Saturday, 30 September 2017

September Competition

To win a copy of Sally Nicholls' Things a Bright Girl can do, answer the following question in the Comments section below.

Then send a copy of your answer to so that I have your contact details.

"The past is a surprising place. What's your favourite unexpected historical fact?"

Closing date: 7th October

We are afraid our competitions are open to UK Followers only

Friday, 29 September 2017

History is written by the winners by Sally Nicholls

Our September guest is Sally Nicholls. She was born in Stockton, just after midnight, in a thunderstorm. Her novels for children and young adults include Ways to Live Forever and An Island of Our Own and have been shortlisted for the Costa Children's Book Award and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, and won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize. She lives in Oxford with her husband and small son.
Women's march, London, January 2017
History is written by the winners. It’s a truism I’d never really given much thought to, except to vaguely suppose that most victors think that the wars they won were just wars, and propaganda is a thing, and Richard III didn’t actually kill the Princes in the Tower.

It’s something I’ve come face-to-face with recently though, as I’ve been researching my YA Suffragette novel, Things A Bright Girl Can Do, which is set in the First World War. I thought I knew broadly what life was like on the Home Front – everyone was very patriotic and joined up immediately, expecting the war to be over by Christmas. Women knitted socks. Nobody had any idea how awful the trenches were, and if your son joined up, he probably wasn’t ever going to come back.

I thought I knew about the Suffragettes too. They were mostly militants, who broke windows 
and went on hunger strike. When the war came along, they all stopped being Suffragettes and went off to be nurses and bus conductors. The vote was given to them as a thank-you present, and because people suddenly realised that women were just as capable as men, more or less.

It turns out … that’s not exactly true.

Not everyone was particularly patriotic, for a start – although plenty of people were. Saying so is a bit like saying ‘anti-Muslim feeling was running high in twenty-first century Britain’ - I mean, it is, but it’s by no means universal. There’s a wonderful description in one of the books I read about the crowds in London on the day war is declared. The streets are full of celebration and cheering – but in Trafalgar Square, there are two demonstrations going on. One is pro-war, and the other is anti. The day before war was declared, the Labour party had also been in Trafalgar Square, holding an anti-war demonstration.

Not everyone joined up immediately either, although plenty did – between 4th August and 12th of September 1914, 478,893 men joined the army. However, these were disproportionately upper and middle class men. The situation was very different for working-class men. Understandably, half a million new recruits joining up made life very difficult for the army. They had to uniform, feed and arm all the non-commissioned men, and paying them a wage was way down the list of priorities. Non-commissioned men could send home half of their salary, but in most cases this was nowhere near as much as they’d been earning in their previous employments, meaning that most working-class families simply couldn’t afford for their father to join up.

Sylvia Pankhurst
One of the books I read as research for Things a Bright Girl Can Do was Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Home Front. In it, she talks about families whose father was a reservist, and how difficult it was when he was called up. Many factories also closed, partly due to lack of demand – the loss of the German market or the market for peacetime goods – partly due to lack of workforce. Prices rose. This created crippling economic hardship. Nobody ever taught me about this in school.

And yes, people did know the trenches were awful, and yes, most of the men in them came home.

The history books’ view of the Suffragettes were similarly biased. There were far more non-militant suffragists than there were militant Suffragettes: the non-militant NUWSS had a membership of around 50,000, while the militant WSPU only ever had around 2,000 members. Though Suffrage campaigning did mostly stop when the war happened, some still went on, and many of the suffragists were opposed to the war and used their time to continue to campaign for women’s issues and peace issues.

It was generally understood that the fight for votes had more-or-less been won in 1914; that the government would have to capitulate once they could find a politic way to do so. The war – and their story that the vote was a thank you for being good girls – provided that. It was a story which infuriated many suffragists. And while, yes, many men and women did realise women’s potential when they suddenly had to become mechanics and omnibus-drivers, many, many women were already frustrated by their limited opportunities before the war. One reason for this may have been universal education and the fact that the average marriage age was increasing; women who fifty years ago were educated solely for marriage, suddenly found that they had the potential to achieve much more; but not the opportunity.

So, history. Still written by the winners. I’m proud to be doing my small part to redress the balance.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Historical Mystery by Lynne Benton

In December 1926 a news item shook the country:  


Agatha Christie, the famous crime writer, had disappeared one night in mysterious circumstances.  She left her car and her coat at a Surrey beauty spot near her home, and was not seen again until eleven days later, many miles away in a hotel in Harrogate.  During those eleven days the police had combed the area searching for her, on the assumption that she’d had some sort of accident, but drew a blank everywhere.  It was only when a sharp-eyed journalist spotted her in The Hydropathic Hotel (now called The Swan) in Harrogate that he realised who this guest was and told the police.  

She had checked into the hotel under an assumed name, but when found she seemed unable to explain why she had gone, and why she had chosen that particular name.  The papers at the time went wild with speculation, some suggesting she had lost her memory, some that it was all a publicity stunt, but Agatha herself never explained.

However, on closer investigation, it transpired that her mother, to whom she had been extremely close, had recently died, and Agatha had had to go from Surrey (where she lived with her husband Archie and young daughter Rosalind) back to her childhood house in Torquay to go through her mother’s things and get the house ready for sale.  This, as anyone knows who has been through something similar, can be a very emotional experience, so how must she have felt when she returned home, a few weeks later, to be greeted by her husband with the news that he wanted a divorce in order to marry his mistress?

Faced with a double blow like this, who could blame Agatha for deciding to get away from it all for a while?  It may not have been an entirely rational decision to make, though afterwards she did say she had written to her brother-in-law to tell him where she was going.  When asked about this, however, he agreed that he’d had the letter but said he’d then torn it up and forgotten about it.  (This, in the face of such country-wide publicity, is hard to believe, but then not maybe he never read the newspapers or listened to the radio – who can tell?)

Recently I went to Harrogate, and saw The Swan Hotel where Agatha stayed.  Inside the entrance hall is a plaque confirming that Agatha Christie did indeed stay there for 11 days in 1926. 

Another interesting point is that she checked in under the name of Theresa Neele – and Neele was the surname of Archie’s mistress.  The most likely explanation is that Agatha was depressed and temporarily irrational.  When her husband came to collect her, after she’d been found at The Swan, he told everyone she’d lost her memory but was “all right now” so he was taking her home.

He subsequently got his divorce and married his mistress, and Agatha continued writing her best-selling crime novels. 

A few years later she married Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, and they had a long and happy marriage.  She often accompanied him on his digs to Egypt, and set a couple of her books there, and there was no repeat of the “disappearing act”.  Speculation died down, and the mystery was never solved.
But recently I came across a book called “A Talent for Murder” by Andrew Wilson, which took another look at the mystery and came up with a whole different slant.

In this book, set in 1926, the heroine/protagonist is Agatha Christie herself.  It is a murder mystery, fictional but based on the fantastic premise that the “disappearance” was organised by a deranged fan who wanted Agatha to murder someone for him.  He claimed that since she knew so much about murder, she was the best person to do it.  Of course she refused, but he threatened her with harm to her daughter if she failed to do what he demanded.  The author somehow managed to make the whole thing vaguely feasible by tying up the loose ends in the actual story and “solving” the mystery.

It is, of course, pure fiction, and it is highly unlikely that anything like this actually happened, but all the same, you can’t help speculating.  Andrew did what all writers of fiction, and especially historical fiction, do – they ask themselves “what if…?”

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Queen Alexandra and her Brownie camera by Janie Hampton

Lord & Lady Landsdowne and Lady de Grey take tea with the
Earl of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.
One of my favourite jumble sale books is Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book, Photographs from my camera. It was published by the Daily Telegraph in 1908,  and raised £10,000 for charity. Queen Alexandra, wife of the King of Great Britain, was a keen photographer who always travelled with her No.4 Kodak Box Brownie camera, especially when on HMY* Victoria and Albert III. The previous ‘royal yacht’ - any ship that is used by a royal family - HMY Victoria & Albert II was built in 1855. When Queen Victoria observed that the yachts of both the Russian Czar and the German Kaiser were larger than Britain’s, Parliament agreed to build a new one. As a steam ship, the anchor chains would normally have been pulled up by engine, but the queen insisted that the yacht be fitted with a capstan, so that she could watch the sailors at work. It was launched in 1899 but Queen Victoria died before the yacht was completed. With every luxury available, HMY Victoria and Albert III employed a ship's crew of 336 men and even the buckets were painted with royal crests. The ship was 120 metres long by 12 metres across, powered by steam engines and cost £572,000 – the equivalent today of £32 million.
HMY Victoria & Albert III 1899-1954
In 1901, the year King Edward VII acceded to the throne, he and his wife Queen Alexandra travelled for the first time on HMY Victoria and Albert III. They crossed the English Channel to attend the funeral of the King’s sister, the Empress of Germany. Possibly the first member of the British royal family to own a camera, in 1885 Queen Alexandra was congratulated on her skill by Amateur Photographer magazine. In addition to compiling many photograph albums, she transferred some of her photos onto a tea service. Her photos are a delightful combination of stiff ‘firing squad’ poses of royal courtiers, mixed with tea parties, children playing and her husband relaxing with his royal relations from many nations. Edward VII also used the yacht for Royal Navy Fleet Reviews.
Queen Alexandra captioned this "The Lords of the Admiralty, Naval Review, 1907."

The Prince of Wales, his sons David and Albert -
later Edward VIII and George VI, and King Edward VII,
the Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet.
Commodore George Keppel, husband of the king’s mistress Alice Keppel,
and great grandfather of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall on left with
the Duke of Connaught, son of Queen Victoria, reviewing the fleet off Cowes, 1907.

In Norway, the captain hung a swing in the rigging for the royal ladies.
During a royal visit to Norway, little Crown Prince Olav, grandson of Edward VII and Alexandra, chatted to naval officers and the ship’s cat. He was the first heir to the Norwegian throne since the Middle Ages to grow up in Norway. As an adult, he won a gold medal for sailing at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. He became king of Norway in 1957 and was nicknamed Folkekongen - "The People's King".
Princess Victoria, daughter of Alexandra, and her nephew Prince Olav, 1903.
In 1906, King Edward VII met his nephew, the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family, off the coast of Estonia on the Baltic Sea.
Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, dressed as a sailor, accompanied by Derevenko,
a Russian Imperial Navy sailor whose job was to stop him from playing rough games.

Czar of Russia's wife and daughters on board the royal yacht with
Princess Viktoria of Shaumburg-Lippe, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria.
HMY Victoria and Albert III was also used by George V, Edward VIII and was withdrawn after George VI’s coronation Fleet Review of 1937. Although decommissioned in 1939, it was used as a depot ship during the Second World War and in 1954 broken up and replaced by HMY Britannia.
Queen Alexandra, 1844-1925

Punting on the River Thames at Boulter's Lock,
near Maidenhead.

All photos from Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book, Photographs from my camera,
Daily Telegraph,1908.

*His Majesty’s Yacht

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A visit to Marseille and its stunning MuCEM, by Carol Drinkwater

                                                               Museum and Fort

Although I live but an hour's drive from Marseille, France's principle Mediterranean port and second largest city, I do not visit it all that frequently. This month, however, I had the opportunity to spend an entire day there and I decided to dedicate most of that precious time to a first visit to MuCEM. If you have been then you will understand my excitement, if you haven't, it is a must.

What is MuCEM? It is the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean.  (Le Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée). It was conceived in 2000 as part of the seven-billion-euro Euroméditerannée redevelopment of the city's dock areas.
It was built alongside and integrates several medieval stone structures. The complex is situated on the waterfront at the far extreme of the western arm of Marseille's huge and very splendid harbour. 
MuCEM was opened on 7th June 2013 to celebrate Marseille as European Capital of Culture, 2013. It is the first museum anywhere to be dedicated to the culture of the Mediterranean.

There is so much that is remarkable about the place that it is hard to know where to begin to describe it. Its architectural brilliance is what struck me first and, of course, its location. I spent hours, literally hours, wandering around the old stone Fort St-Jean built in 1660 on a site previously occupied by the Knights of St John, hence its name. The fort guards the entrance to the Vieux Port and sits across the water from the cuboid museum, which is accessed by a high-flying footbridge.
I left the fort area mid-afternoon making my way by the footbridge to the museum. It was with some regret that I felt bound to move on because I had been told that with its westerly aspect, watching the sun set from the fort is a very memorable experience.

                                   The high footbridge that transports from the old to the new.

The newly-constructed museum space, designed by the French architect Rudy Ricciotti (born in Algeria of Italian descent), is a giant cuboid encased in a lattice-work shell made from fibre-reinforced concrete. The concrete has been painted, rendered black. It gives the impression that the place has been wrapped in webbing or chain mail, or a giant mantilla. (Or perhaps it also hints at the idea of a hijab?) From the interior, the lattice-work creates a dappled effect (see photo below). It protects from the burning heat of the sun and yet the overall effect is dazzling. The sea and sun are omnipresent. The Mediterranean, veiled and at bay, still dominates.

                                                   Refreshment area within MUCEM

The space within the cuboid, laid out over several floors, is very fluid, interconnected in such a way as to create what feels like one enormous meandering space where exhibitions, restaurants, sitting areas, bars, a cinema, and a large and comprehensive bookshop co-exist.

                                          Walking one of the corridors within the museum.

Seating, (over at the fort there are felled tree trunks used as benches), have been placed everywhere to offer the opportunity to pause, sit, to stare out to sea at the busy shipping channels, the pleasure yachts tacking and rolling. At every moment there is the opportunity to reflect upon what a mighty seaport this city has been for close to three thousand years.
From this vantage point, it is easy to see the small island, part of the four-island Frioul archipelago, that houses Château d'If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas's novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. You can take a boat to the island and the château if you fancy the short ride.

Attention back within the museum. Glance about at all the visitors, eating together, strolling to and fro, visiting the temporary or permanent exhibitions. This place is for the community as much as the tourists and I think, ultimately, that is what I find so inspiring about it. Entrance was free the weekend I visited because I was fortunate to fall upon one of the days of Journées européennes du Patrimoine 2017. So many languages were being spoken all around me. It made me feel excited to be European, to be living alongside a city that celebrates diversity and its multiculturalism.

Marseille is a gritty city with many stains on its history. I felt that Ricciotti's design for MuCEM, its remarkable waterside location, is entirely in tune with the dichotomies which are Marseille.

In all my travels for THE OLIVE ROUTE and THE OLIVE TREE, much of the history I was uncovering frequently re-routed me back to Marseille. Marseille, or Massalia as it was originally called, was founded as a trading post on the waterfront site, the Lacydon, a rocky cove, that later became the city's Vieux Port somewhere around 600 BC by Phocaeans who crossed the Mediterranean by sea from Phocaea, modern Foça, on the Aegean coast in what today is Turkey. Back then, that coast belonged to Greeks from Asia Minor. The Phocaeans are credited with bringing olive culture to France.

The trading post flourished, became a city-state and the preeminent polis in the Hellenic region of southern Gaul. It retained its independence throughout Roman rule until, siding with Julius Caesar, it lost its independence during the Siege of Massilia in 49 BC.

                                  A splendid silver drachma with the name Massalia engraved on it.

It was an early seat of Christianity and retained its position as one of the most important maritime trading posts in the Western Roman Empire.

However, over the centuries to come, it went on to suffer sacking, a major loss of population through the Black Death. Its fortunes rebounded when, during the sixteenth-century, it hosted naval fleets belonging to the Franco-Ottoman alliance.

Over its long and sometimes troubled history, Marseille has been a renowned soap-producing location. It did business with the Venetians when Venice was controlling the eastern Mediterranean shipping routes. The soaps that were fabricated in Marseille were made, as they still are today, by the same methods as they have been for millennia in Syria, in the now devastated city of Aleppo. Like Aleppo, Marseille operated many factories and produced soaps that were sold to the textile industries. Marseille soaps, as in Aleppo and Nablus in Palestine, are olive oil based.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the land at the far end of the port was used to cultivate hemp for the manufacture of rope for the ships. This is the origin of the name of the city's principle street, the Canebière.

Do you remember the 1971 film, The French Connection? Marseille was portrayed as the drug capital of Europe. It was seedy, dirty, dangerous and corrupt. From before WWII, the city was riddled with heroin laboratories. The Italian Mafia had much of the city in its grip. The port was the ideal location for importing vast shipments of Turkish or Lebanese opium and exporting to the United Sates via Canada, billions of dollars worth of heroin. It was not until the 70s, forty years on, that the drug rings were dismantled. Still, the city was left with a very grubby image. Few tourists cared to venture there.

With its large Mahgrebian population, including huge influxes of Algerians after the Second World War, a great deal of cheap and not very attractive housing was constructed. The Algerian War of Independence, which cost the French so dearly, also brought about hatred towards France's fast-growing population of northern African residents. In 1972, The FN (Front National) party was founded. Jean-Marie Le Pen was its first leader and president. Marseille was one of the regions of France with the greatest support for this far-right nationalist movement.

Marseille's reputation as a city to visit was in shreds, but over this last half century, Marseille has worked hard to embrace its multiculturalism, to re-educate its citizens, to present itself as a melting pot with many positive aspects. To embrace its rich and muddled history.

Strolling about the city in the sunshine before and after my visit to MuCEM, I watched many of the local fishermen with their families setting up for a port-side feast. Some were in Provençal costume, some were talking in Provençal. A few were playing accordions, others grilling fresh fish caught overnight at the water's edge. Elsewhere, I drank mint tea in a cafe where customers were smoking narghile water pipes. I wandered through some of the old squares with lovely ochre-façaded buildings and coloured shutters, to the cobbled Arsenal district with its book and music shops, its lively cafés and clothes stores. I ate an Italian ice cream. I bought bricks of local soap. I booked us dinner for a fine bouillabaisse ( a Catalan-influenced dish) down at the waterfront. I glanced up towards the lovely neo-Byzantine basilica of Our Lady of the Guard. Perched on high, it overlooks, protects the entire sweep of the harbour.

I wished I had longer, several days. There is much to see. Marseille has come a long, long way.

                                                                          Paul Cezanne

Monday, 25 September 2017

Lamb House, Rye by Miranda Miller

    On a recent visit to Rye I was very excited to visit this beautiful early eighteenth century house. Henry James is one of my favourite novelists and he lived in Lamb House for most of the year from 1897, when he was 55, until just before his death in 1916. After years of living in London he began to find the city exhausting and fell in love with Rye: “ the little old, cobble-stoned, grass-grown, red-roofed town, on the summit of its mildly pyramidal hill.” He called the house his “hermitage,” and wrote in a letter to his old friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, “ Only Lamb House is mild; only Lamb house is sane; only Lamb House is true.” Far from feeling cut off from literary life James, who was sociable even when claiming to be a hermit, entertained many writers there, including Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, A.C.and E.F. Benson, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Stephen Crane, Ford Maddox Ford, Edmund Gosse and Hugh Walpole.

   Here’s a rather faded photo of Henry James standing in the French window of the dining room, looking out at the garden he enjoyed so much. In summer he wrote - or rather dictated - in the little Garden House which stood at the top of West Street, at right angles to the main house. The Garden House was destroyed by a bomb in 1940 but the walled garden itself is still very attractive. The peace and charm of Lamb House were productive for James and while he lived there he wrote The Awkward Age, The Wings of a Dove, The Beast in the Jungle, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. Colm Toibin has written a brilliant novel about Henry James, The Master, which vividly describes “the house where James wrote all his later masterpieces, the house where his old ghost, quiet and refined, and dedicated still perhaps to art at its most pure and life at its most complex, walks proudly now that his reputation as an artist continues to grow....” “ The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms....” (From an article Colm Toibin wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2004).

   The reference to haunting is very interesting. Years ago an old friend told me that when he visited James’s bedroom in Lamb House he felt possessed by a sense of loneliness and desolation which he believed to be the spirit of Henry James. He was sceptical about such things, as I would say I am, but I was certainly looking forward to visiting James’s bedroom and was disappointed to discover that the National Trust no longer allows this. You can only go to the downstairs rooms and the garden now. In a letter to Bay Emmet, the niece of his muse Minny Temple, Henry James wrote: “I feel your ghosts, all there, hovering tenderly & softly from room to room in poor little empty Lamb House now, & creaking gently on staircase & on old crooked floors.”

    EF Benson, who lived in Lamb House after Henry James, wrote ghost stories as well as his better known Mapp and Lucia books. During the summer of 2014 Lamb House was used as the fictional "Mallards" for a BBC TV adaptation of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia.

   Joan Aiken, the author of a children’s book I love called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, also lived in Rye and wrote a book called The Haunting of Lamb House. 

   Another author, Rumer Godden, lived in Lamb House from 1968 for five years. My mother, who grew up in India, adored her novels, which describe “ a world of nuns and sinners, ballet dancers and one-legged soldiers, foolish fathers and knife-sharp daughters, obese hoteliers and wizened Indian nannies as thin and dried up as liquorice root - the British, the Indian and the Eurasian in the middle.” Three of her novels, Black Narcissus, The Greengage Summer and The River, were made into successful films. When she lived in Lamb House she claimed to hear the voices of Miles and Flora, the children in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, when she was writing.  Here she is with one of her beloved pekineses.

   Haunted or not, a visit to Lamb House is a rich and memorable experience. It’s open to visitors two days a week from April to October.


Sunday, 24 September 2017

MY RESEARCH BOOKS by Elizabeth Chadwick

A brief blog this month as by the time you read this, I shall be in South Wales taking a partial break but also researching locations for my latest work in progress, The Irish Princess.

I am sure everyone has different methods of shelving their physical reference books so they (hopefully) know where to find them.  My research shelves go by subject order (loosely) and that order is not alphabetical.  So I begin with food, then health, life and death, medicine, childhood, motherhood, fatherhood, lifestyle, women's issues, sex, law, cats and dogs etc. There are different shelves for primary sources and for over-sized books.  The ones in current use - Medieval Ireland at the moment - have a shelf to themselves on my study desk. That's my organisation in physical reality.

In the digital world  it's slightly different.
Every day on my author Facebook page, I list a research book of the day with a scan of the book cover and these are stored alphabetically by title.  I had scanned my core books some years ago but in too small a resolution, so currently I have a grand rescan project going on  to upgrade the resolution and also to incorporate books acquired since that original scan.
The fruits of this project come in very useful for discussion groups online.  I can now just copy and past the book cover into the discussion if I need to mention it or make a suggestion.  It is time consuming, but done in increments, it's steady progress and once complete, it's there for posterity.  Here are some screen snips of the works so far.  These are not all of them, I have many more to scan in, but this is part of the ever-growing collection!