Wednesday 31 October 2018

October competition

To win a copy of Cynthia Jefferies' The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan, just answer the question below in the Comments section:

"Which character from a book you enjoyed as a child would you like to see in adult fiction, written as an adult or a child?"

Then send a copy of your answer to, so that we can contact you if you win.

Closing date 7th November

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

Good luck! 


Tuesday 30 October 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick: Manuscripts, Magical and Remarkable

As its Halloween, it is almost obligatory that I should write about things that go bump in the night. This year, I’ve been enjoying my spooky fix via Sky’s Discovery of Witches – a TV series featuring witches, vampires and demons, based on the All Souls trilogy of books by Deborah Harkness. I first read – and greatly enjoyed - the books some years ago, and have to admit to rather mixed feelings about the TV series. The actors are generally great (although personally I’m not sure about all the casting choices!) and the cinematography and locations are beautiful. But, as is inevitable with any adaptation, they’ve had to leave things out, or at least not give them the prominence they receive in the novels.

In Harkness’ books, the Twilight-style romance is leavened with a real passion for history. The protagonist Diana has a non-magical career an academic historian, and her love for the subject – or rather, that of Harkness (herself a professional historian before she turned to novel-writing) really shines through. In particular, significant time and space within the novels is devoted to loving, meticulous descriptions of the illuminated manuscripts Diana studies (and which cause her such supernatural trouble – her discovery of a bewitched book kicks off the plot).

The only other place where I’ve read such bewitching (excuse the pun) yet accurate descriptions of medieval manuscripts is in Christopher de Hamel’s wonderful Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (if you’ve not yet read it, it is worth getting your hands on the hardback version for the beauty and quality of the reproductions.) Taking one manuscript per century between the C6th and C16th, de Hamel walks his readers through what it is like to see, feel, touch and smell the reality of these rare and precious objects, as well as explaining the historical and social conditions in which they were created. It is accessible, scholarly and passionate; beautiful and illuminating all at once, as perfect and jewelled as the manuscripts he describes. 

So, my item for the Cabinet of Curiosities this month? Definitely a medieval manuscript. But I’m torn. My personal favourite from de Hamel’s book is the fourteenth century Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, with its stunning and intricate gothic illuminations. But I do wonder if I might be allowed Diana’s fictional, magical Book of Life, explaining through alchemical imagery the origins and destinies of vampires, witches, demons and humans?

Well, it is Halloween, when the veil between the mundane and the magical is supposedly at its thinnest, so maybe, just maybe…

Monday 29 October 2018

Going out on a limb with Cynthia Jefferies

October's guest is Cynthia Jefferies, better known to some of us as Cindy, the name she used for her children's books.

Cynthia Jefferies is a long-established writer for children, whose work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She was born in Gloucestershire and her love of history was encouraged by regular family outings to anything of interest, from great cathedrals to small museums. Having moved to Scotland and back to Stroud, she has always made time to write and her abiding interest in Restoration England has never left her. The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is her first historical novel for adults.

Author's Website:

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan…not a jolly book for children!

There I was, making a few notes about a new story for children. The protagonist would be a comic, rather hapless, gangly innkeeper, whose village had fallen on hard times, but I just couldn’t get the story to fly.

Many writers will recognise that moment when you realise your idea is a non starter. I came at it from several different directions, but no matter how I approached it, the poor fellow simply became sadder. He obviously wasn’t cut out to be the main character in a funny story for 9-12’s, but neither would he leave me alone.

He had recently returned to England from the continent after the Restoration and had every reason to feel distraught. Even so, it was quite a stretch to get from those faltering beginnings to researching C17th Prostheses, the teredo worm and early nurserymen. All of this was needed in the novel that grew out of that insistent character, but the research that took the most time and thought was the prosthesis, in the story that became The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan.

Science Museum, London
People have been making replacements for lost limbs with various success from the earliest times. There is the ancient Egyptian big toe, enabling the wearer to manage sandals, the unsavoury Italian who replaced his lost hand with a knife, and reputedly tightened the straps holding in on with his teeth. There is also the arm owned by Gotz von Berlichingen in the C16th. Actually he had two made, both of which are on display at Jagsthausen Castle. I haven’t managed to see them, but in the great hall at Cotehele, that wonderful National Trust property on the Tamar in Cornwall, there is another, similar metal hand and forearm. Its history isn’t known, but it attracts a huge amount of interest from visitors. So much so that a few years ago money was raised to make a replica, so that the workmanship could be explored more closely without damaging the original. It is a wonderful piece of engineering. The hand can be made to open or close into a fist by means of a lever at the wrist, and the thumb can close onto the fingers, making it a truly useful replacement hand.

It was exactly what one of my characters needed.

There can be little positive to be said about losing a limb. It has to be an extreme experience, performed in a modern hospital to save a life, or happening by accident or design, hundreds of years ago. Once a limb was lost, the question must have been the same in the C17th as it is now. How best to manage the situation, both emotionally and physically? As always, top of the range solutions cost money, lots of it, and the Cotehele hand must have been expensive, affirming status as well as practicality. Covered in skin coloured suede it must, at a cursory glance, have been almost indistinguishable from a real hand. Was that only to improve grip, or also to make the wearer feel happier with his appearance? What isn’t apparent with the Cotehele hand until you pick it up is its great weight. As far as you can get from Captain Hook or Edward Scissorhands, this hand doesn’t need attachments to become useful, or indeed to become a weapon.

Neither Abel Morgan, nor his father own this hand, but it is outrageous fortune that brings them into contact with it, and its owner. From a sad character who wouldn’t leave me alone, to an artificial hand and arm, researching this novel has certainly indulged the autodidact in me. A bullet extractor, liquefaction, rumfustian and a remembered pair of shoes: writing The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan has led me down some blind alleys and has also turned up some absolute gems.

For me, the journey has been fascinating. It has launched me into a new direction, writing historical fiction for adults. I had always planned to write for adults, but the success I had some years ago with series fiction for children pushed that plan to the back of my mind. Now, at last, thanks to the insistent character that wouldn’t leave me alone, I am following my original ambition, with a second C17th novel on the way. Will I ever write for children again? I have no idea, but when a character comes along and insists on being heard, it’s the job of a writer to listen. Where that can lead is anyone’s

The outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is published by Allison and Busby in hardback on 22nd November 2018 at £19.99.

(This novel will be reviewed by Adèle Geras on 7th November)

Sunday 28 October 2018

Gang of Suspects Named in Kidnap Case

by Ruth Downie




The loss of Vilbia is the most famous cold case that’s come down to us from the Romano-British town of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath). The aggrieved party – whose name we don’t know – called up the goddess Sulis Minerva’s help by writing the suspects’ names on a thin sheet of lead, rolling it up and throwing it in the pool above her sacred hot spring. It wasn’t alone: well over a hundred other curses have been found buried in the silt and others may be hidden there still.

Most of the spidery letters on the scraps of lead are the work of victims asking Sulis Minerva to avenge a crime. Some name the suspects. Some don’t say what they did: presumably the goddess knew what Britivenda and Venibelia had been up to and could punish them accordingly.

Often, though, the victim had no idea who had wronged them. The curse on the modern reproduction below translates as “the name of the culprit who stole my bracelet…” There’s a space left, but no name in it.

When no likely evildoer could be identified, the aggrieved party often reminded the goddess to suspect everyone, “whether man or woman, slave or free.” Children could be in the frame too -“whether boy or girl” - and once, “whether pagan or Christian”.

Some victims offered Sulis Minerva a share of the stolen goods if they were recovered – a sort of ‘no win, no fee’ deal, with the suggestion that the hot property could be handed in anonymously at the temple.

A few of the lead sheets are blank. Others bear rows of squiggles, perhaps put there by people who knew what writing looked like but couldn’t actually do it. All but two seem to have been in different handwriting: some educated, some very clearly not. Writing backwards might have made the curse more powerful: it certainly made for more spelling mistakes. But no matter what was being written, the sight of a stylus waking the dull surface of the lead into a gleaming message for the goddess might have frightened the guilty party into repentance.

If the culprit didn’t co-operate, though, bad things lay in store. Docimedis, whose gloves had gone missing, demanded that the thief should lose his minds [sic] and his eyes. Anyone even remotely involved in the theft of Basilia’s silver ring was to be accursed in blood, eyes and every limb, or even have all his or her intestines eaten away.

Sometimes the thief’s whole family was cursed. And sometimes the curses were subtle enough to work on the conscience. Whoever stole Docilianus’s cloak was to be deprived of both sleep and children until the cloak was returned to the temple. Whether or not he [or she, slave or free] knew the exact wording of the curse, it’s not hard to imagine them lying awake in the night watches and wondering whether they would get a better night’s sleep tomorrow if they got up now and delivered the stolen goods to Sulis Minerva under cover of darkness.

Bath isn’t alone in having a fine collection of curses: they turn up all over the Roman empire. There are attempts to silence witnesses, to sabotage racehorses, and to crush business competitors and love rivals. Most of the Bath curses, though, seem to be about thefts from the bath-house, although one poor chap had his house burgled. The crimes must have been very annoying for the victims, but as a writer looking to set a murder mystery in Aquae Sulis, I have to say there wasn’t as much instant plot in them as I’d hoped.

Even the apparent kidnap of Vilbia might have been less dramatic than it seems. Roger Tomlin, the modern translator, points out that the word has never been found anywhere else. The stolen “vilbia” might simply be an inanimate object with a name that none of us now understands. But while Vilbia doesn’t provide a ready-made plot and cast of characters, the curses as a whole give a lively insight into a busy town and the everyday struggles of its people to thrive and survive. And perhaps of the wider divisions between them.

We know that Roman citizens lived in the town (some of their tombstones have turned up, proudly announcing the three-part names that show social superiority), but none of the curses has a citizen’s name on it. All the complainants and culprits seem to be either lower-class Latin-speakers or native Britons. That might be because, as Pliny put it, the Britons were enthusiastic practitioners of magic while all good Romans ought to look down their noses at it (yes, I am paraphrasing wildly here). It might also be because the poorer you were, the less chance you had of owning a slave who would guard your kit while you were bathing.

Even if you knew who’d done it, in the absence of a police force there wasn’t much you could do unless you had powerful friends or plenty of cash. At a guess, Arminia had neither. She knew exactly who’d made off with her two silver coins – it was Verecundinus, son of Terentius - but getting them back had to be left to the goddess. 

Did Verecundinus pay up? Or did he suffer the punishment of being unable to sit, lie down, walk or sleep? We don’t know. For us, at least, none of these cold cases is resolved. But people believed in the curses enough to carry on throwing them into the spring for over two hundred years. There might have been no police officers to investigate crime, but even while you slept, that lump of lead hidden under the steaming surface of Sulis Minerva’s waters could be working its revenge on your enemies. And that must have felt good.

Roger Tomlin’s work on the Aquae Sulis curses - from which much of this information is drawn - can be found in The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, Vol 2: The Finds from the Sacred Spring – Barry Cunliffe et al – OUCA Monograph no 16, 1988

Read more about the site at

Ruth writes a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. The latest is MEMENTO MORI, set in Aquae Sulis.

Saturday 27 October 2018

A Norfolk Wedding by Janie Hampton

The Norfolk wedding of Rachel Gurney & Rosslyn Bruce, 1908

Just one hundred and ten years ago this month my grandmother, Rachel Gurney married Rosslyn Bruce at Northrepps in Norfolk. Rachel, aged 21, was the oldest daughter of untitled landed gentry, and Rosslyn, 37, the 7th child of a poor but well-connected vicar. Both of them were descended from 11th Century Norman invaders. They met after Rosslyn, the rector of a Nottingham parish, broke his leg out fox-hunting and was sent by his best friend, a socialist MP called Noel Buxton, to convalesce with Buxton’s cousins, the Gurneys of Northrepps.
Rosslyn and Rachel fell in love. But it was not always easy. When Rachel’s nerves became frayed during their wedding preparations, she wrote to Rosslyn, ‘You Bruces are quite unordinary in your huge amount of love. I have got mine in me, only I can’t show it like you do.’ Rosslyn replied offering ‘double thoughtfulness, in thoughtful devotion, in not being too outwardly devoted.’ Rachel replied, ‘You don’t understand a bit… because you haven’t always lived in the same house with the same mother all your life and you are not very young like me, and you know all about the great world and I don’t.’ 
The bridal carriage was pulled by two new horses called
Bryant & May - because they were such a good match.
As Rachel and her brother Quintin trotted in the family carriage and pair through the village festooned with bunting, Quintin asked her, ‘I suppose you know the facts of life? Because I don’t.’
The year was 1908 and the Eastern Daily Press reported: ‘Never before had the inhabitants seen so large a number of such beautifully appointed and powerful motor cars. Within the church, the pulpit was treated with chrysanthemums.’ 
'Miss Gurney's wedding, bridesmaids, page's and travelling costumes' in The Queen
Rachel’s wedding dress of white, silk satin was described by her mother Evelyn in the Parish Magazine: ‘made en princesse, with a Court train of satin, it was lined with masses of chiffon. Over a myrtle wreath was a veil of lovely old Brussells lace, which had been worn by her mother and grandmother. She carried a choice bouquet of lilies, carnations and stephanotis.’ Her seven adult bridesmaids, all sisters or cousins, wore huge hats swathed with tulle and their trailing bouquets were attached to shepherd’s crooks. The two page boys wore scarlet woolen Peter Pan suits, in homage to Rosslyn’s friend, James Barrie. Rosslyn’s uncle who was a Bishop, aided by three other related parsons, took the service. The 14th century flint church was packed.
The bridal party (the groom still limping) left the church under a crimson striped awning. Evelyn conveyed the scene: ‘Brilliantly coloured beech leaves were showered upon the bride from baskets carried by children of the Sunday school’ in new scarlet woolen cloaks. ‘Meantime the wedding bells were firing away and ringing a merry peal.’ An arch of evergreen had been erected over the road bearing the mottoes ‘Health and Happiness to the Bride and Bridegroom’ and ‘God Bless You Both’. At the entrance gate to the bride’s home, Northrepps Hall, was another one reading ‘Joy and Happiness to Both’ and 'Success to Bride and Bridegroom'. 
The evergreen arch leading to the bride's home, Northrepps Hall.
After a reception in a marquee in the walled garden, the couple left for a five-week honeymoon in Italy. Thomas Cook’s first-class train tickets to Lugano cost £30 for two.
A few days later the villagers were invited to tea in the marquee to look at the presents. They included a silver tea pot from the parish committee, a travelling clock from the church choir and silver sugar tongs from the Sunday school. Rosslyn gave Rachel an upright Bechstein piano; she gave him a watch and a shooting stick. Rachel’s mother gave her a trousseau costing £404 and 2 shillings, which included three riding habits, six pairs of hunting boots, and enough serge suits, cloaks, combinations (knickers) and flannel nightgowns to last her entire life. Mrs Carter, the coachman’s wife was paid a pound for marking bodices, linen and 96 pairs of stockings. I inherited one of the dozen hand-embroidered white lawn night-gowns and wore it while ‘lying-in’ after the birth of my babies.
As a child, I watched my granny gardening in one of the Sunday School’s scarlet woolen cloaks. Beside her front door was a myrtle bush grown from her wreath, which she claimed came from the bush at Osborne House grown from Queen Victoria’s wedding wreath.

Rachel's satin wedding shoes and gloves, on the Sunday School cloak.
Just 63 years later I was married in the same Norfolk church; and two months after that Rachel’s funeral was held there too. At both events, the packed congregation included three of Rachel’s bridesmaids, and we all sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.
The completed Bruce family at Northrepps in 1920.
Verily, Erroll, Rhalou, Lorema and Merlin.

Friday 26 October 2018

The Forgotten Summer, by Carol Drinkwater

I am two novels along since I published THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER with Penguin in March 2016. For those who read my post last month you will know that my latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, to be published 16th May 2019, is set in Paris during the 1968 student riots, and from there the story unfolds.

Usually, when a book or any work of mine has been completed, I move on. Except for editorial or marketing purposes, I find it very difficult to revisit the material because I worry over how I might have improved it. THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER seems to be an exception. Not because I am pleased with my work but because there is such a richesse of material that I might have used, and might still use one day.
The story is set on a family-owned vineyard in the south of France. Within the family, there are secrets and factions. Jane, the English woman who moves into the family when she marries Luc, the French son of Clarisse, the widowed proprietor of the vineyard, only begins to discover how deep and dark are those secrets when a tragedy occurs. Clarisse, her mother-in-law, is a pied noir, a black foot, a French woman, an ex-colonialist, born and raised in Algeria. Her son Luc was also born there. They fled to France at the end of the Algerian war in the summer of 1962, soon after De Gaulle gave independence to Algeria. Once safely arrived in France, they set up home on the vineyard, which is where the main action of the novel takes place.

I must be honest and say that when I delivered the book to my agent and it went to auction there was a background seam within the story that I had not entirely dared to address. The shadows lurking from the Algerian past of two of the main characters were hinted at, but not followed through. It was only when Maxine Hitchcock, my editor at Michael Joseph, Penguin, acquired the book and sent through her notes to me that I was encouraged to face head on those shadows, the ghosts I was writing about.
Behind the beauty and seductive landscape of the South of France, there lies a a more lurid past, Luc and Clarisse's, set in French-ruled Algeria.

Why am I returning in my thoughts to THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER and that bloody period in French history?  President Emmanuel Macron has recently made a gesture that might go some way to healing this troubled past.

France's relationship to the country that was, for close to one hundred and fifty years, its unwilling colony, remains complex and unresolved. The French colonials who inhabited that large tract of northern Africa lived well at the expense of the Algerians.

In 1954, when the Algerian War of Independence, finally got under way, after many years of conflict, subordination and cruelty, France, not long after relinquishing all its claims to Indo-China, (its colonial territories in Southeast Asia including Vietnam) found itself yet again embroiled in an ugly and very costly war. This time on the southern side of the Mediterranean, the northern part of the continent of Africa.

To this day, the very mention of Algeria causes many French citizens to draw breath. The cruelties that took place before, during the eight-year war of independence and even after Charles de Gaulle had granted the country its independence, conjure up feelings of shame, confusion, even pain and anger for many French. For a mixture of reasons. It remains the past that most prefer not to visit and don't talk about. Algeria, and France's treatment of its Algerian citizens, had been brushed under the carpet for a half a century. As well, there is a large population in France, French citizens, who are descended from Algerians who were obliged to flee the land of their birth at the end of the independence war because they had fought with the French. Once victory had been assured, they were condemned as traitors back at home. The punishments meted out by the new Algerian regime were harsh; in many cases death sentences by lynch mobs. France offered refuge to these ex-soldiers and their families. De Gaulle took them in, promised them equality, pensions, education for their children etc. Much of those promises have never been fully honoured or are only now recognised as debts that are due. It has created appalling conditions and resentments for the fourth and fifth generation French-Algerians living, mostly, in the poorest suburbs in France. They feel disenfranchised, lost, lacking allegiance. It makes them prime candidates for recruitment by the likes of ISIS.
They are perceived as a French "problem". A result of the "troubles".

In 2012 on a state visit to Algeria, fifty years after the end of that war, President François Hollande acknowledged the appalling treatment of the Algerians during the 132-year occupation of their country and during the French-Algerian war. Hollande was the first to take this step, to admit to the brutalities that had taken place during the occupation and during the war. He did not, however, apologise.

François Hollande in Algiers in 2012

Many Algerians and some French were disappointed by the fact that, although this was a very necessary and long overdue first step towards a new era, new relations, between the two nations, no apology was forthcoming. During the time I spent in Algeria when I was working on my non-fiction book, THE OLIVE ROUTE, I began to get a sense of the the damage done to Algerian people during all those years of oppression; it had rooted itself deeply. For example, many spoke to me about the lack of education opportunities for their children and, without schooling, the dearth of possibilities to rise within their own country's system, for them to have a voice.  As in South Africa and my own country of Ireland, when even one generation or two are given no opportunities to learn, to read, to engage, another form of poverty is created, an intellectual poverty, and that takes more than those one or two generations to re-enrich the system, to erase  the hatred and anger and frustration and replace those energies with more positive responses to oppression.

In THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, Algeria and its occupation under the French, is not the central theme in the book, not by any means. It is more a shadow that hangs over the characters. One of the reasons I was hesitant about including this aspect of the material, of addressing it head-on, was because the French themselves have barely addressed it in their literature and cinema, although that is slowly changing. (Jean-Luc Godard attempted a film in 1960, but it was banned.) Also, because, as I have written above, it is an unresolved period in modern French history.

I have received many letters from readers who tell me they had known little if anything about this period of France's twentieth-century past. France in Vietnam is far more widely written about. Some readers have gone on to dig out material, to acquaint themselves more fully with that period. This pleases me greatly, as it would any writer. And the subject stays with me. Questions nag at me. I feel reasonably confident that, at some point, I will return to this subject, to write another book set in France, in Algeria. I don't know precisely what it will be, but there remains so much there yet to be mined.

It is an evolving story. Layers of history being peeled away to uncover what really lies beneath the surface. Fascinating for any writer.

Maurice Audin, tortured and murdered by the French State at the age of 25.

And so, when I read in the news several weeks ago ago that Emmanuel Macron (who was not even born at the time of the Algerian war) has gone a step further than Hollande, I felt that France might finally be making headway. Macron has offered up evidence to the torture and murder by the French state of one of their own citizens, Maurice Audin.
Audin was French, a journalist. But orders had been given to do whatever it took to crush the fight for Algeria's independence, to punish anyone who showed allegiance to the Algerian cause. Audin was a twenty-five-year-old mathematician, a communist, a reporter, and an ardent supporter of the Algerian Nationalists. Since his disappearance in 1957, more than half a century ago, Audin's family have searched and badgered to find out the truth about what really happened to the young man, who disappeared without trace. His widow, Josette, wrote letters every day, letter after letter, determined to root out the truth. The truth of Audin's ignominious end was buried and has remained out of reach until last month when Macron revealed the truth. He handed to the family an official document confirming that the French state had been directly responsible for the death of Audin.

I thought of this incident again last week after reading of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.  The impenetrability of state lies and subterfuge.
The pain and angst for the victim's loved ones. The never knowing.

                Here is Macron in the presence of Michèle Audin, daughter of the late Maurice Audin. When this photograph was taken, they had both just left the home of 87-year-old Josette Audin, Maurice's widow, who has lived for sixty-one years without ever knowing what became of her young husband, the father of her three children. Michèle was three years old when her father went 'missing'.

It was a summer evening, 11th July 1957. French paratroopers burst into the apartment on the third floor of the block where the Audin family lived in Algiers. Maurice was dragged away and never seen or heard of again. Now, it has been admitted by Macron that he was tortured and murdered on instructions from the State. At the time, Josette was told that her husband 'had been shot while trying to escape'.
She never remarried. The fight for justice became her raison d'être. She wrote to every new president after his election begging for the truth.
Until Macron, every French president has preferred to avoid the brutalities of the war, never owning up to France's role in the executions of those who sympathised with the Algerian cause.

Shortly after he was elected, Macron contacted Josette to reassure her that he was willing to address the matter. The official statement from the Elysée Palace is the result. An end to the silence and denial. In this one instance.

But will Macron's gesture make any real difference at this late stage? I hope it will offer Audin's family the possibility of laying the horrors and concealed past to rest. I also believe that it is an important step in the process of healing between the French State, its citizens, Algeria and the Algerians who are residents in France. It will, I think, help move all parties towards a reconciliation with the nation's recent colonial history, its shameful past.

There is dignity is Macron's decision to come clean about this story. One story, I fear, of many.

Maurice Audin was a young Frenchman who spoke out against his own government and openly reproached its inhuman behaviour towards its citizens. His open criticism cost him his life. Macron's admission of the facts of Audin's torture and death and the fact that France used torture as a means to its ends throughout the Algerian war came ahead of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but as the world looks on in horror at the lies, the foul play, the mourning and grief Khashoggi's family is suffering, it makes this almost forgotten French story all the more poignant. Both men died under conditions no wild beast should be obliged to suffer. Audin's death is history to most, except to his family and, perhaps, French political historians.  However, the calculated murder of journalists, the treatment of those who speak out against a regime is, tragically, obviously not history, given the recent events in Istanbul.

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, our right to criticise, to call to account those who govern on our behalf: this is what is at stake. Macron's willingness to admit to the state's guilt is, I believe, at this time, so important not only for the history of France but for all of us and the world we are living in.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Crossing the Alps by Miranda Miller

   While researching my current novel, which is set in 18th snd early 19th century Rome, I came across some interesting descriptions of how it was to cross the Alps before there were any railways. Crossing them on a train is still a memorable experience but our tourism is a very feeble experience compared to theirs. Most Grand Tourists had to cross the mountains to reach Italy, and a young man was not considered truly educated and civilised until he had experienced the wonders of Italian art and architecture.

   Crossing the Alps usually took eight days. There were no coach roads through the Alps until the end of the eighteenth century and so, to cross the Alps, your entire coach had to be disassembled and carried over the mountains on mule back. The Mount Cenis pass, on the route from Lyons to Turin, was the most travelled route into Italy during the heyday of the Grand Tour. Tourists were carried over the mountains by Swiss chairmen in a sort of open sedan chair.


     Miss Wilmot, one of the rare women to make the Grand Tour, reported that the Swiss chair carriers were happy men who burst into song as they approached Alpine villages. Some tourists had the thrill of sledding down a steep slope. When you reached Turin your carriage was reassembled. In 1775, “Mr. Greville drove his phaeton up the St. Gotthard, to every one’s amazement.”

   The mountains themselves inspired an awe that, perhaps, only mountaineers can know nowadays.The English journalist Joseph Addison described the Alps as this “awful and tremendous amphitheatre,” while the poet Thomas Gray said that Mt. Cenis carried “the permission mountains have of being frightful rather too far.” One route was the St. Gotthard Pass and its “Valley of Trembling,” which gave the name tremolite to a mineral found in its granite walls.

   Scientists, as well as rich young men, were fascinated by the terrifying mountains. Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, an 18th century Swiss botanist and mineralogist who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, made nine journeys in the Alps. As well as recording the elevations of mountains he included several reports of dragon sightings in his Itinera Alpina (1723). Although Scheuchzer dismissed some of these tales as fabulous, he concluded that “from the accounts of Swiss dragons and their comparison with those of other is clear that such animals really do exist.”

   In the early 19th century the Romantics found mountains endlessly - well, romantic. In Book VI of The Prelude Wordsworth describes crossing the Simplon Pass on foot as a young man of twenty:

Imagination—here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech,

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say—
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world,

   An invisible world, heroism, the sublime.... these ideas, even more than the physical danger and discomfort, caught the imagination of a whole generation. Schiller popularized the legend of a medieval Swiss hero, a freedom fighter of the mountains, in his play William Tell ( 1804).

   In his long poem Manfred Byron’s alter ego gazes in wonder at the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains:
“Heard avalanches falling every five minutes nearly – as if God was pelting the Devil down from Heaven with snow balls... clouds rose from the opposite valley curling up perpendicular precipices – like the foam of the Ocean of Hell during a Springtide.”

   Here is Manfred, looking particularly Byronic, about to be blown off the Jungfrau. Byron’s poem was later set to music by Tchaikovsky. Byron, like many passionate nature lovers, didn’t think much of his fellow human beings: “Switzerland is a curst selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world. I never could bear the inhabitants, and still less their English visitors,” he wrote to Thomas Moore in 1821.

   Napoleon planned to launch a surprise assault on the Austrian army and in May 1800 he and his army of more than 40,000 men spent five days crossing the St Bernard Pass. Napoleon’s military tactic was successful and resulted in his victory at Marengo.

   Here is David’s great propaganda portrait of a dashing young hero on a white stallion leading his army over the mountains. Napoleon did not actually lead his troops over the Alps at all but followed a couple of days after them, travelling on a narrow path on the back of an unpicturesque mule. Napoleon refused to sit for this portrait : “Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there.” One of David’s sons stood in for him, dressed up in the uniform Napoleon had worn at Marengo, perched on top of a ladder. Napoleon, acutely aware of the power of symbolism, insisted on an equestrian portrait.

   Like everybody else in Europe, Turner was fascinated by Napoleon. He had not yet been to Italy in 1812 when he painted Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

   Another great warrior, Hannibal, is leading his armies over the mountains to attack Italy. For Turner there were obvious connections between the two men,  also between the Punic War between Rome and Carthage and the Napoleonic wars that were then raging between Britain and France. He had seen David’s heroic painting of Napoleon during a visit to Paris in 1802.

   By 1818 Mr. B. Emery, of Charing Cross London, was organizing stagecoach tours of Switzerland. Hikers, mountaineers and honeymoon couples began to cross the Alps and it all became rather less sublime.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY - A brief history of the 'F' word by Elizabeth Chadwick.

I belong to several historical forums and every few months, the subject of medieval swear words will arise and a discussion will begin about the origins of the word 'fuck' and when it became a swear word rather than a reproduction word.  I thought I would do a little investigating.

There are numerous theories as to the etymology of the word.  There is a false popular notion that it's an acronym for 'Fornicate Under  Consent of the King' (the instruction supposedly intended as a population booster) but it can be immediately be dismissed as a modern urban legend.  Acronyms were unknown in the Middle Ages.

Melissa Moher in her work 'Holy Shit: A brief history of swearing'  believes that the more prosaic answer is that 'Fuck' it is a word of Germanic origin.  It is related to similar in Dutch, German and Swedish, and means to 'strike' and to 'move back and forth.'  Very possibly why, once arriving into the English language, it became another name for the bird of prey the kestrel known also as a 'fuckwind.'

Mark Morton in his work 'The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through The Language Of Love and Sex'  tells the reader that the Norwegian 'fukka' means to copulate, as does the Swedish 'focca' and is closely related.

So basically 'fuck' begins its life as a straightforward word for copulation, born from a meaning of striking and moving back and forth, and entered the English language somewhere between the waves of Scandinavian invasion and 1310 (see below).  It wasn't a taboo or blasphemy word but a function word and nobody would have blenched at its use.  It's supposed first observation of use as a copulation word in popular history comes from the early 16th century and a poem by William Dunbar titled 'In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nycht.'  It's an amorous poem where the hero desires to have sex with his love, the heroine. 'his feiris he wald haif fukkit.'  Also from the early 16th century, David Lindsay, tutor to the future King James V of Scotland wrote a poem with the line 'A fukkand like ane furious Fornicatour - accusing his subject of 'fucking like a furious fornicator.'  In another work he also criticised the clergy who may 'fuck thair fill and be unmaryit.'

However, historian Paul Booth has recently found an instance of the word used in a copulatory context from the plea rolls of Edward II dated to 1310 and the mention of a certain felon named Roger 'Fuckbythenavele'.  The context is sexual, but quite what he was up to has not yet been sussed!  There is also a reference from 1475 from a work titled Flen Flyys, which has a line in mixed Latin and English 'fvccant vvivys of heli'  which translates as 'they fuck the wives of Ely.'

It would seem then that the word had found its way with a sexual meaning into the English language by the early 14th century as far as written evidence goes, but since the written word tends to follow the spoken in terms of timeline, it argues for earlier useage.

When did it change into a 'swear word' and travel beyond the basic verb meaning to copulate?

There is an ambiguous comment in a piece of marginalia in a manuscript of Cicero from 1528 where the scribe has written 'O d fuckin Abbot.'  However, we don't know whether it was a comment on the licentiousness of his abbot who was apparently not exactly known for his moral purity, or if it was an intensifier and comment of anger or irritation.  If the latter, then it's 300 years before other recorded instances of the word's use in such a context so needs to be interpreted with that in mind.

In the medieval period the worst thing you could do was to swear by God or his body parts.  That was true blasphemy and many a pastoral tale warned the blasphemer against swearing by the likes of God's eyes or legs. In effect it was dismembering, disrespecting and torturing Christ and would lead you into all sorts of after-life trouble.  Bodily functions on the other hand were just bodily functions as were intimate areas of the body.  Grape Street in London, once the haunt of prostitutes was known with a shrug as 'Gropecunte Lane.' The obscenity of body part mentions and the transformation of the 'F' word into one both embraced and shunned by society, had to wait until after the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism and secularisation.  The change in religious viewpoint also coincided with the rise of privacy.  The aristocracy and the middle classes had gradually developed homes with more private areas and private areas meant that more was hidden away and a certain delicacy and secrecy developed. Eductation played its part too and coarse words were seen as belonging to coarse people.  Sexuality and bodily functions gradually became the new obscene and religious expletives tumbled down the table of the worst thing you could say until they became the mild expletives and body parts and functions took their place.

Once the F work expanded into the area of the swearword while still retaining its old meaning, there was no stopping its career and proliferation of useage. It retained its meaning as a verb meaning to copulate (although never used in polite company) 'They fucked in the long grass.'  It became a noun. 'That was a fantastic fuck' and an adjective. 'You fucking bitch' (Mark Morton tells us this one turned up in the mid 19th century).  It's an interjection - 'Fuck!' (1929)  It's an adverb 'that's fucking marvellous' (useage dating to 1940's)  And it's an infix - 'abso-fucking-lutely (1920's). Other 'fuck' phrases in use today have a slightly longer history than you might think. 'Fucked up' meaning ruined dates to the 1930's. 'Fucked' with the same meaning can be traced to the late 18th century.  'Fuck you! dates to 1895 and Fuck off! as a command to the 1940's although the phrase was in use meaning to run away in the 1920's (as in 'let's fuck off out of here before we get into trouble.)
Bruce Willis's now famous quote in Die-Hard - (the words after the cowboy salute to Alan Rickman) dates to the 1920's.

It's still a taboo word in many circles and certainly not one for polite society, but it has expanded well into the mainstream and is so often used in daily street speech, and in films and books that it is becoming normalised.  Its use has spread far and wide but in consequence its power to shock is gradually diminishing, like water wearing away a stone.  When I was a child, anyone who used the word was far outside the pale, but now it''s eased through the door and into daily life. As Hugh Grant said in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  'Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.'

I do highly recommend the two books I've posted in the blog - they are hugely enlightening and entertaining and give much food for thought.


Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning internationally best selling author of historical fiction set in the Medieval period.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Voices Unearthed: Diane Purkiss's 'English Civil War.' Leslie Wilson

  In my childhood, I went to historical novels if I wanted to find out about the lives of ordinary people: even Trevelyan's 'Social History of England,' which my father gave me when I was a young teenager, was rather too general in its narrative. I always wanted to get an idea of what life was like for ordinary people, not just for the generals, the nobles, or the King. Above all, I was interested in the lives of women. When I first started to write historical fiction, very few historians seemed interested in women's lives; they were peripheral to the main action.When I started to write about Nazi Germany, I did begin to get access to these, through diaries and journals and also covert reports from Social Democrats on life inside the Third Reich. But the lives of women in earlier times, when women were largely illiterate, were much harder to come at (though Alice Clark's The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women was an invaluable resource.)

But here is a work of history, written by a distinguished scholar, as fascinating as any novel. Of late years, I've noticed that historians are beginning to go through 'unimportant' bits of detail, diaries, account books, wills, to resurrect the lives of women, and though there is still much we cannot get at, we are getting enough to give us a much better idea than we previously had. Diane Purkiss is writing in this tradition; though The English Civil War does also give us the voices of men, and she tells the stories of the King and Cromwell, Henrietta Maria and women of the aristocracy.

But in this book you also can hear  the common soldier , and ordinary, lower middle-class women whose voices were recorded because they became preachers in some of the Independent sects that grew during the ferment of this period, as well as those of the gentry are also heard. The book opens up the experience of a broad section of English society during the conflict.

As well as giving voice to the ordinary people (and examining the role starvation, which was widespread as the war dragged on, played in people's actions and reactions,) this book gives an in-depth, considered analysis of the causes and drivers of the conflict. Too many authors, for example, have described the religious issues of the times in the convenient portmanteau phrase: 'the Royalists were Anglicans, the Parliamentarians were Puritans'. In fact, many of the Parliamentarians were Anglicans, and Anglicanism in those days meant Calvinism, a theology nowadays more likely to be associated with Presbyterianism. The distinction between those who believed some humans were predestined for damnation, some for salvation, was far more complex than the Cavalier/Roundhead divide. This is important, because religion was a crucial part of people's lives in those days and needs to be understood.

Diane Purkiss also shows us the hideous anti-Catholic prejudice which meant many Catholics had their houses destroyed, were abused, attacked, and murdered. It was an atmosphere which reminded me of present-day Islamophobia, and gave an uneasy flavour of what might happen if it is nurtured, as it is at present. The mutilation of the Royalist camp followers after Naseby, who were considered to be whores and Irish Catholics (many of them were Anglican soldiers' wives), was what we would nowadays see as a horrific war crime. In addition, she tells the story of Matthew Hopkins's notorious Essex witchhunt, and makes a convincing case for the war's agency in the outbreak of a kind of witch prosecution otherwise absent from England.

What comes across, crucially, in this history, is that the protagonists of the Civil War didn't behave the way we would like them to; they were people of their own time. It's far too common for even historians to be partisan in writing about the conflict (and most of them taking the 'Cavalier' side). But what matters in the end is not who won, who had flowing locks and was romantic, who were people we'd like to identify with (none of them, once you really look at it). These people had ideas, many of which filled the ruling establishment with horror, which we would now view as mainstream or even old-fashioned, since few even of the Levellers and Ranters wanted women to have the vote. Indeed, some Ranters thought women had no souls (one was set to rights by George Fox, one of the first Quakers, an organisation that did give women the right to speak and continued that after the ferment of the wartime period had died down). But they had those ideas, and that was important. Yes, works of art were destroyed and images in churches were destroyed, but that was also part of their passionate belief in a religion that didn't rely on outward show.

As a Quaker, I can comprehend that, since I worship in a plain, unadorned room, mostly in silence, and the price of that precious worship was partly the destruction of statues in our cathedrals. Diane Purkiss says at the end of the book that she wouldn't exchange Milton's 'Paradise Lost' for the Rubens crucifixion that was destroyed during the war. 'Sometimes destruction is the price we pay for artistic breakthrough.' And spiritual, and political.

There is not enough written about the English Civil War. If you want to start reading about it, or want to revisit the period, this is the book to get going on. I wasn't able to put it down.