Friday 19 August 2022

Is this even the right place? Sheena Wilkinson

Last week my husband, his three sisters and I set out to walk to their late mother’s home place – the small one-storey farmhouse where she had been born and reared until she married in 1962, in a place known locally, though not on any maps,  as the Muck (which doesn't sound pretty, but possibly comes from the Irish for pig). Shortly afterwards, the house was abandoned. It may already have been run down; the lane was too far from the road; it was the sixties, and the appetite was for new bungalows, not damp old cottages. There are so many places like it all over Ireland. Their skeletons have become one with the landscape – houses fallen into roofless walls, walls tumbled into ditches and buried under ivy and nettles. I wrote about it here a couple of years ago. (


But this was different: this was a house whose descendants still live in the same area. And yet my husband had never been here in his life. There was uncertainty as to whether we even had the right place, much checking of the landscape against her long-ago stories – could that be the hollow where the dog fell through the ice and drowned? Was that the path she would have taken up to school? We discarded the other two or three abandoned houses in sight – that one was too big; that one too small, only a byre, and the other one still had a roof and walls so did not fit my late mother-in-law’s description of ‘a ruin’. 

The August landscape was stunning – we had walked up a lane bursting with wild raspberries and honeysuckle, leading to a land of undulating green drumlins, yellow fields of stubble, with the dark shadow of the Mournes in the background. A piebald cob and his friends grazed the field where the house lay derelict, fresh dung suggesting that they used its walls for shelter. We clambered over nettles and stones, marvelled at the tree growing right up through what might have been an outhouse, argued about which way round the house faced, looked up with some trepidation at what was left of the roof – would it withstand our visit? 

How could you not have been here before? I demanded. Surely you were interested in where your mammy grew up? I suppose, for a child, a long walk up a lane to an empty house wasn’t that exciting. But I could have stayed all day, trying to reconstruct the house in my mind, noticing how the stone walls had been panelled over at some stage; trying to work out if the room we stood in was a living room or a bedroom -- the small fireplace suggested the latter; wondering what would have hung from the hooks which clung stubbornly to the remains of a door. The people who lived here died before I married into this family, but I knew their names and had seen their photographs. 

How long does a house sit derelict before it stops being sad and starts being interesting?


I don’t think it ever stops being sad. 

I don't blame my husband for not making the pilgrimage earlier, when his mother could have filled in the blanks for us. Not all children are budding History Girls, as I had been, pestering Mummy for stories of the olden days – her girlhood in the fifties and sixties, and my granny for tales of the real olden days – she was born in 1908. The houses they told me about – the big house in Irish Street, Downpatrick where my granny took in lodgers; my other gran’s more modest terraced house in east Belfast – are long gone too, and not reclaimed by the kindness of nettles and grass, but demolished and built over. 

I will return to the Muck. It's not my family history, not really, but these old houses and their secrets are everyone's history. 



THE REST IS HISTORY. Tom Holland, Dominic Sandbrook and the best podcast of all. By Adéle Geras


At the beginning of 2021, I was still doing my one hour Lockdown Walk every day. I would come out of my front door, turn left or right and see where the road took me. I wear hearing aids and used to listen to radio  all the time, as I trod the streets. This was usually LBC radio because I like most of the presenters and during this solitary-ish time, it was good to hear voices, opinions and arguments from everywhere about  what was happening in the world. 

Here are two things you may not know about me. First, I'm a  news junkie. I read two newspapers every day and still have one of them delivered. I watch tv  news and discussion programmes. I loved the daily press briefing during the pandemic and followed the whole Covid saga from the beginning.
Secondly, I have various bees in my bonnet and a stable full of high horses on to whose backs I like to clamber from time to time. 


One of these is a passionate belief in the paramount importance of History as a subject for study. I think everyone should have History lessons until  they're at least 16 years old.  When a poll appears telling us that  75% of teenagers think Churchill is an actual bulldog advertising a building society, I could weep. The utter ignorance I see everywhere I look depresses me greatly.


That's background. Here's the story. On one of these walks I came across a new podcast. Someone had mentioned it on Twitter. It was called The Rest is History and I loved it instantly. I have since listened to every single episode.  

The excellence starts with the format.  Two good friends chatting informally. That's it. They share a love of  History and of the odd nooks and  corners and fascinating titbits that crop  up all the time.  They talk about everything, from the  history of Ancient China to the Cold War, taking in fashion that can kill you, childbirth, Burgundy, (the territory not the wine)  Alexander the Great, Justinian and Theodora....on and on. I've put up some pictures here to demonstrate the range, but this leaves out delights like the World Cup of Kings, (and Queens and Gods) and the wonderful Historical Love Island, which was won by Stanley Baldwin and the Empress Theodora. She  would, believe me, have been right at home there, at least in her youth. I can't begin to tell you how many excellent topics there are to be found on the podcast. Most recently, the podcasts Tom and Dom have given us about Russia, Putin and the Ukraine War have been unmissable.

They often bring in experts. Tom's brother James knows everything about the Second World War and I like imagining the  Holland brothers' childhood and what life must have been like in their house when they were children.  

The two men have different specialisms. Crudely put, Tom is Ancient and Dom is Modern. (You will find their  photographs at the end of this post and it's not a reflection either of their merit nor of my opinion of them that the sizes are so different. What this this means is: I'm very bad at putting up photos on the blog....that's the size they were when they appeared on my computer and I don't know how to make them the same as one another! Apologies.)

My best advice is: look each of them up on Google. They are writers. They are thinkers. They appear on television. Tom is a cricketer. One of the best short series on the podcast has Tom taking Dom around London pointing out all kinds of historical glories which Dom doesn't appreciate nearly enough, possibly because he's wearing new shoes and they're killing him. Other series on the Falklands, Watergate, the American Civil War are also brilliant. One of my favourite recent shows had Sarah Churchwell speaking about Gone with the will see it in a different light, I promise you, after you've heard this podcast.

There's now a Rest is History Club, complete with chatrooms and privileges. You get ad -free podcasts and special episodes.  They do live events. They're on Twitter and very active there.

Best of all, they're tireless. They simply never stop. A new episode airs almost every day and the standard remains impeccable. The lovely banter and fun between the two of them seemingly never flags. Listen to one episode....I guarantee  you will be hooked. 


Friday 12 August 2022

Eye Marvels - Joan Lennon

The last year or so I've been eye obsessed, as my cataracts got thicker and my outlook got blurrier. Two operations later (plus some months of having to be patient while my sight settled down) and I am thoroughly enjoying my shiny new eyes. But don't worry if you are squeamish - I'm not going to post a history of cataract surgery, fascinating (and toe-curling) though that is. Instead, I'd like to share with you J. H. Brown's fabulously-titled book Spectropia: or, Surprising Spectral Illusions, Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of any Colour, published in 1865 by Griffith and Farran, whose offices were to be found in the Corner of St Paul's Churchyard (Entered at Stationers' Hall). 

It is a book about seeing ghosts.

To see the spectres, it is only necessary to look steadily at the dot, or asterisk, which is to be found on each of the plates, for about a quarter of a minute, or while counting about twenty, the plate being well illuminated by either artificial or day light. Then turning the eyes to the ceiling, the wall, the sky, or better still to a white sheet hung on the wall of a darkened room (not totally dark), and looking rather steadily at any one point, the spectre will soon begin to make its appearance, increasing in intensity, and then gradually vanishing, to reappear and again vanish ; it will continue to do so several times in succession...

J.H. Brown created his book to speak out against the 'mental epidemic' of such 'absurd follies' as 'spirit-rapping and table-turning'. He goes on to explain the wonderful mechanics of the eye and its heightened deceivability. And then, on with the show!  

Thanks to The Public Domain Review it's possible for us to have a go at experiencing these surprising spectral illusions ourselveshere, even if we don't own a physical copy of the book - which, though it may not have been a absolute best seller, was still popular enough to go into a 4th edition.


(I would love to have a read of some of Griffith and Farran's other publications, such as the New and Popular Books for the Young advertised on the back cover, including The Headlong Career and Woful Ending of Precocious Piggy and the slightly dodgy sounding The Loves of Tom Tucker and Little Bo-peep.)

Joan Lennon website

Joan Lennon Instagram

Friday 5 August 2022

AGE OF ELEGANCE ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

My last blog post focused on Georgian jewellery, the crowning glory of any outfit. Of course, while those finishing touches were undoubtedly all-important we cannot ignore the actual fashions of the era these beautiful jewels enhanced, and how tailors and dressmakers drew on the elegance and grandeur of the ancient world.

It was the Enlightenment that started it - the Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, creating ideals of living centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge (obtained by reason and a vindication of the senses), as well as ideas of liberty and progress. This movement inevitably led to the admiration of classical civilisations such as Rome and Greece, which began to translate into fashions most typically associated with the Regency period.

Women’s fashion lost the rigidity of corsets and embraced instead neo-classical looking clothing. Dresses were designed to make ladies silhouettes appear elegant and slender, with flowing material and waistlines that clung beneath their breasts (known as Empire Line), whereas men’s fashions took on the lean and statuesque characteristics of the Grecian hero.


It is easy to see why the Ancient World was so favourable. With the advent of archaeology and many beautiful finds becoming available for public consumption (the Grand Tour favoured by the aristocracy had much to do with it), the elegance of the imagery really drew the eye. Men were clean shaven, with attractively curling hair and strong athletic bodies to stir virile masculinity, and the women were smooth-skinned, beautifully coifed, and everything graceful - the epitome, then, of the 'ideal' human being. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum

The first Grecian-style gowns were simple shifts made of muslin. Other materials were used as well, but muslin dominated the fashion plates. These gowns had very little shape to them - shape was instead achieved with the tie under the breast that created the iconic Empire Line we all know today. This style gave a lot of freedom and comfort to the wearer as the dresses were light, needed very little underpinning and were worn with flat shoes - no heels to make your feet hurt! Shades of white were the main colour of choice, and often pale pastel colours were worn during the day while darker colours came in the form of shawls, trims and tunics tipped with gold were often worn over a plain dress, and really gave the impression of Greek and Roman styling.

Such outfits were accessorised with reticules, some of which loosely echoed the shape of a Grecian urn, and hoods which paid homage to the Grecian caul, a cloth or net that covered the hair in an elongated shape at the back:

To veer back to jewellery briefly, one particular accessory came into fashion - tiaras. They were apparent in portraits at the time, but if you consider too the mosaics and pottery discovered from digs in Greece and Rome such as those depicted below, you can understand why tiaras became particularly fashionable:

© The British Museum

Further, cameos were the more obvious accessory that acknowledged the Ancient World. In 1805 the Journal des Dames wrote: ‘a fashionable lady wears cameos at her girdle, cameos in her necklace, cameos on each of her bracelets, a cameo on her tiara.’ Below is a portrait of Queen Louise Augusta of Prussia by French portrait maker Madame Le Brun, depicting one such cameo on her tiara.

The English potter Josiah Wedgwood made a killing from his jasperware depicting classical scenes. Below is a belt clasp mounted in cut steel frames with Matthew Boulton's faceted steel studs, which shows the image of a priestess making a sacrifice. Georgian women (and some men) often wore cameos like this.

© The Walters Art Museum

And speaking of priestesses, in the below painting of Lady Hamilton (another by Le Brun), Lord Nelson's mistress is depicted as a dancing priestess. The layered garment and patterned underdress could be both Regency dress or Grecian robe, the likeness is so close! Note in the background Mount Vesuvius is erupting - the excavations of Pompeii were another source of the Georgian's fascination with the ancient world.

For men, there was a little less frippery required. Gentlemen wore breeches made of fabric that stretched comfortably across the legs which accentuated their shape, and skin-tight pantaloons gave the virile look of the much admired classical statues. The dandy Beau Brummell (bottom figure) believed that the point of men's fashion was to 'clothe the body that its fineness be revealed'.

Of course, not all body shapes are the same! For women, even if they were of a more ample figure the Empire Line dresses were still very flattering, but for men who were a little more scrawny and did not possess the muscular curvature so admired of Grecian heroes, many had no qualms about fitting themselves with false curves, as this caricature below depicts! Next to this cariacture is a surviving example of a padded stocking.

There are so many things to say about Georgian fashion, but for the purpose of this blog I simply wanted to highlight the visual similarities between Regency fashions and the ancient world. Personally I really feel they were on to something, and I think it high time the fashions of the period made a comeback. They were elegant, regal, cool in the summer, and flattered everyone no matter their shape and size - what more could you possible ask for?


My Georgian-set debut novel Pandora acknowledges this obsession with the ancient world, and you can order by clicking the image below:
Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman