Wednesday, 30 November 2016

November Competition

To win one of five copies of Lesley Downer's The Shogun's Queen, just answer the question in the Comments below:

"As a woman, in what period of history would you have most liked to live in Japan and why?"

Then also send your answer to, so that I can contact you if you win.

Closing date 7th December

We are sorry that our competitions are open only to UK Followers.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Shogun's Harem by Lesley Downer

Our November Guest is Lesley Downer, who will become a regular History Girl next year.

Photo credit: Jill Shaw
Lesley Downer lived in Japan for many years. She tramped around Basho’s Narrow Road the Deep North, lived among geisha, interviewed sumo wrestlers and enjoyed the glitzy life of Tokyo. She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West and The Last Concubine, short listed for Romantic Novel of the Year. Her new novel, The Shogun’s Queen, takes place largely in the Women’s Palace.
Lesey is currently  a visiting lecturer, teaching on the MA programme in Creative Writing (non-fiction ) at City University in London and lives in London with her husband, the author Arthur I. Miller.

Unravelling the web of secrecy around The Shogun’s ‘Harem’

The shogun celebrating New Year's Day with his women (from the Chiyoda No Ooku triptych by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1838 - 1912)
The heroine of The Shogun’s Queen really lived. In a way she was a bit like Princess Diana. She started life as a commoner, in fact very minor nobility, much like Diana, and grew up in relative freedom. Then, when she was 17, like Diana she was chosen to marry the ruler of the country - not the ruler-in-waiting, like Prince Charles, but the actual ruler, the shogun. Like Charles, this ruler didn’t actually wield much power at all. He had a whole government that did the ruling.

Traditionally the shogun would have been married to an imperial princess, a member of the emperor's family. (The emperor was a Pope-like figure who lived in seclusion in Kyoto while the shogun, who lived in Edo, now Tokyo, was the temporal ruler.) Imperial princesses were used to a life within walls. They were born and grew up in their palaces and never left, in the same way that our queen can’t just go to the shops like an ordinary person. It’s said that one emperor once climbed to the top of the topmost tower in his palace to take a look at the world outside.

When she married the shogun the imperial princess would have stepped into a palanquin and left her palace for the first time. She would have had her only glimpse of the big wide world through the slats of her window as she was carried the 450 kilometres to Edo.

Gate that led to the Women's Palace in Edo Castle, now the Imperial Palace Tokyo
 But for commoners like my heroine, Atsu, life was quite different. In Japan in those days the lower you were on the social scale the freer you were. In the mid nineteenth century a peasant woman named Matsue Taseko, who happened to be a poet, informed her husband she was off to Kyoto and walked through the mountains alone. There she hung out with lords, ladies, poets and even the women of the Emperor’s court and wrote poetry. Later she went to Edo. Sometimes her husband went with her, sometimes not. He raised no objections to her independent lifestyle.

For Atsu it must have been thrilling beyond imagination to be taken to live in Edo Castle - but she would also have soon discovered that there was no way out. Once you were in, you didn’t come out.
Edo Castle was Japan’s Versailles. It was as magnificent and lavish as Kublai Khan’s fabled Xanadu. A vast complex of palaces and gardens a mile across and four miles in circumference, it was where the shogun lived and, with the help of an army of government officials, ruled the country. On maps its exact location was never marked. It was always hidden behind the coat of arms of the shoguns, the ruling Tokugawa family - three hollyhock leaves in a circle. It was a place of spectacular wealth and power and glitz and glory.

Gardens at Katsura Rikyu - akin to what the gardens in the Women’s Palace must have looked like

The holy of holies, the innermost sanctum within that complex, was the Women’s Palace, the ooku - Great Interior.

The white-walled buildings with their dove-grey tiled roofs were surrounded by landscaped pleasure gardens, threaded with streams and lakes where women glided in red-lacquered barges. There were moon-viewing pavilions, stages for Noh plays, tea ceremony huts and artificial hills, of which Momijiyama - Maple Mountain - was most renowned for its beauty.

Inside there was a labyrinth of chambers with sliding painted screens for walls, coffered ceilings glimmering with gold leaf and floors of fragrant rice straw tatami mats. The women had an endless supply of tasteful yet hugely expensive kimonos. The shogun’s wife changed five times a day. They were surrounded by gorgeous artefacts, perfumes and incense, lacquered chests and shelves, priceless tea ceremony ware and exquisite vases. They were constantly given gifts by petitioners hoping they might intercede with the shogun on their behalf. They were surrounded by beauty; and these treasures have been preserved and are in the Tokugawa museums so we can glimpse their lives from these.
In museum catalogues they are always presented solely as works of art, treasures, and sometimes it’s mentioned that they belonged to ‘the shogun’s household’.

Gilded screens at Nagoya Castle - akin to what the Women’s Palace must have looked like
 What is not mentioned is that that household consisted entirely of women and that the shogun was the only man who could ever enter. In the Forbidden City in Peking and in the Topkapi Palace, the sultan’s harem in Istanbul, there were eunuchs. But the Japanese never had the custom of castration. Maybe they didn’t like the idea of doing something so traumatic to a man. In the Women’s Palace shaven-headed ‘companion priests’ - effectively nuns - took the place of eunuchs and were the only women allowed to cross between the men’s and the women’s palaces.

So the treasures remain. But as for the life that went on around them, there is very little information. For the palace was shrouded in secrecy. No westerner ever visited or heard the tiniest whisper of it or even knew it existed. The women took an oath never to tell of anything that went on there and even after the palace closed down for good in 1868 and they were thrown out into the cold very few ever revealed anything about their lives.

In the 1890s the son of one ex-lady-in-waiting published a book called Mother’s Stories of the Castle and scholars at Tokyo University interviewed two women who had served there. Recently a couple of scholarly works have been published in English, unearthing as much as can be found on life in the palace.

From their information the interviewers put together plans of the palace. There were the shogun’s apartments (known as the Little Sitting Room, though they were far from small), the wing where the shogun’s wife lived and another wing in a different part of the palace where his mother lived. Then there were offices where women officials carried out day-to-day administration, and - by far the largest area - the private chambers of the ladies and their maids. In all there were well over four hundred rooms. Only the highest-ranking ladies and the mothers of the shogun’s children had their own rooms. The rest shared. All the ladies slept surrounded by maids, ready to serve them when required. Only people of no consequence slept alone.

Ladies of the Women’s Palace (from the Chiyoda No Ooku triptych by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1838 - 1912)
There were also great halls, reception rooms, shrine rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, and huge baths with areas for reclining. On the opposite side of the palace from the shogun’s entrance was a heavily-guarded gate which led to a bridge across the moat. Here the women came and went on the few occasions when they were allowed to go out and merchants brought silks, make up and other goods to sell.

It was a place of unimaginable luxury but also a place of great unhappiness. There was plotting, intrigue, jealousy, whispers behind hands, women ganging up on each other, even murders and - it was said - hauntings. Bodies were found down wells, boy babies were smothered at birth on the orders of women who wanted to ensure that their son, not someone else’s, became the next shogun. A striking number of boy children - most, in fact - died at birth or in infancy.

The shogun only chose a few girls as his concubines - Ienari had 53 children by 27 concubines - but all the rest had to remain virgins. Once in the 1840s the finance minister was trying to enforce austerity measures and asked the women to cut back on buying expensive kimonos. He was told in no uncertain terms by the formidable chief elder that the women suffered enough from their enforced celibacy and were entitled to as many gorgeous kimonos as they wanted in compensation.

All these women assumed life in the Castle would continue just the same for ever. Like us today, no one imagined that their world would come to an end. But in the 1860s the country erupted into civil war and in 1868 the palace was closed down and the women thrown out onto the streets. In the upheaval that followed people completely forgot that the Women’s Palace with all its luxury and beauty and backbiting and tragedy had ever existed. Edo Castle became the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and all that remains of the Women’s Palace is the vast lawn of the East Gardens there.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Wall to Wall by Julie Summers

I have just spent a magical, exhausting but immensely rewarding week as a tutor on an Arvon Foundation non-fiction course. As I write I am sitting up in bed in what used to be John Osborne's study at the Hurst, his home for the last years of his life. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever spent time in though I have scarcely been beyond the front door. The study is large and sparsely furnished. The only true reminder of his presence is his leather topped writing desk at which I have sat every morning and evening reading work submitted by the students. While I am no believer in ghosts or spirits, it certainly feels slightly unreal and mystical to be inhabiting the same space as the great man. I suspect that much else in the room has changed since his day and I am sure there was no green Exit sign with a running man and an arrow on the wall... But I digress.
The Arvon Foundation was set up by two poets, John Moat and John Fairfax, and Antoinette Moat who helped buy the first Arvon property, Totleigh Barton in Devon. The original aim was to provide time and space away from school for young people to write poetry. Today residential courses take place in one of three houses situated in remote rural locations in Devon, Shropshire and Yorkshire. Over the last almost fifty years it has helped countless writers to spend time honing or developing new skills or simply learning to come to terms with how they wish to express themselves, whether through poetry, prose, drama or non-fiction. The recipe is simple: take up to sixteen people of mixed age, background, ability, ambition and sex. Shut them up in a remote house - in this case in the heart of Shropshire - with two tutors and plenty of food and see what happens. The structure of the course is up to the tutors but fits into a framework that has been well tried and tested: the mornings spent in a workshop and the afternoons writing or attending half hour tutorials with one or other of the tutors. It doesn't sound like hard work when written down but it is intense, let me tell you, especially from the tutor's point of view.
All meals are enjoyed together and the evening meal is prepared by the students, with washing up and table laying done in teams. Inevitably the table talk focuses on writing so in the event the only time you are not either thinking, talking about working on writing is when you are asleep. At least that was the case for me. Yet it was hugely enjoyable and something I would do again if I were asked. While it would be out of order to name names, we have been lucky enough this week to work with a dozen fabulous writers who each has a major project they want to bring to a wider audience. Stirring tales from family history were predominant and I have enjoyed learning about the author, Charles Lee, who wrote down the Cornish language; a trio of women connected with the Garden City movement and bawdy women in history to name but three.
There is something energising about being with a group of people who are wholly focused on writing historical non-fiction. It reminds me of the immense richness and variety of possibilities there are to focus on an aspect of real life and bring it out in written form. I admire writers of fiction for their ability to conjure up worlds in their heads but I am equally in awe of writers who can corral and tidy up the messiness of life and show it to us in ways that make some sense, drawing strings together to weave a story that does more than just lay down facts, dates and names. In one of our workshops we looked at the old chestnut: oral history. To write historical non-fiction is to some extent to be an eyewitness to history. Yet as anyone knows, to claim to have the only view on an historical event is to ignore the human mind's ability to process what it sees, hears, feels, smells and senses. I remember chairing a panel one this topic a few years ago at a literary festival and concluding that one person's view can differ so radically from another's that it is as if they had witnessed two different events.
We tried this out in a controlled experiment at Arvon this week. The results were nothing short of hilarious. On the evening prior to the exercise, so just over twelve hours earlier, four members of the group, including my fellow tutor, Ian Marchant, had performed a reading-with-actions of a fourhanded play written by Charles Lee and first performed in 1913. The resulting accounts from both players and audience were so diverse as to make me wonder whether we had all been in the same room together. The only thing that convinced me that we had was the overwhelming sense of place and atmosphere. That is something that often links people's experiences and - if they are unfortunate to suffer a bad or dangerous one - can form lifelong and exclusive closeness. I suspect in the case of our experience any allusion to the Revered Becksmith will just raise a broad grin of recognition. I knew the experience of teaching on an Arvon course would be a good one but I had no idea beforehand just how rewarding it would be. I cannot remember enjoying the company of a dozen or so fellow writers as much as I have this week and I return to my desk and the second half of my book - now known thanks to my 'colleague' (as he always addressed me) Ian Watt as the Shitty First Draft. If you ever fancy an indulgent sojourn with fellow writers, I cannot recommend an Arvon course highly enough, either as a tutor or a student. The staff at the centres are wonderful, supportive and unflappable and make the whole experience easy to enjoy. But it is the writers who make it special and memorable. It has reminded me of the joys and pitfalls of writing historical non-fiction and how the joys win every time.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Anastasia Romanov and The Royal Ballet by Janie Hampton

Earlier this month I attended a performance of the Royal Ballet’s extraordinary production ‘Anastasia’. In gorgeous and arresting dance and music, events were portrayed surrounding the young Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov.
Grand Duchess Anastasia and her sisters on board the yacht Standart with  Princess Viktoria of Shaumburg-Lippe, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, sister of the German Emperor Wilhelm II,  ('Kaiser Bill') and cousin of Tsar Nicholas II
In Act One we met Tsar Nicholas II and his family enjoying a holiday during the summer of 1914 on their grand yacht Standart. Anastasia, the youngest and most attractive of the four daughters, whizzed onto the stage on roller skates – quite obviously the love of both her family and the Russian sailors. Their shared happiness was interrupted when news of war against Germany arrived and the Tsar left to join his army.

Little Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich  Romanov  on board the imperial yacht with his carer the sailor Nagorny.

Act Two began with Anastasia’s coming-out ball. Amid much joyous dancing, Rasputin loomed menacingly, slithering between the Tsar and Tsarina. Vast chandeliers hung over the scene in a disconcerting un-perpendicular way, prompting the question – was what we were seeing real or imagined? Anastasia’s privileged life came to an abrupt end with the storming of the Winter Palace.
The music in these acts came from Tchaikovsky’s first and third symphonies, and the dance was classical in style.
Act Two of Anastasia , Royal Ballet, 2016. C 2016 ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton.
The third and final act provided a stark contrast and was if anything more enthralling. With modern dance set to electronic music and Martinů’s 1953 Symphony, the setting was now an austere mental hospital with a single bed and uniformed nurses. The story told was of a young woman fished out of a Berlin canal in 1920 whom many people believed to be Anastasia herself, the sole survivor of the massacre of the Romanovs in 1918. She had been found without any papers and was called simply Fraulein Unbekannt, or Miss Unknown. In the anguished title role, Natalia Osipova danced in a state of unsettling frenzy. When not sitting inert and motionless, staring at silent newsreels of her previous life, she threw herself around, light as a feather but taut as steel, wrenched by a juddering forces. Traditional ballet movements, such as a grande jeté (big leap) were subverted as she pushed against an invisible wall. Memories and nightmarish fantasy intermingled in her recall of surviving assassination and an attempted suicide. Writing in The Guardian, Judith Mackerel described ‘violent shards of dance evoking fragments of Romanov history and a mind boiling and buckling with insanity’.
Natalia Osipova as Anna Anderson in Anastasia.  C ROH 2016, photo by Tristram Kenton.
It mattered little to her many devotees among the White Russians living in the West, that Miss Unknown spoke no Russian, English or French but only Polish and German; that she looked nothing like Anastasia; and had forgotten her table manners. A German law court spent thirty years weighing the evidence for the patient’s claim before deciding that ‘it could neither be established nor refuted’. After Miss Unknown became Anna Anderson and left the mental hospital, she married an American amateur historian called Jack Manahan and lived in an untidy house full of cats in Charlottesville, Virginia. Ten years after her death in 1984, DNA tests identified her as a Polish peasant, Franziska Schanzkowska, who had suffered severe trauma during the 1914-18 war and then been forgotten by her family. When the bones of all the Romanov family were eventually exhumed, their DNA was tested against HRH Prince Philip, the closest known living relative, and this confirmed that the Grand Duchess Anastasia’s death had indeed occurred in 1918.
MacMillan's wonderful reworking of this story is a must-see for History Girls, illustrating vividly the complex psychodrama of a woman’s memory and identity. Catch it at the Royal Opera House or in a cinema near you.

Queen Alexandra's Christmas Gift Book -photographs from my camera, Daily Telegraph 1908.
 Frances Welch, The False Grand Duchess Anastasia, Royal Ballet, 2016. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Cinema as a compelling mirror, by Carol Drinkwater

A day or so ago I watched, for the first time in many years, Louis Malle's wonderful film,  Lacombe, Lucien. I don't think I have seen it since it was first released in 1974, when I was a young actress living in London. I would have been audience at the Hampstead Everyman or that wonderful Academy 1 and 2 in Oxford Street. I cannot remember whether it was shown in French with English sub-titles or dubbed into English. Either way, I would not have appreciated the nuances of the regional accents particularly that of the young actor, Pierre Blaise, who played the titular role of Lucien, the seventeen-year-old farm boy. Blaise, who was picked from amongst amateurs by Malle, talks with a southern accent so strong that even now after thirty years of living in Provence I had some difficulty following lines of his dialogue. Think Geordie for foreigners.
Aurore Clement plays a young German Jewess hiding out with her father and grandmother in a remote rural corner of southern France. The family escaped from Germany to Paris. When the Germans marched in to the capital, they fled once more to the south where we find them in hiding. This well-trodden path in search of a safe base became the modus vivendi for many Jews who had originally arrived into Paris from Germany or Eastern Europe. Their safer tenures in the south were, for the majority, short-lived.
At my original viewing of the film, I was bowled over by the extraordinary beauty of Aurore Clement whose photograph was then pinned to the wall of my attic bedroom in my rambling old flat in Kentish Town, where it stayed, I think, until I moved on from that address. But I feel sure now that the groundbreaking subject matter of the film was probably almost entirely lost on me.

Aurore Clement as France Horn in Lacombe, Lucien

Aurore Clement is now 71 (still beautiful from the pics I found on the internet). Pierre Blaise who  was both mesmeric and a fine young actor was killed in a car crash in 1975 at the age of 20, the year after the film was released.

In 1973, when Malle was preparing this film, he already had eight successful features to his name. As  well, as a younger filmmaker he had worked as co-director with Jacques Cousteau on the Academy-Award winning documentary,  The Silent World.

The reason I bought the DVD recently was because I wanted to look at the film from a couple of different aspects; no longer from the point of view of an actress but that of the writer, and also for the story's historical content. The film is a fascinating portrait of French collaboration, released at a time when the subject was taboo in France, who collaboration was denied.

De Gaulle himself when he returned home refuted the idea that France had ever been anything but the Republic, an oppressed republic. This later became known as the Gaullist Resistance Myth. It wasn't until the early 70s when writers, historians and artists began to speak out, that the myth started to crumble. Many who were not direct supporters of the collaboration were held to account because they did nothing. Because they did not resist. Historians began to claim that collaboration was not forced upon France; many chose it and others turned a blind eye. Apathy, if not downright collaboration, allowed the regime to flourish.
This is an important issue and one that is becoming relevant again today when one considers that almost fifty per cent of the United States voters did not go to the polls during this recent election.

Both Malle and his co-writer, Patrick Modiano, were haunted by the years of Nazi occupation in France. For different reasons. Malle, born in 1932, was a child during the war and always felt himself implicated in the moral issues that growing up in occupied France would have thrown up for any sensitive child. His later film, another masterpiece, Au Revoir Les Enfants, (1987), recounts the story of pupil, Julien Quentin, and how his life is changed when three Jewish boys are given refuge at his Catholic boarding school. Friendships are bonded and broken when the three boys and the priest who has accepted to hide the Jewish pupils are arrested and taken away by the Nazis. All die in camps. The film is autobiographical.

                                                                           Louis Malle

Along with Louis Malle, Patrick Modiano is co-credited for the (terrific) screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien. Modiano, thirteen years Malle's junior, was born in the Paris suburbs in 1945 to a Jewish-Italian father and an actress mother. They met in occupied Paris and carried out a clandestine relationship. Soon after Patrick was born, they separated and Patrick was brought up by various people including his maternal grandparents. His father, Albert, refused to wear the obligatory Yellow Star. Nor did he declare himself to the authorities when they were rounding up the Jews.  Albert was arrested in 1942 but managed, through the help of a friend, to avoid deportation. He worked as a black marketeer and with the French Gestapo during the war years. Albert Modiano never owned up to his son about his nefarious doings during those years. 
The novels of Patrick Modiano, Nobel Laureate for Literature 2014, are frequently peopled by shady characters and collaborators, or those on the run. This is partly what makes Modiano's work so extraordinary.  Conscience, the outsider, he who works by night, guilt, memory ... all haunt his work.

                                                                      Patrick Modiano

Malle and Modiano were the perfect fit for the groundbreaking subject of Lacombe, Lucien.

The action of the film is set in 1944 in south-west France close to the Spanish border during the German Occupation. It tells the tale of a seventeen-year-old peasant boy, Lucien, an anti-hero, whose father is an imprisoned member of the Resistance. Lucien, who seems to delight in killing and hunting small creatures, wants to get away from home - his mother is having an affair with a local farmer - to follow in his father's footsteps, but he is not taken seriously. He is rejected by the local schoolmaster, also a member of the Resistance, because he is too young.
Quite by chance Lucien finds himself falling in with a nest of collaborators, French agents working for the Gestapo, whose headquarters are at a hotel, La Grotto. They take in the lad and give him a job with the 'Police Allemande' after he has proved himself by betraying the school teacher who refused him a place amongst the partisans.

One of the French collaborators, along with his actress girlfriend, befriends Lucien. He takes the boy to a tailor to have a suit made. The tailor, Horn, is a Jew who has fled Germany and then Paris. It is when Lucien sets eyes on Horn's daughter, France, that the complexities of the narrative really set in. Naive, uncouth, barely more than a virgin, Lucien becomes besotted with the young woman and by the end of the film he helps her and her grandmother - the tailor, Horn, has been arrested - escape. However, the stolen car gives up before they have crossed the border into Spain and they are forced to take refuge - a most unlikely threesome - in a remote, abandoned farmhouse.

Throughout the film, the question of Lucien's complicity is, laid out before the spectator. Malle has chosen a very attractive and rather charming young actor for the role so our sympathies are easily given to the character. Is he a cruel, unfeeling boy or is he misguided? If he had been offered a role within the Resistance would his life have turned out differently? Can he be held responsible?
The last frame sees him sleeping in a field while France bathes naked in a nearby stream. Lucien seems so perfectly relaxed, at peace for the first time, that for one fleeting moment, you ask yourself whether the three might find a way to survive, yet you know, because a lurking danger is gnawing at your spectator's guts, that for different reasons they cannot survive; they are all hunted. Lucien, for his blatant betrayal of his own people and France along with her grandmother because they are Jews. Superimposed over the last image of the film are the bald sentences:

                                      Lucien Lacombe was arrested on October 12, 1944.
                 Tried by a military court of the Resistance, he was sentenced to death and executed. 

When the film was over, I felt saddened for the boy, for his loss of life, for his stupidity and all that was not to be. Still, he chose that path. He was complicit. There are two very moving scenes when Lucien's mother comes looking for him and finds him at the Horns' apartment. She has brought with her a small black coffin with Lucien's name engraved on it. It has been left at her door. A warning to Lucien to give up his treachery. His mother's eyes beg him to come home, to quit the shaming role he has taken. He refuses, saying that he is fine where he is. She steps away, and you feel swamped by the depth of a mother's conflict and heartbreak.

The film has been restored and is available in Blu Ray.  It is a masterpiece as relevant today as when it was first shot. Stunning photography, long close-ups on faces that take you to the characters' souls. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to find a copy.

Since I watched it, I have been asking myself over and over about where our world is going given the recent election results in the United States. We are witnessing the rise of Nationalism, white supremacy, racism, closed borders, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism. Nazism.
Our world is in danger of regression. Values and liberties our parents, grandparents, previous generations fought or voted for, put their lives at risk for, might soon be lost. There is no place for apathy. We stand up and are counted, or we become a silent vote that condones these very real dangers.

Works of art have the possibility of reminding us; they can nudge our collective memories and help us learn from the past. Lest we forget.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Amalfi, by Miranda Miller

When I was eight I went with my family to Positano, on the coast just south of Naples. This was the beginning of my lifelong passion for Italy and certain intense memories have stayed with me: the sight of people living in caves in the mountainside; a vivid green lizard disappearing into a sunlit wall; luscious fragrant peaches that were so juicy you had to wash after you guzzled them. As an adult I came to know Italy well but didn’t return to that coast until last month when my husband and I spent a week in Amalfi. I always thought of that stunning coast as existing purely for tourism of the most indulgent kind but discovered, to my surprise, that Amalfi has a long and complex history.

Its origins are very vague; Amalfi was a beautiful nymph (who still apears on the town banner) and Hercules fell in love with her. Alternatively, in the fourth century, Roman nobles in five ships set out from the new city of Constantinople and, after many adventures, ended up at Scala, in the mountains above Amalfi. Huns, Vandals and Goths invaded but Scala and Amalfi were protected by their mountains. Before the rise of Venice Amalfi was a great maritime power, part of the Byzantine empire until the Normans invaded.

There were bishops and doges and each doge announced his accession to the Emperor in Constantinople. Although it was supposed to be a republic the doges were really absolute monarchs from the same family. It was a city of merchant adventurers with trading colonies as far away as Beirut and Cairo.

In 1073 Robert Guiscard seized and sacked Amalfi and added 'Duke of Amalfi' to his titles but Amalfi revolted and elected one last last doge. After that the Normans ruled Amalfi and it grew into a city of seventy thousand people with a flourishing cultural life and a big fleet. Trading connections brought the Amalfitani in contact very early with the process of paper making, which Arab merchants had first discovered in China in the early Middle Ages, and there is still a paper factory.

In 1343 a terrible earthquake struck the Bay of Naples. The tsunami that followed destroyed the lower town of Amalfi which fell into the sea. This tsunami was observed by the poet Petrarch, whose ship was forced to return to port, and he wrote about it in the fifth book of his Epistolae Familiares. So a great city was transformed into a village with a harbour and just a few thousand residents. Of course this kind of lost Atlantis story always has great imaginative appeal and you wonder what ruined palaces and churches you are swimming over.

The second of the fifteenth century Piccolomini Dukes of Amalfi, Alfonso, was married to Joanna of Aragon, who was Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.

When her husband died the Duchess fell in love with her steward, Antonio Bologna, and secretly married him. She gave birth to his child, Frederick, who was sent away to be brought up elsewhere and then they had a girl. One of her brothers, a Cardinal, became suspicious so Bologna escaped to Ancona with their children and the Duchess, pregnant with their third child, followed. She said to her household there, ‘I would rather live privately with my husband than remain duchess.’

When her brother the Cardinal heard this he had them banished from Ancona. Bologna fled to Siena and then to Padua where he was eventually killed. The Duchess with her children and maid was captured and imprisoned in Torre dello Ziro, a tower between Amalfi and Atrani (which is still there) where she is said to have been murdered by her brothers. Webster would have got this gory tale from Bandello’s Novelle (1554). Bandello had known the real Bologna in Milan before his assassination.

Amalfi never regained its earlier importance. Later, that area was ruled by Spain, then by Joseph Bonaparte, and in 1861 Francis 11, the last King of Naples, had his kingdom absorbed into the kingdom of Italy. Amalfi remained a quiet harbour town until the arrival of roads and tourism. Every four years there is still a regatta of the four ancient rival maritime republics: Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi. The boat rowed by the Amalfi team, beautifully painted and carved, can be seen in a courtyard near the sea.

Ravello, in the mountains just above Amalfi, is also supposed to have been founded by Roman fugitives. The Bishop of Ravello was appointed directly from Rome and in the exquisite little Cathedral Hadrian IV, Nicholas Breakspear, the only Englishman ever to be made Pope, confirmed Norman William as King of Sicily.

In the 12th century Ravello had about twenty-five thousand inhabitants but now it is tiny. Its wonderful medieval palaces and gardens have attracted many artists, musicians, and writers including Boccaccio, Grieg, Escher, Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence. Wagner is thought to have found inspiration for Parsifal in the gardens of the Villa Ruffalo and until his death Gore Vidal lived in one of the medieval palaces. Every summer Ravello has a classical music festival.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

A research visit to the V&A by Elizabeth Chadwick

A few weeks ago I went to the V&A museum to see the Opus Anglicanum exhibition of medieval embroidery.  Click here for the V&A's exhibition details  It is utterly fabulous and well worth the £12 entrance fee.  It's also a one off as many of the exhibits come from other storage facilities and museums round the world and the fragility of some of the items means they will rarely be on display, and certainly not in a gathering of similar pieces.  So, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a collection of this wonderful English embroidery once world famous and coveted.   A tip that was passed on to me and which I found invaluable, is to take a magnifying glass so that you can see the fine detail of the stitches.
If you are unable to get to the exhibition, Yale University Press has produced a superb book detailing the story of this style of embroidery and including full colour photographs and 'biographical' details of all the exhibits.  It is not cheap at around £35-£40 but at the same time it's gorgeous, detailed and much more than a coffee table book (although it is big and heavy so you might need to rest it on a coffee table!).

Photography in the exhibition was not permitted, but the book has finely detailed images and the url above also displays some of the items on exhibit.

The themes are mostly religious, with the occasional moment of regal and baronial bling thrown in - such as fragments of horse trappings and seal bags bearing the lions of England.  The ecclesiastical copes are just stunning. My particular favourite exhibit was the one on the way out and is a pall belonging to the guild of Fishmongers, made in the early 16th century and depicting a wonderful  golden-haired mermaid holding up her mirror and with her reflection stitched inside it. I also rather liked some of the facial expression on the exhibits, especially the jolly, mischievous horses!

Although I couldn't take photographs at the exhibition,  photography was permitted elsewhere in the museum and I took the opportunity to visit several galleries. As well as the European Medieval galleries which I often visit,  I was particularly interested in Islamic Art of the Middle East this time around because my current work in progress, TEMPLAR SILKS, has deposited my hero William Marshal in the Middle East for two years of his life and there was so much cross culture in the region that he would have seen very similar items to those on display.  Here is a selection of the pictures I took for my visual archive.

13th  century Syrian glass lamp depicting a falconer
Rock crystal ewer 1000-1050 Egypt

Rock crystal container 975-1050 Egypt
Incense burner 1250-1300 Egypt or Syria 
writing box Egypt 1302

moulded earthenware water flask 1200-1400 Syria

Filter in the neck of a water jar to protect from impurities.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Women Against Nazism: Elisabeth Abegg and her family, by Leslie Wilson.

Monument to deported Jews, Grunewald station Berlin.
Nazi-ruled Berlin, 1942: Jews were being 'deported' daily and taken off to the East, whence they never returned. Some went, if not obediently, at least hoping for the best, though their experience of what Germany under Nazism had become must have filled them with fear. Others were suspicious; perhaps they believed rumours they'd heard? In any case, the director of the Jewish kindergarten in Berlin, Liselotte Pereles, was concerned about one of the kindergarten workers, Eva Fleischmann. She wanted Eva to go 'underground' and live in hiding. She needed help, and the person she went to was a mild-looking, white-haired Quaker lady in her sixties. Elisabeth Abegg. She wasn't disappointed. The story that follows is taken from Liselotte Pereles's own words.

Elisabeth not only found a place for Eva to hide, but she also told Liselotte that she could come to her for help, if she needed it. Liselotte lived with a nine year-old niece, Susi Manasse, who was her ward; you might say she definitely needed help, but she was reluctant to take advantage of Elisabeth's 'simple and whole-hearted' offer of rescue. She didn't want to endanger her. However, one day, later in the year, Elisabeth called at Liselotte's house. Liselotte was at work, but little Susi was at home. Elisabeth said to Susi: 'It's time for you two to go underground. I'll be waiting for you.'

Liselotte still held out, but in the following February, when almost all her colleagues and all of the children had been taken away from the Jewish kindergarten, she heard about the great 'Action' which was meant to 'cleanse Berlin' of Jews, as a birthday present for Hitler. Worse, she was arrested and held in a Gestapo holding centre, but was able to get away. She rang Elisabeth from Charlottenburg station and let her know, using 'disguised words' that she'd gone underground. Presumably the words had been agreed in advance, because Elisabeth's reply was just as disguised. 'Say hello to my friend from the 'Ferdinand.'

That meant that Liselotte, with Susi, should go to the flat of a woman who was in hospital at the time, but had given permission for her home to be used. Liselotte hid there with another Jewish woman, Frau Collm, and a friend of Elisabeth's, Anita Schäfer, brought them food. Later, Elisabeth herself came 'always calm and kindly,' writes Liselotte, 'always only thinking of our welfare and our safety, fearless for herself.' They were moved round from hiding place to hiding place, sometimes staying in Elisabeth's own flat.

Snowdrops remind me of those brave, tough women
Elisabeth Abegg was an ex-teacher, but she had been dismissed from her post in 1940, denounced for political unreliability. She had grown up in Strassburg, and was first cousin to a well-known Social Democratic statesman; in her childhood, she was acquainted with Albert Schweitzer. At some stage in her life, almost certainly after World War 1, when Quaker feeding programmes in devastated Germany brought a small but significant number of Germans into the Quaker faith, she had joined the Society of Friends (Quakers). Thus she belonged to a religious grouping that had, and has, testimonies about equality simplicity of lifestyle, truthfulness, and peacemaking. It was a grouping that the Nazis suspected and loathed.

She lived, with her frail elderly mother and disabled sister Julie, in a block of flats where there were many active Nazis; some of them had denounced her for failing to put a flag out on special occasions, and she had even once been summoned for interrogation by the Gestapo. She was in many ways a marked woman, but that didn't frighten her into submission.
Memorial tablet to Elisabeth Abegg and her sister. By OTFW, Berlin (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Elisabeth, (the real-life counterpart of the Quaker woman who helped Raf, Jenny and her mother in 'Saving Rafael,' and the anti-Nazis in 'Last Train from Kummersdorf ) had a wide network of helpers; Quakers, ex-pupils, a disabled pastor's wife, also her brother and sister-in-law. All of these were willing to hide Jews and other persecuted people, and in some cases to help them to leave Germany. Old Frau Abegg and Julie Abegg were enthusiastic and staunch helpers in the work. In addition, as the bombing got worse, two of Elisabeth's neighbours left Berlin for safer areas, and gave her the keys to their flats so she could keep an eye on them. She used the flats as hiding places.

Most of the time, the hidden Jews had to stay up in the flats during air-raids, which was a terrifying experience, but Julie Abegg sometimes took them into the shelter, where they sat face to face with Nazis. I suppose Julie said they were her visitors, which of course they were; but the Nazis had no idea what kind of visitors.

Every Friday the Abeggs entertained Jews to lunch at their home. Elisabeth cooked the meal. 'But', writes Liselotte, 'you gave us far more than bodily food. For two hours we could talk about the world of art and science, and we were able to forget that we couldn’t live like human beings any more.' Another hidden Jew, Herr Schäfer, said later: 'I couldn't have stood my time underground without the Friday lunches at the Abegg sisters' flat.' My mind boggles at the though of the Abegg sisters calmly, audaciously bringing these proscribed people into their flat for lunch. Maybe the active Nazis were all out? Elisabeth also kept a school at her flat for hidden Jewish children, and for half-Jewish children, who weren't allowed in the state schools.

Liselotte writes that there were particular difficulties about hiding children. They had to be taught to lie, and to tell consistent lies, however young they were. They had to learn false names and birth-dates, and to pretend to illnesses they hadn't had, to cover up the fact that they hadn't been at school at all (having been excluded by Nazi persecution).

The children had to keep changing their religion, to match the religion of whoever was hiding them, Lutherans, Catholics; and had to attend children's services. A five year-old called Evi had spent a year at a Jewish school, and so, put in a Lutheran kindergarten, she prayed in Hebrew when the children started to pray. She had to be moved at once.

The Quakers have a testimony, as I've said, about speaking the truth, but there are times when that testimony has to give way to wider truths; like the truth that every human being, of whatever ethnicity, deserves life. So Elisabeth cheerfully lied to the Gestapo, to her neighbours, to whoever needed to be kept in the dark. False identities, false documents, were to her only the instruments of Light against the darkness.

But what she offered, as Liselotte wrote, was not only safety and protection, or food, but kindness and reassurance, goodness of heart, and warmth. She must often have been intensely stressed, but she never let her protegés see it. Once her briefcase was stolen, on the Berlin S-Bahn. It was stuffed full of ration vouchers for the hidden people, and a transcript of a speech by Thomas Mann (émigré anti-Nazi and Nobel laureate) that she'd heard on the BBC, but worst of all, her ID card was in there. Luckily, when the police arrested the thief, he'd thrown a lot of stolen stuff in together, so it wasn't clear which belonged to whom. Then once a Jewish woman, Rita, was arrested at her hiding place in a pastor's house (The old pastor's wife was arrested, but her daughter offered herself as a hostage instead, and the Gestapo released the old lady). But Rita had left behind a notebook with the addresses of all Elisabeth's helpers. Elisabeth 'did everything to stave off the danger for the helpers, before the Gestapo found the book.'

I would love to know what that involved. Did Elisabeth just go to the house and get hold of the book, or did she go round to all her helpers and move the Jews out? Only where would she put them? Pereles's account doesn't specify and Abegg herself didn't apparently think her actions needed to be written about.

Clearly, Elisabeth wouldn't have been able to do what she did if she hadn't had that network of helpers. Not all the helpers stayed the course; sometimes they were bombed out of their homes, sometimes they couldn't stand the stress any longer. But they contributed, and did so with courage. Elisabeth gave them leadership, though, and probably courage and hope, even in the deepest political and social darkness.

As we face what for many of us looks like an oncoming dark tide of renewed hideous bigotry, both at home and abroad, I feel it is well worth it to reflect on Elisabeth Abegg. Could I do what she did? I don't know, and I do hope things don't get so bad in England. Where did her amazing strength come from? I'm sure her mother's and sister's support were crucial, as well as that of all those helpers, but also there was her Quaker faith, and the deep silence of Quaker worship. Perhaps she drew strength from these words of George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, words which are perhaps relevant to us today:

'The Lord is at work in this thick night of Darkness that may be felt; and Truth doth flourish as the rose, and the lilies do grow among the thorns, and the plants atop of the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play. And never heed the temposts nor the storms, floods, nor rains, for the Seed Christ is over all and doth reign. And so, be of good faith and valiant for the Truth.'

If you want to look at a photograph of Elisabeth Abegg, you can find it by clicking this link to the photo archive at Yad Vashem,  .

This account of Elisabeth Abegg's life is drawn from: 'Die unbesungenen Helden: Menschen in Deutschlands dunklen Tagen', (Unsung Heroes; Human beings in Germany's Dark Days), edited by Kurt R Grossmann, first published by Ullstein Verlag in 1961.