Apple Time in the Historical Experiment Kitchen

It’s apple season and also, after ten days of being banned from cooking due to having covid, time for me to do some cooking ‘archaeology’!

I have a project in hand, adapting the sort of recipes my characters might eat, into something that’s easy to cook in a modern kitchen with modern ingredients, and mindful of modern tastes (specially not boiling vegetables and pasta forever, and being less likely to want to eat brains). So yesterday, I made a Roman/Victorian dinner and the recipes are below.

For recipes which Lucretia in the Murder Britannica series might eat, I refer to Apicius’s Roman Cookery Book (my copy is translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum and published by Martino Publishing). My Latin is extremely rusty and the recipes themselves are more guidelines for someone who obviously knows what the normal methods are and another place I visit is the Tavola Mediterranea website where they have worked out ancient recipes from similar instruction and from which I’ve cooked some delicious food. It’s a fascinating website and well worth a visit.

For Margaret and Katherine of the Margaret Demeray and Caster & Fleet series, I use old cookery books, some facsimile, some original, with recipes that an ordinary woman of the late 19th/early 20th century might cook.

Of course their experiences would be quite different. 

Lucretia is rich and thoroughly enjoys as much imported food she can get her hands on, but she hasn’t actually cooked anything herself since she was a very young girl, so would relegate any cooking to an enslaved person, or send an enslaved person to buy ready cooked delicacies from a street trader. A Roman era kitchen was small and full of earthenware. It might have looked like this. I imagined street stalls like the one in the image below (excavated in Pompeii) in the forum in Durnovaria, selling hot pastries, sizzling meat, hot spiced wine and cider in my books. Lucretia wouldn’t have had potatoes, tomatoes, sweet (bell) peppers, chillies etc – all of which we take for granted. But that’s not to say she didn’t like spicy food – there’s ample pepper and fragrant spices in most recipes. Modern tastes of course don’t particularly fancy seasoning food with fermented fish (garum) but you can use modern fish sauce (e.g. the sort for Thai cooking), soy sauce or just salt in its place.

Meanwhile Margaret and Katherine are both middle-class and while both have domestic help (Margaret’s only coming in a few days a week in books one and two), they can both cook – Margaret with significantly more enthusiasm than Katherine. They have kitchens that we’d recognise – with a gas stove and metal pans. A refrigerator is a luxury item, so certainly in the first two Margaret Demeray books, Margaret doesn’t have one, relying instead of a cool pantry and shopping more regularly for perishable goods. It’s perhaps no wonder that the cookery books of the time rely a lot on canned and dried goods like tomatoes and fruit, and are heavily egg and cheese based. Chicken, which we think of as cheap now, was a luxury in Edwardian times (and in fact my parents both considered it a special Sunday food until the 1960s), so recipes for meat dishes tend towards mutton and pork. 

Margaret’s potential recipes look a lot more familiar than Lucretia’s and include curries and pasta dishes and vegetarian cuisine. But you can’t rely on them for timings – half an hour to cook spaghetti? (Was it a different construction then, or did Edwardians just not trust it?) And there’s advice which both agrees and conflicts modern ideas: cook potatoes with skin on but don’t cook vegetables too rapidly or you’ll spoil their colour. 

So going back to yesterday’s Sunday dinner. I experimented on my family with an adaptation of a Roman recipe for main course and a Victorian recipe for dessert. One which Lucretia might have ordered someone make for her and one which even Katherine could cook herself. NB – the pork dish is a good use of leftovers from a pork roast! They were both delicious and went down a treat.

And without further ado, here are the recipes:

PORK WITH MATIAN GRANNY SMITH APPLES

Adapted from Minutal Matianum by Apicius as translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil
100g (4 oz) ground pork/pork mince 

3 leeks, cleaned and sliced

½ bunch chopped coriander 

500 g (1lb) cooked pork, chopped into large chunks
½ cup chicken stock 

1½ tablespoons fish sauce*
2 large firm eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons ground coriander

Handful of fresh mint leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish

*(I used the sort you use for Thai cooking but you could use soy sauce or just season with salt to taste.)

METHOD

  1. Heat oil.
  2. Saute pork mince till brown, add leeks and coriander.
  3. Add chopped cooked pork.
  4. Add stock and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and warm through.
  5. Add chopped apples.
  6. Pound together in a pestle or blend: pepper, cumin, coriander, fresh mint, garlic and add this to the pan.
  7. Mix vinegar, honey, pomegranate molasses and remainder of the fish sauce in a cup and add that.
  8. Heat through and thicken with cornflour or beurre manié.
  9. Serve with barley (Roman) or rice (borderline Roman) or potatoes (not Roman at all). I also served it with peas into which I’d mixed crispy bacon and spring onions (scallions).

APPLE HEDGEHOG

(For a version which looks more like a hedgehog and includes another ingredient, check out Mrs Crocombe’s demonstration here.)

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

1 kg/ 2lb Cooking Apples (about 5)

75g, 3 oz sugar

2 egg whites.

Two handfuls of slices almonds

A few raisins or sultanas or currants

A glacé cherry

METHOD

  1. Preheat an oven to 180°C or 350°F or gas 4.
  2. Peel, quarter and core the apples, put in a saucepan with a little water and 25 g/1oz sugar. Heat gently until just cooked (although if you overcook them a little, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. You just want them to retain some structure and not be mush).
  3. Put into an ovenproof dish and shape into a sort of hedgehog (a large mound of apples, with a smaller bit at the front for a head.
  4. While it’s cooling somewhat, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks, then fold in the remaining sugar.
  5. Cover the apples with the meringue mixture and decorate the ‘body’ part with flaked almonds.
  6. Put in the oven for about 20 minutes till the meringue is golden and the almonds just a little brown (keep an eye on it to make sure the almonds don’t burn).
  7. Decorate the face with a glacé cherry for a nose and raisins/sultanas/currants for eyes.

Words and photographs* copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

*photograph of street kitchen in Pompeii Dietmar Rauscher https://www.dreamstime.com/thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-serving-image184835561

Postcard Whisperers

When I was a teenager, in the days before mobile phones (or at least before anyone normal had one) and emails and social media, I started filling a postcard album. 

To start with, I added postcards from schoolfriends, relations and my penfriend in Germany, who sent them from holidays taken in places as exotically distant from each other as the Isle of Wight to the Island of Zakynthos. Later, as a student, I added arty postcards bought from the likes of the shop called Athena (anyone remember Athena?).

And then, of course, I left university and left home and left the postcard album behind with my parents with the majority of the books I’d loved as a child and teenager. 

Eventually, my parents downsized from a fair-sized three-bedroomed semi-detached house to a small two-bedroomed bungalow. Even Dad realised that taking everything would be like trying to pour a jeroboam of champagne into a sherry glass. He asked if I’d mind him getting rid of my old books and like a fool I said no. Somehow though, the long-forgotten postcard album survived and went off with my parents in a large box along with some photographs going back to at least 1910 where my grandmother sat with her sisters, resplendent in auburn ringlets and starched pinafores.

My father only got rid of a fraction of the stuff he needed to before they’d moved and originally shoved what he could into the attic of the little bungalow. When the loft was insulated however, there wasn’t room and the contents were scattered in true hoarder fashion around the place. Inexplicably, various things which didn’t matter were inside the bungalow, while some irreplaceable things were put in an outside shed. I have no idea why. But that’s where they went. 

I didn’t realise this until 2013, my mother, now widowed, moved from the bungalow to an even smaller place near me and I had to go through the agonising process of reducing her belongings.

At some point in the time they’d lived in the bungalow, a hole formed in the roof of the shed. This is not something you want in South Wales, unless you want things to be rain-damaged.

The cine film my grandfather had taken of my father as a child (for example looking at planes on what was then a little airfield called Heathrow) and later films my father had taken of me and my sister as children, were destroyed by water. Maybe something could have been salvaged, but my mother had thrown them out before I knew anything about it. However there I was, on the last day before she had to move, trying to clear out what was left in the shed feeling despair. Among all the water-damaged things that should have been kept safe and dry, I found photographs that could not be salvaged and my old, forgotten postcard album with its pages all stuck together. They had to go.

Fast forward to 2018, by which time I’d forgotten the album if not the photographs, when I was researching for the Caster and Fleet series, in which Katherine Demeray is an 1890s Victorian typist. 

Procrastinating, I looked at a lovely old desk I have and thought how nice it would look with an old typewriter on top, even if I’d be too feeble to actually use it. I did an online search and found exactly what I was looking for… only it was well outside my budget for impulse buys. 

Well within my budget, however, was a sweet postcard with a female typist on it. 

It felt serendipitous and inspiring, so I bought it and later asked a local writer friend Helen Baggott (author of ‘Posted in the Past’ and ‘Second Delivery’) who researches old postcards, if she had any tips. (To find out the fascinating stories Helen has unearthed and about her books, visit her blog here.) It might be hard, she told me, since the date was obscured and the recipient had been at a ‘care of’ address. So… I propped the postcard up on the bookshelf and decided it was a project for another day .

Fast forward once more to this year. I was trying to visualise the sort of postcard which might have been sent in 1912 to Katherine’s younger sister Margaret by her friend Maude during the third book in the series, so I did another search. A lovely postcard of an Edwardian woman with a horse tempted me, but coming from the US, with shipping trebling the overall cost, it was well outside my budget. Then I found something similar in the UK, originally posted to someone living in the next county to where I live now. This time, I decided not only would I purchase it, but discovering that you can still get postcard albums, I bought one of those too.

A few evenings later, I put the postcard of the typist with the missing year and the postcard of the horsewoman from 1910 into their new album. Then, I decided to do a little digging just to see whether I could glean anything about the recipients of the postcards at all. Since I subscribe to both an ancestry site and the British Newspaper Archives, I thought that between them, I might find something out. And I sort of did!

I anticipated that the one with the Edwardian horsewoman and clear postmark of 1910 might be easiest, but it has so far proved hard to get very far. From the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I could work out who the recipient was likely to have been, but I haven’t so far established what might have happened to her before or after it was sent. She was, I think, either Lilian or Florence Stone (the writing makes it hard to know if it’s an L or an F), one of two sisters then in their early twenties, but after that I drew a blank except for a possible date of death many many years later of someone with the same name. 

But the one with the typist and obscured date has proved unexpectedly more serendipitous than I’d imagined it could do. 

After some squinting at the writing to work out what both the recipient and the person she was staying with were called, followed by a lot of rooting in censuses, birth and marriage records of people with the unusual to me (but apparently not in Yorkshire) name Dungworth, I worked that the recipient of the postcard was likely to be a Dorothy Dungworth born in Yorkshire who, at whatever date the card was sent, was staying with her maternal aunt in Kent. 

A little more rooting in the 1939 register, revealed someone with the right name and of the right age (then 40), living in Cardiff and registered as a journalist. Was it the same person? In the 1901 census, Dorothy’s father was recorded as a cycle maker (?). In 1911, her widowed mother was recorded as head of the household, earning her living as a stay maker. Could a girl from a humble background in Yorkshire really end up as a journalist in Cardiff? 

This is where the British Newspaper Archives came into their own. It seemed as if Dorothy had started her writing career by having a fairy story printed in a Yorkshire paper while still in her teens during the First World War. Was this perhaps how she helped her widowed mother with the household finances? Perhaps she was already out of school and working for the paper.

Ultimately, it seemed she did indeed settle in South Wales and wrote for various papers from the late 1920s, throughout World War II and beyond, winning awards and writing about subjects from women’s and workers’ rights to archaeology. 

That evening digging about in records was a good deal more fun than watching the TV or scrolling through social media. But it was exhausting. I haven’t managed to find time or energy to do any more digging since, but I will. 

However, the really curious coincidence is this. In the second Margaret Demeray book Death in the Last Reel, which I wrote after buying the postcard, but before I even thought about finding out about it, one of the characters is a girl from a humble background who wants to be a writer and starts by having a fairy story printed in the local newspaper

I don’t know why that particular character came into being (she came fully formed and remains very vivid to me), any more than I really know why any of my characters do. I don’t know why she wanted to be a writer (although it helped with the plot of course), and I certainly don’t know why it was a fairy story that she had published. 

The postcard to Dorothy Dungworth was watching over me while I pondered, plotted and wrote that book. Did something of her, whose story I didn’t even know then, filter through some creative ether?

It seems unlikely of course, but I do know something – I intend to find out more about Dorothy. And one way or another, I think she’ll end up the inspiration for a new character. 

I think she might even deserve a book of her own. What do you think?

(Oh and if you know anything about either Lilian/Florence Stone or Dorothy Dungworth – let me know!)

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Of Chopsticks, Tramps and Bandages

‘Girls must be partners and comrades rather than dolls.’ 

‘Their pork is excellent… but they do not find it necessary to burn the house down for each joint.’

‘The well-dressed man has an unpleasant shock in store for him.’

‘Returning from the city, they discovered the house lit up and a man lying in bed.’

‘Most of the processes are of course, familiar to real Colonists, gipsies, and the better class of tramps and poachers.’

Are these from any of my works in progress? Not yet.

Are they story prompts? Not specifically.

These are actually sentences from real newspaper articles published in British newspapers between 1910 and 1912. 

Researching is like entering a rabbit warren (or indeed a certain Swedish furniture store) mistakenly expecting a speedy exit, then finding yourself with something you never knew you wanted.

I first discovered the British Newspaper Archives when I was trying to find a report of a real event for Death in the Last Reel. I was feeling pretty pleased when I found what I was looking for, then spotted something on the same page which fitted into the story too. It may look totally coincidental in the novel but really wasn’t. A newspaper that day really did have two things that Margaret would be concerned about next right to each other on the page.

It then occurred to me that some of the minutiae of life might be easier to find out this way. For example – how much prize money might be offered for a short story in 1912? I’d put £5 in my early draft and someone said ‘That would have been nearly half a year’s wages for a maid. Surely it’s too much.’ Accepting that as a good point and looking for something accurate, I searched the archives again and found a short story competition at the right sort of time, with a top prize of … £5. Wages and the value of things then and now can’t be directly correlated. But £5 was a princely sum and well worth winning. 

When I’m not book researching, I’m digging into my family history and there was a mystery I wanted to solve for myself, so I used the website to see what I could find. While I discovered some things that were anticipated and tragic, I found other things that were rather sweet. I also found a crime. 

When my grandfather was about six, his home was burgled. The burglars stole £18 3s 4d but were pursued by a constable as they tried to get away, whereupon they launched an attack on him with the jemmy and a stick and left him injured as they escaped. The constable was found and hospitalised. The burglars were caught, charged and brought to court. I haven’t quite found out what their sentence was yet, even though the crime was reported in several papers.

But like the page with the factory fire and the spy, it’s not just one headline on the page that fascinates.

In the tabloid forerunner the London Illustrated News, ‘Alleged Burglars Attack a Constable’ (an article which includes the word ‘burglariously’) is perhaps one of the milder incidents reported on 13th May 1911. It nestles in the middle of: ‘Appalling Tragedy at Asylum’, ‘Sensational Scene at a Theatre’, ‘Fatal Affray at Limehouse’, ‘Savage Murder of a Yorkshire Gamekeeper’. At the bottom of the page is an advertisement for Dr Patterson’s Famous Female Pills (which corrects all disorders of females where other remedies have failed).

Four days earlier, The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, reporting the same thing has a rather different approach. ‘Constable’s Fight with Burglars’ comes after ‘Bride but no Bridegroom, £500 damages for Jilted Widow’, which itself comes under an instalment of the story ‘A Miscreant’s Wife’ by Lillias Campbell Davidson and before headlines such as ‘A Modish and Becoming Coiffure’, ‘Cooking a Village’*, ‘Interviewing a Ghost’ and ‘Girl Leads Rebels’ among others, before a section for children. At the top of the page is an advertisement for Dr Williams’ Pink Pills (which can tackle a strong man’s unexpected collapse). *No that’s not a typo.

I sometimes worry that I have a lot of odd things happening in my books, and then I consider real life and feel I’m not trying hard enough. 

Anyway, if you want to know what the quotations at the top relate to, without further ado, here is a brief explanation of each quotation. 

  1. Oxford Journal 10th August 1910 – an answer to a question about exactly who Girl Guides were supposed to guide. Turns out it’s husbands and/or Empire. The sentence quoted above is the last that perhaps wouldn’t exasperate a modern woman who doesn’t consider matrimony or colonising someone else’s country her life goal. Rather chillingly, given the date, one useful thing Girl Guides would learn was how to find a wounded soldier on a battlefield if necessary and then treat his injuries.
  2. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 – a description of the fairly new and fashionable Chinese Restaurant off Piccadilly. It’s in a number of newspapers and describes authentic and interesting sounding Chinese food which clearly baffled yet delighted the diners (and yes the restaurant supplied porcelain chopsticks but also offered knives and forks).
  3. Daily Mirror 3rd May 1912. An article entitled, ‘The Most Envied Men… Those who bought their clothes before London’s Tailors’ Strike’ goes on to give the awful fact that ‘It is likely that in the next few months, possibly, he will have to wear garments of last year’s choice…’
  4. Christchurch Times, 26 October 1912. No it’s not a re-enactment of Goldilocks. Two ladies returned from an evening out in Glasgow to find an inebriated burglar, who’d collected all their jewellery together, but then decided to have a nap.
  5. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 again – a review of a book called ‘In Camp and Kitchen’ by Lucy H Yates. (No, I didn’t realise there was a class system for poachers either.)

Were they what you expected? Or had you thought it was something else entirely? Do tell!

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-rodent-newspaper-reading-6374731/

A Hint of Spices Past

Ingredients: a good book, time, tasty food.

Method: Combine as desired. Try to keep grease spots and crumbs off the book.

VariatIon:

Ingredients: A historical recipe, unfamiliar ingredients, time, and a mixing bowl. 

Method: Follow recipes wondering if they’ll work. Eat the result whatever it turns out like. Don’t worry too much about crumbs and grease spots because they’re a badge of honour on a cookbook.

My interest in what people in ‘olden days’ might have eaten started when I was about nine and read a book called ‘The Gauntlet’ by Ronald Welch. In it, a modern boy is transported back to the Middle Ages and lives as a nobleman’s son in Carreg Cennen castle. At one point, someone brings in a dish of meatballs and there on the page was the recipe for how they were made. It somehow brought the scene alive, not simply to imagine them ‘doing a Henry VIII’ (as my aunt used to say, meaning to eat with ones fingers and chucking bones onto the rush-covered floor for the dogs to munch) but visualising the cook, sweating in the kitchen, preparing something I could actually cook myself one day.

Roll on a few years and as a writer of historical fiction, one of the things I like to research is what people might have eaten and how they might have managed their lives. Below, you can see a selection of my historical cookbooks (original, facsimile, translated).

You might think it’s hard to work out for Lucretia and her fellows in the Murder Britannica books but fortunately, not only are there translations of Apicius’s Cookbook but Farrell Monaco works out a modern version of those recipes and shares them on https://tavolamediterranea.com/ under Edible Archaeology. I’ve cooked a few of them myself for Sunday dinners and very nice they are too. 

It’s easier for the Caster and Fleet and Margaret Demeray books, because if all else fails, there’s Mrs Beeton. I bought my copy a very long time ago from a shop in the Forest of Dean which specialised in secondhand/antique cooking utensils and books. This edition is from the early 1930s though, so wanting to be sure that I had a better idea of what women who had to do their own cooking or at least help with it might have cooked, I sought other books. 

‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’ (facsimile) is interesting, as the recipes were sent in by ordinary women to be compiled into a book which not only would raise money but would suggest things a busy campaigning woman could cook and eat in a short time. They are all very simple, easy, and mostly cheap, nutritious and generally appealing even to modern tastes (maybe eating brains isn’t). There’s a vegetarian section and a sick room section and also practical hints and tips. ‘The Best Way’ book (original) gives pages of simple, flavoursome recipes and explains how to deal with anything from cleaning brass to baby care. I can imagine Margaret and Katherine referring to both of these, although only Margaret can cook well. 

Even though ‘Indian Cookery’ (original and pristine, so not a real cook’s book) dates from 1861. It would have been thirty plus years old by the time the Caster and Fleet and Liz Hedgecock’s Maisie Frobisher mysteries take place, but it’s perhaps possible that in a wealthy household like Connie’s or Maisie’s cook the cook would have had one as Indian cuisine was already very popular in Britain and Maisie has been to India. It was written by Richard Terry, chef de cuisine at the Oriental Club, what is referred to as the first Indian restaurant in London. I’m sure there were already others, run by Indian people with authentic recipes, but were perhaps not appreciated by well-off white British people at that time. The recipes in the book are all called ‘curry’ of course and doubtless are/were unrecognisable to anyone from India. There’s reference to a curry powder blend, the recipe for which is provided and a curry paste which isn’t, perhaps because the author sold it and wanted to keep the ingredients secret. Due to the British Raj, Indian food caught on (and was Anglicised) very quickly and has never looked back, though hopefully nowadays, there’s more authenticity and respect. For a fascinating if sobering article about the early British fascination with Indian cuisine, check out https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/curry-in-colonial-india

Although ‘Indian Cookery’ itself might not have been on the kitchen bookshelf of the average middle class woman like Margaret in the 1910s, don’t let anyone tell you that ‘foreign food’ like pasta, rice and all this spice is a modern thing. 

There are plenty of all of them in the Suffrage Cookbook, Mrs Beeton and ‘The Best Way’ which might have been. Cayenne, curry powder, chillies, curry paste, rice and pasta are all mentioned throughout. The Suffrage Cookbook includes a vegetarian version of babotie (spelled boboté) using a meat substitute called protose. Babotie is a spiced South African dish we often eat at home (meat version) and the recipe I follow is fairly similar. Apart from a slightly worrying recipe for ‘the kind of macaroni called spaghetti’ which boils it for half an hour otherwise, everything is very edible even if the recipes are sometimes a little vague as to method.

I also have a copy of ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ first published in 1852, which aimed to help people on a limited budget cook nutritiously. This is a suggestion of what should be in a basic kitchen:

  • A cooking stove (with oven and with or without boiler)
  • A three gallon boiling pot
  • A one gallon saucepan with lid
  • A two quart ditto
  • A potato steamer
  • A frying pan
  • A twelve gallon copper for washing or brewing (or presumably both though not at the same time)
  • A gridiron (griddle/girdle/bakestone)
  • A mash tub
  • Two cooling tubs (or an old wine or beer cask cut into two would be cheaper and do the same)

The total cost for all this was apparently £6/12/4 – six pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence. To put this in context, even a clerk might be lucky to earn one pound a week and someone further down the social scale a lot less. The author (chief cook to Queen Victoria) suggests that if the reader doesn’t have enough savings to buy these, then they should save up. How long would that have taken given that your £1 per week also had to pay for rent and food? Having doubtless depressed the average working class wife and told her she must keep everything clean, the author next suggests a Sunday dinner for a family of ten with leftovers for the next day of boiled beef with cabbage and potatoes with suet pudding or dumplings. He says it will cost perhaps three shillings (and to note that small children only really need the dumplings). On a wage of £1 a six day working week, three shillings would have been one day’s wages. I imagine the leftovers may have lasted more than one day. You only need to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ to get an idea of how hard things could be . (Sadly they still are, and it’s good to know there are resources for cooking on a very limited budget, https://cookingonabootstrap.com/category/recipes-food/ being one.)

Going back to my research, of course, just reading the recipes is no good, I like to try them too. Yesterday, I had a historical baking afternoon. 

I made some Richmond Maids of Honour Tarts (bottom right on the plate), which have a history going back to Henry VIII’s time. The original recipe (which allegedly once involved a maid being locked up) is a closely guarded secret (though I assume she’s been let out by now). So I used this one by Delia Smith.

As April 25th was Anzac Day, (which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign on 25th April 1915) I also made some Anzac biscuits (top). The recipe I followed to avoid having to choose between NZ or Aussie recipes was my gran’s and you can see it below (and a photograph of the original in her writing).

Finally I thought I’d go back to Roman times and make some barley biscuits with cheese and figs (left) from the Tavola Mediterrea site. 

How did it go? The tarts, while looking nothing like Delia’s are delicious. I used ready rolled puff pastry which I put in a patty pan and ended up with 12 tarts and a small amount of leftover filling. The Anzac biscuits, are delicious too, even though I had to use granulated instead of brown sugar (I’d run out and went to the shop to get some and of course forgot and came out with something else entirely as you do). The barley biscuits dough possibly needed more water as the dough was quite dry, but the end result is very good, a little like an oatcake biscuit. I drizzled them with maple syrup and the cheeses are Mantego, Cheddar and Philadelphia.

What’s on the menu today? Well, I have some cod and a Roman recipe book. What about Patella Lucretianam? It’s a cod recipe with herbs and spring onions. I have all of those. And according to the book, ‘Lucretius has yet to be identified.’ What if it wasn’t a Lucretius? What if a certain Lucretia inspired the recipe and Apicius wrote it down wrong? Mmm.  It seems a bit bland for Lucretia. Now what’s in the fridge that’ll go with cod and onions really well? Aha! Chorizo. I can pretend it’s spicy Lucanian sausage. That’ll be right up Lucretia’s street. 

Now where’s my pinny?

Granny D’s Anzac biscuits

1 cup flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon hot water

125g margarine

2 tablespoons golden syrup (black treacle may be used)

Method

  • Preheat oven to Gas mark 4; 180°C; 350°F
  • Heat the margarine and syrup gently together.
  • Mix all dry ingredients together, except bicarbonate.
  • Pour well stirred margarine and syrup into the dried ingredients.
  • Add the bicarbonate mixed with water.
  • Mix all together.
  • Make into walnut sized balls, put onto biscuit tray well spaced.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes.
  • Reverse trays on shelves after 5 mins, turning trays for even cook.
  • These are more gooey if slightly undercooked.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Bones, Stones and Long, Long Roots

Today, my husband and I dug up two old bones.

One was definitely some sort of leg joint, the other, which had snapped, was harder to distinguish. ‘I assume they’re not human,’ I said, dubiously.

For the record, we weren’t on an archaeological dig, but clearing a part of the garden which was once thought of as a bit of No Man’s land between us and the house behind, until the house behind wanted to do some building work and everyone looked at their deeds and realised the No Man’s land was actually ours. 

Equally for the record, I’m not talking massive country estates or old manor houses here. Our house is an average sort of house and the oldest bits of it are from the 1950s, prior to which acres and acres of land around us, now covered in houses, was farmland. But the boundaries for our house are so inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated, the solicitor spent two hours explaining them to us when we bought the house.

No one in their right mind would call me a natural, enthusiastic or good (or even adequate) gardener but there’s something about doing battle with hidden roots, identifying what to keep and what to dig up, and nurturing the new things I’ve planted, that helps my mind do much the same to any plot problem. What do I need to remove that’s killing the thing I need to live? What needs more care? What looks like a weed but is in fact something useful and precious? Or vice versa. So I’ve been enjoying putting my back into something different over the last couple of weeks, to help straighten things out creatively in my subconscious.

I’ve found working on the current ‘work in progress’ hard, because it’s part of a series set in the run up to World War I and naturally, right now, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the tensions in the 1910s and what’s happening in 2022. I consequently decided a while ago, to change to a slightly different tack – removing most of the international sabre-rattling and worse that were the background to a plot set in 1913 because it felt far too much like what is going on just now. 

But of course this put me back and meant removing perhaps thirty thousand hard-written words. It also meant I needed to review the backdrop to my story, which is now what on the surface appears to be a slightly calmer 1912. 

Maybe this was unnecessary (and the excised work won’t be wasted) but it feels right to me.

But it’s not all bad. Whatever the era, for most people, most of the time, while the things to worry about range widely from impending international crises to what to have for dinner, for most people, most of the time, the latter is higher up the list of importance, largely because it’s easier to control. Otherwise, at the point when the crisis directly impacts on us, we would not have the mental or physical resources to handle it.

I’m reminded of the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during WWII which I ‘inherited’. He was in his forties and working in a reserved occupation in central London during the day and a Home Guard at night. My grandfather stayed in the family home in London, while my grandmother took my father (then about two) to live with relations in the countryside. (My mother’s family did something similar, but that’s another story.) My grandfather wrote to my grandmother about all sorts of things. He rarely mentioned the war at all. This stops me from trying and cram every significant historical event into a book, because at any given time, people don’t always realise which events are significant and often give many of them more than a passing thought or moment of interest.

In the period covered by the book I’m working on, the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic has just begun and over five hundred households in Southampton are mourning a family member due to the disaster. The latest in a series of major strikes across the country is one by East End garment workers. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps has started up as a branch of the armed forces and warplanes are being constructed. Suffragettes are stepping up the militancy of their campaign for the vote. So far, so gloomy.

On the plus side the National Insurance Act is about to be passed, which will ultimately put an end to the need for workhouses. And on the ‘moving forward if nothing else’ side, the Home Rule Bill has been passed in the Commons as a stepping stone towards Ireland’s long-awaited independence.

On the plus plus side, the Stockholm Olympics are on, and Britain wins ten golds, fifteen silver and sixteen bronze. British female athletes win medals in tennis, diving and swimming. 

And on the plain ridiculous front, one of the Olympiad events is Tug-of-War, in which only two teams competed. A team of Stockholm police from the host nation Sweden are up against a British team comprising London police (five from the City of London Police and six from ‘K’ (Stepney) division of the Metropolitan Police). The game ends when the British team succumb to exhaustion and sit down, thereby conceding defeat.

In the book, my characters are ordinary people whose lives are trundling along peacefully (with the possible exception of Fox’s life) until something happens to derail them. 

Some of them – Margaret Demeray and Fox in particular of course – are more informed than others. Some characters are more reliable and honest than others. Many read about current things in the paper and then largely forget them. Others don’t read about them at all. People get up, go about their daily duties, go to bed. Some lose someone or something. Some grieve. Some fight. Some heal. Some commit crime. Others solve crime. They fall in love, they bring up families, they laugh and play. They all wonder what’s for dinner. 

(Not all the same people are doing all those things at once of course. That would be very exhausting.)

While most of the ‘events of 1912’ above will have a mention in the book, only a few will have a personal significance to any of the characters. The key thing will be that someone, somewhere is dead before their time and Margaret and Fox need to find out why and do something about it.

I’m sometimes asked why I enjoy writing and reading murder-mysteries when I’m naturally a peaceful sort of person. The answer is that I think there is something in the psyche of most of us that enjoys reading something where we can face our fears in a fictional format and see justice to some extent being done. To me, that perhaps explains murder-mysteries’ popularity and certainly explains why I like reading and writing them. Why historical murder mysteries? That’s a whole other subject.

So it was helpful to root through these thoughts as I dug up weeds and brambles and endured the stings of nettles on my hands and arms. (No, I didn’t save any nettles to make soup and yes my arms are still tingling.)

But none of the thinking got No Man’s land cleared. 

I threw another long, unidentified and unwanted root into the composting bag, while my husband contemplated the bones.  

‘I don’t think these are human,’ he said, scanning me from head to foot and clearly doing a mental comparison of what might have be a femur in his hand and my (rather short) leg. ‘But I gather there was a piggery here once, and pigs will eat anything. Who knows? Mwhahahaha!’

‘It’s no good offering that to me as a plot suggestion,’ I said. ‘It’s been done.’

‘Meh,’ said my husband, chucking what was hopefully nothing more sinister than someone’s dog’s long lost treasure on the pile of non compostable stuff.

‘Why can’t we find something useful that might earn us some money?’ I complained. ‘Like an Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold coins? Or a Roman mosaic?’

‘I don’t fancy digging that deep,’ he muttered. ‘And you never will, you slacker. Come on – get back to nettle-pulling or there’s no wine for you later.’

So I did.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image from Pixabay. (No, it’s not my garden!)

Rude Words and Literature

We had a number of family words which were often completely baffling to outsiders. This was sometimes because of where we lived and sometimes because they’d been made up – usually by my father.

The most embarrassing of these was ‘tuppence’ which was the family euphemism for faeces. The word ‘poo’ was considered rude by my father (I have no idea why) and so he’d invented ‘tuppence’. There was a sort of logic to this. The common British euphemism for urinating was ‘to spend a penny’ (as that was once the coin used to enter a public toilet). Therefore it followed that to do anything more substantial should cost two-pence (or tuppence). I had no idea this wasn’t a normal vernacular term until I used the word at school to widespread and derisive bafflement. 

We called woodlice ‘polliwogs’ even though apparently it’s usually a word used for tadpoles. When we moved to Wales, we found them nick-named roly-polies or wood-pigs. (For a glimpse at the various regional names there are for this little creature click here – let me know if you recognise any or have alternatives.) 

We also used Scottish words which my mother had grown up with: ‘hoaching’ for full of people, ‘dreich’ for dreary, ’fankle’ for tangle (as in ‘you’re getting into a right fankle with that’), ‘I’ll take it to avizandum’ (meaning ‘I’ll think about it before making a decision’). I thought the latter was entirely made up until I discovered it’s the Scottish law equivalent of the English & Welsh law ‘reserved judgment’. 

Over the years spent in Wales we added Welsh expressions which I now use in England to general incomprehension: ‘dwt’ (rhyming with ‘foot’) means very small (‘she’s only a dwt’) and ‘twti’ (rhyming with ‘footie’) means to crouch down (‘I had to twti down to get it’), ‘tamping’ for furious, ’cwtch’ for cuddling. 

Sadly, at school there were few attempts to interest students in the hidden gems of any language: English, Welsh, anything. 

The older we got, the worse it got.The compulsory learning of some Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens ought to have given plenty of scope in words and phrases which would have delighted us as teenagers and added to our vocabulary of fruity insults.

But the classics were mostly taught as something proper, prim, respectable, dull. There was a distinct connection drawn between ‘literature’ and ‘posh’ which made us miss all the richness of language which is often very earthy, if not downright rude.

While the London vernacular in Dickens could be broadly understood at a distance of 150 years and 180 miles, 13th century Chaucer might as well have been another language. 

We were told The Miller’s Tale was completely off the curriculum but not why. None of us however, could face trying to work it out by getting past

Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale tooled,

In al the route was ther yong ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie

Besides, ‘noble storie’ made it sound nothing like a tale in which someone kisses someone else’s ‘ers’ thinking it’s their face.

As for Shakespeare, his works were taught in such a way as to bore a corpse. 

The teacher’s approach in O Level (14-16 year old) classes was to make us read aloud from The Merchant of Venice – not act, just read. He often picked the shy boy whose voice hadn’t broken properly to read the lead romantic role who’d then have to struggle through the most dialogue, to general sniggering by the less sensitive pupils in the class. I recall virtually nothing of the play except that. 

In the A level English class (16-18), we studied The Tempest and Macbeth. I loved Macbeth because I ‘got it’ immediately and to be fair, our rather prim, ‘old’ (she was probably about 45) teacher did a good job of bringing it to life.

She never quite grasped why the class sniggered at 

Enter a bleeding captain. 

Duncan: ‘What bloody man is that?’

But she waggled her eyebrows to see if we understood the discussion in Act 2 Scene 3 between MacDuff and the Porter about the effects of alcohol on one’s love life. 

Then she took us to join all the other sixth formers in our area to see Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth in the cinema, and missed something that an auditorium of seventeen and eighteen year olds didn’t.

It’s Act 5, Scene 1. 

After instigating murder, the guilt-ridden Lady M mutters to herself as she tries to scrub imaginary blood from her hands, observed by a doctor and a gentlewoman. Despite the fact that the play is set in a Scottish stone castle in the middle ages during truly dreich weather which would normally require at least three layers of clothes, for reasons best known to Roman Polanski, in the film Lady Macbeth is wandering around stark naked. 

Deeply concerned, the doctor turns to the gentlewoman and says: ‘What a sigh is there.’ 

What was heard by the entire auditorium of 17-18 year olds watching a nude actress cross the screen in front of them was ‘What a size they are’.

Every single sixth former fell about laughing. 

Naturally, on returning to school, the person our English teacher asked to explain why 200 young people guffawed at the most poignant moment in the film was me

Not only was I not brought up to say anything my father perceived to be rude, I was also brought up to think even a white lie was awful. But at that moment I caved in to self-preservation and the desire to retain my classmates’ respect and mumbled ‘Dunno Miss.’

I think that sums up what was wrong with the way I was taught Shakespeare in school. 

I have a very strong suspicion, that if he had been in that cinema, Shakespeare would have fallen about laughing too and subsequently written the sniggering teenagers and baffled teachers into a play.

And I doubt there’d have been a euphemism in sight.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 73130714 © Björn Wylezich | Dreamstime.com

Choose to Challenge

‘Maude and I are going to Switzerland for 19th March while you’re on your mission,’ said Margaret.

‘Really?’ said Fox. ‘Is this to do with International Women’s Day? Why Switzerland?’

Margaret shrugged. ‘I’ve never been there and they’re not doing it in Britain.’

‘I might come with you before heading over the border,’ said Fox. 

‘Keeping an eye on me?’

‘No. Because I agree with the aims: votes and decent working conditions for all – it’s a thousand pities people are more interested in the latest society gossip, the coronation and playing “our empire’s better than their empire” to notice how close we are to tipping into anarchy or war.’

‘You think that’s the choice?’

‘Quite possibly,’ said Fox. ‘Don’t you?’

The first international Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March 1911 and occurs a few days before the beginning of the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die which I’m working on just now, so the above might theoretically be a conversation held a while before that.

My character, Dr Margaret Demeray is a determined person. She believes firmly in equality and safe working conditions but I doubt she’d be oblivious to the sort of things that were said about suffragettes and the men who supported them in for example, postcards like these

In the United Kingdom, the suffrage movement was gaining momentum. On census day 1911, Emily Davison allegedly hid herself in the Houses of Parliament as a protest – here’s a fascinating article researching the truth of this. Many other women refused to be counted as part of their defiance in a document which recorded for women but not for men, how long they’d been married for example. Whether Margaret will is yet to be seen.

Margaret of course, is a creation of my imagination, but the inspiration for her comes to some extent from the older women on both sides of my family. 

I had nine great aunts and two grandmothers, who would have been aged between three and sixteen in 1911. I never thought to ask any of those I knew what they’d known or thought about suffragettes, although one did recall with delight that she’d turned twenty-one in 1928, the year that the voting age for women was dropped to be the same as that for men.

None were sentimental women. None thought womanhood had anything whatsoever to do with swooning or weakness or subservience. Not one ever gave me the impression they thought girls took second place to boys or that I should do less than make the most of every opportunity which came my way.

Ten of them had some form of career at least until marriage and I can easily imagine that most of them could have made senior management nowadays if they’d wanted to. 

They could be funny and they could be affectionate, but they also thought nothing worse than an indulged child. There was certainly no place in their mind-sets for crying. We were expected to get on with things, however crippled with shyness we were or lacking confidence or fearing criticism. Painful as that frequently was, it was a useful life skill, although having uncritical and supportive parents probably helped a great deal.

Since growing older, I started finding out more about them and they stopped being simply old relatives and became people. As far as I can establish, every single one rose to every challenge with determination to become valued women in their families and communities with strong ethics and views which were their own opinions and no one else’s.

Two, in 1941, then in their fifties, picked up the pieces (literally) when their home and business was destroyed by a WWII bomb and started up somewhere else, but not before making a cup of tea in the rubble immediately after the raid (which they’d escaped while hiding under the stairs) because how could you think without one?

One (whom I never met but wish I had) doubtless scandalised her highly conventional mother with Edwardian new age philosophies, esoteric books and curios. My father inherited the last two, a fair amount of which I recall from my early childhood.

Her youngest sister (who I did know) went travelling the world as soon as she retired and thrilled us with tales of camel rides, deserts, bazaars and souks, lighting a flame in me to want to do the same one day.

My favourite great aunt dedicated herself to teaching, never losing her interest in young people. As a retired lady in the late 1970s, she plonked herself down next to a group of punks in Glasgow bus station. She said they recoiled a little, clearly expecting her to tell them they were a disgrace, but she simply started chatting and as they relaxed, she learned all about how they got their mohicans to stand up, how many safety pins they needed and all about punk culture. 

It’s a thousand pities that 110 years after groups of women and men marched for fairness, equality and safe working conditions, these are still far from the experience of people, even in the developed world and that we still need an International Women’s Day, but we do. This year’s campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge.

I knew plenty of contemporaries even in the 1970s and 1980s who felt second rate to their brothers and that there was no point to further education or trying for a career. But I was fortunate to have very determined (if sometimes a little uncompromising and occasionally downright eccentric) role models, who challenged any suggestion that their whole focus should be their husbands and children. They embraced everything the world could offer them but knew how to be phlegmatic if life didn’t turn out as expected.

Maybe they’d be horrified by my appallingly untidy house but I think they’d appreciate that even though it’s sometimes a struggle, I have just about balanced my creativity with building a career, raising a son and a daughter who are staunch feminists and that I’ve never once thought that being a woman should hold me or anyone else back.  

I am not entirely sure how they’d feel about being the inspiration for a number of my characters, from shy, proper, but quietly brave Aunt Alice, to somewhat mad Tullia to straight-talking Margaret via various other characters, some of who haven’t met the general public yet. But I hope they’d take it as a compliment and on International Women’s Day, I’d like to salute them.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Illustration 136452856 © Maryia Naidzionysheva | Dreamstime.com

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage

Twenty Significant Women in History

Ten Famous Women Mathematicians

Most Influential Women in British Science

Twelve Famous Female Painters

Byways, Rabbit Holes and Wrong (or maybe Right) Turns

Given the reading habits I formed as a child, it’s not too surprising I ended up writing historical mysteries, but I hadn’t really thought about the research required. Now I have an internet trail that includes purchasing cookbooks and books on poison, digging for mindfulness techniques and also whether the physical appearance of a murder victim could be mistaken for natural death. As I’ve been locked down with the same people for nearly a year, this could look dodgy. So far the police haven’t turned up. But I guess there’s still time.

I started this intending it to be about what influenced my writing of historical mysteries, but then it turned out that disappearing down a research rabbit hole unravelled a family mystery of my own and revealed a surprise.

When I was about seven, way before Horrible Histories were published, my father bought me a book called The Medieval Scene. Being a child, the best bits from my perspective were the gruesome details of trial by ordeal etc, but even the less gory elements encouraged my interest in history and I never really looked back. 

A year or so later, we moved relatively near to the ruined 13th Century Carreg Cennen Castle which we regularly visited. It was thrilling to look down into what was left of the dungeons and wonder who’d once been down there, why, and whether they survived. When I found a time-slip book set in Carreg Cennen called The Gauntlet, I read it over and over, lapping up the historical detail and contrasting it with the modern boy’s normal life. (It was rather dated then and more so now, but still a terrific read.) Avidly reading Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff – I discovered that novels – if often rather male-centric – were a great way to absorb history without it being a dull reiteration of dates. Then as I reached my teens, I found historical fiction written for girls and about girls, which dealt with social issues too: Geraldine Symons books The Workhouse Child and Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges, then the Flambards series by K.M. Peyton.

I didn’t just love historical books. Once, I’d loved the mysteries in the also dated Famous Five and Secret Seven so it was a natural progression to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Of course, to me in the late 20th Century, their books were not just detective stories, they were also historical fiction, mostly set in an era when my grandparents had been young, in a world almost as alien as another planet, where a lots of people appeared to have servants, few people had telephones, letters and trains arrived regularly and on time (except where the plot demanded otherwise), telegrams were normal but inside bathrooms and private cars weren’t (unless you were rich).

Research, as I’ve said before and to mix a metaphor, is a rabbit warren of byways. Checking background information for the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die last Monday, I was trying (and failing) to find out the exact location of the first International Women’s Day march in Switzerland on 19th March 1911 (it’s not terribly important but if you know – please get in touch). As I was searching, I became side-tracked by a truly awful disaster in New York on 25th March 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. As it’s the sort of thing which would have horrified my character Margaret, I wondered when it was first reported in Britain and started looking in the British Newspaper Archive. So far, the earliest reference I’ve found is in Sunday 26th March 1911’s Lloyds Weekly Paper

Naturally I then wandered down other alleys in the archive. Deciding to take a break from my book, I remembered once seeing a clip about my great-grandfather when doing some family research. Due to killing a laptop with a cup of tea in the interim, I’d lost the link. Now I looked again and found a report of the inquest into his death. I knew that he’d died as a result of drinking what I’d been led to believe had been disinfectant. I now found it was some kind of lotion intended for external use made from aconite. I’m not sure which it would be worse to die from, or to witness someone dying from as my great-grandmother must have done. I can only hope that my grandfather and his five siblings were either at school or work when it happened. Whether my great-grandfather drunk it deliberately or thought it was something else was undetermined. He certainly called for help. But suicide while of unsound mind was the verdict returned. None of this was a shock, as I already knew much of it, but reading the newspaper article brought the situation to life – a man plagued with money worries in deep despair and with what would now be termed as depression and a widow left with six children, who lost her husband and home and had to rely on family, friends and presumably the older two children for their livelihood. 

After this, I took one last turn in the research path (for this week at least), and went from sadness to surprise to delight. 

Now that I knew where it was, I googled the place where my great-grandparents had lived and I found the last thing I’d expected: a website dedicated to early cinema and a page called Straight Out of Whetstone about a 1916 film which was partly shot in their very town. If you know what you’re looking for, you can even very briefly see their house.

It’s a shame I can’t show any of this to my father, but I could show my sister and children. And now I can not only see Whetstone as my grandfather would have seen it as a child, but I can also see half the film that was shot there. If you want thrills and spills (if rather slow ones) here is the link to what’s left of ‘The Man with the Glass Eye’. 

It’s tragic that the film breaks off just as things are getting really exciting, so I’m now trying to find out what the rest of the story might have been…. Watch out rabbit hole – here I come.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 51997062 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com

Hearts and Flowers

Well it’s Valentine’s Day 2021. Where I am, it’s very cold, raining, we’re in lockdown and everything’s closed, so there’s a limit to how easy it is to be romantic, especially when you’re me.

Usually, my husband cooks us a nice meal which we eat à deux. This year, we have two other adults in the house who can’t go anywhere else and as it’s Sunday, my mum (who’s in our support bubble) will be coming round for dinner. Various solutions, including staggered meals, presented themselves and in the end we gave up and my son said he’d cook a meal for all five of us. Maybe I’ll decorate the table with hearts. Maybe not.

I don’t mind really. My husband and I are fairly rubbish at soppy stuff in general, and with eleven months of the impact of Covid-19 behind us and who knows how many more ahead, we’d rather have a Valentine’s banquet for all our loved ones, so many of whom we haven’t seen for a very long time and those we have seen, we’ve had to greet from a two metre distance, usually while wearing a mask.

I was going to avoid writing about Valentine’s Day today and write about something else. Lupercalia or Fornacalia perhaps. These were both Roman festivals celebrated in early Februrary. But having looked them up, I decided against it. The former is very strange and despite what the latter looks like written in English, it’s all to do with baking. I might make some heart shaped cookies today, but I’m certainly not making spelt wafers from scratch. (If you want to, the recipe is in the Fornacalia link.)

So back to good old St Valentine’s Day. While apparently, Geoffrey Chaucer was apparently the first to record 14th February as relating to romance in his 1375 poem ‘Parliament of Foules’, it was the Victorians (naturally) who managed to commercialise and therefore make lots of money out of it. If you want to see some really unusual Victorian cards, both hand-made and printed, you might enjoy this article from the Museum of London. 

While I’ve written the odd short love story, so far I haven’t written a romance novel. That’s not to say there are never any romantic moments in my mystery books, but they tend to go awry. I’m not entirely sure what to blame this on but there are a few contenders.

For a start, I didn’t have much in the way of role-models. My paternal grandfather, while loving my grandmother deeply, wasn’t keen on public displays of affection. The one time I walked into their kitchen and saw him embrace then kiss her gently, seemed so intimate that I backed out immediately before returning more noisily just in case I disturbed any more elderly shenanigans. My father would have been a romantic but my mother thought it nonsense. My sister and I as children tried to force them into romance, by making soppy Valentine’s cards on their behalf, but these were greeted with some bafflement.

Then, watching films and TV as a young teenager in the smutty, innuendo-heavy seventies, I viewed a bewildering set of ideas of what a woman should expect from lurve. In comedies (and sometimes dramas), women were divided into: 

  1. ‘nice girls who might but probably wouldn’t until married to the nice boy’ who turned into ‘nice wives who were largely decorative and whose chief function seemed to be hosting dinner parties to impress the nice husband’s boss’; 
  2. ‘dolly birds’/‘bits of crumpet’ who were free with their favours and would never settle for being a wife but might for being a mistress; 
  3. ‘brainy types’ who just needed the right man to waken their sexuality whereupon they’d become (1) or (2); 
  4. ‘frigid wives/women’ who existed chiefly to make the man’s life a misery but give him an excuse to pursue (2) or seduce (3); 
  5. ‘plain, sex-mad spinsters’ – objects of derision who wanted to be (1) or (2) but had no hope since no man would touch them (despite the fact that the men in the comedies were often repulsive and had little to no concept of respect/consent).

Love films (of which I can only remember ‘Love Story’) seemed to chiefly involve someone dying and it all being too late and lots of gut-wrenching angst.

My maternal grandmother read a lot of books which I devoured when we stayed with her: murder mysteries, thrillers and rather steamy historical fiction in which bodice-ripping always lead to at least one person having their head cut off.

It was all very confusing. I didn’t want to be a, b, c, d or e. I certainly didn’t want anyone to die just as they found their one true love. Especially me. Especially by decapitation.

Then there was the first Valentine’s I received at about fourteen. It came in the post at breakfast time on a school-day and the tiny hope that it was from THE ONE faded when I saw my best friend’s handwriting (since she and THE ONE didn’t really know each other). Innocently if a little disappointed therefore, I opened the envelope in front of my family, and extracted a Valentine’s card full of dubious (in every sense) ‘verse’ written by my friend on behalf of a mutual male friend for whom I had no romantic feelings whatsoever. While I was still reeling in a mix of emotions (finally, I had a Valentine’s but it was from the wrong boy), the card was whipped from my hands by my aggravating little sister and after she’d sniggered a bit, snatched by my father, who never having any concept of other people’s mortification, read it aloud to my mother and declared he’d take it to the office to show his colleagues. I stopped him. Just.

A few years later, THE ONE did actually ask me for a date and we went out together for about eighteen months. When he ended it, we were walking along and I was crying so hard I walked into some scaffolding before he could stop me and I banged my head, whereupon despite the fact that he was deeply contrite and I was utterly broken-hearted, we both burst out laughing (albeit briefly). 

And then, there was the summer evening MANY years after that, when my husband proposed to me while we were sitting on a cliff watching the sun go down into the sea while birds swooped and soared overhead. We’d only been going out for about two months and while I wanted to say yes, it all seemed so ridiculous, that I said no. Consequently a year and a bit after that, when he tried again, the proposal I accepted one grey day went something like, him: ‘mumble mumble get married’, me: ‘oh go on then.’

See – I can’t even do my own love story properly.

So, as I say, I haven’t written a romance yet and wonder if I have the skills. Occasionally, I have a go at writing love scenes, but my inner teenager emerges, sniggers, ruins the moment and makes me write things like this:

He stood irresolute in the bedroom torn between the desperate urge to get his trousers off and the knowledge that he might look less than sexy in his superhero socks and boxers. With relief, he realised she’d got her hair and face tangled in the complicated straps of her dress, which gave him just enough time to stumble about the room removing his clothes, chuck them out of sight and recline on the bed before she emerged, flushed with what he hoped was desire but feared was largely exhaustion.

Or this:

He kissed her neck, her mouth and their feet tangled under the covers as he pulled her closer, lifting his lips from hers to say: ‘I l— Aargh! Ow ow ow!’

‘Aargh? Ow?’

‘The cat’s got onto the bed. She’s attacking my feet! She’s just sunk her teeth in! Aargh!’

So you see, that’s why I chose the picture below to go with this blog. Although the man doesn’t look much like Fox in The Wrong Sort to Die, the woman does look a bit like Margaret, right down to the suspicious look: ‘Why are you being so soppy? what are you after?’

Mind you, Fox probably is after something. It could be help with his latest mission, a decent meal, a pint of beer in the Dog & Duck rather than a cup of coffee in a prim café, or it could be something else entirely. I can’t imagine what but I suspect it doesn’t involve flowers and chocolate. Well. Maybe chocolate.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph https://www.dreamstime.com/jrabelo_info

Chopsing – Video Interview

Some people describe me as talkative, others as reserved.

When I was a child, elderly female relations seemed unable to decide if I should talk or hold my tongue. I was either told to stop whispering and speak so that people could hear me or told that children should be seen and not heard. Teachers sometimes made me stand facing a corner because they said it was the only way to make me keep quiet. Other times, they’d be annoyed because I didn’t answer questions.

But to be honest, it’s true: sometimes I talk too much, and I don’t always know how to stop either.

At parties however, I’m often considered withdrawn to the point of appearing to be in pain. I can’t help it. If the environment is too noisy, my brain tries to tune into forty conversations at once and if I can force it to concentrate, while I’m happy to discuss something concrete, small-talk leaves me mentally blank and desperate to hide in a corner with a book. 

Then of course there’s the very good chance I’m quiet because I’m day-dreaming and therefore have no idea what anyone is saying. (This will happen particularly when people are discussing sport, celebrities or fashion – and, I confess, sometimes during work meetings.) 

I’ve developed a range of hopefully intelligent sounding non-committal noises for when I’m suddenly asked for an opinion but to be honest, I’m not sure people are often convinced by them.

While I couldn’t discuss anything very personal, I’ve been giving presentations for years inside and outside work and I’m happy to give talks about my writing. 

I set Murder Durnovaria in Roman Dorchester which is less than twenty miles from where I live. When it was published in late 2019, I anticipated local author events in 2020. Well, we all know what went wrong there. 

My new book Murder Saturnalia, which is due out in two weeks, is set in a fictional place but based on somewhere very local. I initially hoped that maybe, just maybe I might get a chance to do an author talk in my home town at least. But of course, it’s still impossible.

However, technology proved a possible solution. One of the weirder bonuses of lockdown has been that because all my work meetings are now held via Microsoft Teams, and because the only way to meet with friends and relations is by FaceTime, Messenger, Skype or Zoom, I’ve become used to video technology in a way I never would have endured a year ago. 

Before lock-down, I hated video calls, even with family. But this year, faced with a book coming out and no way to hold any kind of talk, I asked friend and fellow local author Sim Sansford if he’d interview me via Zoom to see if it would work. It wasn’t just for my benefit, it was also to see if it might be an approach to involve other authors in an online version of the local literary festival with which we’re both involved. 

So without further ado, here’s the result. If you want to know what I sound like and look like (particularly when I’m pulling faces while thinking), who my characters are based on (if anyone) and what my latest plotting technique is, here goes. 

Go on, give it a listen. No-one who’s seen it has made me stand in a corner so far, so it can’t be that bad.

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credits for images used for Murder Saturnalia: Ruins of Pompeii, Italy Photo 74409584 © Yi Liao | Dreamstime.com Figure of a woman painted in a Fresco in a Domus of Pompeii ID 143271565 © Floriano Rescigno | Dreamstime.com