Wednesday, 30 April 2014

April Competition

Ann Swinfen is generously offering one of her three recent titles to five Followers who provide the best answers to this question:

"What novel would you recommend to other readers in which a small group fights for their rights against seemingly overwhelming odds"

Write your answers in the Comments section below and don't forget to say which of Ann's titles you would like to win, out of The Testament of Mariam, Flood or The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez.

Competition are open only to UK residents - sorry! Closing date 8th May

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Saints, Spies and Saboteurs

Our guest this month is Ann Swinfen, one of those multi-talented women who seem to be able to do anything, juggling a large family, academia, historical research and writing fiction.

Ann Swinfen ( published three novels with RandomHouse, but her three latest – The Testament of Mariam, Flood and The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez – she has published herself. Loving the whole independent publishing process, she thinks it unlikely she’d ever return to conventional publishing. Short stories previously in magazines and on BBC radio are now on Kindle. She’s reissuing her backlist and continuing the Christoval series set in 16th century London, featuring a young physician coerced into becoming a code-breaker and spy in Walsingham’s secret service.

Over to you, Ann and many thanks for visiting

Sometimes a story seizes you by the throat and won’t let you go until it is told. That is what happened to me with The Testament of Mariam. For a long while there had been a vague, half-formed thought at the back of my mind – What would the real man Yeshûa have been like? The peasant from Galilee who, over the course of a few short years, changed the course of human history? Yeshûa was his original, Aramaic name, though down the years it has been transformed into Iesu, Jesu, Jesus, and many other variants. The man of blood and bone has been so buried under the accumulated detritus of doctrine and years that he is hidden from us.

I have never doubted that there was a real man, but I had never given it any serious thought until one day a question formed, without any conscious volition on my part: What would it have been like, to be the sister of such a man? To have grown up with him in that humble carpenter’s family, in an insignificant northern village, in a Roman-occupied province, where all the wealth and any surviving power was concentrated in the south of the country? At that point Mariam walked into my head and began to talk. She was elderly and ailing, living as an exile in southern Gaul, having shut away the memories of her girlhood, too painful to recall. But then a series of events occurs which brings back those times, and I – we – relive them with her.

Unusually, I did not do a lot of research before I began to write, because the story was pressing itself on me so urgently. Instead, I wrote and researched in parallel. Having been, in my time, a classicist, I already had a good grounding in the culture and history of the first century AD, so I was on familiar ground as I wrote during the day. In the evenings I read voraciously about the areas of the history that were new to me. I discovered that a great deal more was known than I had realised. Galilee was a hotbed of insurrection. Revolts against the Roman occupation, and also against the time-serving southern aristocracy, had been erupting for a couple of generations. Some of the leaders of these revolts were even called Yeshûa. Now there was food for thought! Also, I had recently read The Gospel of Judas, which caused me to rethink that whole strand of the story. In the course of my research I discovered a fascinating study on the content and poetic structures of the psalms, so when I needed a psalm, I wrote one myself, based on that research.

I had dipped into the translation of The Dead Sea Scrolls before, but now I read them from cover to cover, and the commentaries relating to them. I became convinced that Yeshûa must have spent time amongst the Essene community, where the Scrolls originated. The Essenes had ritual meals involving sacred bread and wine. Their medical practices included techniques used by Yeshûa in his ministry (and I learned that amongst his contemporaries, he was renowned above all as a healer rather than a religious leader). However, the Essenes were an exclusive, hierarchical sect, regarding the rest of mankind as sinful and doomed, and permitting only those from the priestly castes to rise to high rank amongst them. This would have been anathema to Yeshûa, given his later teaching. Therefore, I reasoned, if he had spent time amongst the Essenes, he could not have remained there.
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls

What about women? Where would this fictional sister fit into the story? The social mores of the time meant that women and girls were kept very close to home, under the strict supervision of their fathers or husbands. Yet it is clearly documented in the New Testament that a group of women formed part of Yeshûa’s following, travelling with him about the country, living, like him, on the charity of the communities they visited. They came from many different walks of life and they were there at the end, at the crucifixion. Therefore it was perfectly reasonable that Mariam, Yeshûa’s younger sister, should be one of those women. I was writing a secular novel – it was never intended to be a religious book – and I felt that Yeshûa’s sister would be confused. She loves her charismatic brother. She fervently believes in his vision of a new dispensation, when all shall be free, the common people no longer downtrodden. But she has known him all her life, a son of the same parents. How can she accept his divinity? She constantly tries to rationalise the miracles, never quite sure…

And then, there are the saints. Saint Peter, after all, starts out as a peasant fisherman called Shim‘ôn. A blunt, practical man of his hands, nicknamed Kêphas, ‘The Rock’, a solid reliable man, on whom Yeshûa depends. Yet we know he denied his leader three times. He was human. He was frightened. He too could have been crucified. Even saints are very much like the rest of us.

Hence the strand of ‘saints’ in these musings of mine. In writing historical fiction, I have never wanted to write about kings and queens, mighty warlords or powerful politicians. What interests me are the ordinary people, the common mass of humanity, who sometimes do extraordinary things. So fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes can become saints. The other two historical novels of mine that I want to discuss involve small communities, commonly overlooked in the general scheme of things, but sometimes remarkable for all that.

The first is the Marrano community in late Tudor England. Most history books will assert that there were no Jews in England from the time of their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I (who owed them a great deal of money) until Cromwell did a deal with Menasseh ben Israel in 1655-6, keen to lure wealthy and experienced Jewish merchants to London at a time when the country was in dire financial straits after the Civil War.

However, there were Jews in England during the intervening 365 years. There are occasional references to Jewish merchants in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the real influx began as a result of the Inquisition in Spain and later in Portugal (after an aggressive Spain under Philip II invaded and seized control of the latter). Ironically, when a large part of the Iberian peninsula was under Arab control, both Christians and Jews were tolerated, even if they did not have full citizen rights. Once the Spanish had driven out the Moors, an inflexible Spanish Catholic Church turned on anyone outside its confines, which meant anyone with suspiciously Protestant leanings and above all, the Jews. Spanish and Portuguese Jews, if they were to avoid death, were forced to convert to Christianity, becoming the conversos, or novos cristãos, or New Christians. They were also known as Marranos, which is, in fact, a term of insult.

Despite their conversion, the New Christians continued to be regarded with suspicion by the Catholic Church. They were regularly rounded up by the Inquisition and tortured. Those who did not give satisfactory answers were killed in the mass public executions called autos-da-fé. (It was considered beneficial for local people to attend these edifying spectacles – it would chalk up advantages for them in the afterlife.) Those New Christians who were deemed to have shown true penance were paraded through the streets half naked, while they were scourged. Their property was confiscated and they were driven from their occupations. As many of them were wealthy merchants or distinguished scholars, this was no minor affair, and Iberia lost many men of great talent.

Auto da Fe
One recourse for those who had the means of escape was to take passage on one of the merchant ships trading with the Protestant countries of northern Europe, in particular England and those parts of the Low Countries which were not under Spanish control. Although some of the Portuguese Marrano immigrants who settled in London were poor, earning their living as pawnbrokers or by trading in secondhand clothes, a large number were from the professional classes. The merchants dealt in exotic goods – spices and silk and gems – sending their ships along the new routes to the near East, the Indian subcontinent and the East Indies. The physicians, some of whom had been university professors, brought with them their advanced knowledge of Arab medicine.

So it was that the two leaders of the Marrano community in late Elizabethan England were Dunstan Añez, merchant and Purveyor of Groceries and Spices to Her Majesty the Queen, and Hector Nuñez, merchant and physician to (amongst others) Lord Burghley. The most famous of them all was Roderigo Lopez, who rose from a position as physician in St Bartholomew’s Hospital for the poor of London to personal physician to the Queen herself.

Into this established community of Marrano London comes twelve-year-old Christoval Alvarez. Baltasar Alvarez, New Christian professor of medicine at Coimbra university, fleeing the Inquisition, has brought Christoval (Kit) to London, where he assumes a post as physician at St Bartholomew’s. At the point when my novel The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez opens, Kit is sixteen and working as an assistant physician at the same hospital.

I was drawn to this story by this little-known community living discreetly but quite successfully in Shakespeare’s London. And although they took care not attract attention to themselves, they were not entirely free from danger even here, for there was a good deal of racism and anti-semitism in Elizabethan London, where there were substantial foreign groups, mostly escaping persecution on continental Europe. As well as the Marranos fleeing the Inquisition there were Hollanders persecuted by the Spanish overlords of parts of the Low Countries and those French Huguenots who had managed to survive the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day and who now plied their silk-weaving trade in Petty France. There were, however, bad winters, unemployment and periods of famine at the time, and it took little enough to set loose the bands of armed apprentices on the streets of London, crying, ‘Clubs! Clubs!’ and looking for easy victims. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare drew on this vein of racism and anti-semitism in The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice.

It was a dangerous place, late Tudor England. And one of the greatest threats came from the constant – almost innumerable – plots against Elizabeth and the English State. Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope and his blessing had been given to any man who tried to assassinate her. There were plenty willing to make the attempt. Some plots were simple affairs, involving just one or two men, but the most dangerous were backed with money and troops by the Duke of Guise, cousin of Mary Queen of Scots, who wanted to see her on the English throne and Protestantism wiped out. Philip II of Spain – always an expansionist – also had his eye on the throne. While he was married to Mary Tudor he styled himself King of England. Had the Armada succeeded, he would have reclaimed the title.
Sr Francis Walsingham
Into this morass of traitors and plots stepped Sir Francis Walsingham, who formed England’s first secret service of spies, intelligencers and code-breakers. His network extended over the whole of Europe and reached even into the Ottoman Empire, often making use of the channels of communication provided by the Marrano merchants. The amount of work accomplished by his service (and financed by him personally) was phenomenal, and kept the country safe for years. His chief code-breaker was Thomas Phelippes, who survived him and had a colourful subsequent career. One of his agents was Robert Poley, a slippery, ambiguous character, probably a double agent, possibly a traitor, certainly an agent provocateur, and a thoroughly nasty piece of work. It is not without significance that he was one of the three unsavoury characters present when Marlowe was ‘accidentally’ stabbed to death.
An encrypted letter
Through the connivance of Robert Poley, Christoval Alvarez, who is mathematically gifted, is coerced into becoming a code-breaker and later an agent in Walsingham’s service. Kit has a secret which Poley has uncovered and which could lead to burning at the stake. The only way to ensure Poley’s silence is to comply.

Although Christoval is a fictional character, the secret service and its activities are factual, and amazing some of those activities are. I was drawn both to the history of the Marrano community and to Walsingham’s organisation. It seemed fitting to make a young Marrano one of Walsingham’s agents. The first book in the Christoval series covers the year 1586 and the foiling of the Babington plot, while the next will cover the period up to, including and after the Armada, 1587-8. The Counter Armada of 1589 is rarely spoken about, for it was a total disaster. Undertaken to avenge Spain’s attack on England, its alleged purpose was to put the pretender, Dom Antonio (himself half Jewish), on the Portuguese throne, but through incompetence, arrogance and greed it deteriorated into a catastrophe which cost thousands of lives. Subsequently, it has been swept under the carpet of history, and it has not been allowed to tarnish the fame of the hero Drake, who was largely responsible for what happened. It will be the subject of the third book in the series. The whole history of espionage, plots and counter-plots, the rivalries of men and the battles of nations is so rich it will carry Kit forward into the next century and the next reign.

Saints, spies and . . . saboteurs. Another of those neglected corners of history concerns the Fenland Riots of the seventeenth century. I stumbled across them while pursuing a different piece of research and was immediately intrigued. The enclosure of the common lands of England is one of the more disreputable parts of our history, when all over the country men of wealth and power seized land which had been held ‘in common’ by villagers, ‘enclosed’ it – thus shutting out its rightful owners – and exploited it for their own ends. In many parts of the country, the land was turned over to sheep, an outcome foretold in Jim Crace’s recent novel Harvest. In the East Anglian Fens, it was rather different. This strange, remote, marshy country had its own mode of farming the land, which went back generations, at least to Roman times and almost certainly earlier. Every winter the rains washed alluvial soil from the inland wolds down on to the flat fenland fields. When these winter floods drained away into the marshes – the Fens – the arable fields were left covered with some of the best soil in the country. The whole area, from Cambridgeshire through Suffolk and Norfolk to Lincolnshire, was a patchwork of these field and marshes, interspersed with natural waterways and other channels which had been constructed over the centuries by local people who understood their land and its peculiarities. There was an abundance of fish and waterfowl, the peat bogs supplied fuel, and the thickets of willow and rushes provided material for thatch, baskets, hurdles and eel traps. It was a rich and varied landscape. The people worked hard, but the land yielded a good living.

When ‘adventurers’ turned their greedy eyes on the Fens in the seventeenth century, they claimed that the land was useless and their enclosures and drainage would turn the area into a pot of gold for investors. They were, in fact, a sort of prototype of today’s venture capitalists. Once the land was drained, it would be rented out to immigrant peasant farmers, still coming in (as they had been in Christoval’s time) from France and Holland. The rents paid by these farmers to the investors would return their investment a hundredfold.

The first wave of drainers arrived in the early part of the century and the capital came primarily from the nobility and even the king. Francis Russell, fourth Earl of Bedford, was notorious for his appalling treatment of local people and their rights. However, unlike most other areas where enclosure took place, the fenlanders fought back. This was the start of the Fenland Riots and is reckoned to be one of the underlying causes of the English Civil War. Women as well as men fought against the drainers. When their cases were dismissed in court, often through corrupt and unscrupulous practices, they took up their scythes and pitchforks and attacked the men digging the new drains, who were protected by armed guards. In massive and persistent acts of sabotage, they tore down pumping mills, smashed sluice gates and set fire to the immigrant farmers’ hastily built houses. A number of them were killed or seriously wounded in the counter-attacks.

Then the Civil War came, and the balance of power shifted in the country. Oliver Cromwell, who himself came from East Anglia and had promised support for the fenlanders, seized control of the government, expelling all members of Parliament who disagreed with him (including John Swinfen, but that’s another story!). The fenlanders thought their homes and livelihood were safe. There came the lull between the two phases of the Civil War, and with this temporary peace came a new wave of speculators, led by the new men risen to power, among them Cromwell himself. My novel Flood is set at this time, when the fenlanders found they must fight again, against both speculators and an ever more corrupt judicial system, which often fined and imprisoned those who brought court cases against the speculators.

My central character, Mercy Bennington, daughter of a yeoman farmer, is one of those courageous women who were prepared to go out and fight alongside their men. Some of them were accused of being witches, on account of their unwomanly behaviour. For this was also the time of Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch-Finder General, who roamed East Anglia accusing and condemning to death hundreds of innocent men and women. It was also the time of the licensed Puritan iconoclasts, who were commissioned to go out and destroy any remnants of Anglican worship in local churches, smashing up mediaeval stained-glass windows, making bonfires of altars and altar rails, and beating up any clergymen who continued to use the Elizabethan prayer book.

All the atrocities which occur in my novel actually took place – the soldiers urinating in a church font, the mock baptism of a trooper’s horse, the forcing of a village girl to become an army whore, the vicious attacks on clergymen and villagers who supported their traditional way of life, the torture and ‘swimming’ of witches. Everything was fully documented at the time. And what of the actual drainage works? Now here’s the irony of it all. Because the engineers brought in by the speculators did not understand the local terrain, they pumped water out of the Fens into drainage channels for the purpose of turning them into agricultural land. But from time immemorial the Fens had acted as sponges, absorbing the excess water when the winter rains came. The result was that the new channels filled up and overflowed, flooding villages and homes, and drowning those who could not escape. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that water engineers were able to design a form of efficient drainage, but this turned the peat bogs of the Fens into shrunken, dried-up areas lying below the level of the local rivers, a precarious situation.
"Swimming" a witch
The fenlanders of the seventeenth century were persistent and courageous, but only succeeded in saving small areas of the Fens. Several people have commented on the fact that my novel Flood was published just at the time when the country was, once again, suffering from disastrous floods, many of them due to the ignorance and even arrogance of those who have ignored the lessons of history. Property speculators have built on flood plains. The ancient functions of water meadows and marshes have been ignored. The gradual dispersal of water in the uplands to avoid greater volumes downstream has been forgotten. One sign of returning sanity can be found along the coast of the Fens themselves, where some farmlands lying along the sea are being allowed to revert to salt marsh, a natural sponge to absorb flood water from the North Sea, as the Fens once absorbed the flood waters inland. Perhaps someday sense will prevail and historians will be able to point the way to the sound methods of our ancestors.

One story famous throughout the world, and two neglected corners of history. Saints, spies and saboteurs – all of them people of little account amongst their contemporaries – but in their various ways fighting for what they believed to be right. Rich territory for any novelist.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Grandfathers, by Clare Mulley

During a recent sort out, my mum found a small square of newspaper, cut out and neatly gummed onto a piece of glass cut to size. It had been sellotaped too, protecting the ink and turning the paper a deep golden-yellow, but before it was stuck down someone had penciled their name on it in three different places, as well as scratching their initials on the back. The date, handwritten alongside, is 28 June 1919.

The clipping is from the ‘London “Daily Express” Aeroplane Post’, and the headline is ‘Peace Proclaimed.’ You don’t get much of the story, but everything important is captured in sixteen words: ‘The Peace Treaty was signed by the Peace Emissaries of the Allied and Enemy Countries today’.

Dick Mulley's keepsake of the announcement of peace, 1919

The penciled name is ‘R Mulley’. This was my grandfather, Richard Mulley, better known as Dick, then a fourteen-year-old boy with very tidy writing. He was clearly hugely aware of how momentous that day was, marking the end of what was then known as The Great War. Little wonder, since one of his older brothers had served in the Royal Navy and was twice on ships that were torpedoed - although amazingly he survived to run a toyshop in the peace. Dick’s deep sense of moment is captured both in the number of times he scribbled his name on the paper, and in his determination to write so neatly on this small keepsake of history.

I have very little that once belonged to my dad’s dad, although there are a few photos of his many naughty, handsome brothers and long-suffering sisters. I love the fact that this small plaque has survived, a momento of a boy who had clearly been following the war, and had a sense of history as well as of victory. It is also a momento of my father, who must have cautiously held this fragile square of paper and glass, just like I have, and wondered about the boy who grew up to become his father. These two men carefully kept this small cutting safe for ninety-five years.

My husband, Ian, has similarly precious little from his father’s father; in fact he has even less. However, as a child he did inherit his father’s stamp collection, which he carefully stuck in an album bought for the purpose in the 1960s, adding to it as he went. Looking at the individual stamps, however, some of these must have come down from another generation, from Ian’s father’s father, Reiner.

This album contains stamps from all over the world. The smaller the country, the more fabulous the stamp, my dad once told me, looking at his own childhood collection with me. The same is true here, but the most fascinating stamps in this album come from Ian’s grandfather and father’s birth-country; Germany.

Germany first issued stamps in 1872. Sadly there are none in this album from then, but there are two Germany pages, very neatly distinguishing stamps dating from 1949 which were issued in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, ie post-war Eastern Germany, and look suitably Soviet, from an older collection from the Deutsche Reich.

These Reich stamps are fascinating. The oldest, perhaps, is a pretty dark blue one showing a stylised hunting horn for a value of 6 marks. The collection quickly moves up in face-value however to 200, 400 and 500 marks. In the years after the First World War the value of the German mark fell rapidly, mainly as a result of reparation payments and the penalties imposed on German trade, combined with the depression. As the German government printed money, the country experienced rapid, debilitating inflation. German stamps in circulation were overprinted to reflect this. A pink stamp in the album that had been issued at a face-value of 500 marks, had been given a value of 250,000 marks in around 1923, while below it a paler pink 200 mark stamp is overprinted with a value of 2 million marks! Some of these stamps do not even look used, as though even when revalued in the millions they could hardly cover the cost of delivering a letter.

Deutsche Reich stamps from the album, c.1920s

So while, as a lad, one grandfather, Dick Mulley, was cheerfully sticking his newspaper cutting on to some glass to keep it nice, another, Reiner Wolter was - possibly less cheerfully - not sticking stamps onto envelopes, but keeping them safe nonetheless, with a sense for preserving history that was just as keen as Dick’s.

So what happened to these two boys when they grew up? In the Second World War my father’s father, Dick, served as a chef in the navy, cooking Christmas dinner for 1,400 men one year; ie for two troopships. He survived the war, and later worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company. Story has it that one day, in a storm, he chopped his own thumb off but simply sewed it back and got on with dinner.

Ian’s grandfather, Reiner, was drafted too, but he was less lucky. There are several stories as to his end, but the one that seems most likely is that he was sent to the Russian Front, and died or was killed at Stalingrad, with so many others. We don’t really know. His widow, Ian’s beloved German grandma, fell in love again a few years later, with an English soldier based in the British-occupied zone of post-war Germany. They married, and although her older sons chose to stay in Germany, she brought her youngest son, Ian’s father, with her to England when her new husband was posted home. Very little came with them, no photos that we know of, but a few Christmas tree baubles and a small collection of stamps. And she sang wonderful German carols in their house at Christmas time.

So my children have great grandfathers who fought on both sides of that second terrible world war: men who were boys once, and collected small souvenirs of peace – little bits of gummy paper that still survive to tell us something rather wonderful about them, something about being aware of the zeitgeist that they might have recognised in each other.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Today's post

There is no History Girls post today.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

GOLD and COCA in COLOMBIA ­ – Dianne Hofmeyr

Gold is the most exquisite of all things… Whoever possesses gold can acquire all that he desires in this world.’ Christopher Columbus, 1503, in a letter to the King and Queen of Spain. 

He was referring to the gold rumoured hidden deep in the forests of Colombia. Even now in the 21st century, Colombia is still a place of secrets, brought to our attention with the recent exhibition of artefacts from the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, entitled Beyond El Dorado, at the British Museum and brought especially into our minds this last week with the death of Gabriel García Márquez.

It was odd to see the exhibition after I’d already completed an Indiana Jones-style adventure story for 9-12 year olds, set in the Colombian forest… odd because so much of what I’d put into the book about where the gold might have been hidden was mirrored by what was portrayed in the exhibition. In my story there is a waterfall and a cave. In the Beyond El Dorado exhibition there were records of a sacred lake.   
It was the fabulous stories of gold, which the first explorers of Colombia took back to Europe that fuelled the rush to South America. Explorers and adventurers including Sir Walter Raleigh, set out in search of this mythical place. On a map of the world in 1529, the region is shown as Castillo del Oro by the Spanish Crown. It was believed gold offerings were thrown into a deep lake by a ‘golden man’ to placate the gods. Lake Guatavita was thought to be the lake where the gold would be found. An etching from 1813 shows a notch cut into the lake by the explorer Antonio de Sepúlveda who attempted to drain the lake in the 1500’s. 

Indigenous people from ancient times believed the glow of gold imbued it with special qualities that would connect them to the sun. Certain animals were repeatedly used in the designs of the pectorals, nose ornaments, ear spools, necklaces and masks. Snakes, bats, birds, monkeys, frogs, crocodiles and the jaguar – all creatures of the forest. But more importantly, creatures who lived in two realms – earth and sky, water and land – or in the dark, as with bats and jaguars. They were seen as the significant bridge between the world of the living and the spiritual world.

Often the pieces had hanging discs and moving parts that reflected and make flashes of light or a tinkling sound as the wearers moved through firelight or sunlight. 
A hammered nose ornament with dangling strips of gold.  
It’s interesting that the goldsmiths used techniques that are still used today, including hammering and lost wax casting. Beeswax was used to make the most intricate coils and design details. The wax was then covered in clay leaving tiny openings as pouring holes. The clay piece was baked so that the wax melted out through the holes but left behind a mould that could have molten gold poured into it. Once the gold had hardened inside the clay mould, the mould was broken to release the gold piece. For this reason seldom are two pieces the same. 

Amongst the exhibits were numerous lime dippers that were licked first and then dipped in pots of lime, which when mixed in the mouth with a wad of coca leaves enhanced the stimulating affect the leaf had on the person. Some of the lime dippers go back as far as 200BC. Producing cocaine might be a fairly young industry in Colombia but growing the coca plant and chewing the leaves aren't. 
Gold cast finials of lime dippers.
My story, Oliver Strange and Forest of Secrets, tells of the present day Embera people who live deep in the forest and hunt using a special poison obtained from the sweat of the highly poisonous phylobates terrribilis, a drop of whose poison can kill up to 20 people. The boy hero in my story has a father who is a herpetologist. 

At one point in the story when the Embera have saved their forest and protected their secret horde of ancient gold from the hands of the guerrilla fighters, they conduct a special ceremony. What I found fascinating is that today’s Embera people use carved wooden rollers dipped in plant dye, to make patterns across their arms and legs for their ceremonies. I decided my character would make a jaguar and a snake design. Then discovered after seeing the exhibition, that this method of roller stamping the body goes back as far as 200 BC when ceramic rollers were made with complex patterns. I saw rollers with representations of jaguar spots and snake coils. In the ceremonial dance the person would take on the spirit of the creature whose patterns covered their arms and legs.
Ceramic body rollers with snake and jaguar patterns 
This book is the final in a series called The Frog Diaries, which were written to encourage children to connect with the natural world and to understand that we have the power to take action to save this world. Fiction allows writers to broach subjects and make things more accessible and immediate than might be possible in non-fiction. Oliver Strange and the Forest of Secrets is based on the fact that the forests of Colombia have always hidden secrets… whether ancient gold treasure, plantations of coco, guerrilla hide-outs or the deadliest frog known to man.
Cocaine production in the heart of the forest

And all these factors have contributed to the destruction of a swathe of irreplaceable rain forest. The 22nd of April was World Earth Day so my book published in April seems timely. Oliver Strange and Forest of Secrets, published by Tafelberg, is available in South Africa, but will soon be available in eBook format online. Unfortunately the Beyond El Dorado exhibition has already closed. A trip to the Museo del Oro in Bogotá anyone? 
My most recent picture book, Zeraffa Giraffa, illustrated by Jane Ray, was chosen by Nicolette Jones as Children’s Book of the Week in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine 20th April... 'a magical book about a true story' 

Friday, 25 April 2014


There are more than three months to go until the actual centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already some of us are feeling twinges of battle fatigue. There has been some tremendous stuff (and some horrors – not least the grotesquely over-sanitised nursing serial on the BBC) but let’s take a break from the centenery, and go for the double. I thought today I would see what was going on exactly two hundred years ago: on 25th April 1814 – just another humdrum day in history.

In Parliament they were talking about treason. Not because of any particular outrage (though it was only two years since the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival - a straightforward case of nurder as far as the courts were concerned) but to modernise the punishment of traitors, which for centuries had been hanging, drawing and quartering before beheading the culprit and displaying the mutilated body afterwards.

One of Britain’s great legal reformers, Sir Samuel Romilly, then MP for Arundel, had proposed removing the more disgusting elements of the execution. Traitors would now be hanged to death.

The member for Liskeard, Charles Philip Yorke, didn’t like the change and moved an amendment: That after the words, 'and there be hanged,' the words, 'and then be beheaded,' should be inserted.

He argued that only with such a horrible and public desecration of the body would other potential traitors be deterred.

The argument took on a tone we could recognise today.  Romilly countered with the assertion that he did not think that the exposing to public view of the mangled remains of a criminal could have any good effect.  
Men could not be accustomed to look on such horrid sights without becoming hardened and insensible, he said.

Yorke’s repost could have come straight from Any Answers. According to the Hansard writer: he said, 
When they were making laws for the infliction of punishment, they must, necessarily, use those words which the hon. gentleman so much disliked. It seemed, however, most extraordinary, when measures of this kind were under consideration, that gentlemen should feel all the pity, for those culprits whom the enactments meant to curb and control; and none at all for the evils which the public might suffer, if they were not in existence. In the case, for instance, of a successful treason, where war was levied within the realm, what evils would the public be subjected to? How many houses would be burned—how many murders perpetrated—how many rapes committed! These circumstances were all, it appeared, forgotten, in commiseration of the criminals.

Another member made the point that dismembering the corpses of criminals to teach the public a lesson was no different, morally, from the sentence passed on some criminals, which decreed that their bodies should be given for medical dissection.

Others camee to Romilly's side, including the MP for Norwich, William Smith, who was one of Florence Nightingale's grandfathers.  He is remembered (in so far as anyone has heard of him at all) for his opposition to slavery, and for being the person nearest to Spencer Perceval when he was shot.

Smith said,

The objection to decollation did not arise from any wish to lessen the punishment, but from a desire to prevent the occurrence of spectacles which tended to destroy every vestige of feeling in the breasts of those who witnessed them. As to the giving up of bodies for dissection, it was, with respect to the study of anatomy, attended with good effects.

In the end, Yorke got his ammendment, and beheading stayed on the statute book - indeed it remained (unused) as an alternative means of execution until 1973, and the death penalty for treason was not abolished in England until 1998.

Lord Haw Haw in custody

By the time the last executions for treason took place in 1945 and 1946, when John Amery and William (Lord Haw-Haw) Joyce were convicted, the punishment was straightforward hanging within the precincts of the prison.
In more recent years, the most public transgressors of the letter of the law (Princess Diana’s lovers) were not prosecuted.

But back in April 1814, capital punishment was a reality outside parliament. At the Old Bailey alone, twenty people were sentenced to death that month. Some were lucky, and were later transported to the colonies.
Among those sentenced to hang was a 30-year-old man who was a namesake of one of the MPs: William Smith. Indeed, in one set of records he is listed as having been sentenced on the very day of the parliamentary debate: 25th April. But his crime was far less serious than treason. He had stolen some wet clothes from a wash-house in the Fulham Road. He was caught in the a act of wringing out:
Eight glass-cloths, value 8 shillings
A pinafore, value 18 pence
Two aprons, value 1 shilling,
Seven remnants of cloth, value 1 shilling.

It seems likely that this William Smith ended up in Australia. Someone with that name and age is listed among the convicts on the transport ship Indefatigable which sailed in October 1814, reaching Sydney on 26 April 1815 – as it happens, 199 years ago tomorrow.


Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Warhorse in the 12th and Early 13th Centuries by Elizabeth Chadwick.

The other day there was a discussion on a historical list I'm on concerning the warhorses that would have been around during the days of William Marshal - knight par excellence in the mid 12th and early 13th centuries. The Ardennes breed (example in photo) was suggested as the type of great beast that William would have ridden to high success in the tourneys in which he took part.

It's amazing how this stereotype continues to prevail despite the amount of research that has been done on the fighting horses used at this time in history and despite all the pictorial and historical evidence we have to show that the medieval warhorse of the 12th and 13thc's little resembled the animal above.

As horse historian Daphne Machin Goodall says: 'The shire horse type may be comfortable at the walk, but he would be impossible at the trot, and heaven help the knight if his steed broke into a canter.'  As Tim Severin found out when he tried to ride an Ardennes cart horse to Jerusalem and ended up having to have a special saddle made before he could even sit the horse!

So, what do we know about the medieval warhorse of this time?
Anne Hyland, a historican of equine matters, carried out detailed assessments of horse in relation to horse transport ships and came to the conclusion that 'early medieval destriers were of a very moderate size!
'I estimate the build as stocky, and a height range of between 15 and 15.2 hands.'
The heavy horses of today are bred for haulage.  Weight to pull weight.  Even those said to throw back to the war horses of the Middle Ages have been bred to be taller and weightier than their ancestral counterparts. By the Tudor period Henry VIII was declaring that no heavy horses under 15 hands were to be kept for breeding, but that was not true of earlier centuries.
The ideam 12th and 13thc medieval warhorse wasn't bred to pull weight.  it was bred for speed, responsiveness, and to withstand the short, sharp shock of the charge and clash. In other words far more like a steer roping horse (an American Quarter Horse for example)  than a draught animal. It had to be sturdy enough to bear the weight of a man in a mail shirt and chausses; and to exist on what fodder was available in times of battle campaign. It also had to be trainable, intelligent and feisty but not umanageable.
Breeds are not mentioned - it was too early in history for that, but countries and regions sometimes turn up as providing the most desireable beasts. Spanish horses were hugely valued. William the Conqueror was presented with one on the eve of Hastings, and Norman baron Robert de Belleme had a stud of Spanish grey horses that he grazed on his Welsh Marcher lands. Arabian horses were prized too and one Oliver de Rohan brought nine of them back from the Holy land to run on his pastures.
In the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, horses from Lombardy are highly prized, although there is no indication as to what these kind of mounts might have looked like.
You will often find the Percheron horse cited as the descendant of the destrier, but don't be taken in by today's beautiful modern greys, active and fine though they are.  The medieval warhorse that came from the Le Perche region of France was 'of less massive conformation and generally brown in colour. In fact the early horse of le Perche, looked much like his neighbours, the Breton and Norman cobs.' So says Daphne Machin Goodall in her 'A History of Horse Breeding.'  She also makes the point that if such wonderful horses had existed in Charlemagne's time, he'd have been portrayed sitting on one of them to display his might, and not a basic cob!
So, if someone was looking around in today's market for a horse that best resembled the look if one was to go back in time to watch a tourney, what would one be looking for?

Possibly an Andalusian - a Spanish horse of ancient lineage and the correct characteristics.
Modern Andalusian - compare with the 13thC warhorse below

13th century warhorse - Matthew Paris. Nothing like a 'heavy horse' is it?

Or perhaps a Morgan horse - a breed believed to be suggestive today of resembling the destrier type by historian Matthew Bennett.

One of the four horsemen of the apcalypse - 13thC

Or perchance the Welsh cob.

For anyone further interested, there is a clip of a modern destrier in Terry Jones' programme on the crusades at 38 mins 54 seconds. Medieval warhorse, example of the type

Suggested further reading:
The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades by Ann Hyland published by Sutton
A History of Horse Breeding by Daphne Machin Goodall published by Robert Hale (out of print)
The Medieval Warhorse reconsidered: Essay by Matthew Bennett in Medieval Knighthood V: Papers from the Sixth Strawberry Hill Conference 1994

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

THE DAY THE WAR ENDED, by Leslie Wilson

My grandfather's WW1 medal, the one everyone
got for taking part, with the black-red-white
Imperial colours.

Last year I was asked to contribute a story to an anthology that does what it says on the tin: 'Stories of World War One.' It is published this month by Orchard and has turned out to be a brilliant collection that I am proud to be part of. Full of wonderfully-written, thoughtful stories. Tony Bradman, the editor, asked me to write about the German side of WW1 for 10-14 year-olds. I demurred: I said the German experience of the trenches wasn't so different from the British experience (except that, by all accounts, their trenches were a bit better built and equipped), but Tony said what he really wanted was a story about a young girl in Berlin during wartime. That seemed much more attractive and interesting, and there was a bit of family history I could integrate. None of my English family fought in World War 1 - except for Uncle Sam, my great-aunt Nellie's husband (who she had, it was said in the family, reclaimed from a life of Vice and Drink). He was an ex-soldier, so he must have fought, but I never knew him or heard any stories about his wartime experience.

On the other hand, my German grandfather was a teenage soldier (he joined up, as a trainee non-commissioned officer, when he was seventeen) and my German grandmother lost two of her brothers in the war, including her favourite brother, Leo.

German soldiers in a trench. Photo: Bundesarchiv
The other thing I really wanted to do was to write about the German revolution, which occurred just two days before the Armistice was signed. I have discovered that a great many British people don't know anything about the German revolution; when I've asked them they've said that they vaguely supposed the Kaiser was removed by the Allies, as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

This was not the case. There has been a bit of a spat between historians recently, and what it has usefully opened up is that in Imperial Germany, in 1914, all adult males had the vote (though you still hear people suggest that the Kaiser's regime was as bad as the Nazis. That is viewing WW1 through the prism of WW2, a great mistake, historically). Many of the British Tommies who fought and died did not. But just as in Britain, before the Parliament Act of 1911, the dead hand of the Lords lay on the Commons, in Germany the Kaiser and his ministers kept the Reichstag  (The Parliament) firmly on the constitutional leash.

The German Social Democrats had been gaining ground however. They needed to; as in Britain, there was an enormous gulf between rich and poor and the workers in the factories were badly exploited. The slums of Berlin were as big a disgrace as the slums of London, and when during the war the British blockade cut off food supplies, the poor suffered worse than anyone else and unrest grew. There was a winter called the 'Kohlrabi winter' when kohlrabi was literally almost all there was to eat. Though I like kohlrabi as a salad vegetable, I would hate to have to live on it.Towards the end of the war the Kaiser's government tried to save itself through the carrot of parliamentary reform; the military government was replaced by a democracy and various electoral and economic reforms were promised. But it was too late.
Sailors in revolt: the placard says SOLDIERS' COUNCIL; LONG LIVE
THE SOCIALIST REPUBLIC. Photo: German federal archive
The revolution began in October 1918 (only a year after the Russian Bolshevik revolution), when the sailors of the German navy refused to go out and fight the British in the channel. Arrests were made, but there was further unrest and demonstrations: Freedom and Bread was the slogan. The military fired on the demonstrators, killing seven people and severely injuring twenty-nine. The demonstrators fired back. The protest became an uprising, spreading all over Germany. It was very much a grass-roots revolution, with the people forming 'workers' councils' and 'soldiers' councils.' I can't put my finger on chapter and verse right now, but I am pretty sure that at the Front whole regiments threw down their arms and surrendered. They were motivated by war-weariness and a revulsion from the pointless slaughter, but many also were sick of fighting other 'small people' just like themselves, at the behest of the military/capitalist/aristocratic authorities. On the 9th November (a recurringly fateful date in 20th-century German history) the Revolution came to Berlin.

Demonstration Berlin 1918. Photo: German Federal Archive
The fourteen year-old young girl in my story has a brother at the front, and is falling in love with a bright worker's son, Lukas, who lives near her in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. Her elder brother, Leo, was killed at Verdun, like my own great-uncle Leo. She is aware of the war-weariness and really wants her brother Paul to survive, yet is reluctant to let go of the idea of her eldest brother's heroic sacrifice. Lukas gets her to join one of the marches, and she ends up witnessing the Social Democrat Scheidemann announcing the Revolution and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, from the balcony of the Reichstag.
Before I wrote the story, I spent some time reading the war-time diaries of the great print-maker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, who lived in Prenzlauer Berg and lost one of her own sons early in the war. Honest and anguished, they gave me a handle on what it felt like to go through those times. Kollwitz was a Social Democrat, not a rightist, and certainly didn't reverence the military or Kaiser Wilhelm, but like many people, when war happens, she was swept along by what Vera Brittain called 'those white angels who fight so naively on the side of destruction.' Ideas of self-sacrifice, of courage in the face of loss (and both her sons went willingly to the Front), of endurance and solidarity with the nation. And one must remember that the main threat the Germans saw in the war to their freedom was Russia, and that means Tsarist Russia with its secret police, its prison camps in Siberia, its autocratic government and its pogroms.
The Grieving Parents; monument by Kollwitz to her dead son Peter,
in Vladslo, Belgium. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The other tremendous value of Käthe Kollwitz's diaries was that they gave me a day by day account of what was going on, so I owe her a great debt of gratitude. From the memoir of Sebastian Haffner, called in German Geschichte eines Deutschen, and in English Defying Hitler, I got some more thoughtful insight into the problems posed by the Revolution, and also that invaluable and hard to come-by information, what the weather was like. It was foggy. I thought that was a marvellous metaphor for the uncertainty of the future for defeated Germany.
The trouble was that the new Republic was sabotaged from the start by the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. They had announced that the war would end; the German envoy was already in France discussing the Armistice; and the only way they could have got a better settlement was by fighting on, which was impossible. So they told the envoy to sign. This was the basis of the 'stab in the back' legend, which was so useful to Hitler later on, and yet, looking at the circumstances, I cannot see what else the new Government could have done.
I have read historians stating that this treaty was perfectly 'fair' because Germany had imposed just as harsh a treaty on Russia a year earlier, or else because Germany began the war (though in fact it was Austria who began it). They then go on to say that because the treaty was fair, it couldn't possibly be blamed for the rise of Hitler. This strikes me as an irrational and slightly childish argument.
Fairness is not the issue here: what matters is cause and effect. Though all countries were hit by post-war depression, it hit Germany worse, because she had lost the industrial base in the Ruhr to France. The treaty imposed enormous reparations on Germany, while depriving her of the means to pay them. The result was hunger, the traumatic hyper-inflation of 1919, when people had to spend their wages within hours before they became valueless, and my grandmother's family once exchanged their grand piano for a loaf of bread - and a fragile economy. If you want to understand what those times felt like, read Hans Fallada's Little Man, What Now? (Kleiner Mann, was nun?).
Five-million Mark note. Photo: Boeing 720 via Wikimedia Commons.
When the double-whammy of the Wall Street crash hit, those who had hated the Revolution from the start thought democracy had failed Germany, and looked for an alternative. Leftists despaired of capitalism and voted Communist. Those inclined to vote for the Right looked to the nascent Nazi movement, which promised the restoration of prosperity and order, which meant no more pitched battles on the streets.
Going back to November 1918, even if it had been sensible to pulverise the German economy as revenge for 'starting the war,' the war had been started and conducted bythe Imperial government, which was no longer in place. The Germany that was punished was the new democracy. Clearly, those who made the treaty, especially the French, could not know what was to come, but the lesson was learned and put into practice by the victors of World War II, who took care to let Germany build herself up again.
This may seem too much weight of history and foreboding for a short story for teenagers to carry, but I had five thousand words, which helps, and also what matter most are the feelings; grief, fear, hope, humiliation, hunger. A bespectacled boy comes out of the fog and says: 'We'll have to fight them again'; an old Conservative, tears running down his face, accuses the Socialists of betraying Germany with the treaty; a young working-class man who has lost his right arm during the war, shouts back, furious with the military ethos of Wilhelmine Germany which he blames for the conflict. And people are still queueing up for scarce food. Those were the feelings which drive voting patterns, then as now.
And on the Western Front, shedding tears of fury that day, was a young skinny man with a dark moustache who was to rise to the head of his party at just the most hideously appropriate moment.
Hitler, on right, with fellow soldiers in WW1. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Town That Didn't Stare by Kate Lord Brown

The Hero: 
Flight Lieutenant Richard Hope Hillary
1919 - 1943

Fear no more the heat o' the sun; 
Nor the furious winter's rages, 
Thou thy worldly task hast done, 
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages; 
Golden lads and girls all must, 
As chimney sweepers come to dust. 

- William Shakespeare

Few lads were more golden than Richard Hillary. One of the 'Brylcreem Boys', an Oxford grad, who is described as 'mobile, graceful, beautiful, coolly objective'. He was tall, slim, fair - a knight of the modern round table, whose battles were fought in the air. He wanted to fight and die on his own terms. His brief, and glorious life was lived on an heroic scale, his character at once brave and selfless yet full of hubris. I first read 'The Last Enemy' researching 'The Beauty Chorus', along with Richey's 'Fighter Pilot' and Wellum's 'First Light', trying to get under the skin of my wounded, male pilot protagonist, Beau. All are extraordinary first hand accounts of what it is like to be at war - the stress, fear and ecstasy of being a fighter pilot, the sense of only really belonging in your squadron. Something about Hillary stuck with me, niggling away at the back of my mind in the way that the seed of a story does. He was certainly tenacious in life - he pursued the publisher Dickinson relentlessly until he gave in and published Hillary's account of the war. I'm not sure any of us would storm into a publisher's office and refuse to leave until he read the manuscript - on the spot, while we waited - these days.

'The Last Enemy that shall be destroyed is death'

Hillary wrote 'The Last Enemy' during World War II, while he was recovering from horrific injuries sustained in the air. He was shot down on 3rd Sept 1940, and became one of the legendary NZ surgeon McIndoe's 'guinea pig club' in East Grinstead. McIndoe, know to 'his boys' as 'The Boss', pioneered facial reconstructive surgery at Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital (or 'the beauty shop' as the boys called it), and part of the convalescence involved going out into the local community, visiting local pubs, dating local girls. East Grinstead became known as 'the town that didn't stare'.

The surgeon - Archibald McIndoe

From the biographies of Hillary, he evidently fell into the category of 'fly fast, live faster' pilots - his injuries did not affect his success with women, and during a tour of the US to drum up support for the war effort in 1941, he had a passionate affair with the movie star Merle Oberon. When his US hosts cancelled his planned public appearances, Hillary coolly said he had 'a good face for radio'. It didn't stop Oberon falling for him.

The Lover - Merle Oberon

When I decided to write about this moment in time for the RNA anthology, it made sense to focus on Hillary's romantic history, rather than his well-documented heroism. His adoration of his best friend Peter Pease's wife, Denise Maxwell Woosnam, who he called 'the most beautiful person I've ever seen' was well known. Then there was his well documented affair with Mary Booker. I began to wonder about the other, faceless women who fell under Hillary's spell. He may have lacked his old beauty, but not his old manner. The East Grinstead hospital was full of nurses and civilian volunteers. The nurses looked down on the VADs, declaring that they just wanted to sit on the bedsides and hold the officers' hands. Hillary himself wrote that he was 'a little in love with Sue and Anne ... Bertha preferred a cup of tea to talk of sex during the night'. Then there was kind Sister Hall, who gave the men brown make up: 'you want to look your best for the girls'. Who were these women? Once the seed of a story takes root, and your imagination begins to play fast and loose with history, you begin finding all these 'what if' questions shooting up, don't you? What if a young volunteer fell head over heels in love with him? What if two people from vastly different backgrounds were thrown together? What if she was just as deeply wounded by the war, but her scars were not on the surface? 

From those questions that wouldn't go away emerged 'The Language of Flowers' about a young, damaged girl who brought flowers to a young, damaged airman's hospital ward. What shines through in the accounts of the hospital are instantly understandable feelings of bewilderment, loneliness, a hunger for humanity and humour. And there, in the middle of all this emotion was Hillary, with his red pyjamas the nurses nicknamed his 'passion pants' - and his 'ghoul' like face, with 'livid eyes, lips in a grimace, with a cigarette holder and hands in lint bandages'. Such contrast, tragedy and romance - the story practically wrote itself. I've always loved 'Brief Encounter', so the train station at East Grinstead was the obvious place to begin their story.

Hillary's real story ends with predictable, tragic grace. He begged, badgered and fought to get back in the air, and a few short weeks after 'The Last Enemy' was published, Hillary was flying again. He died, aged 23, shot down in flames in 1943. His life is the stuff of myths - the beautiful golden boy transformed into a disfigured creature, whose legend soared again in death, beauty restored for eternity.

The Friend - Arthur Koestler

His friend, Arthur Koestler, wrote about the timeless, instinctive appeal of stories like Hillary's in 'The Birth of a Myth: In Memory of Richard Hillary'. 'A myth may grow and appeal to us,' he wrote, 'may make us respond like tuning forks to the vibration of the right chord - and yet we may not know why.' Perhaps there are historical figures you have responded to like this? Hillary, Koestler pointed out, was 'burnt thrice' - 'after the first time they patched him up and made him a new face. It was wasted, for the second time his body was charred to coal ... They burned him a third time on the 12th January 1943 (in cremation), and the coal became ashes.' Just like all the golden lads' and lasses'.

'The Language of Flowers' has just been published as part of 'Truly Madly Deeply' the RNA's new anthology, and in a shorter ebook of historical stories with Anna Jacobs and Sarah Mallory.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The First Georgians by Imogen Robertson

Gerorge I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Elector

Britain is going 18th century crazy. I know that because I read it in The Times. 

We have good reason to take this chance to pay a bit more attention to this crucial and often over-looked period of British history. 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian Succession when the British Crown, after doing a surprising number of back-flips through the family tree and landing on the lap of Sophia, Electress of Hanover, slid thence onto the head of her eldest son Georg Ludwig, who became George I on the death of Queen Anne. 

Just to confirm how important this is, Lucy Worsely is presenting a series on BBC4 about the Georgians starting on 1 May, the Historic Royal Palaces are having a Glorious Georges Season; the V&A are focussing on the leading architect of the period, William Kent and the music of Handel is going to be everywhere.  

If you want to be part of the cognoscenti, then I heartily recommend a visit to The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. I also recommend a certain series of brilliant mysteries set towards the end of the century, but that probably doesn’t come as a great shock. Theft of Life is out 22 May, by the way.

A Natural History of English Insects
Eleazar Albin (c. 1680- c. 1742)
Writing for this blog brings many pleasures, and this time it was the chance to have breakfast at Buckingham Palace and get a preview of the exhibition in the company of its curators, including Desmond Philip Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. He's a brilliant communicator, and they do a mean bacon croissant, the Royals. I had a lovely time. All the items here are from the Royal Collection, and many of the pictures, pieces of furniture and even the silver gilt tableware are in regular use in the Working Palaces. 

‘We have to replace whatever we take, of course,’ one of the curators told me. ‘We can’t just leave a gap.’ It gave me a pleasurable image of members of the Royal Family being in a constant state of mild confusion, putting down a glass on the coffee table and thinking, hang on, didn’t that used to be white marble, or wandering down to breakfast and finding one of the portraits has changed clothes and is now looking in the opposite direction. Then again, that’s probably not the oddest thing about being an HRH.

Johann Sebastian Müller (1715-1792) (engraver)
It’s a great little exhibition, complete with a education room done out as a Coffee House where you can eavesdrop, via tricorn hats with built-in headphones, to the gossips in St James’s Park, and thumb through copies of the Gentleman’s Magazine. It opens with a room of portraits to explain the succession from Anne to George I, and by clever use of a pair of images in the corridor into the first large exhibition space, shows the violent tensions underlying it. On one wall is an engraving of Britannia and Liberty crowning George I, and stamping down Catholicism in the process, and on the other a very elegant oil of the other Royal Family in exile, James II and a young Old Pretender - if you see what I mean.

The exhibition also gives us the chance to see some of the paper treasures of the Royal Collection and the juxtaposition of a display of plans of Royal Palaces with a collection of battle maps, including that of Culloden remind us of those tensions. 

Melchior Baumgartner (1621-86) (clockmaker (case))
In the rooms that follow, visitors get to see some of the decorative works and paintings the first Georges collected or had made for them. The Old Masters include a superb Holbein, and a there is a ridiculous rock crystal and enamel dust-magnet cabinet which plays various Handel tunes, and turns out to be a clock. 

 There are side rooms with displays of miniatures and cameos, botanical works, and cases of fancy wear - snuff boxes, porcelain etc, all of which suggest the wit, sensuality and confidence of the Georgian artists. The pair of Canelettos showing a panoramic view of the Thames from Somerset House is worth the price of admission alone, and in the final room there is a silver gilt dinner service that I think would look excellent in my flat. Particularly the golden crab salts.  Just in case Queen Elizabeth is wondering what to get me for Christmas. 

William Hogarth (1697-1764)
Harlot's Progress 
It’s important to remember the shadows behind all this delicious flim-flam. So much of the wealth that poured into Britain, funding a flowering of the arts and sciences, was the result of colonialism at its worst and the turning of slavery into a profitable industry. The rich and poor lived side by side, but in completely different worlds. I’m glad to say that while celebrating the Georgians, the exhibition doesn’t ignore those contradictions. Hogarth gets a room of his own and he was an exemplar of these paradoxes which make the period so fascinating. He painted his confident, charming portraits of his contemporaries - the example here being the portrait of David Garrick and his wife - at the same time as he was chronicling the horrors of urban poverty and the hypocrisies of the elite - the greed and ruthless use of force which now fills our galleries and museums with such civilised treasures. 

St James's Park and the Mall 
British School c.1745
The exhibition runs until 12th October 2014, but for those who can’t visit in person it’s worth pointing out the superb website. You can see high quality images of all the items in the exhibition, watch videos introducing the period, and listen to Robert Woolley playing Handel on the harpsichord made for Frederick, Prince of Wales. 

All the images above are from the site, and clicking on them will take you to the Royal Collection's information page on each. For those in town, there are various events, including lots of music, linked to the exhibition.