cities are fabulous to visit, but the winner for me was Boston where the Gothic still lingers. One of Boston's most famous residents and one of my favourite authors, if not people, was Edgar Allen Poe who now has a statue at the Common. It's a wonderful thing - Poe's cloak flares all dramatic and a raven and a heart tumble from his briefcase. It is all, however, rather tongue-in-cheek. Poe is placed close by the Frog Pond which was at the base of most of the insults he threw at other writers and he is depicted as sour-faced and in the act of striding away from the city he was born in but hated. Poe described the people of Boston as having no soul (which surely should have attracted him), very dull and heartily ashamed of the fact that they were born in Boston in the first place. He was notorious for his loudly-expressed loathing of works by other Boston writers (including Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau) and for comparing their ideas and writings to the croaking of the frogs which lived on the pond where he now resides, referring to the city's literary greats with parochial disdain as Frogpondians. It's rather a shame that the only frogs in the area now are sculptured ones: their chorus permanently tormenting the statue frozen in flight is a touch worthy of one of his own stories.

 Providence Athenaeum
Poe's home no longer exists and Boston is far more interested in commemorating renaissance man Paul Revere than its more ungrateful son. To get closer to Poe today you need to travel the short distance to Providence in Rhode Island. The side-streets positively teem with the kind of turreted and ivy-clad houses you expect to find a TB-ridden maiden fainting in. Which may explain why Poe went wandering there. Shortly after his first wife died, Poe started courting Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence who was a poet and spiritualist. He proposed and she accepted on the condition he would remain sober until the day of the wedding. He promised, couldn't do it and she broke the relationship off, although Poe blamed Whitman's mother for that, rather than his own behaviour. Despite Poe dying in Baltimore, he is now reported to haunt Providence, in the area round Benefit Street and the Atheneaum which he used to visit with Whitman. Apparently the ghost has a rather melancholy air and vanishes if you try to chat.

 The Witch House, Salem
Having done the ghosts and the Gothic and Boston being in the grip of a heatwave (and the kind of humidity which took my hair back to the 1980s), the logical next step was a visit to Salem for some witch-hunting. Salem is famous, or notorious, for the trials which took place in the town between 1692-93 in which over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 executed. To put this in context, a witchcraft craze had rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s with tens of thousands (the exact figure remains disputed) of supposed witches, mostly women, being executed. The outbreak in Salem came relatively late and, although there are many theories about the causes (including ergot poisoning through contaminated bread), it is likely that the trials had their roots in a more modern and cautionary tale: war, fear of others and the failure to integrate displaced people.

In 1689, England started a war with France in their rival American colonies. This ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources which aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. To add to the problems, controversy also raged over Salem Village’s first ordained minister, the Reverend Samuel Parris, who was disliked because he was perceived as rigid and greedy. The very strictly devout Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil. Add into the mix some bored and hysterical girls (Parris's daughters and their friends), an old and vulnerable woman (Sarah Osborne) and a Caribbean slave (Tituba) who liked telling the girls voodoo stories to entertain them on wet days and you have a potent brew ripe for stirring.

 The execution of Bridget Bishop, Salem
In January 1692, the Parris girls and another local girl began to have “fits” - screaming, throwing things, uttering peculiar sounds and twisting themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. On February 29th, under pressure from magistrates, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne. As Jess Blumberg put it in The Smithsonian magazine, With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed. Good and Osborne pleaded innocent but Tituba 'confessed'. She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her, and several other witches in the town who wanted to destroy the Puritans, to sign his book. All three women were put in jail and the damage was done, accusations snowballed. Despite the pleas for calm by people such as the minister Cotton Mather, by May 20 people were dead - 19 by hanging and one crushed by stones. It was a period of unstoppable madness and it was short-lived. The judges confessed their error, the trials were declared illegal and, less than 10 years later in 1711, the good names of all the victims was restored. 

 One of the many
Salem today is a masterpiece of marketing, full of witch-themed shops selling hokey souvenirs and more psychics than you can shake a stick at (available at the Harry Potter shop if needed). We went prepared for that and it was a lot of fun. What we hadn't expected was the relevance with which the main museum (the Salem Witch Museum) presents its trial exhibition. For all the use of the word 'witch', the emphasis was very much on paranoia and the damage it inflicts. You exit not through the gift-shop but past a giant witch-hunt wall which contexts the Salem experience in the simple, or not so simple, maths of human ignorance. Fear + instigator = persecution. The case was made with equal weight for the appalling treatment and consequent suffering of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour, for the thousands accused of communism during the McCarthy era and for gay people during the early days of AIDS hysteria. There was a lot of space left on the wall. As I stood in Washington the following week and watched Trump's cavalcade leave the White House, biting my lip at every 'Make America Great' again t-shirt, I could have filled that space over and over. Some holiday souvenirs stay with you the longest.