Category Archives: history

Art or Porn? The Pompeii Poser. Joanna Reprise

Unfortunately, after her return from Greece, Joanna has 
Covid. So she's not up to writing a new blog. 
Enjoy her reprise! She'll be blogging again soon…

Warning: this blog contains images of full-frontal female and male nudity; if you are likely to be offended by those images, please do not read on.

On a recent TV programme on BBC4, Andrew Graham-Dixon mentioned (just in passing) that, in the nineteenth century, it was illegal for a woman to pose in the nude for a male artist. Really? Didn’t anyone tell Ingres?

Ingres: Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Ingres: Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Graham-Dixon was showing TV viewers nude paintings of ordinary Danish women. He said they would have created a scandal if they had been shown in public. So it was OK to put nude figures into classical poses, but not into modern-day, realistic ones?
Ingres’ Odalisque or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was art but a Danish working woman was not? Continue reading

The Romantic Novel of the Year Awards 2024

Celebrations for the RNA Awards 2024

This week, the Romantic Novelists’ Association announced their shortlists for the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards 2024

…which means I can now share the news that The Night She Met the Duke is a finalist in the Historical Romantic Novel category. Woohoo!

And it’s not just me: there are any number of familiar names amongst the finalists, this year, including Louise Allen and Kate Hardy   I am in illustrious company!

Wow. Just…wow

There I was, minding my own business one evening when my phone pinged. It was an email from the Romantic Novelists’ Association, informing me that I am a finalist in the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards 2024: Historical Romantic Novel category.

For those who might not know…

Continue reading

Operation Mincemeat

This week I went to see the musical Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London. It was glorious and I laughed, cried and generally had a whale of a time. This was a delight – and a great relief.

To be honest, by the time the day came round, I was torn about going at all.

For one thing, my now plated right wrist, though exercised/massaged five times a day, sometimes hurts enough to make me yelp, especially if someone bumps into it. The prospect of a crowded  theatre raised my anxiety levels.

hooded mystery manFor another – well, my customary theatre companion had rejected the idea of seeing Operation Mincemeat with conviction abhorrence. Its subject, he said, had been too important to turn into a comedy musical.

I disagreed with the idea that anything could be too important for comedy. But – well, I admit; he worried me.

MINCEMEAT, NÉ TROJAN HORSE

The plot was to send a dead body, to all appearances a British courier, into the orbit of German intelligence with false information on Allied plans. This was to occur in neutral Spain where, under Fascist General Franco, German spies were tolerated and even sometimes supported. The corpse was to carry secret papers  to mislead the German high Command as to the entry point for the intended Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. Continue reading

Lord Byron, the Heyer Walk and Lady Caroline Lamb

Byron c 1813 by Thos Phillips

Byron c 1813 by Thos Phillips

As promised in Sarah’s Byron blog last week, this is Sophie’s take on Byron. Enjoy.

When I studied the Romantic poets in my university English Literature course, Lord Byron was the odd man out. His sensibilities, not to mention his gravitas, didn’t seem in the same class as Wordsworth’s, Keats’s or my beloved Shelley’s.

At that time, I thought that was because of his character and advantages of birth—an aristocrat, an arrogant bad boy, a traveller with a taste for the fleshpots. He was, well, a bit raffish, with a brisk way of discarding emotional attachments. It showed in his poetry. I didn’t like him very much. And I don’t think many of my tutors did either.

The Grand Sophy paperback coverIn Georgette Heyer terms, he was more Sir Montagu Revesby than Augustus Fawnhope.

Or so I thought.

Georgette Heyer Walk

Then, some years ago now, a group of friends and fellow Georgette Heyer Fans were coming to London.

Berry Brothers & Rudd, St James's

Berry Bros & Rudd, St James’s
Philafrenzy Own work CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

To amuse them, I put together a walk round some of the places in Mayfair that she mentions in her Regency novels. (More details in this blog on the wonderful Word Wenches site.)

Lord Byron cropped up no fewer than three times en route. I wasn’t expecting it and, as he only gets a couple of name checks in the Heyer canon, I often leave him out on the Walk itself. But they all told me something about him that surprised me. Continue reading

Lord Byron : what I didn’t know about the man

A few years back I took part in an event at this venue –

Rochdale Town Hall 1909

Okay, not quite that long, perhaps. This is a postcard of Rochdale Town Hall from 1909 and I was there in 2012. However the building is still as impressive as it was at the turn of the 20th century. It has recently undergone a massive restoration project and is well worth a visit, if you are ever in the area.

So why was I there?

I was taking part in a celebration for this man on his 224th birthday.

Lord Byron

It’s Byron. Of course. He was 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, in case you were wondering about the connection. Continue reading

Mosaics: just a few coloured stones laid on the ground?

Roman mosaic Nennig, Germany

Vibrantly coloured Roman floor mosaic, Nennig, Germany, 3rd century AD

In my recent travels, mostly exploring Mediterranean history (including Romans and Greeks) I’ve seen an awful lot of mosaics like the ones in Italica. I’ve even watched curators working to restore a mosaic in Pompeii.

But I’d never thought much about the fundamentals of creating a mosaic.

Mosaics are just a lot of coloured stones laid on the ground in a clever pattern, aren’t they?

Nope. There’s much more to it than that.

Engineering mosaics to last

If the coloured stones (tesserae) were simply laid on the ground, even if they were grouted together with mortar, they wouldn’t have lasted long. And many of them, as we know, have lasted for thousands of years. They had to be hard-wearing. They were going to be walked on.

semi-dome, christ pantocrator, capella palatina, Palermo

Capella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily

Not all of them, of course.

Some mosaics were for wall decoration as you can see in my earlier blog showing some of the incredible religious mosaics in Sicily.

Like this one here where the colours and all that gold really sing.

Hidden layers

Floor mosaics have lots of hidden underpinnings. (Wall mosaics probably have a lot less. Not sure on that, but it sort of stands to reason, doesn’t it?) In the museum in Ecija near Seville (called Astigi by the Romans) there are wonderful floor mosaics plus an explanation of how they were made. In pictures, I’m glad to say. Continue reading

Olive Oil in Spain: the Romans started it…

The Romans started it? Really?

olive trees from 13th century with olive grove behind

A pair of 13th century olive trees, Medinat Al-Zahara, Spain

My post title is a bit of an exaggeration, I admit. Southern Spain had been growing olives and making olive oil long before the Romans arrived. (I posted about the first Roman city in Spain in a recent blog.)

But the Romans turned olive oil into an enormous industry. It’s an industry that still continues today. Drive through Andalucia and you will see mile after mile of olive trees. Nothing but olives. Mostly not nearly as old as the ones in my picture here, though olive trees can live for millennia.

Olives as monoculture

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

olive monoculture between Granada and Malaga

It’s a monoculture. With all the risks that monoculture brings. Of course, it can bring great prosperity if the product is in demand—there was huge demand for olive oil in the Roman Empire and there still is, worldwide—but that monoculture is vulnerable to weather, to disease, and to pests.

Remember what happened to French wine as a result of phylloxera in the mid-19th century? Growers wonder whether the same, or worse, will happen as a result of new diseases, especially Olive Quick Decline Syndrome spread by insects. OQDS has been in Italy for the last 10 years or so and has recently been detected in Spain and Greece. Those 3 countries plus Portugal produce about two-thirds of the world’s olive oil. Spain is by far the biggest producer, with between a third and half the total.

olive oil with Italian label

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

As a cynical aside, I was told that in the USA, people don’t buy Spanish olive oil. They buy Italian oil. (All those Italian immigrants?) So a very large amount of Spanish olive oil is shipped in bulk to Italy for bottling. It is then sold as “olive oil bottled in Italy” or “imported from Italy” which allows buyers to assume they are buying olive oil grown in Italy. Looking at the figures, I can well believe it, since Spain produces 4 or 5 times as much as Italy does.

Romans needed olive oil for…?

Continue reading

Armistice Day 2023

red poppiesArmistice Day 2023 falls on a Saturday. Five years ago I wrote a piece for this blog about the evolution of remembrance ceremonies since the end of World War 1.

Armistice Day was the first – on Tuesday 11th November 1919, in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It specifically commemorated the signing of the document which  ceased hostilities on the Western Front. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Pause

Big Ben, silent since 1914, chimed again in London. The next morning, Tuesday 12th November, the front page of The Daily Mirror showed photographs of jubilant people, some in uniform, waving flags and cheering.

But it was a pause, rather than the end

It took another 7 months before the (arguably disastrous) Treaty of Versailles ended the war between the European Powers. And it was yet another 4 years until the Treaty of Lausanne ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and an alliance of Britain. France, Italy, Greece, Romania and Japan.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “armistice” as “an agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce.” Continue reading

Hughenden, Disraeli, and World War 2 secrets

Hughenden Manor, home of Benjamin Disraeli

Hughenden Manor by Paul stock.adobe.com

Hughenden Manor  (near High Wycombe) is known as the home of Benjamin Disraeli, later Earl of Beaconsfield, who was one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers. And reportedly her favourite, even more so than Lord Melbourne.

But Hughenden had a more recent, and secret, role for the British state.
Of which, more later. Continue reading

Italica, the first city of Roman Spain: with geology problems

Roman Italica, Spain, panoramaLast week, I was visiting sites in Roman Spain (and sites from other periods too, but those are for another blog). The first Roman site was Italica, near Seville.

Italica was the birthplace of Trajan (he of the column, Emperor 98-117 AD) and also Hadrian (he of the wall, Emperor 117-138 AD). That reminded me, vividly, that not all Roman Emperors came from Rome.

Bust of Sulla now believed to be Scipio Africanus

Scipio Africanus (previously believed to be bust of Sulla)

Italica was founded long before either of those famous emperors, though. It dates back to the Second Punic War, the one with Hannibal and the elephants.  (You may remember learning about Rome’s decades of wars with Carthage and the latter’s eventual total destruction in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War. Carthago delenda est and all that, regularly declaimed by Cato the Elder?)

The Roman victor in the Second Punic War was Publius Cornelius Scipio whose victory in 206 BC at the battle of Ilipa (near modern Seville) ended the Carthaginians’ presence in Iberia. Scipio—later given the epithet Africanus for his final victory over Carthage—founded Italica for his wounded soldiers.
Well, he couldn’t easily send them back to Italy, could he?

Italica: old city and new city

There isn’t much sign of the old city, the vetus urbs founded by Scipio, as it now lies under the modern town of Santiponce. But Emperor Hadrian favoured Italica and gave it a lot of money to build a new, more splendid city. Much of that has been excavated and can be visited. EU citizens get in free. (Brits, sadly, don’t. Dontcha lurve Brexit?) Continue reading