Sunday 31 March 2019

March Competition

To win a copy of Sophia Bennett's The Bigger Picture, just answer the question below in the comments section.

‘Which creative woman has most inspired you, and why?’

Then send a copy of your answer to so that we have your email address.

Closing date: 7th April

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

Good luck!



Saturday 30 March 2019

Cabinet of Curiosities - A Cat's Got In! - by Charlotte Wightwick

The last few weeks for me have been all about one thing. No, not Brexit.

February and March have, for me, been the months of The Cat. Within days of my Feline Overlord arriving, I was fully under the paw, accepting as standard the fact that I will be woken up every day at 5am by a barrage of yowls, followed by a large furry creature sitting on my head, attempting to lick my face and demanding I get up to feed it. Not to mention all the 'help' I get whenever I sit down to write anything.

Stevie the Cat, helping. Source: C. Wightwick

The joys of cat ‘ownership’ have made me wonder what feline artefact should be placed in the Cabinet of Curiosities to celebrate the thousands of years that humans have been domesticated by cats.

The obvious place to start is of course ancient Egypt, where cats were famously worshipped as gods and millions of cat mummies have been found. Personally, I’ve never quite got over the horror/ fascination of seeing kitten mummies at the British Museum as a small child: somehow the idea disturbed me more than the idea of embalmed people. I’m not sure what this says about me – nothing good, I fear. 

Ancient Egyptian cat mummies
Source: Wikipedia Commons
One of my favourite ‘real life’ historical cats is Pangur Ban, the subject of a ninth-century Irish poem, who spends his time hunting mice while his master, the monk and author of the poem, styles himself as a hunter of words. As a lover of medieval history, there’s something about this poem that really appeals to me: it gives me an incredibly vivid image of a tonsured and robed monk, writing long into the night with only his white cat, chasing mice through the library, for company.

The next candidate for the Cabinet of Curiosities has to be the suit of feline armour recently doing the rounds on Twitter, reportedly made for Henry VIII’s cat Dagobert. I suspect I wasn’t alone spending a few confused minutes wondering how on earth one persuaded a cat to wear said armour (presumably a LOT of whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of Dreamies were) before finding out that Dagobert probably never existed, and the armour is modern, created by Canadian artist Jeff de Boer. A disappointment.

I saw my final option on Twitter too, but this one is attested by the good folks (and specifically Mark Forsyth, author of A Short History of Drunkenness) at History Extra. And it’s a good one: the ‘Puss and Mew Machine’: a mechanical cat-shaped gin dispenser. The machine was a way of illegal gin-sellers avoiding the swingeing taxes that the government had imposed in an effort to ban drinking among the lower classes in the eighteenth century. You can find out more at I knew there was something missing from my life, and now I know what it is.

So, which feline delight shall go into the Cabinet? A mummified kitten, a ninth-century monk’s companion, some impossible feline armour or a mechanical gin-dispensing cat? Its tricky. But as a ‘word hunter’ myself, I think it will have to be the memory of a small white cat, over a thousand years old but immortalised forever:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight

Hunting words I sit all night.

Written by an unknown Irish monk, 9th century. Trans Robin Flower. 
The page of the Reichenau Primer on which the Pangur Ban 
poem is preserved. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday 29 March 2019

The Bigger Picture by Sophia Bennett

Our guest for March is Sophia Bennett, who has been here before. She writes about herself:

Sophia Bennett's novels tell the adventures of creative young people in the worlds of fashion, music and art, and have been translated into over a dozen languages. She is the winner of the Times/Chicken House Competition for Threads and the Romantic Novel of the Year for Love Song, and has been shortlisted for the Booktrust’s Best Book Award for You Don’t Know Me. Amanda Craig, writing in The Times, called her ‘the queen of teen dreams’.
Sophia teaches Writing for Children at City University and regularly gives masterclasses on aspects of writing. She is currently a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, based at St George’s University of London. 
She lives in London, where she can be as close to as many art galleries as possible. The Bigger Picture is her first work of non-fiction. (But probably not her last.) 

Welcome back, Sophia!

Rejection, failure, anxiety and disappointment – a story of women in art

In 1979 a ground-breaking artwork called The Dinner Party was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It celebrated great women in history and the female-centric art forms of needlework and painting on china. In three months over 100,000 people came to see it. Many of them wrote to the artist afterwards to say it had changed their lives. It was the most successful exhibition in the museum’s history.

The work was due to go on tour but instead it was boxed up and put away. Art critics called it ‘kitsch’ and museums didn’t like its focus on female anatomy. All except one decided not to show it. A planned tour was cancelled. The artist, Judy Chicago, spent that summer alone and $30,000 in debt from the cost of making it.

The Dinner Party consists of three tables in a triangle, with custom-made settings for 39 great women in Western history. The names of 999 others are painted on the tiled floor. It took Chicago five years to make it, with the help of nearly 400 mostly female contributors. She did it because she had realised that in order to be recognised as a serious artist herself she needed to reintroduce women into history – where so often their contributions had been forgotten. She also wanted women to celebrate themselves, their bodies and what they made. Now this seems obvious, but in 1979 the idea was too radical to survive the censure of the art establishment.

Chicago was born Judy Cohen in 1939. She took her adopted name in 1970 when she launched herself as a feminist artist, to divest herself of ‘all names imposed upon her through male social dominance’. She was, however, always grateful to her own father for the liberated, pro-feminist example he set. He had encouraged her to express her ideas and to take art classes, which she did from the age of five at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

After this start, it came as a shock to her when, at art school in Los Angeles, her teachers did not value her opinions or her art. At first she tried to please them but, frustrated, she went on to study female artists and writers and developed her own style, introducing softness and female-centred experience into her paintings and sculptures – which can be as big as a room, or as small as a biscuit.

Today, The Dinner Party is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, with regular exhibitions to explain how it was made. As well as making art, Chicago has for decades encouraged communities of women to come together and support each other. Nearly fifty years before the #MeToo movement, she was describing and addressing the same issues. Finally, the world has caught up with her.

*          *          *

Or what about Gwen John - Rodin’s rejected muse, whose letters to the female object of her desire were locked in a cupboard?

To look at the muted tones and inner stillness of her paintings, you would think Gwen John had a quiet life. In fact, she was daring, independent and passionate. She was once overshadowed by her beloved younger brother, Augustus, but she has since become the more famous ‘John’.

Gwen was a lawyer’s daughter, born in Tenby, a seaside town in Wales in 1876. Her mother died when she was eight. In 1895, aged 19, she left her unhappy home to join Augustus at the Slade School of Art in London. After living in a run-down London squat, John and a fellow artist called Dorelia McNeill decided to walk to Rome, selling paintings along the way. This was not normal behaviour for young women in 1903! 

In fact, they ended up in Paris where John was soon modelling for Auguste Rodin to earn money while she painted. They had a long affair and she moved to Meudon, a suburb of Paris, to be closer to him. However, Rodin did not return John’s obsessive passion. She nearly stopped working, but her brother Augustus encouraged her to pursue her talent. As I’ve found, the story of women in art often includes men who supported them – fathers, brothers, partners, lovers – only for their legacy to be ignored by the people who wrote that story later on.

John’s paintings portray the opposite of her precarious adventures. Their closely-related tones suggest calm, intimacy and reflection. Leading a solitary existence, she painted mostly interiors and portraits of women, including the local nuns. Her sitters look thoughtful, as though they have a deep interior life. John doesn’t make them look idealised and beautiful, but intelligent and interesting. Often, she would create many different versions of a painting until she felt she had got it right.

She was unlucky in love again, this time with a woman called Vera Oumancoff. Gwen showered Vera with letters enclosing over a hundred drawings and watercolours. Unmoved, Vera stuck them in a cupboard. John’s final days were spent in Meudon, in a house on stilts set in an overgrown garden, surrounded by cats she fed with expensive paté. She set off for Dieppe one day in 1939, and died there, aged 63 – eccentric and independent to the end.

However, in a twist of fate, Gwen’s hidden letters to Vera were discovered decades later, along with their exquisite enclosures. The person who found the letters was Susan Chitty, who went on to publish the first major biography of John in 1981. This led to the art world’s full appreciation of John’s talent at last.
Another thing I found fascinating: how once women became writers of art history, instead of merely the passive objects of it, the bigger picture of great women’s achievements began to emerge.

*          *          *

“I fight pain, anxiety and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to help creating art.”

– From the autobiography of Yayoi Kusama

Yakoi Kusama is one of the most successful artists alive today. In 2014 her solo shows – and there were many of them – were attended by more people than those of any other artist in the world. Her works are alive with colour and pattern and, to quote one of her works ‘Filled with the Brilliance of Life’. She is known as ‘the princess of polka dots’.

Yet Kusama has lived with mental illness most of her life. In fact, this has been a contributing factor to her career. Yayoi sees the world differently from most people. From childhood she has had severe obsessive thoughts, and visions where sunflowers or dots on a tablecloth would seem to multiply until they were infinite and all around her. Though frightened at first, Kusama eventually found these visions reassuring as if the dots, like infinite stars, were connecting her to the universe. This is what she has consistently tried to express in her art. 

Her mother did not make it easy. She wanted Kusama to marry, not become a professional artist, so she took Yayoi’s art materials away. Kusama simply started creating with old seed sacks and mud. She made thousands of works before she left Japan, and then destroyed most of them to make room for more.

In 1957, encouraged by Georgia O’Keeffe, Kusama went to New York. Here, her avant-garde work influenced Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (another fan of dots). She constantly experimented with new materials and new technologies to create paintings, sculptures, installations and performance art. And yet she failed to find the success she craved, though the men around her did. She returned to Japan, disappointed and, it seemed, defeated.  

But she couldn’t stop making art. Today, Yayoi works in her Tokyo studio by day and lives in a psychiatric institution across the road by night. With bright red hair and polka dot clothes she is an icon of the art world, while crowds queue to see her sculptures of dotted pumpkins and ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ around the globe. She says, ‘Love is the most important thing.’ Her art, born out of fear and anxiety, is perhaps so popular because it is suffused with wonder and joy.

*          *          *

I learned about Chicago, John, Kusama and a host of other artists during the intense months of research I did last summer for The Bigger Picture. It was the brainchild of Holly Tonks, then editor at Tate Publishing. Her idea was to celebrate Tate’s new emphasis on supporting traditionally marginalised artists, be they women, non-binary, non-white or not from the Western tradition of making art. And to target the book at the next generation of artists, art facilitators and art lovers – ie young teenagers: my audience.

I found out about the project when I was pitching another book and basically begged to be allowed to write it. With over 50 full-colour spreads illustrated by Manjit Thapp, the result was a labour of love. 

It was made difficult – and therefore more interesting – by the fact that every artist in the book by definition has a fascinating life, body of work and artistic process… And I only had a maximum of about 400 words to describe each one. If she was alive and chose to contribute an interview (16 did) I sometimes had only 200 words. How could I possibly sum up the ground-breaking, zeitgeist-skewering, post-Communist, internet-savvy multimedia achievements of Cao Fei in three small paragraphs? I couldn’t, of course. I can only hope the book will get its readers Googling like crazy.

One of the toughest artist profiles to write was Judy Chicago’s. I wanted to include her because she is such a central feminist icon, with something to say about almost every aspect of art the book discusses. Then, to our joy and astonishment, she also agreed to contribute an interview. I was thrilled – and had to cut my own wordcount by two thirds. So I was pleased to know this blog would be a home for what I had to leave out, and the chance to connect Judy’s journey with some of her fellow ‘rejects’.

For thousands of years – until the lifetime of my young readers – women have been ‘other’ in the history of art: seen and not heard. They have known every form of refusal, deprivation, anonymity, disappointment, invisibility and anxiety. And yet art has been made, always. Great art, even. Wherever we look, we find it, even if the name of the maker has been lost in the mists of time. 

Women have persisted, extemporised, explored, expressed, resisted, created, reached out, reached up. I find them all so inspirational. I love their work. I so admire those other women – curators, critics, historians, biographers, gallerists, collectors – who since the 1970s have been gradually reintroducing them into the history of art where they belong.

The teens I write for are besieged by images of perfection and it is creating levels of anxiety they don’t know how to manage, at an age when they should be loving the chance to explore who they want to become. Thinking like an artist is about looking, not looking perfect. Or being perfect. That is what Gwen and Yayoi and Judy knew. That’s what I hope the readers of The Bigger Picture can discover for themselves. 

Thursday 28 March 2019

Medicine, Murder and Mouse Droppings - by Ruth Downie

Medical instruments and bandage by the light of an oil lamp
If I’d known that my three chapters for that “start a novel” competition would turn into a whole series of murder mysteries, I’d never have based them on a Roman army medic. All I was looking for at the time was a character who was in a quandary, plus the suggestion of a story to follow.

There wasn’t a story, of course - which was something I had to confess when an agent got in touch and asked to see the rest of the manuscript. What I didn’t dare tell her was that I didn’t know enough about Roman army medics to write one.

Fortunately, plenty of ancient medical textbooks survive and there are modern scholars who know how to interpret them. You’ll find some of them listed at the end of this post. Meanwhile, here are ten of the fun facts that have kept me entertained over the years while I’ve tried to find G Petreius Ruso, Medicus, credible things to do.

1) Buyer beware! Ancient medical practice had no quality control. Much as anyone today can call themselves a ‘therapist’, anyone in the classical world could call themselves a doctor.

2) When only the best will do:  Xenophon, doctor to the emperor Claudius, earned a vast salary. However, demonstrating that you don’t always get what you pay for, Xenophon was said to have finished Claudius off by sticking a poisoned feather down his throat, faking an attempt to save the emperor from the poisoned mushrooms he’d been fed at dinner.

3) “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.” Pliny the Elder was not a fan of the medical profession. Not only were doctors dangerous foreign* charlatans who conspired to murder the population of Rome, but they also expected to get paid for doing it.
*Doctors were often Greek.

Rolled bandages and medical equipment laid out on a table

4) Human arteries were full of air, or possibly milk, and one day somebody would devise a way to prove it. (To be fair, not everybody believed this. We only know about it because the multi-talented Galen took time to pour scorn on his deluded competitors. According to him, his own public lectures on anatomy - complete with live animal dissections - filled the crowds with wonder and his rivals with envy.)

5) This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me. With no microscopes, scans or x-rays, and with human dissection not allowed, the best place for a doctor to learn about anatomy was somewhere with a handy supply of injured patients - like a gladiator school, or the Army.

Two gladiators locked in combat

6) Practice makes perfect: Some of the surgery on offer was top-class. Field hospitals in the first world war were still using amputation techniques that would have been used in the Roman army, and for the bold and the desperate, it was even possible to have successful cataract surgery. 

Display of replica medical instruments
7) Maybe it’s the bad air. The causes of disease were largely unknown. Bacteria and viruses were still undiscovered, which perhaps explains a whole slew of remedies using animal waste, including lizard dung to make ladies’ complexions glow, and wild boar dung - smeared on fresh, if necessary - to treat injured chariot drivers. The emperor Nero, who fancied himself as a charioteer, was said to prefer his boar dung dried, powdered, and drunk with water.

Still, looking on the bright side - if you were unlucky enough to have a mouse infestation and a bald patch, and on top of all that you found that your wine had gone off, you could grind the mouse-droppings into the vinegar to make a hair-restorer. 

Wormwood plant
Wormwood - just the thing to get rid of clothes moths and mosquitoes and stop mice eating your scrolls. Also used as a purgative and diuretic, it was said to prevent nausea and to cure sore throats, eye troubles and prurulent ears. Boiled up with lentils, it was (allegedly) ideal for fattening up sheep.
8) Remember to pack the medicine: Drugs derived from plants, animals and minerals were widely used and common medicines like opium were very well understood. In the absence of inoculations, travellers might ask to be prescribed a theriac - a complicated mixture of dozens of tonics and antidotes that would protect them against foreign diseases and poisons.   

9) Where doctors failed, the gods could succeed: here’s the cast of a plaque set up by a grateful worshipper who had his deafness cured at the temple in Epidauros.

Plaster cast of a plaque showing two human ears

10) And finally: The weak (who include “a large proportion of townspeople and almost all those fond of letters”) need to take good care of themselves. In particular, if last night’s meal has not been fully digested, the weak person should stay in bed “and neither work, take exercise nor attend to business.”
 As a townsperson who is fond of letters, this is the only piece of ancient medical advice that I can fully recommend.

For more rounded and reliable information, try:

Roman Medicine - Audrey Cruse
Ancient Medicine -Vivian Nutton (not a light read, but an excellent in-depth study)
The free Futurelearn course on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, offered by the Open University.
Anything by Professor John Scarborough
 On the subject of women practising medicine - here's the delightful tale of “Agnodike, the Flashing Midwife”, being discussed by Professor Helen King of the Open University.
Click here to visit an earlier blog post on the theory of the Wandering Womb

I'd like to thank the re-enactors whose collections are displayed in my photos above but I can't remember where I took all of them - if you recognise your kit please let me know! 

Ruth Downie writes a series of mysteries featuring Roman military medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla - find out more at

Wednesday 27 March 2019

What's for dinner? by Janie Hampton

'Simple but appetising' minced meat pie. Woman's Own, 1964

When Mary Gallati wrote her Hostess Dinner Book in 1953, she thought her recipes were the height of modern cooking. Reading it nearly 70 years later, it has become social history. Mary Gallati was the daughter of Italian restaurateur Mario Gallati, who co-founded 'The Ivy' restaurant in London in 1917. Thirty years later he opened the equally famous ‘Le Caprice’ restaurant behind The Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly.
July by Raymond E Meylan
In 1953, food rationing in Britain had another year to go, making fourteen years of miserable meals. The restrictions on the sale and purchase of all types of food, including bread, meat and eggs became even stronger after the end of the Second World War. People were fed up with dried eggs, tinned Spam, limited fruit, and the expense of using the black market. They were ready for something new, and Mary was ready to show them how to entertain. She wanted to share her cooking skills with post-war Britons. Her recipes were designed to fit the seasons, so she offered roast woodcock and ‘fried éperlans’ (smelts, a small fish) in March; and ‘kid au romain’ and shrimp cocktail in April. Lobsters and ‘potatoes parisienne’ feature in May, as do copious eggs and butter in preparation for when rationing was over.
April by Raymond E Meylan
However, tastes and ingredients were not as culturally diverse as they are now. Even Gallati with her Italian background, only used garlic sparingly. Avocadoes were a rare treat reserved for dinner parties, not for every-day sandwiches. Other ingredients were available. Not many recipe books now would include gulls eggs, smoked eel or 'cannelloni stuffed with calves' brains'. Duck aux cerises froides (duck with cold cherries) involved crushing the cherry stones to retrieve the tiny nuts. Aspic appears often, an ingredient my mother used  50 years ago for parties. With aspic and jelly moulds, she could make one chicken and tin of peas feed 20 people. I remember being surprised by old men saying with glee, ‘Mmmm, aspic! I haven’t had that since the nursery!’ Egg en gelée is poached eggs in aspic. To achieve that special 1950s look, you could mix aspic with mayonnaise (homemade, obviously) before piping it artistically onto your fish. Remember ‘Russian salad’? Tiny cubes of carrots and turnips with peas, mixed into mayonnaise, served in tomatoes with their insides scooped out, and a touch more aspic. Don’t forget the sprig of parsley!
The days of tiny supermarket trolleys, trendy baskets
and kitten heels!  Photo by Tesco Stories, 1963.
Gallati also suggested which drinks to serve, including cocktails. In January, one could drink ‘Peter Pan’, made from equal parts of gin, French vermouth, orange juice and peach bitter. Shaken not stirred, as is August’s ‘Highland Cooler’ of whisky, bitters and lemon. Whereas July’s Pimms no.1 demanded No Shaking.

February by Raymond E Meylan
The illustrations by Raymond E. Meylan still look modern – stark black and white ink drawings adorn the start of each month’s recipes. They remind me of 1950s tiles or Heal’s fabric, and would work well as tapestry designs. Meylan also designed logos for chemical companies in the 1960s, when abstract corporate logos were all the rage.
March by Raymond E Meylan
I love the mixture of French and English to give the recipes continental class, such as ‘carrots vichy’ and ‘crayfish a la russe’. ‘Moussaka á l’algerienne’ brought together Greece, France and North Africa. At my very first dinner party, cooked on my 13th birthday for six school friends, the menu I wrote by hand stated ‘Saucissons en toade dans une hole.’ Maybe Mary Gallati’s French was as bad as mine, and she just didn’t know the word for carrot or crayfish? Like Gallati, I also tried the latest pudding – Baked Alaska. Only I had never seen one, just heard about it. So the cake underneath was soggy, the meringue  chewy, and the ice cream completely melted. My friends claimed to be delighted by the glacé cherries sprinkled all over it.

'Three Course Dinner cooked in a pressure cooker'.
Why does it look so unappetizing? Maybe because it's served on school plates.
Woman's Own Cook Book, 1964.
If only I had used the Woman’s Own Cook Book of 1964 which has handy tips on ‘The etiquette of dining’, such as how to cut a grapefruit, and where to place the glacé cherry. I didn’t know that ‘the chief male guest sits on the hostesses right, and the chief woman guest on the host’s right.’ Woman’s Own usefully pointed out that if there were eight people round the table, the sexes couldn't alternate and ‘adaptations are made at the host’s end.’ How confused the hostess of the 1960s would be by same sex couples, and non-binary people. The ‘chief duties of the host are pouring out wine and carving.’ Thank goodness nowadays, we can pour our own wine, and carving meat is a rare occurrence at a dinner party.
An exciting dinner party in 1964.
Which side of the hostess will the chief guest sit? 

How do these colour photos make the food look clean but cold and dull? 
Woman’s Own Cook Book, 1964.  
The chapter about children’s food insisted that they needed bland, tasteless, preferably steamed, mush – what we used to call ’Nursery food.’ Oat or barley ‘Jelly’ was recommended to build up weak children, and raw beef juice ( i.e. watered down blood) for delicate and anaemic babies. Colour, experimentation and taste were not encouraged.
'All-on-a-level kitchen', Woman's Own 1964.
I've often dreamed of a tidy kitchen like this,
and to wear kitten heels for cooking. 
My favourite chapter, one that clearly demonstrates how things have changed, was ‘Routine for Putting on Weight’. ‘Plenty of rest and exercise, a good diet of fattening foods and no worries – those are the essentials.’ The underweight reader was encouraged to stay in bed after breakfast; eat plenty of cake and ice cream; avoid green vegetables, salads, vinegar and egg white; and drink more cocktails. That’s a diet to aspire to!

Here are some recipes from Mary Gallati’s Hostess Dinner Book:
August: Sweetbreads Maréchale Place 2 large sweetbreads (lamb’s pancreas) in water and boil. Cool and remove fat and sinew. Cut into slices, roll in breadcrumbs and shallow-fry. Garnish with points of asparagus. Pour melted butter over . [Note to reader: à la maréchale is a French phrase for cooking food à l'anglaise ("English-style"), i.e. coated with bread crumbs and fried.] 

December: Smoked Eel. Cut into 3 inch sections. Garnish with quartered lettuce and tomato. Pass round horseradish sauce separately. Horseradish sauce: 4 tablespoons fresh grated horse-radish. ½ teaspoon salt. 1 ½ tablespoons vinegar. ½ cup cream. Cayenne pepper. Mix, add cream beaten stiff.
May by Raymond E Meylan

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Paris by the book, by Carol Drinkwater

Paris in the spring is like no other time of year, no other place on earth. April in Paris.

Grace, my young English heroine in THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, who is trying to escape the scars of her violent upbringing, is in search of adventure and perhaps a romantic encounter. When she steps off the train from London into the unknown exotic world of Paris in April 1968 she has no idea what lies ahead, the future that awaits her. 

I have spent this last weekend wandering the streets of the Left Bank because my husband, Michel, has a festival in progress - the first GrecDoc has been unveiled; his newly-founded festival of modern Greek documentary films is underway.  I am not in the cinema watching all the films because I have been on the jury to choose the winning three, so I have seen and enjoyed them already. They represent a fascinating window into modern Greek life and its recent, sometimes turbulent history.

This photo was taken by the young Greek director, Stathis Galazoulas, during the screening on Friday of his award-winning short film, My Grandmother, the Tobacco Grower. 

The audience is assembling for the very first Grecdoc festival in Paris
photo: Stathis Galazoulas, March 2019 

I had considered writing about modern Greece and some of the fascinating facts I have learned and discovered through these films, but I am going to leave that subject for another day, another blog. Who knows, another novel?
Because, the publication of my novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF  is drawing close, 16th May - as I write, there are 53 days to go - I want to touch upon the role Paris plays in the book. If you read my blog of last month you will know that vital sections of the book are set in Paris in 1968. 

During April and May '68, the lead up to and the unfolding of the students' uprising. It was a time of hope, of dreams of peace and a new order. A vision of a fairer world.
It was the Sixties, hippies, flower power, anti-Vietnam War peace marches, the murder of Martin Luther King.

Michel's Grecdoc festival is being screened at a fabulous little cinema on the Left Bank at 5, rue des Écoles. Le Grand Action is an art house cinema in that it is not in the business of showing the latest American blockbusters. It opens its doors to lesser known films and to small festivals such as GrecDoc.  It is in the heart of Paris's student land. Further along the street is the famous Sorbonne University. This area of the city is central to the action of the '68 sections of THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF.  It is the stage upon which many scenes are set. 

Although I know this area well and over the years have spent many hours walking these streets, this weekend I began to see the quartier anew. Perhaps because the structuring and writing of the novel is behind me now and I know these characters so well. I have lived with them, inhabited their hopes and dreams for the best part of two years. This weekend, I could look quietly at all that was around me, through my characters' eyes rather than my own. I was pacing the very same streets, gazing upon buildings, statues, parks, seeing them as Grace, the novel's central character, and Peter, one of the two young men she meets during that summer of '68, (both of whom impact dramatically on the rest of her life, but in very different ways), might have seen them.

                                          The front façade of the Sorbonne University, Paris 5, 
                                                              Founded in 1257.

Peter is a student at the Sorbonne, studying politics and social sciences, when he first meets sixteen-year-old Grace, on her first day in Paris. He might have walked in and out of these great doors almost on a daily basis. Perhaps Grace waited outside for him before they went off to explore the city? During the uprisings in May '68, the Rector of the Sorbonne locked the doors of the university, in response to a peaceful student demonstration, thus shutting out the students from their belongings and lectures halls. This act was partially responsible for the escalation from civil urest to street violence, the involvement of the police, the building of the barricades and, after days of riots, the occupation of the university by the students themselves.

Grace and Peter were participants in these events. For a young girl of sixteen, May 68 was a life-changing experience. Grace was waking up to some of the possibilities that life could offer her, to her own sexuality and the power of her own convictions and voice. Women's rights, sexual liberties. A better education system. Respect and opportunities for the working classes. The rights of the people.

Across the street, still strolling along the rue des Écoles, is a fine statue I have never noticed before. Michel de Montaigne, one of France's most renowned philosophers, famous for establishing the essay as a literary genre. I stood in the spring sunshine taking photos of the statue, asking myself might Grace have lingered here, leaning against this statue, reading a book, while waiting for Peter? Or might she have walked right by it on many occasions as I have done?

                                  Michel de Montaigne  1533 - 1592. Renaissance philosopher.

On one of my recent afternoon strolls along rue des Écoles, I took a right hand turn, descending to Place Maubert (where I lived with Michel in the tiniest and most romantic of studios when I first came to Paris). It's famous food market was in full swing. In the bar, Feignes Alain, on the corner of rue Frédéric Sauton and 18 Place Maubert, after an incident occurs during the demonstrations, Grace stops to buy herself a glass of wine. She is shaken by what she has witnessed and what has befallen her personally. The shadows of real life are beginning to cloud over her. Her dreams of a carefree summer are slipping away. It is time to quit the city, she feels, and travel south in search of sun and new adventures.

Alone and unnerved by the rising violence in the capital, Grace eventually catches up with Peter and a few of his comrades at Chez George, 11 rue des Canettes, Paris, 6e arrondissement. They are deep in conversation, mulling over the escalating events. Chez George was one of the students' regular hangouts in the Sixties. Today, it has become almost a Left Bank institution and you can still enjoy its 'great vibes', a decent meal or simply a glass of wine. Late in the evenings it is a very lively joint. Downstairs, in the candle-lit cave, where the music rocks, young locals come to dance and swing. Today, it is in the very capable hands of George's daughter and his grandson, Jean François. Do pop in, if you are in Paris.
While in the vicinity, why not visit one of my favourite churches in Paris, Saint Sulpice? The present church is the second on the site. The original was Romanesque. The one that dominates Place Saint-Sulpice today was founded in 1646. Its interior is quite daunting, exceedingly high ceilings, little ornamentation and usually, outside the time of Mass when its great and very splendid organ is played, eerily quiet. The Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were both baptised here. Victor Hugo celebrated his marriage to Adéle Foucher within these great stone walls.
If you are a visitor to Paris, Sunday organ concerts are held regularly in the church.

But I digress.... Saint Sulpice plays no role in the novel except as a landmark when Grace is discovering her new city while searching for a place to stay.

A short walk away is the rue Guy-Lussac. In a studio in this street, Peter and Grace camp out, sleeping on the floor of a fellow student's pad while he, arrested during the student riots, is being held in a prison cell. This rather attractive little street played an important role in the '68 students' revolution. In the novel we find Grace here, spending back-breaking hours, working all through the night, building barricades in the company of other students and citizens. By this point in the story, the revolution has caught the attention of the nation. Parisians from all walks of life were shocked by the clamp down and the violence shown by de Gaulle's military-minded government towards the young. Many joined the cause, which escalated into violent clashes with the police who used tear gas and brutality to quell the growing force of the voice of the people.

Unfortunately, the uprising and the national strikes that followed were short-lived. By mid-June, de Gaulle had the country back under control. Elections were called and his government was brought back with a greater majority.

However, the long view of history shows us that it was not in vain. Many historians claim that May '68 transformed France, bringing it - kicking and screaming perhaps - into the second half of the twentieth-century. It is seen as a cultural turning point, "a social revolution rather than a political one." (Alain Geismar.)

For a young girl like Grace who suffered violence in her childhood, the street fighting is too confronting. She needs to get out, to move on.

Peter and Grace's flight from Paris during the turbulent month of May '68 leads them to the south, to a secluded house on a cliff's edge not too far from Marseille. It is the house of Peter's aunt, a renowned artist. Overlooking the most spectacular landscape of sandy bays and rocky inlets, Grace believes she will find the harmony she has been seeking.

                A few photos I took of the Calanques area when I was researching the novel.

But here in the south, Grace meets another young man and falls under his spell. Here, at the House on the Edge of the Cliff, which stands high above these magnificent bays, witnessing all, summer arrives. The days grow hot and emotions reach a fever pitch until a tragedy ensues and Grace's life is never to be the same again ...

Over the years right up to the present time, when Grace looks back on that summer of '68, it is not the weeks in Paris that haunt her but the months that followed ...

THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF is published on 16th May.

The publishers are saying: "Carol Drinkwater's epic story of enduring love and betrayal, from Paris in the Sixties to the present day."

It can be preordered and shipped worldwide free from

I hope you will read and enjoy it.

Monday 25 March 2019

Strawberry Hill by Miranda Miller

   Last month I was lucky enough to catch the last day of an exhibition called Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill.  Horace Walpole was a great original, the son of Robert Walpole, a powerful, corrupt statesman and de facto first prime minister.  Horace had exquisite, if camp, taste and inherited enough money to indulge it. Walpole has been called the father of British art history as well as the inventor of gothic and he was also, as the  author of The Castle of Otranto, the founder of gothic fiction. In this portrait by  Rosalba Carriera we see Horace as a rich young aristocrat in Venice on his Grand Tour, looking fey and delicate with  his powdered face.

   He never married or had any illegitimate children and is generally assumed to  have been gay.  At the age of twenty-three his father pulled strings to get him elected as Whig MP for Callington in Cornwall, a seat he held for thirteen years without ever visiting it. When he was about thirty he bought a small villa in Twickenham, originally called "Chopped Straw Hall", which was not nearly elegant enough for the fastidious Walpole. He He called it “my little plaything” and spent the rest of his life transforming it, filling it with his wonderful art collection.  This was not just a private collection; he used to charge a guinea for a tour by his housekeeper. although he insisted that no children were to be admitted. "The highest personages of the realm," including the royal family, came to visit his creation. In a letter to a friend he complained: "I have but a minute's time in answering your letter, my house is full of people, and has been so from the instant I breakfasted, and more are coming- in short, I keep an inn; the sign, the Gothic whole time is passed in giving tickets for seeing it, and hiding myself when it is seen- take my advice, never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court, everybody will live in it but you. " He loved jokes and once wrote,The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”  He used to receive guests wearing this wooden trompe l'ceil cravat carved by Grinling Gibbons. 

   After his death in 1797 the house and contents were inherited by a cousin.  After  a famous  sale in 1842 that lasted for twenty-four days all four thousand objects in his collection -  paintings, miniatures, furniture, coins  - disappeared into private collections around the world. Luckily Horace kept meticulous records of everything he collected and wrote to a friend: “How merry my ghost will be, and shake its ears to hear to hear itself quoted as a person of consummate prudence!” 

   A brilliant art detective, Silvia Davoli, spent years tracing his collection and,for a few months,  a hundred and fifty works  from fifty-five lenders brought this unique house back to life. Walpole  coined the word  "gloomth" to describe the mixture of warmth and gloom he wanted to create in his fake ancestral castle, which was complete with an armoury and battlements. The lavish use of deep red, as in the gallery you can see below, creates a sympathetic atmosphere.  He wrote of it, rather disingenuously, “Well! But I begin to be ashamed of my magnificence.  Strawberry is growing sumptuous in its latter truth my collection was too great already to be lodged humbly.”

   He loved objects that told a story, the more macabre the better. For example:  a clock Henry V111 gave Anne Boleyn on the morning of their marriage; Mary Tudor’s hair;  an Aztec mirror which Queen Elizabeth’s necromancer, Dr John Dee, is supposed to have used in his supernatural research. Hogarth, one of his favourite artists, visited the the convicted triple murderer Sarah Malcolm in her cell and painted a sympathetic record of her. Another exhibit was Hogarth’s painting of a production of John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera, which satirized the corruption of Hioace’s father Robert .

   This  portrait of Horace aged about forty by Joshua Reynolds suggests complexity, wit and subtlety.  He holds a print of an imperial Roman  marble eagle.  He loved anuimals and once wrote, “ I know that I have had friends who would never have vexed or betrayed me, if they had walked on all fours. His beloved  cat was also resurrected in this remarkable exhibition;  when his pet tabby fell into a tub while trying to catch goldfish and drowned, Walpole commissioned his old schoolfriend Thomas Gray to write a poem in its memory,  Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes:

on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow.

  The blue and white Chinese porcelain  vase refersred to in this poem could be seen in the hall of the house. This famous poem was first published by the Strawberry Hill press, which Walpole set up in 1757 in the grounds. Here he printed his own works and also designed his own typeface,   His four volume Anecdotes of Painting in England is still admired by art historians and his poshumously published memoirs are very entertaining and shrewd about politics.
   Other exhibits were a portrait of the Percy sisters by Van Dyck; a formidable portrait of Catherine de Medici and her children; a double portrait of Henry VIII and Francis I and a cabinet full of Walpole's miniature collection, which was  considered one of the best in Europe. He also supported many female artists,  including Anne Damer and Diana Beauclerc. Like the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and John Soane’s museum in Lincoln Inn Fields, Strawberry Hill is imbued with the eccentric personality of one man.

                                                                      A boy as a Shepherd by Peter Lely