Friday 29 May 2020

Sex, Death and Eternal Love by Elisabeth Storrs

I was inspired to write my A Tale of Ancient Rome series when I found a photo of a C6th BCE sarcophagus of a man and women lying on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket (known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple) was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that existed from before archaic times in Italy and was mainly situated in the areas we now know as Tuscany and Lazio.

Sarcophagus of the Married Couple - Late C6th BCE
Etruscan women were afforded education, high status and independence. As a result they were often described as ‘wicked’ by Greek and Roman historians and travellers whose cultures repressed women. Etruscan women dined with their husbands at banquets and drank wine. In such commentators’ eyes, this liberal behaviour may well have equated with depravity. One famous account claims that wives indulged in orgies. And so modern historians continue to debate the contradictory depictions of Etruscan women –were they promiscuous adulterers or faithful wives? 

Etruscan society clearly celebrated both marriage and sex. The image of men and women embracing is a constant theme in their tomb art and ranges from being demure, as in the case of the Married Couple, to the strongly erotic (Tomb of the Bulls) and even pornographic (Tomb of the Whippings.) The latter illustrations seem to confirm the more prurient view of Etruscan women but the symplegma or ‘sexual embrace’ was not a gratuitous portrayal of abandon but instead was an atropaic symbol invoking the forces of fertility against evil and death.

Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai
Late C4th early 3rd BCE
No better example of this is a particularly striking double sarcophagus found in Vulci in Italy and which is now located in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wrought in fine white limestone, the man and woman lie entwined in each other’s arms. However, unlike the anonymous Married Couple, this husband and wife can be identified. They are Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai. The very fact that Tanchvil has two names is evidence of the status of Etruscan women. In early Rome, females only had one name – that of their father’s in feminine form. In Etruria, the bloodlines of both sides of a woman’s family were often recorded on their casket.

The image of the couple is both intimate and yet openly erotic. The spouses are not young but are nevertheless beautiful. Tanchvil gently clasps the nape of Larth’s neck as the lovers gaze into each other’s eyes. They are naked, the outline of their limbs evident beneath the sculpted folds of the mantle that covers them. However nudity cannot hide their status. Their luxurious hairstyles and elegant jewellery declare their wealth, as does the wide, decorated double bed upon which they lie.

There was a second sarcophagus found in the sepulchre at Vulci. It is narrow and only held the remains of a woman, Ramtha Visnai, but its lid depicts her embracing her husband, Arnth Tetnies. They are the parents of Larth. This coffin is made of rough nenfro stone. Wrapped in their shroud, the figures embrace each other on their bed. Unlike the sexually charged younger couple, the older pair is more contemplative as they face each other although the sight of their feet peeping from beneath the covers hints at the relaxed familiarity of their marriage.

Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies
C450-400 BCE

The Married Couple inspired me to write my trilogy, but the two caskets in the Tetnies tomb were the inspiration for the title of The Wedding Shroud. For both couples lie beneath mantles that I came to understand could symbolise the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom stood when they took their vows. In effect the spouses were swathed in their wedding shroud for eternity, their union protecting them from the dark forces that lay beyond the grave.  

As for the conflicting views of Etruscan women, it is clear from studying this society’s art that they celebrated life. Many worshipped the religion of Fufluns (the Greek Dionysus and Roman Bacchus) whose later cult adherents were famous for indulging in debauchery but in its purest form was a belief in the power of regeneration. So which version is correct? Sinners indulging in group sex or steadfast wives? Perhaps both, because the concept of a culture that condones female promiscuity while also honouring wives and mothers is not necessarily contradictory. For while it can be erroneous to compare modern societies with ancient ones, it could be argued that this attitude to females occurs in many present-day Western cultures today.

Either way, the erotic and sensual image of an embrace transcends any moralising in which historians might indulge.  Ultimately I believe that the symplegma is not just an atropaic symbol but something more powerful. Whether sculpted in stone, moulded in terracotta or painted in a mural, the embrace of two lovers remains, above all, an eternal celebration of abiding love.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at
This post first appeared on Feather of the Firebird blog.
Tarnai_Tetnies Sarcophagus courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Visna_Tetnies Sarcophagus courtesy  AncientRome.rus
The Married Couple courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Friday 22 May 2020

Pandemic then and now... by Carolyn Hughes

My series of historical novels is set in the middle of the 14th century, a period (in)famous for its devastating plague. The first novel wasn’t actually about the Black Death, but about its aftermath and the social consequences for a community that lost between a third and a half of its population.

Now, however, I’m writing the fourth novel in the series and, unfortunately, it is at least partly “about” plague, for the pandemic returned to England in 1361. As a result, right now I’m in the rather curious, and admittedly somewhat uncomfortable, position of writing about a pandemic whilst living through one. I suppose I could have steered the story away from such ghastly happenings, but I planned the book’s storyline long before we’d even heard of COVID-19, and I’m disinclined to ditch a narrative I’ve been working on for a year… For a while I was too unsettled and distracted by the unfolding present-day disaster to even think about the “plague” chapters, let alone write them, but recently I’ve got a grip and am at last making some progress.

But, because I’ve had to think about plague all over again, I’ve also been rereading some of the textbooks on medieval plague, to refresh my understanding about what medieval people thought and felt about it, and how they responded to and dealt with it.

The way COVID-19 has spread so fast and so easily is frightening enough, but doctors and scientists do at least know what it is (they understand the nature of viruses), understand how it spreads (for example, coughing), have some idea of how to mitigate it (for example, isolation, ventilators), have found a way of testing for the disease and are hopefully well on the way to finding a vaccine.

Whereas in the 14th century, people had no idea what the disease actually was, or how it spread. The black rat and its fleas have always been implicated in the spread, but there is also a view that human fleas and lice might also have carried it from person to person, given the speed of the disease’s transmission. Of course, people then didn’t necessarily understand the role of fleas as vectors for disease, though it’s clear they did believe that close contact with a victim was to be avoided.

Perhaps not quite the culprit he’s been made out to be? But not this cute either!
(Etching by W. S. Howitt, 1808. Wellcome Library, London. Public domain.)
People did seem to understand the value of isolation as a way of avoiding plague although, practically and logistically, running away cannot have been easy or even feasible. But keeping oneself to oneself was certainly understood. Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for going into “lock-down” in 1665 after plague invaded the village (from fleas in a bolt of cloth apparently). But Boccaccio’s Decameron (completed in 1353) is based on the isolation premise, being a collection of stories told by a group of young men and women who fled Florence to a secluded villa in order to escape the Black Death.

A Tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse, 1916.
National Museums, Liverpool. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the 14th century, death was of course everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life generally subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people ascribed every mishap or disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, to either God’s will or the Devil’s work. So it was presumably entirely understandable, if terrifying, to be told that the coming of the plague was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin. Especially when God was supposed to be merciful rather than vengeful.

This was what priests told their congregations. In September 1348, at the behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the coming of the Great Mortality was seen as divine punishment for sin:
“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises… he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.” #
Letters were then sent by the bishops to every parish in their diocese, reiterating this assertion that the Great Mortality was God’s punishment for mankind’s sin, and urging priests and their parishioners to repent earnestly of their sins and beg God for His mercy. These words come from the bishop of Winchester’s letter to his clergy:
“…God often strikes us, to test our patience and justly punish us for our sins… it is not within the power of man to understand the divine plan… the most likely explanation is that human sensuality has now plumbed greater depths of evil, producing a multitude of sins which have provoked the divine anger, by a just judgement, to this revenge.” #
So, according to the bishop, it was “sensuality” that had provoked God’s especial anger…. And one particular aspect of sensuality that some held up as a prime cause of God’s anger was allegedly the fashion for clothing that was considered by some to be both outlandish and indecent.

In 1344, an English monk spoke of the “grotesque fashions of clothing” then current in England, and he upbraided the English for abandoning the “old, decent style of long full garments” for:
“clothes which are short, tight, impractical, slashed, every part laced, strapped or buttoned up.” #
A few years after the second outbreak of the plague in 1361, a chronicler associated the lewd style of clothing with the evil that would undoubtedly follow:
 “…the English…remained wedded to a crazy range of outlandish clothing without realising the evil which would come of it.” (From a chronicle of 1365) #
This chronicler was writing twenty years after the monk, so one presumes the “outlandish” clothing was still in vogue.

So, what was it like, this clothing? Indecency and impracticality, as well as frivolousness, seem to have been the main complaints. Here are a few examples from the 1365 chronicler describing men’s fashion:
“…full doublets, cut short to the loins” “…which failed to conceal…their private parts.”
“…particoloured and striped hose…which are called harlottes, and thus one ‘harlot’ serves another, as they go about with their loins uncovered.”
“…a long garment reaching to the ankles, [but] not opening in the front, as is proper for men, but laced up the side to the armhole in the style of women’s clothes, so that from the back their wearers look more like women than men.”
“…little hoods, tightly buttoned under the chin in the fashion of women…the liripipe ankle-length and slashed like a jester’s clothes.”
“They also possess shoes with pointed toes as long as a finger…more like devil’s talons than apparel for men…” #
The three images below give you some idea of very short doublets, and very pointed shoes (the chap on the right in the middle image). These are Italian men so maybe Englishmen’s clothes would have looked a little different but, from the criticisms above, one might deduce that the principles of style were much the same!

All these images are from the 14th century treatise on health Tacuinum sanitatis.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Women of course didn’t escape censure – far from it. I think some members of the church were always very willing to find fault with the “daughters of Eve”…

As an example of women’s “lewd” clothing, the sideless surcoat became fashionable in the mid-14th century, a long, sleeveless overdress, with very large armholes, which revealed the fitted gown underneath. Some moralists abhorred the style, saying it drew unwarranted attention to the shape of the woman’s body, in a titillating way that would surely inflame men’s thoughts…

This image shows the style rather well, albeit she is very much a member of the nobility.

Miniature in the manuscript Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis, showing 
Maria of Brabant’s marriage with the French king Philip III.
British Library Royal MS 20 C VII, fol. 10. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Tight clothing does seem to have been the principal concern, and the monk in 1344 gives us another example of it:
“Women followed with the tides of fashion…even more eagerly, wearing clothes that were so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down insider their skirts at the back, to hide their arses.” #
All these clothes were seen as signs of both lewdness and pride, for men and women alike, and the inevitable precursor to disaster. The monk predicted:
“The sin of pride manifested in this way must surely bring down misfortune in the future.” #
And the later chronicler said much the same, but brought all the other sins into the equation too:
“Because the people wantonly squander the gifts of God on…pride, lechery and greed – and all the rest of the deadly sins – it is only to be expected that the Lord’s vengeance will follow.” #
Clearly all the clothes in these illustrations were worn by the better off rather than peasants although, as some peasants and artisans became more prosperous, they too aspired to, and acquired, more fashionable clothes, which was even more deeply frowned upon. In the 1360s, sumptuary laws were brought in to curb this unseemly blurring of the social hierarchy, but this was presumably more about the upper classes wanting to maintain their fashionable distinction than worries about indecency…

But doesn’t it all seem rather odd – hilarious, even – that fashion was held responsible for the coming of the plague? Or even that immorality should take the blame? But the chroniclers were certainly moralists of one kind or another. And plague was perhaps a good pretext for them to criticise the masses for their bad behaviour. Not that most people, of course, would, or could, have read the chronicles, though I suppose they might have heard similar sentiments coming from the mouths of their priests. But I wonder to what extent the average Englishman or woman believed them? How I’d love to know…

# All texts are taken from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox.

Friday 15 May 2020

The Ancient Guide to Coping with Lock-down by L.J. Trafford

These are strange times when we find ourselves constrained to our homes. As a result the country is awash with glossy Sunday supplements offering advice and suggestions for how we should spend our lock-down time.

Which made me think of a good way I could kill some lock-down time; by compiling my very own glossy Sunday supplement guide. Which got me thinking further. We all know the ancients were terribly wise, what with inventing philosophy and drama and concrete. Surely, they would possess some insightful knowledge, some great wisdom that can help us navigate this new normal?

Having scoured ancient texts for inspirational quotes I bring you my (irreverent) guide to coping with lock-down with input from the grand minds of antiquity

Self-isolating chums

Being holed up for weeks on end it is very important that you get on with your fellow incarcerates.
Something that Martial is clearly struggling with:  “Though I can’t live without you. I can live without you in the house.”

Over to Seneca who has some extremely good advice on the subject: “You should be extending your stay amongst writers whose genius is unquestionable.”

Which is exactly what I told my husband and children. They looked at me blankly.

Facing up to hard times

The ancients have much advice on how to handle hard times, such as this gem from philosopher
Epictetus, “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer has paired with a tough young buck.”
As an additional boost why not picture your opponent wrestler as being particularly attractive and muscly, maybe like Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender.
Or as someone you really dislike and then picture yourself wrestling the crap out of them.

Plutarch has a different approach, “Reflect on famous men and how they have not been affected at all by circumstances identical to one’s own.” Which I believe is a call to stalk celebs on social media and boggle over their choice in internal design.

Alternatively, why not reflect on the Queen and her stoical stance to all the troubling times throughout her long reign? God bless you ma’am!

Her Majesty is thrilled to meet L.J. Trafford

Make the most of the lock-down 

Whereas modern social media is awash with people growing sour dough monstrosities, completing 10k jigsaw puzzles and squat thrusting to within an inch of their lives, Pliny the Younger has a more chillaxed approach.

“I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honourable more rewarding than any ‘business’ can be.” 

Seneca echoes Pliny’s take that quietness and stillness can be a reward in themselves and that we should let go of our busy, busy endlessly moving lifestyles.
“The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet; will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.” 

Another saying from antiquity tells us: “Contentment is impossible for anyone who busies himself with personal or public affairs”

Which is what you should tell your other half when they berate you for lying on the sofa all day doing nothing.


If you’re had all the stillness and quiet you can handle, why not try taking up a hobby.  Here's some examples you might wish to follow, courtesy of Rome’s emperors

Emperor Augustus had quite a collection of “skeletons of extinct sea and land monsters”, Suetonius tells us, which he had on display in his house. Why not see if amazon is delivering monster skeletons so you too can have a collection like Augustus.

You might also want to follow Augustus’ example by spending your lock-down time to write an account of all the marvellous things you have achieved in your life. Augustus’ Res Gestae covered such accomplishments as; “ At the age of nineteen, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.” 

Which might pale your student union drinking exploits somewhat, but we can’t all be Augustus.
Augustus had his accomplishment carved into whopping big stones and displayed outside his mausoleum and all over the empire. Why not do similar by making multiple copies of your achievements, sticking them in your window next to your kids’ rainbow picture and then sharing them by posting copies through your neighbours letterboxes. 

Augustus kindly points out where the toilets are located.

Emperor Nero, of course, was dedicated to the art of song. Dedicate yourself to the art of song and don’t fret if you aren’t any good, because neither was Nero.

Alternatively, you might want emulate emperor Domitian, who “would spend hours alone every day doing nothing but catch flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”


It's not surprising that during this lock-down period many people have acquired a fluffy friend to keep them company.
Romans were big on pets too, particularly the aquatic kind. Fish ponds were wildly popular, so much so that sour puss Cicero took a swipe at ‘fish fanciers'.
Fish are relaxing to watch but should you tire of being relaxed why not follow Crassus’s example. He had a pet eel which he trained to swim up to him when he called it’s name.
Crassus also dressed up his eel as a lady in earrings and necklace, which gives new meaning to Cicero’s ‘fish fanciers’. This is an example you might want to avoid copying, if only for the slippery difficulty of putting a ring on a goldfish. 

Remember the downsides 

It can be difficult being away from people, shut up in your own house. But this can be countenanced by remembering how awful the outside world is and everyone who lives in it.
Martial for instance won’t be missing those dreadful dinner parties he was forced to attend : “Though each dish is lavish and superb the pleasures nil since you recite your poems.”

Juvenal won’t be missing the commute certainly, “The endless traffic In narrow twisting streets the tide ahead obstructs me, And the huge massed ranks that follow behind crush my kidneys;
This man sticks out his elbow, that one flails with a solid pole,
This man strikes my head with a beam, that one with a barrel.
Legs caked with mud, I’m forever trampled by mighty feet
From every side, while a soldier’s hobnailed boot pierces my toe.”

And not forgetting those irritating pieces of flesh and blood known as other people. Boy are they annoying, as Juvenal notes.  “Always ready to throw up their hands and cheer
If their ‘friend’ belches deeply, or perhaps pisses straight,
Or gives a fart when the golden bowl’s turned upside down.”

Really very, very annoying;
"You always whisper into every one's ear, Cinna; you whisper even what might be said in the hearing of the whole world. You laugh, you complain, you dispute, you weep, you sing, you criticise, you are silent, you are noisy; and all in one's ear.” 

With disgusting habits:
"To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy." 
Pompeii graffiti

In short, people are annoying and horrible and disgusting and you are better off without them. In fact, you are a better person without them. As Seneca notes.
“You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this; a mass crowd”
“I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out.”
So as you sit at home revel in this improvement to your moral character. Then WhatsApp all your friends to inform them that in their absence you are a much better person.

Having lost all your friends you may as well go the full misanthropic route favoured by Martial.
“You ask me what I get out of my country place. The profit, gross or net, is never seeing your face.”

L.J. Trafford is the author of four fiction and two non fiction books on Ancient Rome. She is spending the lock-down doing jigsaws, colouring things and contemplating important things, like how you put earrings on an eel. 

Friday 8 May 2020

In the Ghetto by Mary Hoffman

In Autumn 2019 I spent two and a half weeks as Writer in Residence in Venice, invited by the university (Ca' Foscari) and its Center for Humanities and Social Change. My task was to write a book for children, treating themes of climate change and cultural diversity and having a connection to Venice itself. As time went by, I discovered I must also link this novel in some way to Edmund de Waal's installation, psalm, which was in the city at that time. Psalm came in two halves, one in the Jewish Museum and one in the Palazzo Ateneo, where I took part in a Symposium called Library of Memories. So now I had to add the themes of exile, loss, identity and memory.

Like everyone else, I knew de Waal from his wonderful book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which traces the fortunes of his ancestors in Odessa, Paris and Vienna.
Edmund de Waal Credit: Bernhard Holub
I re-read it before meeting him and was struck again by the poignancy of the loss of his great-grandfather's library in the Anschluss in Vienna. The Gestapo just burst into the luxurious apartment on the Ringstrasse and took everything: old masters, clothes, furniture, bibelots, jewellery as well as books. Well, not quite everything, because a maid, Anna, hid the family's collection of netsuke under her mattress and it survived and came down to Edmund from his great-uncle who lived in Japan.

That lost library is one of many behind the idea of the installation in the Ateneo. A large white cube with the names of all such book collections scribbled on the sides housed a library of books written in or about exile.

Alongside the books were four vitrines filled with de Waal's signature white ceramics. There were more ceramics too in the Jewish Museum, which is in the original Jewish Ghetto in the north of the city.

Tehillim (psalm) in the Canton entrance

(There are two ghettoes in Venice: the Nuovo (new) and the Vecchio (old). Almost needless to say, the "new" one is older than the "old" one!)

The first Ghetto in Europe was instituted on 29th March 1516 when the Government of Venice issued special laws.  It was an area where Jews were forced to live and which they could not leave from sunset to dawn. The area was closed by gates watched by guards and to the present day the marks of the hinges are still visible there. The Ghetto continued for more than two and a half centuries, until Napoleon conquered Venice and finally eliminated every gate in 1797.

Edmund de Waal describes it thus: "The Ghetto is a place of connections, a place of plurality of languages and cultures: of German, Flemish, Persian, Ottoman, Spanish and Portuguese Jews alongside Italian. This was a place of constant translation, a testing ground for comprehension and nuance. It was noisy with learning, debate, poetry and music. It should be again. Everything is plural here, one history reaching out to another, a palimpsest of voices."  (guide to psalm, Venice 2019)

The Jewish Museum of Venice, where one part of psalm was displayed, was set up in 1955, having previously been a synagogue. From the Canton entrance, you can look down into the old synagogue. de Waal says," This installation, Tehillim – the Hebrew word for psalm – consists of 11 vitrines, each one holding a thin sheet of gilded porcelain of almost unimaginable fragility and a piece of translucent white marble. It is a call-and-response between materials. It is made to catch the reflected light from within the dense and dark goldenness of the synagogue itself." (Guardian, 24.04.2019)

During my residency in Venice I spent a lot of time in the Campo de Gheto Novo, as it's called in the local dialect. It is one of the biggest squares in the city, after San Marco, and practically the only one without a church. It has three wells, a water fountain, eight marble benches and - unusually for Venice - about half a dozen mature trees. Some people find it sad, thinking of its history of repression and containment of a population, but I find it peaceful and a good place to reflect.

It was inevitable that it would find a place in my novel. It is where the two main characters meet:  a Muslim boy and a Jewish girl. He, having escaped from a capsizing boat in the Mediterranean and corruption in a refugee camp, is in search of a new future. She, adopted as a baby, is more interested in the unknown past. The Ghetto is a place of connections.

The other half of de Waal's installation was also productive of ideas. The Library of Exile contains books from fifty-two countries, two thousand titles "written by those who have been forced to leave their own country or exiled within it." It commemorates the lost libraries of the world, "from Ninevah and Alexandria to the recent destruction of Sarajevo,Timbuktu and Aleppo and Mosul." And of course the library of Viktor Ephrussi, Edmund de Waal's greatgrandfather, plundered  by the Gestapo.

Like Edmund de Waal, I have a Jewish greatgrandfather. Not a banker with a twenty-four room apartment in  Vienna but a farmer from Heildelberg. Georg Hoffmann bequeathed me my surname , give or take a letter, and very little else. Certainly not his mother tongue, but maybe my fascination with languages and words, with etymology, semantics and grammar.  I doubt he had a library to plunder. But by 1938 he was long out of reach of the Nazis; he had emigrated to England, married an Englishwoman and never returned to his native home. He was luckier than Victor Ephrussi because, although he had far less to lose, he kept what he had.

"This library celebrates the idea that all languages are diasporic, that we need other people's words, self-definitions and re-definitions in translation. It honours the words of André Aciman, himself an exile from Alexandria, that he understands himself 'not as a person from a place, but as a person from a place across from that place. You are - and always are - from somewhere else.'"

This part of the installation, The Library of Exile, left Venice at the end of September last year and travelled to Dresden. When it closed there it came on to the British Museum in London, where it opened on 12th March. I went to the private view on 11th, when we were all still able to embrace without fear. The British Museum, The Library of Exile and its associated programme of lectures and workshops, all closed a week later.

We are now, so many of us, living "in exile in our own country." Quarantine gives us the smallest taste of what real exile is like.

The Library of Exile's ultimate destination is Mosul, which lost its library just over five years ago, when it was blown up by ISIL, destroying 8,000 rare volumes and manuscripts. But for the moment it sits in lockdown inside the British Museum.

My book sits at a publishers' office in London. Exile is a form of Limbo. We are all on pause, waiting for the new enemy to be defeated. Like Siddiq in my novel, we are hoping for a new future.

Friday 1 May 2020


So far, in this time of enforced isolation, the Dunnetts, the Mantels, the Sansoms and other historical tomes have stayed on the bookshelves. 

My need was for something brisk to stand against the media’s outbreak of “war words” and writing that reminded me of the quiet cynicism with which my parents and grandparents – who had had real experience of such things - regarded such “patriotic” stances.

In consequence, I have been reading the novels of Lissa Evans: OLD BAGGAGE, CROOKED HEART and THEIR FINEST HOUR AND A HALF*, set during the first half of the twentieth century, and blessed with a dark, quirky and benign humour.

Evans has a way of creating characters that are slightly at odds with society, people trying to survive in a world that has moved on and not always to their advantage. Her plots are not about dealing with heroic events on a world stage, but about coping with snobbery, prejudice, poverty, petty cruelty, boredom and tragedy during the hard times.

However, bit by bit, despite sometimes doing a wrong or stupid thing, things work out almost right for her main characters - and almost right, Evans seems to suggest to me, might be the best we can hope. 

OLD BAGGAGE is set in London in 1928. Women have now been granted the right to vote, so what lies ahead for the Suffragettes, now older and stouter, who were shaped by their experiences of direct action? 
Miss Mattie Simpkins will be gathering with her fellow radicals, for Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral. As she walks, pre-occupied, on Hampstead Heath, she is robbed by a young man. Still adept in lobbing objects at full strength, the furious Mattie throws a bottle after him, striking an ordinary young woman, Ida, in the face.
Partly in retribution, autocratic Mattie sets up The Amazons, a club for young, disadvantaged women, providing opportunities for strong, healthy, physical outdoor activities such as “Javelin throwing. Archery. Use of the slingshot.” along with lectures on feminism. 
Her intention is to encourage female confidence and independence, but despite her years of campaigning, Mattie - from a more privileged background - does not really understand the lives of ordinary girls and women:
Now she could see Ida toiling up the hill from Parliament Fields, head down . . “Well done,” she called as Ida came within earshot. “Couldn’t you persuade anyone to come with you?”

“I tried my friend Vesta, but she says today’s her only lie-in,” said Ida, trying to keep the resentment out of her voice, seeing as exactly the same thing applied to herself. 
Meanwhile, Mattie’s best friend, Florrie Lea - nicknamed “The Flea”- offers more practical solutions and better employment to Ida. Unlike Mattie, with her wealthy background, The Flea knows what it is to be poor.

While Mattie’s militant energies help the group to thrive, its status is soon threatened by a more glamorous and miltaristic organisation: the well-funded “Empire Youth League” led by an old Suffragette acquaintance who has now become a fervent supporter of Mussolini. 
Mattie also threatens the group herself, unwisely favouring a new recruit - the flighty, sly Inez - above her more ordinary Amazons because Inez is the daughter of a fellow Suffragette and a young man that Mattie once admired.
In her idealised pursuit, Mattie breaks her promise to Ida, the original protege and thoughtlessly offends “The Flea”, through whose quietly determined visits we glimpse life in the poorest districts of thirties London.

OLD BAGGAGE, set within the rising shadows of the Thirties, is a study of the gaps between idealism, intentions, practicality and human frailty. 


Although this title would come second in a historical time sequence, in terms of publishing, this is the earlier novel of the pair.
The year is 1939, with Hitler actively threatening, London’s school-children are to be evacuated for a second time. Meanwhile, out in St Alban’s, Hertfordshire, Lissa Evans introduces us to Veera.  

"Vee", thirty-six, lives with a domineering, ailing mother and Donald her selfish nineteen-year-old son.

Constantly in debt, Vee struggles over rent and bills, surviving by whatever means possible. Unexpectedly offered an unwanted evacuee with a limp, she sees the boy as an extra way of extracting money and sympathy and takes him in. Besides, with Donald working as a watchman, the boy can sleep in her son’s empty bed..

Ten year old Noel, however, is not a simple idiot. He has been trained by his godmother Miss Mattie Simpkins to be observant, self-reliant and suspicious of authority
Noel surprises Vee, not only with the ammonite he lugs around in his suitcase, but by his responses. Slowly, ill-treated Vee and Noel become a team, even if this involves some petty crime on the way.

Gradually, after her harsh introduction, the reader starts to understand Vee’s behaviour and situation, and to admire young Noel’s single-minded stoicism and determination as well as recognise some of the outcomes of wartime officialdom.

OLD BAGGAGE and CROOKED HEART will be followed soon by VICTORY, the third in Lissa Evans trilogy.

When this earlier novel was bought and made into a film, the original title was adapted in response to other films out in production at that time, particularly a film about Churchill, called THEIR FINEST HOUR.

Both book and film were released around the anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, and about the same time as the spectacular film DUNKIRK hit the screens. In many ways, this change almost echoes the storyline of this novel, which is about the making of a “Dunkirk” wartime propaganda film, the lives of some of those involved, and the wider issue of what happens to facts when they meet the needs of fiction.

The book includes passages of typed script, and moves between the writing team’s cramped studio, location filming off the Norfolk coast and the film studio. Although there are many characters in the book, the story mainly centres on three main roles.

The first is Catrin Cole, a young Welsh woman who has run to London with her lover, a war-artist, Initially a copy-writer, she becomes a script writer, creating the “slop”: the pieces of film script that appeal to women. 

Searching real-life news for inspiring national stories, she discovers a pair of twin sisters who took a boat across to Dunkirk, but finds, face to face, that their adventure was less heroic but in some ways as bold as the newspaper reports. Returning to work, she witnesses the film twins” life and adventure altered in almost every respect to suit industry and national needs for a “good story.”

Another is Edith Beadmore, a middle-aged dressmaker, bombed out of her home and her job at Tussaud’s Museum, now living and working uncomfortably with family, but fortunately close to the film location. Unfortunately, ordinary Edith and her story has not leapt from page to screen.

Thirdly, we see the events through the eyes of Ambrose Hilliard, a vain, selfish, elderly actor, who cannot accept he is no longer leading-role material and is forced into the demeaning role of the twin’s drunken uncle. Once again, the needs of the film re-shaped Ambrose, who was played by the much-loved actor Bill Nighy.
This new Ambrose had a far larger role, more interaction with Catrin, and was more kindly drawn, script-wise, than Lissa Evan’s original novel - all of which rather fits the theme of the book, the power of the media and the need for effective images

These books have been just the right reading for me at this time. What is harder to convey in this History Girls post, is Lissa Evan’s clever sideways look at the society and events of these past times, and, implicitly, at our own too.

For example, at one point, Lissa Evans describes Ambrose, forced to take ownership of his agent's dog, struggling down a wartime street in London.

It dawned on Ambrose that he’d been mistaken, not only for a dog-lover but for a bombed-out vagrant toting his remaining possessions in search of a nice cup of tea and a chit for a public bath.

He jerked the lead, and Cerberus trotted after him, past the rest centre, where a photographer was loitering – waiting, presumably, for a subject of the requisite crass symbolism. The yellow press seemed permanently plastered with pictures of dusty but defiant grandmothers, and bandaged urchins signing “V” for victory. England, apparently, could “take it”, though whether she could also dish it out was a moot point. . . 
It was all an utter disaster, and yet if one were to read certain of the newspapers, one might believe that an invasion could be forestalled by a few pallid bank clerks armed with cobblestones, and that a nation could be fed on allotment carrots and the odd can of beans lobbed over by Roosevelt.”

Penny Dolan