Friday, 6 May 2016

Rational Dress by Lydia Syson

Seven years before Emily Davison stepped out in front of the King's horse at Epsom for the cause of women's suffrage, this photograph of a group of Maori dress reformers was taken in in Waipawa, New Zealand. By 1906 women in New Zealand - and that meant Maori women too - had already had the vote for thirteen years.

How confidently these six young women stand and sit or lean, with legs astride or casually crossed.  How unabashed they are about meeting the camera's gaze.  At first glance, I thought they might be about to mount horses and go off riding, and I took the sheepskin for a straw bale. But their shoes don't look quite sturdy enough for stirrups.  If that is a stable, it looks empty.  These women are clearly wearing these splendid knickerbockers simply because the garments are comfortable and practical and rational.  What should we think about their bold, striped ties?  The watch chains? Their long, loose hair?  Those clasped hands?

I came across the picture while trying to find out about clothing in the nineteenth-century Pacific, and was immediately intrigued.  All I can tell you is that it was first published in the Weekly Press, a weekly edition of a Christchurch newspaper called The Press which had pages of photographs from around New Zealand and also overseas.  It's simply titled (by the library, I believe) 'A group of Maori women dress reformers', and was taken by a man called William Golder in Waipawa.  My immediate instinct was to follow that lead, and I quickly enough identified him as a Scottish settler-poet with an interest in photography.  A tempting lead, given my own interest in nineteenth-century photography, generated by working on the Paris Commune.  And then I stopped myself.  What was I doing - pursuing the man who had taken this picture - when my focus (and yours) should be on its anonymous, independent subjects?     

Many thanks to Christchurch City Libraries - Ngā Kete Wānanga-o-Ōtautahi - for permission to use this photograph.  You can find out more about New Zealand's dress reform movement and see a picture of the famous 'knickerbocker wedding' here

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Voice of the Carnyx was Heard in the Land - Joan Lennon

A few months ago, Mary Hoffman posted about The Celts: Art and Identity - a fabulous exhibition at the British Museum.  Luckily for me, the exhibition then headed north, to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where I got the chance to see it.


Mary's favourite piece was the silver Gundestrup cauldron and I agree it is absolutely spectacular - and so cleverly displayed - in the round, so that you can see all of the carved images, inside and out.  

(photograph of the cauldron in Berne by Rosemania - Wiki commons)

But what most caught my imagination was the carnyx - the Celtic horn.  You can see three of them being played on a detail from the cauldron -

(photograph by Bloodofox - Wiki commons)

These towering, beast-headed horns, braying out across ancient valleys and hills - just imagining the sound can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.  But you don't have to just imagine.  Musician John Kenny was part of a project to recreate the Deskford carnyx, with its "skull in bronze, with a soft palate, a throat, a jaw that moves and a tongue that moves on a leaf spring" (Celts: Secrets of the Carnyx).  And then, clearly fascinated, he composed a modern piece of music for the instrument, scored for 4 multi-tracked carnyces.  Have a listen - I love it!

Let me know what you think - and if you are within striking distance of Edinburgh, do go to the exhibition.  It's on until the 25th September and you can get all the details here.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Strange Paradox of the Fox-Hunting Poets - by Katherine Langrish

John Masefield, 1912

Back in 1919 John Masefield published a long narrative poem called ‘Reynard the Fox’, neglected in this day and age not only because it’s all about the now controversial subject of fox-hunting but also because, as verse, the best you can say is that it’s workmanlike but often stiff.  It is, however, full of true emotion for the English countryside and was a best-seller in its day, probably because it conjured an already old-fashioned pastoral vision of England which was welcome after the horrors of the First World War. (Masefield was exempted from military service but worked as a hospital orderly in France in 1915.) Just so did Siegfried Sassoon seek retreat into his own ‘Weald of Youth’ in the character of his gauche young alter ego George Sherston, whose activities (‘Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man’ 1928), compared with the slaughter of the trenches, must have seemed the harmless pastime of a lost Arcadia.  Even though Oscar Wilde, in ‘A Woman of No Importance’ 1893, apostrophised fox-hunting as ‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’, his was an aesthete’s sneer at the English country gentleman rather than a plea for animal rights.  A century ago, almost no one felt any qualms at all about the ethics of hunting foxes.  

Masefield’s poem falls into two parts: the first from the point of view of the hunters and the second from that of the fox. This second half is the most readable today, although I recommend the entire poem to anyone with an interest in getting a feel for autres temps, autres moeurs. It’s fascinating that though there’s no hint of condemnation for the huntsmen – whom Masefield clearly regards as jolly good sports – nevertheless the poem expresses intense sympathy for the fox and identifies with his plight:

… They were nearer now, and they meant to kill.
They meant to run him until his blood
Clogged on his heart as his brush with mud,
Till his back bent up and his tongue hung flagging,
And his belly and brush were filthed from dragging,
Till he crouched stone-still, dead-beat and dirty
With nothing but teeth against the thirty…

What’s this about?  How can someone approve of fox-hunting, as Masefield did and Sassoon did – and yet write with such pity, such empathy for the victim?  And this is not the only fox in Masefield’s work. One of the most memorable characters in his children’s book ‘The Midnight Folk’ (1927) is the fox Rollicum Bitem, whom the young hero Kay overhears singing this excellent little ditty:

‘Oh pretty bunnies, let’s come for a stroll.’
                              ‘Oh no, no, no; you’re a fox.’
‘A fox, pretty dears; can’t you see I’m a mole?’
With a weaselly stoaty, snap at his throaty, Ho says Rollicum Bitem…

Despite his rabbiting propensities, Bitem is one of the ‘good’ characters, and Kay earns his friendship by saving him from the trap set by the wicked gamekeeper:

‘A trap?’ Bitem said; ‘and Keeper watching from a tree? I am very much obliged to you, Mr Kay.  I must be gone from here by the secret door. I’ll move off to my place Wicked Hill way.’

Of course Masefield’s fox is a hunter himself – as all foxes are – and this delightful children’s fantasy makes (excuse me) no bones about the fact: Bitem, in cahoots with Kay’s household cats, kills off most of the rabbits in the South Warren.  Many of Kay’s animal friends are predators, including Blinky the owl: the animals even use body parts while mapping out their hunt:

‘This hen’s head is the big yew. That rabbit-skin is the boggy patch; you know the place. Then here is where we got the partridge chicks. I’ll put this pheasant’s tail to mark the end of the South Warren…’

It’s a truism that societies which hunt their own meat – instead of, as most of the rest of us do, delegating the hard work and buying it ready packaged in a shop – feel a special respect for the animals they kill.  I understand how this could arise. If you can empathise with the prey, if you can imagine yourself inside the skin of a deer stepping through the forest or of a hare quivering in the long grass, you will be better able to predict its behaviour and this will lead to more successful hunts.  But empathy comes at a price.  Having stepped out of yourself and (at least partly) identified with the deer, you can’t escape imaginatively sharing its terror and pain, and you feel the need to make some recompense, some ritual gesture of respect to appease its spirit.

It’s not likely that any other predator on earth feels this way, but it explains why human hunters, right down to Masefield and Sassoon, express such fellow-feeling for their prey.  Hunter/hunted is a deeply ambiguous relationship. Rollicum Bitem and Nibbins the cat quite realistically feel no pity at all for the rabbits which they ‘clean out of’ the South Warren; nor is the child reader, such as my younger self, expected to be upset. (I wasn’t.) Yet if this were a story in which rabbits were the main characters, as in ‘Watership Down’, their fate would become of vital imaginative importance.  Our sympathy is directed, rarely universal.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1917

Here’s Sassoon, in character as little George Sherston, sitting on his pony and watching a fox come out of the covert:

Something rustled the dead leaves; not more than ten yards from where we stood, a small russet animal stole out on to the path and stopped for a photographic instant to take a look at us. It was the first time I had ever seen a fox, though I have seen a great many since – both alive and dead. By the time he had slipped out of sight again I had just begun to realize what it was that had looked at me with such human alertness. Why I should have behaved as I did I will not attempt to explain, but when Denis stood up in his stirrups and emitted a shrill “Huick-holler,” I felt spontaneously alarmed for the future of the fox. 

            “Don’t do that, they’ll catch him!” I exclaimed.

While the boy Denis is the complete little huntsman, young George is naïve and untaught. He openly sympathises with the animal – and is rebuked by his mentor, the groom Dixon: “Young Mr Milden won’t think much of you if you talk like that. He must have thought you a regular booby!”  Sassoon offers no comment other than George’s unhappiness: “My heart was full of misery.” But the text makes it clear it’s because of social embarrassment and the realisation he’s made a fool of himself, not because he's sorry for the fox. In real life Sassoon continued to hunt and to enjoy hunting. However, we might regard George’s desire to conform, to do what all the others do as – perhaps – a critique of the impulse which would later take him and so many of his contemporaries unquestioningly to war. 

Lord Dunsany, 1915

In a rather lovely book ‘The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders’, 1950, the Irish writer and poet Lord Dunsany (eight years older than Sassoon, he too spent time in the trenches) tells how, compelled by a magical spell, the eponymous Colonel’s spirit transmigrates into the bodies of a great number of different animals. Living each life through till death, the Colonel is then immediately reincarnated as some other creature. Here he describes how, as a fox, he lay in wait for wild duck:

Getting one was very easy. One does it chiefly by patience. It is a thing we have not really got.  Not as I had it then. One may speak of having patience, but one only means in comparison with other men. One has not patience in comparison with a fox. I had patience as one has warmth and breath. I did not even wish for the ducks to hurry, any more than you hurry your breathing.  I waited in the beauty of the evening and knew they would come near in time. The colours changed in the sky, the glow faded, the big stars came out, and then all of them, and I needed nothing at all to solace my waiting, because it was part of the evening, as the evening was part of the rest.

I don’t know if you will understand me. It is hard to make myself clear to you. We are all outside that now. But then I was a part of it all, and I no more hurried than the Evening Star. The ducks began to give their comfortable quacking, not the kind that warns of any alarm. And then one of them swam close to me, close enough for me to spring. But I did not move.  I waited till its head was down in the water.  Then I sprang.

When I had got my duck I went away, and all the stars guided me…

As you might imagine of an Irish peer of his era, Dunsany was a keen fox-hunter.  He was also a campaigner for animal rights who argued against the ‘docking’ of dogs’ tails (there’s a deliberately upsetting bit in ‘The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders’ in which the Colonel, as a spaniel, has his tail docked) and in later life he became chairman of the West Kent branch of the RSPCA.  Today it seems a paradox. How could a man who loved animals so dearly, and wished to protect them from cruelty, also hunt and kill them?  Yet Dunsany writes of each short animal life (dog, fox, pig, moth, antelope, butterfly, goose, snail… ) with the eye of a naturalist and the lyrical, empathetic prose of a poet. Each small life has – the Colonel learns – inestimable value.  And then each one dies. 
In Dunsany’s unsentimental insistence on that simple fact – the death, later or sooner, of every single individual living creature – perhaps we can resolve the paradox. Life, I think he is saying, is so much more important than death that death is almost irrelevant.   

Nature is not kind.  Wild animals either die quickly by natural predation or else by disease, starvation or cold.  Even Henry Williamson (of ‘Tarka the Otter’, 1927) joined the otter hounds of the Cheriton Hunt as he researched his now classic book, and far from criticizing the hunters, he socialized with them: he met his future wife in the process, proposing to her at the Hunt Ball of August 1924. Yet no one who reads his book can do otherwise than identify with the otter. In full, it’s entitled, ‘Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers.’  It’s so ambiguous. Does that adjective ‘joyful’ extend to Tarka’s death too?

Henry Williamson, 1935

‘Reynard the Fox’ was written in 1919; ‘The Midnight Folk’ and 'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man’ in 1927; ‘Tarka the Otter’ in 1928 - all in the decade after the War. I am not here to defend the position of these writers, but I think we can make the effort to comprehend them.  They knew a lot about death. They had seen enough of it.  I think instead they chose to rejoice in life – joyful, sensuous life – for as long as it might last.  

Picture credits:

Henry Williamson by Charles Tunnicliffe, c. 1935 (Wikipedia)
By Janet's Foss, by Bill Wild, 1905 - 1983, woodcut in author's possession, copyright Kirby Malham Parish Church, Yorkshire. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The right to dig, by Vanora Bennett

After 13 years in increasing despair at never getting to the top of my London borough’s apparently endless allotment waiting list, I applied to another London borough a few weeks ago and immediately – starting last Saturday – got a half-size allotment of five poles.

Half-size! That’s deceptive. My new smallholding is huge, at least the size of my house, surrounded by other plots of either twice or four times the size, and charming brambles and wildflowers and fruit trees in blossom in between (it is not quite in the perfect condition of the plot in the picture, by the way; I just borrowed that picture). Call me over-enthusiastic, but at the end of my first weekend, even if I ache a lot, my plot still seems an absolute paradise of fruit and veg and flowers and bees and fascinating sheds and delightfully Chekhovian characters and tea and bric-a-brac and happiness.

Which has all, naturally enough, made me wonder how it came about historically that a bunch of middle-class London characters such as my fellow allotment-farmers and me have been so blessed. Who gave the citizens of England the right to five or ten poles of land somewhere near where they live, for not much in the way of rent, and when, and why? Is it all just to give us a chance to out-Fearnley-Whittingstall Hugh and live poshly off the finest of fresh food without paying the supermarkets for it? Is it part of living in a democracy? Or is it something to do with being afraid of hunger - digging for victory in the Second World War - or an older right still, corresponding to older hungers? Was it once a way for the poor to feed themselves and ward off starvation, like the Russian dacha-and-allotment system that (sometimes) kept the Slavic version of the grim reaper away at tight times in the 20th century?

The answer, it seems, is that there are at least two allotment histories merged into one outcome, and all these sets of suppositions are true.

On the one hand, there was a long-running and serious story about alleviating poverty. The enclosures movement that saw peasants squeezed off common land as it was hedged and allocated to a single owner, making it unavailable for traditional shared farming, caused unrest through history and in particular sent crowds of the hungry poor into towns to kick-start the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. But the fightback on behalf of the dispossessed also eventually made it mandatory to make growing land available to the poor and displaced.

Secondly, in a fairly separate strand of history, the middle classes prospering in towns as a result of the Industrial Revolution then clamoured for “city allotments” to do a bit of digging, but also to have a garden to relax and escape the confines of the city – partly because of a 19th-century obsession with gardening and partly as a show of wealth. These “posh” plots became known as “pleasure gardens” and often had brick summerhouses or follies. Families might even stay the night in their city allotments, which were surrounded by hedges or fences – but the plots didn’t survive the spread of Victorian villas with their own gardens later in the 19th century. Most were turned into “normal” allotments, or built on.

So it’s the other, more brutal story – the one of brutal eviction of peasants from the land – that really brought us the Paradise Regained of modern allotments, I’d say.

A 19th-century question: how little land does a peasant need to stop revolting?

The enclosure movement in the late 18th century helped shape modern Britain. Enormous swathes of the English countryside were enclosed and the new fences planted altered the look of the landscape for good. By the mid-19th century, most common land in Britain had been enclosed and a whole class of rural people dispossessed. Throughout this period, according to The Allotment Gardener, movements came into being to try and fight for some ground for the common labourer who was quietly losing his all. As early as 1649 protesters calling themselves the “Diggers” demanded the “right to dig”. A group of hungry men led by Gerrard Winstanley, they organised a mass trespass on waste land in St George’s Hill, Surrey, sowing it with vegetables and wheat. 

Winstanley was a cloth merchant whose business had been ruined in the Civil War; he had, in January of 1649, published The New Law of Righteousness in which he envisioned a just and harmonious society guided by spiritual regeneration through Christ. He explained his belief that the miseries of the world result from men turning from God, whom he equates with Reason, to satisfy greed and the pursuit of power. Poverty and inequality stem from the selfish buying and selling of land and property, and could be eradicated by communal living and an acceptance of the risen Christ, he wrote: "Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?"

The New Law of Righteousness was published as the trial of King Charles I was drawing to a close. Four days later, the King was beheaded at Whitehall. England was declared a "Commonwealth and free state". In this revolutionary atmosphere, it seemed possible that all tyranny and oppression could finally be brought down and Winstanley's utopian vision become reality.


In April, to prove their point, Winstanley's Diggers started planting St George's Hill. 

Their idealism, it turned out, was misplaced. The new authorities didn't like it. A Kingston court indicted and fined them in July. 

By August, harassed off the land, they moved on. 

But the idea of a “right to dig” had taken hold.

The social unrest caused by the process of enclosure led to a number of private initiatives to provide the common man with land to grow and provide for himself. This was mainly driven by private land owners who commonly believed that not only would a small patch of land be worth more to their workers than an increase in salary, but that it also kept them away from the ale house, making them better workers. These sponsors didn’t want workers turning up too tired to work at their paid employment, however, so they wanted the size of the allotments provided to be restricted.

The age of legislating for social improvement was at hand. The General Enclosure Act in 1845 offered “field gardens” of up to a quarter-acre for the poor, but the Act was poorly framed and made little real difference. After an election in 1884 in which allotments were a political hot potato, in 1887 an Allotments Act was introduced, which made it possible for local authorities to acquire land for allotments and also made it compulsory for local authorities to provide allotments where there was demand for them. Local authorities resisted however, and this led to further Acts in 1894, and then finally the Smallholding and Allotments Act of 1907. This was the defining measure, still in place today, which forced councils to provide allotments where there was demand. Under it a local authority is obliged to provide allotments if there is demand from more than six people (unless, as with central London, there is insufficient space).

New century, new stimuli: veg gardening as a response to war and fear

Until now handing over land had seemed, to many in the governing classes, a where-will-it-all-end pandering to the demands of the greedy poor.

World War One changed that. With the German blockade biting and people worried about where their food would come from, the authorities stopped going slow and hastily tripled the number of plots available, which rose from half a million to one-and-a-half million by 1917 (this fell back below a million by 1929).

Enthusiasm hit another peak during the Second World War. All sorts of land was given out to allotment plots – even parkland and city gardens.

My father remembers the central garden of the square where he and I both grew up – St Peter’s Square in Hammersmith, west London - being turned over to vegetables during the War when he was a small boy. The picture on the left is of Hampstead Heath.

It was the age of the Dig for Victory campaign, with the government exhorting gardeners to grow, grow, grow and get the family along to help too.

The numbers of allotment holders shrank dramatically after the war ended. An era of ready-made food and Wonderbras, and the uncoolness of the flat-capped-old-man-gardener image, looked set to kill off forever the idea of it being fun growing your own veg. Yet every decade or so another TV programme would come along that would briefly send people rushing for an allotment again – “The Good Life,” in the Seventies, and then in our time almost anything by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

21st-century hip

Think organic. Think the rise of green parties everywhere. It’s all reflected down at the allotments too. There are about 300,000 potholders in the UK today, and, according to the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, there are another 100,000 on waiting lists. (No, make that 99,999 – this week I’m crossing myself off the waiting list I’ve been on for so long). The average age has shifted down several generations. I’m at the old end of my field, it seems. Many of the people I met were in their 30s and 40s: mums with children, young men with girlfriends ... like fresh-faced Katie and many others on YouTube.

My allotment field is a place of kindly advice and shared cups of tea, and cheerful internationalism too. Savvy immigrants from the gardening nations are all strongly represented here. There’s an Afghan guy growing an astonishing number of crops on his plot, just down from me; and a pair of Cypriot brothers who’ve had side-by-side plots for longer than anyone can remember on the other side of him. Below that, a double plot – 20 poles! Pretty much a farm, with three sheds and a greenhouse and more fruit trees than you can imagine – belongs to Svitlana, from Ukraine, who farms it with her sister and her sister’s small children. She kindly offered me tea and the use of one of her sheds to store my stuff. She keeps a nip of vodka and a couple of tins of sardines in hers, too, in case a party is needed.

I used to worry about what I’d do if a world-changing catastrophe hit - Brexit or Grexit or Donald Trump or a terrorist strike. Now I know, and it is strangely reassuring.

If all else failed, I’d still have the freedom to go to the place that Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers campaigned to be called into existence, all those centuries ago, and subsist by the sweat of my own brow; to exercise my “right to dig.”

Vanora Bennett's website

Monday, 2 May 2016

Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley - a review

In our current competition, you can win a prize of Alison Weir's new book on Katherine of Aragon by choosing which of the six wives of Henry Vlll you'd like to meet and why.(Closing date 7th May). One of our Followers has already chosen the queen at the heart of historian Lucy Worsley's first novel for children, Eliza Rose: Katherine Howard.

We do witness the brief marriage with Anne of Cleves, as both Katherine and Eliza Rose herself, the invented first person narrator, serve as the queen's ladies-in-waiting before she is set aside and becomes Henry's "sister." So it is Katherine Howard, the teenaged fifth wife of the now bloated king,  who is at the centre of the novel and of a circle of young women brought up to a life at court.

Katherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger
Eliza Rose is Katherine's cousin - surprisingly her other more famous cousin, Anne Boleyn is not mentioned - and she comes from the impoverished noble family of Camperdownes. Eliza is the only child of the widowed Baron Stone and she lives in the crumbling Manor of Stoneton, knowing that she is the only one who can restore the family's fortunes by making a good marriage.

After a false start with a young nobleman, she is sent to her grandmother, the Duchess of Northumberland, at Trumpton Hall, where she meets a whole gaggle of young girls, including the "boldest and buxomest" Katherine.

At first there is no love lost between the cousins, but a grudging friendship forms when they go to serve Queen Anne. Still, there is always a hint of rivalry between them, beginning when they are both attracted to the Duchess's music master and Katherine is the one whose interest is reciprocated.

Later, when King Henry is on the marriage market again, Katherine and Eliza are seen to be vying for his attentions, though our heroine is doing it out of duty to her father's wishes, who wouldn't have minded if she became only the king's mistress. And again it's Katherine who triumphs, though that triumph is so pathetically short-lived.

Katherine's Coat of Arms
In her time at court, Eliza has found one young man she would really like to be with, Ned Barsby, but he is the bastard son of an Earl and a humble page to the king, so she constantly reminds herself that she must marry money.

And her cousin Katherine is not to be envied, having to share her bed with the gross king and his smelly leg ulcer. But her attempts to distract herself with romance and perhaps, according to this novel, become pregnant with a child that could be passed off as the king's were more dangerous than she realised.

The author wanted to counter-balance the "general consensus ... that [Katherine] was a ditzy airhead." And she written a very engaging and readable novel about friendship, rivalry and treachery - a kind of Tudor Mean Girls but with much higher stakes. But the sympathy that we feel for the invented narrator somewhat detracts from the amount we have left for the young queen.

And after all Eliza's exhortations to do her duty, she follows her heart in the end and we see no consequences.

Thornton Abbey Gatehouse, where Henry stayed with Katherine
Lucy Worsley is the Chief Curator at Historical Royal Palaces, a charity which includes the Tower of London and Hampton Court and is a specialist in Tudor history. But in the novel she deviates from the facts by combining three historical characters into one, as she told Francesca Wade in an interview in the Daily Telegraph.

The music master in the novel is Francis Manham, whereas the actual one, who gave evidence of sexual dalliance at Katherine's trial, was Henry Mannox. He escaped with his life and may or may not have married Katherine's stepmother (she certainly married a man of that name). Katherine's other lovers were Francis Dereham (before her marriage) and Thomas Culpeper (a distant cousin), who were both executed for adultery as was the young queen. I wish Lucy Worsley had added that information to her Epilogue: Why I Wrote this Book. I think writers of historical fiction owe that sort of thing to their readers, even if the intended audience is "eleven-year-old girls." In fact, especially so.

Mary Hoffman

Sunday, 1 May 2016

History and The Greystones Press by Mary Hoffman

Now that Shakespeare Month on the History Girls is over, some of you may be breathing a sigh of relief! But I'm going to crave your indulgence a little further. You see, on 23rd April, the big Shakespeare day, five titles came out with my new independent publishing house, The Greystones Press.

One of the titles, pictured above, was the reason we chose that date. You can read a bit more about that on the piece I wrote for Authors Electric, which by a nice bit of serendipity came out yesterday. Incidentally, I was very happy to write a guest blog for AE, as its creator, Susan Price, is one of our wonderful HG Reserves, and has written many "anytime posts" for me to bank and use when there is a crisis here.

On our launch list, four out of the five titles have an element of history in them. Shakespeare's Ghost is a YA novel with a paranormal twist but it is buttressed by an enormous amount of historical research. Just off the top of my head, this involved:
The Winter's Tale
The Tempest
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado about Nothing
The Globe theatre
The Blackfriars Theatre
The King's Men
King James and his family
Boy players in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre
Acting companies on tour
Elizabethan Fairy and folklore
The Rollwright Stones
Renaissance magic
The Shakespearean stage
Symptoms of the plague etc. etc.

Of course I knew the plays well already - not just those listed above. I wouldn't have tackled a novel about Shakespeare if I hadn't. But I had an early piece of luck about his indoor theatre at Blackfriars. A friend was able to put me in touch with one of the architects working on the Sam Wanamaker theatre at the Globe, who kindly answered all my questions, showed me plans and took me to see the building in progress. It was as close as a modern theatre could be to the no longer extant performing space in Blackfriars that enabled The King's Men to play in winter as well as summer.

Since then I have seen several productions in this gorgeous indoor theatre, including The Winter's Tale and The Tempest this year.

Another of the Greystones Press début titles is the reissue of a novel I originally wrote as YA but which we are now publishing with the subtitle and cover I always wanted:

It was because of David that the History Girls blog was born. The novel was coming out in July 2011 and I was doing a 30-stop blog tour. Then I began to wonder why there wasn't a blog mainly for historical fiction. Maybe there was; if so I couldn't find it.

Of course David required a lot of historical background research too: one of the things that attracted me to the subject was that we knew so much about Michelangelo's famous statue. We have the contract commissioning him to sculpt it, we know the date when his chisel made its first cut; we even have the minutes of the committee meeting which was called to decide where to place the finished "Giant" - a committee whose members included Leonardo da Vinci.

And in the middle there was a great big hole about who the model was or whether there even was one! That sort of situation is pure catnip to a writer of historical fiction and of course I had to learn everything I could about Michelangelo, Renaissance sculpture techniques, Florentine politics, the Medici family, Savonarola and many other things.

Our third title grew out of a blog. Not this one, though the author Katherine Langrish is a History Girl. She had created another blog, in 2009, called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, with wonderful short essays on fairy and folk tales. I felt these deserved a wider and less ephemeral platform. So we asked Katherine if she would expand some of these posts into a full-length non-fiction book for adults.

It is proving enormously popular and we have already had to reprint, so I think our instincts were sound. Katherine herself had to do an enormous amount of research, which she writes a bit about here.

The fourth title, The Moon, by Jules Cashford had been published in hardback in 2003. It had taken me months to read because after a paragraph or two I had to put the book down and let the material percolate. Every page gave me ideas for books I'd like to write. The only other book I've read that gave me this sensation was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

So when we were offered the chance to re-issue this book in paperback, it was too tempting to refuse, even though we had said firmly that we were NOT going to publish illustrated books. It has the subtitle "Symbol of transformation" and, we think, a much better cover than the original. The breadth and depth of Jules' knowledge of myth, symbolism and imagery across a range of cultures makes the book a delight.

The brief of the Greystones Press is to publish adult and YA fiction and adult NF "in areas that interest us." These are art, music, literature, mythology, fairy stories and of course history. You can find out more about us at

And in time I hope very much that some of the essays you have read here over the years might be expanded and combined into another book that The Greystones Press could publish.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

April competition

To win one of five copies of Alison Weir's new book, just answer this question in the Comments section below:

"Which of Henry VIII's wives would you most like to meet, and why?"

Then copy your answer to

Closing date: 7th May

We are afraid our competitions are open to UK Followers only.