Sunday, 31 January 2016

January competition

To win one of three copies of Catherine Hokin's Blood and Roses, about Margaret of Anjou,

Give your answer to the following question in the Comments below:

"Which strong woman from the past do you think deserves a re-appraisal?"

Then email your answer to me at this address: so that I can contact you if you win.

Our competitions are open to UK Followers only - sorry!

Closing date 7th February

Saturday, 30 January 2016

My Cabinet of Curiosities: A Chestful of Treasures by Elizabeth Laird

Cassandra Winslow's chest

Miss Winslow was a well-to-do farmer's daughter in Oxfordshire, and this chest contained the trousseau she took into her marriage in around 1810. Remarkably, many items still remain: lawn caps, lengths of exquisite lace, a deep-fringed silk shawl, net mittens. They've been joined by later arrivals: baby vests, strips of embroidery brought back from China by an adventurous family member, a black taffeta apron with fancy tassels. All these items were carefully hoarded by Cassandra Winslow's daughters and granddaughters down the generation. I inherited the chest and its trove of contents from my mother-in-law, who had loved to look through it. It impressed me mightily, and I will always treasure it.

Some of the chest's contents

We are all, of course, made up of multiple strands of inheritance. And the more we travel around the globe, mixing and marrying all over the place, the more diverse our family histories become.

To my husband's family, Cassandra Winslow's chest meant femininity, domesticity and elegance. But it was originally a military chest, made for an officer in the army or navy, as the label still pasted into it shows. Whenever I look at it, I think of a very different thread of family story.

The label inside the chest

My grandmother's grandfather was a poor farm boy in Ulster, so unhappy in his foster home that at the age of nine he ran away. He was quickly pressed into the navy, where he became a powder monkey, one of that band of urchins whose job it was, when a battle was underway, to carry cartridges of gunpowder up from the magazine in the bowels of the ship to the sweating gunners on the gun decks, a job fraught with danger. His name was John Allan.

John Allan's adventures in the navy, the battles in which he fought, the thrilling rescue of the army at Corunna, his years as a French prisoner of war, his eventual emigration to New Zealand with his sturdy sons, and their new lives as pioneer farmers, were the stuff of legend to me as a child. There's only one thing to do with material as rich as that, and that's to turn it into fiction, and so I wrote Arcadia, the hardback cover of which featured a picture of my old linen chest, with the contents artistically draped over the edges. The novel is now sadly long out of print, but has, like so many other books, a shadowy afterlife thanks to and other such websites.

 Why did I never write another historical novel for adults? I'm not sure. I tried, but somehow the siren call of young fiction drew me back. Old John Allan and his thrilling naval adventures were also the inspiration for Secrets of the Fearless, my first historical novel for children. 

There's something especially heart-warming about history seen through the perspective of one's own ancestors' experiences. One feels a close connection, a blood tie, that makes the history come alive, and that feeling, one hopes, flows through the pen on to the paper and into the imagination of the reader. I am delighted that researching one's ancestors has now become such a popular activity in the UK. The many online archives make discoveries easy, and help people to connect with our history in a way that can only enhance their lives – and the culture of our whole nation.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Looking for Margaret - a very modern Medieval by Catherine Hokin

Our guest for January is Catherine Hokin, who talks here about the subject of her first historical novel.

She says of hereself:

Catherine is a Glasgow-based author with a degree in History from Manchester University. She started writing seriously about 3 years ago, researching and writing her 2016 debut novel, Blood and Roses, published by Yolk Publishing. The novel tells the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, exploring the relationship between Margaret and her son and her part in shaping the course of the bloody political rivalry of the fifteenth century. Catherine also writes short stories - she was recently 3rd prize winner in the 2015 West Sussex Writers Short Story Competition and a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has her latest story published in the January iScot magazine. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history, popular culture and life in general.

What is history if not stories? And what are stories if not people?

Fashions, customs, morals may shift and change but we share far more that is similar with the people of the past than the centuries that divide us might suggest. War, disease, loss, political decisions that sweep people into conflicts not of their making are as familiar to us as our fifteenth century counterparts. The mechanisms available for response change, as do the social attitudes surrounding our lives, but the challenges are often all too recogniseable. For me the study of history helps us to see what is eternal; it is fiction, with its re-imagining of events, that then allows writers to create a bridge to new perspectives and voices. This is particularly important when shining the spotlight on women whose characters and opinions go often unheard or mis-represented.

This is what led me to Margaret of Anjou as the protagonist of my debut novel Blood and Roses. An intriguing, powerful woman too often filtered down to us through hostile voices or melodramatic portrayals courtesy of Shakespeare. She is being re-evaluated to an extent but she is still rarely, roundly centre-stage.
John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presents the Book of Romances (Shrewsbury Book) to Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, circa 1445 by the Talbot Master

I first met Margaret when I was twelve. My father ran a war gaming club (in the non-virtual days when this involved a sand table) and all the members were obsessed with the Wars of the Roses. They also shared a loathing for Margaret of Anjou which fascinated me – how could a woman who lived 500 years ago still rile men so much? Then I encountered the Shakespeare depiction and it was clear that something was more than rotten with the state of his Margaret.

Shakespeare’s Queen, “a foul wrinkled witch’ and a ‘hateful with’red hag,” is evil and twisted almost to the point of parody: wandering round Court clutching the severed head of her supposed lover the Duke of Suffolk; rubbing a cloth soaked in his son’s blood all over the Duke of York’s face before placing a paper crown on his head and stabbing him; prophesying evil falling on the House of York like a medieval Cassandra.

Macedonian National Theatre, 2012 (photo Marc Branner)

As a character portrayal it is over-wrought at best; as an historical source it is deeply suspect, as we would expect given that the plays were written as pieces of political propaganda. But the myths about the evil ‘she-wolf’ persist and Shakespeare’s portrayal is still too often the shorthand for this multi-layered woman.

The real Margaret was described by a contemporary as “great and strong-laboured.” Born in Anjou in 1430 she became, through her marriage to Henry VI, a Queen Consort and this title is crucial to understanding the shortcomings of her position. Her role, as Lisa Hilton’s excellent Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens ably explains, was essentially that of an intercessor and a peacemaker, a conduit to the King but one expected to flatter from the shadows and not exert a personal political will. A difficult mantle for many to assume but particularly burdensome when the King was weak, ill and ineffectual and the English Crown was held hostage to the dynastic conflicts modern readers know as the Wars of the Roses.

Margaret’s crime? She was politically astute; she was well-educated, by very strong female role models in a Europe with different attitudes to women and power; she was perfectly able to rule in an England that would not countenance her doing so and was unable to accept that reality. Her punishment? To be made the scapegoat for her husband’s failings, a not uncommon process of female vilification in the medieval period as Diana E.S Dunn discusses in War and Society in Medieval Britain.

 Katy Stephens, RSC, Glorious Moment Production 2008

So who was Margaret of Anjou? Not a crone, a murderess or a woman so foolish that she would take a cast of lovers including the Duke of Suffolk who was 34 years her senior (only a man could have written that) but a strong, deeply intelligent women driven by ambition and perfectly capable of manipulating circumstances to her own advantage. She was also a mother and that is key to any revision of her: not a mother involved in some dark incestuous bond with a son tied too close to her apron-strings but a strong woman attempting to raise a strong man she knows has to find his own path and break from her. Not an easy task, by no reasonable judgement an incestuous one.

Claire Underwood, House of Cards  ad image for show

I called Margaret a modern medieval. Clearly she lived in a world where attitudes to marriage and the role of women were different to the way we live now, at least in more enlightened parts of the world, but I sense in her a temperament that crosses the centuries. A fascinating, flawed, complex and infuriating woman constantly challenging the place society assigned her while staying true to her own ideals. Women like Margaret are everywhere today – from Hilary Rodham Clinton and Nicola Sturgeon in politics, through Katherine Viner taking the helm at The Guardian to the stereotype-breaking female protagonists offered as the new-normal on film and tv (Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, House of Cards' Claire Underwood and the new Marvel ‘superhero’ Jessica Jones to cite just a few). Women celebrated for their strengths, refusing to bow to their detractors – I think Margaret would have approved.

Social media links: 
Twitter @cathokin

Thursday, 28 January 2016

A Blustery Obsession by Julie Summers

Like many of my fellow countrymen and women, I am fixated by the weather. The shipping forecast can fill me with overwhelming excitement when there are gales in all areas. The poetry of the Beaufort Scale and the thought of rugged Rockall, stuck out in the Atlantic, battered by storms nearly all year round, seems to me a perfectly beautiful juxtaposition of nature versus man. So you can imagine my delight when I chanced upon a brilliant book entitled The Wrong Kind of Snow. Published in 2007, it is written by two weather enthusiasts who are anything but armchair boffins. Robert Penn developed his passion for the weather while riding a bicycle around the world and Antony Woodward was born in the back of a Landrover in the middle of a snowdrift in 1963, a notoriously hard winter, he adds. I know. I remember it. My mother had a car crash just up the road from my grandparents’ house and it made a very big impression on me, aged 3. I recall the car skidding on the ice and careering into a car coming up the hill in the opposite direction. It was my first memory of a drama and it was caused by the weather.

Penn and Woodward’s study covers every type of weather event and describes the British Isles as the most weather-affected place on earth. I was not sure I was ready to believe that until I plunged deeper into this fascinating book, which gives a daily account of the weather, drawing statistics from the last three hundred years and anecdotes from the last two thousand. Given the unseasonally warm, damp British December of 2015 and early January 2016, I was amused to read that Sydney Smith, a nineteenth century clergyman, complained on 7 January 1832: ‘We have had the mildest weather possible. A great part of the vegetable world is deceived and beginning to blossom, not merely foolish young plants without experience, but old plants that have been deceived before by premature springs; and for such, one has no pity.’
Daffodils flowering near Wittenham, Oxfordshire 26 Dec 2015
I too felt bewilderment and little sympathy that daffodils were flowering in late December. Yet on that same date, in 1982, the temperature recorded in Braemar in Scotland was -22.6C. Extremes of weather indeed.

Unable to resist a childish urge to see what happened on my birthday, I looked up 3 October and was not disappointed. ‘After weeks of storms and heavy seas in the Channel, a far southerly wind carries the massive invasion fleet of William, Duke of Normandy, to England in 1066. He lands at Pevensey completely unopposed.’ Why unopposed? Because King Harold had concluded that the long delay and roaring northerly gales had put William off and the invasion would be postponed until the spring. How wrong he was, and how extraordinary to think that 1066 might never have happened, or even become 1067.
William the Conqueror, October 1066 (C) Bayeux Tapestry

The weather is the backdrop to our lives, affecting everything we do and often the way we feel. A wash-out in June can pour misery onto a barbecue party while a bright crisp day in October can lift the spirits for me in a way that no spring day can. I am frequently struck by how much weather is used both in fiction and non-fiction. Indisputably one of the most famous weather events launches Bleak House: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. . .’ and so on. Such a brilliant evocation of the literal and literary meaning of fog. Many authors of fiction, historical or contemporary, use the weather to describe moods, feelings and portents. In Wuthering Heights a powerful storm strikes on the night that Heathcliff runs away: ‘…the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.’

But what of the non-fiction writers? The weather has an impact on events for us too and I usually take note of extreme examples. When in April 2014 I was asked to help out with developing a storyline to turn my non-fiction book Jambusters about the Women’s Institute into the drama series, Home Fires, for ITV I was cross-questioned on every possible aspect of the early months of the Second World War. It is a topic I know well, having written six books about the era. The script writer was teasing me, trying to catch me out, and on one occasion he thought he had won: ‘What day did it start snowing in 1940?’ he asked. I replied immediately, January 28th. 'How on earth did you know that?’ he asked. Well, it’s quite simple really. There had been plans to hold a big agricultural meeting in London on 31st January but it had to be cancelled because of the ice storm and extreme snowfall that had led to travel chaos. Trains were stranded all over the country, their points frozen solid, birds died on the wing and wild ponies on the hills in north Wales were entombed in ice. There were 12 foot snow drifts in Lancashire and Bolton was almost completely cut off. How could I possibly have overlooked a weather event like that? 

I wrote last month about my great uncle, Sandy Irvine, who was last seen close to the summit of Mount Everest in 1924. He disappeared in cloud at 12:50, probably the result of a dramatic storm high on the mountain, and was never seen again. That weather event almost certainly accounted for his demise. At the opposite end of the spectrum, moonlit nights during the Second World War spelled danger of a different kind. The ‘Bombers’ Moon’ meant that the terrifying menace of aerial bombardment was at its most dramatic when the pilots could see their targets. Every diary I have ever read that spoke about bombing talked of the terror of moonlight.

Far, far away from Britain, in the jungles of Thailand on 3rd September 1944 prisoners of the Japanese stared up at the sky in horror as the Royal Air Force bombed the railway sidings just 100 yards from their camp on the Death Railway. The bombers came back again and again and the prisoners could hear the bombs whistling overhead not knowing whether they would fall in or outside the camp.  Splinters tore through the flimsy bamboo and attap of the huts. ‘The earth shook and shivered as we lay in the shallow ditches, not knowing whether the bombs were in or only around the camp,’ wrote Lieutenant Louis Baume. Once it was over and the dust settled, the moon offered them a view of a hideous scene, bathed in ghostly silver: ‘in front of the hospital lay rows and rows of corpses, broken and bloody.  Around the huts, in the grass and on the paths lay others, killed as they ran for cover.  Alone, with his sword trailing in the dust behind him and with tears in his eyes, the Japanese guard drifted and paused, helplessly saluting the dead.’ The power of that image haunted me when I visited the site of the camp in 2003. Yet the strongest voice I heard in my head was that of Louis Baume insisting that nothing could break the men's spirit. Their first concern was how many men they could get to the hospital hut to be saved by the new miracle drug that had been delivered to them by the Red Cross earlier that week: penicillin. 
A hospital hut at a camp on the Thai-Burma Railway
drawing by Stanley Gimson, 1943

How extraordinary that on that September date sixteen years earlier, Alexander Fleming had returned home from his holiday to discover that the unseasonably cold, damp weather had caused piles of culture dishes smeared with Staphylococcus bacteria to grow greenish-yellow mould: penicillin was discovered. Without that damp spell the injured men in the steaming rain forest in Thailand might not have survived. So, for good or for ill, I continue to be fascinated and obsessed by the weather.

Now, where is my radio? I need to listen to the shipping forecast.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Joyce Grenfell by Janie Hampton

Joyce Grenfell with her cook Rene Easden, 1938
The writer and entertainer Joyce Grenfell was born 106 years ago this month. By the time she retired in 1973, she had performed on four continents, in front of King George VI, Maurice Chevalier and Igor Stravinsky. She always claimed to be ‘just a housewife’ who happened to walk onto a stage. But while researching her biography, I found that her childhood had prepared her for the limelight. Her mother was Virginian-born Nora Langhorne, the youngest sister of Nancy Astor MP, and they both taught Joyce to mimic accents. Her father Paul Phipps, an architect,taught her to observe people, especially on buses. Brought up in Bohemian Chelsea, she went to smart private schools and was presented as a debutante at Court.  A tall girl with huge feet, she was often the wallflower at society balls. At nineteen she married Reggie Grenfell, a shy accountant.
As a young housewife living on the Astors' estate at Cliveden in the 1930s, she ran the local Women's Institute, wrote poetry for Punch and helped to entertain her aunt Nancy's guests. After one lunch, J.L. Garvin, the editor The Observer, engaged her as the paper's first radio critic. This led to meeting the theatre impresario Herbert Farjeon, who asked her to perform her monologue about the W.I.  Much to the fury of the professionals in his ‘Little Revue’, Useful and Acceptable Gifts was an immediate success.
Joyce and her ENSA pianist Viola Tunnard, c. 1945.
The Second World War brought Joyce more opportunities to perform. After a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery in 1942, she met Richard Addinsell, composer of the ‘Warsaw Concerto’. Together they wrote many successful sentimental ballads including I'm Going to See You Today, which caught the public mood. In 1944 Joyce embarked with the pianist Viola Tunnard on two long ENSA tours across North Africa, the Middle East and India. For 11 months they performed three concerts a day in Nissen huts and tented hospitals.
Arriving in Cairo for some leave, she was targeted by Prince Aly Khan - a lover of race-horses, cards and women.  He wooed Joyce with red roses and dancing by moonlit and although I think she fended him off, she felt guilty all her life for feeling tempted. Infidelity became a theme of many of her monologues: the musician's wife in Life Story, for example, and the French lover in Dear Francois.
Back in London Joyce wrote new songs and sketches such as Travel Broadens the Mind and joined Noel Coward in the first post-war revue, Sigh No More.  'Noel was an actor who wanted to be an aristocrat and Joyce was the opposite, an aristocrat who wanted to be an actor,' the actress Judy Campbell told me. 'Both pulled it off rather well.'
In 1943 Joyce tried straight acting but soon realised that she could not act 'sideways' and anyway, she preferred to have an audience to herself. After that she only performed other people's material in films, such as The Belles of St Trinian's and The Yellow Rolls-Royce, but directors had to accept that she would probably not stick to the script. 'This writer has obviously never met a real Duchess,' she proclaimed on the set of The Million Pound Note.
Donald Swann wrote the music for Joyful Noise, a fake Haydn oratorio sung by Joyce as Miss Clissold, Miss Truss and Ivy Trembly from Wembley, 'who sometimes sings in FFF and sometimes ppp' for the revue Penny Plain in 1951.

After live theatre, Joyce's favourite medium was radio. ‘It's a one-to-one medium, and uses the imagination,’ she said. In 1941 she wrote the first ever one-woman radio show, produced by Stephen Potter, the future author of Gamesmanship. Two years later they wrote and presented How to talk to Children for the BBC Home Service. Their astute social satire, mockery of contemporary etiquette and imaginative use of radio pushed forward radio comedy by a decade. From this emerged the exasperated nursery school teacher and  Joyce's most memorable line, 'George, don’t do that'.  The How series ran for 12 years, using, among others, the voices of Celia Johnson and Roy Plomley. In How to Listen (and How not to) Joyce was the first woman to speak on the Third Programme's opening day  in 1946. She played nine different parts including a Mayfair flapper with a wireless-cum-cocktail cabinet fitted with a 'supersonic incessor switch and hypertonic two-way mega-cycle baffles.' Over the next 30 years Joyce wrote more radio material than any other woman in the 20th century. She also secured the highest fees, rising from 8 guineas in 1939 to 250 guineas in 1963 for The Billy Cotton Band Show.
After the 1954 success of Joyce Grenfell Requests The Pleasure in two provincial tours, the West End and on Broadway, Joyce relied simply on her talented pianist William Blezard and the jewel-coloured costumes designed for her by Victor Stiebel. She combined talent, observation and sheer hard work.  She wrote over a hundred roles for herself, from the Scandinavian visitor at a cocktail party -  'I sink is so nice to say hello and goodbye quick, and to have little sings for eating is so gay', to Shirley's cockney girlfriend, 'You know, Norm’s the one that drives the lorry with the big ears.' Unsuitable, might have been herself – ‘a hat and gloves and pearls type'  singing 'I go jazzy when I hear the beat. I swing and sway in a groovy way'.
Her favourite role was inspired by Sir Alec Douglas-Home's mother-in-law - the wife of an Oxbridge vice- chancellor in Eng. Lit..  A woman with strong values, she apologised for 'the regrettable absence of essential stationary in the visitor's closet.' Joyce’s perfectly-formed short stories contained tiny but revealing slices of people’s lives. Each monologue took anything up to five years to write, yet lasted only two to eight minutes.  ‘I do not improvise, but I do re-create the story every night,’ she said. While 1960s humour was dominated by Beyond the Fringe, the critics said Joyce was too domestic and apolitical. But her shows continued to sell out everywhere from Dover to San Francisco, from Glasgow to Sydney. She made her audience feel that she loved them, as much as they loved her.
Joyce with her friends Benjamin Britten & Peter Pears, 1967.
Her beloved Reggie always encouraged her, while never allowing her to perform anything that was not up to scratch. They both disliked celebrity parties and their hobbies included bird watching and wild flowers. 
Joyce had a strong faith in Christian Science and believed that Goodness was all around, and pain, evil or disease would melt away if ignored. Apart from opening countless fetes, she kept her enormous generosity secret. Young writers such as Clive James and Jeffrey Bernard received clothes and cheques. During the freezing winter of 1962, my widowed mother was taken to hospital and Joyce arrived with steaming casseroles. She would whip a pair of Marigolds out of her crocodile handbag and whisk round the kitchen, as she reminded us to do our homework. It wasn't until she sent us tickets to her show at the Haymarket that I discovered she had an evening job.

Soon after her last live performance at Windsor Castle in 1973, she lost the sight of one eye, but continued to appear on the BBC's Face the Music.  After she died of cancer in November 1979, over 2,000 people attended her memorial service in Westminster Abbey.  As one of those, I had no idea that 20 years later I would be reading her letters and diaries as I researched her biography.   Books about Joyce Grenfell:

Joyce and Ginnie, the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, edited by Janie Hampton, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Hats Off! Joyce Grenfell's poetry & drawings, edited by Janie Hampton, John Murray, 2001. Joyce Grenfell, the biography, Janie Hampton, John Murray , 2002. My Kind of Magic, a Joyce Grenfell Scrapbook, edited by Janie Hampton, John Murray,  2003. Letters from Aldeburgh by Joyce Grenfell, edited by Janie Hampton, Day Books,  2006.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER - My new novel, Carol Drinkwater

Any author reading this blog who is two weeks away from publication will know the nail-biting angst I am suffering. Those days leading up to the release of a new work... So, I won’t describe any of the emotions that are soaring through my body right now. We all know them.

Instead, I thought I’d write about the seed for the novel because, although it is essentially a modern novel set in Provence, its roots lie in 1962, during the last months of the Algerian War of Independence. I wrote briefly about Algeria in a HG blog titled A Potted History of French Algeria. Here is the link if you would like to read it:;postID=7321420207788237935;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=12;src=postname

At the time of writing the above blog and the one that preceded it, Je Suis Charlie,;postID=3455739623201692311;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=13;src=postname

the title of my novel was The Lost Domain so please don't be confused.

My editor at MJ Penguin who bought the novel in an auction, along with the unfinished one I am at work on now, did not think the title worked and after much toing and froing and probably fifty alternative suggestions from me, we settled on The Forgotten Summer. The general opinion is that it is more evocative. I agree.
Anyone else out there had their title changed? I am funny about titles, I need one right at the beginning of the writing process even if I know it will not be the one that sits on the jacket when publication day comes around.
The Lost Domain, for me, conjured up the vineyard estate in Algeria from which the defeated French colonial family who are at the centre of my story fled. I wrote those chapters first: the scenes set in Algeria during the dying throes of a very bloody and ugly war. Once the book had been completed those scenes became the novel’s Epilogue not its opening and I certainly think that material works better where it sits now. And The Forgotten Summer is the better title.

Algiers during French Occupation

Where do stories come from? We are always being asked this question, aren’t we? In this instance, I had no idea. And then I began to recall that during my travels in Algeria for The Olive Tree six or seven years ago, I came across many abandoned French-owned estates. They looked so desolate, so ghost-like. Not all have been left to the growth of nature. Some have been allocated to Algerians who usually work them as cooperatives. The Algerians, whether Arabs or Berbers are all Muslims – the Jewish population has fled – and they do not drink alcohol so they have little interest in the cultivation of grapes. When the French ruled Algeria, the greater portion of the grape harvests were shipped back to France to press for wine. I am not in favour of colonisation and the Algerians were, on the whole, not treated well by the French. Still, the infrastructure built by the French in Algeria, usually with an Algerian labour force, was very efficient and many of the now dilapidated buildings were magnificent. It seemed such a waste, and yet I understand why the Algerians have rejected the European urban spacial structures.

I found this collage of pictures of the end of Algerian War on the internet. 
It is in the public domain.

Even so... those sprawling abandoned estates haunted me. The images stayed with me and, without my realising it, the seed for The Forgotten Summer was sown.
When the war ended, after an eight-year struggle for independence, De Gaulle returned Algeria to the Algerians. This left almost one million French citizens, many of whom had never set foot on mainland French soil, disenfranchised, homeless. They fled the land of their birth and secured themselves passage to France.
What happened to all those French citizens who fled Algeria and took up residence in France, I asked myself. How did it feel after being the ruling power and educated force in a colony to find oneself a refugee?  How did it feel to be rejected by one's own people because the pieds-noirs (black feet, French citizens born on African soil) were not welcomed in France. On the country, they were hated by many.

That history, the loss of Algeria after 132 years of military presence and colonial rule, is at the silent heart of The Forgotten Summer. A past that haunts, that does not go away. And one that, until recently, was rarely spoken about in France. I began to imagine a family, the Cambons, who, over three generations, had made a fortune in the colony as wine-producers and were now forced to flee their sprawling estate overlooking the Mediterranean, to go they knew not where. And then I asked myself: what happens if, in the panic and chaos, not every member of the family manages to escape...?

Vineyards in France

The Forgotten Summer is the story of two women and a boy. One, Clarisse Cambon, a pied-noir, who escapes to France in 1962 as the war is ending, with her small son, Luc, and her sister-in-law. They have lost everything in Algeria and are obliged to begin again in the mother country where they find themselves not welcome… They have been very wealthy and still have reserve funds which they use to purchase a rundown vineyard in the south of France.
And then one summer an English girl, Jane, seven years old, is pitched into their lives and befriends the boy, Luc….

Here are extracts from a few early reviews sent to me from Penguin yesterday:
"A beautiful, atmospheric story of loss, family drama and mystery."

"Intriguing, atmospheric novel of family secrets set in Provence."
"Carol's love of Provence shines through in the evocative descriptions of the Provencal countryside and way of life. The characters are well-drawn and the story is interesting, with a few unexpected twists."
I hope you enjoy it. THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER. If you would like to read the first chapter, here it is:

Monday, 25 January 2016

Eva Tucker, 1929 - 2015 by Miranda Miller

   Occasionally we are lucky enough to meet someone who makes us feel we can touch events that happened before we were born. For me, my friend Eva Tucker was such a person. I first met her at a PEN summer party about ten years ago. We talked about Thomas Mann and Berlin and Robert Musil and she invited me to the launch of  Berlin Mosaic, her novel based on memories of her childhood. We chatted whenever we met at parties and I was fascinated by her tough, warm, mischievous personality and her wide range of interests.

   A few years later she invited my husband, Gordon, and I to a New Year’s Day party at her flat in Belsize Park. We turned up at lunchtime and she opened the door to explain, with great embarrassment, that she had put the wrong time on the invitation she sent us and the party was actually that evening. We turned to leave but she insisted that we stay for a drink, which turned into a long conversation. After that I used to visit her for regular talks which ranged from our own novels to our children and religion and what we were reading. I asked her a lot of questions about her childhood and she always insisted that it was all a long time ago and that she was English now. The sequel to Berlin Mosaic, Becoming English, was published in 2009. Right until my last visit to her Eva read a great deal and was a stimulating, generous and hospitable companion. I always asked her not to feed me but she always summoned me to the table in the window of her beautiful room , which overlooked a luscious garden, for some cake or fruit or sandwiches she had prepared.

   She was born Eva Steineke and spent her early childhood in Berlin, in a very interesting milieu; her father, Otto, was a Communist journalist and her mother, Margot, was a sophisticate with a busy social life who didn’t have a lot of time for her little daughter. Eva’s grandfather, Felix Opfer, was a distinguished physician who was stripped of his right to practise medicine because he was Jewish. After her parents divorced Eva spent a lot of time in her grandparents’ opulent apartment near Friedrichstrasse, until the Nazis confiscated it.

   When Eva was nine she and Margot, sponsored by Quakers, were evacuated to Britain. She had to say goodbye to her beloved father, who was not Jewish and who felt he ought to stay and fight the Nazis, and her grandparents also remained in Germany. As she said goodbye to her grandfather he said, ‘Always remember, little girl, that you are German.’ She never saw them again; Otto died in a bombing raid in 1945 (killed by a British bomb), her grandmother died in Auschwitz and her grandfather died in Theresienstadt. When she was in her eighties Eva told me that she adored her father and had always wished that he had accompanied her to England, instead of her mother. Margot had to work as a maid and in a munitions factory, which must have been humiliating for a woman who had once lived in great style. Eva went to a Quaker boarding school and adapted fast to her adopted country. She had a difficult and complex relationship with Margot, who was less flexible than her clever little daughter. In Becoming English there is the following exchange between Ruth(Margot) and Laura (Eva):

... so, when, just before the beginning of the summer term, Ruth reappears, Laura is not pleased.

“You come viz me to London now, you come vair you belong viz your mother!”

“But I’m going to boarding school!” Laura bursts into tears.

   In her late teens Eva moved in London literary circles and in 1950 she married the philosopher John Tucker. In the 1960s John Calder published her first two novels, Contact and Drowning, which were well reviewed. Later, her husband taught abroad, in Canada and Nigeria, and Eva chose to stay in London to bring up their three daughters. She loved argument and discussion and was an active member of PEN and the North London Interfaith Group. A Quaker, Eva believed passionately in liberal values and in the importance of mutual tolerance between people of different religions. After the fall of the Berlin wall she returned to the city where she had spent her first nine years but barely recognised it, although she made friends there as she did everywhere. One of her most memorable sayings was: “life intervenes,” said with a wise and melancholy smile. Certainly, some of the interventions in Eva’s life were cruel but she confronted them with courage and dignity. I wish I had met her sooner and asked even more questions.

   At her memorial service on January 23rd at the Quaker Meeting House in Hampstead her three daughters, who Eva was so proud of, spoke movingly about their mother. Eva had a great gift for friendship and the lively party later at Burgh House was the right way to celebrate her life.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A BIT OF A MISH-MASH By Elizabeth Chadwick

My current work in progress, TEMPLAR SILKS is the story of the three years that the English knight and future regent of England, William Marshal, spent on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to lay the cloak of his deceased lord Henry the Young King on Christ's tomb in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and to atone for his own sins in the process.
As such, I have to bring him from Angevin England, via Rome, Sicily and Constantinople to Jerusalem (one historian has William making the journey very swiftly by ship but I entirely disagree with him and suspect that his own assessment is born of a need to get William there as quickly as possible in order to give him a chance to do the swords and fightery thing with Saladin and is not reliable, but that's for another time).

Part of my research is absorbing the sensual material involved with the areas and cultures through which William passes and resides. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells and feels of other lands. While for example, silks, spices, jewels and glassware were available to the northern aristocracy, they came at a premium.  In the Middle East the access to such luxury materials was much closer and the area stood at the trading crossroads between all points of the compass.  The port of Acre dealt (among other things)  in spices, jewels, sugar, slaves, saffron, indigo, alum from Asia Minor, silks, and cotton, the latter going to Messina in Sicily for processing.

 The port of Tyre was famous for its purple dye.  Tyrian purple was made from the shells of a particular kind of sea snail. The dye extracted was more valuable than gold and the perogative of emperors.  There's a reason it was called Royal Purple.  You can see an example of the dye on the silk coronation tunicella of Roger II of Sicily.

The above also displays the type of embroidery and the sort of very high status garment being worn in the mid 12th century. The silk workshops of Sicily were renowned at this time.
The port of Tyre was also famous for its glassware, the production of which seems to have been the specific talent of Jewish craftsmen.

William would have found a different lifestyle in the Middle East, where the European settlers, known as Franks by the native population, swiftly adapted to lighter more relaxed ways of dressing, and took to bathing and depilatory practices - all of which was frowned on by pilgrims and newcomers.  An entertaining story is told by a Syrian Muslim gentleman called Usamah Ibn-Munqidh born circa 1095 and dying circa 1188.  A curious, garrulous, courageous warrior of noble descent, he wrote his memoirs.  They're a wonderful glimpse into the world of 12th century Palestine.  Usama does take liberties with his tales and they have to be read with a good pinch of salt, but even so, as a broad brushstroke of attitudes in Outremer, they're invaluable.  He tells one particular tale against the Franks which illustrates the detail that while the chaps might have kept the beards on their faces, they were all for experimentation elsewhere!

A tale told to Usamah by Salim, a bath keeper.

"I once opened a bath in al-Marrah in order to earn my living.  To this bath there came a Frankish knight.  The Franks disapprove of girding a cover around one's waist while in the bath.  So this Frank stretched out his arm and pulled off my cover from my waist and threw it away.  He looked and saw I had recently shaved off my pubes.  So he shouted. "Salim!"
As I drew near him he stretched his hand over my pubes and said  "Salim, good!  By the truth of my religion, do the same for me." Saying this he lay on his back and I found that in that place his hair was like his beard.  So I shaved it off.  Then he passed his hand over the place and, finding it smooth, he said, "Salim, by the truth of my religion, do the same to madame, referring to his wife.  He then said to a servant of his, "Tell madame to come here."
Accordingly the servant went and brought her and made her enter the bath. She also lay on her back.  The knight repeated, "Do what thou hast done to me."
So I shaved all that hair while her husband was sitting looking at me.  At last he thanked me and handed me the pay for my service."

'Consider now this great contradiction!  They have neither jealousy nor zeal but they have great courage although courage is nothing but the product of zeal and of ambition to be above all repute.'

Jerusalem has a street known as the 'Malquisnet Street' meaning 'The street of Bad Cookery'. It was a street named in the Crusader period and was a place where pilgrims could obtain streetfood of varying quality!  Perhaps some traders catered to those with a longing for homecooked dishes in a similar vein to chipshops in Benidorm!
Leaving aside any nasty experiences, what was the cuisine of the Middle East like?  Very generally speaking, if William Marshal had gone out for a meal in one of the towns or villages, what might he have sampled?
I have a book of Medieval Arabic recipes.  It has to be read with caution.  Fellow History Girl Gillian Polack who is a food historian with one of her hats, tells me that there are a lot of influences at work in these recipe books - Spanish, North African, Jewish, Muslim.  But as I said to her, I was after a flavour rather than an absolute pin-down.

I cooked this recipe last night for my evening meal and even with a couple of omissions because I didn't have the ingredients, it was still wonderful.  I am having the leftovers for lunch.  I served mine with flat bread and wild rice.

It's called 'Mishmishya, the Arabic word for Apricot and comes from the 10th century Baghdad Cookery Book.
It's very much a taste and see recipe.  I can't give you quantities beyond a very rough guide.

I used about 12oz of lamb shoulder fillet.
Other ingredients required.
Salt, pepper, coriander (I didn't have any but it was still lovely without) cumin, mastic (ditto I didn't have any), cinnamon, ginger, dried apricots, rose water (didn't have any, but have cooked this with rose water before and it's excellent too).

Cut the lamb into small dice  (this is only one version of the recipe. Others make it meatball style) and put in a saucepan with a little salt.  I used an old cast iron cooking pot. Cover with water and bring to the boil.   A brownish scum will form on the top. Skim it off.

Dice the onions - about as much as you'd put in a normal casserole.  I used about one and half medium to large onions and diced them quite finely but not tiny.  Stir the onions into the pot, then add the seasonings.  I used about 2 teaspoons of ground cumin from crushed cumin seeds, a good teaspoon of cinnamon from a ground cinnamon stick (good workout with my pestle and mortar!) about 10 grinds of pepper from my mill, and two heaped teaspoons from a jar of minced ginger.  I stirred it all together, turned down the heat and let it begin to bubble.  While that was going on, I put some dried apricots in another pan with some hot water to cover and simmered gently until they were soft. After that I was supposed to rub them through a sieve and make a puree, but cheated and used a blender!
I then stirred about 3 heaped tablespoons of apricot puree into the mixture and let it simmer, tasting after about 20 minutes when the flavours had had time to develop.  I didn't feel I needed any more apricot, the balance was excellent as it was (doesn't always happen but the force was with me!).  I let it bubble away with a tight lid on for about another hour and then tested again, by which time the meat was meltingly tender.  I added a tablespoon of ground almonds to thicken, cooked gently for another 15 minutes and then it was ready to serve.  In the meantime I'd made some flatbreads to a Nigel Slater recipe (not exactly authentic but this was about gist), and served up with some wild rice and a sprinkle of toasted flaked almonds.
Though I say it myself it was extremely delicious and even if not 100% authentic, still gave me the ballpark taste.

William Marshal was known as 'Gaste Viande' as a young man and renowned for his appetite.  There are also a few hints in his early 13thc biography that he loved his food.  I hope he tasted something like this on his travels in the Holy Land, and I certainly thought of him as I enjoyed my own taste of the Medieval Middle East!  Next time I shall make it with coriander and rosewater which I now have in my store cupboard.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Victorian Plant Hunters; their legacy in our gardens, by Leslie Wilson

This is the upper Min River Valley, near Songpan, Tibetan Sichuan, up which we travelled  in a Chinese mini-bus tour in the year 2000, and saw buddleia growing wild - truly wild, not feral, as it does in this country, cheering up railway embankments and finding a toe-hold in walls. Here we (or rather I, for I was the member of the party who looked out for such things) also saw clematis tangutica sprawling across the rough grass.

Since our return, I have planted it in our garden, where it thrives on our poor, chalky-flinty Chilterns soils, has taken over a section of the hedge and fence, and invaded my neighbour's garden with its deceptively demure yellow, lantern-like flowers, and its lovely fluffy seedheads.
 Cut it down and it sprouts up again within a very short time. Note the Chinese bee enjoying the pollen! A huge amount of our garden plants come from China and many of those from Sichuan, and it's easy to take them for granted and forget what it was like for those who first collected them.

The plant hunters were part of the great Imperialist endeavour; sometimes ruthless plunderers
Ernest Wilson
 they scrambled across remote parts of the world to find new species. I don't know who collected the first clematis tanguticas to come back to the West; the plant hunter Ernest Wilson mentions seeing them in Sichuan: 'On rocky screes the yellow-flowered clematis tangutica is abundant and was covered with its top-shaped blossoms.' He brought back a haul of them, too.
Wilson was born in 1876, and it was in 1903, when he was collecting in Sichuan for the Veitch nursery, that he travelled up to Songpan.

houses in Songpan
It was near this town that he saw his first lilium regale, the Regal Lily, a plant then unknown in the West.
'By the wayside,' he wrote, in rock-crevice by the torrent's edge and hight up on the mountainside and precipice this Lily in full bloom greets the weary wayfarer. Not in twos and threes but in hundreds, in thousands, aye, in tens of thousands. Its slender stems..overtop the coarse grasses and scrub and are crowned with one to several large funnel-shaped flowers, each more or less wine-coloured without, pure white and lustrous on the face, clear canary yellow within the tube and each stamen filament topped with a golden anther. The air in the cool of the morning and in the evening is laden with delicious perfume exhaled from every blossom.'
I can almost smell the scent as I type out that description, and a photograph seems almost superfluous, but here they are in my garden.It was on that journey that Wilson got his leg broken in several plances, and was lucky not to lose it. He was tended by Dr Davidson of the Friends (Quaker) mission in Chengdu, who expertly set the leg.

 Sadly, the arrival of the horrible lily beetle in England means that it's a struggle to cultivate them now: I have almost given up. They used to be trouble-free and reliable, and their scent a joy in July. Wilson lifted six thousand bulbs from that rock garden, and took them to America. I suppose the ones I grew are their descendants. When we travelled up the Min River it was July, and too late to see them, but I believe they haven't all been pillaged by plant hunters.

 Other flowers that Wilson mentioned include the 'Anemone vitifolia, with white and pink flowers like the Japanese anemone'. Here are some we saw growing wild in the enchanting national park of Jiuzhaigou Valley. It is wonderful to see the kind of plants we grow in the garden, in their wild homeland. As a child, I somehow assumed that all large-flowered garden plants were bred from smaller ones, but of course this isn't the case. (I began to be enlightened when I saw my first wild cranesbill, geranium pratense, growing at Strelley, Nottinghamshire, were we used to walk the dog. They were a vision of delight to me and are still one of my favourite flowers and a star of my pocket-handkerchief wildflower 'meadow.')

unidentified gentian, possibly gentiana altorum?
 This gentian, not mentioned by Wilson, is one we photographed growing at a high altitude on a Sichuan pass (about 400 metres); where yaks grazed and our minibus had to turn round because the park we were due to visit was no longer accessible; there'd been a landslip. This, of course, was the kind of thing Wilson had to encounter all the time; the roads weren't tarmacked then, and he travelled in a litter. It was a falling rock in a minor landslip that broke Wilson's leg. When I think of some of the narrow roads we travelled, with a drop of a thousand feet or so on one side, I feel giddy just at the idea of swinging along in a sedan chair.

The fragrant winter-flowering shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) which is currently the delight of our front garden, filling the air with scent on mild days and providing food for bumblebees, was brought back from China by Robert Fortune, after a collecting journey when he saw off two pirate ships (while sick with fever) with his shotgun. I do wonder whether there is some exaggeration in his account of his determined attack on the pirates, and the fear and cowardice of the Chinese crew; it is so much the stereotype of colonial writing. Unfortunately, I can't find an account of the finding of the Lonicera in his book 'Three Years' Wanderings in China', but it is possible that he bought them from a nursery; he often did. But even travelling China and looking for nurseries was a risky procedure in those days, and he was often attacked - though he did also meet many friendly and helpful Chinese. He was incensed by one nurseryman who boiled seeds before selling them to Westerners, hoping they would blame themselves and come back the following year for more. Fortune also collected (among many others) the Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum 'Sterile'), Weigela Florida, and winter-flowering jasmine.
Of course, Victorian plant hunters also harvested irresponsibly and often destructively. Wilson lost an entire consignment of Lilium regale bulbs on the way home, and on the following year, when he returned, his team plundered complete valleys. No longer would any traveller enjoy the beautiful, fragrant scene he so vividly described. One of the worst stories I have read is aboutorchid hunters who destroyed the habitat of the orchids they had harvested, felling large areas of forest so that they would henceforth have the monopoly on that particular species. Responsible modern plant hunters, such as Roy Lancaster of the RHS, operate with permits, and only take seeds.
But however unethically the plant hunters operated,  their introductions - with a few notable exceptions, such as Japanese knotweed -  have not only added much beauty to our gardens, they have also helped our pollinators by extending the amount of pollen available to insects throughout the year. Through December and early January 2015-16, the lonicera fragrantissima has been feeding bumble bees awoken by the unseasonable mildness, as has also the viburnum tinus. Snowdrops, another excellent food source for early-waking bees, are another introduction, for they're not thought native to Britain. And hollyhocks (which in my garden always seem to have a bumble bee behind visible at their hearts), originate from China; apples (a quintessential British fruit?) from central Asia. That's only a very few examples among a wealth of plant life, and it's been shown that native insects, animals, and birds benefit from a wide range of introduced plants.
Colour photos by David and Leslie Wilson

Friday, 22 January 2016

Alhambra by Kate Lord Brown

Few places seem as paradoxically familiar and exotic as the Alhambra. The romantic paintings of the Orientalists and the eulogies to nightingales and moonlight, to silver mountains and Moorish gold that spilled from Washington Irving’s pen have lured thousands. I was not expecting surprises from one of my favourite places in the world, but meandering down the Cuesta de Gomérez from the Palace I suddenly experienced a lingering sense of another place and time entirely.

Perhaps it was the rain, so unexpected in Andalusia, the old fashioned streetlamps at dusk or the softness of the deciduous trees cloaking the hillside and the water rushing down to the River Darro. Some strange genius loci joined the last Spanish Moorish kingdom and the seat of Durham’s Prince-Bishops in my mind. The monumental silence of the Muslim palace/fortress towering above me precisely echoed the presence of the Christian cathedral/castle as you walk along the banks of the River Wear from Prebends’ Bridge. Both are awe-inspiring World Heritage Sites, medieval monuments of faith and power, equally blessed with amazing natural settings that enhance the sense of external strength and internal brilliance. Architecture this coherent traverses cultures, faith and time to touch your soul.

Further down the narrow road into Granada, real life reclaimed me as knick-knacks and the smell of pot and patchouli spewed from the mouths of tourist shops like the fruits of seedy cornucopias. The cheap mirrors in mini versions of the Alhambra’s sublime arches have a noble genesis, more to do with the sympathetic thirst for knowledge of the traveller than the voracious hunger for novelty of the tourist.

The Alhambra remained a dream for many in the nineteenth century, so the restorers of the Palace devised a way to educate and inspire those yet to visit. European connoisseurs and architects marvelled at ornate scale models of the palace created by craftsmen such as Don Rafael Contreras y Munoz. Born in Granada in 1824 into a family of artists, Contreras became architect of the Alhambra. The Plaques recall in miniature the elegant colonnades, the ceilings with lapis lazuli pigment clinging to muqarnas, and the ornate mosaics. In the World Exhibitions in London, (1851), and Paris, (1855 and 1867), the models were awarded many prizes, and others went to the Academy of St Petersburg as well as museums in London, Paris and Vienna. The Alhambra Plaques were true cultural ambassadors.


I have never seen two plaques the same. Old silvered mirrors sometimes glint behind the alabaster arches - you can glimpse your face softly reflected like Gulliver or Alice. Some have heavily scalloped arches like the Patio de los Leones, or rich polychromatic decoration in deep reds and blues. Occasionally one still comes up for sale in London, or can be found tucked away in a corner of Drouot. The simplest are often the most beautiful: stone coloured plaster, and a marquetry frame inlaid with the Arabic phrase repeated throughout the Alhambra: Wa-la ghalib ila Alá: ‘There is no conqueror but God’.

It is sobering to reflect how regularly civilisations rise and fall. Though, as Irving points out the Moors “reigned in elegance and splendour in Andalusia, when all Europe was in comparative barbarism”, their kingdom fell, and the declarations of Moorish infallibility on the walls of the Palace poignantly recall Ozymandias’ proclamations. However, their palace walls still enclose an enchanted kingdom where the branches of trees are weighed down by pomegranates, the fountains’ mist is still drenched with the scent of jasmine and rose, and a court of cats lazily suckle their young beside ponds full of fish. Life flows on without them.

Leaving the Alhambra is always cause for regret. Who has not sympathised with the exiled Boabdil, whose mother famously rebuked him: ‘Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.’ It is only when our complacency is shaken that we begin to realise what we hold dear. The coherent beauty of the Alhambra, and the powerful memories of Durham it unexpectedly evoked spoke volumes across the ages. Any man of any age or culture would instantly know the power of these monuments. If there is one thing travel teaches you it is humility.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Women, History and Publishing by Imogen Robertson

I fell down a wiki hole this morning, but perhaps the guiding hand of the muse was upon me, because I ended up discovering the strange, and rather depressing story of Cherubina de Gabriak. In 1909 the literary magazine Apollon published 12 poems by Cherubina de Grabriak alongside an article praising her as a fantastic new discovery in Russian poetry. The male editors of the magazine seemed to fall into a kind of erotic frenzy. Both the editor Makovsky and one of the key contributors, Nikolai Gumilyov who later married Anna Akmatova, exchanged passionate letters with the poet, and in Makovsky’s case, phone calls. 

Cherubina was a Russian speaking, impoverished aristocrat of French / Polish descent, a Catholic beauty apparently living in strict seclusion but harbouring dark secrets. She loftily refused any payment for her work.

The deception fell apart quite quickly. Cherubina was in fact a school-teacher, lamed by tuberculosis called Elizabeth Ivanovna Dmitriyeva. After some of her poetry had been rejected by Apollon, she visited a writer named Voloshin who knew the magazine editors well. He suggested taking on the personna of Cherubina and some of the themes on which she might want to write, and suddenly she was a new star in the literary firmament. After she was discovered, Gumilyov was so insulting about her (in crudely sexual terms according to some sources), Voloshin ended up challenging him to a duel. They both escaped unharmed. Most contemporaries believed the poems must have been Voloshin’s, though both he and Dmitriyeva said they were hers and later scholars agree. You can read the full story here. The crux of the problem seems to have been that when the editorial staff realised that Dmitriyeva was not as beautiful (or quite as aristocratic) as they had thought, they lost interest in her work. 

Now these women are all great historians, but what does it say about how their books are sold that they are all done up like models? Interestingly the quote in the article that jumped at at me was this from Lisa Hilton: “A couple of years ago, Dr David Starkey claimed that female historians, readers and viewers had reduced history to ‘soap opera’, implying that women couldn’t tolerate a more serious approach. This is simply offensive. Why is history involving men ‘proper’ history and history involving women considered a sub category? Women might have been marginalised in the past, but they were never unimportant.” 

I agree entirely, but it’s somewhat at odds with the tone of the piece. Not I’m blaming the writers featured. Can you imagine how upset your (probably female) PR person would be if you turned down a feature in the Daily Mail?

Who was this article aimed at? Are readers really like the editorial board of the Apollon, unwilling to read female historians unless they come up to the aesthetic mark? 

A couple of weeks ago Slate Magazine published an article about women writing non-fiction history in the US. The statistics are pretty depressing. Alison Flood from the Guardian asked me to comment (as chair of the HWA) on the position in the UK. I said that I thought the situation was better here in general, but that I felt women were not writing or not being invited to write the authoritative historical narratives, instead focussing on lost and marginalised voices (which is absolutely work which needs to be done). The article is here

It was shared on facebook and on the HWA email chat thread, and the ensuing discussion was very interesting.  Clare Mulley pointed out that the winners of the History Today awards were women, Nicola Griffiths reminded us of the research she did into prize winning novels which demonstrated when women did win prizes it tended to be for writing about men. Antonia Senior shared a piece she had written for the Times (now also on her blog, so you can read it for free). Others talked about the de-gendering of names (Manda Scott was persuaded to become M. C. Scott for a while, Shona MacLean’s historical crime novels are now sold under S. G. Maclean, and we all know about J.K. Rowling). 

We are all aware of the thinking behind these marketing decisions. Men wont read books by women or about women, and if you are a woman writing a book which is deemed as ‘male’ - swords, male protagonists no romance - then your gender needs to be lightly disguised.

Some members also reported being told that women wouldn’t read historical fiction with a male protagonist, and one male writer said he’d written a book from a female viewpoint and was told women wouldn’t read him.

Then there were the stories of book covers which always had to have a sword and helmet on them if they were written by a man, and a woman in a wafty dress if they were written by a woman, no matter what the actual story was about.

I think because I write crime, my book covers have tended more towards blood spatter than dresses, but though the gender issues are more subtly expressed in the crime genre, I still think they exist. I was told one story of a meeting where an author complained there was a woman’s corpse on their cover, though no women were killed in the novel. They were told that ‘dead women sell books.’ Unpacking those four words needs a book to itself. 

We are all victims of unconscious prejudice, readers, writers and judges alike and I do think the only way we can fight it is to examine and discuss those prejudices when they are pointed out to us. And I don’t think we can all shrug our shoulders and blame the publishers. They are responding to their research to try and sell as many books as possible and that’s a perfectly understandable way for a commercial entity to behave.  But what’s the longer term solution? Aggressively market books by and about women to men? How would the industry do that, and who would take the risk?