Friday, 16 August 2019

'Still they come' by Karen Maitland

Clooties hanging on tree above Madron's Well
Earlier this summer, I was travelling on a country lane just north-west of Penzance in Cornwall, when I spotted a sign to St Madron’s Well. I followed a surprisingly well-worn footpath twisting through a woodland of ancient, lichen-covered blackthorn trees and ferns, which seemed to go on for miles. I confess I was on the verge of turning back, thinking I had missed the well, because many holy wells in Devon and Cornwell are simply little springs trickling out of a bank and easily covered by summer vegetation. Then I saw a few rags tied to a tree. As I walked further along the path, the trees around me became festooned with rags, ribbons, single shoes, tiny fabric bags and messages written on cloth in many languages, including Chinese. Some were weather-faded to the colour of fallen leaves, others so vibrant they clearly been tied there yesterday.

Stone stile and walls of St Madron's chapel beyond.
Had it not been for these ‘clooties’, I could easily have missed the well itself which was little more than a shallow pool of clear water, just a few inches deep, surrounded by trees and muddy bog. But further on down the track, I came across mossy stone stiles, standing like the battlements of an enchanted castle, and beyond them was the rough-hewn stone walls of the chapel of St Madron, its entrance guarded by a huge yew tree. Water bubbles out into a baptistry in the far corner, which comes from the same spring as the well in the wood. The baptistry, and the stone altar were covered in crumbling posies of withered flowers, shells, three-armed and four-armed Brigid crosses, and other offerings visitors had laid there. It was evident that this place is as much revered in new millennium as it has been for the last thousand years.

Entrance to the ruined St Madron's Chapel, Cornwall
Those who first sought it out in pre-Christian times dedicated this spring to the Welsh Celtic Mother Goddess, Modron, who some authors link to the medieval Arthurian figure - Morgan Le Fay. When Celtic Christians arrived, they wisely didn’t try to prevent people coming for blessing and healing to this well, but quietly replaced the old goddess with St. Madern or St Madron. But whereas Modron had been a goddess, St Madron or Madern is thought to have been 6th century male Celtic saint, possibly a disciple of St Piran. The chapel probably began life as a cell for a Christian hermit. He or she would have ministered to those coming to the leech well for healing and would have received food or gifts from the supplicants.

Stone altar in St Madron's chapel.
The pagan and Christian traditions practised at this site seemed to have co-existed in peaceful harmony until the Reformation, when Thomas Cromwell ordered the destruction of the chapel. The roof was torn down and the statue, which probably occupied the niche, was removed. But whether from superstition or laziness, Cromwell’s men could not bring themselves to destroy the chapel itself, and the walls, baptistry, stone seats and altar remain intact until this day. It is still roofless, but the canopy of trees provides a far more beautiful roof than either thatch or slate.

Thomas Cromwell and the Reformers may have thought they’d put an end to St Madron’s well, but local people continued to use it. In 1640, John Trelil, unable to stand or walk because of childhood injury to his back, had a dream telling him to seek healing at the well. On a Thursday in May, the day the well’s healing powers were believed to be at their strongest, he crawled to St Madron’s well on his knees, spent the night at the altar in the ruined chapel, bathed in the holy water, then slept on a grassy hump nearby known as St Madron’s Bed, where he began to feel tingling in the nerves of his legs. He returned twice more on subsequent Thursdays and was cured to such an extent that he became fit enough to join the royalist army, though that was perhaps a mixed blessing for he was sadly killed in battle four years later in Lyme, in Dorset.

Baptistry or second holy well inside St Madron's chapel
By the Victorian era, they realised there was money to be made from such places and a keeper of the well charged visitors for access. On Thursdays, during the month of May, ailing children were dipped naked in the well three times and passed around it nine times, then dressed and left to sleep on St Madron’s bed. To effect a cure, the ritual had to be performed in silence. Unwed girls threw crosses and pins on the water counting the bubbles to discover when they would marry. It was also thought that by asking how long you had to live, you would be answered by a series of bubbles giving the number of years.

Today, on the first Sunday in May, people come to stand in a circle and take turns blessing the person next to them with health and peace using a mixture of the water taken from the baptistry and from the well outside. They ask for healing of Mother Earth and provision of water for all people. It would seem that given the current concerns about climate change, Madron’s Well is just as meaningful to people now as it was to our ancient Celtic forbears.
Clooties hanging in the blackthorn above St Madron's Well

Friday, 9 August 2019

SLATE by Adèle Geras


This beautiful paperweight was a present to me from Linda Newbery on my 70th birthday, five years ago. It's always on my desk and is one of my Top Treasures. 





It was made by a master craftsman called Bernard Johnson out of slate.  I've always been very fond of this material. We take it for granted most of the time. Many people use slate chips in their gardens, and I bought a set of slate coasters from a gallery shop in a museum that I can no longer locate in my memory. It's beautiful stuff and the best slate in the world comes from Wales. 





Last month, I wrote about the copper of Parys Mountain on Anglesey. And on the same visit, to my friends Bob Borsley and Ewa Jaworska, they took me also to Snowdonia. We went to visit the National Slate Museum at Llanberis which was just up the road from this idyllic scene.



The museum is located in the now disused workshops of the Dinorwic Slate Quarry and it's beautifully organised and laid out. We started out by looking a very informative video, which explained how four slate workers' cottages had been moved lock, stock and barrel to this site, and set up to show how the men who worked in the quarry lived at different historical periods. We were also told that nowadays, no slate is quarried here because China produces it much more cheaply.  

We then went into a large, pleasant space, where a delightfully chatty man was about to demonstrate the art of cutting slate. He had an enormous rectangle resting against one knee and with a thin chisel he chipped away at it, knocking it gently all the way round and after a few knocks, a layer of the whole thing seemed almost to fall of the bigger block as single sheet, which looked impossibly thin. Below is a photo of the various sizes of the slate and I took this photo because I loved the names given to the different proportions: Princesses (24" by 14") Duchesses (24" by 12") Countesses (20" x 12") Wide Ladies (16" by 12") Broad Ladies (16" by 10") Narrow Ladies (16" by 8")






Below is a photo taken in one of the cottages. This is the parlour and the only downstairs room apart from the tiny kitchen on the ground floor. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century. There's one cottage that is from 1969 and in that one we saw a bath and an inside toilet  and I recognised many of the fixtures and fittings from the days of my youth.




After visiting the Slate Museum, we went to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, near Blaenau Ffestiniog.  You can do all kinds of things there, like zip across disused workings on a wire. Which was clearly not the kind of thing I was up for! But we did go on the Explorer Tour, which involved strapping yourself into a Army truck and driving to the highest point of the old workings. And  then down again. Malcolm was our intrepid driver. At one point, we had to reverse down a slope with a dizzying gradient and I just shut my eyes. There were other times on the drive when I decided I didn't want to look but mostly, it was amazing and very exciting.  The photos below show what the terrain looked like...


...and also what used to be there before work stopped in the quarry. 


After I got home, I started not taking my slate for granted. I looked more carefully at my garden slate chips. I admired anew the coasters I use every day and thanked Linda and took my hat off to Bernard Johnson all over again. And the very next day, in the Times, I saw the photo below. It shows the roof of the Serpentine Gallery in London, made from slate by artist Junya Ishigami. What cam I say? Slate rocks!


Friday, 2 August 2019

Casanova and me, and Me Too - Michelle Lovric

My first novel, Carnevale, published eighteen years ago. I was anxious then – because I was daring to be the first female writer to describe how it might have felt to be loved by a man like Casanova. Today I would be much more afraid. For Casanova has fallen foul of the Me Too movement, something I learned at a fascinating symposium held in Venice last month.

Delegates explained how last year’s touring exhibition about Casanova met with fierce criticism in the United States. Some galleries even stoked the fire to court publicity. Today’s sensibility has judged him harshly on his interest in very young girls, the avidness of his seductions and two cases of violence against women (for which he also condemned himself).

I cannot defend him on any of those points, but those who now vilify him would find some surprising material if they went so far as to read any of his 3000 pages of memoirs. Casanova was no Don Giovanni. He deplored cold-hearted notchers of bedposts. He thought women had more pleasure from sex than men, ‘because the feast takes place in their own house’ and because they risked the pain and danger of childbirth with each sexual act. As Malina Stefanovska observed during the symposium, Casanova may have been projecting somewhat when he declared that the visible pleasure of his lovers made up four-fifths of his own. However, he took responsibility for contraception. He would stay celibate rather than transmit a sexual disease. He would not sleep with England’s premier courtesan Kitty Fisher because his English would not have allowed for the all-important post-coital chatting. For these reasons, and because he once declared that he would like to be reincarnated as a woman, I suspect that he might have been rather on the side of the Me Too movement.

'Casanova in Place', beautifully choreographed by Kathleen González, was a multidisciplinary event, uniting an international cohort of academics, biographers and novelists in a spirit of amity, curiosity and sometimes hilarity. In this, it would have delighted the man who inspired it.

I was honoured to sit on a panel of writers discussing how to render in fiction or biography a man who had written 3000 pages about himself. The day before, novelist and academic Gregory Dowling had delivered a lecture about Casanova in fiction, in which I found my work discussed in rather starry company. Then it was time for the writers to speak for ourselves.


You can see us here above, left to right. Malina, our facilitator, had previously treated the symposium to a reading from one of her own letters to Casanova, in this case on the subject of exile. (This hybrid form, part personal essay, part academic study, proved a moving and apt way to encounter Casanova. I was so inspired by Malina’s rendering that I wrote a poem in response.) Next right there’s myself, author of Carnevale and The Wishing Bones. Then Ian Kelly, who wrote and researched Casanova, a biography, which has been turned into a ballet by Kenneth Tindall , which was also screened for the symposium. Barbara Lynn-Davis wrote Casanova’s Secret Wife, an intense and lyrical first-person account of one of his most famous love affairs through the eyes of his teenage lover Caterina Capretta. Kathleen González is the author of Seductive Venice: In Casanova’s Footsteps (published in Italy by Supernova Edizioni as Casanova’s Venice: A Walking Guide).

Kathleen herself has written here a precis of our discussions about how, as a writer, one handles the hot property that is Casanova’s life.

I was the unicorn in the room, not because I wrote about Casanova in a novel, but because I’d put him into a novel for children aged nine to twelve. So I had the opportunity to explain why, against all expectation, I felt that Casanova was not just an acceptable but even an excellent protagonist for a children’s book.

The Casanova of The Wishing Bones is thirteen rising fourteen, and on cusp of adulthood. All transitions are potentially perilous. You need lots of peril in a children’s book. The symposium seemed rather bemused when I explained that the rule in all children’s books is that you must immediately get rid of the parents - otherwise, someone is looking out for the children and they cannot have proper adventures. Well, Zanetta and Gaetano, Casanova’s parents, delivered that for me without being asked. Gaetano died when Casanova was eight. Zanetta took little notice of her son, regularly abandoning him to travel the courts of Europe as an actress/courtesan/whatever, and even despatching him to the mainland as a very young child to board in terrible conditions on the pretext that the air in Venice was bad for his frequent nosebleeds.

I then explained that the child-protagonist must have an urgent agenda of their own - an inconsolable need or want. As Malina eloquently pointed out the day before, Casanova needed to make the world pay for his abandonment. His issues triggered behaviours that I could use as storylines.

Casanova’s unusually intense youthful physicality made him a useful character. Children can identify with Casanova’s sense of being an outsider, in a bodily and emotional sense, till he was eight. This was manifested in his muteness, his outrageously prolific nosebleeds and the strange cure he underwent for them. In The Wishing Bones, I originally used the entire episode of the trip to Murano with his adoring grandmother, who put him in the hands of a witch who cured his muteness and his bleeding in a series of picturesque acts and visions. However, in the end, this part of my book was abbreviated and accessorised with other elements more appropriate to this age range, such as beating hearts in buckets and rude talking cats. (Casanova's own witch had black cats, but they were silent).

Casanova’s frank greed for particular foods makes him a suitable character for children’s book. Children are very interested in food. It is one of the few things in which they can exercise power, even if it is the power of 'NO!' And Casanova's totemic foods - his ‘Madeleine moments’ - are even character-aligned … the crab soup his abandoning mother craved when he was in the womb, for example.

I explained that I write for children in the specific genre of junior ‘histfantfic’, which allows for magic. Casanova dabbled for profit and pleasure in occult practices, notably with the elderly Marquise d'Urfé, the richest woman in France, whom he pretended to impregnate with her own cloned spirit. In so far as his memoirs are an act of self-creation, there are many metaphorical rabbits pulled out of many plumed hats. He even wrote his own magical-real novel, with science-fiction elements. So I think Casanova would have enjoyed histfantfic.

His love of novelty also made Casanova an ideal candidate to be the protagonist of a children’s novel. Most of my children’s books feature young, lovely and rather rude mermaids, who speak sea-salt slang because how else would they learn Humantongue except by eavesdropping on pirates? Casanova loved new faces - new ‘title pages’, as he styled them – so imagine Casanova with a cavern full of beautiful young women whose ‘treasure’ (as he would put it), is mysteriously situated – almost like that of the Bellino of his memoirs. Obsessively attracted to this young ‘castrato’ male singer, Casanova unmasked Bellino as a girl masquerading as a boy using an ingenious rubber device that rendered her a virtual hermaphrodite.

Moreover, the mermaids of The Wishing Bones are compelling, strong women who wear scallop shells on their breasts. How is Casanova not going to be fascinated by them? For me, it was a kind of chemistry experiment: put young Casanova with magical creatures possessing a powerful femininity – and see what bubbles up.

I was also able to make use of Casanova’s invention of himself as an extrovert, a larger-than-life person. People like that always mess up. In The Wishing Bones, Casanova’s innocent enthusiasm for the witch on Murano – the one who stopped his nosebleeds - leads him to betray his friends, almost fatally.

I was asked to keep Casanova rather polite in The Wishing Bones. My original draft included verbal hints of his burgeoning sexual awareness, but that did not survive into the final manuscript. Even though in real life he had already acquired sexual experience by the age I show him in the novel, that side of his life is not visible. Instead, I tried to show the abundance of his joys, his lively greed, his charm and his desire to please ladies. He is attracted to one of my young female protagonists, and she takes pleasure in his warmth. But there is no question of precocious sexual activity being allowed when writing for this age group.

Among my embellishments is Casanova pre-shadowing his work as a violinist. He is hired to entertain the English guests at their Venetian 'Hotel of What You Want’ with singing, violin-playing and heart-tugging recitals of romantic verse. The violin – restrung with mermaid hair – becomes young Casanova’s tool for repainting the colour in a city that has been drained of its beauty by the enactment of an ancient prophecy.

Of course he needs to stare deeply into the eyes of a lovely girl while he goes about this important work.

Will this site me in the sights of Me Too? I hope not.

Michelle Lovric’s website

P.S. Apologies to anyone who was planning to attend my Wishing Bones event at the Finchley Road O2 Waterstones on this coming Sunday August 4th. Almost appropriately, for a book set in Venice, this event has been delayed by a flood. It will be reconvened as soon as possible.





Thursday, 1 August 2019

Changes at the History Girls by Mary Hoffman

(Skip to the red section at the end to read the changes.)

The History Girls blog began on 1st July 2011. With a lot of help from friends, I set it up and invited writers of historical fiction to join. This was our first line up:

Mary Hoffman, Linda Buckley-Archer, Julia Golding (as Eve Edwards), Katherine Langrish, NM (Nicky) Browne, Katherine Roberts, Adèle Geras, Teresa Flavin, Caroline Lawrence, Michelle Lovric, Barbara Mitchelhill, Harriet Castor, Mary Hooper, Catherine Johnson, Marie-Louise Jensen, Sue Purkiss, Penny Dolan, Celia Rees, Theresa Breslin, AL (Louise) Berridge, Imogen Robertson, Emma Darwin, Leslie Wilson, K M (Katie) Grant, Nicola Morgan, Eleanor Updale, Dianne Hofmeyr and Louisa Young.
Louisa Young
Of those, after some departures this summer, only six are left: me, Adèle, Michelle, Sue, Penny and Celia.


So you can see we have had a lot of changes over time. People who have come and gone in the last eight years include Essie Fox, Laurie Graham, Manda Scott, Lucy Inglis, Clare Mulley, Kate Lord Brown, Lydia Syson, Elizabth Fremantle, Ann Swinfen and Tanya Landman.



There have been bereavements, a marriage, the birth of grandchildren, a Carnegie Medal - one great sadness was the sudden and unexpected death of Ann Swinfen, though she had already left the group by then.
Hilary Mantel
As time passed, there was not such a preponderance of writers for young readers; the balance is better now. We don't have many historians/writers of non-fiction in the group but we have often had historians as guests. And what guests we have had! Hilary Mantel, Tracy Chevalier, Sally Gardner, Alison Weir, Steph Penney, to mention only some. And some History Boys too: Kevin Crossley-Holland, Marcus Sedgwick, Patrick Gale, John Guy, Ian Mortimer, Dan Jones, James Shapiro and Chris Skaife, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
Chris Skaife and Merlina
After about a year, we fell into the pattern of having a guest on the 29th of every month and a competition to win one of their books on the last day of the month. With 28 History Girls, posting daily, there was still often a date without a name beside it. For a while we took turns to do double duty, posting on the 30th of seven months in the year but eventually we hit on a theme for those 30ths - The Cabinet of Curiosities - in which an HG would write about a particular object or objects.

For some months now this task has been undertaken by Charlotte Wightwick.

We had other themes, sometime for a month, like Christmas or cross-dressing (!), a favourite history teacher or a historical person we just didn't "get.". We had some joint posts, such as on our blog birthdays and Charles Dickens' bicentenary.

And in 2014, some of us published a book - Daughters of Time (Templar)



We've had over 4 million hits since we started and nearly 1500 Followers, from everywhere from Canada to Ukraine. There have been, incredibly, 3,000 posts.


A success then? Certainly!


So why change anything?


Well, if you have read all the above, you might guess that it's quite a lot of work - and you'd be right. I have had sterling help from Sue Purkiss, Katherine Langrish and Caroline Lawrence as admins but the two latter are leaving. 


One of the biggest and most annoying tasks is deleting Spam comments, some of them quite disgusting. We made the decision to disallow Anonymous comments some time ago but now we are disabling comments altogether and one large task for admins disappears at a stroke. (I haven't been able to disable them altogether but they are now limited to other members of the blog. This is the most limited option Blogger allows.)


You can still write to me at readers@maryhoffman.co.uk and with the subject History Girls feedback and I will pass your comments on to the right HG.


Finding a monthly guest and organising the competitions has been a lot of work and the same people have been winning books every month, so we are discontinuing that feature of the blog.

But the biggest change is that we are no longer going to post every day. From tomorrow, 2nd August 2019, there will be a new HG post EVERY FRIDAY! Make a note to yourself to check every week. The posts deserve more webtime so keeping them up for longer will allow more people to enjoy them.

And do trawl back over all the posts from 2011 onwards and you will find gems awaiting you there.




I will copy this post to News so you can remind yourselves of the new system. I hope you will keep following us. We are still your dedicated team of History Girls.


Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Competitions

There is no July competition. In fact there will be no more competitions. The History Girls are making some changes.

Read Mary Hoffman's post tomorrow, 1st August, to see what these changes are.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

'A bitter and unrelenting enemy', by Susan Vincent

The time has come to confess. I've got clothes moths. And I have spent a ridiculous amount of this summer in trying to get rid of the little buggers.


I have to say, when we finally twigged what they were, I was surprised. Up till then I had just assumed they were, well, just regular moths. You know - modest-looking and brown, harmless – the Jane Eyre of the Lepidoptera order. In fact, given the plummeting numbers of insects and the serious problem this is for all of us up the biodiversity chain, I was even rather pleased at their plentiful, fluttering presence. But now I know better. Now I know they are rapacious, cunning and persistent, and can smell a pure wool jumper at fifty paces.

But the profundity of my initial ignorance interests me. Of course I knew the word ‘mothball’, but – seriously – I actually thought it was a redundant remnant of changed historical circumstances, like the plague or ink made out of walnut galls. I didn’t even register that a mothball must have been used to protect against moths. How did I get to middle age without realising that there were insects that fed on fabrics? 


But I am not alone in having my ignorance enlightened. 

Apparently clothes moths are bucking the extinction trend, and in the UK numbers are rocketing. This has been put down to a series of mild winters – though this explanation actually begs more questions than it answers. If their appearance is now being put down to milder climatic conditions, why were they so prevalent in the centuries that also experienced the Little Ice Age (a period from around the thirteenth to the second half of the nineteenth century, when the winters were much colder)? Why are we seeing an increase in clothes moths when – with the proliferation of synthetic and blended fibres – there must be so little for them to eat? And, most perplexing of all, what did clothes moths do before evolution handed them humans and their textiles?


 In today’s terms and in the context of my wardrobe, they certainly have champagne tastes, delicately nibbling the embroidery off crewel work (above), skimming the silken fibres from scarves, and even chewing through the carpet (below). 




No doubt this is a damning indictment of my housekeeping skills (though I apportion a good deal of blame on my non-vaccuming husband). But it also tells us something about historical experience. Thanks to fast fashion, the dominance of petroleum-based fibres – easy-wash and easy-care – not to mention our nauseating levels of consumption and waste, the contemporary experience of acquiring and maintaining a wardrobe has little in common with the ways of the past. But, courtesy of the clothes moth, here is an experience that directly links us (or those of us with moths) with older problems and their solutions. I decided to do a little digging, to see what our foremothers and fathers made of it all.


The first thing that becomes clear is how often the clothes moth made an appearance as a metaphor in an entirely unrelated subject. Writers of early modern spiritual tracts used this familiar concrete experience of their readers – the depredations of the moth and its larvae – to make the moral point that the unrighteous and all things worldly would inevitably crumble away. In this, they were drawing on biblical paradigms. As it says in Isaiah (51.8): ‘For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm [i.e. the caterpillar] shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation.’ Religion aside, this tells us that even hundreds of years BCE, clothes moths were a familiar problem.


On the practical side, advice and products also start to appear in early printed books and newspapers. Perusing the advertisements in the Morning Chronicle of 1774, for instance, you would have been informed of ‘a varnish for the preservation of woollens, silks, furrs, and every other article subject to moths and insects’. The inventor of this varnish, with the expenditure of ‘much time and attention, and many tedious and expensive processes and laborious experiments’ – you can sense the inventor’s emotional investment in the knotty problem of moth damage – has brought it to perfection. You could either buy the varnish straight, or – if you didn’t fancy the phaff – you could settle for pre-varnished linen bags, into which you could then pop your apparel (Morning Chronicle, 30 March 1774).


But I particularly like the article ‘British Moths and Butterflies’, featured in The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, which describes the clothes moth as ‘a bitter and unrelenting enemy’ to the wardrobe (‘British Moths and Butterflies No. V.’ [date unknown] p. 24). 




The recommended remedies and preventatives have changed little over the centuries, if at all. The most important is the regular and repeated airing of garments (the moths hate to be disturbed). They are also dissuaded by certain strong scents, such as camphor, cedar wood and lavender. Various insecticides kill them at the larval stage; others target the adults. More recently we’ve added pheromone traps to our arsenal, and English Heritage recommend the best thing to kill moths, caterpillars and eggs alike is to put affected items into deep freeze (-18 degrees C for two weeks).


I don’t want to use insecticides. I have to report that so far my pheromone traps have proved useless. And my freezer is taken up with food rather than clothing. But on the bright side, the drawers and their new-laundered contents now smell nicely of lavender, which seems to be helping for the moment. 

But history would suggest that I will ultimately lose. While remedies are effective in the particular, and I may triumph this season, it is unlikely to be a lasting victory. The persistence of our bitter and unrelenting enemy, and the similarity in our coping strategies over centuries – or maybe even millennia – hint that the moths are here to stay.

In some ways I find it rather satisfying at being humbled by this ancient and simple problem. Clothes moths are a remedy for hubris, a whisper from the past, and an invitation to own less but look after it more.

 

Images
1. Case-bearing Clothes Moth, Tinea pellionella, photo by Patrick Clement. Source: flickr, Creative Commons licence
2. Clothes moth damage on crewel work, photo Author
3. Clothes moth damage on carpet, photo Author
4. Case-bearing Clothes Moth, Tinea pellionella, photo Patrick Clement. Source: flickr, Creative Commons licence
5. Clothes moth and its stages of development, The Popular Science Monthly 76 (New York: The Science Press, 1910), p. 220. Source: Wikimedia Commons