Tuesday, July 22

Letter to an Unknown Soldier- Bury's Workshops

Most writers of historical fiction become very attached to their time periods. For me, that would be medieval. But the exploration of any time period is fascinating.

So when I was approached by  Bury Libraries to run workshops as part of the Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, I felt very privileged. The LTAUS project is part of 1914-18 NOW. 1914-18 NOW is a major cultural programme taking place across the United Kingdom to mark the centenary of the First World War. (For more details, please click here). The LTAUS is a new kind of war memorial, a memorial made only of words from thousands of people. (Details can be found here).

The statue of the Unknown Soldier on the platform at Paddington Station in London, reading a letter, provided the inspiration. Any individual could write letters. But Bury Libraries took the approach of offering workshops in collaboration with the Council's Archives Service to provide people with a sense of their local history and to make it even more meaningful to them. And here is what we did.

The Call to Fight
© 2014 EM Powell /Bury Archives
Archivists specialise in rabbit-out-of the-hat moments, except they do them with no drum rolls or spangled suits. But when they showed us these original recruitment posters that were used in Bury, it was a proper hairs on the back of the neck moment.

These were enlistment posters issued on behalf of Lord Derby: the very posters that were part the unthinkable tragedy that was the Pals Battalions. Pals Battalions were made up of men from one small area, so relatives and friends would sign up and fight together- just as they would die together. In another part of Lancashire, the Accrington Pals saw 720 men fight. 584 of them died, were injured or were reported missing.

And here were the very posters before which people stood on the streets of Bury and surrounding towns in Lancashire. Stood and were tempted with the promise of  uniforms, money, training at the upmarket seaside at Lytham and St. Annes. There is even the appeal to men who are 'fond of Horses.'

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

The posters are huge, approximately two thirds the height of an average domestic door and about as wide. They shout out the opportunity that was in reality, for many men, a call to death. Our soldier may have stood on the streets of Bury, a young man reading that call before hurrying off to enlist. And once enlisted, his only contact with home would be through his letters.

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

Life in Bury

What of those left behind? Left waiting every day for a letter that told them their loved one was safe and well, or the dreaded message that they were killed or missing?

Again the Archives provided us with a fascinating insight with the newspapers of the time. We have an account of replica trenches in Heaton Park, Manchester's biggest park that is still thronged today when the sun shines. People in 1916 could pay to go and have a look at the replicas, with donations going to the fund for blinded soldiers and sailors. We doubted that the replicas would have shown the true nature of what the trenches were like.
© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

We saw the disapproval of society for a discharged soldier who was drunk on a tram, a finger-wagging article about the wives of soldiers who were spending their government allowance on drink.

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

We found a letter in a newspaper from a teacher, Mr. Frank Morris. One of his pupils, Corporal Hutchinson, was awarded the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery. In the letters we saw he has been badly wounded. 

Corporal Hutchinson mentions all the letters and telegrams he has received: 'Well, I could do with a typewriter to answer them all'. And he talks of home: 'I am awfully proud of myself for having won so great an honour for the town of Radcliffe.' Corporal Hutchinson touchingly signs his letter: 'So here's hoping you are in the best of health, from one of your Sunday school scholars.' 

So We Wrote...

We found so many other glimpses of life in Bury during the First World War. We began to know our soldier, know his world.

One participant at the workshops had had a great-uncle who fought. Her great-uncle died, unmarried, a couple of decades later, having checked himself into a sanatorium, still carrying the deep scars of what people knew as shell shock. She wrote to him, with the love, care and grief of someone who really knew him.

A young woman wrote to the drunk discharged soldier on the tram, outraged at his treatment by the society for which he had gone to fight.

A man wrote to his Irish relative who had left the soft, green fields of County Clare, only to die in the heat and dust of Gallipoli.

...and a Soldier Wrote Back.

We finished our workshops with a letter that had been sent by a Lance-Corporal J.W. Gilbert, from Tottington. He sent his mother the following poem:, called "TO MY DEAR MOTHER" 

© 2014 E.M. Powell/Bury Archives 

Lance-Corporal Gilbert was a cricket-playing mill worker before he enlisted. He never did come home to his cosy feather bed or his fireside at Market Street. He never did come home to his mother. On June 16, 1917, Mrs. Gilbert received 'official information of his death.' She received this almost a year after being informed he was 'missing.' He was twenty-two years old.

The Importance of Letters

The letters we wrote will never bring Lance-Corporal Gilbert home to Tottington. But we think Mrs. Gilbert would have liked that we spoke of her son and her heart-breaking loss, all these years later. Our letters will be there to remember him and honour all the others who have been forgotten.

The Letter to an Unknown Soldier project was commissioned by 14-18 NOW who supported the Bury project. A book of some of the letters has been published. You can find more details here. Alison Bond, Nichola Walshaw and Adam Carter from Bury Libraries and Archives brought the soldier home to Bury with their wonderful resources. Contact details for their service can be found here.

Sunday, July 13

Thomas Becket: The Blood of a Martyr

On July 12 1174, King Henry II of England did public penance in Canterbury for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. The infamous murder had taken place in Canterbury Cathedral in the cold and dark of a December evening in 1170.

Henry II doing Penance at the tomb of Thomas Becket
By John Cassell (Internet Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet here was Henry, ruler of England and much of France, walking barefoot along the rough cobbled streets in the heat of July, making his way to a tomb in the cathedral. It was Becket's tomb, and the slain Archbishop was now a canonised saint. Thousands of pilgrims had already made their way there but one doubts if anyone that day expected to see the king follow suit.

As if his humble progression was not astonishing enough, Henry then prostrated himself at Becket's tomb and spent many hours in prayer. He begged for forgiveness from Becket for the uttering of his words that had sent a group of knights to murder the archbishop.

© E.M. Powell 

The king had good reason to do so. He was facing the loss of his crown to a rebellion led by his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three eldest sons and King Louis of France. Henry believed that his failure to repent for Becket's death had led him to this point.

Now that he had come to make his belated penance, Henry's public display of humility reached new heights. He removed his upper clothing and was subjected to strikes from over seventy scourge-wielding monks. His royal flesh was torn and his blood flowed freely from his chastisement. While the chroniclers at the time were stunned, more modern interpretations are that the scourging of the king must have been relatively light, for otherwise he could not have survived so many blows.

© E.M. Powell 

If only the assault on Becket had been so forgiving. There are eye-witness accounts of how he died and they are brutally graphic. It will suffice to say that the monks who converged on the dead Becket were able to collect splashed blood and and the results of his massive head wound from the stone floor of the altar.

Yet their gathering of Becket's life-force and his stained clothing were the first acts in propelling Becket along the road to sainthood. It may seem repugnant to some modern sensibilities but blood was seen as an immensely powerful force in medieval society.

This power could be seen to be evil. Necromancers (when summoning demons) followed instructions that they should write their symbols or incantations in the blood of cats, bats and even a hoopoe. There was widespread belief that a murdered corpse would bleed afresh in the presence of the murderer.

© E.M. Powell 
But of course blood was also seen to have the power of good. Devotion to the shedding of Christ's blood and miracles resulting from it had existed since the seventh century. One early reported miracle was the transformation of the host into a bloody finger to convince a woman who doubted her faith.

And so it was with Becket, viewed by all as a martyr who had died for his beliefs.Within hours, a steady stream of people had arrived, looking for cures to all manner of afflictions from Becket's holy blood. Miracles were attributed to him immediately. The cloths stained with his blood brought cures to local women. There are accounts of people dabbing it on their eyes to cure their sight. Holy water containing Becket's blood started to be sold. The story of Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage had begun.

© E.M. Powell 
An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. Becket was made a saint in 1173, making his a very swift canonization. His popularity as a saint grew.The attributed miracles mounted up and in ten years, there were a total of 703 recorded. Becket’s intercession was in healing, casting out demons. He was prayed to by women in childbirth. When Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III was expecting her fourth child, 1,000 candles were lit around Becket’s shrine. 

Myths also grew up around Becket. One woman claimed she had taught a bird to pray to the saint. When the bird was hunted by a hawk, it sang out Becket’s name and was released. A story circulated that while Becket was alive, he needed a woman to mend his clothes while on his travels. The woman that did so in a convent mysteriously disappeared after completing her task. The woman was deemed to be Our Lady.

And what of Henry II, one of Canterbury's most famous pilgrims and repentant sinners? The very next day, as he nursed his wounds from his penance, he received news of important victories for his troops. As far as Henry's subjects were concerned, Saint Thomas Becket had spoken: the penitent king had been granted his miracle. The rebellion was swiftly crushed. 


Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Kieckhefer, Richard, Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (2000)
Lindhal, Carl et al., Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs & Customs, Oxford University Press (2002)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
This post or an edited version of it first appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog in July 2014. 

Friday, July 4

Being a Book Blogger- Interview with Stephanie M Hopkins from Layered Pages

I have had many writers stop by here to talk about their novels and writing projects. But this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to interview someone who blogs about books for a living. Welcome, Stephanie M Hopkins from Layered Pages!

Stephanie M Hopkins
Layered Pages Blogger
Thank you for having me chat with you today, E.M.! I am so delighted to be here and to have an opportunity to talk about my love for blogging, about my favourite pastime-reading books, and chatting with so many wonderful authors.

I once had a wise boss whose best advice was ‘never assume.’ So I’m assuming that not everyone who reads this will know what a book blogger is. Can you explain what’s involved?

Gosh, where to start…there is so much! (Smiling) First off I want to say that Amy Bruno inspired me to start book blogging. I first met her on Goodreads through Ladies & Literature-a book club I’m co-founder of. I soon discovered that she has a virtual tour website and a book blog. I thought, “What a fantastic way to share one's love of reading and to connect to readers and writers.” So it began….and boy, did it really take off and soon I discovered a world of brilliant authors and readers alike.

There is so much involved in book blogging. Many have their own method. A large part of it is setting up author interviews, reviewing books, guest post, posting book lists, formatting, contacting authors, scheduling post and so on….I have spent hours upon hours doing so. Often times neglecting my own writing or getting enough sleep. But I’m not complaining. I love what I do and I’m so honoured to do so. Here is my method at Layered Pages.

That sounds wonderful! I know people might be thinking, ‘Hey, that’s for me!’ But I’d like to get into some of the detail about what’s involved. How do you get the books that you review?

That is a good question. Strangely enough, when I began reviewing I didn’t have to search for books to review nor was I in the mind-set that authors would ask me to review their books. I was posting short reviews on Goodreads of books I had read on my own time and then I had authors start to approach me not long after. Then a few months later, author Helen Hollick with the Historical Novel Society, contacted me and wanted me to be on their indie review team. Things really took off from there.

Occasionally, I will post that I’m open for reviews on Facebook and then immediately I’m flooded with review requests. Needless to say…..I’m a bit back logged and have been for quite some time. Which I know most reviewers are. It can be over whelming at times but rewarding all the same. There is nothing like getting books in the mail or authors wanting you to review their books.

Obviously reading a novel takes time (which people don’t see) as well as writing the review (which they do). How many book reviews can you manage in a week?

I used to produce two to three book reviews per week. But I have had to really slow down. I’m a fast reader but not a speed reader like book my friend and fellow book blogger, Erin Davies. Now she is an incredible reader and blogger! She inspires me to no end….
I would like to do more…..but reality gets in the way and often times leaves me having to put reviewing aside for a while. But then I always pick reviewing back up.

For example, in the last four weeks I have had six reviews to write and I have three more coming up for July so far. I’m swamped at the moment! And to add to that, I conduct author interviews and promote the B.R.A.G. Medallion for indieBRAG.

That translates as a lot of hours! And timescales must be really important. How do you manage deadlines for your reviews?

To be honest, sometimes I barely make the deadline but seem to pull through every time. Some reviews I can write right after I read the book. Other times I need to really process what I have read and how I want to articulate my thoughts onto paper. My reviews are really simple though. I’m not one for big words or trying to impress. I just love books and hope it shows through what I share in my reviews and blog.

Your bio mentions your interest in Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction. Is that the only type of book you review? And how broadly does that category stretch?

Historical Fiction and Non-fiction are my first love and always will be where my passion for reading is. I love history and the writers who give a voice to the people of the past. To me there is nothing more thrilling than that in reading.
In the last three years or so I have really gotten into alternate history. Matter of fact I’m currently writing a story in that genre.
Occasionally I do read epic fantasy, women’s fiction, crime thrillers and general fiction.

We will definitely have to hear more about that writing project- I think you'll have to visit again! Now, about the reviews themselves. Do you have set criteria against which you evaluate each book? Or is your process more fluid?

I either down load a sample of the book first or read the first fifty pages of the story before agreeing to review the book. But there are a few authors I accept immediately because I have love their previous stories.

My process tend to be more mechanical at times…..really it depends on the author and if it’s a debut.

First I look at the overall layout of the book. That includes, the cover, title, formatting, editing, and then on the plot, writing style, flow of the story, character development and so on….
Secondly, the story has to really grab me from the start and I need to feel a connection to at least one of the characters. I’ve read enough book to know if I’m going to like it or not after the first few pages.
I’m pretty much your typical reviewer in that regard.

And of course we come to the inevitable question: what happens when you read a book that you really, really don’t like?

I won’t write a review for it, period. I know that is tough and many don’t agree with that concept. But my passion is to share-with the world- books I love. And I will tell the author that in the beginning…..
I respect authors too much to write an insulting review-which I see a lot of today in social media. I just won’t do it. It’s not engrained in me to be unpleasant and rude. But I have been known to give construction criticism. Which I think is important.

Reviews can provoke strong reactions in both authors and reviewers alike. I’ve seen examples of where reviews have been the source of much online strife. For anyone thinking about book blogging, this is something they have to be aware of. How do you deal with negativity about your reviews?

That is something people need to be really aware of going onto this industry. To this day, I’m still blown away by the bad behaviour of people on both sides of the camp.
You really have to develop a tough layer of skin and I admit, I don’t often times show that. I’m a passionate, sensitive and caring soul. I don’t like to see people hurting, nor do I like to feel that awful pain in the heart. 

So it can be hard for me at times. So when I see that going on, it really takes me a lot to carry on at times.
I have learned to ignore negativity towards my reviews. After all, you can’t please everyone. I’m the type of person that when I’m upset about something, I need to talk about it so I can move on. So MANY of my friends (laughing) hear from me often. And they are so supportive and patient with me and they know they have a shoulder to cry on with me as well. That is what friendship and good supporting fellow bloggers is all about.

The far nicer side of reviewing is that books will come along that you love. What does that feel like? Do authors respond to you when they get a glowing one from you?

Oh, it is a most wonderful feeling. To this day when I’m done reading a book I love, it stays on my nightstand for a very long time. It does tend to get a bit crowded! Lol. And I have a particular space on my book shelf for them.
Many authors do respond kindly and that too is a wonderful feeling. Often times I will be on cloud nine for weeks!

If you could deliver one golden nugget of advice to your pre-blogging self, what would it be?

Hmmm…….the process has been a learning experience for sure and I’m still evolving and learning new things about blogging.
I would have to say my one golden nugget of advice to pre-blogging is to pace yourself. If you don’t, often times you get overwhelmed and then you won’t produce your best work.

How can authors or publishers contact you about reviewing their book?

I have become great friends with many authors, so they normally contact me through via Facebook. However, I can be contacted through my email, layeredpages@yahoo.com.

Thanks, Stephanie for stopping by- it's been so great to talk to another book lover. And it's been such a fascinating insight into the world of book blogging. I'm sure we'll talk again!

Stephanie M. Hopkins conducts author interviews, writes reviews and helps promote the B.R.A.G. Medallion. She participates in the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, has reviewed books for the Historical Novel Society, is Co-Admin of English Historical Fiction Authors Group on Facebook, and is an avid reader of Historical Fiction, Alternate History, Non-Fiction and History. She currently has several writing projects under way. When she is not pursuing her love of a good read, chatting with authors and fellow readers (which is pretty much 24/7). Stephanie also enjoys creating mix media art on canvas. She is into health & fitness and loves the outdoors. These days she has no idea what rest is!

 To find out what Stephanie thought of my #1 Amazon Bestselling Historical Thriller, The Fifth Knight, click here. The sequel, The Blood of The Fifth Knight, will be published by Thomas & Mercer on December 09 2014. Find it here on Amazon.com or here on Amazon.co.uk.

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