Saturday, 23 September 2017


Here I am, with my dog, on the remnants of what was known as RAF Greenham Common, though, in common with many other nuclear weapons bases in the UK, it was actually the US airforce who lived on the site and operated out of it. It was also the focus of women's protest, and I am proud to have been a very small part of this, as well as protesting against nuclear weapons in other actions and at other places during the 80s.

Below is the badge I'm wearing on the photograph (and as I type this.) If it looks frivolous to you; when you were engaging with the reality of a nuclear war that was apparently considered possible by the governments of the US and Britain, you had to laugh often, or go crazy. At that small, and rather lovely, patch of Berkshire, which is now a nature reserve, DOGS NOT BOMBS has come true, for it's a favourite dog walking area. (Ironically, the residents, some of whom hated the Greenham women for reducing the value of their houses, now have reason to be grateful to those who stayed to the last and fought for the Common to be restored, which must add hundreds of thousands to the value of those houses now.)

The narrative which was given to us then was that with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, nuclear weapons were no longer a problem. Many people asserted that protest had been foolish and pointless, since what had driven the last Soviet Secretary General, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the negotiating table, was the build up of arms which had bankrupted Communist Russia in their attempts to keep up. I have my reasons for disagreeing with this; firstly because (and I may have said this before, but it's worth repeating, I feel) on at least one occasion nuclear war almost broke out due to a false alarm, when the Russians thought they saw Cruise missiles coming at them and were on the point of releasing the SS 20 missiles at Europe when they realised their mistake. I also wonder about the wisdom of bringing another country to its economic knees; and I will say two words in support of this. Vladimir Putin. Finally, I am convinced that our protests did play a role. We made it impossible for anyone to believe that nuclear war could be survived by building the ridiculous shelters the government blueprinted in their Protect and Survive leaflets, and Greenham women told Gorbachev that no progress would be made on arms reduction unless Russia made concessions. There was a great deal of work going on during this period, which went far beyond demonstrations or even direct action at Greenham Common, the tracking of the Cruise missiles when they left the base, and the actions at Salisbury Plain.

Greenham women's action.(
I admit that I was relieved to take a break from campaigning after 1989. I hoped that the narrative of nuclear disarmament would prove trustworthy. Then a new threat emerged, from terrorism, and new wars were proposed and fought. I marched against the war in Iraq, I sent endless emails to our then Labour MP, who was strongly behind Blair. Just colonial warfare seemed bad enough. There were also myriad other causes needing attention. I was part of Reading Refugee Support Group for a while. In addition, I was getting published, but I have never ceased to be a member of CND,

Now there is a new nuclear threat, and once again an American president, one just as amateurishly belligerent as B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, is suggesting that nuclear weapons could be used, even in Europe. It's been largely forgotten due to the situation with North Korea, but Trump has said 'Europe is large.' Meanwhile, the largest Russian manoevres since the end of the Cold War are about to take place in Belarus, on the edge of NATO territory, and the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has said that the situation of the world is more dangerous than it has been for a generation.

 Photo Lt Stuart Antrobus, MOD
The Trident missile system (pictured to the right breaking the surface of the sea, presumably without its payload of nuclear murderousness, is deemed crucial to our country's security, and  Jeremy Corbyn is widely criticised for saying he would hesitate to push the nuclear button.
Most people haven't noticed, but recently the UN voted to outlaw nuclear weapons. The abstainers were the nuclear-armed states, of course, and their argument was that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty made such a measure unnecessary.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ', adopted in 1968, aimed 'to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to foster the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of disarmament. The Treaty establishes a safeguards system under the responsibility of the IAEA, which also plays a central role under the Treaty in areas of technology transfer for peaceful purposes. I have lifted this wording from the International Atomic Energy Agency site'. However, at that period and afterwards, and certainly since 1989, the nuclear armed nations have been updating and 'improving' their weaponry. The last disarmament conference ended fruitlessly in 2015.

The Greenham missile silos, though still fenced off, are empty, but others have been filling up. Also, missile defence systems are being proposed. It may sound like a good idea to shoot down any incoming nuclear weapons, but there are two problems here. One is that it makes first use of nuclear weapons seem feasible to anyone possessing the missile defence systems (which will operate from Fylingdales and Menwith Hill). You can annihilate your enemies and they won't be able to get you in return. Or, in a more charitable scenario; if anyone launches an attack against you, you can prevent this. These systems, however, would not protect Europe, but the US, and anyone desirous of attacking the US would first attack the defence systems in the UK. This is, incidentally, why South Koreans living near the proposed defence system sites have been demonstrating against them. The second problem is that they are not reliable, and nuclear overkill still being a reality, probably enough missiles would get through to fry the entire US and make the planet uninhabitable. Because believe me, there is no such thing as a 'limited' nuclear war. Even a strike on North Korea could release enough dust and debris to cause a nuclear winter, and if you're inclined not to believe me, look up the eruption of Mount Tambora and consider what it did to the world's harvests that year. The fear of a nuclear winter (which might go on for years) is based on sound science.

From the outset, when I was a child (and I am now old enough to count as an antique, being well over 50 years old), anti-nuclear campaigners have been regarded as impractical, woolly-headed (well, we were often woolly-hatted, but that was serious pragmatism if you were doing things in the depth of winter)

Bertrand Russell and others. Photo: Tony French.
I think it's time for us to reassert that there is nothing impractical about wanting life on earth to continue, and that waging nuclear war, either in Europe, or the Korean peninsula, is not feasible if this is to happen. Kim Jong-Un has been building up Korea's nuclear weapons in the name of 'deterrence'. The US (and the UK) menace other states with nuclear weapons, and by doing so, can intervene, often in their own interests and with catastrophic results, as with the Iraq war. I know that Kim is a murderer and a horrifically oppressive dictator, but he is in fact trying to achieve a status which our own country seems to regard as indispensable. And in fact, it's worth remembering that North Korea decided to abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty after Bush's 'Axis of Evil' speech, and partly in response to the illegal Iraq war, which has never delivered the positive results Tony Blair and George Bush promised us. 'Broad sunlit uplands' were part of it, or have I got that wrong? The history of the UK does not, if we look at it in objective terms, show us as shining benefactors of the human race.

The narrative we have been fed about our own nuclear weapons (as opposed to irresponsible 'rogue states' is that we are historically right, democracies who defeated Hitler, and that we therefore have a right to possess them, because we will always use them responsibly, only if there is extreme provocation. Perhaps you have been wondering how far this blog is about history. It is. That narrative is the Mutually Assured Destruction story (MAD), and it does have a certain crazed logic, as long as it's adhered to. The trouble is, once you start talking about pre-emptive strikes on any nation, that's the end of MAD, and perhaps the beginning of terminal madness; the 'end of history,' but not as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama.

A generation ago, we learned about what the Greenham women called 'the links.' Nuclear weapons have never existed on their own. They are part of a system of world domination, which has been played out in trade ever since human beings started to colonise. There's a chain of links between the Roman Empire and Trident, between the British theft of India and destruction of its industry to favour Britain (which began even before India was a colony); between post-colonial exploitation of the developing world (as it's called), and the wars and dictatorships that send refugees to our shores; the impoverishment that sends the much-vilified economic migrants. And the wrecking of the environment in the name of 'business'. There's a powerful link between Japan's rewriting of its history books to play down its crimes in World War 2 (which began way before 1939, really, when Japan invaded China in 1931), and the Korean situation. Now Japan is saying it wants nuclear weapons. I was in Hong Kong when the rewriting of the history books started, in the early 80s, and I saw how worried the Hong Kong Chinese were. Many of them remembered what had happened when the Japanese arrived there. 'People died very easily then,' a minicab driver told me.

So what do we do about that? It all seems out of reach, in the hands of Donald Trump and his advisers, the equally scary hands of Kim Jong Un, of Putin, and the super-rich who control international trade.

Well, for a start - as historians and historical novelists, we can tell it how it was in the light of current research, and many History Girls, past and present, have done just that. We can reimagine the past, without respect for pieties or comfortable national and cultural myths. Tanya Landman's BEYOND THE WALL is a shining example, exposing the Roman Empire as the nightmare it was to many subjugated people. And when we've reimagined the past, which is too often used to justify current oppression (think of those who want to glory in the British Empire), we can reimagine the present and the future.

The CND symbol was devised as a gesture of despair, but I think history hasn't ended yet, and it's too soon to despair. Throughout the twentieth century there were 'crazy' people who dared reimagine the world. We wouldn't have the NHS without them, nor would I be able to vote. I was at the launch of Sally Nicholls's marvellous novel of the Suffragette movement THINGS A BRIGHT GIRL CAN DO, in Oxford this month, and Sally spoke movingly of the things the Suffragettes imagined which seemed crazy pipe-dreams, but have come to pass.

Friends, to use the Quaker form of address, let us reimagine the world. Because the end of history, in any shape, is not what we want.

Kate Hudson on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Friday, 22 September 2017

Lincoln in The Bardo by Catherine Hokin

 "Mary Lincoln's health had never been good and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother."

"A Mother's Trial: Mary Lincoln and the Civil War" by Jayne Coster

"Where was her boy? she kept asking. Where was he? Couldn't someone find him, bring him to her at once? Mustn't he yet be somewhere?"

Account of Sophie Lenox, maid in "Eyewitness to History: The Lincoln White House" ed. Stone Hilyard

 Willie Lincoln in 1861
There are books that play with structure that make you want to weep as you stumble around like an extra in the Emperor's New Clothes wondering what on earth the critics are raving about. And there are books that play with structure that make you want to sing - such a one is George Saunders' wonderful tour-de-force Booker shortlisted Lincoln in the Bardo. For those of you don't know (and I promise there will be no spoilers), the novel centres on the death in 1862 of Willie Lincoln, the 11 year old son of Abraham Lincoln, from typhoid fever.

Willie was not the only one of the Lincoln's sons to die - in fact only one of their four survived to adulthood - but he is widely attested as being his parent's favourite and contemporary accounts of his death are harrowing. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was Mary Lincoln's seamstress and friend (and is one of the voices woven through Bardo) wrote of the president’s grief. “I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder. His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child." There was a reception held at the White House during the last days of Willie's illness (for which many of Lincoln's detractors condemned him) and there are numerous accounts of Mrs Lincoln moving constantly to and fro between the ballroom and the child's bedroom where (as Keckley perhaps rather floridly puts it) "the rich notes of the Marine Band in the apartments below came to the sickroom in soft, subdued murmurs, like the wild, faint sobbing of far-off spirits.” 

This was, of course, a personal tragedy in the midst of a public one. On the day Willie was interred, the casualty lists from the battle at Fort Donelson (a Union victory) were published and the scale of these was enormous: a thousand men dead on each side and three times that number wounded. One of the source voices in Bardo (First Lieutenant Daniel Brower, in 'These Battle Memories') describes the bodies as "Heaped and piled like threshed wheat, one on top of two, on top of three." 

 The crypt where Willie was first interred
The image of Lincoln mourning his son as he tries to hold the Union on a steady and increasingly bloody course is a poignant one. Willie was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery, in a borrowed crypt, with the intention that his body would be eventually returned to Lincoln's home state of Illinois. On the night of the funeral, and after, Lincoln is known to have visited the crypt alone and this is where the novel starts. Young Willie is trapped in the bardo - a Tibetan Buddhist term which refers to a transitional state between the worlds of the living and the dead - where children, according to one of the novel's voices, Roger Bevins iii, are not meant to tarry. It seems that it is Lincoln's great love that is holding his son in this place filled with confused and wandering spirits who do not realise they are dead, actually making the boy's passing harder. It is these spirits, interwoven with contemporary voices, who act then as our narrators.

This is a book that feels like a play - in fact the audiobook runs to a cast of 166. Each spirit has their own voice, the whole novel is told in dialogue and often a character has only a line or two before we skip on to the next. Other than the spirits, we have verbatim contemporary accounts, such as the examples given at the top - the research here is centre-stage not sprinkled. It works, wonderfully - layer upon layer of lost, angry, confused, bitter and sometimes hilarious voices which reflect not only the horror of grief but also the chaos of human life and the ever-present civil war backdrop.

What exactly transpired in Lincoln's visits to the crypt, whether he did in fact have the coffin opened and hold his son's embalmed body, cannot be precisely verified. That a father could not bear to be parted from his son's remains is plausible enough and is really the only fact, beyond the death, we are invited to accept. That the boy's loss had a profound impact on his parents is, however, well-attested. In the following years both, and particularly Mary, created as apotheosis around Willie using phrases such as 'sainted' and 'too precious for this earth' to describe him. Mary remained in her room for weeks, not attending the funeral, requiring the service of a nurse for some months after and removed all her son's belongings from the White House. Keckly's account that “Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was inconsolable. In one of her paroxysms of grief the President kindly bent over his wife, took her by the arm, and gently led her to a window. With a stately, solemn gesture, he pointed to the lunatic asylum. ‘Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.’” has other voices to support it.

There are as many ways to read the novel as there are voices in it. Erica Wagner, writing in the New Statesman calls it "a stunning portrait of a violently divided America" with a particular resonance for the world we live in. For writers and readers of historical fiction, it is a fascinating journey in what can be spun from the smallest nugget of historical fact. Oh and it's also wonderful - did I mention that?

Thursday, 21 September 2017

How to win a short story competition by Imogen Robertson

Designed by H Wigstead 1795
© The Trustees of the British Museum

There is not, I think, an easy or reliable answer to that question, but it’s something I’m thinking a lot about this month. I’m judging the Historical Writers’ Association / Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and it’s a humbling business. 

First of all the sheer number of entries we’ve received has been remarkable. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, we’ve been able to keep the entry fees reasonably low (I hope everyone is rushing out to by the re-issues of Lady Dunnett’s works), and that might be part of the reason. The second is, I think, the broad appeal to the imagination of historical fiction. Any place, any time, any size and shape of incident, great epoch shifting moments, or personal, intimate revelations - whatever you want to write and whatever sort of writer you are, you will find stage and characters and setting to fire your curiosity in history books and archives. I’m reading adventure, action, quest, romance, crime, war, alongside intricately worked, subtle portraits of individuals and communities. I'm delighted to say the standard is extremely high. Well, I'm delighted as a reader, but it makes the role of judge a lot more difficult. 

So how to choose? Well, obviously I feel very much as Antonia Senior did judging the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown. The best stories have passion and are succeeding according to the terms they set for themselves. The very best are also beautifully written, not just competently, professionally written, but written in prose which is crackling with character, surprising and transporting. What’s clear is that we have more stories of exceptional quality than we have prizes to give, so I feel both challenged and very privileged to have such a field to pick from.

L'orange ou le moderne jugement de Pâris
Philibert Louis Debucourt 1800
© The Trustees of the British Museum

There are a lot of stories which are perfectly good - the writers show promise and flair, there's imagination and sympathy - but for one reason or another the story doesn't quite fly off the page. I wondered why, if there is something particular about a competition story, or a historical story and what I might advise a writer to consider when they enter. The following is what I’ve come up with:

Here's one thing to bear in mind in the context of a competition - your judge isn’t choosing to pick up a magazine or a book, or click on a link and read just one short story. They are reading lots and lots of them. With the best will in the world, you are cooking for someone who’s already pretty full.

Le Ventiquattr'Hore dell'humana felicità
Guiseppe Maria Mitelli
© The Trustees of the British Museum

So a strong opening is key. A first line which presents me with a strong immediate image of a character and a situation makes me sit up quickly. An opening line about the weather is less likely to do that. Then there is originality of the setting. The Second World War still seems to exert a strong grip over our collective imaginations. That’s not a surprise, as I heard Elizabeth Buchan and Clare Mulley saying at a talk on Tuesday night, it is a period we are distant from but still connected to by family stories, and of course the drama of it, the huge moral choices faced by ordinary people makes it a compelling place to set one’s fiction. But if you are going to write about the Second World War, just be aware that you are part of a big crowd. You are going to have to fight harder to make your work stand out. Look at the sweep of history, is WWII the only place you can go imaginatively? If the answer to that question is yes, then fair enough, but just to give you an idea, I’d say nearly half of the stories I’ve read in competitions with a historical angle have been set between say 1935 and 1950. It doesn’t mean I dismiss those stories, but it makes me actively hungry to read your entry if it’s set outside that period.

Voice. Have one. There is a sort of neutral third person point of view which is almost ubiquitous these days. It may comment lyrically on scenery or action, it may contain within it strong lines of dialogue which convince as the voice of a living individual, but, by and large it floats above character like a slightly weary fog. Now, in novels prose which has a strong and particular flavour can get quite wearying, but that sort of prose certainly does punch through in short story competitions. It doesn’t need to be a monologue or the privileged viewpoint of an individual but an opening paragraph with its own particular crackle and bite has me cheering a story on rather than sitting back and hoping something happens soon. Think of it like stepping off a plane, that moment on the top of the steps as you emerge from the recycled atmosphere of the cabin. The air might be freezing, or heavy with humidity, you might be confronted with sounds and scents you’ve never met before, but it says loudly and immediately ‘we are somewhere different now’. And now your judge is leaning in, excited and eager to see where you are going to take him or her next.

Terracotta Campana relief showing a chariot-race
First Century Roman
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Remember this is fiction. A lot of stories try to rush through a lot of politics, a lot of years, individuals disappear and the words seem to shade into a non-fiction summary. They are telling rather than showing, trying to cram too many facts into a story until it becomes, in Josephine Tey’s phrase, ‘history with conversation’. I don’t think that’s makes for a great short story. A short story needs to be like a slashed sleeve, a sudden vivid stripe of life. A moment, or short series of moments which acts like a torch beam in the Aladdin’s cave of the period showing much, but suggesting much more.

And lastly, respect the form. Every story has its own length, and if an idea has grabbed you and wants a book out of you, it’s not going to be put off with fewer words. It will fight against the pleasures and constraints of the form. I don’t mean every story has to end with things neatly tied up, that can feel very heavy too, but they should have a sense of completeness to them. These are prose sonnets and shouldn’t feel cut off. They are an inhale and exhale, a whole thought which suggests a whole person, a whole time, a world, so that your reader or your judge reaches the end, sits back with a gasp or a sigh and needs a moment to return to themselves and the present.

That’s the way to win a short story competition. 

Phyllis Gardener 1924
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


In recent History Girls posts, I have written several times about the history of the Meon Valley. The motivation for my posts is simply that this area of Hampshire, as well as being where I live, is the setting for my historical novels, the “Meonbridge Chronicles”. Not that all my posts have been directly relevant to my novel-writing research, but it’s just fascinating to explore the past of a place you love, and turn up interesting little snippets of information about it that you didn’t already know. So, I’ve decided to continue with my theme, and this time I’ve discovered at least one snippet that I found really quite surprising…

Last month I wrote about Titchfield, the settlement near the sea end of the valley of the River Meon and, today, I’m moving a few miles upstream to the next place of any size along the river, Wickham (oð wic hæma mearce in the 9th century; Wicheham in the 11th; Wykham in the 13th; Wickham in the 14th). 

Wickham square Photo © Author
Wickham is an attractive little town (or large village – I’m never quite sure which it is, with a population now of about 4000), popular with visitors. In the 16th century, the writer John Leland described it as a “pretty townlet”, so it was agreeable even then. Wickham is no longer a market town (apart from the occasional farmers’ market) but it became one in the 13th century, and remained so for many centuries thereafter, and a busy, prosperous place it was, as it still is. Wickham also has a very famous son – a 14th century son –and both the town’s history and that of its son are certainly worth an airing.

In Neolithic times, the only sign of any habitation in the place that would one day be “Wickham” was probably a fording place that enabled travellers to cross the River Meon. Neolithic artefacts found in the village bear witness to these possible early visitors. There is evidence too of Iron Age and Roman sites in and around the village, including iron and bronze making as well as pottery kilns. Wickham is sited on the route between the two important settlements of Winchester and Chichester, probably making it of strategic value to the Romans. It is possible that Wickham became an important Roman settlement, with an industrial base.

The first mention of Wickham in history is in a document dated 826 AD, when the village is mentioned in a royal charter. The original village lay on the east side of the River Meon, where the church still stands and the medieval manor house was once located.

After the Norman Conquest, the king, William I, granted the manor of Wickham to Hugo de Port, one of many lordships he granted to the de Port family. The village appeared in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as part of the Titchfield Hundred, and the present church of St Nicholas dates from 1126 and was run by the Canons of Titchfield.

Wickham’s record in the Domesday Book says:
4 brothers held it from King Edward as 2 manors. Then and now it answered for 12 hides. Hugh acquired it as 1 manor. Land for 7 ploughs. In lordship 2 ploughs; 15 villagers and 6 smallholders with 7 ploughs. 5 slaves; 2 mills at 20s; meadow, 8 acres; woodland at 5 pigs. Value before 1066 £10; later £4; now £7
Its total population at that time was probably around 120.

In the 13th century, Wickham was held, under the de Port overlordship, by a family called Scure. The manor passed down through the Scures until 1381, when Sybil Scure, who was married to John Uvedale, inherited it and brought Wickham into a family with whom it remained for the next 350 years. The manor house of the Uvedales stood to the south of the churchyard. Excavations in the 1960s showed that manorial buildings had been erected on the site in the late 11th century, when a large, aisled, timber-framed hall was built. It was replaced with a smaller, stone-built, hall in the 13th century, with a moat and some fish-ponds. The lords of Wickham seem to have been both important and wealthy, for excavations also revealed the high quality of some of the pottery they had imported from Normandy and Spain.

However, there is more to tell of the 13th century lord, Roger de Scures. For, on August 13th 1269, King Henry III granted a charter to Roger, allowing him – “for ever”, the charter says – to hold a market in Wickham every Thursday and an annual fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas.
“Know ye that we have granted and by this our charter have confirmed to Roger de Scures that he and his heirs may have free warren in all the demesne lands of his manor of Wykham in the county of Southampton for ever. So that those lands be not within the boundaries of our forest. On condition that no one shall enter those lands to hunt in them or take away anything that may belong to the warren without the leave and will of the said Roger or his heirs upon forfeiture of ten pound. We have also granted to the same Roger that he and his heirs shall have for ever a market at his manor aforesaid every week on Thursday and that they may have there a fair ever year for three days, that is to say on the vigil, day and morrow of the Translation of St Nicholas unless that market and fair may be to the damage of the neighbouring market and fairs.” 
Saint Nicholas depicted in a 14th-century English book of hours

The “Translation” refers to the movement (or rescue), in 1087, of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra (in present-day Turkey) to Bari, in Italy, to save them from potential destruction in the religious conflict that was ravaging the region. The relics still remain in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari.

The event is celebrated as a religious holiday in some Eastern Orthodox churches, but it seemed to me a curious anniversary for a little town in southern England to honour with a fair. The rationale for it is, I suppose, simply that Saint Nicholas was the saint to whom Wickham’s church was dedicated.

The holiday was originally celebrated on May 9th, the date in 1087 when the relics were brought to Bari, but it was moved to May 20th (something, I think, to do with the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian) and thus it has remained. The Wickham Fair – a three-day event in the Middle Ages –attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds.

But what might seem extraordinary is that Wickham still holds a one-day fair on May 20th every year, 750 years after it was instituted.

In earlier centuries, the fair apparently traded in livestock of many kinds, including pigs, sheep, cattle and horses. But eventually it became essentially a horse-trading fair, which is what it is now, and is thought to be one of only two such events in the whole country. Thousands of members of the traveller community come from all over the country to show and sell ponies and horses, and to race them, with and without buggies, up and down the Winchester to Fareham road. A funfair fills Wickham’s great square for the rest of the day on the 20th.

The Square, Wickham Photo © Author
Wickham’s square is said to be one of the largest in Britain and it is from the time of the royal charter of 1269 that the layout of the village, with this broad market place, probably began to emerge. A road sign on the approach to Wickham from Fareham declares the village to have a “13th century market square”, which I have always thought just a little misleading. For, while it is undoubtedly true that The Square had its beginnings in the 13th century, and would once have been surrounded by contemporary buildings, sadly, few medieval buildings are still standing there.

Nonetheless, it is an impressive square, with a fine collection of 16th, 17th and 18th century houses surrounding the broad marketplace, a few of them quite grand, probably built by the increasingly prosperous merchants and skilled craftsmen. But there are certainly houses with 15th century origins in Bridge Street, a narrow road, apparently known as Grub Street in the Middle Ages, that crosses the River Meon at the east end of the square.

The Old Barracks, Bridge Street, Wickham Photo © Author
These cottages on Bridge Street are known as “The Old Barracks” and represent one of the best examples of a Wealden hall house in the area. They are timber framed with plaster infill and with later brickwork cladding. Timbers have been dated by dendrochronology to c1495. There is apparently a reference in the Parish Register to three cottages in Bridge Street called “The Barracks” in 1556 (the reign of Mary Tudor), which probably refers to this building.

Bridge/Grub Street is thought to have been part of the early settlement, referred to already, centred around the church and the (long since disappeared) manor on the east bank of the River Meon. After the development of the new square and its associated buildings in the 13th century on the drier, west bank of the river, Bridge Street was the connecting route between the old settlement and the new, via what was at first a ford, then a wooden bridge, and finally, in 1792, a stone bridge.

In 1334 Wickham was worth 6 pounds, 8 shillings and 6 pence in taxes paid to the Crown, which was more than Fareham, which today is vastly larger, so 14th century Wickham must have been a prosperous place. By 1700 it probably had a population of around 500, and two hundred years later the population had more than doubled. Now there are more like 4000 inhabitants, though that presumably doesn’t include the many residents of neighbouring villages who regard Wickham as their local centre. And it certainly doesn’t include the thousands who flock there, not only on fair day, but on every other day of the year, especially in summer, to admire the broad square and lovely old buildings, and to do some trading of their own in the antique shops, and enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants and cafés.

But what of Wickham’s most famous son?

William was born in 1320, his father a modest freeman, John Longe, who moved to Wickham with his young family. Somehow the lord of the manor, then John de Scures, recognised that young William was bright and sent him to a school in Winchester.

And John was right. This bright but poor boy became clerk of the king’s works, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England. He called himself William of Wykeham, in honour of the place that nurtured him.

Winchester Cathedral [CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
On leaving school it seems that William became secretary to the constable of Winchester Castle, before passing into royal service in 1347. In 1349, he was appointed rector of a living in Norfolk, despite apparently not having taking holy orders, but then a few years later took on a series of jobs as clerks of works. He rose rapidly in service to the king, Edward III, and by 1359 was responsible for the castles of Windsor, Leeds, Dover and Hadleigh, as well as many royal manors.

But only two years later he was a royal secretary, concerned with the king’s finances, and by 1363 was a royal councillor. It is hard to understand how one man could undertake so many rôles, but in these few heady years, he seems to have taken part in the negotiations between England and France during the Hundred Years War, he was a canon at Lincoln Cathedral, and a Justice in Eyre in the Midlands, and also Lord Privy Seal. By 1366, William was elected as Bishop of Winchester, but also held other livings with an annual income exceeding £800. The following year, when he was consecrated as bishop at St Paul’s in London, he was also appointed Chancellor of England. However, he found it hard to raise the money for the king to resume his conflict with France, when it resumed in 1369 and, finally, he lost the king’s favour and resigned his role as Chancellor in 1371.

However, all was not lost. As Edward III’s health and energy declined, William maintained good relationships in high places and received more important appointments but, in the topsy-turvy world of medieval politics and jockeying for position, he fell out of favour again and in 1376 was banished from court, his church incomes seized. But his banishment didn’t last, and in 1377, he was pardoned by the new king, Richard II, shortly after his grandfather, Edward, died. (The king’s own father, Edward, the Black Prince, had died in June 1376.) Under Richard, William resumed his position as a royal councillor, and served as Chancellor again from 1389 to 1391.

In the meantime, William was making educational foundations. It seems that he was genuinely kind-hearted and generous, excusing poor tenants on his manors their customary payments, paying off debts of others, and giving food daily to many poor people. He also supported poor scholars at Oxford University for many years before he founded New College in 1379. His grammar school, Winchester College, in Winchester, obtained its royal licence in 1382, though it was several years before either institution was open for business. At both, however, William required daily prayers to be said for the king and queen, for himself and his parents, and all of his former patrons, including Sir John Scures.

William was concentrating on his foundations by the time Henry IV deposed Richard II in 1399, but he welcomed the new king in Winchester in 1400. He died at Bishop’s Waltham (a few miles north of Wickham) in 1404 and was buried in his chantry chapel to the south side of the nave in Winchester Cathedral. At the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in England and, although he did leave legacies to his descendants, much of his wealth went into the schools and colleges.

William’s motto was “Manners makyth man”, adopted also by his foundations. Jean Froissart, in his Chronicles, said of him: “Everything was done through him, and without him nothing was done.” Quite an accolade for a poor boy from a little Hampshire village!

William of Wykeham (Photo: New College, University of Oxford)

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What does ‘Roman’ mean to you? by Alison Morton

Signifer, National Roman
Legion Museum, Carleon
Traditionally, Rome was founded in 753 BC. It grew into one of the largest empires in the ancient world with roughly 20% of the world’s population and an area of 6.5 million square kilometres at its height.

 Plagued by internal instability and attacked by various migrating peoples, the western part of the empire broke up in the 5th century, giving way to the pre-mediaeval ‘Dark Ages’ of Europe. Only Italy, Dalmatia, an isolated part of northern France and parts of Mauretania remained under Roman or Roman shared rule. The last western emperor Romulus Augustulus, abdicated in AD 476, kneeling in the dirt to Odoacer, who styled himself King of Italy.

The western Roman state existed for 1229 years. Although development has moved at rocket speed in recent years, a simple comparison would be from AD 680 to AD 1909 – what a lot of history that covers!

 Popular but not always accurate, depictions include plays like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra, feature films like ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, ‘The Robe’, ‘Gladiator’ and series such as ‘I, Claudius’ and HBO’s ‘Rome’. Visual depictions often stay in the public’s eye more firmly than images conjured up by books. However, we have every sort of fictional account from humorous with grim undertones such as Lindsey Davis’s Falco series to gritty campaigning and power grabs by inter alia Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane and Douglas Jackson.

But over more than a millennium, what really symbolises 'Roman' for us?
Do we go back to Romulus, founder and first king of Rome 753-717 BC?

From an altar found at Ostia Antica –
The discovery of Romulus and Remus

Or do these pottery heads found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and dating from 6th century BC tribal societies indicate the essential Romans?

Maybe the ‘great’ Marcus Furius Camillus c. 446 – 365 BC Roman general and statesman who defeated the Etruscans at Veii in 396 BC and expelled Brennus and his Gauls in 390 BC. But patrician to his core, he stoutly resisted granting the plebian representatives rights until 367 BC during a further war against the Gauls when he negotiated a compromise which united the two orders.

Triumph of Furius Camillus
Francesco Salviati (1510–1563)

Perhaps the influential Cornelia Africana, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, mother of the political reforming brothers, the Gracchi. She died at age 90 in 100 BC, and was remembered by the Romans as an exemplar of womanly virtue by saying she needed no other jewels than her children.

Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi
Angelica Kaufmann (1741-1807)

Or this soldier from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, known as the “Census frieze”, circa 122 BC?

Maybe Augustus 63 BC – AD 14, the first Roman emperor, founder of the Julio-Claudians; power grabber and great reformer. He certainly ensured his image was disseminated throughout the Roman Empire during his lifetime which has left us plenty of evidence of his existence.
The Meroë head 27-25 BC
Photo courtesy of the British Museum

Or his influential and clever wife, Livia, or staunch friend Agrippa, the builder, general and administrator?
Statue, Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome

The Plinii, Elder and Younger, polymaths, scientists, narrators of the minutiae of Roman life?

The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 which has sent us so many poignant messages from Pompeii and Herculaneum into the present?
Domestic items from Pompeii, Naples Museum

Or perhaps Eurysaces, an eccentric baker, who made a fortune out of the grain trade who was introduced to us by Mary Beard?

Does Claudia Severa’s birthday dinner invitation to Lepidina testified by the Vindolanda tablets resonate with us today as we email that invitation to some friends for next Saturday night?

Or perhaps Constantine the Great AD 272 – 337, the first emperor to convert to Christianity?
Capitoline Museum, Rome

And there’s Flavius Stilichio, the half Vandal general who was magister utriusque militiae (commander-in-chief) of West Roman forces AD 395–408.
From an ivory diptych c. 395AD,Monza Cathedral
(Sometimes attributed to Aetius)

Perhaps Galla Placidia (AD 392 – 450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life. She was consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 until his death in 415, and Empress consort to Constantius III from 417 until his death in 422.

Galla Placidia medallion, minted, Ravenna c.425AD
Bibliothèque Nationale de France

And near the end, Emperor Majorian AD 457-461 who was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Possessing little more than Italy, Dalmatia, and some territory in northern Gaul, Majorian campaigned rigorously for three years against the Empire’s enemies.

Gold coin of Majorian in full military kit

Late Antiquity was a very different place from the days of Romulus and Remus, but people very much regarded themselves as Romans. Indeed some vestiges of Roman ruled lands such as the Domain of Soissons persisted almost until the end of the fifth century  And of course the Roman church, the systems of government, law and administration persisted for further centuries.

What does the word “Roman” conjure up for you?


Alison Morton's latest book in the Roma Nova thriller series, RETALIO, is available from the usual retailers as ebook or paperback.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Why Historians are Hoarders by Sarah Gristwood

Blame it on too many women’s mags, but I started sorting out the other day. Not before time - the piles of papers had reached the point where we burrowed between them like tunnellng moles. But that doesn’t mean, as I threw anything towards the dustbin bags, that I didn’t feel a little guilty. Some of those papers had been there longer than I had. Some were there before I was born, actually.

In one chest of drawers, they went in layers, like the strata of rock they taught us in geology. In others, previous attempts to sort (or simply to find something for the taxman!) have resulted in an earthquake-like overthrow, so that my father-in-law’s World War II permission to travel is in among a stack of 1980s press releases.

A backstage pass to join Bruce Willis’ band in Berlin, some time in the 1990s. A shooting script for Last Tango in Paris. A letter, dating back to the Fifties, from the then head of an Oxford college, pouring out his affection for my husband’s mother. A handful of share certificates, a thousand old German marks . . . And an enormous quantity of sheer junk, naturally.

The point is, how to distinguish? Fashionable (essential!) though it might be to minimalise, how can you really be sure of what will and won’t be valuable some day? And by valuable, I don’t mean the German marks, or the share certificates - I mean something that makes me feel I’m touching history. Even if it is only my own history.

Those press releases can go, surely? Or the letter from a press officer making arrangements for me to travel to an interview, and giving details of a flight that landed several decades ago? Except . . . Don’t I want to remember that once (before I left journalism for the ultimately more rewarding, but certainly less glamorous, world of Tudor history) I used to jet around the world interviewing Hollywood celebrities? That ladies-only lunch with Sharon Stone at the Hotel du Cap, outside Cannes? That LA lunch with Clint Eastwood, that flight back from a film location in Ireland, with Anthony Hopkins giving me life advice I remember to this day?

OK, so maybe that remembering is the point? Maybe I don’t need the paper to remind me? But somehow there’s a need almost to prove my case - as if someone else might be interested, some day.

Many years ago I wrote a book about women’s diaries, and one of the questions that came up then was why so many of us, ordinary people, feel impelled to leave a record of ourselves for posterity. I remember one diarist declaring openly that it was in case, one day, someone wanted to write her biography.

Most of us can’t flatter ourselves with that possibility - but all the same I was aware that, researching the subjects of biographies I’ve written, I’d have been ecstatic to come across hoards of the kind I was about to throw away.

It doesn’t, after all, have to be the person themselves who is so notable, to whet a historian’s appetite in future years. Sometimes ordinary people find themselves acting extraordinarily. The papers in our flat, transported in their crates from my husband’s old home, and simply dumped unsorted in a boxroom, have already helped him write a book, Family Secrets, about a murder in his family. Sometimes they are simply swept up in an extraordinary event. That wartime ‘permission to travel’ - the card that came with a WWII medal - carry with them the whiff of a whole world turned upside down, of courage and of tragedy.

But what about the souvenirs of more mundane occasions? What about the playbill from the 1950s, featuring my husband - as ‘A Gaoler - in a university production of a Shakespeare comedy? (It’s lying on top of a season’s programme for the Guardian cricket club, and a pair of handcuffs. Handcuffs. I like to think they were sent to us as a publicity gimmick for some movie.)

If, perish the thought, I’d had done amateur dramatics in my own youth in the Eighties, I’d have no illusions that I was keeping that flyer from anything but pure vanity. But this, older, one feels like an artefact, a message from a vanished era. Even the yellowing paper seems to have something to say.
So what - does junk become valuable after x many years, and if so, how many? Does someone ring a bell and the past becomes history? It’s a question for Antiques Roadshow, maybe. But meanwhile, you know what, I think I’ll stick to throwing away old make-up bottles. That’s safe - surely?

Our thanks to Sarah for this "anytime" post. Celia Rees will be back soon.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A TIME OF FIGS by Dianne Hofmeyr.

Penny Dolan says: I came across Dianne Hofmeyr's beautiful post on another blog and immediately wanted to share her words, thoughts and images with everyone here, so thank you very much, Dianne, for being my History Girls Guest today.

London is subdued in the last heat of summer as August draws to a close over the bank holiday week-end. The pavements lack children careering down on you on their scooters. The streets are deserted. The traffic is quiet. Street markets are full of bright yellow zucchini fiori, tomatoes of every colour and fat purple figs… but no one to buy them. Everyone is away.

On my tiny London terrace under a sparse fig tree stunted forever in its pot, the pages of my book flip close and I drowse through an imagined Sicilian heat. The landscape of aridly undulating hills of Tomasi di Lampedusa …
with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.'

Summer in London, is not the blistering 40 degrees of Italy or France that brings back frazzled families when schools finally reopen. I savour the peace with The Leopard under my nose. Drip by drip, Lampedusa feeds me the landscape and customs of the old aristocracy – Sicily that summer of 1860 when Garibaldi arrives.

It’s not the Sicily of the five-star hotel high up on the cliff of Taomina with dramatic infinity pool and a view of Mount Etna and a wander through the tourist-filled main street up to the ancient Greek amphitheatre set above the limpid Ionian Sea.

To see Sicily the way Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina in The Leopard sees it, you must start with the chaos and contradictions of Palermo – the traffic, the grime, the washing hanging from balconies in narrow side streets, the scorched hills that surround it, the glimpse of sea, the architecture ravished by time and neglect, ancient baroque palazzi, interiors opulent with gold and mosaics, convents, churches and oratories on every corner reflecting Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman rule.

The Arabian arches of the Cloister at Monreale outside Palermo

Leopards between olive and date palms in the Room of Roger, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo
Close-up of the mosaic work by Byzantine artisans 
Describing a ball in one of the Palermo palazzi, the Prince savours the decaying grandeur.
‘The ballroom was all golden; smoothed on cornices, stippled on door-frames, dasmascened pale, almost silvery… It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays (this being 1862) but a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a colour so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers… From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky.’

I've not seen that Palermo ceiling but in Noto I came across the ballroom of the Nicolaci family. The palazzo with its 90 rooms, (not unlike the maze of rooms Tancredi and Angelica get lost in, in The Leopard) makes me wonder how the nobility became so rich? In the earthquake of 1693 the entire town of Noto was destroyed – palazzi and people all lost and the town later rebuilt in the style of the day – Sicilian baroque. Of the noble families only a few remained and through intermarriage became even wealthier built on the shoulders of the tuna industry.

Ballroom at the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata in Noto
The railings of the balconies curved to contain the voluminous swoop of silk and taffeta ballgowns. 

The pink-washed walls of Modica.
Under my fig tree I dream on... the salmonpink-washed walls of Modica at sunset. Modica, Syracuse, Ortygia – none play a part in The Leopard. They are names from my A Brief History of Ancient Times schoolbook. That incredible lofty Cathedral of Syracuse, the walls wrapping the Ionic pillars of an earlier Greek temple, the old Jewish Quarter close by, its narrow alleys where craftsmen still work, tinged with salt air. So mesmerised am I by the marble inlay of the ancient floor that I forget my iPhone in a pew which is later returned to me with a simple ‘Pronto’ when I call my number.

When I run up the worn marble steps from the harbour to retrieve it, my mind has skittered down another track. I think of the ancient ships arriving, the Greek sailors treading these same steps and Cicero describing Syracuse as 'the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.'

Yes… the quiet of August in London is as delicious as a fat ripe fig, filled with the dreams of blistering islands where the sun beats down 365 days of the year from an inexorable blue sky.

But a chill creeps into the closing lines of The Leopard.  When the mummified carcass of the family wolfhound is thrown out the window, the shadow of The Leopard hovers in Don Fabrizio's spinster daughter's words...
'its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadraped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.'   

A salute to all my past History teachers. Other books on Sicily: The Land where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee and Syracusa recommended by Adele Geras. Do any History Girls or readers have any other recommendations?
twitter: @dihofmeyr

Dianne Hofmeyr's picture book, Zeraffa Giraffa, about a Giraffe sent as a gift from Egypt to Paris in 1826, will be on stage at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington and the Omnibus in Clapham over the next nine weeks. Zeraffa Giraffa is illustrated by the artist Jane Ray, who also illustrated their forthcoming picture book: The Glassmaker's Daughter, which is set in Venice. Both books are published by Frances Lincoln.