Sunday, 28 May 2017

How to grab the attention of an unwilling audience by Julie Summers

Half of my professional time is made up of public speaking. I know that I am not alone in this. In these days of social media, we authors are expected to be out there, promoting our books, doing twirls at book festivals. We have to be erudite, charming and polite even when we are standing in a freezing cold marquee speaking to an audience of nine or ten, half of whom are festival volunteers. These events are often as not gratis even though, as Philip Pullman pointed out eighteen months ago when a row about literary festivals blew up, everyone else connected with events gets paid, from the technicians to the cleaners.

If a literary festival gets it right - and it is not hard - authors are very happy to speak to their audiences for as little as a warm welcome, a cup of tea or a glass of wine and perhaps a bed for the night if we have travelled for hours. One festival I went to provided absolutely nothing and I even had to pay 20p to go to the public lavatory to get changed into my festival garb. A high point of last year was Frinton Literary Festival which staged a wartime tea-party. Everyone dressed up for the event including the members of Frinton WI who came as 'Nippies', the name given to the waitresses who worked in the Lyons coffee houses in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Frinton Literary Festival 2016 
Members of Frinton WI in their Nippy uniform

When invited I talk about my research, the subjects of my books and - occasionally - about the process of writing. I enjoy this side of my life enormously and by and large I seem to get positive feedback from my audiences, large and small. I am fortunate in that the subject matter seems to chime with history groups and, luckily for me, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, who pay their speakers. When I wrote Jambusters, the story of the WI in the Second World, I could not have imagined it would give me five years worth of lectures. The WI are great consumers of their own history. And rightly so. It is a remarkable one. The Second World War was in many ways their finest hour. They kept the countryside ticking by busting bureaucratic logjams, making copious amounts of preserves from surplus fruit, feeding the farm workers with millions upon millions of meat pies and advising eleven government departments on everything from national savings and housing to education and post-war reconciliation in continental Europe. The WI had the ear of the government and the eyes to see what was happening in rural communities in England, Wales and further afield owing to their excellent connections. Sometimes I speak to groups of twenty women in a village hall or a pub, at other times I find myself faced by more than a thousand eager pairs of eyes in a theatre.

The WI's National AGM 2016, Brighton

Some of my talks, however, are to other groups that comprise both sexes. The topics that go down well with men are of course those focused on the male-dominated aspect of my work: mountaineering and war. Everest Needs You, Mr Irvine, is a talk I have given hundreds of times over the last twenty years and its endless appeal seems to be the unsolved nature of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all time: did Mallory and Irvine reach the summit of Mount Everest 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing? I can't supply the answer but the romance of the story seems to capture people's imaginations even 90+ years on from the event.

Mount Everest from the north side.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen close to the summit pyramid on 8 June 1924
Similarly, the true story of the Bridge on the River Kwai has the armchair war enthusiasts leaning forward in their seats to check that I don't get my destroyer confused with a gun boat. If they can pick me up on a factual detail they will, but they are always courteous, especially if I can prove them wrong. Aficionados seem to enjoy being corrected as well as correcting.

An enthusiastic audience of historians and family members
of Far Eastern Prisoners of War at a conference in 2010
The trickiest group of people to speak to are luncheon or evening dinner clubs. And here I have almost come unstuck on more than one occasion. In December 2015 I was asked to prepare a 45 minute illustrated talk for a male-only club Christmas dinner where the wives were invited as a special treat. That was already somewhat uncomfortable but the invitation had come through a friend of a friend so I did not refuse. When I arrived I was given a glass of mulled wine and when I protested politely that I never drink before a talk the secretary raised his eyes dramatically to the male deities above. Seated between the president and the treasurer at dinner I was summarily ignored as they discussed the time-table for the evening, leaping up and down from the table to whisper an instruction in one or other member's ear. The programme was over-running and by the time it was my turn to speak the president asked me whether I could condense my talk to twenty minutes and do it without slides. It was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I asked to be allowed to powder my nose and collect my thoughts before doing my twirl.

As I was tweaking my pale cream skirt I suddenly realised I had an ace up my sleeve. Returning to my chair and without sitting down I indicated I was ready. The president called me down to his level and said in my ear 'remember, don't go over the time. You look lovely but they don't want to be staring at you in half an hour!' I whispered back: 'Indeed not. They might be worried. I wouldn't want anyone else to know this, but I'm wearing a pair of my husband's underpants.' I have never seen anyone blush and jump simultaneously. It was a sweet moment. 

The cream silk skirt on its first public outing in 2008. 
I spoke for 19 minutes. And for the record the club did not even pay my petrol. But I felt I'd won that night. I was wearing my husband's underpants, by the way. I have not had recourse to use them since but this one unhappy evening provided me with a good story to tell.

I am not advocating a rebellion but I urge any of you who go out to speak, especially if you do it for free, to remind the people who commission you to treat you with the respect they would wish to be treated with themselves. And if that calls for a little shock, so be it.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Joyce Grenfell's Lost Song by Janie Hampton

Benjamin Britten, Joyce Grenfell, Peter Pears at The Red House, June 1967
In 1947 the British composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the singer Peter Pears, fulfilled their dream when they started the Aldeburgh Music Festival, in Suffolk. Aldeburgh is a pretty fishing town on the East coast of England, unchanged since its hey-day in the early 19th century. At first concerts and lectures were performed in local churches and village halls. The British writer and entertainer Joyce Grenfell (1910-79) and her devoted husband Reggie went every June for the music, the people and the bird watching. Joyce liked all types of music, as long as it was good: Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Gershwin and Rogers. ‘I would rather go to a concert than the theatre, cinema or an exhibition,’ she wrote. In 1966 she wrote to her friend the writer Virginia Graham: ‘All the usuals here, such as Lady Dashwood, in modern clothes and assisted brunette hair-do. June is a magic month in Suffolk & the drive over to Orford in a faint summer haze with long blue shadows was breathtaking. Ditches full of Queen Anne’s lace, wild roses, elder flower in full cream, and a nightingale sang in the church yard, as we were going in! Such production!
‘Lovely day ended with an accolade from Ben: “Will I do a concert here next year for the new concert hall and the 20th festival?” “Yes of course Ben,” I say. At once, sitting in the parish church hearing but I fear not listening to, lovely early Byrd, I started panicking about new material for the event.’
‘My Dear Ben,’ she wrote shortly after, ‘I feel truly honoured to be asked to be part of the best festival in the world. It is the compliment I am more proud of than anything that has ever happened to me. I mean this. Your music past and present - and future – makes me feel as if I had been taken into space. I always feel music, such as Beethoven’s late quartets, is already there from the beginning. With love Joyce. P.S. Please thank Peter, too, for his singing in Curlew River - oh and in the Schumann!’
Joyce Grenfell, circa 1945.
Joyce Grenfell was an unusual choice for this rather intellectual concert series. But Britten must have known that her comedy show would subsidise the more esoteric offerings. Also in that year's programme were the Vienna Boys’ choir, The Castaway by Lennox Berkeley, a new production of Britten’s The Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Plomer reading poetry, a talk on Anglo-Saxon Ship-Burials, and ended with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Three events each day gave everyone time to enjoy each performance and the place, without having to rush. Joyce wrote two new monologues: about an intense American music student called Marty Winderhauer, and a new Shirley’s Girlfriend with her whistling from behind a pulpit. She and her pianist and composer William Blezard also wrote a song in praise of Britten. ‘I have never toiled, polished, worked on anything as I have on this ditty,’ she wrote. ‘I was praying that he would like it.’
In case Britten didn’t like it, Joyce and Blezard performed the song for Britten on the morning of the concert at The Red House where Britten lived with Peter Pears, just outside Aldeburgh. The song is one of Joyce Grenfell's most sophisticated - a recitative of puns set to Blezard's  lively jazz accompaniment.
'How benevolent is the setting
Suffolk winds benignly blow
Benefitting all who came here
And to concerts go oh-oh-oh
Seats benumb on Parish church benches
But the benefited ear recognises benediction
In the wonders it can hear
Bene, bene molto bene.'
Joyce was amazed by Britten’s reaction. ‘I was quite flummoxed,’ she wrote to Virginia Graham. ‘Ben ran to me and embraced me, weeping! He was very touched and moved. It was very dear and entirely unexpected.’
So fifty years ago, at the concert that night on 5 June 1967, in the Jubilee Hall, the song was rapturously received and the audience called out for an encore. But Joyce thought it was a ‘one occasion song’ and did not sing an encore, nor ever performed it again.
The next day Britten wrote to Joyce: ‘It was a joy to have you here, & we are grateful to you for the incomparably funny and wise evening you gave us - we were the honoured ones! Come back again, both of you, & do another such evening for us - ‘as near the bone’ as you like to make it. Love Ben.’ Joyce replied: ‘Dear Ben, Thank you for letting me be a small part of this 20th festival. There is something about the Aldeburgh Festival that makes one want to do far better than one has ever done before, anywhere else in the world. It is a challenge to keep up to the standard you & Peter give, that goes far beyond the line of duty!’
Back in London, Joyce and Blezard made a gramophone record and sent it to The Red House. Three years later, in 1970, Britten wrote: ‘I do hope this letter reaches you in a forgiving mood! Peter & I were hunting for an ancient record in a seldom used cupboard, & to our great surprise, then delight, & then horror, we found a record you’d sent us, away back in 1967, which neither of us had seen before. I can only imagine your handsome & delightful Tribute was ‘tidied away’. I somehow think you will forgive, for you are so grand a person.’
Joyce replied, ‘Of course I understand & of course I forgive! What’s more I can imagine the wave of horror you felt when you discovered the record and you have my deepest sympathy.’ And the record and the song were forgotten again.
Postcard from Joyce to Donald Swann, 1951
While I was researching the biography of Joyce Grenfell 15 years ago, I found Britten’s and Grenfell’s letters in separate archives. After I’d put copies of them together in chronological order, I started to look for the song Bene . But by then William Blezard had lost the manuscript; the Aldeburgh festival manager had just died; and the Britten-Pears archivist had never heard of it. Ten years later I tried again, and after some further searching at The Red House, the single gramophone record of the Bene song was found, mislabelled but still in perfect condition.
Not heard for nearly 40 years, it was broadcast for the first time on Joyce Grenfell at Aldeburgh Festival on BBC Radio 3 in 2005.
Joyce visited Aldeburgh Music Festival every year from 1962, until a few weeks before her death in 1979. Listening to a performance of an "advanced" piano piece, Grenfell composed her own obituary: 'She died from opening her mind too far'.

Friday, 26 May 2017

A new step forward in France, by Carol Drinkwater






We have a new President.
The whole world has learned by now that France has voted for Emmanuel Macron, the youngest man to step into this role since Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoleon III.
Born in Paris on 20th April 1808,  Louis-Napoléon became President on 20th December 1848.




Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoléon I, was the first head of State to take the title of President and he was the only President of the Second Republic. Barred from running for a second term, he organised a coup d'etat and took the throne as Emperor of France on 2nd December 1852.  He remains the longest serving Head of State in France since the French Revolution, and died in exile in England in 1873 after the fall of his Empire in 1870.

Emmanuel Macron steps into the role of President at the age of thirty-nine and six months so just a tad younger than France's last Emperor, making Macron the youngest President in French history.  Does his age matter? Yes and no. His youth and energy are seen here as a breath of fresh air. His beautiful wife Brigitte Macron is over twenty years his senior making him, I believe, a man with an individual spirit who follows his own path, his own destiny. I watched a clip of their wedding recently and was charmed by the way he spoke so openly about embracing their age difference. I find it quite remarkable when one considers the chauvinism so often shown in politics.

I, we, hope that this mindset will bring courage and a new way of thinking to French politics. Most here are saying that the country is in dire need of reform. Yes, there is much that needs to be addressed - our very high unemployment figures (around ten per cent), the weight of bureaucracy in the public sectors - both are two concerns regularly cited.
Another urgent issue is national security. We are a country that has been living in a state of alerte rouge since January 2015. Over the last two years, France has been the victim of several monstrous terrorist attacks. In these last two and a half years, close to 300 people have been murdered during or as a result of these attacks. Macron's opponent, the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, has been suggesting measures which would alienate the large Maghrebian (north African) population here in France, would close down our borders, take us out of Europe and do away with the euro. Fortunately, Macron has opposed all these proposed policies. During the televised debate between Macron and Le Pen just days before the second and final round of voting, Macron stood firm against her accusations when she shockingly threw the word 'traitor' at him because he had visited Algeria and stated that France did not behave well during its years as an imperialist power there and that some of the acts perpetrated against French colonial citizens were crimes against humanity. It took great courage and integrity to stand firm on national television, peak viewing, to repeat his position. I agree with Macron. Like him I also believe that until France takes responsibility for its past, healing and social meshing cannot take place.

I have written about France and its Algerian history in other History Girls posts: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.fr/2015/01/je-suis-charlie-carol-drinkwater_26.html  and  http://the-history-girls.blogspot.fr/2015/02/a-potted-history-of-french-algeria.html

The terrorists who perpetrated the appalling attacks here, from Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 onwards, are, or were, members of and trained by ISIS/Daech. They are not necessarily directly related to France's colonial past except that many of the disenfranchised north Africans living, in most cases, in very difficult conditions on the outskirts of French cities have been easy pickings for the terrorist organisations. These second and third generation French citizen youths are without work, living on the fringes of our society, despised and looked down upon by a percentage of the population and their rights and needs are not always being met. How easy then to lure them into acts against the establishment, to stoke up within them the hatred and anger necessary to commit such atrocities. The solid impenetrable establishment does not want to hear that France owes a great debt and more than an apology to the citizens of its colonial past. Macron's words were not easy to hear for many and were outrightly denied by others, such as Marine Le Pen.
It is a breath of fresh air to hear a politician say that his nation must take responsibility for its crimes before any future can be built. I applaud Macron for not buckling at the possibility of losing votes because of the position he had taken.




My new novel, THE LOST GIR, to be published in just over a month on 29th June in the UK is set in two locations and several time zones. At its heart it is a contemporary story which begins the night of Friday 13th November 2015 in Paris. That night there were six terrorist attacks all within the eastern quarters of Paris. Over 200 people were murdered many of them youngsters attending a rock concert at the Bataclan concert hall near Bastille.

How did this book come about? The evening of the terrorism in Jan 2015 really affected me and set the tone for my response to the 13 November attacks. My husband was in Paris when the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place. He was working at his office which in those days was one street away from the CH offices. Naturally, I was terrified when I heard the news before I knew the precise location. Once all was revealed, I learned from Michel, my husband, that he had worked with one of the illustrators who was murdered that late afternoon.
The fact that it was a colleague, someone just one step away, a man working in the arts, not a close friend of Michel's but a respected colleague, this really shook me up.
Freedom of speech, freedom to believe whatever one chooses as long as it does not cause harm to others, freedom to love whomsoever one chooses, as long as we are not talking about minors or unwilling partners. These are at the heart of French values, a cornerstone of this society. 2015 was a turning point for me in that I recognised how living in France has transformed me. I also realised that speaking out and mourning publicly for the victims was essential. I felt that I had to stand up and be counted.
THE LOST GIRL was in gestation, I see now, even before the night of 13th November.
That evening I switched on the television to see the news which is not something I am in the habit of doing. I was standing with my mother in the living room and together we watched the events unfolding. I was weeping. Mummy said to me, talking particularly about the young who were trapped as hostages within the Bataclan where two gunmen were shooting, picking off audience members one after another in cold blood 'Everyone of them is someone's daughter or son. Mothers are waiting everywhere to hear the news.'
My story was seeded, although I did not know it that evening. Several days later, I put aside the novel I was at work on and began to write ...

Kurtiz is an Englishwoman, a renowned photographer who has become estranged from her actor husband. Their marriage fell apart when their sixteen-year-old daughter, Lizzie, went missing from their London home four years earlier. Out of the blue, there is a sighting of Lizzie in Paris. Kurtiz's husband, Oliver, firmly believes his daughter will be at the Bataclan rock concert and he goes there in search of her. Kurtiz is waiting in a nearby bar for news, for a meeting, for a craved-for reconciliation.

THE LOST GIRL is a love story with plenty of drama. At its heart it is a tale of new beginnings, of second chances, of learning to forgive and to seize the moment and live.

France has voted, not for extremism and fascist knee-jerk reactions, not for closing down its borders, but for new beginnings, for building upon the knowledge that within its recent past, the nation, the ruling powers, have committed crimes. With an open heart, the long slow journey towards healing and creating opportunities for those who have been left out in the cold, can begin.
I am feeling optimistic.

www.caroldrinkwater.com

I wrote this blog and posted it at the beginning of this week. A day later, Manchester in the United Kingdom was hit. A suicide bomber waited to explode his foul ammunition on young people preparing to make their way home from a rock concert. First,  my sincere condolences to those who have lost members of their families. R.I.P to those who lost their lives. I pray that those who were injured may recover speedily. Lastly, huge respect to the citizens of Manchester who handled the abomination with such compassion. During my time researching The Lost Girl I spent a month watching filmed material of the events of that night in Paris and the long harrowing days that succeeded it. One of the most remarkable things I took away from all that I watched was the generosity of the Parisians, the French. Blood was given, doors left open. Everyone was on hand to help do their bit to counter the ugliness of such an atrocity. In all the war zones I have visited for my work and travels, for the research for The Lost Girl and for all that I have read over these last few days from Manchester, I have been deeply moved time and time again by our ability to express compassion and generosity to others who are suffering. Man's indomitable spirit. Our kindness, our desire to reach out and offer a hand to another in need. I hope these qualities come across in my novel and I sincerely pray that these are the energies that will overcome these appalling waves of terrorism.



Thursday, 25 May 2017

Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry by Miranda Miller








 
     I came across this remarkable eccentric while researching eighteenth century Rome, where he spent the last ten years of his life. As a young man he was appointed Royal Chaplain to George III, who referred to him as "that wicked prelate". He later became Bishop of Derry and advocated religious tolerance and equality. He had a taste for mildly sadistic practical jokes and filled a vacancy for a curate by making the more overweight candidates compete in a race along the beach. Hervey was also a philanthropist who built roads in Derry and tried to relieve some of the poverty in the area. The Royal Society made him a Fellow in recognition of his interest in vulcanology and his scholarly work on the Giants’ Causeway. He built himself a magnificent house at Downhill, near the Causeway, and filled it with his art collection which included works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian, Dürer and Caravagio.

  
    In the grounds of Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, which is an exact copy of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli - Hervey wanted to transport the original to Britain but the Pope refused to sell. Underneath it he built a room for Catholic priests to say Mass, a provocative decision during that time of anti-Catholic penal laws. He also became involved in the Irish Volunteer Movement and in 1782 led a triumphant procession from Downhill to Dublin. Theatrically dressed in a mixture of military and ecclesiastical costume, in a carriage drawn by horses ornamented in matching purple and gold, he seems to have fantasized that he would reign over a new, tolerant Ireland. At an Irish nationalist convention held at Dublin he indiscreetly spoke of rebellion, which almost led to his arrest by the British government. After that he appears to have stayed out of politics.

   
   Hervey does seem to have earned his reputation for wickedness: he swore and blasphemed constantly and had many scandalous love affairs. He ill treated his wife, Elizabeth Davers, who stayed in Suffolk while he travelled all over Europe. Hotels where he had stayed often renamed themselves the Hotel Bristol, proud that they had been chosen by him for he was a famous epicure and drunk and only the best food and wine would satisfy him.

   
   In his late forties Hervey inherited what was then a vast income of about twenty thousand pounds a year and was able to fully indulge his passion for art. In Rome he was regarded as a Maecenas and whenever he was in town artists flocked to his house on the Via Sistina. He doled out commissions generously but didn’t always pay for them: when John Soane was a penniless young architect in Rome Hervey engaged him to build a new dining room and a classical dog-house for Downhill. Poor Soane wasted months designing a kennel that looked like an ancient Roman temple - but it was never built. The Bishop had an unpleasant habit of disappearing from Rome just as all the artists he had commissioned work from were expecting orders on his banker.

  
    Hervey was famous for his brilliant conversation and met or corresponded with Voltaire, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Boswell. This sophistication was combined throughout his life with outrageous behaviour; for example, on his last visit to Siena, he threw a tureen of pasta from the window of his hotel onto the heads of a passing procession of the Host. His house in Rome was said to be filled with pornographic frescoes and portraits of the wives of the artists he patronised as Venus in indecent poses. Catherine Wilmot, an Englishwoman who travelled in Italy and had an acerbic pen, wrote this description of him in old age:

   His figure is little, and his face very sharp and wicked; on his head he wore a purple velvet night-cap, with a tassel of gold dangling over his shoulder and a sort of mitre to the front; silk stockings and slippers of the same colour and a short round petticoat, such as Bishops wear, fringed with gold about his knees. A loose dressing-gown of silk was then thrown over his shoulders. In this Merry Andrew trim he rode on horseback to the never-ending amazement of all beholders! The last time I saw him, he was sitting in his carriage between two Italian women dressed in white bedgown and nightcap like a witch and giving himself the airs of an Adonis.

   
   For a man who had argued all his life for religious tolerance, he came to a very sad end. When the French invaded Italy they accused him of spying and kept him in prison in Milan for eighteen months. When he was released he wanted to return to Rome. On the way, in the country near Albano, he felt unwell & asked a peasant couple to shelter him for the night. They were afraid to welcome a Protestant - a heretic - in their house so they made him sleep in a cold, damp outhouse. Hervey was then seventy-three, worn out by his imprisonment and desperately anxious about his art collection. He died there and his body was brought back here to Rome. Hundreds of artists attended his funeral in Rome in 1803 and he was buried at his ancestral home, Ickworth in Suffolk, where there is an obelisk paid for by public subscription by the Catholics, Presbyterians and Protestants of Derry.

  
   In this portrait of Hervey with his grand-daughter Caroline the Earl Bishop looks rather benign. The miniature below is of Hervey’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as Bess, who was much admired by Edward Gibbon and many other men. She was a great friend of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire - a friendship that seems to have survived even when Bess gave birth to the Duke of Devonshire’s child. The three of them lived together for years in a famous ménage à trois and eventually, after the death of Georgiana in 1809, the Duke and Bess were married. When the Duke died less than two years later Bess went to live in Rome where, like her father, she became a patron of the arts, particularly archaeology. She funded the excavation of the Forum, enabling the recovery of the Column of Phocas and the stones of the Via Sacra. In Rome, she also found the last love of her life, Cardinal Hercule Consalvi, the secretary of state to the Vatican.







Wednesday, 24 May 2017

A JACK OF ALL TRADES - on the historical novelist and research by Elizabeth Chadwick.


I began writing  my first historical novel when I was fifteen years old.  I had fallen for a knight on a BBC television programme titled Desert Crusader - dubbed from the original French where the series was known as Thibaud ou les Croisades. (you can find it at Youtube under that heading.  For example Thibaud ou les croisades)  It's available on DVD from Amazon France and I have my own copies now for posterity!  
 I began writing my own form of fan fiction which quickly developed a life and story line of its own that departed far from the TV original.

My story involved a European settler family in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The hero had a Greek mother and an Angevin father and was a knight in the service of King Fulke of Jerusalem and often employed on James Bond style undercover operations.  He fell in love with the daughter of a visiting pilgrim family and long story short, returned to Europe with them when his father's brother died and he was the only living male relative.  That first teenage novel turned into a four book series - all unpublished but a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining learning curve for the writer!

When I began writing, I knew very little about the period and the life and times.  My inspiration was generally hormonal linked to a natural delight in romantic tales of adventure and derring do, and I didn't have much idea of the historical background.  However, I wanted my tale to feel as real as possible and that meant I needed to embark on the research.  For my Christmas present when I was 15 I asked for Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades volume 1.  Although that work is now outdated and considered dubious in places, It still gave a marvellous overview  to a 15-year-old and helped me to structure the novel by showing me the adventure in the political events.
However, it wasn't just the political history that I needed. I had to know what sort of clothes people wore and whether the clothes differed when it came to social rank. What colours did they wear? What were the dyestuffs? What was the difference in fashions between Europe and the Middle East? What did they eat? When did they eat? How did they eat? What were their beliefs about the food they ate?(the table of humors for example where if you were elderly it was viewed as not a good thing to eat pears or lampreys because they were so cold and moist on the table of food properties that they might put out your fire!) What were their social attitudes? How did they address each other? What was their attitude to marriage? To sex? To childbirth? What was their attitude to hygiene? How often did they realistically bathe? Did they immerse themselves? How tall were they? What sort of money did they use?  How was it made and transported?  Did they have pockets?  What were their horses like? Their dogs? What sort of names did they give those dogs and horses? What sort of names did they give themselves?   What were their swear words? And so on and so forth.

One of the first books I read to get me clued up on my hero's weaponry was the fabulous Archaeology of Weapons by Ewart Oakeshott. This is where I learned that a sword of the mid to early 12th century wasn't some great heavy weapon as I'd imagined from reading other novels and watching film and TV, but actually a balanced thing of beauty weighing no more than between two and three pounds. I discovered also that my hero's horse wasn't some magnificent beast standing 17 hands high, but far more likely to resemble a modern small, strong Andalusian horse or a Welsh cob. At every turn As I delved into the research material I was having my preconceptions knocked off their pedestals. Yes people bathed. No people did not use spices to disguise the taste of rotten meat - which makes complete sense when you think of how expensive spices were. The only people putting spices on their foods would be the well off, and no well off person was going to eat rotten meat. Yes, people drank water. Yes they wore colours beyond brown and grey.

It was one of the things I loved -  having my preconceptions and the things I had been told at school or in popular history, challenged and either debunked or fleshed out with entire new vistas of information. The more I read and studied, the more I discovered and the more interested I became, and the more I wanted to write about my chosen period.

Historical novelists by the very nature of what they do Must have a wide ranging background knowledge of the period about which they write. The more that is known and understood, the closer to one's characters one becomes. The aim is to become a native speaker rather than a tourist passing through. Script writing guru Robert McKee says in one of his lectures on script writing that the author must know his or her imaginary world as well as they know the one in which they live and this is so true for historical novelists. It doesn't mean that an author should  dump all the information they  garner into a novel, but it does mean that their background knowledge will inform the choices made when writing the novel. The more an author knows about their characters - what they are likely to have thought and felt based on wide-ranging background research  into their lives and times, the closer they will come to them and the more the readers will feel that connection. Awareness will flow organically to become a seamless part of the writing.

Rather than being specialists in certain areas ( although of course we may have those specialisations), we have to be Jacks and Jills of all trades and know a lot across a very broad spectrum.

 I thought I would finish by posting 10 books from my research shelf of thousands collected down that years, that address some of the questions I posed in paragraph 3. You can never have too many books - although I could certainly do with more bookshelves! 












Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the U.K.'s bestselling writers of historical fiction. Her latest work is a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Tuesday, 23 May 2017

How Hitler REALLY came to power, by Leslie Wilson

Photo: Bundesarchiv






People keep saying: 'Hitler came to power by democratic means.' Well, did he? I'm grounding this blog on a reading of Richard J Evans's impressive book 'The Coming of the Third Reich,' published in 2003. I thought it was time to revisit the 1932-1933 era, and what I find is not what I expected, which shows that it's worth checking facts before rushing into virtual print. I had always understood that  left and centre parties failed to grasp the threat Hitler represented, and to unite against him. That was an element in the problem, but the narrative is a good deal more nuanced and complex than that - and contains some frightening resonances with our own times.

The Wall Street crash and subsequent depression hit Germany's fragile economy harder than it hit others, partly because of the withdrawal of US money from Germany business. A fifth of the German male population were out of work: this is probably a conservative estimate, as women weren't included. If you want to read a fictional account of this situation and how hopeless it felt, you can't do better than Hans Fallada's 'Little man, what now?' Or else consider the photograph which I have seen of people queuing up to have their pets put to sleep (by a charity) because they could no longer even afford to feed their children. Consider the men who trudged along Germany's roads from city to city, in a fruitless search for work, sleeping rough, in growing despair.
Unemployed men, by Walter Maisak


Many of  those workers turned to the Communist party, and the sudden rise of Communism, which saw the situation as a crisis of capitalism which might lead to its ultimate fall, terrified many middle-class Germans. At the same time, Nazism, which had been a small fringe party, also started to grow. The large number of unemployed men with nothing to do, were a reservoir on which the extremist parties could draw. Nazis and Communists clashed in street battles; the Nazis were at least as violent as the Communists, but the Communists often got all the blame. It has to be said, however, that the extreme left were just as keen to destroy the democratic system as the extreme Right were.

The Social Democratic party, the original workers' party, had lost credibility due to their cooption of right-wing forces, when they were in power, to suppress Communists. However, in 1930, when in coalition with the People's Party, the Social Democrats refused to support cuts to unemployment benefit which the People's Party wanted (because the country needed to try and balance the books). That was the end of the coalition, and it meant that the ageing aristocrat President Hindenburg and his political allies saw a chance 'to establish an authoritarian regime through the use of the Presidential power of rule by decree.' The army, which had previously reported to the cabinet, had been given the right to report directly to the President. This meant that Hindenburg, himself a World War 1 military hero, had the troops at his personal disposal. Evans sees 1930 as the beginning of the end of Weimar democracy. 'Rule by decree' meant that legislation could be imposed directly, by the President, without having to go through the Reichstag.

There was still a Chancellor, however, Heinrich Brüning, a monarchist (and not a constitutional one) and allied to the increasingly authoritarian Catholic Centre party. To clarify; he represented those forces in German society who had been hostile to democracy from 1918, when the German revolution unseated the Kaiser.
Heinrich Brüning: Bundesarchiv


By 1930, as the extremist representation in the Reichstag grew, proceedings were often unable to go forward because '107 brown-shirted and uniformed Nazi deputies joined 77 disciplined and well-organised Communists, chanting, shouting, interrupting, and demonstrating their total contempt for the legislature at any juncture.' In February, 1931, the Reichstag dissolved itself for six months due to the impossibility of carrying on.

'Power,' Evans says, 'drained from the Reichstag with frightening rapidity.' It shifted to Hindenburg's circle, and to the streets, where violence was escalating. My mother remembered, as a child, mattresses being put into the windows at her grandfather's house, because the bullets were flying in the street. My grandfather, who was a policeman, was regularly deployed to suppress these riots. (One thing Evans doesn't mention is that though in other parts of Germany the police tended to support the Nazis, in Upper Silesia, where my grandparents lived, this was not the case. Given that the Nazi vote was consistently low in that province, this is perhaps not surprising, and my grandfather found himself having to control his men when they wanted to beat up the Nazis. He was a Social Democrat himself, and firmly believed that the role of a policeman was to keep order.)

Meanwhile, Brüning was imposing savage cuts. One of Germany's problems was the payment of reparations under the Treaty of Versailles. However, in 1931, the Hoover Moratorium suspended those payments. This should have given the political leeway for government job-creation schemes, and now the far right couldn't assert that any tax increase would only go towards the reparations. But Brüning, obsessed with fear of inflation, did nothing, and continued with his programme of cuts, saying publicly that the Depression could be expected to last till 1935. He became known as the 'Hunger Chancellor.' Brüning's successor, Von Papen, was equally addicted to austerity.

The Nazi vote continued to grow, helped by an astute propaganda campaign masterminded by the propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. It had its effect - not surprisingly, when you consider that postwar advertisers studied Goebbels's methods. One can imagine what he would have done with the Internet and social media. 'What the Nazis succeeded in doing' says Evans, 'was to reduce political dialogue to a series of slogans. Voters were confronted 'with a stark choice: either the old forces of betrayal and corruption, or a national rebirth to a glorious future…Visual images, purveyed not only through posters and magazine illustrations, but also through mass demonstrations and marches in the streets, drove out rational discourse and verbal argument in favour of easily assimilated stereotypes that mobilised a whole range of feelings, from resentment and aggression to the need for security and redemption.' (Evans). They yelled about 'November criminals,' 'red bosses,' 'Jewish wire-pullers', the 'red murder pack.'
Goebbels: Bundesarchiv


Perhaps this sounds familiar? I find it deeply worrying, because it demonstrates how easily people can be morally stampeded by snap phrases, and manipulated through their fear of complex understanding and analysis. ''I'm delighted at Hitler's lack of a programme,'' one woman wrote in her diary, ''for a programme is either lies, weakness, or designed to catch silly birds. The strongman acts from the necessity of a serious situation and can't allow himself to be bound.'' At a time when 'strong stable leadership' is being offered to British voters as an inducement, it should give us pause for thought. Of course, Hitler did have a programme, as anyone who could wade through the turgid pages of Mein Kampf could find out, and as the world found out when it was too late.
ballot paper for Presidential election


However, when Hitler stood for the Presidency against Hindenburg, he lost (less catastrophically than the Communist, Thälmann, who got 10% in the final vote. Hitler got 37%, and Hindenburg 53%. The Social Democrats supported Hindenburg, because there was no-one else they could support. This did no good either to their morale or their credibility, nor did it help when, in order to support law and order in the country, they withdrew their opposition to the cuts. Meanwhile, the new chancellor was as determined to create an autocracy as Hitler was.

'Papen's self-appointed task,' writes Evans, 'was to roll back history, not just Weimar democracy but everything that had happened in European politics since the French Revolution, and re-create in the place of modern class conflict the hierarchical basis of ancien regime society.' One of his government's first acts, having abolished the guillotine as a means of execution and restored the axe instead, was to ban left-liberal and social democratic newspapers. They lifted a previous ban on the brownshirts, hoping that they would thus be 'tamed' and could be used as an auxiliary army. Instead the street battles quickly reached record new levels. When my grandparents looked at the situation, they must have thought the country was on the verge of civil war.

In 1932, Von Papen's government suspended the Social Democratic government of Prussia on the grounds that it was no longer capable of maintaining law and order (in the face of the brown violence that Papen himself had unleashed). The Social Democrats accepted this, mainly because it was against their principles to use violence. If the leftist Reichsbanner organisation (which the Nazis later accused my grandfather of belonging to; I have no way of knowing if he actually did) had taken up arms - well, they might have been smashed by Rightists. Or there might have been civil war. Easy to condemn the Social Democrats when you have the benefit of hindsight, and when you aren't facing that decision yourself. They tried to use the legal route to protest, and the law supported them in part. But they were restricted to representing Prussia in the Upper Chamber, to the irritation of the Right. In any case, the Social Democrats had suffered severe electoral defeat, and they knew they couldn't mobilise their trades union membership against Papen, because there were so many unemployed men who could have been brought in to break strikes.

'After 20th July 1932, the only realistic alternatives,' writes Evans, 'were a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army.'
President Hindenburg


And yet, by election time in November 1932, Nazi support was waning. They had over-extended themselves and run out of funds, and, more dangerously as far as they were concerned, the Depression was bottoming out. Von Papen had resigned and had been replaced by General Kurt von Schleicher. 'By this time, the constitution had in effect reverted to what it had been in the Bismarckian Reich, with governments being appointed by the Head of State, without reference to parliamentary majorities or legislatures… Yet the problem remained that any government which tried to change the constitution in an authoritarian direction without the legitimacy afforded by the backing of a majority in the legislature would run a serious risk of starting a civil war.' And the largest party in the Reichstag were the Nazis.

So: did Hitler came to power by democratic means? I hope that this blog shows that it's a bit more complicated than that. The final decision to offer the chancellorship to Hitler (he had refused to take any lesser role in a coalition government) was driven by the realistic fear of a coup by the paramilitary Steel Helmets organisation (Stahlhelm), supported by landed interests and industrialists who wanted to continue wage and benefit cuts and feared a nationalisation of the steel industry by Schleicher. Some expected Schleicher himself to stage a coup, after he asked President Hindenburg to give him extra-constitutional powers to overcome the crisis, and was refused. Hitler's appointment as Chancellor did at least confer a shred of constitutionality on the decision Hindenburg made.
Hitler's cabinet. Goering is to his left. Papen standing to his right. Bundesarchiv


The Nazis did not fill this new government: Hitler was Chancellor, Wilhelm Frick was Minister of the Interior, and Hermann Goering was Reich Minister Without Portfolio and Acting Prussian Minister of the Interior, which gave him control over the police. This meant that the Nazis had control over law and order - or, as it soon turned out, lawlessness and violence. The Right felt that they could control Hitler. History shows they were wrong. But the real seizure of power followed the Reichstag fire, and the wave of terror that was then unleashed on Germany was anything but democratic.

Is there a lesson here for us? Over-simplistic parallels are the kind of things the Nazis dealt in, that Donald Trump, for example, deals in. But I would say this. By the time Hitler took power, Germany was already primed for him.In my lifetime, since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of Britain, I have seen politics move steadily to the Right, and the further they move in that direction, the more the mainstream political parties chase them rightwards. Policies which were once the preserve of the National Front are now mainstream conservative discourse. The Nazis' success was partly fuelled by sloganism and rabble-rousing, which also dominate the modern political scene. The other parties tried adopting punchy slogans and visual images, but they couldn't equal the Nazis in this respect.

Perhaps the principal lesson is that economic hardship and austerity bred Nazism; this should definitely serve as a warning to us today.


A footnote: Though the Nazis had a majority of seats in the Reichstag, this did not translate, ever, into a majority of the vote. The best they ever did was in the final election of March 1933, after the Reichstag fire, when voter intimidation was in full swing, and they polled 43.9%. But considering the authoritarian inclinations of some of the other parties, this would hardly indicate any great liberal resistance to Nazism. There were liberals,though, in the political, rather than the economic neo-liberal sense of the word. Many of them were dragged into camps and prisons, and many were murdered there. Some emigrated. A few went undercover to resist as best they could. We may honour their names, but the years leading up to 1933 were catastrophic, for many people who would otherwise have been decent human beings, either out of fear, or persuasion, or apathy, were sucked into supporting a filthy and murderous political system which was to lead to the death of millions. Most human beings are not as heroic as they'd like to believe they could be.
Social democrats in Oranienburg concentration camp. Bundesarchiv.



Monday, 22 May 2017

King Charles III and the Importance of Writing Things Down by Catherine Hokin

“But now I’ll rise to how things have to be.
The Queen is dead; Long live the King — that’s me.”

 Tim Piggot-Smith as King Charles, BBC 
"Mike Bartlett's play is a reminder that, even for Republicans, the Queen's death will loom large." This was the Guardian's comment on Bartlett's 'foreboding' play King Charles III, screened just a few days after a twitter melt-down over a Buckingham Palace press-statement so shrouded in anticipation that the Sun 'newspaper's' website pre-empted the news of Prince Philip's retirement with the announcement of his death. Sometimes you can't help but long for the days when even discussing a royal demise was treason and punished as such.

If you haven't had a chance to see the play (airing on the BBC in the UK and Masterpiece in the US), it is a remarkable thing. Written in blank verse to deliberately underline its Shakespearean-style machinations and betrayals, the play concerns the accession of Prince Charles and the consequent constitutional crisis which develops as he tries to find more meaning than mummery in his role. It is plausibly-played and, since it was written in 2014, seems to have found new layers of meaning as revelations have broken over the 'black-spider memos' and the two princes have spoken publicly about the toll their mother's death has taken. 

 The House comes tumbling down, BBC
Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on the United Kingdom's lack of a constitution and the ramifications of that 
if a monarch decides not to play ball. The moment when the Commons realises how powerless they really are against the heavy knock on the chamber door is chilling and was not helped for me by my American husband's response to my horrified outrage: 'that's what you get if you base your country on a gentlemen's agreement.' Given the amount of stick he's taken over Trump and the idiocy of our failure to actually enshrine the "set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed [which] make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is” in writing, I had to suck it up. 

 Sophia of Hanover
Constitutional monarchy (where the monarch acts as head of state within the parameters of a democratically-derived constitution) has its roots in the Magna Carta and was enshrined following the 1688 'Glorious Revolution' and the 1701 Act of Settlement which passed the crown to the family of Sophia, Electress of Hanover. In Europe, 
Napoleon Bonaparte is considered as the first constitutional monarch as he proclaimed himself as an embodiment of the nation, rather than as a divinely-appointed ruler in contrast to the Divine Right following French Kings before him. The role of the British monarch is understood as a ceremonial and politically neutral one: the current Queen holds weekly (closed and undocumented) meetings with the Prime Minister and can suggest/advise on policy matters and she gives the royal assent to bills and to the appointing of prime ministers but, since the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011, she can no longer use the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament.

Ah, the royal prerogative - a strange and wonderful beast sometimes exercised by ministers (it was used by Margaret Thatcher to go war over the Falklands) and still available to the monarch (although, obviously, we can trust them not to do anything silly with it). The royal prerogative has been described as a notoriously difficult concept to define adequately (Select Committee on Public Administration, 16 March 2004) and originates in the time of King Alfred as the personal power of the monarch as gifted by God. Curbing the extent of this prerogative in favour of a democratic voice has been a central theme throughout British history and tracing the efforts to stop the monarch dissolving the parliaments trying to stop the monarch is like watching a wonderful game of historical cat and mouse.

 Political Cartoon 1832
The last monarch to physically march into parliament and dissolve it was William IV in 1831. William IV succeeded his brother George IV to the throne on 26th June 1830 at the age of 64. At that time the death of a monarch required a general election: Lord Grey was elected, began trying to push electoral reform through, was defeated and went to the King to ask him to dissolve parliament so it could be better built with his supporters. The descriptions of the King marching into parliament, putting on his crown as he went are astonishing: The Times said it was "utterly impossible to describe the scene ... The violent tones and gestures of noble Lords ... astonished the spectators, and affected the ladies who were present with visible alarm." Lord Londonderry was seen brandishing a whip, threatening to thrash government supporters and had to be forcibly restrained, violent riots erupted and the King's carriage was pelted with rubbish. Bartlett uses this episode as the precedent to Charles's actions in the play and and the spreading shock is palpable.

Could this happen again and art play itself out as history? It would be a risky move and the Windsors are nothing if not brilliant at survival. However, the extent of royal prerogative remains unclear and suspension and summoning seems still to be within the monarch's power even if dissolving is not. The current Queen is very adapt at keeping her feelings hidden despite the media looking for constant hints - the speculation over her attitude to Scottish independence stirred up a hornet's nest - but Charles is certainly a lesser-known, or perhaps too well-known, quantity. For outsiders and republicans like me whose interest in a royal family is purely historic, the relationship between Britain and its its royal family is a curious one. A lot of its 'loyalty' (as Bartlett uses in his play) seems to be tied up with the Queen herself - perhaps, given that 83% of us have spent our whole lives with her as Queen and she has kept well away from controversy, there is an inbred sense of trust. However, when the news blackout and the twitter-storm really does herald the big sea-change, I wonder how many of us will come to regret that those rather ambiguous powers were recorded as starkly as the black-edged announcement. We can't say we weren't warned...

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Secret of a Clear Head by Imogen Robertson


Sorry, I don’t really know what the secret is. Drink less? Sleep more? Retire to the woods with a lot of canned food and medical supplies and ride out the coming apocalypse among the forest creatures? Possibly. No, the click-bait title for this blog post comes from an advertising slip I just found in an old second-hand bookshop frenzy purchase. The book is Essays by Leigh Hunt, edited by A. Symons. And here is the slip:



Thanks to the wonders of archive.org, I did read some of The Secret of a Clear Head and so can tell you that it has something to do with ‘true and worthy forms of gratification’, ‘the priceless virtue of patience’, and also share the news that ‘it is a convincing token of nothingness and emptiness to be without resolute purpose and lacking in energy. Such people are nobodies and have nothing to hope for.’ 

Bummer. 

Do feel free to read the rest here while I continue to enjoy ‘the essentially low tone of morals which forms the key-note of social enjoyment.

Actually, if you have come here in search of a Clear Head, I do have one recommendation. More than that it's one of those hissing-and-clutching-your-lapels-and-staring-wide-eyed-at-you-from-uncomfortably-close recommendations my friends and family have learned to love -  Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s a possibly life changing book about valuing concentration and focus and switching off the distractions of the modern age. And if you can’t concentrate long enough to actually read it, you can listen to Newport discuss it on the Ezra Klein show while playing Candycrush and scrolling through your twitter feed for cat memes. I actually did that. Then I read the book and by following the advice I've doubled my daily word count, and even better it's been daily.

But now I'm ferreting about on the internet, so I had a hopeful look at Why Smoke and Drink from the Every Day Help Series too. Unfortunately it turns out to be an anti-smoking and drinking tract. So anti in fact it provoked this response: 




More appealing, but I think nowadays the scientific consensus is against both John Fiske and me. 

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. Hayter


Anyway back to the book in which I found the slip: Leigh Hunt was an essayist who introduced Keats to Shelly and was the model for Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. 

Knowing that makes one read his essays in a different and harshly illuminating light, but they are pleasant, fanciful early 19th century easy reading. The introduction from Arthur Symons does some serious damning with faint praise though, saying ‘he is never quite without attractiveness’, which makes me a feel a lot better about some of my Amazon reviews. They are also full of certain turns of phrase and small domestic scenes which I think would make them a treasure trove if you are writing anything set in the 1820s. 

I also noticed the address of the publisher, Walter Scott, was given as Paternoster Square. This pleases me as that the square was the centre of the publishing industry for centuries, so after a little light googling I can offer you the following.

1. This isn’t the Walter Scott. This Walter Scott was a wrestler from Cumberland who became a successful building contractor and then a publisher ‘bringing classic literature to the masses’. 

2. As well as the ‘Every-Day Help’ series, and various elegant but keenly priced novels, essays and poetry, Walter Scott was one of the early publishers of Tolstoy and Ibsen in this country.

3. The short introduction to one of his Ibsen volumes was written by my great-great-grandfather, Philip Henry Wicksteed.


Now time to clear my mind, close all the open internet tabs and get back to the Deep Work with a Clear Head.... 


Saturday, 20 May 2017

The “industrious” Meon Valley

At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but  a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.

Map by William J Blaeu,
Amsterdam, 1645.

The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. 
Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.

More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

Until the 17th century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3

Soberton Mill 
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill. 

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham
Photo © Richard Thomas
Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site.4 The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.

Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.


Bridge at Mislingford
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 22.5 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.

In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.

The Meon Valley Railway trail
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
  
However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.

Old loading gauge at Mislingford
(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)

Droxford station in July 1975
Photo by Nick Catford
The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparations for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.

If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.

Forest of Bere, near Soberton Heath
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.

But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.

Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people.

In the 13th century, oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere
Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.

It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me. 


References 
  1. From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf
  2. The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf
  3. Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999)
  4. From The Warship and the Watermill https://web.archive.org/web/20081030083543/http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/historypdf001.pdf


Picture references