Friday, 6 March 2015

'Intervene in the field of the imagination' by Lydia Syson

The idea that the Spanish Civil War was primarily a ‘poets’ war’, as Stephen Spender suggested, has often been questioned in the 75 years since it ended.  In terms of numbers, it was a workers’ war.  Now a remarkable exhibition and book explore for the first time the many different ways in which it was also an artists’ war.  In the process, Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, powerfully demonstrates that this is because it was, in fact, everybody’s war. 

The juxtaposition of images in the first few pages of Simon Martin’s accompanying book makes this point particularly well. First there’s a semi-abstract Henry Moore lithograph of 1939 called ‘Spanish Prisoner’ - eyes, bars, barbed wire, monumental despair – which was imprisoned itself in Camberwell School of Art when WW2 broke out, so couldn’t be printed to raise funds for Spanish refugees in French detention camps as Moore intended.  Then this eye-catching and anonymous poster in yellow, red and purple with the simple plea: ‘Help Spain’. 

Courtesy of the People's History Museum
Turning the page, I was struck by a 1936 photograph by Edith Tudor-Hart of the ‘Aid for Spain’ fundraiding shop in my own London Borough, Southwark, an image which documents the sheer scale of support for Republic Spain in Britain.  This shop was open till ten at night.  Its windows and door are plastered with exhortatory appeals: ‘Buy a tin of food! We will send it to Spain’, ‘Buy a milk token’, ‘Please step inside and see what Spain means to you’, and, in largest letters of all, ‘SPAIN IS FIGHTING FOR YOU’.

‘Unless he is prepared to see all thought pressed into one reactionary mould, by tyrannical dictatorships – to see the beginning of another set of dark ages – the artist is left with no choice but to help in the fight for the real establishment of Democracy against the menace of Dictatorships,’ wrote Moore, expressing the commitment of a generation.

Picasso’s Guernica, painted in the wake of the bombing of the Basque town in April 1937, has undoubtedly overshadowed the efforts of every other artist in this respect, including his own magnificent Weeping Woman, a highlight of this exhibition. But instead of attempting the impossible – unearthing British works of art to compete with Picasso’s – Conscience and Conflict takes a better path.  Both book and exhibition tell an exceptionally moving story of the vast, varied and often collective response both to events in Spain and to the arrival of the painting Guernica in Britain - it was seen by 3,000 people in the New Burlington Galleries and over 15,000 in Whitechapel. One of many sub-plots to this narrative is the democratising effect Spain had on British art in the 1930s.  
Artistic engagement in this war took multiple forms.  Some turned their talents to propaganda images, making banners, hoardings, cartoons, book covers, posters.  Others sold their work to raise money and awareness, largely through the Artists International Association, whose history is particularly well told, and later the Spanish Artists Refugee Committee.  And like writers, artists took sides, in similar proportions. Pro-Francoist and more ambivalent artists are represented here too – works by Edward Burra and Wyndham Lewis stand out.

Edward Burra, The Watcher, c. 1937,
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art,
© Estate of the Artist, c/o Lefevre Fine Art, London
A few British artists chose to go to Spain to fight for the cause. Felicia Browne was the only British woman in combat, and the first British volunteer to die in battle. Her sketchbook, though not her body, was recovered and her work exhibited soon after her death to raise funds for the war effort.  I’ve never seen any work by sculptor Jason Gurney, whose posthumously published memoir Crusade in Spain was a very valuable source for A World Between Us: Gurney was wounded in the hand, and apparently unable to sculpt again.  Clive Branson returned, but only after imprisonment in the notorious Francoist camp of San Pedro de Cardeñ.  Branson’s colourful, realist paintings are well represented in this show, along with sketches he made in Spain of fellow prisoners. I thought of these when I was writing the Ebro scenes in my novel: Nat determines to take his drawings of his dead friend Bernie back to his wife in Mile End if he survives the battle. Branson was killed in action in Burma in 1944, where a disporportionate number of Communists and former International Brigaders seem to have been sent during World War Two. (My grandfather, a friend and comrade of Branson’s, broke his arm very badly in a training exercise the night before he was due to fly there himself, which probably saved his life.)
A photograph in the book from the International Brigade Archive at the Marx Memorial Library shows artist-turned-ambulance-driver Wogan Philips standing in front of the vehicle which inspired the opening of my chapter 10:

‘Felix stood on the dusty road, rereading the writing on the front of the ambulance and wishing she didn’t have to get back into it quite so soon.  She rolled the words round her tongue.
Medicamentos para los obreros de España.’
The letters were hand painted in white capitals, bold against dark green paintwork.  They got bigger and bigger until they reached the huge final ‘A’ of España. . .This was what she’d undertaken.  Medicine for the workers of Spain.’

Walter Nessler, Premonition, 1937
Courtesy of the Trustees of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon
Looking at Walter Nessler’s dark oil painting of London contorted by bombing, painted three years before the Blitz, I thought of Felix's letter home, defending her departure:

'We’re all involved.  We can’t let the Blackshirts win in England, and we can’t let the Nationalists force their way into power here either.  It’s a fight for the only things really worth fighting for – everything I always used to take for granted, I suppose…like freedom, and elections, and being able to say what you think.  I can’t just close my eyes and pretend it’s not happning.  Fighting here is the only thing we can do right now to stop Fascist bombers flying over Lawrie Park Road next year, or the year after.'

When I started writing A World Between Us, I hadn’t quite realised how heavily involved in the Aid Spain movement my grandparents and other relatives had been.  Soon familiar names cropped up everywhere I looked.  I discovered a portrait of my mother, aged four, by Edith Tudor-Hart, whose genius for photographing children can be seen in this exhibition in images of ‘los niños’ – the young Basque refugee children who came to Britain on the Habaña in 1937.  In her hands, a camera was a political weapon.  According to Tudor-Hart, photography had ‘ceased to be an instrument for recording events and became a means for influencing and stimulating events.’ I have another picture of my mother by Ramsey and Muspratt, who took the extraordinary picture of John Cornford (with Ray Peters), also in Conscience and Conflict, that led so many to describe him as the ‘poster-boy’ of the International Brigades.

For obvious reasons, I loved the posters in this exhibition, many of which I knew already, but even more I loved the surprises: the terrifying Neville Chamberlain mask worn by Roland Penrose and others at the May Day procession to Hyde Park in 1938, and a papier-mâché horse's head from the Surrealist float; the haunting ruins and empty streets painted by John Armstrong (see book cover), who went on to become an official war artist  – scraps of paper blowing in the wind mimic human beings swept from their homes by war.  Perhaps most startling of all is the astonishing series of pictures of refugees on the road by Ursula McCannell, which she started painting when she was only thirteen.  As the Daily Mail pronounced after her first solo show, they ‘seem to typify all suffering in Spain.’ 

Ursula McCannell (b. 1923)
Family of Beggars, 1939,
Marcus Rees Roberts
Conscience and Conflict, a Pallant House Gallery exhibition which ran in Chichester from 8 November 2014 to 15 February 2015, opens tomorrow at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and runs until 7 June 2015.  Simon Martin’s book, published by Pallant House Gallery in association with Lund Humphries, is equally strongly recommended.

Lydia Syson's Liberty's Fire will be published on May 7th.  From October 2015, she will be an RLF Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art.  

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Mrs Humphry, Miss Post and the Last Word on Bananas - Joan Lennon

It is World Book Day today - World Book Week/Fortnight for many writers - as schools and libraries up and down the land get into the spirit of the celebration and invite us to get out of our jammies/big sweaters/baggy jeans/slippers/the house.  And, frequently, onto public transport where we, blinking in the sudden light, meet the wide world in a small space.

Be gentle with us.

(Some of the advice below may appear to come from another world, but many of us live in other worlds a lot of the time, so it seemed appropriate.)

I love Mrs Humphry.  (I've posted before about her Manners for Women and Manners for Men and barely scratched the surface of her awesomeness.)  Listen to her words from the 1897 edition of Manners for Men on omnibus travel -

"True courtesy ... will prevent a man from infringing the rights of his neighbours on either side by occupying more than his own allotted space.  Very stout men are obliged to do so, but at least they need not spread out their knees in a way that is calculated to aggravate the evil.  Nor need they arrange themselves in a comfortable oblique position, with the result of enhancing the inconvenience ... Even a thin man can take up a quantity of room by thus disposing himself at an angle of forty-five ...

The morning paper may be converted into an offensive weapon in the hands of the rude and careless ... Newspapers are rather unwieldy things to turn and twist about in a limited space, but this very circumstance affords a man an opportunity of displaying his skill in manipulating the large, wide sheets without dashing them in the face of his nearest neighbour, or knocking against anybody in a series of awkward movements that a little care could easily convert in leisurely, graceful ones ...

It can never be out of place for a man to give up his seat in favour of the old and infirm, or for a woman with a baby in her arms.  But such matters as these belong to the region of heart and mind beyond mere manners, and it is useless to suggest any line of action on such subjects.  The impulse must come from within."

And, moving from bus to train, and forward a decade or two -

(Miss Emily Post 1912)

Miss Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home has been revised and reprinted many times, but I like the 1922 original best.  And out of all her words of advice, I'd like to select these for your consideration as you pack your leather valise -

"On a railroad train you should be careful not to assail the nostrils of fellow passengers with strong odors of any kind. An odor that may seem to you refreshing, may cause others who dislike it and are “poor travelers” to suffer really great distress. There is a combination of banana and the leather smell of a valise containing food, that is to many people an immediate emetic. The smell of a banana or an orange, is in fact to nearly all bad travelers the last straw. In America where there are “diners” on every Pullman train, the food odors are seldom encountered in parlor cars, but in Europe where railroad carriages are small, one fruit enthusiast can make his traveling companions more utterly wretched than perhaps he can imagine." 

Just a thought.

(If you want to browse more in Miss Post's or Mrs Humphry's books and don't have well-thumbed copies on your shelf, you can do so here - and here - but be politely warned - they are incredibly addictive!)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Historical Fictions, Fictional Histories - by Katherine Langrish


So we were sitting, just us two, tucked into the cosy corner of a pleasant dockside pub in Bristol, looking forward to a good chat over a hot meal before heading out into the frozen grey February air to visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s marvellous ship the ss Great Britain. Nothing could have been nicer. Or it would have been, if it hadn’t been for the over-energetic conversation of the three people at the next table: a man, rather full of himself – and two admiring women. The man held forth, the women chipped in, adding supporting anecdotes. Their voices were penetrating. It was impossible to ignore them. We tried to talk between ourselves, but every attempt failed. We were being drowned out.

The man was going on about Iraq and Syria and Jordan and ISIS. After some time he got off the atrocities and moved to the jocular.  ‘… And you know, some people really are called that? Isis - it’s a real name? It’s the name of one of those Egyptian gods? There was this thing in the paper about a baby called Isis, they were wondering if they ought to change her name. And they could, you see, but it would all depend on what her brothers thought. There were three of them, one called Al, one called Kye, and one called Ida.  Ha ha ha!’  Both women laughed heartily. The man leaned back. ‘But that other disaster, the one in Glasgow, the bin lorry that ran away and killed that family. I don’t know what that was all about, the driver says he had a heart attack or something…’

On it went, and on. Ghastly tragedies treated as lunchtime snacks. Our quiet meal was being ruined. D. muttered, ‘It’s like sitting next to a whirlpool, I keep being sucked in sideways.’
‘Maybe we should start a whirlpool of our own,’ I said.
We eyed one another.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Who would have thought they could have kept the old lady locked up in the attic for three years?’
            ‘Terrible,’ I agreed. ‘The family tried to hush it up, but it was a shocking business.’
            ‘And feeding her on nothing but raspberries and brandy, all that time.’
‘To be fair,’ I said, ‘that was all she would eat. She’d insisted on that diet herself. She really could be very difficult.’
‘She was mad, of course.’
‘She was by the end of it.’
‘And then it all came out.’
‘It had to,’ I said, ‘once the neighbours reported the screams. There was money involved, I suppose?’
‘An inheritance,’ he said dourly. ‘All the money from the sheep-frogging empire her great-grandfather established.’
‘Remind me what that was?’
‘They were trying to make woolly jumpers.’
I choked and recovered. ‘No no, that was just an old joke. I’ve remembered about it now.  It was a new technique of twisting wool into a special thread to make the braid, you know, that was used for decorating Army dress uniforms.’
‘Frogging!’ he said, enlightened. ‘Of course!’
‘Yes, for the Hussars and the other regiments. It was a very important business. In the end they were supplying the whole British Army. The family had mills all over Lancashire and Yorkshire. It all started in the 1840’s. Obadiah Blenkinsop was the founder. He was well thought of.’
‘He was a tight-fisted man, a pillar of the Church.’
‘Very moral. He built one of those model villages for his factory hands to live in.’
‘Like Saltaire.’
‘Yes, but this was on the Calder. Unfortunately, he took his obsession with social engineering a little too far –’
‘He wanted to lower birth rates. His employees weren’t allowed more than three children per family.’
‘That’s right. He had little flaps, like cat-flaps, built into the houses so he could spy on his workforce.  They were called Blenkinsop’s Peepholes. Stewards would go the rounds at night to check that no hanky-panky was going on…’
‘If a family had more than three, the spare children would disappear into the mills.’
‘Cruel times.’
‘Fatal. All that dangerous machinery…’

The two women at the next table were still chattering blithely, but I’d noticed that the man had for some time been strangely silent. At this point he pushed back his chair and disappeared to the Gents. When he came back:

‘You’ve heard about the race to register the patent?’ D. asked me.
‘No, tell me!’
‘You see, Brunel had independently come up with an invention very similar to Blenkinsop’s Sheep-Frogger. The two men found out about it over dinner at a London club, and came to a gentleman’s agreement. They were to race one another to London by canal boat, one travelling along the Grand Union Canal, the other down the Kennet and Avon. The finish was the Patent Office at Somerset House on the Strand: whoever got there first would register the patent. It took weeks.’
‘What happened?’
‘It was a very close thing.  Blenkinsop was ahead, but as he was hurrying along the Strand he happened to look back – and there was a tall stovepipe hat, wagging along above the crowds in hot pursuit.’
‘Brunel’s trademark!’
‘Of course. It must have been a bad moment for Blenkinsop. He put on a spurt, but the two arrived almost simultaneously at Somerset House – only to find the gates shut. Neither of them could get in. There’d been a quarantine order slapped on all foreign patents…’
‘Ah,’ I broke in, ‘that must have been in the middle of the Great Tapioca Epidemic of 1842 –’

But we shall never know more. At this point the three people on the table next to us paid up and departed, and we were left alone to laugh. 

Picture credits:

"Bristol MMB 43 SS Great Britain" Photo by mattbuck. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
"Isambard Kingdom Brunel" by Robert Howlett, 1857, Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Author Maths, by Y S Lee

The US/Canadian cover (Candlewick Press)
One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. My Mary Quinn Mysteries (called the Agency series, in North America) are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed the country and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my novels takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city. 

The UK/Australian cover (Walker Books)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Distance in miles
Walking (in mins)
Running (in mins)
Horseback (in mins)
Vancouver to Toronto
Toronto to New York
New York to Montreal
Montreal to Vancouver
New York to Vancouver

I assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour - a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

- 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

- 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

- 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

This left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period during which my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?
Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries (Walker Books/Candlewick Press), a quartet of novels featuring a girl detective in Victorian London. Rivals in the City, the last in the series, is published in the US and Canada on March 10.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Women, history and historical fiction, for today I am News Central - Gillian Polack

My post this month is about events, for I am surrounded by them right now. I want to talk about just two of them here: the first is Women’s History Month for 2015, which started today, and the second is the first ever Historical Novel Society Conference Downunder in three weeks.

I’ve been involved in Australia’s Women’s History Month celebrations since before Australia had any. I was one of the very small number of women targeted by Helen Leonard in 1999. She said “We need a Women’s History Month. Let’s make it March so that we can get the benefit of America’s Women’s History Month.” And so we decided it would be so, over coffee. When people ask, I can still show them the location of the rather small coffee table, at a café in Canberra.

Last year I handed all my papers to Lulu Respall-Turner (another of the founders) and the year before gave the electronic files to the Women’s History Month committee. So that’s it from me. Except it isn’t, because every year I throw a small shindig on my blog.

This year I will have a group of women writers who are talking about things that are quite personal.
It struck me that we (women) have fewer hero narratives than men. We not often the centre of narratives. So this year, throughout March, a group of living women are at the centre of narratives, often their own. If March weren’t so short, there would be more of these stories by women writers about themselves or people close to them: I ran out of days and had to stop asking writers I wanted to hear from. I strongly suspect I need a full year with this subject, and that even then I’d only scratch the surface.

I didn’t tell any of the writers “I want your hero stories” – but women being women, that is what I’m getting. There's an astonishing amount of hero-story in everyday problems (Campbell described heroes from the wrong direction, I suspect). The first post has already gone up, and is Wendy Orr talking about breaking her neck. One of Australia’s most successful fiction writers emerged into public awareness about the same time as she was crippled, she was told, for life. 

The posts will be at both my writerly blog and on LiveJournal throughout March. You can find Wendy’s story here and here.

One of the Women's History Month launches, from the early days. Carmen Lawrence launching in the Speaker's garden at Parliament House, Canberra. Photograph: Gillian Polack (of course).

And now, for the Historical Novel Society. I first encountered it more years ago than I can think of. It was members of the HNS who brought me into the historical fiction fold by saying “Yes, we know you don’t write historical fiction, it, but you can advise those of us who do.” 

This is the first time the HNS has run a conference in Australasia. It's in Sydney in just a few weeks. The first evening is at the State Library, which is a building I always have time for. I’m hoping this conference will be the first of many and that its Australian chapter will be as vigorous as those elsewhere.

The conference brings together those of us from all corners of history-in-fiction, including fantasy and, of course, the Middle Ages. Felicity Pulman is launching three books there (or rather, I am launching them for her, a fact that intimidates me), there will be super-sessions for writers, and the program is just amazing. So many of Australia’s best writers, and they all love history! You can find more about it from the HNS website.

Note: This post is shorter than usual because I’m full of books. One coming out now (my new novel) and one in June (history!) and it’s peak teaching period and even finding time to breath feels difficult. Next month I’ll write something extra-juicy to make up. In the meantime, have a nice picture of a medieval mikvah in Montpellier (I took this in 2011). And no, I have no idea why I have an alliterative tendency today. No doubt I'll recover from it eventually.