Thursday, 31 March 2016

March competition

To win one of five copies of Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard, just answer the following question in the Comments below:

"How do you best describe the taste of an apple?"

Then copy your answer in  an email to

Closing date 7th April

Our competitions are open only to UK Followers


Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities: a letter from Vincent - by Sue Purkiss

It's lovely at this time of year, isn't it? - when primroses, daffodils and hyacinths are out, and the buds on winter-bare trees begin to break into blossom. My mother was a very keen gardener, but she never thought that almond and cherry trees were worth their space in the garden - "After all," she reasoned, "they're in blossom for such a short time, and the rest of the the year, they do nothing."

But I don't agree with her. Because for that short time, they are intensely beautiful. Beauty is often fleeting, but perhaps that's all the more reason to value it. And beauty at such a time - at the end of winter - represents new life and hope: it lifts the heart.

A hundred and twenty six years ago, a 37 year old man had a piece of good news. In many ways, he had had a difficult and rather sad life. He did not always get on easily with people; he had tried his hand at being an art dealer, and then a preacher, but things always went wrong: his emotions were too intense, he would put people off, and then feel hurt and bewildered when they rejected him. The one person who always stood by him was his brother Theo.

For some years now, he had decided to be an artist - but so far, he had had no commercial success, though other artists were beginning to recognise his ability. Recently, he had entered enthusiastically into a working partnership with a certain Paul Gauguin; it had all begun so very well, but it had ended so very, very badly. In the end, he had become so frantic, so unstable, that he had tried to cut off his own ear.

His name, of course, was Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1889, after the ear episode, he voluntarily committed himself to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint Remy. As he became calmer, he painted: at first the garden of the asylum and vases of flowers which he could work on inside, then the surrounding orchards and countryside. The rate at which he worked was astonishing.

Then, in February 1890, he received the piece of good news that I mentioned earlier. It was that Theo's wife Jo had given birth to a baby boy - their first, and as it turned out, only child. Vincent was so happy for them that he wanted to paint something - a gift, to celebrate the birth. St Remy is in Provence, in the south of France: perhaps, that year, there was a warm day in February - the kind of day that is itself a gift, a promise of spring to come. And perhaps the good news, for a while at least, drove away his demons, and he went out into the orchard, threw himself down on the ground, his hands clasped behind his head, gazed up at the blue sky through the branches of a flowering almond tree, and smiled.

And then he painted what he had seen, and sent the picture to Theo and Jo, who hung it in their baby's room. Jo wrote back a warm letter of thanks, in which she said that the baby - whom they called Vincent Willem - was a great admirer already of his uncle's works, and that he particularly liked to lie and look up at the sky-blue painting.

Well, Vincent's story did not, as we know, end happily. A few months later, he shot himself, and died two days later with Theo at his side. Theo survived him by less than a year.

But here is a happy ending of sorts. Jo took great care of Vincent's artistic legacy, and later, her son took over, and played a large part many years later in establishing a museum devoted to his uncle's work in Amsterdam. I was there this time last year, and was bowled over by Vincent's paintings - by the clarity and brilliance of the colours, by their energy and zest for life.

I don't want to put the painting into our cabinet of curiosities. It belongs where it is, where thousands of people see it every year. But I would like to put into it the letter in which Vincent wrote to his sister describing the painting he had begun for his new nephew. He doesn't say very much about it - you can see the letter here. (All Van Gogh's correspondence has been made accessible online by the Van Gogh Museum.)

For me, the letter is a direct link with the man, the artist. But it also represents hope: it says that despite his mental anguish, there was a moment when he had an impulse of pure joy, which he was able to translate onto canvas. He seized the fleeting moment and made of it something permanent. Isn't that what we'd all like to do?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Taking Note by Tracy Chevalier

Our March guest is Tracy Chevalier, who has been here before! We are delighted to welcome her back on the publication of her new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard.
Photo credit: Nina Sobin
Tracy Chevalier has written eight historical novels, including At the Edge of the Orchard and The Last Runaway, as well as the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring. She has also conceived of and edited the short story collection, Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, and is a creative partner with the Brontë Parsonage, where she has curated the exhibition “Charlotte Great and Small”, in celebration of Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary. A native of Washington, DC, in the 1980s she moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Tracy is a Trustee of the British Library, President of the Royal Literary Fund, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

I have a love-hate relationship with my research notebooks.

Several months ago I sent a box of stuff to Oberlin College, my alma mater in Ohio, which I have donated my papers to. I had agreed to send them research materials, drafts and correspondence, starting with two novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures – an early book and a later one, to give the archivists a chance to see what sort of issues would arise in including them in their collection. This is an interesting topic, especially concerning the rise in the use of online sources and computers generally. But I still use pen and paper alongside a computer, I like to photocopy things, and I have a lot of boxes of physical materials in my attic.

There were extensive papers for Remarkable Creatures – I had learned to keep drafts by then, aware that they might be of interest. I write longhand, you see, then type it into the computer, print out the draft, and revise on the printed copy. Over and over. There are usually 5-6 drafts per book.

When I wrote Pearl Earring in 1998, however, I threw away drafts, and there were few emails. All there really was of substance was this:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring research notebook; I glued a copy of the painting inside the front cover so it wouldn’t get bashed, and no one would know what I was writing about!

It’s funny: even this notebook the size of my hand was only half full of notes. I wrote that novel in a state of grace, taking in my research and just knowing it, without writing much down. I wrote each day on scrap paper, typed it into the computer, and threw away the scrap.

Still, that notebook was special, and it pained me to let it go. The last few days before FedEx arrived to take it off to Oberlin I carried it with me constantly, touching it, flipping through it, rereading all the notes, and feeling awful. Only when my husband suggested scanning it did I cheer up. At least I could look at it digitally any time I liked. Not the same, I know, but it meant I handed over the box to the FedEx man without crying – though I was still uneasy until the archivist at Oberlin emailed to say it had safely arrived.

I love the notebooks I take notes in during research for my novels. I choose them carefully before I begin, matching the look with the subject: burgundy velvet for the medieval The Lady and the Unicorn, a marbled effect for the fossils in Remarkable Creatures, green notebooks for At the Edge of the Orchard, my new novel featuring trees in 19th-century America.
Green notebooks for research; red notebooks for writing.

In fact, the last time I wrote for The History Girls I even included this photo of the notebooks, artfully displayed:

I like to look at them sitting on a shelf in my office – though they will slowly head across the Atlantic to Oberlin, which will always make me a little sad, digital scans or not.

But I don’t actually like to look in them. Whenever I’m writing a novel and arrive at a point where I’m not sure about a detail and have to check it in the research notebook, I inwardly groan. It is so exhausting reading through the notes, and often takes hours of sifting to find what I’m looking for.

Recently when I was updating my website for At the Edge of the Orchard, I had to dig out information about Johnny Appleseed – an American folk hero known for planting apple trees in Ohio and Indiana, who plays a small but crucial role in the book.

I got so fed up picking through the copious notes I took while reading biographies of him that I actually went online for a moment to find the details there. (Then I came to my senses and went back to my notebook.)

Research notes are a distillation of what I read or look at and think is important. When I choose to write something down, it means it may be a crucial historical detail I will use later. Of course, often – usually – I don’t use it. I probably research 10 times as much as I use. But when I write it down, I’ve made a judgement call: Keep this, you will learn from it and you may need it.

Going back through the notes is like reading one epigram after another – all very rich. Too rich. Often as I look for that one simple answer to a question, I discover a barrage of juicy details I really ought to add into the manuscript. Of course, research isn’t like that. It sinks in, and you should only use the details that come naturally. You can’t shoehorn them in afterwards. I have done that once or twice, and it showed.

Often I think of Rose Tremain and Jim Crace when I’m trawling through a notebook. Rose said of historical research: Take notes, but when you start writing, set aside the notebook. Jim went a step further: Do the research but don’t write anything down.

I can see what Rose is getting at: with the best kind of research you are absorbing it naturally and it will stay inside you and emerge naturally too, finding its way into the story at the right point without you having to force it or look it up.

But Jim’s advice is a step too far for me. Writing it down is a process that makes information concrete so I can absorb it. And I have to write it with pen and paper; a keyboard and screen won’t do. (I am writing this blog by hand too.) I admit it: at the British Library I glance over at the people tapping way on their laptops and secretly feel superior. “Huh – call that note-taking?” I expect they (and there are many more of them than there are of me) look at me pityingly as some sort of antiquarian, or luddite, or both.

I don’t care. I sat in the British Library with two 19th-century books on tending fruit trees, and learned to graft apple trees from them, taking notes and making drawings:

It worked for me. Just don’t ask me to reread all those notes!

Monday, 28 March 2016

How to Make a Drama out of a Crisis by Julie Summers

When I set out to write a history of the activities of the Women’s Institute of England and Wales in 2009 I had no inkling that it would lead to a full-blown television drama series. None at all. So you can imagine that it has been a journey of many exciting twists and turns: to create a drama out of the greatest crisis to hit the lives of those living in the middle of the twentieth century.

First things first. I am a historian, not a script-writer, so the suggestion that a village women’s institute might be a potential seed of an idea for a drama came not from me but from the brilliant mind of Home Fires’ creator and writer, Simon Block. He and I met on a course in the beautiful English county of Devon in 2012. Simon was one of two tutors on a TV script writing course. If I am not script writer, what was I doing on this course? It’s a good question and one I asked myself several times during the week. I had written ten books and fancied that writing in a different format or discipline might be a new challenge.

Home Fires © ITV

At the end of the course Simon and I discussed the fact that I did not want to become a script writer but that storytelling was my great passion. I told him about my book on the WI, which I had just submitted to the editor in its final draft, and to my surprise he was very interested. I think even back then he could see the potential for a women-led drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War. He wrote to me earlier this year with his thoughts:

‘Like most people I think, I had no idea of the extent and importance of the role played by the WI during the Second World War. Not only in regard to its activities aimed at supporting the home front but also in terms of the support and friendship it offered to often isolated women who needed the companionship of other women like never before - even if for a few hours a month. The book opened my eyes to the great extent WI women mobilised to make such a huge contribution, generating a fantastic spirit of 'community'.  The fact that this was largely unknown (as is often the case with women's history) left me feeling it was a significant episode in British culture that should be more widely recognised. Plus, it offered a fantastic opportunity to write about a lot of women in their own right, and not merely as adjuncts to - or victims of - various men, which is so often how women are portrayed in television drama.’

 Selling jam in episode 1 of Home Fires © ITV

Simon approached Catherine Oldfield at ITV Studios and we were introduced. Within an hour of meeting Catherine I knew that I could trust her with my work and within four days she and her boss, Francis Hopkinson, had taken out an option on my book, Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA). That meant ITV Studios would be able to work up a first script and submit it to the television networks in due course.  But how to translate historical non-fiction, the voices of real women, and the goings on in the Second World War on the Home Front, into a television drama that would pack a punch but remain true to the history? Francis Hopkinson explained to me that in the normal course of events an author is not involved in drama development. However this appeared to be a slightly unorthodox situation as my book was to be the source for inspiration rather than adaptation. Simon Block describes it as the DNA of the series.

So I was retained as the historical consultant to the scripts, which means that I have had the immense good fortune and delight to have been involved in meetings when story lines were discussed. My role is to produce the history, when required, of both the progress of the war and the situation at any given point in time of the WI. I was able to offer a sense of background for the first series, emphasising the mood in Britain during that strange period called the Phoney War: the country was at war, the British Expeditionary Force was guarding the Maginot Line in France, but nothing was actually happening. It produced a kind of paralysis in the country, which changed into anxious boredom and then the acceptance of the calm before the storm.

Erica Campbell hitches a lift with Steph Farrow,  Home Fires © ITV

All the characterisation was developed by Simon Block and he knows each of the men and women in his drama intimately. In a fascinating three day meeting ‘in conclave’ in April 2014 five of us sat down, with tea, coffee and cakes (WI style), and discussed the back-stories to all the main characters. Nine months later we were back in conclave considering the possible story lines for a second series and that is when I realised they are moving slowly through the war and this next series only takes us up to the end of summer 1940. As my mother’s friend said to me with a grin: ‘Julie, there’s a lot of war left!’

Domestic violence was prevalent in the 1940s Home Fires © ITV
My involvement stops with the scripts. The production is a whole different game and I find it both fascinating and bewildering. When I write a book there are perhaps half a dozen people involved – editor, copy-editor, proof reader, publicist and so on. That is about the same number of people working in the make-up truck on the set of Home Fires. On my first visit to set in September 2014 I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the enterprise. Watching the filming of series 2 was no less magical, just a great deal more muddy. I have enjoyed the experience enormously but I think I made the right decision to stick to writing and story-telling. I’ll leave television to the professionals.
Home Fires Season 2 starts on ITV on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm and will be seen on PBS later in the year.

Home Fires © ITV

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Elizabeth II’s 90th Birthday by Janie Hampton

On April 21st Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith, will be 90 years old.
When Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of York was born in 1926, her handsome and popular 32-year-old uncle, the Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor), was heir to the throne. His younger brother, Elizabeth’s father, the Duke of York, enjoyed the traditional pursuits of a country gentleman, such as shooting pheasants and dancing Scottish reels. He took his daughter fox-hunting on her pony ‘Peggy’ when she was four years old. His favourite dog was a Labrador called ‘Stiffy’. Little ‘Lilibet’ called her adored grandfather, King George V, ‘Grandpa England’.
Princess Elizabeth aged 3 
George V died in 1936 and when Edward VIII abdicated a year later, Elizabeth’s shy father became King George VI and she became ‘Heir Presumptive’. Never ‘Heir Apparent’, because there was always the possibility that her father would produce a legitimate son who would automatically take precedence over any older sisters. The 10-year-old girl watched her father’s coronation in Westminster Abbey with quiet dignity and reserve.
Aged 7, painted by Philip de Laszlo
The Girl Guides Association has always been across
the road from Buckingham Palace
Princess Elizabeth had the finest private tutors in the country, headed by the vice-provost of Eton College. She studied constitution, American history, the Commonwealth, French and German. She was made to stand for many of her lessons, so that she would get used to the long hours on her feet watching regiments march past. She visited museums, factories, the Bank of England, the House of Commons and the Royal Courts of Justice – to see for herself how her country worked.
Marion Crawford, the royal governess, was determined that her charges, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, should live normal lives, and their parents wanted them to be members of the community. ‘Just how difficult this is to achieve, if you live in a palace, is hard to explain,’ wrote ‘Crawfie’. ‘A glass curtain seems to come down between you and the outer world, however hard a struggle is made to avoid it.’

In 1937 Miss Crawford suggested that the princesses become Girl Guides, so that they could understand the lives of ordinary children, and maybe even meet some. Their aunt, the Princess Royal, was President of the Girl Guides Association and recommended they meet the formidable Miss Violet Synge, who had driven ambulances during the First World War. She was appalled at the idea. ‘One of my greatest difficulties,’ wrote Crawfie, ‘was to get people to realise that these two little girls wanted only to be treated as any other normal and healthy little girls of their own ages.’ Nevertheless, the 1st Buckingham Palace Guide Company of twenty Guides was born and Miss Synge became its first Captain (and later Guide Commissioner for England).
Girl Guides Princess Elizabeth & Princess Margaret sent a message to other
Guides by carrier pigeon on Thinking Day, February 22, 1943.
The Company, made up of daughters of court officials and palace employees, met in the summerhouse in the palace garden. The King made one stipulation. ‘I’ll stand anything,’ he said, ‘but I won’t have them wear those hideous long black stockings. Reminds me too much of my youth.’ So the Palace Guides wore knee-length beige socks, an innovation soon adopted by Guides everywhere. Some of the new recruits didn’t quite understand the point about Guides and the purpose of uniform, and arrived in party frocks with white gloves, accompanied by their nannies who wanted to stay and watch. ‘We soon put a stop to all that,’ said Miss Crawford.

After the Blitz began over London in 1940, many people thought that the two princesses should be evacuated to the safety of Canada. But their parents were adamant that the Royal Family would stick together and bear the same risks as other British families. However, unlike most British families, they had a spare castle, and the girls and their governess moved to Windsor, where they remained until the end of the war. Despite this seclusion, the princesses were encouraged to perform, and Elizabeth played Principal Boy, in powdered wig and breeches, in pantomimes of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin. At a fundraising concert in Windsor Castle, she led the singing of rounds, sea shanties and Negro spirituals.

Aged only 15, Elizabeth addressed the children of Britain on the wireless. She told them that she sympathised with those who had been evacuated, as she too was often separated from her parents (though the King and Queen made it back to Windsor Castle most nights). ‘When peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place. My whole life shall be devoted to your service, but I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do,’ she announced in her clear, piping voice.
Like these Kent Guides, Princess Elizabeth
learned to cook on a camp fire.

In 1942, Princess Elizabeth, like any other 16-year-old girl, went along to the Labour Exchange in Windsor to register for National Service. She had by then attained Guide proficiency badges vital for her future career as a modern monarch: Swimmer, Dancer, Horsewoman, Child Nurse, Needlewoman and Interpreter. The last was especially useful for a queen: she could identify over fifty flags, including the Royal Standard, and tell foreigners where to find the main ports of Britain, the value of British money, and advise about local hotels, buses and cafés.

A year later, she became a Sea Ranger and learnt how to sail, cook in cramped quarters and re-leather rowing oars. ‘Slit trenches had been dug for the camp by the Grenadier Guards and air raid drill was taken by Company Sergeant Major of the Grenadiers,’ stated The Guider magazine. Her Majesty the Queen had tea in the camp and was taken out in a rowing boat, coxed by her daughter. Round the campfire, Princess Elizabeth sang shanties and took part in a sketch called ‘Mein Kamp’.

For her 18th birthday, the Girl Guides Association gave the princess a tent, a sleeping bag and a rucksack containing a looking glass, an ‘oil-silk sponge-bag’ and an aluminium egg cup.

By June 1945, press censorship of the weather had been lifted, and The Guider revealed that Princess Elizabeth made a speech in the pouring rain, to five thousand Girl Guides in Wales.

That same year Elizabeth was commissioned into the Auxiliary Territorial Service (later the Women’s Royal Army Corps) and was posted to the ‘No. 1 Mechanical Transport Training Centre’. Already a Colonel in the Grenadier Guards, Second-Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor (No. 230873) studied military law and learned how to drive and maintain cars, lorries and ambulances. The report on her performance by the Royal Corps of Transport Officers stated: ‘Extremely quick to learn, she is not rash, and drives with consideration and thought for others on the road, and with every care for her car.’

At 90 years old, and after 64 years on the throne, she still drives her Land Rover herself.

Happy Birthday, Lilibet!

Janie Hampton is the author of ‘Rationing & Revelry – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II 1953’, available as a Kindle Single.  © Janie Hampton 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Musings on the Healing Powers of Greece, by Carol Drinkwater

                                    Anthony Quinn danced the sirtaki on Stavros Beach, northern Crete
                                                    I cannot hear this joyous music without smiling  

                                              THESSALONIKI - NORTHERN GREECE

I have taken a short break away from my desk to visit - revisit - Greece. Last week I was in Thessaloniki where the city's 18th annual documentary film festival was in full swing. As my husband is a documentary filmmaker and I have written several films, this is always an excellent opportunity to meet up with colleagues and see works that will rarely find screenings anywhere except at festivals. It is also an opportunity to be with others who are writing, directing, producing, almost always working within very tight budgets, to complete films that matter to them, frequently on subjects that have little commercial value. I also love to be in a city that offers its citizens the possibility of participating, engaging in an international festival free of charge. Dear Greece, beyond the city of Thessaloniki, there are camps filled with thousands of traumatised Syrian refugees; the country itself is in a deep financial crisis with shops and businesses closing down at an alarming rate, yet still the municipalities continue to see the value of offering the arts to the public.

Aristotelous Square, Thessaloniki, hub of the film festival

I had considered hiring a car and driving out to one of the camps to try to talk with a few of the refugees, but several of the filmmakers in town went off with their cameras and I decided that enough is enough. I have visited refugee camps in other countries and little will be different. The question is, what is to be their fate, their life-line? Who will take them in?
It moved me when I was in conversation with Thessalonikan citizens to hear how concerned they are for the plight of the Syrians. Not one person I spoke to made any comment that suggested the refugees should be turned away or kicked out. 'We must feed them. We have to try and help them.' The main dilemma seemed to be 'how can we help, offer aid, when we are in crisis ourselves? What do we have to offer them?' I was humbled by their tolerance and generosity of spirit.

      Greeks and aid workers assisting Syrian refugees landing off the northeastern coast of Lesbos.

Thessaloniki (also known as Salonica) has a fascinating history. Founded in 315 BC by King Cassandra of Macedonia, it became the capital of the Macedonia kingdom. After its fall, during the Roman Empire, the city grew to be an important seaport and trading hub. I walked a fair length of its immense harbour last week recalling the many faces of its multi-cultural past: Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Jewish... It was during the Ottoman rule that the Jews were welcomed to the city. The reasoning was that the Jewish culture and their individual skills would add a new dimension. The Jews were integrated with little difficulty and became neighbours and friends of the Greeks.
Predominantly, it was Sephardic Jews who settled here after their expulsion from Spain. For a while the city gained the nickname, la madre de Israel. The mother of Israel. Today, Salonica is a city twinned with Tel Aviv. Tragically, during the Second World War, after Germany occupied Greece in 1941, most of the Jews were deported and eradicated in the concentration camps. But even in their absence, they have left their unique mark on the tapestry of the city.
A visit to the Jewish quarter is a must. It gives a real sense of what Thessaloniki must have been like in earlier times.

                                             Museum of Jewish Presence in Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki was also an important base for many Greek refugees who found themselves homeless after The Exchange in 1923/23 when Ataturk enforced the expulsion of all Greeks from the newly-founded Republic of Turkey. The Exchange, which is the subject of one my films in THE OLIVE ROUTE series of documentaries, decreed that all Greeks living on Turkish soil and all Turks living on Greek soil had to return to the land of their passport, even if, which was the case for most of them, they had never before set foot on the soil of their motherland.
So, the status of being a refugee is not alien to the Greek people.

                                                                  CHANIA - CRETE.

Now I have flown south to Chania, western capital of Crete, where I am staying in a lovely hotel, Casa Delfino, which, during the Venetian occupation (1252 -1645) of this island, was a private mansion. I have spent a fair amount of time on this island over the years. I first came here over forty years ago and I frequently find myself returning here when I am in need of healing.

The Etz Hayyim synagogue in Chania. The Jews from Chania were massacred by the Nazis in 1944 and the synagogue was desecrated. It reopened in 1999 as a place of prayer and reconciliation. The building was originally a Catholic church during the Venetian period.

Multi-domed Ottoman Mosque built in 1649 for the Janissaries, designed by an Armenian architect, in Chania Port. It was the first mosque built in Crete  after the Ottoman conquest of the island in 1645.                    


Chania began as a neolithic site and was then occupied by the Minoans. They named the city Kydonia which means 'quince'. Evidence of their existence here has been uncovered in various places beneath the old Venetian foundations. Cities built upon cities. I don't know whether they intended the city to be named after the quince tree or its fruit. My guess would be the tree itself. The Minoans worshipped trees. (I am not far off this practice myself!) In the hills behind the ancient city of Kydonia, there were large orchards of quince trees and it remains a fruit-growing region even today.

My trip this time has no professional purpose. I wanted the opportunity to be back in touch with  the rhythms of nature, and of olive farming. We have spent several days up in the mountains where we spotted small herds of long-horned kri-kri or wild goat. Some historians believe that these are descended from escaped or released domesticated goats kept by the Minoans. Livestock farming was an important element in their economy.
Although it is late March, many of the olive trees are still netted and some of the farmers are still harvesting their drupes. Those who have completed this work are pruning their trees. I love to see this process. Each country, each culture has a slightly different method of pruning. Always with the end result of opening up the centre of the tree, rather like a fully blossoming flower, so that air can circulate and humidity does not cause the fruits to grow mouldy.

                This olive tree is in the courtyard of the Chania synagogue. See how it has been pruned.

Friday of this coming weekend in Greece is Independence Day (25th March). For those of us who are Christians but not Greek Orthodox, it is also Easter. Tourists will begin to arrive (there are only a few here at present). It means that at the coastal resorts and villages we have visited, everybody is busily painting, cleaning, hosing down pavements, airing furniture out on the streets, all in preparation for their next six months. Several years back when I was here during February, I climbed a snowy mountain route to its summit and then found myself descending to a beachside village on the south. The entire village was shuttered except for one restaurant, which was packed. All the inhabitants had come to enjoy a long lunch together. I walked in and silence descended.
"Yassus, I am looking for something to eat,' I said.
'We are closed, closed till the beginning of April,' was the reply.
'But you cannot go hungry you must join us.' Said another and someone jumped to their feet and hurried to lay up a place. I was given a seat and a full plate of food. It was a fascinating day I spent there. I was offered a bed for the night if I preferred not to make the taxing drive back over the mountain. I did not accept their generosity because I was on a tight schedule, researching for my book, THE OLIVE ROUTE.

I learnt that day that these southern Cretans, like so many others on this island, have two lives. They farm their olive groves by winter and they earn cash through tourism in the summer. They open up their coastal zones to foreigners but they jealously guard the interior, their agricultural lands. The land represents their history, their venerable farming culture. "We don't sell our olive farms,' one young man explained to me. 'These are bequeathed to our sons and daughters. Our olive history, our trees are sacred to us. They are at the centre of our lives and our culture.' They begged me not to give away the identity of their village because they did not want winter tourists arriving, looking to rent rooms, which I suspect, given their natural hospitality, these Cretans would have felt obliged to offer. I have always honoured that promise.

A day or so later I went to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. I had heard talk of a Minoan ring recently rediscovered after half a century of having "gone missing".  I wanted to see it for myself because it was a witness to the importance of the olive tree 3,000 years ago on this island. I have written about this ring and its astounding story at length in THE OLIVE ROUTE, so I will just say briefly that it was discovered in the 1920s by a small boy walking through a vineyard close to Knossos when he was taking lunch to his father who was working in the family fields. Soon after this astounding find, the ring went missing again under very mysterious circumstances only to be retrieved in the early twenty-first century.
This golden ring, known now as the Ring of Minos, offers vital insights into the Minoan culture for several reasons. No scriptures or prayers exist to tell us about Minoan spiritual practices, but this magnificent royal ring is a pictorial gem because it shows a goddess hovering in the sky above two humans who are worshipping trees. Sacred trees. Quite possibly these are intended to be olive trees. Throughout the Middle East, in the three monotheistic faiths and written in their holy books, the olive tree is regarded as sacred. I doubt it was any different here on the island of Crete. Even today, the villager on the south coast described his olive trees as "sacred".
Olive oil was a massive source of Minoan wealth. The royal palaces had amphorae brimming with litres of "liquid gold".
In a lower image on the Ring of Minos, the goddess is rowing a ship. She is setting off from the island in a boat transporting a shrine with horns... There are several other examples in Minion art of goddesses setting off from rocky shores with trees aboard their vessels.

It is possible that the Minoans were the first to add herbs to their olive oil. One stage later and they have created scented oils, perfumes. A fabulous source of wealth, and a cosmetic luxury. They sailed and traded their olive oil and scented oils all across the Mediterranean, journeying by boat. They were renowned sailors; theirs was an enterprising maritime trading culture. Some archaeologists and historians believe they reached as far as southern Spain to trade with the peoples of the ancient city of Tartessus who lived along the shores of the mouth of the mighty Guadalquivir River, pre-the Phoenician city of Gadir known today as Cadiz.
Those round-trip journeys would have taken the sailors two or three years.
Did they pray to their goddesses to protect them during their long voyages across the seas? To return them home safely to their Minoan cities?

We have been to Stavros and sat in the spring sunshine. We drank a glass of wine and then we walked the sandy beach where Anthony Quinn danced the dance. The cafe was playing that famous theme tune. And I felt impelled to get up and leap about.
I return to this island because it is a healing place for me. It puts me back in touch with the cycles of nature, with a history that is at least 3,000 years old and with the process of regeneration. After death comes life. After winter, comes spring.
Still, the island guards many mysteries and secrets, many unanswered questions. These always awaken my juices, always make me want to delve deeper. Always call me back to remind me that life goes on and the seasons turn.

Friday, 25 March 2016

James 111 by Miranda Miller

   Did any of you see  Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime museum? I loved it, and was so intrigued by the brief reference at the end to James 111 that I decided to pursue him.

   James Francis Edward Stuart was born in 1688, the eleventh but first surviving child of James 11 and his second wife, Mary of Modena. He was immediately given a long list of titles and baptised into the Catholic Church with Pope Innocent XI, (for whom the papal nuncio stood as proxy), as one of his godparents.  A story was put about by the supporters of the Protestant Prince of Orange (James 11’s brother-in-law), that the real Prince had died at birth and the infant, who was really the son of the unfortunately named Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe, had been smuggled into the queen's bedchamber “in a warming pan”  to provide a Catholic heir to the throne. When I was at school, in the remote sixties, this warming pan story was taught as a ‘fact.’ 
   When James was six months old the so-called glorious Revolution took place and William of Orange’s army invaded England. James and Mary fled to France with their baby son, who was brought up at the Palace of St Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. When his father died in 1701, the thirteen-year old was regarded by the Jacobites as King James III of England and VIII of Scotland and his titles were also recognised by the courts of France, Spain, and the Holy See.  Here he is actually wearing his crown but still looking rather unsure of himself.
   When Queen Anne, James's half-sister, died in 1714, James refused to convert from Catholicism in order to claim the throne and so it passed to a distant relative, the Protestant Elector of Hanover, who succeeded as King George I. As a German who could not speak English, the new king managed to alienate many people and Jacobite supporters used this to attempt a rebellion in 1715. But it was only after the Scots had been defeated at Sherrifmuir and an English Jacobite rising had also failed at Preston that James finally managed to land in Scotland. He made his way to Scone Palace where he set up a court in January 1716. A month later, as government forces approached, he secretly left Scotland; his less than heroic abandonment of his courageous rebel allies understandably enraged them.
  James returned to France and, in 1719, married Clementina Sobieska, the grand-daughter of King John III of Poland.  They had two sons, Charles Prince of Wales, later  Count of Albany (1720-1788), and Henry Duke of York, later Cardinal Duke of York (1725-1807). They moved to Rome to the Palazzo Muti, renamed the Palazzo del Re in James’s honour. 

There he maintained a Court in Exile, supported by pensions from the Holy See and France as well as by many legacies from cardinals and Italian nobles. The Popes considered that the Stuarts might be restored to the English throne and naturally wanted to stay on the right side of a future Catholic monarch. 
   James became the unofficial English ambassador; English and Scottish Grand Tourists, both Protestants and Catholics, were happy to enjoy the lavish hospitality and good wines of the Court in Exile but kept very quiet about having visited the Stuarts when they returned to Hanoverian England, where James was known as the old Pretender and his son Charles as the Young Pretender( 'pretender,' in this context, means 'claimant'). Although he was well treated and able to indulge the usual courtly pursuits of boozing, quarrelling with all his relations and keeping mistresses, James suffered from fits of melancholy and depression. He created titles of nobility for his English supporters and members of his court, which, of course, were not recognised in England. James was allowed to hold Protestant services at his court and was given land where his Protestant subjects could receive a public burial, known as il Cimitero Anticattolico - now the delightful oasis of the Protestant Cemetery, where Keats and Shelley are buried. 
   In 1745  Charles led a rebellion which came much closer to success than his father's. He led the Jacobites as far south as Derby but he was advised to turn back to Scotland.The following April his army was savagely defeated by “Butcher” Cumberland at Culloden, where over a thousand Jacobites died. Charles survived but decided to abandon his own Jacobite cause. He fled from government forces and hid out in the moors of Scotland. Many Highlanders helped Charles and, remarkably, nobody betrayed him for the £30,000 reward the government was offering. At this point we’re all humming the beautiful Skye Boat Song (lyrics 1884 to a traditional tune). 

  Flora MacDonald helped him escape pursuers on Skye by taking him in her boat disguised as her Irish maid, Betty Burke...surely one of the great cross -dressing romances of history? But 24-year-old Flora was arrested for aiding the prince's escape and imprisoned in the Tower of London, while the bonnie prince  evaded capture and escaped to France. 
  James 111 died in his Roman palace in 1766 and his remains lie in the crypt of Saint Peter’s, where a monument designed by Canova was raised to his memory. The Pope refused to recognise Charles’s claim to the English throne and accepted the Hanoverians  as the legitimate rulers of Britain and Ireland.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

INVADERS FROM THE STEPPES: Elizabeth Chadwick's notes on a talk by Professor Nicholas Morton about the origins of the Crusades

It's interesting how one things leads to another when researching.

Last month while trawling for information on TEMPLAR SILKS,  my work in progress concerning William Marshal's pilgrimage to the Holy Land,  I came across a paper on the attitudes of the Templar and Hospitaller orders toward the Islamic faith in the 12th century.  Access to the paper was by application to its author, professor Nicholas Morton, senior lecturer in history at Nottingham Trent University.  I duly requested the paper and he was kind enough to reply and agree to my request.  We had an e-mail chat and he was also very helpful in recommending several books that I might find useful to put on my reading pile.
Dr. Nicholas Morton 
Around the same time as this, I picked up a leaflet detailing talks at Bromley House Library - a wonderful subscription library in the centre of Nottingham of which I'm a member. Click here for details.  Bromley House  It was founded in 1816 and this year marks its 200th anniversary.  In celebration there are numerous talks and events taking place.  By sheer serendipity, March's talk was by Nicholas Morton and promised an overview of the Crusades which would 'demonstrate many of the widely held truths that we think we know about the Crusades, and which shape the way that those events are remembered today, are either distorted or wrong.' 

Bromley House Programme cover 

Having made first contact and the subject matter being close to my research at the moment, I went along to meet Nicholas, attend the talk, and see what he had to say.  The below is a very condensed precis of his talk  - and all very interesting because many of the details had not crossed my radar before.  The talk is not a university lecture but one aimed at giving an overview to the switched on general public.


Nicholas began by asking the question 'What do people know about the crusades?'  
The answer in very broad brush strokes is:

1. It was a war against Islam
2. It involved the Holy Grail (raised eyebrows and a smile here) 
3. All crusaders were insincere barbarians motivated by greed.

The above are all highly problematical for various reasons.

Nicholas went on to say that way back, the beating heart of Christianity was not Europe but the Middle East, North Africa and Egypt.  One can follow the rise of Christianity by following the trade routes.  By 900 Western Europe had been Christianised and a key moment for Christianity was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD.

Coming up alongside Christianity was the rise of Islam, starting in the 7th century.  It was a fast conquest and had soon spread from Kabul to the Eastern seaboard.  For the most part it was a religion of the ruling elite. The Islamic top rank were a veneer over numerous other tolerated religions - providing the people of those religions paid their taxes. During the days of their rule in Jerusalem, only 40% of the population was Muslim.  The other 60% were of assorted religeous denominations.  For the most part, the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem in the centuries before the Crusades were accepting of Christians and allowed them to worship and make pilgrimages to their holy places in Jerusalem and round about.  It was in their financial interests to do so.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

But then it all changed.
Professor Morton believes that the crucial moment leading to the first crusade happened in Central Asia. The region was populated by nomadic tribes who depended on its vast sea of grass - The Steppes - for their livelihood.  Mostly the Steppes poeples wandered their prairies with their horses and yurts and didn't cause much trouble to anyone else - that was until they unified.  That was why China built the Great Wall.  The Muslim rulers of the Middle East built large fortresses on their borders to keep the nomads out.  The Huns who brought down Rome were Steppe people.  The Nomads were feared throughout the rest of the world. So what brought them out of their territory and knocking on the world's door? The trigger was a drop in temperature of about 3 degrees in the 11th century and over a period of several seasons.  It meant that the grass on the Steppe stopped growing. The winter grazing was frozen and the nomads had to look elsewhere.  Tens of thousands of them headed south for better grazing.  Among these peoples, their culture meant that every male was raised to fight - 100% of males were warriors,  whereas in other societies it was around 25%. Collectively they became known as the Turks and their religion was shamanistic.

At the time of the Turkish invasion, the Muslim world was in no position to resist because of political wrangles and death and destruction followed the Turkish army in a vast wave. Baghdad fell in 1055 and the Abasid Caliphate was destroyed.  Most of the Muslim world fell to the Turks; only Egypt held out, and Christian Constantinople.  The shamanic Turks adopted the Muslim religon but it was a low and gradual conversion with good evidence for shamanic elements remaining strong in the decades after the conquest and again, the religion had to filter through from the top to the bottom.

Europe began to grow concerned about the new kid on the block when the Turks threatened the pilgrim route to Jerusalem and turned their attention to Constantinople. With the Turks at their gates in 1074, the Emperor sent to ask the Pope for help against their aggressive neighbours.  The Greeks (often called Byzantines)  weren't keen to ask the Pope, but had little choice.  However, the Pope was frying other fish at the time and the pleas fell on deaf ears. The Greeks held out but by 1195 the situation was too dire to be ignored and another plea was sent.  This time, the situation was more favourable in Europe and the response was collossal.  Two crusading armies were raised.  One of 100,000, another twice that size, and this when armies in the Middle Ages were usually around 8,000 people. 
The first army was wiped out en route but the second achieved its goal.

So, why go on crusade?  Why the massive numbers?
Various reasons are suggested in the department of popular notion.

1. People were told there was an enemy out there they had to go and fight because that enemy was dangerous  (politics and self interest).
2.  Lots of lovely wealth and loot.  Get rich quick! (Greed and self interest)
3.  For piety and remission of sins.  (Doing it for God and salvation)

Professor Morton remarked that many of his students plump for ideas one and two and yawn a bit when 3 gets brought into the equation.  The modern mindset has difficult getting its head around religious fire.

The popular view that they were in it for the money re the first crusade doesn't hold water, even if it's promulgated by TV documentaries and films.  If you do a cost assessment you find out that to go on crusade, a man of the knightly class would have to find four times his annual income to go there.  NO ONE came home richer than they set out and only one in four returned at all.  Anyone wanting a quick buck and an easier time of it would be much safer invading Muslim held Spain than marching 2,000 miles without a chain of supply.

So: Why did they go?  Was this a war between Christianity and Islam?

Once the crusade was called there was an upsurge in religious feeling certainly and the first to suffer were the Jews in various pogroms in Europe. Always a popular and easy target - and there on the doorstep.
When the first Christian army reached Constantinople, the Emperor Alexius, who had expected trained fighters and was confronted by a mob, was horrified and forced them out.  Most of them died in Anatolia. The second, more military wave of crusaders with professional fighters and led by princes fared better. That army moved into modern Turkey and took Nicea before moving on to Antioch.  The latter took 9 months to fall.  Eventually the Christian army would go on to take Jerusalem (killing its 3,000 inhabitants)  and create four Christian principalities - Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and Jerusalem.

During the battles for supremacy in the Middle East of the First Crusade, the locals were at most pleased to see the crusaders, and at the least, indifferent.  They deeply disliked their Turkish rulers and saw it as an opportunity to unseat them.  The Turks meanwhile were undergoing a period of in-fighting and so were not effective in resisting the Christian drive forward.

Only the Turkish leaders followed Islam. The rest as aforementioned were shamanistic as revealed by carved heads on cups, enemy scalps thrust onto spear points, and burials with grave goods.  Although the Turks converted to Islam eventually, it was a long, gradual process. The word 'Muslim' for members of the Islamist religion was not coined until the 17th century. A medieval person would have blanketed the indigenous folk as 'saracens' and would not have made them a specific target.  Professor Morton remarked that the First Crusade is the last in a series of reactions against nomadic invasion from the Steppes. The Crusaders,  like those of the Muslim world and those of the Hindu world or the Chinese were all trying to keep the Turks out.

So, how did the crusaders view the Turks?
They saw fighting the Turkish army as a pragmatic thing they had to do in order to get to Jerusalem. That was all the average Christian crusader needed to know.  Clearing the path to the Holy City was the goal.

Once Jerusalem was in Christian hands another battle for survival began.  All the Europeans had left when everyone went home was about 900 knights for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and around 2,000 up in Antioch.  The Turks had 15,000 at their command, but luckily for the Europeans, the Turks had to deal with rebellions in their own areas - uprisings of non Turkish peoples against their overlords.  The Turks had to spend several decades getting a grip on the situation.

Another reason for the survival of the Crusader kingdom was that they had access to the coast and some great maritime ports with massive incomes in taxes on the export of goods. The income for the city of Tyre was more than the income of France for example.  The crusaders built enormous castles to protect their interests - such as Krak de Chevaliers  which cost more to build than twenty times the annual income of King John.

Sugar, a tremendous luxury item was produced exported to Europe and the Italian merchant cities such as Genoa and Venice grew rich on the trade as they became the umbilical cord between Europe and the Crusader states.  The same for glass and silk. (which still didn't mean the individual who had come to fight got rich!).

Religious military institutions sprang up such as the Templars and the Hospitallers.  Formed initially to minister to the needs of pilgrims, they soon became mighty military and financial institutions with a huge and effective network throughout the Middle East and Europe, especially the Templars whose monetary clout became one of the forerunners of modern banking.  The Templars had over 1,000 houses across Western Europe - receiving centres for alms, gifts and supplies.
Interior of the Temple Church London.

Was called in response to the fall of the Principality of Edessa.  Islamification of the general populace had been continuing gradually, and was gathering momentum, as well as the notion of Jihad and military attention was being increasingly brought to bear on the Crusader states.
However the 2nd Crusade proved to be a military disaster and very little came of the effort.

Continued to harness Jihad aggressively but as much against branches of his own religion as Crusaders.  He invaded and took over Egypt where the population followed Islam in the Shia tradition as opposed to Saladin's Sunni.  He spent 33 months in war against his fellow Muslims and 11 months fighting the Christians.  By taking Egypt and by conquests elsewhere he was able to make the Turks the legitimate leaders of the Islamic world and encircle the Crusader states. His first attempt to do so in 1177 saw him very nearly wiped out in battle by the young leper King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV, but ten years later, with Baldwin dead, Saladin succeeded in destroying the armies of the Crusader kingdom at the Battle of Hattin and soon after that Jerusalem fell - leading to the call for the third Crusade.

This is where Professor Morton's lecture ended as he only had an hour to cover the ground and had to leave question time too.  Although told in very broad brushstrokes, the talk covered new areas for me, especially in the origins of the First Crusade.  It was also a reminder not to take anything at face value and that even when ground has been covered several times, a fresh turning of the soil will always reveal hitherto hidden seeds that if nurtured will grow into plentiful food for thought.  I shall certainly be buying Nicholas Morton's monograph on the above subject when it comes out.

 Nicholas Morton's  page from Nottingham Trent University.

History Girl Elizabeth Chadwick is a best-selling author of historical fiction set in the Medieval period and a member of the Royal Historical Society.  Her next novel detailing the later years of Eleanor of Aquitaine and titled The Autumn Throne will be published in September.