Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Providing they miss... Clare Hollingsworth: 1911 - 2017 - Celia Rees

Clare Hollingworth
1911 - 2017
Last Wednesday, it was announced that Clare Hollingworth, doyenne of foreign correspondents, had died in Hong Kong at the age of 105. During her long life she reported on conflicts around the globe, thriving on the thrill and the danger, maintaining with typical bravura that there was 'a certain attraction in being shot at - providing they miss.' 
Clare Hollingworth in 1932
Born to upper middle class parents in Leicestershire, she quickly escaped the life of marriage and motherhood that had been mapped out for her. She took a secretarial course and went to work for the League of Nations in Geneva and then in Poland for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.   She helped many refugees to escape from Germany. Too many. She was asked to leave Poland. She returned to Britain and in August 1939, she got a job as a reporter with the Daily Telegraph, working with Hugh Carleton Greene in Warsaw. Her career in journalism began in spectacular fashion. As a novice stringer stationed in Katowice, she managed the scoop of the century: the outbreak of the Second World War. The day after her arrival, she borrowed the British consul's official car 'for a day's shopping' over the border in Germany. The first town she came to was deserted. Then, as she drove on the the next town, she was passed by 65 dispatch riders. She stopped for lunch before driving back to Poland. On her return journey, she noticed that the sides of the roads were obscured with hessian screens. As one blew back, she saw rows and rows of German tanks. They belonged to von Rundstedt's Army Group South. Her story appeared on the front page of the Telegraph on 29th August, 1939, with the headline: '1,000 tanks massed on Polish frontier'. The next day, she woke to the sound of German bombers overhead. She rang in her story. The war had begun. At first she wasn't believed, until she put the telephone receiver out of the window and shouted, "Listen!"  

She escaped from Poland, going first to Hungary then to Rumania where she was nearly arrested by the ultranationalist Iron Guard. From Rumania, she went to Bulgaria, then to Greece, always just a step ahead of the German forces. Eventually, she escaped to Egypt in an open boat. Once there, she went on bombing missions with the RAF and joined patrols behind enemy lines.

Most of her Second World War reporting was done from the Middle East. She reported from Persia on the Anglo Russian invasion and conducted the first interview with the Shah when he ascended the Peacock Throne. He remembered her and, decades later, she was the only reporter granted an interview when he abdicated in 1979.

She went on to cover conflicts in Algeria during the '50s, Malaya, Borneo and Aden (Yemen) in the '60s and the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. She was in Israel during the struggle for independence and again to cover the Six Day War in 1967. She was in Vietnam and Communist China, always at the centre of the action, tough, fearless and relentless in pursuit of a story. She continued to obtain notable scoops, reporting Kim Philby's escape from Beirut on a Soviet ship in 1963 (a story suppressed by her paper for fear of libel), Chairman Mao's severe stroke in 1974 and tipping Deng Xiaoping as China's eventual leader. Although her stories were often initially greeted with scepticism, her reporter's instinct remained unerring.       

She continued to work as a Far East correspondent with the Sunday Telegraph. Based in Hong Kong, she covered the handover of the colony in 1997. When failing eyesight and hearing made it impossible for her to continue her work, she still had the papers read to her everyday and held court at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club over a gin and tonic. Kate Adie recalls being told of her presence with the words: 'There's a legend upstairs.' 

She was a role model for generations of female reporters and correspondents and, to the end, she slept with shoes and passport by her bed, ready to go anywhere should the call come. In a career that spanned over fifty years, she covered every major conflict from the Second World War onwards and is rightly regarded by many of her peers as one of the finest journalists of the 20th Century.   

Celia Rees

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


The Wicked Boy arrived as a Christmas gift. I was very glad to see him there by my armchair. I had noticed the tall “publicity piles” in Waterstones - and other outlets - and seen various reviews and articles published when Kate Summerscale’s title first appeared, and yet I was a little anxious.

My worries about how this “Mystery of A Victorian Child Murderer” would end was there from the earliest pages. Besieged by a dreary cold, I even put the book down for a while, fearing that bad events would only end worse.

A week later, I went back to the beginning and stared reading again. The Wicked Boy opens in July 1895, when thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his year-younger brother Nattie jaunt off to The Oval to watch a cricket match - after murdering their mother. With their father away at sea, the boys live a fantasy life for a week, aided by deceit and theft and a simple-minded family friend. How can this end in any way well, I thought?

The subject matter may be sensational but the account does not nip along. The amount of research demands patience reading, and a willingness to pause in one moment, whilst events or histories seemingly less relevant are expanded.  

“Listen,” I imagined Kate Summerscale saying, “you need to know all this to appreciate just how it was in those times. You need to know more than just the boy.”

The Wicked Boy's world expands and unfolds far beyond the grisly events and the eventual trial. Summerscale’s research takes one through the geography and population of Plaistow and East London to where, beyond the rows of houses, open land still stretches down to the Thames. She guides us through the stench of the area, from the small local industries to the mighty London docks, where live cattle are loaded on to ships bound for America. 

Summerscale brings is the brief testimonies of many involved in the awful event: the boy’s teachers, the pawnbroker, the family friends and Liverpool aunt, and we are introduced to the schools & institutions the boys occasionally attended. We half-meet the father, who hears of his sons arrests when he is docked in America but who cannot afford to abandon his work-passage back, and half-imagine what life the brothers led in the shadow of their excitable but apparently violent mother.

The press and public were particularly strident about the stack of a type of sensational magazine, known as Penny Bloods or Penny Dreadfuls, found in the house. 

The Bloods fascinated Robert, and his indulgence in tales of vicious crimes and bold and often lawless adventure proved, for some, further evidence of the dangers of encouraging literacy in the working classes.

Later in the book, there is a closer analysis of such narratives, comparing these rough tales with the type of boy's adventure stories told in more respected books. In many way, the traits admired in the heroic protagonists are similar, except perhaps for their class in society - and the cost of the books themselves. 

The two brothers certainly seem strange boys, but Nattie is judged too young to be guilty and called to give witness to his older brother’s crime. Robert’s behaviour in the dock is noted as odd – laughing, grimacing, unaware – and there are comments about the navy blazer edged with gold cord that he wears. The Coombes were a family that wanted to look respectable to other eyes.

What punishment would fit Robert's crime? Gradually light seeped through this grim situation, confounding my preconceptions. Robert is eventually judged too young to hang; he becomes the youngest inmate in an institution that can make press headlines even to this day. In September 1895, Robert entered Broadmoor, a fortified criminal metal asylum in Berkshire.

However, the asylum, especially Block 2 where Robert is placed after his admission period, is humane, built in "a pastoral setting . . that recalled "a lost innocence. . . both gaol and sanctuary". There is an orderly, kindly regime. Robert is taught tailoring, but reading books, playing musical instruments and work in the gardens are part of the experience and too. This calm but strict benevolence was totally at odds with what my ignorance was expecting and were a highlight - in many ways - of the book.

After seventeen years, in March 1912, Robert was released to the care of the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh in Essex, and then sent to Australia. The era of transportation is over, but the young country still needs to be populated, even by persons advised to make a new life. 

By this point in The Wicked Boy, I was reading hopefully. Many of the changes that marked the end of the 19th century had won through: universal education as a right, the formation of the NSPCC and banning of cruelty to children, a growth in understanding of madness, the treatment of prisoners and a belief in rehabilitation. Even if never perfectly practiced, some aspects of society had changed: the book was more than Robert’s story. It felt as if the Victorian’s better belief in “good works” had won through.

However, if one believes crime calls for karmic punishment, it arrives when Australia’s men sign up to fight for the mother country. Robert, an able musician, becomes a military bandsman, a role that sounds almost safe until one knows that bandsmen acted as the army’s unarmed stretcher-bearers, carrying the wounded and the dying through the field of battle. Robert Coombes survives the heat and disaster of the retreat at Gallipolli and goes on to endure the dreadful mud of Paschendale. 

Although WWI seems familiar history, this section had a particular poignancy. Robert, the child who relished the bold and bloody yarns of those “Penny Dreadfuls” and imagined the drama of a childhood adventure, became, in a sorrowful way, the brave and stalwart hero he had once admired. 

By now, I felt the book well worth a patient reading.

Then, just as the long account seems to be settling into a calm ending, Summerscale uncovers more: an unexpected ending which I will not spoil here, other than to say that, in a quiet way, it seems to vindicate the wisdom of those who treated the child Robert Coombes with kindness. Despite my earlier anxiety, THE WICKED BOY became a largely positive story, even though many of the arguments and complaints are still easily raised to this day. 

It feels a book I need to return to, but right now, with the book closed, I keep thinking about a moment from the trial.  

Was it the gold braid around young Robert Coombe’s neat navy blazer that swayed judgement at the trial?  

If the Wicked Boy had not looked so noticeably keen to be clean and respectable, would his story have been different? And his life shorter? 

And are such prejudices still there in public perceptions of young offenders now?

Penny Dolan

Monday, 16 January 2017

A do-it-yourself wassailing kit - by Sue Purkiss

I wasn't particularly aware of the ancient custom of wassailing until recently. Okay, about this time of year you tend to see pictures in the local paper of people with green faces cavorting among apple trees - but hey, I live a mere stone's throw from Glastonbury, where the streets are paved with crystals and littered with spell books, and where every year they have a Goddess Conference at which the place is FILLED with people with green faces - not to mention magical wells, a conflux of ley lines and a 2000 year-old thorn tree. (Well, that was actually vandalised a few years ago, but I hear there are a few cuttings in the care of the fairy kingdom under Wearyall Hill - or possibly at Worthy Farm under the care of Michael Eavis.) So green faces don't raise an eyebrow in these parts.

Goddesses at Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

But, as I've mentioned before in this place, I fairly recently joined a choir. We sing a lot of folk songs, and at this time of year, when Christmas has come and gone, we sing a Wassail Song. I don't know the words off by heart - our leader, Issy, sings it first and we follow her - but they are very similar to these, which I found on the web.

'Old apple tree, we wassail thee and hope that thou shalt bear,
For the Lord doth know where we shall be come apples another year.
For to bloom well and to bear well, so merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat and shout out to the old apple tree.
   Three cheers for the apple tree: hip hip...'

Well, it's a very jolly tune and we like singing it, so we make quite a racket, and I only hope it's loud enough for the apple trees of Cheddar to hear and be enthused. Because the purpose of wassailing is to encourage them, as the song says, 'to bloom well and to bear well'. It's entirely logical. I often talk to plants. I had quite a chat with a Christmas rose the other day, congratulating it on flowering so beautifully when all its predecessors have singularly failed to thrive; and I always apologise to shrubs before I give them a severe pruning, and explain to them that it's for their own good. I find these little courtesies make all the difference, and I'm sure they do to the apple trees as well.

There used to be lots of apple orchards in Cheddar when we first moved here thirty or so years ago. But over the years, most of them have been grubbed up in favour of more houses, and in Somerset generally, the orchards for many years seemed to be dwindling. But since the growth in popularity of cider over the last few years (Thatchers is just down the road), orchards are back in favour, and so is wassailing.

So I thought I'd look into the history of it.

Wassailing in the olden days.

Apparently 'wassail' comes from 'Waes hael!', the Anglo-Saxon greeting and toast which means 'Good Health!' Its purpose is to wake the trees up and scare away any evil spirits, thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. This happens on Twelfth Night - but usually, it being such an old and historical custom, it takes place not on the 6th January, but on the 17th, because this would have been Twelfth Night (or Old Twelvey, as we country folk apparently call it) before the introduction of the new-fangled and totally unnecessary Gregorian calendar in 1582.

The correct procedure is to choose a Wassail King and Queen, who lead a procession of interested parties round the local orchards. At each one, the Queen is lifted up into one of the trees, and she presents it with a piece of toast soaked in the wassail drink, which seems to be a kind of cider punch. This is a gift to the tree spirits. (Here's a recipe - I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it sounds rather nice.)

Then everybody sings the song, after which they shout and bang pots and pans and drums and generally make as much noise as they can to drive the evil spirits out. (Presumably the good spirits put their hands over their ears after eating up their toast.) Then I think they probably finish off the cider punch, and dance round the fire a bit.

Below is a video from YouTube of a wassail in Gloucestershire. I'd personally like to see a bit more attention to wearing appropriate clothing (see picture above, of a wassail at Brent Knoll, just down the A38 from here) and I'm really not happy about the plastic bags, but it's a good and lusty rendition of the song.

So there you are. I've given you a day's notice, and with a bit of practice you'll soon master the song - so if you have apple trees, prepare to wassail them. Unfortunately, they really don't grow well in our garden...

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Why the (Western) World loves an Extrovert, by Fay Bound Alberti

On New Year's Eve my friend and I sat in a busy venue, gently grumbling at all the bonhomie involved in the celebrations: strangers hugging, singing and optimistically making predictions for 2017. We were the obligatory introverts - the spectres at the feast, commenting on the party that was erupting around us, rather like Statler and Waldorf, those grumpy old men from the Muppets. 

I thought a lot about introversion and extroversion over the festive period, and its social history. The overwhelming narrative of the season is the good humour and geniality of friends and family, and yes, strangers, in the spirit of man's humanity to man - though it always seems to be women who are landed with the practicalities. Those who are not swept up in the spirit are the Scrooges and the Grinches of the world, preferring their own company to that of others. The pressure on all of us to grab the hands of strangers for a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne is considerable. 

So where does it come from, this association of introversion with hostility and unfriendliness? What got me thinking about this is the history of loneliness, a subject that I am researching for a forthcoming book. Today, loneliness seems to be an ever growing concern, variously linked to adolescent depression, middle-age suicide and elderly dementia. To be separated from society, the story goes, is to fail to function in it. Loneliness has become shorthand for a pathological isolation from the outside world, made all the more challenging by the rise of social media. Sites like FaceBook are said to encourage isolation at the same time as they make us more 'social' - lurking on social media websites and seeing everyone else leading apparently 'perfect' lives, leads to introspection and depression. 

It is introverts who most commonly report, or are more willing to report being lonely, but the term introvert is itself a modern one,coined by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (pictured below) in 1921. At the time of Jung's research, many of our current working ideas about the self and society, emotions, the mind and the role of the individual were being formulated with the rise of the mind sciences. Scientific explanations for human personality and behaviour were being discussed, especially in relation to the structuring and working of the brain. 

In the new mind sciences, extroversion was characteristic of talkative, outward-facing personalities who were energetic and enlivened by being around other people. By contrast, introversion was associated with isolation and reserve, and by the need to spend time alone. Most personality models in history since Jung have worked with this basic understanding of differences between extroverts and introverts. In 1962 Myers-Briggs created a workable model of Jung's theories (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI) which is still in common usage. Curious? There is even a free online test, adapted from Myers-Briggs that you can take at home. 

The MBTI 'personality inventory' uses Extroversion and Introversion as one of its main categories of analysis. Despite changing models of psychology since the 1960s, concepts of introversion and extroversion continue to dominate, and have acquired a moral loading. Extroverts are generally seen to be open and agreeable, and introverts thoughtful as well as neurotic. The basic idea of personality (or temperament) types is not new; it has been around since the classical period. Following Galen, men and women were divided into melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric or sanguine individuals, depending on how much of a particular humour they possessed within their bodies. These differences are represented rather nicely below by the seventeenth-century painter Charles Le Brun's allegorical depiction of different personality types. 

Today, there is more moral loading about different personalities, and the value of introversion and extroversion. In the Western world we place higher stock on being extroverted, as identified by Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking  Many organisations and institutions (I have worked for at least one) celebrate noise and activity over quietness and consideration. Introversion, despite its necessity in many of the creative arts, has acquired something of a pathology; shyness a failing. Why is this? 

Part of this association (extroversion = good and introversion = bad) can be rooted in the social context of the psychological models that emerged after Jung. In the early twentieth century, European and American models of the self valued self-help, self-reliance, hard work and the rise of the individual. Being able to stand out, being willing to be vocal and outward-facing, being able to demonstrably lead others was a measure of success in presenting the self, as in business. On 21st century social media, vloggers like Zoella sell not only books and make up but a particularly modern form of aspirational extroversion that would have been unthinkable in an earlier time. 

Above: Zoe Sugg (Zoella) speaking at the 2014 VidCon, 28 June 2014. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

There are global differences in the desirability of extroversion. While it is taken as the norm in the UK and US, it has been argued, extroversion is less acceptable in traditionally social-orientated traditions of Japan and Buddhist cultures. Of course these are stereotypes, and differences are often surface, rather than core. But part of the reason for introversion in Buddhist cultures is the emphasis on looking inwards, in stillness and mindfulness, characteristics that arguably retain a different value in the West.  

In the real world, of course, we need introverts just as much as extroverts. And most of us are neither entirely one thing or the other. It is common for each of us to feel introverted or extroverted at different times depending on our mood, company and environment. Extroversion is just one of the 'big five' that psychologists now use to measure personality and aptitudes. In addition to extroversion, the characteristics that matter are neuroticism (emotional stability); conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. The vast majority of people fit somewhere in the middle on most of these rankings. There are always exceptions. In a recent study, The Atlantic magazine found that Donald Trump, America's new President, scored extremely low on agreeableness and unusually high on extroversion: a 'combustible' combination whose effects have yet to be seen. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Stories from Japan by Lesley Downer

‘Please allow me to introduce myself ...’ as the Devil said in the Rolling Stones’ song ...
There’s a phrase in Japanese: jiko shokai. It means ‘self introduction’ and it’s what you do when you meet a person or a group for the first time.
You step forward, bow and present your business card, holding it with both hands with thumb and forefinger at the top two corners, turned so that your new acquaintance can conveniently read it, and say, ‘My name is Lesley Downer (or whatever). How do you do?’ You then take your new acquaintance’s business card with both hands with suitable respect and read it carefully (as opposed to stuffing it in your pocket).
Opposing armies of samurai used to introduce themselves before they went into battle. It was called nanori - ‘name announcing.’ The warriors would step forward and yell out their name, lineage, exploits and the exploits of their ancestors to make sure that they were only fighting adversaries of suitable reputation and stature.
In 1274 when Kublai Khan sent an Armada of 4000 ships to Hakata Bay in the southern island of Kyushu, determined to conquer the country, the samurai who confronted the army of Mongols on the beach did exactly that. But they soon discovered that the invaders didn’t have such exquisite manners when they cut them down mid-speech. The Mongols might have overrun Japan when they arrived again in 1281 to finish off the job if it hadn’t been for the Japanese gods who sent a divine wind - kami kaze - that dashed the Mongol ships on the rocks and destroyed their entire fleet.

The kami kaze strikes during the second Mongol invasion of Japan
This is my first regular post for The History Girls blog so I shall introduce myself. A lot of my posts - though not all - will have to do with Japan and I’d like to explain why.
For me the seed was planted more than thirty years ago when I read Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. In it he wrote of the Japanese aesthetic approach to life. In Britain, identical-sized pots by a particular craft potter all cost the same. In Japan you can have ten very similar pots, all of exactly the same size. Nine will be priced at - say - Y5,000 (just under £35). One will be just a tiny bit different - often not obvious to the untrained eye. Perhaps it’s a little uneven, a little off centre. Or perhaps something will have happened in the firing. The glaze will be a little different, maybe there’ll be an unexpected flash of colour, what looks like a flaw that to the Japanese eye gives it beauty. That pot will be priced at Y50,000 or even Y500,000.
The western potter, conversely, strives to make all pots perfectly centred and perfectly round with no variation. As a famous senryu (satirical short poem) puts it:
‘Western food -
Every damn plate
Is round!’

Cup by a famous Okinawan potter. You can see the master’s hand in the strength of the line in the fish design. 

Flagon by the Okinawan potter’s son, also highly accomplished, using his father’s trademark fish design.  The flagon is larger and more complex than the cup but was much cheaper.
At the time that I read Leach’s book I was teaching English to foreign students in Oxford. One, Yoshi, was Japanese. As a first step I asked him to teach me the language.
I also bought the Penguin Anthology of Japanese Literature. I’d recommend it to this day to anyone who has the smallest interest in Japan and its culture.
I began at page 1 and read through to the end. It took me on a wild journey, introduced me to people on the other side of the planet who had lived life to the hilt, some more than a thousand years ago.
I read of Ono no Komachi, the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Like Helen of Troy or Cleopatra she became the emblem of beauty. Men were willing to die for her. One commander of the imperial guard was desperate to have her as his own. To prove his love she ordered him to come to her house for a hundred nights and sleep outside on the bench used to support the shafts of her chariot before she would even consider his suit. All through that freezing winter he did so. When the morning of the hundredth day came round she went out to offer herself to him as his reward. But he was dead. He had died in the night.
For her hardheartedness she suffered the most terrible punishment of all - the loss of her beauty. She lived to be a hundred years old and in Noh plays is portrayed not as a beauty but a crone, forever bewailing her fate.
Komachi really lived and wrote passionate, complex poems. Just as the monks of Wessex were beginning to set down the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as the Vikings were sacking Paris in 845, 100 years before Beowulf was written, she was composing poems like this (in Donald Keene’s wonderful translation in the Penguin Anthology):
‘This night of no moon
There is no way to meet him.
I rise in longing -
My breath pounds, a leaping flame,
My heart is consumed in fire.’

Ono no Komachi by Kanō Tan’yū - 

Ariwara no Narihira, famous as a great lover and poet, lived around the same time. A nobleman of - naturally - peerless beauty, he was banished from the capital, Kyoto, because he had violated the Vestal Virgin. He travelled through the wilds of eastern Japan, past Mount Fuji and the uninhabited plains around what is now Tokyo, breaking hearts and writing sublime poetry. It was said that while other men are picky, he slept with everyone.
The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, came a little later. It was written by a court lady around 1008, before the Battle of Hastings. I’d expected such a famous classic to be a tough read but, at least in translation, it was utterly enthralling. I fell in love with Genji, the central characters, a handsome, roguish, charismatic, badly-behaved prince. Genji was not in the slightest like Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales (written 300 years later). It was all about relationships and feelings, closer to Jane Austen, the Brontes or George Eliot.
And so I read on through the centuries - of samurai armies battling, of a hero who led his band of warriors straight down a vertical cliff face to attack the enemy camped on the beach and how that enemy - including the baby emperor - fled into the water and were drowned, which is why the crabs’ shells there look like samurai helmets to this day. I wept at the fate of doomed lovers, was gripped by tales of love suicide, laughed at the outrageous Tristram Shandy-like antics of a pair of ne’er-do-well nineteenth century vagabonds, and found Basho’s profound and pithy haiku resonating in my mind.

Matsuo Basho with his straw hat and his companion, Sora.

I simply had to go there - see the beach where Atsumori played his flute, the hillside where Basho sat down on his straw hat and wept. Yoshi, my Japanese teacher, warned me that behind every temple there was a factory but I paid no attention. I found myself a job in Japan and off I went.
Over the years I’ve visited all these places and many more. My reading of Japan’s wonderful literature colours everything I see there. Of course Yoshi was right. There are lots of factories, industrial zones and cities of skyscrapers. But even though the country has changed you can still visit the place where the samurai warriors encountered the Mongols on the beach. (In fact underwater archaeologists have found a couple of sunken Mongol ships). You can still imagine how it was back in the days when the commander of the guard spent his last fateful night on the bench outside Ono no Komachi’s house.
I also began to write. While I’m not in Japan so much these days, I spend much of my time imagining myself back there - not in the glamorous Tokyo of skyscrapers and neon (which I also know and love) but in the nineteenth century, as Japan was on the cusp of enormous change. This is what I write about in my latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen. I hope I’ll have the chance to take you with me.

Friday, 13 January 2017

LA LA IN THE RAIN – Elizabeth Fremantle has some thoughts on Hollywood old and new.

I’ve been happy to learn about the haul of Golden Globes for La La Land. I thought it a delight of a film, echoing old-style Hollywood, with two phenomenal central performances. It’s not particularly profound or thought-provoking film but nonetheless carries serious themes beneath its enchanting surface.

Its undisguised relationship to a film I love, Singin’ in the Rain – watched at least once a year for many decades – may well be the reason why I found it so touching. In a strange, sad synchronicity it was the morning after I watched La La Land that I discovered Debbie Reynolds had sadly died bringing the earlier musical, to which it is in many way a homage, back to the fore.

Reynolds’ death was perhaps more of a sting for me than that of her daughter. Though I am very much from the Fisher generation I have never seen Star Wars, so Princess Leia is an unknown to me. But Reynolds’ perky, all singing, all dancing Kathy Selden, who finds her voice Hollywood style, feels like an old friend and seeing all those clips on social media of her hoofing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor brought a bitter-sweet sensation.

The period of filmmaking in which Singin’ in the Rain is set, the advent of the talkies, and its immediate aftermath, produced some of my favourite films. The kind of films I discovered on television as a child, marvelling at their fast talking heroines filled to the brim with smarts. They have remained favourites because they mark the moment when women had top billing and the best lines. Think of Mae West, in I’m No Angel, ‘When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better,’ or Irene Dunne in my absolute favourite screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, ‘Yes, tell her I’d love to meet her. Tell her to wear boxing gloves.’ 

The 1930s was a time when women in film were on top and Singin’ in the Rain for all its light-hearted silliness and slapstick was, at twenty years’ distance, articulating that moment when the voiceless siren, whose power lay merely in the reflection of the male gaze, came off her pedestal to become a real flesh and blood heroine whose wit, charisma and comic timing became box-office gold. 

It was a short-lived moment, by the advent of WW2 the screwball comedy was on its way out. Now, eighty years on, we are in an era in which most films don’t even pass the Bedchel Test. (This is a test that requires a film to have three things: Two female characters – preferably named; Who talk to each other; about something other than a man.) It is also sadly the case that there are few actresses now who earn as much, or hold equal billing with, their male counterparts. Indeed Singin’ in the Rain itself, though its subject matter was about a young ingénue finding power with her voice, typically for 1952, put Gene Kelly firmly at centre stage.

But I saw a glimpse, in La La Land, of a refreshing spirit of Hollywood gender equality. The two protagonists, each pursuing their dream, come to understand the sacrifices required for personal fulfilment. Stone’s Mia is every bit as intrinsic to the message of the film as Gosling’s Sebastian. She’s not simply the ‘love interest’ or the ‘sidekick’ there to give him a plot and make him look good.

Additionally an important difference between this film and the Screwball comedies that I love so much, is that the punch line of the narrative has a divergent gender message: her fulfilment isn’t ultimately dependent on him. This equality is reflected in the fact that unusually both Stone and Gosling won Golden Globes for best actor/actress. More commonly the actress would be the regarded as supporting his starring role. It’s hardly a seismic change but perhaps it is a tremor that indicates Hollywood’s tectonic plates are making a gradual and welcome shift.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower, is published by Penguin.  Find more information on her website:

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Perspective, by Antonia Senior

Sometimes, when I am ill, I play a game with myself, to curb excessive moping. How many times would I have died, had I live in ye olde days?

My current count is twice. Once when I had a blood clot in pregnancy which, if left untreated by blood thinners, would have broken up and whistled through my veins to my lungs, making me cough blood, breath thinly, and eventually die.

And now. Laid up in bed with my leg - my purple, sausagey, goosebumped travesty of a leg - in the air. I have cellulitis, a relatively common and treatable infection of the deep tissues of the skin and the subcutaneous fat layers. It's agonising, debilitating and bloody annoying. But I'm quaffing antibiotics and ibuprofen and the worst side effect is missing this fabulous book launch:

But the side-effect of cellulitis in the olden days was more serious than missing a bookish, boozy party. Left untreated, it can cause gangrene. Yes, I take my art as a historical novelist so seriously that I am flirting with gangrene. (Next, I'll pick up some tuberculosis, and possibly a light bout of plague).

Perspective is a tricky beast. We are all the centre of our own universe and the notion that other people have it tougher is too often met with a shrug.

Hence my game, as the antidote to moping. IT is a miracle that anyone survived the olden days. At least half of my Mum friends would have died in a violent and miserable childbirth without - sterile - medical help. Dead from the pre-eclampsias and the detached placentas and the infections picked up from the dirty, horrifying instruments shoved up inside agonised women. God help the women of St Kilda, who watched 80 per cent of their newborns shrivel and die - perhaps from thepractice of smearing sea bird oil on their cut umbilical cords.

And the pain our forebears suffered! I was weeping with pain from my small bout of cellulitis. Think of Samuel Pepys, and the level of pain from a bladder stone that made him choose possible death and the unimaginable, unanesthetized agony of cutting it out. 

The instruments used on poor Pepys

If in doubt about the power of fiction to recreate the past and inject some perspective, read David Mitchell's brilliant novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Groet. His hero, Jacob, assists at a lithotomy - the operation suffered by Pepys. The writing is so gory, so exquisitely detailed that I hesitate to reproduce it here, in case you are eating. 

This is one of the less gruesome bits: "Marinus asks Dr Maeno to hold the lamp close to the patient's groin and take up his scalpel. His face becomes the face of a swordsman.
Marinus sinks the scalpel into Gerritszoon's perinaeum.
The patient's entire body tenses like a single muscle."

Less gruesome, but equally memorable is Dr Maturin's operation on the gunner, Mr Day on the deck of the brig Sophie. He cements his reputation among the sailors for ever, when, as his Captain Jack Aubrey tells it, he "opened our gunner's skull, roused out the brains, set them to rights, stuffed them back in again..."

Lying here with my pet sausage leg, I've been searching for pre-drug remedies for inflamed joints. Some mention of heat and ice, which is all to the good. The Romans were fond of ivy poultices. I reach for the ibuprofen again - and thank whatever Gods may be that I live now. And near a chemist.

A short blog this month, as I am in pain and grumpy. But I'll end with this thought: how many times, dear readers, would you have died in ye olde days?