Thursday 29 July 2021

Historians and History in Fiction, by Gillian Polack


Right now, I’m not in the Middle Ages. I’m in the seventeenth century. An important part of my research is looking at whether one novelist in particular frames her seventeenth century story so tightly within genre, that a lot of history simply doesn’t belong there. I’ll talk about this novel somewhere else or some other time, for I’m still in the early stages of analysis. One thing I am certain about: the genre we choose for our fiction informs the type of history we use for it. I am certain about it because it was a part of my research a few years ago.

One of the new things this project is teaching me is rather important for all fiction: when we write novels, we are making stories come to life for readers.

Simple, really. Except it’s not at all simple. Most branches of history (as in the discipline studied by historians) do not include this in their desired outcomes. As historians we’re learning about the past, testing hypotheses, finding out what other historians know, trying to understand our small specialisation and trying to interpret our small specialisation. Very few of us are trying to bring history to life for general readers.

To my mind (and I have strong biases on this!), the historical disciplines that come closest to what novelists do are ethnohistory and living history. The focus in these disciplines is on ethnography and culture and changes over time (ethnohistory) and how real people lived their everyday (living history). They overlap with each other.

My own disciplines are ethnohistory and historiography, which is my very weak excuse for giving you a truly oversimplified description of ethnohistory. Most of my writing, fiction and non-fiction, is informed by ethnohistory, in fact. I have two new novels in the last eight months, and both of them use it, even though one of them doesn’t look as if it should. Let’s start with the other, then, because it’s easier. (I ought to talk about my previous novel, Poison & Light, because it’s all history, even though it’s set in the future. The whole premise is about how we try to bring history into our present, so it’s complicated. It has, I must say, fine costumes.)

Poison & Light


The Green Children Help Out is a fantasy novel, but everything in it rests on history. The history is not solely ethnohistory, but ethnohistory is the wheel that turns everything in the story. The villains are villainous because of how they interpret what has happened to themselves and to others in the past. The heroes are terribly heroic because they don’t want the past to happen again. Every step my characters take is on land I’ve researched and using history I know. This is the novel I went to Amiens to research in 2018. 

The Green Children Help Out


I have pictures of old land use and new land use, of land affected by war and land affected by building over hundreds of years. The ethnohistory embedded into the novel doesn’t shout “Look! History!” it simply informs the characters, giving each of them complex pasts and real lives. It also informs the plot, for the Australians and the British and the French and the sole Singaporean all have quite different national histories and those histories can push individuals from those backgrounds towards certain paths and make certain choices inevitable.

Borderlanders is quite different. It’s set in a house with no clear history. A magic house, settled somehow in the middle of a mountain range not too far from where I live. There’s a gale blowing from me to there, as I type. 



The ethnohistory is still so much part of Borderlanders. Some parts of culture go with us everywhere and those things have history. Folk beliefs, food preferences, belief in magic or even caring to think about magic: all these things can be written without ethnohistory in mind, but in my case… ethnohistory is always there. My reminder to my readers that it’s always there is the library in this very special house.

My thoughts about ethnohistory are not the only ones. In fact, I’m at one of the edges of the spectrum of ethnohistorians because of how I entered the discipline and because, honestly, not many ethnohistorians write novels. This means I can teach writers how to use ethnohistory, and I do, when they need it as a tool.

What about living history? Every historical fiction writer uses living history in their work, whether they intend to or not. It’s the stuff that brings a scene from the past to life. When you read about someone walking down a muddy street and they wish they had worn pattens and their feet hurt from the cobbles and… that is living history.

There are some amazing places to learn living history. Museums, for example, will create displays that are not simply objects in a cabinet, but objects that make me want to pick them up and use them. Some fairs (and also many museums) bring experts in to not only show everyday life, but to talk about it. I have a friend who’s an archaeologist and who is expert in textiles. You can see her work at museums in Germany. You can ask her questions and understand what spinning means and what it is in the life of an ordinary woman in the Middle Ages.

When a scholar is studying living religion, they look at the part religion plays in the lives of people and how religion is expressed. It’s not the theory of religion. It’s ordinary life. How does their religion inform their world view? What religious customs do they bring into their everyday?

Obviously there’s large overlap between ethnohistory and living history. In fact, as disciplines, they inform each other. And both of them inform fiction writers.

Sunday 25 July 2021

The English Girl behind the Private Life of the Third Reich By Jane Thynne


Writers of fiction set in the second world war are basically gold prospectors. We sieve endlessly through the dry dust of contemporary documents and records for the occasional, vivid, thrilling glint of gold.  If, like me, you write about German women in WW2, the task of finding that piece of contemporary colour is even harder, because everything about the Third Reich, it seems, is a male story. The politicians, the wars, the top-level meetings – all of them are dominated by men. As to the domestic and social side of life in 1930s Berlin, about which I write in my Clara Vine series, I have to rely on letters and magazines as well as the diary snippets of foreigners who visited and happened to mingle in high society.

  So when a reader emailed me recently me with the offer of unpublished diary of his mother’s time living with the von Ribbentrop family in 1936, it was truly a golden moment. 

   Duncan K’s mother, Verona, was a bright girl from an ordinary middle-class family in Clapham, whose academic ability won her scholarship to Oxford. She took a year off to learn the necessary Latin, and as her school German mistress had a contact who was a personal friend of Frau von Ribbentrop, landed herself a job teaching the children of Germany’s ambassador to Britain.

   Like many other girls of her time, Verona had already been to Germany on a school exchange and her autobiography reflects on the difference between English schoolgirls and their German counterparts. ‘I do not remember that we schoolgirls were at all averse to Kinder, Küche, Kirche – we rather envied the girls who only had to think about that. For their part the German girls envied us because they thought our men had better career prospects, ‘They have more chance, with the colonies’.

   Verona was in Berlin in August 1934 for Hindenberg’s funeral and recalled ‘every single window has a Hakenkreuz fluttering black ribbons and drooping in the wet.’ Interestingly she records contemporary German attitudes to Hitler’s recent  Night of the Long Knives. ‘The general idea of the shootings is that some of Hitler’s subordinates plotted to become top dogs and shoot him out of the way, which treachery he very astutely and necessarily nipped in the bud.’

  In 1936, Verona was sent to live with the von Ribbentrops at their villa in Lentze-Allee, Dahlem, and ‘in their household I entered the world of embassies, rich business people, Nazi politics.’

 The von Ribbentrops were great Anglophiles and famous for employing English nannies. Verona’s chief task was to act as a companion to von Ribbentrop’s daughter, Bettine, then thirteen.  ‘The baby is only seven months so he isn’t very interesting – his name is Adolf, a godson of Hitler’. Another son was away with the Jungvolk and the smaller daughter, Ursula, ‘Butzi’, spent her time with the nanny, so Verona and Bettine were together constantly.

  They play tennis and swim. ‘She goes riding every morning, she is mad on horses and has pictures of them all around the room’. At the cinema, the Atrium, they see ‘Bettine’s father arriving at Croydon’ on the newsreel. 

  In those early days of the Third Reich, doubts about Nazism were quelled by thoughts of what might have been. The nanny tells Verona ‘lowering her voice to a shocked whisper’ that ‘before the Führer we were near to Communism. That’s what enabled old fashioned Germans to put up with the more distasteful aspects of Nazism, the feeling that they had been saved from the abyss, that standards were being observed again.’

   Von Ribbentrop shows Verona a globe and spins it for her. ‘He said, You can’t get it so that there isn’t some red somewhere. It seemed quite natural to me that there should be a bit of British territory anywhere one cared to look.’

  Frau von Ribbentrop ‘tall and graceful, used to come into the children in a beautiful pink negligee with wide sleeves’. She knits the babies’ vests ‘as her husband discussed politics with her.’ 

   The most dramatic incident in Verona’s record of the time comes after a visit to the castle of the Duke and Duchess of Brunswick. She recalls, ‘all the surging around, people flying here and there to London, to Munich, telephoning everywhere, adjutants, secretaries, the big cars, all this was intensely exciting. Then Bettine and I in the back of the big open car singing The music goes round and round and suddenly I found myself leaning against a tree and Bettina was being carried moaning, her face covered in blood, and her legs hanging all limp and queer.

   The car had crashed, Bettine suffered a fractured skull, and her father sent her a picture of the Führer and pineapples and strawberries for her recovery.

  The joy of Verona’s autobiography, which extends to her equally fascinating time after Oxford, working abroad, lies in the writing. She has a natural diarist’s eye, and her enquiring personality shines through, even when recording the smallest detail, such as when the family eat ‘frankfurters in thick potato soup on the day when everyone was supposed to have a one dish meal and contribute money to some Nazi cause which I forget.’ 

  After a stint in London, when he was made Ambassador, von Ribbentrop’s love affair with England soured drastically, and in 1939 he was instrumental in urging Hitler towards war with Britain. Even so, in the event of conquest, he still planned to take over Cornwall for his personal domain.



Jane Thynne is the author of the Clara Vine series, and also, under the pen name C.J. Carey of Widowland, just out from Quercus.


Friday 16 July 2021

Santa Claus is not just for Christmas - by Ruth Downie

The title of this post may seem oddly unseasonal, but in addition to his December activities, St Nicholas has a year-round commitment as a protector of sailors. In fact, according to a vast range of people see him as their patron saint. Every time we stumble across one of them below, they’ll appear in bold.

 Stone chapel on hilltop over rocky harbour

This is St Nicholas’s chapel, overlooking the harbour at Ilfracombe in North Devon. It’s also said to be the oldest working lighthouse in Britain: a claim that is hard to dispute because

A) nobody really knows when it was built (probably shortly after 1321, when Walter Stapelton, Bishop of Exeter, ordered the parish church of Ilfracombe to be enlarged) and,

B) nobody knows when it first became a lighthouse. We do know, though, that the light was shining by 1522, because the Bishop of Exeter ruled that the faithful could earn 40 days’ indulgence by contributing to the costs of its maintenance.

The first written evidence for the chapel dates from 1416, when Hugh Herle, Rector of Ilfracombe (and no doubt a preacher), was licensed to celebrate mass here, but the history of the harbour goes back much further - this photo is taken from between the ramparts of the prehistoric Hill Fort that watches over it.

View across harbour from between two grassy mounds

Having been welcomed to the harbour, St Nicholas soon had plenty of sailors to protect. In 1346 Ilfracombe was a big enough port to send 6 ships and 79 men to support Edward III’s siege of Calais. (Or possibly 8 ships and 62 men, depending upon your source.)

Anyway, as one historian observes,* since this came to light, “… there can have been no guide book that has omitted to boast of this proof of the town’s former maritime importance.” One or two guides also delight in pointing out that “Liverpool sent only one”.

Ships’ carpenters, dock workers, chandlers and probably brewers must have worked in sight of the chapel on Lantern Hill. There are also tales of captives and pirates, but perhaps the latter were falsely accused.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries ended the chapel’s formal religious functions. It seems to have carried on as a lighthouse, but its other uses are unknown until the nineteenth century and the rise of Ilfracombe as a holiday destination.

At times, had St Nicholas visited his chapel, he could have seen paddle steamers moored six deep against the pier, bringing travellers from Bristol and South Wales. Amongst them we might fit in any number of the faithful, including

Butchers, bottlers, brides, coopers, druggists, embalmers, florists, maidens, orphans, peddlers, poets, prostitutes, ribbon weavers and shoemakers but hopefully not too many thieves.

There were also choristers, although not everyone was impressed:

From PUNCH - Sept 21 1895 - 

'On board our steamer “The Brighton,” to Tenby and back. – I think we must have the “Something-can minstrels” whose performance was so graphically described by Dickens in Pickwick as enlivening Mrs LEO HUNTER’S garden party, when “three of them grunted and the fourth howled”; only that, on this occasion, there were above eight or ten of these minstrel boys from Cardiff, who… sat in the centre of the upper deck, inflicting their delightful melodies on such of the passengers as were unable to get out of earshot.'

On a happier note, between 1866 and 1886 the local lifeboat rescued 45 shipwreck victims from the dangerous waters outside the harbour. 

Plaque commemorating lives saved by lifeboat

For many decades of Queen Victoria’s reign the chapel light was the responsibility of Mr John Davie, whose achievements as a lighthouse-keeper (whilst highly commended) are eclipsed in the modern mind by his achievements as a parent: he and his wife Elizabeth raised a family of thirteen children in a building which is, fundamentally, three rooms and a narrow staircase.

For much of Mr Davie’s tenure, part of the chapel was also used as a reading-room during the tourist season. It’s hard to imagine how this was achieved within the space available, and perhaps the family were not sorry when the advent of cheap newspapers put the reading room out of business. With the help of her daughters, Mrs Davie then used the space to set up a laundry - a hard enough way to earn a living at the best of times, and surely not helped by Lantern Hill’s apparent absence of a water supply.

John Davie died in 1870 and Elizabeth took over as lighthouse-keeper, but not for long.

The chapel’s original builders had heeded the biblical advice to build their house upon the rock (see the photos below) but they hadn’t reckoned on the capabilities of Victorian engineers.

Wooden pew with bare rock visible underneath

Bare rock protruding out into corridor

Ilfracombe was now attracting so many visitors that it was deemed necessary to extend the pier. This involved the rearranging of nature with the help of explosives. As a result, on the night of Sunday January 14th 1872, there was a large and presumably unexpected rock fall on the landward side of the hill. The chapel survived, but it was no longer habitable and the family moved out.

A petition was raised to save Lantern Hill, which was allegedly being demolished to provide infill material for the harbour works “and thus to save the pockets of the Contractor”.

By the time of the 1881 census, Mrs Davie was again working as a laundress. The chapel remained empty, although it must have made a good practice room for the Band of the Artillery Volunteers, since there were no neighbours to disturb.

Lantern Hill also saw occasional religious use - a photo from 1929 shows another group of choristers in white surplices gathered for “The Blessing of the Fishing Nets”. The fishermen's nets can be seen draped over the wall beside them. 

By the end of the second world war the still-empty chapel was in a sorry state. Eventually in 1962 it was restored by the local Rotary club and the council, no doubt including citizens, merchants and Parish clerks.

Small whitewashed chapel area with window behind.
The present chapel area, converted from the original porch.

In 1982 the first christening took place in the chapel since the days of Henry VIII. Appropriately, the infant was a descendant of the Davie family.

The light of the chapel still guides mariners to Ilfracombe harbour, although according to 'The light on top of Lantern Hill is not at all obvious and “lantern” is probably still the best description!' Just as well, then, that St. Nicholas also looks out for navigators.


 *Lois Lamplugh, “A History of Ilfracombe” 

With thanks to Ilfracombe Rotary Club, who open the chapel and museum display to visitors at selected times. More info can be found at, which was a major source of material for this post.
More on St Nicholas can be found at


Ruth Downie is the author of the MEDICUS series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, but just occasionally she likes to come up for air in later centuries.

View of sea and cliffs through chapel window

Thursday 8 July 2021

Whipsnade Zoo in World War Two by Janie Hampton

Whipsnade Zoo Keeper ploughing paddocks with Dixie the elephant,  1940.  Source: Zoo and Animal Magazine, 1939/40. 

Lucy Pendar’s father, Albert, was the Resident Engineer of Whipsnade Zoo, a 500-acre park in the Chilterns, Bedfordshire. They lived in a little pointed red-brick house set against pine trees. ‘Like a picture in a pop-up nursery rhyme book,’ she remembered. But growing up surrounded by exotic animals, zoo-keepers and thousands of visitors, was a lonely life for a child.
However, the outbreak of the war in September 1939 changed everything for 11-year-old Lucy. London Zoo in Regent’s Park evacuated many of their animals to Whipsnade, including two Giant Pandas who joined ‘Ming’, the first Giant Panda ever seen in Europe; and five elephants who joined Dixie, the retired circus elephant. 
The London Zoo chimpanzees were evacuated onto an island surrounded by a moat and a barrier. One day Lucy was surprised. ‘Tiny Tim, the youngest chimp, was executing a beautiful crawl stroke, swam smartly across the moat, and with equal aplomb, climbed over the barrier and made off in the direction of the Giraffe House.’ Nobody realised that chimps could swim; and no-one had noticed that Tiny Tim had grown up, until a female chimp produced an unexpected baby.
When the Black bear from London Zoo escaped for the third time, Lucy’s father laid a trail of treacle into the ladies’ lavatories and waited in bushes nearby. ‘At long last the bear appeared and started licking the step,’ said Lucy. Her father followed the bear into the lavatories. ‘Father triumphantly slammed the door on it.'
 Best of all for Lucy, was the arrival of the families of London Zoo staff who moved into the wooden huts normally occupied by summer waitresses. The evacuee girls asked Mrs Beale, the wife of the Zoo Superintendent, to start the 1st Whipsnade Girl Guide company, and while Captain Beale tended to his stamp collection, they met in the Beale’s front room. Among the Guides were Mary Billet, daughter of the Keeper of the Bird Sanctuary; Beryl Rogers, the daughter of Bert the Giraffe Keeper; and Austrians Elizabeth, Esther, Lilly and Gertrtude, who had recently arrived in England with Kindertransport.
The 1st Whipsnade Guide Company , run by Mrs Beal. Credit Lucy Pendar.
‘Captain Beale had been chief veterinary officer of East Africa, so he taught us how to stalk and track both animals and humans.’ When Mrs Beale invited a handsome, young, Cambridge undergraduate to teach Morse Code, meetings were always well attended. The 1st Whipsnade Guides taught the local Home Guard Morse code, tracking and stalking. ‘We showed them how to wriggle through a wheat field on your tummy, so slowly that the wheat made no noise,’ recalled Lucy.  
After Guide meetings, Lucy walked home through the zoo in the dark, with her black-out torch shining a pin-hole onto the ground. ‘I could hear the elephants putting themselves to bed. There was also the roar of lions, the tigers slinking through their jungle, polar bears splashing in their pond and the barking of sea-lions. I wasn’t frightened, I knew them all well.’ She hand-fed the rare Chinese Pere David deer fawns with bottles; and even tried to resuscitate a frozen baby alligator with warm water.
Keeper Billett, father of Girl Guide Mary, of Whipsnade Zoo , November 1939. 
Lucy’s father started a rifle club in the café for the Air-Raid Wardens and Guides. ‘The walls were protected with sand bags, filled by us Guides. In the summer the rifle club moved to a chalk pit near the bison’s paddock. Father used to arrange competitions against the Home Guard, and us Guides always won. When the RAF camped nearby, he suggested a shooting competition. We beat them too.’
The first Christmas of the war was miserable, especially after the death of the Black rhinoceros, an evacuee from London. ‘Disposing of a dead rhinoceros is not an easy task, weighing nearly four tonnes.’ Lucy and the Guides helped collect firewood to make a huge funeral pyre. Then an African elephant died, and its body was added. ‘The new year was greeted with the acrid smell of burning flesh and the belching forth of black smoke, which lasted for almost a week, until a smouldering pile of ash was all that remained of the great beasts.’ That was the last time so much meat was cremated and not fed to other animals. When the German-Italian-Japanese alliance was named the ‘Axis’ in 1940, the dainty Axis deer from India were renamed ‘Spotted’ deer.

The ‘Whipsnade Lion’, carved on a chalky Chiltern hill, made a perfect landmark for enemy planes to navigate to the armament factories in nearby Luton, so the Guides helped to camouflaged it with brushwood and manure.

The war was tough on the animals. When snow engulfed the park, one of the Giant Pandas and a litter of tiger cubs had convulsions. Once petrol rationing began there were fewer visitors, so less money to pay for the food. ‘One February day in 1940 the takings amounted to six pence [2p], which meant the solitary visitor was a soldier as they got in half price. At first, visitors were encouraged to bring lettuce, cabbage and carrots, but soon no one had even those to spare.’ The zoo bred their own mealworms to feed to birds, and fish-eaters were given meat coated in cod-liver oil. ‘The zoologist Julian Huxley appealed to the public to bring buns for the bears, which of course was not what bears needed at all.’
A colony of bright green, noisy Quaker parakeets, originally from South America, lived in a huge communal nest overhanging the zoo’s main gate. ‘When they ventured down the hill and stripped Mrs Hain’s orchard, she was furious. The following year they were kept in a cage until the apples had been harvested. ‘By the next spring they had flown, their fate a mystery.’
Whipsnade Park had originally been a farm, and now even the parkland and cricket pitch were ploughed up. With no combine harvesters, and most of the keepers called- up, the Guides helped gather in the harvest. ‘With British Double Summer Time we could work even longer hours than normal,’ said Lucy. ‘June saw hay-making. The sheep were sheared, then dipped in July. Grass was scythed again in August. And then the wheat harvest. My back was aching, and my arms sore from scratches, as we gathered up the sheaves and stacked them in stooks.’ Filling sacks of grain for hours was rewarded with a ride on the truck to the barn. ‘The joy,’ she remembered, ‘standing like Boadicea, leaning on the cab as we sped down Bison Hill with the wind in my face. We brought back rough loaves of oaten bread, which had normally been fed to animals.’
The Girl Guides’ war work included mucking out and riding the Shetland and rare Iceland ponies. Lucy Pendar was one of the first people to experience their unusual tölt, a running walk, and the flugskeid - a flying pace.
The five o’clock Closing Time hooter, high on the side of the water tower, served as the air-raid siren. ‘The wind carried its sound for some distance and the howling of the wolves, which always accompanied it, added both to its effectiveness and its eeriness.’ During 1940, over forty bombs were dropped around the zoo. Most fell in the paddocks, making large holes which were later turned into ponds. The only reported casualties were a spur-winged goose - – the oldest inhabitant –- and a baby giraffe which panicked. 
One night Lucy was on duty with the Home Guard. ‘We stood in a field all night in thick fog. As the dawn began, we saw these figures approaching, very quietly, through the fog.’ They stood quaking, convinced they were German parachutists. ‘Suddenly the cloud thinned and they were revealed – as Farmer Bates’ cows!
The Giant Pandas returned to London in 1942. 
The Whipsnade Guides practiced first aid on themselves and were also practiced on by the WRVS, Air-Raid Wardens, and Home Guard. ‘I often had to pretend I had a broken arm, or an epileptic fit,’ said Lucy. In the blacksmith’s forge at the zoo, the Guides put out incendiary bombs with a stirrup pump.

WP Beale, the first superintendent at Whipsnade 1930-47, Captain of the Home Guard. Credit Lucy Pendar.

After Lucy’s 16th birthday, she didn’t want to confess the reason for not becoming a Ranger Guide: the uniform required a long-sleeved jersey and she was hopeless at knitting. So she helped to run the Whipsnade Cub Scouts instead. Later she became a Girl Guide District Commissioner in West Yorkshire, and then a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.
Lucy Pendar, Whipsnade - my Africa, Book Castle Dunstable, 1991.
Janie Hampton, How the Girl Guides won the war, Harper Press, 2010.
Interview with Lucy Pendar, 12 November, 2008

Thursday 1 July 2021

Marseille, snapshots of a mighty city, by Carol Drinkwater


                                               Marseille's harbour by night as seen from our hotel room

I have recently been on an excursion to Marseille. It is a little less than two hours west of our Olive Farm in the direction towards Spain. Marseille is an ancient harbour city set right in the middle of the stretch of Mediterranean that fringes the south of France. I have written at length in my two travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, about the birth of Marseille which at that time - 600 BC - was christened Massalia. Massalia was founded as a trading post by Phocaeans, Greeks settled in Asia Minor. Their name came from the small harbour city Foça, which today is a pretty, rather sleepy little town on the Aegean coast in Izmir Province, Turkey.
For me, one of the important facts about these Asia Minor Greek traders is that they brought with them the knowledge and the trees to begin the first olive farms and olive oil production in France. Olive oil was a cornerstone of their diet, also used for cosmetics and as a health product. The legacy of that knowledge can be seen everywhere today.

                                   A silver drachma inscribed with the name Massa, for Massalia. The head is the Greek goddess, Artemis. This coin is dated approximately 375 BC.

La Rade, which includes the Harbour area, some neighbourhoods of the old town and a small archipelago, has been on the UNESCO Tentative List since 2002, waiting to be given World Heritage status. I am very surprised that it is taking so long. It is a truly magnificent area and leaves you in no doubt about the importance of this city and its colourful and multicultural history.

Here is a photo I uploaded from the internet of a corner of the Jardin des Vestiges, near the Vieux-Port, where you can very clearly see the remnants of the ancient port.

Marseille is a city with a long and colourful history and much of that history has come about because it is such an active port city. On this recent visit, I spent my days walking the hilly streets, taking photographs, visiting old buildings and generally imbibing the lively atmosphere of the city.

I spent a morning in Le Panier district, which is rich with both history and twenty-first century living. It is the oldest quarter of the city and quite hilly so you will need good footwear. I was heading, in a very leisurely fashion, from our hotel down at the Quai  du Port towards La Vieille Charité, which I had never visited before. It is worth the climb.

I paused every two or three minutes to take photographs, to read the city's many information markers and to take in the general atmosphere. 

There is soap for sale everywhere, many small boutiques offering every possible scent and shape. There are soap factories to be visited if you are interested in learning the city's soap history. Aleppo in Syria has always been regarded as the world's great soap manufacturer. Pure virgin olive oil is the base ingredient for the soaps of both Aleppo, which also includes oil of laurel, and also of Marseille. Marseille has been producing olive oil soap since the fourteenth century. The first factory, savonnerie, was opened there in 1593.  By 1660, there were seven factories in the city using locally-produced olive oil as their base product and producing twenty thousand tons of soap a year.

In 1688, King Louis XIV introduced the Edict of Colbert, which clearly laid out the regulations limiting the use of the name "Savon de Marseille".
They were:
The soap must be made in the city of Marseille
It must be heated in cauldrons
It must be made using only pure virgin olive oil
It must include no animal fats
Any soap manufacturer found to be breaking these rules risked banishment from Provence forever!
Back then, one bought the soap in either five-kilo bars or twenty-kilo bars loaves. A loaf of soap!

Today, Savon de Marseille is certainly a tourist attraction and factories such as Cheval de Fer offer tours. Almost every hotel will have Marseille soap products in the bathroom. 

King Louis's edict has long since been set aside and many of the modern soaps are made from oil mixes that might include copra oil as well as soda-ash, and sea salt. There are still some that label themselves olive oil soap. I always look out for those.

Two photos I took in a soap boutique close to La Vieille Charité. As  you can see, one of their specialities is soap in the shape of long fish (about the size of a mackerel!)

La Vieille Charité built between 1671 and 1749 was an almshouse that has been transformed into a very splendid arts and cultural centre. It is beautiful. I long to go back there. Alongside the several very interesting exhibitions showing there, I came across an almost secret library specialising in poésie. CIPM, Centre International de Poésie Marseille.  A cool vaulted space set within one of the four arcaded galleries that surround the central chapel. Entrance to la bibliothèque is free. They are open from Wednesdays to Saturdays in the afternoons.

There are both temporary and permanent exhibitions running at La Vieille Charité. The location is a cool tranquil place to enjoy hours of history and art away from the madness and heat of summer in this ancient city.
Here are a few of the many pictures I took.

                                      Shakespeare's shelf at the Library of International Poetry. In spite of being dedicated to modern works, they do have a very fine collection of classics. I spotted Yeats and Joyce nestling beneath the Bard in the English language section. Goethe along the German shelves.

One of the four arched galleries that surround the chapel.

How cool to spend afternoons hidden away at this library table quietly reading tomes of poetry while, beyond the substantial walls, the city goes about its crazy cosmopolitan business.

Back out in the narrow descending lanes, I stopped to admire the street art of which there are copious examples especially in this Panier district. I was on the hunt for a Pastis distillery, hoping to find someone who might recount to me the history of this infamous aniseed apéritif, which is enjoying a revival. Pastis is an old Provençal word meaning 'mixture' for that is what the drink consists of. A magical combination of water and sweet spirit made from an aniseed base. When the chilled water descends into the glass and combines with the liquor, the liquid turns cloudy, milky-white, and the scent of star aniseed and liquorice rises to hit one's nostrils.

I found this artwork painted on the side of a building.

Isn't he splendid? It is a modern take, I believe, on the famous Pastis Olive advert of the past. See here, this was attached to a shop doorway.

and here: 
We have a framed copy of this poster hanging in our house in the north. The original of this was designed in 1936.

Ricard and Pernod are the two grand marks of Pastis. Both were founded in Marseille and both are now owned by the Ricard family, which has expanded into a global empire.  In 1932, Pastis was created and introduced by Paul Ricard, the son of a family of wine-makers. This was some seventeen years after the ban on Absinthe. Soon after, Pernod, a former Absinthe producer, began to produce its own version of the Pastis apéritif. 
Pastis very quickly became the trendy early evening tipple in Marseille. 
In 1936, paid holidays were introduced for the first time in France, brought into law by France's first Jewish Prime Minister, the socialist Léon Blum. That same year, the famously opulent Le Train Bleu added third class carriages to accommodate the descent south of the working classes. 
Luxuriating in the heat and the easier way of living, everyone took to quaffing Pastis. It carried with it an image of sun, blue skies and sea. A very clever marketing campaign created by Paul Ricard. When the workers returned north, the drink went with him. It was no longer simply a southern tipple, but a national success.
In 1940, the Vichy government prohibited the production of Pastis. It was eleven years before it was allowed back onto the market.
In 1975, Paul Ricard bought Pernod and the two companies merged. Today, the Pernod-Ricard group is the second largest wine and spirits distributor in the world and number one in Europe. Most surely, a local story turned good.

Another local story of invention and celebration is the santons. I crept into a lovely shop filled with nothing but these lovely hand-painted nativity figurines of all sizes. 
Provencal figurines

Santons were invented in Marseille. The Provencal word Santoun means 'Little Saint'. The first clay santons were created by the Marsellais artisan, Jean-Louis Lagnel (1761 - 1822) during the French Revolution when the churches were closed down, midnight mass was cancelled and nativity scenes were prohibited. He began moulding the earliest figurines in 1797, out of clay to make them affordable for everyone and so that every family could install a nativity scene in their own home and continue to worship, albeit illegally, within the privacy of their own home.
Lagnel was born one street away from the almshouse, La Vieille Charité. I passed the plaque honouring him.
Here is an article I wrote for this blog some time back:

After idling away time in the old streets of Le Panier, I headed down to the waterside to meet my husband for lunch at an excellent new restaurant, Coquille, recently opened since the relaxing of lockdown here. On my way, I passed several memorial plaques attached to the walls in various streets in this old part of the city, in the first arrondissement
They stopped me in my tracks not because I didn't know about them or the tragedy they are commemorating. It is a tragic part of Marseille's modern history and plays a role in my new novel, AN ACT OF LOVE. A role that in a small way is crucial to the plot.

The Marseille Roundup caused the destruction of the old quarters of the city bordering the old port in the Nazi's obsessive hunt for Jews. In January 1943, two months after Hitler had ordered his soldiers to cross over into the Free Zone of France, Wehrmacht soldiers entered Marseille. The Marseille Roundup, which took place between 22nd and 24th January 1943, saw the arrest of over 2,000 Jews who were loaded onto to trains to Drancy before being cattle-shipped to the extermination camps. What is most shocking is that these actions were carried out under the direction and full knowledge of the Vichy regime. French police under the leadership of René Bousquet led the operation. Forty thousand people were stopped by the police, their papers checked. Six thousand arrested. The police burned and razed to the ground the streets and living quarters surrounding the old port, which was judged by the Germans to be a terrorist nest.
This stain on French history is one the most heinous examples of WWII collaboration.

                                                         Evacuation of the Old Port, 1943.

On a lighter note,  I passed a delicious afternoon at MUCEM, the wonderful new (opened in 2013) Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations,  situated at the end of Quai du Port. Amongst their new exhibitions is one on La Grand Mezze. Lots to discover on Mediterranean food. Even if none of the exhibitions on offer are of interest to you, this is a very special place situated right on the water. Visiting, wandering from space to space, is a unique experience. It offers cultural programmes as well. I recently attended a seminar on the Mediterranean diet.  MUCEM looks at from both a historical and modern perspectives all issues that involve the Mediterranean, its peoples and this rich cradle of civilisations. It is the first museum in the world devoted exclusively to Mediterranean issues and cultures. 

An evening drink - a Pastis or rosé - at le Bar de la Marine at 15 Quai de la Rive Neuve. The exterior of the original bar was used in the trilogy of Marcel Pagnol films. The interior scenes were shot in studios in Paris. The original bar was dynamited by the Nazis and then, later, rebuilt. I missed a stopover there on this last trip but intend to return next month. It's on my list to discover. 
There is so much to discover in this wonderful city.
By the way, several chapters of my novel THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, are set in Marseille. I have been visiting the city since I was twenty-two. It feeds me endless inspiration.