Saddling the Imagination

I’ve always been compelled by history. Imagining the past helps me escape from everyday burdens. It’s always been that way, ever since I can remember. My safe haven is finding a book and curling up in another time and place. Always was. Always will be. But while books feed my love of history the addiction was nurtured by the landscape of my childhood.

Rather like Merlin I was gifted with a means of travelling backwards through time. Though I grew up amongst the bustle and throng of south-east England my mother is a native of Northumberland and like swallows we’d fly north every summer to the wild lands ‘north of the wall’, to a place firmly locked in the past.

Northumberland was my stepping stone into another world. Staying with nanna was like snuggling into a warm cosy blanket and the fact she didn’t have hot-running water or an indoor toilet made the adventure seem even greater. There was never any sense she was poor, nevermind deprived, she just lived in a different world, untouched by the twentieth century.  

Nanna was a miner’s wife and the village where she lived had sprung up around the pit. It was a tight-knit community where everyone knew your name, so much so it always felt like we were coming home rather than just visiting. We fitted in, unlike the south, where we were always strangers. I don’t remember grandda’ but his presence filled every room, as though he might return at any moment. Nanna never forgave him for leaving her alone. I realize now what I didn’t know before, that she clung to his memory because she loved him more than life.

Living in a first-floor flat in London meant we couldn’t have a pet but nanna had a dog. Prince was half Alsatian and half wolf, or so we were always told. Though he never harmed a human he liked to pick a fight with every dog in the village. The only time I ever heard nanna raise her voice was to yell at Prince as she dragged him home by his collar. Then she’d bathe his wounds. She had big hands, like a man’s, but her touch was gentle as an angel’s.

I think I was ten when the mine-workings were dismantled. The pit-wheel disappeared but the scars of industry remained, framed by gentle hills and an endless stretch of beach which we thought of as our private playground. Back then we were often the only visitors enjoying the rolling sand-dunes of Hadstone. We’d walk from the village along an abandoned rail track and spend the day climbing amongst the rock-pools, digging for crabs and lobsters and winkles. We didn’t know the rocks were actually a petrified forest or the beach a ‘site of outstanding natural beauty’. Since the bay came into the hands of the National Trust it has been renamed. They’ve built a visitor centre and a car park and charge a fee to enter and our once empty beach is like Margate on a summer’s day.  

Also within a hand’s throw of nanna’s cottage was a ruined water-mill. There, in the sand-bottomed mill-pool, my sister and I learned to swim. Sliding down the moss-lined dam gave us better thrills than any mechanized theme-park. The mill had once belonged to the monks of Lindisfarne and I felt the holy men ‘tutting’ as we skinny-dipped down the falls.

A huge ochre-stone castle stands barely a mile up-river. Warkworth’s vacant tower crowned our farthest horizon. When he was home ‘on-leave’ from the navy, mum’s baby brother uncle John, would tease us with tales of the Percy’s who once ruled this county like gods. If you look carefully, he promised, you might see the ghost of Harry Hotspur riding home from battle. He also told us that Coquet Island, which can be clearly seen from the castle ramparts, was infested with ruthless pirates. What better lair for a band of privateers? We never questioned why they’d think to raid coal-boats going to and from Amble.

Uncle John also told us that our ancestors once smuggled whisky from Scotland to England. Like most of his tales it bears an element of truth. Nanna’s father came from the village of Ford, a tiny hamlet which lies very close to the Scottish border. During the eighteenth century the government raised the tax on alcohol so many illicit stills across the border increased production (which is why Robbie Burns found good employment as an officer of the revenue). But however much I discover of the truth, history will always be a cocktail of myth and reality. Where living in London meant being cooped up indoors Northumberland represented freedom and the stones of its landscape formed the foundations of my imaginings and writing is the counterbalance of my sanity, as necessary as breathing. 


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The Great Pestilence

We are programmed to fear disease. We shall endure this crisis but it will, of necessity, forge change. The dread of living through a pandemic is written in our genes. We are told, as children, about the terrors of the Great Plague, but it was the Black Death which desolated our country and caused the most radical changes to our culture.

It was always believed the ‘Great Pestilence’ of 1347 started in China. By 1346 it had migrated from beyond Tashkent in central Asia to the Black Sea, where it broke out amongst the Tatars fighting Italian merchants in the Crimea. A chronicler tells how the Christians took refuge in the citadel at Kaffa, where they were besieged. Plague forced the Tatars to raise the siege but before withdrawing they invented biological warfare by catapulting corpses of plague victims over the citadel walls. This caused the disease to spread among the Christians and as they fled home the disease travelled with them, breaking out in Messina and Genoa before raging through the rest of Europe.

In the first days of October 1347, twelve Genoese galleys fleeing before the wrath of our Lord over their wicked deeds, entered the port of Messina. The sailors brought in their bones a disease so violent that whoever spoke a word to them was infected and could in no way save himself from death… Those to whom the disease was transmitted by infection of the breath were stricken with pains all over the body and felt terrible lassitude. There then appeared, on a thigh or an arm, a pustule like a lentil. From this the infection penetrated the body and violent bloody vomiting began. It lasted a period of three days and there was no way of preventing its ending in death. Fra Michele di Piazze.

Vanity and Salvation by Hans Memling

Within a couple of years, plague had killed around a quarter of Europe’s population – the largest number of fatalities caused by a single epidemic in the history of the world. It provoked an economic crisis as thousands of villages were abandoned, depriving landlords of peasant workers. Starvation followed. As the world descended into a crucible of pestilence a whole new genre emerged – Gothic symbols of skulls and crossbones, the danse macabre, the grim reaper and the horsemen of the Apocalypse have become synonymous with medieval art but they first emerged during the great pestilence.

In the Decameron Boccaccio (1315-75) gave a graphic account of the plague, related through tales of young men and women who were fleeing the city of Florence to escape – ‘flee early, flee far, return late’.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, attributed to Hieronymus Bosch

It was always perceived that the disease was virulent, that ‘just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it’ the sick communicated it to the healthy. As society descended into chaos one survivor wrote:

Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another… none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship… I, Agnolo di Tura, buried my five children with my own hands.

While the disease was almost certainly transmitted by rats to humans via fleas many medieval chroniclers suggested it was more often spread by close human contact. But contemporary Asian accounts don’t match this European experience, which seems to indicate bubonic plague had evolved to be spread by droplet infection, thus escalating its efficiency.

Certainly there was no cure. Though medics sought to protect themselves with long leather gowns, gauntlets and masks with snouts stuffed with aromatic herbs, they relied on the assumption that plague involved ‘atmospheric putrefaction’. In 1401 a Florentine doctor called Lapo Mazzei suggested, ‘it would help to drink a full half-glass of good red wine, neither too dry nor too sweet.’ That certainly works for me.

A Man holding a Glass by David Teniers the Younger,
The National Gallery, London

The most widely accepted cause was that God has sent a plague to punish mankind for its sins. Flagellant bands of ‘sinners’ trudged through town and country, whipping each other and physically beating anyone whose beliefs didn’t correspond with their own. It didn’t take long before this form of mob judgment fell onto the Jews. Throughout Europe they were accused of poisoning wells and wholesale massacres ensued.

Neither had physicians any power to affect common-sense. Health boards consisted of nobles and created officials who were driven by self-interest rather than public needs. In larger cities committees appointed to co-ordinate public health measures gradually established systems of exclusion, banning persons or goods from entering the city. In 1377 Ragusa (Dubrovnik) instituted a regular 30-day isolation period on a nearby island for all arriving from plague-ridden areas. In 1397 this was increased to 40, thus we gain the word quarantenaria – meaning forty days of isolation.

As the countryside lay in waste due to the dearth of ‘peasant‘ labourers, an independent class of merchant adventurers emerged. England rose from the ashes as a nation of sharp-fisted traders with the capacity to roam. But that’s another story.

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We are confined by ancient boundaries

As a nation we are bonded by nature, climate, language and culture. Our common heritage is forged by means of commerce, art, religion and politics but history pervades our identity, and if there’s one sure lesson we take from the past its an absolute fear of plague. Pandemics have shaped our nation just as surely as wars.   

Whitehall, London

On June 7th, 1665, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that a number of houses in Drury Lane had been marked with red crosses and the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. ‘It put me in an ill conception of myself,’ he wrote, ‘so that I was forced to buy some tobacco to smell and chew – which took away the apprehension.’

The plague had come to London and Pepys hastened to buy tobacco in the belief it offered an effective protection against the dreaded disease. By the time the Great Plague had run its course at least 70,000 people had perished in London alone. The epidemic spread swiftly and soon carried from London to other cities. In September 1665 Edward Cooper, a tailor in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, took delivery of a box of old clothes and patterns. Within two days the servant who unpacked the box was taken ill; four days later he was dead. Cooper died a fortnight later. Before the end of the month there had been 26 deaths in the village. By the time the ordeal ended, in October 1666, only 83 of Eyam’s 350 residents were alive. The rest had fallen victim to the plague.

Boundary Stone, Eyam

This appalling death-toll was due to an extraordinary proposal by Eyam’s vicar, William Pompesson. He managed to persuade his fellow villagers to take a heroic decision. He knew that if the people of Eyam fled they would carry the infection to others so he urged them to act as true Christians and remain in quarantine inside the village.

A boundary line of stakes was marked around the village. Within its limits the villagers settled to meet their fate, surviving on food left at the boundary by folks from neighbouring villages. By mid-summer only one man was strong enough to dig graves for the victims and as reward he was able to claim the possessions of those he buried. Yet only one person attempted to escape the rule of isolation.

Knowledge of disease was very primitive in seventeenth century England but by confining the outbreak of infection Pompesson prevented the plague from devastating neighbouring communities. In an age when human health was explained by the four ‘humours’ –sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic – Eyam defined a new means of tackling disease. In Derbyshire the village became synonymous with self-sacrifice and its inhabitants hailed as heroes.

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Detecting the Past

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

I’ve always loved history. To me the past is like a giant jigsaw crazed with missing pieces which I feel compelled to find. However, despite trawling through countless records and digging in archives, it’s often a case of having to admit that the piece has been lost to time. Except I’m addicted to solving mysteries, that’s what draws me to the past.

At this point I should make it absolutely clear I’m not an historian. Although I love history I lack the focus and discipline to be an academic. When there’s a hole in my knowledge I rely on instinct to fill in the details. Which is the reason I write stories. The need to find answers, even when the truth is clothed in myths and lies. Or rather, because it’s cloaked in myths and lies. History blazing with colour, not boring black and white.

It’s only recently, through liaising with crime-writing friends, I discovered historians are very like detectives. Both have to consider every piece of evidence in order to reconstruct what actually took place. Using this analogy during my research proved a revelation.  First-hand sources are just like eye-witness accounts, both are written after the event and flawed with discrepancies. Historians base their research on ‘primary’ materials which are habitually contradictory but treating the past as a crime-scene gave me a fresh perspective.

Just as a detective always goes to the scene of the crime so must a writer of historic fiction. Obviously in my case any evidence has long since disappeared but visiting a particular location gives a unique experience of place, even if the site has been damaged by time and tide. For years I believed Mary Queen of Scots watched the Battle of Langside from a nearby hill – but when I visited that hill it proved too far away, and too low, to allow her such a view, even when seated on a horse.

But the most enlightening aspect of treating the past as a crime-scene came when I turned to seeking motives. The past is always out of reach but motives haven’t changed – greed, lust, envy, pride and vanity. Considering who gained what and why proved a revelation.  

For example, on the very same day Mary Queen of Scots escaped from forced banishment on the fortress isle of Lochleven, her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, was delivering her precious jewels to the highest bidder – who just happened to be Queen Elizabeth I. The Medici pearls were priceless and now they belonged to a woman who coveted them so much they feature in every subsequent portrait. Not merely did this leave Mary penniless it gave her half-brother and Elizabeth very strong motives for keeping her out of Scotland.

Queen Elizabeth adorned in Medici pearls

Also, on 8th December 1567, while Mary was cooped up in Lochleven Castle, she celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Another critical motive. A long royal minority was traditionally used by the Scots aristocracy as a time for self-aggrandizement. When Mary reached twenty-five years of age she had the right, under Scottish law, to demand the return of any wardships and property which had been commandeered during her minority. Mary couldn’t be permitted to win back her throne or half the Scots nobility would be made penniless. Much better to retain a ‘bairn’ as the kingdom’s legitimate monarch and take advantage of another twenty-five years of minority rule. So it seems the poor girl was doomed from the day she returned to her homeland.

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Fixed price for cash and no returns

To many the name Tiffany is synonymous with the showiest means of displaying wealth – Diamonds. Founded in 1837 Tiffany, Young and Ellis went from strength to strength by catering to the tastes of New York nobility. The new captains of industry (and their wives and daughters) wanted to flaunt their success.

By the time Truman Capote wrote his novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ the company’s reputation was beyond question. The business had been founded on the promise – Fixed Price & No Returns. Capote wrote the part of Holly Golightly for Marilyn Monroe – whose sultry rendition of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ seemed to epitomise his muse. But Miss Monroe refused the role in the 1961 screen-play and, against the author’s wishes, Audrey Hepburn was cast. But I wonder if the author realised how much Tiffany’s road to riches reflected the rise of Miss Golightly?

Roll back the clock to mid 1800s France. Think Les Miserables. Of a country torn by turmoil following the fall of Louis Philippe. Even those canny citizens who’d survived the First Revolution were suddenly made destitute. Into this chaos came John Young and Thomas Banks with a remit to purchase fancy goods for Tiffany and Co. They were hoping to make a deal for exclusive rights to ‘French-paste’ (a form of crystal glass cut to imitate diamonds), an essential requisite for their company’s range of fashionable and affordable jewellery. While the metalwork could be manufactured in their New York workshops ‘imitation’ diamonds could only be sourced in Paris.

Young and Banks were determined. In pursuing their business they were arrested on a number of occasions but still managed to collaborate with Royalist supporters desperate to sell their jewels – as long as they were paid in cash. When the two men returned to New York they’d managed to purchase a generous slice of the French Crown Jewels. Although details of the acquisition have always remained uncertain it was known that a number of important jewels were missing after the mob surged through the Tuilleries Palace.

Whatever the truth Tiffany’s learned a lesson. When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870 the royal collection had been restored to its former glory. But Empress Eugenie was determined it wasn’t left behind when she fled the country. Sensing trouble she had most of her jewels crated and dispatched to the port of Brest, ready to ship to London, but a number of crates had to be left behind and these were eventually claimed by the new French government and returned to Paris. After long and careful deliberation they decided to sell the bulk of the collection in 1887, in a sale held in the Hall of State, in Paris. Tiffany’s practically swept the board, buying all the most important pieces.

The 1880’s and 1890’s were the heyday of American society and the new millionaires of industry and commerce displayed their wealth with the kind of opulence which had formally been reserved for royalty. Tiffany’s reputation soared by catering to the new elite and diamonds ransacked from the royal treasury soon adorned the wives of New World millionaires. Although the purchase was dubious the American Press loved the story and the resulting publicity secured Tiffany’s position as America’s foremost jewellery store.

When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York in 1883 the first tier was quickly dubbed the ‘diamond horseshoe’ because the diamond jewellery worn by its patrons outshone the house lights. Buying the French Crown Jewels gave Charles Tiffany the opportunity to transform his Lower Manhattan store into a ‘palace of  jewels’ (according to The New York Times).

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Loulou and the Zulus: The Life and Death of Napoleon IV

via Loulou and the Zulus: The Life and Death of Napoleon IV


January 28, 2020 · 11:33 am

The Blood Of Kings by Angela King @angelaS969 #LoveBooksGroup

via The Blood Of Kings by Angela King @angelaS969 #LoveBooksGroup

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February 5, 2019 · 1:02 pm

The Blood Of Kings by Angela King @angelaS969 #LoveBooksGroup


Book Description:

A gripping story of heartache and intrigue

1559. A girl arrives in London to search for her brother.

Aalia, an awkward, arrogant teenager plans to bring William to his senses, until she discovers that both their lives are based on a lie.

Aalia must unravels a web of secrets but has the weight of her past to contend with.

Courageous and undisciplined, Aalia gradually comes to terms with the truth that William, her brother, has royal blood.

Deciding to undermine the men who want to use him as a pawn, Aalia must negotiate a world where secrecy arms the powerful. But unwilling to ask for anyone’s help she is forced into making a fateful decision.

Who can she trust when everyone around her is plotting?Is the truth really something worth dying for?

This epic story of secrets and betrayal paints a vivid picture of Elizabethan England and asks…

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Wish You Weren’t Here…

A wonderful anthology seasoned with crime. Mine’s number two!

Tess Makovesky

wish_hereNo, this isn’t me talking to the relatives at Christmas, it’s the title of the second anthology of crime stories from attendees of the annual Crime & Publishment writing course, which launched a few weeks ago but which I’ve been too busy to mention.

Bad me, because it’s a great little collection with a crime/holiday theme (hence that title, obviously), and it’s stuffed with stories by a wide range of authors, some published (Graham Smith, Les Morris, Angela King) and some getting their first taste of publication.

My own contribution to the collection is a dark little tale called ‘Last Chance Saloon’, involving a dirty weekend, a dodgy car and a remote country road. What could possibly go wrong?! The story was first published in Betty Fedora, which specialises in kick-ass women’s fiction, so you can tell it’s going to be a wild ride for the men.

Better still, a…

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What is a writer?

Someone once told me a writer should act like a key which opens the door to another world.

While I rather like the analogy it’s my understanding that a writer needs to do more than simply provide a key. Having means to unlock a door simply isn’t enough; you need something to tempt the reader inside. A photograph is a flat rendering of a captured scene but we trust its reality. However, engaging with a story isn’t simply a matter of ‘beam me up Scottie’ and you arrive in another time and place, stories require you to step inside the world of imagination.

Scary thing imagination.

Writing is an infinitesimal spell created out of words and wonder, therefore entering a story requires a certain leap of faith. No matter how well written, or finely observed, nothing in a book will live if the imagination doesn’t commit wholeheartedly to its magic.

Therefore, I believe, the business of writing stories is tantamount to being a magician who conjures with imaginings – an imagineer.

Without imagination not merely stories die, imagining provides a ratchet to our soul.

It isn’t so much dancing in the rain as feeling the water on your face and not getting wet. Isn’t that truly magic?






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