William Shakespeare, book republished


This video about William Shakespeare is called King Lear: The Fool.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Of his, and our time

Thursday 21st April 2016

GORDON PARSONS reflects on the timely republication of a book on Shakespeare’s significance in his own period and today

Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen by Victor Kiernan (Zed Books, £14.99)

THERE are many Shakespeares.

There’s the Stratford lad whose private life, despite many biographies, remains relatively unknown. In consequence an inventive industry, questioning whether such a “nonentity” could possibly have been the playwright and poet whose achievement is recognised as the Everest of world literature, has spawned a mountain of publications.

There’s the writer whose texts are seen by the educational establishment as necessary examination fodder for generations of children who mostly will never again wish to read or even to see Shakespeare on stage, his natural and essential habitat.

Then there’s the national icon whose name can be employed to stir up patriotic spirits in time of need and the commercial “Shakesploitation,” whereby cigars are only one of the myriad products that use the Bard tag.

But both his huge and creative vocabulary and his poetry live in the bloodstream of the language.

They inform everyday conversation, so that Colonel Tim Collins can rouse his troops for battle in Kuwait with an extemporised version of Henry V’s “band of brothers” Agincourt speech and, less auspiciously, there’s the Royal Marine sergeant, unluckily videoed paraphrasing Hamlet. “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,” he told a wounded Afghan prisoner before shooting him in cold blood.

Undeniably, the plays have captured the imagination and spoken to the generations in the theatre and now on the screen over the 400 years since his death, the quatercenteneary of which is marked on Saturday.

Innumerable books have attempted to answer why this should be the case, literary specialists have analysed the poetry and the characters, while directors and actors have explored the stagecraft and thematic meaning in productions in every kind of venue from village halls to the Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre stages.

Whatever the works may have meant to previous ages — grotesquely adapted in the 17th century or played alongside pantomimes and circus acts in the 19th — they have engaged with our troubled modern world with a particular acuity.

Victor Kiernan, one of that outstanding group of Marxist historians, including Eric Hobsbawn and EP Thompson, spent nearly 50 years studying the 16th century, which shared with today the unnerving crisis of a fundamentally changing world. The movement from feudalism to early capitalism questioned every element of life as codes of behaviour, ethics, class and economic power were going through tectonic shifts.

Few would deny that our own world is undergoing momentous upheavals, from post-capitalism’s decay into an unknown future.

Kiernan’s exhaustive research led, at the age of 80, to the 1993 Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen, now republished.

His detailed knowledge of the plays and the period they emerged from give an enormous authority to his analysis of the forces at work in them. He covers the entire canon, including the sonnets and the comedies but his analysis of the histories is central.

As an historian, Kiernan was understandably more interested in Shakespeare the citizen than the poet, believing that “all good critics are historians” who cannot divorce literature from the socio-political world that spawned it.

If he believes that the sonnets would not be much read if they had been written by anyone other than Shakespeare, he finds them most interesting in their range of social and political implications. An example is “lease” in the line “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” which, according to Kiernan, reminds us that “short leases were weapons in the hands of landowners who were busy ejecting superfluous tenants.”

He maintains that “past politics fascinated Shakespeare from the beginning so obviously it is scarcely possible to think that he was not interested in the politics of his own time.”

Half of his plays, including the great tragedies — treated in depth by Kiernan in his later Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare — are set in historical times. His central analysis of the English history cycles, mapping the 14th and 15th centuries of civil turmoil from the reigns of Richard II to Richard III, captures the essence of Shakespeare’s instinctive understanding of the forces at play in power and personal politics, forces that emerge in all his works.

Here was a world, like both Shakespeare’s and our own, struggling to emerge from a crumbling system into a new world of hope and fear. His plays give “a human contour to impersonal tides of change.”

In the “feminine” world of the comedies, the heroines collectively demonstrate “the vision of a humanity not yet in being,” with an intelligence, strength and sensitivity greater than any of the male characters.

By comparison with the histories, the comedies centre on individuals, with the group “much less a microcosm of society.” Yet the comedies do mirror a society “permeated by money and money-making.”

Primarily, though, Shakespeare was and is an entertainer.

But, as Kiernan has it, “every genuine poet is a teacher” and for his contemporary audiences and those of today he reflects a dramatic image of the past “in order to understand the present better and what was needed to understand the future better than either.”

Houdini and Conan Doyle, stage magic and spiritualism


This video from Britain says about itself:

17 December 2015

Trailer for a new 10-part series “Houdini & Doyle” to air on ITV Encore, Global TV, and Fox in 2016.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Houdini and Doyle: The real story

Wednesday 6th April 2016

A new TV whodunnit features the magician and author battling over spiritualism. It is a true story and PETER FROST tells it here

AFTER any war there are always a number of those who have lost loved ones and are in deep mourning. That is the time that charlatan spiritualists, profit-driven supernaturalists and all sorts of dodgy preachers come out of the woodwork to take advantage of these people’s grief.

Of course there were genuine believers and perhaps the best known of them in the years after the immense slaughter of WWI was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle was a huge supporter of spiritualism; his wife was a practicing medium. Lady Doyle often conducted seances appearing to be in communication with the dead, and Doyle was absolutely convinced of her ability.

Doyle had been for many years a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation composed mainly of enthusiastic believers in the paranormal rather than being genuinely interested in objective research.

Yet in the 1920s even that unthinking support was not enough for Doyle. He led a resignation of 84 members of the society, on the grounds that it was too sceptical. Most of those who left the society joined the Ghost Club, of which Doyle was a long-time member. The Ghost Club was fully convinced that the supernatural was an absolute fact.

At about the same time Harry Houdini was best known as the world’s most famous magician and escapologist. He was a huge star. Houdini was a great friend of Doyle but he was also a committed debunker of false mediums and dishonest spiritualism.

This difference of opinion would challenge a friendship between two deep thinkers in the field of the public understanding of science.

Despite this radical difference of opinion, Houdini and Doyle managed to keep their friendship alive for some years.

Then in the spring of 1922, Houdini invited Doyle to the home of his friend New York Lawyer Bernard Ernst.

Houdini wanted to prove to Doyle that anything a medium could do he could reproduce using the tricks of stage magic.

Houdini had Doyle go outside in private and write a simple note that Houdini could not have seen. When Doyle re-entered Houdini had a cork ball soaked in white ink magically roll around on a slate and spell out the exact message Sir Arthur had written.

Houdini wrote to Doyle telling “I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion; I have been working at it, on and off, all winter. I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery.

“I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily supernatural, or the work of spirits, just because you cannot explain them.

“Do, therefore, be careful in future, in endorsing phenomena just because you cannot explain them. I have given you this test to impress upon you the necessity of caution, and I sincerely hope that you will profit by it.”

Doyle responded by inviting Houdini to his own home on June 17 1922 so that his wife could convince Houdini of the reality of the supernatural by putting Houdini in touch with his deceased mother.

In the ensuing seance, Lady Doyle, produced a letter she claimed had been written by Houdini’s dead mother.

Doyle believed this proved the existence of communication beyond the grave. He believed he had won the argument.

Houdini pointed out that the letter was written entirely in English and his [Hungarian] mother could not read, write or speak the English language.

The chasm between the two men became even bigger. In 1923, Houdini agreed to join a committee formed by Scientific American magazine to offer 5,000 dollars to any medium that could pass the committee’s tests. None was able to do so, and the prize was never collected.

Houdini took to attending seances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officers. These activities really upset Doyle who refused to believe any of Houdini’s exposés.

Amazingly Doyle actually believed that Houdini was himself a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his demonstrations only by means of his own paranormal abilities.

The friendship broke down completely with public threats of lawsuits. Houdini continued challenging and exposing fake mediums for the rest of his life. His fame grew for his amazing escapes and stage acts, but he was increasingly attacked by spiritualists.

Houdini died in 1926. Sir Arthur published The Edge of the Unknown about his life experiences with spiritualism, and he dedicated an entire chapter to his remarkable thesis that Houdini actually had supernatural powers, but knowingly lied about them.

Houdini’s battle against spiritualism continued beyond his own death.

His wife, Bess Houdini, held annual seances, as the couple had planned, to reach Harry in the hereafter. None of the attempts were successful.

The couple had agreed upon a code word to be included in any message Houdini managed to get through from the grave. The word, “Rosabelle-believe,” never emerged in any of the seances.

The tradition of holding a seance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. No messages have ever come through.

Doyle never lost his faith in life after death but so far he too has never been able to confirm that belief from beyond the grave.

Sadly even today there are still many charlatan mediums taking money from grieving people desperate to reach lost relatives.

Houdini and Doyle is shown at 9pm on Thursdays on ITV Encore.

Greek art exhibition in Chicago, USA


This video from the USA says about itself:

THE GREEKS – Agamemnon To Alexander The Great, Field Museum Highlights

24 March 2016

The Greeks is co-presented in Chicago by the Field Museum and the National Hellenic Museum (NHM). Contributions from John P. Calamos, Chairman of the Board NHM, and his Foundation made this possible.

By Leah Jeresova in the USA:

An exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago

The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great

2 April 2016

The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, at the Field Museum in Chicago, November 25, 2015–April 10, 2016. The exhibition catalog is edited by Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki and Anastasia Balaska. Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture and Sports. Athens, Kapon Editions, 2014.

The most comprehensive exhibition of Greek art and artifacts ever to tour outside Greece opened at the Field Museum of Chicago on November 25. This highly recommended show will be on view until April 10. From Chicago, it will move to the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. and be on display from May 26 through October 9.

The Greeks were a diverse group of peoples inhabiting mainland Greece and the Greek islands, and, in ancient times, the coast of what is now Turkey. They shared a common language and religion, and many of the same political institutions.

Over the course of the several millennia of their ascendancy, the Greeks passed through a variety of social formations: from early class societies on the basis of the “Neolithic Revolution” in agriculture that began some 10,000 years ago in western Asia to the societies, based to a large degree on slave labor, which provided the material basis for a flowering of Greek culture and politics.

“Classical beauty,” wrote Hegel in his Aesthetics, “with its infinite range of content, material, and form is the gift vouchsafed to the Greek people, and we must honour this people for having produced art in its supreme vitality”.

Greek achievements include Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey; the classical Greek drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; the sculpture of Phidias; the foundations of Western philosophy; the political achievement of Athenian democracy; as well as the conquests of Alexander the Great. Hellenic culture had an impact on world history unlike few other civilizations, and to fully understand the development of modern society, it is necessary to study the impressive culture established by the Greeks.

“The Greeks” was organized by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs in Athens, in cooperation with curators from the four participating museums. It has already toured in Canada to wide acclaim, appearing at the Montreal Archaeology and History Complex and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

“The Greeks” comes at a time when harsh austerity measures have been imposed on the Greek people and the tourism industry has suffered. The Greek government has been driven by the ongoing economic crisis to sponsor a blockbuster exhibition it hopes will attract tourists from North America.

Greece today is a country being bled white by the big European banks. Unemployment stands at over 25 percent, pensions have been slashed, the health care system devastated and homelessness and hunger have increased to levels unheard of since the Second World War. …

In 2012 museums laid off of 30-50 percent of their staffs, with further cuts in the years following. Greek police have estimated that since austerity measures began in 2009, the theft of antiquities has increased by 30 percent.

In October last year, the Syriza government raised the price of admission to hundreds of museums and historical sites by between 66 and 150 percent.

The exhibition at the Field Museum brings ancient Greek history to life, through some 500 artifacts in all, loaned from 21 museums throughout the country. The curators have organized the contents chronologically and thematically into a “meet the people” experience encompassing six diverse and lively zones.

The Bronze Age (3500-1050 B.C.) is the star attraction of the first half of the exhibition. Civilization advanced rapidly from its Stone Age beginnings, when bronze—an alloy of copper and tin—became the principal material for making tools and weapons. …

The Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean cultures benefited from their positions on important sea and land routes that allowed them to develop extensive trading networks.

Cycladic civilization flourished at the end of the third millennium B.C. Its sculpture is characterized by an abstract treatment of the human form. Marble statuettes with folded arms and oval, flat heads are typical.

The Minoans developed a sophisticated culture on the island of Crete. Precious metals and other materials were abundant (e.g., tin, copper, silver, gold, ivory). A wealthy ruling class supported the arts. Examples of Kemares ware (pottery) are impressive, with dramatic geometric motifs. A goddess figurine with upraised arms and cylindrical skirt has a bird atop her head, symbolizing divinity.

Mycenaean society developed in southern regions of mainland Greece, with the emergence of large towns anchored by great palaces. Mycenae became a powerful government and cultural center, dominated by a military aristocracy.

'Mask of Agamemnon' (Replica) © Archaeological Museum of Mycenae

The “Mask of Agamemnon,” the mythical king of Mycenae—a victor in the Trojan War—is the stunning centerpiece of the exhibition, towering over the other displays. This breathtaking gold funerary mask, 3,000 years old, was discovered in a royal grave by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who exclaimed: “I have gazed upon the eyes of Agamemnon!” However, the burial had taken place three centuries too early to be that of Agamemnon. A replica is presented here.

Mycenaean metalwork is opulent and exotic. Lions and eagles were favorite decorative motifs in this warrior culture, symbols of power and valor. A dagger on view featuring a gold inlaid spiral decoration is a masterpiece of Mycenaean craftsmanship.

The first writing systems were syllabary (a set of written characters representing syllables and serving the purpose of an alphabet) scripts on clay tablets. The visitor should not miss a display of tablets with a script known as “Linear B,” an early version of Greek, developed around 1300 B.C., found in Minoan and Mycenaean contexts on Crete and mainland Greece. “Linear B” was deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, an English linguist, thereby demonstrating that the Mycenaeans were one of the first Greek-speaking cultures. A short film illustrates how pictograms—symbolizing wine, olive oil, armor, animals, men or women—were burned into the wet clay.

With the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, the Greeks lost their writing system and it was not until the Eighth Century B.C. that they borrowed an alphabet from the Phoenicians—another great seafaring people—and adapted it to the Greek language. A prime requirement in choosing an alphabet was its ability to transcribe complex epic poetry from the oral tradition.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, epics written in the Eighth century B.C., depict events occurring at the dawn of the turbulent Iron Age, in tribal kingdoms along the periphery of mainland Greece. These epic poems, one of the foundations of Western literature, have a universal theme: the struggles of human beings with nature (which appear in the ancient world as fate) and with each other. Most scholars believe that the tales existed within an oral tradition, some 500 to 700 years before Homer wrote them down.

In the Iliad, Homer tells the story of the Trojan War. A famous scene from the Iliad painted on a clay vase of the late sixth century B.C. depicts the Greek warrior Achilles avenging the death of his close friend Patroclus, who had been killed by Hector—a prince of Troy. Achilles kills Hector in revenge and drags his body along the ground, tied to a chariot.

A chilling reconstruction of a Homeric funeral pyre is on view from Eleutherna in Crete. The warrior hero has been cremated, but his enemy captive has been decapitated, trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead. These funerary rituals were described in the Iliad.

A helmet made from the tusks of wild boars, of the type worn by Odysseus in the Iliad, is displayed, with an inlay made from hippopotamus ivory.

In the Odyssey Homer tells the story of the return voyage of Odysseus, a leading Greek general, from the Trojan War. Artifacts on display include a clay vase fragment showing the blinding of Polyphemus, a man-eating Cyclops, and a vase painting showing Odysseus enchanted by the music and voices of the seductive Sirens—both referring to episodes in the Odyssey.

A selection of bronze and gold helmets (10 in all) buried with Bottiaean tribal ruler-warriors shows us the face of war in the Archaic period (seventh to sixth century B.C.). The viewer should note the decorative gold mouthpieces, gilded swords, javelins and other weaponry. The Bottiaeans inhabited Central Macedonia.

By the eighth century B.C., the polis (autonomous city-state) had become the basic political unit of Greek civilization. These societies evolved through various forms of government—ruled by aristocracies, oligarchies, tyrannies and, finally, democracies. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Athens was the most powerful polis in Greece. All of these societies had an economic basis in agriculture, especially the cultivation of wheat, wine and olive oil, farmed by a mixture of free peasant and slave labor.

In 480 B.C. at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans under King Leonidas staged a heroic resistance and experienced a bitter defeat at the hands of the Persian Empire, which had attempted to bring the Greek city-states under its sway. Athenian victories over the Persians soon paved the way for Athenian dominance in the Classical Period. A marble statue of Leonidas from the Acropolis of Sparta is prominently displayed.

The Classical Period in Athens represents what archaeologists refer to as an authoritative cultural standard, characterized by developments in philosophy, literature, the arts and sciences and democracy.

Athens was one of the world’s first democracies. Citizens (most free adult men, including both rich and poor) were expected to serve on juries and participate in civic life. A number of small objects used by the courts are displayed, including a pinakion (juror’s identification ticket); ballots (round bronze disks), for acquittal or conviction of the accused; court tokens used for paying juror’s fees; and wage tokens used to pay salaries of citizens who were chosen by lot to serve a public function.

The spirit of civic competition was evident in the inter-city Olympic Games held every four years. The graphic identification of this in the exhibition is a relief in marble, showing an athlete crowning himself from 460 B.C., considered a metaphor for democracy.

A copy of the famous Stele of Democracy (Law Against Tyranny) is on view—a decree from 337/336 B.C., which depicts the figure of Democracy crowning the enthroned Demos (the people).

With the victory of King Philip II over the Athenians in 338 B.C., Greek power shifted north to Macedonia. Philip was a patron of the arts and culture, and the portion of the show treating this period contains several of the most dramatic artifacts in the exhibition.

A marble statuette of Alexander the Great, achieving immortality as the woodland god Pan with horns, from the early Hellenistic Period (the period associated with the Greeks after Alexander’s conquests), is the finest piece of sculpture in the exhibition. Pan is usually depicted as a grotesque creature, part goat. But here, Alexander is the ideal of male beauty.

A spectacular gold enamel myrtle wreath, worn by Queen Meda, wife of Philip II, is described in the catalog as “one of the most remarkable gold objects of the ancient world.” The myrtle plant is associated with the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite.

The exhibition concludes with the death of Alexander the Great and the spread of Hellenism throughout Asia Minor, the Near East, Egypt and India. Hellenistic civilization thrived in the third and second centuries B.C., until it was overwhelmed by Roman power.

After its loss of political dominance, Athens remained an important cultural center. Its schools of philosophy attracted students from throughout the Mediterranean region. Finally, the Byzantine (East Roman) Emperor Justinian, deeming the pagan teaching of philosophy too threatening to Christianity, forbade the teaching of philosophy in Athens in 529 A.D.

The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, a revolutionary act, was Karl Marx’s favorite. In Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, the father of dramatic tragedy, fire is the key to wisdom, ensuring humanity’s survival and the development of arts and industry. The brilliant craftsmanship and imaginative genius of the artifacts on display at the Field Museum bring out the reality the myth speaks to.

From the introductory film to the closing wall texts, the exhibition comments eloquently on the legacy of “eternal Greece,” which lives on within human culture as a whole.

Greece Demands IMF Explain ‘Disaster’ Remarks In Explosive Leak. A letter from Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras questions whether the country “can trust” the lender: here.

Hieronymus Bosch’s 500 animals in one third of a painting


This video says about itself:

Hieronymus Bosch‘s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” HD

1 June 2013

“De Profundis Clamavi” composed by Josquin performed by The Hilliard Ensemble.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bosch‘s wild and bizarre Renaissance masterpiece set to contemporary music.

According to Dutch Vroege Vogels TV today, of famous painter Jeroen (Hieronymus) Bosch 24 paintings still exist today. On 75% of them, Bosch depicted animals.

Just on his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch depicted over 500 animals of over 100 species in the left third of this triptych (depicting the Garden of Eden). Probably, in the whole painting there are over 1500 animals.

Two special species in Bosch‘s work are the gadwall duck and the hooded crow. They are the two first depictions ever of these birds in the Netherlands.

British novelist Lydia Syson on history, fiction and young people


This video from Britain is called

By Lydia Syson from Britain:

Narratives should speak volumes about the past

Thursday 24th March 2016

The books we read as children are often the stories that stay with us for the rest of our lives, says novelist LYDIA SYSON, and that’s why good fiction is so important in sparking a lasting interest in history for young people

JUST as history has to be rewritten in every generation because the present always changes, so too does historical fiction for the young.

This truth came home to me when I realised how little my children’s generation knew about the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s. I grew up with Jack and Moira Gaster, grandparents who talked to me about taking part in the Battle of Cable Street and of friends who died in Spain.

Moira encouraged me to learn poetry by heart in case I found myself in a prison cell without a book — that can happen after a protest, she explained.

But now there is nobody left alive in Britain who fought with the International Brigades. Aid for Spain is a distant memory and the Spanish civil war barely gets a mention in school history lessons.

So when I started work on A World Between Us, the story of a nurse, a journalist and a young communist East Ender who go to Spain in 1936, I felt a great sense of responsibility.

I hoped the book would spark a life-long interest but I knew it might be the only one many teenagers would ever read about Britain’s involvement in the Spanish civil war. I had to get my facts absolutely right. But I also had to keep those pages turning.

Twilight, the series of fantasy romance novels, was all the rage among young people just then. Any kind of history, let alone radical history, was a hard sell in the burgeoning young adult fiction market.

Faced with a readership obsessed with vampire love affairs, could I sweep them away into the heady, idealistic politics of interwar Europe? Could I convey how easy it is to fall as passionately in love with an idea as with a person?

Luckily for me, historians like Angela Jackson had begun to uncover two aspects of the Spanish civil war that are now getting even more attention — the history of women in the war and also the history of medicine.

As I read about the breakthroughs in blood collection and front-line transfusions, A World Between Us began to write itself. Throughout republican Spain, villagers, city-dwellers, nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers all rolled up their sleeves to give blood for the cause of democracy and progress.

What a powerful image, a gift to a novelist! The nurses whose accounts I plundered even spoke of themselves as vampires.

I already had my opening chapter, in which nurse Felix and wounded protester Nat Kaplan meet during the clash between demonstrators and police when Mosley’s blackshirts tried to march through the Jewish East End 80 years ago. The cry at Gardiner’s Corner was taken straight from the streets of Madrid: “No pasaran! They shall not pass!”

Felix pursues Nat to Spain, and her admirer George sets out to bring her home. But he cannot remain neutral in the face of the horrors he witnesses. Plotting my characters’ stories and emotions against the key events of the war — the siege of Madrid, the battle of Jarama, Guernica, Brunete, Teruel, the Ebro — I worked out a subplot of sabotage and thwarted hopes.

A World Between Us was published in 2012 by an innovative new publisher Hot Key Books. They were so enthusiastic about promoting the radical history behind the novel they even produced an enhanced iBook edition, available on iTunes, with interviews, archive material, photographs, maps and music.

One thing always leads to another. School students I talk to always recognise photographs of Hitler. Some manage Mussolini, and a few Franco, but I’ve yet to meet one who can identify Oswald Mosley, the charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists.

They gasp when I show a picture of British crowds giving a fascist salute to a procession during the 1935 Royal Jubilee. It’s easy to forget that in the summer of 1940, when invasion threatened Britain, fears of fifth columnists and quislings — home-grown fascists who would welcome the enemy with open arms — were all too real.

Spy fever raged. Pacifists were abused. National unity could hardly be taken for granted. This is the atmosphere I tried to recreate in That Burning Summer, my second novel. It’s set on Romney Marsh in Kent during the Battle of Britain and its hero is a Polish pilot who has lost his nerve.

I returned to epic romance for my next book. When talking about A World Between Us a few years ago for a World Book Day school event, we sang the Internationale, the anthem which united international brigaders from 53 different countries.

The Internationale was written at the fall of the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, from which at least four brigade battalions took their names. Two commemorated the commune’s best-known heroine, Louise Michel.

It was obvious from the success of Les Miserables that love, revolution and barricades would always be an irresistible combination for teenagers. I had the germ of a new novel, Liberty’s Fire.

The eloquence of so many former volunteers for liberty made A World Between Us a relatively easy book to write. In taped interviews, letters and memoirs, women and men like Patience Darton, Penny Feiwel, Aileen Palmer, Reginald Saxton and James Neugass described their experiences in extraordinarily vivid and often poetic terms. Making the world of the Paris Commune live and breathe was a much harder task.

Between 10 and 20,000 communards were massacred on the streets of Paris in May 1871 when French government troops brutally invaded the capital.

The dead can’t tell their story. Many of the survivors, particularly working-class women, were illiterate or left no records. Imagining their voices sometimes felt an impossible challenge.

I also had to disentangle the confusing politics of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. And this for a young audience who perhaps knew a little about the 1789 French revolution but nothing at all of the four that followed.

Once again, my focus was on character and the detail of the everyday. I stared at photographs of women in prison accused of arson, the notorious — and probably mythical — “petroleuses.” I tramped the streets of Paris, eyeing up paving stones. I marvelled at how thoroughly and quickly the violence of the final days of the Commune was erased, its memory repressed.

Property speculation in London is now forcing ordinary workers ever further from the capital’s centre. Zero-hours contracts are the new norm. Women still don’t have equal pay for equal work and the arts remain dominated by an elite. Shades of Second-Empire Paris? The Commune’s social justice agenda continues to resonate and you can feel its spirit in movements like Occupy and the Indignados.

Some young readers will notice these echoes and ask questions. Others might have picked up the book in search of a love story. They’ll find that but also more, I hope.

Though I don’t write novels to provide lessons, but to sow seeds, seeds do take time to grow. In later life, my grandfather Jack said he was a romantic socialist before he was a political one.

Passion is essential to politics and if you want to understand how the two are connected, historical fiction seems to me a very good place to begin.

Lydia Syson will be discussing her work with archivist Meirian Jump at 7pm on March 31 at the the Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 as part of the library’s Children and Socialism series, details: marx-memorial-library.org www.lydiasyson.com @lydiasyson

Novel on Paris Commune, review


This August 2015 video from Britain is called Liberty’s Fire by Lydia Syson and The Quietness by Alison Rattle.

By John Green in Britain:

Days of the Commune come thrillingly to life

Thursday 24th March 2016

Liberty’s Fire
by Lydia Syson
(Hot Key Books, £7.99)

WRITING fiction for teenagers is a particularly difficult task. Pitching a story so that it does not come across as too childish, or reeks of the musty adult world, takes great skill.

The question becomes even more acute when the subject matter is historical. How can a writer bring history alive for a younger generation without over-simplifying or becoming bogged down in explanatory detail? And then there is the gender question — do you offer romance or swashbuckling action?

Lydia Syson manages to achieve a delicate balance between all those contending issues in this novel about the Paris Commune.

Liberty’s Fire may take a while to get off the ground but the reader is very soon swept up into the turmoil, drama and conflict during the siege of Paris in 1871 when the reactionary French government, led by Adolphe Thiers and supported by his erstwhile enemy the Prussians, crushed the popular take-over of the city.

The Commune was the first workers’ revolution with a radical, socialist agenda. It lasted for just over two months and was suppressed with the utmost brutality by the French ruling class. Between 20-35,000 people were killed, with 4,000 deported to the French colonies and many more imprisoned or driven into exile. Marx and Engels viewed the Commune both as an event that validated their theories and as an experience from which the working-class movement could learn.

Syson brings this pivotal episode of 19th-century history glowingly alive.

Through the eyes of the young violinist Anatole and the orphaned working-class girl Zephyrine, both recent arrivals in the city, we experience the refusal of Parisians to accept the French government’s servile capitulation.

Instead, they decide to run the city themselves.

The couple, meeting on the street in unusual circumstances, soon fall in love. Both are unwittingly sucked into the turmoil and soon become actively involved in the defence of the Commune.

With its defeat, Anatole manages to escape to exile to England via Geneva, while Zephyrine is transported to New Caledonia.

Romance is at the centre of a book which even so never becomes sentimental.

The love story is firmly embedded in the historic fabric of the events, with the reader learning about a historical process while following the riveting fate of the two protagonists.

There is a marked feminist element, with strong women playing central roles, not as mere decoration, and perhaps this may make it a novel which appeals more to girls than boys.

But, as the anniversary of the Commune is marked over the coming weeks, this is a great read for young people — and adults for that matter — irrespective of gender.

Lydia Syson will be discussing her work as part of the Children and Socialism series of events at the Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 on March 31, details: marxlibrary.org.uk.

‘Shakespeare’s skull was stolen’


This video from England says about itself:

TRAILER: Shakespeare’s Tomb | Saturday 8pm | Channel 4

21 March 2016

William Shakespeare‘s grave has long been subject to rumour and intrigue, but has never been investigated, until now

Find out more here.

From the BBC:

Shakespeare‘s skull ‘probably stolen’ from Stratford grave

23 March 2016

A hi-tech investigation of William Shakespeare‘s grave has concluded his skull was probably stolen.

The discovery gives credence to a news report in 1879, later dismissed as fiction, that trophy hunters took the skull from his shallow grave in 1794.

A team used a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) scan to look through the grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford in the first archaeological probe of the site.

It allowed investigators to see below ground without disturbing the grave.

Archaeologist Kevin Colls of Staffordshire University, who carried out the project with leading geophysicist Erica Utsi, concluded: “We have Shakespeare’s burial with an odd disturbance at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone’s come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare.

“It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”

The investigation was carried out to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The documentary Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb will be shown on Channel 4 on Saturday 26 March at 20:00 BST.

The playwright’s final resting place has long been the subject of argument among historians and archaeologists, because it is too short for an adult burial.

It also carries no name, only the chilling curse: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Key findings of the investigation

Evidence of a significant repair to the head end of the grave, leading to the theory that it was needed to correct a sinking of the floor possibly caused by a previous disturbance

The repair gives new credence to a story published in The Argosy magazine in 1879 claiming Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his shallow grave

The survey found the playwright, his wife Anne Hathaway and other relatives were not buried in a large family vault deep underground, as has long been thought, but in shallow graves beneath the church floor

Shakespeare and his wife’s graves are less than a metre deep

His grave was found to be significantly longer than his short stone – extending west towards the head end, making it the same size as the other family graves

The GPR also found no evidence of metal in the area of the grave, such as coffin nails, suggesting they were not buried in coffins but simply wrapped in winding sheets, or shrouds, and buried in soil

Investigators went to another church, St Leonard’s, in Beoley, Worcestershire, where legend has it a mysterious skull in a sealed crypt is that of Shakespeare‘s.

A forensic anthropological analysis revealed it to belong to an unknown woman who was in her 70s when she died.

Mr Colls said: “It was a great honour to be the first researcher to be given permission to undertake non-invasive archaeological investigations at the grave of William Shakespeare.

“With projects such as this, you never really know what you might find, and of course there are so many contradictory myths and legends about the tomb of the Bard.

“The amazing project team, using state-of-the-art equipment, has produced astonishing results which are much better than I dared hoped for, and these results will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come. Even now, thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine.”