Friday 31 July 2020

Why the eighteenth century? By Gillian Polack

My mind has been in the eighteenth century again. This is a bad habit. I studied the eighteenth century as an undergraduate and never quite escaped it.

When I went to put it into fiction, some years ago, I wondered why I did this. Why, when I was a specialist in an entirely different period, did I keep returning to the eighteenth century? I had to write a novel to find that out. The novel was just released (not a full release yet, COVID-19 has the strangest side effects) and so I find myself in the eighteenth century again, wondering what I learned about it from writing that novel.

It helped that the cover artist (Lewis Morley) is a friend and that he asked me questions about my novel when he designed the miniature street scene. I keep telling myself that this street lives in the Blue Mountains now, and that it perfectly summarises what I learned and why I had to write a novel to learn why I keep returning to the eighteenth century. Let me explain the image – that’s the simplest way of talking this through.

It’s not that what I do and did is complicated, it’s because I love what Lewis did with my world.

First things first: the story is fiction but I used a lot of primary sources and historical studies to write it and I used some of the primary sources in the novel itself.

The vendor in the picture reflects this. Lewis used pictures of London streets from the eighteenth century and then modified them. That modification is the heart of the questions I have been asking myself: our eighteenth century, the one I keep returning to, is never the eighteenth century at all.

The past is gone. We can’t get it back. When we return to it and return to it and return to it, we’re consolidating emotions and memories and creating our eighteenth century. It’s based on a real one. That research matters. Just as my cover picture shows, however, we start with our world and then add a doorway here or change the roofline there. It’s a work in progress. Often it’s a glorious work in progress.

This is why I keep returning there. I want to see what I remember as having enjoyed, sure, but I also want to add what I just discovered when I read a political harangue from the period. I want to use it to change my remembered eighteenth century and make it more like what I think the real one might have been like. I want to watch my eighteenth century grow and I want to look at its relationship with historical sources and with the work of archaeologists and… it’s an ongoing intellectual inquiry that fills a profound emotional need.

One day, I’ll discover why the eighteenth century is one of five places I visit to feed this emotional need. Right now, I’m enjoying the voyage. I’m enjoying it so very much that I created a future world far away from here, where the whole population is involved in a reinvention and re-creation of the eighteenth century. If I can do it, so can they.

Friday 24 July 2020

Miss Graham's Cold War Cook Book by Celia Rees

It was a very long time coming but it is here at last! Yesterday was publication day! I must confess to thinking that the day would never come. The book was in my mind when I joined the History Girls in June 2011.  I had always written Children's and Young Adult fiction but I knew that this book would be an adult novel. This would be a departure for me and and a challenge and I welcomed the chance to join a group of fellow writers who wrote historical fiction for all ages, including adults. I could not have asked for a more supportive group. Over the years, I've always been able to rely on a sympathetic ear through the book's vicissitudes and I have to thank History Girls, past and present, for their help, encouragement, and their generosity in reading and commenting on the finished book. 

I could have stopped writing at any point, not even started, turned back to YA, the writing world I know, but the idea wouldn't leave me alone. Neither could I change it, introduce some young characters, turn it in to a YA title. I knew it had to be an adult book. It had been brewing away in my mind for years. 

It began with the chance find of an old cookery book among my mother's effects. 

The book was a mystery in itself. I'd never seen it before. When, I opened it, I found clippings and cuttings from newspapers and magazines, some dating back to the war, and handwritten recipes - I recognised my mother's, my aunt's and what I took to be my grandmother's writing. As far as I knew, these were the only written connection between these three women. I had found no letters. I put the book aside. I knew there was something I wanted to write about there but I had no idea what it might be. 

Years later, I was with my daughter in the Espionage Gallery of the Imperial War Museum. I read on a wall panel that after the war, the British Zone in Northern Germany had been a hotbed of spying. One of us said, 'Perhaps Aunty Nancy was a spy!'. We both laughed. My Headmistress maiden Aunt a spy? How ridiculous was that? But then again, it was perfectly possible... 

She'd been in Germany directly after the war, working as an Education Officer for the Control Commission, the civilian branch of the occupying forces,  tasked with bringing some kind of order to the post war chaos. She'd been stationed in Lübeck, practically on the border with the Russian Zone. She had spent the war at home, teaching in Coventry and looking after my grandmother. Then, as soon as the war was over and much to the consternation of the family, she'd upped sticks and gone to Germany. She didn't come back until the mid 1950s. I remembered her coming back bringing presents for everyone, Benson & Hedges cigarettes for my mother, a carved bear for my brother and a stuffed monkey for me. I remembered other things about her. She'd led a bit of a hidden life. She was a fluent German speaker and had had a relationship with a German boy before the war. She'd also spent a lot of time 'jaunting about Europe' according to my mother, accompanying her her cousin who was rumoured to have been involved in something 'hush hush' during the war.      

My Aunty Nancy
I had been her executor, one of the reasons I knew there had been no letters. I'd kept some things that related to her time in Germany. She had sent photographs of ruined cities and sunken ships in bombed harbours; a shocking addition to the family album. I found more in a German chocolate box. 

I'd also kept her passports, so I knew when she had entered and left Germany.


Among the photographs were holiday snaps of Bavarian villages, ox carts, two women walking along a street festooned with swastikas and a photograph of a young man in a cricket sweater. Could that be her friend Karl? 

I knew enough about life to create the skeleton of a story. If she had been a spy, then who would she have been working for and why? What would she be finding out? If she was going to be sending messages via recipes, to whom would she be sending? I needed to know more about post war Germany and what was going on there. As for the coded messages and the recipes, it would make sense for the exchange to be between women. 

The more I found out, the more possible it became. There were, indeed, women involved in post war work in Germany. Vera Atkins, ex SOE, working with War Crimes, trying to find her missing agents.

Vera Atkins
Krystyna Skarbek

I already knew about the women who had worked for SOE during the war. I had read ex History Girl Clare Mulley's excellent biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, The Spy Who Loved. Suddenly a real plot was forming, new characters arriving and Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook was born. 

Celia Rees
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Friday 17 July 2020

Gold in them there hills - the Roman hunt for treasure in Wales - by Ruth Downie

Those of us who have been watching “The Luminaries” know exactly where gold comes from. It’s found by a ragged creature in a broad-brimmed hat who spends hours squatting by a stream, shaking a large flat dish and staring into it.

Perhaps that’s how the earliest miners worked at Dolaucothi in South Wales, but who they were, what they did or when they did it remains a mystery. Unfortunately for archaeologists, later miners and quarrymen tend to hack away the work of earlier ones, and a Roman mine manager with professional engineers, plenty of labour and official backing tended to hack away more than most.

When the legions turned up in the first century AD and declared South Wales to be Under New Management (a statement greeted with less than universal joy, and followed by much bloodshed) it was inevitable that they would commandeer the local resources for their own benefit. What could be more glamorous to commandeer than gold?

The reality was less glamorous than the end product. Especially for the poor souls who were condemned to tramp up the never-ending steps of a waterwheel in the dripping dark in order to keep the workings below from flooding. We know about them because some 1800 years later, modern miners found part of the wooden wheel in a Roman underground chamber. Here’s a scale model:  

The hollow rim of the wheel is divided into compartments which fill with water when they’re at the bottom. As the wheel turns over at the top, the water spills out and away down another channel. To add to the woes of the operator, it’s not even very efficient. Now imagine doing it underground with no electric light:

The fragment of wheel is one of the few finds that is incontrovertibly Roman because the wood has been dated. Much of the rest of the evidence at Dolaucothi is delightfully enigmatic. My husband and I were were very glad of the guide on our trip, because while we would have enjoyed a bracing country walk, we would have strolled past most of the sights with no idea of what we were looking at.

Here, for instance, is a shot of the peaceful valley where the National Trust has repurposed twentieth-century mine buildings to welcome visitors.

Except… that is not a valley. That is a massive opencast mine, and the valley floor (once used as a caravan site) is flat because it’s made up of backfill.

The tunnels below and around it are the work not only of Romans but of Victorians, Edwardians and miners of the 1930’s. (The Trust also offers a splendid Victorian mine tour.) What united them all is the search for this:

Clearly in need of some further refinement. Below is the amount of rock needed to yield enough gold for a ring.

Yes, all those truckloads to make one ring. No wonder Gollum thought it was precious.

It’s sometimes said that the ancient world barely bothered with mechanization because slaves (of whom more in a moment) could be forced to do all the heavy work, but that’s not necessarily true. Consider the stone below, which is within sneezing distance of the mine.

It may be the pillow of five Celtic saints who fell asleep in the mine after taking refuge from a thunderstorm. Despite the removal of their pillow, complete with the indentations of their heads, the saints are sleeping still, awaiting the return of King Arthur.  (Or the arrival of a pious Bishop. Sources differ.) This is why it’s called the Pumsaint (Five Saints) Stone.

On the other hand, it could be the anvil from a Roman water-powered stamping mill, built to crush the stone ready for processing.

To justify using a machine like that, rather than a gang of workers wielding lump hammers, they must have been digging out a LOT of rock. Here’s where some of it came from:

Even a duffer like myself can see it’s a tunnel, but why it’s that unusual shape and size and runs more or less straight through the hill and out the other side is anybody’s guess. An overengineered drain? A short cut to carry ore through the hill instead of over it? An exceptionally neat access to a seam of gold-bearing quartz? Theories abound.

We might sit and ponder them beside this tranquil pool...

…which is part of the massive and sophisticated system of water engineering that once surrounded the site, extending for miles out into the hills beyond. Water power, stored and then suddenly released, would have been used for earthmoving on a spectacular scale. Apparently there’s still gold in the pond, but there are also so many noxious chemicals that removing it safely would cost more than it’s worth.

Leaping forward through time - this is what used to be a Norman castle motte beside the pit…

…until archaeological digging proved it to be a very neat Roman spoil heap. I like to think it would have pleased whoever organized the very square tunnel.

Which brings me to the question of who did all this work. The fort just up the road tells us that Rome was in charge, but were the miners themselves locals or incomers, contracted or conscripted? They may have been condemned criminals, branded in the middle of the forehead, fitted with heavy chains, and sentenced to a grim servitude from which few were expected to return.

I’d like to think that somewhere nearby, a cemetery with some answers awaits excavation.

In the meantime, here’s something we can all identify with certainty - the site of the local Roman fort. Also, by a happy coincidence, the pub.

The Dolaucothi Arms is owned by the National Trust and was Countryfile’s Country Pub of the Year in 2019. It’s the perfect place to end a day scrambling around the hills in search of long-dead gold-diggers.

To find out more, visit

Ruth Downie writes a series of crime novels set mostly in Roman Britain and featuring Roman medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla. When she is not writing her happiest moments are spent wielding an archaeological trowel.








Friday 10 July 2020

Why I’m not busy doing publicity for my new novel - Michelle Lovric

It’s hard to write or speak right now without mentioning Covid, so I’m not even going to try to avoid the subject. Here’s the question all writers are asking one another: have you blossomed into lockdown creativity? Me, I can’t say, objectively. Yes, I have written a lot – at least thirty thousand words of something that might be prose, but I don’t know if it’s emotionally legible, let alone good. I may not know until we’ve come out of this dreamlike time and can think clearly again.

I have loved writing for a poetry seminar led by the wickedly inspiring Christina Dunhill. We’ve been working on Ghazal, Rubai, Rhyme Royal and other contortions, form being, in my opinion, the poets’ Sudoku. (In the case of sestina or pantoum, form is more like the poets’ Rubik’s Cube). Zoom works surprisingly well for a poetry seminar, with much deployment of the chat function, so there’s lots of subtext, literally. The screen has exploded with talent, passion and humour. Christina’s group will be one of my best memories of the lockdown. Meanwhile, my own far-flung family has resorted to a new post-Covid poetic form on WhatsApp – Gangsta Haiku, which involves a lot of swearing and, I fear, disrespecting of one another’s cats. Our cats are also voiced, and they turn out to be quite outstandingly rude. (For shame, Caramella, Guppy, Jessie. For shame.)

However, I have spent most of my lockdown time bare-knuckle wrestling with a planning application presented to the City of London as a 'simple reinstatement' of historic Swan Lane Pier by London Bridge at the heart of the Thames.

I'd support the reinstatement of the old pier, of course.

You can read about its colourful history on this excellent website:

If only we could reinstate the Swan Lane Pier of Samuel Pepys, the old Swan Upping ceremony and the 'Waterman, naked all but his shirt, rowed in a Butcher’s Tray from the Old Swan Stairs, to Greenwich, for a Wager of four Guineas, and won the same.'

But I'd also support a new pier with a gentle footprint on the river - a pier that ran on solar, tide or wind renewables, providing a mixed hub for public transport, safe water sports for London's children and adults and a responsible truly green freight offering to ease road congestion. Who wouldn't be in favour of giving Londoners more free access to our river and City commuters new healthier journeys? I'd support more pier work for the Company of Watermen and Lightermen who must have been hard hit by the virus: in a thousand years, the Thames cannot have looked as glassy and silent as it's been in the last few months, but the beauty has surely come at the cost of some hardship. More than anything, I'd love to see the return of the old Royal Sovereign and Belle steamers. If only I liked fish-paste, I'd love to sit on deck eating fish-paste sandwiches from a linen handkerchief while I traced the Thames all the way out to sea and into Yarmouth, a jolly whole-day trip starting off at Old Swan Lane ...

The current proposal, however, is not for a reinstatement of old Swan Lane Pier. In fact, the plan was revealed last year as a massive reinvention of the site as private pier complex specifically designed to host Europe’s biggest party boat, the Ocean Diva. (Everything you need to know about style and scale lies in the name. You can look on YouTube if you want to see the parties). This would be a private pier, joint-funded by the Ocean Diva itself, and would be privately run too. With up to1000 partygoers filling the single narrow ramp between pier and shore up to four times a day, there just physically couldn't be much of a window for kayakers or scheduled public transport or regular freight. Water-sport and public transport have been scoped out anyway; the freight offering, shall we say, bespeaks the core operation and raison d'être of this particular scheme.

Moreover, to accommodate the Diva's 282-foot length, the developers would need to dig a kind of private underwater harbour into the Thames, quaintly styled as a 'pocket'. This would entail dredging 2200 cubic metres of sediment so contaminated with lead and mercury that it's too dangerous to dump at sea. This vast dredge would take place on the very foreshore of Roman London, a Tier One site of archaeological interest. Lara Maiklem devotes a whole chapter to this stretch of foreshore in her beautifully-written book Mudlarking.

Yet, via various planning loopholes, the Ocean Diva might well arrive in London unscrutinised as to its aesthetics (and effects on protected views) and unenforceable as to its emissions and its noise. Given the number and size of the loopholes, it's easy to see how the Thames must have seemed a most attractive site for this kind of development. So efforts to resist this one mega-boat's dedicated pier are not just about shining a light on a single pier's fate but really about trying to futureproof the historic river – London’s biggest public realm – against large-scale privatisation and commodification, while still allowing the river and those who work on it to thrive economically. 

 As followers of this site will know, I have long campaigned against the cruise ship invasion of Venice. I have seen what it has taken from the city without giving much back except a tourist monoculture and an air quality disaster, not to mention damage to infrastructure, as in last year's terrifying incident when the MSC Opera went out of control and collided with another boat and the shore, injuring five people. Budapest was not so lucky: on May 29th last year, 28 were killed when a large cruiser ran down a smaller boat in front of the Hungarian parliament building on the Danube. Megaships and narrow metropolitan waters: just not safe. 

My colleagues at NoGrandiNavi have been sad and sorry to hear about the Ocean Diva. So have residents in Amsterdam, home of the Ocean Diva. In both cases, they  have warned that if we let one megaship in, soon there will be fleets of them. Use Venice, a Venetian friend urged, as a terrible example of what can happen. The Ocean Diva team has not acceded to our request to supply images of their boat on the Thames. A planning loophole means they don't have to do so. Instead, here's a Canaletto adapted by artist Vince McIndoe for NGN, to show the incongruous scale and aesthetics of the megaships compared to the fragile beauty of Venice. 

The Thames has this going for it: there's a huge community who cares about it very much and that community is paying attention. So many people have taken a good hard look at the scheme proposed at Swan Lane and have understood its wider implications. Living Bankside has set up a web page to explain the issues. Amanda Craig (whose utterly absorbing new novel, The Golden Rule, just out) set up a petition on Artist Déirdre Kelly, who lives in Venice, created this beautiful collage. It shows how the heart of the old Thames needs to be protected. 

There's a deliberate reference to the NoGrandiNavi campaign logo (right) in the typography above, as there are many ways in which the Thames and the Grand Canal can be seen as twin waterways at the moment: both beleaguered by those who would make money of them at the expense of the environment and liveability. For this reason, passionate letters of protest about the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane have flooded in from Venetian academics and Venetophiles all over the world.

Nor do the Thames and its many concerned riverside villages lack for local support: Southwark Cathedral, the Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tower of London have all written meaningful and powerful objections to this particular iteration of Swan Lane Pier, as have many thoughtful writers who love our river, archaeologists and naturalists.

While Swan Lane Pier has edged closer to its decision date in the City of London, the publication date of my own new children’s novel has also been approaching. But it's been doing so on slippered feet. This is not just because of the dissonant noise around Swan Lane Pier but also because everything (else) seems muffled at the moment, doesn’t it? It has been muffled by the quiet of the streets, the silence of the Thames below me, the absence of aeroplanes and the shuttered bookshops. To lessen the sense of writerly isolation, I’ve been exchanging pre-pub thoughts on this strange situation with fellow History Girl, Celia Rees, who has a compelling adult historical out soon: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook. I was fortunate to have a preview copy to enliven the beginning of the lockdown. I hope very much that Miss Graham is just the first volume of a trilogy, because Celia has a gift for an engaging female character and there are two other ladies whose stories I’d be fascinated to know.

Apart from writing and reading and Thames-ing, I was invited to participate in the celebrations of the Great Get Together, inspired by Jo Cox. Our usual wondrous street party was coronavirused, but Bankside Open Spaces Trust hosted a celebration broadcast across a network of radio stations including Resonance FM 104.4 , K2K Radio and SOAS Radio on June 21st. The Water’s Daughter (published yesterday) is my sixth novel for children – and yes, I shall eventually get to it! – but it’s my second Venetian children’s book that has gained more attention in the last few weeks. I was interviewed about it by Tim Wood for The Great Get Together, because of the novel's rather shudder-inducing prescience.
The Mourning Emporium opens in late 1900 with a disastrous ice-flood that reduces Venice to ruins. This is followed by a pandemic that is called the Half-Dead disease because it makes people fade away and die. The Mourning Emporium follows a tribe of orphaned Venetian children who sail in an old wooden boat to London … only to find that the Half-Dead disease has got there ahead of them. And their boat, the Scilla, is slapped in quarantine. 

The strange thing is that The Mourning Emporium was written ten years ago and it’s strange not just because of Covid but also because of disastrous flood that swept through Venice in November 2019, just before the virus took hold.  For The Great Get Together, a few pages describing the Scilla’s arrival in London were beautifully read by the talented Douglas Clarke-Wood, who really made the scene come alive with wonderful Italian accents. The piece of music I chose to accompany my interview was this.

The real pandemic – the one not invented by writerly imagination – is loosening its grip in Venice now. The city is determined to come out of Covid better than it went in. Venezia Fu-Turistica is a new idea, expressed in a day of peaceful marching, banners and speeches on June 13th. It is hard to translate this pun. It means in one sense ‘Venice was touristical’ but you can also run the words together as Venezia Futuristica … meaning ‘Futuristic Venice’, a better city conceived for a new future. The plea is that the post-pandemic rebirth should be as a different kind of Venice, one where the principles of social and climate justice are not just greenwashing but actually embedded in society and infrastructure.

Many in this country are talking about similar ideas. Which in turn raises the question: exactly what kind of reinstatement of Swan Lane Pier would be compatible with a green (and not a greenwashed) campaign to Build Back Better? Or in line with Poets for the Planet's Begin Afresh campaign? Or on the same page as so many other initiatives that give hope of better, cleaner, quieter, inclusive, less secretive, more genuine, more wholesome, more respectful, more considerate culture post-Coronavirus? In this context, a private and privately run bespoke pier for a mega-partyboat ... feels like an uneasy fit and a sadly lost opportunity for a true mixed-use pier accessible to all.

As our community organisation Living Bankside says, 'Covid 19 has thrown into relief how important it is for people to have access to natural space and particularly public realm, because not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden or balcony of their own ... The Thames is London’s biggest public realm and should belong to everyone. Let’s not let it get commodified. Let’s learn from Venice before it’s too late and keep the mega-ships out of the heart of our city.'

Finally, back to The Water’s Daughter, which is what I really should be writing about today of all days, and about which there would be plenty to say, at any other time.

However, I have detained the Patient Reader far too long already. 

Long story short then: according to my publishers, 'It’s an exquisitely imagined fantasy novel about a girl who can see history with her touch.’ It’s also about a vengeful Arabian Djinnir, a talking leopardess and a fleet of ferocious Barbary pirates whose surprisingly young leader bears a deep and understandable grudge against Venice. The Water’s Daughter also brings back the rude and greedy Venetian mermaids of the previous books, winged cats and I Fedeli,  a secretive organisation that promises to protect Venice from the water, but instead lines its own pockets and leaves her perilously vulnerable. The name 'Fedeli' is ironic: it can translate as 'Those of Good Faith', or 'The Faithful Ones'. I came up with the idea for this book back in 2013. Any similarities between I Fedeli in The Water’s Daughter and those whose corruption bankrupted Venice’s real life flood defence programme … and any similarities between I Fedeli and those whose financial interests may have tipped them in favour of embracing the Ocean Diva at Swan Lane… are purely quite interesting. 

With the help of designer Helena Wee, I’ve prepared some new Water's Daughter pages for my website. Once more, they include the haunting photographs of the talented David Winston, with whom I have collaborated in previous blogs. 

Last word goes to Guppy of Tokyo, because it really takes an international village to take care of our Thames. Other protest cats are available, on the Peaceful Thames facebook page.

Michelle Lovric’s website

The Water’s Daughter web pages

The Water’s Daughter

The Living Bankside pages are here  (and include a guide to making a quick and effective objection to City of London Planning).

The Ocean Diva petition can be signed here


Twitter: Please search for hashtag #NOOCEANDIVA to interact and retweet

Friday 3 July 2020

Jean Giono's Legacy, by Carol Drinkwater

                               Jean Giono born in Manosque in 1895 and died in the same village in 1970.

I am frequently asked who my favourite writers are; authors I return to time and time again. One of the first who springs to mind is Jean Giono. Son of a cobbler and a laundress, he is a Provençal writer through and through. Henry Miller, the great American writer, described Giono as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Yet he is little know outside his native France, although many of his books have been translated in to English.

In 1953 he published perhaps his most famous book, THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES. If you haven't read it I certainly urge you to. You won't be disappointed. The tale narrates the story of a berger, a shepherd, who spends thirty years reforesting a region in the Haute Provence. The book was made into a film produced in Canada. Here is the link to the very beautiful  animation film:

Or in English:

In these hard days full of sickness and bad news, I heartily recommend this beautiful little film and, of course, the novel, which in my opinion is a small masterpiece.

By serendipity, I recently discovered the group, Friends of Jean Giono/ Les Amis de Jean Giono. They meet every year in early August in Manosque, watch films of his work, read from his books and take walking tours to parts of the Provençal countryside Giono wrote about. I am hoping that I will be able to attend this year.

Coincidentally, Michel and I are attempting to plant up a forest of oak trees grown from acorns fallen on our land at the Olive Farm ... a small gesture for the future.

Enjoy your summer reading and I hope you find inspiration from Giono and this marvellous little film.