Monday, 27 March 2017

Pamela Gibson of Bletchley Park by Janie Hampton

Pamela Gibson is the oldest surviving person to have worked at Bletchley Park decoding centre during the Second World war. ‘But Bletchley was not my whole life,’ she says in her strong, velvety voice. ‘I’ve had other careers too.’ She also holds the world record for the longest ‘rest’ between jobs as an actor, proving that it’s quite possible to restart a career after 60 years.
Pamela was born in her grandmother’s drawing room in Knightsbridge in 1917, during a zeppelin raid. ‘I was almost called Zeppelina,’ she told me. Her favourite subjects at boarding school were elocution and horse-riding. ‘When the hunt came past, we all dropped our books and followed.’ Her father had been an opera singer and when she left school he sent her to Paris. There she was taught French by Yvette Guilbert, the Moulin Rouge singer portrayed by Toulouse Lautrec. After a few months improving her German in Munich, she attended the Webber Douglas Drama School. One of her first professional parts was opposite Cyril Cusack in The Playboy of the Western World. Then she went into rep; and when war broke out, into ENSA.
‘In 1941 an interfering godmother told me I was wasted on the stage and there was interesting work to be done if I applied to the Admiralty.’ Pamela was interviewed, and offered a secret job. ‘I was torn because my brother Patrick had just been captured in Libya, and was missing, so I wanted to be useful. But on the other hand, I had just been offered my first part in the West End, which was rather thrilling. I asked the man at the Admiralty who’d interviewed me, what he thought. “The stage can wait, but the war can’t,” said the man.’ So she accepted.
‘I thought it would be exciting and I’d be dropped into France as a spy. But I was sent to this big cold house called Bletchley. I suppose I was recruited because of my well to-do background. They thought that if they took in girls from families they knew something about, they were less likely to be German spies. I was very disappointed when I learned that my job was copying words onto index cards. The codes came in broken up and then we had to cross-reference them. There was a separate card for each battle ship, another for the port it was leaving, another for where it was arriving. Some days it was incredibly exciting but mostly it was quite dull, with messages about onions or something.’ Having lived on her own since she left school six years earlier, Pamela refused to live in a stuffy billet or share a room, so she rented a caravan in a field.
Bletchley Park Mansion, Buckinghamshire
By 1944 three quarters of the 9,000 workers at Bletchley Park were women. They were paid half what the men were, and only given temporary contracts. Pamela must have been outstanding as she was one of the few women who was promoted. As Head of the Index, she was in charge of 50 women in Naval Intelligence. ‘I was only promoted because I couldn’t type and at 24 I was quite old,’ she says modestly. ‘Although I was pretty fluent in German and French.’
Naval Intelligence hut, Bletchley Park.  Photo  by Toby Oxborrow.  
The tedium of long shifts was balanced with amateur dramatics, much improved by professional actors such as Pamela, and scripts written by Oxbridge graduates, such as the charming and gifted Wing Commander Jim Rose. ‘The best thing about Bletchley, was meeting Jim.’ At 32, Rose was considered too old to fly, so was put in charge of Air Intelligence at Bletchley Park. He had to decide which de-coded messages to hold back from the Air Force in case their actions then revealed to the Germans that Britain had broken the codes. On their first date, Jim took Pamela to dine at the Savoy. ‘It was very difficult to get a table, so he posed as an Irish peer whom he knew was not in London. Later we discovered that one of his friends had done the same thing, at the same place.’
They were married in 1946, a perfect match: both were cultured, generous and keen to make the post-war world a better place. They moved into a bomb-damaged square in Kensington, a few doors down from my family. When I was born, my parents asked Pamela to be my godmother. She was an unusually thoughtful one: my christening present included not only a silver mug (battered but still loved) but also a Swiss nanny for six months. Apparently Sister Klarli looked after not just me, but also my parents and my three older siblings; and was there for the arrival of my younger sister. Instead of toys for birthdays, Pamela paid for my piano lessons – a present that goes on giving. After the Roses children, Alan and Harriet, arrived, they moved to Zurich where Jim Rose was founder-director of the International Press Institute, an important global force for the freedom of the press.
For ten years after their return to London, Pamela was the school counsellor of North Paddington Comprehensive, caring for pupils who had recently arrived from the Caribbean. When she was 60 she had to retire, but didn’t give up. ‘I had to do something, so I became the vice-chair of the NSPCC,’ she said as if it was as simple as buying the weekly fish. After Jim died in 1999, Pamela, then aged 84, went back to her first career and renewed her membership of Equity, the actor's union. A few acting lessons later, she was cast as Lady Jedburgh in Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Peter Hall at the Haymarket Theatre. She also understudied for Googie Withers, then just 83. After only three nights, Googie Withers fell ill and Pamela was called upon to play The Duchess of Berwick. With several more parts over the next five years, she has maintained her position as the actor with the longest period of ‘resting’ between jobs. ‘It was wonderful to get back on the stage after 60 years. Acting helped me get over losing Jim. The fear of going on stage is the best defence against grief.’
Churchill described Bletchley Park as ‘the goose that laid the golden egg but never cackled’. Everyone there had signed the Official Secrets Act and until recently Pamela never spoke of her war-time career. Not even that she had known the computer scientist Alan Turing, though she insists not well. ‘He was polite and intelligent, but he really preferred the company of men.’ Even when the film Enigma about Bletchley Park was released in 2001, she only commented to a few friends, ‘We never wore hats like that.’ When The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, came out in 2014 she changed her mind. ‘I realised that everyone else was talking about it, so why shouldn’t I?’ she told me. Suddenly she was in the limelight with appearances in books and on television, and even Desert Island Discs. ‘But we don’t need to be glorified. We were all well protected and properly fed.’
The cast of The Marraige of Figaro,  Bletchley, 1943
Pamela will be 100 years young in November and remains as beautiful and chic as ever. She still entertains friends and grandchildren in the elegant Georgian house in Kensington that has changed little since she moved there 71 years ago. ‘I’ve had a lucky life,’ she says. Nonsense, I’d say it wasn’t luck, but resilience, determination and chutzpah.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

South of France Magic and Make-Believe, by Carol Drinkwater




Quite by chance, while internet browsing, I came across an article in Variety magazine – almost a film industry bible – announcing a new film studio complex converted from warehouses to be opened on the outskirts of Marseille. This is exciting news.
France’s Mediterranean coastline from Marseille all the way to Monaco and onwards to Menton and the borders of Italy has always been popular as a backdrop to cinema.
Cannes to Monte Carlo, for example, was glitteringly captured in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
Much of the glamour of the French Riviera has been built on its twentieth-century film history including, of course, its renowned Cannes Film Festival which I wrote about for the HistoryGirls here:
http://the-history-girls.blogspot.fr/2015/05/celebrating-film-by-carol-drinkwater.html

I mentioned in my January blog that several chapters of my new novel, THE LOST GIRL, are set in Nice, post WWII, including at the iconic La Victorine Studios.

Most people when they think of filmmaking hubs tend to cite Hollywood or Bollywood or perhaps some of the old British studies such as Elstree. France is known for its thriving film industry, one that is very well supported by the State, but I think on the whole the average filmgoer would consider Paris as France's cinema centre. There are indeed several studios in and around Paris that have been producing films for well over a century now (late 1890s), but there is also the South of France. It was, and still is to a lesser degree, the Hollywood of France mainly due to its fabulous locations, but not solely for that reason.


                                                                Marcel Pagnol 1931

Marcel Pagnol, the Provençal novelist, playwright and filmmaker became, in 1946, the first cineaste to be elected to the Académie Française. Although he died in 1974 he remains internationally known  for his marvellously evocative novels such as Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. All set in and around the countryside of his birthplace, Aubagne near Marseille.  However, Pagnol's legacy goes a great deal further than his literature. Marius, an early play of Pagnol's, was directed for the cinema in 1931 by Alexander Korda and became one of the earliest French-language talking films to find success outside France. On the strength of this, Pagnol founded his own film studios on the outskirts of Marseille. He played all roles in the business of filmmaking from director to editor, financier, screenwriter and script coach. He was fluent in English and his native Provençal tongue as well as French. His studios produced some masterpieces. He worked with many great actors and regularly employed local talent so that the sing-song Provençal accent and the local traditions of life were also celebrated and gained an international reputation.



Here below, for your amusement, is a link to The Baker's Wife directed and adapted by Pagnol from the novel, Blue Boy, written by another masterly Provençal voice, Jean Giono. In 1940, this film won the New York Critic's Circle prize for Best Foreign Film. (Pagnol had won this same award in 1939 for Harvest and triumphed again in 1950 for Jofroi).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXLKbRJV65c


Harvest (in French, Regain) was also based on a Jean Giono novel, Second Harvest
It stars one of France's greatest screen comedians, Fernandel, who came up through vaudeville. He was also a Provençal, born in Marseille.

Further along the coast in Nice lies the Victorine Studios. The history of this studio goes back to when its doors were first opened in 1919, before Pagnol's studios in Marseille were founded and close to three decades before the early sections of my novel, The Lost Girl, are set.


                                                                     Anouk Aimée

The Victorine Studios, today operating as the Riviera Studios, has been the home of film production since before the earliest days of Hollywood. Nice was a cinema hub from 1910 onwards. In 1913 the French film pioneer Léon Gaumont founded the original Victorine studios in a white villa that stood in its own ten acres of grounds. Like so many of the great artists of the day who were living and working there at this time, Gaumont was drawn to this coast for its abundance of natural, soft light. Unfortunately, he never followed through on his original plans.
In 1919, Serge Sandberg with his business partner Louis Nalpas set up the Ciné Studio at the Victorine. Both were film producers. Louis Nalpas (1884 - 1948) was born in the Greek community of Smyrna, modern-day Turkey. Nalpas had arrived in Paris 1909. He soon made his mark when as early as 1912 he produced La Dames aux Camélias with Sarah Bernhardt. Russian-born Serge Sandberg  (1879 -1981)  was the financial investor for the venture. Their intention was to create not only Le Hollywood Français on the Victorine site, but to establish a film centre on the Riviera which would return French filmmaking to its pre- first world war glory.  They invested aplenty, building four studios, workshops, an open-air theatre ... Unfortunately, their partnership grew strained when they ran out of money, even before they had produced one single picture.

In 1924 the charismatic Irishman, Rex Ingram, lauded by Eric von Stroheim as the world's greatest movie director, leased the Victorine. With funds from Louis B. Mayer's MGM in Hollywood and with the blessing of Marcus Loew, Ingram renovated the site, creating one of the most state-of-the-art studios of its time.
He was married to the American actress Alice Terry who starred in many of his films.



The shooting of his extraordinary film Mare Nostrum (1926) with Alice in the leading role as the spy Freya took fifteen months and went way over budget.  Louis B. Mayer was not happy and was refusing to finance any further European escapades. Nonetheless, with the same team around him Rex Ingram went on to make The Magician adapted from Somerset Maugham's original novel.  He continued with two or three more silent pictures at the Victorine but his key team players, his cinematographer and editor, had left and by 1928 he had split with MGM.
With or without Ingram's brilliance at the helm, by the mid twenties the Victorine was the dominant Riviera studio. Throughout the twenties many silent films were shot there and from 1930 onwards, the lots were busy producing "talkies".
In the 1930s Fernandel performed in a series of comedies made there. 


                                          Rex Ingram with his wife, American actress Alice Terry.

There is a enchanting story about the shooting of Les Enfants du Paradis filmed at the Victorine during WWII (1943) with a very restricted budget. Many local residents were hired as extras. It is claimed that before the camera crew could shoot the food prepared for the film, the locals stole and ate the lot.

After WWII, the Victorine was the only studio still surviving in Nice yet filmmakers were flocking to the south to make their pictures. Jean Cocteau was attempting to raise funds to get another studio built in Mougins but this, alas, never materialised. Still, this period, between 1946 up to the 70s became the golden age of Riviera cinema. Many masterpieces came out of this time. I almost had the good fortune to work there myself with François Truffaut. I met him for the main role in La Nuit Americaine, Day for Night. Unfortunately, he judged my French imperfect (rightly so back then) and the role was awarded to the very lovely Jacqueline Bisset.

Truffaut and Bisset

Graham Greene who lived in nearby Antibes and was apparently a huge admirer of Truffaut makes a cameo appearance as an insurance company representative. In the credits he is billed as Henry Graham. Truffaut only discovered later the true identity of the small part actor.


Jacqueline Bisset

For many movie-makers, Nice and the Côte d'Azur promised not only year-long sunshine but spectacular vistas of sea and mountains. There were pretty ochre-toned villages with cobbled streets, palm trees, grand belle époque hotels and villas ... Everyone wanted to work there. Life was sweet along the coast; the war was a memory and the rich were anchoring their yachts. A community of filmmakers, technicians, hungry actors was burgeoning. The Americans were flying in and out, staying for long periods at the Hotels Negresco, Ruhl in Nice; the Carlton in Cannes.

In my new novel The Lost Girl, one of the two principal female characters is Marguerite. During the post-war sections of the book, she is an eighteen-year-old girl from Reims - a baker's daughter - who fantasises about becoming a star, an actress on the silver screen. She has run away from home to Paris, begs a ride on the famous blue train from the capital to the south in the hope of winning the leading role in a film that is to be shot at the Victorine Studios. Of course, the journey to stardom is pitted with many falls and real life does not run as smoothly for Marguerite as in her daydreams. Magic and make-believe can come at a cost ...



The Lost Girl will be published by Penguin on 29th June. Here is a link to pre-order if you would like to.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Girl-Carol-Drinkwater/dp/071818310X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1490360033&sr=1-1









www.caroldrinkwater.com

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Edward Lear by Miranda Miller

















   I’ve been reading Edward Lear’s wonderful nonsense poems to my little grandsons and have just noticed that there is a plaque to him near where I live. The site is now a seedy mews off the Holloway Road in north London but when he was born in 1812, the youngest to survive of twenty-one children, it was a middle class family house in the village on Holloway, near Highgate.

   When Lear was four his father, Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, was imprisoned in the King’s Bench for debt. The family was scattered and Edward's eldest sister, Ann, who was twenty years older than him, looked after him. They lived together until she died, when Edward was almost fifty. Lear was a delicate child and an epileptic, at a time when the illness was considered shameful. He referred to it as “the Demon” and throughout his life he also suffered from acute bouts of depression. He had very little formal education and later wrote, “I am always thanking God that I was never educated;” in spite of this he taught himself six languages and became an accomplished composer as well as a poet and artist. He played the accordion, flute, guitar and  piano.

   As he and his sister had no money he had to earn his own living from an early age: “ I began to draw for bread and cheese about 1827, but only did uncommon queer shop-sketches – selling them for prices varying from ninepence to four shillings.” Audubon’s great work, The Birds of North America, was first published in the 1820s and started a fashion for big, lavishly illustrated books about exotic birds and plants. In his late teens Lear visited the Zoological Gardens to study parrots:

"...for the last 12 months I have so moved – thought – looked at, – & existed among Parrots – that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

  The Psittacidae (1832) established Lear as a celebrated illustrator. In 1846 the young Queen Victoria invited him to Osborne to teach her drawing.


   In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a very successful volume of limericks, and in 1867 his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby.

   Although Lear's nonsense books were popular during his lifetime a rumour circulated that "Edward Lear" was a pseudonym, and that the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Supporters of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl". Perhaps this is yet another example of British snobbery, like the insistence of many scholars thatShakespeare couldn’t have written his own plays because he didn’t have enough education.

   Lear's delightful inventions, such as The Quangle Wangle and The Pobble Who Has No Toes, were brilliant jokes that came out of his profound knowledge of natural history. He adored children, although he never had any, and travelled all over Europe. He had many friends:




How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer,

But a few think him pleasant enough.




His mind is concrete and fastidious,

His nose is remarkably big;

His visage is more or less hideous,

His beard it resembles a wig.



   Lear was constantly worried about money and his letters are full of this. In 1863 he begged an aristocratic friend to “ write to Lord Palmerston to ask him to ask the Queen to ask the King of Greece” to create a job for him as “Lord High Bosh and Nonsense Producer...with permission to wear a fool’s cap(or mitre)....three pounds of butter yearly and a little pig, - and a small donkey to ride on.” He fantasized about selling his illustrations to Tennyson’s poems for £18,000 and buying a “chocolate coloured carriage speckled with gold, driven by a coachman in green vestments and silver spectacles wherein sitting on a lofty cushion composed of muffins and volumes of the Apocrypha.”


Lear fell unrequitedly in love with several men and proposed marriage (unsuccessfully) to a woman 46 years younger than him. He died in 1888 - just a few months after his famous cat, Old Foss - in San Remo on the Italian Riviera, where he had lived for eighteen years with his Albanian servant. I hope his solitary life gave him pleasure and that he sometimes, like the Owl and the Pussycat, found someone to dance with:






'Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.





pastedGraphic.pdf

Friday, 24 March 2017

Off to the Alderney Literature Festival.

Well, I am writing this in haste this month so apologies for a short blog.

On the day this post is scheduled to go live,  I will be at the Alderney Festival of Historical Literature and preparing to give my talk on "Eleanor of Aquitaine: the fact behind the fiction and the fiction behind the fact."

I am also hoping to get in some walking around this small Channel Island, just three miles long and one and a half wide, situated  7 miles from the French coast and with a population of a little over 2,000 people. To get there from the UK mainland, one has to fly to Guernsey, and then take a a 20 minute 'island hopper' flight on an 18 seater light transport plane - outside of the summer months anyway.  Alderney a bird's eye view   I have never been to Alderney before but am very much looking forward to it.

The  Festival has been running since 2013 and this year's takes place from the 24th to the 26th of March and its theme is 'Perception versus Reality'  a subject very close to my heart following my recent researches into Eleanor of Aquitaine where the perception and the reality are poles apart - inasmuch as we currently understand what that reality might be (she says with an eyebrow raised in irony).  The premise of the debate at the festival is that 'historical reality is in fact a fluid concept.'  As well as my talk about Eleanor, I shall also be sitting on a panel with Imogen Robertson and Anna Mazzola asking how true to life the setting of a historical novel can be and what do historical novelists owe to the truth?  It's going to be a terrific discussion.

I am also very much looking forward to sitting in on a talk by Joyce Meader on 'Knitted comforts for the military from 1850 to the present day.'  I am not a knitter - would love to be but I don't have the manual dexterity or the logic to follow patterns.  However I am still fascinated by the subject.

I shall report when I return.  And in the meanwhile, here's the website.  http://www.alderneyliterarytrust.com/festival






Thursday, 23 March 2017

Where does history begin, actually? Scattered reflections by Leslie Wilson

Kendal Castle; tangible history in my childhood
The past begins as each second is left behind; indeed, the present moment is only a footstep between the past and the future. But where is the boundary between the past and history?
I've been thinking this rather a lot over the last while, as I have had the feeling of living through history, what with Brexit and Trump in America, and the way in which the UK seems to be morphing into a rather unpleasant place which isn't what I thought it was. Of course, nowadays, we access unrolling history, even across the Atlantic, as it happens. In the past, news  arrived as fast as the report could reach you; on foot, or horseback, by boat, and later by train. (There was also the semaphore in the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the earliest form of telegraph.) But reading old newspapers, you really notice this lag. It took six months, in the eighteen hundreds, to reach India, so news from the subcontinent would turn into history on the voyage, maybe. For the unlucky few, history came and found you. In the Thirty Years' War, some people only realised that there was a war when the soldiers arrived to rape, loot and pillage.

I remember Hilary Mantel saying, when we co-tutored an Arvon course, that lived history looked quite different from history written up in a book, because when you're living through events, they seem fluid. This came back to me when I wrote about the Kristallnacht pogrom in Saving Rafael. When some hooligans arrive and start to smash up your house, you have no idea that it's happening all over Berlin. It takes time for this to become apparent; which is why I sent my hero and heroine out onto the streets to find out. It is not yet Kristallnacht, it is a series of terrifying events that you can't get a handle on, that provoke raw, horrible emotions. The function of history is to analyse, to get a handle on these events. Maybe the function of the historical novelist is to take the handle off; the door swings wildly in a howling gale, and you have no idea where the wind is blowing from.
Berlin Wall art, East Side Gallery: Brezhnev and Honecker smash through the Wall.



















I suppose this question exercises me particularly because I'm a historical novelist. If I write a novel about the protest against the Iraq war (for example), is that historical? Or Berlin, when the Wall came down? If not, how far back does one have to go? Would Greenham Common be historical, for example? Dickens's novels, and George Eliot's, were usually set in the past, maybe twenty years ago, but would not regard themselves as historical unless they were dealing with events a good deal further back. Maybe it doesn't matter.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Scotland's Medieval Monasteries by Catherine Hokin

Forget Park Run, Tough Mutha, Iron Man and triathlons. A few weeks ago we embarked on an endurance feat far more favourable to writers on the research trail: 4 monasteries in 24 hours or, as we fondly christened it, The Tough Monk Challenge.

Medieval monasteries and abbeys are an integral part of Scotland's historic landscape and many of them are rightly famous landmarks including Iona, Dunfermline, Sweetheart and Inchcolm. The Scottish monastic movement has its roots in the Celtic period and was a great influence in the way Christianity spread after the seventh century with abbots remaining far more powerful than bishops. The early monasteries themselves, however, bore little relation to what we now understand from the term and were often little more than isolated collections of wooden huts inhabited by hermits. It is not until the Normans begin to really impact on society after 1100 that we see a great wave of Scottish monastic building, promoted particularly by King David I (1124-1153).

 Plan of St Gall
Life in medieval monasteries was strictly organised and strictly run and, whatever order the monks espoused, the principles were broadly in line with (or reacting to) the rules written by St Benedict in c.530 AD. Not only was the internal life rigidly structured, the external fabric (the buildings) also followed a set of ideals, known as the Plan of St Gall. The plan, named after the Abbey in which it is still held, is the oldest preserved visualisation of a medieval building complex. Five pieces of annotated and sewn together parchment contain the plans for forty structures as well as boundaries and roads and an orchard. Each building and its use is identified in 333 inscriptions and include bake and brew houses, an abbot's residence and a dormitory and refectory for the monks. It appears to have been designed for Gozbert, the Abbot of St Gall from 816-837, and it is an idealization of a monastery - no complex was ever built to its exact specifications and scholars have described it as a meditation on monasticism. Most of us, however, who are familiar with monastery layouts, would easily find our way round the plan and its influence on the complexes that were built is clear.

 Jedburgh Abbey - it doesn't actually lean
The four we visited, Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso, are all in the Scottish Borders. They were founded between 1113-1150 and all have close links to David I. They are in varying states of preservation, with Kelso being little more now than a massive gateway, but they are all visually stunning - especially if you see them as we did in snowdrop season. With the exception of Kelso, each of the four has its own claim to fame. Jedburgh, an Augustinian monastery founded in 1147 is an extraordinary marriage of Romanesque and early Gothic architecture and is the best preserved in terms of its scale and its beautiful rows of arches. Melrose, Cistercian dating from 1136, is most famous for reputedly having the heart of Robert the Bruce buried in its graveyard. That may or may not be true: the Abbey words its claim that the casket, discovered first in 1921 and reburied in 1998, is Bruce very carefully and the position of its discovery, under the Chapter House rather than close to the high altar, makes the idea questionable. It is, however, a nice story and Bruce was known to have had great affection for the Abbey. What I loved most about Melrose, however, are the wonderful carvings which cover the outside and include saints, gargoyles and, for no reason anyone knows, a pig playing the bagpipes.

 Dryburgh Abbey
My favourite was Dryburgh. The setting is impossibly romantic, nestled in a bend of the River Tweed and surrounded by trees which act like curtains to the first view. It is hardly surprising that Walter Scott, the great exponent of romantic Scotland, is buried in the ruin's north wing. Accounts of his funeral read not unlike passages from his novels (of which I am a massive fan): the day was dark and lowering and the wind high and when the coffin was taken from the hearse, and again laid on the shoulders of the afflicted serving-men, one deep sob burst from a thousand lips (Lockhart, Life of Walter Scott). I tried not to let the fact that he is buried next to General Haig spoil the moment.




 Headstone Dryburgh
The Abbey also has a Chapter House with traces of medieval wall paintings and a collection of rather wonderful headstones embossed with figures including a number who are reading. Oh and it is haunted by a ghost called Fat Lips - a woman who lost her lover in the 1745 Rebellion, moved into the ruins and maintained that a little booted man named Fat Lips used to do her housework. Could anything be more perfect?

Maintaining a medieval monastery was tough in Scotland even before the Reformation's bite desecrated what was left. If your community was in the Highlands, internecine strife could reduce you to rubble; if you were in the Borders, the ongoing battles with the English were your main concern. Melrose Abbey was destroyed in the early 1300s by Edward II, rebuild and then, in 1385, Richard II burnt it down. The poor monks of Kelso, which was regularly attacked, were reduced to begging food and clothing from the surrounding locals on frequent occasions. It's quite remarkable so much has survived for us to gaze in awe upon.

I've got Sweetheart Abbey in my sights next where the heart of John Balliol, the King of the Scots who annoyed his people so much they signed the first treaty with Europe, may well be buried. As a second referendum looms, I'm wondering how many more of these rather significant caskets might suddenly turn up...

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Heartthrobs by Carol Dyhouse - Review by Imogen Robertson


I am a reading machine at the moment. I volunteered to be a judge on the inaugural HWA Endeavour Ink Crown for Historical Fiction and am the proud possessor of just under a hundred new novels to read and a nervous twitch, but I’m glad to say just before I descended into the whirlpool of fiction, I read Carol Dyhouse’s new book Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. I recommend it to you all, readers, writers, historians, men and women alike. 

Publicity portrait of Rudolph Valentino as Julio Desnoyers
in the 1921 Metro Pictures production
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


The book is an examination of the heartthrob in popular culture from Lord Nelson and Mr Darcy through to George Clooney and Christian Grey, examining the female, rather than male gaze and looking at female desire rather than desirability. It feels, which seems astonishing in 2017, like a very fresh perspective. The book looks at these fictional or constructed male paradigms and asks what is it women want from them. Is romance literature a drug, an escape? If so what are we escaping from? What do these men offer women beyond an escape? What can these fantasy male figures tell us about how women have understood their own desires at various points in modern history? I think these men can often be a great deal more informative than the contemporary cultural criticism. 

For some reason I’m now imagining male literary critic, eating offal off a breadboard in Shoreditch and sneering at the cupcake shop across the road. Apologies to all the feminist un-snobbish men out there, you are of course my heartthrobs, but all our woke baes will know such offal chomping disdain towards women, romance literature and cupcakes certainly exists. 



Dyhouse explores these question and quandaries with relish. She is a curious and informed guide to the popular culture of the long twentieth century, and clear-eyed without being judgemental. The book offers a fascinating set of questions and an enthusiastic examination of tough issues: it is serious with being preachy, and entertaining without being glib. She also knows how to write a damn fine sentence, such as her description of Twitter: ‘The network itself, now immense, with its constant refigurings, and evanescent patterns of fragmentary thoughts, communications, and ‘trending topics’ brings to mind the murmurations of bees or starlings.’ 

I should mention that Carol is a friend of mine, and of course, while I say that purely in the interests of full disclosure, it also gives me the chance to boast. I told a professor about something and she put it in a book! I developed a bit of an obsession about Charles Garvice some years ago and managed to pass it on to Carol and she discusses this forgotten colossus in her first chapter. This makes me feel very grand. There, ok, I’m done, but do read the book. It’s a handsomely produced volume, and both charming and clever - a proper heartthrob indeed.