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Friday, 14 September 2018

The Lion, the Wizard and the Princess

A view of Syon House in the 18th century by Canaletto.

It’s surprising enough to find a grand ducal house set in acres of rolling parkland a bare nine miles from Piccadilly Circus and only a stone's throw from Heathrow Airport, but that’s not the only surprise in store when one visits Syon House. Owned by the 12th Duke of Northumberland, it has been in his family for generations and frequently played an important part in English history. One very interesting guest to the house was Pocahontas, the famous Powhatan princess. In 1616, she spent about a year living nearby, in what was then the small town of Brentford (now part of London), and it’s believed that she often visited Syon.

The Percy Lion, the emblem of the Northumberland family.
At the time of her visits, the member of the Northumberland family who owned Syon was the 9th Earl, Henry Percy, known as “the Wizard Earl” for his interests in astronomy and other fledgling sciences. (Nothing to do with Harry Potter!) He was unlucky enough to have a distant relative, Thomas Percy, who was one of the plotters who tried to kill James I in the Gunpowder Plot. Thomas was shot attempting to escape, and Henry, even though he had nothing to do with the plot, remained under suspicion for many years and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. As an aristocrat, however, he was able to live quite comfortably and enjoyed the company of his great friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was also held in the Tower.

Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland.
The connection with America and Pocahontas came about through another relation, George, who left England (perhaps to avoid being dragged into the repercussions of the Gunpowder Plot) and founded Jamestown in Virginia. Captain John Smith took part in the expedition and this led to the legend, celebrated in the famous Disney film, that John Smith and Pocahontas fell in love. In fact, she was probably a very young child at the time, and many historians have debunked the idea, claiming that there’s far more evidence that the relationship was one of father and daughter. She was, apparently, a delightful and very bright child. 

Pocahontas with her father at the time of John Smith's visit - unknown artist.

Pocahontas did, however, end up marrying an Englishman. His name was John Rolfe and he was a Norfolk farmer who had travelled to America in the hope of learning the secrets of tobacco farming. The English were keen to grow the valuable commodity at home and make more profit from the sale of it than they could when it had to be shipped from America.

Pocahontas, now Mrs Rebecca Rolfe, wearing Jacobean dress and a pair of silver earrings made for her by the 9th Earl. Artist unknown.

Under Rolfe’s influence, Pocahontas eventually converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca Rolfe. What an extraordinary experience it must have been for her, not only to have a different name and religion but also to be brought to London by her new husband, a city so different from the unspoiled wilderness she was used to.

Sadly, she had no immunity to the diseases that were rife in London and fell ill, probably with tuberculosis. The move to Brentford and Syon was intended to benefit her health, but it ultimately failed. John Rolfe decided they should return to her homeland, but whilst waiting at Gravesend for their ship to sail, Pocahontas died, leaving Rolfe a widower with their young son, Thomas, to care for. She was only twenty-one. A tragic end for a brave and adventurous young woman.     


Thursday, 2 August 2018

The Fussy Librarian

Thanks to a wonderful fan, I had the opportunity of talking with The Fussy Librarian this week. Here's the link if you'd like to know more. If you're not already acquainted with the site, The Fussy Librarian is a great place for readers and authors alike.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Summer Reads

This is just to let you know that there are dozens of good free summer reads to chose from over on, including my short story, The Magic Touch. Follow this link to find out more.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Museums, Mysteries and Mint Tea

Today, I'm delighted to welcome author, Jennifer Alderson to the blog. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me. First of all, do tell us a bit about yourself and your family.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Harriet!

I am an American expat currently living in the Netherlands. After working as a journalist then website developer in Seattle for many years, I quit my job to see more of the world and ended up stopping off in Amsterdam in 2003. By sheer luck, I arrived on Queen’s Day - a quirky national holiday honouring the Queen’s birthday - and immediately fell in love with the Dutch people and city. I knew I wanted to study art history and resolved to do just that at the University of Amsterdam. It took almost a year, but I did make it back and into the master’s program I had my eye on.

After completing degrees in art history and museum studies, I briefly worked for several Dutch museums and cultural institutions as a collection researcher, exhibition assistant, assistant curator, that kind of thing. Subsidy cuts and the economic crisis meant it was quite difficult to secure a full-time job.

During my studies, I met my Dutch husband, Philip. After seven years together, we tied the knot in 2010. When my son was born, I decided to stay at home to raise him. Years earlier, I had started writing a thriller about a naïve volunteer in Nepal, but I hadn’t gotten much more than halfway before I threw it in a desk drawer and forgot about it. My son’s naptimes provided me with the opportunity to actually get it done. After completing Down and Out in Kathmandu, I used my love of art history as inspiration for The Lover’s Portrait. It was only after my second novel was finished that I actually tried to get them published!

Queen's Day celebrations
I am extremely happy to see The Lover’s Portrait has won several awards and has been listed in two online magazines as a Recommended Read. Most recently, TripFiction added it to their list of “10 Favourite Books set in Amsterdam” – a proud moment for me! I am also thrilled to see my latest novel, Rituals of the Dead, won its first Readers’ Award last week.

Now that my son is at school fulltime, I am working again, though mostly on short projects for cultural and educational institutions. This kind of freelance work is ideal because it allows me to continue writing and still save for my pension.

How many books have you written? What are they about and why did you want to write about those subjects?

There are currently four books in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series. In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda gets entangled with a gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen his diamonds. The nefarious characters and wonderfully kind locals I met in Nepal and Thailand inspired the plot.

The Lover’s Portrait is a suspenseful “whodunit?” about Nazi-looted artwork that transports readers to wartime and present-day Amsterdam. To write it, I used my own experiences as a collection researcher and exhibition assistant at several Dutch museums as a starting point.

Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Rituals of the Dead, a thrilling artifact mystery set in Dutch New Guinea (Papua) and the Netherlands. The storyline was conceived during my time as a collection researcher for a fascinating exhibition of Asmat bis poles.

My short story set in Panama and Costa Rica, Holiday Gone Wrong, will help fans better understand this unintentional amateur sleuth’s decision to study art history and give new readers a taste of her tantalizing misadventures. I used a holiday to Central America as inspiration for the setting and mysteries.

I published a travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler, because readers wanted to know which parts of Down and Out in Kathmandu were real, and what was fiction. It recounts my own journey as a volunteer and silly backpacker traveling through Nepal and Thailand.

Do you have a special place where you like to write?

Jennifer's favourite Herengracht Café
I am a café writer. As long as there is good music, mint tea, and the other patrons aren’t too rowdy, I write faster in a café. When I write at home, I am easily distracted by the laundry that should be washed or the floors that need a good mopping. I usually visit the same five cafes, where depends on my mood. Only when answering this question did I realize they are all on the water!

What part of the writing process do you enjoy the least?

The last few rounds of editing. By that point, I know the story by heart and have trouble really focusing on the words in front of me. Luckily, editors are involved at that stage so I use their cues to focus on what I need to fix, instead of trying to line edit the manuscript every time I read it.

What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?

When I was fifteen, I finished my first full length novel, a murder mystery a la Sidney Sheldon. It involved identical twins and the big plot twist was that one of them had a fake leg. Reading it with adult eyes, I can assure you it is quite horrid! However, it was a fully developed plot and actually quite complex.

It sounds amazing! What are you working on now?

I am currently outlining the chapters of mystery number four in my series – another art-related tale about thefts and forgeries. The spectacular theft of two Vincent van Gogh paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – and their equally remarkable return – inspired the plot. Researching the novel, knowing it could still go in any direction, is always an exciting place to be in the writing process. It will most likely be set in the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and possibly Croatia. I am looking forward to researching the locations first-hand!

Tell us a bit about your latest novel.

Rituals of the Dead is my latest novel. It’s a dual timeline mystery set in 1962 Papua (then Dutch New Guinea) and present-day Netherlands. My protagonist is an art history student interning at the city’s anthropology museum – the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics). During the course of her research, she finds references to an artifact smuggling scheme involving a long missing anthropologist. Her discover makes her the target of someone willing to do anything to keep her from discovering the truth.

It sounds fascinating. What conflicts shape the story and where did the inspiration come from?

Artifact smuggling, missionaries’ roles in colonized countries, and the often shady acquisition methods used by collectors in the 1930s through 1960s.

In 2008, I worked as a collection researcher for an exhibition of artifacts carved by the Asmat of Papua. The exhibition, Bis Poles: Sculptures from the Rain Forest, was held in the Tropenmuseum. Two of the poles displayed in the exhibition were collected by American anthropologist Michael Rockefeller in 1961. They were later donated to the National Ethnography Museum in Leiden by his parents, to thank the Dutch government for their help in searching for their missing son. Another tantalizing titbit gleaned from the archives was that Dutch missionary Reverend Gerard Zegwaard had an appointment to meet with Rockefeller after he returned from an acquisition trip upriver. The young American disappeared days later, resulting in one of the most famous unsolved mysteries of our time. These historical facts provided me with a wild cast of characters and events that I used as the basis for a mystery about bis poles and artifact smuggling.

Setting up the Bis Poles exhibition

Are any of the main characters based on historical figures?

All of the characters in the historical chapters of this novel are based on real explorers and their first-hand accounts of their experiences. Michael Rockefeller’s movements are so well-documented it was easy to use his general experiences as a starting point for Nick Mayfield, though my character is definitely not Rockefeller. Information I found about Reverend Zegwaard and several renowned Dutch explorers, such as Carel Groenevelt, also helped to shape the story and motivations of the characters.

How did you research your story?

Months of archival research, watching every historical and contemporary film about the region I could find, and reading many history books. I also had conversations with museum curators and collection researchers specializing in Oceania art and culture who had been to Papua and studied the Asmat’s bis ceremonies and carvings.

Does the story echo your own experience in any very concrete way?

The exhibition and restitution cases discussed in The Lover’s Portrait are all figments of my imagination. I have never worked on a project that had anything to do with Nazi looted artwork. In contrast, the fictitious exhibition central to Rituals of the Dead is based on an actual exhibition, and all of the museum displays and collections described in the book are real. However, the restitution cases I discuss in the novel are all fictitious. I will be curious to see how readers react to this mix of fact and fiction!

Do you think the book’s message is a hopeful one?

I hope my mystery awakens a sense of wonder in the reader, or at least makes them want to visit their local anthropological museum. Yet the core question posed in my story – what should museums do with artefacts collected from colonized countries – remains unanswered. It was impossible to give that part of the story a happy ending because it would be completely unrealistic. I do hope my book makes readers consider anthropological objects’ histories and their significance to the communities from which they came, as well as to the museums they are now housed in. Boy, that sounds heavy! Readers fear not, these topics are woven into a fast-paced thriller early reviewers find captivating, whether you are interested in anthropology or not.

Amsterdam's Vondelpark - a favourite reading place for Jennifer

 Acres of print have been dedicated to comments about writing. What are your responses to these few of them?

‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’ Stephen King

Yes! Creative writing courses give you the basic tools, but reading a wide range of genres is like taking the master class. I believe it is the best way to become a better writer.

‘One day I will find the right words and they will be simple.’ Jack Kerouac

I try, but usually do not succeed. Jack Kerouac is one of my literary heroes, partly because of his long, flowing descriptions. Cheesy but true: on an old business card, I wrote down several book quotes that inspired me while in Nepal and Thailand. I have been carrying that card around in my wallet ever since. Two of the quotes are from his wonderful travel story, On the Road.

‘Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.’ E.L. Doctorow

I agree completely! When writing fiction, you have to create a wide cast of living and breathing characters. I know many readers think Zelda Richardson is me. She is, and she isn’t. In the same way Ian the stoned backpacker, Tommy the Canadian diamond smuggler, Arjan the Dutch art dealer, Bernice the senior project manager, etcetera, are not me, yet they are. That is one of the joys of writing fiction –you have to become several people when writing, or at least do your best to make them come to life.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Harriet!

Thank you for coming. I'm sure you've left readers with a lot to think about and some new additions to their tbr pile!

More about Jennifer: - Born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle, and currently living in Amsterdam, her love of travel, art, and culture inspires her ongoing mystery series, the Adventures of Zelda Richardson. Her background in journalism, multimedia development, and art history enriches her novels. When not writing, Jennifer can be found in a museum, biking around Amsterdam, or enjoying a coffee along the canal while planning her next research trip.

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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Time for an Exhibition!

I don't usually write this kind of post, but the Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern was so fascinating that I couldn't resist. It focuses on 1932, an important year for the artist. He had turned fifty the previous October and was in great demand. Success had brought him a grand apartment in Paris, an expensive chauffeur-driven car and, last but not least, marriage to the celebrated ballerina, Olga Khokhlova.

Not bad for a man who had been a penniless Spanish immigrant.
But there was a cloud on the horizon. He was worried that he was being looked on as a painter of the past, not the future. He was aware that critics in the Paris art world were openly sidelining him.

His anxiety unleashed a flood of creativity. 1932 saw the creation of more than two hundred paintings as well as sculptures and drawings, mainly executed at Boisgeloup, the chateau in Normandy that he rented for the summer. Beginning with a mood of sensuous exuberance, in particular the desire to rival his friend Matisse, as the year went on, some works reflected the unease of the time. Increasingly, the world was in the grip of economic hardship and the rise of totalitarian regimes.
Many of those works make unsettling viewing. The ones that drew me back were the ones that celebrate life and love. Particular favourites were these beautiful studies of women, one of them with a book in her lap. The exhibition is on until early September. If you chance to be in London, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Heralds of Spring

The sight of the first daffodil never fails to lift my spirits. When I see that hint of yellow, I know spring is on the way. They've often featured in art, from delicate botanical paintings to wild explosions of colour and life.

Much prized by the Romans who believed the sap had healing powers, they then went out of fashion as cultivated plants until the early seventeenth century. Interestingly, the sap is poisonous to many animals and to other flowers. If you want to put daffodils in a mixed arrangement, first soak the stems in water for 24 hours to remove it.

It's said to be bad luck to give one daffodil, so always give a bunch. In season, daffodils are cheap, so you shouldn't need to stint.

Daffodils have been found to contain a substance called narciclasine. Scientists believe it may help in the treatment of brain cancer.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Last Call for the Dining Car!

Who can read about the glory days of train travel without thinking of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express?

In the course of researching for my next Inspector de Silva Mystery, where a critical scene takes place on the Kandy-Colombo train, I've loved reading up about those days. I still remember what a treat it was as a teenager when I was allowed to go on the morning train from the country up to London with my late father

The British rail breakfast was legendary. What could be more delightful than enjoying a good meal on the train while England's green and pleasant land flashed past the window? Dining cars were always beautifully appointed, the snowy tablecloths crisply starched, the service silver and the crockery and cutlery marked with the badge of the line you were travelling on.

Training for the smartly uniformed stewards who served passengers was rigorous. It included having to walk repeatedly along a white line painted down the middle of a carriage while the train was in motion to make sure no customer's soup was served into  their lap.

The first dining car came into service in 1879. The cooking was done over hot coals at the back of the train. At first, there were problems with the food getting covered in soot when the train went through a tunnel, but these were soon overcome, and meals on the train became very popular.

Sadly, though, after the railways were privatised dining cars started to die out. The last one ran on the 19.33 from King's Cross to Leeds in May 2011. Passengers were served a valedictory meal of smoked haddock "Arnold Bennett" crepe, rib-eye steak, leg of lamb, or fillets of trout, with blue cheese, apple and walnut strudel or ginger and rhubarb pavlova to follow. Glasses were raised for the last time from a wine list that included fine clarets. This final journey was particularly significant because railway dining had begun on the very same route more than a hundred years previously.