Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Bruges by Sarah Gristwood

Perhaps we all feel we have a stake in the BBC’s version of Wolf Hall, to be filmed in Bruges this summer. After the Bookers, and the rave reception it’s had on the boards, the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, have reached national treasure status. But I feel more of a stake than most. Before Wolf Hall, another BBC crew were in Bruges, shooting the adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. And before, either of them, there was me.

Half a millennium ago, before any of us, there was Margaret of York; why I was there, really. I was writing a book, Blood Sisters, about the women behind the Wars of the Roses – and I can tell you, it didn’t come easy. Not only are the written sources notoriously patchy, but it’s very hard to know where to go to get into the mood for that period – or to do visual research, as is sometimes put, politely.

It’s a strange, specific time, that changeover between the medieval world of castles and clashing knights, and the far more familiar Elizabethan era in all its glory. In Britain it’s oddly hard to find . . . some of the Oxbridge colleges, maybe? It was a problem for me – and for the Wolf Hall team too, maybe. Thomas Cromwell’s later career took him to palaces like Hampton Court; but where do you go for his home turf, the City? Where did I go, to find women who predate Hampton Court by half a century? To Bruges. Curled up in a window seat in the Gruuthuse museum - where Margaret of York’s brother Edward IV once took refuge, while the turmoil of the Cousins’ War briefly thrust the opposing Lancastrians back onto the throne – I felt that at last I had finally found the fifteenth century.

In Bruges you don’t even need to gaze at the turret on the Markt from which Margaret of York watched the tournaments in her honour, when she was brought here in 1468 to marry the Duke of Burgundy. You don’t need to take out a second mortgage, as I did, and stay in the hotel which has been made from part of her palace. (The Dukes’ Palace Kempinski, since you ask, and the tower once decorated with marguerites for her name is still there plain to see.) Just to walk the sparsely-vehicled streets is to be clobbered by history. The past – not some mouldering ghost but bustling, prosperous and full of energy, just the way it would have been – is there in the very layout of the streets, in the shops full, now as then, of covetable goodies.

I bought embroidered silk purses and some good modern jewellery; chocolates go without saying; as far as I’m concerned, you can keep the lace and embroidery. Back in 1468, as part of Margaret wedding party, John Paston wrote that for the splendour of the jewels he saw at the Bruges feasts, he ‘heard never of none like to it save King Arthur’s court . . .’ But then he had just been fed on gilded swans, while trained monkeys tossed beads and purses to the company.

The Burg is one of the finest medieval squares in Europe; the outside of the Stadhuis a white Gothic wedding cake. The glowing decorations inside the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, may date in part from the nineteenth century, but the great black chimneypiece in the main chamber of the Bruggemuseum-Brugse Vrije is a Renaissance masterpiece - and that’s even before you’ve headed into museum territory.

Edward IV stayed in the Gruuthuse, across the Dijver canal, with his younger brother, the future Richard III. So did Charles II in his exile, and the carved angels, the tranquil rooms flanked by waterways, gave reassurance to him, too, maybe. From the private chapel of the Gruuthuse, a discreet window looks straight down into the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the Church of Our Lady, and the golden tombs of the ducal family, caught with their pet dogs at their feet. It seems to be another of Bruges’s specialties – that combination of colourful richness, and an unexpected intimacy.

On the other side of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk is Sint-Janshospitaal, which did indeed function as a hospital from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. In the old hospital church you’ll find a small museum, Memling in Sint-Jan. Stop in front of Memling’s The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, and the faces of the saints Catherine and Barbara may be those of Margaret of York, and her stepdaughter Mary of Burgundy.

It’s a cliché that Bruges is the ‘Venice of the north’, firstly for the canals that circle and cross the city. But while Venice is a lateral waterscape of pale dreaming tones, Bruges is vertical and verdant, built in warm brick and of the earth, earthy. Except when it isn’t. Bruges boasts many different brands of charm, for a place so tiny. Up to the north east of the Markt is the Sint-Anna district – what used to be the artisan area – has open streets of small houses, elegant in their simplicity , where the almshouses and folk museum still pay tribute to the city’s craft history.

One of attractions for film makers must be that Bruges offers so many different moods, without ever having to step outside the late medieval past. Ten minutes walk from the craggy medieval buildings of the centre is the Minnewater - the Lake of Love, with swans sailing on the dark water - where the secluded spaces of the Beginhof manage to feel a world away. Founded in 1245 as a beguinage, a refuge for religious-minded women who stopped short of the full nun’s vows, it operated as such until very recently. Past meets present again – it is still a Benedictine convent today.

I mean – if we can just lower the tone for the moment - even the eating in Bruges is the kind of thing you’d expect to find after a careful study of medieval cookery. Rich and satisfying, with sometimes unexpected combinations of flavours. Never mind the mussels and the waffles, and the fries with mayonnaise; there’s also eel with herb sauce, or hare cooked with prunes; carbonnades and chicory. Cherry beer served warm on a cold day; and yes – has anyone warned the BBC? - the weather does tend towards the damp and chilly. Margaret of York arrived in July but it was pouring anyway.

The citizens were impressed that she still got drenched leaning out of the litter to wave to them; but give the girl credit, she knew what was expected - the demands of royal life are still the same today. In Bruges, you do get used the idea things haven’t changed much since the fifteenth century. Wolf Hall is being produced for the BBC by the same firm, Company Pictures, who did The White Queen, which may or may not worry us slightly. But give them credit – they learned one thing, on that earlier production. They knew to come to the right city.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Bayeux without the tapestry

You must all be getting a bit sick of the Bayeux Tapestry, whose merits Adèle Geras and I have been extolling here and elsewhere.

So I thought I'd tell you a bit about the town it resides in. Bayeux really is a little known gem of Northern France, a small town in Normandy, whose visitors come for one reason only. But it is well worth exploring in its own right, for its long and interesting history.

It was a Roman town, built after the invasion of Gaul on the river Aure, and named Augustodurum. Before the Romans got there it was a market town of the Bodiocassi tribe of Gauls and its name might come from them. In the 9th century it was ravaged by Vikings. But it is in the Middle Ages that it becomes important. Guillaume le Conquérant, as he is known in France (William the Conqueror) gave the Bishopric of Bayeux to his legitimate half-brother Odon, who enlarged the cathedral, which was dedicated in 1077. Over the years the basically Romanesque building acquired its distinctive Gothic additions.

Unfortunately William made Caen his capital and in the years after his death Bayeux declined, until it was burned by the victorious Henry l of England, who had seen off his rivals.  It went on suffering throughout the Hundred Years War, only achieving some sort of stability and peace in 1450.

The town has a few of these timber frame houses, dating back to that period; this one, near the cathedral, is the Adam and Eve house, named for its statues. It's now a factory for the bobbin lace (dentelle) which is one of Bayeux's great specialities.

It was also a centre for tanning and dyeing and you can still see the wheel that was turned by the fast-rushing water of the Aure.

This little wooden door led to a turnstile where illegitimate babies could be placed and taken into care (like the wheel in the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence). They were all given the surname Marie, "les enfants de Marie," and the girls were put to the lace trade, the boys to making calico. This was rather touching, given that William was "The Bastard" long before he was "The Conqueror."

Back to the cathedral where, as we entered, our guide told us about "Saint Catherine" who turned out to be not-quite-a-saint. Catherine of Bayeux was an Augustinian Sister, who went as a missionary to Canada, which brought me up with a start: we were clearly no longer in the Middle Ages! She was a 17th Century Augustinian nun who was Beatified in the late 19th Century, so Blessed Catherine, not (yet) Saint.

But in the Crypt, the oldest part of the Cathedral, there is genuinely ancient art, recently discovered frescoes, thought to date back to the 15th century:

Each pillar is topped by an angel playing a musical instrument.

You emerge blinking into the daylight to tales of hundreds of years later. Bayeux was the first town liberated by the Allies on 7th June, the day after the D-Day landings. Family traditions tell us that the inhabitants hid in the crypt and burst out crying "there are no Germans here!" thus saving their town.

Today it is small and fascinating town (the population was little more than 13,000 five years ago), ideal for a long weekend, as full of gastronomic delights as historical ones. It is also remarkable crime-free. We didn't see the single beggar, who is named Roger, because he wasn't yet up. And we also did not see any graffiti, of which there are apparently two!

All this and you get the Tapestry too.

Mary Hoffman was a guest of Flybe and the Normandy Tourist Board in July 2014

A walking tour of Bayeux in English
Museums in Bayeux

Sunday, 31 August 2014

August Competition - old pongs!

Debbie Taylor has given us a lovely question to help to win one of five copies of her latest novel, Herring Gull, kindly donated by publisher OneWorld.

Just write you answer below in Comments. Closing date is September 14th, to allow for holidays.

We regret our competitions are open to UK readers only.

"What aroma from the past are you grateful no longer to smell? And what past aroma would you like experience again as a part of everyday life?"

Please also email your answers to readers@maryhoffman.co.uk, so that it is easier to get in touch with you if you have won a copy.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

We're going to need a bigger cabinet by Mary Hoffman

On the 30th of each month, when it's not the last day (i.e. in January, March, May, July, August, October and December) a History Girl puts up an extra post about something she would like to put in our virtual Cabinet of Curiosities. This month it's my turn and I'm afraid I'm going to be greedy.

You see, I want the Bayeux Tapestry.

I have already written about it on my Book Maven blog. And Adèle Geras has written her own post here on the History Girls.

You will have to bear with us. We both saw it this summer and it makes a huge impact. But because it is 70 metres long and difficult to stuff into our cabinet, I'm going to concentrate on the Alderney Finale, a brilliant initiative carried out on the Channel Island to complete the Tapestry, which is missing its final panels.

It was the brainchild of Librarian Kate Russell and artist Pauline Black and was unveiled in April of last year. This summer it has been on display in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum and in fact tomorrow is the last chance to see it there. Then it will return to Alderney.

From the 1st February 2012 when Kate and Pauline applied the first stitches 400 people have had a hand in working on the Finale, including Prince Charles and and Duchess of Cornwall.

There are Four scenes. In Scene one, the victorious William of Normandy has a celebration dinner with his half brothers Odo, who is thought to have commissioned the Tapestry, and Robert. The remnants of the Battle of Hastings are shown: corpses, severed limbs, grieving widows. After the battle is when William gets his nickname of "the Conqueror" though this is not shown here. (Formerly he was known as William the Bastard - no comment on his nature, just that his parents were not married).

Scene two shows William at Berkhampstead, charmingly rendered in Latin as "Bercheha(m)steda," accepting the surrender of English nobles, including the Archbishop of York.

Scene three is the climax of the piece and surely a subject very likely to have been in one of the lost panels: the Coronation of William at Westminster. It is Christmas Day 1066.

Scene four is a little tailpiece showing the beginnings of the White Tower at the Tower of London, built with Caen stone, from Normandy, that shines out to this day.

The Latin inscriptions are by Robin Whicker in forms appropriate to the 1070s. And the style and design is satisfyingly close to the original Altogether an inspired piece of work. You can see lots more pictures on Flickr.

Just as in the 11th century work, there are other scenes enacted and symbols added in the strip that goes along the bottom. A big favourite is the one showing the donkey, toad and puffin, representing Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney itself, all encircled by the tail of the lion of England.

Well worth constructing a bigger cabinet, especially since anything is possible in cyberspace.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Why writing history is like science fiction by Debbie taylor

Our August guest is Debbie Taylor, whose life seems to provide enough material for a whole bookshop of novels. Welcome to the History Girls, Debbie!

Debbie Taylor is Editorial Director of Mslexia, which she founded in 1999. She has written for Oxfam, UNICEF, Anti-Slavery, WHO and others about women and social issues. Her books include My Children, My Gold (Virago), a nonfiction travelogue about single mothers, and The Fourth Queen (Penguin), a novel set in a harem in 18th Century Morocco. Her latest novel, Herring Girl (Oneworld), a paranormal historical thriller set on the banks of the Tyne, came out this month. www.debbietaylor.co

We historical girls often like to wax lyrical about the amount of research we do to source the details of the era and characters we're writing about to recreate an authentic period atmosphere.

Sarah Waters immerses herself in the literature of the time, reading letters, newspapers and magazines, as well as novels of all kinds – and latterly, I assume, seeking out radio recordings and transcripts for her 20th Century historicals like The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Her policy of total immersion continues while she's actually writing, too, so that it becomes well-nigh impossible not to imbue her prose with the nuances of her chosen period.

Other historical novelists go even further. I'm reliably informed that you can take part in themed weekend extravaganzas, attiring yourself in period clothing and eating and drinking as people did at a particular time in history. (I once suggested this as a joke in a talk to the Historical Novelists' Association, only to be told in no uncertain terms that it was already de rigueur for some hard-core novelistas)

Then there's the method used by Rose Tremain, which is basically to write the book first, making up the historical details as she goes along – and do the research later to correct anything she's got wrong.

Which is the opposite method to that used by Margaret Atwood, who collects boxes and boxes of information on every aspect of her work-in-progress (aided by several research assistants) and plots all her characters' timelines on an elaborate grid, before she starts writing. This is partly because she finds real life far stranger than fiction – indeed she boasts that every bizarre, brutal or arcane event or practice in her novels has actually occurred somewhere at some time in the world – and partly because she lives in fear of some old timer popping up at a reading to correct a detail she's got wrong about butter-churning in the 1920s.

Much of my own 'historical' knowledge comes not from reading about fishing communities in the 1890s or listening to old recordings of Tyneside voices – though of course I did all of that for my novel Herring Girl (published by Oneworld and out now!). Most of my sense of what life might have been like in 19th Century Northumberland comes from living amongst people in third world countries when I worked as a development journalist. I've slept four to a bed, for example, been bitten by fleas, ticks and mites, gulped down water from sources I didn't dare enquire about, and witnessed traditional healers in the throes of a spirit possession. I know first-hand how to resurface a mud wall, wash head to toe without taking off my clothes, and go to the loo in public – in daylight in an open field, as well as in a bucket inside with an entire family watching.
Debbie's house in Botswana
However we go about it, all historical novelists are striving for some kind of authenticity. But I want to argue that, no matter authentic we are trying to be, what we actually end up producing is more akin to science fiction than history. Because we are not simply relating the facts about people's lives in the past, we are trying to project ourselves – and our readers – backwards in time to imagine what it was actually like to live those lives.

And however much we research our subject matter, however many old letters we read or museums we visit, we can never be sure that we have got it absolutely right. All we can do is use the incomplete information we have to hypothesise what it might have been like in 18th Century Morocco, say (as I did in The Fourth Queen), or 11th Century England (as Paul Kingsnorth does in The Wake). Which is exactly what science fiction authors do.

Starting with a series of assumptions – melting ice caps, mass infertility, alien entities – they painstakingly construct a viable and believable alternative world, along with the viable and believable human (or humanoid) beliefs and experiences that would result.

Indeed many novels in the fantasy genre are set in a sort of hybrid world, part historical part paranormal part science fiction. The recent emergence of the steampunk genre, which marries science fiction plotlines with a sort of grungy late 19th Century milieu, makes this connection even more obvious. Which is why it's not surprising that Margaret Atwood, for all her enthusiastic amassing of contemporary and historic fact, bestrides the fictional world so comfortably between the past and the future. And who knows, perhaps Hilary Mantel's next novel might be set on a far planet in the 23rd Century. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.

Resurfacing a courtyard in Zimbabwe

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The History Girls: Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley

The History Girls: Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley: This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek . Described by Ant...

Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley

This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek. Described by Antony Beevor as, ‘one of the great modern books not just of the Cretan resistance; it is one of the great books of the Second World War’, Hide & Seek recounts with powerful immediacy, humour and unsparing honesty the drama, tedium, exhilaration and anguish of organising reconnaissance and resistance behind enemy lines on Crete.

The Folio Society's new edition of
Xan Fielding's Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society.

I first read Hide & Seek when I was researching my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the war. Christine had saved Xan’s life, at huge personal risk, in the summer 1944 while they were both serving in occupied France. Xan never forgot his debt, and dedicated Hide & Seek to Christine’s memory, so I was thrilled when Folio asked me to write the introduction for their new edition of the book. I now had the chance to look more deeply into the other side of the story, reading around Xan’s life and talking to many people who knew him.

In my experience the people connected with an extraordinary character, such as Christine Granville or Xan Fielding, have been unfailingly generous with their time, papers, photos and stories. Xan had many remarkable friends, from Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bill Stanley Moss, both of whom also served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, to Laurence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Millar, Dirk Bogarde and Lucien Freud. Friends, children, and children-of-friends, kindly shared stories with me over sandwiches, or over the internet.

Anecdotes covered everything from Freud’s dead monkey, which was apparently usually kept in his fridge but eventually decomposed when left forgotten in his studio, to Daphne Fielding’s budgerigar, the only creature allowed near Xan’s Remington typewriter, as it ‘delighted in the ping of the bell at the end of each line which heralded an exciting struggle to maintain balance as the roller rotated and carriage whizzed back’. I learnt of revealing private dedications hidden penned inside personal copies of Hide & Seek, and discovered the wonderful advert Xan placed in The Times, when he was seeking work in 1950: ‘Tough but sensitive ex-classical scholar, ex-secret agent, ex-guerrilla leader, 31, recently reduced to penury through incompatibility with post-war world… Would do anything unreasonable and unexpected if sufficiently rewarding and legitimate’. There are, of course, many wonderful stories, and you can read more of them in my introduction to the Folio edition of Hide & Seek.

Paddy Leigh Fermor with Xan Fielding
courtesy of The National Library of Scotland

Besides the stories of this remarkable group of friends I also found - and this is a first – the editorial issues fascinating! I wanted to see the manuscript that Folio was using so that I could page reference my quotes, but here was another issue... Hide & Seek was first published in 1954. Xan wrote from his wartime notebooks - a collection only missing the one volume inconsiderately eaten by Cretan pigs in 1942 - and the book is refreshingly immediate. But in the 1980s he had sat down with Paddy to amend the manuscript for a new Greek-language edition. They removed a few offensive phrases that had not dated well, and modified some of the less flattering character portraits, but Xan did not seem happy with the process.

With admirable diligence Folio tracked down Paddy and Xan’s revisions and set to work deciding which version of the manuscript to print. In the end, being, their editor told me, ‘very conscious of… the risk of tearing the fabric of the text’, they made very few editorial interventions to the original manuscript. As a result, in this edition Xan again speaks his mind freely, vividly expressing his not-uncritical love for the place and people of Crete, as well as the fierce anger he felt at much of the conduct of the war.

Reproduction SOE map of Crete, annotated by Paddy Leigh Fermor
and included in the new Folio edition of Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society

Hide & Seek is not the only one of Xan’s books to have been republished recently, nor is The Folio Society the only publisher interested in this rich seam of war memoir. Paul Dry Books republished this and his other Cretan book, The Stronghold, last year, as well as, in 2010, Bill Stanley Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlit, the account of his and Paddy’s kidnapping of the German General of the island that was later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. (Xan had been otherwise engaged, and also too dark-skinned to pass as the requisite ‘Aryan’ German officer, so did not take part in that exploit, but some years later he did serve as advisor during filming, lending his own clothes to Bogarde to give an air of authenticity. Striding around in chinos and espadrilles, apparently Xan was amused to overhear Bogarde’s dresser describe him as still looking, ‘like a fucking little killer’.) Moss’s other book, A War of Shadows, was also republished, by Bene Factum Publishing, earlier this year, and Paddy Leigh Fermor's previously unpublished account of the kidnapping, 'Abducting a General' will soon be published by John Murray, while Bloomsbury has just signed up a new account of the same incident by Rick Stroud. Both Paddy and Bill Stanley Moss also knew Christine Granville in war-time Egypt, and Bill and his Polish wife, Zofia Tarnowska, later named their daughter Christine in her honour.

When I write a biography I am always sadly aware of all the fabulous stories that I cannot include, and the incidental but remarkable characters that there is no room to develop although they are often fully deserving of biographies of their own. So I am delighted to have been able to contribute to this Folio edition of Hide & Seek, and even more so that Folio has also added lots of new photos, a pull-out reproduction of his and Paddy's SOE map of Crete, along with some of Xan's previously unpublished correspondence, making it a really terrific new edition.

It turns out that manuscripts also have lives of their own, with hidden stories, strategic translations and freshly edited republications and, as with people, it is only a matter of judgment which versions are the most authentic, which voice most true, and which should be remembered or retold.