Sunday, 1 February 2015

Lost In The Dune: the Lewis Chessmen - by Susan Price

Knight: Lewis Chess Set
          Look at this little fella. Isn't he great?
          I imagine most, if not all, of my readers will immediately recognise him  - even without the caption - as a knight from the Lewis chessmen. The photograph above, though, was taken by me of one that sits on my shelf. It's a replica, quite a good one, I think, and it allows you to hold the little character in your hand and get a good close look at him.
          He's very like a Norman (norse-man) knight, with his kite-shaped shield and his conical helmet with a nose-piece. His horse is a sturdy little beast - I think its size, proportionate to its rider, was probably accurately observed.  The rider has stirrups, and the horse has a caparison.
          I only own two pieces. Here's the other: a Bishop.

Lewis chess men: the bishop

          He may look as if he's making a rude gesture, but I think it's a blessing.  Here's the back of him, showing the beautiful carving of his elaborate chair, and mitre ribbons.

Lewis Chess men: the bishop's back side.
          I wish I owned more of them. I'd really like to have one of the berserkers who's biting his shield. And a Queen. And a King. Well, the whole set, really.
          The chessmen were found on the west coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, in 1831, one of history's great accidental finds.
          There are several differing stories about how they were found. One says they were unearthed by a cow. The first I came across said that they were found in a sand-dune, in a little 'cave', and that the superstitious Highlander who found them, Malcolm Mcleod, was frightened and ran away, thinking he'd stumbled on a gathering of 'the little people' or fairies.
Lewis is to the left of Scotland, marked with a red dot
         I was always suspicious about this story: it assumed that a Highland crofter was a fool, and I'm pretty sure that if you want to find a fool among the Highland crofters, then or now, you'll have to take one with you.

          If there was any truth in the tale at all, it sounded to me like a story Mcleod might have told to amuse his friends - and which was taken at face value by the antiquarian gentleman who later took an interest in the chessmen.
          It seems I was right to doubt it. Far from being afraid of the chessmen, Mcleod exhibited them for a while in his byre, before selling them to a Captain Roderick Ryrie. (Mcleod's family were later evicted from their land during the Clearances, so I hope he drove a hard bargain.)
          So, what is known about the pieces? Well, most of them are carved from walrus ivory, though a few are made from whales' teeth. Their manufacture has been dated pretty firmly to the 12th Century, in Norway, probably in Trondheim, where there was a market for such expensive, high-status articles, and where similar figures have been found. Dr. Alex Woolf, director of the Institute for Medieval Studies of the University of St. Andrews, argues that the armour worn by some of the figures is a perfect replica of that worn in Norway at the time.
          There is some disagreement, however. Gudmundur G. Thórarinsson has published a paper which makes a case for the chessmen being Icelandic. He points out that the chessmen are the oldest known to make a connection between the Church and chess, and that only two countries in the world call the piece above 'bishop', and those countries are Iceland and Britain.
          Some have also argued that the small horses ridden by the knights look like Icelandic horses.
Several of the chessmen - Wikimedia Commons

           They're called 'the chessmen' rather than 'the chess set' because there are figures from more than one set. There are, altogether, 19 pawns (which look rather like standing stones), 8 Kings, 8 Queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights and 12 rooks. Some of them seem to have been stained red, suggesting that Viking chess pieces were red and white, rather than black and white. As you can see in the photo above, the pieces differ quite a lot in size and style.
           Probably the biggest mystery about them is why on earth so many pieces from several different, high quality, expensive chess sets were buried in a sand dune, in a little stone 'kist', beside a bay on a remote Outer Hebridean island.
          Well, of course, in the 12th Century - and for most of the Viking Age preceding it - these islands weren't 'remote', as we think
of them. Take another look at that map. The Hebrides were ruled by Norway at the time - as were the Orkneys and Shetlands, and large parts of Scotland and Ireland. The Hebrides were in the middle of thriving maritime trade-routes, with ships coming and going from Scandinavia to Scotland, the Islands, Ireland, the Faroes, Iceland - and even Greenland and America. They traded in soapstone, timber, amber, walrus ivory and walrus hide - oh, and slaves. The Vikings were big in the slave-trade.
          One theory - which seems pretty convincing - was that the chessmen were part of the stock-in-trade of some merchant travelling these whale-roads. He'd bought from craftsmen in Trondheim, and hoped to sell to wealthy jarls in Shetland, Orkney or the Isles. But that still leaves us wondering why he buried them in the sand dune on Uig Bay. What happened? Was he attacked by pirates? Did he hope to return and recover them? - they must have been worth quite a bit.
          A friend suggests that perhaps the merchant was in debt, and hid these valuable items rather than see them taken in payment. And was then done in by the loan-shark before he could recover them. You have to admit, a Viking loan-shark is a pretty formidable notion.
          For whatever reason they were hidden, they then stayed in the dark, in their little cave, for nearly 600 years.
          They carry a lot of information, these little figures. Look at the Kings and Queens here. The Kings have different faces and different beards, though similar crowns and draperies. Both hold their swords across their knees. My friend suggested they were whetstones, ancient symbols of royalty - but I think, looking closely, they are swords. The kings seem to be holding a hilt at one end, and the carving suggests a scabbard. Sitting with a sword across their knees is how Viking kings and lords received vows of fealty.

Two each of the eight Kings and Queens - Wikimedia Commons

          The Queens are dressed almost identically, and sit in a similar pose. Each has one hand pressed to her face - though one supports this hand by placing the other under her elbow, and one is holding a drinking horn. They teach us a lesson in being wary of thinking we understand the past, because these little figures seem comic to us. Do their woeful, pained expressions convey toothache or indigestion? Is the one with the drinking horn drunk? Are they thinking about household chores, or just fed up with being surrounded by drunken Vikings? (Spam, spam, spam, spam - spam, spam, spam, spam...)
Compassion and wisdom - not toothache. Wiki Commons
          In fact, they were surely never intended to be comic. Vikings took their chess seriously - and the wealthy aristocrats who were the intended market belonged to a society with strict class divisions. A comic chess-set which guyed their pretensions was unlikely to appeal to them.
           The Queens' pose is part of a complex visual code that would have been understood at the time (just as we understand many of the poses and 'uniforms' used in that modern propaganda we call advertising.) The Queen's glum face, and hand to her cheek, convey compassion and mercy - with perhaps just a dash of wisdom. That was understood to be a Queen's job - to leaven her husband's demands for loyalty and fighting men, with a little gentleness and understanding.
          You can see the strips of 'tablet-weave' decorating the edges of the queen's sleeves and cape. These strips were woven in bright colours and patterns on small 'tablets' or miniature looms. And is that a striped under-sleeve, or a pile of many bracelets?
          It's worth mentioning that the King, Queen and Bishop are seated in chairs to convey their high social status. They could just as easily have been carved standing. But no, the High-Ups didn't stand. They sat, in grand chairs with arms and high backs, while the hoi-polloi stood or knelt.
          Here's possibly my favourite - one of the two 'warders' or, in
A Lewis berserker
modern terms, 'rooks', shown biting his shield in berserker rage. There's an argument about whether berserkers, or belief in them, ever existed in the Viking Age (6th-8th centuries AD), or whether it was a later fantasy. It's pointed out that there are no depictions of berserkers from the Viking Age itself - and the Lewis berserker, sadly, dates to the medieval period.

          Not all the warders are about to run mad. The one below is stalwart and on guard with sword and shield at the ready, but not even tempted to give his shield a nibble. These figures aren't meant to be comic either, however funny and cute they seem to us. They're meant to convey ferocity in battle, a readiness to fight for their lord - the one they swore fealty to while he held his sword across his knees - and die in his service, if necessary.
          Perhaps one
Lewis Warder
of the selling points of these chess men was that you could choose the figures you liked best - berserkers if your taste ran that way, or sober guards, if not. I imagine many figures spread out on the table of a jarl's hall - perhaps the jarl allowed his children to choose which warders, kings, queens and bishops he bought. Or, maybe you could buy replacements for pieces lost or broken?

          Maybe they were carved to order? If so, several people were left wondering what had happened to their ordered chess set. Runic letters were dispatched by ship to Trondheim: 'I ordered a chess set last Egg-Month, and now it's Blood Month and they still haven't come.'
          My friend suggests that perhaps they were one massive chess-set, where players chose pieces according to their character or mood. "Tonight, Thorstein, I shall have the berserkers, the Queen with the drinking horn, the Bishop who's clutching his crosier as if he's going to bash somebody with it, and the King with the leer." It's an attractive idea, but I think the sizes of the pieces are too varied for them to be part of a single set.

          Why were they buried in that stone kist, in a sand dune? Why were they left there and never collected? - I so much want to know, and I never shall. There's a story there, somewhere. I wish somebody would write it.

For more information, go to

Or here -

Mary Hoffman is away

Saturday, 31 January 2015

January competition

Our competition are open to UK readers only - sorry!

Please remember to email your responses to as well so that I can contact you easily if you win.

To win one of five copies of The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, our January guest, please leave an answer to the following in the Comment section below:

"Tell us what aspects of the enclosed religious life, whether as an anchoress or as a nun in an enclosed order, either appeal to or appall you." (You don't have to be female to enter!)

Closing date is 7th February. Good luck!

Friday, 30 January 2015

Cabinet of Curiosities - the Blue and White Jar - Woman's Work? by Leslie Wilson

I found it in an antique shop; the wonderful Aladdin's cave of Stuart House which I always go to when I visit Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. My birthday was coming up and I knew immediately what I wanted as a present. When I saw it across a room crowded with porcelain and pottery, I thought it was Chinese, but when I got closer to it, I recognised that it was European. The mark suggests that it is, in fact, Delft, made by Pieter Adriaensz Kocks (it was sold me as a Pieter Kocks jar), which would date it between 1701, when Pieter took over the workshop from his father Adriaen Kocks, who became a director of the De Grieksche A factory in 1687. The factory produced tinware inspired by Kangxi blue and white porcelain.

I love blue and white pottery and porcelain, and also am very fond of the European ceramics that drew on the Chinese styles, like the Onion Design I mentioned in my blog about Germany: Memories of a Nation. I find the fusion between Eastern motifs and Western interpretation particularly pleasing, and so I was thrilled to be able to buy this piece - it wasn't as expensive as you'd suppose, perhaps because it is not perfect; there are little chips out of it here and there and the dog, or tailless cat - I'm not sure which, but a charming animal - who sits on the top of it is damaged. I don't care.

Being Delft, though it looks like porcelain, it is not - the secret of porcelain was still closed to the West when it was made. It is tinware, which means it is made out of pottery, whitened with a glaze based on lead oxide and tin, and that is what gives the porcelain-like milkiness.
At a speculative guess, I would say that it probably was produced towards the beginning of the Pieter Adriaensz period; this is based on the information I have gleaned (and I haven't been able to find out that much, alas) which suggests that later on the factory concentrated on Imari-style ware. My jar looks more like Adriaen's productions - it could, of course, be a fake, but I do hope not. It is certainly very beautiful and skilfully made. However, I do find the de Grieksche factory interesting, because after Pieter's death, only two years after he had taken over the business, 'he' continued to produce Delft ware, because his widow, Johanna van der Heul, kept the workshops going. I tried as hard as I could to find out more about that, but without success so far, so if any reader of this blog can point me in the right direction? I would be very pleased.

However, I turned to Alice Clark's invaluable The Working Life of Seventeenth Century Women, and found that in England at least, shortly before my jar was made, it was quite usual for widows, and sometimes sisters, to take over businesses after their husbands' or brothers' death. Whether they actually did the work is another matter and harder to discover; however, I do seem to remember that intricate decorative work on chinaware has historically been done by women. It does make me feel quite strange to see that a piece of Delftware was 'produced by Pieter Adriaensz' at a period when he was already dead, and demonstrates all too clearly how women's work has become invisible in history. Indeed, it was from only one Internet site that I discovered about Johanna. I salute her, though, across the centuries. I hope my jar was produced under her direction.
Now, when I look at it, I don't see 'Chinese' but eighteenth-century interiors, where it sits on a high mantelpiece in some home probably much better-off than mine, originally. De Grieksche made items for King William and Queen Mary at Hampton Court, and I have read in one source that the more European designs, which the flower-panels on mine seem to be, were produced for the British market. The grooves were made by drawing fingers down a pot made on the wheel; sometimes I put my own fingers in them and imagine I am touching the fingers of that long-ago workman (or woman even?).

I do wonder who owned it before me - it is a constant fascination to me, since I shall almost certainly never find out - and I love to imagine. It may have been made and brought to England in William of Orange's last year of life, or else in the reign of Queen Anne. It connects me to those times, across three hundred years, and is very beautiful. It sits now opposite my Meissen vase, behind a  studio glass scent bottle my husband bought me in Paris - on receipt of which I stood, as I did when I was given the Delft jar, speechless and breathless with excitement - and beside the blanc-de chine Kuan Yin, dating from the mid-20th century, that I found in an antique shop in Hollywood Road in Hong Kong. They all get on very well together.
PS: the colour on the last photograph is truer than the other ones, which come out just a little too blue. In fact, the colour exactly matches the blue of an antique Chinese snuff-bottle (Qing Dynasty) that I also possess.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

Our January guest is Robyn Cadwallader, whose début novel, The Anchoress, is garnering enthusiastic reviews.

Photo by Che Chorley
Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous, prize-winning short stories,
poems and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a non-fiction book
based on her PhD thesis which explored attitudes to virginity and female
agency in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside the Australian
capital when not travelling to England for research, visiting ancient
archaeological sites along the way.

Robyn will be visiting the UK in August and September for the Edinburgh
International Book Festival and as a writer-in-residence at the Gladstone
Welcome, Robyn, to the History Girls and thanks for being interviewed long distance in Australia!

Mary Hoffman: As soon as the reader realises that this is the story of a woman enclosed for life in a small space there is a feeling of claustrophobia. Did this give you any pause as a writer?

Robyn Cadwallader: Yes, it did give me pause in terms of crafting the story, but I knew that it was essential — not only as an idea, but as a vividly felt experience for Sarah and for the reader. One of the first things that drew me to telling this story was the fascinating and, in some ways horrific, idea of a woman being shut away for the rest of her life in a stone cell. What would it be like to have light only from an oil lamp and candles, and to have such a small space — nine paces by seven — to live in? Enclosure and the attempt to shut out the world is the essence of Sarah’s commitment, so it was key to what I had to convey. It is such a different kind of experience from what we know today, and so I worked really hard at keeping the balance between evoking the claustrophobia and not overwhelming the reader.

 I also recognised that the claustrophobia of the cell could mean that the story as well was shut down — just like Sarah, with nowhere to go. But the more I ‘sat with’ Sarah, and imagined her cell, built next to a church, her maids, her visitors and her confessor, the more the story began to take shape and tell itself.

MH:  And yet you found ways of “bringing the outside in.” Tell us something about the different ways in which you did that.

RC: As soon as I read about anchoresses, I began to wonder what it would be like inside that cell, in a space with small windows that are covered, so that the sense of sight is severely restricted. It seemed to me that by limiting one sense, the others would be enhanced. Inside her cell, each taste of her simple food would be clearer, the few things she touched would be more vivid, and the sensations of her body would be heightened. Even though there is stone between her and the world outside, I imagined that she would develop an acute sense of the smells and sounds of the village around her.

This would be especially so because anchorholds were attached to a church, and at the centre of town or village life, in physical and in social terms. Apart from services and religious feasts, meetings would be held in the church, and sometimes, it would be the place for a private tryst. Sarah would hear it all through the small opening between her cell and the church wall. Outside the church on the village green, people would celebrate the many rituals that structured their year, from May Day to the harvest Lammas to Michaelmas. In many ways, Sarah is in the centre of village life, and it comes to her, albeit on the other side of the walls of her cell.

Although she is enclosed, visitors (only women and clerics) come to the tiny parlour window to speak to her and bring news of the world outside the cell. As she tries to understand and empathise with the women, she begins to imagine their lives, even though she hasn’t even seen their faces. Maud, in particular, brings in the daily experience of work in the fields in a very detailed way, from ploughing to the seeds beginning to grow. She and the other women reveal the life that goes on in the village, and their requests for prayer help to further draw Sarah into their experience. Louise and Anna, Sarah’s maids, are also a key line of connection to the village.

MH:  You have unequally alternating chapters headed Sarah and Ranaulf. Why did you decide to tell Sarah’s story in the first person but Ranaulf’s in the third?

RC: I experimented with telling Sarah’s story in third person, but I realised very quickly that in order to convey the sense of enclosure, of being so thoroughly inside the walls, she had to tell her experiences first hand. Everything else then had to be outside. That included her relationship with Father Ranaulf, her confessor, who comes to hear her confession once a week.

One way of ensuring the interiority of Sarah’s experience was to write Ranaulf’s chapters in third person. While I thought that Ranaulf’s life in the priory would provide relief from the limits of the cell and Sarah’s first-person account, I decided to write it in limited third-person: to restrict the narrative to his experiences and encounters. I did this, in part, to maintain something of the atmosphere of claustrophobia — that is, while Ranualf’s chapters offer, as it were, some fresh air and light, I didn’t want them to ‘burst out’, either in tone or in scope.

MH:  The most famous anchoress in the UK is probably Dame Julian of Norwich but she comes a whole century after Sarah. Is there a nod to her in your book? You name Sarah’s church as Saint Juliana.

RC: I have read some of Julian of Norwich’s writings, but I deliberately did not read them while I was writing, in order be sure that Sarah remained entirely of my imagination.

The church in the novel isn’t named after her, but it is named after one of the most popular saints in England at the time, St Juliana. Her story, along with the stories of St Margaret, St Juliana and St Catherine, were bound with the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule for Anchoresses, and provided as devotional material for some anchoresses in thirteenth-century England. St Juliana was a virgin martyr who was killed because she refused to marry, even though the Devil sent a demon in the likeness of an angel to deceive her, telling her that she should give up her virginity (Sarah makes a brief reference to her when she first hears from Agnes). I found the story of St Margaret — a woman who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out its back, becoming the patron saint of women in childbirth —so intriguing that I wrote my PhD about it. It was through my research that anchoresses captured my imagination.

MH:  Is Sarah a nun? Do you have to be a nun to be an anchoress?

RC: In 1255, while there were many ways for men to be involved in the religious life, opportunities for women were limited. Sarah could really only become a nun if her family could afford to pay the dowry. She could become an anchoress if the bishop approved, and if she could find a patron who would provide for her physical needs. A patron would willingly ensure that an anchoress’s physical and spiritual needs were provided, in return for her prayers — a kind of spiritual insurance for those who could afford it. Anchoresses were highly esteemed.

For holy women, the emphasis was on enclosure from the world, while for men, a vocation could lead to an active position in society, including political power, money and status. Some men became anchorites, but they were not necessarily permanently enclosed in a cell.

MH: The book was full of new words for me. Some like “squint” are guessable; others like “corrody” are very specific medieval legal terms. Did you consider putting a glossary in the finished book?

RC: I was aware that there could be words that are new to readers, but I included them because I wanted to keep the sense of unfamiliarity that they created. Although many of the issues in the novel resonate with our lives today, the thirteenth-century was both deeply ordinary and, to us, profoundly strange. In writing, I was trying to keep this balance, mindful of giving the reader enough information to understand all that was needed for the narrative (though always without using clunky exposition of the term).

MH: I found it hard to visualise the arrangement of rooms in relation to the church; It would have helped to  have a diagram.

RC: Sarah’s experience of the cell is the heart of the novel and I considered long and hard how to draw the reader into how that space felt for her. The god’s-eye view of a diagram would have given an objectivity that would have counteracted that. I felt it was important that the reader’s first encounter with the cell was through Sarah’s own exploration of it. The texture and shape of the stones, the squint, the darkness, the straw or her curtain, are where the real story lies.

MH: Are Sarah’s motives for enclosure more spiritual or more because she fears marriage and childbirth?

RC: Sarah’s motives for enclosure are complex and not completely clear to her. It seems to me that this is a very human and real quality, and motivations are rarely, if ever, simple and easily labelled. Spiritual desires do not, I believe, exist on a ‘pure’ plane, but involve our physical, mental and emotional being as well.

MH: At the beginning of the story, Sarah and Ranaulf clash. Do you think they understood each other at the end?

RC: Sarah is singularly unimpressed with Ranaulf when he replaces the avuncular priest who had been her understanding and supportive confessor. For his part, Ranaulf, who is a scribe, resents the interruption to his time with his books, and is unsure how to counsel a woman, even a holy one. Their disagreements are both profound and trivial, but each of them develops as a result of their encounters. Their relationship is an ongoing and developing one, and in many ways, at the end they’ve just begun to lay the foundations for communication.

MH: Is this “women’s fiction”? The focus is very much on what a woman is, in relation to a man, whether she is a creature of sin and temptation or a flawed version of the male.

RC: The novel is an exploration of the experience of one woman, and my aim has always been to honour the woman who made the choice to be enclosed — a choice that might seem to us strange and weird. It’s true that theological, philosophical and medical thinking of the time considered women only in terms of the male, and although this is important context for the novel, the narrative shows an alternative way of understanding ‘woman’. I have never intended to say, ‘but in this (male) world, there were some interesting women’, but ‘ in this world, there were men and women, and this is one woman’s experience’.

I don’t think the term ‘women’s fiction’ is a helpful one because we don’t speak of man’s fiction; to do so is to speak of woman in terms of a man and continue patriarchal thinking. The novel is historical fiction / literary fiction and I hope people will read it and enjoy it. It may be that more women read it, but that is more likely to be because stories about men are thought to be universal, while stories about women are treated as domestic and specific. And stories about holy women locked in small cells may be seen to be very, very specific, although I think this particular one is universal in its themes.

MH:  Is Hartham a real place?

RC: Sarah is completely a product of my imagination, and so I decided that all the places mentioned in the novel should not refer, as far as I could tell, to real places. I discovered after I had finished writing the novel that there is a place called ‘Hardham’; perhaps I knew it, and adjusted it a little, perhaps not!

MH:  There is a magical realist thread in the novel with the sense that the bones of Agnes, an earlier anchoress buried in the same cell can cause physical wounds to Sarah’s body and influence her mind. This felt a bit like early Hilary Mantel. What was your thinking about this?

RC: There are some fascinating ways that magical realism can express and explore the more liminal aspects of mind and body. At the beginning, Sarah knows that Agnes was a holy and revered anchoress who once lived in the cell, someone she should emulate. When Sarah discovers that Agnes’s bones are buried beneath the floor where she kneels to pray, the memory and the presence of the holy woman take on extra power. That becomes rich ground for all kinds of extra-ordinary and psychological exploration.

Thanks! That was really interesting. 

I have been pondering why it is that historical fiction tends to be more often written (and read?) by women, even when the subject is male. What do our readers think? And you'll have a chance to win Robyn's novel on 31st January.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Memory and Humanity, by Clare Mulley

In 1939 Dame Stephanie Shirley’s father, a distinguished German judge, tried to prepare his daughters for a new life in England by teaching them some useful phrases. ‘Slow-combustion-cooker’ was one. Another was ‘wined-screen-wiper’. Stephanie was five years old; her elder sister, Renate, was nine. The girls were leaving Vienna on one of the kindertransport trains bringing Jewish children out to London Liverpool Street Station. They did not know anyone else, they did not even know how to ask for the loo, but they made it to England, sleeping on corrugated cardboard laid out the floor, or sometimes in luggage racks, occasionally frightened by interruptions from uniformed guards, and remembering above all the oily smell of the sea and the nauseous night crossing. When they arrived at Liverpool Street station, ‘we spilled out, speechless and wide-eyed, as if in a dream’. Each child had a luggage label around their neck, as if they were lost luggage, ‘which in a sense we were’, she says.

Stephanie in the 1940s
(Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley)

Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Red Army - now Holocaust Memorial Day - and Dame Stephanie was speaking at London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust archive, under the theme of ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’. For Dame Stephanie, memory has proved complex. Arriving at such a young age, her memories of her journey and arrival are emotional as well as factual. Was the platform really silent, as she remembers but now doubts it could have been? Were the trains really sealed, as she has read, although she recalls one boy being repeatedly sick outside?

Dame Stephanie Shirley, Weiner Library, London
for World Holocaust Day 2015
(Courtesy of the Weiner Library)

More than this, while Dame Stephanie vividly remembers her father’s last attempts to teach them a little English, perhaps as much as a distraction during their desperate farewell as anything else, she found that in England she soon ‘deliberately forgot’ her German. She quickly bonded with her warm foster family, her aunty and uncle – people who did not know her but had saved her and her sister, and who joyfully took on the role of parents. Brought up within the Church of England, she now has no faith. Incredibly, both her Jewish father and Gentile mother survived the war, but although Dame Stephanie spent time with them individually, she did not live with them again. In 1951, she and her mother adopted an English name when they took British citizenship – choosing Brooke after the quintessentially English poet. ‘I found that name change empowering', Dame Stephanie says, and so much did she inhabit her new name that once, when post arrived under her German name, she had reached the second flight of stairs to her apartment before she realized it was meant for her. As an adult she even found herself giving 1939 as her date of birth on official forms, ‘entirely subconsciously’.

Since then Dame Stephanie has taken steps to remember her past. She, her sister and mother returned to Vienna to meet old friends. Their mother had sentimental memories of the city, but Dame Stephanie found strangers asking her whether she was from the camps - so rare was it to see a Jewish face. At that point she knew that Vienna meant nothing to her, and ‘felt the weight of the past vanish’. She and her sister passed time wondering, as people walked by, ‘what were you doing when they threw stones at me’.

Dame Stephanie vowed to make hers ‘a life worth saving’. Brilliant at maths and business and fascinated by computers she set up a pioneering software company. Seeing the numbers of women now out of work, she promoted innovative home-working and flexible hours for an all-female workforce. She gave 25% of her company to the team, and they built it together, until in 2001 many were millionaires and Dame Stephanie herself was on the Sunday Times female rich list, just a few places below the Queen. She is no longer on that list. She reinvested over £15 million in IT and donated £50 million to autism organizations, following the death of her only son who was autistic.

Dame Stephanie is proud of her Jewish heritage but chose to become aligned not with refugee organizations or Jewish groups, but with IT development and autism, the passions of her life. She has chosen her own identity, but that does not mean she wishes to forget her past or has a simplistic view of who she is. When asked why she did not choose to live in Israel she has replied that she is not Jewish. When asked why she does not visit as a tourist, she says she feels she cannot go as a tourist because she also is Jewish.

Dame Stephanie says her terror of persecution was deep-rooted. For a long time she felt such hatred, bound up with survivors’ guilt, that she could not revisit her past. But although seeing images of Auschwitz are still almost more than she can bear, last night she said that, ‘Germany has made impressive efforts to come clean with its Nazi past’ and ‘it is precisely for people like me to reach out’.

Dame Stephanie's autobiography, Let IT Go
(Courtesy of Dame Stephanie Shirley)

It is important both to honour the memory of those killed, of those who resisted, and those who had no such opportunity, and also to work towards preventing the repetition of atrocities. Another former kindertransport veteran at the Wiener Library event told me that Hitler had been encouraged by the lack of international memory of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Remembering makes repetition less possible.

Dame Stephanie's life talks of courage, determination, identity and above all humanity. Asked about growing anti-Semitism she talks also about rising anti-Muslim feeling, and her opinion that that some politicians are doing Britain ‘an enormous disservice’ by pushing anti-immigration. ‘My own belief,’ she told me at the end of the talk, ‘is that people are people, and most people are just trying to get on with their own lives’. What we need to do is take small steps against intolerance.

Not so long ago, Dame Stephanie, now in her 80s, was driving through the countryside when she saw a large swastika painted on a barn. Her first reaction was horror, a rush of painful memories. Her second was to find the farmer and explain how this graffiti made her feel, and how important it was to get it removed. The farmer did not consider it his responsibility. She then went to the local police station with similar lack of result. Finally she bought a large tin of paint, got up at 4am the next morning, and went and painted over it herself. I will remember her example. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Tiny Nautical Quiz, by Louisa Young

I have sealag, or jetlegs, or both, or vice versa . . .  I have been sailing, far away, and I am swaying mildly at my desk as I write this. Forgive me if it comes out jumbled. My arms ache and though tanned and wild-haired I am also covered in the inexplicable bruises of a rowdy passage and quite a long night sail.

Several questions came up in the course of the voyage, and we decided, as we lay about on deck, or  drinking rum below, late at night, that rather than googling we would use the old-fashioned, the historic, way of gathering information.

'And what is that?' the younger reader inquires.

'Oh child,' we answer. 'Long ago, before the mighty Google, if we didn't know something we used to ask each other, and, if nobody knew, we would make it up.'


Q1: What is grog, actually?

Q2: Why is St Lucia the Helen of the Caribbean?

Q3: What are the Pitons? Very small volcanos? Very picturesque slagheaps?

Q4: Was Josephine black?

Q5: Did she actually have free passage for all the roses she bought from an English supplier? And was the French navy really under instructions to confiscate all seeds and seedlings and plants it found on English vessels, on her behalf?

Q6: What happened to Josephine anyway?

Q7: And what happened to Emma Hamilton?

Q8: Would you sail the Atlantic?

Q9: How do you pronounce Bequia?

Q10: Is this an orange, a lime, a lemon, or what?

Q11: Why is that called a Bimini?

Q12: Who was the only woman to sail with the Argonauts?

Q13: Are there any place names more romantic than Soufrieres and Malgretoute?


1) Undrinkable bilge-water rendered drinkable by the addition of lime juice and your naval ration of rum.

2) Because she was passed from hand to hand so often between the English and the French. Seven times, to be precise, in the 17th/18th/19th centuries.

3) Volcanic plugs, like King Arthur's Seat. Only pointier.

4) No.

5) Yes.

6) He put her away; and she died before the wars were over.

7) The country wouldn't recognise her, and she took to drink, and brought up her daughter in a sort of mirror image of what so often happened. Emma admitted that Nelson was the girl's father, but not that she herself was her mother. So young Horatia never really knew.

8) Yes, but then you'd wonder why you bothered. It is however only possible to wonder why you bothered after having done it. Rather like University. (NB: I have not sailed the Atlantic.)

9: Beckway.

10. Hmm. Don't know. It smells like an orange but it's green. Put a slice in the rum, anyway.

11: Because it's a cross between a bikini and Rimini. (No it's not. It's a sort of fitted maritime canopy, a sunshade like on the surrey with the fringe on the top, only on a boat. Perhaps it was invented in Bimini, which we think is in Cuba. Or Florida. Something to do with Hemingway, and fishing anyway. The Bahamas?)

12: Atalanta!

13: No, except perhaps Finisterre.

Overall lesson learned:
Never trust a seafarer's version of events. They know nothing. They come back with no proper historical accuracy and just give you a load of all my eye and Betty Martin. Which is from the Latin prayer much used by Portuguese mariners: Ora pro mihi Beato Martine - pray for me, Blessed Martin, St Martin being the patron saint of taverns and landlords and reformed drunkards. Or perhaps not.

I should probably go to bed.

Monday, 26 January 2015

JE SUIS CHARLIE Carol Drinkwater

I am writing this ahead of my regular blog date because I will be away on a work commitment and possibly without internet. Much could happen between today and the 26th...


This month of January has been a tragic opening to the year of 2015. One of the murdered Charlie Hebdo team collaborated with my husband on a film proposal quite recently, so we feel the loss personally.

For twenty-two years here at our Olive Farm in the south of France, we employed an Algerian gardener whose family name I gave in my series of Olive Farm books as “Quashia”. In fact, his real family name is Kouachi. “Quashia” is a man I have described as owning a passport stamped direct to heaven. His heart is huge and his soul is just. He is a practicing Muslim who doesn’t smoke or drink, although he indulged in both when he was younger, and who has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When his eldest son was killed in a car crash some years ago, he wept in my husband’s arms. When one or other of his daughters or daughters-in-law gave birth to yet another of his thirty-three grandchildren, we celebrated with him. When one of our farm dogs died, he dug the grave with Michel and together we grieved the creature’s loss.

When his carte d’indentité needed renewing Michel accompanied him to the immigration offices because in this high-percentage Le Pen area of France the officers are not always known to be gracious to the Arabs. When “Quashia” had an accident, I drove him to the hospital and sat with him in Emergency until they were ready to treat him and then I signed myself as his local next of kin to allow him to be released from the hospital. When one of his comrades died and he was helping to raise the money to have the body returned to its family in Algeria, we, of course, chipped in.

“Quashia” is family. Now that he has finally retired, aged eighty-two, and returned to his wife and children in his Berber village near Constantine in Algeria, I miss him deeply. Every day, I hear his laughter.
Imagine my horror then as I watched the events of early January play out. “Quashia” has five sons. Dear God, I was praying, please don’t let these murderers be related to our man. Of course, they were not. The two Kouachi terrorist brothers were Parisian born, runts of a society that does not always make it easy to be Maghrebian and unemployed here, does not pave the way for immersion...

On 11th April 2007, I landed in Algiers intending to travel the length and breadth of the country alone questing the history of the olive tree. 

As I was leaving the airport, chaos ensued. I assumed it was the usual state of affairs. In fact, Al Qaeda had bombed the offices of the prime minister in Algiers and then set off another bomb close to the airport. The death toll was frightening, shocking. The phone lines were all down. I couldn’t get a signal, couldn’t ring home to let Michel, my husband, know that I was safe because for sure he would have heard the news and would be concerned. I was meeting up with an Algerian historian working at the university who also happened to be a beekeeper. His contact details had been given to me by our beekeepers back here on the farm. Finally, he and I managed to locate one another and he drove me directly out of town south of the capital to lunch with the man who was the president of Algeria’s national beekeeping society, a vast network. The three of us sat together in a restaurant in the middle of what seemed to me to be nowhere, drinking soft fizzy drinks and eating grilled Halal lamb and chips.

I suppose you will go home? the president sighed.

The truth was I was still digesting this Algerian welcome and had not considered my immediate future. All I knew for certain was that I had a book to complete, a Mediterranean journey, and that no other modern travel writer had included Algeria in their itinerary. I really wanted to make this leg. Paul Theroux skipped Algeria when he wrote his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Pillars of Hercules. I was determined that I wouldn’t. And I am a woman. An even greater coup, I had been smugly reckoning. Monsieur Le Beekeeping President and the historian talked me through modern Algerian politics: before, during and most importantly after their exceedingly bloody war of independence with France. It was a sobering afternoon.

The bottom line was, they said, they needed me.

Need me?

You can be a witness to what we are living through. You can take what you see out of Algeria and help us. We need a life line, a voice.

The two men struck a deal with me. If I agreed to continue with my planned month-long trip they would guarantee hospitality and, as far as they were able, my security. It was a madness to accept, to stay on. American Express who serve as my travel insurance declared the country a high risk zone. This meant if I stayed on of my own accord, I was travelling without cover.

I stayed on.

I was parcelled east across the country and then south towards the Sahara always staying with beekeepers, many of whom have remained friends. My book, The Olive Tree, recounts my experiences of that extraordinary month, unforgettable and very challenging, so I won’t re-narrate those chapters here.

I am mentioning the experience now in the light of these recent events in Paris.

There have been so many articles written over these last few days, so many opinions set out, which is as it should be. We, in Europe, are exceedingly fortunate to live in countries where freedom of speech and debate are essentials; food for our daily lives. For others, this is not necessarily the case. Algeria is a land in question. Algeria is still reeling from over one hundred and fifty years of French colonialization and before that Ottoman rule. The vast landmass of desert, mountains and coast, that is a nation of Berbers more than Arabs has not yet established its own post-colonial identity. This has left it wide open to the fanatics.

I am reading articles everywhere saying that Muslims worldwide if they are TRULY peace-loving Muslims MUST speak out now against the horrors that have been perpetrated in recent months. We all must speak out, of course we must, but such a command is simplistic.

South Africa is an example where at least two generations suffered from lack of education because education was not provided for them. The same is true in countries such as Algeria where the French colonials took the best pickings and left little opportunities for the indigenous people, where many of the colonials treated the local people cruelly and seeded resentment, hatred. The same was true in my own land of Ireland. Catholics under centuries of British rule were forbidden education and we know how long it has taken to sort-of iron out that complex legacy.

I am sometimes accused of being soft, hippy, peace-loving... yes, I am all of these. Most importantly, I believe in dialogue and education and taking responsibility. I think we need to look, to penetrate, to understand the seeds of this Islamic fanaticism. We need to understand that millions of Islamised peoples are ignorant of what is really going on. They are just being fed violent shortcuts.

When I penetrated the sandy wilds south of Constantine to villages and settlements where herders trudged the desert distances alone with their beasts, where young boys received no education and had no future and were facing the same illiteracy as their grandparents, I passed many Al Qaeda bases on my way to nowhere, to where the winds roared and the sand whorled. How simple, I thought back then, to lure these boys with promises of a future, offering them the opportunity to make their mark as martyrs to a cause, offering a false spiritual wealth to their closed-in impoverished lives, offering their families a little money to help them along and the assurance that their offspring would, for the first time in centuries, be educated.

I don’t have any simple answers. I can only ask questions, point at unresolved situations, attempt to understand some of the complexities.


I feel these murders acutely, this attempt at destruction of freedom of speech and of expression, the mindless loss of talented work colleagues, but I also believe that if we don’t begin to take responsibility, everyone of us, for the ignorance, the lack of direction these murderers have lived with, we give the word to the fanatics and lost forever will be the path to dialogue. 

The 11th January demonstrations all across France have proved that this nation will stand up proudly for its right to freedom of speech. Three and a half million people on the streets, and no skirmishes, in the biggest national demonstrations this country has ever known.

‘Paris is the capital of the world,’ said our President Hollande. ‘Our entire country will rise up towards something better.’

There was barely a dry eye in the house, as we say in show business.

But this is just the beginning.

What I hope now is that we all begin to ask ourselves in which ways we can reach out to those who are disenfranchised, to the nations who are cut off from the west, to provide education and opportunities for those who live amongst us and are lost. The outer suburbs, for example, where the Kouachi brothers were brought up would be a very good place to start to turn fine words and sentiments into actions. 

What do you think or hope for from this experience?

PS: I have used "Charlie" photos taken from the internet and I could not find names to credit to them. I apologise for using others' copyright. If anyone knows who took these images, I will happily credit them.