Thursday, 24 July 2014

Monkey Business by Elizabeth Chadwick

In 1158, Thomas Becket, chancellor to King Henry II set out on a diplomatic mission to France aimed at promoting a marriage alliance between the two royal firms, and also one suspects  playing a game of 'mine's bigger than yours' between Henry II and King Louis VII.   Rather like modern commercial trade promotions, Becket arrived in France with a cavalcade that reflected all the riches of the empire over which his master was lord.  The circus had come to town and announced its arrival with music and fanfares.

The entourage consisted of over two hundred mounted followers to add dignity to Becket's standing, among them knights and pages, clerks, stewards and servants, all of them arrayed in costly garments. Becket himself had twenty four changes of clothing, most of which were worn once and then bestowed as gifts. He had several packs of hunting dogs with him and various birds of prey from his mews.

There were numerous baggage wagons each pulled by five horses in line. Each horse had a groom and each groom had a mastiff dog as big and strong as a lion to guard the wagon.  Two of the wagons carried barrels of  ale for handing out to French bystanders who were not familiar with such a beverage. The rest of the wagons contained more food and drink, cushions, bed linens, furnishings, and various other items of household paraphernalia - all high status and embellished.

Beyond the wagons came a caravan of twelve packhorses laden with the most valuable items - books, gold and silver plate, the items of Becket's chapel, basins, spoons, salt cellars, rich vestments.  Each packhorse once again had its groom, and on each pack animal's back, a monkey had been trained to sit like a little jockey.  The monkeys themselves were intended as gifts for the French high nobility and clergy.

UK publication
September 2014

While researching and writing my forthcoming novel THE WINTER CROWN due out in September, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the people who had to gather together this menagerie - the sheer logistics of assembling all the different aspects, and then transporting it across the Channel.  It must have been daunting but from reports in the chronicles, it appears to have succeeded and been one of the wonders of its age.

A scene in the novel required me to write about one of Becket's monkeys.  Not being a subject I had covered before in my research, it was interesting reading up on the background of such creatures in medieval daily life and I thought I'd share some of the information I came across.

When Medievals referred to monkeys they meant both the tailed and the untailed - they didn't differentiate between monkeys (tailed) and apes (untailed) as we do.  Tailed monkeys were the one of choice though and seem to have been widely available in Western Europe in the twelfth century.  They were popular bets, especially among members of the clergy, although not everyone was enamoured, and Hugh of St. Victor was of the opinion that they were 'filthy' and 'detestable.'  Scholar Albertus Magnus in his De Animalibus opined that while monkeys might play with other pets, they should never be viewed as completely tame and could be dangerous.  He calls it 'a trickly animal with bad habits.'  He describes monkeys as eating vermin  found on people's heads and clothing.  However, when not dining off their owner's parasitic occupants, monkeys would be fed a variety of foodstuffs, but nuts were a staple. Chronicler Richard of Durham reported on Robert of Coquina, Bishop of Durham 1274-83 who kept two spoiled pet monkeys that he fed on peeled almonds from a silver spoon.

Monkeys could be tamed by being chained to a heavy block, and they invariably wore a collar and chain. They were, of course, a high status pet to have and were frequently given as gifts, being seen as particularly suitable for clergy and women.

I was also interested to find out that animals in the Middle Ages, while having personal names, also had generic ones.  Redbreasts were called Robin, pies were called Mag, Wrens were called Jenny.  Tomcats were Gyb and monkeys were Robert.  I enjoyed making use of that detail in the novel!

Monkeys are ubiquitous in medieval imagery where frequently it is a symbol of sin, malice, cunning and lust -all the baser elements of humankind. They also stood for folly and vanity.- although none of this prevented them from being the popular pets of clergymen - perhaps as a constant reminder of the sins and follies of mankind!  It is ironic that Thomas Becket, a future Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr-saint should have travelled to Paris with twelve such in his entourage!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

NEWS ITEMS ON THIS DAY IN 1914 by Leslie Wilson

Local  pre-war cricket heroes
source;wikimedia images

You might have read in your newspaper, a hundred years ago today, that Black Jester had won the St George's Stakes at the Liverpool Races; Yorkshire had beaten Nottinghamshire at Leeds, by 97 runs; rain had spoiled play in the Hampshire v. Sussex match at Southampton. The game ended in a draw. Source: Daily Herald © Trinity Mirror.

Also in the Daily Herald you could have read:


Belfast Judge Powerless Before Her Protests

Lively scenes were witnessed in the Belfast Assize yesterday when Miss Dorothy Evans*, the Suffragist organiser, refused to allow her trial to proceed. The judge asked her to remember she was a lady, whereupon she declared she stood there as a woman. The accused interrupted so frequently that the case had to be adjourned. On resuming she informed the judge that she did not intend to allow the trial to go on. The judge then adjourned the case to the next Assizes, ordering the accused to be kept in custody.
Cartoon from Punch magazine, 1910, by Arthur Wallis Mills

The Devon and Exeter Gazette informed its readers where they could get the paper on holiday: in Bovey Tracey, from Miss A.M.Pook at the Post Office. In Budleigh Salterton, from F.W. Dalgliesh, bookseller; there were details of outlets among others in Lynton and Lynmouth, Lyme Regis, Ilfracombe, Paignton, Teignmouth and Tavistock. Alternatively, 7d (old pence) per week would get them copies forwarded post free. © Local World Ltd

The Cornishman reported that the United Methodist Band of Hope (a temperance organisation) of Marazion held their annual outing on Wednesday, and to the number of 80 visited Carbis Bay'. in jersey cars(??) furnished by Mr R.J. Hutchens of Penzance. It further reported on the sudden death of Mr Richard Sedgeman, aged 40, of North Road, Goldsithney, who was planting broccoli in a field when he 'fell on his knees and expired almost immediately.' The lad who was assisting him asked him what was the matter, and 'deceased only said, 'Go after some more plant.' He did not speak again'

The Cornishman further reported the annual 15-day training of the Cornwall R.G.A 1 and 2 Heavy Batteries, which 'obtained very useful results by practice over the ranges, which offer peculiar facilities for observation of fire, and much valuable knowledge has been gained by officers, non-com officers, and men.' The weather had been 'very favourable..on no occasion has firing been interfered with by mist and rain.' © Local World Limited.

The Birmingham Daily Mail told its readers about a workmen's strike in St Petersburg, and battles between police officers and strikers. Barricades were erected, police were wounded, and shops were shut. Tramway services in the capital were suspended. In addition, a band of strikers held up a passenger train from St Petersburg, forcing the driver to leave the locomotive and the passengers to leave their carriages. They then knocked down the telegraph posts and blocked the line. However, gendarmerie and troops were sent out to guard the line; subsequently every train was followed by an engine with an armed escort. Workers in Thornton's cloth mills and other factories belonging to British firms went out, and the strike was said to be of a pan-Russian nature. Meanwhile, the French president, Poincaré, was visiting the Emperor at the Peterhof Palace, and Sweden was said to fear an attack by Russia, 'and is reinforcing its army with a view to removing this misunderstanding.' M. Poincaré was to visit Sweden on Friday, and was supposed to explain that Russia did not intend to attack anyone. Meanwhile, M.Sassonoff and M. Viviani 'have examined the Balkan question.'
Drawn by unknown Austrian newspaper artist:
Wikimedia Images
The paper further reported that the view of 'official circles in Berlin' on the situation between Austria and Servia (as the country was then called) after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, was that if there was an armed conflict it could and ought to be localised. Count Reventlow, then a journalist writing in the 'Tageszeitung' (German Daily News) asserted that 'the tendency of German policy is not insistently warlike and..Germany does not wish an armed conflict between Austria and Servia' but that 'public opinion in Germany is without limitation on the side of our ally, and only desires that she may vigorously safeguard her rights and legitimate interests, stand fast, and not allow herself to be intimidated.' © Trinity Mirror.

But it was late that same afternoon that Count Giesl, Austria-Hungary's ambassador in Belgrade, visited the Serbian Foreign Ministry and read out to him the ultimatum to Serbia, which had been carefully composed so that Serbia would under no circumstances feel able to comply with its demands. The situation was one that we might recognise; a Great Power, feeling threatened by a terrorist outrage and determined to do something decisive, wanted to wage war, though there was scant evidence that the country concerned had anything to do with the act of terrorism. 9/11 and Iraq, anyone? The Dual Monarchy thought they could knock out Serbia, and if the conflict did spread, there was a fatalistic feeling both in Vienna and Berlin that war would have to come some time and it might as well be now. There was an Emperor in Berlin who was eager to prove himself in conflict (like George W.Bush).
Photo: Studio
Thomas Heinrich Voigt, court photographer

The ultimatum 'accused the Serbian government of tolerating criminal activities on its soil and demanded that it take immediate steps to end them, including dismissing any civilian or military officials Austria-Hungary chose to name, closing down nationalist newspapers and reforming the education curriculum to get rid of anything that could be construed as propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary.' In addition, Serbia 'was ordered to accept the participation of the Dual Monarchy in suppressing subversion within Serbia's borders and in the inevestigation and trial of any Serbian conspirators responsible for the assassinations.' (The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, Profile Books 2013)

Serbia was given 48 hours to respond.

On 25th July, the Daily Herald reported


The German government, it reported, was 'using its influence to localise the conflict.' © Trinity Mirror.

But the match had been applied to the cord and the flame was licking along to the powder-keg. On the 28th July, Austria declared war on Serbia.

*Dorothy Evans was arrested for possession of explosives, following arson attacks.

Newspaper quotes all obtained from the British Newspaper Archive.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Talking About Our Generation by Kate Lord Brown

How do you define historical fiction? Is it fiction set in the past? Over thirty years ago? Or set before the living experience of the writer? I've just finished the new draft of a novel set in the 1970s - so it is 'historical' if you use the 30 year rule. It is certainly ancient history to a group of schoolchildren I spoke to recently about 'bringing the past to life' - I showed them pictures of a penny farthing and a Chopper. Guess which one they thought we rode in the 1970s.

Yesterday involved a long, hot visit to the phone souq, thanks to a catastrophe involving an end of term pool party and an iphone, and there was plenty of time to ponder how accelerated our lives are now, and the rapid advances in technology. The display case in the photo above caught my eye. Nothing dates a work of fiction whether it's a novel or a film quicker than the technology used. The 'History' display reminded me of my first mobile, bought for my first job driving hundreds of miles around East Anglia for an arts festival. 'Brick' is an apt description. Researching old phones last night I came across these curious clips from 1928 and 1938 which claim to show early (or time travelling?!) users of mobile technology. A relation of the young woman shown has come forward recently to say that the factory was developing early wireless technology:

Anachronisms are the bane of historical fiction writers' lives - it is so easy to slip up, and there is always a kind reader ready to point out mistakes. Thinking of History Girls of the future, I feel for them, trying to keep track of  which phone, or computer, or tablet was around at the time their novels are set. Everything is changing so fast. I began my writing 'career' penning love letters on the Exe Valley school bus for friends to send to their boyfriends at the local boarding school, and still prefer pen and ink. My children are still taught cursive script at school, but are far more adept at keyboard skills. Dad's first computer, a huge Commodore that took up half his office in the 70s probably had less power than the dear, departed waterlogged iphone. Learning to type on huge clunky manual typewriters in the late 80s under Mrs Leach's formidable eye, ('I typed Le Carre's novels, girls'), early green screen computers were used for the 'word processing' Pitman's certificate, rather like those in 'Jumpin' Jack Flash':

That script, with Jonathan Pryce's delicious voice bringing the typed words to life, was one of the more successful uses of technology in fiction - but boy does it look dated now. 

One of the best things about writing historical fiction is that the need for suspense is supported by the lack of technology. Waiting for a letter is endlessly more romantic than the instant gratification of an email or the ping of a text. Ink and paper or an 'I luv u', which would you choose? If we are, as some believe, heading towards an Omega Point of singularity in 2040, a convergence of technology and humanity, I wonder what lies ahead for future History Girls. It is enough to keep you awake at 4am, but as long as even Apple's finest is fragile enough to be thwarted by a pre-teen diving into a pool with it in her pocket, perhaps we have a few years yet to ensure the future is bright. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

Personal Histories by Imogen Robertson

"Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary"
Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911

It’s no doubt the influence of the anniversary of the beginning of WWI, but I’ve been reading a lot about the history of Central Europe and the Balkans recently. As always I’ve been profoundly embarrassed by my own ignorance (though I’m getting used to that), but also fascinated by the complex interplay of personality and event, the scramblings for power and identity that have made Europe what it is, and will undoubtedly continue to influence what Europe will become.  

Has everyone seen this? For those who do not feel like clicking off into the internet multiverse its an animation of the shifting boundaries of Europe from about 1000AD up to the present day.  Look at the British Isles - in comparison with Central Europe we are just so stable, protected by the seas around us while vast tracts of land in the centre of the map are taken, claimed and reclaimed by competing empires and ideologies. You can see why the idea of steady historical progress found fertile ground over here, while those in central Europe were whirled round by one historical hurricane after another. Where can one find a guide to lead one over this terrain?

Step forward Simon Winder. I read his brilliant book Germania on the lands of the Holy Roman Empire that became (sort of) modern Germany some years ago, indeed it provided the inspiration for the fourth Westerman and Crowther novel, Circle of Shadows. He’s followed up the success of that book with the equally brilliant and picaresque Danubia which takes a similarly gossipy but informed approach to the history and landscape of the lands ruled by the Habsburgs  from the middle ages until WWI. 

Winder is a witty writer and a curious traveller, but I think what I enjoy most about his approach to history, as opposed to say the rather academic and austere studies of Tim Blanning, is his very human perspective on such a broad sweep of territory and time. What also comes across is his love of these lands and the past they preserve. He delights in absurdity, but treats his subject with careful respect. Reading the book is to travel through these countries with the best of guides. We pound the streets of the ancient capitals beside him finding the revealing anecdotes in the architecture, and handle illuminating fragments of history contained in tiny forgotten museums in medieval side streets. It makes for a personal history in the best sense.

The other book I’d recommend is also a combination of travelogue and history and picks up where Winder leaves off. As a result it is a darker volume, but one we should all read. It is The Trigger by Tim Butcher. It concentrates on the short life of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 thus striking the match which set Europe ablaze. 

Butcher travels the route Princip took from rural Bosnia to the city of Sarajevo, both then under Hasburg rule, and from there to Belgrade in Serbia. The Kingdom of Serbia at that time was a beacon of hope to all Slavic peoples who wanted to shake off their imperial rulers. In Belgrade Princip formed his plan to kill Franz Ferdinand, got hold of the weapons he needed then returned to Sarajevo to wait for the Archduke. 

On his journey Butcher finds Princip’s relatives still living in Bosnia, and his school records in the Sarajevo archives, but Butcher is also on a more personal pilgrimage. He reported on the Balkan wars of the 90s and interweaves the story of his experiences then with Gavrilo’s story and what he sees today. It makes for an account both poignant and illuminating, personal and universal. He sympathises with Princip’s romantic, pan-Slavic nationalism, but himself witnessed the toxic extremes to which nationalism can lead. His account of a commemorative walk along the route taken by those fleeing the horrors of Srebrenica is especially compelling, and his discussion of the different wordings used on the plaque which marked the place of the assassination reveals as much about the last 100 years of Balkan history as anything I’ve ever read.

View of the Danube / Sava in Belgrade
I should declare an interest here. My eldest brother has been living in Belgrade for over twenty years so I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Balkans for many years. I have friends in London who fled the siege of Sarajevo and have a picture on my bedroom wall that was painted while Nato bombs fell on Belgrade. I’ve had dozens of careful late night conversations with Serbs resentful of their depiction in the West and with war reporters who saw the horrors at first hand, even so I've never known enough about the history of Central Europe and the Balkans and without knowing the history, you can’t begin to understand the place. 

In England particularly history seems like a safe subject, something colourful to paint on boxes of fudge, and it seems one can study even the most troubling elements of it from a comfortable distance. History in the Balkans is a living, dangerous creature.

One image from Butcher’s book stands out. After Princip’s co-conspirator made a first attempt on the Archduke which injured some of the officials travelling with him, the Archduke and his wife continued on to the official reception in Sarajevo town hall. The Archduke was seen to pause as he gave his official speech of thanks for his welcome in the city. The text of his remarks had been in the possession of one of the injured men, and the papers from which he read were already stained in blood.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

'From the Horse's Mouth' by A L Berridge

Historians can be a sad bunch when it comes to primary sources. We talk of gold, of ‘treasure trove’, and last month I even called the letters of a colour sergeant ‘the Holy Grail’. There’s something magical about reading the words of people who were actually there, and knowing that at last we’re getting close to the truth.

Or not. 

Before cameras and sound recordings, primary sources are entirely human things. People can mishear, misunderstand, misremember, misscribe or mistranslate, and once Caxton came on the scene they could even misprint as well. 

'The Wicked Bible' of 1631. Spot the misprint...

Our frailty runs even deeper than that. Goebbels’ speeches are primary sources, so is Bismarck’s ‘Ems telegram’, and if Holborn’s portrait of Anne of Cleves is of debatable accuracy then so is Henry VIII’s reported reaction to it. People are subjective at the best of times, dishonest at the worst, and anyone who’s ever attended a trial knows that primary sources can be the most unreliable of all. 

Some are better than others, of course. A will is a will, an Act of Parliament is an Act of Parliament, and carefully typed memoranda about ‘sonderaktions’ or sterilizations were quite enough to hang both authors and recipients at Nuremberg. Yet even official sources of information are still human. There are misprints in Hansard, lies on birth certificates, non-existent voters on electoral rolls, and if the phrase ‘massaging the figures’ is modern, the practice itself is not. The 1664-5 London’s Bills of Mortality show a mysterious rise in the vaguer causes of death – as if trying to avoid a panic by concealing the true numbers of those who actually died of Plague.

From the collection at the Wellcome Library, London

 It doesn’t even have to be deliberate. I don’t think there’s a single lie in the ‘General Orders’ issued during the Crimean War, for instance – but neither is there anything that reflects the real truth. The coffee ration sounds excellent – unless we know it consisted of green beans which the men had no fuel to roast. The issue of fuel seems sensible and timely – unless we know the roads were impassable between Balaklava base and the lines, and that most men received nothing at all.

William Howard Russell
 Newspapers were better informed, and William Howard Russell’s descriptions in The Times still remain the best and most quoted source on the suffering of our soldiers. Yet Russell was still a journalist, and his hastily filed reports of battles are as riddled with sensationalist errors as the worst tabloid of today. His nadir is undoubtedly the night battle of the 1855 Grand Sortie, where he announces the death of an officer who was still alive (Colonel Kelly), reports the wounding of one who was very much dead (Captain Vicars), and ascribes a heroic rock-throwing role to one who had been wounded in the arm an hour earlier and was incapable of lifting so much as a handkerchief (Major Gordon).

It’s understandable. Russell wasn’t in the battle himself, he had to rely on what people told him, and in this instance we can argue he’s not really a primary source at all. His failings should not affect the reputation of the London Times, the unquestioned Paper of Record for such official facts as court appointments, ship arrivals, casualty rolls, and of course the lists of ‘Hatch, Match and Dispatch’.

And then again…

For my latest Crimean novel I wanted someone to survive the sinking of Resolute in the Great Storm of 1854, but while N.A. Woods of the Morning Herald claimed nine men survived the wreck, all other sources reported the ship lost with all hands. I turned to the one unquestionable authority - the London Times.

There it was, the official report I was looking for. While other ships had a list of survivors after their names, poor Resolute was recorded simply as ‘totally lost’. I resigned myself to the rewrite, but as I glanced down the rest of the column this little item caught my eye:

It’s a letter from the one officer to survive the wreck of – the Resolute.

It still needn’t shake our faith in primary sources. The newspaper was a secondary, it only printed what it was given, and it was the survivor’s letter that set the record straight. Official records can always be trumped by actual letters, diaries, and memoirs, the story that comes to us straight from ‘the horse’s mouth’ of people who really know. We must make allowances for bias, of course (especially in a war) but primary sources are still the only direct route to the truth.

So they are, but it can still be the devil’s own job finding it. I’ve been lucky with my earlier novels in that historians have been over the ground before me, but Soldiers of the Queen deals with the later Siege of Sevastopol, which is almost entirely virgin territory. Usually there’s been nothing but primary sources to work from, and I soon learned what any policeman or barrister could have told me at the start: that no two witnesses ever agree on what they see.

It’s been a nightmare. I’ve tracked down over a dozen first-hand accounts of the Grand Sortie, for instance – and no two of them tell the same story. I’ve always tried to avoid contradicting eye-witnesses in my writing, but for Soldiers of the Queen I’ve sometimes had no choice. In one case I’ve even chosen to go against the only eye-witness – a sin so heinous that I wanted to use this post to explain it.

The witness concerned is that same Colonel Kelly whose demise was so prematurely reported by Russell, and who was in fact captured by the Russians on the night of the Grand Sortie. He was alone at the time, and the explanation he wrote to his wife is thus the only one we have: 

‘I was surrounded by eight or ten Russians, who leaped into the trench as I was passing to form up the men, having come from some distance on the right… I owe my life, under God, to a Polish soldier of the name of Stein, who prevented me from being bayoneted after I was on the ground.’

It seems straightforward enough – until we read the account published thirty years later by Alexander Kinglake, official chronicler to the Expedition to the Crimea:

Alexander Kinglake by Harriet M. Haviland
‘[Kelly] had gone but a little way further, when – standing together in the trench – he saw a group of seven or eight soldiers whom he took in the darkness to be men of his own regiment – the 34th. So going close up to them, he directed these men to ‘fall in’ with the other men under Jordan. He was met by an uproar of outlandish cries, and found that he had been accosting the enemy. He brought out his revolver, and pointing it at the head of the nearest foe, pulled hard, though in vain, at a trigger held fast by the safety catch. Whilst lowering his weapon in order to push back the bolt, he was felled by numbers of blows… and when on the ground was bayoneted in the right shoulder, in the left hand, and in the right leg…’

Kinglake’s story stands up to examination. The night of March 22nd was very dark indeed, and that Kelly’s mistake was a plausible one I was able to confirm from a letter of Private William Stray, who described a ‘narrow escape’ of his own in the same battle:

 ‘a number of Russians were together in one part of the trench, and the night being very dark I mistook them for our own men, and I thought they took us for Russians, they were firing on us, and under that mistake I ran up to them shouting damn your eyes, you are firing on your own men, but I soon found out my mistake.’

Extract from William Stray's letter

It’s credible then – but it contradicts the version of Kelly himself, and surely the primary source should be taken above the secondary? Yet Kinglake was scrupulous, he corresponded profusely with every witness he could find, and the only possible source for this anecdote has to be Kelly himself. Why on earth would Kelly change his story all these years after the event?

The answer, I think, is a very human one. The mistake of approaching the enemy, the failure to release the safety catch – the whole thing is deeply embarrassing, and Kelly may well have balked at revealing the truth to his wife. But what is humiliating to a man in his thirties can become a wonderful after-dinner story in his sixties, and I see nothing strange in Kelly finally giving Kinglake the true version of what happened.

Yet there remained one niggle: Kelly was at some pains to assure his wife that he had not been bayoneted while on the ground, yet Kinglake insists that he was. Kelly didn’t mind admitting he’d been wounded, so what on earth was so embarrassing about having received those wounds on the ground?

I’m afraid I think I know that too. Colonel Reynell Pack of the 7th Royal Fusiliers cheerfully recorded in his memoirs that Kelly was ‘most careful of himself’ and used to go to the trenches ‘swathed and wrapped up like a mummy’. The story circulating at the time was therefore that the Russians had only failed to kill Kelly because the bayonets ‘did not penetrate through his numerous garments’…

I might have put that down to ordinary inter-regimental bitchiness, except for the confirmation of an even more impeccable source. One of Kelly’s own letters actually describes his attire for the trenches like this: 

‘a flannel vest, then a chamois one, and over that my shirt…. Then I had my flannel drawers, and over them my chamois ones; then came my regimental trousers with my long blue knit stockings drawn over them. Over my shirt… a blue sailor woollen jersey…a pair of sailor’s flushing trousers… Mr Philipson’s coat, with a comforter round my neck… over that my greatcoat… and over all my mackintosh…’

Reynell Pack was telling no more than the embarrassing truth. I suspect Kelly did indeed survive by virtue of his clothing, and the only amazing thing about it was that the Russians managed to wound him at all. His own account of his capture turns out to be unreliable in every detail, and I went with Kinglake’s version after all.

Colonel Richard Denis Kelly after the war

Yet there’s more than one kind of reliability, more than one kind of truth, and if Kelly’s letters didn’t explain much about the Grand Sortie they revealed an awful lot about the man himself. The same was true of Colour Sergeant Clarke’s letters, and is one reason why I still love primary sources above any others. They always tell us something, even if it isn’t what we’re looking for - or what the writer intended.

Those General Orders, for instance, proved conclusively just how out of touch Headquarters really were. The misleading Bills of Mortality show clearly the extent to which plague was feared. Even lies can tell us a truth, and libellous pamphlets circulated about Marie Antoinette certainly confirm the extent to which she was hated. Secondary sources can tell us these things, but primary sources show them red and raw.

Which is why I love them even more as a novelist than I do as a historian. Primary sources can take us there, bring us close enough to touch. I even loved typing out that little bit of Stray’s letter, because its dreadful punctuation helps me hear his voice. Research isn’t just about ‘knowing’, it’s about seeing, hearing, and ultimately feeling – and if I work hard enough I hope that one day my novels will do the same.

A.L. Berridge's deeply neglected website is here.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

ONLY REMEMBERED ~ ‘Powerful words and pictures about the war that changed our world.’

Theresa Breslin

… it’s time for farewells…

This line is from an extract of a recently discovered diary of an unknown French soldier as he goes off to war and into action in 1914. It was chosen by Michael Morpurgo as the first item in his anthology Only Remembered  

It’s quite apt for me to choose to write about this book for my blog this month because this is the last blog I’ll do as one of the History Girls – a farewell post from me.

One hundred years have passed since the outbreak of the First World War. To mark the centenary Michael Morpurgo has compiled and edited favourite words and images about the Great War from some of the UK’s leading cultural, political and literary figures to create a beautiful anthology illustrated by Ian Beck. Royalties from each book sold will go to the British Legion and SSAFA who provide lifelong support for forces and their families.  

In setting out to create the anthology Michael’s wish was that such a profoundly important period would continue to be related to young people in an accessible and relevant way. But this book is for all ages and relevant to everyone. Poems, short stories, personal letters, newspaper articles, scripts, diaries, photographs and paintings are just some of the elements of this unique collection – each introduced by the person who selected it.

 Among the contributors is a wide range children’s authors and illustrators, including, among others, David Almond,  Malorie Blackman, Quentin Blake,  Anne Fine, Shirley Hughes, Catherine Johnson, Bali Rai and Jonathan Stroud.  

Speaking of Oh, What a Lovely War, David Almond talks of honouring the decent ordinary folk who go to war.

Malorie Blackman writes of the brave heart and fighting spirit of Walter Tull, the mixed-race son of a Barbadian carpenter and a white English mother. A professional football player who joined the British Army at the outbreak of the war he became a highly regarded black officer, the first to lead white men into battle.

Quentin Blake’s father was a surveyor’s clerk for the Imperial War Graves Commission and his parents lived in France for 10 years after the First World War. He has a simple but telling memory of his father remembering his friend who dies in the conflict.

Anne Fine gives us the source of her own book, The Book of the Banshee, based on the diary of a young man who lied about his age in order to join the Army, and tells of the challenge to make her book into a comedy.  

Shirley Hughes has chosen John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed. (Worth a visit to the London Imperial War Museum to see that alone TB.)  

Welsh poetry that moved me to tears was selected by History Girl, Catherine Johnson.

Bali Rai’s contribution is entitled Sikh Soldiers and he comments on a shared British and Indian heritage

Jonathan Stroud has given us an extract from the diary of his great-grandfather on Armistice Day, 11th November 1918.

In my entry I write of how the war affected young children on the Home Front – our youth who became the future. Photos of my research materials show the contrast between the newspaper reports of the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the diary entry of an officer who was actually there and watched his men go forward.

The above are a small selection of a book packed with magnificent content – a fascinating mixture of impressions and thoughts plus some useful information e.g. a Timeline and Websites.   

Some time ago Michael Morpurgo stopped to look at the grave of a young British soldier, who’d been killed in 1918, two weeks before the end of the Great War. Michael refers to this in relation to the book, this soldier being one of the ten million soldiers killed on all sides:
Most never grew old enough to know and be known by their children or grandchildren. This book is made for them; for all of them.’
He goes on to say: ‘Here in this book you will find the truth, which comes in many guises, in history, in stories, fictional and non-fictional, in poems and songs and pictures.’  

The Introduction to the book is entitled:

This seminal anthology Only Remembered answers these questions.

I am feeling quite sad to be writing this post, not only because of the subject matter, but because it is my last post for this Blogspot as a History Girl. Commitments, personal and professional, have meant I have had to resign but am cheered by the fact that it means creating a space to give a platform to another new voice waiting to be heard.
From the very first moments of the start-up party I’ve loved being a History Girl, and through the years it has been terrific to experience our comradeship and support for each other – not least the Admins who had to bail out Techno-Idiot me on several occasions. But, of course, main praise to the main person - the ever indefatigable Mary Hoffman who has been the inspiration for all of this. I’ve read posts which were poignant, thought-provoking, insightful, quirky and humorous and learned a  LOT more history! Thanks to all HGs. 
NOTE:  Theresa Breslin is appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 13th and 19th August 2014.   
Theresa Breslin writing on WW1:   
NOVELS:                   Remembrance        Ghost Soldier
CONTRIBUTOR:       War Girls                 Only Remembered