Monday, 31 March 2014

March competition

To win one of five copies of Carol Drinkwater's The Only Girl in the World, just answer the question below:

"What is your favourite novel in which the leading character uses music or literature or a painting as a source of inspiration, of courage?"

Answers in the Comments section to this post. Closing date 11th April

Our competitions are limited to UK Followers only - sorry!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

(Kitchen) Cabinet of Curiosities by Mary Hoffman

I was listening to The Archers (long-running BBC radio soap for our non-English Followers) when I heard 80-year-old Jill Archer rejoicing to her daughter-in-law Ruth that she had found "the old mincer" at the back of the pantry. Jill was going to make a Shepherd's Pie by mincing up leftover lamb from the family's Sunday roast.

It reminded me of two things.

The first: two wildly successful posts written by History Girl Adèle Geras Kitchen Stuff Part One and Kitchen Stuff Part Two.

The second: my childhood now counts as History! My mother had just such a mincer and we also had a kind of coffee percolator that you put on the stove.

This happened only at the weekend; during the week my parents drank either Bev or Camp liquid coffee, the precursors of instant coffee powders and granules.

As a complete coffee snob now, I shudder at the memory. Even the percolator boiled the coffee over the gas until our kitchen was filled with an acrid smell, nothing like the delicious aroma coming from any half-decent café with an Italian machine. When I met my husband, he had a coffee grinder a bit like this one:

© Benjamin Hell –
Not so very different in principle from the meat mincer! These are all museum objects now so I thought I'd put them in my own little cabinet of curiosities. We have always both been fascinated by kitchen gadgets and no Cook Shop is left unvisited whenever we are in a new town.

We own (listing just off the top of my head):

A teabag squeezer
Olive spoon
Gherkin prong
Pickled onion prong
Pasta tester
Cherry/olive stoner
Icing sugar dredger (like a tiny tea-strainer)
2 jam/chutney spoons
Glass lemon squeezer
Tala measure (see Adèle's first post above) - our second one bought recently
Lemon zester
Jelly bag on stand

I could go on!

This kind of thing is now apparently considered "retro." Go on, count how many of these items are in your kitchen!

Though I don't know why you'd need the glass lemon squeezer AND the wooden reamer. I have the pie funnel and the ?jam thermometer. And we do own an "egg-murderer" though only my husband can bear to use it.

If this sort of thing fascinates you, you might like to read this book:

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Interview with Carol Drinkwater by Kate Lord Brown

Today, I’m delighted to welcome actress, author and film-maker Carol Drinkwater to The History Girls. Here is a bit about her:

Anglo-Irish actress Carol Drinkwater is perhaps still most familiar to audiences for her award-winning portrayal of Helen Herriot in the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small. A popular and acclaimed author and film-maker as well, Carol has published twenty books for both the adult and young adult markets. She is currently at work on her twenty-first title.

When she purchased a rundown property overlooking the Bay of Cannes in France, she discovered on the grounds sixty-eight, 400-year-old olive trees. Once the land was reclaimed and the olives pressed, Carol along with her French husband, Michel, became the producers of top-quality olive oil. Her series of memoirs, love stories, recounting her experiences on her farm (The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, The Olive Harvest and Return to the Olive Farm) have become international bestsellers. Carol's fascination with the olive tree extended to a seventeenth-month, solo Mediterranean journey in search of the tree's mythical secrets. The resulting travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, have inspired a five-part documentary films series entitled The Olive Route.
Carol has also been invited to work with UNESCO to help create an Olive Heritage Trail around the Mediterranean with the dual goals of creating peace in the region and honouring the ancient heritage of the olive tree.

Q: Carol, the series and the books of All Creatures Great and Small are a cultural phenomenon - I’ve just discovered there is a James Herriot World (link: What do you think is its enduring appeal? Do you still hear from fans?

A: I constantly hear from fans, particularly from the US and Germany. It might be that the programmes seem to run and run in those two countries. The good news is that when these viewers visit my website, to find out what I am doing now, a high percentage of them begin to buy and read my books and then join my Facebook page and then – wham – they have become a part of my more recent life. The World of James Herriot is, I think, linked to the museum in Thirsk. The building was his surgery and several years ago became a museum of his life and books and, of course, the television series.

Its enduring appeal is based on several ingredients, I think. The good humour in the material and, very importantly, Alf Wight’s genuine affection for man and beast. His ‘narrator’s voice’ is a very positive one; he draws you into his world and the optimism of it. The series was exceedingly well cast – every single minor role added to the whole – and much care was taken over the period details. It was historically accurate.

Q: You’ve worked with some remarkable directors and actors – Olivier at the National and Kubrick in ‘A Clockwork Orange’. How do you feel your career as an actress has fed your work as an author?

A: I think the training I received at Drama Centre London, now part of UAL, University of the Arts London, was exceptional in that it was a hands-on training for actors and directors, offering movement and mime classes, use of costume, approaching texts, of course, but as well, it gave a literary education. We began with the Greeks and worked our way through history from Shakespeare to Pinter, Edward Bond, O’Casey, Beckett... It included Brecht, Calderon, Lorca and many of the European classical playwrights.

I also learned the business of HARD work. We began at 8.45am and frequently did not finish till nine at night. Later, if we were performing or working backstage on plays. I learned that commitment is the first principle. Without that, little is achieved.

I had always dreamed of being a writer although I always knew I would be an actress. The theatre, the world of entertainment, was in my blood and is a strong part of my family background on my father’s side. Writing was not. It meant that I held the art of writing in a more scared place. I have been writing since I was about seven, but it was at drama school that I began to understand form – what creating drama involves - and the inner life of characters. Obviously, when I left drama school I had to be open to other ways of approaching a play, a text, and broaden my approach. Working on ACGS was also a great lesson in both writing and directing. As always on film sets, a great deal of the actors’ time is spent hanging around waiting to shoot. I used that time fruitfully. I watched and I learnt, as I had done with Olivier. I watched to see what worked and what didn’t. The pace of a scene, the inner strengths of it, the emotional content: what to contain and what to expose. All of it marvellous fodder for the Carol yet-to-be, the professional writer. I have been very privileged.

A brief word about Stanley Kubrick. Every member of his team, every technician, said that Stanley was the only director they had worked with who could do their job better than they could. He knew filmmaking inside out and every technician held him in great esteem for that. He was also a very considerate man. It was my very first job out of drama school. I had two lines and he gave me the time and attention due to one who had already earned their stripes in the profession. I am honoured to have worked with him and even during that brief time of employment, I came away with rich lessons learned.

Q: You’ve published twenty books for both the adult and young adult markets, and your latest title is ‘The Only Girl in the World’, a Young Adult novel. What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I had spent a fair amount of time researching WWII for a book set in the south of France but I got stuck and I put the material aside, wondering what to do next. It was one of those fortunate moments. Scholastic provided the answer. Jill Sawyer, my editor, offered me the opportunity to write a book set at any point in history I wanted, as long as it was a love story. Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of WWI and my head was still full of thoughts of war, I immediately suggested a story set in 1916 in France, in the Somme region. I drove north to Arras and spent time in and around the Somme valley visiting the cemeteries and talking to local families. I was very moved by all that I discovered and the landscape is evocative and very beautiful. I was hooked!

Q: The first books I read of yours were from the wonderful series inspired by the olive farm near Cannes that you’ve brought back to life. The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, The Olive Harvest and Return to the Olive Farm have become international bestsellers. I remember reading them during a snowy, chilly winter in Cheshire and being transported to the colour and heat of the South of France. Your love for the region shines through your books – is this a part of the world you always dreamt of living in?

A: Not at all. I thought I would end up in Italy. In fact, I did live there for a short while in my twenties. I was in Rome. I loved it but for various reasons that chapter of my life ended and I returned to London and went on to shoot ACGS and from that was offered work internationally. It was during a film shoot in Australia when I was taken out to dinner by the executive producer, a Frenchman called Michel, that my life quite literally changed overnight. He asked me to marry him on that very first date. The rest is history and a bestselling collection of books. In fact, next 10th April is our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

The inspiration for the books is threefold: the love Michel and I have built together, the amazing ruin that revealed itself to be an olive farm with sixty-eight, four-hundred-year-old olive trees growing on its terraces as well as the passion I have found for the olive tree itself, its history and traditions existing all around the Mediterranean. It is an endless source of amazement and joy to me.

Q: Thinking of your fiction, like the recent number 1 ‘The Girl in Room Fourteen’, your ‘voice’ carries over, particularly the way you conjure the sensual beauty of the Mediterranean. But I wonder if it’s a case of putting on different ‘hats’ to write your historical novels and the Olive Farm series? Do you prefer writing fiction, or crafting books based on real life?

A: I see no difference between them, except to say that when I am writing ‘non-fiction’, particularly historical fiction, I need to be exacting in my research and contain my story within the bounds of the reality and period I have chosen for myself. I don’t write - or haven’t yet! – historical biography. The characters in my historical stories are invented. So, I can choose them to be as I want, except they must behave within the parameters of the society and time they live in. For example, in The Only Girl in the World, Dennis, the young English soldier who falls in love with a French girl living in the Somme valley, does not attempt to persuade Hélène into bed with him. She is a Catholic girl living in a French village in 1916. She doesn’t stand out in the street smoking or going to clubs with friends, and he is an inexperienced young lad from London. They both need to behave as people from their time, not as a couple might behave today. In fact, I think it adds spice to the tenderness of their story that they so rarely touch each other and throughout the book they only kiss once when he is going to the Front.

I enjoy telling stories. The genre is not the point. Also, I love nature in all its tiniest details and I think that is carried over into all my work. Landscape, territory, flora, fauna, these marvellous gifts of life find their way into my work. The Girl in Room Fourteen is a fictional tale of a woman living about five miles from where we are here at the olive farm. The difference is that she, Cécile, grows and sells lemons while she waits for the man she loves to return to her.

It is a fictional tale but the natural beauty of the Mediterranean plays a starring role in the piece.

Q: I understand that you made a seventeen-month, solo Mediterranean journey in search of the olive tree's mythical secrets? (The resulting travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, have inspired a five-part documentary films series entitled The Olive Route). What were your favourite moments, and what did you learn on this journey?

A: It is very hard to highlight single moments because the entire experience was exceptional. Lonely, challenging, occasionally frightening, yes; always exciting, often touching and endlessly wondrous. Spending time in war zones and discovering at grassroots level the generosity of man towards man was life-affirming. I was held up at gunpoint in Israel as I passed through Rachel’s Crossing checkpoint out of Bethlehem. I was caught in Al-Qaeda bombings in Algiers ... I shared meals with Berber women in the desert ... I have made many, many friends and talked to some of the oldest trees on earth.

Q: UNESCO has invited you to help create an Olive Heritage Trail around the Mediterranean with the goals of creating peace in the region and honouring the ancient heritage of the olive tree. Will this also be a chance to highlight your interests in ecology – I’m thinking particularly of your work with bees?

A: UNESCO gave their name in support of the making of the films once they had read my two books and they helped open many doors for us. I have attended meetings with some of their scientific experts in the hope of identifying an Olive Heritage Trail around the Med, but the economic difficulties that UNESCO is facing added to certain in-house political disagreements have meant that this project is moving very slowly. I think they count on our work and the films to dig the roots!

It has nothing to do with my fight for the plight of the honeybee, and other pollinating creatures. My OLIVEFARM Facebook page, though, seems to have attracted beekeepers worldwide and that is very exciting. A beekeeper from Georgia signed up this week. I feel all this might lead somewhere positive.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your daily routine as a writer? With all your travelling, are there any rituals you have to focus on writing wherever you are? Do you prefer silence, or music?

A: Silence, absolutely silence, or natural sounds from nature. And candles. I light candles when I am writing whatever time of day or night. I am a morning writer and like to achieve six hours. I will work longer when I am deeply into a book and particularly if I have a deadline looming. I work in my little library but obviously as I travel a great deal I have to make myself makeshift ‘dens’ wherever I am.

Q: The writing life can be quite solitary – do you find combining film and TV work with your life as an author brings balance?

A: Definitely, yes, although I am not really acting anymore. I am very sad about this and miss it deeply but that seems to be the way it has worked out and I have so much in my life that to complain would be churlish. I work on documentaries with my husband recording the narration and working on the texts. And, of course, literary events are a great excuse for me to take the stage!

Q: Which novelists and artists (or actors, film-makers etc), do you most admire? Are there particular works (books, films, plays) you return to again and again?

A: The list is SO long. I re-read Graham Greene regularly although I haven’t done so for a couple of years. I am inspired by Isabel Allende, particularly the early works. Marguerite Duras is my heroine because I so admire the rawness of her writing and the fact that she directed back when there were few female directors working in cinema. Doris Lessing, Edna O’Brien, and many more. Actresses? Gena Rowlands, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren... Directors? Preston Sturgess, Pedro Amoldovar, Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes.. we could be here all night!

Q: In this wonderfully rich creative life of books, film and acting, what are you most proud of?

A: None of it! I love my life but the moment I have finished a project and I have shed its skin, I move on. I have never seen ACGS, for example. Odd clips or episodes, nothing more. I try not to hold on to my material – fearfully difficult in some ways. I always think ‘if only I had done this or that’.., so it is best not to give it another thought.

Q: If you could travel back in time to meet the young girl who grew up between Ireland and England, and pass on a piece of advice, what would it be? What have you learnt from your research into history, your personal journey so far?

A: GET ON WITH IT, stop procrastinating and worrying whether you are any good or not. DO IT! (and I am still saying it).

Thank you, Carol.

The Only Girl in the World is published in April by Scholastic. The moving WW1 romance tells the story of a young British soldier, Dennis, and his experiences of war on the Western Front. During his leave, he meets and falls in love with a local girl Helene, and promises he will return for her when the war is over. The book wonderfully evokes both the trauma of battle, and every day life in provincial France, and is a genuinely moving account of love and loss. I found myself rooting for ‘Denniz’ as Helene calls him, and desperately hoping he would make it home to her. It is a real achievement to get that depth of feeling within the constraints of a YA novel, and from the horror of war to craft a story that ends with hope for the future.

You can find out more about Carol’s work at:

Look out for the chance to win one of five copies of ‘The Only Girl in the World’ in this month’s competition on The History Girls on 31st March.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Four Sisters, by Clare Mulley

To mark ‘Women’s History Month’ I am dedicating my March blog to four Russian sisters…

A couple of years ago the Russianist, historian, translator and author Helen Rappaport decided to write about four sisters. I was researching three very different sisters at the same time, so I hoped that collectively we could write about seven sisters, and meet occasionally in north London to toast our progress. Sadly, my chosen sisters fell by the wayside (at least for now), but Helen’s wonderful book: Four Sisters: The Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses was published this week.

The British hardback of Helen Rappaport's Four Sisters

A fluent Russian speaker, Helen is a specialist in Russian history and 19th century women’s history. Her subjects have ranged from a blackmailing Victorian beautician to Lenin’s years in exile, and from the stories of women in the Crimean War of the 1850s to an encyclopedia of female social reformers.

Author Helen Rappaport, photo by John Kerrison

Four Sisters is Helen’s second look at the Imperial Romanov family. In 2009 she examined the last painful fourteen days of the dynasty in her history, Ekaterinburg. Now she widens her lens to provide a deeply moving account of the four Romanov sisters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

Important chiefly as dynastic assets in their own lifetime, these women were perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. Presented essentially as beautiful, demure figures, flanking their parents, in gauzy white dresses, it would have been unthinkable that not one of them would find a husband. However, in 1918, they were all brutally murdered, along with their parents, thirteen-year-old brother, and loyal personal staff, by members of the Bolshevik secret police. 

Olga, Maria, Nicholas II Alexandra Fyodorovna,
Anastasia, Alexei and Tatiana, 1913

The fate of the Imperial Romanov family is well-known, and yet this is a story still obscured by confusion, deceptions and myth. Inevitably perhaps, such a tragic tale of innocence and brutality has often been reduced to a binary narrative about good and evil. However, presenting the four Romanov sisters simply as innocent victims without independent character, fault or value, does little to further our understanding. The apparently irrepressible desire to believe that Anastasia escaped her family’s fate, despite all evidence to the contrary, has further romanticized the story.

I asked Helen why these four women’s lives have not been more critically examined before, despite their fame, and about the politics of writing about women who are primarily known for their relationship to, or association with, more famous men.

     ‘The perennial problem with telling the story of interesting women in history’ Helen told me, ‘is the lack of sufficient source material. Sometimes the only way we can learn anything about women is when they are shown as an adjunct to the much more famous men in their lives and the results are not always satisfactory. I don't believe in trying to aggrandize the role of such women, but by taking a close up look at the key role they played - as in the case of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife - one can find fascinating perspectives on the bigger story. Similarly, the lives and upbringing of the four Romanov sisters hopefully sheds much valuable new light on their parents and the whole dynamic of Russia's last imperial family.’

The tragic fate of the Romanov family provides a brutally direct metaphor for the end of Imperial Russia. How did you balance the focus between the personal drama, and the political context?

     ‘I think the reason that people are so endlessly fascinated by the last imperial family has a lot to do with the murder of those five innocent children in 1918. And yes, it is indeed a metaphor for the dreadful, savage and bitter civil war that followed the Bolshevik coup in October 1917. Millions of people died in the first formative years of the new Soviet Russia, many of them innocent women and children. The Romanov children represent the murder of innocence and also the difficulty, even now, that people in Russia have of coming to terms with the savagery of their own past.’

What is new in your approach to the story?

     ‘The sisters have always been perceived as an adjunct to the much bigger story of their parents and their haemophiliac brother. I had never had any interest in writing standard biographies of, say, Nicholas or Alexandra, nor have I ever considered myself to be a political historian. I was interested in the Romanovs' private, domestic life, as a family and how they interacted with each other.
     As a mother of daughters myself, I wanted to write about them as any other young women – i.e. without preoccupation with their status and titles. I wanted to view their development as one would any other developing girls - with the same interests, impulses, hopes and disappointments. I wanted to show their very different personalities and how each of them had qualities that were uniquely their own. This was no bland collective, as they are so often presented, but four very interesting young women who were on the brink of life and who, in their own very different ways, had a great deal to offer.’

How important was your fluency in Russian during your research?

     ‘My Russian was crucial. There was much that I wanted and needed to read in the Russian original, especially the girls' letters and diaries, even though a lot of source material has now been published and translated. I visited Russia several times to refuel my sense of place, but not so much to discover new things. I found much new material by other means, even without going there. Being in Russia helped me connect with the four girls and their story in an important emotional and spiritual way.’

Finally, how would you like the four Romanov sisters to be remembered?

     ‘As four very different contrasting personalities who deserve to be remembered more than as just pretty girls in white frocks and big picture hats. They were not a bland collective, they were a fascinating quartet of young women who at heart were decent, loving, honest and inherently altruistic and caring. They deserve to be remembered for the love and devotion they showed each other, their parents and their sick brother without complaint and with a gentle stoicism that I find admirable and touching.’ 

Maria, Olga, Anastasia and Tatiana
in captivity, Spring 1917

Helen is passionate about uncovering the neglected truths behind well-known stories and releasing women from what she calls ‘the footnotes and margins’ of history. Four Sisters gives individuality and vibrant identity back to Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, presenting them not just as pawns in the hands of their Imperial family, symbols of an out-of-touch regime, or tragic victims of the brutal revolution, but as young women with hopes, dreams, frustrations and fears of their own. Here they are actors in their own right, each responding distinctly to the circumstances, opportunities and constraints of their lives, and living without the foreknowledge that usually clouds perceptions of them. Their personal stories are told lightly but with such scholarly authority that it is easy to forget how new it is to consider them in this fresh and sensitive way. 

History like this shows how women’s lives have often been doubly marginalised, first in life, and then in their retrospective historical treatment. Helen Rappaport not only liberates the Romanov sisters to great degree but, in doing so, she shows how revisiting the lives of women living in the shadow of more powerful men can illuminate history in all sorts of new ways.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Fear of Puppets Overcome by Curiosity, by Louisa Young

Last year I found myself embroiled in a country & western shadow puppet production homage to Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood'. Yes I did. Really. I played a murder victim or two, whistled 'Yellow Bird', manipulated cut-outs on a lightscreen, and sang songs - including some that I had written! - in front of an audience which turned out to include David Gilmore from Pink Floyd.

But I hate puppets. They're scary. I have been scared of puppets my entire life, ever since my big siblings used to spook me with our old family glove puppets - Sooty, Sweep, that kind of evil demon. We had a strange set of Cinderella on wires as well, 1950s versions of 18th-century archetypes, wigged footmen and green-eye-shadowed Ugly Sisters, and some peculiar Neapolitans involving Roland and Oliver, with swords. I have been threatened with visits to marionette museums in Sicily and on Alicudi and Siracusa. I do not want to go. But I followed this puppet show to farthest North Norfolk, and to Wigtown in Galloway. I loved it. It made me cry.

I was lured into this unlikely escapade by a woman called Allison Ouvry. She's a clear-eyed Californian redhead, musical, passionate, obsessed, adorable. Oh heck, here she is, let her explain:

I mention all this because, she's done it again. She has persuaded the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to let her loose in its Puppet Archive - did you know they have one? It's just by Olympia, in  the former Post Office Savings Bank HQ. Two hundred and fifty puppets lie sleeping there on shallow shelves, behind glass, frogs and monsters, princesses and dragons, soldiers and animals, an owl and a camel, Punch and Judy, awaiting the call to jump up and dance again.. . . . . .

And the V&A has just acquired Joey the Horse from War Horse, donated by Handspring, though he's not, presumably, heading straight into pasture in the archive: 

Allison, her husband and co-puppetteer Martin Ouvry and a host of puppet talent including Max Humphries who has worked for the National theatre, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, have made the call. They have chosen  a three-headed Scaramouche, a girl called Pimpinella, a Turkish shadow Kharagoz, a skeleton, of course Mr Punch and a strange and handsome man called the Martinek Giant, and rescued them from the depths of oblivion. Here they are, in an 'Ellen'-style mass selfie:

And here is a close-up of Martinek. To be honest he reminds me of Martin Ouvry. But scarier.

But who are these characters? Good question. And one they themselves will be asking during Shakespeare: The Puppet Show, the plot of which looks alluringly like a cross between Toy Story and Britain's Got Talent, as they flee the archives and audition for various parts in various Shakespeare plays. 

It's half an hour of educational Easter fun. I wish I was in it. I wish I had been into the puppet archives of the V&A. Why am I telling you this? Because puppetry is not dead, and nor is it quite as scary to me as it used to be. Not quite. And I'm going to see the show

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The giraffe that beguiled not just a King but a nation – Dianne Hofmeyr

A giraffe walking through the streets of Paris in 1827 must have been a wondrous sight. What was this strange horned, half horse, half camel creature with impossibly long legs and a black tongue? Not just Paris but the whole of France was agog. 

Giraffes go way back in history. San people recorded them in their rock art and during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut in the 15th century BC, giraffes were brought back from the Land of Punt and there are paintings of them in her mortuary temple. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, the symbol of a giraffe stands for ‘to predict or foretell’. The actual word giraffe comes from the Arab word ‘xirapha’ which means ‘one that walks swiftly’. But the Paris giraffe was only the second to have ever been seen in Europe. The first had been a gift to the Lorenzo de Medici in 1486.

When Napoleon conquered the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids, he brought his corp des savants ­– a group of 154 scientists – to investigate Egypt’s relics and so began France’s fascination with Egypt. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Muhammad Ali, became the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt and the Sudan. He was a ruthless ruler, a slave dealer and a contradictory force – a man who cared nothing for Egypt’s antiquities but continually courted France for her western expertise and learning. 

It was the entrepreneurial talents of the French consul general in Cairo at the time – an Italian by the name of Bernardino Drovetti – that brought the giraffe to Paris. Drovetti was a tomb raider and antiques dealer who helped assemble the collections of Egyptian artefacts that are still on display in museums across Europe. In addition, he dealt in exotic animals ­–Arabian stallions, Nubian sheep as well as shells and fossils from the Libyan desert.

He was an expert at turning royal gratitude to his own advantage and as the confidante of the Pasha Muhammad Ali, when the new French king, Charles X, ascended to the throne in September 1824, he spotted an opportunity. Muhammad Ali had been engaged in an aggressive expansion, attacking Cyprus and threatening Greece. The exotic gift of a giraffe would charm the French public and reassure the King about the Pasha's amicable intentions towards France.

The journey of the giraffe, starting with her capture in the Sudan, the 2000 mile trip down the Nile from Khartoum to Alexandria, the three week sail across the Mediterranean Sea and finally the 550 mile walk from Marseilles to Paris accompanied by two milk cows to provide her with milk, took two and a half years. By the time she arrived in Paris, she stood four metres tall. The year was 1827.

She lived with her keeper, Atir, in a building called la Rotonde in what was then known as Jardin du Roi later renamed the Jardin des Plantes. Atir slept high up on a specially built platform close to her face and never left her side. 

Zeraffa’s fate was very different to that of Marius the giraffe in a Copenhagen zoo – as twelve years later a second young female giraffe was transported down the Nile and sent to Paris to keep her company. And when Zeraffa died of old age on January 12th 1845 after living in Paris for 18 years, Atir was still at her side. After her death she stood on display in the foyer of the museum at the Jardin des Plantes and was then sent to Le Musée Lafaille in La Rochelle. Today if you visit this museum you will find her peering down inquisitively from the landing of some stone stairs. She’s there with a collection of other African animals that might have browsed on the same African plains with her in an earlier life.  

The buildings of La Rotonde still stand in the Jardin des Plantes today. And while I was writing my picture book ZERAFFA GIRAFFA, I went there and tried to imagine the giraffe with the young Atir in their very foreign environment. What was it like for a young boy who had never been further than Khartoum to be so alone in a strange city in Europe in 1827? What would it be like even today? 

If you visit La Rotonde on a quiet day, close your eyes and perhaps you’ll feel the hot wind of Africa and imagine yourself standing there with Zeraffa and her keeper Atir, while he whispers stories to her of a land far away.

For a taste of history for young readers, ZERAFFA GIRAFFA published by Frances Lincoln, is out on 3rd April. Jane Ray’s exquisite illustrations capture the long travaille through the Egyptian desert, the voyage across the Mediterranean, the walk through the French countryside… one wonders if Zeraffa nibbled cherries or peeped through the high windows of the ‘silk’ houses as she walked through the Luberon valley and then along the Rhone… until she finally reached the streets of Paris.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

WHAT A CAD! by Eleanor Updale

I've just broken one of my personal rules, and done a book review. Luckily, the work in question turned out to be more than good. It was Professor Jerry White's Zeppelin Nights - an account of London in the First World War - and I urge you all to read it when it comes out in May, but that's not what I'm on about here today.

One of the minor characters in Zeppelin Nights intrigued me, and I decided to find out more about him.
His name was Henry Cockayne Cust, and he was one of the 'Souls' group (including various Asquiths, Balfours, Gaskells, Lytteltons, Tennants, etc) who considered themselves more intellectually refined than the rest of Society. But Cust is best remembered as a world-class philanderer.

Born in 1861, Cust was a nephew of, and prospective heir to, Earl Brownlow of Belton House near Grantham in Lincolnshire (who outlived him).   Belton, a fine late-17th century building with an extensive estate, is now a National Trust property, open to the public.

© National Trust Images / Megan Taylor

Henry Cust (known, unsurprisingly, as Harry) was alleged to be the father of a generation of Society babies - endowing them with his penetrating blue eyes. Some were openly acknowledged, notably Lady Diana Manners (officially the daughter of the Duke of Rutland) who went in to become Lady Diana Cooper.
There can be no doubt that Harry Cust was charming, but there is ample evidence that he was also a bit of a s**t. One of his harshest critics was the great feminist Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Fawcett 

Her dislike of him glows through a handwritten document among her papers in the Women's Library. It's a note, probably written in the mid-1890s, when Cust was proposing to stand for the Parliamentary seat of North Manchester. It's marked 'Private: To be returned'.

Here it is:

Sometime in the summer of 1893 Mr Cust, MP for Stamford (Lincolnshire) seduced Miss Welby, a young girl of good Lincolnshire family, who was temporarily living in London. She became enceinte, and he deserted her and made an offer of marriage to another girl, daughter of a well known conservative MP. Miss Welby wrote Cust a despairing imploring letter, which he showed in the smoking room of the house of the girl he has just become engaged to, with odious remarks intended to be facetious. The other men in the smoking room did not take these observations in the spirit in which they were made. They told Cust he was a cur and made the thing known to the father and family of the girl to whom Cust had engaged himself. There was a great dispute and finally a sort of family committee with Lord Brownlow (to whom Cust is heir) as chairman to enquire into the facts, was appointed. This committee became fully convinced on investigation of Cust's villainy. Lord Brownlow, who had looked upon Cust as a son, was almost broken hearted about it. The result of the investigation was that Cust was told that unless he married Miss Welby at once (whom he said he particularly disliked) the whole thing would be made public. He did marry her and she almost immediately afterwards, in France, had a miscarriage. Lord Brownlow won't have Cust stand again for Lincolnshire. But he is considered good enough for North Manchester.

The 'Miss Welby' in question was Emmeline 'Nina' Welby-Gregory, a translator, poet and sculptor.  She carved a bust of her husband (to whom she remained married, childless, until his death in 1917). It is still on display in the entrance hall at Belton House. Though Cust was apparently a profoundly unhappy husband, Nina designed a tomb for the two of them at Belton, and joined him there after her own death in 1955.

© National Trust Images / Dennis Gilbert
Just looking at this sculpture makes me want to believe the juiciest rumour about Cust. If you Google him, you will find a recurrent assertion that he was the natural father of Margaret Thatcher's mother, Beatrice Stephenson (later Roberts), who was born in 1888. Beatrice's mother, Phoebe, was in service at Belton House, and was reputed to have been seduced by Cust. Lady Diana Cooper jokingly referred to Mrs Thatcher as 'my niece', and her son, John Julius Norwich, has offered to do a joint DNA test with Carol Thatcher to test the hypothesis that they are related.

Remembering Margaret Thatcher at her most imperious, with her chiselled nose and penetrating blue eyes, it's hard not to want to believe the story - which would give her links to the pre-Hanoverian royal family. It might explain why she took such delight in borrowing silverware from Belton for use at 10 Downing Street.
In the National Archives, there's a letter from February 1982 in which Mrs Thatcher responds to what appears to be an offer from Lord Brownlow (who could no longer afford upkeep of Belton) to do a deal with the Government over its ownership. She writes:

Our policy is to do everything possible to encourage the retention of historic homes in private ownership. It is almost always the best way of securing their future... if you would like to come and talk about your offer, I would be happy to see you.* You know how grateful I am for all the beautiful things you have lent me.'

*She adds, by hand, at the end: *either here - or at Chequers one weekend.

Two years later, Lord Brownlow gave Belton and most of its contents to the National Trust - a charity independent of the Government.

How must it have felt for Mrs Thatcher to have in her hands the future of the house where her grandmother had worked, which she had visited on school trips as a child, and where - if the gossips are to be believed - her mother was conceived?

I wanted to check things out - and maybe contact Carol Thatcher to ask whether she'd ever had her DNA analysed. Then I got into an internal ethical debate about whether this was any of my (our) business. Was I really motivated by the desire to get the historical record straight, or by sheer nosiness?
Is there a point where we should stop digging into other people's private affairs? Are some things out of bounds, even for for former Prime Ministers? Or do the Thatcher family have a duty to let History (and people who love a good historical scandal) know whether there is any truth in the rumour?

What do you think?

For details of Belton House, see

Monday, 24 March 2014

EMPRESS MATILDA - Having the right to be cranky by Elizabeth Chadwick

Before I embarked on my trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I wrote a stand alone novel titled LADY OF THE ENGLISH about Eleanor's illustrious mother in law the indomitable Empress Matilda whom history has frequently labelled as one of the crankiest, ill-tempered and 'bossy' women in the Medieval world. Indeed, she does seem to have been her own worst enemy at times but was she really the overblown termagant that some have mad her out to be, or is it just branding?
 Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England and his Anglo-Scottish Queen Edith who changed her name to Matilda when she became the royal consort.
Little Matilda, the future Empress was their first child, born near Abingdon in February 1102.  When she was just over eight years old her parents sent her to Germany as the future bride of Emperor Heinrich V, together with her dowry of ten thousand marks of silver.
Matilda and Heinrich married when she was twelve to his twenty eight,  It seems to have been a stable match despite the age gap and Matilda appears to have had a rapport with the German people and they with her. She fulfilled her role as consort to the hilt, interceding on behalf of supplicants as a peacemaker and sponsor of royal grants.  She was often at her husband's side and travelled extensively with him, even to Italy.  During the time between her betrothal and marriage she had become fluent in German.  The overview is of a lively, cooperative young woman, riding the waves of her situation rather than making heavy weather of them - doing her duty and enjoying it.
Sadly, Heinrich died in 1125, leaving the childless Matilda in limbo.  Without heirs there was no role for her in Germany, except perhaps the Church, and for a young royal woman of 23, that was not an option. Matilda's father had a use for her in his realm.  His only other legitimate child, the heir to his throne, William, had drowned during a drunken evening crossing from Normandy to England. Most people will know the story of The White Ship.( The White Ship disaster ) Being widowed, Henry had recently married a nubile young woman, Adeliza of Louvain, but despite him having more than 20 illegitimate sons and daughters, Adeliza showed no sign of providing him with a replacement heir.
Matilda was summoned home and a marriage arranged for her with the son of Henry's troublesome neighbour,  Count Fulke of Anjou. The latter was about to set out to be crowned King of Jerusalem, leaving behind his adolescent son Geoffrey to rule Anjou.  Henry decided to pair up his daughter with the lad. There Matilda was, a grieving empress, returning from the courtly, formal atmosphere of German imperial circles to find herself betrothed at her father's behest to the stripling son of a count. When they married he was not yet 15 years old to her 26. She had gone from being the consort of a mature and dignified emperor to the marriage bed of a green boy. There is some muted evidence that she was not happy with this state of affairs and protested, but Henry I, an alpha male accustomed to exercising his will, pushed the match through anyway.
Geoffrey of Anjou from
his funeral plaque
While all this was going on, Henry was debating the succession. Since it was fairly clear his new wife was not going to provide an heir, he needed to look to other avenues.  He had been grooming his nephew Stephen to take the crown, but with Matilda home, he had two for the price of one so to speak.  Matilda being closest to him in legitimate blood, he made her his heir and had all of his barons swear allegiance to her at Northampton.  It was never going to work and many of those who did so were only paying lip service and wondering how they could get out of it.  Henry very possibly had his eye on his daughter as a brood mare.  If young Geoffrey of Anjou could get a son on her, then in the fullness of time the child could inherit.
The notion of being governed by a woman flew in the face of the way a warrior society operated. Women were equipped to be peace-makers and child-bearers; they were the grease that turned the cartwheels.  They weren't expected to direct the cart.
There was a popular theory that women's wombs had a tendency to go wandering about their bodies - a condition known as hysteria.  When that happened, the only thing to do was burn a feather under the afflicted woman's nose so that the womb would smell it, be disgusted and hasten back to its rightful place.  You just couldn't have creatures like that deciding your policies and governing a country. If a woman was hard and incisive and dealt with matters in a 'manly' way then the fear was that she was unnatural - a woman with balls, and you certainly didn't want one of them either.  Indeed women who spoke their mind were parodied in the kind of tales that appear in  The Fabliaux (scurrilous poems of ribald social comment). The Gelded Lady is one such story which ends on the comment that good women were deserving of affection but heinous shrews deserved only ruthless treatment and abuse...God curse the wife who disrespects!

'Les bones devez molt amer et chier tenir et hennorer, et il otroit mal & contraire a ramposneuse de put aire:...Dahet femme qui despit homme!

Geoffrey and Matilda didn't settle down well to married life immediately.  Indeed, within a year they split up.  Circumstances are unknown; we can't say for sure that differences of personality were the root cause, but a betting person would probably not be too much out of pocket if they took a punt on that reason.  However, the marriage was not for dissolving. After a sojourn at her father's court, Matilda was packed off back to her teenage husband. It was to be another 18 months before their first child, the future Henry II put in an appearance, but that must have taken the pressure off Henry I in terms of the succession dilemma.  Only let the little chap grow to maturity and he could have the job.
Meanwhile, Matilda, the new mother had very little time to draw breath before she was pregnant again and little Henry was only 15 months old when she gave birth to his little brother Geoffrey. The effort almost killed her and at one point her life was despaired of. Fearing the end was nigh, Matilda requested to be buried at the Abbey of Bec of which she was particularly fond.  Her father, however, had his own ideas and told her it would be Rouen Cathedral because he said so.  As it happened Matilda recovered but she wasn't permitted to choose her own resting place.
Just over a year later, Matilda was in Anjou, pregnant for the third time when Henry I died of the infamous 'surfeit of Lampreys.'  There's a whole other story attached to that, but that's for another occasion. By the time she had absorbed the news, any chance of being crowned queen had been snatched from her by her cousin Stephen, who claimed the crown, saying that Henry I had named him his heir on his deathbed.  There was some doubt about the veracity of such a claim but in any event Matilda could do little about it.  She was far away with a child to bear - another son, this time christened William.  However, once she was safely delivered of her third son, she set about the fight for the throne and the duchy that had been snatched from under her nose,
She had allies including two of her own illegitimate half-brothers Robert and Reginald, who became her mainstays.  A proportion of the barons who had sworn for Stephen were not entirely happy to have done so, and when she showed her willingness to fight for her crown, they prepared to rally to her banner.  Leaving her sons with their father, she crossed to England and ;prepared to take Stephen on.  It was another woman who gave her safe-landing in England.  Her stepmother, Adeliza of Louvain was lady of Arundel, and she opened her gates to Matilda and her entourage when they arrived.  Adeliza was not so much a lady with cojones, but more of a steel magnolia. She was pious, tender, beautiful, and determined in a quiet, understated way to obtain what she wanted.  You can read Adeliza's story here on my Living the History blog. : Biography of Adeliza of Louvain
Even though Matilda had landed to try and win her crown, her efforts were still conducted under the auspices of her brother Robert of Gloucester. The barons felt much safer dealing with him than with Matilda. Treating with a woman of firm political views acting in her own power was just too big a notion for them to swallow. They complained that she treated them haughtily. A pro-Stephen chronicle of the time says that she refused to listen to the advice of men

'What was a sign of extreme haughtiness and insolence when the King of Scotland and Bishop of Winchester and her brother the Earl of Gloucester, the chief men of the whole kingdom, whom she was then taking round with her as a permanent retinue, came before her with bended knee to make some request, she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with contumely, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer and refusing to hearken to their words...she no longer relied on their advice as she should have and had promised them, but arranged everything as she herself thought fit and according to her own arbitrary will.'

From this I read that she had her own ideas and that the barons thought she ought to be listening to theirs instead.  Matilda's attitude, acceptable in a man, was not to be tolerated in a woman.
One might think from some of the writings about her that Matilda was an abrasive, cold, unpleasant sort, but there seems, amid the hostility, to have been a thread of genuine loyalty and affection for her. She seems to have had a warm understanding with her stepmother Adeliza of Louvain who was prepared to risk the wrath of King Stephen and work her way around her Stephen-supporting husband to offer Matilda a safe landing at Arundel.  Her half brothers Robert and Reginald were fiercely loyal to her; so was Brian FitzCount lord of Wallingford who wrote a treatise extolling her right to rule. Matilda was mostly on excellent terms with the Church. The monk Stephen of Rouen praised her greatly and said she was much loved by the poor. She was,  according to him:
 'wise and pious, merciful to the poor, generous to monks, the refuge of the wretched, and a lover of peace.'
(but obviously prepared to forego that peace to fight for what had been stolen from her).  Another clergyman remembered her as a woman of 'intelligence and sense.'
  In later life, once her son Henry was sufficiently grown to take over where she left off and comfort the male courtiers with his masculinity, Matilda acted as his deputy in Normandy, her power now that of advisor and deputy and no longer viewed as a threat.
Matilda's story is a thousand years old now, but I have to say that at the same time it's still relevant today. They say the past is another country. They also say that nothing changes.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Greenham women gather at the base in 1982.
Photo: Ceridwen

I found out about the Bomb when I was about seven, when my primary school teacher informed us, in a slightly panicky way, that it didn't matter that the Russians had their 'rockets,' as we had our 'rockets' and if they fired theirs at us they might kill all of us, but we would also kill all of them. I failed to find this reassuring, and in any case, it seemed so ghastly that I went home and begged my parents to tell me it wasn't true. 'I'm afraid,' my father said, 'it is.'
For anyone too young to remember these things, from the end of the war onwards, between the end of World War 2 and the end of the 1980s, so-called Communism dominated Russia and Eastern Europe. In fact it was an empire of territories taken over by Soviet Russia after the Second World War; Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, etc, and ruled by state terror. What was called the Iron Curtain was a border which the citizens of these countries were not permitted to cross, and across the Curtain the West and the East looked mistrustfully at each other, armed to the teeth. I have to remember that a child born on the day the Berlin Wall fell is now twenty-two years old. (Oh, dear, that makes me feel old.)
Then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. 'We're waiting for the Americans to attack Russia with their rockets,' a classmate said, 'and then we'll send our rockets to them, and that will be the end of the world.'
Letter from John F Kennedy to the
Soviet Union's Mr Khruschev about
Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba
Source: Wikimedia Commons
 When my parents rather unwisely took me with them to see 'Dr Strangelove', when I was about twelve, I wouldn't stay in the cinema, I found the film too terrifying. And yet, as I went into my teen years, the balance of terror faded into the background and seemed almost liveable with.
Forward to 1978, when I had just put my first baby back for a sleep after feeding her, and heard someone say on the radio that a nuclear war was inevitable and we would have to learn to cope with one. I thought of my little, helpless sleeping child, and found myself in frightened, angry tears.
I had my second baby in December 1980, by which time the decision to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe had been taken, and the SS20s, the Soviet equivalent, were being deployed on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The policy of a balance of terror (Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD) had been replaced by a new policy: the Cruise missiles could get beneath radar defences and fly undetected to Moscow. This was called 'a limited nuclear war in Europe.' How you could call it limited was hard for some of us to understand, when the firepower of each Cruise missile was equal to ten Hiroshima bombs, and there were sixteen missiles in every convoy.
Endangered species?
Photo: David Wilson

The day after my younger daughter was born, I stared out at the trees outside the John Radcliffe Hospital and saw instead enormous engines of destruction rolling, threatening my children. Within six months the Government's 'Protect and Survive' leaflet had been issued to households. Mrs Thatcher was proclaiming that we must fight the Evil Empire of the East, and telling us that we could survive a nuclear strike by making a Fall-Out Room and hiding in there when the bomb fell. Of course, that would only be useful to those living well away from Ground Zero (the point of impact). 'Better dead than red,' we were told. However, my mother, who had experienced conquest by the Red Army, did not agree. If the Russians scared Mrs Thatcher, she scared me. Badly.

I never worried about telling my kids about sex, but I worried about telling them about the bomb. I tried to keep it from them for as long as possible, but my elder daughter heard things at school, so I had to tell them, though I tried to soften the bad news. Kathy, who was then about six, said: 'Children shouldn't have to hear something like that!' I knew exactly how she felt.
In September 1981, while I and the other people in our village were shoving through doors leaflets called 'The effect of a one-megaton bomb on Carfax,' a group called 'Women for Life on Earth' marched from Cardiff to Greenham Common, where the Cruise missiles were to be stationed. I remember someone telling me that some women had chained themselves to the fence and said they would stay there as long as the Cruise missiles were there. I was, frankly, sceptical.

In 1985, the missiles were already at Greenham, and we moved to live in Berkshire. I was so naïve I didn't realise I was moving into the heart of nuclear country. The initial wave of protest had damped down a bit, but then Chernobyl happened, and I was worrying because the children had walked home with me, in the rain. Human beings keep going in the comfortable hope that the worst won't happen. Chernobyl was an uncomfortable reminder that it sometimes does. And a leaflet for the local peace group came through the door of our new home, and I rang the number on it and joined. I became more and more active in the local CND; doing something helped enormously with the fear. I also took part in two pieces of civil disobedience and was arrested. The first was at the Burghfield nuclear bomb factory near Reading, and was part of the Snowball campaign - you cut a piece of MOD fence and were arrested and then went to court and argued that you had committed a crime to prevent the greater crime of nuclear war.
Being arrested at Burghfield, 1987. The white suits
were meant to be radiation suits. I am on the left. My arresting
officer was quite rough - I saw him later, at another demo,
and pointed out that he hadn't needed to be, and he apologized.

The second was part of a Christian CND peace protest on Ash Wednesday; we were to 'ash' the MOD building in Whitehall in token of repentance, as Catholics have ash put on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. As it happened, on that day (February 6th, I think, 1988), the MOD decided to stop us, having been ashed the previous year, and surrounded the building with crowd barriers and a line of police. However, monks and nuns grabbed the media attention by leaping over the barriers (I found a weak spot in the defences and nipped in there without having to hurdle). 62 of us were arrested; we made the front pages of most national newspapers, and when I rang up the local papers about it the next day they were delighted. 'Mum in demo charge,' their headline went. Incidentally, being locked up in a cell, and then prosecuted, made me wonder what it must have been like to risk far worse things in Nazi Germany - and that was crucial for my later writing career.
 My actions shocked a lot of people, but others were impressed, because I was so obviously not an extremist, just a local mother-of-two, and it made them think how important the issue was. I must stress that I was taking less risks than others in carrying out these two actions, being self-employed. When I subsequently became co-ordinator for the Burghfield Snowball, I dissuaded several sixth-formers from getting arrested, because of the possible impact on their future careers. I hope they haven't held it against me, but that came back to me when I wrote my story in the DAUGHTERS OF TIME anthology, about the girl who runs away to Greenham.
From about 1986 onwards, I also went regularly to Greenham, for the women were still there, year after year, in spite of evictions, vigilante action, and police brutality. At first, I took them a lot of wood that I'd found piled up at the back of our garden: in fact it wasn't much use for the Greenham fire, and would have been better left to support beneficial organisms in the garden, but the women graciously took it anyway, and my car was used, subsequently, to go and load up more useful wood and bring it to the camp. I was never arrested at Greenham, nor did I take part in big demos there (apart from turning out in the middle of the night to demonstrate against the Cruise convoy when it came in). But every few weeks I got restless and would head off there, bearing vegan food. One night, too, a friend and I went to do a night watch, so that the women could sleep. It was the birthday of one of the women, a very young woman called Lynne, and she got a lot of spray paints for a present. I heard a woman say that one day she got fed up with spraying noble slogans and just painted 'Nerdy, nerdy, noo-noo.' There was a very cold winter and a lot of snow. I used to wonder if I'd find a lot of frozen corpses sitting round a cold fire, but the women survived, thanks to Gore-tex survival bags.
I never took photographs when I went there, but if you want to see some amazing photos of the Cruise convoy as I saw it, and described it in the DAUGHTERS OF TIME story, you can go to 
The paint on the launchers, if you scroll down on that site, was quite likely put there by my friend Lynette Edwell, a redoubtable lady from Newbury (she appears, with her permission, at the end of the story) who would put a bin bag full of rubbish in the path of the convoy, which then had to stop to make sure it wasn't an explosive: she would profit by the halt to throw paint. Once, the entire convoy was stopped by a potato in the exhaust pipe of the lead vehicle. The potato was subsequently displayed in the US forces mess, thus showing that they did have a sense of humour!
The missile silos today. Photo: David Wilson
There was conflict at the camp, and abrasiveness too, but for me, and for the Peace Movement as a whole, Greenham was quite vital, a source of energy and insight. It made it impossible for women to be regarded as secondary, because they had demonstrated courage, resourcefulness, surviveability and sheer toughness. If, as Joan Ruddock asserted, the Cruise convoy was never able to melt into the countryside (which was the idea, thus evading a Soviet first strike in times of tension) it was due to the Cruisewatch organisation which the Greenham women participated in and which tracked it on its war-preparation exercises on Salisbury Plain ('they do survival games,' I was told, 'but we're better at it than they are.') Well, I knew they were.They also knew, by watching the base, when it was likely to go out. Of course, in a time of war, the women would have all been interned, but all along the route every time it went out posters and placards went up, thus keeping it in public consciousness.
The women weren't just woolly-hatted idealists keeping the watch outside the base; they were clued-up in international law, in strategic, military, and policy issues. They went to Russia and challenged the 'official' peace groups who wanted to co-opt them as part of their propaganda campaign. They made contact with dissident, real peace groups, and protested if anything happened to them. They fought the issue of the enclosure of the Common tooth and nail, and were vindicated in the end when it was shown that the US occupation was in fact illegal and thus most of the convictions of women for criminal trespass were invalid.
The other crucial thing was that Greenham women 'made the links.' Single-issue campaigning it wasn't, really. We all learned about the military-industrial complex, about the connection between the threat to life on earth, and dispossessed populations in the South Pacific; about the conditions of uranium miners; about sexism in daily life, domestic violence and racism, and the link to the violence of the nuclear stand-off.
And it truly changed my ideas about myself as a woman. It demolished frontiers in my mind, and made it possible to think outrageous things. Ultimately, I believe it made it possible for me really to become a writer.
Decorating the fence 1982
 Writing the story about Greenham Common, in DAUGHTERS OF TIME, brought so much back, especially when I wrote the opening, where the young heroine watches the convoy come in as I once stood, confronting the very engines of death whose phantoms had rolled towards the hospital as I stood there with little Jo in my arms. When I'd written it, I realised that it reads like dystopic fiction - but it was real.
The nuclear brinkmanship of the Eighties is often credited with bringing the end of the Cold War, and those people who assert this dismiss anti-nuclear protest as pointless and counter-productive.
However, during that period, there was an episode when the Russians thought they saw the Cruise missiles coming over, and almost launched the SS20s in response. The world escaped by a hairs-breadth. We were incredibly lucky. But to say that the lucky escape validates the policy is like saying that a person who drives their car along a crowded motorway at 130 mph has done the right thing, because they were lucky enough not to get involved in an accident. I still believe that the governments of the time took enormous and criminal risks. I believe all of us were right to protest; and perhaps, without that protest, even more hideous risks might have been taken. I honour and respect the gallant and dedicated women who stayed all those years at Greenham, and am proud that I was able (both figuratively and literally) to help keep the fire burning,
The Common restored, with silos in background. It is now
a nature reserve. Photo: David Wilson.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Forgotten History by Kate Lord Brown

Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography.
It’s always interesting hearing why authors of historical fiction are drawn to their eras. For me, the early twentieth century has always felt tantalisingly within touching distance. I grew up with my Great Aunt Rose’s tales of helping the Resistance in Occupied Holland, and hiding her husband from the Nazis in a secret room in their Middleburg hotel. I saw my grandfather sit night after night at his old mahogany dining table, surrounded by dogeared photographs of his comrades from Dunkerque, lost in his memories.

The early years of the twentieth century felt close – I wanted to understand why these experiences were still vivid, why they haunted my family. Later, when I specialised in twentieth century art, and particularly photography, at the Courtauld Institute, I realised that even history this close to our present day becomes ‘lost’. When I studied Man Ray, why were there so few mentions of Lee Miller’s remarkable war photography in the standard text books? Why did Robert Capa’s mythical figure throw such a shadow over Gerda Taro’s body of work? In writing about the Spanish Civil War in ‘The Perfume Garden’, I wanted to give Taro her correct place as his equal.

Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography
Capa by Taro © International Center of Photography

Writing historical fiction feels, at its best and most exhilarating, like detective work. A tiny clue can spark years of research. For ‘The Beauty Chorus’, it was a tiny obituary for one of the ‘Spitfire girls’ – the women who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary. The great joy of writing twentieth century histfic is that you have the privilege of talking to people who lived that history. I spoke to women now in their eighties and nineties, who told me exactly how it felt to fly those planes, and gave me details for the story that can’t be found in any text book.

Diana Barnato Walker © ATA Archive, Maidenhead Heritage Centre.
It’s that wealth of experience which is so thrilling to draw upon – and how well documented the era is. I love that it’s possible to immerse yourself in archives of unpublished papers, diaries, that you can listen to the same music, watch the same films. I’m still a ‘new’ writer, and each book is a steep learning curve, but finding these fragments of ‘forgotten’ history, and breathing life into them, conjuring a fictional story around them is like nothing else. I hope I never stop learning.

So, that’s my story – I’d love to hear why you are drawn to the era(s) you write about …

Kate's latest book