Sunday, 18 February 2018

Ghostly Re-Union on World Book Day - Celia Rees

March 1st is World Book Day, as I'm sure you all know. Like many other authors, I will be visiting a school, Coundon Court School in Coventry. For a writer, visiting a place that provided direct inspiration for a novel evokes a particular kind of nostalgia and Coundon Court did that for me.. 

Coundon Court School - The 0ld House
Before I was A History  Girl, I was a bit of a Goth Girl. I wrote a few titles for Scholastic's Point Horror Unleashed series, beginning with Blood Sinister. Scholastic like my vampire story and wanted another book from me, something to add to the growing list of home grown horror that was the Unleashed, so I had to think of New Idea.

At this time, I was working in a College in Coventry. My students knew I was a writer and liked to hear about what I was writing. We got to talking about spooky stories, scary stories. Two of them had been pupils at Coundon Court School and they told me that there were stories about the school being haunted. Along with the rest of the class, I was all ears. Although most of the school was modern, it was based in and around a Victorian Gothic mansion which had once been owned by a local industrialist, George Singer, a manufacturer of bicycles and later motor cars.  After his death in 1909, the house passed into other hands, eventually being acquired by Coventry City Council. It opened as Coundon Court High School in 1953.

The house might have moved on but George has not.  Over the years, several members of staff have seen him in the Old  House. After one Parents' Evening, Janet Powell, an English teacher, glimpsed a middle aged man with greying hair and moustaches going into the library. At first, she thought it was a stray parent but when she followed him, he had disappeared. It was only afterwards that she realised that the figure she'd seen bore a remarkable resemblance to George Singer.

George Singer
 George Singer is not the only ghost to haunt the school. In 1907, a maid plunged to her death down the central stairwell. She has since been seen on the landing, a fleeting grey presence outside rooms that used to be the nursery and where children have been seen playing on a rocking horse...

A Haunted School! By the end of the ghost story session. I had my book. Not long after this, I  was asked to accompany a different group of students to - Coundon Court School. Writers don't believe in coincidence. It was meant to be. I began to recall other stories told to me by other students. As a teacher, I was naturally interested in oral history, story telling and ghost stories often figured prominently in these sessions.  The ones that intrigued me most were the stories that the children told to each other, the ones that had to be coxed out of them. Every school has ghost stories, even if it's only haunted toilets, but some are more - unusual. The first school I taught at in Coventry was a new school, no spooky history, but all the children believed that the sports hall was haunted by a girl who had been killed after coming off a trampoline. At exam time when assemblies were held in there, a certain spot on the floor was always left clear, no matter how often pupils were told to move along.

The next school I taught at was a modern school built on an old site. There had once been a monastery there and later a mansion, rather like Coundon Court. All trace of both had disappeared, except for landscaped grounds and an ornamental lake. The children had stories to tell of monks and nuns, cowled figures, women in white, but the most intriguing story of all centred around the woodlands that spread from the school grounds to a nearby common. In there, were nine steps, so the legend said (or five, or seven - depending on who was doing the telling). If you found the steps and went down them and  failed to jump the last one, you would go straight to Hell... Like the girl coming off the trampoline, this would not be found in any collection of Ghosts and Legends. It was their story. 

I had plenty of material for my haunted school story and more if I chose to expand it out into the city itself. Coventry has a long history and as M. R. James observed, history is never far from the ghost story.

Celia Rees

Saturday, 17 February 2018


Recently I started helping with Story-times for Under-Fives at my local Carnegie library. My role, at the moment, involves greeting parents & grandparents, giving out musical instruments and then collecting them back into the box. In addition, I have begun singing lots of once- familiar rhymes, hoping to encourage the grown-ups to join in by my cheery enthusiasm, if not the beauty of my voice. 
Image result for Harrogate Library picture

Coming across these songs once more, still being sung to two and three year olds, I noticed how the words echo events, practices and customs that aren't central to the lives of these 21st Century children. We wind the bobbin up and back again, watch the mouse climbing the non-digital grandfather clock and march up and down the hill - loudly -with that long ago Duke of York. Moreover,  in our songs, we are still living an agricultural life: we go bumping up and down on a big red tractor (bringing in the hay - Hey! ) while - staring out at Yorkshire's largely arable uni-crop fields, MacDonald's Farm seems an unusually mixed enterprise.  
In addition, even though the audience walks or drives into town, the songs tell us that the mummies on the bus chatter and the daddies say "Don't do that!".  I haven't yet worked out how to ease that gender issue when I start leading Story-times myself. 
Nevertheless, the History Girl part of me is rather pleased to find that this past world and rural dependency is still being celebrated. As my earlier post, shown below, suggested, these old rhymes and songs can create a child's sense of history.
“When were you first interested in history?” is a question often asked of History Girls, so I’ve been thinking about my own interest and some of the places it came from. 

On reflection, my answer would be that History came riding in on the back of words and poems and rhymes, all bringing questions and objects from the past that needed explaining.

What were curds and whey and would I like them?
 Why did that pair go to fetch a pail of water when we had a tap?
Could I entice the King of Spain’s daughter with a silver nutmeg and a golden pear, assuming I had a tree that was better than the overgrown lilac in our tiny garden? 

Could you actually have blackbirds in a pie?
Why did the words "gunpowder, treason and plot" sound so deliciously rebellious and doom-laden? 
And why did fat and fair Bobby wear silver buckles on his knee? And what about those rings on her fingers and bells on her toes? Nobody I saw ever dressed so grandly, or rode on such fine horses. It was bikes, buses and the occasional motor-car.
The rhymes read like codes, offering glimpses of life in the past. Those pretty lines didn’t stop me noticing that many carried poverty and cruelty in their pockets. I was quietly sad about poor Piggy on the railroad picking up stones. and although I went along with dipping our heads in the deep blue sea, I knew that big ship sailing on the alley-alley-o had met some kind of tragedy.
The love of such antique rhymes came years before I learned about the Opies and their collections and commentaries of traditional rhymes, or found the lamented Sendak’s clever illustrations for “I Saw Esau.”  I added to my own rag-bag concept of Time Past with a Book of Story Poems, dressed in a faded green Everyman binding, discovered on a shelf at home: each page full of exploits that took place in historical or legendary settings.  Who could resist those heroics and laments?

I met gude Sir Patrick Spens, wi’ the Scots Lords at his feet. 

I heard the bells ringing out the Brides of Enderby as the seething wave swept in from the Lincolnshire coast. 

I wept for mad Cuchulain warring against the tide, for the Forsaken Mermaid and for the Lady of Shalott singing her last song, as she drifted towards Camelot. 
Many of the poems I found in that book, and in other collections at that time, looked backwards rather than forwards. Anthologies now seem different: glancing through some contemporary children’s anthologies, I note that few now have that strong sense of the sea and a maritime nation. Did that go, along with the ports and the docks? Let alone the horses that "the gentlemen" no longer ride by at night?
I know the poems I loved back then were romantic, legendary stuff and not strictly proper history, yet those rhymes and ballads and verses held enough glamour to make the past a living breathing presence for me and create a living sense of time gone by. Soon enough, life brought along proper stories and novels and non-fiction books and school history lessons along with films and tv programmes and museums, but when I look back,  poetry and word of mouth were where I met History first.
Penny Dolan
These two illustrations come from Jackie Morris’s truly wonderful collection of nursery rhymes “ The Cat and the Fiddle” published by Frances Lincoln.  
Image result for THE LOST WORDS book cover
PS & NB: More recently, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane created a wonderful picture book, THE LOST WORDS, (above) celebrating the once-familiar vocabulary of the British natural world and which modern children could easily losing to the technological terms now crowding school dictionaries. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

Pictures and Plums for Fingers and Thumbs - by Sue Purkiss

I'm indebted to a friend of mine for this month's post. She was having a clear-out, and decided that a pile of books which had belonged to her grandfather finally had to go. Most of them went to Glastonbury Rural Life Museum - but I managed to divert a few of them my way. Here's one of them.

You should just about be able to say that the inscription inside the book is dated 1905, and says: 

Rowland Edgar Weston
From his Mother
on his sixth Birthday.

The publishers are EP Dutton & Co New York, and Ernest Nister London. It's a collection of verses, short stories and nursery rhymes: a few are credited to the author, but many aren't - and I can't see any credits to the illustrator.

Of course, they are very clearly from a bygone age. But the illustrations are charming, I think. Here's a poem about curly hair.

This - below - is not the kind of story you'd find in a modern book. I think you should just about be able to read it - it's about Jessie, whose twin brother Philip catches measles, leaving her bored and with nothing to do. But Mother reproaches her, saying: "I would not cry so much, or you will melt away like the sugar princess on the cake." Suitably chastened, she trots off for a walk and comes back with a huge bunch of daisies and grass, which she puts into a pink mug and takes to Philip, who is "so pleased." (Really?) And that's it. Nothing like a nice little moral message.

But this is the one I know you're all going to love. It predicts our girl's future. Just in case you can't read it, here are the last two verses:

When I'm in the twenties,
  I'll be like Sister Joe;
I'll wear the sweetest dresses
  (and maybe, have a beau!).
I'll go out in the evening,
  and wear my hair up high
And not a girl in all the town
  shall be as good as I

When I'm in the thirties,
  I'll be just like Mamma;
And, maybe, I'll be married
  to a splendid big Papa.
I'll cook, and bake, and mend,
  and mind, and grow a little fat
But Mother is so sweet and nice, 
  I'll not object to that.

Isn't it sweet? I think Dickens would have approved. It looks as if young Rowland enjoyed it: it's well-used, and he's coloured in some of the pictures and even drawn one of his own at the back, of a house with a hedge beside it with a gate. I love it!

Thursday, 15 February 2018

A History of Periods, Politics and Emoji Pants by Fay Bound Alberti

On a bitter cold day in January 2018, a woman died in Nepal after she was forced to live in a menstruating hut. She had been banished to the unheated hut for the duration of her period, a still-common practice in Nepal, despite the fact that the weather often falls below zero degrees celsius in the winter. The woman died from smoke inhalation after she lit a fire to try to get warm. 

A menstruating hut in Nepal

This sad story was announced soon after the publication of an article on the politics of periods that I wrote for a new online literary magazine called  Boundless. Dedicated to long-form writing and edited by the incomparable Arifa Akbar, former Independent literary editor, it's a fantastic resource, and one that I urge readers to check out. 

My article considered why periods are so shameful when they are such a natural part of human existence. Most major belief systems, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, place restrictions on menstruating women. Leviticus 15:19 and 24 states: ‘if a woman has an emission, and her emission in her flesh is blood, she shall be seven days in her [menstrual] separation, and anyone who touches her shall be tamei…[ritually unclean] until evening.’ Followers of the Qur'an regard menstruation as ‘an impurity’, often banning menstruating women from religious and social practices. In the Christian tradition, menstruation and pain in childbirth was God’s punishment when Eve tempted Adam. This is the origin of the 'curse', a term still used for menstruation.

The creation of Eve (Wellcome Images)

Menstruation has not been considered 'proper history' in the past. That is, before the 1970s and women's history, family history and medical history found new ways of redressing the gender and class imbalance of traditional history and exploring new sources. There remains a limit to what we know about menstruation in the ancient world, however, since records of the time were taken by men. They therefore didn't record women's cycles, or consider what 'normal' might have been. Ancient Egyptian women are said to have used cloths on sticks to stem the flow, or wedges of papyrus, a plant-based material also used to make paper. Classical books talked about 'wombfuls' of blood, but were not specific about how much blood a woman might have lost. 

In keeping with religious concerns about menstruation,we do know that classical writers worried about women's association with witchcraft, the natural world and spiritualism. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher, believed that menstruating women could prevent hailstorms and protect crops. Period blood was not always depicted as revolting; ancient Egyptians may have included menstrual blood in medical recipes. 

Pliny the Elder, killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, AD 79

What did women do without Tampax? The same as they do in most of the world today. Ragged cloths that were washed seems the likely option, especially in medieval times, and this explains the modern term 'on the rag' to describe a menstruating woman. It is likely that poor women with little access to hot water had little option but to use and reuse the same rag, or to bleed on their clothes. By the nineteenth century there was more concern about hygiene, and more 'scientific' language by which the female body and menstruation was understood. 

Sanitary belts were created by the end of the nineteenth century, and washable pads could be attached to the belt. By the 1980s, adhesive strips on sanitary towels and tampons were more popular. But this did not mean that the shame around women's bodies and menstruation was reduced. In the modern West, menstruation remains shrouded in disgust and shame, even where scientific explanations show it to be a natural biomedical process rather than related to magic or divinity.

Early 20th-century newspaper advert for a sanitary belt

Consider European popular culture, which has many slang words for periods, few of them positive. English examples are Aunt Flo, Bloody Mary, Code Red, The Blob and Shark Week; while the French included La semaine Ketchup (ketchup week), VHS (vaginalement hors service), Les chutes du Niagra (Niagra Falls). And in German:  Die rote pest (the red pest) and Besuchvon Tante Rosa (a visit from Aunt Rose). 

It's not just periods, but women who are on their periods that are the subject of disempowering language. Menstruating women are ‘PMS-ing’, ‘On the Blob’ or ‘Out of Service’. Jokes about menstruation depict periods as a disruptive force that lessens women’s intellectual capacities, and reduces them to their biological function. 

In schools, children are taught a basic biomedical model: each month the uterine lining thickens and becomes vascularized in case an egg is fertilised. If it is not, the unused blood is released as a period. Boys and girls (and boys are usually excluded from the classroom) are not taught the psychological, social or cultural contexts of menstruation, of the constituents of period blood, of the different cycles girls might experience, or how cycles can differ between girls. Menstruation simply marks girls and women apart as different and, in some contexts inferior, like the poor girl who died in Nepal, or the thousands of women from developing countries who cannot attend school because they do not have sanitary supplies. 'Period poverty' is also a problem in the UK. 

It's striking how little we have progressed from nineteenth-century ideas about menstruation, which is where much of our language of the body comes from. Victorian medics were convinced that menstruation weakened women, providing evidence of their biological and spiritual inferiority. Women were already regarded as hysterical because of their ‘wandering wombs’ that caused havoc with women’s mental and physical health. Walter Heape, the anti-suffragist and Cambridge zoologist, drew attention to the terrifying spectacle of menstruation, that left behind ‘a ragged wreck of tissue, torn glands, ruptured vessels, jagged edges of stroma, and masses of blood corpuscles.’ Menstruating women couldn’t possibly tackle work, education or intellectual concerns, argued prominent Victorian writers, which women like Mary Wollstonecraft did much to tackle.

Discussions of periods used economic languages of production in the industrial age, with women’s bodies as baby-making factories: profitable or unprofitable, depending on their ability to produce. If conception was the proper result of the menstrual cycle, menstruation was failed production. The tissue lost during menstruation was ‘debris’ and waste. Early pregnancy failure was a ‘blighted ovum’, a womb that opened up too soon, an 'incompetent cervix'. 

Scientific medicine still talks about menstruation in these terms. The social meaning of menstruation also takes on different emphases throughout a woman’s life, highlighting the demand for youth in the modern West – at least for women. For an individual, menopause, or the literal stopping of the menses, might bring all kinds of exciting new opportunities into a woman's life. Yet in narrowly biomedical terms, it signals her lack of reproductive competence, and her social and sexual irrelevance. Menopausal women have a tendency to become invisible. 

In all kinds of areas, 21st century women campaign for more social visibility, and equity with regard to their bodies, including around menstruation. In the digital age, new opportunities arise for us to talk about periods and how they are framed in society. For example, isn’t it extraordinary, given the fact that the average woman menstruates for 3,000 days, that there is no symbol for menstruation? There are, after all, emojis for everything from crystal balls to sushi, from faeces to tears. This is why the charity Plan International UK has been campaigning for a period emoji to allow people to communicate more openly. Nearly 55,000 people voted. The winner? A pair of white pants, decorated with two drops of blood.

The world's first period emoji, courtesy of Plan International 

Finding spaces to talk about menstruation in its own right and not as linked to fertility is important – and not only to avoid biological reductionism. The presumption that menstruation equals fertility and womanhood excludes women born without wombs as well transgender woman. It excludes women who choose not to have children, or are unable to have children. 

Reframing how we talk about the body, and rejecting historical ideas that are outmoded or reductive, is not new. Since the 1970s, the shaming and silencing of menstruation has been subverted. Feminist artists initially made periods visible. Judy Chicago’s ‘Menstruation Bathroom’ (1972), showcased a bin filled with used sanitary towels. In the 1990s, Tracy Emin casually disposed of used tampons in ‘My Bed’ (1998), described as ‘a violent mess of sex and death’. In 2015 Kiran Ghandi ran the London marathon while menstruating, and without using tampons or pads, to highlight menstrual stigma. And in 2017 the #BloodNormal campaign won the right to use red rather than blue fluid in menstrual product advertising. This important step demystifies the idea and image of period blood, and marks a shift towards normalizing menstruation. 

Periods are political, as their history shows. Which is why we need more education about what is 'normal' or abnormal, more discussion about the differences between women, and better metaphors for women's bodies that aren't based on outdated ideas of the factory. When it comes to the history and experience of menstruation we need less shaming, and more talking. Period.

Joel Filipe, on
My website:

Twitter: @fboundalberti 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Deconstructing Love - by Lesley Downer

Valentine’s Day comes round again and we spend a day or two thinking about love. But what exactly is it? Is it a feeling as specific as hunger or pain, common to people the world over?

‘Love - whatever that means.’

In Japan until the late nineteenth century, there was no word that matched our western conception of love. There was koshoku, meaning ‘desire’, ‘lust’, ‘passionate physical love’, the madness that sweeps you off your feet when you’re least expecting it. But there was no word for romantic love - the love that inspired a gentleman to woo a lady then drop to one knee and propose marriage, that sent couples fleeing to Gretna Green in defiance of their parents’ wishes. Love and marriage didn’t go together like a horse and carriage.

Nor was there anything akin to the courtly love of the troubadours, the pure love of chivalrous knights who put a lady on a pedestal, suffered torments of undeclared passion, rode into battle with her scented glove tucked into his breast plate and would never have dreamt of sullying her with anything as vile as carnal thoughts.
Manami as a geisha

Love and marriage

Falling in love wasn’t something you wistfully hoped would happen. No one expected to meet the perfect person and live happily ever after.

Once they reached adolescence, boys and girls seldom met. The only men a young woman of good family would ever meet would be her brothers and other family members. People assumed their parents would arrange a marriage for them and trusted them to find a suitable husband or wife.
'Wives dressed demurely'
Ex-geisha Manami, now a wife

Once married, love was not something a man expected to feel for his wife. That would have been disrespectful (though sometimes couples who had had an arranged marriage did fall in love.)

Wives did not expect to enjoy sex. That was for procreation and it pretty much stopped once the requisite number of children were born. Respectable women dressed demurely in sombre colours. The women depicted in woodblock prints in flamboyant kimonos, their hair studded with hairpins, are ladies of the night, not respectable women.

It was not that Japanese didn’t fall head over heels in love. But when they did, they knew it was all too likely to end in disaster. And that made it all the more fatally attractive. Love was the forbidden fruit.

Love in the pleasure quarters

In Japan under the shoguns there was a place for everything and everything had its place. The place for love was the pleasure quarters. That was where a man went in search of the love and romance that was missing from his marriage. That was where he went to enjoy recreational, not procreational, sex.
A dream of romance:
tea ceremony in the pleasure quarters

To the government of the day, love was so tempestuous a force that it needed to be kept tightly under control. The pleasure quarters were walled cities of pleasure which grew into centres of culture, where a man could go and enjoy an afternoon of refined entertainment, tea ceremony and so on, before moving on to the more colourful activities of the evening.

There were women for all pockets, tastes and levels of society, from prostitutes who flaunted their wares through the bars of latticed rooms to celebrity courtesans who held salons. A man would have had to be very rich, very interesting and very persistent to have even a chance of bedding one of those, added to which the courtesans often exercised their prerogative of saying ‘No’, which sent their price into the stratosphere. 

And all this took place in a fabulous setting, hung with brocades and kimonos, surrounded by exquisite artefacts .

For men it offered a dream of romance with no strings attached. The pleasure quarters were diametrically opposed in every way to the everyday world of work and family. Courtesans and geisha didn’t cook or clean or do anything that would pollute them with the ‘stink of domesticity’. It was a sort of never never land, where a man could say and do pretty much anything he liked and it would be washed clean the next day.
'Lavish clothes':
Actress dressed as Edo courtesan

The courtesan’s job was to make the customer fall in love with her so that he would visit more and more frequently and spend more and more money. They were beautiful, witty, brilliant, accomplished. They wore lavish clothes. 

They danced, sang, chatted, talked intelligently about politics if the man so wanted. They flattered and flirted, and, if the man ever got the chance to find out, he’d discover they were brilliant in bed - all things that decent women like his wife never did. He would have been horrified if his wife had behaved like that. 

In fact the courtesan was completely out of his league, were it not for the fact he was paying for it. Money would buy this extraordinary woman, her smiles, her caresses, her swooning interest in everything he said. This gorgeous creature would persuade him he was brilliant, handsome, that she was madly in love with him. What man wouldn’t go for that?

Everything was there to enhance a man’s pleasure. The pleasure quarters were where you went to find aphrodisiacs - charred newt, eel, lotus root, dried rings of sea slug to fit over the penis. Grilled viper was also an aphrodisiac, as was the toasted fin of the fugu, the famous blowfish whose liver, kidneys, ovaries and eyes are deadly poisonous. There was always a titillating link between sex and death.
Fugu by Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860)

Courtesans wrote beautiful love letters. Some would offer a lock of their hair or a finger nail as proof of her love. And when the customer left the pleasure quarters in the morning she would escort him to the gates and be wiping away tears as he turned at the Looking Back Willow to feast his eyes one last time.

The key rule for women: never fall in love

The women of course were working. For them the difficult tightrope they had to walk was between playing at love without ever falling in love. But sometimes they did fall in love and it was invariably a disaster. It was always the wrong man, not the rich client who’d become a woman's patron and support her but a poor young clerk or a son whose father had marriage plans for him and who would disown him and disinherit him if he disgraced the family by running away with a courtesan.

When that happened many couples decided that the only way out was to die together, to commit ‘love suicide’, still to this day considered the ultimate demonstration of love. 

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

Picture at top: 'Lovers walking in Snow' by Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), courtesy of wikipedia commons. Fugu: courtesy of wikipedia commons. All other pictures by me.