Friday, April 18, 2014

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

My ears hurt, swelling with the high reverberating squeal of a raptor – an eagle perhaps – or something even larger. Then I see it. It is vast, scarlet scaled and leather winged. It is a dragon, and it is looking for me. I am chased up a blackened and fire-ravaged mountain side. I can barely hold on for the hand-holds are few, and they are sharp. The rock cuts my palms. My feet slip as they search for balance. I dislodge small stones which scatter and cascade beneath me, tumbling down into the endless pit. The dragon’s eyes are immediately over my shoulder. Its breath burns my cheek. I turn. A sharp pain slices my hand. I fall.

It is another night and I am at peace. The world is beautiful. I am sitting in a glass baobab tree, and I am cradled by small pink flowers. I am not sure why the baobab tree is all glass but it made this choice and I have no objection. Within its strange bulbous trunk, I can see the reservoir of water. It is half full. Inside that little gurgling lake in the trunk are tiny fish – little dashing sparks of silver light which swim within the tree. I look down from my comfy perch in the leaves. The leaves are not glass, they are ferny and pretty, and the little pink flowers smell gorgeous. The colours are vivid and the perfume is rich, similar to the sweet lilac which I remember with such nostalgia from my childhood. I decide to stay where I am until it is time to wake up.

A few nights later I am climbing through an underground cave. It is extremely deep, and has become home to thousands of bats. But being night, the bats are out on the wing, searching for fruit and insects and mates. And perhaps for blood. I continue to climb through the series of lightless caves. There are stalactites and stalagmites, and they break off as I touch them, cold and damp. I am looking for someone and I know he is looking for me. I see eyes in the black shadows. But are they his eyes? Or someone else who also knows I am coming? Shall I risk going on further, or shall I wake myself up?

I have read many theories concerning the basis of dreams, where they come from, what they mean and why we dream at all. There are several theories about what different dreams actually mean, and quite a few varying theories about why we need to have such sleeping experiences. To be honest, none of these have ever entirely convinced me. Most of us know of the so-called Freudian phallic symbols and the other neat little explanations for our vivid night lives – but are these true and if not, what is?

I doubt those explanations, not because I have any scientific training, nor because I have any better ideas myself about the dreaming process. Certainly stress and worries can affect my dreams occasionally, but most of my night-adventures are not noticeably driven by simple day-time problems. All I know is that my dream life has always been one of the most inspirational aids to my life, my emotional stability, and my writing. I do not remember my dreams every single night, nor – when I do remember them – are they always inspirational. But more often than not they are deep, detailed, exceptionally vivid, and often wildly exciting.

I have sometimes dreamed of events which have later happened in precisely the way I originally dreamed them. I have also met old friends, and talked with members of my family who have passes. Sometimes a series of dreams will be repeated, or an adventure from one night will produce a sequel on the next. One year when I was much younger, I enjoyed a particular series of dreams which continued and developed over almost a hundred nights, finally growing into a most complicated plot with many consistent characters. I have other dreams which seem to be direct lessons, teaching me exactly what I need to know for a challenging position in which I had found myself. Other dreams actually appear to solve some question I have been trying to sort out – and most of all, many are simply glorious adventures which inspire my writing.

Certainly I have learned a lot from my dreams. For instance, I spent one night trudging through brambles and thorns, trying to get to the bright hypnotic light I could see far, far off in the distance. It seemed to take me hours and was hard going. I got there eventually, but when I arrived, I realised there was a much quicker path, had I realised it. There was a little hill and I could have climbed this in an instance, and arrived at the glorious light in just a moment or two. But on the other side of the hill, I couldn’t see the light. By insisting on going the way I could see and understand, instead of taking a leap of faith, I had expended a night of exhaustion. Patience, in other words, can make things happen quicker – and giving up can sometimes be another way of getting what you want.

Another lesson came in minutes when I went through a swing door and found a form of paradise awaiting me. I learned then that the door that opens on opportunity is actually the same door that has previously closed on something else.

Have I taught myself these lessons? Where do dreams come from and how important are they? And could I possibly be an author of fiction without the wild exciting inspiration that comes to me night after night after night?

I am by no means the only author, especially of fiction, who dreams in this manner. I have come to believe that this is a common form of direct inspiration. In dreams I meet my characters, I live through amazing events, and I generally wake with half a book buzzing in my head, pushing me to rush to the computer and start making notes. I walk dark cobbled medieval streets, I look through tiny windows barely visible in candlelight. The soaring stone of castle walls rise up before me. I wander the deserted desolation of a battlefield where the blood and the fallen weapons are still strewn across the tramples crops. After nights spent in this way, I am almost compelled to write!

Of course sometimes the inspiration is not so direct – but at the very least my dreams serve as a widening of the imagination, almost as if I have been taken swimming through tides of awakening – refreshed and inspired without quite knowing how. I am frequently far more awake in my dreams than I am when I actually wake up and have to face the day.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Torture of the Rack

Not far from me, soar the unexpected battlements of a small castle. Standing in the neat pastoral greenery of the Australian countryside, it is fairly easy to spot that this is a modern replica. Sadly there are not many genuine medieval castles in the Australian countryside! No – this castle is purely for children and tourists and I have played the tourist there myself. It is good fun, well made and well presented. Entertainment takes many forms.

But one aspect I actually found rather sad, for there is a large replica rack set up in one of the courtyards – the most common form of early authoritarian torture. Below this there is a torture chamber complete with gory exaggeration, magnified screams and oozing artificial blood. The children love it!

But in the past, the rack was all too horrifyingly real. There is no record of who originally invented this vile instrument, but there is documentation of its use back in Roman times. The exact dimensions were probably altered over the centuries but the basic method of use remained the same. The medieval design we now recognise consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with a large roller at one or both ends. Chained by his ankles to the lower roller, and by his wrists to the higher, the victim was gradually stretched as the interrogator or his assistant would turn the levers, forcing the rollers to turn contrary to the victim’s body.

The pain would be utterly excruciating as the chains or ropes pulled taut and then wound away over the rollers, possibly (if the prisoner persistently refused to confess) to the point of dislocating and finally breaking his knee, ankle, elbow, wrist and eventually even his shoulder and hip joints. The muscles and tendons would be torn beyond mending, and the victim would be crippled for life. Eventually the bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons could all be entirely destroyed. But since he (or sometimes she) would undoubtedly talk and confess at some point during this relentless torture, he would then be executed anyway. Many could no longer walk to the place of execution, bend their knees, nor raise their hands.

As if this terrible agony was not sufficient, other abuses could be applied at the same time. Castration, the brutal extraction of toe and finger nails, and burning with red hot branding irons were all sometimes applied. When the sufferer fainted, he was brought round and forced to face his fate again. Certainly this brutality confirms that those employed to inflict such horrors were undoubtedly sadistic by nature. However, this awful pain was not actually considered simply as a punishment. 

At the time it was generally supposed that if a suspect of some serious crime refused to answer questions or acknowledge his sins, then he (or she) should be encouraged to do so by the use of torture. Fear and pain, it was believed, would enforce cooperation. No doubt this was frequently true. However, such agony as that produced by prolonged use of the rack would also force the victim to say anything and everything, whether true or not, in order to put a stop to the suffering. Clearly victims often implicated other innocent people in order to save themselves. 

But it is only recently that we realise the obvious – which is that information obtained under torture is by no means reliable.

This form of torture was more commonly used in France during the medieval period, but the rack was brought to the Tower of London in the mid 1400s by the 2nd Duke of Exeter who was Constable of the Tower at the time, and thus gave the rack its nickname, i.e. The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter. However, any use of torture was illegal in England during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, but was then legally permitted during early Tudor times specifically for the crime of treason. Those suspected of treason could, in this way, be ‘persuaded’ to admit their own complicity, and name their co-conspirators. 

Gradually this practise became more readily sanctioned and as the Tower turned from a royal palace and centre of diverse and busy occupation into a collection of dungeons with a reputation of dread and terror, the screams of the victims of torture grew more regular. As the Tudor reigns continued, so other methods of torture were also devised, and use of the rack became a frequent ‘deterrent’.

I researched the use of the rack and its terrible consequences for my recent novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’ and quickly realised the appalling possibilities of Tudor torture. What haunted me even more than the vile device itself, was the state of mind of someone who could invent such a device, the state of mind of someone who would willingly put it into practice – and finally the state of mind of the wretched victim, knowing what he was about to face. Indeed, sometimes victims were forced to watch the torture of some other accused prisoner first, with the expectation that what he saw would make him quickly confess rather than experience such agony himself. Yet the courage of some was phenomenal, and there were those who refused to talk even after hours of undergoing such cruelty.

The enforced dislocation of one joint after another must have been excruciating. I personally find it hard to imagine the sheer horror of both my knees being ripped apart at the same time. Nor can I easily visualise the methodical sadism of the torturer as he slowly rotated the lever, to further cripple the victim. I am haunted by those sounds echoing in the cold stone chamber – the creak of the cogs and wheels, the rumble as the rollers once again begin to turn, the jangle and snap as the chains pull suddenly taut, the murmured demands of the torturer and finally the agonised screams of the prisoner.

Perhaps pain was accepted as a little more inevitable in those days when few diseases were curable and everyday comfort was comparatively rare. Ordinary folk worked crushing hours at backbreaking toil, and there was no proper anaesthetic to help with the cut and slice of surgery and amputation, the pain of childbirth and the frequency of common accidents. Beyond all such average conditions, there was also battle, which was a matter of hand to hand violence involving intense brutality, enormous bloodshed and appalling suffering before death. Certainly the preaching of the church at the time was considered imperative, and devotion to God was an accepted principal of everyday life. Sadly however, the church itself was not beyond advocating violence. The earlier conflicts of the crusaders for instance, often shockingly cruel on both sides, were born from the beliefs of Pope Urban II in 1095, while the Vatican considered that heresy should be punishable by burning alive, and torture was authorised by the church itself during the Inquisitions.

But there was equally an understanding of love, empathy, kindness, care, generosity and loyalty just as strong as we have now. People in general were by no means stupid nor cruel by nature. So one cannot help wondering about the conscience of those who sanctioned and applied the use of torture themselves, while fully understanding its implications. 

So use of the rack continued, and was accepted right up until the 17th century. Copies of the terrible device still stand in many places, reminding us of the horrors once inflicted. Yet now I have researched the truth, it is definitely not something I will ever be able to laugh at, nor treat as amusing entertainment. I can only wonder at the dread of living in the past, when even an innocent soul might sometimes be faced with torture. Writing of such an episode in my historical novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’, I found quite a harrowing experience.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Medieval Christmas

Round about December, various venues in quite a few Western countries offer special entertainment, citing “A Medieval Christmas Feast,” and these can be great fun. I have nothing against them and I’ve attended a few myself over the years. But they rarely get it right. They don’t have the facilities for a really accurate facsimile, and few actually bother to do much research on the subject. It’s enough to fulfil the clichés. But the real thing was so much more impressive.
I shall therefore invite you to mine! Please consider that you’ve received the big invitation card – written on parchment of course – in wonderful medieval script with an illuminated ‘C’ for Christmas. So please – you’re my special guest – come with me.

It’s snowing, of course. The English countryside is white, and that unique winter hush covers the land all around. As the morning sun peeps hesitantly from behind the clouds, a pale golden gleam tinges the snow’s surface. The tiny footsteps  of birds, rabbits and hungry mice pattern the white with little black lines. Now your footsteps will add to this, as you come to the door of the manor house.

 The hall is huge, and looking up you can see the high vaulted ceiling, its beams painted and polished, and the enormous iron chandelier holding its mass of beeswax candles. They are all lit, twenty or more little glittering flames that flicker and whisper with every small movement. As the great double oak doors are swung open, so the wind gusts in and the candles blink and shudder. Then the doors close and everything is calm again.
Across the beams and twining around the struts and balustrades is a mass of rich green ivy. Sprigs of holly, their berries scarlet and glossy in the candlelight, are thrust through the joints, and just inside the doorway a wooden square, rough nailed, has been hung up. Here is twined the mistletoe, and the whole arrangement is called the kissing bough.

Come in, come closer to the fire. The massive yule log has already been dragged in from the barn outside, and is now ablaze across the huge inglenook hearth. This is not a tree just recently cut down for the occasion of course, although this is what is often related in Christmas tales of the past. You cannot burn greenwood, and such a huge log would need to sit in the barn for a year or two before it will burn well. Even so, it will smoke of course, and perhaps the chimney has a small back draught, but we must not be too fussy. After all, this is the late medieval and a little smoke is always useful for curing the bacon. Meanwhile the massive blaze helps light the hall as well as keeping it wonderfully warm, and the shadows chase each other through scarlet flame and hanging greenery.

Someone hurries forwards to claim his kiss under the mistletoe bough. He smiles, and takes you in his arms. This is an age when many people kiss each other on the mouth as a simple greeting, so this intimacy is not so shocking. You look the man over. His clothes are sumptuous and his black hair is glossy in the firelight. He wears mahogany velvet, with sleeves trimmed in sable, so long that they sweep the polished floor boards as he walks. His doublet is wide shouldered, short at just below the waist, and is belted in narrow leather. He wears a small embroidered purse on his belt, for no pockets are yet in use. Beneath his velvet doublet and showing at the neck which is a little unlaced, is a bright white shirt of pristine linen, and below the short waistline are his hose in soft wool. These are skin-tight, made in the new fashion where the knitted material is cut on the weft so that it clings to the man’s thighs and buttocks. Previous generations were doomed to wearing ill-fitting hose, often made as two separate legs each made from a single piece of material, so that wrinkles around ankles and knees were inevitable. What was worse, a man’s underpants were a baggy affair which often had to be laced up to the bottom of his shirt. But since all this was hidden beneath his long skirted tunic, only his wife or his mistress knew the worst. But now short doublets have revealed it all, so fashion has changed and a man is prepared to expose a good deal of himself. In order to preserve the final decency, he now wears a codpiece, a stiffened cup which fits neatly in the appropriate place. Virtual exposure behind, but only suggestion in front! He also wears jewellery – thumb and finger rings, and perhaps a huge golden collar which denotes his loyalties to his lord. A gorgeous creature indeed – who spends just as much time on his appearance as any woman.

 Now you have been welcomed by the host, and have warmed yourself by the fire, come and sit at the great feasting table which is already prepared. Depending on the number of guests there may be several tables, but never mind about the others – you are invited to the grand table beneath the gold tasselled awning, where the guests of honour will sit. I hope you have brought your own knife with you for cutting your meat. The spoon will be provided – but no fork of course. You will have to use your fingers instead – but it’s no free for all. Wash your hands first and mind your manners. Medieval table manners were quite strict. Put your napkin over your shoulder, use it to wipe your mouth and your fingers, and remember to be polite when tempted to take the last custard from the serving platter.

The food is, of course, amazing. There are three courses, and many different platters at each course. You are naturally not expected to eat it all. What is left, which should be a good deal, will be sent back to the kitchens first to feed the servants (well, you did expect a vast array of servants, I hope) and then to feed the poor, who will come to the kitchen door expecting to be fed freely and generously.

Hurry, the food is being carried in. Troops of kitchen boys in the household livery bear the platters, and four of them are needed to carry the weight of the huge platter of roast venison. Well, you didn’t expect turkey, did in you? After all, America has not been discovered yet. Venison and wild boar are the likely meats, for this is midwinter and farm animals are shut away safe in their barns. But the lord and his friends have been out on the hunt, and the carcasses are now hanging in the pantries. This meat has been slow spit-roasted over the huge kitchen fires, and it is now so tender that the meat falls from the bones, and the rich juices drip like warm dark honey as it is carved by the chief cook.

Christmas pudding is also served, but it bears little resemblance to the sort we would recognise now. Indeed, the original old English meaning of the word pudding referred to all the offal, intestines and other innards of an animal, including those parts not normally eaten. (Though medieval folk ate pretty much everything.) Hence the use of suet in steamed meals led to our modern use of the word pudding. So in medieval times the Christmas pudding included real minced meat along with a variety of herbs and spices, probably also including garlic and raisins. So help yourself, but please don’t expect to pour custard or cream over it.

Each course contains both sweet and savoury platters, but at the end you will be served with the greatest sweet dish of all – the subtlety. This is a huge and elaborate sculpture carried to the table by all the cooks, expecting the gratitude and congratulations of the guests. It has been carved entirely from sugar loaves, usually with enormous skill. It can be designed to represent something relevant to the occasion – and at Christmas this may well be a depiction of the nativity, complete with the farm animals, the manger and the shepherds as well as the baby Jesus, Joseph and the Madonna. The skill exhibited is an indication of the chief cook’s excellence, and is therefore a mark of status for your host. So remember to compliment him as well. And eat up. No diets here!

Since it is snowing, the windows are a flutter of crystal fantasy and outside is the magical hush of falling ice which swallows all other sounds. Because it is so beautiful, the lord has ordered the shutters to be left open. There are no curtains of course, so the pure glory of a white Christmas can be seen by everyone.

There has been plenty of entertain organised, so please do settle back now and enjoy yourself. Most of all there will be music. Medieval music may not be quite what you are used to, but I promise you will enjoy it. Try and pick out some of the unusual instruments – tabors, sackbuts, rebecs, shawms and gitterns. The jugglers and minstrels will appear more recognisable, but the mystery and miracle  plays and the mummings will seem somewhat more puzzling. The carols may surprise you too and there are certainly none you will recognise. Indeed, a few may shock you as they are full of innuendo and bawdy words but most carols celebrate the religious significance. There will be dancing soon and the music will continue until late. Candlelight on the twirling faces and on the velvet sheen of their flowing gowns, doublets and long fur trimmed sleeves, on the gleaming metal, pewter cups and platters, will all combine into a truly magical atmosphere.

The cups of course are all metal. No glass yet served this purpose except for the very, very rich. Standing glass cups from Murano (Venice) could be acquired for vast sums, but even the nobility used silver, pewter, tin – or even gold. Common folk used wood.

But there are no wooden cups here, for we are celebrating a Christmas in a great house. We are mindful of church ruling and Christian meaning and we say our thanks to God before each course. Of course much of Christmas tradition may relate back to less Christian times, but there is a very strong Christian influence now. The birth of Christ is a constant reminder, many of the plays follow religious themes, there will be Mass on Christmas Eve, and on the morning of Christmas itself. Some of the spices and drinks common to Christmastime certainly have their origins in pagan mid-winter festivals, and the whole idea of the Yule log is certainly ancient, but by now people have pretty much forgotten which is religious practice or originally pagan. 
The wassail cup will soon be passed to you – that large bowl, probably decorated with ivy or streamers, which you should already see being passed from person to person. Never mind about sharing germs – there was certainly no acknowledgement of germs in medieval times – so take a nice long drink from the communal cup. You will enjoy it. This is ale mixed with strong fermented cider and sometimes other fruits, with added spices and honey. It might be warmed initially, but it will be cold by the time it reaches you anyway.

There is certainly nothing boring about the food and drink being offered to you today for there are no over-fertilized crops, no chemically forced fruits, artificial manure, additives, manufactured sauces, and no hormone fattened meat. This will be as natural as Nature made it. And even with very little sugar and a limited use of salt, this food is going to taste delicious. Oh – and don’t worry about those silly stories modern people have told you about spices being used to disguise rotten meat in medieval times – that is all nonsense. The food is fresh and the spices are used because people think they are healthy (often true) and also because they cost a fortune. This proves your host’s status and generosity. Remember to thank him profusely. Oh – and don’t let those mistletoe berries fall into your platter. They’re horribly poisonous.

As well as dancing, there will be games after feasting, and many are a little suggestive. Blind Man’s Buff was popular, but the whole Lord of Misrule scenario is a now little exaggerated, however. It certainly existed, but was not as obligatory as storytellers nowadays seem to think.

Although I have invited you to Christmas Day celebrations, the season actually started on St. Nicholas’ Day, which is December 6th. Here is the conception of Father Christmas himself, although the figure in red we know today is strictly an American invention and quite recent too. Medieval gifts are not given until Epiphany which we usually call Twelfth Night on January 6th, celebrating the arrival of the three wise men who brought gifts for the baby Jesus. Of course, there are other important saints’ days during this period too – including St. Stephen’s Day which we know better as Boxing Day.

But you’re not getting another feast, I’m afraid. I only invited you to Christmas Day, so you can just go off home now. Modern life will seem fairly bland in comparison – but at least you can go to a clean flush toilet, wash your hands in hot running water, and settle down on your comfy cushioned sofa to watch a little television.  Shame about the supermarket food and no candles or roaring fire – but then – we can’t have everything.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Feline Felicity: Then and Now

Cats, first domesticated in Egypt roughly 10,000 years ago, are descended from the African wildcat and have probably become the most popular pet in the world since then. There is something wonderfully graceful about feline elegance, and adult cats also make extremely helpful companions since they have helped us keep our living quarters free of rats, mice and other pests for thousands of years, presumably the original reason for their domestication. In some civilizations cats have been worshiped, in others they have been reviled, but in our modern age they are both very much loved – and very much abused.

A friend of mine recently discovered three abandoned kittens, barely 4 weeks old. Being a cat-lover, she immediately adopted the kittens, and has been caring for them ever since. Whether these kittens were abandoned by the mother, perhaps herself dead or starving and unable to supply milk – or even thrown out by a cat owner unable to accept an unwanted litter – we shall never know. But now the kittens are thriving and are very well looked after.

It takes about 5 hours each day to feed, clean, cuddle, burp (who knew kittens needed burping?) and generally to look after these tiny creatures. They were too young to lap naturally so had to be fed every three hours through a syringe, and they even started by needing encouragement to relieve themselves, and be cleaned afterwards. Plenty of cuddles of course, since they were found half-starved and terrified – but then cuddling is the easy part.

My own two cats were originally found abandoned under a bush as well, but luckily were not quite so young and did not need such intense individual care! They were, however, small enough to carry around in my dressing gown pockets, one each side, while I did the morning housework. One is short-haired white, tiny and pure golden eyed. The other is a handsome tall and fluffy black and white – so it would not usually be obvious that they are brother and sister. It’s an interesting fact about cats, that one female’s litter may have several different fathers. 

The male is a fanatical football player. From a tiny kitten, whenever he hears me crumple paper, I find him sitting hopefully at my feet, gazing up at me. If I throw the little ball of paper, he will chase it and start his own game – one back paw kicking it between his own legs – for his front paws to chase. He seems to pretend that front and back are two different cats – acting as if surprised as he leaps off on the hunt to catch the errant escapee. All his own idea! The trouble is, I can’t resist those pleading eyes, and so my carpets are continuously littered with little balls of paper (foil is his favourite) which must seem rather weird to unsuspecting visitors! 

Of course, I shouldn’t be referring to my cats as male and female – they are a tom and a queen – and when there are several together (when next door’s tom pops in to play for instance) they form a ‘clowder’ or a ‘glaring’ – but I like the word clowder best. And no– they don’t have nine lives, but they are capable of amazing skills. Apart from excellent vision – even in the dark – with excellent hearing and sense of smell, felines appear to have a sense of navigation that approaches that of bats at night. This sensitivity covers their whole bodies, and enables them to know how large a space is by the movement of air currents – and must help enormously with those glorious leaps and bounds and night-time hunting.

Sadly because, like domesticated dogs, the females come into season several times a year and can produce large litters, cats have returned to the wild and turned feral in almost every country across the world. Not only does this lead to considerable misery for the cats themselves, often leading to disease, starvation and being mauled and killed by wild dogs, but also leads to the destruction of the local wildlife. Here in Australia many native species have been brought close to extinction because of feral cats and dogs, since the indigenous creatures are unused to such large predators, and have no natural defences.

Throughout European history, cats have been encouraged on farmlands where they keep
down the pests, and the farmyard cat nursing her litter in the hay barn is a common image from the past. However, a less cosy part of that same history was the regular destruction of those kittens, bundled in a sack and tossed into a water barrel to drown, keeping the farm from being overrun with cats. In the past, of course, there was no easy method of spaying or castrating animals, but now that the system is in place, it is so sad that this cruel practise of destroying unwanted litters often still occurs.

We all adore our pet cats, but we also admire the larger felines. The largest, the Tiger, is a magnificent symbol of majesty and beauty. However, the tiger is fast approaching extinction due to our own activities – the destruction of their habitat, and – even more grotesque – the poaching for body parts for use in Chinese medicine. There is a fashion these days for eastern medicines, and acupuncture certainly seems to have considerable backing. But it is less well publicized that some Chinese medicine encourages massive slaughter of wildlife. A tiger penis is supposed to help a man with his waning virility. Many other so-called medicinal benefits are about equally as valid.

But problems aside, there are still very few things quite so delicious as a small sleeping kitten, or watching two or three playing together. And when they grow older and curl up on your lap, then that is the perfect symbol of absolute comfort.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Bit of Boasting (B.R.A.G.)

I am delighted that my medieval mystery/thriller has just been awarded the B.R.A.G. medallion. It's quite an honor and is awarded only comparatively rarely-  so naturally I'm more than happy to announce the event. B.R.A.G. Award

Fair Weather is an unusual book. Based on a split time plot, the story switches between the medieval era of King John and the present time in Gloucestershire village. There is an underlying paranormal edge, but I see my book as principally a murder adventure with plenty of twists and mystery. It is exceedingly character driven, and strong characterization is something I concentrate on as a writer. The tree main characters in Fair Weather drive the whole plot forwards, although there is quite a large surrounding cast. I'm delighted to say that the public in general appears to enjoy the read and have posted some very interesting reviews.  Fair Weather on Amazon

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Deliciously Wicked Earl of Rochester

The perfect romantic hero means something rather different to different people. One of my favourite historical figures comes very close for me.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, (1647-1680) was one of Restoration England’s most fascinating and unusual characters.  His life was hardly routine – and it started with his father. The first earl earned his title when he loyally and most courageously helped the young Charles II escape England during the civil war, both in outrageous disguise before successfully escaping to safe haven abroad. So the first earl was quite a character too, heavy drinking, firmly royalist and unstoppable when roused. Not that young John ever saw much of him. The first earl seemed to fear only one thing – the responsibility of his wife and child. So John was left to grow up in puritan England with his strictly religious mother, a clever and sensitive young man who heard of his father’s heroic exploits – but did not meet him and knew himself unwanted.

As the puritan age was eventually swept away with the return of the roistering new monarch, it must have been quite an adjustment for most people. Brought up to consider even Christmas carols, the hint of a dance, bright clothes and any dash of decoration in a church as heinous blasphemy, quite suddenly England was rollicking with song, colour and bawdy celebration. Fashionable clothes became sumptuous with luxury, long wigs, lace and jewellery. This was a time when those who had lived under sufferance when puritanism was law, now raged in rebellion against all that pious suffocation.

John Wilmot’s mother tended to cling to past moral standards, but her clever son was accepted into Oxford University by the age of 12, and later the following year was taken on the grand tour of France and Italy where he discovered many more exciting temptations. He lost his virginity, and was possibly further introduced to vice by his accompanying tutor.

Whatever the facts, John Wilmot returned to England with a good deal more knowledge than he had left it. His father dead, he was now the 2nd earl, with a head full of inspiration and dreams. He loved poetry, which was most definitely in fashion at court during that time, and began tentatively to write his own. However, living a life of ease and pleasure was considered not only the God-given right of a gentleman but also essential, since no nobleman could be seen to trade  - let alone work!! But the Earldom of Rochester came with virtually no land, property or acquisitions, and the 2nd earl was as poor as a church mouse. The king made allowances, but the king rarely paid up and his promises were frequently empty ones.

The older, sicker Rochester
So how has Rochester become the inspiration for a multitude of historical romances? It all started when he attempted to abduct the woman he wanted to marry. Elizabeth Malet was an heiress, and her two greedy guardians refused Rochester, the poverty stricken young earl, all permission to court her. She was being approached by far more eligible suitors, although she had refused them all. She was very young, attractive, high spirited and rich. What more could any man want?

It does seem that Rochester was genuinely in love with the lady, and it became clear that abduction was the only way to get her. Sadly it failed when the coach was seen and stopped. The prospective bride was saved and the 18 year old Rochester was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. Not into a cell, rather a tiny apartment – but the door was locked and with the plague rife in London at the time, there was considerable danger. He pleaded with the king and was eventually set free. He promptly joined the Dutch wars and following his father’s example, acted with considerable courage, becoming a naval hero.

The Lady Elizabeth, had declined all offers of marriage in his absence and on his return to England, they immediately escaped her guardians and eloped. This action leads me to suspect that it was Elizabeth herself, rather than Rochester, who actually organised the earlier abduction. She was in love with the handsome young man with an infectious sense of humour who had secretly wooed her with poetry and wildly romantic demonstrations. Besides, her strict guardians must have been driving her mad!

And so they were married. But they failed to live happily ever after, although it would seem they were gloriously happy at times and managed to produce four children, three girls and a boy. But Rochester was soon in the employ of the king and therefore obliged to stay in London at court while his wife stayed on the country estate. When separated, Rochester was anything but faithful. He followed the court’s and king’s example and frequented the brothels and theatres. Actresses at that time were little different from prostitutes and Rochester became particularly involved with one – Elizabeth Barry who he tutored until she became the most lauded actress of her time. I think some historians have over-exaggerated the seriousness of this affair, but in any case they did produce one child, a little girl named Elizabeth whom Rochester quickly adopted onto his own estates after breaking up with the mother. Thus at one time he had a wife named Elizabeth, a legitimate daughter Elizabeth, a mistress Elizabeth and an illegitimate daughter Elizabeth. Well at least he wasn’t in danger of saying the wrong name by mistake at impolitic moments.

The revolt against the previous regime of enforced puritanism had also led to an age of heavy drinking, and here again Rochester was no exception. Far worse – he contracted syphilis which was rife at that time. A hideous disease, it was both misunderstood and incurable. The ghastly agonies that syphilis brought to its many sufferers is almost unimaginable, and Rochester began to die. It took years of collapse and remission during which time he wrote swathes of the most glorious poetry, and also finally converted from atheist to religious believer

Some of his shorter verses introduced ideas which have since been copied a thousand times by modern comedians, poets and philosophers without them realising where those ideas originated. From the vulgar:

Oh that I could by some chemic art,
To sperm convert my vitals and my heart,
That at one thrust I might my soul translate,
And in the womb myself regenerate:
There steeped in lust nine months I would remain;
Then boldly f--- my passage out again.

To the melancholy:

Since death on all lays his impartial hand
And all resign at his command;
The Stoic too, as well as I,
With all his gravity must die;
Let’s wisely manage this last span,
The momentary life of man,
And still in pleasure’s circle move,
Giving our days to friends, and all our nights to love.

He has long been famed as a libertine but during the Restoration period the king and nobility indulged in a form of sexual licence rarely known before or after. Drunken libertines were common currency, but Rochester was an awful lot more than that. He made friends with the king although the friendship was a rocky one, adored his wife though hurt her badly, loved and was loved by his children, fought duels, led a madly adventurous life of escapes, disguises, pretence, artistic creation of the highest quality, dissolution and uproarious humour. There was certainly no one quite like him, even in that era of extravagance and accepted moral corruption.  He was tall, handsome, eloquent and dashing, and as far as we can tell from his poetry, he certainly knew how to make love. His courage and honesty continued, he was unafraid of telling the truth even to royalty, and although he had married an heiress, it would seem he took little advantage of her wealth. Religion was a matter of supreme importance back then and Protestants and Catholics were bitter enemies, but Rochester stood apart as unashamedly atheist until his final and heartfelt conversion. Some of his poetry is astonishingly vulgar, hilariously shocking, but most is exceptionally beautiful, insightful and often impressively intellectual. He was probably the best satirist, wit and poet of his age (and there were many around) whilst also the most outrageously interesting character of that era. But he died tragically young at the age of 33, leaving a reputation which has lasted more than 400 years.

Now, how many fictional romantic heroes does that remind you of?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Giveaway: Castles, Customs, and Kings - True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors

Castles, Customs, and Kings promises to be an excellent read and two copies will be given away FREE. The giveaway closes on September 23, 2013:

"A compilation of essays from the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book provides a wealth of historical information from Roman Britain to early twentieth century England. Over fifty different authors share hundreds of real life stories and tantalizing tidbits discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

From Queen Boadicea’s revolt to Tudor ladies-in-waiting, from Regency dining and dress to Victorian crime and technology, immerse yourself in the lore of Great Britain. Read the history behind the fiction and discover the true tales surrounding England’s castles, customs, and kings."

Authors include M.M. Bennetts, Judith Arnopp, Maggi Anderson, Katherine Ashe,  and many more including, ahem, myself.

For more information and to enter to win, please  click here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dragons: An Endangered Species?

The common species of dragon, Draconem Drakontos to give the full title, has actually been in decline since the days of Job. Indeed, it is a considerable time since I have glimpsed one in the wild. Are they perhaps already almost extinct?

I well remember those sweet months in my youth, now long gone, when I lay back, eyes closed on a summer’s afternoon in the sweet perfumed valleys of Crete, Kerkira or Rhodes, listening to a mother dragon crooning to her young. Those less aggressive species – the Popinjay Drakon for instance, or the smaller Magentium Grekos – once nested in large numbers in the foothills, hunting in the warm evenings when the thermals lifted their lazy wing beats.

But no more. I have again tramped the primrose fields, the buttercup slopes, and the forests of wild thyme beneath autumn’s saffron birches. I have stood amongst the foothills and whistled, waiting for the young ones to chirp in answer. I have even climbed the crags, cautiously peering into the mouths of the darkest caves. But there are no rumblings, no smoky breath rising from the shadows, and no sudden glint of a heavy lidded golden eye. I fear the worst.

There are warnings of climate change. For a thousand years the weather has been mild and even the mountains have shone in the sunshine up to their highest points. The snow bright tips have long glimmered, melting into fast rivulets in the spring. These were the dragons’ favourite haunts, offering balmy pastures for sun-soaking, and giving clean water for drinking and bathing. No respectable lizard of any size would flash his tail unless it dazzled, nor present grubby scales to the dawns’ pastel rainbows. Each species needs these sparkling springs, and each species loves the heat, for their chilly blood needs warming throughout the daylight hours.

But now the freezes are longer and more severe, the ice creeps down as far as the tree line and the villagers go hungry in winter. They protect their domestic stock more fiercely, and so have made war on the dragons. The great beasts of the skies are not easy to kill, but the younger ones, more used to man’s friendly wave than the aim of his arrows, have become easy targets. Yet who can blame a shepherd desperate to save his flock, or a new husband eager to provide a better living for his bride?

The last dragon I ever saw in the wild was a huge black Serpentium Drakos, flaming the tops of the
trees as he swept towards the cliffs. He disappeared over the ocean, a vast shadow rippling the Adriatic’s turquoise swells. I still dream of that final sighting, wondering if it will ever be repeated.

There are still a few sorry creatures in captivity of course, though taming them is not easy. George, patron saint of the Rus and of England, kept an elderly female I believe, which was permitted to scavenge after the candles were extinguished in the family kitchens in ancient Rome. This was probably one of the smaller Zmey Gorynych. But we all know dragons do not breed at all when kept confined, and although their natural lifespan is extensive, no eggs have ever been laid unless both male and female are permitted to fly free. Their aerial courtship is indeed wondrous, and the roars of a mating male can be heard for many miles. But will that majestic cry ever be heard again?

There are islands in the east where a lesser species, Varanus Komodoensis, is said to exist in plentiful numbers, and young Marco Polo has described the beasts in some detail. But evidently this poor animal is dull coloured and has no wings. Although beautiful in its own way, it can only plod the hillocks and beaches, spitting venom as it lumbers along. I have heard it cannot even breathe fire, but I doubt that is true. What sort of dragon is it that cannot set alight to its own nest to warm its toes each night? Perhaps, rather than a true dragon, this is a form of giant monitor lizard, which, as everyone knows, is an affiliated species of inferior appearance. For instance, they seem to be mainly ambush predators, ungainly since they are confined to land, and are understandably bad tempered.

There are, I admit, some European dragons of a particularly vicious character. Dragon-lover though I am, I should not wish to come face to face with a full grown Smithsonian Wilberforce on a dark evening, or the even more fearsome Izzyontus Floentius, which is a night prowler with an enormous appetite. Indeed, I once knew a pleasant young man who lost three wives to one such specimen of this particular species. I found it a little surprising that this bereft husband had not taken better care of his
family – nor had removed his household to a place somewhat more distant – but I sympathised with him for all that. He never seemed especially heartbroken to me, but then I cannot judge the difficulties of others. I only know I would not build my own home within the confines of a small valley directly beneath such a creature’s nesting cave. However, I was not amused when one other young man, when hearing that I feared dragons were in sharp decline right across the mainland, announced loudly that he believed the sooner they died out, the better. I challenged him over this, but he explained that in his childhood he had lived in a small kingdom far to the west where dragons had terrorised the inhabitants until finally they left out food for them each week. The occasional sheep – bales of nesting hay – sometimes an inadvertent virgin (when one could be found) – were chained to the town’s maypole and then everyone retired to their homes, locked their doors, pulled their shutters tight, and listened in terror to the dragons’ screeches and their wretched prey’s screams.

The dragons of the Far East, however, and several varieties can be found in the Emperor’s exotic realm of China, are said to be particularly sweet natured. Once again I am grateful to Marco Polo for his information. These Chinese dragons bring good luck, smile upon the land over which they fly, and are welcomed rather than slaughtered by the nearby inhabitants. I wish Europeans would copy this generous attitude towards creatures so beautiful, which are becoming so sadly rare.

The great age of the dragons was, of course, during Biblical times when the sea-dragon Leviathan Drakos was avoided by most fishermen, but still admired for the great gleam of his scales, the
monstrous curve of his ivory teeth, and the magnificence of his size. As Job so helpfully pointed out, the creature could not easily be killed, and any attempt to catch him with fish hooks, arrows, stones, harpoons, swords or spears, would fail miserably. The Leviathan’s ability to breathe fire even under water was a tremendous feat but it was this which often most endeared him to man, for a good bubbling swirl of ocean maelstrom could not only trap fish, but send them racing into your nets already part cooked.

The defining talent of all species to breathe fire is, naturally, of interest to dragon watchers like myself. I am fairly confident of the answer, since a lifetime’s interest has led me even to dragon corpses in the past, and to close acquaintance with an occasional friendly specimen. Clearly even the smaller animals are extremely large, but I have noticed that they do not carry great weight. They lift off with the slightest breeze, especially from the heights where most prefer to nest. Well-muscled with strong wings, they fly well, but the lift off and landing of such a beast should by rights be a tremendous heave. Yet on the contrary it is invariably achieved with the greatest of ease. Indeed, their main difficulty is in strong winds, which can actually carry them off course. I have therefore deduced that their bodies are largely hollow. Their wings are leathery, their legs solid – but the bulk of their bodies is filled with little substance. But, although having long been satisfied with this theory, I was fascinated to discover a dying Sub-magrim Drakos one day on the slopes of Olympus. Naturally I stayed with the poor beast to stroke behind its ears as it breathed its last. I was then astonished to see its great fat belly diminish into a concave and empty sack, and as it died, so a gasp of hot air left its mouth. Gas, I decided. Not the more mundane kind which mankind gives off after eating too much souvlakia, but the kind which sometimes issues from the ground, and is exceedingly flammable: hence my explanation for dragons’ flight and their fiery breath.

I confess to once eating a dragon’s egg when I was young. Curiosity got the better of me, and I found it delicious. I scrambled it and mixed the wealth of golden yolk with wild thyme. I shall certainly never do so again. I only wish I could find one to preserve and watch hatch. Not that a mother dragon easily relinquishes her eggs, but abandoned nests have been sighted amongst the mountains above Athens, and I have left messages, pinned to the pillars of the Parthenon, asking that should any eggs be discovered, they be brought to me, and I will pay well for them.

Sadly, the recent impressive enterprises across the oceans where one Cristoforo Colombo has evidently discovered a whole new land, do not appear to have included dragon-sightings. I cannot imagine this previously unknown country will ever prove important or amount to anything at all if it is indeed dragon-less, and why anybody should bother taking such a long and hazardous sea voyage unless it is to search for dragons, I have no idea. But anything may happen in the future and history can often surprise us.

Indeed, in the west it seems that dragons have always been rarer than in the east, for in the cold bleak Y Ddraig Goch – a name in their own tongue which is as unpronounceable as the rest of their language. But it seems they no longer have the real creatures for comparison.
islands of England and the Nor-Way sightings were never plentiful. Once, long ago, according to the story of Beowulf, there lived a dragon which the men of the viks eventually slaughtered. It had been a bad tempered creature by all accounts, hardly surprising given the chilly weather conditions in that area, but then the men of the Viks always did enjoy a good bloody murder to keep themselves warm. The English Isle is no better and they say a large fat red haired king now rules there, and without dragons to slaughter, he kills off his wives instead. Those people do at least celebrate the great stories of the past, for they paint dragons on their helms and pennants, and one small dark tribal culture adorns their castle doors and sword hilts with the dragon’s familiar shape, referring to the once local species

And so there we have it. Draconem Drakontos will soon be no more. What will future generations of animal lovers think, I wonder? They may hardly even believe in the existence of dragons, and call it a fantasy or a myth. Of course such an idea may seem ludicrous to us now – and anyone absurd enough to deny the existence of dragons might just as well deny the existence of giants, monopods or the phoenix. And after all, we will at least leave behind us plenty of stories and paintings of our glorious wildlife. But then, with the decline of the dragon, and the equally obvious decline of standards, manners and education in the younger generation, the children of the future may prove ignorant indeed.

By B.G. Denvil