20 March 2018

Tuesday talk - The Time Traveller...Barbara Gaskell Denvil

 As an author, my great loves are reading and writing.  But my favourite hobby is time-travelling. I might as well confess now. After all, time-travel is not only a hobby, it is a necessary part of my life.

My Tardis is a good deal more conventional than Doctor Who’s. It certainly doesn’t look like a police phone box, indeed it looks exactly like my study. The walls are completely covered by book shelves and paintings, the books are crammed into every corner, and there is a very large desk covered in papers, pens, magnifying glasses, books and notebooks, curios and ornaments, and a very large computer screen.

I also have a swivel chair pulled up to the desk, plus a large comfy armchair in the corner. The last details are a number of overflowing wastepaper baskets, and a stereo CD player with all its speakers.

Tidy? Certainly not. It’s a Tardis after all, and not a neat little modern box.

I sit comfortably, close my eyes, and open them again five hundred years ago.  London is darker and quieter, no engines rattle, no machines roar, no cars screech around the street corners, no traffic jams clog the roads. But two men on horseback gallop by, the feathers in their hats blowing in the wind, and their velvet capes swirling out behind them. The people in the narrow cobbled street run to either side, for there is little space and no pavements. Not all streets are cobbled and many are simply beaten earth, while the gutters are central and filled with rancid water and rubbish.

Without electricity of any kind apart from thunder and lightning, most people rise with the sun, and in summer they go to bed with the sunset. In winter’s evenings, some will light candles, but not all can afford such luxury. Even tallow candles cost money, and more are bought for church than for homes. But a fire will usually be lit on the hearth, which is still sometimes a central hearth since chimneys are quite a new and luxurious idea, and the scarlet flames bring light.

Few homes have glass in their windows. Windows may be covered in parchments, thin bone, or cloth. Shop windows are usually boarded up at night, but the wooden board will be taken down during the day, and laid on the window sill as a counter. Only the rich and the churches have access to glass., although gradually over the years the mullioned windows are closed with small glass panes as this becomes more economically accessible.

Most homes are built from wood, straw and plaster (Wattle and Daub). Their upper floors are built out with a larger floor space than the one below. This brings balance, although if not properly done, which is often the truth, then the whole building bulges outwards and some houses almost touch their upper stories across the road below. Inside there is a simplicity of rooms and design, with little furniture and virtually no privacy. Thatched roofs still exist although they are now illegal due to the danger of fire, but tiled rooves are gradually more common.

There was a clash of authority, and many modern misconceptions are rife concerning this. The king, whoever he was, could not just frown and immediately all the lords leapt to their feet to do as he wished. Those who believe Richard III managed to influence the three houses of parliament with a simple sneer, are sadly ignorant of the facts. Indeed, many of the lords were more powerful than the king himself, could also dominate the court, and had enormous armies. Such a powerful lord, and there were many, could dominate the king and even force him to abdicate, as happened on occasion. In fact, the king had no private army at all, although he could call on his friends if he had the time to do so. Power throughout the land was widely divided and urban authorities, High Constables and the rich were frequently in command. Indeed, the church was far more dominant than it is today. Certainly there was no religious tolerance and no other form except Catholicism was permitted in England. However, although weekly attendance at church was common, total obedience to the ecclesiastical rules and demands was definitely not. The moral standards were not accepted by all, the priests continually complained that the community was licentious and full of wicked sinners, and the community complained that the church was greedy and sinful themselves.

Other modern misconceptions abound. Women were certainly dominated and often abused, but they also ran their own businesses, behaved as they wished to a considerable degree (chastity belts never existed and no woman in England was ever burned alive as a witch) while many women from queens downward fought, schemed and ruled the household.

Another thing that did not exist was a decent method of sewerage destruction, although sewerage tanks were built and buried, but most was drained directly into the moat, the river, or the ditches outside the city walls. The smell echoed this difficulty.

The Thames and other major rivers are busy with water-taxis, the calls of the boatmen, small boats carrying goods and even horses, and even busier ports where boats of all sizes docked for unloading. There were few bridges – only one over the Thames in London for instance – and this could be locked at night. Indeed, most cities lay within high stone walls bringing protection against invasion, and the gates would be closed at a certain time, denying access to all.

And so I travel by Tardis, especially to the 15th century but also both earlier and later, and therefore I escape the mundane housecleaning, cooking, shopping and boring routines while I explore the past.

It is a pastime I recommend, since it is only once you stand there, gazing around at such a different word, once you smell the city, hear the church bells, and watch the habits of the people that you begin to really know you are there and can write about what surrounds you.

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About Barbara

Barbara Gaskell Denvil is a multi-award winning author of historical fiction, mystery, suspense and fantasy. Some of her books combine all of these and others only a few. Now, for the first time, she is writing children’s fantasy, again combining the genres she loves, historical and adventure with fantasy. (See Bannister’s Muster’s page for more information)

Having been born into a literary family where book shelves filled every room, she grew up assuming that writing would be her career. She began writing when she was extremely young and then went to work in the British Museum Library, with ancient folios and manuscripts.  This cemented her love of both literature and history. Moving on to work in traditional publishing, scripting, reviewing, editing and publishing many articles and short stories.

Her books now alternate between fantasy and historical fiction, drama, mystery, adventure and romance, with a passion for medieval settings and historical accuracy.

Miss Gaskell Denvil's work has been traditionally published by Simon & Schuster, but she now favours self-publishing as it gives the huge satisfaction of individual control. And personal choice of genre and artistic inspiration.

13 March 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick :the Return of Escaping to the Country

Back in 2012 we had a bit of a windfall - one of the winning numbers for the London Olympics Lottery Raffle Prize turned out to be our number. The outcome was that we finally had a chance to buy our own property and to get out of Walthamstow, N.E. London, in exchange for a prospective new home in Devon.

Problem: Finding said home.
Solution: Apply to go on Escape to the Country and let someone else do the leg-work!

The result was a couple of days with a BBC TV film crew in North Devon, and we bought the first house they showed us.

This one, in fact.

We moved in on the day it snowed heavily on 18th January 2013, and absolutely love it here.

Quite a few things have changed in the years between. Kathy married Adam, for instance, and we built an extension apartment for them.

We moved in with two cats, a dog and two horses. We now still have two cats (although Sybil has gone semi-feral) ...

Our old boy Rum
 sadly left us in March 2013
... two dogs

hens, ducks and geese (and Ron still has his racing pigeons)

Christmas Goose
a donkey called Wonky Donk and four Exmoor ponies

 three big show jumpers

Lexie (Shinglehall Casino)

Wexford Pippa
Saffie - La Rafaelle
with one more one the way, Saffie is in foal, due to be born in late March, early April

With all this additional excitement through the years, I invited the BBC TV Escape to the Country team back for their spin-off series I Escaped to the Country.

So on the 27th February 2018  we played host to the lovely Alistair Appleton  and crew for the day.

Baz wasn't very impressed
Although he adored Alistair

Mr Mischief, of course,
wanted to know if anything was edible...

Then it was time for lunch, which we provided
The cheese was from the Cheese Larder in South Molton

Donkey, however did not want to join in

... until Alistair walked away

I think he was scared because the boom-microphone
 looked a bit like donkey fur

Phew, it's hard work this being on TV lark!
No idea, yet, when the show will be broadcast ... but watch this space (or better still, sign up for my newsletter HERE and you'll get the date as soon as I know!)

< My Previous article Game of Thrones 

6 March 2018

Tuesday Talk: my guest A.E. Wasserman

What Started It All
Or  What Inspired Me to Become a Serious Author,
      And the Award-Winning Piece That Shoved Me Over the Edge

Often people ask what inspired me to become a writer. Many authors just always “knew.” 
I didn’t. 

I had always written just for fun. For myself. After all, novelists were those “other” folks who wrote the books I’d read. Hemingway, Faulkner, Doyle, Chandler, Grafton, Hollick. I wasn’t one of them. It didn’t matter that I’d written a novella at age 14. Longhand. On lined notebook paper. Eighty of those pages. I wrote because that’s just what I did as a fun hobby.

I was always the one who wrote the news articles for a club I belonged to. I wrote weekly or monthly columns for dog and horse magazines, earning a little bit of money that helped pay for horse shows. An occasional short story. But I never took myself seriously until, on a lark a few years ago, I entered a piece I’d written in a Writer’s Digest contest. Since I’d won several writing awards in high school, I thought it’d be fun to see what I might be able to do as an adult. Had I known there would be over 9500 entries and only twenty winners total, I would never have entered.
But I did enter.
And I won.

I won a Writer’s Digest prize, along with a coveted seal and a very nice-sized check.
It was then that I finally took myself seriously and said, “Why not?”
Why not write a novel? Granted, there’s a whole other story about that first novel and how the Langsford Series sprung from it. But this article I’m sharing today, this is what started it all and allowed me to believe in myself. It was my self-defining bit of writing.

Here it is, unchanged from the original:

Amanya Wasserman                                                                   word count 1772
PO Box nnnn
Burbank CA nnnn
nnn nnn-nnnn

A.E. Wasserman

There Are Three of Us

There are three of us leaning on the white board fence watching the horses play in the green California pasture. We are quiet, simply enjoying the moment.
There are three of us.
We watch as a yearling Trakehner[1] colt breaks from his trot, digging in with his hind legs to take off at full gallop. He is lovely. His young muscles work hard under his bright chestnut coat. His eyes are shining, full of both joy and mischief. Equivalent to a teenage boy, he has energy, spirit and naughty written all over him. He is and will be, I know, a handful.

Close on his heels comes another colt, a few months older, dark brown-bay, bigger and in more of a show-off mood. He trots with huge strides, elevating each step high above the grass, tail up in the air and nose snorting. Between each step, he suspends himself midair before any hoof can touch down. He floats effortlessly past me. “Look at me,” he says. “I’m incredibly
cool.” Then he drops his head, kicks out with quick hind feet, and joins his half-brother in a full gallop.

“Those two are both by the stallion, Templeritter,” my host explains as he stands beside me at the fence line. We don’t look at each other. We are watching the horses. “What do you think?” Roy Fleischer is a little under six feet, wearing jeans and short paddock boots. He has a cowboy hat on along with a smile that shows how proud he is of his youngsters.
“I think I’m glad I don’t have to train them,” I laugh at the cavorting colts. “The bay is a good mover and strong. I’d figure him to be an excellent dressage prospect, but then, I’ll have to see him again at three years old.”

Gerta, who has been standing silent on my right this whole time, finally speaks up. “Right. I agree. A lot can happen in their growth over the next two years.” Visiting California from Germany, she speaks without any accent. She is much taller than either Roy or I, muscular and very self-assured. Dressed in her riding breeches and custom German boots, she appears even taller than she is.
The yearlings turn nearly in unison, then thunder back toward us. “But I do think that big guy has dressage in his future.”
We watch as the larger one spins on his heels.

“Fernando,” Roy turns to call over to his stableman who is standing by the white pasture gate. Halters and lead ropes drape over his arms. “Ponga por favor los potros atrás y saque la nueva yegua.”  He asks Fernando to catch the teenagers and return them to their paddocks, then bring out the new horse; a mare this time.
We watch as the yearlings are led away. “Those are a couple of very nice youngsters.” Gerta absently brushes some hay from her shirt sleeve.
Roy beams at her. Her opinion means a lot to most of us Americans. Her grandfather had been a main groom at the famous Trakehnen Stud in Germany before World War II. Her family had always been involved with Trakehners, in one way or another.

Her father, at four years of age, had fled with many others from Germany in the infamous “Trek”, running from the Russians in the bitter winter of 1945. The story, well known among horse people, is one about the horses, not the people, and it is a heartbreaking one.
We know the number of horses and who they were. We don’t know much about the people themselves. Over eight hundred horses left the Prussian area of Trakehnen, which for over a century had always been part of a buffer zone between Germany, Poland and Russia. The people there, including Gerta’s family, were on the Nazi side of the last world war. They were Nazi Germans whose lives centered on the horses they bred, loved and cared for.

By the summer of 1944, it was clear that the Russians were going to break through the German lines. Many people in that area wanted to leave, but the German Army would arrest anyone leaving with their belongings and shoot them for treason. Finally, in January of 1945, the Trakehners had to be evacuated because the Russians had broken through the Prussian border and were fast approaching.   The people in and around Trakehnen quickly gathered up their beloved horses, hitched them to wagons laden with belongings, loaded their backs with food, hay, and bundled-up children. They turned loose the young stock in the hopes they could survive on their own, for feed on the trip was in short supply. Once ready, they all, people and horses alike, rushed for the West, six hundred miles away, in an attempt to flee the invading Russian forces.

The most vivid scene described in a rare telling of “The Trek” is the one of the horses galloping over the frozen Baltic Sea; a frantic effort to get to West Germany and safety. The Russian planes were literally overhead, strafing the entire group as it ran across the ice. Russian troops fired from the shoreline. Many horses and people dropped as bullets tore through them. The dead and dying tumbled and slid over the ice, leaving a blood slick behind them. There was no cover out in the middle of the sea. If a horse or wagon slowed, its heavy weight broke through the ice, dragging the wagon, horse and all, into the freezing black depths.  Those who were fast enough, raced over the cracking surface, leaving a trail of frantic hoof prints behind in the brittle and cracking ice.
People. Horses. All running for their lives. Nazi’s. Running. Galloping.
To this day, survivors cannot speak about it.

Of the eight hundred horses that began the six hundred mile Trek, fewer than one hundred made it to West Germany.  We have no count of the people. While Gerta’s young father somehow survived along with his parents, her great grandparents and others in her family did not. None of their own beautiful Trakehners survived.
After the war, her family, what remained of it, stayed in Germany and began life anew. Gerta’s grandfather began working with horses again, ultimately finding some Trakehners scattered here and there. He helped to rebuild the breed, originally numbering over 250,000 head, from the few sorry survivors. Growing up at his father’s side, Gerta’s father learned to work with the horses, and later, his daughter, Gerta.

Even today, those of us who know the story of the “Trek,” don’t talk about it much. But we do know and respect the vast knowledge that someone like Gerta has. So when she makes a comment, it is highly valued.
Today, we lean on the white fence, marveling at these beautiful creatures, while basking in the California sunshine. I think of my own Trakehners on my ranch in the Sierra foothills, other descendants of that long ago farm. I feel grateful that we have these horses at all.
The stableman brings out an imported broodmare that is Roy’s new pride and joy. Hadice trots beside the short Hispanic groom, a big round 17h[2] bay mare, with a heavy thick black mane and tail. In foal to a stallion named Windfall, she too, floats as she trots politely beside the man, eager to go faster, but staying at a mannered prance. We turn to watch her as she’s turned loose in the pasture.
It is amazing that all the Trakehners we have today have come from the few remaining survivor horses in West Germany. Like the Jews, their numbers severely dwindled, but they were strong enough to survive.

Gerta hangs on the fence to my right, Roy to my left. As if he were reading my mind, he starts talking about what a miracle it was that any of the horses survived the war. Gerta agrees. I nod.
“You know,” he continues, “My grandfather, Herman Fleischer, was a Captain in the US Army during the war. Afterward, he was assigned to help restructure the Deutsche Bank in Germany. It was fitting, because his grandfather had come from Germany.”
Gerta, quiet for a moment, replies. “My grandfather was a Nazi German who loved Trakehners.”
All of us keep watching the big bay mare canter around the pasture.
“My Jewish grandmother lived in a village about 60 km from Trakehnen.” I am almost whispering. “The entire village was destroyed early in the War.”
We watch the big bay mare as she circles, drops her head and bucks a little, her thick black mane tossing in the breeze.  We are silent.
Gerta and I put our arms over each other’s shoulders. Simultaneously Roy extends his arm around mine; I do the same with him.

We three stand there in that special embrace, along that white fence here in California so far in time and place from history, watching a horse that represents to us a very special healing. A moving forward from the long ago events of an ugly world. A hope for “never again,” ever.  A hope for a continuing better future. People. Trakehners. All living things.
We need not say more. We watch silently as the pregnant mare slows to a walk and begins grazing the green pasture in the California sunshine.
The German granddaughter of a Nazi, the Jewish granddaughter of a Prussian Jew, an American grandson of a G.I.

The three of us stand quietly at the white board fence.

 [1] In the beginning of the 18th century, Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I wanted a new type of cavalry mount for the Prussian army. War tactics had changed and he wanted a lighter, more comfortable horse with more endurance and speed than the heavy horses previously needed to carry an armored combatant. The king wanted horses for “his officers to ride, attractive enough to make them proud, solid enough to stay sound, with a comfortable, ground-covering trot that would enable them to travel quickly and efficiently.” So he chose the best horses from seven of his royal breeding farms, and in 1732 moved them all to the new royal stud at Trakehnen, beginning the Trakehner breed.

[2] Horses’ heights are measured in “hands”, symbolized by the lower case “h.” Each hand is four inches. The measurement is from the ground to the top of the back, just below the neck. A 17h horse stands 68” tall at that location, or five ft., 8 inches.

 A.E. Wasserman currently has three historical mystery/thrillers in place, with two more in the works. She is a full time author, best known for her Langsford Series.  www.aewasserman.com

This is me with my Border Collie muse, Topper
(he's in all my author photos)
and we are at the 8830 ft summit of Mt Pinos in
California's Los Padres National Forest.
It's our heaven.