Wednesday, 16 August 2017

David Douglas, plant-hunter: 1799-1834 - by Sue Purkiss

This is the latest in my series of posts about those dashing adventurers, the plant-hunters. The previous one is here, and that has links to the earlier ones.

David Douglas, a Scot born in Scone, near Perth, in 1799, seems to have been even more indefatigable than his fellow plant hunters. He needed to be, because he had more than his fair share of bad luck, dreadful weather, and very unpleasant accidents.

Unlike the character in my forthcoming children's book about plant hunting, Jack Fortune, Douglas was interested in gardening and botany from a very early age. At the age of eleven, he became an apprentice to William Beatty, head gardener to the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace, later moving to Sir Robert Preston's gardens at Valleyfield, near Culross in Fife, where he also immersed himself in study in Sir Robert's library. In 1820, he began a new job at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, where Sir William Hooker had just become Professor of Botany. (Sir William's younger son was Joseph, who later made the journeys to the Himalayas on which my Jack's travels are based - though Jack's adventures take place much earlier than Joseph's. Sorry if this is confusing...)

The Horticultural Society of London (now the RHS) had recently been set up, and when they asked Sir William if he could recommend a suitable botanical collector to work for them, he had no hesitation in suggesting Douglas.

Douglas, delighted, hastened off to London, expecting to be sent to China. Unfortunately, political unrest brought about a change of plan, and instead he was sent to New England. Following a pattern which was sadly set to continue, he endured a dreadful crossing with bad weather and a shortage of food, only to be told on arrival by immigration officials that he was too scruffy, and wouldn't be allowed to land till he'd bought some new clothes.

Vast tracts of America were as yet unexplored by settlers, so when Douglas set off into the interior - near Lake Eyrie - he was pretty much venturing into the unknown. He was thrilled by the wilderness and plunged happily into collecting lots of seed, despite his horse bolting (it turned out it only understood French), his cart driver stealing his possessions and abandoning him, and almost sinking on his way back to Buffalo in one of the violent storms which seemed to positively pursue him.

Somehow he got safely back to London, where the Horticultural Society was delighted with the species he'd brought home, which included a wide variety of fruit trees - perfect for the walled gardens of Britain's country houses.

His next trip was to the Pacific North-west of America, which entailed travelling all the way round the tip of South America and up the other side - it took eight and a half months. Living at Fort Vancouver, the base of the Hudson bay Company, he came to know and admire the Native Americans and use them as guides. Doubtless amused by his plant-hunting activities, they called him 'Grass Man'.

Flowering currant

Here he came across the flowering currant, which graces and scents so many gardens in spring, and the majestic fir which bears his name. He travelled by canoe up the Columbia River, and explored the countryside, battling with challenging terrain, hot sun, exhaustion and hunger.

Returning to Fort Vancouver, our unfortunate hero intended to catch a boat back to England, but missed it by an hour after being delayed by an abscess in his knee joint, caused when he cut himself on a rusty nail. So he stayed, and the following spring climbed the Blue Mountains, naturally encountering terrible weather. Partly as a result of snow-blindness, and partly due to sand which got in his eyes in the desert, he began to have problems with his eyesight.

The Douglas Fir, which can live for over a 1000 years.

So it went on. He continued to collect plants and seeds, despite falling down a ravine, encountering grizzly bears, and almost getting drowned in Hudson Bay.

Not surprisingly, when he returned to London, he found it difficult to fit in. Two years later, he set off again for North America. He revisited the Columbia River and then headed south to California, popped in to Hawaii and then went back north. He wanted to visit Alaska and then head home via Siberia. (!) However, with his usual luck, he lost all his possessions, his plant collection and his journal, when his canoe ran on to rocks in the Frazier river and he was thrown into the water and caught up in a whirlpool.

Understandably disheartened and in poor health, he decided to return to Hawaii. It was to prove a disastrous decision. Whilst staying with a local man named Ned Gurney, who trapped wild cattle for a living, using covered pits to trap the animals. At some point, Douglas apparently heard the cries of a bullock which had been trapped in a pit, went to investigate, fell in, and was gored and trampled to death; only being found some hours later.

Obviously, this was a tragic end for such a courageous man. But he had achieved a great deal. Britain has only three native conifers (the yew, the Scots pine, and common juniper): a great proportion of the conifers which form part of Britain's garden landscape today were introduced by him, as were the trees which later formed the basis for forestry enterprises all over the world. If you've ever despaired of the rows of conifers marching over British hills, you might have mixed feeling about this; but I don't think we can blame Douglas for the way his introductions were used - and we can only admire his dogged courage and persistence, in the face of a barrage of bad luck and unfortunate accidents.

(I am as ever indebted for my accounts of the plant hunters to 'The Plant Hunters', by Musgrave, Gardner and Musgrave - a really fascinating book.)

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Heart and Soul at Apothecaries Hall by Fay Bound Alberti

Apothecaries Hall, Blackfriars, London

On Thursday 29 June I gave a keynote lecture at the Geoffrey Flavell symposium, held at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, in Blackfriars, London. If you haven't visited, do check out the website and learn about the activities of the Society. It is 400 years old, having been founded as a City Livery Company (incorporated by royal charter in 1617); a major centre for the manufacture and sale of drugs at the Hall (1671-1922); the founder of Chelsea Physic Garden (in 1673) and a medical examining and licensing body since 1815. The beautiful building was partly burned down in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt; as an early modernist by training, I was delighted to discover that the symposium itself was being held in the space where Oliver Cromwell's armies had once bedded down for the night. Apparently, they made quite a mess. 

To get back to the theme of the symposium, Geoffrey Flavell was a highly respected cardio-thoracic surgeon. Born in New Zealand, he completed his training at Bart’s in London. In 1939, he became the resident surgical officer at the Brompton Hospital. And he worked, during the Second World War with Sir Archibald Mcindoe, of Guinea Pig fame, in treating severely burned patients. Flavell was appointed consultant at the London Hospital in 1950, where he worked for 30 years.

In keeping with Flavell's specialism, the title of this year's Symposium was ‘The Heart, Health and Culture: An Exploration in Medicine and the Humanities’. It gave me a chance to revisit my earlier work on the history of the heart, in health and disease. My book Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2010) explored the meanings of the heart as both symbol and organ. It looked at why we have two very different ideas about the heart in our culture: the heart as a Hallmark symbol sold on millions of cards every year and the heart as a pump, responsible for the circulation of the blood.

In my book, and in my paper, my theme was this: for centuries, medical practitioners in the West held the heart to be the centre of emotion, thought and feeling. Before the rise of the brain qua mind, the heart was the most important organ of the body, which was frequently viewed in cardiocentric ways: the heart was all that mattered in the end. With the rise of scientific medicine and neuroscience, the decline of religious explanations for our existence (and the decline of the soul in the material tradition), the heart became a material object. It might beat excitedly when we see a loved one, but not because our soul was moving through the heart. It might feel like our hearts would break, but not because our hearts were overwhelmed by the melancholic humours of the ancient world. Hormones began to offer a new explanation; hormones produced by the new emotional centre of the body: the brain.

Of course, the heart still continues to thrive at the level of popular culture. The brain governs emotions in name only. Nor is the brain the only contender for the title of emotional organ par excellence, as my book This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016) argues. Other organs – notably the gut – are coming into their own. Like the heart, they are seen as sites of hormone production (and even, more controversially as systems of cellular memory). We are listening to the body more and more, though as we do, we must acknowledge the gaps in scientific medicine; the ways in which narratives of healing are leaving holism behind.

These are the themes I talked about at the symposium, reflecting my enduring interests in the history of the body and the history of emotion. How do we explain what we feel, and how has that changed over the centuries? Why are some organs given more importance than others? Why do heartfelt emotions and gut feelings have so much sway? Or really: why shouldn’t they? We feel with our gut and our heart, after all.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the symposium for me – a day that brought together historians and theologians, surgeons, GPS and ethicists – was how emotional our attitudes towards the body are, even for surgeons. Making a choice as a transplant specialist for instance - to operate or not operate - involves all the surgeon's clinical training, of course, but it also impacts on his and her emotional experience. Patients are not just bodies, but living, breathing people with families and loved ones. We want surgeons to be coolly efficient, but we also need them to be human.

The ways we intellectualise the body in medicine, talk about it, take it apart physically and metaphorically, doesn’t take away from the fact that we exist and experience the world, for good and ill, in our bodies. We feel emotional about what happens to our bodies (and those of our loved ones) just as we did in the past, albeit for different reasons. One of the themes that crosses boundaries between scientists and non-scientists is the question of what makes us quintessentially human. We might talk about the word ‘soul’ (and most of us believe we have one), though there is no agreement on what it is, or what it does.

In the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes’ time (he of the 'I think therefore I am' doctrine), things were simpler: the soul lurked behind the eyebrows. It was the space where the physical body met the emotional and spiritual body. It was also why so many emotional expressions involved the raising or furrowing of the brows. Today the soul is often placed in the brain (and sometimes seen as synonymous with the mind and consciousness). Far more often it exists as a nebulous, free-floating entity that is, and yet is not, linked to our religious beliefs.

Sometimes, the soul is still placed in the heart. When I ask people to point to their minds, more often than not they point at their heads. When I ask them to point to their ‘selves’, they point to their heart. The heart remains an emotional centre, then, and not just in language. The heart remains a symbol of our inner selves, of truth, of passion. Outside the narrow confines of medical textbooks, it can’t ever be reduced to a pump.

A Victorian Valentine's card from the Wellcome Images collection

Monday, 14 August 2017

A kimono by any other name ... by Lesley Downer

Writing about old Japan, there are many words which are very difficult to translate. The architecture, customs, clothing, even hairstyles are so different that the words simply don’t exist in English. For the entirety of Japanese clothing, as diverse in terminology as our blouse, skirt, dress, etc, we have only ‘kimono’ and maybe ‘robe’ and ‘gown’ that come remotely close.

In Japanese ‘kimono’ just means ‘something worn’, ’clothing.’ It’s come to mean traditional Japanese clothing, usually women’s wear.

Maiko and okami-san (house-mother): 
2 sorts of 'kimono' 

Not surprisingly in pre-modern Japan, the period I write about in The Shogun’s Queen, the different parts and types of clothing all had different names. The basic garment which we call a kimono was a kosode. Then there was the uchikake, a rich brocade overgarment (‘brocade’ - does it really communicate the rich silk?) with a quilted hem that trails on the ground behind you. I tried calling it an ‘over kimono’ and finally settled on ‘mantle’ though ‘mantle’ evokes something quite different from an uchikake.

Young unmarried girls including maiko (teenage trainee geisha) wear furisode, kimono with long swinging sleeves, while one of the markers of the fully qualified geisha is that she wears a kimono with shorter sleeves.

As for the obi, do readers understand the Japanese word or should I translate it as ‘sash’ or cummerbund’?

And how to describe tea ceremony? Does ‘bamboo scoop’ or ‘bamboo spoon’ evoke the tiny exquisitely shaped artefact that you use to take two scoops of green tea? Does ‘bamboo whisk’ conjure up the delicate shaving brush-like implement you use to beat the tea?
Chasen, chashaku, chawan (bowl), natsume (caddy)

Then there’s traditional architecture. When you visit someone you slide open the door and step into an area I call the vestibule, the entry way or the entrance hall. It’s where you leave your outdoor shoes and is a good step below the level of the main floor of the house. There you’re still outside, you haven’t intruded into the house proper, so you call out. And when you’re invited in you’re actually invited to step up. But do vestibule or entry way or entrance hall sufficiently communicate all this? And does it matter?

My YA author friend Victoria James has been busy changing the language of her novel to make it comprehensible to American readers. Do Americans understand ‘nobble’? And what do they understand by ‘biscuit’?

This probably all seems very simple. Of course writers should be as understandable as possible, should do their best to make even the most foreign of cultures accessible. My editors naturally want me to make my text as comprehensible as possible.
Maiko in furisode

But what is the best way to take the reader on a journey to another place and another time? To what extent do we need to hold the reader’s hand?
Following the rule of accessibility I might write, ‘She put on her kimono and over it her mantle and went to the entrance hall and slipped her feet into her wooden geta clogs ...’ But supposing instead I wrote ‘She put on her kosode and over it her uchikake and went to the genkan and slipped her feet into her geta ...’

Supposing I used chashaku instead of bamboo spoon and chasen instead of bamboo whisk and genkan for the entrance hall of a Japanese house?

In Sea of Poppies Amitav Ghosh is completely unforgiving. He peppers his sentences with foreign words. Some you understand straight away from the context, for some you have to flip back to the last use of the word and some you never understand. You just have to glide over them. He uses no italics and there is no glossary.

For example:: ‘... this was no ordinary ship bearing down on him but an iskuner of the new kind, a ‘gosi ka jahaz’, with agil-peechil ringeen rather than square sails. Only the trikat-gavi was open to the wind and it was this distant patch of canvas that had woken him as it filled and emptied with the early morning breeze. Some half dozen lascars sat perched like birds on the crosswise purwan of the trikat-dol, while on the tootuk beneath the serang and the tindals were waving as if to catch Jodu’s attention.’
'Sash'? 'Cummerbund'?
The green garment is the ends of the tayu (courtesan)'s obi,
knotted at the front to indicate that if you are rich, lucky
and bold enough you might be allowed to untie it. 

Speaking in New York he said that growing up in India he’d read English literature voraciously. He’d read, for example, the word ‘marshmallow’ and though he didn’t know that it was soft and white he knew it was edible and that was enough. He argued that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand every word but that the use of authentic words of the era created white noise, a phrase which evokes rather wonderfully the creation of atmosphere in fiction - though some might argue that he does take it rather far.

To me it raises very interesting questions. How do we write about a very foreign culture? How many foreign words can we include? Do they give atmosphere or hold up the reader? Following Ghosh’s example, could I use kosode and uchikake, and if not, why not? Ghosh’s language is actually quite difficult but that doesn’t stop you reading.

To quote him: ‘Language in novel works differently from language in journalism — it establishes atmosphere and background. Each good novel has white noise — filmmakers do it through visuals. Novelists do it with words, and so one must throw as a writer everything into the mix.’

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is now out in paperback. For more see

Sunday, 13 August 2017

DISCOVERING NEW HISTORICAL FICTION – Elizabeth Fremantle outlines the 2017 HWA Debut Crown Shortlist

The HWA Debut Crown shortlist for 2017 demonstrates that there is a wealth of fresh and exciting historical fiction from new writers out there and that historical writing is very much alive and kicking. 

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.

To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

When seventeen-year-old Abigal Walker, the youngest of four sisters and desperate to escape her mother´s oppressive house and her tedious factory job in the East, responded to the ad, Man in Territory seeks correspondence with adventurous gal, she thought she had found her ticket to love and freedom. 

She falls in love with a man named Henry through the lovely letters he sends her about his home in the West and she agrees to travel there to Shakespeare to become his wife. 

But instead she finds herself lured to a rough mining town and twice-deceived. The first surprise she discovers upon arrival in Shakespeare is that she is the sole woman to have ever set foot there.

India, 1919. Desperate for a fresh start, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives to take up an important post in Calcutta's police force.

He is soon called to the scene of a horrifying murder. The victim was a senior official, and a note in his mouth warns the British to leave India – or else.

With the stability of the Empire under threat, Wyndham and Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee must solve the case quickly. But there are some who will do anything to stop them...

The writing's on the wall for Harry Kvist. Once a notorious boxer, he now spends his days drinking, and his nights as an enforcer on the streets of 1930s Stockholm a city where the rich rule and the poor freeze. But one biting winter's night he's sent to collect from a debtor named Zetterberg, and when the man is found dead shortly afterwards, all eyes are on Kvist.

Kvist's struggle to clear his name will lead him from the city's criminal underworld to its opulent elite. It will bring him face to face with bootleggers and whores, aristocrats and murderers, and force him to confront his own darkness. It will be the biggest fight of his life.

Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood, a night when life for his family changed. From that night, he has vowed to protect his mother and to follow the words of his father: Non mollare. Never give up.

As Francesco is herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, he realises that someone must have handed a list of names to the fascist police. Locked in spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day.

Elena, an illiterate island girl, is drawn to the handsome Francesco. Sometimes, she is given a message to pass on. She's not sure who they are from; she knows simply that Francesco is hiding something. When Elena discovers the truth about the group of prisoners, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.

On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live at their home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, bohemian lifestyle and longs to truly be a part of the family.

But as the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect their art. Yet it's not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism. Almost 30 years later, Lily contemplates the ordinary path her own life took, how she has played it safe, but does freedom come at a cost?

Brought together once more, this is a story of the impact of loss, devotion and obsession, and the demise of one family.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel The Girl in the Glass Tower is published by Penguin

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Power, by Naomi Alderman. A sort of review.

I read a lot of historical fiction. In the last eight months, with my reviewing for The Times and as a judge for the HWA gold crown, I think I have read about 100 novels, ranging from pre-Roman Britain to Post War Europe.

I don't mind being stuck in one genre. I write and review historical fiction because I love it, and have loved it as long as I can remember. But sometimes, when I get a break in the reviewing, I need something else. Something non-historical. Something involving helicopters, or spaceships, or the internet, or very modern mores. Something with women who kick-ass in a non-anachronistic kind of way.

When I had a break from my reading schedule last month, I picked up Naomi Alderman's highly lauded, Bailey's Prize winning, The Power. Why, you may wonder, am I reviewing a dystopian novel set in the future for a History Girls website? The answer lies in The Power's extraordinary structure. It is written, in the future, as a purported historical novel.

It is this framing device I want to write about here. (Leaving aside the fact that, on my break from historical novels, I accidentally read a pretend historical novel)

The book opens with a letter. The letterhead gives the address The Men Writers Association, New Bevand Square. The writer is Neil, and it begins: "Dear Naomi, I have finished the bloody book."

He has enclosed the manuscript and describes it as "not quite history, not quite a novel. A sort of 'novelisation' of what archaeologists now believe is the most plausible narrative."

I will admit here, that my heart sank at this point. Too meta. Too self-aware. I was already wary of the premise of The Power. In it, women develop an electrical power that allows them to subjugate men physically. The balance of physical power shifts, rewriting the entire political structure of the globe.

I am, obviously, a feminist - but an old school feminist who finds arguments about intersectionality utterly tedious, and looks around at May, Merkel, Lagarde, Davidson, Sturgeon, Foster, O'Neill, Jones, Dick, Cotton et al and thinks we're not doing so badly. I was worried that The Power would be a misandrist fable of dreary worthiness. Add in a pastiche of my own beloved genre and I was doubling down on the suspicion.

But the book was bought. And so on I ploughed - to discover that The Power is a work of extraordinary genius, that should be lauded as highly as A Handmaid's Tale, and set as a GCSE text book immediately.

Leaving aside the subtle and fascinating exploration of the links between physical prowess and power; and the quite brilliant dissection of gender politics, part of the novel's success is its historical fiction frame.

Why do we write historical fiction? In part to resurrect ghosts, as Hilary Mantel has said. But it is impossible to write without pondering the nature of history itself: the interplay between historical themes and big characters, the biases at play, the bindweed of mythology on facts. The deeper you go the less you have: what is a fact, anyway?

The frame allows Alderman to overlay her themes of power and gender with another over-arching consideration. Who writes history? And in the writing of it, and the thinking about it, can we ever mitigate against the present being too present, with all its current, urgent preoccupations?

The frame also allows Alderman to throw in some stunning twists, that I am dying to discuss here, but obviously can not. This is why I have told all my female friends that they have six months to read this book, or I will withdraw friendship rights. This is a book you need to talk about. An unforgettable book. Please read it!

Friday, 11 August 2017

Of Crofters, Kelp and Iodine by Susan Price

A Highland croft - wikimedia
Crofters in the Highlands and islands of Scotland have always had a hard life. Even now, although crofting may be a more rewarding way of life, in many ways, than banking or sales, it’s by no means easy.

In a past stretching back into pre-history, crofters supplied almost all their own needs by their own labour: building and maintaining their steading, raising animals to provide meat, milk and wool, making their own clothes and making or repairing their own tools. They grew oats and vegetables but also fished and gathered wild food.

Almost always, a crofter had to pay rent to the owner of the land they farmed, and that rent had to be paid in hard money. Cash was often needed to supply a few needs they could not make, catch or grow for themselves: a little tobacco, perhaps or raisins and spices for Christmas.

One way to earn money was to drive their cattle to the markets where the highest prices were paid. Another, which I learned about when I researched my book The Drover’s Dogs, was to burn kelp.

Kelp, wikimedia, By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Kelp is a large and fast-growing seaweed which forms thick kelp forests around rocky coasts. It had been gathered for centuries. Crofters carried it from the beaches on their backs in tall baskets— a heavy load, often carried up steep, hazardous cliff paths. It was spread on fields as fertiliser.

There was also a tradition of burning the kelp to ash and mixing the ash with fat to make an ointment. Because of kelp's high concentration of iodine, it was a quite effective antiseptic.

With the rise of industry, iodine became a far more valuable commodity. It was used in glass-making and pottery as a colouring agent. The cloth trade needed it for bleaching linen. Soap makers used it to turn soap from messy goo into the hard blocks which customers favoured. Iodine was also used in the production of the cleaning agent, soda.

It was easier to import kelp from Europe than to fetch it from the far more remote Scottish Highlands and islands, but European kelp was heavily taxed. So agents made difficult journeys north, offering to buy all the iodine the crofters could produce. Kelp was harvested in Ireland too.

A crofting family would build a kiln. These varied considerably: some were built above ground, somewhat resembling an oven. Others were simple pits. Some, if the crofters could afford it, had an iron grid laid above the pit, on which the kelp was placed and burned.

Kelp was gathered throughout the year, especially in the winter after storms, which tore it from the rocks and washed it up. The seaweed was spread to dry and then piled into stacks, in kelp-ricks which were thatched with heather to keep it dry.

Burning started in June, while the men of the crofting family might be away on a drove. The dried kelp was piled on the iron grid over the pit and set alight.

Crofters burning kelp in Stronsay - Glens of Antrim Historical Society
As the kelp burned to ash, the oil from it dripped into the pit. The smell of the burning seaweed was, it seems, exceptionally powerful and pungent and carried for miles. If you can recall the rank stink of exposed estuary mud on a hot day, imagine that burning and, it seems, you will have a faint idea of the stench.

The end result was a pit full of thick, stinking oil which cooled to a rock-hard substance of greyish, purplish blue. If allowed to go cold, it had to be chipped and chiselled out of the pit, so the burners tried to dig it out before it was completely cold, while it was still easier to work. The iodine blocks were heavy and it was hard, stinking work.

Agents bought these blocks and paid good money for them— though in some parts of Scotland, all the money from the trade went to the local laird. Who did none of the work.

But for those who did profit from this hard, dirty, stinking labour, it was another source of ready cash and for about fifty years, roughly between 1780 and 1830, business was good.

However, in the 1820s, the tax on European seaweed was reduced, and the tax on salt  abolished. This made it much cheaper to import seaweed from Europe and much cheaper to make soda from salt than from kelp. These decisions, made in a southern parliament on behalf of southern industries, destroyed the kelp industry of the Highlands and islands.

It also contributed to depopulation of the Highlands because, at the same time, the droving trade was being killed by railways and landlords were raising the rents of crofts. Caught between rising rents and falling profits, many Highlanders left for Canada and America – where, in dreams, they beheld the Hebrides.

After 1830, demand for iodine from Scotland rose again as industry began producing aniline dyes and photographic plates. The seaweed from Europe was no longer enough, and agents once more came to the Highlands. But the industry was never again as strong as it had been, since so many of the people who would once have collected and burned the kelp had left the crofting life - either by choice or eviction.

This gave me an ending to my book The Drover’s Dogs, whose narrator is a Scot telling his Canadian children how he was rescued by two herd dogs and 'brought home' to Mull.

The Drover's Dogs by Susan Price
The ending rose partly from my own research and partly from the research my Scots partner did into his own family. He had a special interest in Drover's Dogs, since he helped me follow the old drove road to Mull, told me of the 'bondage,' the young hero escapes and also painted the cover picture! (And he doesn't like what I've done with it.) Since a branch of his own family had gone to Canada and become quite wealthy farmers, he was quite keen that the family in the book did too.

So I gave him the ending he wanted, to make up for what I did to his painting

Find The Drover's Dogs on Amazon.



We thank Susan Price for this reserve post. From 11th September this slot will be filled by Deborah Burrows.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Door furniture - Michelle Lovric

Some years ago, I wrote, designed and produced an illustrated book called HOW TO SEDUCE, PLEASURE & TITILLATE IN CLASSICAL LATIN, working with classicist Jenny Quickfall. It was a follow-up to a surprise best-seller called HOW TO ABUSE, INSULT AND INSINUATE IN CLASSICAL LATIN, in which my collaborator was Niki Doxiadis Mardas. That book is still in print nearly twenty years later and indeed this week the publisher, Ebury, have asked for another reprint.

That request reminded me about one of the ideas explored in HOW TO SEDUCE: the paraclausithyron or “shut door poem” in Latin and ancient Greek poetry. I included some of them in HOW TO SEDUCE. In these poems, the lover describes being shut out of his mistress’s house, life, bed. Instead of lamenting the woman’s cruelty, he rails comically against the door itself. It is the door who must take the blame for everything and the brunt of the poet’s wit.

 All the materiality of the door, from lock to hinges, can serve as a metaphor or for innuendo.

 Lucretius (De Rerum Natura 4.1177-9) asserts:
at lacrimans exclusus amator limina saepe
floribus et sertis operit postisque superbos
unguit amaracino et foribus miser oscula figit

The weeping shut-out lover often buries the threshold in flowers and garlands, anoints the proud doorposts with marjoram scent and plants miserable kisses on the door.

Tibullus offers a classic example:
nam posita est nostrae custodia saeva puellae,
clauditur et dura ianua firma sera.
ianua difficilis domini, te verberet imber,
te Iovis imperio fulmina missa petant.
ianua, iam pateas uni mihi victa querellis,
neu furtim verso cardine aperta sones

A cruel watch has been put on my girl and the hard-hearted door has been firmly locked in my face. Oh door of a stubborn master, may the rain pelt you and lightning sent by Jove target you! Oh door give in to my complaints, open just to me and make no sound as you turn your stealthy hinge.

Propertius describes the ‘Dreadful door’ as ‘crueller by far than your mistress herself.’ He demands, ‘Why do you stand silent, outfacing me with such hard panels? … Will I sleep ignominiously on the cold-blooded doorstep?’ He continues,
If only a word of mine could squeeze through an open crack
And seek out those lovely little ears and ring inside them!
… But you are the one, the greatest cause of my pain,
Dreadful door, never won over by my gifts
The only one entirely devoid of pity for human suffering,
You answer me mutely with the silence of your hinges.

Walls sometimes come in for the same treatment. Possibly the best-known anthropomorphized wall is the one that separates Pyramus and Thisbe, first in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and later, via Chaucer and Gower, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

One reason why these poems were fresh in my mind is because I’ve lately felt extremely drawn to an aspect of Venetian life that might seem mundane – door furniture.

On a recent walk around my neighbourhood, I photographed the following examples and recorded my feelings about them. After a little absence from Venice, now that I am back I find myself revisiting the esoteric mental scrapbook that is the by-product of so many novels, an anthology and much life lived, felt and thought in the city.
The first one to attract my attention is this handsome one belonging to the Dominican nuns near the church of Santa Maria degli Miracoli. The idea of nuns having doorbells seems somehow odd, thinking back on the days when they were sternly enclosed. Deliveries took place via ‘la ruota’ – a tall circular shelf that revolved inside the doorway, meaning that no one ever needed to behold a nun’s face, a sight reserved for her bridegroom, God. Food, money and unwanted babies were inserted into convents via la ruota. The nuns raised many orphans, including characters in several of my books ...

Nearer to home, by the church of the Maddalena, I loved this lion who apparently holds a writhing snake in his mouth. A winged lion is among the totems of Venice, but the snake is a novelty. Perhaps it is an eel? It was traditional to eat eel at Christmas in Venice – a fact recorded by Effie Ruskin in a letter to her mother on December 24th 1850. She described the Rialto market as ‘a perfect lake of blood,’ with the aproned fishmongers lopping off the heads of eels and throwing ‘the wretched beasts, still twitching, into the shopping bags of eager, festive customers.’

Many writers and several exhibitions have focused on Venice’s connections – mercantile, military and aesthetic – with the East. Here, on a palazzo in Cannaregio, I found a simulation of sinuous Arabic calligraphy on domestic door furniture.

This one made me sigh. How long is it since anyone in Venice received a telegram instead of an urgent email?
 Venice’s sense of humour is not the best known thing about her. I first discovered it in her earthy proverbs, which I began to translate as epigraphs for my first novel, Carnevale. But you see it, if you look, inscribed on her streets too. This panel of doorbells shown above is near San Lorenzo.

Next to a residential building, another kind of door furniture. I haven’t seen a rat in Venice for some time. But I still keep a children’s toy gun in my handbag late at night. The only thing it shoots is light and noise. It seems to work.

And lastly, my favourite piece of door furniture is not old at all. But I am very fond of it.

Perhaps some poet shall take against its door one day, but for the moment it offers only happy welcomes.

Michelle Lovric’s website