Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Celebrating World Poetry Day

Today is World Poetry Day and I thought I would celebrate with a poem that I first discovered as a teenager in school.  Written by Mervyn Peake in 1949, it may be short, but it is as full of detail and meaning as his many, many illustrations for other authors.

This particular poem, since I first discovered it, has remained in my conscious ever since.  It helped me through exams - my most pressing need at that paritcular time of discovery - and has brought me calm at other and more distressing periods of my life.  My copy of the poem resides in a book on the second shelf of my poetry bookcase in my 'writing shed'.  And now, when I find myself stuck for a word, or phrase, or even an idea, I take it down and re-read it, even though I already know it by heart.

The Vastest Things

        The vastest things are those we may not learn.
        We are not taught to die, nor to be born,
        Nor how to burn
        With love.
        How pitiful is our enforced return
        To those small things we are masters of.

                                                             Mervyn Peake (1949)

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Celebrating St Patrick's Day with Ailsa Abraham...

Patrick, ONE of my patrons

Friend and author, Ails Abraham
Having been a French national for over twenty years, I am still stuck with two of my original accents and saints.  This allows me to make a joke which breaks the ice whenever people ask where I'm from.  Changing nationality is a complicated process, which in my case took over two years and finished, as ever, with going to the Préfecture (County Hall) to receive my papers.  So these days I can explain that normally one is issued with the appropriate accent with the ID Card but, my week, they had run out so I was stuck with my general purpose British or Scottish ones.
At least I am not English.  We suffer from the English/British problem.  Because the language is called English, anyone who speaks it is dubbed that too.  I explain that Belgian people speak French but are Belgian, not French.
Oo that is a bit of a poser, never thought of that!  Think my audience.
So, allow me to complicate things a little husband is English.  We speak English to each other but, (dah dah dah) I'm NOT!  I slip into my Scottish accent while speaking French and explain that my family is equally divided between Scotland and Ireland.  My interlocutors, by now completely fuddled by my Edinburgh-French, try to follow as I show them the triangle of Edinburgh, Pitlochry and “the wee black north” in Ireland.
Even I can be fooled by the family swapping around.  The young woman to whom my mother always referred as “the Nanny” turned out to be a cousin from Ireland and not hired help at all.
So I have choices.  There will be no doubts if someone plays the Marseillaise!  I leap to my feet and join in, singing the French National Anthem with gusto.  Trois fois Celte (Three times Celtic) as they call me here and as the warning reads on my van “Caution! Female Celtic Driver!”

Thank you Ailsa.  You can follow Ailsa on Amazon on her Website and on Facebook  and on Twitter

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Friend and author, Jennifer Wilson…

By anonymous, British School. -
… has set feee one of the characters from her book Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile  It is with great pleasure that I can introduce you to, David Rizzio. Thanks for being here David and why don't you tell me a little about your story
 DR   It’s a strange thing, to label a man as a good friend, when he was once part of a plot which resulted in your murder.  Even stranger though, that an Italian musician somehow became somebody seen as important enough to need murdering. But there we are.
 AW   I see… I think!
DR   I should introduce myself properly.
AW  Yes please… I am a little confused to say the least!
DR  My name is David Rizzio, and I was of noble birth, not what you might have thought, for a man who started his courtly life in Scotland as a lowly musician.  I was a good musician mind, and finding no particular means for improvement in my position in Italy or France, I asked a friend for some guidance.  James Melville it was, and he got me a position in the court of Mary, Queen of Scots.  She was a fine woman, and an excellent queen, just, perhaps not the best chooser of husbands.  But more on that later.  Well, I’m a good man as well as a good musician, and I can make myself useful.  After only a couple of years, I found myself promoted to the Queen’s Secretary, with a healthy salary to go with it.  Alright, I might have over-reached myself and my powers once or twice, but I was a man Her Grace could rely on, somebody who wanted only to help her.
AW  But you mentioned murder…
DR  The rumours started. I suppose it is only natural, when a young man begins to give advice to a beautiful young queen; people love a scandal, especially when it concerns affairs of the heart.  I loved Queen Mary, but as her servant, and employee, not an actual lover.  And she returned these feelings, platonically.  She still does, I am proud to say.
AW  Go on…
DR  Back to the murderer/friend thing though.  As I say, people got jealous, and angry, especially her husband, Lord Darnley.  Nothing but a wastrel if you ask me.  Then and now.  He decided I was a threat to his position and power, and that I needed to be removed.  Oh, how I was removed… They burst into one of the smallest rooms in Holyrood Palace, whilst Her Grace was dining with a small group of us, and they, well, how could they do this – they held a pistol to her pregnant stomach as they dragged me out of the room.  I’m not ashamed to say I was terrified.  I hid behind her, even tried to cling to her skirts as they pulled me away.  It was no use.  Over fifty stab wounds, I endured.  All that blood.
It only took a few minutes to work out that I’d become a ghost.  I was looking down on my own body, the way poor Queen Mary sobbed over me, the way those cowards had run away, it was somehow hard to turn away.  So I didn’t.  I stayed with her until the end. Another two decades of following her progress, and being there as much as I could do. Then of course she joined me on this side of the divide.
AW   And then what?
DR  I never imagined I could go back to the way things were, but somehow, that is exactly what has happened.  Of course, I don’t stray too far from Edinburgh these days, not like her, always off adventuring, but when she is in the city, myself, Janet (Lady Glamis) and Sir William Kirkcaldy serve her as an inner circle of sorts.  And that brings me back to the start. Sir William was an accessory to my own murder.  Meeting him again in this life was a strange, strange thing, but he had returned to serving my queen by the time he died, another man who gave his life for this poor woman, and we have reached an arrangement.  After all, with so many centuries now passed, there is plenty else we can discuss.  Such as how to deal with Darnley, when that wretch turns up in the city.  Something will have to be done, that’s for sure; the way he torments me and the queen is quite unfair.
In truth, things are just as busy in Edinburgh as they ever were.  His Grace King James V is still about, although granted not as outgoing as his daughter.  And Queens Marie of Guise and Madeleine of Valois are incredibly nice ladies, albeit quieter than Queen Mary.
That’s me and my current situation then.  In truth, I have more friends in death than I did in life, and from so many walks of life.  It is true that it can get a bit rowdy from time to time, when the likes of Boots starts haunting the punters of those ghost tours they do, but most of the time the haunting is calmer.  We are quite a noble clan up here, after all.  You should come and say ‘hello’ – we’re a friendly lot, most of the time.  If you want to read more about our adventures, then Jennifer has, at least, found time to write those down.  And she hasn’t done too bad a job in capturing us, to be fair.
AW  Well, David, thanks for the invitation to come and join you.  I'm rather hoping that I won't need to take you up on that for quite some time yet.  But before you go, can you tell us a little about the books?
DR   Her best book (i.e. the one with me in it) is Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile, released in June 2017, but there was one before that too, Kindred Spirits: Tower of London.  That one’s alright.  All about Richard III and Anne Boleyn, from what I can tell.  There’s a third one, Kindred Spirits: Westminster Abbey, coming out this June.  My beloved Queen Mary is featured in that one, so it must be good.  Jennifer has also self-published a historical timeslip romance, The Last Plantagenet?
AW  Lastly, can I just say thank you for being here today… David? Where did he... Jennifer… Are you there Jennifer?  Is there anybody there?

You can  follow Jennifer Wilson on her website, on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at The Next Page’s website. 

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Please welcome friend and author...

... Nancy Jardine to the blog today.

AW  Hello Nancy and thank you for being here.  Writing about times 2000 years ago... umm it’s all a bit of guesswork, isn’t it?  
NJ  Well, no, not totally.  That's a question and an answer that are pertinent to writing historical fiction in a period that’s considered to be pre-historic - though my era of choice is actually on the cusp!  
AW  So, what, exactly, does pre-historic mean?
NJ   Essentially, for me, the term covers the period before written sources were created.
AW  So, why is your writing on the cusp?
NJ  My Celtic Fervour Series of historical novels are set in late first century A.D. (CE), northern Roman Britain (from Yorkshire northwards into Scotland): a time and location that’s not covered by many authors.  It’s easy to see why because it initially seems like there isn’t much material to research to ensure a story is as realistic as possible without veering into the realm of a fantasy.  There are sources like Cornelius Tacitus’ Agricola, and occasional references in the work of other Ancient Roman writers about late first century northern Roman Britain but all of these prime sources need to be used with caution as their accuracy is considered to be lacking in historical terms.  The works I refer to were never intended to be an actual historical record, they were written for something more like political propaganda or entertainment, often both at the same time.
The Celtic Fervour books
AW   How interesting!
NJ   More was known about Iron Age tribes in Europe during the late first century, so some interpretations for the tribes of northern Roman Britain are extrapolations based on scant evidence.  Even calling my novels the ‘Celtic Fervour Series’ throws up problems for some people who don’t like my use of that generic term for tribes living in my location.  Other experts conclude that there’s sufficient evidence about the daily life in ‘Aberdeenshire’ to broadly term them ‘Celtic’ tribes.  What I know is that to describe my series it’s much easier to say ‘Celtic Fervour Series’ than ‘Roman Britain Iron Age Tribes Series’.
AW  I couldn't agree more!
NJ  Not having a lot to go on initially is what I love about writing in this era because, although it’s extremely hard work, there’s always something new to discover that’s ‘under the surface’.  Every other word I write in my work in progress throws up a mystery that needs to be solved first.  (Perhaps that’s why I also write contemporary mysteries?)  Simple examples might be: Can I say that my Roman Scotland Iron Age characters are tucking into bread every day?  That sounds pretty normal but was it usual two thousand years ago in what is now Aberdeenshire, Scotland?  I can’t write that in my novel before I check.  If it’s a Scottish setting would they be nibbling on oatcakes and cheese?  Check! What kind of animals would they be hunting for food?  Check!  Did they eat the plentiful fish from local rivers and lochs?  Check! Were there forests nearby for hunting boar or deer?  Check!  What was the weather like?  Check!
AW   Hmm, I see what you mean.
NJ  Today, specialist scientific disciplines, used in conjunction with archaeology, have interpreted that the farmers in ‘Aberdeenshire’ of 2000 years ago ‘tended’ more stretches of grazing for sheep than they cultivated fields of grain.  The wheat of today wasn’t grown in Aberdeenshire though they did grow some spelt - an earlier form of wheat - according to soil deposit samples.  However, the main cereal crops were ‘6 row’ barley and, to a lesser extent, oats (field core samples and midden heap faeces sampling).  So, my characters
Nancy's experimental baking -
unfortunately there was none for me to try!
could perhaps have the occasional bit of unleavened spelt bread and eating some kind of oatcake is probable.  Brose or soup is thought to be the most likely daily food made from barley, oats or a mixture of both (again faeces samples from midden heaps backs this up).  Vegetables for soup were rare and not what I’d be buying in the supermarket today.  Fat hen (we’d call that weeds) was used as was a type of wild garlic but most of the vegetables of today aren’t indigenous.  The Romans actually introduced some of today’s veggies to Britannia but since I write about the Roman invasions it’s too early to refer to my ‘Celts’ eating leeks, cabbage, peas or onions, though my Romans can tuck into some assuming their supplies have not been attacked by my resourceful Celts.

AW   Again, something else I didn't know!
NJ   You can read more of the aspects that I need to constantly check for my 2000 years ago setting on my own blog.  Finding out that spelt was being grown by my ‘Aberdeenshire’ Iron Age tribes 2000 years ago was interesting but what was really exciting during my research was finding that a local Aberdeenshire farmer is currently growing spelt as a trial because it is a highly nutritious form of wheat and good for people who cannot tolerate high intensities of gluten.  Spelt has a considerably lower gluten content.
AW   Have you tried it?
NJ   I bought some spelt flour and so far have made scones and pancakes.  When I can clear some more time for experimental baking, I’ll try some bread!  There's more about my spelt baking Here and Here

... about the books My Celtic Fervour Series published by Crooked Cat Books will no longer be available after the end of February 2018, though they will return soon under a slightly different guise.  Look out for new versions later in the spring!  My Crooked Cat Books contemporary mysteries are definitely available just now, easily seen via my author page below.

… about the author Nancy Jardine writes contemporary mysteries; historical adventure fiction and time travel historical adventure. She regularly looks after her grandchildren and sometimes her garden can look quite creative. She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers, the Federation of Writers Scotland and the Historical Novel Society. She’s published by Crooked Cat Books and has delved into self publishing.

You can follow Nancy on her Blog Website  Facebook & Author Page  Twitter  Amazon
and on Goodreads  you can  email Nancy at

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

I'm reviewing Life in the French Country House...

... Marc Girouard.

I first came across this book some years ago in its French guise as 'La Vie dans les Châteaux Français, du Moyen Age à nos Jours'.  I did think about buying it there and then, but decided that an English version would make more sense - once I'd finished with it I could search out a new and deserving home for it.  The same book in French would prove more difficult to pass on or sell.  Several months and bookshop searches later I carried my long awaited possession home and found an appropriate slot for it on one of my many bookshelves.
And there it sat.  Occasionally dipped into for some detail for research or information to answer a question.  Sometimes consulted about a particular château or manoir as part of my musings about where I might spend my time on a future trip to France.  But never actually read in its entirety, that is until I returned from my last trip and finally decided that I had to properly fill the gap in my knowledge.

The author is an architectural historian, and the book includes many plans, illustrations and photographs.  Some might think it to be an intense historical study.  And in some respects it is.  Despite that, it is also a compelling read. Girouard (and I believe that name has it's origins in Languedoc) demonstrates a keen interest in the human dimension of these vast homes and gardens.  He begins with an introduction to the French aristocracy, how it worked and influenced life on the many estates.  Moving forward through the centuries he shows how the language of chivalry is still prevalent today.  He presents to us the details of a way of life that had existed for centuries and was finally brought to book and irrevocably changed by the catastrophic events of twentieth century.

Automata, Azay-le-Rideau
The research to put such a tome together, and it is a significant read at over 300 pages, must have been phenomenal.  The acknowledgements and chapter notes at the back provide a very interesting list of documents, archives, diaries etc that had been consulted.  As a plain and ordinary reader, I pick up a book expecting to be entertained.  If I also improve my knowledge on a particular subject, I count that as an added bonus.  What I definitely do not want as a reader is to be lectured.  And a read of the foreword before I started the book made me a little apprehensive of the content.  Perhaps that is why it has spent so much time on my bookshelves before being read in it's entirety.  Having reached the final page and had a chance to absorb the extensive content, what I can now say is that it was a very interesting read.  The narrative style flows easily which, in my view, makes this a book that anyone interested in France and its history would enjoy.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Come stroll with me...

Michelin Maps
... and find out more about the fascinating city of Tours

I'm beginning my second journey through the city of Tours here in Place de la Résistance.  A small square with nothing to mark it out, other than the name, as having any significance.  But the city of Tours was occupied from 1940 until liberation on September 1st, 1944.  By then the city had been bombed by both the occupying forces to begin with and then the allied forces in an attempt to route the occupiers.  Many of the old streets were unrecognisable and the rail link to Bordeaux in the south and Angers and Le Mans in the north was broken.

To the southwest of the city was the Ripault Ammunitions factory - see the map.  The D17 runs right beside it and as you travel along you can see the remnants of what was once there.  I can also tell you that, thanks to Robert Gildea's book, Marianne in Chains - my review is here - on October 18th, 1943, the factory was blown apart, killing 72 people and injuring many more.  But I have come to this particular square to acknowledge something else.  In 1948, Tours and St-Pierre-des-Corps, a suburb of the city to the north that runs along the Loire, were awarded the Croix de Guerre in remembrance of the sacrifices made by local people who actively resisted the occupiers.  And if you want to know more then I can recommend the aforementioned book.

Tour Charlemagne
From here I'm taking the rue de Maréchal and then cutting across to rue des Halles to take a step further back in history and visit the Tour Charlemagne.  The tower is the remaining vestige of an ancient basilica, dedicated to St Martin that once stood here.  Charlemagne, then emperor, was residing in Tours, and it was here that his fourth wife, Luitgarde d'Alémanie, died in the year 800.  It is said that Charlemagne had her body entombed in the original church. However, the exact location of the tomb has never been substantiated.  But it's a nice story and I love a good tale!

From here it's an easy walk through Place du Grand Marché to the quais and the river Loire.  The Loire is a fleuve and not a rivière because it flows into the sea.  It is one of the principle rivers of France and, at a length of over a 1000K's - that’s more than 600 miles to us on this side of the channel - it is France's longest river.  In addition, it drains more than a fifth of the land area of the whole of France.  Along with other major rivers such as the Lot, Tarn and the Allier, the Loire rises in the Cévennes in south central France close to Mont Jerbier du Jonc.  A natural spring at that point, it flows virtually due north until it 
River Loire at Tours
reaches Orléans where it meanders westwards to empty into the Bay of Biscay at Sainte-Nazaire.  Here in Tours it is wide and slow but it gives its name to 6 different départements on its journey from source to estuary. Earliest man has lived along the banks of this river from about 90,000 years ago and its waters are swollen by some of the most important rivières in the country, such as the Allier, the Cher, Indre, Nièvre, to name just a few of its tributaries.  So, as a bit of water, I kind of think it quite rightly deserves some attention, don't you?

Next month I'll be in Villefranche and a little later in the year I will be starting a new series of posts, Jottings from the Journals.  Watch this space…

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

For Valentine's Day...


The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix forever with a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?

See the mountain kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Percy Bysshe Shelley