Friday 31 May 2019

May's Competition

To win a copy of Jacqueline Winspear's The American Agent (see yesterday's guest post) just answer the following question in Comments:

“In the American Agent, Maisie comes to admire the war correspondents living and working in London during the Blitz. Which real-life journalist do you admire the most, and why?”

Then email your answer to me at so I can get in touch with you in you win.

Closing date 7th June

We are sorry our competitions are open only to UK Followers

Thursday 30 May 2019

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick - the ammonite on the mantelpiece

Searching for inspiration for this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a Google search (note: other search engines are available) reminded me that the original Cabinets often contained wonders of Natural History. This in turn made me think straight away of my own tiny pieces of natural history, a crystalline ammonite and a few chunks of belemnite found on the beach at Lyme Regis.

These are both common fossils – I spotted the belemnites myself, and the ammonite came from the same hour’s fossil-hunting tour (albeit from the guide, whose eye was much keener than mine) – but they bring me enormous pleasure despite that.

Fossils from Lyme in turn make me think of Mary Anning. As a scientist, she’s one who was long neglected, although in recent years her importance has started to be recognised.

Mary was born in 1799, the daughter of a carpenter. Her father supplemented the family’s earnings by selling fossils from the beach to the gentry who were starting to visit Lyme. When he died, Mary and her brother continued to sell their finds as a way of supporting themselves and their mother.

Mary became highly skilled, not only at finding new fossils, but also at understanding them. Her notes and drawings are detailed and exact. She made some of the most important and spectacular finds of the period, just as palaeontology was opening up whole new worlds of ancient creatures. She was a pioneer especially in the discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Men like William Buckland, the Reverend Conybeare, Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen all benefitted from Mary’s discoveries and expertise.
Mary Anning. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But as a woman – and a working class woman at that – she stood no chance to joining any of the learned scientific Societies in London, or even seeing her name in print as an expert writing about her finds. Nor did they usually even pay her especially well: money was a concern for most of Mary’s life. Mary died of breast cancer in 1847, at the age of 47.

In recent years, Mary’s story has become increasingly well-known. You can find it told (and her finds clearly labelled as hers) in museums such as the Natural History Museum, and several biographies exist. Her importance has been recognised by the scientific establishment. Her story has also been told through historical fiction including Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures and by our very own Joan Lennon in the Daughters of Time anthology. Currently there’s a film in production which will help to bring her name to an even wider audience, as well as campaigns to get her onto the new £50 note and for a statue of her to be erected in Lyme.

Ms Anning was clearly a highly intelligent woman, who was knowledgeable, skilled and a true expert in her field. She lived at a time when incredible new discoveries were being made, and which she contributed to enormously. In many ways she was remarkable. But in others she was entirely unremarkable – or at least similar to countless women and working class people throughout history, who have got on with the hard grind of daily living, doing whatever needs to be done to make ends meet, knowing that they were likely to receive little credit and less glory for their hard work.

My ammonite sits in pride of place on my living room mantelpiece, a tiny monument to the wonders of Nature, and to the countless people like Mary who have contributed to our understanding of nature, science and history.
My own tiny ammonite, which nonetheless has
pride of place on my mantelpiece. 

You can find out more about Mary Anning at and about the campaign to erect a statue in her honour at

Wednesday 29 May 2019

May's Guest - Jacqueline Winspear

This month's guest is the best-selling author of the Masie Dobbs series of crime novels, Jacqueline Winspear. She was born and raised in Kent and emigrated to the USA in 1990. She has written extensively for journals, newspapers and magazines, and has worked in book publishing on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Here she talks to Charlotte Wightwick about the role war journalists played in bringing the USA into World War II, the role of women during war time and the fascination of writing a long-running series. 

The American Agent revolves around the murder of Catherine Saxon, an American war correspondent in London during the Blitz. Can you say a little about the work of war correspondents in London at this time, and in particular your inspiration for Catherine's character?

There were many war correspondents in Britain during the war, not only from the USA, but representing our Commonwealth allies, and those countries already invaded by Germany. However, the focus in this book is chiefly the journalists who reported news of bombing during the Blitz to the USA – via both radio (or “the wireless”) and print media. Obviously, a good number of those reporters were Americans, and of particular interest in The American Agent is the work of Edward R. Murrow, who broadcast for CBS from a small studio in the bowels of the BBC in London...I was drawn to the fact that Murrow revolutionised broadcast news in a manner that set the scene for the type of reporting we see today. Prior to his broadcasts (and he typically broadcast between midnight and 3:00am, a time when Americans would be sitting down to dinner), the BBC was a very formal environment – in the early days the men who read the news would wear dinner jackets and bow ties. Little emotion came into the reporting, and it was very matter of fact, delivered in the clipped tones of Received English.
Murrow knew he had to bring in the human factor to have any impact on American audiences, for whom the war was very much “over there and nothing to do with us.” On one occasion he famously took recording equipment into the street to record the footsteps of people running for cover in a bombing raid, and he repeatedly went into shelters to record the voices of ordinary people, and later accompanied the crew of a Lancaster bomber on a raid into Germany. This immediacy began to have an impact on American opinion, and effectively shortened the distance between the two countries... Other reporters had an impact too – Mollie Panter Downes in her “Letter From London” in the New Yorker did her part, as did JB Priestley, Vernon Bartlett and Cecil Beaton with his photography, published in Life magazine. They were, if you will, the agents of change in American opinion.

The character Catherine Saxon is an amalgam. I have been interested in the work of women war correspondents since my early teens, so I’m very familiar with so many of those women who have effectively put their lives on the line to tell the story of what is happening in a war zone. In a way Saxon is a blend of Clare Hollingworth, Marguerite Higgins, Dickey Chapelle and Martha Gellhorn – and so many others I admire. I could go on listing names!

A big theme of the novel is whether or not the Americans will join the war, and the work of the media, undercover agents and propaganda to try and bring that about at this time. Why did you choose to focus on this? 

It’s such an interesting period, and I am drawn to the role of soft propaganda in a time of war – and indeed, in the time leading up to war. In an earlier book, Elegy For Eddie, one of the continuing characters, a writer, is part of a group who are charged with developing appealing stories about Britain – her countryside, industry, people, farm life, children etc. The initiative was to give the people a deeper sense that they had something to be proud of in Britain, and an emotional connection to their country. This was part of the story was based upon fact – there was that emphasis in newspaper and magazine storytelling, as it was clear to the government that another war was on the cards, and they wanted the people to be ready to take up arms and be ready to protect their country – they wanted them ready for war, and most people were reluctant to consider war as they’d lost so much in the years 1914-18. Edward R. Murrow and his “boys” in WW2 were considered to be one of Churchill’s greatest tools in the job of getting the USA behind Britain’s war effort.

Maisie is torn in this novel between her life as an investigator, her voluntary work as am ambulance driver, the child she wants to adopt and the possibility of a new romance. How far do you think these pressures were typical for women of Maisie's generation?

I think multiple pressures are typical for women of any generation! My grandmother had to keep her job and had to consider the safety of her ten children. Many women worked, volunteered and cared for families in dreadful conditions following the repeated bombing night after night after night. I have visited the archive of the WRVS (In the war it was simply the WVS – Women’s Voluntary Service – the “Royal” designation came later), and simply reading the very detailed reports from every woman who worked through the Blitz and subsequent bombings would leave readers in no doubt that multiple pressures were very much the lot of women – and continue to be so today.

This is the 15th Maisie Dobbs novel. What is it that keeps bringing you back to her? And can you give us any insight into what will be coming next for her?

From the time I knew I had not just one novel, but the material for a series, I wanted to move my characters through time. I wanted to see how they grew and changed with experience, and how they were impacted by the events of their day and the trials and tribulations of their lives – creating that overall arc of story keeps me coming back to the series. I wanted to create a saga in the traditional sense, but one underpinned by the journey through chaos to resolution that is at the heart of mystery. Ultimately, life is that mystery, and I am buoyed forward by the journey not only of Maisie Dobbs, but her fellow characters – and history itself. History frames the story – and that is the only “insight” I can give for what comes next!

The American Agent (number 15 in the bestselling Maisie Dobbs series) by Jacqueline Winspear is out now and published by Allison & Busby. Previous titles in the series are being reissued by John Murray.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Oh I'd love to do that... by Ruth Downie

A surprising number of people would love to be archaeologists, and if you want to know what it takes to be a real one, you’ll have go and find one and ask. But... if you want to be a sort of archaeological hanger-on - the kind of enthusiastic amateur who gets involved in the action but doesn’t have to fill in the Health and Safety forms - well here, based on my own experience, are a few skills you might like to cultivate. 

Not all of archaeology is about digging holes, but a lot of it is, so let's be honest - 

A fondness for mud can be useful.

Nice clean mud
Not such clean mud
In later years you will be able to look at photos of your own special patch of mud and wonder where it was and what was so interesting about it. 
Don't ask.
A limited sense of dignity.
Below is just a practice run at mapping what’s under the ground without disturbing it. But - those jeans have a metal zip and the boots have metal eyelets, which will interfere with the magnetometer readings. A more suitable outfit would be tracksuit trousers, wellies, and plastic specs held on with elastic. Now that’s what I call style. 
Look, no mud!
The ability to watch out for marauding seagulls 
No untrained volunteer is going to be let loose with the drone any time soon, but any fool can act as lookout for birds. So that’s what I did, while the expert took the photos for a 3D image of the hill.
Nice work if you can get it.
Enough short-term memory to be able to follow instructions for the day 
even if you’ve forgotten how to work the thing you’ve also forgotten the name of by next week. 
It's a THEODOLITE. I looked it up.
The ability to get on with people
You and your companions may be working at close quarters in a remote location for many hours at a time. Resist the urge to sing, tell jokes or recount the plot of last night’s “Game of Thrones”.
Where no-one can hear you scream.

The ability to hover
For those times when there is nowhere to put your feet without standing on the archaeology. No-one has ever captured this on camera.

A sense of wonder
Because archaeology can take you to some seriously beautiful places. 

Longis Bay, Alderney

A sense of mustn’t-grumble.
These tyres were used to weigh down the plastic sheet protecting a Roman villa site over the winter. At the start of the next digging season they were always full of stagnant water and frogs, which made them all the more fun to remove.
An appreciation of facilities with a fine view.

The ability to improvise

A vivid imagination 
From this small chunk of pottery you have to conjure up the massive clay vessel that carried olive oil all the way from the south of Spain to a sheep farm in Roman Britain.
(Closely related to the Eye of Faith - for those times when something probably isn’t there but all the diggers convince themselves that they can see it emerging, which makes digging more interesting.)

The willingness to do the same thing over and over again… Clay pipes are the cigarette papers of our ancestors. Our local society spent three seasons looking for a clay pipe kiln and failing to find it. After we'd dug up and washed thousands of broken stems the appearance of any scrap of pipe bowl with a pattern on it was a cause for excitement.

Even the humble home veg plot may have been a smoker's paradise in times past.

Looking on the bright side
Finding nothing proves that there was nothing there. Thus in your own small way, you have just extended the sum of human knowledge. So it wasn’t a complete waste of time after all, was it?

BUT sooner or later there will be a Magic Moment
Here’s one of them. Nobody had seen this in over 1700 years.

A scrap of Roman 'best china' with the maker's name stamped on it.
So, if I've tickled your fancy... 
Here are one or two ways to get involved - if you have more suggestions please chip in with comments. 

Futurelearn do some great online archaeology courses and if you look carefully, many are still free.

UK-based DigVentures - tech-savvy archaeologists running online courses, crowdfunded digs and live-stream events.

Get to know your local museum/local archaeological society. They will know people with trowels and places to wield them.

If you find something interesting - ask at the museum or, in England & Wales, look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme. 

If you’ve got a metal detector - join a local detectorists’ club for advice on how and where to detect within the law.
Two of best sites I've dug on were found by metal detectorists

The world-famous Roman site at Vindolanda relies heavily on volunteers, but book early if you want to dig - it's like getting tickets for Glastonbury.

Ruth Downie is the author of the MEDICUS series of murder mysteries featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla.


Monday 27 May 2019

Judith Kerr Obituary by Janie Hampton

photo: Rex Shutterstock
Judith Kerr, esteemed writer and illustrator of children’s and young adult books, died last week aged 95. I had two memorable phone conversations with Judith. The first was when I was researching my book on Girl Guides and the Second World War, which included Jewish Girl Guides coming from Nazi-occupied Europe to Britain. Judith told me about her arrival from Germany in London, aged 13 in 1936. She was born in Berlin, where her father was a well-known German-Jewish journalist who openly criticized the Nazis. In 1933 he was warned that his passport might be confiscated, and he fled Germany, just a day before he would have been arrested. Shortly afterwards his wife, Judith, and her brother followed. The family travelled via Switzerland and Paris and settled in London.
Judith had left school when the Second World War began. By now speaking perfect English, she worked first as a secretary and then volunteered for the Red Cross, before being awarded a scholarship at the Central School of Arts in London. Later, she described an air- raid in London as vividly as a picture: ‘The sky was red, reflecting the fires on the ground, and in it hung clusters of orange flares which lit up everything for miles around. They looked like gigantic Christmas decorations floating slowly, slowly down through the night air. In the distance, yellow flashes like lightning were followed by muffled bangs – the anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park. Suddenly a searchlight swept across the sky. It was joined by another and another, crossing and re-crossing each other, and then a great orange flash blotted out everything else.’ Judith met her future husband, television scriptwriter Nigel Kneale, in the school canteen where she was teaching, and he suggested she join the BBC as a scriptwriter.
The second lively conversation I had with Judith was when I was writing about the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. I was searching for other cultural events that year, and Judith told me about her work at the BBC television studios in Lime Grove. Nigel Kneale, known as Tom, was writing a science-fiction television serial when he, Judith and their colleagues watched the coronation on a black and white television. The Quatermass Experiment was to be about an alien arriving on Earth, but Kneale could not decide where the alien should land. As the coronation reached its climax, he realised that most television viewers had now seen inside Westminster Abbey: this would be the perfect place to first see the alien. ‘There was neither a budget nor the possibility of filming in the Abbey, so we bought a guide book, which included a photo of Poets’ Corner,’ Judith told me. Making television drama in 1953 required ingenuity and imagination. They photographed the guide book’s photo, blew it up and pasted it onto a canvas panel. ‘Then I put on a pair of wash-leather gloves, while Tom stuck bits of curled wire and twigs onto them. We cut a slit in the backdrop, and Tom put his hands through, wearing the gloves. He waggled his fingers very slowly. That was the scariest moment of the drama – when ‘the vegetable’ first appeared, this creep-crawly alien thing with tendrils which had absorbed the bodies and souls of two astronauts. The cameras could not move, and the cameraman saw everything upside down and back to front. It was all filmed live for the television, while another camera showed the actor in terror.’
Mog the Cat. copyright HarperCollins
Judith and Kneale were married in 1954 and had two children. When they complained that children’s books were boring, Judith told them stories about ‘Mog’ the cat. Later she wrote and illustrated the stories, and the series of 18 titles about Mog were published from 1970 to 2015. ‘Cats are very interesting people,’ she later said. After 30 years she wrote Goodbye Mog in which the cat died, a brave step for a children’s writer.
The Tiger who Came to Tea. copyright HarperCollins
Probably her best-known book was The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which also began in order to liven up her children’s day. Asked by BBC presenter Emily Maitlis if the tiger symbolised the the overturning of suburban life during the 1960s sexual and social revolution, she simply replied, ‘No, it was about a tiger coming to tea.’ Kerr’s ability to see the world from a child's perspective enabled her to write and draw exactly what a child wants to see, not what an adult thinks they should. She never wasted their time by repeating in words, what was already in the illustration. The illustrations were clear and simple, with only the essential people and objects in them. Published in 1968, the book has never been out of print. 
Judith Kerr at work
Judith’s son was eight when he saw the film The Sound of Music and commented, 'Now we know what it was like when Mummy was a little girl.' Judith was determined that he, and other children, should know what life was really like and so wrote the semi-autobiographical Out of Hitler Time trilogy. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty (originally published as The Other Way Round) and A Small Person Far Away, describe childhood among of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, life as a refugee in Britain during World War II, and the post-war years. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit won the state-funded Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Children's Literature Award) in 1974 and became a set text in German schools. In 2004, she said, 'I think of the business of the Holocaust, and the one and a half million children who didn't get out as I got out, in the nick of time -- I think about them almost every day now, because I've had such a happy and fulfilled life and they'd have given anything to have had just a few days of it. And I hope I've not wasted any of it: I try to get the good of every bit of it because I know they would have done if they'd had the chance.'
After the death of Nigel Kneale in 2006, Judith found writing and drawing even more important and continued publishing books into her ninth decade. Over 50 years, she published more than 30 books. Her publisher at HarperCollins, Charlie Redmayne, said she was 'a wonderful and inspiring person who was much loved by everyone. She was a brilliantly talented artist and storyteller. Always understated and very, very funny. She loved life and loved people - and particularly she loved a party.'
photo Daniel Sambraus/AP
Judith Kerr was awarded an OBE in 2012 for services to children's literature and Holocaust education. A year later, the ‘Judith Kerr Primary School’ in London opened as Britain’s first German-English state bilingual school. Just a week before she died, Judith was nominated at the British Book Awards as Illustrator of the Year. She leaves her son Matthew Kneale, a prize-winning novelist and author of ‘The English Passengers’ and daughter, Tacy, who designs special-effects for films.
Anna Judith Gertrude Kerr, 1923 -2019. 

Sunday 26 May 2019

Along my book tour, a return to James Herriot Country, by Carol Drinkwater

I am in the north of England promoting my new novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, which was published last week, 16th May.
Yesterday, my stop was organised by the White Rose Book shop in Thirsk. The event was held at the Rural Arts Centre, which is a rather lovely location in this fine old market town. My B & B accommodation was ten steps from the Herriot Museum. The Herriot Museum stands as a memorial to  the veterinary surgeon, Alf Wight, who practised his animal wizardry for almost his entire career here in this once-remote location. Agricultural England. Thirsk remained the home of his practice even after he had become a world-wide sensation with his series of memoirs recounting his life working in the Yorkshire Moors.

Alf was born in Sunderland in 1916. He died in Thirlby four miles outside Thirsk in 1995. By the time he passed away, Alf, whose pen name was James Herriot, was an an international sensation. Not only had his books sold by the millions in English and translation everywhere in the world, they had been the inspiration for two cinema films, ninety episodes of television plus two television 'specials', Alf brought recognition to this area of Yorkshire. Like almost no other - until perhaps The Hobbit films shot in New Zealand - Alf quite literally transformed the impact of tourism on north-east England. It is over forty years since we began shooting the TV series and The Herriot trail remains big business today.

 Alf with his wife, Joan. Joan was the inspiration for the character of Helen, the wife of James Herriot in the books. The role that I had the good fortune to play.

                                 Principal cast of the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. The actors surrounding me are (anti-clockwise) Mary Hignett, Peter David, Robert Hardy and Christopher Timothy.

Our filming actually took place in the Yorkshire Dales rather than the Yorkshire Moors so I didn't have many opportunities to visit Thirsk back in the days when I was shooting. We came over to have dinner from time to time with Alf and Joan and I have been to Thirsk since the series finished. In 2016, the cast came together along with many locals and admirers from all over the world to celebrate the centenary of Alf's birth. It was a very special occasion, not least because it was the last time we all had dinner with the late Robert Hardy who died in August 2017.

This week when I stepped off the train, Thirsk was bathed in warm sunshine.  A glorious mid-May day. My event for THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF was scheduled for 7.30 pm. After signing boxes of books at the White Rose bookshop, I was free to wander the market town.
My digs for the night, Kirkgate House is a Georgian property sitting in between The World of James Herriot Museum and a magnificent privately owned home.

23 Kirkgate was the original address for the veterinary practice of James Herriot/Alf Wight, known in the books as "Skeldale House". It is packed with memorabilia and also displays a part of the set we used for the TV series of All Creatures Great and Small. I popped in to say hello to everyone but I find walking around it an emotional experience. It is rather like taking a walk through one's own past.

                                                        Memorial plaque to James Herriot.

St Mary's Church is a fifteenth century parish church just along the street. I wanted to pay a visit. I have never had an opportunity in the past. Its interior is really rather lovely. Stained glass windows depicting St George and the Dragon. It has an organ, eight bells in the tower.

Alf and Joan - James and Helen - were married in this church as was their daughter, Rosie, I read.

The next stop was York. I had forgotten how beautiful this city is. I was talking at St Peter's School, one of the oldest schools in Britain, founded by St Paulinus of York in 627 AD on the banks of the River Ouse. It is the third oldest school in the UK and the fourth in the world. A magnificent setting. It was a memorable event and I felt honoured to be invited there to talk about my books and travels.  Afterwards, I had my photograph taken with a portrait of the very handsome Guy Fawkes who was an Old Peterite, a student at the school. Fawkes was born in Stonegate, York in 1570 and executed in London in January 1606. He was, of course, involved in the failed Gunpowder Plot.

I am on the train now to Peterborough heading to the Deepings Literature Festival. Deepings is a place I had never heard of, in Lincolnshire. Two days to discover a new - to me - patch of England while I talk about and read from THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF.

As I write the novel is being offered at half price here

And can be found in all good bookshops. I hope you will look out for it.

Saturday 25 May 2019

Venice by Miranda Miller

      I first fell in love with Venice when I was ten and since then I’ve been back many times. Heightened awareness of climate change made my recent visit even more moving. In November last year high winds combined with a seasonal high tide put much of Venice under water and created havoc as schools and hospitals were closed and people were advised against leaving their homes. Climate change related art has dominated the Venice Biennale this year. One of the more surreal sights in this dreamlike city is a white skyscraper floating past the end of a medieval street - actually a monstrous cruise ship, which damages the fragile lagoon ecosystem and pollutes the waters. Il mare la chiama - the sea is calling its bride, Venetians say when wind stirs up the water of the lagoon. There’s a very real danger that the sea will destroy its bride.

   Thomas Mann compared entering Venice by one of the road or railway bridges to entering a palace through the back door. I’ve always used that door but now the approach is even more dazzling because of the Alilaguna, a frequent boat service from Marco Polo airport that takes you to every part of the city. On this visit I had time to explore some corners of the city I hadn’t seen before.

    The church of S. Pietro di Castello has stood on this site since at least the 7th century. In the very early days there was a annual festival here when betrothed couples came to the church, the girls carrying their dowries in a little chest. In 944 Istrian pirates stormed the island and abducted the girls, with their dowries. The Doge led his fleet, pursued them, and triumphantly returned with both the girls and their money. This bizarre scene was reenacted in the Festa delle Marie for five hundred years. Now S. Pietro is a Palladian church with a sleepy grassy campo in front of it. It was Venice’s cathedral for two hundred and fifty years, until Napoleon deposed the last Doge and made San Marco, formerly the state church of the doges, the cathedral.

    This is Gam Gam, my favourite kosher restaurant, just by the main entrance to the Ghetto. The origins of this word, which has spread all over the world, can be traced to the word gheto, which in Venetian means a foundry. This are was once an island where Venetian Jews were confined after sunset by decree. As Jews from all over Europe settled here each synagogue belonged to a different nationality—German, Italian, Spanish, and Sephardic. Last month it was heartbreaking to see armed soldiers guarding the ghetto against the violence of neo fascist anti-semitic groups like Casa Pound.

   Torcello is one of the more remote islands in the lagoon. Venetians call it Torre e Cielo, towers and sky. Once twenty thousand people lived here and there were convents, a bishop and a thriving wool industry; then people left as malaria struck and canals silted up. Torcello is now more commercial than it used to be with some shops, cafes and restaurants, but has very few permanent inhabitants. On our last visit we met one of them - an old man playing chess with himself outside a house with a ‘for sale’ sign. He asked Gordon to stay and play chess with him but we were worried we’d miss the last boat back to Venice so we hurried on (and have felt guilty ever since). This year we noticed his house was boarded up, with an ATM machine where his front door used to be.

   In 1678 Vivaldi was born in a campo, or piazza, round the corner from where we were staying, He taught the violin to the girls in a nearby foundling hospital, the Ospedale della Pietà, and was later promoted to music director. He was nicknamed il Prete Rosso, the Red Priest, because of his red hair (not his politics). It was frustrating to find that, of the vast quantity of covcerti and operas he wrote, only The Four Seasons seems to be regularly performed now in Venice. Many of his concerti were composed to celebrate splendid ceremonies like this one.

    Before  Napoleon conquered the Republic there were four great Ospedali in Venice that combined medical care with charity work. Their musical ensembles of orphaned girls, or cori , were remarkable in a society that disapproved of professional female musicians, apart from a few adored operatic divas. In 1743 Jean-Jacques Rousseau heard one of these choirs at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti and described their singing as “far superior to that of the opera, and which has not its like,either in Italy or the rest of the world.” These talented girls had to perform in raised galleries which had grating that hid the female singers and musicians from the eyes of the audience.

    On another walk we wandered into Ospedale. surely the most beautiful working hospital in the world. On the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo there appear to be two great  Renaissance churches next to one another; one of them, with a magnificent façade, is actually the main entrance to Venice’s hospital,  an extraordinary complex of ancient and modern buildings that includes the Historical Medical Library, the Museum of Anatomic Pathology and a fascinating Pharmacy Museum.

   This is the entrance to Arsenale, the shipyard of Venice during the great days of its empire. Founded in the twelfth century, it’s a huge walled area that still covers over a hundred acres and once employed two thousand workers. By the sixteenth century a galley could be built here and launched in a day. It’s guarded by the lions of St Mark and at the bottom of the door you can see sculptures of the Greek gods and allegorical figures. The statue of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, was added after the Venetian fleet helped to win the great sea battle of Lepanto in 1571. There’s also a bust of Dante and a quotation from Canto XXI of his Inferno, where he compares hell to the pitch made in the fiery depths of the Arsenal.

   April 25th is both the Feast of St Mark, the patron saint of the city, and also the anniversary of the day in 1945 when American troops liberated Venice from Nazi and Fascist domination. A series of plaques all over the city, near bridges, remind you of the names of individuals who died fighting fascism (similar plaques in the pavement all over Berlin are memorials to Jewish families who once lived there). !n Giardini, the gardens where much of the Biennale takes place, young Venetians sang traditional songs and complained about their housing problems. We watched as an elderly crowd assembled to reminisce about the war and then marched off carrying a banner celebrating the courage of the Partigiani, or Resistance.

     This photo shows the remembrance festival for Resistance fighters held last year in St Mark’s Square.

   The permanent residential population of Venice is now only 53,000 people, most of them older, and each year about a thousand residents move away from the city. Venice is visited  every year by twenty million tourists - who sometimes wonder why Venetians are less friendly than most other Italians. One hopeful development is the rise of the ASC, the Social Assembly for the House, a grassroots movement that helps families under threat of being thrown out of their homes by landlords who can, of course, make far more money out of renting their apartments to tourists than to young Venetians. Combined with the threat of climate change, there is a real risk that depopulation will turn Venice into a wondrous museum.

Friday 24 May 2019

EMERGING FROM THE SHADOWS: My next project by Elizabeth Chadwick.

The Valence Casket, commissioned by the de Valence family circa 1290's  V&A Museum
Once every three years it comes time to negotiate a new contract with my publisher. My stint with The History Girls has seen me through my Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, The Summer Queen, The Winter Crown and the Autumn Throne, followed by Templar Silks and the forthcoming The Irish Princess (September).

My new contract, freshly signed is for two novels still to be written, as yet untitled, and a third one cheekily slipped in, titled The Coming of the Wolf, set just after 1066. I wrote the latter some time ago. It's a prequel to my first published novel The Wild Hunt.  The Coming of the Wolf will have a blog to itself in the coming months, but it's not what I want to talk about today.

People often ask me how I choose who or what I am going to write about.

What tends to happen is that even while writing the previous book, I will be on the lookout for future projects.  Very often the research for a current project will turn up something that sparks my interest and with initial curiosity piqued, I will then delve a little deeper and find out if the subject is just a passing fancy or whether it has a longer shelf life.  Sometimes the subject matter will have been covered by another author, but it doesn't bother me. The deciding factor is me asking a prospective protagonist: 'What you can you tell me about yourself that is true to your life but that you have never told anyone before?' And if they want to enter into a contract with me, they sit down and tell me their stories.  It is definitely a two way process.  We both have to want to travel with each other.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was fascinating to research because from the in depth research I conducted,  she bore little resemblance to the woman portrayed in several of her popular modern biographies, and often bucked the trend of the image fostered in the mainstream.  However, I must have done something right because Michael Evans quoted my research in his work 'Inventing Eleanor' for Bloomsbury Academic and cited my research, commenting that I was a historical novelist who had managed to avoid the popular misconceptions about this great queen.

William Marshal's story 'The Greatest Knight was a worldwide bestseller for me and continues to be so; we are still travelling together 15 years later as I continue to study his life for my personal interest beyond the remit of historical fiction. Sometimes a character is for life rather than just the time it takes to write a book to order.

Study of tomb of William de Valence, Westminster Abbey. Wikipedia
The first of my new unwritten novels, currently untitled, came about because I happened to pick up a biography of one of William Marshal's granddaughters.  Her name was Joanna de Munchensey and she married King Henry III's half-brother William de Valence. Should you potter along to the Dictionary of National biography, you will find a fairly long article written about her husband.  You can visit his beautiful tomb in Westminster Abbey too.

What you will not find in the DONB is an entry for Joanna de Valence.  Nor will you find her resting place because it has long been lost.  The former seems hugely unfair, but one of those instances where the woman has been written out of the history and subsumed by her husband's achievements, which were only possible because of her.  Her biographer, Linda Mitchell,  in Joan de Valence: the Life and Influence of a 13th Century Noblewoman comments that "Joan de Valence exerted an influence on the political, social and cultural landscapes of the thirteenth Century, one that has been neglected and perhaps even deliberately erased..."

Mitchell's biography and her statements championing Joan immediately piqued my curiosity and led me to invite Joanna de Valence to the table - her husband too, who had his part to play and appears to have been a loving and lifelong partner from their marriage in their late teens through to their sixties. She was his 'Dear friend and companion' more than twenty years into their marriage and their last child was born around ten years after he wrote that endearment greeting to his wife.  Mitchell comments that the completely unfair character assassination of William de Valence by historians and chroniclers has led to his 'erasure as a viable historical character'  And William's erasure has led to an 'even more profound erasure of Joan in historical discourse.' 

 Rather like Mitchell, I was astonished at the dismissal of this lady from the records given her contribution and standing. We do have a few records from her household accounts in later life that paint a picture of a warm, busy, sociable and very capable lady who was legally and politically astute and refused to have the wool pulled over her eyes.  However, for most of her life, she is ascribed no input or value. Her contribution is either glossed over or given a negative spin.  Her husband is often dismissed as an arrogant foreign sponger (in spite of the majority of his household knights and servants being natives) and his loyalty to Henry III and Edward I is set at naught and shrugged off.  But there are always two sides to every story, and it's time for the coin to be flipped and another side shown to the light.
I relish  a challenge, especially if it involves an underdog or someone who has been done down by history. Last year, with Joanna on my mind, I visited the Welsh Marches with the intention of going to Goodrich Castle which was Joanna's favourite home in the years following the Barons' Wars of the 1260's and a place she built up during her time as lady of Goodrich.  We hired a holiday home for the duration of our stay, and it turned out, the owner of the holiday let was descended from Joanna and William de Valence via one of their daughters.  Yes, some things are meant to be!
Goodrich Castle. Author's photo.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

The Beginning of the Wars of the Roses? By Catherine Hokin

Anyone who cares about history is obsessed with dates. We locate rulers with them. We decide what's historical and what's too close to our own lifetime to dare creep into that camp with them. As historical fiction writers we frequently weep over them and wish we could smudge a birth date here or a battle there to make our plot lines work. But how many, to borrow a phrase from 1066 and All That, can we trust are genuine - is it, as Misters Sellars and Yeatman would have it, really only two, reduced from four as two weren't memorable?

 Warren Field Lunar Calendar: University of Birmingham
Trying to keep track of the time goes back almost to the dawn of it. The first formulized calendars date from the Bronze Age, but the title of 'world's oldest calendar', awarded in 2013 (more than three sources quote this date so I'm going to accept it) goes to an arrangement of twelve pits and an arc in Warren Field, Scotland which is approximately 10,000 years old. The oldest-still-in-use award is claimed by the Jewish calendar which was introduced in the ninth century BC. 

 The Lost 11 Days: Today in History
Baked into the development of all our measuring systems is the differing lunar year (354 days) and solar year (365 days). The Roman Calendar, 45 BC, introduced the concept of leap years to try and solve this mismatch. By the time the Gregorian Calendar was floated in 1582, the Roman's miscalculation of the solar year had thrown the seasons, and therefore Easter, out of sync. Pope Gregory's attempts to solve this involved changing the leap year system to a new calculation based on years divisible by four rather than an extra day every four years. Or something on those lines that defies my understanding. Anyway it obviously worked because, as we all know, Easter is now an immovable feast. Not everyone liked the changes: Germany resisted the swap until 1700 and England, as warm then to the idea of European regulations as it ever was, stuck it out on the old system until 1752. By this point the seasons were so messed up, Parliament took the rather fabulous decision to advance the year overnight from September 2nd to September 14th, thus removing 11 days at a stroke. Take all this into account and is it any wonder that the dates we choose as significant can sometimes feel more like a collective act of will than a fixed and certain point?

 Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Which brings me back, finally, to where you might have thought this article was going: the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Dating the start of conflicts is always a troublesome thing. I remember my confusion at school after being initially taught that dates were absolute and then being introduced to the Hundred Years War. Rounding down its extra 16 years seemed to offend both the laws of History and Maths. That the conflict was a series of wars and didn't even attract that name until the nineteenth century was a revelation left for university, by which time I was, luckily, a more cynical creature. If the Thirty Years war lasted longer than the 1618-1648 timeline given to it, I don't want to know.

Perhaps the problem goes back to our need to define the reasons for a key event in a way that can be regurgitated in an exam format. Four causes good, one cause even better. The start date for WWI is recorded across all common sources as 28 July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. If asked, I would guess most people would state the main cause as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand - or, as Baldrick so beautifully puts it in Blackadder Goes Forth, when 'Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry'. That act has become our shorthand for all the colonial and dynastic disputes that went before. Similarly we start WWII on 1 September 1939 with its blitzkrieg images rather than the 1938 Anschluss, or the 1933 Nazi rise to power, or the end of WWI...  Obviously only the world's biggest bore would refuse to accept the commonly-agreed answer and we'd soon lose the pub quiz and all our mates if we disputed every date. The narrative of remembering is however, as always, in the victors' hands.

 Henry VI Part One
Today, May 22nd, is the anniversary of the First Battle of St Albans, fought between the rival houses of York and Lancaster in 1455 and commonly given as the starting point for the Wars of the Roses. The battle itself was a short-lived thing, lasting less than an hour and without major casualties (in context of the engagements that would follow), apart from Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset who was killed. Its consequences, however, were widespread. The alignment of Somerset with the House of Lancaster led not only to his but to the death of all his male heirs, ending the House of Beaufort. The bravery displayed by the Earl of Warwick began the myth-building around him which led to his 'kingmaker' title and his later over-reaching. King Henry VI's capture paved the way for the Duke of York to reclaim his position as Protector of England and take again the controlling hand over the kingdom the Lancastrians had only just seized back following the King's prolonged period of physical and mental incapacitation. And the Yorkists won, so they liked to remember it.

The battle started the openly bloody phase but it did not start the civil war. The origins of that go back to the eleventh century and the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, and his battling brood. No one sat comfortable on the throne for two hundred years and then, in 1399, the key split came: the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. That particular tussle split an already hostile family into two competing branches (the Lancastrians following Henry's line and the Yorkists from Richard) and the original Game of Thrones began. What finally tipped the dynastic feuding into full-blown conflict? A weak king. The saintly Henry VI with his catatonic illness was, by any measure, unfit to rule. Pair that with a strong man in opposition (Richard, Duke of York), a Queen with a long-awaited heir and no intention of relinquishing power (Margaret of Anjou) and all the fortunes tied up in aristocratic privilege and it's little surprise that a war erupted. And our shorthand for all that is the First Battle of St Albans. (And yes, I appreciate that's a whirlwind tour but there's a lot more detail in my novel, just saying). Perhaps the next question should be when did the civil war end? Easy: 1485 and the Battle of Bosworth. Except, of course, it didn't - the ramifications were still shaking the throne when the Tudors climbed on it. 

Mary Beard's Twitter Challenge
Causes and dates. We need them to make sense of where we are in the world and what brought us here but they aren't always reliable. A few months ago, Mary Beard asked her followers on Twitter to set future exam questions on what got us to Brexit. The answers were depressingly entertaining. A Level, 2069: Summarise the latest plan for Britain to exit the EU. Discuss the shifting relationship between Britain and Europe, using examples from 6200 BCE, 55 BCE, 43 CE, 410 CE, 865, 1066, 1534 and 2016-2019. To what extent did Brexit mean Brexit? My particular favourite was the short and to the point: When did Brexit End? Hopefully we can all agree on a date to that soon.