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Signs of spring!

Last week, daytime temperatures hovered around freezing, and fell to levels that meant I didn’t have the heart to throw my cat out at night. (And trust me, it has to be cold before that happens. She wakes me up by trying to get a claw up my nose.)

Today the thermometer was higher, almost in double figures – but with a lazy wind, the sort that would sooner go through you than around you. It took 30 minutes for my cheeks to stop stinging when I came inside.

I can be that precise because I was doing the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch for an hour, and keeing an eye on the time. I’ve had the feeling for a few days that the year has turned – but sitting doing nothing other than watching bird behaviour absolutely confirmed it. I have a small garden, but it seems to be large enough for two distinct populations of birds. On the left is Blackbird Couple A, spending suspicious amounts of time underneath the pyracantha, a disconsolate single male idly pulling up moss on the lawn in front. Closer to the house, Robin Couple A (presumably a couple, there was no fisticuffs going on)  were sat on the fence in the sunshine. On the right, Blackbird Couple B were underneath the weigela, Mrs. sat tossing leaves and looking bored, whilst Mr. bounced up and down and flicked his tail at her. Robin Couple B were in the upper storey, keeping an eye on the gentle stream of blue tits visiting the nut dispenser, moving in to intervene when some invisible behaviour code was breached. Sparrows and collared doves visited in pairs.

The 1st February marks Candlemas in the Christian calendar, Imbolc in the Celtic one, and it’s always a personal landmark also – the end of the shooting season, and the start of the detecting one; February is the only month in the year when I can play in a wood. Whatever your persuasion,


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December Rain

I’ve been enjoying a writing course called Writing for Young Readers, on the Coursera platform. One of the exercises was to write a 500 word autobiographical vignette, about something that happened when you were young – this brought back so many memories!

Here it is; December Rain.

The girl emerged onto the top of the plane steps, that first holiday from school, and the heat hit her with a flatiron.

Wow! she thought – have I been turned into an English person already, all red and sweaty?

December weather was supposed to be cool and pleasant, just right for going on safari. The bush, newly green from the October rains, should be full of the whole animal kingdom showing off their new babies – her favourite time of year.

She walked over the tarmac to the large tin shed that was the airport building, admiring the way her uniform shoes sank a little into the melting blackness with each footstep, then released with a tiny pucker. She could see her Dad standing at the open doorway, as close as he could get to the tarmac without breaking the rules, waiting for her. His favourite purple and grey checked shirt was pulled out of his shorts, dark circles of sweat under his armpits. Thank god, he’s hot too! Behind him, half-hidden in the shade, was her Mum, waving.

She ran the last few steps, and they hugged so hard it was like they were one person thick, the girl in the middle. When they let go, she slipped her hands into theirs. Her horrid white English skin was hidden inside her Dad’s huge, freckly grasp, and her Mum’s hand fitted hers exactly. They waited until the luggage handlers brought out her case, then walked together round the shady side of the building to the car, still holding hands.

The touch of the car seat on her back made her sweat rivers. She kicked off her shoes, then wound down the window and leaned forward to let the wind cool her. Her Dad was sticking his elbow out of his window so the material of his sleeve bellied full, funnelling the cooler air over his chest.

“The rains haven’t come yet!” he said, plucking the shirt material away from his body. “Bloody ridiculous heat, for December! No safari until it breaks, I’m afraid.”

She must have made a noise, because her Mum reached back and squeezed her knee.

“Don’t worry, pet – I’m sure they’ll break soon!”

The girl stared out of the window, seeing how brown and dry everything was. They might not break all holiday! The thought of a family safari was what had kept her sane, when she was lying sleepless in the stuffy dorm in England night after night, too cold even with the windows jammed shut, listening to all the others snore. She squeezed her eyes shut, so as not to cry.

She went to bed straight after supper. She woke when it was still dark. There was a breeze, and she leapt up to enjoy that magical air just before dawn, when the world feels alive – but it was better than that! As she stuck her head out of the window, a gloriously spicy smell of wet dust filled the room, and a fat drop hit her face, then another, then another. The rains had come!

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…

I am shamefully behind on the reading material in the loo. So many things creep in, insisting on precedence – gardening catalogues, glowing with promise, are generally on top during the winter; English Heritage or similar, siren calls to a day’s adventure, during the summer. At some point, holiday brochures pile up, blue-and-white photos of places promising warmth, sea, and history jostling with usually rustic interiors offering courses in jewellery making or writing.

At the base of it all, though, percolating through as the truest inhabitants of the small bookcase, are the New Scientists. I bring you this article from a timewarp; a whole year ago, to be precise! The article’s entitled “Everything’s coming up roses with scent gene”, and is discussing the breeding programmes attempting to give today’s gorgeous roses the scent of the old-fashioned ones.

The part that made me smile – and has kept me smiling all day – is the discovery that it’s a single gene expression that does the job; a beast called RhNUDX1 – “known in other organisms to produce an enzyme that helps cells handle stress”.

So get out there and smell the roses whilst you may – it WILL reduce your stress levels 🙂


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Easter traditions – painted eggs

Easter eggsEvery year, my family hard-boil eggs, and paint them with watercolours whilst they’re hot; it’s a Russian tradition. They’re rubbed with butter to make them shiny, and to preserve them for a few days. The eldest female gets to paint an all-red one, representing the Virgin Mary.

Then we have egg fights – highly formalised; the aggressor gets one blow with their egg onto the end of yours. If either egg cracks, it’s turned over; then the other person gets a turn. If both ends of your egg crack, you lose, but you get to eat it; if you have an uncracked end, or even two, you win, and you need a new opponent before lunch! The Virgin Mary is the last egg to be fought with.

Decorating techniques are often highly individual – personally, I like colour blocks and jagged lines, having the artistic ability of a dead duck; my father’s eggs were swirly purple abstract art, and my animation-trained elder daughter goes for realism. We did catch my younger daughter one year painting extra layers on the ends of hers, just to reinforce them; egg fighting is very competitive indeed, not for the faint-hearted!

Imagine my delight when I found this super article on egg painting through the ages – not only are there designs which I shall shamelessly nick on Sunday, but how fabulous to be taking part in a tradition dating back to the Paleolithic!

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Kings and Bishops – The Uhtred Charter and Anglo-Saxon Land Rights

What an exciting find! And a fascinating insight into land ownership in the 8thC. I didn’t realise that the “Farm” in the court rolls was a Saxon term, nor that it meant “food rent”.

Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog

In early 2015, prior to the renovation work on the library ceiling, we undertook a comprehensive stock-check of Worcester cathedral library. This was a stock-check like no other I’ve experienced. In addition to the “ordinary” (did I say ordinary?) shelved items on the open shelves (predominantly late 15th to 18th century books), it involved a comprehensive check of our outstanding collection of medieval books and manuscripts. As box after box was unpacked and checked treasure after treasure was revealed, blinking uncertainly in the unfamiliar light.

DSC_3566 Staff and volunteers in their Herculean effort to inventory, wrap and move all the books in in the library in 2015. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

. I remember one box especially. After several previous ones, containing mainly 12th and 13th century manuscripts, I opened this one expecting more of the same; another collection of Norman…

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Why historians should write fiction

A well-argued piece by Ian Mortimer (James Forrester) – the case for historians immersing themselves in the past by writing historical fiction, and reflecting what they want to say about the human condition in the mirror of times in history when certain beliefs, mores, or behaviours were much more prevalent. There’s a simlar argument for good science fiction, too.

Novel approaches


 Ian Mortimer

“Your book reads like a novel,” is a comment that popular historians often hear. When said by a general reader, it is a compliment: an acknowledgement of the fluency of the writing and a compelling story. If a historian uses those same words, however, it is an insult. It means ‘you cannot be trusted on your facts’. Hence the title of this piece is bound to infuriate every reader of this journal, for it implies that historians should tell lies. After all, that is what novelists do, isn’t it? Make it all up if they don’t know the facts?

I ought to explain at the outset that I am a novelist (James Forrester) as well as a historian (Ian Mortimer), and I write history for the mass market as well as scholarly articles. As a novelist, I tell lies. Whoppers. All historical novelists do. In my…

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One blow away from a teaching tool…

Found a lovely big flint nodule in a field the other day, and have just been sat outside in the sunshine attempting to turn it into an axe.

Got impatient with a ridge, hit it far too hard, split the axe down the middle (taking a slice of finger with it), and cursed horribly – until I realised that I’d made the perfect teaching tool for field walkers 🙂

THIS is a striking platform; this is a bulb of percussion (although they’re usually much smaller than this *blush*), and look, on this side I’ve taken the edge down with just an antler horn, note the size of the indentations; and on this side, the same with a bronze point.


Bulb of percussion & bronze tip work (on right)

Antler work on the flip side

Antler work on the flip side

Super! Now off to bleed on another hobby, had enough knapping excitement for one day 🙂

Whilst I’m thinking about it, here’s a very uselful little guide to fieldwalking. Thank you, Cambridge Archaeology Field Group 🙂

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On nuns and rocks

I came across a most interesting article today.

Even if you aren’t interested in mediaeval fighting (ARE any of my friends not interested in mediaeval fighting? What does that say about us? lol), the article rocks for this statement alone. And scroll down to the first illustration to see it in action 🙂

“The manual includes instruction on all sorts of weapons and covers a wide arrange of scenarios, including, brilliantly, how to fight a nun who has a rock wrapped in her veil while you are standing up to your waist in a hole. (Whether or not Tolhoffer intended it, the description also works as a lesson for nuns: how to fight a man standing up to his waist in a hole while you have only a rock and your veil).”

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2015 Reader Survey Results

Mary Tod’s 2015 survey on what makes a good book, in the eyes of readers – mainly of historical fiction. Essential reading – and thanks for all the work you put into it, Mary!

A Writer of History

2015 What countryThe 2015 reader survey ran from April 23 to May 19 and reached 2033 participants from different parts of the world.

2015 Historical Fiction Reader Survey report summarizes results shedding light on preferences and habits of readers, particularly in the realm of historical fiction. The report includes unique questions for authors, bloggers and publishing industry professionals as well as a series of questions regarding social reading. Click here to access the full 24-page report.

Stay tuned for further insights regarding favourite authors — more than 3600 entries to collate — and favourite historical fiction — more than 4000 entries to collate — as well as deeper analysis from cross-tabulation of results.

Best way to ‘stay tuned’ is to follow A Writer of History (see the FOLLOW button on the left hand margin).

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I have had an interesting day so far; I got up, put my glasses on, and cursed as a lens slipped out. Closer inspection (one-eyed) showed that the frame had snapped just above the nose-rest.

Hah! thought I. I can fix this; what is the point of developing a new hobby as a jewellery maker, if I can’t put the skills to good use? Some fine wire (or at the worst, gaffer tape) will do. Unfortunately, tightening the wire caused the frame to snap at the top.

More cursing, and a call to Specsavers, for an urgent appointment – and a frantic scrabble through drawers to find something I can see to drive in. Can you be here in 20 minutes? Um, I can try…

Driving as fast as I dare in pouring rain, trying to remember how to get to the carpark in town that’s by far the nearest to Specsavers, but has a very eccentric way in… Yes! A stroke of luck; found it by accident. Its parking meters are both bust. Gah! I hope the parking officer is Someplace Else today.

Strolled into Specsavers one minute before my appointment. Got seen and processed through the various stages very efficiently; paid less than I was fearing; and then got the bad news. The replacements will be two weeks coming 😦 And they can’t fit the old lenses into anything temporarily, because you need the EXACT same frames.

Back home. The piles of discarded glasses cases need tidying. One pair that had been discarded earlier – prescription sunglasses, no good in the rain – look interesting. Find a pair of reading glasses, and inspect – Yes! They are the same frame!

Hunt for teeny screwdriver. Pop out brown lenses; pop in clear, old ones. Drop teeny screw on floor. Curse. Find it on hands and knees; after much fiddling, replace. Wash glasses; try on. EURGH! No! Curse. Swap lenses, left for right. Drop teeny screw on desktop, curse, replace; wash; try on.

Whew! Not too bad. Not as good as the old set up, but probably OK for a fortnight. I can now see to read, drive, and work. If I’m really lucky, my brain will compensate, and I won’t have this headache for a fortnight!

Times like this make me SO aware that I would have hated growing old in any era that predated prescription lenses!


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